Helen’s blog

Thoughts and tastings from Helen Savage, wine writer.

Alsace: some general observations in the context of the Association of Wine Educators’ trip supported by CIVA, July 2015

August 4th, 2015

Alsace: some general observations in the context of the AWE trip supported by CIVA, July 2015The fact that Alsace is one of the most privileged wine regions in the world and is capable of making some correspondingly magnificent wine is not appreciated by the majority of British wine drinkers. But their ignorance is largely forgivable; the bulk of Alsace wine merits a reputation no greater than of just being pleasantly fruity. The purpose of the visit by members of the Association of Wine Educators in July 2015 was therefore to better understand the rich potential of the region through a special focus on some of its brightest and most thoughtful winemakers, and to discover how the quality of their wines relates to that of the better merchant houses and co-operatives. My purpose here, though, is not to assess that directly, but to try and put what we saw and tasted into a wider context, seasoned by a few more personal reflections.

Alsace’s Natural Advantages

Alsace is not a very large wine region, with around 15,500 hectares under vine, but it offers a plethora of top class site and soils types unequalled anywhere else in the world of commercial viticulture. The eastern slopes of the Vosges, with the myriad of smaller ridges and valleys running into them offers a bewildering variety of site and slope, for more complex for example, that anything to be found in Burgundy or the Rhône Valley. Coupled with this is an extraordinary geological diversity that encompasses, granite, schist, greywacke, metamorphic conglomerates, sandstones, limestone, flint, gypsum, clay and marl (of various kinds), sand, loess, and both glacial and alluvial gravels.
All this would, of course, be little worth if Alsace were not also blessed with highly favourable climate for quality grape production. It is the most continental of any French region. The Vosges form a highly effective rain shadow, which means that the annual rainfall in Colmar is just about 600mm (well spread out over the year, but slightly higher during the growing season). The average summer high temperature in July and August is around 26C, but with a marked diurnal range. The annual total of sunshine hours of around 1800 is not especially high, but is more than adequate.

The grape varieties of Alsace are, by and large, appropriate to its climate and multiplicity of site types. Riesling is Alsace’s greatest asset and the area of its planting has risen steadily since the Second World War. The top wines provide a noble and powerful expression of their terroir, but those from over-cropped sites on the plain are little more than simply fruity.
Sylvaner has declined markedly over the same period, notwithstanding the convincing efforts of some to show that with restricted yields on the right site it can create something of beauty.
Gewurztraminer holds steady and can be magnificent. Muscat, both Ottonel and Petits Grains (Muscat d’Alsace) remains a largely misunderstood minority interest, though Olivier Humbrecht showed just how superb and age-worthy the latter can be if handled properly. A dry Muscat 1981 from the Grand Cru Goldert was intense, complex and remarkably fresh.

Pinot Noir is often disappointing, sometimes good, occasionally very good, but rarely outstanding. Alsace has ideal conditions for great Pinot Noir, but it is seldom planted anywhere near the best sites. Many growers do not seem able to get the best out of it and some that do tend to spoil it by a rather misplaced enthusiasm for new oak. Olivier Humbrecht put the quest for the perfect Pinot into context: ‘Find me a better Gewurztraminer outside Alsace, that’s a challenge. A better Pinot Noir outside Alsace is not a challenge.’ He reserves his best sites for Riesling andGewurztraminer, and yet wonders that if a red wine must be made, some warm, granitic sites might better suit Syrah. Of course, much Pinot Noir disappears to very good effect into Crémant.

Alsace is still the source of the world’s finest, richest, most extravagantly complex and exciting Pinot Gris, even if much of it fails to scale such heights. Pinot Blanc, however, is a conundrum. Most of it forms the very adequate base material for Crémant (around 56% of the total), but sparkling or not, most of it, of course, is not Pinot Blanc at all but Auxerrois. As with Pinot Noir, a few inspired growers show the heights to which both, unrelated varieties are capable. Some old plots are co-plantations of both Auxerrois and Pinot Blanc, but it is surely time for Alsace to stop being shy about Auxerrois and call it what it is. There’s no need to be ashamed of it.

Although co-plantations and field blends attract a lot of critical attention, probably because of the advocacy of Marcel Deiss and some other high-profile growers, there is little evidence that they will catch on more widely, nor, I suspect, will some of the new experiments of oaked, Pinot-based, dry wines bearing village appellations, even though some of them are actually rather good as Guillaume Mochel and Agathe Bursin both showed.

The bind of residual sugar and the lack of explicit labelling continue to irritate UK critics. Most other markets seem far more relaxed about this issue. A plague on both camps. It is surely perverse to not indicate that a wine such as Meyer-Fonné’s delicious Pinot Gris, Hinterburg de Katzenthal not a wine tasted by the AWE group) might contain almost as much sugar as a Vendanges Tardives wine, and its is equally silly to balk at 7 or 8 grams of sugar in a supposedly ‘dry’ Alsace Riesling, when some much-lauded New Zealand Riesling has more. The best growers (including, of course, Felix Meyer), are rightly more concerned about balance in their wines and regard sugar along with acidity and fruit character as a legitimate building block of this.

Problems facing Alsace wine growers

True Vendanges Tardives and even more, Sélection des Grains Nobles wines are becoming rare. The last three vintages have provided far from ideal conditions for them. Weather more than climate has been more of a problem in recent years. Autumn rainfall has frustrated growers hoping to make late harvest wines and more generally, the fast onset of grey rot has meant hasty harvests with the need for rigorous selection. Meanwhile, lack of rainfall in the early season, not least in 2015, has led to water stress.
Alsace has largely if not entirely escaped the devastating hail storms that have so significantly reduced Burgundy’s crop in recent seasons, but the arrival of drosophila suzukii in 2014 was just as catastrophic, especially for growers of dark-skinned varieties because it facilitated the rapid spread of rot. The level of losses varied greatly across the region, but black clones of Muscat d’Alsace, Pinot Gris, Pinot Noir and Gewurztraminer all suffered.

Trunk disease, especially Esca is rampant, and although some growers hold that it may be contained to an extent by changes to their pruning regime, especially in winter and more specifically by adopting the Guyot-Poussard method, which seeks to reduce the number of large wounds and to adopt a common ‘sap route’ from one season to the next. Losses from trunk disease, however, are most marked amongst mature vines at the apex of their productive life.

Finally, some growers in Alsace have come to regret an enthusiasm for rootstock 160-49C, which has become unexpectedly prone to premature withering. Suitable replacements are not obvious and some quality-minded producers have even resorted to SO4, arguing that its vigour may be controlled by trellising, training, in tandem with a desire to keep yields lower than once was common in Alsace.

Key trends in the Alsace wine industry

While the number of growers has fallen dramatically from around 12,000 in 1969 to 4,200 in 2014, the balance of power in the trade has barely shifted over the last forty years: 20% is sold by vignerons indépendants; 39% by producteurs-négociants and 41% by co-ops. Meanwhile, the amount of land under vine has risen markedly 9,441 ha in 1969 to around 15,545 in 2014. The effect of this has been to further emphasize the significance of a relatively small handful of high-volume producers, 200 of whom are responsible for 89% of the volume of Alsace wine. As much as ever before they represent the face and character of Alsace wine on the domestic and export markets. Overall exports of Alsace wine at 27% of volume represents a higher proportion of sales than the Loire Valley though a little less than that of the Rhône.

Over the last two generations the main story in Alsace has not been so much the concentration of production in fewer hands, nor of the demise of Sylvaner in the vineyard, but the apparently inexorable increase in the production of Crémant, from barely 6 thousand hl in 1977 to over 271 thousand hl in 2014: 26.8% of the total production. This is the main reason why the Pinot varieties have also increased their profile in the vineyard. Crémant ranks only behind Champagne in sales on the French domestic market at around 30% of the total market excluding Champagne, though it still falls well below the Loire Valley appellations in terms of total production.
Another striking feature of Alsace is the number of growers (281) dedicated to organic viticulture, including 21% of all vignerons indépendants. This represents 14.2% of the Alsace vineyard in production or conversion, a near fourfold increase in a little over ten years and a proportion twice the national average. Many other growers openly practise an organic regime but withoutseeking certification.

What next?

Alsace wines are marketed in the UK as ‘terroir-driven wines with pure fruit expression.’ With ‘authenticity, elegance and balanced fruit flavours’ (www.alsacewines.co.uk). At their best they are much more interesting as I hope the various reports on individual producers reveal. But the nature of the trade structure is unlikely to change and the now familiar pattern of relatively cheap and cheerful wines versus a minority of extraordinarily fine seems certain to persist. The proportion of sales of Grand Cru wines is, of course small (around 4% of production). It remains to be seen whether or not the proposed addition of Premiers Crus will make it easier for those who have already discovered the delights of Alsace wine to explore more of their diversity, or whether it will just serve to confuse. The very real conundrum for Alsace is that is that is has such a simple appellation regime, coupled with easy to understand labelling, and yet makes such an astonishingly subtle variety of wine styles.

Crémant provides a quite different story. In late June I was privileged to attend a blind tasting of 26 Crémants organised by a leading tasting group, made up of wine professionals and experienced amateurs. I was impressed by the overall quality, but surprised how well the wine made by the big houses and co-ops showed. The top independent growers did not shine as I had expected, or as they might have done in a flight of still wines. In the production of high-quality sparkling wine, a certain economy of scale may be an advantage. But Crémant d’Alsace is rarely seen in the UK. I asked Nicolas Garde of the Cave de Hunawihr why this is so. He muttered the answer I fully expected: ‘Prosecco!’ What a shame.

Bordeaux 2010

November 18th, 2014

Here are my notes from the annual Institute of Masters of Wine tasting, held in London on Wednesday 5 November – an utterly appropriate date to appreciate some vinous fireworks.

I’ve never tasted a vintage quite like it, not even 2005 and on this evidence of this tasting, the wines are every bit as good as their reputation, even if as it always bound to be the case, one or two fall short in one way or another.

The weather in 2010 was remarkably favourable, even allowing for a late budding and a difficult flowering. Indeed, the reduction in yields brought about by the latter only served to concentrate the remaining crop.

Rainfall was low, but a burst of heavy rain on 7 and 8 Sepetmber came to the rescue and enabled the grapes to achieve a remarkable level of ripeness. As Florence de la Filolie of Château Laniote (Saint Emilion Grand Cru Classé) remarked, “The very high sugar levels did, however, give us cause for concern: very small, sugar-gorged berries, with very thick skins rich in polyphenols. Despite the high potential alcohol, we had to wait a while to secure the full phenolic ripeness of the skins and pips.” This duly came in early October after weeks of perfect conditions: warm days and cool night that mean that the 2010s are both more aromatic and have fresher acidity than the 2009s. Florence reported that, “the fermentations started without any further worries, despite the high sugars. The polyphenols in the skins were easy to extract.” She then adds, “Because of the high level of alcohol we had to manage the process of vinification with great care to ensure against any over-extraction of the tannins.” Other winemakers were less careful, especially in Saint Emilion and Pomerol, as my notes show.

That said, the dominant characteristics of 2010 are balance allied with power and often an extraordinary depth of fruit. The different appellations are clearly defined. Margaux is exceptionally good, with the perfume of many wines, for once, completely in line with the reputation of the appellation. One small surprise at this tasting is the relative softness of the acidity of some wins from Saint Estèphe in comparison to the Pauillacs.

I’m cautious with making comparisons with past vintages, but I can’t help being reminded of the similarities that the red wines have with the much-fabled 1961, though 2010 is a bigger crop, alcohols are much higher, and by and large, blessed of course, with much better winemaking. The sweet wines are also very good indeed.


Château de Fieuzal
Intense with lots of savoury black fruit and scented with a whiff of iodine.
Fresh acidity, firm, ripe tannins, balanced and quite long – very savoury.
Château Haut-Bailly
Very perfumed and complex – fine, classic, cedary aromas.
Fresh acidity, very silky but persistent tannins. Long with a savoury finish.
Château Haut-Brion
Rich and complex, but just a little closed.
Lots of concentrated, creamy black fruit. Fine balance of acidity and tannin. Great elegance, despite at least 15% abv. Very long.
Château La Mission Haut-Brion
Big, rich and scented, quite complex.
Fresh acidity balanced by rather firm tannins. Complex flavour of almost herby black fruit. Long.
Château Smith Haut Lafitte
Very fragrant.
Juicy acidity and ripe, silky tannins – lovely balance. Quite concentrated, but marked more by elegance and length.
Domaine de Chevalier
Quite a powerful aroma – very savoury.
Fruitier on the palate with a good balance of fresh acidity and silky tannins. Long, with new oak showing at the end.


Château Cantemerle
Rather green and stalky in the context of the vintage.
Sweeter and riper in the mouth than the nose suggests, with fresh acidity and slightly dry tannins, but quite elegant and also quite long.
Château La Lagune
Rather closed, but good concentration.
Balanced acidity and tannins. Attractive in a rather chunky way, but lacks complexity.


Château Boyd-Cantenac
Very perfumed, cedary and almost spicy.
Sweetly ripe with balanced acidity and tannins. Already open, not overly concentrated, but quite long.
Château Brane Cantenac
Beautifully perfumed, with concentrated, elegant black fruit.
Refreshing acidity balanced by firm but silky tannins. Sweetly ripe, long and very elegant. Lovely wine.
Château Cantenac Brown
Very deeply coloured. Concentrated perfumed black fruits.
Very fresh acidity and firm tannins. Lovely juicy black fruit. Long and elegant with new oak showing.
Château Durfort-Vivens
Relatively simple, fruity nose.
Balanced acidity and tannin. Relatively light, but quite long with a very savoury finish.
Château Giscours
Elegant, rather perfumed black fruit. Quite concentrated.
Fresh acidity and firm tannins – finely balanced with a creamy texture. Long oaky finish.
Château Lascombes
Very scented, even perfumed.
Balanced with fresh acidy and firm tannins. Quite long.
Château Margaux
Intensely aromatic matched by extraordinary complexity.
Fresh acidity balanced by wonderfully silky tannins. Very perfumed in the mouth; elegant, intense and very long – a stunningly good wine.
Château Palmer
Scented, very elegant, with cassis aromas.
Extremely elegant in the mouth, balanced, complex and long.
Château Rauzan-Gassies
Quite complex, perfumed, but a little raisiny.
Fresh acidity, but not quite as tannic as many and also relatively light. Reasonable complexity and length.
Château Rauzan-Ségla
Intensely perfumed and spicy.
Balanced with fresh acidity and firm tannins. Good concentration. Very elegant and long.

Saint Estèphe

Château Calon-Ségur
Big and powerful, though just a little stalky.
Balanced with juicy acidity and firm tannins. Quite long and concentrated.
Château Cos d’Estournel
Very deep-coloured. Powerful aromas of savoury black fruit.
Very rich, concentrated and complex. Marked more by its abundant tannins than by acidity. Very long.
Château Cos Labory
Complex, very perfumed fruit – brambles and mulberry with spice.
Very rich, intense and sweetly ripe, relatively soft acidity but firm, silky tannins. Very long. Impressive.
Château Lafon-Rochet
Black olive aromas seem almost reductive.
Very sweetly fruity. Tannin defines the structure more than acidity. Reasonable length but not too complex.
Château Montrose
Big, black and concentrated.
More tannic than acid. Very concentrated cassis and other black fruits. A bit chunky. Powerful. Quite long.

Saint Julien

Château Beychevelle
Sweetly-perfumed aromas of ripe cassis.
Fresh acidity and firm, strong tannins. Big and powerful with dark fruit and liquorice. Not, perhaps, the last word in elegance, but very long.
Château Branaire-Ducru
Quite scented, complex black fruits.
Fresh acidity, firm tannins. Black fruits and liquorice again. Powerful and long.
Château Lagrange
Classic, creamy, cedary and complex.
Balanced acidity and tannin. Sweet, quite rich, a little chunky. Long
Château Langoa-Barton
Fine, elegant and complex.
Very juicy acidity and firm tannins – big structure but well balanced, with lots of fruit. Very long.
Château Léoville-Barton
Very concentrated, intense, very ripe even raisiny.
Big and structured, with balanced acidity and tannin. Masses of sweetly-ripe fruit and very long.
At best, an excellent wine, but quite a lot of bottle variation.

The imposing gates of Chateau Leoville Las-Cases, one of Bordeuax's finest estates

Château Léoville-Las Cases
Lovely purity of intense cassis fruit.
The purity continues onto palate. Elegant balance, but rather dry finish.
Château Léoville-Poyferré
Deep, rich, earthy aromas.
More tannin than acidity. A creamy texture. Quite complex and long.
Château Saint-Pierre
Very scented black fruit. Complex.
Fresh acidy and firm tannin, but with a lightness of touch, great elegance and length.
Château Talbot
A first seemed a little reductive – tight, rich concentrated cassis.
Fresh acidity, firm, silky tannins, good depth of cassis flavours, quite complex and long.


Château Batailley
Pure, fine, concentrated cassis
A little more tannin than acidity. Creamy. Cassis flavours. Quite long but lacks a little complexity.
Château Duhart-Millon
Slightly stalky black fruit.
More tannin than acidity. Quite complex and long.
Château Grand-Puy-Lacoste
Perfumed with tobacco and cedar – classic claret aromas.
Fine balance of acidity and silky tannins. Good length.
Château Haut-Batailley
Intense, complex, creamy, black fruit perfume.
Very juicy, pure fruit flavours, silky tannins and fine length. Incredibly attractive wine.
Château Lafite-Rothschild
Very exciting, perfumed black fruit. Great complexity.
Fresh acid and even more, finely textured tannin. Very long. Outstanding.
Château Mouton Rothschild
Deep, complex, concentrated black fruit aromas, especially of cassis.
Fresh acidity and powerful tannins. Silky texture, sweet fruit, powerful and long.
Château Pichon-Longueville
Very complex, fine, spicy black fruits, well integrated oak.
Fresh acid, firm tannins – very well-balanced. Pure, intense and very long, with new oak at the finish.
Château Pichon-Longueville Comtesse de Lalande
A little closed, but elegant and perfumed.
Balanced acidity and tannin. Beautifully ripe, juicy but elegant fruit. Long.
Château Pontet Canet
Big, ripe and complex, cassis to the fore.
Lovely balance and great purity of fruit. Very good length.


Château Angelus
Sweet, open and brambly. Quite complex.
Soft acidity, moderate levels of tannin. Sweet, attractive, brambly fruit. Reasonably complex and long. Good wine, but not quite up to the level of the longer established first growths.
Château Beauséjour-Bécot
Tobacco and spice – very complex.
Moderate acidity and quite firm tannins. Rasperry, bramble and other dark fruits. Quite elegant and long.
Château Bélair-Monange
Big, ripe, chocolatey aromas, with spicy fruit. Complex.
Quite structured; moderate acidity and rather dry tannins. Seems rather extracted. Quite good length, with new oak showing.
Château Berliquet
Fine, fresh, red fruit aromas, with ripe brambles. Good complexity.
Quite fresh acidity with balanced, but not pronounced tannins. Very elegant and quite long. Already approachable.
Château Canon
Fine, elegant, perfumed and complex.
Quite soft acidity and moderate tannins. Rich, ripe chocolatey. Quite complex. Long and already quite open.
Château Canon La Gaffelière
Big, open, raisiny fruit. Rather extracted, with alcohol showing too.
Soft acidity, moderate tannins, rich chocolatey flavours – rather more interesting than the nose. Quite long.
Château Cheval Blanc
Very perfumed, with grassy raspberry aromas. Very complex.
Quite soft acidity but rather firm tannic structure. Slightly herby. Intense. Very long, with new oak at the finish.
Château Corbin
Perfumed new oak, with rich, brambly fruit.
Soft acid, but quite firm tannins. Quite powerful, with good complexity and length. Alcohol shows at the finish.
Château Dassault
Perfumed, with medium intensity and complexity.
A little higher acidity than tannin. Rich, chewy and chocolatey. Quite complex and long.
Château La Dominique
Intense savoury and dark chocolate aromas.
Powerful, alcoholic and with a structure based rather more on tannin than acidity. Long.
Château Figeac
Big, but fine, ripe, complex aromas with new oak showing.
Quite structured, with rather dry tannins, sweet fruit and a long finish dominated by new oak.
Château Grand Corbin
Very ripe brambly fruit – perfumed and complex.
Soft acidity, moderate tannins, ripe. Quite concentrated and long.
Château Larcis-Ducasse
Elegant, complex, perfumed aroma of brambles and tobacco.
Sweetly ripe, neither very acidic nor tannic, but rich, easy and perfumed in the mouth, with brambly fruit and good length.
Château Pavie Macquin
Dark, creamy and concentrated, with chocolatey aromas and alcohol.
Quite firm tannins. Big, rather extracted flavours, but good length.
Château La Tour Figeac
Perfumed and quite intense.
Moderate levels of acidity and tannin. Lighter in the mouth than many, with red fruit flavours. Quite long.
Château Troplong-Mondot
Sweetly ripe aromas of chocolate, cherry and brambles. Perfumed, complex and concentrated.
Fresh acidity and moderate tannins. A lovely depth of fruit, with both concentration and length. Very fine.
Château Trottevieille
Big, raisiny, over-ripe aromas.
Acidity is quite high, but also seems a little volatile. Rather dry tannins. Lacks elegance, but quite long.
Judgement reserved.
Clos Fourtet
Perfumed – almost herby and complex with brambly fruit.
Medium acidity and a moderate level of tannins, finishing long, a little dry, but with an underlying elegance.


Château Beauregard
Rich, plummy chocolatey and quite complex.
Moderate acidity and quite firm tannins. Medium length and complexity. A little chunky.
Château Le Bon Pasteur
Very perfumed. Quite complex.
Balanced acidity and tannins. Surprisingly light-bodied with a long flavour of red fruits.
Château Clinet
Deep, ripe brambly aromas. Quite complex with new oak showing.
Soft acidity and miderate tannins. Very ripe, quite complex, but a little short.
Château La Conseillante
Oaky, perfumed intense and very complex with black fruit aromas.
Balanced acidity and tannin. Spicy and long.
Château La Fleur-Petrus
Deep, powerful, intense and chocolatey.
Sweetly ripe, but quite elegant, brambly fruit, with balanced acidity and tannins. Long.
Château Gazin
Aromatic and fine with complex, brambly fruit.
Medium acidity and tannin, with very ripe, but fine, brambly fruit and a long finish.
Château Nenin
Dark, complex, chocolately, black fruits.
Quite fresh acidity and quite firm tannins. Complex and long.
Château Petit Village
Very perfumed, spicy, brambly and extremely complex.
Balanced acidity and tannins, elegant and long.
Château Trotanoy
Fine, concentrated, rich and complex.
Quite soft acidity, medium tannins, rich, with bramble and mulberry flavours. Very long. Classy.
Clos René
Open, but complex, ripe red fruit aromas, especially raspberry.
Less complex in the mouth. Medium acidity and quite firm, chewy tannins. Quite long.
Domaine de L’Église
Rich, quite plummy mulberry aromas. Not overly complex.
Balanced acidity and tannins. Good concentration and length. Already quite open.


Château Climens
Intense but elegant peach and apricot aromas.
Soft acidity, very sweet, creamy and long. Oak showing.
Château Coutet
Fine, elegant aromas.
Rich, sweet, elegant and long.
Château Rieussec
Elegant, but the alcohol shows a little.
Fine with quite fresh acidity, a good concentration of peach and apricot fruit and good length.
Château Suduiraut
Complex, intense, botrytised fruit.
Sweet, intense orange and apricot fruit. Good freshness, creamy and long.
Château D’Yquem
Quite pale coloured. Very intense but elegant peachy aromas. Very complex and very beautiful.
Medium acidity, extraordinary elegance, balanced sweetness and great length. Outstanding.
Clos Haut-Peyraguey
Big, ripe, marmalade and apricot aromas.
Sweet, quite soft acidity. Good level of complexity and length, though with a slightly bitter finish.

Pol Roger update, including Winston Churchill 2002

September 18th, 2014

I visited Pol Roger once again on a very warm day earlier this summer. The old house and offices were in the middle of a very major reordering. Despite the thumps, crashes, heat and copious quantities of dust Sylviane Lemaire very generously took time to show me and my guests the latest releases, including the keenly-anticipated Winston Churchill 2002. Here are my notes on the three wines I hadn’t previously tasted.
Rosé 2006
The nose blends fresh brioche notes with savoury red fruit, especially raspberry, but even rhubarb. Dry, with creamy acid, the ripe red fruit favours opens in the mouth and taper to a long finish.
Blanc de Blancs 2004
A deliciously enticing nose of white peach and brioche-like autolytic notes. Fine complexity. A backbone of firm, tight acidity underpins, fresh grapefruit-like flavours – quite a sturdy structure in a Blanc de Blancs. Long and fine.
Winston Churchill 2002
A glorious pale gold colour (the blend is dominated by Pinot Noir). The nose is immensely rich and powerful, with hazelnut and butter, balanced by fresh but concentrated citrus aromas, especially grapefruit, but also white peach. Very complex. In the mouth, a firm structure, with very fresh acidity becomes buttery in mid palate before easing into a long dry finish. A wine of finesse and power, and as another taster pointed out, ‘sensational restraint.’

Plaimont – on top form

September 1st, 2014

Many co-operatives have provided the driving force in small appellations, but none has achieved quite as much as the group that work together under the banner of Producteurs Plaimont. Gascon to the tip of their berets, they dominate the production of Saint Mont and make a very great deal of wine from the surrounding area too: Madiran, Pacherenc du Vic Bilh and IGP Côtes de Gascogne.

White IGP Côtes de Gascogne sells well in Britain. Taste the latest (2013) vintage of ‘Colombelle’ and it’s easy to see why. The blend, featuring mainly Colombard, is as pungent as a Marlborough Sauvignon and just as grassy, with very crisp acidity, palate-cleansing lemony freshness and rather less alcohol than its more expensive southern hemisphere competitor. It’s available in the UK from Nicolas.

It is a shame that there’s no UK retail outlet at the moment for the wines of Château Saint Go, one of the four single estate wines made by Plaimont. The light, sandy, gravelly soil on gentle north-facing slopes produces relatively light, perfumed wines, both dry white and red. The 2013 white, a blend in which Gros Manseng has star billing, shows aromatic, herby green fruit, mouth-watering acidity, some leesy complexity and a slightly savoury/mineral finish.

In comparison, ‘Les Vignes Retrouvées’ 2012, blended from a number of sites and with a little more Petit Courbu and Arrufiac in the mix, is richer and rounder, with more obvious lees working (neither wine is oaked), but still with pungent grapefruit and herb aromas and a pleasantly bitter, phenolic final twist. It’s a bargain at The Wine Society – just £7.95.

The Wine Society also stock the excellent 2010 ‘Empreinte de Saint Mont’ White (£11.50). Altogether more complex than Les Vignes Retrouvées, after a couple more years in the bottle it seems to have put on fat, but has retained its very lively, grapefruit acidity. Complex, leesy and rich it shares the mineral and slightly phenolic finish common to all the Saint Mont dry whites.

Le Faîte (‘The Pinnacle’) also includes 10% Petit Manseng (with 70% Gros Manseng and 20% Petit Courbu) which has been vinified and aged in small oak barrels. As its name suggests, it is the best of the region, the blend for which is chosen each year by different distinguished ‘godparents’, in this instance Caro Mauer MW and Babette de Rozières. Anything chosen by Caro should be good, as this certainly is, with a fine creamy, complex aroma of green fruits, grapefruit, wild herbs and a suggestion of more exotic fruits. The very crisp acidity balances the creamy texture perfectly. It is also longer than the other dry whites in the Plaimont range.

The red Le Faîte 2011, chosen by the same godparents, is a blend of 75% Tannat, 15% Pinenc (Fer Servadou) and 10% Cabernet Sauvignon. It is intensely coloured, complex, with a huge concentration of perfumed black fruit, all underpinned by very fresh acidity and silky but powerful, slightly earthy tannins. The fruit in the mouth suggests elderberry, typical of Tannat, with black cherry and overripe brambles.

The most powerful red wine in the Saint Mont firmament is more often than not Monastère de Saint-Mont rather than Le Faîte. Le Monastère is another single vineyard, but in contrast to Saint Go, with a hefty amount of clay in its soil. The 2010 is a huge wine, packed with concentrated, super-ripe flavours of elderberry, prune and cassis. It is even more tannic than Le Faîte, but is also smoothly-textured, rich and long. My note from twelve months ago is almost the same; it seems that Monastère develops slowly and serenely. Le Faîte 2011 is the more elegant, complex wine, Monastère 2010 the more massive and impressive.

Château Saint Go 2010 in comparison with both of these concentrated giants is much lighter and more perfumed – the perfume extends to the aftertaste. The oak is a little more noticeable and the structure a little lighter, but it is still a very good drink.

Chateau de Sabazan - the model vineyard of St Mont

Château de Sabazan is another single estate. It is just across the valley to the north-east of Saint Go and on sunnier, south-facing slopes. The soil, a yellow ochre-coloured gritty sand, gives quite perfumed wines with a little more body than at Saint Go, but without the power of Monastère. The 2011 is marked by leafy red fruit aromas. It is more structured and mineral/savoury than Saint Go, rather less silky than Monastère, but is nevertheless elegant and long.

Plaimont make three sweet cuvées of Pacherenc du Vic-Bilh. The middle one, ‘St Albert’ is named after the saint whose feast falls at the time of harvest of the raisined Petit Manseng and Gros Manseng grapes from which it is blended, 15 November. The 2012 reminds me of that most 1970s of starter dishes: a grilled grapefruit sprinkled with brown sugar (possibly without a cherry on top). It is fresh, long and very well balanced.

Château Laffitte-Teston: Madiran and Pacherenc at their best

August 30th, 2014

Over the years several producers in Madiran have stood out for me. My favourite independent producers are Château Barréjat, Domaine Berthoumieu, Domaine Capmartin and Château Lafitte-Teston. (Despite their very considerable reputation, the Brumont properties, Montus and Bouscassé have never appealed to me to quite the same extent.)

Although I’ve tasted their wines many times, I’m rather embarrassed to admit that it was not until last week, on the most perfect of late summer mornings, that I found time to visit Château Laffitte-Teston for the first time. I wasn’t disappointed.

It is an immaculately-kept property of around 40 hectares, with spacious cellars amply filled with a lot of new oak barrels. A friend in the trade suggested to me that with a name like Laffitte (even with the different spelling) it aspires to being somewhat Bordelais. If this means that the wines incline towards elegance rather than power, as indeed they do, this only adds to their attraction as far as I’m concerned.

Chateau Laffitte-Teston

Chateau Laffitte-Teston

The two IGP Côtes de Gascogne with which we began have only a very gentle regional accent. Domaine Teston Rosé 2013, a blend of Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon and Tannat is dry, crisp and juicy, with vivid strawberry and other red fruit aromas. The unoaked red Domaine Teston 2013 is a blend of roughly half Merlot, half Tannat and is full of bright, sappy red and black fruit, with crisper acid than one might expect from Merlot alone, but with rather more tannin. It is clearly designed to be enjoyed young and vibrantly fruity.

The estate’s Madiran is unmistakably Gascon. The aptly-named Reflet du Terroir 2011, with around 80% Tannat and 10% each of Cabernet Franc and Cabernet Sauvignon is from vines up to 55 years old and is aged for about a year in second fill barrels. The rich elderberry aromas of Tannat integrate well with the oak and the palate is elegant, balanced and persistent, but with more powerful acids and tannins than the IGP. Madiran Vieilles Vignes 2010 from vines around 70 years old is aged a little longer in all new oak. Once again the fruit is to the fore – elegant and perfumed. In the mouth it is rich and ripe with depth and power.

Madiran vineyards at Chateau Laffitte-Teston

Madiran vineyards at Chateau Laffitte-Teston

The dry white Pacherenc du Vic-Bilh Cuvée Ericka, named after owner Jean-Marc Laffitte’s daughter, is outstanding. It is unusual in being dominated by Petit Manseng (Gros Manseng is more usual in dry Pacherenc) and in being fermented and aged in new oak barrels, with regular lees stirring throughout its time in oak. The 2012 which we had also enjoyed with food the previous evening at the excellent Relais de Bastidou shows both elegance and complexity with clear, bright fruit. Grapefruit was evident when it was served cool at the restaurant, more exotic stone fruits were suggested as it warmed in the glass and opened up. It has very crisp acidity, a less creamy texture that the extent of lees working might suggest and a long finish, the only time when the new oak aromas come to the fore.

Pacherenc Moelleux, ‘Rêve d’Automne’, 100% Petit Manseng, is also fermented and aged in new oak barrels with a similar level of lees working. The 2012 is very concentrated, but not overly sweet and the fruit is balanced by very clean acidity. Once again the new oak is judiciously handled and does not dominate. Although the grapes are, of course, raisined on the vine, not botrytised, there is a distinct aroma of apricot.

The two final wines in the range, both made by mutage with alcohol and aged in oak casks for a year are great fun: Teston ‘Vintage’ Tannat and Petit Manseng. Both are 17% abv. The Tannat shows the sweet concentrated elderberry flavour of the fresh fruit, along with its unmistakable, earthy tannins; the Petit Manseng, with subtle oxidative notes and an intriguingly bitter phenolic kick at the end is like super-charged quince, balanced by mouth-watering acidity. Although there have been other attempts in the region to make a port-like Vin Doux Naturel with Tannat, this is the first I have tasted to feature Petit Manseng and is an unqualified success.

Château Laffitte-Teston wines are available in the UK at The Sampler, in London and through Balcony House Cellars in Sherston, Wiltshire.

Anjou – two fine producers

August 25th, 2014

Few French regions offer as great a diversity of wine styles as Anjou. I’ve followed a number of growers there in recent years, but the very pleasant opportunity provided by ferrying the prize-winning wine blogger Sophie McClean around the region a couple of days ago allowed me to add a couple more, both of them gems.

Antoine Leduc of Domaine Leduc-Frouin is a true gentleman. Sophie’s train arrived almost two and a half hours late into Angers, but Antoine insisted that he had all the time in the world to look after us, take us into the vineyards and winery and treat us to a superb tasting.

Antoine Leduc

Antoine Leduc

About half of Antoine’s production is rosé. It is also a significant part of the 20% of the wine he exports from the family estate of 30ha. that he runs with his sister Nathalie at Soussigné, near Martigné-Briand. Anjou Rosé, he says, is his ‘visiting card’ and the Russians love it.

He took us into the vineyard to show us some of his Grolleau and to defend its reputation. It gives big bunches of juicy berries, large enough to be enjoyed as table grapes. It is resistant to most fungal diseases, despite its thin skins, but can be far too productive. For this reason and because it is fertile from the first bud, it lends itself to short spur pruning. In times past, it was often trained as a bush vine, en gobelet. It is grafted here onto Gravesac which is moderately vigorous.

Big, juicy bunches of Grolleau

Big, juicy bunches of Grolleau

Lower yields in recent years have given higher anthocyanin levels. Antoine is able to produce a delicately fruity, scented wine with good colour from juice half obtained by direct pressing and half by a short maceration for a few hours in the press. The 2013 balances nearly 20g/l of residual sugar with very fresh acidity and with a mix of red fruit and spicy aromas. It is simply delicious. Rosé de Loire, also made from 100% Grolleau, but almost bone dry and with a very slightly higher pH, seemed even more perfumed. 2013 here was a success, qualified by reduced yields by poor flowering and rather a late harvest.

The third rosé in the portfolio, Cabernet d’Anjou is made from a blend of 50/50 Cabernet Franc and Cabernet Sauvignon. Although the 2013 was, as it should be, a little sweeter than the Rosé d’Anjou, the extra phenolic kick from the Cabernet grapes gave it a drier-seeming finish.

30% of Antoine’s production is white wine, including sparkling. Cuvée Alexine 2013, Anjou Blanc is Chenin Blanc, designed for early drinking, aged in tank. It was fresh and floral with acidity tamed by 7 or 8g of residual sugar.

The other dry white Antoine showed us was quite different. It was fermented in 400 litre oak casks and given a distinctly Burgundian élévage, with regular lees stirring (Antione trained as an oenologist in Dijon). The 2011 is named after the day on which it was harvested: Vendanges 20 Septembre. The plots were the same as those used to make some of Antoine’s Coteaux du Layon. Although it is very rich and spicy, with well integrated oak (Antione favours the larger format of barrel to avoid excess oakiness), it combines a creamy texture with very fresh acidity. It is very complex indeed.

Antoine makes both an Anjou Rouge and an Anjou Villages Rouge. We tasted the 2012 Anjou Villages ‘La Seigneurie’, which is produced from an old plot in which Cabernet Franc and Cabernet Sauvignon are co-planted (in a proportion of roughly 70%/30%). It sees no oak. Antione is keen to preserve the fresh, direct appeal of the fruit. The mix of metamorphic sandstone and schist soils helps to produce a delicately aromatic style and a hint of minerality. The 2012, a tricky year, was beautifully done: balanced and fruity, with clear evidence of carefully managed extraction.

Antione’s sweet wines are excellent. His 2012 Coteaux du Layon ‘Arpège’, fermented and aged half in barrel and half in tank shows just what might be achieved with care and careful selection in a year in which September rains washed away any possibility of making truly great botrytised wines. Fresh acidity, quince-like fruit and as much as 120g/l sugar, all in perfect balance, are a great testament to Antoine’s wine-making skill.

For a demonstration of what he can do when nature is kinder, his ‘Nectar’ Coteaux du Layon 2011 provides the richest of evidence. Only made in the very best years (the last was 2002), and with 230g/l sugar, it shows fabulous intensity and complexity, with concentrated ripe apple and apricot flavours lifted by mouth-watering acidity. It is, by any standards, a very great wine and has the balance to develop even more spectacular complexity if left to age in the right environment, such as the caves cut into the rock around the ancient settlement of La Seigneurie, where Antione and Nathalie are lucky to live and work.

The following morning, we headed out to Saint-Lambert-du-Lattay, much closer to the valley of the Layon itself, and to the Domaine des Bohues, run by the very affable Denis Retailleau and his wife. They have 13 ha. of vines , mostly on schistous soils. These, Denis says, give the wines of Saint-Lambert a distinct savoury minerality, something that was clearly evident in many of the wines we tasted.

Like Antoine Leduc, Denis Retaileau is firmly committed to sustainable viticulture.

Denis Retailleau

Denis Retailleau

Denis produces rosé, dry white, red and sparkling but his pride and strength is his very fine, sweeter wines. The first of these that he poured was his 2011 Coteaux du Layon, his entry-level wine. It’s a great success, botrytised with honey, fresh nectarine and apricot, very fresh acid and around 80 g/l sugar – though Denis was quick to point out that he has little interest in absolute sugar levels. Balance is much more important. He is keen to reduce sulphur levels and is delighted with the results he obtains from a new cross-flow filter that greatly assists him to achieve his aim.

The same Cuvée in 2006, a more difficult year to manage, was even more honeyed, but a little drier, a little more alcoholic and also very slightly phenolic, with a fine flavour of white peach.

The Cuvée des Maytyrs is named after a lieu-dit that commemorates victims of the bloody Guerre de Vendée during the French Revolution. Its warm, stony, schistous soils produce both wines of greater ripeness and concentration and marked minerality. They are so stony, in fact, that Denis says that after rain they give off a distinct gun-flint aroma that somehow seems, as it does in Chablis, to translate itself into the wine. The cuvée is fermented and aged in small oak barriques. The 2007 has fine, rich, apricot fruit, perfumed by spicy oak. It is much more concentrated than the regular cuvée and is indeed markedly mineral, especially on the aftertaste. The 2010 is richer still, with more fruit, and despite a slightly longer stay in oak, far less perfumed by it and also a little less savoury/mineral. It is a very fine wine indeed, with deliciously fresh acidity to balance the quince and ripe apricot flavours.

We finished with Denis’s 2011 Coteaux du Layon Villages, Saint-Lambert, a glorious wine of immense concentration. From quartz-rich soil, it is distinctly floral and very spicy, softer and without the savoury mineral character of the wines grown on schist. Sugar levels were of course of only academic interest (oh that they were in the MW exam!), but comfortably around the 200g/l mark.

Of Denis’s other wines, I enjoyed both the dry Chenins he showed us, paralleling Antoine Leduc’s practice of offering an easier-drinking tank aged wine and a much more elaborated, creamy, complex barrique-fermented and aged wine, in this case using barriques bordelaises, which Denis keeps for five years. His 2011 ‘Perle Blanche’, the oaked wine, is savoury, spicy and rich with very fine, lingering acidity. He also makes honest rosé and good red wines, including a light, juicy (carbonic maceration) Gamay, a fine, balanced, fruity Anjou Rouge and an oak-aged version, with considerable concentration and structure, built to last. But it is his delicious, terroir-specific, Coteaux du Layon that will tempt me back for another visit.

Esca – a worrying footnote

I’m very worried by the very evident signs of trunk disease in the Loire Valley. Both growers we visited spoke of it, and especially of Esca as a ‘catastrophe. Denis Retaileau has lost up to two thousand mature vines each year, Antoine Leduc up to 10% of his vines in some plots. Both vignerons despair of finding a treatment soon. Such losses cannot be sustained for long and in a year like 2014, which has seen a cool, damp, August, the incidence of disease is, they say, higher than ever.

The glories of good Bergerac

August 20th, 2014

I must revise my ‘tasting notes’ survey of Bergerac. A lot has happened since I wrote it. One feature that remains unchanged, however, is that the de Conti family of Château Tour des Gendres continue to set the pace with a range of wines that all other growers admire and envy, the benchmark for quality in Bergerac. I tasted some of them yesterday with Martine de Conti.

Although Luc de Conti and his team make superb red wines, their whites are deeply impressive.

The entry-level Cuvée des Conti 2013 is a brilliant effort in a tricky year in which strict grape selection was needed to ensure a quality product. A blend of 70% Sémillon with 20% Sauvignon Blanc and 10% Muscadelle, it was vinified in tank after 48 hours cold maceration on the skins and then aged eight months in tank with oxidative handing and regular lees stirring. It is deliciously fresh, with the typical, lime aromas of Sémillon, quite soft acidity, but considerable finesse and length.

Conti-ne Périgourdine 2012 is the family’s most original cuvee: 100% Muscadelle à Petits Grains from a single site, unusually for this estate on silty clay soil. After a long pre-fermentation maceration (72 hours for the 2011) it was fermented and aged in 30 hl oak vats. The complex, smoky aromas of the fruit almost mimic those of oak, but there is little detectable oak on the long, rich, stone-fruits palate. Despite no lees stirring, it has a creamy texture, balanced by refreshing acidity. 2012 was a small harvest, and the fruit has considerable concentration.

In complete contrast, Moulin des Dames Blanc 2012 is 100% Sauvignon Blanc from a stony, limestone site. After a slightly shorter pre-fermentation maceration it was vinified and aged for twelve months in Allier oak barrels, half new, half second fill, with lees stirring. Although the oak influence is more immediately and obviously apparent, as is the creamy, leesy texture, the fruit comes shining through as does the typically crisp acidity of Sauvignon. It’s a sophisticated, concentrated but elegant wine with great length and finesse and whilst it is far more mineral in style, it easily stands comparison with the best white wines of Pessac-Léognan.


Vines on the stony limestone soils of Tour des Gendres

Vines on the stony limestone soils of Tour des Gendres

The ‘Classique’ red Tour des Gendres 2013 is an outstanding success, a truly remarkable effort in such a challenging year. A blend of 70% Merlot and 30% Malbec aged mostly in tank. Very much on the fruit, it is perfumed and delicious with quite soft acidity, fairly firm tannins and good length. At €7 from the property it is exceptional value, but at £7.95 for the 2011 from the Wine Society in the UK, it is irresistible (as is the entry-level dry white at the same price). It was an obvious first-choice for me in this year’s ‘under £10’ class of Sopexa’s ‘Absolutely Cracking’ showcase of French wines to be shown to the UK Press in October.

La Gloire de mon Père 2012 is a blend of 60% Cabernet Sauvignon with 20% each of Merlot and Malbec. The fruit, from a gentle, south-facing clay-limestone slope with a high proportion of marl, was de-stemmed and treated to a thirty-day extraction with punching down followed by micro-oxygenation. It was aged in oak barrels, one third new, for twelve months and then a further six months in tank before being bottled without fining or filtration. It shows real ripeness and intensity on the nose with plum, raspberry and cassis notes. The acids and tannins are balanced, neither dominates, and it has an exceptionally silky texture, real complexity and considerable length. Its savoury minerality again sets it apart from any similar blend from Bordeaux.

Moulin des Dames 2007 is the estate’s flagship red, from grapes grown on a stony, 3.5 ha. plot. Although it has less Cabernet Sauvignon (47%) than the previous wine – the balance is here made up with 38% Merlot and 15% Cabernet Franc – both the nose and flavour seem to show more of the leafy, blackcurrant character of Cabernet. A very elegant wine of great length, it had a forty-day extraction and was aged in 50% new oak, 50% second fill. The 2007 may have been a vintage of relatively light wines, but with its fresh acidity and firm tannins this has the potential to develop still more complexity.

We finished with two wines new to me. ‘Sélections Parcellaires’, one Merlot, the other Cabernet Sauvignon. Both are aged in foudres rather than in barriques. ‘Les Gendres’ 2010 is pure Merlot. Perfumed and hugely concentrated, it is supported by surprisingly fresh acidity but balanced, firm tannins. At the moment, the seductive perfume apart, it is the structure that dominates in the mouth. With time no doubt it will gain in both elegance and length. ‘Le Petit Bois’ 2011, from a site with high limestone content, is pure Cabernet Sauvignon and quite remarkable. Intensely perfumed, with ripe black fruit aromas, it is both complex and exciting. The rich, generous fruit, together with high levels of both acidity and tannin suggest that it has a considerable capacity for development, but to my surprise it also seemed more approachable than its comparatively closed Merlot sibling. At €30 at the cellar door, both wines invite comparison with classed-growth Bordeaux and both stand their ground admirably well.

We then travelled on the short distance for my first visit to Château le Clou, near Pomport. It was bought in 1999 by Manuel and Sylvie Killias and had been certified organic since 1996, two years after Luc de Conti first began organic trials at Tour des Gendres. Half the wines are exported and half sold at the door and to a chain of organic shops in France.

The estate first appears in historic records in the twelfth century. The vineyards lie in something of a suntrap on the southern side of the hill of Moncuq, a magnificent setting, one of the best in the region. Manuel and Sylvie’s veranda offers a superb view south over the vines. This and their gentle, kind hospitality ensure that any visit to le Clou will be memorable.

The view from Chateau Le Clou

The view from Chateau Le Clou

13 of the 20 ha. are planted to white varieties. Manuel makes two unoaked dry whites and one that he vinifies and ages in new oak barrels.

Of the unoaked wines, the 2013 Sauvignon Blanc is beautifully simple, fresh and clean, savoury and mineral with very crisp acidity. The second wine is dominated by 80% Sémillon, with 20% Sauvignon Blanc. This Bergerac Sec 2011 well shows the typicity of the variety in these parts: fresh, limey and with clean acidity, if less than that of the Sauvignon Blanc. It also has a little more fullness in the mouth. I bought a few bottles of both: they will be ideal teaching tools. ‘Pleiades’ 2011 is a blend of 60% Sémillon with 20% each of Sauvignon Blanc and Muscadelle, vinified and aged for 8 months in mostly new Allier oak casks. It promises well, the aromas of new oak are still fairly strong, but there is fine, ripe fruit underneath too, fresh acidity and good length, but I can’t help feeling that with a little less new oak it could be even finer.

Manuel’s Rosé is exceptionally good, one of the best I’ve tasted in the region. The 2013 Rosé, vinified dry, is a blend of 50% Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc with 50% Merlot. It is vividly perfumed with strawberry and raspberry fruit, balanced by juicy acidity and is surprisingly long.

Of the two red wines, rather as with the dry whites, the simpler wine impressed me more. The 2012 Château le Clou, Classique is 60% Merlot with 20% each of the two Cabernets. A relatively short, 14-day extraction was clearly quite enough to reveal lovely, perfumed prune and blackberry aromas with well-balanced acidity and tannins, neither very pronounced. It’s a style that I find both food-friendly and far too easy to go on drinking. ‘Cassiopé’ 2009 is designed to be a ‘vin de garde’ and should last the distance, with its firm back-bone, supported by a classic maturation of 18 months in small oak barrels, one third new. The fruit is rich and slightly pruney.

Manuel Killias

Manuel Killias

The real stars at le Clou are the late harvest whites. All are excellent and the Cuvée Andromède is quite outstanding. A 2012 Moelleux, mostly unoaked Sémillon is like so many of Manuel’s wines, beautifully perfumed and has just enough juicy acidity to balance the residual sugar. It is a little masterpiece of elegant restraint. 2012 Monbazillac has much more of an aroma of botrytis and concentration, with hints of apricot. Yet again the fresh acidity helps greatly to balance the residual sugar of around 100g/l. It includes a small amount of Sauvignon Gris. Monbazillac ‘Andromède’ 2005 is much more concentrated. It is a blend of 80% Sémillon and 20% Muscadelle from vines aged 50 years or more. It is intensely botrytised, rich and sweet; orange, apricot and quince all feature. The acidity though not seeming high is still fresh and it is impressively long. It was vinified and aged 24 months aging in oak barrels – and all the fruit sings through. For the ‘Andromède’ 2009, Manuel used a higher percentage of new oak but wisely reduced the period of aging in oak to 18 months. It is a remarkable success: fresher and finer than the 2005, intense, richly botrytised and very long. Manuel virtually gives it away: just €10 for a 50cl bottle. It has to be the best €10-worth of botrytised Sémillon available anywhere. Tasted blind I would (I hope) have thought it to be equivalent to top classed growth quality Sauternes; it’s that good.

I’m very much looking forward to showing wines from both estates in our ‘Best of’ Bergerac tasting in Tynemouth on 26 September.

Is music the solution?

July 28th, 2014

If music be the solution to frost damage, mildew, water stress and especially esca, play on … (i)

Attempts to find an alternative and effective treatment for esca and other vine trunk diseases are beginning to echo something of the desperation that followed the first outbreak of phylloxera during the 1870s. Some French growers even talk wistfully about the merits of the toxic and highly unpleasant sodium arsenite, banned in France since 2001.

Research from Alsace published last year in Vitis suggested a link between a higher incidence of esca with late harvest dates, especially for the production of sweet wine, and with climate variables. More anecdotally some growers fear their vines are more open to attack by trunk disease if they suffer water stress, as was already beginning to be the case in some Alsace vineyards by the end of June this year. Daniel Ruff in Heiligenstein, for example, who subscribes to this theory, suggests that drip irrigation may help to lower the risk – an option, of course, which is not legally available to him in Alsace.

Whether or not this, or changes to the trellising and the pruning regime, as others have argued, or indeed biodynamic treatments offer any better hope of controlling a pest that has already imposed a huge practical and financial burden on many estates, it seems that French winegrowers will gladly try anything within the law that might just work.

Enter French physicist and singer Joël Sternheimer who has carried out experiments in a number of French wine regions, which have been widely reported in the French press and in New Scientist as long ago as 1994(ii). His thesis builds on work by a number of other researchers who have used music to illustrate the structure of the DNA sequence of proteins. Roughly speaking, each amino acid is thought of as a note and the whole protein as a melody. Each protein with its unique DNA sequence thus also has its own distinctive, individual melody.

But Sternheimer goes beyond the purely illustrative function of the unique melody of each protein and argues that it is possible to use specially composed ‘molecular music’ (or ‘protodies’ – part protéine, part mélodie) to stimulate a plant to produce more of a desired protein. Sound waves, he argues, can also be used to inhibit the synthesis of proteins.

Since 2008, through his company, Génodics, based in Paris, Sternheimer has provided a commercial service to wine growers and claims dramatic results, especially in helping plants to resist esca. By the end of 2013, according to the Génodics website, 53 vignerons had signed up in Alsace, Champagne, the Loire Valley and Bordeaux and on their total of 150 hectares, the rate of mortality caused by esca had dropped by an average of 60%, and even slightly further in those instances where the system had been in place for three years or more.

Not only this, but Sternheimer claims that trials primarily in Champagne and Burgundy show that molecular music may reduce the incidence of mildew in vines as well as improving their resistance to both spring frost and water stress. Further experiments this year will try to synchronise treatments with those weather conditions in which mildew is more likely to be prevalent. Oïdium is next on Sternheimer’s hit list along with botrytis, which he claims, has been significantly reduced on tomato plants by playing molecular music to them.

Sternheimer’s work does not stop in the vineyard. He claims that molecular music may prevent stuck ferments by stimulating enzymes, that it can facilitate the growth of a healthy layer of yeast ‘voile’ in the production of Vin Jaune and that it may yet prove to be an effective means of combatting Brettanomyces.

The relationship between each amino acid and its corresponding musical note is mathematical, based on the original frequencies that occur when the amino acids joins in the protein chain. Precise pitch is therefore significant as it the duration of that pitch. Only the often very short, specially composed molecular music ‘melodies’ corresponding to these mathematical and physical relationships will prove effective. It cannot be replaced by a short burst of grand opera or heavy metal.

Indeed it is probably unhelpful and misleading to describe the sound constructs ‘composed’ by Sternheimer as music at all. This is because from the perspective of musical theory Sternheimer’s approach is problematic, for music, contrary to what some might imagine, does not posess a universally intelligible meaning. In fact it is very clear, as many studies have shown, that any ‘meaning’ in music, however that might be defined, is specific to individual human cultures. For example, experiments have shown that anyone unfamiliar with western classical music is not able to detect a mood such as ‘sadness’ in a piece of music in the way that those who have grown up within that culture might do. Plants manifestly don’t hear or respond to music in the way that we do. Indeed, from a purely musical point of view, molecular music is strictly trivial as Philip Ball points out. It “amounts to nothing more than the making of codes out of series of arbitrary perceptual symbols.” (iii) But that, of course, doesn’t discount the possibility that it may be effective in the way that Sternheimer describes.

The danger of such a brief summary as this it that it may present Sternheimer’s ideas as a little vague and alternative, but the supporting science is at least plausible and it lends itself to empirical testing. The duration of molecular music at any one time is just a few minutes and the long-term costs have to be cheaper than, for example, repeated spraying, and it is an elegantly green option.

Now, if only it were effective against hail …

(i) A shorter version of this article appeared in Harpers, online, 11 July, 2014
(ii) Andy Coghlan, ‘Good vibrations give plants excitations’, New Scientist 1927, 28 May, 1994, 10
(iii) Ball Philip, The Music Instinct (London: Vintage Books, 2010), 396.

Alsace trends and some star growers

April 22nd, 2014

I have been fortunate to visit Alsace two or three times each year over the past few years. I am impressed by what I find, especially from independent, family estates, many of which are now run by a new generation of winemakers, who have often gained considerable early experience in other parts of France and the wider world. While such experience undoubtedly helps them to question ‘traditional’ ways of growing vines and making wine in Alsace, they also tend to have come home determined to make wine that is unambiguously Alsatian. One illustration is the care some quality-minded, terroir–conscious growers have lavished on Sylvaner, a variety that bigger producers, merchant houses and co-operatives have moved away from in recent years.

On 5 March I was delighted to be asked to present a range of wines to member of the Association of Wine Educators, all from smaller independent producers, and many from this newer generation.

I have combined a brief paper I wrote for that event, with some notes on some of my favourite producers.

While it’s clear that Alsace keeps growing quietly and changing slowly, the UK market is not significant (number eight overall, and way down the list for Crémant, behind Lithuania and Ireland). An example of the lack of interest in the UK market (on both sides on the Channel) is that UbiFrance have not been able to find enough Alsace growers to make an Alsace Riesling table viable at the Great Riesling Tasting in London on 12 May 2014. The advice given by the CIVA (the growers’ organisation) early in 2014 to some producers that the UK drinkers would find the level of acidity too high in Riesling and that producers should look to export wines from the Pinot family instead further illustrates the gulf of understanding that hampers the prospects for the growth of Alsace wine imports into the UK.

While UK drinkers have been quietly ignoring Alsace, the vineyard has grown from 9,441 ha in 1969 to 15,500 in 2012.

The number of growers has fallen dramatically from around 12,000 in 1969 to 4,400 in 2012, but the balance of power in the trade has barely shifted over the last forty years: 20% is sold by vignerons indépendants; 39% by producteurs-négociants and 41% by co-ops.

Yields have fallen slowly – but are still fairly high). The introduction of cover crops and move to sustainable and organic practice has been the main factor in change. Limits are 80hl/ha in 2012 except 60 hl/ha for Alsace Rouge and around 55 hl/ha for Grand Cru).

13.7% of the Alsace vineyard is either certified organic or in conversion to certified status.
The preferred rootstock in recent years in Alsace has often been 160-49C, but in a number of regions, including Alsace it has become prone to premature withering. Some vines will need to be replanted. Flavesence Dorée has not yet affected Alsace, Trunk diseases, however, Esca, Black Dead Arm and Eutypa Die Back are now a major concern. Research published 2013 (Vitis 52 (4) 197-20) explores a link between higher incidence of Esca with late harvest, and climate variables.

The distribution of varietals in the vineyard has changed considerably, in general away from Sylvaner, Chasselas (together 37.9% of total in 1969, but only 8.1% in 2012) and field blends (down from 8% to just 0.5%), despite the advocacy of Marcel Deiss for high-end field blends, towards Riesling (up from 12.7% in 1969 to 21.9% in 2012), Pinot Blanc (including the totally different Auxerrois), Pinot Gris and Pinot Noir. The relative proportion of Gewürztraminer has remained virtually unchanged over this period and Muscat, never a big player, has slipped a little further.
The enthusiasm for the Pinot family is shown by an increase from 17.2% of the vineyard to 46.5% of a cake that is a third bigger in 2012. Part of this enthusiasm is the success of Crémant, which accounts for 23% of all Alsace production.

Quite a lot of younger growers are keen to experiment. Barrel fermented and aged Pinot Blanc or Pinot Gris is increasingly common, if still a relative rarity.

Another trend is a delight in terroir. In the argument about whether or not Alsace should introduce Premiers Crus, the figure cited of wines sold by lieu-dit, is only 10% of production, but this still seems significant. The 51 Grands Crus represent a further 4% of total production). Associated with this is a minority interest in field blends, and as I pointed about above, in defending the reputation of unfashionable varieties, especially Sylvaner.

The long and short of all this, is that Alsace may look much the same, but under the surface there is more variety of style than even a decade ago, pushed and pulled by a new generation of producers enthusiastic about organics, biodynamics and natural wine, by playing with the Pinot family and by looking to make more concentrated, terroir-driven wines.

There has never been a clear consensus in Alsace about malo-lactic conversion – so do it, others don’t. Few producers bother to talk about it.
That said, high-volume wine styles haven’t changed much. Most wines are unoaked and many have a little residual sugar. Producers may be forgiven for ignoring UK requests for greater of transparency on Alsace labels, after all we tend to ignore Alsace.

And so to a few of those favourite growers whose wines have impressed me recently:

Agathe Bursin has 6 hectares of vines in and around Westhalten. She dreamed of becoming a wine-maker while still at school and achieved her goal with quiet determination. Her wine-making is simple, classic and very clean. Vinifications are in stainless steel, with a little creamy complexity added by 4 to 8 months’ aging on the fine lees. Unlike many of her peers she is not interested in organic certification, but shares their concern for soil health and sustainability.

What impresses me is the purity and precision of her wines and the way in which they really do seem to express their terroir. Everything seems to be well-handled, but her Sylvaner bears witness to the excellence of her work. I was delighted that my AWE colleagues were, for example, as thrilled as I am by her Sylvaner ‘Emminence’ 2012, which is from low-yielding (30 hl/ha) vines planted in 1920 on the Grand Cru Zinnkoepflé a steep, south to south-east-facing sandy and calcareous slope with clay over limestone. The wine has as much as 20 g/l residual sugar, but has wonderful freshness despite a total acidity of just 4.91g/l (tartaric). It is spicy, floral and intense. A similarly floral quality, unusual perhaps in a wine from a clay soil, is her Riesling Vendanges Tardives 2011 from the same site, and balanced by crunchy acidity.

Etienne Loew has a little over 8 ha. of vines, tended biodynamically, and is based in the Westhoffen in the north of the region. He too makes remarkably fine Sylvaner: ‘Verité’, from 82 year-old vines, a wine with much fresher, more persistent acidity (even in 2011) than Sylvaner often shows. His ‘Premières Vendanges de Marguerite’, named in honour of his daughter and made from Red Sylvaner is a fascinating rarity. Bright pink, spicy, soft but quite intense, the 2012 may lack complexity, but it’s a good drink. Etienne says that Red Sylvaner ripens earlier than the white clones and is capable of high sugar levels. It is also very productive indeed, to the extent that it is capable of 300 hl/ha if unchecked. A green harvest is essential.

There are no obvious weak links in the Domaine Loew range. Pinot Gris and Gewurztraminer are both excellent, but the Rieslings have classic, classy finesse and each express the particularities of their site and year with great precision, yet also show a consistently and highly-appealing creamy texture, typified by Riesling Grand Cru Altenberg de Bergbieten, though if I had to pick just one it would probably be the south-facing, iron-rich limestone of Suessenberg, not a Grand Cru, but on this evidence a site capable of producing a wine of true Grand Cru power, elegance and complexity. I love the spicy aromas and firm structure of the 2011.

Frédéric Mochel also makes exceptional Riesling Altenberg de Bergbieten. The 10 hectare estate, with 5 hectares on the Altenberg is now run by Frédéric’s son Guillaume, who clearly knows what he’s doing. He has an acute eye and nose for detail. I have followed this estate, which is based in Traenheim for many years and have always enjoyed their wine, but under Guillaume’s guidance it has reached new heights of excellence. The wines are now certified organic. There are no weak links here, but Riesling and Gewurztraminer are consistently outstanding and I have always found that the top sweet wines show something rather special. The Riesling Séléction des Grains Nobles 2007, for example, is a marvel: An intense, smoky butterscotch botrytis nose gives way to a palate in which 120 g/l residual sugar is balanced by beautifully fresh acidity – a wonderfully concentrated, yet extremely fine wine with a pure fruit quality that I find beguiling.

Domaine Lucas et André Rieffel is another advocate of fine Sylvaner. Based in Mittelbergheim where there is a high proportion of old Sylvaner vines and a long history of success with the variety, including Zotzenberg, the only Grand Cru site to allow a Grand Cru Sylvaner, there is real potential for high quality Sylvaner here. Lucas Rieffel was mentored by André Ostertag and has converted the family’s 10 hectare estate to organic production (certified in 2012) and is now employing some biodynamic techniques. Lucas’s Sylvaners are indeed excellent, especially the Grand Cru Zoztenberg from 65 year-old vines, but he makes very fine Riesling and Gewrztraminer too.Mittelbergheim

Elegance and precision are again very apparent, and fresh acidity, even though the wine sometimes undergo malo-lactic conversion. Grand Cru Pinot Gris 2008 from the Kirchberg in Barr is a fine example of the house style, in which fine acidity is here matched by weight and richness in a dry wine with 14.5% alcohol, though it hides its power deftly. The wine is part aged in old oak barrels for twelve months. Pinot Noir is another speciality. The secret of making truly great Pinot Noir, which is all too rare in Alsace, Lucas says, is to have ‘good maturity’ and this need not be at the expense of acidity levels. The vines are also planted to an unusually high density in Alsace (7,000 per hectare). ‘Kreuzel’ Pinot Noir 2012 from a lieu dit on eastern slopes of the Grand Cru Zotzenberg certainly gives the impression of having juicy acidity and well as sweetly-ripe, intense fruit flavours with elegance and great length. It is a remarkable wine.

Lucas Rieffel is also giving a helping hand to another gifted young winemaker, Catherine Riss, by allowing her space in the cellar to make her wine. Catherine, formally employed as a winemaker by Chapoutier has also been supported by Antoine Kreydenweiss. She rents 1.5 hectares spread over 12 parcels, all managed biodynamically. Her first three wines are very promising: a Riesling, and Pinot Noir (with no added sulphites) and an eclectic blend of Auxerrois, Pinot Blanc, Sylvaner and Gewurztraminer. All her wines are aged in old barrels and all show considerable complexity. 2012 Riesling, with elegant pure fruit impresses me most. Catherine Riss

Another estate with an impressive track-record of success with Pinot Noir is Pierre et Frédéric Becht. They are based at Dorlisheim and have a substantial holding on the Stierkopf, the finest lieu-dit of Mutzig: a steep, south-facing site with clay marl soils and some sandstone intrusions. Altitude 333 (from Stierkopf) is aged 18 months in new Burgundian oak barrels, but the wood does not dominate. The wine has both depth of fruit and finesse. It’s slightly less concentrated sibling, Cuvée Frédéric is also very good indeed.

Becht’s wines are amongst the best value in the whole of Alsace. Their fine range of Crémants is a house speciality. As Pierre is ready to demonstrate by opening old bottles with his grandfather’s sword, à la volée, they also have the capacity to develop considerable finesse if they are allowed longer than usual time to age on the lees.
Frédéric has experimented over a number of years with the vinification and aging of others wines new oak. These even include Auxerrois. At first I felt, I was not fully convinced. The oak dominated the fruit and I felt this was an experiment too far, but more recently, I have been impressed by Frédéric’s skill in preserving the fruit and allowing the barrels to add texture to the wine rather than obtrusive aromas and phenolics.

The finest wines from Stierkopf in the Becht portfolio are undoubtedly Riesling. The best of these is Cuvée Christine, a rich, complex wine which bears 10g/l of residual sugar with aplomb, well balanced by plenty of zesty acidity. The standard cuvee of Riesling Stierkopf is much drier at around 3g/l. Sometimes little closed and austere when first bottled, it has consistently shown the ability to develop a great deal of complexity with age – up to twenty years.

Frederic Becht



Domaine des Liards – as good as ever

April 16th, 2014

I was delighted to have the opportunity to take clients yesterday to the Domaine des Liards in Montlouis-sur-Loire and to spend an hour or so with Laurent Berger.

I have long admired the wines from this estate, which has also just received organic certification from Ecocert, and has for many years has been widely regarded amongst the best in this rather under-rated appellation.

The old cellars, cut into the rock and gradually expanded over the last five generations are prefect for the production of sparkling wine.

Brut NV (currently based on the 2010 vintage) was aged two years on the lees. A liqueur de tirage of 20g/l gives a slightly less pressure than Champagne. With a dosage of 8g/l balanced by a fresh 6.9 g/l total acidity (measured as tartaric acid), it is complex, creamy and long – a tribute to the potential of Chenin Blanc to make a very fine-quality  sparkling wine in this part of the world.

The still wines, vinified and aged in oak casks are also very good indeed. Malo-lactic conversion is not encouraged.

The 2011 Sec is quite soft, though with enough fresh acidity to balance the flavour of very ripe apples. The style, as follows the winemaking, is very slightly oxidative, which gives it considerable complexity.

The 2008 Sec is showing superbly, with racier acidity than the 2011, great persistence and length.

Demi-Sec 2011, ‘Montée des Liards’ from a plot of 66 year-old vines (26g/l residual sugar) has very spicy, ripe apple fruit and almost seems to have more crunchy acidity than the Sec. It’s a lovely wine.

2010 Moelleux ‘La Côte St Martin’ (80g/l residual sugar) shows the apricot touch of botrytis, along with ripe apple. It too is balanced by mouth-watering acidity and is very long and fine.

Laurent kindly opened a 1990 Moelleux in honour of the birth year of Gemma, one of my clients. Botrytis showed again. Full of life, balanced as ever by fresh acidity, it was spicy, long and testament again to the quality both of this excellent estate and of Montlouis itself.