Helen’s blog

Thoughts and tastings from Helen Savage, wine writer.

Archive for the ‘Wines – here and there’ Category

Not quite Champagne and definitely not Sekt

Tuesday, July 13th, 2010

The sparkling wines of Bailly-Lapierre – Crémant de Bourgogne began life in the 1970s as an attempt to make something good from grapes that had previously been sold to the to the Germans to be transformed into Sekt. From 1972, the newly-formed co-operative cellars in Northern Burgundy – the villages to the south west of Chablis – sought advice from neighbouring Champagne, put it to good use, and have since turned out highly creditable fizz.The wines spend far less time on the lees than most Champagne, but make up for this with an often appealing freshness.

On a recent visit I tasted the current range, but was also treated to a sample of a Blanc de Noirs from the 1985 harvest, disgorged in 1987. What a surprise! I’ve previously taste a wine from here from the early 1990s, but this was even fresher – lovely and rich was the flavours of confit lemon and lime and soft acidity and an almost minty, herby finish. It is a powerful testament to over a generation of careful wine-making.

Of the current releases ‘La Réserve’, a blend of five permitted grapes (Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Gamay, Sacy and Aligoté) and just nine months on lees is a simple, fruity bubbly with fairly soft acidity and some of the body of red fruit.

Rosé Brut is refreshingly strawberry with a host of other crunchy red fruit flavours. It’s not masively complex, but is very appealing. The same wine is in Waitrose under the Blason de Bourgogne label. £12.99 and well worth it.

The Pure Pinot Noir, longer sur lattes, is richer, with good crispness and even a little minerality.

Chardonnay 100% is very Chardonnay indeed: lighter, with the smell of white peach and a marked, fresh minerality. Marks and Spencer sell a version of this under their own label.

Noir et Blanc is delicious. Rich and complex, almost buttery, with lots of fruit and a fine tension between the fruit and acid.

Ravizotte, Extra Brut, based on Pinot Noir is surprisingly delicate, yet almost floral and open, with a clean mineral finish.

Egarde, from organically grown grapes, is complex, herbal and richly ripe, with a greater degree of elegance than in any other wine – and more length. It is my favourite.

The particular pleasure of old wine

Saturday, June 19th, 2010

Over the last few weeks I’ve tasted a number of old wines.  One or two were distinctly past it. For example, Bertani 1953 Valpolicella, kindly opened during the Association of Wine Educators’ visit to Italy was a peculiar experience, at first stinkily reductive, then leathery and complex, giving way quickly to mushrooms and rotting leaves –  a fast-fading ghost of a wine. Bertani Recioto della Valpolicella 1940 (one fizzy!) was quite rich and flavoury, even a little sweet still, but maderised. Bertani Amarone 1967 was much better, even rather  impressive, with intense, spicy complexity, caramelised and beginning to dry, but an interesting drink. The most remarkable old Bertani bottle was  a 1988 Soave, which resembled  a soft, spicy version of an old Hunter Valley Semillon, with strong, limey minerality.  Something of the same limey minerality characterised a 2001 Sauvignon Blanc at Vie di Romans in Friuli Isonzo, but their 1998 and even more remarkably, their 1993 Sauvignon preserved far more varietal character, as  did also a 1997 Pinot Grigio.

The previous week, in Macon, a 1975 Macon-Viré cellared by the Auberge de la Tour, most kindly opened by chef and owner Patrick was faded and oxidised, but nutty, soft and surprisingly complex. I rather like it, but the wine lovers in my Vine Visit party that week were unimpressed. They much preferred a 1996, from a magnum, which was more recognisably a Chardonnay, though also exhibiting strong mineral characteristics – citrus fruit, honey and petrol. I Liked it a lot. And Roger Saumaize generously dug out a 1990 Pouilly Fuissé, Clos sur la Roche, to crown a superb tasting of his wines at his domaine, Saumaize-Michelin. I loved its intense green fruit flavours, great freshness and complex minerality, but again, my group were far more taken with his young wines and their tighter fruit.

I relate all this because it illustrates for me the huge change in fashion over the decade or so that has led consumers to prize primary fruit about all else. They recognise quality and complexity for sure, but the faded pleasure of old wine are a mystery and one that’s less and less appreciated. So I was surprised that our Italian hosts wanted to demonstrate how well their wines might age. It was great fun to try them, but I suspect that they would leave most of the UK customers cold.  Cellaring potential is no longer a significant selling point.

Beaujolais: can 2009 mark a new beginning?

Tuesday, June 1st, 2010

After just a couple of days in the Beaujolais two things are clear to me: the 2009 vintage is magnificent and the economic crisis has hit the region hard. The consequence of the crisis over the last few years, which here predates the global economic downturn, has resulted in some growers abandoning Gamay, especially in the Bas Beaujolais. The prefer to try their luck, alas, with Syrah, Chardonnay and Viognier and sell it as humble Vin de France. But the 2009, as fine a vintage as I have ever tasted, shows just how good Gamay can be: exotically fruity, rich and complex, but with seductively soft tannins, even in the very top wines, and a delightful freshness. Surely a wine like this has got to make a comeback? Great producers like Thierry Condemine at the Chateau de Julienas remain unrepresented in the UK. Please will someone take a punt on him? His wines are quite superb – and the 2009, not yet in bottle, is a steal.

Chapel Down

Thursday, May 6th, 2010

I’ve already commented about the successful partnership of two English wines from Chapel Down with Chinese food. Here are my notes on all the Chapel Down wines I tasted at Tenterden with Frazer Thompson, the Managing Director of the English Wines Group:

Vintage Reserve Brut NV

A slightly an odd name, I think, for a non vintage wine, but this blend of around 50% Pinot Noir and 50% Reichensteiner and Muller Thurgau is skilfully done and will surely only get better in future years as more premium grapes are included in the blend.  It has had 18 months on the lees – just enough to give it a little creamy complexity alongside the slightly floral character of the fruit. It’s fairly dry (around 9 g/l dosage), clean, fresh and rather appley.

English Rose Brut

A palish, salmon pink bubbly based on the Vintage Reserve Brut. It manages to taste significantly different, with a definite hint of redcurrants and fresh, clean, but softer fruit .

Brut Rosé NV

A very delicate onion skin rosé, with a distinct red fruits character – raspberry and strawberry. It’s 100% Pinot Noir and though non-vintage, the present release is actually from the generous 2006 harvest. It has an attractively long, biscuity finish.

Pinot Reserve 2004

A blend of 72% Pinot Noir and 28% Pinot Blanc (Chardonnay will feature in future releases). It is quite a deep straw colour and has a distinct Pinot Noir nose – rich and biscuity, but is balanced by clean citrus acidity with hints of apple. It’s remarkably fresh for a wine that has spent five years on the lees (it isn’t Chapel Down’s policy to cork age – wines are disgorged and sold).

Bacchus 2009

I’m much taken with this: it’s clean, slightly floral and has more than a suggestion of exotic fruits, guava and passion fruit as well as peach. It’s relatively light in the mouth, clean, fresh and juicy and with quite a mineral finish. I’m delighted to see that its already on Waitrose’s shelves – just a few weeks after bottling.

Bacchus Reserve 2006

A selection of the best grapes. It’s certainly more complex than the simple wine and has with greater length, but is, I think, a little less fun than the outstanding 2009.

Flint Dry 2009

Another success. The 09 blend includes around 30% Chardonnay and has good, lean, apple and peach fruit, with quite a creamy texture. It is softer and fruitier than its name suggests.

Pinot Blanc 2006

The outstanding still wine of the tasting – a lovely, gently, smoky apple aroma matched by a ripe apple flavour, and a much more substantial mouth-feel than its 10% alcohol might suggest.

English Rose 2008

The wine that really came alive with fine Chinese food is perfectly nice  on its own: perfumed, spicy and a little herby, with strawberry fruit.

Cinque Ports Classic 2006

An English classic in the catty, slightly sweet style. To be more polite, it has quite a pungent aroma of grapefruit and elderflower and a medium-sweet flavour that finishes a little short and bland.

Rondo/Regent/Pinot Noir Non-Vintage

Quite deep coloured, soft, easy, juicy, but not a lot of definition.

Pinot Noir (Tenterden) 2008

What a difference! A perfumed, spicy, true Pinot Noir, with real complexity. It’s every bit as good as some more expensive cool-climate  Pinot Noirs coming out of Germany and Alsace.

Chinese Cuisine and English Wine

Wednesday, April 28th, 2010

A second fun evening of matching food and Chinese cuisines at North Shields’s Golden Swallow Restaurant gave everyone there serious food for thought. By and large, aromatic, elegant wines, with good fruit, but fairly low residual sugar have proven exceptionally successful companions for a wide range of Chinese dishes – at least as cooked Golden Swallow style, with not a hint of MSG. There are no gloopy sauces here, sauces which are no friends to good wine, just a lightness of touch and a genuine harmony of flavours and textures.

Villa Maria’s Private Bin Riesling 2009, going for a song at Majestic right now, was terrific, but was matched by Chapel Down’s newly released Bacchus 2009. It’s a delightful wine: fresh, aromatic and crisply fruity, but fully ripe and beautifully clean.  An equally happy discovery was Chapel Down’s English Rose 2008, a pink made from a small dose of Pinot Noir and quite a lot of apparently unpromising material such as Huxelrebe. I bought it from the winery last week. Only a few cases remain, but the 09 will doubtless soon be on stream. On its own it was nice enough, scented, even a little herby and still fresh, but it showed an unexpected depth of fruit when drunk with a range of sometimes quite spicy chicken, prawn and pork dishes.

The other great success of the evening, I think, was the terrific Colomé Amalaya 2008, a Malbec blend from some of Argentina’s highest altitude vineyards.  It not only stood up to a fiery Sichuan beef dish, but seemed to lift and spread the spice from the food around the mouth.

Amongst other wines, we also gave an airing to the Jacob’s Creek Rosé that Simon Tam and his team found such an effective partner for abalone at last year’s Cathay Pacific Hong Kong International Wine Challenge. We couldn’t run to abalone, but it seemed fine with all things prawny.  I’m not sure I’d have given it a trophy, I’d have saved if for either of the two English wines that impressed everyone so much.

Henri Jammet

Friday, April 23rd, 2010

The story of my first meeting with Henri Jammet and his extraordinary wines will appear, I hope, in The Journal next Friday (and online).

There won’t be enough space there to fill out a few more technical details, or full tasting notes. So here goes …

Jammet has been making wine for over twenty years and as president of the St Sornin Co-operative was responsible for its expansion and  its  reputation for quality. St Sornin produces some of the best red table wines in the Charentes.

His own small vineyard high on the limestone hill to the east of St Sornin at La Fenetre is planted with Chardonnay (his favourite grape) and Chenin Blanc. He is also keen to try Pinot Gris. He uses a horse to plough and work between the vines, which are planted at high density: 10,000 vines per hectare. His yields are fairly low, around 50 hectolitres per hectare. His approach is sustainable rather than organic – he does not believe that organic viticulture would be easy to sustain in his situation, and he also points out that some standard organic practices are of questionable sustainability – like the use of copper sprays.

The 2009 crop was tiny. So far he has only released one wine from it, a moelleux Chenin Blanc. It was made from the tiny secondary bunches that developed after the initial buds were wiped out by a severe hail storm in May. The grapes are extremely scented (a product of the tiny secondary fruits?). They had a potential alcohol of around 16%. Fermentation was stopped (using sulphur) to leave around 50 g/l residual sugar. The wine shows lovely crunchy fruit, balanced by zingy acidity and finishes as it began, with an unusually musky, perfumed intensity. It is a very good wine, though slightly disconcerting.

His 2008 Chenin (his first) was vinified dry – to 14% alcohol. It has a reparkable depth of ripe, spicy, peachy fruit. It was vinified in oak (half in new barrels, the rest in year-old barrels), but the fruit dominates. Weekly batonnage (lees-strirring) during the ten-month stay in barrels certainly helps. It is, I think, the best wine he makes, and a superb bottle by any standard.

He made two cuvéés of Chardonnay in 2008. Both are barrel fermented – in true Burgundian fashion. One from fruit grafted on predominantly riparia stock which ripens first, has a slight musky character. It is otherwise fairly ripe and peachy, with just a little oak at the end. The other cuvée from older vines, planted in 1988 is both more tart and also more  pineapple-like. The oak is also pretty well integrated. Henri believes that it will age longer, though it is less immediately attractive now.

These last two wines have not yet fulfilled Henri’s dream of being the ‘best Chardonnay in the word’, but they are quite the best Charentais table wines I have ever tasted. Unfortunately to buy them you’ll have to visit – La Fenetre is about 20km east of Angouleme. Henri’s phone number is +33 5 45 70 40 06. If you visit the region, make the effort to go, see and taste for yourself. You’ll not be disappointed – unless Henri has sold all his stock!

The perils of a blocked nose

Wednesday, February 24th, 2010

My good friend Neil Pendock panned Jancis Robinson in print for attending a tasting while suffering from ‘flu and then writing up her thoughts – even though she admitted she could barely smell a thing. I gather than Jancis was not amused by Neil’s salty comments.

I feel for Jancis. I’ve had total nasal wipe-out ever since I caught the mother and father of all bugs after sitting for a couple of hours longer than I hoped in a faulty plane at Stansted airport last week (serves me right, I know, for not taking the train). On Monday I attempted to sparkle with knowledge in front of a nice crowd at Jesmond Dene House, who’d come for a Masterclass on Burgundy and the Douro. I did my best – but I couldn’t have told the difference between a decent Burgundy and glass of Dettol. Fortunately the group were reasonably up for interactive learning – they were prepared to tell me what they smelled and tasted, and I attempted to put it into context. And no Dettol was served.

The one wine that did momentarily penetrate my fug was Graham’s amazingly good 20 Year Old Tawny Port.  By a happy coincidence I’d also tasted it very recently when I visited at the lodge in Vila Nova de Gaia. It had, I see from my notes, a huge, complex, distinctly balsamic aroma and flavour with hints of undergrowth and also lovely, slightly (maderised) volatile acidity. I certainly detected the balsam again on Monday. It’s a bit more expensive that proprietary cold remedies, but a lot more fun.

I hope my sense of smell comes in from the cold soon – I have a kitchen side full of bottles waiting to be tasted.

Wine, Gender and Belgian Chardonnay

Wednesday, February 10th, 2010

I received an email from Vasco Croft the other day – who makes quite the best Vinho Verde I’ve yet tasted.  I gather he’d read my last blog entry and wrote, “I agree that Vinhão  is very much a wild, maybe a macho drink, “difficult” for the delicacy of feminine taste… but that is part of its original nature.”

Well, maybe; but what is all this stuff about ‘feminine’ and ‘masculine’ wines all about? Do women really prefer different wine to men, and is there any  evidence whatsoever to back up the assumptions the marketers seem to hold (such as pink Zinfandel is not for real men)?

I’m happy to accept that there are sometimes subtle, sometimes quite profound cultural difference that affect our taste preferences; so it’s quite possible that there may be (broad brush) gender differences too. But is there any hormonal or genetic disposition that relates gender and taste?  I still fume every time I see a lorry saying that Yorkies are not for girls …

On quite another tack, I picked up a bottle of Belgian Chardonnay at Brussels Airport last week (I was bored – which is how, I guess, those shops make most of their money). It was not worth 17 Euro, but this gently oaked little brew from North East Flanders: Wijnkasteel Genoels-Elderen, 2006 from the Appellation Controléé, Haspengouw was a creditable effort. It was lemony and clean, though with no great depth of fruit. Maybe it would have been better without its sojourn in oak and I don’t think that Chablis producers should lose much sleep, but I thought it was fun. I might even buy another bottle, though fortunately I pass through Brussels only once in a blue moon.

A few reflections in the bottom of a glass of Vinho Verde

Wednesday, February 3rd, 2010

I’ve tasted and sometimes enjoyed a few bottles of Vinho Verde over the years, but it has remained pretty much a closed bk to me before I arrived in Porto last Friday. Thank you CVRVV (the local growers’ commission)! Your invitation was generous and your welcome warm.

So what did I learn from visiting more than a dozen producers and tasting the wine of a dozen more?

In no particular order:

Vinho Verde is pronounced ‘Vinyo Vaird’ and not ‘Vino Verdi’. (Verdi had nothing to do with it.)

White Vinho Verde’s USP is lightness, freshness, an enticing aromatic quality, crispness paired with delicious, food-friendly minerality and naturally low alcohol. At its best, it’s spot-on for today’s market.

Unfortunately it’s not all good.

Sometimes it’s very, very good – especially if it’s made (biodynamically) by Vasco Croft (much more about him on another occasion)

It’s possible to buy a 2008 Vinho Verde that’s been fermented after the 2009 crop. Some big companies are so obsessed by ‘freshness’ that they either freeze must or dose it with sulphur dioxide and keep it (cool) for twelve months or more until needed.

Wine made from searingly acidic unripe juice, dosed with sugar and carbonated (to around 1 bar.) should not be sold as Vinho Verde; but a lot is.

Red Vinho Verde is vile – especially that made from the red-fleshed Vinhão (pronounced ‘viniaouwng’ – as if by a malevolent, drunken cat with an adenoid problem). Staggeringly deep, its chief charm is an inky, elderberry-like aroma. Its downside is (no malo), fierce acidity and fearsome tannins. The locals insist that it’s terrific with fatty food. Some even delight in serving it in earthenware bowls to lessen its fruit appeal and boost its tannic and acidic structure. In short, if ever a wine has purely local appeal, Vinhão is it. Forget it, unless you have a passion for Scotch pies.

Fortunately, production of red Vinho Verde is in sharp decline.

Alvarinho (aka Albariño) is not the only northern Portuguese (white) grape variety worth making a song and dance about. Loureiro is pretty damn good and, in the right hands, Arinto can be fun too. And there are others.

Alvarinho’s considerable charms are ruined by fermenting and aging it in oak. There are no exceptions to this rule.

It’s not a terribly good idea to serve such wines with a sweet pudding. Ever.

Good, simply made Alvarinho, from ripe grapes and relatively low yields is a knock-out. It is Portugal’s answer to Hunter Valley Semillon. Whoever suggested that Alvarinho might be related to Riesling?

Some sparkling (by law, bottle fermented) Vinho Verde is excellent – though the regional commission’s recommendation that Loureiro should not be used as a base wine is puzzling. Vasco Croft’s Afros fizz, 100% Loureiro, is utterly delicious. All Vasco Croft’s wines are good. Even his Vinhão is passable.

The DOC Vinho Verde covers a huge area 34,000 scattered hectares. From a UK perspective, it’s Europe’s least well known major, quality wine region.

Despite the horrors that still exist, there are so many very good wines that it’s high time UK drinkers get to know it again.

Pinot Grigio is dead, long live Vinho Verde.

If you could choose just four wines …

Saturday, January 30th, 2010

There were just six passengers on my flight to Brussels yesterday (en route) to Porto. I got chatting to the flight attendant and owned up to being a wine writer. I agreed to write a brief descriptive note on the four new wines they stock on Brussels Airlines flights from Newcastle (without, I admit, tasting them!).  No problem: I got a free cheese sandwich as a reward.

The choice if wines struck me at odd and I wondered what I might have chosen given that the ‘list’ was to be just two dry whites and two reds – all inexpensive. What would you suggest?

For the record, they offer La Baume Chardonnay (Vin de Pays d’Oc), Louis Eschenauer Colombard/Chardonnay, Vin de Pays des Cotes de Gascogne, a Vin de Pays d’Oc Cabernet Sauvignon and a basic red Bordeaux – a Merlot/Cabernet blend.

Odd or what? What  a missed opportunity – even to showcase four French wines (the  look on French wines are their own)!