Wednesday, 13 September 2017

St-Peray - what's that?

The southernmost appellation of the northern Rhone is not a name that many wine enthusiasts know or a wine that is commonly seen on the shelves. There are some decent sparklers bubbling out, and have been since the 1820s, but now the still whites are making a name for themselves in this tiny appellation - different sizes abound on this font of all knowledge, the internet, but it seems that it is between 55 and 90 hectares (by way of contrast, Chateau Lafite claims 112 hectares).

Earlier this year, I visited Pierre Gaillard, one of the northern Rhone's great risk-takers, who was clearly very pleased with his St-Peray (indeed, he has reason to be pleased with the whole range but the St-Peray seemed to be one he was especially proud of) and it was easy to see why. It is a wine grown just south of Cornas on clay and chalk, giving acidity and tension to the wine. The Marsanne/Roussanne blend give the wine delicate floral characters, complexity and balance.

Yesterday, I was flicking through the September issue of Decanter when I spotted an 'Expert's Choice' review of wines from St-Peray. Matt Walls is quite a good reviewer, of Rhone wines anyway, so it was pleasing to see that he awarded 93 points to Gaillard's St-Peray, one of the highest scoring and, certainly, the cheapest in the line-up.

'Majority Marsanne. Bay leaf and pine needles on the nose, almost peppery - very lively and inviting aromatics. A squeeze of citrus over the rich apricot fruit; very long and perfectly balanced. Good tension in the wine; this is very well done.' (Matt Walls, Decanter 09/17)

Tuesday, 12 September 2017

New arrivals tasted and a scientific experiment

It's been a while since my last post as the arrival of the British summer saw me de-camp to the continent for several weeks where wines were enjoyed but rarely intellectualised. I found that I still don't get on with Loire reds but I did find a Beaujolais I really liked, albeit one given a traditional, whole cluster fermentation followed by ageing in barriques (so, nothing like BoJo). Other wines came and went: a Ruche impressed me at lunch in Alba but, generally, I drank either wines which I import or, otherwise, wines of little consequence. Summer wines.

Arriving back in the UK, it was time to start the post-arrival tastings of 2015s that have been sitting quietly in the warehouse since late June. Several wines from the northern Rhone's Pierre Gaillard and Domaine Ste-Anne  in the south have been opened in the last week and, youthfulness aside, all have impressed greatly. From the latter estate, the St-Gervais 'Les Rouvieres' is surprisingly approachable although, clearly, it has much more to give. The Cotes du Rhone Blanc is a cracker too (as are the others, of course, but this bottling flies so far under the radar it is worth mentioning it!).

Gaillard's Cornas is so good I may have to withdraw the remaining bottles from sale. The same applies to his 'Asiaticus' from the Seyssuel vineyards just up from Cote Rotie. I love his whites too which are more ready to drink now. I have shied away from opening a Cote Rotie at this stage as, given the prices of these wines, it would be sacrilege but the two StJo's have given good insight with 'Les Pierres' more striking now than six months ago when I last tasted it.

Now onto my experiment. I was sent a can of argon to product test. It's an inert gas which is being used for wine preservation and useful if you have an opened bottle which you don't want to deteriorate or, at least, that's the idea. I am going to test it and report back.

My plan is to try it out on three different wines - a Grenache, a Nebbiolo and a white (not sure which) - to get a proper feel for it. Grenache is rather more prone to oxidation than Nebb hence this selection. The wine has to be stored in a cool dark environment (such as a cellar) so the white will be the most problematic if I want to try it chilled, I suppose.

Otherwise, the plan is to open six bottles of each wine (so I won't be testing all three at the same time) and draw a glass from each to check there are no flaws and that they are all the same. Then they will be numbered 1A, 1B, 2A etc with the 'A' bottles being ones that gas is sprayed into and the 'B' bottles being the controls. Bottles 1A and 1B will have a glass a day poured until they are empty at which time bottles 2A and 2B will be compared with the last drops of the first set. These will then be poured, a glass at a time, once a week until they are empty at which time the third set of bottles will be re-examined, approximately a month after they are first opened. If, at that point 3B is still drinkable (it will have had a month of exposure to air), I will probably just be grateful that no wine has gone to waste and enjoy it. I may keep 3A going much longer out of curiosity though. Realistically, I would not expect any preservation system to work for longer than a month although there is no real reason why it shouldn't. It is extremely unlikely that I would keep a bottle open that long, of course. That is why I am doing this in the interests of research!

Friday, 30 June 2017

Southern Rhone whites decantered

Today sees the release of Decanter's August edition with the publication of the results of its Southern Rhone Whites tasting. We have a whopping seven wines in the line-up! As the notes show, Viognier is very much back in vogue.

Chateau Juvenal, Ventoux 2015 'Ribes de Vallat'
Another scoop for Juvenal, following its recent Wine of the Week (for the 2016) on jancisrobinson.com, now recognition for the 2015 - there's very little left but at least the follow-on comes highly recommended! The Juvenal Blanc is a blend of Clairette and Viognier.

'Calls to mind summer Mediterranean meadows and freshly mown grass. Peach, apricot and mango fruits dominate the palate, complemented by a rich, oily texture' (90/100, 13.5% ABV)

Domaine Brusset, Cairanne 2015 'Esprit de Papet'
One of two whites from Laurent Brusset and, if that's not enough, his 2015 Cairanne 'Chabriles' also scooped a Platinum Trophy for Best Value Rhone Red in the Decanter World Wine Awards. This first white is dominated by Roussanne and Viognier.

'An unashamedly hedonistic wine, this is fulsome and honeyed with patisserie-lie character. There's an extra layer of refined, smoky fruits and a fresh, citric finish, leaving the palate cleansed' (90/100, 14% ABV)

Xavier Vignon, Cotes du Rhone 2015
Usually better known for his full-bodied reds, Xavier's Grenache/Viognier blend is also rather good!

'Attractive apricot and peach flavours in the mouth. It's certainly not the most elegant; however, a lovely wine with food, matching with andouillette served with lentils and caramelised onions' (90/100, 14% ABV)

Domaine Brusset, Cairanne 2016 'Travers'
The regular (and lower-priced) white from this estate is a slightly more traditional blend but, as above, with a twist of Viognier.

'This wine has lots of orchard fruits, elderflower and limes. The palate is reminiscent of fresh bread dough, with a lifting mineral edge' (89/100, 13%)

Domaine des Anges, Ventoux 2014
'Opening with lime blossom, pear and almond on the nose, there's a soft, fruity palate with mellow acidity, mango fruit and good length' (86/100, 13.5%)

Also commended: Christophe Coste, Cotes du Rhone 2014 'Dame Blanche' and fair: Raymond Usseglio, Cotes du Rhone 2014


Friday, 9 June 2017

2006 revisited in Chateauneuf-du-Pape

Jancis Robinson has revisited 2006 Chateauneuf-du-Pape making two of our wines her Wines of the Week. She writes:

'I was reminded of how well the 2006 Châteauneufs are showing now when tasting a couple currently on offer from The Big Red Wine Company in the UK. I opened Raymond Usseglio 2006 Châteauneuf-du-Pape (£24.50, 14.5% alcohol on the label) at the same time as Domaine de Cristia 2006 Châteauneuf-du-Pape (£23, 15%) and enjoyed how they played tag in the glass. At first the Raymond Usseglio wine was the more impressive – much denser and richer – but then the Cristia came up on the outside lane and overtook it, offering more elegance and staying power, despite the alcohol level, and making the Usseglio look a little grainy and tired after an hour or so.

'But the main message is that this vintage of Châteauneuf is drinking very well at the moment and, for serious, ageworthy wines that have had almost 10 years in bottle, they are not desperately expensive.'
2008 review: Blackish crimson. Meaty molasses notes from what is obviously a very concentrated cocktail. One of the spiciest, most arresting noses among these 2006 regular bottlings. Big boned with a hint of yeast extract/Marmite. Serious, lots of effort in here. Still some drying tannins on the finish. Very serious wine. 18- Drink 2015-27
2017 review: Lively ruby. Strong garrigue aromas. Very rich and warm. Sweet start with freshness on the finish initially and good fruit concentration in the middle. In the glass it became heavier and heavier and lost its refreshment value. 16.5 Drink to 2023

Our tip: enjoy this wine over half an hour or so after opening!

2008 review: Thick and dense with an element of stewed fruit about it. Pretty good but lacks a little bit of zip. Lots of pleasure if not too expensive, though I do wonder whether it wasn't picked just a little bit too late? Grenache with an admixture representing just 10%. 17.5 Drink 2015-27

2008 review: An odd metallic note on the nose. Quite feral notes(10% Mourvèdre and 10% Syrah plus Grenache) and masses of drying tannins on the finish. Some heat on the finish too. BIG! But for the moment it's a little formless. Bit of a hole in the middle. 16 Drink 2014-20

2017 review: Medium ruby. Big and round with tannins well in retreat. Rich tamarind flavours. In the glass it looked fresher and fresher. Admirable purity considering the alcohol level. This vintage is showing very well currently.  16.5 Drink to 2025

Thursday, 18 May 2017

Rhone 2015 EP offer... at last!

It's a little overdue, I know, but I hope people will find it worthwhile. There are some usual suspects on the list and a couple of new faces.

On my annual jaunt to Canterbury at the end of April, a small group of tasters sampled the 2015 Brusset 'Esprit de Papet' and Raymond Usseglio's 2015 Chateauneuf-du-Pape. Both were enthusiastically received (and purchased in surprisingly large quantities).

Then, last week, Jancis Robinson published her reviews of the new releases from Chateau Juvenal, one of the rising stars of the Ventoux. Needless to say, she loved the four wines she tasted.

Now, to add to these three names - and to the wines of Chateau de Beaucastel/Famille Perrin which were first offered last November - we have some new names to add to the list:

Pierre Gaillard is a winemaker based at Malleval in the northern Rhone. His first vineyard was St Joseph 'Clos de Cuminaille', a wine we sold when we started the business. We are thrilled to have it back, especially in a vintage such as 2015. I spent well over two hours tasting with Pierre on a warm Good Friday afternoon and enjoyed every single wine he showed me. It became difficult to decide which wines to leave out of the offer! Even so, we have list 9 wines from Pierre's northern Rhone portfolio so please check out the list to see what we selected.

Pierre also owns an estate in Roussillon where he produces Collioure red (we are offering two cuvees, the classic blend 'Magenta' and the Mourvedre-rich 'Crestall') and white and some stunning Banyuls. I urge anyone who enjoys these wines to check them out, especially the Hors d'Age 'Solera'.

Finally, I am really pleased to have met Jean Steinmeier of Domaine Ste-Anne in St-Gervais on my last trip. I have been visiting there as a tourist for well over a decade but now we get to list these excellent wines, a lovely, fragrant Cotes du Rhone Blanc, an all too drinkable Villages wine called 'Notre Dame des Cellettes' and two special cuvees, the Mourvedre-dominated 'Rouvieres' and the pure Syrah 'Mourillons' which is oak-aged.

For us, this is the most interesting Rhone offer for a few years, albeit a fairly small one but the range of styles has expanded quite considerably. We hope our customers will enjoy discovering them as much as we have.

The pdf is here - and you can simply click on the wine to learn more or to buy the wine (or, of course, you can email or phone with your order).

Friday, 12 May 2017

Jancis raves about Juvenal

A couple of weeks ago, I dropped off a box of wines at the London office of Jancis Robinson MW, affectionately known in the trade as HRH (she is charming, gracious and knows her stuff!). Earlier this week, I received an email telling me, 'Like the Juvenal white' and, after a few more email exchanges to get photos etc to her, it transpired she was going to make this her Wine of the Week.

Them, a couple of days ago, another email asking for some more information about the red wines which were also in the box. Today, with reviews of all four wines posted on her website (jancisrobinson.com, well worth the subscription for all serious wine enthusiasts), her WoW review is published and includes all the wines. A coup for Juvenal indeed!

Here it is (published with permission):

Château Juvenal is a name that is new to me. The Forestiers bought the property in 2001 and in 2011 joined forces with local vignerons the Alban family, who had until then delivered their grapes to the Beaumes-de-Venise co-op (grandly named Balma Venitia). A winemaking facility has been built at Ch Juvenal and celebrated southern Rhône oenologist Philippe Cambie hired as consultant. 
Farming is organic, soils clay-limestone, and slopes mostly south-facing and the land is now farmed parcel by parcel, as is the current vogue. Here is the official explanation of the name of their most basic cuvée from the property's website: 'The name Ribes du Vallat refers to the plots of land where the vines grow and which are located along the gently sloping banks (ribes in Provençal language) that border the natural river bed (the vallat) that runs through the heart of the estate. Here, in springtime, painters come from afar to set up their easels and capture the multiple shades of green on display in this little corner of paradise. Our terroir is well exposed and well drained and sits nestled among pine trees, Provençal cypresses, green oaks, Mediterranean scrub and olive trees. There is a red wine, a white wine and a rosé.'  As is often the case in this part of the world, they produce olive oil pretty seriously, and also seem to run a bed and breakfast business.
I've chosen Ch Juvenal, Les Ribes du Vallat Blanc 2016 Ventoux to illustrate that bitterness can be a positive – not least in white Rhônes. They are often relatively low in acidity but a light bitterness on the finish can substitute, making them quite zesty (often literally, reminiscent of citrus peel) and refreshing enough. This is one such wine – a blend of the Clairette that is increasingly recognised as one of southern France's most attractive and vital pale-skinned grape varieties, with 20% Viognier, the vines being 40 years old. The wine's appeal starts when you smell and start to taste it, all broad and honeysuckle-scented, but by the end it has tightened up to remind you of dried peel – the whole being quite a bit more refreshing than average for a southern Rhône white despite its advertised alcohol of 14%. I gave it an enthusiastic score of 16.5 out of 20 but would suggest drinking it this year for maximum refreshment value. The grapes are cooled to 10 ºC (50 ºF) and the resulting white is matured on its lees, half in tank and half in demi-muids.
Presumably the fairly high elevation of the vineyards of Ventoux, a southern Rhône appellation that is looking increasingly exciting with every vintage (and producer of no newer than six wines of the week so far), helps retain freshness. And then there is the quality of the 2016 vintage in the southern Rhône. Michel Chapoutier presented his 2016 'Sélections Parcellaires' in London recently (look out for my forthcoming article on them) and declared that in the southern Rhône he reckoned 2016 was even better than 1990.
If anything, however, I was even more impressed by the red Ch Juvenal, Les Ribes du Vallat Rouge 2015 Ventoux (£11.50 from The Big Red Wine Company, who currently have the 2014 reds and the 2015 white but the next vintages should be available in the next couple of weeks, we are assured). It's made mainly from 70% Grenache and 30% Syrah, 10- to 50-year-old vines. This young wine has not seen any oak but was aged in tank on the lees and is absolutely chock full of flavour. Not especially deep in colour, as is the way with Grenache, it is full and rich with a hint of something gamey before masses of vital juiciness assaults the palate. Although you could already enjoy this (despite its 15% alcohol), it has lots of grip, concentration and ambition. It seems such a shame that this fruit used to disappear into a co-op blend... Already delightfully readable, with no shortage of life and tension, this clearly has the potential to become more complex. I gave it 17/20 and recommend drinking it between 2017 and 2021.
Its big brother Ch Juvenal, La Terre du Petit Homme 2015 Ventoux (£14.85)  is a 50:50 blend from generally older vines with the Syrah aged in barriques. For the moment it is much more brooding and less approachable though will almost certainly have a longer life. I'd much rather spend money on two bottles of it than on one of the unoaked top bottling Ch Juvenal, Perséides 2015 Vin de France, whose price (£28.50) I don't quite understand. It's apparently a Vin de France because the Ventoux regulations require at least two different vine varieties. But all these wines are admirable and interesting in their way. As usual, I'm recommending the best-value option.   
The Big Red Wine Company is the sole UK importer (the link will take you straight to the page for the white, although they are currently showing the 2015).

Sunday, 23 April 2017

Verulam tasting

A recommendation from someone who attended a tasting a year or so ago in Rutland lead to an invitation to present a selection of Rhone wines to a group of 80 or so people in St Albans last night. On arrival I was tested out with a radio microphone which I did everything I could to avoid using but managed to amuse and offend in equal measure (I suggested that I was rather younger than most of those present which was true but someone who was of a similar age thought I meant that everyone was considerably older than me) but, above all, inform people about the Rhone and its wines. It's often tricky in these situations since I don't know how much they know and don't want to patronise them; equally, it is a waste of their time if they go away without any greater understanding of the region.

Three whites to begin with: Chateau Juvenal's 2015 'Ribes de Vallat', an atypical blend of Clairette and Viognier, the latter grape giving the wine a sumptuous lift, followed by the Usseglio 2014 Cotes du Rhone Blanc 'Les Claux', a mini-Chateauneuf based on Grenache Blanc. Finally, Christophe Coste's 2014 'Dame Blanche', 100% Viognier with a small amount of barrel ageing, now fully integrated and, at last, delicious.

I stayed with Christophe and his Domaine de la Charite, Cotes du Rhone 2015 for the first red. Robust and fruity, this really is a superb Cotes du Rhone which I should drink more of at home - I think that every time I open a bottle at one of these events! This was followed by the 2013 Coudoulet de Beaucastel with its heavy dose of Mourvedre in the blend. The fruit was a little muted at first (this is very young for so much Mourvedre) but the texture was velvety. A lovely wine. Domaine des Anges' 2012 'Archange' was a popular follow-up, its 80% Syrah providing good contrast to the Grenache-based wines that came before.

The big guns followed. Domaine Brusset's 2011 Gigondas 'Le Grand Montmirail' was a full-bodied and deeply textured fruit bomb. A fabulous Gigondas to drink now. Finally, the 2007 Domaine de Cristia Chateaneuf-du-Pape has arrived at last, its 90% Grenache and 10% Syrah truly integrated into a wine of almost Burgundian finesse. This is where I may have offended a couple of people when I suggested that, whilst it was drinking beautifully now, it would probably outlive everyone in the room. There were smiles exchanged though.

To round things off, Bressy-Masson's Rasteau Rancio hit the spot perfectly with its lightly oxidised, madeira-like quality. A shame there is no more of it - I will have to investigate next time I am in the region!