Tuesday, December 28, 2010

The inscrutable L’Insolite

Maybe the cold I had before Christmas has taken the edge off my palate but if I’d tasted Thierry Germain’s L’Insolite 2008 blind I’d have placed it as a Sauvignon rather than a Chenin Blanc. On the other hand I didn’t have any problems getting the typically Gamay flavours of the Lapierre Beaujolais on Christmas Day so maybe it is an oddball.

It’s delicious anyway. Intensely crisp and citrussy (lemon, grapefruit) on first opening the bottle - hence why I thought it was Sauvignon - slightly more peachy once carafed but certainly not in the same flavour register as the Montlouis I’ve been tasting recently. Which is not surprising given it’s a Saumur Blanc. It would be interesting to see what it’s like in a few years’ time.

I actually think I like it more than his much-feted Saumur Champigny which is probably a heretical point of view.

Incidentally check out his website which has an amazing opening operatic sequence. I found in the press clips that someone had paired it (L'insolite) with Epoisses which would also be interesting to try. (We drank it with smoked salmon.)

Anyone else tasted it and have a view?

Sunday, December 26, 2010

To absent friends

We'd decided a while ago that our Christmas Day drinking would be two of the most precious bottles in our collection. Not because they were hugely prestigious, old or wildly expensive but because their producers are both sadly dead and we only have a few bottles left of the wines they made.

The first was Stéphane Cossais' Montlouis Le Volagre 2006 which is, without doubt, one of the best dry Chenins I've tasted - intensely mineral but full of apricots and quince and cream. It could easily have been a top white Burgundy.

The other was Marcel Lapierre's 2009 Morgon, a brilliant Beaujolais from an exceptional year, full of gloriously vivid fruit that made us feel happy - and lucky - to be alive. It was a perfect bottle to drink with the Christmas turkey

They would have been wonderful wines to give someone who was sceptical about natural wines, as I confess I was a year ago, and who was inclined to dub them all weird and funky. They both had an incredible purity of fruit - wines that made you feel inspired and privileged to drink them.

We enjoyed them on our own (apart from one of our non-drinking children) which is sometimes a good way to savour a great wine. We never met Stéphane but reminisced about our wonderful afternoon with Marcel.

I hope you had an equally good Christmas. Do share what you had to drink.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Biodynamics in Bordeaux

Just a short post to flag up an interesting one from Nick Stephens of Bordeaux Undiscovered about Pontet Canet's conversion to biodynamic viticulture and other chateaux who are in the process of conversion or considering it.

He doesn't however mention Chateau le Puy Côtes de Francs whose 2003 caught the world's attention a few months back when it was featured in a Japanese manga comic. I got the chance to taste it back in October and it really was quite something: sensuously dark and velvety with that exciting 'live' quality you tend to find in natural wines. Almost impossible to buy now though. The most recent vintage I could find on wine-searcher.com was the 2006 from Zelas.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Brawn: a mecca for natural wine lovers

If you’re a fan of Terroirs, London’s leading natural wine bar and restaurant, you’ll no doubt have heard of its new East End offshoot Brawn which opened a couple of weeks ago in Columbia Road.

It was set up in what looks like a former industrial unit by Terroirs talented chef Ed Wilson who lives in the neighbourhood and “wanted the kind of restaurant I want to go to on my doorstep”.

In fact he’s created the sort of restaurant any and every natural wine lover would want to go to: friendly, relaxed with simply cooked brilliant ingredients and a terrific selection of natural wines.

We went there for the Guardian Christmas lunch and grazed through an ridiculous amount of food - oysters, two selections of charcuterie, one Italian, one French, several plates of seafood (langoustines, mussels, clams and squid), a cassoulet-like dish called mongetes, andouillette and chips (passed on that one), a sublime zander boudin with shellfish sauce and some wonderfully airy (they needed to be) îles flottantes. I could hardly eat for the next 24 hours.

We also drank some excellent wines (though I can’t vouch for the accuracy of my tasting notes)

* An extraordinary deep salmon-coloured 2009 Pet Nat de Raisins from Domaine de la Tournelle in the Jura made from Ploussard (aka Poulsard). I don’t always find ‘pet nat’ convicing but this was just delicious

* A 2009 Anjou Sec from Agnes and René Mosse - a typically rich natural Chenin

* La Guillaume 2009 from Jean Maupertuis - a deliciously fresh gamay from the Auvergne which we drank with the charcuterie

* Domaine Matassa Cuvée Alexandria 2008, a rich, earthy vin de pays des Cotes Catalanes from the Roussillon (brilliant with the zander boudin and shellfish sauce

* And a funky bottle of Jean-François Nicq’s 2007 Les Glaneurs, from Domaine des Foulards Rouge (decanted) which was brilliant with the mongetes

What was great was the way we shifted from red to white without the least sense of that being inappropriate.

The food and the wines will change all the time depending on availability and Ed’s whim. You should be able to keep track of both via their website which should be up shortly.

The one downside is that Brawn is not well served by public transport. It’s about a 10 minute walk from Hoxton tube and railway station, about 15 minutes from Bethnal Green tube or take a 55 bus from Old Street. It’s also had such rave reviews you may find it hard to get a booking. But you should definitely make the effort to go.

I just wished I lived round the corner.

The address is 49 Columbia Road, London, E2 7RG. (020) 7729 5692

Monday, December 13, 2010

Domaine Trapet Beblenheim Riesling 2007

A short interlude in the middle of the Languedoc organic/biodynamic wine coverage ... We opened a bottle of the Domaine Trapet Beblenheim Riesling we were given when we visited Domaine Trapet back in October (a visit I've yet to write up).

It's made by Jean Louis Trapet's wife Andrée in Alsace and is absolutely textbook Alsace riesling: piercingly intense, pure and appley with just a touch of citrus. It was a brilliant match with some duck paté with green peppercorns but went equally well with seared salmon with leeks and with Gorwydd Caerphilly, suggesting it's a great food wine. I can also imagine it working with Chinese, Thai and milder Indian food.

The Trapet estates are farmed biodynamically.

You can buy the 2006 vintage from Corney and Barrow.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Borie La Vitarèle

I hadn’t tasted Jean François and Cathy Izarn's wines since shortly after we bought our house in the Languedoc in 1992 which can't have been long after they started. I remember them being typically Saint-Chinian - or what was then St Chinian - quite rough and rustic.

They were one of the first Languedoc producers to have a winery restaurant so they’ve always been pioneers (I remember a particularly magnificent rabbit and olive pie - still on the menu - more memorable than the wines at that stage, if truth be told. Jean-François is also a chef).

They started farming their domaine organically and biodynamically back in 1998 and hope to get biodynamic certification next year. They don’t as a general rule add cultivated yeasts “only if there is too much alcohol” and use sulphur only at bottling.

Their winery is way up in the hills in Causses et Veyran, wild beautiful back country or arrière-pays as the French call it. The wines are much more controlled now with a more intense fruit character. I tasted four at the recent Languedoc tasting.

Les Terres Blanches 2009 St Chinian
A 50/50% blend of Syrah and Grenache, made in concrete tanks. A typical product of the excellent 2009 vintage - appealingly ripe and sweet. A very reasonable 8.30€ from the domain.

Les Schistes 2009 St Chinian
The same blend but grown on schistous terroir (similar to Faugères, Jean-François says) which creates a more structured, elegant, perfumed wine with a satisfyingly chewy finish. Aged in 3-10 year old demi-muids. Can imagine it with that rabbit pie. Delicious - my favourite wine of the line-up. 11.90€

Les Crès 2008 St Chinian
60% Syrah, 40% Mourvedre. Although only 13.5% edging towards a denser, more extracted style which I personally enjoy less. Though as usual it commands a higher price (17.40 euros from the domain). Some good dark cherry fruit though I'd like to see a bit more of that exotic Mourvèdre character coming through.

Midi Rouge, Saint Chinian 2009
Syrah 40%, Grenache 40%, Carignan 20% 14.5%
Their latest cuvée. Definitely in the modern Languedoc mould with a lot of lush ripe strawberry fruit and a strong hit of vanilla (presumably from the new demi-muids in which it is aged). Very young obviously. I wouldn’t drink it now but would like to try it 5-6 years down the line. Great label - ambitious price - I would guess about 30-40 euros in France.

Despite being a pretty well natural winemaking operation these wines would be in the comfort zone of most consumers and accurately reflect the terroir in which they’re made. I liked them much better than I remembered them though they still don't quite have that thrilling edge I'm looking for in natural wines.

They were looking for an English importer so you won't find current vintages in the UK but two of the wines, including Les Schistes, are available from the Limoux-based Languedoc Wineshop and there seem to be a number of stockists in the US.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Organic and biodynamic wines from the Languedoc

I went to a tasting of organic and biodynamic wines at the Maison de la Région Languedoc-Roussillon in London this week from organic and biodynamic producers who were looking for an importer into the UK. It illustrated, as these tastings so often do, what a wide range of techniques and styles these terms cover and what a rapidly rolling bandwagon this is.

So great is the demand for organic wines that there seems to me a real danger that winemakers will acquire organic credentials just for marketing purposes without having a coherent winemaking philosophy or vision of what they want to achieve. Not using pesticides or herbicides doesn’t necessarily make you a good winemaker.

Anyway there were a number of producers who stood out for me who I’ll feature over the next few days starting with La Reserve d’O, the winery in the group which seemed to embrace natural winemaking most comprehensively.

Rock’n’roll d’O
Marie and Frédéric Chauffray are based up in on the edge of the Larzac plateau. I learnt later from my colleague Jim Budd who went to the dinner after the tasting that he used to be a guitarist in a rock band (they seem to have bonded over a shared taste in colourful shirts.

The 10 ha estate is certified organic (Ecocert) and biodynamic (Demeter). They use a minimum of sulphur ‘only at bottling’, no enzymes or other additives, natural yeasts and don’t filter or fine.

La Reserve d’O, Coteaux du Languedoc, Terrasses de Larzac
45% Syrah, 45% Grenache, 10% Cinsault
I tasted both the 2008 and 2009 vintages - the latter, not yet bottled, being predictably richer and riper, big, generous and substantial with lots of sweet but not jammy fruit. The 2008 which I preferred - but which also benefited from an extra year’s ageing - and from a couple of hours decanting - had more structure and elegance. A quintessentially southern French red which apparently sells for 11.40€ in France

Le O 2006 Coteaux du Languedoc, Terrasses de Larzac

60% Syrah, 40% Grenache
A more structured red that spends 24 months in used barrels. Rich, opulent, sweet fruit, textured, chewy. Good but I actually preferred the lesser cuvée (I often do). Around 18€.

SanSSoo 2010 Coteaux du Languedoc, St Saturnin

The most intriguing wine of the line-up, the Chaffrays take on a nouveau - only available from January to April. 60% Syrah/40% low yielding Cinsault (25 hl per ha). Bright, pure, vibrant fruit. Limited quantities, most of which goes to New York and Japan. Transported (obviously not all the way) in temperature-controlled trucks. Totally delicious.

Here's a video I found of Frédéric talking (in French) about the SanSSoo, saying you could easily mistake it for a gamay

And a link to a longer one on YouTube which shows him playing his guitar (not at all bad, actually!)

I'm looking forward to going there on our next trip to the Languedoc.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Domaine L’Anglore Terre d’Ombre 2008

This is one of the most amazing reds I’ve tasted this year made by Eric Pfifferling just outside Tavel. Not being rosé and being a mono-cepage it classifies as a vin de table but it doesn’t taste anything like you’d expect from a southern-Rhone grenache-based red. It’s far lighter (only 12.5%) and more perfumed - more like a Pinot Noir but a strange, exotic, floral, pinot that tastes of Turkish Delight and smells of deep red roses.

Pfifferling’s vineyards are farmed organically and he uses no artificial yeasts, enzymes or sulphites once the grapes are harvested. Apparently he used to be a bee-keeper. I can’t find the exact reference but my OH (who is deeply into natural wine) said he’d read that Pfifferling commented that you can’t control bees and shouldn’t try to control wine.

The only downside is that it’s almost impossible to get hold of. Caves de Pyrène which imports it has sold out of both the 2008s and ‘09 though it still appears to be on the list at their restaurant Terroirs.

Everywine.co.uk claims to have it for £96.59 for a case of six but may have equal difficulty sourcing it as they apparently don’t order a wine until they get an order themselves. And the Three Coqs in Bristol has it on their wine list at the time of writing. If you find it order it!

I've just discovered from the very helpful Mitchell Rabinowitz on Twitter that there are three shops in New York that stock Pfifferling's wines. Astor Wines and Chambers Street Wines have his Tavel and Cuvée des Traverses and De Vino's has his Cuvée de la Pierre Chaude

Monday, December 6, 2010

A beginner's guide to wine bacteria

No, not written by me you'll be glad to hear but by a 'microbial enologist' called Erika Szymanski in the online wine magazine Palate Press. And who has done such a good job of it that even a layman like me can follow it (just).

Well worth reading - although I can't resist one small dig - which is about the yeast and bacteria manufacturing company Lallemand referring to their product ProMalic® as 'naturally' lowering juice acidity. You can read more about their product range here and here. (I was particularly fascinated by the products Booster Rouge and OptiRed.)

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Domaine Le Briseau Jasnières, Clos des Longues Vignes 2005

This seductively honeyed Chenin is made by Natalie and Christian Chaussard who grow their grapes organically and biodynamically with no chemical additions and use only a tiny amount of sulphur on bottling. I can’t beat this excellent write-up on the domaine by US importer Louis Dressner.

There was nothing to indicate on the bottle that this was a demi-sec style* so we had to abandon plans last night to drink it with smoked salmon and leave it till the end of the meal where it proved a delicious match with some mild crumbly Gorwydd Caerphilly and apple, pear and ginger jelly.

You can buy it for £20 from Bijou Fine Wines and £22 from Kate Thal of Green & Blue who also recommends it with paté and fruit salad. Expensive but worth it.

Incidentally the honeyed character was even more evident today - more like honeysuckle and almonds which suggests the way it’s going to age. It could easily be a Vouvray though in truth it's much better than many Vouvrays on the market.

I really love what natural winemaking does to Chenin. It seems to eliminate the vegetal cabbagey notes you can find with this grape variety altogether.

* According to Doug Wregg of Les Caves de Pyrène which imports this wine the richness is due to the very warm 2005 vintage. He also tells me that the Chaussards have sadly discontinued the cuvée in favour of a single Jasnières called Kharakter and a Coteaux du Loir Blanc Le Briseau (and three reds).

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Tasting with Kate Thal of Green & Blue

I’ve known Kate Thal for a good while now but it’s taken the fact that she’s into natural wines to get me down to her south London shop and wine bar Green and Blue.

Thal estimates that 48% of the wines she sells are organic or biodynamic and 20% of those natural which she defines as wines produced with natural yeasts, no or very low levels of sulphur, just at bottling and no new oak (“very important - new oak is not a natural flavour”) She’d like it to be nearer 60%.

She agreed with me that exposure to natural wines changes your tastebuds. “There’s no going back once you’re a convert but I can’t think of anything I’d rather be converted to.”

Here are the seven wines she showed me:

Pétillant Naturel 2006 Thierry Puzelat (£16.35)
I’m never totally convinced by Puzelat’s wines and this was no exception. Odd, cidery nose which smelt as if the wine was still fermenting but a much more attractive palate with rich, peachy Chenin-type fruit (in fact it was an obscure variety called Menu Pineau) Fresh acidity - very pure and clean (though see note below*)

Skeveldra Sancerre 2008 Sebastien Riffault £25.50
Save for the steely acidity and terrific minerality on the finish this is not a Sancerre that most people would recognise but it was a luscious wine - rich, peachy and apricotty (the grapes are picked quite late). Totally unsulphured, made in an oxidative style in open-top fermenters “What wine used to taste like” said Thal. My favourite wine of the tasting.

La Cuisine de ma Mère Chinon Rosé 2009, Domaine Grosbois £14.35
Very pretty delicate, dry Cabernet Franc-based rosé with a pure strawberry flavour. Very refreshing - the essence of summer. “A proper rosé” said Thal who imports the wine as an exclusive

Monte di Grazia Rosso, Campania 2007 £15.75
Made from Tintore di Tramonte and Pedrirosso - two of Campania’s 40 native grapes (there used to be 400, Thal told me) naturally farmed and trained on a pergola which you can see here. No new oak. Natural yeasts. Really meaty and savoury on the nose, dark, dense hedgerow fruits and sour cherries with a lovely fresh acidity. We reckoned it would go well with pigeon and other feathered game.

Rioja Rayos Uva 2009 Olivier Rivière £14.50
An untypical Rioja made by a French winemaker who worked with Marcel Lapierre. No oak. Recognisably Rioja on the palate though lacks that characteristic Rioja sweetness and mellowness. Very pure fruit but a little one-dimensional for this price.

Le Casot des Mailloles, La Poudre d’Escampette Vin de Table £20.50
A blend of Grenache, Carignan and Syrah made by Alain Castex in Banyuls. Incredibly luscious, sumptuously ripe but not remotely jammy fruit. It can be inconsistent, according to Thal. “When it’s in a sulky mood it can get quite animal and savoury not show its true character* but it has incredible energy.”

Les Foulards Rouges Glaneuses 2008 Jean-Francois Nicq £18.35
A bright intensely fruity blend of grenache and syrah from the Roussillon with a lifted, slightly floral note that reminded me of a Beaujolais cru. Controversially it’s made at a low temperature (12-13°) which some regard as an unnatural winemaking practice but there’s no sulphur and no filtration. Delicious though would benefit from being lightly chilled.

Thal runs regular wine tastings at the shop, some of which are dedicated to natural wine “but in every tasting I try to shoehorn one in because the wines need explaining”. The shop is in Lordship Lane, about 8 minutes walk from East Dulwich station (catch a train from London Bridge) or by bus from Victoria.

She also has a very useful video explaining natural wine on her website

One of the most interesting aspects of the tasting - or rather its aftermath - was that the Puzelat Petillant and the Casot de Maiolles didn’t show as well when I took the opened bottles back to my son Will’s house nearby - the Pet Nat tasting more cidery, and the Casot de Maiolles, sharper and less fruity. Possibly they'd been affected by the short taxi ride? Have you found this at all?