Wednesday, June 29, 2011

More bio buzz from Paris and Burgundy

I went to a very posh tasting at the Dorchester last night that would not normally be the subject of this blog but for the remarkable fact of a French female sommelier, Estelle Touzet - head sommelier at the 3 starred Le Meurice, no less - serving up a New Zealand biodynamic wine (Felton Road's 2009 Bannockburn Pinot).

In fact of the four wines she showed - only one was French (Coumbe del Mas) - and from the Roussillon not one of the more prestigious wine areas.

It really shows how fast the restaurant world is changing. It's inconceivable that one of the so-called 'palaces' as Paris's most prestigious hotels are called, would have had a female head sommelier or shown wines of this type at a press event even five years ago. Touzet reckons that around 200 wines from her 1100 strong list are biodynamic, possibly more as many producers choose not to certify . . .

I also gather (from my colleague Richard Hemming via Twitter) that Anne-Claude Leflaive has launched a new biodynamic négociant business, Leflaive et Associés which will be buying in fruit from biodynamic growers. Further proof, if proof were needed, that biodynamics is becoming big business.

And what did the wine taste like? Ah, forgot to mention that. Elegant, mineral, quite smokey - I thought it might be a mourvèdre, without the lush fruit that tends to typify Central Otago pinot. But, interestingly, it was a root day. A great match though with a 'bouchée' of rare beef with celeriac rémoulade and a lot of black pepper which actually restored some of the fruit to the wine. More on my matchingfoodandwine website tomorrow.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Mas de Chimères Oeillade 2010

I was planning to do another post on Alsace this week but you know how it is when it's the kind that requires you to collect your thoughts and plough through extensive tasting notes? And I was in the Languedoc which made it feel odd writing about Alsace. At least that's my excuse. I also had a good book . . .

Anyway here's what we drank one night at Chez Philippe in Marseillan, a restaurant we'd always meant to go to and finally managed this trip*. It's a pure Cinsault called Oeillade from Guilhem Dardé of Mas de Chimères who makes wine round the Lac de Salagou.

It was deliciously mineral, almost stoney with the sort of crunchy but not oversweet wild berry fruit you find in a Cabernet Franc. And a tantalising smell of red rose petals. The soil in that area is apparently rich in iron oxide with blocks of basalt from the (fortunately extinct) volcanoes that surround the valley.

Dardé, who describes himself as a 'paysan vigneron' says on his site that he hasn't used herbicides or pesticides for several years and is currently in organic conversion. Yields are kept at 26 hl per ha. He uses indigenous yeasts and minimal levels of sulphur and no fining or filtering for the reds.

He recommends it should be drunk young (3-4 years) and cool (14°-16°) which is how the restaurant served it, all credit to them. We took the last third of the bottle back home (drink driving laws in France are draconian) and found it even better two nights later.

* And would I recommend Chez Philippe? I would, despite the ridiculous over-elaboration of a couple of the dishes, the flavours were good and authentic Languedoc. And, witness the wine above, the wine list was interesting and fairly priced.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Shoots and leaves: the effect of biodynamics in the vineyard

I don’t pretend to understand how biodynamics works. For critics of the practice like Dr Richard Smart who recently pronounced that many of the concepts it embraces are 'nonsense' that’s precisely why they are sceptical but my recent trip to Alsace in the early part of the growing season (June) was an ideal opportunity to see for myself exactly what happens to the vines.

Many of Alsace's most successful winemakers are biodynamic including André Ostertag (above) and Olivier Zind Humbrecht, a phenomenon that I would have thought should have given the good doctor pause for thought. Touring Ostertag's vineyards you could see the difference between the vigour and health of his vines . . .

compared to those of his neighbour's a couple of rows down. (Note the use of herbicides.)

The shoots push up vertically (right) as opposed to growing out sideways (left) allowing for better air circulation - down to preparation 501 according to Ostertag.

The fruit is also more spaced out on the shoot as Pierre Gassman of Rolly Gassman showed me at his vineyard.

You can also see a marked difference in the texture and colour of the leaves and the strength of the veins seen here at René Muré's vineyards.

Of course there are differences in viticultural practices - fascinating ones - between one vineyard and another. At René Muré the ground between the rows is kept clean. Grass, Veronique Muré believes, makes the vineyards too wet in winter and too dry in summer when it is in competition with the vines for the available water.

But a couple of kilometres away Matthieu Boesch of Leon Boesch lets the vegetation run wild to encourage the insect population, simply forking through the soil to aerate it.

Despite this divergence in approach both producers' wines expressed the local terroir, the rieslings in particular having quite marked similarities in character.

All in the head? I don't think so. Biodynamics may not be susceptible to scientific proof but you wouldn't have as many winemakers converting to the practice if they weren't convinced by the results. As André Ostertag put it 'When I started biodynamics I saw such an amazing difference in the vineyards I realised something must be going on.' I think you can taste it too.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Why doesn’t Alsace produce drier wines?

I’ve a lot to report back on from my Alsace trip last week but I wanted first to address an issue which dominated the week and the discussion that ensued on Twitter and on fellow wine writer Jamie Goode’s blog here. Which is why Alsace producers don’t make drier wines. It doesn’t of course apply solely to natural wines though many of the producers we visited were biodynamic.

The issue many believe is at the heart of the mystery why Alsace wines don't have a wider fan base. Those who have already grown to like them, love them, of course but they don’t appeal as much to younger drinkers. The conventional wisdom is that they’re easily confused with German wines and that’s affected by the bottle shape. It may be a factor but I think it’s much more to do with the confusing number of bottlings and the fact no-one knows exactly how sweet they’re going to be.

Alsace of course has a specific microclimate that results in it being much hotter and drier than you’d guess from its geographical position. But a characteristic of the climate, if I’ve understood it correctly, is that many of the vineyards gather mist (and therefore moisture) in the mornings which is then heated up on the grape skins by the hot sun. Botrytis can take hold very fast, particularly with pinot gris and gewurztraminer.

Producers can make drier wines by picking earlier, depending on the year, but that can reduce the aromatic quality of the wines or by fermenting out the sugar which may result in wines that have unacceptable levels of alcohol. And many choose not to because they like to make their wines in a richer style, Zind Humbrecht, Marcel Deiss and Rolly Gassmann among them (though Zind Humbrecht is moving to a drier style of winemaking)

Sweetness is also not so much a problem in the region because people expect it and there’s a culture of ageing wines - particularly grand crus - for a considerable number of years by which time the sensation of sweetness is considerably diminished.

It’s also a feature which Alsace’s neighbours in Belgium and Germany, which provide many of the tourists who visit the region, positively enjoy about the wines. In the growing Far East market too, sweetness is not a problem particularly with hotter Asian cuisines and dishes. “It just seems to be a problem for you in the UK” as one winemaker told me, mildly resentfully.

The propensity to sweetness also explains why even biodynamic producers haven’t given up on sulphur. the use of which is still widespread in Alsace. And why most winemakers still filter their wines. But more of this in due course.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Off to Alsace . . .

Today we're off to Alsace, a visit I'm particularly excited about as it includes a disproportionate amount of organic and biodynamic winemakers. It'll be interesting to see how that's come about and find out more about the new 'Charte Vin Bio d'Alsace' an ambitious attempt to lay down detailed groundrules for the region's organic winemakers. There does seem to be a tipping point in wine regions where natural - or reasonably natural winemaking becomes the norm. It will be fascinating to see what the prevailing attitude is on sulphur.

In the meantime here's a bottle from a producer we haven't managed to fit in to our schedule (all credit to the CIVA for acceding to so many of our requests. It's a sensitive issue for wine promotion bodies who have to keep everyone happy.)

It's the 2008 Kaefferkopf L’Originel from Audrey & Christian Binner (13.5%) - original indeed because it's a blend of gewurztraminer, riesling and muscat, something that's not usually permitted in a grand cru. [Kaefferkopf is one of only two grand crus in which it's permitted - have amended this in the light of Luc's comments below and my own clearer understanding of the rules having spent a few days Alsace!). The grapes are fermented together in 100 year old foudres using natural yeasts and the Binners employ biodynamic treatments and phytotherapie (treatment with plant extracts) in their vineyards. You can see a more detailed write up of their approach here.

More to the point it's a joy to drink - aromatic, as you'd expect, very pure and deliciously fruity. It would of course go with food - I reckon it would be great with Thai - but it's the perfect wine to sit and sip on a summer's evening. Of which I hope we might have a few while we're away though I can't say I'm encouraged by the metéo which seems to be forecasting heavy, thundery showers for the majority of the week :-(

Thursday, June 2, 2011

The greening of the wine business - good news or bad news?

It was bound to happen given the growing interest in natural wine but there’s been a lot of hype lately about wine companies going green. Often it’s pretty hard to see just what this amounts to.

The other day I tasted two wines under the ‘Nature du Luberon’ label (above) which comes with a leafy logo that suggests at least an organic wine. One admittedly is in conversion but the other just says “Nestled in the natural park of the Luberon the vineyards benefit from the surrounding ecosystems.” What on earth does that mean?

Asda was showing a wine called ‘Greener Planet’ at its tasting made with recyclable PET bottles that are supposed to cut the cost of transporting wine by 61%.

And Chile’s Vina Ventisquero recently took out full page advertisements for Yali, a wine brand ‘inspired by Chile’s Yali Wetlands 'which invites 'consumers to reaffirm their awareness of nature by showing a fundamental respect for the environment.'

Even Bordeaux first growths have to trumpet their ecological credentials these days.

And the hugely influential UC Davis has just opened a multi-million dollar green winery.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m all for conserving the environment and making better use of the earth’s scarce resources but I do wonder how deep this greening of the wine business goes. I may have missed it but none of the producers appears to minimise their use of chemicals in the vineyards or winemaking process.

Hopefully it will lead to more wines being made without chemical intervention at a more affordable price. But I do worry that customers may be given the impression these wines are more wholesome and, dare I say, natural than they are.

What do you think? Do you welcome this emphasis on sustainability or is it a marketing gimmick?