Burgundy’s vineyards are often described as a ‘mosaic’; look at the picture above and you’ll see why. Some strips of land ploughed and bare, others covered with grass. And it’s all due to French inheritance laws which dictate that land and property are divided between all of the children. So, the field may look like a single vineyard but it actually has many different owners, each farming a small part, each having their own ideas about the best way to farm. And, most importantly for wine lovers, each able to decide how the wines made from their particular strip of the vineyard should taste.
The result is that, when you’re buying Burgundy, you don’t only have to check which vineyard the wine comes from, but the grower, too; some are brilliant, others are good but might not make wine to your taste and then there’s a third group: those who know that anything with the name ‘Burgundy’ on the label will sell and don’t make too much effort.
So, if you’re visiting the region, as we did recently with Arblaster & Clarke Wine Tours (www.winetours.co.uk), it’s good to have an expert to guide you. Ours, Steven Spurrier, has spent his whole working life in the wine industry and his knowledge of and contacts in Burgundy are unrivalled so the tastings arranged for us were truly exceptional. We visited famous names like Drouhin (the Beaune Clos des Mouches Blanc 2001 was a highlight of our first evening) and Bouchard Aîné (their Corton 2000 is just reaching its peak) as well as some of the best smaller producers – those with interesting and different ideas. Take Frédéric Magnien, for example; he matures some of his wines in clay amphorae – for him, oak barrels mask the fruit. His wines certainly showed great purity of flavour, while Jacques Prieur uses horses rather than tractors to work his vineyards to avoid compacting the soil and restricting the spread of the roots.
Wherever we went, we tasted some fantastic wines – many from old reserve stock no longer on sale – but all reflecting the marvellous diversity of the mosaic of vineyards we saw on the ground.
One final thought: despite their differences, all the producers we visited had one thing in common. If you can work out what’s happening in the picture below (suggestions welcome!), you may know what I’m referring to. If not, I’ll tell you in my next Bristol Wine Blog.
“Viognier was close to extinction in 1980 when Yalumba pioneered a renaissance of this rare, exotic and alluring variety” – so reads the back label of a delightful example of the grape from Australia’s Eden Valley (currently on offer at Waitrose for £9.74, usually £12.99).
It’s not in doubt that there were only a few acres of Viognier remaining at one time. However, Oz Clarke and Margaret Rand in their book “Grapes & Wines” (Webster’s, 2001) suggest that the low point was rather earlier (1965) and attribute the revival elsewhere – crediting either Josh Jensen of Calera in California or the ‘king of Beaujolais’, Georges Duboeuf. Personally, I don’t mind who ensured the grape’s survival – it’s a fascinating and distinctive variety and deserves to be around.
But, how did it get into such a perilous state? It’s a grape that is native to the tiny northern Rhône Appellation of Condrieu and, for many years, it was grown there and virtually nowhere else. The vineyards of Condrieu are perched on impossibly steep granite slopes overlooking the Rhône making any work in the vineyard both difficult and dangerous. Not surprisingly, as transport in the region improved, many growers abandoned their vines and sought work in nearby Lyon instead. Indeed, in one year, just 2500 bottles were made from the variety.
Without getting into the debate about who engineered its revival, the prospects for Viognier have been transformed and the grape is now thriving with major plantings in the south of France, California and Australia as well as in the vineyards of its native Rhône.
So, what’s so special about it? At its best, it has a wonderful aromatic perfume – think apricots, peaches and exotic spices – and a full, rich and mouth-filling taste not quite like anything else. It goes perfectly with gently spicy or creamy dishes. For a real treat, ask your local independent wine merchant if they have any Condrieu (expect to pay £30 plus a bottle); otherwise, the example from Yalumba that prompted this blog should convince any doubters.
Galicia, in the far north-west of Spain, is one of that country’s most interesting wine regions. But, if you’re not familiar with their wines – and, sadly, many in Britain are not – you need to forget any existing thoughts about Spanish wine. Galicia is different! Its climate is Atlantic-influenced which means that it is wetter, cooler and more fertile than areas of Spain further inland or those facing the Mediterranean. And it grows a clutch of grape varieties rarely seen elsewhere.
As you might guess, I love their wines – and not just since a really enjoyable visit my wife and I made there a couple of years ago. So I was particularly pleased that the Bristol Tasting Circle’s latest monthly event featured wines from Galicia (plus an intruder from Castille y Leon, just over the regional border!) presented by a long-standing friend of the Circle, Raj Soni of local independent wine merchant RS Wines.
Typical of the world’s cooler grape growing regions, Galicia makes more white than red. Paso de Marinan uses Godello in a blend with other local varieties to produce a wine with good body and lovely tropical fruit flavours (£9), while Crego e Monaguillo’s 100% Godello (£10) is fresh and clean with hints of mandarins on the palate. The one Galician variety that may be familiar to some (particularly Bristol Wine Blog readers) is Alboriño and Pazo de Barantes (£13) make an excellent example: quite rich and fragrantly perfumed, this wine has length, complexity and is simply delightful to drink.
But Galicia makes reds, too, mainly using the local Mencia grape. It gives soft, gently spicy wines – my wife said cumin – and the stand-out for me was the delicately smoky, barrel aged bottle from Joaquin Rebolledo (£15), who is so superstitious that he labelled his 2013 vintage as ‘2012+1’!
For more details of the wines, you can contact RS Wines on www.rswines.co.uk. Or, if tastings like this one appeal, just email the Bristol Tasting Circle secretary, Judith Tyler on firstname.lastname@example.org – new members are always welcome.