Category Archives: Burgundy

Wine from cows’ horns?

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In my previous Bristol Wine Blog, I reviewed a marvellous trip to the vineyards of Burgundy organised by Arblaster & Clarke Wine Tours and hosted by Steven Spurrier. I mentioned that all the properties we visited had something in common and I asked for suggestions about what it was. The picture I posted at the foot of the Blog teased you with a clue:

18 Ch de Monthelie manure extraction

It didn’t take long for a regular reader, ‘d d b’ of Wellington, New Zealand, to reply correctly: Biodynamics. Congratulations! And to anyone else who knew but didn’t reply.

Biodynamics is a specialist form of organic growing in which the farm (it’s not just vineyards that work biodynamically) should be self-sustaining, it should use only natural or plant-based preparations on the soil with a view to strengthening the crop’s own defences against disease or adverse weather and finally that planting, pruning, ploughing and harvesting should all be done with regard to the lunar cycle.

So, what was going in the picture? One of the preparations used involves filling cow horns with manure each autumn and burying them until the spring when they are dug up and the manure extracted ready for use. We just happened to turn up at Château de Monthelie just in time to witness this group of people knocking the manure out of the horns. It was then mixed with water and stirred ready to be sprayed onto the vineyard.

If you think all this sounds rather ‘wacky’, I’m not surprised! Yet, in many tastings over a number of years, I’ve found that the wines I’ve given top marks have often been produced in this way. For some reason, biodynamic wines seem to have more character – and in different ways, too; sometimes they are more intense or fruitier, at other times they have purer, cleaner flavours. Whatever the difference, it is remarkable how often they seem to stand out from other wines – even those grown organically but without the ‘extras’.

Whether this is due to the cow-horn manure or working with the phases of the moon – or whether it’s simply the grower working more with nature and getting to know their own vines better, I can’t say. It’s just that for me, the proof is in the glass. Why not try for yourself?

Pinot Noir: the Trickiest Grape

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Pinot Noir is the trickiest grape. It can make great wines or disappointingly ordinary ones. The problem is that it’s very choosy about where it grows: it generally prefers a coolish climate to show off its subtle elegance. But, too cool and it won’t ripen properly resulting in raw, green flavours. On the other hand, too warm and you get thick, jammy fruit. And don’t ask the vines to produce too many bunches or the wine will be dilute and thin. So growing – and buying – Pinot Noir wines can be a nightmare.
The grape is a native of Burgundy, but the growers there only get it right some of the time; the USA turns out some fine examples, as does New Zealand. But good bottles from any of these places are generally quite pricey (£15+) and I usually avoid cheaper – sometimes even mid-priced – examples as they rarely show much Pinot character. So I must have been in a good mood (or not thinking!) as I picked up a bottle from a Tesco shelf recently. Wairau Pinot NWairau Cove Pinot Noir (£9) is described as from New Zealand’s South Island – an interesting description as I’m more used to seeing a more precise origin such as Marlborough or Nelson or Central Otago. ‘South Island’ sounds as though it might be a blend of fruit from more than one region, although the Wairau River flows through Marlborough. A clue or just a convenient Kiwi-sounding name?
Whichever, the wine itself was a pleasant surprise: a typical earthy, ‘farmyard’ nose (some describe it more explicitly!), quite light-bodied in the mouth but plenty of fruit – stewed plums and some slightly dried fruit flavours – and a reasonable finish, too. So how do Tesco do it for the price? It appears from the label that the wine may have been shipped from New Zealand in tanker and bottled here in the UK. Not what we might expect in a £9 wine, but, in this case, it’s given us a very drinkable Pinot Noir at a fair price. Nothing tricky about that!

Love Chablis, Hate Chardonnay!

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Chablis“Love Chablis; hate Chardonnay”. How many times have I heard that said – or, indeed, the reverse? It’s a comment that needs to be answered carefully because, as many Bristol Wine Blog readers will know, all wines from the Burgundy district of Chablis and claiming that designation must be made from 100% Chardonnay grapes. But it’s clear from the statement that many people buying wine don’t know that.

And, in a way, their comment is understandable. Chablis is a very particular expression of Chardonnay, a grape which makes wines that vary enormously in flavour depending on where it’s grown and what happens to it in the winery.

So, in a coolish climate, Chardonnay produces wines such as the Domaine Louis Moreau Chablis which we enjoyed with a friend recently – clean, fresh and minerally with attractive green apple flavours – whereas in the hottest parts of California or Australia, the much riper grapes give much fuller, richer, more alcoholic wines tasting of tropical fruits, pineapple and the like.

And winemakers love working with Chardonnay as it is a good base on which they can impose their individual style and preferences, especially when it comes to using – or not using – oak. Fermenting or maturing wine in oak barrels, particularly if the barrels are new, adds a completely different dimension to the wine with spicy, nutty flavours either overlaying or replacing the natural flavours of the fruit.

As a result, someone liking the delightfully refreshing 12% alcohol Chablis mentioned above might not appreciate a wine like the rich, creamy Saintsbury Chardonnay from Carneros in California (Majestic, £13.99 if you buy 2 bottles) with its subtle toasty oak character and the full flavour and weight that comes from a warmer climate and 13.5% alcohol. For me, both are good, yet, there is nothing that obviously says that they both come from the same grape variety.

Given that, I can understand why some people can say they love Chablis, but hate Chardonnay – but it doesn’t make it any easier to deal with as a Wine Educator when faced with the comment!