Tag Archives: Burgundy

One Grape or More?

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Some winemakers make their wines entirely from a single grape variety whereas others prefer to mix 2 varieties – and there are many instances of producers blending 3, 4 or even more different grapes into their wines.  Why the difference and which is better?

The answer depends on who you speak to:

Red Burgundya Burgundian, whose whites would be made exclusively from Chardonnay and reds from Pinot Noir would say that a single variety is best; they would argue that it produces a more focussed wine and lets the quality of the grape variety used show through.  They would also, no doubt, add that it had been that way for generations in Burgundy so why change?

Someone from Bordeaux or the Rhône would strongly disagree.  Both regions regularly make their wines from a mix of varieties – up to 13 different ones in some Côtes du Rhône.  Their view would be that blending different varieties gives a more complex wine, with the characteristics of each variety contributing to the final product. 

2017-11-16 10.44.11But, there’s another reason for blending in cooler climates such as Bordeaux: as an ‘insurance policy’ in case of poor weather.  There, a spring frost would damage the young shoots of the early-flowering Merlot but leave the Cabernet Sauvignon untouched.  On the other hand, if there is rain at harvest time, the later-ripening Cabernet Sauvignon may be the one to suffer while the Merlot will already be picked and in the winery, starting to ferment.   

That last comment also answers I question I hear quite often: when is the blending done when different varieties are used?  Although there are a few examples of 2 varieties being fermented together (Syrah and Viognier in some parts of the Northern Rhône, for example), more usually, each variety is fermented separately immediately after harvesting and the blending is done at the end of the process.

So which is better – a single variety or a blend?  For me, both are equally good in their own way, but, as with so much in the wine world, it’s all down to your personal taste.

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Burgundy by the Barrel

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hospices-de-beauneNext Sunday, 18th November, the famous Hospice de Beaune wine auction will take place.  It’s an event that has happened annually since 1859 with the funds raised mainly supporting the running and upkeep of the magnificent Hôtel Dieu, pictured above.  The building was formerly a medieval hospital, founded in 1443 in the Burgundy town of Beaune, and is now a museum. 

The wine auctioned comes from vineyards donated by benefactors over the centuries, the first of which dates back to 1457.  Today, the area owned by the Hospice totals around 60 hectares (150 acres), mostly planted with Pinot Noir, although there is some Chardonnay, too.  85% of the production of these vineyards is rated Premier Cru or Grand Cru. 

These days, the auction is organised by Christies and wines are sold by the barrel – traditional Burgundy-sized ‘pièces’, each holding 228 litres, just over 300 bottles (a fraction larger than a Bordeaux barrique).  Not surprisingly for such a prestigious event, hammer prices are usually well above normal commercial levels.  For example, last year’s top lot sold for 420000 euros and the entire auction of almost 800 barrels raised some 13.5 million euros (£12m, $16m).

If your budget won’t stretch to bidding for one of these lots but you have a strong stomach, the weekend is still worth a visit as it is also the occasion of ‘Les Trois Glorieuses’ – 3 great feasts held in and around the town on the Saturday evening before, on the Sunday night and on the Monday lunchtime.  It’s quite an occasion!

A Bargain Burgundy

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It’s easy to spend a lot of money on a really good white Burgundy.  Yet, Burgundy is, surely, the most complicated of all of France’s Appellations Contrôlées (ACs) and, as a result, it’s just as easy to make an expensive mistake.  But, this same complexity allows you, just occasionally, to find a bargain – or as close to a bargain as is possible among the wines of this famous, much sought-after region.

A bottle I opened recently falls into this category.

Oncle Vincent

A quick glance at the label, showing the lowest level of the Burgundy hierarchy (AC Bourgogne), suggests it might be a simple everyday drinking wine, the kind you find in every supermarket for around £10 – £12.  But, look further: Olivier Leflaive is a well-respected name and the ‘Oncle Vincent’ tag looks like a special bottling, as indeed it is.  A tribute to Leflaive’s uncle and mentor, the grapes for this are from vineyards in Puligny-Montrachet, one of the most sought-after villages in the Côte de Beaune, where the top wines frequently sell for £50 a bottle and upwards. 

This example has lovely flavours of white fruits – peach and pear – made deliciously tangy and spicy from 10 months in barrels and has great length.  It’s really one of the nicest wines I’ve tasted all year.  This was the 2014 vintage I bought from the Wine Society a few years back, but they now have the 2016 vintage in their list at £20 and, if it’s as good (and there’s no reason why it shouldn’t be), then it certainly is a bargain, even at that price.  I’d keep it a couple of years before opening it, though.

So, why label a wine as a simple generic Burgundy when the fruit comes from a top village?  The explanation lies in the complexity of the Burgundy ACs I mentioned earlier.  Different vineyards have different classifications – one may be Grand Cru or Premier Cru while its neighbour may just be village AC.  Clearly, Leflaive has some less favoured patches, or perhaps younger vines or even grapes not needed for more expensive wines.  Whichever is the truth, Oncle Vincent is certainly a wine that Burgundy lovers looking for value should seek out.

The Fussy Pinot

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Pinot Noir is, undoubtedly, one of the fussiest and most difficult of all the major wine grapes to grow.  Plant it somewhere too cold and it simply won’t ripen, too warm and you get coarse, jammy flavours and the ‘sweet spot’ between these two can be perilously small.  It thrives, of course, in its French homeland, Burgundy, and there are some delightful examples elsewhere, including in Germany, Chile, New Zealand and the cooler parts of the USA (especially Washington State and Oregon but, despite the film ‘Sideways’, less frequently in California in my experience). 

Obviously, you can forget much of Australia – it’s just too hot, although there a few areas where the cold Antarctic winds and tidal currents make the climate far cooler (and so Pinot Noir friendly) than you might expect from the latitude.  Among these are the Great Southern region of Western Australia and Victoria’s Yarra Valley and Mornington Peninsula.   On the other hand, surprisingly, there is one part of Australia where it’s so cool that growers need to seek out sheltered spots with good exposure to the sun to ripen their Pinot Noir at all.  That is the island state of Tasmania, about 100 miles south of the mainland which is, in fact, on the same latitude as New Zealand’s Marlborough region.

Tasmanian P NoirAnd it’s from Tasmania that Devil’s Corner Pinot Noir (Wine Society, £14.95) comes.  I tasted it recently: a typical Burgundian ‘farmyardy’ nose greets you but this is followed on the palate by lovely raspberry and cranberry flavours, a hint of cinnamon and a really long, crisp finish.  Given the price of good Pinots from elsewhere, I thought this was excellent value for money and an ideal match for our pan fried duck breasts with a honey and thyme sauce.

But, before I make you too hungry, I’ll end with a wine trivia question for you: what is the most westerly Designated wine region (Appellation Contrôlée or local equivalent) in mainland Europe?  I’ve just enjoyed a wine from there and I’ll tell you about it next time.

Bordeaux, Burgundy or…?

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When you buy your wine, do you focus on Bordeaux, Burgundy and the other traditional regions of France or, do think, as one friend of mine said, that these areas are living in the past and trading on a reputation that is no longer justified?  For me, that criticism is a little harsh, but I can understand that many find wines from California or Australia are just so much more approachable and usually better value. 

But, I wanted to put the traditional areas to the test and so I advertised a course entitled ‘The Classic Wines of France’ at Bristol’s Stoke Lodge Centre – a good move as the day was fully booked in record time with a waiting list!  No pressure then!  I just had to find the wines for my eager group to taste.

I wanted plenty of variety and so chose 4 wines from each of Bordeaux and Burgundy plus 2 each from the Loire and Rhône.  And, when I asked the group to choose their favourites at the end of the day, the results were very close with a single vote separating the top 4 wines.

Perhaps surprisingly, given the opposition, the 2 Loire whites shared top spot:

2017-11-16 10.43.18Bertrand Jeannot’s steely fresh Pouilly Fumé (Wine Society, £13.50) showed the benefit of extended lees ageing, while the crisp, fragrant demi-sec Vouvray from Château de Montfort (Waitrose, £11.99) had already been a winner at a previous wine course of mine, having been chosen by those who came to the ‘Wine Rivers of Europe’ day earlier in the year.

But reds from Bordeaux and Burgundy (both from the Wine Society) were close behind:  2017-11-16 10.44.11Château Sénéjac is everything you’d hope a Bordeaux red would be – lovely black fruits and just a hint of tannin; the only surprise is the price: £12.95 – a reflection, I suppose, that it is only an AC Haut-Medoc and not something grander.  No such bargains, sadly, from Burgundy but the group clearly thought Domaine Tollot-Beaut’s Chorey-les-Beaune justified its price tag (£23) with the typical, slightly perfumed Côtes de Beaune style of Pinot Noir coming through particularly well. 

So, is the reputation of these areas justified?  I think the day proved conclusively yes!  Provided you’re prepared to pay a little beyond every day prices, the ‘Classic’ areas of France certainly offer some delightful and very drinkable wines that really shouldn’t be ignored by any wine lover.

What Kind of Chardonnay?

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ChardonnayAsk many wine lovers to name their favourite white wine grape and they will reply unhesitatingly ‘Chardonnay’.  Yet, you’ll also find plenty who take precisely the opposite view; so much so that I have been persuaded to run an ‘Anything but Chardonnay’ course at Stoke Lodge Centre next spring.  So, why the extreme difference of views?

The answer is simple: Chardonnay is so versatile in where it grows and so amenable to different treatments in the winery that you can fairly say that no two examples are the same. 

Taste Chardonnay from a cool climate, like Chablis for example, and you get crisp, citrus or green apple flavours.  A little warmer, perhaps around Pouilly Fuissé, and that turns into ripe pear or peach.  Further south in France or in parts of Australia and California that are warmer still will give quite tropical flavours – pineapple or melon. 

And all that variety before the winemaker gets to work.  Chardonnay is quite a favourite with winemakers as they often see it as a blank canvas, ready to be manipulated into just the sort of wine that they, or their customers, want.  For example, they can put it through malolactic fermentation (a process that softens the harsher acids and creates a creamy, buttery texture) or they can leave the wine on the lees for a while to add richness or, then again, they can use oak barrels – new or older – to add woody, spicy flavours.  And, of course, they can put it through a 2nd fermentation and make Champagne or sparkling wine.

Or, they can do none of these; ferment and mature in stainless steel tanks and simply let the delicious, ripe fruit shine through. 

Vire ClessePierre Ponnelle’s Viré Clessé from southern Burgundy (Majestic, £13.99) is a perfect example of this ‘less is more’ approach.  Delightfully fresh and clean with attractive citrus and peach flavours; no oak, just very pure fruit and excellent length. 

I’d recommend it to Chardonnay lovers and haters alike – but, as you’ve seen, it’s just one of many possible styles of wine from this most versatile of all grapes.  If this one isn’t to your taste, don’t give up on the variety, just keep looking.

A Year in Wine

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As this is my last Bristol Wine Blog of 2016,  I thought I’d like to share some highlights of a very busy year with you.

Back in the spring, on a trip to Burgundy, I got first-hand experience of what biodynamic winemaking really means:

18 Ch de Monthelie manure extraction
Here, a group from the local village are retrieving manure from cow horns. The manure is packed into the horns in the autumn and buried all winter. It is then recovered in the spring, mixed with water and spread in the vineyard to promote growth. Surprisingly, the manure smelt quite sweet – not at all what I was expecting.

Then, in the height of summer, a wonderful visit to the Rhine and Mosel. As often as I had read of the exceptional steepness of the vineyards there, it isn’t until you see them first hand that you really realise what is meant by hillside vineyards:

DSCN1357But this visit was also memorable for the extraordinary warmth shown to us by the locals the day after the result of the British vote to leave the European Union was announced.

A September visit to Lugano in Switzerland just happened to coincide with the local wine fair! I really didn’t know this in advance – honestly!!

2016-09-10-18-14-32But I took advantage of the opportunity to taste a few bottles that I’ve never seen in Britain.  I’m not convinced that White Merlot – one of the local specialities – has much of a future beyond the region!

Perhaps the best wines I tasted during the year were at the dinner organised by Great Western Wine at Bath’s Allium Restaurant to mark the 40th Anniversary of the so-called ‘Judgement of Paris’.  This was the blind tasting held in 1976 at which a group of French wine experts preferred a  selection of top Californian wines to those from Burgundy and Bordeaux.

judgement-dinnerSadly, despite this result and even 40 years on, there are still some who think that only France can make top quality wines.

And then, as the leaves fell to mark autumn, a superb overnight stay at Three Choirs vineyard in Gloucestershire. A delightful walk up through the vines from our room followed by breakfast looking out over this view. Could anything be more perfect?

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So now, as 2016 comes to an end, all that remains is to thank you for your continuing support and wish you a very happy and peaceful New Year.