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A Gentle Tour of Vouvray

Take a gentle tour of Vouvray with French rally team Florent Genestet and Romain Vallé, in their Citroen Saxo A6. Florent hails from the Loire Valley but is too preoccupied to provide any commentary, so I have added a few pointers to the sights of interest beneath the video.

Time 0:00: Start just north of Vernou-sur-Brenne (hold cursor over bottom of video screen to see timings).

0:39: Underneath the TGV line (the one that subsequently disappears into a tunnel, the campaign led by the late Gaston Huet having succeeded in prevented it cutting through the vineyards).

1:11: Past the Loge du Foujoin (a beautifully restored cabin where vineyard workers would once take shelter).

1:40: Lots of corn!

2:25: Into the Vallée de Vaugondy – now onto my running route when I am staying in Vouvray (although I’m not quite as fast as this car).

3:33: Now heading up the deuxième côte onto the plateau.

3:51: Over a particular nasty drainage channel – you can see the car bump over it – nearly threw me off my bicycle once.

4:06: Past Le Clos de la Meslerie (behind the big hedge!), Peter Hahn obviously stuck at home for the day here.

5:10: Turn right up the Vallée de Cousse, towards François Pinon. Turning left at 5:22 means we miss François’ house sadly.

5:50: Driving along the deuxième côte here – vines to the left, valley to the right. Thereafter, through mostly arable farmland north of the vineyards.

8:05: Turn right away from Château de Jallanges, one of the more notable châteaux near Vernou-sur-Brenne, and shortly afterwards come to a stop.

Not a bad drive, although anyone with any sense would call in on François and Peter for a tasting. And then buy some wine – it’s surprising how many cases you can fit in a hatchback, even a small one like the Saxo. Maybe next time.

Exploring Sherry #6: Don Nuno

Another exploratory moment in the world of Sherry now, and despite having realised I usually prefer Amontillado to Oloroso, this week it’s another Oloroso, this time from Lustau. Well, I don’t want to limit myself so early in my Sherry journey now, do I?

Lustau Oloroso Don Nuño

The Don Nuno Oloroso comes from the Lustau Solera range, which seems to be pretty much their entry-level. The wines come from Lustau’s own bodega in Jerez de la Frontera. I guess, bearing all this in mind, that I shouldn’t expect it to live up to some of the Almacenista and other wines I have been drinking (ahem! – sorry, tasting) recently. In the glass it has a very rich, golden, red-bronze hue. The nose suggests driftwood, with notes of baked earth and nuances of walnut caramel reflecting the oxidation, with a high-toned edge to it all. It certainly feels concentrated and has impact. The palate is fairly dry, firm and energetic despite the oxidation, spicy and textured too, but with a very robust rather than finessed stance, a somewhat coarse sense of structure, and a long, tangy finish. An attractive wine but overall feeling rather chunky and rustic. 14.5/20 (November 2014)

Critics Need Benchmarks

How do we judge wine?

I recall tasting, twenty-five years (or possibly a few more) ago, a South-Eastern Australian Chardonnay from a famous producer. I forget the bin number, and I forget the vintage, but I can still recall the flavour, the tropical-fruit sunshine, the creamy weight of it. I was just getting into wine, and this one tasted fantastic! I wasn’t scoring wine at the time (or even taking notes), but if I had I would have given it a high score.

Today, I would view the wine very differently. It would seem over-ripe, probably acidified, simple, commercial and ultimately rather dull. You might argue that my palate has changed, but something else has changed too. I have a different context for wine today. I have tasted thousands more wines than I had back then, and I have different expectations, based on personal benchmarks, top wines I have tasted and enjoyed over the years.

Benchmarks are essentially for judging wine. Forget the commercial wine highlighted above. Let’s take a pricy South African Chardonnay instead. I taste it and really like it, and want to write it up. Do I score it 92 (I’m pretending I use the 100-point system for the moment)? Or should it be a 95? In view of the fact I really, really like it, should it be a 98? As it’s the best South African Chardonnay I have tasted this year, why not 100? The problem is I don’t have any strong benchmarks, South African or even New World, to place the wine and tasting note against. I decide I’m not going to give it a massive score, as it would probably be too high, and look silly. I’m going to end up being cautious, scoring it in the middle. In doing so perhaps I risk scoring it too low, an equally silly outcome, offensive to those that made the wine.

This is a problem you can see running through some wine magazine articles, when they suddenly venture into previously uncharted territory (like the Loire), and I see too many wines rated too low (interpretation: mustn’t give high scores, this isn’t Bordeaux or Burgundy after all) or some wines rated too high (interpretation: I’ve heard of this domaine, so they must be good – not always the case in the Loire, believe me – or I went on a press trip here so I had better say something nice). And I see it in Bordeaux too, when I see an approachable wine given a high score by writers who haven’t visited the region in years, and haven’t tasted what the region is capable of – Latour, Petrus, Le Pin, L’Église-Clinet, Lafite, Tertre-Roteboeuf, Ausone, Margaux, Haut-Brion, I could go on but you get the idea – for years and years, if at all.

I’m sure others see the same problem, but perhaps related to different regions. But for me, I see it in the Loire and Bordeaux. Critics need benchmarks to be credible. Without these benchmarks, it’s another process of random number generation and eye-rolling.

Sociando-Mallet: Old & New

A chance today to look at two wines from what is undoubtedly one of the leading lights in the Haut-Médoc appellation, Château Sociando-Mallet, an estate which lies on the last gasp of the Médoc’s gravel, north of St Estèphe, just before it finally gives way to the cooler clays of the Médoc.

First up, the 1986, the oldest vintage of Château Sociando-Mallet in my cellar. Despite approaching thirty years of age this wine still has a great colour, a dark, black-tulip hue, with surprisingly little sign of age. The nose is savoury, gravelly, perhaps even lightly smoky, with scents of pure blackcurrant skin, all crunchy and dark. It feels less perfumed and a touch more stony than my last bottle, which was a few years ago now. The palate is savoury, medium-bodied, with a tense structure of dry but largely resolved tannin and firm acidity, with fading rocks-and-stone fruit substance draped over the top. A little twist of coffee here reflects the wine’s evolution, and there are some slightly bitter edges to it. Overall this is cool, reserved, appealing, and would work well with roast beef. I’m not sure this has any more to give though, and in view of those fading aromatics I would drink sooner rather than later. 17/20 (November 2014)

Château Sociando-Mallet

Château Sociando-Mallet has been steered to success by Jean Gautreau, now well into his eighties but still very actively involved. Today, he runs the domaine along with son-in-law Vincent Faure, who once told me he was born at Latour. I’m still not sure it that was bare fact, or a figure of speech reflecting his being ‘born’ into wine. While I ponder that, here’s a more recent vintage from Sociando-Mallet.

Alongside, a much more recent vintage, 2010, and this time the second wine, La Demoiselle de Sociando-Mallet. As with the 1986 this is a wine I have tasted before, although in this case only as a barrel sample, during the primeurs. This is a blend of 50% each Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon, partly aged in new oak, but mostly aged in vat to enhance the fruit. It has a dark but much more youthful hue, with a vibrant crimson rim. The nose has some appealing smoke and black-violet floral perfume to it, and it is certainly the fruit that shows above all, albeit in a savoury, blackcurrant-skin, charcoal-rubbed character. A palate quite typical of the 2010 vintage, firm, with a certain structure to it, led by the tannins, good acidity too, but with a gentle blanket of berry fruits laid over the top. An attractive wine, approachable now, but cerebral and savoury rather than plush or easy. Good. 15/20 (November 2014)

I like the wines of Château Sociando-Mallet; they are wines for drinkers, rather than collectors, always dependable, in good and not-so-good vintages, and good value too. I recently tucked some 2009 away in the cellar, and it looks like I should probably lay my hands on some of the 2010 grand vin sometime too.

Disclosure: The 2010 La Demoiselle de Sociando-Mallet was a sample sent on behalf of the château.

The 2014 Winedoctor Bordeaux Tour

It has been a very busy October, and a month I look back on fondly. The highlight of the month was without a doubt my first opportunity to lead a SmoothRed tour to Bordeaux. This was an immensely enjoyable experience for me, and I hope (and feedback seems to suggest my hopes have been realised) that the clients were just as pleased with the experience as I was.

Even though I was already quite familiar with the numerous châteaux we visited, I found something new on every visit. I suspect this is because, in Bordeaux, so many of my visits are quick dashes in to taste, often during the primeurs. I always try to build in a little time so that I can find out what is new, to hear the latest gossip, nevertheless it is still a hurried affair, a twenty-minute chat, and then another frantic drive to the next appointment. This trip was, of course, very different. Most visits lasted an hour or two, and there was plenty of time to walk in the vines, check out the harvest (the 2014 harvest was in full swing during our visit) and to taste some musts straight from the vat (always great fun, and the 2014 Château Haut-Bailly rosé we tasted, just a couple of days into its fermentation, promises to be delicious). Of course, we also tasted (and drank!) some older vintages, often over lunch or dinner.

Château Haut-Bailly

We visited many châteaux during the trip, and the programme took in some very serious Bordeaux names, including Château d’Yquem, Château Haut-Brion and Château Angélus. For me a couple of visits really stand out; the very first visit to Château Canon-la-Gaffelière was memorable, an informative talk in the vines being followed by a four-course lunch with a slew of mature wines, including 2000 Château Canon-la-Gaffelière and 2001 La Mondotte, among others. And our evening at Château Haut-Bailly (pictured above) was also very special, kicking off with a Champagne reception and then we had a three-course dinner accompanied by various vintages of the wine, back to the delectable 2000 Château Haut-Bailly. This was all very different to my usual Bordeaux trip, which usually involves a cheese sandwich for lunch, eaten while driving, in order to maximise tasting time.

Reflecting on the trip, I think it was a great success. The organisation behind it was impeccable, for which SmoothRed must take all the credit. And the roll-call of names we visited (I haven’t even mentioned Château Pichon-Baron, even though that was voted ‘top lunch’ of the trip by the clients, or Château Smith-Haut-Lafitte, or Château Pontet-Canet, all of which put on excellent visits and tastings) was remarkable, as were some of our restaurant visits (Brasserie Bordelaise, La Tupina and others). Roll on the 2015 Winedoctor Bordeaux tour!

Checking in on . . . . another 2002, from Jo Pithon

Pulling some more mature bottles from the cellar in the past month has resulted in me pulling the corks on several Loire Valley wines from the 2002 vintage. Here’s another to add to the list, from Jo Pithon, in the days before he teamed up with stepson Jo Paillé to create Pithon-Paillé, today one of the most exciting domaines in Anjou.

Jo Pithon Anjou Les Bonnes Blanches 2002

I decanted the 2002 Anjou Les Bonnes Blanches from Jo Pithon, thinking it might benefit from some air. The appearance is a fairly deep, yellow-gold hue, I think fairly typical for an Anjou Blanc of this sort of age. The nose is quite enticing, showing the density of apricot and white peach, with a savoury fruit-skin character rather than the simple sweetness of the flesh, and there is a little seam of evolution wrapped around it, comprising notes of blanched almonds, drizzled with a little honey. The palate does not disappoint, with a grippy substance, a polished and full texture, substantial yet very vinous in its texture. This is a wine with no shortage of energy and grip, both of which come out through the middle and dominate the wine right to the finish. This is a delightful wine, firm and full of certain grip and substance. And and yet showing some elegance too. For drinking now I think, although there is no great rush; this will go a few more years yet. 17/20 (October 2014)

Disclosure in Wine Writing

There’s been an interesting discussion on Twitter and Facebook recently about disclosure in wine writing. Should wine writers have a “conflicts of interest” disclosure page, asked UK writer Jamie Goode.

I believe disclosure to be essential in wine writing (and many other walks of life, I am sure!), at least if that writing is to be of any value. To me, it is an essential part of the context of a report, and an indicator of professionalism and probity. I have been declaring any conflicts of interest for several years now, from the minor (with a hint of tongue-in-cheek, to be honest) to the more significant (support for foreign travel, accommodation, dinners and the like), and here is a link to my 2013 disclosure. I also mention on specific articles when support has been received, e.g. at the end of my profile of Jonathan Maltus, who hosted me for dinner during my visit.

What is the value of disclosure? I was surprised to see some who responded to Jamie’s question suggest that disclosure such as I have written was pompous, or pious, or a sign that I might take myself too seriously. Well, first of all I understand that it isn’t an enthralling read, but that hardly comes as a surprise (although it wasn’t meant to be pious). Rather like the index in a book, or an appendix or table of contents, its primary purpose isn’t to entertain the reader. It is information there, freely available and to be utilised as required, about the support I receive. And I would counter that it isn’t a sign I take myself seriously, but rather a sign I take my readers, some of whom pay an annual subscription to read my reports, seriously. The information given allows a reader to judge my comments on a wine (or wines) in a much more informative context.

I often wonder why not disclose such information? Why hide this detail from readers? Why not disclose that the wine trade supports writers (with dinners, lunches, travel, accommodation) in this way? Rather than trying to pretend such potential conflicts never arise, or adopting an “I’m too busy and you can trust me” approach, why not treat readers as adults and let them decide? If a writer finds, looking down at the hospitality he/she has received, that he/she would be embarrassed to own up to it, perhaps that says something about the validity of the “support” received?

If a writer travels to a far flung country on someone else’s account that should be disclosed. If a writer receives gifts, whether these be physical (Christmas hampers, wines) or in the shape of hospitality (lunches, dinners) these should be disclosed. If a writer receives tickets to sporting events, tennis at Wimbledon and rugby at Twickenham, or other such benefits, these should be disclosed. The writer doesn’t have to stop doing these things if they are comfortable with each of them. But with this knowledge in the open, the reader can decide how any of these benefits might have influenced a writer’s view of the relevant wines.

An Attractive NV Champagne

Another look at a lesser-known Champagne house here. This is a wine from Mont-Hauban, a co-operative based in Monthelon-Morangis, two neighbouring communes which lie south of Épernay, just around the corner from Cramant, Avize and a number of other famous Champagne villages.

Mont-Hauban Brut Superieur

The Mont-Hauban Brut Superieur is a non-vintage blend incorporating 22% reserve wines, with a leaning towards Chardonnay (at 60% of the blend) with the balance made up by Pinot Meunier. In the glass it has a pale straw hue, with a fine but plentiful central bead. The nose is rather gentle, with delicate citrus fruit tones reflecting the dominance of the Chardonnay in the blend, with a little note of cashew nut richness, and also a slight touch of desiccated concentration to the fruit. There follow some fresh citrus fruits served on toast on the palate, with an incisive grapefruit streak to it all, rounded off by citrus peel and a touch of chalky apple too. Clean, bright, quite broad in the finish though, perhaps the Pinot Meunier coming through here. A good wine showing very nicely that there is life beyond the most famous names in Champagne. 15.5/20 (October 2014)

Disclosure: This bottle was a sample from online Champagne merchant Champers.

Wine Writing: Generalism vs Specialism

Years ago when I started writing Winedoctor I had a very generalist approach; I would write about whatever took my fancy (as long as it was wine!). A Chilean Chardonnay here, an Australian Cabernet Sauvignon there. After a few years of this superficial go-where-I-am-led writing I decided it would be better to focus on one or two areas, and I settled on two regions of France about which I knew most, Bordeaux and the Loire Valley. I could direct better which wines I featured, and who I profiled. I could pour my efforts into visiting the regions and enhancing this knowledge, rather than looking for the latest press trip to, well, anywhere. My generalist days were behind me.

I was never really qualified for the job of generalist wine writer anyway. It is a difficult task to undertake and I admire greatly people who write on all walks of wine life with authority and conviction. To glide seamlessly and knowledgeably from the top wines of Burgundy one week, to Georgian Saperavi the next, and back to grower Champagne and new releases from South Africa before the month is out is an impressive feat. And the best do it so well. The advantage of this approach is that there is always something new to entertain the reader, so this style of writing is perfect for a weekly newspaper column or a Sunday supplement, “good gigs to have”, as some might say. After all, most people like variety in their drinking (or in their drinks reading, at least), and so the go-where-my-mood-takes-me approach is a useful one.

But this wasn’t for me, for various reasons, so instead I specialised, and as a result I developed a detailed knowledge of two regions at the expense of my knowledge of others. Today I know I couldn’t write a generalist-style weekly column with any authority; I could write a different Sunday column on the wines of the Loire for a year, such is the rich variety in this region (says I, sipping a glass of Gascon from the Sologne as I type), but I am certain readership figures would decline. I think readers generally look to these Sunday supplements for shopping lists and digestible information, not for in-depth articles (there’s a word limit, after all). But perhaps that is a discussion for another day. Suffice to say my treatise on Loire Valley Gascon is best kept for a book on the Loire, or a detailed profile on the Winedoctor site.

These thoughts came to mind as I read Burgundy expert Bill Nanson’s post describing his frustration at comments about the region which he knows so well made on Twitter. I liked a comment made in response by Victoria Moore, whose columns fit the knowledgeable and seamless description above, that it is best for generalists and specialists to give each other mutual respect. I agree with this process; just as a primary care doctor (GP to the Brits reading) must respect the expertise of a hospital consultant, and the hospital doctor must understand the difficult all-encompassing nature of primary care, so too must generalist and specialist wine writers understand and, ideally, refer to one another.

It doesn’t always work this way though. Recently I was on the end of an aggressive and critical response from a generalist when I pointed out there was another side to a controversial Loire Valley story on which he was writing. Why did this happen? Does a ‘specialist’ come across as ‘know-it-all’ when speaking up? Or are some generalists not as secure with their very broad remit as their peers? These thoughts have made me cautious about wading in when generalists make questionable comments which I view as worthy of further discussion. Recently, I have ignored comments I have read on the “wonderful 2011 vintage in Muscadet”, despite the fact (and it is fact) that the 2011 Muscadet harvest was riddled with grey rot (which comes through to many of the wines), in order to avoid a similar confrontation. Likewise I have avoided commenting on a recommendation of a Vouvray from a big-name large-volume domaine, even though the wines are fairly dreadful examples of the appellation. These are the sorts of comments that, sadly, come from scraping the surface of a region, perhaps via a press trip. Reflecting on my decision not to interject, however, I think it was wrong not to say anything. And so perhaps in future I will offer a contrasting opinion. With respect, hopefully mutual, of course.

Checking in on . . . . Le Haut de la Butte 2002

I’ve been checking out a few Loire Valley wines from 2002 recently. This is mostly through serendipity, sometimes they are bottles recently purchased (it is amazing what great value can be had in the Loire when buying mature bottles, especially when compared to the same vintage in Bordeaux or Burgundy) and sometimes they have been bottles that have bobbed to the surface in the cellar. Now though I feel my interest has been piqued, and next time I venture into the cellar I shall have a hunt for more 2002s I think.

Domaine de la Butte Bourgueil Le Haut de la Butte 2002

This latest 2002 comes from Jacky Blot, perhaps best known for Domaine de la Taille aux Loups where he makes some very fine examples of Montlouis, but we must not overlook his Bourgueil estate Domaine de la Butte. It is a domaine I paid a flying visit to about a year ago, and yet I haven’t gotten around to updating my profile. It’s on a very long ‘to do’ list, obviously.

This wine, the 2002 Domaine de la Butte Bourgueil Le Haut de la Butte has an attractive, dark hue in the glass, although it is showing some clear maturity. The cuvée in question comes from the upper parts of the Butte vineyard, as the name suggests. The nose is elegant, quite tense, with pointed blackcurrant-skin character rubbed over a base of white stone, with maturing, autumn-leaf edges. This tense and challenging nature comes through on the palate with a lean and rather rubbed sense of fading fruit cast over a very precise and prominent frame of acidity, with any residual tannins taking a backseat behind all this. It has appeal in terms of flavour, but it doesn’t seem to have the substance or texture to stand up to the acid frame. There are some attractive savoury notes, but the structure is what dominates my thoughts through into the finish. Overall this is a wine of gentle appeal, that could work well at table. If I had more I would hold to see how the fruit develops, although I don’t think that acid backbone will fade. 15.5/20 (October 2014)