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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)

A Good Value Pouilly-Fume

I think everyone knows the Loire Valley is a fine source of good value Sauvignon Blanc and in a good vintage, such as 2012, the Touraine region was bursting at the seams with lots of full and flavoursome Sauvignon Blancs to beat anything New Zealand can produce. Well that’s my opinion, although I guess it depends on what style of Sauvignon Blanc you enjoy; for me the tense and minerally restraint of the Loire is preferable to the rather textured and exotic passion fruit versions from elsewhere.

Look to more famous appellations, though, and value can be harder to find. I see this every year when judging the Loire category of the Decanter World Wine Awards; Pouilly-Fumé and Sancerre at lower price points don’t always deliver the goods. Here is one wine, however, that does.

Domaine des Fines Caillottes Pouilly-Fumé 2013

The Pabiot family, proprietors of Domaine des Fines Caillottes, can trace their story in Pouilly-Fumé (specifically in Les Loges, on the banks of the Loire) back to Louis Pabiot who was tending vines at the end of the 19th century. Jean Pabiot, whose name graces the label, was the third generation, while today the domaine is in the hands of Alain and Jérôme, the fourth and fifth generations respectively.

The wine in question might not come from the ‘go-to’ 2012 vintage, as it is a 2013 (on the neck label, out of view) and this still a good vintage for earlier picked varieties. The 2013 Domaine des Fines Caillottes Pouilly-Fumé comes from a variety of parcels and terroirs, and is the domaine’s entry-level blend. It is fermented cool (at 16-20ºC) by indigenous wild yeasts. It has a pale hue, and aromatically a rather perfumed, soapstone-mineral character, set against some sweet fruit, with a cool and very aromatic twist of scents on the side resembling lychee and pear drops, perhaps (surely?) reflecting the fermentation temperature. The palate has some rather citric, gooseberry-skin fruit, and remains very true to the variety, with seams of delightfully bright peppery acidity running through the middle, and a nice, pithy, rather bitter citrus seam here too. It is dry and punchy in the finish. It majors more on freshness and variety than minerality, but it is a wine of good drinkability. For an entry-level Pouilly-Fumé, this is good stuff. 15/20 (October 2013)

Disclosure: This was a sample from LHK Fine Wines.

Exploring Sherry #5: Alfonso

It is back to Gonzalez Byass with my latest Sherry, the Oloroso Seco named Alfonso. Oloroso is an oxidative style, as the fortification of the wine at an early stage in its life inhibits the development of flor, the yeasty layer which does so much to protect fino and amontillado from the effects of oxygen. I think I am developing a personal preference for amontillado over oloroso, but of course it depends on the individual wine.

Gonzalez Byass Alfonso Oloroso Seco

This particular Sherry is a blend of wines with an average age of at least eight years. In the glass it displays a profound, orange-bronze hue, certainly very deep and concentrated, typical of an oloroso. The nose belies the wine’s oxidative history, with scents of baked earth and a touch of caramel the main clues, but there are also interesting notes of spiced oranges and sandalwood. It has quite a peppery palate, polished and vinous, with oxidative, raisined, wood-framed fruit framed by firm acidity and a full cutting finish. Long, and tinged with hazelnut notes. Overall a rather grippy and robust wine, perhaps not the most elegant, but there are some good points here, and it is certainly true to its style. 15.5/20 (October 2014)

Bordeaux: Time Out

This is just a quick ‘heads up’ to all Winedoctor subscribers that I doubt I will be able to make any further posts this week, as I am flying out to Bordeaux this evening.

When I visit Bordeaux, such as for the primeurs, it is not unusual for me to suspend site updates, but in their place I usually update the Winedr blog instead, writing less formal posts on what I have been up to, which châteaux I have visited, and what I have tasted that day. I usually steer clear of the primeurs party scene, which gives me the time to do this during the evening, even after a full day of driving and tasting. This next trip is different though; I will be leading a group on a tour of Bordeaux, and the schedule is full of tastings, lunches and dinners (possibly long, drawn-out dinners, who knows?), and I doubt I will have enough time to think, never mind update the site and/or blog as well.

For this reason the site may well be quiet for a few days. If I have time I promise I will post something. In the meantime, here’s my rough schedule for the next few days:

September 30th 2014 – St Emilion: Château Canon-la-Gaffelière and Château Angélus (pictured below).

Château Angélus

October 1st 2014 – Graves and Sauternes: Château Haut-Brion, Château d’Yquem, Château Smith-Haut-Lafitte.

October 2nd 2014 – The Médoc: Château Pontet-Canet, Château Pichon-Baron and Château Rauzan-Segla.

October 3rd 2014 – Bordeaux and Graves: Dinner at Château Haut-Bailly, then back home.

Each visit will be long and relaxed, a luxury compared to my swoop, taste and spit primeur tastings. And some will involve lunch, and I expect to be having dinner at La Tupina and the Brasserie Bordelaise, among other places. As some wine writers might say, it is going to be a mind-blowing trip!

Exploring Sherry #4: Lustau Amontillado del Puerto

I continue my exploration of Sherry with another gem from Lustau now. Lustau was the first Sherry bodega that I really got to know, my very basic knowledge helped along by a Lustau tasting dinner featuring many of their wines, ending in the delightful Old East India Solera Reserva, at the Don Pepe restaurant in Liverpool. That must have been at least a decade ago now.

This wine is another from the excellent Almacenista range.

Lustau Almacenista José Luis González Obregón Amontillado del Puerto

José Luis González Obregón was once a cellar-master for a large bodega, but he decided to retire in order to establish, in 1989, a family bodega. The business then passed into the hands of his nephew, Manuel González Verano. There are a large number of soleras here, but one in particular – the Amontillado del Puerto, a tiny solera of just ten butts – is taken off their hands by Lustau. Tasting it, that seems like a pretty smart decision on Lustau’s part.

The Lustau Almacenista José Luis González Obregón Amontillado del Puerto has a rich hue in the glass, a burnished orange-gold. The nose is remarkable, all dried wood and baked earth at first, the dry and dusty suggestion of baking sun on terracotta pan tiles, then suddenly there are notes of orange oil, mint, and liquorice root too. It is, quite literally, fascinating. There follows a glorious texture to the palate, all vinous and savoury, with a dry and spicy-peppery energy. There is flavour complexity to eclipse the nose here, vanilla brûlée, toasty and rich yet dry and energetic. And in the finish, it is very, very long. This is cracking stuff. 17.5/20 (September 2014)

An Elegant Non-Vintage Pinot Noir Champagne

When I first started learning about wine I found it hardly credible that you could tell which varieties contributed to any particular Champagne. The processes seemed just too complex, the blending and winemaking too large a part of the process, for grape-derived characteristics to be transmitted through from the vineyard to the finished wine. But with time I realised it was true, Pinot Noir bringing a rich substance, an apple-on-biscuit character, Chardonnay bringing purity, orchard fruit and elegance.

Here is a wine that tripped me up though. Elegant, defined, lifted and bright, I never would have though it was almost entirely Pinot Noir.

Brigandat Champagne Brut Tradition NV

Brigandat & Fils are based in Channes, in the Côte des Bars, the southern-most reaches of the Champagne vineyard. To illustrate just how far south this commune lies, it sits right on the boundary between the Aube (north), Yonne (southwest) and Côte d’Or (southeast); Chablis sits just 35 kilometres west, while the vineyards of the Côte d’Or are a little further south. This is really Burgundy country.

The cuvée in question, the Brigandat & Fils Brut Tradition NV, is made from 95% Pinot Noir and 5% Chardonnay, grown on the Kimmeridgian limestone soils that stretch westwards through Chablis and Sancerre. The base vintage is 2010, and the bottling for the second fermentation took place in June 2011. In the glass it has a pale straw hue. The fruit on the nose has a very fresh style, with citrus leaf and suggestion of white orchard fruit, herby-crunchy apple in particular, with a little pear and nut complexity. The palate shows a big, foaming, very youthful mousse set against firm acidity and there is a gentle, softening texture from the dosage. On reflection there is some Pinot substance here after all, with tinges of custard apple and nut, dominating the middle of the palate. A lovely character, youthful though, with an elegant edge for an almost exclusively Pinot-based cuvée. Subtle, poised, yet certain of itself. A good wine. 16/20 (September 2014)

Disclosure: This wine was a sample from Carte du Vin.

Checking in on. . . . Haut Rasne 2002

Spend some time exploring wine and you will notice that, every now and again, it will throw you a curve ball. I think the 2002 Haut Rasné, from Eric Nicolas of Domaine de Bellivière, is a fine example of this.

One of numerous cuvées made by Eric, Haut Rasné is named for the vineyard of origin, which is populated with young vines. The site is particularly prone to botrytis, and so despite their youth Eric tends to vinify the fruit from these vines separately, and he tends to bottle the wine separately too. I last tasted the wine seven years ago, when I noted that it was “fleshy rather than sweet”. I thought it would be interesting to check in on it again.

Domaine de Bellivière Coteaux du Loire Haut Rasné 2002

The 2002 Haut Rasné from Domaine de Bellivière, poured from a 500ml bottle, has a remarkably deep colour, a rich orange-golden hue. And the nose seems no less striking, being richly polished, and there is no doubt in my mind that this is largely due to a healthy dose of botrytis. We have desiccated tropical fruit, perhaps even a touch of white raisin, blanched almonds and apricots too. It feels characterful and broad, confident in its complexity. The palate is everything you might expect, except for one thing; as I noted on my last taste, this is far from overtly sweet on the palate, and indeed the level of residual sugar seems to have faded further, the wine now edging more towards dry than sweet. And yet there is no shortage of deep, vinous texture, and it is not lacking in flavour, the palate very much matching the botrytis-defined nose in this respect. A long, lingering but dry finish. Delicious, quirky stuff indeed. 17.5/20 (August 2014)

This is a real curiosity, but a delightful one. I’m not really a fan of botrytis in dry wines, but this is different, evidently a fading sweet wine rather than a botrytis-tinged bone-dry one, and it has all the breadth and complexity you could hope for. Viewed in this context the wine seems really quite magnificent. Nevertheless this will perhaps be a somewhat awkward wine for those who open a bottle unprepared for this drier style, but anybody who happens to open one alongside a platter of aged cheese, especially aged Comte, could find themselves in Coteaux du Loir, Comte-matching, curve-ball heaven.

Blackberry fruit and svelte tannins; a 2012 Bandol

It is always a joy to cast one’s net in different waters, especially Mediterranean waters. I have long loved the wines of Bandol, so much so that when in Nice four or five years ago I drove over to this, the most famous of all Provence’s appellations, to make some visits. On paper it is a two-hour journey, but it ended up taking three, so I arrived in Bandol just in time to find everywhere closed for lunch, for two hours. And I had to have the hire car back by 6pm that day, meaning I would have to leave at 3pm. It wasn’t the most successful of day trips to wine country.

Happily, this bottle caused no such difficulties.

Château Salettes

The blend is naturally mostly Mourvèdre (about 80% I believe) from the estate’s oldest vines, planted in the 1960s, on a terroir of sandstone and limestone. The wine is aged in large oak foudres for 18-22 months in a 17th-century cellar. In the glass the 2012 Château Salettes Bandol has a dark and glossy hue, the colour of black tulip. It is totally dominated by fruit on the nose, all blackberries with a blueberry edge, and there is some oak here too, sweet and honeyed, with a little chocolate-caramel edge, spiced with black pepper. The palate is textured with creamy fruit, peppery like the nose. Structurally the acidity is low-key, and it benefits from a slightly lower serving temperate, while the tannins are svelte and long. It has great ripeness and dark fruit expression, with a tinge of orange oil. A very primary wine, certainly modern in style, with a ripe coating of tannins in the finish, and with potential. Good. 16/20 (September 2014)

Disclosure: this was a sample received direct from Château Salettes.