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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)

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)