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Looking Back, Looking Forward: From 2016 to 2017

As 2016 draws to a close I can’t resist some brief reflections on the year that has passed. I haven’t made my usual sequence of ‘Wine in Context’ posts (like these from 2016) this year, simply because I have had too much on my plate over the past few week to ruminate that much. It has been a madcap race to the end of the year! It makes me wonder why this time of year is often referred to as the ‘holiday season’ – it hasn’t seemed like much of a holiday so far.

The year has been rich with interesting bottles, but I have a confession to make. I find lists of “here are my best 25 bottles of the year” a little boring, and also a little detached. Wine is about context; sure, when it comes to critiquing wine to aid buying decisions, there isn’t really any valid method other than lists of tasting notes and scores (anyone who comes up with a new system that works is going to make a big name for him/herself very quickly). But when it comes to looking back over the year for your ‘best bits’, is that really the way we should think about wine?

Reflecting on 2016 I think the ‘wine moment’ that really stands out for me was my visit to meet Alphonse Mellot Senior (pictured below) in July. I spent perhaps three hours in his company, scampering through the Alphonse Mellot cellars in the heart of Sancerre, enthralled by his anecdotes and his confidently voiced opinions. The fact that the wines were fabulous also helped of course. And what is more, these aren’t ultra-rare unicorn wines from the 1940s, as anybody with a few quid can buy and drink his wines. I necked the entry-level 2015 Sancerre Blanc just last week, widely available, very affordable, and it was great. Although it was perhaps the 2012 Cuvée Edmond that most impressed during the visit, as well as a whole host of red wines.

Looking back, looking forward: From 2016 to 2017

Was there an equivalent wine moment in Bordeaux this year? Yes, and I think my visit to Château Cos d’Estournel in December was the highlight. It wasn’t the lunch I shared with Aymeric de Gironde and Dominique Arangoïts that made the visit so enjoyable, nor was it the wines we drank (2008, 2005, 2003 and 1989) even though there were three great wines there. I enjoyed the visit so much firstly because we took a really good tour of the vineyards together, something that is rare during a visit in besuited-Bordeaux. And because it was great to taste the different varities of 2016 from vat; this is a vintage with a lot of promise, a year in which Bordeaux seems to have done rather well when much of France was blighted by the spring frosts.

These were my two highlights of 2016, but there were lots of other great wine moments. In the Loire I enjoyed calling in on Henri Bourgeois, where I expanded my knowledge of Sancerre’s ability to age, I raced down to La Tour Saint Martin to taste the latest from Bertrand Minchin, tasting the 2014s and 2015s with Matthieu Baudry was great fun (and the wines promise a lot….I mean, in 2015, a lot), and I found the same joy at Charles Joguet. I called in on Domaine de la Noblaie during the summer, and just before harvest, both visits informative and fun, and I enjoyed checking out the vines with Benoit Amirault too. In Bordeaux I had a fine vertical tasting and dinner at Château Lagrange that sticks in the memory, but on the whole I try to avoid the boozy party scene in this region. There is a continued potential for conflict of interest here I wish to avoid.

I had a few good dinners during the course of the year, the most memorable at La Tour in Sancerre, and Social Wines & Tapas in London. Yes, there are plenty of stuffy restaurants that offer more ‘fine’ dining experiences than that second choice (and I dined at a few), but it was one of those dinners where everything went so well, and the meal seemed to build in a crescendo of delights, that it left a lasting impression on my taste buds.

Looking back, looking forward: From 2016 to 2017

As for other significant developments during 2016, it was great to see that Richard Leroy seems to be able to continue hitting the bull’s eye with his zero-sulphur wines; I must check in on the 2011 (the first zero-suphur vintage) sometime soon. I was delighted by the revitalisation of Domaine aux Moines by Tessa Laroche (pictured above), and by my discovery of Domaine Jaulin-Plaisantin. I enjoyed greatly trips to London to taste on Decanter panels (the Decanter World Wine Awards and three panel tastings for the magazine – the most recent, looking at Loire Chenin Blanc, yet to be published), and looking back to Bordeaux 2006 at Ten Years (a large tasting) and Loire 2006 at Ten Years (not such a large tasting), as well as many more recent vintages of course.

I capped the year in a fabulous manner by buying a house in the Loire Valley. It is about 30 minutes south of Chinon. It has been a long and tiring process, co-ordinating a bank, an insurance company, an agent and a notaire, but we have at last jumped the final hurdle. We signed yesterday, December 30th (hurrah!!). So there is a lot to look forward to in 2017, with my first trip out to Winedoctor House (I did think about rechristening it as that, but actually settled for something more generic) set for January 7th. Looking forward to 2017, expect more reports from Chinon, Bourgueil and St Nicolas de Bourgueil…..

Best wishes for a Happy New Year to all!

Those we Lost in 2016

It feels as though 2016 has seen more than its fair share of losses in the entertainment industry, from David Bowie at the very dawn of the year, through to Carrie Fisher in the past few days. And some, such as comedy actress Caroline Aherne and of course George Michael (and many others) left us tragically young.

Sadly, as 2016 draws to an end, I have also been struck by how many significant figures from the world of wine have left us this year. As the year began the news that Charly Foucault of Clos Rougeard had died on December 29th 2015 was still very fresh in my mind, but sadly there were many more to come as 2016 unfolded.

Bordeaux lost two leading lights during the course of the year, the first being Paul Pontallier (aged 59, in March), on the eve of the primeurs. Paul has rightly been credited with being largely responsible for the revitalisation of Château Margaux, and I was lucky enough to meet and taste with him many times over the past few years, sometimes in large groups, sometimes just the two of us. He was always warm-hearted and generous with his time. He is pictured below with his son, Thibaud, back in April 2012. For more thoughts on Paul, read my blog post, R.I.P. Paul Pontallier, Man of Margaux.

Paul and Thibaud Pontalier, April 2012

The second loss to Bordeaux was Denis Dubourdieu (aged 67, in July), one of the region’s most famed and respected oenologists, as well as being proprietor of several notable domaines, not least Château Doisy-Daëne. Denis had been ill for some time, but he was still on sparkling form when I visited him late in 2015, when I took the picture below. I wrote up the visit here, complete with some reflections on Denis’ achievements.

Denis Dubourdieu, October 2015

Looking elsewhere in France, I think everybody who knew him was shocked to learn of the death of Etienne Hugel (in April, aged 57). I met Etienne many years ago, in September 2004, and we had dinner together in Liverpool. He was charming, dynamic and enthusiastic, traits which of course only made his passing at such a young age all the more shocking.

Another famous figure in the world of wine who we lost this year, and who also played a significant role in my vinous ‘education’, was Aimé Guibert (aged 91, in May). Aimé was of course best-known for Mas de Daumas Gassac, but I first encountered his wines through the label Mas de Figaro, in the 1992 vintage to be precise, a brilliant value wine which I was delighted to be able to drink as a penniless student barely able to rub two overdrawn bank statements together. Within a few years (when I was earning!) I moved on to Mas de Daumas Gassac itself, but the memory of those good-value Figaro wines has never left me.

Other famous names in the world of wine who have left us this year include Italian revolutionary Giacomo Tachis (aged 82) and Californian Peter Mondavi (aged 101) in February, Henri Bonneau (aged 78) of Châteauneuf du Pape fame in March, Louis Latour (aged 83) in April and Charles Rousseau (aged 93) in May, both from famed Burgundian domaines of course, as well as Margrit Mondavi (aged 91), the widow of Robert Mondavi, in September, and Stanko Radikon (aged 62), Italian natural wine pioneer in the same month.

Winedoctor 2016 Disclosures

November and December have been super-busy, bringing another very active year to an end. I feel like I have been pedalling very hard the past six or seven weeks, and yet barely keeping up with the peloton (a cycling analogy purely for Jim Budd’s pleasure). As I write this it is only a couple of days until Christmas kicks off, but I haven’t had one spare moment to stop and reflect on the year, my favourite bottles, or my favourite tastings or dinners. In addition, I think the best ‘moment’ of the year – relating to a ‘project’ I have been working on in France – is yet to come, hopefully next week. Only after that moment will I really be able to catch my breath and reflect on the past twelve months…..

In the meantime, here are the annual Winedoctor disclosures for 2016. As always I have detailed support received, followed by some details of my own expenses incurred by undertaking various tastings and trips. On the whole this year has been more straightforward than 2015 and 2014. There were no surcharges for going over a mileage allowance hidden in the small print of the hire car contract (hurrah!). There were no speeeding tickets incurred between Paris and Saumur (hurrah!). There were no cancelled trips because of illness (hurrah!). The only hitch was having to live in a Gatwick hotel for two days, thanks to a French air traffic control strike. Interested deities looking for a new model for purgatory should feel free to get in touch for more details on my experiences there.

Here are details of trips when support was accepted:

Salon des Vins de Loire: No formal funding was accepted. I did accept two dinner invitations, one with a trio of Anjou vignerons, these being René Papin (Claude’s son), Vincent Ogereau and Yves Guégniard, and one with Loire courtier Charles Sydney. All other expenses I met myself (see below).
Bordeaux primeurs: My intention was to stay in Bordeaux for nine nights; thanks to a French air traffic control strike I spent the first two incarcerated in a Gatwick airport hotel, banging my head against a wall; I missed a visit I had arrranged to meet Peter Sisseck at Château Rocheyron (annoyed!) and a visit and vertical tasting at Château de Reignac (double annoyed!). I thus spent seven nights in Bordeaux, and I accepted offers of accommodation from Bill Blatch (one night, with barbecue and Sauternes tasting), Château Lagrange (one night, with a vertical tasting and dinner), Château Preuillac (two nights, uncatered) and Château La Dauphine (three nights, uncatered). I also took quick lunches at Château Haut-Bailly and Château Pichon-Baron. Other expenses I met myself (see below). Easyjet put me up in Gatwick and to give them credit this came with three meals a day, and was offered without me even having to ask for it. I was impressed by the actions of this ‘budget’ airline.
Loire Valley, October: I accepted accommodation for three nights (mostly self-catered) at Domaine de la Noblaie. I had dinner with proprietor Jérôme Billard on arrival, and also shared a pre-harvest lunch with his vineyard workers. Eggs from Jérôme’s hens came free of charge (and were delicious). Other expenses I covered myself (see below).
Bordeaux, December: I visited to taste the 2014s. I accepted accommodation in Château Preuillac (two nights, uncatered) and Château La Dauphine (three nights, uncatered). I accepted an invitation to lunch from Vignobles Fayat and Château Cos d’Estournel. Other expenses I met myself (see below).
Gifts received: I received a book as a gift from Hubert de Boüard de Laforest (written by Jane Anson – well done Jane!), as well as a few bottles from La Tour Saint-Martin, a bottle from Matthieu Baudry, a bottle from Benoit Amirault, several bottles from Domaine de la Noblaie. I don’t recall receiving any other gifts.
Samples received: A small number of wine samples were received, where the wines have been written up this has been declared. Most wines written up on Winedoctor are encountered at open tastings, or purchased.

This concludes the ‘support received’ section of my 2016 disclosures report. I try to keep support received to a minimum, but more important is to be transparent about exactly what support has been received, and the details presented above meet that requirement. In addition, where new articles have been published after support was received, this has been disclosed.

Winedoctor 2015 Disclosures

As is customary, I also like to balance this information with a report on which tastings and trips have been funded by me, or to be more precise by my subscribers.

Salon des Vins de Loire: All travel and accommodation expenses for the Salon des Vins de Loire were met by me; this included travel in the UK, flights, return rail fare in France, five nights accommodation in Angers and subsistence on all days but two.
Bordeaux primeurs: I met my travel costs myself; this includes travel in the UK, flights to Bordeaux via Gatwick, and hire car for nine days even if I only managed to use it for seven. I covered all my own subsistence expenses except for the lunches and dinners described above.
Loire Valley, July: I spent three weeks touring and tasting in the Loire Valley. I covered all costs, including driving to the Loire Valley, ferry tickets, accommodation in Chinon and Sancerre, and all subsistence expenses, myself. I rented dirt-cheap accommodation near Chinon, and super-expensive accommodation near Sancerre. The house near Chinon was better. How does that happen?
Loire Valley, October: Back to Chinon in late-September for a pre-harvest visit. I flew there via Poitiers, the smallest airport I have passed through in a long time (i.e. you queue up for the flight in the main hall, and then pass through security in a single lane, to a waiting room; airport shopping consists of a drinks vending machine – I liked it and will be going back!). After the disclosures above, I met my own costs, including travel in the UK, flights, hire car and most subsistence.
Bordeaux, December Visit: For this five-day trip to Bordeux I met my travel costs myself; this included transport in the UK, flights to Bordeaux, and hire car for five days. I accepted assistance with accommodation (as noted above). Other than one lunch, I paid for all my subsistence myself.
London, Bordeaux Grand Cru Classé tasting: As was the case last year, I was already in London judging at the Decanter World Wine Awards when this tasting was scheduled, and I took a day out of my judging schedule to attend this. I thus covered all my own travel costs.
Other London tastings: As always these were numerous, and included the Bordeaux Index 2006 tasting, the Loire Benchmark tasting, the Real Wine Fair, the Union des Grands Crus tasting of the 2014 vintage, the St Emilion Grand Cru Classé tasting at the Leadenhall Building (a great venue), the annual Cru Bourgeois tasting, the IMW Bordeaux tasting of the 2012 vintage and the RAW Wine Fair. In each case I paid for my entry fee where applicable (this only applies to the IMW tasting), travel inluding flights and airport transfers, and subsistence. Some tastings came with a free lunch (insert your own joke here).

This concludes my disclosures statement for 2016. Next week I may sit down for long enough to have some reflections on the year, and will (hopefully) be able to write about my biggest ‘moment’ of 2016.

From Moueix to Cheval Blanc

Friday was Pomerol day, and almost the day I had my first no-show. Almost.

When I rose, before dawn, I could see fog outside lingering heavily around the streetlamps. The weather this week has been really unusual, freezing cold in the morning, but warming up each afternoon. On Thursday, the first day of December, I had to scrape ice off the heavily chipped windscreen of my hire car (taking car not to press too hard, in case the whole thing caved in), and yet by early afternoon, standing at the front of Château Pavie, south-facing, with the pale stone facade just behind me, it was unbearably warm. In December!

The fog eventually cleared, but a frost remained. Yesterday was another ice-scraping day. “We are glad to see the frost”, Omri Ram of Château Lafleur later told me. A cold winter is good for the vines, although they could perhaps benefit from some rain as well, to top up the water table left low after the 2015 drought. My windscreen duly cleared, I headed down to the Moueix offices in Libourne, where I was greeted by both Christian and Edouard Moueix, two stalwarts. After a tasting here I headed out to Château L’Église-Clinet, where to my disappointment I found the cellars and maison all locked up, the shutters closed. My pressing of the doorbell went unanswered, so there was nothing to do but wait and see if Denis turned up. I passed the time wandering around the cemetery next-door. Am I the only one who finds cemeteries vaguely fascinating?

From Moueix to Cheval Blanc

As I wandered among the gravestones and mausoleums, I was coming to the conclusion that Denis was a ‘no show’ when I heard a door slam nearby, and immediately went to investigate. Denis had arrived (hurrah!), and after discussing the rights and wrongs of tasting young wines for twenty minutes I sat down to taste the Durantou portfolio in 2014. Thereafter I headed out to Vieux Château Certan for a meeting with Guillaume Thienpont, and Alexandre popped in to say hello as well. After tasting here, I headed out to Château Le Gay. It is always a pleasure to come to this pretty château, my eyes often as pleased here as my palate is by its wines.

Afterwards I had a quick lunch break, followed by a visit to Château Nenin, an estate on the up, with some serious changes underway, in the vineyard, in the château and cellars, and most importantly in the wine too. Afterwards, I headed out to Château Lafleur, something of a contrast. With a fairly relaxed schedule, I really enjoyed this tasting, delving into 2014 here and at Château Grand Village, looking at both red and white wines. Afterwards I headed out to Château Figeac, for their two 2014s, tasted with Frédéric Faye (pictured above), and then it was on to Château Cheval Blanc, to look at their 2014s. Meeting up as agreed with Nicolas Corporandy, the chef de culture, I tasted the grand vin, the second wine and the new addition to the portfolio in 2014, Le Petit Cheval Blanc. This latter wine is the first commercialised result of a long project, on which I will write more at a later date.

Once finished, the sun had long set, and it was very dark. Despite this I decided to make an impromptu inspection of the new Cheval Blanc white vines. Before long I had my hire car bumping up and down a rough track through the middle of a vineyard. This is, I should point out, nothing new. It was too dark for photographs though, so although I gained some understanding of exactly where the new white vines sit, I don’t have the evidence to support it. Oh well – I shall just have to come back next year.

That’s it for this short trip to Bordeaux. Right now I an en route for Edinburgh, via Mérignac. Normal Winedoctor service will be resumed as soon as possible.

From La Dauphine to Laroque

Thursday was a great day, for various reasons. First, I started the day with a pain au chocolat, although I think when in Bordeaux I am supposed to refer to it as a chocolatine. In the world of pastry-based breakfasts, the pain au chocolat is a strong contender for the crown, with only the pain au raisin able to give it a run for its money. Secondly, in a rare moment of calm I had half an hour to myself between visits during the afternoon. Rather than running around taking photographs or doing some other Winedoctor-related activity, I kicked back with a coffee, made by Jonathan Maltus. As Jancis Robinson has never invited me round for a drink, I can honestly say this was the first time anyone with an OBE ever made me a drink.

Thirdly there were, of course, some wines to be tasted. The 2014 vintage is definitely more homogenous on the right bank than the left, with good quality, and so there were plenty of interesting wines to taste, but before I got to that vintage I kicked off with a tasting of the 2016 vintage from vat at Château La Dauphine, yet another promising encounter with this most recent vintage. Then it was on to Château Angélus, where I tasted a range of wines made by Hubert de Boüard de Laforest, and Hubert himself popped in to say hello as I was tasting. From Angélus it was on to Château Pavie-Macquin where I tasted with Cyrille Thienpont (pictured below) and David Suire. This tasting was a little more lengthy than I was expecting (note to self – schedule longer here in future!) because the Thienponts and David make a handsome range of wines, and so I was a little late arriving for my tasting at Château La Dominique.

From La Dauphine to Laroque

I had scheduled a longer visit at Château La Dominique, knowing a taste of the 2016 vintage would also be on offer, so after tasting the Fayat family’s wines from 2014 we headed into the chai for some 2016 Merlots and a lone 2016 Cabernet Franc. These were yet more samples which suggest this is a vintage we should pay attention to when it comes to the primeurs. The usual refrain with 2014, and again sometimes with 2015, was “it’s the best since 2010”. I think it quite likely 2016 will take that crown, but let us see what they are like at the primeurs. I suspect there will be some really interesting wines being poured next April, wines which might be worth you opening your wallets (I would open mine, but all I ever seem to find inside it are till receipts and moths).

After La Dominique I hot-footed it over to Château Pavie, and I arrived only ten(-ish) minutes late. I then spent another ten(-ish) minutes trying to figure out how to get in, as all the doors were locked and the château seemed deserted. As I tried every door possible my mobile rang – “This is Château Pavie, where are you?” ….. “I’m outside, let me in” I replied. One minute later a door swung open and I was in. Fifteen minutes later I was en route for Château Teyssier, and a tasting (and a very welcome coffee) with Jonathan Maltus.

The day was originally set to finish at Château Tertre-Roteboeuf, not by accident, but by design, as I learnt a long time ago to always schedule a visit with François Mitjavile at the end of the day. François is often inundated with visitors, and he can thus spend a long time attending to everybody’s needs. Today, however, I agreed to meet David Suire at Château Laroque. So after Tertre-Roteboeuf I headed up to Laroque, and I was only five minutes late, and I was quite pleased with this. And it was a good tasting on which to end the day; Laroque isn’t a famous name, but David Suire is already doing good things here.

Today (Friday) it is Pomerol, so some Moueix wines first, Vieux Château Certan (this feels like a privilege – I don’t think I have visited outside the primeurs before), Château Le Gay, Château L’Église-Clinet, Château Figeac and Château Cheval Blanc (what’s that? – you don’t think those two belong in Pomerol?). Hopefully the thick fog outside my bedroom window this morning will clear soon.

From Calon to Fronsac

Wednesday started off well, and just seemed to get better as the day went on, at least as far as the wines were concerned. I started at Château Calon-Ségur, tasting the 2014s, followed by a quick tour of the cellars. When I visited in October last year these were under construction. And now, more than a year on……they are still under construction. A lot of progress has been made though, and I had a look at the 2015s and 2016s in the expansive new barrel cellar. Leaving too soon, I then headed down to Château Montrose for a tasting of their 2014s, followed by another hop, skip and jump south again to Château Lafite-Rothschild for theirs. That doesn’t sound like much, but those three visits easily took up most of the morning.

I arrived at Château Cos d’Estournel at 11am, for a longer and more detailed visit. After meeting up with Aymeric de Gironde and Dominique Arangoïts we piled into Aymeric’s chariot for a whirlwind tour of the Cos d’Estournel vines, from the east-facing parcel of mostly gravel and clay, to the southwest-facing parcel which runs down towards the drainage channel before you get into Pauillac, and then onto the plateau, altogether the three major sections of the vineyard. It was fascinating to learn how Aymeric and Dominique have added a new layer of complexity to their work following a recent study of soil resistivity. If you are passing by Cos d’Estournel in the future and you wonder why there are vines and posts daubed with fluorescent orange paint dotted throughout the vineyard, these are the indicators of where the soil changes from one type to another. I guess after building one of the Médoc’s most well-equipped cuveries back in 2008, which still makes many proprietors green with envy when they see it, the only way to go is to seek out more precision in the vineyard.

From Calon to Fronsac
I tasted some 2016s from vat at Château Cos d’Estournel, and it seems to me this is going to be a very interesting vintage to taste next year. I think it is too early to throw out hyperbolic statements on the quality (is it ever the right time for hyperbole?), but the handful of wines (and it is just a handful) I have tasted on the left bank are filled with promise. It seems like a much more homogenous vintage so far, much more so than 2015, 2014 and 2012, all of which had hot spots and cold spots when it came to quality. After the tasting, I accepted an invitation to have a quick lunch at Cos d’Estournel, and enjoyed four older vintages with Aymeric and Dominique. That is perhaps a story for another time.

The afternoon was something of a dash. First up, five wines from the 2014 vintage at Château Mouton-Rothschild, followed by just one wine at Château Pontet-Canet. Then I headed down to Château Léoville-Las-Cases for a tasting with the charming Bruno Rolland, and I was impressed by the wines. I can’t help but comment on the building works going on here, which seem extensive; the team have been relegated to a temporary office in a little house overlooking one of the vineyards, so I saw parts of the estate I don’t think I have ever set foot in before. Finally, I finished with a quick dash down to Château Palmer, to taste this estate’s 2014, their first 100% biodynamic wine.

My tastings were over, but my day wasn’t. For a special treat I finished up crawling along in heavy traffic for something close to eternity, half of Bordeaux seemingly gridlocked thanks to the Vinitech fair (a chance to check out all the latest harvesting machines, tractors and so on) at the Parc des Expositions. I ended up heading west to get onto the Rocade, before heading east towards Libourne, and managed to lose only an hour of my life sitting in le bouchon. Once in Fronsac I spent the entire evening trying to get my wifi working (and failing). Eventually I gave up and went to bed instead (hence this late post).

Thursday’s timetable focuses on St Emilion. First stop, Château Angélus.