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A New Year Wish

The year 2014 has flown by, especially the last four months, and so here is a moment or two of reflection. Winedoctor has grown nicely, both with regard to Bordeaux and the Loire. My march through Bordeaux, adding new profiles and updating old ones, having done Sauternes (from early 2012 onwards), followed by St Estèphe and Pauillac (during 2013) reached Pomerol in 2014. Back in January I was on Château Le Bon Pasteur (updated January 2nd 2014), and having progressed alphabetically I will finish with Vieux Château Certan in the next few weeks (today’s update, Le Pin, was slightly delayed). Alongside I also added my usual vintage updates, including an especially detailed look at the 2013 vintage, and there are other vintage-based tasting reports coming up. As for the Loire, I published dozens of new and updated profiles, with a leaning towards small, new, young and up-and-coming domaines. I could go back and count all these updates, but I think I would rather go and open something good to drink this New Year’s Eve, so I hope you will forgive me if I don’t.

Without a shadow of a doubt the highlight of 2014 for me was a chance to return to Vouvray, not merely for a fleeting visit but to linger a while, for several weeks in fact. I rented a cottage among the vineyards above Vernou-sur-Brenne, and passed the time visiting domaines in the morning, and chilling out at the poolside (weather permitting) in the afternoon. I popped in on some familiar favourites, as well as calling in on some domaines quite new to me, either young start-ups with only a vintage or maybe two under their belts, or domaines that I simply never got around to visiting before. It was a great trip, as everywhere I went the welcome was warm; I adore wine in all its forms, but nothing serves to heighten the experience like meeting the people behind the wines you drink. In Vouvray’s case they are charming and genuinely warm people, the seniors led by the gentleman ambassador Bernard Fouquet (pictured below), the delightful Catherine and Didier Champalou and the king of Vouvray Philippe Foreau, while new generation leaders are Vincent and Tania Carême, who march with Peter Hahn and a gang of Carême acolytes.

Bernard Fouquet

Of course there were less fun moments during 2014 as well. I enjoyed trips to the Loire in February as well as in July, and I was in Bordeaux in April and in June, but I had to cancel return trips to both regions later in the year due to ill health, a very depressing feature of 2014. This is one reason I will be glad to see the back of 2014. There was also the issue of Domaine Huet in February, when after my criticism of the 2012 vintage Sarah Hwang decided to ban me from tasting the Huet wines, either at the Salon des Vins de Loire or even if visiting the domaine (the 2013s I reported on earlier this year I purchased at the tasting room). This was also the year another wine writer accosted me at the Salon des Vins de Loire and referred to a review I had written as “nasty”. It certainly was an eventful Salon for me this year, one that opened my eyes to how adversely some people react to criticism, even when carefully judged and considered. I stand by every word I have ever written, because nothing on Winedoctor is off-the-cuff, jingoistic or gonzo in style. Nevertheless, here’s hoping for a more peaceful Salon in 2015! Sadly I believe Domaine Huet won’t even be attending, but I hope to be able to taste their wines at some point, sometime, somewhere. I still rate the domaine very highly, and I think their 2013s were some of the best in that very difficult vintage.

And so what of 2015? April will see me come to the end of another year as a subscription site, and subscriptions are already up 9.5% this year, so by the end of the year hopefully this will be more like 15%. I don’t worry about page views, Google rank or Klout scores any more; these are either irrelevant to pay sites, or what I call “vanity” metrics. Winedoctor is generally regarded as a “blog” I think, but I prefer to view it as a continually evolving electronic book or journal (hmmm…, if only I had called it “Wine Journal” before Neal Martin chose that name!), full of information-rich profiles, and what matters to me is whether the quality of this information is worthy of the subscriptions people pay, so that is where I focus my attention. Hopefully, climbing subscription numbers mean I am getting it right, but I am always grateful for feedback in this regard. During 2015 I will be moving on to updating and expanding my coverage of St Emilion, and as this is a huge undertaking I will alternate with some left-bank profiles and updates as well, especially looking at some ‘lesser’ regions such as Moulis, Listrac and the Haut-Médoc. There will be the 2014 primeurs, and a look back to 2005 Bordeaux too. And much more. In the Loire, I aim to add plenty more profiles, a 2014 vintage report, update and add new Anjou profiles, and also start work on a huge Loire guide which will touch on every appellation going, from the Côte Roannaise down to the Fiefs-Vendéens. That should keep me busy through 2015 (and 2016, and 2017…).

Best wishes to all, good health and good drinking in 2015. And thank you for reading.

Checking in on . . . . Cuvee Pif, 2012

Although the writing had been on the wall for a year or two, it was only when I visited Catherine Roussel and Didier Barrouillet of Clos Roche Blanche in October 2013 that I learnt with certainty that they were about to hang up their secateurs for good. They had been down-sizing for some time, a large portion of the vineyard having been handed over to Noëlla Morantin, but it was now official. It was also very hush-hush, as Catherine and Didier carefully looked for interested suitors. At the time there were two interested parties, the identities of whom were confidential.

At the time I imagined maybe one was Noëlla, but it seems I may have been wrong. As it turns out the first is Laurent Saillard, who started working in the vines of both Clos Roche Blanche and Noëlla Morantin several years ago. The second is a name new to me, Julien Pineau, who started out as a geologist but ultimately gravitated to wine, ending up working with Didier at Clos Roche Blanche.

Clos Roche Blanche Cuvée Pif 2012

So 2014 is the last vintage for Clos Roche Blanche. The wines of this domaine are not that easy to locate in the UK, nevertheless I have one or two bottles tucked away, including the 2012 described below. Perhaps I will be able to add a bottle of the 2014, who knows?

The 2012 Clos Roche Blanche Touraine Cuvée Pif (Pif is the name of Didier & Catherine’s dog, as I am sure all CRB fans know, and is a blend of Cabernet Franc and Côt) has a beautiful, vibrant hue, a fine black-crimson colour reminiscent of summer fruit pudding. The nose has some appropriate dark fruit-skin character to it, but there is also a savoury edge, and certainly a little methoxypyrazine greenness at first, veering into a more overt vegetal character with a little air. Ultimately, the aromatics here are heavily laced with the celeriac and celery character of Cabernet Franc in what was obviously a cool and cloudy vintage. The palate shows an elegant, clean, slightly juicy character, carrying flavours matching the aromas on the nose. There is also a nice cool energy to it, with peppery fruit, very light tannins, and bright acidity. To be straight I have mixed feelings about this wine; I like greenness when it comes with otherwise ripe fruit, but here it strays a little too far into the vegetal side for me. All the same, I like the cool, sappy nature of the palate. 14/20 (November 2014)

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.

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 essential 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.

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)

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.

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.

Checking in on. . . . Les Girardieres 2008

Time to check in on another older wine now, at this time I’m taking a look at the 2008 Vouvray Les Girardières, from Domaine des Aubuisières.

Now I can hear snorts of derision at the bank. Yes, I know the 2008 vintage isn’t an ancient one. And we all know Vouvray can evolve in a positive fashion over many decades, indeed a lifetime. But there is a purpose here, based on my knowledge of this wine, which is the only wine in my cellar with a synthetic closure. It was a complete surprise when I ripped the capsule from my first bottle – I generally avoid synthetic closures like the plague.

Domaine des Aubuisières Vouvray Les Girardières 2008

I promised myself I would check in regularly to see how the wine evolved, as synthetic closures aren’t renowned for maintaining a good seal over many years. But, of course, this thought soon slipped my mind, and I was only reminded of the bottles when I visited Bernard Fouquet a few weeks ago. I resolved to pull and pop another.

Domaine des Aubuisières Vouvray Les Girardières 2008: The colour in the glass is reassuring at least, the wine showing a bright, straw-gold hue. And, happily, the nose is fabulous, revealing layers of golden pear and white peach, with a mineral strength behind, and a delicate touch of thyme too. It feels pure and clean, demi-sec as always, with some honeyed nuances poured over the fresh orchard fruit. There follows a beautiful texture on entry, the middle fleshy but with an enticing liquid-stone character, pithy fruit, yellow plum-skin especially, a great density and substance, a beautiful demi-sec sweetness and a lifted balance. Overall, a superb wine, not a hint of premature oxidation despite the synthetic closure, and I hope this will also be the case with future bottles. 18/20 (August 2014)

Ploughing by Horse at Le Clos de la Meslerie

During a recent trip to Vouvray I learnt that a number of domaines in the appellation, plus one or two in Montlouis, have joined forces to begin working with horses on at least a section of their vineyard. A key figure in the project is Vincent Carême, and joining him are a number of his peers. The list of names and domaines kept changing slightly depending on who I asked, but it seems to include Domaine Huet, Peter Hahn of Le Clos de la Meslerie, a young grower named Tanguy Perrault of Domaine Perrault-Jadaud, Domaine Vigneau-Chevreau, Michel Autran, another young grower named Julien Vedel (all in Vouvray) and Damien Delecheneau of Domaine La Grange Tiphaine (in Montlouis). I apologise if I missed anybody out.

Ploughing at Le Clos de la Meslerie

Rather than buy their own animals, the group have engaged the services of Philippe Chigard, who specialises in working with horses. If contracted he will turn up with his horses, and plough your vineyard as required. Pictured above is one of Philippe’s horses in the east parcel of Le Clos de la Meslerie, with the valley of the Brenne beyond.

Ploughing at Le Clos de la Meslerie

This is Junior, a Percheron draught horse, a breed that originated in the former province of Perche, which once lay between Maine and Normandy, but which was divided up after the Revolution. This is a popular breed for this kind of work; I have seen Percherons in other vineyards.

Ploughing at Le Clos de la Meslerie

Above Philippe Chigard (bending over) and a colleague change ploughs. Philippe is ‘hands on’ in the vineyard, but he also teaches students on the use of horses in the vineyard at the local viticultural school. Other notable domaines outside Montlouis and Vouvray, such as Domaine de Bellivière, also use his services.

Ploughing at Le Clos de la Meslerie

Above, Philippe and his colleague work in parallel rows. If I understood correctly, one is simply scarifying the soil, removing vegetation, while the other is turning the soil.

Ploughing at Le Clos de la Meslerie

And above they are returning up the next row. Junior’s friend is named Mascotte, and is a Comtois, a breed that originated in the Jura. This is another popular breed for this kind of work.

In all cases the participants are ploughing only a section of their vineyard; for Peter Hahn it is his east parcel, while Vincent Carême is now working a section of Le Clos (on the première côte) with horses, and has even gone so far as to remove all the posts and wires to facilitate this work.

I believe other domaines will join the group in the future; I hear others have expressed an interest, but times have been tough in Vouvray and for some in Montlouis in recent years, and I expect they will want to reassess their finances before they take on this new expense. I have no idea whether or not the work makes any difference to the wine, but the horses certainly have a lesser impact on the soil compared to a tractor, are potentially more environmentally friendly (although the horses do have to be transported from one vineyard to the next) and they are certainly a beautiful sight among the vines.