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Muscadet: Melon or Colombard?

A couple of years ago I spent a couple of hours at the Maison des Vins de Nantes learning about the business of Muscadet. It was a hair-raising couple of hours, during which my eyes were opened to the potential hardships of life as a vigneron in Muscadet. At the time the wine was selling for €120 per hectolitre, but only a year or two before, during the latest in what seemed like a long line of Muscadet crises, the price had dipped as low as €50 per hectolitre. To save you the maths, that works out as 38 cents per bottle. No wonder bankruptcy was rife, and after the disastrously frosty vintage of 2008 the vineyard area fell from 13,000 to 8,000 hectares in the space of just a few years as dozens of winemakers simply threw in the towel.

A number of projects had been mooted as a solution. Nobody mentioned the crus communaux, even though to me that has always seemed to be the best way up from here. Famous wine regions such as Chablis and the Côte d’Or feed off the fame of their grands crus, and there is no reason why Muscadet shouldn’t do the same. Clisson and Gorges for the weekend, basic Muscadet during the week. Instead, there were plans to promote earlier harvesting to keep the aromatic profile in the wine (this didn’t make much sense to me), to offer primeur bottlings (fair enough, this could be fun, and that is what entry-level Muscadet is for), and to experiment with different grape varieties in the vineyard. The négociants in particular were pushing for Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc and Colombard in the vineyard.

Crazy, I thought. That will never happen. I shouldn’t have been so complacent. The move to insert 10-15% Colombard into the appellation regulations has continued. In the past few months the local syndicat, backed by influential négociants, have both come out in vocal support of the plan. That, as far as I can see, only leaves quality-minded independent growers standing in the way of this bastardisation of the appellation. They appear to be led by Jo Landron (pictured below), even if just in spirit .

Muscadet: Melon or Colombard?

Here’s the way I see Muscadet. It is not just a wine, but a fascinating and complex vineyard region, with a great diversity of interesting terroirs. There will always be generic wines and there may be all sorts of plans required to make this sector more economically viable, but the way to protect the entire region against future crises is to lift its reputation as a whole, pulling from the top, with the continued creation of the crus communaux. Just as Valmur and Vaudésir lift the image of Chablis, and Chambertin and Montrachet lift the image of red and white Burgundy, the same can be achieved in Muscadet. These top wines are aspirational, both for drinkers and for vignerons. As the true quality of these crus are recognised all the hard-working vignerons turning out deliciously vibrant entry-level Muscadet will benefit, as drinkers will be more open to buying these bottles. More people will also wake up to how well these wines work with food.

The way out of the crisis is not to make these entry-level wines even more anonymous by blending in easy-going international varieties such as Colombard to sweeten things up. This will only lead to a loss of identity. Muscadet used to be seen as a bit of a joke. Through the continued efforts of Bonnet-Huteau, Günther-Chéreau,Bruno Cormerais, Domaine de l’Ecu, Vincent Caillé, Domaine du Haut Bourg, Domaine des Herbauges, Jo Landron, Famille Lieubeau, Pierre Luneau-Papin, Marc Ollivier and team, Domaine Poiron-Dabin, Marc Pesnot and Christelle Guibert (and quite a few others) this image is gradually sliding into obscurity. If Austrian wine can be taken seriously (remember anti-freeze?), so can Muscadet. The addition of Colombard will only lead to a new dumbing-down of this newly polished image, as well as increased confusion for consumers.

Further information (in French): Le Parisien, L’Hebdo

Winedoctor 2015 Disclosures

Is there any more eagerly awaited blog post than my annual disclosure statement? Well, to be honest, the answer is probably yes. But I will carry on regardless.

Independence and transparency is important. On independence I maintain my position that wine writers should always avoid conflicts of interest, write for their subscribers or readers and not the producers or winemakers, and avoid being duplicitous or even being ‘economical with the truth’ at all times. I also believe to be credible writers should avoid being sucked into the wine marketing machine, a big risk when the region you are writing about is wealthy and well-positioned to encourage that sort of behaviour through boozy lunches and pouring lots of old vintages.

On these issues, relating to independence, I have not shifted, but where I have shifted is on the issue of transparency. I think today that this is more important than ever. This is because to write about wine in an informative manner it is pointless trying to cut yourself off from the people who make it. Writers have to interact with producers (importantly, in the region the wine is made), and that can incur costs, from travel, accommodation and dining. Not boozy lunches or parties, just the costs of living. Rather than trying to cut this cord, feedback given to me in 2015 is that readers seem to value transparency on such matters more than any attempts to reduce the interaction/dependency to zero. I found that really interesting and something of a surprise.

Will this little nugget encourage others to be more transparent about their wine writing work? Who knows. It is no doubt a daunting thought, to bite the disclosure bullet. While I ponder that, here are the details of my disclosures for 2015:

Salon des Vins de Loire: The Salon has been struggling in recent years, and contemporaneously with this change InterLoire has cut funding for visiting journalists. No formal funding was received. It’s a sign of the times. I did accept two dinner invitations though, one with Loire courtier Charles Sydney, and one from new association Loire Latitude. In the interests of transparency, this latter group includes Pierre Luneau-Papin, Le Rocher des Violettes, Nicolas Grosbois, Henry Pellé and Le Clos des Quarterons. Other expenses I met myself (see below).
Bordeaux primeurs: I stayed in Bordeaux for seven nights, and I accepted accommodation for some of these. I began with one night in Château des Vigiers, and I also had four nights uncatered accommodation in Château Preuillac, courtesy of négociant Yvon Mau. The night at Vigiers (a bit off the beaten track) was to facilitate attendance at a tasting of Château L’Église-Clinet, held at Château Thénac, in Bergerac. I also accepted dinner at Château Thénac, and stopped in at Château Sociando-Mallet to take advantage of their buffet lunch. Other expenses I met myself (see below).
Loire Valley, Saumur & beyond: I covered most costs for my trip to the Loire Valley in June myself (see below), but I did accept two nights accommodation from a generic body, the Bureau Interprofessionnel des Vins du Centre.
Bordeaux Harvest Visit: I visited in October to taste 2013s, and also to learn about the 2015 vintage. I accepted accommodation in Château Le Pape for three nights, Château Clément-Pichon for one night, and Château La Dauphine for three nights. I accepted three dinner invitations, from Château Haut-Bailly, Vignobles Fayat and Château La Dauphine. I also attended an end-of-harvest lunch with Jonathan Maltus, and on another day had lunch after tasting at Château Le Gay. Other expenses I met myself (see below).
Gifts received: A case of wine from Château Brown was received as a token of gratitude for having organised half of the Oaked Sauvignon Blanc tasting. The highlight of the year, however, was the receipt of my ‘Château Teyssier 2015 Harvest’ t-shirt. In order to confuse my neighbours I wear this when I go out blackberry picking.
Samples received: Only 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 2015 disclosures report. I try to keep support received to a minimum, and where taken I prefer more ‘generic’ support from associations, négociants or regional bodies nevertheless (in Bordeaux in particular) some suport received during 2015, in the form of dinners and accommodation, did relate to individual châteaux. Where appropriate, such as at Château Clément-Pichon, this has also been disclosed on relevant reports and profiles.

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.

Angers, Salon: All travel and accommodation expenses for the Salon des Vins de Loire were met by me; this included flights, rail fare in France, six nights accommodation in Angers and subsistence on all nights but two.
Loire Valley, Saumur & beyond: In June I spent three days visiting in Savennières, Saumur and Sancerre, checking out Clos Rougeard and other top domaines. I covered most of the costs myself; this included flights to Paris, car hire, accommodation in Saumur and all subsistence costs, not to mention the fine from the car hire company for exceeding the agreed mileage on a short rental. That’s the last time I forget to read the Europcar small print.
Loire Valley, More Saumur: In July I returned to the Loire for the third time in 2015. I spent a week based in Parnay. I covered all costs, including flights to Paris, car hire, accommodation in Saumur and all subsistence costs myself. No excess-mileage fine this time, but a speeding ticket instead, plus the car hire firm’s ‘handling fee’ for shopping me to the French traffic FBI. I really am going off Europcar now.
Portugal: My only non-Loire-non-Bordeaux trip of the year, I spent the best part of two weeks checking out Portuguese wine. There is a single-variety revolution in Vinho Verde that is very exciting, with some delicious wines – almost as good as Muscadet in some cases. I covered all costs, including flights, accommodation, car hire and subsistence myself.
Bordeaux, Primeurs: I met my travel costs myself; this includes transport to airport, flights to Bordeaux, and hire car for eight days. I paid for two nights in a budget hotel in Libourne, previously endorsed by Neal Martin. I paid for all my own subsistence except for the lunches and dinner described above.
Bordeaux Harvest Visit: For this eight-day trip to Bordeux I met my travel costs myself; this included transport to airport, flights to Bordeaux, and hire car for eight days. I accepted assistance with accommodation. I was hosted at dinner three times, but paid for the remainder of my subsistence myself.
London, Bordeaux Grand Cru Classé tasting: I was already in London judging at the Decanter World Wine Awards, and took a day out of my judging schedule to attend this. I thus covered all my own travel costs. I also had dinner at Terroirs with Daniel Primack, UK Zalto rep. We split the bill, but I did come away from the evening one Zalto wine glass better off, which if you believe in karma at least makes up for that speeding ticket earlier in the year.
Other London tastings: These were numerous, and included the Bordeaux Index 2005 tasting, the Loire Benchmark tasting, the Real Wine Fair, the Union des Grands Crus tasting of the 2013 vintage at Covent Garden, the Oaked Sauvignon Blanc tasting (where I was both organiser and taster) and the IMW Bordeaux tasting of the 2011 vintage. In each case I paid for my entry fee where applicable, and flights and transfers. On most occasions I also benefited from a free lunch (which I guess disproves the relevant adage). The one exception was the IMW tasting where lunch is not provided, so I scoffed a cheese sandwich I had cunningly secreted in my rucksack; it went surprisingly well with 2011 Lafite-Rothschild.
Chester, High Time with Haut Brion: I covered my own costs for this Friday-evening tasting of wines from Haut-Brion and La Mission Haut-Brion, including parking, entry fee, rail fares and the cost of an over-priced hotel room in Chester city centre. I was back in Edinburgh the next morning before any thought of a free lunch even entered my head.

That’s all for now. I am anticipating many more great tastings in 2016, as the 2015 vintage holds much promise in both Bordeaux (pictured above – 2015 budbreak in April) and the Loire Valley. Thanks to all my subscribers for making all of the above possible.

Have a Happy New Year!

And so 2015 draws to a close….

It has been a great year for Winedoctor, now with over one thousand subscribers. As far as updates go, I have written more words during 2015, updated more profiles, added more new tasting notes, written more new profiles, and written more on the latest Loire and Bordeaux vintages (as well as some older vintages) than ever before. I really enjoyed looking back through my ten Wine in Context posts – it reminded me what a super twelve months 2015 gave me. Thanks to all my subscribers for making it possible, and for giving me the reason to do it all.

I would count up all my words, posts and tasting notes as proof of how Winedoctor has grown, but in all honesty I have better things to do – right now I can hear corks popping, and I don’t have a glass in my hand yet. Shocking, I know.

I will take New Year’s Day off (I took Christmas Day off too – I am such a sloth!), but normal updates will resume January 2nd. I have to start again soon, I have a lot of updates, articles and reports piling up. And there is my annual disclosure statement, providing full transparency on support received throughout the year, to pull together as well – I wouldn’t want to forget that, especially as I know some out there look forward to it with baited breath and more than a hint of trembling anticipation.

I am looking forward to getting to grips with the 2015 vintage, both from the Loire and Bordeaux, in the next few months. Both sound very promising. I will start with the Loire, with my first tasting planned for January, then it is off to the Salon des Vins de Loire in February.

For now though, it is time to chill out with family and fizzy fermented juice. My best wishes to all for your New Year’s Eve celebrations, and all the best for 2016.

Wine in Context #1: Clos Rougeard

I had originally planned to publish this yesterday morning, but with the news of the death of Charly Foucault breaking it just didn’t feel right. Now, as the news has sunk in, it feels inappropriate not to publish it…..

Looking back over 2015, at my favourite wine-related moments of the year, whether they be best bottles, best wine dinners, best tastings or otherwise, there was one visit-and-tasting-combined which was my obvious number-one choice for the year. In June 2015 I visited Clos Rougeard, and enjoyed a fantastic tasting in their new cellars with Nady Foucault (pictured below). It was the runaway highlight of the year.

Some visits disappoint, the wines or even the mood of the proprietor perhaps serving to dampen the experience in some way. Some are good, where everything goes well, and while no long-term memories are formed the wines are fine and the write up is appropriately positive. Some visits, though, are truly great, and this visit to Clos Rougeard certainly fits into this category. After descending three levels into the new Foucault cellars I spent the best part of three hours (I think – I wasn’t exactly clock-watching) in the cool and dimly-lit subterranean palace, tasting barrel samples and bottled wines, from all manner of vintages, most recent, one or two a little older.

Clos Rougeard

What made the visit such an experience was firstly the quality of the wines. I have tasted and drunk (mostly the latter, to be honest) a fair amount of Clos Rougeard over the years, and while the wines are often exemplary, every domaine has its ups and downs. But the wines tasted on this occasion were just breathtaking. Great vintages helped, because I tasted several bottles and samples from 2010, 2011 and 2014, all very favourable years. Tasting the different components in 2014, from barrel, also helped lift the experience. The barrel components of 2014 Le Bourg, for example, were just tear-jerkingly complex and intricately woven. I came away with the feeling that, regardless of the prices asked these days, I had to have some of those wines. That doesn’t happen that often these days, even at some very famous addresses (most that I am thinking of here are in Bordeaux, as it happens).

It wasn’t just the wine though; Nady proved himself a congenial host. For all the distance Nady and his late-brother (it feels strange writing that) Charly put between themselves and those that loved their wines, here in his presence it was clear he had the ability to charm. He clearly loved leading a tasting, and he clearly enjoyed the opportunities for humour it presented. He may appear to be a wiry, athletic, suffer-no-nonsense individual, but he clearly enjoys a joke as much as the next guy, and despite his ‘no pictures’ reputation, he also enjoyes playing the fool for the camera when it appears (even if all my pictures are along more serious lines!).

Clos Rougeard

This was a tasting that filled my head with scents, sounds, tastes, experiences and ultimately memories, thanks to Nady’s hospitality and their wines. Charly wasn’t there of course – there was nothing unusual in that though. It was a couple of months later that I learnt he was ill. And just a week or two after that – yesterday in fact – that I learnt of his passing. It means my memory of this tasting is now tinged with sadness, but nothing like the sadness that must exist in Chacé and Chavignol today. My condolences to Charly’s wife Françoise, their son Antoine of Domaine du Collier, brother Nady and sister-in-law Anne Vatan of Clos la Néore.

This post concludes my Wine in Context review of 2015. If you are new to Wine in Context, a glance at Wine in Context #10: Return to Thieuley might be helpful. If you want to contribute, feel free to add your favourite moment in the comments below – or if you have a longer report from a great wine dinner, wine trip, wine tasting or other wine moment during 2015 you can email it to me, and I can host it on the blog for you.

Wine in Context #2: Oaked Sauvignon

I think in any other year the Oaked Sauvignon Blanc tasting that I arranged with Richard Bampfield MW in November 2015 would have been my favourite wine event of the year; there was, however, some very stiff competition in 2015. I learnt a lot through arranging this tasting, and I developed a great appreciation of the generous nature of eight vignerons in the Loire Valley, as I sourced almost all my bottles direct from the eight domaines (the only exception being a couple that came through Justerini & Brooks).

For me the tasting came just at the right time. I know there are more than one or two wine drinkers out there who are allergic to the combination of oak and Sauvignon Blanc. It is easy to pick holes in such a belief, for example Pavillon Blanc du Château Margaux is heavily reliant on oak, and plenty of drinkers go ga-ga over Silex from Didier and more recently Louis-Benjamin Dagueneau without realising that it is raised almost exclusively in new and nearly-new oak. But that’s not the point, because I understand the ‘allergy’. These two famous names are exceptions to the rule that do it well, and until a few years ago I also had the Sauvignon-oak allergy. The typical Sauvignon fruit character in combination with buttery oak just seemed to jar. I couldn’t understand why a number of domaines in Sancerre, Pouilly-Fumé and Menetou-Salon persisted with what seemed to me to be a winemaker’s folly.

Oaked Sauvignon Blanc

Then I tasted couple of examples with a few years of bottle age, and I suddenly realised the purpose of these wines. It was a revelation, like the first time I really ‘got’ Sherry, or the first time I tasted 19th-century Madeira. Oaked Sauvignon Blanc is not a wine to drink young, and thus we must put our entire understanding of this variety – the wines of which are almost universally touted for drinking young – in the bin when it comes to the oaked wines. These are wines for the cellar, and when you come back to them with 8-10 (or sometimes more) years bottle age you suddenly realise their purpose. And the style is completely different, not at all like aged unoaked Sauvignon Blanc. It was like a veil had been lifted from my eyes. Even after years of researching the wines of the Loire, it was only now that I finally understood what this select group of vignerons who combined oak and Sauvignon were up to. And this was the phase I was in when Richard Bampfield’s invitation to co-host the tasting popped into my inbox.

Oaked Sauvignon Blanc

Those domaines that sent wines were La Tour Saint-Martin (best wishes to Bertrand who is reading this from his hospital bed – courage Bertrand, get well soon), Alain Cailbourdin, Masson-Blondelet, Didier Dagueneau, Lucien Crochet, Alphonse Mellot, Vincent Pinard and Henri Bourgeois. Any fears that the wines would be green, over-oaked, weedy or otherwise soon dissipated once the corks were pulled. My only disappointment was that one of the bottles of 2002 Silex was corked, leaving just one bottle for the entire tasting. This was something we planned for by having three bottles of each wine, but there were only two of this wine available to us.

So what did I learn here? First, I learnt that putting on a tasting, even a small one such as this, is hard work. First you have to beg for bottles (thanks to the eight domaines again!). Then you have to arrange to have them shipped over, and generally feel like a nuisance by emailing the same people again and again for an update on where the bottles are (my nightmare was for tasters to turn up to half a tasting!), then there is the logistics of serving temperatures, venue, glasses and so on. Thankfully Richard Bampfield took care of most of this, but there was still a lot of checking and chasing to do. And I learnt a lot by meeting some of those who came to taste; I could explain why I chose those domaines, and those vintages, they could explain why they were there, and what their interest in oaked Loire Sauvignon Blanc was. In fact, meeting some new faces and talking about the wines was probably the most rewarding aspect of the day, and so I resolved at any tastings I go to in future to always put aside a minute or two for the host, if nothing else to say thanks for all the hard work.

There will be more Wine in Context moments over the next few days. If you are new to Wine in Context, a glance at Wine in Context #10: Return to Thieuley might be helpful. If you want to contribute, feel free to add your favourite moment in the comments below – or if you have a longer report from a great wine dinner, wine trip, wine tasting or other wine moment during 2015 you can email it to me, and I can host it on the blog for you.

Wine in Context #3: A Day at Dagueneau

I’m now onto my top three wine moments of the year. Number three took place back in June 2015 during a tasting trip to the Loire Valley. Having spent a couple of days mooching around Savennières and then Saumur, I headed upriver towards Sancerre. I had plans to visit a couple of domaines where I hadn’t tasted before, my schedule for the visit taking in Domaine Thomas-Labaille, Pierre Morin and Anne Vatan. In other words three very strong domaines. My fourth visit, however, which involved a short drive across the river to Pouilly-Fumé, was the icing on the cake.

It wasn’t the first time I ever visited the Dagueneau family in Saint-Andélain, and it was certainly not the first time I ever tasted their wines. I did so here when I visited, and I also met Charlotte Dagueneau at a tasting in London a few years ago (and of course I have had one or two bottles in restaurants and at home over the years). But this was still a special tasting, for a number of reasons.

Dagueneau

First, there was the sheer quality of the wines of course. Just getting your lips to a glass of Silex or Pur Sang is likely to be the highlight of your day, so to taste the entire portfolio of wines across a fine vintage such as 2012, and finding every wine to be superb, was a real delight. Second, when I say entire portfolio, I really mean entire portfolio. This was my first chance to taste the cuvée Astéroïde, which is sourced from a few rows of ungrafted vines planted at the end of the Pur Sang vineyard. It is perhaps one of the rarest wines I ever tasted (not including that rosé a friend of mine made from Scottish-grown Black Muscat a few years ago of course) with just 100 bottles produced. Indeed, I was tempted to give this post the title “A Celestial Event at Dagueneau” such was the significance of this bottle.

Dagueneau

I chose not to though because this tasting wasn’t a favourite simply because of just one bottle. It was a great tasting because of the warmth and approachability exhibited by Charlotte Dagueneau, daughter to the late Didier Dagueneau, and also her generosity in opening not just the 2012 Astéroïde but also many older vintages, including the 2008 Les Monts Damnés, 2007 and 2002 Silex, and 1996 Pur Sang. Not to mention a number of experimental bottles not actively commercialised, a chance to have a little glimpse behind the scenes chez Dagueneau.

Most of all, however, it was about recognising the talent of Louis-Benjamin Dagueneau, who has been in charge here since Didier’s death in 2008.

The problem is, as I wrote in my report on the visit and tasting, that with Didier in the background he always gave such an easy hook for a journalist. Consequently, even after his tragically early passing, when writing about the domaine it is still too easy to just trot out a few Didier anecdotes and to overlook the new generation in charge. But it is now eight years since Louis-Benjamin had to step into his father’s shoes, and thus it is Louis-Benjamin (and his sister Charlotte) who should be positioned centre-stage, in the full glare of the spotlight. They are responsible for the success of this domaine today, and they deserve credit for what they have achieved. Of the wines I tasted during my visit six were made by Louis-Benjamin, eight if we include those he vinified within weeks of his father’s death. Only three were from Didier’s era, the trio of older wines mentioned above. Louis-Benjamin’s wines were on the whole delicious, indeed some were outstanding in their poise and precision. They are no less compelling than any other Dagueneau wine I have ever tasted. He and his sister have achieved something remarkable here, and that is why this visit and tasting was my number three top wine moment of 2015.

There will be more Wine in Context moments over the next few days. If you are new to Wine in Context, a glance at Wine in Context #10: Return to Thieuley might be helpful. If you want to contribute, feel free to add your favourite moment in the comments below – or if you have a longer report from a great wine dinner, wine trip, wine tasting or other wine moment during 2015 you can email it to me, and I can host it on the blog for you.

Wine in Context #6: Vincent Caille

The problem faced by any wine writer, critic or blogger is finding something new worth writing about. There is the old adage that the world of wine constantly renews with every new vintage of course, and that has some merit, but there has to be more to it than that.

Part of the problem is that wine has been written about for centuries. Take a long-established region such as Bordeaux and there is thus a long-established hierarchy. There is a reason domaines such as Château Haut-Brion, Château Latour, and Château Ausone are so well-known and so obsessed over; although they (like any other domaine) may have had their ups and downs, the recognition that they have some of the best terroir is not a new one, and their wines have been highly regarded for a very long time.

There are hierarchies in other regions too, even Muscadet. When I started out looking at this region in more detail, it seemed to me that the main players were well established in the minds of the region’s fans, and the one or two writers who bothered to taste these wines. They were Pierre Luneau-Papin, Domaine de la Pépière, Jo Landron and André-Michel Brégeon. Others were rightly popular, but these were the names that seemed to appeal to Loire geeks the most. Tasting the wines, it seemed to me that they all deserved the recognition they already received, and thus we had the top tier of a Muscadet hierarchy.

Vincent Caillé

This is why meeting Vincent Caillé back in May 2015 was such a delight. I vaguely knew his name, through his project Vine Revival with Christelle Guibert, but this was only the second opportunity I had been presented with to taste his wines, and my first time meeting Vincent himself. The wines were superb, in particular two crystal-pure expressions of the Gorges and Monnières-Saint-Fiacre crus communaux, both in the 2012 vintage, were absolutely stunning. These wines immediately catapulted Vincent up to the top of my personal Muscadet hierarchy.

Perhaps one taste is really too soon to judge, but the quality was breathtaking, and I was immediately sucked in. I will taste them again one day, so I should be able to reassess them, and maybe refine my opinion. But the key message here, for me, is this; the more I delve into the different regions of the Loire Valley, the more I uncover new domaines, really some good, but every now and again I come across a domaine that makes truly striking wines, like Vincent. Wines that seem to transcend the appellation and their origins. Didier Dagueneau did that. François Chidaine still does. I wonder if Vincent Caillé isn’t another who should be considered in the same light. One thing is for sure, he is proof positive that any taster, critic or writer should remain open-minded to new discoveries, and that no hierarchy should be regarded as set in stone.

There will be more Wine in Context moments over the next few days. If you are new to Wine in Context, a glance at Wine in Context #10: Return to Thieuley might be helpful. If you want to contribute, feel free to add your favourite moment in the comments below – or if you have a longer report from a great wine dinner, wine trip, wine tasting or other wine moment during 2015 you can email it to me, and I can host it on the blog for you.

Wine in Context #9: Jonathan Pabiot in Edinburgh

As we mature (a less hard-edged way of saying “grow older”) our circumstances change. Children (if you have any) also mature, gradually becoming more independent and responsible. It is a joy to watch, even if the majority of teenagers still have the ability to behave as if they were two-years old again at times. And financial situations often improve (although sadly this is never guaranteed – the costs of further education loom large for any family with aspirational youngsters filling out their university application forms). Sometimes, change doesn’t merely flow, but is the result of a concerted effort. Such as in January 2015, when I decided to make an effort to eat out more in Edinburgh.

A decade ago I used to eat out regularly, but that lifestyle soon ground to a halt. Having young children meant less free time, and less disposable income. I moved to Edinbugh, in the process losing a network of friends and family who provided a handy childminding service. And in truth I didn’t really move to Edinburgh, I moved to the countryside outside Edinburgh (where I could actually afford a house – Edinburgh house prices were crazy then, and they are still crazy now); and so dining out in Edinburgh meant driving (and deciding who drinks and who takes the wheel), or an extortionate taxi fare, or (not for the faint of heart) a three-hour round trip on the bus. It all conspired to make me happy to eat at home.

Jonathan Pabiot

So what’s changed? Partly my children are more independent, and don’t need a childminder. So that’s one hurdle cleared. Pretty soon the eldest will soon be able to take the wheel; when that happens, perhaps I will be able to cash in on the free taxi service I have provided for the past 17 years? I can be a passenger, rather than the driver? That will be another hurdle cleared (I’m looking forward to telephoning my personal chauffeur from the restaurant to request my ride home). Perhaps most importantly it was my attitude that changed. After an illness last year I decided that, while I would continue to work hard (Winedoctor updates are as regular as ever, and subscription numbers are now well into the thousands), I would also factor in a little more down-time if I could. Eating out more would be part of that.

My favourite dining experience of 2015 was Martin Wishart, where everything – cooking, service, ambience, wine – seemed to come together on the night. I will be going back in 2016. Ondine was another favourite, with superb fresh seafood, and the fact I have another table booked for next Monday only reflects this. Then came Timberyard, in itself the most exciting dinner of the year, although I struggled a bit with the hyper-natural selection of wines on the list, and I was glad for Mark Angeli, whose 2012 La Lune I spotted nestled deep in the Loire section. The Pompadour by Galvin was a surprise success, as when my eyes first took in the plush hotel-based setting I though this was going to be a tourist-trap, but the cooking was top-notch, the service largely spot on, and I left very content indeed. And for great value, it would be hard to beat Purslane, the cheapest dinner out this year by far, but with some very fine cooking on the night.

There have been some less successful evenings too, but that’s life; there’s no need to dwell on them here, and truth be told no dinner was disastrous. Every restaurant had its strong points. And for one or two that was the very sensible decision to list the wines of Jonathan Pabiot (pictured above in Angers in February this year). Thanks to a Scottish importer bringing in these wines they appeared on the majority of lists that passed before my eyes this year, and as a consequence in the past twelve months I have drunk more of his wines than anyone else’s. When the wine world wakes up and realises that, other than Louis-Benjamin’s wines themeselves, his wines are the closest in style and quality to Dagueneau’s to be found in the Pouilly-Fumé appellation (perhaps this will happen when the Wine Spectator finally writes him up), I will be able to look back and relish the many great bottles I have enjoyed. Along with many great dinners too of course.

Now, where’s my phone? It’s time to telephone for my driver.

There will be more Wine in Context moments over the next few days. If you are new to Wine in Context, a glance at Wine in Context #10: Return to Thieuley might be helpful. If you want to contribute, feel free to add your favourite moment in the comments below – or if you have a longer report from a great wine dinner, wine trip, wine tasting or other wine moment during 2015 you can email it to me, and I can host it on the blog for you.

Oaked Sauvignon Blanc, Part 2

Continuing on from Oaked Sauvignon Blanc Part 1, I want now to reflect on what I learnt at this tasting. Having sourced all the wines from the Loire Valley, you might think I would already know them well, but that’s not the case. This tasting was definitely an eye-opener for me.

Although I have tasted older Sancerre before – some vintages as old as 20 years – it has sometimes seemed a little hit and miss. I find older Muscadet the same, by the way. My experiences with them has taught me that both wines can age well (I acknowledge this goes against the grain of accepted wisdom, but happily stand by my assertion – because the accepted wisdom is hogwash), but some older wines I have tasted clearly haven’t done so well. The wines that turned my opinion around and gave me the confidence to participate in this event are those of Bertrand Minchin, particularly his Cuvée Honorine. Tasting this in its youth, I have always wondered about the purpose of the oak (and I thought the same when tasting other oaked Sauvignons). Why? But tasting the wines at 8-10 years of age I suddenly realised just how well they age. The oak seems to change the potential of the wine in this regard. These aren’t wines to be drunk young, as we would most Sauvignons. These are wines for the cellar.

Oaked Sauvignon Blanc

So I went ahead, and the eight domaines (see my previous post for their identities) sent vintages that ranged from 5 to 13 years old (i.e., 2010 back to 2002). I should point out that Henri Bourgeois graciously offered a range of vintages back to 1989, but I decided we should stick with 2002. But how would these older wines show? Would the oak integrate? Would the wines be tired? Would the lesser vintages (e.g. 2008) be too green? Old, tired, green but oaky wines could be a disaster. I was nervous. On the day, however, I was delighted, as soon as it became clear that the wines had aged beautifully. Sure, some were stronger than others, but on the whole they were fresh and vibrant, as a group of wines a wonderful showing. Generalising, they seemed to have greater focus than I expected, with defined evolving fruit, and the oak seemed to give structure but not influence the flavour once integrated. Even the younger wines (all from 2012) showed more harmony and integration than I expected.

By contrast, several of the wines from Bordeaux seemed quite tired, certainly oxidised in the case of one or two, the rest too young to perhaps make any definitive statement on aging. I expected these wines to sing with absolute confidence (after all, Bordeaux is for aging, isn’t it?) but on the day it wasn’t so. Some seemed a little flat by comparison. The younger vintages were, it has to be said, quite classic and defined though, and delicious. It was the older wines that let the side down here.

And so the tasting taught me three things (or at the very least it prompted me to ask three questions of myself). First, the ability of Loire Valley Sauvignon to age is surely under-rated. Yes, you have to know the domaine and the cuvée to go to, but the wines – oak-fermented and oak-aged – are out there. Denying it seems, to me, to be living in the past, inside the pages of a three-decade-old wine guide trotting out the ‘drink youngest available’ mantra. Second, Bordeaux Sauvignon-Semillon blends are perhaps (speaking of dry, non-botrytised wines) over-rated in their ability to age. Sure, we all know Haut-Brion and La Mission Haut-Brion do well with age, but experience with some wines from my own cellar suggests that this success cannot necessarily be extrapolated to other wines. It’s probably a little like my Loire Valley conclusion – you have to know which wines to go to.

And the third thing I learnt? I was surprised how grateful I felt when people came up and said ‘hello’ on the day. It seemed to justify the whole experience and more particularly my involvement in it, and regardless of whether tasters liked the wines or not (because we all have our own tastes and preferences), it made the time and effort I put into sourcing the Loire wines, and the generosity the domaines had shown in sending them over, all worthwhile. I learnt that this is something I should remember next time I attend a tasting arranged and hosted by somebody else.

I guess what really matters, though, are the wines and how the tasters viewed them. I will publish some thoughts next week, for subscribers, and I look forward to seeing how other tasters found the wines when they publish their reports.

Oaked Sauvignon Blanc, Part 1

Last Monday I hosted an Oaked Sauvignon Blanc tasting, along with Richard Bampfield and Jean-Christophe Mau of Château Brown. It was great fun. Jean-Christophe and Richard put forward a selection of white Bordeaux (so Sauvignon-Semillon blends on their side really) with vintages ranging from 1999 (although most wines were no older than 2006) through to 2012. My role was to sort out the Loire side of things.

I wanted to focus on the crème de la crème of the Loire Valley when it comes to oak and Sauvignon Blanc, so I chose domaines where the wine was fermented in oak with subsequent élevage in oak (not wines fermented in steel and then thrown into wood, or treated with chips or staves) and I also wanted domaines using a good proportion of new oak (not just a few old barrels they have had lying around for 20 years). Secondly, I wanted to ensure those domaines historically associated with the style, and who pioneered it (i.e. Henri Bourgeois especially) were involved. And thirdly, because oaked Sauvignon Blanc isn’t about drinking it young (this is where most people go wrong I think – oaked Sauvignon needs time in the cellar to show its best, just as we would expect with wines from Pessac-Léognan, or Burgundy, or anywhere else where white varieties and oak come together) I also wanted to ensure that for every young wine included we had a matching older vintage.

Oaked Sauvignon Blanc

Perhaps most importantly, I just used my knowledge of who is just doing it, and who is doing it well. I therefore came up with a shortlist of eight domaines and wines, as follows (including the vintages I managed to procure):

La Tour Saint-Martin, Menetou-Salon Cuvée Honorine, 2012 & 2002
Alain Cailbourdin, Pouilly-Fumé Triptyque, 2012 & 2008
Masson-Blondelet, Pouilly-Fumé Cullus, 2012 & 2002
Didier Dagueneau, Pouilly-Fumé Silex, 2012 & 2002
Lucien Crochet, Sancerre Cul de Beaujeu, 2012 & 2010
Alphonse Mellot, Sancerre Satellite, 2012 & 2008
Vincent Pinard, Sancerre Petit Chemarin, 2012 & 2008
Henri Bourgeois, Sancerre Cuvée Etienne Henri, 2012 & 2002

I will be writing up the tasting, including my notes on these wines as well as those from Bordeaux (which included Château Smith-Haut-Lafitte, ‘Y’ d’Yquem, Domaine de Chevalier, Château Brown & others), for subscribers, in the very near future. First I just wanted to quickly reflect on the tasting, but also to give out some thanks to those who helped, especially Bertrand Minchin, Alain Cailbourdin, Pierre-François & Mélanie Masson and Arnaud Bourgeois, who all sent me bottles straight from their cellars. I would also like to thank Charlotte Dagueneau, Alphonse & Emmanuelle Mellot and Clémence Pinard, who all sent their bottles via Charles Sydney. And I would like to thank Charles himself for his help, as well as Jules Campbell of Justerini & Brooks, who brought Lucien Crochet on board. Thanks also to Richard and Jean-Christophe for inviting me to show the Loire off in this manner.

Thanks too also to all those who came to taste the wines, of course.

I think I learnt three things at this tasting, but reflecting on it here, following all these thanks, seems like an afterthought. I will save these reflections for a subsequent post, tomorrow.