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A Few from the 1980s

After my recent review of the wines of the ever-popular Barsac estate Château Climens, featuring vintages back to 1981 and 1979, I was reminded that one of the aims of buying and cellaring wine was that, eventually, you’re supposed to retrieve the bottles from those dark and dingy corners of the cellar where they slumber, and drink them. With that in mind I pulled a few more bottles from the 1980s (I’m a bit short on representation from the 1970s, to be honest) in the past few weeks.

Two red wines first, beginning with an old favourite from my early days of wine exploration when I think I probably knew a lot more about the Rhône Valley than I do now. I’ve enjoyed a few bottles of this vintage of Vieux Télégraphe over the years, and happily I have one or two bottles still remaining. This one showed very well, on a par with the very appealing 1989 Castillo Ygay Gran Reserva Especial from Marqués de Murrieta. Having said that, I think I would choose the latter over the former on most occasions; there’s just something very special about older Rioja. As for the 1989 Chasse-Spleen, I approached this with caution, as my last bottle had been rather off. This one, however, was just singing.

Three sweet wines follow, again from the 1988 and 1989 vintages. The 1989 Coutet has to be my favourite of the three, although I was very impressed by the 1989 Coteaux du Layon Les Coteaux from Domaine de la Roulerie. The wine over-performed for the appellation I think, even if the style was quite tertiary and unusual. I asked modern-day proprietor Philippe Germain about Les Coteaux and he didn’t have a clue which part of the vineyard it came from. The property was in the hands of the previous owner in 1989, and it doesn’t seem that very good records were kept. The 1988 Quarts de Chaume from Château Bellerive was also showing well, although perhaps not at the level I have experienced with other bottles. Perhaps this vintage is just tiring a little now. Perhaps, being honest, I have changed my expectation of what Quarts de Chaume can and should be. I have a few left; they should perhaps be drunk up, but I think I will keep them for some time yet, as an academic investigation into the plateau and decline of aged Quarts de Chaume if nothing else.

The final wine, from Warre, is still going strong even at over 30 years. It is a long way from the most highly regarded of vintages, but these bottles prove a consistent source of pleasure.

Tasting Notes

Domaine du Vieux Télégraphe Châteauneuf du Pape 1988: For the appellation this has a surprisingly pale hue, showing moderate depth at its core, but fading out to an orange-tawny rim. The nose is evolved and expressive, and more interesting than I recall from previous tastings, with rich black truffle aromas, and sweet leather notes on top. There are faint tinges of game as well, but it is somewhat brighter than this description suggests, as there is also bay leaf and juniper berry to be found here. This is fleshy on the palate, so there is no suggestion that this might be drying out, and there is still quite some grip and spice to it; there is quite some energy here in fact. Long and savoury. Showing a slightly more convincing character than my poor memory tells me it has done before, although looking back at previous notes I said very similar things. A good wine indeed, and clearly very long lived. 17.5/20 (September 2013)

Marqués de Murrieta Rioja Castillo Ygay Gran Reserva Especial 1989: My last bottle of this, unless I am mistaken. Still plenty of colour in the decanter and glass, and as we would expect after prolonged wood-aging very little sediment too. The nose is really quite bright and feels a little lean at first, and it takes a couple of hours to really open up. Nice charcoal-tinged and cranberry-cherry fruit character on the nose, with the sweetness of fresh leather, scented with notes of sage, rosemary and black olive. Dark and slightly introverted, and yet defined and bright, like a slightly sour black cherry, to be more precise. Certainly an interesting nose here, captivating now, but with potential still. Some of these elements come through on the palate, with piles of fresh acids, gentle and rather reserved substance and a firm, bright, acid-bound character. A middle-weight wine, still with a savoury extract and substance, and plenty of fresh structure though. Still very good indeed. And very long too. 18/20 (September 2013)

Château Chasse-Spleen (Moulis) 1989: The last bottle I had of this, probably about three years ago now (where does the time go?) was obviously not showing well; this wine is absolutely singing on this occasion. The colour in the decanter and glass is confidently dark, with a nicely pigmented although certainly maturing rim. But it is in the nose that the wine truly reassures, with perfumed black fruits laced with hints of violets, and as it evolves in the glass also black tea leaves, bloody iron filings and even a hint of game. The palate shows a lovely harmony, and gentle sweetness, some really appealing grip and substance, and in the finish tangible extract and fresh structure. There’s a little length to it. Hugely convincing despite the wine’s age, with complex tertiary nuances of citrus alongside the more classically evolved character. On the whole, this is quite lovely. 17.5/20 (September 2013)

Château de la Roulerie Coteaux du Layon Les Coteaux 1989: This wine has a gentle, burnished gold. The nose is intriguing, opening out slowly over the course of an hour or so, showing scents of coffee and orange cake, with crunchy fruit. Overall it is fairly intense, with tertiary nuances of baked ham and cigar smoke. Despite this overly evolved character on the nose there is no suggestion that this wine is at the end of its life on the palate. There is still a glorious substance to it, a gently fleshy character with subtle hints of Demerara sugar, coffee, roasted plantain, baked corn and even a touch of sage. This is certainly complex and multi-faceted, although to be fair as the wine is given more time it does seem to tighten down into a lightly chewy, tangerine and peach sweetness, with a gently mellifluous texture. Overall, a lovely wine. 17/20 (September 2013)

Château Bellerive Quarts de Chaume 1988: A moderately rich orange-gold hue. The fruit on the nose is rich although certainly tempered by an organic and savoury edge to it. There is a seam of straw, desiccated fruit, dried apricot and lightly baked oranges. Does this latter element suggest a little oxidation on this particular bottle? The palate has a beautifully polished character, still showing a rich and deep sweetness despite the wine’s age, Very harmonious, with gentle acidity. Certainly no oxidation here, the fruit rich and concentrated, with a firm phenolic substance to the wine giving it a really appealing pithy grip towards the end, finishing up with some spice and a really fine length. Still showing the straw and sweetness of previous bottles, but not the caramel tinges I have noted. Overall, still delicious, but perhaps not at the level I have scored some bottles previously. 17/20 (September 2013)

Château Coutet (Sauternes) 1989: In the glass this has a rich, really quite fabulous orange-golden hue. The aromatics are no less remarkable than its rather radiant appearance, the fruit character redolent of bitter oranges, but this is more than matched by the scents of almonds, hazelnuts and praline also in evidence. It feels very lightly high-toned as well though, a sensation swirled with touches of quince and more of that bitter orange. The palate shows all of these flavours, with roasted botrytis character, carried along by a fabulously sweet, polished texture. There is also a layer of caramel underpinning it all, a great texture and obvious residual sugar. This is still going strong; no rush here. 18/20 (September 2013)

Warre’s Vintage Port 1980: A very fine, pure hue here, still with plenty of pigment and life to it. A very fine, savoury but pure and rather fragrant fruit on the nose, with some slightly sooty notes under the violets, but it is the fragrancy that dominates. This sense of purity comes through on the palate, which is very harmonious at the start and it maintains this character through the middle, and although it has grip and spirit to show here it remains appealing, composed and fresh. A wine of substance and light structure, more perhaps the texture and approachable sweetness is more prominent. There are figs, a fine macerated fruit character, and a firm, spicy backbone. The vintage is not regarded as a great one, but this is still a very fine and approachable wine. 17.5/20 (September 2013)

Harvest Reports: Useful or Useless?

There’s some interesting chat on Twitter today about reporting on a vintage before, during or after harvest time, and whether such early reports have any validity. Some say it’s too soon to make any meaningful comment on the vintage, and that journalists lacking in viticultural qualifications and winemaking experience are not in a position to comment anyway. Others, you will perhaps not be surprised to learn, feel different.

Any tasting report has to have some context; there are issues with primeurs samples, just-bottled wines and even older samples that have to be taken into consideration. The further in advance the report is of the moment when we will eventually want to drink the wine, the more caveats there should be. Harvest reports are really an extreme version of this; they have validity, and provide information, but the caveats are huge, and any ideas we might develop on the wine’s future would have to be very broad. Nobody, for instance, would start scoring at the point of the grapes having just been pressed (I can hear it now, “I give this fantastic Merlot juice a hundred points”).

Although the ideas formed may be broad, they are at least evidence-based. Here is a list of some useful information that can be gleaned from a harvest-time visit.

1. The growing season. A report on the weather during the season and through harvest can give a strong indication as to whether or not there is any hope for good quality.

2. Technical analyses of ripeness can be made, even out among the vines. Knowledge of sugar concentrations and potential alcohol can be informative; my Pithon-Paillé report coming tomorrow provides a good example.

3. Yields. Tying in with the weather report, information can be gained on the yields, and whether this reflects the growing season, or the wishes of the vigneron.

4. The condition of the grapes; are they clean and healthy, or are they peppered with rot? And if so, what’s the discard? What are the mechanisms for examining the grapes and excluding rot?

5. Otherwise, what is the fruit like; small hard berries with thick skins, or larger berries, with a higher juice-to-solids ratio?

Sorting at Sociando-Mallet, October 2012

6. Has the decision to pick been made on the basis of the fruit having reached optimal technical and physiological ripeness, or has it been rushed on by the threat of rain or some other problem?

7. Are the harvest dates relevant? Is it an early harvest, or a very late one? Either can have some influence on the style and quality of the eventual wines.

8. What’s the juice like, is it tasting fresh, rich and clean? Is it a bit green (like some I tasted in Bordeaux in the 2012 vintage)?

9. Visitors also see for themselves what’s going on in terms of selection in the vineyard, method of picking (machine or hand), sorting by hand, table de triage, machine-sorting (such as a Tri-Baie machine) or digital-optical sorting.

10. Finally, it’s also a good chance to connect with the vignerons. They may be busy, but it is one time of the year that you are guaranteed that they will be there, and not on holiday, or off showing their wines at one of the many Salons.

In short, no harvest report is a cast-iron guarantee of the quality of the wines that will result. It’s a first glance at the potential for the vintage. Reports should in my opinion be delivered in that context, expressing hope or concern for the quality of the wine, but no more than that. Harvest reports that declare “this is the vintage of the millennium” or indeed “this vintage is a wash out” are unwise and ultimately probably misleading.

Loire Misunderstood #3: Light and Easy-Drinking Reds

The Loire is renowned for the quality of its reds, light and easy-drinking wines that require little in the way of cellaring, and which often benefit from a light chill,” I was once informed by a major wine publication. Well, it went along those lines anyway, so I’m paraphrasing, and paraphrasing from memory at that. But that was the gist of the message. The Loire is defined, as far as the red wines go, by their light character and easy, approachable style.

It is not an uncommon belief, but as I have already expounded in my previous Loire Misunderstood posts on Muscadet and Oysters and on Herbaceous Reds, common beliefs often seem – on closer and more questioning inspection – to be somewhat wide of the mark.

This is certainly true of how the red wines of the Loire are treated by the mainstream English-language wine press. I make this linguistic distinction as I find the attitude in French wine publications, even mainstream magazines such as La Revue des Vins de France as well as more esoteric publications such as Le Rouge et Le Blanc, to be very different. Here the wines are regarded with greater respect, catalogued, tasted and scored in just the same manner as wines from Bordeaux or Burgundy. The English wine writing world, however, is content to keep the Loire stuffed head first into an easy-drinking pigeon-hole, its whites crisp, floral and summery, its reds – largely Cabernet Franc (a few berries pictured below), of course – being lean, crisp and low in tannin. I do on occasion wonder whether this prejudice reflects a deeper and more negative view of the Loire, one in which the entire region simply isn’t taken seriously.

If Bordeaux or Burgundy were treated in the same way by the wine press as the Loire then neither region would be of any interest. Take Bordeaux first; with its grand cru classé estates, this is a serious wine region. The fact that most Bordeaux – all that generic early-picked, high-yield wine from Merlot vines on dodgy soils – is fairly lean and mean stuff doesn’t seem to matter, as this isn’t how the region is defined. It is defined by the pinnacles of achievements, the Le Pins, the Haut-Brions, wines for cellaring and obsessing over. Likewise, look at Burgundy. This is also a serious wine region, and when we talk of Burgundy our thoughts automatically turn to wines from Montrachet, from Echézeaux, from Chambertin. That these wines constitute only a few percent of the region’s entire output, and that most wine from the region is fairly tart and uninteresting doesn’t sway our opinion of the region. The same can be said of Champagne, or of Alsace, and perhaps more distant regions too. In each case we define the region in question by its most iconic and most ageworthy styles, not by the huge volumes of inauspicious wine turned out at the generic end.

But not in the Loire, where the region remains defined by the light and lean easy-drinking majority, the same majority found in Bordeaux and Burgundy. And yet the Loire has the same pinnacles of achievement as these other regions. For red wines, the most superior are perhaps to be found along the tuffeau slopes that extend east from Chinon, where estates such as Bernard Baudry, Charles Joguet, Philippe Alliet and Pascal Lambert (and many others) are to be found. Alternatively, on the limestone at the back of the town, we have the wines of Couly Dutheil. All of these wines can be drunk young, just as wines from Burgundy or Bordeaux can be, but they will give far more pleasure if they are left to age for some time. And even lesser, sandy terroirs, to the west of the town, have the capability to turn out fascinating and ageworthy wines, as fans of Olga Raffault know only too well. Wines of similar capability can also be found in Bourgueil and St Nicolas de Bourgueil, from the likes of Yannick Amirault and Pierre Jacques Druet of course.

These are the wines by which these appellations should be judged, and which should define – or pigeon-hole, if you like – the region. Long-lived Cabernet Franc from (mostly) limestone terroirs, these are the Haut-Brions and the Le Pins of the Loire. The fact that there are many wines produced alongside that are lighter and for drinking younger should not dissuade us of this view. These are no more for “early drinking” than the wines of Pauillac, Pessac-Léognan or Pomerol. I need to open my bottles of 2003 La Croix Boisée from Baudry about as much as I need to open my 2003 Le Pin (if I had some – if it even existed – ha ha!). So let’s have a little more equality in the way these red wine appellations are regarded and reported on, please.

Vouvray Hail: Update

The Vouvray syndicat have released a statement regarding the hail, on which I reported yesterday morning here.

The press release confirms the information I received (and reported on Twitter) yesterday; two-thirds of the vineyard were hit. Of 3000 hectares eligible for the appellation, there are currently 2200 hectares planted, so this means approximately 1500 hectares were affected.

The damage ranges from 20% on some plots to 100% on others. Those with 100% damage have clearly lost everything for this year, as there is no hope of recovery and production of ripe grapes before harvest would be due. Indeed, some have suggested that the damage to the vines was enough to knock out next year’s harvest as well.

The worst affected communes were Parçay-Meslay, Vouvray, Rochecorbon, Vernou-sur-Brenne and Reugny (five of the eight communes eligible for the Vouvray appellation).

Vouvray hail, 2013, by Peter Hahn

Above is a picture of some hail damage, taken by Peter Hahn of Clos de la Meslerie. Peter’s vines were undamaged, so he is one of the lucky ones. Just a few hundred metres away, though, vines have been stripped bare of leaves and the embryonic flower bunches, as shown above.

The press release indicates that syndicat representatives will be meeting with “local and national government officials” to discuss possible aid. Although, as the release points out, hail is not classed as a “natural disaster” and so I am sure the vignerons aren’t holding their breath (update: actually things look more positive than this old cynic imagined – further details from local authorities suggest aid may be forthcoming). With this in mind it has been great to see some support expressed for the growers, with fans of François Pinon on the Wine Disorder forum obviously keen to do something. Well done to them.

Hail in Vouvray: Extensive Damage

I’m saddened to report that this morning a hailstorm cut a path across Touraine, depositing huge hailstones across much of Vouvray. The damage has been extensive, with some vignerons suffering 100% hail damage to the vineyards.

Vouvray weather reportThe hailstorm cut a path from west to east over Tours, running across the northern part of the Vouvray vineyard. The weather map to the right shows the location of the storm, the red dot being Vernou, just east of Vouvray, and well within the Vouvray appellation of course.

I spoke to Tania Carême, Vincent Carême’s wife, who reported most in the commune were still in a state of shock. The hail stones were as large as hen’s eggs, and in some places piled up in drifts 20 centimetres deep. They damaged cars (smashing windscreens and denting the metalwork), battered roofs, and of course where they hit vineyards they stripped the vines in entirety, leaving only bare wooden stems. This late in the season, this surely means no chance of recovery.

A few but not all have suffered total devastation. François Pinon has reported all his vineyards have been hit with hail, with the entire crop lost. Sebastien Brunet has suffered extensive but not total devastation. François Chidaine’s Vouvray vineyards have been hit, althogh those of Peter Hahn have largely been spared I believe. Vincent Carême has suffered across 5 hectares, with about 80% loss on those (largely the sparkling wine vineyards), although another 10 hectares were not hit. Le Peu Morier, on the première côte, was not hit, but other vineyards just 100 metres further on were. Montlouis is totally untouched – it is the northern section of Vouvray that has been hit hardest, especially up the Vallée de Cousse, Chançay and Vaugondy.

It seems as though the damage has not quite been 100%, but it looks massive. I will hopefully bring more news and maybe pictures later.

Loire Misunderstood #2: Muscadet is for Oysters

When I started this series of “Loire Misunderstood” posts with my comments on herbaceousness in red wines I had maybe a handful of topics to cover. A week or two later and that list has grown somewhat; it is now as long as my arm! I was going to continue ticking off my list in this second post by tackling another Loire red wine misconception, but instead – having just returned from a couple of days in Muscadet country – it is to this most misunderstood and maligned wine region I turn next.

Wherever you are reading this, I can guarantee you have at least heard of Muscadet, even if you have never even seen a bottle or tasted the wine. It used to be one of those ubiquitous wine list staples, the name itself becoming a byword for a light, breezy, inoffensive white quaffer. A few decades ago the UK fell in love with it; plantings increased dramatically and production soared, but ultimately quality fell. Eventually (in the UK at least) the name became associated not with something fresh and fun, but something watery and weak. A joke wine. A wine to be avoided, if you valued the enamel on your teeth. Prices plummeted. Generalising wildly, this remains the overarching view of Muscadet (in the UK at least), and although the UK remains an important market in terms of volume, the region’s vignerons are usually much happier selling to the USA and Japan (two other very significant markets) where they can at least get a decent price.

A quick aside; I wonder if there is a lesson in here somewhere for the producers of Prosecco, a word which – as ‘Muscadet’ once did – has entered the lexicon of non-geek UK drinkers (and maybe elsewhere too?). I suspect few of these new Prosecco fans could name any other Italian DOC/DOCG (except perhaps Chianti) but the word Prosecco trips off the tongues of more and more drinkers in recent times. I have heard it name-checked as an after work tipple, and seen it necked back at midday on a train, as I had the misfortune to share a railway carriage with a large hen party on the way to a weekend of drinking (their food match in this case was several bags of Haribo confectionery). Let’s hope the Prosecco producers don’t fluff it up as others have done in the past. But I digress; this is not a story for me to concern myself with here. Back to Muscadet.

If you were to take a straw poll of drinkers, asking for their opinion of Muscadet, I think you might get answers along these lines. The wine is:

1. Cheap, because it should be, because it’s tasteless, characterless wine.
2. It’s lean and acidic, maybe a result of poor ripening in a cool climate, high volume cropping, and a careless approach to viticulture.
3. It’s made for drinking with oysters. Or other weird seafood (last week I tasted sea urchin for the first time – haven’t seen that in my local Aldi or Lidl!) nobody eats. Therefore there’s little point in buying it, as I don’t like oysters. Or I do, but I don’t eat them at home. Or I prefer Chablis. Or Champagne.
4. It’s a simple wine made for drinking young. Avoid buying the 2011 vintage, it’s too old; stick with the 2012s. Old Muscadets aren’t good; they certainly don’t taste like Muscadet any more.

That’s a lot of negativity. And before you decry my pastiche of the Muscadet critic, my imagination is not running wild. I heard some (not all, thankfully!) of these criticisms coming not from the mouths of wine drinkers polled on the street, but from UK wine experts – writers, critics and journalists – who accompanied me on a trip to Muscadet last week. I would disagree with all of the points above. But I’m only going to tackle one here, and let’s start with oysters.

Muscadet and oysters

To be honest, I do think Muscadet is the perfect oyster wine. Others have a different opinion; the inhabitants of Nantes, for example, actually regard Folle Blanche (otherwise delightfully known as Gros Plant de Pays Nantais – sounds disgusting, doesn’t it?) as the ideal oyster wine. In Bordeaux they often pour Pessac-Léognan, naturally. At a rather crazy soirée at Château La Fleur de Boüard a few years ago, hosted by proprietor Hubert de Boüard de Laforest, there were only red wines for drinking. Ugh. But for me it is Muscadet, every day.

That does not mean, however, that Muscadet only works with oysters. Or even only with seafood. Muscadet has changed; there are intra-appellation differences, different soil types giving very different wines, and new crus communaux (if you find the term confusing, just think ‘crus‘ or even ‘premiers crus‘ – this is, essentially, what these new zones are) which yield wines with unique characters and richer substances. The light, zippy, saline bite of a wine from serpentinite or amphibolite (both igneous rocks) is delightful with oysters. But other wines, richer wines from gabbro, gneiss, orthogneiss or the richest of all, granite, will happily see off any shellfish, and also white fish including – in the past week, in Nantes – sea bass and john dory. Step up to the crus communaux, wines made from older vines, with lower yields, aged sur lie typically for two years, and you have wines that work well with white meat, light game meats such as guinea fowl, veal and foie gras (I was in a minority on this one, but it worked for me). Once you move to the extremes of styles coming out of the region you have wines that defy the name Muscadet altogether. Take Cuvée Bruno, from Bruno Cormerais, poured for me blind by David Cobbold in Angers a couple of years ago; this wine had me guessing the grape as Chenin Blanc, Romorantin or even Verdelho before somebody clicked it had to be Melon de Bourgogne. These wines are rewriting the Muscadet rule book.

These experimental wines, and the crus communaux wines, are to generic Muscadet what Le Clos and Valmur are to generic Chablis. They are clearly of the same family, but they operate on a very different level. Chablis might be your choice for fish cakes on a Tuesday evening, but Le Clos would surely be better suited to faison à la Normande served for Sunday dinner. These different purposes do not invalidate either style; they are both, we would hopefully agree, ‘Chablis’. And a generic Muscadet Sèvre et Maine sur lie would be fine on Thursday with a salad of dressed crab, but with roasted guinea fowl on Saturday evening a bottle from Clisson, one of the first three crus communaux to be ratified by the INAO (six more are set to follow), would be my choice.

So, can we please get over this misinformed, blinkered view that Muscadet is just one style of wine, that works with oysters, and nothing else? Because, quite simply, such a view is about ten years out of date.

Fizz from Francois Pinon

It’s been a while since I caught up with the fizzy Vouvrays of François Pinon. Here are notes on two older (but not old – good sparkling Vouvray can age just as well as the tranquille stuff!) bottles from the cellar. Having said that, these two seem to be on a plateau at best.

François Pinon Vouvray

François Pinon Vouvray Brut Non-Dosé 2006: Purchased Summer 2008, at the domaine. A pale straw-golden hue, and after a gently effusive start a rather lazy bead. The nose has evolved here, not surprising as it seems to be three years since I last took a look at this wine. There are scents of toasted hazelnuts now, and a little brioche, although it may sound rich it actually still feels bright and lightly minerally. The palate has a nice substance, and doesn’t display its non-dosé character too plainly, although the end of the palate does feel pretty dry. Rather gentle, attractive, with a firm and defined texture. An attractive wine, although nothing much to be gained here by keeping longer I think. 16.5/20 (May 2013)

François Pinon Vouvray Brut NV: Despite previous bottles having a ‘sparse’ bead, this one seems quite confident. The nose suggests rich apples and coffee, slightly sweet in terms of depth, but also slightly grainy. The palate has the same character on the start of the palate, showing some evolved, honeyed, bitter character, suggestive of coffee grounds, and caramelised apples, mirroring the aromas on the nose. It feels much softer and more integrated than previously, with a burnt sugar twist, but with a flavour that has lost some of its freshness and defined zip as a consequnce. 16/20 (May 2013)

Loire Misunderstood #1: Herbaceousness

It was only yesterday that I came across a curious opinion on the wines of the Loire. Where I came across it, and what that opinion was isn’t important (right now, anyway) but it started me thinking about other beliefs that exist regarding these wines. Some beliefs make perfect sense, but I could also think of some that are blatantly false, or at the very least open to question. In this post, and in a series of future posts (which will no doubt be published at erratic and seemingly random intervals – in other words, whenever I get the time), I will look at some of these beliefs – or misconceptions as I have called them – with a focus on those that, essentially, wind me up the most.

In this first post, herbaceousness in reds.

In particular I am referring to Cabernet Franc in Anjou and Touraine. Clearly there are other varieties planted here (Grolleau, Gamay, Pinot Noir and others) but it is Cabernet that is foremost in my mind, mainly because this variety is the backbone of the Loire ‘heartland’, including Chinon, Bourgueil, St Nicolas de Bourgueil, Saumur and Anjou Rouge. Cabernet Sauvignon also plays a role here of course, notably in Anjou Rouge where it produces (from the likes of Yves Guégniard and Vincent Ogereau) some magnificent wines.

I don’t mean to delve too deeply into a tangential scientific discourse, but it is worth looking quickly at the story of methoxypyrazines, a major cause of the greener aromas and flavours that can be found in Cabernet Franc (pictured above….in Bordeaux, admittedly) and Cabernet Sauvignon. If the word methoxypyrazine sounds vaguely familiar to you, that’s probably because from time to time it crops up in tasting notes for Sauvignon Blanc, as early-picked grapes are still rich in methoxypyrazine when harvested and it is seen as a characteristic (and by some desirable) feature of Sauvignon Blanc. Cabernet Franc is another variety with a tendency to methoxypyrazine production, and so too is Cabernet Sauvignon (hardly surprising when we remember that the latter variety is the progeny of the first two).

Methoxypyrazines exist in high levels in raw vegetables (as well as ‘raw’ unripe grapes I suppose) and their presence lends a vegetal aroma which can veer away from herbaceousness into the vegetable box; green capsicum is classic, but I have sensed everything from green bean, celery and celeriac (quite common) to beetroot, courgette and aubergine (less common). All can be put down to the presence of methoxypyrazines, in particular 2-methoxy-3-isobutylpyrazine.

Methoxypyrazines are synthsised by the grapevine, and levels increase until véraison. Work by Hashizume & Samuta in 1999 demonstrated that once colour change and ripening was underway, however, levels fall rapidly, then continue to slowly decrease as harvest approaches. This occurs under the influence of light, so leaf plucking to increase exposure can help. The key point here for me, though, is that detectable levels of methoxypyrazines (in excess of 15 ng/l) indicate unripeness (although late rain promoting vine growth can also be important). Pick later, you get ripe grapes, and no herbaceous, leafy, green pepper or other vegetal aromas.

Now look at these extracts from decanter.com’s online guide to grape varieties:

On Cabernet Franc:…[o]utside Bordeaux it’s the major red grape of the Loire, where it’s more herbaceous in style…

On Cabernet Sauvignon:…[i]t tends towards herbaceousness when not fully ripe with capsicum and grassy undertones…

This approach mystifies me. For one variety in one region, a wine is regarded as under-ripe when herbaceous. For a second variety in another, it is a matter of ‘style’. As you might imagine, I disagree. I taste a lot of wines from the Loire, and those that are green (celery, green pepper or otherwise) are not expressing a Loire ‘style’, but are in my opinion demonstrating classic Cabernet signs of under-ripeness. We do not define Bordeaux, Burgundy or indeed any other famous wine region by the lesser, under-ripe wines that can be found there, made by uninterested growers or the result of wetter and weaker vintages. We do not drink English red wines, content that the greener flavours are part of the English ‘style’. Why, then, do some insist on doing the same with the Loire?

Taste the wines of a grower who seeks out quality and ripeness – Matthieu Baudry, Yannick Amirault, Antoine Sanzay, Vincent Ogereau to name but four – and you will not, on the whole, find green is a character of the wines. You will find purity, definition, clean fruit, vibrant structures, occasionally soft and welcoming textures. As delicious as any ripe Bordeaux or Burgundy, but still displaying lots of real Loire style, which reflects the terroir, not the ripeness of the fruit.

Terroir is a topic for another day though. For the moment, can we please stop judging the Loire by unripe wines made by co-operatives and bored vignerons, and peddled by those with a perhaps distorted, certainly outdated view of the wines of the Loire?

Further reading: Grape maturity and light exposure affect berry methoxypyrazine concentration, Am J Enol Vitic, 1999, 50:194-198, Hashizume K, Samuta T

Decanter Judging: Grand Variety

Wednesday was another day of judging on behalf of Decanter, on the Decanter World Wine Awards, and sadly this was my last day here this year, as I have commitments on Thursday and Friday that I simply can’t break. That’s a shame, as the Loire judging led by Jim Budd is continuing on for another two days, and no doubt there are many good wines yet to be tasted.

Today’s panel was only slightly different to that of yesterday. Myself and chairman Jim Budd were again joined by Loire expert Richard Kelley MW, pictured below in a similarly serious pose as that struck yesterday.

Decanter World Wine Awards
 
Replacing Véronique Rivest, who was judging on a different panel today, was Nigel Wilkinson of the RSJ restaurant. Nigel is a stalwart of the Loire panel and he has been tasting, buying, drinking, serving (his restaurant is renowned for its Loire-focused wine list) and judging the wines of the Loire far longer than I have.

Decanter World Wine Awards
 
There was joy in the variety of wines today, as although there was a fair amount of Sauvignon Blanc in the middle of the day, from almost every Loire appellation you could care to name, there were plenty of other styles too. We started with some sparkling wines and then Muscadet, and finished up with a sequence of flights featuring Chenin Blanc (mainly Savennières, Saumur and a little demi-sec Vouvray), red wines (mainly Touraine Pinot Noir, Gamay and Côt) and then a flight of sweet wines, from the Coteaux du Layon and Bonnezeaux appellations. Quality was up and down (isn’t it always) but there were certainly some gold medal opportunities here today.

Decanter Judging: Sauvignon City

Today was a good day judging at the Decanter World Wine Awards. I think the strongest feature of these awards is the regional focus, and I always judge on the Loire panel. And always intend to, for as long as they keep inviting me back, anyway.

Today’s panel was a strong one; pictured below are panel chairman Jim Budd (on the right) who I suspect needs no introduction. He appears to be listening intently here to fellow panel member Véronique Rivest (on the left), who came fresh from success in a global sommelier competition in Tokyo, where she finished in second place. She is French-Canadian, and has a newspaper column and radio slot as well as working as a sommelier.

Decanter World Wine Awards

Also on the panel was Richard Kelley MW (pictured below, deeply engrossed in a glass of Cheverny, his new favourite appellation). I have a lot of respect for Richard, who knows his stuff and knows the Loire very well, but this is the first chance I have had to taste alongside him. As I expected, I learnt from him during the course of the day, as I listened to his opinions on the wines. Judging with Decanter can be very beneficial that way, I have found.

Decanter World Wine Awards

The tasting day went smoothly; organisation here, led by Sarah Kemp and her team, is always good. Today started with Muscadet, where there were some good wines, with the 2009 and 2012 vintages showing strongest, and we handed out some medals. The same was true with a later flight of Pouilly-Fumé, with the 2012 strutting its stuff here, giving us another medal-awarding opportunity. Along the way we saw sparkling wines, Cheverny, Cour-Cheverny, Saumur, Chinon, Touraine whites and reds and of course plenty more Sauvignon Blanc, from all appellations. There were medal opportunities in every flight.

I will be judging again tomorrow but that will be it for this year, as I have commitments later in the week I can’t break. Let’s hope there are some sweet wines tomorrow, as these are always the highlight, and so I don’t want to miss them with not judging on Thursday or Friday. There may still be some 2010s and certainly some 2011s in the system, both good vintages. Who knows, we might see some more gold medal candidates to add to the golds awarded today.