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There is More to Sancerre than Sancerre

I spent a day last week in Sancerre, visiting domaines in Chavignol and Bué (as well as a flying visit across the Loire to Pouilly-Fumé). It got me thinking about what Sancerre is, and why some people reject it and some adore it. And I also got to thinking about how Sancerre is farmed and how the wines – or rather the appellation as a whole – is marketed, particularly in contrast with other regions, especially Burgundy which is not that far away (Sancerre is closer to Chablis than it is to Vouvray – apologies if I am repeating myself with this little nugget).

I can’t address all my thoughts here but I can the first one. There is certainly more than one ‘type’ of Sancerre (and no, I don’t mean red versus white, or oaked versus unoaked!), just as there is more than one type of Chablis. Simply because, I think, there is more than one type of terroir here. This was most apparent tasting with Jean-Paul Labaille at Domaine Thomas-Labaille. He opened with his 2014 L’Authentique tasted from cuve, an entry-level wine which is pretty, with clean fruit in the floral vein, and fresh acidity. It was an attractive sample, and a wine which once bottled I could certainly drink, but it lacked any hint of minerality, and for that reason it lacked a little interest too. Jean-Paul knows this, and he described it as a “Vin de Sancerre”, implying a ‘generic’ style.

Sancerre

Then it was onto Jean-Paul’s other cuvées, from a number of different parcels in Chavignol, and suddenly there it was, all the powdery, rocky, flinty minerality I look for in this appellation. These you might call varietal rather than terroir wines, but Jean-Paul thinks of each of his as a “Vin de Chavignol”. It was, for me, and for him I think, the minerality that set these wines apart. I found the same minerality later in the day, tasting in Chavignol again, and also in Bué (Chavignol doesn’t have a monopoly on minerality). Within the appellation this distinction between some sites or indeed villages and more ‘generic’ Sancerre seems well recognised, although not always well-received. I remember not that long ago receiving a somewhat cross message from one vigneron, based right in the heart of Sancerre, when I featured a wine I described as being “from Chavignol” on Winedoctor. “Chavignol is not an appellation” was the general tone of the reply. I guess the fact that Chavignol was written large on the label, much more prominently than Sancerre, didn’t help.

Sancerre is a vineyard of slopes, classically with wheat planted on the windswept plateau and in the too-fertile valleys (as pictured above, the little road in bottom-left being the route out from Sancerre to Chavignol). Some of these slopes are better than others. Some have famous names – Les Monts Damnés, for example – or as an alternative we can speak of desirable geology – Kimmeridgian limestone or marl seems to be the one to go for. It seems strange to me that such names and phrases are largely absent from the Sancerre lexicon. Most of us probably know the top half-dozen famous vineyards, but after that it becomes hard work. Contrast this against Burgundy, where every slope is divided up with meticulous attention to detail. I wonder if in this Sancerre is a victim of its own success – that word on the label is enough to secure sales, so why bother with nuances such as slope, vineyard, terroir or village of origin?

There are some domaines, though, where the individual vineyards are being seen as increasingly important, and perhaps in the not-too-distant future these names will be seen as more significant than the word Sancerre itself. But I will come back to that another day I think. For the moment I will simply conclude that there is more to Sancerre than at first meets the eye. There is more to Sancerre than, well, just Sancerre.

I’m Not On a Press Trip to Saumur

Ahhh, the romance of wine writing. As I sit here, a mere stone’s throw from Saumur, the view from my window a vibrant pink-and-blue melange of a sunset, bird song in the distance, slowly giving way to the chirrupping of nocturnal insects, all that is missing to complete the picture is a glass of the good stuff itself. A little Saumur-Champigny, or Saumur Puy-Notre-Dame perhaps, would do the trick.

Unfortunately the above words constitute something of a fabrication. It’s all true, it’s just not the whole truth; it’s what I have left out that tells the real story. I’m in a budget hotel, and in France these seem to be either (a) on the side of an autoroute or (b) in the middle of a zone industrielle, in my case the latter. The view from my window comprises a Carrefour filling station, three grey-box-warehouse outlets selling incomprehensible services, a white van that seems to be kerb crawling and a car park. There is a sunset though.

I’m here to make a few flying visits, to catch up with a few vignerons I know, to visit others for the first time. In Saumur I will visit tomorrow (Thursday) Domaine Guiberteau, Clos Rougeard and Château du Hureau. On Friday I’m off to Sancerre and Pouilly-Fumé to see Louis-Benjamin Dagueneau (pictured below the last time we met, in 2013), Pierre Morin, Domaine Thomas-Labaille and Anne Vatan. Yes, Anne Vatan, as in the daughter of Edmond Vatan. She is not always easy to get hold of, so I’m really looking forward to that one.

Louis-Benjamin Dagueneau, October 2013

As you might imagine from the quality and stature of the growers on my list this is no carelessly thrown together schedule, so my thanks to Matt Wilkin of H2Vin and also Benoit Roumet, directeur of the BIVC who both helped. Matt opened some very big doors, and Benoit was ruthlessly efficient in his arrangements (my first email to Benoit was at 7pm on a Sunday evening – I had a reply eight minutes later….impressive, very impressive).

You can deduce from the above that this obviously isn’t a press trip either. InterLoire, the generic body covering PR for the Loire Valley (except for those appellations who have left, e.g. Montlouis, Bourgueil) do fly out a number of journalists to the Loire Valley every June, but those trips have been and gone. These trips naturally tend to focus on vignerons who are (a) good communicators, which may go hand-in-hand with them being (b) English speakers (not necessarily though), a good ‘press trip’ vigneron should also be (c) amenable and (d) accessible. It helps, no doubt, if they put on a good spread too. Two days in the company of such individuals no doubt makes for a fun trip and a few lovely blog posts (maybe even a newspaper column), but my problem with such short visits to see such a highly selected group of vignerons is that it surely presents a rather narrow view of a wine region. All you have seen is one side of wine scene that probably has many diffeent facets.

I guess press trips are fine if you just want an easily accessible snippet on Savennières or some nice pictures for a forthcoming column or feature, but if you want to get under the skin of the Loire Valley (and no doubt any other region) you have to dig a bit deeper. I think this means spending time tracking down some less easily accessible individuals, perhaps some of the less talkative vignerons, those growers who don’t readily engage. Because sometimes these individuals can make the best wines of all, the appellation-defining wines that we all obsess over from time to time. To truly understand one region, to develop a real depth of knowledge and to communicate using the confidence and experience that brings, you have to go beyond the press trips.

The gendarmes are now questioning the driver of the white van. I would continue to watch, but it is time for some kip prior to my first appointment at 8:30am tomorrow.

Exploring Sherry #10: Tio Pepe Fino En Rama

I first tasted Tio Pepe’s En Rama a couple of years ago. I was quite smitten with it. The style is quite distinctive, rather like your everyday fino on a very basic level, but with everything turned up a notch. More flavour, more texture, more aroma, more character. I’m sure most people reading already know this, but whereas most finos are prepared for market with filtration and clarification, giving rather pale but stable wines, the En Rama wines are treated with a much lighter touch. The term en rama translates literally as on the branch (or on the vine might be more appropriate) the idea being that these wines are much closer to the ‘real thing’, with much less of the character stripped out.

Gonzalez Byass Tio Pepe En Rama

The Tio Pepe En Rama from Gonzalez Byass is the example that has gained most traction, but there are also En Rama wines from Lustau, Barbadillo and maybe a dozen other bodegas. This is the sixth release for the Tio Pepe En Rama, and of those I have tasted this seems to me to be one of the most striking, pungently aromatic releases so far. In the glass in has a very pure and convincing lemon yellow hue. And it has a very forward and open nose, very confident, with plenty of depth, showing fruit character reminiscent of preserved lemon and dried citrus peel, along with a pungent flor streak that calls to mind almonds, bread crust and hay, as well as a little smoky, funky depth in the background. The palate is full, with more smoky-nutty flor notes, but also a broad base of preserved fruit substance giving the wine more body than most finos. Very fresh, with not an angular edge to it, and a cool but substantial finish, long and full of lightly bitter notes. A very impressive release. 17/20 (June 2015)

Sancerre: Classic versus Cult

I have just put the finishing touches to my schedule for a short trip to Saumur-Champigny, Sancerre and Pouilly-Fumé that I will be undertaking next week. It’s going to be a flying visit to see some of the top names in each of these three appellations. I do spend a lot of time seeking out ‘value’ in the Loire (not difficult – there’s a lot of it about) but on this trip I’m shooting for the other end of the spectrum. Basically, name your ‘number one’ domaine in any of these appellations and it’s likely I have an appointment there. As you might imagine I am looking forward to it immensely.

Looking at my three appointments in Sancerre I was struck by a schism in the style of wine in this appellation. When I first started drinking Sancerre it was the ‘classically’ styled wines of Domaine Vacheron that drew me in. They are one of many that produce wines in a very pure style (especially with the current range of single-vineyard cuvées), focusing on minerality first, with flavours of delicately ripe Sauvignon Blanc which to me means citrus fruits, white peach, perhaps pear. In other words nothing grassy or green (it is not hard to find greener entry-level wines from Sancerre – I come across too many when judging at the Decanter World Wine Awards), and nothing too ripe or overtly varietal either, so no passion fruit or gooseberry.

These wines, importantly, seem to me to speaking of the place from which they come with some conviction, not of the variety, not of the winemaking. There are any number of domaines that you could think of working to produce the same rather ‘classic’ style; François Crochet, Pascal & Nicolas Reverdy, Henri Bourgeois, Domaine Thomas-Labaille, Pierre & Gérard Morin, Gérard Boulay, Alphonse Mellot, Vincent Gaudry and others. I am sure most readers have their personal favourites, almost certainly some not on this list. I would regard all these domaines as producing wines with ‘typicity’. Wines that are pure, minerally, with very precise fruit character. You might say these are the classic wines of Sancerre.

Sancerre: Classic versus Cult

But then when you scour internet forums to see which domaines in Sancerre generate the most chatter, very few of these domaines make an appearance. Gérard Boulay pops up now and again, but rarely any of the others. Instead all the obsession seems directed towards other domaines. François Cotat, for example, who makes exemplary wines from the classic Chavignol terroirs but sometimes they stray from the classic style sketched out above, with riper fruit flavours of pineapple and mango, or sometimes they have very high alcohol levels, or perhaps even a touch of residual sugar. There is nothing typical here I think. Then there is his cousin Pascal Cotat, who seems better known for his Vin de France rosé than his Chavignol cuvées, again little here that is typical. Then there is Clos la Néore, where Edmond and now Anne Vatan have a reputation for turning out distinctive wines, harvested late, rich in character and flavours that go far beyond the ‘classic’ model described above, and which have a reputation for ageing well. And I suppose there is also Sébastien Riffault, where the oxidative style dominates. Different again. How should we refer to these wines? They are, I suppose, the cult wines of Sancerre. Idiosyncratic, of limited availability, and loved by those who know them.

Which of these wines appeal most will depend on your personal preferences, what you understand of the appellation, and exactly what you want out of the wine. Personally I can see something of interest in the wines of all these domaines – I think every one has made a wine which, at one time another, has enchanted me, even if for different reasons. But to me it begs the question – who here is really ‘classic’ and who is the idiosyncratic ‘cult’? Indeed, if you asked Anne Vatan or the Cotat cousins about their winemaking philosophies they would probably say they are allowing the vineyard to speak, through the ripeness of the fruit, and they are only doing things the way their fathers or the vignerons of old did them. In that case, is my concept of classicism completely wrong? Are these the classics of Sancerre rather than the Vacherons, Mellots, Crochets and Reverdys?

Maybe I will make my mind up during my trip to Sancerre next week…..

Quarts de Chaume: The Hard Work Begins

“Cent cabarets offrent leur vin
Rochefort, Huillé, Quart de Chaume,
Martigné, tous les Saints qu’on chôme
Saint-Aubin, Saint-Lambert, Saint-Cyr
– Nectar, ambroisie, Élixir!”

A.J. Verrier (1841 – 1920)

I don’t know much about Verrier, other than he had a penchant for language and dialect. He obviously knew a thing or two about wine though, as he makes clear in his ode to the wines of Anjou, a few opening lines from which are reproduced above. He doesn’t take long to get around to Quarts de Chaume you note (even if he does spell it differently), followed by several other notable Layon villages.

The wines of Quarts de Chaume, and to a lesser extent Chaume, have enjoyed an exalted reputation for many decades, indeed for centuries. And if you take a look at a map of the Quarts de Chaume the first thing it calls to mind are maps of the great wine villages of the Côte d’Or with which, I suspect, more wine drinkers will be familiar. There, famous grands crus lie nestled in among less well known vineyards, some of which will be premier cru, some of which are ‘mere’ village lieux-dits. The lines are drawn on a plot-by-plot basis, making a patchwork of potential quality within each village.

Note that I write ‘potential’ quality. Sometimes the weather gods conspire against the vignerons, and deal them a difficult vintage where the wines are, across the board, simply not up to scratch. In this sort of situation the grower with a plot of vines in a grand cru vineyard has, I suppose, two options. First, harvest the fruit, ferment and bottle the wine, stick the grand cru label on, which comes with a very expensive price tag, and send the wine out into the world. In other words, try to sell it on the basis of the appellation rather than the quality of the wine. One day that might have worked, but in the modern world of widely available critical review and consumer-to-consumer communication via social media the game would soon be up. It would be like Pontet-Canet or Pichon-Baron during the 1970s; great names, but we all knew the wines fell far short of where they could have been. Would a dedicated vigneron, one who respects the land as much as he respects his customers, want to do such a thing anyway?

Quarts de Chaume

The other option is of course to declassify; drop the grand cru fruit into a premier cru cuvée, or even a village wine (or sell it off I suppose). This protects the name of the grand cru, and also the reputation of the vigneron. The declassification of the entire 2004 vintage to village level by Madame Lalou Bize-Leroy was an extreme example of this practice, but a well known one (it was the first that popped into my head anyway). It’s a relatively common practice in Burgundy I think, and a good way not just of dealing with difficult vintages, but also the fruit from inherently ‘lesser’ vines, those that are younger, or lesser clones, for example.

Unfortunately, to declassify is to firmly grasp a very vigourous nettle, because it means volunteering for a financial hit. And so some (many?) vignerons don’t seem to be able or willing to take the plunge, and they would prefer to risk their brand and status instead. The Bordelais have done this in 2013, as described in my post What Erasmus says on Bordeaux 2013, and I think it will come back to bite the majority of them once the wines are in bottle and consumers – who don’t hold back when posting on their favourite wine forum – get to taste the wines. Some other vignerons who might need to think a litle harder about it are those with vines in France’s newest grand cru, which of course is where Quarts de Chaume comes in.

After more than a decade of wrangling the vineyards of the Quarts de Chaume were finally recognised as grand cru, effective from the 2011 vintage. I can imagine exhausted members of the Quarts de Chaume syndicat, led by Claude Papin, breathing a final sigh of relief. At last, it is over! No, wrong! Now is when the hard work really starts on the Quarts de Chaume. Now you have to prove that the title was really deserved, because if consumers enticed by the grand words on the label don’t find the sort of quality they expect, it won’t be long before the grand cru designation is seen as a joke, more of a Clos de Vougeot than a Chambertin, shall we say. I appreciate that the few barrels of wine that were salvaged from the slopes in 2013 and 2014 were born through the blood, sweat and tears of the vignerons, but being blunt that’s of no concern to the consumer. If a vigneron can’t say, hand on heart, that the wine is up to scratch, it should be declassified into generic Coteaux du Layon.

I’m not taking about dreadful wash-out vintages such as 2012, where almost nobody made wine anyway, as here nature has taken this decision away from the vignerons. I’m also not taking about some new body or regulation where wines are deemed, by some tasting panel perhaps, of being worthy – that already happens under INAO regulations anyway. No, I am asking the vignerons of the Quarts de Chaume (and of the premier cru Chaume too, of course), to do this for themselves. They need to take on the responsibility to do what Lalou Bize-Leroy did in 2004, to protect their reputations, and the reputation of this new grand cru. If they don’t, it will all have been for nothing. And besides, if Quarts de Chaume becomes a joke, what wines will the next Verrier have to dedicate his odes to? Surely not something from Burgundy instead?

Criticism: How the Big Boys deal with it

It’s not fair to have a go at Bordeaux all the time is it? I wonder if some of my previous posts and comments on the quality of its wines, the ‘ambitious’ pricing strategy followed by some proprietors (which we see yet again in the 2014 vintage, although to be fair the prices of some releases have been more sensible, and well received by the trade), and as I wrote last week a reluctance to declassify even in a wash-out vintage perhaps make me seem bitterly obsessed with the region. Obsessed, yes. But bitter? No. I love the wines of Bordeaux. It’s just that I don’t allow that love to translate into an unending stream of platitudes, instead it comes out as hopefully fair and considered criticism as well as praise. It’s a big, grown-up wine region. It can take the criticism and the love side by side.

So let’s turn to the Loire instead. Now, if you think a few critical blog posts levied against Bordeaux makes me look bad, criticising the wines of the Loire Valley probably makes me look like the wine world’s version of the playground bully. I am now the junior psychopath who pulls wings from insects, or who tortures ants with a magnifying glass. Or that kid who lived next-door to Andy in Toy Story maybe. Too many people have had a tough time in the Loire Valley, you might think, for criticism. Frost and decimation in Muscadet (2008). Rampant grey rot in Muscadet, plus a little in Anjou too (2011). Floods and hail damage (pictured below) in Vouvray (2012 and 2013). A wash-out along the length of the Layon (2012). Low yields for already cash-strapped vignerons in many regions (several recent vintages). And no really ‘great’ across-the-board vintage since, errr, maybe 2009 or 2010? Who would want to criticise a region that has been through so much?

Hail damage in Vouvray, June 2013

Perhaps that is a view some people take. Indeed, this a region that has more than its fair share of ardent supporters, the Muscadet- and Savennières-obsessed (who often seem to be sommeliers, or have I just overlooked all the other fanatics?) who, like an overbearing mother-figure set about smothering the region with their love, promulgating the wines at every opportunity on social media. They probably enjoy what they do, and perhaps feel they are giving the region the support it really needs, but ultimately this approach is pointless. Why? Because when you write only the positive – these wines rock!Domaine [insert your favourite here] in Muscadet does it again!these wines are awesome, mindblowing Chenin-tastic! – and so on, eventually these very words become meaningless. It might make the vignerons happy, for a moment, but it’s a yawn-inducing experience for everybody else, and so it will never translate into anything useful for the vignerons in question. The words carry no weight, and so they won’t translate into sales. They won’t inspire interested merchants to visit and maybe ultimately import the wines, because the same comments are applied to every wine. They don’t inspire holidaymakers in the region to visit, taste, buy and spread the word, again because every wine is praised, so there is no differentiation. Every comment is just more of the same positive slush.

I’ve long thought that what the Loire Valley really deserved was not never-ending praise, but considered criticism too, although first we need to develop a true understanding of its wines. Instead of carrying on being the region perceived as a source of cheap-‘n’-cheerful white apéro wines, and “lighter reds for summer drinking” as one mainstream UK publication put it a few years ago, maybe it is time for a reappraisal. Maybe the Loire should shake off the idea many seem to hold that it only makes simple summer-afternoon sippers and not ‘proper’, ageworthy wines. Such a shift in opinion would surely require us all to look at the wines in the same way we regard Bordeaux and Burgundy, or indeed Napa, Rioja, Alsace, Coonawarra and all the other ‘serious’ wine regions. And to do so would be appropriate, because the Loire isn’t a region full of mere simple summer sippers, there are also plenty of ageworthy wines here. Wines that go the distance, ten, fifteen, twenty years or more, in white and red, and they develop beautifully complex character as they age (watch out for a new feature, my forthcoming ten-years-on Loire report, starting with 2005, if you have doubts).

But if that’s what the region should be aiming for – to be seen as a source of great wines for the cellar as much (if not more than) a source of daily drinkers – then there’s a need for considered critical opinion. Serious wines – top Chinon, top Bourgueil, top Savennières, top Vouvray and so on – need serious review. Some wines will merit praise, but some will – if the reviews are to be taken seriously – come in for appropriate criticism. Some wines will get great scores, and with a background of real criticism (not universal never-ending praise) those scores will actually mean something. The words of a critic who praises and criticises in balanced measures should have a positive effect, even if it is only a small one, upon the vigneron’s reputation and sales. There is the downside though; what if your wine is on the receiving end of a critical note from me, or from someone else? Mostly I have found vignerons in the Loire can take this on the chin, only reinforcing my belief in (and love for) the region, and that it has every right to be considered alongside all the ‘big name’ wine regions mentioned above. These are dedicated, hard-working vignerons who believe in their wines, and know that serious critics who can actually influence sales need to critique as well as praise, and while one particular wine might not strike a chord with one particular critic, there’s always another vintage (or indeed another critic) coming up. This is, I think, how the big boys deal with it.

Exploring Sherry #9: Lustau Amontillado Los Arcos

My Sherry explorations continue, and recently I alighted upon (metaphorically that is, literally would have been painful) a good value everyday drinking Sherry from Lustau called Los Arcos. It sits in their Solera range, so it is entry level really, but it is a really good entry level wine. One that I have been very happy drinking over the past couple of weeks.

Lustau Amontillado Los Arcos

Lustau Los Arcos Amontillado: This has a richly coloured, orange-gold hue in the glass, with a little hint of green at the edges. The nose is quite enticing, filled with caramelised citrus peel, notes of toasted almonds, with a slight oxidative seam coming though in the shape of scented wood shavings and even a little baked earth. The palate is energetic and fresh, harmonious, with a very . polished texture at the start. Although this is labelled and marketed as dry I think it is far from bone dry, and indeed there is even a little tinge of sweetness to it through the middle, although nothing overt, more a bolstering of the wine’s confident character than a tower of sugar. This is all secondary to the very complete, seamless character in the middle, showing some grip and punch here, vigorous and bright, with a dried yet savoury fruit concentration resting atop that confident substance. A very drinkable Sherry indeed, rather ready to please, with a long finish. 16.5/20 (May 2015)

What Erasmus says on Bordeaux 2013

“Taken out of context I must seem so strange” sang Ani DiFranco in Fire Door, the ninth track on her debut album released in 1990 on her own record label, which she set up at the age of eighteen. This came on the back of a long history of busking and playing in coffee shops, since the age of nine. More than twenty years on she continues to write and to perform, to considerable critical acclaim, despite commercial success somehow eluding her. Some people are just determined, I guess.

Context is all important, and I was reminded of this last week at the annual Bordeaux Grand Cru Classé tasting. This tasting sees a small and very select group of some of Bordeaux’s leading châteaux descend upon London, each bringing an armful of bottles from the four most recent vintages. The fact that the last two are usually still in barrel is no barrier to them being poured, so that means this year the tasting featured 2014, 2013, 2012 and 2011. Accepting the fact that the comparison of barrel samples against bottled wines can be seen as a flawed approach, this is still a fascinating tasting, a rare opportunity to compare vintages across a range of Bordeaux châteaux and appellations. What is more, as the event is annual a regular attendee can watch the wines progress through the élevage; initially there is a comparison with the three preceding vintages to be made, but a few years later there is instead a comparison with those vintages that followed. The tasting therefore places any one vintage in a number of valuable contexts over the years. No wonder it quickly became a regular feature on my personal tasting schedule.

When I wrote up my 2013 Bordeaux report I wrote in regione caecorum rex est luscus, a rare (for me) foray into Latin. I have to confess the words were plagiarised, the victim of my theft being Erasmus, writing in Adagia. As Erasmus died in 1536, however, I’m not expecting any letters from his lawyers. Translated, the adage reads in the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king, a recognition that when judging the 2013 vintage from barrel I was wary – without a physical context, only my memories of other (much better) vintages – of the trap of overly praising some wines simpy because they were, being blunt, the best of a bad lot. I took some stick (well, I received a few emails of complaint, anyway) from the Bordelais for my parsimonious scores. But I felt they were justified.

Thierry Valette, Clos Puy Arnaud, May 2012

Having revisited the 2013 vintage twice now, immediately after the primeurs at the Bordeaux Grand Cru Classé tasting last year and again last week, the opportunity to taste the wines in the context of other vintages has been invaluable. The 2011 and 2012 vintages have so far been constant companions but last year the 2010 vintage was also present, and this year the good but far-from-brilliant (no matter what some with vested interest might say) 2014 vintage was there too. The upshot of tasting in context only served to highlight even further the weaknesses of the 2013 vintage. These are delicate wines, fresh with acidity, crisp and needle-like in many cases, with little in the way of backbone and structure. The fact that Stephan von Neipperg has already taken the 2013 Canon-la-Gaffelière from barrel and bottled it (and the 2013 La Mondotte, while still in barrel, will follow soon I think) tells you something of the delicacy of the wines, which is ironic as his are some of the most convincing in the entire vintage I think.

To be clear the wines are far from terrible, in fact many feel quite drinkable, and the Bordelais deserve praise for what they achieved in such a wash-out vintage. But placed against the other vintages, not just obviously superior years such as 2010 (and last week 2014) but also 2011 and 2012 it is clear that these wines aren’t really the grands vins we look for in Bordeaux. This region has a superb reputation for great wines, from hallowed gravel and limestone terroirs. In the majority of years these vineyards give us wines of interest, in some years wines of true greatness. But there is another side to the coin as well, and that side is 2013. This is a year of disappointment, and these aren’t (in the majority of cases) the grands vins we should expect for the price tag. Revisiting the vintage, I can’t help feeling that the reputation of this region would have been better served by declassifying the wines in many cases, producing a very good second wine and selling more off, rather than insisting in squeezing a grand vin out of it. The only estate I know with certainty that did this was Thierry Valette (pictured above), of Clos Puy Arnaud, so I tip my hat to him; I am sure some other little domaines must have followed his lead, but none of the really big names did so.

Perhaps such a declassification would be viewed by some as a sign of weakness, but it should I believe be seen as a sign of strength, of a belief that the terroir matters, that the name on the label matters, and when the wines aren’t up to it – no matter how good they might be for the vintage – they really should be taken down a notch. It’s a well-understood practice in Burgundy, where inadequate wines can easily be downgraded from grand cru to premier cru to village wine. There are one or two good examples in the Loire as well (although some still need to learn how to do it there as well – more on that in the future). In Bordeaux, though, where the process would be not declassification through the appellations but to a second wine, they seemed determined to plough on with the grands vins at all cost, perhaps as determined as the young Ani DiFranco must have been. Which is a great shame. These could have been delightful, early-drinking second wines. Instead, once bottled and sold as highly priced grands vins they are destined to be, to quote Erasmus again, largely not worth a snap of the fingers.

Checking in on . . . Minna Vineyard Blanc 2011

A momentary diversion from the Loire and Bordeaux now, as I check in on the latest vintage of the Minna Vineyard Blanc, which is the 2011. While I never regret deciding to focus on two regions as I believe that is for the best, I am on occasion sorry that I don’t get to look in more detail at other regions. So I am glad of the opportunity to check out wines from beyond Muscadet and the Médoc from time to time.

Villa Minna Vineyard is located to the northwest of Aix-en-Provence, although the wines are all marketed as IGP Bouches du Rhône. There are a little under 8 hectares of vines planted here, of which 2.5 hectares are white. It’s an interesting blend of Rhône varieties (Marsanne and Roussanne) and a single Provence variety (Vermentino, which if I recall correctly also goes by the name of Rolle, and it is under this moniker it is found in Bellet, although it is best associated with Italy I guess).

Minna Vineyard Blanc 2011

Minna Vineyard Blanc 2011: A blend of 48% Vermentino, 25% Roussanne and 27% Marsanne, picked by hand at 27 hl/ha and fermented in a mix of oak (30%) and steel (70%), at a temperature of 12ºC, with élevage in the same vessels. The ageing lasts twelve months, with bâtonnage. It has a vibrant yellow-gold hue in the glass, and scents of dried orchard fruits, with a little desiccated sweetness, trimmed with a little blanched nut, preserved lemon and a lick of oak. Indeed it feels quite oaky in the palate at first, more so on the nose, showing a very firm frame of vanillin lactones. But then this parts in the middle, allowing the wine to reveal its sweetly concentrated orchard fruit and its citrus freshness, and at the same time the texture suddenly seems to build, showing a creamy richness here, cut with moderate acidity. A very appealing style overall, but certainly a substantial oak-framed wine which needs a few years in the cellar to integrate. 16.5/20 (May 2015)

Disclosure: This wine was a free sample.

Primeurs Blind Tasting: Who Ends up Blind?

As I noted in yesterday’s blog post, this week I have been judging in the 2015 Decanter World Wine Awards. This is a huge tasting open to all-comers, with – if memory serves me correctly – 16,000 wines submitted this year. Each wine is submitted to a blind tasting by a panel, is retasted by a ‘super-judge’ if there is any dissent, and is also retasted if up for a gold medal or a trophy. The whole process is blinded of course, from start to finish; none of the judges involved know what the wines are when they taste, only basic information (appellation, price bracket, grape varieties, etc.) is provided.

In-between flights, however, I’ve also had one eye on Bordeaux this week, looking for any interesting 2014 releases, so 2014 Bordeaux and the primeurs are still very much on my mind. Is it really already four weeks since I returned from the 2014 primeurs? Time flies so fast (I guess I must be having fun).

The process of judging wine in the Decanter World Wine Awards and at the Bordeaux primeurs is very different. The obvious difference is that by definition the Decanter wines are finished, in bottle, whereas by definition the primeurs samples are unfinished wines. Judging barrel samples requires a very different mindset than judging finished wines, and so I think the two tasks require a very different approach. The use of blind tasting is one aspect of the approach that differs.

In a wine competition, rigorous blind tasting in order to remove bias is an absolute must, as I already noted in my recent Sabre Rattling post. When you have the finished wines in front of you, and buyers will be getting exactly what is tasted, and all wines are subjected to the same blinded process, this is the fairest and most appropriate way to assess the wines. I don’t, however, think this is true of the primeurs. I know others feel the same way; I was chatting to Neal Martin at the Grand Cru Classé tasting this week and he and I are in agreement on this. I believe he has made some comments on this in his Wine Advocate primeurs report. Others, however, feel that the tastings should be blind, but here are a few reasons why I think that’s the wrong approach.

Bordeaux 2014 Primeurs: Not a Blind Tasting

Primarily, the primeurs shouldn’t just be about fruit flavours and scores, it is about understanding the wines and understanding the vintage. Take, for example, a 2014 petit vin from Pauillac. The blinded critic tastes what he tastes, and reports that, with no context. Magically, without any external knowledge, he has assessed the barrel sample, how it came to be where it is, and where it will go in the future. Job done, next sample please.

Then I come along. I’m not tasting blind, I’m at the château with the managing director and winemaker. I have some information on the barrel sample, which I taste every year. Tasting the wine, it seems much more plodding than usual; I have the context of other vintages tasted, which the blind taster doesn’t. I know quality has been on the up here, with more and more Cabernet in the blend, and it is usually a 50-50 blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot in recent vintages (previously it was mostly Merlot). This trend has been for the better. I ask about the blend this year, and learn it is now back to 70% Merlot. That’s informative, and correlates with my thoughts on tasting, as 2014 was good for the Cabernets, not so good for Merlot. So I ask the question; why 70%? I learn there was hail on the vineyard which took out much of the Cabernet Sauvignon. Another hit. The tasting experience becomes more informed, with a greater depth of knowledge on the wine, better foundations upon which to build the tasting note. The winemaker then informs me that maybe the élevage will be shorter this year, a reflection of the lesser nature of the wine. More useful information that guides critic and therefore also the consumer. The blind taster, meanwhile, is already onto blind sample number 5, churning out another tasting note and score.

There are other reasons blind tasting doesn’t work. The above vignette encapsulates most of them (no knowledge of vineyard during the season, no knowledge of harvest, no knowledge of blending decisions, no knowledge of changes made and reasons for them, no knowledge of forthcoming élevage – you see this is very different to a blind tasting from bottle) but one other worth mentioning is levelling the playing field. In Bordeaux, top châteaux give themselves an advantage by insisting you visit to taste. So you want to taste Latour? Then you must visit Latour, and taste it in Latour, in a room overlooking the Latour vineyard. Blind tasters can’t taste the top 30-40 wines blind even if they say that’s what they do. To taste everything else blind enhances the advantages these top names have given themselves, and works in their favour to the disadvantage of all the little châteaux.

For me, these are the major reasons why blind tasting doesn’t work for the primeurs. The primeurs tastings are an opportunity to clear away the obfuscating mists of marketing speak, to see through to the reality of the vintage, to clear away the confusion. I suppose it is more about being a journalist, getting to the story, rather than just being a taster. To me, tasting blind doesn’t help the taster to develop a robust opinion on each wine, instead it obscures the wines even futher, hiding them behind an information blackout, making them more difficult to interpret. It’s a disservice to those châteaux that allow blind tasting (in other words the wines we might still be able to afford), and it’s a disservice to the reader, who ends up being just as blind as the taster.