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A Look Back on 2017: Part 1

It has been a busy old year, 2017, with a heavy focus on the Loire Valley, for perhaps obvious reasons. Here’s a look back on the first six months.

On December 31st 2016 I took possession of Les Lavandes, a restored farmhouse not far from Chinon, perfect for exploring Anjou and Touraine, as well as occasionally striking out further afield. It’s a maison secondaire available to rent – I haven’t emigrated to France, although the thought is increasingly tempting. I first had the chance to visit (as owner, anyway – obviously I viewed it before buying!) during the second week of January. It was freezing; while ideal for a spring, summer or autumn break it will definitely need a heating upgrade before I return during the winter months. A visit to meet Aurélien Revillot was memorable, especially checking out his vines by moonlight, and the episode of rally cross through the vineyards at night. When it came to pushing his van out of the mud, I think Aurélien wished he had worn something more suitable than his slippers.

A Look Back on 2017

Thereafter it was all go for the annual round of Loire tastings, with a focus on the 2016 vintage. First it was the Benchmark tasting by the Sydneys in London, then out to the Salon des Vins de Loire in Angers, then back to the UK and then out the following week for the first ever Vinovision cool climate wine fair in Paris. The 2016 vintage was hit by frost in various parts of the Loire Valley, and these trips were a good opportunity to learn all about it, as well as taste a lot of other wines of course. The highlight of the Salon was perhaps an invitation to a fifteen-vintage vertical tasting at Domaine du Closel. I met familiar faces and some new names here; full marks if you can identify the four below, pictured at Vinovision*.

A Look Back on 2017

After the Bordeaux Index Bordeaux 2007 tasting in February it was judging time. I did quite a few judging panels for Decanter during the year. They were great fun. March was Muscadet (two days of it in total) which was published over about ten pages when it hit the presses, probably the biggest splurge on Muscadet in print in years. Then before long it was out to Bordeaux for the 2016 vintage primeurs, always one of the most important and busiest trips of the year. Apart from being stopped by the gendarmes for failing to come to a halt at a priorité a droite junction it was a thankfully uneventful week in Bordeaux during which I encountered some beautiful young wines and learnt a lot more about the region, especially during a lunch with Michel Rolland. As usual I visited all the big-name châteaux, meeting the teams, such as Aymeric de Gironde and Dominique Arangoïts at Château Cos d’Estournel, and learning about the vintage (I had also visited in December 2016 of course, so it wasn’t exactly new information)

A Look Back on 2017

Later in the year Aymeric left Château Cos d’Estournel to take up a position managing Château Troplong-Mondot, following its sale by Xavier Pariente, undoubtedly one of the more significant news stories to come out of Bordeaux during the year.

Later in April, while still slogging away publishing my primeurs notes I headed down to London again for the Decanter World Wine Awards, where I judged for the full four days (the judging goes on for a whole week, but sitting only on the Loire panel we are usually finished within four days). I have only ever done two or three days before, so it was great to see out the whole tasting, including revisiting the gold-medal winners and deciding on the trophies at the end of the week. I have already booked in for the full four days during 2018. Sadly, as we tasted, we learnt of devastating frosts across France, hitting Bordeaux hard (surely their worst since 1991, at least) and also the Loire Valley (for the second year running, a potential catastrophe). I wrote a series of frost reports at the time, starting with Muscadet. I hope I don’t have to write anything similar for a long time.

A Look Back on 2017

May was a quieter month (thank heavens) on the wine front (I have plenty of other jobs to keep me busy though), but then in June it was back out to Les Lavandes for two weeks of back-breaking DIY, cleaning and gardening during which a few wine visits served as light relief. I called in on Jérôme Billard, Matthieu Baudry, Château de Minière (I was keen to visit after rating one wine very highly in the Decanter Awards) and took a fantastic tour of the Anjou vineyards with Emmanuel Ogereau. It was also great to call in on some local restaurants and wine bars, such as the Auberge du Val de Vienne, La Cabane à Vin and La Cave Voltaire to see where I would be eating most frequently during the coming years!

Continued in part two……..

*Clockwise, from top left; Jean-Philippe Blot, Adèle Rouzé, Arnaud Bourgeois, Céline Champalou.

R.I.P. Patrick Maroteaux

I was very saddened this morning to learn of the passing of Patrick Maroteaux, at just 67 years of age.

Patrick Maroteaux was in recent years best known as the owner of Château Branaire-Ducru, and I enjoyed his warm and friendly greetings at many Bordeaux tastings, both in London and in Bordeaux.

Patrick Maroteaux

Not that long ago, however, he was also president of the Union des Grands Crus de Bordeaux, a position he took up in 2000, only stepping down in 2008.

Patrick passed away on Sunday 19th November, after a long illness. My condolences to his family, and all the team at Château Branaire-Ducru.

Exploring Sherry #21: Lustau Fino En Rama

I chanced upon this bottle recently. Sometimes the best wine discoveries are entirely serendipitous, and this was one of those times. I have recognised over the past few years that I enjoy the style of fino that veers away from overpowering acetaldehyde character (and yes, I know the flor aroma could be regarded as the very soul of the fino style) and instead I have found myself favouring fresher and brighter styles, one or two examples marked by really interesting reductive notes, veering more towards matchstick and flint.

Lustau Fino En Rama

Lustau Fino de Jerez En Rama: This was bottled during spring 2017, which confounds the notion that you really need to get to fino as soon as humanly possible after bottling in order to see it at its best. It is one of just 1200 500-ml bottles produced. It has a pale yellow-gold hue in the glass, fresh and clear. The aromatics are just brilliant (to my mind), with scents of green olive and preserved lemon, but more notably a firm, confidently expressed, reductive flint and matchstick note which conveys a great vigour and confidence. The palate has read the script, showing this same character, pungent notes of olive swirled with sour citrus fruits and a vigorous acid backbone. It has a white-pepper length, clean and well defined, a truly great en rama style that really seems to me to catch the spirit of the wine, although it might not please those hunting for rampant flor character. 17.5/20 • 95/100 (November 2017)

Four from Domaine du Grande Mayne

It was back in 1985 that Andrew Gordon, an English wine merchant, found himself seduced by the vineyards of the Côtes de Duras. Having visited the region back in 2012, I can understand the appeal; I found the combination of Bordeaux varieties, good soils and nice prices were hard to resist. It is a region with a huge amount of potential.

Andrew Gordon put his money where his mouth is, and bought an estate, the Domaine du Grand Mayne. More than 30 years later, he and his team have a 34-hectare vineyard, and they turn out a range of wines mainly following the Bordeaux model of blending Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon.

I recently tasted four wines from this interesting domaine.

Domaine du Grand Mayne Sauvignon Blanc (Côtes de Duras) 2016: Machine-picked, vinified in stainless steel after skin contact for a small proportion of the crop, then four months on the lees. Bottled under screw cap. A pale straw hue in the glass. A nose of sweet orchard fruit, pears, white peach, tangerine and chalk dust. There follows a sweetly ripe and substantial palate, with a deliciously citric and pithy energy, giving it a firm and savoury backbone, along with a tingly acidity to balance out the ripe pear juice sweetness. Good concentration and weight to it, and some charming length with a little bitter twist. Good. 15.5/20 • 91/100 (November 2017)

Domaine du Grand Mayne

Domaine du Grand Mayne Sauvignon Semillon Réserve (Côtes de Duras) 2015: Picked a few days later, then skin contact and vinification in new oak barrel. Bottled under natural cork. A slightly richer but still pale straw hue here. Intensely sweet fruit on the nose, all lime and lemon curd, swirled with smoke and sweet new oak. It all feels very sweet, succulent and punchy. The palate matches up to the integrity and sweetness of the nose with ease, being crammed full of pithy citrus fruit, lemon curd and apricot skin, with a rather tannic frame of oak, giving the finish a rich but slightly drying character, long and pithy but grippy with oak tannin. An ambitious wine, one which I think needs another two or three years in bottle, in the hope the fruit absorbs some of that oak. 16.5/20 • 93/100 (November 2017)

Domaine du Grand Mayne Merlot Cabernet (Côtes de Duras) 2015: Machine-picked, vinified in stainless steel, with a short extraction for colour but not tannin. An oak-free élevage. Bottled under screw cap, a blend of Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon. Wonderfully expressive fruit on the nose, crushed red cherry and red plum, with the succulent suggestion of cherry stone. The palate follows through on this initial promise, blending a vinous, slightly sinewy texture, with the succulent bite of cherry stone and some purely expressed red cherry fruit. Absolutely delicious, vibrant composition, very honest, not overdone, with loads of easy-drinking charm. 15/20 • 91/100 (November 2017)

Domaine du Grand Mayne Merlot Cabernet Réserve (Côtes de Duras) 2015: A selection, vinified slightly warmer, macerated for longer, and then élevage in oak including 25% new wood. Bottled under natural cork. A slightly dusty red hue, and a nose of slightly baked fruits, with scents of cooked wild strawberry, violet and pepper. This is matched by a rather velvety substance to the palate, veering towards a slightly oily substance, carrying the flavours of cooked fruits, strawberries and baked cherries, with a lightly sour acid wash on the finish. It feels ambitious and overdone, the fruit lacking in definition. I prefer the cleaner and keener lines of the entry-level cuvée. 13.5/20 • 87/100 (November 2017)

Disclosure: These wines were samples sent by Domaine du Grand Mayne.

Exploring Sherry #20: Fino Dos Palmas

Sherry time again now. Today I return to the Palmas range of aged fino wines from Gonzalez Byass, and as I already swirled the Una Palma around my mouth a few months ago, I’m now stepping up to the Dos Palmas. Aged fino is not a commonly encountered style in my experience, and it seems to go against all the the-younger-the-better conventional fino wisdom, and so it is fascinating to take a look at this little range of wines.

These particular wines were released in 2016, and they all started life as a potential component of the blend for Tio Pepe. Presumably some barrels are then selected to be held back for futher aging.

Gonzalez Byass Fino Dos Palmas

The 2016 blends were selected by Gonzalez Byass winemaker Antonio Flores, accompanied by king of the sommeliers Gérard Basset. From a solera of 150 casks, just two – numbers 86 and 120 – were pulled from the solera for Dos Palmas. Both casks had been aging for eight years, and still exhibited a thick layer of flor. The two casks were blended and bottled without fining or filtration.

In the glass the 2016 release of the Gonzalez Byass Fino Dos Palmas shows a rich, deep golden hue, concentrated but quite fresh. There is still some flor character, possibly conflated with some early oxidative-acetaldehyde character, although I would say this is much more ‘old fino‘ in style than amontillado. Alongside there are notes of salty sea-spray and olives, and I find it a little more appealing than the Una Palma. This comes through on the palate, wrapped up in more almond and hazelnut notes, as well as a confident spine of acidity. It has a punchy confidence, and while it is perhaps not significantly more complex than the Una Palma the structure seems more composed and concentrated. Good. 16.5/20 • 93/100 (November 2017)

In the Hot Seat: Julien Miquel of Social Vignerons

I recently had the opportunity to put a few questions to Julien Miquel, of Social Vignerons, which I regard as revenge for Julien having put me through a similar thing not that long ago. Here are the questions I put to Julien, and his answers (obviously – it wouldn’t be very interesting if I just listed the questions now, would it?).

Can you summarize who you are in the world of wine and what your wine blog Social Vignerons does?

I’m a qualified winemaker turned wine writer and blogger from the South of France. I studied winemaking in Bordeaux among some of the top estates there, for example Château Margaux, but I wanted to learn how to make fine wine outside of the French borders. So, I travelled and lived making wines in some fascinating areas such as Toro in Spain, the Tuscan coast, Kangaroo Island in South Australia, Sonoma and a few more. That was before I worked at Wine-Searcher.com’s headquarters in New Zealand for six years, and decided there I wanted to share my passion for wine with the world, via the digital space. Social Vignerons aims at being a platform not only for sharing my passion for wine, but also for wine industry players and aficionados to contribute to the common knowledge.

Julien Miquel

When did you start blogging and why?

I launched Social Vignerons in December 2014. Three years ago, already, it feels like yesterday! I needed an outlet to share my personal views and thoughts about the world of wine. I felt too often when I experienced something, wine-related, a special bottle, a place or something else, memories of that experience were only alive in my mind. Blogging was a way to share the knowledge: was this wine any good, or this winery worth visiting? What I’ve always loved about wine has been the sharing. When I was a winemaker, what I loved was sharing my skills for transforming grapes into a fine wine with the people that tasted my production. Unfortunately, in the digital space, I couldn’t find a job that would let me utilize the full potential of my passion and knowledge of the product, even working for the biggest wine website on Earth. So, I had to create my own outlet.

Why the name ‘Social Vignerons’?

Vignerons, in French, are wine growers that not only crop their own grapes, but turn them into wine under their own label. The term is generally associated with passion, and with brave and hard-working individuals who at some point in time chose to leave the cooperative wineries or the big négociant houses like in Champagne, and come out to the market with their own production. I once wrote an article about the underlying meanings behind it: what’s a vigneron – wine term definition. But I found too many growers were too busy in their vineyards and at their winery to share their stories online. One of Social Vignerons’ goals is to help them share more through the website and my own channels, and to be more ‘social’ in that sense. And I do consult for wineries on how to communicate better via new media.

What topics does your blog cover and what’s the angle to your writing?

Wine is fun, and is for most people a small fraction of their lives. Moments of relaxation, of tasty experiences and sharing. There is so much other serious stuff to worry about, that I find wine should always be kept and presented simply, preferably in an entertaining manner, even when communicating complex knowledge. So, I try to infuse authoritative, verified, and often scientific knowledge (I am a biology scientist by training) into readable and approachable articles that hopefully anyone can learn from without getting a headache. As a couple of examples, I wrote about sulfites in wine or the aromas in Pinot Noir in a way I think anyone can understand, both the scientific truth but also the subjective perceptions behind those topics. Social Vignerons has educative articles about wine, but also interviews of wine personalities, winery profiles, wine reviews and scores, and a few other things. It’s pretty broad, perhaps too much so!?!

Social Vignerons

You live in France, but are you interested in wines from other countries too?

Yes, after Bordeaux I travelled to several countries around the world and made wine there. I wanted to understand, live and feel the passion of wine people in different regions, and in different languages. I worked as a winemaker in Spain, Tuscany, California, Australia and New Zealand. So, I find I can emphasize with the wine culture on different continents. I like to share these views and write about many different wines. The French often tend to forget there are great wines made everywhere. I like to highlight the passion and quality that exists in many areas.

How did you build such a large following on social media?

Mainly through Twitter, and to a lesser extent Instagram. I spent an enormous amount of time on these platforms, sharing and engaging. Initially, I curated and shared popular content that I’d find on the web, often creating or reviving virality from content that had been forgotten or missed. This brought me a lot of attention especially as I was one of the very first to do this at scale on those platforms around the topic of wine. Then as I developed Social Vignerons, I progressively switched to creating and broadcasting my own content. It’s fine to share other people’s creativity, but one also must bring tangible value to the community.

How do you see the future of wine on the internet?

Wine is a market of niches. So social media and the digital space are particularly suited to the industry. The new media allow producers to find and communicate easily with the people their story. It’s no news that social media and new technologies are changing the world. Many wine people don’t see this happening yet in wine. I actually think that the world of wine will benefit from new ways of communicating even more than other more-concentrated industries. Direct-to-consumer, both in terms of communication and in terms of sales, will eventually dramatically change the way we consume wine and content about it. People want to know what’s behind what they swallow. Wine is an easily traceable food product, so the industry will take advantage of the powerful story-telling tools that now offer digital media.

Thanks Julien!

To learn more see Who’s Julien Miquel? Or visit SocialVignerons.com

Three from Picoron

Located in Sainte-Colombe close to the boundary between Castillon and St Emilion, I first came across Château Picoron when it was in the hands of Philippe Bardet, better known for his innovative work at Château Val d’Or. In 2015, however, it was acquired by Frank and Glenda Kalyk, Australians who moved to Bordeaux intent upon satiating their passion for food and wine

Frank sent me some of their first efforts to taste. There is clearly some potential here, and I liked very much the honest fruit and charming more-ish qualities of the second label, Petit Picoron, the first of the three that I tasted. The grand vin was also impressive, dark and strapping, very much in the modern style, the raw material and effort it embodies certainly noteworthy. While it feels to me that this is a work in progress, it does seem that this is an estate worth watching.

Château Picoron 2015

Petit Picoron (Castillon Côtes de Bordeaux) 2015: The colour here is dark and confident, and so it should be, as the nose shows fresh and savoury aromatics, redolent of dried and peppered cherry skins, with a little touch of curranty concentration. The palate is a delicious contrast of restrained cherry fruit with black pepper spice, all wrapped in a reserved but ample texture, adding a little textural flesh around the cherry-stone sap which sits at the wine’s heart. This has an honest charm, the finish brimming with acid freshness, pepper and spice. It is balanced, complete and very more-ish. 15/20 • 90/100 (October 2017)

Château Picoron Les Terrasses (Castillon Côtes de Bordeaux) 2014: This wine has a degraded plum hue, looking a little more mature, more so than would be accounted for by the wine being a year older. The aromatics are dominated by cooked fruits, warm plum, spiced and peppered cherry fruit. There follows a relaxed palate, approachable, with grilled-fruit notes blended with toasted almond, olive stone and cloves. It has a spicy confidence in the finish, with a warm, peppery length. A firm style, less generous than Petit Picoron, and with a little lick of grainy tannin for backbone. 14/20 • 88/100 (October 2017)

Château Picoron (Castillon Côtes de Bordeaux) 2015: This clearly ambitious wine has a dense and glossy black core, with a velvet-red rim. The nose owes much to the oak, with scents of cinnamon, cloves and liquorice, together with advanced fruit ripeness coming through as roasted notes, in particular baked blackcurrants, with a caramel sweetness to them. The palate is richly endowed in keeping with these first impressions, being filled with creamed black fruits and cinnamon; it is dark and lush, and loaded with strapping tannin through the middle and into the finish. Here it remains rich and roasted, with black liquorice, black olive and a sour cranberry twist, as well as noticeable warmth. Very much a wine in the modern style. 15.5/20 • 91/100 (October 2017)

Exploring Sherry #19: Tio Pepe Fino En Rama

Empty sherry bottles have been piling up at Winedoctor Towers, and yet I have been remiss at reporting on them here. I’m going to try and reverse this situation, for two reasons. First, because I feel I owe it to the winemakers and indeed sherry fans everywhere to say something about these wines. Secondly, because this Friday is recycling day.

Fino fans would do well to look out for the annual release of Tio Pepe En Rama from Gonzalez Byass; it seems to me to be one of the better examples of fino that is widely available. The wine is a blend typically aged between four and five years on average. For the 2017 release the Gonzalez Byass winemaker Antonio Flores earmarked a range of barrels for the cuvée during the autumn of 2016, further narrowing down his choice to just 60 right before the blending earlier this year. He favoured those barrels with the strongest development of flor, which seems apparent on tasting the wine, which is very strong on flor-acetaldehyde this year.

Gonzalez Byass Tio Pepe En Rama

The wine was bottled on April 21st, and was in distribution a few weeks later. I popped the cork on mine a month or so ago, (this bottle is from the bottom of the pile) as soon as was able to after it was pushed through my letterbox. Looking around, there still seems to be bottles available from online merchants, suggesting an increased volume was produced this year (in my experience it usually sells out pretty quickly).

In the glass the 2017 release of the Gonzalez Byass Tio Pepe En Rama has a cool pale-straw hue. The nose reveals scents of green apples and green olives, and perhaps not so much of the salty saline character seen in some years, although as noted above it is heavily laden with pungent flor aromas. The palate follows through on this, with a heady, pungent flor character, backed up by fresh acidity, carrying slightly briny green olives and nutty almond notes. It feels rich and flavoursome, broad and undeniably long. It is a very strong effort, and although I like it, it is perhaps not my favourite release of this wine. It feels like a wine for fino purists, and perhaps that just doesn’t include me. 16/20 • 92/100 (August 2017)

Back in the Loire: Painting and Picking

I am currently out in the Loire Valley, staying in the house that I bought last year, just south of Chinon. I currently have a two-week schedule of gardening, maintenance and bricolage to look forward to, but hopefully I will also have a little time to take a look at some of the harvest, locally at least.

The weather is holding at the moment, warm but fresher than it was when I was here in June and July. It rained all day long on Sunday, but after a fog-bound Monday morning the skies cleared and Monday afternoon and Tuesday have both been very sunny.

Loire 2017

At about midday on Monday, on the way back from BricoMarché, the boot of my car loaded with paint, I called in on Jérôme Billard of Domaine de la Noblaie. Jérôme (pictued above, on the right) was loading his new pneumatic press with the first picking of his Chenin Blanc. It was really a ‘tidy up’ of the vines, going for the more questionable bunches, with a plan to pick fruit in good condition Tuesday and Wednesday.

Despite the horrendous frost that struck this year (the second frosted vintage in a row) this is stil a vintage with promise, as the weather since June has on the whole been wonderful. The forecast looks good for the moment, as although there was more rain forecast at the end of the week this has now changed, with sunshine and at most light-to-moderate cloud expected through to next Tuesday. I am keeping my fingers crossed (when not painting, anyway).

While I am out in the Loire I won’t be making behind-paywall updates, but will post the occasional blog entry if I have time.

Two from Minna Vineyard

I have been working flat out behind the scenes on Winedoctor since coming back from the Loire Valley in June, and I haven’t had much time to post anything on the Winedr blog during that time. This is despite having tasted some great sherries over the past month or two (I think I was up to Number 18 in my informal Exploring Sherry series), and various other interesting wines have come my way during this time.

Two attractive wines I have tasted include this pair, from Minna Vineyards.

Minna Vineyard

Minna Vineyard Blanc (IGP Bouches du Rhône) 2013: A blend of Vermentino, Roussanne and Marsanne, this has a fresh straw-coloured hue. The aromatics are reductive in style, pure with a flinty and matchsticky frame, all smoke and knapped minerals, with a smattering of gunpowder or cordite. The palate allows these elements to express themselves, especially through the middle, intertwined with flavours of preserved lemon and bitter peach-skin fruit, wrapped up within a supple, faintly glycerol-tinged texture. It has composure, a nicely bitter confidence, fresh energy and acidity, with a linerging grip to the finish. A really quite charming style, convincing, and I love the reductive elements that run through it. This is certainly one of the best whites I have tasted from Minna Vineyard. 17/20 (August 2017)

Minna Vineyard Rouge (IGP Bouches du Rhône) 2012: A blend of Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon and Mourvèdre, this has a rich, dark, cherry red in the glass. A charming and modern style, showing roasted cherry and blackberry fruit and sweet oak, laced with black pepper, bay leaf and garrigue herbs. The palate is firmer, more upright and taut than I expected, defined by a central spear of medium-grained tannins and very correct acidity, the fruit on the nose having suggested the palate may be a little more plush than this. Dried blackberry, dried cherry and cherry pit, with a bright peppery edge, and a rather steely finish, the structure dominating here. Overall, this is an attractive wine with some potential for the cellar. 16/20 (August 2017)

Disclosure: These wines were free samples.