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To the City of Wine

April looms large, and so too do the primeurs. I’m here in Bordeaux for two weeks of tasting the 2018 barrel samples.

It is already looking like this is going to be an interesting two weeks of tasting, scribbling and scoring. It is a vintage which, after a very difficult start, still promises much, although I think anyone who imagines the wines will be like the deliciously fresh, fragrant and frankly very ‘digestible’ 2016s all over again is going to be diappointed.

The City of Wine

Although most of my days this week and next are taken up with château visits, today (Thursday 28th) and tomorrow (Friday 29th) I will be tasting with the Union des Grands Crus de Bordeaux at La Cité du Vin in Bordeaux. This is the third new venue for this tasting in four years; initially it was at the Bordeaux football stadium (close to the Rocade and easy to get to), while for the last two years (or maybe three, my memory fails me) it has been in Hangar 14, a convention centre on the banks of the Garonne (less easy to get to for someone like me who tends to avoid driving into the centre of the city – there are no vineyards there). La Cité du Vin is very close to Hangar 14, so I am prepared for some jostling in the rush-hour traffic this morning. In the afternoon I am off to Margaux, to visit Château Margaux, Château Palmer, Château d’Issan and the like.

It is traditional at this early stage to include a snap of my timetable (pictured above). This usually invokes one of two responses, either (a) “oooh, nice line up of visits”, or (b) “oooh, pencil on paper, very old school”. Which one are you?

Primeurs Visits: The Double-Edged Sword

Next week I leave for two weeks of tasting in Bordeaux, looking exclusively at the 2018 vintage. My primeurs tasting trip seems to get longer with every passing year, necessary for two reasons. First, if I am going to succeed in getting to grips with the vintage, this means talking to proprietors and technical directors, quizzing them on the growing season, harvest and vinifications. Tasting at the primeurs, indeed any tasting trip, should be more than a race where victory falls to the critic who has tasted the largest number of samples. And so I always factor time for ‘chewing the cud’ into my visits. Secondly, as in previous years, the number of visits and tastings that I have to squeeze into my trip has expanded a little more. There’s always another château that wants to join the exclusive club of non-participation.

Visits in Bordeaux are a double-edged sword. It is fashionable for critics visiting the region to complain about them, and I have certainly been a dedicated follower of that fashion in years gone by. This is because the more visits I need to cram into a week or two of tastings, the longer the trip must be. The alternative is just to make shorter and shorter visits, which begins to encroach upon that ‘chat time’. One day last year, on the northern Médoc, starting at 8am, and finishing in the early evening, and skipping lunch (save for a quick sandwich between visits) I crammed sixteen visits into one day. It worked well, but it was hardly conducive to ‘relaxed’ tasting, and it’s not something I will be repeating during this year’s primeurs trip. Driving from one château to another (especially sixteen times) is also tiring, and all that stop-start driving (and remember, there are many hundreds of visitors to the region doing this) is hardly environmentally friendly.

Bordeaux 2017

On the other hand, the benefit of visiting a château is that you know the sample is gong to be in tip-top condition. While the cynic in me accepts there are many reasons why a château proprietor would prefer a critic to visit (to influence critics with their surroundings, or to influence through non-blind tasting, for example) one of the principal and very valid arguments is that it ensures sample quality. This is really important. If a château sends multiple samples, to a UGC tasting, to a négociant tasting, to a consultant’s tasting, to a tasting hosted by a PR body such as Cercle Rive Droite, they lose control over its quality. These aren’t finished wines, they are often drawn from the barrel one or two (or more) days prior to the tasting, and this combined with frequent small pours, sloshing the wine back and forth, contributes to earlier oxidation than you might expect. The serving temperature often isn’t optimal, and this also has a major impact on how the wine feels. There is at least one négociant tasting in Bordeaux I stopped attending because the samples often felt too loose, too warm, too grainy and too tired, sometimes with oxidation on top. Others, to be fair, such as the Dourthe tasting, always produce samples in perfect condition. As a regular visitor to the primeurs, I soon learnt which tastings to go to, and which to avoid.

To be fair, sample quality isn’t a problem unique to Bordeaux. I discovered a lot of wine that matched this description when tasting at the Salon des Vins de Loire earlier this year, including some brut de cuve samples from 2018 (so a little like unfinished primeur samples in Bordeaux) but also some finished wines. It suggests to me that making multiple repeated pours from a bottle using pour restrictors such as the Slo-Flo® pourer, in warm exhibition centres, lit with glaring fluorescent lights, might not be the best conditions in which to get acquainted with the newest wines. But, as I have hinted above, even bottles left unattended in the relatively cool and calmly lit cellars of a Bordeaux château that has agreed to host a generic tasting can succumb to this degradation. Maybe having two weeks stuffed full of ‘enforced’ château visits isn’t such a bad thing after all. Roll on the good quality samples!

The Latest Latour Releases

This week saw the latest round of releases from Château Latour, an annual event which has preceded the primeur tastings ever since Latour announced its withdrawal from primeur sales back in 2012.

The 2019 releases are restricted to just two wines, with none of the third wine selected for release at this time. The two wines are the 2008 Château Latour (£5,100 per 12) and the 2013 Les Forts de Latour (£1,650 per 12). The release price of the grand vin is at an 11% premium to that already on the market, continuing a practice established in prior releases. This premium reflects provenance, and the wine is still priced well below other currently available and more successful vintages such as 2005, 2003, 2009 and 2010. I retasted the 2008 Château Latour just last year, giving it a score of 96/100; while the vintage overall does not have a great reputation, the 2008 from Château Latour is a superb effort. I suspect, with the well-judged 11% premium, this will sell quite well. Not like hot cakes, admittedly, but it should certainly do better than last year’s release, the 2006 grand vin, which came with a much higher percentage premium.

Château Latour

As for the 2013 Les Forts de Latour, nobody needs reminding what a washout vintage this was. When I tasted the 2013 second wine back in April 2014 it was a decent effort for the vintage, although I could not stretch beyond a provisional barrel-sample score of 14-15/20 (it was back when I was still scoring out of 20). I haven’t tasted it since, but will hopefully do so when I visit Château Latour this April. Regardless of how it shows, however, it is difficult to imagine anything from the 2013 vintage flying out the door at the price asked here.

In the meantime, while I head out to taste the 2018 barrel samples from Château Latour next week, it will be years before any of these newest wines makes it to market based on the property’s late-release system. With some releases over the year’s having been met with a rather luke-warm response, I have often wondered for how long Château Latour would remain outside the primeur system. It must be a challenge to watch successful primeur sales pass you by and to rely solely on later, much more expensive sales of mature wines. I suspect the well-judged and hopefully successful release of the 2008 vintage will strengthen the team’s fortitude.

Get Ready for Peak Muscadet

We haven’t yet reached peak Muscadet, but this wine has certainly been rehabilitated in the eyes of many; that much was clear to me back in 2017 (I can’t believe it was two years ago already) when Decanter magazine not only decided to host a lees-aged Muscadet panel tasting, inviting me along as a panel member, but then went on to dedicate 13 pages of their June 2017 print edition to it. In the post-tasting discussion I made the comment that the tasting proved Muscadet’s perception as a simple wine you just knock back with oysters was dead in the water; when it made it to print that had been toned down a little and it was merely “outdated and should be put to rest”, but I think I prefer my original words.

Despite this resurgence in interest, and an obvious awareness that something important has happened in Muscadet in recent times, I see many still struggle to get to grips with the region and its wines. Jobbing wine writers now brave enough to dip their toes in the water often do little to demystify the region. This is perhaps inevitable if you are limited to writing about cheap and cheerful entry-level wines, all of which can be purchased off the shelves of a British supermarket, in the confines of a Sunday Supplement wine column. It can be difficult to spin a tale of tenacity, terroir and a ten-year élevage around such wines.

With that in mind here is my 7-point guide to getting up to speed with Muscadet. And I mean really getting up to speed, not just waffling on about Domaine de l’Ecu because (a) you’ve heard of it, (b) you like the labels and the wax capsules, and (c) you don’t realise those funky wines aren’t actually Muscadet.

1. Don’t start every conversation about Muscadet with a comment about the region’s decline in the 1970s. Yes it happened, but the smart vignerons weathered the region’s waning popularity thanks to the quality of their wines and they are still here, leading the pack. And the smart wine journalists and wine drinkers look to the wines of today, not yesterday. Nobody opens an article on Austrian wine with a reflection on the pros and cons of diethylene glycol.

2. Be mindful that there has not been a revolution in Muscadet, but an evolution. Its sudden resurgence is a false image created by the generalist press (I realise I sound like a left-wing activist when I write this), and reflects not a sudden shift in the region, but a sudden shift in the author’s awareness of it. The region’s current success can be traced back across not years, but decades. Several long decades, of hard work. Some vignerons with less familiar names, such as Bruno Cormerais, have played a big part in this, and deserve credit.

Peak Muscadet

3. To understand Muscadet’s modern-day diversity – it is no longer a name to solely be associated with oysters – think of Muscadet not as a wine, but as a vineyard or region. Nobody thinks of Burgundy, or even a Burgundy sub-region such as Chablis, as producing one style of wine, at one level of quality. And yet this is Muscadet’s fate. Most wine drinkers and wine hacks know there is basic Chablis, premier cru and grand cru Chablis, and while we can still intelligently talk of them all as ‘Chablis’, there is an innate awareness that these wines offer varying taste experiences, a range of quality levels, and they work well with different styles of food. So too with Muscadet.

4. The premier cru and grand cru equivalents in Muscadet Sèvre et Maine are the crus communaux. These wines do not come from a specific hill, like Chablis, but from within specified zones. Eligible vineyards within a zone are identified as cru communal candidates by vignerons, and checked out and signed off by local wine authorities. The vigneron is then beholden to work in a specified manner in the vines (lower yields, better maturity at harvest) and cellars (a longer élevage on the lees). These crus have their origins back in the 1980s (see, it is not a recent revolution). You can find wines from Gorges, for example, from the 1990s. Anyone who has hailed ‘the Muscadet revolution’ in the past five years should probably read this post.

5. Be ready to roll your eyes at the glacial pace at which French wine law adapts to the modern world. The reason this has been an evolution rather than a revolution is in part down to the French wine authorities which seem to work about two decades behind the vignerons they should serve. The first three crus were ratified in 2011. The next four hopefully this year. Try to think of them not by date of ratification, however, but by terroir, as I did in my recent Muscadet Crus Communaux Retrospective. For the solidity and substance of granite, go for Clisson and Château-Thébaud. For the vibrancy and cut of gabbro, go for Gorges and Mouzillon-Tillières. For the effusive charm and piquancy of gneiss and orthogneiss (and even amphibolite), go for Monnières-St-Fiacre. For the pungent weight of schist, go to Goulaine. There are nuances of course, but this is a good starting point.

6. Do not go on and on about oysters (or the other Muscadet clichés, the cling-clang of the marina, the call of the seabirds, and the briny sea breezes). Cru communal Muscadet, like grand cru Chablis, offers a much greater range of food-and-wine matching possibilities. Keeping it simple, drink any of the crus communaux wines, or any of the long-lees-aged wines made outside the crus (a few spring to mind, such as Trois from Domaine de la Pépière and Origine and Signature from Domaine du Haut Bourg), with anything you would drink top-end Chablis with. For me this means, as well as a huge variety of fish dishes, also chicken, guinea fowl, veal and pork in creamed sauces, various cheeses and crisp sandwiches*.

7. Also be ready to roll your eyes at efforts to make the most basic Muscadet more saleable by allowing the blending in of other varieties such as Chardonnay or Colombard. It’s like trying to make bottom-end Burgundy more appealing by allowing Cabernet Sauvignon and Grenache in the blend for Bourgogne Rouge (actually that sounds rather attractive……OK, OK, I’m joking). I have long said that the solution to Muscadet’s image problem and the financial difficulties that face some vignerons will come from the top end (the crus communaux cuvées) dragging the region into the limelight, not from bottom-end manipulation where bulk wines sell for less than €1 per 75 cl. A sentence ridiculing this move should be mandatory in any article about Muscadet.

Stick to these seven rules, and when we finally hit peak Muscadet – which will presumably be when Robert Parker comes out of retirement to start up a new publication specialising in Melon de Bourgogne and its wines – we will all be able to roll our eyes together. In the meantime, I am off to choose another ten-year old Muscadet cru communal wine for tonight’s dinner, which at the moment is looking like free-range chicken breasts in a sauce of madeira and shiitake mushrooms. I’m thinking Monnières-St-Fiacre.

*maybe not

Say Hello to Haut-Bailly II

Véronique Sanders and the team at Château Haut-Bailly have announced a rebranding of their wines.

The most notable feature of this rebranding is a new name for the second wine La Parde de Haut-Bailly, which after 50 years under that label has been rechristened Haut-Bailly II.

The little-known third wine, previously labelled simply as a Pessac-Léognan, has been rebranded as HB.

The label of the grand vin, of course, remains unchanged. The new names come into effect with the 2018 vintage.

The next few years will see a lot of changes at this estate, which began an impressive programme of construction during 2018.

I look forward to seeing how that is progressing, and a first taste of the 2018 vintage, including Haut-Bailly II, at the primeurs in a few weeks time.

On Anonymity

A willingness to take responsibility for our opinions and our words is a positive trait. It speaks of maturity. And regardless of what your opinions might be of wine writers, from the high-flying critic dishing out scores to Bordeaux, fast and early, to the part-time blogger who only posts once a year about the Len de l’El harvest in Gaillac, they share one common habit; in general they all put their name to their words.

At the most pointed end of wine writing, we find Ron Washam writing as Hosemaster. Ron isn’t writing gentle tasting notes, which can be softly worded even when critical, but true wine satire, poking fun at the world of wine’s most famous names. Even with this modus operandi, Ron is still ready to put his name to his work. That has always impressed me, and it puts the overheated reactions of those who take offence at his words into an even sharper perspective. The prime example surely has to be the heavy-handed response of Georg Riedel when Ron pointed his satirical spotlight at his firm’s expansive range of glasses back in 2015. Riedel’s first recourse, presumably unconcerned with cultivating an ‘I can take a joke’ persona, was to kick off with a letter from his lawyers. Thankfully (for all involved) the matter was settled amicably, although it did necessitate the introduction of a prologue to the piece, still online here, as a cushion for a bruised ego.

Why does it matter to me that Ron put his name to that article, and why do I still think about it three years on? The answer is simple; by taking ownership of his words, by providing transparency about the origins and authorship of the satire, it removed any doubt about ulterior motives concerning its publication. Ron Washam might take some flak for his words, but his name frames the article for us; because of his track record, we all (well, all apart from Georg Riedel and his lawyers) knew it was nothing more than an author poking fun for comedic effect.

How would we have viewed the article if Ron had been too afraid to own his words? Our knowledge about the author’s motives would have been less certain. While no doubt many readers would have recognised Ron’s style, the piece if penned anonymously would certainly have deserved greater scrutiny. How, for example, could we be reassured that it was not a new competitor to Riedel desperate to discredit its strongest rival in the field of wine glass manufacture? It would not be the first time satire has been weaponised; sometimes satire is merely entertainment, but it can sometimes reflect a deeper motive. We only have to raise our heads to look beyond the little world of wine for a moment, to see how the inhabitants of Kafr Nabl in Syria gained fame for their use of satire as a form of resistance, to understand that.

In this era of fake news, we have to be wary about what we are reading, and what its origins are. In my opinion anonymity – whether it be as an author, a blogger, a blog-commentator, or on social media – has no place in the world of wine. If you are a rebel fighting an authoritarian regime, you have good reason for remaining anonymous. Very good reasons indeed; Raed Fares, the head of the Kafr Nabl media centre, and identified in the article linked above, was assassinated just three months ago. Last time I checked though, the world of wine was not an authoritarian regime. Lives are not in danger. Anonymity is not necessary to preserve life and limb. And anonymously written words relating to wine should therefore always be viewed with a very critical eye. I might chuckle at what humour and satire lies within, but I have to ask; what are the motives of this anonymous author? Is he merely a spineless, bitter or jealous soul who is scared his friends will realise this if his identity is revealed? Or is there a secret, undisclosed motive? Who is the subject of his ire? Who receives more gentle treatment? And, ultimately, who might gain from that?

In the increasingly big-business world of wine, in Bordeaux for example, where there are livelihoods and millions of euros at stake, these are the only questions we should be asking of anonymous authors.

Nantais 2018: Some Figures

I have just received some figures from the Fédération des Vins de Nantes regarding the 2018 vintage in the Nantais.

The 2018 harvest for Muscadet alone brought in 420,000 hectolitres, a yield of 56 hl/ha on 7,500 hectares of vines. This is heartwarming news after the 2016 and 2017 vintages, both of which were blighted by frost. Stocks held by the vignerons in Muscadet are at a record low (just 130,000 hectolitres as of July 31st 2018 – not even equal to one-third of the 2018 harvest) and so a strong harvest as seen in 2018 will allow the vignerons to meet demand as well as build up a buffer of stock in the cellar.

Nantais 2018 Harvest Figures

It was interesting to see the Muscadet vineyard has declined further, to 7,500 hectares. The figure I have in my head for Muscadet (all the vineyards, including regional zones such as Sèvre et Maine, and the crus communaux) is 8,000 hectares. The drop in 500 hectares is, according to the Fédération, down to some vignerons making use of the Vin de France designation rather than the Muscadet appellation. While this is a well established trend in some parts of the Loire Valley, aside from one domaine which springs to mind (Domaine de la Sénéchalière), and the occasional cuvée here and there from others (e.g. Melonix from Jo Landron, pictured above), this comes as something of a surprise. Who are the Vin de France guys in Muscadet?

Lastly, it is also good to see a record-breaking volume of crus communaux wines being made. Even so, this remains a relatively niche interest in the region, with just 150 hectares (out of 7,500) committed to this category in 2018. The harvest was 6,000 hectolitres, so a much lower yield of 40 hl/ha, as we should expect. The limit set for cru wines is generally 45 hl/ha (lower than for the other Muscadet appellations).

The harvest for the region’s greatest appellation Gros Plant du Pays Nantais (that one was for you, Vincent Lieubeau) held steady at 33,000 hectolitres on 470 hectares.

This is all great news for the region, a vintage of both quality and quantity. And I am looking forward to seeing how those cru wines are doing a couple of years from now. In the meantime, as well as my Luneau-Papin report today, and my 2018 Nantais report, I have plenty more notes and reports on 2018 in the region coming up.

Being Ahead of the Curve

It was a surprise to hear the name of Richard Leroy crop up in conversation this week. Not my conversation admittedly, but a conversation between Fiona Beckett and Liam Steevenson, hosts of the excellent wine-focused podcast Bâtonnage, and their guest Jamie Goode. Bâtonnage is one of only two podcasts I listen to regularly (and the other one is politics not wine), which hopefully says something about its quality. I have enjoyed all of the ten episodes released thus far and I can’t wait for series two.

Richard Leroy was cited as an example of a vigneron making wine in a very reductive style. Before I come to the meaning behind the title of this blog post, let’s just dive a little deeper on Richard and his reductive style. It is true that his wines are very reductive, provided you are talking about the wines released onto the market during the last five-or-so years. It was only in the 2011 vintage that the style chez Leroy, Richard having had something of a Burgundy-inspired epiphany, suddenly lurched towards reduction. Prior to that the wines had been classically ambitious Anjou Blanc (even if they switched to Vin de France in the 2008 vintage). They were concentrated, polished, sinewy, laden with intent, and they were frequently also wrapped in new oak in their youth, a fact that was overlooked by many who would cry “spoofulation!” at a similar use of new oak in less favoured wines. It never really bothered me; like all great wines they deserved time in the cellar and with time the oak would be absorbed.

Being Ahead of the Curve

Then in the 2011 vintage all of a sudden the wines were painfully reductive, and tasting them in their youth was like sucking on shards of flint rather than wine. In fact it went further than that, as aromatically the 2011 Les Rouliers went from a mildly reductive barrel sample when tasted in 2013 to a pungently reduced wine, marked by eggy notes of hydrogen sulphide, the extreme end of the reduction spectrum, when I tasted it from bottle in 2015 (I need to revisit it soon). Having produced a wine in this style, for the first time Richard was sufficiently confident to add no sulphites, a philosophy he has persisted with in most (but not all) vintages since.

Fair enough, you might say. But what does this have to do with being ‘ahead of the curve’?

Well, this mention of Richard Leroy perhaps signifies something else I have long predicted. There was a time, not that long ago, that Richard Leroy was a name known only to committed Loire geeks. Any use of his name in conversation would have elicited the response, even from serious wine geeks and sommeliers, along the lines of “you mean Leroy, in Burgundy, right?”. I sense in the past few years this has changed; Richard has broken through into mainstream wine consciousness, in the same manner as the late Didier Dagueneau once did, along with the likes of Clos Rougeard and Nicolas Joly. When mainstream ‘cult status’ is attained, demand increases, and with the supply of bottles naturally limited the price inevitably follows suit. Back in 2013, advising my subscribers to buy, buy, buy, I wrote in a tasting report:

“I do fear that with increasing global demand for Richard’s wines we will see the price rise and availability decrease, but for the moment there remain relatively few hurdles to finding and buying these wines.”

That is certainly no longer true. In the past few years the retail price has quadrupled; that’s if you can even track down a bottle. The driving forces for this shift include, firstly, the absolute quality of the wines, although to be fair I could rattle off half a dozen vignerons working in Anjou and Savennières who turn out wines of equivalent standing. As always in the Loire Valley, cult status is not just about what is in the bottle. Secondly, the wines are in increasingly short supply, giving them a ‘rarity’ appeal. Even when the vineyards are in full production supply will always be finite, but in some recent vintages the vines have been hit by frost, decimating production. Yields have often been between 13 and 20 hl/ha, with frost reducing this figure to zero in 2016, and zero on one terroir in 2017. Thirdly, Richard has an image of an independent man battling against greater foes, our wine-minded David to a variety of Goliaths. He is set against the wine authorities, ditching the Anjou Blanc designation in favour of Vin de France. He has fought Mother Nature and lost, his biodynamic vines hurt by mildew and frost. And yet still, against the odds, he turns out his precious, jewel-like wines. With this sort of reputation it was perhaps inevitable that his appeal would spread beyond pure Loire geeks.

While sommeliers pop corks of increasingly pricy Leroy wines, surrounded I hope by crowds of natural wine fans, all chanting “Chenin!, Chenin!, Chenin!”, I am happy that with Richard Leroy I was well ahead of the curve. I have bottles of just about every cuvée and every vintage he made, back to about 2003, which should keep me happy for some time. And while I will try to track down a bottle or two of 2017, and some 2018s too, it may be that with the prices as they are, I now have to let go. If you discover the wines today you will get just as much pleasure as I have out of them, but you may have to pay through the nose for the privilege. There is no doubt you are behind the curve.

In the meantime I will continue my work rooting out young (and some not-so-young) vignerons who are turning out wines of comparable (or superior, in the case of one guy working in Anjou I can think of) quality, so that I can continue to stay ahead of the curve, drinking brilliant wines as yet unblessed by cult status. This is how I drink well without having to sell one of my kidneys. And of course I will continue to point the spotlight at these vignerons, so that my subscribers can also – provided they follow my advice, as I know some did with Richard Leroy – stay ahead of the curve with me.

So now I am off to pop a cork, maybe on a 2009 Les Rouliers (to celebrate its tenth birthday), and I will get back to listening to Jamie, Liam and Fiona talking wine faults. It’s called Bâtonnage – do check it out.