Supermarket malaise?

No matter how much you wish to support the local economy the necessities of life dictate Supermarket shopping is inevitable, but rather than fill the coffers of any single faceless corporation I favour a rotation system for the grocery shop, rarely returning to the same store within a month. However, while I’ll take advantage of the BOGOFs and Rollbacks for groceries I’m finding it harder to find things that pique my curiosity for wine. This was brought home after yesterday’s traipse around a certain Walmart-owned operation where, after staring at the rows of the usual suspects in the wine aisle, I decided I couldn’t bring myself to buy anything…again (I couldn’t actually recall when I last picked up vino from the aforementioned establishment).

With my curiosity duly piqued I consulted my wine list and looked at the breakdown of purchases to see exactly how much wine I have been buying – as it’s an Excel spreadsheet then that’s a lot easier than you may think!

In the past 12 months I’ve acquired 120 bottles of wine (16 were for a NEWTS tasting, so I’ll ignore those from the breakdown, leaving 104). 8 of these were bought while travelling, so that leaves 96 wines purchased within the region – enough to get a decent percentage breakdown.

Surprisingly (for me at least) only 26 wines were from local independents, with 14 from Majestic and another 19 from warehouse stores Costco and Makro.
Trolley WineThat leaves 37 bottles, or 35.6%, from supermarket shopping – averaging 3 a month. That in itself is telling, as I typically visit a supermarket 3-4 times a month and occasionally pick up multiple bottles, meaning on plenty of occasions I can walk past the wine section and not be tempted.

Breaking down the last 37;

  • Coop: 13 (Average price £8.45. Not that surprising really, the local Coop is the only supermarket in my home town so I often go in during the week for “top up” purchases, plus it is renowned for frequent bin-end reductions)
  • Tesco: 8 (averaging £12.96, but strangely only one Tim Adams offering)
  • Aldi: 7 (Average price £15.84, mostly from their Christmas “Fine Wine” promotion last year)
  • Waitrose: 3 (average price £10.24)
  • Morrisons: 5 (average price £13.09, boosted by a 1996 Port)
  • Lidl: 1 (a relatively tasty Morellino di Scansano for £5.99)

As for the absent names;

  • M&S missed out by only a couple of weeks, with my last purchase in August 2012 with the very tasty Château Ksara 2009 Clos St. Alphonse at £9.49
  • ASDA was January 2012 with their Extra Special (Katnook Estate) 2008 Cabernet Sauvignon at £8.48
  • Sainsburys has to go back to 2011 for the Dr. Loosen 2009 Graacher Himmelreich Riesling Kabinett at £11.99

Since my average spend on wines from the supermarkets comes to £11.53 a bottle I’m pushing the boat out when it comes to the average UK consumer who only spends £5 a bottle.

If you look at what I’m actually buying the 5 most expensive wines were;

  • AldiOffley 30 year old Tawny Port. £29.95. Aldi
  • Warre’s 1996 Quinta da Cavadinha Port. £21.49. Morrisons
  • Scala Dei 2006 Cartoixa. £19.99. Tesco
  • Château Marquis d’Alesme 2004 Becker Margaux. £17.99. Aldi
  • Tokaji Aszú 6 Puttonyos 2000. £17.99. Aldi

At the other end of the scale the cheapest 5 were;

  • 2011 Tavel Rose. £4.99. Aldi
  • Medici Riccardi 2010 Morellino di Scansano. £5.99. Lidl
  • Maycas del Limarí 2009 Syrah Reserva. £5.99. Coop
  • Montes 2011 Malbec Reserva. £5.99. Coop
  • Domaine Mayole 2011 Cabernet Sauvignon Syrah. £5.99. Waitrose

So what does this self-indulgent post actually tell me (other than that I’m probably the only one still reading it by this point!).

  1. I need to get into Marks & Spencers more. Their wine selection is undeniably good but I’ve not purchased a single bottle from them in over a year.
  2. I need to but more Tim Adams wines when I’m in Tesco next
  3. I should really look harder in the wine section at Sainsbury’s as I can’t believe there’s nothing there to interest me
  4. I’ve given up on ASDA. Sorry, but yesterday’s search of the racks was just depressing, especially with all the focus on sub £6 bottles
  5. When I come to do this again next year I’d like to see more purchases from the local Independents compared to the main supermarkets – 26 is embarrassing (sorry Alastair, Claire & Mo, Ben, Andrew & Jo, Paddy, Michael, Irwin, Geoff, Paul & Alan, Tony and Marta ….hangs head in shame).

I was also reminded of the series of posts I did over 5 years ago now for Reign of Terroir on “Wine Buying in the UK“. Re-reading those posts tonight I was surprised that quite a lot of the comments still apply (if you do have a read then remember I was relatively new both to wine and blogging at that time!).


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Virginia: Old World Wine from the USA

IMG00291-20130515-1931The May tasting at NEWTS was a selection of wines from an area of the US with a long, if somewhat chequered history with winemaking.

The Commonwealth of Virginia , nicknamed “Old Dominion” , the “Mother of Presidents” and the “Mother of States”, was home to the first permanent English settlement in North America (Jamestown, 1607) and one of the original 13 Colonies who came together to form the United States of America in 1776.
Although it was the Spanish settlements in present-day California, Arizona and New Mexico that had the first successful (and long continuing) winemaking enterprises on what is now US soil, over on the east coast the first English settlers saw the abundance of native grape vines and knew of the market back in Europe. Less than 2 years after setting up the colony, wine from local grapes had been made but was found lacking in the tastes expected from Vitis vinifera species.

Over the next few years vines and French winemakers were imported from Europe in an attempt to set up a new industry, with the Virginia Assembly passing a law that each householder plant and tend 10 cuttings. Despite records of relatively large vineyards in existence between 1619 and 1622 the enterprise failed, likely a combination of factors including disease, tension between English and French and sometimes viscous conflict with the indigenous population restricting the growth and industry of the fledgling colony.

For the best part of 200 years attempts to work with vinifera continued; in the early 1700s German winemakers from the Rhineland settled in Spotsylvania; in 1769 Frenchman Andrew Estav was appointed as official winemaker and viticulturist for the colony; Thomas Jefferson experimented with countless European grapes for more than 30 years at his Monticello vineyards – he wasn’t the only Founding Father to do so, George Washington also tried for years at Mount Vernon. All ended in failure, with the then unknown phylloxera louse likely playing a major part (it wasn’t until the 1870s, after phylloxera had devastated European vineyards, that the rootstock grafting method that saved modern winemaking was discovered).

Jefferson and other Virginians had greater success with the Scuppernong, a native Muscadine grape (Vitis rotundifolia) and a successful winemaking industry developed based on this and later with the Norton Grape, a variety (or hybrid ) of Vitis aestivalis named for Dr. Daniel Norborne Norton  of Richmond, Virginia. Commercialisation of the grape let to success at the Vienna World’s Fair in 1873 where a Norton wine was named “Best Wine of all Nations”, but with so many battles of the 1861-65 Civil War fought on Virginian soil the economy (and vineyards) were destroyed. Prohibitionist sympathies followed until a complete Virginia ban on alcohol in 1916, effectively ending the wine industry in the State.

Although Prohibition ended in 1933 recovery was slow – by 1950 there were only 15 acres of vines and in the 1970s there were only 3 commercial wineries, including the Piedmont Vineyards & Winery who planted the state’s first Chardonnay on the Waverly Estate in 1973.
1975 was the year that change started, with the purchase of Barboursville Vineyard by Italian Gianni Zonin (heir to Casa Vinicola Zonin founded in 1821). Zonin’s millions restored Barboursville (the original estate house was designed Thomas Jefferson in 1814 for his friend James Barbour) so that it now produces 20 styles of wine including a Cabernet Franc, which is Virginia’s most planted red grape and the one believed to be most at home with the region’s soils and climate.

Investment such as this revitalised Virginian winemaking so that by 1995 there were 46 wineries, 107 in 2005 and over 200 today. Most of the wineries in the state are “boutique” size, with many owned by millionaires or successful business retirees (Donald Trump has a winery in Monticello). With typical production fewer than 5,000 cases annually most of them rely heavily on tasting room traffic and associated winery events – more than 1.6 million tourists visited Virginia wineries in 2011.

There are 9 distinct regions and 7 AVAs (American Viticultural Area) – September 2012 saw the approval of the most recent AVA, Middleburg, in the Northern Virginia Region.Virginia

With a varied geography from Atlantic coast to the Blue Ridge Mountains inland and the Appalachian & Shenandoah Mountains on the state’s western border there are five distinct sub-climates; the Tidewater, Piedmont, Northern Virginia, Western Mountain and Southwestern Mountain.  In general Virginia is a humid, subtropical region and has a temperate growing season which varies between the regions at 160 to 200 days.
With rolling fields, lush greenery and a large amount of clay in the soil the state is akin to “the best of England” and, in comparison to Bordeaux, has slightly warmer summers and slightly cooler winters with frosts.

As of 2012, the state has approximately 3,000 acres (12000 ha) under cultivation, with a total harvest of over 7,500 tons – the majority of which was Vinifera. The state ranks fifth in the US for grape production behind California, Washington, Oregon and New York.
The top 5 planted varieties are all Vitis vinifera; Chardonnay, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Viognier. The Hybrid variety Vidal Blanc just pips Petit Verdot for 6th, with another hybrid, Chambourcin 8th and the Norton variety 9th.

The NEWTS May tasting covered 8 wines from 6 estates from the Monticello and Middleburg AVAs – for a list of the wines tried at the tastings see the North East Wine Tasting Society website tastings page for May 2013 all from the Oxford Wine Company.
Virginian RescueThe wines were a great success and surprised many who were prepared to judge them based on their West Coast cousins. I hesitate to say they would appeal to the “European Palate”, as I’m not convinced such generalisations are required in wine tastings, but it has been said by others that the Wines of Virginia show an elegance and style which is more Old World than New.


Further reading;

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Spain, a History

Spain was the target of my most recent presentation to the North East Wine Tasting Society. I’ve loved Spanish Wine for many years, something which was made easier  by having a local importer just down the road in the form of Spanish Spirit, run by Oliver Ojikutu. Sadly the warehouse has long since closed and Oliver is gone, but the love of Spain continues with a healthy selection at home and the prospect of a holiday in Catalonia for later on in the year.

As usual when I’m preparing a tasting I research the facts, figures and history of the producers and their regions to set the scene, so here is my pocket guide to the country.

AmphoraWinemaking in Spain was likely introduced by the Phoenicians over 3 thousand years ago in the South of what became Hispania. The trading port of Gadir (Cádiz) was established around 1100 BC, although native grapes were probably cultivated 2-3000 years earlier by the Copper & Bronze age inhabitants of the Iberian Peninsula.  Phoenician settlers travelled up the Ebro River to modern day Rioja and Navarra while Penedès in Catalonia has its origins dating back before the Phoenician introduction of (Chardonnay) vines during the 6th century BC.

Carthage, a trading colony that took power in the region following the fall of Phoenicia in 575BC, expanded influence in Hispania (Cartagena was Carthago Nova, New Carthage) but Hispania fell to Rome after the 2nd Punic war. Under Roman rule Terraconensis (modern day Tarragona) in the north and Baetica (modern day Andalucía) in the south were the main wine regions. Vineyards were set up near Calahorra and Logroño in Rioja while Jerez was known as Ceret, from where millions of amphorae of wine were shipped to Rome. All this remained until the Moors invaded in the late 8th Century and a slump occurred until the Reconquista (-1492), although Moorish rule maintained a level of grape production and was tolerant of Christian winemaking.

In Northern Spain demand for wine was strengthened by Catholics making the pilgrimage along El Camino de Santiago, the “Way of St. James” to Santiago de Compostela, Galicia, where tradition has it that the remains of the Apostle St. James are buried. In the Duero Valley Benedictine Monks arrived from Cluny, Burgundy, in the twelfth century to set up vineyards and across the region this became a highly organised commercial affair with large cities needing plentiful supplies of wine. Valladolid, in Castilla y León, was serviced by the nearby regions; Toro provided reds, Rueda whites and Cigales provided its claretes – which is why it is best known for aromatic, lively and mostly dry Rosado wines.

The 15th and 16th Century were good for winemaking – the New World Empire colonies needed supplying – and the 17th & 18th centuries saw the rising popularity for Sherry (Sack), Canary, Malaga and Rioja wine. In the 1650s Aranda del Duero’s bodegas are said to have produced 6 million litres of wine, although recession hit in the late 17th and 18th Centuries and the country as a whole was falling behind the other industrialised European countries, relying on outdated techniques as modernisation took hold elsewhere.

A major turning point occurred when the phylloxera epidemic blighted European vineyards in the 1860s and 70s and a new pilgrimage crossed the Pyrenees – French winemakers bringing their expertise and modern methods, such as the introduction controlled fermentation, the use of sulphur and the 225 liter oak barrica. Vega Sicilia
The first commercial bodegas were set up by noblemen; the Marqués de Murrieta (1852), and Marqués de Riscal (1858) in Rioja , whilst in Ribera del Duero Don Eloy Lecanda Chavés established Vega Sicilia in 1864, planting vines from Bordeaux.
Phylloxera encroachment into Spain was slow due to the soil, climate and large separation of wine regions from each other, but eventually it hit Malaga in 1878 and reached Rioja in 1901. However, by then grafting of the vines to American rootstock was an established technique and the impact was less traumatic to the industry. After the vineyards of Penedès were devastated the predominantly red vines were replaced by large numbers of white, perfect for the introduction of the Cava making when Josep Raventós and the Codorníu Winery created their first sparkler in 1872.

Economic and political upheaval in the early 20th Century, especially the military dictatorship of General Miguel Primo de Rivera, did little to advance winemaking in the country, although the General had a hand in the setting up of the first Denominación de Origen in Rioja in 1926 (with Navarra in 1933). The ensuing Civil War saw vineyards neglected and wineries destroyed throughout Spain, with regions like Catalonia and Valencia being particularly hard hit.
The Second World War then closed off European markets, further crippling the Spanish economy so that it wasn’t till the 1950s and 60s that the wine industry was stabilised, focussing on the traditional exports of Jerez and Rioja before true revival after the death of Franco in 1975 and the economic freedom that Democracy brought.

Entry into the European Union in 1986 was a further boost with the financial subsidies that followed, ironically adding to the vast European Wine Lake that was a problem throughout the 1990s and 2000s. It was during this period that the remaining Spanish D.O.s were formalised, such as Ribera del Duero in 1982, Cava in 1986, Toro in 1987, Cigales in 1991.

Spanish FlagSpain is now the third largest wine producing nation – behind France and Italy – with 35 million hl (4.66 Billion bottles), although it has the largest global vineyard (nearly 14%) at just over 1 million hectares due, in part, to the very low yields and wide spacing of the old vines planted on dry, infertile soil in many of its regions.
The country has over 400 native grape varieties although 80% of wine production is from just 20 — including Tempranillo, Albariño, Garnacha, Palomino, Airen, Maccabeo (Viura), Parellada, Xarel·lo, Cariñena and Monastrell – it’s these plus others like Verdejo, Graciano, Godello and Pedro Ximenez that are the soul of Spanish wines. However, international varieties are making inroads, especially in certain regions such as Penedès where there are over 121 varieties, including authorised red grapes such as Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and also some Syrah and Pinot Noir (which, along with Chardonnay, is used in Cava production).

There are at least seven distinct geographical areas;

  1. España Verde, Green Spain. The cool and wet northern and northwestern portion of Atlantic Coast. This includes Galicia, Asturia, Cantabria and the Basque Country (El Pais Vasco) – which experiences the highest rainfall in the country, at 1,200 – 1,600mm a year (compared to Rioja at 350-450mm).
  2. North Central Spain hosts extremely elevated but easily workable vineyards along and beyond the banks of the Duero River, primarily in Castilla y León.
  3. The Ebro River Valley is sheltered by the Sierra de Cantábria mountains to the North and stretch from La Rioja and Navarra into Arragon.
  4. The Meseta is the “Tabletop”, the large, arid Iberian plateau centred on Madrid and covering Castilla–La Mancha and Extremadura. Almost two-thirds of all Spain’s vineyards are on these arid, lifted plains with an average heigh of 660 metres (2,165 feet).
  5. The Mediterranean Coast covers Catalonia in the North and Valencia in the South, where a warm, humid climate is balanced by high-altitude vineyards.
  6. Andalucía in the South, with temperatures easily surpassing 40°C (100°F) in the summer, is an area ideal for fortified and dessert wines such as Sherry and Malaga.
  7. The Islands of the Canaries in the Atlantic and the Balearics in the Mediterranean, both moderate climates.

As of 2012, Spain has over 130 identifiable wine regions under some form of geographical classification;

  • 14 Vino de Pago (VP, previously also referred to as Denominación de Pago or DO Pago) – Individual single-estates with an international reputation. After the 2009 EU reforms vintage these will probably be known as VPP (Vino de Pago Protegida).
  • 2 Denominación de Origen Calificada (DOCa/DOQ – Denominació d’Origen Qualificada in Catalan): quality wine regions with a track record of excellence. From 2009 these can be DOPCa/DOPQ – Denominación de Origen Protegida y Calificada/Qualificada.
  • 69 Denominación de Origen (DO – Denominació d’Origen in Catalan) – mainstream quality-wine regions. From 2009 these can be DOP – Denominación de Origen Protegida.
  • Vino de Calidad Producido en Región Determinada (VCPRD) – less stringent regulation with specific geographical origin, aka VCIG – Vinos de Calidad con Indicacion Geografica
  • 41 Vinos de la Tierra (VdlT) – “country wine” areas which do not have EU QWpsr (Quality Wines Produced in Specified Regions) status but which may use a regional name. From 2009 these became IGP – Indicación Geográfica Protegida.
  • Vino de Mesa – Table wine, production of which has been in decline in recent years. This is being replaced in part with Viñedos de España which, under the new EU regulations, may state a vintage date and grape variety on the label.

Spain LargeSpain is now a modern wine producing nation with a rich history and range of styles to compete on a global market, although there are still problems to face, as shown recently with the high profile desertions from the Cava D.O. and proposals to set up a new Conca Del Riu Anoia category for Spanish sparkling wine. Nevertheless, Spanish wines are typically very reliable as a random purchase and I was excited to try my selection on the NEWTS at our April tasting, especially as it included a practically unheard of white from the Basque Country, an “icon” wine from Penedès and a traditional Rioja Reserva with 17 years of bottle age!


For up to date information on Spain and its regions visit the excellent Wines from Spain information site.

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Tynemouth Wine Trip

Front StreetToday I finally chalked off another North East wine retailer from my lists when I took advantage of a (partially) sunny Good Friday to visit Tynemouth, which means I had to pop into The Wine Chambers on Front Street.

This store was opened last year and is actually the second in young Ben Chambers burgeoning empire (the original in Walton Avenue was opened in 2010) but has more space and is on prime real estate just down the street from the Castle and Priory.
I’ve met Ben a few times before, most recently at a WSET class, but living in the Tyne Valley means the Coast is not a regular destination for me. This may well have been my first walk around Tynemouth village itself, but with the sun poking through the clouds (albeit with a few flecks of snow in the air) it’s undeniably a beautiful place made even more welcoming by a fine wine store!

Once inside I felt a bit like a kid in a sweet shop, row upon row of wines with a surprising amount of labels I’ve not seen before in other local retailers (and few that you’d find in the supermarkets). My better half Sarah immediately spied a bottle of Montes Purple Angel, the supercharged Carmenère from Chile which I missed out on when the NEWTS did a Montes tasting back in 2011. Sarah doesn’t actually like red wine but has a thing for the colour purple – that wasn’t enough for me to fork out the £28.99 being asked for (an increase of £3 since that NEWTS tasting, a sign of the hyper-tax times we live in).Red corner

Ben definitely has an excellent range of South African and South American wines, well worth a visit to the store for, but it was Europe that caught my eye, first with a Hungarian Furmint by Dobogó (Heartbeat) for £17.99. I love the range of flavours you can get in a dry Furmint, from rich and honeyed through to spicy and mineral, so when I read the marketing blurb on the back of the bottle talking of a complex wine with salty minerality, lime, pear and apple fruit I knew I’d found my first purchase. The producer’s website also suggests a 7-8 year ageing potential which fits well with my “buy now, drink a lot later” philosophy.

Old WorldThe I spied the Marqués de Murrieta 2006 Rioja Reserva for £14.99, which seemed a little low for such a renowned producer. A quick chat with Ben confirmed that this reduced price (BBR show this currently at £19.95) is because of the Estate’s desire to improve cash flow after a recent winery rebuilding and not due to a poor vintage – second & third purchases confirmed!

Finally I noticed a Fruilano, the grape previously known as Tocai until the EU regulations eliminated that and the Alsace Tokay Pinot Gris to protect the Hungarian Appellation of the same name (or at least pronunciation) – see “Farewell Tocai Friulano” by Jancis Robinson from 2008. This one was by Bastianich (who can’t have heard about the regulations as their website has “Tocai” scattered everywhere!) for £9.99 – purchase number 4 sorted.

With Sarah watching over me I decided that discretion is the better part of valour and called it a day with 4 bottles, but I could easily have stayed longer and probably spent a lot more.  I did manage to wander down the small flight of stairs to where the fine Port and Riedel glasses are stored, next to the Humidor where a stash of Cuban Cigars is maintained in perfect conditions – good job I don’t smoke!Down Below

I expect to be seeing Ben later in the year for his first NEWTS tasting, but I definitely shouldn’t wait another 3 years before visiting one of his stores again!


For further reading on Ben’s Wine Empire;


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A trio of Volnay

I don’t drink much Burgundy, but recent NEWTS tastings have included 2 good Volnays; the Maison Roche de Bellene 2009 Volnay 1er Cru, Clos des Chenes (~£23) and the superb Domaine Comte Armand 2009 Volnay (~£31).
Last week I had a third Volnay at a friend’s monthly tasting gathering where the Maison François Parent 2006 Volnay 1er Cru Les Frémiets (~£32) was brought out for everyone’s opinion, although we gathered from its introduction that it may not be for the good!

Francois Parent VolnayI am always trying to improve my palate and ability to accurately critique a wine, and sometimes the best way to do that is to analyse wines that are faulty or “not quite right” – the François Parent Volnay was an opportunity to do so.
The nose was closed with little fruit but there was already a suggestion of something wrong. While it didn’t come across as classically corked there were similarities on the edges of the smell, enough to raise alarm bells at least. On the palate the wine had a musty, damp quality – there was fruit and tannin, but they were lifeless suggesting something much older and past its best.

A healthy discussion ensued on the possible causes and the group consensus was that it wasn’t a bottle fault but more likely that the fruit had not been in the best condition from the start. This made sense when we learned that the bottle had come from the supplier requesting feedback on its quality and a no-pay guarantee if it didn’t come up to scratch.

A 2006 Burgundy vintage check shows that, after a wet August, mildew and rot were a concern for Pinot Noir, requiring very careful berry selection. Various 2006 reviews laud the white wines but show the reds to be fast evolving, Jancis Robinson wrote of “the occasional telltale metallic taste of rot in some of the less successful reds“. This description mirrors what we found in the Parent Volnay, an experience I’ll add onto the others I’ve picked up along the years that should help me appreciate good wines for what they are – a challenge that shouldn’t be taken for granted!

Domaine Comte Armand 2009 VolnayNot to finish on a negative it is worth reminding myself on the other two;

The Maison Roche de Bellene 2009 Volnay 1er Cru, Clos des Chenes was opened at the “Night of the Premier Crus” tasting in September and details of how it came across can be read in that posting.

The superb Domaine Comte Armand 2009 Volnay was presented by Alastair Stewart of Richard Granger Wines  in his November tasting of Pinot Noir from around the world.
It had a complex nose with some clove and a touch of barnyard, with violets and pomegranate developing in the glass. Flavours were well balanced with sweet spice and a lovely acid finish, although its tannins were still a bit grippy at the front suggesting it needs a few more years to fully integrate, even though it was drinking very well already.

These two wines show 2009 as a great vintage (which seems to be living up to the hype) and also show Volnay as a style of light, elegant red from the Côte de Beaune worth tasting when given the chance, barring the vagaries of nature and winemaking.


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Wines of 2012

Now that 2012 has passed, and before 2013 gets off to a working start, it’s a good time to look back on a year full of enjoyable wine experiences and where I was lucky enough to taste some superb wines – in fact 2012 is the first year I can definitely say to myself that I’ve tasted some bona fide 5 star (19-20, 95+ pts) wines. Therefore, in keeping with the tradition of making “Best of Year” lists, I’ve put together my best wines of 2012 and added a few memories along the way.

In the North East we’ve had the usual spread of major events (Eat Festival, Corbridge Fair, Sage Food & Wine) and I’ve attended tastings with Bin 21, Richard Granger, Carruthers & Kent and PortoVino. Along with the monthly NEWTS meetings, where a good proportion of the wines are locally sourced, then I’ve managed to try at least some of the wines from all of the main local importers and retailers, however, 2012 also was a good year for trying wines not available in the region. A summer holiday to Bergerac and Bordeaux played its part and I’ve had a couple of wines from my own “cellar” (kitchen cupboard!) which have impressed, but the biggest contribution was a regular private tasting group that I’ve been going to over the year where everyone brings a bottle of something “special” to share. It’s hard to pick out the best one of these so far, although the vertical tasting of St. Hallet Old Block Shiraz going back to the 1992 vintage was a joy.

It was these latter wines, mostly unavailable locally, that go into my first list.

D'YquemTop 10 wines of the 2012: This list is the crème de la crème that I’ve tasted over the year, 10 sublime wines that just delighted the palate, including some that will never be tasted again.

  1. Château d’Yquem 2006 Sauternes, Bordeaux, France (tasted at the Château, July 2012).
    The ultimate experience of my Bergerac and Bordeaux holiday in July, a visit to Château d’Yquem and a tasting of their 2006 vintage.
    The colour was rich and radiant with a golden sheen, the honeycomb-acid nose had a sweet savouriness to it. There was a silken texture, some caramel and a gentle tang of acidity to balance and layered flavours across the palate – honey for certain.
    Orion 95The length was superb, an endless finish, coating the mouth with flavours and textures that you wanted to continue forever.
  2. Orion 1995, California, USA (tasted August 2012).
    Brought by a friend this wine is a field blend where even the winemaker, Sean Thackry, isn’t completely sure what the grapes are (probably mostly Syrah) -for an insight into the eccentric Thackry check out this excellent You Tube Video on him.
    The wine showed no signs of age in the glass and had a dense, smoky nose. On the palate it was a mix of sweet, juicy, savoury & above all tasty – whatever you’re looking for in a wine, it was there.
    Very old PortA subtle long finish with a perfect nose, perfect tannins, perfect acidity, perfect fruit and a perfect finish.
  3. Sandeman 1927 Vintage Port, Portugal (tasted December 2012).
    Brought by a friend 1927 is regarded as one of the best ever vintages for Port, so I’m just glad I tasted some before it’s all gone – I doubt there will be too many bottles of this anywhere else in the world.
    Amber brown in colour the nose is of raisins with an alcoholic tickle and a little coffee. Rich and smooth on the palate, velvety smooth – almost too smooth at the front – with almonds on a long finish.
  4. Château Canon le Gaffeliere 1998 St. Emilion Grand Cru, Bordeaux France (tasted December 2012).
    Brought by a friend and not a great right-bank year, but there’s always an exception or two!
    The nose was perfect, a touch of menthol, light herbs and a good dollop of fruit. Smooth and minty at the front, rich on the mid-palate, just a delicious wine with a little spicy-wood, just a touch austere on the finish.  
  5. Dows 1963 Vintage Port (tasted January 2012).
    Part of the all Port NEWTS tasting and an excellent finish to the evening.
    Still plenty of colour showing with a violet and menthol nose. This has a velvet texture and extremely subtle, almost fragile flavours. Nectar, and no heat throughout.
  6.  Tim Adams 2006 The Aberfeldy Shiraz, Clare Valley, South Australia (tasted March 2012).
    Part of the NEWTS AGM meeting brought along by Chairman Geoff Cullen. Tim Adams wines are available from Tesco in store or through their on-line wine club.
    A light nose, lifting with menthol & spice. Cool on the palate, satisfying with gentle acidity – clean but not harsh. Textured tannins with some cocoa, drinking perfectly – a true vin de contemplation, everything is in balance, a precise, silky, seductive wine.
  7. Wynns 1998 John Riddoch Coonawarra Cabernet, South Australia (tasted June 2012).
    Part of the NEWTS tasting from Greig Wilson of Majestic Wines and sourced through their Fine Wine arm, Lay & Wheeler.
    What a nose! Smoke and graphite, mellow fruit and mint with the promise of aged flavours. In the glass this is as dark as night and the taste is wonderful; Still sweet fruit, suggesting a “fruit-bomb” past that’s come together, with perfect sourness on the edges. Some tar and liquorice with fine tannins adding structure to the fruit – a delightful wine.
  8. Sybille Kuntz 2005 Gold Quadrat Riesling Trocken, Mosel, Germany  (tasted June 2012).
    Bought by me in 2008 in Germany this premium Riesling (Spätlese style, 40-60year old organic vines) needed age and 2012 was the earliest I’d planned for this – it was well worth the wait!
    Fresh Riesling nose with layers of aroma. Good acidity and an unctuous yet fresh texture with apple-melon sweetness on the taste. An almost tannic dryness to the structure/texture.
  9. Font Juvenal 2003 Cabardès, Languedoc, France (tasted September 2012).
    Bought by a friend from the winery in France. Cabardès is unique for a French AOC in requiring a blend of both Atlantic and Mediterranean grape varieties.
    Fresh with a hint of garrigue, a stunning wine with chocolate/coffee and mint.
  10. Château Musar 2002, Bekaa Valley, Lebanon (tasted January 2012).
    Bought from Waitrose back in 2010 for £18 and opened at home for some self-indulgent drinking. Richard Granger still has back vintages of Musar available.
    Initially poured without decanting there was a touch of spritz in this which didn’t sit well with the rest of the flavours & textures – however after a few minutes this settled down and started to develop. A warm, smoky nose with a touch of barnyard mixed in among the alcoholic spice. Delightfully smooth and warm in the mouth this has integrated flavours and chalky dry tannins, there’s chocolate mixed in and a long, but subtle, earthy finish. Deliciously textured this wine is wonderful with a quality approaching that of the 1999.

3 French, 2 Australians, 2 Portuguese, 1 German, 1 American and a Lebanese is the type of spread I like to see when it comes to good wine, no one region can lay claim to making superb wine when it comes to individual bottles.

Along with tasting some truly sublime wines in 2012 my continuing wine journey also included meeting some renowned people in the industry (not including the winemakers met on holiday). The EAT Newcastle & Gateshead Wine Fair in July has the Wines of Lebanon Masterclass with Tim Atkin MW presenting, a journalist and critic I’ve long held in respect. Then, a few weeks later, the Northumbria Food and Wine Festival had another Master of Wine, Sarah Abbott, and MW student Karen Hardwick both giving presentations. My self-education continued at NEWTS when I put together a Bordeaux tasting for the members and was in the audience, glasses at the ready, for the other great tastings we had over the year, including the “Night of the Premier Crus” Burgundy tasting in September.

So to my second list, a top 10 of wines which includes the wines from local retailers that I’ve enjoyed most over the year and that may still be available for purchase (if they haven’t moved onto the next vintage by now).

SchoepferTop 10 local wines: The Northumbria Food & Wine Fair and Bin 21’s April tasting contribute 2 each to the list, with 4 NEWTS meetings, the EAT Fair and C&K’s November tasting providing the rest.

  1. Domaine Michel Schoepfer 2006 Pinot Gris, Alsace, France (£9.30. Dennhöfer Wines, tasted August 2012).
    One of the stars of the Corbridge Wine Festival this year, and top of the list due to its superb value for money.
    This had a delicate floral nose and a golden colour. Richly textured, with a creaminess to it. There was some gentle bitterness and toasty caramel on the finish.
  2. Alain Paret 2010 Viognier, Rhône, France  (£11.99. Carruthers & Kent, tasted July 2012).
    Was in a different league to other wines in the EAT Fair in July, with precise, clean, focussed flavours – a mini-Condrieu without the price-tag.
  3. Château Ka Source Blanche 2011, Bekaa Valley, Lebanon (£10.99. Carruthers & Kent, tasted August 2012).
    Delightfully weird white wine of the Corbridge Wine Festival, a blend of Muscat, Sémillon and Sauvignon Blanc,
    Sauvignon dominates on the nose. Good acidity, balanced, chewy flavours with a chaotic melange of tastes – including fudge! – and a toasty finish.
  4. Piano del Cerro 2008 Aglianico Reserva, Basilicata, Italy (£21.99. Carruthers & Kent, tasted November 2012).
    The find of Carruthers and Kent’s November Tasting, a powerful southern Italian red from Liberty.
    Rich nose with some sweet oak. Young fruit with raw tannins but beautiful full flavour.
  5. Companhia das Quintas 2009 Morgado Santa Catherina, Bucelas, Portugal (£16-£19. Bin21/PortoVino, tasted April 2012).
    Made from Portugal’s Arinot grape and the best white (ahead of the Marsannay below) from Bin 21’s Hexham tasting in April.
    Struggles on the nose but delivered on the palate with a rich complexity and a toasty/nutty finish.
  6. Diemersdal 2009 Private Collection, Durbanville, South Africa (£16. Bin21, tasted July 2012). Bin 21 again, this time from Paddy Eyre’s in-absentia presentation to the NEWTS in July.
    A lovely Bordeaux blend with a lifted, fragrant nose of coffee, blackcurrant and chocolate. Big on flavour as well, well balanced and complex with coffee and hazelnuts and a caramel finish. Although drinking well now the acidity is a touch overpowering but give it 4-7 years.
  7. Masi Agricola 2007 Costasera Amarone, Veneto, Italy (£30. Majestic, tasted May 2012).
    A wood-aged Appassimento wine presented as part of an Italian themed NEWTS tasting.
    Tar, figs, Madeira raisins and Dijon Mustard on the nose. Velvety smooth with spicy complexity and port-type texture.
  8. Louis Jadot 2009 Marsannay Blanc, Burgundy, France (approx £18. Bin21, tasted April 2012).
    A damn fine white Burgundy just pipped for wine of the night at Bin 21’s Hexham tasting by the Morgado Santa Catherina above.
    Superb minerality and a toasty finish.
  9. Au Bon Climat 2009 Santa Maria Valley Pinot Noir, California, USA (£23. Richard Granger, tasted November 2012).
    Presented by Alastair Stewart of Richard Granger wines at his NEWTS Pinot Noir tasting, a delicious introduction to very good Pinot Noir.
    A fresh, herb nose with undercurrents of chocolate and mulch. Savoury red fruit, soft at the front of the palate with good acid integration and light, dry tannins.  Subtle flavours on the mid-palate drop off into an uncomplicated finish.
  10. D’Arenberg 2008 Dead Arm Shiraz, McLaren Vale, South Australia (£27. Majestic, tasted June 2012).
    Part of Greig Wilson’s Majestic Australia NEWTS tasting.
    Fresh, peppery nose with a gamey-sourness. An edgy graphite and meaty palate, very intense mouthfeel, lively, suggesting it’s still in an exuberant youthful phase and could probably do with another 2-3 years.

Pinot NoirWith Bin21 and Carruthers & Kent attending all the major festivals and also hosting their own tastings it’s no surprise they have the lion’s share of bottles, but a healthy spread of 3 French, 2 Italian and 1 bottle each from Lebanon, Portugal, South Africa, USA and Australia from 6 of our local wine providers is another good mix and match of styles and sources.

After 2012 I’m starting to feel that I’m moving out of my wine adolescence into some sort of adulthood, a confidence in my knowledge and palate where I can really start to appreciate what the year had to offer. Being part of the North East Wine Tasting Society has helped nurture this development and I’m glad I was able to give something back by setting up and maintaining the NEWTS web-site which will keep me busy for the foreseeable future as I try and make it a useful resource for members and visitors alike. Of course it wasn’t all good times, notably the hard drive failure in October which led to the loss of so much information I’d been working on over the last couple of years, some of it unrecoverable (I’m only just back to a point where I have a complete list of my own wines at home again). I also regret the lack of my own blog posts, especially the failure to contribute even one article to Reign of Terroir in 2012 (which, coupled with Ken Payton’s rekindled filmmaking career, means that Blog is in limbo at the moment).

Nevertheless 2012 will leave me with mainly happy memories, a wealth of notes and information and unique experiences. In the words of Old Blue Eyes, “from the brim to the dregs, it poured sweet and clear, it was a very good year”.


Posted in In Vino Veritas, Just having a drink, Local Tastings, N.E. Retailers, NEWTS Tastings | Tagged , , , , | Comments Off on Wines of 2012

Night of the Premier Crus

September seems like ages ago now but David Whitaker gave the NEWTS a tasting that will stay in memory for a long time with a selection of fine and rare Burgundy Premier Crus. Dave had made connections in Burgundy Wines to provide superb quality reference information on the different Appellations of  to go along with the tasting, although the most impressive thing by the end was the number of small lot wines that were finally shown, including some with with a production of only 50 – 150 bottles!Burgundy Ref

The starter wine was a gentle introduction to Burgundy Chardonnay with the Maison Louis Latour 2010 Bourgogne Chardonnay (Waitrose, £8.75, although now it’s £10.99). This Beaune based négociant-éléveur (one that owns vineyards as well as acts as a broker) has remained a family run business since its founding in 1797 and has a good reputation for white Burgundy. This Chardonnay was from 30 year old vines fermented and aged for 8-10 months in stainless steel.
It had a fresh, fruity nose with sweet, toasty flavours at the top of the palate but didn’t come across as overly oaked. It was a little green around the edges with sour apple and elderflower and fresh citrus acidity. Pleasant enough it was a little soft and simplistic and a touch hot on the finish.

After this the Premier Cru wines were approached in flights of two comparing different Appellations, starting with St. Aubin and Chassagne Montrachet for the whites.
The Olivier LeFlaive 2009 St. Aubin1er Cru, En Remilly (£25 in France) comes from a small négociant-éléveur with a reputation for high quality, winemaker Franck Grux vinifies all the grapes brought into the Puligny-Montrachet based winery.
The 1er Cru En Remilly vineyard (or Climat) sits on the western slopes of the famous Montrachet hillside and the 2009 gave a matchstick and oak nose with fresh, mineral acidity on the palate. A little woody at the front this had noticeable texture with delicate, subtle, integrated flavours, although was a touch one dimensional on the finish.

In comparison the Domaine Darviot Perrin 2008 Blanchots Dessus from neighbouring Chassagne Montrachet (£43 in France, £65 from Howard Ripley) was a fuller wine with a rich, fruity nose. Showing sharp acidity at the front it developed richness on the mid-palate; creamy, elegant, sharp and complex with some pineapple and apricots on a long finish. This wine was from the 150-case production of the Blanchots Dessus vineyard (adjacent to the Grand Cru La Montrachet) from the husband and wife team of Didier and Geneviève Darviot who produce wines at a slow pace in their cool cellars, often releasing a vintage a year later than their neighbours.

The next pair were from side-by-side vineyards in Monthelie and Volnay in the Côte de Beaune.
LeFlaive & Associés 2009 Monthelie 1er Cru, Sur la Velle (£21 in France, £35 from Corney & Barrow) is from one of the best vineyards in Monthélie, effectively a continuation of the Volnay 1er Cru, Clos des Chênes. Anne-Claude Leflaive (& sister of Olivier LeFlaive) set up this new négociant for biodynamic wines sourced from around the region but managed by Eric Rémy, of Domaine LeFlaive. Vinification is carried out at the Domaine cellars in Puligny-Montrachet, itself fully Biodynamic since 1997.
The wine had a mature colour of “typical Burgundy” and youthful fruit nose. There was a sweet palate with strong tannins and smooth, raspberry flavours although the fruit was a touch candied and a little one dimensional. The finish was lean, going a touch bitter.

Nicholas PotelAcross the appellation boundary the Maison Roche de Bellene 2009 Volnay 1er Cru, Clos des Chenes (£23 in France, £39.50 at Berry Bros) is made by Nicolas Potel (who started, but no longer owns the name to, Maison Nicolas Potel). 160 cases of this wine were made, the Climat named for the oak trees that line the Western edge alongside Monthelie.
This had a typical Pinot Noir nose with some raspberry, wood and spice. There was an approachable, smooth attack with light, sweet fruit and mushrooms on the mid-palate, mellowing in the glass, but also a sharp edge going a little bitter on the finish.

The next pair of reds were also from adjoining vineyards – Haut Marconnets in Savigny les Beaune and Clos du Dessus des Marconnets in Beaune, separated by the A6 main road to Paris – and made in miniscule production, 150 bottles and 50 bottles respectively!
The Domaine Martin DuFour 2006 Savigny les Beaunes 1er Cru, Haut Marconnets was a strange wine with enamel/cassis on the nose and a little green and vegetal, akin to some Chilean Cabernets. Edgy on the palate, it came across as over-extracted, tannic with a concentrated texture and a touch of chemical to it – pleasant, but not what was expected from Burgundy or Pinot Noir.

Its partner was a different matter, the Domaine Pierre Labet 2009 Beanue 1er Cru, Clos du Dessus des Marconnets (£33 in France, £27.75 from Corney & Barrow) was classic Pinot Noir with a youthful fruit nose, smooth spicy tannins with a tang of acidity. It was clean with good texture, balanced and showing a precise finish, making it a very elegant and drinkable wine.

DomdelaVougeraieThe final pair of the night were from the Northern Côte du Nuits and some of the most recognisable Burgundy appellations, Nuits St. George and Vosnee Romanee. Domaine de la Vougeraie 2008 Nuits St. Georges 1er Cru, Les Damodes (£57.50, Berry Bros) comes from a 139 case production and gave a a clear colour in the glass and a savoury-mulchy nose. This was a light, elegant wine (the term “feminine” was heard), not thin as such as it carried so much flavour along with it, supremely subtle with some raspberry and floral aspects and good length, making it a hard act to follow for the Domaine d’Ardhuy 2005 Vosnee Romanee 1er Cru, Les Chaumes (£39, Burgundy Basement).
The Les Chaumes Climat is across the street from the Grand Cru La Tâche vines so we were expecting something special encouraged by a depth of colour in the glass and a powerful yet integrated nose. Spicy and smoky with a little root liquorice behind the savoury fruit this gave a slightly bitter mid-palate with tannins and dense, New World flavours – a weighty, well made wine.

At the end there was well deserved applause for David having put together a superb tasting from a notoriously difficult area, especially for his resourcefulness in sourcing low production wines within the NEWTS Budget (less than the UK retail prices shown in most instances).
The Domaine Darviot Perrin 2008 Chassagne Montrachet 1er Cru, Blanchots Dessus was the stand-out white, with the Domaine de la Vougeraie 2008 Nuits St. Georges 1er Cru, Les Damodes one of the best Burgundy Reds I’ve ever tasted – although as their combined price tags come to £100 this shouldn’t be a big surprise. There wasn’t a bargain wine in the tasting, but at £33 the Domaine Pierre Labet 2009 Beanue 1er Cru, Clos du Dessus des Marconnets came close as a true to type Burgundy which had nearly anything you went looking for in there.


Posted in NEWTS Tastings, Wine Regions | Tagged , | 1 Comment

Be safe, or be sorry!

This is what is called an NWR (Non Wine Related) post – don’t expect too many of them!

It’s been a tough few weeks for me recently since my computer hard drive suffered a catastrophic failure causing the eventual loss of all data on it.Without going into too much detail lets just say that the drive was not recognised by the system BIOS and, after I’d spent hours trying to get it working again, eventually it was no longer recognisable to anything or anybody!

Getting the computer up and working again was not a problem, within the day I had a shiny new Windows 7 installation with all my key software re-installed and configured (the benefits of working with computers every day), but sadly no data to work with. After much scrambling around checking old computer drives I managed to find a full set of data from late 2009. Digging deeper on memory sticks etc. I could add on some files from 2010 and a few photo albums over the last couple of years so that, in the end, the actual loss was less painful than first expected. Unfortunately my wine data was hit the hardest, including a virtual encyclopaedia of wine information gleaned from the internet and nearly all tasting notes during my life as the North East Wino (true, I’ve got the hand-written notes, but will I go back through all of them?).

Worse still my “Wine List” – the Excel spreadsheet I track all of my wine purchases on – was stuck in October 2010, barely recognisable to what I know I have scattered around the house in coolers and cupboards. I’ve managed to download data from CellarTracker to January 2012, which was when, for one reason or another, I stopped updating my on-line cellar (which I am now regretting) which means that I am having to very slowly piece together information on what I’ve bought & drunk over the last 10 months, plus where most of it is! I expect this to take several more weeks.

Hindsight is a wonderful thing, except in my case I know all about the benefits of regular backups and data redundancy – part of my job is training system engineers where I hammer this point home, so this was a clear case of “Do what I say, not what I do”!

I have come to terms with all of this and have vowed to rebuild the data and expand my knowledge further in the process, just like going back to school again. It will take time of course, and I may never get round to re-starting the pieces I’d worked on about Tokaji, the Geology of Terroir, the real costs of making a bottle of wine and several other “unfinished works”.

This weekend sees the start of a round of local wine events which should give me enough new material to start with: Carruther’s & Kent’s 3rd Wine Fair at As You Like it in Jesmond; Bin 21’s Wine Fair at the Beaumont Hotel in Hexham; The Sage Gateshead’s Wine and Food Fair; and this year’s remaining NEWTS meetings and Christmas meal. Remember to check out the NEWTS “Local Events” page to keep updated on what’s on where in the region.

Meanwhile I am not going to make the same mistake again and now have a backup hard drive installed in my PC which I will use to store a drive image and regular data dumps. I have also taken advantage of Amazon’s free 5GB of Cloud Storage for key files and I have a separate data cartridge system to store Acronis True Image backups of my system partition & other files and folders. I may even start using Cellar Tracker again – once I have my wine list back in some usable state!

If, like me, you have a detailed digital life, then make sure you take precautions against the trials and tribulations of modern technology. I was prepared for an O/S corruption or more typical disk errors, but not the complete failure I encountered. In the same way virus and malware terrorists are getting more devious in effects (only a few months ago I spent a couple of hours cleaning off one of those fake “Police lock” hijack scams). So;

  • Do regular data backups to external media, USB HDDs, memory sticks, SD Cards or Cloud Storage.
  • Make a Windows bootable system repair CD for emergencies
  • Look at making Disk Images. Windows 7 in-built is slow and space consuming, but it works. Acronis True Image is a damn sight better.
  • Do regular Windows Restore points – for Windows 7 they work really well for minor problems with the O/S or registry.
  • Check your Firewall, Malware & Anti-virus options – even if it’s just the free Microsoft Security Essentials.

Be safe, or be sorry…like I was!


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Bordeaux , a whistle stop tour

As I discussed in my Bordeaux, a History piece the region I chose for my second NEWTS tasting isn’t one where I’ve had any personal knowledge of experience of. The main reason I ended up standing in front of August’s audience trying to look knowledgeable was thanks to a French colleague of mine that keeps me supplied with Château St. Georges, the main producer of the St. Émilion St. Georges satellite appellation. This meant I already had a mini-vertical as the core of the tasting, making it relatively easy to add contrasting wines from other left- and right-bank estates to cover a representative range of styles that Bordeaux has to offer.

First up was Le Sec de Rayne Vigneau 2010 Bordeaux Blanc (13% abv) from Château de Rayne Vigneu, which is in the Sauternes commune of Bommes. The estate covers 80 hectares (ha) of sandy gravel and clay on a ridge close to the river Ciron with adjacent vineyards to the most famous of the Sauternais, Château d’Yquem, less than a kilometre  away.

As an AOC Sauternes is only applicable to the famous sweet wines of the region, but most of the estates also produce a dry white wine from grapes which don’t succumb to the Botrytis cinerea needed to produce the Noble rot. These whites must use Bordeaux Blanc on the label and examples includes Y (Ygrec) from d’Yquem, G de Guiraud, R de Rieussec and S de Suduiraut. Rather than following the theme Rayne Vigneau instead prefers “Le Sec” which it has been making in one form or another since the 1980s.

Founded in the early 17th century the name Gabriel de Vigneau appears on the 1635 title deeds and his son, Etienne, married Jeanne Sauvage, daughter of the owner of Château d’Yquem. The estate was bought in 1834 by Madame de Rayne, née Catherine de Pontac (of the same Pontac dynasty as Château Haut Brion) and it was her great nephew, Albert de Pontac, who gave the property its current name. The famous 1855 classification placed Vigenau as a Premiers Cru and for a time it was even rated as number one of the (then 9, now 11) other “first growths”, just below Premiers Cru Supérieur’s sole occupant (Y’know who) but standards had fallen by 1971 when it was bought by Bordeaux negociant Mestrezat, then by CA Grands Crus (Credit Agricole) in 2004, joining their holdings which also include Pauillac 5th Growth Château Grand-Puy Ducasse, St. Estèphe’s Château Meyney and Château Blaignan in the Médoc.

Recent investment has improved its quality and reputation with the estate following “Agriculture Raisonnée” or (Reasoned) “Sustainable agriculture”; a sometimes criticised French initiative which is not quite organic, a sort of environmentally-friendly grape-growing without the complete proscription of organic/biodynamic disciplines. The Technical Director is winemaker Anne Le Naour with Denis Dubourdieu, Professor of Oenology at the University of Bordeaux and white wine specialist, as consultant to the company.

The estate vineyards are 74% Semillon, 24% Sauvignon Blanc and 2% Muscadelle with an average age of 30 years, but for the dry white only younger Sauvignon Blanc is used as it ripens earlier and is less susceptible to Noble rot. Grapes are handpicked and tank fermented with lees stirring to enhance flavour & texture.

Tasting: In the glass this had a strong New World style with a pungent aroma with some lemon. There was good weight and acidity on the palate, very citrusy and refreshing. Quite a popular wine, purchased from Costco for £9.58 in March 2012.

A more traditional wine was next from the Graves, or more precisely Pessac-Léognan, which is a relatively recent appellation created in 1987. As a sub-regions of the Graves it has an ancient history and includes the only red Premier Cru outside the Haut-Médoc from the 1855 Classification, Haut-Brion, and also all of the Châteaux from the 1953 & 59 classification of Graves. With 1600 ha of vines the area produces 80,000hl a year (10.5M bottles), over 70% of which is red.

Château de Rochemorin is in Martillac, 2 miles south east of the town of Leognan and their 2007 Pessac-Leognan Blanc (12%) is made from 18 ha of white grapes, predominantly Sauvignon Blanc, on the estate’s Pyrenean Gravel – a further 92 ha is dedicated to reds.

Originally known as the Manor of Beaubois it was bought in 1520 by Jean de Amelin, Lord of Rochemorin in the Perigord. Over a century the estate was planted and developed until the de Pesnel family took over in the 17th Century, absorbing it into the neighbouring Château La Brède. The last de Pesnel, Françoise Marie, was mother of Charles Louis de Secondat, the French philosopher “Montesquieu”, whose descendants remained at Rochemorin until 1919, selling the estates to a logging company who neglected the vineyards. It wasn’t until 1973 that they were redeveloped by new owner André Lurton, grandson of a wine-grower in the Entre-deux-Mers and one of the people instrumental in getting the region AOC accreditation.
In March 2012 CA Grands Crus (Credit Agricole)  took an 18% stake in the company and Denis Dubourdieu is also consultant here.

The wine itself is 100% hand harvested Sauvignon Blanc from 15-18 year old vines, barrel-fermented and matured in 35% new oak for 10 months on the lees with bâtonnage (lees stirring) and no malolactic fermentation.

Tasting: The wine had an oaky nose with crisp acidity and quite an oily texture. It received a mixed reception (I’m sure someone likened it to Retsina) although I found it pleasant enough. This was bought in France earlier this year for the equivalent of £14, although Bibendum have sold it in the UK for a little more.

The last white, Château Charron 2005 Acacia (13%), was almost dropped from the tasting over doubts on its vitality (which proved correct) but was kept it in as it was the only example of a classic Sémillon dominated white Bordeaux.

Château Charron is in the Côtes de Blaye on the right-bank of the Gironde Estuary, north of the Bordeaux and opposite the Médoc. The area has 6,700 ha of vines producing 310,000 hectolitres (hl) a year (41M bottles) but, along with neighbouring Côtes de Bourg, is usually ignored and neglected by the media. Although 90% of Blaye vines are now red the area was historically white with the best vineyards known as the Premières Côtes de Blaye until 2009, when it joined the new federative appellation of the Côtes de Bordeaux (along with Côtes de Castillon, Cotes de Francs and Premieres Cotes de Bordeaux).

The estate has been producing  wine since it was rebuilt in 1731 but little is known of its surrounding history. Valerie Germain now oversees 26ha (6ha white) on a hill of clay and limestone, producing 150,000 bottles a year. The Germains are an old Bordeaux winemaking family headed by Valerie’s father Bernard who, up until recently, owned Loire estate Château de Fesles in Bonnezeaux. Brothers Thierry (Domaine des Roches Neuves in Varrains, Loire) and Philippe (Château de la Roulerie in Saint-Aubin, Burgundy) continue family tradition outside of Bordeaux.

The Acacia cuvée is 70% Semillon and 30% Sauvignon Blanc from 30 year old vines, barrel fermented and aged in oak. It is one of the more respected Blaye whites, getting a mention from Clive Coates MW in his book “Wines of Bordeaux, 1952-2003”.

Tasting: The wine lacked structure and had a strong oxidised aspect, finishing short. Remnant flavours hinted at what may have been 2-3 years earlier, but it was branded as a “typical old white Bordeaux” past its peak. This was £11.10 and one of two wines purchased earlier in the year from Makro, part of their venerable “minefield” range – a selection of suspiciously old and under-priced wines which always give surprise when opened….just not always in a good way!

We moved onto the reds and to the wines that led to the tasting in the first place, Château St. Georges in the satellite appellation of Saint-Georges-Saint-Émilion, 2 miles north of St. Émilion itself. This is the smallest AOC in Bordeaux, at just under 200 ha producing 11,500 hl a year (1.5M bottles). Merlot dominates with 75% of plantings on limestone and clay and to qualify for the Appellation Controlée wines must contain a minimum of 11% alcohol from vineyards planted to a density of fewer than 5,500 vines per hectare (which is not necessarily a good thing). The St. Georges commune is located so close to the neighbouring village of Montagne that its wines can also be labelled as Montagne-Saint-Émilion.
The Barbanne river, which runs just north of the Dordogne, marks the southern boundary of the appellation and this is also the historical Western boundary between the ‘Langue d’oïl’ and the ‘Langue d’oc’ – the northern and southern parts of old France named for their way of saying yes derived from the Latin hoc (this).

Château St. Georges is the largest estate with 45 ha producing about 250,000 bottles. It dates back to Gallo-Roman times when a luxurious villa overlooked the vineyards, giving its name to a parish and later a medieval castle. In 1602, a barony was created when Henri IV sold the lands and title to a Saint-Émilion family. It was passed down through the family as dowry for the eldest daughter until the last Baron of Saint-Georges hired celebrated architect Victor Louis, who also designed the Grand Theatre in Bordeaux, in 1772. Retaining only the four medieval towers the new building, park and gardens were all surrounded by vineyards until they succumbed to phylloxera in the late 1800s, when it was bought by Pétrus Desbois in 1891 to be used as his summer residence. After replanting the vineyards the estate has remained family owned ever since, with Pétrus Desbois II taking over in 1945 and now the next generation is in charge under Georges Desbois. There is also local connection in the form of Ian Cobham, head sommelier at the Hotel du Vin in Newcastle, Plumpton College graduate and Cellarmaster at Château St. Georges until 2003.

Like all of Bordeaux, St. Georges does not irrigate its vineyards, a mix of 60% Merlot, 20% Cabernet Sauvignon, and 20% Cabernet Franc of approx. 30 years of age. Unusually for the area the grapes are machine picked, but then hand-sorted before the crush. After fermentation they go into 50% new oak with 15-18 months of barrel ageing.

Tasting: We started the vertical with the 2007 (12.5%) which came across as much too young and a little hard, unexpected for a Merlot dominated wine. A sweet, smoky nose led into juicy, lean acidity with some chocolate, but overall it was felt as thin with no real complexity. The 2006 (13%) showed a more vegetal, savoury nose with black fruit and a lifted aspect. On the palate was some tar, smooth fruit and edgy, grainy tannins, a good wine. Finally the 2004 (13.5%) gave some polish on the nose (Germolene was also suggested) and a little eucalyptus. Lean, with a soft palate there was some mushroom and the complexity definitely improved in the glass – for both the 2006 and 2004 some extra decanting may have helped. All of these wines were sourced in France for just under €20 a bottle, although the ’06 was available from the Oxford Wine Co. for £29.95.

We switched briefly to the left-bank and the commune of Listrac-Médoc with the 2004 Château Fonréaud (13%). Along with the neighbouring Moulis-Médoc these are the smallest (and least appreciated) of the left bank Appellations, with Listrac covering 650 ha (Moulis 550 ha) and produces 37,500 hl a year (5M bottles). Listrac boasts the highest point of the Médoc at 43m on the hills of the Puy de Menjon – where the Fonréad vines grow.

The land dates back to the 12th Century where legend has it that Henry II (Plantagenet, husband of Aliénor) drank from a cool spring which became known as the “Royal Spring” – “Font-Réaux”. Whether true or not, the spring still exists on the estate’s 35 ha of Pyrenean gravel on a clay-limestone subsoil which produces 140,000 bottles. Winemaking took hold following the draining of the marshland in the 17th Century when Bordeaux councillor Leblanc de Mauvesin set out to create a prestigious wine estate on his family lands in Moulis and Listrac, which included Château Mauvesin. Vines were planted over almost all the Font-Réaux land, a cellar was built and by 1776 Leblanc de Mauvesin wines were the best in Listrac, equivalent to what would later become Pauillac & St. Julien 4th Growths. How the quality fared afterwards is not known but by 1855, when the modern Château was built by Henri Le Blanc de Mauvesin, replacing the original farm buildings, neither commune was recognised in the famous Bordeaux Classification. An side effect of this history is that the vineyard continues uninterrupted another 10 ha into neighbouring Moulis which, although historically part of the same estate, produces the AOC Moulis-Médoc Château Chemin Royal (Royal road).

At the end of the 19th Century vine disease ended the dynasty and it wasn’t until 1962 that Léo Chanfreau, a winemaker in Algeria, returned to France and took over Fonréaud’s remaining 17 ha of unkempt vines. He replanted and started renovations but died in an accident in 1970, his work continued by his father Marcel (owner of neighbouring Château Lestage) and, when they were old enough, his children Jean and Caroline. Jean became estate manager in 1978, at the age of 23.

Vineyards are managed using the Cousinié method a ‘homeopathic’ approach of more nutritional balance with fewer treatments to “increase natural resistance of vines to disease”. The estate was Cru Bourgeois Superieur in the defunct 2003 classification and the blend is 52 % Cabernet Sauvignon, 45 %Merlot and 3 % Petit Verdot  aged in 1/3 new oak barrels for around 12 months before bottling..

Tasting: This was a refreshing change after the austerity of the previous wines with a lifted black fruit nose. Fresh on the palate with soft, straightforward fruit, there was an enjoyable simplicity of flavours but a short finish. It was very popular in the room, even more so when the £10.99 price tag was revealed (reduced from £15.99 from the Co-operative, Dec. 2011).

We moved onto the older wines with the Château Larmande 2001 St. Émilion Grand Cru (13.5%). The St. Émilion appellation is centred around Libourne on the right bank of the Dordogne, although it is the Medieval town of St. Émilion itself that gives its name to the vineyards, which together are a UNESCO World Heritage site. The area was first classified a Century after the left-bank, in 1955, and is updated regularly (although usually with controversy and challenge). Saint-Émilion and Saint-Émilion Grand Cru AOCs cover 5,600 ha and produce 235,000 hl per year of red wine (30M bottles) on four main types of land in the AOC: 2 limestone plateaux centred on (St. Martin) and east (St. Christophe) of the town itself; limestone and clay on the plateau slopes west & east; gravely soils to the northwest neighbouring on Pomerol; and sandy soils to the north (aeolian) and south (alluvian).

The old cellar stones of Château Larmande, about a mile north of St Émilion, bear the date 1640, although records show wine being produced on the land back to 1585. The estate changed hands numerous times until a partnership of the Meneret and Capdemourlin families took over at the start of the 1900s, running it together (with the help of a inter-family marriage) and increasing the vineyard to 22.5 ha until 1990, when it was sold to Insurance Group La Mondiale, now common in Bordeaux as the costs of running a quality winemaking venture soar. With investment for restoration and expansion available the vines now cover 25 ha (6 ha up to 6km away from the estate) producing 1000 hl (110,000 bottles) in modernised winery and cellar.

Château Larmande is a Grand Cru Classé (Great Classified Growth) below the 2-tier Premières Grands Crus Classés (A and B) although may have laid claim for promotion in the past. In recent years reviews have been more sober so it was no surprise when the 2012 classification left its ranking unchanged. The wines are made in the traditional style from 30 year old vines; a blend of 65% Merlot, 35% Cabernet Franc and 5% Cabernet Sauvignon, 60% new oak with 15-18 month barrel ageing.

Tasting: The 2001 showed the estate at its finest with a fresh, fruity nose, delicately floral and so soft on the palate, before moving into a long finish with still firm tannins. This was a wine with good complexity, no failings and oh-so-good to drink, a truly delicious 4 star wine.

The last red was intended to show the left-bank with some bottle-age, a role filled by the 1998 Château Potensac Médoc (12.5%). Although the term Médoc is commonly used to refer to the entire peninsula north of Bordeaux as an appellation it is specific to the northern tip, the lower- or Bas-Médoc (as opposed to the Haut-Médoc which holds the famous Premier Crus). This AOC extends over 5,800 ha and produces 285,000 hl (38M bottles) of red wine per year.

Potensac is in the commune of Ordonnac, close to the Gironde and 5 miles from St. Estèphe. Owned by the Liquard family, who arrived in the Médoc in the 18th Century from Holland, it uses the motto of Louis XIV (the Sun King) Nec Pluribus Impar “Not unequal to many”. In the early 20th Century Georges Liquard expanded the estate during the war by purchasing abandoned neighbouring vineyards. His daughter married Paul Delon – of the St. Julien Second Growth Château Leoville Las Cases – who ran the estate until 1976, succeeded by his son Michel and then, in 2000, his son Jean-Hubert. Quality steadily improved in this period and Clive Coates MW wrote in “Wines of Bordeaux” that Potensac is “probably the best wine in the Médoc”, regularly turning out wines of classed growth quality and highlighting the inequalities of the 1855 classification in the 21st Century.

Nevertheless it could only boast a Cru Bourgeois designation until the classification of 2003 when it was accorded Exceptionnel status, the only Médoc estate to do so. After the failure of the 2003 Classification (which collapsed following legal challenges) 6 of the former 9 Cru Bourgeois Exceptionnel (Château Chasse Spleen, Château Les Ormes de Pez, Château de Pez, Château Potensac, Château Poujeaux and Château Siran) abandoned the Cru Bourgeois completely, setting up a joint marketing campaign as Les Exceptionnels.

Château Potensac has 67 ha on 33m high alluvial gravel and red clay producing about 2300 hl (300,000 bottles). In past years (including the ’98) the blend was 57% Cabernet Sauvignon, 25% Merlot and 16% Cabernet Franc with 2% Carmenère, with an average vine age of 35 years planted at a density of 8000 vines/ha. Yields are restricted to approximately 35 hl/ha. More recently Merlot plantings have increased (the 2005 was 41% Merlot to 40% Cabernet Sauvignon). Potensac is made by the same winemaking team as Leoville Las Cases with (hand) pickers arriving a few days after the Las Cases harvest ends, so grapes are usually riper than its neighbours. Once fermented the wine is matured in small oak barrels for 14-16 months, 20-30% of the barrels are new and the rest are from Léoville-Las Cases after seeing out one vintage there.

Tasting: The wine showed well compared to some of the younger ones, the nose was initially closed but there was a little perfume coming through. Light bodied with smooth, soft tannins, some liquorice and eucalyptus, this was a savoury wine with texture, although a touch acidic and in need of a joint of beef! Although in the twilight years of its life the overheard comment on necrophilia was unduly harsh!
This was £28.50 from Makro, the second of the “minefield” range and an example of the gems that can be found with perseverance! Majestic had the ‘06 for £20 and BBR had several of the recent vintages in the low-mid £20s.

As will become traditional for my tastings I brought the evening to a close with something sweet, and for Bordeaux what else could there be but something from Sauternes & Barsac? The Château Filhot 2001 (14%) duly obliged.

On left bank of the Garonne, 40 kilometers south-east of Bordeaux, the Appellation includes the 5 communes of Sauternes, Fargues, Preignac, Bommes and Barsac. As with other classic sweet wine regions Sauternes has a legend of an old owner returning too late for harvest but carrying on with the winemaking and making a delicious discovery on the flavours that the noble rot grapes bring! The rest is expensive history…. for more information on the factors that lead to such superb sweet wines read my recent piece on the ultimate of the Sauternais, Château d’Yquem.

Château Filhot  is from the 416 ha of Sauternes itself and was founded in 1709 by Romain de Filhot – although the vineyards were in place between 1630 and 1650. By the 1780s it was of equal reputation to Château d’Yquem (owned by the Lur-Saluces family) but the French Revolution saw the Guillotine almost end the line. The Lur Saluces joined by marriage and maintained the Château, although it became neglected such that it was only given 2nd Growth status in the 1855 classification. The current owner, Count Henri de Vaucelles, is a descendant of the Lur-Saluces/Filhot family and has been managing the estate since 1974, assisted by his son Gabriel since 1996.

The estate has 62 ha of prime land, south of the village of Sauternes on south-west facing slopes but has been criticised for not returning to oak maturation as quickly as others in the region (it used only fibre-glass tanks for maturation until mid 2000s) and for a style lacking in botrytis so that it often comes across as “merely sweet”. The wine is a classic Sauternes; Sémillon 60%, Sauvignon 36%, Muscadelle 4%. Grapes are handpicked in successive “tries” – passes through the vines looking for the ripest and noblest grapes – before fermentation in stainless steel, followed by a 2 year maturation in tank (although since the 2005 vintage 1/3 also see new oak).

Tasting: As befits 2001, one of the best vintages in recent memory the wine showed very well with a perfumed nose, good complexity and just enough acidity to keep going with the balanced sweetness. This was a split buy, the first bottle for £12 from Costco in 2011, the second £16.80 from Richard Granger in 2012 – what a difference a year makes!

So there we are, my second NEWTS tasting complete and, I think, well received. I enjoyed finding and researching the wines, although to be honest the evening was a bit of a blur and I can’t recall every detail. I certainly know a lot more about Bordeaux, although whether I will increase my spending in the area I still can’t say. I would definitely have another try of the Château Larmande, which was the best wine of the night by far, but sadly when I next returned to Costco they’d sold out!

C’est la vie, Salut!


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Bordeaux, a History

In August I made my second ever presentation to the North East Wine Tasting Society (after a successful look at German wines back in 2011) with a selection of wines from arguably the most famous wine region of them all, Bordeaux. I make no claims to be a Bordeaux expert, truth be told I hardly ever buy the region’s wines for personal consumption as I don’t trust the extreme variation in quality and price (not necessarily linked) in Supermarkets and wine shops. Yes, I’ve had some good ones, but I’ve also had some dire examples and it’s not always easy to spot which is which. However, even with all my reluctance to buy, Bordeaux’s influence and ubiquitous presence across the wine world is such that currently it still makes up over 8% of my cellar (rising to 12.5% if you include the last 2 years drinking).

In preparation for the tasting I not only researched the back stories of the various estates whose wines I was showing, but also of the region as a whole, both to improve my (lack of) knowledge of the Bordelais and also to fill out the evening itself. The wines and their reception will be posted shortly but here I set the scene with a potted history of Bordeaux across the Millennia which, while familiar to many, hopefully contains enough to keep novice and enthusiast alike interested.

The area around the Gironde Estuary, where the rivers Garonne and Dordogne meet, shows traces of human settlement as far back as 35,000-10,000 BC and the region was heavily populated by the time of the Roman occupation when Augustus created the province of Aquitania in 27 BC. The Romans prized the local grape Vitis biturica (named for the Bituriges-Cubi tribe) – possibly an ancestor of Cabernet Sauvignon (& more directly of Carmenère). The Aquitanian (as opposed to Celtic) settlement of Burdigala was later to become Bordeaux, although whether this influenced the name or, as some claim, it is from “au bord de l’eau” – “the water’s edge” – who knows?

The first large vineyards were on the right bank of the Gironde since most of the “left bank” & current Médoc vineyards were a swamp and remained so for the next 1,500 years. The maritime climate and location on the 45th parallel provided for temperate winters and long warm summers, perfect conditions for growing grapes. The export of Gallic wines to Rome was in such quantities that, in 60 AD, Italian vine-growers asked the authorities act and by Imperial decree half of the vineyard of Gaul were uprooted, but they rapidly increased again. During the 4th Century, in Aquitaine, the Gallo-Roman poet Ausonius (Decimus Magnus Ausonius, 310-363 AD, born in Burdigala) claimed that “the Glory of Bordeaux and its universal fame comes from its wines”. Like Montesquieu, the French philosopher who lived fourteen centuries later, Ausonius was just as proud of his vineyard as his writings and his name lives on with the St. Emilion flagship estate Château Ausone (as does another Roman, Figeacus, in Château Figeac).

Little is recorded of Aquitaine in the early Medieval period except as a pilgrimage route to Santiago de Compostella, with monasteries across the area, most famously at St. Émilion – religion and wine production are closely linked across Europe at this time so it is safe to assume the region continued where the Romans left off. Bordeaux’s destiny was sealed in 1152 with the marriage of Aliénor, Duchess of Aquitaine, to Henry Plantagenet (who became Henry II of England) after a failed marriage to King Louis VII of France.

Aquitaine and Poitou became part of the English crown and Bordeaux especially prospered until the end of the Hundred Years War when Talbot, Earl of Shrewsbury, lost the Battle of Castillon in 1453. During that time the English cemented their love affair with light bodied Clairet (locally used to describe a dark rosé) which became “Claret” to the English export market; mainly wines from Graves, St. Émilion, Entre deux Mers and Blaye. Although more wine was being produced further inland, including Bergerac and the “Black wines” from Cahors, trade was controlled through the port of Bordeaux with (unfair) export and tax restrictions – the Police des Vins – favouring local production, so often wines from the outside areas were never sold or spoiled. Trade to England reached as much as 40,000 tonneaux a year (1,000 tonneaux is approximately equal to 1 million bottles).

Now part of France it was in the 17th Century that Bordeaux jumped forward significantly. In 1599 King Henri IV hired Dutch engineers to drain the Médoc marshland revealing the gravel and mineral rich soils which were perfect for the ever expanding vineyard, at the same time helping to supplement a large export market back home in the Netherlands. Not that the Graves was suffering, as in 1663 Samuel Pepys mentions Ho Bryan (Haut Brion, Pessac-Léognan) in his diaries, the first written mention of a wine “brand”. Haut Brion dates back at least as far as 1533 when Maison Noble d’Aubrion was acquired by the Pontac family – a name that springs up frequently in the region.

The 18th and early 19th Century was a time of French colonial trade as export to England fell to 10% due to almost constant war between the imperial nations. The first commercial bordelaise-shaped bottles appeared at this time and the spread of vineyards in the Médoc increased dramatically. This was recognised in 1855 when history was set in stone due to the Paris Exposition. A list of the best Bordeaux wines (determined by price) was drawn up for Emperor Napoleon III by local brokers and all but one (Haut-Brion) were from the Médoc, now the powerhouse of the region despite its relatively late start compared to the Graves and Right bank. The 1855 Classification is so ingrained in Bordeaux psyche that in 150 years there has only been one change to the  lists, when Château Mouton-Rothschild was elevated to First Growth status in 1973.

But this is also when things started to go wrong. The industrial revolution and free trade agreements brought an age of prosperity for the vine-growers but trade, especially with America, also brought disease and in the early 1850s Oïdium (Powdery mildew) decimated production. Sulphur treatment was quickly identified as a cure, but then Phylloxera arrived from the U.S. in 1869 and from 1875 to 1892 almost all the Bordeaux (and European) vineyards were ruined, especially as Downy mildew hit in 1882 at the height of the plague. By 1888, when copper sulphate was identified as the Downey mildew cure (in “bouillie bordelaise” – bordelaise porridge) enough damage had been done to affect the area for the next 60 years with many families forced to sell up.

Bordeaux replanted using the new technique of grafting onto American rootstock (Vitis aestivalis) to defeat phylloxera, some quicker than others (Haut-Bailly still has about 4ha of ungrafted vines dating from before 1907). Slowly, interrupted by 2 world wars and a depression, the area started to recover, with the hard frosts of 1956 the last major disaster for the region. Bordeaux today is France’s largest wine growing area at over 120,000 hectares – 1.5 times the size of the Rhône and 5 times larger than Burgundy. At the start of the 20th Century more white grapes than red were planted producing an ocean of dry to semi-dry wine usually labelled Bordeaux blanc, Entre-Deux-Mers or Graves. After World War II growers began shifting to red varieties, with most people thinking of Cabernet Sauvignon, even though it is only planted on 26% of the total area. Merlot is actually the most common, dominant in right-bank blends and a large component of left-bank ones, with Cabernet Franc, Malbec (Côt), Carmenère and Petit Verdot used to a lesser degree. Assuming a planting density of 6000 vines per ha (some properties will plant 8000 or even 10000 vines per ha) the region’s 120,000 ha are home to at least 720 million vines, with 10,000 producers making over 700 million bottles.

In an attempt to improve, or at least regulate, quality the first guidelines for wine origin were established in France in 1911, with the Institut National des Appellations d’Origine (INAO) formed in 1935 to manage the formal AOC system. In Bordeaux the the C.I.V.B. (Conseil Interprofessionnel du Vin de Bordeaux) was set up in 1948 who, together with 18 winemakers’ associations, coordinate the quality regulations and promotion of the 54 regional appellations (57 before Côtes de Bordeaux became official). Today, 98% of Bordeaux production is AOC – although many argue that changing techniques and climate mean such stringent regulations are archaic. Classifications were also brought in for the Graves, the Médoc Cru Bourgeois and St. Emilion – not without controversy.

With increased inheritance taxes in the early 1980s the trend of ownership moved from family to corporate and in the past 20 years the number of winegrowers has halved and the average size of estate has increased, from 5 ha in 1987 to almost 13 ha in 2007. Increased investment has led to prosperity, at least for the top Château, and allowed new technology, renovation in the cellar, better selection, new oak etc. to create arguably the best wines in the world.

Sadly all we hear about now is the next vintage of the century, the Chinese buying up wines (and properties) and the soaring prices – even the second wines of some estates are beyond the reach of most. Meanwhile, quality and prices vary so much amongst the vast number of lesser estates that the average consumer often hasn’t a clue on what they are buying when they see “Bordeaux” on the label. This may help explain why there was not a single Bordeaux wine on show at the recent 2012 Northumbria Food & Wine Festival in Corbridge. For me it means I tread warily when buying from the region, so it was with a mixture of trepidation and curiosity that I put together the NEWTS tasting and which prompted this condensed history lesson.


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