WineWriting.com & French Mediterranean Wine
Richard Mark James' wine and travel blog

30 September 2007

John Platter Guide 2008

The John Platter Wine Guide, South Africa's benchmark annual guide (actually, it recently got the 2007 Louis Roederer International Wine Writers’ Award in the latter category) published by Andrew McDowall and edited by Philip van Zyl, has revealed a record 21 'five-star' wines in the forthcoming 2008 edition. "Given the enormous number of ranges and individual products tasted, the wines which merit a five-star rating make up a very select group indeed," McDowall explained. "The Guide, which strives to rate, as far as is practically possible, all of the wines that are available for the duration of the particular edition, locally as well as abroad, tasted and assessed nearly 6000 individual wines over several months." The asbestos-palated team of tasters ranked them on the guide's five-point scale, ranging from 0 ("Somewhat less than ordinary") up to 5 ("Superlative. A Cape classic"). Their top wines include a few recurring names such as Ken Forrester, Bouchard Finlayson, Vergelegen and Kanonkop. For more info or to buy the guide, check out www.platteronline.com. Posted 28/9/07.

28 September 2007

Sensation Vin autumn courses Beaune, Lyon and Paris

Damien Delattre, owner of the Sensation Vin wine school in Beaune, in the heart of Burgundy, has 'rolled out' their autumn tasting program with tailor-made courses and weekend events now available in English. These include new ideas such as tutored tastings of classic Burgundies from the 1990s. Another novelty is the Sensation Vin 'road show', where Damien or one of his qualified colleagues will come to Paris or Lyon to create your own group tasting experience. 1 rue d'Enfer (Hell street!), 21200 Beaune. Tel: +33.3.80.22.17.57.
www.sensation-vin.com, contact@sensation-vin.com.

26 September 2007

BK Wine Tours autumn 07 & spring 08

In commendably un-PC style, BK Wine aka Britt and Per Karlsson, Paris' most famous vinous Swedes, are running a tour called Truffle, wine, duck and foie gras in the south west of France from February 13-17th 2008. I can understand vegetarians getting upset about foie gras, and I know it's not a very nice way to rear birds (although the result is too delicious to think about what those goose farmers actually get up to...); but I find it baffling when regular meat-eating folk (like in California or the UK or Ireland for example) condemn it, yet carry on scoffing steak or whatever.
Anyway, enough of the rant. Click on the highlighted link above if this sounds right up your street. Britt is also doing a wine tour to Portugal's stunning Alentejo region this October 17-21. And the busy couple has just published a book on the Languedoc, although only in Swedish at the moment: interested English language publishers should get in touch. For more info or sign up to Britt's newsletter: info@bkwine.com. Posted 28/9/07.
Update on BK's wine tour programme for 2008 on www.bkwine.com.

21 September 2007

2007 vintage looking good in south of France

2007 vintage looking good in south of France

I knocked this techie/weathery report together at the end of August, with updated paragraphs slotted in on 21st September, for a couple of publications. More to follow once I've been out and about further across the region...
In contrast to the doom and gloom and ‘earliest on record’ hyperbole elsewhere in France, it’s business as usual or a reserved rather good even in the south. A mix of cool and hot weather from early to mid August followed by rain then several very hot days towards the end of the month, have turned a slightly late start to picking into normal conditions then could all be over quickly.
In Bandol on the Provence coast, Eric de Saint Victor at Château de Pibarnon described vintage dates as “about the same as last year, ahead of those in the 90s but usual nowadays.” Grenache is “already well in advance showing nice phenolic ripeness” with one batch picked on 28th August. As for Mourvèdre, they were looking to wait “at least another 10 days.” Generally, there was less of a drought problem this year with late spring rain interspersed with hot periods, a regular cooler June and “normal July and August: hot, dry and windy.”
Following a 10mm splash of rain at the end of August, fine weather continued into September prompting a rapid change of tune. The last Mourvèdre came in on 18-19 Sept. at Pibarnon signalling “the earliest finish since we’ve been here, i.e. 30 years,” according to Saint Victor. “Ten to fifteen years ago we’d hardly started picking the Mourvèdre.” He estimated yields will be down 25% due to small berry size with elegant balanced wines: “black-coloured, fine tannins, nice acidity and typical alcohol levels towards 14% for reds and 13.5 for rosé and white.”
This pattern was echoed in the Languedoc and Roussillon. Marc Barriot of Clos de l’Origine in Maury (Roussillon) also didn’t observe any vine stress describing conditions as “normal then looking a little late then speeded up by the heat.” Potential alcohol levels suddenly rose 1 to 1.5° in one day. All his white varieties (Muscat, Grenache Gris and Macabeu) were picked between the middle and end of August, and the reds appear to be “ahead but it depends on the weather.” Like Barriot, Jonathan Hesford of Domaine Treloar in Trouillas remarked on “higher acidity this year,” meaning “picking started a bit later” with Muscat à petits grains on 28th August. He predicted Syrah for the first week of September, Grenache a week later and Mourvèdre “maybe the end of September or early October.” Philippe Gard at Coume del Mas in Banyuls commented: “we started 10 days later but ripening is more even so will finish earlier. Grenache and Syrah are looking very good, but it depends on the grower,” referring to isolated mildew problems.
Favourable conditions continued into September in the Roussillon with some light rain on Friday 14th then a dramatic, half-an-hour hailstorm on the evening of Monday 17th. However, Gard described it as “nothing serious even if spectacular.” He added: “I finished picking for Banyuls on Monday morning, and we’ve managed to make a nice batch of Mourvèdre; just the Carignan and more Mourvèdre to follow, as the skins weren’t ripe. Very low yields exacerbated by the wind.” Barriot also reported everything wrapped up with the last parcel of Syrah and Carignan going into vat on Wednesday 19th. “Plenty of substance, nice acidity and lots of fruit,” he concluded. Hesford confirmed he lost a few bunches from the storm but finished picking most of his Mourvèdre on 21st Sept. (with a little help from yours truly, well a few boxes anyway!): “very healthy grapes and that initial high acidity has almost disappeared.”
In the Languedoc, Richard Lavanoux, production manager at Michel Laroche’s winery near Béziers, agreed about the quality: “I wouldn’t be surprised to see a great vintage, especially for Syrah,” following a ripening period of “rare quality” thanks to more even summer temperatures. Marion Figuette at Château La Roque in Pic St-Loup, eastern Languedoc, reported picking started early: whites were all in last week and reds the first week of September. Over in Corbières, “2007 is slightly ahead of 2006 with Syrah starting this Friday (31 Aug) and the first Grenache and Carignan in the earlier ripening coastal zones on 6 or 7 September,” according to Jean Pierre Thene, head of the AOC Corbières Syndicat. The picture is different inland in the western Aude, where grapes should come in much later than usual thanks to cooler conditions. Thene stressed that the Languedoc-Roussillon “should not be seen as part of this very average vintage elsewhere.”
The Monday night storm also hit the Languedoc, although Figuette at La Roque described the downpour as “perfect for our Mourvèdre! Otherwise everything is over and it’s looking like a very promising vintage.” Lavanoux agreed the storm did more good than harm. In contrast - "unfortunately" according to Jean-Pierre Thene - the Corbières were spared the downpour: "we've seen very little rain since April, which combined with strong northerly winds will mean low yields from berry concentration." However, acidity and high sugar levels are nicely balanced, with Carignan, Grenache and Cinsaut being the best performers; and Syrah and Mourvèdre less adapted to the hot dry summer. Thene believes they may have to rethink the latter varieties in Corbières AOC zones thanks to climate change.
RJ posted 2/9/07 and 21/9/07.


01 September 2007

Malbec Made for Meat

An equally mouth-watering, determined-to-upset-vegetarians contest brought to you by Wines of Argentina in conjunction with Wine & Spirit magazine, the Hotel du Vin & Bistro Group and Gaucho Restaurants. The plan? The blurb says: "Malbec Made for Meat is a UK quest to find the Malbec or Malbec-based wine from Argentina that best matches traditional British meat dishes." Sounds like a fun idea. They've held three heats in Glasgow, Harrogate and Brighton (well done for getting out of London too); and the final will be held on 12th September at Gaucho's W1 restaurant. By the way, apparently the average Argentinean eats 68kg of beef per annum!
At the first heat, tasting Malbecs with roast beef and Yorkshire pudding at Hotel du Vin & Bistro in Glasgow’s West End, one of the judges, wine writer Tom Cannavan, commented that "the wines drunk with the beef generally worked well, and the first and second placed wines really worked in harmony." The heat winner was Bodegas Catena Zapata Malbec 2004, from Mendoza (Majestic £10.99); and runners up Masi Tupungato Paso Doble 2005, Mendoza (Oddbins £8.99); Co-op Argentine Malbec 2006, San Juan (£2.99); and Asda's Argentine Malbec 2006, La Rioja (£3.78).
In Harrogate, the meat was roast lamb with 'all the trimmings'. "For anyone who thought they'd mastered Argentine Malbec," said judge Joe Fattorini, "this tasting revealed what a chameleon grape it is, turning from brooding and burly to aromatic and balletic with the lift of a fork." Heat winner was Familia Zuccardi Q Malbec 2004, Mendoza (Alliance Wine RRP £9.99); and runners up Fincas Patagonicas, Tapiz Malbec 2005, Mendoza (Hispa Merchants RRP £5.99); Bodega Mendel, Unus Malbec 2004, Mendoza (Prestige Agencies RRP £19.99 or Handford Wines); Bodegas Catena Zapata Alta Malbec 2004, Mendoza (Bibendum RRP £29.99); Bodegas Salentein, Malbec 2004, Mendoza (£8.49 Tesco); and Bodegas Valentin Bianchi, Malbec Particular 2003 (Liberty Wines RRP £9.99).
The Brighton tasters stuffed their faces with roast pork while trying these wines: heat winner Dona Paula Malbec 2005, Mendoza (Oddbins £9.49); runners up Bodegas O Fournier, Alpha Crux Malbec 2004, Mendoza (Seckfords RRP £19.99); Bodega O Fournier, Urban Uco Malbec 2004, Mendoza (Seckfords RRP £5.99); Gougenheim Malbec 2005, Mendoza (Las Bodegas RRP £6.99); and Bodega NQN, Reserve Malbec 2004, Neuquen Patagonia (Hispa Merchants £8.99). Interesting to note they're not all expensive posh wines that were picked by the judges. Anyway, call back in September for an update on the winning wines or check out winesofargentina.com.ar. Posted 1/08/07.
Update Sept: Bodega Catena Zapata’s Alta Malbec 2004 "took top spot as the wine to have with meat" in the gripping carnivore final, which took place at Gaucho's in Piccadilly, London, and was also deemed the 'Best with Lamb' wine. The Viña Doña Paula 2005 Malbec replicated its regional success winning 'Best with Pork'; but in the hottest contested category, Gouguenheim Malbec 2005 and Catena Malbec 2004 "proved impossible to separate" and so both won the 'Best with Beef' award (the most important, you would've thought given the Argentinean penchant for beef).

Waitrose wine magazine (allegedly)

Last year, I was commissioned to do a few introductory pieces for a possible new wine magazine to be published by Waitrose (for those of you outside the UK, it's a superior supermarket chain owned by the John Lewis Group with a more enlightened wine range than some). Whatever happened between then and now behind the corporate scenes, my purple prose never saw the light of day and Waitrose did launch a funky little drinks mag called Thirst (I only ever saw the first couple of issues so don't know if it's still running...). Anyway, I'm not so surprised they changed their plans as they already produce the glossy monthly Food Illustrated with wine articles by writers such as Andrew Jefford and Tim Atkin; as well as a free mouth-watering little food mag plus features, interviews and recipe matching tips on their website. My four snippets below and opposite were written to a specific brief and are a little déjà-vu / back-to-basics / textbook in style, but I thought somebody out there still might find them an informative read.
Richard James, September 2007.

Winemaking 'master class'

Part 1: How wine is made – the vineyard
Standing among the vines in a dramatic wine region setting can give simple pleasure and peace of mind, yet a vineyard’s location and environment also greatly influence how vines grow and the quality of grapes they produce. French winemakers in particular attribute this to the all-encompassing, slightly mysterious terroir. The word is basically untranslatable into English but has geographical and cultural overtones.
The concept combines specific site – its soil and structure, topography (slope, altitude etc.), water holding or drainage, local climate, suitability to variety planted and how it ripens – with the way the grower thinks, works and thus interacts with the land (nuances of English words terrain and territory) to maximise grape quality. All of this should be enhanced, rather than dominated by the winemaker to convey a unique ‘sense of place’ or typicité to the wine’s actual flavour and consistent character. Terroir is often used confusingly meaning just local soil type: although it’s scientifically dubious you can actually taste soil qualities, e.g. chalky, it does have an important effect on ripening and hence quality.
Taking Château Pech-Latt in the stunning Corbières region of southern France as an example, their 100 hectares (250 acres) are made up of a variety of vineyard parcels, soils and aspects, circled by high hills on the foothills of Mount Alaric. The land contains chalk – good for drainage and limiting vine vigour – and red marl – a mix of clay and silt conferring minerals and moisture retention. The different grape varieties are planted according to site and their needs – red: Grenache, Syrah, Mourvèdre and Carignan; white: Marsanne, Vermentino and Muscat. So you choose the cooler plots for Muscat to preserve freshness and the sunniest for Mourvèdre, a late ripening variety.
Pech-Latt farms organically, which doesn’t necessarily mean guaranteed quality, but organic growers rightly claim it’s also a whole way of life. This philosophy, accompanied by fussy attention in the vineyard, can produce superb grapes. No synthetic pesticides or fertilisers are used, although substances such as copper sulphate (against mildew) are permitted. Sulphur dioxide (a preservative among other uses) levels in winemaking are sometimes (but not always) half that for non-organic. The idea is to foster biodiversity in soil and vineyard and hence naturally healthy vines. It doesn’t make much sense to talk about terroir yet destroy it with potent chemicals!
There are several ways of controlling a vine’s growth, the amount of leaves it has and ultimately how many grapes it yields. Winter pruning is crucial for cutting a vine back to its raw state and how it develops the following spring. You could then remove a few buds and trim it further in early summer to get a balanced canopy – sufficient for photosynthesis and perfect ripening without it becoming a leaf monster. In Corbières, old Grenache is often pruned on handsome bush vines, which need less attention with age and offer protection from sun and wind. Syrah can perform better by trellising it upwards to increase leaf and bunch exposure. Fruit thinning or green harvesting is also practised to reduce the crop.

Part 2: Winemaking – the process from grape to wine
All grapes are hand picked at Château Pech-Latt, which is time-consuming and costly but enables finicky and gentle selection. If the vineyard is set up for machine harvesting, this allows you to make quick decisions and speedily harvest a large area. Nowadays the technology is precise and doesn’t necessarily harm the fruit, particularly for white grapes. Domaine Bégude near Limoux (west of Corbières) picks Chardonnay by machine for Vins de Pays but the best block of Chardonnay by hand for their top wine. Quality producers sort through the grapes again on arrival at the winery.
Processing and winemaking depend on the colour and character of each variety and style and quality of the ultimate wine. Coming back to the kind of Chardonnays made by Bégude, for the drink-young style the emphasis will be on retaining aromatic fruit and fresh acidity. So the whole grapes could be kept chilled before pressing then cold stabilisation (to rack off the thickest solids) and fermentation at relatively low temperature in stainless steel vats. For richer age-worthy Chardonnay, the juice is fermented in barrels and stirred on the yeast lees deposit adding fatness and character. The wine would complete its malolactic fermentation, which softens the acidity, and perhaps aged further in cask to round it out more, without picking up overtly oaky flavours.
Similarly to many estates, Château Pech-Latt handles the red grapes separately, particularly Carignan part of which is whole-berry fermented to bring out its lively earthy liquorice fruit. This batch will then be held in large vats before blending. The other varieties are vinified ‘traditionally’ with extended skin contact before pressing. Methods of colour and tannin extraction range from simple hand or foot plunging, pumping over the juice from bottom to top of vat, to ‘rack and return’ where the entire tank is emptied into another then back again. The winemaker judges the best approach and temperature depending on grape variety, ripeness and quality.
There’s always heated (and slightly geeky) debate on oak barrels, or oak chips even, and their effect on maturation, colour and flavour in red wines. Crudely, oak can add attractive spicy chocolate texture; fundamentally, it’s about oxygen and influence on a wine’s tannin structure and ageing ability. The main elements are age, toast (low or high), size of container and how long. A small new barrel allows more air into the wine, thanks to its surface area/volume ratio and porous grain, giving rounder tannins, sweeter flavours and stable colour. A huge old cask promotes slower maturation yet ironically the wine loses colour sooner.
The term blending is sometimes taken negatively (the French word assemblage sounds sexier somehow), but it’s difficult to think of a wine that isn’t a blend. Even if from a single variety and vineyard, the winemaker skilfully puts together different lots to recreate the desired style. Pech-Latt’s three reds contain Grenache, Syrah, Mourvèdre and Carignan, but the proportions vary according to vine age, site or vintage characteristics. The best rosés are drained off from red grapes after a few hours skin contact, giving colour, fruit and flesh, then made like an aromatic white wine.

How winemaking styles differ – New World and Old World


Part 1: From a New World perspective
Pushing aside any condescending colonial overtones, the term New World is just as much about attitude as it is geography when applied to winemaking styles. Certainly, in general New World wines can be perceived as delivering big ripe fruit and high alcohol while emphasising ‘technological’ winemaking or easy oak flavours. But it’s too simplistic to generalise about hot climates and iconoclastic thinking, when comparing countries and people as diverse as Australia, South Africa, USA, Argentina or Chile. And nowadays there are plenty of European wines that fit the above description. Four ‘classic’ varietals from the Southern and Northern Hemispheres have been chosen to illustrate the point.
The d’Arenberg winery makes model high-powered Shiraz in McLaren Vale, South Australia (they’ve been around for 100 years by the way); yet their reds aren’t one-dimensional fruit bombs, often expressing something wilder and more exciting as you’d expect from a relatively ‘traditional’ approach. The Dead Arm Shiraz is made from very old vines, whose concentrated fruit is fermented in open vats with foot-treading, pressed in basket-presses and aged in American and French barriques. The result is distinctively Old New World: rich and full with oak undertones yet herbal, peppery and firmly textured.
Jackson Estate’s Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc is consistently one of the leaders in New Zealand for this benchmark grape variety and wine style. It could be argued that New World winemakers reinforced the importance of producing zingy aromatic dry whites using technology to control fermentation temperature and exclude oxygen etc. The same techniques are used for Sauvignon in the European regions of Sancerre or Styria (southeast Austria), yet the wines rarely taste the same, which says a lot about New Zealand’s unique climate and terrain (cool and southerly). It’s that pure just-ripe green fruit intensity mixed with more tropical flavours, crisp mineral like finish yet showing nice weight too, as the Jackson exemplifies.
Zinfandel and California are synonymous (even if the grape variety did originate in Italy or Croatia), although this powerful red wine comes in many guises: soft, raisiny and gluggable; super ripe, oaky and alcoholic; to finely structured and balanced. Ravenswood Vintners Blend is a good example of the advantages of blending fruit from different growers and areas to produce a well-priced typical style every year. New World in its California-ness – yet evoking something equally Mediterranean – it’s up-front with attractive liquorice, pine and earth notes; good fruit in the mouth countered by a touch of tannin and oak then a punchy yet poised finish.
Chenin Blanc particularly excels in two countries: the Loire Valley in France and South Africa, both very different environments and winemaking traditions yet somehow possessing the right elements for this star white grape. Ken Forrester’s FMC from Stellenbosch really is a Cape classic communicating African sun tempered by a maritime mountain climate. The very ripe grapes are barrel fermented and aged giving voluptuous fruit layered with coconut, late harvest sweetness characters set against toasty oak then tight mineral acidity and length, so in the end it doesn’t really taste sweet. Click on the pic. above for more SA CB.


Part 2: From an Old World perspective
Does Old World mean old-fashioned wine style (read no longer appreciated in today’s busy cosmos); or 'traditional' in the sense of classic, inimitable quality, gaining complexity with age and matching the local food? It’s clear that some winemakers in certain areas of Europe, such as the south of France, Sicily or Mediterranean Spain, have adopted ‘New World’ attitude and practices to produce more accessible wines (and rightly so). However, there are still plenty of seminal styles that speak volumes about where and how they are created. As above, here are a few examples of Old World greats and a brief account of why.
There are now many very good sparkling wines made in the same way as Champagne in other regions of Europe and the world. But at the top end, there’s something sublime and so distinctive about delicious Champagnes such as Bollinger. Most of the grapes they use come from ‘Premier Cru’ and ‘Grand Cru’ vineyards, i.e. the best sites. The Special Cuvée is a blend of 60% Pinot Noir, 25% Chardonnay and 15% Pinot Meunier; the Grande Année vintage is often at least 65% Pinot Noir (one third from the top village of Aÿ) plus Chardonnay.
Control of acidity is the cornerstone of balance in their Champagnes and ability to mature. In a good year, the first pressing (Bolly only uses this part) has a pH of around 3, i.e. pretty acidic. This isn’t so difficult to achieve, coupled with ripe grapes from vineyard selection, in Champagne’s marginal climate. All of the ‘reserve’ wines – held back from certain years, they play a very important role in the house style and quality of non-vintage Champagne – and Grande Année are barrel-fermented. Special Cuvée is a blend of two vintages with 5-10% reserve wines and three years yeast lees ageing, which add biscuity richness and intricate aromas. Click on JB above for more on Bolly.
You can’t get much more Old World in winemaking styles than Sherry, especially Fino or Manzanilla (even if certain ‘New World’ countries are replicating it). These charming bone-dry fortified wines owe much of their idiosyncratic character to what happens in the cellar, rather than the baking Andalusian sun. By maintaining humidity levels, a yeast called flor develops over the maturing wines protecting them from air and transmitting tangy nutty flavours. A chilled glass of the Solera Jerezana Manzanilla or Hidalgo’s La Gitana is ideal with fresh gazpacho soup, grilled sardines or potato omelette.
Piemonte in northwest Italy has a beautiful mountain backdrop and climate with cold winters and hot summers, which suits the Nebbiolo grape variety well. These elements come together, steered by 'traditional' winemaking, to fashion the unique style of Barolo or Barbaresco. It’s that elusive cocktail of the grape’s quintessential sweet yet savoury/sour delicacy, light colour yet gripping mouth-feel and sometimes high acidity. Winemakers are thinking carefully about barrels, namely their effect on ageing and character for Barolo – new barriques versus old large casks – and especially colour and taming tannins. At the end of the day, it comes down to whether the wine drinker really needs another richly purple wine from a variety that naturally isn’t? Click here for the answer!

Roussillon: Mas Alart

Muscat petits grains from www.masalart.comFrédéric Belmas and his winemaker produce attractive, rather than sensational, red Côtes du Roussillon that can be drunk young while benefiting from a little bottle-age; barrel-matured Rivesaltes Hors d'Age (literally 'beyond age': made from white grapes but slowly turns golden brown, as the Stranglers once sang, over the years) and a lively Muscat de Rivesaltes. The Mas also makes a kind of balsamic vinegar - the smell in the on-site plant (for want of a better word: French has the handy vinaigrerie) is wonderfully overpowering - and a variety of things from organically grown almonds. It's not too difficult to find, off the main road heading out of the village of Saleilles towards Perpignan; easy does it down the potholed rustic track that leads to it.


Tasted mid October 2006:
2005 Muscat sec, la Vigne de Madame - crisp and fresh with lightly perfumed, grapey citrus peel notes; clean mineral finish. 83-85
2005 Carignan vieilles vignes - attractive liquorice fruit, juicy black cherry v dry tannins, quite fine and long. 87
2005 Côtes du Roussillon (Syrah Grenache Carignan) - young spicy fruit, quite concentrated yet elegant, ripe v dry textured finish. 87-89
2005 Muscat de Rivesaltes - fresh and lively honeyed orange peel flavours, nice bite and length v sugar. 87-89
1994 Rivesaltes Hors d'Age - complex rich, oxidised toffee notes on a dried fruit backdrop; good length, 'cut' and maturity v sweet finish. 89-91
Tasted summer 06:
2001 Côtes du Roussillon rouge (13%) - complex maturing meaty tones layered on liquorice and red pepper fruit, soft and ready to drink with a little dry tannin left to finish. Approx €4.50 89
Tasted Sept. 2007:
2005 Merlot, vin de pays des Côtes Catalanes (13%) - enticing plum and cassis aromas with gamey earthy edges, slightly baked/oxidised although this bottle was found on a high supermarket shelf under a light and it had a plastic cork; quite lush and powerful v a touch of extracted dry tannins, not exactly elegant but good with sausages. €3.95 85


Off the D22, 66280 Saleilles. Tel: 04 68 50 51 89, http://www.mas-alart.fr/, frederic.belmas@wanadoo.fr.