Wednesday, April 27, 2011

In defence of the Languedoc: musings from Roquebrun

Dwayne Perreault - I’m house sitting in the Languedoc, and I can’t help but feel a bit jealous. Wouldn’t it be nice to have this for myself – a four bedroom villa with a heated swimming pool and a garden with olive and orange trees? From the balcony, the view looks out onto a field with 20 year old Syrah vines, single Guyot-trained, stretching in perfect rows to the village of Roquebrun with its thousand year old tower perched on the mountain. In the pale moonlight, the vines look like dark tombstones and it is as if I am looking at some monumental battlefield where soldiers are buried. Instead, these are the vines which produced the very wine I am drinking, the Saint-Chinian, Prieuré Saint-André “Cuvée Andréus” from Michel Claparède. A Syrah/Carignan blend, and I am crazy about old Carignan, since Carignan is crazy. I know of no other grape which has such outspoken wild berry flavours which stab you in the nose and palate. It needs to be tempered with the more serious Syrah, but together they are perfect counterparts, like Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis (Carignan would be Lewis, who by the way is in the French Légion d’honneur).

View of Roquebrun
Just behind me is the Cave de Roquebrun. Their metallic tanks rise above the cyprus trees, and they pride themselves on making wines from carbonic maceration. It’s a case of old world meets the new in Roquebrun, but walking down these ancient cobblestoned streets leads to a feeling of temps perdu, when wine itself was wisdom, in vino veritas. As if the truth was ever that simple… drink the wine at room temperature and it is silky and solid, well rounded and in balance. Leave your glass outside in the cool night air for 15 minutes and the Carignan begins to take over, as if someone had stuffed a bunch of wild raspberries and cowshit in your mouth. Which is better? It’s a matter of taste, I suppose.

Rue de la Bouissounade in Roquebrun
Nearby runs the river l’Orb, incessant and indifferent. Wine has been made here for 2500 years, but if you listen to certain well versed parrots, the Languedoc was created to produce bulk wines for blending and has never escaped from that stigma. Nothing could be more untrue. Much of Bordeaux and Burgundy is over-priced. Chinese businessmen are driving up the value of Lafite Rothschild and Duhart Milon, only to mix it with Coca-cola. The Languedoc makes wines for everyone, and at prices most people can afford.

So, while David keeps you updated in the coming weeks on the important developments in the Bordeaux primeur campaign, I will be content to blog the Languedoc. First, I will report on Lidewij van Wilgen, the Dutch owner of Mas des Dames, an estate which recently received 91 points from the Wine Spectator and is rapidly gaining international attention. Proof of this is the recent visit of 13 sommeliers from star restaurants in London, including Gordon Ramsay’s Maze, The Connaught and Midsummer House. My next posting will be about Château de la Negly, the most distinguished producer of La Clape, perhaps the Languedoc’s most renowned wine. After that, I will turn my attention to the wines of Domaine Paul Mas, one of the most succesful estates in the entire region.

Until then, bonne continuation!

Monday, April 18, 2011

Bordeaux 2010, my first impressions

Bordeaux 2010. People keep on asking me “And, is it better than 2009?” It is a notion that has clearly become planted in many heads: Bordeaux 2010 is a monumental vintage. Well done, Bordeaux marketeers, you did it again. But perhaps it’s true. Jan van Roekel and I tasted hundreds of wines, and, if I may speak for myself, I was impressed more than once.

Aurélien Valance from Château MargauxAurélien Valance, Château Margaux's Commercial Director: "For us the best Pavillon Rouge ever." The words sounded somewhat familiar to me...

About the “better” I wouldn’t know. Bordeaux 2010 is different from 2009. It's a vigorous and well-structured vintage. And yes, my feeling is that I found more balanced wines this year than the year before. I also encountered things that were not so nice, like crazy alcohol levels, and mouth torturing tannins. But there are definitely many exciting wines this year.

I hardly saw last year’s difficulties with respect to ripeness (too ripe, or on the other hand not enough, for details see my posting from last year). The combination of a dry and sunny summer on the one hand, and fairly moderate temperatures on the other have surely been very beneficial to the 2010s.

With the moderate temperatures, the grapes have very much kept their freshness. At the same time the long summer season has produced grapes with lots of… everything. The acidity is clearly one of the distinguishing features of Bordeaux 2010. I guess many of these wines will survive us.

This striking acidity that many 2010s possess can be impressive: for the best wines, in combination with a ripe tannic structure it highlights the mineral qualities of a wine – it’s the terroir facet of the jewel that is facing us these days, and there’s clearly much behind it too.

Alcohol also, and sometimes a lot. La Mission Haut-Brion at 15%, Troplong-Mondot at 15,8% to give two shocking examples. But it must be said, the alcohol doesn’t really stand out within the overall richness of these wines. Note that these voluminous examples do not belong to my personal favorites.

In the best cases the acidity is simply electrifying, in the positive sense of the word: many wines are very energetic and alive. And that’s something I like.

Bordeaux 2010 is very much a cabernet year (for a part due to problems with merlot this year) and the percentages used in the blend are very high. Personally I can’t really draw the conclusion that 2010, as a result, is a Left Bank year. I tasted some great Right Bankers (and had problems with quite a few Margaux’s actually).

The 2010 pitfall: some less talented producers made the mistake of playing too much with this impressive fruit. The best wines simply made themselves. What was harvested merely had to be fermented, and not much more. Winemakers who couldn’t contain themselves were the ones to make overextracted, hard wines. It simply was not a good idea to do too many pumping overs this year.

In the next posting(s) I will list my personal recommendations. People who follow me know what I’m looking for: purity, freshness, originality. What I do not like: over-extraction, overripeness, an excess use of oak, and make-up in general.

If you’re interested in the more technical details for Bordeaux 2010, and the details regarding the growing season, read the in-depth vintage report by Bill Blatch.

Talking about Bill Blatch: I shouldn't forget to mention Sauternes. I tasted some lovely wines here (e.g. loved the freshness of Guiraud, and Yquem was breathtaking). More about this later.

Finally one word about prices. I expect these to be on the same level as last year. But the wines that have gained much value during the last year, such as the second wines of the premier crus, will be released at a higher price. I wrote about this in detail in an earlier posting. The lower yields this year will help push up the price a bit I'm afraid.

Château Petit Bocq was the first wine to be released, this morning. The price is a modest 2,4% up in comparison to 2009. But it’s known that the prices of the petit châteaux do not move that much. I’m curious what the rest of this week will bring.

To be continued.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Winefields’ Five Year Anniversary Auction

Dwayne PerreaultWinefields Auctioneers’ first auction of 2011 was held on Sunday April 3rd in the Oranjekerk in Amsterdam. Started exactly five years ago by Milan Veld and Martin Derksen, Winefields has grown into Amsterdam’s second largest wine auction house, regularly holding auctions specifically for wine in both Amsterdam and Singapore.

This was the most successful auction to date, with over 90% of all 522 lots being sold. There were of course wines in almost every style and price class available, but here are the top 10 lots purchased, rated by price per bottle (all lots are for 12 bottles, unless otherwise noted):

1. Château Lafite Rothschild 1986, €18,000
2. Château Lafite Rothschild 1988 (3 bottles), €3,840
3. Château Lafite Rothschild 2008, €13,440
4. Château Clinet 1989, €4,800
5. Château Mouton Rothschild 1995, €3,840
6. Château Latour 1989, €3,840
7. Château Mouton Rothschild 2002, €3,600
8. Château Mouton Rothschild 2001 (6 bottles), €1,740
9. Château Mouton Rothschild 1990 (6 bottles), €1,680
10. Château Latour 1983 (6 bottles), €1,680

Once again, we see the Rothschild first growth estates dominating the list, with only Latour and the Pomerol Château Clinet appearing with them. Obviously, the highest prices were paid for Lafite, which because of Asian demand has seen its prices skyrocket. David has been posting quite regularly on this subject. It seems anything Lafite is being purchased and shipped to China.

There were 33 wines opened and available to taste before and during the auction, and I had the privilege to stand behind the table and pour with Mark Savage MW. This remarkable man became a Master of Wine when I was just seventeen and drinking sweet sparkling labrusca wines in Canada. His day involved getting up at 4 am, catching a plane to Amsterdam, controlling every wine for cork, putting in a full day’s service and then accompanying us for dinner. I believe the next day he was off to the Veneto and Friuli.

I was of course too busy pouring these delicious wines to contemplate them much or make tasting notes, but some of the more memorable specimens which touched my lips were the Château Giscours 1975, with practically nothing left of the label but still a lot of wine. The Saint-Aubin 1988 from Domaine Jean Lafouge was Mark Savage’s noteworthy pick, and it was wonderful. Also the Savigny-Les-Beaune ‘Les Grands Liards’ 1979 from Albert Guyot was very intriguing, as was the Château Palmer 1970 (“love those bones,” one afficianado told me).

But strangely, my favourite wine on the table was a Coteaux du Languedoc, La Clape, Château de la Negly ‘La Falaise’ 1998. La Clape is a fairly recent discovery for me and I’m blown away by the sweet fruit and mineral concentration. I’m exploring a lot more of this as you read this, as I am currently in St. Chinian for two weeks. So a blog posting or two on the Languedoc is coming up.

But the crown jewel came later that evening after dinner: a Château d’Yquem 1959, 100 Parker points and all, perhaps the greatest vintage year of the last century. It came with a surfeit of pleasures, perhaps just like 1959, the culmination of a decade of optimism and prosperity. A good token and a great wine: I wonder if the Chinese have discovered it?

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Bordeaux 2010 tastings: follow us real-time

Jan van Roekel and I just arrived at Château Giscours, where we stay in “Ferme Suzanne”, a beautiful guest house from 1877 overlooking the newly trellised vines of this Dutch-owned Margaux cru classé. A fun fact from Benjamin Lewin MW’s great book “What Price Bordeaux?”: at the time the 1855 classification was drawn up Giscours was the most expensive 3rd growth, so it had almost become a 2nd growth... Well, that makes it probably more affordable now.

I’m publishing this short posting while drinking a Château Duthil 2004, very pleasant supple Haut-Médoc (from the Giscours stable) that sets the right mood for this evening. And tomorrow it all starts: tastings, tastings, and more tastings. To give you an idea: we start at nine at Mouton, and then follow Pontet-Canet, Lynch-Bages, Lafite, Latour, and (after a lunch at Rauzan-Ségla), Margaux and Palmer. Plus we’ll taste Sauternes at Château Desmirail. And that’s only day 1, out of five.

After this week I will summarize everything on this blog, but you can already follow our impressions almost real-time on Twitter. It struck me to see how much is already published about this young vintage, and that’s why I will try to restrict myself to the essence of the year. I hope I will succeed.