THE GRAND CERCLE des Vins de Bordeaux en Primeur 2016 Tasting

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The Grand Cercle tasting of en Primeur 2016 Bordeaux took place in the grand setting of the second floor terrace of Le Meridien Piccadilly on March 15th 2017.

For those of you unfamiliar with the ‘en primeur’ concept, this can be described in two broadly different ways: producers and brokers might tell you it is a chance for interested buyers to get their hands on the latest vintage of Bordeaux’ most sought-after Château before before they have even been bottled, and at the lowest prices they will ever be. Sceptics might tell you it is a marketing trick to bring in much needed cash and interest to the Château at a slow time of year. I would say it is a bit of both.

There has been a lot of noise going on in the trade press recently about 2016 being a ‘miracle vintage’ – and this is just the sort of spin that tends to bring out the sceptic in me – indeed, Le Grand Cercle’ described in their press pack the wet and miserable spring, then dry summer from June, followed by much-needed rain three months later in September. In their words: ” Who, last may, would ever have believed in a vintage year after an unprecedented record amount of rainfall?”

All that said, the spin worked, and the result was a packed terrace full of tasters eager to see if it was true. I even put on a tie for the occasion (ties are not great at tastings, you have to keep them in check so as not to spit on them) – I think this may be an indication of my assessment of the vintage! .

Grand Cercle Tasting 2017

Bordeaux Tasting à l’anglaise (with ties)

So was this a miracle vintage? Producers I spoke to agreed that the last great vintage in Bordeaux was 2010, and without exception compared 2016 to that vintage. I tasted 25 or so wines, white as well as red, and not an unripe or lean one among them (you rarely get to say that about Bordeaux). The whites were lovely, ripe wines, with a beautiful mouthfeel, and nervy acidity, the reds full of bright ripe crunchy fruit, rich but melted tannins, and mainly good levels of acidity (although some of the Merlot based ‘right bank’ wines lacked a little).

It was the Cabernet Sauvignon Left Bank wines that impressed me the most, though. I look for a combination of ripe blackcurrant fruit with tobacco and meaty savoury notes as indicators of great Cabernet wines, and all of them had this, so the descriptions below only include additional features. On this side of the river my list of favourites was:

Château Serilhan, Saint Estephe – All the descriptors above apply, with an attractive oak polish like a veneer to endear it.

Château Haut Lagrange, Pessac Léognan – 40% new oak, but integrated and wrapped around the tannins

Château Roquetaillade la Grange, Graves – Delicately oaked (25% new) with velvety tannins and potential

Château la Tour de Bessan, Margaux – Classic margaux restraint, but blessed with charming fruit sweetness

Château de Villegeorge, Haut Médoc – This had a higher Merlot content, so was a softer wine than some others, with lower acidity, but lots of charm

On the Right Bank, I found less balance, with a few low acid wines where the alcohol showed more. A certain American critic may like them! I liked:

Château Mazeyres, Pomerol – Lovely bright and creamy fruit, 14% alcohol not showing, a polished wine

Château Godeau, Saint Emilion Grand Cru – Ripe and sweet, with great depth and richness, great potential

Château Fombrauge, Saint Emilion Grand Cru Classé – Charming sweet fruit and spice, with 45% new oak integrating already

Château Yon-Figeac, Saint Emilion Grand Cru Classé – An almost delicate wine, with notes of violets, ripe red fruit, and firm tannins enveloped in 1/3 new oak

The whites were super too. In Entre Deux Mers, Château Sainte Marie refreshed me, and in Graves Château de Cerons had great balance and potential, and Château Saint-Robert was rich and satisfying.

My verdict: No spin or hyperbole, 2016 was a great vintage!

The Isle of Wight (and Red) Wine Tour

Isle of Wight Vineyard

Adgestone on a good day

It rains on the Isle of Wight; I remember a sentence that explains this: “There is no dry season in England”. And so it was that a typically murky day in June on a short holiday in the Isle of Wight, I came to visit the island’s only two remaining commercial wine producers: Adgestone and Rosemary Vineyards. These have in common that both are on the East of the island, which probably helps protect them a little from that wet South Westerly wind everyone is familiar with on the South coast; they benefit from South facing slopes on clay, silt, and sandy soil, which provides good drainage (especially useful in a place with no dry season); and, being maritime, a relatively moderate climate.

Adgestone is the dream project of ex-Chartered Engineer Russ Broughton. His sanguine

Adgestone Medium White

Adgestone Medium White

recounting of his story provides a cautionary tale for those attracted to the romance of wine production. “It’s not a retirement job, you work seven days a week; I’ve had one day off in the last 3 years.” But he’s happy, especially when the labelling machine misbehaves, as he can fix it himself (the wine world is full of troublesome gizmos like this).

 

When Russ took over the place

More Medium White

More Medium White

the vines had been abandoned since the 80s, but he revived the mainly Seyval vines, some of which were 48 years old. His Dry White is predominantly Seyval, and appropriately named: it showed the typically neutral character of the grape, with a hint of white melon nose, but a slightly unripe citrus palate. The Medium White (mainly Phoenix, some Bacchus and Orion) was more interesting, with a tangerine and riper melon nose, and only 4g/L of residual sugar. Blush (Regent, Schonberger) was a delicate flower, with hints of ripe strawberry, a bit of a red fruit cordial, attractive. Finally,

Full Bodied Red

Full Bodied Red

the Full Bodied Red, made from Rondo. I often ask myself why English wine producers bother to make red, but the answer is always that it is their best-seller, and anyone with a vague interest in money should remember the adage “Give the people what they want and they’ll come”, allegedly said at the well-attended funeral of the reviled Louis B. Mayer. It was light and fruitsome, but, without food to soften it, a little harsh.

Like many English wine producers, Adgestone have converted the farm building into very comfortable rooms; only two, but this is a small operation.

Rosemary Vineyards seem more focussed on

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Isle of Wight Distillery

their liqueurs; their Elderflower wine, an infusion of Elderflower in dry white, was beautifully floral and fragrant, with just enough sweetness; lovely. Their sprits from the Isle of Wight Distillery were perhaps the most interesting, though: Wight Mermaid gin, with coriander and rock sapphire was beautifully floral and dry, the Rock Sea Vodka fresh and intriguingly savoury. Apple Pie Moonshine, a blend of vodka, local apple juice, cinnamon, vanilla and brown sugar had a warming charm to it. Their wines reminded me of why I started this with a sentence about the English climate; and their fizz, the one I was most interested in, was not available for tasting. Maybe it would have made me change my mind?

Is the Isle of Wight the best place in England to own a vineyard? Maybe Russ Broughton’s words from his page on his website will give some insight into prospective vineyard revivalists:

  1. Am I an experienced commercial wine maker?….NO, well, I say no, but I was bought a home brew kit at Christmas when I was 19, so lets not write that off just yet.
  2. Do you understand the complex art of successful viticulture?….. Had a nice rose growing up my wall in Chandlers Ford, but..well, probably a no again!
  3. Good customer skills and ability to run a small commercial kitchen?… OK, had a life working on machines without faces, but I make a mean curry!!! … Its another no isn’t it?
  4. Fancy buying something that was a part of the whole English Wine revival. A vineyard that was so good in the 70’s it held the enviable Gore Brown trophy for English wine. Having the opportunity to feel alive again every time you wake up??….Hell yes, I’ll learn the rest, where are the papers!!

 

Visit to Ridge with the legendary Paul Draper

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The panorama from Ridge, with the famous mist in the background

A visit to California to stay with friends in Santa Clara, just south of San Francisco, started with the principle that this was a wine drinking, not wine tasting trip. No vineyard visits, just barbecues, some sightseeing, and a bit of healthy imbibing. So of course, when we realised that our friends lived about 20 minutes away from Ridge Vineyards, we called and made an appointment straight away. For my sins, I worked for Steven Spurrier in the early 80s while his wine ‘empire’ was still extant in Paris, so from this, and subsequent study, I was quite familiar with the quality of Paul Draper’s wines, and the effect that the 1976 ‘Judgement of Paris’ tasting had on Ridge and the other ‘kids from the sticks’ (as Bo Barrett of Chateau Montelena put it at the time), although I am not quite old enough to have been there for the tasting. I could hardly miss the opportunity just on a principle.

This is why they call it 'Ridge'!

This is why they call it ‘Ridge’!

The following day, on a beautiful sunny September afternoon, the 4th in fact, we travelled the Montebello Road to the winery. The various parts of the Monte Bello vineyard are at elevations varying from 1300 to 2700 feet, and you really see why they call them the Santa Cruz Mountains as you travel upwards; the road is a succession of hairpin bends, as you would expect in a mountain, not so much in a vineyard.

PD & GW4

PD, GW, and 100-year old Carignane

We arrived at Monte Bello to be greeted by Paul Draper himself; three hours of fascinating insight into the famous estate followed. At the hopper above the winery, 100 year-old Carignane grapes were just being delivered into the de-stemmer, so we got to taste our first grapes of the 2014 California vintage. Paul described 2014 as one of the earliest in Ridge’s history, which is why grapes had been arriving in the winery since a week before. He thought the harvest would be just about finished by the third week of September; usually they wouldn’t have started until then.

...and in the cellar

…and in the cellar

Ridge are still at the top of their game. PaulDraper, always open minded, talked with enthusiasm about textural changes effected in the wine by the occasional fining they do; single parcel fermentation for each vineyard and combining the best, far too complicated to detail here; the advantages of air-dried over kiln-dried oak, and its cooperage, and the importance of grapes at moderate sugar levels. The wines are organic in all but name, and are currently getting certification for the Monte Bello vineyard. Paul has always used the minimum possible intervention, including only natural yeasts, and minimal sulphur, focussed on quality, rather than a label. That said, Ridge’s labels have always featured more winemaking information than almost any, and now include ingredient labelling; it’s lucky they don’t fine often, as the general public don’t like to see egg white as an additive (but that doesn’t stop them including it on the label when they do). Paul talked with fondness about the early days in the 70s, before the boom, when they used to import top Bordeaux like Lynch Bages and Leoville Lascases in barrel and bottle at Ridge in order to keep the cash coming in. I was even allowed to spit on the drain in the floor of the winery, as we used to do on tasting trips in Burgundy and the Rhone in the 80s. I, if no one else, derived a huge amount of childish pleasure from the looks of horror from my friends as I did it. Paul, like the seasoned professional he is, stood well clear of me.

More humidity, this time in the cellar...

More humidity, this time in the cellar…

We tasted 2013 Monte Bello in barrel in the cellar cut into a limestone ravine in the 1880s; it still has six months left to mature in barrel, and seemed very well balanced, dry, dark fruited, smoky, oaky, yes, but not sappy as I sometimes find. Promising. We tasted a 2014 Zinfandel, picked on 29th August, and still in the fermentation tank; I don’t consider myself expert, but I am familiar with tasting fizzy, sweet, semi-alcoholic fruit juice. My friends, though, were bowled over. ‘It’s like Port’, said one of my hosts; I began a wine lecture on Port production and why she was right, but happily I was quickly stopped by the groans of the audience.

All tastings should look like this

All tastings should look like this

We moved back up to the newly built tasting room. Paul introduced the 2011 vintage, which was largely something of a disaster in many parts of California; one of my favourite euphemisms, ‘challenging’, often used to describe miserable vintages in France, was even used to describe the Californian summer that year. At Monte Bello, though, they escaped the cold fog which poisoned the summer for many vineyards, as their elevation put them above it. We tasted:

2011 Monte Bello Chardonnay – Oak toast and smoke showing, edging towards butterscotch. Lovely ripe tang, but alcohol a little visible for me.

2012 Geyserville Zinfandel – Fresh, with black cherries raisins, and great balance, fluffy tannins, a freshness.

2012 Lytton Spring Zinfandel – Smokier, more complex: aniseed, pepper, lovely.

2011 Monte Bello Cabernet Sauvignon – Smoke, spice, aniseed, black fruit, cool climate, but ripe, with bright acidity, mineral, almost salty. Superb.

And another treat:

1985 Monte Bello Cabernet Sauvignon – Wood smoke, leather, Christmas cake, burned sugar, tannins still there, but smooth, the wine fading a little; graceful in age.

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‘The Judgement’ at Ridge

We talked of the ‘Judgement of Paris’ tasting in 1976. It should be remembered that Steven intended to show that California made good wine, not to enact a competition between France and the US, but the first places achieved by Chateau Montelena in the Chardonnay section and Stag’s Leap in the Cabernet was dramatic: Californian wine had arrived. It then progressed on a path of excess into ‘cult winery’ and 200% new oak territory, but Ridge continued and continues on its path of moderation, minimal intervention, and traditional winemaking with modern equipment, and long may it do so. Thank you sincerely, Paul Draper, for a fantastic afternoon of wine tasting on a tasting-free holiday!

 

 

Oak Aged Sauvignon Blind Wine Tasting at London Cru

1407 Bottle shot

A blind tasting of oaked Sauvignons from around the world on the 3rd July at London Cru, organised by Jean-Christophe Mau and Richard Bampfield MW was a welcome opportunity to revisit West London’s ‘flavour of the month’ venue, as well, of course, to taste an interesting and perhaps overlooked category. Richard’s invitation proposed that: “ as Sauvignon Blanc is so ubiquitous and producers will need to work harder to add value and create their points of difference in future, the use of oak will become more widespread”.

The tasting was very well attended; all the luminaries of the world of wine journalism were there (including me), so there must be something to Richard’s assertion. I think we have become submerged in the overpoweringly citrus and fruit-some (Marlborough, mainly, but not exclusively) unoaked version, to the exclusion of the more traditional, complex perhaps, version.

Overall, I found most very good; my lowest mark was 15/20. Looking back over the crib sheet, my high marks (18-19) were fairly evenly distributed between old and new world. In my notes I did record a less prominent fruit in many of the old world ones, and low marks to some French ones where the oak seemed a bit dried and resinous, and not supported by sufficient fruit, but I really liked the integration of oak in Didier Dagueneau’s Pur Sang 2008. It was surprisingly fresh, not showing its six years of age, other than in the oak (fermented and aged in new oak) integration. In my notes I see ‘Fumé style’ against this wine, which is encouraging for my tasting skills as the wines were blind. Happily, since this was their tasting, I gave a good blind rating to Ch. Brown 2012, which I found attractively toasty and spicy. I wasn’t as negative as I expected to be about heavily oaked new world styles, in fact as long as the fruit wasn’t dominated I found several with really well-integrated, classy oak, again in the ‘Fumé’ style; Jordan ‘The Outlier’ 2012 in Stellenbosch, Terre a Terre 2013 in Wrattonbully, and Chimney rock, Elevage Blanc 2010 in Napa stood out for me in this style. My highest mark (19, I don’t do 20) went to Valdivieso’s Wild Fermented Leyda 2012, aged for 11 months in 500L French oak, and good marks to most of the Bordeaux blends with Semillon (although there weren’t many).

I think Richard and Jean-Chiristophe are right that this is a rewarding category. Value is added in the complexity and broader, spicier flavours of the oaked versions, particularly when this is not to the detriment of the brightness of fruit, and that applies to both old and new world versions. I’m just rushing off to buy some oak-aged Chilean Sauvignon now!

‘Classic’ and ‘Balanced’ Wines in Saint Emilion

‘Classic’ and ‘Balanced’ Wines at L’Association  de Grands Crus Classés de Saint Emilion Tasting

Altitude 360, 5th June 2013

 

The annual tasting of Saint Emilion Grands Crus Classés took place at the trendy and spacious Altitude 360 in Pimlico. This year, vintages on show were 2009 and 2010, so the growers had little to apologize for. That said, Ch. Faurie de Souchard was one of those hit by hail in May in 2009, Thibaud Sciard, presenting the wines, described to us the difficulty of losing 90% of his crop as a result.

 

Otherwise, the wines were largely as expected, with only good surprises, really. The reputation of these two vintages is well known, not only due to the comments of a certain American with the same name as a pen, but also because of the interest and ‘buzz’ that two magnificent vintages in a row creates; everyone has written about them.

 

Don’t you love Bordeaux euphemisms? ‘Classic’ is a word often wheeled out to excuse unripe wines from a poor year; this time, though, it seems to work for the 2010s. They are anything but unripe, and have a deep coloured, dark fruited spicy character, and aniceed freshness. ‘Balance’ is used in a different context, often to justify high alcohol, and again the sceptic in me wakes up when I hear it. However, I tasted all three of Jacques Capdemourlin’s 2010s, Châteaux Balestard le Tonnelle, Cap de Mourlin, and Petit Faurie de Soutard (please note the similar spelling to Faurie de Souchard, above; they are indeed two different châteaux, it’s just part of that adorable French complication). Part of my note to the Balestard la Tonnelle reads: “A huge mouthful of tannin and acidity, balanced by ripe and generous black fruit”. Thierry Capdemourlin pointed out alcohol levels of, 15, 15.5 and 15.5%, in order, for these three wines, but talked of the balance, and my note confirms this. The alcohol didn’t stand out in any of these, nor in any of the other wines I tasted on the day.

 

My tasting notes are repetitive. Big, ripe, soft fruited 2009s, with red, sweet Merlot fruit, lowish acidity, and velvety tannins, drinking well now, and more angular, serious, spicy (both words versions, I suspect, of ‘classic’, a word I don’t really use) 2010s, with “A huge mouthful of tannin and acidity, balanced by ripe and generous black fruit”. Have I said that before?

 

Another common theme appears to be the consultant Michel Rolland; he’s everywhere. I recently read a cartoon book called “Robert Parker Les Sept Péchés capiteux” (The seven ‘heady’ sins), by Benoist Simmat and drawn by Philippe Bercovici, which portrays Big Bob colluding with Michel Rolland to homogenize the flavour of Bordeaux and create a ‘Parker taste’ (‘capiteux’, in the title, translates as ‘heady’ while ‘capitaux’ is deadly, which would be the more familiar expression). It’s a great book, by the way, very witty (if you are a wine nerd, otherwise you won’t understand it) but it hasn’t been translated. It is, of course, satirical, but most of the Rolland consulted wines seemed to show a full, chocolaty, extracted character, and high alcohol (none less than 14%), but those are also characteristics of both vintages. The three from Capdemourlin above are all consulted by his laboratory.

 

One exception to this was Château Grand Corbin d’Espagne. François d’Espagne, the very affable owner, explained that he was fully organically certified, and trying out biodynamic production. He tried to point to this fact in the otherwise very well-presented fact sheet that accompanied each estate’s page, but it wasn’t there. He remarked that, although he did inform them, the Association must have omitted to print this information (a bit of Bordeaux politics, perhaps)? His wines of both vintages showed a charming harmony, with easy acidity, melted but prominent tannins, and yes, great balance, even classics. They were still 14% (2009), and 14.5% (2010).

 

An enjoyable and informative tasting of two great vintages. If the following one features 2011 and 2012, a different set of euphemisms will come to the fore. Anyone who hasn’t been living on Mars for the last few years will be familiar with the financial sector’s descriptors of choice: challenging, and difficult. Bordeaux has added a new variant to these two for the 2012 vintage: A winemaker’s vintage (but aren’t all vintages)? Maybe the turnout will be lower for that one.

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