Champagne Fine & Rare

It’s not often do you get the chance to taste top Champagne in large formats, from older vintages and different varietal blends – The Sommelier Collective x Champagne Henriot tasting had it all. Members that attended had a real education in how smart Champagne ages and the effect of terroir and bottle size has on its potential to last.

Champagne Henriot’s trelissed vines on the Montagne de Reims

Few Champagne houses can boast being run by the same family for eight generations but The Sommelier Collective was lucky enough to tempt Champagne Henriot to give its members an exclusive tasting of fine and rare Champagnes dating back to 1989.

Cyrille Harmel, european director, from Champagne Henriot, flew in specially for the tasting and members were enlightened by his engaging style and vast knowledge about what is happening in Champagne right now. “Terroir and site-specificity”, he explained, “are becoming more and more important in the Champagne region and the wines in the line up are testament to that fact.”

From the different villages, slopes and crus guests got a chance to delve into the complexities of site selection and the effect that has on the resulting wine. “It’s not just about blending vintages in each village, be it Ay, Verzenay, Avenay Val d’Or in Montagne de Reims and Avize, Chouilly on the Côtes de Blancs, each plot adds its own particular component to the wine,” Harmel said, explaining that “this is perhaps one of the most interesting developments in Champagne right now and an aspect that everyone is concentrating on.”

“Terroir and site-specificity are becoming more and more important in the Champagne region, each plot adds its own particular component to the wine. this is perhaps one of the most interesting developments in Champagne right now”

Cyrille Harmel, Champagne Henriot

Another current buzz topic, and an outstanding feature of Henriot champagnes, is the use each house makes of their Reserve Perpetuelle. “We believe that we were one of the very first houses to start placing such importance on the use of Reserve Perpetuelle back in the 1970s,” Harmel went on. “We want to give definition, depth and a distinct style to our wines. For Henriot it is very important to consider the structure of our blends. Our Brut Souverain and Blanc de Blancs for example is made up of 20% of Vin de Reserve (minimum 5 years old), a further 20% is Reserve Perpetuelle and the remaining 60% of the blend is wine from the particular year. As all of our wines are made in stainless steel the Vin de Reserve and Reserve Perpetuelle are crucial to the house style.”

“Time is an ally for Maison Henriot, at each stage of the elaboration of Henriot Champagnes. Indeed, we give time to the observation of the vineyard for the sake of precision, to the development of the wines for their expressions, to the blending for their creation, and to the ageing of the cuvées for their construction.”

Alice Tétienne, Cellar Master of Maison Henriot

It’s not often that sommeliers have a chance to taste such a wide range of champagne styles from different vintages and in smaller and larger formats, especially in pairs, from one house. This tasting was a spectacular example that demonstrated the many facets of Champagne and its diversity, tasting aged wines out of 75cl, magnum and jeroboam. Such a treat!

The champagnes we tasted:

  • Champagne Henriot Brut Souverain (base wine 2016)
  • Champagne Henriot Brut Souverain (base wine 2002 in Jeroboam)
  • Champagne Henriot Blanc de Blancs (base wine 2014)
  • Champagne Henriot Blanc de Blancs (base wine 2008 in Jeroboam)
  • Champagne Henriot Rosé NV in magnum
  • Champagne Henriot Rosé Millésimé 2012
  • Champagne Henriot Millésime 2012
  • Champagne Henriot Cuvée Hemera 2006
  • Champagne Henriot Millésime 1989 in Jeroboam
Brut Souverain NV & Jeroboam

Henriot Brut Souverain (base wine 2016) & Henriot Brut Souverain (base wine 2002 jeroboam)
About 45% Pinot Noir – 40% Chardonnay – 15% Meunier
Sourced from 29 crus
60% of wines of the year (base vintage)
40% of reserve wines (including our blend reserve)
At least 3 years of ageing

“You can clearly see that the Reserve Perpetuelle gives a “patin” to the wine, softens it and brings depth. None of our wines are oak aged and they are kept on lees for longer than the minimum amount of time permitted by the CIVC.” Cyrille Harmel

Henriot Blanc de Blancs (base 2014) & Henriot Blanc de Blancs (base wine 2008 jeroboam)
100% Chardonnay
Sourced from 12 crus
60% of wines of the year (base vintage)
40% of reserve wines (including our perpetual reserve)
At least 4 years of ageing

“On the eastern side of the Montagne de Reims there is a small village called Trépail, planted with 60% Chardonnay. 40 years ago the temperature was not as it is today and Chardonnay did not ripen here but today we are happy to include this in the blend because it brings freshness.” Cyrille Harmel

Blancs de Blanc NV & Blancs de Blanc Jeroboam
Henriot Rosé magnum

Henriot Rosé in magnum aged minmally for 3 years on the lees with a high proportion of Premier & Gran Cru grapes

“The rosé NV is fresher, lighter – we do not use Reserve Perpetuelle in this wine but we do age longer on the lees and the proportion of Premier and Gran Crus grapes in the blend is high in comparison to other houses.” Cyrille Harmel

Henriot Millésime 2012
54% Chardonnay – 46% Pinot Noir
Sourced from 6 crus: Trépail, Mailly-Champagne, Verzenay, Avenay Val d’Or
in Montagne de Reims and Avize, Chouilly in Côtes des Blancs
100% Premiers and Grands Crus
At least 8 years of ageing

“2012 was a very famous vintage in Champagne, compared with 2008, it has the richness and a linear acidity that will give it the potential to age more than the 2008 – which is saying something when you consider everyone is raving about the 2008 right now.” Cyrille Harmel

Henriot Vintage 2012
Henriot Rosé 2012

Henriot Rosé 2012 in jeroboam
About 60% Pinot Noir – 40% Chardonnay – 100% Premiers & Grands Crus
70% of wines of the year
30% of reserve wines
About 8% of Pinot Noir still red wine
At least 7 years of ageing

“The 2012 vintage is more structured and you can perceive tannins. Of course, the hotter the year the more tannins you get in the wine. But the nose on the vintage is floral – roses, violets. It is aged at least 7 years on the lees.” Cyrille Harmel

Henriot Cuvée Hemera 2006
50% Chardonnay – 50% Pinot Noir
Crus: Verzy, Verzenay, Mailly-Champagne in Montagne de Reims
and Avize, Chouilly, Le Mesnil-sur-Oger in Côte des Blancs
100% Grands Crus
At least 12 years of ageing

“Hydric stress was very high in 2006, it was a very hot vintage after a cold, wet start. This wine is only released in top years from these six villages, which are fermented separately and then blended dependent upon the year. Talking about terroir: Verzy brings power, Verzenay gives elegance, softness, texture, Mailly-Champagne brings structure. Avize, Le Mesnil and Chouilly generosity and maturity.” Cyrille Harmel

Cuvée Hemera 2006
Henriot 1989 Jeroboam

Henriot Millésime 1989 Jeroboam
57% Pinot Noir – 43% Chardonnay
6 crus : Verzy, Verzenay, Avenay, Trépail in Montagne de Reims
and Le Mesnil-Sur-Oger, Oger in Côte des Blancs
100% Premiers and Grands Crus

“This was a warm year but there is incredible freshness still on this wine. The fruit profile has changed to give this wine a savoury character on the nose but the acidity on the palate is still lemony and zesty. A freshness is a real hallmark of the house style.” Cyrille Harmel

To find out more about www.champagne-henriot.com

Discovery Tasting: Tasca d’Almerita

A riot of lagoons, mountains, islands and volcanoes, this tasting with Tasca showed off Sicily’s incredible geography to the max

Let’s face it, most of the wine trade don’t know anywhere near enough about Sicily. There’s a temptation to assume that because it’s an island it’s not very big, and because until 30 years ago much of what it produced went into bulk wine that it’s devoid of interesting terroir.

In fact, neither of these things is remotely true. Sicily is bigger than Wales. It’s 100,000 hectares of vineyard (just less than Bordeaux) makes it one of the biggest wine regions in Italy, and its scenery is extraordinary – as we discovered in this tasting.

Collective members tried wines from tiny windswept islands, salty lagoons, rocky mountains and Europe’s largest active volcano.

‘Everyone imagines Sicily is a flat island,’ says Alberto Tasca, of our hosts for the day, Tasca d’Almerita. ‘But it isn’t at all.

5 Territories, 5 Estates, 5 stories to tell – Tasca d’Almerita

‘70% of the production comes from hills, and that makes a big difference.’

Alberto Tasca

Tasca d’Almerita have an almost 200-year history of winemaking on the island, and exploring such diverse terroirs has very much become part of their philosophy, with the family-owned company adding small estates the length and breadth of the island.

‘We use as little ego [in the winemaking] as possible,’ explained Alberto. ‘We just want the wines to talk about where they’re from; the age of the vines and what kind of grape varieties they are.’

The Wines

Tenuta Capofaro, Didyme 2021

This comes from the island of Salina, off Sicily’s north-east coast. It’s a spectacularly beautiful place, with vineyards overlooking the thundering waves of the Tyrrhenian Sea.

‘It has a little what we call ‘sapidity’ – a kind of saltiness,’ says Alberto. ‘It could be because of the strong winds blowing salty water everywhere.’

The island used to be best known for making sweet wines from Malvasia di Lipari. But in 2013 – a big year – Tasca had no space to dry all the grapes, so made some dry wine as well – a style that’s become increasingly popular and should get its own DOC soon.

available from Berkmann Wine Cellars

‘I see this kind of wine working very well with sushi,’ said Raphael Thierry. ‘The oily texture is perfect with the texture of the fatty fish like tuna and the saltiness of the wine combines well with soy sauce.’

Vines with a view out over the Tyrrenhian Sea. Spray could give the wines a gentle salty finish.

Tenuta Regaleali, Buonsenso Catarratto 2021

available from Berkmann Wine Cellars

Tenuta Regaleali is the homeland of Tasca d’Almerita. It’s in the high, mountainous interior of the island. With much cooler nights, grapes ripen one month later here, which was particularly important in the days before temperature control, since it meant fermenting in October rather than much warmer September.

Catarratto is Sicily’s most-planted white variety, characterised by good natural acidity and an inherent ability to age, even without oak. ‘Because of its ability to hold acidity, you can get it ripe without worrying about it losing freshness,’ says Alberto.

It’s defined by apricot flavours. ‘But there’s a little sapidity to the finish of this wine which is just what we’re looking for,’ says Alberto. ‘We don’t want it to be all about primary aromas.’

Tenuta Regaleali in the mountains of the interior. The heartland of Tasca d’Almerita’s operation

Tenuta Whitaker, Grillo di Mozia 2021

Mozia is another extraordinary place: an incredibly low island off Sicily’s west coast, Alberto claims (almost certainly accurately) that these vines are the lowest vineyards in the world, just a couple of metres above sea level.

The sea around the island is so shallow that the grapes need to be transported to the mainland in small numbers of boxes at a time (see main picture), otherwise the boat runs aground.

Grillo is a cross between Moscato and Catarrato, and the vines are trained in the ‘Marsala bow’ – which involves intertwined bush vine branches trained on a wire, to protect them from the strong sea breezes. It’s a naturally rich wine, particularly from 2021 which Alberto says was ‘the warmest, driest vintage of my whole life.’

available from Berkmann Wine Cellars
Mozia: vineyards barely above the water, surrounded by a 50cm-deep sea

Tenuta Sallier de la Tour Madamarose 2021

available from Berkmann Wine Cellars

This large estate inland from Palermo is at 450m of altitude and a mixture of sand and clay. ‘It’s the perfect place for Syrah,’ says Alberto. Tasca d’Almerita tried planting the grape at Regaleali, but it was too cool, and the soils too poor. It performed far better on this estate.

‘We think this is the best place for Syrah in Sicily,’ he continues, pointing out that the grape has a long tradition in Sicily, though it’s a different biotype to the examples grown in France and Australia.

This deep-coloured example from the hot 2021 vintage is ‘a step up in richness’ compared to a normal year, but Alberto says that it ‘pairs very well with food. That’s very much part of our culture in Sicily now. It’s great with barbecued meat.’

High, but warmer than the Regaleali estate, Sallier de la Tour is perfect for Syrah

Tenuta Tascante Ghiaia Nera 2019, Etna Rosso

Nerello Mascalese has found its spiritual home on Etna, which is just as well because it’s not an easy grape to grow. Tasca d’Almerita tried to grow it in Regaleali but ended up just using it for rosé. ‘It’s like trying to grow Pinot Noir in a place that isn’t suited to it,’ says Alberto. ‘But in Etna the volcanic soil brings a crazy tension to the wine.’

Pale in colour, John Prime commented that it ‘seemed to tread a fine line between Pinot Noir and Nebbiolo’ and Alberto backed this up.

‘It makes crisp, gastronomic wines,’ he explained. ‘They don’t work without food. There’s something nervous about it. You need an educated palate.’

available from Berkmann Wine Cellars

This was (just) the most popular wine in the tasting, with our members suggesting it with lamb sweetbreads in miso caramel (Patrick Bostock), ‘red pepper cannelloni and lemon ricotta in our vegetarian tasting menu’ (James Payne) and ‘roast chicken or turkey’ (Jordan Sutton).

Etna’s grey volcanic rocks make for distinctive terracing

Tenuta Regaleali Rosso del Conte 2016, Contea di Sclafani DOC

available from Berkmann Wine Cellars

The ‘Conte’ was created by Alberto’s grandfather back in the 1960s. At that time, Chateauneuf du Pape was the most sought-after wine style, and after visiting the region for a month, he decided on blending two varieties together. It’s a mix of Nero d’Avola and Pericone.

‘Typically these two varieties were planted together because they ripen at the same time,’ said Alberto. ‘But they are totally different. Nero d’Avola is rich purple with a high acidity, Pericone is redder, with a rounder body.’

It’s easy to see how they might work well together, and they combine brilliantly here. From the excellent 2016 vintage, this wine was also popular with the Collective members.

Alberto refused to be drawn on whether he prefers the Etna wine or the Conte, but does say that in 2016 the ‘Rosso del Conte was amazing – better than the best wine we produced on Etna.’

Terraces tumble down the hillside on Mount Etna

Watch the video

Time for something completely different

It is ten years since Ronan Sayburn, head of wine at 67 Pall Mall visited Grace Wine in Japan to learn about Koshu. And in that time he says they’ve gone from obscurity to award-winning status.

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Koshu has been cultivated in Japan for over 1,300 years and is a distinctive grape with pinkish-grey skin. It is a white vitis vinifera, now indigenous to Japan and produces quality, still, white wines.

Ronan Sayburn MS, head of wine, 67 Pall Mall

Grace Wine has been at the forefront of Koshu from Japan earning international acclaim and becoming an award-winning wine. They are very proud to have won Japan’s first ever gold medal in an international wine competition and have gone on to win gold medals for five consecutive years at the Decanter World Wine Awards.

Family owned since 1923 it is located 100km east of Tokyo in the prestigious Yamanashi prefecture in the Katsunuma village – an important village in the GI, renowned for its abundance of fruit trees.

Map locating Grace Wine in Japan.

Ayana Misawa is chief winemaker and fifth generation family member at Grace Wine, but being the owner’s daughter doesn’t come with any favours. Ayana took ten years to hone her skills and learn her craft working in the northern and southern hemisphere with an impressive selection of work placements and study periods including House of Arras in Tasmania (which shows in the Blanc de Blanc, see below).

The winery owns most of its own vineyard area, buying just a small amount of grapes from growers they have long established relationships with – essential, Ayana says, for their commitment to quality wine production.

Pergola system: Each bunch is protected by a small paper hat covered wax that allows water to run off and protects the grapes from heavy rainfall and subsequent damage in the typhoon season. Applied one by one, this meticulous work requires dedication and time to hand staple every single hat.

Japan has a difficulty in that vintage variation is huge with 160cm of snow falling in 2014 followed by typhoons in 2016, which was the most difficult year Ayana can remember. This makes winemaking more challenging than usual and another reason Ayana wanted to gain so much international experience before returning to the family estate.

Whilst Ayana describes the climate as continental, Sayburn was more confident in pointing out its sub-tropical micro-climate, with the whole region situated in a hot and humid geographical basin with clay soils where that the rain just runs off. Indeed, Ayana pointed to the similarity of heat during the growing season to the Hunter Valley in Australia – another region she spent time working harvest and learning her craft.

To find out more about Koshu and discover for ourselves the extraordinary range from one of Japan’s leading wineries we sat down with Ronan, and Ayana on Zoom, along with a group of fellow sommeliers to put his knowledge to the test. First we tasted the wines.

Tasting notes

2014 Grace Blanc de Blanc

A blanc de blanc grown on volcanic soil it displays minerality on the nose – a very saline wine. Whole bunch picked, as you’d expect, this wine was disgorged by hand in 2020. It had 60 months lees ageing and was described by Ayana as refreshing, bright and vibrant with brioche and nutty characteristics.

2020 Hishiyama Koshu

Koshu grapes – picked between the Cabernet Franc and Cabernet Sauvignon harvest – have thick skins, that protect from disease and botrytis, are a pinkish/grey colour. Notably for Koshu the grapes in this vineyard are grown on pergolas, with low yields and slow maturation. This wine has a flint noise, light aromas of yuzu, slightly lemon. Reminiscent of Albarino in flavour – without the high acidity. A fresh, delicate palate with phenolic character, despite no lees ageing. Will pair well with fish, sushi, rice.

2020 Misawa Vineyard Koshu

A single vineyard wine, not typical for Koshu, the Misawa vineyard, named after the family, is also VSP. Malolactic fermentation, 60% old/neutral oak, gives this wine a little more richness with delicate flavours of pear skin or agave on the palate and under ripe banana or mango. There is slightly more colour in this wine – which is understandable when you note the bunch size difference between pergola vs VSP. Battonage is kept to a minimum as it’s a delicate style of wine.

2016 Cuvée Misawa Koshu

The 2016 has an almost menthol aroma and juicer, bright tropical fruit characters of mango and papaya, with a clean palate. The development shown from age is positive – indeed, the 2017 won 98 points at Decanter World Wine Awards which gives further interest to the ageing potential of these wines.

2015 Cuvée Misawa Koshu

2015 has a smokier, almost spicey, nose with beeswax, toasty and richer flavours. It keeps the salinity of Koshu and has good acidity and good length. Sayburn said this older Koshu wine reminds him of an aged Swiss Chasselas.

2009 Cuvée Misawa Cabernet Franc

With just 500 bottles produced this wine was universally enjoyed by the guests, with Sayburn calling it “a really classic cabernet franc” and others comparing it to cool climate wines from British Colombia. It had a herbaceous, earthy nose with soft and complex tannins. More savoury on the palate than fruity on the nose with lots of tertiary and gamey flavours. Whist koshu is the most important grape for Grace Wine it is Cabernet Franc that is Ayana’s favourite, and it shows with this wine.

Food pairing

To illustrate how versatile these wines are when pairing with food, and in particular not just Japanese cuisine, we were presented with a four course tasting menu, curated by Sayburn and the head chef Marcus Verberne at 67 Pall Mall.

To start, the Blanc de blancs 2014 was paired with Citrus cured salmon, clementine gel, tobiko. The citrus flavours and celery notes from the tobiko linked the wine beautifully with the salmon. It is these delicate touches that harmonised the dish and the wine.

Next, the Koshu Hishiyama Vineyard, 2020 & the Koshu Misawa Vineyard, 2020 wines were tried alongside a Crab and avocado tarte. The sweet richness of the dish was well balanced and finely sliced grape gave freshness, alongside micro herbs for a touch of bitterness that elevated the pairings.

Moving on to more complex dishes Sayburn presented Glazed veal sweet breads, peas and confit lemon puree, potato shard, chicken jus. The ageing on both Akeno Koshu 2016 & Akeno Koshu 2015 allowed these wines to stand up to these bolder flavours – in particular the lemon puree, fresh peas and chicken jus gave the food pairing the acidity, sweetness and umami needed.

To finish, Roast rump of lamb, sauteed courgette, slow cooked cherry tomato, black olive jus had all the right elements to work beautifully with the Cuvee Misawa Ridge System, Cabernet Franc, 2009. The provencal-style vegetables ensured the flavours come together.

And no dashi, sushi, sashimi or wasbi in sight!

Working at The Ritz – London I already had the opportunity to taste Grace Koshu wine – a very versatile style, but very interesting given the origin of the indigenous grape. A clear and brilliant lemon style, with aromas of white peach, pears and minerality, on the palate and vibrant acidity, perfect to combine with seafood. 

Giovanni Andriulo, sommelier, The Ritz
Giovanni Andriulo, sommelier, The Ritz

Tasting highlight

Whilst Koshu is the most important grape grown at Grace, Cabernet Franc is Ayana’s favourite red grape variety. And it shows in the small 500 bottle production of 2009 Cuvée Misawa Cabernet Franc that we tasted.

Andriulo told us he: “was very impressed by the cuvée Misawa the Cabernet Franc 2009, intense, complex with herbaceous notes (mint, lavander, fennel) and with tertiary aromas due to a good bootle aging (wet leaves, vegetal, forest floor). A Cabernet Franc that may recall some styles in the right bank of bordeaux. Excellent combinations can be with grilled foods, grilling adds a bitter component to the food and creates a great stage for cabernet’s tannins and of course with red meats such as lamb.”

Whilst Koshu, or wine for that matter, is not a part of Japanese drinking culture it has gained a reputation for premium quality wine, much to do with the winemaking philosophy that mirrors Japanese life including respect, precision, and artisan craftmanship.

Attention to detail is part of the Japanese way of life and it shows in these precise wines. Nothing is left to chance and everything is considered. Even down to the labels – which happen to be designed exclusively for Grace Wine by Mr. Kenya Hara, celebrated Japanese graphic designer and art director at the famous Japanese chain store MUJI.

#KoshuFoodMatch competition

If you have not yet tried these wines now is your opportunity. The Sommelier Collective has teamed up with Grace Wine to run a food pairing competition. For more details visit #KoshuFoodMatch.

Entries close 25 February, 2020.

Grace Wine is imported in the UK by Hallgarten & Novum Wines

Masters of Riesling

Discovery Tasting: Pewsey Vale/Hugel – The Masters Of Riesling

We all know that somms love Riesling the way cats love catnip. So the chance to taste great examples from opposite ends of the world was not to be missed.

For our Masters of Riesling tasting, we had managed to gather Jean-Frédéric Hugel from Hugel in Alsace, and Louisa Rose from Pewsey Vale in the Eden Valley to talk us through some of their key wines. Our members got to taste, compare – and get stuck into some of the hottest issues of the day, in what turned out to be a fascinating deep-dive into a complex variety.

About the wineries

Hugel

Hugel is one of the oldest wineries in France – and probably one of the oldest continuously-run family businesses anywhere in the world. It started in 1639 and, with Jean-Frédéric at the helm, is currently on its 13th generation.

The company is based in the stunning medieval walled town of Riquewihr, in the heart of Alsace, completely surrounded by vines.

‘It’s a viticultural town,’ says Jean-Frédéric. ‘Alsace is like Burgundy, but even more condensed.’

Jean-Frédéric Hugel – 13th generation of the family to run their Alsace winery

A long, narrow region with a complex, mixed-up geology, it has, Jean-Frédéric admits, taken the growers 2000 years to work out how the different soils and orientations affect the character of the grapes.Some 13 varieties are permitted, but Riesling remains the king.

‘It’s a terroir sponge,’ he says. ‘It has a unique ability to express terroir, which explains why there are so many more poor ones on the market – there are many more poor terroirs than there are great ones.’

The walled town of Riquewihr, home to Hugel – as you can see. How does it compare to the view out of your office window?

Pewsey Vale

Pewsey’s history might not be as long as that of Hugel, but it’s impressive nonetheless. First planted in 1847 it is one of the oldest vineyards in Australia.

Joseph Gilbert, an English settler, named it after his home town. Riesling was just one of several varieties he planted – he also tried Cabernet, Gouais Blanc and Verdelho – but it quickly became obvious that it was the variety that worked best in this area.

The Eden Valley is to the East of the Barossa, up on a range of hills. While the Barossa is at around 200m of altitude, with deep soils, the Eden Valley is around 500m up with very poor rocky soil full of mica, quartz and schist.

Pewsey Vale’s Louisa Rose – an acknowledged expert with Riesling – and also Viognier

Temperatures rarely get above the low-30s, though during a heat spike they might climb to 35 degrees C. It’s typically two degrees cooler than the Barossa during the day, but 5-10 degrees cooler than the valley at night. Temperatures can get below 10 degrees C once the sun goes down – a diurnal shift of over 20 degrees C.

‘Cold nights are one of the keys to growing great Riesling,’ says Louisa Rose, who has been making the Pewsey Vale wines for 25 years. ‘You protect the acidity and get those beautiful persistent aromatics.’

Pewsey Vale – with the cooler south-facing slopes planted in the distinctive way that gives the Contours Riesling its name

The Wines

Hugel

Famille Hugel Classic Riesling 2019

The idea of this wine is to show ‘an Alsace archetype of wine,’ said Jean-Frédéric. ‘To make the best AOC Riesling in Alsace.’ It comes from a variety of soil types, from sandstone and granite to clay and limestone.

Climate change has altered the character of this wine in the space of two generations. ‘My grandfather’s generation thought that 9 degrees potential alcohol was ripe,’ says Jean-Frédéric. ‘They used to have to chaptalize a lot.’ The local sugar refinery, he said, has just closed down because nobody uses it any more.

This is from a tricky vintage of heatwaves and rain storms, and volumes are low. Though taken overall, the growing season was long and cool. Like all the Hugel wines it’s closed with a DIAM cork, of which more later.

‘Archetypal’ Alsace Riesling

Grossi Laüe Riesling 2012

‘More approachable younger…’

Grossi Laüe (pronounced Grossi Loy) translates as ‘great vineyard’ in Alsace dialect. This wine is put together from a series of plots on the Schoenenbourg grand cru. One of the most sought-after locations in Alsace, its 35 degree slopes and southerly aspect have made it a great site for Riesling for hundreds of years.

‘Riesling is a late-ripening grape, and these are mostly cool, marly soils,’ explained Jean-Frédéric, so you need the maximum sun exposure.’

Because of the marly soils and southerly exposure, typically, the Schoenenbourg gives wines that are quite rich and velvety compared to, say, a Schlossberg or Mosel Riesling.

Typically, the Grossi Laüe is more ‘forward’ than the Schoelhammer, and perhaps because of this Adrian Fornal saw it as a good partner with ‘grilled lobster with garlic parsley butter.’

Schoelhammer Riesling 2010

The Schoelhammer (pronounced ‘shell hammer’) comes from a single organically-farmed vineyard in the heart of the Schoenenbourg. Always a favourite site of the family, they first decided to make it as a single-vineyard wine in 2007.

‘It’s in the sweet spot for the Schoenenbourg where there’s a bit more clay,’ said Jean-Frédéric. ‘It’s very late ripening, and naturally low yielding. The vines look like they are working.’

Though the Schoelhammer and the Grossi Laüe were not from the same vintage, Jean-Frédéric said that the stylistic variations that our tasters noted between them were more driven by their different terroirs than their ages.

‘In the sweet spot…’

‘The Schoelhammer is a longer-lived wine that evolves at a slower pace,’ he explained. Artyom Celegato agreed, saying it was less expressive on the nose but an ‘absolute winner’ on the palate with a ‘great mouthfeel and a velvety finish.’

Konstantinos Nestoridis kept his food match local, saying he felt it would be great with cod, Alsace bacon and cream.

View from the slopes of the Schoenenbourg down into Riquewihr. Viticulture is the only viable business on the slopes of Alsace

Pewsey Vale

Pewsey Vale Eden Valley Riesling 2020

If you think vintage variation isn’t important in Australia, then think again. This wine came from a dry winter, windy spring (which affected flowering) and a cooler than average summer. The result was a concentrated, elegant expression of Riesling.

‘Total acidity is only in the low- to mid-6s. But the pH is really quite low – 2.8 or 2.9 is common,’ said Louisa Rose. ‘So you get that lovely soft acidity, but then the minerality coming across the palate.’ She cited flavours of limes, white flowers and dried rosemary.

Low pH gives great minerality

Pewsey Vale The Contours Riesling 2015, Pewsey Vale The Contours Riesling 2010

Product of a cooler aspect

The Contours wine comes from a specific site within the Pewsey Vale vineyard. The rows of vines here are planted in undulating waves that follow the contours of the land (hence the name). The soil is no different to any of the rest of the Pewsey Vale vineyard, but its south facing exposure is unique.

‘Most of our vineyards face north, towards the sun,’ says Louisa Rose. ‘But this one faces away from it.’ The result, she says, is a wine that is ‘more refined – lemons rather than limes, and slightly more acidity.’

The plan behind the Contours Rieslings was always to cellar them and release them as aged wines. 2015 is the current release – but the 2010 shows just how wonderfully, and gently, they age. In this they may be helped by their screwcap closure (again, more on this later).

The vineyard is biodynamically farmed and certified.

‘The Contours taste like they are wines of the place,’ said Louisa. ‘The winemaking decision that I make is when to pick the grapes, but before and after that the vineyard really does everything on its own. Even the yeasts come from the vineyard.’

‘Most of the time people say a wine is too young, so I have no issues in selling a mature Riesling,’ said Davide Renna, while Harry Cooper pointed out that, since his venue was moving on to veal next month, aged Riesling could be a good match.

Emanuel Pesqueira went down the seafood route. ‘Ten year old Riesling is perfect with grilled limpets served with lemon butter,’ he said.

Petrol, decanting and screwcaps – Riesling’s big issues answered!

The tasting also generated some discussion on other key Riesling topics, which should help us all better understand the grape’s particuliarities.

The petrol question

‘Should aged Riesling taste of petrol or is it a winemaking fault,’ asked Davide Renna. ‘And if so is there anything you can do to stop it?

‘We don’t even ask ourselves the question,’ said Jean-Frédéric. ‘Trying to create it or mitigate against it would be using a winemaking trick, so it would not be what we’d consider a terroir wine. Whether it appears or not is up to the vineyard. But it’s going to come at some stage in an older Riesling. If you don’t like it, I’d recommend drinking it young. In a Schoenenbourg, for example, it might appear after five years, but be gone by the time it’s 20.’

Louisa, meanwhile, disliked the term ‘petrol’. We’re all about clean, green viticulture, so to use a term from the petrochemical industry seems wrong!’ she said. ‘We talk about toast and sage-oil, lemon grass… flavours like that.’

She said that there is, however, a character you can see in Riesling that does smell like what you’d put in your car, and that was a winemaking fault. ‘It comes from underripe grapes with very green flavours in the skins that have been damaged – perhaps by sunburn. Those flavours in a wine become quite oily and unattractive.’

Get your Riesling here. Or not. Pic: Jaggery, Geographe

Decanting – should you or shouldn’t you..?

‘It’s the same as for any wine,’ said Jean-Frédéric. ‘If it’s already at an advanced age it would destroy it. If it still has some ageing ahead of it decanting is going to magnify it.’

‘I decant just about everything,’ said Louisa. ‘I love the theatre of it, but decanting also gives Riesling an opportunity to wake up and come to life. I haven’t met too many that aren’t immediately better following decanting.’

So, where do you stand on decanting Riesling? Pic from PXHere

Screwcap v Cork

‘This will be a fight between the northern and southern hemisphere,’ joked Jean-Frédéric. He could see the reliability advantages of screwcap compared to natural cork, and admitted that they had had problems with the latter in the past. ‘We’d taste ten bottles and they’d be ten different wines!’ he said. As a result, they ‘walked away from a natural cork and towards Diam [reconstituted cork]. We got no bottle variation and no cork taint.’

The Pewsey Vale Rieslings were all screwcapped from the 1970s onwards, which was very unusual at the time. And clearly too unusual for the world’s sommeliers who struggled to accept it! The first Contours wine (1995) was screwcapped, and by the time it was released five years later, other regions – and countries had adopted the closure, making it easier to sell. ‘It’s the perfect seal for Rieslings whether as young wines or aged,’ said Louisa.

Part of the solution, or part of the problem? Probably the latter on the evidence of our Riesling experts. Pic by Clubvino, Flickr

Discovery Tasting: Opus One

A tasting of one of California’s most famous wineries, presented by winemaker Michael Silacci was a special treat for the Collective’s members

Last week saw 30 lucky Sommelier Collective members log on for a one-hour masterclass with Opus One winemaker and head of viticulture, Michael Silacci.

As one of California’s most-established A-List wines, it was no surprise that we were heavily oversubscribed for  the event – and a further 20 members were keen enough to watch even without having access to the tasting samples.

Opus One was created by the coming together in 1978 of Baron Philippe de Rothschild (of Mouton Rothschild fame) and Robert Mondavi, probably the most important figure in modern Californian winemaking.

At a meeting at the Baron’s chateau in Bordeaux, it took these two wine world titans just one hour to outline the principles of Opus One.

  1. It should be a red wine made from Bordeaux varieties
  2. It should be a wine that people want to share with their friends and family
  3. It should be a place that people leave in better shape than they found it

The latter point is key. ‘Sustainability,’ as Michael Silacci put it, ‘is really ingrained into our system.’

The winemaker has even held off planting a six hectare plot near the winery because he wants to get every single element of the planting perfect: the trellising, the rootstocks, the row orientation – because he wants to be absolutely certain that the vines will still be around in 100 years’ time.

It’s a winery, in other words, where the long-term future is important, but that is still underpinned by an unshakeable ethos founded 40 years ago.

‘A journalist once asked me “who do you make wine for – Robert Parker? James Laube?”’ said Michael. ‘I said “I make wine for two people who aren’t alive anymore: Baron Philippe and Robert Mondavi.” My whole goal is to make a wine that gives you a sense of where it comes from.’

From To Kalon with love

For Opus One, that means 70 hectares of vineyard in Oakville, Napa Valley. The majority of the vines are in the hallowed To Kalon vineyards – reckoned to be the best site in Napa.

The winery experimented with biodynamism but rowed back on that because they felt it made the vines too vigorous. They still make preparations, however, which they use for compost.

Two of the last four years have been affected by wildfires. 2017, according to Michael, looked worse than it was since they had 90% of the crop picked before the fires arrived.

But 2020 could potentially be more awkward. The fires started in August and ran through the latter end of the growing season, though there was less smoke than in 2017.

‘It was long-time, low-impact,’ said Michael.

To safeguard against smoke taint, the team changed their growing philosophy of co-fermenting different varieties. Instead, they went back to picking, vinifying and (soon) ageing every block separately. Pressing was very gentle.

‘I’ll tell you what we have in 18 months,’ said Michael.

THE TASTING

The Discovery tasting included four vintages of Opus One and the current release of the Second Wine, Overture.

Opus One 2007

This was the year Michael had chosen to make the switch to full-on dry farming. ‘I wanted to encourage the vines to give a stronger expression of place, and I felt they could do that if the roots were down deeper,’ he said.

A warm, dry year made this difficult. And with plenty of Californian heat at play, Michael was keen to get some more Petit Verdot in the blend. The question was, how?

‘When we blended Cabernet and Petit Verdot as wine, it was like a dog meeting a cat in the street – they’d fight. Too aggressive, too harsh, too tannic.’

Then the answer came to him at 3am: co-fermentation.

‘It worked wonders,’ he said. ‘There was such an incredible harmony – and the layers were quite different. It was like kittens with puppies. They grew up loving each other, and this harmony came from there.’

Until 2020 (as explained above) they have co-fermented every year since.

Despite its age, Michael still sees plenty of ripe fruit – ‘baby fat’ as he calls it – in this wine.

Opus One 2011

California might be known for its sun – but not in 2011. It was a very cool, wet year.

‘We had learned so much from 2010 which was cool, but not as wet,’ says Michael. ‘We always tend to pick a bit earlier than others, and we learned from 2010 that we could go in early and capture a lot of the fresh fruit characteristics.’

Opus One is a very Cabernet-focused Bordeaux blend. And though it is never varietally labelled, this is the only vintage that did not have sufficient Cabernet Sauvignon in the blend (just 71%) that it could have been. The remainder is made up with 11% Merlot, 9% Petit verdot and 8% Cabernet Franc.

Stylistically, this wine was a lot more herbal, restrained and – for want of a better word – European. No surprise, perhaps that it came out top in our poll of tasters.

‘In the States, this vintage wasn’t really appreciated for what it is,’ said Michael. ‘I love the elegance of this wine – the silky texture – and it’s different.’

As a crib for blind-tasters, Michael says he can pick out ‘the fresh stems of red roses’ in both the 2007 and the 2011 before he swirls the glass.

Opus One 2015

From a warmer vintage, Michael and his team probably picked a few days later than they wanted to – by which time they were in the middle of a heat spike. As a result, they had to do a lot of ‘cherry-picking’ through the vineyards.

‘When we made the blend in January of 2016 I thought it was too intense,’ says Michael. ‘If it were a painting it would be like a self-portrait of Vincent van Gogh – just exploding!’

After 18 months in barrel, that intensity was still there, and the team felt the need to calm the wine down a little, so began adding in small amounts of less exuberant wine originally destined for Overture.

Stylistically Michael still says he finds it closer to the warm-year characteristics of 2007.

Opus One 2016

Michael began a programme of isolating wild yeasts in the vineyard in 2012, on the premise that it increases the sense of place in the wine. It was a long process. They began by finding 50 yeasts from the vineyards, narrowing that down to 35, then 15 and finally six which they liked the most and sent off for analysis.

The lab results were surprising.

‘We found we had three wolves, two coyotes and a dog,’ says Michael wryly. ‘The wolves being the wild yeasts, the coyotes being [semi-wild] yeasts that had certain genetic connections to commercial yeasts, and the dog was a [domesticated] commercial yeast from the Rhone.’

This was the first wine to be made with over 50% of wild yeasts. Current vintages are 100% wild yeast fermented. But what does this process bring to the actual wine?

‘The aromas are different,’ explains Michael. ‘They can be a little more earthy. But the mouthfeel is what I like. When we blend, that’s what we’re looking for, and I love the way [wild yeast] adds little nuances and layers of complexity. The aromas will always come around.’

Of the four Opus One wines on show here, this is the one that Michael felt best captured his grape-growing and winemaking philosophy. Perhaps because of the wild yeast element.

Overture 2020 release

Technically, Overture is, indeed, a second wine in that it comes from the same estate as the main wine. But its philosophy is quite different since it’s a multi-vintage blend, typically of three vintages. The current release is made up of 2014, 2015 and 2016.

‘If Opus is an expression of time over place, Overture is an expression of place over time because the seasons get muted out somewhat and you really see the place coming through more,’ says Michael. ‘The theory is that Overture is the wine that you drink while you’re waiting for Opus, but I’ve always found it to be a good candidate for ageing as well.’

Certainly, it was popular with our tasters, with bright fruit, powdery tannins and a few more years of ageing. Several commented on its relative affordability, too, for venues that might struggle to sell the grand vin.

I don’t make wine for Robert Parker or James Laube. I make wine for two people who aren’t alive anymore: Baron Philippe de Rothschild and Robert Mondavi

Michael Silacci

Members’ Q&A With Michael Silacci

There were too many members’ questions to include all of them here (sorry!).  But we’ve picked out a few of our favourites.

Do you get frustrated making just two wines? (Alexia Gallouet, Gymkhana)

I was making 17 wines at Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars! I’ve always wanted to make a white wine at Opus. I’ve brought that idea up two or three times a year for 20 years and it hasn’t gone anywhere. But there’s so much going on with our five varieties and in the vineyard… there’s plenty of opportunity when you’re just making one wine.

Has your oak use changed? (Paul Robineau, 110 de Taillevent)

It’s been evolving over time. The barrel is a pedestal on which we support the wine. It needs to support the wine not mask it.

How do you think the 2007 and 2011 vintages will age and when does Opus One start to show its full potential? (Louise Gordon, Heckfield Place Hotel)

The general consensus is that the 2011 will not age as well as the 2007. But 1979 and 1980 are still ageing well and they were both picked earlier. I still get a lot of ‘baby fat’ on the 2007 – a lot of ripe fruit, and that has yet to fade away.

Regarding full potential: there’s a really nice window between 12 and 17 years. After 9 or 10 years they start to go into the tertiary stage.

You mentioned you use biochar in the vineyards. What does it achieve? (George Doyle, Fhior)

You put it near the root zone and it facilitates water uptake. [Because we dry farm] my hope is that it will help the vines out a bit.

What are your favourite vintages of Opus One? (Milena de Waele, Birley Club)

2010 without hesitation. It was the most challenging vintage I’ve ever been through. It was like being in a wrestling match with Mother Nature, trying to channel whatever she sent our way and turn it into something positive.

We stumbled on ripeness three weeks before we thought it would be ripe. It’s my all-time favourite. Though 1980, 1987, 1991 and 1995 are wines I like very much that I had nothing to do with.

Star wine: Opus One 2011

As voted for by The Sommelier Collective members that attended the tasting.

Tasting sheets to download

UK importer

The Opus One wines are available either through Waddesdon Wines or Bibendum. For further detailed information, contact European Export Manager, Charlie Matthews on +33 643 06 45 41; charlie.matthews@opusonewinery.com

Discovery Tasting: Symington

The UK might be back to being shut in its houses and apartments again, and travel might be off the agenda. But our latest Discovery Tasting with Symington Family Estates provided an escape in both place and time.

Fifth generation family member, Anthony Symington, showed off a stunning range of ports and table wines that transported our lucky tasters not just from Lockdown Britain to the unmatchable beauty of the Douro, but back through the decades as well.

The Symington Family have been making ports in this part of northern Portugal for over 150 years, and with 26 quintas (estates) in the valley, are the biggest producer of premium port in the region. Every sommelier will be familiar with the great names of their portfolio: Dows, Warres and Grahams, plus the Douro’s ‘first first growth’ Quinta do Vesuvio.

But the tasting began with a couple of table wines, with Symington showing off their top wine, Chryseia, and its second wine, Post Scriptum, made in association with Bruno Prats, former director of Cos d’Estournel.

In fact, the latter is the reason why the wines were ever created. Visiting the family as a fellow member of the Primum Familiae Vini, he took a look at the Douro and asked bluntly, ‘why don’t you make red wine here? You’re crazy! You have this incredible unique terroir and varieties that aren’t used anywhere else.’

The two families teamed up to make Prats + Symington in 1999 and have been making Chryseia in the best years ever since, and Post Scriptum in the others.

The wines come from the Quinta de Roriz vineyard, which is the site of an old tin mine, and has an incredibly high mineral content.

‘You can taste this in these two wines,’ said Anthony. ‘Obviously they are Douro in style, but they have a fresh, graphite minerality running through them. From 5-10 years old it still has youthful fruit, but from 10-14 years it gets more secondary characteristics.’

Our tasters sampled the 2015, which is now starting to show really well and clearly has many decades ahead of it.

From here it was on to Port. All of the wines were from Grahams which celebrated its 200th anniversary this year. Though Covid scuppered any actual celebrations.

First up our tasters had a real treat with two single-vintage tawnies (aka colheitas), from two of the best port vintages of the last century: 1963 and 1994.

‘A colheita is a snapshot in time,’ said Anthony. ‘We don’t release the wines to coincide with an anniversary – just where we feel they are showing incredibly well.’

The ‘snapshot in time’ was particularly poignant for the older of the two. Not only were none of our tasters or panellists born in 1963 but the Douro was still incredibly isolated – a rural backwater six hours from Porto, with sporadic electricity. It was a wine with a finish that was measured in hours.

Yet the star for most tasters was the 1994. At 26 years old, it was at what many observers consider the peak age for tawny port. Food matches flooded in for these wines, from myriad desserts and cigar styles to beer-battered oysters.

They’re clearly a really useful style for restaurants, since once opened they can last happily for a month, so there’s little pressure on teams to sell them fast.

Speed of sell-through is more of an issue for bottle-aged ports, such as our final two vintages. But Anthony suggested three really great tips.

Three sell-through tips

  1. Decant the bottle on a Friday and sell it as a ‘special’ throughout the weekend – vintage port is fine for three days.
  2. Take advantage of their ‘half bottle’ presentation set, which features 37.5cl of vintage port, a decanter and a wooden presentation board. ‘It can sit on a list around £35 or £15 a glass.’
  3. Employ a Coravin using the same process as for ordinary table wine. ‘There’s no need to decant in advance. When you start getting near the bottom of the bottle sediment can sometimes partially block the needle but simply moving the bottle slightly dislodges this. When you near the end of the bottle you can decant the remaining few glasses out.’

Interestingly, Anthony also suggested that the traditional ‘Stilton’ match might need a rethink.

‘The older ports are more delicate wines,’he  said. ‘I don’t think you’d want a blue cheese with them, even though that’s the tradition in the UK. We often have it with a creamy sheep’s cheese.’

While the magnificence of the 1983 Grahams was not a surprise – it’s a top port from a great year – the quality of the Quinta do Malvedos raised eyebrows – particularly for the price. Though this wine is made to be drunk slightly younger (and really starts to drink well from ten years old) some tasters had examples from the millennium which they said were still fantastic.

All in all, it was a spectacular tasting of myriad wine styles, united only by their age and excellence. After all, how often do you get to taste six wines with a combined age of 150 years?

Star wine

As voted for by The Sommelier Collective members that attended the tasting.

Tasting sheets to download

Canadian ice wines are a classic style – we should treasure them

Without a doubt the question that I get asked the most in life is “what is your favourite wine?”. I’m sure it’s the same for many of you. Of course, we all know that there is no “one best” wine, and that our answer will depend on occasions, moods and food.

That being said, I do have one constant – an affinity for the wines of the country I grew up in: Canada.  I like the Syrahs and Merlots from British Columbia; the steely Rieslings and meaty Cabernet Francs from Ontario.

When I came to London as a sommelier 10 years ago, people were only talking about icewine. Nobody had even tasted a still Canadian wine. Now it’s quite the opposite, people don’t want to drink sweet wines and particularly not icewine because it is so extraordinarily sweet.

Because of this many sommeliers do not get the opportunity to taste very much icewine. And when they do its rarely against other icewines. Ironically, Canada has worked hard to shake its “icewine only” image but is now in danger of losing it all together.

This would be a tragedy. The icewines of the Niagara peninsula in Ontario are very special. They are among the great sweet wines of the world and as a profession we need to give this category of wine a better look.

These are beautifully crafted wines that are made with a sense of terroir. Maybe not a terroir in the traditional sense where you can taste the slate and limestone but they showcase richness and concentration that is quintessentially Canadian.

The heat of the Canadian summer gives sugar levels that could never be achieved in Germany or Austria, while the moderating effect of Lake Ontario and Lake Erie gives freshness to these massive stickies that is natural and unparalleled even within the other regions of Canada. 

What really separates the Niagara peninsula from other sweet wine regions of the world is the diversity, both varietally and stylistically. There’s everything from Roussane to Tempranillo, and any vitis vinifera variety is allowed to be used in icewine production. Hybrids are not allowed apart from Vidal.

The fact that Canada is a new world region that doesn’t have tradition to adhere to is one of its most charming and, ironically, defining characters. Each variety keeps its character and makes such individually interesting wines, many of which you will never see elsewhere.

Key Varieties

The main three varieties used are Riesling, Vidal and Cabernet Franc. Most wineries will make at least two of these but again the stylistic differences are huge.

Riesling is still king as far as I am concerned. These are the only icewines that benefit from aging and actually develop more complex notes and aromas while retaining their balance of sugar and acids. Riesling also has the ability to showcase minerality in icewine and that is just not the case with any other varietal.

Vidal is by far the most planted varietal for icewine, and there is good reason for this. Apart from being hardy to the harshness of the Canadian climate Vidal has very thick skins that help it keep rot at bay. This makes for higher yields in a notoriously low yielding category – a real incentive for growers. And in Niagara there are a lot of growers.

Most wineries do not use 100% estate grown fruit. So when the farmers are the ones choosing what gets planted… of course the safe bet will win out much of the time.

We often think of sweet wines as being very-long lived, but actually this is not the case for most icewines. Vidal, especially, needs to be drunk in its youth as the freshness and vitality that we love it for dissipates and is not replaced with the most interesting secondary or tertiary characteristics.

Cabernet Franc is a relatively new variety to the icewine party. This grape is a bit polarizing in the winemaking community. Often the acidity is not as bright as it could be and the delicate red berry notes border on or above cloying. This needs a very skilled hand to give it personality and a delicacy.

The first red graped icewines were more of an afterthought. Unsold grapes were left on the vines to freeze with a view to hopefully turning a profit in the winter. Malbec, Shiraz and Pinot Noir are all popular.  

Apart from the different varieties, there are many styles of icewine that will have a producer’s touch. The most obvious is the addition of barrel aging. Weight is so important and the use of older barrels to add a touch more complexity and richness to a fruit forward style works really well. Rarely will you have an icewine where the woody notes are actually apparent in the wine.

Icewine is a wine that is made in the vineyard and in the winery equally. So much of the production needs to be closely monitored in the vineyards. The grapes are netted and propane cannons are used to keep the birds at bay as the winter slowly creeps in. On top of that, freezing winds can take much of a crop leaving growers with as little as 10% of the grapes they could have harvested in October.

Freeze-thaw-freeze

December to January is when the grapes are usually picked and the largest stylistic choice to the wine is made. When the grapes freeze for the first time, the cell wall of the skin starts to break down. This will slowly allow the grape juice to start to oxidize. It is important to remember that the lakes that border the Niagara peninsula moderate the area and keep it quite warm in comparison to the rest of Canada. Large parts of winter may be above freezing temperatures and definitely above the -8 degrees needed for legal harvesting of the grapes . 

Berries picked early in the season after the first freeze will usually be a bit one-dimensional with an emphasis on honey and bright tropical fruits. Farmers will sometimes pick early to avoid any further loss of crop.

But leaving the grapes on the vine for subsequent freezes, allows the grapes to go through a ‘freeze-thaw-freeze’ cycle that adds a lot of complexity to the grapes and gives toffee, caramel, cotton candy notes.

It’s a tricky balancing act though. The more freezes and thaws that a grape goes through the riskier it is, since it increases the risk of rot. And many of the wines made in January after subsequent freezes are absolutely massive wines with huge sugar levels and confected sugar notes. Choosing when to harvest and after how many freezes and thaws really is the defining factor when it comes to making your style of icewine.

It’s expensive. Here’s why

What most people don’t realize is that icewine cannot be made on a yearly basis from the same vines. When the vines hold on to their berries late into the winter they do not go dormant as they are supposed to. They still continue to give energy to the berries and this will stress the vines out as it disrupts their normal lifecycle. It can take years for a vine to recover from this and vineyards planted for icewine have to be used once every three or four years only for ice wine production.

This has given rise to a large amount of blending in Ontario. Vidal is highly sought after for icewine but not for table wine production where it’s decidedly average. So do the maths. Making icewine only every four years from your vineyard can be tough when you sell your crop the other three years for a pittance, especially if you have something that isn’t desirable as a table wine at all, like Vidal.  

This is something that needs to be taken into account when we talk about the price of these great wines. We think of icewine as expensive and it is, but when you start to account for all the variables it is actually a very well-priced product and gives a lot of value.

The wines of Canada have come a very far way (literally and figuratively) in a very short period of time. It seems hard to find a wine list without a token Canadian wine on it these days. I hope that as Canadian wines continue their climb out of obscurity and into the mainstream we do not lose sight of what a treasure icewines are. Let us not lose sight of these great wines that put Canada on the wine map of the world.

Four producers to LOOK OUT FOR

Cave Spring Cellars

Currently seeking importer

Their Riesling Icewine is consistently one of my favourites. Much lighter and leaner in every way from a lot of the larger producers, these wines are elegant and feminine without having to show off. They age well over a 20 to 30 year period as well.

Inniskillin

Importer: Liberty

These guys made the first Vidal icewine in 1984 and it is still the benchmark for the variety today. This wine is structured and luscious with tropical fruit salad acacia honey notes that last for days.

Lakeview Cellars

Currently seeking importer

Their Cabernet Franc Icewine is a fantastic example of this sometimes overlooked variety. Delicate and spicy with seductive garden berries and bright acids that balance it all out.

Peller Estates

Importer: Enotria&Coe

Along with Inniskillin these guys have very good examples of barrel-aged ice wines, the old casks giving added butterscotch and caramel notes.

Dicovery Tasting: La Rioja Alta

Twenty-four lucky members of The Sommelier Collective were treated to the club’s first ever Discovery Tasting this week (19.10.2020) from world-renowned winery La Rioja Alta.

Based in the famous Barrio Estacion (station quarter) in Haro, home to famous names like Muga, Cune and Lopez de Heredia, La Rioja Alta has been making world-famous wines since 1890.

‘It’s the most exciting place in Rioja,’ said winemaker Julio Saenz. ‘If you visit our street you can walk from great winery to great winery.’

Along with technical director, Alejandro Lopez, Julio showed the members six wines: four vintages of the flagship reserva Viña Ardanza, and two of the gran reserva, 904. The members had all received their specially prepared tasting samples a few days earlier.

The Viña Ardanza vintages ran from 1989 through 2000 and 2001 to 2010, the latest release to hit the UK. Since the latter is ten years old, you won’t be surprised to hear that this is a house that takes its cellaring seriously.

‘Barrel ageing is a big part of our history,’ explained Julio. The 1989 spent 42 months in very old barrels. The average age of the barricas then was 18 years old, but this has changed over time. More recent versions spend around three years ageing in barrels with an average age of four years.

Though the barrels are always American oak – and the time in wood is always followed up by four to five years bottle-ageing before release.  

Asked to describe the wines, Julio repeatedly used words like ‘intensity, complexity, soft tannins, balance and long aftertaste’. They are wines that build gently in layers rather than making a lot of noise.

Judging from comments throughout, that elegance was a big hit with the Sommelier Collective’s tasters.

The Viña Ardanza wines are all 80% Tempranillo from the Rioja Alta region, with 20% Garnacha (Grenache) from Rioja Baja.

The 904 Gran Reservas are 90% Tempranillo – from some of the highest (calcareous) vineyards in the region, with 10% Graciano, a beautiful but difficult to grow native variety, also from the Rioja Alta sub-region.

‘In our opinion, gran reservas are the best wines of Rioja,’ said Alejandro. ‘The best grapes from the best vineyards and the best barrels.

‘The grapes for this wine are grown at the limit of where you can grow Tempranillo in the north of Rioja. So it’s not easy to have grapes like this every year. It’s why we can only make it four times in a decade, in the very best vintages.’

Wines tasted:

QUESTIONS FROM THE SOMMELIER COLLECTIVE MEMBERS

Which is your favourite vintage – 1985 or 1989?

Julio: 1985 – the previous winemaker told me he thought it could have been the best vintage of that period. I think it’s more Burgundian. It has less colour than 1989, but it is one of the best vintages.

Which is more important, tannin or acidity?

Julio: We are looking for very good acidity, but not too high. We need balance between the alcoholic content and the acidity, and the tannins. Acidity is typically at 5-6g/litre. Our tannins in Rioja are typically very soft and elegant. In our winery in Ribera del Duero, for example, the tannins are higher than for Viña Ardanza.’

Would you say that softness and non-aggressive nature of the wines is the hallmark style of Viña Ardanza?

Alejandro: It’s elegance – easy to drink – but with complexity and a lot of aromatic intensity, with softness in the mouth. To get that we need first of all the best grapes, and it’s not easy to get those every year. So in some years we can’t make it. We only make Viña Ardanza six years out of ten, for instance. If the flavour profile of the grapes doesn’t fit we can’t make it.

Which have been the best vintages of Rioja?

Julio: We’ve only ever classified four Viña Ardanzas as ‘Reserva Especial’: 1964 and 1972 and two of the wines here – 2001 and 2010. 2001 was an amazing vintage for us.

Where do you buy your barrels from?

Julio: We make our own. We’ve imported staves since 1996. We dry them for three years then make our own barrels. We only use American oak, from Kentucky, Tennessee and Ohio. We need to have the control of this process because it’s so important to the quality of the wine. Toasting level is medium/medium plus.

Would you recommend decanting the wines?

Julio: I don’t recommend it. It’s better to open it just ten or 15 minutes before you drink it and move the glass to open the wine, and you’ll see the evolution then. Decanting it makes it worse. It drops its flavour quickly – and you’ll see that there is sediment.

STAR WINE
as voted for by the members

2001 Vina Ardanza
(50% of the vote)

La Rioja Alta wines are available through Armit Wines

The ‘crazy german’ behind la petite revolution

Everyone has their favourite interaction with a producer. It can stem from a chance meeting at a trade tasting or a supplier bringing along a visiting winemaker.

For me, my favourite beginning to a relationship in wine was meeting Gregor Drescher, the ‘Master Brain’ (or ‘crazy German’ as I like to think of him) behind La Petite Revolution, a southern French project that caused me to rethink what a premium wine is.

It was around three years ago. I was setting up for an exclusive-use wedding and all systems were go: furniture was being rolled out, and staff were carrying around crates of mise-en-place when I looked over to see someone sat on a chair in an empty room reading the wine list.

I was told he was here to see me, so I went to introduce myself and Gregor said simply “I have decided you can buy wine”.

He liked the venue, my list and the way it was presented and was giving me permission to place an order.

Now if that isn’t a way to get a sommelier’s attention I don’t know what is. It really helped set the stage for the kind of style Gregor was going for, not only in his business ethos but in his approach to wine making.

Gregor certainly knows how to do things differently. For starters, he only makes six barrels of wine a year. In a good year.

Gregor Drescher – aka ‘the Mad German’

Secondly, he’s absolutely 100% committed to making something exceptional in an area usually more concerned with knocking out big volumes. And he manages it too.

Calling his wine ‘La Petite Revolution’ might have annoyed the locals, but it’s pretty much an accurate description of what he’s doing.

Gregor follows on his revolutionary setting by calling his first release Visionnaire. We sat down to taste the 2011, his first wine.

Something special

Once he poured, I could see this was going to be something special, from the first take on the nose through to the finish you could immediately see that this was made with passion.

The look on my number two’s face upon first taste is still something we laugh about to this day; his surprise and enjoyment was just so organic. I can’t blame him – I felt the same.

The way in which the characters melded together, the dark cherry against dark chocolate, acidity and tannin in absolute perfect harmony. It was incredibly powerful wine, yet smooth, with a long finish.

Due to the base of Grenache and the growing conditions in Var-en-Provence the wines of LPR are typically high in alcohol, around 14-15% so don’t expect light and delicate. Visionnaire comprises Grenache, Merlot and Syrah, aged for 30 months in new French oak barriques.

The second wine of the domain is appropriately named (following the theme) La Guillotine 2010. This wine consists of 50% saignée Grenache from 40-year-old vines and 30% white Grenache from 120-year-old vines,  spiced up with 20% Shiraz.

Based as it is on more concentrated Grenache this example really blew us away, and when we realised it was equal in quality to the first, but lower in price I signed off a few cases immediately.

Over the years I have met with Gregor at every opportunity to discuss and taste new vintages and generally catch up. It is always a pleasure to meet with such a dedicated and interesting winemaker.

Every wine he presents has a story from that year. Every barrel is cared for like a new-born child, greeted in the mornings and tucked in at night, each bottle numbered and signed and presented in beautiful individual wooden cases.

I could go on, but the reality is that you can only buy his wines with his express sign off and most vintages were sold out a while back. But should you have the chance to taste (or buy) do not miss it!

If he’ll let you, that is…

3 key pointers to understanding La Revolution

1Domain ethos: As Gregor puts it, ‘Where can you find perfect conditions to make a great French wine, with the precision of Bordeaux, the uniqueness of Burgundy and the power of Châteauneuf-du-Pape?’

2Caves: date back to 17th century, in Var-en-Provence

3Production: absolutely tiny: only six barrels per production. Two barrels for Visionnaire, two barrels of Salaux and one or two barrels of Guillotine (depending on the year).

Wines

Visionnaire – Grenache, Merlot, Syrah, £65-85

La Guillotine – Grenache, Grenache Blanc, Syrah, £50-65

Supplier: Based upon deals struck, so it varies. In the past I got mine through Nick Hillman at Wine Service, based in Lingfield, Sussex.

Australia’s king of Nebbiolo

Luke Lambert is a big believer in the potential of Italian and Spanish varieties in Australia, particularly Nebbiolo. The Sommelier Collective caught up with him to find out where he’s growing it, how he’s making it and why.

You’re a huge Nebbiolo fan. Why’s that?

I think Nebbiolo makes the best wines in the world. It’s unmatched for perfume and rustic savouriness and beauty. We spent a lot of time researching the micro-climates and soil types locally to figure on finally buying a block in Glenburn [north of the Yarra Valley] and finding the right site.

This is your new farm, right? Tell us what makes it special.

It’s slightly warmer day time temps and cooler nights means we’ll get plenty of muscle and skin tannin but still hold and show the prettiness of Nebbiolo. The soil is slightly more ferric – good rock and topsoil ratio. We’re at 350m and have a really nice steep slope in an amphitheatre that mostly faces east and shies away from our strong summer sun. Rainfall is on the low end but with the right farming and soil care I’m confident it’ll work out. We’ve now got three acres of a mix of Nebbiolo clones in and the vines are happy and healthy.

Luke Lambert with his dog Smudge, at Denton Wines in the Yarra Valley

And all low intervention, presumably?

It’s an unirrigated block, managed with organics and very gentle farming. We’re hand weeding and avoiding all chemicals other than a gentle sulphur/copper spray program. The vineyard is already full of worms and good soil biology and it feels right. It’ll be quite a few years before we make wine from the site but I’m confident we’ll get the farming right and the wine will speak of the variety and the site and we’ll have something in the glass with the right amount of bass and treble.

You’ve only just planted it, correct?

Yes. It’s still very early days. Realistically we’re ten years away from finding out what we’ve got but between now and then we’ll take no shortcuts and throw everything at it. Soil health is paramount.

Broadly, which other areas of Oz are looking promising for Nebbiolo?

I think there’s a lot of Australia that’s well suited to Italian varieties, especially in Victoria. There’s still a focus on French varieties in all regions here but climatically we’re much better suited to Italian varieties and rustic, durable Italian varieties. Nothing happens or changes quickly in the world of wine but I think the next generation of grape growers and winemakers will shift focus away from French towards Italian and maybe Spanish.

Stylistically, where do you think Australia should be aiming with the grape?

I think there’s only one way to handle Italian varieties, especially Nebbiolo, and that’s to make them “traditionally’ and let the savoury/rustic thing sing. So, wild ferment wild malo, no inert gas or sulphur early, then into old large oak. No filtration, no fining.

What does that do to the wine?

It lets the perfume lift and all you see in the glass is the soil, variety and perfume. I can’t say I’ve ever had an Italian or New World wine matured in small oak or small new oak that I liked. But that’s my personal view I guess.

I think when we met you mentioned Nerello Mascalese as something you’d like to work with. Any signs of that on the horizon?

Unfortunately there’s no vine material of Nerello available in Australia at the minute. I think it’s being worked on but a bit like Nebbiolo the right clones and material took years to come into the country. It’ll happen but may be a way off yet.

Luke Lambert Nebbiolo

Luke Lambert Chardonnay
Luke Lambert Syrah

Links

Luke Lambert’s wines are imported by Indigo Wine

See Clement Robert MW’s article on why he loves Nebbiolo here

Rosé shouldn’t just be about Provence

In a wine market that’s generally flat to falling, rosé has been the exception.  From not much more than a niche ten years ago, it’s grown in the UK to the extent that, according to figures I saw in the press earlier this year, we are now the fourth largest consumer of rosé in the world, buying over 100 million bottles a year.

Provence, of course, is the darling and has spawned many imitators of its pale and dry style across the globe. Some of these provide serious alternatives whilst others are just a serious disappointment.  

Certainly it can’t do any harm to look elsewhere. Partly because it’s always good to champion diversity, and partly because of the prices of  Provence pinks, which have risen significantly of late.  Many of them are positioned at ‘serious wine’ level on a list now, rather than something inexpensive, pale and zesty to glug in the sun. 

“Annoyingly quality doesn’t always keep pace with the price.”

I have been disappointed with several popular, larger volume Provence rosés. Too often they fail in fruit ripeness yet excel in tartness and dilution. Frustratingly, a higher priced rosé from these regions does not necessarily indicate better quality either. 

Head elsewhere in France, however, and there are some excellent pale, dry rosés available that mimic Provence styles without the hefty price tag.  Consider other regions near Provence around the Languedoc such as the smaller IGP Cotes de Thau. This benefits from the twin influences of the Mediterranean and Etang du Thau.  The IGP Mediterranée (formerly Vins de Pays) surrounds Provence, and it too is finding success with rosé being made in the Provence style. 

I have tasted a number of wines from these areas – with their Grenache or Grenache-dominant blends rounded with Rolle and Cinsault; their flavour profile is similar to Provence, yet you’ll find them on a merchants list around £6-9 ex VAT as opposed to the £15+ of many Provence pinks.

This is the reason why the rosé we blend for St JOHN’s Beausoleil comes from the Cotes de Thau. It is fresh and linear, can be enjoyed on its own or with many types of food, and is significantly cheaper than an alternative from Provence.

Changing mindset

If these are well-priced Provence lookalikes, could there be a case for going a step further? Perhaps now, while Brits are asking for pink, perhaps this could be the time to expose them to some genuinely different styles of rosé. Wines that might have a similar dryness, structure and palate weight, but are flavoursome and different.  Wines that will set your list apart.  Wines, too, that deliver a bit more for the money.

I’m thinking here of Cabernet Franc from Saumur – I have been impressed with Chateau de Chaintres, and Pinot Noir from Sancerre  or its counterpart from cooler climates of Tasmania and Yarra Valley in Australia. 

Rosé from the Yarra is worth consideration. De Bortoli is always consistent, Dominique Portet, and Giant Steps also offer characterful Pinot-dominant rosé.   

Closer to home Italy provides a wealth of styles with often drier and ‘more serious’ versions coming from the middle of the country down towards Sicily. Keep an eye out for Ramato styles too such as Specogna’s Pinot Grigio Ramato. 

And, there are an increasing number of rosés that are dry and interesting from Spain and Portugal.  No doubt now seen as a classic since it was first made just over 20 years ago and serves as a benchmark is Niepoort’s Redoma Rose. This is often darker, and has been in oak yet offers a dry, thirst quenching rose that also is a joy with food.  

From the point of view of both your wine list and value for money, the case for broadening horizons is pretty strong. But there is a caveat. Bear in mind that there is no small amount of ignorance surrounding pink wine on the part of your average consumer.

Most consumers, I’d say, don’t consider the region, only the colour and the price. And the paler a rosé, they assume that the better (and drier) it is. 

This perhaps isn’t surprising.  Even to the trained eye, trying to establish what that ‘branded’ pale ‘chateau vino pinko’ rosé tastes like is no mean feat.  In most pinks there are no indicators of sweetness, and rarely any grape varietals, just a region or newly unearthed IGP. So we shouldn’t be too critical if customers have latched onto colour as a guarantee of a style or quality.

The fact that there is interest in rosé is a significant step, and to capitalize on this interest, especially with the warm weather, post lockdown, think about tapping into this market and offering several rosés.  If you only have one (or two) by the glass, open another and offer it by the glass.  It is a talking point!  Or use it as a focus for the week.  

If you have a darker rose that is fuller bodied, try pairing it with food, something that will allow the wine to ‘freshen up’ and know the story behind the wine, the varietals and the flavour those grapes give to the wine.  Once people are engaged with the wine it flows from there.

Four Rosés That Are Well Worth A Look

1. Chateau de Chaintres, Saumur

£9.65 from St John Wines

2. Specogna Pinot Grigio Ramato, Friuli-Venezia-Giulia

£13.20 from Liberty Wines

3. Avani Amrit Pinot Gris, Mornington Peninsula (ramato style)

£17.75 from Woodwinters

4. Niepoort Redoma, Douro Valley

£18.99 (RRP) from Raymond Reynolds – contact for nearest trade supplier

Do you have any go-to rosés of your own from outside Provence? Of course you do! So why not tell the other members of the Sommelier Collective which are your favourites and why.

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Piedmont, not Burgundy, is my wine true love

Burgundy makes the best white wine on the planet, Bordeaux makes the most incredibly age-worthy wines and the Loire will always have a special place in my heart since it was here where I first discovered my love for wine.

However despite my appreciation and affection for all these places my true love lies elsewhere: Piedmont.

Not that it was love at first sight – it took me years to understand and to enjoy Nebbiolo. But to me it’s now the most exciting grape variety in the world.

Most of my peers, mentors and wine connoisseur friends tease me for not loving Pinot Noir that much and for not being a red Burgundy fanatic.

In fact, I get annoyed when Pinot Noir from Burgundy is compared with Nebbiolo from Piedmont.

Clement Robert MS

Despite having a similar genetic origin, I find the wines very different and the comparison is often to the detriment of Nebbiolo. ‘This Barbaresco is so elegant and complex it reminds of a great Burgundy’ is a comment I have heard too many times.

I think that it is time for Nebbiolo to be considered one of the best grapes in the world. No ifs, no buts – and no more being compared with other supposedly greater examples.

Not love at first sight

When I was first exposed to Nebbiolo, 14 years ago, it was a Barolo and I found it sour, over alcoholic, too tannic and lacking fruit. I do not recall the producer or the vintage, but I have to admit that the years that followed, and the Barolos and Barbarescos I was tasting, did nothing to change my opinion about the grape or the region.

Gaja was the producer I was exposed the most often, and whilst I loved the wines I often found them quite Bordeaux-like in style and very different from other Nebbiolos.

Over the years, though, I have been tasting more great Nebbiolos and I was fortunate enough to taste the likes Monfortino by Giacomo Conterno, Giuseppe Rinaldi’s Cannubi San Lorenzo and the legendary Bruno Giacosa’s Rocche del Falletto. And it was when tasting wines like these that I realized the amazing power of concentration combined with finesse and precision that great Nebbiolo can demonstrate.

That said, inconsistency remained a big problem. Much as I loved the top wines and best producers, I was often disappointed when tasting many of the others, and shocked by the number of faults I could spot in even quite well-known producers from the Langhe.

2010 the game-changer

My perception of Barolo and Barbaresco really changed a few months after the release of the 2010 vintage. I remember tasting Luciano Sandrone, Luca Roagna, Bruno Rocca and the delicious and very approachable Vajra.

Those wines, whilst different in style and appellation, were all showing an incredible floral bouquet, sweet spices, sour cherries and leather aromas. They were ripe on the palate yet showed great acidity and grippy tannins. The more producers I tried from the 2010 vintage the more I grew to love Nebbiolo.

My burgeoning affection for and appreciation of the region coincided with a 2014 trip to Piedmont organised by the UK Sommelier of the Year Competition. It was my first visit to the region. Again, many delicious 2010 wines were tasted and it’s no exaggeration to say that it was around now that I fell in love with the Langhe.

It’s an incredible, hilly landscape with fantastic gastronomic culture and warm, welcoming, down to earth inhabitants. It’s also home to some world class wine makers.

The same year I was introduced to one of Piedmont’s greatest advocates: Ian d’Agata. It’s no exaggeration to describe him as a regional guru, and I was delighted when he invited me the following year to join him at the Collisioni Wine Festival in Alba which celebrates wines from all over Italy but with a focus on Piedmont.

It was five days of meeting and visiting producers from the regions, and the hundreds of Nebbiolos that I tasted during that week helped me to really start to get a handle on this fascinating grape variety.

2010 is one of the stand-out vintage of the past 30 years, demonstrating amazing complexity, great acidity and superb aromatics.

But through visiting the region regularly in quick succession and talking with producers and local experts, it also became clear to me that the Langhe area was in transition, having finally come to terms with the Barolo/Barbaresco wars of the 1980’s.

The at times bitter conflict between traditionalists and modernists (captured in the film Barolo Boys) had faded: hygiene had improved, viticultural techniques had become modernised, and large old Slavonian oak vats and French oak barriques mingled happily in most wineries.

These changes, led by a new generation of producers who integrated tradition and the philosophy of previous generations with a more modern approach to wine making were producing the best results ever.

It also highlighted the fact that modern techniques used to improve quality had been implemented only very recently in lot of Langhe’s wineries and that 2010 was becoming a defining year for the region: a celebration of dramatic improvement in quality led by innovation from previous years highlighted by perfect weather conditions.

Since then I have become addicted to the region, visiting it at least twice a year.

Langhe Today

Beautiful as well as inspirational

The buzz in the region is absolutely incredible nowadays and the hunger and modesty from most producers is inspirational.

At times visiting Piedmont feels a bit like travelling to a New World producing country, because the producers are so open and so keen to get feedback on the various innovations they are playing around with.

A week before Italy went into lock-down, I was fortunate enough to visit Luca Roagna. He recently developed a nursery using vines grown from pips and we were tasting his white wine blend made of Chardonnay and Nebbiolo called Soleo.

Luca is the fifth generation of the Roagna Family and the wines he makes are simply spectacular. But perhaps the most eloquent support for my love of the rise and rise in quality of these wonderful wines comes from another fifth-generation winemaker.

Gaia Gaja is a pioneer of the modern style of Nebbiolo. And after her father, Angelo, declassified their wines in 1996, she has just decided to re-enter the appellation.

For me, it’s the ultimate proof that Barolo and Barbaresco are back where they should be: some of the best wines in the world.

My ten favourite Barolo/Barbaresco estates

1. Guiseppe Rinaldi

UK importer: Raeburn Fine Wines

2. Luca Roagna

UK importer: Armit

3. Bruno Giacosa

UK importer: Armit

4. Bruno Rocca

UK importer: Liberty Wines

7. Renato Ratti

UK importer: JE Fells

9. G.D. Vajra

UK importer: Liberty

10. Luciano Sandrone

UK importer: FMV