Somms face big decisions as Burgundy shortage bites

How tough was 2021 for northern France? Well, Burgundian grower, Raymond Dureuil, told Jancis Robinson last year that he’d never seen such a bad vintage – and he’s lived in the region for over 80 years.

The April frost last year that decimated young vines – particularly Chardonnay – has been well documented. But to have it followed up by summer hail and then torrential rain around vintage simply added insult to injury.

Worse, it came on the back of a string of depleted vintages for Burgundy. Only one year in the last seven – 2018 – has been above average, with three well below, and 2021 something of a catastrophe in terms of volume.

Frost has been a growing problem for the vineyards of northern France. Pic: Francois Millo, courtesy of the CIVP

It’s a similar story in the Loire, where four of the last seven vintages have been 10-20% below the norm.

Put all this together, and it means that across northern France, wineries are in damage limitation mode. Allocations, particularly for white wines, are through the floor as growers attempt to eke out their depleted cellars.

And all the while they are praying there is no more frost. Chablis, in particular, seems to have been hit again this year – although not to the extent of 2021. Growers, importers and sommeliers all over the world are praying for a mild end to April. No-one can afford another short year.

Chablis is reckoned to have been hit with spring frost again this year

Major shortages

The trade all knew the situation would be bad – and now we’re seeing how much. One Collective member told me that his supplier usually has 70,000 bottles of Burgundy to sell. This year they’ve got 17,000.

‘We have been seeing reduced allocations on the popular appellations such as Meursault and Puligny over the last two years, and it is likely to get worse when I come to discuss the availabilities for 2021 [vintage],’ warns Beverly Tabbron MW, Buyer and Quality Controller at Hallgarten Novum.

‘I’m allocating Chablis,’ says Gearoid Devaney MS of Flint Wines and former UK Sommelier of the Year. ‘It feels deeply wrong…’

At Douneside House in Deeside, James Payne says he is ‘currently basking in the delicious drinkability of 2020 white Burgundy and a few 2019s’. But the future looks uncertain for restaurants who don’t have big stocks or preferential status with suppliers.

‘I prepared myself as soon as I knew,’ says Andre Luis Martins of the Cavalry and Guards Club in London. ‘I’ve got stock reserved for my house white, which is a Macon, because I’ve been a customer for years.’

Martins says he has stocks that will last him until the middle of next year.

Well prepared: the Cavalry & Guards’ Club’s Andre Luis Martins

Replacements

With big-name appellations so short of stock, merchants have been searching for new producers from different regions to make up the shortage.

Hallgarten’s Tabbron says she has looked to Macon Villages as an alternative to Chablis; Menetou-Salon, Quincy and Pouilly-Fumé instead of Sancerre; and Santenay, Hautes Cotes, Beaune and Monthelie to replace Puligny and Meursault. Although she accepts that ‘consumers are going to take some persuasion to move to these different appellations, away from the familiar ones.’

At Mentzendorff, Claire Scott-Gall says that AC Bourgogne and Chablis have become prohibitively expensive because many producers buy these grapes in, and the extreme shortage has sent prices soaring. Macon-Villages and Viré-Clessé are being shipped as alternatives.

But across the board, pricing is tough, with somms telling the Collective that they are seeing increases of over 20%.

‘It doesn’t make sense,’ says Martins. ‘I’m looking at Australia, the US, New Zealand – seeing where I can get Burgundy style Chardonnay that isn’t Burgundy. Prices have gone through the roof.’

The alternatives, as one Collective member put it, are a Chassagne for £100 or an alternative from elsewhere for £60.

Regions like Margaret River are alternatives
Pix (from left to right) Vasse Felix, Cullen
and Voyager Estate winemaker, Steve James

Of course, some venues can’t substitute A-list appellations with alternatives, no matter how good they are.

‘We do Puligny by the glass,’ says Igor Sotric of China Tang at the Dorchester. ‘Normally it would be £18 a bottle trade price, but now I’m paying £33 – and I had to buy tonnes of it to get the price down even to that. It’s pretty simple village wines – nothing spectacular or expressive.’

In other words, restaurants – and their customers – are going to be paying significantly more for the same or less, which could lead to a wholesale rethinking of the way a list is put together.

But less formal venues may well find it easier to switch from Burgundy…
… than those with very large, traditional wine lists

Tabbron describes entry level Bourgogne as ‘almost getting to the point that it is no longer competitive, particularly when compared to good quality Chardonnay and Pinot Noir coming from other countries’.

There are two big questions. Firstly, in the immediate short term, how do restaurants manage the shortages and price rises they are facing – and how do they ‘sell’ any changes to customers.

Then, in the medium term, whether the 2022 vintage will allow wineries in northern France to re-stock depleted cellars and, if so, whether prices will come down.

Either way, at a time of extreme social and economic turbulence, the Collective’s members look like they are going to have to face up to even more big changes over the next 12 months.  

Discovery Tasting: Alternatives To Burgundy
Monday 9 May, 4-5pm
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Discovery Course: Loire Cabernet Franc

The second of our two explorations into the wine styles of the Loire gave our tasters a deep dive into the different expressions of its signature red: Cabernet Franc

Climate change means some growers have harvested their Cabernet Franc in August – six weeks earlier than usual. Pic: Philippe Caharel

For many people, Cabernet Franc is the ‘other’ Cabernet after Sauvignon. But in fact, as this course’s presenter in London, Rebecca Gibb MW pointed out, it should be the other way round, since Cabernet Franc (along with Sauvignon Blanc) is the parent of Cabernet Sauvignon.

Cabernet Franc’s original heritage is uncertain, with grape historians suggesting that it arrived in the valley from (variously) the Basque country, Bordeaux and Britanny. The latter would, at least, explain why it’s still often called ‘Breton’ in the region.

An earlier-ripener than its progeny, Cabernet Franc is well suited to the Loire’s cooler climate, and it is used for everything from reds and rosés to sparkling wines.

That said, there’s been a rise of 1.3ᵒC in the Loire over the last 50 years during the growing season – most of it since 1980.

Saumur-Champigny grower, Arnaud Lambert, who we heard from via Zoom mentioned that typically he would pick his Cabernet Franc in mid-October, but in 2020 harvested it at the end of August!

The higher temperatures have meant more sugar and ripeness of fruit and tannin, but milder winters have also created problems with vines becoming active too early in the year, at a time when frost can still occur. Spring frost damage has seen a growing number of short harvests since the millennium.

Milder winters put the vines at risk from frost in springtime

As well as naturally higher ripeness levels, the region’s winemakers have gone through some stylistic changes of their own, too, over the last few decades.

Initially, the higher sugar and ripeness levels saw producers working their wines hard in the latter stages of the ferment, extracting more colour and tannin, which they then backed up with relatively high amounts of new French oak. This created bigger, richer wines.

But the last ten years have seen a shift. Producers look to extract the colour and tannins earlier in the fermentation when temperatures are lower, and are using significantly less oak.

Key tasting terms, according to Rebecca, are ‘red fruit, graphite, grass and bell pepper – but we’re seeing more violet perfume in the wines now because of the changes in the way they are making them.

‘One of the beauties of Cabernet Franc,’ she went on, ‘is the perfume – and you don’t get that if you ferment at 32ᵒC.’

A flight of Chinons, ready for our tasters in Edinburgh

Chinon

Slopes in the Loire are gentle, but significant in defining a Cabernet Franc’s style. Pic: InterLoire

Chinon is the largest of the Loire’s red wine appellations, located round the Vienne river – mostly on the north side, to give south-facing vineyards. Typically, it gives fuller-bodied styles that can age 10-20 years.

Near the river, the soils are sand and gravel, which tend to give lighter-bodied, early-drinking wines, often unoaked.

On the slopes (or coteaux) the soil is clay over limestone, giving more refined, long-lived wines that are often oaked.

The plateau – a slightly raised flat dip – gives wines that are stylistically halfway between the two.

This is a stylistic pattern that is repeated across the region’s different Cabernet Franc growing regions.

‘I was really interested by the differences in soils and how that tied in with the winemaking techniques of oak and no-oak.’

Konstantinos Kannellakis, Ekstedt at The Yard

Oak in Loire reds doesn’t often mean small barrels, however. ‘Small barrels and Cabernet Franc don’t really work,’ explained Rebecca.

Anjou

The Anjou reds line-up

Just to the east of Angers, the soils change from the black, schistous sedimentary earth of the coast to the white clay/kimmeridgian limestone of the Paris basin. Anjou straddles both of these – ‘black Anjou’ and ‘white Anjou’ – resulting in a variety of wine styles, depending on where the vines are grown.

‘I was impressed with the quality of the Anjou Cabernets,’ said Damien Trinckquel from Number One at the Balmoral Hotel. ‘I always buy the white Anjous, but I forgot about the noir and blanc soil types.’

Like several other tasters, he was impressed by the Domaine de Bablut Anjou Villages Brissac.

‘I was a big fan of that,’ added Isobel Salamon. ‘The nose made me swoon a bit. Beautiful graphite, mulberry integrations, with a nice, sweet smokiness on the palate. I want this with game – venison or pheasant.’

Saumur-Champigny/Puy Notre Dame

This was probably our most popular flight of reds, in both Edinburgh and London

The Saumur-Champigny appellation consists of vineyards round eight villages near the town of Saumur. The soil is very chalky, giving gentle, light reds that are acid- rather than tannin-based. They’re all about delicacy and purity.

‘You always find that lovely chalky sensation with Saumur-Champigny,’ said Rebecca. ‘They can be serious but the serious ones rely on their fruit purity, not oak or extraction. They aren’t tricked up.’

A good number of attendees picked Saumur-Champigny as their favourite region from the eight Cabernet Franc flights tasted.

‘I found them really balanced, with well-polished flavours and smooth tannins. The 2018 vintage seems to give the wines a lot of ripe fruit.’

Fernando Cubas, The InterContinental

Fernando suggested using these wines in his sommelier selection to help them sell. His favourite example was the Domaine Antoine Sanzay 2018.

Chewton Glen’s Natasha Senina picked Les Loges from Domaine de la Guilloterie as her favourite, saying it was ‘beautiful and fresh, slightly tense, but juicy with red fruit and blackberry aromas; tender and delicate – enchanting!’

‘I adored this flight,’ agreed Isobel Salamon, from Eden Locke. ‘The Domaine du Vieux Pressoir from Saumur Puy-Notre-Dame was honestly what I want to have on my Christmas table.’

Scotland’s somms make notes in between flights

Saint-Nicolas-de-Bourgueil

On the north side of the Loire, with south-facing vineyards, and protected from the northerly wind by a forest on top of the plateau, Saint-Nicolas-de-Bourgueil can provide the next longest-lived examples of Loire Cabernet Franc after Chinon – up to 10 years as a rule of thumb.

The soils are the same combination of sand/gravel and clay/limestone as Chinon. ‘It’s probably easier to pick the sites within an appellation than to tell one appellation from the other,’ said Rebecca.

As Mathieu Longuere MS, presenting in Edinburgh, put it, ‘You can have Loire Cabernet Francs that taste like Bordeaux, and some that taste like Beaujolais.’

Mathieu believes that these wines benefit from decanting. ‘You can see the initial nose can be savoury, even rustic. But over time they become a lot more aromatic and expressive.’

Mathieu Longuere MS in Edinburgh
Merlin Ramos pours some Chinon for Julio Tauste
Another hard day’s work…

Condita’s Konstantinos Katridis agreed, picking out Frederic Mabileau’s Les Rouillères 2019 as his top red, saying it would be great paired with beef tartare.

James Payne MS, from Douneside House, meanwhile, went for La Chevallerie ‘75cl de Terroir’, which, he felt, stood out because of its lightness and elegance.

‘All of the Cabernet Franc-based reds were enjoyable and the overall quality level impressed me, with really pleasant, bright, fruit-driven styles, fine grained ripe tannins and silky textures.’

James Payne MS, Douneside House

As a means of engaging and intriguing your customers, James suggested serving Loire Cabernet Francs alongside fuller New World versions, say from Salta in Argentina, to highlight the differences in style.

The mighty Loire, cutting through hundreds of kilometres of world-famous vineyards. Pic by Osman Tavares
Loire - Saumur

Discovery Course: Loire Sparkling Wine

Variety is a big part of the Loire story – and the members who attended our sessions in London and Edinburgh discovered big differences in the key sparkling wine styles.

Loire sparkling wines come in a wide variety of styles – as our tasters discovered. Pic: Creative Room

With nearly 500km from its coastal vineyards to those furthest inland, it’s no wonder that the Loire is one of the most varied wine growing regions in France. There are significant amounts of wine in pretty much every style, from light, early-drinking whites like Muscadet through its famous Sauvignon Blancs to richer, long-lived Chenin Blancs and Chardonnays.

And that’s just the still whites. Add in rosé (a quarter of all production), probably the world’s benchmark expression of Cabernet Franc and sweet and sparkling wines, and it’s clear that there’s an awful lot to get to know.

Most sommeliers are pretty familiar with Loire Sauvignon in general, as well as Muscadet. But how about some of the less well-known expressions? Probably not so much.

So in these two masterclasses, in association with the folk at InterLoire, we decided to take our members on a journey through the region’s sparkling wines and Cabernet Francs.

Our tasters in Edinburgh were fortified at lunchtime with a plateful of Scottish venison

The reds and sparkling wines are somewhat less ubiquitous than the still whites, though they’re not exactly niched. Between them, red and sparkling wines are over 1/3 of the region’s production.

Although they are slightly unusual, there’s still really good availability, which means these styles can be a great way to add some real layers of interest to your list.

You name it, the Loire can make it…
From white, rosé and red…
to sparkling, bone dry and sweet…

Loire Valley Wines

Our sparkling masterclass started with a quick introductory flight to prepare palates and show off some of the region’s still, non-red styles, from Muscadet to sweet Vouvray via a Rosé d’Anjou.

‘Many Loire regions can go in any direction, to make still wine, sparkling wine or sweet,’ explained host, Mathieu Longuere MS. ‘What they make on any given year usually depends on the vintage.

A journey along the Loire courtesy of white wine

‘If Chenin Blanc is not ripe enough one year to make still wine, they can make sparkling,’ he explained. ‘They are lucky with the varieties they have.’

A still Chenin Blanc, the Chateau de Villeneuve Saumur Blanc, was popular with Isobel Salomon who found it a ‘particularly elegant expression, and very balanced.’ Her suggested pairing was cod or Scottish halibut with a buttery emulsion.

Saumur Fines Bulles

As an ‘instant sell’ to your customers, it’s hard to beat the chalk cellars of Saumur – the kilometres of passageways and caverns carved out under the cream-coloured town are a UNESCO world heritage site.

Saumur’s limestone buildings (and cellars) are a sign of good terroir for sparkling wine. Pic Martin Falbisoner, Wikimedia Commons

That same thick ridge of limestone works well with white varieties, in particular. Most of the Saumur Fines Bulles are all or mostly Chenin Blanc, with Chardonnay and, to a lesser extent, Cabernet Franc commonly used as well. ‘Fines Bulles’ (fine bubbles) is used for sparkling wines from appellations that also make still wine (such as Saumur, Touraine and Vouvray).

Given that they all came from one area, just south of the town, the Saumur Fines Bulles wines showed a surprising variety of styles, from clean, classic ‘aperitif sparklers’ to more ‘vinous’ “Méthode Ancestrale” versions with lower fizz.

All the wines in Saumur are méthode traditionelle, with a second fermentation in the bottle.

‘But in “Méthode Ancestrale” wines they use a semi-dry base wine to start the second fermentation,’ explained Mathieu Longuere MS. ‘The more time the wine spends on lees, the more integrated the bubbles.’

Some of these differences are due to winemaking decisions, others are down to the various slopes, angles and microclimates, that give wines of very different ripenesses even within the same appellation.

‘You could see from the flight of five Saumur Fines Bulles wines that we had that there’s a huge variety of styles within the appellation,’ said Mathieu. ‘There’s a lot of freedom – space for everybody.’

While Condita’s Konstantinos Katridis picked the decidedly gastronomic Domaine du Vieux Pressoir as his favourite wine, he felt that, in general, these would be great as pre-dinner serves.

‘The Chateau de Montgueret Tête de Cuvée was my favourite sparkler. Mature and full-bodied with a creamy texture, intense and small bubbles, full-bodied with a long after-taste.’

Natasha Senina, Chewton Glen

Crémant de Loire

The big swings in style seen in the Fines Bulles appellations of Saumur and (later) Vouvray, is less of a factor for Crémant de Loire. Grapes can be taken from across the region so it’s a lot more consistent. Here, the biggest flavour influencer is the varieties used.

Chenin (naturally high in acidity) is usually the preferred base variety, but Chardonnay and Cabernet Franc can figure prominently, too.

The wines must have at least 12 months bottle ageing, though many producers give them more than this. Yeasty autolytic characters start to appear after 18 months.

The InterContinental’s Fernando Cubas was a fan of the Langlois Crémant de Loire brut for its freshness and acidity, and felt it would be a good (and well-priced) by-the-glass addition.

Certainly, our tasters felt that reliability and value were a big selling point of this flight.

‘It’s not a Marmite wine, love it or hate it,’ mused Mathieu. ‘It’s a style that people will never turn down. And though there are times when you want to surprise a customer there are also times when you don’t.’

The Edinburgh venue, Good Bros wine bar, had a festive air to it for our day’s tasting.

Vouvray Fines Bulles

From rocky hillsides, and with a minimum of 12 months ageing, Vouvray Fines Bulles must be 100% Chenin and, with its taut acidity, has the potential for good mid- to long-term ageing.

Although these wines were all from one single appellation, it’s perhaps no surprise that there were big variations in the wines here. Vouvray runs more or less along the Loire river from just east of Saumur through a further eight municipalities.

The Vouvrays were very popular with our tasters in London and Edinburgh

Not only were winemakers making wines from quite different microclimates, but it was obvious, too, that they were also making the wines in quite different ways. Perhaps because of this, it was the star sparkling flight for several of our attendees.

‘The Vouvray Fines Bulles wines surprised and impressed me in terms of delivering the quality that I look for when encouraging guests to step out of their bubbly comfort zone and trying something new,’ said Douneside House’s James Payne MS. ‘Either by the bottle to accompany food or as part of a tasting menu wine flight.’

Mathieu agreed. ‘They all have a varietal character – you really know you’re in Chenin Blanc territory,’ he said. ‘But within that, they will all be different.’

Several attendees picked out the Domaine Vigneau Chevreau nv as their favourite sparkling overall.

‘It had brilliant flinty notes alongside that hazelnut, quince jam sweetness,’ said Eden Locke’s Isobel Salomon. ‘It’s a great champagne alternative.’

Damien Trinckquel from Number One at the Balmoral also loved its medium body.

‘Elegant mousse and very precise with chalky mineral and a saline finish. It will keep everyone happy around a table.’

Damien Trinckquel, Number One at The Balmoral
The Loire at sunset. Pic: Fotolia Matlanimal