Between Limoux and Cabardès

There are offers that are difficult to refuse… spending some days in the middle of vineyards in my beloved Languedoc at harvest time, is certainly one of them… Like last year, I stayed at Jean-Louis Denois’ winery in Roquetaillade, on the heights of Limoux amidst stunning scenery.

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View of Roquetaillade, on the heights of Limoux

I wrote on Jean-Louis’ wines and his philosophy before, so I will not repeat myself. Suffice it to say that he’s never satisfied and always trying out new things. In his range of sparkling wines, for example. We got to taste a chardonnay of grapes sourced from the same vineyard as his top white Sainte-Marie, but picked slightly earlier. It is not quite there yet after 1,5 years of ageing on the lees, but for sure a very promising effort. Its pinot noir-based counterpart is powerful and structured.  The cuvée Bulles d’Argile is now made without added sulphites. It has delicate oxydative notes and a broad, creamy palate, making it a great table partner. Simply delicious, and much better than many a champagne. The sparkling range of Denois is for sure among the best you can find in France, as confirmed by the recent “coup de coeur” awarded by the Revue du Vin de France.

In the range of red still wines, the Grande Cuvée stands out – a wine with depth and ageing potential. The 2007 is now at its peak: a delicious mix of vibrant fruit, well integrated oak, and leather and tobacco starting to appear. Compare this to your average Bordeaux of the same vintage, and you’ll be delighted. Interestingly, we had the occasion to reflect on the blend for this wine for 2015, on the basis of barrel samples. The constitutive elements: a merlot with quite some oak influence, two cabernet sauvignons with tight, grippy tannins, and a blend of cabernet sauvignon and cabernet franc in stainless steel tanks, with great fruit depth. We ended up making two blends, one where the oak-aged merlot was dominant, another where the cabernet franc had a marked varietal influence. Decisions like these need to mature, so there was no final choice – but it was a fascinating exercise in its own right.

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tasting and blending barrel samples

We did not stay in Limoux the whole weekend though…

Cabardès – Languedoc’s westernmost AOP

On Saturday, we got the company of Jean-Louis’ friend Gérard, a geologist and geographer who has been advising Languedoc winegrowers since a long time about soil structure, choice of grape varieties, cultivation methods, etc. The guy is a phenomenon, with his witty humour, a charming southern accent and very outspoken views.

We head for Cabardès, the part of Languedoc that borders on the Sud-Ouest, and where atlantic influence is most marked. This is reflected in the allowed grape blends: always a mix of mediterranean (syrah, grenache, cinsault) and atlantic (cabernet, merlot) varieties. Gérard explained the three basic terroirs of Cabardès, mainly in terms of soil profile (depth, water retention, granularity) – noting, however, that terroir does not exist without the intervention of the wine grower.

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a crash course in Languedoc geology

We do not get to hear romantic stories about soils and how you can taste them in the wines. On the contrary, terroir is basically about putting the right grapes on the right soils: Bordeaux varieties will suffer from excessive water stress in shallow and free draining soils, whereas mediterranean grapes will give less interesting results on humid soils. These are things to be taken into account when planting new vineyards or deciding on cultivation methods.

Domaine de Cazaban

The first of two estates we visited was domaine de Cazaban, run by young maverick Clément Mengus. An Alsatian by birth, his frame of reference in reds consisted mainly of Burgundy and the northern Rhône. Having ended up in the Languedoc, he sees it as his mission to make an elegant, fresh style of reds, unlike the heavily extracted and alcoholic wines one easily finds in the Languedoc.

The estate began with just 4 hectares of vines that Clément bought from a retired wine grower. As he initially lacked intimate knowledge of the terroir, he got off to a bit of a difficult start: some plantings of cabernet that did not work out very well, and a choice of rootstock that turned out disastrous on some parcels. Judging by the current look of the estate, however, he seems to have things on order. The  estate is now entirely farmed biodynamically (certified by Demeter since a few years).

In the cellar, the philosophy is clearly one of minimal intervention, abeit without any extremist views on the use of sulphites, for example. Oak use is limited, and mainly involves big barrels or foudres from the winemaker’s native Alsace. No heavy extraction here, with just a few times pumping over of the must during fermentation.

The results are convincing, to say the least. We start off with a white wine, coup de foudre – a blend of grenache gris, marsanne and roussanne. Clearly a southern wine, yet with good freshness and some interesting bitter notes in the finish.

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Things really get going when we discover the range of reds. The wine going by the poetic name jours de vigne is a mediterranean blend of grenache, syrah and carignan. This is “natural wine” at its best: pure and vibrant fruit, a bit of funky, leathery notes, but clean as a whistle and miles away from the heavy oxydative style one sometimes finds in this genre. It is clear that this winemaker has mastered his art. Demoiselle Claire offers an interesting combination of syrah (60%) and merlot (40%), partially oak-matured, with a core of intense dark fruit and spice, a lovely texture, and superb balance. Les petites rangées has a somewhat higher percentage of merlot, adding to the smoothness and roundness of the wine, in which freshness is again the key. The “cuvée principale” is perhaps more traditional in style, yet appealing and precise. Just a slight disappointment over the most expensive cuvée, Coup des C (coup d’essai, meaning “attempt”), which is more extracted, more oaked, and in my view not needed in this otherwise great set of wines. I imagine its retail price (approximately 35€) makes it less than obvious commercially as well.

Domaine de Cabrol

We move higher up, in the direction of the montagne noire, in the afternoon. We are close to the limit of where vines can grow, at an altitude of about 300 meters and very much wind-exposed. The guide of the Revue du vin de France cites Domaine de Cabrol as one of the references in the AOP, and it is clear that we are more on the side of tradition than avant-garde here. The somewhat chaotic farmyard we arrive at, does not immediately inspire confidence, but it is ultimately the wine that matters, of course.

Winemaker Claude Carayol guides us through a range of 4 wines, 3 of which are red (AOP Cabardès does not exist in white). The names of the two main cuvées refer to the specificity of this part of the Languedoc: it is where the winds from the west meet the winds from the east, and mediterranean grapes partner with Bordeaux varieties. A combination that is not always obvious. Claude’s choice is to make two cuvées, vent de l’est and vent de l’ouest, where one of the two influences dominates.

The vent de l’ouest is marked by cabernet sauvignon (60%). We taste the 2010, which has barely evolved at all. It has a profound ruby colour with a purple rim, and the nose immediately betrays cabernet, with intense cassis fruit, but not a trace of green bell pepper (meaning the grapes are completely ripe). Despite the absence of oak, the palate is ample, structured and pure. A very nice wine.

Vent de l’est is more typically mediterranean and dominated by syrah. Generous, ripe fruit, with smokey and peppery notes betraying the variety. It is more jammy than its counterpart, and a little less elegant, but still very much worthwile. This cuvée has been praised extensively in wine guides and magazines over the years, and one can see why.

The last cuvée in the range, la dérive, is the only one aged in (big) oak barrels (“demi-muids”), and has a sensual, southern profile, with vanilla, sweet spice and chocolate notes alongside ripe black fruit. Powerful, yet not too much.

Go west

The western part of Languedoc, in conclusion, although much less known and present in the Belgian market (especially in the case of Malepère and Cabardès, a bit less for Limoux), has some nice surprises in store. The interesting climatic conditions allow for vibrant, lively wines with a lot of freshness. Definitely worth further discovery!

Stage 2 of our stay took us to a more classic mediterranean part of the Languedoc, Corbières, where we visited the superb Château La Baronne. But that’s the subject of a new post, soon to follow!

 

Loire’s white delights: Vouvray and Montlouis

The Loire valley is definitely one of France’s great spots, and it is no wonder that a large stretch of the valley as a whole has been granted the status of UNESCO world heritage. The number of sites that Michelin’s green guide lists as “worth the trip” (***) is huge; the beautiful landscape is shaped by the majestically meandering river and its tributaries, overlooked by countless châteaux of great historical value.

Having spent some time in Sancerre and Pouilly a few years ago, I now ventured a bit downstream along France’s longest river, and ended up to the east of Tours. There is ample opportunity for winelovers to quench their thirst here: the broader area falls within the AOP Touraine (with some local subzones), and the two closest village appellations are Montlouis and Vouvray. The former is rather small, with a few hundred hectares of vines squeezed between the Cher to the south and the Loire to the north, the latter comprises over 2000 hectares, all located to the north of the Loire. The soils are typically chalky here (tuffeau limestone), although there is a higher proportion of sandy soils on the Montlouis side.

I visited two producers, one in each AOP. In Montlouis, I discovered the wines of the well-established “Domaine de la Taille aux Loups”, founded by Jacky Blot; in Vouvray, I left the beaten track somewhat by visiting “Le Clos de la Meslerie”, where the wine is made with minimal intervention (one could say it is a “natural wine”, although, as readers may know, there is no rigorous definition of the concept – more on that below).

Domaine de la Taille aux Loups – Montlouis

On a glorious summer morning, I drive from the castle of Chenonceaux to Husseau, a hameau of Montlouis. Having turned right from the D40, I soon find myself in the middle of the vineyards. The landscape is softly undulating here. No steep slopes, more like a plateau. It is one of the reasons why the disastrous 2016 spring weather has wreaked havoc here. Little draining of the abundant rainfall, and no evacuation of cold air during spring frost. These two factors combined have caused heavy losses for this year’s harvest, as a quick inspection of some vines confirms: hardly any bunches to be seen.

Jacky Blot has created the estate from scratch a few decades ago. He is a never-tiring entrepreneur, extremely demanding for himself and those who work with him. This uncompromising search for precision and perfection is reflected in the wines. It is early in the morning, but my tasting buds are up for a feast.

We start off with the Brut triple zéro (meaning no enrichment of the must (chaptalisation), no liqueur de tirage, no liqueur de dosage). Clean and precise fruit, hints of vanilla and toast, excellent balance between richness of flavours and bright acidity. The rosé de Touraine, made of Gamay, is the wine that seduces least among the whole flight: typical nose of bonbons anglais, but not very exciting and rather simple.

Next up is the Clos Michet 2014. Received wisdom places Vouvray in a higher league than Montlouis, because of its south-facing vineyards, whereas Montlouis is looking north. Even in Johnson’s and Robinson’s wine atlas, the only vineyards shown for Montlouis are those to the north of the D140, either on the “plateau” mentioned above, or descending towards the Loire. There are however also Montlouis vineyards on slopes facing the Cher, and thus exposed to the South. Clos Michet comes from one of these. The 12 months of oak are quite noticeable on the nose, alongside ripe fruit, with tropical notes (pineapple), but underpinned by a firm acidity and mineral edge. The wine needs some time for the oak to integrate better. Remus Plus 2014, a blend of three small parcels from the same area, has spent even more time on oak barrels, but has digested this better than the Clos Michet. It has more concentration and weight, without ever becoming heavy-handed.

La Bretonnière 2014, which should have been a Vouvray but was denied AOP status because the cellar, contrary to the vineyards, is not within the AOP boundaries, is a very lively, energetic wine, with a lot of tension. I am tempted to use the word “chalky”, be it with all the caveats of the discussion on minerality in wines (which would lead us too far here). We end the tasting with Cuvée des Loups 2009, a sweet wine from botrytised grapes. 100 grammes of residual sugar, yet so incredibly playful and elegant. A great illustration of the recent plea of Jancis Robinson in favour of sweet wines.

La Taille aux Loups has a great set of wines on offer. In their most recent guide of the best wines of France, the journalists of La Revue du vin de France have given this estate one out of three stars, arguing that there is still room for improvement in terroir expression (whatever this may mean precisely) and purity of fruit. I beg to differ, and would put this estate at least on the level of that other Montlouis giant François Chidaine, of whom I also tasted some wines during my stay (tasting notes to follow).

Clos de la Meslerie – Vouvray

Some stories make one dream. The one of Peter Hahn is among those. Formerly active in the financial sector, he decided to switch careers, learnt to make wine at the lycée viticole in Tours, where reputed Vouvray grower Vincent Carême was one of his teachers, and bought a small 4ha estate in Vernou-sur-Brenne, a marvellous zone in the heart of the Vouvray area.

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I arrive at the estate somewhat stressed, running half an hour late due to GPS issues. The warm informal welcome instantly removes the stress. Peter exudes a steady kind of tranquillity, surely an important quality for a vigneron. Soon we are amidst the vines – 4 parcels spread around the house, each with a different exposition. Peter’s wine making philosophy of minimal intervention places him in the natural wine scene (he is mentioned and commended in Isabelle Legeron’s textbook on natural wine), though with a very reasonable and rational approach. He considers himself too “cartesian” to fully apply biodynamic principles, which he thinks of as “faith”. Likewise, no dogmatism on the use of sulphites in the cellar: it is restricted to a minimum, but not banned (none of the oxydized apple cidre you find with some natural wine disciples, to put it bluntly). The vines are biologically farmed, and Peter usually gets by with far less than the authorised amount of cupper. Weed is only removed mechanically. The vines are in great shape indeed.

The cellar is of a stunning simplicity. No high-tech equipment, just the bare essentials: a traditional vertical press, a stainless steel tank to let the must settle, after which it flows by gravity to the barrel cellar below, where the rest of the process takes place: fermentation in the barrels, with lees stirring from time to time. Malolactic fermentation doesn’t take place, presumably because of the very low pH of the wines, which also reduces the need for sulphites.

We taste some 2015 samples of barrels from different parcels and harvesting dates. First surprise: the juice is remarkably limpid. The wine will not need any fining or filtering, and is as good as ready to be racked and bottled. In the glass, it is straight and pure, with noticeable differences, obviously, between the parcels. In general, the warmth and generosity of the 2015 vintage shines through. These barrels will then be blended into the final wine in order to reflect the place and the vintage.

The wines are indeed very different between vintages, as becomes obvious when we taste bottle samples. The edgy, lively and pure style remains constant, but the characteristics of the vintage come to light.

We start off with a sparkling wine, made from grapes which, contrary to standard practice, are not harvested earlier but at full maturity, giving a very vinous, powerful vin de repas.

Only one still wine is made every vintage. The 2009, a warm vintage, has 30 (!) grammes of residual sugar, but its taste is refined and ethereal, the sugar is barely noticeable. A wine of marvellous depth. 2014 is less opulent, but still has a great texture and volume, with the mineralic acidity carrying the wine all the way through a very long finish. 2013 is even dryer, and possibly a touch out of balance at this point. But the acidity will make this wine last for decades, and my guess is it will be fine in a few years.

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One can see that the same drive that made Peter successful in the financial world, will make this wine adventure a success as well. And the final product is so much more appealing… Warmly and wholeheartedly recommended!

 

 

 

A journey through Austria (1) – introduction

Last week, I joined a group of sommeliers, educators and people in the wine trade for a short but intense trip through the vineyards of Austria. The coming days and weeks, I will be posting a few highlights of this magnificent and underrated wine country, starting with a brief general introduction to some key aspects of Austrian viticulture.

Viticulture in Austria, as in most central European regions, dates back to Antiquity and survived in the middle ages thanks to the clerus, notably the Cistercian monks coming from Burgundy. The major cesure in the modern history of Austrian wine making, however, is the ill-famed wine scandal that broke out in 1985. High concentrations of diethylene glycol, a (toxic) compound similar to what is added to fuel to prevent it from freezing, and meant to give wines more smoothness and body, were found in Austrian wines. The sales understandably plummeted. “Never waste a good crisis”, the Austrians must have thought, and they seized the moment to elaborate what is probably one of the strictest wine legislations in the world.

Today, Austrian wines have reached a high level of quality and a worldwide reputation, albeit predominantly among more knowledgeable wine consumers. In 2014, just over 20% of the total production was exported, but while the export has stabilized in terms of volume, it has steadily risen in terms of value, indicating that the more expensive wines find their way to international markets.

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The Zieregg vineyard of winery Tement in south-eastern Steiermark, overlooking the Slovenian border

Austrian vineyards, totalling just short of 50.000 hectares (a surface comparable to Champagne in France), are situated between 47 and 48 degrees latitude, implying a cool to moderate climate, with freshness and elegance as an essential hallmark – even in the full-bodied reds from Burgenland. Macro- and meso-climatic influences for Austrian wine, other than vineyard latitude, are the warm currents from the Pannonian plain, cold air from the north, Mediterranean (Ilyric) influence (mainly in the Steiermark), proximity of the Alps, and the tempering effect of large water masses, like the Neusiedlersee and, of course, the Danube. These factors will be discussed in more detail in the posts on separate wine regions.

 

Austria’s main wine regions ((c) austrianwine.com)

In terms of geology, and without going into too much detail here, we can say that Austria has a wide diversity of soil types: primary rocks that surfaced through collisions of tectonic plates (granite, gneiss, schist, quartz, …), alluvial material and debris carried by rivers (gravel, …), weathered rock (löss, sand,…) and organic (limestone) deposits originating from the big sea that once covered what is today the Pannonian plain. These soil types obviously have an impact on the vine and the wine it produces. That is not to say that we can smell or taste schist, for example (for the record, I smelt and licked a piece of schist – it tastes of nothing, I can assure you), but that the water, heat and nutrient retention capacities of the soil are determining the vine’s metabolism and hence the taste of the wines.

Geology of Austrian winegrowing regions ((c) austrianwine.com)

The country produces a broad range of wine styles, from crisp, aromatic or complex and ageworthy whites, over fruity or more robust and tannic reds, to lusciously sweet wines (Austria’s “liquid gold”) with great acidity and balance. I tasted around 260 wines in the 5 days of the trip, and while there were some mediocre wines, the overall quality was impressive. I hasten to add that many of the wineries we visited are not exactly representative of the bulk of the market, as they mainly produce premium and ultra-premium wines, but they do show the greatness that Austrian wines are capable of.

Like many other winegrowing nations, Austria can boast a few “signature grapes”, native to the country and not that frequently cultivated elsewhere. In white, by far the most important grape is grüner veltliner, yielding wines with high acidity yet complex texture. For reds, there is sankt-laurent and blaufränkisch, and of course the crossing of those two, zweigelt (named after the professor who did the crossing). But more international varieties shine just as brightly. Riesling gives outstanding results, notably in Wachau, Kamptal and Kremstal. Some pinot noirs definitely attain Burgundy quality. And the sauvignon blancs of Steiermark are an international reference point on their own.

Conscious of its assets, Austria has set up a strict system of protected denominations of origin, the so-called “DAC’s” (Districtus Austriae Controllatus). Besides that, there is also the hierarchy in terms of sugar ripeness, much like the German one (Kabinett, Spätlese, Auslese, etc.), but a detailed discussion of this would lead us to far. Eager readers may want to have a look at the website of Austrian wines for more details.

In terms of winemaking practices, there is a growing consciousness of the need to work in a sustainable way, which has led to the creation of a certification “Nachhaltig Austria“, whereby sustainability is defined not only in ecological, but also in social and economical terms. Moreover, 10% of the vineyard surface is cultivated organically, making Austria the world leader, as explained in a report on the ProWein website. That is no mean achievement in a country with a relatively cool and in many places also humid climate!

Climate change is obviously not unheard of here either, but Austria may perhaps be counted among the wine regions that are likely to benefit from slightly warmer temperatures. Where problems would arise, solutions are already being sought in the form of later ripening clones, or adapted vine training, irrigation, and canopy management practices.

The following posts will each highlight a region or a set of regions within Austria, discussing the main wine styles and sometimes individual wineries. Next up: one of the coolest (literally at least) spots in the country, the Weinviertel. Stay tuned!

De wijn, en niet het etiket laten spreken

Verslag van een blinde proeverij met de Vereniging van Vlaamse Sommeliers (VVS) – 16 december 2015

We weten het: bij een “normale” proeverij zijn er talloze veronderstellingen, aannames en vooroordelen die ons beïnvloeden. En dat is des te meer het geval naarmate onze kennis groeit. Denken we niet allemaal aan Kimmeridge wanneer we een goeie Chablis proeven, of aan de vulkanische ondergrond bij het nippen aan een Taurasi, in die mate dat we de bodem menen te moeten kunnen proeven? Iemand vertelde me ooit een sommelier in de maling te hebben genomen door hem twee glazen van dezelfde wijn voor te schotelen, met de vraag de verschillen tussen beide te bespreken – meteen is er al de aanname dat die verschillen er moeten zijn, dus gaan we ernaar op zoek, en we vinden ze nog ook. Bekend is het experiment waarbij witte wijn rood wordt gekleurd met een geur- en smaakloze kleurstof: de proefnotities gaan meteen richting rood en zwart fruit.

Daarom is blind proeven altijd een confrontatie met onszelf, maar ook een belangrijke nuancering van het idee dat er zoiets bestaat als totale uniciteit in wijn. Wijnschrijver Stefaan Soenen maakte recent de vergelijking met een menselijke stem waarvan het timbre uit duizenden te herkennen valt, zoals die van Sting. Is dat haalbaar in het geval van wijn? Het antwoord is meer dan waarschijnlijk neen, althans niet op gustatief niveau. We kunnen druif en klimaatzone met wat geluk nog thuiswijzen, al zijn er zelfs wat dat betreft verrassingen: de Franse experts van het Judgment of Paris (1976) waren er bij de opmaak van hun rangschikking vast van overtuigd dat ze Franse wijnen op het hoogste schavotje hadden geplaatst, quod non.

Hoe blind is blind? Sommigen wisten niet dat het eerste (zwarte) glas reeds wijn bevatte, en begonnen net iets te enthousiast te walsen – meteen was er wat licht in de duisternis. De overige 14 wijnen kregen we in een transparant glas, uit een karaf geserveerd. Maar we hadden twee coaches, die soms niet eens de tijd kregen om hun paplepel vast te nemen, en soms overvloedige hoeveelheden van die pap moesten toedienen om het weifelende gezelschap tot een oplossing te brengen. “Is er een verschil in de gebruikte eiksoort voor deze twee wijnen?” luidde een vraag. “Wellicht wel, anders zou je het niet vragen”, was een antwoord.

Het boeit mij om bij zulke gelegenheden de groepsdynamiek te observeren. Sommigen, waaronder ondergetekende, komen bij gelegenheid onvervaard de loopgraven uit, om vervolgens eervol te sneuvelen. Maar soms treffen ze ook doel. Anderen aarzelen, ruiken, proeven, twijfelen nog steeds, ruiken opnieuw, en beslechten dan het debat met één rake zin. Was spreken nu zilver of goud?

VVS blind 2

Zaak is in elk geval je niet te laten vastpinnen op één idee of waarneming, en de conclusie zo lang mogelijk uit te stellen. Maar je moet ook eens goed op je bek durven gaan, vind ik. Bepaalde druiven waren heel goed getypeerd: weinigen vergisten zich in de nebbiolo. Bij andere werden fruit en terroir wat overstemd door (naar mijn mening) onoordeelkundig gebruik van eik. Hieronder een kort overzicht van de 5 “flights” van drie, zonder voor elke wijn in detail te gaan:

Flight 1: een Bourgondiër en twee Oostenrijkers

De Bourgogne in het zwarte glas was best wel snel geëvolueerd, met duidelijke tertiaire tonen in de neus. Wijnen 2 en 3 waren veel jeugdiger. Ik had gezworen dat de tweede een gamay was: fruitig, floraal en soepel met intens paarse rand. Het bleek een zweigelt, geflankeerd door een meer complexe en krachtige blaufränkisch, beide uit Burgenland.

Flight 2: Zuiders, maar hoe zuiders precies?

Over de laatste wijn van de drie was het minst twijfel: weinig intense en al wat vervagende kleur (oranje rand), maar niettemin robuuste tannines en een aromatisch palet dat zeer goed aansloot bij nebbiolo. Dat bleek te kloppen (DOC Roero). Anders was het voor de twee eerste. Zelf zat ik voor de eerste in de nieuwe wereld, die later Portugal bleek te heten. Alentejo, dus toch vrij warm. Een paar proevers haalden er de tempranillo uit. Voor de tweede wijn kregen we de tip mee dat het Portugal of Italië moest zijn. De oplossing, een barbera d’Alba, lag allerminst voor de hand, al spoorde het wel met de hoge zuren.

Flight 3: GSM-tonen

We zaten hier duidelijk op het warme, kruidige spectrum, waarbij de eerste evenwel wat meer zuren had – de sleutel om richting noordelijke Rhône te denken (Crozes-Hermitage). De tweede verried in de animaal getinte afdronk een aanzienlijke dosis mourvèdre (Bandol), terwijl de derde de warmste impressie gaf: een Corbières met redelijk wat carignan in de blend.

Flight 4: de cabernet brothers

De eerste wijn, met uitgesproken vegetale toetsen, was voor mij overduidelijk een cabernet franc, wat anderen betwijfelden omwille van de verbazend lichte kleur. Toch ging het om een St-Nicolas de Bourgeuil. Daarna volgden twee blends met in hoofdzaak cabernet sauvignon. De laatste toonde uitgesproken pyrazines (groene paprika) in de neus, samen met die rokerige toets typisch voor Zuid-Afrikaanse cabernet sauvignon. In de tweede moest het druifkarakter wat gezocht worden achter de (m.i. iets te dominante) eik: Haut-Médoc 2010.

Flight 5: krachtpatsers uit de oude en de nieuwe wereld

Logischerwijs werden de krachtigste wijnen tot het laatst bewaard. Velen zaten vrij snel op het malbec-spoor, wat althans voor wijnen 2 en 3 bleek te kloppen. Eens we dat wisten, was het niet moeilijk te raden welke uit de nieuwe wereld kwam: de derde had meer alcohol, geconfitureerd fruit en wat minder zuren. Zijn evenknie uit Cahors was wilder van aroma’s (beetje brettanomyces) en minder toegankelijk. De eerste wijn van deze flight bleek een Rioja reserva, 100% tempranillo.

De volledige wijnlijst staat hier.

VVS

 

 

 

 

Top Burgundy: the sequel

In an earlier post, I shared some thoughts on a spectacular Burgundy GC tasting in August. I was not anticipating to replicate the experience any time soon, but the occasion came unexpectedly. Burgundy aficionado Willy Daelemans from Epivino in Grimbergen regularly organises extensive tastings of top end Burgundy, one of which I attended last week.

While we were mainly tasting young wines here too, we ended with a series of mature red grand crus, which confirmed what I had written in the other blog post: it is hard to evaluate the true quality of great Burgundy when it’s young. Only after long bottle ageing, especially for the better vintages, does it fully reveal itself.

The evening started off with 6 whites. The first, a generic Bourgogne AOC, had a Chablis-like minerality combined with ripe, almost exotic fruit and quite some heat on the palate. It turned out that part of the grapes for this wine are sourced from Chablis, and part from the Maconnais, the southernmost region in Burgundy. It failed to impress, though, especially at a price of 19€: lack of freshness and not so well integrated alcohol.

It was mostly uphill from there, fortunately. The second wine admittedly had a bit too much oak, but the third (a Meursault villages – 38€) was dense and poised, with a long finish.

IMG_2099We then got to compare the three most reputed “premiers crus” of Meursault: Charmes, Genevrières and Perrières. The quality difference was much less outspoken here than in the first flight. The Charmes won perhaps, but it was a close finish with the Perrières.

Next up: ten reds from Pascal Marchand. This visionary winemaker and “micro-négociant”, originally from Québec, arrived in Burgundy in 1983, and after some wanderings in the southern hemisphere, returned to it in 2006, setting up a négoce and attracting investment by Ontario banker Tawse (see this article for some background info).

Marchand has a distinct and very consistent style, striving for elegance more than power, yet with quite some extraction. The 2011 GC Corton was a pure delight – to drink soon, as it has evolved quite rapidly: small red fruit, hints of leather, mushroom and sous-bois, with extremely refined, velvety tannins and a long silky finish. The 2010 Corton will be more long-lived and had still young and vibrant fruit.

Only one disappointment here: the Pommard épenots 2010 made a rather tired impression, lacked complexity and had excessive levels of volatile acidity (nail polish aromas).

The disappointment faded soon enough with the grand finale that awaited us, starting with a delicious Griotte-Chambertin 2004 (Marchand frères): a feast of leather, tobacco, red fruit, and a distinct animal note, making it perfect for the game season. Though 5 years older, the 1999 Charmes-Chambertin (Nicolas Potel) had a lot of potential still, with an amazing freshness after 15 years of bottle life. An interesting pair was the Échezeaux 1994 and 1995 (Mugneret-Gibourg). Although 1994 is reputedly the lesser vintage of the two, it clearly outperformed the 95 (drying tannins, faded fruit) on this occasion.

The oldest bottle was saved until the end: a superbly matured Charmes-Chambertin 1989 (Geantet-Pansiot), showing the true potential of pinot noir and Burgundy. If I want pinot that is approachable and charming early on, I would most likely look elsewhere, notably Germany or New-Zealand. But there is definitely nothing that equals a mature Burgundy of a good vintage, made by a competent pair of hands.

 

A taste of Sicily

“If the boot of Italy were to kick against a football, that football would be Sicliy”. That’s how I described the geographical situation of Sicily to my children before leaving for a week to this exquisitely beautiful, and surprisingly big, island at the southern tip of Italy. Not a wine trip in the first place, but of course I would not let the opportunity pass to get some idea of what the Island has to offer viticulturally speaking.

South, at least in the northern hemisphere, means warm. Indeed, the commonplace about Sicilian wines is that of alcoholic, concentrated, deeply coloured wines that may lack some freshness due to abundant warmth and sunshine. Wines that are also available in huge quantities – Sicily is quantitatively speaking among the top regions in Italy.

The two wineries I visited are both far away from this cliché. The first one is located at the heart of Sicily’s only DOCG so far, Cerasuolo di Vittoria. It is Azienda Agricola Cos (where C, O and S form an acronym designating the family names of the three owners), an estate going back to 1980. I could join a tour with some of their Italian clients, meaning I had to do my very best to grasp everything Giusto Occhipinti (the O in COS) told us, but I managed more or less.

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The vineyards of COS are in the zone between the sea and the Monti Iblei, a beautiful mountain range rising up to 1000 metres in the south-east corner of Sicily. There is a lot of ventilation and cooling influence from winds. The soils consist mainly of clay and limestone, a perfect mix for this dry climate.

The most exciting aspect about COS is without doubt the amphorae in which a large part of the wines are fermented and matured. COS abandoned oak barrels in the late nineties, after a trip to Georgia (where the ancient qvevri tradition comes from) had opened their eyes. Occhipinti praised the advantages of amphorae as opposed to oak, for example the micro-oxygenation effect without the oak taste that only masks terroir, according to him. We got to taste some samples straight from the amphora, both in white and red. The least one can say is that these wines are off the beaten track. The whites spend a very long time on the skins, which is unusual, yielding deeply coloured and complexly flavoured wines with less immediate fruit appeal but a great deal of depth and structure. The reds are delicately textured and refined, not big and bold (some of them do not even reach 13% alcohol, despite the warm climate).

During the long visit to the winery, Occhipinti got the chance to explain his winemaking philosophy. While I appreciated his commitment to organic and biodynamic practices, and the ethical dimension to which this approach is intimately linked (preserving biodiversity, slow food, etc.), it got a bit too esoteric for my taste when he mentioned that playing Chopin in the winery made the wines more harmonious, or when he dug up homeopathic theories about the memory of water – theories that have been scientifically discredited since a long time. Nevertheless, this obsessive attention to the slightest detail, both in the vineyards and in the winery, is clearly conducive to making great wine.

Later that week I tasted three COS wines from the bottle. The white “Rami” 2013 was deeply coloured, with almost copper notes, and showed a smooth texture and nice complexity. The frappato 2014 had some sulphurous notes on the nose, which I initially believed to be reduction that would fade away with some oxygen, but they were still there on day 3; the wine was rather thin and never entirely convinced me. We had trouble finishing the bottle. The Cerasuolo di Vittoria DOCG 2013 was much better. It had higher, but not excessive, alcohol, more tannic structure, and better fruit definition. Back home, I also opened the bottle of Pithos Rosso 2014 for a dinner party at my place. Judging from the guests’ reactions, this is definitely not a crowd pleaser. Leathery and smoky notes on the nose, with sour cherry fruit (on the verge of some vinegar-like touch), but refreshing and well-structured.

Later that week in Sicily, we moved up to the north-east, to go and see the “next big thing” in Italian wine: the wines coming from the volcanic slopes of Mount Etna. As I only had the time for one winery, I decided to go for one of the pioneers: Vinicola Benanti, which today makes what Decanter (in its overview of Italy for 2015) has labelled possibly the best Italian white wine, Pietramarina.

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A plot of old bush vines on the first slopes of Mount Etna, ca. 600m altitude
While DOC Etna is quite old (the 1960s), it is only in the late 20th century that things really got moving here. Dining out in a local restaurant, Benanti’s founder wondered why there were hardly any Etna wines on the wine list, and decided to invest in a project to show that fine wine could be made here.

The Etna is unlike any other region in Sicily. To begin with, the soils consist of black, volcanic sand. Very draining, which is good given the significantly higher rainfall.

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volcanic sand, a well-draining soil
The sandy soils also mean that the terrible phylloxera vastatrix, the little bug that all but wiped out Europe’s vineyards in the 19th century, never really got hold here: there are plots of ungrafted, so-called “pre-phylloxera” vines. Third, the altitude (up to 1000m, among the highest for European vineyards) provides cool nights, wide diurnal temperature ranges, and hence aromatic and fresh wines.

Benanti is not certified organic. They use as little treatments as possible, but are not willing to let whole vintages go down the drain just to comply with certification, as the agronomist explained while we walked through a plot of old vines.

I got to taste 6 wines here, from entry level to the top range. All of them have impeccable fruit definition and balance. The monovarietal nerello capucco and nerello mascalese (both allowed in Etna DOC) offered an interesting comparison, with the mascalese showing more complexity as opposed to the fruity capucco. The top red, Serra della Contessa, is incredibly layered and refined, almost pinot-like, with tremendous length. In the whites, the Pietramarina clearly stands out. It has a Riesling-like nose with hints of petrol, but also ripe exotic fruit. On the palate it shows amazing tension and liveliness, and it will for sure age well.

 

Salute!

Harvest time in the Languedoc-Roussillon

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The Languedoc-Roussillon has many faces. Historically an important source of France’s wine lake, with still a massive 220.000 hectares under vine (it used to be much more), and home to what is by far the most sold IGP (previously “vin de pays”) wine in France, Pays d’Oc, it is also a prime source of sweet fortified wines (vins doux naturels), and since a few decades a pioneering area for ambitious growers who, rather than, as the expression goes, « faire pisser la vigne », want to craft premium wines from the various terroirs that the region can boast.

The landscape here is of a stunning beauty and ruggedness, as a ride through the heart of Corbières reminded us. It offers a huge diversity in climate, soil, exposition, wind and maritime influence, making this one of the most interesting winegrowing areas in France, with a big potential for top quality wines, besides the not always very exciting bulk wines that most of us have tasted. Interestingly, while we tend to think of Languedoc-Roussillon as a Mediterranean area with the corresponding grape varieties, the western outskirts of the region are exposed to Atlantic influences (the westernmost AOC, Cabardès, is close to the water divide between the Atlantic and the Mediterranean bassins) and offer some of the highest altitudes in the region, making it suitable for sparkling wines, Bordeaux varieties and even cool climate grapes like pinot noir.

I recently had the occasion to spend a long weekend in Limoux, one of these “Atlantic” zones, where I stayed in Borde Longue in the company of wine merchant Bruno Desmet-Carlier, amidst the vineyards of Jean-Louis Denois, whose family originates from Champagne. Surely one of the most original (and hard-headed) winegrowers in the region, Denois makes a range of truly excellent sparkling wines (in a blind tasting we did on Saturday, one came out on top of the basic cuvée of Bollinger), as well as a beautiful pinot noir and a chardonnay that have nothing to envy to some of their much more prestigious Burgundian counterparts.

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It was a great time to be in the vineyards and the winery. Only some of the grenache remained to be picked (here as elsewhere, 2015 was quite precocious in comparison to normal years), but the winery was brimming with activity. We got a close view of some of the intricacies of the winemaking process, from semi-carbonic maceration to pumping over and punching down the cap. Tasting wines from different vineyard parcels, different press strengths, or at different phases in the fermentation, and at different times in the barrel ageing process is quite enlightening, and a pure delight for any wine aficionado.

Denois is a restless soul, always looking for innovation and perfection in his range of wines. Some years ago, he planted gewürztraminer (!) in the area, to the outrage of the established bodies of the INAO. In the meanwhile gewürztraminer has effectively been allowed as a grape in IGP Pays d’Oc wines. His most recent enterprises include biological and biodynamic winemaking, as well as the production of wines without adding any sulphites.

In the three days we spent on the domain, we tasted countless wines. It would be somewhat pedantic to list all the tasting notes here, so I limit myself to a few of the most striking moments. First of all, a very enlightening lesson about degrees of dosage in sparkling wines. Minimal differences in dosage gave completely different results in a “blanc de noirs” sparkling syrah (“bulles de syrah” – a curiosity in itself). Without any sugar, the wine was too edgy and sharp. A few grams more transformed it into an ideal partner for, say, oysters. And yet a few more turned it into a delicious and crowd-pleasing festive drink.

A memorable tasting was the line-up of older vintages of pinots noirs from the neighbouring Domaine de l’Aigle, previously owned by Denois and for which he used to make the wines (now taken over by Gérard Bertrand, who joined us for a tasting that weekend). Several vintages of the nineties were still going strong. At one point we compared a Domaine de l’Aigle to the same vintage of a Nuits-Saint-Georges 1er cru. It was a close match, but not if you know the price difference. The furthest back we went was 1985, and the wine, though maybe past its peak, was still more than agreeable. Which Burgundy could claim that? Probably only the ones at premier cru or grand cru level.

In short, it was a useful reminder of what Denois forcefully argues himself: that the French appellation system and the prestigious crus of Bordeaux and Burgundy are more about history, marketing, and protection of commercial interests than about actual wine quality.

But beyond the lessons learnt, the weekend was about passion and emotion. Three days of endless wine talks with like-minded souls, it does not get much better than that. As Jean-Louis said when we parted: “à l’an prochain, Jérusalem”.

Verticale proeverij barbaresco – Giuseppe Cortese “Rabaja”

Op 20 september was ik te gast bij wijnen Orizonte voor een verticale degustatie (i.e., verschillende jaargangen van dezelfde wijn naast elkaar) van de barbaresco’s van Giuseppe Cortese.

Even de achtergrond schetsen voor wie minder vertrouwd is met Italiaanse wijnstreken. We hebben het hier over Piemonte. Letterlijk vertaald: de voet van de berg – in casu de Alpen. Historisch, cultureel en vooral ook gastronomisch een bijzonder interessante streek. In de heuvels van Langhe zijn de zomers warm en lang, terwijl het reliëf verkoeling brengt. Een ideaal recept om rijpe maar gebalanceerde wijnen te maken. Piemonte is in Italië de grootste producent van wijnen met het DOCG-label (de hoogste klassering in de Italiaanse wijnwetgeving) en herbergt een brede variatie aan wijnstijlen: van de licht parelende, zoete moscato d’asti, over de minerale, droge arneis in wit en de fruitige, soepele dolcetto in rood, tot de krachtige bewaarwijnen barbaresco en barolo, die tot de beroemdste wijnen van Italië behoren.

Over barbaresco en barolo, beiden uitsluitend van nebbiolo gemaakt, is al veel inkt gevloeid. Barolo wordt wel eens de keizer, en barbaresco de koning van de nebbiolo genoemd. Volgens Luc Vanmaercke van Orizonte zou koning vs koningin (of keizer/keizerin, zo je wil) passender zijn. Wat er ook van zij,  het gaat niet langer op om te stellen dat barolo een trapje hoger op de kwaliteitsladder staat dan barbaresco. Het gaat om twee ietwat verschillende interpretaties of stijlen van nebbiolo, die beiden zeer hoogstaande wijnen kunnen opleveren. Barolo heeft wat armere bodems, vandaar de wat strengere tannines, terwijl barbaresco wat zachter en ronder zou moeten zijn. Maar veel heeft uiteraard te maken met de keuzes van de wijnmaker. Wie zou durven beweren beide appellaties feilloos uit elkaar te kunnen houden in een blindproeverij?

De druif op zich, dan. Een fascinerende, eigenzinnige, verrassende druif. Als je de wijn in het glas krijgt te zien, verwacht je misschien een flauw, dun wijntje. Niets is minder waar: vaak geeft nebbiolo een bom van aroma en tannine, en de beste wijnen gaan decennia lang mee. Eigenzinnig, omdat nebbiolo zich niet zo makkelijk in een internationaal keurslijf van sterk geconcentreerde en houtgelagerde wijnen laat vatten. Er woedde (en woedt nog steeds) een felle discussie (“botte” vs “anti-botte”) tussen de voorstanders van het traditionele gebruik van grote houten fusten met lange inweking van de schillen, en de “modernisten”, die het eerder begrepen hebben op een kortere maceratie en rijping in kleine eikenhouten vaten, die meer houtaroma’s aan de wijn afgeven – critici van die laatste aanpak beweren dat het de finesse van de druif maskeert, en ik ben eerder geneigd hen te geloven.

Die zondagnamiddag mochten we dus met een tiental wijnliefhebbers van diverse pluimage op een kleine reis door de tijd met de wijnen van Giuseppe Cortese. Dit vooraanstaande wijndomein krijgt regelmatig uitstekende punten van vooraanstaande critici (onlangs bijvoorbeeld nog uitdrukkelijke lofprijzingen voor hun dolcetto, in het laatste nummer van Decanter).

Orizonte

De toon wordt gezet, en de tong verfrist, met een chardonnay zonder houtlagering. Ietwat neutraal in de neus, maar met een mooie fruitintensiteit in de mond. Ongecomplexeerd verfrissend. “Een chardonnay voor wie niet van chardonnay houdt”, aldus onze gastheer.

Vervolgens krijgen we een dolcetto d’alba en een barbera d’alba te proeven. De eerste is geen evidente wijn, met een rustiek en hoekig kantje. Niettemin proeven we sappig kersenfruit met verfrissende zuren en soepele tannines. Een wijn voor aan tafel. De barbera heeft meer onmiddellijke charme, met een duidelijke vanilletoon (houtgelagerd), en markante zuren die hem eveneens tot een goede disgenoot maken.

Dan komt het stevige werk, ingeleid door een langhe nebbiolo 2012, die al meer complexiteit vertoont, met naast fruit (bosaardbeien) ook aardse en kruidige toetsen. De vrij hoge alcohol laat zich wel wat voelen.

Deze nebbiolo effent het pad voor 5 jaargangen van de barbaresco “Rabaja” (de naam van de wijngaard), van jong naar oud geproefd.

2012: complexe neus met rood fruit, tabak, gerookte toetsen; leder en chocolade in de (lange) afdronk; strenge tannines en zuren die bevestigen dat deze jongen best nog wat in de kelder rust.

2011: in vergelijking met de jeugdige, gespierde 2012 is deze veel zwoeler en al meer benaderbaar. De tannines zijn goed versmolten, de warmte van de alcohol komt er een beetje door.

2007: het favoriete jaar van Robert Parker voor dit wijnhuis (94 punten), en men begrijpt waarom. Het was een warm jaar, vandaar het meer “geconfitureerde” fruit en de zachtere zuren. Een sensuele, hedonistische wijn, die misschien een tikkeltje reliëf mist.

2006: groot contrast met 2007, want een veel koeler oogstjaar. Een dierlijke, aardse neus waar het fruit wat op de achtergrond staat, maar een stevige structuur die doet vermoeden dat deze wijn de tand des tijds uitstekend zal doorstaan. Gereserveerder en, excusez le mot, “mannelijker”, met meer spankracht dan de voorgaande wijn.

2005: Voor mij op dit moment de winnaar van de reeks. Een tikje truffel steekt de kop op, samen met rijpe griottekersen en een florale toets; in de mond verrukkelijk, met een fluwelen textuur. Een soort gulden middenweg tussen de ’06 en de ’07, die zich nu heerlijk laat drinken, maar nog een hele tijd mee kan.

De kroon op het werk is de “riserva” 2006, uit dezelfde wijngaard (Rabaja) maar met een nog strengere selectie van druiven. De vergelijking met de “gewone” 2006 is interessant. De riserva is wat geconcentreerder, rijper en ronder. Hij heeft een meer internationale stijl. Heerlijk, maar er hangt ook een ander prijskaartje aan…

Al bij al een boeiende proeverij, waaruit de hoge en consistente kwaliteit van Giuseppe Cortese spreekt. Tevens interessant om verschillende profielen van proevers rond de tafel te verenigen. Sommigen benaderen het meer vanuit een hedonistisch standpunt en laten zich met name door de 2007 verleiden. Anderen zijn wat gevoeliger voor structuur en potentieel van de wijnen, of hebben een fijne neus voor de aroma’s die in de wijnen te vinden zijn. Het was fijn en verrijkend deze ervaring met hen te delen. Met dank aan Evelyne Sauvage en Luk Vanmaercke van Orizonte.

Verkiezing beste Belgische wijn – 16/09/2015

Dit jaar mocht ik voor de tweede keer deel uitmaken van het proefpanel voor de beste Belgische wijn. In tegenstelling tot wat de titel van het evenement suggereert, wordt niet één wijn tot absolute winnaar uitgeroepen, maar kunnen meerdere wijnen zich via een systeem van “medailles” onderscheiden. Door de hoge scores die dit jaar werden toegekend, werden deze keer enkel gouden medailles, maar liefst 21, uitgereikt.

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geconcentreerd proeven

Enkele bespiegelingen naar aanleiding van deze – overigens vlekkeloos georganiseerde – proeverij; over Belgische wijn enerzijds, over mijn beleving als min of meer “geoefend” proever anderzijds.

Wat de wijnen betreft kunnen we duidelijk stellen dat de trend opwaarts is. Een aantal middelmatige exemplaren, zeker; maar meestal was de kwaliteit meer dan aanvaardbaar, tot een aantal keer echt excellent. De rosé schuimwijn van Ruffus (Domaine des Agaises) die in onze reeks zat, zou veel gewone champagnes (figuurlijk dan) doen blozen, durf ik te beweren. Heel wat wijnen combineerden de natuurlijk hoge zuurtegraad (we zitten nog altijd aan de noordelijke rand van de wijnbouwgordel) met rijp fruit en perfect zuivere aroma’s, al ontbreekt hier en daar nog wat complexiteit en gelaagdheid in de wijnen.

De verdeling van de medailles toont ook het profiel van België als wijnland aan: meer dan de helft van de toegekende medailles gaan naar schuimwijnen, waarvoor aciditeit een absolute must is. Het Belgische klimaat leent zich daar perfect toe. “Slechts” drie rode wijnen kregen een medaille. Rode wijn blijft vooralsnog moeilijk in België, al vind je ook hier pareltjes. Die van Bon Baron in Dinant bijvoorbeeld. Maar ook de pinot noir van Aldeneyck is verrukkelijk en komt erg rijp over.

Tot slot, wat de wijn betreft: het is leuk om te zien hoe nauw de al bij al kleine wijnbouwgemeenschap in België overlegt en informatie uitwisselt. Het kan de wijnen alleen maar ten goede komen.

Het proeven, dan. Zoals steeds een les in nederigheid en een illustratie van de relativiteit van wijnscores en proefnotities. Een les in nederigheid, want de twee identieke wijnen die in elke reeks zaten, kregen van mij geen identieke scores (weliswaar was er, tot mijn geruststelling, maar een paar percentpunten verschil).  En ik had ze er ook niet feilloos uitgehaald, wat deels te maken heeft met de snelheid waarmee moet worden geproefd. Een illustratie van de relativiteit van het beoordelen, omdat uit de gesprekken achteraf blijkt dat niet iedereen exact dezelfde mening is toegedaan. Maar dat maakt het ook net weer boeiend – wijn op de grens van kunst en wetenschap. En uiteindelijk zijn het dan toch weer voor een stuk de “usual suspects” die hoge ogen gooien.

Een aantal medaillewinnaars op de foto

Ik eindig met een slotbeschouwing over de samenstelling van het panel. Allemaal Belgen. Daar is op zich niks mis mee – uiteindelijk gaat het om een onderlinge vergelijking en zijn het stuk voor stuk geoefende proevers -, maar waarom eens niet een paar buitenlandse deskundigen of wijnjournalisten uitnodigen? De kwaliteit om de confrontatie op een hoger niveau aan te gaan, is er zeker. En het zal bijdragen tot de internationale reputatie van de Belgische wijnen.

In elk geval weer een verrijkende ervaring – volgend jaar ben ik weer van de partij!

De volledige uitslag is te vinden op de website van de VVS.

Vigno – exciting developments in Chilean viticulture

Last march, I was fortunate enough to join a wine tour through the main wine regions of Chile. Of the many exquisite tastings we enjoyed there, one stands out in particular: the one organised by “Vigno“, short for “Vignadores de Carignan”, to which the last issue of Decanter has recently devoted a full article (“In Vigno veritas”). What is Vigno about? To answer that question, a brief incursion into the history of wine making in Chile is needed.

Today, much of Chilean viticulture is concentrated around the latitude of Santiago, the country’s capital (pioneering efforts to the north and south notwithstanding, e.g. Malleco or Elqui) . Historically, however, the area around Maule, a few hours’ driving south of Santiago, was much more important. Originally almost exclusively planted with país, the grape also known as criollo in Argentina, the area saw a lot of carignan vines planted later, after the devastating 1939 earthquake. Not necessarily because carignan was considered to be such a great grape, but because in fertile soils it can give tremendous yields, which means more wine to sell (this may ring a bell to those familiar with the Languedoc region in France, where carignan was also widely planted and later more and more grubbed up thanks to EU subsidies to diminish the European wine lake). Over time, the Chilean carignan vines were forgotten and the focus shifted to more popular varieties. They were however not wiped out. And then came the time when people noted that those old gnarly carignan vines with their beautiful dark berries could produce wonderful wines after all.

Nowadays, there is a marked revival movement in favor of these carignan vines, of which Vigno is the clearest exponent. This club of winemakers, currently presided by Gillmore winemaker Andres Sanchez, has formulated a number of rules that wines carrying the Vigno label must comply with, thus effectively creating an “appellation” by European Standards (Chile does have its system of denominations of origin, but these are more like broad geographical indications). The rules include a.o. mininum vine age, minimum percentage of carignan in the blend, minimum length of cellar ageing before release, etc. The most remarkable requirement from a Chilean perspective is the fact that the vines cannot be irrigated (they are “dry farmed” in other words). The area has an annual rainfall of 700mm, comparable to Alsace in France, but most of the rain falls in winter. Fortunately, the soil retains water well, allowing the old vines to plunge their deep roots in to water stocks, making irrigation less necessary than in other Chilean regions, where irrigation is still the norm (note that water use is definitely going to become a challenge in the country given climate change).

Vigno comprises not only small local producers, but has managed to attract the attention of some of the big players in the national wine industry. Concha y Toro, for example, now also produces some wine under a “Vigno” label.

Having tasted a large sample of these carignan blends in Maule, I had the occasion to try some of the wines again at a recent event organised by ProChile, in the restaurant “Balls and Glory“, which has found a popup location in bar Flamingo, in the center of Brussels.

ProChile WINE workshop 08/09/2015 Balls 'n Glory Lakenstraat DIA_DE_VIGNO_011

Vigno president Andres Sanchez, who had already impressed me in Chile with his clear vision of what he wants for his wines and what the way forward for Chilean viticulture is, again gave an inspiring presentation on the philosophy of this young movement, after which we were offered 11 wines to taste, and afterwards pair with the delicious meat balls of “Balls and Glory”

ProChile WINE workshop 08/09/2015 Balls 'n Glory Lakenstraat

Short tasting notes can be found below.

Miguel Torres, Vigno 2012

deep ruby with a purple rim, sweet red fruit and spice (cinnamon, eucalyptus) on the nose, velvety tannins and a spicy finish

Garcia Schwaderer, Vigno 2012

jammy red fruit on the nose, a lot of freshness on the palate, some heat (high alcohol), supple tannins

Valdivieso, Vigno 2010

the mourvèdre (34% of the blend) gives the wine clearly more tannic bite and a darker fruit profile. Delicious.

Morandé, Vigno 2012

highly pronounced acidity. Somewhat thinner mouthfeel, could do with a bit of extra punch

Concha y Toro, Vigno 2013

rather discrete on the nose, but powerful palate with firm tannins. A bit too young, would need decanting.

Undurraga, Vigno 2012

spices dominate on nose and palate. Lovely texture, again remarkable freshness

Odfjell, Vigno 2012

this wine has not seen any oak, yet is incredibly ample and rich. Lovely palate with strawberry, raspberry and chocolate notes, silky tannins. Excellent.

Meli, Vigno 2012

spicy profile (dried herbs) with a herbaceous note. Slightly stale on the nose.

Gillmore, Vigno 2011

lovely fresh and minty/eucalytpus nose, juicy palate with a lot of spice, very good freshness and length

De Martino, Vigno 2012

soft and creamy texture, but with good freshness and well balanced

Garage Wine, Vigno 2013

remarkable and intense nose with blackberry, a hint of grapefruit zest, nutmegg and pepper. Powerful but balanced on the palate. Very nice.

The key to these wines is without doubt there naturally high levels of acidity. For those who are in to the technical details: the Ph value of most of them hoovers around 3.30, which is extremely low for warm climate red wines such as these. One would have difficulties finding this kind of profile for carignan blends in southern France, for example. It keeps these wines fresh and drinkable despite their power and concentration, and it makes them excellent dinner partners. The wines are as far away from the commonplace of plump, low acid new world wines as one can get.

In short, Vigno shows great promise. It illustrates that Chile is capable of producing serious age-worthy table wines in the premium price range, and that we need not go along with simplistic thinking according to which Chile is all about Carmenère (or, as the Wine Advocate recently asked itself: “is Carignan the new Carmenère?”) I’ll end this post by quoting the Vigno philosophy of carignan: “Chilean Carignan is a gent with an iron armor. With a deep character. In the palate, he walk with strong steps, with tannin of noticeable heights. He is a man of the land, a countryman. Not a noble, not a courtier!“. While broadly agreeing with this, I did find quite some nobility in these wines. Many thanks to ProChile!