Helen’s blog

Thoughts and tastings from Helen Savage, wine writer.

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Harvest 2011 – hail and rot, but good things to come too.

Tuesday, September 20th, 2011

As the story of 2011 unfolds in western France, the picture is proving ever more complex – just as you might expect. Hail in the first week of September created havoc in around 300 hectares of Saint Estèphe and an even larger part of St Emilion.  Rot has become a serious worry, prompting some growers to abandon hopes of leaving the grapes a little longer to become even riper and make the best of what they can. Tales of sugar levels vary wildly, but the almost preposterous strength of the record-breaking 2010s and 2009s is not likely to be reached. Florence de la Filolie says that the current level is around 13.5 to 13.8 at Château Laniote (Grand Cru Classé St Emilion), as is unlikely to peak much above 14% when they pick –they were hoping to start yesterday. Last year the finished wine came in at 15.2%. They have been lucky to escape hail damage and the grapes look to be in fine health. Some vineyards in Pomerol had already been picked when I last drove through on 10 September. Back on the west side of the Gironde, the grapes at Caronne Sainte Gemme at Saint Laurent in the Médoc also looked in good health when I visited the same day. Georges Nony was quietly confident that a tricky, unpredictable year might yet deliver something special

Organic reflections – day 1

Monday, January 24th, 2011

I’m in Montpellier for Millesime Bio, the world’s biggest organic wine fair. There are about 500 producers, mostly French, but South Africa, Argentina and California get a look along with Germany, Spain, Portugal, Italy, Romania, Switzerland, Poland and even Egypt. I aim to visit the stalls of the last two tomorrow.

It’s huge and frankly daunting – so much bigger than when I first came five years ago. Organic is now mainstream – but not, it seems, in the UK. Our big supermarkets aren’t bothered much (except, perhaps, Waitrose). Germany is the big market – over five time bigger than the UK. We bump along with Holland, Denmark, Belgium and Japan, all also behind the US.

A shame methinks. Organic isn’t just big now (now 6% of the French vineyard) but respectable. There aren’t many shaggy beards and sandals in the two huge halls of the Parc des Expos. The best wines are stunning – especially those from Alsace, with a superb purity of fruit flavours. OK there are wacky wines: Richard Doughty, for example, makes unashamedly oxidised dry Semillon with zero SO2 in Bergerac – but it does taste rather, strangely good.

Another update tomorrow – when I’ve slept on what I’ve tasted and probably come to no more serious conclusions.

When wine tasted best in 2010

Tuesday, January 4th, 2011

I bought ‘When Wine Tastes Best: A biodynamic calendar for wine drinkers (2010)’, intrigued to see if this guide based on Maria Thun’s biodynamic would tie in with my experience – or not. I wanted to be as open minded as possible, so I decide to review the guide only in retrospect.

What did I discover? Here are a few highlights:

Christmas Day 2009 – three champagnes tasted wonderful. A leaf day.

January 14 – Burgundy tasting at Lord’s. Although I discovered the wonderful wines of Romain- Taupenot I was disappointed. I didn’t ‘click’ – and I love Burgundy. A fruit day.

January 31 – Portugal, lunch and tasting  with Vasco Croft – biodynamic wines excited me hugely. Taste buds on fire.  A fruit day, hallelujah!

May 19 – I held a Cahors tasting and thought it went particularly well. Fruit again!

June 1 – visited Roger Saumaize with a group of wine-lovers. Biodynamic producer. Fab wines – everyone hugely impressed. Root day – I suppose it had to be.  Oh dear!

June 22 – visited  Romain Taupenot and am again bowled over by the beauty of his wines. Flower Day.

August 9 – visited Catharine Wallace (in Saint Chinian). Biodynamic producer. Greatly taken by her wine (again). Leaf Day. Is that why, despite my enthusiasm I muddled Syrah and Grenache when tasting barrel samples, or is it that Catharine’s  wines express their terroir so well that varietal differences seem less accentuated?

September 8 – Wines of Chile tasting. And I’m frankly disappointed. I don’t seem to click again. The day’s not even rated – so maybe it wasn’t just me?

October 19 – very well-received tasting of Rasteau, though  the VDN fails to shine.  Flower Day. Why did the VDN not show well – I had one the other day and it was great?

November 9 – another visit to Romain Taupenot. I’m feeling stressed and out of sorts, but the wines are still stunning. A fruit day!

December 1 – my most successful tasting in the Vine Visit year. Sherry. A knockout. Everyone seemed to be thrilled by the wines . And a root day …

So what can we conclude? Nothing much. I can’t detect a pattern or any meaningful correspondence.

I suspect that how I felt had far more effect than whether it as a fruit or flower day (best) or a leaf and root day (avoid). Odd, isn’t it, that there’s nothing in the middle? There was the day, for example, when I tried to lead s seminar on Burgundy wine, with so thick a cold that I couldn’t tell the difference between wine and Dettol.

Will I buy the 2011 edition? Maybe – but for life of me I can’t think why.

Atom bombs and wine fraud

Tuesday, March 23rd, 2010

Australian scientists claim to have discovered an accurate, scientific test to determine the age of fine wine.  The team at the University of Adelaide headed by Dr Graham Jones noted that atmospheric atomic bomb tests, which ended in 1963,  released significant amounts of radioactive carbon-14 into the atmosphere. This is absorbed by grapes as they ripen and can be measured in the lab, in a similar way to that already used by archaeologists to date organic remains. Dr Jones hopes that his research, using a highly sensitive accelerator mass spectrometer might offer one more tool in the fight against wine fraud.

Representatives of the top auction houses will be delighted, especially in Hong Kong.  They will probably be already beating a path to Dr Jones’s door. They recognise that their hugely lucrative trade might collapse overnight if their rich clients, especially those in mainland China, discover that wine they’ve bought might not be the genuine article. Vast sums of money are spent by investors in the Far East on wine: £54,476 was paid at a Hong Kong auction in December, for example, for a case of 1982 Pétrus.

Attempts to deceive are probably inevitable when so much money is at stake; but I imagine that the tests themselves won’t run cheap. And each test will, I’m sure, necessitate the opening of a bottle of potentially precious liquid. Will the worried client be on hand to drink the rest? Will the lucky scientists be treated to a glass too?

At least it might mean that some of a few bottles of these ridiculous commodity wines might actually end up being consumed. Or were they created for some other reason?


Wednesday, March 17th, 2010

Laithwaites came north last week to show a range of wines to their customers.  I wasn’t terribly keen to go, not least because their pushy PR folk filled my inbox with reminders – just the think that gets by back up. But I girded my loins and turned up – and I’m glad I did.  The quality and range of wines was much better than I’d expected. In fact I was quite excited by the imagination of some of their choices. So here are my brief notes:

Champagne Haton Brut, Blanc de Noirs (£22.99) A nice rich fizz from black grapes: soft, rich with nice appley acid.

Grand Lescure, Sauvignon Blanc 2009, Vin de Pays Comté Tolosan (£6.99) Clean, green and fresh with a slightly stony finish.

Portinho do Covo Fernao Pires/Muscat, Terres de Sada 2008 (£5.99) Grapey, grapefruit, fresh dry white from Portugal, with nice end minerality.

Alma Andina Torrontés 2009 (£6.99) Citrus, clean, fragrant, Argentinean dry white – simple but quite a nice example.

Feudo di Maria Zibibbo 2008 (£6.99) Unusual dry white from Sicily made from Muscat of Alexandria grapes – a nice surprise: perfumed and floral with grapefruit and a dry tangy, slightly salty finish.

Mourat Sacré Blanc Chenin 2008 (£11.99) Big, rich impressive Chenin from the Fiefs Vendéens full of apricot and apple fruit. A great find.

Stonewall Sauvignon Blanc, Marlborough 2009 (£9.99) Utterly typical New Zealand Sauvignon, bracing, clean and  green (like tomato stalks) with lovely minerality.

Esk Valley, Hawke’s Bay Verdelho, 2008 (£10.99) Lovely smoky apple fruit. Softer and longer than any Aussie I’ve tasted. Good on the Kiwis!

The Black Stump Durif Rosé, 2009 SE Australia (£6.99) Deepish pink with bags of sweet cherry jam fruit and a hint of sweetness.

Chianti DOCG, Collezione di Paolo 2008 (£7.99) Deep for Chianti with a huge smell of ripe cherries and a nicely grippy flavour. Good stuff.

Los Rosales, Chapel Vines Carmenère 2008 Rapel Valley Chile (£8.99) Deep ruby; powerful and chewy with lots of rich black fruit and licorice.

Gran Bombero Garnacha 2007, DO Carinena (£8.99) Very deep with a good concentration of forest fruit flavours – quite grippy. A bit pricey maybe, but judged on its own merits rather than the usual cost of Carinena, probably worth it.

Bulldozer Pinotage 2009 (£7.49) Plenty of ripe cherry and plummy fruit balanced by juicy acidity. Pinotage is South Africa’s unique calling card and is fun when it’s as good as this.

The Waxed Bat Shiraz/Petit verdot/Malbec, Mendoza 2008 (£7.99). I don’t normally respond to big alcoholic reds (this is 15 abv), but this mad mix of grapes is huge, exotic and with masses of concentrated black fruit – long too. Would I want a second glass? Probably not, but the first is a bit of a treat.

L’Esprit des Papes, AOC Cotes du Roussillon 2007 (£7.99) Not bad at all: ripe sweet, spicy and slightly herby and juicy fruit.

Farnese Cinque Uve Ultima Edizione (£7.99) An unlikely Italian table wine – and to my mind the gem of the tasting: rich, spicy with loads of black fruit and best of all, a really velvety texture.

Pillastro Selezione d’Oro 2007, DO Puglia (£9.99) Tarry southern Italian red, with lots of licorice – just saved by enough fresh acidity.

Waitiri Creek, Central Otago Pinot Noir, 2006 (£14.99) Pricy, but probably just about worth it: a very ripe, in your face Pinot, with unembarrassed sweet cherry fruit by the bucketload.

Luis Cana Rioga Reserva DOC 2001 (£13.49) The classiest wine on show; rich and deep, amazingly youthful, full of  fruit, beautifully balanced by just enough spicy oak.

Le Grand Chai, AOC Saint Emilion Grand Cru 2006 Chateau Haur-Pourret (£16) I’ve never tasted St Emilion quite like this plummy fruit bomb – perfumed, soft, rich and then savoury. Is it really claret?

The Moonlighters Cabernet/Nebbiolo/Merlot/Shiraz 2005 McLaren Vale, Australia (£10.99) Juicy, smoky, soft black fruit – plenty of it.

Domaine Mas Mouriane AOC Maury 1969 (£19 – 50cl) Like drinking salted caramel – long and thought provoking.

I also tasted four very good wines from the leading Pfalz estate of Von Buhl, which on the evidence of these wines seems as good as ever it has been – in other words, very good indeed. I hope to do a longer article soon.