Helen’s blog

Thoughts and tastings from Helen Savage, wine writer.

Archive for the ‘Wines – here and there’ Category

Is music the solution?

Monday, July 28th, 2014

If music be the solution to frost damage, mildew, water stress and especially esca, play on … (i)

Attempts to find an alternative and effective treatment for esca and other vine trunk diseases are beginning to echo something of the desperation that followed the first outbreak of phylloxera during the 1870s. Some French growers even talk wistfully about the merits of the toxic and highly unpleasant sodium arsenite, banned in France since 2001.

Research from Alsace published last year in Vitis suggested a link between a higher incidence of esca with late harvest dates, especially for the production of sweet wine, and with climate variables. More anecdotally some growers fear their vines are more open to attack by trunk disease if they suffer water stress, as was already beginning to be the case in some Alsace vineyards by the end of June this year. Daniel Ruff in Heiligenstein, for example, who subscribes to this theory, suggests that drip irrigation may help to lower the risk – an option, of course, which is not legally available to him in Alsace.

Whether or not this, or changes to the trellising and the pruning regime, as others have argued, or indeed biodynamic treatments offer any better hope of controlling a pest that has already imposed a huge practical and financial burden on many estates, it seems that French winegrowers will gladly try anything within the law that might just work.

Enter French physicist and singer Joël Sternheimer who has carried out experiments in a number of French wine regions, which have been widely reported in the French press and in New Scientist as long ago as 1994(ii). His thesis builds on work by a number of other researchers who have used music to illustrate the structure of the DNA sequence of proteins. Roughly speaking, each amino acid is thought of as a note and the whole protein as a melody. Each protein with its unique DNA sequence thus also has its own distinctive, individual melody.

But Sternheimer goes beyond the purely illustrative function of the unique melody of each protein and argues that it is possible to use specially composed ‘molecular music’ (or ‘protodies’ – part protéine, part mélodie) to stimulate a plant to produce more of a desired protein. Sound waves, he argues, can also be used to inhibit the synthesis of proteins.

Since 2008, through his company, Génodics, based in Paris, Sternheimer has provided a commercial service to wine growers and claims dramatic results, especially in helping plants to resist esca. By the end of 2013, according to the Génodics website, 53 vignerons had signed up in Alsace, Champagne, the Loire Valley and Bordeaux and on their total of 150 hectares, the rate of mortality caused by esca had dropped by an average of 60%, and even slightly further in those instances where the system had been in place for three years or more.

Not only this, but Sternheimer claims that trials primarily in Champagne and Burgundy show that molecular music may reduce the incidence of mildew in vines as well as improving their resistance to both spring frost and water stress. Further experiments this year will try to synchronise treatments with those weather conditions in which mildew is more likely to be prevalent. Oïdium is next on Sternheimer’s hit list along with botrytis, which he claims, has been significantly reduced on tomato plants by playing molecular music to them.

Sternheimer’s work does not stop in the vineyard. He claims that molecular music may prevent stuck ferments by stimulating enzymes, that it can facilitate the growth of a healthy layer of yeast ‘voile’ in the production of Vin Jaune and that it may yet prove to be an effective means of combatting Brettanomyces.

The relationship between each amino acid and its corresponding musical note is mathematical, based on the original frequencies that occur when the amino acids joins in the protein chain. Precise pitch is therefore significant as it the duration of that pitch. Only the often very short, specially composed molecular music ‘melodies’ corresponding to these mathematical and physical relationships will prove effective. It cannot be replaced by a short burst of grand opera or heavy metal.

Indeed it is probably unhelpful and misleading to describe the sound constructs ‘composed’ by Sternheimer as music at all. This is because from the perspective of musical theory Sternheimer’s approach is problematic, for music, contrary to what some might imagine, does not posess a universally intelligible meaning. In fact it is very clear, as many studies have shown, that any ‘meaning’ in music, however that might be defined, is specific to individual human cultures. For example, experiments have shown that anyone unfamiliar with western classical music is not able to detect a mood such as ‘sadness’ in a piece of music in the way that those who have grown up within that culture might do. Plants manifestly don’t hear or respond to music in the way that we do. Indeed, from a purely musical point of view, molecular music is strictly trivial as Philip Ball points out. It “amounts to nothing more than the making of codes out of series of arbitrary perceptual symbols.” (iii) But that, of course, doesn’t discount the possibility that it may be effective in the way that Sternheimer describes.

The danger of such a brief summary as this it that it may present Sternheimer’s ideas as a little vague and alternative, but the supporting science is at least plausible and it lends itself to empirical testing. The duration of molecular music at any one time is just a few minutes and the long-term costs have to be cheaper than, for example, repeated spraying, and it is an elegantly green option.

Now, if only it were effective against hail …

(i) A shorter version of this article appeared in Harpers, online, 11 July, 2014
(ii) Andy Coghlan, ‘Good vibrations give plants excitations’, New Scientist 1927, 28 May, 1994, 10
(iii) Ball Philip, The Music Instinct (London: Vintage Books, 2010), 396.

The Wine Society’s excellent range of own label wines

Thursday, January 17th, 2013

The Wine Society offers a superb selection of wines, a great resource, I’ve found, for my wine educational activities.

When I visited the society’s warehouses and offices in Stevenage recently I was especially pleased to taste some of the Society’s own label wines, including some of its ‘Exhibition’ range. Together, they are a vivid illustration of the keen wine buying skills of the Wine Society team.

Here are brief notes on some of them:

The Society’s Reserva Brut Cava (Sumarocca) abv 11.5%  £7.50

Typical lavender oil aromas, then soft, creamy acidity and just off dry (though I’m told the residual sugar is actually below 5 g/l). Excellent value fizz: nicely rounded and gentle.

The Society’s Celebration Crémant de Loire (Gratien et Mayer) abv 12%  £6.25

Even better value, this clean, creamy, fresh-tasting fizz, doesn’t show a great deal of yeasty autolysis, but is beautifully balanced. A blend of Chardonnay, Chenin and Pinot Noir.

The Society’s Exhibition Grüner Veltliner 2011 (Bründlmayer) abv 12.5% £11.95

Fresh, green, grassy aromas, then clean herby fruit, fresh, savoury/mineral and lingering.

The Society’s South African Chenin Blanc 2012 (Villiera) abv 13% £6.50

Quite scented, green apple aromas, then slightly mineral. A creamy, leesy palate that balances rich, soft, green apple flavours and a mineral finish. Outstanding value.

The Society’s Pinot Grigio (Lorenzon) abv 13% £7.75

Ripe melony aromas, then a palate that balances more ripe fruit, with fresh acidity and ends with a perfumed lift. Far more complex and interesting than most Italian Pinot Grigio.

The Society’s Exhibition Sancerre 2011 (Domaine Serge Laloue) abv 13.5% £12.50

Typical grassy, gooseberry, blackcurrant leaf aromas. Ripe but crisp and a mineral finish – all it should be.

The Society’s Chilean Chardonnay, Limarí (Concha y Toro) abv 14% £6.50

Fresh, mineral and apple aromas and a round, creamy, savoury palate. Hints of pineapple, but the accent is firmly on restraint and elegance, despite the high alcohol.

The Society’s Exhibition Tasmanian Chardonnay 2011 (Freycinet) abv 12.5% £14.50

Real complexity and finesse here, justifying its price tag. A creamy, nutty aroma, then ripe melony fruit, with subtle use of oak.

The Society’s Saar Riesling (von Kesselstatt) abv 10% £8.95

Very fresh, lemony aromas, with honey. Savoury, clean and fresh in the mouth, with softer acidity than I expected, and gentle sweetness. Lovely wine.

The Society’s Exhibition Gewurztraminer (Hugel) abv 14% £13.50

The Society have splashed out on a wine that fully justifies the ‘exhibition’ tag: big and ripe, but balanced by freshness, and underpinned by soft, ripe, very spicy fruit, with a particularly seductive middle palate and a dry finish.

The Society’s Pinotage, Eilandia 2011 (Bon Cap) abv 12.5% £6.95

Lighter and juicer than some, it has grassy, plummy, even raspberry aromas, vey juicy acidity and quite firm tannins. Organic too.

The Society’s Exhibition Morgon, Côte du Py 2010 abv 13% £8.95

Cunningly blended from three different growers, this is a real success, with lovely spicy, fresh, savoury, cherry fruit – and surprising depth.

The Society’s Rioja Crianza 2009 (Bodegas Palacio) abv 13.5% £6.95

The colour is already maturing, leading into a rich, typically oaky aroma, and quite chunky, spicy plum and cherry fruit.

The Society’s Chianti Rufina (Grati) abv 13.5% £6.95

Utterly typical bitter cherry fruit dominates. Clean, quite soft and easy.

The Society’s Exhibition Haut-Médoc 2008 (Château Beaumont) abv 12.5% £11.95

Well-made claret, with the vivid aromas, typical of the vintage, and a fresh, spicy palate. With supple tannins it’s fully ready.

The Society’s California Old-Vine Zinfandel (Delicato) abv 13.5% £6.95

Big and brambly with lots of spice, but balanced by quite fresh acidity.

The Society’s Exhibition Crozes-Hermitage 2009 (Cave de Tain) abv 13% £9.95

Plenty of ripe bramble and black cherry fruit a chewy texture and a spicy finish. As it should be in this ripe vintage.

The Society’s Exhibition Victoria Shiraz 2007 (Mount Langi Ghiran) abv 14.5% £16

Real concentration of ripe, plummy Christmas cake fruit and yet again, balanced by juicy acidity and nicely integrated oak.

The Society’s Exhibition Sauternes 2010 (Denis Dubourdieu) abv 13.5% £18

Still marked by scented oak, but also by plenty of ripe, sweet, apricot fruit, with the elegance of Barsac.

The Society’s Exhibition Viejo Oloroso Dulce (Sanchéz Romate) abv 20% £10.75

A real treat to finish with and a bargain to boot: a huge nose of intense, figgy, raisiny fruit and walnut, then an equally concentrated mouthful of the same. Sweet, but not excessively so.

Harvest – home-style

Wednesday, August 31st, 2011

I marvel at the tenacity of Portuguese grape pickers who, after a day’s gruelling work, are prepared to stamp up and down for two or three hours before bed, in a lagar, crushing the grapes. I have no wish to join them.

But faced with the tiny crop spared by the wasps and hornets from my four little Sauvignon Blanc vines I decided that foot crushing might just be the best way to release enough juice to enable me to make a bottle or two of Pineau (de la Haute Vienne  – just).

I scrubbed my feet, filled the washing up bowl with grapes and began to tread. I was amazed to discover that after just a couple of minutes I was up to my ankles in juice.  The skins and uncrushed pips floated free and were easy to remove. A quick squeeze of the ‘marc’ over a plastic sieve was all that I needed to do. Very little mess.  They only hitch is that I need to buy more cheap Cognac than I’d estimated. I’ve left the juice, which tastes delicious, in the fridge to settle overnight, then I’ll do the simple maths to work out the proportion of Cognac to add to finish with a drink at 17%abv. It may even be ready for Christmas. Whether the family are prepared to go anywhere near it is quite another matter.

Harvest – in full swing

Monday, August 29th, 2011

We didn’t start picking Henri Jammet’s grapes last Monday – the weather was  far too hot, but began on Tuesday at 7am sharp. I’ve written a full report for The Journal (to be published this coming Friday).

Apart from the record-breaking beginning to the harvest is that 2011 indeed looks like being a year of fairly low sugar and sometimes very low acid levels in western France: even at this early stage it’s not unreasonable to predict that, with a large harvest, there’s going to a lot of soft, easy-drinking wine around.

Henri’s Chardonnay – the same plot last year was picked on 20 September – will not make much more than 12.5% alcohol, but the acid levels have been falling very fast. The grapes seemed to have achieved full phenolic ripeness and tasted delicious, but on a relatively sheltered site, rot was a bit of a problem.

Other growers – I’ve spoken to folk from Cahors, Touraine and Bordeaux over the last few days all tell a story of low acid and relatively low sugar. And more rain in the latter half of last week has increased worries about berries swelling and splitting. Those who have well-drained soils are less concerned – the July rains far less effect and some are quite excited by the relatively high proportion of skin to pulp. As ever, the story is never  simple.


Sunday, August 21st, 2011

As soon as I’d posted my last blog I realised that I’d probably need to qualify it almost immediately. The July rains did not make all the berries swell in the vineyards of  South West France as I discovered when I saw Pierre Carle yesterday at his Chateau le Chabrier in Saussignac. On the almost bare limestone, cultivated organically, the bunches were tight and grapes small. He told me that at the other organic property he manages: Croque Michotte (Saint Emilion) the berries are also small, with a high proportion of skin to pulp. Acid levels are dropping alarmingly quickly, but sugar levels have not gone through the roof. Harvest will probably begin early next month.

If the weather is not too hot (and it very well might be) harvest is due begin at 7am tomorrow on Henri Jammet’s amazing high-density (10,000 plants per hectare) vineyard at Saint Sornin in eastern Charentes.  I’ll be joining the team picking Chardonnay – the grapes tasted utterly delicious on Friday.

To be continued …

This funny season

Wednesday, August 17th, 2011

The miserable cool and wet weather that has plagued Britain for the last six weeks has not spared France. The season is still advanced, but not as much as it might have been.  The bunches on my own little Sauvignon Blanc vines are nevertheless nearer to ripeness that I’ve seen in twenty years. The consequence for commercial growers of Vin de pays Charentais – the nearest are 20 minutes drive to the west of us – is that the rain swelled the berries. My vines unusually, are free from mildew, and so are the commercial vines, but rot is becoming a concern, especially for thinner-skinned varieties. The crop still looks large.

In Gascony last weekend the crop seemed very healthy indeed – not a hint of problems, but again, the berries were large.

I supect that 2011 may just turn out to be a large, healthy, not terribly concentrated vintage in much of south west France. I doubt this prospect will bring much joy to the good folk of Bordeaux. But the weather might change … a few weeks of cool, bright, dessicating sunshine with brisk breezes might do the quality trick – but who apart from wine growers would thanks their lucky stars for that? It is indeed turning out to be a funny old season.

Nyakas Winery, Buda Hills, Hungary

Friday, July 22nd, 2011

This is the first of a number of profiles of leading Hungarian wine estates – impressions I formed during a recent visit with other wine educators, all members of the Association of Wine Educators.  I’ve written an overview of what we discovered in today’s Journal – the online version will be available very soon.

The first impression of Nyakas is of clipped lawns, and neat flower beds. Everything is clean, tidy and just so. The wines are therefore no surprise: fresh, clean and attractive.

Nyakas in the village of Tök (‘the pumpkin lands’) is a co-operative with 44 share-holders, but is run as a single estate. It has 120 hectares in production and another 20 have been planted. Only the sparkling wines specialist Torley makes more wine on the limestone and chalk soils of the Buda Hills, properly Eytek-Buda. The region, to the west of Budapest, has around 1,500 hectares under vine.

White varieties dominate. Nyakas grow six. The harvest begins in late August with Irsai-Olivér and then Müller-Thurgau, still known to most Hungarian consumers as Riesling-Silvaner (it’s actually a crossing of Riesling with Madeleine Royale, a table grape related to Chasselas). Pinot Gris, Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay follow during September and into October when Riesling is the last to be picked. If the conditions are right, a few rows of Chardonnay, Pinot Gris and Sauvignon Blanc are also left until late October to make a late harvest style wine. A small amount of red Kadarka is also picked late in the autumn to make a wine for winery staff and local families.

General manager Peter Nagy showed us round. “People call me Little Nyakas,” he told us cheerfully. ‘The Captain’, Ernö Malya, who founded the business in 1994 (the first cellars were built in 1997), remains in overall charge. The talented chief winemaker is Beata Nyúlnyé Pühra.

The well-equipped new cellars, built in part in attractive re-used brick, bought from the Gypsy families who hold the monopoly in such materials, was 40% funded by the European Union: a grant, not a loan, given to ensure jobs are created for local people. The few small oak casks in the winery were empty. “We haven’t any wines to age at the moment. The 2010 was so small and no so complex. We ran out of wine,” Peter told us. Fermentation is all in stainless steel.

As we continued our tour, Peter was delighted to discover a spanking new Bucher press, still in its wrappers, outside the cellar door. It had just been delivered. Nyakas is very much a work in progress.

Vineyards on a nearby hill could be glimpsed through the trees. Peter told us that Nyakas is managed sustainably, but is considering conversion to organic. “It might make the wine sell better,” he said, “but the risks would be higher.”

In a paddock beside the winery grounds, sleek race-horses grazed in the shade. The local stable had produced winners of the Hungarian Derby in the 1980s. A graceful silhouette of a horse head provides an appropriately elegant emblem for the Nyakas winery. The wines are attractively presented. 16% of the production is exported to a wide number of countries, including the UK. They are bottle under Nomacorc. “We might use screw-caps,” Peter commented, “but we’ll wait to see what other producers do. Most of our wines are opened within six months of bottling and our trails show very little difference between Nomacorc and screw cap over that time. We also sell wine to a lot of restaurants here, where people expect an opening ceremony. They wouldn’t support screw caps.”

We tasted a wide range of wines from the last two vintages, plus a couple of older, late harvest wines. Wines have been sold in bottle since 2002.

Müller-Thurgau 2010, was light fresh and floral, and a little tart in this difficult vintage. Peter commented that the Müller shows higher acid and level alcohol than usual. “It’s a volume variety, but we try to make a quality wine with it,” he said. The yield is around 10 tonnes/hectares (at least 70hl/ha), “but we could do 15 tonnes.”


Irsai-Olivér 2010 is a considerable success for the year: rather like a crisper, lighter-bodied cousin of Gewürtztraminer, with a spicy, banana perfume and lemony, Turkish delight flavour. It used to be grown primarily for the table in Hungary, but is now almost all vinified. It’s easy to understand why it sells well.


Aligvárom 2010 is a rather curious blend of 50% Chardonnay, 25% Irsai-Olivér and 25% Müller-Thurgau. It’s as well made as any of the Nyakos wines but the indivual falvours of the grapes remain rather distinct, dominated by the peachy ripeness of the Chardonnay and banana and spice of the Irsai-Olivér, with acidity provided by the Müller.


Sauvignon Blanc 2010 has a slightly smoky, distinctly green, vegetal quality, with a gentle spritz and strong minerality. I wondered if it might include some Sauvignon Gris. It is sold in Hungary under a ‘fantasy name’ which means ‘I just can’t wait to have it.’


Chardonnay 2010, from a large single block of 44 ha. also includes some CO2. Crisp, light and citrus, it is correct more than exciting.


Pinot Gris 2009 is much more successful, with ripe melony fruit, a hint of ginger, fairly crisp acidity and no more than 1g/l residual sugar. It sells well in Canada through the Quebec Monopole. Nyakas also make an earlier-harvested ‘Pinot Grigio’. According to Peter, “2009 was a beautiful vintage, with nothing to complain about.”


Riesling 2009 (Rhine Riesling) has atypically low acidity at 5.8 g/l, made to seem even softer, perhaps, by its spicy minerality. It is otherwise clean and citrus. Peter is very keen on it and enthused, “I hope this place is a new home for Rhine Riesling.”


Chardonnay, 2009 Late Harvest, was picked in the second week of October, and was aged 3 months in oak casks. The oak certainly makes its presence felt: the wine is rich and buttery with lemon and lime fruit and a spicy finish.


Pinot Gris 2007 Selection, aged for 6 weeks in third-fill casks, shows great complexity and a hint of botrytis. Rich and honeyed, soft and with a long spicy finish, it is a truly fine wine, showing a lovely balance between 5.9g/l acidity and 21.6 g/l residual sugar.


Sauvignon Blanc 2006 Late Harvest is just as successful: botrytised, rich and elegantly fruity, with a fresh 7.3 g/l acidity and sumptuous 62.8 g/l residual sugar. It was asked in cask for just three weeks – a striking testament to the meticulous care that Beata brings to her work and an impressive finale to an excellent tasting.


David Ginola’s rather fine wine

Monday, March 28th, 2011

I know that it is hard for almost any new wine to find its way onto the shelves of UK shops – the competition is fierce, but I’m surprised that no-one has yet snapped up Coste Brulade by David Ginola – a very superior Provençal rosé. The 2009 vintage was well made with a lovely depth of cherry, rhubarb and peach fruit, dusted quite subtly with white pepper. The 2010 is better still and though even more prettily pale, lacks nothing in concentration of fruit flavour: this time strawberry and peach. It has crisper acidity than the 09, but at this early stage in its development seems less mineral.

The wine is made at a well-run co-op in the Var. It has benefited from investment by David Ginola – his money has been used to buy new equipment. David is keen to help blend the wine that bears his name and the Coste Brulade team respect his palate and judgement. The packaging is understated and stylish. It would fly from the shelves here on Tyneside.

Organic musings (2)

Tuesday, January 25th, 2011

Well, well, the Egyptian wine was really rather good – at least some of it. ‘Jardin du Nil’, grown on ancient terraces of sandy soil is a mixed bag if ever there was one: a surprisingly fresh, citrus white (Vermentino/Chardonnay) – picked on the 15 July (!) and a 2008 red that is better forgotten – though not the 09: they are learning, possibly because Denis Dubordieu’s team in giving advice. Tolerated rather than accepted by the locals, they provide a steady stream of easy drinking wine to tourists. Their rosé is terrific. ‘Take a little wine for the sake of your tummy’, as St Paul said. Look out for it on your next package tour.

Many wines here prove beyond doubt that organic is light years from the still popular perception of ‘good for you but horrible’, even if some producers are happy to be barbed about the things they don’t do: ‘Natural Wine? Half way between horrible and incomprehensible!’ For example.

Thierry Daulhiac at Chateau le Payral in Bergerac has crafted some beauties including ‘natural’ unsulphited reds, but his more conventional Sauvignon Gris/Sauvignon Blanc ‘Petite Fugue’ hit my spot big time : an explosion of fresh green plum flavours with a hint of honey and quince. Monty’s Tuscan Red 2009 is very good too, a more hands-off effort than the stuff he made in Roussillon (i.e. he seems to have turned consultant rather than winemaker – the rewards of success). Adnams will have it, and the guy who actually made it told me it ought not be too expensive.

Best of all is Montirius. Eric and Christine Saurel are not only very nice people, they make superlative wine – certainly as good as anyone in Vacqueras and Gigondas. Their reds are fabulous, but I was knocked almost sideways (and I’d been listening to speeches rather than tasting) by their Vacqueras Blanc, a blend of Grenache Blanc, Roussanne and around 50% Bourboulenc. I tasted five vintages from 06 to 10 and was struck how delicious the young wine is and then how it re-emerged like the greatest of white Chateauneuf du Pape to show an unexpected richness and depth. I could have sworn that the 06 contained Viognier. I’ll publish full notes very soon.

Millesime Bio grows on you. The friendliest of big fairs, with small tables – all the same – and lots of happy encounters. I now know why so many folk keep coming back. Thierry Daulhiac put his finger on it. To paraphrase: ‘it’s basically a lot of fun.’

Can Beaujolais Bounce Back?

Tuesday, August 3rd, 2010

(A version of a piece I wrote recently for the Association of Wine Educators Newsletter)

The entry on ‘fashion’ in the most recent (2006) edition of Jancis Robinson’s Oxford Companion to Wine cites ‘lighter-bodied, high acid reds such as those of the Loire and Beaujolais’ as ‘obvious examples’ of wine types that ‘can be said to be generally out of fashion.’  It was therefore intriguing to see the high profile claimed by both of these at this year’s London Wine Fair in May, where the good and the great in the world of wine writing and wine education were lined up in their support. Is the tide really beginning to change?

I was invited by Westbury Communications to present a trade seminar on behalf of Inter-Beaujolais (the association of Beaujolais wine growers) in Newcastle back in late March. I was glad to accept, not just because I’ll gladly snatch the hand of anyone who offers me work in these straightened times, but because I’m fond of Beaujolais, I’ve visited the region fairly regularly over the last twenty five years, and I was also about to take a group there for a brief look at the region in late May as part of a wine holiday. The seminar gave me a chance to take stock.

Interest in the event was, to be frank, a little lukewarm; but we managed to cajole a couple of dozen shop managers and restaurateurs into coming to taste eighteen wines. The wines, which were of a generally high standard, were received with some enthusiasm. But attitude to the category and sales remains mixed. One leading local independent merchant told me later that there is little demand for Beaujolais from his customers who still associate it with insipid Nouveau. Despite the fact that he stocks some very good wines from the Crus, his own opinion is that the region has lost direction, the wines are over-priced and the general quality ‘is not very clever’. In contrast, the manager of a local branch of Majestic finds that demand for Beaujolais is ‘fairly buoyant’. He observes that the wines ‘fit quite well what people are looking for’: lower alcohol, complexity and attractive, approachable fruit.

The attitude of folk who come to the tastings and courses that I organise is also mixed, but those who came to a recent tasting and talk about the ten Crus liked what they found and a couple of experimental food and wine evenings revealed Beaujolais in a new light for me too.

Since visiting Hong Kong last year and especially after a long conversation there with Simon Tam, I’ve been fascinated in the matching of wines to wide range of Asian cuisines. I discovered an exceptionally fine local Chinese restaurateur right here in North Shields (Keith Pun of the Golden Swallow Restaurant) who was just as keen to experiment with food and wine combinations to build upon the results of the Hong Kong International Wine and Spirit Competition’s attempt to find the ideal wines to partner a range of classic Chinese dishes. My hunch that Cru Beaujolais would stand up to a spicy Sichuan beef dish proved correct: Morgon, Côte du Py, Vieilles Vignes, 2008, Christophe Cordier (available from Majestic) not only maintained its fruit, but also helped to lift the spice of the dish. A later experiment, this time with East African Asian cuisine, also showed the potential of young, fruity Beaujolais as a partner for a range of complex, spicy flavours. The successful wine this time was the recently released Chénas 2009, Cave du Château de Chénas (also from Majestic).

And so to Beaujolais itself, with a group of sixteen wine lovers in the last week of May. As the trip was split between the Beaujolais and the Mâconnais, our investigation of both regions could only be brief, but it was enough to shed some light on the issues facing the region’s wine producers and also a welcome opportunity to taste a number of wines from the much praised 2009 vintage.

Three conversation with winegrowers stood out, all of whom were concerned about the future of Beaujolais wine and had all made major changes to their viticultural practice or business model in recent years.

Franck Lathuilière tends about 13 hectares of vines mostly classified for Beaujolais Villages, including one substantial single parcel, close to the old family winery near Vaux en Beaujolais (I’m written more about him recently in The Journal). In recent years, he and his wife Annie have diversified their business by offering a gîte for holiday rental and have expanded their wine range to include sparkling wine, both a ‘méthode traditionelle’ and a pink, 8% abv pétillant, as well as rosé, white Beaujolais, grape juice and a range of preserves.  Over the last four or five years they have succeeded in selling their wine to individual clients, local restaurants, a single supermarket in the north of France and to two UK importers. They no longer need to sell wine in bulk to négociants. Franck’s winemaking practices are thoroughly traditional, including aging some wine in large old foudres. He’s in the process of conversion to an organic regime and has begun to experiment with some biodynamic treatments. Like many other growers he has also begun to restructure his vineyard from gobelet to a version of Cordon Royat on wires, to enable him to grass between the rows, a change which he also believes has helped produce earlier, more consistent ripening.

Diversification, change and increased independence are working for him, but he expressed alarm at the financial difficulties faced by many growers in the region, especially in the Bas Beaujolais where some have been forced to grub up vineyards and others, he said planting not only much more Chardonnay but are abandoning the Beaujolais appellation altogether and are trying their luck with Syrah and even Viognier.

This trend was verified by Vincent Lacondemine, who has 4 hectares of vines around Beaujeu, also in Beaujolais Villages. ‘Beaujolais really is in crisis,’ he told me, ‘Eighty percent of the growers here sell to the négotiants, and there’s no profit in that at all.’ His response has been to give up two hectares of land that had been held in métayage (the crop-sharing system that is still widespread in Beaujolais) and to aim for the highest possible quality on his on remaining plots, which he is also converting to organic and reconstructing on wires with grass between the rows. His aim is to make wines that express complexity and minerality and he quizzed me at length about how they may be received by UK consumers. He sells a lot of his wine to Northern Europe, but also to Nick Dobson in the UK, for whom he expresses great affection and respect. He too has diversified his range with a rosé (’I was a bit reticent about it at first and I didn’t get it right first time, but my clients asked for one’) and a white, subtly oaked Beaujolais Villages. My group greatly admired the elegant minerality of this, which from vines grown on a granitic soil was so very different from those of neighbouring Mâconnais.

Further north, Thierry Condemine has 35 hectares grouped around the fine eighteenth-century Château de Juliénas, bought by his great-grandfather in 1907. He welcomes the changes to the rules for the appellation of Juliénas in 2004 that also allow a restructuring of the vineyard and the reduction of the vine density from 10,000 to -6,000 plants per hectare. He has only replanted 1.5 hectares so far, but is delighted with the results. He believes that they not only allows a quicker, more effective intervention to be made if treatments are needed; but that the vines are healthier and ripen more evenly; as his colleagues have also found. Complete reconstructing however, will be he insists, a lifetime’s task. He would dearly love to sell his wines in the UK, but has not yet managed to find an importer and blames the poor exchange rate for his lack of success.

My group enjoyed the wines from all three producers and over the course of our week in the region were impressed by wines from several other domains. They praised their ability to partner food well and welcomed the characteristics of accessibility, lower alcohol and complexity that Vincent Lacondemine strives to achieve and which appeal to Majestic customers back home.

Above all, they were thrilled by the quality of the 2009 vintage, which was consistently fruity and forward, yet rich balanced and often beautifully textured.  A barrel sample of Lacondemine’s single vineyard ‘Le Chapital’ proved a prefect example: spicy and concentrated, with masses of ripe red and black fruit, a splendid balance of juicy acidity, silky tannins and elegant minerality.

They went to the region with mixed expectations, some of which were very close to those of the independent wine merchant I spoke to. They came away saddened and puzzled that some growers feel that they can no longer make a living from Gamay and that the reputation of Beaujolais has fallen so low; yet were certain that if the 2009s they had tasted were readily available at a fair price, they would fly off the shelves. Like me, they wonder if the efforts to change vineyard practice have come too late. Can the magnificent 2009 vintage help to restore the fortunes of the Beaujolais?