Monday, 26 March 2012

Saturday, 24 March 2012

Le Bigarrade

A disclaimer:

The following is not going to make me look good. There is no way in which I can explain that which I wish to explain without looking like a right over privileged nob.

Ok, so on a whim I decided not to cook but to go for dinner at a place I’d been thinking about for a while. It was a recommendation; I knew nothing of the place save the name. I certainly didn’t know that the menu would offer me eight courses or twelve, or that it was a two Michelin starred temple to ‘le cuisine zen Francais’ not my words.

So instead of telling you about the meal I’m going to list the things that annoyed me.

My aperitif of €20 Infloresence Champagne took ages to arrive, then, mere moments later the first glass of my tasting menu wines arrived with the first two amuse dishes. Bear with me here. So you’re a two star restaurant only offering tasting menus, with an emphasis on wine matching with natural wines. Hence I am to assume that this glass you have just set down in front of me has been carefully selected to complement the two dishes with which it arrived. This leaves me quite the quandary. What am I to do? Eat the dishes whilst enjoying my Champagne (my €20 Champagne at that) and potentially miss out on the palette fireworks that the proffered glass would no doubt have offered? Drink the glass of wine (a Loire Sauvignon as it happened) whilst leaving my glass of €20 Champagne to gently warm and go flat? Or scarf the fucking bubbly whilst the maître d’ looked on somewhat akin to a rugby club captain surveying his new charges during initiation?

The third and fourth glasses of wine were warm, I’m pretty relaxed about wine temperatures, but these were too warm.

The fifth dish arrived bearing a jauntily placed half spear of asparagus. One small asparagus bisected lengthways. Asparagus are expensive vegetables, especially so early, but really, what in gods name is the benefit of only serving me half on one? Maybe it’s the chefs attempt to induce the wistfulness of longing, memories of asparagus halves past. Who knows, all it said to me was tight fisted fuckwad.

Speaking of which, the wine measures. I had seven different wines, Sauvignon, Chenin, Pouilly fume, Chenin, two St Josephs and a Coteaux de Layon. For €70, ffs if I really wanted I could check all the prices, but I know they weren’t particularly expensive wines, yes they were all nice, but Jesus Christ, they could at least have given me some salve afterwards to help with the chafing next time I tried to sit down.

As the third wine was an excellent Pouilly Fume from Alexandre Bain I had been savouring it somewhat, completely forgetting that it had been poured into the same glass as the first two. Hence, when the next wine was due to arrive I still had wine in my glass (I Know so careless of me to upset their serving rhythm so terribly). I’d like to inform you that the maître d’ wordlessly placed a new glass on the table and went on with his business, but no, we were back to the looming at the table bottle in hand waiting for me to finish my glass before we could continue. It’s a wonder he managed to stop himself from rapping his fingers impatiently on my table.

Wine four was a St Joseph, a lovely natural one from domaine des Sept Lunes.

Wine five was a St Joseph, a lovely natural one from domaine des Sept Lunes. Yep you did read that right, they served me two virtually identical wines in succession as part of a €70 wine flight. Yes the second was a different cuvee, and I’m certain that had I tasted the two side by side it would have gifted me with priceless insights into the various terroirs that domaine des Sept Lunes work upon. However I was having dinner, an expensive one at that. Am I seriously to imagine that given the multitude of natural wines from France from which they had to play, they could not find something more suitable to go with the second dish.

Which was cheese, the eighth dish. Yes out of an advertised twelve course tasting menu we’ve reached the cheese at the eighth dish. That’s including amuse bouches.

The cheeses were a small piece of chavignol, and some comte. As the waiter didn’t elaborate as to what age comte, I enquired, it was a twelve month old. Only twelve, not an eighteen, or a twenty four, not the sort of comte I expect to find in a fucking two star restaurant. No, not that sort.

Milk sorbet with nori. So I double-checked, nori, like the seaweed? No, it’s not a seaweed was the reply; actually yes it was a seaweed. And in case you’re wondering, no. Nori should never be served with milk sorbet. It’s been a very long time since I’ve had the pleasure of such an objectionable combination in my mouth. The nori, cold and damp, leaking its ever so slimy algal sea wateriness into the rather delicate milk sorbet. Somewhat akin to seeing an innocent fresh faced young girl being corrupted by some nightmare of an oriental seaman. I’ll concede that for the analogy to work you do have to take on the mindset of a rather prim Victorian sort, but I digress.

I’m tired now so I’m going to finish by giving you the response to my request for a marc or grappa (to get rid of the bad taste in my mouth). ‘bah, non, mai on a un super vielle rhum qui est assez similar”.

Oh and I left still hungry. I’m not even going to bother broaching the topic of what constitutes acceptable dish size in comparison to bouche in a tasting menu format. I’ve appended the photos below, please try to identify the bouches and the dishes for me, I’m still slightly at a loss.

Friday, 23 March 2012

Zero Dosage Redux

A new concept? A marketing driven idea to appeal to drinkers who prefer dryer wines? Or a the only sensible response to the climatic changes that have taken place over the last century?

Champagne is a cool climate region. The sparkling wine that we know and love arose in part as a response to the fact that the growers couldn’t get their grapes ripe enough to make successful dry wines. A secondary fermentation boosted the alcohol content and gave the wines the bubbles they needed to succeed.

Champagne has traditionally always been given a liquor de dosage after the disgorgement. This tailored the flavour profile for which ever market was being delivered to.

That was a long time ago.

Markets have changed, the world has changed, for a start it’s got warmer.

To quote the CIVC:

The harvest begins 14 day earlier
The potential  degree of alcohol of grapes is 0.8 % vol higher
The total acidity of grapes is 2 gH²SO4/l lower

So obviously the Champagnes being made are going to be slightly different, or at the very least the process is going to change in order to keep their flavour profle the same?

Average dates of flower set and harvest since 1951 in Champagne

Now breaking those figures down a little bit we can look at the change in both average % abv and g/l total acidity of Champagnes still wines for the three main grape varieties over the last 40 years. Figures from

Average Chardonnay vin clair % abc and g/l Total Acidity 

Average Pinot Noir vin clair % abc and g/l Total Acidity 
Average Pinot Meunier vin clair % abc and g/l Total Acidity

What we see here is a very clear trend towards riper grapes with a lower acidity.

Maturity Index for Champagne grapes (sugar/acidity)

Further more, this isn’t the only change that’s occurred in the region in the last 30 years. Better understanding of wine microbiology has meant that winemakers are better able to deal with malolactic fermentation.

Below a pH of about 3, a wine is unlikely to undergo malolactic fermentation without a sizeable degree of help, be that inoculation with a malolactic ferment starter culture or heating of the barrel.

One should note that far and away the worst situation is for malo to occur in bottle, a sure fire way for a winemaker to lose their job. So it’s safer to put all the wines through malo, thus further reducing acidities.

Benoit Tarlant of Champagne Tarlant estimates that about 90% of wines in the region are now put through malo, this as opposed to the about 40% that was the case 40 years ago. Clearly we have a significant change in style.

This is where zero dosage comes in. Riper vin clair wines, better phenolic ripeness, more intensity of fruit, there ceases to be any need for dosage. The wines are quite capable of being balanced on their own.

Yes growers will need to age the wines sur lees for a bit longer (usually about a year), yes more reserve wines will be needed. Yes it requires a bit more effort, but Champagne is a premium product for a reason.

A clarification

On the use and abuse of terminology.

There has been some very ill tempered commentating going on in the last week relating to the use of the term ‘natural’ to describe wines.

While I agree with those who feel that it unfairly stigmatized those wines deemed not ‘natural’ I feel that it’s almost certainly too late to do anything about it. Like it or not the horse has bolted, there’s no use shutting the stable door now.

However, I also feel that we’re doing the consumer a slight disservice and underestimating their ability to deal with things. Most general consumers are unlikely to come into contact with minimal intervention wines unless they happen to be in a wine bar or specialist shop that deals with them. The likelihood is that there will therefor be someone who can explain the distinctions to them.

Moreover, I think that people who attack the category miss the essential broadening of the category that has taken place. The natural church seems to me a very broad one. Where the essential feature is a belief in offering as honest a representation of the growers terroir as possible. It is in this sense that winemaking additions and manipulations are frowned upon as it is viewed as altering or touching up the picture.

I personally have no problem with wines that are made in this way, there is a goal to the winemaking process, and that is to produce a high quality product that will please consumers, it may be to make something that will age wonderfully, and it is here that I should mention that most of my stand out greatest wine drinking experiences have been from wines that were made from non organic vineyards, and probably quite heavily sulphured too. Age ameliorates many things.

So with this in mind what then is the importance of natural, why does it seem to have such a siren call to people? Why has it been so enthusiastically embraced in some of the less well-known corners of the wine world?

Personally I think it’s because it has come as an important corrective movement. For a grower faced with his plot of vines, none of which are proscribed noble varieties, he or she in maybe in a marginal climate and as such isn’t going to be able to make rich luscious, expensively oaked wines. What to do? Accept ones place in the lower order and carry on making unprofitable bulk wine for a dying domestic market? Or celebrate the intricacy of their particular patch of terroir? Homogeneity is never interesting, embracement of diversity only makes the world more interesting.

Yes there are extremists, yes there are wines that are cidery, cloudy, slightly faulty, but to me using these to tar everything under the natural umbrella is akin to knocking everything out of Bordeaux on the strength of a couple of 200% new oak St Emilion garagistes.

The pendulum of fashion is swinging, and the thing I find most exciting about the natural movement is how it will change the middle ground, as that is where most of us actually live and drink.

Wednesday, 21 March 2012


Quick post on a wine that I wanted to like but ultimately didn't. Olivier Pithon is a great grower who's top wines I've worked with on many an occasion. His magisterial Lais blanc is one such wine.
However his little Pithon, which was suggested to me as a fresh juicy Tuesday evening wine really showed up the problems inherent with white wine making in the south of France, yes it was fruity, but other than that it was lacking acidity and there wasn't enough character to cover up the 12.8% alcohol. Maybe if I'd been drinking it ice cold it would have been ok, but that kind of defeats the purpose doesn't it..

Having said that it did provoke the question as to exactly what 'hung like a horse' would be in French. 'Monté comme un cheval' for those wondering.

Also it has the dubious honour of having one of the more annoying side labels that I've seen in a while.
12.8% Vol - 87.2% d'Eau - 100% Plaisir. One was not amused.

I'll still try the red though....

Monday, 19 March 2012

The queue last night for Le Camion Qui Fume

So this was the queue last night for Le Camion Qui Fume, it's really frustrating because they're great burgers, but I'm just not prepared to wait the best part of an hour to get one. Oh and this was at about five minutes past seven, they opened at seven.


October 2010, I’m up in the dusty eves of one of All Saints large tin sheds, it’s pushing the high 20s and it’s still early spring. There’s a mess of differently sized ancient barrels stacked three or four high. Dan Crane is piping viscous deep glowing ochre liquid into our glasses. It’s immensely powerful, aromatic, nutty, figgy, but with a slight earthiness, maybe some black tea like notes, definitely perfumed.

March 2012, I’m in a smart Parisian Chinese restaurant, there are immaculately suited waiters fritting around. Luc de Contiis pouring me a glass of a lightly yellow golden wine, it’s intriguing an almost mandarin flower like note on the nose, floral but a little restrained on the palette it’s minerally with an almost saline like edge, again not flashy but with lovely persistence and a quivering liveliness that sets the palette off.

So why mention the two together? Well each in their different way they’re examples of the pinnacle of Muscadelle. Derided in Bordeaux as a nothing varietal, occasionally added to dry white blends to add a little florality, but allowed no more than a mere sideline presence. Misidentified in the Rutherglen until 1979 when it’s real identity was gleamed from beneath its Tokay moniker.

Luc de Conti from Domaine Tour des Gendres professes to love the variety, so much that he makes his Conti-Ne Perigourdine Bergerac Sec from about 95% Muscadelle, but he says it’s difficult to grow, compared to Sauvignon or Semillon it’s a truculent child in the vineyard, reluctant to show its true charms. In Australia it owes it’s current status to Colin Campbell who pretty much single handedly dragged the reputation of Rutherglens stickies out of the doldrums, but even there it’s less well known than it’s sibling Muscat.

It might be an underdog but that doesn’t stop me liking it.

Sunday, 18 March 2012

Riffault an oxidative riddle

Sancerre from Sebastien Riffault, in this particular case Akmenine 09, it’s a bruised apple flesh coloured golden, it’s far from clear. The nose is manifestly oxidative, all bruised apple notes, but yet somehow staying just on the right side of fully acetyl aldehyde. There’s a complex ripe cool climate fruit character that’s present, there are some aromatic almost, but not quite floral elements. The whole shouldn’t work, but yet on drinking the wine, it’s thrillingly good, rollercoaster acidity, the whole palette seems to be all tight muscle, even the oxidative notes, which usually loll about like love handles on a well fed belly. It just all seems to work.

What’s worse is that when you compare the Akemenine with Skeveldra one of his other cuvees the differences are so evident that it forces consideration of the question as to how the winesz can be so marked by a chemical process and yet still show much more of the terroirs from whence they came than most (if not all) other Loire Sauvignons.

Friday, 16 March 2012

Bergerac and Montravel

In the light of Parker giving a record 18 perfect 100 point scores to the 2009 Bordeaux wines and the subsequent price hike that has ensued. I thought that it would be a good time to look at Bordeaux’s neighbors.

If you follow the Dordogne river inland you pass directly from Bordeaux into the rolling Bergerac countryside. 
As might be expected the wines are stylistically similar with Semillon, Sauvignon Blanc and Muscadelle being grown for whites, and the Bordeaux quadrilogy predominant for the reds. Those that like their ampelographic trivia will be pleased to know that merille and perigord can also be found (though to my knowledge I’ve yet to taste them).

There are both sweet wines from Saussignac and the once coveted Monbazillac, and reds, but I was only looking at dry whites and pinks.

In Australia they have coined the delightful neologism that is the Savalanche, the avalanche or tidal wave of cheapish fresh Kiwi Sauvignon, against which their domestic producers cannot compete in the fresh summer drinking market. Well Bergerac can, this (along with the Cote de Duras) is prime fresh summer Sauvignon territory. The wines are nicely priced and personally I’m always a bit surprised that we don’t see more of them in the UK market, given our established predilection for all things Sauvignon.

The standard blend is mostly Sauvignon Blanc with smidgens of Semillon and Muscadelle to add body and aromatics. This works well, the Muscadelle more often than not adding a delicate white flower or mandarin like note to the wines.

Chateau Roque Peyre, a smallish family owned estate seemed to me to demonstrate exactly what Bergerac Blanc was offering, their cuvee Subtilite being 90% Sauvignon with the rest being Semillon and Muscadelle, temperature controlled steel tank fermentation with a preferment skin maceration had delivered a delightfully aromatic nosewith ripe stone and tropical fruits on the palette some vibrant acidity and just a touch of apple skin on the finish. All this for €4.80ish.

Most producers make a rose, though there has been a slight chance in style over the years, with people complaining that domestically people either want something slightly sweet, or the salmon pinkish herbal tinged hues of their Provencale competitors.

Chateau de la Jaubertie approach the issue with two cuvees, a fruity blend, resplendent with strawberry and raspberry like notes that called for mot much more than some friends, sunshine and a corner of a park (I might stoop to glasses too).

Their Mirabelle rose de Chateau de la Jaubertie was somewhat more interesting, 100% Merlot fermented in barrique and spending 6 months on lees. This was closer in colour to a Clairette, and was much more restrained in the fruit department, making up for this with a fuller and more appealing mouth feel and certain seriousness of purpose, herby cold roast lamb with a well dressed salad perhaps, definitely a rose for the table though.

Stepping up in the seriousness stakes brought the more age worthy whites.

Hence Montravel:

The first sub region reached as one ventures inland on the right bank, to put it in a geographic context this abuts the edge of the Cotes de Castillon, a name which should make English wine lovers misty eyed in reverie of what could have been, for it was there in 1451 that John of Talbot lost the final and decisive battle in the hundred years war, casting the Bordelais into the purgatory that was being French (and look how badly they’ve suffered since). However I digress.

Montravel is an appellation for classy whites, legally Semillon must make a minimum of 25% of the blend and it’s for this that producers tend to label their crisp, fruity, aromatic and Sauvignon dominated cuvees as Bergerac Blanc while retaining the Montravel appellation for their more serious barrique aged cuvee. It’s said that there is a more mineral nervosity to the wines of Montravel in comparison to Bergerac, but this was hard to see given the way that most of the Bergerac Blancs I tasted were clearly designed to highlight Sauvignon aromatics, so a comparison would have been slightly unfair.

Chateau du Bloy, Le Bloy, Montravel Sec 09 fitted this mold neatly, a healthy 20% of Semillon (yes I know that legally there needs to be 25%, so either my reference book is out of date, or it’s the common issue in France where no one pays a blind bit of notice to the letters of the law) and barrique ageing. This was all citrus oils and minerals, a slightly salty finish and that wet stone patina of bottle age.

I like Bergerac wines a lot, they fit neatly into a price quality ratio that I’m happy with,  obviously there are outliers in the region, Chateau Tour des Gendres immediately springs to mind, but I’ll cover them in more detail along with the intriguing Chateau Masburels Montravel later.

Monday, 5 March 2012

With a touch of Elderflower....

I'd like to pretend that I don't like starting fights or rubbing people up the wrong way, but this would be a lie. I love it.

I noticed a link to a Pinterest (which I instinctively tried to type as Pinoterest, I might be a lost cause) describing a wine as having a 'charming elderflower creaminess'*. Now I've certainly notices an elderflower like note in many a wine. However today I was reminded of the 1993 Intellectual Property ruling that found against Allbev (& another) in favour of Taittinger (& others) over the use of the term Champagne.

Now I fully understand that no beverage made with elderflowers, sparkling or otherwise can fulfil the legal requirements of being labelled a Champagne, however if I was an elderflower wine seller I might bristle at my unique ingredient being used to describe a product which by dint of the laws governing it's right to use it's unique regional identifier cannot contain any elderflower, essence or otherwise...

I've long though that given the unique litigiousness of the French wine producers, c.f. 'Vendage Tardive' being a term only useable within Alsace that there ought to be some sort of karmic rebalancing. Maybe the good burghers of Tramin (or Termeno) ought to complain that Alsatian Gewürztraminer has no reason to appropriate their towns name (Gewurz-Spicy, Traminer-from Tramin) and as such needs renaming.. Or maybe I should stop being mischievous... 

*I appreciate that Bolney Bubbly is an English Sparkling Wine and not a Champagne, but I couldn't be bothered to find a tasting note for a Champagne using the term...