All posts by Jim Wilson

Shakespeare nut, blues fan, horse racing fanatic (Frankel, Sea The Stars, Denman and the late, great Moscow Flyer), falling off large Scottish hills etc. Oh, and eating chocolate: lots of it. Not good...

Chile: A Call at Midnight

My first trip to Chile for a few years (I used to travel here three or four times a year in the first decade of this century) and this is the first time I’ve managed to get here in one flight, having previously always changed en route: good start!

 

Interesting conversation on the plane before take-off between the cabin crew and a musician sitting in front of me. He had paid for his cello to be on the seat next to him instead of going in the hold, and there was a ten-minute discussion in which the crew told him that they’d “been boning up on the airline health and safety instructions and they state that the cello must be placed with the fat part of the body on top…”

 

The good start is dampened somewhat by one of the longest immigration queues I’ve seen in ages, but the frustration dissipates when you get into the chilly ice clear Santiago morning and are soon careering down Avenida Libertador General Bernardo O’Higgins (still amuses me).

 

I then spend some time in a bar watching the highlights the final day of the Premiership and chuckle at a tweet which says that the Wolves supporters are celebrating non-existent Brighton goals to mess with the Liverpool supporters’ heads.

 

Then Roberto Echeverria arrives with a bear hug and we begin the three hour journey to the estate at Molina in the Curico region. The Echeverrias are one of our longest-standing partners, and as we walk through the gallery in the beautiful hacienda house, Roberto shows me the ancient wind-up wall-mounted telephone from which his father took the call from Peter Hallgarten late one night in 1993 to tell him that Hallgarten was about to place its first order.

Some of the faces are familiar, but as we enter the winery I meet one who isn’t: Victor Ribera, a Valencia-born winemaker who bears an uncanny resemblance to Nacho Varga in Better Call Saul and who has worked at the winery for the last five years. It is Victor who does the jumping around among the barrels to draw samples, while Roberto – who married Julia, one of our sales executives a few years ago and who obviously enjoys her cooking – watches on with a patriarch’s nodding approval.

 

We begin with the tanks and taste a selection of Sauvignon Blancs and Chardonnays from the home estate – the Chardonnay (clone 76) which will go into the Unwooded Chardonnay Reserva already has a splash of Viognier which gives it a big dollop of richness.

 

We then try another Chardonnay which has a fabulous nose of vanilla chocolate and orange peel, and Roberto sees my eyebrow lift quizzically. “This will be one of our Natural wines,” he tells me. “So fermentation is much slower and it hasn’t yet gone through malo.” “I didn’t know you made Natural wines,” I admit. Roberto grins. “This is what I wanted to show you.” He tells me that he originally made a very small batch for their Canadian importer, Steven Campbell,  and then sold a parcel to New York which sold out in a week. Any orange type wine is snapped up immediately by the Big Apple!

This is my first visit since the huge earthquake in 2010. I remember at the time Roberto sending me videos and photos of the massive damage to the winery, with tanks split and massive structural damage. Now he shows me a tank with what looks like a huge scar along one side. “After we’d sorted out all the insurance, we had these broken tanks sitting here, so we pulled them apart and put them together.”

 

I love wineries. I love tasting the raw fruit. I often want to say: “But don’t bother with ageing for a year; just bottle now.” In the past that has usually been met with the winemaker rolling his eyes at my enthusiasm or stupidity. But now Roberto tells me this is what they are doing. “We are removing the juice from the skins much faster and we are toning down the amount we put in barrel. We are trying to get the wines out fresher than we used to.”

We taste ravishingly young Cabernet Franc, piercing Merlot, and then heart-stopping Cabernet Sauvignon. Victor laughs at my spitting, some of which misses the spittoon and some of which dribbles down my chin. A confession: after 30 years in the trade (which I’ll celebrate in August), I have still not mastered the art of spitting. I have a colleague who can hit a target from fifteen feet and make a spittoon sing at impact, but I’m more of a gobber than a spitter.

 

One of the Cabernets has so far been treated as a Natural wine – no sulphur, wild yeast fermentation – but Roberto tells me that not all will be bottled as Natural and some will go into the conventional blends. But this Cabernet has such steeliness and verve. “Previously we would have used barrels to soften the tannins; now we’re looking to soften the fruit tannins during fermentation to remove that need,” explains Roberto.

 

We go to a dark corner of the winery where Victor carries out his experiments. “We hide them here so no-one can shift them accidentally!” Some of these barrels contain the wines which have been part of a project which Roberto has made with Steven Campbell and winemaker Thomas Bachelder, using fruit from Litueche on the Colchagua coast. The wines are destined to be bottled under the RST label.

We taste a Cabernet Sauvignon inoculated with a Tuscan yeast – “My baby,” says Victor. I am shown the Cabernet Sauvignon destined for the Family Reserve being pumped off the skins “earlier than in the past” and I then taste two separate juices from the pressed grapes, one of which has an incredible primitive stalkiness. We taste a Carignan and a Garnacha, so-named in honour of Victor. The Garnacha has a fabulous smokiness. “Only 300 dozen produced,” Roberto tells me. I tell him to let me know when he is going to release it. Then, an amazing Garnacha-Mourvedre blend.

I am excited about this visit and, later, as we walk through the 80-hectare vineyard, and Roberto shows me where they are replanting with better clones, I find myself thinking back to that midnight phone call in 1993, and reflecting on how good it is that one of our longest-standing, and probably more traditional producers, is meeting today’s wine challenges. I must make sure Roberto sends me those experimental wines!

 

For more information on any wines from Viña Echeverria, please speak to your account manager.

Who made wine first – Armenia or Georgia?

Until very recently, if you’d asked me about Armenia, I’d have had to have thought fairly long and hard. Religion? High priests, pointy hats, long beards? Maybe I would recall some vague memory from the history classroom of the Armenian genocide of 1915. Oh, and the Kardashians, of course. After that…

 

But step forward Victoria Aslanian, owner of the ArmAs winery. “These are only some of the things Armenians have invented,” she states indignantly. “Colour TV; single pour faucets; MRI machines; the MIG jet; bendy straws; ice cream cones; car transmissions. And did you know, Armenians make up thirty per cent of all Moscow-Los Angles Aeroflot flights.”

 

You learn very quickly not to mess with Victoria. Choosing the main course for dinner, she senses our hesitancy. “Ah, decisions, decisions,” she says. “Like when you first use your tongue. Should you go right or left?” She had greeted us on our arrival at our Yerevan hotel with: “I’ve had a bottle of wine sent up to your rooms. And some dried fruit. Later I will send up the girls.”

This is one sassy lady.

 

And don’t even try arguing with her about whether Georgia or Armenia came first in the winemaking stakes. “We were first. Six thousand years ago. Actually, probably a bit longer.”

 

We had driven from Tbilisi to Yerevan. It takes six hours but seems to last forever. The scenery in southern Georgia is drab, but when you pass into Armenia, via a very dreary Eastern European border crossing that brings to mind John le Carré – and with a Major Toilet Blockage Issue – you are suddenly in the land of snow-capped mountains, switchback roads and grip-the-armrests drama. And round every corner the potential to glimpse Ararat.

 

It is hard not to be enchanted by Yerevan, apparently one of the world’s oldest continuously inhabited cities, but now with a vibrant pavement cafe culture, full of youth and heady promise. At eight in the evening the streets swarm with promenading families, and, later (this city stays open very late), students chat noisily in the endless wine bars on Teryan Street.

 

The following day we take the 40 minute journey to the ArmAs winery. It was founded in 2007 by Victoria’s father, Armenak Aslanian. There are 180 hectares lying 1880 meters above sea level, 30 layers of soils, and over 300 days of sunshine per year. “Look, it’s volcanic soil,” she says, running it through her fingers. “It has limestone and calcium carbonate.”

“It will produce mineral wine,” says Steve.

 

Winemaker Emilio Del Medico is not present, so Victoria conducts the tasting. Of the two whites we try (Kangun and Voskehat), it is the Voskehat that is looking much the better, with a 2016 showing huge perfume and elderflowers on the nose, and a rich, lyrical intensity on the mouth. There’s a touch of the Gruner Veltliner about it.

 

But it is the reds which are the real stars. Areni is Armenia’s best known variety and may be, according to Wine Grapes, a cross between a Sangiovese and a Pinot Noir. The 2012 vintage has a lovely nose, lots of dark fruits and mulberries, and a beautiful silky mouthfeel. The Reserve version has extra oomph, is raisiny and more alcoholic. I prefer the basic. However, for me it is the Karmrahyut which is the best grape we taste. The 2014 has incredible perfume, rose petals and violets, and is soft and easy drinking, like a really great Beaujolais. Meanwhile, the 2013 Reserve is another beast altogether, with voluptuous and dark plummy fruits, and hints of pomegranates. The Karmrahyut is an unusual grape in that the juice is red, rather than clear. Victoria has used this uniqueness to make a rose wine, by having only one hour of skin contact. The result is a beautifully light red wine with masses of soft berry fruit.

Later we sit on the veranda before dinner, hoping for a glimpse of Mount Ararat, but, alas, it is cloudy. Victoria is still in full flow. She tells us that Armenia has an incredibly patriotic diaspora. “It’s amazing the amount of Armenians who have been displaced and who come back at every opportunity. I am biased, but I think we are one of the proudest countries in the world.”

 

It’s hard not to disagree. Over the years this country has suffered at the hands of Turkey and Azerbaijan, and remains (along with Georgia) an island of Christianity surrounded by Muslim countries. You have to feel a natural affinity for it – even before you taste the amazing array of grapes they produce.

 

Plucky is the word I am looking for.

Georgia On My Mind

I had wanted to come to Georgia for a few years now, but after spending four agonising hours en route in a half-finished and desperately grey Kiev airport, I was beginning to have second thoughts. Thankfully, one flight later that all began to change and, as we drove in darkness from Tbilisi Airport, the neon lights of a city never appeared more welcoming. A slightly bonkers taxi driver added to the fun. Hearing we were from the UK, he decided to demonstrate his knowledge of London football teams.

“Tottingham. London, yes?”

“Ah, yes,” we said.

“Chel-SEA.”

“Yes. Chelsea.”

“London. Very good. Arsen-AL, Ful-HAM, Vumbledon!”

“Yes.”

“West Ham UNITVED, West Brom-WICH Alvion!”

“Yes. Oh no, hold on. Not West Brom.”

“West Brom-WICH Alvion!”

“No, Not London. Birmingham. Sort of.”

“London!”

We kept quiet and let him get on with it, and thankfully a few minutes later this nutter pulled up outside one of the old town’s evocative hotels, the kind you look at longingly as you drive down the street before realising with glee that this is the one you’re staying in.

 

It was midnight, but, thankfully, Tbilisi appears to be a city that rarely sleeps and we were able to grab a bite to eat. Next morning we were met nice and early by Vladimer Kublashvili, who sounds like a racing driver but who is the chief winemaker at Khareba. It takes around three hours to drive to one of Khareba’s wineries at Terjola in Imeriti in western Georgia (their other main winery is in the east in Kakheti.) We zoom past Josef Stalin’s birthplace of Gori (“most people keep quiet about it, but you do get some worshippers,” says Vladimer.)

 

It’s a slightly odd landscape. On the one hand you might be driving through Surrey; other times the view reminds me of the flat plains of northern Italy as you drive towards Verona from Brescia; turn a corner and you have an Alpine scene in front of you; the snow-capped mountains bring to mind Mendoza; and once you get north of Tbilisi, that dusty straight road could be the famed Dead Dog Highway of Chile’s past. And – making us feel at home – the flag of Saint George seems to be flying everywhere.

 

We visit three of their vineyards to look at Tsitska, Krakhuna, Tsolikouri and Otskhanuri Sapere. Khareba has too many white grapes so they are planning on distilling some into brandy, explains Vladimer. On the other hand, there is so much demand for Saperavi that they are planting another 200 hectares.

The winery, renovated in 2011, is so clean you could eat your lunch off the floor. Here, they produce more than 40 premium still and sparkling wines, working with 20 indigenous grape varieties. Vladimer then shows us round the 900 square-metre ageing cellar equipped with French oak barrels.

 

And then we go to the hallowed Qvevri room. I get an odd sensation, a sense of wonderment. It is as if the values and traditions of the trade in which I have practiced for the last thirty years are being re-evaluated and reinvented before my very eyes.

Gazing once more out at the vineyards, Vladimer says that they are investigating converting part of their production onto biodynamic wine. “We called in and expert and we asked how much he thought we should convert,” says Vladimer. “He replied: “Well, how much are you prepared to risk?””

 

We begin the tasting. As with a lot of Georgian wineries, they split their production between the traditional Qvevri wines and more modern, European style wines.

 

Of the European style wines, a 2018 Rkatsiteli (“Rick Astley” back in our tasting room) has a beautiful saline feel to it. You get a hint of the superb minerality of this grape without the extreme Qvevri overtones. This is Pinot Grigio with Attitude. The 2018 Krakhuna has a touch of the Campania about it to me, though Steve thinks Malagoussia, with a hint of grassiness complementing a richness on the palate. The real star of the modern whites, however, is a 2018 Mtsvane, a nuclear grape with a powerful nose of ginger and coriander, yet stunningly light on the palate. Of the Qvevri whites, a 2017 Tsitska has an amazing mouthfeel, “like sucking water through a bed of silt,” says Vladimer, an challenging description which somehow does the wine justice. But the best Qvevri wine is a 2014 Rkatsiteli, with masses of quince – funky doesn’t even come close.

Of the reds, we’re talking Saperavi, Sapervi, Saperavi! The first (2018) is a gorgeous, rasping mouthful of cheery cherry fruit, exactly what a Beaujolais should be. Higher up, the grape becomes more complex and more savoury. A mid-range version from the Mukuzani region is an epic wine and reminds me of Malbec in its silkiness, and also of a Lancelotta, that dark coloured Emilia Romagna grape which goes into Lambrusco and which used to be sent up to Burgundy to add colour.

 

The Qvevri reds are equally as shocking as the whites. A rare 2013 Otskhanuri Sapere (there are only 20 hectares in the whole of Georgia) has an amazing nose, with salami and orange peel, and lasts forever in the mouth. An Aladusturi has wet, earthy tones with loads of green vegetables. A 2018 vintage, the tannins are still young and rasping, but it will develop superbly. We end with another fabulous 2015 Saperavi, with liquorice, eucalyptus and bay leaves. It has a very “grapey” feel and has soft tannins.

 

What a tasting! I reflect later, as we eat dinner at the g. vino wine bar in the old town’s vibrant Erekle Street, listening to an old hippie murder a series of early 70s British rock classics, throwing in some Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd and Deep Purple. With its stunning mix of Byzantine, Neoclassical, Art Nouveau, Beaux-Arts and Middle Eastern architecture, Tbilisi is a beautiful city. And with an amazing nightlife, it may be the next go-to stag destination – but it deserves better than that.

 

This could be just the end of another buying trip. But, oddly, it feels much more than that. This is a centuries–old country which feels incredibly young (at least the capital does). They unashamedly celebrate their traditions but are incredibly inquisitive about western culture. They have put up with repeated Russian incursions and come out of the other end smiling.

 

I’ve rather fallen in love with Georgia.

 

Mind you, I cannot get out of my head the thought that there is some demented taxi driver raging at the night: “Chel-SEA! Arsen-AL! Ful-HAM! Vumbledon! West Ham UNITVED! West Brom-WICH Alvion!”

Poise, elegance, balance – a Nureyev wine

You forget just how steep the vineyards can be in Tuscany. Rolling hills, lone cypress trees, hilltop villages and medieval fortresses, yes, they all spring to mind when you think of Chiantishire. But, crikey, this is a steep slope.

We are at the top of the hill and the vines on both sides are majestic, the patterned seersucker rows stretching hypnotically into the distance. This is EM Forster country, but all I can think of is: I hope this driver knows what he is doing. There are four Land Rovers in single file formation, and our driver waits until the one in front has negotiated the slope before engaging the gears. And away we slither.

But, of course, we need not have worried. Riccardo Giorgi and his team are not only excellent winemakers, but they are expert at manoeuvring four wheel drives around the vineyard. And what a vineyard!

Tenuta Perano lies in the heart of the Chianti Classico region in Gaiole. And the reason for the procession of four wheel drives is because Frescobaldi have invited 50 or so of their distributors from around the world to enjoy their first sight of the new estate. Later on there will be hot air balloons, a presentation from Lamberto Frescobaldi and a steak cooked by rock star Panzano chef Dario Cecchini.

Two things strike you immediately: the altitude (“it is 500 metres above sea level compared to 250 metres for Nipozzano,” Lamberto Frescobaldi tells me later, over dinner). And the estate lies in a beautiful amphitheatre which catches every last drop of the sun. This is balanced by the tramontana wind, which sweeps through at night to lower the temperature. It is this combination of altitude, vineyard siting and the free draining galestro soil that gives the Perano wines such character.

The estate now produces three wines, a Classico, a Classico Riserva and a Gran Selezione “Rialzi”. “There will be no IGTs from here,” says Lamberto. I can’t wait to taste them over dinner.

But first, I almost come a cropper in the hotel air balloon. It all looks a bit precarious and the wind isn’t helping, but I manfully haul myself into the small basket with three other distributors, all of us wearing looks of trepidation. The weather is playing up, and it takes a long time before lift-off, and when it does the hot flame which our pilot blows into the balloon seems to come perilously close to my head. These days I haven’t got much up top and for a moment I worry about getting my bonce singed. Meanwhile, one of the spectating distributors shouts up to the pilot: “Don’t lose that salesman – he’s my best man and sells thousands of cases!”

When we eventually make it back down – thank God – we are then taken on a tour of the winery – probably the most pristine I’ve ever seen.

And then comes the T-bone!

The legendary showman Cecchini (strapline: Abandon Hope All Ye Who Enter) enters to a blaze of klaxon horns. “To the table!” he exhorts, kissing everyone, and dishing out huge wedges of beef. It is complete chaos but no-one seems to care. The steak is sublime – and doesn’t he know it! Later on I queue to get my photograph taken with him like some fawning teenager. But, then, everyone else does.

Meanwhile, I listen to Lamberto talk about the wines. “We are looking for poise and elegance, and balance here,” he explains. He tastes the Classico. “This is a Nureyev wine,” he says.  The Riserva has more weight, but the tannins are sweet and soft. “This is a feminine wine,” he says. And then we move on to the Gran Selezione, the Rialzi, which means rise in the land. “This one is masculine,” he says.

Talking of masculinity, here comes the marching Cecchini again, now singing. Best to keep my head down, eat his steak and drink the wonderful wines.

Michele Chiarlo is the Picasso of the wine world

“We are – and always will be – only Piemonte,” says Michele Chiarlo.

We are standing in the cellars at Chiarlo’s Calamandrana winery and the still sprightly 83 year-old is telling his audience of worldwide distributors where his priorities lie. We are the lucky ones who have been invited to his annual symposium, and Michele, who still visits the winery every day, is proudly showing us around the barrel room. The Alliers oak tonneaux are gleaming, but as Michele explains; “I want to capture exactly the terroir and not the oak. These here are merely to prepare the wine for release.”

This terroir-driven focus has always been at the heart of the Chiarlo philosophy, further proof of which is Michele’s insistence on producing single-varietals rather than blends and only using indigenous grape varieties. This philosophy has been infused into his sons, winemaker Stefano and Alberto, who takes care of sales and marketing. The focus is rooted in an exceptional collection of vineyards in the Barolo and Barbera appellations.

But it wasn’t always like this. Michele chuckles; “fifty years ago, when I started making Barbera, people thought I was crazy.” But the proud owner of La Court has had the last laugh. “We have made our reputation with Barbera.” It continues to this day: the first vintage of Cipressi Nizza was immediately hailed as Wine of the Year by Wine Enthusiast.

And while the Cerequio and Cannubi Barolos are world class, the Barberas are world WORLD class, and you have to think this is where his heart ultimately lies. We decide immediately to christen him the Father of Barbera. Michele laughs sheepishly. A lifetime of accolades has not changed an essential humility.

But when Stefano takes us into the vineyards, he is keen to emphasise the family’s Barolo heritage. “Every Barolo producer wants to have a piece of Cannubi,” he says, scrambling over the unique terraces which characterise the vineyard. And from where he is standing he can point upwards a couple of hundred metres to where the ultimate Barolo vineyard, Cerequio, lies – the extra altitude the defining nature.

So, this then, is Michele Chiarlo. Exceptional vineyards; exceptional wines. A sixth generation wine family rooted in Piemonte’s terroir which has built up a worldwide reputation, underlined by a stunning collection of 90-plus points from Parker, Suckling and the Wine Enthusiast.

And yet.

This only tells half the story.

So far, we could be talking about any number of winemakers. There is something else, and it is difficult to put a finger on it. But then you walk around the amazing Chiarlo Art Park at the La Court vineyard. This diverse selection of world-class modern art dotted incongruously around the vineyard may help explain the attraction of Chiarlo. This modernity also finds reference in the stunning series of labels which adorn the great wines. Has there ever been a more eclectic, stylish and individual set of labels? And maybe it also finds reference in the style of the wines, which, in the Classico selection, allow the consumer to enjoy at a relatively early age – key for the restaurant trade, but in the individual Cru, also remain true to the ageing tradition.

It is this fascinating juxtaposition between tradition and modernity which lies at the heart of the Chiarlo appeal.

Looking at the art selections, I pipe up: “Michele is the Picasso of the wine world.”

“Yes,” says another distributor. “He even looks a little bit little Picasso!”

The purest juice

So artisanal is the inaptly named Château Grand Pré that we cannot find it! Twenty minutes ago Bev and I left Fleurie’s Place de l’Église on the D68, driving past the Auberge du Cep, heading for the border with Chiroubles. But in spite of Bev jumping out and knocking on various houses, we cannot find it. Eventually she phones our host, Romain Zordan, who laughs and tells us he will pick us up. About thirty seconds later he arrives, we turn the car round and minutes later arrive at an old farmhouse that we have already driven past twice. Duh!

 

Natural wines are the subject of some debate. For some they represent winemaking at its most pure; for some critics the wines are simply undrinkable, some of them, they swear, tasting like cider and smelling of old socks. The choice of not adding sulphur (or to add it only in minute quantities) is what causes a lot of the fuss. Sulphur acts as an oxidant and without it, the critics say, the wine simply turns yellow. Certainly you get a lot of curious flavours in natural wine.

But equally, they can be some of the most exciting wines you will taste, with a purity of fruit that is unrecognisable in more commercial offerings.

There is no question which side Romain is on. He shows us vines which are 80, 90, 100 years old. He prunes by hand. No herbicides are used. He ploughs round the vines throughout the year to limit weed growth, encouraging the vines to dig deep, to reach down to the granite. Yields are low: about 25 hl to 35 hl depending on the vintage. Wild yeasts.

He explains all this with the loud and slightly manic passion of a visionary while the two of us shiver. In twenty years of visiting Burgundy I have never known it so cold, and much as I love the Beaujolais countryside, I am dead glad when he takes us into a renovated cellar where he has laid on a lunch of bread, Munster cheese and saucisson. I normally eschew food during tasting, but I am famished and this just looks so French that I tuck in. As does the Master of Wine.

The Fleurie 2017 has a huge, ripe, sweet fruit nose, with really intense flavours in the mouth. Liquid jelly. They didn’t do carbonic maceration because hail destroyed half the vineyard and they weren’t able to fill the tanks. Half full bunch and half destemmed (although Romain pronounces it “steamed” and for a second I think he’s invented some amazing winemaking technique.) Soft, flowing tannins. A magical bottle of wine.

The Morgan 2017 has a much funkier nose. Lots happening in here, the merest hint of reductiveness on the nose. But in the mouth all traces disappear and you have a rich chocolatey mouthful. Simply gorgeous.

The Cotes de Brouilly 2017 underwent full carbonic maceration and is the chunkier of the three wines, imbued with the flavours of the famous blue granite, which gives it a vibrant violet character. But, unbelievably, it has a “lifted” quality, as if the wine is floating above the ground. I cannot do the quality of this wine justice.

Better still, the vibrant acidity of the wine cuts through the salami and cheese perfectly. We are in picnic heaven.

We then brave the cold again as Romain takes out round the back of his cellar to an old warehouse where he keeps his canary-coloured tanks. And then it is back outside where he opens up an old shipping container in which he keeps a few barrels of white. The sample shows this wine to be good but not in the same class as his reds.

Incongruously, this container is parked on the edge of a house in which Franck Duboeuf and his family live. No-one has done more to promote the wines of this glorious region than Franck’s father, Georges Duboeuf. I know: I used to work for him. And while the differences between Duboeuf’s and Grand Pré’s wines couldn’t be greater, both offer excellence in their own way.

But I have never felt such excitement in Beaujolais as that which feel now, sitting munching my cheese and salami in Romain’s little cellar. These wines are brilliant. They are uncompromisingly brilliant. The purest juice I have tasted on the entire trip.

Shabby Chic

We first came across this producer when we tasted the Domaine Gouffier Aligoté a couple of years ago. It knocked us for six. It was about as far removed from your customary tart and bitter aligoté as was possible.

So how good to finally visit Frédéric (Fred) Gueugneau and Benoît Pagot at their farmhouse on Fontaine’s Grand Rue, southwest of Rully. Set behind a gravel courtyard, their 19th century farmhouse is filled with a beguiling collection of peeling French farmhouse furnishings, quirky wallpaper, crumbling pargetting, and odd-looking objets d’art, its faded glory complemented by modern low-slung couches, a widescreen TV and a monstrous sound system complete with mixer. You’d pay some fancy interior designer a fortune to come up with such shabby chic. The farmhouse acts as a base for the pickers during harvest, and you get the impression that for the joyeux vendangeurs, it must be one long acid house.

With 5.5-hectares spread across eight appellations, the domaine was in need of a fresh start following the passing of Jerome Gouffier in 2012, and, as we set up the tasting in the kitchen, Fred, who worked at La Chablisienne for eight years, explains what they are looking for. “To reinvigorate the vines, to bring organic practice, to have the wines less in barrel, more in tank.”

The Aligoté En Rateaux which excited us has now moved on to the 2017. While not having the knockout punch of its older brother, it has a vivacious flower and citrus feel to it and simply fills the mouth with flavours and piercing acidity.

The Bouzeron Les Corcelles 2017 reminded me of some our Greek wines, with its volcanic feel and saline quality. A huge mouthful.

The Rully Premier Cru Rabource 2017 has an inviting and open nose of elderflower and apricot. An amazing wine.

We finish with the red Mercurey La Charmée 2017 which lives up to its name with real purity of fruit – blackcurrants, this time – and beautifully integrated oak.

The tasting has been one stunner after another.

Fred and Benoit, now in hoodies and trainers, take us outside to the rustic winery and proudly show off a barrel room housed in a stone-domed cellar which served as a bunker for Napoleon’s army.

Once more, as with so many of our new producers, what we have here is a mixture of reverence for what they have inherited along with a determination to make their own mark on Burgundy’s history. This place is in good hands.

The Power of Quiet

You can spot it from half a mile away, rising eerily out of the mist. Château de Chamilly is the painter, photographer and filmmaker’s dream. It looks as if it belongs on top of a ginormous chocolate cake.

It is just off the D109 between Chassey-le-Camp and Aluze and the hamlet of Chamilly is 200 metres away, but, really, you could be on a different plant. The silence is deafening as you stand back and gawp. It is a wonder, but also slightly spooky.

The other-worldliness is broken by an extravagant welcome from a beaming Arnaud Desfontaine, jogging towards us in modish anorak and trainers. His family has been making wine here for twelve generations. Arnaud’s mother lives in an apartment on the ground floor, but the other two floors are still to be renovated. God, it must be lonely in winter.

We listen to the silence, before pony-tailed Arnaud kicks into action, leading us a merry dance through the winery which lies scattered higgledy-piggledy around the château in various stables and barns. “We bought this from our neighbour last year and we will put in tanks here. This we have already converted. Next we will make a reception area over here…”

With his soft and broken English, and looking forever like he should be wielding a Fender Strat in some sybaritic band, he is a compelling host, blending an antiquarian’s love of tradition with a geek’s desire to experiment. “Here, we could be certified organic if we want to, but I choose not to. I prefer not to be put in – what do you call it? – a straitjacket. The rules of this winery? There are none.”

But for sure, less is more – less stems, less lees stirring, less interventions in the winery (natural yeast, no filtration). “All we give the wines we get them here is quiet.”

In the tasting room we start with the whites, the highlight of which is a stunning Montagny les Reculerons 2017. This is a delicious mouthful of flint and fruit. “People sometimes say, “what barrel do you age this in?” But it is aged in tank. What they are tasting is terroir.” He is right: this is so minerally you can taste the rocks.

But good as the whites are, Arnaud’s heart’s quest is to capture the purity of Pinot Noir. He dismisses richly-coloured Pinot. “That was what we had in the 1970s, the 1980s. I am not looking to make a Syrah. This is not the Rhone.”

And when you come to the Mercurey Premier Cru les Puillets you know exactly what he means. This has a piercing pristine pellucid coolness like it was born on the edge of an iceberg. It is packed full of juicy raspberry and cherry fruit. We all nod approvingly. “You see,” says Arnaud. “If you have ripe grapes, you have balance.”

This is a composer at heart, and we leave him dancing through the vats and tanks to his beautiful melodies.

To Morot!

And so to Domaine Albert Morot, on Beaune’s ring road, and a tasting challenge between two of the Beaune Premier Crus heavyweights that Hallgarten ships. It’s Les Bressandes v Les Teurons from vintages 2014 – 2017, Winner Takes All.

2014 vintage…

Domaine Morot, Beaune 1er Cru Les Bressandes


The Bressandes has a lovely soft mushroom feel to it, but with a succulent freshness. This is a Farmers’ Market wine; lovely and soft and clean.  Meanwhile, the Teurons is oxtail soup gamier and bigger, more assertive, with very firm, though not harsh, tannins. This is the masculine to the Bressandes’ feminine.

 

2015 vintage…
The Bressandes nose here is quite closed, but there is a herbal feel to it, with cherry Tunes furtively hanging around in the background. The tannins are languid and seductive. Easy to fall in love with this Mistress. The Teurons has an unusual nose. Where are we here? In the Rhône? This has a touch of the liquorice and anise flavour of the south. This is a real fruit bomb.

Beaune 1er Cru Les Teurons

 

2016 vintage…
But just when you feel everything is going to plan, the 2016 kicks in. Because, while we have a heavenly soft sweet mouthful of Bressandes, with touches of oak, touches of vanilla and touches of crunchy forest fruits, the Teurons decides to go all shy on us. For sure, it is a silky little number, but its parents would be shocked at how it has conceded bragging rights to the usually feminine Bressandes. A real eye-opener, this vintage.

 

2017 vintage…
Intrigued, we move on to the 2017 – a real vintage! The Bressandes cavorts forward and teases us. It has beautiful soft forest fruits lying under the forest floor, a touch of smoke from the covering of soft branches. But – Ta Da! – the Terurons reverts to type, coating itself with a swirling Black Forest Gateaux cape. But, liked any caped magician, it has finesse, a softness. It has learned its lesson. It pays respect to Bresssandes before strutting its funky stuff. Move over, darling!

But hold on – what’s this?

 

They’ve just brought in another wine. Ah, this is the Les Marconnets, another Premier Cru situated on the far right of the commune. An interloper – how exciting. I taste the wine. I pause. I think. Remember when Cameron Diaz walked into the room and Jim Carrey’s jaw hit the floor? Well…

It has got the femininity of the Bressandes, the structure of the Teurons. But it also has something else: a wonderful minerality running through the centre, a saline feel to complement its roundness and structure. Jasper Morris describes it as “probably the best of the northern vineyards” – and recommends Morot as a producer.

Events like this are so good for a buyer. The smack between the eyes. I cannot remember why we have not listed this before. Lack of availability. But that will soon change and we leave the tasting with the thought enticing us: We must list this.

THE first Gevrey-Chambertin winemaker to not use sulphur…

“I will be the first winemaker in Gevrey-Chambertin to make wine without sulphur. I am going to make crazy wines.”

 

We have been working with Pierre Naigeon for a dozen years, but you still feel you’re with a ‘Duracell Bunny’ as he whizzes round the winery with frantic, chopping steps, his arms pumping away like pistons. During the harvest he walks fifteen kilometres every day but you get the impressions his battery never seems to wear out. Bev and I are struggling to keep up.

 

He chatters to you over his shoulder as he jumps from one barrel to the next, flourishing his pipette like an épée. “I aim to be organic by 2019, and then we will look at being biodynamic in the longer term. Meanwhile, we will look to make sixty or seventy percent of our wine sans sulfur. Here, try this, it is from Maladières,” he says, pouring us a ravishing Pinot Noir – all raspberry and red berries – from the vineyard at the base of Chambolle-Musigny.

 

“I don’t like all the concepts behind biodynamics but I do agree with the basic stuff in terms of fertiliser and the movements of the moon, you know. Here, what about this…” as he pours another Pinot, this time from En Champs in Gevrey-Chambertin. This one is a touch heavier, more serious.

 

“Being organic in Burgundy is tricky; don’t forget we are at the extremes of winemaking. Come, come. Where did I put that Fixin? Must be here somewhere.”

 

He dashes from one warehouse to another like an Olympic Racewalker. The last time I visited he was still in his tight, cramped – though romantic – cellar in Gevrey-Chambertin. Now he has moved to a utilitarian complex on the edge of town. He needed to; he had outgrown his former premises. You cannot keep a man like this in a confined space. He needs to grow, to experiment, to be wild.

“Listen to me. What we are doing with sulphur wines is amazing. The wines are so so fresh, very savoury. I am not looking to make wines that smell of shit and look brown. They are disgusting wines. No, we will make amazing wines. This means changing all of our habits. Bottling will be earlier, much less racking, less time in bottle before release, no fining, no filtration” (though his wines have been unfiltered and unfined for years.) His is the passion of a zealot.

 

We pass by one of the numerous tanks on which is written: “Don’t forget, beer is made by men, wine is made by Gods.” Glancing at it, Pierre looks triumphant!

 

He shows Bev and I his new bottling line, unwrapping it like a kid on Christmas morning. But before we can pause to admire it, he rushes us across to his three ceramic – not concrete – vats which are not trendily egg-shaped but round and squat. “Cost seven times the cost of a barrel – but they will last forever!”

 

But before we can admire those, he has dashed back in amongst his tanks, impatient to show off his wares. We start by tasting all of the 2017s in tank, then move on the 2018s in barrel. The 17s are more typical of Burgundy; the 18s are atypical and he is still not sure how they will turn out.

 

The 2017s culminate is a stunning tasting of two specific-site Gevrey-Chambertins. First up: Creux Brouillard. This has dark, tannic notes, sweet violets, forest fruits, great structure, smooth tannins. Pierre thinks this is a perfect example of Gevrey-Chambertin. We contrast this with a Les Crais, which has a riper style, with more minerality cutting through a sweet confiture. It has a lightness of touch. He thinks this is an example of a more mineral style against the more traditional style of the Braillarol. “Comes from the alluvial soil.”

My wine-splashed notes contain superlative after superlative. We go on to Les Corvees (from very high up the slope, so it needs to be kept), Les Marchais (an iconic Gevrey-Chambertin, according to Pierre), Sylvie, from just under the castle of Gevrey-Chambertin (one of the biggest, with spicy oak, liquorice and game), and Meix-Bas, from right at the top of the slope, so not a Premier Cru (and which is almost Rhone-type in its boldness.)

 

We move on to the Mazis-Chambertin (the most mineral of the great Chambertin vineyards), with an incredible herbal nose.

 

The Charmes-Chambertin is powerful and complex, with a hint of vanilla matching the dark intense fruits. The Master of Wine standing to my left does not spit this. It is long long long.

 

His 2018 barrels are mostly marked No Sulphur or Low Sulphur. Any use of sulphur is limited to a very small dose between vineyard and winery. Once in the winery they see no sulphur. Even those wines which see a small amount of sulphur will have this explained on the back label.

 

Tasting the 2018s, I am struggling to describe an amazing Gevrey-Chambertin Creux Brouillard (no sulphur). It has incredible fruit juice but also a wonderful saline flavour. “Iodine,” says Pierre, watching the look of puzzlement on my face. “Ah,” I reply. “This is the Laphroaig of this wine tasting.”

We try a Sylvie from two year old barrel, and then from ceramic. The barrel sample has masses of black fruit and a roundness. The ceramic is completely different, being more forward, with more purity of fruit, more one dimensional – but what a dimension: an arrow straight to the heart.

 

By now – with eighteen pages of tasting notes in the bag, Bev and I are groaning. Pierre senses this and takes pity on us and we trudge wearily back to his small office where he cracks open a bottle of 2017 Creux Brouillard (no sulphur). Again, it has this wonderful lifted, elevated, feel to it.

 

“In Burgundy you have six or seven consultant oenologists who dominate,” says Pierre. “What style they suggest is the one that gets recognised. But you have to find your own style. Who need a consultant? If you are in good health you don’t need a doctor.”

 

We sink back in our chairs and nurse our bodies. It is not the vines who need medical help – it is us!

“I adhere to organic rules, but I don’t want to be certified”

Driving along the A6, my mind is filled with last night’s pictures from Paris showing the burning and rioting in the capital as France’s gilets jaunes try their best to reinvent 1968. Paris is on fire, Macron is on the run. But as we exit the motorway and swing into Beaune, the only evidence of unrest is a bunch of apologetic-looking yellow vests who half-heartedly ask us to stop and then, as I open the window and shout: “Anglais,” wave us through with a shrug.

 

Over by their encampment a heap of broken pallets is now burning fiercely and heating up the freezing air. A queue forms behind us, klaxons blaring, as the yellow vests wave down the traffic and, among the artics and four wheels, I see a fire engine and wonder if that has come to put out the bonfire.

 

It seems the “movement” is not so violent in genteel Burgundy; Beaune is not for burning. But you have to admire the French. When they protest, they seriously protest. In the UK we’d probably last half a day before heading down the pub.

Bev and I had stopped off in Chablis for a good tasting at Domaine Grand Roche, which included an excellent 2018 Sauvignon St Bris (an under-rated wine), followed by another with the affable Philippe Goulley (pictured above) at Domaine Jean Goulley. His Montmains and Fourchaume are looking as good as ever, but the surprise was a quite brilliant Mont de Milieu, which has a beautiful salinity running through its limey richness, and which definitely deserves to be considered for a listing. “A good year, but not an easy year,” is Philippe’s verdict on the 2018.

 

Here in Santenay, Antoine Olivier agrees. “Very interesting year quality-wise, very good in parts, but not the easiest for reds in particular.” Antoine is in fine form, dashing from one tank to another to provide us with a massive tasting of wines from four vintages, while giving us his view on his approach. “My father is a Christian, my mother is Jewish, so I cannot stand dogma. I adhere to organic rules but I don’t want to be certified. If I have mildew I want the ability to protect my vines.”

Of the whites, Antoine prefers the 2015s (complex) to the 2016s (ready to drink) and says that the 2017 was an “odd” vintage. Standouts are the 2017 Rully St Jacques (intense and citrus-dominated mouthful), the 2017 Santenay Sous La Roche (full, rich, creamy nose) and the 2015 Sous La Roche (classic nose of lime, cream and hazelnuts.)

 

Of the reds, an unlabelled but just bottled 2017 Bourgogne Pinot Noir has us singing, with its young, heady and vibrant fruit. The two Santenay Beaurepaire wines are showing beautifully (the 2016 has a wonderful depth of plummy flavour while the 2017 has a rasping raspberry palate.) The award-winning Les Charmes has beautiful soft plummy tannins.

 

Antoine is now in expansive mood. “I have been accused of being a lazy winemaker because I prefer to do as little as possible with my grapes. I stand guilty!”

 

And at that point a bunch of the local anti-drug squad Gendarmeries stroll in wearing full metal jacket and we watch incredulously as they sample a selection of wines, nodding approvingly, their fingers hooked into their bullet-proof vests, before making their purchases and walking off with a case of red. Maybe off to have a tasting with the gilets jaunes?

Greece’s Tuscan Future

On the road north out of Athens you pass some astounding Homeric monuments, so illusory they could be a series of Hollywood sound stages. These are juxtaposed with a display of graffiti of appropriately Olympian standard, on a par with anything the guerrilla precincts of Amsterdam and Berlin have to offer. Startling.

We are driving to the Gaia winery in Nemea on the Peloponnese, home of the Agiorgitiko. Yiannis Paraskevopoulosis, the co-owner of Gaia, is at the wheel. He is a tall, well built, square-jawed, handsome Athenian of very strong opinions, not afraid to air them, yet often doing so in a surprisingly soft voice. Each statement is phrased almost as a question, a prelude to polite debate, you might think; but he is not to be messed with. When we reach the subject of Natural Wines, he raises his eyebrows: “If you ask me: what is a natural wine, I ask: well, what is an unnatural wine?”

It takes about 90 minutes before the northern suburbs give way to the Gulf of Corinth and you get your first glimpse of the turquoise and latte Aegean out of which seem to grow the distant, spectral hills, oddly familiar somehow, and you think: ah, Greece!

When we reach the Gaia winery, perched at 500 metres above sea level in Koutsi, we gaze down at the valley floor spread alluringly before us like a quilt, then up towards Mount Kyllini, its peak covered in snow, and – my God – the wind is screaming. And it is here that Yiannis discourses on his love of Tuscany, Agiorgitiko’s resemblance to Sangiovese – and why he believes the best – oh yes! – is yet to come for his beloved Nemea.

You politely listen while he states his case.

“We have wasted forty years by planting the wrong clones. Forty years!”

According to Yannis, in ancient times the land was planted with 10,000 vines per hectare, which meant the grapes had to fight to survive. A couple of generations ago the farmers were encouraged to replant, this time at 3,000 vines per hectare. The results were weak grapes, and wines high in acidity and astringency.

“When I arrived here in 1997 the wines were a pinkish red.” He shrugs his shoulders expansively. “The other issue is that Agiorgitiko is a very flexible grape. If you increase the yield dramatically you will still get a palatable wine, and if you are paid by the kilo – which is how the growers were paid then – then that is what you will produce – a palatable wine.”

He gazes round the vineyard. “Now, we have replanted. We have seven hectares, six of which are planted with Agiorgitiko, one of which with Syrah. We also work with a very small number of growers, about fifteen, with whom we have long-term agreements. The key thing here is that we pay by the hectare, not by the kilo, so it makes no sense for any growers to simply produce a ton of low-class grapes.

“But the biggest problem for the area – and this is what separates us from Tuscany – is clonal selection. We were planting the wrong clones. Or, rather, an unidentified blend of clones, good & bad! They were always virus infected. And these viruses will mean that you lose polyphenols and therefore grape sugars. What we need is to create a Nemea that is virus-free which is largely what they have in Tuscany. We have a unique plant – there is no other Agiorgitiko in Greece apart from some experimental plantings in Drama in the north.”

But things are looking up – and Yannis explains the reason for his optimism. “We have worked with a scientist called Kostas Bakasietas, who has collaborated with the Entav Inra nursery in France. Only he was capable of doing it. Our research institutions proved incapable. He has identified five different Agiorgitiko clones which are the Olympic champions of the variety. Just five. And only one of those clones is currently in operation. And there is only one hectare planted with this clone. And guess where that is. Here! In the whole of the 3,000 hectares of Nemea, the largest appellation in Greece, there is one hectare. Right out there!”

He pauses. “But. It took me this long to work that out! What was I doing for all that time, you might ask. Well, I spent all of that time trying to make the current vines better. I looked after the water stress management; I raised the canopy by two feet; I started early leaf removing to expose the flowers. So I made lots of adjustments. But the key will be the new clones. Kostas is the engine and we are the first on to the train.”

As we make our way down to the winery, Yiannis continues. “You know, what has also held us back is the cost of land, and the difficulty of getting permission to plant vines. The Government thinks us wine producers are rich and so they prefer to give the farming rights to “poor” farmers.”

Yiannis lets out a meaty laugh. “I have enemies. Nothing but enemies!”

As we begin tasting in a stylishly-designed barrel room, Yannis talks of his love affair with Sangiovese and Tuscany. “I have always been inspired by Tuscany,” he said. “And Agiorgitiko is stylistically very similar to Sangiovese. Neither of them are blockbuster wines. Both are supple and have very round tannins. If you were to blend a Merlot into a Sangiovese you would have an Agiorgitiko. I look to Tuscany for inspiration. For instance, I decided to plant Syrah. Why? Well, partly because I love Syrah, but also because I wanted to do what they did with Super Tuscans. To step outside the legal boundaries, do something different. And Syrah performs brilliantly down here.”

And it does! After a beautifully balanced 2017 Assyrtiko – fresh, lemony and lively – and a lovely 2017 Moschofilero – rose petals, amazingly fresh – we crack on with the reds, investigating first the 2017 Notios, an 85% Agiorgitiko/15% Syrah blend, showing rasping fruit and lovely soft tannins. The 2016 Gaia S, a 70/30 blend of the same grapes, has masses of sweet, dark unctuous fruit. Finally, the 2015 Gaia Estate, 100% Agiorgitiko from 40 year old vines, is a stunner, sweet vivacious fruit, raspberry coulis, grippy tannins, amazing length.

Over a lunch of grouper at a beachside taverna that looks like something out of Mamma Mia! Yiannis’ passion is infectious. “We need to move fast. We need different classifications to show the higher quality of hilly Nemea to valley Nemea. I want a different PDO for anything grown above five hundred metres but “they” won’t let me. We need to go higher to find the cooler nights. I am looking for longer ripening periods. Even at 15% alcohol you can end up with wines which are too jammy. But…” he leaves the sentence unfinished, a testament to his “enemies.”

Yiannis concedes that Greece’s reputation is built on whites. “But you can make great whites without taking great risks. With reds, you need to work harder. And even with our new good clones it is still a risk. We can learn from other peoples’ experience to get the learning period down from forty years to twenty years. But there is still a risk.”

He laughs. “But if we can get it right, then we can take on Tuscany. Yes, we have lost forty years. But I am positive. If you think that the wines of Gaia Estate are good today, then the Gaia wines of the future will blow your mind!”