Tuesday, 25 February 2014

Les Vins Savoyards!

A trip to France is always welcome. I love exploring over there, going to local shops, big supermarkets and of course visiting vineyards. I like just searching through rows of bottles, examining the labels, matching up regions with grape varieties, testing myself, and quite often learning a fair bit. On my most recent trip to France, I didn't get that much chance to indulge my inner wine geek. Myself, the wife, and friends were in Val D'isere on a winter ski trip, and as such, I didn't have that much time, nor were there that many outlets to explore for wines. I'm lying slightly here, because there was one really great-looking 'cave du vin' in the center of Val D'. I ventured in once, and it was exactly as one might expect it to be; full of big names and ski-resort prices! Needless to say, I drooled over the bottle for a while, before leaving empty-handed.

There were however, a few local, small supermarkets that obviously stocked wine, and much of that was local stuff. I say 'local', although not actually in a wine region, Val D'isere's closest wine region is Savoie (or Savoy). I know very little about this small area of wine production. It's not somewhere that comes up very often, and you'd probably have to get through to the level of WSET diploma before encountering it. I looked it up when I had a chance, and a wi-fi connection. It turns out, the Savoie region produces red and white wines, from many different grapes, and of different quality levels. In a similar system to Beaujolais wines, there is a basic 'Vin de Savoie' AOC that encompasses the lower echelons, and then better quality 'Crus', named after places or sub-regions (for example, Chignon). These often have tighter AOC regulations, and as such can be of higher quality. White wines tend to be blends of several grapes, Roussanne being a good example. The reds are more often single variety wines made, most often, from Pinot Noir, Gamay or Mondeuse (the latter being the most successful local variety).

While away, I tried a couple of local Vin de Savoie wines, one white and one red. I couldn't get much more than that as we also had an endless supply of 'Chalet-wine' to drink with evening meals. This nondescript wine, besides coming in a 20L box and costing less than 1 Euro per Litre (so we were told), was not too terrible, and sufficient for lubricating one's dinner.

Box-o'-wine! The 'free' chalet wine in 20 L boxes. The white wine was not
kept cold, despite being less than 2 Feet from a balcony door...

Vin blanc de Savoie - Please
forgive the wonky picture!
After a day on the slopes and an afternoon in the pub, I forgot to take detailed tasting notes for the white wine. I can tell you from memory, that it was a blend of local varieties put together by Chateau de Ripaille in 2012, and was actually very tasty. It was reminiscent of a dry Chardonnay, with crisp, refreshing acidity, some citrus and apple flavours, good body and a fairly balanced palate. Not complex at all, but a nice, easy drinker. I would expect that blending varietals allows more room for error with the individual, base, wines, and that balance is achieved in the blend ratios. I probably shouldn't have opened it in the state we were all in that evening, but that's what you do on holiday, and it served as a refreshing aperitif.

Next, opened a couple of days after the white, a red wine made from the local Mondeuse grape. It was a 2012, old vines 'Cuvee Gastronomie', from Jean Perrier and sons. I had no idea what to expect from this wine. At the time, I knew nothing about the region or this grape. I thought it might be leaner in style, with high acidity and low tannins, coming from a cooler region in the foothills of the Alps. I was actually fairly wrong! In the glass it was a lovely deep ruby red, with a light, youthful purple edge. It was mildly translucent but had good colour concentration. The nose was of medium intensity, and was bold and forthcoming, what I wrote down as "pretty punchy". There were floral violets, cherries and some lighter red berries. Surrounding all of that sweet fruit though, was a swathe of black pepper. This wasn't unpleasant, but it did fill the nostrils. I didn't pick up on any great amount of oak, if it was there, it was well hidden. The palate was light and supple, smooth to start with, and then followed by a good dose of tannins. The dryness, acidity and a tannic bitterness, perhaps a little green for those who like that term, came through in the mid-palate. The body was good, of medium level, helped by surprising alcohol presence, and provided a pleasing texture. There were some nice fruits, cherries and redcurrants mainly. However, the wine became a bit clawing after a while, losing balance. The finish wasn't too bad, medium length, and full of that peppery spice again. Overall, it was an intriguing introduction to the Mondeuse grape. It showed a great deal of potential, with a full nose, and also in the mouth, at first. It lost it's way towards the end though, and became something a little rustic and unrefined. After looking-up the characteristics of this variety, I think the example i got was quite typical. Having said that, I'm sure there are better examples out there. As you may expect from the name, it was better with food. The edges were rounded-off a little and the pepper somewhat tamed.

Mondeuse de Savoie -
A simple, but elegant label.
I can actually imagine that a well-made, balanced example of Mondeuse would age well for a few years. I bought a couple of slightly more expensive examples back with me to go in the cellar. I paid 7 and 8 Euros for the above white and red wines, respectively. The ones I've brought back cost 12 Euros, so hopefully will be a little higher in quality...?

It's good to try new things, a sentiment that most wine fans will agree on. There's always another country, region, grape or style to try, and learn about. There's also no better way of sampling them, than in situ, where they were produced. If you're away on holiday, wherever you may be, try and find the local wine outlet or shop and ask to try the local stuff. It may be bad, it may be great, most often it's cheap, so either way you've not that much to lose!

Friday, 31 January 2014

Stepp, Pinot Noir *8*, 2012

I've been going through a bit of a Pinot phase of late. It's not that I've been drinking lots of them, or that it's the only thing I've been drinking, but they've just been on my mind. I seem to have been reading about them a lot, or they keep catching my eye in wine lists. I think it started before Christmas, last December. I read the Decanter article about New Zealand Pinot Noirs, Central Otago in particular. Since then, many of those wines have cropped-up. I have also been bombarded by newsletters and circulars from merchants and magazines, raving-on about Burgundy 2012, and how I should "snap them up now"!

This week I needed to celebrate my first step on the wine trade ladder. I've been given an amazing opportunity to work in a well-respected, independent wine merchants in Manchester. I'll probably tell you lovely readers a little more about this adventure as time goes on. Anyway, I can't believe my luck, so I felt it important to mark the occasion, at least at home, with my wife. So, I looked at the cellar selection and decided to try the 2012 Pinot Noir from Gerd Stepp (from the Pfalz region of Germany). This bottle came from Naked Wines as part of a 'Marketplace' special offer, with a few other German wines. It isn't the most expensive bottle I have, and I don't know that much about it. I was told though, that it is a little bit special and that it would reward some cellar time. Having said that, I had a couple, and since it was a special occasion I decided to fish it out and give it a try. Then, at least, I'd know what to do with the other bottle!

Well, let me tell you, I'm glad I tried it! Simply because it was exactly what I needed. I wanted something a bit special, and this wine was definitely that. It matched the mood, and the spaghetti bolognese dinner also! I was a little worried that it might be too light for a rich, meaty feast, however, it was great. The acidity cut through the richness, and the fruity flavours were just bold enough to match those of the sauce. 20-30 minutes out of the bottle to air, and it was ready and raring to go.

The wine in more detail then...

In the glass, it looked like Pinot Noir. Fairly translucent, ruby red of medium intensity. Held up to the light it showed a slight sign of purple youth at the rim, but away from the light, against white paper, it had a lovely maroon quality that gave it depth. Definitely not brick or garnet though, far to young for that.

The nose was brilliant. Initially I got intense, vibrant fruit with loads of spice. It was rich, plump and very intriguing. The fruits were cherry, blackberry, raspberry and a hint of cassis. There were some classic Pinot aromas to it as well, with some vegetal notes and musty leaves. A little bit of green pepper and something floral added a bit of sweetness too! Adding to this was a hint of vanilla and wood from some very well-judged oak.

On the palate, this wine got better. It was rounded and balanced, dry but refreshing. If anything, the acidity stood out a touch when drank without food, but that was no real concern. Not a great deal of tannins, but definitely there. Sufficient for a lovely mouthfeel, and for aging purposes, but really soft and almost hidden underneath the fruit. The mid-palate was soft and juicy, with sweet cherries coming to the fore. The body was bulked-out a little by the alcohol, 13.5 % being more typical of a meaty new-world Pinot rather than one from Germany! That said, it was only mildly noticeable in the finish, and again the term would be 'balanced'. The finish was quite long and lingering, stretching out the acidity and alcohol, but also the lovely fruit. My palate was left feeling invigorated but refreshed, and wanting more.

I struggled to pin this wine down with regards to style. There were elements of it that reminded me of rich, fruit-forward Pinot Noir from Central Otago, or maybe even from the slightly warmer Mornington Peninsula. I also found elements that reminded me of old-world burgundy though. The oak was subtle and just lovely, and the acidity expected of cooler climates, like Germany, shone through. Maybe this is what Pinot from  Pfalz is just like? Maybe it's the wine-maker, Herr Stepp? It may have to be that I need to do more practice, oh dear... ;-)

If you can't tell by now, I really enjoyed this wine, a lot. It's a great wine for drinking on it's own, or with food. As I've hopefully conveyed, it's delicious now, or it could be cellared happily for another 4-5 years. Given the strength but balance of it's facets, I have no doubt that this wine will mature beautifully, and develop some magnificent tertiary aromas and flavours. As I've said, the Stepp Pinot Noir is available from Naked Wines. Their 'normal' price of £18.49 isn't too steep for a wine of this quality, and the 'Angel' price of £13.49 is a 'freakin' steal! If you've got some already, I give you permission to feel smug. If you haven't got any, go buy some! I think I may stock up a little before it runs out. Gerd Stepp also produces a Riesling (2011, Naked Wines angel's price of £12.99) that I cannot wait to try.

Monday, 20 January 2014

Chateau Musar 1981

Another quick write-up of a Christmas wine now. One that I shared with some friends, and went down a treat. I speak of a 1981 Chateau Musar. I bought this in an auction lot of 3 old Musars, one each from '79, '81 and '83. I had the '79 a year or so ago, an it was okay, but a bit passed-it! I had the '83 for my 30th Birthday last year, as part of a family meal. It was good, better than the '79, but not as good as I'd hoped for.  It also didn't help that we had several, very nice wines with that meal, and the '83 Musar was outshone by other stars.

The '81 however, on this occasion, was different. 'Third time lucky' and 'saving the best 'til last' definitely apply here. I decanted it about 3 hours before we wanted it (it grew with time, otherwise I would have served it sooner!). There wasn't that much sediment, but what there was, was very fine. I was taken-aback at the colour in the decanter. It had so much depth and intensity to it for an aged Musar. Still a lot of Ruby red, with only brick and garnet creeping in around the rim. Again we had this wine with a meal, following several other great wines (amongst other things, a great Soave from Waitrose!). We matched the Musar to our main, roast beef hash. For those who may not know, this dish is a slow-cooked 'stew' of, mainly, leftover roast beef and potatoes. Shredding the beef and slow cooking it, means it's really succulent and deeply flavoured.

In the glass then, the Chateau Musar again showed an excellent colour of deep ruby, however, now the garnet signs of age were more prominent, and the wine seemed more transparent and thin. I didn't note the alcohol content, but viscous legs suggests reasonably high. On the nose, as one may expect from a Musar, I got leather and spices up front. Something I really like. In with that was a little bit of something musty and animal, fairly typical for Musar and probably attributable to a bit of brett (wild Bretanomyces yeast in the winery). Oaky cedar, tobacco and cinnamon, were the main players, but with a hint of cloves and pepper also. The spices were followed by some nice fruit, which were surprisingly fresh and sweet. Blackcurrent and cherry from the Cabernet, along with some lighter red fruits and currents.

On the palate, I first noticed how smooth and light the wine felt; medium bodied with an excellent mouthfeel. A lot of Chateau Musars show a high VA level, this one had no such aceticity. The overall acidity was medium to high, but was balanced really well by the alcohol level, and tannins. The tannins were definitely still there, maybe a touch drying, but they had a beautiful, soft, smooth texture. The fruits, as for the nose, were on the sweet side, and came through well for an old wine. Black and red currents for the majority. The finish was long, only a bit alcoholic, with hints of black pepper and quiet savoury.

Chateau Musar's have a reputation for aging very well. I suppose you have to pick the good vintages for them to reach 30+ years of age, and still be fantastic. I'm willing to accept a rate of one in every three, as the '81 really was good and made up for the other 2 in my auction lot being under-par. I have a reasonable, vertical Musar collection and I shall be saving at least one from each vintage for many years. The 1999's may get there, the 2003's also, I haven't tried my 2004's yet, but I'd definitely like to see the 2001's and 2005's living into their thirties. We're in it for the long haul!

Friday, 10 January 2014

Wine and Spirit Education Trust

When I first started this blog, I was doing a lot of learning. I wanted to find out about all things wine-related. I wrote a piece about sources of information and wine qualifications. In that piece, I listed a little bit of info regarding the Wine and Spirit Education Trust, abbreviated to WSET (much easier). Briefly, they do a series of internationally recognised qualifications, levels 1, 2 and 3 (often referred to as beginner, intermediate and advanced) along with a wine diploma (including an honours project, levels 4 and 5). These increase in cost along with time commitment as you go up the scale! They can all be studied on a part-time basis, or in some cases as an 'intensive' course. As expected with the increasing levels, the more time it takes, as the amount of knowledge one learns goes up. As far as I'm aware, this mainly involves more grape varieties, more world regions, and more specificity. There is also more on viticulture and vinification.

Taking my own advice, I decided to enroll at level 2. I was told that level 1 is for real beginners and designed mainly at those new to the service industry. I plumped for an intensive course as it would mean getting it all done quicker (not for everyone), and meant less faffing about taking holidays from the day job. The course ran Friday through Monday, which included 3 days of learning (Fri, Sat & Mon) with Sunday left for home study and revision. Each day covered different grape varieties and wine-producing regions of the world (linking the two). At level 2, only the main ones are covered, but it's fairly extensive and both old and new world are represented well. This ties in really well with what is taught about tasting the wines themselves. Regional climates (and local terroirs) are linked to the wine's aromas and flavours. Different styles of wine are covered, for example; dry wines, sweet wines and fortified wines. Sparkling wines are covered well too. Wine production methods are also covered to a certain extent at this stage, but not too thoroughly. Spirits and their production are also in there, which was refreshing for me, and helped to fill a lot of the gaps in my knowledge of that subject. There is a good level of information regarding the legalities of drinking alcohol, as well as it's affect on one's health.

All the resources one would need were supplied, including an excellent book, study guide, a tasting cue-card, and practice exam questions. 6 glasses are also included for use during the course, and for you to take home afterwards. By far the most important part, the wines for tasting, were also all included. As I recall, there were over 40 wines to taste during the course, and some spirits also. These were tasted at the appropriate time for the section being taught, to support the theory. As a region or style came up, that wine was tasted and discussed alongside. I was particularly impressed with the tutors' knowledge and their selection of wines. For the majority, they were good representations and well matched to the theory.

At the end of the course then, Monday afternoon, there was the exam. After all, this is a recognised qualification, and the certificate must be earned. For level 2 it was a single paper of 50 multiple-choice questions. For most of the questions, the aim was to find the correct answer out of 4 possibilities. Some though, wanted the correct set of applicable answers out of a larger range. You get the idea, and fortunately there was no negative marking, so guessing was definitely worth it! I'm going to blow my own trumpet a little now, mainly because I'm very proud of my achievement, having worked hard for it. I achieved a pass with distinction, getting 98%, with only one wrong answer. Yay me, check out my certificate! I don't know why I'm so proud of a little test like this, but I really am. I'm an academic type, with several degrees, but this was a different type of learning, on a relatively new subject. Maybe that's it, or maybe it's just that I really like wines and I really wanted it!?

Enough philosophy, I shall finish now, and sign off by thoroughly recommending any/all of the WSET courses. They're really great fun and it's possible to learn as much about wine as you want to. I asked one particular question and the tutor discussed it with me as we looked-up the answer in Jancis Robinson's Oxford Companion to Wine textbook. I've done one course, and I shall be doing another (once I've saved up). On to level 3, and let's see where it takes me!

Check out the WSET website for more information. To study a WSET course, look out for the Wine School franchise, or any other accredited wine educator. I studied with Chris Green at the Manchester Wine School.

Friday, 3 January 2014

Chablis 1er Cru, Mont de Milieu, 2008 from Billaud-Simon

A quick mention now for a good little find at the Co-op. I've mentioned before that this local shop isn't great at knowing what it's got on the shelves. Just before Christmas I spotted this premier Cru and took a quick look. I wasn't too bothered at first, as the price was reasonable, but not a bargain for the 2010 vintage (£18). However, As I looked, I noticed the 2008 and 2009 vintages still at the back of the shelves (at the same price). what's even better was these wines were in racks, laid on their sides. I decided to pick up the oldest to give it a whirl.

This little beaut is exactly what you'd want in a Chablis. A fairly strong lemon colour, almost gold and with a green hue to it. Bright and clear, very inviting. A nose of good intensity, was classical. Citric lemons and apples up front, with clean and crisp mineral stone, or wet slate, in support. There was a buttery richness too, and what seemed like a little oak. The richness could have come from malolactic fermentation or lees-stirring/aging, but I've no idea on the oak, as I'm sure this wine should have been tank fermented and aged. I guess these are simply the result of good bottle age. The fruit was very present on the palate, but was more apple and pears. The depth of flavour was great, the kind that often gets described as round, or fat, really lovely. The cooler-climate acidity and freshness then came in, moving towards the finish. Not too much, well balanced and very refreshing after the previous rich texture. The finish was lingering, although not very long, and contained remnants of the pleasant fruit.

All-in-all a good example of what Chablis should be. I've seen plenty of other premier Cru Chablis at a far greater price than this, and for less bottle age than this 2008, or even the 2009. The 'Mont de Milieu' vineyard could be the reason why this is so nice. It's one of the better-situated premier Crus, being just to the east of the Grand Cru block, with an almost equal southern exposure on the next hill over. Billaud-Simon is a reliable Domaine, and did a great job with this fruit. If there's some of the 2009 left next pay day I may go get some, as I now know that Jancis R. reckons it to be better than the 2008. You should too!