Tuesday, 28 February 2017

60 Second Wine Reviews: Grati Rosso di Toscana 1997

Located in Central Italy on the shores of the Tyrrhenian Sea, Tuscany is a region like no other. Famed for its culture, its gastronomy and - of course - its wine, Tuscany is a stunningly beautiful area which should be of great interest to any oenophile worth their salt. It is also a region of contradictions: where regionality lives yet where one grape variety reigns; where heritage and tradition are prized but where subverting the orthodoxy is hugely rewarded.

Perhaps the clearest example of the last point is the birth of the 'Super Tuscan': a wine movement of the 1970s and 80s where rebellious winemakers vinified wines from French varieties like Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, alongside the local Sangiovese grape. These wines quickly gained international acclaim (which still holds today), leading to the ludicrous scenario where Tuscany's most revered and expensive wines could only be labelled as mere Vino da Tavola, the lowest designation for Italian 'table wines'.

Fortunately this farcical loophole has since been resolved, and now a myriad of labelling terms exist for producers of Tuscan wine, be they traditionalist or pioneering. In the former camp are the Grati family, who own vineyards across the region. Their Rosso di Toscana from 1997 is a blend dominated by Sangiovese, with a couple of local varieties playing the supporting role. Pale ruby-coloured in glass, the wine possesses enchanting, creeping aromas of glacé cherry, cider apples, leather and forest leaves. Despite entering its third decade of existence, the wine is remarkably fresh: its raspy acidity and lively tannins a testament to the longevity of Sangiovese. Well-balanced and with a slight iodine saltiness on the palate, Grati's 1997 represents a dignified and refined style of Tuscan red, with plenty more to give in the coming years.

Tom's Rating: A lovely, mature, gastronomic Sangiovese which sticks two fingers up to modernist rivals.

Available at: Majestic Wine, £20-£25

Tuesday, 14 February 2017

60 Second Wine Reviews: Château Haut-Milon 2008

01197_p.jpg (150×450)

Situated in-between the legendary Rothschild estates of Lafite and Mouton, Château Haut-Milon is understandably overshadowed. It does, however, mean that this wine represents something very rare in Pauillac: value for money.

That's not to say that you're getting a poor quality wine; far from it. From a solid if not outstanding 2008 vintage, the Ch Haut-Milon displays everything Claret fans love about the style, and then some. A limpid ruby colour in glass, the wine reveals layers of fragrant blackcurrant and cedar on the nose, which follow through on the palate. The wine is well-balanced, almost dainty and light, with its slightly green, stalky tannins adding interest. A classic Pauillac that's drinking well now, and which will certainly provide enjoyment with future evolution.

Tom's Rating: A classic, understated wine from a region where low prices are rare. Will age comfortably too

Available at: Majestic Wine, £15-£20

Wednesday, 4 January 2017

Château Malescasse vertical: 2003 vs 2010

When I first started properly 'getting into' wine, one of my early forays into semi-premium territory was a purchase of a bottle of Château Malescasse, a Cru Bourgeois Supérieur Claret from Haut-Médoc. Why the Malescasse? A number of reasons: I knew I liked red Bordeaux and the Malescasse seemed a reasonably safe extravagance; the particularly vintage on sale at the time caught my eye; and the bottle, adorned with its royal blue cladding and its classically-styled livery, made me feel like I was buying a special product. (Okay, okay - I know it's a bane to wine merchants everywhere that a consumer should opt for a wine based on its bottle design, but wine buying is an emotional and sensory activity as well as a rational one, and producers would do well to bear this in mind when budgeting for marketing costs). Fortunately for me my purchase was justified, and to this day the wines of Château Malescasse remain my favourites in its category, as well as a Château that I eagerly purchase at every opportunity, whether in restaurants, wine shops or en primeur.

For this reason, Malescasse is a Château to which I do feel a strong emotional attachment, but there's no reason why others shouldn't enjoy their wines from a rational point of view too. Situated in between the famed terroirs of St Julien and Margaux, Château Malescasse is located atop 40 hectares of prized gravelly soils, typical of all the best vineyard sites in the Médoc. Originally recognised as a Cru Bourgeois Supérieur in the now defunct 2003 classification, Malescasse remains a favourite of those in the know, who appreciate its pedigree and value for money. Like most Médoc estates, Malescasse has experienced its share of ups and downs, but quality really started to improve from the mid-1990s when the estate was purchased by the French telecoms giant Alcatel. The revival of Malescasse was secured in 2012 when it was acquired by its current owner, Philippe Austruy. Austruy, also owner of the renowned Peyrassol estate in Provence, invested heavily in the estate's vineyards and winery, resulting in a marked increase in quality. In fact, such is Austruy's dedication to quality that Malescasse was one of the first to announce that it would not produce any Grand Vin in 2013 due to the poor quality of the vintage. Thus, it is from 2014 and beyond that the wines of today's Château Malescasse will be able to be judged and appreciated.

At the Château, the vineyards are planted to 54% Merlot, 39% Cabernet Sauvignon and 7% Petit Verdot. Although this is slightly unusual for the Cabernet-dominated blends of Haut-Médoc, a higher Merlot content does allow Malescasse to be approached earlier in its life than its contemporaries. Certainly for my part, I always find Malescasse to have a certain plushness and density on the palate, which gives its wines a more 'New World' feel than some of the more austere, pencil lead-y Cru Bourgeois available. Don't just take my word for it though: Malescasse has its own celebrity wine followers too. In his seminal piece on the region 'Bordeaux: The Wines, The Vineyards, The Winemakers', wine expert Oz Clarke says of Château Malescasse: "[it] is an immensely reliable, soft-centred Haut-Médoc, but capable of aging if need be. In short, it is an excellent buy". I don't think I could have put it better myself! With this in mind, and as a guilty festive treat to myself, I uncorked one of my 2010s (bought in an unsplit case for a very reasonable sum from Tesco Wines back in 2015) to see how it compared to one of the current releases on the market, the 2003 (available via Majestic Wine). Below are some of my thoughts on both wines, as well as a comparison across the two vintages.

Château Malescasse 2010, Cru Bourgeois, Haut Médoc, 14%

  I'll start with the more recent of the two vintages - the 2010 - which is a beautiful example of Malescasse's plush yet slinky style. 2010 will live long in the memory for Claret lovers as a superb vintage, with a warm, dry summer to aid ripeness yet cool nights to ensure good acidity and tannins in the grapes. In short, as Jancis Robinson puts it, it was a vintage for "classical palates".

The 2010 is ruby-coloured in glass, still deep at the core, with lingering, glycerine-like legs reflecting the wine's high alcoholic content. The wine is moderately aromatic, but with an incredible complexity of flavours. Beautiful hints of blackcurrant cream and bright kirsch come to the fore, with undertones of jam and roasted coffee. The palate is mid to full-bodied, with tannins which are evident yet unobtrusive. Flavours of blackcurrant and creamy blueberry yoghurt are immediately noticeable, whereas the classic Left Bank pencil lead arrives later on the mid-palate and the finish. On the whole, the wine has a sense of composure, in that all its elements are in harmony, which allows the ripe, oak-kissed flavours and Malescasse's trademark opulence to take centre stage. As suggested by Oz Clarke, the 2010 Malescasse is a fantastic example of a Claret that is easy to enjoy in its adolescence, yet with enough obvious structure to be enjoyable ten years from vintage. A gorgeous, gorgeous wine.

Château Malescasse 2003, Cru Bourgeois Supérieur, Haut Médoc, 13%

Whereas 2010 was a something of a dream vintage for winemakers, 2003 most certainly was not. Primarily, this was due to a single factor: excessive heat. Right across Western Europe, winemakers had to contend with searing heatwaves, and this was keenly felt in the vineyards of Bordeaux. Throughout the growing season, there were more than 50 days where the temperature reached 30c, and several where the mercury crept over 37c. At one point, Château Lafite Rotshchild even recorded 50c. Although September rains brought welcome respite, by that point much of the harvest had been reduced due to vine inactivity from water stress and shrivelled, raisined grapes on the vines. Those vineyards that fared best were located in the Northern Médoc, whose late-ripening Cabernet grapes were able to withstand the heat and produce respectable, and - in some cases - brilliant wines.

When tasting the 2003 Malescasse, the heat of the vintage becomes evident: whether it be the wine's fading, garnet/tawny colour or the drying, coarse nature of the tannins. That's not to suggest for one moment that the 2003 is a bad wine - far from it in fact. I found the aromatics of the wine to be more marked than its younger sibling, yet with more dried fruits apparent (think strawberry peel and dried blackcurrants). On the palate, the dry tannins provide structure for the wine, which is necessary given the low acidity. Flavours of blackberry, prune and cinnamon are present in the mouth, which do retain a slight sweetness despite the wine's age. Overall, I do like this wine; however I've liked it much more on previous occasions, and I think that age is finally beginning to catch up with it. Enjoyment is still to be found within (there's something about seeing sediment clinging to the insides of the bottle after decanting which is really rather satisfying) and aged Claret always makes a cracking match for mature hard cheeses; but I cannot shake the feeling that the 2003 is slightly misshapen and more out of balance than it was 6 months previous. My advice would be to drink up in 2017 and savour the final charms of a great wine in its sunset years.

A cracking pair

Vertical tastings of one's favourite wines are always a winner. As well as being immensely pleasurable, they also provide an academic insight into the structure and ageability of wines, and how a wine from the same estate can vary dramatically depending on age and vintage. For Château Malescasse, the 2010 displayed the estate's signature style in exemplary fashion, with a plush, luxurious, creamy wine from a vintage that will long be remembered. If the 2010 is the 3 litre Audi, then the 2003 must surely be the vintage Citroën 2CV: less polished and showy, but mature, charming and assured nonetheless. Both, I feel sure, you'd be thrilled to take for a spin. Cheers, and a happy 2017 to all my fellow wine lovers!

Tuesday, 22 November 2016

A Hidden Gemme: My experience of the 2016 Bordeaux harvest at Château Caronne

This October, I had the pleasure of heading across the Channel to participate in the 2016 harvest (or vendange) in Bordeaux. My hosts were the good folks at Château Caronne Ste Gemme: a family-owned estate in Haut-Médoc about an hour north of the city of Bordeaux, close to the small town of Saint-Laurent-Médoc. I was to stay with the Château owners, the Nony family, at the estate during the harvest, observing the inner workings of life in the vineyard and the winery and pitching in wherever I could. Below is an account of my time spent at Caronne Ste Gemme, along with some poorly-shot touristy photos. Here's to what promises to be a great 2016 vintage!

Disembarking from the plane, I breathed in the warm early evening Atlantic air and headed towards the terminal at Bordeaux Airport (warm being a relative term of course; it had only been about 5 degrees in Luton!). After clearing security and picking up my rental car, I left the airport and drove the 45km northwards into the Médoc and towards the Château. I always love spending time meandering through France and taking in the sights and sounds of daily life, but it's rather more difficult to do when driving on the wrong side for the first time and trying to remember which side the gearbox is on. Suffice to say, the car's windscreen wipers were my primary source of indication at roundabouts. After a traumatic drive, I pulled up at the Château where I was warmly greeted by François and Georges Nony, two brothers who were the estate's owner and manager respectively. I settled into my room in the surroundings of the beautiful Château and looked out upon the rows and rows of vines stretching out into the distance. A hearty family meal later, supplemented with much wine and bonhomie, I turned in for the night, anxious to see what the upcoming week had in store for me.

The view from my bedroom window looking out across the vineyard. The winery and cellars can be seen in the background.

Directions outside the winery. Ch Labat is a smallish 7ha plot also owned by the Nony Family, effectively the second wine of Caronne

The first and second days were spent in the vineyard itself, of which Caronne comprises 45 hectares planted to 60% Cabernet Sauvignon, 37% Merlot and 3% Petit Verdot. The Cru Bourgeois-rated estate (a labelling term granted to the best Médoc châteaux who were overlooked in the 1855 Classification) possesses an enviable location, on the borders of the St-Julien appellation and flanked by the classed growths of Gruaud-Larose and Lagrange. As such, Caronne shares the same gravelly soils which are so suited to growing high-quality Cabernet, as well as sandier, clay-based soils ideal for Merlot. Stepping out into the crisp morning air, armed only with a pair of gloves, a small basket and secateurs, I joined my fellow vendangeurs and began collecting the fruit. We worked row by row, vine by vine, occasionally stopping to pour the grapes into the larger bucket on the back of one of my colleagues. The difference between manual and machine harvesting is much discussed, and I'm a firm believer in the former raising the quality of the finished wine. Certainly, we were able to discriminate much better between the ripe grapes and the rotten ones, which the machine harvesters working on different vineyard plots were unable to do. Despite the strenuous nature of labouring among the vines, I cherished every second of the work as it really brought home the importance of good base material to the finished product. Without respect for proper viticultural practices (i.e. correct trellising, leaf stripping etc.) and respect for terroir (i.e. which grapes grow best on which soils), there would be little point in expecting a successful end result. More and more Bordelais wine producers now understand that the quality of the wine comes primarily from the vineyard, not the winery, and I think this is certainly evident in the quality of Caronne's finished wine.

Gravelly soils for Cabernet...
...and sandy soils for Merlot

My fellow vendangeurs at Caronne

Towards the middle of the week, I hung up my secateurs and went to work in the winery itself. Château Caronne was one of the last estates in the Médoc to harvest in 2016 (the threat of rains and rot virtually non-existent), but the forecast had begun to turn and so more machine harvesters were sent out to the vines, whereas the manpower was concentrated in the winery. To my mild surprise, operations in the winery were headed up by 24 year old maître de chai Henri, assisted by his equally young colleague Alex. Henri and Alex were in charge of everything from the moment the grapes arrived on the sorting table to the final fermentation. Both worked with an incredible mix of whirlwind energy and cool-headedness which showed a maturity far beyond their years. For someone like myself who had no prior experience of working in a winery (manual labour and retailing I can do; scientist I ain't!) I was initially very daunted at the sight of enormous industrial steel vats, an array of interconnected piping and hoses, and noisy equipment and machinery which I hadn't the foggiest as to their purpose. Fortunately for me, also staying at the Château was an American guy called Mike, who had arrived a week prior to me. Because the harvest had been delayed, Mike had spent most of his time shadowing Henri and Alex, and was therefore able to show me the basics of what was going on. Wearing ear defenders and communicating in a mix of hand gestures and broken French, I spent my time scrambling around the vast winery, doing basic tasks like monitoring sugar levels in fermenting juice, mixing yeast and tannin solutions to be poured into the vats and helping to sort the grapes as they arrived on the tractors. Although at the time I felt frantic and slightly useless, in retrospect I think I learnt an awful lot and was exposed to machinery and processes which I'd never known existed. It was also beneficial for me to appreciate the 'intermediary' stage of winemaking: I had good knowledge of processes in the vineyard and, of course, am enamoured with the finished article, but I'd never really given much thought to the place of the winery and its role as the engine room of winemaking. Despite having preferred the relative sanctuary of the vineyard, I certainly don't regret having had the opportunity to experience the other side of the winemaking coin.
The winery at Ch Caronne Ste Gemme
Grapes arriving into the winery, where they are subsequently sorted (below)

Henri, Alex and Mike tending to one of the fermentation vats

Not a bad place for a coffee break!

On the last full day, Friday, before my departure the following morning, myself and Mike were allowed a day off to explore the region and visit the city of Bordeaux itself. Bordeaux is an historic port city on the banks of the Garonne River - a fact not insignificant to the success of the region's wines. We spent the morning wandering around the city centre, taking in the sights and doing vaguely touristy things. For lunch, we travelled across the city to St-Emilion and to the Grand Cru Classé estate at Château La Dominique. We enjoyed a three course lunch at the restaurant overlooking the vineyards - La Terrasse Rouge - as well as knocking back a few glasses of their second wine, Relais de la Dominque. On the drive back to Caronne, we toured around some more of the Médoc estates, and even managed to blag a little tasting at Château Pontet-Canet, a Pauillac Fifth Growth and one of the few Bordeaux châteaux to have fully embraced biodynamics. The estate's 2008, whilst young, will remain in my mind as one of the best wines I've tried for many years to come.

View from La Terrasse Rouge at Ch La Dominique

When Saturday morning came, I felt a mixture of regret at having to leave Château Caronne, but also a great satisfaction in knowing that I'd had the opportunity to visit the estate at such an important moment in the year. I felt the uniqueness of my experience too: each vintage in Bordeaux is inimitable, and the wine that is produced at Caronne next year will be different to the one that I had the pleasure to share in. After loading the car, I bade my farewells to the family, Mike, Henri, Alex and everyone who I'd met during the week. François very generously offered me a bottle from his cellar, so my magnum of Caronne 2012 is now under lock and key until an appropriately special moment in my future. I drove down the estate's pebbled road, turned back one last time to look at the Château, then headed towards the airport. Au revoir Bordeaux! I will miss your charms, your beauty and your idiosyncrasies, but at least I will have the pleasure of drinking your varied and delightful offerings until my next visit.

My generous hosts, Francois and Georges Nony, at dinner

Goodnight Caronne!


N.B. Over the course of the week, I had the opportunity to try many vintages of Caronne Ste Gemme, including several dating back a couple of decades. As with other top quality red Bordeaux, there is pleasure to be had in drinking Caronne at all stages of its life, from infnacy right through to old age. The current vintage of the estate's wine available in the UK is the 2011. Below are some of my notes on the 2011, which is a great example for anyone looking to understand Cru Bourgeois-level Claret. Enjoy!

The 2011 has a deep ruby (still opaque) colour, with an intense nose of blackcurrant, cedar and smoke. With aeration, notes of Oriental spice emerge (jasmine?). The palate is nicely austere, with reassuringly classic Médoc flavours of blackcurrant and pencil lead. The Cabernet is evident in the blend. The wines finishes long and linear, with tannins that are just beginning to show signs of drying. Drink until 2022 with roast beef or similarly hearty fare.