Category Archives: Uncategorized

Discovering Madeira

This post will be as much about tourism and cuisine as it is about wine because these three things are inseparable to me when it comes to Madeira.

I went there with my family at the tail end of December 2018. In fact, this trip to one of the world’s great wine regions had been on my bucket list for quite some time. Fortunately, I was not disappointed with the experience: the island, the people, and the wines.

The first thing to keep in mind is that Madeira is a long way from anywhere – almost 1,000 km from Lisbon and 600 km off the Moroccan coast. The island (in fact, one big island and three little ones) is a popular tourist destination, with about a million visitors a year. Although many of them come on cruise ships, the overall impression I had was of relatively up-market tourism involving people who go out of their way to discover a unique 750 km² sub-tropical paradise. In fact, Madeira is nicknamed the “island of eternal spring” because the weather is never too hot, nor too cold.
We stayed in the capital city, Funchal, population 110,000.

The first evening, we went to a restaurant named “Beef and Wine”, where we ordered the house speciality, espetada. This is usually chunks of beef but, in this case, it was actually a variation, picanah, top sirlon rubbed in garlic and salt, and grilled on skewers. The waiters come around as many times as you wish with their skewers, like the Brazilian churrascaria. The meat was served with a variety of vegetables. I took advantage of the extensive wine list to try a local red table wine, 2013 Xavelha, made from a blend of Portuguese and international grapes. This proved to be a good middle-of-the road effort. I later learned that table wines are quite rare, accounting for just 5% of production. We ended the meal with two glasses of ten-year-old Madeira, a Sercial and a Verdelho from Barbeito. I had heard very good things about this producer, but unfortunately was unable to visit because the firm was closed over the Christmas season. Be that as it may, the two wines we tried were delicious, in a more modern style.

We also enjoyed the unusual Madeiran bread, bolo do caco, usually served with garlic butter.

 

The next morning, I was taken in hand by the IVBAM, or Instituto do Vinho, do Bordado e do Artesanato da Madeira, IP-RAM. I was greeted by Rubina Vieira, who does a wonderful job of presenting a wine that most people have heard of, but few know much about… Rubina started off by putting the wine in a historic context – its more than 500 years of ups and downs, as well as its current market status. A famous story goes that the Duke of Clarence, brother of King Edward IV of England, when sentenced to death for treason in 1478, chose to meet his creator by drowning in a butt of Malmsey. Indeed, Duke of Clarence is the name of a wine sold by Blandy’s, one of the largest producers of Madeira! In Shakespeare’s “Henry IV”, Falstaff sells his soul to the devil “for a cup of Madeira”. Later on, Madeira found great favor in Europe and especially the United States, where the Founding Fathers used it to toast the signing of the Declaration of Independence. Exports were greatly helped by Madeira’s strategic geographical location, a stopover point on trans-Atlantic voyages. It was soon discovered that the wine benefitted from being stored in the warm holds of ships, and so a practice developed of imitating this effect on the island. This is achieved in two ways. The most common is the estufagem method, consisting of placing the wine in stainless steel vats that are heated with a serpentine or other kind of heating system to a maximum temperature of 50°C for a minimum of three months. The wine is then left to age and cannot be bottled before the 31st of October of the second year following the harvest. The more sophisticated canteiro method calls for maturing in barrels on the top floors of cellars, where the temperature is higher, for a minimum of two years. This leads to slow oxidative ageing accounting for unique, complex aromas. Canteiro wines must age for at least three years and can only be sold after a minimum of three years starting from the 1st of January of the year following the harvest.Madeira has an alcohol content of 17-22% by volume and is fortified with wine spirit of at least 96% (compared to Port’s 77%).

Much Madeira is marketed according to style (dry, medium-dry, medium-sweet, and sweet) but the finest usually carry a varietal name:

Sercial is nearly dry (≤ 59 g/l), but seems dry because of the wine’s intrinsic acidity
Medium-dry Verdelho has its fermentation halted a little earlier than Sercial, and residual sugar content varies from 54-78 g/l
Bual, classified as medium-sweet, has a sugar content of 78-100 g/l
Malmsey is quite sweet, with ≥  100 g/l of sugar

The most widely-planted variety in Madeira is Tinta Negra, accounting for 85% of production, although the name rarely appears on a label. There has been a tendency to consider Tinta Negra a “workhorse” grape rather than one of the finer varieties, but a 1929 Tinta Negra I tasted showed that to be an unfair generalization. And then there is the rare Terrantez, which produces a medium-dry or medium sweet wine of excellent quality that is making somewhat of a comeback.

 

 

Rubina was kind enough to take me through a tutored tasting of the following wines:

CAF Cooperative Agrícola do Funchal five year old (blend)
Barbeito “Rainwater”, medium dry
Henriques & Henriques 10 year old Sercial
Borges 10 year old Verdelho
Barbeito 10 year old Bual
Justino’s 10 year old Malvasia (same as Malmsey)
Henriques & Henriques 20 year old medium dry Terrantez
1973 Madeira Wine Company Verdelho
1964 Justino’s Bual
1937 Pereira Oliveira Sercial
1929 sweet Pereira Oliveira Tinta Negra

This master class was utterly fascinating, and the older wines were gorgeous.The style called “Rainwater” is very popular in the US. It is lighter and similar in sweetness to Verdelho, but usually made with Tinta Negra. Explanations of the origin of the name and how the style developed vary.

There was a time not so long ago when extremely old Madeira could be bought for a song – in fact, for ridiculously low prices, making it one of the wine world’s greatest bargains. Those days may be over, but fine Madeira remains well worth seeking out.

The wine law was recently overhauled, and the broad categories are now as follows:·

Reserve (five years) – This is the minimum amount of ageing for a wine labelled with one of the premium varieties.
Special Reserve (10 years) – At this point, the wines are often aged naturally without any artificial heat source
Extra Reserve (over 15 years) – This style is richer and relatively rare, with many producers preferring to extend the ageing to 20 years for a vintage, or produce a colheita.
Colheita – This style includes wines from a single vintage, but aged for a shorter period than true vintage Madeira. The wine can be labeled with a vintage date, but includes the word colheita on it. Colheita must be a minimum of five years old before being bottled. However, most producers drop the word Colheita once a wine is a minimum of 20 years old, at which point it can be sold as vintage.
Frasqueira (“vintage”)  – This style must be aged at least 20 years in cask and one year in bottle. However, the word “vintage” cannot appear on labels because it is a trademark belonging to the Port producers.

In France, Madeira suffers from an unusual handicap in that it is an ingredient in numerous classic sauces. Like many households and restaurants, I always have an open bottle to use in cooking. However, this overshadows the wine’s qualities in its own right… That having been said, Rubina pointed out what I had heard elsewhere: while Port and Sherry, the other great European fortified wines, are losing ground, exports of Madeira are on the rise.

The sugar content of Madeira, including dry Sercial, is actually quite high. This is because the wines feature such high acidity that sweetness is necessary to provide proper balance.

 

The IVBAM was kind enough to take me on a tour of the wine country, guided by Lionel Vieira, the Institute’s viticultural consultant. This was utterly fascinating and something I could never have done on my own.Rubina stressed that Madeira is by definition a rare wine. The entire vineyard covers just 500 hectares (compared with 650 hectares in Pomerol, practically the smallest of Bordeaux’s 57 appellations). These are scattered around the island in one of seven microclimates and divided among some 2,000 grape growers. The soil is basically the same everywhere: basalt of volcanic origin, which accounts for the high acidity. The island is very mountainous and so the vines frequently grow on terraces located on steep slopes. The grapes are mostly trained according to the latada system, i.e. making use of a pergola 1.5 to 2 meters high. This provides good ventilation and reduces the risk of rot or mold. In times past, vegetables were grown underneath, but this practice is disappearing. I also saw something in Madeira that was quite esoteric: vines trained horizontally, i.e. with the canes spread out on the ground, with no trunk. The key here is to work the soil so as to keep the ground well-aerated and totally devoid of other vegetation.

 

There are just 8 producers of Madeira. The largest, by far, is Justino´s Madeira Wines Company. The most well-known is the Madeira wine company, owners of such brands as Blandy’s, Cossart Gordon, Leacock’s, and Miles. The historic Blandy’s Wine Lodge, on Funchal’s main street, located practically next door to the Tourist Information Office, is a major attraction. I went on a tour there, which was well done. Unfortunately, tasting more than two entry level wines entailed a charge for each wine, so I contended myself with buying a bottle of Terrantez because this is so difficult to find.

The only other producer I visited was Pereira D’Oliveira. This traditional firm, also in Funchal, is famous for their old wines. Oliveira’s is not geared up to receiving foreign wine enthusiasts. The several young hostesses were not really clued-in and communication in English was not easy. It took some convincing to taste anything other than the basic blends. Their attitude changed completely when I was finally given a rare and expensive wine to taste, and bought a bottle. Evidently, I was not a freeloader, so other wines were poured and a few souvenir items were added free of charge…

 

In terms of dining, allow me to go through the restaurants we frequented. Lionel from the IVBAM invited me to the restaurant at the Four Views hotel in Funchal. This included poached egg soup and the emblematic black scabbard fish with bananas and passion fruit sauce. We had another Madeiran table wine with this, 2016 Barbusano Verdelho, perhaps a bit too tart for me. Lunch the next day was at a seafront restaurant, O Regional, that provided excellent value for money as we ate outside on a warm December afternoon.

That same evening we dined at Chris’s Place, on a par with a one-star Michelin restaurant. The three of us ordered the tasting menu with wines to match and the bill came to 100 euros, representing great value for money. In addition, we enjoyed lunch one day at Cachalote in Porto Moniz on the northern side of the island, which I also recommend. I sampled a dish there revolving around limpets that went well with a white Douro wine.

 

 

The highlight of our trip was nevertheless the New Year’s Eve gala dinner at the Belmond Reid’s Palace hotel in Funchal, an establishment normally out of my price range, but one of those luxurious things one does from time to time… The food was exquisite, as was the setting, and we had a window seat with a gorgeous view over the city and the harbour.

This mattered, because the fireworks display on the 31st of December in Funchal is world famous. There was a blaze of color all over the town and on the water. Spellbindingly beautiful.

Although Madeira is a major tourist destination, I had the impression that wine is very much of a footnote in regional promotion, which is a pity. That having been said, wine tourism is slowly, but surely taking off. Furthermore, Rubina travels all over the world to present the wines and suggest how to enjoy them with food (frequently a question mark with sweet wines). One of the unusual characteristics of Madeira is that it does not budge once the bottle is open. I was repeatedly told that you can go back a year later and it will not have suffered from contact with oxygen.

The challenge for Madeira is to close the gap between a famous name and the realities of today’s market so as to shake off a 19th century image and turn young people on to one of the world’s great wines. I get the feeling that thanks to the intrinsic quality of fine Madeira and people like Rubina to spread the good word, a renaissance is in the making.

A final anecdote: I attended a service at the Anglican church in Funchal and was delighted to see that along with the traditional tea and coffee after the service, worshipers were also given the option of a glass of Rainwater Madeira. Needless to say, that is what I chose… I found this mighty civilized and think that churches in other winegrowing regions – such as Bordeaux – would do well to offer the same!

 

 

 

2000 Vieux Château Certan and 2000 Trotanoy

Six of us from several countries (Bordeaux is great for that!) enjoyed a dinner with great wines this past week.

We started off with a prestigious Champagne. I love Champagne as an aperitif, can drink it with food in a pinch, but downright dislike it with dessert (a common practice in France). In any event, this 1996 Grande Dame was brought out in honor of a Japanese-American friend who will be working on and off with Veuve Clicquot in the near future. La Grande Dame (60% Pinot Noir/40% Chardonnay) is their top wine and 1996 is considered a great vintage. At a quarter of a century, the wine was a deep amber-gold, definitely showing its age. The bead was tiny and still relatively vigorous. The bouquet was oxidative, with nutty, predominantly Chardonnay aromas. In true Veuve style, the wine was quite rich on the palate. In France, such old Champagnes are said to correspond to “le goût anglais”. Although I liked the wine, I’d have preferred it ten years ago.

Next up was an oddball wine, served blind, as were the remaining two. This was the 2015 white Château du Tertre. There was no hope of anyone guessing this since it consists of a very unusual blend of grape varieties: 42% Chardonnay, 31% Gros Manseng, 16% Viognier, and 11% Sauvignon Blanc. For that reason, it can only be sold as “Vin de France”, even though it comes entirely from du Tertre, a classified growth in Arsac (AOC Margaux).
In fact, this white proved to be more of a curiosity than a fine wine. It was rather hard to pin down and was somewhat tired even at 6 years of age. Still, it was an enjoyable discovery.
We sat back and tried to name all the white wines produced in Margaux and came up with chx. Margaux, Cantenac Brown, Palmer, Prieuré Lichine and, of course, du Tertre.

There seems to be a certain amount of revisionism going on about recent great vintages. 2000 was much heralded, made out to be the bee’s knees, and inevitably labelled the “vintage of the century” (already…). However, preferences are now being voiced for 2005, 2009, and 2010. Who’s right? As usual, vintage ratings need to be nuanced, not only based on Left Bank/Right Bank criteria, but also the performance of individual estates.
Be that is it may, I enjoy the 2000 great growths tremendously, and find that at age 21 most are drinking well now.
Anyway, these two heavy hitters from Pomerol have a loyal following and I was delighted with both of them.

Vieux Château Certan is owned by the Belgian Thienpont family who also have their fingers in several other Bordeaux pies, including the rare and famous Le Pin. Unassuming Alexandre Thienpont is a perfectionist who has done much to enhance the estate’s reputation.
2000 VCC showed extremely well in August 2021, and most of us around the table felt that it was on its plateau, feeling that, although it will be enjoyable for years to come, it is as good now as it ever will be. Appearing older than the Trotanoy, it featured a divine bouquet with spicy notes and complex, ethereal aromatics along with the inevitable hint of truffle. On bouquet alone, 2000 VCC probably edged out Trotanoy of the same vintage. But as we shall see, Totanoy has not said its last word… Anyway, 2000 VCC’s innate elegance came through on the palate as well, but in a, dare I say, feminine, Margaux-like way. We enjoyed the wine with grilled veal chops and chanterelle mushrooms, but I could see how a wine like this could partner the very greatest creations of French cuisine due to its tremendous class. The aftertaste was fresh, soft, and evanescent, like the bouquet.

We did well to taste 2000 Trotanoy after the VCC because the former was a much bigger wine. If we believe what’s printed on the labels, alcoholic degree does not explain everything here. The nose of the Trotanoy was very concentrated with sweet black fruit and earthy overtones. It was quite seductive, if more obvious than the VCC. 2000 Trotanoy was a revelation on the palate, with a wonderful velvety texture and plenty of body and richness. I might allocate demerit points based on an impression of alcohol, but also give this a fair chance of integrating with further age. However, the wine clearly will always be imposing – not that this precludes the refinement one expects from top tier Pomerol. The aftertaste was long and powerful.

The bottom line is that the competition between these two Pomerols was a draw. That being said, the same match in ten years’ time would probably yield different results, in my opinion.
For what it’s worth, here is the area under vine of three famous Pomerol estates:
Pétrus: 11.5 hectares
Trotanoy: 7 hectares
Vieux Château Certan: 14 hectares
Trotanoy’s second wine is called L’Espérance
VCC’s second wine is La Gravette.
Both are good value for money.
Never heard of a second wine for Pétrus.

Book review: Les Lawton

“Les Lawton, une Dynastie Bordelaise du Vin” by Alain Blondy
Published by Le Festin.
189 pages. 17 euros. ISBN 978-2-36062-262-7
I was given this book, published in 2020, as a Christmas present and finally found a moment to read it this summer. “Les Lawton” is definitely for the hard-core Bordeauxphile not only because a good grounding in French required, but also a certain knowledge of the inner workings of the wine trade and Bordeaux society.

Wine lovers know that a majority of châteaux sell their wine through négociants (which can be translated as “shippers”), but are not necessarily aware that courtiers, or brokers form an essential link between the two parties. Although most often overlooked, their role is vital. They make sure that the samples shippers are presented with, and the prices at which they are offered, faithfully correspond to purchase orders.

Three quarters of all purchases by négociants go through the hands of brokers.

In 1739, at the age of 23, Abraham Lawton came from Cork (Ireland) to Bordeaux to establish a négociant firm. However, he soon saw that his true vocation was as a broker. He therefore started a business that exists to this day, having changed its name to Tastet et Lawton in 1830 when his family took on a partner. The Lawtons kept a detailed vintage report as of 1815. This, as well as volume upon volume of transactions, has become an invaluable source for scholars.
The 1835 painting on the book’s cover shows the historic Quai des Chartrons where Tastet et Lawton are located.

The Lawtons were Protestants, as were most of the other Northern Europeans who formed the backbone of the Bordeaux trade. Followers of Luther and Calvin have had a very checkered history in France. Persecution during the wars of religion in the late 16th century and the Saint Bartholomew’s Day Massacre came to an end when Henri IV, himself raised a Protestant before converting to Catholicism, issued the Edict of Nantes in 1598 granting Protestants religious freedom. This was unfortunately negated by the Edict’s revocation in 1685 by Louis XIV, but restored in 1787. Since then, they have suffered no discrimination.
n any event, the Lawtons’ steadfast devotion to their faith and country of origin is a leitmotif of their presence in the capital of Aquitaine. The book relates a dizzying succession of marriages with other members of the local Protestant community, many connected with the wine trade.
While hardly a rabid feminist, I could, however, not help but notice that the book focuses almost exclusively on Lawton men: women are confined to their role as wives and mothers, period.
The Lawton men were also involved in activities outside their profession: sports, including the mythical Primrose tennis club, and municipal government.

Seeing as the author is a former professor of history at the Sorbonne (with nearly 20 books to his credit), the book focuses a great deal on French history, particularly the war years. The Lawtons’ involvement is described in great detail, particularly Daniel’s heroism in WWI and during the troubled period of the Occupation. Needless to say, trade, particularly with Nazi Germany, was viewed with great suspicion after the Liberation, and Daniel successfully proved to the new regime that he had acted honorably. This was at a time when several négociants were found guilty of collusion with the enemy and heavily fined.

A well-known episode occurred between the wars, when Daniel Lawton accompanied American millionaire Clarence Dillon during his search for a famous wine estate to purchase in a depressed market. Legend has it that Dillon was interested in buying Cheval Blanc, but due to poor weather, Lawton took him instead to nearby Haut Brion, which Dillon acquired in 1935.

I have been privileged to know two members of the Lawton family. I worked with the ebullient Jean Lawton at the maison De Luze and met Daniel Lawton (son of the aforementioned Daniel) on several occasions. He was a strikingly handsome man who opitimized the genuine class of the Bordelais, as opposed to the more stuffy and snobbish among them. His knowledge of the region’s wines was nothing less than extraordinary.

This direct family line came to an end with Daniel’s death in 2015, and his two nephews took over the brokerage firm of Tastet and Lawton. Another nephew, Pierre Lawton, heads a successful négociant firm, Alias Bordeaux.

I must once again point out that this book is not easy going for the English speaker unfamiliar with French history. But it is worth the effort and full of interesting nuggets.

Th

 

Bombshell hits Saint Emilion : Ausone and Cheval Blanc drop out of the classification!

Château Cheval Blanc

It would be an understatement to say that the Bordeaux wine trade was taken by surprise…
By not submitting their application file for the 2022 classification by the June 30th deadline, Saint Emilion’s two leading châteaux have, in effect, withdrawn altogether and will soon be completely outside it.

Classifications were made of the Médoc and Sauternes in 1855, the Graves in 1953, and Saint-Emilion in 1955. As opposed to the other regions, Saint-Emilon’s classification is revised every 10 years, although it has taken longer than that on occasion. The 2012 hierarchy is the sixth since 1955.

The 2006 classification unfortunately gave rise to a certain amount of ill will and even legal action, with several excluded estates (La Tour du Pin Figeac, Cadet Bon, Guadet, and La Marzelle) contesting the grounds of their omission. These châteaux bitterly took issue with some of the criteria such as the presence of a parking lot, a fulltime receptionist, and the – to them – too minor part played by impartial tastings.

In light of this controversy, and the legal annulment of the 2006 classification, a new one was made six years later, in 2012. Special care was taken as to how it was conducted by the Syndicat Viticole and the INAO, a government agency, according to revised parameters. Alas, even more confusion and debate came about with this new ranking! Whereas there were 61 estates in the 2006 classification (15 premier grands crus classes and 46 grand crus classes), this had ballooned to 82 in 2012 (18 premier grands crus classes and 64 grand crus classes), i.e. an increase of 34%…
And, once again, three châteaux (La Tour du Pin Figeac, Cobin Michotte, and Croque Michotte) that were left out challenged the 2012 classification in court.
This has led to an absurd situation. Since their suit is still pending, it is entirely possible that the 2022 classification will come into effect while the previous one has not been officially validated!

In addition, two leading figures in the world of Bordeaux wine (Philippe Castéja, former president of the CIVB and owner of Ch. Trotteveille, as well as Hubert de Boüard, owner of Ch. Angélus, former president of the Syndicat Viticole de Saint Emilion, and member of the INAO) saw their estates either confirmed or promoted. They have been accused of a conflict of interests and weighing unfairly on the results of the classification. Both men are currently facing criminal charges for their alleged involvement in manipulating the outcome. This is an unheard of situation!

Château Ausone

The premier grand cru classés of Saint Emilion are divided into two categories: A and B. The former, included just two estates, Ausone and Cheval Blanc from the very beginning. However, in 2012, two more were added to this exalted position, the very tip of the pyramid: Angélus and Pavie. Above and beyond Hubert de Boüard’s polemical involvement, many traditional lovers of Bordeaux wines find that both Angélus and Pavie are top-heavy, overly-alcoholic heavily-extracted, and too oaky – in short, that they clash with their conception of classic claret.
In a tremendous example of hubris, Château Pavie had “Premier Grand Cru Classé A” engraved on the pediment of their new cellar. How could they do such a thing when the classification is, by definition, not set in stone?

So, in a revolutionary move, both of Saint Emilion’s grands seigneurs have decided to stay out of the classification. This has sent shockwaves throughout the region. Their reasons were that the parameters for inclusion were too far removed from the all-important notion of terroir. Things such as presence on social networks and the number of articles in the press have nothing to do with the quality of their wine, they argue.
In their defense, the Saint Emilion establishment points out that Ausone and Cheval Blanc did not contest the metrics for the 2012 classification, which remain unchanged in 2022, so why do so now?

Be this as it may, the classification is presently on very shaky ground. At stake is not just prestige, but money, lots of it. Not only do the crus classés sell for more than other wines but, above all, the value of the land is significantly increased.

As if things were not chaotic enough, the appellation laws in Saint Emilion suffer from an original sin. Only a small percentage of consumers know the difference between Saint Emilion Grand Cru and Saint Emilion Grand Cru Classé. There are seemingly hundreds of the former (the Syndicat cannot say with certainty how many…) selling for as little as 10 euros. These share exactly the same appellation – Saint Emilion Grand cru – as Cheval Blanc and Ausone selling for up to 100 times more! In other words, the grand cru appellation, which encompasses the crus classés, is terribly misleading.
At least Ausone and Cheval Blanc won’t need to change their labels…

There can be little doubt that abandoning the classification will have no adverse effect on their reputation or sales.

In theory, redefining a classification every 10 years is a great idea, leaving the possibility for newcomers to make headway, and laggards to be eliminated. However, the way this has been done is unfortunately skewed. Like the AOC laws in Saint Emilion, the classification was built on shaky foundations, and the institutions overseeing them now have lots of egg on their face. I sincerely hope that this sorry state of affairs can be corrected in the years to come.
But what if the classification were actually beside the point? Many Bordeaux enthusiasts pay little or no attention to it, relying on critics and market prices to make their choice…

 

 

 

Sparkling Sauternes!

I bought several bottles at a local wine shop not long ago and the owner was kind enough to add a free 50 cl. bottle of Sauternes (pictured) for me to try.
Seeing as it’s melon season here, and that melon, Parma ham, and Sauternes is a marriage made in heaven, I opened the bottle yesterday at lunch.

My eyes popped out when I saw friggin’ bubbles in the wine! Not just a few, or for a brief while. No, there were plenty there and they kept coming.
Well, needless to say I was rather suspicious. The wine had obviously refermented in bottle. Would it be OK to drink? The answer is: just about. There was clearly something off but, seeing as it was a small bottle, we went ahead and finished our glass. I’m not sure about the remaining wine…

Well, chalk that up to experience and add one to my repertoire of anecdotes J.

While on the subject, a friend in Cognac makes sparkling Pineau des Charentes. He cannot sell it as such because it doesn’t correspond to appellation laws. It is the sort of drink that sneaks up quickly and then hits you with a sledgehammer.

1990 Château La Lagune – a delicious… feminine wine

Can a wine be accurately described as feminine or masculine?

That was one of the subjects under discussion last night with my neighbors, whom I had invited over for dinner. I served a wine from Ludon, where they have family ties: 1990 Château La Lagune. This looked far younger than its years and had a delightfully evanescent nose of ripe Cabernet, humus, and truffle. The wine was suave and seamless, by no means powerful, but very elegant and poised. It was as good as it will ever be, even if I’m sure its plateau will be quite long.
It reminded me of one of the better wines of Margaux.
Anyway, although they’re from the wine country, my neighbors have only an ordinary interest in the stuff and, when I described the La Lagune as feminine, the wife was surprised. She had never heard such a reference, and it puzzled her. “Is this a usual term?” she inquired. I replied in the affirmative.

The question I’ve asked above is whether wine descriptions can be gendered in order to convey a meaningful and comprehensible message – not whether they should or should not be.
In this age of political correctness – including a movement to bowdlerize and rewrite children’s fairy tales! – there are undoubtedly people who object on principle, going on the assumption that it is wrong to ascribe characteristics to either sex (since there are strong women and dainty men, etc.). So, I will leave that issue aside. I have even heard women winemakers say that females leave a discernible feminine imprint on wines, which if I find rather hard to accept (that having been said, La Lagune has been made by a succession of women over the years!).

Getting back to semantics, and the way we speak about wines, I believe that it is both useful and going on universally understandable to describe a Chambolle-Musigny as feminine or a Châteauneuf-du-Pape as virile, a practical sort of shorthand. What is trickier is to extrapolate from those words to find out what they really mean. Would a WSET or MW student be marked down for using them? Does a woman, for example, have a different conception of what a feminine wine is than a man? Do wine lovers in Sydney and Montevideo, with different cultures and languages, agree on the characteristics of a masculine wine?

In my opinion, any wine geek or professional can relate to the description of 1990 La Lagune as feminine. Rather than lacking punch or character, those attributes are very much present, but restrained and under control – or, as Mitterrand liked to market himself, “la force tranquille”.  The French say an aromatic wine is “perfumed”. That, also, can be one of the hallmarks of a feminine wine, where the aromas are subtle, yet distinctive. As for aftertaste, such wines can be long and voluptuous, but not in your face.

I once went to Château Margaux with a visiting group from the Bordeaux Wine Enthusiasts forum. I asked the late Paul Pontalier the following question “It is often said that Margaux is the most feminine of wines. Is that true and, if so, how is it true?”. There followed an exceedingly brilliant exposition in impeccable English. I very much regret that I did not record it.

And masculine wines? A big, strapping Australian Shiraz fits the bill very nicely thank you, but that is a caricature. Ch. Latour is one of the most masculine wines in Bordeaux, and yet it is a wine of great depth and nuance. In the same way that feminine wines need not be delicate, neither do masculine wines have to be big thumping ones on steroids. Still, there is the idea of full bodied, straightforward wines with above average alcohol content (although this is not defining).

I’ve heard those terms around for as long as I can remember and am confident that they are here to stay. I do feel, though, that caution should be exercised in using them and that they definitely should not be overused.

 

 

Entre-Deux-Mers soon to be a red wine appellation?

The Entre-Deux-Mers is, of course, not between two seas, but rather two rivers, the Garonne and the Dordogne. This is the heartland of Bordeaux, rarely visited by tourists, but of considerable historic interest and home to many “nuts and bolts” wines, some of which represent tremendous value for money.

 

The wines entitled to the appellation, created in the 1930s (and which encompasses the Entre-Deux-Mers Haut-Benauge AOC), are exclusively white. This is paradoxical to the extent that the Entre-Deux-Mers also produces most of the ocean of red wine sold under the Bordeaux and Bordeaux Supérieur appellations.

There are some 1,600 hectares of Sémillon, Sauvignon Blanc, and Muscadelle vines, but far more of Merlot and Cabernet.

The local winegrowers association has just voted to ask the INAO (the National Institute of Origin and Quality) to create a red wine appellation for the Entre-Deux-Mers. This is likely to be approved, and wines sold under this name may arrive on the market as early as 2023.

Considering the poor sales of basic Bordeaux, one might wonder as to the reasons behind a new appellation for entry level red wines. The purpose is to heighten the recognition of a specific area within Bordeaux and give impetus to sales of both red and white wines – in short to bolster a brand badly in need of it. Growers understandably also want to make a distinction between bargain basement generic Bordeaux and wines from a region with its own unique history and a number of beautiful well-run estates. In short, if wine is about a sense of place, then the Entre-Deux-Mers unquestionably qualifies as its own entity.

This also goes hand in hand with efforts to highlight the Entre-Deux-Mers as a tourist destination with beautiful rolling countryside, medieval fortified towns, and a number of Romanesque churches. Since most wine lovers visiting Bordeaux flock to the same prestigious appellations there is much work to be done to attract them off the beaten track.
The same, of course, can be said for the wines of the Entre-Deux-Mers, snubbed by label drinkers and virtually unavailable on some major export markets.

The creation of the Pessac-Léognan appellation in 1987 was a secession and really in no way comparable. Red Entre-Deux-Mers is a step up from the somewhat indeterminate Bordeaux and Bordeaux Supérieur appellations (over half of all Bordeaux wines), and this narrowing down of terroir should only be seen as positive. The commercial challenge is, of course great. But by combining both red and white wines under one banner, I believe that this to be a positive move.

Killer frost in Bordeaux – April 2021

Frost hit the Bordeaux vineyards earlier this month at a crucial time, as it did vineyards throughout France.

This map shows the areas hardest hit. It will, of course, be revised later in the year.

Bud break had already started and, as you can see, losses were catastrophic in certain appellations.

Everything possible was done to fight the cold (smudge pots, giant fans, helicopters, water sprinklers, etc.), but not all winegrowers had the means to do so effectively. Furthermore, at a time when there is increased environmental awareness, there is no ecological form of frost prevention.

The issue of crop insurance is much discussed at present. It costs a small fortune for those who have it and, even there, coverage in case of claims is usually disappointing.
The French government has stepped in, promising millions (in fact, over a billion euros) in relief to farmers all over the country.
When added to the massive Covid debt, this is not exactly good news. And in the same way that a certain number of businesses will not survive the pandemic, the danger is that winegrowers in entry-level appellations may decide to throw in the towel once and for all.

 

A Bordeaux Syrah and a 1983 Ducru Beaucaillou

Bordeaux almost inevitably involves a blend of grape varieties, one of the factors that accounts for its wonderful complexity. Of course, wines made from a single variety do exist, but they are very much in the minority.
As in other regions around the world, Bordeaux is worried about the effects of global warming and is timidly, and on an experimental basis, allowing wines to contain up to 5% of the following new varieties (six out of the fifty-two pre-tested) starting with the 2021 vintage – even if these are not permitted to be mentioned on the label. The purpose here is to adapt to hotter summers without altering Bordeaux’s typicity – so it is only normal to proceed gingerly.

REDS:
Arinarnoa – a hardy cross between Tannat and Cabernet Sauvignon first produced by INRA (the  French National Research Institute) in 1956
Castets – a “forgotten” disease-resistant variety from Southwest France
Marselan a frost-resistant and disease-resistant cross between Cabernet Sauvignon and Grenache produced by INRA in 1961
Touriga Nacional – one of the main varieties used to make Port wine that is well suited to climate change and especially propitious to producing excellent ageworthy wines

WHITES:
Alvarinho – This variety is called Albarino in the Spanish province of Galicia, and Alvarinho in the Portuguese province of Minho. It is very aromatic and helps compensate for the loss of aromas due to climate change. It is also adaptable to climatic conditions and produces wines with good acidity.
Liliorila – a cross between Baroque and Chardonnay, this variety is resistant to gray rot and produces powerful aromatic wines.

That having been said, wines from “non-authorized” grape varieties, sold as “vin de France” rather than Bordeaux, have been around for a long time. I was nevertheless intrigued to see a Syrah for the first time recently in a wine shop, Pied à Terre on rue Judaïque in Bordeaux, and snapped it up. The wine is made by Château Thieuley, which I have often enjoyed through the years. Located in La Sauve Majeure in the Entre-Deux-Mers, Thieuley is a great success story and grew from a tiny vineyard in the 1950s to an impressive 83 hectares today. It is expertly managed by Marie and Sylvie Courselle.

Just 8,000 bottles of 2016 Syrah were produced from deep clay-limestone soil. The wine was fermented in small temperature-controlled cement vats and aged in barrel (50% new) for 18 months.
I served this wine blind at lunch to friends in the trade and, unsurprisingly, they were stumped. I can’t really say that it showed a lot of varietal character and there was nothing here reminiscent of the Northern Rhône, but it was certainly robust and user-friendly. I saw this as the kind of wine best consumed young and am grateful for the experience. For information, the price tag was about 16 euros.

This Syrah was served with my first attempt at making a parmentier de canard, a variation of what the English call a shepherd’s pie made with duck confit instead of ground beef. The hearty, fruity wine went well with the dish.

The best and oldest red wine is traditionally reserved for the cheese course in Bordeaux. A modern revisionist wave criticizes this practice, and I partially agree. On the one hand, a delicious old wine can sometimes by underwhelming after a vigorous young one that precedes it. And, on the other hand, it is true that certain cheeses overpower the subtleties of fine wine. Some people go so far as to ban red wine with cheese, insisting on serving only whites… In any event, my conservative streak comes through on this matter, especially when I have French friends over for a meal, because the best, oldest red wine with the cheese is what they expect.
For the record, we had four cheeses: a Selles-sur-Cher goat’s cheese, Roquefort, a Mont d’Or, and an utterly delicious Italian cheese, Moliterno sheep’s cheese with truffle. As for the Moliterno, it sounds terribly expensive and snobbish, but it was bought for a very reasonable price at the local Auchan hypermarket.

So, I had opened my bottle of 1983 Ducru Beaucaillou about 3 hours beforehand and decanted it just prior to serving it blind. My guests immediately said “Left Bank Bordeaux”, and such is the classicism of this wine that this was, in fact, pretty obvious. It was thought to be a more northerly Médoc, possibly a Saint-Estèphe, from the late 80s/early 90s. Its pedigree (i.e. cru classé status) was never doubted and, in light of its quality, my guests were not really surprised when it was revealed to be a “super-second”. 1983 Ducru exemplified the elegance and restraint of the finest Bordeaux. The color was a little more youthful than its age would suggest and the nose was a sublime mix of anise, tar, humus, cassis, and a myriad of undefinable aromas to form a very special bouquet. The wine was fresh on the palate, with the unmistakable stamp of fine Cabernet and a surprising amount of tannin on the aftertaste. This was largely resolved and fit in beautifully. The notion of peak is highly subjective, but I would say that this was slightly past it, but still very much alive and kicking!
1983 is the year my daughter was born, so this held special significance for me. It was also what the Bordelais call an “Atlantic vintage” i.e. more typical of the region’s climate, which is fairly rainy and temperate, than a hot, dry year accounting for richer more alcoholic wines. To many Bordeaux lovers, the former are more authentic, digestible, and loveable wines than ones from much-heralded great years. This 83 had 12.5% alc./vol., which would seem pretty lily-livered by today’s standards…
I was a bit worried because there was a period in the late 80s/early 90s when Ducru had a serious TCA problem and many bottles had to be poured down the drain. However, this 83 was from before that period, which is long since past.

We ended the meal with a half bottle of 2010 Château Guiraud, a premier cru from Sauternes that was perhaps too young, and perhaps did not receive quite the attention it deserved, but was a fine accompaniment to a lemon meringue pie.

2000 Château Cantenac Brown

here are no fewer than 10 third growths in Margaux, and a couple of them are, let’s face it, pretty lacklustre. I have had Cantenac-Brown on any number of occasions and have tended to slot it into the “foursquare” category, i.e. reliable, and unquestionably a worthy reprentative of its appellation and its classification, but not on the exciting side.
The château has changed ownership a number of times in recent years. It belonged to Axa Millésimes from 1987 to 2005 and then to a Syrian-born English businessman, Simon Halab, who sold it in turn to the French Le Lous family a year and a half ago.

I also knew Cantenac Brown because it was the site of international seminars for the Axa insurance company and a venue for any number of corporate and special events with memorable banquets.

Anyway, 2000 is a great vintage in Bordeaux and I am starting to open an increasing number of fine Bordeaux from that year – and finding most of them arriving into their drinking window.


So, to accompany a traditional roast beef Sunday dinner, I decanted 2000 Cantenac Brown three hours before serving. There was only a small amount of fine sediment.

I am pleased to say that the wine outperformed my expectations. It was well and truly delightful. The color was fine and looked younger than its age. The nose was absolutely enthralling, with hints of graphite, truffle, and violet to complement sublime ripe Cabernet Sauvignon aromas. So subtle and so seductive! The wine was suave and velvety on the palate too, with attractive acidity. Only a slight weakness on the follow-through (I’m admittedly nit picking here) keeps this from the very pinnacle of Médoc wines. I certainly need to revise my opinion of Cantenac Brown and apparently the new owners are investing heavily in bringing the estate up to its full potential.
Stay tuned to this station for further developments :-).

Bordeaux at 1.69 euros a bottle…

 

Bordeaux is in a bad way. Oh, I’m not referring to the famous châteaux coveted by wine lovers around the world. I’m talking about the 55% of total production sold under the Bordeaux and Bordeaux Supérieur appellations. This ad in the local Sud-Ouest newspaper on March 10th by the German supermarket group Lidl promotes so-called “award winning” Bordeaux at 1.69 euros a bottle! If you deduct all the fixed costs from beginning to end, what amount can that possibly leave for winegrowers (seeing as it is forbidden to sell under cost price on the retail end)?

The “gold medal” in question is from two French journalists who, in my opinion, should be ashamed of themselves. Their ratings are widely reputed to be based on payments received… In addition, the same ad was run in France’s largest circulation newspaper, Le Monde, showing that the wine in question must be available throughout the country. Putting aside the notion of quality for a moment, how can a blend of such gigantic proportions be considered homogeneous enough to earn a medal?

The rock bottom sales price and misleading medal do an injustice to Bordeaux.

A statistic I recently saw floored me: some 10% of an average crop of Bordeaux wine – we’re talking hundreds of thousands of hectolitres – were distilled last year to make biofuel, paid for by EU and French government subsidies.
Something is very wrong here.

Beaujolais was in a similarly bad predicament not so long ago, with terrible press. But they picked themselves up by the bootstraps and things are better there now.

The French have always been wary of free markets, especially in areas as politically sensitive as agriculture. And city dwellers, who make up most of the population, have a nostalgic, protective attitude towards farmers and winegrowers. It has therefore been expedient for successive governments to avoid the root problem and placate the wine industry. Of course, this cannot go on forever because the situation is clearly unsustainable.

The causes of this sad state of affairs are multiple, but playing the blame game gets no one anywhere. I hope the powers-that-be react intelligently and effectively to find a way to bring supply and demand closer together. No one says that this will be easy, but the present impasse can only last for so long… There is much at stake, but particularly the future of entire swathes of the Bordeaux region’s agricultural land and the families who earn their livelihood from it. The name Bordeaux can bring to mind images of impressive châteaux and self-satisfied négociants, but the truth is that most of the wines are made at modest estates run by hardworking men and women who barely earn a living wage. And their children are increasingly disinclined to take over the family estate…

There are many, many fine examples of entry level Bordeaux. It is therefore heartbreaking to see the whole category rejected by so many opinion leaders, buyers, and consumers. The Bordeaux establishment must face up to the fact that there are simply too many sub-standard wines out there – and do something about it. While timid efforts have been made in the past, these need to be seriously stepped up. Likewise, marketing and promotional budgets should be significantly increased. Alas, there are no quick fixes here… On the commercial end, brand building and the promotion of quality wines from petits châteaux, cooperatives, and négociants needs to be encouraged by every possible means – and thin, weedy wines refused the right to be called Bordeaux.

Of course, there is no easy answer to a problem with such deep roots. I champion Bordeaux at all levels and sincerely hope that things will improve. The potential to do so is unquestionably there.