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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!

 

 

 

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.

Court rules against accusations of toxic elements in Bordeaux

You can’t knock a product publicly without good reason.

That, in substance, is what a court in Libourne decided yesterday when it fined an association called Alerte aux Toxiques 125,000 euros and ordered them to take down a report that Bordeaux wines contained a host of toxic residues.

Here’s the article from today’s Sud-Ouest : https://www.sudouest.fr/gironde/libourne/vins-de-bordeaux-condamnee-l-association-alerte-aux-toxiques-va-faire-appel-1429701.php

The CIVB (Conseil Interprofessional des Vins de Bordeaux) questioned the methodology of the association’s findings that were published online and, above all, the snarky remarks that accompanied them. The association was thus found guilty of “dénigrement”, or “untruthful disparagement.”

I really don’t feel much sympathy for Valérie Murat because, although muckraking has its place, for sure, behavior such as hers tends to paint everyone with the same brush and does harm.
Unlike most all other food products, wine escapes legislation requiring the listing of ingredients and “use by” dates. While something should probably be done about that, a smear campaign based on shaky science is not the best way to go about achieving this.

Had the same woman presented her case differently, publishing the figures with the customary provisos all serious scientific studies should have, and, above all, interpreted them without bias or ill will, this all would have turned out very differently.

Surely a function of my age, I am not attracted by wines marketed as organic. This is not a selling point to me because a wine’s chief virtue to me is to taste good. I’ve had too many poor organic wines along the way. Before I, myself, am accused of ill will and bias, I’m willing to evaluate any wine as objectively as possible and, of course, acknowledge that there are excellent organic wines. It’s just not the paramount criterion for me.

Madame Murat says she will appeal the court’s decision. I doubt the judgement will be as severe next time around, but plenty of people will be following this affair closely.

The market for Bordeaux runs into difficulty

CIVB headquarters in Bordeaux

As reported in the Feb. 12th issue of the local newspaper, le Sud-Ouest, the 2020 sales figures for Bordeaux wines have just been released. And they are not encouraging. The Gironde department sold 3.9 million hectoliters (the equivalent of 522 million bottles) of wine last year. This was 5% less than in 2019 in volume and 12% less in value (for a total of 3.5 billion euros).

Supermarket sales in France, by far the largest distribution vector for that market, fell by 4%. It did not help that the country’s huge restaurant and café sector has been closed for months.

Exports, which account for about half of all sales of Bordeaux, were down 3% in volume and 14% in value. These figures confirm that Bordeaux has experienced a third year of crisis in a row. The structural reasons are well-known: fewer people shopping in supermarkets, a drop in sales of red wine, difficulties on the Chinese market, customs barriers in the US and, of course, the Covid pandemic. With regard to America, while the volume of exports actually increased by 1% in 2020, value was down by a huge 29%. Despite Brexit, shipments to the UK were up 6% by volume, although a certain amount of that involved stocking up before Britain officially left the EU on Dec. 31st.

In order to cope with overproduction, some 550,000 hectoliters of Bordeaux wine, i.e. 10% of a normal vintage, were distilled in the past few months thanks to EU subsidies.  Uprooting vines is now an option being seriously considered.

Sales for the last three months of the 2020 were better than the same period the previous year, so there is some ground for hope. But the medium-term obstacles remain challenging. Some serious soul-searching and decision-making needs to be done. Of course, certain market segments are suffering more than others, with the great growths being in a separate and less-threatened category. Also, the value of French wines and spirits exports on the whole were down by 14% last year. So Bordeaux is not alone in having a difficult time.

 

 

2005 Château Chasse Spleen

I haven’t opened a 2005 in a while, but figured yesterday was the day for my bottle of 2005 Chasse Spleen to accompany a nice roast of beef.
This cru bourgeois (previously in the “exceptionnel” category, and now voluntarily outside the classification) is often considered an honorary great growth and frequently cited as the best wine of the low-profile Moulis appellation. Incidentally, Moulis is the second smallest appellation in Bordeaux, after Saint-Georges-Saint-Emilion, with 630 hectares of vines.

I’ve had mostly good experiences with Chasse Spleen, although I’m not a fan of their white wine.

For what it’s worth, there’s a quotation from Lamartine’s “Le Lac” on the strip label for the 2005 vintage: “O temps ! Suspends ton vol, et vous, heures propices, Suspendez votre cours !”
Translation: ” Oh Time! Pause in your flight, and you, happy hours, stop your race.
Chasse Spleen’s odd name is said to have come from a comment from Lord Byron who, visiting, said that the wine “dispelled the spleen”. The French verb “chasser” means to drive out or chase away.

THe château belongs to the Merlaut famiy, and is presently managed by granddaughter Céline Villars. The château building is beautiful and welcomes visitors.

Decanted two hours before the meal, this 2005 proved to be a fine example of what the château can do. The color showed the wine’s age, but seemed more youthful on the nose (hints of graphite and violet) and, especially, the palate. There was a delightful sort of double whammy here, staring off with a rich, voluptuous flavor, then going into an austere and frankly tannic aftertaste that made it particularly appetizing with red meat. This pronounced, but not unrelenting, tannin seems to be the hallmark of Chasse Spleen.

The notion of peak is hard to pin down and, of course, the question of personal preferences comes into play… While I believe this wine will improve with age, I also feel it shouldn’t be kept too long because by the time the tannin further softens, the fruit will become more subdued. In the trade-off, I’d say 2005 Chasse Spleen should be ideal in 2025.

This wine was a joy to drink and it is always nice to see that the estates you considered stalwarts have maintained their standing.

Marcillac: a different kind of fine wine from Southwest France

Although a 4 hour drive from Bordeaux – the capital of Southwest France – Marcillac in the Averyron department is classified a “vin du sud-ouest” along with some 20 other appellations: Bergerac, Cahors, Gaillac, Buzet, Madiran, etc .

My wife and I enjoyed a vacation in the Averyron in September 2020, making sure to visit the Roquefort cheese cellars and admire the amazing Viaduc de Millau. Naturally, we also also visited the area’s best wine-producing region, Marcillac, about 20 km from the city of Rodez.

They have been making wine in Marcillac for a thousand years and it acquired appellation controlee status in 1990. The main grape variety, Fer Servadou (known locally as Mansois) accounts for at least 80% of the blend, the rest consisting of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Prunelard. The area under vine was approximately 1,500 hectares in the 16th century, but fell to just 10 fifty years ago. Today,
with 180 hectares, Marcillac is one of the smallest appellations in France.  The local cooperative, Les Vignerons du Vallon, accounts for over 50% of production.

The terroir consists of rolling hills (some of which are terraced) with red clay soil overlooking a plain with limestone soil. Marcillac is in a valley (in fact, the town’s full name is Marcillac-Vallon) and the surrounding mountains account for a temperate microclimate providing protection from strong winds.

I tend to have a soft spot for esoteric, inexpensive, under the radar appellations – and Marcillac definitely fits that description.  The Fer Servadou is a rare grape variety, and no other wine features it as prominently. Related to the family that includes Cabernet Sauvignon, it is what makes Marcillac unique. The first part of the name, Fer, comes from the fact that the vine branches are quite hard, like iron. The latter part, Servadou, means “that which keeps well” in Occitan.

We visited the appellation’s two main producers, starting off with Domaine du Cros, who have 28 hectares of vines. The first wine we tasted there was a pleasant 2019 Marcillac Rosé somewhat reminiscent of a Tavel with minerality showing on the aftertaste. The second wine, Cuvée n° 25, comes from a specific small plot of young vines and is made without sulphur. This was quite interesting, with an inky reddish-purple color, very pure primary aromas, and a rich, long aftertaste. We had had the third wine the previous night in a restaurant: the 2016 Vieilles Vignes. This showed good character and grip, and will benefit from further ageing. The last wine, 2015 Les Rougiers, was made from 70-year-old vines and aged in oak, which comes through strongly on the palate at this time. Although closed, I am convinced that this will provide much pleasure in ten years’ time.

Charming village of Clairevaux d’Aveyron

Driving a short distance down the hill from Domaine du Cros, through a vista of vines thick with nearly-ripe grapes, we happened upon the closest village, Clairevaux d’Aveyron. This proved to be absolutely serendipitous for two reasons. First of all, the town is an architectural gem, a collection of fascinating medieval buildings built of red brick. Then, totally by chance, we came upon the cellars of the other major producer of Marcillac, Domaine Laurens, with 25 hectares of vines.

It was a pleasant surprise to discover this producer and their selection of innovative products. We started off with a pleasant white Vin de Pays de l’Aveyron made with Sauvignon, Chenin Blanc, and Saint Côme, going on to the domaine’s main wine, 2019 Pierres Rouges AOC Marcillac. This had seen no wood and been recently bottled, so was not showing at its best. However, it reflected the tart, fruity, seductive side of Marcillac and I came away with a case, considering it good value for money. But what really endeared me to Domaine Laurens was their range of special cuvées. These went from the pretty 2018 Cuvée des Flars to the refined and agreeably tannic 2017 Cuvée de l’Ecir. One step up were the 2016 Le Dernier Lion (aged in amphorae) and 2015 Clamenç.  These showed precision winemaking and would have totally puzzled even the most gifted blind taster. The latter is a blend of 50% Fer Servadou and 50% Cabernet Sauvignon. While not cheap (about 30 euros a bottle) these last two wines showed the sort of excellent quality can be achieved with the right hands in Marcillac – a quality I had not at all expected in this out-of-the-way appellation.

If you are interested in discovering the real France, I strongly recommend a visit to the Averyron and to Marcillac in particular.

20005 Château La Serre, Saint Emilion grand cru classé

Like most English speakers, I am more familiar with the wines of the Médoc (and have tasted every classified growth there) than I am with the wines of the Right Bank. Indeed, my acquaintance with many of the crus classes of Saint-Emilion is limited or non-existent.

I have tried young Château La Serre at tastings, but had never sampled an aged one until this past weekend.

La Serre has 7 hectares of vines on the edge of the limestone plateau, surrounded by Ausone, Bel Air Monange, Pavie Macquin, and Trottevieille. It has been owned by the d’Arfeuille family, with deep roots in the region, since 1956. Former owners of châteaux La Pointe in Pomerol and Toumalin in Canon-Fronsac, they have also been involved in the négociant trade.

The breakdown of grape varieties is 80% Merlot and 20% Cabernet Franc. The vines are an average 35 years old.

Whereas I would probably go on the assumption that a fine 2005 Médoc was too young to drink, I felt that this Saint-Emilion might just be ready to go.

The color was absolutely beautiful, with a deep reddish-purple hue and gentle bricking on the rim. I would probably have guessed a younger wine if tasted blind.
The nose showed fresh, classy, tremendously ripe fruit reminiscent of red fruit jelly. The oak was under control, but my notes say that the bouquet was half-way to the New World in style, not that this is meant in a pejorative way, simply reflecting its exuberance.
The wine proved to be “sweet”, voluptuous and very rich on the palate, with concentrated cherry flavors. It was mouthfilling and unctuous, but minerality from the limestone showed on the aftertaste to provide a counterpoint and the necessary backbone.

I was greatly pleased with this 2005 La Serre, a sensual, delicious wine, which is still shy of its peak. I would definitely seek this wine out in the future.