Bordeaux 2016: first impressions

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With just a month to go before the Bordelais unveil their 2016 wines, Buying Director and Bordeaux Buyer Max Lalondrelle shares his first impressions of the vintage

Every year, long before the en primeur tastings in early April, I visit Bordeaux to check on the quality of the vintage. These visits, the first during the harvest in mid-October and the second in mid-January when I get a chance to taste the early juice, are important in helping me understand the wines. This gives me the freedom to form an early impression of the vintage and to visit the areas that are most exciting.

It is quite clear that in 2016 the overall health of the vineyards was extremely good. The vintage produced a large harvest with much bigger yields than in previous years. The average yield this year is between 45 and 50hl/ha; this is not far off levels seen in 2004 which was one of the largest vintages in recent years. Even better, the quality is very good – in some cases, excellent.

The growing season was marked by a warm and wet winter with rain continuing into the spring. This meant that some areas suffered from coulure after flowering, but this shouldn’t have any effect on the overall quality of the vintage. The summer was hot and dry and stretched right into September and October, with good weather during the harvest. Despite the drought at the end of August, the fruit was both abundant and healthy, the most abundant I can recall for some time. Walking through the vineyards and picking off a few grapes you could eat the ripe pips. Usually when you crunch into the berries at this time of year, they could be astringent and bitter, but in 2016 there wasn’t that bitterness. This indicates that the tannins are mature and ripe.

Tasting the early juice I would say stylistically that the 2016s are going to be marked by having lots of body and dark juicy fruit, think flavours such as blackcurrants and cassis, but finishing with a huge amount of freshness. In many ways it is a unique style of vintage – lower in alcohol than 2010 but with more drinkability and freshness. The wines possess all the ingredients of a hot vintage, huge body and ripe fruit, but they have ripe tannins and are fresh.

The Bordelais know they have a very good vintage under their belt, but they are also aware of the market conditions and the external pressure in terms of economics. The feeling is come and have a look at what we have and we can discuss the prices later. Is it a great vintage? It is too early to tell, but 2016 could be quite close.

Our team will be out in Bordeaux in the first week of April, tasting the wines and talking to the producers: look out for daily updates on the blog with their thoughts on the vintage.

Category: Bordeaux Wine

Roaming around the Rhône

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Photograph: Jason Lowe

As the region’s 2015 wines are released en primeur, Oliver Barton reports on a trip to the region – tasting the wines and talking to the people who made them

A very good vintage in the Rhône valley is long overdue, as we have been waiting for one since the all-round winner of 2010. Well, it is finally here. As we discovered on our trip across the region last month, both North and South are hitting high notes.

The weather was wonderful in the Southern Rhône, reaching 22°C in Gigondas when we got there. The backdrop of the Dentelles de Montmirail above the flowing vineyards, with the almond trees in flower was a wonderful sight to behold. Of course most of our time was spent tasting in dark, cool underground cellars, such is the nature of the task.

The vintage itself was generous in quality as well as quantity which is important for the customer on many levels; the quality will provide wines which are ideal for cellaring and will reward from the simplest of Côtes du Rhônes all of the way up to the Châteauneuf-du-Papes and Côte Rôties over the next decade or two. The quantity means there is more for all, but also avoids any severe price increases – a saving grace in this time of turbulent exchange rates.

The quality is very good across both the North and the South, although yields were better in the latter. The reds are marginally better than the whites overall, with a risk of not-quite-perfect acidity levels in grapes such as Viognier.

To go through each producer visited on our trip would be long-winded, but also a particularly repetitive affair – with far too many notes of “ripe, dark berry fruit”, “great structure” and the reoccurring “must buy this one”. But there were a few highlights that are worth mentioning.

The first day heralded a visit to Domaine de la Janasse. The winery is understated and you may well encounter the whole family as they wander through the cellar. The wines, by contrast, have a big structure, with generous, silky tannins. But, as with many of their contemporaries, it is the fresh, balancing acidity that defines the vintage here. One of my top wines of the trip was their Vieilles Vignes: stunning, fresh with cassis fruit and liquorice, their 80- to 100-year-old vines yield beautifully concentrated fruit.

Another producer punching well above their weight was Domaine de Marcoux. The two sisters Catherine and Sophie Estevenin have excelled again in producing dark, rustic wines reminiscent of other top-level estates in the area. Their Lirac, which receives no oak aging, shows great potential and their Vieilles Vignes is a wonder to behold if you like your Châteauneuf-du-Pape opaque and as full-bodied as it gets.

After years of negotiations to achieve Cru status for Cairanne, 2015 is the first vintage for Domaine de l’Oratoire St Martin with the new appellation. Frederick Alary produces outstanding wines with a hallmark mineral finish and high percentages of Mourvèdre that provide dark bramble fruit. The prices aren’t bad either.

Driving up the valley into Hermitage and then Côte-Rôtie, many famous names are visible on the slopes – like billboards on American highways, advertising the big players such as Guigal and Chapoutier. René Rostaing, now working with his son Pierre in the winery, compares his 2015s to the great vintages of the 1990s. Coursodon, down the road in St Joseph, showed us dark reds which were embellished with a touch of new oak, while Domaine du Tunnel has produced wines which will be incredibly long-lived.

We ended this heady tour with a visit to Stéphane Ogier in his large, very modern winery which he built a few years ago. The tasting room look out over the most important slopes of Côte-Rôtie, allowing one to observe the vineyards from which the grapes were grown while one tastes.  Stéphane’s work on vinifying parcels individually, creating an even broader palette with which he can work, has allowed him to produce truly stupendous wines – complex but generous, textured but balanced. A word to the wise, things are only going to get better at this domaine: Stéphane is one to watch very closely.

Tasting the length of the valley, the quality of the vintage is undeniable. An “easy” vintage in the eyes of the growers, 2015 has provided excellent wines at all price points and will provide enjoyment for years to come. It really is one not to be missed.

Browse Rhône 2015 en primeur on bbr.com.

Category: Rhône Wine

The biodynamic duo

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Photograph: Jason Lowe

Fifth-generation winemakers Christine and Eric Saurel are the proprietors of the feted Domaine Montirius in Vacqueyras, as well as tireless crusaders of the biodynamic cause. Here, as we launch our Rhône 2015 offer, they reflect on the benefits of a healthy vineyard

We’ve been biodynamic on our family estate since 1996. We had already adopted homeopathic medicine for our private life, and switched to organic food to take care of our first child. We noticed after a year that we were all in much better health. When you realise the impact of all that you have discovered for your body, you can’t continue to go out into your vineyard and spray pesticides.

Meeting François Bouchet was an eye-opener. He was a consultant in biodynamics and changed our understanding of the vineyard, how to prune, why you leave the apex on the leaves, why you spray a certain preparation into the soil. You evolve in your mentality. He questioned the routines and traditions passed down through generations of winemakers.

We designed our cellar in accordance with the number of days of the harvest. So we chose to have 18 fermentation vats because we have 18 days of picking. This way, we are sure that when we put the grapes in a vat, they can take all the time they need to be perfect.

It was important for us that our cellar has the same “vibration” as the soil where it was built. So in the fresh cement we introduced some dynamised water, and earth from our terroir. That information then spreads out like ripples in a pond. For the tanks it was the same principle.

To guarantee you have in the bottle what you have from the vineyard, you must have no impurities in the process. The cellar is a cocoon for the wine and a continuation of the vineyard. We are focused on waiting; up until it is in the bottle, the wine has its own rhythm, not ours. If it’s necessary to wait a little bit longer to obtain the best result, our customers are ready to do this.

You need a third dimension in the wine and this is the light – the life of the wine. A wine should breathe into you, like oxygen. If the wine is alive with light, you will have that sensation in your body and this is key for us. This is the life you have in your soil, and how you respect the process from the grapes to the point when you put the wine into the bottle. It is the third dimension, between the grapes and the wine, with nothing added.

To explore our full range of 2015 wines from the Rhône, click here.

Category: Old World,Rhône Wine

On the table: Bonhams Restaurant

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This month Cellar Plan Manager Tom Cave visits the restaurant at renowned auction house Bonhams, where faultless service and classic cuisine impress our discerning diner

The reluctance of old to allow patrons to bring their own wines to a restaurant and pay a respectable “corkage” charge is gradually being chipped away as, perhaps due to the sheer number of good quality eateries in London, the canny restaurateur realises it is in fact a jolly good way to get bums on seats.

Still, there is an etiquette to be respected with corkage. It’s important to ask the house first and more than just polite to buy at least one wine off the restaurant’s own list. And it’s good form to offer the sommelier a glass.

The wine trade has of course been attracted to restaurants who are amenable to offering corkage and one such is the new, and very chic, dining room at the astute auction house of Bonhams where, at the encouragement of the urbane Richard Harvey MW who heads their thriving wine department, I dined mid-February.

The restaurant itself can be accessed via the Bonham’s showrooms or from Brook Street through the evocatively named Haunch of Venison Yard; one can almost see the 18th century bewhiskered butcher sharpening his knives over a deer’s carcass.

I took the precaution of delivering my chosen bottle, discreetly, earlier that day. This allows the wine to settle after travel and for the sommelier to decant and assess, and, should (groan) the bottle be corked, advise you of this sooner so a replacement can be made in good time.

The dining space at Bonhams is up a curl of stairs from what looked a congenial bar, sporting an Enomatic wine dispenser (always a good sign). Minimalist in décor, with some bright art-works on the walls, the environment is crisp and bright but by no means unwelcoming. As it happened, there was a solo diner already there who looked most at ease.

My companion and I elected mutually to take a glass of Hampshire’s Hambledon fizz while we perused the mercifully brief menu which featured a host of tempting dishes. Classic fare is the name of the game here: reassuringly there was fish to start, with red meat and game for mains.

My wine, a red, was sitting purposefully and brightly in a decanter on the side-board. A wine of enough age to have possibly been “OOC” (Out of Condition) but, thankfully, the charming sommelier smiled and it seemed all was well.

Our starters called for white so two decently-sized glasses of Franschoek’s 2014 Chamonix Reserve Chardonnay were bidden.

Our main courses (red meat both) were presented along with the leading star (my companion aside) of the show – and it was a joy, bringing a smile that only aged Claret can convey along with those meaty tones and wholesome textures that can only be fine St Julien.

Some well-selected cheese followed along with irresistible petits fours; the room now having filled but not at any expense to the ambience nor the elegant service of the staff.

And the wine? Well, it was older than my dining companion as was further impressed upon me when the waiter proffered a coat to her on leaving and asked “was it her dad’s”. The gift of a prized Atlanta-based customer it was a 1989 Ch. Léoville-Las Cases. All the better for 25 years careful ageing in our cellars, it drank very well and complimented a splendid evening.

What we drank:

Bonhams is offering Berry Bros. & Rudd customers free corkage at lunch throughout March; to take advantage of this offer, please quote your account number when booking, or show a receipt upon arrival. Please note that this offer is limited to one bottle per table of two, please email reservations@bonhams.com, or call 020 7468 5868 to make your booking.

Bonhams Restaurant, 7 Haunch of Venison Yard, London W1K 5ES

Category: Food & Wine,Miscellaneous