Why Love Europe?
Europe means different things to different people. To some, it’s a hot-topic political entity; to others it’s just a place they visit for two weeks every summer. To us of course, it’s Bordeaux and Burgundy, Bolgheri and Barolo, the slate slopes of the Rhine and the volcanic soils of Santorini. Our tiny corner of the northern hemisphere is absolutely central to wine. Remains of amphora in archaeological sites are evidence of its intrinsic role in our culture since antiquity. Today we’re responsible for more than half of the entire world’s wine production and, I’d argue, an even greater share of its wine diversity. Few other regions can produce wines that would rank amongst the world’s greatest examples of ripe, powerful Cabernet Sauvignon, perfumed and silky-delicate Pinot Noir, sumptuously rich Chardonnay and pinpoint-precise, mineral-laden Riesling. Add in Galician Albarino, Nerello Mascalese grown on the slopes of Mount Etna, Greek Xinomavro and countless other uniquely European wines, and there’s no debate to be had. While wine production all over the world traces its origins to European settlement, Europe continues to set the standards to which the rest of the wine world aspires. The highest compliment you can pay many Aussie Chardonnay producers is that their wine tastes like white Burgundy. The best Napa Cabernets taste like First Growth Bordeaux. If you’re a South American billionaire with aspirations to own a great wine estate, the consultant you hire to enact your vision will probably be a European like Alberto Antonini, Eric Boissenot, or Michel Rolland. It’s not a one-way relationship; advances made by new world organisations like UC Davis have changed – and often improved – the way we in Europe make our wines too. But it’s fairly telling that many of Europe’s finest winemakers are turning away from the technological developments of the late 20th century, in favour of a return to the low-impact, artisan techniques used by their great-grandparents. So whatever your individual wine preferences might be, there’s obviously something about Europe that you should love. But if it’s so obvious, why are we making a fuss about it? At Roberson Wine we’ve become renowned in recent years for our unparalleled range of Californian wines. We were the first UK merchant to spot an emerging trend towards production of finer, more elegant and stylistically more European wines in the golden state and, with all the excitement and column inches this has generated, it could be easy to forget that the core of our range has always come from the wonderfully eclectic wine regions of Europe. While we’re delighted that our Californian wines have been so successful, when Cliff Roberson set up a wine shop on Kensington High Street in 1991, his idea was to offer the classic wines of Europe in a fresh, new and innovative way. 26 years later, our vision remains just as strong. We'll be shining a spotlight on our European range throughout June with our Love Europe campaign. Shop our Love Europe Collection and join us at our Love Europe Tasting on Thursday 22nd June.
What's in a Label?
With so many bottles on display in a typical wine shop and with so much (or sometimes, so little) information displayed on their labels, how do you make a choice? You might skip over IGP, DOC, AOC, Valdobbiadene, Napa, Premier Cru, Cabernet Sauvignon, Bordeaux… but, suddenly, something will make you stop. A label calls out to you. It’s embossed. It’s got a beautiful illustration of a bird, and stylish typography. You might still know little about the wine inside, but yet something makes you grab the bottle and head to the till. If this seems familiar, you’re in good company. It is widely believed that wine label art is reflective of the quality of the wine inside the bottle, so the theory goes that the more unique and attractive a wine label is, the more likely the bottle will be purchased and tasted. So the label fulfils a role far more important than merely displaying information. Good label design is not easy, but the ones that work best often reveal something about the winemaker, the winery and the wine itself. The label is our first impression of a wine, so it should be reflective of what is inside the bottle. Although it might not be right always to judge a book by its cover, you do need a reason to take it off the shelf. The London Cru labels have been receiving a lot of attention of late. London Cru is London’s first winery, creating top-quality wine in an urban setting, so our labels needed to unite the idea of fine wine with the unique urban location. As well as creating a strong visual identity and signifying the different wines across the range, the designs also had to solve a particular wine industry technical constraint. Due to the particularities of labelling law, we were unable to identify the grape variety on the bottle and so had to devise a clever way of getting around that. Since our wines could not be identified by grape variety in writing, our idea was to name each wine after a street or place in London that has a phonetic link to its grape (e.g. Charlotte St for Chardonnay). However, converting a set of thoughts and ideas into a visual message is no easy task and top branding and design agency The Partners helped us by translating our ideas into a meaningful design. We think the final designs are striking and elegant and perfectly reflect the vision we had for the wine. The map of London becomes a leaf skeleton and, when combined with the outline of the leaf, creates the perfect basis for the label. Each grape variety has a different shaped vine leaf, distinguishing the individual types of wine. And it’s not just us who loves the labels. We’ve won three packaging awards in 2017, including a Gold FAB Award for best packaging design for alcoholic drinks at the International Food and Beverage Excellence Awards. With competition from massive brands including Budweiser, Carlsberg and Bacardi, we’ve reason to be especially proud.
A Hot Topic
Climate change is a hot topic and the wine trade isn’t impervious to it; in fact we are more vulnerable than we care to admit. Regions such as Kent and Sussex, which were previously laughed off the table as serious wine producing areas, are now capable of making world class, award winning wines. At the same time, many of the classic wines of the world are changing with the climate - not always for the better. Take Chablis, which as recently as the 1970s and 80s was typically harvested in October, but is now routinely picked in mid-September. Previously it wasn’t uncommon to find Chablis at 11% or 10% abv, today 12.5% is the norm. What role might climate change be playing in this scenario? Making wine involves fermentation, which converts sugars in the must (the pressed grape juice) into alcohol. As global temperatures increase, grapes achieve higher sugar ripeness than was previously possible. Therefore, when fermented, these grape musts give wines with higher alcohol contents. You might ask: why not simply harvest earlier at lower grape sugar content? The answer, as with everything “wine”, is a little more complicated. There are in fact two different types of ripeness spoken about by growers: sugar ripeness and physiological ripeness. The latter refers to the ripeness of the skins, stalks and seeds, which often end up in the fermenting tank (more so for red wines that whites). The ideal scenario is to have grapes that reach both sugar and physiological ripeness at the same time. This is easier to achieve with cooler growing conditions that slow down the development of sugar ripeness, allowing the physiological ripeness to keep up. This is proving more and more difficult to achieve as the planet continues to warm. When sugar ripeness outpaces physiological ripeness, the vines need to be brought back into sync. This involves painstaking, time consuming and expensive canopy management techniques, including leaf positioning, leaf-removal (to expose the berries to the sun) and crop thinning to reduce yields. However, there are great rewards for growers who invest this time and effort, producing wines without excessive alcohol levels, but with ripe flavours, grace and finesse. Some of my personal favourites include: Trossen Silbermond Rielsing 2015 – 11% abv Domaine de la Cote Bloomsfield 2014 – 12.5% abv Domaine de la Cote La Cote 2014 – 12.0% abv Marcel Deiss Pinot d’Asace 2015 - 12.5% abv
Alsace is a conundrum of grapes, soils and producers. Unlike the other regions of France, where variety is rarely mentioned, Alsace offers so much of a mixed bag of styles that we usually have to rely on the grape to direct us in our selection of the wines we choose to drink. However, after spending an afternoon with Marie-Helene Deiss last week, I have been enlightened. I now realise that sometimes, less is more. In order to fully enjoy the wines from iconic Alsace producer Marcel Deiss, we have to get beyond 'knowing' the grape or blend and let ourselves be led by the terroir. You choose Engelgarten, not because of its grape blend, but because it is a wine from the gravelly terroir of Bergheim. A wine made from this vineyard has suffered through the dry summer, creating a high ratio of skin to pulp in the grapes. This creates an incredibly complex wine in structure and aromas, with flavours of cooked orange peel, wrapped in intense minerality. On the other hand, if ever there were a Doctor Who wine, it would be Deiss’ Schoenenbourg Grand Cru. These wines “express their undeniable ability of being aged to travel through time: rich, extraordinarily corpulent, far away from its norm.” There is always a bit of noble rot in the Schoenenbourg vineyard, which lends its wines their exceptional ability to age. Deiss’ wines offer any home cook a creative palette of aromas, flavours and textures. The gentle, subtle Pinot d’ Alsace makes not just a perfect aperitif, but also a great wine pairing with start of summer vegetables - tender pea sprouts, asparagus, and salade aux agrumes. For an impressive main course wine, the full bodied Mambourg Grand Cru pairs with prawn, lobster or pork belly. But be warned - if you buy a bottle, make sure you get two. Leave one for 10 years and you will get to experience the incredible, ethereal delights of Alsace at its best. It becomes a wine that paints a picture in aromas and flavours; not just something that tastes of grapes, but a still life of a climatic point in time and a winemaking impression of the terroir where it was grown.
On Monday this week, Roberson Wine helped to host The Golden State tasting at The Avenue, St James’s Street. In keeping with the theme, we were showcasing just twenty of the most sought-after single vineyard and estate wines from twelve of our acclaimed Californian producers – wines so rare that we only open bottles for tasting once a year, at The Golden State. Arriving at the venue, I was immediately put at ease by the relaxed and welcoming atmosphere; merchants, sommeliers, customers and press meandered freely, talking, tasting and soaking up the laid-back Californian vibe. It felt refreshingly different to some of the stuffy St James’s Street tastings I've been to before. As a relative newcomer to Roberson, but knowing the accolades achieved by our Californian producers, I was really excited to sample the range. I was not disappointed. The standout was Cathy Corison’s Kronos Vineyard 2012 Cabernet Sauvignon. It would seem her reputation preceded her, with nearly everyone at the tasting vying to get some of the good stuff. Kronos, a single vineyard, was a big part of what drew Cathy to the land that became Corison Estate. Planted on St George’s rootstocks, which are normally resistant to Phylloxera, Kronos was believed to be impervious to this vine disease. Unfortunately, after she purchased Kronos, this proved not to be the case and Cathy has had to expend huge effort to rescue this dying vineyard. Her success in sustaining the site’s 30 year old vines really shows in the depth of flavour offered; a beautiful balance between power and elegance, the Kronos Cabernet is an absolute delight and a real benchmark of Californian winemaking. I was lucky enough to have a quick chat about it with The Times’ Jane MacQuitty, who recounted meeting Cathy whilst visiting Napa, and has huge admiration for her. The event was topped off by dinner at Marylebone’s Beast Restaurant, with a crowd of sommeliers who list our wines in the London fine dining scene. The conversation definitely flowed as much as the wine, with the feeling being that, besides outstanding quality, Roberson’s Californian range stood out for the stories our (often 4th or 5th generation) family producers are able to tell. And, of course, for that laid-back Californian vibe.
Burgundian Dreams - or how an Aussie came to set up a micro-neogiciant project in Burgundy called Le Reveur. Climbers have Everest, surfers have Hawaii and winemakers have Burgundy. The Cote d’Or… where Chardonnay and Pinot Noir can reach perfection, haunting our memories and hurting our wallets. Walking into a Burgundian cellar as a young winemaker was daunting. I had come from Margaret River, an area famous to Australian wine lovers, but as it turned out, almost unheard of in Burgundy. When the locals asked where I was from, the answer elicited nothing more than a simple Gallic shrug. I guess when you live in the Louvre you don’t care much for the graffiti outside. The Burgundians are as complex as the wines they make; eccentric, generous and loyal to a fault. Often they have spent generations living in tiny villages where feuds are inherited like vineyards and the constant stream of tourists means they can be slow to warm to outsiders. However, once they’ve decided you're alright, you’ll find they have warm hearts, quick wits and a more than passing affection for wine. The vineyards are even more of a conundrum than the people; a complex web of soils overlaid with a classification system refined into tiny parcels, all of them making subtly different wines, even when only yards apart. Working in Burgundy can be both an exercise in frustration and a revelation. Smaller negociants are at the mercy of growers and courtiers, who control the prices and availability of fruit each year, while the unusual system of fermage often restricts the amount of control a winemaker can have. In order to ensure that the quality of the raw material is of the highest standard, it is a necessity to work with people you know and trust. Pinot Noir is a fickle grape to grow and unforgiving to make even when conditions are good; there’s no point making it harder than it needs to be! My first harvest in Burgundy was 2009, a year blessed with so much sun the wines could have come from California, while my second in 2010 was a different animal entirely; cooler and more traditional, giving wines of freshness and elegance. I skipped 2011 to work in the Rhone and when I returned in 2012 I knew enough of the place and people to attempt making some wine of my own. I called in some favours and was able to buy a few tonnes each of Puligny-Montrachet and Gevrey-Chambertin, from well managed vineyards with low yields of healthy grapes. By this time I’d been making wine for 12 years, but nothing had prepared me for standing over a vat of wine that had taken my life savings to make; I was ecstatic but my wife was somewhat less pleased. In any case we had a little part of Burgundy that was ours, bubbling its way into wine, and we named it Le Reveur. The growing season in Le Reveur’s second vintage of 2013 was typical of Burgundy, with a late spring, cool summer and grapes reaching full ripeness in October. Whilst producers find these conditions more challenging, it’s often in these cooler vintages that Pinot Noir excels. A long growing season allows for the slow accumulation of sugars, flavours and tannins, meaning grapes can be harvested when perfectly balanced, while in warmer years the sugars can race ahead, creating an overly ripe style. In my opinion, the best Pinot Noirs have a certain wildness about them, with aromas of cherries, redcurrants and a savoury, spicy undertone. They should be juicy with fresh acidity, mouth filling texture and some subtle tannic grip. I am hoping I have captured these classic qualities of Pinot Noir in the Le Reveur wines and, while they are drinking well now, they will age gracefully for ten years or more.
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