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.
Etna Wine's Eruption of Quality
Head of Off-Trade Jack Green checks out Mount Etna's thrilling wine scene. Excuse the early pun, but the wine scene in Etna truly is erupting at volcanic pace. From a mere five quality producing wineries only a few years ago, to more than a hundred today, winemakers are flocking to the slopes of the Mount Etna in search of a truly magnificent terroir. It’s all in the soil. Jancis Robinson calls Mount Etna the ‘Burgundy of the Med’ and it’s the volcanic soil and high altitude, which play a vital role in making these elegant, brooding wines, with that signature acidity. It seems crazy; why make wines where there’s a constant threat of the vineyards being ruined by Etna's lava flows? It’s incredibly remote and it’s not like these ancient, twisted, knotted vines are easy to tend. The soil composition changes regularly as the active volcano rumbles and spits like a sleeping dinosaur. Mount Etna’s rough, steep and bitterly cold in the winter, yet the wines produced are some of the most imaginative in Italy. And Etna's wines remain incredible value for money, despite all the efforts and adventures in coming here to make wine. Nerello Mascalese is the predominant red varietal here, like Pinot Noir pumped up on steroids. Wines made from this variety are brisk and thirst quenching. Etna wine producer Le Cantine Murgo do a fantastic job, ageing their red in oak for about 8 months, before letting it rest in bottle. It’s incredibly fragrant, with bags of lofty sweet cherry and wild strawberry fruit on the nose. Pair it with Italian food, anything and everything and you’ll be half way to Mount Etna before you’ve finished your first glass. But don’t overlook Murgo’s delicate, floral white and juicy, refreshing rosé. They’re so highly sought-after in Sicily itself, that our latest arrivals are the first shipment of these wines we’ve ever been able to pry free of the island’s grasp.
2016 Bordeaux En Primeur
Now that my liver and stomach have finally recovered from the intense Bordeaux boot camp that is En Primeur week it is time to put my thoughts and observations into words. It has to be said, and at the risk of sounding too salesy, 2016 looks like a truly wonderful vintage. However, with my uber critical cap on, I must point out that there are some duffers out there still to be avoided. That is the reason we donned our glad rags, dodged spitting splash stains and risked our health, to be able to give a true assessment of the quality of the vintage and to advise what chateaux are worth parting with your hard earned cash for. While we might complain that it is hard to taste so many wines and it is a real drag to visit so many beautiful chateaux, it really is a privilege to experience Bordeaux during the EP week. It is not often you get to experience the beautifully creative ways in which the Bordelais like to display their millions. I jest. It’s wonderful. The most tiring aspect though is trying to give every wine the full attention it deserves, in order not to miss a gem here or over play a first growth there. It is only fair on our clients to be unbiased and thorough in our assessments. While this was only my second full En Primeur tasting week I can already say that 2016 was a lot less tiring than the 2015 campaign. My simple explanation for this beyond experience is the freshness of the wines. Vintage Overview The three most common words from my hundreds of tasting notes must be ‘freshness’, ‘balance’ and ‘elegance’. While the 2015s are very good wines they were difficult to taste with their higher levels of extract and tannins. The 2016s also have high levels of tannins but they are wonderfully silky and smooth and sophisticated. By the end of the week it almost felt like there was a mantra learned by the chateau staff to preach to the tasters: ‘after a wet spring we had a dry and hot summer; the vines were able to soak up the required water from the soils’ reserves; the gradual and even ripening as well as big day/night temperature differences during harvest has resulted in very good fruit and freshness'. However they have a fair point. On the most part the fruit is wonderfully sweet and ripe, rarely overripe, save for some unscrupulous right bankers who might be still living in the Parkerised past, tannins are silky and freshness abounds. The majority of alcohol levels haven’t exceeded 13.5% yet there is plenty of concentration and power. This leads me on nicely to the observation that there is a genuine sense of terroir in the 2016s, especially on the left bank. The Margauxs are elegant and floral, the Pauillacs are dark and brooding and the Graves are minerally and ethereal. The Northern Medoc in particular benefitted from favourable conditions and this is reflected in the overall high quality of wines across the board from there. Margaux Margaux was a big winner in 2015 and I’ve read elsewhere people down playing its merits for this vintage, which is somewhat understandable given the consensus that the further north you travel on the left bank the better in the 2016. However I am a big admirer of the wines from here in this vintage. Ethereal, floral silky soft tannins and beautiful fruit. Some of the wines using younger vines or higher percentages of Merlot are not as strong but there are plenty of chateaux worth raving about. Rauzan-Segla again is a stunning wine, Palmer is incredibly strong and Cantenac-Brown is one to look out for. The big boy of course is not to be forgotten, a top top Margaux. Saint-Julien Saint-Julien is one of our favourite appellations of the vintage. Very classic, very pure with some chateau potentially making some of their best ever wines. Leoville Barton have made a classic, Las Cases is stunning, Ducru-Beaucaillou is big and bold but beautifully balanced and fresh, Beychevelle continues to improve. On the value end Saint-Pierre and Clos du Marquis stood out as excellent. Pauillac The wines of Pauillac are very classic Pauillac. Powerful, dark and brooding with quintessential cassis fruit, pencil shaving minerality and cedar complexity. Followers of the 1st growths will have zero complaints. Grand Puy Lacoste have made a really classy wine, Pontet-Canet s one of the wines of the vintage, without question. Pichon Baron is a big complex wine that has a long life ahead of it. Clerc Milon is beautiful and fruit forward. Saint-Estephe Cos d’Estournel surprised us all by releasing very early last week. It was a welcome surprise as the price was the same as last years, a trend that we don’t expect to continue unfortunately. The wine is super, I can highly recommend it. Saint-Estephe has also produced the potential wine of the vintage. Calon-Segur is an absolutely stonking wine and I’ve no doubt it’ll be highly sought after. Montrose is also worth a mention, very polished and sexy. Graves/Pessac Some mixed quality to be found here, but some real highlights. All the wines from Haut Brion and La Mission are very strong indeed. Other big names such as Pape Clement, Domaine de Chavalier and de Fieuzel are all very solid but the one chateau which has stood out for me is Malartic Lagraviere. Both the red and white were extremely impressive, very well made, expressive and classy. A special mention to Carmes Haut Brion. What an incredibly beautiful chateau and new chai. Without doubt this is a wine to follow. The quality there is going to steadily improve. The 2016 is very solid and should be great value. St Emilion This is always a difficult appellation to make judgement on given the vast amount of chateaux with various styles and terroirs. It appears on the surface that winemakers are beginning to evolve once more to appeal to the modern palate for lighter less extracted wines. Yet there is plenty of plushness and concentration still here. We are huge fans of Tour Saint Christophe, which embodies the positive changes happening in St Emilion; true terroir expression, bags of fruit, yet classy, elegant and fresh. Cheval Blanc as always is superb. Angelus for me is just stunning and up there with my wines of the vintage. Canon have produced another winner, hopefully can get our hands on some this year. Pomerol The wines of Pomerol seem to have a substantial plushness and big juicy fruit. There is certainly balance and freshness in places. Lafleur is supposed to be spectacular, from reports. Vieux Chateau Certan is a beauty. Beauregard, La Pointe and Gazin all deserve consideration. The Roberson Approach As always, we will only recommend chateaux which we believe offer a good enough proposition for the buyer in terms of quality and value. Given our independent nature, we are in a great position to be able to give an honest assessment of the merits of individual chateaux. We hope that the chateaux owners release at prices which provide value against 2009 and 2010. If they creep near to the current market value for those vintages then it won’t be a successful campaign. Without doubt 2016s prices will have a premium on any vintage since 2010, including 2015. However, with our recommendation, certain chateau are definitely worth buying if released at the right price. Let the fun and games begin. To be kept in the loop for all of Bordeaux's 2016 releases, please contact Private Client Sales Manager Paul Williamson.
2016 Bacchus - Winemaker's Thoughts
With the 2016 London Cru Baker St. Bacchus now out in the wild, I thought I'd give you a bit more of an idea of the process that goes into turning this world class grape into wine, at Roberson's winery downstairs. The fruit for our 2016 Bacchus was grown in two separate vineyards - at Sandhurst vineyards in Kent, and Great Whitman vineyards in Essex. The fruit from Kent was picked around a week earlier than from Essex, giving more herbaceous character, with nettle and cut grass aromas, while the later-picked Essex fruit added floral notes and ripe tropical fruit. Both sites were picked at good natural sugar levels, giving 10% natural alcohol and balanced flavours. The grapes were harvested by hand and sorted in the winery before being gently pressed as whole bunches. A lot of aroma precursors in Bacchus are found in the pulp near the skins, so the pressing is a balancing act; we have to gently extract these precursor compounds while at the same time avoiding extracting phenolic compounds from the skins, which can cause bitterness and astringency. After pressing the juice was settled for three days before the clarified wine was pumped into a clean stainless steel tank for fermentation. At London Cru we try to get the best out of each vineyard, so in 2016 we conducted yeast trials with the Bacchus, splitting the juice into four batches and inoculating each with a different strain. The individual yeast strain has a huge impact on the eventual style of a wine, with each offering slightly different taste and aroma profiles. We also experimented with French oak barrels (5% of the blend) which were allowed to start fermenting with ambient yeast, resulting in lower overall aromatics but more texture on the palate. After fermentation the wine was kept in contact with the remains of the yeast (the ‘lees’) for four months, which gave it some textural, mouthfeel qualities that subtly balanced the crisp natural acidity. As always, the 2016 Bacchus was fermented bone dry with no residual sugar, so it’s a really fresh, vibrant style of wine. The nose is floral with hints of elderflower and fresh cut grass, and the crisp acidity lends itself well to all sorts of food combinations, but some freshly shucked oysters or good fish and chips would be the way I’d choose to go. What could be more English than that?
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