When the New California came to London
The Californian wine movement In Pursuit of Balance arrives in London next week. Our former buyer, Mark Andrew, of Noble Rot, recalls his first taste of the New California wines t...
Arnot-Roberts (California, U.S.A.) – An Excerpt from April’s Wine Club Brochure
By the mid-noughties, Californian wines had become boring. It seemed like all anyone wanted to do (with a few exceptions) was please Robert Parker and make densely concentrated, low acid wines with lashings of new oak. Anything in a heavy bottle tasted the same and the craze for these ‘cult wines’ was driving prices ever-upward. Many buyers, myself included, switched off from caring about California, but unbeknownst to us there was a small group of winemakers rallying against the massiveness. Now the revolution is fully underway and Arnot-Roberts are at the forefront… Childhood friends Nathan Roberts and Duncan Arnot-Meyers founded their winery in 2001, after Nathan had spent years as a barrel maker (he now makes all the barrels for Arnot-Roberts) and Nathan had made wines at Caymus, Groth, Acacia and Kongsgaard. Initially their focus was just on making great Californian wines, but when the cool 2005 vintage gave them wines in a more austere, high acid style than the region was used to, Nathan and Duncan reacted completely differently to practically everyone else in California – they loved them. Ever since then they have looked to source only cool climate fruit and minimise interventions, with a view to making wines that are pure, elegant and the antithesis of the souped-up fruit bombs that are still an all too common result of the points chasing culture that continues to dominate. It was a couple of years ago that I heard about the rebellion that was starting to gather pace in California, with Raj Parr of Sandhi and Nathan and Duncan at Arnot-Roberts emerging as the poster boys for the backlash. Journalists like Eric Asimov (New York Times), Jon Bonné (SF Chronicle) and the USA’s natural wine champion Alice Feiring were talking up this new wave of subtle and understated wines, and the scramble was on to get allocations from the best producers. I tasted a couple of the Arnot-Roberts wines while in the USA and was seriously impressed, but my attempts to get an allocation came to nothing. Then, last year, Alice Feiring gave a presentation at the Real Wine Fair about the ‘new California’ and among a group of stunning wines the Arnot-Roberts stood out as the most interesting. Again, I tried to get the wines but their 2,000 case production had sold out immediately after release. Our contact wasn’t a waste of time though, as when our shop manager Joe followed it up with another request for the wines just before the bottling, our persistence was rewarded with the first ever allocation of the wines for the UK market. We were assigned small quantities of three cuvées, one of which has already sold out after a rogue salesman promised it all to one of our best restaurant clients. The others will be gone in the blink of an eye, but we made sure to put aside enough bottles of the Syrah for the members of the Wine Club. The wine in this case is the 2011 Central Coast Syrah, which weighs in at a whopping 12.9% alcohol and is a blend of fruit from a few different plots (Nellessen, Griffin’s Lair, Alder Springs and Clary Ranch) in the cool climate zones of Sonoma and the Sierra Foothills. It is fermented using natural yeasts and aged in barrels for a year (a small percentage of them are new) before being bottled without fining or filtration and minimal sulphur. It’s a refreshing wine, both in how it tastes but most of all in what it represents – the new California has arrived.
Serious Vintage Champagne
The first tasting of the new year was a look at some old Champagne – none of the ten wines were younger than 1990 and the oldest dated back to 1976. The purpose was to look at the prestigious cuvées of the top houses rather than any old bubbly so, although there were a few names notable by their absence (Pol’s Winston, Taittinger’s Comte and Billecart’s Nicolas Francois for example) most of the big guns were in the line up. We approached the wines in three flights – the 1990 vintage, the 80s and the 70s. Here are my thoughts on the wines: 1990 Grande Dame Veuve Clicquot Nutty and bready on the nose, but it felt a bit loose on the palate. Considering that some commentators talk about this as being one of the finest wines in the region, I felt it was a little faded for the quality of the vintage. A pleasant enough wine but not particularly interesting or impressive. Some members of the group were a little bit more enthusiastic, but overall it was difficult for people to get too excited about it. 1990 R.D. Bollinger A different story. The nose showed similar oxidative and autolytic notes to the Grande Dame, but the RD was wound so much tighter on the palate. Really fresh and full of life, with a great finish. Delicious stuff. 1990 Krug Stunning nose. Like walking into a bakery or patisserie. Massively rich and full on the palate as well, but so luxurious and smooth. An immensely satisfying wine that is the essence of Krug. Most of the audience agreed, although there were a couple that felt it was a bit too much. I would happily have a glass of this every hour for the rest of my life. 1989 Belle Epoque, Perrier-Jouet Probably the least well received of all the wines on the evening although I would’ve put it ahead of the Grande Dame and the Grande Année personally. Despite being fresh in structural terms, it was showing plenty of development on the nose and palate with a distinct truffle note that didnt work for most of the group. 1985 Krug Another great example of this amazing wine. Not as full as the ’90, there was still plenty of yeasty goodness here and a whiff of added mushroomy maturity. Warmly received by everyone in the group, with a few even preferring it to its younger sibling. 1983 Salon Drinking old Salon is a rare occurrence, but this didn’t taste like drinking anything old in the slightest. So fresh, so bright and so crisp on the palate, although it loosened into a very very long and complex finish that showed developed characteristics while still appearing youthful. Joe felt that was a sign that it is at its peak, although there were a few of us that envisaged a long future for this wine. Beautiful stuff. 1982 Grande Année; Bollinger For me, the biggest dissapointment of the tasting. It had a distinctive apple note that was bordering on the cidery, not to mention a bit too much earthy funk. It was still surprising fresh in terms of acidity, but the flavour profile had lurched in to the unattractive. 1978 Dom Ruinart Delicious – soft yet fresh with creamy, bready autolytic character and an excellent finish. A bit of a surprise actually, with some of the tasters in the group favouring it as their wine of the night. 1978 Cristal As with Salon, opportunities to enjoy old Cristal are few and far between, so we were all excited to taste the ’78. Unfortunately it was way past its best and couldn’t hold a candle to the Dom Ruinart from the same vintage. It was attractive in a way, with a broad and creamy texture but just lacking freshness of acidity. I wrote “A bit tame really”, as it was quiet, loose and a short on the finish. Not unpleasant but certainly a disappointment. 1976 Dom Perignon The final wine and after the Cristal I wasn’t expecting much, particularly as ’76 was a very warm year not renowned for producing cellar-worthy wines. But what a surprise! The DomP was absolutely delicious and still in great form. A sumptuous biscuity nose was matched by richness on the palate. It was still fresh, but the acidity had softened, giving the wine a very harmonious texture that made it very easy to drink. Long and beautifully balanced. A fantastic wine and one of my favourites on the night. But who was the winner? We took the cutomary votes from the audience and the final scores were: 1990 Krug (6 votes) 1983 Salon (4 votes) 1985 Krug and 1976 Dom Perignon (both 3 votes) So a great tasting and one of the most consistent for some time in terms of the quality of wines. It was very interesting to see how well many of these had aged and in a couple of cases they offer real value when you compare them to the top white Burgundies. It also confirmed to me that I am very much a ‘Krugiste’ – but then, who isn’t? Read more about this tasting by downloading the tasting brochure from the night.
Musings on Cru Beaujolais…
When Philip the Bold banished the “disloyal Gamay” from the vineyards of Burgundy in the 14th century for “very great and horrible harshness”, he was probably unaware that to the south of the Côte d’Or was an ideal home for this renegade grape variety. Gamay proved to be a perfect match with the granite soils of Beaujolais and, through the wide range of individual terroirs in each of the ten Beaujolais crus, it has found an eloquence that would’ve surprised the medieval Duke. Following the success of Beaujolais’ 2009 vintage there has been renewed interest in a region that has suffered in the last twenty years from the stigma of Beaujolais Nouveau. It has been a long way down from the heady days of 1986 (6.4 million bottles of Nouveau sold) and now the winemakers of Beaujolais are looking to recast themselves as purveyors of terroir driven wines that are intended to be consumed many years, rather than days, after bottling. Jean-Jacques Baronnat is one of the region’s foremost négocients, selling wines from all ten of Beaujolais crus (not to mention Nouveau). He says that “Unlike most regions, Beaujolais is a single-varietal wine: the only way to make a difference is with terroir. This common characteristic is the fruit of our wines, but this is complemented by features unique to each cru”. Monsieur Baronnat is not the only one with a passion for the individuality of each cru. There is a groundswell of artisanal growers and conscientious négocients that are committed to making wines to demonstrate the unique qualities of each cru and specific vineyards within them. Producers like Marcel Lapierre, Jean-Marc Burgaud and Jean Foillard have helped to establish the reputation of Morgon’s Côte du Py and with many other climats having their own distinct identities, moves are afoot to create a new appellation that recognises the finest sites in the region. Whether the idea of a ‘Beaujolais 1er Cru’ ever materialises will remain to be seen, but it is another sign that things are changing for the better in Beaujolais, as is the Marcel Lapierre-led ‘natural’ wine revolution has blossomed in recent years. Winemakers like Lapierre, Foillard, Metras, Sunier and Lapalu have pushed the boundaries of what Gamay is capable of while offering a philosophical alternative to classical high quality producers like Château Thivin and Château des Jacques. With the terroir and the winemaking expertise in place, the final part of the jigsaw was a great vintage and this duly arrived for Beaujolais in 2009. To many it is the finest in living memory, although some are blessed with longer memories than others! Claude Geoffroy of Château Thivin called 2009 “a beautiful vintage for the whole region and up there with 1929, ‘49 and ’80 as one of the greatest”, while Eric Janin called it “The best vintage since 1991 and a year with massive potential”. There can be no doubt that the sheer exuberance of the wines in ’09 made the wine world sit up and take notice of what is going on in Beaujolais. A spokesperson from the regional body Inter-Beaujolais said “The region is blessed with many new, young and upcoming artisan producers as well as large-scale négociant operations who are both important to the balance of the region. Following the great momentum that has built from the 2009 vintage – exciting times certainly lie ahead for this dynamic and diverse region.” Were Philip the Bold still around, he might be tempted to ask for his Gamay back…
Noise and hype about Burgundy vintages never, thank God, reaches the crescendo heard over in Bordeaux and while this was true again in 2009, that doesn’t mean there is a lack of excitement for the latest releases from Burgundy’s Côte d’Or. Quite the contrary, in fact, as there is a buzz surrounding the vintage that we haven’t seen since 2005. Having visited the region numerous times throughout the growing season and subsequent maturation of the wines, it was a pleasure during my last visit (in November) to see serious quality in both reds and whites. Quality that im sure will shine through in the raft of En Primeur tastings about to begin in earnest. The growing season began well, with a cold winter turning in to a cool but dry spring. May brought with it some hail damage in the Cote de Nuits (Morey and southern Gevrey in particular) but as things warmed up towards the end of the month, flowering began in relatively good conditions. This fine weather continued in to June, which was warm throughout and on occasion pretty hot. Despite the average temperature remaing quite high through July, the weather was much more variable. Storms in the middle and at the end of the month caused many vignerons to begin worrying about swollen and diluted fruit, although these fears were quickly dispelled by the fabulously warm weather throughout August. As September began the north wind arrived to cool things down and remove any danger of rot or oidium, giving winemakers the luxury of deciding for themselves when to harvest without undue pressure from Mother Nature. On the whole, the conditions in 2009 were excellent and although uneven ripeness was an issue for some producers, the ones that had conscientiously managed their vineyards didn’t have too many problems. There is no doubt that the wines of both colours are of excellent quality in 2009. The reds are full and lush, marrying structure and fresh acidity with a velvety richness that makes them very seductive right now, but with plenty of potential for ageing. The whites may lack the bite and nervosity of 2008, but still bring plenty of vitality to match their additional fruit and weight. Many commentators are likening the 2009 vintage to 1999, no mean feat in either colour and further indication that the wines will age superbly. With relatively modest price rises and excellent quality at all levels (including some great generic wines), 2009 is most definately a vintage that provides lots of value and will give drinking pleasure for years to come. It is a vintage that shows richness without being super-ripe, and has structure and freshness without being tart or mean. Balance is the watch word and, in both colours, Burgundy 2009 has plenty of it. For more information on the Burgundy ’09 wines we are offering En Primeur, check out the brochure here and register to taste the wines at our event on Wednesday 12th January here.
Grange des Pères
Domaine de la Grange des Peres (or ‘barn of fathers’) is everything a ‘cult’ wine should be. Tiny but meticulous production, a superbly talented winemaker, wonderful terroir and a baying mob of customers desperate to get their hands on a bottle. This is the land that marketing forgot – no fancy labels, no export manager, no tasting room to welcome visitors. Twitter? Facebook? A website? Getting through to someone on the telephone is difficult enough. If it wasn’t for the (government) signpost on the main road, you wouldn’t even know the place existed. Laurent Vaillé had been a physiotherapist by trade, but he quit his job in the early 80s to pursue a career in winemaking. After studying viticulture and oenology, Laurent worked at a number of prestigious domaines (including JF Coche-Dury, JL Chave and Domaine de Trevallon) before returning to his family home near Aniane. The Vaillé family already had some prime land just off the main road between Aniane and Gignac (bought by Laurent’s grandfather back in the 1950s) but much of it wasn’t planted with vineyards. Laurent set about planting vines on the existing land while supplementing it with a few more hectares and, by 1992, he was ready to release the first vintage of his wine. Having young vines in an unheralded terroir is not exactly a recipe for success, but Vaillé was happy to follow the lead of his neighbour Aime Guibert (Mas de Daumas Gassac) by planting Cabernet Sauvignon and foregoing the local appellation (AOC Coteaux du Languedoc). Much of the confidence that Vaillé and Guibert shared was due to the sublime terroir on ‘Le Tourtou’, a high altitude hill-top with rocky limestone and clay soil. The legend of Daumas Gassac had been built on relatively low-yields from young vines on great terroir, so Laurent Vaillé took this model even further, slashing the yields to as low as 10-25 hl/ha depending on the vintage conditions. 1992 was an excellent start for GdP and although there were only 250 cases made, Laurent produced a dense, concentrated wine packed with flavour. When Robert Parker tasted and scored it 90 points, a star was born and collectors began a stampede for allocations that continues to this day. Today’s Domaine de la Grange des Peres extends over approx 12ha and is a collection of parcels within a couple of miles radius from their non-descript ‘barn’. These are very much wines that are ‘made in the vineyard’ and the viticultural philosophy is one of lutte raisonée (or reasoned struggle), although the methods are, in fact, almost entirely organic. Vaillé dismisses this (and other such labels) as marketing ploys, insisting that he ploughs the vineyards, uses minimal (if any) treatments and bottles and racks with the lunar cycle simply because it gets the best results. The Tasting It took ages to assemble, but we finally managed to collect eight vintages of the red (Cabernet/Syrah/Mourvedre with a touch of Counoise) and two of the insanely rare white wine (Roussanne/Chardonnay with a touch of Marsanne). Here is a quick run down of my thoughts on each wine. 1998 Blanc Absolutely delicious. Rich, fresh and complex, combining elements of white Rhone and white Burgundy. Still young. 1997 Blanc Much more development here. Pleasant enough, but past its best and pales in comparison to the ’98. 2006 Rouge Difficult. Seems to be in an awkward stage at the moment, as though it is yet to fully integrate. Clunky. 2004 Rouge Much better than the ’06. Starting to soften, but full of fruit and minerality. Not massively complex, but an attractive wine. 2003 Rouge Again, not enough complexity here. An enjoyable wine, but showing signs of the warm vintage. Slightly cooked fruit and not much else. 1999 Rouge At the tasting, this was showing badly with some volatility and serious bottle variation in the two that were opened. A week later (at dinner with friends) it was delicious and youthful, with vibrant fruit and a lovely savoury character. 1998 Rouge Superb. The pick of the bunch for me (and most others) which is unsurprising considering the quality of the vintage. Rich but not confected fruit, leather and meat on the mid palate and a long mineral-laden finish. Still plenty to come from this wonderful wine. 1997 Rouge (from magnum) The other contender for red of the night. Fresh as a daisy (the mag was pristine) and beautifully balanced. Lacking the complexity of the ’98, but delicious all the same. 1996 Rouge Fading. Bloody notes on the palate and the fruit is falling away. Well past its heyday. 1995 Rouge Better than the ’96 but on its way down the same road. The wine of the night was the ’98 blanc (as voted by nearly the entire audience). When we voted on the reds alone, the ’98 narrowly pipped the ’97 to the post. As a massive fan of this domaine I was particularly excited about the opportunity to taste so many vintages of the wine. I will admit to feeling slightly dissapointed overall, although there was enough excitement from the two ’98s, the ’97 magnum and my experience later in the week with the ’99 at dinner, to confirm to me that this is a superb source of Southern French wine. Read more about this tasting by downloading the tasting brochure from the night.
Roberson Wins London Wine Merchant of the Year!
It’s been a good few years for Roberson Wine and we have been fortunate enough to be voted as ‘London Wine Merchant of the Year’ at both the International Wine Challenge (IWC) and the Drinks Business awards in the last couple of years. The third and arguably most prestigious of the industry gongs was the one that had so far eluded us – Decanter Magazine. When we were told a few weeks ago that we had been shortlisted for the award the whole team was really pleased, but with competition like The Sampler, The Winery, Philglas & Swigott and fellow Kensingtonians Handford Wines, we knew that it would be a hotly contested award. So, Joe and I donned our blue suits and blue ties for the strictly black tie event (we like to be different at Roberson) and arrived at the Royal Opera House just in time to neck a couple of glasses of the surprisingly delicious Charles Heidseck 2000 vintage Champagne. We arrived at our table and introduced ourselves to the array of wine industry employees that surrounded us. I was happily ensconed between two lovely girls from LVMH and an equally lovely girl from Morton Estate, with maverick importer Ben Henshaw and charming MW Peter McCombie sat behind me. Joe was across the table chatting to Clovis Taittinger and the chap from Riedel. Things were warming up nicely when the lights dimmed and the wine trade’s version of the Oscars began in earnest. After the opening gambit we were straight in to the retailer awards and the entire world stood still while the nominations for London Merchant were read out. Once it was revealed Handford’s were the runners up, me and Joe shared nervous glances across the table, but we needn’t have worried – Roberson was duly announced as the winner and we clambered on stage to collect a rather fetching Decanter from Anthony Rose. The rest of the night was spent boozing and schmoozing, with a great time had by all. The whole team are over the moon to have won the award and a massive thank you has to go to all our fantastic customers. Without your support we would never be in a position to win awards like this, so thanks to everyone that shops with us in store, online and those of you that come to our tastings. To show you just how grateful we are, we’ve slashed £10 from the price of Laurent Perrier Brut NV Champagne – that way you can celebrate with us! Click here for more details.
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