I met my heroes: Tasting Bordeaux’s 1998 vintage with European Fine Wines

You know how people say you should never meet your heroes because they might be all show but no personality?

Well, they were wrong.

Nothing of the sort happened at a tasting of wines from Bordeaux’s 1998 vintage organised by European Fine Wines last week, where I once and for all found myself face-to-bottle with some of the wines I revere the most: Haut-Brion, Cheval Blanc and Yquem. (Full disclosure: all of the wine at the tasting, for journalists and clients of EF Wines, was paid for by EF Wines.)

When Vim from the 12×75 blog (where I’m a contributing editor) arranged for me to attend, I wasn’t about to let anything get in the way of this opportunity (I even skipped a WSET class for the experience).

You see, I’ve been stalking these wines for years but have fallen short in my efforts to try them. Other priorities in life seem always to demand my money: rent, clothing, food, trips back to Canada to see my long-suffering family.

Until now.

So there we all were on the night, squeezing into dining rooms in London’s Nozomi restaurant, hugging glasses of Bollinger’s La Grande Année 2002 to start (the loan non-Bordelais wine) and clumsily scooping up sushi with chopsticks.

Note to self: Used chopsticks should not be stashed in the inside pocket of a suit jacket.

I must have been one of the most awkward-looking people there. In one hand I held a glass; in another, a notebook, pen and chopsticks, all of which required juggling every few moments depending on what I was doing. Sniffing and swirling one moment, scribbling in my pad another, then capturing a piece of sashimi when possible.

The wines on offer, covering the appellations of Pomerol, St Emilion, Graves and Sauternes, were a who’s who of some of the best chateaux in all of Bordeaux – without venturing into obscene price ranges.

The vintage in question – 1998 – was one that favoured merlot, so the outcome here is the St Emilions and Pomerols should perform better than their left bank counterparts. That said, vineyards in Graves (one of my favourite appellations), specifically Pessac-Leognan, fared better than those in the Médoc.

We started off with La Petite Eglise, the second wine of Clos l’Eglise in Pomerol. It was wonderful in its own right but lacking somehow. Once we moved up to Chateau l’Eglise Clinet’s grand vin, the thing lacking in the second wine became apparent – the flagship’s opulence. It just oozed ripe black fruits, integrated oak and great minerality.

And so the night went on and I winged my way blissfully through the wines, scribbling woeful notes and trying to post #7wordwinereviews to Twitter. Vim’s efforts were much more efficient than mine, to say the least.

Next up was the Haut-Brion and, I must confess, I went back for two more tries of this: the first poured from bottle and the second from decanter.

Many thought this wine, along with the Chateau Pape Clement, was hard, reserved, unready to be loved.

But out of the decanter it was much more alive, having shrugged off its tannic robe and revealed more fruit and personality. It expressed a hint of oak and cedar, boiled sweets and something medicinal.

The final four wines gained a great deal of praise and were the favourites for many. Chateau L’Evangile had aromas of a burnt match with fragrant fruit that was reminiscent of perfume.

But the one everybody raved about was the Cheateau Cheval Blanc. It was showing well, being expressive and fragrant, and judging by the number of people lining up for seconds, couldn’t have put a foot wrong.

It was the Chateau d’Yquem I was perhaps most excited to drink and, even though 1998 wasn’t necessarily its greatest vintage, it was still divine. Viscous and expressing aromas of honey, peaches and pears, I could have sipped this all night.

Afterward we tumbled into a Lebanese restaurant across the street for some food, which was wonderful, and we paired it with a wine from the Bekaa Valley, famous for its reds.

This was a blend of Bordeaux grapes and a splash of syrah. This was lively and fruity plus a little tannic; definitely a well-made wine we all enjoyed. At £40 per bottle it wasn’t cheap, but before you accuse the restaurant of applying a heavy markup to something that would normally cost about £9, I should say I spotted the 2008 vintage at Highbury Vinters recently for £27.50.

Sara Benwell: The ABC club might still be going strong, but they are just plain wrong

“I love every wine except chardonnay….
I’ll have the Chablis please”

Mythbusters 2: Why you should ignore the chardonnay haters

Last time I guest-blogged for Geordie, I wrote about how I thought rosé got a bad press and why you shouldn’t dismiss it out of hand.

Continuing in the same vein, today I’m going to talk about chardonnay and tell you why the people who say “I never drink chardonnay” are idiots who should immediately be ignored.

But first I’m going to tell you a story.

A good friend of mine (he works in sales) had taken a prospect out to lunch. The prospect, whilst perusing the wine list, said:

“I’m pretty flexible about wine, I’ll drink almost anything, but I won’t touch Chardonnay”

My friend, very sensibly, handed over the wine list and suggested that since the prospect knew what they liked, perhaps they would like to choose the wine. (First rule of any client-facing industry, always let them choose the wine).

The prospect quickly agreed and made their selection – they chose a Chablis.

Now this kind of sums up the entire point I’m going to make. Some people are snobby and dismissive of chardonnay without even fully understanding what it actually is. And even amongst those who should know better, the ABC (Anything But Chardonnay) Club is still going strong.

Why do people hate chardonnay?

I think there are three main reasons that people say they hate chardonnay, one of which I can sort of understand, but should be corrected, one of which is a bit depressing and the third of which is downright unacceptable.

1. “I don’t like oak”

Okay, so a lot of people say they don’t like chardonnay because they don’t like oak. Now, on the one hand this is sort of acceptable; a lot of Chardonnay out there is heavily oaked and if you don’t like that style, some might tell you not to take the risk. But this is also very misguided, narrow thinking.

White Burgundy is widely acknowledged as being one of the greatest white wines in the world. But it’s made from the chardonnay grape.

What’s more, white Burgundy is often aged in oak barrels before being bottled, meaning that it will have a degree of oak flavours. Of course, the amount of oak detectable in the wine depends how much new oak was used and how much time it spent in barrel.

Conversely, if the wine comes from Chablis it might not have touched any oak at all and will therefore not have those vanilla flavours caused by oak.  Side note – many of your ABCs will drink white Burgundy, particularly Chablis, not realising it is made with chardonnay grapes.

So why is oak considered to be such a bad thing?

The main reason (I think) is that in the 1990s, when the chardonnay grape was (gasp!) extremely fashionable, everyone wanted a piece of the action. Unfortunately going against all the principles that made white Burgundy great, this wine was produced on an industrial scale, often from huge vineyards in hot climates (California) where the grapes ripened easily but lacked character.

Instead of ageing their chardonnay in oak barrels (or even tank) over a long period of time, winemakers who wanted to add oak flavours had to fine another way to do this at a lower cost.

The answer they came up with was to use wooden planks or shavings that are dropped into the wine while it is fermenting. This can often overpower the wine and produces the horrible, cheap, cloying, sawdust-y wine that so often pops into an ABC’s head when you say the word chardonnay.

Another problem is the use of malolactic fermentation, a point referenced in the film Sideways. This is what produces much of that buttery flavour ABCs detest in chardonnay. It takes the harsh malic acid and converts it into softer lactic acid, and in turn makes the wine seem softer and buttery.

So yes, there are some terribly made and awful tasting Chardonnays out there, but if you think that’s a reason to avoid them altogether then you are kind of missing the point! SOME chardonnays are rubbish, but some are exquisite.

2. “I know what I like and chardonnay isn’t it”

These people are the ones who are afraid to go outside their comfort zone and don’t like to try new things.  Now obviously you shouldn’t listen to these fools because taking wine advice from someone who is afraid to step outside one variety is like asking for directions from a blind and deaf Englishman who finds himself in France for the first time.

Aside from the obvious reasons not to listen to these people, it’s also a bit baffling. If there is any grape they’re willing to go outside their comfort zone for it’s a chardonnay.

Chardonnays done well are light, subtle, unassuming with neutral flavours like citrus and melon, and the oakiness can produce those amazing (but not necessarily overbearing) creamy vanilla flavours. Hardly something that should scare the pants off of anyone really (unless you’re a lover of sweet wine perhaps).

3. “I wouldn’t be seen dead with a glass of Chardonnay”

Now these people are the really awful ones. The ones who have decided that chardonnay just isn’t that fashionable any more, and that the ‘cool’ thing to do is to steer clear. Fortunately these people are easy to fox, buy them Chablis, tell them they’re drinking White Burgundy, offer them a glass of Champers – and then laugh at their utter stupidity.

So what is there to love about it?

I’ve already touched on this a little, but just in case you aren’t already sold I’ll sell it some more. The best thing about chardonnay in my mind is its versatility. Because it’s naturally subtle and smooth, winemakers can develop a whole host of different flavours, textures and styles.

More than this though, they can take the grape and imprint their personality on to it, and as long as their personality isn’t wood planks then you are going to get an interesting wine that tells you a lot about the person who made it. It is also the kind of grape that can be grown in a variety of regions and climates which further adds to its versatility.

The second thing I love about it is it’s dryness. Chardonnay tends to be much drier than sauvignon blanc, though for some reason people often assume the opposite, and if you know me even a little you’ll know that in my book – the drier the better!

The third thing I love about chardonnay is that its grapes are almost always used when Champagne is made, and a life without Champagne would be a far poorer life.

In fact next time you hear someone saying “Anything but chardonnay!” order a bottle of fizz and then calmly inform them that they aren’t allowed any.

Sara Benwell works in the world of PR for a London firm specialising in finance. She blogs about politics, digital, social, finance and wine. You can follow her on Twitter @SaraBenwell

Photo: Freedigitalphotos.net

Waitrose assures us bottles on shelves not affected by suspected fraud at Labouré-Roi

By now we have all become familiar with the suspected wine fraud that is the case of Labouré-Roi selling bottles of wine that were passed off for something they were not.

Indeed, the situation has become such a concern for producers in the region that the Burgundy Wine Board has joined the investigation as a civil party to gain access to the fraud office’s files in the matter. This is so it can do an analysis of its own and determine how much the debacle has damaged its members’ reputations.

This past weekend while I was browsing the wine section in Waitrose, it wasn’t long before I stumbled across a bottle of Labouré-Roi, on this occasion a Cote de Beaune-Villages 2007.

Knowing the Labouré-Roi affair covered all levels of wine, ranging from village wines all the way up to Grand Cru betwen 2005 and 2009, as reported on Decanter.com, the alarm bells started ringing in my head.

While I was tempted to buy this bottle just to see what it might be like and maybe even try to find a way to determine if it was one of those affected by the alleged fraud, the truth is I really didn’t want to touch it with a barge pole.

However, via direct message on Twitter Waitrose told me their wines go through a rigorous quality control process and none of the wines they are selling have been affected by the timeline of the fraud, so shoppers should feel confident when making decisions.

Burgundy Wine Board joins investigation in order to see Laboure Roi files

Following the news directors of Burgundy negociant Laboure Roi were accused of  fraud, the Burgundy Wine Board (BIVB) has filed a civil claim that will allow it to see the National Fraud Office’s files in the investigation.

BIVB has filed what is known as a “se porter partie civile” (if my interpretation of the French term is wrong, please do correct me) in order to become a plaintiff (or a civil party) in the case. This will enable the organisation to gain access to case files at the National Fraud Office (DGCCRF) and presumably the French national police.

The organisation, which said its mission is to promote and enhance the image of Burgudy wines aorund the world, said it filed the claim because it intended to assess the severity of the charges against Laboure Roi and how this would affect the industry’s reputation.

While my grasp of the French language is limited, I understand the Burgundy Wine Board is in a position to take action if Labour Roi has damaged the region’s image in the world.

Michel Baldassini, deputy chairman of BIVB, said that because more than half of the region’s wines are shipped to 150 countries around the world, any suspicion of cheating that could taint the reputation of Burgundy wines would not be tolerated.

Once the facts are analysed, BIVB will take necessary steps to ensure this situation is avoided in the future, the document said.

Pierre-Henry Gagey, chairman of BIVB, said the case should not affect the vast majority of producers in Burdundy who are careful to respect the foundations of the AOC.

You can read the full text of the release here (in French).

Big thanks to Sara Benwell and Giselle Daverat for their assistance in translating the document for me.

My visit to the Wine Pantry: A tiny corner of English wine heaven

NOT FAR FROM my office in Southwark is a small shop in Borough Market that sells nothing but English wine. It’s smaller than my bedroom, has bottles stacked to the ceiling and looks like it would be downright uncomfortable working there in the winter given opens like a garage-door onto the street.

But the Wine Pantry seems to be doing something right. In the short time I was there, people were out front sipping from glasses in the sun and there was no shortage of people popping in looking for something new to try.

A decade ago, or even five years ago now I think about it, this would have been a laughable business model. Just imagine how the conversation might have gone with a bank manager back then, when English wine was mostly a curiosity except for a few Champagne-beating sparklers.

A shop selling just English wine? When there’s a wine lake in France overflowing our shores already?

Much has changed in the English wine market lately. The quality is now becoming exceptional, and that’s not just the fizz. Also, it seems enthusiasts are willing to pay the higher prices this wine commands now it’s of a high enough calibre, whereas in the past anything other than the fizz was often of touch-and-go drinkability.

My introduction to the Wine Pantry was one of mild embarrassment where I was put on the spot by my good friends. Knowing I blog about wine here, on www.12×75.com and also at Ella Mag, they thought it absurd I’d never stopped in previously. And they’re right; I’ve procrastinated ever since the shop opened.

Knowing I was a wine blogger, the two women in the shop were quick to give me samples of every manner of wine they had in stock, ranging from sparklers I’d lusted after for some time (after all these years I finally got to try Break Bottom) to still whites, rosés and reds that no one will ever see in a supermarket.

Will I be back again? Definitely. I fear I’ve fallen madly in love with this place. For every wine I tried, there were four or five more to sample on my next visit.

That evening I walked away with two wines from Wine Pantry, one of which was a gift from a friend and the other a gift to myself.

The gift from my friend was a Hush Heath Estate Nannette’s Rosé 2010, made from the second pressing of the estate’s sparkling rosé.

Nannette’s is a delicate rosé that is pale in colour and has just a hint of a strawberry aroma, as all good pink wines should. This is certainly no fruity imposter. It’s more mineral and grassy in flavour, with low alcohol that is perfect for sunny days in the garden with perhaps some seafood to keep it company. I was reminded of proper Provençal rosé, with its pale, almost salmon pink colour, and complex palate.

Switching gears slightly, the gift I bought for myself was the Breaky Bottom Cuvée Francine 2007 sparkling wine. Made from the standard three Champagne grapes – chardonnay, pinot noir and pino meunier – as well as the estate’s somewhat quirky use of seyval blanc, this is still a bit young and needs time in bottle to develop more of those Champenois flavours that are hanging around in the background.

My beef with most English sparkling wine is it is released to the market far too early, a long time before their complex flavours have truly come to the fore. Another year or two in bottle can’t hurt almost any of the fizz coming from these shores and the same can be said of this one from Breaky Bottom. If I drink it before the year is out, it will be because I had a moment of weakness.