Armagnac Adventures: Chateau de Laubade

If you want proof that today’s Armagnac producers are on a quest for the best, then seek out Chateau de Laubade.  Built in 1870, this intriguing chateau went through a fascinating period as an influential agronomic and scientific pilot farm under the ownership of statesman Joseph Noulens, before being discovered by Maurice Lesgourges who snapped it up in 1974.  In doing so he acquired an enviable back catalogue of ancient Armagnacs, albeit that their origins and composition in terms of grape varieties were obscure.

Maurice realised from the outset that the Laubade vineyard sits in prime Bas Armagnac terroir, with slopes providing ideal grape growing conditions.   So they set about taking total control of production of the eau de vie and its maturation with a view to becoming a benchmark for top quality Armagnac.  These visionaries were bold and uncompromising in their approach.  As a result, Chateau de Laubade now use only their own grapes, vinified themselves, distilled themselves and matured themselves in barrels coopered themselves, from Gascon oak sourced in neighbouring woodlands.

Arnaud and Denis Lesgourges now run Chateau de Laubade, and represent the 3rd generation of the family.  Denis very kindly showed Amanda Garnham of BNIA and I around, having arrived from Bordeaux to host the annual distillation festivities for the villagers of Sorbets in the evening.  Sadly I missed out as my flight home was in the afternoon…. 😦

Denis is fiercely proud of the achievements and visionary genius of his forbears.  But he seemed at least equally proud of the fact that due to their wisdom and investment, the estate now believes it is not just carbon neutral, but carbon negative.  Denis pointed out the blazing colours of autumn in a large piece of woodland in the distance, a legacy of his forbears, who recognised their role in offsetting human activity long before many of us.  The importance of trees in the management of the estate is reflected in an art installation in a former greenhouse.

Speaking of legacy, if Chateau de Laubade stopped making Armagnac at this point, they would have some 15 years of stock to sell.  I asked Denis if he is tempted to cash in on the family investment.  Denis views himself as a custodian of the estate, so no, he won’t be selling.  His destiny is to nurture Chateau de Laubade for future generations.

img_1777It was howling a gale during our visit, so it was with excitement and relief that we retreated into the distilling room.  This SOFAC continuous column still was bought in 1975, evidencing the family’s commitment to making their own Armagnacs in the long term, from the outset.  A recent addition to the 22-strong Laubade team is Francois, an oenologist from Bordeaux, whose task will be to maximise the quality of the wine used for distillation; many Armagnac houses are increasingly aware that the quality of the wine used for distillation is key to the quality of the Armagnac.

img_1779A key reason Armagnac is such a characterful spirit is its low distillation temperature.  But it is also due to the alambic plates forcing the vapours through the wine lying on the plates.  If you want to see this for yourself taste eau de vie from a still!  There was a strong smell of wine and yeast in the distillation room (a small amount of lees, or dead yeast cells, are used – they can be seen in the window!), and the sample I tasted from the still was incredibly aromatic, with pastry notes from the lees, and an array of fruity aromas from the wine – squashed banana, lychee, cherry, raisin, plum and pear, to name but a few.

img_1783Denis had been anxious about the aromatics because the prolonged hot weather can result in the wine lacking in acidity and minerality, but he seemed very pleased with what he tasted from the still today.  Today’s wine came from the grape variety Baco 22A, at an ideal abv of 10.5%.  The range they look for is 10.2 – 10.8%.  Distillation temperature is agreed each day according to the desired results, and today it was 58ºC.

The still is gas fired – Denis was proud to state that the Armagnac alambic uses considerably less gas than the pot stills of Cognac.  He prefers gas to wood as it enables a more reliable regulation of the temperature.   The “tails” were draining off into the wooden vat beneath.  By law they must be redistilled.  The “heads” were draining into a tank above, which may or may not be used, depending on their character and the character desired for the Armagnac.

img_1771After a tour of the cellar, and of the “paradise” containing shiny bonbonnes full of the chateau’s most ancient Armagnacs (the precise components of some of them being shrouded in the mists of time), we adjourned to the tasting room – which was, to my amazement, inside the family home! Denis showed us into a lavishly decorated drawing room which added a sense of heritage to our tasting experience.

A recent addition to the range is a VS, the “Signature”, created because Armagnac is now in demand for cocktails.  Fruity and floral with little oak influence, the youngest spirit is 4 years old.

But today I tasted the VSOP, made from spirits aged for 6-10 years.  Using a system Denis likened to sherry’s solera blending system, 33% – 50% of the previous batch is kept and married with the new blend to maintain the Laubade VSOP style consistently.  The pale amber colour is natural, and the adjustment is simply reduction to bottle strength from 48% to 40% abv with petites eaux.  There is approximately 20% Folle Blanche in this blend, contributing to its fruity floral notes.  This is rather higher than the proportion of Folle Blanche in Laubade’s vineyard.  Approachable and rounded, combining delicious apricot tarte tatin and toasted almond flavours, with a finish which over-delivers for VSOP Armagnac, this is very good.

img_1785.jpgThe XO is a more intense and exotic creature, using Ugni Blanc, Baco and a little Plant de Graisse.  The youngest spirit is at least 15 years old – the next XO batch will use the 2004 vintage.  So smooth and satisfying….there are intense incense notes (sawn sandalwood and smoke), and plenty of fruit and nut moreishness (orange, prunes, butterscotch and pecans).  The bold richness is more than a match for the alcohol.  Sip and nibble with top notch dark chocolate after an autumn Sunday afternoon walk perhaps…?

We were then introduced to the innovative finishes range, only available in France for now – but watch this space….. Denis explained that in Cognac, finishing in barrels used by other spirits is only possible by forgoing the Cognac name. Although they can use oak from anywhere, e.g. USA, they cannot use barrels which have previously contained anything other than wine, or wine eau de vie (thank you Phil Duffy from Amathus Drinks for the relevant legislation!).  For Armagnac, only French oak can be used, but the barrels can previously have been used for any spirit, not just Armagnac.  Chateau de Laubade therefore collaborated with the Clément family, producers of rhum agricole on the former French colonial island of Martinique, which must be matured in French oak casks.  6 Armagnac barrels were sent to Martinique.  Rum was then aged in them before being emptied and returned so that a 6 year old Armagnac from 2012 could be finished for 8 months in the rum casks.  Tasting every 10 days was necessary to ensure that the character of Armagnac was retained and balanced with the rum elements.  There was a distinct cachaça twang to the nose, but the palate was definitely the prunes and pastry of Armagnac, but with a herbaceous and straw bite from the rum.  For those who are not rum aficionados, rhum agricole, including rum from Martinique, is made using sugar cane juice, not molasses, as is cachaça from Brazil.  It’s character in youth is therefore very different to other rums in that it has a funky grassy herbaceous twang.

This range, labelled Les Curiosities, is exactly that – a curiosity for the adventurous.  There is a whisky finish as well.  These finishing innovations are controversial, but if you think about it, Armagnac lovers are by their nature adventurous taste explorers who seek out interest, depth of flavour and character; these experimental expressions are certain to intrigue them!

Another recent development has been the renaissance of lesser known Armagnac grape varieties, such as Plant de Graisse.  At Amanda’s request, Denis let us taste a 2006 100% Plant de Graisse, reduced a little for bottling to 46.3% after extensive trials of the best abv level for release.  Despite it fetching €55 for 50cl, it is selling fast.  The aromas are delicate and perfumed, with a hint of oiliness.  They are also focussed; dried orange, cinnamon stick and fig with very well integrated oak.  The palate has oily weight, intensity and an evolving finish of toasted walnuts, pastries, herbs, and a marmite edge, but somehow ending on a lovely floral note.  A fascinating and unique experience, sure to satisfy Armagnac maniacs everywhere.

To conclude, we were honoured and privileged to taste the first vintage of Armagnac made by Denis’s family exclusively from Chateau de Laubade grapes, in 1974.  Aside from this being a family milestone, Denis told me it was also a classic vintage in Armagnac.  This was incredibly potent and perfumed.  I savoured deep orange, nutmeg, cinnamon and prune aromas, and a palate which was the epitome of “rancio” ageing with deep walnuts and smoke, while at the same time fresh, light and elegant, with citrus flavours still evident, and a long ethereal finish.

img_1834I had to rush away before tasting the Intemporel No.5, so Denis very kindly provided me with a sample to take home (declaration of interest please note!).  He explained that this is a 20-30 year old small batch premium blend, which they first made in 2007 – when it was awarded World’s Best Brandy in the highly respected San Francisco World Spirits Competition.  3 batches a year are made, and it is intended to be the quintessence of the art of assemblage.  This batch contains 48% Baco.

Back in Blighty, I am able to savour all the nuances of my gift, which is brilliant copper in colour, with an intense focused and perfumed nose of incense, vanilla, prunes, raisins, coffee and apricot jam.  There were some corn notes as well, suggestive of a high quality Bourbon.  The palate is quite something else.  There is an intense herbal and smokey bite which evolves into very rounded and rich luxuriance of incredible complexity.  Think freshly roasted coffee, toffee, chocolate, intense dried orange, toasted baklava, dried cherries…OK I’ll stop now.  I will leave you to check out the price of this thing of beauty for yourselves.  It really is of outstanding quality.  I can’t believe I have a bottle of it!

img_1827The transformation of this estate in under 50 years is remarkable.  As a wine lover, I suspect this has a great deal to do with the family’s recognition from the outset of the excellent terroir they have, and their continuing drive to make the highest quality wine which then feeds into the quality of the Armagnac.  Armagnacs are incredibly long-lived, so it has taken perseverance and patience to realise Maurice’s vision from when he bought the estate over 40 years ago.  It will be fascinating to see how this driven and aspirational family develop and grow their increasingly acclaimed Armagnac domaine in the future.   It would be marvellous to return in a few years to see what they have been up to.  In the meantime, many thanks to Denis for an amazing tour and tasting – and for my amazing Armagnac treat!  You can find Chateau de Laubade Armagnacs in The Wine Shop Winscombe (see photo!).

Armagnac Adventures: Marquis de Montesquiou

It is easy to be dismissive of the éleveur business model of creating Armagnac by ageing and blending eau de vie made by others, when elsewhere, houses aim to control every aspect of the process, from the vineyard to the bottle.

But in Armagnac, as in Champagne, some of the most awesome (and I use that word in its truest sense) skills of all are needed to find, age and blend the best Armagnacs from artisan producers throughout the region to produce a marriage of Armagnacs better together than they are apart.

As with whisky, there are spendy Armagnac blends as revered as vintage or varietal bottlings, but at the same time, blends at all levels are vital to the success of Armagnac as a spirit.  This is because they perform an invaluable function, giving newcomers a benchmark they can expect for both consistency, and quality.  High quality levels are incredibly important.  If quality is lacking, consumers look to alternative spirits, and the whole industry suffers.

img_1625Blends are also a “must have” in any back bar.  (The miniature cask shown is for barrel-aged cocktails – huge in the USA!).  Bartenders need a flavour profile they can rely on to deliver the perfect serve time after time.  They also crave unique expressions to build their reputations for unique high quality cocktails.  A blend needs enough character to match up with other ingredients, and to deliver a perfect balance of the cocktail elements.  

Armagnac blends are ideal for cocktails.  The low distillation temperature results in a very characterful spirit right from its emergence from the alambic, let alone once it has aged, and the infinite style permutations available due to the range of grapes, soils, alambics and producer styles gives plenty of scope to create reliable blends of individuality and distinction.

Huge effort goes into making even the least aged blends as good as they can be at an affordable price point.  While Armagnac producers revel in their uniqueness, every single house I have visited has been extremely proud and protective of the quality of their products.

Marquis de Montesquiou is one such house.  With the benefit of the resources available from its parent business Pernod Ricard, they create Armagnacs at all levels, volumes and budgets which are made from eau de vie sourced from their trusted partner producers, and aged in their “cathedral” cellar under the watchful eye of Eric Durand, their respected cellarmaster.  I visited one of their partners and saw first hand the craftsmanship and attention to every detail they put into their Armagnacs, so Marquis de Montesquiou seem to have have chosen their sources very well.

img_1627Ghislain Dumas guided Amanda Garnham of BNIA and I through a tour and tasting on my recent visit to the Armagnac region.  The “cathedral” cellar was impressive.  As is usual in Armagnac, there is a short maturation in new oak followed by a longer maturation in older oak barrels (sometimes called “double maturation”), and then for blends, a gradual reduction in strength by adding demineralised water blended with armagnac (“petites eaux”) until bottling strength of 40% is reached.  The cellar is dry (as opposed to humid), which is relatively unusual.

img_1629The blending vessels can be huge, the largest used for quality supermarket bottlings. These vessels are rarely empty; a proportion of the blend is kept inside so that when the new spirit is added, it can be “married” not only with the blend ingredients, but also with the previous blend, so that the end result is as near as possible in character to the previous bottling.

Both Marquis de Montesquiou and Comte de Lauvia (made by Marquis de Montesquiou) blends are popular in The Wine Shop Winscombe, so what are they all about?

img_1638We compared the Marquis de Montesquiou XO with the Lauvia Hors d’Age. The former has spirit aged 10-25 years old from grape varieties Ugni Blanc, Baco and a small proportion from Folle Blanche.  The latter is a blend of Armagnacs made between 1975 and 2000, again mostly from Ugni Blanc and Baco.

The house styles are very different from each other.  The Marquis de Montesquiou is likened to a full orchestra with a full and satisfying range of flavours, i.e. fruitiness, spiciness, and oak flavours, at an affordable price point with a correspondingly shorter finish.  If necessary it is adjusted.   The curious bottle shape is inspired by the flasks used by the Musketeers.  The XO is a glossy coppery mahogany colour with enticing aromas and flavours of raisins, dates, walnuts, coffee, cinnamon, clove and well integrated sandalwood.  It is a pleasingly complex rounded mouthful of characterful flavours in balance with its structure.  A satisfying all rounder.

The Comte de Lauvia is so different.  Ghislain explained that it is more like a jazz band than an orchestra with a specific range of high tone and vanilla notes, and a long finish. It is not chill filtered so as to preserve its character, so it isn’t as shiny bright as a finely filtered Armagnac.  UK drinks importer Emporia were very much instrumental in the creation of this range.  The Hors d’Age is deep amber. The aromas are elegant and floral, with notes of orange blossom, toasted almond, vanilla, marzipan and pastry, fruity notes reminiscent of a good rum, and ageing flavours of fig and nuts.  The finish is long.  All colour is natural.  Adjustment is only gradual reduction to bottling strength.  Elegant, unique to its house style.

It is easy to see why bartenders gravitate towards these ranges – and there are plenty of inspiring recipes for budding mixologists to try out on the Marquis de Montesquiou website.  You could even use both ranges in one cocktail to flesh out the flavour profile!

In the Wine Shop Winscombe we have the Lauvia Fine (which is equivalent to VS with a minimum ageing of 1 year) and the Reserve (equivalent to VSOP, minimum ageing of 4 years).  The Fine is relatively simple in profile, with the same house style of fruity floral aromas, prunes and pastry but with a surprisingly long finish.  The Reserve is my favourite of the Lauvia range.  Expect a range of flavours including prune, fig, coffee and honey, a smooth texture, and a lovely lingering finish.  Sip from a small tulip shaped glass with quality chocolate nearby to nibble in between – dark chocolate ginger thins perhaps?

img_1640Ghislain also showed us a trio of vintages with standout flavour profiles which they use in blending masterclasses.  The 1973, with oaky character, was very herbaceous, with a robust tannic structure, cooling peppermint aromatics and length.  The 1976 was more spicy, with sandalwood, prune juice, clove, cinnamon, tobacco and a fiery bite of black pepper.  The 1989 was the floral element.  It was highly perfumed with acacia and herbal aromas, and deep prune and tarte tatin flavours.  The finish was shorter.

Had time permitted it would have been fun to make our own blend, and we could see how a blend of these three elements could create a quality Armagnac greater than the sum of its parts.

img_1635Although alas we didn’t taste any of them, Ghislain also showed us recent bottlings of a range of premium blends of various spirits in the La Distillerie Générale range, including Armagnacs from Marquis de Montesquiou’s cellar, with luxurious fabric labels which fetch high prices. These are limited bottlings of 35cls each – the Armagnac “Réserve Cathédrale Single Cask”, is of 830 bottles.  There is also a Folle Blanche Single Cask.  Sadly they are not available in the UK as far as I know.

So it’s not all about scale.  The team here, despite the larger scale of their cellar, is aspirational in terms of quality.  Expect more limited release bottlings from this house.

My overall impression of Marquis de Montesquiou is that it neatly exemplifies the rise and rise of quality in Armagnac as a whole, and the role played by everyone in the region, at whatever scale their business may be, in driving up quality levels.  Houses like Marquis de Montesquiou are a vital part of the future of Armagnac.  Long may they be there to look after their artisan partners.

Marquis de Montesquiou Fine Armagnac, and Comte de Lauvia Fine and Reserve Armagnacs are available from The Wine Shop Winscombe (01934 708312).

A Year at Sutton Ridge: Visit 5 – Harvest

On 29th October 2019 I returned to Luke’s vineyard to harvest Pinot Noir grapes from the vines I had pruned back on 1st March, 8 months ago.  On both days it was rather chilly!

img_1551The Fords are one of Somerset’s farming families, so harvest time is very much a family affair.  To fit in with the family theme, and it being half term week, my daughter Eva and our lovely but wayward black labrador Arthur came along too.

It was lovely to catch up with Luke after the Somerset Wine Fair on 25th October 2019, which proved very successful with a record number of bottles ordered.

Here is some harvest data for 2019:

  • 10th October – Bacchus (630kg) & Seyval Blanc (1,060kg)
  • 17th October – Regent (290kg) & Phoenix (670kg)
  • 29th October – Pinot Noir (420kg)

Total 3,070kg – i.e. 1.8 kg per vine – just over 1 bottle of wine per vine.  Luke is pleased with this, since it had been a challenging year.

1d2cd51e-8a73-4f49-b2b5-6862b725b440Luke waited until the last moment to harvest the Pinot Noir.  This autumn was damp and cool so ripening was slow.  It was worth the wait.  Pinot Noir can ripen too quickly becoming rather “overcooked” in flavour without the complexity for which it is prized.  But this year the wine should be very complex because ripening was so gradual.  Acid levels dropped sufficiently, while sugar levels rose gently.  As the weather was about to turn wet again, Luke decided that there was no benefit to waiting any longer, so we were summoned to the vineyard on what proved to be the last dry day for some time.  Pinot Noir bunches are tightly packed like pine cones, hence its name, with thin skins – perfect for mould to set in – so it was best not to leave it any longer.

e34f01a6-ce1d-4f57-b1b3-ebefa41e4320Despite the weather, the grapes were remarkably rot free, which no doubt reflects what is a good site on a sunny slope.  Luke says the quality of the Pinot Noir grapes this year was “fantastic”  (must be the expert pruning…..!?).  Luke advised us that the grapes would be de-stemmed at the winery, so we simply needed to snip the bunches without trimming too much off.  But as there are no luxuries such as optical sorting tables in this vineyard, we did need to be vigilant and snip off any mouldy and/or unripe grapes.  Luckily there was little of either, since I rather doubt Eva would have had patience for too much snipping.  I also had to contend with Arthur taking himself off to every corner of the vineyard sniffing out pheasants.

Luke’s young nephew, also called Arthur, was also helping.  He was a little puzzled by me shouting his name repeatedly as if he had misbehaved.

This was my first time harvesting with Eva, who appeared to be quite content, and who to my astonishment didn’t cut herself with the secateurs.

img_1557.jpgHarvesting is done rapidly at Sutton Ridge.  All of us knew we needed to crack on in order to get our hearty lunch, served with a refreshing drop of rosé. As you can see, Arthur particularly appreciated the lunch offerings.

So my lovely Pinot Noir is safely gathered in, and the vines can now have a well earned rest over the winter until Luke and his father return in late winter to prune.

So where did the grapes go?  To Steve Brooksbank’s winery in Shepton Mallet, where a substantial proportion of Somerset’s wine is made.  Luke isn’t yet planning a still red wine from his Pinot Noir, and even if he was, 2019 was not a year to attempt it.  So these beauties, along with the Seyval Blanc, will be making Luke’s elegant Dewdown sparkling white wine.  Pinot Noir is one of the grapes used to make not only champagne, but also other quality sparkling wines around the world – for which reason it is currently the Number 1 black skinned grape variety grown in the UK, which has a thriving sparkling wine industry.

It will be some while before I get to taste the wine made from these grapes, because the wine is made using the traditional bottle fermentation method which is the same as that used in champagne.  First a low alcohol high acidity still white wine is made.  This goes into a thick bottle with  more sugar and yeast, and the bottle is sealed.  A second fermentation happens in the bottle, creating a little more alcohol (about 1.5%), and carbon dioxide gas which is trapped and dissolved into the wine, being released as bubbles when the wine is opened.  The wine then rests on the lees (yeast cells which died after scoffing all the sugar!).  This gives the wine more complexity with delicate biscuit and bread dough aromas and flavours.  As we don’t want grotty dead yeast cells in our fizz, the wine has to be “riddled”, which gradually moves the lees to the neck of the bottle.  This is then frozen, and when the bottle cap is removed, a plug of lees pops out.  After topping up with more wine, the bottle is re-sealed with a very thick cork cylinder which turns into the familiar “mushroom” shape under pressure in the bottle.  This is called “disgorgement”.  After disgorgement, the wine needs to age further under cork before being released for sale.

The traditional method is a time consuming and labour intensive process, and the wines have to be stored carefully for at least 2 years before they can be sold.  This explains why traditional method sparkling wines are dearer than their still counterparts, and tank method sparkling wines like Prosecco which lack the complexity of traditional method wines.

So when will I get a sip?  The wine won’t be bottled until July 2020, and it will then be left on its lees for 18-24 months (the minimum period for champagne is 12 months, and for Crémant wines 9 months – but many are left on the lees for far longer).  There will then be further ageing after disgorgement of 4-6 months.  So maybe Christmas 2022??

I’m not sure I can wait until then, but happily the current release of Dewdown is available right now!  This is the 2014 2nd disgorgement which spent 40 months on its lees and 4 months ageing after disgorgement under cork.  It has a lowish abv of 11%, perfect for spring and summer weddings and picnics, and for those who don’t want a high alcohol wine.  The mouthfeel of the wine is soft and rounded, with fresh stone fruit and tangy citrus flavours to enjoy with hints of bread and biscuit due to its extended lees ageing.  A beautiful match with white fish (fish & chips even better!) and also light sheep’s milk cheeses like Manchego.  Or New Year’s Eve (I am thinking of one particular friend who could probably do with less abv in her celebratory fizz judging by previous New Year’s Day hangovers!).

08cc9fca-7c45-4c84-bb95-0111f634abaeIt has been an absolute pleasure to visit Luke and his lovely family at Sutton Ridge throughout 2019.  Although a small vineyard, quality is undoubtedly the watchword here, and this shows in the wines which are big favourites in our household, and which are gaining in recognition – see for example write ups appearing in Decanter magazine.  I had no hesitation in taking a bottle of Luke’s rosé to Armagnac as a gift for my host during my recent tour of the region; I am confident that she will enjoy it every bit as much as we do.

Sutton Ridge Bacchus, Rosé & Dewdown 2014 2nd disgorgement wines are available in various outlets in Somerset including The Wine Shop Winscombe (01934 708312).

Buying En Primeur: Is It Worth It?

Enjoyment of fine wine necessitates deep pockets.  Most of us therefore know relatively little about it.  But does buying wine “en primeur” spare some of your outlay?

“En primeur” is a wine trade term for buying wine as futures before bottling.  Usually, a price is paid for the wine when the en primeur offer is made.  Within two years after that, you have to pay the duty owing and shipping costs.  You then either store the wine yourself until it is mature enough to drink, or pay storage charges for someone else with suitable facilities to do so.

The reasoning is that by buying early, less money is spent on the wine in the long run.  However, there are various downsides to this approach which include:

  • falling wine prices
  • reliance upon the opinion of the person who tasted the wine sample in cask
  • interruption in the supply chain for whatever reason
  • having the means to store wine safely and in optimal conditions until ready to drink – or sell.  Provenance is important for value retention and includes proof of where and how the wine has been stored.
  • Insurance is also needed in case of loss or damage e.g. theft, fire, flood etc. if wine is kept for some time.

The wine trade has bought en primeur for many years, but consumers also began to buy en primeur in the late 20th century as a result of rising demand and relative economic prosperity.  Bordeaux wines are particularly associated with this practice, but there are en primeur offers in other regions of France, and indeed, further afield.

The cost and risks involved would normally be enough to deter a risk averse lawyer like me.  But my status as a godmother led me to dip my toe into the en primeur market as a bit of fun.  I decided to buy my god daughter 6 bottles of something ageworthy and approachable in the hope that when she reached 18 she would enjoy it (and maybe share a bit with her godmother!?).  I sought to minimise risk by using The Wine Society to source and store my investment, but there are plenty of other reputable and knowledgeable wine merchants who sell wine to private consumers en primeur.

The choice of en primeur wines was bewildering but price, style and the drinking window helped narrow the options.  Claret didn’t seem right for an 18 year old girl, and the delicate nuances of Burgundian pinot noir are subtle and not to everyone’s taste.  Port was a possibility and its sweetness might appeal to her but I feared it might seem a bit old fashioned.  But Chateauneuf du Pape seemed ideal – a long drinking window, a fashionable full bodied spicy style, and relatively affordable.

img_1144So in 2007 I bought 6 bottles of Domaine Font-de-Michelle Cuvée Etienne Gonnet Chateauneuf du Pape AOC 2005.  I gave the details to my god daughter’s parents in case anything happened to me.  We then forgot about it while the Wine Society stored it.

I didn’t know much about it, to be honest.  I since see that Hugh Johnson names Font-de-Michelle as a top name, calling it stylish, and 2005 is still drinking well in general for Chateauneuf apparently.  The 2005 was described as a classic vintage for the cellar by The Wine Spectator when writing about it in 2007 (not that I read this at the time!)

Here is an extract about 2005 from The Wine Cellar Insider:
2005 – A beautiful growing season for the Rhone Valley and all of Europe. The vintage was shaped by warm, sunny dry days and cool to cold nights and a long growing season. This all helped to produce rich, ripe, concentrated, sweet, fresh berries. The wines combine great style, depth of flavor and the ability to age and evolve.

Jancis Robinson seemed happy with it when released, giving it 18 points.  But by 2014 she scored it 16.5 for enjoyment (“very ripe and vivacious”) but remarked that there was lots of very obvious alcohol in it – the Grenache was presumably very ripe as it has a heady 15% abv.  I won’t reproduce the notes in full as they come from Purple Pages, a subscription service.  But I hope they won’t mind if I tell you the blend is 65% Grenache, 20% Syrah and 15% Mourvèdre.

We all taste differently, so I looked forward to tasting a stylish, spicy, full on wine with lots of development flavours.

img_0973Enough about the wine, let’s talk money!  I paid £125.00 for the wine.  When it arrived in the UK I paid £31.29 duty and VAT.  Storage charges per annum vary but based on last year’s charges The Wine Society estimate that I paid around about £43.20 in total i.e. £4.32 per annum.  My total spend therefore comes to approximately £199.49.  The 2005 is no longer available via The Wine Society and I don’t have access to LivEx to value the wine.  I could ask a merchant to value it but I’m not selling so that would be naughty.  The Wine Society was selling the 2009 for £39 a bottle, i.e. £234 for 6.  Assuming the 2005 is worth the same,  total “profit” is therefore £34.51 i.e. 17.3% over 12 years – I might have made more had I called it off sooner! I therefore (almost) bought 5 bottles and got one free.  It doesn’t sound much but if you buy in any scale it starts to seem shrewd.  Though to be honest, I’m not sure it competes with buying wine in France and bringing it over duty free – or just moving there!

img_1145My god daughter turned 18 this year, so what does she think of it I hear you ask?  Sadly, for reasons I won’t go into, her health is such that she can’t partake of much of it.  She has kept a bottle to share with her family, and I have bought the rest from her – like any 18 year old she is content with cash!

The husband and I had a certain birthday this year so we enjoyed a bottle to ease the transition into our next half century.  It was silky, still fruity, and ethereal, with all the leathery smoky spice you would want but in impeccable balance – I didn’t notice the alcohol particularly.  A wine of poise and distinction.  It could keep longer, but it’s drinking beautifully now.  So it won’t last long.

A Year at Sutton Ridge: Visit 4 – Veraison

My latest visit to Luke’s vineyard was on 6th September 2019, on a showery and blustery afternoon with moisture enough to bring out a nervous frog who leapt haphazardly beneath the vines.

img_1485Véraison marks a new phase of promise at Sutton Ridge; the changing colour from green to black of Regent, then Pinot Noir, evidences ripening (from the photos you can see that aside from the colour, Regent has far looser bunches than tightly packed Pinot Noir).  Sugar levels are rising, acidity levels are falling.  The anxious wait until harvesting now begins.

img_1489So much can go wrong – damp conditions cause mildews which can set in during the window between the last spray and the harvest; pests want their share of the crop; poor weather can mean ripening is slow and might not happen at all, especially if véraison is delayed.  After a changeable summer, I wondered whether véraison would be later than usual but it is happening on schedule, Regent grapes already deep black while Pinot Noir is turning now, a couple of weeks later.

img_1486So how is Luke protecting his crop?  His bird scarer had been felled by strong winds (here he is resurrecting it), and already one vine beside a hedge appeared to have been raided, perhaps sparing its neighbours from a similar fate.  Badgers had already dug latrines into which they had deposited seed laden stools and bare stalks as evidence of their brazen theft.  An electric fence probably won’t deter them; Luke accepts some losses to the furry thieves.  Deer, too, expect their share.  Luke has deer fences, but no barrier is completely deer proof, it seems.

Luke offered me the chance to try a grape or two – sugars definitely on the up but still plenty of acidity too!

img_1492Fortunately, although 2019 is not as bountiful a year as as 2018, there seem to be plenty of grapes to go around.  Luke isn’t planning any green harvesting, sometimes carried out around now, to lower his yields this year (he green harvested his Seyval Blanc (see right photo) last year to aid ripening).  But he is de-leafing to maximise air circulation and sun exposure, which will also make the harvest easier.  He is also picking out any signs of disease from each bunch by hand.  So there is plenty to do!

img_1490Despite growing 5 different grape varieties, Luke expects to harvest for 2-3 weeks from mid October.  Luke plans to use all his Pinot Noir for sparkling rosé as he did last year.  His still rosé comes from Regent and Phoenix (see left photo), the proportions variable according to how much of each there is.  His 5 rows of Regent produce less than his 4 rows of Phoenix, so it ends up about 60/40 or just about even.  The grapes are co-fermented together rather than separately and then being blended, giving what Luke believes is a better integration of flavours.  Regent gives a dark colour so in 2017 Seyval Blanc was added to adjust the colour to a more Provence-style pale salmon.  img_1491Bacchus (see right photo) is used for still white wine.  Luke would like to make a still Pinot Noir red one day, but would need to plant more vines and acquire an oak barrel!  One day maybe…..

In the meantime, as promised, notes on Luke’s Rosés, tasted in July 2019:

2017: Pale salmon, apricot hue.  Pronounced nose of rich farmyard, redcurrant, warm fresh strawberries, red cherries and a dairy note. Medium bodied with strawberries and cream flavours, evolving into redcurrant and apricot.  Medium + acidity balanced with creaminess and rich fruit which prolongs the finish.  A very good wine. 

2018: Pale salmon with pink tinges.  Clean precise and intriguing nose which evolves in the glass from red berries and currants to cherries, with rose hip, peachiness and hints of oregano and farmyard adding complexity. This carries to the palate which has high acidity and a red gooseberry bite.  Light bodied,  the acidity is perfectly offset by plenty of red fruits and a creamy mouthfeel.  The finish seemed eternal!   An outstanding wine.  No surprise, therefore, that it won gold at Wine GB, as did its predecessor, the 2017.

You can taste it on Friday 27th September at The Wine Shop Winscombe where Luke will be launching his 2018 still wines.  Tickets £5  – to book, ring The Wine Shop on 01934 708312.



Grapey perfume or prunes and pastry – WSET Level 4 Diploma Spirits Award

The great thing about studying wines and spirits with WSET (Wine & Spirits Education Trust) is that there are some cracking prizes to be won.

img_0945As is evident from my reflections on WSET Diploma graduation (see previous blog), I was never favourite to land a prize for the spirits exam – but somehow, I scored highly enough to receive the Worshipful Company of Distillers’ Scholarship which funds me to study a spirit producing region!

Out of a sea of diploma graduates from around the globe, many of them from WSET in London, there were only 4 from West of England Wine School.  I was proud to fly the Westcountry flag in the awards list, and it should be noted that in the preceding year, my fellow West of England Wine School graduate Sarah Mills won the Marks & Spencer prize for her high mark in the Unit 2 Viticulture and Vinification paper.

So how did this miracle come about?

Reason 1: Time

All my diploma exams were taken while working as a solicitor in Gloucester, except this one.  I therefore had much more time to study.  Many diploma students underestimate how much time they need to devote to it – my result in spirits shows what a difference it makes if you can make time for in depth study.

Reason 2: Fear of Failure

So convinced was I that I would struggle with spirits, I tasted until my taste buds were pickled.  I have tasting notes for 120 spirits!!

Despite lecture samples and raiding our drinks cabinet, it was never going to be affordable to buy all the tasting samples I needed, even in miniatures (I bought 5 of each of Scotch, Irish, Japanese and American – well worth doing).

Luckily for me, help was at hand.  The Wine Shop Winscombe run monthly legendary gin tastings, as well as tastings of other spirits such as rum and whisk(e)y.  Kelli Coxhead from The Wine Shop also let me to join in a tasting of a wide range of spirits hosted by Jack Rackham of Emporia.  He was hugely knowledgeable and added greatly to my knowledge of aged tequilas, amongst other things.  A huge thank you to Kelli and Jack.

I was also encouraged to visit a distillery; Cotswold Distillery hosts a friendly and informative tour.  They were distilling grappa when I dropped by, from pomace (spent grape skins) donated by a Gloucestershire vineyard, and I met their new still, called Dolly (she works 9 to 5….).  When I explained why I was there, they gave me a “doggie bag” of tasty tipples for me to dissect at home.  Their whisky was one of few spirits I tasted which I classed as outstanding.  I also admired their genever equivalent. I can’t recommend their tour highly enough, both to students and to consumers – and the whisky is available from The Wine Shop Winscombe.

Reason 3: The Lecturers

Bruce Perry from Marussia, an uncompromising perfectionist, put us through our tasting paces at an early stage on our diploma journey.  This didn’t go too well, if I’m honest, and I have come a long way since Spirits part 1!  Spirits part 2 was taught by Charles Maxwell of Thames Distillers, who makes gins under contract for various brands.  Such is his renown that his involvement is openly acknowledged by the brands he works with, including Sabatini gin made from Tuscan herbal botanicals (available from The Wine Shop Winscombe).  Among the gin samples he brought along was Chilgrove, which he helped create.  It was the first English gin to use grape spirit, and the first gin I tasted in which I could readily discern the craftsmanship of its creator.

Reason 4: Lady Luck

Tim Johnson, our diploma co-ordinator, put together a mock tasting exam, which was uncannily similar to the exam itself!  Of course, this was in truth due to his considerable experience.

https://i.pinimg.com/236x/c8/76/48/c8764881c6df3ff7ae0cb1482e9fca22.jpgThe theory exam also involved luck.  As a lawyer, I had learnt the legal requirements for scotch whisky verbatim, and even looked up the regulations (sad….) – cue a “brain dump” which probably scored very highly when this question came up.  Less lucky was a mandatory question on Poire William.  Usually questions about more unusual spirits offer a couple of options – but not today!  All I knew was that it was made with Williams pears in France and that in at least some examples a whole pear is inside the bottle (the lovely lady at Divine Wines I met at a trade tasting said she had a bottle in her shop and it looked pretty on the shelf).  That was my first and only sentence for some time until the initial exam panic receded.  I then realised I had to choose which spirit production method to write about – maceration with pears, or making a pear cider and distilling it.  I went with the latter and forgot about it until the results came out.   (By the way,  the bottle is placed over the pear bud on the tree!  The pear grows inside.)

It is lucky also that I studied on the diploma course when I did.  Spirits is being removed from the course so I am one of the last to win this award.  Instead, separate spirits qualifications have been created.  This is for the best, but it means people like me who didn’t know much about spirits probably never will.

Reason 5: Following Sound Advice

My mentors Tim Johnson, and Kelli Coxhead from The Wine Shop Winscombe, advised me to let the wine (or spirit) tell its story, and have faith in what it tells you – while having the courage and strength of will to ignore any pre-judgements.  Otherwise you write a tasting note to fit what you think it is, rather than recording what you taste and using the evidence to inform your conclusions.  This all made sense to my logical lawyer’s brain – but applying this wisdom in an exam proved much more difficult.

In this exam, the earthy tequila and the ginger biscuit bourbon were fairly easy to identify.  I was about to pre-judge that the grape spirit was armagnac, but had the sense to read my note back and realised I was describing a cognac VSOP instead – which it proved to be.  In essence, it was much more grapey perfume than prunes and pastry.  With Kelli and Tim’s advice ringing in my ears, and the confidence I had gained, I kept my head and applied an evidence-led approach which paid off.img_1149-1

So many, many thanks to all who helped me.  Not only have I won a fabulous prize which takes me to visit Armagnac this November, but I have also developed a decent palate for spirits tasting which means I can now enjoy and appreciate distilled gems of all kinds – including my own Poire William, in its pear shaped bottle, bought by my lovely family for my 50th!  Which I can’t bring myself to open just yet – but when I do, I’ll let you know……

A Year at Sutton Ridge: Visit 3 – Flowering

img_1080As promised, here is a belated update from Sutton Ridge – this time following a visit on an idyllic midsummer’s evening (3rd July 2019).  Luke was advising a family hoping to plant a vineyard in the Cheddar area, chilled rosé in hand, from a vantage point on a high grassy bank overlooking the vineyard, Blagdon Lake and the Mendips.

img_1078Merely 10 weeks ago in late April the vineyard was neat and tidy with its first leaves of the season showing.  Now look at it!  After a long dry spell, June brought abundant rain and the vines have responded by throwing out shoots left right and centre.  Here is Flo doing her bit to bring order to the chaos.

Flowering is usually expected in Wimbledon fortnight, and despite the chilly wind and rain, flowering was happening, right on cue.

There were no pretty flowers to see, though.  Vines img_1132self pollinate, so there are no attractive blooms to lure in pollinating insects (except the roses planted as early warning signs of disease).  Neither is there much scent to speak of, although vineyards tend to have a honey-citrus perfume around flowering time.

So where are the “flowers”?  “Flowers” are simply the seed bearing part of a plant.  Vines are hermaphrodite, and so are self contained; they have just what they need to reproduce, no more, no less.  So they have male parts (the stamens) which bear pollen (20,000 grains per flower!), which wait for the flower caps to pop off adjacent flower clusters containing the ovary, or female part.  If it is warm enough, the clusters open, enabling the pollen to transfer to the ovary and pollinate the vine.   The stamens and pollen are only a few millimeters away from the flower clusters, so a gentle breeze is all that is needed for the pollen to transfer to the ovary.  Pollination can happen even in still conditions, but ideally some wind is good to blow off the caps and rub the stamens and clusters together.  Damp weather at this time is unhelpful as the caps tend to stick and the growth of the pollen is slowed down.  If the caps stick they can become embedded in the bunches of berries, increasing the risk of bunch rot in varieties with tightly packed bunches.

Grape growers want to see an early, quick and even flowering so that the crop is full, the harvest date can be predicted, and ripening is even.  Late, slow and patchy flowering has the opposite effect.  20-25°C is ideal so lots of flower caps come off and clusters open quickly.

Although warm sunny weather at flowering is important, the quality of flowers is also crucial, and this is determined by growing conditions during May-July in the preceding year.

img_1126After flowering, Luke loses no time in spraying against disease, aided by his neighbours at Aldwick Estate who have a tractor with air conditioned cabin for this purpose.  But there is no chance of getting a tractor along the rows at the moment without damaging the vines.  So the race is on to tuck in the unruly waving arms (see top photo – right has been done, left still unkempt) and at the same time thin out shoots and canes so sunlight and air can penetrate the canopy.  Care has to be taken, however, because when leaves reach 50-80% of the maximum size they help the vine build up sugars needed for the next year, so pulling off too many at this stage could jeopardise the health of the vine for the following harvest.  So management of the leaf canopy continues throughout the growth cycle since leaves at maximum size start to contribute decreasing amounts of sugars and can be more safely removed.

img_1081Already the variation in how tightly packed the bunches will be is evident.  The black skinned variety Regent (see photo) has relatively open, spaced out flowers, so the resulting grape bunches should be at less risk of mildew.

So what else has been happening?  The 2018 vintage has been released, and I have been sampling it and comparing it to the 2017.  Here are some notes about Bacchus (for Rosé wait until véraison blog – or try it – it is fabulous!):

2017: Pale lemon green colour.  Very pronounced appealing nose of nectarine, apricot, freesia, freshly mown lawn and nettles. High acidity and tangy red gooseberry bite balanced by creamy weight and rounded mouthfeel.  I would have liked more length but this is a good, balanced and moreish wine.  I fancy cheese with this and suspect a tangy vintage cheddar would work well.

2018: Pale lemon green colour.  Pronounced, complex yet elegant nose of lemongrass, very ripe pear, red apples, pineapple, and strawberry with a steely note; an overlay of img_1049white flower perfume lifts the aroma profile.  Smells classy.  High acidity, very clean, pure and precise in the manner of a Riesling, with additional distinct white peach and nettle flavours, with a tangy bite balanced by a creamy weight on the palate.  Long if delicate finish.  A very good wine that really sings.

Notes made before results of Wine GB announced – Bacchus 2018 won Silver!

PS Decanter Sept 19 write up by Susie Barrie MW: 90 pts “Bright, fresh grassy style.  The palate is juicy and rounded but also zesty and tangy.  An attractive and easy-drinking style”.

PPS Launch of Sutton Ridge 2018 still wines and latest disgorgement of Dewdown, their sparkling wine at The Wine Shop Winscombe on Friday 27th September 2019 – 7-8pm, £5 ticket price.  To book please ring 01934 708312.  A chance to taste the wine and see if you agree with me, and/or Susie.  Let me know what you think!