Platinum Jubilee Vibe: Woodchester Valley Vineyard Revisited

As the nation gets ready to celebrate Her Majesty’s Platinum Jubilee, and the shops fill up with street party essentials (crown shaped napkins, union jack garlands etc), I have found my own way to the Jubilee vibe by revisiting Woodchester Valley Vineyard & Winery.

No flag waving paraphernalia here – but nowhere better showcases the indomitable British spirit than a British vineyard.

There are few places on Earth where vines grow beyond 30-50 degrees latitude so British winemakers face numerous obstacles. They are all ever so slightly crazy for making wine their living. But against the odds, by dint of hard work, exhaustive research, pioneering innovation and entrepreneurial ambition, they are now making world class wines.

9th May 2022 was a beautiful if breezy spring day for my visit and I was excited to see how Woodchester were getting on.

Despite the combined challenges of two much less productive harvests in 2019 and 2020 and the pandemic, Woodchester Valley continues to stride onwards and upwards.

At the vineyard, the new vines just planted when we visited in 2019 at the top of the slope (possibly the highest altitude vineyard in England) should this year produce a decent crop. Frost seems to have spared the vineyard this year. The vines are budding forth and flowers are starting to appear.

Recent excavation to improve winery access showcases the soil profile here – i.e. very little topsoil atop honeycomb hued Cotswolds brash which gives way to chalky limestone. Fossils abound – I took one home!

The tasting room has doubled in size, with beautiful views across the valley, blossom laden trees in the foreground, and a gorgeous limestone floor. Catering facilities have improved; an oven was delivered while I was there. More car parking is being created to accommodate ever increasing visitor numbers.

In the winery, there has been more investment in new barrels, now bearing Woodchester’s own branding, and the finished products are now poured into rebranded bottles with elegant stylish labels designed by Neil Tully of Amphora.

Woodchester’s wines are now found in fine dining establishments including Clayton’s Kitchen in Bath and Adelina Yard in Bristol, while Harvey Nichols sell their Bacchus and Pinot Noir Rose as part of their own label range.

Comparing vintages of some of the wines we tasted in 2019, (to read about this click on this link: https://winetimeevents.com/2020/07/09/woodchester-valley-aspirational-winemaking-in-the-heart-of-the-cotswolds/ ) the still white blend Culver Hill 2019 (again a 3 way split of Ortega, Seyval Blanc and Bacchus) was for me more Bacchus influenced than the 2018 in that the nose was very elderflower with Cox’s apples, peach and lemon aromas, and the palate showed pronounced gooseberry character, and a little tartness which balanced well with its fruity exuberance. A delightful English summer garden wine at 11.5% abv. The 2018 had similar charm but seemed more floral with grapey lychee notes.

The 2020 Bacchus is zingy with laserlike focus. A zesty wine alive with gooseberry, lime and elderflower framed with a steely backbone. This vintage was yield challenged by late frost, wind at flowering which impaired fruit set, and hail. But what fruit there was, was good, evidenced by the wine’s long finish. The 2018 from the bountiful and near perfect vintage had more creamy weight and stone fruit notes possibly evidencing riper fruit, though the abv was 11.5% whereas the 2020 is 12% so maybe I am wrong about that!

The Orpheus Bacchus 2017 we tasted in 2019 was impressive, so comparison with the 2020 was eagerly anticipated. This is made using carefully selected grapes from their oldest and most favourably situated Bacchus vines, and some of the wine is barrel fermented. If the Bacchus is a chamber orchestra of top notes, the Orpheus is more of a symphony orchestra, with a broader and deeper flavour range counter balanced by a slight spritziness. The finish is long and luscious. A favourite of Lisa Hogan of Diddly Squat Farm apparently! A discerning customer I would say, this was as impressive as I remembered it to be. The 2020 seemed more fruit forward with deeper apple and red gooseberry character, whereas the 2017 was perfumed with floral jasmine and elderflower notes.

The Cotswolds Classic is a traditional method fizz made from 75% Seyval Blanc and 25% Pinot Blanc. The 2016 spent 15 months on its lees and had moreish appley character and a lifted lemon sherbet finish. The 2018 had 18 months lees ageing. It too had bags of apple flavour, both baked apples and red apple peel, and a delightful fine frothy mousse. This time the ageing showed through more with sweet biscuit notes, and the residual sugar of 11-12 g/L offset any tangy acidity. An English summer fluffy cloud of a wine, very approachable with a touch of class.

The Reserve Cuvee Brut 2016 was fruity and floral, and had seemed less tart than the Cotswolds Classic 2016. The latest version is still a champagne grape blend, this time 50% Pinot Noir, 39% Chardonnay, and 11% Meunier. The grapes were harvested in 2018, the wine was bottled in June 2019, and it was then disgorged in September 2021 – and so spent 27 months on its lees. Now that reserve wines are available, this is no longer “vintage” – instead the Cuvee number is shown as XVIII, so this is a non vintage wine – though I am told a recent review stated it tasted more like a multi vintage, which is a nice compliment.

The fruit tasted very ripe, reflecting the success of the 2018 vintage – red apple, poached pear, even quince jelly, and baked apple and custard – the vanilla note reflecting the barrel ageing of the Chardonnay. The lees ageing contributed toasty bread and biscuit complexity. The mousse was most refined. Pairing with parmesan, or even Godminster truffle cheddar, is apparently a whole new level of foodie heaven.

Of the 5 wines tasted, this was for me the wine which had made the most progress in terms of quality. There was an obvious step up in refinement. The Woodchester winery was set up in 2016, when winemaker Jeremy joined, but I am not sure if the 2016 Reserve Cuvee was made by Jeremy. Whether he made both wines or not, I hope he is proud of the improvement the wines show which bodes so well for the future.

There is so much positive energy in British vineyards right now, and there is no better time to visit them. If you’re street partying for the Jubilee, no worries as Welsh Wine Week is Saturday 4th – Sunday 12th June 2022, and English Wine Week is Saturday 18th – Sunday 26th June 2022, so there is abundant opportunity to go touring while the sun (hopefully) shines! For foodies, there is also the Harvey Nichols Bristol English Wine Dinner on Thursday 23rd June 2022 – click here for details: https://www.sevenrooms.com/experiences/bristoldining/english-wine-dinner-8081660922

In the meantime, forget the champagne and toast Her Majesty with finest fizz from Blighty!

Circumstance Distillery: What will Bristol whisky taste like?

2022 promises to be the year in which I learn much more about whisky. So where better to resume my whisky education than on my doorstep in Bristol.

Psychopomp distillery needs no introduction. Their Woden gin and seasonal variations are well established in the gin trade locally, and beyond. But their sister distillery, Circumstance, came into being more recently. So it’s high time to find out what they are up to, and why 2022 promises to be a watershed year for them.

The story began about a decade ago. Friends Liam and Danny began hobby distilling gin in a basement somewhere in Bristol. Woden came about during this experimental phase. Then came the ultimatum issued by their long suffering spouses: either pursue distilling commercially and do it properly or it’s game over. Wisely, they did as they were told. Aided by Sipsmiths’ campaign to amend outdated legislation to permit smaller stills, they founded Psychopomp distillery in St Michael’s Hill in 2015. Circumstance, its sister distillery which I visited on 11th February 2022, was founded in 2018.

These sisters are not lookalikes. The St Michael’s Hill microdistillery is a shop/gin classroom/tasting room with a still at the back. It’s quaint and quirky, cosy and inviting, and has an air of apothecary meets science lab. Circumstance, on the other hand, sits amidst an industrial estate on the other side of town, externally exhibiting a more functional feel.

So this must be the cane fermentation vat…

But inside the distillery, it’s evident that this is a place at least as quirky and experimentally adventurous as its sister, if not more so. In fact Master of Malt describes it as “Britain’s most innovative distillery”. So forget the usual business model of gin still cash cows funding longer term whisky profits. There is much more to Circumstance than that.

Probably the single most impressive decision they have taken is to use only organically grown crops for their grain spirits from inception. Even though the first spirits made do not bear Soil Association certification (this came through 18 months ago), they were nevertheless made using organic practices. Organic isn’t easy and it’s certainly not cheap, so this is a clear commitment to sustainable production – and goes beyond cost cutting masquerading as sustainability seen elsewhere in the whisky industry. They are engaging in as many other sustainable practices as their premises currently permit, and the 5 year plan is to move from rented to owned premises so they can set up and control their own sustainability strategy, which is also key to long term profitability given the large amount of energy and water distilling requires.

Their willingness to embrace the relative absence of rules in English whisky making is also inspiring. If we are to see the nascent English whisky industry create something which reflects our own climate, terroir and character, English whisky pioneers need to explore new methods and ageing options to find out what works best.

Admire my mash tun!

So Circumstance is experimenting with both malted and unmalted barley, barley variants, and they may even create a heritage grain spirit using ancient Emma grain used so deliciously by Bristol’s Farro bakery – if Warminster Maltings are satisfied that it malts, that is. They also experiment with the mash bill, playing around with wheat, barley and rye ratios to get the best results. They are now pretty much settled on 85% malted 15% unmalted for their Barley, the Wheat is usually 70% wheat 30% Barley (Barley has to be included to help the mash process and the enzymes promote fermentation) and the Rye is 51% Rye 49% Barley. They used to import mash from Dawkins Brewery nearby but now make their own in their shiny new mash tun, which Dizzy the distillery dog is showing off here.

Supreme Spirit Goddess

The experiments continue in the still, a gleaming goddess with both pot still capability, and 4 and 12 plate columns. She also possesses the magical ability to make my very short legs look almost super model length which greatly endeared her to me.

The flexibility this still provides enables them to batch distill pretty much anything, except for highly rectified vodka from scratch. Raw materials used range from apples (Wildings apple cider) for cider brandy and pomona, to oats, rice, and molasses.

The ageing process is also a melting pot of ideas and options. Unlike Scotch which takes alot of its character from the cask, the Circumstance approach is to go big on flavour before the liquid hits the sides of a barrel. Fermentation takes 10-14 days rather than 48 hours, giving the wort time to develop maximum flavour before distillation and ageing.

Casks aplenty already….

Maturation options abound, and in case they lose track of which liquid is in which cask, they chalk paint red for rye, blue for barley and yellow for wheat on the cask ends to make things simple – and pie charts show proportions for blends.

English chestnut 30L’s – cute!

The cask library now contains not only whisky staples ex bourbon and ex oloroso sherry wood, but also former port and muscat barrels, virgin European oak 128L heavy toast, 60 & 100L Andean oak medium char and much more dainty 30L English chestnut casks. Virgin casks are not for the faint hearted, as they absorb so much more liquid than their pre loved counterparts. They have used bourbon casks which were reused for green coffee beans, and casks which stored Canton Red Rogue tea! They even experiment with flavours of casks they can’t yet get hold of, using charred wood spindles such as English oak, maple etc. But this won’t be used for whisky as only a cask will confer optimal interaction with oxygen. Ageing shortcuts are inadvisable for any new whisky to be taken seriously. Peer reviews can be savage, and if the ageing provenance isn’t transparent, reviewers will call this out.

So will the new whisky reflect this spirit of adventure? To a certain extent it will, for their approach is to pack in the flavour early on, as above. But at the same time, customers will expect something labelled “whisky” to taste like whisky – so it cannot be millions of miles from Scotch in its flavour profile, and it will need to have been cask aged for 3 years minimum – even though it will have aged more quickly in the Westcountry than it would have in the Highlands. The key to success in whisky, or wine for that matter, is balance. So long as they understand the raw material flavours, the ageing process, the wood, and how they work together, there is no reason why whisky from Bristol will be any less good than Scotch.

It must be tempting to sell all their grain spirit as whisky at the 3 year mark. The grain spirits they make now are something of a curiosity for consumers, so positioning them alongside their whisky ought to result in the Circumstance brand becoming much more established, and the creation of consumer thirst to know more about what else they do. At present, their Rye is the most relatable Circumstance offering released to date. The term Rye appears on US whiskey labels and has a recognisable flavour profile. “Mixed grain spirit”, although an accurate descriptor, is rather less beguiling! Its meaning can be deciphered by looking up the bottle’s batch code on their website. But this is a bridge too far for most consumers. Even if this could be made more obvious and accessible with a QR code, it will almost certainly take the release of a whisky to convert Circumstance into a brand consumers will relate to.

But Circumstance hasn’t come this far to be known as a 3 year old whisky company. So they will limit what they sell for now, while ageing casks for the future. Only distillers wanting to perfect their craft would take this approach, especially south of the border, where whisky is in its infancy and a route map to profit is so much less certain.

My “tour guide” was Andrew Osborne, who became an apprentice distiller at Circumstance in 2020 after a long bar tending career. Circumstance put him through his IBD exams, and he plans to develop his knowledge further with work placement exchanges if he can. There was nothing I asked he couldn’t answer. I asked what he is most proud of in his new role. His response was that with no set way of doing things, Circumstance is all about doing things better, rather than slavish adherence to meeting financial targets. The team are therefore proud of what they make, and are constantly striving to improve and perfect each bottling with every distillation.

New rules for English whisky are on the horizon, and are needed to protect the interests of producers as well as consumers. But the great wine appellations of the world were created once uniqueness and quality had been proven after trial and error over many years. The danger is that too many rules based on what has become established in Scotch whisky production may stifle the development of unique and characterful English whisky, and instead, create a framework which permits only a spirit which looks and tastes like Scotch – a danger compounded by the fact that many of England’s distilleries were set up using know how from Scotch master distillers. If this happens, English whisky will languish in the shadow of Scotch, and fail to establish its own credentials.

What should excite us is the emergence of a new top quality English grain spirit style with its own distinct character, and Circumstance has great potential to contribute to this. If rules develop gradually, this will allow time, trial and error to demonstrate what works best south of the border, so English whisky is free enough to seek out its own path to excellence. Quality whisky does not have to emulate Scotch. Irish whiskey is enjoying a resurgence, and is a very different creature altogether.

So maybe a better question to ask is what do we want a whisky from Bristol to taste like? My answer is that I want it to taste unique and to speak of the Westcountry where it came from. This is therefore what I was looking for when tasting the samples Andrew so kindly gave me.

Rice: Bright lively nose, honeysuckle, dried apricots, cherry pastry, with incense and umami qualities. Neat, the character was more savoury umami, and charred wood was too evident for me. With water, its floral fruity notes re-emerged but it was still heavy on the wood. Overall good quality, but was 21 months ageing with English oak spindles too long?

Mixed Grain – this version is not available now except in Harvey Nichols: funky nose with a grassy fruity twang reminiscent of rhum agricole and Lowland Scotch. Green banana, coconut, pine, fresh pineapple, straw, with notes of brine and prunes. Neat, the palate had abundant tropical fruitiness, and bready cereal notes. The finish evolved into bitter lemon and shortbread. With water, it acquired delicious Danish pastry flavours, with sultanas, cherries and almonds and a long evolving finish which revealed peppery rye notes, as well as exotic jasmine and incense. Overall very good with ageing potential – the exuberant fruity spiciness could take more wood.

Wheat cask sample after 1.5 years in ex bourbon cask: slight mistiness. Unripe bananas and pear drop aromas with acacia, tinned pineapple, hints of sawn wood and flour. Neat there was real depth of flavour to match the aromas; a whopping mouthful, even if it faded quickly. With water there were dried fruit, almond and linseed flavours and oily weight. Intense, with plenty of potential.

Rye: pungent herbaceous fresh hay and straw, white pepper and pencil box aromas with hints of prunes and brazil nuts. Neat it had almost vinous character, and was an intriguing succession of stalks, black pepper, incense, dried fruits and spices – on comparing to spices at home the nearest was mixed spice, but there were distinguishable elements of clove, coriander, mace and nutmeg. Water boosted the black pepper aromas and exotic elements, and reminded me of Baco dominant Armagnac, while adding liquorice sweetness to the palate. A spicy one made for Manhattans or Sazeracs.

My pick is the Mixed Grain, exciting for the glimpse it offers into the future. Its lowland character suggests that this spirit is being allowed to express its origins, and the long evolving finish in a young spirit was a welcome sign of its quality. It wasn’t just a fruit bomb. Ageing further would temper any excesses and make it more complete, but there is already plenty to enjoy for those who don’t care for peat, and who enjoy sipping gentler fruitier fragrant styles over a cube. Cheerz to the next 10 years…..

Meanwhile, I have signed up to Circumstance’s Circ Club to guarantee myself a bottle of their inaugural whisky release in September 2022. To do likewise go to: https://www.circumstancedistillery.com/

The Macallan 30 yo Double Cask 2021: What does £4.5k taste like?

Chocolate souffle, figs & 30yo DC 2021

The Harvey Nichols Bristol Macallan Dinner on 23rd September 2021 was always going to be special, timed to mark the store’s 13th anniversary, and showcasing the Macallan Double Cask range, expertly presented by Joe Ellis of Edrington. Each dram was cannily paired with an indulgent 3 course dinner by our Head Chef Lucy Lourenco. Diners included local restaurateurs, influencers and some of our loyal Foodmarket & Wineshop customers (who know plenty more about Macallan than I do!). But what they did not know was that they would be tasting a very special whisky indeed – the 2021 release of The Macallan 30 yo Double Cask. To appreciate this fully, we learnt firstly about the history of Macallan, and warmed immediately to the founder, one Alexander Reid, who it seems was one of life’s no-nonsense doers, quietly perfecting his craft beside the river Spey, eschewing the limelight to such an extent that there are no photos of him in existence.

Being Bristolians, we admired Macallan’s adherence to the art of sherry cask ageing, sherry having played a key role in Bristol’s wine trade for many a year before the Spanish put paid to the possibility of bottling sherry anywhere other than Spain in the 1980s. This put paid to Bristol’s sherry heritage in large part and posed an evidential threat to The Macallan, renowned for its sherried style. Old sherry casks contain abundant natural compounds and flavours well suited to whisky making, and Macallan was accustomed to buying casks emptied by sherry shippers such as Harveys. Rather than turn instead to plentiful ex Bourbon barrels, Macallan instead forged relationships with foresters in the USA and Europe to source its own wood. This enabled Macallan to retain its sherry maturation heritage while pushing up quality by gaining control over how its oak casks are made.

Joe told us that European oak is knotty, with plentiful drying tannins, and flavours of dark chocolate, dried fruit, clove and cinnamon, and old wood lends more tobacco and “antique” aromas. American oak on the other hand contributes vanilla, citrus, honey, toffee and ginger flavours.

The felled trees are cut into logs and left for a year to season, fully exposed to the elements, which strips away harsh tannins. The logs are then fashioned into staves and shipped to southern Spain where they are left for a further year to mature. Cooperages in Jerez then make casks from the staves in various sizes, and toast them to caramelise the sugars in the wood. Macallan retains its own Master of Wood who oversees these stages.

The casks are then filled with sherry, usually oloroso, which seeps into the casks. In Bristolian optimist fashion, one diner asked what happens to the sherry when the cask is emptied, maybe sensing an opportunity to acquire some. Joe explained the sherry is sold for vinegar or brandy production.

The whole process of making a Macallan cask takes 5 years on average, and each bottle of Macallan bears a barcode so that if anything amiss is detected the exact source of the wood in which the whisky was aged can be identified. The wood used is of paramount importance, being responsible for 70-80% of the flavour. The fact that Macallan therefore have total control over where the wood has come from is key to their reputation for quality. Where ex Bourbon casks as used, for example in the Triple Cask, Macallan therefore have rather less control over the resulting flavours and quality outcomes.

Joe explained that older Macallans generally have slightly more European oak matured whisky in them, and Macallans do not move from cask to cask in the way cask finished whiskies do. They are instead fully matured in one cask from start to finish.

Joe Ellis, Edrington

Joe’s tasting tips were never to rush, and in an ideal world to pour and nose your dram for at least half an hour before imbibing. The first sip should be small, and ignored. The second sip should coat the palate for 45 seconds, and the third for 10 seconds – if too much, add a little water to calm the palate. Not to be recommended for anyone taking WSET spirits tasting exams, given the time constraints, and inevitable palate numbing this would entail.

The nose being as key to appreciating whisky as it is for appreciating wine, Joe mentioned that the nose of Dalmore’s Master Blender is rumoured to be insured for £1million. Presumably the premium has risen somewhat in the post Covid era. Either that or Covid induced anosmia is excluded from his policy.

For the purposes of the dinner, the Double Cask 12yo was enjoyed in an apple based cocktail – the writer did not partake, knowing from personal experience that HN’s bartenders make the best and therefore the most dangerous cocktails in Bristol making this creation off limits while on duty.

The 15yo Double Cask was tasted neat and paired with a salmon starter which had everyone in awe. This is classic Macallan, fully matured in both American and European sherry casks. Want to know what it tastes like? Maybe buy some…

The 18yo Double Cask was also tasted neat and perfectly paired with an exuberant and extravagant duck dish. Joe highlighted the very special “rancio” quality of this expression, characterised by descriptors such as old tea chest, antique furniture and old leather.

We then moved on to the 30yo, released a couple of days beforehand, such that we were amongst the first in the world to try it. Entirely sherry cask matured, 43% of the casks used are European as opposed to American which, coupled with the concentration resulting from such long ageing, created much greater flavour focus, intensity and complexity with a finish stretching into infinity and beyond.

2021 Macallan Double Cask Range

Joe aired our drams for at least 2 1/2 hours; lengthy aeration helps old whiskies fully to express themselves. He urged the diners to hold their drams on the palate for as long as possible to appreciate them fully.

The only trouble with tasting something which Harvey Nichols offers for sale at an eyewatering price of £4,500.00 is that it is a struggle to find the right words to convey to you what it tasted like. It’s like tasting a very old Burgundy – they are a breed apart, whether white or red, with flavours which can only come from long ageing, and which the vast majority of beverages would never acquire however long you aged them. The flavour profile is rare, unique and quite often decidedly funky. Possibly for this reason the 18yo was preferred by most of our diners, it being more familiar in style.

So what does £4.5k taste like? All I can say is that this was an exotic, almost ethereal creature, morphing in and out of an orchestral flavour range which included prunes, herbs, whisky marmalade, Christmas cake, sultanas, my old mahogany corner drinks cabinet, tobacco, and dare I say perhaps a hint of weed, and most certainly more than a hint of incense. Impeccably balanced, and not the least bit tannic despite spending so long in wood, it was an undoubted thoroughbred. Its wooden casing emulated its luxurious polished perfection, the magnetic clasps snapping into place with satisfying precision.

Whether I could taste £4.5k’s worth of whisky is another matter. When Joe first ventured into the whisky world, an 18yo Sherry Cask cost £65-70. Not anymore – think £300-400 instead. Many whiskies are now investment propositions, and Macallan is of course the most collectible of all. A 60yo fetched $1.452 million at auction. Macallan Genesis, sold for £500 only on the day Macallan opened its new distillery, exclusively at the distillery, fetched £5,000 at auction a couple of days later. Hence why this event caused traffic chaos for miles around.

So the investment allure of Macallan is such that once released, its value will only increase, at least for the foreseeable future.

Taken in HN Bristol Whisky Collection

My new exotic friend was therefore never destined to gather dust on our shelves. Even so, having made its acquaintance, it was a poignant day when the last of our limited allocation left Bristol for its new home. Pausing in reverence before we parted, I reflected on what was happening in my life when it was created, the course life had taken between then and now, and the good fortune which had led me to experience its unique magnificence. Forget the £4.5k price tag, which may well be exceeded several fold before too long. Tasting this was a priceless, even humbling experience, and one for which I will forever be grateful.

Somerset Cider Brandy: Investing for the Future

Somerset Cider Brandy slowly ageing

Visiting Somerset Cider Brandy reminds me of Midsomer Murders.  The journey there takes you past sleepy picture perfect villages with neatly trimmed hedges, pretty cottages, vistas across The Levels, and just as you turn in there’s a chocolate box perfect thatched cottage B&B.  There is an aura of soporific country idyll as you alight. 

But as every Midsomer Murders fan knows, behind the neatly trimmed hedges there is plenty going on behind the scenes.  And that is how things are at Somerset Cider Brandy (though no murders, obviously…!) which, despite its very rural location has hustle and bustle aplenty, albeit at a relaxed pace.

When I was there, post lockdown reopening was recent, and a steady stream of cider connoisseurs and tourists were stocking up at the cider barn shop where Burrow Hill Farm ciders, cider vinegar, and even a drinkable vinegar are on offer, as well as the spirits.  The shop does a brisk trade in spite of its remoteness, and it will be interesting to see whether the recent boom in online sales will now dip, or continue.

Visitors and their dogs sunned themselves beside the imposing facade of the Somerset Cider Bus, while sheepdogs scuttled hither and thither and, in the midst of it all, a gigantic wagon unloaded into the distillery.

Thirst quenched by Burrow Hill Cider on a sunny Somerset summer’s day

On the day of my visit, a huge freezer truck (formerly property of Waitrose) had just arrived on site (goodness knows how it got down the narrow lanes!), purchased to freeze apples to make Ice Cider.

Elsewhere, a party of school children were outdoor schooling with a picnic beside the lake at the foot of the orchards, where they were learning art skills.  Matilda (one of Julian and Diana Temperley’s daughters) had arranged for tuition of local children who were excluded from school by Covid-19 restrictions by a hired tutor in a marquee, and this was a day out as part of their programme of activities.

And someone had left the gate to the sheep open – they were lawn mowing in the adjacent orchard, or wherever else they fancied.

The Lake – perfect for Covid secure art classes

You would think that in the midst of this relaxed chaos that the founder of Somerset Cider Brandy, Julian Temperley, would be too busy to devote much if any time to conducting tours.  But it soon became clear that Julian is a sociable chap with a wealth of knowledge to impart – and impart it on a daily basis he does, in his own inimitable style.

Visitors should be forewarned that Julian has an enquiring mind, and rarely accepts what he sees at face value.  He likes to challenge the status quo in both cider and spirit making, and has no qualms or undue reverence when it comes to presenting his case whether he is obtaining coveted PGI status for Somerset Cider Brandy, or holding his own amongst fellow cider producers, whether large or small scale.  His many years of experience have taught him how to play the long game – and slowly but surely, Julian seems to get his way in the end, one way or the other.

Julian feels strongly that Somerset Cider Brandy should be included within the cider industry, as this is how it was traditionally viewed.  But others prefer to keep Cider Brandy and associated spirits separate from cider.

Julian argues that  the mystique of how apple varieties are blended, making the best of annual crop variations, is as crucial to quality cider brandy as it is to quality cider.

This makes sense to me if you think about how fruit spirits, whether they be grape, apple, pear or even soft fruit spirits are made.

You can prepare fruit for distilling into a fruit based spirit in two ways i.e. by macerating (soaking) it in a neutral spirit, or by fermenting it.  Cider brandy is made by fermenting the apple juice into a cider rather than by maceration, so the unaged eau de vie from the still is in effect distilled cider.  If you concentrate cider by distilling it, any flaws in the cider will be magnified in the resulting spirit so quality is key, and if you make a top notch cider, you’re well on your way to making a top notch cider brandy.  If you are a poor cider maker, you will certainly be a poor Cider Brandy maker also.  So the two are inextricably linked.  It’s very similar to the symbiotic relationship between quality wine production and quality Armagnac in Gascony, which is why the regulatory bodies for wine, Armagnac and Floc de Gascogne are soon to be located together in new purpose built premises, which seems like sound business practice to me.

My tasting tour began in the cider house shop with the Ice Cider, a concept which initially brought to my mind mis-spent youth supping Diamond White.  But this Ice Cider is the complete polar opposite, a dark mahogany fizzless guilty pleasure with sweetness, fresh acidity and tannic bite, intense baked apple flavours and a nutty finish.  It is made by freezing cider apple juice before fermenting it into cider, concentrating the apple flavours and sweetness, resulting in an abv of 11.5% abv.  Julian added a splash of Apple Eau de Vie, which is crystal clear distilled cider which is rested a little rather than aged.  This gave the Ice Cider an appealing fortified wine character – the nearest equivalent I could think of was an appley tawny port.  Chilling it a little as you might with a tawny makes it a very satisfying sipper.

We also tried a drop of aperitif Kingston Black, which is apple juice with added apple eau de vie – equivalent in the grape world to Pineau de Charentes, or Floc de Gascogne.  Fresh and reviving, it makes a great alternative to Pimms for drinking long with lemonade, fresh mint and fruit.

Next stop was the distillery which now contains three Gazagne continuous stills acquired from Calvados farms in north west France.  Josephine and Fifi are gas fired but the latest addition, Isabelle, will on occasion be wood fired using local Somerset oak.  The stills all look rather like those of Armagnac, but rather than making a low abv and very characterful spirit as is favoured in Armagnac, Julian prefers an abv from the still of 68-72%, preferring the volatility and elegant lift this provides.

Although distilleries are on the increase across the UK, continuous stills of Armagnac design are a rarity.  HM’s inspectors of taxes therefore have a more rudimentary understanding of how they work, much to Julian’s amusement.

Distillation happens from late January and concludes in May after the harvest.  It takes a while as they distil 100,000 gallons of cider!  Although Isabelle was purchased because the cost of the still was less than the cost of necessary repairs to Josephine, Julian confirmed that their growth necessitates an additional still.  When one considers that many small Armagnac producers lack one, let alone three stills, using a mobile roving distiller instead, this is a sizeable investment and commitment to future production and stocks.

Some apples are better for distillation than others.  Acidity is needed to promote growth of the most desirable yeast.  So heavy bitter sweets and sharps are best, otherwise malic and citric acids have to be added.  But in common with Calvados, Somerset Cider Brandy has to use some 20 varieties, even if the proportions are not specified.  This is not a haphazard arrangement, the aim being to create a satisfying blend of complementary elements.

Somerset Cider Brandy is not Calvados, of course, the differences in soil type, aspect and climate resulting in two very different spirits.  But both are made by distilling cider, rather than maceration, so naturally, when seeking PGI status from the EU for Somerset Cider Brandy, Julian felt it prudent to follow the rules laid down for Calvados.

While Calvados and Cider Brandy are similar in that they are aged in oak (and they have character akin more to brandy than eau de vie), Julian also makes an apple eau de vie as above, which I now tasted on its own, appropriate in that this is the closest of the spirits to the taste of the new make spirit straight off the still.  Its intense fruitiness, reminiscent of blanche Armagnac, made me wonder whether a cocktail using the apple eau de vie and a 3 year old Armagnac would work, apple flavours having affinity with Armagnac.  But the 3 year old Somerset Cider Brandy would be fabulous too, maybe with some passion fruit juice which works so well with Blanche Armagnac.

Very cleverly, the Somerset Cider Brandy range offers so many permutations for mixologists loving local, whether in bars and restaurants, or at home.  Create new flavours by combining them; as above, the apple eau de vie complements the Ice Cider very nicely, and the Kingston Black, Pomona and younger Cider Brandies make great cocktails too, as do the fruit liqueurs made with the apple eau de vie – see below!

We moved on to the bonded warehouse – or so I thought – for there are now two of them, the newer of the two housing newer barrels.  There are some 20 years of stocks ageing in these two cider brandy cathedrals.  These are dry cellars, and in comparison with Scotch whisky, ageing here is relatively rapid.  But Somerset can be a tad damp, and compared to rums aged in the Caribbean, ageing is relatively slow.

Although Julian has been practising his art for decades, Somerset Cider Brandy is unique, and he and the team continue to learn as they go along.  They have now decided that American white oak does not work especially well, so many of his barrels come from a cooperage in Montilla, Spain, and have been previously used for sherry.  Barrels vary in cost but are all expensive, and can only be used two or three times.  Whisky producers also use sherry casks but as ex Bourbon barrels are more plentiful and affordable, sherried styles are a comparative luxury.  Julian mostly uses dry oloroso casks, imparting nutty notes.  But the 15 year old, named Somerset Alchemy, ages in Pedro Ximenez barrels, which have sweet raisined character.

Shipwreck, on the other hand, ages in new Allier oak from France, giving it smoky spicy character.  This came about when Julian came by Allier barrels washed ashore from the wreck of the Napoli at Branscombe beach in Devon and used them for ageing.  The result was so successful that he now buys in the same barrels for this expression.

We discussed aeration, where casks are periodically emptied to expose the spirit to oxygen, this being a technique of importance to the ageing of Armagnac in its youth to soften out fiery alcohol.  Julian does not practise aeration, observing that it is prohibited in both Cognac and Calvados.

We tasted a digestif, Pomona, which is the aperitif Kingston Black aged in cider barrels for two years imparting oxidative character to it.  It was weighty and slightly sweet with orange, spices and marzipan adding to its intense baked apple flavour.  It’s unique profile led on to a discussion about cask finishing, which has become very important to whisky, and increasingly also to other spirit categories in the last 20 years.

The SWA rule changes (for details read my piece on cask finishing here: https://winetimeevents.com/2020/06/22/armagnac-cask-finishes-the-beginning-of-the-armadillos/) would seem to permit use of ex Somerset Cider Brandy casks for finishing whisky (cask ageing is traditional for this spirit, and an appropriate ageing period can’t detract from the character of a Scotch whisky any more than say tequila or mezcal, which are permitted), and an affinity with other spirits such as Armagnac and rum could pave the way for Julian’s barrels having an after life in various crossover expressions.

We moved on to the 10 year old, there being no 3 or 5 year olds handy.  The 3 year old is the cocktail essential, the 5 year old is strong in flavour with youthful appley freshness, but it is the 10 year old which Julian regards as his “flagship” offering.  It is noteworthy that the trend towards quality not quantity in online off trade sales has been borne out here – the 5 year old normally outsells the 10 year old but in lockdown this trend was reversed.

The 10 year old was a golden amber colour with intense tarte tatin and hazelnut flavours and indulgent weight and richness.  Structured, yet smooth, and gently warming with a long finish.

We then tasted a future 10 year old, merely 16 weeks into its ageing journey, which will be spent in a French oak ex oloroso barrel.  This was darker, dry and intense, with powerful pecan nut punch, raisins, polish and vanilla with baked apple flavours.  It was incredible to experience how quickly the barrel, spirit and indrink (i.e. the sherry held in the wood) were interacting.

We moved on from the tried and tested formula to the latest innovation – a Somerset oak expression.  This involves distilling in Isabelle, his new still, using Somerset oak to fire the still, and ageing the spirit for 5 years in Somerset oak, coopered by Rodriguez of Montilla.  It was an honour to taste this from the cask 16 weeks into its development.  70% abv at the moment, this had a beautiful nose with elegant floral notes of jasmine, as well as cidery character.  Even at this stage, hazelnuts and pastry notes were evident with plenty of vanilla from the wood.  Thus far it has exceeded Julian’s expectations and it was clear to see that he views local oak as the future.

My tour concluded with a white knuckle quad bike ride past orchards and their fleecy lawn mowers down to the lake where Diana Temperley kindly provided some bread and cheese and a much needed espresso in the shade of their log cabin.  She also very kindly gave me a lift back up again this time in the more familiar surroundings of a Volvo.

Hosts with the Most – lunch with Julian & Diana at The Log Cabin

Julian recognises and respects his role as a custodian of this ancient cider farm, so I asked him about the future.  His four children and a host of grandchildren, many of whom live locally, would seem to have secured the estate’s succession.  As for the future, they have recently acquired an adjacent field which they plan to plant up as an additional orchard, and they are also planting an oak woodland so that in 120 years or so the cider brandy can be aged in casks made from their own Somerset oak.  The business has approximately 20 years of stock at present, and although Julian didn’t say so, I imagine that he might be aiming to increase that given the investments he is making.

While we ate, Julian was taking a keen interest in the activities of his family that day.  There were decisions to be made about whether the afternoon would be spent beside the sea – that was until he was told about a tour he had forgotten about, which seemed to settle the matter.

No tour is complete without climbing nearby Burrow Hill.  From its summit the extent of the orchards can be appreciated, and the views extend for many miles into the distance.  A fitting antedote to the confinement of lockdown.

Burrow Hill on a baking hot day

As I returned to my car, Julian was embarking upon the forgotten tour. As we parted, he jovially summarised my visit thus: “So now you can see that we do things properly”.

In an age where you can now go on a spirits tasting experience where you make a spirit yourself in a couple of hours, the contrast between that process and the investment being made here could not be any greater.  The Somerset Oak expression will, in due course, become a product aged in oak grown on this estate.  Not only will this impart unique character to the cider brandy, but also, it will help to offset the impact of the cider and cider brandy industry, so vital if we are to head off the threats posed by climate change.

Julian and Diana won’t be around to see how it turns out, and it may well be several generations on before the first bottlings of cider brandy aged in wood from these trees can be enjoyed.  But just as Chateau Laubade now celebrate the vision of past generations in planting their own oak forests to age their Armagnacs, which has contributed to their carbon negative status, https://winetimeevents.com/2019/11/21/armagnac-chateau-de-laubade/ I am sure future generations of Somerset Cider Brandy producers will celebrate the wisdom and investment of the current custodians, for centuries to come.

Continue reading “Somerset Cider Brandy: Investing for the Future”

Bend your mind with Sparkling RED Wine!

Have you been in lockdown too long?  Do you crave excitement, variety, even a little fun?  Then shake things up and get yourself some red fizz!

Sounds like it’s me who’s been in quarantine too long…..red wine is something you sink into, not party with, surely?  Why would anyone sane want it to fizz?

But somehow, red sparkling wine has been popping up on the wine radar with greater frequency of late, ever harder to ignore.  One of three blind wines in my WSET Diploma sparkling wine tasting exam was red, Ingrid Bates at Dunleavy vineyard in Wrington, North Somerset (my nearest vineyard) now makes a sparkling red wine, and my employer Harvey Nichols sells three sparkling reds.

Harvey Nichols likes to stand out from the crowd, but not for the sake of it.  These wines must have earned their place on the shelves.  So the time has come to forget the cheap and nasty Lambrusco of my student days, open my mind, and stock up the fridge with something new – and quite possibly, well weird.

26bfc151-f500-466f-9b74-adcd1e8aec8fOn a blustery July morning I interrogated Ingrid at her vineyard – distracted throughout by her adorable whippet puppy, named Fly.  Why on earth did she make red fizz?? The idea was first mooted by Vinoteca in London, one of Ingrid’s loyal customers.  Up for a new challenge, when a partner vineyard had a bountiful supply of Rondo grapes, Ingrid decided to go for it.  Steve Brooksbank, Ingrid’s winemaker, was rather less keen, but after careful thought he felt it could work; so Somerset’s first sparkling red wine was born.

As with most if not all of England’s quality sparkling wine, this wine was made by the traditional method,  similar to that used to make Champagne.  Unlike still red wines, the grape juice spends little time in contact with the grape skins.  So why is it so red when grape juice is normally pale?  Because Rondo grape juice is unusual in being naturally dark in colour.  The juice is fermented to make a wine which goes into a thick bottle with more yeast, sugar and nutrients.  The bottle is sealed and then the magic, or second fermentation, happens.  Carbon dioxide gas and a little more alcohol is created.  The CO2 is trapped in the wine and escapes as bubbles when the bottle is opened.

Ingrid works with Furleigh Estate near Bridport in Dorset, who have facilities to riddle and disgorge the finished wine.  This is done because when the second fermentation has finished, there are spent yeast cells in the wine which, if left inside, would make one’s fizz rather murky.   So the wine is “riddled” to collect the gunk in the bottle neck, and then “disgorged” to pop the gunk out.

The fizz is then topped up with “dosage” to replace the volume lost when the gunk pops out.  “Dosage” is more wine, very often with sugar syrup added because the high acidity level in sparkling wines can otherwise make them seem too dry for most people’s enjoyment.

Ingrid blind tasted wine made with no sugar added as against the more conventional sweetened dosage, and preferred the drier style.

All Champagne and sparkling wines within the EU must by law have a term indicating the sweetness level of the wine on the label.  Ingrid has used the permitted term Brut Nature, which means the residual sugar level must be less than 3 grams per litre with no sugar added after the second fermentation.  So relatively good for those of us in post lockdown dieting mode.

On the topic of labelling, I asked Ingrid why there is a beetle on the label.  The beetle is in fact a dung beetle.  Not only did Ingrid study these fascinating creatures at university, she also values them hugely in her vineyard ecosystem.

Ingrid wanted to minimise intervention in the winery, so sulphur was not added, and the wine is unfiltered.  Care is therefore needed on opening because there are harmless tartrate crystals inside.  This means the fizz is unpredictable, which all adds to the fun.

I tasted the Dunleavy Sparkling Red Wine Brut Nature 2017 12% abv in July 2020.  I chilled it for an hour as Ingrid advised.  There were tartrate crystals on the cork, and very lively fizz!  In the glass, the wine was a pretty pale ruby colour with a generous mousse.  The nose was a glorious explosion of fresh and stewed black and red currants, rhubarb, rose hips and bready notes from the lees ageing – think blackcurrant jam on a lightly toasted muffin. On tasting, there were extra velvety perfumed notes of violets and hints of cigar box very reminiscent of wines made with Cabernet Franc.  Forget the sweetness of cheap Lambrusco – this wine is dry with refreshing acidity.  Tannins are low but there is plenty of black and red fruit tang to provide perfect balance.

Matthew Jukes, a much more experienced and renowned wine writer than yours truly, enjoyed this wine, and here is a link to his review: https://www.vineyardmagazine.co.uk/food-for-thought/ He found it earthy, which I did not – apparently it was in its youth, but this trait has since receded.  I smugly note that he compares it to a young Bourgueil, which is made from Cabernet Franc.  I promise I didn’t read that until after I tasted it!

img_2174When asked for a food pairing suggestion, Ingrid confessed that she most often enjoys it with pickled onion monster munch crisps (do Vinoteca sell those??).  If making English wine, let alone sparkling red English wine in our notoriously fickle climate was not proof enough that Ingrid is well and truly on the insanity spectrum, this food pairing certainly is.  Such an elegant wine would surely be no match for such an assault on the taste buds.  Totally bonkers.  But – it had to be done.  To my surprise, it wasn’t too bad – the combination resulted in a red onion marmalade finish which had its charms – but this is such a cracking wine on its own.  Perfect for Boxing Day with cold cuts as a bright and breezy antidote to festive overload.

img_2173I tasted Dunleavy Sparkling Red alongside the lighter of the three Harvey Nichols wines, the Roberto Balugnani Lambrusco Grasparossa di Castelvetro “Ribello” NV (non vintage) Frizzante (Italian term for wines which are not fully sparkling i.e. less fizzy) 11% abv.  In the glass, it was a darker ruby colour with a persistent mousse which formed a froth around the rim.  The aromas were more delicate, ranging from loganberry to sour cherry and cooked blueberry.  They needed teasing out so I might have overchilled it.  The palate was dry (again, forget sweet Lambrusco!) and slightly sour but this balanced perfectly with mouthwatering fruitiness – cranberries, pomegranate juice, tayberries, fresh ripe blackberries, sour cherries and bready notes which brought a top quality summer fruit pudding to mind.  Pickled onion monster munch was a predictable pairing disaster, but the wine was equally predictably fabulous with pork and sage meatballs, spaghetti and tomato sauce.

Most Lambrusco is made in bulk and stripped of its varietal character.  It is labelled IGT Emilia because it doesn’t comply with the more stringent DOC rules for better quality wine. The five Lambrusco DOCs were created to reflect quality wines of artisan producers expressing the varied characteristics of the different Lambrusco grape varieties and the regions they come from.   They have successfully preserved the drier quality styles to such an extent that even larger producers now make quality dry wines within the DOC regime.   Lambrusco Grasparossa di Castelvetro DOC is regarded by some as being the highest quality DOC.   Expect serious dry wines relatively high in colour, extract and tannin, made using the traditional, not the tank method.

All in all, a fun evening’s tasting which encouraged me to explore more full on styles.

img_2197So time to try an Aussie Sparkling Shiraz in the form of Blewitt Springs Estate Sparkling Shiraz NV from McLaren Vale made by Patritti Wines.  Giovanni Patritti, aged 25, left Genoa seeking a better life with his sister in America.  But instead his boat docked in Port Adelaide, South Australia!  Deep garnet in colour, the aromas came to my nose some distance from the glass, propelled by popping bubbles.  Cassis, toffee, tar, leather, clove, cinnamon, star anise and liquorice with a generous splash of kirsch were all there in abundance.  Tasting didn’t disappoint; dry and rich with warming alcohol (13.5% abv), balanced by a fine smooth mousse, acidity freshness and structure from ripe tannins.   The finish was long and evolving, with bramble jelly, cedarwood and a hint of eucalyptus adding extra punch to this meaty megawine.  Unlike the lighter styles, this had most definitely been aged in oak – not an alien concept in sparkling winemaking; the rich Bollinger style comes partly from oak ageing.

img_2238If the Aussie style sounds too much to handle, there are other red sparklers on offer, such as La Pamelita, (photo shows back label) a gutsy glass of ruby red exuberant Spanish fizz with cooked raspberry and blackberry fruit, fig, clove and cinnamon spice, thyme and leathery notes.  This wine hails from Catalunya, where much of the world’s quality Cava comes from.  It is made by Pamela Geddes, a Scotswoman who after years in the whisky industry moved to Australia and was beguiled by Australian sparkling Shiraz.  She moved to Spain and began by making a sparkling red with Monastrell in the very warm Yecla region.  But an opportunity then arose to make red fizz in the cooler Cava region, and this is it.  95% Syrah (aka Shiraz) and 5% Garnacha (aka Grenache Noir), this is dry, with medium tannins and a fine creamy mousse.  Sparkling reds can lack complexity, but this one certainly doesn’t.  The leathery notes, spiciness and the cooked red and black fruits made me think of Rioja.  So well weird, but excellent.

Such robust red fizz challenges conventions.  Why make this stuff?  When do you drink it?  It’s not an obvious match for canapés, and surely it’s just plain peculiar with dinner.  But if you think about it, it’s obvious.  Blitz yourself a beef, thyme and red wine burger and pour while tending the barbecue.  With enough structure and flavour to complement griddled meat, or roasted vegetables, it’s chillable, so perfect refreshment on a hot summer afternoon.  It’s also a great talking point – a quarantine wine find for an outdoor social like no other.

So don’t be scared of red sparkling wines – live a little and find some fizzy red fun!

Sparkling reds are relatively affordable, despite the quality bottlings being made in the same way as champagne.

Dunleavy Sparkling Red Wine Brut Nature is available from the The Wine Shop Winscombe https://www.thewinetastingco.com/for £29.99 per bottle.

Roberto Balugnani Lambrusco is available from Harvey Nichols for £15.50: https://www.harveynichols.com/brand/roberto-balugani/2328404-lambrusco-nv/p2877766/

Blewitt Springs Estate Sparkling Shiraz NV was available from Harvey Nichols online but maybe I had the last bottle – it has now vanished!  So try Catchpole Cellars who have it for £24.50: https://www.catchpolecellars.co.uk/wine/view/australia/blewitt_springs_estate_sparkling_shiraz/PBSSPSH

La Pamelita is available from Harvey Nichols for £20.50: https://www.harveynichols.com/search/la%20pamelita/

For more sparkling red recommendations, here is a link to a fairly recent piece in The Independent: ttps://www.independent.co.uk/extras/indybest/food-drink/champagne-prosecco-sparkling-wine/best-sparkling-red-wine-under-20-australia-sweet-lambrusco-good-cheap-a8210261.html  Harvey Nichols have the Bird in Hand Pinot Noir but I think it is rosé not red?

To read more, Wine Folly has a neat summary of the main sparkling red styles, including Lambrusco in its many forms – highly recommended reading: https://winefolly.com/deep-dive/sparkling-red-wine/

PS Sorry this is long, but felt these crazy wines needed a little more explanation.

Woodchester Valley: aspirational winemaking in the heart of the Cotswolds

img_1463This is for all my fellow lawyers yearning to escape into the world of wine.  Fiona Shiner is an inspirational example of a lawyer who did exactly that, creating Woodchester Valley Vineyard & Winery in Gloucestershire, just off the A46 between Stroud and Nailsworth.  Here she is brandishing the local Cotswold brash, an intrinsic part of what makes her wines unique.

My visit was part of the West of England Wine & Spirit Association tour and tasting outing, arranged by fellow committee member Richard McCraith, which fell on a cool early autumn Monday evening in 2019.


The range of wines is impressive for such a young enterprise. Twelve grape varieties are grown (photo shows Ortega grapes), both English and international varieties.  We tasted 12 wines in all styles, including  reds.  I won’t go into details you can get from their website (see below) or from a visit of your own.

For now,  take it from me that this is a wine business where things are done properly.  There is no corner cutting or settling for second best.  They mean to produce world class wine.  It won’t happen with every variety every year – this is England, after all.  But make no mistake – when the age of English wine comes, as it will with climate change, Fiona and her team will be ready to take full advantage.

Woodchester boasts some of the steepest vineyard sites in England.  In such a marginal climate for grape growing, this means the sun ripens the grapes here more easily than in many other places.  The down side is that the harvest has to be picked by hand, but this facilitates grape selection in the vineyard so only the ripest cleanest crop makes it to the winery.  Quality is everything here.  For example, the Ortega, shown above, tends to ripen unevenly, and so the pickers may well go through the vines twice, on different dates, to ensure all bunches used are ripe enough.

img_1469Although Fiona established the vineyard at the Amberley site in 2007, and gradually expanded her holdings thereafter, the winery didn’t open until 2016.  Prior to that, her precious harvest was entrusted to the experienced hands of Three Choirs in Newent.

It is a good thing Woodchester has its own winery now.  Harvest by tonnage has increased from 37.5 in 2016, to 68.3 in 2017, and a whopping 176.3 in 2018.  2019 will have been rather lower but the trend is heading upwards.  This equates to 30,000 bottles in 2016, 58,000 in 2017 and over 100,000 in 2018.

img_1477img_1475 For sparkling wine diploma students, a tour is a must.  The winery now has everything needed to make sparkling wine, including a gyropalette (right photo) and disgorgement equipment (left photo), all of which were explained in as much detail by winemaker Jeremy Mount as even the most geeky student could possibly desire.

Our fizz tasting kicked off with the Cotswold Classic 2016, a refreshing, clean dry white sparkler made from Seyval Blanc grapes.  All Woodchester fizz is made using the traditional method of making sparkling wine used in Champagne, so this one has biscuity notes from ageing on the lees (yeast cells) for 15 months with moreish apple aromatics and a lifted lemon sherbet finish.  The Blanc de Blancs 2015, also lean, crisp and full of citrus character, has extra nutty complexity from its 29 months of lees ageing.  The Reserve Cuvée 2016 is a blend of the classic Champagne grapes – Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Meunier.  It’s a more approachable mouthful in style, less crisp, with fruity and floral notes.  The Rosé Brut 2016 is both fresh and fruity with delicate strawberry and currant aromas, and an appetising savoury element making it a fantastic food pairing choice.

Moving on to the still whites, there are three vineyard plots, and the darling of English still white wine, Bacchus, is grown on each, giving the option of blending from all three sites, or selecting grapes for a more defined style reflecting the terroir.  The Bacchus 2018, in which grapes from all three sites are blended, has a creamy weight to it, but at the same time it’s tangy with gooseberry, elderflower and a hint of stone fruit to enjoy with a long finish.  At 11.5% abv it’s a refreshing summer wine, with some similarities to  a Sauvignon Blanc.  If kept, it develops Riesling character.

The Orpheus 2017 (named after the nearby Roman mosaic pavement) is a totally different character, and comes mainly from the Amberley site, with careful selection of grapes from individual vineyard parcels.  The fruit flavours are much riper, with baked peach, lychee, very perfumed jasmine and elderflower aromatics and a long finish.  There was a slight spritz to it, and the balance of acidity and ripe fruit was just right.  We were told that when sampling Bacchus to assess its ripeness at harvest, the fruit character starts out as gooseberry, then morphs into elderflower, at which point most grapes are picked, and then finally tropical fruit flavours develop in hte more favourable sites, like this one.  So here, weather permitting, Bacchus can be what the Woodchester winemakers want it to be.

Bacchus appears again in Culver Hill 2018, a dry white blend with crisp Seyval Blanc and fragrant Ortega.  The percentages vary each year, and in 2018 it was an equal three way split.  A lot of care goes into getting this blend right.  The Bacchus grapes chosen have to complement, not dominate, the flavours of the other grapes in the blend,  and 50% of the Ortega is barrel fermented, with battonage being used to promote contact with the lees (yeast cells) to enhance the body and flavour of the wine.  There was a slight spritz and high acidity, but this was impeccably balanced by pronounced lychee, white peach, rose petal, grape and lemon sherbet flavours and a mineral edge.  The finish was long.  img_1482Fish and chip supper was laid on after the tasting and this went perfectly with it.

Of the impressive still whites range, the showstopper was the Sauvignon Blanc 2018.  It isn’t often grown in the UK because it takes too long for the acidity levels to fall to a drinkable level. Expectations were not therefore high; and yet this example showed what can be achieved in a great year on a great site.  The vineyard is their steep south facing Stonehouse site, and yields are kept low with small berries.  The wine was elegant, with depth of flavour and juicy gooseberry and mown lawn aromatics.  What really impressed was the evolving palate and very long finish with grapey notes, lychees and ripe red gooseberries.  Bring me a plate of goat’s cheese to pair with it!  It’s a brave and aspirational choice to include Sauvignon Blanc in a UK vineyard grape portfolio, and it won’t produce this quality in every vintage in Gloucestershire I’m sure.  But be glad it is growing here, because this is a real gem, and almost makes one wish for climate change to warm us up  so we can have more of it.  It was awarded a gold medal from the IWSC and the Drinks Business Masters in 2019.

We sampled rosés from Pinot Noir and Regent, the latter being my preference with hedgerow fruits, redcurrant crunch, savoury character and an honest earthiness.  It was incredibly appetising with a long value for money finish.  The Pinot Noir was lovely too, peach melba with fresh crushed strawberries, but more easy drinking without the same complexity.

img_1479Finally the reds.  The approachable Atcombe blend of Regent and Pinot Noir, a non vintage mainly from 2017, was a hit, with depth of sweet plummy fruit laced with vanilla, woody spiciness, violets and a hint of farmyard.  The Pinot Noir 2017 was a more serious wine, and more Burgundian in character with hints of wild strawberries, vanilla and smokey character. It had been in barrel for a year, and the investment in barrels for ageing again shows the aspirations of the winemakers.

2018 was an outstanding vintage in England so watch this space for their Pinot Noir from that year when released.  Even greater quality is anticipated.

img_1462My overall impression from this extensive tasting was that the still whites are the most impressive of Woodchester’s output to date, though everything tasted was of high quality; the whites simply offer particularly good value for money.

Woodchester is on an upwards trajectory, and most definitely a vineyard to watch.  Though this was a great time to visit them, I’m certain that a return trip in a few years’ time will find them making further strides in terms of wine quality, innovation and prosperity.

Wines are available from Woodchester Valley directly (https://www.woodchestervalleyvineyard.co.uk).  Woodchester Valley wines are suitable for vegans.


Armagnac & Cask Finishes: The Beginning of the Armadillos?

img_2066Last birthday my ever generous family bought me my exam nemesis, Poire Williams.  This year they bought me a rhum agricole finished in an Armagnac cask.  I have tasted Armagnac finished in a rhum agricole cask so here it is the other way round!

Cask finished whisky is a very familiar concept to the 21st Century dram drinker.

But it is a relatively recent phenomenon.  A 1982 release of Balvenie’s Classic finished in sherry casks before bottling is believed to be the first cask finish, after which the trend took off.  It took a while for cask finishes to cross the pond, and the 1999 cask finished bourbon Distiller’s Masterpiece released by the late Jim Beam master distiller Booker Noe didn’t hit the mark.  But in time Bourbon adopted cask finishes as comprehensively as Scotch, as did other categories, so much so that in 2019 the Scotch Whisky Technical File was updated to broaden and further define the casks which could be used to mature or “finish” Scotch Whisky.  It was feared that otherwise, Scotch would become viewed as old fashioned if it didn’t adapt to facilitate at least some of the increasingly innovative finishes being adopted around the globe.

The following amendment drafted by the lawyers at the Scotch Whisky Association (SWA), lodged with the EC by DEFRA, has therefore become law:

“The spirit must be matured in new oak casks and/or in oak casks which have only been used to mature wine (still or fortified) and/or beer/ale and/or spirits with the exception of:

  • wine, beer/ale or spirits produced from, or made with, stone fruits
  • beer/ale to which fruit, flavouring or sweetening has been added after fermentation
  • spirits to which fruit, flavouring or sweetening has been added after distillation

and where such previous maturation is part of the traditional processes for those wines, beers/ales or spirits.
Regardless of the type of cask used, the resulting product must have the traditional colour, taste and aroma characteristics of Scotch Whisky.’

Casks used for stone fruit based products are excluded because they are considered likely to impart flavours and aromas which are too dominant and which would not be characteristic of Scotch Whisky.  Use of casks previously filled with spirits such as gin or baiju are also excluded by the requirement that previous maturation must be part of the traditional process for those spirits.  Casks previously used for other spirits as diverse as Calvados, Mezcal and Rum can be used but the resulting product must be characteristic of Scotch Whisky.  This means a finish ought to be just that.  If, for example, one aged a Scotch Whisky in an ex Mezcal cask for 10 years, it would be highly unlikely to be anything approximating to Scotch Whisky.  But a 6 month finish in an ex Mezcal cask would, by contrast, retain Scotch Whisky character, but with additional notes imparted by the finishing cask.

In that way, the SWA aimed to maintain the quality and character of Scotch Whisky, while allowing innovation to enable competitiveness with other spirits.

So what about Armagnac cask finishes?  As I reported in articles about Chateau de Laubade and Domaine de Laguille, the cask finishing innovations of these Armagnac houses have been reined in by the BNIA.  They now stipulate that Armagnac producers using finishing as a technique cannot call their product Armagnac, and instead must specify a statement such as “Armagnac-based spirit drink”.   I know from my recent tour of Armagnac that some of its leading lights feel strongly that if the quality of the Armagnac is good enough, why mask its true character by finishing it with something else?

But what about Armagnac casks being used as finishes for other spirits?  I have not  found any Armagnac finished Scotch Whisky, but the Warenghem distillery in Brittany makes an Armorik Breton Single Malt Whisky finished in Armagnac casks, and the American whiskey industry has a number of Armagnac finishes in its armoury.  Here is a link to a very recent piece in The Spirits Business promoting a collaboration between Bardstown Bourbon Company of Kentucky and none other than Armagnac’s Chateau de Laubade: https://www.thespiritsbusiness.com/2020/04/bardstown-bourbon-co-plays-with-armagnac-cask-finishing/

img_1786In my piece about my visit to Laubade (https://winetimeevents.com/2019/11/21/armagnac-chateau-de-laubade/), you will find a tasting note for an Armagnac finished in a rhum agricole cask from Clément, who had finished their rum in Laubade Armagnac casks.  They then returned them to Laubade who reciprocated, using the rhum agricole barrels to finish an Armagnac.  The result was the prunes and pastry notes of Armagnac with a funky grassy herbaceous twang from the rum cask.  I thought this was successful, and it seemed to be to an Armagnac, but with a twist.

I’m hoping it won’t be long before I can taste a Scotch Whisky with an Armagnac cask finish.  Cask maturation is a traditional process for Armagnac, and indeed Cognac, so I can’t see why that can’t happen….

img_2068-1For those who want it the other way round, here’s a link to my piece about Laguille, who made a Scotch whisky finished Armagnac: https://winetimeevents.com/2020/04/17/armagnac-adventures-domaine-de-laguille/

So….back to the JM Rhum Armagnac Cask Finish (they also offer Cognac and Calvados Cask Finishes).  Harvey Nichols stock it: https://www.harveynichols.com/brand/rhum-jm/2023795-armagnac-cask-finish-rum/p2628723/

Based in the north of the Caribbean island of Martinique, JM is the island’s oldest rhum agricole producer, notably surviving the devastating eruption of nearby Mount Pelée in 1902.  JM own their own sugar cane plantations and crop rotate between sugar cane and bananas, which grow well in this relatively high altitude terroir.  The vinasse (or waste water from rum distillation) is used to water the bananas.  It is not therefore hard to appreciate where one of rhum agricole’s typical aromas of bananas is said to come from.

Another point of distinction is that JM pride themselves on milling their sugar cane within one hour of it being cut; you can’t get much fresher than that!  Rhum agricole is made not from molasses, but from sugar cane juice, and speed is of the essence in its processing so that the maximum amount of sugar can be extracted, and fermented into alcohol.

The “brown sugar” signature style of JM emanates in no small part from Nazaire Canatous, who has over 45 years experience as JM’s master distiller and blender, having taken over from his father.

Rhum agricole is, as a category, well known for being more reflective of its terroir than molasses based rums.  Terroir is said to play its part in JM Rhum both in terms of the flavours from the sugar cane itself, and also from the ageing environment – the rum ages on the estate in an exceptionally humid atmosphere which results in bottlings unique to JM.

I was intrigued to try JM’s Armagnac finish not just because of the Armagnac connection, but also because when I was learning about spirits, I would occasionally, on blind tasting, mistake Armagnac for rum!  To excuse myself, I wonder whether there is an affinity between them.

img_2067-1JM’s Armagnac collaborator is Domaine Tariquet, who I visited last November (more about them here: https://winetimeevents.com/2020/02/23/armagnac-adventures-domaine-tariquet/).

This limited release of 470 bottles spent 8 years in bourbon casks before finishing for a few months in Tariquet barrels.

In the glass it is vibrant amber with copper arms.  The nose powerfully speaks of its origins in the form of toffee and spun brown sugar (JM house style), ripe and under ripe bananas with savoury almost fino sherry like bite and earthy straw notes,  (the sugar cane juice), gingernuts, corn, vanilla and smoke (the ex bourbon casks), and hints of sandalwood, prunes and raisins (the Armagnac casks).  Rounded and warming, and yet lively, there is a long finish which evolves through fresh ginger, and smoky notes through to toasted pecans.  Rhum agricole, bourbon and Armagnac in one glass – and so quite a bargain!  It’s bursting with character and rewards spirits explorers with focus, balance, complexity and length.  It demands your attention in the same way as a nail biting episode of Homeland, with its absorbing intensity and twists and turns on the palate.

But is having a fusion of three such unique and characterful spirits necessarily desirable?  Or are we seeing a crossover of spirits threatening to blur and detract from their individuality?

In Rudyard Kipling’s tale The Beginning of the Armadillos, Stickly-Prickly Hedgehog and his friend Slow-and-Solid Tortoise, in the High and Far Off Times along the banks of the Turbid Amazon, adapted to avoid the predatory attentions of Painted Jaguar.  They fused their abilities to curl up into a prickly ball, and to swim, respectively, causing Painted Jaguar much confusion. His mother had advised him how to deal with them, and said, ever so many times, graciously waving her tail: “A Hedgehog is a Hedgehog, and can’t be anything but a Hedgehog, and a Tortoise is a Tortoise, and can never be anything else”.  Poor Painted Jaguar wailed in reply “But it isn’t a Hedgehog, and it isn’t a Tortoise.  It’s a little bit of both, and I don’t know its proper name”.     Mother Jaguar advised her son that “Everything has its proper name.  I should call it “Armadillo” til I found out the real one”.

Similarly, cask finishes fuse spirit characteristics, making them appealing to new consumers.  This is useful for rhum agricole, because cane juice rums are too funky for some, and newcomers expecting them to be rich and smooth like rum from molasses are in for a surprise!  This cask finish range therefore offers a cane juice rum experience with extra roundness and approachability.

At the same time, this cask finish is of high quality with a mindblowing sequence of flavours, perfect for those collecting a range of rums to sip and savour in solitude, or share with discerning companions.  Care has evidently gone into its creation.

But what should we call this curious cask finish creature?   Is it really a rum if the bourbon and Armagnac elements are so intense?  Or is it an Armadillo?

Unlike other rums, Martinique Rhum has its own quality designation along similar lines to the French AOC system for wine, which was sought to protect and reinforce its premium reputation.  Details are available here: https://www.rhum-agricole.net/site/en/index.php?id=aoc

Finishing is not defined or referred to, possibly because use of finishing in rum has been slower to catch on than in other spirit categories.  Also, it took some time for Martinique Rhum to get its own AOC in the first place.  It may be that in time the decree is amended to regulate Martinique Rhum finishing as has happened in Armagnac, with the requirement that cask finishes are called something like “rum-based spirit drink” – i.e. rum Armadillo – taking them outside the AOC.

But I would argue that what we have here is not an Armadillo.  It is rum, with a twist.  Equally, Laubade’s rhum agricole finish Armagnac is Armagnac, with a twist.

I would advocate for the SWA approach instead.  So long as the cask finish retains the traditional taste, colour and aroma characteristics of rhum agricole from Martinique, then it seems appropriate for it to be described as such.  However, I would also advocate that the nature of the finishing casks used are clearly and prominently identified, as JM have done here.  The “indrink” (the original beverage absorbed into the wood) inevitably imparts character to the finished product (after all, that is why these casks are being used).  Identification of the “indrink” is therefore an important piece of information for consumers to know.   So long as consumers are not misled, and can see how the nature of the product might vary from more classic expressions, it seems perfectly proper that cask finishes remain within the AOC.

More importantly, keeping cask finishes within the AOC retains control over them, helping to preserve rhum agricole’s unique character and quality.  This was a key consideration for the SWA, hence their stipulation of the nature of the casks which can, and cannot, be used to finish Scotch Whisky.  Indrink which is likely to dominate or alter the character beyond consumer expectations can therefore be excluded.

Personally, I hope to see more cask finish creations, but with the caveat that producers come together to own them, rather than sideline them.  The crossover trend has potential to debase a spirit’s core traditional character, but if regulatory review is used wisely, the essence of what makes our favourite spirits so admired can be maintained, for the benefit of consumers and producers alike.

Armagnac Adventures: Armagnac Delord

“One day will be the Day of Armagnac.  When that day comes, we will be ready!” 

Successful enterpreneurs have one thing in common: clarity of vision.  And this is the vision of Jerôme Delord who is, with his brother Sylvain, the 4th generation of renowned Armagnac house Delord.  I visited them in November 2019 with my incredibly helpful guide, Amanda Garnham, from BNIA.

Family owned and run since inception in 1893, Delord was founded by travelling distiller and cellarmaster Prosper Delord.  In contrast, his great grandson Jerôme began his working life at Cadbury Schweppes!  But his dream was always to partner with his brother and carry on the family firm, a dream which became reality nearly 20 years ago.  His time in big business beverages means that he brings an unapologetically commercial approach to the House of Delord, while his brother Sylvain continues the family savoir-faire of creating and curating their treasury of Armagnac stocks.

img_1790The embracing of both the traditions of the past and the opportunities of the future sees Delord using branding which features font derived from Jerôme’s father’s handwriting, and the immaculate moustache of Prosper Delord on most of its bottles.  But for the the relatively new creation, Blanche Armagnac, they have commissioned a post modernist label featuring imagery based on the view over the Delord cellar buildings in street art form, which will also appear on the wall of their distillery.

Delord undertake and control all aspects of production.  They do not sell wine – it’s (almost) all about the Armagnac here – except for some Floc de Gascogne and their grandmother’s recipe for Pruneaux d’Agen!

So Delord grow their own grapes in an expanding but currently 45 hectare vineyard which contains all four of the main Armagnac grapes.  Over half of the vineyard output is Ugni Blanc, the grape of Cognac, but there is also Colombard, Baco and Folle Blanche.  They have invested in machine harvesting, the aim being to preserve freshness, which is of vital importance because sulphur dioxide cannot be used.  They vinify their grape juice in their own high tech winery in Lannepax, where they are based.

Delord are one of the last to distil in Armagnac, their chosen date being 7th January, which conveniently follows on from the bottling to order of its Armagnacs in the run up to Christmas.   In the meantime, the wine is preserved as fresh as it can possibly be in temperature controlled tanks, set up 5 years ago.  This was one of the most expensive investments to date, but necessary in order to maximise quality.  Jerôme remarked that  “something is always going on at Delord“; this investment wasn’t the first, and it certainly won’t be the last.

Delord have four stills, and are unusual in that two of these are double copper pot stills of the kind used to create Cognac.  They are all small stills, and the production of their 350 barrels per annum takes 5 weeks.  Would the next investment be to replace them all with one large still for the sake of economies of scale?  Of course not – the different stills create eau de vie of unique character which can be combined to create blends which are so much better together than they would be apart.

img_1797Jerôme took much delight in telling me that one of their two Armagnac alambics is shown in diagramatic form in WSET course books.  I was able to confirm that this remains the case by showing him my Diploma Level 4 book which I had brought to refresh my memory while on tour.  Here is Amanda with the sketch itself (she is a contributor to the original and the 2013 edition).

img_1800-1Jerôme whisked us off into the cellar, via the Paradise containing their most ancient stocks which, having reached their potential in barrel, were now resting silently in the dark in giant glass jars, or bonbonnes.   Here is one occupant, almost 120 years young.

The cellar was not the spic and span showcase I had experienced in other houses.  There was clear evidence on hand to show that there were many more spiders in residence than there were barrels.  It was not a comfortable place for an arachnophobe such as I.  The spider theme continued in that the Armagnac alambics have “spider” plates which are prized for making the oldest Armagnacs.

img_1809It was a relief to move on to some tasting, albeit in the spider infested cellar – that is until I realised that Jerôme had over estimated my Armagnac tasting skills.  He decided that he would conduct a whistle stop comparison of Armagnacs made from their two Armagnac continuous alambics, the Sier which dates from 1900 (they need to look after it as Sier ceased production in 1936), and the Orthès (ditto – they too ceased production, in 1960 – for more about alambics click on Amanda Garnham’s piece about them here: https://distilling.com/distillermagazine/copper-love/ )

So to all those who say all Armagnac tastes the same, proof that this is a fallacy can be found below.  This was a glimpse into the world of Armagnac’s alchemists, the cellarmasters.

img_1807We tasted Baco 2018 from the two different stills, which were ageing in different barrels, i.e. Bartholomo medium toast, and Allary medium toast.  The samples were taken straight from the barrels.  Though young, the colour of ageing was starting to show (Armagnac is colourless when it comes off the still).

  • Sier Bartholomo: very vanilla forward, fruity and fiery.
  • Orthès Bartholomo: very prune forward, woody, but sweet too with notes of date.
  • Orthès Allary: restrained, fresh and floral.
  • Sier Allary – herbaceous notes.

The woody character only seemed pronounced at this stage of ageing with the Bartholomo barrels.  The fruitier floral notes seemed most pronounced from the Orthès still and we preferred those samples, while appreciating that the Sier samples would be very well suited to ageing.

Having established that the Orthès samples were more approachable, Jerôme poured us two more Orthès samples:

  • Ugni Blanc – orange, cinnamon, sandalwood and incense with big tannins and fire.
  • Folle Blanche – rich cherry, fig and toffee, big tannins, and a long vanilla finish.

img_1812While my brain and taste buds recovered from this rapid upping of my tasting game, Jerôme took us to the bottling line which was an impressive operation in full swing in the pre Christmas quarter.  These bottles were destined for Russia and China, where Delord Armagnac is particularly prized.  The bottles are rinsed out with white (unaged) Armagnac, which they find much more effective than any cleaning agent.  Each bottle and wooden case is sealed with wax, the colour depending on the age of the Armagnac.  More about this later!

Back in the tasting room, in Jerôme’s grandmother’s former home, Jerôme poured yet more samples.  Even after a week in Armagnac this was daunting, as I had been to another house first thing, and had a flight to catch late in the afternoon!

img_1816I was very taken with the blanche.  It was one of the most refined samples I tasted.  Enticing aromas of pear cake led on to a rounded palate where the fieriness of youth built gradually rather than being aggressive.  Elegant and drinkable, there were fresh red cherries and elderflower notes to enjoy in a long and fruity finish.

The 25 year old blend, a favourite amongst Delord’s customers, had smooth barely noticeable alcohol, and powerful prune, toasted hazelnut, clove and smoke character balanced with sweet juicy apricots.  Approachable and satisfying.

The 1988 had class.  Light, fruity and elegant, with toasted pecans, tarry notes and wood smoke and a long marzipan finish.

L’Authentique is a blend of 5 vintages, or at least 30 years in age, and 45.9% abv.  Aromas of pastries, marzipan and cigar smoke led on to a balanced palate where some fieriness was balanced by sweetness and tannic attack.  Prunes and dates evolved into a long incense finish.  This was quite a mouthful!  One for connoisseurs.

Creation No. 10 is a small batch blend of 3 vintages, 1988, 1990 and 1993.  Again an impeccable balance of sweet apricot pastries and caramel with tannic structure, heat and freshness with a long finish.  Craftsmanship very evident here.

Finally a 1990 single cask for the French market.  A vibrant nose of orange, cinnamon, fig and sandalwood, and a fruity palate which built into a smokey cloud of a finish. Perfection.

The house philosophy has always been to create Armagnacs which are not elitist, and  easy to drink.  They aim to combine quality with affordability.  The phrase “easy to drink” might imply mellow alcohol, smoothed out tannins and bags of fruity appeal.  But there is much more to this range than that.  The key is balance – you can have plenty of tannic structure and fieriness in Armagnac so long as it is in proportion to the acidity, flavour profile and flavour intensity.  These Armagnacs had in common refinement and elegance, from the unaged Blanche style through to the vintages.

img_1831I was then returned to the bottling room where, again, Jerôme over estimated my capabilities.  I was handed what was to become my very own bottle of 25 year old, and made a very lame attempt at sealing it myself.  Applying the wax was just about achieved, but the gold powder seal was another matter.  I was offered a replacement, but felt it was far better to be able to show folks at home that this bottle was my very own handiwork.  As you can see!  I blame the preceding tasting…..

img_1830The generosity of Jerôme Delord did not stop there.  He kindly hosted a delicious lunch, and then as I had no room for his kind gift in my luggage, he very kindly despatched it to me, along with another from elsewhere.  It arrived safely!  You will note that it has been personalised.  I will cherish it always – even when I have consumed the contents!

So what does all this say about Delord?  My “take home” message was that this is a house which takes enormous pride in its traditions, heritage, experience, and craftsmanship.  When the seal is applied to each bottle, by hand, the Delord brothers are giving you their assurance that they have striven at every stage to produce the very best Armagnac they can, and they are personally expressing the fervent hope that you will enjoy drinking it as much as they enjoyed making it.

This personal touch sums up not just Delord, but Armagnac as a whole.  As Amanda kindly drove me back across the Gers to Toulouse airport for my homeward flight to Bristol, I knew I was leaving a very special place.

It remains for me to thank not only Jerôme Delord for making me so welcome, but also my indefatigable guide Amanda Garnham for arranging my tour so successfully, and for her own hospitality, the BNIA, the WSET and the Worshipful Company of Distillers, who so kindly awarded me a scholarship which funded my 5 night visit.

I also thank Hélène & Jean Royer of Les Bruhasses, a superb guesthouse which was my base for this tour.  They could not have made me more comfortable, and it was lovely to try the family wines from Domaine Millet while I was there which I can recommend!

This tour was outstanding from beginning to end.  I learnt a huge amount.  I will never forget my time in Gascony, and I very much hope that I will return with my family in the near future.

If reading about my visit has inspired you to visit Gascony, I recommend that you contact the BNIA which is a mine of useful information: http://www.armagnac.fr/bnia

You can fly direct from Bristol to Toulouse and it is a good hour and a half’s drive from there to the Armagnac region.  But you might want to take a car as many of this region’s finest products are hard to find at home!

Armagnac Adventures: Baron de Lustrac

One of Armagnac’s many charms is that it is, as a category, small but perfectly formed.  While Cognac shifts a whopping 200 million bottles per annum, the equivalent figure for Armagnac is merely 4 million bottles per annum from family run estates.  You might therefore expect that there would be a handful of estates all operating in a fairly standard fashion.  But the articles I have written about the Armagnac houses I visited in November 2019 have revealed that there seem to be almost infinite variations in the way houses of various sizes involve themselves in production and marketing.  Some undertake all aspects of production and even make wines for sale as well.  Others buy Armagnac from small producers which they age and bottle themselves.

img_1985But at Baron de Lustrac, things are done differently.  It is a boutique scale business, consisting of Ina Bornemann and José Barbe, who have contracts with 20 small individual estates with whom they have forged relationships of trust and respect over many years.  They seek out Armagnac’s finest treasures, but rather than buy and age them in their own cellars, the Armagnacs remain in the cellars where they were born.  José then becomes their cellar master, watching over them, aerating them as and when necessary, and blending if/when he sees fit.

Baron de Lustrac’s own cellar is relatively modest, so instead of going there, I was privileged to meet Ina over lunch with Amanda Garnham of BNIA at Château Bellevue in Cazaubon.  Ina is classy, charismatic, friendly and highly intelligent.  She leads a busy and fascinating life, dividing her time between the Armagnac region itself and the metropolis of Bordeaux.  Her role in Baron de Lustrac is as national and international brand ambassador, while José keeps his expert eye on the Armagnac.

I digress here because this lunch was a treat for me as a lover of wine and food pairings.  The dishes were all impeccably presented and thought through, with wines recommended by Thomas, the sommelier, which took wine and food pairing to heights of excellence I had not previously enjoyed.  Thomas took particular delight in offering me wines I would not have tried before, whether local or from further afield.  He was encyclopaedic about wine, but he also knew exactly how each wine would work with each dish.  Anyone thinking of becoming a sommelier would do well to visit Chateau Bellevue.  It might not have the polish of Michelin starred fine dining establishments, but you will nevertheless find yourself in food and wine matching heaven.  They also know their Armagnacs too, as you would expect.  Read more here: https://www.chateaubellevue.org/en/

Just as this lunch was a chance to enjoy the finer things in life, so too are the Armagnacs of Baron de Lustrac.  There is no doubt that this is a premium end house.  Their specialism is vintages.  There is a blend, but this is no youthful cocktail component.  It is a 25 year old!

Vintages are heaven for collectors, and amongst these vintages there are rarities.  Folle Blanche, the fickle and highly prized grape variety with its approachable floral fruity notes, isn’t generally recognised for its ageing potential – the ageworthy hat usually fits Baco best – but here we find selected batches of Folle Blanche as a single varietal in vintage form.  The various vintages available online in the UK come with wooden gift boxes.

Vintage Armagnacs make special gifts for milestone birthdays and other anniversaries, giving full expression to the meaning of the passage of time.  After all, Armagnacs, like people, need time and careful nurturing to reach their full potential.

But the especially lovely thing about Baron de Lustrac is that they are small and adaptable enough to be able to offer not merely rarity, quality and provenance, but also bespoke bottlings.  They bottle to order in a wide range of quantities, from 35cl (half bottle) to 300cl!  There is an array of bottles to choose from, including mouthblown Rothschild bottles for rare and old vintages, decanters, and old cognac bottles.  There is even a personalisation service available.   Those seeking attention to detail and exclusivity need look no further than here: http://armagnac-baron-de-lustrac.com/en/h/

Ina very kindly gave me a sample of their 2001 to taste at home (see photo above – the cake is co-incidental, not a food pairing suggestion!).  It is beautiful to look at in the glass with its copper arms, amber core and mahogany hints.  The nose has it all; elegant yet precise aromas of pencil shavings, walnuts, acacia, dried apricots, hints of polish, as well as the Armagnac trademarks of prunes and pastry.  So often such an inviting nose leads to a disappointment on the palate but not here.  This is a vivacious 18 year old, and yet, unlike 18 year old humans of my acquaintance, it also has elegance and finesse.  Warming yet smooth, with marzipan and apricot sweet notes initially, the palate moves on through savoury walnut skin bite, then wisps of smoke, and when you think you’re done, it morphs again, into plum tarte tatin.  I could go on.  The balance of fire, fruit, and developmental flavours is pretty much perfect.  Those preferring powerful exotic perfume, or strong tannins, might find this one a little light, but those wanting a thinking person’s Armagnac which they can sip and savour will be more than satisfied.

Inevitably, with this operation being so heavily dependent upon two individuals, the inescapable realities of the human, as opposed to the Armagnac, ageing process are becoming a consideration.   José, now in his 60’s, has been involved in creating and curating Armagnac since he was 14 years old!  Succession planning when your cellarmaster has a lifetime of experience is not easy.  But this is a house of enviable pedigree.   Whatever the future may hold, I do hope that these Armagnac treasures will continue to be created, curated and enjoyed for many vintages to come.

Armagnac Adventures: Baron de Sigognac & Chateau de Bordeneuve

“You need to taste Baron de Sigognac.   Quality benchmark Armagnac, at a sensible price.”  Those were the words of one of my WSET Diploma spirits lecturers.

So I dutifully procured Baron de Sigognac VS and produced a WSET Diploma course (far from perfect) tasting note thus:

“Appearance: Medium gold.  Nose without water: straw, raisin, prune, pineapple, toffee, polish, ginger.  Nose with water: marmalade, pastries, tarte tatin, cooked butter, honey.  Palate: dry, smooth, full body, tannins evident but integrated, Pronounced flavour intensity, walnuts, hazelnuts, coffee, lilies, prunes, marmalade, honey, pastries.  Medium finish, some complexity.  Quality: balance of body and flavour, some length and complexity, intense defined flavours, though aromas light in strength, they were defined.  Overall very good.

In other words, this is an Armagnac which over delivers as against its ageing duration and price point.  It is also widely available in the UK (though not in supermarkets), so an ideal benchmark for students facing a spirits blind tasting examination.  The definition of flavours helps fix in the mind the defining characteristics of Armagnac, as against other aged spirits, notably Cognac.  It was because I had tasted Baron de Sigognac that I knew, when exam time came, that the spirit in front of me was Cognac, not Armagnac.  So my lecturer was, of course, absolutely right.

img_1645It was therefore an honour to visit the distillery and cellars of Baron de Sigognac and its sister brand, Chateau de Bordeneuve, early in November 2019, with Amanda Garnham from BNIA.  Our host was the genial and incredibly knowledgeable commercial export director Jerome Castledine who, fortunately for my comprehension, is English.

This Armagnac house is still family owned and run, and they control all aspects of their business.  They grow their own grapes in their own vineyards, they make the wines naturally by fermentation on the fine lees, they have their own shiny copper short column continuous alembic, and they age all their Armagnacs in their own cellars, or chais.

There is nothing unduly showy or ostentatious about this house, which can trace its origins back to 1604 (and there is evidence of Armagnac production from this area from the 1400s!).  Its USP is simply the time, patience and savoir-faire it brings to the making of its Armagnacs. This is nicely exemplified by the legend of Baron de Sigognac who, it is said, replaced conventional clocks in his cellar with a bespoke timepiece marked with 10, not 12 divisions on its face.  The seconds became years, the big hand marked the decades, and the small hand marked the centuries.  Time, patience and savoir-faire indeed.

It’s all about the Armagnac here.  No wines are made for sale.  The grape varieties are Ugni Blanc, the grape of Cognac (floral, fruity, light and mellifluous, in Jerome’s words) and Baco (fat, buttery, unctuous and ageworthy, again in Jerome’s words).  The grapes are grown on the famous tawny sandy soils of Bas Armagnac, which has good drainage over a layer of clay.  The surrounding forests shield the vineyards from frost.

The cellar we visited is “humid” as opposed to “dry”.  It has the requisite thick walls and beaten earth floor which keep it consistently cool and damp, a feature evident even when the Worshipful Company of Distillers visited in June 2019, when it was very hot.  Jerome advised us that this humid cellar produces a fruit driven style of Armagnac with “mellifluous” alcohol.

The wood used is of crucial importance. It is French, and the new make spirit goes straight into new oak, only being transferred out after a year.  The inside of each barrel is charred not merely on the sides, but also on the top and bottom.  Armagnac destined for blending tends to be aged in looser grained oak so it can age more rapidly.  Conversely, Armagnacs destined to be vintage expressions for long ageing go into tighter grained oak to slow down the process and allow the Armagnac to express itself as fully as possible over time.

The Armagnacs are rarely left in barrel for more than 40 years, after which time it is thought that it becomes too bitter.  It is then transferred into a glass demijohn so it can be preserved at its best.  From this vessel, Armagnacs can then be bottled to order.

When it comes to bottling, petites eaux, which are a blend of Armagnac spirit and water, are never used.  To dilute to bottling strength, if this is done, only osmosis water is used.

img_1641In the tasting room, we began with the VS, my notes of which differ little from those above.  Jerome explained that Baron de Sigognac go to much trouble to get this right, as it is most people’s first venture into Armagnac, and it needs to be good enough to hold its own in a cocktail.  It is a blend of Armagnacs aged 3-5 years, mostly from Ugni Blanc.  He suspects it is of relatively generous quality for a VS and I would certainly agree with that.  Jerome also knows that it has to be consistent in terms of its style.

Next up was the 10 year old.  Elegant and rounded with trademark prunes, pastry and hazelnuts in abundance with an evolving finish.   This sells particularly well in the UK market.

The XO Platinum was a different beast altogether, and had spent a generous 15 years in tight grained oak.  It was tarry, smokey and woody with an exotic spicy perfume, despite which it was fresh and elegant.  15 year olds are regarded as entry level for the Asian market, and this one does very well there.

The 20 year old was different again, with abundant nuttiness.  After the inviting aromas of walnuts, pecans, dates, and prune, the palate on entry had intensity with tannic bite and fire in balance, smouldering on to a lingering wood smoke finish.

The 25 year old was another contrast, this time sweet and mellow, with a nose of marzipan, sandalwood and walnuts.  There was tannic attack initially on the palate which soon softened into coffee, chocolate, and pecan nuts.

In the blends, the Baco percentage increases with age, but the vintages are either all Baco, or Baco dominant.

The 1981 was an exotic creature, ethereal, round and light with complex aromas of dates, pepper, clove, cinnamon and wood smoke with a long exotic perfumed finish.  The idea of a sip after a tagine sprang to mind.

The 1976 was packed with sundried fruits, almost certainly reflecting the hot summer that year.  Concentrated and voluptuous with  raisins, prunes, dates, nutmeg and vanilla balanced by tannic structure and exotic perfume.  A post prandial sipper after a special dinner.

Just when I thought we had concluded, Jerome produced a 1924!  This had been bottled on 11th June 2019 from a bonbonne.  This beat the 1929 I tasted at Darroze the next day by 5 years and was therefore the oldest Armagnac I tasted on this tour – and indeed, have ever tasted!  It was delicate yet expressive, with candied peel, toasted walnuts and jasmine on the nose, and a rounded yet focused palate of prunes, tobacco, forest floor, and Christmas cake made with very well macerated fruit.  It was certainly not at the end of its life, and was everything you could want in your Armagnac.

img_1643After 8 Armagnacs one would think it was time to call it a day – my novice taste buds starting to show distinct signs of being anaesthetised.  But no – it was time to taste La Grande Josiane, a liqueur combining Armagnac, sugar syrup and 100% natural extracts of bitter Seville oranges, Jamaican coffee beans, cocoa, and Madagascan vanilla of 36% abv.  It has roughly 1/3 of the sugar of its nearest equivalents Cointreau and Grand Marnier, and was awarded 95 points by Wine Enthusiast to become their top awarded liqueur in 2019.  It had an appealing balance of citric tang, spiciness, sweetness and alcoholic fire, which reinvigorated my palate, and reminded me of the delicious pastèque jam I was enjoying at my guesthouse (made with an unusual white fleshed watermelon, citrus fruits and spices).  It can be served over ice on its own, or by discerning mixologists making unique cocktails, but I would love to try it in a crêpe!

The more you taste wines and spirits, the more you realise there are some producers who seem to nail it across the board.  It can be hard to pinpoint why or how, they just do.

Of course we WSET students know that quality comes from balance, length, intensity and complexity.  Of these, intensity is the hardest concept to grasp, but for those struggling with it, look no further.  These Armagnacs have flavours which express themselves with pinpoint precision, giving each one its own unique voice.  If you are someone who thus far has thought all Armagnacs taste the same, then get yourself some of these.  Not only will you be able to taste the array of flavours as the palate evolves (another sign of quality), you will see from what you note down that they could not be more different, or indeed, more versatile.

Baron de Sigognac is not available in UK supermarkets, but it is not hard to find in independent specialist stores both on high streets and online.  As I hope many are finding during this curious down time, there is so much more for taste explorers to find by venturing away from the comfort zone of the supermarket aisles.  I hope this encourages you to look further afield….for which I can assure you there will be immense reward!