South Africa: Home to Southern Hemisphere Wines with a European Inclination

With predictable interruptions, South Africa (S.A.) has been a serious wine producing region for a long time.  The Europeans who colonized the Cape were already growing grapes and making wine in the late 1600s.  Vin de Constance, a sweet wine made from Muscat de Frontignan (Muscat Blanc à Petits Grains) was first produced in 1680.  Since then, S.A.’s vignerons have exploited viticultural bounty that includes sitting at 35o south latitude (some 900 km. closer to the equator than Niagara), an   assortment of ancient soils situated at high and low altitudes with all possible sun exposures, and the cooling currents, winds and associated mists from two oceans.  Grapes aren’t alone in thriving here.  The Cape Floral Kingdom contains more plant species than does the whole of England.

People are a crucial element in the S.A. wine formula.  The country boasts outstanding vineyardists and winemakers, many of whom trained at the University of Stellenbosch’s highly respected wine school.  With judicious influences from “flying winemakers,” they’ve prepared themselves to make all kinds of wines.

Today’s consumer won’t have a hard time finding a wide selection of high-quality reasonably priced red, white, sparkling and sweet wines.  S.A’s dry table wines display the ripe fruit you’d expect from grapes grown in a very sunny dry climate.  Just about every grape varietal you can name and a few you’ve never heard of is grown here.  Producers strive for very European structure and mineral notes from gravel dust to earth to frame that richness and render the bottlings food-friendly.

S.A.’s white wines are more interesting than the reds just now.  The country’s signature white varietal is chenin blanc, famous for its performance in France’s Loire Valley.  Ken Forrester, the King of Chenin, likens the varietal to a race horse that has been used as a workhorse.  It has emerged from its checkered vinous past and is now crafted to compete with respected chardonnays and sauvignon blancs.  This acidic appley white performs well in oaked and unoaked dry versions, on its own or blended with other white varietals, in sparkling wine, and in dessert wines made from raisined or nobly rotten berries.

Impressive dry white wines are also being produced from sauvignon blanc, chardonnay, riesling, muscat and viognier as monovarietals or in an increasing number of high-quality blends.

Red wines have lagged behind whites in S.A., but they’re catching up fast.  Bordeaux and Rhône blends lead the pack, but you can find examples crafted from sangiovese, nebbiolo, touriga nacional and other Port grapes, pinot noir, and tannat, singly and in blends.  All that choice and the producers’ expertise and imagination ensure that reds will improve steadily over time.

Pinotage, a cross between pinot noir and the Rhônish cinsault (a.k.a. Hermitage) was S. A.’s hallmark grape for many years but is now in a slump.  Top producers like Kanonkop have demonstrated that the grape has huge potential, but it isn’t being generally realized.  Die-hards haven’t given up on Pinotage and are waiting for a renaissance in years to come.

Piwosa (premium independent wineries of South Africa) is a collective of like-minded premium independent wine producers of South Africa’s Western Cape region.  The group is working to increase awareness on the premium S. A. category at home and internationally.  Piwosa visited Toronto in early June to show us what their member wineries are up to down there.  Winery personnel were present to clarify the influence of their properties’ microclimates, sites and soils on their bottlings.  Among those present were Ken Forrester, Kathy Jordan, and Nicolas Bureau (whose grandmother, Mme May de Lencquesaing turned Pauillac’s Chateau Pichon Baron into a super-second growth and, at age 92, is a principal in the winery.)

All the wines we tasted were excellent to outstanding.  Despite the group’s stated intention of avoiding bargain-basement status, pricing was very fair across the group.  Toronto wine veteran Laurel Keenan oversaw the proceedings superbly. 

Raats Original Chenin Blanc 2016 ($22, score 90) is blended from two cuvees, one rich and one crisp, fermented and aged in stainless steel.  The intense nose features attractive apple and white peach fruit, an acacia note, and subtle wet stone minerality.  It’s crisp and creamy in the mouth with good fruit penetration.  Lime pith notes join the party through a long fruited fresh finish.  This wine is a natural partner for seafood.

Ken Forrester Old Vine Reserve Chenin Blanc ($17.95, score 91) has lovely herbaceous and acacia aromas with restrained vanilla and wood, floral aromas, and ripe baked apple and stone fruit notes.  It’s crisp and creamy, very rich and sweetly ripe with a long finished graced by citrus pith.  This little beauty could go on to please for another decade or more.

Glenelly Estate Reserve Chardonnay 2014 ($20, score 90+) is a lightly wooded chard with lovely sweet spice, vanilla and toasty notes with a hint of mango and papaya.  It’s crisp and elegant, the restrained wood notes joined by ripe lemon pith through a long, fresh sweetly ripe finish.

Journey’s End Destination Chardonnay 2015 ($25-$30, score 90) has a sweet spicy vanilla nose with a smoky note, a hint of flint, and sweetly ripe apple, white peach and lemon preserve aromas.  It’s fresh and creamy tasting of baked apple and white peach with a long harmonious flavourful finish.”

Jordan (Jardin in North America) Nine Yards Chardonnay 2015 ($21, score 91) is barrel fermented in Burgundian oak.  It shows in the sweet vanillary toasty notes of the wine and in its rich and creamy mouthfeel.  This will go where comparably priced white Burgundies fear to tread.

Paul Cluver Riesling Dry Encounter 2015 ($20, score 90+) is made from fruit grown in Elgin, the coolest zone in S.A.  It boasts petromineral aromas, green plums and a citrus pith note.  It’s crisp and just off-dry with lovely petromineral and herbal flavours through a very long tasty crisp finish.

De Grendel Op Die Berg Pinot Noir 2014 (? $25, score 90) is from the Ceres Plateau, a cool region best known for its fruit juices.  It’s sweetly spicy with pungent minerality and restrained berry and plum fruit.  It feels like raw silk in the mouth with fresh acidity, fruit and mineral flavours through a long grippy finish.

The Drift Farm Single Vineyard Gift Horse Barbera 2015 (? $30, score 90+)is sweetly ripe with rooty aromas, black berry and plum fruit, and sweet spicy sandalwood.  It’s velvety and fresh with deep black fruit, sweet spices, and a long finish with velvet grip and floral nuances.

Twogh Radford Dale Black Rock 2013 ($30, score 90) is blended from six varieties of Rhône varietals.  The nose is a mix of farmyard, plum and black cherry fruit.  It has velvety grip and sweetly ripe focused black fruits, fresh acidity and a late toasty note all persisting for a long time.  S.A.’s foremost wine writer, John Platter, gave it five stars and named it the wine of the year.  The producer calls it “the true taste of Swartland.”

Klein Constantia Vin de Constance 2013 ($62, score 92) was first made in 1685.  It became famous as the wine of kings and then disappeared from the late 19th century to 1980.  This glorious sticky is made from Muscat á petites grains which, for historical reasons, are raisined, not botrytised.  The grapes are picked berry by berry and the resulting wine is aged for less than four years in 500 L. French oak barrels.  In a good year 40,000 half-bottles are made.  In a bad one, none is produced.

Vin de Constance 2013 ($65, score 92) is deep gold with very rich ripe dried apricot fruit and honey aromas.  On the palate it’s fresh and unctuously creamy, sweet but not cloying.  (The acidity is a respectable 8 g/L, while the sugar is an impressive 150-156 g/L.  This would be perfect on its own or partnered with for foie gras, salty blue cheeses line Roquefort, or with a creamy dessert featuring apricots or peaches.  The stuff will improve forever with age.  You don’t have to be a moribund monarch to love it.

 

S. A. Heraldsberg Stellenbosch

Stellenbosch in the Western Cape region boasts magnificent views of the Simonsberg and Heraldsberg Mountains towering over the vineyards.

 

Forrester

Ken Forrester looks and sounds a lot like a proud father discussing his increasingly well-known and well-respected range of chenin blanc wines.

[For more information, log on to the Wines of South Africa website at www.wosa.co.za]

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Baha Beauty: A Claret Lookalike from Mexico

Hiro Yoshida, the proprietor of Hiro Sushi in Toronto (416 304-0550) and a cherished friend, came to dinner at our house and brought a remarkable bottle of wine with him: Passion Meritage Ojos Negros 2004.  This Bordeux-blend beauty from Bodegas San Rafael of Ensenada, Baja California, was a gift to Hiro from a Japanese friend who established a lucrative business in the Baja.  It’s blended of about 60% Cabernet Sauvignon, 20% Cabernet Franc, 15% Merlot, 3% Petit Verdot and 2% Malbec.  Current vintages are priced around $100.

In a word, the wine was exceptional.  It was a lovely garnet tinged ruby with a paler garnet edge.  The complex harmonious nose featured a salty iodine minerality with fresh and dried blackcurrant fruit and a sweet spicy floral nuance.  In the mouth it featured plush grippy tannins, fresh acidity, deep mature fruit and a lovely long finish.  You could easily guess that this was a second growth claret, maybe a St. Estephe.  It was the perfect partner for a rack of lamb.Baja beauty image

Many thanks, Hiro San, for the gifts of this wine and of your company.

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Burgundy Coming Around

Burghounds

Burghounds thronged the recent Burgundy tasting at the Arta Gallery in Toronto’s Distillery District to taste the region’s red and white wines.

 

My decades-long immersion in wine began in Toronto in 1974 with red Burgundy.  One night Elizabeth Vinassac, sommelier at the legendary Napoléon restaurant where her chef husband Christian prepared perfect classical French cuisine, rejected my request for a bottle of Bouchard Père et Fils Beaujolais Superieur and insisted I try a Santenay Clos de Tavannes ‘73.  On my next visit she served me a Fixin Clos de la Perière ’73.  Before tasting those wines I’d had no idea that dry reds could be intense and delicate at the same time, with enticing complex harmonious aromas and flavours spanning berry fruit, forest floor (a good thing in this instance), sandalwood, sweet spices, and wood violets.  The hook was set, and I became a dedicated lover of the pinot-based red wines of Burgundy.  A few years later, I developed a similar infatuation with white Burgundy, the world’s original and (for me) best chardonnay.

In the decades that followed, my love affair with Burgundy ran into some rough patches.  I remained passionate for the older better wines I had the good fortune to drink.  They married intensity with elegance and reflected their precise origin with precision.  The bad news was that too many costly bottlings seemed simple, thin and dull, even in better vintages.  This turned out to be the result of two acts of vandalism in the vineyards: old vines were replaced by less flavourful higher-yielding pinot noir clones like pinot droit, and tons of potassium and nitrogen fertilizers were applied to the soil to further boost yields, resulting in K+ ions replacing H+ in the grapes (thereby lowering the wine’s crucial acidity.)

A recent tasting presented by the French Trade Commission in Toronto gave invitees to sample the wares of eighteen Burgundian producers including seven not yet represented in Ontario.  The red and white wines on offer covered the quality and price spectrum.  You won’t find a secret Chambertin or Corton among the entry-level products, but the quality of basic Bourgogne Rouge and Bourgogne Blanc has improved dramatically in recent years.  They represent your best value in Burgundy.

 

WHITE BURGUNDY:

Domaine Henri de Villamont Bourgogne Chardonnay Prestige 2015 AOC ($19.95, score 89) offers vary Burgundian citrus and oatmeal characters in a fresh but sweetly ripe mouthful.  At this price it would make a lovely house white.

Chartron & Trebuchet Rully 1er Cru Les Gresigny 2015 ($28.00, score 89+) has sweet citrus, vanilla and wood aromas.  It’s crisp on the palate with lemon pith through the finish.

Domaine Louis Moreau Chablis 2016 (~$30, score 89) shows typical Chablisien grapefruit and mineral notes.  It’s round but fresh in the mouth and would stand proudly by your crustacean dinner.

 

RED BURGUNDY: 

Domaine Henri de Villamont Bourgogne Rouge Pinot Noir Prestige 2014 AOC rouge ($19.95, score 89) has sweet spicy red berry fruit and a crisp velvety grippy mouthfeel.  House red, anyone?

Maison Ambroise Bourgogne Rouge 2014 (~$20, score 89) adds plummy notes to the berry fruit.  It’s crisp and gently grippy and would match any chicken dish.

Domaine Cyrot-Buthiau Pommard 1er Cru Les Arvelets 2015 ($96.00, score 90+).  Okay, neither of us is going to pick up a six-pack of this beauty, but I’m throwing it in to let you know what our more affluent brothers and sisters are drinking.  This wine, still showing some magenta in its ruby colour, beguiled with red berry fruit, sweet spices and warm earthy mineral notes.  On the palate it shows deep rich ripe fruit supported by fine firm ripe tannins and fresh acidity.  The finish is powerful and lingering.  It’s all about intensity without bulk.  If I find a bottle of this under a bush, I’ll keep it for a dozen years and drink it with a good beefsteak.

[For more information about the wines of Burgundy contact Ms. Charline Primat, Trade Advisor, Food, Wine, Beer and Spirits at the French Trade Commission, 416 977-1257, ext. 205, or log on to www.businesssfrance.fr]

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Maison Ruinart Still Knocking it Out of the Park at Age 288

Benedictine Monk Dom Thierry Ruinart (1657-1709) was a friend and confidant of the more famous champagne-making monk Dom Pérignon.  The Dom’s nephew Thierry Ruinart (1697-1769), a linen trader, presented his shmata customers with sparkling wine as a kind of loyalty bonus.  He soon realized that the wine was more popular than the cloth.  On September 1, 1729, Thierry founded what was to become Champagne’s oldest (and one of the region’s most respected) house, Maison Ruinart.

Ruinart’s history would take several columns to tell, but tout court it’s the usual litany of wars and plagues intermingled with glorious moments.  At the magnificent winery visitors can tour the vast underground Crayères, deep caverns cut into the chalk soils.  They consist of eight kilometres of cellars on three levels.  They were dug in the 15th century and purchased by Claude Ruinart at the end of the 18th century.  They’ve done service as quarries for building materials, aging cellars for champagne, and as a refuge from invading German forces during WW I.

History notwithstanding, Ruinart snugs perfectly into the 21st century wine world.  Many leading champagne houses like Bollinger favour a gently oxidative pinot-dominated style. Ruinart chose a different direction, pioneering the “blanc de blancs” style.  Unlike some “grower” champagne houses, they look for a degree of consistency in its bottlings.  The approach seems to be working: Ruinart produces over 2.5 million bottles a year.

Ruinart’s Chef de Caves Frédéric Panaïotis explains the current house style with enthusiasm.  “The strength of the house is chardonnay.  What are we looking for?  Aromatic freshness, keeping the primary elements of the varietal.”  How do you do that?  “Freshness demands a reductive (winemaking) style.  All our wines are fermented in stainless steel and we pay attention to possible oxidative elements.”  Part of the pursuit of freshness and varietal character is a reduction in the dosage (the addition of sugared wine prior to final corking).  “Our dosage was 12.9 g/l twenty years ago.  Now it’s about 8 g/l.”

Maison Ruinart buys in about 90% of its grapes.  Blending across village lines gives the house’s winemakers a broad palate of flavours and textures with which to create the final product.  Wines made from Côtes des Blancs fruit are gentler.  Those from the Montagne de Reims are more square-shouldered.

Last October a group of Circle of Wine Writers members were treated to a sumptuous dinner and tasting at Maison Ruinart’s chateau-like headquarters in Reims.  Frédéric Panaïotis was on hand to comment on the stunning array of Ruinart champagnes generously opened for us.  There were two NV blancs de blancs, four well-aged vintage bottlings, a blended brut and two rosés.  It was a vinous museum tour.  The wines were outstanding to exceptional.  The courses, which danced divinely with the champagnes, included raw tuna on toasts with crème fraiche and herbs (with the ’93 B. de B. from the magnum), mi-cuit foie gras with pear and  chutney (with Ruinart ‘R’ from the jeroboam), roast bass with white beet, candied citrus fruits and a fresh cheese emulsion (with the ’04 B. de B. from the magnum), smoked guinea fowl supreme with braised marrow, creamy hazelnut and a sangria reduction (with Dom Ruinart Rosé 1990), and matcha tea shortbread with red fruits (with the N.V. Rosé).  I know what you’re thinking:  It’s tough work, but somebody has to do it.  Prices where listed are English and approximate.  Generally, N.V. bottlings are priced with other known champagne brands.  Vintage products are costlier, the price increasing with age.

 

Maison Ruinart Blanc de Blancs NV (~$80+, score 90) is the first of two NVs.  This one is primarily crafted from the 2013 vintage with a generous addition of wines from 2012 and 2011.  The citrus and gentle autolytic aromas lead into a crisp palate balancing intensity and delicacy.  There’s a hint of toast there, all through a long fruited finish.

Maison Ruinart Blanc de Blancs NV (score 90+) is last year’s model.  It’s mainly 2012 backed up with 2011 and 2010.  It features earthy autolytic, citrus ad white peach aromas.  It’s crisp and delicate but rich, with a long citrus fruited finish.

Maison Ruinart Blanc de Blancs Vintage 2004 (~$160+, score 91), like all the house’s vintage B de B sparklers, is made exclusively of grand cru fruit from a range of vineyards.  This one has an autolytic white peach nose with a flinty note.  It’s fresh, rich and complex with sweet autolytic and citric flavours with mineral notes.

Maison Ruinart Blanc de Blancs Vintage 2002 (score 91) featured a harmonized autolytic nose.  In the mouth it’s crisp, plump and rich with autolytic, ripe lemon pulp and brioche flavours.

Maison Ruinart Blanc de Blancs Vintage 1998 (score 91+) had a very Burgundian funky autolytic nose with a coffee note.  Fresh and creamy, it offered sweet autolytic, honey and ripe lemon flavours with fine persistence.

Maison Ruinart Blanc de Blancs Vintage 1996 (score 92) is more closed, more mineral and toastier than the 1998.  It’s sweetly autolytic with white peach fruit and toasty flavours through a long finish.

Maison Ruinart Blanc de Blancs Vintage 1993 (score 91+) was an old-gold darling with almondy autolysis and very ripe lemon characters, fresh and sweetly autolytic on the palate.

Maison Ruinart Blanc de Blancs Vintage 1992 (score 88).   This wine was regrettably slightly oxidized.

‘R’ de Ruinart NV Brut (~$75+, score 90) departs from the house’s chardocentrism in thus blend of 45% pinot noir, 40% chardonnay and 15% pinot meunier.  The nose is gentle and complex, with a hint of sour red fruit.  It’s crisp and rich and full, but not heavy with lingering notes of toast and autolysis.

Maison Ruinart Rosé NV (~$80+, score 89+) is a deep rose petal colored champagne redolent of autolysis and red berry fruits.  It’s simple, but delicious.

Maison Ruinart Rosé 1990 (score 89) has matured to a salmon pink sparkler with autolytic and red berry fruit aromas.  It’s fresh, rich, ripe and well-fruited throughout.

[Thanks to the Comité Champagne for organizing the CWW tour of Champagne and to our fearless leader and den mother Caroline Henry.]

 

Ruinart crayere 1Ruinart Panaiotis 2

Top:  Stairway in one of Ruinart’s vast underground crayères.

Bottom:  Serious but passionate Ruinart Chef de Caves Frédéric Panaïotis discusses the house style at a dinner with WWC journalists.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Bollinger: Still Delivering the Goods

Bollinger is a venerable and highly regarded Champagne producer.  Founded in 1829, the house has survived the region’s engulfment in wars, revolutions, economic depressions and waves of destructive vineyard plagues and is now at the top of its game.  The style of their wines is intense and rich, showcasing the power and red fruit nuances of pinot noir (at least 60% of each cuvée) and the toasty buttery influence of oak aging of their base wines in old 228 litre Burgundian barrels.

Bollinger may be famous but it considers itself to be a “small producer.”  Its annual production of three million bottles puts it at 1% of the region’s production and 25th to 30th in volume behind such giants as Moet & Chandon, who pump out thirty five million bottles a year.  The firm owns an impressive 160 hectares of vineyards in Grand Cru and Premier Cru zones of Champagne.  A large store of reserve wines amplifies the depth and diversity this gives to their cuvées.  Ripeness, more difficult to achieve than freshness in the cool climate of Champagne, is much sought after with meticulous attention to vines and picking grapes as late as possible.

At a recent event at Toronto’s King Edward Hotel, Bollinger’s Ontario Agents John Hanna & Sons presented a tasting for wine folks of six Bollinger champagnes and a still pinot noir-based red produced by the house.  Bollinger enologist-turned-export-manager Frederic Reuter was on hand to answer our detailed questions.  The wines partnered beautifully with cod, veal, duck and cheese courses at a lovely lunch.  These are not inexpensive bottlings, but they’re affordable if you think of them as special treats for special occasions.  The prices quoted apply in Ontario.

Champagne Bollinger Special Cuvée ($78.95, score 90+) is a 60/25/15 blend of pinot noir, chardonnay and meunier, over 85% Grands and Premiers Cru.  It makes up 80% of Bollinger’s annual production.  The nose is intense with aromas of sweet autolysis, ripe peach and sweet spices.  It’s bone dry and crisp in the mouth with vigorous mousse, power, mineral grip, and a hint of black berry fruit.  The finish is long.

Champagne Bollinger Rosé ($103.95, score 90+) is 62% pinot noir, 24% chardonnay and 14% meunier.  Red pinot wine makes up 5% to 6% of the total.  It represents 7% to 8% of the house’s production.  A pale salmon coloured sparkler, this rosé features strawberry and stewed plum fruit with raspberry and mineral notes and a vegetal autolytic nuance.  It’s tasty and crisp with red fruit notes and a long finish.

Champagne Bollinger La Grande Année 2007 ($159.00, score 91+.)  This wine is a 70/30 blend of pinot noir and chardonnay made only in exceptional years, 91% Grand Cru fruit and 9% Premier Cru fruit.  Straw gold, it has a complex but harmonious nose of toasted almonds, autolysis, sweet ripe stone fruit and a hint of citrus.  On the palate it’s crisp and creamy, bone dry with a honeyed note, a black fruit note and chalky grip.  The finish is long and rich.

Champagne Bollinger La Grande Année Rosé 2005 ($199, score 92) was only disgorged in April 2016.  A pale salmon/onion skin colour, the wine exudes very deep very ripe mature strawberry and raspberry fruit with sweetly spicy autolysis and a ginger note.  It’s fresh to crisp with nice grip and a long finish.  Sophisticated stuff, this.

Champagne Bollinger R.D. 2002 ($279, score 92+) is a blockbuster blend of 60% pinot noir and 40% chardonnay sourced from 23 crus (71% Grand Crus and 29% Premier Crus).  The R.D. stands for “Récemment Dégorgé” (recently disgorged in English.)  This means that this champagne aged on its deliciously decomposing yeasty lees until April 25, 2016 when it was finally poured off the stuff.  The resulting sparkling wine is a saturated pale gold with a deep, complex, harmonious and enchanting bouquet featuring notes of toast, autolysis, herbs and sweet spices.  It’s grippy in the mouth and persists richly for a long time.

Champagne Bollinger R.D. 1976, Magnum (priceless, score 93) was the generous gift of tasting participant Michael Barnstijn.  From a searingly hot summer, the wine was amber-tinged gold in colour with a still-vigorous mousse.  The nose was a harmony of autolysis, ginger, toasted nuts and buttered brioche.  In the mouth it was oxidative but not oxidized with autolytic flavours, a chalky grip and a very long finish.

Bollinger La Côte aux Enfants 2013 Côteaux Champenois ($115, score 90) is a still 100% pinot noir from Aÿ.  It’s aged for eight months in small three to ten year old barrels.  This specimen was a medium pale purple-tinged cherry colour.  The intense nose featured sweet ripe red berry fruit with a cola/root beer note.  In the mouth it’s fresh with velvet grip framing bone-dry sour cherry and cranberry flavours through a long finish. 

[For more information about Champagne Bollinger contact Ian L. Hanna at ianhanna@winetrader.ca]

 

 

 

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Champagne Jacques Selosse

The Selosse family had been growing grapes in Champagne for centuries when Jacques Selosse began bottling his own wines in 1959.  Hedging his bet, he continued to sell much of his crop to Lanson.  He needn’t have worried.  His wines found an audience and earned their keep.

After successful undertakings outside the family business Jacques’ son Anselme studied viniculture and viticulture in Burgundy, worked for a while in Rioja, and returned to Champagne in 1974 to apply what he had learned.  The eventual outcome of Anselme’s homecoming and involvement in Domaine Jacques Selosse was bigger than anyone could have anticipated at the time.  Folks began paying serious attention to his activities when the prestigious Gault Millau guide named him the top winemaker in all of France in 1994.

Anselme Selosse became a leading figure in what turned out to be two surgent trends in Champagne: He was among the first to popularize of “grower champagnes,” wines produced from grapes the growers traditionally sold to large houses.  Next, he became a practitioner of “la biodynamie.”  Biodynamic vine growing and winemaking is the creation of Rudolf Steiner, an early-20th century thinker with views on all aspects of society including agriculture.  In 1924 he presented an elaborate programme of ultra-orthodox organic techniques believed to bring vines, grapes and wine into harmony with the cosmos.  In addition to useful ideas about fertilizers and alternative methods of pest control, biodynamism relies heavily on what can be most kindly described as “folk wisdom.”

When I asked him about his current practices, Selosse replied that he no longer considers his operation to be biodynamic.  With a very Gallic shrug and a sigh he said “it’s not biodynamic.  It’s about the grapes and capturing terroir.   Biodynamics has become a creed more than a technique.”)  He picks and chooses the aspects of biodynamism he believes help in achieving his goals.

Anselme Selosse’s winegrowing philosophy is centred on growing grapes that rigorously reflect the site where they were grown and intruding as little as possible during their transformation into wine.  “A vineyard is a living thing.  I’m a butler, not a controller; an obstetrician, not a plastic surgeon.”  He crafts intense characterful bottlings and eschews wines in a crowd-pleasing house style year after year, preferring to craft intense characterful bottlings.  “I like the unfamiliar.  My wines are like an ugly French singer whom all the ladies love.”  He harvests very late to ensure full ripeness and avoids malolactic fermentation to preserve maximum acid freshness.  He ferments (using indigenous yeasts) and ages his base wines in oak and acacia barrels, sometimes new, for periods depending on the nature of the vintage.  He regards oxygen as “life” to his wines.  His levels of the sweet liqueur de dosage are very low and, in some cuvées, zero.  His blends lean heavily on reserve wines.  He packs nineteen vintages in one of his cuvées.

When a delegation of Circle of Wine Writers members visited Champagne Selosse last autumn, Anselme was bringing in the last of his fruit.  Despite his wine weariness he was a thoughtful, direct and engaging host.  He presented three of his wines, all of which were outstanding.  Production is very limited and prices straddle $200.

Jacques Selosse “Initiale” Blanc de Blancs Champagne (score 90+) is a lovely pungently autolytic blanc de blancs with ripe orange fruit and mineral notes.  It’s crisp and creamy and leaves an impression of sweetness through the fruited autolytic long finish.

Jacques Selosse V.O. (Version Originale) Blalnc de Blancs Extra Brut (score 91) sports a funky autolytic nose and a crisp chalky grip on the palate.  It’s got beautiful corners and is long.  

Jacques Selosse Les Carelles Blanc de Blancs Champagne (sc0re 91) was a blend of base wines from the ’07, ’08 and ’09 vintages.  The nose marries mineral, autolytic and smoky oxidative notes.  It’s crisp, minerally and autolytic with caramel notes on the palate through a long pleasing finish.

 

(Left:) Anselme Selosse ponders questions from a group of CWW members at his winery in the middle of harvest.  

(Right:) Selosse’s freshly-pressed chardonnay juice was dazzlingly sweet and mineral with distinct crunchy chalky mineral notes.

 

In 2011 Anselme Selosse and his wife Corinne opened Les Avisés, a hotel-restaurant in Avize.  Our group was treated to a luscious lunch there.  If you’re ever in Champagne, have a meal or stay there.  It’s as warm and charming as its proprietors.

 

 

[Thanks to the Comité Champagne for hosting CWW members in Champagne.]

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Champagne Jacquesson

Champagne Jacquesson was established in 1798.  The house flourished through the 19th century under the eponymous founding family.  In 1920 ownership passed to a broker, Léon de Tassigny.  In 1974 the business was purchased by Jean Chiquet.  The baton passed to his sons Jean-Hervé and Laurent Chiquet in 1988.  This history explains how Champagne Jacquesson manages to be old and new at the same time.

A dozen members of the Circle of Wine Writers enjoyed a relaxed lunch with Jean-Hervé at the winery in Dizy last autumn.  He told us that he and his brother took over from their father “to make better wine.  We were right.”  Their plan was to reduce production, which has gone from 450,000 bottles a year in ’88 to 260,000 last year.  This has been achieved partly by reducing yields, more rigorous shoot pruning and generally stressing the vines.  Pesticide use in the vineyards has been eliminated (except for copper sulphate and some fungicides to treat mildew).  Pheromonal traps are now employed to reduce insect pests.

The Chiquet brothers also made changed in the chai.  They use a vertical press because “it disturbs the grapes less.  The skins are never fully ripe.”  Pressing is stopped earlier to reduce bitterness.  The base wines are aged in “mostly large old oak.  We don’t want any oak flavour.”  Malolactic fermentation is initiated “as needed.”

The Chiquet brothers make production decisions such as the level of sweetening dosage by assessing the wines separately and comparing notes.  Jean-Hervé noted with pleasure that they always agree.  “We have the same taste.”  These and other techniques have led to richer flavours and rounder textures in Jacquesson’s finished champagnes.

The mainstay of the Jacquesson product line is the Cuvée 700.  It’s a blend of several vintages from first pressings of the house’s three Grand Cru and two Premier Cru plots.  Each release is given a three digit number beginning with 7.  The back label decodes the number, identifying the predominant year in the blend.   The Cuvée 700 wines are not intended to be a non-vintage brand crafted to reflect a house style year after year.  They’re meant to be expressions of a particular year, buttressed by older reserve wines.  They’re released at two stages of their development, with four or eight years of aging.  The late disgorged DT version is more complex.

Jacquesson’s sparkliest sparklers are their single vineyard wines, produced only in years when they aren’t needed for the Cuvée 700.  These wines, treated in the same way as their 700 siblings, are all about terroir.  Certain parcels have revealed great typicity which, especially in favoured years, is captured in these bottlings.

Here are my impressions of two Cuvée 700 wines from two vintages, a Cuvée 700 DT, three single vineyard white champagnes, and a single vineyard rosé sparkler.  Prices in Canada are hard to guess (but I’d guess around $70 to $120.)  I can say of all the Jacquesson Champagnes I tasted that I’d buy them if I saw them.

Cuvée 700 wines:

Cuvée no. 738 (score 90+) is based on fruit from the 2010 vintage.  It has a bright nose with rich pear fruit, autolytic aromas, a caramel note and mineral nuances, framed in a brisk creamy structure through a long crisp finish.

Cuvée no. 739 (score 90) was made mainly from the 2011 vintage.  It’s more balanced and broader than the 738 if a bit less exciting.  The wine has an earthy nose with restrained autolysis and a toasty note.  It’s crisp and round in the mouth with a lingering citrus pith finish.

Cuvée no. 728 Dégorgement Tardif (DT) (score 91) is 2007-based.  Part of the cuvée was released in 2011.  The remainder, released as the D.T., was aged on its lees until 2015.  The powerful nose features autolysis, sweet spice, delicate minerality ad a smoke/toast note.  It’s fresh, round and creamy on the palate with a long, fresh autolytic persistence.

 

Single-vineyard wines:

Dizy Corne Bautray 2005 (score 91+) is a charmingly delicate but intense wine with aromas of minerals, smoke and toast, acacia and ripe lemon fruit.  It’s fresh, round and lemony with a long complex finish.

Dizy Corne Bautray 2007 (score 91+) received zero dosage.  It’s focused, harmonious and autolytic, crisp, ripe and long in the mouth.

Avize 2005 (score 91+) is sweetly autolytic with ripe lemon fruit and lots of power.  It’s crisp, round and well-fruited with good rich length.

Ay 2009 Rosé (score 90) received no dosage.  It’s a deep salmon colour, acquired by skin contact rather than the ore usual addition of still red pinot noir to white base wine.  The nose flaunts big autolytic aromas, strawberry fruit and sweet spices.  It’s fresh and fruity.

[My thanks to the Comite Champagne, who hosted our happy band of wine writers.]

 

 

Jean-Herve Chiquet has an intense personal relationship to his vines, evident in the hand-harvest at Jacquesson.  Friendly competitor Eric Rodez lauded Jacquesson Champagnes as “made from the heart.”

 

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