Australian wine is often viewed in a negative light in the United States, largely because of the big box exporters that flooded the market with less than spectacular critter wines in the late 90s and early 2000s. I was lucky enough to spend several weeks down under recently and am happy to report that there is some truly amazing wine coming out of the driest continent. Australia is a large country, split into 6 states and 2 territories. There is a lot of great wine coming from many regions, but the states producing the most wine are Victoria and South Australia. Other regions of note producing great wine are Tasmania, Margaret River in Western Australia, and the Hunter Valley and Canberra in New South Wales. New South Wales, on the southeast coast of the country, is home to several wine regions, including Hunter Valley, Orange, Mudgee, and Canberra. The Hunter Valley is located between 120 and 310 kilometers north of Sydney, and slightly inland from the coast. The first vines were planted in about 1829, and have remained phylloxera-free to this day. They typically produce wines that are low in sugar and alcohol. Often they’re aged exclusively in stainless steel, and rarely is any oak used. Many of the vineyards are planted in old creek beds, the sandy soil of which is perfect for the grape they’re best known for, Semillon. Clay soils are typical for red wine grapes, which engender low nutrient, low vigor, and low yield harvests. Another exciting region is the Canberra District, which encompasses vineyards in New South Wales as well as the Australian Capital Territory. However, due to land ownership laws in the ACT, very few winemakers are willing to sign on for a 99 year lease, and prefer to own vineyards in NSW outright. Because of the cool climate, the most successful grapes being grown in the Canberra district are Shiraz, Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, and Riesling. Often times Shiraz is blended with a small amount of Viognier, which results in an incredibly elegant and well-balanced wine. Not a lot of wines are exported from Canberra, so grab some when you see it! Silkman, Hunter Valley Semillon, 2015 $22.99 Stay tuned for more posts about other winemaking regions of Australia.
Why to drink Bordeaux Cru Bourgeois In my first post on Bordeaux Cru Bourgeois I explained: what they are: great Chateaux that didn't sell for enough to be classified as Bordeaux Cru Classé in 1855 how they came to exist: a bunch of the best non-Classé Chateaux banded together for marketing purposes, and why it all stopped working: it was too complicated and bureaucratic! In this, my second post on Bordeaux' Cru Bourgeois, I want to give you five reasons to look beyond Bordeaux' Grand Cru Classé–more specifically, five reasons to look at the Cru Bourgeois wines for delicious values that do everything we want our wines to do. 1. The Virtual Circle of Good Money Making Great Wines Applies to the Cru Bourgeois too For years, the Grand Cru Classé system worked like a beautiful virtuous circle. Because they were Grand Cru Classé, people bought their wines. Because people bought their wines, the Chateaux made more money. Because they had more money, those Chateaux could invest in better farming, better facilities, better talent. And even better land: when you're ready to expand your holdings, you'll need money to buy the best terroirs. With money you can afford to lower yields and grow less, but more concentrated fruit. You can sort more aggressively and just throw away fruit you don't like. You can declassify young vines or different terroirs and make a Second Wine. You can afford to do whatever it takes to make better wine. For years, only the Grand Cru Classés had that kind of money. So only the Classified Growths made ever better and better wine. But since around the 2000 vintage that has changed. The Grand Cru Classés became too successful. They charged higher and higher prices and lost of customers were priced out. Many of those priced-out customers discovered to charms of Bordeaux Cru Bourgeois. Especially customers in China, where Cru Bourgeois is widely recognized as denoting high quality and consumers often look for Cru Bourgeois when they want affordable, high quality Bordeaux. As a result, Cru Bourgeois has had a really good 15 years or so. Their recent successes were obvious when we toured the Chateaux. It was obvious across the board, from upgraded winemaking facilities and higher density farming, to the emergence of Second Wines and even the display of a few very expensive-seeming art collections. Definitely very Bourgeois! The bottom line is that the virtuous circle is no longer exclusive to the Grand Cru Classés. This was evident when I visited Chateau Charmail, an excellent Cru Bourgeois located up by Sociando Mallet. Purchased in 2008, the new owners are clearly investing heavily in improving the wine. Vine density has increased. Merlot plantings are being replaced with Cabernet (and Petit Verdot!). They've stopped using chemicals in their farming and have planted hedges to provide a more natural ecosystem. Our vertical tasting was instructive. The wines have always been good, but something clearly happened recently: the latest vintages are off-the-charts-good for the pricing. Easily as good as a Grand Cru Classé, and yet we are able to sell the 2010 Charmail for under $35! 2. Global warming and the Medoc No surprise: the Grand Cru Classés are all in the Medoc's sweetest spots, mostly in that row of famous villages that starts with Margaux and goes up to St. Estephe. A lot of this “sweetness” has to do with temperature. Historically speaking, those villages are exactly where you need to be to ripen Cabernet grapes–though only just. (Merlot ripens earlier so it’s a bit easier.) Any warmer, and the grape will ripen too easily, producing higher alcohol and very fruit forward Cabernets that miss out on most of Bordeaux’s charm. But any cooler, and the wines ripen in very few vintages. Most years you get weaker wines with flavors that are too green, even weedy. So the Medoc's top villages where all in that Goldilocks zone. Now, to understand where I’m going here, you need to appreciate the range of temperatures we’re talking about. Get out of the train station in the city of Bordeaux and you might be enjoying a warm sunny day of 75 degrees. T-shirt weather. But drive north to Seurin-de-Cadourne, the first village past St. Estephe, and you better grab your hoody when you hop out of the car because it's gonna be 64 degrees. Those few miles make a difference. It ain't 1950, and the sites that had ideal temperatures back then are a lot warmer today. The places that were too cool back then are the new Goldilocks. One of those places is Tour Castillon. A general rule of thumb is that the best Bordeaux is produced closest to the Gironde, the great river that flows due north from Bordeaux. There's an an old saying that the best Chateaux can see the river (if only from the turrets). Chateaux like Lafite Rothschild and Montrose. But go north from Montrose walking along the Gironde and the last Chateau you'll come across is Tour-Castillon–not a Grand Cru Classe but a Cru Bourgeois. The real estate is so much cheaper than further south that when I asked why a large lawn by the river wasn't suitable for vines, the owner explained that actually “it would be good for vines, but they would interrupt my view of the river.” I suspect in 10 years that lawn will be planted. The wines are excellent, for now (at least) wildly under-valued, and available (as of the time of writing) at our San Francisco store. 3. Small-scale, Artisanal Production in Bordeaux! Let’s face it, with a few exceptions, the Grand Cru Classés are big businesses. They're typically owned by insurance companies, Chinese conglomerates, or French billionaires who collect them like trophies. And they make tons of wine that's marketed like the high end luxury good it is. That’s also true of some of the Bordeaux Cru Bourgeois–but not most of them. Most of the are owned by actual families. There are brothers and sisters, sons and daughters, who care very much about what happens in the vineyards and in the winery. The typical Grand Cru Classe has more than 100 hectares under the vine. Many people say that truly artisanal wine production is impossible north of 50 hectares, and some put the number far lower, like around 20 hectares. There are a lot of Bordeaux Cru Bourgeois producing at this scale, and it shows in the quality of their wines. One very quick example: Saransot-Dupré. With only 15 hectares in Listrac-Medoc, all owned by the same family since the 1800s, this is a tiny and working in a traditional style that has all but disappeared among the Grand Cru Classes. The wines are amazing and I’m still working on getting a nice parcel to offer in our newsletter. (Be sure to sign up at the bottom of this page if you haven't already.) 4. Terroir diversity As much as we love the Grand Cru Classes, you have to admit that they suffer from a kind of…sameness. The reasons are probably historical. Markets, fashions and trends are fickle. They move back and forth. But the Grand Cru Classés are based almost entirely on what people wanted back in 1855. Back then, what people wanted was (mostly) Cabernet planted in the gravelly soils along the Gironde. For sure, that kind of wine is great. Maybe the greatest. But if you love diversity in wine, as we do, you also want to drink other stuff. That’s true even if you’re one of the lucky few who can afford to drink nothing but the Grand Cru Classés! Here’s what the Cru Bourgeois offers: limestone. The soils along the Gironde, where the GCCs are located, are pretty much uniformly gravel-based, with varying proportions of clay. But go north from there, into the Haut Medoc and Medoc, and you will find an extensive patch of limestone-based soils. Or go to the west, into villages like Listrac, and you find the same thing. Merlot and Cabernet Franc really love limestone (that’s why they dominate the Right Bank), and you find a higher proportion of those grapes in wines from those terroirs. The Saransot-Dupré wine mentioned above is a great example of this, as Listrac has limestone-intense soils that bring to the wine an elegance and floral quality that strikes quite a different tone from the famous wines you get just to the east. 5. The (160 year old) Grand Cru Classé system is out-dated This is really the crux of the matter: The GCC system was designed in 1855 to reflect the market of1855. The classifications have hardly budged since then. Nevertheless, it continues to drive pricing. This distorts the market. And wherever there is distortion, there are bargains. Happy hunting! And be sure to sign up for our newsletter because we’re going to find some of the best Cru Bourgeois values out there and offer them with amazing discounts that will only be available to subscribers.
Is there terroir in Cognac? In "Goldfinger" there is a great scene where James Bond and M are having dinner with Colonel Smithers of the Bank of England and learning about the gold business. After a presumably sumptuous dinner the banker brandishes a beautiful cut crystal decanter and says, "Have a little more of this rather disappointing brandy." M looks at and sniffs at his glass and asks, "Why, what is the matter with it?" Know-it-all James Bond states categorically, "I'd say it was a 30 year old Fine and indifferently blended with an overdose of Bon Bois." The banker replies, "Quite right." M, obviously perturbed says, "Colonel Smithers is giving the lecture 007." James Bond knows all about the terroir of Cognac What is Bond talking about? Look at the map of Cognac and you will see at the center, just below the town of Cognac, the region named Grande Champagne. Around that is Petite Champagne, which is in turn surrounded by Fins Bois which, finally, is surrounded by Bon Bois. There is even a further outlying region named Bois Ordinaires which obviously James Bond wouldn't touch with a ten foot pole. At the very center of the Grande Champagne region is the village of Segonzac. The plateau above the village produces the most age worthy brandies of the entire region. For me Cognac is the greatest illustration of the very concept of terroir, indeed I think that it proves that terroir exists. Here is an excerpt from Nicolas Faith's fantastic article, "Jurassic Vineyard - How Cognac Loves that Crazy Old Chalk" in issue 14 of "The World of Fine Wine" from 2006: "There is nothing except geography - and geology and all of the other factors that compose the mystery of terroir - to explain the superiority of brandies fem certain parts of the region, above all from the best subregion - and then, as we shall see, not the whole of the subregion. For there is simply no other possible explanation. To start with, virtually all of the vines are of the same variety: the relatively neutral Ugni Blanc. The dominance of this variety has reduced the effect of terroir when compared with the brandies produced before phylloxera from more aromatic varieties like Colombard and Folle Blanche. All the grapes are harvested at the same time at virtually the same alcoholic degree, which varies only between vintages and not between parts of the vineyard. The grapes are fermented in exactly the same fashion, then all of them are stored for a few weeks with no sulfur or other additive. The distillation process is equally standardized, taking place in precisely the same type and size of stills, with those for the second fermentation limited to 25 hectoliters. The stop and start points of the "heads" and "tails" - the flow of the first heavily alcoholic and last underproof spirit from each individual distillation - do indeed vary, but that's a matter of style rather than of quality and in any case the variations are pretty minimal. The raw spirit is then matured in oak casks of exactly the same size. They produce two rather distinctive styles of Cognac, depending on whether they are made from the relatively open-grained Limousin type of oak or the tighter-grained Troncais. But in marked contrast to the to the situation as far as wines are concerned, fine Cognacs are aged not just in both type of casks but also in those of very different ages - the most extreme are those made by the deeply reputable house of Delamain, none of which has ever seen a grain of new wood." So Cognac, unlike any other wine or spirit producing region is produced in the same fashion from the same grape variety. The differences come from the soils that these grapes are grown in and the blending of the brandies of different ages and the age of the barrels. The expert blenders in Cognac have found that the only brandies that improve with age past ten or fifteen years are those from the Grande Champagne region, especially from the plateau above Segonzac. Over the years more and more vines are planted in the very best subregions of Cognac and fewer and fewer in the Fins Bois, Bois Ordinaires and Bond's disappointing Bon Bois. After phylloxera ravaged the region it was replanted to one varietal. In Segonzac the chalk soil is highly porous and the subsoil is composed of thick bands of similar chalk. The thin topsoil drains well and the thick spongy chalk subsoil retains water releasing it slowly. This friable Jurassic chalk, called Campanian chalk, is only found on the upper slopes in the heart of the Grande Champagne region and includes a species of fossil that is found nowhere else: Ostrea vesicularis. The soil also contains lumps of crystallized iron pyrite called marcasite which, incidentally is also found in Pauillac. Petite Champagne has another variety of chalk called Santonian chalk which is almost as good for growing grapes to be distilled into spirit but that does not quite reach the heights of the best Grande Champagne cognacs. Interestingly more than fifty percent of the land in Grande Champagne is planted with vines, in Petite Champagne it is about thirty percent. The Bon Bois region is very large - three hundred and seventy two thousand hectares. In this vast region only twelve thousand hectares are planted to vines. Why? Obviously 007 - once again, knew precisely what he was talking about.
[caption id="attachment_11602" align="alignleft" width="600"] Gilbert and Ghuilhaume Clusel at work[/caption] Meet-the-winemaker tasting with Clusel Roch Cote Rotie's Cote Rotie is one of France's great regions... and bottles of Cote Rotie are generally priced accordingly. So these aren't wines we get to open very often. But today is special! Not only are we opening spectacular Cote Rotie from a top vintage, we also have the winemaker in the Manhattan store to pour the wines and talk about them. We hope you'll join us for this rare, free Cote Rotie tasting, Friday, November 17 from 5:00-7:00 pm at our Manhattan shop on Broadway between 21st and 22nd! (If you happen to be hanging out anywhere from Chelsea to Grammercy and NoMad to Union Square we're a short walk away and this tasting is well worth it!) Clusel-Roch is a tiny grower in Cote Rotie that makes some of the best wines from some of the rarest, most amazing Cote Brune terroirs. They have some super-old vines in "Les Grandes Places" (going back to the '30s) which transmit the terroir like only old vines can, and when they replant, they use only the traditional Serine clone. `The farming is biodynamic (Ecocert certified, even) and the yields are low. Vinification is relatively traditional (lots of whole clusters and aging in old oak with just some new) and the wines are do that magical thing of Cote Rotie, being both wild and elegant, intense but lithe. Come join us to taste and hear about the magic. We will taste: Guillaume Clusel, Coteaux du Lyonnais "Traboules", 2016, $16.99 Cote Rotie, 2013, $59.99 Cote Rotie, Vialliere, 2013, $94.99 Cote Rotie, Les Grandes Places, 2013 $109.99 (and, anything else the winemaker fancies!) All the wines will be 15% off for newsletter subscribers!