Category: Wine

Australian Tasting 2015


By J.P.Lon (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons

Public tastings at wine merchants can be a haphazard business. As much as you’d like to get an in-depth sense of each wine and increase your understanding of a country, a region, a grape variety, or a style of wine, it’s nearly impossible to accomplish in a crowd-filled room. Judging the colour of the wine in dim lighting is difficult, and swirling wine is perilous amid all the elbows and bottles. You quickly learn to give spitters as wide a berth as the milling crowd will allow, and not to be alarmed by the crunch underfoot of an errant water biscuit. It’s not a contemplative atmosphere – nor should it be. It’s a social event and shopping excursion for most people, with a chance to taste a few wines and buy a few bottles. If most of us struggle to get more than a general impression of each wine at that kind of event, it’s fine. That’s not really the point.

We attended a tasting like that last night. Crowded, genial, full of distractions and, luckily for us, also full of good Australian wines. We made an effort to take a few notes to share.

The Whites

We have one conversation over and over again as we begin tasting white wines. You are almost always given crisp, inoffensive white wines with a touch a fruit. Always perfect examples of a style or a variety or a particular terroir. And for Daniel, always perfectly uninspiring. There’s never anything wrong with them, but he wants a wine that’s provocative and stimulating, an event all by itself, instead of one that goes brilliantly with seafood starters or is easy drinking chilled as background noise at a barbecue. I suppose I have more patience for wines that only become special with food or at a particular moment in time. You don’t drink wine under laboratory conditions: Sometimes the magic happens in the interplay of wine and occasion, wine and the flavours of foods, and wine and interaction with other human beings. The four wines below all veer, to a greater or lesser degree, towards boring him (he’s nudging me to remind you how many good basic whites he gets to sample at work) and seeming like a good summer drinking to me.

Madfish Great Southern Riesling 2014

This was our favourite white of the night. It has crystalline clarity, clean and zesty citrus aromas, and high acidity, along with mouth-watering lime flavour and very delicate hints of the aromatic and mineral qualities you would expect in a Riesling. If we had one complaint, it was that this wine didn’t exhibit those Riesling qualities a bit more strongly, but we’re prejudiced as great fans of Riesling and that shouldn’t take away from what a fine, versatile dry white wine this is.

Tahbilk Nagambie Lakes Marsanne 2012

There’s something uncommon in the aroma of this wine. It has citrus and stone fruit on the nose, but also a mineral edge to the perfume similar to bath salts. The citrus and peachy flavours echo the aromas, but there’s also something honeyed and a bit herbal to it. It’s less honey than honeysuckle, with that dash of wildness and earthiness. Tahblik specialises in Rhône grapes such as Marsanne, Roussanne, and Viognier, and claims to have the largest single holding of Marsanne vines in the world. This wine also ages well, developing additional richness and complexity.

Blind Spot King Valley Pinot Gris 2014

This wine is one of a group of Australian wines the Wine Society sells under the Blind Spot label, aiming to bring exceptional small producers in Australia out of the wine industry’s “blind spot” and into wine glasses. We very much enjoyed a Blind Spot Champagne-style sparkling wine from Tasmania at a tasting last year, and so we always try other Blind Spot wines with great interest. This is a classic Pinot Gris, with the crispness and easy-drinking qualities you’d expect. It has grapefruit on the nose with flavours of apples or pears, and less of the aromatic quality of an Alsatian Pinot Gris. While this will surely be a fine summer sipper, we couldn’t help wondering what ever happened to that Blind Spot Tasmania sparkling . . . .

Bleasdale Adelaide Hills Chardonnay 2013

Bleasdale is an Australian wine producer we particularly like. It’s rare that we don’t have a bottle of the Wise One Tawny around the house, and Bleasdale’s Sparkling Shiraz is one of our favourite sparkling reds. Had we but sufficient cash in the wine budget, we’d keep bottles of 2012 Frank Potts in our collection too. This Adelaide Hills Chardonnay is picked by hand and fermented in French oak with wild yeasts, so fans of oaked Chardonnay will love the toastiness accompanying the stone fruit flavours. This wine should age well for three or four years, and should be very food-friendly.

The Reds

Blind Spot Yarra Valley Pinot Noir 2014

Blind Spot Yarra Valley Pinot Noir was a surprise hit with us both. It offers a bit of cranberry on the nose and blueberry on the palate, with smooth tannins adding structure. It’s light-bodied and elegant, and probably delicious with charcuterie.

Jamsheed La Syrah 2013

This is an Australian shiraz with cherry and bramble flavours that don’t overwhelm the slight spiciness and pepperiness. It’s elegant and restrained, with firm tannins that will stand up to bold or meaty dishes.

Pitchfork Margaret River Cabernet-Merlot 2013

This blend was Daniel’s favourite red of the evening. It’s 75% Cabernet Sauvignon and 25% Merlot, with big, dark berry flavours on the nose and lively, juicy flavours. There’s a hint of eucalyptus or mint too, along with good acidity and considerable structure from the tannins.

Bleasdale The Broad-Side Langhorne Creek Shiraz Cabernet-Malbec 2012

Another offering from the fine folks at Bleasdale, this time a blend of 43% Shiraz, 37% Cabernet Sauvignon and 20% Malbec. Ripe, almost jammy flavours of purple plum, blackcurrant, and blackberry lead into firm tannins that slowly build, a quality that can be a touch of genius when paired with food.


Famille Hugel

Wednesday I was fortunate enough to attend a staff wine tasting of Hugel wines at the Wine Society. I actually went in on my day off just for the that, which should be an indication of how interested I am in the wines of Alsace and in Famille Hugel wines in particular.

Daniel at tasting

Daniel, smiling in blue stripes at work on his day off

The Hugel family has been producing wine in Riquewihr in Alsace since 1639, which is remarkable continuity when you consider how many times Alsace changed countries and official languages during the same period (six times since 1639, by my count). The Hugel family features prominently in Wine and War by Don and Petie Kladstrup, which, if you haven’t read it, is an collection of accounts of how the French tried to preserve cellars, vines, vineyards and the vintners themselves from the Nazis during World War II. We’ve just finished reading the book ourselves and will post a full review soon, but while many of the stories blur together in the Kladstrups’ descriptions, what happened to the Hugel family really stands out.  Two Hugel brothers were conscripted into the German army and one, once he had managed to survive the Russian front and return to liberated Riquewihr, felt he had to go back to Germany and fight again as a soldier in the French army. The two brothers were actually on opposite sides of the fighting at the same time during a battle near Lake Constance. It’s frankly the sort of thing you’d find unbelievable if you saw it in a film. If you’re interested in reading more about the Hugel family during World War II, you can read excerpts on the Hugel website or in Wine and War.

Three generations of the Hugel family were in England this week for wine tastings and to announce the rebranding of the company from Hugel & Fils to the more inclusive Famille Hugel, as well as the launch of the family’s first single-vineyard wine called Schoelhammer. Schoelhammer is made from grapes from just 30 rows of south-facing Riesling vines, and the first release is from the 2007 vintage.

Famille Hugel

Famille Hugel

The energetic Etienne Hugel, Directeur General at Famille Hugel, and his son, Jean-Frederic, took charge of the staff tasting at the Wine Society and lead us through the fascinating stories of the family, its vineyards, and the great wines they produce. It’s always a pleasure to talk with producers who are so expressive and in love with their wines and grapes. The father and son team had us nodding and laughing, all the while learning from them in a most pleasant way.

We tasted a variety of Hugel wines, each of them impressive in its own way. The tasting notes below are mine, but the links will take you to the product page on the Hugel website.

Gentil Hugel 2012 (The Society’s Vin de Alsace 2012)
This wine combines noble grapes of Alsace: Riesling, Gewurztraminer, Pinot Gris, Muscat and Sylvaner. The result is a refreshing wine with a crisp, lively aroma and bright, but not biting acidity. It has good length and generous juicy fruit. Blending the qualities of these disparate grapes also makes this wine a good all-rounder with food.

Pinot Gris Tradition, Hugel 2012
This wine is quite dry and the sort of wine I enjoy most when I have it with food. It seemed to me to have a slightly shorter length than the Gentil. The acidity and the aromatic qualities of this wine would pair particularly well with fattier poultry such as duck and pheasant, or with game.

Gewurztraminer Tradition 2012 (The Society’s Exhibition Gewurztraminer 2010)
Etienne Hugel called this the family’s most curry-friendly wine. In fact, anything with any sort of spice will go extremely well with this. This wine has all the characteristics you associate with a fine Gewurztraminer: the aromatic qualities, the hint of spice, the freshness and delicacy. It’s as good an example of a classic Gewurztraminer as you are likely to find.

Riesling Jubilee 2009
This is one of the most expressive Rieslings I’ve had in a while. There is so much on the nose, with a fine flintiness and acidity. It’s well balanced with ample fruit and floral aspects that promise much for years to come.

Gewurztraminer Vendange Tardive, Hugel 2007
Etienne Hugel says this sweet wine is perfect with blue cheese. There’s acidity to lift the wine, so it avoids being cloyingly sweet, and while full of perfume and fruit flavours, it shows restraint. The 2007 we tasted was excellent, but we also tasted a 1998 that was divine. It was almost a pity I had to leave and get on with the rest of my day off.

The Hugel family is set to appear in a feature article in Decanter magazine next month, if you’d like to learn more, or the Famille Hugel website is full of additional information and truly beautiful photos. You can also follow Famille Hugel on social media.

The Festive Bird

For anyone who doesn’t happen to know this, the traditional Thanksgiving meal in the United States is very similar to the traditional Christmas meal in Britain. The turkey, stuffing/dressing, gravy, cranberry sauce — it’s all there in November in the States and December here. The big exceptions are that in the US there would probably be sweet potatoes, while in the UK there would be brussels sprouts. The desserts are different  too, of course — and just as an aside, Janet was delighted to find ground cloves this year, which has never happened before. Whole cloves are well and good for curries and mulled wine, but she never was able to grind them quite finely enough for her pumpkin pie, much to her annoyance. This year she found them tucked away amid some Caribbean curry powders. Maybe she should have been looking for ground cloves as “laving powder.”

laving powder

We face the “what to serve with turkey” question quite regularly this time of year, so we’ll share our go-to answer. We favour the increasingly popular approach among holiday hosts and hostesses of choosing a sparkling wine, a red wine and a white wine to offer at Thanksgiving dinner. There are always guests who insist they *only* drink red or white, and sparkling wines, with their bubbles and acidity, suit most holiday fare, from party foods and first courses through the main course. The wines need to be good all-rounders that will pair well no matter which foods end up on a guest’s plate.

For white wines, skip the oaky Chardonnay and try instead food-friendly Rieslings and Gewurztraminers. The balance of slight sweetness and acidity in a good, dry Riesling cuts through what can be a very heavy, fatty meal and refreshes the palate, as do aromatic Gewurztraminers.

For red wines, try for a lighter Italian red or a Beaujolais, both of which pair beautifully with festive meals. Pinot Noirs can also be quite good for holiday meals, especially if ham is being served alongside the turkey, as often happens. A Châteauneuf-du-Pape from the Rhône is also a popular choice, or you might try its neighbor, Lirac, or a Côtes du Rhône Village wine for a similar taste of the southern Rhône for a more agreeable price.

And what did we have this year for Thanksgiving? Well, as it’s an ordinary Thursday night in Britain and not a national holiday, we tend to keep things simple, with just enough festive touches to make Janet feel like she’s celebrated, but not such a meal that we are left drowning in leftovers a month before we’ll be drowning in the same leftovers again. We had a roast chicken with a few of the traditional Southern sides Janet loves best.

And much to our delight, a friend gave us a bottle of already-chilled Prosecco to add to the occasion. It was such a lovely gesture and the wine itself was very good. But even if it hadn’t been, we’d have drunk it and felt pleased about it, because that is ultimately what Thanksgiving is for. There’s no potentially contentious religious angle, and no gift-giving. It’s just enjoying food and celebrating, and being thankful that you can enjoy yourself and celebrate, wherever you are and whoever you are with. And even over a chicken in Hertfordshire.

The Vuelta a España Begins in Jerez with Sherry

The Vuelta a España, last of the Grand Tours of professional cycling for the year, begins today in Jerez de la Frontera. It could be the most exciting of the Grand Tours of 2014 too, if for no other reason than it will pit so many of the sport’s best riders against each other for the first time this year. Many top riders opted not to ride in the Giro this year, while the Tour de France saw several hot favourites to win crash out. In Jerez today, though, Chris Froome, Alberto Contador, Nairo Quintana, Peter Sagan, Joaquim Rodríguez and many others are present and ready to compete.

Last year’s Vuelta winner, Chris Horner, will unfortunately not be able to defend his title. Horner contracted bronchitis during the Tour de France and was given cortisone and a therapeutic use exemption to use it legally to treat his condition, but cortisone can lower cortisol levels in the body. Horner’s cortisol dropped below the minimum healthy level set by the Movement for Credible Cycling (MPCC), a union of seven professional teams sharing a common code of ethics to promote clean cycling, and as his team, Lampre-Merida, is a member, Horner was forced to withdraw before the Vuelta started.

If you look at the course of this year’s Vuelta (and if the image below doesn’t provide enough information for you, you can check the official Vuelta site for additional route details), you’ll see that it moves in a generally anti-clockwise direction from the start city of Jerez to the race finish not in Madrid, where the race frequently ends, but in Santiago de Compostela in Galicia.

Vuelta España 2014

For lovers of Spanish wine, this is a wonderful route, leading as it does through so many of Spain’s outstanding wine regions. The image below will give you an idea, but click on it to see the fantastic full PDF version on the Wines from Spain website.

wines from spain

If you want to lift a glass to the beginning of this great cycle race, there can only be one choice for a race that begins in Jerez: sherry. Jerez is the 2014 European Wine City, so there’s never been a better time to enjoy sherry, or introduce yourself to it, if you aren’t yet that well acquainted. We took advantage of International Sherry Week back in June to taste a variety of sherries and it was well worth it.

By El Pantera (Own work) [GFDL (, CC-BY-SA-3.0 ( or CC-BY-SA-2.5-2.0-1.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

By El Pantera (Own work) [GFDL (, CC-BY-SA-3.0 ( or CC-BY-SA-2.5-2.0-1.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons

This image is of a sherry cask with a transparent lid lets you see the development of flor, the layer of yeast on the surface of the sherry as it ages. The entire process of making sherry is fascinating, and there’s a good overview of the method on Sherry Notes. Catavino also does a good job of summing up the myths surrounding sherry drinking (tip: put down that traditional sherry glass!).

We aren’t planning to cover every stage of the Vuelta in the way we did the Tour de France this year, but as we love Spanish wine, we probably won’t be able to resist a few posts about Spanish wines. What are your favourites?

The 32nd Day of Riesling

“Rieslings were the first wines I ever loved,” the wife said as she was pouring the wine into the glasses. There followed a story about bottles of terrible wines that she and her friends pretended to like at university until this one night, in the Rheingau, when she went to a tasting of Rieslings. Rieslings became for her the wine by which all others had to be measured. Whilst my path to Riesling love may have been different, I feel much the same, and we routinely buy Rieslings when we want a white wine for holiday dinners or special celebrations. I think for most people that is the highest compliment you can give.

If you’ve missed it, we didn’t just end the month of July, but the “31 Days of Riesling.” In a fit of generosity, we’ve decided to extend that by a day and offer you a 32nd day of Riesling. To end this summer’s celebration of Riesling in style, we’re going to profile an exceptional wine, Tonschiefer Dry Slate Riesling 2012 from Weingut Dönnhoff.

By Jacquesverlaeken (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

By Jacquesverlaeken (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons

Weingut Dönnhoff is in the Nahe, and if you are not that familiar with German wine regions, you may not recognise the name. The region takes its name from the Nahe, a tributary of the Rhine. It may be one of the smaller German wine regions, but the range of soil types and the quality of those soils for wine-growing are exceptional. The Dönnhoff family grows vines on nine sites across 25 hectares of Erste Lage, or Grand Cru, vineyards.

Oberhäuser Leistenberg — Near Oberhausen, in a small side valley of the Nahe, and the oldest vineyard held by the family. The slopes are steep and the soils are decomposed grey slate.

Oberhäuser Brücke — Also near Oberhausen, and not just the smallest Dönnhoff vineyard, but the smallest vineyard in the Nahe region. It’s across from a bridge (hence the name, which means “bridge” in German), and a microclimate created by how close it is to the river. The soil is grey slate bedrock with a layer of loess loam.

Schlossböckelheimer Felsenberg  – Near Schlossböckelheim and on a steep southern slope. The soil is a  weathered volcanic porphyry soil

Niederhäuser Hermannshöhle – Near Niederhausen, and often called the best site in the whole of the Nahe. The soil is a blackest grey slate mixed with extrusive igneous rock, porphyry, and limestone.

Norheimer Dellchen – Near Norheim, on steep cliffs that rise from the river banks and terraced with stone walls. The soil is mainly slate mixed with stony precipitate sedimentary rock.

Norheimer Kirscheck – Near Norheim, on a soil composed mainly of grey slate mixed with sandstone.

Kreuznacher Krötenpfuhl — Near Bad Kreuznach, on a loess loam soil with lots of small quartzite pebbles that warm up in the sun and hold the heat.

Kreuznacher Kahlenberg – Near Bad Kreuznach with a gravelly loam soil.

Roxheimer Höllenpfad  – Near Roxheim, on a steeply sloping vineyard in a small side valley on weathered red sandstone.

The Dönnhoff family came to the Nahe over two hundred years ago, and for many years their land was a mixed farm combining vines, food crops and livestock. Current owner Helmut Dönnhoff’s grandfather took the decision to specialise in viticulture. The vast majority of the Dönnhoff vines are Riesling (80%), along with Pinot Blanc and Pinot Gris. Helmut Dönnhoff told Dr. Christian G.E. Schiller that the family no longer irrigates any of their vineyards:

“We do not irrigate at all. We irrigated in the 1950s. My father and his colleagues did it for frost protection. After 10 or 15 years of doing it we realized that the wines were not better. In particular we saw that in places we did not irrigate, the wines were better. The roots went deeper, the wines were more intense. So we stopped irrigation 25 years ago.”

The vines are grown on low-to-the-ground wire frames and harvested by hand in successive passes. Helmut Dönnhoff runs the family business these days alongside his son, Cornelius.

For us, the standout quality of the Tonschiefer Dry Slate Riesling 2012 is its amazing balance. Lots of people comment on the wine’s minerality, a touch of slate, but Janet usually finds minerality in a wine too much and it becomes all she tastes. Not with this Riesling, though. There may be a hint of wet slate, but it’s so perfectly balanced that she barely detected it at all, nevermind finding it overwhelming. The wine has a good acidity, but for all that it still feels rich. It’s beautifully dry, but that is balanced by the surprising juiciness. That fruit is hard to pin down, but it’s a zesty citrus flavour leaning towards lime or maybe unripe green apple. There’s a slight honeyed sweetness in the finish, but there’s a mouthwatering aftertaste that leaves your juices running. We both loved it. It’s 12.5% abv and drinking until at least 2019.

There are a number of accounts of visits to the Weingut, and many of them make interesting reading, whether you are thinking of visiting or just thinking of buying a few bottles.  The Amateur Wino, Marie’s Blog, and Schiller-Wine are three to get you started, and they include lots of tasting notes. You might also find Englishman Alex Down’s account in his blog, The Riesling Revolutionary, of leaving his job as a lawyer in the City of London, to pursue a life in wine, a journey which led him to working for a month in the Dönnhoff vineyards. His experiences, in addition to being interesting generally, tell you a lot about the terroir and spirit of Weingut Dönnhoff.


Did you miss…

Did you miss our post on the wines of Alsace? It included tasting notes for Domaines Schlumberger Riesling Gran Cru Saering 2011, another excellent Riesling.

TdF Stage 17: Borderlines

Australian Michael Rogers took the win in yesterday’s stage 16 of the Tour de France, despite occasional bickering with Thomas Voeckler and other members of the Europcar team about management of the breakaway group. Rogers won two stages of this year’s Giro d’Italia, but this was his first Tour de France stage win. This continues the Aussie’s upturn in fortunes since having a temporary suspension for suspected doping overturned. Vincenzo Nibali, still the Tour de France general classification leader, continues making his bike ride around France in the yellow jersey look easy.

stage 17

Stage 17 continues the race’s tour of the Pyrenees near the French-Spanish border, nipping over into Spain at one point. Nibali may seem to have an unassailable lead in the GC competition, but the stage wins are up for grabs, with many riders who usually spend their time supporting their team leaders unleashed to try for individual glory. We could see another new face on the podium yet again.

While the Tour is rolling through the Basque areas along the border between France and Spain, we want to profile Irouléguy AOC, the small, but excellent wine region in that border region. The Tour doesn’t pass through the geographical area, but it’s so close that we couldn’t resist. The AOC is named for the village of Irouléguy in Lower Navarre in Northern Basque Country, the only AOC in Northern Basque Country. As the local joke goes, it’s “the smallest vineyard in France, the biggest in the Northern Basque Country.”

Irouléguy, le vignoble. Photo prise le 03/08/06 par Harrieta171

Irouléguy, le vignoble. Photo prise le 03/08/06 par Harrieta171

Before AOC certifiation in 1970, lots of grape varieties were grown, but now chief red varieties grown are Bordelesa Beltza (Tannat), Axeria (Cabernet Franc) and Axeria Handia (Cabernet Sauvignon). White varieties include Xuri Zerratia (Courbu), Izkiriota Ttipia (Petit Manseng) and Izkiriota (Gros Manseng). Production is about 60% red, 25% rosé, and 15% white. The terrain is very steep, but the mountains protect the area from harsh winds and create a microclimate with great potential. The soil is generally reddish because of high iron content, but otherwise varied, consisting of clay, red standstone, slate and gravel as the terrain rises from the areas close the rivers into the foothills of the mountains.

The reds of Irouléguy are powerful with strong structure and tannins, but also lots of brambly black fruits and earthier flavours. Rosés are good food wines with lots of juicy fruit flavours. As for whites, well, we’re not sure we can sell you on the whites of the region as well as this description of Irouléguy Blanc Hegoxuri from Domaine Arretxea on the blog of wine importer, Les Caves de Pyrène:

“Irouléguy Blanc Hegoxuri? Bing! One of the great unsung wines of South West France? Bing again!

Sometimes, like Phil Connors hitting the mark with Ned Ryerson in Groundhog Day, a wine is so sharp, so on the money, that it is positively uncanny.

Hego is a wilful beast. When the wine sings, however, it hits pitch perfect high notes and bursts smilingly onto the most jaded of palates.  A wildly aromatic blend of 50% Petit Manseng, 40% Gros Manseng, 10% Courbu with pronounced notes of tropical fruits–pineapple, grapefruit and passionfruit – this crunchily pure dry wine has wonderfully balanced acidity and luminous mountain mineral verve on the palate. Displaying brilliant tension, dynamic thrust and crystalline purity it tingles the buds and leads a merry citrus dance over every part of the tongue. There is a brilliant balance between ripeness and liveliness, somewhere between fruit and fruit zest that keeps you guessing and ensures that the wine is thoroughly alive from the first moment it touches the tip of the tongue to the final flourish as it disappears with alacrity down your gullet.”


Domaine Arretxea is one of the chief domaines in the region, along with Domaine Brana, Domaine Illaria, Domaine Etxegaraya, and Cave d’Irouléguy. Tom Cannavan’s article “Irouléguy: The Mountain Kings,” includes an account of his visit to Domaine Brana, as well as tasting notes for wines from the main producers in the area, if you’re looking for specific wines you might like to try. You probably won’t wander into a supermarket in England and find wines from Irouléguy lining the shelves, but you will probably find them somewhere near where you live, if you look around a bit.

TdF Stage 16: Le Goût de Grêle

Translation: The Taste of Hail

Alexander Kristoff of the Katusha team won a second stage of the Tour de France, and the wind didn’t play as big a role on stage 15 as did the downpours that drenched the riders on parts of the race. Martin Elmiger, who has been so prominant in breakaways in this Tour, and New Zealand’s Jack Bauer escaped the peloton and were achingly close to making it a two-man battle in the final sprint, but they were caught by the peloton within meters of the finish line. Meanwhile Vincenzo Nibali retained the yellow jersey and seems likely to hold it all the way to Paris, unless illness or a crash disrupts his brilliantly consistent performance.

stage 16

After the rest day, the race resumes today in Carcassonne for the Tour’s longest day. It should be good day for climbers, with four minor category climbs before the finish line in Bagnères-de-Luchon.

There are many great wines in the region, and as tempted as we were to talk about some of them, Carcassonne was also at the centre of violent hailstorms earlier this month that continued a summer of devastation in France’s vineyards.  Instead of discussing a wine, it seems more important to talk about hail, what hail does in a vineyard, what it means for wine production, and what it means to lovers of wine, too.

The storms on 6 July 2014 struck appellations around Carcassonne, particularly Minervois and Corbières, damaging as much as 80-100% of the vines in the area. In June, hail struck in Bordeaux and Cognac for the second year running, and in the Côte de Beaune in Burgundy for a third year in a row. In Pommard the hail was so fierce that witnesses compared it to machine-gun fire hitting the vineyards and it was all the more cruel coming as it did after ideal weather conditions had made an excellent crop seem within the grasp of growers.

If you’ve ever been in a hailstorm, you’ll know that the hail varies in size, and even the smallest pieces of ice falling from the sky stings as it hits your skin — skin that is tougher than delicate stems, leaves and grape skin in a vineyard. Photos and videos taken during and after these storms show that the hail didn’t just come in the form of small slashing pellets, but also ice almost the size of golf balls.


You don’t have to be a grape-grower or even a gardener to guess the effect such a slashing and pounding could have on grapevines, but some of the after-effects may not be as well-known to those outside the industry. Disease may increase, and any damaged berries may become mouldy and cause entire bunches to become mouldy. Canes that would have become next year’s fruit-bearing wood may have become damaged, and if they are not carefully pruned or removed, next year’s crop could also be affected. And once the time comes to make wine of this year’s grapes — however many remain — there is also the risk that the hail may taint the wine in another way by giving it le goût de grêle, the taste of hail. Négociant Mark Haisma explains it:

“One of the effects of hail is that the affected berries die and shrivel up. This is a good thing on one hand, mostly they fall off and do not affect the rest of the bunch, leaving the remainder of the bunch to mature as normal. However, these little, shrivelled-up guys don’t always fall off, and if they are not sorted at the sorting table they will enter into the fermentation tank. This is when we potentially get this hail taste and unfortunately it doesn’t take much affected fruit to cause this character.”

After hail struck Bordeaux in 2013, Jancis Robinson featured a two-part article (here and here) by Gavin Quinney of Château Bauduc that captures the misery of the experience for individual growers and their families. You wonder how anyone could go through the experience once, let alone the threat of hail over and over again each year.

Why aren’t producers in France doing something about the hail? Actually, they are, and they’d love to do even more. One of the more surreal elements of the recent hail stories coming out of France was news that the anti-hail cannons had failed. Anti-hail cannons? As far back as the early 1900s there are photos of vignerons shooting rockets, cannons, shotguns — basically any weapon avaiable — into clouds in hopes of dispersing the hail and bringing rain instead. This was apparently based on the observation that there was frequently rain after a battle. These days anti-hail cannons fire silver iodide into the clouds to cause the hail to fall as rain instead. These cannons aren’t in use in all areas of France, but they were during the most recent storms in Burgundy, and no one knows why the technology was so ineffective.

via @cparentgros

via @cparentgros

Beyond hail insurance, which is prohibitively expensive, and ineffectual (and again, prohibitively expensive) anti-hail cannons, there is one other option that French growers could use, were it not prohibited under current Appellation Contrôlée regulations: hail nets. Tim Atkin describes the planes that fly into clouds to seed them with silver iodide in Argentina, as well as the anti-hail nets that are also in use there, and some Burgundian growers are experimenting with putting nets around the sides of a few vines to see what effect they have (after informing the government and making certain they wouldn’t be endangering their AOC status, of course).  Nets over the top of vines alter the terroir by blocking too much sunlight, or so the argument goes, but nets along the sides of the vines, protecting only the fruiting areas, might not. Whether the nets would do more harm than good, and whether the French authorities would allow them, remains to be seen.

Meanwhile, French producers are sifting through the wreckage of this year’s crop — possibly even your favourite producer. What should a wine lover do? Some have suggested leaving affected French producers to their fates and just drinking wine from other regions or countries, but there are other, better options that may help producers recover from disaster. Growers are rallying around each other, with some unaffected growers offering to sell part of their crop to their neighbours, and wine buyers, whether trade buyers or individual drinkers, could show some of the same solidarity. Instead of simply looking elsewhere for wine, we can see what possibilities there are to offer support. After Château Bauduc was struck by violent hail in 2013, the Quinneys held a “hail sale” afterwards to sell off 2010 and 2011 vintages and raise some much-needed funds — funds he has said on Twitter were crucial to their survival. Frédéric Palacios, owner of Le Mas de Mon Père in Malepère in Languedoc, whose vineyards were entirely destroyed, has launched a Facebook page and suggests that wine-lovers could help by buying his remaining 2011 and 2012 stock, his 2013 vintage which is soon to be bottled, or paying for six bottles of a future wine he plans to call “La Part de l’Orage” (Storm Wine) and will make from grapes sold to him by his neighbours (–solidarity-and-social-media-for-hail-victims). A little loyalty and compassion could be the difference between surviving a disaster and going under, so if are able to support hail-struck producers through buying existing or future stock, consider doing it.


TdF Stage 15: Against the Wind

Polish rider Rafal Majka of Tinkoff-Saxo yesterday took his first ever professional victory in Risoul, bringing a bit of joy back to the Tinkoff-Saxo team that hasn’t had much to smile about since team leader Alberto Contador was forced to abandon the race with a fractured leg. Majka’s win was all the more extraordinary because he wasn’t even supposed to be at the Tour de France this year, but was only a last-minute substitute for Roman Kreuziger, whose biological passport came under scrutiny. With so many team leaders either gone from the race, as Froome and Contador are, or vanishing from the leaderboard, as an exhausted Richie Porte seems to be doing, the individual stage wins have never seemed more open. The one constant is the wearer of the yellow jersey, Vincenzo Nibali. Some are suggesting he could have beaten Majka in the last few kilometres of the race, but allowed him to win both because neither Majka nor Tinkoff-Saxo are a threat to the yellow jersey and because the Tinkoff-Saxo team might be in a position to help Nibali in some way during this last week. We were glad to see Jakob Fuglsang was still racing, despite his crash the day before, and he still able to put in a strong performance.

stage 15
Today’s stage from Tallard to Nîmes is mostly flat, and the sprinters, who may have suffered over the tough mountain stages of the past few days, will again get a chance to shine. The strong winds may provide the real drama of the day. As rider Jean-Christophe Péraud was quoted as saying, “Wind! If it’s from the north of south, it’s across us all day and a well-motivated team could play mischief.”

As the race passes through Provence, we’ve decided take a look at one of the famous sweet wines of the region, Muscat de Beaumes de Venise. Beaumes de Venise is a village in Vaucluse near Vacqueyras and Gigondas. The story goes that the ancient Greeks first brought the muscat grape to Beaumes de Venise, and Roman historian Pliny the Elder was already calling the wine of the village remarkable.

The climate has a Mediterranean influence. It’s hot and dry with the Mistral tempered by the Dentelles de Montmirail massif. The soil of the north is a sandy marl, and the south is a clay-limestone mix. Vines are planted on narrow terraces called restanques or faysses, and are supported by stone walls.


Apart from Clairette de Die, which we talked about yesterday, this is the only part of the Rhône where Muscat grapes are grown, and Muscat de Beaumes de Venise was given AOC classification in 1945. Muscat de Beaumes de Venise is made from muscat à petits grains blanc and noir, and grapes are hand-harvested to select only fruit of the correct level of ripeness with a sugar content of over 252g/L. Mutage, the addition of grain alcohol to stop the fermentation of the sugars, must be performed with pure alcohol of at least 96%. The wines must contain at least 100g/L of sugar and feature at least 15% alcohol content. Sweet wines fortified with grape spirit in this way are called vins doux naturels. The resulting wine is more delicate than the high sugar and alcohol content would suggest, with a pale-gold colour, and fragrant floral and tropical fruit flavours.

Muscat de Beaumes de Venise is one of those sweet wines you may like having as an apéritif or after a meal in place of a dessert, but it is most commonly served as a dessert wine. In terms of dessert pairings, one of the most frequent recommendations is to try Muscat de Beaumes de Venise with strawberries and cream. The wine seems to have a particular affinity for berries in general, and it rarely goes amiss with berry desserts, desserts with caramel flavours or ice cream.  Another common way of serving it in Provence is with Cavaillon melons.

Muscat de Beaumes de Venise is frequently used in recipes as well, such as these:

Beaumes de Venise Cake with Grapes

Sabayon of Muscat de Beaumes de Venise with Fresh Berries

Berry Terrine in Muscat de Beaumes de Venise Jelly

Buttermilk Cake with Blackberries and Beaumes de Venise

Fruits Baked with Honey and Beaumes de Venise

Grilled Peaches with Muscat de Beaumes de Venise

Panna Cotta with Muscat Wine and Acacia Honey (this recipe doesn’t specify Muscat de Beaumes de Venise, but it would work well)

The Beaumes de Venise cake with grapes has been on our short list to try for a while, but the recent heatwave in England has put us off all inessential baking. Not drinking, though, so we recently tried Château Juvenal Muscat de Beaumes de Venise 2013.

chateau juvenal beaumes de venise

The estate that would become today’s Château Juvenal grew olives for generations, but in the 1950s, after a terrible frost destroyed 80% of the olive trees, the first grapevines were planted. At first the wine was not marketed, then the fruit grown on the estate was brought to a local cooperative Only in more recent years was the château itself fully restored and the decision made to make and market wine. Château Juvenal’s first vintage was in 2011. There is also a bed and breakfast on the estate. If you’re interested, there are reviews and photos of the gorgeous 19th century estate on Winerist, Provence Ventoux: Le Blog, and Château Juvenal’s website.

While we both thought Château Juvenal Muscat de Beaumes de Venise 2013 was a very good sweet wine, we had slightly different opinions of it, so here are both tasting notes.

Daniel: While I’ve always found the high alcohol content of most vins doux naturels can mute the fruit flavours of the wine, leaving just the hot alcohol burn of the spirit in bad examples, this wine has avoided that. You get the fantastic fruit and floral flavours of the muscat grape coming through, and while you do get a bit of alcohol burn, here you can really appreciate the orange blossom, honeysuckle, peach and lychee flavours. All in all, a wine for the producers to be proud of.

Janet: I don’t have as much taste for sweet wine as Daniel does, but this one was sweet without being sitcky sweet and cloying. The first flavours I noticed were stone fruits and hot white flowers. It also had a long honeyed finish that was exceptional. I definitely prefer this to the richness of most ports, the thick treacle flavours of Pedro Ximénez sherry, and the flavours of wines made from botrytised grapes, such as Sauternes, so if you are looking for a dessert wine but don’t generally like them, this would be one to try.


24/7/2014 Edited to add: I baked the Beaumes de Venise Cake with Grapes yesterday and it didn’t turn out well. That’s the first time I’ve baked grapes, and they aren’t improved by it. The texture of the cake was heavy and wet (and wetter still in places where the grapes had exploded), and there was no flavour from either the citrus or the wine, except for a slightly unpleasant taste at the end that I think came from the alcohol. I wouldn’t bake it again, but if you’re interested in other opinions, there were lots of very positive reviews with the recipe (see link above).

TdF Stage 14: Ain’t No Mountain High Enough

Today we’ll see if there truly isn’t any mountain high enough to keep Vincenzo Nibali from winning his first Tour de France. Yesterday’s peaks were high enough to crack Richie Porte and many others, but Stage 14 features the Col du Lautaret and Col d’Izoard, and if the climbs don’t shake things up, the very fast, steep and technical descents will. Fingers crossed that Jakob Fuglsang is able to continue after he was taken out by an errant water bottle. He finished the stage, but as we’ve seen, sometimes it’s the day following the crash that shows the severity of an injury. Fuglsang has been Nibali’s right-hand man during the Tour so far, but as Nibali showed yesterday after Fuglsang’s crash, he’s got the legs to go it alone when needed. Is the only drama left in the race seeing who can earn a podium spot beside Nibali? And whether Peter Sagan can win a stage, which seems to be the prize he has his heart set on this year, despite having a strangle-hold on the green jersey, if he can avoid crashes and other disasters for the rest of the race.

stage 14

We’ve opted today to talk about Clariette de Die, which is close by, if not exactly on the race route. It’s a wine that caught our attention recently and that isn’t very well known outside of France. It’s a naturally sparkling wine from the Rhône valley, with ancient origins, first mentioned by Pliny the Elder, but which legend has it goes back to Gallic tribes who left wine in jars in the Drôme River over the winter. Some versions of the story say the wine was placed there deliberately to overwinter, while others claim a shepherd put wine in the river to chill it and simply forgot. In either case, the wine was retrieved in spring and found to be pétillant (lightly sparkling), and for centuries afterwards, people in the region repeated the process.


Diose vineyards are some of the highest altitude vineyards in France, planted on the slopes of the Vercors Mountains in chalky argilliferous soil. We’ll admit to checking what kind of soil “argilliferous” soil is. The short version? It’s clay, with “argil” often used to refer to white potter’s clay. The clay in the soil helps retain water during the long hot summers.

To imitate the ancient river method of creating Clairette de Die, the Méthode Dioise Ancestrale evolved and is now protected by AOC regulation. The grapes are pressed immediately after harvest and left to ferment at very low temperatures for a month or two. The wine then undergoes a second fermentation in bottle until the fermentation ends on its own, leaving the wine slightly sweet. The only clarification the wine undergoes is a quick emptying and refilling, again intended to resemble the ancient way of making the wine. The local cooperative, Cave de Die Jaillance, produces 80% of the region’s wine and a full 10% is organic.

By Agne27 (CC BY-SA 3.0)

By Agne27 (CC BY-SA 3.0)

It must be made from a minimum of 75% Muscat Blanc à Petits Grains and a maximum of 25% Clairette, with some of the best made of 100% Muscat. The vinification process helps preserve the delicate grape flavour of the Muscat, but the wine is also characterised by aromas and flavours of peaches, tropical and citrus fruits, honeysuckle and white flowers. Clairette de Die is only about 8% abv, making it an agreeably light, slightly sweet celebration wine.  If you like Asti, which also has a slightly grapey Muscat flavour, you may like Clairette de Die even better. It’s ideal for those times of day when you don’t want a heavily alcoholic wine, and also a good dessert wine because of its light sweetness.

TdF Stage 13: The Way to Chamrousse

Stage 12 saw Norwegian Alexander Kristoff take the win from Peter Sagan, who was second over the line. The big German sprinters, Kittel and Greipel, were nowhere near, in Greipel’s case because of a crash at a roundabout just a few kilometres from the finish. Greipel seemed very annoyed to have worked so hard all day to get himself into position and stay there, only to have someone else’s error take him out of contention, but frankly, in this year’s Tour, if you’re able to get up and continue, you should still be grateful. There are a lot of top contenders nursing injuries at home watching the coverage on television.

stage 13

Stage 13 is one for the serious climbers, and may well reshuffle the standings. The Col de Palaquit is a first-category climb that the Tour has never visited before, and and this has been nothing if not an unpredictable race.

Before the riders make their way up to the race’s finish at the ski station of Chamrousse, however, they’ll pass close to some of the outstanding vineyards of the Northern Rhône, including Côte-Rôtie, which is located to the south of Vienne, just under 20 miles south of Lyon. The landscape has been worked since Roman times, and since the very beginning the steepness of the terrain, sometimes as much as a 60% gradient, has required effort and ingenuity. To secure the soil, stone walls called “cheys” were built, and most vineyards are planted on south- or southeast-facing slopes along the Rhône River. The climate is continental in the northern Rhône, instead of the Mediterranean climate of the southern Rhône, and the winters are usually wet and marked by cold mistral winds.

Côte-Rôtie via @JMiquelWine

Côte-Rôtie via @JMiquelWine

The slopes of the Côte-Rôtie are called Côte Brune and Côte Blonde. Legend has it that a 16th-century lord who owned the Côte-Rôtie divided his land between his two daughters, with half going to his golden-haired daughter (the Côte Blonde) and half to his dark-haired daughter (the Côte Brune). A less fanciful interpretation is that the Côte Blonde has pale granite and schist soils, producing wines of finesse and elegance, whereas the soil of the Côte Brune is a dark, iron-rich schist that produces a firmer wine. Both granite and schist retain heat, essential to holding the sun’s warmth as long as possible against the mistral winds.

Côte-Rôtie is the northernmost Côtes-du-Rhône cru and has been a registered AOC since 1940 and has 73 listed locations and over 100 producers. The wines of Côte-Rôtie are always red and made of Syrah, with up to a limit of 20% Viognier. Syrah produces wines with a deep colour and rich tannins, while the Viognier added fragrance, freshness and elegance. The AOC regulations stipulate that the Viognier must be added to the fermentation rather than blended later.

Côte-Rôtie via @isabelle_we

Côte-Rôtie via @isabelle_we

Classic Côte-Rôtie is deep colour and tannic from the Syrah, and need a decade to evolve and develop. The nose is among the most characteristic and unique aspects of the wine, with an aroma that frequently conjures up notes of green olives, raspberries, floral notes such as violet, and a meaty scent many people call bacony. The balance between these seemingly contradictory notes is fragile, delicate and not soon forgotten. The subtly savoury elements are the result of fermentation with stems — in whole bunches, in fact. It’s a technique that can add harsh tannins, but which in the hands of a master creates an array of scents, flavours and structure that could never be anything but a wine from Côte-Rôtie.

That’s the classic style of the region, however, and it has lost ground in recent decades to bolder, fruitier wines, with woody flavours from aging in new oak barrels. This newer style makes excellent wines that fetch high prices and garner high praise from wine critics such as Robert M. Parker, Jr., and they have raised the reputation of the region considerably. The most important force in the transformation of Côte-Rôtie has been the winery and négociant Guigal, which in the hands of  Marcel Guigal in particular has demonstrated a fanatical dedication to quality. Guigal’s three single vineyard wines La Mouline, La Landonne and La Turque, set the record for the most expensive release of any Rhône wine, retailing for as much as $800 per bottle.

As the older generation of winemakers dies out, there is less and less of the older style of Côte-Rôtie, as Eric Asimov’s lamented in the New York Times in 2012, but he noted, too, that there is an active middle ground between old and new where the older style and modern reinterpretation happily coexist. With such high quality and fascinating wines in all of the styles, wine-drinkers will always find something special from the region.