Is This The Only 100% Biodynamic AOC in the World?



I’m doing a little bit of work at the minute on rosé from Provence and thought it’d be a good idea, if I’m going to do a half decent job, to do a shed load of background reading on the subject.  It’s incredible how often this happens in wine, but it was another occasion of reading around a subject you assumed would be a bit samey and being completely bloody wrong.  Not only that, but I’ve stumbled across my new favourite wine region.

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Did You Know Blowers Has His Own Wine?

France, Reds, Uncategorized, Whites


Unless you’re into cricket, you won’t know who Blowers is. Henry Calthorpe Blofeld is arguably the most famous cricket commentator in the UK, and is famed for his very eloquent, Old Etonian style of taking us through the summer’s cricket for Test Match Special, an absolute institution on British radio. In fact I’ve just been listening to it this morning and heard Michael Vaughn and Jonathan Agnew talking about last night’s knees up round Blowers’ place, and nailing back his own label wine. How have I not tried Blowers’ wine?

The Best of Burgundy #2: Ooooooh ABC, Easy As 123

France, Whites

I’d never really heard the expression before earlier this year, but apparently it’s a fairly well known one in wine circles. ABC. Anything But Chardonnay. It came about due to the influx of chardonnay wines coming in from all parts of the world, where it was used to benchmark new areas against the old.

As I said in the opener to this series, chardonnay is a pretty hardy grape and can grow most places. Name a wine producing country and someone somewhere is making a chardonnay. Because of this it’s used sometimes as some sort of universal comparison tool. And because of this, some areas try to make it their own with really outlandish techniques. In the US for example, they love ageing in oak barrels (adds flavour from the wood), or putting oak chips into the fermenting tanks. One wine critic came away from a tasting session of US chardonnay scathing “I feel like I’ve just given Pinocchio a blowjob!” Some producers clearly went over the top, and world chardonnay became a difficult sell to the average punter.

No wonder he always looks so happy!

No wonder he always looks so happy!

Try telling that to Burgundy, the historical heartland of chardonnay production. Well over half the grapes grown in Burgundy are chardonnay. If it’s a white wine from Burgundy, and it’s not got a label telling you otherwise, it’s 99% likely to be chardonnay. It’s a grape, like Pinot Noir, that will give different wines from soils that are 200 yards away, let alone the 200+km of the vineyards of Burgundy. For me, that’s why people who go around spouting “ABC” are idiots. There are so many styles, just in Burgundy, that generalising makes you sound like a tool.

In the north of Burgundy is the appellation of Chablis. These tend to be pretty acidic (think refreshing) with green fruit flavours (because it’s a cool place) and some minerality (it’s what chardonnay is famous for, think what it’s like to lick a stone…in a good way). They’re labelled in the same way as with Pinot Noir, so Premier Cru and Grand Cru exists. Also there’s wine that’ll be called Petit Chablis. This is similar to Chablis, but it’s grown on soils outside the legal requirements of Chablis AC. So they call it Petit Chablis to help with marketing.

In the middle of Burgundy is the an area called the Côte de Beaune. Now are you ready to get the credit card out here? Cos you may need it! Because some people reckon this is the mutt’s nuts of world chardonnay, it can be eye wateringly expensive to buy this stuff. Here you get the villages of Meursault, Puligny-Montrachet, and Chassagne-Montrachet, amoungst others. (Same deal here with the town councils, the villages of Chassagne and Puligny shared the world famous vineyard of Montrachet, so they double barreled up!). Winemakers keep yields low (less fruit, but more flavour) and make a fairly full bodied wine, with lots of oak flavours (vanilla and toast). I’ve been fortunate enough to try a few of these wines (I wasn’t paying!) and, without trying to sound like a wine snob, you could sit there and taste these wines for hours and come up with something new each time.

Chassagne-Montrachet starts at around £35

Chassagne-Montrachet starts at around £35

Towards the south of Burgundy you get the Mâconnais region. Possibly the best value white wines in Burgundy. You still get a couple of famous appellations down here, such as Pouilly-Fuissé, but on the whole the area produces solid quality chardonnays, in what is a slightly hotter area. This means the fruit flavours are a bit different than further north (so peach and melon) and they can be pretty full bodied whilst still being refreshing. A bottle of Mäcon in the shops could be £5-£8, and Mâcon-Villages (from slightly better sites) around £7-£15. Really not bad at all.

So don’t give me that ABC rubbish. You will definitely find one you like!


My Back Is In Bloody Agony!

France, Info For Beginners


Harvest 2013

So this time of year it’s time for the wine growers of the northern hemisphere to poke their heads out of the houses every five minutes and make the most important decision of the year. When is the perfect time to harvest their grapes?

Grapes are a funny thing to harvest. You want to leave them on the vine for as long as possible to give them the chance to be big, fat, juicy, and full of flavour, but leave them too long and they fall off a cliff and become saggy and bitter and are much more prone to rotting on the vine. Think of it like when you’re making toast. It’s picking that split second between when it’s still just bread and when it’s so burnt its mother wouldn’t recognise it.

This is the decision that can make or break a year. Once made though, you’ve got to go full beans at it. You start picking and you don’t stop til the grapes are picked, processed, and into the fermentation tanks. Sleep is for wimps!

Obviously with huge amounts of grapes to pick, land to cover, and processing to be done, it can be a very labour intensive time. Lots of machinery has been developed so that the processes of picking, transporting, and sorting the grapes can be done by a few people and a lot of machines. But in some places either the land itself (if it’s very sloped or uneven) or local wine laws mean that you can’t use machines. It’s time to rent in your workforce for a few days.

It’s a big cost to the winegrower and obviously adds to the overall cost of production and hence the price of the end wine. So when I said I’d love to come out and get stuck in myself (for free of course), I wasn’t exactly short on offers. It just so happened though that a good friend of mine hooked me up with a slot helping out at Chateau Guadet, a Grand Cru Classé estate (don’t worry about what that means if you don’t know) in St Emilion in Bordeaux, in France.

The view from the back of the tractor.  Those buildings at the back is the village of Saint Emilion

The view from the back of the tractor. Those buildings at the back is the village of Saint Emilion

Vincent, the owner and head of operations there is a close mate of JB, of 20h33 fame. I sent all my passport details and insurance docs to Vincent the night before (in keeping with the winemaking laws). I kipped over at chez JB, and we trundled off to the vineyard early enough to wake the cockerels up. Or so I thought. Harvest was already in full swing. JB got sent down to the chateau to man the sorting table (to stare at grapes all day and pick out the undesirables). I got told to stand on the back of the tractor, loading the full crates of grapes onto the back of the truck, and giving the pickers some new ones. Sounds pretty easy right?

My station for the day, the trailer, the empty boxes on the left weren't empty for long!

My station for the day, the trailer, the empty boxes on the left weren’t empty for long!

It must have been about 250 boxes, each with about 20kgs of grapes in it. So quick sum in my head….er….what’s that? 5000kg of grapes? Jesun my back was in bits! We kind of wimped out and left by 3.30 to go pick up JB’s kids. We got an email from Vincent thanking us after he’d finished sorting the last box, at 11pm! He started again at 7 the next morning. Day 6 of about a 2 to 3 week period. I’ve been told next year I’m over there for longer or else!

There were some great upsides to being there. First and foremost, getting to man the tractor with Vincent. What a legend! After finishing his wine studies at university, he spent a few years globetrotting, working in Australia (where he picked up a dodgy accent and even dodgier hat!), Chile, and the US picking up all kinds of tips from winemakers across the world. Now he’s back putting new life into his incredible winery in Bordeaux. I once said that no question is a stupid question. I think I may have put that to the test with Vincent on that tractor. Bless him!

Secondly was lunch, made by the expert hands of Vincent’s mum. She was the coolest person in the place that day, and made sure all her boys and girls were well fed and watered. We also had the luck of chowing down in the chateau itself, the last wine making chateau still in the village of St Emilion itself, and sporting an incredible wine cellar complete with graffiti on the walls put there by the hiding aristocracy in the French Revolution. Unreal place. Absolute treat.

And last but definitely not least, I will definitely be getting hold of a bottle or two of the 2013 vintage. I mean, I’ve got to right? I mean, I near as damn it made it myself! Or at least that’s what I’ll be telling everyone. Unfortunately it’s not going to be available for release until 2016. Hopefully my back will have recovered by then!

I’d love to take this opportunity to thank Vincent for his kindness and patience with a frustratingly talkative novice; to Vincent’s mum and dad for allowing me anywhere near their house covered in mud and squashed grapes; and to JB for the place to stay, the laughs, and the lessons on how to drive on small country roads in France!

Anyone who starts getting into wine in their lives, I’d definitely recommend a day or two helping out with harvest. I’m trying to avoid sounding like a knob when I say this, but even just one made me feel really into the process.

Or maybe that’s just cos my vertebrae still require traction therapy.

To any winemaker out there, all the best with the rest of your harvest, we’ll be here waiting for what you produce!


The French Adore…

France, Info For Beginners


An Introduction to Wine Labels

I’ve just come back from my first ever auction. It was a bankruptcy auction where apparently fine art and wine companies have gone bust and members of the public can come in and low ball bid their old wares. Well, seemed like too good a chance to turn down for me. I went down and had a quick look at the wines. There were one or two incredibly high priced wines on offer, but otherwise I wasn’t that impressed. Mostly they were average wines from areas in France with famous names. If you’re bidding this stuff at a bankruptcy auction and paying more than a fiver a bottle for it, then you’re missing the point…or so I thought.

The lots came up and I couldn’t believe my ears. The auctioneer was doing a great job talking them up, and the punters lapped it up. Each and every bottle up went for what I can only say was at best retail price, some of the more famous brands going for much higher than you could have walked down the road to Majestic and paid for them. Was it auction fever? Well yeah possibly. I think it’s got more to do with most people’s inability to read labels and understand what they’re buying above the name.

This is a famous trick used in the wine industry for years. Non-wine producing nations, with slightly less understanding of what they’re buying tend to go with what they know in times of crisis. There’s a famous brand from the 80s (still going now I think) called Piat D’Or. This (British invented) wine was sold with a big gold label and the tag line “The French adore Le Piat D’Or”. Marketing genius. It worked so well. People come into the shop and they saw the gold label, they knew it, they didn’t trust themselves to look around, so they went for it.

To this day marketing is an almighty power in the UK wine market as general punters struggle to grasp what they’re buying. Look at companies like Wolf Blass, or Blossom Hill. The marketing involved sells perfectly. These aren’t bad wines at all, I’m not suggesting they’re not good, but they take a much larger share of the market than they would otherwise because it’s familiar. We know it. We buy it.

Wine labels can be broken down to more manageable chunks.

Starting with the producers’ name…

Let’s use Blossom Hill. A product of the Diageo empire. It’s there up close and in your mush. Now what these guys do well is consistency. They are going to produce a wine each and every year that tastes exactly the same as the last. Someone comes back to it, they want to know what they’re buying. Will they ever produce something that’ll knock your socks off? Probably not, but the chances of buying a duff one is equally small. It’s solid. It’s consistent. It sells.

On the flip side of this, let’s look at a couple of French Chateau producers. Let’s take Chateau Montrose and Chateau Mugron. Both with pictures of beautiful, ornate chateaus on the front. One will set you back £100, the other £10. How would you know the difference? Once you walk away from big brand names, you need to read the details further.

For independent producers, vintages are important…

Think about what we said regarding the consistency of big brands. They have huge areas of vineyards and if in one year the weather isn’t great in one place, they can source from somewhere else in the empire and still produce a consistent wine.

Smaller producers are a bit stuck. If the year’s not great for the vines where theirs are, then it’s not as easy. The product will alter year on year. If you’re looking at two wines from Bordeaux, you can compare chateaus in the same year, or the same chateau over two different years. You need to keep something consistent.

People who are into their wine aren’t always just trying to sound like knobs when they bang on about vintage. It does make a difference for the smaller guys. Luckily most of the staff at wine merchants (the Majestics of this world) have a decent input in what years where like and can help you get started with comparisons.

It’s helpful to get to know a few quality classifications…

Most wine producing countries have their own classification system. These systems control area, production method, etc. to ensure that each year if the product is as good as it can be for that wine in that area. Chablis is a village, but it’s also an appellation. Anything with that on the label you know it’s produced under strict guidelines in a very specific area of France. Are there better Chablis wines than others? Of course, but just the having the name Chablis on the bottle proves a base of quality (or that’s the idea) and commands a premium on price because of it.

There’s a catch here though. Sneaky wine makers put things like “Vin de Bordeaux” on their bottles. Now you may think: “I’ve heard of Bordeaux, they make great wines” and pay up accordingly (as was sadly the case earlier today at this auction). Well that’s not actually a controlled labeling term. It’s table wine from South West France. It may still be a great drop of wine in an exceptional vintage at a ridiculously good value price. But just watch it before paying up for it.

It’s a lot easier to talk about national classification systems as we talk about the specific country in a few weeks.

Don’t be phased by comments on production methods…

The label might have a big old “OAK AGED” or “BARREL AGED” or something as impressive sounding. Remember it’s there as info to you. It means something. It will alter the taste, maybe sometime in ways you don’t like. Chardonnay for example is notorious for being sold in heavily oaked styles. Personally, I don’t like it like that. If that info is on the bottle I won’t pick it up. Other people will. It’s all good info.

Main thing to look out for is the grape variety…

Some bottles won’t have this on the bottle. The French are notoriously frustrating when it comes to this. They think everyone in the world should know white Chablis is made from Chardonnay. Ignore that for now.

As you continue to drink more and more wine, you’ll start to get a handle on grape varieties. Which you like, or which you don’t. How they change across the world.

I can’t help but think that the guys and girls who just paid £20 a bottle for table wine could have benefitted a bit from reading this. Then maybe they’d have just done what I did; sacked it all off, pick up a couple of cheap Lowry prints, and head for home.

Left staring at Lancashire mill scenes and wondering what might have been.