21 Dec 2012

Recapturing the vibe (Montalcino, Italy - Day Two)

It’s such a relief to simply be in holiday mode after most of the past 14 months have been spent not only travelling but researching and arranging appointments and then writing as much as I can. I have joined my parents who have flown up from Melbourne for us to travel in Italy for my last six weeks in Europe. Not only is this a great experience for me not having seen them for over 14 months, but also my mother brought me as a baby to Italy for five months whilst she worked on her masters in a dialect from Campania. I may have mentioned in a post back in April that I was actually returning to Italy after almost 30 years, and now my mother and I are reunited in Italy as well. As I am travelling I won’t be doing much writing in the hope of making the most of the trip with my parents, but they are interested to visit a few wineries whilst we are here so I will write about them. I raved to them about how beautiful Montalcino was, and as we were staying a few nights in Siena to the north and we were passing through, I made an appointment to a winery that I didn’t visit when I was here before.

Poggio di Sotto

19 Dec 2012

Impressions of France

This post has been almost twelve months in the making, as the first region I visited in Europe was Champagne way back in the third week of January, and my final one in Europe was Burgundy. Over the year I have made periodic visits to France which was not intentional but merely a product of its very central location in Western Europe, and the fact that most of the regions happen to be quite close to the borders of other countries. It is important to keep this in mind as I collect my thoughts and look back on my experiences on the most famous wine producing country in the world. It is also important to keep in mind that my visits to different regions in France have come at different stages in my experience and thus each new region I visited in France was actually a big jump forward in my development having focused on another country entirely (Germany, Italy, Spain etc.) By the time I got to Burgundy I had seen the best that the rest of Europe had to offer and had a significantly better understanding about wine production, viticulture and the concept of terroir. So without further ado, here are my impressions of France.

Day 1 in French wine country

16 Dec 2012

Here endeth the lesson (Beaujolais, France)

Fourteen and some months after I left Australia I arrived at my last day visiting wineries, and it certainly has been quite a journey. As it turns out I am very glad to be finishing in Burgundy, partly because I generally love the wines and they are amongst my favourite in Europe, but also as Burgundy is such a diverse and often complicated region that I was glad to have had all the previous experience before visiting. Having already visited the Chablis and the Cote d’Or on my previous trip in 2010 there was very little that surprised me in these regions and it was more a question of familiarising myself further. South of the Cote de Beaune on the other hand was a different story, as not only did I know very little about these appelations but I had had almost no tasting experience with them. Unfortunately I wasn't able to secure any appointments either in the Cote Challonaise or the Cote Maconnaise and had to be content with driving through parts of the area to see the type of landscape it is. One of the more famous appelations in the Cote Maconnaise is the village of Chardonnay, not because of the quality of the wines but because it is supposedly the birthplace of possibly my favourite white grape variety. Technically still part of Macon but a different appelation to the south is the famous Beaujolais which totally took me by surprise, and I was pretty happy to finish somewhere that did. The king of varieties here is gamay, and there are no other parts of the world that grow it in the quantity or quality they do here. There is a separate appelation for Beaujolais Blanc wines which are 100% chardonnay, but really it’s the gamay that makes this region what it is.

A cold day in Beaujolais

12 Dec 2012

So good they named it twice (Cote de Beaune, France – Day Two)

The famous village of Chateauneuf-du-Pape wasn't always named as such, it was renamed from just Chateauneuf after the Papal regime had all of their best vineyards here back in the 15th century. The association with this important period in history was strong enough to change the name of the village, thereby highlighting the importance of viticulture, and today it is the largest single appelation in France. This isn't the only village in France that has changed its name to signify the importance of viticulture, some of the most famous are in Burgundy. Within the Cote d’Or, villages that neighboured the best grand cru vineyards began to take the name of the vineyard to lift their profile. Gevrey became Gevrey-Chambertin, Chambolle became Chambolle-Musigny, Vosne became Vosne-Romanee and Aloxe became Aloxe Corton. Arguably the most famous white wines in the world come from the Montrachet Grand Cru vineyards which are between the villages of Puligny and Chassagne, and thus they both took the name of the vineyard and became Puligny-Montrachet and Chassagne-Montrachet respectively. In a way this is like a seal of approval or a sponsorship, but in the same way that a sponsorship from Pepsi doesn't guarantee that The Spice Girls are good, just because the fruit comes from a classified vineyard it doesn't mean it will be the same style or the same quality. This is one of the problems with the appelation classification system, is that it is merely for a place and not for the human influence, and two wines from the same vineyard but a different producer can be very different. As I always say, trust the producer first and the rest will follow.

Barrels and bottles

A Beaune to pick (Cote de Beaune, France - Day One)

Something that amazed me when I first came to Burgundy back in 2010 was how small the region was compared to how important it was, particularly in comparison to Bordeaux which is as big as it is important. The Cote d’Or stretches for about 40 kilometres from North-East to South-West, and is as narrow as 500 metres wide in such places as Premeaux-Prissey. The amount of wine that is produced can’t be that much considering the yields of only a few tonnes per hectare, and yet you can find Burgundy all around the world. Despite the relatively small size of the region there are a lot of differences between each part, particularly between the Cote des Nuits and the Cote de Beaune. The Cote de Beaunes starts in Aloxe-Corton, stretches north of the town of Beaune (the heart of the Cote d’Or) and continues past it all the way to just past Chassagne-Montrachet. I was always confused by the claim that the red wines of the Cote des Nuits were more feminine than their counterparts further south, whereas I (and several of my fellow students at university) felt the opposite was true. Pinot noir from the Cote de Beaune is first and foremost lighter, more pure and fresh, shows the minerality better and most importantly is more approachable sooner. I much prefer the red wines of the Cote de Beaune for all of these reasons, but it is also the chardonnay wines that distinguish this part of Burgundy as supreme, with the Montrachet Grand Cru parcels producing arguably the best white wines in the world. I was thrilled to visit three producers today that all exemplify the style of the Cote des Beaune yet have their own unique expression of it.

Ma Cuisine, one of the best dining experiences of my trip

10 Dec 2012

What goes around (Cote des Nuits, France – Day Three)

Now that winter has arrived I feel like I've come full circle in Europe because I arrived mid January in Paris. Back in February when I was in Germany you may remember that the temperature dropped well below zero and there was quite a bit of snow in regions like the Mosel, Rheingau and Franken. The morning of my third day in the Cote d’Or I awoke to falling snow that continued all morning and covered the cars, houses and buildings quite beautifully. It also made driving a little more challenging both for visibility reasons but also as the road was a little slippery. Seeing this just reinforces the fact that these wine regions North of the Loire Valley really are very cool-climate, and you would very rarely see snow in any regions in Australia, even further south in Tasmania. These cold temperatures and snow or frost are of course the reason that grape vines go into dormancy by turning brown and into canes, to protect themselves. It’s a shame that humans can’t develop a hard exterior that perfectly protects them over the winter, we would save a fortune on heating expenses, warm clothes and car problems. My final day in the Cote des Nuits I visited three small producers all with a different approach and expression.

Nuits-St-George vineyards under snow

9 Dec 2012

Expressions of interest (Cote des Nuits, France - Day Two)

One of the true revelations of my journey has been to discover the four components of what makes a great wine which must all be present and in balance. The first is the vine (obviously), but more importantly the right variety for the place. The place is the second component; for lack of a better term the terroir or the environment, which includes the climate but not the weather. The weather is a part of the third component which is the vintage, and how the specifics of the entire year can influence the character. The final component is the influence that people have, which includes everything viticulturally, oenologically, philosophically, spiritually and financially. All four components have their own influence on the character of the wine and to be a great wine they must be all working together, however one or more of the four often stands out more than the others whether intentionally or not. The most common component to dominate is the human influence of winemaking and something I am beginning to realise is that this is true in every region, even here in Burgundy. Winemakers whether deliberately or not want to impart their signature on the wine through anything from skin contact, use of oak, fruit sorting, ripeness of fruit at harvest and even the type and amount of filtration. So even within a single vineyard you may have slightly (or very) different expressions of the other three components. My day consisted of three appointments, all north of the village of Nuits-St-George.

Water is an important resource for wine production

Chalk and cheese (Cote des Nuits, France - Day One)

There is a very good reason that the part of Burgundy between Dijon and the beginning of the Cote Challonaise is referred to as the Cote d’Or or Golden Coast, and it’s not because of the colour of the leaves in Autumn. It’s because the greatest and most aught after wines in the world are from this mysterious and unattainable part of the world, crafted from only two varieties, either pinot noir or chardonnay. These are the benchmarks not only for wines made with these grapes but all wines, particularly cool-climate elegant wines. I visited here as part of my 2010 trip, only spending a total of three days which included one in Chablis. With so little time back then I ended up visiting three negociant style houses based in Beaune and only one small producer in Volnay, but none in the Cote des Nuits although I did taste wines from this area. When I drove back from Dijon to Beaune after my visits in Chablis I passed all the vineyards that have such mythical names, realising just how small the appelations are. Some domaines own many hectares of vineyards in a multitude of different appelations and buying fruit or wine to make up the difference, releasing 50 or more wines each year. Other domaines are pure proprietors who only make wines from their own meagre holdings less than 15 hectares, often within one village. The difference between these two types of burgundy houses can be profound as I discovered on my first day in the northern part of the Golden Coast.

They use these at Louis Jadot to indicate when they have tasted from a barrel and it needs topping up

5 Dec 2012

Keep it simple (Chablis, France – Day Two)

If anyone has played competitive team sport in their life they may have heard of the KIS principle, which stand for Keep It Simple. Looking back on my trip I am finding it fascinating that many of the wineries and regions that I most connected with have this same principle in mind. Even more interesting is that this connection was regardless of red or white wine, but applied to philosophies and practices as well as style. The clarity purity and minerality of the rieslings I tasted in Germany blew me away, as did the gruner veltliners in Austria. Some of the best wines I tasted in Spain were those that were straightforward and approachable, such as the albarinos in Rias Baixas and the verdejos in Rueda. In terms of French wine, the simple white wines of the Loire Valley and Chablis have a special place in my heart, as the minimal intervention they make in the wineries means it is purely the expression of the variety in their particular terroir. In fact there are a number of similarities in terms of climate and soil composition between Sancerre, Pouilly and Chablis, but the latter chooses to express through chardonnay rather than sauvignon blanc. The minerality of these regions is legendary, but I am starting to see there are some different expressions that still follow the KIS principle.

Some of the characters of Chablis

4 Dec 2012

The name game (Chablis, France - Day One)

When I was younger I didn’t like my name. In terms of my first name I didn’t really have a problem with James, but I didn’t like it being such a common name, nor did I like derivations and colloquialisms of it, like Jim, Jimmy or Jamie. Considering how uncommon my surname is and how much of a individual I attempted to be, you would think I would like my surname but this was not the case. I wasn't a fan of the length of it nor did I like the fact that people could neither spell it by ear nor could they pronounce it when reading it. I love my name now, being proud of its uniqueness and also as the last male Scarcebrook in the family I have a sense of obligation to continue the name. People in Europe, particularly France, are similarly fiercely proud of their names, often naming their children after themselves. Continuing the family name carries over to the family business as well, but complications arise with splitting of estates between children or establishing new estates with the same name. Within the same village it is not uncommon to find several producers of the same name, and within an entire region this could multiply significantly. Not for the first time on my trip I arrived at the wrong winery because it had essentially the same name, even though there is no relation between them. This gets complicated out in the market as a producers name is effectively their brand, so when someone else is using the same brand their products can reflect on your own reputation. I guess this is another complication that makes wine so special, and it is important to trust your source, be it a restaurant, store or importer.

Limestone clay and a bit of chalk

2 Dec 2012

It is and it isn't (Pouilly, France - Day Two)

I've never really understood the phrase “the exception that proves the rule”, and I'm wondering if someone can explain it to me. Doesn't an exception by definition DISprove a rule? Isn't that the whole point of a rule? I understand the concept of “rules were meant to be broken”, never more appropriate than when talking about the rules and regulations around appellation des origine controlee (AOC) in France, and similar denominations in other European countries. The idea that the best wines are produced from certain varieties in certain terroirs perfected over the centuries isn't the question for me. The question is the determination of yields and practices in the vineyards in cellars that are determined by this quite rigid system. In terms of planting other varieties, not only can you not label any wine made from the varieties, but the mere existence of them is forbidden. Around Europe there are mavericks looking to shake things up a bit, breaking away from the norm and attempting to disprove the rules, or prove the exception. One of these is Domaine Didier Dagueneau.

Domaine Didier Dagueneau

1 Dec 2012

Everybody needs good neighbours (Pouilly, France - Day One)

In the world of wine there are a few appellations that neighbour each other and are almost identical in terms of the climate, variety and style. Yet for some reason they aren't as large or well known as these neighbours. One that comes to mind is Barbaresco and Barolo, the former being a third of the size and yet both are made from nebbiolo and are planted on the same soil type. Another more recent one I visited was in Touraine where the king of whites is Vouvray, but just across the river is Montlouis-sur-Loire where they also produce crisp fresh white wine from chenin blanc. Adding to this is the Pouilly-Fume appellation, which sits on the eastern/left bank of the Loire River, is about 40% the size of Sancerre and is also made with sauvignon blanc. There are some similarities in terms of soil with variations of clay, flint and chalk (much like in Chablis in fact). An interesting difference is that there is an additional AOC within Pouilly called Pouilly-sur-Loire, surrounding the town of the same name, which is exclusively planted to the more traditional chasselas variety and totals only 50 hectares. There is enough similarity in the style to be able to buy Pouilly-Fume instead of Sancerre and not be disappointed, particularly as the prices are a little friendlier. Head into your local independent boutique wine store and get them to recommend some alternatives to the better known wines you may drink, and you may discover something even better for the price.

Chateau de Nozet, the unofficial heart of Pouilly-Fume