Monday 25 June 2012

Wines from Châteauneuf – Approved by the Pope!

An interesting distinction of French wine is how every region displays its own unique personality. Bordeaux boasts stately chateaux and is the jewel of French wine, having achieved fame early due to its location as a prominent shipping port. At the other end is Burgundy with its image of industrious rather than flamboyant winemakers. During the French Revolution, vast tracts of land were seized from the church and sold off piecemeal, resulting in the fragmented vineyards we see there today. To truly appreciate French wine one has to delve into the rich history of each region.  
Châteauneuf-du-Pape, a wine region in Southern Rhône, holds a fascinating story in its past. The name translates to “Pope’s new castle” and refers to a time when the Pope ruled not from Rome, but from the French city of Avignon, a short distance south of Châteauneuf. Many of the Avignon Popes were accustomed to the finer things in life, including wine. The first of the Avignon Popes, Clement V, had a winery in Bordeaux, now known as Château Pape Clément. During their reign, the Popes did much to raise the profile and quality of the wines of Châteauneuf-du-Pape. It is a region that now produces some of the most unique and quirky wines of France.
Overshadowed by the more famous regions of France, opportunities to taste wines from Châteauneuf-du-Pape are rare, but thanks to the efforts of J&D Burleigh (well-known for their portfolio of fine Italian wines), those in Singapore were able to sample wines from marquee producers such as Domaine du Pegau and rising stars like Château Simian. Was it coincidence that the tasting was held at the Raffles Hotel Steak House? These rich and alcoholic wines practically begged to be paired with food, and a juicy steak would have fit the bill admirably.
With the exception of Château de la Font du Loup, these are classic wines; deeply coloured, concentrated and with perceptible warmth due to the high alcohol content. In fact, Châteauneuf-du-Pape wines have the highest alcohol in France, averaging around 14-16%. This is due to a combination of factors; the warm Mediterranean climate, unique football-sized stones (called galets) that reflect heat and the use of late-ripening varietals. The bottles are stylish and heavy, embossed with the papal coat of arms and keys of St. Peter. Both visually and in taste, they have an air of solemn dignity.
Winemaking here has traditionally followed a set path. Low yields in the vineyard to concentrate the flavours of the fruit followed by fermentation in stainless steel or cement tanks (as Grenache, the backbone of the blend, tends to oxidise easily). The wines are matured in old oak barrels or large casks known as foudres. The toasty and vanillin flavours of new oak, common in Bordeaux wines are not welcome here. A staggering 13 varietals are allowed in this appellation, but in practice Grenache, Syrah, Mouvèdre and Cinsault are the most widely used for the reds. White Châteauneuf-du-Pape is somewhat of a rarity, but this tasting included a delicious example made from Grenache Blanc, Roussane, Clairette and Bourboulenc.
Céline Sabon of Clos du Mont Olivet had this to say about the philosophy of Châteauneuf-du-Pape: “Châteauneuf still has that peasant mentality which places a big emphasis on friendship. We are not that good on marketing, but I think that many people like our wines because they know the owner is working in the vineyards. It is a good quality of CDP because we speak from the heart.”

Winery profiles and tasting notes: 
Laurence Ferraud and her daughter
Domaine du Pegau
One of the superstars of the appellation, in the same tier as Château Beaucastel and Château Rayas. The winery was established in 1987 by Laurence and her father Paul Ferraud. Although sales were tough during the initial years, by 1992 the wines had achieved critical acclaim and were being sought out by wine collectors around the world.

The Cuvée Réservée line is made using ultra-traditional methods, forgoing de-stemming and temperature control for better extraction. Natural yeasts were used during fermentation and the wines are aged for two years in old oak casks. The Cuvée Laurence is made from the same blend of grapes, but sees an additional two years aging.
Domaine du Pegau Châteauneuf-du-Pape Cuvée Réservée 2007 – Tight and focused, packed with flavours of briary fruit, horse saddle and redcurrants.  
Domaine du Pegau Châteauneuf-du-Pape Cuvée Réservée 2008 – A pronounced nose of black cherries, ripe black fruits and earthy tones. Very clean flavours, backed by plump tannins. A savoury, bitter cherry finish.
Domaine du Pegau Châteauneuf-du-Pape Cuvée Laurence 2004 – Distinctive nose with notes of spice, herbs, stewed plums and tar. The additional years in oak really shows in this wine, giving it a more aged character and sacrificing primary fruit flavours for complexity.
Château de la Font du Loup
Helmed by the bubbly Anne-Charlotte Bachas, the wines are as irreverent as the winemaker herself. At first glance, the hilltop location and north facing orientation of the vineyards, coupled with sandy sedimentary soils do not seem conducive to winemaking in this region. As Anne puts it, the reason her great-grandfather chose to buy this particular plot was because of its remoteness and scarcity of neighbours. Her ancestor’s love of isolation has given us a style of wine that is quite unlike the rest of Châteauneuf. It may be an oxymoron to call Southern Rhône wines delicate, but that is what these wines are.
Château de la Font du Loup Châteauneuf-du-Pape Blanc 2010 – A refreshing white with notes of mandarin orange, apricot, white flowers and pear. Harmonious and balanced, this wine delivers punchy fruit flavours accented with a delightful perfume. Medium length.  
Château de la Font du Loup Châteauneuf-du-Pape 2009 – Aromatic with notes of incense, red fruits, boiled sweets and pepper. Lush and elegant on the palate, with juicy acidity and a profile of red berries.
Château de la Font du Loup Châteauneuf-du-Pape Cuvée Le Puy Rolland 2007 – No relation to the Michel Rolland, the parcel of land which provides fruit for this wine was planted by a man who shared the famous oenologist’s last name. The wine is 100% Grenache from vines that have an average age of 90 years. The ’07 had expressive varietal character of strawberries with silky tannins and moderate alcohol. A lasting finish with notes of white pepper.  

Clos du Mont Olivet  
The Sabon family have been making wine in Châteauneuf-du-Pape since the early 20th century and Clos du Mont Olivet is now run by the fourth generation comprising of Thierry, David, Céline and Mylène Sabon. The estate includes 28 ha in Châteauneuf-du-Pape, 17 ha in the Côtes du Rhône and a further 1.5 ha used to make table wine. The geographical distribution of the estate allows for various expressions of terroir.
Clos du Mont Olivet Châteauneuf-du-Pape Tradition 2009 – Cranberries and dried raisins on the nose with aromatic lift and spice. Very rich on the palate, but not overripe, maintaining a nice balance between texture and freshness.

Clos du Mont Olivet Châteauneuf-du-Pape La Cuvée Du Papet 2009 – This wine is produced only in extraordinary years from 100 year old vines. The ’09 exudes a crystalline purity and ripe, rich fruit character. Both the Tradition and La Cuvée Du Papet employ partial de-stemming, which may explain the plush tannin structure. This seems to me to be a more modern style of Châteauneuf-du-Pape.
Château Simian

A winery more known for its Côtes du Rhône range rather than Châteauneuf-du-Pape. 80% of its wines are exported, mainly to the USA and London. This is one of the smaller estates with only 4 ha of vineyards in Châteauneuf.
Château Simian Côtes du Rhône Villages Jocundaz 2007 – The vineyards for this wine are planted on a mountainous area with sandy soils. Notes of game, wild berries and raspberries. An easy drinking wine.
Château Simian Châteauneuf-du-Pape Cuvée Les Grandes Grenachières d'Hippolyte 2009 –This mouthful of a wine is made from 95% Grenache. Powerful and dense with red berries, raisins and crushed grape skins. Well-balanced with a dry finish.

Friday 15 June 2012

The WSET Diploma Exams - A Sherlock Holmes Approach

A curious sort of Zen falls over me when I enter an exam hall. It is the result of nerves stretched so taut that they've finally snapped, and a brain deprived of oxygen due to hyperventilation. In this dreamlike, surreal state, everything comes into crystal clear focus, including the minute actions of other candidates. The blonde girl beside me sits with balled fists resting on her lap, knuckles white with exertion. A slight rustle of papers as the person behind me adjusts his sheets. The air is thick with tension. "Five minutes till we begin," says the blue-shirted invigilator.

I am in London, sitting for one of the exams required to complete the WSET Diploma. The past few months have seen a near caveman-like isolation, surrounded by arcane treatises on vino-related matters. I've explored the Caribbean, peered over the shoulders of 19th century monks and engaged in tax rebellions in Scotland. And as a diversion in-between studies, I delved into the life of Arthur Conan Doyle's most famous creation, Sherlock Holmes.

Four minutes. A Nirvana-esque revelation that there is a striking symmetry in the methods of the world's greatest detective and how one should approach a wine exam. Firstly, abstaining from food. Sherlock extols the virtue of starvation in The Adventure of the Mazarin Stone. "The faculties become refined when you starve them... you must admit that what your digestion gains in the way of blood supply is so much lost to the brain. I am a brain. The rest of me is a mere appendix. Therefore, it is the brain I must consider." Sharpened by hunger, I am aware of the myriad scents wafting around me. Fear and anxiety have scents too.

Secondly, the importance of facts. In A Scandal in Bohemia, Sherlock advises that "It is a capital mistake to theorize before one has data. Insensibly one begins to twist facts to suit theories, instead of theories to suit facts." This is a common error when tasting wines, one that is highlighted repeatedly by the examiners. A candidate forms a conclusion about what the wine is before evaluating all its components. Inaccurate data is then entered to justify the false inference. As the tasting samples make their way around the room, I focus only on what I see.

Three minutes left, and a third lesson. In The Boscombe Valley Mystery, Sherlock solves the case by noticing that the murderer's footprints pointed to a lame person. "You know my method," he says. "It is founded upon the observation of trifles." Many a candidate has been led astray by rashly reading through the exam questions. A case in point is the unfortunate soul who misread Austria as Australia and proceeded to submit a lengthy essay almost entirely opposite to what was required.

Two minutes. "Everything in this world is relative, my dear Watson." Tasting blind is very much like solving a mystery. Follow the clues without bias. Build upon the evidence, looking for the threads that link them. A singular piece of data, viewed in isolation, can be misleading. "It may seem to point very straight to one thing, but if you shift your own point of view a little, you may find it pointing in an equally uncompromising manner to something entirely different." Is high acidity the result of a cool climate, varietal character, or manipulative winemaking? Without taking into account the other elements of a wine, all are reasonable conclusions.

As the final minute ticks down, I am acutely aware that I am more Watson than Sherlock. Jet lag gnaws at the edges of my senses and I struggle to recall facts memorised just a day before. Yet it is a comforting thought that these exams are based on a foundation of logic and systematic assessment. The ghost of Sherlock imparts a final guidance before he leaves me to my trials. "You know my methods. Apply them."