The Southwold Group has tasted the top wines of Bordeaux from the latest physically available vintage together for over 40 years. This used to take place – as the group’s name suggests – in Southwold in Suffolk, but it has now moved to Farr Vintners where we taste in a purpose-built modern tasting room. This is now my seventh Southwold Group tasting, with 2019 my tenth vintage tasted En Primeur (albeit in strange circumstances due to COVID restrictions).
The following article was originally published on JancisRobinson.com.
Virginie and Bertrand Waris own seven hectares of vineyards across Champagne, making small production wines from a majority Pinot Noir from Sézannais, Epernay and Aube. As the fourth generation of the family, their practices are well established in making grower Champagne. Based in Avize, the property is a stone's throw from both Agrapart and Selosse, the celebrity growers in the village. Bertrand - who studied viticulture - has a clear passion for vineyard work and clarity of expression in the wines, but the Waris name remains relatively under the radar, the wines therefore offering good value for money. Waris have made Farr Vintners' "Ville de la Reine" label for fifteen years, so it was about time for me to visit the property and get a greater understanding of the wines and the philosophy behind them.
New Zealand has an astonishing presence and reputation within the wine world compared to the volume of wine it produces. Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc is one of the strongest regional brands of the New World, and the country – particularly Central Otago – is synonymous with Pinot Noir. There are roughly 5,500 hectares of Pinot Noir planted in New Zealand (compared to over 20,000 hectares of Sauvignon Blanc), with a large proportion intended for sparkling wine. To compare, the hectares-under-vine are 10,000 in Burgundy, 12,500 in Oregon, and nearly 20,000 in California. Despite the relatively small plantings of Pinot Noir, New Zealand is considered one of the most important areas for the variety. That is, in part, because New Zealand’s wine production has always looked to high quality and premium prices. The climate, too, plays a significant role in the potential here. Though the region is still in relative infancy compared to the Old World, vines are now starting to mature, reaching deep into soils and producing world-class wines that can stand up to Pinot produced anywhere in the world – including Burgundy itself.
A little over a decade ago, Prince Robert of Luxembourg and the Dillon Estates bought Tertre Daugay - a Saint Emilion property with prime vineyards - and renamed it Quintus (as the fifth estate owned by Domaine Clarence Dillon). The estate has grown over time to include the vines from L'Arrosée in 2013 and, more recently, Grand Pontet. The cellars, vineyards and team have been overhauled, bringing expertise, experience and dilligence to the property in an effort to make Quintus one of the great wines of the right bank.
You have to see Château Grillet to truly appreciate it. An amphitheatre of terraced vines is carved into the perilously steep slopes overlooking the Rhône river. The small property sits below the majority of the vineyard, with lower terraces spreading right and left, and some new plantings curling away upriver towards Lyon.
Château Troplong Mondot has produced one of the more divisive wines in Bordeaux over the last quarter of a century. The full-blooded, ripe, inky, high-alcohol and fully-extracted style drew three-digit scores from many critics and scorn from others. With a traditionally British palate, I have found these wines impressive to taste in some vintages, though never something I would drink, or buy, myself; a tasting pour has always been more than enough. There has, however, been a seismic change since 2017, when Aymeric de Gironde was brought in to manage the estate. The results are already impressive, with changes in all aspects promising even more to come.
Nyetimber's Tillington Vineyard produces arguably the greatest wine in England; we have been supporters, and fans, of the wine since the first vintage was cautiously released nearly a decade ago. With the release of the 2014 vintage imminent, Brad Greatrix (who makes the wines alongside his wife Cherie Spriggs) came to Farr Vintners for the first vertical tasting outside the property of the first four vintages of this wine: 2009, 2010, 2013 and 2014.
One of the joys in being part of both the Southwold and Ten Years On tasting groups is the middle night dinner, where members bring special bottles from their own cellars based on a specific theme. This year, the 2012 Ten Years On tasting gave us a great excuse to look at the legendary 1982 vintage forty years on. This was an exciting prospect, particularly for me, as I have had much less exposure to these wines than the more senior members of the group. It is well known that 1982 launched Robert Parker’s career when he hailed the ripe, seductive style as a great vintage. Of course, he was not alone in that view, though there were dissenting voices concerned with the ripeness of fruit and tannin paired with low(er) acidities that could affect the longevity of the vintage.
The annual “Ten Years On” blind tasting returned to its normal schedule after recent delays due to the pandemic. This year we looked at the 2012s, with 2018 Southwold fresh in our minds.
Grower Champagne is now firmly established as a source of great, individual wines that offer something different to the grandes marques that have dominated sales and production in the region for so long. The concept of owning, farming and then making wine is not a stretch in most regions (and, indeed, many of the larger houses in Champagne own at least some vineyards from which they make wine), but the focus on quality of fruit and effort in the vineyard to produce high quality sparkling wine is the essence of these wines. In a recent visit to Egly-Ouriet, it was possible to see just how much work Francis Egly has put into every aspect of his wines, resulting in a recent 100-point score for his magnificent 2008 Millésime. I drank this wine recently in Spain, and it is an absolutely stunning offering, well worth its perfect score with ample richness to match the hallmark ’08 acidic tension. A profound champagne worthy of patience in the cellar.
The Southwold Group has tasted the top wines of Bordeaux from the latest physically available vintage together for over 40 years. This used to take place – as the group’s name suggests – in Southwold in Suffolk, but it has now moved to Farr Vintners where we taste in a purpose-built modern tasting room. As a fairly recent member 2018 is my sixth Southwold, and the ninth vintage that I tasted en primeur.
The following blog was written before the sudden passing of Eloi Dürrbach in November but has been edited following the sad news. Eloi's work and vision made Trevallon one of the great and best-known wines of France, which will rightly continue under his family's stewardship.
William Kelley has achieved a lot in his short career in wine. In 2015, time spent producing wine in California turned to a permanent writing role at Decanter (alongside pieces written for Noble Rot and The Robb Report). By 2018 he was snapped up by The Wine Advocate to focus on Burgundy and Champagne, as well as the California coast. Multiple writing awards and nominations have followed, and there are two embryonic wines being made in Burgundy.
The dinner between the Southwold tasting days is always a highlight of the week, and often the year. After nine hours of tasting young - often highly tannic - red Bordeaux, you might think the last thing needed would be more wine. But, perhaps after a cleansing beer, these dinners can re-invigorate the palate and mind. Every year there is a theme; be it region, vintage, variety or other. This year, the wines took on the concept of the Judgement of Paris tasting, in honour of the late Steven Spurrier. Southwold 2017 is the first vintage without Steven since his passing earlier this year. What better way to toast to his memory than with a comparative tasting of American and French wines, much as he did to send shockwaves through the industry in 1976.
Unlike many in the wine world, the Brajkovich family are not known for over-hyping the quality of their wines at Kumeu River. Despite consistently high praise in critical review for Chardonnays that are – in our opinion – world class, the prices and people behind the wines have remained remarkably modest. And so, when Michael Brajkovich told us that 2020 might be the best vintage he has ever made, we took it very seriously. Could the new vintage possibly top the unquestionably great 2019s?
The 2011 Bordeaux En Primeur campaign was destined to struggle. It followed two great vintages in 2009 and 2010 – meaning that most Bordeaux lovers were already over-stocked with superb wines. On top of this, the market was in the middle of a correction from peaks the previous summer, and many châteaux simply did not reduce their prices close to the required level in order to entice buyers for the new vintage. Furthermore, the wines were difficult to taste En Primeur, presenting a tannic and closed profile. As a result, those with too much wine were offered an expensive vintage with mediocre reviews from critics and merchants alike. 2011s were quickly forgotten in favour of the charming, forward and lower-priced 2012s. But now, things are changing.
Jean-Marie Guffens needs little introduction to our customers. The maverick Belgian vigneron has produced outstanding, great value wines for decades through his Domaine Guffens-Heynen and négociant Maison Verget. These wines are now almost exclusively from the Maconnais, from old vines and great sites overlooked by those with tunnel vision for the Côte d’Or. Please see our in-depth profile on Jean-Marie from the definitive vertical of his wines, hosted by Farr Vintners.
Once every so often a tasting redefines the standard by which all future tastings will be judged. This can be due to the organisation, collation of scores or notes, quality of the wines or general tasting atmosphere amongst other things. At a recent vertical of Château Latour, held in the depths of their chai, this was the case in so many ways. We were there to celebrate Stephen Browett’s 60th Birthday, and the Château had kindly arranged for us to taste 20 consecutive vintages blind in magnum under the stewardship of Frédéric Engerer and Jean Garandeau. We would taste the most recent vintages – 1999 to 2018 inclusive – all of which were made since Engerer became the CEO of the estate, and more recently the entire Artemis wine portfolio.
Jean-Marie Guffens left Flanders in 1976 with his wife Maine and headed to Burgundy. Following studies in viticulture and winemaking, they bought a few plots in the Maconnais to make a wine of their own. These vines from Pierreclos are the foundation of Domaine Guffens-Heynen, with Jean-Marie slowly purchasing further plots across the region that champion less lauded vineyards that lie south of the Cote de Beaune.
Stephen Browett first visited Kumeu River Winery - and met winemaker Michael Brajkovich - in January 1990 on a visit to Auckland. He’d been tipped off about a new Chardonnay producer (first vintage 1985) by Barry Phillips who had bought the 1987 for the wine list of the legendary White Horse Inn at Chilgrove. After tasting the 1989 vintage from barrel he placed an order - Farr Vintners has shipped every vintage since then.
In January we took a flight down to the Rhone to spend some time with the Perrin family. Over the course of 24 hours we saw the traditions that have made Chateau de Beaucastel and the family’s other wines some of the most revered and well-known in the region, and critically how improvements are being made to maintain and increase their importance over the coming years.
Eisele Vineyard is one of the oldest single vineyard estate bottlings in the Napa Valley. Based near Calistoga on hillside plots, the soils for the top bottlings are based on an alluvial fan. After early plantings of Zinfandel and Riesling, Cabernet Sauvignon was planted here in the early 1960s. The first bottling of these Cabernet plantings that bore the name Eisele Vineyard came in 1971 when a young Paul Draper (of Ridge fame) made the wine. While now impossibly rare to find, these legendary bottles are apparently still youthful, fresh and balanced, a testament to the terroir here. Subsequently plantings of Sauvignon Blanc, Syrah, Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot and even a little Viognier have filled out the 15 hectares.
It’s not often that you sit down ahead of a night focused on drinking old white Burgundy excited, rather than apprehensive, about opening the wines. It’s even rarer that you come away with a broad smile on your face, with the wines having exceeded all expectation in quality and consistency. Premox – premature oxidation – still plagues white Burgundy to the extent that opening 10 wines from almost any producer from the early 1990s through to the mid-2000s would result in a number of bottles best for making sauces or pouring down the drain. However, on this night, all 10 were in perfect condition without a hint of this fault across the board. What’s more, these wines are some of the best-value offerings in Burgundy, with the prices of many wines from the region now out of reach or overpriced for many buyers.
Nestled in the heart of Pauillac on Bordeaux’s left bank, Chateau Pontet Canet, the overachieving Fifth Growth, has been striving to make wines of the highest quality, reflected in consumer and critical acclaim, since the turn of the century. Last month Melanie Tesseron, General Director of the Chateau, came to visit Farr Vintners and lead a masterclass through 10 vintages of Pontet Canet and explain how the team are moving the wine forward to new heights both in the vineyard and the winery.
Rarely does anyone get the chance to taste horizontally across a vintage with more than a quarter of a century’s age, but last night Stephen Browett hosted a dinner attended by a special guest who was born in 1989, so that is exactly what we did. Luckily for me, 1989 is also my vintage, so I couldn’t have been more eager to taste through the line-up. Everything was served blind and the theme was initially kept a secret, but it soon became obvious as we tasted the first two wines, a pair of whites:
Last month we assembled a group together from varying vintages, and Stephen Browett picked out a list of wines to serve blind with a link – each was from a vintage of the people sitting around the table. We had a good range of ages, but some mixed quality vintages to choose from. However, even those that you might consider the ‘difficult’ vintages found wines that excelled, and exceeded expectations.
After a little break on Sunday with only a short day at the Domaine, we ran a full day of analysis on the wines on Monday, when I was also helping to start pumping over the wines that were releasing their juices in order to promote oxygen contact and feed the yeasts. This was done gently for some cuvees where there is a desire not to add sulphur until after fermentation, but even light pumping over filled the air with the wonderful aromatics of ripe fruit. The colour from the destemmed berries is already a vivid red, with the whole bunch always slower to turn as the juice also flows through the stems, with less direct contact with the skins at first. The “baies par baies” cuvee was the slowest to yield any juice, and it was as much as we could do to get enough liquid for a sample, so slow is the extraction of juice from the berries!
Following four days of intense harvesting and selecting at the Domaine, the time I had left in Burgundy allowed me more freedom to see the other side of the process, taste some more wines, and relax a little bit.
Today, we sounded the horns at Eugenie as we finished the harvest by picking some select rows of Clos de Vougeot that we had left for an experimental cuvee. The whole team went out to pick, including Michel, and we finished collecting the grapes in half an hour. For this special cuvee, we did not sort the grapes at all, but merely place them carefully into cases to be transported back to the chai, in whole bunches.
Day three at Eugenie was the day when the majority of the picking was finished. I started again in the vines, picking some Vosne Romane Les Brulées. The section we were picking today is called the “Brulées Bas” by the winemakers at the Domaine. In part, it’s because it is lower down the slope. It also takes on the meaning that the grapes produced don’t tend to reach the heights of their “Hautes Brulées”. The Brulées Bas vines were planted during the 60s when volume had become more important, so these vines, while prolific, don’t focus as highly on quality. The Domaine have therefore taken the difficult decision to declassify this part, and turn it into their Village Vosne Romanée. Given that this is 60% of the Brulées that they own, it is a significant decision for their costs, but it results in their Premier Cru Brulées being of a much higher quality.
Walking the short distance to the Domaine each morning really gives a sense of the Grand Crus in Vosne Romanee. La Tache, Romanée Conti, La Grande Rue - they are all knitted together in a space that would make up less than a tenth of the vineyards of some Bordeaux Chateaux. Today, we are working on both Grands Echezeaux and Echezeaux. The Domaine has only half a hectare of the two vineyards, so it takes less than half a day to pick each Grand Cru.
Over the next two weeks I will be working and reporting from Domaine d’Eugenie, the Burgundy Domaine found right in the heart of Vosne-Romanee (you can see La Tache from my room…). Run by Michel Mallard as part of the Artemis group which also owns Chateau Latour, Chateau Grillet in the Rhone, and Araujo in California, this relatively young Domaine has been producing very high quality wines since 2007.
When we first tasted the 2012 Bordeaux En Primeur wines in spring 2013, the sense of a system struggling to attract customers and a feeling that Châteaux needed to drastically improve their pricing was the main topic of every conversation. Coupled with the recent memory of the truly outstanding 2009 and 2010 vintages, the quality of the wines was secondary to market forces at the time. The prices for young wines needed to fall back into line with mature vintages. Now in 2015, little has changed as far as En Primeur is concerned, but now that the 2012s are in bottle and being retasted, there is a ripple of excitement at the quality and approachability of the vintage. With that in mind, the Farr team got together this week to taste twelve 2012s over dinner to see just how good they are. With the right bank and Graves the most lauded of the vintage, we focused on these areas.
Last week a few of the Farr team went for dinner with a long-term friend and customer of ours for what would prove to be one of the best wine nights of our lives. Medlar was our restaurant of choice, and they were on top form again to provide excellent accompanying dishes for the wines, adding in a delicious middle course using the white truffle our guest had generously brought along for the evening.
These past few weeks my book of choice has drawn a few raised eyebrows and inquisitive looks on the daily commute. The Concise Guide to Wine and Blind Tasting stands apart in a crowd of Game of Thrones and latest 'Books of the Week' on the train. Within Neel and James' book, designed as a primer for those wanting to delve further into the world of wine, are facts and anecdotes essential to any wine enthusiast's knowledge. Trawling through condensed details on the world's wine regions can seem a daunting task, but the rhythm and style from two friends who have been integral to my own wine education since I met them in Oxford a few years ago makes this a clear, interesting read, fortified by the thirst that these two clearly have for the subject. I have shared more interesting bottles with these two than I can count, and what I have always been struck by when discussing either an unknown entity in the glass, or the gems and pitfalls of a certain region or style, is both their in-depth knowledge and their passion to learn more, twinned with the a pure enjoyment that pressed and fermented grapes and time can bring.
In what has now become a yearly return to the Oxford Blind Tasting Society, I've become used to the ability of the tasters to divine wines' origins from around the world. I have tried to trick and outsmart their palates before, but invariably someone always guesses my Viognier has come from New Zealand or my Riesling from Austria. So, with that in mind I went for a slightly more conventional line up with some favourite wines from the Farr cellar, focusing more on the intricacies of guessing - which vintage or village and why, and how to identify specifics.
My latest return to Oxford had me turn from taster to tutor as I led the Blind Tasting Society through four pairs of wines under the guise ‘new vs old’. Blind tasting for me has always been more than just a party trick, and the tasters at Oxford approach what is in their glass with scrutiny and analysis which only adds to their passion for wine. They blind taste six or more wines three or more times a week – I can’t think of a better way to improve your knowledge and passion for wine without visiting regions and tasting in producers’ cellars. I was impressed as always with how close many of the guesses were, and with how the tasters drew conclusions on what was new or old (though I did try to make things a little tricky for one or two!).
On Monday 10th December Farr Vintners hosted a tasting at our London office with proprietors from 12 St Emilion 1ers Grands Crus Classés and leading journalists in the UK to taste the 2009 and 2005 vintages in order to see how the wines were developing, how the vintages fare against each other and, crucially, to assess the quality and diversity of wine being produced in the region. St Emilion and the right bank in general has often had to stand in the shadow of its left bank brothers, but the wines are now claiming recognition the world over, with many of the wines tasted attaining the perfect Parker score that so many winemakers covet.
Yesterday the Farr Vintners team were at the UGC tasting in London to re-taste the much hailed 2010 vintage, to see if the wines held up to their rave reviews across the board during the En Primeur trip in spring 2011. The event was as busy as usual, the wine trade descending en masse, keen to see how the wines are holding up after some time to settle and homogenise.
Last week Edward and I donned our dinner jackets and bow ties, and headed to the Park Lane Hilton for the International Wine Challenge Awards dinner 2012. The main event is situated in the grand ballroom that holds nearly 1000 people, a massive gathering of all walks of the wine trade. Before the dinner, the Merchant Awards were presented in the Crystal Palace Suite of the hotel. Farr Vintners had been shortlisted for both En Primeur and Bordeaux wine merchant of the year. We were thrilled to win the En Primeur award, for what is now the sixth time in seven years! We have prided ourselves this year on giving sound advice on the 2011 vintage, relaying our true opinions on the wines by comparison to the superb 2009 and 2010, and seeking out the value where possible. Our expertise and honesty seems to have shone through with the volume of sales varying from wine to wine depending on how we rated both the particular wine and release price.
Last week Farr Vintners hosted a blind tasting match against 6 members of the Oxford Blind Tasting Society, led by captain and President James Flewellen. It was a chance for the Farr team to show their skills learnt in the trade, and compete against a team who blind taste several wines multiple times a week. This being a home fixture, with Stephen Browett choosing the wines for us to taste, the pressure was on to show how we would match up to the experienced Oxford tasters.
With the harvest finished on Monday and the ‘Gerbaude’ festival on the Tuesday, we started working for the château in the fermentation rooms on Wednesday. We were now to learn and be involved in the winemaking process with the grapes picked and sorted; the turning of grape juice into wine!
With the harvest over, last Thursday we made some chateau visits in order to explore the Medoc further. First we went back to Lafon Rochet where Basile gave us a tour of the chateau, letting us taste the juice from the unfermented rosé (for their label Lafon Roset), which was delicious and very easy drinking.
This week we finished the Cabernet Sauvignon and with it the entire harvest at Latour. At 7.30pm on Monday 26th September the last grapes were picked, packed and sent back to the Chateau. After 15 solid days of picking, the team had managed to harvest the entire 2011 crop without a break, and there were exhausted smiles all over the fields. I imagine that not only was this one of the earliest harvest but also one of the quickest.
Last Monday the big Cabernet harvest started, which confirms that the harvest will be over by the end of September. We started by picking the young vines on Monday in weather more unpredictable than an England Rugby World Cup performance. On Tuesday we took on more pickers and carriers for the large number of Cabernet vines inside and outside the “enclos” which were deemed ripe enough to be picked.
Merlot Harvest at Château Latour
Last Sunday Ben and I went to visit Denis Durantou in Pomerol at his home, Château L’Eglise Clinet. As mentioned in my previous blog, I have a great fondness for his wines, due to the skill of wine making, and the freshness that all his wines have. We met Denis outside in the vineyard and we went walking through the vines as he was deciding whether it was time to pick the Merlot. This was a great chance to learn from a Pomerol master. The previous week he had picked the grapes for his ‘Les Cruzelles’ label from the younger vines.
This is the first blog from Farr Vintners’ "Boys in Bordeaux". Thomas Parker is, along with eighteen year old Ben Browett (the eldest son of our Chairman), at Château Latour to take part in the harvest of the 2011 vintage. They left London a week ago and, after a week’s preparation, were due to start picking Merlot grapes today, Monday 12th September. We hope to publish more blogs from Thomas and Ben as the harvest progresses.
Last Friday I travelled from Battersea up to Oxford to host the tasting for the Oxford University Blind Tasting Society’s black tie dinner. Farr Vintners had sponsored a case of the wine for this event, held by the society that I was a Committee member of this past year. We were in the picturesque surroundings of New College for the tasting and dinner, organised by James Flewellen and David Stewart. All wines were tasted blind.