A walk on the Hermitage

Theoretical knowledge is one thing, practical knowledge another. During my sommelier studies we had to learn a lot of facts by heart. You learn about production zones, allowed grapes, vinification methods, and of course you taste a lot of wines. But driving around in a region, walking in the vineyards, seeing the grapes is still so much more enriching. When I was in the northern Rhône last summer, I decided I wanted to drive from south to north, just to have a feel of all the appellations. When you see the northern Rhône on a map, you think vineyards in Saint-Joseph for example have an eastern exposure. Having seen the vineyards, and even having camped underneath one, I can assure you that things are much more complex. There are quite a few small rivers there that connect to the Rhône and that have vineyards on their slopes, meaning the vineyards do no face east, but south or south-east! I also saw how small Condrieu is, and how unbelievably steep the Côte Rôtie is. No wonder these wines are so expensive.

So having driven all along the northern Rhône, it’s only logical that I also wanted to see the Hermitage, that sleeping giant on the “wrong” side of the river. Hermitage is probably the most prestigious appellation in the northern Rhône, and unfortunately there is also not much wine being produced. The reason for this is that the surface for production cannot become bigger, the vineyards being limited to the Hermitage hill. There are 136 hectares that can be used for Hermitage, all the other zones on the left bank, mainly in the back of the hill, belonging to Crozes-Hermitage, with a production area of 1,633 hectares, just to give you an idea. In 2015 the total production was 5,340 hectolitres.

The first thing that struck me when I saw the Hermitage, was the perfect exposure. Again, if you look at the map, you might think that the Hermitage faces west or south-west, as it lies along the Rhône, which runs from north to south. In fact, the Rhône takes a couple of sharp turns just before the Hermitage, and the hill itself faces south. Immediately after, the Rhône takes its normal course again.

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This picture is taken from the Hermitage. Here you can see how the Rhône starts taking its turn. The vineyards in the back are Crozes-Hermitage.

In fact, when I talk about “the” hill, that’s not entirely correct. The Hermitage is not simply one hill, one bump with an even surface, like the Corton hill in Burgundy. It’s actually a very long-stretched hill. In certain places there are parts of the hill that come more to the fore, while in other places there are tiny brooklets that divide the hill.

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The Hermitage seen from below

As you can see very well in the picture above, the hill is very complex with different exposures, some better than others. Some parts of the slopes do not face south, but rather south east or south west and will be in the shadow in the morning or in the evening. A second thing that is very visible on this picture is the difference in height. In certain parts of the Hermitage the hill is so steep that terraces are needed to keep the soil from sliding down in case of heavy rains. In the front behind the wall, however, these are also Hermitage vineyards, and they are completely flat.

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Another example of the different exposures of the vineyards on the Hermitage.

To add to the complexity, the soils are also very different, both from west to east, as from high to low. I’m not a geologist, so at the risk of oversimplifying things, I will explain how I understand the geology.

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This picture is not taken in the vineyards, but in the nature reserve just next to the Hermitage. Here you can see the granite rocks and how they decompose in smaller pebbles and ultimately in sand.

The mother rock is granite. The west part of the Hermitage is where the granite is most dominant. This is where the lieu-dit Les Bessards is situated. This vineyard is considered to be among the best for syrah. It’s here that Chapoutier’s L’Ermite comes from and where the famous chapel, owned by Paul Jaboulet, lies.

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In the middle (from west to east) you will find the lieu-dit Le Méal, another prestigious site for red Hermitage. Ferraton’s Le Méal 2004 was an experience that will stay with me forever. Very rich, but also very complex. Wonderful! Here the soil is mainly made of pebbles and loess, which is a sediment of dust that came with the wind. If you go to the bottom of the hill, however, you will find a much richer soil mainly made of clay, not considered to be the best sites of the Hermitage. And finally the part furthest to the east is less steep and is composed of what the French call “poudingue”, literally pudding! This refers to a conglomerate of galets, stones, that are kept together by calcareous sediment. In general, the eastern part is considered to be better suited for whites, about one quarter of the production. But when I was walking on the west part I also found quite a few vineyards with marsanne, the grape most often used for white Hermitage.

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A bunch of Marsanne grapes

As you will probably notice, the bunch Marsanne grapes you see above does not seem to be in the best shape. Well, that brings me to my last observation I made up there on the Hermitage. The hill is very complex, but that is not the only thing that explains the differences in style you might find when drinking Hermitage from different producers. The bunch of Marsanne you see above is from a vineyard belonging to Michel Chapoutier. As you may know, Chapoutier’s viticulture on the Hermitage is biodynamic. So no synthetic fertilizer or pesticides. The difference with the grapes I saw in the vineyards of Paul Jaboulet could not be bigger.

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A healthy looking bunch of syrah grapes in a vineyard of Paul Jaboulet

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Bunches of weathered syrah grapes of Michel Chapoutier

I don’t want to spark a debate about biodynamic vs traditional, but it just goes to show that many factors influence the character of the wine you ultimately get in your glass, and it’s not only terroir.

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Tired but happy with my walk on the Hermitage!

Chapoutier : instant happiness from the Rhône

In my previous post I sang the praise of Angelo Gaja’s Barbaresco. But there was one wine in the line-up of my birthday tasting that stepped up to the challenge and said : “Hey, what’s all the fuss about?! Try me!”. And that was Michel Chapoutier’s Hermitage Moneau de la Sizeranne 2012 :

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Sniffing from this glass gave us instant happiness. A very complex and seductive nose with initially a bit of typical syrah reduction, followed by ripe strawberries, black pepper, green herbs, tobacco and a bit of smoke. The wine was beautifully balanced, fresh and ripe at the same time. In a perfect spot to drink right now.

This Hermitage delivered big time. And to be honest, most of the wines I already had of Chapoutier do! Yesterday evening I opened a bottle of the Couronne de Chabot 2012, a Saint-Joseph that Chapoutier brings on the market with Yannick Alléno, a French top chef. Again typical syrah reduction aromas to begin with, real barnyard funk! Black pepper, laurel, ripe red fruit, and iron. Great freshness in this wine. And again instant happiness from the first sniff.

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Other wines of Chapoutier that really blew me off my socks in the past were Les Varonniers, a Crozes-Ermitage, with great finesse and elegance. And Les Granits, a Saint-Joseph that shares the same characteristics as the Varonniers but that is maybe even more complex.

Unfortunately, the oohs and aahs that Chapoutier’s wines provoke all over the world push the prices up at a high speed. Especially for the “premium” wines. Luckily the quality of the “basic” cuvées of Chapoutier is still high, allowing everyone to enjoy a bit of instant happiness. The Crozes-Hermitage Y/M of Alléno and Chapoutier, for example, is a real taste bud pleaser coming at a very reasonable price.

When I visited Chapoutier’s shop last summer, I bought a few more bottles for when my need of endorphins is high. So don’t be surprised if you see more raving posts about Chapoutier in the future.

 

 

An attack of champagne fever

– Do you want the Blanc de Blancs or the Brut?

– Nah, I’ll have the Rosé.

We felt pretty much at ease on day three in Champagne to order our umpteenth « coupe ».  Almost like the locals, I was tempted to say. But in fact I saw the locals drinking beer, gin, coke, cocktails and what not, but not champagne. Luckily there are hordes of tourists who do, just like me last weekend, spending a surprise weekend in Reims to soothe the pain of the big 4-0. Yes, yours truly reached the age when you start asking : will I die any time soon? Should I sell my house and buy a couple of Romanée Contis? Or quit my job and become a grape picker? So my wife organised a weekend in the Champagne region! Who knows me better than my piano? My wife does…

« We’re going to Champagne?! », I panicked when she told me. « Then I urgently need to do some research on which local grower we should visit! Because we should buy some champagne of course! » The champagne fever had gotten hold of me. A brief lucid moment made me realize that I actually already have quite a stash from last winter’s raid at the wine fair in Lille, France. But then the champagne fever took over definitively : « Well, we’ll just have to drink more champagne then, won’t we?! »

As it turned out, the end of August is not a good moment to go to Champagne. This is the last moment of peace for the growers before the harvest begins, so they take their well-deserved holidays. Already three or four had let me know that they were not available for a visit, when I spoke to the lady of Champagne Laherte Frères in Chavot. There they were already preparing the cellars for the coming harvest, which is exceptionally early this year. She must have heard the despair in my voice when I asked if we could not come on Saturday then instead of Friday, because she finally accepted!

It took us a while to find them, because they didn’t have any big signs anywhere. When we found them, we were greeted by two Frenchmen who were equally suffering from champagne fever. « Since you are from Belgium, we kindly ask you to turn around and leave. There are things you share and things you don’t share! » « Very well », I said, « let’s make a deal. If you no longer touch our beers, we will not come to Champagne anymore. » That seemed to be a convincing argument to let us stay. When the lady of the house went out to get something, one of our French friends continued in a hushed voice : « Seriously, these champagnes are damn good stuff! Unfortunately, the prices are accordingly! » I had not seen the price list yet, but I knew that their basic Brut cost 16,60€ in 2016. I was shocked to see that it now costs 25,50€. A 50% price rise over two years… I thought the locals had become immune to champagne fever, but it seems that at Laherte Frères they caught the virus as well… Luckily it has not yet damaged their capacity to make great champagnes! We tasted the biggest part of their range, and we loved most if not all of them. IMG_2320The Brut and the Blanc de Blancs (100% chardonnay) were very good, fine, elegant, fresh. I also loved the 100% pinot meunier, but it was quite pricy at 39,90€. The odd one out was a 100% pinot noir. The wood was quite strong in the nose (most of their champagnes are made with wines that are aged in barrels) but the champagne actually tasted like a red Burgundy… I found it hard to believe, I had never tasted anything like this. There was actually red fruit in there. We did not need more convincing, they have high quality champagnes at Laherte! We bought a selection and moved on.

Next stop : G.H. Mumm. One of the big houses, completely different than a small, local grower. But it’s nice to wander around in those endless cellars where it’s 12°C all year round. More than a 100km of cellars under Reims, it’s hard to believe, almost a second city under the city. And in a way, this is the heart of the city, a cold one, but beating strongly.  Mumm produces 7,5 million bottles every year. Mainly for the « emblematic » Cordon Rouge. Sophie, our guide, always talked about the « emblematic » Cordon Rouge. Luckily I did not get the « emblematic » Cordon Rouge  during the tasting at the end of the tour, as my wife had booked the Black and White Experience. Not that I would have minded drinking Cordon Rouge, but we got the RSRV Blanc de Blancs, a 100% chardonnay vintage champagne of 2012, and the RSRV Blanc de Noirs, a 100% pinot noir vintage of 2008. IMG_2312This is a high-end line of champagnes, one bottle costing 60€. The Blanc de Blancs was very fine, it had a beautiful mineral nose and a touch of Brie cheese, something that reminds me of the 2011 vintage of Dhondt-Grellet. The mousse, the bubbles, was very fine. A lovely champagne really! The Blanc de Noirs was the complete opposite, with more fruit in the nose, mirabelle plums, and a very round mouthfeel. Less my style of champagne.

Final destination, the Avenue de Champagne in Epernay, a stately avenue where a few big houses have their buildings. Moët et Chandon, amongst others, with a statue of good old Dom Pérignon, the friar whom is said to have discovered how you put bubbles in wine. IMG_2359We decided to peek inside out of curiosity and ended up in the shop, with techno beats and golden gadgets shattered between the « Doms ». It gave me a slightly uncomfortable feeling because I found myself between people who seemed to be in the final stage of champagne fever. People who are in this irreversible stage can be recognized by the following symptoms : taking selfies in front of a bottle of Moet Ice Impérial, loading your car with several cases of « Dom », or buying a Moët umbrella of 50€. IMG_2361These people are unfortunately beyond salvation, and need to be avoided. That’s why we decided to shuffle swiftly towards the exit without attracting anyone’s attention.

And that’s when we ended up on the inner court of Collard-Picard further down the avenue to enjoy a Blanc de Blancs and a Rosé. An appropriate ending to a feverish champagne weekend.IMG_2365

Back home the worst still had to come, I thought, as my birthday was only on Tuesday. I feared that moment and I expected I would need alot of champagne to get through that difficult day. But guess what, I got up, and I was still the same, nothing had happened. My hair had not turned grey overnight, I did not suffer from memory loss, and I did not feel the need to buy a motorcycle.

I opened a bottle of champagne to celebrate all that.

 

 

Taking gewürztraminer to a higher level

The Alsace uses a concept of “noble varieties” to define which grapes can be used in the areas that are designated as “Grand Cru”. I’ve always wondered what could be meant with “noble” varieties. The grapes that are used to make the highest quality wines, I read everywhere. OK. Riesling is one of those grapes that no one will question, I suppose. But why do the noble varieties in the Alsace include pinot gris and not pinot blanc? Or pinot noir for that matter? And then there is muscat and gewürztraminer, both noble varieties in the Alsace. On the one hand, I’m very happy that there are still regions that want to cultivate the traditional varieties, and that do not massively plant sauvignon blanc or chardonnay. On the other hand, these are not my go-to grapes in general. The grapy character of muscat and the aromas of lychee and rose in gewürztraminer tend to be rather dominant. I like it when a wine invites me to sniff and sniff and sniff again before I even consider having a sip. Then when you do take a sip, the wine sinks in and makes time stop for a couple of seconds. It gives you that whoa-moment that every wine lover wants to experience once every while. I think I have not tasted the right muscats and gewürztraminers until now to experience that. Luckily I recently had a chance to taste the wines of Domaine Lissner…

It was without great expectations that I went to a wine fair in Ghent, called PURr, dedicated to natural and organic wines. I’ve been to a couple of such wine fairs before and had my share of, well let’s say, animal aromas… I don’t mind when they are there a little bit, they can actually add complexity, if you’re open for it… But when it’s too much, it’s just too much, off-putting even. In whites you will then find aromas of apple cider or ashes. It was therefore a nice surprise to taste very fresh and complex wines at the stand of Theo Schloegel of Domaine Lissner. We started off with a muscat that was not grapy at all, and that had a crystal-clear acidic structure. Very refreshing and salivating. It was the gewürztraminer, however, that made me silent for a moment.

IMG_1594This gewürztraminer comes from the Grand Cru Altenberg de Wolxheim. When Theo poured this wine, his tone became somewhat worried. He said : “Please, take your time to taste this wine, at least one full minute!” After he repeated this one or two times more, I was aware that this wine was a) very dear to him, b) not just a quaffer, and c) that he probably has his share of people who come to wine fairs to down as much as possible. He then said : “You should actually drink this wine in ten years time!”. He then repeated once more : “Really, take your time to taste this wine!”

The first sniff at my glass made it clear from the start : this is indeed not “just a gewürztraminer”. No can of lychees in my glass, but a mineral start, followed by orange, exotic fruit such as pineapple, and a bit of curry powder. Nothing overwhelming, rather a subtle, yet intense nose that makes you sniff and sniff again. The first sip revealed a bit of the spiciness that you can have with gewürztraminer, but again very well dosed. The mouth feel was very round and the concentration of the wine was enormous. You could almost chew on this. Definitely no simple summer quaffer. By then, I could perfectly imagine why this wine should be drunk in ten years time! And also why I needed to take my time… Another interesting thing about this wine is that it is completely dry. Gewürztraminer is sometimes made with a bit of residual sugar to make it off-dry. No such thing here. The remarkable consequence of that is that this wine has a whopping 15,5°C alcohol… Luckily well integrated.

As you might expect, this is the kind of wine that invites to eat with it. I matched this wine with rojak, a fruit and vegetable salad commonly found in Malaysia and Indonesia. It’s an eclectic mix of pineapple, mango, bean sprouts, toasted peanuts and, in this version, fried tofu. The dressing is a mix of lime zest and juice, oil, sambal oelek and sugar. A very refreshing, tangy salad, yet at the same time lightly sweet and hot. This turned out to be an absolute winner with the gewürztraminer, because the lime and the chilis added a bit of structure to the wine, while the wine beautifully echoed the mango and the pineapple. A great example of how one and one can be three…

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Hit the ro-jak!

So here we are. All of this goes to show that you just need to keep tasting and exploring! Otherwise you miss out on these hidden gems, made by super passionate wine makers, who put their heart and soul in it. And with stunning results…

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Cheers!

I joined the French Winophiles this month, a group of wine bloggers who publish one article a month on one central topic. Please join our chat on Twitter. Simply tune in to the #winophiles hashtag on Twitter this Saturday, June 16 at 10am CDT. You can also check out the #AlsaceRocks hashtag for more Alsace fun during and after the chat.

Here’s a list of Alsace wine suggestions from the Winophiles :

 

Riesling with Asian food – an all-time favorite

It’s classic stuff… Riesling with Asian food. If you’re a bit of a foodie, then you surely know that Riesling is an often recommended companion for Asian dishes that are built around sweet and sour contrasts. Riesling basically has very similar characteristics : often you’ll find pine apple, candied lemon, peach, and honey if it’s sweet or evolved. And of course that magnificent acidity that makes that Riesling hardly ever comes across as flat or plump, no matter how sweet the wine is… When the dish has more spicy flavours coming from cardamom, cloves, cumin,… then muscat or gewürztraminer will also be a very good match.

Today I prepared Yotam Ottolenghi’s vegetarian version of a Chinese classic dish : Black pepper tofu. This is one of our favorites here. But mind you, this is an extreme dish, in every possible way! In his recipe, Ottolenghi uses 8 chillies, 12 garlic cloves, three table spoons of ginger, and 5 (!) table spoons of crushed black pepper. It made me laugh when I read his version is already a milder version than the original… I can have a bit of pepper and chili, but I toned things down another notch or two, bringing the quantities down to 4 chillies, 6 garlic cloves and a few whiffs of pepper. Believe me, I found that hot enough.

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There’s a funny anecdote to this dish. You’re supposed to dust the tofu with corn flour to make it a bit crusty when you fry it. I had corn flour, but it was yellow corn flour to make polenta. That’s a much rougher version than the white corn flour, which is so fine you can hardly distinguish a single grain. On the picture above you can clearly see the corn flour I used. Well, this sure gives a crunchy coating! But we actually liked it. By now I’ve prepared this dish quite a few times, and I’ve tried both white corn flour and yellow corn flour. We actually prefer the yellow corn flour as it adds structure to the dish, which is interesting.

The wine we drank with it was a Riesling of Domaine Meyer-Fonné, a winery in the Alsace, France. It was the Pfoeller 2012. That’s a “lieux-dit”, a single vineyard coming from a specific place with the name Pfoeller.  On the website they describe the wine as follows : “The palate has a clean attack, distinguished, and an athletic acidity. As a slowly developing wine this is a riesling without compromise for the enlightened connoisseur.” Well, I can confirm that this wine has an “athletic” acidity (what a nice description, don’t you think?), but as is so often the case with Riesling, the acidity is not disturbing at all. This is a mouthwatering wine, very elegant, racy, complex. I also love the minerality in the nose, and there’s a hint of honey suckle as well. It’s true that this wine is no where near the point that it needs to be drunk. This wine will still develop for many years to come and will still get better, probably developing more mellow flavors alongside the racy acidity.

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The glass is empty and so is the bottle!

The combination worked really well. This black pepper tofu dish was very rich, and the riesling was a refreshing break in between the chili-loaded tofu. If you decide to make this dish and use the original amount of chili and black pepper, then by all means do not hesitate to take a riesling that’s slightly sweet, such as a Mosel Kabinett. It’s wrong to think that such wines are dessert wines. The sweeter versions, think of Spätlese, are indeed good partners for a fruit dessert. But a Kabinett can perfectly be paired with hot dishes and will help not to burn your tongue with the chili and pepper…

If you try this dish out, let me know how that went. Especially if you go for the hot version 🙂

 

 

 

Never waste a good climate change – Burgundy

One man’s loss is another man’s gain. Climate change is a challenge in many wine regions, but creating opportunities in others. Take Burgundy, for example. 2015 was hailed as a great year by many critics. Very good weather conditions resulting in high quality grapes and wine. At least if you like very rich pinots with loads of ripe fruit. Many of the 2015s I tasted at the wine fair of independent vignerons recently in Lille, France, were very generous, ripe and had moderate acidity levels. Of course, this is my personal preference, but I look more for Burgundies with freshness, fresh fruit, good acidity, tension and elegance. The contrast was immense when I tasted the wines of Domaine Jacob at the same wine fair. They do not put the wines in barrels for very long and were therefore capable of already bringing the 2016s to the fair. Well, they were vibrant! And that’s how I like them. To be totally honest, you don’t find the cream of the Burgundy crop at this wine fair so it would be unfair to judge the quality of the vintage just on the Burgundies I’ve tasted there. But still, it gave me a general idea. And it strengthened my belief that the great vintages according to the wine press, do not always produce the wines that I like.

All of this made me wonder about the effects of the hot weather on the wines coming from the plateau of the much cooler Hautes-Côtes in Burgundy. These vineyards are located on top of the Côte d’Or escarpment, the east-facing hills where you find all the illustrious vineyards of the Côtes de Nuits and the Côtes de Beaune. The Hautes-Côtes are higher than the Côtes, as the name suggests, and are not protected from the winds coming from the west. The difference in temperature can be a whopping 5°C… No wonder it’s difficult to have ripe grapes here. Except perhaps in warmer vintages such as 2015? Curiosity got the better of me, and I bought the Hautes-Côtes de Beane “Les Perrières” from Denis Carré, a winemaker based in Meloisey, a village in the Hautes-Côtes de Beaune. I had tried this wine before but from a cooler vintage (2013) and it failed to convince me then, so I was eager to see what the 2015 had to offer :

The nose offers plenty of typical pinot fruit. “Ça pinote”, like the French say. Cherries are singing the tune, with raspberries doing the backing vocals. There is something in the nose that I would like to call “wild”, perhaps a touch of brett even? But it’s not of the sort that overwhelms. It actually adds an intriguing element to the nose. There’s also some herbs on the background, and a whiff of old barrel. The wine kicks off with the cherries and the raspberries but there’s good acidity here that creates a ripe-sour contrast that I like. It lacks a bit of depth and length, but it definitely gives typical pinot drinking pleasure.

 Not too bad for 14,95€, is it? The hierarchy is obviously respected : no great complexity here. But then again, this is a pleasant wine that pinot lovers will like for its typicity and its pretensionless every day drinking character.

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Conclusion : it’s early days to start putting all your money on the Hautes-Côtes in Burgundy, but if temperatures keep rising, the Hautes-Côtes may have good stuff for us in store. New rendez-vous in 20 years or so…

Goodbye champagne… Hello champagne!

You can never have enough champagne in the house. Seriously! I’m hooked. I’ve come a far way, though. Before I was really into wine, I used to say : “why would you buy an expensive bottle of champagne if you can have cava for 5€? What’s the difference?!” Well, that was a long time ago… With the discovery of a whole new world of wine during my sommelier training, I also came to appreciate champagne. The aromas of apple, chalk, butter, toasted bread, brioche are now aromas that I cherish every time I drink a good champagne.  Continue reading “Goodbye champagne… Hello champagne!”