New Etna Rosso finds

It’s about two years ago now (time flies!) that I took a closer look at Etna Rosso and recommended a few wines I liked. As I like to explore new things, I haven’t had Etna Rosso for a while, but recently I felt like going back to these intriguing wines. What I already mentioned in my previous post about Etna Rosso is confirmed in the wines I had this time as well : there is not one profile for Etna Rosso. Terroir and vintage are usually elements that are given to explain the differences, but my impression is that the style of the winery is just as important.

Here are three Etna Rossos I can wholeheartedly recommend :

ER 2014, Etna Rosso, Theresa Eccher

2014 is considered a difficult year for Italy, but things turned out relatively well for Sicily. Decanter’s Michael Garner describes the Etna Rossos of this vintage as balanced and perfumed, delicious to drink young. Theresa Eccher’s ER is very light in color. There is already some evolution here, the red fruit no longer being the freshly cut fruit that was probably there a couple of years ago. A hint of coffee, cedar, and a fresh, leafy herbaceousness give this wine an elegant and fresh profile. This is a very light type of Etna Rosso, for sure not one that is built to last. If the comparison with Burgundy is one that you often hear for Etna Rosso, then it is certainly applicable for this one. If you have this vintage, drink up, it’s in a nice spot now, and will not get better.

Nero Nibali 2015, Etna Rosso, Vino Nibali

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Very aromatic, the ripe red fruit comes floating out of the glass. There is a spiciness that reminds me of curry powder, and a hint of barnyard that adds to the complexity of the wine. A touch of noble cedar wood makes it complete. At this stage the wine is still very much fruit driven, but there is a structure behind it all that the ER of Theresa Eccher did not have. The tannins are ripe and give a bit of bite, which I like. Despite that, the global feeling I have here is one of satin softness. The savoury spiciness sets this wine very much apart from Theresa Eccher’s Etna Rosso. Beautiful!

Archineri 2012, Etna Rosso, Pietradolce

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Very ripe nose, with dried fruit, plum, spices, cigar. Very luscious wine, with also a hint of black chocolate in the background, kept sufficiently fresh by a good acidic backbone. The ripe/fresh contrast is quite big, but it works out well, the two keeping each other nicely in balance. If I didn’t know what this was, I might have guessed this was a Brunello… 2012 was a very hot vintage, so this could explain the very ripe fruit here. I am curious to try other vintages of this wine. Being able to deliver a wine in balance in such a hot vintage clearly proves craftmanship!

Conclusion :

Three different styles but three lovely wines. It was nice to reconnect with these volcanic wines and to see that the quality of these randomly bought bottles was very good . The focus on Etna wines these days does not only reflect a hype, but also the fact that this is simply a region that produces great wines.

Affordable pinot noir from Burgundy : a case of sour grapes?

In my previous post I told you about the tastings of pinot noir I organised a few years ago for my final dissertation to become a sommelier. I wanted to find out if it’s possible to find decent pinot noir under 15€. You already read that New Zealand pinot noir was doing very well in those tastings. But how did Burgundy fare? More than half of about 40 pinot noirs we then tasted were Burgundies.

I will not beat about the bush : exactly one Burgundy was considered to be good by the tasting panel. Not a great result… Some might argue that it is impossible to find good Burgundy under 15€, and if I were to re-do the exercize now, I would probably set the cut-off point at 20€ considering the sometimes crazy price increases in Burgundy.

What struck me the most was the very low quality of some of these bottles. It is actually very rare that I find a wine outright bad, even generic supermarket wines under 5€. They can be uninteresting, bland, lacking character,… But so sour, or harsh, that it is actually difficult to finish your glass, let alone the bottle, is something that hardly ever happens. And yet, amongst those entry-level Burgundies, there were more than a few of those. A useful reminder that Burgundy does not only produce some of the world’s greatest, but also wines you just want to pour down the drain…

Fortunately, the one Burgundy that was good, was also really good. In total I did three tastings and in every one there was always one or two wines that cost around 30€, so double the price of the other wines, just to make sure that everyone in the panel remained attentive and rated the wines on their real quality and not just based on the fact that these were mere “budget wines”. The Burgundy that scored really well, was actually thought to be the more expensive wine, with someone even suggesting it could be a 1er Cru… Well, it was definitely not a 1er Cru, not even a village wine, but the Burgundy 2012 of François Legros, a wine maker based in Nuits-Saint-Georges. It had a complex nose, well-integrated wood, good structure and length, probably helped by the vintage, which generally produced wines with more body, structure and potential to age.

Since this was the only Burgundy to perform so well in this price category, I decided to keep buying this wine. For the occasion of this post I opened the three vintages that I still have : 2013, 2014, and 2015.

Burgundy 2013

 

The brick rim shows obvious evolution in the color. Mainly red fruit in the nose. The toast aromas that were more prominent a couple of years ago are now completely integrated. This wine is undoubtedly the slimmest of the three, reflecting the vintage’s freshness and accessible style. Not so much margin left here though, so drink up.

Burgundy 2014

 

The evolution also starts to show here. The nose is a bit shy upon opening. There is fresh red fruit and a nice cedar wood touch. This wine was packed with fruit when I drank it about a year ago, which is much less the case now. I read somewhere that some 2014s might be in a closed phase right now. Or is the fruit already fading away? I kept some for the day after and the wine was more open and refined on day 2, so not at the end of its life yet. A beautiful example of the vintage again, with good acidity and tart red fruit being the drivers of this wine.

Burgundy 2015

 

The color is somewhat darker, more concentration in the core. The fruit is riper and tending more toward cherries. The profile is generally much rounder and riper. I actually had to cool it down a bit, as the acidity that normally plays the role of balancing the wine was here more on the background. On day two the wine showed a very different wine, boasting succulent raspberries and more freshness. It obviously still had to shed its baby fat. This wine has the greatest potential of the three and will really shine in a year or two. Very nice!

Even though I had drunk each of these wines before, it was very interesting to be able to compare them now. In general the quality stays at a good level, which is remarkable for Burgundies of around 15€. To be able to deliver consistently well-performing wines, also in challenging vintages such as 2013 and 2014, is a feat of winemaking so bravo to Mr Legros for that. And despite the price increases also for this wine, they remain modest (so far), and contribute to making decent Burgundy pinot noir accessible for wine lovers.

The 2015 sold out in my wine shop, so I hope to lay my hands on the 2016 soon. Probably my favorite Burgundy vintage of the last ten years, so very much looking forward to that!

Good and fairly priced pinot noir? Try New Zealand!

Pinot noir is one of my favorite grapes, and it probably is for many people. High demand for something is never good if you expect to get something cheap, but the problem with pinot noir is that THE reference region for the grape, Burgundy, is only about 30,000 hectares (roughly 74,000 acres). That is one tenth of Bordeaux, and not even 2,5% of the area under vine in California! And then pinot noir only represents 30% of the wine made in Burgundy… If people from all over the world want those wines, well you get the picture, don’t you? The prices of red Burgundy go up every year and quite dramatically so in the case of wines that have become the target of speculation.

When I did my dissertation for my sommelier course about five years ago, I chose  “quality of pinot noir under 15€” as my subject. I wanted to know if it was possible to find good pinot noir at a price that most people still find acceptable. Acceptable of course depends on a few things, such as where you are located. I’m located in Belgium, which means that transport costs are limited in comparison to the US or Asia. I’m not even sure if it is possible to find red Burgundy in the US under 17$? At the time I did my study I was still able to find quite a few here, but I’m sure that would be more difficult today. Another factor that plays a role in what you find acceptable is whether you are an occasional wine drinker (“do you have merlot?”), a more advanced wine-lover (“I prefer left-bank over right-bank Bordeaux”), or an outright wine freak (“I bought Les Petits Monts because that’s just above Richebourg!”). Market research regularly shows that the first category on average spends 3-4€ on a bottle of wine. You can’t even find a 37,5cl bottle of Burgundy for that price. The wine freak is not a good reference either, because once the Burgundy fever got hold of you, you find 30€ for a village Gevrey a bargain. So perspective is really everything here.

So what did my study came up with? Out of more than 40 wines tasted (more than half of which were Burgundies) only one (!) red Burgundy was approved by the tasting panel. Ouch… Luckily there were alternatives. The New-Zealand pinot noirs punched above their weight, or should I say price. Not one performed really bad, which some Burgundies did, and most were genuinely liked by the panel. Brancott Estate’s pinot noir was then one of the top performing wines out of the whole series.

The reason why I come back to this study now is because I recently drank Vidal’s Pinot Noir Reserve 2017, which reminded me of how good New Zealand pinot noir can be.

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It has loads of freshly cut red fruit, a bit of laurel, and great freshness. What I like most here is that there’s no obvious wood aromas, despite the fact that it spent 11 months in French barriques. Not that I mind thoughtful use of wood in pinot noir, but one critical note I could make on some of these budget New Zealand pinot noirs is that they tend to have a similar profile, not in the least because of the use of wood that kind of defines them. Vidal’s pinot noir does not have that, it’s all vibrant fruit here. It’s frivolous in a way, and reminds me of a good domaine’s basic Burgundy. This is a fun wine to drink, and yet it gives you that distinct pinot noir feeling that Burgundy lovers look for. The great thing is that I bought this wine for 12€. That’s what I call a bargain!

 

Sangiovese : how well does it stand the test of time?

I had the luck to participate in a tasting of old Sangioveses. Not having a proper cellar to keep wines for decades myself, I was very happy to be given this chance. And if that wasn’t enough, there was also a Sassicaia 1991 thrown into the deal! But more about that later.

Honestly, I wasn’t convinced of the ageing potential of Sangiovese… I have a difficult relationship with this grape. I have had very good experiences, but also less good ones. I like Sangiovese when the fruit is not cooked or too jammy, and when the alcohol levels are under control. But in recent vintages, alcohol levels of 14,5% or even 15% were more often the rule than the exception.  The fruit of those wines tends to evolve to dried fruit, and unless there’s good supporting acidity underneath that, such wines can be rather heady.

So when the opportunity came to taste a few really old Sangioveses, I knew I had to do this to finally know if these wines are worth cellaring for a couple of decades. When I say really old, they were indeed really old, the oldest bottle being a 1971… This was the line-up :

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  1. Isole e Olena 1983, Chianti Classico
  2. Brolio Riserva 1971, Chianti Classico, Barone Ricasoli
  3. La Casa 1979, Brunello di Montalcino, Tenuta Caparzo
  4. Il Poggione 1977, Brunello di Montalcino
  5. Tenuta Sant’Agnese 1979, Vino Nobile di Montepulciano
  6. Avignonesi 1979, Vino Nobile di Montepulciano
  7. Sassicaia 1991, (at that time still) Vino da Tavola

A really exciting line-up, with a perfect spread over the three most important wine producing regions for Sangiovese! Already the fact that I was going to taste a few wines that had spent more time on this planet than I have, was something to look out for. And yet, at the same time, I was kind of preparing myself for wines that were dead on their feet.

Isole e Olena 1983

The first wine was already immediately a surprise, because it appeared much younger than I had expected. Black cherry, plum, chocolate, tobacco, leather, a touch of cedar wood. Beautiful nose! The mouth feel was surprisingly fresh, and the wine even had some tannins still. Based on the nose I perhaps expected a wine with a bit more body, but still, this Chianti was alive and kicking. Good start! When I came back to this wine a bit later it was evolving to aromas of black tea, which I found less attractive, so no long airing needed here.

Brolio Riserva 1971

Twelve years further back in time, and that was immediately obvious, the color having evolved to copper/amber. It took a while for the aromas to show as there was a bit of dustiness that had to be whirled out the glass. After a couple of minutes we finally got some dried fruit, chocolate, dried spices, and even raisins. The wine was relatively thin, although not completely dead. Still a bit of dried fruit and chocolate, but it was clear that the best years of this Brolio were long gone.

La Casa 1979

Still ruby red with a brick colored rim signalling the evolution. Great nose! Dried fruit, floral tones, cedar wood, chocolate, plum, nutmeg, and a touch of animality. Very complex. The wine is very intense and deep, fresh as well, and still displays ripe red fruit. The balance here is remarkable. This wine is now perfect. Amazing after 40 years…

Il Poggione 1977

Clearly evolved color. The aromas come timidly out of the glass. Still some red fruit, spices, a touch of iron. It opens up a bit more after a while in the glass. After the impressive La Casa this wine appears a bit thinner, but it’s especially the tannins that draw the attention here, being a bit rough even after more than 40 years in the bottle. The balance is not completely right.

Sant’Agnese 1979

Transparent and evolved in color. Not very expressive, the fruit is ripe or dried even. There’s something dusty here as well. A touch of cedar and pine tree. In comparison to the previous wines, this Vino Nobile is a bit warmer, riper, and the acidity is lower than in the previous wines. Still noticeable tannines here. Good effort, but I personally prefer the elegance and freshness of the Brunellos.

Avignonesi 1979

Remarkably dark color in comparison with the previous wines. Quite a different nose also : black cherry, rubber, dried fruit, liquorice, coffee. Again a warmer impression in this Vino Nobile and again slightly drying tannins. The wine did evolve nicely in the glass, however, opening up beautifully with aromas of tobacco and more cedar wood. 40 years old and still margin. Hard to believe.

Before I move on to the Sassicaia : what’s my conclusion after these 6 Sangioveses? Well it’s clear that Sangiovese is worth tucking away in your cellar for a long, long time. Apart from the Brolio, all the wines were still in a good shape, which was much more than I had hoped for before the tasting. But not only were they not dead, most still displayed beautiful fruit aromas, noble cedar wood, and above all freshness. The Vino Nobiles were a bit warmer, but the Brunellos and the Isole e Olena were very fresh, even salivating wines, a characteristic I don’t often find in todays Sangioveses. That things have changed in Tuscany since the 1970s was probably the most obvious in the alcohol levels : all wines had between 12,5% and 13,5%. Difficult to imagine that nowadays…

If you were wondering about the Sassicaia, I will not beat about the bush : it was corked! What a bummer… But still, there are a couple of things worth mentioning for Sassicaia fans. 1991 was the vintage that received a 81 score in Wine Spectator, not a glorious score for  one of the world’s most famous wines. It is described as a wine that was thinner than other vintages. On top of that, Monica Larner, the Italian reviewer for The Wine Advocate, wrote this in April 2017 :

The 1991 Sassicaia has reached the end of the line. It shows overly oxidized aromas of dried meat, old leather and dried fig. This was a hot vintage and the bottom has dropped out on any residual fruit or fiber. The mouthfeel is tight, gritty and there’s a sudden note of bitterness on the finish. The effect is flat and void of any significant dimension. However, you do feel the vintage heat.

So I had no high hopes for this Sassicaia. When I discovered it had cork taint, I was even more disappointed of course. But I could still tell that this was not a wine that had “reached the end of the line”, quite the contrary actually, I could still discern loads of fresh fruit. Despite the off aromas there was still a glimpse of an elegant and vibrant wine, making the disappointment that it was corked even bigger. So if you’re lucky enough to have Sassicaia 1991 in your cellar, no reason to rush! Then why did Monica Larner say it was at the end of the line? Could it have been a badly stored bottle? Or was there bottle variation? It’s interesting to read the reviews on Cellartracker : some are really raving, while others mention oxidation. I wished there was a second bottle to put to the test, but alas…

To sweeten the pill our host came up with a replacement bottle for the Sassicaia : the Col d’Orcia 1991, Brunello di Montalcino. A good deal younger than the other Sangioveses we tasted earlier on, but still 28 years old! The difference in age was noticeable quite well : still loads of fruit, blueberry, rosemary, tobacco, leather, cedar. Great nose. The tannins were still present but in general the balance was good. Great length as well! Very enjoyable now, but still so many things going on that it can easily hold up for at least another decade!

And that was the end of a great evening. La Casa of Tenuta Caparzo was my personal favorite, but it was definitely not the only oldie with a good performance. This tasting illustrated very aptly how good aged Sangiovese can be. Anyone up for a follow-up tasting in 40 years?

 

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!

Midlife crisis? Drink Gaja!

A midlife crisis is a great excuse to organise a birthday tasting and open a couple of wow bottles. The ones you’ve been saving for a special occasion. Also the ones that have a price tag that comes with the label (read overpriced wines), but that you secretly want to try anyway, at least once. All in all, turning 40 has its advantages…

I lined up 12 wines to share with three other winos, ranging from Champagne to Burgundy, Piemonte and Sicily, to end with a deliciously sweet Jurançon.

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The line-up

I will not discuss them one by one, but just pick out a couple that made us silent for a couple of minutes. The first one is the Barbaresco 2013 of Piemonte icon Angelo Gaja. If you know Piemonte, then Angelo Gaja probably does not need introducing. He is not only recognized for making top Barbarescos, but is also known for his controversial decisions such as the introduction of small barrique aging instead of the traditional botti (large casks), planting the international grape varieties cabernet sauvignon, chardonnay and sauvignon blanc in Piemonte, and breaking out of the official Barbaresco DOCG designation. A bit of a phenomenon, really. All the more reason I wanted to try one of his wines!

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The Barbaresco is the flagship wine of the Gaja family. Even though Gaja started producing single vineyard Barbarescos in the 60s, it’s the “normal” Barbaresco that was produced already in the 19th century. Nowadays it is made with grapes from 14 different sites and it is aged for 12 months in barriques, and another 12 months in large oak casks. Gaja is sometimes called a modernist and the barrique aging could make you think that his wines will taste like vanilla juice, but still, his wines are always described as elegant and refined. To be tested of course! Also, if you are familiar with nebbiolo, you know that this is a grape variety that can be quite austere, producing wines that need time, sometimes even decades, to reach their peak. Opening a 2013 nebbiolo would in most cases be considered infanticide, a waste of money. Well, one of the reasons Gaja introduced barrique aging was to soften the tannins, and make wines that are more approachable in their youth. 2013 is also a vintage that produced  in general lighter wines than 2012. Again, to be tested!

How do you prepare such a bottle? That remains one of the most difficult things in wine, I find. Most of the wines you find in the supermarket are made to drink young, and you can just pop and pour. Once you go to wines of a higher segment, you will often find wines that need time, wines that can be difficult in their youth, aromatically challenging, or austere. It would not be the first time that I hear people who buy an expensive wine to celebrate a special occasion, and end up being really disappointed. Opening a bottle in advance can help to give it oxygen, and let it breathe. But for how long? The day before? A couple of hours in advance? Or pouring it in a carafe to give it a more agressive oxygen treatment? There is not one right answer to this, I’m afraid. A Bordeaux can benefit from opening it the day in advance, but I’ve had bad experiences with doing so with lighter wines, Burgundies for example. With wines made of nebbiolo, my experience is that the tannins can be quite rough, even unpleasant, on the second day. So I decided to open the Barbaresco a couple of hours before tasting it.

When I opened it around noon, I had a little sip to see how it was and check if it didn’t have cork taint. The wine already displayed beautiful aromas of red fruit, but the complexity was not there yet. I didn’t panic. A little bit of air can do wonders. And indeed… The red fruit was accompanied by floral aromas, and a bit of pepper. It was not so much the complexity but the quality of the aromas that made everyone realise this was something special. Delicate, elegant and refined were some of the adjectives that came up when sniffing from our glasses. The first sip pushed us further into exaltation. Ripe fruit but a cool impression at the same time. Everything here was so well dosed. The tannins were noticeable, but ripe and elegant, and provided a superfine structure that carried the wine. The long finish presented us with an extended goodbye. If I had to choose one word to describe this Barbaresco, it would be airiness! The complete opposite of a blockbuster actually. Or how a wine can mesmerize without having luxurious oak, or huge concentration.

Well, what can I say? This is an experience. Angelo Gaja completely lived up to his reputation as “King of Barbaresco”. You pay alot for a bottle, but at least this is the kind of tasting that will linger in your thoughts for long and that will put a big grin on your face when you think back of it. When you buy such a bottle, you don’t buy 75cl of wine. You buy an experience!

After reading this declaration of love for Gaja’s Barbaresco, you probably think this wine was the undisputed WOTN. For those of you who don’t master wine slang, that’s Wine Of The Night. Well, actually, there was a strong contender… Which one could that be, you think?

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.