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!

 

St Laurent : an alternative for pinot noir?

The last leg of my Austrian tour brings me to another black grape : Sankt Laurent. The jury still seems to be out on the origin of this grape. Some say it is a seedling (raised from seed) of pinot noir, others say it is a crossing of pinot noir and savagnin, a white grape mainly used in the Jura. But apart from the different versions I find, there always seems to be a link with pinot noir. The latter being a wine lover’s favorite, I thought this link would guarantee an interest in St Laurent. It seems I was wrong! When I asked the shopkeeper of Wein&Co in Vienna for St Laurent he said that there is not much demand for it. The numbers on www.austrianwine.com confirm this : the share of St Laurent in the total value of Austrian wine in 2015 was a meagre 1,6%. Zweigelt (which is actually the progeny of blaufränkisch and St Laurent) is the most popular blue grape with 13,8%, just to give you an idea. Since there is so little St Laurent planted, it’s hard to say which region specializes in it, because none really does, although Carnuntum (south-east of Vienna) and the Thermenregion (south of Vienna) seem to be areas where it is more commonly found.

Master of Wine Jan De Clercq told me he does not always sell St Laurent because it is not an easy grape and it sometimes has difficulties to ripen in challenging years. So he only has it on offer in vintages where it ripened well and has no vegetal aromas. Still I was eager to get a taste of St Laurent, remembering a nice 2010 of Weingut Glatzer a few years ago.

St Laurent Selection 2015, Carnuntum, Weingut Netzl

The nose is surprisingly ripe with black cherries, even a bit lactic, and also a whiff of tobacco. The mouthfeel is very round and soft, with the acidity only emerging in the final. The black cherries define this wine, which is not very complex, but it is soft, velvety even. I had this St Laurent in a wine bar and had it with a mixed plate of cold cuts, and that went actually very well together. (12€ on the webshop of Netzl)

St Laurent Classic 2016, Carnuntum, Weingut Grassl

Very expressive wine immediately after opening. The first aroma I get is again something lactic, just like I had in the St Laurent of Netzl and one or two blaufränkisch. It’s pretty volatile here, however, because after a whirl or two it makes place for forest fruit, a bit of raspberry on the background, a hint of minerality and a touch of wood. This opens up beautifully and gives a rather complex and attractive nose. The wine balances between the forest fruit and the markedly higher acidity than in the Netzl St Laurent. Like I have found in so many of the Austrian wines I had, there is again this very exciting tension between ripe fruit and refreshing acidity. Not everyone might fall for this, but I particularly like this style of wine. Just when the wine seems to disappear there is some tobacco and forest fruit that pop up in the final, giving good length here. I bought this for 13€ in Wein&Co. Pretty good value for money, I would say! This is the kind of wine that I could keep sipping on. Until it’s finished…

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One of my favority St Laurents

Sankt Laurent Ried Hochschopf 2015, Traisental, Markus Huber

A St Laurent from a different area than the previous two. Traisental is situated next to Wachau, from where the top grüner veltliners come. A “Ried” in German is a single vineyard. The aromas remind me of the St Laurent of Grassl, without the lactic aromas then, with ripe cherries, raspberry and again a hint of minerality. The start is fruit driven, but quickly all of your attention is drawn to the razor sharp acidity that forms the backbone of this wine. Forest fruit heals your palate in the finale and prepares you for another sip. This wine is definitely not a crowd-pleaser, but it pleases me, although I suspect this might be a difficult wine in a cold vintage… You might also remember the zweigelt rosé of Huber in a previous post. That rosé was also surprisingly fresh and completely built on the acidity rather than the fruit. So it seems that Huber, who was Austrian winemaker of the year in 2015, really goes for freshness. Does that ring a bell, pinot noir lovers?

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An attractive bottle, and an attractive wine. But perhaps not for everyone’s palate.

St Laurent 2015, Burgenland, Andreas Gsellmann

Another one of Austria’s top wine makers. His organic St Laurent is pretty consistent with everything I’ve found so far in the previous wines. Again a lactic, kind of yogurt, aroma that finds its way to your nostrils first. To be gently sent off by a couple of whirls. Sour cherries and tobacco come in its place. The mouth feel is again a playful interaction between the ripeness and roundness of the dark fruit and the zingy acidity that cuts right through it. Again a wine that will appeal to lovers of fresh, elegant wines.

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In case you wonder if such fresh wines actually pair with anything. Well, we experimented with this mediterranean quiche with lamb mince, raisins and pine nuts. And that went surprisingly well, the freshness of the wine counterbalancing the ripe and sweetish flavors of the quiche.

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St Laurent and this lamb quiche : very complimentary!

Conclusions? Well, the style of these St Laurents was very consistent, apart from the first one of Netzl perhaps. A lactic touch here and there, cherries, forest fruit, raspberry sometimes, minerality, and especially the trademark acidity that shakes you up and keeps you focused. Probably not a grape for people who like a bolder style of wine, but is it reasonable to say that St Laurent is an alternative for pinot noir? Actually, I wouldn’t go as far as that. St Laurent clearly has its own style, and that’s good, a grape with an identity. But I do think that pinot noir lovers might also enjoy St Laurent and that it has its place in the cellar next to your burgundies and spätburgunders. To bring a bit of variation in what you drink. Without pulling you too far out of your comfort zone…

So, this is the end! My Austrian tour, I mean. At least for now, because I have to say I liked these wines very much and I definitely want to try more. In fact, I am very curious now what all these grapes can do once they are blended. Most wineries have what they call a “cuvée”, a blend of the different grapes they have. I Vienna I had one such blend : the Opus Eximium 2015 of Gesellmann. It was wonderful, very refined, complex, deep and long. So this one triggered my interest for sure! Another thing I’m curious about is how these wines age. Do they get better? I didn’t find the ones I had disturbingly young, but it would be interesting to explore the evolution of these wines. So, as you see, plenty of reasons to continue my investigations into Austrian wine.

For now, though, auf wiedersehen!

 

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…

Cool climate vs Cool climate

I’m a big fan of pinot noir. The elegance, complexity, classiness that this single grape can produce is simply enchanting. Many wine amateurs rave about pinot noir, and I am not an exception. A practical thing I like about pinot noir is that many can be drunk relatively young, and the entry-level wines even upon release. Not having a cellar where I can tuck away a few hundred bottles for the next 10 to 20 years, that helps! Of course I’m not talking about Grand Crus from Burgundy or top pinot noirs from other wine regions, which do need extensive cellaring. But you get the gist… Continue reading “Cool climate vs Cool climate”