Thursday, 27 October 2011

Trains, Planes and Automobiles

Last Friday and Saturday we had our annual Laithwaites show in our brilliant flagship store 'the Arch.' Another great success, with 1300 customers visiting to enjoy our wines, experience the taste tunnel and sample the wares of various food stands.

I left London by train very early Monday morning to catch the red eye BA flight to Bordeaux. Arriving on time, I made a quick stop off at Le Chai to check and taste the wines. Then I hopped back in the car and drove down to the Midi to meet Maitena at the Midi winemakers’ house in Peyriac de Mer near Narbonne.

Another early start on Tuesday and a winding drive to Fitou where ferments are now finished and MLF has started. There are some lovely wines made this year with the old vine Carignan standing out.

We continued once again through Fitou, the Corbières and up and over into the Maury valley to taste the XV du President vats. With some rainfall this year 2011 is certainly a real 'Grenache Year', the best since 2007. We were also lucky to taste some old Maury fortified wines: the '74, '75, '76, '77, '78, '79 and '80 all superb!

I lunched in Maury with Vent de Folie grower Jean-Charles and old friend Daniel Laffite at le Pichenouille - the new eating hub of the village. It’s always a good opportunity to taste wines from some of the other winemakers in the village.

We continued the Tour de Midi and arrived late in Peyriac. Early night as I am meeting the JMS back in Bordeaux tomorrow morning!

Monday, 24 October 2011

Into the Gers

Another early start and a very misty morning drive into the Entre-Deux-Mers to be at the bottling of the second half of little Bordeaux Château Geneau. The mist is now here every morning as the cold nights set in and the warm Dordogne releases the mist like a smoke machine! This Geneau is really lovely drinking claret; just what affordable Bordeaux used to be like. It’s a wine we have nurtured from the beginning and I can truly recommend it.

Once all was good I left to meet JMS at Le Chai and we did a tasting run through the 2011’s in the Chai. Viognier coming real good now and standing out today, think we’ll make a pure one this year. Not much of it so keep an eye on my blog for further info!

Today we were going 3hours south of Bordeaux to the department of the Gers to meet up with our friend Lionel Osmin. We’re tasting the red vats and checking the grapes for the famous moelleux wines of Gascony that are still hanging on the vine!

We made our way down through the vineyards of Côtes du Marmadais, the pine forests of the Val de Garonne-Gascogne, through the rolling hills of Armagnac and finally our destination: Viella in the tiny Appellation of Madiran. We were in real deep country now where cows for beef, geese and ducks for foie gras and black pigs share the land with the vineyards. The Gers is renowned for its amazing cuisine and the produce here is just as spectacular as the landscape.

We met up with our friend Lionel Osmin who’s born and bred in Gascogny. After studying winemaking in Toulouse he decided to return to his home region to concentrate on making, promoting and selling these rare wines. If anyone knows anyone here then its Lionel!

The people here are hardened farmers and our first stop was at Monsieur Bortolussi’s magnificent Château Viella. We started with a grand tour of the vineyards of both the red Madiran appellation and the whites of Pacherenc du Bilh.

The king of the red grapes here is Tannat; a hardy grape with thick skins to protect it from the regular rainfall. Thick skins give an abundance of tannin requiring careful vinification techniques to avoid tannins leaching into the wine. Very different methods are used here in Madiran compared to Bordeaux, but when it’s done well the result is the darkest silkiest wine ever!

The Tannat has already been harvested but the tiny Petit Manseng white grapes still hang on the vine. This rare grape makes the semi sweet wines of appellation Pacherenc du Bilh.

The name of the game here is to keep the botrytis at bay and the thick skinned tiny berries are perfectly adapted to do so as they hang in loose bunches allowing aeration around every berry. Biting into one of the berries is quite an experience as you chew through the skin the front of the tongue is hit first by an incredible sweetness followed by the most searing acidity! These wines can age for a very long time and if you can get a bottle try it, a marvellous wine!

We finally made it to the château high on the hill and entered into the barrel store at the bottom of the huge house. The barrels sit in the great kitchen that once served the entire household. As you stand there you can imagine a once-bustling kitchen of cooks, fires and servants rushing about. However, it’s very calm in here now!

The barrels tasted and satisfied with the grapes, we headed back north to see the Truau family in the heart of Armagnac. This family farm everything there is to farm here and grapes are no exception. They don’t bottle a single drop but with winemaking help they make some very fine dry and sweet wines, very aromatic Colombard being their strength. Or so we thought …

After talking, we learnt that they also distil traditional grapes of Bacho and Ugni Blanc to make their own Armagnac! We couldn’t resist asking to have a taste and a big old door was drawn aside revealing an old underground cellar full of barrels of Armagnac going back 20 years. As we entered the cellar we were nearly knocked off our feet by bats flying around in there!

The son drew some 1993 55% vol pure Bacho from a barrel and its golden colour and almond aroma was absolutely superb. Tasting Armagnac amongst flying bats was certainly a first for me!

A long day was rewarded by Lionel (and his knowledge of the people and the region) with a meal at the reputed Bernard Daubin restaurant in the tiny village of Montreal de Gers. It opened exclusively for us by the highly rated and well known French chef Bernard Daubin himself … and what an experience it was to be!

Bernard is big jolly man and his exquisite food is known throughout France. And here we were: JMS, Lionel, Damien and I sitting at Bernard’s comptoir (bar) with just Bernard and his wife Veronique about to cook for us. Although there’s an extensive cellar, there is actually no wine list or menu; you will eat and drink what you’re given. Therefore it is no place for the unadventurous, vegetarians or the diet obsessed! And so for the next 4 hours we sat in front of a mad genius chef trying to kill us with foie gras! The menu and wine matching went like this:

Oysters from Brittany / Mas Julien 2009
Fois Gras maison /
Tartare de Canard / Rive droite, rive gauche 2007 Cotes du Rhone
Red Mullet, caviar, aioli and jus / Gallinette 2010 Cotes du Rhone (cold)
Tete de veau avec homard / Le Compte a Rebours Cahors 2008
Fois gras frais avec feves / Domaine la Colombelle Lledonar Pelut 2006
Carcasse de Canard / Le Ruminant des Vigne Gros Manseng 2007
Fromage Brebis / les Pissenlit Dominique Andiran
Croustille Aux Pommes / Larressingle 21 ans Armagnac
Deutz et Drappier Champagne

I am extremely fortunate to have been there and a grand merci to Lionel, Bernard and Veronique, quell experience!!

Please visit this restaurant if you are in the area it is truly an incredible experience!

Then off to London for the Laithwaites show at the Arch in Borough Market; maybe I saw you there!

Monday, 17 October 2011

The Week That Was ... Rather Busy!

There have been busy weeks and there has been last week! Not only were the last of the reds being harvested in Bordeaux, but the first reds in the Midi were being pressed off. That meant a couple of dashes down and back to the Midi to start the week off, setting the pace that would continue for the next seven days.

The desired malo-lactic fermentation (MLF) was kicking off in the Chai, too and all but one wine had finished the alcoholic fermentation; a crucial time for the wines where careful monitoring is required. The last ferment, the dry botrytis project is now fully underway and Tony Laithwaite was in the Chai regularly to taste his idea and check how it was progressing.

The dry botrytis wine, now dubbed the ‘DB’ by the Chai winemakers, is something very experimental. It’s a blend of two very different styles of the Sémillon grape. The first is an early harvested Bordeaux Sémillon to make a crisp dry wine and the second is a Botrytis Sémillon from Loupiac to make a sweet desert style. The objective is to have a dry wine but with the marmalade aromas and taste of the botrytis, simple eh?


The first problem is that the two styles must be blended and fermented together as the sweet juice of the Loupiac alone will never ferment dry and therefore be too sweet to blend later on. The second is that these styles are harvested four weeks apart from each other!

So how do we do it? Luckily at the Chai we have wonderful modern equipment and our cooling system is one of the best. It allowed us to pick the first Sémillon at the very beginning of September and hold it at 4°C to avoid a wild fermentation for three weeks until the harvest in Loupiac was ready to start. The juices were then blended at Le Chai and we raised the temperature kicking off the fermentation! It’s very exciting and so far so very good!

Everyone was in town too, the Laithwaite clan and friends for the harvest along with a stream of various important visitors. First to visit the Chai and taste our wines was winemaking legend Dr Tony Jordon (responsible for wines at Moet-Chandon, Cloudy Bay and many more) followed by wine legend Hugh Johnson … no pressure there then!! The tastings went well and the wines were given the thumbs by Tony and Hugh!

We had a lovely end-of-harvest meal cooked once again by Bernadette at Chateau La Clarière-Laithwaite … special guests included Hugh Johnson and Edouard Mouiex. The chicken stuffed with cepes was excellent along with the 2005 and 2009 Chateau La Clariere.

The outbounders were also busy at Le Chai and it was the group’s turn to do a wine blending with the winemaker in our lab and tasting room. It’s hard work and a great deal of concentration is required but great fun … and they get to see just how difficult it is to blend wine.

On the Saturday I gave a mixed staff group from the UK and USA a full Chai tour and they were lucky to be the first to taste some of the now-dry wines. We had a lovely meal up at Le Comptoir and tasted Henry’s 2008 La Verniotte.

Next up for a visit was our team of global directors including Simon, Andrew, Glenn, Adrian, Rachel, Mike, Justin, Gary, Jay, Alex, Tanya, Lyn and Steve who were here at the Chai for a winemaking weekend organised by JMS, James and I. Everyone got stuck into some hard cellar work and learnt some important wine making techniques. In the evening Libby and Clare organised a wonderful meal in the Grand Chai cellar and JMS cooked some of the biggest steaks ever seen on the BBQ. Thank you and well done everyone.

We have also been very busy bottling some of our little treasures of Bordeaux 2010 Chateaux, including Chateau Grand Billard from Monsegur, Chateau Geneau from Blaye and Chateau Le Coin from Rauzan!

So apart from a hell of a lot of winemaking it feels like there has also been a hell lot of eating!

JMS and I are off to the South West regions tomorrow to visit Cahors, Madiran, Gascogne and Fronton to re-check the wines we make with Lionel Osman. Will it slow down?

A bientot!

Wednesday, 5 October 2011

Un Vent de Folie!

It's been the most superb weather here in Bordeaux for the last 10 days … a huge turn around from what was almost a disastrous vintage. 30-degree heat and cool, dry nights have enabled the reds to reach optimum ripeness and concentration. Those growers who played the risk game by waiting can now look forward to making some superb wines!

With another week of sun and heat forecast we will be taking in the Cabernets at the end of the week. That means I can make another dash down to the Midi to do the rounds with Maitena checking all the ferments

I have just spent the day helping Jean-Charles making our ‘Un Vent de Folie’ in his very small garage winery. We are both tall guys and in his tiny garage cellar it was like playing twister but we know each other well-enough over the last ten years to be comfortable working together!

It’s a dream team of top grower and a good winemaker; both with the passion for Grenache and the Maury terroir.

It’s hard, very hard, but with sheer graft and determination it gets better and better and better. We are so proud to have made this wine and I only wish his Great-Grandparents could have tasted it

JC’s wife Celine who was full time in the vineyard unfortunately couldn't be there to enjoy quality time with her family and me as she was back at work. However she had prepared our lunch last night when she got home from working at the supermarket in Perpignan.

Granddad (Papy) and Grandma (Mamy) were there though and arrived to enjoy a well-deserved break after they had been in the vineyard clearing up after harvest. Once again over lunch I learned even more about wine, the family and the region, and of course Grandma insisted on washing up! Papy was telling the stories and asking when Tony would return so he could redo the snail BBQ in his tool shed that he so fondly remembers!

Such a great family and you can’t get any closer to true wine growers. And we (Laithwaites) help, so important.

It all started 10 years ago when I was randomly placed as a ‘flying winemaker’ working at the cooperative in Maury. Amongst the mayhem of harvest, I spotted a trailer full of the best Grenache I had ever tasted and at the wheel was a young grower Jean-Charles ‘JC’ Duran. We hit it off straight away with our passion for the local terroir and the determination to make the best red wine from the local varietals.

After meeting a couple of times in the cooperative tractor car park he decided to take me out to his family’s remote vineyards planted in a 'soil' of scrunched up slate. But the yields were tiny and he was worried that, like many small farmers, he'd have to abandon growing.

We became mates and over beers one night in the La Placette village café we made a plan. He would go independent and convert the garage below his house into a basic two-tank winery. I would make his wine there, give it some barrel ageing elsewhere … and now ‘elsewhere’ is proudly in Le Chai Au Quai.

Now every year I haul his young wine up to Le Chai au Quai where I look after it like it was my own child. Here I give it careful ageing in new French oak barrels and the best bottling conditions which this wine would have never seen!

Ten years on our collaboration and careful work in the vineyard and in his garage winery has resulted in the ultimate grower/winemaker partnership wine ‘Un Vent de Folie’. I think together we now make a wine well worthy of his magnificent ancient vines. Try one; you won’t be disappointed.