Winefriend by David Way

Writing about the wines of Piemonte, Italy and France

Ben’s modern classics

Ben LlewellynBen Llewellyn of local wine merchant Caviste starts in a philosophical mode for the monthly tasting of Andover Wine Friends.  His theme is ‘what is a modern classic?’  Is it a meaningful concept or just a piece of wine trade nonsense?  We can talk meaningfully about the classics of literature or art or even wine – in England, they would be Bordeaux, Burgundy, Hock (that dates you) and Soave.  But what is a modern classic?  For Ben, it is a new wine which will become a classic, which has a long future ahead of it.  And that is the test – will a wine not only make a mark now but will it continue to be bought for decades to come.  That is obviously a question we can’t answer.  All we can look at is whether the wine has the quality to start that journey.

AlbarinoWine number one is an Albariño, but not one from the usual zone in cool and moist western Spain.  Albariño, Castel d’Enclus, Costers del Segre, 2011 comes from a tiny three-hectare site at 1000 metres above sea level in Catalonia.  It is a tiny production, 1200 bottles, from granite and sandy soils.  The resulting wine is taut, even nervous. A searing acidity holds together the floral and white peach flavours. The wine has a remarkable impact and cries out for seafood or similar.  It is a fine effort from top winemaker Raul Bobet, CEO of the enormous company Torres who apparently squeezes this wine in with the day job, Buddhist meditation and much more.  But then really outstanding people are like that. 

Wine number two is also a contrast to the expected.  Ben reaches for an analogy from the world of art: Cheveau’s wines are like a fine watercolour in the midst of oil paintings. Most Pouilly Fuissé is full of fruit, body and oak, made in the warmest, most southerly part of Burgundy.  Instead, Nicholas Cheveau has aimed for a Petit Chablis restraint. ‘Sur le Mont’, Domaine Cheveau, AC Mâcon Solutré-Pouilly, 2011 comes from 30-year-old vines on very exposed, poor limestone soils and is matured in old oak foudres, allowing some interaction with oxygen but no new-oak flavours.  In the glass it is pure and expressive, floral followed by mineral notes.  Some depth of stone fruit on the finish makes for a great value wine at £14. 

Cifras Blanco, Bodegas Exeo, Rioja Alavesa, Spain, 2010 was a happy coincidence as it all allowed us to compare this unusual 100% Grenache Blanc with the equally rare 100% Viura which had starred in Critics’ Choice Spain.  Normally white Rioja is a blend.  Again this comes from quite an extreme site – 480m of altitude with a range of exposures from south-east to north with varied soil types, flat stones, limestone, clay and iron.  A moderately rich and beautiful palate with sharp acidity and a certain leesiness. The oak is very restrained again.  One to lay down for a few years and see how it develops. 

White RiojaMontlouis sec tendre

The last white was a classic long before it could become a modern classic, if in a style which gets overlooked at the moment in our obsession with fully dry wines – sec tendre.    Lés Pechers, Ludovic Chanson, Montlouis, Loire 2010 was a great glass of very young Chenin Blanc.  It may have 18g of residual sugar but is perfectly in harmony with the high acidity underpinning its ripe apple fruit, lanolin and mineral charm.   This is from a production of just 1200 bottles. Something of a pattern is emerging here: these wines can only be cult classics, they simply are not made in big enough numbers to be widely available. 

LalamaSadly the first red was slightly corked – just enough to make it really not worth commenting on Canal des Grand Pieces, Domaine de L’R, Chinon, Loire, 2010 which should have been an excellent Cabernet Franc, but wasn’t.  The next three wines were however in very good condition.  Ben slightly sharply stated that the weather in Galicia, north-west Spain is a bit like landing in Scotland, though the main difference is that in addition to lots of Atlantic rain there are also a lot of hours of sunshine.  The latter allows high-quality viticulture with the excellent Dominio do Bibei, Lalama, Ribeira Sacra DO, 2011.  This is made mostly from the local Mencia grape grown on rebuilt terraces at 600-700m of altitude and fermented in Slovenian oak tanks and finished again in old wood – foudres and six-year-old barriques.  There is no history of fine wine here and so this really could be a modern classic:  fine, fragrant notes of smoky red berries, blueberry, a velvet palate and really fine, smooth tannins.  If you like a really intense and dense Pinot Noir, this is one to try. 

Ben’s modern classicsThe final wine from the old world was La Griffe, Domaine de Villeuneuve, Côtes-du-Rhône, France, 2010.  As we tend to associate this appellation with bargain wines in supermarkets, we knew this would have to be something special and it was.  Rather than treating this lowly appellation as a dumping ground for poor quality grapes, here the yield has been drastically reduced to 25 hectolitres per hectare, farmed bio-dynamically. This level of yield is a full ten hectolitres lower than the requirement for the much more prestigious Châteauneuf-du-Pape, adjacent to these vineyards.  The Grenache, Syrah and Mourvèdre fruit is given a cold soak before being fermented at a high temperature. Then the must is held for a very long time on its skins and pips – 60-80 days – before being left in a low oxygen state in neutral containers and then aged in cement tanks.  The result is a wine with a really fresh, vital, palate, intense ripe Grenache, violet and peppery Syrah and a hint of liquorice from the Mourvèdre.  Is it worth paying £25 for Côtes-du-Rhône? – when it is this good, it is.  Innovative label too. 

Spinifex The last lap was a nod to the new world as apparently you can make wine outside of Europe, here represented by an old Caviste favourite from the Barossa: Papillon, Spinifex, Barossa Valley, Australia, 2010. This is the ‘entry-level’ offering, though the strength of the Australian dollar has had some impact on the price. The fruit comes from the sandier soils of the estate producing attractive, forward fruit for early drinking. This is stated to be Grenache, Cinsault, Carignan and Shiraz, a sort of multi-blend tribute to the south of France, and likely destination for whatever fruit that is available – and in this case no worse for that.  What it lacks in the impact of the more expensive wines, it makes up for in its elegant balance succulent fruit, mulberry and blackberry. 

This was a splendid tasting. What I really noted was the consistent quality of the wines, particularly the French and Spanish offerings.  Yes, they do tend to come from micro-producers and so have untold hours of loving toil expended on them – but that is precisely what makes them stand out from the crowd.  Are they modern classics?  We will just have to wait until 2050 to find out if they lasted the test of time but all the indications are positive. 

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