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Shortlisted for the Roederers

I’m a little over a week late with this news to the blog, but as access to the internet was so sparse during my time in Madeira (mainly the effect of prohibitive data costs to be honest with you, and having just received my monthly phone bill I’m glad I managed to keep it down to the level I did) I hope you will forgive my tardiness.

RoedererI’m delighted to reveal that for the third year running I have been shortlisted for a Roederer wine writing award. Being shortlisted really is an honour; according to the chairman of the judges Charles Metcalfe, the number of entries this year reached a record high, and so coming out in the top handful gives me a real boost.

The more astute readers (or those who look at the home page, anyway) may well have noticed the banner, reproduced right, which the lucky shortlistees (is that a word?) can display.

The category I’m shortlisted in is the Best International Wine Website of the Year (sponsored by Domaines Ott), and I’m up against some fairly stiff competition. The six sites shortlisted are as follows:

Tim Atkin M.W. | www.timatkin.com

Tom Cannavan | www.wine-pages.com

Rebecca Gibb | www.wine-searcher.com

Jamie Goode | www.wineanorak.com

David Honig | www.palatepress.com

Chris Kissack | www.thewinedoctor.com

With such a strong line-up I’m not going to hold my breath; I have a feeling my role might be once again to be the bridesmaid, and not the bride! Jamie Goode must stand a very good chance, and he has already picked up several awards for his online work in the past twelve months. Best of luck to all those shortlisted (in this and all the other categories).

For a full list of those shortlisted in all categories, see the Roederer Awards site.

Loire Misunderstood #3: Light and Easy-Drinking Reds

The Loire is renowned for the quality of its reds, light and easy-drinking wines that require little in the way of cellaring, and which often benefit from a light chill,” I was once informed by a major wine publication. Well, it went along those lines anyway, so I’m paraphrasing, and paraphrasing from memory at that. But that was the gist of the message. The Loire is defined, as far as the red wines go, by their light character and easy, approachable style.

It is not an uncommon belief, but as I have already expounded in my previous Loire Misunderstood posts on Muscadet and Oysters and on Herbaceous Reds, common beliefs often seem – on closer and more questioning inspection – to be somewhat wide of the mark.

This is certainly true of how the red wines of the Loire are treated by the mainstream English-language wine press. I make this linguistic distinction as I find the attitude in French wine publications, even mainstream magazines such as La Revue des Vins de France as well as more esoteric publications such as Le Rouge et Le Blanc, to be very different. Here the wines are regarded with greater respect, catalogued, tasted and scored in just the same manner as wines from Bordeaux or Burgundy. The English wine writing world, however, is content to keep the Loire stuffed head first into an easy-drinking pigeon-hole, its whites crisp, floral and summery, its reds – largely Cabernet Franc (a few berries pictured below), of course – being lean, crisp and low in tannin. I do on occasion wonder whether this prejudice reflects a deeper and more negative view of the Loire, one in which the entire region simply isn’t taken seriously.

If Bordeaux or Burgundy were treated in the same way by the wine press as the Loire then neither region would be of any interest. Take Bordeaux first; with its grand cru classé estates, this is a serious wine region. The fact that most Bordeaux – all that generic early-picked, high-yield wine from Merlot vines on dodgy soils – is fairly lean and mean stuff doesn’t seem to matter, as this isn’t how the region is defined. It is defined by the pinnacles of achievements, the Le Pins, the Haut-Brions, wines for cellaring and obsessing over. Likewise, look at Burgundy. This is also a serious wine region, and when we talk of Burgundy our thoughts automatically turn to wines from Montrachet, from Echézeaux, from Chambertin. That these wines constitute only a few percent of the region’s entire output, and that most wine from the region is fairly tart and uninteresting doesn’t sway our opinion of the region. The same can be said of Champagne, or of Alsace, and perhaps more distant regions too. In each case we define the region in question by its most iconic and most ageworthy styles, not by the huge volumes of inauspicious wine turned out at the generic end.

But not in the Loire, where the region remains defined by the light and lean easy-drinking majority, the same majority found in Bordeaux and Burgundy. And yet the Loire has the same pinnacles of achievement as these other regions. For red wines, the most superior are perhaps to be found along the tuffeau slopes that extend east from Chinon, where estates such as Bernard Baudry, Charles Joguet, Philippe Alliet and Pascal Lambert (and many others) are to be found. Alternatively, on the limestone at the back of the town, we have the wines of Couly Dutheil. All of these wines can be drunk young, just as wines from Burgundy or Bordeaux can be, but they will give far more pleasure if they are left to age for some time. And even lesser, sandy terroirs, to the west of the town, have the capability to turn out fascinating and ageworthy wines, as fans of Olga Raffault know only too well. Wines of similar capability can also be found in Bourgueil and St Nicolas de Bourgueil, from the likes of Yannick Amirault and Pierre Jacques Druet of course.

These are the wines by which these appellations should be judged, and which should define – or pigeon-hole, if you like – the region. Long-lived Cabernet Franc from (mostly) limestone terroirs, these are the Haut-Brions and the Le Pins of the Loire. The fact that there are many wines produced alongside that are lighter and for drinking younger should not dissuade us of this view. These are no more for “early drinking” than the wines of Pauillac, Pessac-Léognan or Pomerol. I need to open my bottles of 2003 La Croix Boisée from Baudry about as much as I need to open my 2003 Le Pin (if I had some – if it even existed – ha ha!). So let’s have a little more equality in the way these red wine appellations are regarded and reported on, please.

A Top Ten on Madeira

Fresh from Madeira, here is a personal “Top Ten” on the island and its wines, ten facts I know now that I didn’t know three weeks ago:

1. Discovered in the 15th century by the Portuguese (although this is perhaps controversial – there is some evidence that mariners knew of the islands long before this ‘discovery’), the island held immediate appeal for agriculture. Wheat was planted first, quickly followed by sugarcane, but grapes – particularly Malvasia – were there from the outset as well. Touring the island today, the most obvious crop is bananas, but there are still plenty of vineyards to be seen. I didn’t see much sugarcane though!

2. There are only eight producers of Madeira still in existence; some are recent creations, e.g. Barbeito which was ‘born’ in 1946, while some are ancient companies (or the amalgamation of several ancient companies), such as the Madeira Wine Company, now led by the Blandy family, which can trace its origins back to the arrival of John Blandy from the UK in 1811. John Blandy was a banker who sought employment in a “counting house” on the island, but within a few years of his arrival he was established as a shipper and trader of wine.

3. Despite this there are hundreds of growers of grapes. The figure most commonly touted during my visit was 800, and they all sell their grapes to the producers. Some growers are very large, but others are very small, back-garden affairs.

4. Ask about terroir on Madeira (I did!) and you might just receive a quizzical look in response. The island is largely volcanic basalt, the soils rich in minerals, and further examination of the soil types seems to be unnecessary. Madeira is more about the grape, and the winemaking, than the terroir.

5. There is no flat land on Madeira; every square foot of land is a slope, or the peak of a slope. This may be a slight exaggeration of course, but it is true that all agriculture I saw – whether grapes, bananas, or other fruit – takes place on terraces perched on the side of sometimes steep, mountainous slopes.

1988 Boal, Madeira

6. Madeira is really about Tinta Negra (a red variety – in case tinta didn’t give it away!), in terms of quantity, but the other five grapes are more interesting when it comes to the search for top quality. These are Sercial, Verdelho, Bual/Boal, Malvasia/Malmsey and the rather rarely seen Terrantez. The appeal of Tinta Negra, for the growers, is disease resistance – Madeira can be very humid, engendering rot.

7. There are table wines produced on Madeira, as I indicated in my post on the 2012 Vinha da Defesa from Herdade do Esporão, but they remain a minority interest. Verdelho and Malvasia are common choices for the wine, but I also saw (and tasted) some made from Arnsburger, a Riesling x Riesling cross dating to 1939. The appeal of this variety is no doubt its rot-resistance. Stick with Verdelho and Malvasia is my advice.

8. The north-west of the island is wet and cool, the south-east dry and hot; in order to facilitate agriculture – including the vine – in the south water is transported by levadas, water channels which criss-cross the island.

9. All Madeira wine is fortified, heated and oxidized to some extent or another. Alright, to be honest I already know this, but seeing it all in the flesh has really cemented this knowledge in my mind. Cheaper, entry-level three-year old blends are likely to be heated in estufas over three months, but higher up the quality ladder the heating occurs in barrel, in lofts. The cycles of humid heating and cooling produces curiously warped ends to some barrels, the wood having expanded and contracted in situ.

10. Madeira is a beautiful island, full of friendly people. And when you get bored of wine, or of walking the levadas, you can take a trip out to sea, to go dolphin and whale-watching. Highly recommended!

Perhaps most importantly of all, my view of the wines of Madeira has changed completely. My mental image of Madeira was of a sweet, dark brown liquid, smelling of Christmas and probably a good match for a festive slice of the requisite cake, but ultimately lacking the precision and energy that makes wine, for me, truly interesting. I have learnt that this belief was erroneous, as I have discovered that Madeira can be vibrant, cerebral and exciting. I have learnt that single-vintage colheita wines can offer excellent value and quality combined, and are no less worthy than the greatest wines of Jerez. And I have learnt that ancient Madeira, wines more than a hundred years old, are not the decrepit but venerable old drops I imagined them to be, but are in fact rich, vinous and very complex, and are no less exciting than their counterparts from the Douro (and they hold up much better). In short, I will keep an eye out for Madeira for adding to my cellar in the future; these are not wines to be ignored.

Over the next couple of weeks, I will publish reports on my visits to Blandy’s and Barbeito, and then – perhaps during a mid-point breather in my regular Sunday Bordeaux Guide updates – I have a four-page guide to Madeira to publish, with rather more detail than presented in my ten-point guide above.

Summer Wind-Down

This is just a quick post to point out that now summer has arrived (in the northern hemisphere, anyway – if there’s one thing I have realised from converting Winedoctor to a subscription service is that I have quite a few readers in Australia and New Zealand – hello to you all!) I will be taking my break from Winedoctor updates. I’m off to Madeira for a few weeks. I have a couple of visits lined up, and will try to make a few more once out there – life has been just too hectic to get everything sorted before I leave.

I may make a blog post or two when there, but internet access is going to be patchy. I will be hooking up via 3G by the look of it. Oh well……I’ll see what I can manage.

When I come back it will be full steam ahead with my reports – there’s plenty coming on Sancerre (Mellot, Vacheron, Pierre Martin), a few last comments on Muscadet after my recent visit, and a huge number of updates and new profiles in Anjou, Saumur and Touraine. As for Bordeaux, with my recent Bordeaux 2003 report I have all the big tasting reports online, although I still have notes from visits to Raymond-Lafon and Climens (pictured above) to publish. I promise I will get underway with these as soon as possible. Thereafter, it won’t be long before I get on to the autumn Bordeaux tastings, which will feature the 2009 (hurrah!) and 2011 (boo!*) vintages.

Speaking of Bordeaux, if you fancy coming to Bordeaux for a 4-day tour with me and super-professional wine tour company SmoothRed, visiting Yquem, Haut-Brion, Troplong-Mondot, Pontet-Canet and more, then see the news published on my blog yesterday.

Happy summer (or winter) holidays, whatever you have planned, and thanks for supporting Winedoctor. I have been blown away by the number of subscribers!

Best wishes – Chris

* This comment does not apply to dry or sweet whites, obviously.