Missing in action

With wine being such an everyday commodity, I find it fascinating that there’s the prospect of trying a magical elixir that we may never have been able to taste. The quest to taste the mythical ‘untainted’ pre-Phylloxera wines is something of a holy grail for both wine professionals and amateurs alike but, as time goes on its less and less likely that the opportunities will arise. There is an easy way, however, of getting a piece of the action when it comes to rare wine.

Something becoming increasingly common is the resurrection of lost or believed extinct grape varieties. In a market that probably doesn’t need another Sauvignon Blanc or Chardonnay, searching out these obscure varieties can be a clear path to creating a unique wine that really stands out. For me the quest conjures up images of an Indiana Jones type character searching around distant fields in forgotten towns – perhaps talking to old locals in the hope that one of them remembers an elderly man who once had a vineyard. Now this may sound either dramatic or romantic (or both), but with the wine industry going through several reboots due to issues like Phylloxera or prohibition, the world markets stopped and started. This meant that plantings were grubbed up or even abandoned, and it’s finding these forgotten outposts that is the gateway to tasting wine from another time.

A book entitled ‘The Wild Vine’ by author Todd Kliman follows the near extinction of the Norton grape variety, which hailed from the US state of Virginia. Once upon a time at the 1873 Vienna convention, a bottle of Norton was awarded the very grand sounding award for ‘Best red wine of all nations’. In spite of this, fate had a different idea and Norton was forgotten. It was re-discovered in 1965, and with the persistence of grape crusader Jenni McCloud, it has come back from the brink and is now considered to be the only American vine variety good enough to make premium wine.

Legendary Spanish wine producer Miguel Torres is also striving to rediscover lost vines. As part of a caretaking exercise to respect and understand the tradition and history of his region, Miguel began placing advertisements in the local Barcelona press asking if anyone knew of any obscure varieties being made in vineyard outposts. Fast forward to today and Torres lays claim to have resurrected 45 grape varieties from obscurity since 1984. Certainly the last couple of times I’ve tasted through their ranges at wine fairs, they’ve included some weird wonders such as Querol, or the Samso and Garro varieties blended in to their Grans Muralles.

Now you may be thinking that this is all very well, but you’re unlikely to bump in to any of these grape varieties with ease and be able to taste them. You may be surprised then, to hear that there are some grape varieties saved from near extinction that are widely available in any reasonable supermarket selection. Potentially you may even have a bottle of them in the house now!

Viognier is a grape hailing from the Northern Rhone in France, and whilst today it is common (France had 4,395 hectares (10,869 acres) given over to Viognier in 2009), it’s astonishing to think that as recently as 1965 plantings had dwindled to just 14 hectares (35 acres). That’s roughly the size of 27 football pitches, and could have been 100% wiped out by just one bad frost or serious hail shower. The Viognier vine has a tendency to suffer from coulure (the failure of grape development following flowering) and was prone to providing low yields, and so many farmers simply gave up and moved on to easier to handle varieties. To see its’ resurgence is remarkable, and it’s now produced across the globe, faring well in diverse regions such the USA, Australia and New Zealand.

And then there’s Carménère. This Bordeaux variety disappeared following the outbreak of Phylloxera (for the same reasons as Viognier), and was thought lost forever. Thankfully it was later discovered thriving in Chile where it was mistakenly thought to have been Merlot.

Incidentally, whilst some regions do have smatterings of plantings that managed to escape Phylloxera, as Chile is surrounded by either desert, sea or mountains, it’s one of the few wine producing countries not to have seen the Phylloxera outbreak. As the Bordeaux varieties were imported from France before they themselves suffered from Phylloxera, Chile still grow grapes on ungrafted vines, and therefore they are probably your best bet today of trying a ‘pre-Phylloxera’ wine. Obviously production methods, wine style and all sorts of other aspects have changed over the years, so I only mention it with tongue planted firmly in cheek.

Everyone loves an underdog story, and whenever I see or get to taste a Viognier or Carménère I tend to go for it. It reminds me that I may not have had the opportunity to do so, if things had been only slightly different.

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Your place or mine?

Be it a short burst of promotion, or a fun excuse to open the next bottle of wine, many grape varieties have a day of celebration devoted over to them each year. You can celebrate Chardonnay day on the 23rd May, Merlot day on the 7th November or, in case you were not aware, today is Malbec day! Time to pop to the shops for some Argentinian Malbec!

Argentina is Malbec’s adopted home, where the consistently long warm days allow the grapes to ripen more evenly than it’s frosty French origin, and whilst French plantings of the grape are decreasing, Argentine plantings are on the increase. The reason it does so well away from its homeland is that the Malbec grapes are susceptible to frost, and in France’s cold marginal climate, that is an ever present threat. Whilst it is still grown in parts of south-west France, it’s primarily found in their Bordeaux-style blends as opposed to varietal wines. Malbec is a grape that produces a tannic wine, and these bitter notes can come to the fore when the grapes are not fully ripened, thus it makes sense to blend it with other grapes that can perform well in these climatic conditions. This ensures that all flavours are rounded out in to a smooth and drinkable wine.

Argentina is of course much warmer than France, and higher altitude plantings (where it gets up to 1 ºC cooler for every 100 metres you ascend) can deliver grapes that see cool conditions, but with the added advantage of warm consistent sunshine throughout the growing season. In a nice bit of serendipity, the fuller flavour of Malbec happily pairs well with steak, which is an Argentine food staple. It therefore doesn’t take much of a leap of imagination to decide that tonight’s dinner for me will be steak paired with an Argentinian Malbec. Job done.

Or is it? Am I simply taking the lazy option? The day is organised by Wines of Argentina, and placed on the anniversary of the day when the first Malbec plantings were recognised in Mendoza, but the day is all about the grape, and not the location. It’s not Argentinian Malbec day, after all.

When planning any celebration it’s natural to want the best experience, which in this case could well be Argentinian Malbec and steak, but in planning for success, do you also plan to fail? By safeguarding our choices do we also miss out on what can make an event unique? Surely there can be as much fun in playing away from type, as there can be in getting it spot on? And you don’t even need to worry if things don’t go to plan, as there’s only another 365 days to go until the next opportunity!

With these thoughts in mind I might just do things a little different today, and pop my Argentinian Malbec back in the rack, and nip out for some French Malbec instead.

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Moét & Chandon Academy, London – Review

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Moét & Chandon have set up camp for the next two weeks in the Oxo Tower, London to spread the word about their Champagne, their history, and an opportunity to taste through their range. This is the first time that such an academy has been run, and on one of the hottest days of the year so far, you couldn’t get me through the doors fast enough.

The academy is split in to two halves of 45 minutes each. First up is approved WSET educator Jonny Gibson, providing a bite-size history of the company, and then guiding you on a walk through the vines (literally!). In a no expense spared move, Moét have transferred rows of all three of the grape varieties found in Champagne (Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Meunier) in to the first stage of the tour. Interestingly the vines have been growing in artificial sunlight for the last 3 weeks to make them a little more advanced in growth than they would be at this time of year. This, in turn, makes them a little bit more interesting to look at (as a small time grower of Chardonnay I was worried that my own ones were well behind!).

In order to appreciate what happens next to the grapes, we were treated to an exciting and rare opportunity to try the still base wines for M&C Impérial NV (Non Vintage). This is something that few outside of the blending team and key Moét staff ever get to try. Base wines will be re-fermented in bottles, and a full three and a half years later, you have the final product. It was fascinating to be able to compare these base wines with the finished product later in the academy, in order to fully appreciate just what the second fermentation adds. Following a video demonstration of how bottles are disgorged/readied for sale, it was on to the tasting area which is being run by the husband and wife team of Peter Richards MW and Susie Barrie MW (both will be familiar to viewers of BBC1’s Saturday Kitchen). As they’re taking turns to present back the tasting sessions, whilst Susie was on-hand throughout, Peter was very much running the show today.

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Bizarrely enough for a Champagne tasting, the first wine to be tasted was a Prosecco! It’s understandably a rarity for Moét to include an Italian sparkler in their tasting line-ups, but it helped to set the scene as to how classic the entry level Non Vintage is.

The line-up of M&C wines tasted were as follows:

Brut Impérial NV, paired with Cheese Gougére

Rosé Impérial NV, paired with a mini tart of Olives, Tomato, Basil and Pesto

Grand Vintage 2006, paired with a Puff Pastry tart with Caramelised Onion and Mushroom

Ice Impérial NV, paired with Raspberry Macaroon

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In the interest of space I won’t go in to my personal tasting notes for each pairing, but suffice to say, there was more than one surprise for me here, and the food matching was an unexpected element to the academy. Also of surprise, was the inclusion of the M&C Ice Impérial which made its debut in the range only last year, and is not something I’d heard of before. This is a specific blend, made to be served over ice, and is a lively fresh experience that will no doubt be extremely popular over the warmer months.

The ever affable Peter Richards was a joy to listen to and made time for everyone afterwards. I’ve been on a fair few cellar tours and tastings in my time, and the one thing that brings them alive for me (apart from getting to try the wines) is the small anecdotes which are useful when getting complex matters across, or make for good use as small talk at parties. For instance, I was aware that the pressure in a bottle of Champagne was the equivalent to that found in the tyre of a double-decker bus, but this was also augmented with the fact the pressure is also the equivalent of being 50 metres underwater. And did you know that Champagne corks have been measured leaving bottles of Champagne at 60 miles per hour?

I was highly amused at Peter’s own way of remembering the key starting issue of how to pronounce the word Moét. The main way people tend to pronounce it is Mo-ay, but as that can be rhymed with ‘No Way’, you know it’s not right. If you pronounce it Mo-et, that’s not right either, as ‘Mow it’ is something you do with your grass. Finally, the way to get it right was to think of the great Champagne you are tasting and to think ‘Mmmm, wet’, ergo Moét (or Mwet). I think he was right that it sounds much better in a French accent when saying it correctly, and I think it will take me some time to get out of the grass mowing pronunciation.

The Academy was a fantastic experience, and a huge thank you goes to both Tesco and Moét for providing the opportunity!

The Moét Academy runs at the OXO Tower, London until the 24th April with limited tickets still available

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Vinas Del Vero – Luces Rosado 2014 Review

I was reading a piece earlier in the week that was questioning the point of Rosé wine. The view put across was that Rosé wines lack the freshness of a white wine, and lack the depth and body of a red wine. Consequently, they end up somewhere in-between. I’m not much of a Rosé drinker, but when the weather turns to early sunshine as it has done this week, I’m looking for my shorts, dusting off the BBQ, and well up for a glass of Rosé to top it off. By lucky happenstance, thanks to the lovely people at Tesco, this week I’m reviewing for them a Rosado from Spanish Producer Vinas Del Vero (named after the River Vero which runs through their vineyards). The wine comes from a Northeastern Spanish region called Somontano, which is tucked in to the foothills of the Pyrennees (Somontano literally means ‘at the foot of the mountain’). It’s a well-known wine region, but I’d argue that it wouldn’t be the first one that comes to peoples mind when thinking of Northern Spain – that honour would probably go to places like Rioja, Priorat, Rueda, or maybe even to Penedés if they love their Cava.

The DO (Denominación de Origen) of Somontano is fairly youthful, having been created in 1984, and the Vinas del Vero were established only a short time later in 1986. They are owned by famed Sherry producer Gonzalez Byass.

VD Vero Rosado

The new range of wines is named ‘Luces’ (Spanish for Lights), and is marketed as a contemporary blend of internationally recognised grape varieties, with labels that draw from local culture, nature, architecture and tradition. They’ve certainly come up with a striking design for the Rosado, even down to the blue screw top setting off the dark colour of the wine. The 2014 vintage Rosado is comprised of 3 red grape varieties – The famed French grapes of Merlot and Syrah alongside the Spanish stalwart Tempranillo. All were planted between 1988 and 2000 in the sandy/stony vineyards that lie between 350-450 metres above sea level.

Nipping back for a second to the article I mentioned at the start of this review, part of it was given over to the best way to appreciate Rosé wine, and the recommendations were not to over-chill the wine, and to serve it in a red wine glass, treating it almost like a light red wine. So for this Rosado tasting that’s what I did, and for the sake of experimentation, I then chilled another standard glass down to white wine temperatures (i.e. straight from the fridge).

As mentioned earlier, the colour is towards the darker side for Rosado, something I would describe as wild salmon (as opposed to farmed). It probably picks up a lot of its colour from the combined use of three quite dark grapes. The nose is at odds with this darkness and is instantly light, clean and full of fresh ripe red fruits.

For the taste test I tried my over-chilled version first, and it wasn’t pleasing. The nose took a while to stand out, and the palate was almost exclusively water-like (from the high acidity), with just hints of red fruits on the centre of my tongue. Trying the less chilled version was a completely different story. The palate is at once refreshing from the instant tingling acidity, but you are then hit with a wave of red fruits led by cherry, on to hints of raspberry and strawberry, and then backed up with cranberry on the finish. What also appears is a decent weight to the wine which, when matched with the darker colour, creates a fuller overall experience.

The finish is an interesting thing – there was something there that I couldn’t put my finger on. It would have been easy to note it as ‘complexity’, but I don’t think we’re in that arena really, and this is still an everyday sunny day drinking wine. It can be drunk on its own quite easily, or with food – The back label suggests a food pairing with fish and so, as I loved the colour of the wine, paired mine with Salmon (farmed) and it went fabulously.

In the end I settled for the palate-closer being sweetness driven by the alcohol which clocks in at 13%. In the glass that I chilled right down, the finish was short and fresh, and I couldn’t really taste any sense of the slightly above average alcohol level. On the less chilled version, the fruits really round out at the end, you get a pleasing fuller finish, and more importantly, you get a much longer finish.

Don’t worry though if you do over-chill yours by accident and get the shorter finish. It’s such a pleasing moreish Rosado that it won’t be long before you’re reaching for your next glass.

With thanks to Tesco and Vinas Del Vero for providing the bottle used in this tasting.

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The end of the beginning

Part 4 of my Dom Pérignon History Series

Many valuable lessons had been learned from the First World War, and it’s testament to many canny vintners that such large stocks of wine from the period between then and the end of the second war existed. This forward thinking included storing better vintages or large volumes of wine in spacious out of the way areas in their cellars, and then blocking them off behind false bricked walls. This allowed vast stores of bottles to escape the thirst of the invading German soldiers. The post war years saw a battered Champagne in a time of reflection and re-building that would take nearly twenty years to complete but, unlike the first war where they could only slake the local thirst, this time they had both large stocks, and a world market.

Both the now mature 1928 and 1929 vintages were waiting in the wings as was the 1934, and these were released one after the other in 1948, 1950 and 1951 respectively, really making a statement in the marketplace. The harvests for 1928 and 1929 had both commenced at the end of September but, whilst the 1928 only yielded an average crop (albeit of exceptional quality), the 1929 harvest had followed a glorious summer and it produced the largest crop since 1904. 1934 also saw a generously sized harvest, with rapid flowering from the good weather conditions, and no notable impact from disease or insects.

As you can see from the adverts below (dating from 1950 and 1951), the 1928 vintage sold out quickly, and that by the time the 1934 came on to the market in 1951, there were still stocks of the 1929 to push in conjunction. As mentioned above, the 1928 crop was only an average yield, but both the 1929 and 1934 were larger than normal in size. It’s important to remember that in these post-war years when sales were really starting to take off, the double bonus of a good vintage also being a large yielding year was extremely important to keep a producer in operation. Bearing that in mind, whilst it is strictly true, it’s interesting to note that both of these adverts use the words ‘limited quantities’, really pushing the wine as a rare thing. This follows through with the way the brand uses the heritage of Champagne, citing Dom Pérignon as the ‘father’ of it all, delivering the (now) well told tale of ‘drinking stars’, and even going as far as to label the wine as the ‘aristocrat of Champagne’! Very rich words for a Champagne only releasing its fourth vintage.

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Looking back at how the Champagne had performed over this period can easily be seen from their sales figures. When the 1921 was released in 1936 they initially had just the 100 cases sent to the USA. By the outbreak of war in 1939 when shipments ceased, this demand had increased three-fold. As sales resumed with the three new vintages, demand increased ten-fold on the original shipment, and by 1954 yearly sales sat at 1000 cases. By the beginning of the 1960’s this figure itself would further increase again (4500 cases in 1960, and 6000 cases in 1961).

Wine experts are in clear agreement that 1934 and 1937 were by far and away the best vintages for Champagne in the 1930’s, so why was no Dom Pérignon 1937 produced? Or was it produced? Whilst no paperwork exists in the Moét archives relating to the vintage, renowned Champagne expert Richard Juhlin claims to have tried it (in fact, he claims to be the only palate in the world to have tried every vintage of Dom Pérignon, including the rare 1926). Describing it as “very good”, he goes on to acknowledge that he is aware that it is a rogue vintage, yet finds it difficult to believe that the wine he tried, complete “with its original cork” isn’t genuine.

To try and qualify the tasting note, it’s interesting to offer that perhaps any paperwork relating to the harvest and blending slipped through the cracks during this time, either in the lead-up to war or during any periods of occupation. Given that the resulting wines would have been released sometime in the 1950’s when clear documentation exists this does seem unlikely (unless the invading forces drank virtually every bottle and it was never offered for sale). It’s also highly suspicious that no other bottles or label images for the 1937 have turned up, so a head scratcher it must remain.

Overall, less champagne was made during the Second World War, but both 1943 and 1945 were excellent years. Whilst the 1943 would go on to be released as a Dom Pérignon vintage, no 1945 Dom Pérignon was produced. As Moét released a Vintage Champagne for the year, it’s likely that this was simply down to the fact that the 1945 harvest produced only a small crop, and there wasn’t enough to go around.

A small point to note – there was no 1944 vintage as ordered in the UK sitcom Red Dwarf series 2 episode ‘Better than life’. Curiously, James Bond author Ian Fleming would also make a similar mistake, inventing the 1946 vintage in the paperback version of ‘Moonraker’, the third Bond book in the series, published in 1955. With this example I can only assume that at the time of writing (January/February 1954) Fleming was trying to keep Bond current by predicting the next vintage, which were running something like 10 years behind now that all the longer matured vintages were out on the market/sold. The ’43 came out in ’53, the ’45 in ’55, so it’s not unreasonable that he thought that the ’46 would be up next. As it transpired it was the 1947.

Anyway, I digress.

The 1943 appeared in 1953 (commanding $10.50 per bottle according to a US sales advert from the time), and was extra special for several reasons. Firstly, it contained a special label (the first of many!) commemorating the 200 year bicentenary since the Moét house was founded, proudly stating ‘Cuvée du Bicentenaire’ at the top of the shield. Secondly, the release was timed/coincided nicely with the UK Royal Coronation celebrations.  Elizabeth II had succeeded her late father, King George VI, the previous year, and she officially took the throne on the 2nd of June 1953 at Westminster Abbey.  At the Buckingham Palace ceremony that followed, the new Queen was served the 1943 Dom Pérignon.

Whilst that all makes nice easy reading, here’s where it gets a little more complicated. The last special thing to mention about the 1943 vintage is the subject of ‘transvasage’ – in essence the moving of liquid from one vessel to another. Dom Pérignon comes in the famous squat green bottles to mimic those from the late 18th century, and this was part of the luxury premise that Robert-Jean de Vogúé formulated in 1932 and finally released to market in 1936. This being the case though – how was it that the 1921, 1928, 1929, and 1934 vintages were already stored in those bottles when the time came to release them? A key element of the process of making Champagne (in the traditional French way) is that the wine undergoes its’ second fermentation in its own bottle, and they go to a lot of trouble to ensure that this is the case.  In order to keep the liquid inside whilst removing any remaining deposits or dead yeast cells (AKA the lees), the necks of the bottles are flash-frozen and the deposits expunged in a quick process known as disgorgement. This surely meant that the early vintages, bottled before Dom Pérignon was conceived, were stored and matured in the cellars in their standard Moét bottles? I certainly can’t think of another way that they could have been maturing wine in a special bottling years before the idea was mooted, and it makes sense that at some point, the original bottles were opened, and the liquid poured (or transvasaged, if you will) in to the special green bottles, ready for release as Dom Pérignon. I was very interested to read then, that Dom Pérignon winemaker Richard Geoffroy has never fully accepted the idea that the bottles were tranvasaged. No true evidence exists either for or against the idea (any invoices for thousands of green bottles would be a good start!), and so it technically remains a mystery.

It’s likely that the 1943 vintage also underwent the transvasage process. Even though Dom Pérignon had commenced production by this point, the war would probably have been driving different vineyard priorities. So, for me, it was the 1943 vintage that saw the end of the first era for the brand.

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Wine and crisps

My Friday night tipple tonight is a lovely 10 year old Ermita de San Lorenzo 2005 from Spain. In typical style for a Spanish Gran Reserva, the nose and the palate fill with velvet black cherry, mature wood, vanilla, spice and chocolate notes (my definition of divine!).

The addition of chocolate to the palate had me recalling a comment I recently made on a wine forum. With this weekend being Easter, much discussion in the wine world is being given over to what wines to match with either your lamb or with your chocolate treats. Maybe I’m weird but I’ve never had the urge to pair a wine with chocolate. At this point it’s worth mentioning that I’m no more than a (very) casual eater of chocolate in the first place, and that it doesn’t excite me in the way that other foods do (indeed, I still have a lot of odd chocolate still hanging around from Christmas). Thinking about it though, I don’t think the lack of pairing excitement comes from my passing liking of chocolate (I’ve considered and executed wine pairings with odd fish varieties that I’ve perhaps only had once in my life), I think it’s more about how we tend to eat chocolate, and why people would actually want to drink wine at the same time.

Now of course wine isn’t exclusively meant to be drunk at mealtimes (I’m very guilty of this!), but a lot of the point in creating a food and wine pairing as I see it, is to compliment the liquid with the food. This can help to bring out diverse characteristics in each by either matching, or by off-setting flavour components. This makes sense when thinking about how to augment starters, main courses, desserts, and cheese boards, for which wine is a potential liquid accompaniment. Obviously some puddings do feature chocolate as a partial or core ingredient, but the only place that chocolate will likely feature as a key place in a meal is with the coffee, and that’s clearly been catered for – the sweetness of the chocolate is there to juxtapose the bitterness of the coffee. After all, we don’t find ourselves expecting a wine and chocolate course at the end of dinner, do we?

In order to have a fully rounded appreciation of wine, with all the full facets and potential unearthed, I have no problem with others enjoying merging the two experiences, I’m just not sure how necessary it is. For instance, I’d be interested to know if anyone would go so far as to base their evening wine choice around such a small aspect of any menu (or treat before bedtime), or even to heading out to buy a specific chocolate because it pairs well with their Spanish Reserva?

It feels like people are trying to find the perfect wine match for any food. Take, for example, a popular food like crisps (although my wife correctly informs me that Walkers/Jacobs Creek did in fact run a crisps/wine match promo a few years back). OK, so no one has described a wine of tasting like one flavour of crisps that needs to be compared to another, as you could potentially do with chocolate characters, but it feels like you would only need to conduct such an experiment from a challenge or experience perspective. In terms of how wine will actually be drunk of an evening, is the match key?

Maybe I’m wrong, I’m missing out and I need to arrange a tasting? As a UK consumer I only own/get gifted/buy regular milk chocolate (as I suspect the majority of UK people do), rather than artisanal blends from far flung corners of the chocolate making world, each out-doing the other with increasing amounts of pure cocoa. From an academia point of view, a full range of differing chocolate versus differing wine would make an interesting piece – for example, does Argentinian chocolate go with Argentinian Malbec? Personally I don’t think it’s of any use for everyday drinking.

Perhaps the question is being asked wrong? Maybe, instead of the wine world asking “which chocolate would you pair with your wine, it should be left to the chocolate critics to ask “what wine would you pair with your chocolate?”

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The ‘Lost’ wine region

For some time now I’ve been intrigued by the ‘Kimmeridgian Chain’ – numerous vineyards set within a belt of distinct soil (AKA Terres Blanches), that diagonally cuts its’ way across northern France (see picture below). The belt itself is a by-product of a geological feature known as the Paris basin – plates of land staggering progressively inwards. As part of this sagging process, a defined strata of land became exposed between two layers; an older Jurassic era ridge of crushed marine deposits, comprising a hard limestone top on a chalky marl base (marl is composed of lime-rich clay and silt). The name Kimmeridgian is said to originate from the village of Kimmeridge in Dorset,England where there is a well exposed coastline of similar age and soil composition.

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The distinct soil mix brings differing attributes to resulting wines, even those produced in the same wine regions, but not within the belt. In some cases, different grape varieties are used to compliment the soil variation. This being the case, why were these unique vineyards simply swallowed up in to other wine regions? Regions that are many miles away, across land not used for viticulture. Given that the French invented the concept of terroir – that the place is so important to the wines it produces – and that the French have the most delineated wine/land appellation system in the world, why were these areas not grouped together by themselves to form a new region?

Within this belt we find:

– The Aube – The southern vineyards of the Champagne region

– Central Vineyards (AKA Sancerre, Pouilly, and several other village sites) – The eastern end of the Loire

– Chablis – The extreme northern part of Burgundy

Parent region has had little effect on the reputations of world famous places such as Sancerre, Pouilly (as in Fumé) and Chablis. This fame though, is largely down to the unique expressions of the crisp white wines produced, and this stems from the unique soil. Chablis sits 75 vine-free miles north of the Cóte de Nuits in Burgundy, and the towns of Sancerre/Pouilly are about the same distance away from the next vines in the Loire. With the Loire valley being over 170 miles in length you will naturally find numerous grape varieties, soil types, and even climatic influences, but Sancerre/Pouilly find themselves planted over to Sauvignon Blanc/Pinot Noir as opposed to the main Loire white/red varieties of Chenin Blanc/Cabernet Franc. As the soils along the banks of the river have a greater composition of rock/schist compared to the chain, different varieties thrive. Co-incidentally, Decanter recently ran a feature on the red wines of Sancerre, suggesting they were more Burgundian in style, and unlike any red you would associate with the Loire.

In Chablis, they may use the Burgundian variety of Chardonnay, but they produce a very different style of wine. Chablis is widely respected for its crisp mineral whites full of refreshing acidity, and linear precision. This is streets away from the archetypal Burgundian Chardonnay; a deep brooding body with creamy/buttery textures from subtle oak barrel influence. Again this comes from differing production methods (favouring Stainless steel as opposed to barrel), and the unique terroir – the Chardonnay grape working magnificently on the cold limestone and clay.

It’s a different story when we look at the Aube in southern Champagne, as they haven’t yet managed to find real fame on their own merit. Just over 100 years ago, The Champenois – notorious for protecting their brand – drew up their permitted production zones, and excluded the Aube on the basis that their grapes were of a second standard (they had no Premier or Grand Cru sites). The Government even went as far as passing a bill to that effect but, unsurprisingly, this didn’t go down well with Aube vignerons, and the rioting that followed in 1911 saw a worried government hastily annul the original bill. The Aube were finally officially admitted in to the region in 1927, but their role has simply been to provide the grapes to round out Champagne blends. If the Aube vignerons hadn’t persisted in the uphill battle to be part of a region that was so dismissive of it, could they have pushed harder with their wines, achieving better than just producing grapes suitable to only form part of a blend? Being mainly planted to Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, both key components of Champagne, but having the clay based soil of the Kimmeridgian chain instead of the deep chalk found elsewhere in Champagne, they’re capable of producing a Pinot more Burgundian in style. A feature late last year by US publication Wine Spectator suggests that wines from the Aube are on the up, but time will tell.

Should these villages have historically clubbed together and formed a mini-region of their own to produce world class Sauvignon Blanc, and Pinot and Chardonnay to rival their Burgundian neighbour? Perhaps, due to the fact that quality will always shine through, maybe it hasn’t mattered in which region they sit. It’s interesting to ponder.

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