Friday, 9 December 2011

More Semillon please, we're British

I recently had a most enjoyable lunch at The Soho Hotel with Neil McGuigan, of McGuigan wines, the day after he had been voted Winemaker of the Year by the IWSC. We were treated to a vertical tasting of his Semillon Bin 9000 wines going back to 1997, and what treats they were.

Light in body and alcohol (most just 10.5 or 11% alcohol), with floral-tinged citrus flavours which mature into toasty, honied and marmelade notes over the years, Hunter Valley Semillons are a unique and delicious Australian wine style. They are lovely, expressive wines which age beautifully.

The 1997 Bin 9000 is still has plenty of life and length, with the characteristic mature Semillon aromas and flavours of toast, beeswax and lanolin. This is great to sip on its own, so that you can give proper attention to the ever-evolving flavours in the glass.

More enjoyable with food is the 2003, which manages to combine the lightness and linearity that you expect from Semillon with plenty of weight and presence (don't ask me how). The spritzy palate has plenty of zippy lime fruit which persists on the long finish. Neil McGuigan thinks this slowly-evolving wine is outstanding and it certainly still feels like a relative baby.

The current vintage, 2011, is full of youthful floral aromatics, with fine, juicy acidity that lingers long in the mouth – another one to watch.

Prior to this lunch, my only experience of McGuigan wines was looking at their serried ranks on supermarket shelves and a taste of one of the basic reds which managed to combine overripe and confected fruit flavours with excess alcohol and high residual sugar.

And yet, as Neil McGuigan demonstrated at this lunch, he also has the ability to cook up much more compellingly drinkable wines at the bargain end of the scale: The Semillon Blanc 2011 (£5.79 at Tesco) is a straightforward wine with fresh fruit aromatics and a little more ripe fruit (and yes, a little more residual sugar) than Hunter Valley Semillons, being from warmer vineyard areas. But it's clean, fresh, fruity and somehow honest, which is what appeals to me.

Calling it Semillon Blanc gives you a clue that this wine style is something of a riposte to New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc, and so what if many consumers pick it up thinking that's what it is? The quality of what's in the bottle is what will drive its continued success. 

So well done, Neil, on your winemaking accolade. And more Semillon please, we're British.

Wednesday, 7 December 2011

A conversion on the road to Reims

There are two big problems with spending time in Champagne, sampling the best of what the region has to offer.

  1. It has spoilt my ability to appreciate cut price fizz – having spent three days sipping nothing but the finest Champagne, I found a glass of Lindauer Blanc de Blancs Brut decidedly below my now elevated standards.
  2. I'm going to have to spend more on my wine glasses. Having finally decided on some classic flutes with nice fine rims, I now find that this shape does not do good Champagne justice, especially if you're serving it with food.

Looks like either my standards are going to have to drop, or I'm going to have to up the drinks budget.

My recent trip was the usual jam-packed whirl of contrasting experiences: early start, touring cold cellars and trying to take notes with numb fingers; lavish lunch involving Champagne with every course; more cellars and tasting; another assemblage of food and Champagne for dinner; late to bed, up early, a quick, strong coffee at the hotel before piling into the minibus. Repeat for 3 days, then decant yourself onto Eurostar before returning to reality. Over the course of the week, my liquid intake was so dominated by Champagne I'm sure my wee must have been at least 80% wine, predominantly from grand and premier cru vineyards.

Our visits included mammoth houses, pint-sized growers and much in between. By luck or good planning, each managed to highlight a different facet of the Champagne experience, so I never felt that I was going over the same ground.

Here's a taste:

  • Veuve Clicquot's newly-opened Hotel du Marc in Reims, where invited guests can play the biggest table football I've ever seen, while enjoying a vertical tasting of Veuve Vintages – in magnum, natch. The serious bling side of Champagne. The food is pretty impressive too and Veuve Yellow Label was so much more expressive served in magnum and in these glasses.

  • The illustration by Violaine at the CIVC of how Champagnes can achieve their vinosity either through long ageing on the lees (De Saint Gall Premier Cru Brut 2002, disgorged 2011), or by barrel maturation (Alfred Gratien Grand Cru Blanc de Blancs Brut NV, also disgorged 2011). 

  • Tasting, nay drinking, Bollinger Grande Année 2002, which has perfect weight, balance and development, at Bollinger with dinner.

  • From the jaws of defeat – a tasting that turned out to be the most memorable of all, for good reasons. Biodynamic grower Francis Boulard was clearly not expecting a group of 10 people to pitch up at 8.30am, but came round to the idea and treated us to some of the most individual and lively Champagnes of the trip.

  • Bruno Paillard guiding us through a tasting of his multi-vintage Brut Première Cuvée – four bottles of the same cuvée, all aged for 3 years on their lees, but at varying years since disgorgement. Paillard's is not my favourite style of Champagne in its youth, but tracing the development from 6 months since disgorgement, when it is lean, salty and mineral; to the same wine aged for 14 years post-disgorgement, when the spicy, Christmas pudding fruit, and toasty creaminess, wild mushroom and Comté cheese flavours are beautifully expressive, was fascinating.

  • A single glass of Pol Roger Brut Reserve NV with dinner – such lively fruit, depth of flavour and elegance – witchcraft surely! 


  • The 109 steps down (and then up again) to the deep cellars at Gosset. Our reward: a tasting of their stylish Grande Reserve, elegant Grand Rosé and newly-released Grand Blanc de Blancs.

  • Champagne and smoked salmon is hardly an original food match, I grant you, but the transformation of a Mailly Grand Cru Extra Brut NV from an admirable but rather austere Champagne, to something with much more fruit ripeness when drunk with a smoked salmon mousse, was a neat illustration of a great food and wine match.

My own personal epiphany on this trip: I tended to think that I wasn't much of a fan of Blanc de Blancs, but now I realise that I just hadn't tasted the right ones.  Oh, and the urban myth that Champagne never gives you a hangover may just be true.....