ideal-wine

My 5 best Christmas Champagne picks that you probably haven’t tasted

For so many of us, this year has been one of the most turbulent and chaotic in recent memory. Our individual, collective, and familial loss and sacrifice is on a scale incomparable for all but the eldest amongst us. In years of both prosperity and despair, Christmas is an opportunity to reconnect, reconcile, recharge and reimagine the year ahead. Although both regional and national regulations in much of the Western world mean that this year’s festivities may not match their predecessors in scale, there may never be a better reason to double down on their exuberance. For large families with many extended members, restrictions on the numbers of households able to spend Christmas day together may mean a day usually spent together must now be split amongst households. While they have their downsides, small gatherings also present opportunity, and in light of a rather disastrous year offer more than ample opportunity to toast with something special to an altogether more positive year to follow. In this article, you’ll find my five best Champagne picks for Christmas, all available via iDealwine. I’ve steered clear of the usual suspects, opting for a more exploratory selection that you can share with your nearest and dearest over this years festive period.

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Returning to Champagne Paul Launois: crafting a vision

I first visited Champagne Paul Launois in 2019, since then I’ve watched tentatively from the sidelines as Julien and his partner, Sarah, iteratively crafted what is a considered, artistic and exciting project. Their winery, once a press house belonging to Billecart-Salmon, can be found nestled among the tightly-packed ruelle of grand cru village, Le Mesnil-sur-Oger, a stone’s throw from Krug’s iconic Clos du Mesnil. Having traditionally sold their grapes to the village cooperative, three generations of the Launois family have tended to a little over 6.5 hectares of Chardonnay vines. Following nine years working abroad, in 2015 Julien and Sarah completed their first harvest together. A year later Julien began working on the single-barrel project, a personalised and intimate expression of Champagne shaped together by winemaker and wine lover. Following my first visit, it was the nature of their project that had left me enthralled. In a contracting market of growers, Julien and Sarah stood out to me as being among a small number who may well buck the trend. Though the project had impressed me in 2019, this time around the wines took centre stage and Julien’s evolution as a winemaker was clear. Though growing in volume, their range of 4 cuvée is each year entirely outstripped by demand with strong interest from keen buyers the world over. I spent a late-summer morning with Julien tasting from his single-barrel library and discussing the future.

english-chardonnay

Simpsons’ Roman Road: the very best of English Chardonnay

Following the unsuccessful expeditions of Julius Caesar in 55 and 54BC, in AD43 Emperor Claudius set in motion a successful conquest of Britain. Over the next 400 years, the Romans expanded their empire north through Britain, founding Colchester, London, Bath, and many more towns and cities. The evidence for Roman Canterbury, known to the Romans as civitas Cantiacorum, is rich and varied. From Richborough, where a marble-clad arch was erected overlooking the harbour, the Romans established roads. Known now as the A2, the Old Dover Road was one of a number of these roads used by the Romans to march north. Its name a nod to its parallel planting to the Old Dover Road, Simpson’s 10 hectare Roman Road vineyard was Ruth and Charles Simpson’s first foray into English wine. Planted to Chardonnay, Pinot Meunier and Pinot Noir, the site is a collage of carefully-considered clones, rootstock, and precision viticulture. Bringing a wealth of knowledge from their award-winning southern French estate Domaine de Sainte Rose, the Simpsons are producing what many, including myself, consider to be benchmark still English wine. Recently awarded a Platinum Medal and “Best in Show” at the Decanter Awards, the pairs flagship Roman Road English Chardonnay is the focus of this article.

cloudy-bay

Chasing 3MH thiols with Daniel Sorrell of Cloudy Bay

In 1770, during his voyage to New Zealand, Captain James Cook would discover a stretch of land spanning New Zealand’s South Island, to the south of the Marlborough Sounds and north of Clifford Bay. Cook’s discovery coincided with regional flooding, which washed large amounts of sediment into the sea. Noticing the water’s opaque appearance, Cook christened the area Cloudy Bay. Cloudy Bay’s name was later officially altered to Te Koko-o-Kupe / Cloudy Bay, with the Māori name a nod to the early explorer Kupe. 215 years later, seasoned winemaker David Hohnen, convinced of Cloudy Bay’s potential to produce great wine, invested in the best land the region had to offer and established Cloudy Bay Winery. Now under the ownership of LVMH, many consider Cloudy Bay to be amongst the world’s best Sauvignon Blanc, including wine writer, George Taber. Defined in part by mouthfeel, Cloudy Bay Sauvignon Blanc also boasts intense, concentrated fruits, namely grapefruit, passionfruit, and guava. Joining via Zoom, following the recent launch of Cloudy Bay Sauvignon Blanc 2020, winemaker Daniel Sorrel told how chasing one particular thiol, 3MH, has come to help shape these defining characteristics. In this article, I examine thiols in more detail and explore more closely how Cloudy Bay and others hunt 3MH.

Le Clos Saint-Hilaire: a single hectare at the forefront of winegrowing

Behind a patchwork of buildings in Mareuil-sur-Aÿ, a so-called ‘commune déléguée’ in the Vallée de la Marne, a single hectare of south-southeast facing Pinot Noir vines produce arguably one of the world’s most vinous and critically-acclaimed Champagnes. Le Clos Saint-Hilaire, its name lent from the local church of Église Saint-Hilaire, belongs to ‘super grower’ Billecart-Salmon. Though the commune itself is classified premier cru, albeit amongst only two villages to have scored 99% in the Échelle des Crus classification framework, seventh-generation CEO, Mathieu Roland-Bilecart has his own views on the cru framework. Views which are certainly emboldened by this tiny parcel off the Boulevard du N. Having produced only five vintages since it’s first as a standalone bottling in 1995, you’d be forgiven for underestimating the extent to which this outwardly humble site continues to shape the houses persistent and determined evolution. Pointing toward the vineyards scattering of pumpkins and wool-laden residents, Mathieu describes the site as his research and development facility. Shortly after this years harvest, Mathieu and I wondered the site discussing in more detail its extended importance.

In pursuit of excellence: 130 years of La Rioja Alta

Since the first Phoenician settlers arrived in 11th century BC, Rioja has had a long and colourful winemaking tradition. As early as the late 13th century there is evidence of Rioja’s wine being exported into other regions and from the 15th century on, the Rioja Alta was particularly well-known for wine growing. As is the case across most of Europe, viticulture in Rioja can be traced back to the Roman empire and continued there even during Moorish occupation. As a result of the phylloxera epidemic, during which the French were the first and hardest hit, immediate and insatiable demand for all the wine Rioja could produce swept across France. By 1890, the influx of French négociant and winemakers, who had brought with them extensive knowledge, techniques and experience, had brought about a period of unprecedented growth for the region’s industry. That same year, five Riojan and Basque families founded the ‘Sociedad Vinicola de La Rioja Alta’ which would later, after merging with the Ardanza winery, become La Rioja Alta S.A. 130 years later, La Rioja Alta, as well as being the only winery in Rioja to make 3 Gran Reserva, is globally recognised for its age-worthy, quality-driven, and consistently overperforming wines. To celebrate this laudable anniversary, and to mark the release of the 2014 Viña Arana, I discussed some of the estate’s most impactful changes in recent decades with La Rioja Alta winemaker, Julio Sáenz.

Alexana Winery: attention to detail in the heart of Oregon

In 1987, Robert Drouhin of famed Burgundian negociant Maison Joseph Drouhin purchased land in Dundee Hills. Since then, a flurry of French vintners has taken up residence in Oregon, including but not limited to Dominique Lafon, Louis-Michel Liger-Belair, Jean-Nicolas Méo, and Louis Jadot. With them, these seasoned winemakers brought centuries of acquired knowledge of growing Pinot Noir and Chardonnay in many of the world’s most lauded terroir. Alongside respecting tradition, these vintners wholeheartedly embraced the freedom afforded to them by the New World. In the 1980s just a few dozen wineries were noted in Oregon, today there are more than 800 cultivating grapes across the state. Whilst the ‘French Invasion’ wasn’t the origin of winegrowing in Oregon, it certainly shifted the way the world looked at the region. Now, after decades of research into soils, clones, and site selection quality has boomed. Off the back of a successful project in Napa, in the spring of 2005, Dr Madaiah Revana, a cardiologist and wine enthusiast, began searching for the ideal plot and an experienced winemaker with the goal of producing Pinot Noir in Oregon that would rival great Burgundy. Following their launch into the UK, I spoke with Alexana head winemaker, Bryan Weil, about site selection, farming, winemaking, and more.

great-value-bordeaux

6 great-value, choice Bordeaux for under £22

We Brits have an extensive, historical love affair with Bordeaux. Since the 12th century, when Eleanor of Aquitaine married Henry Plantagenet, who had decreed ships sailing from Bordeaux would be exempt from export tax, the volume of Bordeaux imported to the UK has represented a significant portion of total production. With top châteaux, on both the Left and Right bank, experiencing astronomical price rises in recent decades, and for many centuries Bordeaux known as a wine of the upper-class elites, there has been a stark failure by many, myself included, to explore the ‘rest’ beyond the few. Admittedly, for whatever reason, perhaps lack of inclination, poor on-shelf representation, or a blossoming new world ‘stealing the show’ I’ve failed to explore the abundance of keenly priced, equally quality-conscious, producers on both sides of the Gironde. Jane Anson’s wonderful new release ‘Inside Bordeaux’, an exciting new generation of winemakers, and a handful of recently-enjoyed superb bottles have convinced me to revisit the region and shake off my misconceptions. Having recently shared 8 distinctive Burgundies for under £30, in this article I point toward 6 great-value Bordeaux for under £22 that may just encourage you to dive a little deeper into the inspired winemakers of Bordeaux.

Sip Champagnes: the best way to discover outstanding Champagne

As a wealthy, mercantile nation, England had a marked influence on the development of sparkling Champagne. On both sides of the channel, the roots of the modern Champagne industry were laid during the Industrial Revolution. Most notably, the British method of coal-fired glassmaking contributed to stronger bottles able to withstand higher pressure. By the end of the 19th century, Champagne was making its mark and embedding itself into popular culture. Since 1950, global sales have grown steadily, with 13 million bottles sold in 2019 in the UK alone. To the surprise of many, there are almost 16,000 individual growers and 320 houses in Champagne. However, those 320 houses sell almost 70% of the regions total production. Only around 2000 of these growers continue to grow and produce their own wine. A concentration of powerful conglomerates raising the price paid to growers for their crop has made bottling one’s own wine economically unfeasible and increasingly unattractive. In 2018 alone, 120 growers disappeared. Despite being the second-largest consumer of Champagne, here in the UK, we import only 130 growers with the vast majority of sales achieved by the 5 largest houses. Lack of visibility in such an important market makes the prospect of surviving as a grower all the more daunting. Sip Champagnes is the brainchild of friends Daniel Blatchford and Peter Crawford. Together, photographer and tech-wiz Blatchford, and longstanding Champagne enthusiast and collector, Crawford, aim to platform underexposed artisan producers by providing customers with a unique exploration through a subscription model and standalone bottle shop. I spoke with the pair about this exciting project.

value-burgundy

8 distinctive Burgundies for under £30

The earliest recorded praise of Burgundy’s wines was in 591 by Gregory of Tours, who compared their quality to the Roman wine Falernian, one of the first wines to be exported to Britain while it was a Roman settlement. Monks and monasteries of the Roman Catholic Church have since had an important influence on the history of Burgundy wine. The Cistercians, themselves extensive vineyard owners, were the first to notice that different vineyard plots gave consistently different wines. They, therefore, laid the earliest foundation for the naming of Burgundy crus and the region’s terroir thinking. Since then, aided by advancements in commerce, Burgundy has become the wine of choice for discerning wine lovers the world over. Fuelled by supply and demand, cultish following, and to some extent the escapades of Rudi Kurniawan and John Kapon, prices have skyrocketed seemingly without an end in sight. I count myself firmly amongst those struck by the magic of great Burgundy. When they’re on form, it’s best wines transcend what I had previously considered possible from the humble grapevine. That being said, when I share images of recently enjoyed bottles, I’m often asked by readers to recommend accessibly-priced or ‘under the radar’ bottles for those seeking obtainable indulgence. In this article, I’ll point you toward 8 Burgundian wines, from the estates of some outstanding producers, priced under £30 a bottle.