November lights the vines like a lamp, and autumn lies over our land in a tweed of gold and burnished brown. Most of the action moves indoors now … where most of the action is over and done with: the barrels stopped fermenting just a couple of weeks ago, and now the cellars are plunged in deep and thoughtful silence as the wine gets on with getting ready. It will age for about seven slumbering months, slowly, silently, but not completely alone – we get in there and stir it up a couple of times a week, moving the lees around to wake up the aromas. Out in the field, the land is ploughed and ready to sit out the winter. So that is the kind of month November is: a sort of regrouping and recuping after the frenetic acitivity of September and October. But even though peace covers us as comfortably as the eiderdown of snow lying over our mountains, there is none for us: this month finds us in London, in Cambridge, in Parma, Italy and in Weert, The Netherlands, selling our wines …
Tuesday 2 November
The First Taste
Big day, today. We line up samples of all the 2010 wines on the table in the tasting room. The chardonnay with no oak, the chardonnay with oak, the chenin blanc without oak, the chenin blanc with, the sauvignon without macertation, the sauvignon with … they’re all there, in all their shapes and forms. Incredible to think that only a month ago the grapes were still hanging on their vines. And then we work through them. And start blending. It all falls into place like a jigsaw, these wines are really easy, playable pieces, with such obvious corners and telltale shapes fitting together as if they were cut out for the job. Made for each other. We start at 09:00 and by 13:00 the morning’s work is done: the Blanquette has been blended, the Crémant has been blended, and we’ve got a pretty good idea of how we’re going to blend the Country wine. Plus … we’re happy! Really happy! The barrel-fermented chardonnay, chenin and mauzac look as if they will be quite amazing. Given half a chance. 2010 will be a really good year, or at least it certainly has the potential: God may have made the grapes, but man makes the wine … and man is fallible. Man can still mess it up.
But we’ll do our damndest not to.
Friday 12 November
Lost for Words
We may be, but Hubrecht Duijker certainly is not. The world’s most published wine writer is not Jancis Robinson. Nor is it Robert Parker. Or James Suckling … or Hugh Johnson … or Oz. No, the most prolific pen in the wine-world belongs to Hubrecht Duijker, doyen of the Dutch wine-writing corps, who has just published his latest volume: a large, heavy one, full of 1000 anecdotes, tips, and articles culled from a lifetime in the business. Some are fascinating trivia (global sales of wine equal global sales of cosmetics, that is, € 82 billion); some are amusing (you can tell a professional wine taster from an amateur because he’s never the first to speak, and when he does, he cautiously says the wine is ‘interesting’), and some are expansive personal opinions. And this is what leaves us lost for words. When it comes to buying white wine, Hubrecht Duijker recommends … Chateau Rives-Blanques. Spread over two pages. This is not only amazing, most highly flattering, and totally unexpected, but it is also incredibly encouraging. Words fail us …
Monday 8 November
Dreamy Spires, Wide Awake Squires
Not everyday do I find myself racing through the dark afternoon in memory’s fastlane, from my daughter’s University to my mother’s University, but here we are: Oxford and Cambridge in a single day, and indeed, the creme of academia filing past to taste our wines in a pub called The Mitre. The Professor of French is attracted by the Froissart quotation on our country wine; the Chemist wants to talk about the chemistry of aromas though he assures me he’s not that sort of a chemist; Ancient Languages would have preferred to see the Titus Livy quotation on the Odyssée label in Latin rather than French …. Fair enough. But what stumps me is the Professor who demands what are the clones of our sauvignon blanc – and he’s definitely not a horticulturalist. (The long and short answer is, I haven’t a clue.) Outside the grey day darkens into night. The wines seem to be flagging, not only mine but the whole lot of them.
Tuesday 9 November
Not in the Pink
It’s all going swimmingly. Here we are at the only two Michelin star restaurant in Cambridge, pouring our wines for its charming sommelier, Richard Burton. Yesterday, Jonathan of Domaine Treloar in Roussillon, who is doing this gig with me, and I both found our wines a bit disappointing. Today they’re bright and beautiful. The day is also bright and beautiful. Even we are a bit bright and beautiful. Nothing can go wrong… or can it? I pop the cork of our pink fizz, Vintage Rose, and pour with expectation and anticipation. Perfect, fine little bubbles. The nose is lovely. In the mouth, elegant, fine, crisp.
The only trouble is, it is not pink.
It is white.
Wednesday 10 November
Cautiously pour a glass of Vintage Rose for Tim Atkin, one of the top UK wine writers, and heave a huge sigh of relief, it is pink. Pure pink. Pinkety dinkety pink. Thank God for that. Today we’re in London, at the Maison de Languedoc. A terrific tasting, called Outsiders because all of us are outsiders, in one way or another, even if some of us are French. Twelve winegrowers from Languedoc Roussillon, half a dozen nationalities, all with different stories to tell. Jonathan came to this business after watching two jets fly into the Twin Towers; Yvon used to fish salmon in Sweden; John Heggarty reached the pinnacle of advertising before starting the tortuous climb up the ladder of wine growing; Lidewij and her husband followed a dream – which shed her of him along the way … and so it goes on. Wine is people. Wine is dreams, and stories, and hopes and aspirations. You’ve got it all here, today at the Maison de Languedoc, Cavendish Square, London.
Thursday 11 November
For the record, I checked it up. Monday when our wines were dull, was a Leaf Day. Even worse, a Leaf Day with a lunar noeud, absolutely the worst possible. Tuesday and Wednesday when our wines were really good, were Flower Days.
Saturday 13 November
The Fizz Palazzo of Parma
Forty growers from all over France: Loire, Burgundy, Alsace, Champagne, Limoux, Jura … all here for Bollicine Mon Amour, Parma’s big fizz fest. Limoux is sandwiched between Burgundy and the Loire, quite appropriate really as that is where our grape varieties come from. I have dubbed Madame Loire my whine of the day; if she complains one more time about how salty the Parmesan cheese is (so wonderful with our bubbles), how hard the bread at breakfast, how aching her limbs, I shall scream like the screaming face painted on the high vaulted ceiling over my head. It is interesting: we both make a sparkler that is 60/40% chardonnay/chenin blanc, yet they taste completely different. Terroir makes itself apparent, here in this 15th century palace with its splendid and extravagant frescoes splashed across the ceiling, celebrating the lives and times of the Rossi family.
Sunday 14 November
These 16th century gentlemen come and visit us today, Rossis incarnate. I push a glass of Blanquette in their hands, positive they would recognise its 16th century origins. The bel mondo of Parma and Milano passes through in a steady stream. The Parma people love the fact that Blanquette was discovered in the monastery of St Hilaire. He is their patron saint. I learn how to say Il primo spumante della storia, and the Loire is getting fed up having to listen to that all day long.
There are some things to be said for being locked up in this Parmesan palazzo for three days, and one of them is tonight’s dinner. At the Hostaria da Ivan, lost somewhere in the smog hanging over San Secondo though heaven knows where, with a fizz list longer than your arm and more expensive and expansive than anything you could ever hope to inherit. The food is divine. Utterly delectable antipasti of cheese and parma ham, and polenta smeared with garlic fat or rosemary fat with a Vecchia Modena Lambrusco 2009, drunk out of a bowl. A first for me. Very pink, rather simple, the wine that is, not the bowl (which is quite white and of porcelain). I asked why and got the incontestable answer, “Tradition”, or rather, tradizione. This was followed by a bottle-fermented Lambrusco Ancestrale from Francesco Bellei, straight strawberries, and still drunk from a bowl. We moved on to a glass with the Lambrusco Rose del Cristo 2004, which Ivan swore had spent 5 years ‘sur lattes’ – palest possible peach in colour – accompanying an absolutely scrumptious risotto : heaven (the risotto). But the big gun came out with the main course, a 2004 Lambrusco methode traditionnelle from Bellei, 5 years sur lattes, and some maceration which gave it a light ruby colour. Most of us thought it ‘bien fait, interessant’,which is saying something, coming from a bunch of forty Champagne, Loire and Burgundy producers. Then a dessert to die for: zabbaliogni such as I have never had, with Le Rane 2004, a Malvasia Dolce from Luretta, which Ivan insisted was the Yquem of Emilio.
Amazing how good food, good wine and good company can wipe away your tiredness. I bade a fond goodnight to my friends from the Loire and fell into bed.
Monday 15 November
But now I’m really tired. It’s been a long day. Time to go home. But I’m in Bologna, and it seems my passport’s in Parma. Can’t get on the plane. Have to drive back to Parma in pouring rain that alternates with thick mist, and then go on to the airport in Naples tomorrow. The Tre Ville hotel, where my passport is lying in wait, offers me a free room and a meal to make me feel better.
Saturday 20 November
“Challenge & Innovation”
There are lots of people who have lots to say about Limoux’s maverick and probably best-known winegrower, Jean Louis Denois – but everyone agrees he knows how to make wine. Innovative he certainly is; it’s the challenge bit of his motto one wonders about, whether it shouldn’t be ‘challenging’. We spent a wonderful morning in his cellars with him today, tasting the base-wine for the 2010 fizz, then fizzes present and past, before being let loose on a flight of chenin blancs. But full attention was on the Limoux chardonnays, starting with 2009 and going back to … 1989. There are not many in Limoux, if any, who can pull that hat trick. Nor are there many in any occupation any where in the world who are so generous with their expertise and knowledge.
Wednesday 24 November
It’s a tough life, but someone has to do it. Spend the whole morning tasting the 2010 wine from our barrels. Then play around with it a bit: a little of this, a little of that, how about adding some of that to this? It is early days yet and the wine still has a way to go, but already we are building up a profile. It is a very pretty profile.
…./to be continued