Category Archives: France
Marie-Courtin Efflorescence 2007
The bottle says “extra brut” and for sure it is the driest champagne I’ve experienced. Dry, but by no means bitter. There’s a fresh, savoury nose, with hints of apple, tarragon, yeast perhaps, and cheese. In the mouth a crisp vegetal and mineral presence. Flavourful and elegant. With a lingering sensory finish. Charming. $$$
Regular readers of this blog know I have a fondness for small production grower champagne. I could never appreciate all the fuss over champagne, until I encountered this new breed of exceptional single harvest, single vintage, single grower champagne that flies in the face of the big names in the region.
Dominique Moreau cultivates just 2.5 hectares. Hers is, in fact, a single hillside vineyard of 40-50 year old vines, mostly pinot noir. It is located in the village of Polisot, in that other, that less-prized part of Champagne — Aube. Long considered merely a supplier of grapes for the prestigious Marne to the north, the Aube region has recently come into its own, with a host of vignerons whose grower champagnes are turning the heads of those who thought they knew all there was to know about what makes great champagne.
In the case of Moreau and her domaine Marie-Courtin it starts with the limestone-clay soil, which in many ways is closer to the soils of nearby Chablis than those of Marne. Add immaculate care through the growing season, including debudding and bringing the fruit to its prime ripeness (sometimes a challenge in Champagne, the most northern of France’s wine-growing regions). Continue with hand harvesting and traditional wooden basket pressing, in which the first and last litres of juice are set aside, so only the best is fed by gravity to the tanks on the lower floor. Vinification using only indigenous yeast, and, in the case of Efflorescence, using neutral oak barrels. No added sugar at the time of bottling. Minimal intervention at all stages.
Moreau chose to name her domaine after her great-grandmother, whom she recalls as very much “a woman of the earth.” The domaine was created in 2001, with her first vintage in 2006. Cultivation has been strictly organic from the start, with some biodynamic methods. She will often use pendulums in both the vineyard and the cellar to access the various stages of development from grape to wine. Until recently, she produced only two cuvées. Efflorescence, she notes, refers to “something that evolves in perpetuity.” A decisive step away from the year-to-year sameness of the bottlings from Champagne’s big-name houses. A step rather towards wine that varies with vintage and age. How much more interesting and wine-like.
Domaine Vincent Stoeffler Kirchberg de Barr Grand Cru
Vincent Stoeffler is part of that newer generation of vignerons in Alsace — educated, very much in tune with environmental issues, strongly committed to tradition and terroir. In recent years they’ve taken on a strong profile across the region. It speaks well of wine-making in this part of France.
Stoeffler studied viticulture at both Beaune and Dijon, followed by internships in several different wine regions, prior to taking over the family vineyards in 1986. Today the domaine amounts to 15 hectares spread over 10 communes. Since 2002 all have been certified organic.
Thirty-five different labels are produced here, using eight traditional varietals of Alsace. These include a late harvest, a “sélection de grains nobles”, and a couple of fine crémants. There are two grand crus — a riesling from Schoenenbourg de Riquewihr, as well as a reisling, pinot gris, and this gewürztraminer from Kirchberg de Barr.
The soil is essentially shell-bearing limestone. The Vosges Mountains give protection from the western winds. But it is the care that is taken with the vines that raises substantially the quality of the wine production. Much of it is by hand, ensuring healthy plants benefitting from good aeration, set among soils that are vigorous and alive with micro-organisms. The aim is a low yield of top quality grapes at ultimate maturity. Harvesting begins in October and takes about five weeks. The grapes go through a very slow pressing, followed by natural fermentation, without added yeasts. Maturation is on fine lees in large, old French oak casks, for about nine months, with manual racking. The addition of sulphur is minimal.
Says Stoeffler, “I am looking for the purity of aromas and flavors, balance and personality in each of our wines, and I give the same attention to them all – from simple sylvaner to the noblest wines.” He is quick to add that he makes wines that appeal to him, not ones lead by marketing concerns.
The result — a very fine selection of wines across the board that have garnered strong and widespread praise from the French wine press. In recent years they have been reaching North America, with equal accolades.
Domaine Vincent Stoeffler Kirchberg de Barr Grand Cru Gewurztraminer 2008
A warm, gold-highlighted colour in the glass. The citrus, spicy gewürztraminer aromatics are much in evidence, but refined and with a mineral undercurrent. A smooth, substantial mouthfeel, on the drier side of sweetness. Full-flavoured and inviting, charmingly well-balanced. Delicious. This is a wine experience that very much bears repeating. $$
Françoise Bedel & Fils Dis, Vin Secret
pinot meunier(86%), pinot noir(8%), chardonnay(6%)
Françoise Bedel & Fils Dis, Vin Secret (degorgement 2009; 5 years on the lees)
Another brilliant grower champagne. Golden yellow in my humid glass. An intriguing nose of ripe fruit, aromas of undergrowth. Dry, and without too many bubbles getting in the way. Stewed apples giving rise to honey, candied citrus. Distinctive. Delightful. $$
The champagnes of Françoise Bedel owe their existence to her son Vincent and his childhood medical condition. Having given up on standard treatments, his mother turned to homeopathic medicine. When it proved to be the cure, a vineyard light went on. What if such methods were applied to the growing of grapes, a mindset away from the domaine’s conventional chemical approach? A meeting with biodynamic champagne producer Jean-Pierre Fleury triggered a move to convert two hectares of the estate to biodynamics. The rest soon followed. Have the wines improved? Françoise would say most definitely. “The flavors are more intimate, with a greater profundity and expression.” Wine critics agree.
Françoise Bedel and now-grown son Vincent cultivate 8.4 hectares in the very western reaches of the Champagne region, centred in the village of Crouttes-sur-Marne, only about 80 km from Paris. The estate is made up of several different parcels in four separate areas on the banks of the Marne River. The soils here are largely a mix of chalk and clay, with some limestone soils (such as those in which the grapes for Dis, Vin Secret are grown.) Françoise and Vincent have come to view each parcel as distinctive, each with their own characteristics, and requiring their own specific treatments.
Traditionally, the vineyards have been comprised mostly of pinot meunier, and that remains so today, despite the fact that the grape is not looked upon by some as champagne-worthy. Her success with the grape is clear evidence of the care taken in the vineyard and the natural, dynamic health of the plants.
Neither are the mother-son team conventional in their approach in the cellar. Unlike the vast majority of champagnes, which are blended from different vintages with the aim of maintaining uniformity of product from year to year, Bedel bottlings are single vintage. Says Françoise, “I prefer to allow the wines to express themselves through the terroir and the vintage. It’s not necessarily a champagne of consistent taste. Each year is different.”
And isn’t that the beauty of wine? Rather than the taste-one-vintage, taste-them-all experience, each Bedel vintage gives the drinker a new taste experience, something fresh to remember.
Domaine des Terres Dorées Beaujolais Blanc
The bottle seemed entirely appropriate for the “terres dorées” of western Newfoundland, the Tablelands of Gros Morne National Park.
Stacked up against what some would call “industrial” wine, there was just no contest. The other glass I held in my hand — a new world, manipulated, over-oaked chardonnay — came in a very, very distant second.
Yet, the chardonnay of Domaine des Terres Dorées is hardly a blockbuster. It doesn’t bombard your palate to get attention. It is richly subtle, charming, but understated. In short, a naturally honest wine, appealing in all its dimensions.
On top of that, it is a chardonnay from Beaujolais, a wine region that is not exactly a magnet for connoisseurs of white wine. Nor, for that matter, red, bearing a reputation tarnished by the questionable phenomenon of “Beaujolais nouveau”.
If there is a winemaker who would cause you to rethink Beaujolais it is Jean-Paul Brun. His vines are found mostly in the limestone soils outside the southern village of Charnay. (The region’s preponderance of golden stones gave rise to the name.) He began in 1979 with just four hectares, on soils that had for the most part been given over to mixed farming. Today there is a total of 45 hectares, mostly for the production of white wines, but with vineyards in the granite soils of several of the red Beaujolais grand crus.
Brun’s style of winemaking could rightfully be called Burgundian. Rather than the Beaujolais tradition of whole cluster semi-carbonic maceration, Brun has gone the route of using sorting tables, hand-picking the clusters, then de-stemming. This is followed by 4-6 weeks in vats with pigeage (punching down the cap). The wine is generally aged in cement vats and barrels. Brun’s approach differs in other ways. Fermentation with only indigenous yeasts. Minimal chaptalization (adding sugar to raise the alcohol level). Minimal addition of sulphur, minimal filtration. His object, in his own words, is “to make wines that you can drink and appreciate easily, but also that can pair well with a full meal or that you can keep and age in a cellar.”
Modest ambition, but leading to exceptionally appealing organic wines. Wines that express what Beaujolais can be when nature and terroir take precedence.
Domaine des Terres Dorées Beaujolais Blanc 2010
Golden light in the glass, and for the nose a quiet concentrate of floral and citrus aromas. Light and crisp on the palate, but with an acidic liveliness. A very pleasurable wine that sings with all the right notes. Value plus. $
Domaine Weinbach Cuvée Ste. Catherine Pinot Gris
On a recent visit to the West African country of Ghana, wine wasn’t much on my mind, but, as I was about to leave, there in the duty free shop of Accra’s airport were several bottles from Domaine Weinbach. It reminded me that I had a bottle from that exemplary estate back home in my cellar.
The core vineyards of the imposing Domaine Weinbach — the five hectares of Clos des Capuchins — stretch back to 1612 and to an order of Franciscan friars. With the French Revolution the vineyard fell into private hands and in 1898 was acquired by the Faller family, ancestors of the present owners. Théo Faller, who died suddenly in 1979, was the person most responsible for taking the domaine to the highly respected position it holds today. His influence extended far beyond his estate. He worked endlessly to raise the profile of Alsatian wines and to establish standards within the region.
Colette Faller, in the face of considerable skepticism, has not only maintained the reputation of the domaine established by her late husband, but has enhanced it, bringing a wider recognition of the wines’ stellar qualities. At the time she assumed control she was one of the very few women anywhere to be managing a wine estate. In recent years, daughters Catherine and Laurence have joined their mother. They make for an outstanding trio.
They have 27 hectares under vine, and are perhaps best known for their rieslings and gewurztraminers, but our entry level pinot gris, without doubt, has the qualities that separate Domaine Weinbach from most all its competitors. The grapes come from the lower slopes of the Schlossberg grand cru and from the clos itself. The sandy soil, set above granite, is rich in minerals, and here the wines tend to be fuller-bodied and fleshier. Less elegant, but with rich mineral character.
Domaine Weinbach (named after the brook which runs through the property) rises behind the village of Kaysersberg, just north of Colmar. The wines are completely estate grown and bottled. Harvesting is by hand; pressing is done horizontally in whole clusters. Fermentation uses only indigenous yeasts, and the wines are matured in large, old casks. The influence of oak is minimal.
For twenty years the domaine has been organic and since 2005 biodynamic. In this Domaine Weinbach is in very good company. Zind-Humbrecht, Ostertag, Marcel Deiss, Josmeyer — all top-notch estates in Alsace profiled in this blog, all biodynamic. The depiction of the Copuchin monk on the neck of each and every bottle from Domaine Weinbach is a very strong lure for lovers of white wines.
Domaine Weinbach Cuvée Ste. Catherine Pinot Gris 2007
Arresting golden hue in the glass. A thoroughly ripened fruit aroma, a fullness with distinct mineral qualities. Wonderfully inviting. A near-syrup feel in the mouth, but dry and warmly concentrated, offset by a charming cut of acid. Long and lively finish. Oh, so good. $$