Dinner with Olivier Humbrecht

By Margaret Elderfield

A great night had by all on floor 35 of the Shard last month, when Olivier Humbrecht (of top biodynamic estate Domaine Zind-Humbrecht) joined Clos & Cru and our guests for a dinner that featured 9 of his best wines from recent vintages going back to 2008.

Olivier Humbrecht winemaker

Olivier Humbrecht (L) with Martyn from the Clos & Cru team

Tasting them side by side, I was struck by the incredible concentration and expressiveness of these lively, complex whites.  Tip top wine of the night was the 2013 Riesling Clos Windsbuhl (95 pts, robertparker.com) which had outstanding mineral precision, purity of fruit and a lovely savoury twist on the finish.

We also got a glimpse of some newly released 2015s.  Here the 2015 Riesling Clos St Urbain Rangen de Thann Grand Cru (96 pts, robertparker.com) was the star, with citrus and tropical fruits, smokey hints and toasted-stone mineral notes. To me, it was a perfect wine to show the difference between the German and Alsace styles of riesling. The great rieslings of the Mosel have a fine and delicate lightness. From the French side of the border, with his 2015 Riesling Rangen, Olivier delivers a more weighty Alsace style, but still with that quintessential riesling liveliness.

The biggest surprise of the night?  I’m not usually a fan of Muscat, which so often appears in simple, sweet vin doux naturels that can lack balance.  But the 2013 Muscat Goldert Grand Cru was a revelation, and I can see why Jancis Robinson counts it as one of her favourite Muscat wines in the world. Fermented to dryness, it had a heady aroma of grapes, orchard fruits and herbs, plus a mouthwatering hit of saline minerality. Served in a Burgundy glass, this wine bowled everyone over.  Olivier says they serve this wine in the region with white asparagus and hollandaise.  But in our meal it paired deliciously with Asian-influenced pork.

Thanks again, Olivier!

 

 

 

 

 

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What’s the Fuss About Biodynamics?

By Margaret Elderfield

I’m frequently asked how often I can tell whether a wine is made from organically grown grapes or not. The answer is more or less never. But the same is not true of wines from biodynamically grown vineyards. I do find that the latter often have an extra dimension of vitality.” – Jancis Robinson (jancisrobinson.com)

With Olivier Humbrecht joining us for a winemaker dinner later this month, it’s a great moment to focus on biodynamics, the movement Olivier embraced in the mid 1990s.

What is it?

Biodynamics is a farming philosophy that dates back to the early 1920s. 

It was introduced by an Austrian chap called Rudolph Steiner, who set out a grand vision for boosting the health of crops and livestock in a series of lectures. Steiner advocated a natural, holistic approach to farming. He saw the farm as a living, self-sustaining organism. By using natural preparations instead of chemicals, working in harmony with the cycles of the moon and the planets, and maintaining the right diversity of plants and animals, soil health would be enriched and revitalised. In turn, the crops depending on that soil would thrive, and so would the animals eating those crops.

His philosophy also incorporated mystical and spiritual elements. In Steiner’s vision,  biodynamics could harness the cosmic energy of the universe into self-sustaining farms that were teeming with vital life essences.

Zind-Humbrecht, Biodynamics, Alsace, Wine

Horse-drawn ploughing at biodynamic estate Zind-Humbrecht

Biodynamics and Fine Wine

So how did Steiner’s teachings make their way into the fine wine world?  

Fast forward to the 1980s. Only a handful of winemakers had started to use biodynamics (led by Francois Bouchet and Nicolas Joly in the Loire).

A microbiologist working for the French government named Claude Bourguignon grabbed the headlines.  He complained that the soil of the great domains in Burgundy – after years of spraying the vineyards with herbicides – now had less microbial life “than sand in the Sahara desert”.  He freely admitted to winemakers that he didn’t understand exactly how biodynamics worked, but he’d seen that biodynamic vineyards had soils rich in microbial life, and vines with deeper, stronger root systems.

His ideas resonated with some of the top producers in Burgundy, including the great Anne-Claude Leflaive. In an effort to improve wine quality, she began experimenting with organic and biodynamic methods at Domaine Leflaive, and giving blind tastings to professionals in the industry.  When taster after taster preferred the biodynamic wine, she had all the evidence she needed to set about converting the entire domain to biodynamic methods.

Anne Claude Leflaive, Burgundy, Winemaker

Anne-Claude Leflaive

Over time, the methodology spread, and momentum has been building since the 1990s.   Many top flight winemakers throughout the world have converted to biodynamic. And nowadays there are two well-known institutes (Demeter and Biodyvin) who inspect and certify biodynamic wine estates.

So Does it Really Work?

Most of the scientific community is skeptical – they see biodynamics as more of a “religion” than a scientifically proven way to improve crops.

But it’s impossible to ignore the incredible quality of wines from domains like Chateau Pontet-Canet in Bordeaux, Domaines Leflaive and Leroy in Burgundy, Jacques Selosse in Champagne and Zind-Humbrecht in Alsace. 

Is it mystical forces at work?  Or is it because these winegrowers have to work harder to keep the vines healthy without resorting to chemical sprays?  Either way, it’s worth getting to know these wines.

Night of the 1990s

By Martyn Zemavicius

1990 was a rarity in the world of wine.  Not only was it a great vintage across France, but also across Europe and in many of the top regions around the world.1990 Vintage Tasting Dinner

With so many appellations reporting a great harvest last year, we will have to wait and see if 2015 can equal the 1990 vintage for consistent high quality.  

In the meantime, we decided it would be interesting to taste a few bottles from the great 1990 vintage across Europe. (We made sure to partner the wines with gourmet dishes, as the winemakers no doubt intended!)

All of the wines for our tasting were sourced from a single, top quality English cellar, and fortunately they arrived for the tasting in top condition.

To prepare our palates for the wines to come, we kicked off with a delicious magnum of NV Le Brun de Neuville, Cuvee Selection. It had been kept on the lees in 15 meter deep underground cellars for more than 3 years, and it was very tasty.  

1st Flight

1990 Joseph Perrier Cuvee Royale Champagne (from magnum). 50% Chardonnay, 45% Pinot Noir, 5% Pinot Meunier. Named ‘Cuvee Royale’ because it was served in the Royal Households of Queen Victoria and King Edward VII.
A powerful champagne, with honey notes typical of 1990. It went amazingly well with a wild mushroom amuse bouche.

2nd Flight

1990 Mosel-Saar-Ruwer Riesling Spatlese Oberemmeler Hutte, von Hovel
Von Hovel dates back to the 12th century, when monks constructed the property and cellar. The ancestors of the current owners acquired the estate from Napoleon in 1806.

Wine made from Oberemmeler Hutte monopole vineyard had such a bright colour, it could be taken for a 3-year-old wine. On the palate, with 7% alcohol it was feather light, with sweet yellow stone fruit that went so well with foie gras – probably the best match of the evening.

1990 Alsace Gewurztraminer Cuvee des Seigneurs de Ribeaupierre, Trimbach
Trimbach’s most famous wine is the Riesling Clos Sainte Hune, but this particular Gewurztraminer must be among the best wines they make from old vines. All the grapes came from the former wine estate of the Lords of Ribeaupierre. Made only in exceptional vintages, this was the biggest surprise of the night.

Like the Riesling that preceded it, the colour was very bright. It had the Trimbach style of being dry with very strong structure, full of fruit but elegant at the same time. Still so much life left in this wine that it could live for another 20 years.

3rd Flight

1990 Grand Cru Corton-Clos des Cortons, Faiveley
Many consider Faiveley to be the best of the large-scale producers in the region. Our top choice would probably be Louis Jadot, if pressed. But when it comes to the legendary ‘Corton-Clos des Cortons’ monopole, from the 1990 vintage no less, we certainly didn’t say no!  Based in Nuits St George since 1825 when the house was founded, Faiveley are known for tannic wines that are full of fruit. And this wine was no exception.
Hand bottled, without filtration.

At 25 years old, the tannins were still grippy, but the fruit concentration and richness compensated – especially tasted together with duck breast and red berry sauce.

1990 Crozes Hermitage Domaine de Thalabert, Paul Jaboulet
It’s not a secret that Jaboulet produces some of the Rhone’s greatest wines, including the famous Hermitage La Chapelle. We would argue that the Domaine de Thalabert vineyard in Crozes Hermitage is the little brother of La Chapelle. Here Jaboulet produces very high quality wines that are superior to most growers Crozes Hermitage. Robert Parker thinks that the 1990 vintage will eclipse the 1978. I have tasted the legendary 1978 La Chapelle on two occasions, but never had a chance to taste the 1978 Domaine de Thalabert. This bottle from 1990 was absolutely amazing and the winner of this tasting.
Made from 40-60 year-old vines. Yields of 25-30 hl/ha. Aged in wood for 12 months.

It took a while for this massive wine to open up. Gamey, smokey with unbelievable dark fruit concentration and incredible length. Any Rhone lover – or any fine wine lover – should try this wine at least once!

4th Flight

1990 Mas de Daumas Gassac, Vin de Pays de l’Herault
Mas de Daumas Gassac is often called the ‘First Growth of the Languedoc’ or the  ‘Lafite of the Languedoc’. Rightly so. I still cannot forget few years ago a 1982 I tasted from jeroboam, how amazing it was.
1990 for Gassac was a most unusual year, as a vine (called ‘Crespy’) sprouted a new leaf as early as 20 January. Made from a very large selection of different grapes planted on red glacial soils.  68% Cabernet Sauvignon, 7% Merlot, 7% Malbec, 7% Cabernet Franc, 6% Syrah, 2% Pinot noir, 2% Tannat, 1% rare varieties: Nebbiolo, Dolcetto and Barbera. Long fermentation, no filtration. Yields at 40 hl/ha.

Tasting the 1990 proved again that this wine is among the best in the world.

1990 Clos du Marquis, Chateau Leoville Las Cases, Saint-Julien
Chateau Leoville Las Cases is without doubt the best estate in St-Julien, and it often produces wines of first-growth quality. The vineyards are superbly situated on gravelly clay soils that stretch between the village of St-Julien and Chateau Latour. Their Clos du Marquis is considered to be the best 2nd wine made in Bordeaux. These days it is made from separate plots, but in the 1990 vintage it received 63% of Leoville Las Cases grapes that would nowadays have gone into the ‘grand vin’.

Rich, powerful and concentrated. Marvellously well-balanced wine, with exotically perfumed notes typical of Las Cases. Over the past year I have tasted it four times. It is absolutely delicious, and without doubt is better than some ‘grands vins’ of St-Julien.

5th Flight

1990 Tignanello, Marchesi Antinori
Tignanello is famous for being the first producer in the Chianti region to age Sangiovese in barriques, and to blend wine with non-indigenous varieties like Cabernet Sauvignon (instead of the traditional white wine grapes used in chianti blends). The first vintage released was 1971, and Antinori was accused of vinous treachery and treason. It had to be labelled as a lowly vino da tavola. But Antinori had the last laugh, as Tignanello soon attained critical acclaim.

Dark berries and gamey notes. Starting to show some leathery notes too. But still a lot of life left in this wine with heaps of fruit, spice and a long finish.

1990 Brunello di Montalcino Sugarille, Pieve Santa Restituta
Gaja purchased Pieve Santa Restituta in 1994, so it was good opportunity to see if wines made there were as good as they are under Gaja’s ownership. The answer is an unqualified ‘yes’! The single vineyard ‘Sugarille’, located on the north-eastern side of Brunello, is situated at 350 meters above sea level. There is a gentle south-west exposure and rocky soils. This estate always had the potential to be one of the finest in the region. Indeed, Antonio Galloni thinks is it’s “easily among the finest in the entire appellation”, and we would agree with that.

Wine was so complex with a lot of aromatic floral notes, ripe dark forest berries, full bodied, very well balanced and with a long finish. I must say that this time I preferred it over the 1990 Tignanello.

Conclusion

This tasting proved how high in quality the 1990 vintage was across Europe. We would advise wine lovers to put some in their cellars before it becomes too rare and expensive, as inevitably happens with the great old vintages from top estates.