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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Invitations to taste a wine as legendary as the 1945 Chateau Mouton Rothschild come perhaps once in a lifetime, if at all. So I was very lucky to be in the right place at the right time, to be invited to a vertical tasting of Mouton Rothschild that included the 1945.
To try this wine alone, a mad-about-fine-wine person like me would travel around the world. But when the host announced a couple of days before the tasting that — to make the tasting “more fun” — he would be including two of the greatest Le Montrachet producers, Leflaive and Lafon, side by side, it’s fair to say that I would have travelled to the moon.
Here are a few of the highlights from that amazing line-up.
NV Charles Heidsieck Brut Reserve (2008 base), Magnum
The tasting started with my beloved Charles Heidsieck. In this case the NV Brut Reserve, but the first I have tasted from magnum with the long-awaited 2008 base. It’s certainly great now, but it will live for 20+ years. 95 pts.
One-third each of Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Meunier, with approximately 40% reserve wines.
2009 Chateau Larrivet Haut-Brion Blanc
Larrivet Haut-Brion is situated next to Haut Bailly. The domain has gone by a few names in the past couple of centuries. It was originally named Chateau La Rivette, then Chateau Brion Larive (‘brion’ being the word for ‘gravel’ in the local dialect), then Haut-Brion Larive. After a 1949 lawsuit from Haut Brion, the property was forced to change its name. It produces delicious and well priced white wines, and the great 2009 vintage was no exception. 93 pts.
60% Sauvignon Blanc, 40% Semillon. No malo.
2006 ‘Y’ Chateau d’Yquem
‘Y’, which is nowadays a dry white, comes from the incomparable sweet wine producer Chateau d’Yquem. It has been made off and on in small quantities ever since 1959. Only in the 1990s did it change to a crisp, dry style, and since 2004 it has been produced every year. I rarely try this wine because of the relatively low production (less than 1,000 cases produced annually), but I like it very much because its flavour profile is so rare – like great Pessac with touch of Sauternes added to blend. 96 pts.
80% Sauvignon Blanc, 20% Semillon.
2002 Meursault-Perrieres Lafon
Many consider Dominique Lafon to be the best white wine producer in the world, and I can see why. He is based in Meursault, and his mastery of the appellation showed in the bottle. This wine was magical and my favorite white wine of the tasting to drink now, because both Montrachets need more time. 95 pts.
Biodynamic production. Around 70-80% new oak.
2008 Montrachet Lafon
1996 Montrachet Leflaive
Next came the moment to taste the greatest white wine appellation in the world, as interpreted by two of its greatest producers.
Both Montrachets were out of this world, just still too young. I slightly preferred the Leflaive, which was made Anne-Claude Leflaive herself (before she tragically passed away in 2015). The Lafon (97 pts) had more subtle elegance, while being extremely complex and long. But the Leflaive (98 pts) was nigh on perfect in every way. I fell in love with this magical wine. 2008 Montrachet Lafon – Biodynamic production. 100% new oak.
1996 Montrachet Leflaive – Biodynamic production. 100% new oak for 12 months, then 6 months in used oak.
Next came the moment to meditate, utter a prayer, and prepare one’s body and soul to experience a wine worthy of Bacchus himself.
Whether or not you agree that 1945 was the greatest vintage for Bordeaux in the 20th century (and there are still wine lovers who argue for the 1961), it was certainly one of the smallest and most concentrated crops ever produced. A severe frost in May meant very low yields. Drought and high heat later in the growing season brought ripeness and concentration, as well as an early harvest, starting on the 13th of September. Baron Philippe was back from the war in time for this harvest, and to celebrate the allied victory the wine was labelled with ‘V’ for l’Annee de la Victoire.
The particular bottle of 1945 Mouton that we tasted was special. It was purchased from one of the oldest and most respected Bordeaux merchants, who asked Mouton Rothschild to recondition the bottle in the early 1990s. The bottle was opened, tasted, recorked and a new capsule added at the chateau. This is ultra rare.
As always with super-hyped wines, the expectation before tasting is sky-high. And quite often the reality can be disappointing, falling short of your magical expectations. But even with my sky-high expectations, the 1945 still blew me away.
It was without doubt one of the most incredible wines I have tasted. Full of life and energy that belied its age. For me, it seemed like it had just reached its peak. But my friend Rytis, who tastes so much great wine, said it would still improve.
Complex and layered, ever changing and with endless length. And yes, as you can see from my tasting note, it was certainly 100 points with a big fat plus!
1945 Mouton Rothschild
Brick red core with a clear red rim.
Power, power, power! Dried cherry & cranberry, cocoa, cedar, cassis. Mind-blowing nose, tobacco, mint, mutton stew, smoked bacon. So complex you could write endless notes. Oh my god, tears are coming.
Fruit bomb on the palate, with power and elegance at the same time. Flavours of mushroom, cedar, tobacco, cocoa, rose petals, red berries. Concentration and length, so elegant and powerful at the same time. 100+ pts.
The remaining six wines in the Mouton vertical consisted of the following vintages – 1990, 1985, 1983, 1981, 1980 and 1970.
Although the 1980 was possibly a bit over the hill, and the 1981 was just a touch austere on the palate, the others ranged in quality from excellent to outstanding.
The 1990 displayed perfect typicity of vintage, with an elegant nose of crushed berries and liquorice, as well as mature tones of chocolate with gentle smokiness. It still had plenty of youthful intensity, with the ripe tannins just starting to melt. It will keep well for at least another two decades. 95+ pts.
Cabernet Sauvignon 81%, Cabernet Franc 10%, Merlot 9%.
The 1985 was also particularly seductive, with its incredible length and balance of rich fruits, integrated acidity and spice notes. Those of you lucky enough to have this in magnum would be richly rewarded if you decided to open one soon. 95 pts.
Cabernet Sauvignon 75%, Merlot 12%, Cabernet Franc 10%, Petit Verdot 3%.
And the 1970 was outstanding. Amazingly intense, concentrated and still youthful for a 46-year-old wine, it had power and elegance in equal measure. Full of lovely cedar notes, crushed forest berries and spice, with a beautiful mineral backbone. It was absolutely delicious on the day, but equally it has a long life ahead. 97+ pts.
Exact percentages of blend not known.
1934 Chateau Lamothe, Sauternes
We finished the tasting with an 82-year-old Sauternes from Chateau Lamothe. It was complex as only a mature Sauternes can be, with notes of beeswax, violets and herbs on the nose, with overripe apricots, dried citrus and spice on the palate. But there was still plenty of youthful vibrancy, and it was a joy to taste. 95 pts.
A fitting end to an evening that I shall remember for the rest of my days.
I’d like to conclude by offering a huge thank you to the wonderful couple who hosted the tasting of these delicious treasures from their personal wine collection. Your generosity is unsurpassed!
This article is the first in a series of ‘Top 3s’, marking the occasion of our 3rd Birthday at Clos & Cru. Thanks to all of our clients, friends & suppliers for your support over these past three years.
Twice I’ve been lucky enough to be invited on a tour of this estate — which is closed to the general public and is extremely difficult to get into. The property has something magical about it that you can’t anticipate as you approach from the street. On one side, there’s a not-particularly-nice block of flats, and on the other an old stone wall with tiny wooden doors. Only after you’ve walked through the doors do you know you’re in for something special, as you enter an oasis of beauty in the middle of Reims.
The crayeres at Charles Heidsieck – the chalk cellars that date back to Roman times – are more than beautiful spaces. They are a testament to human industry, dug out by hand centuries ago. My favourite was the chamber filled with old vintages, where you can’t contain the feeling that you’ve discovered a trove of treasures as you glance at the rows of old bottles.
The main building – with glass all around – gives picturesque views out to the garden. Combine that view with the experience of tasting such magnificent champagnes as the 1981 Champagne Charlie cuvee, and you know you have arrived in a paradise. My last visit to the estate – hosted by general director Stephen Leroux – was especially wonderful. Not only did I get to taste one of the best champagnes ever, but I am proud to say that our group managed to nail all of the champagnes we were served in a blind tasting.
I’ve been to this estate several times, and twice enjoyed luncheon inside the Chateau. This is my favorite property to visit in Bordeaux, as the Chateau itself is equally beautiful outside and inside. The view of the surrounding vineyards – including famous neighbours like Chateau Latour – is inspiring. And I loved discovering their museum-quality collection of glasses.
Because it’s owned by the Rouzaud family, who also own my beloved Roederer champagne house, lunch usually starts with a glass of Cristal. On my last visit it was general manager Nicolas Glumineau who looked after us. He gave us a most charming welcome, and the 1996 Pichon Lalande was delicious.
This domaine in the heart of Beaune is not open to the general public. It has a cellar dating back to the 14th century, with the largest collection of Burgundy wines from the 1960s and 1970s. The building above the cellars was originally built for the local police, complete with a jail cell for locking up offenders. So it’s completely different from any other negociant in Burgundy.
The main room – where I’ve been on the receiving end of several memorably delicious lunches – is full of old armor, shields and even a very old, but still operational, organ which we usually listen to when finishing a meal. And my dear friend Bernard Repolt who manages the domaine always welcomes us warmly, spoiling us with something very special and old from the cellar.
All of these three estates have a lot in common. The beautiful buildings, the cellars, the history, and the delicious wines. But what made my visits extra special were the exceedingly hospitable and experienced professionals who welcomed me. Thanks for the memories.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
Champagne Devaux was founded in 1846 and was family owned until 1987 when Jean-Pol Auguste, the last member of the Devaux family, who didn’t have an heir, decided to entrust the future of the company to Laurent Gillet, president of Union Auboise – known today as the Groupe Vinicole Champagne Devaux.
Referred to by TIME magazine as: “The man with the paragon palate”. It’s not an overstatement to say Robert Parker has revolutionised the world of wine. His bold stance contrary to the wine establishment on the 1982 Bordeaux En Primeur catapulted him into the limelight. He was widely ridiculed and even he admits he thought it could be the end of a very brief career, however he re-tasted, came to the same conclusion, stuck to his guns and it established his credentials as a taster. Since then he has shaken up the cosy status-quo in the fine wine world, his points system is almost universally recognised and more importantly it shifts bottles from En Primeur to Aldi.
Parker confessed that even after 37 years in the wine business, each new vintage still excites him. The wine business never stands still, whether it is people, vintage or production techniques. When he started out in 1978 he asked himself, what makes “fine wine” – for him it is a marriage of three conditions – a great wine should age well, present its origin, and most importantly it should challenge your senses.
Love him or loath him no wine industry professional could say that they wouldn’t at least be curious to meet him, so it was with interest that we arrived at the Royal Courts of Justice in London yesterday evening ready to have our senses challenged by the selection at Robert Parker’s Wine Advocate “Grand World Tour”. The entire Wine Advocate team was present and we tasted through a range of highly rated wines.
Do you ever dream about meeting people you admire, who would you invite to your ultimate dinner party? Some people would choose their idols, sports or rock stars; others important figures from history, Einstein or Winston Churchill perhaps; and some would opt for beauty, Cleopatra, Marilyn Monroe…
I dream of a table filled with wine makers! And I had the incredible good fortune this week to meet one of my idols in the wine world, Aubert de Villaine, co-owner of Domaine de la Romanée Conti (DRC). As if this wasn’t enough, in addition I had the opportunity to taste some of the stunning wines he has made, including the iconic – La Romanée Conti.
You don’t want to look a fool when you meet your idols, be unprepared or have nothing to say. It was the same with these great wines, I read about them and studied the smallest detail, to help me appreciate them fully. For insight I turned to Allen Meadows’ bible on Vosne-Romanée “The Pearl of the Côte”. After a few hours of studying, all that was left was to clear my mind of distractions and prepare my palate for enlightenment.
The venue for the tasting, the gleaming copper clad gallery underneath the hull of the Cutty Sark in Greenwich, set the scene. It was a truly memorable place to be tasting these breathtaking wines, all shipped directly from the DRC cellar, while listening to Aubert’s personal recollections and insights about each cuvee.