As recently as the 1970s the great appellations sold for a fraction of the price of a fairly ordinary Bordeaux Cru Classé red. I still have bottles of Hermitage, purchased in Johannesburg, marked with a R7-00 price sticker. No one cared much for syrah/shiraz – not in France, nor, for that matter, in South Africa (where national plantings at the time were comfortably less than 1000 hectares).
I discovered the Rhône during my student year in France. When I returned to South Africa and began working as an importer and retailer, its wines where high up on my shopping list. I couldn’t understand why so few people shared my enthusiasm or passion. Except for Chateauneuf-du-Pape – much of it sold with fake cellar dust glued onto asymmetrical bottles – none of the appellations were even known in the trade.
Part of what changed all this was the advent on the scene of Robert Parker, but not Parker alone. The American uber-critic loved the weight and intensity of the best Côte Rôties and Hermitages. However, what really led to his recalibrating the region’s potential, and in due course the way the world now values the wines, was a single producer, a man whose shyness and slight inaccessibility (mainly the result of his dedication to his craft) is often mistaken for arrogance: Marcel Guigal.
The Guigals were relative newcomers to the area: Marcel’s father, Etienne, arrived there to harvest apricots after the Great War. In time he found work in the vineyards and cellars of a long-established producer, Vidal-Fleury. In 1946 he set up in business on his own. Afflicted by a sudden loss of sight in the early 1960s, he handed over the winemaking and management of the business to his 17 year son Marcel.
Careful acquisitions of small but important vineyard parcels together with a fanatical attention to detail enabled Marcel to grow the enterprise. By the 1980s he was probably the most celebrated producer in Parker’s pantheon, described on one occasion as “the greatest winemaker on the planet.” A few years later Parker commented that “in the past 26 years I have spent visiting wineries and vignerons, I have never seen a producer so fanatical about quality as Marcel Guigal.”
This is exactly my own experience of Marcel, and also of his son Philippe, who has inherited his parents’ obsession with detail. I have been with them in the cellars late in the evening while they go round to check the casks, topping where necessary.
Some of their production is frighteningly small: the so-called “La-Las” (La Mouline, La Turque and La Landonne) rival the rarity of the Grands Crus from Vosne-Romanée. Others, like the Guigal Côtes du Rhône, are available in plentiful quantities. All share in common a focus on craft, where nothing is left to chance. Even the component parcels in a volume blend are hand-managed from source to bottle.
The curious thing about Guigal (the brand) is the pricing: while nothing is cheap – and nor should it be, given the effort that goes into every bottle at every price point – nothing is outrageously expensive, taking account of the reputation of the family and the relative rarity of the wines. The entry level Côtes du Rhône sells in South Africa for less than many of the fashionable SMV or SMG blends, while the Côte Rôtie Brune & Blonde – the great Northern Rhone wine upon which the house built its reputation – costs no more than several of its Cape counterparts.
The logic works best for those who see themselves as wine investors, rather than wine drinkers. If you’re buying wine to consume, you want to optimise the quality-price nexus. This is never easy in the Cote d’Or – but it can be done.
Domaine Latour has been assembled over more than two centuries of astute vineyard investment. It is now one of the largest property holdings in Burgundy – though it still comprises several parcels so tiny that anywhere else except Burgundy it would be unviable to farm the land. Take for example its Romanée St Vivant Quartre Journaux vineyard: 0,8 of a hectare and situated literally metres away from Romanee-Conti, it has belonged to the Latour family since December 1898. Or its 0,81 hectares of Chambertin running from the top to the bottom of the hillside. In total the Latour family has 28.6 hectares of Grand Cru – the largest single holding of Grand Cru vineyard in Burgundy and part of a wider domaine of over 50 hectares.
In 1997 Latour was admitted to the Henokiens – where the requirement of membership is that the business must have been family owned and family run for at at least two centuries and must still bear the name of the founder. This is worth a moment of reflection: you don’t get to survive through the aftermath of the French Revolution, the Napoleonic Wars, the revolutions of 1830, 1848, the Commune, the Franco-Prussian War, the First World War, the Second World War, the Great Depression, the Global Financial Crisis and still be on the top of your game without a long term vision.
THE 2016 ALLOCATION
After a series of depressingly small vintages (many of very good quality) Burgundy was blessed with a generous and fabulous 2015 and an equally striking 2016. We have just received our allocations of some of these wines. With the worldwide demand for quality Burgundy higher than ever, it has been a great advantage to have a working relationship of almost 40 years with a family-owned enterprise that cares to understand the unique features of our market. Accordingly we can offer small quantities 2016 Romanée St Vivant Quartre Journaux – scored 100 points by James Suckling, 2016 Chateau Corton Grancey (99 points) 2016 Corton Clos de la Vigne au Saint (96 points) amongst others.
I had just begun working in the wine trade and I saw first-hand the effect of that hot dry ripening season in Burgundy. Even ahead of the vintage the vignerons I knew and spent time with in Beaune and Chambolle Musigny were thrilled with ripeness levels in their grapes. For them it was unimaginable that it could actually be too warm and too dry to make good wine. In August and September most years they hoped for enough sunshine to ripen the grapes and prayed for the rain to hold off until the vintage was in their cellars. I was less upbeat – a lot of the fruit looked too shrivelled and stressed to yield great wine. When, a year or two later, I arrived back in Burgundy as the buyer for a very large import business, I shopped with caution, doubting the age-worthiness of the low acid, alcoholic and porty wines that were being proffered with such enthusiasm.
However, I felt none of these reservations when I was offered a parcel of 1976 Adgestone – wine from England’s oldest commercial winery (established almost a decade earlier on the Isle of Wight). In the days before climate change, vineyards in Britain needed every bit of warmth and sunlight simply to make vaguely palatable wines. Sure, there were the stories about Roman viticulture in ancient Britain, about the hundreds of vineyards listed in the Domesday Book. You can dismiss these as PR and hype: back then, when wine deteriorated (and very quickly) from the moment of fermentation, proximity to the market trumped any pretences about appellation.
Today England has a booming wine industry, one which is anticipating even greater opportunities if and when Brexit becomes a reality. Probably the country’s most successful category is fizz, with vineyards planted to champagne varieties on exactly the same chalk soils that contribute to Champagne’s flavour profile. English bubbly, competing against any number of reputable French producers in credible northern Hemisphere competitions, regularly takes home the trophy for the best sparkling wine.
Chapel Down is one of a handful of brands which has come to dominate the English fizz market. With around 10 hectares of vineyard in Kent, it has become the go-to source of wine for occasions like royal weddings (including the wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton), Downing Street receptions and the horse races at Ascot.
We have managed to source a small quantity of the cellar’s standard cuvée for South African wine lovers curious taste one of the new benchmarks in the world of fine wine.
He asked of a worker “what is this palace?” only to receive the not very useful reply “the gardens for M. de Estournel’s herds of beef.”
He was understandably confused: the exotic Asian appearance of the buildings is like nothing else in the Medoc, a folly which cost so much that there was no money left over for the Chateau (and which is why, for many years, the wines were known only as Cos d’Estournel and not Chateau Cos d’Estournel.) The property is situated right next door to Chateau Lafite Rothschild, a so-called “Super Second” whose wines attract prices which place them above most other Seconds, but still safely enough below those of its immediate neighbour.
Given the location of its vineyards, the elevation of Cos to the rarefied space between the Seconds and the Firsts in the last few decades of the 20th century now seems obvious: however, even 40 years back the estate was hardly known outside the circles of Medoc aficionados: in the early 1970s you could buy the 1961 vintage for R6-75 – less than the price of a current release Cuvée Prestige. Twenty-five years later a bottle of the equally impressive 1982 was already fetching $100 – in effect one hundred times more than the 1961 vintage a quarter of a century earlier.
What changed all this was firstly the extraordinary investment in time and passion of erstwhile proprietor Bruno Prats. The best terroir in the world is worth nothing if you do not optimise its potential, and then share the results with wine enthusiasts around the world. Meticulous viticulture and rigorous fruit selection changed the profile of the property. Today Cos is rightly regarded as one of the top ten estates of the Medoc. The fact that Bruno Prats is now a shareholder at Klein Constantia illustrates perfectly how at home he is wherever good wine is being produced and enjoyed.
Given the demand, securing stocks of mature good vintages of Cos has become increasingly difficult. It’s now almost impossible to assemble a small vertical of them, to taste and track its evolution. Recognising the problem, the estate has released a limited number of mixed vintage cases with wines ranging in age from 10 to 16 years. Three such cases have arrived in South Africa and comprise a bottle each of 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006 and 2008. They are offered on a first-come-first-served basis for…
At the time, the wine industry there was in its infancy – at least compared with what it has become today. There were fewer than 70 wineries, and all but five of these had been established since 1970. David Lett’s resounding success at the 1979 Wine Olympiades (organised by the French Gault-Millau magazine, and where his Eyrie Vineyards Pinot had beaten an impressive line-up of Burgundies) had been the catalyst for growth. Back in the late 1980s, it was possible to get to meet most of the main players – Lett, the Ponzis, David and Ginny Adelsheim – without even an appointment.
Much has changed since then: today there are well over 700 wineries, several owned by Burgundians seeking to expand their access to world-class Pinot sites. As Thibault Gagey said when Louis Jadot acquired its Resonance site in 2013, “We have done nothing but Burgundy for 150 years …. Burgundy is a small wine region so there are not so many opportunities to grow and we are entrepreneurs… we like to do new things, so we said, ‘why not go outside Burgundy and do something.’”
While it’s easy to explain why growers – especially dedicated Pinot producers – have hastened to the Pacific Northwest, it’s important to understand why consumers the world over are paying the price of a Premier Cru Burgundy for Oregon wines. At the beginning it was the combination of the exotic and the performance of the wines in blind tastings: Lett’s success in the Gault Millau tasting was more or less repeated a short while later, when Robert Drouhin cherry-picked an ultra-premium Burgundy selection and the Eyrie did even better, coming in a whisker behind a 1959 Chambolle Musigny.
Once Oregon’s claims to Pinot excellence were confirmed, it became the international appellation most likely to challenge Burgundian supremacy. This, in turn, encouraged growers to aim for ever higher quality, a course of action which became a self-fulfilling prophecy. The wines justified their prices, which in turn pushed up land values in the top appellations, notably the Willamette Valley and the Dundee Hills.
As a result Oregon Pinot Noir has become almost unobtainable (and ordinarily pretty much unaffordable) for Rand-locked consumers: since wines from outside the European Union also attract an additional 25% duty, the vinous rarities never come to market in South Africa. Now, pretty much for the first time, a small parcel of wine produced at the Louis Jadot Resonance winery in the Willamette Valley has been imported. For wine enthusiasts wanting to make up their own minds about Oregon’s challenge to the Cote d’Or, there may never again be an opportunity to sample Willamette Pinot without first mortgaging their homes…
Tannat is one such cultivar: unless you grew up with Madiran and the red wines from Basque country, or in Uruguay, where it is considered the national grape, it’s unlikely that you will find yourself with a compelling craving for its chunky tannins and its opaque vermillion hue. Australian sparkling shiraz is another example: you can be absolutely familiar with the variety and (quite separately) love great fizz but your mind simply cannot combine these two vinous treasures under a single aesthetic.
LOIRE VS. CAPE SAUVIGNON
Loire Sauvignon blanc is a slightly different issue: wine drinkers brought up on a diet of Cape Sauvignon are often never quite sure what to make of the greatest French examples: they are not green and grassy, like some of the more pyrazine-driven wines from Constantia, nor are they pumped with the passion-fruit and tropical notes of Elgin and Durbanville. In fact, unless they were crafted in the mock-Kiwi style recently adopted by some of Loire’s well-known producers as a counter to the international success of the best New Zealand examples, they seem a little too elusive, a little too refined, a little too nuanced to be easily comprehended. Only if you give up trying to position them somewhere on the South African spectrum will you allow yourself a chance to appreciate them in their own right.
Consider De Ladoucette’s Pouilly Fumé, the Comte Lafond Sancerre, or, if a really special occasion looms, the Baron de L. Their aromas are generally more floral – whiffs of honeysuckle and lemon blossom – and their palate is more linear, more precise, with curious blackcurrant-like notes (the French call this “cassis leaf”) and a more flinty, dry finish. It is, however, worth the effort to invest in this slightly reticent acquaintance – one you know deep down has much to give once you penetrate the reserve. Even Chardonnay aficionados – who have long forsworn any interest in Sauvignon as a variety – come to embrace their charms.
As a category, it had been contaminated by its history: the old platitude about Mateus – “not red, not white, not sweet, not dry, not wine, not water” had infected everything.
When life came back into the market, it did so through a sleight of hand: Boschendal Blanc de Noir was a rosé by another name, and it became one of the biggest selling premium wines in the South African market 30 years ago. Unfortunately, it attracted many less talented imitators – and so ten years later Blanc de Noirs was languishing exactly where rosé had been a few years earlier.
Then the strangest thing happened – perhaps because of climate change, perhaps because a new generation entered the wine market without the baggage of those who had come before them, perhaps because the fashion industry fell in love with Fifty Shades of Pink. Suddenly rosé was back with a vengeance, and the obvious place to look to for inspiration was Provence, where one brand dominates the scene like no other.
The Ott family has been making rosé in Provence for over a century. Pretty much single-handedly they have raised its image from “pleasant and easy-drinking” to what the French call “a gastronomic beverage.” Their three domaines, each with their own vineyards and their own wineries – these are estate wines, not brands – represent the acme of what can be done with Provence rosé.
Domaines Ott is the only rosé producer listed in the world’s top 100 wineries. It is also the only producer on that list the majority of whose production is sold in the country of origin – though not necessarily to the citizens of that country. As summer descends on the Cote d’Azur all the grand restaurants vie for their allocations – which sell out long before the end of the season, and at mark-ups which even fine dining establishments in Paris and Tokyo can only contemplate with envy.
You cannot stay on top of your game for more than a century by illusion alone. Anyone who has ever been lucky enough to taste a rosé from one of the Ott domaines – Clos Mireille, Chateau de Selle or Chateau Romassan – and to compare it with any number of the beautifully packaged trendy attempts to play in the same league will tell you immediately that even with a wine as subtle as a perfect Provençal rosé, you can tell the masterpiece from the imitation.
Only once every few centuries this creative force extends beyond national boundaries and transforms a whole category of wine. The legendary Dom Perignon is reputed (but this a matter of myth rather than of fact) to have discovered the secret of Champagne. (Those who prefer the truth to a good story now know that Christopher Merrett, a physician, and scientist in England, beat the famous Benedictine monk by over 30 years). That invention effectively created a new kind of beverage, one which transcends national boundaries and national cuisines.
There were several such figures in early modern times, partly because as trade between nations developed innovation was essential to meet the demands of foreign markets. For example, it was to make the wines of the Douro Valley palatable to customers in England that Port was developed. However, by the time the 20th century hove into view, it appeared that very little of such significance would ever again happen in the world of wine.
And so it might have been, had David Hohnen, the owner of Cape Mentelle in Margaret River, not looked eastwards and southwards to New Zealand’s South Island and decided that this would be the perfect location for growing Sauvignon blanc. In 1985 he harvested his first grapes from one of the first vineyards ever planted in Marlborough. His winemaker Kevin Judd could not believe the intensity and richness of the later harvested fruit: Cloudy Bay was so far south that its vintage only began when most of the rest of the Southern Hemisphere’s vintners had finished their fermentations and were ready to go on holiday.
Kevin Judd’s Cloudy Bay sauvignon blanc transformed the way people thought of the varietal. It transformed the way the world thought of New World wine. It transformed the New Zealand wine industry. When Kevin Judd crushed the first grapes harvested at Cloudy Bay the entire New Zealand wine industry was roughly the same size as the Vredendal Co-op. Since then it has grown five fold. Along the way sauvignon blanc, made to Kevin Judd’s original vision, has become the one varietal which wine drinkers from around the world identify as “the taste of New Zealand.”
Most wine enthusiasts never get to drink this authentic expression of Marlborough: worldwide demand means that every vintage is on allocation. South Africa’s annual share of Cloudy Bay Sauvignon Blanc is somewhere between 100 and 200 dozen…
The back labels of wine sold in South Africa come with mandatory health warnings. The slogan which seems to have been the choice of most producers and importers is “Alcohol is addictive.” No doubt this is true for people prone to addictive behaviour (though the same might then be said for chocolate, cayenne pepper and anti-social conduct). If you are unlikely to succumb to addiction – in the precise and medical sense of the word – you are still susceptible to the seductive properties of people, products and objects which contribute to your quality of life. You want to spend time with people you love, surrounded by the works of art you most enjoy and, if you love great beverages, you might choose to do this sipping Champagne or simply inhaling the aromas of great Burgundy.
I was lucky enough to have been introduced to fine wine at an early age. My parents had a good, though modest, cellar, and many of their friends served wines which today would be impossible for all but the wealthiest collectors to offer to their guests. I remember magnums of 1949 Clos des Lambrays on the table for mid-week dinners (They only cost R10-40 each in the early 1970s, making them slightly more than twice the price of Nederburg Selected Cabernet.) The most expensive wine on the Civil Service Wine Store price list in those days was Romanée-Conti (as it would be anywhere today). The 1966 vintage – then eight years old – cost R18-50 and the older (and better) 1964 slightly more.
In short, it was easy to get addicted to great Burgundy, and as a student whose standard tariff for extra maths lessons to matriculants was R7-00 per hour, it was easy arithmetic for me to convert teaching time into great wine at a very acceptable exchange rate. However, the moment when I knew that Burgundy had passed from the realms of flirtation to serious and passionate obsession was at dinner one September evening in 1972 when I had my first bottle of DRC Richebourg. Hugh Johnson’s first book – simply entitled “Wine” – had said that it would deliver aromas of allspice, cinnamon and cloves – which to my youthful mind seemed an improbable promise. How wrong I was – as the wine took more air, the aromatics transformed into the most haunting fragrance, spice, fruit and vinosity, woven into an elusive but utterly seductive bouquet. Like Dante’s momentary glimpse of Beatrice on the Pointe Vecchio, everything changed for me in that encounter. Burgundy still remains the primary object of this affection, though she allows me the promiscuity of all great wines, whatever their origin or variety.
It does not matter how frequently you visit the harsh and exacting landscape of the Douro, nor what time of the year you are there: it is stark and haunting. Perhaps because you know something of what to expect you believe you will be inured to it. So when you come across a place where the brutal stone and bleak vegetation is softened by a gentleness of spirit which imbues the terrain and the structures perched precariously upon it, all world-weariness is washed away.
You see it and you are taken by it.
QUINTA DO BOM RETIRO
This was my experience of the Quinta do Bom Retiro, high on the slopes above the Douro River in north-eastern Portugal. It’s not just the lagars, where the grapes are still foot-trodden by teams that work from eight in the morning until eleven at night, so that the best fruit is crushed so gently that none of the bitterness lurking in the pips ever contaminates the must; nor is it the ancient dry stone terraces clambering up the sheer sides of the mountain rising hundreds of metres above the river; it’s not to be explained by the old homestead which has survived, largely unrenovated, since it was built by the Ramos Pinto family as a place of “good retreat,” nor by the wizened vines clinging onto the crumbling slopes through the “nine months of winter and the three months of hell” – which is how the locals describe the climate.
It is in the resilience of the human spirit, which carved this place of extraordinary beauty from the most unlikely of raw materials, and has continued to make wines of such timeless splendour that it comes as no surprise to find blends whose component parts span three centuries, assembled by winemakers whose great-grandparents worked in the same cellars, seeking the satisfaction, the joy and the redemption which lies in the pursuit of perfection.
There are really only two kinds of Port wine: those which are made for bottle ageing (and therefore require a deferral of gratification) and those which are released more or less ready to drink, the young rubies, the late-bottled vintages and the aged tawnies. The declared vintages as well as the single estate vintages go from cask to bottle by the second spring after the harvest. All the other wines mature in cask until they are representative of the style described on the label. Bridging the two distinct styles are the late-bottled single vintages, released after an extended period in cask and therefore ready to drink, but still with enough intensity in reserve to gain in mellowness from time in the bottle.
Ramos Pinto is quite unlike the ever-diminishing number of British-owned Port houses (all but three of which are now controlled by multinationals). It was founded in 1880 by Adriano Ramos Pinto who began the business as a negociant before acquiring his own estate. All of the wines are still finished, blended and matured in Vila Nova de Gaia, the town opposite Oporto where the north facing slopes have provided almost all of the shippers with the cool and humid cellars essential for the ageing of fine Ports. Although the business is still run and the wine is still made by the founders’ descendants, control of the company passed in 1990 to the Rouzaud family of Champagne Louis Roederer.
Ramos Pinto focuses much of its efforts on its aged tawnies and its offering of 10, 20 and 30-year old tawnies has come to be regarded as one of the treasures of the Port wine trade. All are ready to drink, with the Ten-Year-Old the most vibrant, the Twenty-Year-Old the most harmonious and the Thirty-Year-Old the most silken and lace-like. All share in common an endless longevity, even when open, for unlike the vintage-style Ports (which must be consumed within a day of opening) the Tawnies have reached a state of perfect stability in the cask.
For those who seek the richness and youthful intensity of a single vintage Port, the Late Bottled Vintage wines – available across a number of vintages – would be your best bet.
Consumption/consummation involves titillation, sensual pleasure, gratification. With both there are the charms of monogamy and the excitement of promiscuity. They also have their points of difference: the risk-to-pleasure ratio favours Champagne as does its cost efficiency: however much you invest in a great bottle, only to be disappointed, it’s nothing compared with what Paul McCartney had to spend to extricate himself from a loveless marriage. Finally, while the connection may not be immediately evident – but believe me it is there – Winston Churchill’s great adage about alcohol applies: “I have taken more out of alcohol than alcohol has taken out of me.”
It may come as a surprise to fizzophiles, but there are actually people who don’t “get” Champagne. They see it as harsh, acidic, austere, the kind of reach-for-a-Rennies beverage which gives wine a bad name. For them there is some easy to apply advice “Get your doctor to put you on Nexiam and get over your anxiety about heartburn.” Once you recognise that life without Champagne would be immensely poorer (even poorer than you would be from a lifetime of Champagne indulgence) it’s safe to say that you will discover that Champagne is the best and longest downhill roller-coaster ride you can buy, and worth every skid and corner on the way.
A WORTHY WINE
Firstly, it is a remarkable wine: made in huge, seemingly industrial cellars or in tiny producer caves, it can be frivolous and simple in its youth, complex and intense with bottle age, nutty and haunting at the peak of greatness. While most branded Champagnes are made with fruit sourced from a great number of growers, two of the great houses – Louis Roederer and Bollinger – exercise considerable control over their fruit sources. Roederer owns the vast majority of the vineyards from which its wines are made (the top cuvees like Cristal are 100% estate grapes) and manages the farming where it does buy from growers, so that now even the Brut Premier has a high percentage of bio-dynamically grown grapes.
MÉTHODE CHAMPENOISE PERFECTED
Secondly, while the Champagne method as well as the geographical origin are the legal definition of the beverage, there are hundreds of different approaches to assembling the final wine. Bollinger stores still wine in magnums (thousands of them) and adds some of this back every year when the base wine is assembled. Benoit Lahaye makes his Rose from the maceration of the fruit; Jean-Manuel Jacquinot’s Rose Champagne is a blanc des noirs. Krug, Roederer, Bollinger and Gosset have always included an oaked component in their base wine, while other houses prefer the neutrality of stainless steel.
Thirdly, while the vast proportion of all champagnes are consumed within a 12 month period of their sale into the trade, almost all improve with bottle age – and some, like Cristal, for example – need at least ten years to reveal anything like their full complexity. Great Champagnes are great wines – they evolve with age, acquiring nuance and detail with the elapse of time. We don’t often get a chance to sample this age-worthiness because they’re so enjoyable consumed young – but if you are lucky enough to drink a fabulous bottle thirty to fifty years old (or one of the rare discoveries buried somewhere in a cellar for over a century), there are few wines more likely to change your world view.
LET IT LIE
So, if you served a fine bottle of Rose champagne to your wife/girlfriend/boyfriend/mistress/member-of-parliament on Valentine’s Day, that’s fine – but lay down a few bottles of the best fizz for a time, well into the future, when you’re in need a life-changing wine experience.
Michael Fridjhon recently returned to Marques de Riscal in Rioja after 25 years and came away hugely impressed by the quality of the wines despite the increase in production.
Hotel Marques de Riscal, a contemporary luxury retreat created by Frank Gehry where spectacular design, art, wine, gastronomy and landscape all play a part.
Wine and time coexist in a kind of paradoxical juxtaposition. Some bottles need the length of a human lifetime to reach their peak, others are as transient as the seasons. In some places, Georgia for example, wine is made using ancient techniques. In Bordeaux, even the best known – and most prestigious – estates are compelled to invest in massively expensive upgrades to achieve infinitesimal gains, simply to maintain their competitive edge.
We like to believe in the certainties of ancient wisdom, the truths which have acquired the stature of gospel – while at the same time we watch how knowledge and technology subvert “laws” which were once etched into the foundation stones of production sites. We celebrate natural yeast fermentation (without ever inquiring whether the ambient yeasts are any different from the commercial selections previously used at the cellar) because there is a promise of tradition and craft. We love the idea of winemaker’s intuition and yet we admire winery laboratories designed to ensure that cellarmasters can go about their work with absolute precision. In the midst of all these apparent contradictions, the one abiding truth we cling to is that it is not possible to increase volumes without a commensurate decrease in quality.
This law – of the inverse relationship between quantity and quality – is as much part of our DNA (nothing is gained without loss) as it is of the winemaker’s canon. So when I visited Marques de Riscal for the first time in about 25 years – and saw the extent to which the business has been transformed, in size, in range, and in the volumes produced, I was more than a little astonished. My initial thought was that its expansion from the original 19th-century winery and cellars to a modern behemoth could only have been achieved at the expense of the wine, a classic Rioja which has been the most famous name in Spanish wine around 150 years.
My tasting experience of the wines, over much the same period, contradicted this. At no stage did I feel as if the winemakers had over-commercialised the wines in the standard range? The annual releases of the Reserva had been consistent while the Gran Reservas I had sampled or cellared were equally impressive. In fact, my impression of the fabulous 2005 is that it will equal the 1994 – of which I have only a few bottles left. This left me with trying to reconcile apparently contradictory information – the more so once I chatted with Francisco Hurtado de Amézaga, the chief winemaker and a direct descendant of the founder of the business.
I discovered that over the period in question the overall volumes of Riscal wines had increased by 75%, while the range itself had seen the addition of several (admittedly small production) cuvées, most notably the 150th Anniversary Gran Reserva and the Frank Gehry special selection. Since these two additional products had been added to the top of the brand pyramid, there seemed the inevitable risk that whatever choice fruit had been put aside to create these vinous masterpieces would necessarily reduce the average quality of the wines into which the grapes had previously been blended. These assumptions did not survive the empirical experience of a day spent tasting there. From the whites which come from the Rueda cellar to the Tempranillo-based reds from Rioja, no single wine within the range appeared to be of a lesser quality than anything I had sampled in the past two decades.
For some of this there was an obvious explanation: amongst the whites from Rueda the newly introduced “Bio” Verdejo had a plushness and dimension quite unlike the standard cuvées with which I was familiar. In my experience, this added quality is partly the result of the extra attention which goes into the management of organic vineyards which might account for the palpable difference in quality.
The same argument cannot apply when it comes to the premium finely oaked white releases (wines like the Finca Montico and Baron de Chirel Viñas Centenarias) though here you might argue that the best fruit had been selected for these more highly priced reserve wines. Had that been the case, you might have expected that the standard Rueda would have emerged that much more emaciated, more two-dimensional and with less fruit intensity. This wasn’t the case, and there’s no ready explanation except that greater care in the vineyards and better fruit processing has made the overall gain possible.
When it comes to the reds, however, the sheer arithmetic appears to be stacked against the application of this theory. In 1995 the combined production of the Elciego (Rioja) cellar and Rueda (white wines) was six million bottles. Today, it is 10.5m bottles, with six million alone in the new, high-tech Elciego winery which crushed its first vintage in 2000. You can’t maintain quality and increase production by these percentages without other factors playing a key role in your success.
Some of the explanation is instantly evident the moment the technical staff take you through the new facility. Until the upgrade, the best wines of Marques de Riscal were produced in two buildings which had been built in the 1860s and 1880s, using technology which had been state-of-the-art in the 19th century. When I visited in the early 1990s, the working space was cramped but this didn’t seem an impediment as long as it could accommodate what needed to be done, for the volumes going into the market at that time. I was glad I didn’t have to manage the 3,900 barrels housed in that confined space, but the comfort of winery workers never features very highly in the considerations of the commercial team. When you consider the current production volumes and compare them to what was being handled then, the new facilities were inevitable.
As you watch the team in action it becomes obvious that only by creating a massive new cellar could more wine, of better quality, be made by fewer people in the new working environment. There’s a simple of way of looking at why the new space makes for improved winemaking. The 37,000 barrels (a ten-fold increase) are racked every three months in the first year (and once or twice thereafter). This means that the clear wine must be drawn off the lees of one barrel and into another receptacle. The old barrel must then be thoroughly cleaned, steamed and sulphured before wine can be put back into it – 37,000 times every three months. The sheer physical movement of barrels, wine, and cleaning equipment needs height, space, volume. In the cramped 19th century winery where barrels cannot be stacked more than three-high, the sheer logistics become impossible.
The new Marques de Riscal is like the old business but on steroids. It is bigger and better, with greater range, more modern vinifications, more precise fruit notes, and the same or better maturation potential. Less has been left to chance, more happens under the direct watch of a winemaking team which has been augmented by access to the latest technology. All this is counter-intuitive to those brought up in the belief that small is beautiful. The current releases are luminous proof that the seemingly impossible can be achieved.