Monday, 30 April 2012

Champagne Bollinger in pictures

After lunching on lemony scallops in a natural wine bar in Paris, we arrived at the impressive Bollinger HQ in Aÿ, made more magnificent by a bright blue, cloudless sky. Founded in 1829, the company is one of the last Champagne houses to still be family-owned, remaining under the watchful eye of Madame Lily Bollinger from 1941-1971. The majority of the grapes that go into Bollinger's cuvées come from Grand Cru and Premier Cru villages, as we were soon to find out...

Dropping our bags off, we hopped in a 4x4 and were taken on a tour of the Bollinger vineyards. Unusually in Champagne, the company owns 60% of its vineyards, 60% of which are planted with Pinot Noir and 40% with Chardonnay, as Bollinger favours the richness and body Pinot Noir brings to the blend. The little house you can see in the distance is for the grape growers and pickers to take shelter in when it rains. They also serve as a water source, as each are home to a well.

Striking a pose in front of a very special vineyard: Clos des Chaudes Terres, meaning the clos of warm earth – a walled, ungrafted, 100% Pinot Noir vineyard worked by hand behind Bollinger HQ in Aÿ, which, along with the neighbouring Clos St Jacques, nurture the Pinot grapes for the incredibly special Bollinger Vieilles Vignes Français, of which only 2,000 bottles are made in exceptional vintages.

No mention of Bollinger would be complete without a hat tip to James Bond. At the entrance to the house behind glass is one of the famous Bollinger Bond Walther PPK bullet Champagne coolers made to celebrate the launch of Quantum of Solace. Over dinner, president Jérôme Philipon admitted that Bollinger's association with the secret agent was helping to boost sales of the brand in Asia, and revealed that the company will launch a couple of Bond-branded bottlings this October to coincide with the Skyfall premiere in London.

From bullets to cars – I spotted this rather fetching Bollinger branded Mini in the Bolly HQ car park.

Having watched Bollinger's award winning master cooper in action, noisily hammering one of their French oak barrels into shape, I took a moment to enjoy the sunshine streaming into the courtyard.

Later that day, we were treated to dinner at Madame Bollinger's house, which has been kept exactly the same as when she lived in it, kicking off the evening with a chilled glass of Grand Cuvée. If you look closely, you'll spot our affable host, Elizabeth Ferguson of Mentzendorff.

The scene is set for our night of revelry 

I spotted a pair of wild boar heads proudly mounted on the drawing room wall – legend has it that wild boar still roam the forests of Champagne. I failed to spot any on my visit, but I did hear an ominous rustling coming from the woods next to Bollinger's highest vines.

Kate Powell, aka The Wine Chick, got a shock when she lifted what she thought was a prayer chair prettifying Madame Bollinger's drawing room and found an adult potty – curiouser and curiouser.

Bollinger president Jérôme Philipon holds court over dinner with his ebullient harem. He can be seen pouring a bottle of the near-mythical Vieilles Vignes 1997, which he presented as a blind tasting. 

Our feast kicked off in earnest with a delectable starter of crab cake in a yuzu (Japanese citrus) and coriander sauce decorated with salad leaves and an edible yellow pansy. Such a wonderful start to the meal, the yuzu lifted the crab and gave the dish a lovely freshness, while the accompanying La Grande Année Rosé 2004 had its own floral characterisitcs, along with notes of wild strawberry and mint. 

Next up were silky, crispy slithers of red mullet in a creamy sauce paired with La Grande Année 2002. The richness of the cream sauce paired wonderfully with the rich, biscuity 2002 - one of the greatest Champagne vintages in living memory. 

Dessert was a raspberry tart on a sesame biscuit base with vanilla mousse and a strawberry macaroon. Exquisitely presented, the textured biscuit base complemented the sharp tang of the raspberries, which in turn paired beautifully with the summer fruit-filled NV Rosé.

My food and wine pairing of the night however, was the Bernard Anthony aged Comté with Bollinger R.D. 1995. Words cannot do justice to the majesty of the pairing, the grainy, nutty, almost toffee-like Comté holding its own against the might of the rich, intense, hazlenut-filled R.D. Both the cheese and the Champagne displayed an almost Sherry-like sweetness and complemented each other so cleverly. It remains my ultimate food and wine match, which I doubt can ever be bettered. 

Our final treat was a glass of the super rare Bollinger Vieilles Vignes Françaises 1997, which Jérôme was incredibly kind to open. I'd dropped a large number of hints about my desire to try it on Twitter, though never believed I actually would. The nose was unlike any Champagne I've ever tried: savoury, earthy, intense and truffly; the Pinot Noir really showed through. On the palate, it seemed more like a still wine and had a real vinous character, the earthiness remaining, along with the slight presence of tannin and an incredibly long and pleasing nutty finish. Drinking it at Madame Bollinger's house only heightened the enjoyment of this rough diamond. 

After all that excitement, it was time for bed, and what more fitting way to sleep, having been treated like a princess, than in a four poster bed. I could get used to being under Bollinger's wing. Waking up the next morning, I had to be dragged onto the Eurostar back to London.

Sunday, 29 April 2012

Vin de Constance to take on Sauternes

South African estate Klein Constantia’s new managing director is on a mission to pit its flagship sweet wine – Vin de Constance – against the best wines from Sauternes. “We want to benchmark ourselves against the best sweet wines in the world and go up against the likes of Château d’Yquem in the quality stakes,” Hans Astrom told the drinks business during a visit to London this week. Astrom plans to achieve this by focusing on strict selection: “We’re averaging around 15 hectolitres per hectare for Vin de Constance, which is incredibly low, so our prices will have to reflect this leap in quality,” he said. 

“We’ve started picking the Muscat de Frontignan berry by berry, so no sub-standard grapes sneak into the wine. We want to separate the good eggs from the rotten eggs,” he added. Astrom is unafraid of getting rid of wines from the estate’s portfolio if he doesn’t deem them good enough. “We’re discontinuing our Riesling next year for exactly that reason. I’d rather have a few high quality wines that a load of mediocre ones."

To assist his quality quest, he’s enlisted the help of go-to viticulturalist Rosa Kruger, who has worked for the likes of Eben Sadie, Solms-Delta and Rupert and Rothschild. 2012 will be the estate’s latest harvest in 30 years. “All the Muscat for Vin de Constance is still hanging on the vines a month later than it should be, it’s a risk, but if it pays off we’ll have one of the most concentrated wines we’ve ever made.” The company is expecting an abundant harvest this year, resulting in around 30,000 bottles of Vin de Constance compared to last year’s 10,000.

“Despite its name, the yields for Vin de Constance are very inconstant and vary hugely from year to year.” Astrom was made managing director of the company in January by new owners Charles Harman and Zdenek Bakala. Once voted Sweden's best sommelier, before joining Klein Constantia he was general manager for Hess Family Estates. Now installed, he’s keen to shake thing up, believing the family-owned company had become complacent.

“It’s easy for family companies to relax and fall into routines. It’s better now it’s not South African-owned. The new owners wanted a cage-rattling renegade and I’m on a mission to wake up the sleeping beauty, blow the dust off and restore it to its former glory,” he said. One of his big aims is to build up the Vin de Constance back catalogue by buying back old bottles at auction. “The farm didn’t save any wines so I’m having to buy back our liquid history. We’ve managed to get hold of a few bottles from the 1800s,” he revealed.

Astrom reports surprising levels of interest in Vin de Constance in France, given its own supply of Sauternes. “I have people writing to me every day wanting to taste Napoleon’s favourite wine. The Napoleon connection is a great sales driver for us,” he admitted. The French emperor was said to have drunk Vin de Constance every day in the week leading up to his death. Klein Constantia lies in the Constantia valley – the oldest vineyard region in the Cape. 

Friday, 27 April 2012

White House gatecrasher sued over wine tours

Virginia's attorney general, Ken Cuccinelli, has filed a lawsuit against the White House party crasher Tareq Salahi, claiming he defrauded customers who bought wine tours from his website, As reported on, Salahi and his then-wife Michaele gained notoriety in 2009 when they gatecrashed a White House state dinner hosted by president Obama for Indian prime minister Manmohan Singh.

The controversial stunt landed the pair on reality TV show The Real House Wives of D.C. for a season. The lawsuit, filed on Monday in Fauquier County Circuit Court, accuses Salahi and his Virginia Wine Tourism Inc. and Celebration Entertainment Productions LLC of not delivering promised tours, not providing refunds for cancelled tours and misrepresenting businesses as “official partners.” Some customers reported their tours were cancelled the morning they were scheduled to begin due to a "vehicle malfunction.”

Others complained they were not taken to the wineries they were promised, that the mode of transportation wasn't what was advertised, or that that refunds, even those promised in writing, were never delivered. Cuccinelli said displayed logos of several businesses, including United Airlines and Facebook, but that he had reason to believe that many, if not all, were not official partners.

Salahi is the sole director and presumed sole owner of Virginia Wine Tourism and the presumed sole member and manager of Celebration Entertainment Productions. The companies offer winery tours through ranging from $200 to $1,350 per day. An attorney who represented Salahi in the past has not returned messages seeking comment. 

Thursday, 26 April 2012

Sula opens first wine bar in Mumbai

Rajeev Samant, founder of Indian winery Sula Vineyards, has opened his first wine and tapas bar – Vinoteca by Sula – in Mumbai. Inspired by Spain’s neighbourhood wine bars, Spanish chef Silvia Grimaldo will serve a selection of authentic tapas and pintxos, alongside the full range of Sula wines. Decked out with Burgundy walls and wooden flooring, the 50-seater bar in Mumbai’s Worli district features an outside seating area and a quirky light installation made from empty Sula Riesling bottles and candle bulbs.
Picking up on the international trend for sharing plates, Samant decided to focus on tapas and pintxos made from fresh seasonal produce and organic ingredients sourced from Sula’s gardens. Menu highlights include calamari in aïoli, grilled kingfish in a garlic and tomato salsa, quinoa salad with walnuts, feta and figs, patatas bravas and berenjena rellena – grilled aubergine filled with minced lamb. Each tapa comes with a suggested Sula wine pairing.
Desserts include chocolate truffles with wine-laced cream centres and wine-infused sorbets and ice creams, including lemon sorbet spiked with Sula Sauvignon Blanc. In addition to Sula’s entire range, the wine list features labels from Spain and Italy, and Champagnes such as Dom Pérignon, Veuve Cicquot and Piper-Heidsieck. Signature drinks include a sparkling sangria made from Grimaldo’s family recipe, and a dry martini-infused hot chocolate spiced with chilli.
Both wines by the glass and dishes start at 200 rupees. “We have made an effort and kept our menu moderately priced for the quality,” said Grimaldo. Sula Vineyards in Nashik – India’s largest grape growing region 180km northeast of Mumbai, was founded by Rajeev Samant in 1999. It was the first estate to introduce international varieties such as Sauvignon Blanc, Zinfandel and Riesling to India.

Wednesday, 25 April 2012

Nigeria develops thirst for wine

The value of Nigeria's wine industry is expected to reach US$370 million by 2015, as Nigerians develop a thirst for high end wine and spirits, as reported on "Many global luxury brands have entered the Nigerian market, including several well known spirits and Champagne brands, which are being embraced by the country's affluent consumers,” said Sue Birch of Wines of South Africa. 

With a wine market currently valued at US$300m a year, volume sales in Nigeria are expected to grow by 6% a year, with red wine accounting for 74% of sales. WOSA is keen to tap into this growth: "We know anecdotally from a number producers that there is a robust appetite for premium and high-end South African wines in Nigeria," Birch said. South African wine exports to Nigeria grew by 12% for the 12 months to March 2012.

"Europe holds the lion's share of the Nigerian market with 60% of volumes sales, but South Africa is the next biggest player with a 22% by volume share," said Sapta Bhattacharyya, associate vice president of global research company Aranca. Bhattacharyya estimates that 5.2m people, representing the top 10% of earners among the 156m population, account for 43% of wine consumption in the country. "This is the group to target," he said.

With most economic activity taking place in Nigeria's key cities of Lagos, Abuja, Kano, Kaduna, Onitsha and Port Harcourt, potential wine markets are being identified and developed with luxury hotels and restaurants catering to the affluent consumers in these areas. All of WOSA's marketing efforts will be concentrated on the south, non-Muslim regions of the country. Home to the second largest economy in Africa, Nigeria will be the world's fourth most populous nation by 2050.

Monday, 23 April 2012

Wregg: The majority of natural wines can’t age

Flag bearer for the natural wine movement Doug Wregg has admitted he doesn’t think the majority of natural wines can age. “60-80% of natural wine should be drunk within the first year, after that they fall apart,” the director of sales and marketing for Les Caves de Pyrène told the drinks business. “Most of the wines are light, pale, fizzy and fun. They’re meant for wine bars rather than cellars. It’s a miracle when something lovely happens in the bottle a few years down the line, but I wouldn’t bet my house on it,” he added.

Wregg disagrees with French and Italian natural wine importer Giuseppe Mascoli’s opinion that natural wine is “not for the masses,” as reported on Wine and the City. “Natural wine is for the masses. It’s not in any way intellectual or hard to understand – the wines are incredibly simple and easy to understand,” he said. He also revealed that he’s in no hurry for natural wine to get an official definition.

“I’m really against the idea of an official definition – I don’t think it would have any traction, so I can’t see the point of it. Having to adhere to a certain set of criteria would suffocate the freedom of the winemakers. I wouldn’t like the whole movement to be codified. Plus, the debate surrounding the natural wine movement has generated a lot of interest because of this lack of an official definition,” he admitted.

With regards to organic and biodynamic wine, he blasted the term organic as “meaningless,” due to the multitude of different definitions around the world. “I’m relaxed about the language surrounding natural wine – I use the terms organic and biodynamic interchangeably,” he quipped. He also spoke of his constant need to defend criticism of natural wine from the trade: “It’s turned into a playground fight – the wine bloggers are ripping their hair out."

Wregg is to host a natural, organic and biodynamic fair – The Real Wine Fairat Victoria House in Holborn on 20-22 May, which will go head-to-head with Isabelle Legeron’s RAW wine fair on 20-21 May at the Old Truman Brewery in Brick Lane.

Sunday, 22 April 2012

Bordeaux en primeur 2011 in pictures

Sunset at Château Cheval Blanc on the flower-filled roof of its new gravity-led winery designed by Christian de Portzamparc. Drinking in the view of St Emilion and Pomerol from the roof, the slowly dipping sun bathing the vines in golden light, was unforgettable.

The sun dips further at Cheval Blanc, turning the trees into inky silhouettes. Walking around, I noticed a tiny private chapel and orangery. Fellow wine writer Margaret Rand snuck off into the gardens to forage for giant pine cones to bedeck a pair of headless sculptures in her London home.

Lagging behind, I got to capture the pilgrimage up to the roof of Cheval Blanc's new state-of-the-art winery. Costing €13m, its breathable walls are made from a material called mashrabiya that facilitates natural ventilation. Rioja's reputation as the wine world's architectural capital could be under threat.

Once inside, managing director Pierre Lurton treated us to five of the LVMH-owned company's wines, including Cheval Blanc 2011 and Château d'Yquem 2011 – my favourite wine of en primeur week. The sweet, honeyed, golden elixir was so unctuous and generous on the palate, with uplifting tropical notes of pineapple, orange blossom and mandarin, and yet at the same time so deliciously fresh.

On my first visit to Cheval Blanc two years ago, I stumbled upon a drawing room where this little mutt was given pride of place. Not knowing the circumstances, a painted dog in a frame seemed strange. Enquiring about him on my recent visit, I was told the dog was something of a hero at Cheval, famous for biting all-powerful American wine critic Robert Parker when he came to taste at the property.

Continuing the dog theme, I made friends with this adorable pooch – Willy – during lunch at Château Troplong Mondot. The lunch was an event in itself: huge slabs of foie gras and comte cheese washed down with vintage Sauternes. The highlight though, was the unisex loo and the confusion it caused. I could have bottled the look on the Chinese guy's face when he opened the door and found me washing my hands.

The infamous statue of St Peter, the first Pope, with the key to the city of Rome in his hand, at Château Pétrus in Pomerol. Both Peter and Petrus mean stone in Latin, and the Château gets its name from a clay hill near the estate in Pomerol called Petrus because it goes as hard as stone in the sun. I was lucky enough to try the 2011 vintage on my visit and was impressed by its approachability and freshness.

The wisteria-filled façade and manicured lawns of first growth Château Lafite in Pauillac. I was treated to a tasting of both Lafite 2011 and second wine Carruades de Lafite. During the tasting, Domaines Barons de Rothschild managing director Christophe Salin revealed that Lafite would release early and low this year. They came out this week at €420 a bottle ex-negociant.

While tasting at Lafite, I chanced upon this pretty portrait of Betty de Rothschild painted by Ingres in 1848. Betty had recently married her banker uncle, James Mayer de Rothschild, making her one of the wealthiest women in northern Europe. Described as "perhaps one of the most sumptuous yet approachable images of mid-nineteenth century opulence," it is considered one of Ingres' best works.

Heading to Cos d'Estournel in St Estephe, I was greeted by this stone elephant – the estate's motif – in the courtyard. Inside Cos' exotic interior, which looks more like a five star hotel in Oman than a winery, manager Jean-Guillaume Prats told me the story behind the elephant connection. In the early 19th century, the maharaja of India gifted the then head of the property a pair of elephants, which were brought to Bordeaux and used in the region's first polo match between Cos and neighbouring Château Lafite.

One of many stretched limos gracing the gravely drives of the top châteaux during en primeur week. But who were they for?

A fuchsia pink clad Margaret Rand stops to take a whiff of wisteria before entering Ausone. 

Ausone was positively pregnant with heavenly lilac wisteria. Only in bloom fleetingly, I couldn't resist capturing the moment. 

One of Château Pontet Canet's troop of horses busy at work ploughing the vineyard. 

Can you guess where I spotted this quirky light fixture?

Having enjoyed a hairy golf buggy ride to Château Mouton Rothschild, I was greeted by this fine pair of rams in the art-filled entrance. I also picked up a Lucian Freud 2006 label postcard for €2.50. If only the 2011 vintage were as good value...

The final stop on my whistle-stop tour took me to fairytale castle Pichon Baron. Inside, I was treated to the sweet golden elixir Château Suduiraut, poured by Chrisitan Seely himself. 

We were invited by wild-haired wine rock star Hurbert de Bouard to party in Château Angelus' fermentation room, filled with space age stainless steel tanks hovering from the ceiling like daleks.

Us, reflected.

Travel buddies Richard Bampfield MW and Chris Kissack were a barrel of laughs. After his third glass of Angelus, Richard developed an irrational fondness for Hubert de Bouard's egg-shaped barrel. 

Friday, 20 April 2012

Eurythmics star Dave Stewart releases wine

Former Eurythmics star Dave Stewart has become the latest celebrity vintner after teaming up with McLaren Vale estate Mollydooker on a limited edition bottling. As reported on, Ringmaster General Shiraz 2010, named after title of Stewart's upcoming album, is priced at £78. The 15.5% abv wine is a repackaged version of the Australian estate’s Carnival of Love Shiraz 2010, which is barrel-fermented and matured in 100% new American oak.
Lisa Perotti-Brown of The Wine Advocate describes the wine as having: “An intense scent of blueberry preserves, creme de cassis and warm black cherries with an undercurrent of baking spices, licorice, mocha, vanilla, toast and eucalypt.” Suggested food pairings on the Mollydooker site include kangaroo and chocolate fondue. A bottle of the wine can be seen in the rocker's new video for Girl In A Catsuit.

“It has been an absolute pleasure working with such a creative and talented man as Dave Stewart,” said Mollydooker owners Sarah and Sparky Marquis. “Sarah and Sparky are the flying trapeze artists of the wine world and I’m so honoured to collaborate with them on Ringmaster General Shiraz,” Stewart added. The wine comes in a gift box, which includes the new album and a documentary on the making of The Ringmaster General and Stewart’s critically acclaimed 2011 album The Blackbird Diaries.
Post Eurythmics, Sunderland-born singer/songwriter Stewart has enjoyed considerable success as a solo artist, working with the likes of Ringo Star, Mick Jagger, Jon Bon Jovi and Bryan Ferry. In 2010 he penned the non-fiction book The Business Playground on the importance of creativity in business. Stewart is married to Dutch photographer Anoushka Fisz with whom he has two daughters.

Thursday, 19 April 2012


During my whistle-stop tour of Bordeaux for en primeur 2011 earlier this month, I was lucky enough to taste Château Pétrus 2011 with wine writer Margaret Rand in front of the iconic statue of Saint Peter at the famed Pomerol estate. Click on the video to find out our impressions of the wine, and the Bordeaux 2011 vintage in general.

Wednesday, 18 April 2012

Petits châteaux big winners of 2011 vintage

The high performing petits châteaux in Bordeaux could be the biggest winners of the 2011 en primeurs campaign, according to a leading Bordeaux négociant. “It’s a year to seek out the lesser-known properties – I’ll be looking out for the high scoring petits châteaux,” Jean-Christophe Mau of Yvon Mau told the drinks business. Mau believes the role of the négociant in steering consumers towards the best wines of the vintage in terms of quality and value will be more important than ever this year. “The quality is not there across the board like it was in 2009 and 2010,” he admitted.

Despite being in the shadow of 2009 and 2010, Mau doesn’t think it will be harder to shift the 2011 wines: “It all depends on the prices they come out at,” he said, adding, “It will be easier for us to get hold of stock this year as there will be less speculative buyers.” Mau believes the role of the courtier (the middle man between the individual châteaux and the négociants) is becoming “less and less” important. “Only around 10% of courtiers are doing a useful job, the rest are just there to take their 2% from us and sign on the dotted line.

They serve their purpose in helping the petits châteaux find buyers, but the classified growths really don’t need them. It’s a very antiquated system,” he lamented. Mau (right), who splits his time between Yvon Mau and running both Château Brown and Château Preuillac, admitted he was going to be more selective about the châteaux he buys from this year, pinpointing the Médoc as the standout region in terms of quality.

Meanwhile, Bruno Eynard, chief winemaker of Château Lagrange, which hosted the UGC Pauillac, St Julien and St Estephe tasting during primeurs week, was pleasantly surprised at the turnout for this year’s primeurs. “We had over 4,000 people through our doors in three days, which is almost as many as last year’s UGC tasting. He noted a higher proportion of visitors from Europe and the US this year, and less from Asia, along with a “surprisingly high” number of Brazilian visitors.

Eynard revealed that his 2011 crop at Lagrange was down 20% and said it was “ridiculous” to compare 2011 with the quality of both 2009 and 2010, but that producers who got it right made “approachable, easy drinking, balanced wines with finesse.” He described St Julien as the most homogenous of the Bordeaux regions in 2011 and Margaux as the most disparate. In terms of pricing, he warned of the dangers of abusing the good will of consumers with a second year of late releases, predicting the majority of châteaux to have come out with their prices by the second week of May.

Tuesday, 17 April 2012

Cannabis wine catching on in California

A number of California winemakers are secretly producing wines laced with cannabis, with Cabernet Sauvignon the grape variety of choice for the blend, reports. “Pot wine is increasingly fashionable in wine country – much of the marijuana used for the wine comes from California’s weed capital Humboldt County,” Crane Carter, president of the Napa Valley Marijuana Growers said. “Cabernet Sauvignon from the Stag’s Leap district is thought to pair particularly well with pot,” Carter added.

According to Carter, pot wine delivers a quicker high than pot brownies, and the combination of alcohol and marijuana produces “an interesting little buzz.” He believes cannabis wine has a bright future in Napa, but for the moment, producers are making the wine in small quantities to be shared in “convivial moments with like-minded people,” according to wine writer Mike Steinberger.

Offered a cannabis cuvée at a Burgundy dinner in New York, Steinberger describes it as having “a pungent herbal aroma that called to mind a college dormitory on a Saturday night – that, or a Grateful Dead concert.” One Californian producer, who chose not to be named, said cannabis-laced wine is “the only truly original style of wine created in the New World.” He is just one of a number of winemakers on the Central Coast who are blending two of California’s most prized crops.

To make cannabis wine, one pound of marijuana is dropped into a cask of fermenting wine, which yields around 1.5 grams of pot per bottle; the better the raw materials, the better the wine. The alcohol from the fermentation process extracts the THC – the major psychoactive compound – from marijuana. Some producers opt for maximum extraction, keeping the wine in barrel for nine months before bottling it. In the ‘80s, weed wine was typically made with rosé, with bottles selling for more than US$100 due to the legal risk involved.

Today, possession of one ounce (28.5g) or less of marijuana in California is punishable by a maximum US$100 fine with no criminal record. Medical marijuana was legalised in the state in 1996. Cultivation of any amount of marijuana is a felony, though people who grow for personal use are eligible for diversion so long as there is no evidence of intent to sell. Would you be curious try cannabis wine?