Having just celebrated Christmas, today’s post will profile three very different, all equally magnificent wines that I’ve enjoyed over the festivities.
Beginning the celebrations with the traditional fizz, first we take a look at a blanc de blancs grower champagne from Pierre Péters, then move on to a Palo Cortado with over 40 years age from Mons Urium, before finishing with Domaine Chevassu-Fassenet’s Château-Chalon, of course accompained by a lump of comté cheese.
Traditionally the large Champagne houses “Grandes Marques” do not have their own vineyards, buying in grapes from many different small growers and blending their wines to achieve a consistent house style each year, in massive quantities. Their winemakers blend grapes wine from many different villages, vineyards and varieties, using older reserve wines to add complexity, giving their wines a particular character. Following this model of non vintage, multi grape blends helps overcome the problems of a challenging marginal climate with naturally low sugar and high acidity levels. Wines from better years are blended along with those from less successful ones, and with wines from different parts of the region, to counter the effects of other parts being hit by hail or frost.
Recently there has been a move towards grower champagnes, growers who have decided they no longer wish to sell all of their grapes to the large Champagne houses, condemned to anonymity and with the distinctive characteristics of their grapes hidden by the blending process. Instead, these grower Champagnes, made by producers who grow their own grapes and produce wine from those grapes, often sourced from a single vineyard or vineyards nearby a village, better reflect the terroir, offering greater individuality and character. Grower Champagnes can often offer great value, without the huge marketing budgets burdening the Grand Marques, focusing entirely on the grapes and wine making. All that’s not to say grower Champagnes are necessarily better than those from the established Champagne houses, which can also offer superb and memorable wines, and conversely there’s nothing to stop some growers producing underwhelming and uninteresting wines. However with growers lacking the large wine making facilities of the larger Champagne houses, production is inherently small and artisanal, with generally high quality and a substantial proportion consumed by the French. Grower Champagnes can be identified by the RM designation on the label, meaning récoltant-manipulant.
Champagne Pierre Péters
Before marrying into the Le Mesnil-sur-Oger winegrowing community in 1840, the Péters came from Luxembourg. They began making their own wine in 1919, under the Champagne Pierre Péters label since 1990, soon establishing a good reputation. Since 2008, fourth generation winemaker Rodolphe has been in charge, athough his father Francois Péters, nephew of Jacques Péters, the renowned former chef de cave at Champagne Veuve Clicquot, remains actively involved. The role of the chef de cave is as cellarmaster, in charge of the winemaking team at a négociant house.
Rodolphe has become one of the most respected champagne growers in Le Mesnil-sur-Oger, situated in the heart of the Côte des Blancs. The estate consists of 18 hectares, with the harvest from one hectare sold to the negoce. The estate is one of the biggest grower champagnes, with 18 hectares spread over the 4 separate grand cru villages of Le Mesnil, Oger, Avise and Cramant. 12 hectares are in Le Mesnil-sur-Oger, 48 of the 63 total number of parcels. Le Mesnil Champagnes are typically associated with distinct minerality and age worthiness, in contrast to more delicate neighbours from villages such as Cramant, with Pierre Péters’ wines displaying particular depth and complexity.
Rodolphe takes a pragmatic approach in both vineyard and winery, following no one single methodology. Chemicals are kept to a minimum, and yields moderate rather than low, as low yields produce smaller berries, giving a higher skin to juice ratio, extracting too much phenolic texture when pressed. The humus layer is fed with organic material where it is thin, as the soil in the Côte des Blancs is only 10 to 40 centimetres thick. Grass is allowed to grow between rows to reduce yield, and fibrous pine wood chips from the Savoie, which have natural resistance to fungal spores, are used as a natural mulch in the vine rows. This natural weed resistance allows less ploughing, needing using less fuel and compacting the ground less. Pressing is done using both traditional vertical and modern bag presses, with low proportions of the taille pressings used, avoiding the associated coarse and tannic textures. The must is allowed to carefully settle at a relatively cool 9°C before racking. All fermentation is in tank rather than barrel, at moderately high fermentation temperatures for champagne, taming the acidity whilst preserving the structure and potential for development, and avoiding overly fruity aromatics. The wines are allowed to complete full malolactic fermentation. Many of the cuvées are closed with cork rather than crown cap during secondary fermentation, allowing a small oxidative effect. Non vintage wines incorporate reasonable proportion of reserve wines, up to 40%, saved each year and added to a solera.
Pierre Peters Blanc de Blancs Extra Brut Grand Cru NV
Pale lemon appearance, with very fine bead.
Pronounced intensity on the nose. Nutty almond and marzipan, bready, with savoury yeast autolysis and leesy characteristics. Delicate lemon citrus, green apple, red apple flesh, and underripe stone fruit.
Very dry, high acidity, medium body. Rich and creamy, with a bready, nutty mouthfeel. Lemon citrus, apple, and green almond. Some salty, saline manzanilla like characteristics, with stoney, chalky minerality.
There are two main types of sherry, those aged biologically under flor, and those oxidatively (in contact with air), giving a distinctive difference in character. The former category includes Fino and Manzanilla sherries. In the latter category, Oloroso sherries are dry and spicy, dark in colour, with a rich taste of raisins and walnuts, and are usually aged anywhere from five up to twenty five or more years.
A third type of sherry is initially aged under flor for a period, then aged with air contact. After an initial period of biological aging, the flor may be intentionally be disturbed and removed, or die naturally once its supply of nutrients has been exhausted. Either way the wine will then be refortified up to 16% or more to prevent the flor regrowing, and aged oxidatively to become Amontillado, dry and darker in colour, with a rich, nutty taste.
Sometimes the flor dies off unexpectedly, before again being refortified and aged oxidatively, to become Palo Cortado. Traditionally Palo Cortado would originate as a Fino that deviated unintentionally due to unplanned yeast activity, unusual grape juice characteristics, a slightly faulty cask or ambient conditions influencing the flor. Nowadays winemakers will more often take decisions that encourage the conditions necessary for the transition into Palo Cortado to occur, although many would prefer you to believe they still use traditional methods. Palo Cortado should have the aromatic refinement of an Amontillado on the nose with the structure and body of an Oloroso on the palate. Compared with an Amontillado it will have spent less time under flor (one to three years) and the base wine will have been slightly more delicate (having originally been destined to become Fino).
Bodegas Urium was founded in 2007 by businessman Alonso Ruiz Olivares, who purchased a relatively small and forgotten bodega from former almacenista Josefa Pérez Rosado. In September 2009 Alonso registered Mons Urium with the Consejo Regulador, Mons Urium being the Latin for golden hill, the Roman name for Moguer, the Ruiz family’s hometown in the province of Huelva.
With the help of his oenologist daughter Rocío Ruiz, Alonso rationalising the stocks and selecting the best wines. Although one of the newest bodegas, the 500 butts that were purchased along with the bodega had been ageing for a long time, allowing them to immediately bottle only VORS wines when they launched, which at over 40 years average age, actually nearer to 45, exceed the minimum 30 years, with the PX over 50 years old. They also started a Fino solera allowing them to launch a range of younger Urium Clásicos wines in 2011, with an average age of 12 to 15 years old, and also started selling Manzanilla Pasada, bought from an almacenista in Sanlúcar de Barrameda. Bodegas Urium’s most special wine is Gran Señor de Urium, a unique Palo Cortado coming from one single butt, carbon dated at over 100 years old, with only a very limited number of bottles released each year.
Bodegas Urium Palo Cortado VORS
Deep, rich, walnut shell, rusty orange, glossy brown colour.
Pronounced, very rich and intense on the nose. Classic palo cortado notes of dusty grease, furniture polish and resinous pine needle. Concentrated orange zest, dried apricots, dried and candied citrus peel. Saline, oily and briney notes, like tinned mackerel. Hints of almond and marzipan, with buttery sponge cake, reminiscent of battenburg cake.
Very dry palate. Bitter and nutty, cinnamon spices and dusty walnut shell. Fresher notes of pink grapefruit flesh and orange zest, with a sweet cider vinegar and caster sugar sensation.
Absolutely outstanding, incredibly complex, very well well integrated.
The famous Vin Jaune ‘yellow wine’ is a Jurassian speciality, made using late harvested Savagnin grapes, usually late October but often November, when the grapes are as ripe as possible, with potential alcohol between 13% and 15%. The grapes are fermented slowly, then transferred to age in 228 litre old oak Burgundy barrels. The barrels are by design slightly porous and not completely airtight, therefore nearly 40% of the wine evaporates over the years, never being topped up. The wine becomes partially protected from excessive oxidation by thick veil of yeast, locally called ‘voile’, very similar to the flor on sherry. To qualify as Vin Jaune, the wine must be aged in the barrel for at least six years and three months, after which time only about 62% of the wine remains after evaporation, though some producers age the wine for 10 years or more in barrel. The barrels’ storage conditions are critical to the wine’s development, with a technician visiting twice a year to test that the level of acetic acid, the main acid in vinegar, is not too high, and that for the first few years, the level of ethanal (acetaldehyde) is rising, as this is important for Vin Jaune’s distinctive oxidative taste. This unique and unusual ageing method allows the wine to develop powerfully complex and distinctive characteristics of walnut, almond, spice and apple.
Vin Jaune is produced in various appelations within the Jura including Château Chalon, Etoile, Arbois and the Cotes du Jura. Château Chalon produces only Vin Jaune, and these are are by far the most renowned of Vin Jaunes, known for their nutty flavours and aromas, developing curry notes from the compound sotolon. The village of Château Chalon is surrounded by dramatic limestone cliffs, which have eroded away to form the south and south east facing vineyards they overlook. Vin Jaune is bottled in the unusual stubby clavelin bottle holding 62cl, supposedly the volume left of an original litre put into barrel after ageing, with the wines of Château-Chalon distinguished by an additional escutcheon at the base of the neck.
Domaine Chevassu-Fassenet are based in the Château-Chalon appelation, in total covering just 50 hectares at the traditional heart of the Jura. One of few Jura domaines run by vigneronne, woman winegrower, Marie-Pierre is a strong character who has earnt great respect for her wines, managing 4.5 hectares of vineyards from vine to sales. Marie-Pierre Chevassu-Fassenet was brought up alongside her three sisters at Les Granges-Bernard, an old Jurassien farm surrounded by pastures on the plateau behind Menétru. Marie-Pierre’s mother Marie came from a family of vignerons, and her father Denis farmed mainly cows. After taking on some vineyards in the 1980’s, where his daughters enjoyed helping, he expanded the business to make and sell wine.
Marie-Pierre decided to study wine in Beaune and for an oenology degree in Dijon, working in New Zealand, Châteauneuf-du-Pape and Champagne, before returning home to work for several years as cellar master for the largest négociant in the region, La Maison du Vigneron. She took over the family wine estate in 2008, with another sister running the farming business, and is helped out by her husband Cédric Fassenet, a theatre director in Lons, and her parents.
Marie-Pierre has kept the estate small in order that she can personally tend the vineyards, working with sustainable methods, and manually hoeing 3 hectares of vineyards, although due to erosion of the steep slopes in Château-Chalon she’s forced to use herbicide for some parcels. Systematic treatments are used early and late in the season, but Marie-Pierre is a comitted member of a local group working lutte raisonnée towards Terra Vitis certification, literally ‘the reasoned struggle’, striving to use chemicals less often and less aggressively than conventional growers.
Marie-Pierre’s Savagnin vines are in the En Beaumont vineyard, located on the slope below the Menétru-le-Vignoble village. She ages a small amount of the Savagnin in a loft, some in a semi underground cellar, with the remaining three quarters underground, limiting temperature variation whilst ageing, helping to achieve finesse and elegance in the wines. Since 1999 the Château-Chalons have been blended and bottled by Marie-Pierre, but were vinified by her father Denis until 2008.
Domaine Chevassu-Fassenet Château-Chalon 2007
Medium plus golden yellow colour.
Very pronounced and complex, quite fino-amontillado in character. Distinctive intermingled curry spices of garam masala, fenugreek, fennel seed and caraway, with musty, celery seed and mustard like hints, joined by clove studded oranges, mulled wine spices, and dried oranges.
Dry, medium plus acidity, full body. Very bitter and savoury palate, with green almond, lemon peel citrus rind, resinous walnut oil and ground fenugreek seed. There’s a slightly lactic, almost comté cheese like, raw egg hint, balanced perfectly by the bitterness and acidity.
Outstanding. Need I say more.