A note on Nicolas François Billecart 2002

I hosted a champagne tasting last night, with wines from Pierre Peters, Fleury Père et Fils, Palmer & Cie, Moutard, and Billecart-Salmon.

It was my first tasting of a Pierre Peters wine, in this case the Cuvée de Reserve Blanc de Blancs Grand Cru, and rather disappointingly I didn't really understand the wine, although I suppose that's an excuse for another bottle.

But that's not the main thing I wanted to say. I've tasted the 2002 Nicolas François three times now; in 2015, last year, and last night. The first of these was in ideal conditions, and the wine, while clearly still very youthful and tightly wound, also managed to be reasonably expressive. Last year's bottle was completely unexpressive, so I was a little apprehensive about opening it again last night, but I have rather done Krug and Dom Pom to death over the last twelve months, so Billy it was.

And I'm so glad I did. It was beautifully expressive. Lean, yes, tight, indeed, but it had such lovely aromas of white flowers, and there was a slight saline edge to it which I hadn't seen before. It was the wine of the night by a country mile, and I look forward very much to tasting it again in another year's time.


Tasting Notes: Some Things To Read

This post gathers up some links to articles (and one or two books) I've read which have some bearing on the matter of Tasting Notes, and which I've found useful. I then give a brief summary of Peynaud's classification of types of tasting, and finish with a quote from the master.

I ended up in the booze trade by accident, and stayed because I found it congenial. Over the years my particular interest has shifted from topic to topic, region to region, but whatever my current obsession I've always been very keen on writing tasting notes. It's not the easiest habit to acquire, and the craft of writing good tasting notes isn't learned overnight. Indeed, after sixteen years I'm still trying to improve my tasting ability.

A good starting point for writing tasting notes is the Wine & Spirits Education Trust Systematic Approach to Tasting. It imposes a structure and vocabulary which is very helpful when one is just setting out on the tasting journey.

The Taste of Wine, by Émile Peynaud, whilst perhaps a little dated in places, remains the foundational text for tasters. It introduced me to many useful tasting exercises, and is beautifully written too.

Having read The Taste of Wine, it is useful to then read Classification and hierarchy in the discourse of wine: Émile Peynaud’s The Taste of Wine, by Nigel Bruce. This is an analysis of Peynaud's book from (I think) an anthropological point of view. Reading this probably won't make you a better taster, but it will certainly make you think more deeply about Peynaud.

Next, a couple of short pieces by Andrew Jefford, plus a slightly longer one from Bianca Bosker. These all address the perceived shortcomings in present day tasting notes, and suggest a few ways to improve your notes.




Lastly I must mention Gordon Shepherd's books Neurogastronomy and Neuroenology. Reading them has given me a much better understanding of the workings of the human sense of smell.

Some notes derived from The Taste of Wine, Emile Peynaud 
All tasting can be classed as either:
  • hedonic – purely for pleasure
  • analytical – tasting done with some professional or commercial aim in mind 
It is important to be clear in advance what is the purpose of an analytical tasting, as otherwise the results may not be useful.

Peynaud divides analytical tasting into three types:

Descriptive tasting – studying, identifying, and listing all of one's sensory reactions to a drink, and explaining them as far as possible according to the raw materials and production methods of the drink. One important part of descriptive tasting is the use of a precise vocabulary, which is understood by other professional tasters.

Differentiation between & identification of samples – necessary for comparisons between eg different drink recipes, or when making a choice between two similar products. Often done 'blind', so as to minimise preconceptions. This type of analytical tasting often leads into:

Appraisal and quality ranking – assessing a product in terms of commercial quality, for example in choosing which of two rums to stock, or in tasting a range of one product type at a trade show

All analytical tasting is a form of comparison (even when only tasting one sample – in this case, one is comparing with memories of previous similar products), but none of the three types of analysis listed above includes personal preference. The key thing in becoming a good analytical taster is to set aside one's likes and dislikes, at least until after the analysis is done.

Tasting accurately is a skill which can only be acquired with regular practise, and all tasters will have good and bad tasting days. The following quote (about blind tasting) sums it up nicely

...all of us go through some periods that are better than others, during which we can be remarkably successful at blind tasting. I know of tasters who live by a reputation forged on two or three inspired guesses. I myself have experienced moments of glory when everything seemed obvious to me, and I have also drunk the cup of humility to the dregs when, unable to interpret any clue at all, I have ended up making enormous blunders. Blind tasting is one of the finest schools for teaching modesty


Domaine Trimbach: Some Wines

To the capital city and to Good Brothers for a tasting with Julien Trimbach, the young man who will one day be the 13th generation winemaker at Domaine Trimbach, one of the best Alsace producers (top three, I'd say). He's a remarkably accomplished speaker, and had some very interesting things to say.

I've never heard another winemaker (or perhaps I should say apprentice winemaker) talk so much about the taste of soil. Perhaps that reflects the diversity of soil types in Alsace, which range from granite, to limestone, to iron-rich soils, and even volcanic to a kind of crumbled granite called grés de Vosges.

We tasted through eleven wines taken from the currently available range, plus a beautiful Pinot Gris from 1990. The house style is decidedly dry, which suits my palate very well.

Riesling Réserve 2014
The grapes for this cuvee are harvested from several different soil types and vineyards, but M Trimbach described it as having a "limestone nose". It's a zingy, fresh wine, with intense lime and grapefruit aromas and a long lasting citric acidity. Delicious.

Riesling Sélection de Vielles Vignes 2012
Described by M. Trimbach as "a classic vintage", he also told us that for this vintage 80% of the fruit is from the Vorderer-Haguenau vineyard, from vines over 80yo. At 4.5 grams per litre of residual sugar it's still a dry wine, but definitely softer than the Reserve. I found a beautiful waxy note on both the nose and palate, and the citrus fruit elements were so ripe they seemed almost tropical.

Cuvée Frédéric Emile 2008
Trimbach are famous for their refusal to use the Alsatian Grand Cru designations on their labels (although that is changing now), and Freddy Emile is in fact a blend of Riesling from two different Grand Cru vineyards, so they wouldn't be allowed to label it as such. That doesn't stop it being a fabulous drop. Where the Vielles Vignes was showing spicy notes, this has evolved into savouriness, while still showing the intense citrus fruit of the younger wines. The texture was wonderfully buttery too.

Clos Sainte Hune 2008
M. Trimbach had stressed that the company likes to hold back wines until they are ready for release, but I guess that's not feasible in this case. Even López de Heredia in Rioja don't wait a quarter century to release Vina Tondonia. And that's the sort of time to mature that I think this wine probably needs.

The Clos Ste Hune is a lieu dit within the Rosacker Grand Cru in Hunawihr. There are just 1.67 hectares of sixty year old Riesling vines, yielding a mere 10,000 bottles annually, on average. Clos Ste Hune's soil is a kind of shell filled limestone called muschelkalk, which is the kind of uniquely Alsatian word which illustrates the mixed Franco-German heritage of the region nicely.

The nose showed petrol and a leafiness - not quite leaf mold, but old leaves. There was also a silky, creamy, mineralic whiteness, as if I were smelling white chocolate, but sans vanilla, or some sort of very rich white flowery perfume.

The palate was soft, rounded, and intense, but very, very tight. It was very well balanced, with a dominant flavour of lime. Of all the wines, this was the only one which seemed warm in the finish. To me, it was on the same level of quality as the other wines I tasted, which I'm inclined to attribute to its relative youth.

Pinot Gris Réserve 2014
Described as "Pinot d'expression", I found this to be very savoury and spicy, indeed almost meaty. I found chestnuts on the nose, which I've never seen in a wine before. The palate was much more about fruit, with green apples and grapefruit, plus a leafier version of the spices from the nose.

Pinot Gris Réserve Personelle 2013
Made with grapes from the Grand Cru of Osterberg, this wine was rather gentler than the 2014, and there was more fruit on the nose; ripe, honeyed yellow apples, even a touch of banana. The palate was sweet and rich, with a lovely soft lemon sherbet finish.

Gewurztraminer Réserve 2011
Less intense than the previous wines, this showed classic Gewurz notes of rose, lychee, and/or turkish delight (take your pick. Or we could just agree to use Gewurztraminer as a descriptor). The palate was very easy going, with a tasty background note of dry savoury spice which somehow made me think of suede.

Gewurztraminer Cuvée des Seigneurs de Ribeaupierre 2011
Drawn from two Grand Cru vineyards, Altenberg Mandelberg, this wine smelt more spicy than the Reserve, but had less of the floral elements. The palate was riper, too, with the fruit veering into mango territory and a lovely broad mid-toned spiciness.

Pinot Noir Réserve 2015
This was a surprise - a tasty surprise. From a dry vintage, and made "without oak" (actually 80 hectolitre very old oak tanks), it was juicy, fruity, clean, and utterly gluggable. Or, as M. Trimbach more elegantly put it, "not an intellectual wine". The nose was cherry syrup, the palate was redcurrants. Lightly chilled on a warm day, this would be gone in twenty minutes.

Pinot Gris Vendanges Tardives 2008
This wine perhaps whould have been aired for a little longer, as it initially showed that hint of cabbage which occasionally appears in old whites. With time it developed concentrated buttery and mossy notes. The palate was sweet, with butter orange peel, some green lime notes, and a surprisingly light body for a VT.

Gewurztraminer Vendages Tardives 2014
This was described as being a "difficult vintage".

A nose of ripe roses and powdered ginger, which evolved over time to show some leafiness and a slight mushroom character. The palate was very fresh, light, and completely unsticky - brilliant acidity. I found flavours of ripe yellow apples and honey.

Pinot Gris Vendanges Tardives 1990
A wee treat from the cellar to finish off. If you made a plate of wholemeal toast with lashings of butter and runny honey, and then took away the toast, then you'd have the nose of this wine – except of course that buttered toast is never really elegant, and the wine was so very elegant.

The palate was soft and elegantly glamorous, with plenty of acidity to suggest that the vintage will evolve for many years to come. It was much, much sweeter than the other VTs, and had a glorious complex spiciness which might have been cedar wood.


Beech Leaf Gin

Yesterday was a beautiful sunny day, so I picked a load of freshly budded beech leaves and put them in a glass jar with a litre of gin dregs.

It must be seven or eight years since I last made noyau, but I was inspired to have another go by @_littlebrowndog, a fellow member of the whisky world who is also responsible for the fascinating #projectPEAT.

The discarded scraps of bud. Very fiddly.
In the past I've not managed to catch the leaves at quite the earliest stage, but this time I was able to select the freshly budded leaves, many of which still had the wispy pink bud covering. This made preparing the leaves rather fiddly, but they were so soft (and importantly, not at all waxy) that the process of extracting flavour is sure to be much faster.

The gin dregs were selected from about forty different gins on the simple basis of whether on not I consider them to be any good. So the bland, the odd, and those with any off notes were rejected. It does mean that there are rather a lot of botanicals competing with the fagus silvestris, but it's so long since I've made noyau that everthing about the process is once again experimental.

I'll update this blog post in a wee while (a few days, a few weeks? Not sure yet) once I reckon the gin is sufficiently green (although I seem to remember it's more of a yellow than green).
Freshly picked leaves
Leaves, jar, but no gin.


My Big Book of Grapes

A few years back I received the wonderful gift of Wine Grapes : A Complete Guide to 1,368 Vine Varieties, including their Origins and Flavours, by Jancis Robinson, Julia Harding, and José Vouillamoz.

It came in very handy last night on tasting this Lyrarakis Psarades Dafni 2015. It was by far the most unusual wine I have tasted in the last I don't know how many months. Just look at my tasting note:

Nose: Vermouth, bay leaves, herbs. slightly sherried. A green, nutty note.

Palate: Dry, mid- bodied, mid acidity, mid alcohol. Herbal, green, bay leaves. Very very distinctive, unusual, delicious.

No kidding, this wine tasted remarkably like Noilly Prat. It was delicious.

So anyway, turning to Wine Grapes I learned that Dafni is a variety from the Greek island of Kríti (aka Crete), which had all but disappeared by the end of the 1980s. Fortunately, Lyrarakis, the producers of this lovely wine, continued to cultivate it, and is now back up to around 15 hectares. It seems that it needs to be intensively pruned for low yields in order to give these lovely flavours, which is perhaps why it fell out of favour.

I'm so glad it survived. I don't suppose I'd want to drink it all the time, but for a food-friendly change of style it's just about perfect.

If you don't yet have a copy of Wine Grapes, I cannot recommend it highly enough. It's worth it for the pedigree charts alone. Here's a not very good picture of the entry for Dafni:


Tasting Note: If Savoury Frangipane Were A Thing

To be honest, I only wrote this tasting note because I wanted to use the title. That aside, I'm enjoying a great glass of wine.

Vajra is an absolutely top notch producer of wines in Piemonte, Italy. This bottle is from an estate that Vajra bought towards the end of the 2000s. It's Luigi Baudana Dragon 2015, a fantastic blend of 50% Chardonnay, 30% Sauvignon Blanc, 15% Riesling and 5% Nascetta (whatever the heck that is).

My tasting note:

Nose:  Complex, nutty, and herbal, with a suggestion of something phenolic (or terpenes?) possibly analogous to the petrol note in Riesling. If savoury frangipane were a thing, this is how it would smell.

Palate: Complex, rounded, and delicious. The acidity is somewhere between lemon juice and grapefruit pith. Green notes are less in evidence than on the nose. There's something of the phat of a brazil nut. A very clean refreshing finish. Nothing of the individual grape varieties, but that is absolutely not a criticism.

Conclusion: This is superb wine, and awfully cheap for what it offers. Also, it has a dragon on the label.


Dom Pérignon

One of the many benefits of working in the booze industry is the quality of the drinks on a staff night out. Our latest expedition began by setting a fairly high bar, with a mini Dom Pom vertical, of the 2006, 1999, and 1982.

(It's interesting to note, by the way, that Dom Pérignon these days doesn't mention Moët et Chandon on the label - perhaps they feel it makes the brand seem more exclusive?)

The 2006, in its first plénitude, was big and bold: fresh icing sugar, sharp floral aromas, but also with a touch of mushroom. The palate was soft, sherbety, with lemon notes and a beautiful rounded flowery character. The finish was noticeably drier than on the other two wines.

The 1999—not a stellar year, but, by my calculation and triangulation based on what the DP website says, in its second plénitude—wasn't any better (in the hedonic sense) than the 2006. Indeed, I think I enjoyed it a notch less. But the flavours were quite different. The nose was both spicy and mineral laden. After a while a floral component rather like that in the 2006 appeared. The palate was intensely mineralic, tangy and grapefruity. It was also richly floral—roses I think—with the richness extending to ripe fruit.

The 34 year old wine, almost but not quite flat and a deep, deep gold, was something else. Well into its third plénitude, this was a glorious glass of fizz. The nose had some of the floral elements present in the 2006 and 1999, but ah!, the rest of it. Runny honey on toast, sweet roasted almonds, buttery caramel, and a shining warmth. Liquid sunshine indeed. The palate showed the slightest spritz, and a fair bit of oxidation (good oxidation, like Madeira), despite which there was still a very decent level of acidity. The flavours were all sorts of fruit: juicy and fresh berries, raisins, figs, lemons. Just delightful.

The Dom Pérignon 1982 wasn't the oldest wine we tasted tonight, but for me it was far and away the finest. I'm usually more of a Billecart fanboy, but if all DP was this good...