Luxury wine: luxuriously defined
The French term elevage, meaning to be grown or reared, with regard to winemaking is a good starting point for understanding what luxury wine is. The wine world at the highly commercial end is made up of manufactured commodities, wines made by formula and at industrial scale, often to great effect, but manufactured more than grown. The other extreme is the small farmer, meticulously tending to his or her small plot and “raising” the wines from the vineyard to the cellar to the bottle. Though luxury wine is the opposite of a commercially manufactured product, that still does not fully encapsulate the definition of luxury wine.
In order to define luxury wine, it is useful to begin with some basic definitions of the term “luxury.” Merriam-Webster provides the following:
1. a condition of abundance or great ease and comfort: sumptuous environment // lived in luxury
2. a: something adding to pleasure or comfort but not absolutely necessary //one of life’s luxuries
b: an indulgence in something that provides pleasure, satisfaction, or ease // had the luxury of rejecting a handful of job offers
These definitions showcase that luxury should provide a sense of a sumptuous lifestyle, refinement, privilege, and pleasure. However, it is also instructive to examine luxury from an economic standpoint. In his book Macroeconomic Analysis, Hal Varian states that “a luxury good is a good for which demand increases more than proportionally as income rises.” This definition adds the element of high price and scarcity to the mix. Therefore, when all of these concepts are combined, some boundaries are created around what luxury wine is.
Definition of luxury wine: Luxury wine is of the highest quality, coming from a special place on earth, has an element of scarcity, an elevated price, and provides a sense of privilege and pleasure to the owner.
The six attributes of luxury wine
The above definition can be further explained by delving more deeply into the six attributes of quality, place, scarcity, price, privilege, and pleasure.
1. Highest level of quality – globally recognized for producing a wine of the highest quality that can age and is suitable for cellaring. Must have achieved this for a long period of time with consistency – at least twenty years – proving the unique heritage of the brand.
2. Coming from a special place – recognized as coming from a special wine-grape-growing region with cultural significance. High-quality grape vines can only be grown in unique places in the world that have a special climate and soil. Many of these locations have long been recognized as supreme wine-grape-growing areas and have a strong sense of heritage.
3. Sense of scarcity – part of the branding component of luxury wine is that it is difficult to obtain, which can be developed through actual scarcity (hard to find), perceived scarcity (barriers to purchase), or price (so expensive it feels scarce). Often luxury wine has the ability to achieve higher prices on the secondary market.
4. Elevated price point – a foundational element of luxury wine, high price creates a barrier to purchase, higher perceived quality, and, if sustainable, higher willingness to pay by consumers. Generally speaking, luxury wines should be $100/bottle or greater in US retail.
5. Provides a sense of privilege – part of the exclusivity of luxury, be it from price, scarcity, or the symbolic nature of the brand and product is the status it confers on the owner, or in this case, drinker. This provides a sense of privilege to be able to partake in a wine that few others may have the opportunity to enjoy. The bottles in the cellar are the envy of other wine geeks globally. Luxury, by its definition, is a privilege, and wine is no exception.
6. Provokes pleasure – provides an aesthetically pleasing experience by viewing the bottle/collection and showing it to others. Also provides a hedonistic experience through consumption.
The growing importance of sustainability
Having both the highest level of quality and coming from a special place, luxury wines exhibit a character common amongst many luxury products, which Kapferer and Bastien describe in Luxury Strategy as “timeless” – the ability to be relevant decades from when the product was produced. When this is applied to wine, several elements come into play. The ability to improve with age and be of consistently high quality are both fundamental elements of luxury wine. Being relevant over a sustained period of time, to produce the highest quality, creates the special places where luxury wine is grown. For all those attributes to flow into luxury wine, both the viticultural and winemaking practices must be increasingly sustainable, often incorporating elements of organics, biodynamics, and environmentally sustainable practices. If they are not, the land and the vines will no longer have the energy or the nutrients to consistently, continually, produce the quality necessary for a luxury wine. Interestingly, most luxury wines do not aggressively market themselves as organic or biodynamic, though most utilize those practices, in order to focus on their brand and the quality of their product as opposed to the farming methods.
A similar case can be made for economic sustainability as well. Without generating strong enough returns to survive, the winegrower will no longer be able to continue producing top-quality wine. For luxury wine, this is embedded in the elevated price, as crafting luxury wine with meticulous care often requires a great deal of investment in facilities, tools, and labor.
What luxury wine is not
Just as important to understand what luxury wine is, is to understand what it is not. The world of wine is privy to trends like the fashion industry, technological revolutions on par with the digital revolution for an agricultural industry, and instantaneous hits similar to food fads – yet luxury wine separates itself as being classic and timeless. It may be easy to consider wines marketed with a luxury lifestyle component – advertisements set on yachts or in high-end clubs – as luxury wines, but more often than not they fail to live up to the definition of luxury wine.
The luxury lifestyle
Often, the term luxury and luxury wine are directly associated with a luxurious lifestyle. Many aspiring luxury wine brands believe they must appear to fit in with a lifestyle of private jets, yachts, and twenty-thousand-dollar watches to be a successful luxury wine. However, the two are not always related. Many top Burgundian producers will often profess that their wines are not luxury, that they are farmers, and their wines are merely an expression of the land. In their way, their marketing focuses on the special place where their wines are grown and their focus on making wines of the highest quality. These wines also happen to cost hundreds of dollars, are limited in production, are scarce, and are sought after by a global set of wine collectors. They fit the definition of luxury wine more easily than other wine brands with multi-million-dollar marketing budgets.
The luxurious cult
A common and confusing subset of fine wine is the notion of cult wines. Cult wines have a rabid, loyal following and are generally very small in production, often with fewer than 2,000 cases produced a year. However, it is possible, given enough time and with consistent high quality over a long period of time, that a cult wine can become a luxury wine. Two good examples of this are Napa Valley’s Screaming Eagle and Harlan Estate, which have built their history and heritage and now firmly belong in the luxury category. They meet all the criteria – high quality, from a special place, elevated price, scarcity, aesthetically pleasing, and imparting a sense of privilege. However, there are equally as many cult wines that do not meet the definition but do have scarcity from low production and a loyal following. This could apply to Frank Cornelissen’s wines from Mount Etna in Sicily and Clos de la Roilette in Beaujolais. Their wines are unique, small production, and high quality, but generally not with an elevated price and are generally appreciated by specific niches of consumers. For example, Cornelissen’s wines are natural with no sulfur dioxide used in winemaking and Roilette is a sommelier favorite, partially due to its relative value as a Cru Beaujolais, and would not meet the definition of a luxury wine.
Extract from Luxury Wine Marketing © Peter Yeung and Liz Thach MW (Infinite Ideas, 2019)
To read more, buy your copy direct from the publisher.
Consumers today are faced with a dazzling array of sparkling wines, from around the globe. But as little as two decades ago the picture was quite different, with Champagne the only real choice for anybody interested in quality fizz. Then came Prosecco. Although not a serious contender to Champagne itself, its huge growth in popularity this century (with sales increasing tenfold over the period), demonstrated a thirst for sparkling wine to which producers around the world have responded accordingly. Recent decades have seen England emerge as a threat to Champagne’s dominance of the market for quality bubbles, while producers from California to Tasmania and Nahe to Stellenbosch have upped their game in the sparkling wine stakes. These wines are not mere copies of Champagne: producers across a range of terroirs are experimenting with different grape varieties and techniques and this has led to the emergence of new styles of fizz. It is certainly an exciting time for lovers of sparkling wine.
In Fizz! Champagne and Sparkling Wines of the World, Anthony Rose takes a thorough look at just what makes this category of wines so special and guides wine lovers to the best wines available. That we are able to enjoy sparkling wines today is only down to an accidental discovery. As Rose notes, “It is only with the benefit of hindsight that we can see quite how ingenious an achievement putting the bubble into the bottle and keeping it there really was. Without the bubbles, Champagne, a wine made in chilly northerly climes, would have been impossibly tart and light to drink; the trick was turning it into something not just palatable but also enchantingly ephemeral and enduringly exciting.”
Fizz! tells the story of sparkling wine from the early days of experimentation, through the party days of the late nineteenth century, to its recent resurgence in popularity. The science of the bubble, winemaking techniques, varieties, terroir and viticulture are all thoroughly explored before Rose moves on to the major part of the book, his review of the sparkling wine producing regions. Although no book on sparkling wine would be complete without thorough coverage of Champagne, the other major producers of fizz are also examined in detail, presenting both a fascinating picture of the great variety of wines available in this category and an invaluable guide for anybody keen to conduct their own investigations in effervescence.
Rose is clearly an enthusiast for his subject. He is keen that sparkling wine should come to be drunk in contexts other than the traditional celebratory occasions, and even enjoyed with food (and he’s certainly no fan of wasting wine by spraying it over Grand Prix winners). Anybody doubting his deep commitment to the subject should take a look at the cover of the book, which shows a collection of just some of the muselets from bottles tasted during its writing.
About the author
Anthony Rose is an award-winning wine and sake critic who contributes to publications including Decanter, The World of Fine Wine and The Oxford Companion to Wine, and reviews sparkling wines for The Real Review. Regional Chair of the southern Italy panel at the Decanter World Wine Awards, Anthony was the wine correspondent of the print version of the Independent from start to finish (1986–2016) and is a founding member of The Wine Gang (www.thewinegang.com). His book Sake and the wines of Japan was shortlisted for best drink book at the Fortnum & Mason Food and Drink Awards 2019.
Fizz! is published by Infinite Ideas on 29 November 2021.
ISBN: 9781999619343, pb, rrp £35, 234 x 156mm, 396pp.
Also available as an eBook.
Review copies available from email@example.com; 07802 443957
A short history of the bubble beyond Champagne
According to the historian Benoît Musset, the first recorded mention of sparkling wine is found in an Egyptian papyrus document dated AD 522. Sparkling wines were considered flawed, and secondary fermentation in spring is listed as one of the factors making wines unfit for sale. In the 1201 miracle play Le Jeu de Saint Nicolas, Jehan Bodel portrays characters in an inn, with one commenting: ‘see how it devours its bubbles, how it sparkles, shimmers and bounces’. Épernay wine is described in a 1320 poem by Watriquet de Couvin as ‘sparkling on the tongue, clear, quivering, strong, fine and fresh’. In Limoux in France’s south-west, the Benedictine monks of the Abbaye de Saint-Hilaire mentioned the distribution of Blanquette de Limoux in cork-stoppered flasks in 1531 (although the 1544 accounts of the Sire d’Arques referred to the grape variety rather than a sparkling wine as such).
Champagne’s pre-eminence as a sparkling wine region in the eighteenth century provoked envy and inspired competition. Seeing that Champagne had stolen a sparkling march on burgundy, the Dijon agronomist, Edme Beguillet, describes Champagne, in 1770, as ‘the only industry capable of bringing previously non-existent wines out of obscurity, and bestowing reputation on a previously unknown product.’ In 1845, the champenois had become so concerned at imitations that a lawsuit brought by a group of Champagne houses resulted in the French Cour de Cassation banning the use of the name Champagne as a generic label for French sparkling wines. Cyrus Redding listed Die, Saint-Péray, Limoux, Anjou and Belfort among French regions making fizz in the first half of the nineteenth century. By the late 1800s, the roster had expanded beyond French borders to include Italy, Germany, Russia, Switzerland, Hungary, Spain, Australia and the USA. Mass production was helped by the introduction of the moulded bottle in 1882.
Australia’s first serious attempts at sparkling wine began in the late 1840s when Edward Cory and William Burnett showed their ‘champagnes’ at the Hunter Valley Vignerons Association, following which New South Wales, Victoria and South Australia were soon to get in on the act. By the 1880s, French winemaker Auguste d’Argent of the Victorian Champagne Company, was making ‘Sparkling Burgundy’ and Charles Pierlot was brought out by the sparkling wine pioneer Hans Irvine from Pommery and Greno Champagne in 1890. Mark Twain observed the Australian weakness for ‘champagne’ and visited the extensive cellars at Great Western In 1895. Another Frenchman, Edmond Mazure, made sparkling ‘burgundy’ at Auldana near Adelaide in the early 1890s, subsequently producing an array of sparkling wines under the La Perouse label in the 1910s.
Sparkling wine production was already sufficiently established in America by the mid-nineteenth century for the wine merchant T. G. Shaw, writing in 1864, to conclude: ‘The most important vineyards are those of Ohio, Missouri and Indiana, but the most celebrated is in Cincinnati’. In 1842, Nicholas Longworth, a Cincinnati lawyer, produced sparkling Catawba after a batch of wine accidentally went through a second fermentation. He became rich enough to bring in winemaking savoir-faire and technology from Champagne, but alas, the first Frenchman to arrive drowned in the Ohio River, while the second lost 42,000 out of 50,000 bottles in one season to burst bottles. Third time lucky, a M. Fournier arrived in 1852 and Longworth was soon producing 100,000 bottles a year. Longworth sent a case to the abolitionist poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, who described it as having ‘a taste more divine, more dulcet, delicious and dreamy [than Champagne].’
While the first New York ‘champagne’ was made in 1865 by Joseph Masson, who called it sparkling Catawba, he and his brother Jules made a cuvée in 1870, which was mistaken at a meeting of Pleasant Valley growers for a ‘great champagne of the West’ (i.e. California). While the eastern states were making merry with fizz, Pierre Sainsevain, on returning from Champagne, set up a winery in San Jose for bottle-fermented ‘sparkling California’. At the same time, Agoston Haraszthy sent his son Arpad to Champagne to learn the tricks of the fizz trade at De Venoge. Arpad was later to produce Eclipse, one of the most successful American sparkling wines of the 1870s. Meanwhile, Paul Masson, who left Burgundy for California in 1878 at the age of 19, was to become known as the ‘Champagne King of California’ after establishing the Paul Masson Champagne Company in 1892.
The sparkling wine industry was bubbling under in nineteenth-century Europe too. Georg Kessler, who had worked for Madame Clicquot, left in 1826 to found the firm of GC Kessler in Esslingen and, with it, the German sparkling wine industry was born. Carlo Gancia is believed to have cut his sparkling winemaking teeth at de Venoge in 1848, returning to his native Piemonte to create the first ‘Italian champagne’ in 1865. Prosecco’s future was foretold after Federico Martinotti developed a prototype of the tank method, allowing refermentation of the base wines in autoclavi (large pressurized tanks). The metodo Martinotti was patented in 1895 before Eugène Charmat took up the baton and patented the Charmat method in 1907. While the claim for the first Spanish sparkling wine belongs to Antoni Gali Comas in around 1850, the first to pioneer a bottle-fermented sparkling wine from local Penedès varieties was Josep Raventós in 1872.
In Pozsony (now Bratislava), Johann Evangelist Hubert returned from Napoleon’s campaigns in Russia to make sparkling wine. The company that became Hubert was founded in 1825 by Mihály Schönburger and János Fischer and won the award for best Hungarian sparkling wine in 1842. The first sparkling producer on the Pest side of Budapest was founded in 1852, but domestic fizz production didn’t really take off until later in the nineteenth century. In neighbouring Slovenia, sparkling history dates back to 1852 when the first traditional method bubbles appeared in Radgona (today in Austria), a tradition continued by Radgonske Gorice on the Slovenian side of the border. In Moldova, it’s reported that Prince Paravichini made ‘an extremely pure champagne probably from the Iaidzhi variety [possibly Chasselas] in Akkerman in 1825 and, famously, Henri Roederer founded what became the Odessa Sparkling Wine Factory in 1896.
Today it’s almost impossible to imagine a time when wine was drunk with no thought of the bubble. As is clear from the early history of so many countries, either through visits to the region by fizz-struck pioneering spirits or the importation of champenois savoir-faire and technology, we have Champagne to thank for inspiring production of sparkling wine around the globe and enriching our capacity for enjoying bubbles for all seasons and occasions.
Extract from Fizz! Champagne and Sparkling Wines of the World © Anthony Rose (Infinite Ideas, 2021)
To read more, buy your copy direct from the Classic Wine Library online shop.
Setting the scene
Roussillon stands alone, proud and independent. For many years it suffered a union of convenience with the Languedoc, when the wines of two relatively unknown areas lacked any reputation, and when it was simpler to refer to the departments of the south, without differentiating between them, as Languedoc-Roussillon. Roussillon deserves so much more than that; it needs to come out from under the shadow of the Languedoc and stand alone. Its history is different, its language is different and the wines are quite different and original. Much of Roussillon is Catalan, with strong links to Catalonia in Spain. The local language is Catalan, whereas the Languedoc is part of Occitanie, where Occitan is the local language. Roussillon did not become fully part of France until the Treaty of the Pyrenees in 1659.
The original reputation of Roussillon is founded on what are rather clumsily called Vins Doux Naturels, VDN for short, fortified wines for which the key grape varieties are Muscat and Grenache, with their easily attained high alcohol levels making them the most suitable varieties. The natural sweetness is the sugar that remains in the juice after fortification. The wine growers tend to simply refer to the Vins Doux Naturels as vins doux, in contrast to their table wines, or vins secs. These are a relatively recent development in Roussillon. It is only in the last 20 years or so that vins secs have overtaken Vins Doux Naturels in importance. The first appellations in Roussillon appeared in 1936 and were for Vin Doux Naturel; the first appellations for vins secs did not follow until 1971, for red Collioure, and 1977 for Côtes du Roussillon and Côtes du Roussillon Villages, admittedly a few years before the key appellations of the Languedoc, in 1985.
Essentially Roussillon equates to the department of the Pyrénées-Orientales. Its boundaries are limited by the Pyrenees, with the Canigou the highest peak, at 2,785 metres, providing an important landmark. To the north, the foothills of the Corbières massif separate it from the Languedoc vineyards of Corbières itself, with the ruined Cathar castle of Quéribus and the lookout tower of Tautavel dominating the skyline.
Usually I have approached Roussillon from the Languedoc, driving south on the motorway. You pass Fitou, the last village of the Languedoc, reaching the extraordinary fortress of Salses shortly after, by which time you are in Roussillon and in northern Catalonia. In the distance is the outline of the Pyrenees, which are snow-capped for much of the year. These mountains unify the two halves of Catalonia. The fortress of Salses was first constructed in the fifteenth century and adapted by Vauban in the seventeenth century. It is well worth a visit, which you can easily do from the motorway aire, without leaving the motorway itself. Taking a slower and more scenic route over the hills from Corbières, you come past the castle of Quéribus and descend into the Agly Valley past either Vingrau and Tautavel or Maury. Alternatively, for still more dramatic scenery, there is the most stupendous of all the Cathar castles, the Château de Peyrepertuse, from which you could take in the Gorges de Galamus to St Paul-de-Fenouillet.
Three principal rivers cross the region to meet the Mediterranean. The most northern is the Agly, with the twin appellations of Maury and Maury Sec, as well as many of the villages of Côtes du Roussillon Villages. The Agly Valley really is the core of the vineyards of Roussillon, with awe-inspiringly majestic scenery. The vineyards peter out after Caudiès-de-Fenouillèdes, as the climate becomes cooler. If you carry on west along the valley past Axat and drive through the dramatic Defile de Pierre-Lys, with its threatening overhanging rocks, the next vineyards you encounter are those of fresher, more bucolic Limoux. The middle river is the Têt, which flows past the city of Perpignan and the northern edge of Les Aspres, where the vineyards are on undulating slopes. Then to the south there is the Tech, which meets the sea just north of the resort of Argelès and the vineyards of Banyuls and Collioure. Even without wine, Collioure and Banyuls would be worth the journey. Banyuls has an attractive seafront, with statues by Aristide Maillol, who was born here, and Collioure, dominated by its castle, is an enchanting fishing port with lively streets, known for its anchovies. The appellations stand slightly apart from the rest of Roussillon. The vineyards are even more dramatic than those of the Agly Valley, sitting on steep terraced hillsides, where mechanization is virtually impossible and heroic viticulture is the order of the day.
There are many strands to the wines of Roussillon. With some exceptions among the wine estates near the coast close to Perpignan, the vineyards are all on hillsides, some gentle, some much steeper. The flatter land to the west of Perpignan is a vast market garden, above all for apricots and peaches. March is a wonderful time to be there; the orchards are flowering and spring is coming, with vivid splashes of delicate blossom. The climate is essentially Mediterranean, but with climate change it is becoming much less consistent. The winds can blow hard. Winters are usually mild, and summers are hot, with drought conditions increasingly prevalent, having an inevitable impact on yields. As a result of the formation of the Pyrenees, the soil is enormously varied, more diverse than just about any other vineyard of France, with the exception of Alsace. Maury is based on schist, there is granite at Lesquerde and you will also find clay and limestone, marl, sandstone and gneiss. The variations are infinite.
As for grape varieties, Grenache Noir is the key variety for red wine, with the added attraction of old vines. You will see vineyards of gnarled, stubby bush vines that withstand the strong winds. Usually the wines are field blends, featuring all three colours of Grenache, often with some Carignan for good measure. There is growing interest in Carignan, with its acidity providing an important balance to Grenache. Syrah and Mourvèdre also feature, and to a lesser extent Cinsault, which was previously considered too light and not suitable for Vins Doux Naturels. The likes of Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot are relatively rare in Roussillon.
For white wine, Grenache Blanc and Grenache Gris are important, as is Macabeo, the traditional white grape of Catalonia, which is much less common in the Languedoc. You will also find Carignan Blanc (Carignan Gris is very rare) along with Malvoisie du Roussillon, or Tourbat, which has fallen from favour, but may be in line for a revival. Vermentino, Roussanne, Marsanne and Viognier also feature in the appellations, and you may find occasional examples of Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc in the IGPs. Muscat, both Muscat à Petits Grains and Muscat d’Alexandrie, is of course significant for Muscat de Rivesaltes, and also as a vin sec. One of the surprises and discoveries during my research was the quality of the white wines of Roussillon. It is an enigma that so many of the wines simply do not taste as though they come from a hot climate. You could be forgiven for thinking that the climate of Roussillon would be completely unsuitable for white wine, but other factors come into play, such as altitude, the proximity of the mountains and the suitability of the indigenous varieties to the terroir.
The red wines have evolved enormously, with many changes and developments over the years. Winemaking has become more refined, with less heavy-handed extraction, less use of small oak barrels and a shift towards bigger demi-muids and even foudres. You will also find eggs and amphorae. There is a quest for lower alcohol levels. People are experimenting with orange wines and wines without any added sulphur, even wine growers who I would have thought more conventional in their approach than the natural winemakers, for whom any additions or interventions are anathema. The natural wine movement has a firm foothold in Roussillon, centred on the village of Latour-de-France, and is popular with many of the new arrivals in the region. Like the Languedoc, Roussillon attracts outsiders, from elsewhere in France and from other countries and continents. The price of vineyards is such that they are accessible to those with more limited means. Often the newcomers have moved from other fields of activity, bringing a different perspective to a second career in wine. Although production was once dominated by the village cooperatives, these have become very much less important, with an escalation in the number of independent wine estates, each trying to make its mark. Several of the wine estates that I visited have made their first wines within the last five years, and certainly within the past ten years. Work in the vineyards has evolved. Organic viticulture and biodynamic practices are increasingly important, while some growers prefer to follow the requirements of Haute Valeur Environnementale (HVE), which places an emphasis on biodiversity. There is a widespread awareness of climate change and its impact, particularly on yields and grape quality.
Often the appellation requirements are questioned, with the restrictions found to be limiting. Consequently, the principal IGP, Côtes Catalanes, is widely used by those who prefer more flexibility and who find the appellations irksome; the IGP allows for single varietals, which are often particularly successful for white wine. Although blending is the essence of the appellations of Roussillon, sometimes a wine grower does not have the necessary proportions in their vineyards, and will again resort to the IGP (Pays d’Oc is less important in Roussillon than in the Languedoc). And for those who will have no truck with any regulations, there is always Vin de France. Do not dismiss a Vin de France from Roussillon; there will be a good reason why the wine is a Vin de France rather than an appellation or IGP. You may not like it, but it will have been made with passion and commitment.
The most original aspect of wine in Roussillon remains without doubt its Vins Doux Naturels, with the appellations of Maury, Banyuls and Rivesaltes. Rivesaltes and Muscat de Rivesaltes cover virtually the whole department, while Maury and Banyuls are focused on those two villages. The Vins Doux Naturels take two forms: reductive and oxidative. The reductive wines, Rimage and Grenat, are a more recent development, while the oxidative wines are an intrinsic part of the history and traditions of Roussillon. They may be described as rancio if they have developed the particular characteristics while ageing, in either a barrel or a glass jar exposed to the elements and extremes of temperature.
However, Rancio Sec, an old tradition that so nearly disappeared, describes a wine that is not fortified, merely aged for several years in barrel without any ouillage. Some say that historically rancio preceded the Vins Doux Naturels, as rancio does not require fortification. It is neither a Vin Doux Naturel, nor a vin sec, but depends on oxidative ageing to develop some wonderful original flavours, not dissimilar to fino sherry. Rancio Sec nearly disappeared, as so few people were making it, but happily a group of fervent enthusiasts managed to stem its decline, and now it features as a category of both Côtes Catalanes and Côte Vermeille.
One of the enigmas of Roussillon is the decline in its Vins Doux Naturels. The best, the Hors d’Age, which have spent at least five years in barrel, are truly wonderful original wines, and yet they have fallen from favour. How can their decline be halted? Another puzzle is why Roussillon has not acquired the cachet of Priorat. My friend and colleague Andrew Jefford describes Roussillon as a northern Catalan echo of Priorat, observing that ‘the wines are just as “mineral”; no less overwhelming; often fresher.’ I could not agree more.
Altogether this book is the fruit of some 30 days of research on the ground, totalling almost one hundred cellar visits concentrated between June 2019 and September 2020. What follows is the distillation of those conversations and tastings, capturing the current concerns and enthusiasms of the wine growers I talked to. As I was putting the finishing touches to my manuscript, the wines of 2020 were finishing their fermentations and being racked into barrel or vat. Despite the problems and challenges of Covid-19, the wine growers were happy with the harvest.
Wendy Wilson of Domaine le Soula describes the region as ‘a hidden treasure, waiting to be discovered’. So, I would urge you to discover the region for yourselves, first via the pages of this book, preferably with a glass in hand, but I also hope that it will encourage you to visit in person, once we are able to travel freely again.
Extract from The wines of Roussillon © Rosemary George (Infinite Ideas, 2021)
To read more, buy your copy direct from the Classic Wine Library online shop.
A bird’s eye view of the terrain
If we could board a boat in the canton of Valais where the Rhône emerges from the Rhône Glacier in the Swiss Alps, we would glide down the river for three weeks or so before it emptied us out in the Mediterranean. In all, we would cover 813 kilometres of waterways. And what an idyllic trip it would be: by the time we reached Lyon we would have already passed through some fascinating wine regions, drinking Chasselas, Petite Arvine and Humagne Rouge along the way. But it’s just south of Lyon that the wine region known as the Northern Rhône begins, and it’s here that we pick up the story, following its twists and turns through the Southern Rhône as the river meanders its way to the sea.
The Northern Rhône runs from Vienne to Valence (or a little further south if you include the resurgent appellation of Brézème). Today, the river runs broadly north to south, following the eastern edge of the hulk of granitic and metamorphic rock known as the Massif Central. The vineyards don’t stray far from the river; the majority are perched on the dramatic slopes of the west bank of the Rhône. The only two appellations on the east bank of this stretch of the river are Hermitage and Crozes-Hermitage. Although the Northern Rhône receives a lot of attention it makes up just 5 per cent of the wine produced by Rhône Valley vineyards.
The Northern and Southern Rhône are connected by a river and a few shared grape varieties but are otherwise distinctly different, not only in soil type, but also in climate, flora and the typical character of its inhabitants. There is little in the way of vineyards in the 25 kilometres between the Northern Rhône and Montélimar, the town that marks the gateway to the Southern Rhône. As the river continues its journey south from here, the valley opens up and spreads wide. The Southern Rhône is less verdant, flatter, and the trees are notably different; suddenly there are olive groves, tall cypresses and Aleppo pines. Apart from fields of lavender, the landscape has more yellows and browns than the Northern Rhône, particularly in summer. The Southern Rhône growing area is vast; if you include the appellation of Duché d’Uzès, it covers more distance east to west than it does north to south. East of the river, the vineyards occupy as much land as they can before they hit the inhospitable Prealps. To the west, they stretch to the Cévennes. Follow the Rhône as it dog-legs south-west at Avignon, and you’ll get to Costières de Nîmes and eventually the Mediterranean Sea. Skirt around the southern edge of Mont Ventoux instead and you’ll enter the Luberon. All of this makes up the geologically diverse land that produces the remaining 95 per cent of Rhône Valley wines.
The Rhône, here not restricted by the Massif Central, has changed its snaking course over millennia, switching paths like channels of rain down a windowpane. Although only the fourth longest river in France, it is powerful and fast moving, bringing vast amounts of debris on its journey from the Alps, including the emblematic pale-brown stones known as galets roulés that have been rounded and polished over centuries by rivers and glaciers. There is no direct translation in English for the French term galet roulé; the closest approximation would be ‘cobblestone’ but this brings to mind something smaller and more uniform. Galets roulés vary in size, typically anything from a hen’s egg to a human head, occasionally even larger, and they vary in colour from cream to brown to crimson. They are most commonly associated with Châteauneuf-du-Pape, but deposits from various sources are found all over the Southern Rhône.
The east bank is more extensive, with more varied terrain than that of the west bank, and three different types of growing area. Firstly, there are a number of raised terraces, typically at around 100–150 metres, of ancient alluvial deposits over clay, sand or gravels (or any combination), which tend to produce powerful and potent wines. Secondly, there are three rolling low massifs: Massif d’Uchaux (280 metres), Ventabren (390 metres) and the Visan Valréas Hills (500 metres), each with their own character. Thirdly, there is the mountainous terroir among the Dentelles de Montmirail, on the slopes of Ventoux and around the Montagne du Luberon.
Southern Rhône ‘côtes’ don’t overlook the river Rhône as those in the Northern Rhône do. Instead they overlook the main tributaries of the Rhône that criss-cross the terrain, principally the Aigues, Ouvèze and Lez on the east bank, the Cèze, the Tave and the Ardèche on the west bank. Although there are plentiful rolling hills and plateaux on the west bank, the valleys of the Cèze and Tave are broader and the vineyard land tends to be lower and flatter – vineyards don’t scale the slopes to the extent they do on the east bank. It is however just as diverse in terms of soils. A few domaines start to ascend the Cévennes to the far west, but there is no mountain terroir to speak of. There is a difference in character between the wines of the west bank and those of the east bank. The red wines of the west bank tend to be relatively lean and straight, with a savoury mineral edge. Traditionally there have been larger volumes of white wine, pale red and rosé cultivated here. The red wines of the east bank are rounder and more generous and, for now at least, more varied in style, ageing for longer and reaching higher peaks of quality. Part of this distinction is down to the different types of soil typically found on each bank. There is more sand on the west bank, more clay on the east. Wines grown on the same soil type often share certain characteristics. Speaking about red wine:
- Granite: vibrant in colour, upright, serious, saline;
- Schist: perfumed, precise, airborne;
- Galets roulés: bold, high in alcohol, muscular, rounded;
- Clay: deeply coloured, thickly tannic and velvety, fruity, potent;
- Sand: pale in colour, elegant, fine tannins;
- Limestone: pale in colour, aromatically fresh, straight, lean, tense.
These are gross generalizations – needless to say these characteristics don’t always appear – but they are observations made after years of in-depth tasting. We’ll look at the terroir of each appellation as we address it.
Changing climate, changing wines
The climate is changing and winemakers need to adapt. Thankfully, Southern Rhône vineyards have plenty of varieties to play with, so planting later ripening ones that retain acidity and produce lower levels of alcohol is one possibility. ‘The problem is this region has been planting too much Grenache for decades,’ says Philippe Gimel of Saint Jean du Barroux in Ventoux. He believes looking into alternative varieties, perhaps from Spain, will be important in the future. Vincent Bouyer of Château Bizard in Grignan-les-Adhémar wonders if Tempranillo could work in his terroir. Other vignerons are planting late-ripening white varieties among their parcels of reds, and planting on cooler sites. Louis Chèze in northern Saint-Joseph is now planting white varieties on north-facing slopes. Pierre-Jean Villa in Condrieu advises that ‘before changing varieties, we should think about rootstocks,’ and has had some success by using once ill-advised alternatives such as rupestris du lot and gravesac. Using different clones and changing pruning methods back to gobelet could also help bring back balance, as could reducing planting densities. Irrigation could have numerous benefits, reducing hydric stress, helping to maintain yields, helping to preserve acidity and limiting alcohol levels – but there are downsides.
Adapting their methods to account for climate change may help vignerons produce balanced wines for longer. But these are short-term fixes that do little to address the causes of our increasingly chaotic climate. I’ve heard precious little from wineries about renewable energy, carbon capture, bulk shipping or lighter weight bottles. It’s not surprising therefore that some winemakers’ attitudes are fatalistic. ‘We’re going back to the old ways,’ says Thibaud Chaume of Domaine Chaume-Arnaud in Vinsobres, referring to polycultural farming. ‘I’m planting lavender, fruit trees,’ he says, as a way of hedging against climate change. Adrien Fabre of Domaine la Florane in Visan is doing the same. ‘You can’t irrigate the slopes,’ he says with a shrug of resignation.
It’s not bad news for every part of the Rhône. A warming climate has opened up areas such as Puyméras to more consistent, better quality wines. James King of Château Unang in Ventoux admits it’s also been the key to making better wines in his cool microclimate: ‘now nature is on our side,’ he says. It might be at present: whether it still is in twenty years, time will tell.
Extract from Wines of the Rhone © Matt Walls (Infinite Ideas, 2021)
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Into the glass
Like all wines, sherry’s raison d’être is to give pleasure. And like all great wines it gives pleasure in complex ways appealing to all the senses. As soon as it is poured into a glass it shows its colour and clarity. A lot can be learned simply by looking at it. Then comes its appeal to the nose. The bouquet of a good sherry strikes the nose while it is being poured into the glass, sometimes even from the next room. The nose is a major organ of tasting, receiving the first sensations. For this to happen the wine needs room for the volatile compounds to collect and concentrate above its surface, contained in the space defined by the glass, which should therefore taper in towards the top and be big enough for the wine only to occupy about a third of it. The little thimbles sold as ‘sherry glasses’ with the wine filled to the brim do not give it a chance. Apart from the bouquet ascending to the nose, the colour and viscosity can be appreciated. These features reveal the character of the wine and lay the foundations for the pleasure it can give in the mouth. There is a difference between aroma and bouquet. The aroma is the smell of a young wine, while the bouquet develops with age as the wine matures, giving a complexity that can be immense, subtle and complex.
Many wine lovers begin by being interested in one or other of the great table wines; they are perplexed by the many styles of sherry and sometimes never seek out ones that really satisfy them. It is essential to try all the styles. The final choice depends on the time of day, the weather, and the other wines that are taken with the meal. Above all, it depends on what one happens to like. It is not easy to advise anyone. There is only one hard and fast rule: judge for yourself and drink what you enjoy. No one has the right to tell others what they should drink, but that has never prevented people asking. The only possible answer is that people who drink sherry regularly generally agree about the styles that suit certain occasions, and it is as well to try following their example first. Then by all means be original; your own taste is all that matters. To be dogmatic is a form of ignorance, and often a manifestation of wine snobbery. Other people’s views may act as a guide, but they are only opinions and should be treated as such.
For those who enjoy a glass of wine and a biscuit in the morning, any style of sherry is suitable, though the majority prefer a dry wine when the weather is hot and a sweeter one when it is cold. It is here that the fuller-bodied wines – amontillado, palo cortado and dry oloroso – come into their own. In the sherry country there is a saying that one should have a glass of oloroso mid-morning to prepare the stomach for the serious drinking of fino before lunch.
Very dry sherry has an unaccountable snob appeal, but habitual wine drinkers do generally prefer such sherries as aperitifs. My own preference is certainly for a bone dry aperitif save in the depth of winter, when the sugar in a slightly abocado sherry is very comforting. In choosing an aperitif one must obviously bear in mind the table wine that follows. A very old amontillado would destroy the flavour of a Moselle; it would even overpower many Burgundies. Wine lovers like to arrange a progression of flavours, leading up to a big white wine, like a Burgundy or Rhône, with a light manzanilla or fino sherry; but many white wines, like those from the Saar or Loire valleys, or the north of Spain, are light in themselves and have high acidities so that instead of a progression there is a rather unsatisfactory contrast. Here an amontillado, a palo cortado or a dry oloroso can be better; and sherries such as these with the soup provide just the right degree of contrast when champagne is served as an aperitif. Claret can follow a fino, young amontillado or delicate palo cortado; Burgundy can withstand a somewhat older amontillado or an oloroso; a Rhône wine, a big Spanish red, or a super Tuscan can safely follow an old sherry. Old palo cortados and olorosos, whether dry or sweet, are excellent with cheese, particularly blue and green cheeses, and goats’ or ewes’ milk cheeses such as queso Manchego.
A dessert sherry should generally be more or less sweet, though a dry palo cortado or oloroso can be delicious after lunch on a hot summer’s day. A wine to be drunk at the end of a meal should have plenty of body, and although I have enjoyed an old amontillado after lunch, palo cortado or oloroso is generally more attractive. Earle Welby was undoubtedly right when he wrote that sherry is far better than port after champagne.
Pedro Ximénez had long been used in the sherry country as a blending wine but was seldom drunk by itself, though locally it was thought good for nursing mothers. Then, in the 1990s, shippers began to bottle and sell it. Perhaps they had a surplus, as wines like brown sherry were going out of favour. Pedro Ximénez is slightly viscous, sticky and very sweet, but these qualities give it an appeal of its own. It tastes delicious poured over a vanilla ice-cream and the rest of the bottle can then be drunk with the ice-cream, a food that is usually impossible to match with wine. And when Pedro Ximénez ages it develops real distinction; although still very sweet, its after-taste becomes almost dry, complex and very long.
Sherry is generally at its best with food. In Spain, it is taken with a tapa. The word means a lid, or cover, and is said to be derived from an old Spanish custom of putting a plate with a morsel of food on top of the glass. Bars in Spain compete with one another in providing good tapas, and the choice includes such things as cheese, prawns, fish, small steaks, tomatoes, olives, potato salad, chips, pâté, fried squid, fancy sausages (notably chorizo), egg including cold Spanish omelette, meatballs, salt cod, ham and a multitude of specialities. Fino sherries are particularly good with food. My own favourite working lunch is a large glass of fino with a salad or with more easily portable food such as a slice of quiche or a well-filled sandwich. It even tastes good with an egg mayonnaise sandwich, something which defeats most wines.
While the second edition of this book was in the press I got married and proudly took my wife to a vintage feast in Jerez. Soon after midnight the two of us, walking with a sherry-shipping friend in the feria, began to feel the need for dinner. We were passing by a stand where they were spit-roasting chickens, basted with oil and flavoured with the most delicious herbs. I ordered a chicken and a bottle of fino. ‘A whole bottle, for three?’ Deborah asked, aghast. But she did not bat an eyelid when I ordered the second. It is, after all, very little stronger than many table wines and one drinks more with impunity when well exercised and in the Andalusian air.
Sherry is a white wine, and the general rules for serving white wines apply. A fino tastes better if it is chilled but not frozen and this is especially so in hot weather; wines of greater body need only be slightly cool, for instance at cellar temperature; and dessert sherries are best served on the cool side of room temperature, though cream sherry nowadays is sometimes served ‘on the rocks’ as a refreshing drink. On no account should any sherry be warmed.
Sherris-sack was first drunk from silver vessels – and they usually held a man’s measure. Then, during the seventeenth century, Venetian glass was introduced into England, and it was generally drunk from flute glasses. A wide choice of wine glasses is available today; many of them are aesthetically very beautiful, but few are suitable for drinking wine out of, and the small so-called ‘sherry glasses’ are by far the worst of all. Among the worst are those that narrow towards the middle: so-called Elgin glasses and schooners. The former are said to have been designed by an extraordinarily mean peer who wanted his guests to think they were getting a good measure when they were not. One of the best things about sherry is its deep, penetrating fragrance that prepares the palate for the flavour of the wine; the bouquet of a good sherry is so attractive that one can enjoy it without tasting the wine at all. Sherry needs a big glass with plenty of room for the full fragrance to gather within it. Tulip-shaped wine glasses filled only half-way are very good, but the special tall tasting glasses, known as dock glasses and used in the wine trade, are better still. The ISO glass, now widely available, is a good example. These are from five to seven inches high and gently taper in towards the top; they should only be filled to the height of one inch or two. A smaller version which is good is the copita. But good glasses not only show up the beauty of a wine, they also reveal its faults. There is a saying in Jerez: solo hay dos clases de Jerez, el bueno y el mejor – ‘there are only two kinds of sherry, the good and the better’, but there are a few sad exceptions in the cut-throat competition of today, and most of these find their way to public bars, where small glasses may perhaps not always be out of place.
What happens to sherry after it has been bottled depends very much on its style. A fino is never at its best after more than three months in bottle and this is especially so with wines sold en rama. Light amontillados also deteriorate and coarsen in bottle, but rather more slowly. Strange things can happen when dry sherries are kept for a long time. In my own cellar I laid down some fine palo cortado rather more than thirty years ago. For the first three or four years it improved; then it went through a bad patch that lasted for six or seven years. After that it came out on the other side, showing great age and elegance that improved annually until the wine had about twenty-five years’ cellaring. Then it began to go off.
An unsweetened oloroso remains unharmed for several years. If the wine is sweetened, its behaviour is quite different. Light amontillados do not improve but they last far longer than finos and can safely be kept in bottle for two or three years. The development of a medium-quality amontillado in bottle over a long period of years is extremely speculative. Many years ago I inherited three bottles of an identical, slightly sweetened amontillado that had been in my grandfather’s cellar for twenty years. One had absorbed all its sugar and had become a bone dry, very smooth wine of outstanding character, while the other two were dreadful. A really first-class amontillado, palo cortado or oloroso, if it is initially sweetened, develops in bottle and steadily changes. It gradually consumes its sugar, and becomes remarkably smooth while the bouquet and flavour grow exceptionally. Such wines are said to have ‘bottle age’. Given long enough in the bottle, a dessert oloroso can become absolutely dry, though this may well take fifty or sixty years. I have tasted a sherry that had been in bottle for over a hundred years, and it was truly remarkable. One of the finest dessert sherries I remember was a good oloroso my father bought before the war; it was still very sweet thirty years later, but had developed a remarkably mellow and complex flavour with a remarkable nose. Such wines develop with every year in bottle, and they have long been sought after by wine lovers. They should be kept at the very least ten years if the quality of bottle age is really to be appreciated. Then they are glorious.
Once the bottle has been opened, fino sherry oxidizes and gets coarse very quickly: the more delicate the wine, the more noticeable this is. A natural fino should be drunk within three days of opening the bottle, unless it is kept very cool, for instance in the door of a refrigerator, when it lasts twice as long; anyone who takes longer should buy half-bottles. Alternatively, as soon as a bottle of sherry is opened, half of it can be decanted into a clean half-bottle which, if immediately and tightly corked, preserves it almost as well as if the wine had not been opened at all, as there has been hardly any time in the air for it to become oxidized. Nowadays there are gadgets that help: one of these evacuates the space above the wine, while another fills it with inert nitrogen and carbon dioxide; both reduce oxidation.
The same thing applies to the other styles of sherry provided they are completely dry. Oxidation completely spoils them and since few people could wish to drink these wines very cold, the easiest way of ameliorating it is not available. They should be drunk within a week. The more body or sweetness a wine has, the longer it lasts and, at the opposite end of the scale, a brown sherry can safely be left for a month even in a decanter. Decanters are far less airtight than corked bottles, and sherry tends to deteriorate more quickly if it has been decanted. This does not generally matter, as a good wine seldom gets the chance to last for more than a day or two, and decanters are very decorative, but they are only really useful when the wine has been in bottle for two or three years and has thrown a slight deposit.
Strong wines such as sherry attack their corks, which crumble and leak, utterly spoiling them. This can be avoided if the bottles are stored upright, and this is always done in bodega reference rooms, where the wine is generally stored for three or four years. If it is kept upright for longer, there is the danger that the cork may get too dry and cease from being airtight, though I have never known it happen to a bottle of sherry. It is the reason why table wine bottles are binned horizontally, though. For sherry to be laid down, upright or horizontal, it should be corked with long corks of the first quality, like those used for vintage port. Nowadays metal screw-tops with thin plastic seals inside are rapidly taking over. This reduces the risk of oxidation and works very well, though when they were introduced in the 1980s the plastic was not entirely inert and I have known an amontillado become positively nasty after a couple of years. I would not expect this to happen now.
Sherry, like other wines, should be stored in a dark place, as light catalyzes oxidation. The traditional sherry bottle is made of very dark, almost black, glass and that helps. ‘Market forces’ however are calling for clear bottles. Wine in such a bottle should be kept in a dark place and certainly never exposed to direct sunlight.
There is a dictum of Robert Benchley that, ‘Drinking makes such fools of people, and the people are such fools to begin with, it’s compounding a felony.’ A man who drinks fine wine because he enjoys it will never become a drunkard: wine stops being a pleasure long before it becomes a danger. Taken the right way, it is wholly good. During the Great Plague, only Dr Hedges, of all the London doctors, escaped contagion; he drank a few glasses of sherris-sack every day, and wrote in his memoirs: ‘Such practice not only protected me against contamination, but instilled in me the optimism which my patients so much needed.’ There is a legend that many years ago there lived an archbishop of Seville who so far exceeded the decent complement of years laid down in Holy Writ as to reach the age of 125. He was a man of regular habits and drank a bottle of sherry with his dinner every day, save when he was feeling at all unwell; then he drank two bottles.
In Castile and the north of Spain sherry is given as a tonic to expectant mothers. When George C. Howell, of New York, examined the ages and habits of the sherry shippers in Jerez, he found that 10 per cent were light or very light drinkers, and the other 90 per cent were heavy drinkers; 10 per cent died before the age of seventy, and the other 90 per cent lived longer; 15 per cent lived to be ninety. If a sherry shipper dies aged less than seventy, his colleagues regard it as a case of infant mortality. Henry Swinburne recorded the curious fact that, ‘The earth in the cemeteries of Xeres, has the quality of preserving corpses incorrupted for years and ages.’ Some doubt has been cast upon the accuracy of this observation, but if indeed it was true, I am sure the quality of the earth had nothing to do with it: by the time a Jerezano dies, he is safely pickled by a lifetime of steady drinking.
When a Jerezano opens a bottle of sherry, he sometimes gives it a shake and throws a little on the floor before filling his glass. There is a good reason for this, as it gets rid of the wine that may have been corrupted by contact with the cork. But it is also a ritual – a sacrifice to the earth that gave the wine its being. Then he does the really important thing: he drinks the rest of the bottle. But he bears in mind the rule of St Gildas the Wise: ‘If any monk through drinking too freely gets thick of speech so that he cannot join in the psalmody, he is to be deprived of his supper.’
Extract (edited) from Sherry, Julian Jeffs (Infinite Ideas, 2019)
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