The comfort of Claret

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Photograph: Jason Lowe
There are few things more reassuring – or quintessentially British – than Claret. Philip Moulin – a man more devoted to Bordeaux than most – argues that the region’s wines are peerless companions for a Christmas feast

Over the years, I’ve had many people tell me (sometimes even those whom I trust) that red Bordeaux, or “Claret” – as we call it fondly in Britain, is not necessarily the best thing to go with a traditional Christmas dinner. It is claimed that the wines’ subtleties are lost amongst the powerful flavours that are part of a yuletide roast. To my mind this is stuff and nonsense. For me, Claret is the finest partner to a great number of what we consider to be the cornerstones of a Christmas feast. Whether it’s turkey with all the trimmings, a decadent goose, a rib of beef or even the joint of ham on Boxing Day, an even-mannered, savoury bottle of Claret is the absolute ticket.

I would go further and say that, for me, a decent case of Claret is an absolutely essential part of Christmas. With its inviting notes of cigar box, pencil shavings and blackcurrant fruit, there is something reassuring about it that few other wines can come close to offering. With food, red Bordeaux is more than capable of holding its own, but it rarely shouts too loud either. It is the classic accompaniment to a roast, with just enough fruit to be charming, yet enough structure to refresh the palate and bring the dish to life. Come the end of the meal you know exactly where you stand, or rather where you ought to be sitting – namely in your favourite armchair, clutching the last glass from the decanter, and perhaps a corner of the decent Cheddar you were hoping your companions were too full to tackle.

Three to try

2016 Berry Bros. & Rudd St Julien by Château Léoville Las Cases: Coming from one of the great terroirs of Bordeaux, and from arguably the best vintage in the last 20 years, our own St Julien is a clear contender for best-value wine on our list. With fabulous intensity of fruit, silky tannins, and beautiful balance, it would be hard to find a finer Claret for the price, and this will be a perfect match for all the Christmas Day classics. 

2013 Ch. Haut-Plantey, St Emilion: A firm favourite of traditional Claret drinkers, Haut Plantey is the perfect example of a plump, rounded St Emilion. It manages the neat trick of being both gorgeously fruit-driven, yet serious and savoury at the same time. I would save this for Boxing Day, and enjoy it with slices of gammon and a wedge of mature cheddar.

2011 Château Giscours, Margaux: This is one of the grand old names of Bordeaux, and one of our favourite châteaux in recent years. The languid, opulent style of Giscours wines is instantly apparent in the 2011 – an easy, rounded sort of vintage. Full of dark, glossy cassis fruit, with hints of creamy oak, this is an effortlessly graceful Margaux for drinking now. 

Browse our full range of Claret perfectly suited to drinking this Christmas on bbr.com

Category: Bordeaux Wine

Burgundy 2018: an apprentice at large

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Photograph: Jason Lowe
With the 2018 vintage due to be released early next year, we sent Andy Harris from our marketing team to accompany our Buyer as he tasted his way round Burgundy. Here, he shares what he learnt about the region, its wines and the almost impossible job of a Buyer

It often sounds like an envious job, a tasting trip. In many ways, it is; but it’s also gruelling work. In my mere three days, I visited 15 producers and sampled 300 wines in the Côte de Beaune. Our Buyer Adam Bruntlett won’t return for another four weeks. Tasting begins at 8.30am each day and carries on unabated, save for an hour’s respite at lunchtime, till around 6.30pm. By the end of the first day, I felt like I needed to shave my tongue – and we “only” sampled 76 wines that day.

It was fascinating to see how Adam worked; there’s clearly an art to buying wine – especially in Burgundy, arguably the world’s most intricate wine region. Dissecting huge volumes of information, asking the right questions and finding the point of difference in four or five Meursaults in the eighth hour of tasting is seriously hard work – and I say this as someone who tastes a lot of wine for a living. This vast array of detail has to be distilled before assessing which wines will make up a balanced portfolio. Until you’re there, it’s hard to grasp quite how difficult this is.

It was also the passion and incredible knowledge of the winemakers that stood out. During my sojourn I met a fantastic array of personalities (and varied attire). But the thing that bonds them is their remarkable understanding of the land they work with. If you know something about the wines of the region, you know that there is a mind-boggling array of climats and lieux-dits. Yet I simply was not prepared for just how complicated it is.

For instance, in any one plot, for almost all of the wines you care to mention, the growers will know the gentle undulations within a slope, the precise makeup of the soil; how in the space of five metres the clay or limestone will change, impacting the grapes in numerous, subtle ways. When you are making, in some cases, 50 or more cuvées, this level of cognizance really is incredible. In the winery, this familiarity, with even a particular vine, will be applied to getting the very best out of what nature has provided. The wineries and the cellars may change, but – whether water is seeping through the wall of a musty and mould-covered ceiling, or it’s an immaculate modern space – the precision is the same.

Having visited the region, it is now perfectly clear why Burgundy’s classification system is based on vineyards, on the quality of terroir, which is supremely complex. To be involved in this region at all you must have immense passion and an encyclopaedic knowledge, often built up and passed on over generations. My trip has changed my perceptions of Burgundy, but not in the way I thought it would. Despite currently beavering away on my fourth Burgundy campaign, it is clear I am very much still a novice. There is so much more to learn about this remarkable and beguiling region: what better way to start than over a bottle or two over the weekend. Salut!

Burgundy 2018 will be offered en primeur in January 2020. Follow all our coverage of the vintage here.

Category: Burgundy Wine

They came to No.3: Takanofuji

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Over the past three centuries, a host of famous (and sometimes infamous) characters have visited No.3 St James’s Street. In 1991, one larger-than-life personality stepped on the scales: a sumo wrestler called Takanofuji

Takanofuji was the shikona or ring name of Tadao Yasuda, a Japanese sumo wrestler, who is the heaviest person to ever be weighed on our scales. He was one of 40 sumo wrestlers who came to London in 1991 to take part in a tournament being held at the Royal Albert Hall – the first sumo competition ever to be held outside Japan.

Given the sumo wrestlers’ weight and size, the Royal Garden Hotel – where they were housed during their stay – had to weight-test their lavatories, reinforce the beds and chairs, and fit special showers as the existing showers had too small a spray to cover the athletes’ bodies.

Around the same time, we had just started selling Cutty Sark to Japan, so we invited Takanofuji into the shop to be weighed, with the aforementioned Scotch providing the counterweight. Towering at 6’3½’’ (height is an advantage, giving sumo wrestlers a higher centre of gravity), he reportedly weighed in at 21 stone 6lbs – or 108 bottles of Cutty Sark. This surprisingly modest weight seems trifling in comparison to one of the other wrestlers who fought at the Royal Albert Hall, and the main attraction, Hawaiian Konishiki – the heaviest sumo wrestler ever, nicknamed the “Dump Truck” – who weighed an extraordinary 37½ stone.

Takanofuji is one of the customers feature on our new tote bags, illustrated by John Broadley.

Category: Miscellaneous

2008 Champagne: tasting the prestige cuvées

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Photograph: Jason Lowe

The 2008 Champagne vintage is considered one of the region’s best ever. With most of the prestige cuvées now on the market, we asked Champagne Specialist Edwin Dublin to see whether the wines live up to the vintage’s reputation

The 2008 vintage in Champagne undoubtedly resulted in some of the greatest wines ever produced from this region and is already hailed as one of the greatest Champagne vintages ever. Vintage releases to date have not disappointed (our own UKC was brilliant and still youthful!) but now we can assess the prestige cuvées as (nearly) all have been released. Was the best saved till last? A group of us gathered at No.3 St James’s Street recently to cogitate and contemplate over six prestige cuvées from this vintage.

Some techy stuff first. Why is ’08 so special? Winter was bitterly cold, which is great for resting the vines after a harvest. Late spring and early summer were warm with good conditions for flowering and early bud development. Fears of rot were quickly overcome, but then it all went a bit gloomy for the rest of the summer, especially August, which was cool and grey. But then the sun came out and temperatures rose for beautiful ripening and harvest from mid-September. For recent times this meant a relatively long grape development, with excellent balance of sugars, flavours, aromatics and acidity. This combination meant that many producers, including some from this tasting, released their more forward and exuberant 2009s before the 2008s.

Broadly speaking the 2008 vintage character and style is one of soaring acidity and freshness beautifully balanced by generous fruit and a depth of concentration that, for now, can feel a little tight. Comparisons have been made to 1996 and 2002. I follow the critical pack in thinking, even at this early stage, that 2008 is greater than 1996 when considering the harmonious balance it exhibits. And despite some tightness, the ’08s are often more approachable at this stage than either 1996 or 2002 at a similar stage.

And so to the wines: below is a sketch of what I thought of them, in alphabetical order. The common point in all of these is that 2008 serves either to accentuate the prestige House style or else holds it (for now, at least) in a delicious state of tension. Longevity is a given here – the only question is how many decades and how you enjoy you drinking these: with youthful exuberance or with the greater complexities of maturity

The line-up of 2008 Champagne

What is a prestige cuvée?

There is no regulatory definition: they are basically the top wine (or, increasingly, wines, if one thinks of Dom Pérignon’s various iterations P2, P3 etc, or single-vineyard Krug) made by Champagne producers using their very best grapes.

2008 Champagne Bollinger, La Grande Année: A classic Bollinger, statuesque with oodles of black cherry fruit and a light dusting of oak spice. But before the power overwhelms you, the Chardonnay shimmies on through to counterbalance the weight, adding freshness and light. There is a concentrated core that remained unfurled even after time in the glass, which made this – for me – the most enigmatic of the line-up. It will be fascinating to see how this develops into the resplendent RD it will surely become. (NB Grande Année is, strictly speaking, not a prestige cuvée, but earns its place as it will go on to become – I presume – their prestige RD cuvée.)

2008 Champagne Dom Pérignon: No matter the vintage, Dom Pérignon is invariably ready to go from release. Once again that hedonistic charm is combined with a complexity and elegance that belies this. All is beautifully placed. Brioche, hazelnut, buttercream here, citrussy minerality there, a touch of dark forest fruit, all kept in place by that ’08 structure, so that it never quite goes over the top. So yes, you can have it now, but it will reward keeping for as many years as you care to wait. The P2 and P3 expressions that must surely follow will be fascinating.

2008 Champagne Pol Roger, Sir Winston Churchill: A complete wine. Impressive at first, it seems almost too much to approach, but then all becomes clear. It’s a bit like Winston himself, who would surely have approved of this. Wild strawberry and morello cherry scents firm up on the palate, woven through with a zesty almost limey touch. All contribute to Pol’s trademark combination of majesty and elegance in a glass, leading to the richest of mouth-filling finishes that never seems to end.

2008 Louis Roederer, Cristal: Waves of intoxicating Pinot fruit waft up – pure, concentrated, with a touch of violet that held my attention for ages before delving into the glass. The palate is both weighty and airy – Pinot Noir on wings. I am a huge fan of the “straight” 2008 Louis Roederer vintage and they make a fascinating comparison. The terroir differences between the vineyard sites for these two wines, and hence the style, is accentuated in this vintage. The more calcareous Cristal terroir (and perhaps the 40% of biodynamic grapes?) is evident here, giving a more mineral and scintillatingly sinuous encounter now, with the promise of so much more to come.

2008 Champagne Taittinger, Comtes de Champagne: Despite the nervy tension underneath, that wondrous Comtes richness is still to the fore. The Grand Cru provenance is clear – did I detect Mesnil in those agrumic notes? Oger in the yuzu? A breadth of fruit structure in the touch of oak used in the Chouilly fruit? Whatever, even in this most structured of vintages Comtes is a (slightly) guilty pleasure to drink now. A privilege too as it hasn’t been released yet, this being a preview bottle. (We expect it to be released in spring of next year.)

2008 Champagne Veuve Clicquot, La Grande Dame: This is particularly interesting because Veuve’s chef de cave felt that in ’08 this cuvée, always Pinot Noir-dominant, needed the most it’s ever had – 92%. Surely the highest of all the blended cuvées tasted today (we never know what goes into the Winston, of course). Despite this, however, the nose is more leesy than fruit and it’s on the palate where you first get that Pinot hit: a line of pure fruit that broadens with time, later supported by mineral agrumic notes from the Chardonnay, all on a balanced streak of acidity. Like Bollinger, this too is a little hesitant in giving too much away now. But the components are certainly there for a long future.

The 2008 vintage is the gift that keeps on giving. Watching these develop over the years, and with still more releases to come, I – for one – can’t wait.

If you’re interested in purchasing any of the wines detailed above, please contact our Fine Wine team on 0203 301 2883 or at finewine@bbr.com, or explore all 2008 Champagne on bbr.com

Category: Champagne and Sparkling Wine