A Christmas dram with Rob Whitehead

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In the final instalment of our festive tasting series, the 2005 Own Selection Orkney Scotch whisky takes the limelight. Rob Whitehead, our Spirits Buyer, tells us the story behind this winter-friendly whisky and explains why it’s such a wonderful match for festive fare.

Category: Miscellaneous

Why we should all be drinking magnums at Christmas

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Illustration by Eleanor Crow

Nothing makes an impact quite like a magnum of fine wine on the Christmas table. Its grand presence marks the arrival of festivities, and the spirit of generosity. But there are other reasons why a magnum is the best format for a fine wine. Adam Holden takes a closer look.  

Who doesn’t love a magnum of wine on a big occasion? A magnum may only be two bottles in one, but it is so much more than the sum of its parts. They instantly imply celebration, generosity and theatre. Largesse perhaps, but society certainly. Despite the much-loved refrain “it’s the perfect size for two – if one person isn’t drinking”, these big bottles are definitely for sharing. Which goes some way to explain why they are often the longest survivors in our cellars. One must assemble enough companions, of right sorts, to share these precious bottles with. But whatever they mean to you, magnums are an essential part of any wine collection. 

While most large formats take their names from biblical figures, following the tradition established in Champagne with the jeroboam, the “magnum” is simply translated from the Latin for “big”. Its first usage in the English language was in 1788 and was actually in relation to the wine bottle. Like the jeroboam it also first emerged in Champagne, where bottles had a special significance because they had to be particularly robust to avoid explosion under the pressure of the bubbles within. A magnum of Champagne remains a fine ornament for any table. Kick the evening off with a strategically placed magnum of Pol Roger and you’re sure to set the proper tone.  

But they aren’t all for show. The magnum has a genuine role to play in the long-term preservation of wine. In a magnum, compared to a standard size bottle, there is a lower ratio of air to the volume of wine. With the variable, even haphazard, bottling regimes of history, this meant that the larger bottle was a very real quality factor. As was the quality of the bottler – naturally, Berry Bros. & Rudd enjoyed a fine reputation. 

Today, technological developments and know-how mean that bottling is no longer an art but a science. Even so, wine is not made in a vacuum. Some air will always be present in that space between the wine and the cork (the ullage), and the cork itself contributes air from its honeycomb network of cells. Contrary to popular belief, a top-quality cork shouldn’t be permeable under pressure, but it does contain air, which is squeezed out of it when it is compressed into the neck. A small amount of air is not bad news; we have long understood the benefits of micro-oxygenation for the development of wine. But more air means more reaction, which in turn means faster maturation – while too much air simply means oxidative oblivion.  

The smaller ratio of nitrogen, oxygen, and other trace gases present in a magnum reduces chemical volatility and slows the process down. Large formats also have more physical mass, making them more resilient to changes in conditions. This all combines to make the ageing process slower; for a wine to age most gracefully, it should age slowly.  

For this reason, many fine wine producers are reluctant to bottle their wines in half bottles – they develop too quickly. Champagne is particularly susceptible to the impact of oxygenation and many champenoise would prefer to bottle all their wine in magnums; for them, the 750ml bottle is actually the half bottle. 

Inevitably, at this time of year, our attentions are turning to what will be on the Christmas table. For many of us, the festivities will carry a special poignancy after two difficult years, and we’ll be celebrating with renewed aplomb. A magnum (or two) on the table is certainly a way to set the scene for a season marked by generosity. If you’re wondering what to pair with your turkey this year, I can heartily recommended serving up some Santa Barbara Pinot Noir. Its crunchy, fresh red fruit leads to that soft, lush finish which so often comes from Californian Pinot, and is a banker to satisfy any palate.  

Another personal Christmas favourite for me is the Viña Tondonia Reserva. López de Heredia are the most traditional of traditional Rioja producers, with long barrel and bottle aging before release. For me, their wines really blossom in magnum and the 2010 is no exception. With its statuesque bottle and gold cage (don’t remove it, snip the top and slip it down to the shoulder – twist the bottom and tuck it into the punt) it looks the absolute business. 

Browse our selection of magnums for Christmas here

Category: Miscellaneous

Beautifully aged Port with Fergus Stewart

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In the third video of our festive tasting series, we turn the spotlight on the 1977 Dow’s Port. Having been aged for over four decades, it would make an indulgent festive treat. In this short video, Fergus Stewart delves a little deeper.

Category: Miscellaneous

Mathieu Roland-Billecart: lucky number seven for Champagne Billecart-Salmon

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Champagne Billecart-Salmon is one of the region’s longest-standing family-owned estates. Alexandra Gray de Walden spoke to Mathieu Roland-Billecart, seventh generation member of the family, about their latest release: the 2009 Elisabeth Salmon rosé.

Founded in 1818 by Nicolas-François Billecart, Champagne Billecart-Salmon is one of the few remaining Champagne Houses still owned and overseen by the founding family. As the seventh generation of his family, you could expect this responsibility to weigh heavily upon Mathieu Roland-Billecart. Conversely, he seems to relish it. Not unlike his wines, he is energetic, ebullient and has an infectious passion for, as he says, “striving for excellence”.

LOOKING TO THE FUTURE

“The only pressure is the pressure we put on ourselves” Mathieu says. “I tell the team that last year we made exceptional wines and this year, I want them to be even more exceptional. We are determined to make sure the quality keeps progressing.”

Progressing and improving quality is all well and good when making bread or designing cars but wine is both an art and science. Without the capabilities to control or foresee the weather and disease pressures with absolute accuracy, how can “exceptional” be improved?

“Fundamentally, wine is about man adapting to nature.” Mathieu answers. “You need to be really humble. Nature is extremely generous so next year, we may have an amazing harvest with the least rain we’ve ever seen.” As the hottest year on record in Champagne, 2022 was particularly challenging for the region’s producers. “It could also be the easiest year we’ve ever had.” Mathieu continues. “There was no disease in the vineyard which in Champagne is unheard of!”

SUSTAINABILITY AT CHAMPAGNE BILLECART-SALMON

As global warming tightens its grip, these hotter, drier vintages will become more common for wine regions across the globe. The team at Champagne Billecart-Salmon have already been reviewing their vineyard and winemaking practices for several years to ensure their longevity.

“We prune differently; we plough the soil in a way we haven’t done before. We remove some leaves on the sunrise side of the vines to increase aeration.” It was under Mathieu’s leadership that the decision was made to stop using weedkillers, out of respect for the soil. He favours the adage of prevention over cure and has made great progress in exploring plant-based treatments for vines. Using agroforestry and co-planting increases the biodiversity around the vines to prevent them succumbing to disease. “We adapt to each individual parcel [of vines]. Whatever makes my vines as strong as possible.”

Mathieu’s idea of sustainability doesn’t begin and end with the Billecart-Salmon vineyards. Having launched the Foundation Billecart-Salmon, he has two key charitable objectives in the local area; food inequality and positive environmental change. “A certain percentage of the sales from our Clos St. Hilaire cuvée goes into charity in the Foundation. That will outlive me. I’ve structured it in a way which will outlast any generation.”

THE IMPORTANCE OF FAMILY

Indeed, Billecart-Salmon have already outlasted any generation for over two centuries, just as Berry Bros. & Rudd have. Does working with a merchant of similarly lengthy heritage and family-oriented operation help when it comes to the business of Champagne? Mathieu certainly thinks so.

“It’s trust. Being family owned, working with similar values, it becomes easy. What stands out more with our relationship with you is the length – we’ve known the great years and the terrible years together. It’s about value and longevity.” And just how far back does this lengthy and like-minded working relationship stretch? “If I asked my Great Uncle when we started working with Berry Bros. & Rudd, he would say he can’t remember. And he’s 99 years old!”

THE ELISABETH SALMON ROSÉ

We speak to Mathieu a few weeks before the release of the 2009 Elisabeth Salmon rosé – a cuvée with beautiful redcurrant and cream notes. Named after Mathieu’s four-times great grandmother and only released in the very best years, the cuvée’s first vintage (1988) was borne out of customer demand. “People kept saying we had a great brut rosé non-vintage and asking why we didn’t make a prestige rosé. What do you want from a prestige cuvée? Additional complexity, additional longevity because it’s made to keep longer. And with that came the construction of a slightly different blend.”

Choosing to make the Elisabeth Salmon a Chardonnay/Pinot Noir blend, with no Pinot Meunier, increased the blend’s concentration and added complexity and a touch of spice to its savoury finish. Aged longer on the lees than the Brut Rosé, it is a wine for fans of richer, more voluptuous Champagnes. “She is the Queen of Rosé,” Mathieu analogises. “I often say the Brut Rosé is the Princess. It’s fruity, fun, approachable. She’s dancing through the night with less responsibility. Then Elisabeth Salmon, The Queen, she has different levels of responsibility and the weight of complexity and length that comes with it.”   

And what dishes, fit for a Queen, would Mathieu recommend to pair with the Elisabeth Salmon rosé? “If somebody else is cooking, then red snapper. Any of the more meaty fish or a spicy lobster curry which goes with the slight spice in the finish. But frankly, in the simplest sense? Pizza.”

What is abundantly clear from spending any time with Mathieu is his desire for his wines to do the talking. They are what you remember from a gregarious dinner with friends and they are the reason Mathieu does what he does. “We owe everything to the drinker; the person opening the bottle, pouring it, taking a sip and smiling.”

Find out more about the 2009 Elisabeth Salmon here, or read our other articles on Champagne.

Category: Miscellaneous