About Benjamin Lewin

One of 300 Masters of Wine, Benjamin Lewin has published many books, including What Price Bordeaux?, Wine Myths and Reality, In Search of Pinot Noir, Claret & Cabs: the Story of Cabernet Sauvignon, and Wines of France. He is the author of many volumes in the series on classic wine regions, Guides to Wines and Top Vineyards. He also writes the myths and realities column for the World of Fine Wine and has written for Decanter magazine. His books have been shortlisted for the prestigious Andre Simon and Roederer wine book awards. The blog records interesting wines, people, and experiences encountered while writing his books.

Please Don’t Change La Conseillante, M. Rolland

Perhaps because it is on the area of the graves right at the border with St. Emilion—one third of the vineyards even extend into over the border—La Conseillante has always been one of my favorite Pomerols. While I sometimes find the openly lush quality of Pomerol to be a bit too rich for my palate, La Conseillante strikes a more restrained note, partly due to a higher proportion of Cabernet Franc.

The secret to restraint is not simply a function of the grape varieties, however, because along the same lines, Château Magdelaine was always one of my favorite St. Emilions. Although in its day it actually had one of the highest proportions of Merlot, it always had a beautiful restraint, in fact, in some vintages I found myself thinking more about the left bank than the right bank in terms of comparisons. It was for me a sad day when Moueix decided to stop producing it as an independent château and combined it with Château Belair-Monange. It never achieved great success in the marketplace, perhaps because of its restraint, which brings me back to the theme of La Conseillante.

La Conseillante has had its ups and downs. It had a great reputation in the fifties and sixties, declined in the seventies, and then came back in the eighties. Until the 1990s, the vineyards were planted with 45% each of Merlot and Cabernet Franc, and 10% Malbec. Then in the modern trend, Merlot came to the fore, reaching 65% by the nineties, and 80% by the 2000s. The proportion of Merlot in the grand vin in recent vintages has varied from 81% to 89%.

When I visited La Conseillante a few years ago, winemaker Jean-Michel Laporte summarized the unique character of the property: “La Conseillante is not entirely typical of Pomerol, which is known for power and richness; we are known for elegance and silky tannins. We can mix in one bottle the roundness of Pomerol and Merlot with the elegance of Cabernet Franc. We don’t want to compete for the biggest wine of the vintage, we want to preserve our elegance, and the silky tannins. That’s why we are not considered to be a Parker wine.”

But things are changing. Marielle Cazaux became the estate manager in 2015, and Michel Rolland has been consulting winemaker since 2013. Does this mark a move in a direction of greater plushness to more of an international style? There haven’t been any noticeable changes in winemaking so far, although the tradition at La Conseillante has been to perform malolactic fermentation in the concrete vats, and Michel Rolland is known to be an advocate for MLF in barrique. That would probably bring a softer, lusher impression to reinforce a move to a slightly richer style anyway in recent years, although of course that’s common all over Bordeaux.

At a recent tasting, the 2000 was the standout vintage: just at that tipping point when primary fruits have gone and there are slight signs of development. For me, it is perfection now, partly because it adds intimations of the left bank, with that faintly savory quality, to counterpoise the richness of Pomerol. It’s the perfect moment to see the true character of the wine. The 1990 was an illustration of why I have reservations about hot vintages and rich styles: just a bit too overt for my palate, more of a rustic impression, blurring the palate, compared to the laser-focus of 2000. The 1985 was a bit of a disappointment, with the fruits drying out, leaving a somewhat herbaceous impression with medicinal notes that recalled old Bordeaux. But on a rough count, opinion seemed more or less equally split as to which vintage was preferred, so something for everyone here.

Going back to the previous era, or perhaps more accurately to the beginning of the modern era, the 1982 (tasted later a day later) is very much in the lineage of the 2000, but seems if anything even fresher: that sense of Medocian restraint is there, but the fruits are lusher, smooth and silky, with a fainter herbal counterpoise. To be fair, the 1982 is now a little variable: a previous bottle earlier this year seemed a little tired and would not have compared so favorably with the 2000.

Although somehat ullaged, a bottle of 1966 was something else: incredibly youthful, rich, round, and ripe on opening, and then slowly converging in style with the 1982 and 2000 as a faint herbal counterpoise develops in the glass. I’m not sure that it would be easy to identify as the oldest wine in a blind tasting. Once again, there’s some variation between bottles, as the previous bottle, a few years ago, seemed distinctly more claret-like, where this one seems the most Pomerol-ish of all.

La Conseillante was really doing something absolutely right to produce wines like the 1966, 1982, and 2000: so please don’t change it, M. Rolland.

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The Old Guard in Beaujolais: Complete Contrasts

I wound up my week in Beaujolais by visiting two long-time producers, whose approach to making Beaujolais could not be more different, but each of whom typifies the very best of their approach.

I remember Château des Jacques when it was owned by Thorin and produced a single Moulin à Vent, usually (in my view) the best wine in the appellation. (There was also sometimes a vieilles vignes cuvée coming mostly from the lieu-dit of Rochegrès). Thorin were famous for adopting a completely different policy from the semi-carbonic maceration that dominated (and still dominates) Beaujolais. Wines were treated in a Burgundian way and aged in oak barriques, something that was regarded with horror by other winemakers in the region.

Purchased by Jadot in 1996, Château des Jacques has been considerably expanded over the past two decades, from 43 ha solely in Moulin à Vent to more than 80 ha, mostly in Moulin à Vent, Morgon, and Fleurie, but including 9 ha that are used to make a Beaujolais Blanc. Winemaking policy remains unchanged: “Our philosophy is to produce Gamay that is able to age and reflects its terroir, we really want to show that Gamay is like Pinot Noir in reflecting terroir,” says winemaker Cyril Chirouze. “So we make wine like Burgundy, everything is destemmed. Many people equate Beaujolais with carbonic maceration [which requires whole bunches] but in fact carbonic maceration started to be used only in the fifties, we consider that the real tradition is to make wine like Burgundy.”

Château des Jacques is a building site today because the old winery is being completely renovated.

“There is a blend from each commune, which we regard like a village wine in Burgundy, and 7 different single vineyard wines, which we could compare with premier crus. You might think this is the difference between grand vins and second wines, but it’s not like that at all, we take the best barrels for the blend for the commune, and then if there is enough we make the single vineyard wines.” The blends are matured one third in cuve and two thirds in barrique, with only a little new oak; the single vineyard wines are matured in barrique, with about 20% new oak.

A new cuverie is being constructed and should be ready for the 2017 harvest.

Tasting the range is much like a tasting in Burgundy. The communal blends are textbook illustrations of their appellations; Morgon is the tightest, Fleurie moves towards fleshiness, and Moulin à Vent shows breadth and that sense of minerality (I call it iron in the soil although if there’s any mineral in Moulin à Vent it’s really manganese). In the lieu-dits of Moulin à Vent, Carquelin (with some clay in the soil) is a little rounder than La Roche (which is sandier), and Rochegrès has a sense of purity and minerality enhanced by its high elevation. Moving to Morgon Côte du Py (at the same elevation of 360m as Rochegrès), there’s that typical sense of tension. All of the wines require aging: I tasted a horizontal of the 2014 vintage and I would wait at least 2-3 years before starting any of them. We concluded the tasting with a 1996 (to celebrate the anniversary of Jadot’s purchase) and it still in excellent shape.

My next visit was to Domaine Paul Janin (also known as Domaine de Tremblay) where “the history is very simple,” says Eric Janin. “It goes back to my great grandfather, who was a tonnelier and bought several parcels of vines.” My grandfather bought some vines in the Tremblay lieu dit, which became the official name of the domain. “The domain has both increased and diminished since then.” Today there are 7.5 ha, all in Moulin à Vent, except for a hectare of Beaujolais Villages. There are three cuvées from Moulin à Vent: Vignes de Tremblay, which is a blend from several plots; Heritage, which is an assemblage from plots planted by Eric’s grandfather in the 1930s; and Le Greneriers, which a single vineyard wine from around the house. Vinification follows what you might call recent tradition, with whole bunches going into the vat with only a little destemming, giving carbonic maceration for the first few days, followed by maturation exclusively in stainless steel.

The Janin domain is in the heart of Moulin à Vent, a stone’s throw from Château des Jacques.

The wines are the quintessence of maturation in cuve, emphasizing purity of black fruits, with cherries merging into more aromatic notes in warmer vintages. Tannins can be felt on the finish but are very supple. There is greater concentration going from the Vignes de Tremblay to the Vieilles Vignes and then to the single vineyard wine, but there is always that sense of finesse and focus. The 2014 vintage is wonderfully approachable already. The same sense of purity and precision carries over to the Beaujolais Blanc.

There is something for everyone here. I wouldn’t like to argue as to whether there is a “true” style for Beaujolais, but it’s obvious from comparing the two producers that you can make top notch wines in more than one way. All serious producers in Beaujolais feel they are laboring under the burden that it’s difficult to get away from the image of Beaujolais Nouveau—which is why the Crus rarely put Beaujolais on the label—but it’s worth recognizing that the Crus, especially the top ones of Fleurie, Morgon, and Moulin à Vent, can be interesting, and reflective of terroir and Gamay, just as much as better known varieties.

Young Turks in Beaujolais: Mee Godard

Maybe it’s time for another revolution, and perhaps the recent study of soil types, represented on the walls of several producers by copies of the multicolored maps showing the soil types in the Crus, has been a contributory factor. Visiting producers, say, twenty years ago, most would have one, or at most two, cuvées from a Cru. Now it is common to find multiple cuvées from each Cru, each representing specific terroirs. Morgon is a case in point. It’s a sign of how things are changing that Louis-Benoît Desvignes recollects, “When I started a special bottling (the Vieilles Vignes from Javernières on the Côte de Py) in 2009, people thought I would lose customers.” But this week I visited several producers who make cuvées to express different terroirs in Morgon, from the sandier soil of Corcelette, to the more alluvial soil and greater clay of Grand Cras, to the volcanic terroir of Côte du Py.

Mee Godard was studying biology at university when her father suggested she might become an oenologist, and a minor in wine science led her to Oregon and then back to France. Why Beaujolais? “Because I discovered these wines at a tasting in the region. When I left my winemaking job in Beaune, I came here to look for vineyards.” At the end of 2012 she was able to buy in house in Morgon that came with 5 ha of vineyards. A year later she added another hectare in Moulin à Vent, and this year another hectare. The house is just at the edge of Côte du Py, which has long been recognized as Morgon’s best climat.

Mee is still building the domain, with a base in Morgon.

Mee’s winemaking is distinctive. “I try to make vins de garde. I try to use as much whole bunch as possible, mostly about 70%, so there is some carbonic maceration, but I don’t want to have a lot, just some in individual berries.” Both pigeage and pumping-over are used. Everything is aged in wood, using a mixture of barriques, demi-muids, and foudre with only a little new wood. “Last year I didn’t buy any new wood, the year before I bought a new demi-muid.”

These are certainly wines for aging, quite reserved at first. Tasting the three cuvées of Morgon from 2013 through 2015, Corcelette tends to show red berry fruits with a touch of tannin at the end, Grand Cras is a little broader with just a touch more aromatic lift, and Côte du Py is the roundest and richest, but always with that sense of tension, and precision waiting to emerge. 2013 is the most uptight, even a little stern, 2014 opens out to broader expression, and 2015 is the richest. There is also a cuvée which is a selection from a special plot in Côte du Py, called Passerrelle 557, which shows striking purity of fruits. These are real wines expressing terroir but needing time to develop; a million miles away from the soft aromatics without backbone of most Beaujolais, they prompt a comparison with Burgundy.

Young Turks in Beaujolais: Julien Sunier

Beaujolais has been in the doldrums as long as anyone can remember. Briefly rescued by the success of Beaujolais Nouveau in the 1980s, the solution became the problem as Beaujolais became a synonym for very fruity inexpensive wines. The so-called Gang of Four led by Marcel Lapierre caused something of a revolution by focusing on making more natural wines to bring out terroir. “My father was part of a group that rebelled against the industrial production of Beaujolais,” says Mathieu Lapierre, adding, “We try to make natural wines but it’s difficult to defend them from the industrial system.” It’s a measure of his attitude that when asked about global warming, he says, “I’m not sure about that, the real question is why some people in Beaujolais chaptalize; if you reach 12% do you need more alcohol?”

One feature of some new producers in Beaujolais is that they don’t come from a winemaking background, and their different approaches to winemaking show that it’s possible to make great Beaujolais in more than one way. Julien Sunier’s parents live in Dijon, but were not involved in wine, but Julien became involved in winemaking, getting an exposure to Beaujolais when he set up a winery for Mommessin. In 2008 he decided to establish his own domain.

Julien’s winery is well off the beaten track for Beaujolais, in a converted farm in Avenas, which originally he bought as a residence. “The elevation here is 750 m,” he says, “and you know you can’t have vines above 600 m in Beaujolais.” Originally he bought the farm to be a place to live. “I had a bad idea of Beaujolais when I came here, the Nouveau idea,” he says, “but after working at Mommessin I decided to start my own domain.” We tasted his wines in the living room of his stylish house, which used to be a cow shed; the winery is adjacent. He rents vineyards in Regnié, Morgon, and Fleurie. “From the start I decided to be organic, and that represents 90% of the effort,” he says.

Julien’s house, stylishly converted from a cow barn, is at the left; the winery is at the right, with tanks outside to take advantage of the natural cooling of 700m elevation.

“Winemaking is natural, we do not use any of the 250 oenological preparations. We stopped chaptalization and filtration in 2010 and I add only a gram of sulfur at bottling.” The length of maceration varies. “If it’s a rich year I will leave it on the skins and do something generous, but we don’t look for extraction, I won’t do pigeage or pumping over. So even when there is a long maceration, there is not too much extraction. I want the vintage to present itself.”

Julien’s entry level wine is a Vin de France called Wild Soul. It comes from purchased grapes from Beaujolais Villages—the hailstorms of the past two years left many growers short of grapes so that unusually they decided to buy some to augment production—and it shows slightly spicy red fruits with just a touch of aromatics. “This is an example of Gamay made in the old way, when I taste with people from the village they say it’s like the wine their grandparents made. I didn’t invent anything, I’m just trying to forget the last 60 years.” It’s declassified to Vin de France because of continuous problems getting the agrément for the AOP. “The people who do the agrément don’t like my style, they like thermovinification [a winemaking method that critics say homogenizes wines]. I’ll play the game for the Crus, but for this I wanted to emphasize the domain.”

For the Crus, wines are transferred to barriques before fermentation has ended, so they really get some exposure to lees as they age. In 2016, the Regnié is smooth and silky, the Fleurie is smooth and spicy with hints of Fleurie’s fleshiness showing, and the Morgon is taut, crisp, and precise. Julien points out that when he was at Mommessin he found an old wine list showing that in the 1920s, the Crus of Beaujolais priced the same as Chambolle Musigny, and although he doesn’t say it, you feel that his aim is get back there.

Cuisine is Alive and Well in France: A New Gastronomic Destination in the Beaujolais

The death of cuisine in France has been greatly exaggerated. Perhaps nowhere but France could there be a tiny village with two restaurants as innovative as those in Saint Amour Bellevue, in deepest Beaujolais.

Established by chef Cyril Laugier and his wife Valérie in 1996, Auberge du Paradis in Saint Amour has been my watering hole in the Beaujolais for several years. The hotel has a great atmosphere; Cyril and Valérie are what the French would call très sympa. A boutique hotel, the building gives the impression of having been constructed over time from several different buildings, so there all sorts of unexpected turns as you find your way to your room. Decoration is very stylish, if somewhat idiosyncratic; I suppose I would describe it as French/Italian modern. Breakfasts give the most fantastic send-off before spending a day tasting: I use the plural because they are different every day—even the jams, uniquely spiced, are different every morning. Cyril serves the breakfast himself.

The restaurant obtained a much deserved Michelin star in 2014. The current menu starts with a sorbet of aubergine, with a curry vinegar, and basil herbs. The subtle Asiatic influences made this the killer dish for me. It was followed by tuna, marinated with herbs, confit peppers, and Kashmiri influences. Then there was pork that had been marinated in soy, before being cooked in the oven, together with a spaghetti of cucumber. The desert was equally innovative, raspberries with cream of roses. Overall, the style of cuisine seems to have become more forceful over the years I have been coming here.

The restaurant at Auberge du Paradis was redecorated in 2014 and is elegant and spacious.

Within a hundred yards across the street is a more recent arrival, 14 Fevrier (named for Valentine’s day) by Japanese chef Masafumi Hamano, who came to France in 2004 after working at a French restaurant in Tokyo. He started the restaurant in 2013 and obtained a star from Michelin immediately. The elegant restaurant shows a Japanese aesthetic and the cuisine is modern French with a Japanese twist. Amuse bouches included a hibiscus macaroon, a verbena macaroon, and vichyssoise with a watermelon sorbet. The first course was described as a pana cotta, but at first sight had nothing to do with it. It turned out the pana cotta was underneath a gelée of turnips. The surprise combination of flavors made this the killer dish for me. The next course was cobia (a meaty white fish) in a lobster sauce. The combinations of unexpected flavors can be a bit tricky to match with wine, but all worked brilliantly.

14 Fevrier is stylish and spacious with a Japanese aesthetic.

A feature of these restaurants, as well as many others visited on this trip, has been the treatment of vegetables. I remember that when l’Arpège, the three star in Paris, changed to a vegetarian menu some years ago, it was regarded with a certain degree of suspicion. But now treating vegetables as an important component in their own right, not merely an accompaniment, has become common. I might go so far as to say that this month in France has been an education in vegetables, coming both from the exceptional quality of the produce to innovative treatments.

Being in Beaujolais, both restaurants have excellent wine lists with many reasonable choices. At Auberge du Paradis, we had a top Pouilly Fuissé, the 2009 Instarts from Château Beauregard. The richness of the year is beginning to overtake Beauregard’s classic style, but the wine is at its peak now. At 14 Fevrier, we tried a white Nuits St. Georges, les Terres Blanches from Daniel Rion, also 2009, which was interesting as we had tasted the range of reds at the domain a couple of days earlier; it showed the same sense of textured power.

Both restaurants essentially have a single menu, which changes periodically. (At 14 Fevrier there is an alternative choice for the fish course.) I do not know what criteria Michelin has for awarding stars—I am not sure that anyone knows, including the Michelin inspectors—but both restaurants have one star. The food at both shows a level of innovation and complexity that would suggests two star, so I suspect the holdback is the fact that each presents only a single menu, with little or no choice. But Saint Amour is the place to go in the Beaujolais.

A Bad Experience at the Bistro of the Hotel de Beaune

I wish restaurants would adopt rational policies on corkage (as I argued in my previous blog). Alas, rationality in wine policy has not reached France, where I am spending July. I had a particularly bad experience at the Bistro of the Hotel de Beaune. Since Beaune is the center of the wine trade in Burgundy, you might expect some sympathy towards people who want to drink special bottles of wine for one reason or another. While there are some restaurants with a good attitude, the Hotel de Beaune is particularly hostile.

One of my visits on the Côte de Beaune was to Albert Grivault, where after a tasting of Meursault and its premier crus, M. Bardet opened an old bottle to illustrate its aging potential. “If Meursault had a Grand Cru, it would be the Clos des Perrières,” he said, as he opened a bottle of the 1985 from his monopole. It was splendid: mature but not too tertiary, with a faint trace of minerality. (What a counterpoise to the problems of aging whites in the Age of Premox!) After the tasting, he very kindly gave us the bottle to finish off with dinner.

We were staying at the Hotel de Beaune, which I have regarded as my watering hole in Beaune more or less ever since it opened, and we eat at the bistro once or twice on every visit. We always order a bottle from the list, but this time I took the Clos des Perrières along and asked if as a favor we could drink it with our meal. The waiter went off to ask his boss, who went off to ask the owner, and then came back to say “Pas Possible.” I explained that this was an unusual situation, and that we had to drink the bottle that evening because it had been opened and would not keep, I offered to buy a bottle from the list but drink the Clos des Perrières instead, but “Pas Possible.”

The bistro at the Hotel de Beaune where the attitude has become “pas possible”.

So we took our bottle and went round the corner to L’Ecrit Vin, where the reception could not have been more different. “You have a special bottle, we have special glasses,” said the owner cheerfully, producing some Riedel Burgundy glasses. The staff all showed interest in the wine, which was magnificent: I had been concerned that over some hours since opening it might have become too tertiary, but it went the other way, with its innate minerality really coming to the fore. It seemed younger six hours after opening than in the initial tasting.

I recognize that restaurants can establish whatever policy they like with regards to corkage (and obviously they don’t want people to bring cheap bottles they bought in the town), but as I pointed out in my previous blog, an inflexible policy seems economically against their own interests. The Bistro of the Hotel de Beaune was not full that evening, so all their policy accomplished was the loss of two covers. In case it seems that my description of the Hotel as hostile seems exaggerated, I can only describe our departure. I had not met the owner of the Hotel de Beaune, Johan Björklund, on our previous visits, but he made a point of coming to speak to us when we checked out of the hotel: “I hope you never come back,” he said. Indeed we will not.

A Win-Win Proposal for Wine in Restaurants

For people who believe that enjoying a meal requires a fine bottle of wine to match the food, dining out is becoming problematic. When I started eating out, markups on wines in restaurants usually brought the wine to about double the retail price. (Yes, I realize that makes me sound like Methuselah.) At that level, I certainly felt free to experiment and to try new wines that might interest me. In fact, I often made discoveries from restaurant lists.

With markups now usually bringing wine to three or even four times retail, this is a completely different game. Couple this with sharp increases in retail prices from classic wine regions, and this means that it becomes more or less prohibitive to order Bordeaux or Burgundy from a restaurant list.

Enter corkage. While once it was all but impossible to find restaurants that would let you bring your own wine, this has now become much easier in London and New York, to the point at which there are enough choices that I feel able simply  to avoid restaurants that do not have a corkage policy. It’s especially noticeable that new restaurants, for whom the cost of establishing a good wine list is significant, seem more reasonable about corkage than longer established restaurants.

Offering the sommelier a taste when you take a wine to restaurant sometimes leads to an interesting discussion. I was enormously impressed by one restaurant in London which not only has a reasonable corkage policy, but where the sommelier reacted to my bottle of Cabernet Sauvignon from Provence by saying, “I like your wine, it is very interesting, and I will investigate getting some for our list.”

It is noticeable (perhaps counter intuitively) that it’s the restaurants that have an interest in wine, and which really try to have interesting wine lists, that are more receptive to corkage than those who simply buy their list from a distributor and regard it as no more than a profit center. Whatever the quality of the list, I think the restaurant is acting against its own economic interests by refusing to allow corkage. Unless the food is basically sold at break-even, and all the profits come from selling wine, what purpose does it serve in effect to tell winelovers to go somewhere else. Unless the restaurant is always full, all that has been accomplished is to keep a table empty.

A rationale way to handle corkage would be to charge the average profit on a bottle of wine. That way it would make no difference to the restaurant whether you brought a bottle and paid corkage or bought from the list. Another would be simply to charge the cost of the cheapest wine on the list (and the restaurant comes out ahead because they get to keep the bottle). Is it too much to ask that restaurateurs should realize it’s a win-win situation to have a corkage policy that is financially neutral for their bottom line?