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Tag Archives: French wine

Large format wine

Magnums.

Mostly when we think of wine, we think of a bottle holding 75ml, made of glass, with a natural cork. It’s the standard format and one which has been with us for centuries. In fact, this size was only adopted in the US in 1979; prior to that the “standard” in the Sates was 1/5th gallon, 757ml.

In my daily travels and wine tours I sometimes come across half bottles – a Demi, 375ml – mostly in motorway service stations and airplanes. Sweet wines, which may be drunk less often and in smaller quantities, are generally offered in 500ml bottles. In larger sizes I regularly buy Magnums of 1.5L and of course, wine boxes of 2L, 3L, 5L or 10L.

Many large bottle sizes, with delightful Biblical names and volumes of 3 – 30L, are still available in Champagne but also sometimes found in Burgundy and Bordeaux.

One reason people love large-format wine bottles is that they look so impressive on the table. If you have a few guests for dinner you are likely to open a couple of bottles, but a single magnum impresses more! Good looks are merely a happy side effect of these super-sized wines’ real advantage however: they also allow the wines inside to age more slowly.

magnum wine bottles

A few magnums on sale at our local supermarket.

For most of wine’s long history, aging wasn’t an issue. Wine was consumed young and this is still the case for many – perhaps most – of the wines we drink today. Cylindrical wine bottles with cork stoppers did not become commonplace until the end of the 18th century. Among their many advantages was the fact that they allowed wines to be laid down—literally—for aging, with the wine inside keeping the cork moist and the seal tight.

The origins of the magnum, which holds twice as much as a standard 750-ml bottle, is disputed, but magnums soon came to be prized by collectors because of their superior aging qualities. In fact, thanks to their aging advantage, as well as their relative rarity, magnums of older outstanding vintages often sell for far more than double the price of standard bottles at auction. “Length of life, speed of maturity, and level of ultimate quality are all in direct proportion to bottle size,” writes wine authority Hugh Johnson.

A key virtue of any of these larger bottles for ageable red wines is that they offer better defences against some of time’s less positive effects. For example, exposure to air will eventually oxidize wine, causing losses of colour and flavour. The larger the bottle, the smaller the surface-to-volume ratio, because less of the wine is exposed to the small amount of air within the bottle. It therefore keeps better.

In addition, wine in a large-format bottle is cushioned from the outside environment by its own volume. The thermal mass of the larger bottle means that it is relatively better protected against small temperature fluctuations, vibrations, and other disturbances. Of course, even a large-format bottle must be stored under proper conditions, away from light and vibration, with constant temperatures in the 13-18°C (55-to 65F) range. Within that range, the cooler the wine, the more slowly aging will occur and natural cave cellars in the Loire Valley are generally 11°C all year round.

But when conditions are right, larger bottles are an ideal way to allow age-worthy wines to reach their full potential. Our own cellar, built in the 16th century,  currently contains storage racks for around 1300 bottles and we are gradually accumulating a selection of magnums down there –  few from Bordeaux, from Rioja in Spain, down in the Rhone and the south of France and several sparkling wines.

Bag-in-box.

This format was an Australian invention from back in the 1960’s when their main market was for cheap wine sold to unsophisticated clients. It involves putting wine into a heavy plastic bag contained in a cardboard protective box. The advantages of this system are many, with low packaging cost and subsequently lower retail cost, being a major factor.

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A small selection of around one hundred different bag-in-box wines available at the same supermarket.

The primary benefit that bag-in-box packaging offers to consumers, apart from cost, is that it prevents oxidation of the wine during dispensing. After opening, wine in a bottle is oxidised by the air which has displaced the wine poured. Wine in a bag is not touched by air and thus not subject to oxidation until it is dispensed. It is not subject to cork taint or spoilage due to slow consumption and can stay fresh for weeks after opening. This makes it ideal for the drinker of the occasional glass.

Despite having an image problem, especially in the US where it is synonymous with the cheapest of cheap wines, serious winemakers around the world are increasingly packaging this way. We have tasted a number of Bag-in-Box wines since our arrival in France and now have a list of many we are very happy to drink. I am sorry if this horrifies some of you!

The best we have discovered offered in this format are rosé and white wines, but one or two easy-drinking reds are also to be found on the Elliott kitchen shelf on occasions. In that perhaps 80% of wines bought are consumed within a week or two, expensive bottles and corks serve little purpose.

Some wine makers do put inferior wines in their boxes, but others do not, offering a great bargain to purchasers of bulk wine. The only way to find out is to talk to the producer and taste his wine and we have been valiantly doing this research for several years.

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Organic is good; biodynamic is better?

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Call me old-fashioned, but when given the opportunity I always like to give organic wines a try. At Maisons des Vins, those wonderful establishments in the heart of French wine districts where a huge range of local wines can be freely tasted, I will invariably sample one or two organic wines to compare with the others on offer and I am rarely disappointed.

Greniers St Jean tasting of organic wines

Greniers St Jean tasting of organic wines

I was delighted to hear therefore, that on the weekend of the huge Loire Valley wine trade fair in Angers, there were also two or three side events featuring organic and biodynamic wines.

Biodynamics has much in common with other organic approaches in that it emphasizes the use of manures and composts rather than artificial chemicals and pesticides on soil and plants. Methods unique to the biodynamic approach include an emphasis on integrating farm animals, the cultivation of crops and the care of the land. It values local production and distribution systems, the use of local breeds and varieties and the astronomical calendar to guide cultivation timings. The philosophy of biodynamics extends from the field into the wine cellar and beyond.

At the tasting in the beautiful old building called the ‘Greniers St Jean’ we were lucky to bump into Nicolas Joly early in the proceedings. Joly is a leading proponent of biodynamic viticulture and he marked up our exhibitor list with a few “must-see” suggestions from the 125 winemakers at the show. The show featured a good forty Loire producers, including Jolys’ own Coulée de Serrant, now principally run by his daughter Virginie. We tasted a number of his truly splendid white wines: the sublime Coulée de Serrant, minerally Les Vieux Clos, old vine Clos de la Bergerie; these are astonishingly good Chenin Blancs.

Colin hard at work at the Greniers St Jean tasting

Colin hard at work at the Greniers St Jean tasting

We talked at length with organic and biodynamic growers about their principals and their wines and could not fail to be impressed by their passion. Joly felt that the consumer had the right to know what was in his wines and deplored the use of flavourings and artificial yeast, all used perfectly legally by many wine producers, both large and small.

Of the dozen winemakers from Burgundy we were directed to Pierre de Benoit of Domaine de Villaine in the village of Bouzeron. Here, they uniquely grow the local variety called Aligoté d’Or, quite a treat, especially if compared to thin and acid Aligoté Gris, which is most often served with a generous dash of blackcurrant liqueur as the popular aperitif called Kir.  This was a different beast altogether. Both the terroir and the cultivation conspire to reduce yields and highlight the qualities of this grape, producing delicious wines with floral, mineral and pastry flavours.

Around 12% of wines in the Alsace are organic and we very much enjoyed a tasting of Sylvana, Riesling and especially Riesling Grand Cru Pfingstberg at the stand of Domaine Zusslin. Alsace Grand Cru wines maycome from one of over 50 villages, but represent only 4% of the total production of the region. They are well worth seeking out.

From the Minervois in the Languedoc-Roussillon we tasted white wine from another rare grape, Terret bourret, while we were delighted to see Clos du Joncuas representing the Rhone, having bought several of their wines while in Gigondas last year.

How to buy Loire wine

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A selection of wine bought by a client and awaiting shipping to the USA

Many of our clients, after tasting a few wines from the growers and winemakers we visit, are keen to take some of these treasures back home.

We encourage this as you will often not be able to buy the same wines when you return, and certainly not at the same prices. One winemaker was recently telling me that his wines sell for between four and five times more in the USA, so it makes sense to buy at local prices while you are here.

It also rewards the grower for his time and kindness in allowing you to sample his wines.

There is something special about drinking a wine with friends and recalling the wonderful time you had during the trip you made to France last year. And if you can save money at the same time, so much the better!

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The temptations of the tasting room.

If you would like to buy wine during your trip, how do you go about it?

The simplest way is to purchase a case or more of six bottles, or even just a bottle or two, while you are at the vineyard. Most winemakers accept credit cards and within a few minutes the wine is being loaded into the back of the tour car. Wines can cost as little as four or five Euros ($ 5 – 6) but be prepared to pay more for special wines or vintages such as those shown in the photograph. You will find that in the Loire, even the best wines are amazingly affordable.

The next task is to get the wine back home and over the years we have discovered a number of solutions.

  1. Take it back in the suitcase. The cheapest solution involves using your baggage allowance to slip a few bottles in your suitcase. I have seen a case of six bottles go back this way and individual bottles wrapped in clothing to protect them.
  2. Bring it back in the hold of the plane. USA customs allow you to import 36 bottles without problem and may or may not charge you local taxes on entry. There will, of course, be airline fees to pay and it is worth using bubble-wrap to protect the bottles from damage during the flight.
  3. Use ShipItHome vineyards. A few vineyards in the Loire use a system whereby they have already exported their wines to a cellar in the USA. This allows you to buy your wine from the vineyard at French prices and have it delivered direct to your home from the stocks stored in the USA.  Sadly, at time of writing, only four vineyards in the Loire use this system, but clients have been delighted to take advantage of it.  And if you need further supplies later you can just get onto the ShipItHome web site and order more!
  4. Let us call in a specialist shipper. During our tours you are free to buy boxes of wine from any or each of the vineyards we visit. We will take it back home and store it in our cellar, taking care of all the paperwork before calling in a specialist shipper. Your bottles will be repacked into special polystyrene boxes to protect them from damage and from temperature and other shocks which can affect the wine. They are then flown to the States and delivered to your door.  In a recent example a client bought wine from two vineyards, 72 bottles in all, and the transport cost was just slightly more than the cost of the wine, effectively doubling the French price, but still half the US price. We make a charge for this service, in addition to the transport cost. Depending on the quantities shipped, charges vary from 15 – 30 Euros per bottle – in most cases this is  a lot cheaper than buying the same wines in the USA -if they were available.

Individual state laws. Often there will be state, county or city taxes to pay on your wine and charges range from 0% to 6.75%. In addition, a small number of American states will not allow you to import wine: Alabama, Arkansas, Mississippi and Utah. Duty is included in the case of US shipments.

With a range of transport option most visitors from the US are now able to take back some of their favourite Loire Valley wines and save money at the same time. It is a real pleasure to pass on this good news to my American clients.

Salon des Vins de Loire 2014 – the awards

Exhausted but very happy, I spent the day at the Salons des Vins de Loire on Monday, meeting, greeting and tasting with the winemakers of the region and the crowds of trade buyers who had come to make contact and do deals.

Organic Loire Valley Wines stand

Organic Loire Valley Wines stand

This is a huge show and I have promised myself that one year I will do it properly, spending two or three days here and staying at a local hotel. It is the only way to do this exhibition justice.

The annual Concours des Ligers is an important part of the show, handing out awards to the best wines. This year 2283 wines were offered to the judges, who awarded 145 Gold medals, 239 Silver and 256 bronze. These medals will be very important in the sales and marketing of the award winning wines and the competition is hotly contested.

The show and the competition covers the whole of the Loire region but here is my selection of winners from the area I have chosen as home – the appellations of the Touraine and Valençay. If you click on a list it will come up in another window and be easier to read.

Gold

Gold medal winners – concours ed ligers 2014

Silver

Silver medal winners

Bronze

Bronze

I made some valuable contacts, chatting to winemakers who would be pleased to receive our wine tour clients and others who make superb wines which impressed me on a personal level. Everywhere there was pride and passion for the creation of an amazing product in conditions which are often challenging. Its an inspiring place to be.

Salon des Vins de Loire 2014

I have just received my invitation to the Salon des Vins de Loire, one of France’s largest trade wine fairs, to be held at the Parc des Expositions, Angers, between 3rd – 5th February 2014.

Salon des Vins de Loire

The Loire Valley is a vineyard 1000 km long and is the number one producer of AOP white wines and, next Champagne, the number one producer of sparkling wines.

Around 4oo million bottles of wine are produced each year on 70,000 ha of vineyards by 7,000 wine producers. 73 million bottles are exported and 9000 trade buyers from around the world regularly attend. The fair is the venue for one of the most prestigious wine competitions, the Palmarès Ligers, and a highlight of the show is the opportunity to taste many of the winning wines.

At the same time there are usually a number of smaller fairs promoting, for example, Loire Valley organic wines, so the first week of February is always a busy period for us. It’s a tough job, but someone has to do it!

It’s Valentine’s Day!

It’s Valentine’s Day in the Loire Valley!

Angers – centre of the wine world.

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Salons de Vins de Loire

During the first week of February the attention of the wine world focuses to a small town on the banks of the river Maine in central France, in the heart of the Loire Valley wine region.

Angers is the venue for the Salons des Vins de Loire, promoting the third largest wine producing area of France with a production of around 400 million bottles from 70,000 Ha (173,000 acres) of vines.

The Salons des Vins de Loire is the only major exhibition in Europe which features the wines of a single region, with 600 stands receiving around 9,000 wine-trade visitors from around the world. At the same time, eight fringe shows attract these potential clients before, during and after the exhibition, making this the “must see” heart of the wine world, for this week at the very least.

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Vins Anonymes show, Angers

Needless to say I have tickets and I’m very excited to be attending for the first time, but I am also considering which of the other shows I should visit. At the ancient Collégiale Saint-Martin d’Angers the organisation representing a number of young winemakers called Les Vins Anonymes are exhibiting ‘natural’ wines from some thirty French producers, a good selection from the Loire amongst them.

I have been invited to a tasting of organic wines at the Greniers Saint Jean in Angers, whose organisers are also involved in the Diva Bouteille show at the Chateau Brézé, a fantastic venue in the huge underground caves beneath the ancient castle down river from Angers in the Saumur appellation.

This show features a selection of 45 organic wine producers from the Loire, but also some from the regions of Champagne, Alsace, Jura, Savoie, Bourgogne, Beaujolais, Bordeaux and the South-west, Rhône, Languedoc, Roussillon and Provence – Corsica. In addition a number of growers from other European and American countries are coming over for the event.

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Dive wine tasting

This all sounds like a great day out and I have invited our friend Stanley Browne, the ex-Chairman of the Vintners’ Association and a Loire wine expert, to join us on the Sunday. I gather he is arranging train connections from the UK as we speak!

On Monday I shall be working, on my own and concentrating on the Salons des Vins. That should be more than enough excitement for one day.