Monday, 26 May 2014

Gourt de Mautens, Rasteau, France


'The best growers all know that to ‘live their passion’ demands relentless, hard work. As they looked pensively at the apparent Fat Cat from London (namely moi) swanning around France, Laurent Vaillé, Thierry Allemand and Jérôme Bressy have all said the same words to me: “my work is never finished, David”. If they think I am a Gros Chat, they should meet Tristram and Rupert in their red pantaloons from Corduroy, Brogue and Tweed, a fictitious and stereotypical but entirely believable London wine merchant. I am an under-nourished kitten in comparison'.

My overriding impression on meeting Jérôme Bressy for the first time, the vigneron and owner of this very impressive, small domaine in Rasteau, is that he is a brave mec. You know, honest, down-to-earth, utterly unpretentious. He is a triumph of substance over style in contrast to the that shallow ‘celebrity’ culture, as practised by all those halfwits who have seen their so-called ‘careers’ go down the swanny after floundering on all those reality shows like ‘I’m a Knob Get Me Out Of Here'.

No, Jérôme is here for the long haul, carrying out his work diligently and honestly, knowing that manners makethman and from acorns great oaks grow. Or to adapt this into vinous form, from great vitis vinifera and terroir, great wine can be made. And in this field and terroir, Jérôme is a genius.                                

And he loves wine, food and rugby. The man can do no wrong in my eyes. Giscard, François I, Jacques, Sarko, François II and all the other introspective, myopic énarques in Paris could learn/could have learned a thing or two from Jérôme on how to create value and appeal to the common people. He is a genuine force for good.

A deep thinker, Jérôme told me “the hardest is always best and makes the best wine”. He reminds me a lot of Laurent Vaillé of La Grange des Peres and Thierry Allemand of Cornas. All three of them have a punishing, Lutheran-type work ethic which frames their lives, based on hard work, determination, frugality and a never-ending search for improvement. They are never satisfied. Jérôme doesn't want to make more wine – he just wants to make better wine. And neither does he want to cultivate publicity.

He is a passionate advocate for authentic, naked, natural, artisanal (but not faulty) wines. Like a Gallic gladiator, he protects his land and practices from the meddling bureaucrats who add nothing but try to take everything. He is determined to uphold the traditions and do what he thinks is right in the face of the economically illiterate fonctionnaires (one of France’s worst creations) who he thinks are destroying the culture. “Ça me fait si mal” he says wistfully.

Like so many great wines in France now, he has declassified his wines as VdP because he doesn’t want to comply with local appellation rules. He feels they stop him making great wines. The Rasteau appellation requires the use of at least 25% each of Syrah and Mourvèdre (which he doesn't have) and the use of 10-15% of other varieties (which he doesn't have). Some varieties are banned and he wants to use these because he makes great wine. Rules are for fools.

He just wants to create a Vin de Terroir and wants freedom to be able to do this.

They all know that to ‘live their passion’ demands relentless, hard work. Looking pensively at the apparent Fat Cat from London (namely moi) swanning around France, Laurent, Thierry and Jérôme have all said the same words to me: “my work is never finished, David”. If they think I am a Gros Chat, they should meet Tristram and Rupert in their red pantaloons from Corduroy, Brogue and Tweed, a fictitious and stereotypical but entirely believable London wine merchant. I am an under-nourished kitten in comparison.

In my opinion, this is the greatest domaine in Rasteau, with Jérôme using organic farming and employing natural and authentic methods which result in wines of extraordinary concentration and terroir. The grapes are situated on Rasteau terroirs whose soil of chalky clay and marl regulate water and give the wines minerality and character. The wines are between 30-100 years old and they are all pruned using the Gobelet method – a method which was diminishing due to mechanical harvesting.

There is no sophisticated laboratory equipment here to help him. He constantly tastes them and completely relies on his palate to make then best wines possible.

He is well read and a disciple of the great and the good of naturally made, French wines such as Nicolas Joly, Henri Bonneau, Jean-Louis Chave. You can see the influence of all three in his wines.

Gourt de Mautens is also a fabulous, memorable name which dates from 1635 and means, when translated from old Provencal, ‘Bad Weather Spring’. It is where water springs up from the chalky clay and marly soil when it rains.

His wines
The reds are made from Grenache Noir (typically 50-70% depending on the year), Carignan, Mourvèdre, Syrah, Counoise, Cinault, Vaccarese and Terret Noir.

They are carefully hand picked, sorted and then sorted again on the sorting table. The full crop is crushed together and naturally fermented in truncated wooden vats. Ageing takes place in casks, demi-muids and concrete vats for between 24-26 months. They are bottled unfined and unfiltered. They can age for 15-20 years.

His whites are made from Grenache Blanc, Clairette Blanche, Bourboulenc, Picardin, Picpoul, Roussanne, Viognier and Marsanne.

His rosés are made from Grenache Noir, Carignan, Mourvèdre and Counoise.

His whites and rosés are made in a similar way – carefully sorted, gently pressed, manual fermentation, ageing in demi-muids and stainless steel vats for 10-18 months. They are bottled unfined and unfiltered. Both can age (yes, even the rosé) for 10-15 years.

His rosé is not like any other rosé I have tasted. It needs to be drunk (not too chilled) with food. It was made in 2010 but isn’t made in every year.

He usually harvests late to optimise maturity, and take advantage of the cold Mistral wind which allows the grapes to concentrates slowly the tannins to soften. He normally finishes the harvest by early October but this year’s will finish three-four weeks late. The Mourvèdre wasn’t picked until the end of Oct.

Here are the other key facts:

·         The domaine goes back 6 generations. Before they made their own wine, they sold grapes to the local coop. His first vintage was in 1996. Before they sold grapes to the coop.

·         The whole domaine went organic in 1989      

·         He farms 13.5 hectares. He only has 1 full time employee and employs 8 people in vineyard during harvest.

·         He should be making 50,000 bottles but he makes about 15000 although this year (2013), he is making 6-8000 due to coulure which badly affected the Grenache. He has very low yields of 10-15hl/h.

·         Since 2001, he has used no new wood.

·         Since 2007, he has employed no destemming and does whole bunch fermentation.

·         His grape by grape triage is very exact.

·         His vines are circa 40 years old. There are 7 different plots where his grapes come from. He uses only gobelet for tying his vines because it is very important for the health and quality of the vines.

·         He presses the grapes very slowly. For each of his 3 wines, he ferments all the different grape varietals together in the vats and adjusts accordingly during cuvaison. There is no pigeage and no special cuvée.

·         According to Jérôme, 80% of wine in Cote du Rhone is machine harvested in an effort to make more and more wine, cheaper and cheaper, whatever the effect on the quality and traditions. He thinks is destroying the culture.

The wines we tasted

2008 Red
A powerful, rich wine for autumn with aromas of game and cèpe. It needs decanting but I have now had it twice (first time in Jérôme’s cellar and second time at home over dinner with friends) and thought it was a fantastic – and this was a difficult vintage. This isn’t a silky, oaky, fruit bomb; it is a traditionally made vin de terroir with cherries from the Grenache and earthy, gamey flavours from the Mourvèdre. It was slightly reduced and whiffy on the nose to begin with but decanting sorted this out quickly. It has a great spine of acidity so has freshness and isn’t heavy. It won’t appeal to sanitised palates which are used to international styles but they aren’t the target audience. I have just ordered another case which I know won’t last long.

2009 Red
This was a good year in these parts. The wine is darker than 2008 and has more of the garrigue on the nose plus the cherry and earthy aromas on the nose and palate. It is supple on the nose, if that makes sense, more so than the 2010. It is a rich, gras, unctuous wine with fine-grained tannins but these still need to soften a little. I ordered a case for laying down.

2010 Red
This was only bottled 6 months ago so is still settling down. There is a lot of kirsch on the nose and the tannins are very present on the palate. This was another good year so it should be a rich, balanced wine which lasts well over a decade. I ordered a case for laying down.

2011 Red
Tasted from the concrete vats. There is stunning, clean fruit which gives it droiture. We noticed that all the 2011s were drinking more easily than the 2010s although the latter is deemed to be a better year. The 2011 tannins are so silky smooth, they caressed my mouth. These will be bottled in Spring 2014.

1998 Red (drunk at The Quality Chop House, London in October 2013)
It had a muted nose and wasn’t revealing much to begin with. It had been double decanted and then poured from bottle but I think it needed to be decanted into a wide based decanter a good 2 hours before serving. It is very rich though and I ate pigeon and venison with it. The game, cèpes and garrigue reveal themselves after a while but it lacks a little fruit. It has good, smooth tannins with good acidity but the lack of fruit suggests to me that it is on its last legs. There is licorice and a little kirsch on the palate. It is very redolent of sitting in the Vaucluse on a warm Autumn evening.

My eating at this restaurant was as a result of some effective marketing from the Quality Chop House. It was only upon seeing a tweet from them late on the Monday afternoon that I decided to go to the restaurant at late notice that evening. Over an autumnal dinner of venison and cèpes, it was an excellent accompaniment.

2010 Rosé
This was like no rosé I have ever drunk. It is rich and coated the mouth. Unlike Tavel rosés from nearby which can be highly alcoholic, this is balanced and unctuous. It will be the inquisitive wine connoisseur which buys this, not the average rosé drinker over the BBQ – they should stick to the lighter, sweeter stuff.  It is like Jérôme’s white wine but had a touch of peach, red berries and orange peel on the nose and palate. I ordered a case for laying down.

2012 White (from the vat)
This reminded me of Beaucastel’s Vieilles Vignes. It is a combination of mouth coating lusciousness with a spine of cleansing acidity and minerality to keep it honest. It is light yellow with strong aromas of pear, spice, jasmine, honeysuckle and summer flowers. It has focus (what the French call droiture) and the acidity cuts through the fleshiness like a knife through butter. It has enough freshness and body to drink with a variety of foods such as a southern French dish like Bouillabaise or Chicken Provencal. These whites match the herbs and spice of southern Rhone food very well. I ordered a case for laying down.

Sunday, 26 January 2014

The Wine Critic's Critic: Robert Parker, The wine industry’s Godfather. 88/100 points

"Have a look at the banner at the top of his site advertising the “Grand World Tour”. He is about to swoop in, like a vinous-breasted eagle, to a venue near you headlining at events called ‘Gala Hedonist’s Dinner’, ‘Up Close and Personal’ (oh hello) and ‘Masterclass’. These wine events aren’t for the faint hearted – the food will be rich, the wines rare and expensive and the prices high. Good on those (or me, maybe, possibly if I can squeeze the expense past my scrutinising wife) who have the good fortune to attend".

Venerated by his followers across the world, he is the omnipresent, all-powerful Godfather of the industry. His large, stuttering frame towers over it like a monument, his influence undiminished and his status rarely challenged since he made his mark in 1982. In spite of his elevated position, he hasn’t historically sought a high profile even if he’s had one. He has slowly and discreetly built his status (and undoubted financial success) on the back of painstaking independence, commitment and attention to detail. Mario Puzo (the author of that masterpiece The Godfather) would have appreciated Parker’s stature and influence.

Some say that Parker pioneered the whole wine-critic industry. That he was responsible for raising the public’s interest in wine and putting many producers on the map, and he certainly has a point of view which interests wine lovers the world over. He is also a man who clearly loves wine and the people who make it. This passion comes across in spades and a reason why I have respect for him and affection for his site.

But he is also a figure who polarizes opinion. There are many who dislike his influence, tasting notes and scores, and who feel they have a damaging effect on the industry.

Have a read of his recently published article on January 18th when he explodes into a stream of pent-up vitriol against the “perpetration of myths, half-truths, innuendoes and at times outright falsehoods”. The article is the literary equivalent of an inebriated wino after a long day's tasting, ‘wind-milling’ with both arms against all those who have challenged and offended his way of thinking over the last 35 years. By the way, I do think it is odd that he boasts about his “35 years of wine-tasting experience” when he is 66 years old (i.e. 53% of his life). What was he doing for the other 31 years? I am 46 and have been drinking wine for about 30 of those (i.e. 65%), starting with Blue Nun back in the 80’s when I was growing up in Bath, UK. Does that make me a greater expert than him? Yes, I believe it does…

As this article and some of his tasting notes illustrate, he is often criticized for the absoluteness of his opinions and his unwavering self-confidence which have an undue effect on how people make wine. I hear that some of the ovine Bordelais producers fawn obsequiously (allegedly) before the Parker brand when he or one of his entourage comes into town, such is their subjugation to his eponymous business. This is clearly not Parker’s fault but one of the unintended consequences of his success.

His (unintended) influence on wine prices can be significant and there are (allegedly) growers who alter the flavor of their wines to win better scores (destemming, cold maceration, over-extraction, excessive oak) and therefore gain higher prices. Some believe that Parker has a habit for marking styles of certain wines higher than others (e.g. big ripe, oaked Rhones compared to a lighter style of Loire red).

The term “Parkerisation” of wines has been coined which is a term to describe how wines have been stylized to suit Parker’s palate which creates very polished, standardised flavours across the world, weakening a wine’s identity and place of origin. Some feel that he has turned a symbol of individuality, community and culture into an insipid, bland, homogenized, homeless product.

I am sure that some myths about Parker are embellished. I am also sure that he never set out to achieve this or fame or fortune. He set out to transform the whole wine critic approach because he felt critics were biased and benefiting from the largesse of the industry.

It was Parker who started writing extensively about wine without an interest in selling it and he created the 100-point scale which is now used widely by may critics. He took the contrary view about Bordeaux’s 1982 vintage which he rated highly and he proved to be correct.

His and his team’s output is prolific. They produce an issue every 2 months which consists of 2500+ wine reviews and tasting notes from wines right across the world. Their notes are extensive as is his knowledge of the regions and growers. This accumulation of knowledge must mean that Parker’s site has to be the most extensive database on earth.

That his site and information source are impressive is not in doubt. What I do question is the ability of his team to carry on the mantle and influence which Parker has built and exerted over 30 years. Like any business (particularly knowledge-based ones) or family with a dominant figurehead, transition to a new leader will be very difficult and fraught with risk. Parker is a product of his time and when he goes, then his brand can’t possibly retain its exalted status and influence, can it? I don’t think people place nearly as much importance to the opinions of his colleagues’ notes (this is based on anecdotal evidence rather than anything scientific) and this could reduce further as he grows older and his influence in the business wanes. It would take 30 years and the repeat of a unique (by definition, not possible) set of circumstances for another wine critic to achieve what Parker has achieved. I don’t think it isn’t going to happen.

Parker has recently sold part of his business to external investors and brought on some new reviewers, presumably with a view to scale the business, reduce the reliance on Parker and make some money for themselves. Call me a cynic but having worked at the hard edge of business for nearly 25 years, that is what investors will want, whatever they say now.

It remains to be seen how successful this strategy will be, and whether people will keep re-subscribing as Parker’s contribution reduces, or whether they will have to change the business model. What the site does have it a huge database of old vintages tasted and written about by Parker, and these will always be of interest to a serious wine lover. At $99 pa, it is pretty good value.

Have a look at the banner at the top of his site advertising the “Grand World Tour”. He is about to swoop in, like a vinous-breasted eagle, to a venue near you headlining at events called ‘Gala Hedonist’s Dinner’, ‘Up Close and Personal’ (oh hello) and ‘Masterclass’. These wine events aren’t for the faint hearted – the food will be rich, the wines rare and expensive and the prices high. Good on those (or me, maybe, possibly if I can squeeze the expense past my scrutinising wife) who have the good fortune to attend. 

Two things strike me from reading their website:

1.     These have the finger prints of Parker’s new investors all over them. Extending the ‘Parker brand’ and maximizing revenue will be right at the forefront of their minds.

2.     Parker must have a seriously strong constitution, able to withstand enormous quantities of rich food and fine wine. Each stage reads like a month-long, continuous bachelor party. He will need a serious detox after this tour.

The irony of Parker is that while he set out to stop the largesse of the industry by being the independent ‘voice of the consumer’, he has inadvertently had some opposite effects. He has become such a powerful critic his high scores raise prices, making the producers more money. This is turn makes them unaffordable to the majority of the very consumers Parker set out to protect in the first place.

He clearly didn’t set out to achieve this and he guards his independence and principles fiercely but it is what the economists would call an ‘unintended consequence’. Nothing in life is simple is it?

Whilst many complain about his influence, I still very much enjoy his website and reading about some of the greatest wines the world has ever known. I love his passion and communication and writing style because he makes me want to taste the wines and visit the growers. Conversely to, I do spend a lot of time surfing his web site.

In addition to his database, his site offers daily wine news (via a link to, weekly wine buys, best buys and wine education. The also uses video to communicate its knowledge although this is still fairly unsophisticated and not at the level of

His tasting notes do use some flowery language but they are clear and easy to read. Like Molesworth, even if the writer is guilty of over writing, they are easy on the ear. Here is an example of Beaucastel’s Chateauneuf du Pape Roussanne Vieilles Vignes, 2009:

It is a staggering wine of extraordinary complexity and richness. Aromas of rose petals, exotic fruits such as mango and nectarine intermixed with peach marmalade, honeysuckle and crushed pineapple emerge from this full-bodied white along with good acidity and lavish amounts of fruit and glycerin. It offers a nearly out of body wine tasting experience.

Here are my scores for Robert and

Robert Parker and
Generalist web site suitable for the trade, expert amateur and enthusiastic amateur.

Web site look, functionality and ease of use: up to 15 points

Very impressive. It has some useful distinct features such as bulletin boards, results of public tastings and restaurant reviews.

Ability to inform the consumer (keep them up to date on news and events): up to 15 points

The site linked to to provide this information on a regular basis.

Ability to educate the consumer (provide depth and breadth of content): up to 15 points

The site has excellent depth and breadth of content. It is right up there with the best sites although its use of video is quite weak. Not quite as strong as WS or Jancis for breadth. Due to the limited time I have read them, I am also not yet convinced by the quality of the new critics who have joined Parker recently.

Ability to entertain the consumer (so the information and education is easy
to assimilate and enjoy): up to 15 points

This site is more about educating and informing than entertaining although Parker’s writing style is excellent and easy to read. It uses all the media (articles, blogs, videos) in a simple way so is capable of communicating effectively. It could improve a lot on its use of videos – quite limited and not very slick.

Quality of tasting notes: up to 15 points

Parker writes very eloquently and has incredible knowledge.

Overall impression: ability to communicate with target audience, using both online and print media: up to 25 points

It is a very impressive site and source of information.

A grade