Wednesday, 4 July 2018

Falling in love with Rioja - the "Cata Estación" experience

We live in troubled times. It seems that everyone is quarrelling with each other, co-operation appears to be a swear word, and working together for a greater good is a mere pipe-dream of out-of-touch hippies. Against this backdrop it was wonderfully refreshing to visit somewhere in the world that represents the antithesis of this; the Haro region of Rioja Alta. In the picturesque, slightly sleepy town of Haro you find the premises of the sub-region’s seven wine producers: Viña Pomal, CVNE, Gómez Cruzado, López de Heredia, Roda, Muga and La Rioja Alta. All of these producers are to be found in the town’s Barrio de la Estación (neighbourhood around the station) as they back onto the local railway station due to the historical importance of being able to load the wine for distribution across the country, and indeed, the world. 

Each of these producers are renowned in their own right for producing wonderful Rioja wine and are fiercely proud of their products and their provenance. Against this backdrop, you’d expect to find a sharp rivalry, or perhaps even open hostility between the producers. Au contraire! Instead, the producers have decided in recent times that their strength lies in their combined value as a sub-region and, building on this, committed to putting on a combined event that showcased the glory of their wines, their terroir and their region. The event is known as the “La Cata del Barrio de la Estación” which translates as "the tasting of the neighbourhood around the station" and takes place biennially. The main event is held over a weekend, where around 3,500 people visit the celebration and partake in the wines. On the Monday afterwards, there is a private tasting for 800 or so sommeliers, wine journalists, wine bloggers. I was lucky enough to be invited to this year’s event, which was the third time that they have held it. Previously I had not tried anything better than mid-level Rioja and was familiar with their pleasant, if somewhat uninteresting, coconut and vanilla sweetness from those oak barrels. I suspected that there was more to Rioja than this and was keen to see if my suspicions would be confirmed! 

A celebratory meal to start 

After the three hour bus ride from Madrid to Haro (note to potential visitors, Bilbao is a much more conveniently situated airport than Madrid for visiting Rioja) we were brought to the La Vieja Bodega restaurant where a stylish canapé reception got the event underway, with speeches from Agustín Santolaya, the current President of Cata Estación wine experience (and MD of Bodegas RODA), as well as the incoming President. We were also treated to an advance preview from Sarah Jane Evans MW, one of the pre-eminent voices on Spanish wine and, in particular, Rioja, who as “Maquinista del Año” (the engine driver for the year, keeping the rail theme going) was to give a master-class the next day. The audience very much represented the great and the good of the wine making community from Haro, as well as from the gastronomic scene and local and international press; an impressive bunch! 

You know this will be a serious dinner!
Dinner was served shortly after the speeches concluded and we were shown to our tables, where the number of glasses on the table told us that we were due to get down to some serious tasting! Each producer selected a bottle from their collection to present at the table, the offerings were: 2009 Viña Ardanza, 2011 Muga Reserva Selección Especial, 2005 RODA I, 2014 CVNE Imperial Reserva, 2012 Alto de la Caseta, 2014 Montes Obarenes Selección Terroir and 2005 Viña Tondonia Tinto Reserva. 

I was immediately impressed with the quality, elegance and beauty of these wines; gone were the heavy, over-used oak notes that are essentially used to disguise poor wine-making. Instead, we were tasting balanced, subtle and delicate, yet powerful wines. Each had its own character and charm, however I had a couple of favourites from the selection. 2005 Viña Tondonia Tinto Reserva from López de Heredia, which had an absolutely dynamite aroma in the glass, really complex with dark black fruit and tobacco notes accompanied by an intriguing smoky profile. On the palate it had touches of ripe strawberry and a bit of cranberry bite. This is a wine that is still young and will only improve with time. I also really enjoyed the 2011 Muga Reserva Selección Especial which had a more elegant and perfumed nose than the López de Heredia; I felt it was almost Burgundian in profile with clove and rose aromas coming to the fore. To taste it had juicy flavours of red cherry and lush plums, all carried off with a beautifully supple elegance. I had been particularly looking forward to the 2014 CVNE Imperial Reserva as I had heard a lot about this particular vineyard; it had a warm, generous, rich and smoky nose that really excited. When tasted it had a front end burst of fruit and spice and a really power and body to the wine, however we were all a little surprised that they chose to showcase a wine so young still - this has 20+ years ahead of it and I would dearly have loved to have seen a wine with a bit more maturity to feel its development and additional complexity. 

The food that we had alongside the wines was also excellent; for a starter we had slices of cod in a Riojan Pisto (obviously!) and a Pimiento Choricero sauce; for main course we were served a slow-cooked tail of beef with a mushroom and foie gras sauce; for dessert we were treated to a caramelised French toast that was rich and decadent (picture on the right). Cooking for an entire restaurant on this kind of scale and to this level is a special skill and was carried off with aplomb. 

During the meal I had the pleasure of company from some of the international press corp with whom I was sharing the meal, but also Victor Charcan (Sales Director, RODA) who was very generous in telling us all about the wines that they make, the challenges that they face in the region and his hopes for the future. It was truly illuminating and helped me to appreciate his wines even more. This was a really excellent evening and a great aperitif before the real business of the following day. 

The main event 

The main event started relatively early the next day and commenced for us with something that I was really looking forward to - Sarah Jane Evans MW’s masterclass. This took us through 14 different wines (two from each producer) with some nice variations, including some older vintages and some whites. It wasn’t done as a tutored tasting, i.e. everyone tasting their way through at the same time; instead, Sarah Jane hosted a number of guest speakers whom she interviewed on varying topics whilst we were making our way through our wines and taking our notes. I should also note, that it was very impressive that Sarah Jane conducted all of these interviews in Spanish - we were given an earpiece which had live translations of the interviews so that we could keep up to speed as they went along; all very technologically impressive! Here is a summary of my notes from the tasting: 


2010 Viña Pomal Gran Reserva - a pleasant, warm nose with black fruit and some sweet spice. Rich and opulent on the palate with a great balance to the wine. 

2010 CVNE Imperial Gran Reserva - notably darker and richer than the Pomal, more plummy and damson notes. Really powerful and weighty wine, with a fair amount of heat to it from some pretty intense tannins. Will be a great wine, but needs five to ten more years. 

2014 Gómez Cruzado Honorable - pleasant nose with compote-style fruit and a touch of perfume. Notably simpler than the previous wines, lighter in style with more delicate fruit notes. Well balanced, if not overly complex. 

2006 López de Heredia Viña Tondonia Tinto Reserva - a relatively quiet nose, with nice ripe strawberry notes. On tasting, I felt that the acidity was quite high, as were the tannins. This felt like it needed another five years to really express itself properly. 

2010 Roda 107 - heady and brooding nose, with dark fruit (black cherry and blackcurrant) and sweet spice notes. A really joyful wine to drink, full of ripeness and richness. There were bags of blackcurrant and clackberry flavours, underpinned by some still fairly insistent tannins. This was pleasurable to drink now, but give it longer and it will reward you for your patience. 

2015 Torre Muga - an expressive nose with plenty of energy. I noted that this tasted like a “coiled spring”, it was full of potential and ready to go! Lots of dark fruit flavours, along with high tannins that gave it a rather grippy mouth feel. 

2017 La Rioja Alta Garnacha de Finca La Pedriza - this was a complete curveball for me; a 100% Garnacha wine and only one year old. It had a beguiling nose that was smoky and sweet with dominant notes of cloves and cinnamon. On tasting, I was surprised at how much I enjoyed this wine - it was full to brimming with rich, red cherry notes; there were tannins, but they weren’t too prevalent. This was a beautifully, elegant wine and one that really surprised me.   

2001 López de Heredia Viña Tondonia - at first this had a slight funk to the nose, but after a bit of time in the glass the aroma got better and better and BETTER! I kept a bit of this one in the glass right to the end, just so I could keep smelling it - beautifully heady mix of dark fruits, along with some woody elements (Hawthorne?); as it evolved it presented sweet spices and then increasingly rose and dark chocolate. Just phenomenal! On the mouth it was a wonderfully elegant wine, that is showing perfectly right now. It still possessed a firm tannic grip, which retained its structure and then lad a long, glorious finish. My favourite wine of the tasting! 

2001 La Rioja Alta Viña Ardanza Reserva Especial - another beautiful nose to this wine, expressive and elegant with touches of floral elements to it. On tasting, there was slightly more body to this wine than the Tondonia, which meant that it retained a real power and weight. This felt like it still had a few years of development ahead of it before it hit its sweet spot. This will be a phenomenal wine. 

2001 Muga Prado Enea Gran Reserva - this was another wine that really grabbed me when I smelled it; plenty of brooding power to it with a dark and stormy profile full of black cherry, blackcurrant, smoky bacon and forest floor notes. On the palate it was pure hedonism from the first sip, silky smooth, rich and opulent, tannins well integrated into the wine, and a finish that went on for well over a minute. An exciting wine that showed how great Muga can be - loved it! 

2001 Roda II - a quiet and understated power to the nose on this wine, slight primary notes of fruit but soon replaced by secondary, more savoury, notes. Another really decadent wine to drink, full of luxuriant blackberry compote notes; all set off with a wonderful balance and a long finish. A beautiful wine now, and one suspects it will still improve with more time. 


2017 Viña Pomal Vinos Singulares Maturana Blanca - a refreshing wine with a pleasant gooseberry and elderflower nose and bags of lemons brightness and vitality on the mouth. 

2015 Gómez Cruzado Montes Obarenes - rich, broad nose with a pie-crust style depth to it. On tasting it possessed a definite oakiness, which gave it a beautiful decadence. This reminded me of a well-made Burgundian Chardonnay - high praise indeed! 

2014 CVNE Monopole Clásico - one of the more interesting wines of the tasting; as well as having a classic grape (Viura), it also had a slight dosage of Manzanilla. The nose was intriguing, plenty of mango/pineapple brightness, but also definite notes of buttery richness. On the mouth it possessed pleasing acidity and balance, with juicy, Amalfi-lemon vibrancy.  

More mornings should be like this...

Following the masterclass, we moved to a food tent where we were given some vouchers that would allow us to purchase food from an array of food stalls. Now, these weren’t just any food stalls, these were food stalls manned (and womanned) by some of the greatest chefs from the Spanish gastronomic scene and had been conceived by such Michelin-starred luminaries such as La Rioja Michelin Star chefs Francis Paniego (from El Portal del Echaurren) and the Echapresto brothers (from Venta Moncalvillo). 

Michelin-starred croquettes!
Of particular note were some absolutely incredible ham and chicken croquettes which were as smooth and creamy as you could hope for. I also particularly enjoyed a local speciality which is known as “shepherds’ bread shavings” served with La Rioja sausage, grapes and an egg yolk (to bind it all together). I had heard about this dish and it had a lovely simplicity to it, yet it was satisfying, rich and just what was needed after a morning wine tasting. We finished our lunch with a dessert, which was the complete opposite of the last dish: complex, thought-provoking and decadent. Created by Juan Angel Rodrigalvarez his “Maravi de Chocolate” dessert was made from delicious, rich dark chocolate, but offset against sea salt and olive oil to add to the flavour profile. It also had some nice textural elements that again served as a good counterpoint against the smooth and luxuriant chocolate.  

Oh! To get in behind that gate...
In the afternoon, the Bodegas opened up their doors and hosted tastings of their own where you could explore their offerings further. I chose to spend a fair amount of time exploring CVNE’s wines and was pleased to find my way onto a tour around their wine cellars, which included discovering a fascinating section of their cellars which was used to mark their centennial (1879 - 1979), they put a bottle of wine from each of the vintages from these years into a vault and then locked it up and threw the key into the local river! Anyone up for trying to find that key?? 

As we were exploring the vaults, we were truly honoured when the Sales Director opened a bottle of 1976 CVNE Imperial for us to try; if you recall, I had been very keen to try an aged wine from this vineyard and where better to try it?! The wine had lost that weight and heaviness from the young wines, but it still possessed a noticeably vibrant burst of acidity. The flavour profile had both softened and evolved with its age, leaving a more complex and interesting wine that really showed how top Riojas benefit from giving them some time. 


I think it should go without saying, but I feel very lucky and honoured to have been invited to this wonderful event. It was beautiful to see these producers coming together to put on this showcase for their wines and their region. As ever, visiting wine regions helps me to understand and appreciate them more; I see the pride and passion of the people who make the wines; I get to know the landscape, the topography, the environment and the terroir; and you start to understand the history and the provenance of the wines and the region. I will now be a lifelong fan of the wines from this region and am already looking out for them on the wine lists of restaurants that I visit. 

Thank you so much to the organisers - especially Blanca and Maria, who did a phenomenal job in looking after us, both before and during our stay. 

In the spirit of full disclosure; I did not pay for this trip, however nor was I paid to write the article. The opinions within this article are, nonetheless, my honest opinions.

Tuesday, 17 April 2018

Beer Glasses: Which to use for each type of beer

Image from PersonalCreations
A few years ago I was lucky enough to go on a Riedel wine glass masterclass: the aim being to discover whether the overall design of the glass make a difference to the contents. I have to admit I was slightly sceptical at the start, but an open mind is a wonderful thing and before long the Pinot Noir in my balloon glass was a world away from what I expected.

It's not just wine this applies to though. What you choose to serve your beer in could make all the difference between an average pint and a beer experience.

I want to show you the most common types of glass and what they mean to liquid inside them, so here's my handy beginner's guide to beer glasses:

The American Pint Cone

Originally designed for ease of stacking and shelf space efficiency, the cone glass is the most popular style of glass for most beers. Thick glass walls and a simple cone shape originally used for durability also contribute to temperature maintenance and do allow for a greater aroma release. You'll find most lagers and American styles of beer are presented in one of these.
£13.99 for a 6 pack from Drinkstuff

The Nonic, or 'English' Pint glass

Identifiable by the bulge that protrudes from just under the rim of the glass, this is the innovation of the English glass industry. The rim of the glass is far more durable thanks to the bulge. This glass can be seen in pretty much any English pub and can be used to serve anything bar a few speciality beers. What's more, the bulge actually makes it a little bit easier to hold!

£6.25 for a 4 pack from Amazon

The Stemmed Thistle

Mainly used for much more hoppy styles of beer such as IPAs, many Belgian styles and strong ales, this is so called for its resemblance to the Dutch flower. With a bulbous bottom and a flared top, it aids in massive amounts of aroma release, shows off the colour and maintains the head of the beer. The stem also keeps it away from surfaces to keep it cool.
£14.99 for a pack of 6 from DrinkStuff. I actually have a set of these and they are fantastic!

The Chalice or Goblet

Generally used to serve Belgian beers, German Doppelbocks and most high strength 'sipping beer', the difference between the two is minimal. Goblets are generally thinner and chalices sometimes have a widget at the bottom to allow the flow of carbon dioxide, but both are stemmed glasses with large bowls.

£24.99 for a 6 pack from Amazon

The Stein

The hallmark of the German beer festival (and often forgotten by some that it holds a litre and not a pint), this glass is easily identified by its large handle and sometimes by a lid operated by the thumb. The thick walls keep the beer cold while the handle stops heat transfer from the hand. Typically used for most lagers, these can made from glass, porcelain or even wood.
£6.99 per glass from Drinkstuff

So does it actually make a difference? There is no hard and fast rule for what beer should be consumed from what vessel, but there are certain benefits to different glasses. Imagine drinking red wine from a champagne flute... you wouldn't do it right? 

Tuesday, 3 April 2018

What does "ageing" mean when it comes to wine?

One of the concepts that is talked a lot about when it comes to wine, is the effect of "ageing". If you ask the average person in the street they will most likely tell you that an "old" wine is better than a "young" wine. Is this true? Is this always true? What happens to a wine as it ages that makes it get better? How do different approaches to ageing wines affect the wine itself? These are the some of the questions that I was hoping to get into when I organised a wine tasting with my friends at Theatre of Wine recently.

Our tasting session was guided by Ruby who started us off with a 2017 Nerleux Saumur Blanc (Loire, France) which is a classic example of a wine that is supposed to be drunk when it is young; it had a slightly tropical, pineapple nose and a crunchy green apple bite to the taste. This was simple and pleasant and leaving it to age wouldn't improve this wine. From this wine we went on to something completely different - 2016 "Pheasant's Tears" (Georgia) made from the Tsolikauri grapes and aged in the traditional Georgian way in a Kvevri, which is a large earthenware egg-shaped pot used to age the wine. This is probably the oldest wine-making method in the world and gives a very interesting result; the wine is an orange wine, which means that it has had some skin contact as it was in the kvevri giving it more colour and more tannic bite. The result is remarkable, a rich, buttery nose with a surprisingly bright and acidic taste to it with a broad spectrum of flavours.

Our next wine was a thing of beauty, but also in true Theatre of Wine-style somewhat of a curve-ball; a 2006 Chateau La Louviere Blanc (Pessac-Leognan, Bordeaux). This wine is a blend made predominantly from Sauvignon Blanc, but what makes it most interesting is that it is a screw-cap wine - something that is very rarely done in this renowned part of the wine-making world. The nose to this wine was almost enough to put you off drinking it, extremely reductive - like someone had let-off in your glass! However, once you get past this it had a really broad flavour profile with notes of Amalfi lemons (juicy and delicious) and an incredibly long and balanced finish. The concept of ageing this in a screw-capped bottle was a timely reminder that it is not as simple as "wines age better with a cork". As a contrast to this wine we went to one of my favourites, a 2006 Schloss Saarstein Riesling Spätlese (Mosel, Germany) which was a traditionally aged German Riesling, where the grapes had been left on the vines for a little longer to allow the sugar content to rise and produce a sweeter wine. The nose was full of Seville oranges, but I also noticed a touch of eucalyptus to it as well which gave the wine more complexity. On tasting it was like biting in to a sweet, juicy orange with a finish that went on for minutes. Oh my...!

After these delicious wines Ruby threw us another Theatre of Wine curve-ball, a 2016 Niepoort Nat Cool Baga (Bairrade, Portugal), which is part of a project being undertaken by Niepoort's Dirk Niepoort aiming to create low-intervention, low-alcohol content, easy-drinking wines. This particular wine was made from the Baga grape and is served from a 1L bottle. The wine is best served chilled and had a slightly funky nose, on tasting it reminded me of a young, fresh Beaujolais. A pleasant, if slightly unremarkable wine. Classic summer's afternoon, BBQ wine.

Next up we could have some fun! We were given two wines from the same vineyard (Chateau Barbe Blanche Cuvee Henri IV, Lussac St Emilion) but two different vintages. The first was a 2012, which had a nice, forward-facing fruit drive to it. The second vintage was older, but we were told to guess the vintage. It had some more tertiary notes to it, so I thought it would potentially be the 2005 due to some wines that I had tasted when I was in St Emilion a couple of years ago; it was in fact a 2006. But it was a really interesting experience to be able to taste the two wines side by side and compare and contrast to see what effect the same wine has by both vintage variation and the ageing process itself.

Now we moved on to some real blockbusters! We started with a 1999 Valpiculata (Toro, Spain) made from Tempranillo grapes which are known be a grape variety that ages particularly well. This had a really interesting nose to it, full of coffee, tarmac and beef stock notes; with tasting notes of licorice, black cherry and treacle. Amazingly, this wine only retails at £15/bottle; I bought two! After this we moved on to a wine legend, a 2004 Oikonomoy Sitia (Crete, Greece) which has developed a bit of a cult following. Made from a blend of Liatiko and Mandilari, this was their attempt to show that the wines of Greece can be made to be as classical and elegant as those of the finest wine regions in the world. The nose to this wine was heady and enticing featuring notes of red cherry, damson and a touch of rose. On the palate it was silky smooth and elegant, really classy and absolutely delicious. If you had told me this was a £100+ bottle of Burgundy, I would have easily believed you. We finished our tasting with a 1985 Moulin Touchais Coteaux du Layon (Loire, France), in the glass it sat proud and orange giving a real hint of the 30+ years that it has aged. On smelling, it had a bright nose with a little hint of something that reminded me of sherry. The mouth to this wine was beautifully rounded and deliciously balanced, sweet with juicy oranges and ripe apricots. The finish went on for minutes and minutes and when we tried this wine with a goose mousse it was basically heavenly. What a set of wines to finish this fascinating (and extremely enjoyable) tasting!

So, what did we learn over the course of this tasting? Firstly, not all wines are made with the idea that they should be aged; secondly, different ageing techniques give different results; and thirdly, ageing, when done right, can really add some interesting textural complexity to wines and develop them into something magical. 

Thank you to Ruby and the Theatre of Wine crew for a great job on a wonderful tasting. I look forward to the next one already!               

Monday, 12 February 2018

Boozy Pancake Day: Ricotta Pancakes with Cherry Cassis Sauce

Although we're all probably panicking, because somehow we've got to February, and somehow we haven't managed to stick to our resolutions... FEAR NOT. It's Pancake Day tomorrow!

I know we can technically have pancakes any time of year - trust me, they're a staple weekend brunch in my house - but there is just something a little special about having them on Shrove Tuesday. There's a national-insert-your-food-name-here-day practically every day at the moment (who makes these up?), but Pancake day is a tradition that is never ignored. And rightly so. 

We've had rum butter crepes and savoury galettes on Vinspire in previous years - both equally delicious - but this year we're doing something a little more decadent; Ricotta Pancakes with Cherry Cassis Sauce... *drool*

If you've not had them before, you might think that using ricotta would make a heavier pancake, but it's quite the opposite. A step up from the fat American ones, they're light, cheesecake-y, and would work just as well for dessert as they would for breakfast. 

Of course, you could add whatever topping you flippin' well like, but as we love cooking with booze, it had to be something alcoholic didn't it? Juicy cherries cooked in crème de cassis, sweetened with date syrup and given a bit of zing from a squeeze of lemon juice. 

Cassis is such a strong flavoured liqueur, so in order for it to not taste like you've doused your pancakes in Ribena, you really need to jazz it up. Cherries aren't quite enough on their own, so date syrup, which is used a lot in Middle Eastern cookery, adds a wonderful depth. If you don't have it, any sort of syrup will do - maple/honey/agave/golden - it's personal preference.

I'll definitely be whipping up another batch of these tomorrow, so let me know if you're going to join me! Pancake parties all round...

Ricotta Pancakes with Cherry Cassis Sauce(serves 2)

For the pancakes:
  • 250g ricotta cheese
  • 2 eggs
  • 5 tbsp plain flour
  • 2 tbsp caster sugar
  • 1/2 tsp baking powder
  • 1 tsp vanilla extract
  • 1 tbsp oil, for frying
For the cherry sauce:
  • 1 punnet of cherries (approx 15), pitted and halved 
  • 75ml crème de cassis 
  • 1 tbsp date syrup
  • Juice of 1/4 lemon
  1. To make the sauce, heat the cassis, syrup and lemon juice in a small pan, then add in the cherries. Cook over a medium heat for 10 minutes, or until the cherries are tender. Put to one side whilst you make the pancakes and reheat just before serving. 
  2. To make the pancakes, beat the ricotta in a large mixing bowl until smooth and creamy. Add the eggs one at a time, then beat in the flour, sugar, baking powder and vanilla extract to form a batter. 
  3. Heat a frying pan over a medium-high heat, drizzle in a bit of oil, and smear across the pan using a piece of kitchen paper. Drop generous tablespoons of the batter into the pan. 
  4. Cook for a couple of minutes, flip them over and cook for another minute or so, until lightly browned and cooked through. 
  5. Keep the cooked pancakes warm in the oven, and repeat until all the batter is used up. 
  6. Serve hot with the warm cherry cassis sauce poured on top. 

Saturday, 10 February 2018

Celebrating 200 years of Calvet wine: a whistle-stop tour of Bordeaux

While the name ‘Grand Chais de France’ may not immediately mean anything to you, if you’ve bought wine from a supermarket before, you’ll probably have picked up a bottle of one of its brands before, which includes Grand Sud, JP Chenet, and Calvet.

The Calvet brand has been part of Grand Chais de France – the world’s biggest exporters of French wine – since 2006. I struggle to wrap my head around the numbers, but its global turnover in 2016 stood at 990m euros, which is pretty staggering.

The UK was Calvet’s first market, and now Calvet is the top French brand in the UK. In 2016, it sold more than 7m bottles (more than 14m worldwide over 110 countries). Although, if you think that figure is big, France produces between 7-8 billion bottles of wine a year.

And the figures just keep on coming. One in three bottles from the Bordeaux region sold in the UK is a bottle of Calvet, and it’s the English market leader for wines from Alsace and the Loire.

Wine from the Loire region in particular is on the up. In 2016, Calvet sales were up by 389,000 bottles. Perhaps no surprise is that Rose d’Anjou saw one of the biggest increases, along with Cahors Malbec. I’ve certainly noticed people drinking more Rose and Malbec over the past couple of years…

Calvet’s 200th anniversary

GCF may only have been founded in 1979, but Calvet is celebrating its 200th anniversary in 2018. Along with a programme of events throughout the year, the company has released a new range of wines exclusively for the on-trade market (hotels, bars and restaurants). The wines are in three tiers: C de Calvet – a Sauvignon Blanc, Merlot, and rose (what else do you hear people order in pub chains and restaurants?); Heritage for AOP wines (Appellation d'Origine Protégée which has replaced the old AOC category); and Cuvée 1818, a Bordeaux ‘icon wine’ to celebrate its anniversary.

Its Cuvée 1818 is a new blend developed by a winemaker who has been with Calvet for 20 years. It’s a relatively new concept to develop Calvet into the on-trade. While French wines have been the number one seller in retail in the UK, there has hardly been any on-trade sales.

On top of a new wine to mark the anniversary, Calvet is planning lots of promotional activities, adding gold ‘200’ medals to its wines in the UK, and creating some special edition labels.

Calvet and Grand Chais

Grand Chais has continued to develop as a company since it was founded by Joseph Helfrich in 1979. It started out as a negociant – very briefly: people who buy wine in various stages (grapes, juice or finished) before bottling it and selling it to market – bottler and distributor, but has started to acquire more estates too, especially in the Bordeaux region.

The Grand Chais portfolio now consists of more than 150 different wines… in the bottling plant we learnt that this means it has more than 14,000 different Stock Keeping Units (SKUs – an ID code for a product), different blends for different markets, different bottles and labels for different markets, and in some cases, the same wines bottled under both screwcap and cork, depending on where they are going. There was so much research into what works in which market. For example, why medals on bottles work in some countries, but other places actively turn away from them.

On a whistle-stop tour, we visited a few of Calvet’s properties in Bordeaux, along with Grand Chais’ bottling plant outside Saint Emillion, and the Cru et Domaines de France vinification centre in Saint Savin.

Grand Chais bottling plant – outside Saint Emillion

Just outside St Emillion in Bordeaux is Grand Chais’ largest bottling plant. The scale is incredible. I used to work in automotive logistics and Grand Chais’ bottling plant was bigger than some car factories I’ve visited.

No vinification takes place here. The wine arrives in trucks from vineyards far and wide, with 90 trucks arriving a week. Each truck holds 20,000-24,000 litres of wine, and the plant can work through up to 700,000 bottles a day, or 150m bottles a year!

But it’s not all on such a huge scale, and the plant can manage smaller blends too, of around 5,000 litres or so. The plant has 50 tanks in total, and the wine is kept in tank for between three and nine months, depending on the quality.

While we were there the whole place smelled like sweets, as they were currently in the process of bottling Tesco’s Bucks Fizz for Christmas.

The facility also has a considerable grand cru storage area, with capacity for one million bottles worth 38m euros… that’s a lot of very, very tasty wine.

Cru et Domaines de France (CDF) vinification centre in Saint Savin

On a slightly smaller scale, but still a large operation, is the CDF vinification centre in Saint Savin. CDF is the Bordeaux specialist for GCF. It’s a New World-style facility that was built in 2000.

Frederick, who is in charge of winemaking at the facility explained that they don’t own any vines, but have a pool of 70 grape growers working over 700 hectares who they buy from. And because of what they pay the growers, they don’t have too many competitors.

Being fussy in the UK, Frederick said the UK market now demands traceability all the way back to the vineyard, and considers tradition to be really important. The market also dictates what wines are going to sell. CDF wanted to sell Bordeaux Blanc in the UK, but changed it to Sauvignon Blanc because of the huge demand. The wine they created is a mix of the Loire and New Zealand style, and comes with a screw cap. They made their first bottle of it in 2000, and it now sells more than 1m bottles a year…

Frederick says that due to changes in consumer taste, politics, the environment, and economics, it’s impossible to carry on winemaking in the same way. Usually, growers pick grapes around 15 days before the classic harvesting date, but for the same maturity of grape, the date changes by around 15 days +/- every year.

For the 2017 harvest, the final grape maturity was 10-12 days early, and without the frost – where they lost 60% of grapes in the Cotes de Blaye area – it could have been a great year. However, in total, the facility still processed 4000 tonnes of grapes in 2017.

Five wines to try

Over our two day trip, we tried 49 different wines, ranging from everyday mass-market crowd-pleasers, to some top quality tipples. From across the range, here are five of my favourites.

Calvet Réserve du Ciron Sauternes 2016
80% Semillon, 10% Sauvignon, 10% Muscadelle
£14.99 Taste & Choose vintage

I’m a sucker for a Sauternes anyway, but this is delicious. It’s got a sweet citrusy nose, with honeysuckle, tropical fruit and red apples. In the mouth it’s full bodied with a medium plus acidity, and those fruits coming back in. And it’s got a long morish finish.

Chateau Laroque 2010, Saint-Emilion Grand Cru Classe
90% Merlot, 8% Cabernet Franc, 2% Cabernet Sauvignon
£32.00, Berry Bros & Rudd, Waitrose

This might have been my favourite wine of the whole trip. The nose is big and deep with black fruit and a touch of minerality. It opens up in the mouth to silky soft tannins, and a subtle fruitiness which doesn’t overpower. While I enjoyed it now, it’s going to keep getting better over the next two decades. 

Calvet Alsace Pinot Blanc
100% Pinot Blanc
£7.97 Asda

Bursts of freshness on the nose, with white fruit and citrus blossoms. In the mouth it’s got a lovely softness and freshness. Nicely balanced.

Château la Fortune, Cru Bourgeois, Margaux
74% Cabernet Sauvignon, 26% Merlot
£32.99 Jean Juvinere, Oxford Wine co.

I enjoyed this wine with duck confit and it was fabulous. It’s very fruity and complex on the nose, balanced with dark fruit jam in the mouth, and has a really long finish. 

Calvet Cuvee 1818
Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc

This is Calvet’s 200th anniversary wine. It’s got bags of red berry fruit on the nose, with a bit of cinnamon and caramel. In the mouth it’s full-bodied, but with smooth tannins, and a spicy, gingery note, with a long finish.