Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Report from ... Albert Bichot Tasting - Thursday, May 22 2008

The King is dead. Long live the King. Of the seven wines I have consigned to purchase or private ordered in the past year one has been from Chile, two from the United States, a Sekt from Germany and three have been French ... that's just a personal aside, but also a comment about the quality of French wines on the world stage.

These days, the French find themselves in and an under-dog role, not a position you would have thought possible 25 years ago. The French ruled the wine roost ... they were the Kings of all the wines - nobody topped the French. Today, we know different: while wine regions around the world still compare their product to French wines – retailers know a different story, as they see us (the wine buying public) buy more and more new world wine (Australia, New Zealand, Chile, Argentina). The French have had to re-invent themselves, and it's the next generation of winemakers that are realizing that the plonk of the past just won't do - quality has got to supersede quantity. This is the challenge the French have now undertaken ... and that is the motto that Albert Bichot’s sixth generation of family ownership have decided to focus upon. No longer do they want to flood the market with as much wine as possible, the move is to quality wines, small plots, single vineyards. At a recent dinner tasting I got a chance to taste through 8 of the "new" Albert Bichot wines.

Albert Bichot is a Burgundy producer: meaning Chardonnays and Pinot Noirs – and I was suitably impressed by what was in the glass in front of me. It is a family owned company that was founded in 1831 - today, it is still family owned and, as mentioned, is now moving into its sixth generation. Previous generations had focused on the blending of wines - buying bulk wines from the region and blending them to make a single wine ... this was great for maximizing quantity, but not always best for quality. Today, the move to quality is on. Over the past ten years "the next generation” has moved away from "the art of the blend" to the “art of winemaking”; instead of buying finished wines and blending them, they buy or grow the raw materials (grapes) and make their own wine; by doing this, they raise the level of quality and keep it under their own control. They own 4 estates in the Burgundy region and at each location there is a "winery" where the grapes are produced into the wines they sell - thus limiting the movement of grapes that could possibly damage their quality. Each "winery" is responsible for its own winemaking with teams dedicated to that locale. "It costs more," Jean-Christophe (J.C.) Rolland, North American Export Manager, says, "but you can definitely taste the quality in the bottle - and we think that's worth it.” J.C. proved to be an excellent host for the evening, he was congenial, always smiling and relayed the etymology of words and stories of how places got their names with equal confidence and aplomb.

The Chardonnays ...

Bichot is making brilliant Chardonnays, from the Village level estate - unoaked - Chablis, with its palate refreshing notes that are mineral driven along with tropical and floral undertones that are delicate and delicious (Domaine Long Depaquit 2007 Chablis - $25.00); to the barrel fermented, barrel aged (13-months – 20% new oak) 2006 Chassagne Montrachet ($65.00 - 300 case production) with its pineapple core, buttery-vanilla softness, and almond/lemon rind finish. As many of my regular readers know, Chardonnay isn't my bag, I’ve just tried to many that are too similar, but the limited edition (250 cases) Domaine du Pavillon 2006 Beaune 1er Cru Clos des Mouches ($90) is outstanding ... round and powerful in the mouth with vanilla, caramel and toffee notes that will need time to settle down and will last a decade or more. This 100% barrel fermented, 13-14 month barrel aged in 25% new oak (the remainder in two to three year old oak) had great mouth presence and luscious mouthfeel. I would've had another glass, but everyone else at the table must have liked it too, because when I went for a refill, the bottle was empty.

Pinots of Note ...

Two very different Pinots caught my palate this evening, one from a 2-hectare estate (Clos Frantin), the other from 60-year-old vines (Vosne). The 2006 Domaine du Clos Frantin Gevrey-Chambertin "Les Murots" ($65.00) had violets and red fruit aromas on the nose; in the mouth it was like velvet a cross the tongue with strawberries and red currants. Long maceration (23 to 27 days) extracts the tannins and flavours; then it's aged 15-17 months in French oak, of which 40 percent is new. The Vosne Romanee 2005 ($70) ages for 18 months in 45% new French oak and macerates for 27 days, extracting even more tannins and delivers bigger punch with lots of black and red fruit along with some mocha (dark chocolate) notes.

Surprise ...

I mentioned at the outset I have bought or ordered three French wines on consignment or private order this year ... Albert Bichot was the winery that broke the two-two tie with the Americans and they did it this very night, swaying me onto the French side with an exceptional wine at an exceptional price: Domaine Monthoux 2006 Beaujolais Villages ($15). Beaujolais gets a bad rap these days, mostly due to the plonk that's put on the market and the light Nouveaus that hit shelves in November. This 3000 case estate Beaujolais truly is what this wine style is meant to be. Made from the Gamay grape, the wine spends two to three weeks macerating on the skins to gain complexity of both color and flavour. The bottle we tried had been opened a few hours (more like six to eight), so I can assume there was some weighty tannin structure when the cork was first popped ... but over this time period the wine had smoothed and gave off big, fresh strawberry aromas that sucked you into the glass and begged to be sipped – it’s a wine that could easily be held for 5 years. This wine was truly sexy in every sense of the word - not sure I would've taken it to bed, but it may help me get there with someone special (yes, I mean you honey) and isn't that what good French wine has always been about: the romance, the beauty, and, yes, the aftereffects. Nice to see them getting back to the basics, if you know what I mean.

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TERRAE said...
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