Monday, 12 November 2012

Mas Macia - King of Cava

A while back I was lucky to be included on an informal tour of various vineyards across a broad swathe of northern Spain, from Rueda in the west to a Cava producer just outside Barcelona in the east.  It was a fascinating trip providing many insights into the workings of some particularly attractive estates.

On the long run west from the wilds of Campo de Borja to Barcelona for our final visit before heading for the airport we passed hundreds of scattered wind farms, sentinels of modern technology ranked over ancient hilltops.  Some of them were even turning.  It gladdened the heart, as we hummed over the newish motorway in sparse traffic, to know that my own personal kick into the European kitty had been wisely spent.

We were running late.  Hot and conscious of holding the estate’s working day up we nonetheless were welcomed royally by the irrepressible Jordi Casanovas, his sales director Carmen and Angel, a PR lady and were ushered straight into lunch.  Jordi quickly revealed himself to be quite a character who seems to run the estate as a benign dictatorship.  He is a very knowledgeable man, humorous and with a jolly twinkle but when he coughs others jump.
Jordi Casanovas
 With a leg extensively strapped up he was unable to walk far and decided to impart as much information from his rightful place at the head of the table. By way of aperitif, we tasted a couple of Cavas.  First the Rosé which was dry and pretty, quite delicious and positively cleansing.  In the cellar this wine is separated from its lees as soon as possible to maintain freshness.  Next the Brut Nature, which was my favourite.  The second fermentation takes place in bottle, the wine stays in bottle on its lees, unlike the Rosé, for no less than 24 months before dégorgement, it rests further after this before being put onto the market.  It has a fine, persistent mousse that lasts in the glass and shows an appetising, baked apple fruit, together with nutty, yeasty notes from its time on the lees.  There is zero dosage so the wine is naturally completely dry and shows the precision and perfectionist winemaking of a passionate craftsman.

The grapes for his wines come from 60 beautiful hectares of rolling vineyards which, we saw on a post prandial leg-stretch, were punctuated with streams and patches of woodland.  While still table wines, red and white, are an increasingly valued part of the estate’s output, Cava is the mainstay of the business.  The vines for Cava are unfamiliar to UK ears, even if Cava itself is not, with Macabeo, Xarel-lo and Parallada being the traditional varieties.  Jordi grows wheat between the rows which is cut at about half a metre high forming a straw mulch that reduces evaporation in the heat and prevents soil loss in the event of hard rain.  It also suppresses weeds and encourages the roots of the vines to grow downward to look for nutriments.
 As the last of the Brut Nature was consumed the conversation, or rather, lecture, continued with an endless chatter of facts.  Did we know one of the ways that such freshness could be maintained during the hot harvest?  No chance for a stab at the answer which followed instantly - frozen CO2 pellets are mixed in with the freshly picked grapes, reducing the temperature and blanketing out oxygen.  I looked around the timbered dining room in which we were demolishing quantities of jamon iberico and home baked bread and wondered if the ghosts in this wonderful 15th century building had the faintest idea what your man was on about.

 There is a danger with combining an extensive tasting with a long lunch - there is no provision to spit out.  I see from my notes that we tried eleven different wines poured in lunch quantities rather than a modest tasting splash.  As a succession of the estate’s still table wines appeared, together with delicious salads and enough meat to satisfy the most carnivorous of Spanish appetites, I could not help noticing just how pretty Carmen and Angel were, eye-catching though both of them were in the first place, and how Jordi’s wit was increasingly funnier.
Carmen and Angel
 Afterwards, fortified and perhaps lightly anaesthetised by lunch, Jordi felt up to a brief tour of the winery and cellars.  This was no industrial unit with lavish mod cons; hygienic, yes, organised, well of course, but still kind of home-spun.  The cellars are tight for space and a bit rambling, but cool and still and at a constant temperature all the year round.  We emerged, blinking, into the stark light of a hot afternoon and our host retreated for half an hour while the girls showed us round some of the vineyards closer to the house and we could inspect the young, green berries, no bigger than elder at this stage, with all their swelling potential.

The cellars at Mas Macia
 As we got back in the car, waved off by the smiling team at Mas Macia, I reflected on the friendly feeling of the place and its thoughtful, quality driven ethos and compared it to larger concerns and the dispassionate, clinical attitude of the scientist/accountant board in charge at some places.  We also discussed how it is possible to make such delicious Cava here, yet how much gets processed into truly unremarkable, if not actually bad, price-point fodder for the multiples.  It’s that that presents us with a problem - drinkers who have experienced how truly nasty the industrial variants of Cava can be are now understandably wary of all Cava. 

If this rings bells with you, ignore the ads for cut price Cava which are already appearing on telly for the Christmas market and give the real thing a try; spend a little more and drink much, much better.  Perhaps the difference is nicely summarised by Jordi’s final sentence as we made our farewells, “ Remember, this is a family business, not a wine factory.”

Certainly not a wine factory.

Buy Mas Macia Brut Nature here.

Friday, 2 November 2012

Champagne: Don't Be Fooled By Big Discounts On Big Brands - Look For Better Value Still...

Christmas is coming, the goose is getting fat, and it’s time for too-good-to-be-true Champagne offers to start appearing in the national retailers.  All such deals depend on the customer not knowing enough about the product itself so that they simply default to making their buying decision on the only factor that is easily understandable – price!  The lower the price and the bigger the apparent saving the more likely it is that Joe Customer will take the bait, and the reassurance of a familiar brand is included in the hope of confirming that this is surely a cracking deal.  Hmmmm.....

However, if you buy a bottle of one of the big brand Champagnes at full price (£35-£45 or thereabouts) we reckon you’ll be paying about £10 a bottle more than you should be for the quality of the stuff in the bottle.  We base this on two things: 1.In the tasting we’ve done, the quality of the Champagnes we are able to sell for £25-£35 a bottle has consistently been much higher than the more expensive big brands, and 2. all the big brands have huge marketing departments to support (that’s where your extra tenner goes in case you’d not worked it out) and the small chaps we buy from don’t have to support this expensive marketing.  All that’s happening when the prices of the big Champagne brands are reduced by £10 or so is that they are temporarily suspending their demand for you to pay for their advertising.

Like all wines, Champagne can be too cheap, where you pay so little that all you get is the name on the label, but poor quality fizz inside the bottle.  We don’t go anywhere near such stuff, and if your budget for Christmas fizz is lower than £20 a bottle you’d be better off spending it on top quality fizz that isn’t Champagne – good Prosecco or Cava for instance.  Once you’re through the £20 mark though the Champagne starts to get interesting.  Charles Chevallier Brut d’Honeur nv at £21.85 is super value (just try and find a brand you’ve heard of for that price).  It’s fresh, yeasty and made in the classic tradition of the champagne houses of Aÿ, principally from Pinot Noir and Chardonnay with some Pinot Meunier and matured in cool chalk cellars for 5 years before release.

Move up the scale a bit and we have Rasselet Brut nv from the village of Oeuilly in the Marne Valley.  Halves, bottles, magnums and jeroboams are all available as well as a delicious rose and a demi-sec too, with the 75cl bottles priced in the region of £27.  We have dealt with Joel Rasselet for longer than we can remember and he has never let us down.  His Champagnes are super value – better in fact than any of the brands – and we are the only UK importer. 

Joel & Edwige Rasselet
At the same price is Veuve Fourny Premier Cru Blanc de Blancs, a 100% Chardonnay Champagne, fully organic with a lighter, crisper style.  At the top of the heap we have a stunning pair from Vilmart who are also 100% organic with grapes drawn from 100% Premier Cru sites.  The Vilmart Grand Cellier d’Or is barrique fermented and aged, and a blend of 70% Chardonnay and 30% Pinot Noir.  The Vilmart Coeur de Cuvee comes only from their best juice (80% Chardonnay, 20% Pinot Noir) and spends its first year in barrique.  It is the highest quality champagne, with fantastic richness and concentration.  These aren’t cheap of course, but you get what you pay for.
Vines overlooking the village of Hautvillers in the heart of the Champagne region.
 However, this year’s star looks like being Lallier Grand Cru Vintage Brut 2005.  The grapes that make this come from 100% Grand Cru vineyard sites and are a blend of 55% Pinot Noir from Ay and 45% Chardonnay from the Cote de Blancs.  Lallier Grand Cru Vintage Brut 2005 is aged for 48-72 months and kept a further 5 months after disgorging.  We regard it as one of the best 2005 vintage champagnes produced by anyone anywhere:  It is rich and fine with toasty characteristics yet still fresh and invigorating.  You simply have to try it – and you’ll get your chance…
Williamson & Son outside Lallier's cellars in Ay.
 Lallier are situated at the heart of the historic village of Ay and have some of the oldest cellars there, dating back to the 18th century.  In 2004 Francis Tribault purchased the house from Rene James Lallier and developed their speciality of producing champagnes sourced only from Grand Cru and Premier Cru classified vineyards.  They have several more familiar champagne houses as their neighbours yet outshine all of them.  Francis Tribaut’s artisan approach to winemaking, using only natural yeasts and low dosage, allows the purity and richness of each Grand Cru terroir to shine through, creating distinctive and original wines.  We are pleased to offer the Lallier Grand Cru Vintage Brut 2005 at £42.50 a bottle, though with some help from Lallier themselves we are able to reduce this price to £39.50 per bottle until 31st December 2012.  It will also be available to taste at our Christmas Winetasting on 22nd November in Ipswich.  If the £20 mark is more your thing though then we’d steer you back to the Charles Chevallier Brut d’Honeur at £21.85 we mentioned earlier.  It’s also made by Lallier incidentally, though doesn’t come exclusively from Premier and Grand Cru vineyards that the Lallier label is reserved for.
Lallier's vines high on the slopes above Hautvillers
 So when you see the supposedly cracking deals offered on Champagne, just take a minute, engage your "common sense chip" and wonder, for a moment, whether what you're thinking of buying is the right product at the right price, or whether you're in danger of being fooled by a big discount on a familiar name.  After all, if they can afford to sell it to you at Christmastime at £10 a bottle cheaper than normal, why isn't the regular price £10 lower?  Could it be because the price isn't actually £10 lower at Christmastime, but rather it is £10 too high for the rest of the year?