There are some names in the world of wine that everyone seems to know. I’m never quite sure if that is because they are very well-known or because I experienced the wines very early on in my career. Paul Jaboulet is one such name. I remember studying the wines of the northern Rhone valley at the Hotelschool and some of the Jaboulet wines ended up being tasted as benchmark wines of the style. I don’t think we had ‘La Chapelle’, more likely a Crozes-Hermitage. La Chapelle has always been expensive, one of those top of the range, luxury wines, coming from the best sites on the hill of Hermitage. That’s no different today. In fact, each bottle comes with a special card containing a code which allows access to a VIP part of the website to enhance the exclusive experience. I bet they didn’t have that back in 1834 when Antoine Jaboulet established the first vineyards on the slopes of the Hermitage.
These days Paul Jaboulet Aîné, to give it its full name, is owned by the Frey family, who also make wine in Bordeaux and Champagne. Caroline Frey took over as winemaker in 2006 and she produces a wide range of wines, from both the Southern and Northern Rhone. Wines like the popular Parallèle 45 provide an introduction to Cotes du Rhone with a traditional blend of Grenache and Syrah for example. But the domaine’s history lies further north and with the Syrah variety in particular. And it was those wines we concentrated on during a tasting of the wines with Marie Cordonnier, Paul Jaboulet’s export director. I had a quick chat with her on video and asked her to pick one wine we could discuss. It may seem obvious to go for the luxury end and pick ‘La Chapelle’ but I wanted something a bit more down to earth. Marie picked the Domaine de Thalabert Crozes-Hermitage 2007. The reason is quite simple, it’s a very tasty wine, silky smooth, ripe fruit and a bit of an earthy edge. But these are also the first vineyards the Jaboulet family ever owned, so in effect this is where it all started.
We managed to taste a few others as well though. I can’t say I have much experience of the white wines from the Northern Rhone. Typical grape varieties are Marsanne and Roussanne for the Hermitage and Crozes-Hermitage and Viognier for the Condrieu. For some reason I expected these wines to be bigger, but a couple of times I wrote down ‘delicate’. I liked the ‘delicate’, slightly floral Marsanne/Roussanne blend ‘Mule Blanche’ from Crozes-Hermitage. Mule Blanche means white ass (as in donkey!). It is another of the older vineyards so named because in the early days the hardy donkeys were regularly used as pack animals in the vineyards.
The other wine that really floated my boat was the Cornas Grandes Terrasses 2009. A lovely warm, spicy nose, tasting of sweet black fruit and cocoa powder. As I’m a cheapskate I would chose this wine or the Domaine de Thalabert over the Hermitage La Chapelle. At around about the thirty pound mark for these wines I could get almost six bottles for one of La Chapelle. Only thing is, I really wanted to see what’s going on in the VIP section of the website. I wonder if there is a dress code?
Earlier this week I did a brief talk on the history of wine at the Christmas dinner for the Scottish Women in Business. Here is the story I shared. Details of the Greek and Turkish wines we tasted can be found at the bottom of the article.
On a recent trip to Turkey I went in search of the “Source of Wine”. Turkey was playing host to the annual digital wine communications conference (EWBC) and one session in particular gave a unique insight in the journey wine has taken from its first wild roots.
The Roman Empire
Most people’s association with history and wine is likely to be related to the spread of the Roman Empire. And it would be true to say this is a crucial time for the modern, cultivated or domesticated vine. There is plenty of evidence showing the spread of the wine regions with Rome as its starting point. One of the most important natural historians of his time was Pliny the Elder, who became famous for his encyclopaedic work ‘Naturalis Historia’, which included a large section devoted to vines and wines. He was possibly even more famous for the manner of his death in the aftermath of the eruption of Vesuvius in AD79 and gave his name to what we describe today as a “Plinean eruption”.
The Ancient Greeks
Yet this is not where wine was born. You would have to go quite a bit further back. The Ancient Greeks used wine in ancient ceremonies, often drunk as a grog, mixed with spices, honey and water in some cases seawater. The wine “Retsina” to this day is flavoured with pine resin. The Greeks even had a God of wine, Dionysus, whom the Romans later adopted as Bacchus. The wines from ancient Greece were highly praised by its poets but some of the adulteration of it would suggest they perhaps weren’t so great after all.
Clearly modern winemaking owes more to the Romans, but we honour the Ancient Greeks by tasting a modern Greek wine which comes from Drama in the north of mainland Greece bordered by Bulgaria and Turkey. Assyrtiko is regarded as one of Greece’s best indigenous white grape varieties. We’re giving a nod to modern wine with the addition of Sauvignon Blanc. Assyrtiko originated on the island of Santorini and thrives in volcanic soils. It’s ability to withstand high summer temperatures and still retain freshness and is the secret of its success. The grape variety produces a very dry, mineral wine with almost earthy qualities, particularly when grown on the volcanic soils of Santorini. Elsewhere, such as here in Drama it produces a somewhat milder, fruitier style of wine.
So far we’ve traced wine’s first steps back from the Roman Empire down to the Ancient Greeks. But we haven’t even covered half of it. Following the traces from Greece we move 2000 years further down the line to Ancient Egypt. The Pharaohs were great imbibers of wine and even kept detailed records of what they drunk which included many vintage dated, single vineyard wines.
But it doesn’t stop there either. From Egypt our journey moves North-East and into Mesopotamia and ultimately ends up in current day Eastern Turkey, or Anatolia to be more precise, and countries like Georgia and Armenia. It is now believed the earliest known wines originated here. The archeological evidence was found not far from Mount Arrarat, where Noah is said to have landed his ark and planted the first vineyard.
Some of the evidence discovered in 1957 was of a tomb in Gordion, the capital of Phrygia in what is modern day Turkey. Dated to roughly 700-750BC it was named the Midas Tumulus. The hermetically sealed tomb was covered in earth. It proved a spectacular tomb belonging to what some believe is the king of Phrygia, King Midas.
Ancient Ales, Wines and Extreme Beverages
Inside the archaeologists uncovered the remains of a 60-65 year old male, as well as the largest iron age drinking set ever discovered. It consisted of 160 bronze vessels. More recent chemical research by chemist and archaeologist Patrick McGovern, who in the popular vernacular is known as the “Indiana Jones of Ancient Ales, Wines, and Extreme Beverages”, revealed not only the remains of what turned out to be some funerary feast of barbecued lamb and goat’s meat with lentils, but provided some detailed insight in what was drunk too.
The identification of tartaric acid points to grapes or grape product. Now this could have just been grape juice, however the juice would more than likely have fermented naturally considering the high ambient temperature and the fact that yeast is naturally present on the grape skins. Beeswax was also found which points towards something along the lines of honey mead. Finally beerstone (Calcium Oxalate) was discovered, a substance which is commonly associated with the production of Barley beer.
These findings led to a bit of experimental archaeology with the help of the Kavaklidere winery. They recreated the drink albeit not in a commercial sense. It was later produced in the US as the “Midas Touch Golden Elixir” and is made using Barley, honey and muscat grapes. Saffron was added as a bitter agent and would have given it a lush golden colour. A drink fit for a King.
Modern Day Turkey
Unadulterated by barley, honey or saffron our second wine comes from Turkey and is made by the same winery, Kavaklidere. Here the indigenous variety Kalecik Karasi is blended with Syrah to make a wine not unlike a French Cotes-du-Rhone. The Kalecik Karasi is named after the Kalecik district close to Ankara although it is now fairly widely grown in Turkey. It can produce a variety of wine styles, from soft, easy drinking to more complex. In character it sits somewhere between Gamay, Dolcetto and Pinot Noir.
Much earlier evidence of grape cultivation and winemaking were found in this same area and genetic research, conducted by the Swiss grape geneticist Jose Vouillamoz (one of the authors of the most authoritative book on grapes to date, Wine Grapes), has helped pin down some of the earliest evidence of grape domestication, which is now accepted as having been instrumental in the spread of the beverage. Grape domestication favoured the self-pollinating plant, where in the wild the vast majority of vines would be either male or female, with only the female bearing fruit. The hermaphroditic vine dispensed with this need and made grape growing much more efficient and with fruit readily available the drink was only a short fermentation away.
So can we trace this all the way back to the earliest glass of wine. Unlikely, according to Jose Vouillamoz, as that was probably a simple case of “serendipitous inebriation”.
We tasted two wines on the night which were kindly supplied by Direct Wines (Laithwaites), the first of the mainstream retailers to add a Turkish wine to their range. They promised me there are more to come very soon!
Back in February, coming out of a long winter I was feeling decidedly unfit and despite the fact I last ran about 25 years ago, I felt I had to take it up again and get some fresh air. Then I met Kelly Mason and the core team of the 5×50 Challenge (http://5×50.co.uk/challenger/pieter-rosenthal) and started running with them every Wednesday lunchtime. It didn’t take too long to get bitten by the bug and now I’m more than halfway on a 50-day challenge running at least 5k a day.
It’s a great feeling even though my legs have been in various states of protest. Going out there every single day, regardless of how busy work is, or the increasingly inclement weather. The sense of achievement is helping me keep perspective through what are tough times for everyone right now and it helps to keep me sane. This is not just a physical challenge but as much a mental one. How’s that for a metaphor for life?
Clearly my love affair with wine continues undiminished, I have a big heart so there is room. And there is no way I would give up wine for any challenge, but I do feel that I’ve earned myself an extra nice bottle after the punishing schedule I’m imposing on myself. That’s my excuse anyway. Encouraged by the core team, Kelly Mason and Mark Houston in particular, I’m now imposing a punishing tasting schedule as well, with a multitude of bottles of wine priced around a tenner. One of those great value price points where you can get some seriously interesting wines that bring fantastic drinking pleasure. This could well become the ‘wine 5×50′ or 5 great bottles for £50. I’ll share my first one here and now, but expect more updates over the weeks to come of other wines that will have the honour of joining the challenge.
The Mas des Amours from the Coteaux du Languedoc in Southern France had an outing or two recently, among which was a tasting at Curlers Rest in Glasgow’s Byers Road in September and back in August at the Cross Stobs Bottle Shop, which stocks the wine. Both times the gasps of enjoyment were almost too much to bear, earning it a place as my first wine in the challenge. Unfortunately the sumptuous dark berry fruit doesn’t count towards your five a day but it’s a smooth talker that soothes my tired legs any day.