Tasting Events

Parallel Lines – Torres Mas La Plana 40th Vintage

For those familiar with a little of the recent history of wine, this description of a wine’s genesis may sound somewhat familiar:

  1. It was first made by a “Black Sheep” working at a wine producer founded in the 19th century
  2. Its creator aimed to create an equivalent in terms of quality and longevity to Bordeaux’s First Growths
  3. It was a new style of wine for the period, with a focus on quality and using newer oak
  4. The wine was named after a small rural building
  5. The head of the winery didn’t approve of the new wine so it wasn’t released at first
  6. It was initially a blend but then tended towards being a varietal
  7. The name of the wine changed a little over the years
  8. The wine is the winery’s flagship, even if it is now not necessarily the most expensive its portfolio

So were you thinking of Penfolds Grange?

I wouldn’t blame you – Max Schubert’s experimental creation of 1951 certainly matches the description, though another also fits the bill from closer to (my) home – Torres Mas La Plana (MLP).

Mas La Plana
Mas La Plana

The original home of Torres is Penedès in Catalonia, and although remaining family owned they have grown to be the largest producer in Spain.  Outposts in Chile and California have grown their presence in the New World.  Continental climate means hot days but cool nights which allow the vines to rest, so acidity is retained and the resulting fruit does not have a confected quality.

And as for point 2 above?  Under its previous moniker of Gran Coronas Black Label in 1970 Mas La Plana won the Gault-Millau wine olympiad in Paris, with higher marks than top Bordeaux such as Chateau Latour or Chateau Haut-Brion.

Evolution in winemaking and style

When the vineyard was first planted in 1970 there was a little Tempranillo and Grenache along side the Cabernet Sauvignon.  The majority of the Penedès region is still planted with white grapes for Cava, though of course they fall under their own separate DO.

In 1981 yields were reduced, mainly by abandoning the use of nitrogen based fertiliser, and cluster thinning (“vendange vert” in French).  Maceration time was extended up to four weeks and American oak was complemented by French oak.  The proportion of French to American was gradually increased so that the latter was absent by 1990.

40th Vintage Celebration Tasting At Brookwood Restaurant

John Wilson (Irish Times), Liam Campbell (Irish Independent), Frankie Cook (Frankly Wines)
John Wilson (Irish Times), Liam Campbell (Irish Independent), yours truly, all deep in comtemplation

1981 (from Magnum)

This was a surprise addition to the tasting.  The Irish importers Findlaters had found a magnum from way back in 1981 in their treasure cave, but weren’t sure of its condition until it was opened on the morning of the tasting.  Even the Torres winery don’t have any 1981 left in magnum so we were very privileged to taste it.

It was beautiful!

Obviously, being a magnum meant that it had developed more slowly than a standard 75cl bottle would over the same time.  In my opinion it was right at its peak – still plenty of fruit, though more dried than fresh.  This could have kept for several more years, but was perfect there and then.


Gran Coronas Mas La Plana 1989
Gran Coronas Mas La Plana 1989

Even just by looking at the bottle you can notice a few salient things about this era of Mas La Plana.  Firstly, the vineyard name was a sub-brand, Gran Coronas was the principal brand.  Nowadays, Gran Coronas is the next step down from MLP; in vintages where the fruit is not considered good enough to make MLP the grapes are blended in as a component of the Gran Coronas.

Secondly, the term Gran Reserva appears at the bottom of the label.  The criteria in Penedes are not quite as strict as in Rioja or Ribera del Duero, but there is still a considerable minimum period of ageing in oak barrels.  Gran Reserva used to be very important as a signifier of quality, but it also denotes a woodier style – and nowadays Mas La Plana is more about the fruit than the wood, so the term is not used.

Finally, the alcohol – only 12.5%!  Compare this with the 2010 vintage’s stated 14.5% and the evolution of style over time is very apparent.  Some of this is down to the actual heat in each year, as more sunlight energy is turned into sugar by photosynthesis. Some is also down to the yeast used – if commercial rather than ambient strains are used this can give a significant boost to alcohol levels.  And of course, picking the grapes at a high level of ripeness in a particular year also gives more alcohol.


Toni Batet from Torres
Toni Batet from Torres

2005 is widely regarded as an excellent vintage in Bordeaux, but was also good in Catalonia.  This was my favourite of the current millennium vintages – still loads of blackcurrant and blackberry primary fruit but already some interesting cedar and tobacco notes.  The 2005 is in full bloom but has the structure to last until the end of this decade at least.

The charming Toni Batet from Torres (pictured) explained that sorting tables are used to ensure only the best grapes go into Mas La Plana, and if the vintage isn’t deemed good enough then the grapes from the vineyard go into Gran Coronas.

2008 & 2009

Vertical tasting of Torres Mas La Plana
Vertical tasting of Torres Mas La Plana

For me these two vintages were quite similar – and being so close together that’s understandable.  It just shows that there aren’t bad wines made nowadays – at this level of quality, anyway.


Mas La Plana 2010
Mas La Plana 2010

And so to the 40th Vintage itself.  This is such a baby, but amazingly already drinkable.  It deserves to be laid down for another five years at least, but if I had to drink it now then decanting for a couple of hours would help it open out and soften the bold tannins.


For all the apparent similarities with the Grange story, Mas La Plana is its own wine and a worthy flagship for Torres.  My personal preferences on grapes place Cabernet Sauvignon at the top of my red wine rankings (don’t say that too fast!), so it’s a winner in my book.  And for a flagship wine, it’s not stupidly expensive, under €50 in Ireland compared to five times that (or more) for Grange.

Get some today and drink it when it’s ready!



One of the things I really enjoy about wine is how it changes between pour and finish — the evolution of wine.  This might be as simple as a bit of air opening up the fruity flavours of something simple, or observing a tightly wound young red unfurl its wings.

For this reason, when I know I’m going to have more than a single glass in a bar or restaurant, I will order several different wines at the same time.  With whites, temperature is key…as a wine warms up its flavours become more expressive, acidity slowly takes a back seat, and any residual sugar will become more apparent.

If you love Alsace Riesling as I do, the difference between a producer’s standard offering and one from a Grand Cru vineyard will become more obvious.  If the wines are too cold eg straight from a domestic fridge – then you might not think there’s much of a difference.  “Why the fuss?” you might ask.  Once they get to 10℃, you’re thinking “Now I see the difference”.  And a few more degrees higher, “Wow, I’m over the regular stuff, Grand Cru is where it’s at!” is what you’re saying.

In my imagination, anyway.

For dry wines, obviously sweetness doesn’t come into it – actual sweetness doesn’t, that is; some wines can taste sweet if they are particularly fruity.  Where a wine has been oaked in some way (see upcoming post on oak in wine), then if served too chilled it can taste bitter.  For me, 10C is too cold, but if it gets poured at that temperature then the changes in the glass can be thrilling.

Here are 3 fantastic Chardonnays sold by the glass at Ely Wine Bar in Dublin:

  • Domaine Marc Colin et Fils Saint-Aubin La Fontenotte 2011
  • Shaw + Smith Adelaide Hills M3 Chardonnay 2012
  • Chateau Montelena Napa Valley Chardonnay 2011



For reds, temperature is also very important, but so is exposure to oxygen.  If you have a decanter, or even a basic glass jug, you can get so much more taste (and therefore value) out of a full bottle if you decant it.

Of course, if you’re at an establishment which has a great selection by the glass, you won’t have to do that – pouring into a glass is sort of a mini version of decanting anyway.

Tasting wines at the same time gives you the opportunity to see how they evolve side by side – give it a try!

Tasting Events

Fabulous Farmer Fizz – Grower Champagne Part Two

Part One introduced the different types of producer, the grapes and the main areas of Champagne.  Now we look at different grower Champagnes from different subregions of the area.

Wine Workshop Grower Champagne Tasting

In mid August I ventured again to The Wine Workshop in Dublin for a fab tasting of Grower Champagnes, hosted by Morgan VanderKamer.  Thanks to my friend Una who helped with the photos!

Réné Geoffroy “Expression” Cumières 1er Cru NV (Vallée de la Marne)

Réné Geoffroy Expression 1er Cru NV
Réné Geoffroy Expression 1er Cru NV

Champagne Réné is now run by Jean-Baptiste Geoffroy, son of Réné and grandson of Roger who first moved from just producing grapes to making Champagne.  Although they have an elegant maison in Aÿ, 14 out of their total 17 hectares under vine are in the Premier Cru village of Cumières, in the heart of the Vallée de la Marne.  The family can trace their roots in the same village back to the 17th century.  Production volume is 9,000 cases per year of which 500 are vintage.

This is the top cuvée made by Geoffroy, always made from a blend of two different years.  The assemblage is given as 50% PM 30% C 10% PN – though that would leave me feeling a little short-changed.  All the grapes are hand picked and a traditional “Coquard” press is used.  Parcels are fermented separately to help decide on the blend furether down the line.  Malolactic Fermentation (MLF) is blocked to retain fresh acidity. A proportion of the reserve wines are aged in oak to add texture.

Compared to many sparkling wines this tasted a little less fizzy – more like a Perlé style, which used to be known as Crémant before that was appropriated for traditional method sparkling wines from other French regions.

Roberdelph NV Charly-sur-Marne (Vallée de la Marne)

RoberDelph NV
RoberDelph NV

All because…the lady loves…RoberDelph!  This was my friend Una’s favourite of the evening.  The most Pinot Meunier-biased Champagne of the tasting (the assemblage of the current bottling is 75% PM, 16% C, 9% PN, though it may fluctuate a little), it had a certain earthiness…it would be amazing with Mushroom risotto.

As a NV it is usually based substantially on one year with around 30% reserve wines from three previous years.

RoberDelph have just 5 1/2 hectares under vine round the village of Charly at the western end of the Vallée de la Marne (the Marne of course being the river after which the Département is also named).  Their vineyards are composed of 20 different small parcels with different soils and are farmed using “lutte raisonné” methods – think similar to organic but pragmatic rather than dogmatic.  They are now run by the 5th and 6th generations of the Robert family.

Pierre Gimonnet et Fils Cuvée Cuis 1er Cru NV (Côte des Blancs)

Pierre Gimonnet & Fils Cuvée Cuis 1er Cru NV
Pierre Gimonnet & Fils Cuvée Cuis 1er Cru NV

Olivier and Didier Gimonnet are the grandsons of Pierre Gimonnet who expanded the family business from grape growing to producing their own Champagne in 1935.  They have been growing grapes in Cuis since 1750.

They have 28 hectares of Chardonnay within the Côte des Blancs (plus a couple of small plots of Pinot Noir elsewhere):

– Cuis and Vertus Premiers Crus
– Cramant, Chouilly and Oger Grands Crus

They make a single non vintage (for which they use the more romantic term Sans Année) and five different vintage cuvées which aim to maintain the house style while showcasing the great terroirs of the Côtes des Blancs.  Above all they value elegance, finesse, minerality and freshness, with everything in balance.

The high percentage of old vines at this estate sets it apart from many others.  There is always a trade off with vine age – yields tend to decline with age, but the resulting juice becomes more and more concentrated – it’s quantity versus quality.

This NV is a personal favourite – it showed very well at the Glasnevin Fizz Fest last year.

Watch out for their Spécial Club bottlings which are Gimonnet’s flagship – grapes are selected from their oldest vines, go through MLF and then over five years ageing on the lees.

Varnier-Fannière Cuvée St-Denis Grand Cru NV, Avize, (Côte des Blancs)

Varnier-Fannière Cuvée St-Denis Grand Gru NV
Varnier-Fannière Cuvée St-Denis Grand Gru NV

I’ve been a fan of Denis Varnier’s Champagnes since I first visited him in Avize in early 2012. I sneaked this into the tasting and it threw some of the tasters.  It had much more body and texture than usual for a blankety blank.  Oak?  No, that would be the five years (minimum) on the lees.

Denis eschews oak and blocks MLF to keep the wines as fresh and pure as possible. The grapes for this bottling are grown in a walled vineyard in Avize called Clos du Grand-Père, named after Denis’s maternal Grandfather Jean Fannière who became a Champagne producer when already in his 50s.

V-F produce another premium Chamapgne called Jean Fannière Origine – it’s a similar style and quality level to St-Denis but made with grapes from Cramant and a lower dosage.

Jacquinot et Fils Blanc de Noirs NV (Cote des Bar)

Jacquinot & Fils Blanc de Noirs Brut NV
Jacquinot & Fils Blanc de Noirs Brut NV

The Côtes des Bar is a Pinot Noir stronghold – it accounts for 87% of the vines there. This is a 100% Pinot Noir so it has some real guts – layers of red fruit with enough body to accompany the main course of a meal.

The Jacquinot estate dates back to the French revolution. Pierre Jacquinot expanded the family vineyard holdings just after first world war, at the same time becoming a grape broker and Champagne wine merchant, adding his own pressing centre  in 1929 and starting to make wine.  In 1947 with his 2 sons Jacques and Jean-Guy he created the brand Champagne Jacquinot et Fils.  Jacques looked after sales and Jean-Guy developed the vineyard.  Jean-Manuel Jacquinot, Jean-Guy’s son, Oenologist in charge of production since 1998 is now running the Estate with the help of François Nicolet, Jacques’s son- in-law.

Other Jacquinot wines of note include the  White Symphonie which has 10 years on the lees and their top bottling Harmonie which has 14 years!

Dravigny-Godbillon “Cuvée Ambre” NV, Ecuille

Dravigny-Godbillon Cuvée Ambre NV
Dravigny-Godbillon Cuvée Ambre NV

What a delightful label! *cough*  But hey, if people aren’t going to buy it because of the cover then there’s more to go round for those of us who value the contents!  The good folks at Ely Wine Bar in Dublin obviously share the same opinion as it’s on their list next to the big guns of Taittinger and Bollinger.  As it’s a small producer they only export to two countries – Denmark and Ireland!

The blend is 70% PN, 25% C, 5% PM, so there is plenty of strawberry goodness but wrapped in a lemon envelope.  The Chardonnay keeps it fresh enough that it doesn’t tire after a few glasses.

Guy Charlemagne Le Mesnil-sur-Oger Grand Cru 2004 (Côte des Blancs)

Guy Charlemagne Mesnillésime 2004 Grand Cru
Guy Charlemagne Mesnillésime 2004 Grand Cru

Did anyone else get the pun?  Mesnillésime is a portmanteau of Le Mesnil sur Oger, the Côte des Blancs village where Champagne Guy Charlemagne is based, and Millésime, the French word for vintage.  Krug’s super-premium single vineyard vintage Clos Le Mesnil comes from the same village – it’s probably the best source for Chardonnay in the whole of Champagne.

This is the firm’s top bottling, being 100% Chardonnay from having spent spends six years maturing on the lees before disgorgement, and gets a light dosage of 4g/L so qualifies as extra brut.  The mousse is more persistent than Jeremy Paxman…it’s so creamy and goes on and on.  Lemon meringue, crème fraîche, the flavour keeps on coming.

Although this was by some distance the most expensive Champagne at the tasting, in the not-so-humble opinion of this taster it was the best value of all!.

Tasting Events

Fabulous Farmer Fizz – Grower Champagne – Part One

What is Champagne?

It’s a wine.

It’s a wine made in a certain way from grapes grown in a delimited area.

That’s it.  Yes it’s a load of fun, often a part of big celebrations, a bit of bling in a nightclub, or even launching a ship (don’t know about you but I always use Champagne when launching a ship), but for me they are secondary to Champagne’s identity as a wine.  Also, there is Increasing recognition that Champagne can play a part in accompanying many – or all – courses of a meal, as well as being an apéritif or a vin de plaisir.

Of course the luxury image of Champagne is no accident, it’s down to the marketing prowess of the Grandes Marques over the last century or so.  In their quest for a reliable, consistent wine the big houses buy grapes from all over the Champagne region, and blend them to create an ongoing house style – particularly with the non-vintage (NV) wines which are the vast majority of the bottles produced.

Maker's Mark

Thus, apart from a few ultra rare and ultra expensive select bottlings, Champagne made by the big houses doesn’t reflect a particular vineyard site.

Step up the Growers!  Despite the high capital costs of setting up, Champenois grape growers are increasingly setting up to produce their own Champagne – see RM in the box above.  They maintain a close link between the place the grapes are grown – the terroir –  and the final product in your glass.

Grapes – The Big 3 Stars

Most new areas producing quality sparkling wine will use the big three Champagne grapes, whether we’re talking Tasmania, Marlborough or Sussex.

Chardonnay (C) gives lifted lemon citrus notes, which make it the lightest grape out of the three.  All-Chardonnay cuvées need some serious ageing on the lees to gain complexity – they can be pleasant but rather simple if they are disgorged and released straight after the legal minimum ageing (15 months for NV).  Approx. 29% of total vines

Pinot Noir (PN) gives red fruit aromas and flavours – particularly strawberry and raspberry – just as you get in a still red Pinot Noir.  It also gives body and richness – sometimes even chewiness.  It’s this Pinot whose colour is used for rosé Champagne.  Approx. 38% of total vines

Pinot Meunier (PM) is often regarded as the ugly sister of the big three, and while it might be true to say that it doesn’t hit the heights of the other two on its own, it can play an excellent supporting role.  It tends to show soft fruit characteristics such as pear and lychee when young, and then a certain earthiness with more age.  Approx. 32% of total vines

Grapes – The Supporting Cast

If any of you did the maths from the three grapes above you will have noticed that the total proportion of Champagne’s area under vine represented by them is 99% – so what is planted in the remaining 1%?

These are four traditional grapes that have fallen out of favour in the area, but where they are planted the owners can keep on farming them.  Such minuscule amounts means the wines are very hand to get hold of, but if you fancy trying something different then Laherte Frères make a Champagne from all seven grapes.

Pinot Blanc is often a component of Crémant d’Alsace and Franciacorta (where it is known as Pinot Bianco.  It gives soft apple and citrus flavours.

Pinot Gris sometimes hides in Champagne under the pseudonym Fromenteau – but it’s really the same grape which does so well in Alsace and still pops up occasionally in Burgundy.  When picked early it (as is often the case in Italy) it can show high levels of acidity which of course make it ideal for sparkling wine.

Petit Meslier is an appley variety that has a flagwaver based in – rather bizarrely – South Australia’s Eden Valley!  In a region best known for dry as a bone Riesling, Irvine Wines make a varietal Petit Meslier sparkling wine which they claim was the first to be commercially bottled anywhere in the world

Arbane also has a champion, but this time in Champagne itself.  The house of Moutard Père et Fils make the only varietal Arbane Champagne.  Their vintage wine spends over 6 years on the lees so it’s the yeast rather than grape variety which are most apparent.

Home Ground

Champagne has a single Appellation for the whole region, but there are recognised sub regions within it.  They can be grouped as:

The Vallée de la Marne is the most equally balanced between the three main grapes – 24% Chardonnay, 36% P Meunier and 40% P Noir

The Montagne de Reims is the large hill (mountain is pushing it a bit!) just south of the city of Reims.  Here Pinot Meunier has the lead with 62% of the total.

The Côte des Blancs (which also has the more southerly Côte de Sezanne grouped with it for statistical purposes) is a chalky slope which majors in Chardonnay (82% overall and 95% in the central Côte itself – hence the name.

The Côte des Bar is the most southerly and highest of all the Champagne areas.  Pinot Noir is the king down here with 87% of the land under vine.

Part two will look at some specific grower Champagnes.