Visiting Promontory and digging into the philosophy behind the Harlan family’s legacy
Will Harlan is oft-quoted as having said they had to “unlearn and relearn” everything at Promontory. While the property might have been discovered by his father, this unique estate is his baby – and it’s growing up.
I first tasted Promontory over Zoom, during a lockdown. In true Harlan family fashion, however, it wasn’t a regular Zoom, with a drone-shot video that took you into “the territory”. Trapped in my tiny flat in London, it was genuinely transportive. Combined with the taste of the 2016 – a Napa Cab of such textural elegance, it was memorable.
Visiting last month was, however, an experience like no other – it’s a place that feels mythical. I spent a long time geeking out with Cory Empting, now Managing Director of Winegrowing for Domain H. William Harlan – the family’s group of estates, Promontory, Bond, Harlan. A local boy, he left school aged 15 to start working in wineries. He was just 20 when Bill Harlan called him up, telling him he was looking for someone to help him build his legacy, take over from Bob Levy and develop Promontory over 35-40 years. Cory signed up instantly – and he’s now been working for the family for 22 years. Bill gave him six weeks’ leave each summer to travel the world, allowing Cory to visit and work in many wine regions. His influence seems to have been significant, pulling back on extraction and oak, as well as the incredible work they’re doing in the vineyard.
I philosophically struggle with the prices of Harlan, Promontory and Bond – and the only way I will ever get to taste these wines is at the property or other trade events. But, having now spent some time at the estate, it’s fascinating to see the incredible investment that is being made, in the land itself, in endless experiments and research, in the farming and people.
It was fascinating flitting from Promontory to Matthiasson. These are two drastically different projects – with wines that command extremely different prices, and demand on the secondary market – yet the underlying philosophy is almost identical.
I’ve written a long piece delving into the place, the farming and philosophy – as well as the 2020 vintage, a year that marks the start of a new era here (and a wine that may well divide the crowds).
Better late than never. I’ve had this draft lurking in my files for an embarrassing amount of time – but I love the Ruggabellus wines so much, I was desperate to talk about what I think is one of Australia’s most exciting wineries. Here’s a long overdue tribute to a visit made back in 2018 to this Eden Valley address
Dogs bark fiercely from within the house. A bleary-eyed woman in pyjamas eventually emerges and blinks sleepily at me. We’d been hammering on the door repeatedly – unaware that we were at the wrong address. She was clearly fresh off a night shift, roused from her hard-earned slumber by a pair of wine geeks trying to find the home of Ruggabellus. With remarkable good nature for someone who had just been disturbed, she explained we were at Abel’s old address and pointed us in the right direction.
Of all the Australian wine regions I had planned to visit, I was least excited by the Barossa. Those big, bold, brash bottles that seemed so appealing to a certain sort of wine drinker had never tempted me. The Barossa seemed commercial, soulless, too “well-known” – the establishment that I – so foolishly – thought wouldn’t offer the intrigue and elegance I craved in wine. Visiting Abel Gibson proved me so utterly wrong.
In amongst his vines – which in mid-April looked almost frail, their wiry, sprawling frames picked bare and starting to shed their golden leaves – Abel Gibson looks absolutely content. He and his partner Emma farm a small property in the hills of Flaxman Valley – a corner of the Eden Valley – and it is hard not to feel like this is where he was meant to be.
Their house has a huge glass front, opening out onto their rather special vineyards. “It’s beautiful to sit here in winter and watch the weather patterns come in. The shadows and the colour tones on those hills are amazing,” Abel smiles, slightly lost for a moment in the place.
He and Emma released their first wines under the Ruggabellus label in 2011, but only purchased the property in 2013, having bought fruit from the site for a couple of years. Eventually, all their wines will be made with fruit from the one plot.
When he first found the site, it was nothing but a grassy paddock, but – hidden in the depths of its overgrown grass and weeds, were some sprawling vines. The vines – it turned out – date back to at least the 1930s, quite likely earlier – which makes it incredibly old, particularly for the “new world”. “It’s been a long, slow process bringing it back to life,” Abel explains. Their hope is to be able to make 1,800 litres each of Semillon, Riesling and Shiraz – “when we get it back in balance, but we’re doing it organically, and there’s no irrigation… so you rely on what you get from Mother Nature, which is very cool – but very tough.”
Striding out amongst the vines, he takes us to a specific point. “I always bring everyone here, so they can see what’s under the ground. That’s a massive lump of quartz, but there’s a vein of it that runs through [the entire vineyard]. I get really excited when I see this.” Abel feels that it’s this quartz that brings a particularly fine structure and heightened aromatics to the wines.
“It’s the worst time of year to see the vineyard – but it’s done its job,” Gibson says apologetically. He points at the scraggly vines in front of us, “So, 80-year-old Semillon (well, 80-plus), then there’s eight rows of old Shiraz in there as well, then 10 rows of 20-year-old Shiraz, then 80-year-old Riesling…” There are a mix of clones here, and he buys in some 80-year-old Riesling from a neighbour’s vineyard that is within sight.
The whites Abel and Emma produce are textural and powerful orange wines, inspired by those made on the border of Italy and Slovenia. They’re released only after two and a half years, spending two of those years in barrel – something that he feels is absolutely key to making orange wines, with far too many released young, cloudy and before the tannins have had a chance to resolve. He uses smaller barrels to help tame the acid and tannin of Riesling, accelerating the élevage. Gibson feels the wine really needs another six months or a year in bottle before the wines really hit their stride – and that’s confirmed by the way orders accelerate after release; he would love to keep the wines back longer, like Gravner, but he can’t – not yet, at least.
It’s been a journey getting to this point. The couple made their first skin contact wine in 2012, a pure Riesling that spent five days on both skins and stems. Abel went to the first Rootstock – Sydney’s natural wine festival – and met several legends of the orange wine scene, including Stanko Radikon and Dario Prinčič. They both de-stemmed their fruit and left it on skins for around three weeks. Finding his 2012 experiment overly tannic, he followed in their footsteps, realising that the stems added too much structure.
Ruggabellus whites combine Semillon, Riesling and Muscat – three varieties that Gibson thinks work together particularly well. Semillon brings a cashew nuttiness, dried grass and lemon oil character as well as texture; with Riesling adding acidity, length and lime oil; then Muscat, Gibson feels, creates space on the palate when aged oxidatively, while also lightening the aromatics with its high tones.
Solumodo is Semillon-dominant, made with their neighbours’ 50 to 60-year-old vines, while the Quomodo is Riesling-focused – and the longest-ageing, having so much structure and acidity. Sallio is a more entry-level, “drink now” offering, although Gibson still feels it will age 20 years (versus 40 or so for the other two). It spends less time on skins and goes into larger barrels to soften the structure.
While the whites are all about texture, the reds are about lightness, spice and aromatics. “We work really hard to try and keep things light, it’s so easy for a red wine to become very big here in the Barossa,” Abel explains. Being gentle with the ferments is key to avoiding any coarse, green or hard tannin, while of course using only the most neutral oak possible. There are three reds – Timaeus (Grenache-dominant), Efferus (Mourvedre-dominant) and Archaeus (Syrah-dominant), as well as Sallio’s red sibling, Fluus (Mourvedre, Grenache and Cinsault, with a tiny bit of Syrah).
He’s insistent on only using old French oak, looking for a place for the wine “to expand and contract” with the moon’s cycle. “When it’s a tank, it’s fixed and there’s nowhere for it to go, and you can taste it in the wine. It sort of condenses back into itself, it’s just a little bit awkward. But if you put it into a barrel, it’s amazing how much it resolves itself, particularly if you’re patient and can wait,” Gibson tells me.
It’s unsurprising that Beaujolais is one of their key influences – Lapierre and Thivin – but as are the likes of Hervé Souhaut, Chave and Tempier. While I’ve sadly had faulty Lapierre, the others – like my experience of the Ruggabellus wines – have always been clean, falling on the right side of the natural spectrum for my tastes.
While the philosophy is firmly hands off, Gibson is a technically knowledgeably winemaker, and one that isn’t prepared to let standards slip in the name of dogma. “I was working towards trying to be sulphur free,” Gibson tells me, “but I’m not prepared to do it, because I care about our wines ageing. That’s a massive motivation for me, so the wines need to be really well balanced and have all the right phenolic material to preserve them, but soft enough that it’s drinkable.”
This classicism clicks with his background, having grown up running around Penfolds, where his dad worked. “I’m one of the weird natural winemakers that actually likes tradition.” It’s the Penfolds bottles from the ‘60s that inspired the design for the Ruggabellus bottles – short “Claret” bottles with white capsules, although he has chosen to use screwcap. “We want it to be more about the wine inside the bottle, but also that bottle’s really light, y’know – less carbon to make, less carbon to transport around the world.”
The cuvée names are Latin – but they had hoped to use indigenous names originally. Their farm is on the border of two tribes: Peramangk and Ngadjuri. They met the elders with a view to using some of their language, however that was eight years ago – before Australia had officially apologised for the stolen generation – and it wasn’t meant to be.
“Wine’s this beautiful, mystical, creative thing, so I started reading about alchemy,” Gibson explains – and this was how he came up with the wines. Timaeus means “honour” and is a paper by Plato. Efferus means “untamed” or “wild”, which is the Mataro. Archaeus is “the soul of a place” – and makes sense for their single-vineyard Shiraz. Quomodo is a question, “which way” – considering the wine a challenge to the traditional way in which Riesling is made in the Eden Valley. Solumodo means the solo or lonely way, highlighting the incredibly old-vine Semillon in the Barossa that is rarely spoken of, and being ripped up in many places.
The most important thing about these wines is that they need air. They only release the wines if they stay open solidly for seven days on a bench. They recommend decanting the wine the night before you’re drinking it, or double decant the night before, pop the screwcap back on, and drink it over a week – although he knows that many people don’t have the time to do that. “That’s the minefield of wine,” Gibson says.
And that ability to take air is reflective of their ageability. But despite the quality being bottled, Emma and Abel are keen to make sure the wines stay reasonably priced. “I worked at Rockford, and I love drinking Wendouree when I can get one – it’s just a classic old introverted wine company which is beautiful, it suits us,” Gibson explains. “We enjoy living up here away from the masses, just chipping away trying to keep making wine better.”
That evolution is what excites Abel. “We’ve made leaps and bounds in understanding in the last four or five years,” he says. There’s no wish to mix up the range, just a need to continue making these special wines even better.
They’d been making Archaeus for a few years, blending fruit from vineyards around the Eden Valley, but in 2016 they had a single puncheon from their own vineyard – having a very different quality thanks to its pink quartz, and decided it would exclusively come from that site moving forward – with production less than 700 bottles. “I love the finesse that the Syrah has up here,” Gibson says. The idea is that they’ll eventually do the same with Solumodo.
But that doesn’t mean there aren’t a few experiments – such as a traditional method sparkling Riesling with some skin contact. Having gradually built up a mother wine with 300 litres from each vintage, they’ve used juice from the vineyards to inoculate the base wine – å la Selosse. No matter how the experiment goes (the first wine wasn’t quite dry when I visited), they’ll only release something worthy of the Ruggabellus name.
“Salt of the earth” might be a cliché, but it sums Abel and Emma up. I’ve been lucky to taste the wines several times since this initial visit, and each time have been blown away. These are wines of brightness and lift, aromatically complex reds, while the orange wines are intriguing and textured, evolving in a way that many orange wines don’t. Ruggabellus makes extraordinary wines that should be some of Australia’s most sought-after. The only good thing, perhaps, is that – for now – I can still afford them.
Exploring the evolution of one of Napa’s original cult estates, Grace Family Vineyards
Talking to Shawn DeMartino is a breath of fresh air. The whip-smart 30-year-old is a whirlwind of energy. Conversation is double-pace, with an enthusiasm that is energising and infectious. It’s easy to see how he has wound up managing one of Napa’s original cult names, Grace Family Vineyards, at such a young age.
“I’ve been spoiled by prior experience to know how high the bar can be, and now I strive to live up to that example,” he tells me. “There’s just an enormous amount of craftsmanship and teamwork between a great idea and a great wine.” And his prior experience does set the bar high – his resume is ridiculous. He worked at Screaming Eagle and Harlan before deciding to work freelance as a consultant, then being lured to Grace full-time.
If you haven’t heard of Grace, it’s not that surprising. Until recently, the estate was a tiny two acres, producing a mere 200 cases a year – most of which went to their mailing list. It’s never been open to the public, quietly tucked away off Highway 29, just north of St Helena. But the alumni of this property include the likes of Randy Dunn, Heidi Anderson Barrett and David Abreu.
A coincidental cult: the history of Grace Family Vineyards
Dick and Ann Grace bought the property in the early 1970s and replaced a one-acre olive grove with Cabernet Sauvignon in 1976. Dick was a stockbroker and knew nothing about wine, so turned to Charlie Wagner at Caymus for advice (the couple enjoyed his wines, and Dick had done some business with him previously). Wagner ended up buying the first crop of grapes in 1978 (which was picked by the Graces’ family and friends). When he realised the quality of the fruit, Wagner bottled it separately, as Grace Family Cabernet* – and continued to do so for several years, with the last Caymus bottling of Grace made in 1982.
Soon Dick and Ann decided to start their own label, converting their barn into a winery. The 1983 vintage was their first release, but it was in 1985 that Grace was catapulted to fame. That year, they offered a lot of 1981 Cabernet at the Napa Valley Wine Auction. When the hammer eventually fell, the final bid was $10,000, making it the highest-priced lot in the auction. The cult was born.
But the cult was almost an accident – a fluke born of various factors.
When the couple planted that first vineyard (now known as the upper block), they planted it at 1,100 vines per acre – an unusually high density for the time – having been told that it was good for quality. Their neighbours thought they were mad. In 1988, they planted a second acre (the lower block) at similarly high density and when phylloxera struck the original acre in 1994, they replanted at 3,400 vines per acre – six times the average for the time.
They inadvertently farmed organically, choosing not to use herbicides or pesticides, just because they didn’t want to, shifting to more official organic farming over time.
The vine material from the Bosché vineyard – a site originally planted by a San Francisco attorney, John Bosché in the mid-1960s. Sitting between Beaulieu Vineyard and Inglenook in Rutherford, Freemark Abbey used the fruit and it became known for age-worthy and elegant Cabernet.
This clone, now referenced as the Grace clone, combined with the unusual vineyard density and management, created something special – and a wine that became one of the region’s most sought-after. Early vintages of Grace were sold for $25 a bottle – considerably more than many of their neighbours. Although such pricing is a distant memory today, there’s a years-long waitlist for an allocation.
Dick and Ann still live on the property, in the house they bought back in 1976, built in 1881 and sandwiched between the two vineyards. Over the years, the couple has became known for their philanthropy – creating the Grace Family Foundation and working in particular with children’s charities, and charities in Nepal – after Dick developed a relationship with the Dalai Lama. Reportedly over 20% of the profits from Grace were donated to charity. But as they got older (now both in their 80s), they didn’t have anyone to take on their legacy, with their children not interested. Enter, the Greens.
A new era for Grace
Strategy consultant Kate Green met Dick and Ann after employing Helen Keplinger (Grace winemaker since 2014) to help replant vineyards Kate had bought in 2015. Heath Canyon, this 50-acre property (with seven dedicated to vines) had originally belonged to the Van Asperens, the founders of Round Hill wines and Rutherford Ranch Winery. Helen introduced Kate – and her English husband Jeremy – to Dick and Ann, and they hit it off. Dick and Ann saw the Greens as a fellow family willing to take a long-term view and nurture their legacy. In 2019, Kate Green bought Grace (reportedly paying over $5 million for the original estate vineyards alone).
At the same time, the already tiny volumes produced at Grace were temporarily slashed, after the Graces took the difficult decision to replant the lower block in its entirety in 2017 – making as little as 80 cases a year. “Rarity is seen as desirable around here, but at Grace we really understand the flipside of the scarcity coin,” Shawn tells me, half-jokingly.
But there was a pipeline for more fruit. The Greens had been in conversation with the Corbetts – owners of a neighbouring parcel to Heath Canyon. The Corbett family had been farming these vineyards since the 1900s, with Cornelius (Connie) Corbett the most recent steward. After leasing grapes, the Greens managed to persuade Connie to sell them this 40-acre parcel (with 22 acres of vineyard), which was another slice of the original Van Asperen property.
This site – now known as Cornelius Grove – is tucked away on the western side of St Helena, just a stone’s throw from suburbia. Here, 30 acres of vines sit in amongst 60 more of forest (another thing for Shawn to manage), forming an undulating amphitheatre with a remarkable range of soils and microclimates at the foot of the Mayacamas.
On the southern edge of Cornelius Grove is a hill with charmingly wonky terraces (currently being re-planted), atop which perches an old redwood tank that was converted into a tiny house. But in another twist of fate, it is this “round hill” that appears on the labels of and gave its name to Round Hill – the label created by the Van Asperens.
The Grace of the future
As if there weren’t enough hints of destiny in Grace’s story, Helen Keplinger gave Shawn his first job in the industry. He worked as an intern in 2015, helping bottle the 2014 vintage of Grace. Returning six years later was, for him, “a little like coming home”. Although originally hired as a consultant, it soon became clear that turning round and incorporating the Corbett vineyards, the ongoing replant of the original site, not to mention building the brand and its distribution, was going to be a full-time project – and one that needed attention and commitment for at least a decade.
“I’ve been given an amazing amount of freedom, but it’s a long game and there’s a lot to get right,” he says, laughing. There won’t be any sudden about-turns, but it’s clear that there’s an evolution taking place – and one that will be exciting to watch.
Having worked with Cory Empting at Harlan, his mentorship seems to have had a significant impact, with a focus on building a relationship between the team, the land and the wine. There is a team of six working in the vineyards, but every Friday the crew is given the day to do what they feel needs doing. Although Grace has long been known for paying its crew well above the minimum, empowering vineyard workers with such freedom remains radical.
The original winery was a converted barn, and while it’s a special space – with its stained-glass window bearing the estate’s trademark “G” and renovated relatively recently – it is far too small. In fact, the wines are currently being made elsewhere, largely because the 2020 fires came right up to the property and they can no longer get fire insurance. Alongside everything else, Shawn is working on a fire suppression system to protect the original estate.
The change in ownership is also bringing a shift to the range. The family had previously made a wine from 1.7 acres of the Blank Vineyard in Rutherford (the Blanks were friends of the Graces). The wine was a source of confusion, another single-vineyard bottling rather than a second wine, and bearing a drastically different appearance, with the front label not even mentioning Grace. The 2018 vintage was the last bottled, with the 2020 made as a rosé, needing to pick it early ahead of the fires.
The original, flagship Grace Family Estate will continue to be made from the original vineyards, of course, but this will be complemented by two new wines, with both produced for the first time in 2019.
Cornelius Grove – named in honour of Connie Corbett, who still currently lives on the property – will be made with fruit from the Corbett vineyards. One gnarly 0.7-acre old-vine plot from this site – 70-year-old Cabernet Sauvignon with a sprinkling of Gamay interplanted – is going to be bottled separately (in fact this was first made in 2018, producing just 25 cases).
At present, the lower block of the original Grace Estate isn’t yet back on stream after its replanting – although a portion will be included in the 2021 vintage which will be blended and bottled in the coming months. Shawn explains how they used the slow-developing 420A rootstock, and they’re trying to resist watering and fertilising it to try and hurry it up. The two original blocks are significantly different – the upper block is more volcanic, creating a more linear, structured and almost severe style of wine that is complemented by the lower block’s fleshier profile from deeper, loam-rich soils. Despite being less than 100 metres apart, the difference is extraordinary.
Tasting the 2019 Grace Estate and Cornelius Grove with Shawn, he clearly feels the absence of the lower block in the property’s flagship wine, but perhaps is biased by his knowledge of the two together. Tasting the upper block iteration of Grace Estate, you can see how the lower block would fit in, but I loved the more strict style of Cabernet. Samantha Cole-Johnson (writer extraordinaire, fellow MW student and a good friend who arranged the visit) favoured the Cornelius Grove. I loved the way she described its “gravel riverbed” character and “unravelling” palate, yet for me the Grace Estate is the one I’d want in my cellar. It might not be showing itself fully now, but I’ve got no doubt that it will be beautiful in 20 years’ time.
Talking to Shawn is invigorating – and I left Grace feeling like this is the start of a new chapter for the property. There’s plenty of history here and a great legacy to protect, but the future seems to hold even more promise – but Shawn is quick to make sure I’m aware that there’s an entire team behind, shaping Grace’s tale. “People talk a lot about culture,” he tells me, “but in truth, real culture emerges from the values of the people that make up and build an organisation. Grace has this kind of culture in spades, and this is perhaps its greatest legacy.”
The Grace Family Vineyard wines
2019 Grace Family Estate Cabernet Sauvignon: Made exclusively with the one-acre upper block, just 80 cases were produced. This is for me a wine of perfume and precision – there’s a punch of oak spice at this youthful stage, sweet and toasty, yet beneath that is an intense, savoury and rich power. Concentrated and firm, with the structure of these volcanic soils, you can see where the fleshier lower block would fit in, yet there’s a velveteen feel, and I love the purity here, with herbal layers and a lightness that feels at odds with the depth. If you’re lucky enough to get a bottle, hold onto it.
2019 Grace Family Vineyards, Cornelius Grove Cabernet Sauvignon: This is more floral with sweeter fruit, but a distinct graphite edge. The fruit is darker, with a plushness – richer and rounder than the Grace Estate, its fleshiness making it feel more approachable. The oak dominates still here, but brings a creamy sweetness and texture to the mid-palate, with more delicate notes playing on the long finish.
I’ve been in California for two weeks now, spending a week at the MW seminar here and exploring wineries around Napa and Sonoma. I’ll be writing much, much more on the back of my trip, but – for now – I spent some time thinking about what makes the region so exciting today.
I first went to Rondo la Cave a couple of years ago when I saw a snap of the Detroit-style deep dish that Four Corners was doling out during its residency there. Combine these serious slabs of pizza with a funky but clean, crisp take on Provence rosé from Freddie Cossard – made with 20-year-old Cinsault – and I fell in love. The residencies that followed both caught my eye – Chet’s Thai-Americana junk food courtesy of Night+Market’s Kris Yenbamroong, and Dollars, a celebration of the deli sandwich from Singapore’s Andrei Soen, and then Brooklyn’s Four Horsemen. I wanted to catch each one, but didn’t. When I saw that Four Corners was back – and this time for good, the pull was too much to resist.
The natty-leaning wine bar is tucked beneath The Hoxton in Holborn. Unlike the sleek-yet-casual minimalism of the hotel, this basement channels dive-bar chic. A neon sign welcomes you as you descend to a slightly gloomy space, with an open kitchen, chalkboard menus, rustic wooden panelling – spotlessly clean yet with just a hint of grunge.
Operating as both a wine bar and shop (with some particularly fun beers and ciders too, although those aren’t all available to drink in), the list is firmly natural, with few familiar names. But in amongst these are reassuring signals of good taste – such as a rosé from Judith Beck (vibrant, juicy, moreish and a touch reductive) or the cult Domaine des Ardoisières Argile Blanc. The “house red” is a País//Cabernet/Carignan blend – juicy, savoury and fruity, the sort of thing that is perfect pizza fare.
And the pizza, oh the pizza. Trays of two-inch-thick focaccia are re-baked with cheese around the edge, forming a filthily savoury, fat-crisped crust to each pie. The list of topping options is short and simple, with specials making guest appearances. The red top (tomato, cheddar, mozzarella, pecorino and oregano) sets the bar, with its sweet-and-salty balance. Pistachio and mortadella combines a pistachio pesto with flutters of mortadella (surely the king of cold cuts?) and soft, creamy mounds of burrata. The soppressata combines gentle heat and meaty richness with sweet arrabbiata sauce and honey, the cut of basil making it the most moreish of them all. Slices are generous, verging on obscene, yet the base feels so airy, the combination of flavours so addictive, that it’s easy to devour much more than you intend to. Fortunately, doggy bags are offered freely.
To finish, we had a fascinating hopped rosé from Weninger. This curiosity sat somewhere between cider and wine, with a pleasing savoury, almost bretty feel, but still lifted fruit and freshness, as well as a satisfying phenolic grip. As we were about to leave, a member of the team arrived with a mystery gallon jug, scribbled with permanent marker. Sweetcorn, chilli, mezcal and several other ingredients were combined to make a maverick twist on an old fashioned – smoky, fiery, savoury and totally lethal. it’s just one marker of the service here, that draws you in, making you an insider.
It’s not flawless. Some wines were out of stock, one member of the team didn’t really know the wine list or if things were available, and I’d have loved it if the Brooklyn Ghost Bottlings they sell in the shop were on the list to drink in. But, beyond that, this joint feeds your guiltiest dreams with undeniable class, blending junk food and funky wine to create a spot that exudes fun. The one downside of Four Corners’ return? Calories now feature on the menu. Don’t bring your reading glasses, and you’ll have a much better time. Ignorance, in this instance, really is bliss.
Sitting down with Champagne Louis Roederer’s legendary Chef de Cave and Executive Vice-President to talk about why it’s high time people started taking Champagne seriously
Late last year, I managed to get some face time with one of the industry’s biggest names: Jean-Baptiste Lécaillon. He has been at the helm of Champagne Louis Roederer since 1999, and has taken what was already a leading Grande Marque to astronomic heights. The wines, across the range, are extraordinary.
He was in London to launch both the second release of Collection (their new multi-vintage wine that has replaced the non-vintage Brut Premier) and an exciting project – a selection of extremely limited late releases, vintage Champagnes that have been aged in Roederer’s cellars. The aim is to highlight the “window of beauty” that appears between 20 and 30 years. First up are the classic vintage bottlings, which will be followed by releases of the rosé and then the Blanc de Blancs. Interestingly – and unlike many of Roederer’s competitors – these aren’t late-disgorged, just aged perfectly. Tasting through the wines was a real treat, and highlighted the quality on show here.
I spoke to him about how he’s taken the House to the next level, why he’s more interested in the vineyard than cellar, and why he’s not just trying to make exquisite Champagne – but exceptional, age-worthy fine wine.
I’ve been lucky to interview my fair share of famous wine writers: from the legendary old-school Steven Spurrier and Hugh Johnson, to the newer-wave voices of Jon Bonné, William Kelley and Neal Martin. (A sadly male-dominated list – hoping to add some women to that list soon, and more diversity in general.) The latest to join this illustrious line-up is Andrew Jefford, a man whose way with words is unmatched.
Best-known for his work in Decanter (where he’s a Contributing Editor), he’s a writer through and through. He might like wine, but it’s the love of putting pen to paper that got him into the game – and has kept him in it for over 30 years. It’s this, perhaps, that sets him apart – where others (myself included) have fallen head first into writing after our heels – and heart – brought us into wine. I sat down with him before Christmas to talk about just that, his career so far and why there’s no point to wine scores.
As soon as you start reading about To Kalon, you know you’re in complicated territory. This is a site that commands a serious premium. And so much has been written about it. Many would argue that, at its best, it’s the greatest site in Napa. But, and here’s the hitch, where does it start and finish? Where is the best part of it? Who gets to use the name? Did the fruit actually come from the vineyard, whatever the label says? And is even asking these questions sensible?
For anyone interested, GuildSomm’s legendary feature on the vineyard by Matt Stamp, tracing its history, is an incredible read, and it was absolutely one of the sources I used when trying to put some thoughts on the site onto paper. But trying to look beyond To Kalon’s storied past, I turned to some of the region’s leading winemakers – Andy Erickson, Tor Kenward and Paul Hobbs – to dig into what really makes it special today. I delve into the history, the wines and why it’s deemed a “Grand Cru”.
When we got back from our first trip to Burgundy to taste 2021 in September, I was a bit worried. It was a fleeting visit, tasting only a handful of reds, but some of them were thin. Some village wines tasted better than Grands Crus. How was I going to muster the enthusiasm to write thousands of words about a bad vintage?
After a week in November fully immersed in the year, I was delighted to know that wouldn’t be a problem. Those early visits were perhaps unfortunate, producers who hadn’t fared as well with their reds, but the wines have also clearly benefited from additional time in barrel.
From a year that asked everything of wine producers, testing them with frost, hail, rain and endless disease, the resulting wines are a marvel. The crops may be tiny, but the whites (as they were in September) are brilliant, tight and taut with stunning concentration. The reds are old-school Burgundy, pale and perfumed with low alcohols and tannins, ethereal and elegant. They’re wines I want to drink endlessly.
Look at Anna Tobias’s Instagram and it is deliciously ugly. The queen of #beigefood, she’s a refreshing counter to the curated profiles of London’s leading culinary talent. There’s no portrait mode, no careful lighting, no considered plating and careful ceramic selection. Indeed, her trademark has become the Chartier plate.
It’s a neat embodiment of the food you’ll find at Café Deco, her Bloomsbury restaurant that opened in the heart of the pandemic in late 2020, a collaboration with the 40 Maltby Street team. On the quiet of Store Street, it glows welcomingly, with the soft light and a stripped-back feel under its soft green awning. But there’s an Old World classicism here, with white table cloths and tealights that feel reminiscent of a French bistro or Italian trattoria rather than modish London eatery.
The menu is hard to describe, at once determinedly British, yet with classical French and Italian influence running through it. Modern European is a disservice to this very gentle combination that seems both familiar and totally refreshing.
Flawless sourdough and creamy salted butter set the tone – offered here without an additional charge, a rarity beyond the most expensive establishments. Smoked mackerel with beetroot and horseradish chrain (£11) is a statement in simplicity: the pleasing chunk of mackerel closeted in its iridescent skin, bones and all, pertly placed alongside a pile of firm and flavoursome, vibrant beetroot cut by the fire of horseradish. A mouthful of the pumpkin caponata and baked ricotta (£12) offered the perfect balance of sweet and sour, with the soothing creaminess to balance its intensity.
Beef mince on dripping toast, watercress and pickled walnut (£25) cries out to me – and rightfully so on a wet and windy November evening. But this is no Quality Chop knock-off. The oblong of toast is crisp, the mince an honest and subtle alternative to its Farringdon friend – less decadent, rich and gout-inducing, yet no less comforting. A perfect pickled walnut provides the sharp bite to prevent the plate’s reassuring brown-ness becoming bland. Roast halibut, potatoes and salsa verde (£28) sees similar acclaim from my fellow diners.
Chocolate pudding pie (£9) was a triumph – the finest, crispest pastry shell holding an almost inappropriately good chocolate ganache, layered with an almost obscene volume of pillowy whipped cream: the ensemble is one of the sexiest puds you’ll ever eat. Apple charlotte and cream (£9) leaves a Lancashire-man speechless.
Everything is simple, modest, yet executed to the finest level. It’s cooking that speaks of Tobias’s CV so far, with Jeremy Lee, the River Café and Rochelle Canteen, not to mention the P. Franco residency that I still have FOMO about. It’s not cheap, but it’s also the sort of place where you can linger, you can hear everyone around the table, where napkins are weighty, there are plentiful coat hooks. These details are the thing that elevates this from just a nice restaurant to somewhere that you can see yourself returning to time and time again.
There is but one black mark against the place. The wine list, unfortunately, is for me the only downside. It’s the sort that is obfuscatingly, determinedly natural. And few bottles sit below the £50 mark, making most choices risky. The wait-staff were delightful, but I’m not convinced they’d be particularly helpful in guiding you to a safe choice. On the upside, corkage is available, at £25, which is worth doing if you plan to drink well.
Take a bottle, or just savour the joys of #beigefood pure – I can guarantee you won’t regret it.