Buyer Marcel Orford-Williams
Buyer Marcel Orford-Williams talks about why he makes this 'grand tour' at the start of each year, with passing reference to Asterix the Gaul!
One of my favourite Asterix stories is called in French 'Le Tour de Gaule'. In it Asterix, with his inseparable friend Obelix, proves their independence from Roman rule by going round Gaul, picking up souvenirs from each of the places they visit. Inevitably they pick up an amphora of sparkling wine from Durocortorum (or Reims in more modern speak). It's a great yarn which introduces Obelix's tree-loving dog, Idéfix or in the English version Dogmatix.
I do my own Tour de Gaule every January when I set out on a long journey across a succession of France's wine regions over the course of ten days. This is not the trip for sourcing the finest wines: indeed the main reason for going out so early is to taste the new vintage and work on the blends of many of The Society's best sellers and most-loved wines. At the same time it gives us a pretty good idea of what the vintage, in this case 2014, is about.
Read more about the 2014 vintage across the wine world here
A year without summer
Every vintage is different of course and presents different challenges to both winemaker and buyer. 2014 was the year with no summer. After a warm and dry spring, June turned into July and then August, but summer never really materialised. But then came September and October with warmer weather and, as if by miracle, the vintage was saved.
But there were casualties en route. Yields were not always generous and indeed down in the Languedoc, which one must remember still produces about a third of all French wine, yields were catastrophic. Chardonnay and sauvignon blanc, early ripeners, simply failed in the cold summer, losing about 40% of potential yield.
With this in mind, I began my buying spree early this year. Already in September decisions were being made and wines at least reserved until they were more presentable after Christmas, when the first chill of the year has entered the cellars and help settle the wines.
Armelle Fauglas blending
A sparkling start in Saumur
First stop Saumur (no idea what it is in Latin!) and a visit to Gratien Meyer, our oldest suppliers. The team is headed by Armelle Fauglas, a talented winemaker with already a few vintages under her belt. She was waiting together with Olivier Dupré, export director, and The Wine Society's Loire buyer, Joanna Locke.
Every time I walk up the wooden stairs chez Gratien, I am aware of the 100 or so years of history that link us together. I walked past Eric Seydoux's office where he resided, immaculately turned out, until his 100th year. The office has hardly changed. The tasting room of course has and is very much fit for purpose.
Armelle has selected samples from several tanks and we taste in silence, first chardonnay, then chenin and finally white wines made from black cabernet franc and pinot noir. This will be the first blending session of the year that will culminate ten days later with a session just outside Mâcon where the object will be The Society's White Burgundy and Society's Beaujolais.
…and the vintage in Saumur?
Back to Saumur. Every vintage is different and last year's formula doesn't work in the same way. The quality of the still wines is truly excellent, better than I can remember for years. It takes several goes to get it right but the result is very satisfying. Soon the wine will be blended according to our specification and in the spring it will be bottled with a little yeast and sugar and the wines will be left alone to become a fine sparkling wine.
Find out more about sparkling winemaking
Tasting doesn't half make you hungry and luckily a favourite restaurant in Saumur is open, even midweek in January. What does one eat after all the richness of Christmas? The answer of course starts with a dozen oysters and a simply grilled piece of beef washed down with an excellent Saumur-Champigny from a favourite grower. The hôtel has a certain emotional attachment for me as it is here that I learned of the birth of my eldest son. Stranger still I am always in that same room, just at the top of the wide and elegant stairs and slightly to the left. And so ends the first leg.
I am up fairly early. For once the Loire is not shrouded in mists. There is something infinitely warm and elegant about the Loire. The river is always stunning, proud and barely tamed. I know the spot where young cadets from the Saumur Cavalry School stood their ground in 1940 and I pay them a silent moment of respect before taking the road south. The drive is without incident, with clear and dry weather, and no frost. The vines stop some 15 miles outside Saumur. Montreuil-Bellay is a fine place for growing chenin and also mushrooms, taking advantage of the miles of disused quarries. Vines re-emerge in the Charentes; Cognac vines I dare say and once I cross into the Gironde, the vines are Bordeaux. But Bordeaux is not my destination…