Begude, Étoile Chardonnay 2017/18 Limoux

Pyrenees from a vineyard at Dom Begude in Limoux

A great-value substitute for white burgundy. 

From €14.50, £13.99 (as part of a six-bottle order from just-sold Majestic), 229 Norwegian kroner, 1,100 Thai baht 

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James and Catherine Kinglake have come up with another outstanding (certified) organic wine, in this case one that should be of interest to those who feel they can no longer afford white burgundy.

As Purple Pagers will see from our many tasting notes on this wine, from the 2012 vintage onwards, it is no commercial construct but seems to have a different character with each vintage. The 2017 was quite bold. 'Definitely not burgundy but definitely French', I wrote in my tasting note, whereas Tim Jackson MW found a few tropical notes.

But the 2018 I tasted recently seemed to have a particularly pleasing (for white burgundy lovers) salinity and even a few 'mineral' notes. Not that the 2018 is at all reticent at this stage. I'd say it is certainly ready to enjoy, and can be found in the UK for just £13.99 if bought as part of an order of at least six bottles at Majestic, which trumpets that it is the exclusive UK retailer of this 2018. (See today's news about Majestic stores now being owned by funds controlled by Fortress investment group; the £100 million raised will cut debt and be ploughed into Naked Wines.) The price for a single bottle is £15.99, which I still think is a steal for a blend of the best 600-litre demi-muids (10% new) of barrel-fermented Chardonnay in the cellar.  

In the UK the 2017 can be found at Vinceremos and Stone, Vine & Sun. It's also available in the Netherlands, Germany, from the Norwegian monopoly and in Thailand. There are several stockists of Begude wines in the US, notably K&L of San Francisco, who are listing the 2018 vintage of the IGP Chardonnay a notch down from Étoile, Terroir 11300, at $12.99. I have not tasted this wine that is mainly tank-fermented with 15% of wine from the demi-muids. But at $12.99, I'd have thought it worth a punt.

More stockists named by the Kinglakes are:
Ireland – O'Briens
Germany – Jacques Wein Depot & VivoLoVin 
The Netherlands – Delta Wines 
Denmark – Vinmonopolet
Norway - Brand Wine Estates 
Sweden – Vinovativa
Australia – Vinomofo (in transit)

The Kinglakes have also launched a super-special Chardonnay, their best demi-muid or two, depending on the vintage: Arcturus. I've been lucky enough to taste the first three vintages, 2015, 2016 and 2017. The 2015 is a bit too oak-dominated but the 2016 is looking very good now – even if I'm not sure I think the premium over the Étoile is worth it. (It's listed by Vinceremos at £37.99.) And the 2017 is reassuringly youthful so I hope to take another look at this very ambitious wine.

James Kinglake offers the following observations on recent vintages:

'2015 was one of our best Chardonnay vintages as a result of a wet winter and then frequent rainfall and copious amounts of sunshine when it was required between June and August. This led to a very rich palate across all our Chardonnays coupled with our usual high natural acidity, which seemed to work well with the consumers. We feel that the Arcturus 2015 and Étoile 2015 will develop well over next couple of years (at least).

'Funnily enough 2016 was much more suited to Pinot Noir at Begude and our Chardonnays were more elegant if somewhat less fruit-filled. I see you rather like the Arcturus 2016 and we agree that at the top end this vintage will age well but we feel that the Étoile 2016 is best drunk relatively young.

'The last two years have been tough for us:

'2017 drought led to yields being down approx 50% on the norm of the last 10 years. It didn’t rain from end May until mid September. This led to some exaggerated sugar levels in our wines, which is challenging to manage, especially as sugars rise so swiftly in the last few days ahead of harvest and here in Limoux we have to hand pick to achieve the AOP status. Getting the pickers together is always somewhat of a struggle!

'2018 was the complete opposite with rain throughout May and June and then two huge storms early July (80 mm [3 in] rain) leading to mildew, which decimated our yields even more than the previous vintage. An example of the impact of mildew in 2018: our 1 ha of Gewurztraminer that usually yields approx 3,000 bottles worth gave us a pitiful 60 litres, or 80 bottles worth! With our Étoile cuvée we made a conscious decision to pick a little earlier, so made sure that our pickers were ready to go a few days earlier than normal (in sugar terms). This has resulted in a slightly lighter alcohol level of 13.2% vs the more usual 13.5–13.9%. It was 100% barrel fermented in 600-litre demi-muids from François Frères and 30% of the cuvée is wild ferment (we have kept the very best barrel back for our Arcturus 2018). Bottled end May 2019.

'This wine is closed in DIAM, is vegan- and vegetarian-friendly, as we also highlight on the back label, and we hope that it will develop well over the next five years or so.'

Picking Chardonnay grapes at Begude in Limoux
Picking Chardonnay grapes at Begude in Limoux

Limoux is an interesting appellation. This pretty region at around 300 m (985 ft) elevation with views of the eastern Pyrenees from the vineyards such as that shown top right is best known for its sparkling wines, either Blanquette or Crémant. But because some Chardonnay was allowed in the local fizz, in the 1980s Limoux was one of very few French sources of Chardonnay grapes from mature vines when Chardonnay mania was at its peak, in the 1980s and early 1990s. Originally still Chardonnay from Limoux had to be sold as a humble Vin de Pays. This gave rise to the creation of AOC Limoux in 1993 for still Chardonnay, with the interesting, possibly unique, rider than the wine had to be barrel fermented. (Oak was all the rage then too.)

Back then the wines were pretty lean, but of course as summers have become warmer, the wines have filled out. (And one wonders whether barrel fermentation is always a good thing.) It will be a shame if Limoux summers become so hot that they lose their signature of relatively high-elevation wine, but I dare say that if that happens, we will have more serious concerns.

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