The second in a new series for those starting a cellar. A version of this article, Jancis's last Saturday contribution for a while, is published by the Financial Times.
As I pointed out last month, bordeaux is the prime candidate for a cellar because there is no shortage of well-priced wine there that deserves ageing. And above a certain level of reputation, there is a ready secondary market for it should you wish to sell a portion of what you buy.
In recent years a secondary market for tip-top champagne has developed but these wines hardly qualify as bargains. Well-priced champagne is currently difficult to find in the UK. By far the most economical way to buy champagne in quantity if you’re UK-based – for a forthcoming wedding, for example – is to drive to the region itself and buy direct from a reputable family grower. You are allowed to import 12 bottles of sparkling wine duty-free and will then be charged £2.67 a bottle on the rest (same as on still wine, of which you’re allowed to import 18 litres duty-free). Of course you have to factor in the cost of your journey but Champagne is not a painful or distant region to visit and you will almost certainly have saved money overall.
Even quite modest champagne from a good source really benefits from age.
Burgundy is not that much further (see this map of French wine regions) but it has the disadvantage that the wines worth ageing tend to be made in inconveniently small quantities, demand (still!) exceeds supply and very few good domaines are easy to visit. I would be slow to taste at any producer who had a sign welcoming visitors in the smartest subregion, the Côte d’Or. UK-based wine lovers would probably be better off taking advantage of some of the 2022 burgundy recommendations I offered as a postscript to Let down by lungs.
Chablis, the Mâconnais (especially the recently revved-up Pouilly-Fuissé appellation), the Côte Chalonnaise (Mercurey, Rully, Montagny and Bouzeron) and superior Beaujolais can all offer infinitely better wine than, say, 10 years ago at a fraction of Côte d’Or prices.
Jura and Savoie in the subalpine east of France are also great hunting grounds but alas have become too fashionable to be bargain basements. And Alsace can provide some of the world’s greatest, long-lived dry Rieslings that benefit enormously from bottle age.
The Rhône Valley, especially the southern half, produces almost as much wine as Bordeaux, and the wines themselves are much more varied. It’s much less structured. There’s no formal classification of vineyards and the wines tend to be distributed by specialist importers rather than via an international network.
The great majority of Rhône wine is red, and is generally either quite full-bodied and based on the Grenache grape (the mainstay of the south) or is more savoury and based on Syrah, the speciality of northern Rhône appellations such as Côte Rôtie, Hermitage, Cornas and hugely improved St-Joseph and Crozes-Hermitage. All of these Syrah-based wines are worthy cellar candidates. They are not too high in alcohol and have a fashionably saline note, along with the black pepper that characterises Syrah grown in not too warm a climate. It pays in the UK to seek out one of the Rhône specialists such as A&B Vintners, Goedhuis Waddesdon, Haynes Hanson & Clark, Justerini & Brooks, Lea & Sandeman, The Wine Society and Yapp Brothers, as most wines of interest for cellaring are the produce of well-run family estates with which they have long-standing ties.
There are exceptions, however; the northern Rhône is blessed with some exceptional companies which also buy in grapes. Notable is Guigal, whose most famous labels are the trophy wines La Mouline, La Turque and La Landonne but whose basic red Côtes du Rhône, retailing from about £11 a bottle, is one of the cheapest wines around that will reliably improve after a few years’ storage. (It’s not worth paying professional storage charges on such an inexpensive wine, however.)
Chapoutier also do a fine job, and make some exceptional whites from the northern Rhône’s Marsanne grape – not just from the famously ageworthy Hermitage appellation but also their Les Granits bottling from St-Joseph. The Rhône Valley’s other famous white wine grapes Roussanne and Viognier can now be found throughout the wine world but the very finest Viognier is very obviously grown on the steep terraces of its birthplace Condrieu. In my experience only a relatively small proportion of Condrieu demands ageing, however.
I’m also an admirer of the wines of Tardieu-Laurent, much smaller than the famous négociants and based in the Luberon in the south but producer of concentrated, ageworthy wines from especially old vines in appellations throughout the Rhône Valley. Corney & Barrow and Raeburn Fine Wines are UK importers.
Buying wine for the cellar in the southern Rhône needs expert advice. So much of the wine labelled Châteauneuf-du-Pape or one of the surrounding appellations is blended to a price rather than being a true expression of place. Another problem is that the characteristic Grenache grape really does need to reach a fair level of ripeness before expressing itself, so alcohol levels of well over 15% are now common here. (Interestingly, every Châteauneuf producer I discussed this with when visiting last June claimed to be one of those who’d pioneered lower-alcohol wines.)
Dozens of seriously good wines are made here, many at excellent prices, but generalisations are difficult – except that these wines are not for the faint-hearted. Most of the vintages currently on offer are worth exploring although the frost-shrunk 2021 vintage was extremely challenging.
Bandol, in the far south-western corner of Provence, is a good example of a spicy red based on Mourvèdre grapes that’s often overlooked and is definitely worth cellaring, as is Domaine Tempier of Bandol’s characterful rosé. Whispering Angel, it ain’t.
The Languedoc, to the west of the southern Rhône, is home to hundreds of ambitious wine producers but it also churns out oceans of extremely ordinary wine. I know from spending summers there how well the reds can age but far too few of them have an international reputation, which means that, with a handful of exceptions, these wines are bargains. It’s almost as though the wine importers of the world have decided that the region is too complex to get to grips with, which is a great shame. In the UK, Stone Vine & Sun take Languedoc wine more seriously than most. In very general terms head for a family-run estate based in a particular appellation. Faugères, St-Chinian and Terrasses du Larzac benefit from higher elevations and therefore tend to produce wines with more subtlety than most. The French wine magazine La Revue du Vin de France, and our articles tagged Languedoc, can provide useful pointers.
The same is true of Roussillon, the generally hotter, Catalan wine region just north of the Pyrenees, which somehow manages to produce some extremely fine, nervy, ageworthy whites as well as some pretty plump reds.
South-West France has tended to produce wines very similar to Bordeaux but white Jurançon and red Madiran are brilliant exceptions thanks to their very distinctive grapes, the Mansengs and the notably tannic Tannat respectively.
And then of course there is the whole of the Loire Valley. Few of the dry whites are designed for long ageing but a fully mature red Chinon or Bourgeuil based on Cabernet Franc grapes grown around Tours can be a thing of infinite beauty, and is rarely overpriced.
A non-comprehensive selection of superior producers with sensible prices
Champagne – Larmandier-Bernier
Photo by Image Source via Getty Images.
Access to detailed maps of all the regions mentioned here is included in membership of JancisRobinson.com, along with over 250,000 tasting notes, with scores and suggested drinking dates, including reviews of hundreds of wines from these producers. For international stockists, see Wine-Searcher.com.