A version of this article is also published by the Financial Times.
I reckon I have tasted almost 8,000 wines over the last 12 months. The tasting notes database of JancisRobinson.com lists 6,516 supplied by me to during that period, and I am all too aware that I taste many a wine at meals that I fail to write a note on. Of all the wines I described over the last year, 2,618 were white and just 138 were pink, leaving the great majority red – representing a disproportionately large fraction considering that the British still drink considerably more white than red (48% to 41% of total consumption).
I taste a high proportion of wines to which no retail price is (yet?) assigned, but I was able to write GV for ‘good value’ in 166 of my white wine tasting notes last year.
One wine I thought GV and delightfully tense was Jean-Marc Vincent, Beaurepaire Premier Cru 2013 Santenay, on offer from The Wine Society at £29. This should age well. Marc Roy, Les Champs Perdrix 2013 Marsannay (£24.73 O W Loeb) is from one of the less glamorous villages but is a delicate and beautiful wine made by the feisty Alexandrine Roy and just starting to drink well.
The lesser 2014 white burgundies are just starting to show well, and this was a superb vintage for them – generally more exciting for whites than the riper 2015 vintage that resulted in fatter wines. The clever choice is of course Chablis because the 2014 vintage was superb there and there is a dire shortage of Chablis in 2015 and, particularly, 2016. Most 2014s will also have been imported into the UK when sterling was worth something.
Bernard Defaix, Côte de Lechet Premier Cru 2014 Chablis is outstandingly good, and, unusually for this admirably tightly wound vintage, already drinking well. Succulent, without losing its ‘wet stones’ Chablis character, it is a bargain at £18.30 from Domaine Direct (from whom you must buy at least 12 bottles but they may be mixed) and £19.95 per single bottle from Stainton Wines of Kendal.
Samuel Billaud, once of Billaud-Simon but now with his own domaine, is a rising star of Chablis. His wines are imported into the UK by Montrachet (named after a white burgundy that is no longer affordable and, in 2016, yielded so few grapes that six of the top producers, including Lafon, Leflaive and Domaine de la Romanée-Conti pooled their grapes and filled just two barrels). Montrachet currently offers Samuel Billaud, Séchet Premier Cru 2014 Chablis, made from 70-year-old vines, for £225 a dozen in bond, £300 including duty and VAT.
Raveneau is arguably the most revered Chablis producer but others who made 2014s that particularly impressed me include Adhémar et Francis Boudin, Gilles et Nathalie Fèvre, Moreau-Naudet, Pinson, Isabelle et Denis Pommier, Servin and Verget.
However, many wine lovers, bruised by having to pour bottles of expensive, prematurely oxidised wine down the sink, are still wary of white burgundy. May I commend a superior alternative to them?
What do I have to do to convince them that Germany is now producing truly fine dry wines that tend to be much better partners for food than oaked white wines such as many a white burgundy? The examples at the top of the tree, generally called Grosses Gewächs, tend to have prices boosted by local demand but there are many alternatives that are much better value. The best producers of the Nahe – Dönnhoff, Emrich Schönleber, Schäfer-Fröhlich and, nowadays, Schlossgut Diel – can provide just the right blend of fully ripe Riesling fruit (thank you, global warming) with mouth-watering freshness.
In my extensive tastings of 2015 German wines I was very taken by Schäfer-Fröhlich, Bockenauer Schiefergestein Riesling trocken 2015 Nahe, effectively the little brother of the Grosses Gewächs from their celebrated steep, slaty Felseneck vineyard. It is currently retailing in Germany for well under €20 and in the US for less than $40. My guess is that it will continue to provide ever more intriguing drinking until the end of the next decade at least. Rheinhessen producers such as Battenfeld-Spanier, Dreissigacker, Kühling-Gillot, Wagner Stempel and Stefan Winter, in the wake of such luminaries as Keller and Wittmann, can also offer great value. 2015 was a great vintage.
The other three most obvious sources of top-quality dry Riesling are the three As: Alsace, Austria and Australia. Australians, fortunately, seem to be emerging from a period during which they overvalued austerity in their Rieslings. Grosset, Springvale Riesling 2015 Clare Valley from Australia’s king of Riesling is stunning, already accessible, and fairly easy to find for under £20 a bottle, the same sort of price as the biodynamic, gloriously complex Albert Mann, Cuvée Albert Riesling 2014 Alsace that seems to be quite widely exported. Even better value, as described in Mitchell of Clare Valley, is the particularly successful Mitchell, Watervale Riesling 2014 Clare Valley at £12.95 from Tanners.
But if you are determined to serve and drink a fine French Chardonnay, I cannot think of a greater bargain than Domaine Begude, Étoile Chardonnay 2014 Limoux from one of the coolest corners of the Languedoc (our picture shows the domaine's vines under snow, with the Pyrenees in the background). It is £14.50 at Hampshire independent Stone Vine & Sun and £13.99 from Majestic. It tastes rather like one of the finer New Zealand Chardonnays, of which Kumeu River is the prime source; Begude’s French winemaker has made wine in Central Otago.
We tend to associate Italy more readily with red wine than with white but the quality, and ageability, of the better Italian whites is exceptional nowadays – especially in wines made with indigenous grape varieties, of which Vermentino seems especially successful in a wide variety of Italian regions. See also the two Greco Biancos from Jeroboams below.
Portugal is also now a great source of characterful whites from local grapes (see, for example, yesterday's wine of the week and this one). But overall, if it’s real interest with an affordable price tag you seek, look no further than South Africa – especially if you are paying in sterling since it has performed relatively well against the rand recently. But quite independently of currency considerations, I firmly believe that South Africa’s better wines are seriously underestimated by too many of the world’s connoisseurs.
I’ve long been a fan of South African whites but a new discovery is Cape Rock, a wine farm way up the west coast on which ex Cape Town landscape architect Gavin Brand is lavishing enormous care and attention. His rich but not heavy Cape Rock White 2014 Olifantsriver blend from a mixed planting of Rhône varieties is ridiculously underpriced at £13.50 from Stone Vine & Sun.
What is most needed for canny Christmas wine buying is an open mind.
MORE WELL-PRICED FESTIVE WHITES
Kumeu River, Village Chardonnay 2014 Kumeu, New Zealand
£9.95 The Wine Society
Fattoria San Francesco 2015 Cirò, Italy
La Guardiense, Janare Pietralata Greco 2014 Sannio, Italy
Màquina & Tabla, Páramos de Nicasia Brut Grand Cru 2014 Rueda, Spain
£13.95 Lea & Sandeman although sadly they have sold out of the 2014 at warehouse level and are expecting the 2015 in soon
Stift Göttweig, Göttweiger Berg Riesling 2015 Kremstal, Austria
£14.23 O W Loeb
Patrick Piuze 2015 Petit Chablis, France
£14.50 Wine Source
Clos des Lunes, Lune d’Argent 2014 Bordeaux, France
£14.50 Berry Bros & Rudd
David & Nadia Sadie, Paardebosch Chenin Blanc 2015 Swartland, South Africa
£15.12 O W Loeb
Crawford River, Young Vines Riesling 2013 Henty, Australia
£18.54 OW Loeb
Mustiguillo, Finca Calvestra Merseguera 2013 Vino de España
£18.95 Berry Bros & Rudd
Blanchard & Lurton, Grand Vin 2014 Uco Valley, Argentina
£21.50 Berry Bros & Rudd
Dom Bruno Colin, Les Chaumées Premier Cru 2014 Chassagne-Montrachet, France
£54 Domaine Direct if a dozen mixed bottles are bought