As the organiser of a Crémant v Cap Classique masterclass, it was sod’s law for Les Grands Chais de France that it would land just days after the South Africans knocked the French out of the Rugby World Cup. Ballsy that they should still go ahead with it but then, as France’s leading producer of traditional method sparkling wines making almost 40 million bottles a year, GCF is not known for being a shrinking violet. They have unrivalled expertise in making top-quality crémant and are the only company to make it in all eight of the PDO regions. Sarah McCleery had a ringside seat for the sparkling wine clash, tasted through the South African estates Neethlingshof and newly acquired, Villiera and reports back on what’s new at GCF in 2023.
“Grands Chais de France’s tasting was a good one with some really impressive wines, and also a great team of people,” writes McCleery.
When I went to Les Grands Chais de France’s trade tasting in London last year, I wasn’t sure what to expect. This week I went with an optimistic spring in my step: I’d found good wines last year and had been impressed by the impressively knowledgeable people too.
A formidable presence in the off-trade, it would be an on-trade fool who dismissed Les Grands Chais de France (GCF) out of hand. There are some impressive niche wines, with strong gastronomic credentials, which come to the UK via an impressive distribution hub in Alsace.
The day started with a Crémant v Cap Classique masterclass. Nobody who had pulled that tasting together could have predicted it would come a small number of days after France’s heart-breaking loss to the Springboks in the Rugby World Cup. I sense that winemaker and crémant specialist, Pierre-Jean Sauvion is a year-round, impassioned communicator for Loire (and French) sparkling generally, but his Gallic pride seemed to have been piqued and he was in effervescent form. South African, Reggie Perkins was his good-natured side kick.
In numbers, GCF is an impressive sparkling presence in France. It is the country’s leading producer of traditional method sparkling wines, responsible for 39.7 million bottles each year. It is also the only company to make crémant in each of the eight PDO regions and has unrivalled expertise in making top-quality crémant. It is hard to imagine a better ‘one-stop-shop’ for French sparkling wines.
The South African sparkling offering comes from two estates – Neethlingshof and the newly acquired, Villiera Wines. Villiera produced its first cap classique in 1984, and is seen as a pioneer of the style, with a host of international awards for its wines. The masterclass was set to be both fun and fascinating.
For sheer drinkability, the Sauvion Brut, AOP Crémant de Loire was hard to beat. 70% Chenin Blanc, 20% Cabernet Franc and 10% Chardonnay, with 18 months ageing on the lees. The mousse was light and soft, the fruit vibrant and sherbet-like. A winner as a by-the-glass aperitif.
Stepping things up a notch, it was hard to pick between the Arthur Metz AOP Crémant d’Alsace Schieferberg Grand Terroir Schiste and the Villiera Tradition Cap Classique Brut. The Alsace had a distinctly wine-y feel, the fruit reminiscent of white wild orchard fruit, lemon zest and a lovely, toasted brioche finish. A blend of Riesling, Pinot Noir and Pinot Blanc, this was a very distinct crémant. I found the South African challenger more elegant and appreciated the finer mousse too. Made from 100% Chardonnay, it had a classical feel, with the breadth and texture to make it a really good sparkling wine for food. Forced to choose, it would be the Cap Classique I would have taken home.
Villiera triumphed also when it came to the rosé line up. The Tradition Cap Classique Brut Rosé is a Chardonnay/ Pinot Noir blend and, again, it was the wine’s refined aromas and mouthfeel that made it stand out. That said, the Sauvion Brut Rosé from the Loire was abundantly joyful: Cabernet Franc lending flavours of cranberry, pomegranate, and red cherry. Like its white sibling, a top choice to offer by the glass.
Enthused by the impressive Cap Classique tasting, it was direct to the South Africa table to taste through the still wines. Neethlingshof has a new young, female winemaker, Mika Engelbrecht. Perkins commented that her influence would only benefit the wines, bringing more finesse and elegance.
From the line-up, I particularly enjoyed the 2021 Shiraz, which had lovely varietal character, good freshness, and balance. Owl Post 2021 is 100% Pinotage, and a very good one too! Fruit comes from 25-year-old vineyards, planted on deep red Tukulu soils, 120 metres above sea level. Partially fermented in 300-litre oak barrels, the wine was matured for 20 months in total. Oak influence is evident on both the nose and palate, happily balanced with generous portions of black plum, cassis, cocoa, and baking spice. Full bodied but with plenty of energy, there was a lot to like.
Stellenbosch estate, Villiera is new to GCF, and I think it will be an exceptional addition to the portfolio. For now, there are just a trio of wines available for the on-trade, and they are in pretty limited supply, but definitely wines to have on your radar.
The single-vineyard Bush Vine Sauvignon Blanc 2022 was an absolute stunner, and my white wine of the tasting. Fermented in eggs and tanks, the wine was matured in oak barrels for six months. Not normally a style of Sauvignon I love, but Villiera has nailed the style. Textural and broad on the palate with impressively fresh citrus and tropical fruit flavours. Deliciously leesy too.
Coming up rosés
From South Africa, it was to Provence and Corsica next for a sweep of rosé wines. Here’s a thing, I didn’t taste a single wine I didn’t like. Just as I found at the 2022 event, GCF has some real gems that have all the credentials to sit comfortably on any fine wine list.
With the sommeliers in mind, here are my two favourites that have gastro potential. AOP Côtes de Provence Sainte Victoire Cuvée Badetty, Château de la Galinièe, is the pick of the cuvée, and a step up from the already very good Sainte Victoire. I found it to be wonderfully precise, delicate at the same time as characterful and with a touch of spice too. A rosé with impressive length and elegance.
Sans Prétention AOP Luberon distinguished itself with gorgeous, garrigues aromas, accompanying the crunchy wild strawberry and cranberry fruit. Made from Grenache, it was both generous and nuanced.
It was a good tasting with some really impressive wines, and also a great team of people. I had the same impression last year and was struck again by the team’s knowledge and good-humoured helpfulness too. I get a good feeling from GCF and feel confident in recommending them.
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