Last week was the first ever opportunity for trade and consumer wine press to taste first-hand the Signature wine range from Les Grands Chais de France at its Private Wine Days tasting in London. Launched last year in October, these wines demonstrate the breadth and depth of GCF’s portfolio, and the investment the company has made both in quality and also wine estates outside of France, for which the company is the country’s largest wine exporter. We sent along Sarah McCleery to run the rule over the wines, a wine expert who was previously unfamiliar with the wines.
“There is, in fact, a lot that’s smart about Les Grands Chais de France. Straight-talking people, with wines that deliver across the price points,” writes Sarah McCleery
Being free of expectations going into a wine tasting is (almost) as good as a blind tasting. No preconceived ideas to muddle impressions.
90% of Les Grands Chais de France’s business is off-trade, and its London tasting this week, was my first. Estate owners and winemakers, Famille Helfrich has built a carefully considered portfolio that deserves a wider audience, and a greater presence in the on-trade.
As channel director for on-trade and independents, Chris Davies says: “We have everything, from entry-level and house wines, to high-end … We are a one-stop shop for Crémant and cover pretty much every known appellation you can think of.”
“Our business model allows customers to experiment – they can easily add a case of Grand Cru Alsace or Bonnezeaux, just to see how it sells. We are a great ‘wine taxi’ service for independents and the on-trade,” he adds.
To clarify, Les Grands Chais de France has a hub in Alsace, and it is from here that all orders are distributed. One pallet is the minimum order, but they encourage – and have experience of – combining orders, that allows neighbouring businesses to work together, where it makes more economic sense to do so.
Highlights of the tastings are to follow shortly, but the people deserve a mention before the wines. Les Grands Chais de France was savvy to put a handful of its oenological team on the floor. In some ways it seems odd to even give this mention, but they were, without exception, hugely knowledgeable and happy to share without pretention or weariness and with refreshing honesty. Top marks for not shying away from discussing the benefits – and use of – quality oak staves and chips! Hurrah.
In addition to owning a vast selection of vineyards, Les Grands Chais de France also has several long-term grower contracts and, in some cases, buy in ready-made wines. As a French family-owned business, it is no surprise that French vineyards make up the lion’s share of the range, but there are gems to be found in Spain, Chile and (coming soon) South Africa.
So which of the Les Grands Chais de France wines stood out?
First wine in my glass was a barrel-aged Spanish Chardonnay from Castillo de Aresan. It was by far the best 100% La Mancha Chardonnay I’ve had at the price (RRP £14.50). IGP Vino de la Tierra de Castilla is made by young winemaker, Irene Martinez, who believed she could make something great from her four hectares of Chardonnay. She was right to believe. Les Grands Chais de France has helped her with Loire Valley yeasts and 300-litre Burgundy barrels. The juice was fermented in oak and the result is a wickedly fresh, vibrant wine. Proudly Chardonnay, deftly vinified. I’m off to a cracking start.
Les Grands Chais de France do indeed have an impressive array of Crémant wines. It’s got a loyal an enthusiastic following for Arthur Metz’ Alsace sparkling wines, in particular the Grand Terroir de Schiste. A blend of Pinot Gris, Pinot Noir and Riesling, it strikes me as a better proposition for the independents than the on-trade. The Carod AOP Clairette de Die “Petnat” (RRP £14.80) is, I agree, “a very well-behaved Pet-Nat” and an agreeably drinkable bubbly with fresh apple sherbet flavours in abundance.
Davies comments that the success of Prosecco has paved the way for the re-emergence of French sparkling wines, and he points to the success of the Salasar Crémant de Limoux pair. Both the white (£13.60) and rosé (£13.90) are a blend of 60% Chardonnay, 30% Chenin Blanc and 10% Pinot Noir. The wines share a soft mousse, up-front fruit and undeniable quaffability.
Les Grands Chais de France’s knack of delivering competitively priced, consumer-friendly wines is further demonstrated by its recent Chilean acquisition, Viña del Nuevo Mondo. Previously owned by another group of French families, the property has 150 hectares of vineyards in Apalta and Leyda, with Les Grands Chais de France now extending the vineyard plantings.
The organically certified Las Niñas range includes all the varietal favourites, with purity of fruit evident across the board. I enjoyed both the Casa Bollen Cabernet Sauvignon and Casa Bollen Carmenère which were deliciously unpretentious. I particularly appreciate that you really do taste the grape in both wines, and that the oak-influence is there to offer moreish suppleness above all else.
That Les Grands Chais de France demonstrates breadth and quality at the lower price range shows that there’s a good deal of winemaking nouse at HQ, and it is in evidence at the premium end too. This year the company launched a new brand of Rhône Valley wines – Victor Berard.
Given that the range included one or two wines from the tricky 2021 vintage, the quality across the board was deeply impressive. The Condrieu 2020 (£42.50) was elegant, fragrant, and long-lived. Perhaps my favourite was the AOP Vinsobres (£19.00) which delivered a generously herbal, vibrant mouthful of red berry fruit. The Saint-Joseph 2020(£19.40) was altogether plumper and an excellent example of the appellation.
It is right that the team is proud of the Domaine du Joncas wines. This biodynamic estate in the Languedoc delivers a duo of thrilling reds that have brilliant energy and mineral freshness. These are real terroir wines made from Syrah, Grenache, Mourvèdre, Cinsualt and Carignan. Both the AOP Languedoc Montpeyroux 2020 (£18.70) and the AOP Terasses du Larzac 2020 (£20.30) hail from limestone and gravel soils, though the Terasses du Larzac comes from higher-density planted vineyards. This gives the wine a richer quality, though fresh, blue, floral fruits are clearly articulated. Montpeyroux has plenty of hedgerow fruit and a very food-friendly underscore of acidity. I’d love to see both on any restaurant list near me.
That Davies is keen to promote the virtues of Les Grands Chais de France’s newest Alsace estate says a good deal about the company. He knows the wines will be harder to sell than some, given an element of consumer wariness about the region, but he believes in them! Certainly, each of the Klipfel wines I taste is true to its varietal-self, and I particularly enjoyed the Pinot Gris 2021 (£9.50) which is pure PG Alsace – greengage, fresh apricot, and a touch of spice. I also admire the on-trade savvy that is the AOP Alsace Sushi Wine (£13.10) that, I understand, sells brilliantly well in the Asian on-trade.
There is, in fact, a lot that’s smart about Les Grands Chais de France. Straight-talking people, with wines that deliver across the price points.
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