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Saturday, 29 November 2014

Fools or Pioneers? Tour de Belfort at The Gonville Hotel

Tour de Belfort tasting at The Gonville Hotel, Cambridge
 
They could call us fools or pioneers, but we did things with a dream, not knowing the result of the dream.
- William Christensen
 
The owners of Tour de Belfort seem to want to make life hard for themselves. They make a wine that is utterly atypical for the region, using mostly non-local grapes, on a vineyard planted from scratch.

Unable to find a distributor in the UK, they double up their investment and open a wine shop and cooking school, Le Vin La Table, in a Manchester suburb.
 
But is the wine any good?
 
Well, actually, it's rather impressive; it just does not fit into any convenient pigeonhole and therefore needs to be hand-sold.
 
I tasted through the available vintages at the newly refurbished Gonville Hotel in Cambridge.
With eight grape varieties, Tour de Belfort has plenty of scope for different wines. To the original core range they have also added a crisp, fresh Prosecco-busting fizz, a sophisticated rosé and a rare, oaked Sauvignon Gris Grand Vin. A pink fizz with longer lees aging is due out shortly.
 
The Sauvignon Gris is complex, weighty yet fresh and precise with a nuanced Burgundian sophistication. Aged in second-year oak, it also feels more balanced than the previous year's Chardonnay aged in the brand new oak.
 
But who buys an unusual style of a rare grape from an obscure region?
 
Likewise, the sweet Sauvignon Gris is an unexpectedly elegant, a Moscato-esque, light and fresh semi-sweet frizzante.
 
The Malbec Grand Vin is a serious vin de garde with plenty of stuffing that needs a good decade in the bottle to reach a peak. Even with an hour in the decanter, it is only just approachable.
 
The oaked Cabernet Franc feels more harmonious at the moment and is drinking very nicely now.
 
Made from pesticide-free, hand-sorted grapes, the raw materials for Tour de Belfort's wines are of extremely high quality indeed - and this is reflected in the prices with the "entry-level" wines starting at around £10 and the top-end cuvees in the high teens.
The Grands Vins, however, are arguably the better value, as unlike other flagship wines, they are still priced on a cost-plus basis rather than market pricing; winery owner Sylvie Lismonde told me that demand for their wines is increasing every year, whilst son-in-law Andrew (who was on hand to help pour) feels that pricing the top wines in a higher bracket might actually make them an easier sell.
 
The tasting - an open, free pour event - is now part of the Gonville's annual calendar and gave me an opportunity to see the changes and improvements the hotel has made.
 Formerly a rather sleepy and very Old School hotel, it is quietly modernising - replacing traditional Axminster on the floors with stripped boards, upgrading the reception area and bringing in the sorts of chefs who might just get the place a Michelin star one day.
 
It won't necessarily attract the trendiest of sets just yet, but it is very purposefully heading in a younger and edgier direction.
 
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