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Jamie's blog...archive

Wednesday 11th September 2002
Thereís a bit of a problem with Chilean wines. They all taste the same. OK, I exaggerate. But only slightly. As I write Iím on my way back from the wines of Chile annual tasting, at which I tasted from a central table of some 70 wines representing the best that Chile has to offer, plus the full ranges of several leading producers. I encountered very few poor wines, but then I tasted very few really good ones. Chile's strength is its inexpensive commercial wines. Chilean Merlots, CarmenŤres or Cabernet Sauvignons typically offer pure, sweet berry and blackcurrant fruit flavours, together with perhaps a dash of oak. Very approachable, and good value for money at around a fiver a pop. If you spend more, the wines tend to get more concentrated and perhaps a little oakier, but it is the same pure fruit flavours that predominate. Thatís it. Chileís a one-trick wine country: pure, sweet primary fruit, and thatís your lot. You can imagine the effect of tasting perhaps 130 of these concoctions, all pretty much the same. What of the whites? I hear you ask. Well, theyíre mostly variations on two themes: crisp Sauvignon Blanc and slightly nutty, buttery Chardonnay. Other grapes are planted, but these are rare Ė in my sampling today there was one Chenin Blanc, two Rieslings (one sweet), one GewŁrztraminer and a Semillon/Chardonnay blend. I suspect this homogeneity has its roots in the commercially driven nature of the Chilean wine industry. Making wine is purely a business, and there arenít many visionaries driven by passion and a respect for terroir. Thereís presumably no market niche for high-end small production wines, so in the absence of demand, no one makes them. The result? Chile is a bit of a desert for wine geeks.

Tuesday 10th September
Terrible news from the RhŰne. Apparently, sustained heavy rain over the last few days has led to severe flooding, bad enough for rail and road networks to be closed. The Southern RhŰne vineyards have been badly affected as this has happened at the worst possible time, just when the 2002 vintage should have been harvested. It sounds as bad as it can get, with almost the entire crop being lost. If these reports are accurate (and there is every reason to believe that they are), this is a disaster on an almost unprecedented scale for the region. As for the Northern RhŰne, it seems that flooding is less of a problem, although the rainfall has been enough to ruin prospects of a good vintage. As yet, it is unclear whether the Languedoc and Provencal appellations to the South have been affected. Letís hope that too many livelihoods in the region arenít threatened. It makes last weekís wineanorak piece on vintages seem a little prescientÖ On another note, this day a year ago the world seemed a much safer, less turbulent place when I attended a blow-out wine nut dinner at Launceston Place. The write up that appears on my blog is dated September 11th, but was posted just before news of the dreadful events of that day broke. It seems a long time ago.

Monday 26th August
Cork taint is the issue that wonít go away. Itís also an issue thatís been covered so extensively that everyoneís completely bored stiff with it. So if youíre still readingÖ How I feel about the issue seems to change depending on how frequently Iíve encountered corked wines, and whether the bottles concerned are easily replaceable. Last night I had my younger brother and his family staying over. It was his birthday, so I thought Iíd open something reasonable, but also something I knew heíd like (heís not a geek, but he likes wine). I found a bottle of 1993 Penfolds Bin 407, which I though would do the job. Current release is 1999, but the 1993 with several yearsí bottle age is probably peaking right now. I popped the cork and poured us both a glass, but it was corked. Nasty. The shame of it is that bottles like these, while not expensive, canít be replaced, and it has ruined a potentially good experience. I opened something else decent and we had a nice evening, but I really donít like the potential for severe disappointment that cork taint provides whenever you are opening a nice bottle. Of course, screwcaps could be the answer. Thereís a vocal element among the wine press who are campaigning in favour of this already. But theyíre letting their emotions get the better of their judgement, though, because we need to see how fine wines develop sealed with screwcaps first, and we donít have these data yet. Although thereís a strong Ďanti-scienceí sentiment in society these days, science is the only way of providing the evidence that could settle these issues once and for all, so any independent, credible attempts to study the effectiveness of alternative closures has to be applauded.

Friday August 16th
Regular visitors to Malcolm Gluckís superplonk site will have noticed that heís now begun charging for content. The cost? £14.95 per year. Like Jancis Robinsonís Purple Pages, which have now been going for some time, one of the key benefits you are offered is the chance to get close to your mentor by asking them personal questions (or should that be by asking them questions personally?). Malcolm suggests, ĎLike most things in life the more you learn about wine the more you get out of it, and hopefully by gaining better access to me you'll be able to pick up some of the knowledge I've acquired over the many years that I've been pulling corks and sniffing, glugging and (sometimes) spitting out the contents.í The pay section of the website will also offer exclusive articles from the pen of Malcolm, special offers on wine, a better search engine, an earlier viewing of the tasting notes and the odd competition. All in all, itís not a lot of extra content, and it seems that regulars will still be getting what the site already delivers for free. The only people I can see splashing out on this pay service (and it would be fair to say that Malcolmís USP is that heís appealing to bargain-hunters who donít like to part with their cash to easily) are the die-hard Malcolm junkies who have a strong desire to get close to their mentor. Elsewhere on the web, thereís been a fascinating thread of late on Mark Squireís Robert Parker-branded wine discussion board. The thread in question tells of a Danish wine nutís hunt to acquire every single bottling from Burgundyís famous Montrachet vineyard in the 1999 vintage. It makeís fascinating reading. I visited this hallowed vineyard for the first time a couple of weeks ago, and some photos of it can be found here.

Friday 9th August
Thank goodness for La Vigneronne, one of Londonís most interesting wine shops. I was there for the first time in a while yesterday evening, and it was like bumping into an old friend: you only have to be with them for a short time to enjoy a cosy familiarity and to be reminded of just what it is you liked about them in the first place. Whatís so refreshing about La Vigneronne is that it is evidently driven by passion for the product it is selling. The range makes no efforts at comprehensiveness, but instead is vastly and wonderfully overweight in the regions favoured by owners Mike and Liz Berry. Most of the stuff here you wonít find anywhere else, and the buying is remarkably consistent. The tastings program Ė last nightís event was Spanish whites Ė is simply the best in the country, both in terms of scope and also frequency, with at least a couple of tastings most weeks. If all this praise sounds a bit effusive, let me reassure you that I have no commercial connections with La Vigneronne, that I pay my way for most of the tastings, and they donít advertise with wineanorak. Itís just that the people out there doing good work deserve plugging, and my job is in large part to steer readers to the sorts of places where theyíll have the most fun.

Thursday 8th August
Very sad to see that the Evening Standard (Londonís daily paper) has dispensed with the services of wine writer Andrew Jefford. Andrew is a writer I admire immensely, and for as long as Iíve been a wine nut his graceful, insightful, civilised prose has been essential reading. Apparently, he wonít be replaced, and the move is a policy decision by the paper. The news has sent tremors through the wine writing community (several on the Circle of Wine Writers e-mail forum have rather touchingly called for a campaign for his reinstatement), with the unspoken sentiment being that if Andrew Ė who must rate among the leading half-dozen wine writers in the world in terms of ability -- can get sacked, what security have the rest got? Some are suggesting that this is another symptom of the imminent death of wine writing as a genre. Jefford fans should be cheered  by the news that his new mega-work, the 200 000 word The New France, will be published by Mitchell Beazley this Autumn. Iím looking forward to it. And far from being dead, I think wine writing has a very strong future, although it does seem that in the print world itís going though a rocky time at the moment. More on that subject another time.  

Saturday 3rd August
It feels strange to be sitting in front of a laptop again. For the last fortnight I have taken a complete break from e-mail, internet, phones and computers while I've been travelling. No, this move was not inspired by some neo-luddite anti-technology backlash, but rather was designed to give me a healthy break, so I could come refreshed once more to the serious (?) business of keeping wineanorak current and hopefully interesting. Well, here I am, refreshed, if a little jaded by a day's hard driving. The trip in question was actually a family holiday, not some glamorous wine jaunt, but I did manage to squeeze a good bit of wine-region-hopping in on the side. You wouldn't have expected any less, would you? The first week was with friends in the Dordogne, which presented me with the chance to take a look at Cahors, one of the South West's better known appellations. The second week was spent camping, first in the Languedoc (another exploration of the beautiful Pic St Loup region, making increasingly impressive reds), then M‚con (which allowed me to investigate Beaujolais and Burgundy), and finally at a lakeside site in the Champagne region. En route I also spent a couple of hours in the Northern RhŰne, driving through the different appellations and gawping at the terroirs. More later. I find actually seeing the vineyards -- the soil, layout, aspect and scale -- tremendously helpful in understanding the wines that come from them. For me, the key fascination of wine is probably the link between what is in the glass and the geographical location of the vineyards where the grapes that made it came from. Bung in the human element, and there you have the beguiling complexity that is wine.  

Wednesday 10th July
My Harpers feature on hi-tech wine manipulations (discussed in a previous entry) is now out, and itís also feature of the week on the Harpers website. Itís a piece I enjoyed writing because the subject fascinates me. With a topic like this, very soon you find yourself asking philosophical-sounding questions. How much winemaking manipulation is acceptable? Is it OK to concentrate the grape must before fermentation? Is it OK to take alcohol out of the finished wine? While for some these manipulations are always wrong, for others anything goes. My thoughts? Whether technical interventions are acceptable or not really depends on the circumstances, and I donít think thereís an easy answer to these questions. What might be acceptable for a £4 commodity wine may be inappropriate when we are talking about a fine wine costing 10 times more. What I didnít mention in the feature is that I think the key issue here is really the motivation and the philosophy of the producer. An example. Itís possible to take the established, accepted technical innovation of ageing in oak barrels, and abuse the wine by inappropriate or heavy-handed oaking. Lots of people do it, for a variety of reasons ranging from incompetence to a misguided notion of what wine should taste like. Untrustworthy or poor producers will tend to abuse whatever technology they get their hands on, whereas principled, competent producers who respect their terroirs stand a good chance of using even the most hi-tech of wine manipulations, such as reverse osmosis, in a responsible way that results in improved wines. Iíd say removal of excess rainwater from the must is a responsible use of reverse osmosis, whereas deliberate concentration of the must to produce a thicker, soupier, points-winning wine is abusing the technique. You canít legislate to prevent this; you just have to trust the producer.

Tuesday July 2nd
Now is a good time to catch the anorak in print. Two breakthroughs in the last week: my first Decanter feature is out in this month's magazine, and I've also had a piece in the G2 section of the Guardian. You can read the Guardian piece here: it's a short 250 word 'expert view' section on how to buy wine (scroll down to find it in the middle of a longer piece). The Decanter feature is a regular 1000 word job, but it doesn't appear online: interested readers will have to buy a copy of the mag, or else thumb through one at the newsagents. It's nice to get published elsewhere. Although most of my energies are devoted to this site, people don't tend to take you as seriously unless you've written for established publications. It's a shame, because you have much less freedom when you are writing for someone else's readership to an editor's brief, but that's the way it is.

Thursday 27th June
Off to Sevilla today for a plant biology conference, hence it's unlikely I'll be updating the site again before Monday, which is when I return. Looking forward to some Andalucian cuisine and, of course, sherry. Let's see how one of the world's great wine styles tastes in situ. Full report to follow.  

Tuesday 25th June

Gorgeously sunny day today in London. Not a day to be stuck in doors. In fact, over the last week or so weíve had the first prolonged spell of good weather since April. Itís well timed, because my vines are now almost all flowering, and this is one of the critical times of the year if Iím going to get a decent crop. Regular readers here will be aware that I have this sort of 'vigneron fantasy': I started growing vines in my back garden four years ago, and for the last couple of years Iíve been developing a small vineyard on my allotment in Twickenham. Itís coming along well, with six rows of eight vines, and another 30 or so vines ready to go into the ground in the next few weeks. I havenít harvested any grapes yet. It takes three years for the vines to produce in any quantity, although some will produce a small amount of fruit in the second year. Nonetheless, itís a tremendously satisfying experience and a great way to relax, pottering around weeding and tending the vegetables I grow between the rows. You never know, I might even learn a thing or two about viticulture, or at least have some sort of perspective on what itís like trying to grow grapes. For those interested, the varieties I grow are Bacchus with a bit of Huxelrebe, Madeleine Angevine and Pinot Blanc (white) and Pinot Noir (red). I grow them on a simple Guyot-style trellis in the allotment, and spur pruned in the garden. It is not all plain sailing, though: while the back garden Pinot Noir is now well established, the last couple of years Iíve lost the entire crop to powdery mildew (oidium).  n
Vines grown from cuttings and ready to be planted out
This year, Iíve decided to spray using a systemic fungicide and to dust with sulphur (I canít get wettable sulphur, which would be the ideal treatment). Later, to control botrytis, Iíll probably use Bordeaux mixture (copper sulphate and lime). I feel tremendously guilty about my spraying regime on the allotment: one set of neighbours are slightly hippy types who probably think Iím an evil person. But it has to be said that even practitioners of biodynamics are allowed to spray with sulphur and Bordeaux mixture, and if I could get wettable sulphur Iíd be happy to drop the systemic fungicide. Interestingly, the sheltered location of the garden means that the Pinot Noir there is some weeks ahead of its allotment peers, with flowering finished and small berries beginning to swell. Iím not expecting to get enough grapes to do anything interesting with this year, but next year Iíll turn my hand to winemaking. The chances of me making something drinkable are fairly slim, but in case of success, suggestions for what to call the wine are welcome.

Sunday 23rd June
Iíve been putting together a piece for Harpers over the last few days looking at some of the novel winemaking technologies that allow producers to reduce the alcohol of the final wine or concentrate the grape must before fermentation. As part of my research Iíve been chatting to some winemakers about how much intervention they feel is appropriate. Randall Grahm, of Bonny Doon in Californiaís Santa Cruz mountains, made a very interesting point. He thinks itís a question of context: ĎIf a producer produces a vin díappellation, there is an implicit contract that he enters into, whereby he effectively promises a wine of some degree of typicity, which I suppose would include the characteristics of the vintage. If he utilizes certain techniques in the winemaking process to wipe out vintage characteristics, even though he is perhaps producing a wine that most punters would prefer, I believe that he is acting in bad faith.í Grahm continues, ĎIf he is producing a vin de table, vino da tavola or producing wine in the new world, I think that a different set of criteria apply. His contract is simply with the consumer to make the best wine that he can and that will offer the consumer vinous jouissance.í I also had a useful conversation with Ernst Loosen of the Mosel (and lately also the Pfalz), in which I quizzed him about the increased use of must concentrators in European wine regions. He was quite clear: ĎIn my opinion itís an awful development. How far can we go before wine then becomes artificial?í Increasingly, he says, machines are taking over and wines are losing their individualism. ĎItís already starting to get boring, with all these overextracted wines that lack any edgesí. In 20 yearsí time he fears that wines will all look the same, and he can see a situation where the wine world becomes divided over issues like these. Loosen likes vintage differences and believes thereís no substitute to working hard in the vineyard, and then taking what nature provides. What do I think? Youíll have to wait until the Harpers piece comes out. 

Friday 7th June
First an apology for not updating this site for the last five days. Iím just back from spending five wonderful days in the Douro valley, and I simply had too much to see and do to devote time to the site. A full report will follow in stages over the next few weeks, but Iíll just try to give a brief overview here. The week before last I was invited to a dinner with Dirk Niepoort, arranged by his UK importers, Raymond Reynolds. For those of you unfamiliar with Dirk Niepoort, suffice to say that heís a genius who is making the most exciting table wines in Portugal. During dinner I chatted to Dirk and asked him far too many questions, and he asked me whether I would like to visit the Douro. What do you say to an invitation like that? So I flew out on Sunday evening to Porto, and took a cab to Dirkís parentsí apartment where he had gathered a group of wine people for dinner. Good cooking from Dirk and some stunning wines, all served blind. Next day, after watching the Brazil/Turkey game with Dirk, he showed me the Niepoort lodge in Vila Nova de Gaia, we grabbed some lunch and then he put me on the train for Pinh„o, in the heart of the Douro. Itís a long journey, but once you get near Rťgua (about 2 hours from Pinh„o) the views from the train are spectacular, with the track running alongside the Douro and terraced hillsides rising steeply on either side. This was my first time in the Douro, and I was overwhelmed. It is truly one of the wonders of the wine world, and probably the most impressive aspect to it is the scale. There are what seem like endless interconnecting valleys of steeply terraced schistous vineyards. Itís hard to get your head round it at first. I was picked up by Dirkís number two, Jorges SerŰdio Borges, who took me to the Passadouro estate after showing me some brilliant cask samples of Pintos, his own project in conjunction with his wife Sandra Tavares, who is winemaker at Christiano Van Zellerís Quinta do Vale Dona Maria. Iíll have to be brief in my summary, because the next few days were packed. That evening I stayed with Tomas Roquette at Quinta do Crasto, then Sandra picked me up to take me to Quinta do Vale Dona Maria. Next, Christiano Van Zeller took me to see Vallado. That evening I went to see Jo„o Roseiro of Quinta do Infantado, and he kindly invited me to dinner at his apartment. On Wednesday Dirk came from Porto and a group of us, including Tomas Roquetteís brother Miguel from Crasto, Jorge SerŰdio de Borges, Jorge Moreira (talented winemaker at Real Companhia Velha who is also making his own brilliant wine called Poeira) and American journalist Ray Isle went up to Dirkís property Quinta de NŠpoles to watch Portugal play USA. Oh dear. We feared for Rayís life when Portugal bizarrely went 3-0 down to a well organized if not exactly over-talented USA side. A wine-tasting lunch was followed with a trip up to see the work at Lavradores de Feitoria, a very promising alliance of 15 Quintas to produce top quality table wines and also a good quality but less expensive wine called Tres Bagos. From here we returned to where we were staying for a special tasting and dinner that Dirk had arranged. Present were many of the current pioneers and key figures in the Douro, about 30 in all. We began tasting at about 5 pm, and I worked solidly through to 8 pm. I ran out of time, but this was such a great opportunity that while everyone was clearing up for dinner some of the winemakers were kind enough to let me taste with them outside. In addition to the people Iíve already mentioned, other projects showing here included Bago de Touriga, CARM, Francisco Olazablal (with his new Ďcultí wine Q de Vale de Me„o), Q de Baldias, Casa Amarela, Q de la Rosa and Domini. Some spectacular wines served at dinner, and I was glad to have the chance to chat to David Baverstock, whoís an influential figure in the Alentejo (he runs Esper„o), and also dabbles in the Douro as a consultant. On Thursday morning Dirk took me to the spectacular Casa de Mateus (thereís a winery here involved in the Lavradores de Feitoria), and we returned to Porto where he took me to a stunning fish restaurant (the best fish Iíve every had) before I caught my plane home.

I hope Iím not overstating the case by saying that the Douro is currently one of the most exciting quality wine regions in the world. There are spectacular terroirs, brilliant grape varieties, but most of all a talented and energetic group of mainly young-ish wine makers who are passionate about making the best wines they can. Dirk seems to be a real catalyst here. Heís energetic, generous and visionary. Through initiatives like the gathering on Wednesday evening, heís getting everyone talking to each other, tasting each othersí wines, and thinking about ways to improve. Things are really only just starting here (some of the most exciting wines are still in cask, or only had their first vintage in the last couple of years), and thereís a tangible sense of anticipation for what is yet to come. Iím extremely grateful to everyone I met: people were unfailingly generous with their time and hospitality.

Previous entries (some gripping reading!)

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