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Jamie's Blog ...continued

Friday 18th October 2002
Divorced from its geographical origins, wine is only marginally more interesting than fruit juice, lager or gin. And you don't get people naming either of these three beverage types as one of their interests or hobbies. Why am I saying this? Well, there's a war erupting in the world of wine. The fragile unity of 'wine' as a concept is now under threat, as we begin to see two cultures of wine emerge. On the one hand, we have the commercially driven world of branded wines: here, wine is seen as a manufactured product and grapes are just the raw material; the starting point. Branded wines dominate the supermarket shelves, and as they now control 75% of the UK off trade, they are hugely commercially significant. But this is wine robbed of its sense of place, and thus most of its interest. On the other hand, there is the 'estate' model of wine, where wine is made each year from a restricted set of vineyards (or even a single vineyard). The link with the geography is key here. As I write, I'm sipping the 2000 Seven Poplars Vineyard Chardonnay from Craggy Range Winery in New Zealand's Hawkes Bay (around £12 from Waitrose). It's a brilliant wine: profound, rich textured nutty fruit with a grapefruit and lemon edge providing definition. But for me, a special feature of the wine is that it came from a specific patch of ground in a specific vintage. However, the modern retailing environment can't handle the sort of complexity that the 'estate' model brings. They hate dealing with small batches and discontinuity of vintages, and so there's a huge pressure on producers to move towards the branded model if they want significant listings. Compulsory reading here is Andrew Jefford's latest piece in Harpers. He explores the two cultures of wine that are emerging from the perspective of wine writing. I think he makes some very important points, and he makes them very lucidly. Over the next year or two it will become clear which wine writers see themselves as consumer advocates and actually care about wine, and those who are more entangled in the commercial side of the wine trade and continue to support (indefensibly, I feel) branded wines, when more interesting alternatives exist at the same prices. 

Sunday 13th October
Some interesting wines this weekend. On Friday night I was doing a Spanish-themed tasting for a group on largely non-wine geeks. Five different wines, of which the most popular was the 1999 Pesquera from the Ribera del Duero. It’s a nice, tightly structured effort that’s showing good balance; nothing too flashy about it, and it was interesting to see this being preferred by the group over a couple of rather showier peers. Saturday lunchtime we had a family get together. After a pint of Rebellion (a rich, full flavoured cask-conditioned ale) at an attractive pub in Hedgerley (south Bucks), lunch was washed down with the 1995
Vieux Télégraphe. This is an exciting Châteauneuf du Pape showing exotic herby, meaty fruit with good acidity. It’s drinking really well now, although there’s no reason to rush to drink it. Sticking with the Rhône, but moving north, I’ve been having some success with various interpretations of Vin de Pays des Collines Rhodaniennes in recent months. These are Syrahs  that often closely resemble Côte Rôtie, perhaps vines just outside the appellation boundaries, or from young vines within. On Saturday night I tried the 2000 from Georges Vernay, which is lovely. Smooth and medium bodied, it shows silky, suave berry fruits with some minerality and a peppery edge. It lacks the raw animal meatiness of the 2000 from Domaine Mouton VdP, but makes up for it with elegance. Not cheap at £8.95 from Bentalls, but I’d take this over many lesser Côte Rôties. Then, Sunday lunchtime it was Australia’s turn. I opened a bottle of Glenguin’s 1998 Orange Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon. Orange, in the highlands of New South Wales, makes some brilliantly vivid red wines, and Glenguin’s example is remarkable for the boldness of its fruit and its intense savoury, high-acid character: this stops it from becoming too soft or sweet. Stunningly concentrated and quite striking: the sort of thing Australia does so well, yet relatively rarely.

Tuesday 8th October
Investigative journalism plays a vital role. The bad guys need to be caught, and if they are this sends out a powerful message to would-be bad guys. Sunday night’s BBC Panorama programme was an example of investigative journalism done well, exposing some of the dubious practises in horse racing, and putting forward a strong case that the sport’s regulatory body, the Jockey Club, have failed to deal with these abuses in an effective manner. It’s not a sport that I have any interest in, but the programme was well made and avoided some of the usual excesses of this genre of TV. Television investigative reporting is frequently abused by programme makers who want to prove a point but lack decent evidence to back their case, but Panorama’s case seemed to be quite strong. The fact that they were taken to court in an attempt by others to suppress the programme is good evidence that their lines of enquiry were bearing fruit. So how does this relate to wine? Are there bad guys that need to be caught? Some, it seems, and Jim Budd’s praiseworthy efforts at exposing wine fraudsters and investments scams have already seen some success. Generally, though, the biggest problem in the world of wine is not the bad guys, but the less than fully competent guys, and the subtle vested interests that plague wine ‘journalism’ (is there any left, these days?) and publishing. And as for me, I’ve got a piece coming out this Friday in the wine trade magazine Harpers that represents my first faltering steps into investigative journalism. It’s not a world-shattering piece, but I think it makes an important point. The article takes a look at the controversial Wine and Spirits Association Musty Taint Survey published in July, which involved the analysis of more than 13 000 wines, coming up with a surprisingly low rate for cork taint of 0.7%. You’ll have to wait until Friday to find out whether the data from this survey should be taken seriously or not.

Tuesday 1st October
As I write I’m on my way back from the Waitrose press tasting. Overall impression is very favourable: Waitrose seem to be one of the few supermarkets that are going in the right direction with their wine range. I worked hard for the afternoon and tasted 111 wines in a variety of styles and at a variety of price points. Highlights at the top end include the 1990 Yquem (yours for £200), a delightfully expressive d’Oliveiras 1968 Boal Madiera (£49) and brilliant Vosne Romanée 1er Cru Clos de Réas 1999 from Michel Gros (£36). But any retailer can buy a few cases of posh stuff and slap it in a tasting to woo the press. Where Waitrose are strong is in buying quality wines at all levels, and most importantly in the highly competitive £4-8 price bracket.  

October has begun, and a picture is beginning to emerge about the possible quality of the 2002 vintage across the wine regions of the Northern hemisphere. But what of the UK? We’ve had glorious weather for the best part of a month now: unseasonally warm, lots of sunshine and virtually no rain. After a dreadful June, July and early August -- where it rained so much that lawns and playing fields were still a verdant green even in mid-August -- it has been so dry that open spaces are now a parched straw colour. Bad news for gardeners, but great news for vignerons. Sunday was a glorious summer’s day, so we headed off to the coast. On the way down I stopped off at Denbies, the UK’s largest vineyard, to see how the vines were doing. The big block of Dornfelder (a red grape variety) bordering the A24 was looking very good: large bunches of healthy grapes and foliage in good condition. White grapes growing to the south of the winery were also looking healthy, but yields seemed to be much lower. It seems that any UK winery that managed to control against mildew effectively (the disease pressure was huge during July and August) is going to be rewarded with a great vintage this year. And my experiences at the Twickenham vineyard? Not so good. I was away for two weeks during August and by the time I got back the vines had all been hit badly by powdery mildew. I lost the whole crop, and some vines lost their entire foliage. My half-hearted efforts at disease control will have to step up a gear next season, when most of the vines will be at an age where I’ll get my first reliable crop from them. I do have three unaffected bunches of grapes on the Pinot Noir vine in the back garden, though, and in this sheltered location they are developing beautifully. Tasted at the weekend the grapes were remarkably sweet, and with lovely blue-black skins. Watch out Burgundy!

Friday 27th September
The world's most influential wine critic, Robert Parker, has decided to rate wine websites in the latest edition of his Wine Buyers Guide. Of the 12 sites chosen for review, four are British, and I'm delighted to report that wineanorak is one of them. Here is what he has to say about the four UK-based sites:

www.wineanorak.com: This excellent site, run by Jamie Goode, is very British/Euro focused, and thus may be of less interest to North Americans. Nevertheless, it offers considerable value. The attention to wine novices is a particularly useful attraction.

www.decanter.com: This site should be better than it is, but it is often worth checking out for news items and that quirky British point of view.

www.wine-pages.com: This superb site focuses on the UK wine scene. It is an all-inclusive site with excellent postings as well as a British perspective. It is a friendly, easily navigated site with plenty of bells and whistles.

www.jancisrobinson.com: Jancis Robinson is one of Britain's leading ladies of wine. Her Web site is basic, but she charges a subscription fee for access to her "purple pages." It seems overpriced for the material offered, but no one should ignore the musings of the chatty Jancis.

Tuesday 24th September
Wine on the TV news? It's not everyday that wine stories get a slot on main BBC 1 news at 10 pm, but last night there was a fairly lengthy report from two of the main wine regions of Italy. Brain Baron was dispatched to Piedmont and Tuscany to report on the dismal condition of the harvest there. Lots of shots of rotten bunches of grapes, and also of defoliated vines in hail-stricken Piedmont, where many producers will not be making any 2002 Barolo. Barron interviewed three producers briefly (two of whom were ex-pat English), and they seemed pretty downcast. 2002 really is shaping up to be a disastrous vintage across large parts of Europe, with only Alsace and Burgundy of France's classic regions giving any grounds for optimism.

Friday 20th September
Two recent wines I must mention. First, one from Majestic that I picked up on Wednesday night: the 2001 Vin de Pays des Collines Rhodaniennes from the Jamet brothers. Regular readers here will probably know that I’m in love with Jamet’s Côte Rôtie, which is extremely rare and relatively expensive if you’re lucky enough to get hold of some. The Vin de Pays is Syrah from lesser Northern Rhône vineyard sites or vines too young to contribute to Côte Rôtie. For £5.49 it’s a brilliant buy: lots of peppery, juicy cherryish fruit with some background savouriness. Authentic and satisfying, but if you want some you’ll have to move quick because there isn’t much of it. Second, the striking Redoma Branco Reserva 2000 from Niepoort. It’s not cheap, at around £18 a bottle, but I opened this to celebrate the publication of my Douro feature in Harpers (now up on their website as feature of the week). It’s a piece I’m really pleased with for a number of reasons, not least that it’s illustrated by five of my piccies. It’s also the first time that three or perhaps four of the wineries included have been written up in an English language publication. Dirk Niepoort’s top white, which I’m sipping as I write, is an extreme wine in many respects. Initially the nose shows quite a bit of new oak with complex, herby, lemony fruit, and the palate is taut, mineralic, herbal with high acidity. After a while the oak recedes and the remarkable lemony herbal fruit takes over. Lots of potential here, but it’s a wine that really does need food. It would work really well with seafood.

Thursday 19th September
Hot on the heels of last week’s Chilean trade tasting, this time it’s the turn of Argentina. I’ve just spent an afternoon tasting Argentina’s best, again at Chelsea’s Galleria. This time the football club were getting ready for an evening home game, so there was a bit of a buzz about the place. The pitch, normally one of the poorer ones in the Premiership, was looking good: from our vantage point (the Galleria is the corporate hospitality area overlooking the pitch at one end) we watched the groundstaff prepare it for a game, cutting the grass with a fine mower and repainting the lines. A beautiful sight. On the way in I walked past one of the Chelsea players (Gallas, I think: he was being photographed and generally pestered by a couple of extraordinarily early fans). There’s a real excitement about a football ground on match day, even at corporate Chelsea where an average match ticket will set you back £40. Back to the wines. Like Chile, Argentina is busy modernizing, making the sorts of wines the export markets want. But unlike Chile, the wines don’t all taste the same. Yes, there seem to be quite a few soupy, overoaked taste-alike wines in the £8-12 range, but aside from this there’s a decent-ish variety of styles. Argentina’s trump card is definitely Malbec, but I tasted impressive inexpensive Bonardas, Syrahs, Sangioveses and even a stunning Tannat, as well as the often more run-of-the mill Merlots and Cabernets. Often, these red wines have lovely acidity together with intense (but not jammy) fruit flavours. On the negative side, Argentina is largely red wine territory. Indigenous Torrontés produces some startlingly aromatic whites, but these tend to lack substance on the palate. With one or two notable exceptions Chardonnay struggles to perform consistently, and Sauvignon Blanc is unconvincing. It’s a long shot, but if was a betting man, I’d wager that in 10 years time Argentinean wines will be streets ahead of those from Chile.

Previous entries (some gripping reading!)

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