Does 100 point thinking poison the mind?

I remember when I started getting interested in wine. This was in the early 1990s, before the internet. A friend had a copy of one of the early editions of Parker’s Wine Buyer’s Guide, which I pored over. The sweet spot for me was the ’86A’ bracket of wines: in those days 86 was a good enough score, probably an 89 in today’s money, and the As were the cheapest wines. I was on a tight budget.

As you get older, it’s common to get a little wealthier (or, more accurately, slightly less broke), and your wine budget grows. This is when we can hit one of the problems with the 100 point scale. You raise the score benchmark. Suddenly you won’t buy a wine rated less than 90, and then this creeps up. 93, or even 95 becomes the new threshold. It’s a bit like upgrading your car. When you are a student you are the luckiest person in the world because you have an old car that starts most days. But if you are wealthy and care about these things, by the time you are in your 40s you’d be horrified if anyone saw you driving a six-year-old mid-range family saloon.

For all their usefulness, points rot the mind when it comes to wine. They are a terribly distorting lens to view the wine world through.

This idea of having some personal points threshold is a great illusion. It would be depressing to drink Haut Brion every day, even if you just stuck to great vintages. It is a strange sort of madness to be looking for a great wine experience every time you open a bottle. If you confined yourself to Michelin-starred restaurants, you’d tire of dining pretty quickly too.

And I really believe that the concept of a perfect 100 point wine is quite ridiculous. On so many levels. Chief among these is that the score is not given to the liquid in the bottle, it is given to the interaction between the taster and the wine, a perceptual event in the brain that is impacted on by lots of factors aside from the wine itself. Anyone who really believes in the 100 point concept should read Charles Spence’s new book The Perfect Meal.

In my opinion, holding 100 point wine dinners is a strange sort of vinous insanity that betrays the heart of wine itself. Instead of encouraging people to aim ever higher in their pursuit of points, we should be telling the stories of wines that offer great pleasure and a broad palette of flavours and textures. It is in this diversity of authentic wines that true wine pleasure lies.

Points have their place, but they have the problem that more often than not they taint the conceptual thinking of wine lovers and lead them on a journey down a joyless cul de sac of wine as a competitive sport or status symbol.

Site-specific Chenin Blanc from Mullineux - Quartz and Schist

Mullineux Quartz Granite Chenin Blanc

As you all know, Chenin Blanc is officially one of the two coolest white grape varieties, along with Riesling. Chenin’s attributes are its good acidity, its structure, its ageability, its flexibility and, of course, its terroir transparency. It’s a grape that is good at interpreting soils, and making wines that are different depending on the soil type. It’s also not an obvious grape variety. It’s one for the geeks.

So I was delighted to be able to try these two soil-type specific wines from Swartland stars Mullineux. For a few vintages now they have released single soil type Syrahs – Granite and Schist. They emphasize that these are not necessarily better wines than their Syrah (which is much cheaper), but rather they are for those who are interested in seeing what single terroirs produce. Now these Syrahs have been joined by Quartz and Schist, two Chenin Blancs. They’re both brilliant. Thanks to Udo, the NL importer, for bringing these to dinner.

Mullineux Quartz Chenin Blanc 2013 Swartland, South Africa
First vintage of this wine, just 100 cases made, 13% alcohol. Lovely delicate citrus and pear fruit with some toasty hints. Very fresh, open texture with a delicate, fine personality. This shows real finesse: it’s delicate with good acidity, and it’s brighter than the schist. 93/100

Mullineux Schist Chenin Blanc 2013 Swartland, South Africa
Second vintage of this, 100 cases, 13.5% alcohol. There’s some richness here: textured, pure and open with nice pear and melon fruit. This has a restrained sort of richness with finesse and purity. It’s a bit richer than the quartz, but both these wines have great potential. 94/100

These are able in the UK from www.vincisive.co.uk and perhaps also from Berry Bros & Rudd (they had some in their offer, but this is probably sold out now)

Find these wines with wine-searcher.com

A brilliant, affordable Syrah from the Ardèche

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

This is one of the best affordable wines I’ve had in a long time. It’s a Syrah from the Ardèche, and it’s just so brilliantly drinkable. Made by Cave Saint Desirat for Marks & Spencer, it manages to capture that northern Rhone Syrah quality. This is what M&S wine buyer Belinda Kleinig had to say about it when I asked her:

The Syrah de l’Ardèche comes from Cave Saint Desirat, where we also source our fabulous Gamay de l’Ardèche. The winemaker is Jean-Luc Chaléat – his speciality is Saint Joseph, and he applies the same winemaking to this wine  as his premium Saint Joseph. All of the grapes are hand-picked, and come from a mixture of terraced vineyards on the slopes, and 30 year old vines grown on the plateau. In the winery it has 2 weeks carbonic maceration in a mixture of concrete and stainless tanks, and controlled fermentation at 25°C. No oak at all. I like it (obviously!) but what I particularly like is its restrained alcohol. It’s only 12%, yet it’s very juicy and forward with peppery spice. The restrained alcohol lends it a refreshing finish and leaves you wanting another glass.

Belinda is right. Here’s my note:

Syrah Vin de Pays de l’Ardèche 2013 France
12% alcohol. This is fabulous. It’s so fresh and alive with lovely peppery red cherry fruit and a delightful green sappy note. Fresh, peppery and bright, with a nice granite-like minerality. 90/100 (£6.99 Marks & Spencer)

 

How to succeed as a wine writer by writing boring wine articles

Most wine writing in wine magazines is boring and formulaic. What does that tell us? A logical conclusion to draw is that if you want to be a successful published wine writer then you need to learn how to write boring, formulaic wine articles, because this is clearly what the market is looking for.

So I’m here to help. I’m going to tell you the secrets – give you the inside track – on how to write just such an article.

First of all, you need to take a press trip. Two or three days in wine region X, paid for by a generic body, where you get to visit a mix of producers. Travelling with a group of fellow writers, you’ll be taken to see one or two boutique producers, one or two larger producers, and some lousy huge producers who pay a lot of money to support the generic body. The exact itinerary, of course, will mostly be determined by internal politics. [Bad producers, you see, don’t realise that it would be better for them if journalists just visited the best producers in any particular region.]

So you then get a commission from a magazine editor to write about wine region X. It works out quite nicely, because if region X has the money to host journalists, they’ll also have money for advertising, so magazine editors will be looking to commission articles on region X. They will want 1500-1800 words, and they’ll pay you between £225 and £250 per 1000 (a rate that has not budged in 15 years).

So how do you write your boring wine article? You haven’t got room to go into depth, so remember: big overview without too many specifics. The good news: it won’t take long to do, especially if you follow my template here.

Start off with how 30 years ago region X wasn’t making very good wines, despite the obvious potential of the vineyards and the grape varieties that were grown here. Then explain the work of the pioneers. People who began making slightly better wines than their peers. Mention between one and four producers who found out that if they made better wines, they could charge more for them, and how they realized they were onto a winning streak when they won a trophy at a competition or got a 90+ score from Robert Parker.

Then put some facts in. How many hectares? Which varieties? What’s the climate like?

Two paragraphs in, begin inserting a few quotes from some of the producers you visited. The blander and more generic the better. Keep it positive.

Say how some producers are small, some are medium sized, and some are big. Remark on how good the quality of the big producers is, considering how big they are.

Talk about the viticulture and winemaking. Explain that some of the vineyards are new plantings, whereas others are older. Explain that the best wines come from old vines on the best terroirs. Point out that some terroirs are better than others, and how the range of soil types varies across the region. You’ll need to put a quote in from one of the people you visited describing their soils, because you don’t know what the geological terms they are using means. [It’s OK. No one does.] Mention the grape varieties that are grown here. Some of them are white and some are red. There are different clones and some of the clones are better than others. Some wines are varietal and some are blends. Sometimes blends are better than varietal wines, but sometimes they are not. Some producers use oak and some use stainless steel. Some use both.

Some producers are traditionalists and some are modernists. Some people think the traditionalists are right, but others think the modernists are better. Some producers are traditional, but in a modern sort of way.

Take a personal angle. Tell (briefly) the story of winegrower Y who had a passion for winemaking and how they bought a small vineyard and lavished it in passion, and then gradually grew their business by making slightly better wines each year and gradually increased their vineyard holdings because of their passion for wine. And explain carefully that some old winemakers are retiring and new winemakers are starting out.

But don’t deflect from your narrative theme, which is thus: everything is getting just a little bit better. [I think I have Richard Neill to thank for this insight, but I can't find the original quote anywhere.] The wines being made today are better than those being made a few years ago, and because everyone is so passionate and motivated we can confidently predict that things will continually to improve, little by little.

The crunch. At this stage you’ll be worrying that your article is beginning to read like an advertorial. [Which it sort of is.] So you’ll need a crunch. This is the time to introduce two or three mild threats or challenges to the ever-improving wine quality, but it’s best that these challenges are fairly easily surmountable, or – even better – have already been successfully overcome. They could include a recent vintage that wasn’t quite as good as another, or the risk of hail, or exchange rate instability, or the shortage of donkeys for old-style vineyard work.

To finish. The conclusion. The future is bright, and the wines from region X are better than ever, and you should probably be buying them.

This is the stage where you recommend five producers, so take a spread from the different scale and quality levels of those you saw. And pick a wine from each and give it a vague generic description. Job done. No need to thank me, just trying to help.

In the Ahr Valley, Germany, home to some great Pinot Noir

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

I’ve spent the last day and a half in the Ahr Valley in northern Germany. It’s my first visit here. This is a small, compact region that’s a tight valley with vineyards on either side, many of which are incredibly steeply sloped. The predominant soil type is slate, and this is Pinot Noir country. I visited three of the top producers in the region and was blown away by the wines. There is some serious, world class Pinot Noir being made here. For now, some pictures. More to come shortly.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

My travelling companion Lars Daniels trying not to die on a scary steep vineyard

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Dőrte and Meike Näkel of the remarkable Meyer Näkel estate

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Alexander Stodden of Jean Stodden

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

 

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Two lovely whites: Vincent Carême Vouvray Sec 2013 and Ganevat Grusse en Billat 2012

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

I have just been in the Netherlands, presenting a talk and tasting to wine professionals here over two days, with the same 10 wines both days. I met some really great people and enjoyed talking about organic/biodynamic/sustainable/natural/authentic wine. It was also nice to look at the wines over two days. Interestingly, the wines seemed all to be just a little better on Tuesday than they were on Monday. I can’t think of an explanation. We started with these two lovely whites. Both completely different, and both very interesting expressions of place.

Vincent Carême Vouvray Sec 2013 Loire, France
Very fresh, keen and lively with very pure apple and lemon fruit, as well as hints of straw. The acidity is high but nicely integrated. A striking, bracing dry Vouvray showing Chenin at its freshest. It’s quite edgy, though, and really needs food. 93/100

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Jean-François Ganevat Grusse en Billat Chardonnay 2012 Jura, France
1960 planting on schist and marl. Made with no added sulfites, but this is fresh and pure and not at all oxidative. Complex, nutty and linear with a really mineral personality and some nice creamy texture as a foil to the fresh, detailed citrussy fruit. A hard wine to capture in words, but quite lovely. Verging on the profound. It will be interesting to watch this develop if you are lucky enough to be able to get hold of some. 94/100

Find these wines with wine-searcher.com

The effect of herbicides on soil structure

IMGP6113

I’m just preparing a presentation I’m giving in the Netherlands tomorrow, and I came across two pictures I took in the vineyards at Waterkloof in Stellenbosch, South Africa. The first is of one of their vineyards that has been managed biodynamically from the start, which is above. [It's not an old vineyard.] The soils had a loose structure and were quite pliable.

The second, below is from a vineyard that was previously managed with herbicides. It has just been converted to biodynamics. The two vineyards are only a few paces apart, and share the same soil type, but the vineyard managed with herbicides is like a road.

IMGP6120

Clean cultivating using herbicides (most commonly glyphosate, which is relatively benign) has profound effects on the soil structure. It has effects on the soil microlife, too. It’s generally a really bad idea, but it saves lots of money, and the vineyards look very tidy and orderly.

Gradually, people are beginning to appreciate the importance of what goes on below the ground in viticulture. Plant roots exude a range of  organic nutrients such as organic acids, sugars, amino acids, nucleosides and mucilage. This encourages the development of a community of microbes, including some – called  plant growth-promoting rhizobacteria (PGPR) – that interact with the roots in specific ways, including altering the root structure itself. They promote nutrient uptake and can help plants tolerate drought stress, among other things.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

A recent paper by Patricia Piccoli (above) and colleagues looked at what’s taking place under the ground in Catena’s Adrianna vineyard, in Mendoza, Argentina – and specifically which bacterial strains are present in the soil. They took root and soil samples every 10 cm to a depth of 80 cm. These were placed in sterile pots and then taken to the laboratory, where the work of characterizing the various bacteria present began. After culturing and examining the various isolated strains, Patricia analysed the DNA to identify the species present. In all, 11 strains of soil bacteria were isolated, and these were from 10 different genera. Of these, two were selected as having characteristics of plant growth promoting rhizobacteria (PGPR). These were Bacillus licheniformis and Pseudomonas fluorescens, both of which produced the plant hormones abscisic acid (ABA), indole-3-acetic acid (IAA) and the gibberellins A1 and A3. They also colonized roots of Malbec grape vines grown in controlled conditions in pots. Vines that had these bacteria on their roots showed ABA levels that were increased 76-fold by B. licheniformis and 40-fold by P. fluorescens, when compared with controls. These bacteria slowed down the rate of water loss in the vines, and this slowing of water loss correlated with increased ABA levels. Because the levels of ABA found were so high, Patricia and colleagues think this indicates that the increase is due to production by the bacteria plus production by the vine as a response to the interaction with the microorganisms.

The bacteria also increased the production of terpenes, which are associated with plant defence against microbial attack. Interestingly, high levels of terpenes were found in the aerial part of the vine whereas the bacteria were present just on the roots. This suggests that these bacteria are able to cause what is known as induced systemic resistance in vines, because the synthesis of terpenes was found mainly in leaves, which would be the part of the vine mainly subject to any microbial attack.

There’s a lot happening under the ground that’s really important in viticulture, and we don’t know enough about it. But killing soil life by using herbicides is clearly a silly thing to do.

Wine writers ripping off wineries, a disturbing trend

A rant. I don’t rant often, but I’m driven to do it today.

As a wine writer, I’m alarmed by the recent trend for other wine writers to behave parasitically by charging wineries to reproduce reviews.

I’m not going to name names, but it’s morally questionable, and I think wineries shouldn’t put up with it.

If I am hosted by a winery, who take the time to show me around, and go to the expense of opening bottles for me, or send me samples, it’s only right that they should freely be able to quote my reviews or comments and use these to help sell their wines.

For a writer to accept press trips or to be received by a winery, or to taste samples, or to attend a tasting where a producer has spent money on flights/wines/table fees, and then to turn round and charge the winery a professional fee if they want to use your review in promoting their wine is quite wrong, in my opinion.

Making a living from making wine is tough enough without the parasitical drain from media organizations who are either greedy, or who can’t make enough money from their core activity. It’s bad enough to see all these events where producers are being charged £££ for a table, and then the punters are also being charged to attend, but this pay-to-quote nonsense is just the worst.

The best writers don’t get involved with this sort of practice.

Andrew Nielsen and Le Grappin, a talented Burgundy micronegoce

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Website: http://www.legrappin.com/

Lots of people, it seems, have vinous epiphanies. They drink a special bottle of wine, and suddenly they are converted. Wine is no longer just an alcoholic drink for them; it is something more fundamental. For some, it becomes their life.

Andrew Nielsen (above), originally from Australia, was working in advertising with publications such as The Economist and The Week. Working around the world, he’d spent time in Singapore and Hong Kong, but it was while he was based in Los Angeles that he had his wine epiphany, in 2006, with a bottle of Dujac Clos de la Roche (he can’t remember which vintage, although he says he still has the bottle at home).

Wine became his passion, and he did vintage that year with Californian Pinot specialist Kosta Browne. Following this, Nielsen worked harvests with Felton Road in New Zealand’s Central Otago region, and then Coldstream Hills in the Yarra Valley of Australia. Connecting with James Halliday at Coldstream Hills proved fortuitous, because Halliday was buddies with Patrick Bize at Simon Bize in Savigny les Beaune, and this is how Nielsen found himself working in Burgundy.

Simon Bize has 22 hectares in Savigny, which by Burgundian standards is a big domaine. And when Andrew was working there, an idea popped into his head. ‘I saw all this amazing fruit come across the table, and thought why don’t we make 10 different Savignys?’ he recalls. But for a domaine like Simone Bize, the economics don’t work. So Nielsen had the idea of becoming a micronegociant telling the story of Savigny by identifying special parcels and bottling them separately. ‘I’m looking to make wines from terroirs that people overlook and working with growers who are prepared to take things further and do things a bit differently,’ he explains. ‘What if we don’t cut all the weeds back all the time? What if we do the first hedging a bit later?’ His approach is to try to apply a bit of modern knowledge, in partnership with the growers. ‘Because I am small we can go out and do things differently.’

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

As an example is his red Savigny parcel, which consists of 60 year old vines in a lieu dit called Aux Fournaux (he doesn’t put this name on the label because there’s a premier cru vineyard called Aux Fourneaux, with possibility for confusion). This plot is high on the slope and is subject to morning mists. As a result, growers tend to pick it a bit early to avoid problems with rot. Nielsen will go in and manage the canopies, and remove any rotten grapes, while the others are harvesting. ‘Hey Obelix’ [his nickname in Burgundy, due to his size and bearded appearance], they call to him. ‘You are harvesting at last!’ He’ll tell them that he’s not, and will leave the grapes on the vine for another week before picking. ‘We do a crazy amount of sorting,’ he says.

Le Grappin is based in Beaune, and the wines are made in Fanny Sabre’s old winery opposite the mayor’s office. In 2013 Nielsen made 18 barrels of Le Grappin; in 2014 there are 26 barrels. In addition to the Le Grappin wines he makes less expensive vins de soif under the Du Grappin label. These are sold in kegs, refillable bottles and also 1.5 litre bags (he dubs them ‘bagnums’), and the wines are sourced from Beaujolais and Macon. Nielsen is passionate about the wastage in wine packaging and for this reason, he doesn’t use capsules on his Le Grappin wines. The Du Grappin project allows him to experiment a bit with his winemaking, and it also allows him to keep Le Grappin small and focused.

As a negociant, his biggest cost input is buying the grapes. In Burgundy, prices are getting a bit crazy: his fruit cost has doubled over the last three years. As a result, he’s had to put prices up.

Andrew and his wife Emma spilt their time between London and Burgundy. Emma works for Barclays (she’s not been able to give up the day job), but managed to get three months’ leave to work harvest last year. She doesn’t know how she’s going to manage it this year.

Bottling is done by hand, using David Clark’s specially designed gravity bottling device. Nielsen has used a bottling line in the past, but he says that even though it takes a long time, the hand bottling is gentler and the result is no bottle shock.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

The packaging of the Le Grappin wines is striking. The labels are designed by Brooklyn-based artist Louise Despont  who uses drafting tools such as compasses to create intricate (and beautiful) designs on old ledger paper. With the wine name on a necktag in a lovely font, and lacking capsules, these are beautiful bottles.

But what about the wines? I tried the 2013 releases and fell in love with them. They’re quite beautiful, with freshness and a transparency that really allows the terroirs to speak. Nielsen is very light on his extraction with the red wines, and the result is real elegance.

THE WINES

Le Grappin Savigny-lès-Beaune Blanc 2013 Burgundy, France
Lovely tension here, with nice rich nutty notes alongside pear and white peach, but also some fresh mineral quality, too. Real purity to this wine. 93/100

Le Grappin Santenay 1er Cru Les Gravières 2013 Burgundy, France
Fine and fresh with lovely lemon, nut and herb notes. Lovely density of fruit but also freshness and minerality. Textured and pure showing real finesse. 94/100

Le Grappin Beaune 1er Cru Les Grèves 2013 Burgundy, France
This is from a parcel right next to Bouchard’s Vigne de L’Enfant Jésus plot, and it’s 50 year old vines. So lovely and fine with expressive lemony fruit. Fine, pure and textured with some mineral notes, incredible precision and real elegance. Unsurprisingly, this is sold out. Thrilling. 95/100

Le Grappin Savigny-lès-Beaune Rouge 2013 Burgundy, France
12.5% alcohol. From the Aux Fournaux lieux dit, right next to Aloxe Corton and Pernand Vergelesses. Andrew Nielsen says, ‘this is the wine that defines Le Grappin.’ So fine, fresh and pure with lovely elegant red cherry and raspberry fruit. Lovely tension and purity here. Super-elegant with real delicacy. 94/100

Le Grappin Beaune 1er Cru Boucherottes 2013 Burgundy, France
Andrew Nielsen describes this as a great little site that no one knows aboiut. It’s tense, fine and bright with crisp, crunchy raspberry and red cherry fruit with nice grippy structure. Lovely savoury, spicy edge. Pure, fine and detailed. 94/100

Find these wines with wine-searcher.com

Barraco Vignammare 2013, an incredible Sicilian white

vignammare

Dear readers, I hope you don’t tire of my hyperbolic descriptors. ‘Remarkable’, ‘Sensational’, ‘Incredible’. I’m beginning to sound like a Daily Mail wine critic. After all, one route to success as a wine writer is to lavish everything you taste in effusive praise. The recipients of this praise, who usually don’t bother to check all other reviews by the praiseful reviewer, are flattered and very happy, and go on to promote the writer’s work. But it doesn’t serve the reader very well.

I try my best to save my praise for really good wines. And because only a fraction of the wines I taste make it onto this blog, I realize that it might appear as if I like everything a little too much. I don’t, it’s just I’d rather not bore you with mediocre wines. [Besides, I find it hard to say much about them.]

Here is a truly incredible wine. A wine with an amazing sense of place. It won’t be for everyone, but I was blown away by it. It’s from a vineyard in the Marsala region of Sicily just a couple of hundred feet from the seashore, made from vines planted in the dunes. 2012 was the first vintage. What’s remarkable is that this wine tastes of the sea, and I wrote my note before I’d done any research on it, so this wasn’t just the power of suggestion. There’s a nice report on a visit to this vineyard here.

Barraco Vignammare 2013 Sicily, Italy
The packaging looks cheap, but what is in the bottle is truly lovely. This is a wine made from a vineyard on the seashore, with Grillo vines planted in dunes, and no sulfur dioxide has been added. A pale yellow colour, this has a tangy, mineral, smoky, almost saline nose with a hint of iodine. The palate is fresh and textured with a lovely lemony core, some ripe apple and pear, and a really persistent salty, mineral quality anchoring all the flavours. It flirts with funkiness, but stays pure in the end with real complexity and layers of flavour. Profound. 95/100 (UK agent Tutto Wines)

Find this wine with wine-searcher.com