I’m in the Douro. As is common on the road, time for blogging is short, and internet connections are not always guaranteed (although across the world they are so much better than they used to be even five years ago). So, a quick update on day 1. I was at Quinta do Vale Meão, which is in the Douro Superior, not all that far from the Spanish border. This is one of the key estates of the New Douro – it’s historically important (this was the home of Portugal’s first serious table wine, Barca Velha) – and it’s now making some of the best Douro table wines of all.
2013s here are looking very good. It’s turned out to be a better vintage than Xito Olazabal (the winemaker/owner here, along with his father Vito) at first realized. It offers lots of freshness and aromatic interest, with moderate to low alcohols and good potential for ageing.
Unusually for the Douro, there is a range of terroirs here: in addition to schist, there’s some granite and some alluvial influence, and wines from different bits of the vineyard really do taste different. Look out for: the 2013 Baga. Yes, Baga, known in the Douro as Tinto de Bairrada, it does really well, especially on the granitic soils. Elegant, vital, sappy and just 12.5% alcohol. Full write up of visit to come, of course.
It’s very easy to lose perspective. In wine as in life. And none of us are totally immune to fashions, to trends, and the latest movements. And if we get swept up by these trends, we can drift easily into dogma. It’s something that’s best avoided. [The problem is, if we realized our loss of perspective, then we'd probably take steps to correct it. Usually, we don't.]
Let’s give some examples from the world of wine. Acidification is one. Now I don’t like acidification, and it’s something that I would try to avoid if I were making wine. But in some places, in some vintages, even skillful viticulture can’t obviate the need for a little tartaric acid correction in the winery. [One example would be in Central Otago, where it's very hard to avoid acidification because of an unexplained dropping out of acid during fermentation.] New oak is another: generally, I think new, small oak is used far too often in premium wines. The taste of oak in a wine could be considered to be a flaw. But some great wines are made in 100% new oak. And all wineries will presumably need to buy the odd new barrel, if they are using barrels (unless of course they buy-in used barrels). I refuse to be dogmatic about new oak and acidification.
This doesn’t mean I don’t have a view. For example, I have strong views on picking times. I reckon that picking too late is one of the besetting sins of the modern wine industry. The concept of picking by flavour/seed colour/physiological (psychological?) ripeness is one of the collective delusions of today’s winemaking scene. By the time grapes taste ripe, they are over-ripe. There are so many wines that could be improved by picking the grapes two weeks earlier: it would result in more interesting, detailed, fresh and ageworthy wines. Just like they used to be made. Right bank Bordeaux is particularly bonkers in this regard. So I have a view. And it’s good to see this concept of ripeness beginning to change. If things carry on this way, it may well become quite fashionable to pick earlier. This is where we run into a problem. I have a strong opinion on ripeness, but I could become dogmatic about this and lose sight of perspective. The fashion for early picking could lead winegrowers to listen less carefully to their sites. Some terroirs simply don’t allow for 12% alcohol wines; others do. And to be able to pick earlier, winegrowers have to do a lot of good work in their vineyards to make sure there is homogeneous ripeness that allows for such an early harvest. Unripeness is a real thing: it exists. Please save us from a situation where we reward a wine for what it is not (too ripe), rather than for positive virtues of its own.
Part of the problem with fashion and dogma is the way we are educated in western societies. We tend to think dualistically. Right or wrong. True or false. We are not good at holding in tension several statements that appear to contradict each other. We don’t like a synthesis of ideas, approaching an issue from several directions and drawing on several disciplines. Our education system, for example, sends us in one of two directions at an early stage: arts or science. And we over-value science and under-value the arts as ways of understanding and explaining the world.
As a wine writer, I’d probably find it easier if I took a position and ran with it. If I hammed it up a bit and made controversial statements, I might get more attention. For example: natural wine. I’m very interested in this topic, but I refuse to take the caricature of a position (natural wines versus chemical industrial wines) that has served some other writers very well. I’m striving for balance and fairness in my writing. I don’t always get there, of course.
A word of caution is needed here. The ‘truth’ (whatever that is) is sometimes found at the extremes. Being a thoughtful observer, with a balanced viewpoint, doesn’t always lead you to the middle ground between two opposing ‘truths’. The correct (as in intellectually most defensible) position can be at the margins. Not often, but sometimes.
In short, we just need to think a bit more intelligently. And be aware of our own tendency to lose perspective.
I’m off to Portugal this evening. Back to the Douro, for some quality time with the Douro Boys.
I remember my first visit to the Douro. It was back in May 2002. I’d been to a wine dinner and met this Portuguese winemaker. A bloke called Dirk Niepoort. I sat next to him, and at the end of the meal, he asked me what I was doing in a couple of weekends’ time. I said I didn’t know. He said: you are coming to Portugal, to the Douro.
So I went to the Douro, and it was a magical experience.
This was when I was just starting out as a wannabe wine writer; it was also when many of the current superstars of Douro wine were just starting out, too. So it has been fun to track their progress.
I began the weekend in Porto, with dinner at Dirk’s parents’ flat (he was at this stage renovating the house he now lives in), and then the next day we had lunch and he put me on a train to the Douro. It was just €5.80 for one of Europe’s great railway journeys, and my first view of this spectacular wine region was from the train line that runs parallel to the river.
It was a memorable few days – among other things, Ray Isle (an American wine writer) and I watched Portugal get beaten 3-0 by the USA in the World Cup, on a small television at Quinta de Napoles along with a group of very upset Portuguese winemakers.
13 years later, and the Douro has changed quite a bit. I have changed quite a bit too. I’ve been back frequently, but still I feel like I’m only just beginning to get to know this remarkable place. It will be interesting to see it again – in October, just as vintage has finished. I’m looking forward to seeing another side of its personality.
This week I had a new book commissioned. It’s one I have wanted to write for a while.
Entitled ‘I taste red’, it explores the interesting topic of the flavour of wine, and its perception. There is so much to explore here: taste, smell, perception, psychophysics, philosophy, synaesthesia, the language of wine, aesthetic appraisal, ratings, competitions, and lots more.
Already, I have started my research. I think the time is right for a more realistic and rich appraisal of what it means to experience wine. When we taste a wine, we are not acting as measuring devices: there’s a lot more going on. We bring a lot to the wine tasting process. A score is not a property of a bottle.
There’s a lot of interesting scientific work on the nature of sensory perception, and it’s really interesting to apply this to wine. After all, we’re frequently writing tasting notes, and sharing our perceptions in terms of words.
I’m coming to the conclusion that the separation of the senses is actually quite artificial. Our sensation is a unity: we experience a seamless view of what is out there: truly multimodal.
And it’s also a subject that has interested linguists. What are the best ways to talk about wine? What makes for a good tasting note? Should we use more descriptive terms, or allow ourselves to use more figurative language?
If you are interested in this topic and would like to connect, then I’d love to hear from you. I’m just two days into my research, and already I have learned so much.
Gotta love Burgundy. Here are two rather nice ones that aren’t stupidly expensive, but which are delicious.
Antoine Jobard Bourgogne Blanc 2011 Burgundy, France
Wonderful stuff: lovely matchstick and citrus nose leads to a palate showing mineral, tangy citrus fruit with hints of cabbage and tangerine. It’s zippy and complex with an amazing vitality. Complex and precise with detail and depth. This may just be a Bourgogne Blanc, but it’s a truly lovely wine. 93/100 (£23.99 31 Dover)
Albert Bichot Domaine du Pavillon Aloxe-Corton 2012 Burgundy, France
Bichot is a negociant turning out some nice wines these days, and this Pinot tastes like a hybrid between Burgundy and the new world, which isn’t totally awful. It’s because of the forward fruit, which is actually quite delicious. Sweet ripe black cherries and plums with some blackcurrant hints, as well as chocolatey, spicy notes from the oak. Nicely textured palate with ripe black fruits as well as hints of chocolate and coffee, which sound a bit too much but which actually integrate quite well. Sophisticated and supple, this is classy and needs a bit of time. 93/100 (£34 Marks & Spencer)
Had a chance to try four vintages of Noval side by side. Sadly, this was tasting not drinking – and usually, tasting notes made in the act of drinking have more value than those made from just tasting – but it was nice to revisit these wines. Some comments. First, the Silval 2005! This is a sensational wine, and it’s definitely Vintage Port quality, but this wasn’t a declared year for Noval. Smart Port consumers benefit from years like this, when the wine quality is there but the declaration didn’t follow. Second, 2012 and 2013 are lovely wines. Eccentric declarations, yes – but they aren’t a million miles away from the 2011. As most readers will know, 2011 is turning into a bit of a mythical vintage for Port. It was a really good year: a very hot end to summer, but just enough rain to stop it being a problem. Sorry the scores are all pretty similar, but these are just so lovely it’s hard to separate them.
Quinta do Noval Silval Vintage Port 2005 Douro, Portugal
Lovely presence here: fresh and floral with lovely red cherries, notes of leather, herbs and spice, and appealing liqouricey complexity. It’s fresh and fruit driven with good structure. Pure and pretty, this is a beautiful wine. 95/100
Quinta de Noval Vintage Port 2011 Douro, Portugal
Very floral, fresh and detailed with firmly structured black cherry and red berry fruits. Lovely structure and presence here: this is almost a complete wine. 95/100
Quinta de Noval Vintage Port 2012 Douro, Portugal
Beautiful floral detail on the nose, which shows fresh, pretty cherry and berry fruits. The palate is structure with finesse and purity to the fruit. Another beautiful effort from Noval. 94/100
Quinta de Noval Vintage Port 2013 Douro, Portugal
Very floral aromatics. Fresh and vivid with nicely textured black cherry fruit. Warm and spicy in the mouth, this is a rich wine with lovely soft texture, even though you just know that tannins are lurking underneath, as evidenced by a slightly grippy finish. 94/100
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The Armand de Brignac story is a remarkable one, and represents one of the great wine marketing successes of all time.
It begins with the Cattier family, from the village of Chigny-Les-Roses, in the Montagne de Reims. They have cultivated vines here since 1763, although the first wines weren’t made by the family until 1918. Jean-Jacques and his son Alexandre currently oversee this family business, and have 33 hectares of vines, producing around 1 million bottles a year, of which 60% are exported.
Then came Armand de Brignac. Also known as Ace of Spades. From a standing start in 2006, this is now one of the most successful of all prestige Champagne brands. It’s fiendishly expensive, with the cheapest bottle retailing at £250, and the priciest at £695. And these wines sell!
I was really interested to try them. How much of the success of Armand de Brignac is because of the packaging (which is remarkable, even though it will not be to everyone’s tastes)? And how does the quality of the wine stand up?
Head back to 2006. Roederer’s Cristal was the bling Champagne brand of choice for the hip hop scene in the USA. Rappers featured it in their lyrics and and were seen drinking it in their videos. But when quizzed about this association, Frédéric Rouzaud, Roederer’s MD, made a careless comment (‘we can’t forbid people from buying it’) that was taken as racist by famous rapper Jay Z. As a result, Jay Z issued a statement announcing a boycott of Cristal. So which Champagne would take its place?
Later that year, Jay Z released a video for a song titled ‘Show me what you got’. At the 3:05 point, he’s sitting in a club and is offered some Cristal. He waves it away. Then he’s brought a silver case: it’s opened, and inside is a bottle of Armand de Brignac in all its golden glory. Interestingly, this video was shot in advance of any bottles of this new brand arriving in the USA. So why did Jay Z have a bottle? Precisely what was his involvement in this new brand?
Jean Jacques Cattier
Back to the Cattiers. A new Champagne brand with a distinctive bottle takes some planning. This is because the secondary fermentation and ageing on lees takes place inside the final bottle. So, if you decide on a new bottle as part of your brand, it is at least a couple of years (and for a high quality Champagne, much longer) until the product is on the market place. The timing of the rejection of Cristal by the hip hop community, and then the subsequent launch of Armand de Brignac, suggests that if this was a brand that hadn’t been many years in the planning, whoever was behind the new branding would have had to choose a bottle that was already on the market and then add extra design features to it.
And Champagne house Cattier already had the distinctive golden bottle. I asked Jean-Jacques Cattier about the evolution of the Ace of Spades packaging. ‘80% of the design we made ourselves,’ he says. ‘The rest has been made by a US partner.’ (This was Sovereign Brands in New York.) ‘The metallization of the bottle is something we have done for a designer, André Courrèges. He was a very creative designer, so we made a bottle that was metallized silver—the first silver bottles produced in Champagne.’
The collaboration with Courrèges ran its course, and Cattier then used this metal bottle idea for their own brand, Antique Gold. Antique Gold stopped being produced by Cattier at around the same time that Armand de Brignac was born. Cattier currently produce an Antique Brut NV, but this is not in a golden bottle.
All was needed was a name and a concept. ‘Our American partner had the idea of the Ace of Spades,’ says Cattier. ‘The reflection was that Armand de Brignac is an aristocratic name for French people but difficult to pronounce for others. So we had to create a strong emblem to personalize this brand and this bottle.’ The resulting pewter label with the distinctive Ace of Spades logo works perfectly with the metallized finish. ‘When we launched this bottle in Champagne, which is very conservative, it has been like a UFO,’ says Cattier. But he adds, ‘It is not all about the packaging: we have made a good job on the product itself.’
So, what was Jay Z’s involvement in this new brand? The timing of its launch (just after the Cristal boycott), and the fact that it features in his video before it was launched in the USA, hints that he had involvement from the beginning, although officially this is denied. Then, in November last year, it was announced that Jay Z had bought Ace of Spades from Sovereign Brands, so he now owns it outright, while Cattier continue to produce the wines. In 2008 the Blanc de Blanc and Rosé cuvées were added, and this year a Blanc de Noirs has joined the range.
‘We couldn’t imagine the impact this brand would have,’ says Cattier. ‘It is something incredible for us.’
Added later: I asked Jean-Jacques Cattier about the connection between the Antique Gold and the Armand de Brignac wines, both bottled in the same gold bottle. This is his response:
Concerning your question, I can answer you that it was not the same blend and not the same product.
Beginning of the years 2000, we made a trial to test the capacity of the metallization to resist to the ageing in cellars.
Of course, 10 years before we made already a metallization with the French designer André Courrèges and we had already a small experience.
But it was not the same color, silver instead of gold, not the same company for the metallization and not the same process, and a much shorter ageing in cellars. We could not start without any guaranty.
That is why early in the 2000 years we made some bottlings with our classic Cattier blend, in small quantities, and as soon as we were sure of the capacity of resistance of the coating, we started to make a specific blend with grapes of our vineyards and grapes we bought in Cote des Blancs and Vallée de la Marne. And it is those bottles which were ready to start in 2006.
Of course, we sold the bottles used for this trial under a Cattier label, but it was a small quantity during a short period.
We could drink it but it was however too much.
Champagne Armand de Brignac Blanc de Blancs NV
From 2008/9/10. Fresh, bright and quite tight with light citrussy fruit. Very clean and attractive with a hint of creaminess and some subtle toast. Light, quite fine and well balanced. Not overly complex, but has finesse. 91/100
Champagne Armand de Brignac Brut Gold NV
from 2008/9/10. This is the original wine. Some toast and nutty notes on the nose with a sweet peachy edge to the citrussy palate. Some nuts and honey. Quite noticeable dosage. A bit grippy. 89/100
Champagne Armand de Brignac Rosé NV
Full orange/pink colour. Richly flavoured style with red cherries, strawberries and some toastiness. There’s a bit of grip here with fresh fruit and a hint of sweetness. A rich style. 88/100
Champagne Armand de Brignac Blanc de Noirs NV
This is 2006/7/8, and has spent 6 years on the lees. Lovely freshness. This is tight with some notes of cherry, toast, peach and citrus. Has real focus with lemony acidity at its core. Subtle herb and toast notes, too. 92/100
Champagne Armand de Brignac Demi-Sec NV
This is a very rich, off-dry Champagne. Grapey with some nice peach, apple and citrus fruit. Broad and richly textured with lots of flavour. It’s pretty sweet. 89/100
Tried these. Really lovely and rare.
Gonzalez Byass Añada 1987
This is a Palo Cortado, and it hasn’t been in a solera – instead, it’s made from casks from a single vintage that are set aside and then bottled when they are deemed ready. It has a super-complex nose of citrus, old wood and spice. The palate shows marmalade, tangy citrus and notes of caramel, orange peel, leather and herbs. Incredible length and good acidity complete this thrilling wine. 95/100
Gonzalez Byass Dulce 1986
This is Palomino, and – unusually for Palomino – it’s sweet. Gonzalez Byass have made two vintages of this, which is vinified like a Pedro Ximenez and left to age in the cask, but this, the 1986 was more successful than the 1995.['Dulce' is a legal term for sherry that means it must have at least 160 g/litre of residual sugar.] ‘It was a wine-making experiment that was dropped soon afterwards for reasons unknown and mothballed,’ says GB’s Martin Skelton. This is straight from the cask, is unfortified (11% alcohol), and is unfiltered. A raisiny, rich, toffeed nose leads to a sweet, viscous palate that’s bold and rich. This is full, intense, raisiny and bold, with a bright edge to the palate. 93/100
Gonzalez Byass Moscatel Viejissimo
This is a sample of an old Moscatel from a barrel of wine made in the early 1960s, with a view to starting a solera. It’s a blend of several years, and there are three casks in total, but since the project was halted in the mid-1960s no further wine was added to the casks. It shows amazing intensity: bold, rich, viscous and powerful with complex raisiny notes, and intense spice and Christmas cake flavours. 94/100
Gonzalez Byass Pio X Moscatel 1903
This is a vintage Moscatel from 1903, and after 112 years only 20% of the wine is still left in the barrel. It’s unfortified, and this is the first time anyone has sampled this wine for ages. The tradition was that Gonzalez Byass laid down a cask each time there was a new Pope (there are six casks in all, most from the 19th century. This wine will probably be bottled in the future, but there are only about 40 litres left. Superconcentrated and powerful with viscous raisins, spices, treacle and Christmas cake flavours. Incredible intensity, and astonishing acidity (which has concentrated with the sweetness and flavour). Amazing length: a real wine of contemplation. 96/100
See also: visiting the Sherry region
Yesterday I went back to the building that I’d worked in for 15 years. It was for the Gonzalez Byass tasting, which was held at 41 Portland Place, an 18th Century Adam-style terrace that is now home to the Academy of Medical Sciences. I started working there – it was then another scientific charity, the Ciba Foundation – straight from my PhD back in 1992, and I stayed until the charity closed down in 2008. Although it seemed quite tough at the time, being booted into the freelance world was probably the best thing that happened to me. Some choices are too hard to make, especially when you are the sole wage earner and have two young kids.
Going back: it was odd. I walked through reception, and up the same stairs that I’d used countless times. Into the reception room where we’d held all those dinners with our scientist guests, and seeing through the open doors of the dining room where we used to lunch every day. It was a strange experience: everything was so familiar, yet different. The building no longer meant what it once did to me. I didn’t belong there in the same way that I did for so long.
This is what it got me thinking: In the end, all things will end. Nothing is permanent. We can’t stop time. Everything is fresh and new every day. Fortunately, we mostly don’t know when things will end, and I suppose we cope best by living as if everything were forever. But nothing is.
This sounds unduly morose. But I think it is healthier to integrate future loss – and the fear of endings – into the present. Death is part of life. Parting will follow meeting. It’s impossible to separate out the thread of sadness this knowledge brings from the many threads of joy that the present is full of. Rather than deny this sadness – the realization that endings follow beginnings, and that all will pass – we need to savour the whole experience of life. It’s super-healthy to be able to see not only from our own perspective, but also to take a step sideways to see with fresh eyes. We are not at the centre of the world, but are merely playing a part in something bigger than we are. Much as with Galileo’s realization that the sun doesn’t orbit the earth, the notion that we are not the centre of everything doesn’t go down too well with some. But it’s the way it is.
In the end, all things will end. But knowing this shouldn’t stop us starting things, and it shouldn’t be used to put off new beginnings.
I’m not sure I can relate this to wine, but I will try. Nothing stands still. A wine cannot be locked in time. A vineyard changes every season. Wine keeps moving. Even a bottle in a collector’s seller has a life and journey of its own. Wine parallels life in the way that it changes and transitions, and with the variations of seasons, variety, how it is made and how it is cellared. One of the richest aspects of wine is its incredible variation, and also the way it keeps changing. Let’s hope that attempts to make it more consistent and marketable don’t kill this richness.
B Vintners is a collaboration between cousins Gavin Bruwer and Bruwer Raats. They describe it as a ‘vine exploration company’, and the aim is to tell the story of the heritage of the South African wine industry, and looking at sourcing grapes from some of the most interesting vineyards in the Cape. The prime focus is on vineyard sites in Stellenbosch, which is a particularly good thing as Stellenbosch has been a bit overshadowed by newer or trendier regions of late. These wines are just so interesting, and B Vintners is another welcome player in the dynamic South African wine scene.
B Vintners D’Alexandria 2015 Stellenbosch, Stellenbosch
This is from a small neglected 31 year old block of Muscat in the Helderberg. 1200 bottles were made in 2014 and they sold out very quickly. This is very aromatic and fresh with a terpenic, grapey nose. The palate is lively, grapey and pure with a fine spiciness and some citrus pith notes. 88/100
B Vintners Haarlem to Hope 2014 Stellenbosch, South Africa
A blend of Chenin and Semillon with a tiny dash of Muscat. Complex, fine, spicy and ripe with fine pear and white peach fruit. Notes of ginger and lemongrass, too. So pure, complex and expressive with lovely detail. Avoids tartness. 94/100
B Vintners Chardonnay 2014 Stellenbosch, South Africa
12.5% alcohol. 10 year old vineyard with rocky sandstone soils. Very fine, fresh and mineral with nice spiciness. Lovely pear and white peach fruit, showing superb balance and finesse. 92/100
B Vintners Liberté 2014 Stellenbosch, South Africa
This is Pinotage from an ocean-facing granite-soiled vineyard in the Bottelary Hills. Lovely floral black cherry and plum fruit nose. Fresh, elegant red cherry and plum palate with nice grip and real elegance. So fine and expressive with raspberries and cherries. 93/100
B Vintners Pinot Noir 2014 Stellenbosch, South Africa
From west of Strand on the foothills of the Helderberg close to the ocean, this is a 2 hectare block of bush vines, exposed to the south easterlies. Juicy, spicy raspberry fruit with nice grippy tannins and fresh berry fruits. Lovely spice and perfume with lotes of potential for development. 93/100
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