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

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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.’

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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.

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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

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Barraco Vignammare 2013, an incredible Sicilian white

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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)

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Narrative and perspective, and how we understand wine

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John Lambie, who was the manager of Scottish football club Partick Thistle, is credited with one of the most well known sporting quotes. On being informed by his medical team that the Thistle striker was concussed to the extent he couldn’t remember his own name, Lambie replied, ‘Tell him he’s Pele and get him back on.’ [For the benefit of readers who know nothing about football, Pele is the most famous player of all time.] It raises an interesting point: to what degree does our sense of identity, and how we see ourselves in relation to the world, affect our thinking, behaviour and performance?

Significantly, I think, because we understand the world around us in terms of stories.

We have an internal narrative – a set of stories about how the world around us works – and it is through the lens of this narrative that we interpret reality. This filtering of experience, and the process of fitting it into our own internal story framework, gives each of us a unique perspective on the world. To some degree we share our worldview with our friends and family, but many aspects of it are personal to us.

Of course, most of the time we don’t realize this. We consider our perspective to be indistinguishable from reality, and we are surprised when others see things quite differently. This is frequently the source of conflict in relationships. We interpret the motivation and actions of others through our own narrative. We also use confirmation bias to back up our own perspective. Very few people are good at stepping back from a situation and trying to see it from a perspective other than their own. And few realise quite how distorted their thinking is by their own narrative theme.

This is shown clearly when it comes to political discourse. In the UK, we’ll soon be in the run up to a general election, and the various parties will be outlining their policies and telling potential voters how badly wrong the other parties have got it. To those who have strong political allegiances, the discourse of their own party will usually make complete sense, and they will wonder how on earth anyone could fail to see that this is the way forward. There’s a self-consistent narrative that supporters of a party have bought into and have grown up with, and from that perspective it is very hard to understand the perspective of other parties. Each new fact and each new event is understood in terms of this narrative, and is slotted into place according to the underlying story of how the world works. Confirmation bias solidifies this worldview. This is why it is so hard to have a political discussion: all you get is a clash of narratives.

Religion is, of course, all about narratives. Interestingly, the notion of religious conversion illustrates the importance of stories. It’s possible to explain conversion as the change in perspective that comes from the retelling of stories. Someone who changes their way decides that their existing narrative isn’t working, or is unhelpful, and they swap it for another. Interestingly, the teachings of Jesus were often in the form of stories. It we are presented with facts, they present no danger to our internal narratives, because we are quite used to taking in facts after having fitted them into our own perspective. Stories, however, are more dangerous: as we listen to them, we are drawn in and we begin to see things from the perspective of others. Good stories have the power to change our narrative. It is through the taking in of stories that we are able to retell our own story from a fresh perspective, and suddenly change is possible. This is why the arts are so important. Information and facts don’t change people. Stories, and the arts more generally, do.

How does this relate to wine? We interpret and understand wine in light of our own narratives. The appreciation of wine isn’t just about what tastes good. What does it take to make a wine a ‘great’ wine or a ‘fine’ wine? The judgement of wine quality can only exist within the framework of an aesthetic system – a narrative that has built up recognizing certain features of the wine as desirable, and which also has things to say about where the wine came from and how it was produced.

So we find different narratives in the world of wine, which overlap to some extent, but which also differ significantly. And when these narratives clash, we have controversies. There’s the classic fine wine narrative, where great wines are produced in Bordeaux, Burgundy and Champagne. Then we have the Robert Parker narrative: the English fine wine establishment were complacent and British writers were in bed with the trade, so along comes the consumer advocate with his easy to understand points system and fierce independence. He develops a strong following and with his taste for ripe, generous, big wines that resonates with his readers, suddenly we have a new fine wine narrative that clashes to a degree with the existing one. Then we have the constellation of biodynamic/authentic/natural wine narratives, where power is eschewed in favour of elegance, and where a strong part of the story surrounds how the wine is grown and made, with an emphasis on vineyard health and non-manipulation in the winery. In particular, the natural/authentic wine narrative has clashed significantly with the Robert Parker/US new fine wine narrative.

What all this reinforces is that we come to wine from our own perspective, and so the notion of rating or judging wine has to be seen with this taken into account. A rating cannot be a global, universal score that is a property of that wine. If you follow a critic, you need to chose one whose own narrative of wine is largely overlapping with yours. If we are to interpret wines, it is helpful for us to be aware that we are doing so in light of our own wine narrative. This is why stories are so important for the appreciation of wine. Wine needs words, said Hugh Johnson, and he was right. But even more than that, wine needs stories. It is these narratives that help us to understand wine, help us to fall in love with it, and help us progress in our journey through this most engaging and life-enhancing grape-derived alcoholic beverage.

The stunning 2013 releases from Kutch

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These were very smart indeed. Jamie Kutch has a good story, and I reckon his 2013s are his best wines yet. My feeling is that they’re a bit more elegant and pure than previous releases (even though previous releases were pretty smart wines). I don’t know whether this is because of a stylistic evolution, or is a feature of the vintage – and, of course, it’s my own impression, which may be wrong. But I really enjoyed them. California is such an exciting place for Pinot Noir these days. UK availability: some of these will be in Roberson Wine.

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Kutch Pinot Noir Sans Soufre 2013 Sonoma Coast, California
12.1% alcohol. An experimental wine without any added sulfites. Beautiful aromatics here: sweet red cherry fruit with some liqueur-like richness, and fine herby, spice savouriness in the background. Lovely texture on the palate with warm, sweet, pure red cherry fruit and a hint of strawberry. There are faint earthy hints and there’s a liveliness to the finish. This has an incredible texture and drinkability. 94/100

Kutch Pinot Noir 2013 Sonoma Coast, California
12.3% alcohol. Lovely black cherry aromatics. Fresh and quite taut with sweet berry notes and a bit of spiciness. The palate is supple, smooth and quite elegant with ripe black cherry and plum fruit, together with some grippy structure under the fruit. Sweet and alluring with nice freshness and elegance. Lovely. 94/100

Kutch McDougal Ranch Pinot Noir 2013 Sonoma Coast, California
12.3% alcohol. Power and finesse here. Fresh black cherry nose with some spicy undertones. The palate is supple and focused with sweet black cherry and plum fruit and lovely structure. Nice density. This has the stuffing to age well. 94/100

Kutch Bohan Vineyard Pinot Noir 2013 Sonoma Coast, California
12.3% alcohol. Very sweet, enticint, textured creamy red cherry and berry fruits nose with some distinct green notes. Fresh and slightly sappy. Really distinctive with creamy sweet red cherry fruit dominant and some subtle green notes that are trying hard to integrate. On day 2, however, it’s a different story, with lovely floral notes emerging, and the wine showing a more delicate personality. Very pretty. 94/100

Kutch Falstaff Vineyard Pinot Noir 2013 Sonoma Coast, California
12.1% alcohol. Fresh, juicy and bright with lovely texture to the raspberry and cherry fruit. Real freshness evident. Ripe, with sweet fruit, but showing lovely poise and balance. Really stylish and balanced with incredible focus, good acidity, but no hint of harshness. An elegant, focused style of Pinot Noir showing lovely floral aromatics and fine grained, expressive red cherry fruit. 95/100

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A couple from Bordeaux, La Tour Martillac and Petit Village

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Bordeaux is the world’s most famous wine region.

But it’s one that is losing the hearts of many of the new generation of wine nuts. They’re alienated by the prices, by the pretension (big-ass Chateaux and winemakers wearing suits working in impossibly grand cellars with spotless barrels), and by the somewhat old-fashioned image. But we shouldn’t give up on Bordeaux, because it is capable of greatness. It has some amazing terroirs.

In my view, it’s such a shame that so many of these great terroirs aren’t being used to their potential, but that’s true in all wine regions worldwide. Bordeaux has got so many things right – perhaps most importantly the simplicity of its offer to consumers, with one Grand Vin per Chateaux, and producing this wine in sufficient quantities that normal people can get hold of it – that I remain a Bordeaux fan. It’s a region that has given me a lot of great wine experiences, even though it does drive me to despair sometimes.

Enough preamble. Time for notes on two wines recently consumed, one perhaps a little to ripe and modern, and the other from an estate that’s making very fine wines without perhaps getting all the recognition it deserves.

Chateaux Latour-Martillac 2010 Pessac-Leognan, Bordeaux, France
14% alcohol. Very ripe, sweet blackcurrant and blackberry fruit. Slightly baked. Sweet, rich, textured palate with smooth, lush fruit and some cakey, baked notes. Attractive and smooth but with a bit of over-ripeness, and ever so slightly oxidative. It’s OK, but I’d drink this now. 87/100 (£30 Tesco, BBR)

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Chateau Petit-Village 2012 Pomerol, Bordeaux
13.5% alcohol. Lovely freshness here to the berry and red cherry fruit with some gravelly grip and a hint of tar. Fresh and elegant but also youthful and structured, hinting at a promising future, with a taut, primary character. Needs time to open out, but it’s a lovely Burgundian-styled Bordeaux of real potential. 92/100

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McC Coupage, a lovely wine from Serbia

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McCulloch Wines is the venture of Englishman Don McCulloch and his Serbian-born wife Seka Nikolic. McCulloch was previously a special protection police officer for the Royal Family (he retired after completing 30 years’ service in 2009), while Nikolic has a natural-health practice in Hampstead, London (she describes herself as a ‘bio-health practitioner with exceptional healing powers’). They decided to plant 3.5 hectares, purchased in small parcels, in the Fruška Gora region, which is just north of Belgrade. This region has a history of winegrowing dating back to 296 AD. These vines are tended biodynamically and this 2011 Coupage is the debut vintage of the flagship McC wine.

It’s a Bordeaux-style blend made from two separate co-ferments of Merlot and Malbec, and Cabernet Franc and Cabernet Sauvignon that’s aged in Serbian oak barriques for 12 months. I was really impressed. Other wines are made, too: in addition to the Bordeaux red varieties, McCulloch has also planted Pinot Noir, Sauvignon Blanc, Riesling and Gewurztraminer.

Coupage is available for sale directly from the website for £20 a bottle. It’s very encouraging to see such an interesting wine emerge from Serbia, a country that has lots of viticultural potential.

McC Vino Coupage 2011 Serbia
13.5% alcohol. A blend of Merlot, Cabernet Franc and Cabernet Sauvignon. There’s a leathery, herby, spicy edge to the berry fruits nose, with some savoury cedar notes. The palate is spicy and grippy with a leathery character under the sweet cherry and berry fruits, as well as a fine spiciness. Lovely balance and texture here, combining sweet fruit and savoury spiciness really well. Subtle reductive notes but also lovely fruit. 90/100

Two amazing wines from François Cotat

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He’s the total star of Sancerre. François Cotat (note, there’s a relation, cousin Pascal Cotat, and the wines of the two shouldn’t be confused) is one of the Loire’s most revered producers. Based in Chavignol, he has just three hectares, of which 0.5 ha is Pinot Noir. The Sauvignon is picked quite late, and then barrel fermented in old demi muids with natural yeasts. The wines need time to show their best, and can age beautifully. I tried these two wines, including the rare Cuvée Paul, at The Sampler (South Kensington). Quite stunning.

If you want some more colour on Cotat, then here’s a great blog post by Aaron Ayscough on a visit he made.

François Cotat Cuvée Paul 2007 Sancerre, France
Lovely nose: grapefruit with a hint of green pepper and elderflower. Really fresh and vivid. Bright, pure, fresh palate with some green notes but also some chalky texture and ripe, rich passionfruit notes. A distinctive, remarkable Sauvignon of real beauty. 95/100

François Cotat Les Montes Damnés 2012 Sancerre, France
Textured and broad. Slightly nutty with smooth, ripe pear and citrus fruit. Lively despite the breadth, with some chalky, mineral notes alongside the supple fruit. Beautiful, harmonious and elegant, finishing fresh. 93/100

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The Portuguese Pinot Noir, Quinta de Sant'Ana

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Pinot Noir? From Portugal?

With so many of its own grape varieties to focus on, you’d think Portugal has little to gain from trying to make Pinot Noir. But why not? If the climate and soils are there for making serious Pinot, it’s worth a go. Pinot rocks, after all. It’s especially worth a go if you are from the Lisboa region, which doesn’t have the cachet of some of the other regions, and consequently makes it difficult for producers to get noticed, even if they have great terroirs.

I have written about the previous vintage of this wine here. The 2011 is even better.

Quinta de Sant’Ana Pinot Noir 2011 Portugal
14% alcohol. 4900 bottles made. Lifted nose with aromatic herbs, spices and black cherries, as well as a hint of cedar and some tobacco notes. The palate is supple and elegant with ripe black cherries, herbs, tobacco and spice. The warm herbal spiciness works very well with the supple black cherry fruit. Just a little volatile acidity, but it adds nicely to the overall impression. An autumnal Pinot that works so well. 92/100

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Coates & Seely's remarkable La Perfide

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This is one of the UK’s best sparkling wines yet, I reckon. It’s a newly released vintage bottling from Coates & Seely, and is a blend of 60% Pinot Noir/40% Pinot Meunier grown on Hampshire chalk. This vintage wine was subsequently aged for four years sur latte before disgorgement in March 2014. Christian Seely has this to say about it:

Although most of the Coates and Seely wines are blends from several years, with significant stocks of wine being laid down each year as reserve wines for future blends, we decided that from time to time we would set aside small amounts of exceptional wine to be bottled as Vintage Coates and Seely, to age sur latte for a minimum of three years, or more if we felt that the wine demanded it. In this case the exceptional character of the wine seemed to merit four years ageing sur latte.
Following disgorgement earlier this year, we believe that La Perfide is now ready for release. We in fact chose the name of this cuvee back in 2009 when we made the wine, and have been longing to use it ever since then. It is of course inspired by the traditional French perception of England as “La Perfide Albion”. Although the notion of our perfidy does have certain negative connotations and is clearly based on a misapprehension, we have decided to embrace this idea in a positive way, on the basis that the mutual mudslinging between French and English is always mingled with a certain amount of respect and affection, and a term that might have been intended as an insult can quite easily be considered to be in fact a backhanded compliment and a sign of respect.

Coates & Seely Britagne Rosé La Perfide 2009 Hampshire, England
12% alcohol. Salmon pink colour. Lovely perfumed nose with a sappy cherry quality, subtle herbiness and appealing fruit, as well as some faint toast. The palate fresh, rounded and generous with toast, spice and leafy cherry notes. Real finesse here. 93/100