For those who just look at this blog, here are some of the longer articles that I have posted on the main wineanorak site:
I have been tasting today. I spent a good portion of the afternoon at two tastings of Italian wines: the first, the Armit tasting; the second, a preview of the Lay & Wheeler consumer Piemonte tasting.
I have got to the stage with tastings where I am happy not to taste everything. Even though there are almost always lots and lots of worthy wines that I should really taste, I exercise restraint.
The temptation is to gather as many data points as possible, but the real issue is the trade-off between the number of wines tasted and the accuracy of perception.
For show judging you can taste 100 wines in a day without a problem, if you take time, have breaks, and don’t retaste too many times. If you are experienced and accurate, your verdicts will be quite reliable.
But for the purposes of discriminating among fine wines and writing useful notes about them, you have to trade number of wines tasted against palate fatigue. And because it is quite hard to concentrate in a busy tasting, you need to deliberately slow down and focus on the wine.
So today, I tasted just 40 wines. I tried to give each the attention and time it deserved. Because I was tasting a lot of Piemonte Nebbiolos, including some very young Barolos, the tannin load had quite an effect on my palate. Once you get past a certain point with very tannic wines, they strip the mucins (proteins which act as lubricants in the mouth) from your oral cavity at a deep level, which impairs your ability to assess the mouthfeel of the wine. Mouthfeel is so important, yet in big tastings we end up flying blind – if we are not careful – when it comes to the textural aspects of red wines.
So I have learnt to taste as much as I can, but not try to taste everything, and to try to be honest about how reliable the data points I am gathering are. The pressure among critics is to try to be the ultimate authority, tasting everything. I would be very happy just being an authority in a small domain. I don’t need to conquer the world; I’m never going to be the best, the number one. I’m just lucky to be able to make a living writing about wine.
This wine is really impressive. It’s from a Franschhoek winery I was introduced to through a friend (the brother of owner and winemaker Kevin Swart), who also make wines under the Black Elephant label. This is an estate wine made in their home cellar from grapes grown on the property, which borders Chamonix. 10 000 bottles made.
La Petite Vigne The Daniel Collection ‘Amazing Grace’ Cabernet Sauvignon 2012 Franschhoek, South Africa
13.5% alcohol. Lovely sweet, fresh, pure blackcurrant fruit nose with lovely purity. There’s freshness and ripeness combined on the palate. It’s ripe but not too sweet with lovely tannic structure that is grippy but not awkward. Young but so pure and with great potential for development. 93/100
Find this wine with wine-searcher.com
This is a wine I like a lot. It’s from a small 5.5 acre (3 hectare) vineyard on the Martinborough terrace originally planted in 1986, and previously known as the Fraser block. It’s managed biodynamically, and in addition to the Pinots made here, there’s also a lovely Syrah and a delicious Syrah/Pinot Noir blend called the Dovetail.
This is 15% whole bunch, 25% new oak (all French, of course), and it’s made from five different clones.
Cambridge Road Pinot Noir 2011 Martinborough, New Zealand
13% alcohol. Aromatic, sweetly fruited nose of black cherry, blackberries and plums and spice. The palate has good concentration but also elegance, with fresh black cherry fruit and nice purity, underpinned by spicy structure. Good density here, with a taut, backward character as well as the sweet fruit, all held in nice tension. I reckon this will develop very nicely. 94/100
UK agent is Les Caves de Pyrene
Find this wine with wine-searcher.com
Gavin Monery is a winemaker currently working with Roberson in London, where he’s also been overseeing the fun London Cru urban winery. Today he has released two of his own wines, from Burgundy, under the Le Rêveur label, which is his micronegociant project.
These wines both come from the 2012 vintage, and they’re pretty good, especially the Puligny. The Gevrey is very pure but a little primary at the moment, and needs time to show its true personality. ‘We’re doing the same again in 2013,’ says Gavin. ‘I had a parcel of Volnay agreed on for 2013 but it was decimated by hail which was really disappointing.’
I asked Gavin about the challenges facing someone who starts out with this sort of venture. ‘I think the biggest challenge in Burgundy is securing good quality grapes,’ he responded. ‘You really need to know someone as if you rely on the courtiers you get very little control, even over things as important as the harvest date. There’s been a string of low yielding harvests which has put pressure on supply so growers can pick and choose who they sell to. It’s all done with a handshake so having good relationships is the key.’
Le Rêveur Puligny Montrachet 2012 Burgundy, France
Wild yeast ferment and neutral oak, from 60 year old vines. Warm, sweet, mealy, spicy nose with subtle toasty notes. Ripe pear fruit dominates. The palate is nicely balanced with textured, spicy, fresh pear and white peach fruit. Rich yet fresh with a lovely lemony finish that’s quite lively. Stylish wine. 93/100
Le Rêveur Gevrey Chambertin 2012 Burgundy, France
From 45 year old vines, with a small proportion of whole bunch and a 3 day cold soak. Slightly reticent nose of sweet red cherry and plum fruit with some savoury, spicy undertones. The palate is quite structured and mineral, with a taut grippy edge to the red fruits. Currently the savoury structure is winning out against the fruit, but there’s lovely purity here and potential for development. 91/100
Both wines are priced at £29.95 and are available directly from the producer.
Here’s a film. Five things you need to know about the 100 point rating scale for wine:
So on Friday, while I was still in Cape Town, the episode of Rip Off Britain that I took part in aired. If you have access to the BBC iPlayer, you can catch up with the show online until the end of next week (28 March). The wine segment is in two parts: the first starts at 11:39, and then the second – which I feature in – is from 30:50 until 41:00.
The theme is the confusing nature of supermarket wine offerings, and in particular the role of promotions.
Six times more wine is consumed in the UK now than in the 1970s. It has become our favourite tipple, with 1.7 billion bottles sold each year. Three-quarters of this wine is bought in supermarkets (I think they are referring to off-trade, not restaurants), with more than half purchased on special offer.
According to James Ford, who runs the excellent price comparison website MySupermarket, the wine aisle is the most confusing part of the store. He has worked out that of the big 5 online supermarkets, 1400 of the 5000 wine lines are being price-promoted at any one time. He describes this as a ‘promotional confusion’ that customers have to wade through.
If you look at wines on MySupermarket you can see the price of these ‘half-price’ wines oscillate wildly in a binary fashion. I think it’s unethical. It is taking advantage of your customer’s difficulty in knowing the true price of wine.
Sainsbury’s explanation for these wildly oscillating prices is as follows.
Wine prices are dependent on a number of factors including harvest yields, transport costs and duties, as well as movements in global demand and currencies, so can fluctuate because of one or several of these over the year.
Do they think we are stupid? Which of these factors cause, for example, their Roc de Lussac St Emilion to regularly cycle between £14.99 and £7.49?
I apologise if this is all getting a bit boring and repetitive, but these fake promotions are bad for wine, and a bad deal for customers, and I won’t stop talking about them until supermarkets do the right thing and stop them.
Had a remarkable dinner at Overgaauw, a wine estate in Stellenbosch, on Wednesday night. David van Velden, who hosted us, is the fourth-generation winemaker of this family property. Overgaauw has been in the van Velden family since 1905, and David began making wine in 2003, took over from his father in 2007, and has been in charge of the business since 2009. He also looks remarkably like Orlando Bloom. ‘I’m just a custodian,’ he says, saying that having a six month son who one day will likely take over from him puts things into perspective.
And talking of perspective, we tried some lovely old wines. These bottles are pieces of history, from a very different era in the South African wine scene. To be fair on them, we tasted them blind. There was some discussion about the reds, and the fact that in the old days these would have been made without malolactic fermentation. This is very unusual for red wines, and explains in part why they have aged so beautifully, with pHs in the 3.1 range. They would have been fairly undrinkable young, I’m guessing, but it’s sometimes worth trading early drinkability for longevity.
Overgaauw Steen 1976 Stellenbosch, South Africa
Nutty and fresh, with a hint of spearmint as well as some toast. Fresh and precise with bright acidity and nice evolution, as well as notes of toast and wax. Some straw, herbs and citrus character. I thought this was old and guessed 1987, but was out by more than a decade. 93/100
Overgaauw Pinotage 1972 Stellenbosch, South Africa
A bright red colour, with fresh, vivid, bright cherry fruit and some herb and fine spices. Quite dry on the palate with a bit of grip and pure cherry and plum notes. Still quite vibrant and fruit driven, this is angular but has finesse. 92/100
Overgaauw Cabernet Sauvignon 1974 Stellenbosch, South Africa
Sweet, vibrant and spicy with lovely herby, juicy fruit. Ripe and sweet with some lovely grainy, mineral notes and a really appealing sweetness to the fruit. Immensely drinkable. 93/100
Overgaauw Tria Corda 1981 Stellenbosch, South Africa
Warm, spicy and generous with notes of ginger and mint. Fresh, slightly minty palate with ripe cherry and plum fruit. There’s nice grip and freshness here with an appealing sappy quality. Real interest. 92/100
I rarely permit guest posts, but here’s one from Henry Jeffreys, because he asked nicely, and I like his writing. It’s about wine book publishing and how it has changed of late, largely from a UK perspective:
I have a bit of thing about old wine books. I can’t resist picking them up no matter how rubbish they might look. My latest acquisition from Oxfam is called Supernosh by Anthony Worrall-Thompson and Malcolm Gluck. It features the authors on the front cover resplendent in brash 80s clothing (though it was published in 1993 – the 80s carried on well into the 90s in some parts of the wine trade) both looking a bit tipsy with looks on their faces as if to say: “I can’t believe we’re being paid to write this shit”. Inside there’s some spiel about how the book was cooked up by their agents over a boozy lunch. Unbelievably it’s published by the house of TS Eliot, Faber & Faber. Looking back now, the 80s and 90s were a golden age to be a wine writer. Newspapers were expanding their wine coverage, there were regular wine slots on television including lavish BBC series and wine publishing was booming. It was the age of Oz Clarke’s New Classic wines – proper well-researched wine writing, written for a mainstream audience, and the Hugh Johnson and Jancis Robinson seemed to have a book out every year (plus ca change one might say). Faber’s wine list headed up by Julian Jeffs had off-beat personal books such as Patrick Matthews’ the Wild Bunch and Mitchell Beazley were in their pomp. Wine writing was the new food writing.
It all seems a long time ago. Faber sold off their wine list to Mitchell Beazley in 2002. I spoke with a mole at Mitchell Beazley who wished to remain anonymous. He (or perhaps she) told me that when he started at Mitchell Beazley in the late 90s, he pretty much only worked on wine books. Now it was mainly food books. According to him, Mitchell Beazley published too many wine books including some that were too specialist – trying to sell a book devoted to Canadian wine in 2005 seems particularly optimistic. Having a full time specialist editor was expensive for the rare successes such as their New series including Andrew Jefford’s the New France (still one of my favourites). In some ways the decline in wine books just reflects the decline in publishing in general, the decline of bookshops, of newspapers, but this isn’t the whole answer because food books currently buck this trend. The Mitchell Beazley wine list is now principally Hugh Johnson and Jancis Robinson with a few specialist books including, of course, Jamie Goode’s Wine Science. Their last attempt at building a new mainstream wine writer was Matt Skinner who they thought was going to be the Jamie Oliver of wine. He wasn’t.
Nowadays the idea of a Gluck/ Worrall-Thompson type affair being cooked up over a long lunch belongs to another age. In fact the idea of having anything cooked up over a boozy lunch is unlikely as most publishing lunches these days are dry. When I was trying to shop my history of modern Britain told through wine around, my agent was adamant that we mustn’t let anyone think it was a wine book. He positioned it as a sort of Giles Milton-esque narrative history thing with added alcohol. Even so, despite a lot of positive noises, no publisher picked it up.
I’m now doing my book, Empire of Booze, through Unbound, a crowd-sourcing publisher. The future of wine books is now outside the mainstream publishing. You can self-publish like Neal Martin did with Pomerol or Benjamim Lewin with Wine Myths and Reality, you can crowd source like I’m trying to do with my book and Wink Lorch did with her book on the Jura, or you can do it with the help of Berry Bros like Jasper Morris did with his recent Burgundy book. Publishers are finding it increasingly hard to connect with readers, but wine writers know their readers and can find them. At least I hope they can.
The one problem with this new world is that the big mainstream books, the sort that need lavish funding, will not be written (unless they’re by Jancis Robinson and/ or Hugh Johnson). There is no new Jancis, Oz or Hugh. I’m dying to read books such as New New Classic Wines – perhaps looking at Eastern Europe, the Levant and South America, or the New New France, but these are the kind of projects that only a big publisher can bankroll.
You can find out more about my book Empire of Booze here and pledge money if you’d like to read the finished article.
Tuesday evening was special. Keith Prothero invited Greg Sherwood and I to join him, Nicolette Waterford, Sam Suddons and Ryan Mostert at Majeka House restaurant in Stellenbosch for a special wine dinner. We each brought along a decent bottle (mine was one of my stash of 99 Jamet Côte Rôtie), and the restaurant had prepared a menu around these wines.
It was such fun. The group worked really well together, and the wines all showed very well. You can’t ask for a whole lot more. It is such a treat to try special wines like these in the sort of convivial environment in which they should be enjoyed.
Here are my notes:
Trimbach Riesling Cuvée Frederic Emile 1997 Alsace, France
Tight and lemony with some wax and herb notes. Lovely precision and harmony with good acidity. Dry with taut lemon and herb notes and lovely crystalline fruit quality. Great precision here. 93/100
Lopez de Heredia Viña Tondonia Gran Reserva Blanco 1991 Rioja, Spain
Toasty, nutty, rich and tangy with some oxidative notes, minerals and spices. Real density here with some structure and a savoury personality. Powerful. 93/100
Faiveley Echezeaux Grand Cru 1993 Burgundy, France
I was surprised by how dense and structured this wine still is. Very fine, textured, spicy and gravelly with significant tannins and fresh black cherry and blackberry fruit. Still dense, youthful and a little closed. 93/100
Michel Lafarge Volnay 1er Cru Clos de Chêne 1993 Burgundy, France
Fresh and vivid with nice blackcurrant and blackberry fruit. It’s structured but fresh with lovely purity and acidity. Quite a dense wine, and still not at its peak, I reckon. 95/100
Château Haut Brion 1990 Pessac Leognan, Bordeaux, France
Wonderfully complex, spicy and grippy with lovely meaty, slightly animally fruit and herby, spicy structure. Ripe and complex, and still youthful and vivid. 95/100
Château Latour 1988 Pauillac, Bordeaux, France
Sweet, supple and powerful with stuctured spice and earth notes under the blackcurrant fruit. Lovely purity here. Dense, tannic and still relatively primary with fresh fruit and good structure. 94/100
Chave Hermitage 1996 Northern Rhône, France
Full, peppery and lively with lovely spicy, taut red berry and black cherry fruit. Complex and refined with notes of graphite and smoke as well as youthful, pure fruit. Lots of potential here. 95/100
Jamet Côte Rôtie 1999 Northern Rhône, France
Meaty, spicy, dense and exotic with a peppery edge to the blackberry and black cherry fruit. Meaty and spicy but elegant at the same time, drinking very well now, but no need to hurry. 95/100