This was perhaps the stand-out wine of a wonderful weekend of wine. I tasted it with Raj Parr and some friends just before the salmon bake at the IPNC. We were left speechless. It’s an almost perfect wine, even though it comes from a vintage that isn’t one of the strongest (although it was better for whites than reds), and it’s a premier, not a grand cru. Whisper it quietly, but Leroy may be even better than the legendary DRC, although I don’t have enough data points to really make this conclusion.
Lalou Bize-Leroy Domaine d’Auvenay Les Folatieres Puligny-Montrachet Premier Cru 2004 Burgundy, France
Incredible, dense and mineral with perfectly integrated matchstick reduction. Taut, refiend, yet possessing richness. Mealy with notes of toast and spice, as well as generous fruit. Such lovely complexity, richness, balance and finesse to this wine. 97/100
More pictures from the road in Oregon. Yesterday I had another full day of visits, and I was joined by Elaine Brown and her daughter Rachel, who did some filming. While it’s nice driving around on your own, it’s also great to have company. All the visits, once again, were quite special. Lots of new discoveries, and some great people. A range of styles of wine, in some part reflecting the personalities of the people who make them, but also reflecting the different places. Now I am sitting in Portland Airport on the way home via Dallas. Laters.
Dan, winemaker at Johan
The brilliant Maggie Harrison, Antica Terra
Skin contact Pinot Gris, Johan
Dag, owner of the fab Johan
Ken Pahlow, super-talented winemaker/owner at Walter Scott
Ken and Erica, Walter Scott
Clare Carver, half of the super-nice Big Table Farm team
David Paige, Adelsheim’s talented winemaker
Big Table Farm
Brian Marcy, Big Table Farm
David Autrey, Westry
I’m in the middle of a packed itinerary of visiting Oregon wine producers. I didn’t decide who I was going to see but left it in the hands of the Oregon Wine Board. This way, I get a lot of surprises. They have done a great job in matching me with producers whose approach and wine style I will appreciate, and I have made some great discoveries. But I don’t have time to blog about the first day and a half just now, in any sort of detail. That will have to wait until the journey home. So for now, some pictures will have to do.
Marcus and Gaironn at Matello
Steve Lutz at Lenne
Janie and Jessica at Brooks
David Moore, Omero
Chad Stock, Omero
James Frey, Trisaetum
Jay Somers, J Christopher
Steve Goff, Colene Clemens
Josh Bergstrom, Bergstrom
So, following on from the previous posts, what did I learn from the grand seminar?
Josh Raynolds revealed a curious fact. Back in the 1920s and earlier, people used to kiss with their eyes open. Since the age of movies, apparently, this has changed: people began emulate screen stars, who were hamming it up (in their ecstasy they closed their eyes when they kissed) and so now everyone kisses with closed eyes. This fact has ruined kissing for me, and now I will be in doubt every time: should I open my eyes or close them?
It’s a bit like this with tasting notes, now I have taken part in this seminar. I am in self-doubt about the adequacy of my notes on wine. Do they accurately reflect my perception? Do they communicate effectively to others? If, say, I gave you six glasses of red wine and my tasting notes on each, could you pair them successfully?
I think I am going to begin to try to emphasize more global properties of wine, using figurative language. The wine is a whole, and I want to capture that. Of my colleagues, I think Victoria Moore already does this well. I’m going to shy away from the shopping-list of ingredients/reductionist descriptions that can so often fail to capture wine meaningfully. I want to be more creative. I want to be less lazy: I worry that when I’m faced with a Sauvignon or a Pinot, for example, I just pluck out a subset of the limited number of words I have for each of these varieties, rather than interrogate the glass more accurately.
This self-doubt initially made me feel a bit down about writing tasting notes at all. But then a description by Frank Stitt of the wine he’d brought to share really opened up the wine for me. As he described it, I began interrogating my glass, and began to see some of the elements he was describing that I wouldn’t have otherwise picked out. ‘Wine needs words,’ said Hugh Johnson, memorably. And Hugh is right. Words open up and enrich the experience of wine. Language changes perception, and one of the best things a novice drinker can do is to develop a vocabulary for wine.
Elaine Brown’s drawings have also made me consider non-verbal ways of sharing perceptions and capturing the essence of a wine. I’m not sure I can draw wines, but maybe I should try? Words can get in the way. This raises the question of synaesthetic descriptions of wine, but that is a story for another day.
Josh Raynolds, Frank Stitt, Pascaline Lepeltier, Elaine Brown, Jamie Goode, Hall Newbegin, Steven Shapin and Jordi Ballester
I love this picture. It’s a group photo of our panel at the IPNC Grand Seminar, which we did twice, on Friday and Saturday mornings. We were discussing how we perceive wine, and then communicate this perception in words. Because I was moderating I didn’t take any notes, but I thought I’d share my impressions.
It was done chat-show style. I had a seat, and the seven guests joined me one by one on the two couches. So we had seven conversations, with each bringing their own unique perspective on this topic. They were all super, because we got to do this twice, we developed quite a bond by the end. And day 2 was a step up from day 1, as you might expect.
First up was Steven Shapin, who is a professor of the history of science at Harvard. The real deal. He has looked at how the way people describe wines has changed over time. The way we now speak about wine is a recent development,and it’s interesting to see how different the language of wine used to be. You can read a paper of his on this topic here. He’s a really cool guy.
Next, the fabulous Elaine Brown explained her unique approach to wine communication. One of the things she does is draw tasting notes of wine, and it was really good to hear about an approach to communication perception that avoids words. We experience a wine as a perception and then it’s easy for the words to get in the way of communicating this experience to others. This is her website.
Josh Raynolds was the third guest. He’s the assistant editor for International Wine Cellar, and rates 7000 wines a year for the publication. How does he describe wine? He has to be quite analytical, and can’t get away with flowery descriptions. Josh also described how much the wine world has changed since he started working in this field in the mid-1980s.
Then Frank Stitt, who is a chef and restaurateur from Birmingham Alabama. He owns four restaurants and is unusual for a chef in that he’s a wine person, and oversees the wine program. Frank talked about the importance of sourcing wines and getting to know the producers in the same way that he has relationships with his food suppliers. It’s a very integrated approach where the wine and food are brought together.
Pascaline Lepeltier is a recent MS who is wine director at Rouge Tomate in New York, a busy Michelin-starred restaurant. She has put together a 1200 strong wine list with a strong emphasis on organic, biodynamic and natural wines. She described how she has very little time to read the customer, understand what they want, and then make suggestions. The most important part of her job, she says, is to listen. It was really interesting hearing the sort of language for describing wine that a top sommelier uses with their guests, and also the sorts of terms that she finds her guests using to describe what they are looking for.
Back to academia for our next guest,the brilliant Jordi Ballester from the University of Burgundy in Gijon. He studies the cognitive aspects of wine tasting, and has recently published on the way we use the term minerality (everyone seems to mean something different by it, so we should be more specific). Jordi described a brilliant game he plays with his students. They face each other with several glasses of wine each. They have the same wines, but in a different order and numbered differently. The aim of the game is to match the wines from their descriptions of them. We discussed the way that we describe wine in words, which is a really interesting subject.
Finally, something very different. Hall Newbegin is a wilderness perfumer from California, and his company is called Juniper Ridge. He goes out into nature and selects botanicals that he the uses to produce natural scents with a sense of place, using traditional extraction techniques. Hall talked about our sense of smell and how we need to develop it – to learn to smell properly. And he’s just getting into wine, which with his advanced understanding of smelling is a very interesting journey.
Later, I’ll report on how taking part in this seminar has crystallized my thinking on the language of wine, and how I am going to try to change the way I talk about wine in response.
I’m just preparing for this morning’s session at the International Pinot Noir Conference here in McMinnvilla, Oregon. I have to moderate the grand seminar, which will be repeated again tomorrow, with 400 delegates in each session. Our topic, on the perception of wine and the way we use language to describe it, is potentially quite academic. So the first rule is we shall not bore the audience. With eight speakers and 90 minutes, it’s going to be a tight event, which should help us all focus.
So by way of preparation, I thought I’d compose a blog post. It gathers the mind.
As we taste a wine together, is it a common experience for all of us? The unspoken assumption on the part of the wine trade, sommeliers and wine education bodies is that we do indeed share the same experience. We operate as if the taste of the wine is in the glass; that it is a property of the wine. Is this just a pragmatic assumption, in that it would be difficult for us to operate in any other way (personalized menus in restaurants?), or does it stem from a truly shared experience?
Language is the primary window into the private world of another person’s perception. Of course, we can discern something of another’s inner state by non-verbal cues, but it is language that is the window of perception. This is why the way we speak about wine is so interesting and important.
So we will be looking at the way that we use language to describe wine, and how this use has changed over time, and differs among wine cultures. We will look in different practical contexts: how does a wine critic’s use of language to describe wine differ from that of the sommelier, for example?
Which are the best ways to use language to capture the perception of wine? Should be be using reductionist approaches, breaking wine down into its component parts, or should we aim for more holistic, global language that captures the wine as a whole? Is figurative language better than literal?
To what extent is our common language of wine a learned code? Does wine education give us a vocabulary that we then apply to wine, with a poor correspondence to reality? Should we be looking for new ways to describe wine – fresh approaches with greater correspondence to what is in the glass?
What are the cognitive approaches that we use when we try to describe our experience of wine? And do experts and novices do it in a different way?
Finally, how can we do it better?
On a related subject, see this article on whether wine flavour is an objective property.
I’m in an airport. It’s a place where you are bombarded by marketing messages. It’s made me think about wine marketing.
Spirit producers tend to do a lot more marketing than wine producers. It’s not the fault of wine producers: it’s just that the world of spirits is a much more branded space than that of wine.
Wine is different. Most people coming into the wine world from that of spirits or beer must shake their head in amazement. Then they set about fixing the mess that is wine marketing. Then they give up, because sooner or later they realize just how different wine is.
First of all, it’s not manufactured. It’s utterly dependent for its quality on the quality of starting product, grapes. Of course, the ingredients have to be good quality for spirits, but they don’t have anything like the impact that grape quality does. And we have the fact that wine can only be made once a year, and the quality changes every year. It’s not manufactured and it’s not scaleable.
The scale of wine production is important. Putting it simply, the bigger the producer, the harder it is to make top quality wine. [We can discuss this further.] And most wine is production driven: people make it, then they try to sell it. In a world of over-supply, they often sell it at very little profit.
What we have ended up with is a massively fragmented wine market with many thousands of players. This leads to infinite substitution in the market place: if you lose your place on a supermarket shelf, there are plenty more wines in the queue. And wine is a low margin product, despite the attempts of many retailers (for example, Laithwaites, Naked Wines, and increasingly Majestic) to operate on a high margin model.
There’s also the almost deliberate confusion of soft brands in the retail space. These are wines bottled to look like branded product but with labels and names made up by the retailer or wholesaler. These began for restaurants: the on-trade (with the exception of high-end restaurants) want to hide their mark-ups, so they insist on exclusivity, hence restaurant-only labels. Now retailers are moving more in the direction of soft brands for their trade drivers: wines with a made-up label that are bought for the same price as a £5 retail wine but which are listed at £8 or £10 with a view to promotional deep discounting.
The most profitable wine business in the UK, Laithwaites, has built their business on soft brands and high-margins. This has allowed them to spend lots of money on customer acquisition and marketing. Naked Wines have a similar business model: soft brands, high margin, and discount-driven sales that are not eating into this margin too much. And Majestic seem to be moving in the high margin direction, where a large portion of their range is on promotion at any one point in time: buy at the regular price and they look a bit expensive, but buy on promotion and their pricing is attractive. The thing is, when you buy on promotion, the supplier is forced to take a hit, which works very well for the retailer. Tesco’s model also seems to be going in a high margin direction. Their range is increasingly dominated by private label wines, which takes one margin out of the equation and prevents any price comparison. The Tesco Finest range all seem to be a pound or two more expensive than they should be: as with other high-margin retailers, they hope their smart buying and winemaking/blending input means that they can get away with the mark-ups. As with some other supermarkets, they run periodic 25% off deals across their range, so margins need to be decent to accommodate this (and for branded products, the brand owners will take a hit during these promotions).
All these retailers work on the basis of revolving promotions and infinite substitution. They are getting customers hooked on the deal, and not the specific brands. There are relatively few wine brands with much traction, because brand owners don’t have the money to promote and market their brands to normal people in the way that spirit brand owners do.
The interesting development is the rise of the discounters, Aldi and Lidl. Rather than go down the high margin/soft brand route, they are low margin, and don’t do price promotion. Aldi’s range is compact but well sourced, and if you taste their wines alongside similarly priced products from major supermarkets, then there’s little contest. They are paying quite a bit more for similarly priced wines. And this September, Lidl is set to roll out a major wine offering, at very keen prices.
When it comes to marketing, wine really is different, and I can’t see this changing soon. It will continue to be a confusing, bewildering, complex, annoying and utterly wonderful category!
So, Noval has done another ‘eccentric’ declaration, this time of the 2012, and it’s quite early, too. Christian Seely announced the declaration on his blog, earlier this month. His logic – if the Port is good enough, it will be a Vintage declaration, even if it means that selection results in smaller volumes being released. Just 1000 cases were bottled. Also, it’s worth noting that it’s not just about wine quality. Christian also takes into account whether or not the wine is in the style of Noval Vintage Port. This seems very sensible. So, the Port itself: it’s pretty good. Certainly worthy of a declaration.
Quinta do Noval Vintage Port 2012 Douro, Portugal
19.5% alcohol. Vivid aromatic nose of pure black cherry and blackberry fruit, with lovely purity and some floral overtones. Quite classic. Concentrated, dark palate with ripe spicy black fruits and notes of chocolate, plums, cedar, olive and tar. Great purity of fruit and nice density. Should age beautifully in a linear direction. 94/100
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Bruce Palling’s article on natural wine has been the subject of a lot of debate over the last week or so.
I’ve read it twice. Three times if you count the abbreviated version that appeared in the New Statesman. He writes well, and he makes some valid points. But…
The ‘but’ is because I think he’s actually wrong. He’s wrong because of his perspective. From where he’s standing, it’s all rather alarming.
Concerning natural wine, he states:
Its not exactly true to say people don’t talk about it, but there is a tendency amongst serious wine writers to try and keep their head down for a quiet life and never actually articulate how much of it they believe to be undrinkable rubbish.
Palling loves classic fine wines. He mentions a number of them fondly. But he’s distressed when he goes to restaurants whose wine lists are predominantly natural. He feels he is being forced to drink wines that he doesn’t like. From the Palling perspective, natural wine is cultish, and is a fad. Its time is passing, and soon we’ll all be returning to the old classics, that we know and love.
From my perspective, as a wine journalist, I see natural wine in a very different light. Forget the discussions about the term ‘natural’, because that’s a sideshow. This new wave of natural wines is a vital, dynamic stream of fine wine that is really exciting, and which connects with a lot of punters. Go to RAW or the Real Wine Fair, and you see people engaging with wine.
Among wine journalists, natural wine divides them into two groups. There are the more traditional, who – like Palling – are distressed by natural wines and (usually without having tasted all that many) trot out the mantra that they are all faulty and that the emperor is naked. They find it personally upsetting that people can enjoy wines that they don’t, and they seem to regard themselves as the defenders of taste in the realm of fine wine.
Then there are those who have an open mind; who are curious about new flavours; and who actually bother to spend time with these wines and the people who make them. You don’t have to be a true believer to like natural wines; nor do you have to dismiss non-natural wines if you are to enjoy those that are naturally made. After all, who decides what is ‘fine wine’?
The natural wine movement has been good for all wine, I reckon. As I said recently, it’s important that it doesn’t become a closed-off niche, and that there’s some open-mindedness on all sides. Because some natural wines are truly great, in my opinion, and to ignore these because our palates are afraid of new flavours seems a bit sad.
In short, Palling’s perspective is that of an older drinker who hasn’t got the energy or inclination to go beyond his flavour comfort zone. I’m sure he’s not, but in this slightly smug article he comes across as a bit of a snob. It’s a shame, but it’s not going to stop the dynamic natural wine movement in its tracks, or spoil the fun of younger drinkers who are having a good time exploring these wines.
I do like Frappato. It’s a grape variety that yields beautifully fresh, floral, lighter-style reds, even in the warm climate of Sicily. This is a truly seductive, floral example.
Centonze Frappato 2013 Sicily, Italy
13% alcohol. Sweet, supple, floral nose of red cherries and rose petals. On the palate this shows supple, sweet fruit with red cherries and plums. It’s quite light-bodied, but generously flavoured, with a slightly grainy structure. Fresh, supple, pretty and delicious. 91/100 (£13.50 Haynes Hanson & Clark)
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