Wednesday, 15 April 2009
More fool him, I thought. How is he going to know what they are like, or what a fair price would be? He had an answer to that: he would wait to see Robert Parker’s scores. I have to admit I rubbed my eyes when I read that. So the London wine trade, pretty much the creators of claret, hands over its independence to the …….. I’d better not go on. Thank goodness only one merchant said that. I’m not sure how many did turn up in Bordeaux, but I gather it was a pretty full house Anyway, much more important, the wines are lovely and the price is considerably lower than last year.
In justification of the hissy-fitters, it must be said that in 2007 Bordeaux charged far too much for an indifferent vintage. There is apparently an awful lot of stock hanging around. The First Growth prices were seriously speculative.
This week I was delighted to hear that Château Latour was the first to announce its price for 2008 (usually it’s one of the last) at over 40% less than the 2007 – a straightforward acknowledgement that its clientele of bankers and suchlike have had a glimpse of ruin. I went to Latour to taste: 2008 is absolutely for me: deep, firm, very ripe and wonderfully austere, linear, structured, classic – the sort of wine that will last 30 years. I wasn’t so keen on the second wine, Les Forts, which was uncharacteristically plump, as though overdosed with Merlot. But the third, the Château’s Pauillac, was every Pauillac-lover’s dream.
My judgement of what I tasted (which was fairly restricted; not the great circuit which is the fashion these days) was overwhelmingly positive. The summer may have been mediocre, but spring last year got the wines off to a flying start. The grapes spent much longer than usual hanging on the vines slowly building up their flavours. By October they were in the beautiful state of balance between sugars and acid, and flavoursome compounds, that makes good Bordeaux the world’s greatest drink with food. This year my name is down for buckets of it.
Thursday, 5 February 2009
The answer is upwards, and on to pastures new. We’ve always enjoyed teasing wine club members to taste their way into the unknown. Where did you first taste Australia, Chile, Bulgaria, many parts of Italy and Spain (and France, come to that)? If your memory goes back far enough, the answer is here. My excited return from Australia in 1974 with the first cases of Grange Hermitage to see these shores is ancient history now. Is it possible, after decades of discoveries, to coin new wines that cap the old? If I had doubts they disappeared last Friday.
So what did we taste?
To start with, dazzling whites that blow away the problem of Sauvignon surfeit. Aromatic freshness, zing and follow-through without images of cats and stinging nettles. First a complete novelty from Hungary, a new grape called Zenith, dancingly light, then scenting your palate with something more subtle than Sauvignon. Then a new creation to make Pinot Grigio look out of date; a blend not only of three grapes (of which P.G. is one) but of two countries, Collio in Italy and over the border Slovenia. Brussels, bless it, will only allow a border-breaker like this to be called (put on your stuffy voice) a blend of products of more than one member country of the European Union. Do I get arrested if I call it terrific, with fruit and pizzazz enough for three countries?
We are not losing identities here; we are creating them. Puglia, the heel of Italy, is only supposed to do white wine as the base for vermouth. Our friends at Farnese Vini, on the Adriatic, know that we like the honeyed warmth of southern whites, the sort that feel half- (or perhaps a quarter-) way to solid ripe fruit, but without sweetness. This is the first blend of Puglian Chardonnay (yes, it works there too) with the local champion Verdeca. Another seducer.
Grillo is a white grape that spurns blending, one of the secrets of the emergent Sicily. Young winemakers are capturing fresh-grape crunchiness that used to boil away even in these high-altitude Sicilian vineyards. You don’t expect scouring sharpness here in mid-Med; you hope for softness on the palate with a distinct outline, profile, well-cut shape in your mouth. Fresh Grillo does this, fills and satisfies your palate and lingers aromatically.
And for those seduced by Kiwi Sauvignon with its faintly sexual pheromones (‘armpit’ puts some people off – but it turns others dangerously on) Clare, our linchpin in Bordeaux, has conjured a saucy rendering of the south-western Gros Manseng, unblended, from the celebrated Cave de Plaimont in d’Artagnan country.
It goes on and on. Jean-Marc, our not-at-all tame French winemaker, is a seasoned rule-stretcher. He was almost deflated when French law changed last year to allow you to blend Vins de Pays from more than one region – more the rule than the exception in Australia. He calls his first essay, matching Colombard from Gascony with Sauvignon Blanc from the Midi, La Belle Saison. Unpretentious? Oui. Aromatic, delicately penetrating? You bet.
But remember, you need to know how to do things properly before you throw convention out of the window. To excel within the old Rules is, or can be, even more satisfying. You take a slightly jaded appellation controlée, Saumur for example, and select the devil out of it. Helen ferrets around in the deep stone caves, among tanks and barrels of pure Chenin Blanc, twitching her nostrils for an example that sums it all up. Inevitably it’s a limited-yield gem from a single performing vineyard. Les Carrielles is exactly that: pure, fresh, sharp, stunning.
If this first flight of wines was meant to give Sauvignon Blanc a break, the next brought it back to pole position. S.B.s from Jean-Claude Mas in the Languedoc (stingingly lively, with less flesh than a Kiwi but more zing), from Pierre Degroote in the same region (gunflint and pears, a look-alike to Sancerre), from Tony Jordan in Western Australia and even from the luxurious St Supéry in the Napa Valley. There is no mistaking the Margaret River: more stylish wines are hard to find. To find a Sauvignon / Semillon blend like this, all milky purity, grassy and creamy at the same time, for under a tenner is, frankly, what we’re all about. And the Napa Valley? For Sauvignon? Forget grass and nettles. Think golden pears and vanilla custard. Under a tenner, too.
Our tasting went to New Zealand for a deliciously soft, rose-petally Gewurz from our old (and now highly distinguished) friend Jane Hunter O.B.E. (for wine-making). It stopped in Germany for the sort of feather weight Riesling only the Moselle (and especially the Kesselstatt estate) can pull off. To my utter delight (and amazement) it even went to Andalucia. I’ve been a not-at-all secret sherry drinker all my life. There is a flavour and a satisfaction, a really sharpening of the palate and rumbling of the tummy, that sherry brings on more than any other wine.
You don’t want the strength of fortified wine? Not compulsory. Helen McEvoy has prevailed on the famous house of Domecq to make us a table wine in the style of a bone-dry fino. I can’t imagine anything more redolent of the Andalucian seaside and the prawns I shall drink it with. It will be my wine for smoked salmon, even oysters - and come to that with cold ham and anything else savoury and salty. The secret is umami, the Japanese element of flavour that can only be described as savoury – and that the palomino grape somehow conjures out of the chalky vineyards of Jerez. Being a table wine, and only 14% alcohol, no more (and probably less) than a big Chardonnay, it will arrive on our tables in a few month’s time. At an incredible £7.49.
That was the white wine session – or part of it. The reds were, if anything, even more exciting, and of course more varied, as red wines are. There is a much wider palette of good dark-skinned grape varieties than green and golden ones.
We started with a startling novelty: a sparkling red burgundy, something I’ve never seen before. Discussion followed. What’s it for? Someone thought charcuterie. Jambon persillé perhaps. Fizz and tannins together (though not too much tannin) seem made for fat meat. Meanwhile we had finished our glasses - something tasters should never do.
We bounced on from Barbera d’Asti to a supertuscan, I Pini from Paolo Masi in Chianti. From the Southern Rhône, with the fabulous vintage of 2007, to a 2005 Chinon, from Pomerol to the first generic red Bordeaux (the 2005) produced by Tony Laithwaite’s new négociant enterprise on the Dordogne, Le Grand Chai at Castillon. If the other wines are up to this standard (and the wines I’ve seen certainly are) the price of truly classic Bordeaux is going to stay extremely competitive. £9.99 for mature classic St Emilion?
We tasted a knock-out Fronsac, Château Richelieu, Pauillac from the very top address, a new breed of Cahors, Malbec drawing inspiration from Argentina. We tasted Roussillon as good as it gets, Corbières ditto (nostalgic stuff, this, taking us back to the beginning of the Club, but how much better now). Then Châteauneuf du Pape, Domaine de Nalys in the super-vintage of 2007.
From Spain we tasted Jean-Marc’s first Rioja vintage and a Carinena chosen by King Carlos; from Portugal Cristiano van Zeller’s new Quinta de Roriz from the Douro; from the Adelaide Hills a remarkably delicate Pinot Noir … and another from Central Otago that I reckon will cause a stampede.
Then we tasted Australia’s first, as far as we know, only Aglianico, from our old mate Bill Calabria. Aglianico makes Elba’s sweet red wines. Bill makes it aromatic and dry. Two Napa Cabernets put the Valley’s two warring camps, which for brevity I’ll call the sweet and the dry, head to head. I’ll leave you to guess which I preferred: its name is St Supéry Edward’s Block. We’ll let you know when it arrives.
No, we didn’t leave out Argentina or Chile or Barossa. I thought almost all the samples rated in what Robert Parker would call the 90s. There’s a lot to look forward to.
And finally, before Andresen’s 40 year old tawny port (you imagine!) we tasted something I’ve never seen before, and nor should you have, as apparently its illegal, even between consenting adults, until an expected change in E.U. law. Sweet botrytis Kiwi Sauvignon Blanc from Marlborough. The best use yet, in my view, for those outrageously tasty grapes.
There’s no rest at HQ these days. Wine glasses at the ready please!
Monday, 8 December 2008
Routine in recent years has meant spending more money every time: notching up the claret to a cru classé, the champagne to a luxury cuvée, the Chablis to a Premier Cru and the port to vintage. I’ve loved every minute.
Must plan B, Siege Christmas, be a miserable hairshirt exercise, I ask myself. Far from it, I’ve concluded. Follow intelligent value instead of splurging, revert to a few old customs we all thought we’d grown out of. It’s a plan.
Mulled wine is one of the best economies, I find, because no one else realizes that’s what you’re doing. A couple of steaming glasses is enough for most people; you know they loved it because they ask for the recipe – and the cost is minimal. The secret? Not second-rate wine, but lots of sugar and spice and quite a lot of water. It should be heady rather than strong. My recipe uses almost a teacup of caster sugar dissolved in two or even three of boiling water to every bottle of red wine. I am lavish with orange juice and orange peel, cloves and cinnamon. I add a coffee cup of brandy per bottle to the first batch and water down successive batches progressively. Piping hot is the secret – and my wrinkle: to keep a bottle of Grand Marnier handy. The best gin and tonic has a fine layer of gin on top: the best mulled wine the slightest slick of Grand Marnier.
That was cheaper than a champagne party. My other wholly authentic Christmas champagne saver is sherry. Forgetting for the moment what is the cheapest and most versatile fine wine in the world these days, consider what warms the cockles, tastes like Dickens, sips impeccably with smoked salmon and nuts and cheery bites, not to mention oysters and shrimps. Yes, dry sherry. Either the pale/fragile fino/manzanilla version or the more manly, deep winter amontillado/dry oloroso model. My choice this Christmas, in fact, is a wine with the virtues of both, a Manzanilla Olorosa from the Lustau Almacenista Collection at £11.49 – a conversation-piece in itself. Spring the bottle fresh from the fridge, use small glasses, repeatedly, and Christmas is well away.
There are people who will simply ask for white wine and expect one of the usual suspects; either a glass of Sauvignon Blanc that tastes, frankly, a bit too garden-fresh for a winter’s day, or a Chardonnay with more weight but probably less cheeky life. Originality is a virtue here: an unexpected aromatic glass, fresh but quite punchy, is not a bad formula. Two suggestions: we have a new creation, a 2008 Riesling-Viognier blend from Clare in South Australia at £8.99, or my own candidate in the Christmas list, Royal Tokaji Dry Furmint 2006. Dry Furmint is something new. People who taste it often think Viognier, but its crisp sprightly aromas (they go bang on the mid-palate and last and last) are unique to the amazing Furmint grape. We have a few bottles left at £10.29.
People who ask for red at Christmas expect a robust round mouthful with a bit of grip. Where to start? My investigation of what I call the New Old World (ie well-learnt modern wine-making on classic European soils) keeps finding plums in the Languedoc. Some of the best comes from the unique limestone massif right on the Languedoc coast, La Clape. It seduced Eric Fabre, who was leaving Château Lafite after his years as technical director and looking for a new challenge. Chateau d’Anglès ‘Terroir’ 2005 takes the big three grapes of the south, Grenache, Syrah and Carignan, and reveals flavours that add up to something more: the modern ideal of richness in balance, polished and layered for £12.99. Call if you’re interested.
And you’ll need port. Everyone loves our ancient Andresen Colheitas. Even more Christmassy to my mind, though, is the silky softness of a 20 year tawny, a confection of raisins and old oak like nothing else you can buy. The Andresen version is £25.
Tuesday, 4 November 2008
A member confided in me the other day that they consider this the most important of all their tastings: the opportunity to share impressions with the greatest gathering of informed palates to be found anywhere. It wasn’t just flattery. 750 professionals of the British wine trade, their traditional and still their best customers, turn up. They are carefully vetted, they come on time and they work hard. They are faced, across the long tables, with the proprietors or at least the managers of all the chateaux. Frank discussions take place about quality and price, about the style and relative merits, the durability and prospects, short term and long term, of the vintage. This is the cockpit for some intense exchanges.
The good news is that 2006 is a lovely vintage for the sort of Bordeaux most people really want, not for investment but for enjoyment. 2005 was so perfect, obviously a great classic for long maturing, that whatever came in its wake was bound to suffer by comparison. But for those who love fresh, brisk claret to help them digest their meals (its first function, surely) 2006 is gong to be pretty much a model. Some of the lighter wines were already tempting to swallow then and there.
I spent a good share of my time tasting the wines of Pessac-Léognan, the best part of the Graves. I needed a refresher: I am helping with a new book on the region. It is the only part of Bordeaux with both red and white wines of top quality, in several cases from the same chateaux. The whites, Sauvignon and Semillon grapes mixed in differing proportions, always make me think how simplistic, however striking, the big-flavoured Sauvignons of the New World tend to be. Why don’t they add the gentle texture and breadth of Semillon too? When they do (as some Kiwis are learning) it can work beautifully.
It sounds too obvious, I always think, to describe the reds of the Graves as gravelly. Too auto-suggestive by half. But texture plays a big part in their special style; a sort of grainy mattness as against the high gloss and brilliance of the Médoc. Merlot is dominant in most of them, but gravel-grown it has a different effect from its Pomerol persona. Mature it can recall warm bricks and honey. Do you want to drink that? With a rib of beef there is nothing better.
2006 is a vintage that lets the terroir show. Pauillac sassy and vital; St Estèphe sharper and more earthy, St Julien smoother with rounded corners … The biggest differences show, of course, between chateaux rather than between communes, but district style gives a framework to help understand what’s going on. I am fond of the rustic edge of the wines of Listrac and Moulis in the middle of the Médoc, just as I am of the yeoman wines of Fronsac. They stand apart from the glossed, bevelled, suave and elegant productions of the famous classed growths, as starred-restaurant cooking with carefully-reduced sauces does from a country meal.
Everyone in the Paul Hamlyn Hall knows the hierarchy, and helps its practitioners define their places in it. Generally, prices reflect differences in quality and style with practised precision. It’s a long game, already centuries old – and fascinating to see it being played at Test Match level.
Wednesday, 15 October 2008
A bunch of us had a working breakfast today, though, that reminded me how very un-blasé, how clear-eyed and mustard-keen, professional wine-sleuths can (and must) be. Time: 9.00am. Place: the Wolseley Brasserie (but this was exceptional; more typical would be a room at Theale with car park view or at best the Buffet Gare of a sleepy French station).
Topic: wines to pep us all up without overwhelming the credit card at the start of next year, when we celebrate Tony Laithwaite’s first 40 years of selling wine. Fresh after 40 years? That’s the point. The wine business is a sort of worldwide student body with individuals making their own discoveries, getting excited about them and passing on the buzz, all the time.
So: watch out for passionate advocacy. Anne wants you to share the new Southern Italian delights she has just found, Abi has cracked the Sonoma Coast, Thomas can’t contain his glee over this cache of treasure from high in the Andes and Helen’s secret smile tells me her new Rioja from Carlos Bujanda is going to be another bestseller.
The drill is that our buyers take soundings among contacts here. They look at lists, trail though samples and taste everything on offer. Then they high-tail it to their area of responsibility, anywhere from Chile to Champagne. They spend a furious few days eliminating all but a dozen or so strong contenders for the list, then whiz home to sell them to their peers. The argument has to be convincing, and the wine conclusive. It all makes for a noisy breakfast.
Friday, 10 October 2008
Once a year or so we organize a fine wine dinner at Le Manoir aux Quat’ Saisons, Raymond Blanc’s resort hotel just south of Oxford. There is always a waiting list: Blanc and his chefs perform as utter professionals, impeccably, ingenuously, unpredictably – and our cellar-master is no slouch. We take the wines from the deepest, coolest corners of Château Theale and try some impeccable, ingenious, unpredictable match-making.
Here is the menu of our September dinner. Gary Jones was the chef, and the sommelier Arnaud Goubet.
Dagueneau Pouilly Fume Blanc 2005
Cornish crab, mango puree; grapefruit jelly & Foie Gras; ginger bread, Yuzu
Domaine G. Thomas Meursault Premier Cru Blagny 2006
Risotto of wild mushrooms, truffle cream
Domaine de la Vougeraie Nuits St Georges Premier Cru Les Damodes 2001
Skate with bacon and red wine sauce
Monteillet Fortis Cote Rotie 2001
Roasted Anjou squab pigeon; coco beans and foie gras sauce, vintage Madeira
Château Margaux 1998
Cheese course (unpasteurised hard cheeses)
Château La Tour Blanche, Sauternes 2004
Routine, given fair weather, is to start with champagne in the private garden of the private room at Le Manoir. In this case a character champagne that was new to me: Renaudin Blanc de Blancs 2002, very evidently oak-fermented, oddly savoury, even salty. The manzanilla of champagne, I thought – and rather enjoyed it.
Didier Dagueneau was the prophet of Pouilly. It is very sad to report that he died three weeks after this dinner, piloting his light plane in the Dordogne. He looked the prophet, profusely hairy and bearded, and held almost religious views about his extraordinary Sauvignon Blancs. His aim was Pouilly Fumé as rich as possible in flavour and texture but as light as possible in power and weight. Every good producer of Pouilly and Sancerre respects his example, above all in low yields – even if few truly follow it.
The object this evening was to demonstrate the versatility of Sauvignon Blanc, partnering it with the lightest of fluffy crab meat, then the richness of foie gras. The first was a lovely marriage, helped along by the flavours of mango and grapefruit, two tastes you could easily associate with the wine as well. I was less sure about the second: fat foie gras makes anything less than a boldly sweet wine retreat into its inner dryness. Besides, one wine over two courses is usually more interesting in theory than in practice. A second one of Didier’s creations would have given us a clearer idea of his genius,
It would never have occurred to me to partner a young white burgundy with a rich dark mushroom risotto. Raymond Blanc and Gary Jones knew better. This was comfort food after the nibbled luxury of the first courses; warm mouthfuls of damp truffly forest-floor flavour. The brilliance of Blagny came in utter contrast: clean fresh draughts with a lemon bite and enough body to accompany fat food, Blagny, high in the Meursault slopes below the crowning woodland, is one of my favourite burgundy addresses.
More rich dark food with the skate in a sauce of bacon and red wine; a lighter texture and a different sort of savoury tang. The idea of a tannic Nuits St Georges to clear the palate and ‘elevate’ (as a true burgundian would say) the salty fish and bacon was inspired. Les Damodes is one of the best vineyards of Nuits, 2001 is a vintage now opening up its perfumes, Domaine de laVougeraie is a consistently excellent performer. All the elements were there: savoury richness, palate-clearing bite, salt, sweet and a touch of sharpness. The result? Even keener appetite for the course to follow.
In an ideal menu one course sets up, as it were, a question for the next to answer – and the wines do the same. The skate was tangy, the Nuits crisp with a bite. So here comes fat yielding pigeon and soft deep-fruity Côte Rôtie. Very fat, the pigeon, and sauced with foie gras and Madeira to make it sumptuous. The Monteillet family’s Côte Rôtie was new to me; for some reason I rarely buy this fashionable appellation, the Rhône at its most claret like. I corrected that when I tasted this 2001: my order went in the next morning.
All this, of course, was a mere roll of drums. The Château Margaux was still on the sideboard. I could see Arnaud, the sommelier, giving the gleaming ruby of its decanter an amorous stroke. It is asking a lot, even of a First Growth of a good vintage, to keep it as the main event after such a comprehensive warm up. Hard unpasteurised cheeses were to be its simple accompaniment.
Is it the anticipation that gives great wines their impact, like the soprano’s first aria? It always takes me a few sips and a silent pause, my nose deep in the glass, to focus and find the measure of the highest quality. Description involving currants and tobacco and tar and strawberries are rubbish when you meet the sheer rightness of great claret reaching maturity – or in this case not yet reaching it (10 years is no time at all for Château Margaux in a firmly-structured tannic vintage like 1998). It flowed across the tongue like that Chinese silk they used to call Shantung, sheen and grain combined. It filled the nose, the mouth and the throat for minutes between sips. It did all the wonderful things wine promises; far more than you could anticipate in advance.
Dessert, however perfect, is never, at least to me, more than refreshment after the heights of savoury pleasure. Of course Le Manoir’s Croustade is as good as they come. Of course the 2004 La Tour Blanche is a fine Sauternes brimming with youth. If I was nursing the last glass of Margaux it was just that I can’t bear such good things to come to an end.
Tuesday, 19 August 2008
I went over last week to taste the wines in their warehouse, half from different parts of Bordeaux, half from up-country, the rocky hills of Roussillon or even from Spain. The new concept is to have a central collecting, maturing and bottling warehouse for wines created by our wine makers. This was the first group assessment, to see what was working best, and what was missing, in a range of wines we will all be seeing in the months to come.
I was specially pleased to taste a line-up of what in the past was a négociant’s main standby: wines selected as typical of Bordeaux’s best-known communes. We worked down a line of the historic names: Pauillac, Margaux, Pessac-Léognan, St Emilion, Pomerol.
In the old days these were blends of small lots surplus to châteaux’s requirements. Le Chai au Quai has taken a different approach, working with hand-picked estates and bottling their wines unblended, with all their character intact, under the name of the appellation they represent. Selling us half their crop in barrel benefits their cash flow and gives us the chance to mature, finish and bottle the wine precisely as we like it.
Certainly I have rarely seen a set of generic wines so convincingly encapsulate the tastes and smells, the mouthfeel and liveliness, that makes Pauillac and Pomerol, Margaux and Pessac-Léognan legendary names.
Will we ever get back to using barges?