Wednesday, 15 April 2009

Bordeaux 2008

In the soft spring light on the plane trees and willows, the Médoc doesn’t seem a place for hissy fits. The British, though, like to show their love for claret by sounding off about the price. One of the biggest London importers said in March that he wasn’t even jolly well going to taste the 2008s unless the proprietors of the châteaux pretty much halved their prices from the year before.

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

Friday's tasting - how was it for you?

“Let’s have a wine-storming session,” said Dan. We do these tasting room get-togethers regularly but the team has new members, and a new leader - that’s Dan Snook – and a new supremo – that’s Simon McMurtrie. It was time for the old hands – that’s Tony Laithwaite and me – to see which way our future drinking is heading.

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!