Monday, 26 October 2015

Pushing for Crus in Rioja

“Do you know the taste of Labastida?” asks Telmo Rodriguez. The same question from a Burgundian or a Bordelais about one of their villages would be far easier to answer. Coming from Rodriguez, as he stands amongst the tiny, ancient plots of his Las Beatas vineyards in Rioja Alavesa, it’s rhetorical. His point is that for a region so varied in terroir, in topography, in soils, elevation and orientation (in their few hectares, the vineyards of Las Beatas face half a dozen points of the compass), it’s astonishing how unsophisticated is the popular perception of Rioja. As he puts it, with a note of regret, “We’re happy to be generic.”

From the garden at Remelluri
Rodriguez, who makes wine in nine regions of Spain, from his family estate of Remelluri in Labastida and the ancient vineyards he has revived in the region, to Ribera del Duero, Toro, Galicia and as far south as Malaga, is one of a disparate group of producers becoming increasingly vocal about the limitations of the Rioja DOC. They have different ways of expressing themselves but their point is simple: the official classification of Rioja into the three levels of Crianza, Reserva and Gran Reserva is an instrument too blunt to do justice to the complexity of what is popularly known as “the region of 1000 wines”.

The man who set the whole thing off is Juan Carlos de Lacalle of Artadi, whose Viña el Pisón has the distinction of being one of Spain’s most expensive wines. Indeed, at a little under €500, the 2007 is one of the world’s priciest bottles. Early in 2015 the Rioja press reported he would be leaving the DO. From the 2014 vintage all Artadi wines will be labelled Vino de Mesa, and will not carry the Rioja name or official back label stamp.

“We need different tools to express the thousands of different styles of Rioja,” de Lacalle says. As an illustration of what he’s talking about he takes me to his vineyards on the San Ginés river (a tributary of the Ebro) outside the town of Laguardia. On the eastern bank, west facing, is La Poza, and opposite is Valdegines, looking east. The difference is the orientation and the depth of soil. The winemaker suggests La Poza – warmer, with deeper soils – “is more Mediterranean.” The wines are markedly different, the one with red fruit, the other with riper tannins and a rounder profile. “This is the kind of terroir we want to focus on,” de Lacalle says. “Why should we put it all in the same tank and label it Gran Reserva?”
"Do you know the taste of Labastida?"Telmo Rodriguez
The singularity of Rioja’s classification goes back to the 19th century. Historically, Rioja’s bodegas have been master blenders, sourcing grapes from all over the region, developing a distinctive house style. The classification is geared to wine age: DO regulations state that Crianza wines must spend a year in oak and a year in bottle, Reserva for a year in oak and two years in bottle, Gran Reserva two years in oak and three years in bottle. Village names are not allowed on bottles. No notice is taken of place – for most consumers it is irrelevant that Marques de Murrieta’s Castillo Ygay comes from one of the most famous single vineyards in Rioja Alta. “The system implies that everything starts when the wine is in barrel or bottle. There’s no emphasis on the vineyard,” Murrieta’s owner Vicente Cebrian says.

The land is pushed further into the background by the fact that only a handful of bodegas own their vineyards. Almost all (Murrieta is a rare exception) source their wines from multiple growers, all over Rioja, working very small plots: the average size of vineyard in Rioja Alavesa is one third of a hectare. The concentration on blending, Rodriguez says, means that “we forget the Grands Crus”. Terroir is lost in favour of process.

Las Beatas is a vineyard paradise, with medieval abandoned terraces, and the remains of an 800-year-old stone press hewn into a house-sized rock. For Rodriguez (who studies the old ways, a process he likens to pulling on a rope to bring the past into focus) it is essential to re-discover respect for the land. For most people, he says, Rioja is reduced to a simple duality, traditional and modern, where “Traditional means American oak and modern means French oak. But it’s far more complicated than that.”

"The man who set the whole thing off..." Delacalle of Artadi
The idea of Rioja as homogenous is quickly exploded by a visit to the eastern tip of Rioja Baja, the biggest but least-celebrated of the three sub-regions of this sprawling appellation.

Baja’s main town of Alfaro has the greatest vineyard acreage of any town of Rioja. All the great producers source tonnes of grapes from here. But despite the efforts of the bullish and charismatic Alvaro Palacios (Decanter’s Man of the Year 2015), whose family winery, Palacios Remondo, is in Alfaro, Baja struggles for recognition. There are many reasons for this, the main one being the craze for Tempranillo in the 1980s, which is fine up north but can get overripe if it’s too warm. Palacios is busily regrafting back to Garnacha.

While to the north the valleys are narrow and steep, Baja is more open, flatland leading to humpbacked hills. The soil is stony – in some places it resembles Chateauneuf-du-Pape. It is Mediterranean-influenced, the warmth (and the pudding stones) ideal for Garnacha. Palacios’ dream is to gain recognition for the region. “I don’t want to dedicate my life to the vineyard and in 50 years not know where the wine comes from. The worst thing that has happened in Rioja is that when you taste Viña Real 1954, you don’t know any of the vineyards. It wasn’t the winemaker, it was the vineyard, it was those old vines from a special area.” Palacios was instrumental in getting village designations recognised in Priorat, and he would like to do the same here. “We have to have a pyramid of quality, with country wine at the bottom, then regional, then the villages, then specific plots within the villages.”

Las Beatas: note Roman stone press in fore, ancient terraces at back
The “reformers” are voluble, passionate, dynamic – and inchoate. They agree a quality level should be added to the DO, but they haven’t put together any sort of proposal. Rodriguez believes his terroir among the best in the world but says he doesn’t want to get bogged down in bureaucracy; Palacios reckons change will come, “but not until my grandchildren’s time”. Cebrian is adamant they should “reform the DO but not break it.” Even a bodega as conservative as Marques de Caceres agrees some sort of reform would be welcome. Cristina Forner, its president, sees no reason to leave the DO, though she agrees a way should be found of moving “towards models focussed on quality with future potential.” Caceres has already launched its own “estate” range, Excellens, five wines sourced from high-altitude vineyards with all the emphasis on vine age, reduced yields and limited production.

Others agree that the DO needs to be improved, but are ambivalent about how it should be achieved. At Bodegas Roda, founded in 1987 and one of the most renowned of the Rioja modernists, export manager  Victor Charcán says, “Yes, the classification should include vineyards. Some sites are better than others.” But he adds, Roda is a blending house, so village designations would be irrelevant to them. “Any reform must be handled with great care,” he cautions.

For its part, Rioja’s regulatory body the Consejo Regulador, while often derided for being reactionary, says it is open to suggestions. The problem, general manager José-Luis Lapuente told me, is politics. “They’re talking to the media but they have made no formal application to us. Certain political issues have blocked the debate.” But reforms are being tabled, and “certainly the name of a village on the label could add value.”
Artadi - Valdegines vineyard

Bear in mind we are talking about adding value to one of the world’s most recognised, and loved, wine brands. Rioja sells 400 million bottles a year; eight out of ten bottles opened in Spain are from Rioja. The top bodegas have markets in 120 countries; the UK market alone is worth £220m. With sales like this, it’s not surprising the majority of producers don’t see any need for change.

But it’s happening anyway. Those who know Rioja have long understood the stylistic difference between modern, terroir-driven wines and those that are more traditional and oak-dominant. “What’s really exciting for Rioja lovers is that you now have the choice between traditional and modern,” says Pierre Mansour of the Wine Society.

And people like “geekery”, as Jean-Remi Barris of the independent importer Indigo Wines calls it. “Rioja is not seen on a par with the best appellations because there is not enough geekery for people to sink their teeth into.” The more information you can give a wine lover, the more they will want. “It’s a bit like Champagne. For a long time it was very hard to talk about terroir, but it’s all changing with grower Champagnes.”

Bureaucratic change will neither help nor hinder this thirst for knowledge of terroir. Artadi, Palacios, Rodriguez and other pioneers will carry on as they are, and their village lands will gradually come to the notice of those keen to delve deeper into Rioja. More and more bodegas will follow suit as they see the value such cuvées bring – and more and more of Rioja’s 17,000 growers, like Pedro Balda, who labels himself “viticultor” and produces 1200 bottles, will release fascinating artisanal wines.

“My family have been "cosecheros" (growers) in San Vicente for six generations,” Balda told me in an email. “We know there are lots of terroirs that produce a huge range of wines and qualities. So, in the same village, there are many different things you can find.”

For Recommendations to go with this article go to to

This article first appeared in Decanter magazine September 2015

Tuesday, 20 October 2015

The Hosemaster of Wine – misfiring muckspreader or lord of misrule?

They used to say of Evelyn Waugh that he wrote like an angel but had a foul personality, and of his son Auberon, that his pen was scurrilous but he was an awfully nice man. It makes me think of Ron Washam. I’ve met him a couple of times and he seems a thoroughly decent chap – and about as aggressive as a basket of sleeping kittens.

Ron Washam
Vituperative? Ron Washam, aka the Hosemaster of Wine
Not so his alter ego, the Hosemaster of Wine (an inspired moniker), who sprays all and sundry with his vituperative wit. No one is exempt. He’s laid into Jancis Robinson more than once. Her Wine Grapes magnum opus was subject to one of his notorious “blind reviews” (he was piqued, he said, that his review copy went astray). A sample sentence (difficult to choose just one) – “the book is massive. It’s seven pounds. Seven pounds of DNA. Sounds like a party at Silvio Berlusconi’s house” – encapsulates the Hosemaster’s ribald tone.

His cheery insolence teeters nerve-wrackingly on the edge of malevolent spleen – and you have to have a robust sense of humour to withstand the barbs when they come at you. Jancis seems to have one (she’s written about him), but I don’t know about Georg Riedel, who caused Tim Atkin, who hosts the HM on his site, to issue the following apology:  “On my website, I failed to explain clearly enough that the article was a piece of satirical writing and, as a result, I caused offence to Georg Riedel” and so on and so forth. Atkin would be well advised to post trigger warnings in future.

The Riedel satire is a magnificent piece of sustained mockery, in which an imaginary Georg ponders the infinite gullibity of the wine drinking public and how much he can make out of it. “It’s a comic effect, really,” Ron has him say. “How far can we take this mania for worrying about which glass to drink our wine from? Like a great comedian, I understood that there was no limit. I simply had to deliver them with a straight face.” You have to know the Riedel family to really appreciate the delicious comedy of imagining a top-hatted Georg on stage pulling goldfish out of some kid’s ear.

Robinson and Riedel are big fish (not to mix metaphors), and are quite able to look after themselves. But some of Ron’s targets are pretty soft. His latest diatribe against wine junkets fails on the simple level that it’s not particularly sharp. Mocking wine hacks on freebies makes taking pot shots at barn doors look challenging. Of course, I work for Wine Searcher (which gets a drubbing) but that’s not the point.

Frank muck-spreading on the farm.
Not all of it splattering the right people...
The Hosemaster might occasionally resemble a misfiring muckspreader – a great wave of slurry and not all of it splattering the right people - but that’s neither here nor there. As Oscar Wilde said, the only relevant criterion for a novel is whether it is well or badly written – morality doesn’t come into it. Satire is no different – it should both shock and amuse, and if it doesn’t do these things, then it’s redundant.

I never read the HM nowadays because he's just too rich a mixture. I find one column so concentrated that it takes me weeks to digest, so a trawl through the archives has been a treat. Here he is on wine accessories, “And why isn’t there a colonoscope you can attach to a helmet, like a miner, that helps you read a new Matt Kramer book?”. And on wine clichés: “Now, in every stunningly stupid profile of a sommelier I read, which is every profile of a sommelier I read, they are said to “curate” a wine list.”

Now isn’t that just right? I used to write sommelier profiles, and believe me, they are difficult to make interesting. Great satire should shock and amuse, but it must also contain the tiniest grain of truth. The wine world would be a poorer place without the Hosemaster and his ribaldry. We need  people to throw snowballs at the toffs in top hats.

Read the Hosemaster's column on

Friday, 9 October 2015

Sonoma's Verité takes on the cultiest of Napa cults

This article was first published without tasting notes on

There was a compelling new angle to the launch of Jackson Family Wines’ Verité 2012 at the Dorchester in London’s Mayfair this week: a comparative tasting against three of Napa’s mosh cultish of cult wines.

Verité fruit is sourced from its Alexander Valley vineyards
The tasting featured the three imminent new releases plus a non-blind look at the 2005 Verité La Joie alongside the same vintage of Harlan, Scarecrow and Screaming Eagle.

It’s been fascinating to watch the trajectory of the Sonoma wine over the last few years, how it has steadily grown in confidence, and how its creator Pierre Seillan has gradually positioned it as the thinking wine lover’s California cult.
Pitting the wine against the greats is nothing new: last year JFW showed it alongside Lafite 2001, Mouton 2004, Grange 2007, Ornellaia 2004 and other icons. It performed very well.

The fact that CEO Barbara Banke and her team have chosen wines of such rarety and – in the case of Screaming Eagle, which retails in London for over £2,500 - fabulous expense, is perfect evidence of the ground they wish to occupy. Nick Bevan, the company’s senior vice-president, spelled it out. “We’re aiming for that territory,” he said. “We’re not aiming at Grange, or Opus – we’re far smaller and we’re beyond them now. We want to be a global cult wine.”

The finest of the three
The story of Verité has been told many times: how Jess Jackson asked Seillan if it would be possible to make a California Merlot as good as Petrus, and how Seillan replied “Pourquoi pas?” and produced the first Verité in 1998, a wine still spoken of in hushed tones by the Sonoma team. Verité is lauded in the US, where Robert Parker has handed down eight perfect 100-point scores over the years. In the UK they have been accepted, said Greg Sherwood of London’s Handford Wines. “People are no longer questioning the quality of the Verité wines but finally delving into the terroir and vintage conditions that created these wines”.

There are now three Verité wines, based on the three great Bordeaux grapes, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Cabernet Franc. According to Jackson’s – and Seillan’s – vision, each wine aims to evoke a different Bordeaux commune. The Merlot-based La Muse is inspired by Pomerol; Cabernet Franc-centric Le Désir is a St.-Emilion follower, while the Cabernet Sauvignon-based La Joie takes Pauillac as its benchmark.

But comparisons with Bordeaux are little used now; these are Sonoma wines. Monique Seillan, who speaks for her husband and comes every year to London with Banke to show the new vintage, is passionate when she describes the variety of the terroirs they source from: Alexander Valley, Bennett Valley, Chalk Hill and Knights Valley. “Everything we plant is mountain land,” she says. “There are 32 different types of soil, which is more than most of Bordeaux combined.”

High-altitude Sonoma, with its dozens of orientations and complex soils, can produce wines of great sophistication. And in 2012, they were blessed with a winning vintage, it appears. Banke herself adores the vintage. “It’s like coming back to California after [the cool and difficult] 2011. “It was wonderful on every level. There was heat, but not too much, the acidity and the tannic structure are perfect. Sonoma 2012 is like Bordeaux 2005.” However, she insists on keeping the prices stable. “I want people to drink these wines,” she says.

Sense of humour? Scarecrow
The three wines are closely related by terroir and by winemaker, yet distinct. Panel moderator Patrick Schmitt MW noted the tannins were a distinguishing feature. “[They] got finer as we moved through the flight, from the big tannins in La Muse, which is Merlot dominant, to the high but tight-grained character of the Cabernet-led La Joie, and finally, the extremely fine chalky nature of the tannins in Le Désir, which is predominantly Cabernet Franc.”

The second flight, featuring La Joie 2005 and the three Napa wines, was designed to show how Sonoma could be the equal of its celebrated neighbour. “It just doesn’t have Napa’s reputation,” Bevan said. “But you’re going to see exciting things coming out of Sonoma.”

As well they might. Schmitt (the only non-partisan member of a panel consisting of Banke, her daughter Julia Jackson, Bevan, JFW's in-house master sommelier Dimitri Mesnard and marketing director Gayle Bartscherer) and the majority of the audience (by a show of hands) agreed that in terms of power and finesse, brightness of fruit, evolution and balance, La Joie 2005 is not only equal but in some ways superior to the Napa wines. Some mentioned that it was in the Napa wines they had noted the alcohol for the first time. One person suggested the Screaming Eagle was “one-dimensional compared to the Joie”. Finally – and this was a fact not lost on an audience mainly made up of wine retailers from around Europe – it should be noted that for every bottle of Screaming Eagle 2005 you can buy 10 bottles of La Joie.

The three Verité wines will be available in the US, Europe and Asia at around $450 a bottle by the end of November.

Verité La Muse, Sonoma County 2012
Merlot (85%), Cabernet Franc (11%) and Malbec
Sweet early-summer blackberry nose with iodine, minerality, spice, leather, violet perfume, dark chocolate. Seductive and coltishly young, on palate depth of briar, freshly-roasted coffee beans with cocoa powder. Sour cherry, violet, black fruit juice, very fresh ripe powdery tannins. The lovely gauche elegance of youth

Verité La Joie, Sonoma County 2012
Cabernet Sauvignon (76%), Merlot (12%), Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot
High tobacco notes on nose, then fresh young blackcurrant with leaf. Toasty sweet roast coffee and cocoa. Lovely tight-grained texture to the sweet and juicy tannins. Round and voluptuous, mouthfilling acidity with ripe small damson giving waterfalls of juice, exuberant, unrestrained, with a length that goes on forever.

Verité Le Désir, Sonoma County 2012
Cabernet Franc (64%) Merlot (24%), Cabernet Sauvignon, and Petit Verdot
Dusty sweet nose with hay, lovely quality of freshness and presence – this is the most precise of the wines, mouthcoating fine chalky tannin and fresh ripe plum and sweet black cherry fruit, very dark earthy chocolate, perfumed, notes of truffley forest floor, exotic spice. Both opulent and elegant, and utterly delicious. The finest of the three

Verité La Joie, Sonoma County 2005
Cabernet Sauvignon (67%), Merlot (12%), Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot and Malbec
Bright ruby hue. Wonderful nose brimming with character, dark fruit, cassis hidden, sweet oak, cedar, snapped nettle stem. Palate dancing with fruit and sweet tannin, acidity releasing juice, flavours of coffee with some zest of orange, dry tannins lifted by juice, superb structure and mouthwatering length, beautifully balanced.

Harlan Estate, Napa Valley 2005
Bordeaux blend
Dark red with purple rim. Lovely cedary deep old nose, restrained though very elegant with hints of rot and truffle. High earthy violet perfume, coffee, black fruit, beautifully silky tannins, mouthwatering juice, brooding and full-bodied but superb finesse. Very evolved, almost reaching peak.

Scarecrow, Rutherford 2005
100% Cabernet Sauvignon
Exotic but 1D?: Screaming Eagle
Very sweet stink of iodine and river mud, crushed violets, eucalyptus of an almost Barossan pungency, very big, the alcohol noticeably hot but well integrated considering its port-like heft. Opulent blackberry and blueberry, very concentrated, tannins fine and suave but unrelieved by juice. Grand, tending to the monolithic, short on humour or charm

Screaming Eagle, Napa Valley 2005
Cabernet Sauvignon (98%) and Cabernet Franc
Rich dark fruit, black cherry and blackberry, and medicinal flavours, smoky coffee, exotic perfume, tar and cigar tube; tannins dry but releasing generous juice; lovely grainy texture, fine persistent finish

Friday, 3 July 2015

"Are we making money on Bulgaria? Probably not": the ever-optimistic Simon Berry of Berry Bros & Rudd

This article first appeared in Meininger's Wine Business International

It’s fitting that Simon Berry, the chairman of this august company, should have sent his staff on a training course in communication at RADA, the equally-august Royal Academy for the Dramatic Arts, where Berry sits on the board. There is a strong sense of theatre in many British wine companies, and Berry Bros and Rudd is no exception.

Widow Bourne's Coffee Scales at Berry Brothers & Rudd
No 3, St James's St (note the Widow Bourne's coffee scales)...
The shop at No 3 St James’s St, Piccadilly, which Berry’s has occupied since 1698, has a Dickensian charm that would not be out of place on a film set. Entering the headquarters is pleasantly disorienting. The highly-polished floor, worn and burnished with the feet of three and a half centuries, creaks like old ship timbers, and a warm smell wafts up from the cellars. The wine world loves Berry’s, because of its history, because of its quintessential Englishness, and because in its upstairs rooms it throws excellent dinners with fabulous wines. When Steven Spurrier ran a 30th-anniversary edition of the Paris Tasting, Berry’s naturally hosted it.

St James’s St is the shop front, as it were. The real business goes on in Basingstoke, 50 miles away, in an unlovely warehouse in a utilitarian business park. This is where Simon Berry, 7th-generation chairman, works from a featureless office looking out onto a car park. It’s almost indecently modest. But such is the potency of this extraordinary company, even in Basingstoke history seeps through the plasterwork. It’s helped by the lithographs of the BBR founding fathers on the walls; in conversation Berry constantly refers to them.

But great age, in a company, is no guarantee of longevity. BBR would not be where it is today were it not run by businessmen. It would not be the consistent winner of prestigious awards, and it certainly wouldn’t be turning over £150m a year. There’s little fusty or old fashioned about BBR. It was the first wine merchant into Heathrow, running four shops in four terminals before axing them all in 2006. It launched its first website (under the auspices of Martin Brown, who went on to start Wine Searcher) in 1994, before BBC Online and Amazon. BBR was an early adopter of the online trading platform model, and BBX, launched in 2010, has sold £60m of wine in 75,000 transactions. Its education division ran 370 events last year, while the wholesale division grew nine percent. Berry was responsible for many of these developments, particularly the ground-breaking website, and all took place on his watch: he has been with the company in various directorial roles for 30 years, the last ten as chairman.

...and Basingstoke

BBR are also publishers, selling 10,000 copies of Jasper Morris’s Burgundy (they came out with an i-pad version while many publishers were still working out what to do with the new technology). And they are brewers, owning 40 per cent of Anchor Brewing in San Francisco. There have been confident and far-sighted acquisitions. In 2003 they snapped up the importer FieldsMorris and Verdin (netting Vega Sicilia, Au Bon Climat and Ridge at the same time); four years later came Mistral Wines (Château de Beaucastel, Perrin et Fils…); in 2012 they bought Bordeaux importer and negociant Richards Walford.  There are two royal warrants; Edward VII was a loyal customer – the liquor The King’s Ginger was mixed especially for him in 1903. There are offices in Hong Kong, Singapore and Japan. Berry Bros and Rudd would seem to be as solid as a rock.

The London Shop

Which made the rash of headlines that surfaced two years ago all the more shocking. “Berry Bros posts £7.3m loss” said the Daily Telegraph in October 2103. Then, a year later, the Grocer reported BBR was ‘upbeat’ despite its second pre-tax loss, this time of £5.5m. Then there was local difficulty in China that has resulted in an ongoing lawsuit. BBR is not commenting on any of the court cases it is or has been involved in, but the reports in the Hong Kong press make lurid reading. The Apple Daily (Hong’s Kong’s biggest-selling newspaper, akin to the UK’s Daily Mail), for example, reported that St James’s street had been mortgaged – a rumour Berry dismisses with a wave of his hand. Then there are rumours of arrests and misappropriation of databases. The claustrophobic Hong Kong wine world likes to gossip and the idea that Berry’s was “in trouble” took hold.

“People I knew who were BBR clients were coming to me and asking me if it was true, were their wines safe?” one Hong Kong merchant told Meininger's. BBR stores millions of pounds of wine for its customers. Its enormous warehouses (capacity 9m bottles) are stacked floor to ceiling with palettes of the finest wines of the last 200 years, from Haut-Brion to Screaming Eagle. Two-thirds of BBR clients keep reserve stock here. To doubt such a company is almost an offence against the natural order.

The basic facts of the case are that BBR is involved in litigation with its Chinese collaborator of 14 years, ChinaPlus Wines, owned by the businessman KK Mui. ChinaPlus ran the Hong Kong division of BBR under a ‘marketing and distribution agreement’, with veteran Bordeaux buyer Simon Staples in charge and KK Mui as chairman. The dispute, about the exact nature of the agreement, is dragging on and could last another few years yet, Berry says. “The Chinese are good at prolonging these things.”

But the headlines  and the fog of rumour in Hong Kong can’t have been helpful. “What went wrong was that there were some fundamental differences in attitude and expectation. They were cultural differences on both sides,” is all the diplomatic Berry will say.

All this is happening at the end of a five-year development plan that has shaken things up across the BBR empire. The programme includes an extensive re-shuffle of senior staff both in London and Asia, notably with Hugh Sturges leaving after 12 years as managing director and Staples moving from Hong Kong to Japan. A new warehouse was built in 2012 in Basingstoke, St James’s St is being extended. Then there’s Anchor Brewing, the company being brought for its distribution channels, to sell BBR’s “core boutique spirits” like No3 Gin and Pink Pigeon rum, as well as to tap into the vibrant craft beer market.
Simon Berry, 7th generation chairman

The plan was kicked off in 2010 with the selling of Cutty Sark whisky to the Edrington Group, swapping it for Edrington’s Glenrothes whisky brand. On the surface it looked like an odd deal: Cutty Sark sales in 2010 were £60m, generating profit of £5m, while Glenrothes sales were £3m. The rationale behind the sale, Berry says, was that Cutty Sark was up against brands such as Pernod Ricard’s Ballantine’s and Diageo’s J&B, and Berry didn’t want to compete in that arena. “Glenrothes gave us the ability to do something pretty good and niche and have a head start.”

Since the purchase of Glenrothes, its sales have tripled to £9m a year. But just as Cutty Sark was sold, the bottom dropped out of the Bordeaux market. BBR sold £60m of Bordeaux 2010 en primeur, but the 2011, and all subsequent vintages brought in a fraction of that. It must have been quite a hit. How are they filling the hole?

“Good question. It only leaves a hole if you don’t think of en primeur as being a windfall,” Berry explains. BBR never relied on en primeur. The huge sales of 2009 and 2010 were “the icing on the cake,” he says.

In the warehouse at Basingstoke
But, he also admits, “we didn’t think there would be three years when en primeur would be non-existent.” This has pushed back forecasts: the company now expects to hit profitability in 2017. “We are feeling very optimistic because we are very aware of the brand. And getting more focussed on who we want to be.”

Berry points to one of his ancestors on the wall. “That man there, Charles Walter Berry, said the job of the wine merchant is to be the closest link between the people who make the wine and the people who drink it. We still believe that our job is to go out and find wine.”

There are 4,000 lines in the wine division. Bordeaux, Rhone, Burgundy and Italy are deeply and widely represented, and there are the expected offerings from Lebanon (Musar), California (Dominus, Colgin, Ridge and their peers). The Spanish list is excitingly dense; there are wines from Jura, China, Bulgaria, Moldova.

BBR keeps eight Masters of Wine on the staff, including Martin Hudson, apparently known as “our Captain Kirk”, whose brief is to boldly explore the final frontier of wine – his are the Eastern European offerings. This again is quite in keeping: BBR was the first to permanently stock a mainland Chinese wine, the 2008 Chateau Changyu Moser XV from Ningxia. They nurture talent: Alvaro Palacios, Benjamin Leroux, Giovanni Rosso among others, have all been championed by the firm.

“Tracking the wine regions of the future is a minor but crucial part of increasing customer choice,” Berry says. But aren’t they spreading themselves thin already – Bulgarian wines can’t bring in much? “Are we making money on Bulgaria? Probably not, but that’s the advantage of being a family company. We don’t have shareholders to answer to and we don’t have to go about saying the only thing we have to do is make money.”

But there is tacit acknowledgement that a new focus has to be found. When asked what that might be, Berry lists the strengths of the company: “Education is incredibly strong; gifting – the same bottle of wine looks very different in a Tesco’s bag than a BBR bag; wine and spirits; wholesale and retail, the website, brokerage.”

The longer the list, the more difficult it is to pin down the USP. Perhaps it’s Berry himself, whose relentless optimism and old-fashioned charm  inform the company. He likes to take the long view, which you can do if you’re not answerable to shareholders. The Japan office, for example: “There are people who say you can’t make money in Japan, but it’s an incredibly sophisticated market. It sells more Burgundy than Bordeaux for example. As a family business we have the luxury of saying, ‘this is a market that takes a long time. How much do we have to change to make it work?’ There is a fit there somewhere.”

He could well go by the motto, “We shall find the key.” BBR can seem over-ambitious – building four outposts in Heathrow for example – but it's dynamic and interesting, full of surprises. And drama of course. Behind that elegant shop front there’s some pretty serious activity going on. The world would be a poorer place without Berry Bros and Rudd.

Wednesday, 1 July 2015

Bordeaux 2005 Ten Years On

Robert Parker has just published his "10 years on" scores for Bordeaux 2005. Having loved it at en primeur, his in-bottle scores in 2008 were disappointing and - according to Miles Davis of Wine Asset Managers - caused "bewilderment" in the wine trade for his "continued belief that the wines from the Medoc in 2005 are not in any way special."

You can read Davis' full report here and below, my report from the Bordeaux Index Ten Years On tasting in February this year.

Highly lauded 2005 Bordeaux stands the test of time

(This article was first published on

The 2005 vintage in Bordeaux was superlative in so many ways. The weather was a winemaker’s dream: a benign spring gave way to a hot — but not too hot — summer, with hardly any rain. What fell, fell at the right time. That led into an autumn so deliciously mellow that vignerons could amble into the vineyards and pick perfectly ripe grapes whenever they chose. The grapes were small, intensely flavored and with thick skins.

Last month, a decade past that dream season, the 2005s shone at the “Ten Years On” tasting at the London wine merchant Bordeaux Index.

From the first tastings in spring 2006, everyone loved it. Consider what they said then:

Robert Parker, the formidable founder of The Wine Advocate and its influential 100-point wine rating system, thought it “brilliant … one of the most singular years of the past five decades.” The British heavyweights – wine critic and journalist Jancis Robinson, MW, and Decanter magazine consultant editor Steven Spurrier – were bowled over. Simon Staples, the epicurean Bordeaux director for London-based wine merchant Berry Bros and Rudd, said he was “speechless.”

“It was a truly extraordinary year,” veteran Bordeaux wine merchant Bill Blatch said in the reporthe publishes after every vintage. “Easy to manage, without complications, and the almost permanently fine weather ended up by providing a wine of most unusual concentration.”
Now, as then, 2005 was a very good year

In January, at the Ten Years On tasting, I found that the 2005s were simply delightful, with succulent, rich, seductive fruit, and acidity that dances on your tongue. The wines are pure, but complex. A cornucopia of blackberry, cassis and red fruit is tempered with minerality and spiciness, then high notes of parma violet and florality.

There are some clumsy wines — the Merlot in Saint-Émilion was very ripe, with high alcohol and big tannins — and some wines have developed an oaky dryness that won’t sweeten. But they are few and far between.It’s as much a pleasure to describe them as taste them. Every wine of note is underpinned by powerful tannins that give it a structure that will ensure long aging — in some cases, for decades.

Unless you’re very unlucky, if you pick a 2005 off the shelf, you’re unlikely to be disappointed.
A pricey caveat

The only fly in the ointment is price. Bordeaux knew it had something good, and the first generation of Asian millionaires were beginning to get a taste for fine wine, very expensive­ fine wine. The 2005 was the first Bordeaux vintage that launched its wines into the stratosphere of luxury goods. The top wines are very expensive. At the very top, Petrus is more than $4,000 a bottle, and the dozen top properties — Lafite, Mouton and their fellow first growths, then Cheval Blanc, Ausone and a few others — are never less than $1,500.

But that needn’t concern us. The joy of a really wonderful vintage is its consistency.

There’s an old saying: “In a great vintage, search out the lesser estates, and in a lesser vintage go for the great estates.” It’s never been truer than in 2005. You don’t need to spend three months’ wages on the great chateaux. At every level, from $30 Cru Bourgeois to the humbler Medoc fifth growths, there are some beautiful wines to be found.

If I had to choose one region in a vintage studded with gems, I’d say the wines of the little Médoc commune of Saint-Julien are most consistently lovely. Below are my top picks from 2005, for the priciest and for the best value from Bordeaux:
Two top-10 lists from Bordeaux 2005

Prices are the average per bottle, excluding tax. All wines are available widely at retail.

Top 10, Money No Object

1. Château Petrus, Pomerol, $4,986

Château Petrus 2005 is only for the deep of pocket at nearly $5,000 a bottle. Credit: Adam Lechmere

Discreet smoky nose leading to powerful blackberry, black cherry and minty, spicy tar on the palate. Dry length releasing fresh gouts of juice. Drink 2020-2040+

2. Château Lafite Rothschild, 1st Growth, Pauillac, $1,461

The bright, lifted blackcurrant and blackberry fruit is sweet and fresh, the tannins ripe, the acidity mouthwatering, the whole complex, charming, assured. A triumph. Drink 2020 to 2040+

3. Petit Mouton, Pauillac $233

Plum skin aroma, then palate has multiple strands of juiciness through the tannins, intense and vibrant sour mash plum. Minerality and power. Drink 2018 to 2030+

4. Château Pontet Canet, 5th Growth, Pauillac, $188

Sweet and savory, bacon with plum skins, very fresh and open, discreet powerful tannins. Linear, classic, confident. Drink 2018 to 2040+

5. Château Grand-Puy-Lacoste, 5th Growth, Pauillac, $135

Savory nose with minerality, pencil lead, very linear and precise, very fresh, essence of blackberry and damson, fine sophisticated length. Drink 2018 to 2035+

6. Château Léoville Las Cases, 2nd Growth, Saint-Julien, $397

Fresh, savory, bacony nose, tannins holding blackberry, cassis and coffee flavors in an iron grip; restrained, fruit releases juice, fills the palate. Very fine. Drink 2018 to 2040+

7. Château Palmer, 3rd Growth, Margaux, $383

Very dark in hue and viscous. Discreet perfumed violet nose, incredibly subtle but exotic, lovely weight, constant interplay of dryness, juice, tannins and acidity. Drink 2017 to 2040+

8. Château La Lagune, 3rd Growth, Ludon, $102

Lovely complex savory nose, bramble and truffle, crushed coffee beans, superb opulent sweetness. Palate fresh and perfumed with secondary flavors of dusty rose petals and elegant decay. Tannins dry and dissolving to juice. Drink 2017 to 2035+

9. Château-Figeac, Saint-Émilion 1er Grand Cru Classé, $172

Restrained sour black fruit, fresh-picked plum and hints of sloe. Closed, brooding and tannic. A keeper. Drink 2020 to 2040+

10. Château Calon-Segur, 3rd Growth, Saint-Estèphe, $123

Nose very restrained, closed, palate with (at first) dry, austere tannins. Then classic briar fruit, tannins become silky. Very pure, arrow-straight acidity shows how this will mature. Masterful finesse. Drink 2018 to 2040+

Top 10 best value

1. Château Poujeaux, Cru Bourgeois, Moulis, $53

Violet perfume and sweet briar. On the palate damson and cedar, sour plum with cloves. Mouthwatering acidity, soft length. Drink 2015 to 2025+

2. Château du Tertre, 5th Growth, Margaux, $79

Sweet sugared damson and plum with perfume on nose. Palate very open and fresh with lovely tobacco and truffle, tannins releasing great gouts of juice. Drink 2015 to 2025+

3. Les Pagodes de Cos, Saint-Estèphe, $62

Château Cos d’Estournel. Credit: Credit: Cos d’Estournel

Cos d’Estournel’s second wine is often more restrained than its big brother. Lovely meaty peppery nose, hint of violet perfume on palate with herb, restrained. Drink 2018 to 2040+

4. Château Gloria, Cru Bourgeois, Saint-Julien, $70

Bacon savory nose with hint of old velvet tapestry. Confident, juicy uncomplicated weight, plum and damson fruit , very nice length, good balance. Drink 2015 to 2025+

5. Château Talbot, 4th Growth, Saint-Julien, $79

Rich mineral, savory nose with great charm. Defined blackberry and coffee, discreet, old-fashioned like the chateau itself, tannins dry but dissolving to sweetness. Drink 2015 to 2030

6. Château Les-Ormes-de-Pez, Cru Bourgeois, Saint-Estèphe, $59

Fresh peppery notes on nose – very fine open juicy acid on palate, fresh, uncomplicated. Drink 2015 to 2025+

7. Château Malartic-Lagravière, Cru Classé Pessac-Léognan, $82

Very savory beef-stock nose with ripe plum. Tannins release juice and sour-sweet plum and damson flavors. Fresh, defined, not opulent, but fine. Drink 2015 to 2025+

8. Château Langoa-Barton, 3rd Growth, Saint-Julien, $85

Fresh sugared blackberry, savory mineral undertones, open and fresh with such suave tannins and juice on the finish. Very fine length. Drink 2015 to 2025+

9. Château Potensac, Cru Bourgeois Médoc, $47

Perfumed briar and tobacco nose. Fine, fresh, mouth-watering acidity and bright cassis. Grainy grip to tannins, juicy and opulent. Drink 2015 to 2020+

10. Domaine de Chevalier, Cru Classé Pessac-Léognan, $105

Rich creamy nose, blackberry compote, truffle, licorice. Palate develops fine damson, violet perfume and fresh acidity. Delicate tannins with dry grip. Incredible quality for the price. Drink 2017 to 2030+

Tuesday, 23 June 2015

"Only Ribolla can express the soul of this terroir..." Josko Gravner of Collio

Many winemakers claim they make wine only to please themselves. It implies their craft is an art, unsullied by the grubby realities of the market; quite often, they are speaking nonsense. When Josko Gravner says it, you understand exactly what he means.
Josko Gravner and his daughter Mateja Gravner

Gravner has a formidable reputation both locally and internationally. He took over his father's winery in the Collio region of Friuli, high on the Italian-Slovenian border, some 30 years ago. By his account, he started work in the vineyards when he was 14, and was put in charge of the winery when he was 18. His father's watchword was "Quality 
not quantity … but I was young, and I told him that I was going to find quality and quantity. I can still see him looking at me and saying: 'Try it, and see if you succeed.'"

Read the full article on Wine Searcher

Friday, 29 May 2015

The Valley of the Rhône is a rockin' and a rollin'

This article, with different images, appears in the current issue of Meininger's Wine Business International

Image result for jumpin jack flash jagger singing
Jumpin' Jack Flash... but does Jagger
drink Condrieu?
“I was BORN in crossfire hurriCANE,” Yves Gangloff of Condrieu howled into the microphone as his band kicked off one of the after-parties of the peripatetic wine fair that is Découvertes en Vallée de Rhône. Music is a key part of this extraordinary few days, an odyssey of tastings, discussions, dinners, seminars, masterclasses and “vigneron-rocker” evenings, all in the 250km vinous playground that is the Rhône valley.

Every wine region in entertainment mode has its peculiar character. In the Medoc they go for elaborate marquees and black tie dinners, in Burgundy, confrerie singing and heart-stopping gastronomic marathons for 600 guests. In the Rhône, there’s music, whether rock, rockabilly, or a local brass ensemble parping away in the background. Meininger’s even caught a particularly good jazz combo in a dive bar in Avignon. Gangloff’s band, The Grapeful Dead, consists of Paul Ansellem of Côte-Rôtie’s Dme Georges Vernay, Pierre-Jean Villa of the eponymous northern Rhône domaine, and Gangloff himself on vocals. They played in Ampuis, to a merry crowd quaffing the finest northern Rhônes from magnum.

The Découvertes en Vallée de Rhône started in 2001, inspired by the Grands Jours de Bourgogne tasting that covers that interesting stretch of land from Chablis to Macon. Now in its  eighth edition, it takes in the 70,000ha of Rhône valley vineyards and some 5,500 wine companies, from producers to negociants. This year there 620 exhibitors, and nine separate trade fairs, with 2,175 visitors from 31 countries.

The Palais des Papes: dramatic but draughty
The organisational power behind the four days of the event is Inter Rhône, which must – in this particular journalist’s view – be one of the most proactive and efficient trade organisations in France. Apart from the knowledgeable and helpful staff, in every centre, from Ampuis to Avignon, there was a cache of useful literature. One particular booklet, the Encyclopedia of Rhône Valley Wines, gives a comprehensive overview of the entire AOC and its 171 communes. It is needed: there is nothing more complicated than the hierarchy of a French AOC and its sub-appellations. With an influx of emerging wine-buying regions like mainland China, absolute clarity is vitally important, especially as the Chinese are looking beyond the top, icon crus to more affordable wines. A newly-fledged junior sommelier from Guangzhou may need all the help he or she can get when trying to explain the difference between Vallée du Rhône, Village and Cru.

That said, however, Découvertes is still essentially a parochial event. Seventy-two per cent of visitors are French, with a smattering of Americans (4 per cent) and Asians (about 1 per cent). There are no signs that this demographic is changing, despite the fact that the Rhône’s Chinese market is growing. Overall exports for Rhône Valley wines fell by some five per cent in 2014, but in China there was notable growth for appellations such as Costières de Nîmes and Gigondas. “Rhône is very important for us,” Xi Chen of Bordeaux-based wine merchant Maison Bordelaise told Meininger’s, adding that he had come to Découvertes with a groups of Chinese sommeliers “for enjoyment, not work.”

In his introduction to the Découvertes, Michel Chapoutier, the president of Inter Rhône, says one of its major purposes is to “profoundly experience the Rhône Valley.” It achieves this in two ways. First, and most obvious, is the fact that there is no better way of understanding a wine region than to stand in its vineyards. Delegates, therefore, were taken to the top of Hermitage hill, and given a 360° explanation of the wine region shimmering in bright spring sunshine around them.

Shimmering in the sun...on Hermitage hill
Second, and most important, the tastings themselves. From town sports centres to the magnificent (and draughty) Palais des Papes in Avignon, every available public space was taken over for tastings. One important aspect of these events was their democratic organisation: every producer, whether Jaboulet, Chapoutier or the smallest vigneron-récoltant, was allotted the same space in which to show their wines. “It’s my socialist disposition,” Chapoutier told Meininger’s. “We’re not here to say who is the biggest, but to show the range and quality of all producers.”  This distinguishes the Découvertes from the massive trade fairs that have come to dominate the wine landscape – this year, in the space of a few weeks, producers have to decide between Prowein, VinItaly and Vinexpo – which are profoundly undemocratic in the sense that the biggest companies can afford the most elaborate stands, while the smallest may get overlooked.

“This is much easier than Vinexpo,” vigneron Lionel Faury of St Joseph said, “because it’s specialised. Vinexpo is the market for big volumes and big business, but here you can talk about terroir – it’s for people who are interested in the Rhône.” At a cost of €500 a day for a stand, it’s not that much cheaper than an international fair, but the rewards are potentially greater.
Hermitage terraces...Jaboulet?

From north to south, producers volunteered the same opinions: Découvertes is valuable because it's localised and specialised, and it’s an excellent way of doing business. “My goal was to find a Danish importer,” said Stephane  Montez of Dme du Monteillet in Condrieu, “and the first guy to come by this morning was from Denmark. I have a Swedish importer, so now I just need Finland and Norway.”

Another advantage of the localised format was the opportunity to concentrate on a vintage. The Rhône – in general – escaped the terrible growing conditions the rest of France endured in 2013. Thousands of hectares of Grenache were lost to coullure in the south, but in the north a combination of a cold and wet spring and summer and fine September and October produced wines that are lighter and fresher than usual. But for many consumers and buyers, 2013 in France is a vintage to be treated with caution, so producers welcomed the chance to allow the vintage to show itself. “The most important is 2013,” Joël Durand of Domaine Eric & Joël Durand told Meininger’s. “It’s a very particular vintage, there was bad weather, we harvested two weeks late – it was different. It’s useful to get people to taste it, especially in St Joseph which is suffering from the reputation of the rest of France.”

Découvertes is not all business, though: the many halls and tasting rooms buzzed with conversation and gossip. Many producers told Meininger’s they were there simply to meet existing customers and generally catch up on news. One salient reason for this is the extremely low 2013 harvest. “Our only problem is that we have no wine to sell,” Alain Graillot of Crozes-Hermitage said. “We’re just here to meet a few customers that we know, but not develop new business.”

The 2000-plus journalists, wine merchants and other wine professionals that attend the tastings have the same attitude. Helen Savage, a UK wine writer and educator and Rhône expert, told Meininger’s she has come several times because “it is so valuable for keeping up to date with what’s going on”. Wine merchants were much in evidence: Georges Barbier of the eponymous London merchant has been coming since the beginning and finds the present set up a great improvement, he said. “All the tastings used to be in cellars and there were long queues.” The Barbier family’s prime reason to be there was to “find something new”, his daughter Victoria said, “and we’ve discovered Dme Monteillet already. It’s a great event. We’re here for three days and we’ve found two new wines. It’s got my seal of approval.”

Alongside the tastings was a comprehensive programme of masterclasses and seminars. If the tastings were an unqualified success, the academic side of Découvertes was less so. It’s a criticism frequently directed at such events – it sometimes seems as if masterclasses and seminars are tacked on in order to give the event gravitas and to attract celebrity commentators. While certain events were well organised and stimulating, others had the feeling of being hastily-prepared. This may have been a result of the sheer comprehensivity of the programme – the tiny underground cabaret club Rouge Gorge in Avignon, for example, had been divided in two in order to host 16 different masterclasses over two days, one every hour from 9am to 6pm. It was too much, and several delegates told Meininger’s they found them chaotic.

Other masterclasses were well-prepared and fascinating, particularly the introduction by oenologist Fabien Ozanne on the terroirs of the Côte Rôtie in Ampuis (where there was less pressure, and fewer delegates, than further south). A panel discussion, with Andrew Jefford, Bernard Burtschy and the prolific consultant Philippe Cambie on Trends in Wine, produced some thought-provoking arguments, such as on the origins of the rosé boom, the dangers of following fashions in wine, and the natural wine movement. On the latter, Jefford provoked laughter with his analogy between the use of sulphites and underarm deodorant: “If everyone stopped using deodorant then we would all smell of sweat,” he said. “But that wouldn’t necessarily be a good thing.”
Moins sexy... Inter-Rhone ads not as sure-footed

The Découvertes is, in the end, an exercise in publicity, something Inter Rhône has always been good at. Leaving aside the fatuous ad campaigns (“Plus sexy de CameRhône Diaz” was a low point), the Valley’s trade association is sure-footed. Its campaigns in China have been imaginative, offering prizes for the best way of expressing the colour red through different artistic media, whether painting, fashion or theatre. Their latest wheeze is to get people to make short films and publish them. In all this it consciously tries to attract a younger audience.

Chapoutier sees attracting the young  as essential, and he has announced plans for Rhône Valley winemakers and their American Rhone Ranger counterparts to sponsor the children of smaller wine producers on visits to American and Australian wine schools.

Perhaps not the effect one wants from a foie gras
"We have to make winemaking attractive to a new generation," he said. The children who saw their parents suffering through the global financial crisis need to be shown “how winemaking can be a successful business.”  The Découvertes is an example: anyone visiting could not help but be impressed by the upbeat atmosphere of every hall. Whether teenagers will be as impressed by Yves Gangloff’s version of Jumpin’ Jack  Flash is another story.