Saturday, 29 October 2011

A visit to Screaming Eagle


Napa, seven-thirty on a Monday morning in late October and the mist hangs in the valley, a soft white fleece over the vineyards. It sits in pockets over the deep red soil of the tiny Screaming Eagle acreage off the Silverado Trail in Oakville (there’s no ‘winery’ sign, just the number post on the edge of the highway). A little knot of pickers hangs about, an intern or two. They have been picking for some days now, estate manager Armand de Maigret tells me, and the Cabernet is sitting in its bins waiting for the crush. The grapes are small, thick-skinned and sweet, and sparse on the bunches due to the coulure – poor fruit set – that has bedevilled reds and whites alike this year after the heavy rain in June spoilt the flowers. Still, the grapes are delicious. ‘2011 is going to be plumper than Bordeaux,’ de Maigret says. A phenomenal vintage, he adds, but there’s going to be ‘massive selectivity – we’re not taking any chances.’ Of course, as he says later, it doesn’t matter if they have a small vintage. ‘We’re under no financial pressure to increase production’.

Screaming Eagle, after founder Jean Phillips sold her ‘beautiful ranch with my precious little winery’ in 2006, is now wholly owned by Stan Kroenke, who has Arsenal FC in his portfolio, as well as basketball, hockey and American football teams. The vineyards, an almost perfect 50-acre square of Cabernet, Merlot and Cabernet Franc plantings yield between 500 and 800 cases. The smallest recent vintage was the 2005, at 500 cases, the biggest 07 with 800. The first vintage in 1992 was 200. 2011 is going to be small.



There is only one wine. Anything that doesn’t make the grade is poured down the drain, which at first seems rather arrogant, but then you realise that production is so tiny, the rejected wine is only going to be a barrel’s worth.

The release price of Screaming Eagle is $750 a bottle, with allocations strictly three bottles at a time. People tend to drink one, cellar one and sell the third, de Maigret says. The wine quickly finds its level in the secondary market, around £2000 a bottle, with the great 97 fetching anything north of £3000.

It’s the ultimate and first cult wine, but the term’s become a bit old hat. ‘No one calls us a cult any more,’ de Maigret says. ‘We’re a grand cru – a Napa first growth, and that’s it.’

He reckons that a cult wine is one that shows the winemaker’s hand, ‘but here it’s not the winemaker making the wine, it’s the place.’

The soil is rich, deep red volcanic, dotted with sizeable rocks (they call them corestones) that on the top of the hill are pulled out of the ground as big as truck wheels, but down here are more manageable. The vines all have irrigation lines (you very seldom see a pure dry-farmed vineyard in Napa). ‘It’s a kind of insurance,’de Maigret says. ‘Young vines have to be helped, and otherwise we only irrigate in a heatwave.’ Yes, of course there are regions of the world with superb dry-farmed vines, like the Douro, or Lebanon, or the south of France, but they have been there for many years more than these vines, and they are planted less tightly, and they yield far less, de Maigret says. At Jonata, Screaming Eagle’s sister vineyard in the Santa Ynez valley (Pinot, Petit Verdot, Sauvignon Blanc, Sangiovese, from $75-$150 a bottle), they are preparing to dry grow by dripping water in a way that trains the roots to go down in steps, as deep as possible.

Screaming Eagle is the result of forensic attention to detail. They’re not alone in this – plenty of producers will pick in half rows only – but here they take it very, very seriously. ‘The blocks are so small, and variation within them is key,’ de Maigret says. The blocks are picked in up to five different slices. They pick on taste, ‘and we use the refractometer afterward to confirm what we’re tasting.’

Winemaker Nick Gislason comes in. He was at Craggy Range in Marlborough and then Harlan, and looks like a successful indie musician (actually, most winemakers in Napa look like musicians - or Grateful Dead roadies).

The winemaking team consists of Gislason, globetrotting Bordeaux consultant Michel Rolland, who's there twice a year, and Napa veteran David Abreu.

We go into the cellar to taste the 2010s in barrel.

First the Merlot, from a block of riverbed gravel under shallow topsoil. It’s dense, with a lovely blackberry palate, licorice and very fine tannins. Then onto Cabernet. This is the Old B Upper Block. Three and a half acres, three to four different parcels, picked in partial rows. Dense and powerful. ‘This is the top third of 70% of the rows.’

Onto D1 North, Cabernet again, this time less dense with a palpable perfume of sandalwood. Gislason: ‘And people don’t believe in terroir in Napa?’

Then Old H Block Cabernet Franc. There’s only one barrel of this. Beautiful, tannic, rounded, mouthfilling and perfumed with violets.

The three to four acres of Cabernet Franc, which often in Napa can be astringent, is a ‘key component, for its density of tannin and floral aromas.’ There’s about 7% in the blend, and about 4% Merlot. (Later that day I meet Phil Coturri at Oakville Ranch Vineyards, a few hundred meters above where we’re standing now. His Cabernet Franc is lovely as well. ‘We’re on the same soil as Screaming Eagle,’ he says, looking down over the ridge.)

The rest is Cabernet. And what Cabernet. Moving onto the bottled wines: the 2008 has a lovely spearmint-fresh nose, and a deep, fresh blackcurrant palate, with exotic notes of chocolate and licorice. It’s bright, lifted, with earthy, spicy – almost hot –  tannins and a tantalising hint of truffle. It’s very long, with wonderful harmony of fruit, acid and tannin. What more can you say about one of the world’s most renowned and expensive wines? It is delicious, and obviously beautifully made. The 2009 is a dense, very deep colour with a nose of mint and some green, peppery, capsicum aromas. Tannins are more insistent than on the 2008, they are more precise, stronger, and give edge to the fruit. Again, delicious, compelling, with huge charm. It is a very, very good wine, with the exotic, perfumed, herbiness of Napa and the precision and linearity of cooler climate Cabernet.

‘What makes it unique? It doesn’t need to be overly ripe – we’re almost the first to pick reds in the valley. It has natural elegance and balance.

‘There’s no average, but the main elements are the lifted fruit, the perfume, brightness, floral aromas, the good acidity, the femininity. They are never over-powerful. Most of all they’re wines that make you think of food.’

Quite so. I hadn’t had breakfast, and the thought of a glass of the 2009 with a rack of lamb with a succulent sweet layer of sizzling fat pierced with sprigs of rosemary, was compelling.

I never lose my first impression of Napa as an enchanted valley. To stand high on a ridge and look down over its wide green floor carpeted with vineyards, and its rocky oak-covered hillsides, is to imagine what the first settlers must have thought, scrambling up the slopes in their fur hats and leggings, and marvelling at the beauty and fecundity of it all. Screaming Eagle’s a part of that enchantment, and it’s a privilege to be here, just as it is to be at any one of the estates all over the valley and the hills. It’s just that this one’s a sight harder to get invited to. ‘When we get a request we let it sit for a bit and then see if it gets followed up,’ de Maigret said as I got into my car. ‘Then we take another look. We tend to say no to most people. Jay-Z was in touch recently. We turned  him down.’



Thursday, 8 September 2011

What's going to happen to Calon Segur?

St Estephe is agog following the death last week of the chatelaine of Calon Segur, the formidable and irascible Mme Gasqueton. The 3rd growth estate – second only in renown to its neighbours Cos d’Estournel and Montrose - will be sold.
Or so many think. I spoke to a broker who said it was a certainty. He didn’t know much about the family’s tax affairs but was pretty certain any heirs would have to pay death duties on the 50ha estate. Mme Gasqueton leaves one daughter, not involved in the business.
The land, whose vineyards sit on the wonderful gravel mounds of the high northern Medoc, will fetch more than €2m a hectare, so the tax burden could be crippling.
The obvious thing would be to sell the other family estate in St Estephe, the Cru Bourgeois Chateau Capbern-Gasqueton, and pay off the tax on Calon with the proceeds.
Calon is famous for its old-fashioned elegance and restraint; whoever takes on the ancient estate (it’s said to date back to the Romans) will have the opportunity, as one close observer told me, to transform it into one of this tiny appellation’s wonders.
At Phelan Segur, another estate in the process of transforming itself, they are watching with bated breath.
There’s much speculation about who may have pockets deep enough.
Frederic Rouzaud, whose Roederer empire snapped up Pichon Lalande 5 years ago (under comparable circumstances: May Eliane de Lenquesaing, with grown children in other professions, found herself without an heir), and who already owns de Pez and Haut Beausejour across the way, must be emailing his bank manager.
Other candidates: hungry insurance companies like AXA Millesimes (Christian Seely, boss of Pichon Baron, Petit Village, Suiduiraut… emailing ditto), or the French health insurance group MACSF, which shelled out €200m for Chateau Lascombes in July.
Or Francois Pinault, owner of Latour, to stop anyone else getting their hands on it, especially LVMH’s Bernard Arnault (probably not interested, with Cheval Blanc, and Yquem quite enough to worry about). Or Bernard Magrez (not rich enough).
And what about the Chinese, who have been busy acquiring Bordeaux properties over the last 12 months, and whose purchases Jane Anson has been detailing on Decanter.com?
Nothing on the scale of Calon, certainly, but a company like cereals-to-oils giant Cofco, which employs 80,000 people, owns Great Wall and is listed by Fortune magazine as one of the world’s top 500 companies, must be watching. It bought the 20ha Lalande-de-Pomerol estate Chateau Viaud a few months ago...
Then there’s Richard Shen Dongjun, who recently added Chateau Laulan Ducos, a 2ha cru bourgeois in AOC Medoc to his chain of 400 jewellery shops, Tesiro.
Or the luxury goods company Hongkong A&A International, which bought Chateau Richelieu in AOC Fronsac, one of Bordeaux’s oldest estates, in 2009.
That's quite enough billionaires (Ed.)
It probably won’t be a trophy hunter: Calon Segur is an idiosyncratic property, with huge cachet among the cognoscenti but without the heft of a first or a super second. It will be someone who wants to be known as a sophisticate, not a flash harry.
But for all it’s idiosyncracies it’s a brand as bankable as any. Mme Gasqueton did nothing in the way of marketing or pr – the very opposite, in fact, being openly rude to many who don’t normally expect such treatment. ‘She created a myth,’ as one neighbour told me, ‘and that’s another kind of brand-building.’

Friday, 22 July 2011

Restaurant review: The Fox and Grapes, Wimbledon

The Fox and Grapes at Wimbledon is a strange, oddly old-fashioned gastropub.

It used to be a straightforward boozer, doing classic roast beef and all the trimmings Sunday lunches for the Labrador-and-striped shirt set. Then it was taken over by Claude Bosi, who started at Overton Grange near Ludlow and has two Michelin stars at Hibiscus, and now it’s a gastropub. The clientele is still a particular type of overfed man in bright striped shirt, with that kind of swept-back longish hair only the upper classes have. Rather jowly and solidly satisfied, with a thin harassed-looking wife, probably very nice, if orange. There were also lots of dogs around.

So it’s still self-consciously a pub. There’s a bar with taps, and a bloke behind it polishing glasses, but when you go up to the bar someone comes out from a side door and asks if he can help.

The furniture is higgledy-piggledy pub-like, no table cloths, and our table had the authentic greasy-sticky feel, not nice, but probably deliberate, my friend said.

I digress. This is a restaurant run by a garlanded chef, in a prime, the prime, position in some of the most expensive real estate in the world. Greasy tables and dogs notwithstanding, it had better be bloody good.

The wine list is short, unpretentious, imaginative, full of goodies, with prices so reasonable I thought I was still on the by-the-glass page. We had a very workable Pinot Grigio to start, the Bacaro, and the Domaine Isle St Pierre Rhone white, also very decent. Then a bottle of Musar Jeune 2007, a lovely fresh crunchy summer wine, and at under £30 I call that handsome.

I’m so pleased by wine list that I’m not going to complain about the way it was presented (this is where the pub/Michelin’d chef/Wimbledon stripey shirt thing gets itself all in a tizzy), the waitress showing me the bottle with full ceremony, then a sample, then the thumbs up and then she absolutely sloshes it into the glass, practically to the brim, as if she’s the landlord’s daughter in some zinc-topped bar in rural Aragon.

While the wine list is just unpretentious , the menu is studiedly unpretentious. ‘Ploughman’s Platter’,’Patrick’s burger’, ‘English Brown Ale Battered Scottish Hake and Chips, Mushy Peas.’ This is so carefully, almost arrogantly, a homage to every over-rated gastro-makeover in every corner of the country that again you think (fingering the tactile table), this had better be jolly good.

And actually it is. Apart from one of the starters, the Jersey Royal and Summer Nettle Soup with Rabbit Rilette Baguette, which looked like pondwater, and was over-salted, spuds overcooked, nettles giving nothing at all apart from the sludge-green pondiness, and presented on one of those really annoying faux-rustic wooden "platters" that must be a waiter's nightmare, the food was memorable.
My steak (cooked in the very of the moment super-hot Josper oven, as announced) was almost perfect (perfection being a ribeye my younger brother did for me on a barbecue in about 1998, in his back garden in Bath), perfectly rare, just resistant enough to the knife and teeth, lovely flamed flavour. And it sat on a bed of French beans that were so beautifully a point, so absolutely the right temperature, that there and then I relaxed. Anyone can bung a steak in a Josper oven and twiddle about with garnish, but only a Master can cook beans  like that.
 My friend’s Salad of Crispy Pork Belly and Black Pudding was tender, easily forked off the crackling, which itself was poised between crunchy and succulent, the black pudding pungent, dark and agreeably carnal.
Now hands up all those who have been disappointed by summer pudding? If I had to nominate a dish which sums up the early English summer in all its sharp,  tangy-sweet, juicy pregnant ripeness it would be summer pudding. But how often do you order it and find a soggy oversweet mess, or a criminal pallid dry thing with bits of white bread showing through the juice?
Write this down: if there is one reason for making a pilgrimage to the Fox and Grapes, London, SW, between late May and early August, it’s the summer pudding.
I could tell from the start it was a good one. Firm, the white bread soaked in juice but retaining its integrity, just the right size (about as big as an upturned yoghurt pot), the centre packed with fruit, sugared to just the right side of sharpness, not  running with juice but with a lovely dense moistness. Superb. It was like the scene in Ratatouille when the terrifying critic takes his first mouthful and is transported back to his childhood kitchen. This took me back to 1976, Clarks sandals and Aertex shirts.
And it knocked the Eton Mess into a cocked hat, and that wasn’t bad at all.
The coffee was good and hot. The bill? £127 for two. What do you expect from Wimbledon?

foxandgrapeswimbledon.co.uk

Wednesday, 20 July 2011

Bordeaux 2010 report: Fatigue, readjustment, and a missed opportunity

As the Bordeaux 2010 en primeur campaign draws to an end, merchants around the world are emerging into the daylight, dusting themselves down - and finding they have had a more successful 2010 than they had expected.

They are pleasantly surprised. 2010 was quietly – almost sheepishly – hyped as a vintage to rival 2009, and merchants were always doubtful how it would play with clients who had filled their cellars last year.

But they are also frustrated. Traditional customers have baulked at the high prices of the top wines, even as they realise, after two huge vintages, that properties they have bought for years are now permanently beyond their reach.

Some merchants – like Gary Boom at Bordeaux Index – say customers who have been loyal for years ‘are now deserting us in droves’, but others took solace in the fact that 2010 has still been the second-most successful vintage of all time, 2009 being the record-breaking best, 2005 in third place.

Stephen Browett at Farr Vintners, for example, said sales are just above £30m – compared to around £45m this time last year. Most merchants sold about half the volume of compared to 2009, and a bit more than half the value. 

For Farr, it’s not a question of desertion, but readjustment. ‘People are buying the best value wines. We’ve sold loads of Haut Batailley and Grand Puy Lacoste. It’s a simple trade down: those who used to buy first growths are now buying super seconds, those who used to buy Leoville Barton are now buying Grand Puy Lacoste, and so on.’

Most big merchants agree, although William Gardener at Midlands merchant Nickolls and Perks in Stafford, told Decanter.com it was the opposite: it was the lower growths that were ‘thinning out’.

‘We’ve sold a lot more of the key wines and there’s been less uptake at the lower end.’
The reason, Gardener said, was simple. ‘2009 was the vintage of the century so people bought far more than they wanted to. I have clients who normally spend £100,000 who haven’t bought a single case this year.’

In the United States it’s the same story: reduced demand and buyer fatigue.

‘There is a noticeable decrease in demand for 2010s. Maybe it’s hard to believe in another great vintage right after 2009,’ Devin Warner of the Chicago Wine Company said.

But that lack of demand is highly selective. As another Chicago merchant, Ben Nelson of Hart Davis Hart said, ‘we lost out on some sales because we ran out of stock.’

Allocations on the top wines have been tiny. The first growths held back two-thirds of their stock in their first tranches, and Latour was reported to have released between 1,500 and 3000 cases, out of production of around 10,000.

So while merchants have had far less wine to play with – Berry Brothers was allocated 400 cases of Chateau Margaux compared to 1000 of the 2009 – the top wines were easy to sell.
‘I was amazed that we sold 1500 six-bottle cases of Mouton in the first 24 hours,’ Simon Staples at Berrys said. ‘Haut Brion sold far better than I expected.’

The most significant effect of 2010 has been to finally draw a line between the premier league and other wines – and while most properties have judged nicely which division they belong to, others have not.

Highly-regarded properties like St Emilion first growth Cheval Blanc, its near-neighbour Figeac, Rauzan-Segla in Margaux, and Smith-Haut-Lafitte in the Graves caused controversy with their prices.

‘Woeful – lovely wine but it just won’t sell’, was Staples’ verdict on Figeac. Gary Boom said he wasn’t even offering it. 

There is much head-shaking at properties that did not realise that joining the premier league is not simply a case of sticking a €1000 price tag on your wine – ‘you have to take the market with you. It will take years for the market go get used to Smith-Haut-Lafitte at that price,' Staples said.

LVMH-owned Cheval Blanc provoked a veritable storm on Twitter and amongst merchants. One – anonymously – told Decanter.com he thought Cheval’s pricing policy was aimed directly at the Chinese market, ‘and they may well see that they are being fleeced and lose face and turn a very cold shoulder towards Bordeaux.’

Prophetic words indeed. Some days later, Aussino, a major retailer, announced it would not to promote the Medoc Cru Classés on the basis their prices were ‘too dangerous’.

For some merchants, however, it was not prices that slowed things in China this year (although Cheval has done badly), but the allocations.

The first growths, Cos d'Estournel, Lynch Bages, Pontet Canet et al were snapped up. But it could have been a good deal better, if prices had come out quicker and allocations had been bigger.


The campaign was indeed slow, with negociants complaining at the end of May that 100 fewer wines had been released than at the same time the year before. Selling did not start in earnest until 7 June, when Gruaud Larose released, then there were long, dry periods followed by avalanches of releases, in which some properties inevitably got forgotten.

‘It was a missed opportunity,’ Don St Pierre of Shanghai-based importers ASC Fine Wines said. ‘The fact the campaign dragged on so long, the negative publicity about prices, gave some people doubts. Then allocations were small. If we had had decent quantities it had the potential to be a big improvement.’

In the end, Chinese importers are satisfied: the top wines (what merchants call ‘the usual suspects’) the first growths, Lynch Bages, Pontet Canet, Beychevelle, Ducru-Beaucaillou, Grand-Puy-Lacoste did well, the overpriced and the less well-known were stagnant.

‘Far too many wines priced themselves out the game,’ Adam Bilbey at Berry Brothers in Hong Kong told Decanter.com. ‘To name but a few: Lascombes, Smith-Haut-Lafitte, Figeac. There were a lot of wines left in the middle ground that priced themselves too high, thinking they could get away with it like the key chateaux. No-one bought them here.’

The picture that emerges from the three great markets – Europe, the US and China - is one of merchants looking relieved, but slightly peeved. They could have sold more if the prices had been more moderate.

But, as Sylvie Cazes, managing director of Pichon Lalande and president of the Union des Grands Crus said, ‘If they respond to the market, and they sell, then they are the right price.’

Perhaps the last word should go to Will Gardener. ‘Overall we’re pleased. The profits margins are low, but we have sold everything we had. There’s no doubt it’s a great vintage, but it’s bloody hard work.’


This article first appeared on Decanter.com



Friday, 8 July 2011

I nearly searched the Spice Girls' bins among other misdemeanours

In the mid-90s I was working for a news agency that specialised in celebrity gossip which we sold to the red tops - the Sun, NoW, Daily Sport, Daily Star, Matthew Wright at the Mirror and so on. There were about seven full-time staff operating out of a smoke-filled office in the back end of King's Cross. It wasn't salubrious but it was a sizeable, successful operation run by sharp and interesting characters. Paparazzi photography was in its infancy - before digital became widespread, rolls of film would be biked to Snappy Snaps in King's Cross to be developed and the pics would then be couriered on to the papers' picture desks. This was at the height of britpop mania, Noel Gallagher in Downing St, Jarvis Cocker mooning Michael Jackson, many drugs (our office reeked permanently of hash), the egregious Alan McGee at Creation records...

We had a news conference every morning when those who had not produced a minimum seven stories the previous day would be made to feel very small. If you persistently underperformed, your job would be on the line. We would make stories out of nothing. You'd meet someone at a party who'd tell you he knew someone who knew Roland Gift, say, of the Fine Young Cannibals (silent by then for years), who was living in Bath and planning a new album. You'd call that someone who would say next to nothing substantive. The next morning it would be an item at the bottom of The Sun's Bizarre column.

I remember half a dozen of us examining a picture of Justine Frischmann of Elastica (she and Damon Albarn were a couple then), snapped outside a restaurant she was just leaving, with her parents. She was in profile, full length. Was she pregnant? The women in the office were consulted and the pic was duly sent off to the Star. She wasn't pregnant, as it happened, but who cared?

Another time, we heard Tom Cruise had been seen in a supermarket in north London, and one of the lads was dispatched to get a comment. His story quoted one of the checkout girls ('He was lovely, so polite...') and detailed what he'd bought. The owner of the agency happened to visit that supermarket a few days later. He said it was a superstore, with dozens of checkouts. 'There's absolutely no way Paul could have found the one girl who'd served Tom Cruise,' he said. The fact that we'd put out a story that was 99% made up didn't worry him. Quite the opposite - he was full of admiration. 'That boy will go far,' he said.

One morning we had a serious discussion about how to go about purloining the Spice Girls' binbags (we knew their addresses, of course), bringing them back to the office and photographing the contents. There would have been a ready market for it. We'd get a van, do it in the middle of the night. I can't remember why we never carried out the plan, but it wasn't through squeamishness, legal or otherwise.
 
On one of my first days there the editor, a clever, intuitive hack, handed me the telephone number of Richey Edwards' parents and told me to give them a call. Richey was the unstable but brilliant Manic Street Preacher who had disappeared exactly a year before, his car found abandoned by the Severn Bridge. I was told the parents were 'cool' and would be happy to give me a comment on the disappearance of their son.

So I got on the phone. 'Ah. Mrs Edwards? Adam Lechmere here at XXX. I was just wondering, as it's the anniversary of Richey's disappearance, if you had any comment?'

There are a couple of reasons why I didn't stop - even for a second - to think about the enormity of what I was doing. These were the parents of a young man who been missing for a year, presumed dead, but with no solid proof either way. How would they be feeling a year on? Why not give them a bell and ask?

The first reason is that it was my first week in a new job, and I didn't want to rock the boat at that early stage by refusing to do something. One did what one's editor asked. But actually it never occurred to me not to pick up the phone. I did it because I could.

Richey was a celebrity and therefore fair game (just like the Spice Girls and their bins), and by extension, so were his parents, never mind that they were a decent and ordinary couple coping with the grief of losing a child. The anniversary of Richey's disappearance must have been a very difficult time, to say the least. I was a journalist locked in the eternal game of poacher/gamekeeper, hunter/prey. The story was paramount. We used to refer to those not in the game as 'civilians'. Richey's parents would have been unfortunate victims of war. It was not very real.

Not very real, that is, until I had Richey's mother on the end of the phone, quiet, surprised, it wasn't something she wanted to talk about, and what was the name of my organisation again?

This was before universal mobile phones. If it had been a few years later, and one of the many spiv-like characters who hung around the office had turned up with a transcript of Richey Edwards' phone records, I can say without doubt we would have bought them. Ditto any one of a thousand celebs we hounded daily.

What's that quote about stepping over a line, and, once done, you can tread back and forth but you can never unmake that first step?

Friday, 1 July 2011

Palmer, Leoville Barton, Cos and Mouton in three vintages, Roberson Wine, June 30th 2011


Last night we tasted a vertizontal (or hortical?), of Palmer, Leoville Barton, Cos and Mouton from 88, 89 and 90, at the best private wine club in town, Roberson Wine in High St Kensington. Mark Andrew’s tastings are celebrated and attract a classy clientele –you generally meet Jancis Robinson (all the way from NW3), Neal Martin, Julia Harding, Michael Broadbent, and of course Roberson customers, who are terrifyingly well-informed. A great couple of hours, the better for there only being 15 or so people.

The 1988s were disappointing, made more so by the wonderful noses the wines carry. The first sniff of the Palmer makes you think, ‘I’m in for a treat’, but that heady aroma just doesn’t pull through to the palate. As Roberson’s notes say, 1988, with a wet May and June, bringing mildew and rot, then unnaturally dry August, was a difficult year.  With Cabernet ripeness stalling in October, ‘it was never going to be a vintage that yielded rich or concentrated fruit.’ Bobbins, as Andrew put it: ‘That means rubbish, by the way.’ Drink up

The 1989s are cut from different cloth. Dense and deep, long and luscious. Leoville Barton a bit of a disappointment but only in comparison with the seductive rest of the flight. There’s something about Leoville B… in each of the years it seemed to be more classic, restrained, simply more old-fashioned than the rest. You can see why the English (and I mean the English) love it so much. A bit fogeyish, the lovable uncle in tweeds with a watch-chain, and a twinkle in his eye, can be peppery at times but charming. Now who does that remind me of?

The 1990 flight was mixed. Leoville Barton again slightly in the shadow of its neighbours, at this tasting, on this night. But how could it have any presence in the looming shadow of the Cos? Palmer lovely, Mouton disappointing. Here of course you have to say that the Mouton is simply resting, as great wines may, like a grand dame after luncheon, and that it will come back refreshed. I don’t know – there didn’t seem enough fruit, anywhere, for that.

Wine of the evening? Cos 90
Vintage of the evening? 1989

1988

Chateau Palmer, Margaux
12% alc
£205 bottle
Really lovely  deep chocolatey nose with pencil lead and dark plum fruit. Deep refreshing palate with less fruit than expected. Slightly hollow – tannins soft and chalky. Dry on the finish. not long

Chateau Leoville Barton, St Julien
13% alc
£899.95 case
More refined than Palmer on the nose, conversely sweet palate with cherry and darkish fruit. Again falls off toward the end. No length

Chateau Cos d’Estournel, St Estephe
12%  alc
£125 bottle
More perfume hints on the nose. Much stronger tannins making themselves felt early on – but astringent and not massive. Falls off toward the end but more length than the others

Chateau Mouton Rothschild, Pauillac
12.5% alc
£455 bottle
Much deeper colour and superb nose with pencil lead and minerality. Lovely sweet fruit and dry tannins. Slightly astringent again. Length dry and falling off

1989

Chateau Palmer, Margaux
12% alc
£310 bottle
Superb nose with mint and minerality, raspberry and bright fruits – lots going on on the nose. Full bright palate – loaded with fruit sitting on lovely ripe acids.Delicious and very long. Goes on forever.

Chateau Leoville Barton, St Julien
12.5% alc
£120 bottle
Very delicate nose with raspberry and mint. Palate lean and strong with developed tannins, bright and acidic with powerful end. Fruit needs time but long and powerful and fine. No idea if this will come through or will it always be like this? Jancis: ‘it cries out for food’. Indeed! Imagine it with rack of lamb

Chateau Cos d’Estournel, St Estephe
13% alc
£125 bottle
Dense dark nose with raisin and plum and herbaceous and licorice hints. Exotic – sweet with almost pear drop intensity. Superb palate with power and finesse. Long, intense, not massive but delicately powerful. Lovely delicate fruit – perfume, ripeness, bright plum and dark cherry. Lovely

Chateau Mouton Rothschild, Pauillac
12.5% alc
£455 bottle
The finest and most seductive nose so far. Deep and dark with wonderful minty blackcurrant and blackberry. Palate opulent, fresh, bright, tannins developing late on the palate. Fruit is dense and almost brooding, tannins dry at the end but that will calm. Superb wine. Couldn’t decide between this and the Cos 90 for my wine of the evening.

1990

Chateau Palmer, Margaux
12% alc
£245 bottle
Classic nose with bright berry fruit. Mouthwatering palate – lovely opulent, bright, sweet quite dense fruit. Really lovely wine until the very end when it falls off with a certain dryness. But again, it cries out for food. Lamb again

Chateau Leoville Barton, St Julien
12.5% alc
£185 bottle
Splendid exotic bright sweet nose with hints of pear drops, even, and luscious cooked fruit. Palate has earthy tannins, still somewhat dry towards the finish. Not long. Doesn’t live up to the promise of the nose

Chateau Cos d’Estournel, St Estephe
13% alc
£210 bottle
Massive, brooding dense dark fruit nose with forest floor and truffle. Bright mouthwatering very refreshingly acidic palate, with spicy dark cherry, blackcurrant, truffle, some mint. Dryish on the finish but  supported by this lovely integrated acid. A fantastic wine, the best of the evening (as everyone else thought as well – by popular vote).

Chateau Mouton Rothschild, Pauillac
12.5% alc
£460 bottle
The palate is lovely and delicate at first with nice mellow acids and a hint of rainy forest floor but then nothing else seems to happen. It’s fresh and bright but the fruit just doesn’t come out, and the tannins too shy . Disappointing

Saturday, 18 June 2011

Max Riedel and the Eucharist... but yes, the glass does matter


There’s always the whiff of humbug about the Riedel family. I’m not sure why: as anyone who has ever drunk wine out of a plastic cup knows perfectly, the glass is important.

Flick one of Riedel’s beautifully-turned glasses with a finger and you can hear the purity of the tone. Swirling your cru classé in the bottom of a tureen-sized Cabernet glass is sensual pleasure anticipated.

So I looked forward to a morning with Maximilian Riedel at Harrods. After all they make (with subsidiaries Spiegelau and Nachtmann) over 100 glass shapes and styles, and are constantly developing more. Do you really need a different glass for Pinot Noir and Cabernet?

So there’s something about the family that makes you instinctively put a protective hand over your wallet when you see them coming.

Perhaps it’s because they seem to have made such a science of the subjective, at the same time cloaking it in the language of the arts.

Maximilien is a small dapper figure with the large unblinking eyes of the evangelical (he’s the son of Georg, a Decanter Man of the Year and current head of the ancient Austrian company)

When he conducts a tasting it’s as a priest preparing the Eucharist. His English is fluent, precise and slightly hypnotic.

‘Our wine glasses are instruments.They are driven by human sense, not the drawing board. Draw near with faith…’ (I made the last bit up but you get the picture)

In front of us we’ve got a Pinot Noir glass, tulip-shaped, slightly flared at the top, a Syrah glass, tulip-shaped, no flare, and a Cabernet Sauvignon glass, big enough to drown a cat in.

‘Now please pour the Pinot Noir into the glasses. Now just swirl and sniff. Now we’ll take a sip…’

We do as we’re told – and we’re not given any chance to make our own minds up about the wine as Max’s voice intones the qualities of the wine, what we should be tasting as we test the three different glasses with three different wines.

Of course a blind test is impossible. Even if you were blindfolded and bound to your chair with a robot arm lifting the glass for you, you would always know which glass you had against your lips.

Riedel knows what it’s doing – the three we have are beautiful examples of the glassmaker’s art – perhaps my antipathy is the fact that the Riedel’s take themselves so seriously.

For the Cabernet Sauvignon – the excellent Napanook – Max brings out his piece de resistance, the Mamba decanter, named, God help us, after the world’s most deadly snake, a thing both obscene and sinister, like something Dennis Wheatley might dream up.

Max designed this for his 30th birthday, he said – ‘I wanted something to give away at my party’ but soon found a design fault in it: 'the wine stayed in the coils of the snake, as it were, and refused to come out.’

There follows a lot of guff about oxygen trapped in the hideous thing and how perfectly it aerates the wine. Stuff and nonsense: decanting the wine aerates it – it’s the contact with oxygen. I think it’s when a Riedel strays into the realm of art that it all begins to sound bogus.

But then he also speaks language we all understand. When I asked him whether glassmaking at Riedel was a science or an art, he stressed they didn’t have much patience with the scientists and preferred to work with the people who make the wine. So it’s instinct: which must be right when you deal with something so subjective. I’d be suspicious if he pulled out a spreadsheet.

He said, ‘Well, we have no research department. Is it instinct more than science? There are constant battles between doctors and scientists. Some say the tongue map exists, and some say it does not exist.

‘If we had anything to do with doctors and scientists it would be a never-ending battle. This is not objective: everyone in charge of their own senses.

'So for this reason we don’t hire chemists to work with us on new shapes – we work with the winemakers and the industry.’

And…and, mamba decanters aside, they make beautiful glasses.

For me, the major difference was in the Pinot glass. Its flared rim concentrates the aromas and gives each wine a sharper edge. The Cabernet glass was indeed perfect for the dense aromas of the Napanook, whose minerals and acids became overwhelming in the smaller Syrah glass and Pinot glass.

By the same token it was astonishing to note the way the Cabernet glass killed the nose of the Pinot Noir and the Syrah.

Here are my notes for what they’re worth. A tentative verdict: if you can afford them, buy a set of Riedel white glasses and a set of Riedel reds. If you can only run to one set, buy the Chianti Classico/GC Riesling glass. It’s good for both red and white and it’s a lovely but not ostentatiously weighty shape

Ponzi Pinot Noir, Willamette Valley

Pinot Noir glass
Nose: Precise, bright with earthy notes
Palate: Bright soft red fruit, good bright acids, juicy mouthfeel, mouthwatering soft tannins. The shape of the glass – the flared shape of the glass designed to cause an explosion of fruit flavour at the front of the mouth. It works. Good length

Syrah glass
Nose: slightly hotter, more alcohol, more earthy notes evident
Palate: soft and bright with more minerality, tannins slightly sharper than in the PN glass.There is more spice, and more green components – a whiff of green pepper

Cabernet Sauvignon glass
Nose: lost at first then after a few minutes developing grassy/hay aromas
Palate: still bright (this is a very good wine, after all) but the minerality is brought out more forcibly and do I get the impression the wine is hollower at the core, that the fruit drops off, as does the length?

Syrah
Wind Gap, Sonoma Coast 2008
£41.50, alcohol 12.5%

Syrah glass
Nose: powerful and attractive with spice and white pepper
Palate: Bright, sweet, spicy, some earthy notes, cedar, meat, very juicy, not great length

Cabernet glass
Nose: diluted as per the Ponzi, no concentration – no Syrah character
Palate: The slight bitter edge that I got from the Syrah glass is pronounced, the tannins dusty

Pinot glass
Nose: more concentrated, sweeter, the white pepper notes not in evidence
Palate: bitterness more pronounced, minerality comes out, fruit still evident but tannins sharper

Napanook Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley 2005

Cabernet glass
Nose: very attractive spice, leather and smoke
Palate: very concentrated deep black fruit with gripping, chalky tannins, superb ripe fresh acids and lovely length

Pinot Noir glass
Nose: still superb but with an edge – it’s greener, darker and sharper
Palate: again, if this was the only glass I was tasting it from it would still be a lovely wine – but in contrast to the Cab glass there is an edge, the tannins are sharper, the acid has an edge

Syrah glass
Nose: still superb but also with the edge I see in the PN glass
Palate: everything is exaggerated – the tannins are sharper and even astringent, the minerality in the wine is brought out, there is more of a drying length



Tuesday, 24 May 2011

The Wines of Lebanon

What next for Lebanon? The ten or so members of the Union Vinicole du Liban, under the gnomic chairmanship of Serge Hochar, long ago conquered the London press. That they’re the most hospitable bunch (second only to the Portuguese) helps of course, and then there are the wines, which I tasted my way through  at a raucous dinner at the Dock Kitchen restaurant in west London.

Lebanese winemaking is at an interesting stage of development, with a handful of veteran producers (led as ever by Hochar’s Chateau Musar) setting the benchmark for quality. After them come a clutch of dynamic properties making fascinating wines – all of them intent on finding a unique personality for the region.

The best of the wines are bright, acidic and fresh, fruit of high altitudes (many of the vineyards are planted at over 1000m), long sunny days and cool nights.

The fact that French varieties - Cinsault, Cabernet Sauvignon, Carignan, Syrah, Merlot, Grenache and Mourvedre - are planted so widely is historical accident, but a happy one. Cinsault thrives here, producing wines that are laden with bright fruit on the strawberry/raspberry scale, fresh acids and really attractive length.

Apart from Musar’s extraordinary white wines (he claims they are not ready for 20 years or more from bottling) I didn’t taste many whites. As in so many hot and arid regions (Roussillon comes to mind), white wines often come out flaccid and hollow. So I’m not going to bother with them here.

But the reds can be sublime. Lebanon is on the verge of something. Stable government (albeit surrounded by countries in turmoil), some serious investors taking interest (IXSIR is a new $10m project owned by multimillionaire car-industry executive Carlos Ghosn), consultants like Stefan Derenoncourt and Chateau Angelus owner Hubert de Bouard making wine, and a burgeoning number of wineries (there are now over 40, from a handful 20 years ago).

It’s the country to invest in, and the wines that come naturally to Lebanon are fashionable: light, lowish in alcohol (hardly any come in at above 13.5%) and fresh.

All this implies that there will be a bandwagon to jump on, and we are going to see many more Lebanese wines. I only hope they retain their style and don’t start chasing the international market. I don’t want to see any over-made, starry but characterless $100 Lebanese wines.

The wines

Chateau Musar Jeune 2009
Cinsault, Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah
Very fresh, bright nose. Palate mouthwatering and bright. Not complex but attractive with red berry fruit
£8.00 - £9.99

Bright floral nose with fresh, delicious and very light palate. Falls down a little on acid – the mid palate doesn’t keep up the early promise, but it compensates with nice length. Overwhelmed by the Shankleesh, the delicious cream cheese and tomato salad

Domaine des Tourelles Marquis des Beys 2004
Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah
Really delicate powerful dense palate with cigar box perfume, exotic grippy tannins, notes of graphite, black olives and dark soft fruits. Superlative wine selling for about £20 a bottle

Chateau Musar 2004
Launched May 2011. Earth on the nose and some leathery, smoky notes. Dense, and like all the Musar reds with lovely refreshing acids alongside the red and black fruit. Mouthwatering, drinking well now – perfect with fatty lamb chops – but look at the Musar back-catalogue and keep it for 40 years.
£20+

Chateau Musar 2003
Cinsault, Cabernet Sauvignon, Carignan
Earthy nose, sweet earth and straw aromas. Deep sweet dense palate with lots of chalky tannins, pencil, graphite, blackberry and black olive, very ripe red plums and some pruney notes. Lovely with great length, drying at the end but still with this incredibly fresh acid which keeps it juicy and fresh
£20+

Chateau Musar 1998
Lovely bright colour. A wine that has power and finesse.  Wonderful fresh tannins and sweet delicate red (overwhelmingly red now it’s got some age) fruit, with exotic cedar and perfumes that you don’t see in the younger wines. A delicious wine, full of character, perfectly balanced – looks like a wine made by a winemaker at the height of his powers but Musar’s Tarek Sabre had been in the job about 5 years when he made this. Serge Hochar is convinced it’s ‘almost ready’, but then he says that about all his wines. I would say it’s a point
£20+

Chateau Musar 1974
How can the taste of a wine made 1000m high in the Arabian hills remind you of the floor of an English wood just after spring rain? Superb earthy, bright, truffle palate with wonderful young and fresh tannins, still bold and precise, with old Burgundian elegance and power. It’s still got years to go. 1974 was a difficult year and according to Stephen Williams at the Antique Wine Company Hochar was unsure about its quality for 20 years. ‘But something miraculous happened’, Williams says. Magnificent. Ten years later Hochar became Decanter’s first-ever Man of the Year. Salut!
£20+

Chateau St Thomas Les Emirs 2007
Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Grenache
Juicy bright and fruity, lots of dusty tannins slightly take over the palate and leave it dry at the end

Chateau St Thomas 2005
Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Syrah
Clos St Thomas or Chateau St Thomas? I’m still hazy, but then it was a very good dinner. This is a lovely wine – meaty and perfumed sweetish nose with animal skin. Bright and juicy with slightly grassy fruit. Not a massive length but delicious while it lasts

Chateau St Thomas Les Gourmets 2008
Cinsault
Superb grip from the beginning. Lovely ripe dark raspberry, long and ripe sweet tannins, very juicy and mouthwatering acids. Delicious

Chateau Kefraya Comte de M 2006
A nose of aniseed and a luxurious sweet palate with figs, dark fruit, menthol and cedar. Ripe integrated tannins – slightly short on the finish for a relatively expensive wine.
£29

IXSIR Altitudes 2009
Syrah, Caladoc (a Malbec-Grenache cross)
Very fresh with ripe raspberry fruit and strong, tenacious acids. The Syrah comes from vineyards planted at 1,700m. Long, fine finish

Chateau Ksara Reserve du Couvent
Syrah, Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon
Very sharp acid bite goes beautifully with fatty, beautifully cooked lamb cutlets. Cooked fruits, blackberry and plum, some fresh green pepper flavours, very long and satisfying.










Sunday, 8 May 2011

English still wine can match sparkling - just don't mention Pinot Noir

English wine’s at a crossroads. There has never been a better time to be an English wine producer (that is, a producer of English, and Welsh, wines). The industry is riding high, and you could feel it at the tasting on Thursday in the handsome upper room of One Great George St just off Parliament Square.

There was a buzz like a row of Kentish beehives in Spring. English winemakers are full of confidence: their sparkling wines, which take their place alongside the best fizz in the world, are winning prize after prize (including Decanter’s top gong – the International Sparkling Trophy 2010, for the RidgeView Grosvenor Blanc de Blancs 2006, which saw off competition from the likes of Taittinger Prélude NV, Charles Heidsieck Millésime 2000 and Thienot’s Brut Rosé NV).

Vineyard plantings are increasing exponentially (English Wine Producers reckons they have increased by 75% since 2004), production is going up (4m bottles this year, a total which industry guru Mike Paul reckons will quintuple by mid-decade).

And, leaving sparkling aside the quality of the still wines is extraordinary. The jibe that ‘English wine tastes of rain’ is now vieux chapeau.

Tasting notes are below. I was entranced by the aromatic whites, the finest of which were delicious, refreshing, delicately floral, with scents redolent of the hedgerows: cow-parsley, forget-me-not, sweet hawthorn, cowslip, thistle, elder and dog rose.

Some producers seem to have found the winemaker's holy grail: low alcohol with taste. Most of the wines I rated clock in at less than 12% alcohol yet still have body, fruit, acid, and length.

That’s the aromatic whites, but I can’t say the same for the rosés and the reds. The former can be dull, flaccid, unsweet, unacidic, underwhelming, damp. The reds are often unattractively frizzy, hollow and tasting of water-butt.

The big problem of course is price. One consultant told me that still wine just didn’t have a future – the only way to go is with sparkling – witness the Royal project I've just described on Decanter.com, 16,700 Champagne varieties just planted in Windsor Great Park. That will be just for sparkling.

‘The viability of still wine in the UK just isn’t there. To make it work you have to charge prices that can be matched and bettered by superior wines from a dozen other regions around the world.’

Possibly: over thirteen quid for a still English wine that isn’t quite as fresh or quite as fruity or floral as its Kiwi counterpart at £6.49 is pushing it a bit. But £9 for a wine that is so freighted with English terroir you could close your eyes and be there? Compare that with the price of a cinema ticket.

The most succesful of the white varieties seems to be Bacchus, a fickle variety that often fails to set, so gives low yields with corresponding concentration and intensity. Then there is Ortega, another aromatic German varietal, fresh and floral at best.

Bacchus – one of the UK’s most-planted grapes – and Ortega between them strike me as the ones to watch. English Wine Producers lists the different varieties here.

Mike Paul, former head of Western Wines and general marketing guru, says the still wine industry is feeling its way. ‘We need to go on experimenting,’ he told a group of producers and journalists yesterday. ‘Should we be concentrating on Bacchus, or Ortega, or Pinot Noir? We don’t have the answers yet.’

The mention of Pinot Noir made me gape. Paul backed off a bit: ‘Don’t get me wrong – I’m not suggesting that is where the future of English wine lies,’ he said hastily.

As well he might. There is a tendency for blinkeredness amongst the English wine crowd. They’re the nicest people in the world, and all in a permanently good mood (especially when they’re showing their wines on a gorgeous spring day), but they do say some odd things.

One salesman yesterday was telling me how superb his red wine was. I demurred, and mumbled something about sunshine and night-time temperatures (the former too scant to ripen red grapes, and latter too cold).

He said, ‘I don’t think sunshine is what we need to be looking for all the time. We’re eight miles from Brighton. Our terroir combines the best aspects of New Zealand, with our fresh spring water, and then we have the fresh salt breezes over the dales, which reflects cool-climate California.’

That’s what I mean by English wine being at a crossroads. When marketers are telling you that sunshine isn’t really that important (admittedly, as any Alsace producer will tell you, it's luminescence that's the important thing, but we don't have enough of that either), you should worry. But that’s not the point: I easily found a still Top Ten that I would happily take around the world as examples of superb winemaking.

English winemakers have cracked sparkling; now the dozen or so producers who are making superlative still wine need to focus, research and identify exactly what they should be planting and where. The rest will follow.

For the record, if I was planting tomorrow, for still wines, I’d back the Bacchus.

Tasting notes – still whites only

All the wines are available through the producers’ websites or at selected outlets – Waitrose, Artisan & Vine etc

Denbies Ranmore Hill 2009
Bright, floral with cut apples, hay and lovely sweet nettley fruit. Good acid  balance, long.
£9.99

Denbies Bacchus 2009
A revelation. A wine full of the scent of hedgerow, succulent, reminiscent of cow parsley and bluebell and the sweet earthiness of summer fields. Long with very sweet but grippy acids. Excellent wine.
£9.70

Denbies Ortega 2009
Fresh and bright with juicy acids. Complex and floral – Ortega is related to Gewurztraminer and has the bright perfume you find in that variety, but in the best English wines the perfume is sharper, acidic, with spice and apples. Very good.
£9.99

Biddenden Ortega  2009
Lovely fruity nose. Sweet, creamy, lush palate with tropical fruit flavours: some pineapple, kiwi, tinged with the distinctive floral English note of elderflower. Delicious, much decorated wine.
£8.80

Biddenden Bacchus 2009 (pictured)
This was one of the stars of the show. All that is striking about good English wine is encapsulated here: the lovely fresh nettle and wildflower flavours, the spice and gentle earthiness. This is terroir: the wine transports you instantly to a place, the edge of a wood in spring, perhaps, carpets of bluebells giving way to undergrowth and the shade of trees. Delicious
£9.70 Harvey Nichols

Three Choirs Cellar Door Bacchus 2009
Spicy, aromatic, very elegant with gentle though present acids. This is an expensive wine but very well-made, long and full of flavour.
£13.10

Three Choirs Midsummer Hill 2009
A blend of Seyval Blanc, Madeleine Angevine, Muller Thurgau and Phoenix. Very attractive early palate, sweet and aromatic, with slightly disappointing hollowness at the core – the acids don’t persist and become a bit flabby.
£6.70

Three Choirs The English House Dry 2009
A blend of Seyval Blanc, Madeleine Angevine, Muller Thurgau and Phoenix. Bone dry on the palate with mineral notes and a hint of spice, but towards the end the dryness leads to tartness.
£6.25

Three Choirs Madeleine Angevine 2009
Lovely floral, nettley character with aromatic spice, great acid balance and good length. Delicious.
£13

Kenton Vineyard Bacchus 2010
Powerful Sauvignon flavours (but in a good way – not sweaty or tinny asparagus but delicate gooseberry and cut apple). The nettle palate almost stings the tongue. Long and sweetly aromatic, bursting with English flavour. Very good, and an excellent price
£7.95


Thursday, 5 May 2011

The launch of Grange 2006 - where are all the hacks?

Wonderful release of the Penfolds Grange 2006 last night in a club in one of those gated roads off Knightsbridge.

It was an odd event. I recognised about three people out of 100. Who were they all? ‘Clients and clients of clients’, Hugh Jackson of Treasury Wine Estates, the slightly snooty new Foster’s division that covers all their wines. They’re a bit grand, Foster’s, now that they’re a bona fide wine company.

But where were all the journalists? This was Grange, for heaven’s sake – does TWE think the wine sells itself?

I got an invitation after a bit of to-ing and fro-ing, and Decanter’s editor Guy Woodward was there, but not a single other hack, just lots of bull-necked men in pressed jeans and expensive slip-ons, and sinister-looking Europeans.

Grange events always attract oddities. I remember the first re-corking clinic in London a few years ago, in the Lanesborough Hotel at the bottom of Piccadilly.

Grange aficionadoes – twitchy millionaires and pink-faced hedge-fund managers - turned up with hold-alls and cardboard boxes full of thousands of pounds of verticals dating back to the very beginning. It was agony to see the looks on their faces as John Duval (the winemaker then, before Peter Gago) pronounced a bottle from the 60s dead. Most took it pretty well…

Anyway, here are my notes on the wines last night. I should say James Halliday has already tasted them and pronounced them superb.

Penfolds Reserve Bin 09A Adelaide Hills Chardonnay 2009
Delicate spicy attack with very forceful acids present from the beginning. Lovely long wine with dense fruit flavours – cut apple, citrus, lime, sugared lemon – and a really delicious minerality. Halliday said he detected the hand of the winemaker in the wine but loved its ‘superb finesse and focus’.

Penfolds Yattarna Chardonnay 2008
Incredible colour – very pale straw, as far away from classic Australian golden Chardonnay as possible. Very delicate sweet palate with apple, pear, and some nutty notes, minerality and light acid overlaid with elegant creaminess on palate. Yattarna annoys a lot of people for its price - £58 – and generally superior attitude, but this seems to me wonderfully powerful and elegant – just look at the colour alone and wonder how something so light can have such heft. Produced with percentage of cool-climate Tasmanian fruit.

Penfolds Magill Estate Shiraz 2008
Very tight dense black fruit nose, very polished and velvety, brooding. Spicy, chalky tannins with sweet sharp dark red fruit – plums, cranberries, ripe loganberries, ripe blackberries. Delicious, refreshing, with the creaminess of the St Henri but a lighter, more elegant version.


Penfolds St Henri Shiraz 2007
Very attractive sweet creamy, rather old-fashioned nose. Dense sweet and spicy raspberry/ blackberry palate with early attack of lovely chalky tannins which persist throughout. Amazingly powerful and young. ‘To drink this under five years would be a travesty’, the Penfolds ‘ambassador’ Tom Portet said. But the tannins are so finely balanced it’s a pleasure to taste. Old-fashioned in that it’s still got its roundness, but with wonderful precise linearity cutting through the middle.

Penfolds RWT Barossa Valley Shiraz 2008
The Red Winemaking Trial – this is the only Barossa wine Penfolds makes. Inky, deep purple colour, sweet nose with spice, licorice and cedar and some burnt toast. There’s great concentration here – the tannins are ripe and densely knit, the fruit is dark with strong chocolate and some black pepper flavours - but because of the acidity which gives it juice and freshness I’ve written ‘delicate’ a couple of times in my notes: ‘Overall impression of delicacy compared with the brooding pair before’.

Penfolds Grange 2006
Sweet nose with that intense meaty aroma along with blackberry, coffee and pruney/figgy notes. Overwhelming impression on palate is juiciness – it is literally mouthwatering – and all that dark black fruit. The wine is so concentrated that to describe the fruit in terms of its skin seems best: the soft grainy texture and bright acidity of ripe plum, the sharpness and bite of blackcurrant. Very approachable even this young. No problem to ignore the spittoon. Halliday mentions the ‘steadily building impact on the very long palate’ and says it will be drinking until 2050. Quite so. If this were Bordeaux, they would be comparing it to a gothic cathedral… Delicious.



Friday, 15 April 2011

Michael Hill Smith can't use the 'e' word


Michael Hill Smith has a problem with the word ‘elegant’.

‘There’s just something not right about an Australian using it – like a Barossa producer pulling out a bottle and saying “and now this is our elegant Shiraz”.’

We’re at the noisy but excellent restaurant L’Anima in Bishopsgate for Hill Smith – founder of Adelaide Hills winery Shaw and Smith – to demonstrate Australian wine’s journey toward delicacy and refinement (he still won’t use the ‘e’ word, that’s just his natural Australian reticence. Elegance is what these wines are all about).

Hill Smith and David Gleave of Liberty Wines have selected two Chardonnays, and two Pinots, all from Shaw and Smith, and then a flight of six Shiraz – his own 08 and 09 Adelaide Hills, John Duval, Clonakilla, Greenstone and SC Pannell.

Australia’s in the throes of change. I remember Andrew Wigan at Peter Lehmann in Barossa telling me four years ago they were ‘pulling back from oak at 100 miles an hour’.

That’s now the orthodoxy among producers of Hill Smith’s stamp. Whereas reds always used to be about tannin management (in many cases they were managed out of existence), it’s now all about acids and freshness.

And like all great wine regions energetically searching for a new style (Rioja comes to mind) the best Australian producers are managing to find the modern while preserving the best points of the traditional.

So there’s cool climate Shiraz and there’s warm climate Shiraz, each trying to find that uniquely Australian style.

‘With the cool climate style we’re trying to avoid the leanness and hardness you sometimes see in cool climate wines,’ Hill Smith says. ‘We don’t want skinniness – we want some flesh on the bone.’

Modern Australia, Hill Smith says, is all about moderation and control. Chardonnay, he says, shows more than anything ‘the refinement and ongoing evolution of Australian wine’.

‘It’s very exciting. The best Chardonnays have this bright minerality, with sweet nectarine and peach fruit. It’s no longer just fruit seasoned with oak and bottle age. We are barrel fermenting, ageing on lees. We’re making Chardonnay inspired by Burgundy but with an Australian twist.’

Margaret River, whose proximity to the sea has such a beneficial moderating effect on the climate, is of course the flagship region for top Chardonnay.

Hill Smith namechecks Adelaide Hills, Mornington Peninsula, Tasmania as striving for that modern style.

And then there’s the Pinot, still relatively untried in Australia but ‘a hot category’, the producer says.

That’s at the high end, of course, where Pinot lovers, and Pinot completists, will search out anything new.

‘There are fanatical Pinot consumers in Australia. They cite clones at you. They ask “Is this MV6? Is it 777?”’

Here’s Andrew Jefford on Chardonnay in Decanter magazine:
'Everyone could do their own thing with it. Initially, that tended to mean something oaky and rich; latterly, by contrast, it has meant a wine of finer grain.'

The Wines
(all available from Liberty Wines)

Shaw and Smith Sauvignon Blanc, Adelaide Hills 2010
Delicate, bright and zesty lovely fresh acidity

Shaw and Smith M3 Chardonnay, Adelaide Hills 2009
Very fine, very classy, with peach, pineapple, some sweet citrus, hints of exotic smoky perfume, excellent acidity, very long

Shaw and Smith M3 Chardonnay, Adelaide Hills 2010
From a much cooler vintage, tighter and gentler than the 2009, fantastic texture, long and delicate

Shaw and Smith Pinot Noir, Adelaide Hills 2008
‘The first thing you want with Pinot is to get it to taste like Pinot,’ Hill Smith says. This has restrained strawberry and raspberry, sweetness held in check by good acid and ripe tannins. Aussie Chardonnay at its best can rival Burgundy but this has a way to go

Shaw and Smith Pinot Noir, Adelaide Hills 2009
Strong aromatic, almost earthy Pinot nose, not a big wine, with very fine colour, fruit more on the raspberry and cherry than strawberry side

Shaw and Smith Shiraz, Adelaide Hills 2008
Superb ripe, juicy, spicy Shiraz with white pepper and elegant (that word again!) black fruit. Very long, knitted tannins. Excellent

Shaw and Smith Shiraz, Adelaide Hills 2009
Ripe and juicy with real tannic heft. It’s young and bright and needs a year or more, but it went perfectly with the delicious rare beef tagliata and rocket main course.

John Duval Entity Shiraz, Barossa Valley 2007
A tour de force from the former Grange winemaker. Rich, powerful, pure Barossa, broad-shouldered but still fine, with dark (what they used to call ‘brooding’) blackberry fruit, juicy and savoury tannins. Real presence.

SC Pannell Shiraz/Grenache, McLaren Vale, 2006
The Grenache lends a mouthwatering juiciness to the palate, and adds brightness and lift to the fruit. Spice and dark fruit, knit tannins and bright long finish

Clonakilla Shiraz Viognier, Canberra District 2009
Extraordinary perfume and texture from this unique producer. The Viognier (there’s a decent amount – 6%) adding giving it an agreeable unctuousness and hint of violets. Exotic. Delicious

Greenstone Vineyard Shiraz, Heathcote, 2009
Powerful, finely-made, old-fashioned Shiraz. Aromas of cherry, plums, pepper, grippy, fine tannins. Power and finesse.