A Visit to Piedmont

La Morra, Barolo

Within the space of a month I was lucky enough to visit the two disparate but equally lovely wine producing areas of the Langhe Valley and the Sherry towns of Jerez and Sanlucar. For quite some time I have maintained that that Sherry is the very pinnacle of oenological creation, and my pilgrimage to its hallowed lands did nothing but bolster and reconfirm my faith. Drinking Sherry is an affirmation of life. Not just a life, not just my life but eternal life through all its vicissitudes. Sherry’s solera is wine’s Bhavacakra; transcending youth, maturity and infirmity by refusing to render them as anything but one and the same thing. One should be humbled when drinking Sherry (but never downhearted) as one is humbled when contemplating the insignificance of self in the face of everlasting life.

Drinking Barolo and Barbaresco, on the other hand, made me feel painfully aware of both my youth and my financial frailty. If I were middle-aged and rich I would not only have the fiscal might required to purchase fine Nebbioli at will, but also the luxury of time flowing in both directions; my past would furnish me with a backlog of venerable vintages of varying maturity while my future (another 40 years or so at least, what with advancements in medical science) would endow more recent purchases with the prospect of developing into fine, well-rounded individuals. As I was reminded after foolishly recommending a bottle of CNDP to particularly aged customer on the strength that it would still be drinking well in thirty years’ time, 2006 Barolo is of limited use to anyone hobbling around on their last legs.

In short, Sherries are bottled at the peak of their perfection (and are cheap), while the best Langhe reds are not (and are not).

However, I exaggerate. There are many Barbarescos’ and Barolos’ are which are eminently enjoyable in their relative youth. Giacoma Anselma’s surprisingly light but intensely pure offerings from Serrelunga (which I praised in a previous post) are an absolute joy in their youth. Also, contrary to my expectations La Spinetta’s Barbarescos’ can display some wonderful savoury secondary aromas long before the fruit lost an inch of its vigour. In general, all of the 2007s seem to be rather lush and immediately enjoyable if a bit lacking in complexity at present.

My friend and travel companion pointed out that the Langhe has the double honour of making both the world’s most difficult and its easiest wines to appreciate in the world – the latter title of course belonging to the immaculately delicious Moscato d’ Asti.

Anyway, on our trip to Piedmont we tried to visit a range of producers in different sub regions making wines of different styles i.e. some modern, some traditional wineries. Anyone with a passing interest in the region will be no doubt bored senseless by the old modern vs. traditional cliché debate, but it was one which cropped up several times in our conversations with our winemaking hosts.

It is the done thing for people working in a particular field to reject the genre coding that outsiders use to classify them. The futility of attempting to do so is best expressed in an interview with metal band Bad News in which friction is caused within the group by Vim Fuego’s attempts to distance himself from what he sees to be their misrepresentative and oppressively confining oeuvre:

Vim Fuego: …It’s a valid question but I think you are starting out from the wrong point of view because we are not basically a heavy metal band. We’re a bit more subtle than that. Aren’t we Colin?

Colin Grigson: Yeah we’re subtle. But basically we are heavy metal, right?

Vim: Well yeah, we are heavy, but all I’m saying is that we are not just simple heavy metal.

Den Dennis (in protest): I thought we were heavy metal!

Vim: I know we do have heavy roots…what I’m trying to say is that we are trying to progress a bit you know? Trying to break a few barriers.

Den: Are we?

Vim: Yeah…There is no point in being shackled to some stupid label.

Colin: C’mon, It’s just a convenient term of reference. What’s wrong with heavy metal? You were the one who put “heavy metal” in the advert, that’s why I joined.

Den: Me too!

Vim Fuego like so many of the world’s great artists does not see himself and his art as being on one or another side of the fence or indeed in the middle ground – “we’re not sitting on the fence, we are trying to burn it down.” In this way artists can use genre as a useful means to assert their identity in a negative fashion. That is, in opposition to perceived (real or imaginary) standard, generally characterized by its adherent’s blind conformity and ultimate banality.

In Piedmont the fence is generally made of oak:

“It took me years to understand what my father’s approach to oak was: When we were 6 or 7 years old we were repeating at school what we had heard at home on every field – politics, economics and even wine. One day some of my friends say, “My father is a modernist – very very proud”. And someone else replied “my uncle is a traditionalist”. But I was speechless, I had no words, I had no identity at that moment, I didn’t know who my father was. So I ran back home that night, and asked Dad, “who are you?” At this time he was a professor of viticulture and all I remember from this time from one of his speeches was that he was somewhere in between. Then I remember when I was 13 or 14 I read something by a journalist saying that he was “the most modernist of traditional producers” and vice versa. Which really doesn’t say anything as an explanation, but when I was maybe 1 or 2 years older and I started to work with him that’s the moment I started to realize what he was doing – that I had got an explanation. But the explanation is not a label. But this is the point: when you already know the way you will treat the fruit or the wine you are giving an answer before you know the question. That’s what we call prejudice or you can also call it ideology – you know how things are without having to look at them. My parents always loved the reverse way – to be the servants of the wine. There are three aspects which may the quality of the wine – the variety, the vineyard and the vintage. You cannot treat 2002 and 2003 vintages in the same way, this is a blind idea. So in the 1990s we were not afraid to show our Slovenian barrels and today we are not afraid to show our barriques.”
(Giuseppe Vajra of G.D. Vajra)

I suspect that the sentiment, if not the story, is quite representative of not only the vast majority of winemakers in the Langhe but also the world over. Everyone we met was, or had been, experimenting with oak big and small, old and new, French and Slovenian. Through trial and error some had decided that a particular system was right for them, while others blended between scores of diverse barrels until the desired wine came together. All, without exception, steered clear of the kind of determinism which would make them appear anything more than the humble “servants” of the vine, and therefore locating them firmly in one of the two camps. The simple opposition is an opportunity to assert identity through denying subservience to it (burning down the fence). Although, it must be said that while Bad News started out with the express intention of becoming a “heavy metal band”, I doubt that many producers owe their existence to erstwhile aspirations to become “modernist” winemakers.

I would also contend that the dismissal of the traditional vs. modern dichotomy is something more than a simple kneejerk against tyrannical pigeonholing on the part of Piedmontese: it is a rejection to a great extend rooted the fierce pride (“He was born in La Morra and will die in La Morra”) and cringe-inducing devotion (“we won’t buy another vineyard unless we fall in love”) in the internal diversity of the land and the distinctness of the wines it affords. Out of the properties we visited only at Roberto Voerzio’s was there a roughly equal emphasis laid upon winery practice and viticulture/terroir. In all other cases the soil and its sympathetic tending was described in the most affectionate terms. And only at Voerzio’s did we hear any real criticism of the oenological techniques of other producers.

This is why Georgio Rivetti of La Spinetta dismisses the traditional/modern distinction as “bullshit” – it diverts attention away from the intricacies of soil, aspect and clime and instead towards a supposed division between producers. Mr. Rivetti is vehemently passionate in his demand for Burgundy like Cru classification/appreciation of the vineyards of Barbaresco and Barolo which he sees as the most appropriate step in awarding the region the recognition it deserves for its internal heterogeneity. It common to hear people talking about how much they like Volnay, but rare to hear the equivalent praise for Monforte. Franco Massolino (whose wines you might have innocently imagined to be the traditionalist antithesis of the bold modernism of La Spinetta) is in total agreement; saying that “everyone in the villages know where the best vineyards are” – rather it is the customers who are in the dark, not being provided with adequate information to distinguish between the wines available.

While I think that the case for a more “terroir focused” classification Lange wines is a persuasive one, one which would partly ensure the integrity/meaningfulness of words on bottles that refer to specific sites, it should not obscure the corresponding diversity in winemakerly technique. A wine is always the nub of an intricate nexus of connections between human (re)action and the corresponding (re)actions of nature in both vineyard, cellar and beyond. To disentangle these fully is an impossible task – the best we can do is paint in very broad stokes the approximate impact that any particular intervention will have on a wine. It is the fashion now to emphasize the impact of “terroir” over and above technique, and this is of course reflected in winemaking practice (unfined, unfiltered etc.). However, as criminal law teaches us – doing nothing can be considered as much as an action as doing something.

Piedmont is an area with a very rich recent history of winemaking practice and this should not be forgotten when stressing the importance of individual macroclimes. Call me old-fashioned but I wouldn’t actually mind seeing a few non-vintage Barolos on the market. I’m sure a decent solera would do a few of those aloof 2006s a world of good.

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Natural Wine Week

Yesterday (Monday 9th May 2011) was the start of Natural Wine Fortnight an event in which roughly 150 bars and restaurants are taking part, serving natural wines by the glass. The main event, however, will be a wine fair from 15th to the 17th May in London’s Borough Market boasted over 100 individual producers. The first day of the fair is open to the paying public (10am-6pm http://www.naturalwinefair.com) while the next two are restricted to the trade. Importers taking part include Yapp Brothers, Dynamic Vines, Wine Story, Aubert & Mascoli and Les Caves de Pyrène. I had a chance to chat with Tim Wildman of Les Caves about the event:

He began by explaining that the natural wine movement has been going for about thirty years, which it started in Paris was originally mainly confined to wines of the nearby Loire Valley. In more recent years it has spread, taking root most firmly in regions such as the Jura, Alsace, the Rhône and Italy generally. Paris is still largest centre for the consumption of such wines with over 40 restaurants partly or entirely dedicated to promotion with Tokyo following not too far behind. London at present about half a dozen or so such establishments. There are several annual natural wine fairs – two based around Vin Italy and two around Salon des vins de Loire. This year will be the first UK event, arranged to compliment the massive wine fair at London Excel.

Natural wine grew out of the organic movement but marks itself out from it and the more mystical tenets of bio-dynamism by concerning itself not only with practices in the vineyard but also those of the winery. Practices such as (de)acidification, the use of commercial yeasts, tannins and so on are therefore avoided. All use a minimal amount of sulphur and a few reject its use altogether, so therefore incredibly healthy grapes are essential to avoid any natural chemical spoilage. There is no legislation which governs the awarding of natural wine status, unlike Organic wine. Instead, much like the bio-dynamic movement, it is made up of a dislocated community of producers adhering to a fluid set of principles dependent upon common consensus.

I asked Tim if there are any stylistic threads which run through the wines or would a natural approach partly negate commonality between wines of diverse regions. He answered that some natural wines do indeed have a particular style; “they are like drinking milk straight from the cow…they are sometimes cloudy and often funky.” The motivation for the producers is to make a wine you can drink a lot of, so the style is based around straightforwardness and drinkability. In a way it is a return to “peasant wine”, wine that are not only young and fresh (if a little stinky) but also of some nutria value. It is, Tim continued, “a return to the soil and a return to simplicity.” Their character is perhaps more evident in the whites than the reds as “often they are more serious and of an oxidative style – they sometimes repay carafing.”

Anyway, from my own limited experience of natural wines I would say that, unlike the majority of wines I get to taste, are never boring. We opened ten bottles from diverse regions with Tim, the majority of which were excellent. Quite a few displayed the kind of funkiness which one might just as easily tempted to put down to winemaking fault as to character. However, the fact that they actually developed and improved after 24 hours open clearly indicates that these nuances were far from being imperfections with pretentions of grandeur. I will therefore certainly look forward to reporting back from the Natural Wine Fair next week.

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A Sherry Renaissance?

The following was originally intended to be a magazine piece, which alas found no home.

On 1st December last year BBC Radio was in the unique position of having to cancel a feature on Sherry as it coincided with a program on the very same subject due to be aired on the same day.

Whether or not this is anything more than cosmic coincidence is something on which I would not like to speculate. However, the implication of a “renaissance in Sherry drinking” that more rash speculators might infer from such an event was indeed the exact topic of conversation on the remaining article broadcast on Women’s Hour that day. Sarah Abbott MW and Alvaro Marcos García (wine buyer for Home House), discussed with host Jane Garvey how Andalucía’s most noble beverage is becoming “increasingly the tipple of choice for the positively fashionable”. The drawer of the short straw was a feature to involve Richard Bigg discussing the opening of the UK’s first dedicated Sherry bar in the form of North London’s Bar Pepito.

The fact that the first is set to be rivalled by a second, a José Pizarro venture (London again) coupled with the expansion of choice of Sherry available on the high-street would seem indicative of a more diverse – if not necessarily greater – public demand.

So, anecdotally at least, the prospects for Sherry in the UK could not seem to be better. In my own shop we have all noticed how fewer and fewer people are suspicious when we recommend them Sherries as table wines and how more and more are actually coming in to buy them of their own volition. I’m even sure it will be only a matter of time before articles like this will be written without any reference either to Granny or trifles.

Anyway, whilst taking a welcome break from my walking holiday in the Andalucian hills I had the chance to discuss these things and more with Jan Peterson of Bodegas Fernando de Castilla.

Jan originally moved to Spain from his native Norway as a young undergraduate and after various incarnations, including a stint as a Red Bull salesman, now finds himself running a small but highly reputed Bodegas in the heart of old Jerez. His wines are sold mainly to the on-trade and small independent retailers in the UK.

On meeting, after mutual declarations of adoration to our favourite tipple (in which Jan admitted, like most of us, to have positively disliked his first taste of Sherry) we got down to the more sober matter of sales and markets. Jan kicked things off by joyfully announcing that now was the first time in history that Spain can be considered the largest consumer of Sherry

One of the first things he told me was that now is the first time in history that Spain may be considered is the biggest consumer of Sherry in the world, recently overtaking the UK in both sales and volume. He explained that this can only partly be attributed to an increase of consumption within Spain but the primary factor is the decrease of sales in the major export markets of the UK, the Netherlands and Germany.

So what then of this Sherry Renaissance we have all been so much hearing about? Well, my host went on to state that even though last year net sales in the UK dropped by a massive 19% the sale of “quality” Sherries (Fino, Manzanilla, dry Amontillado, Palo Cortado, PX etc.) are actually going up. As for those wines made exclusively for export (Pale Creams, Mediums and so on) Jan described as literally a “dying market”. Or as Sarah Abbott on Women’s Hour tactfully phrased it – that particular demographic is hastening to the “great Sherry tasting in the sky”. For Jan, younger people are the most receptive to the cause of Sherry: “their parents didn’t drink sherry but their grandparents did. It is people whose parents drank sherry that are more difficult…”

Now, rather than representing a warped alternative reality where all Sherry is sweet and drank almost exclusively at Christmas, the UK market is beginning more and more to resemble the Spanish one. “The big difference between the Sherry market in Spain and those in other countries”, Jan continued “is that in Spain Sherry has always been consumed with food. That’s why you will not see in Spain the types of Sherry that are predominant in Europe and North America.”

Yet as the UK consumer, arguably, continues to cultivate a more sophisticated relationship with food and drink, coupled with a renewed interest in the physical origin of foodstuffs, unique cuisine oriented wines such as Sherry can but benefit. One thing, however, that looks set to remain starkly different from Spain is the dominance of the supermarket own brands, which Jan asserts represent around 70% of UK Sherry sales. This provides the opportunity for lucrative deals and much welcome investment for the larger houses but is potentially a barrier for the smaller ones to secure a foothold on the British market.

The relatively inexpensive shelf price of Sherry makes it an easily accessible product to most consumers, although as you might expect the producers are somewhat more ambivalent on this point. I think it would be safe to say that the general consensus of opinion is that since Sherry has become such a low-cost commodity that most people have gotten out of the habit of considering it as a serious wine; one to be evaluated and appraised in the same way in which a Bordeaux or Rioja would be as a matter of course. On a visit to Javier Hidalgo of Bodegas Hidalgo he, however, stressed how Sherry is quite singular in terms of the gap between its high repute within the industry and the more lowly status awarded to it by the public at large.

I chatted to Jan about an old 1989 price list from Fortnum and Mason’s wine shop I had recently had chance to flick through. A 1982 magnum of Mouton Rothschild, for instance, at that time was selling for £200 a bottle, while a bottle of Fino was going for a reasonably respectable £6.95. Today I’m sure you might be able to put a couple of zeros on the tag of the Mouton, whereas you would be hard pressed to put more than a couple of pounds on the price of the Sherry. Jan, although mildly amused, was by no means surprised, trumping my anecdote with the recounting of a price list from the 1870s in which some of the more expensive Sherries from Duff Gordon were selling in bulk at more than £1 per litre – “…and there are Sherries selling today at £1 per litre as well. I say to my friends at González Byass, why are you selling Tio Pepe so cheap? It is a good wine and it should be sold at least three times the price. They are the leaders in the market, and when they don’t up their prices, it’s very difficult for someone else to do it.”

The Bodegas do, nevertheless, have one distinct advantage over most other winemakers – as the style of the final product is so heavily determined by winemaking practice (the difference between a base wine that goes to make Fino and one that goes for Oloroso is extremely marginal) they can respond to changing consumer demands far more quickly than the producer who has to grub up their Sauvignon Blanc, plant something else, then wait several years before even thinking about first vintage by which time everybody has decided they were right the first time round.

In a sense they have come to realize that they are actually no longer selling Sherry; this is quite clearly no longer what the public wants to buy. Instead they are selling Fino and Manzanilla; Palo Cortado and Amontillado; Oloroso and Pedro Ximénez. “On my bottles” gestures Jan “you need to look very closely to find the world Sherry. It is there but you need a magnifying glass. If I put the word Sherry on the label in big letters I’m sure it would sell much less.” Sherry despite its recent change in image remains to an extent enslaved to its past. It cannot retain the same positive connotations that these “new” and exotic words so readily soak up. Like the ex-convict Jean Valjean it must use aliases to go peacefully about its business, waiting until one day when all is forgiven and its can pronounce its name without fear of surprise or reproach.

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I Say Potato, You say Interesting Earthy Aroma

The following is an article which appeared in Harpers (UK wine trade magazine) last year.  It is the piece which my previous post “Wine Option” partly concerned itself with.  It deals with the language gap between those working within the industry and consumers at large.   

Working as a full-time sales assistant in a wine shop and part-time wine tutor I spend most of my working life discussing all things vinous with members of the public rather than with other wine professionals.  Yet, it often takes some conscious effort not to bombard the unfortunate customer with terminology that is at best confusing and at worst off-putting.  While my face is lighting up singing the rancio, engine oiled, high acid, mushroomy, and thoroughly nobly rotten praises of a particular wine my interlocutor’s is no doubt clouding over.  They then politely wait for the appropriate moment to ask for an alternative and slightly more palatable recommendation.  It is easy to take for granted the language we use and not realize that certain terms to the uninitiated can appear pejorative even when intended as the highest praise.   

Sometimes suitable alternatives can be found. Acidity, a word more commonly associated with heart burn, may be conveyed in terms of the wine’s freshness or zippiness for instance.  Yet, some aspects are never going to be immediately palatable to novice – there is no point in dressing up Vin Jaune in any other clothes than the ones it comes in.   

As far confusing the customer is concerned it is occasionally brought to my attention that a particular word or phrase I use to describe wine has little meaning to the wine buying public.  Last week a diner at a wine dinner I was hosting boldly enquired “but what do you actually mean by structure?”  Given a few more years in the wine industry, habitually bandying the word about without recourse to any real thought perhaps I would not have been able to answer.  What may seem obvious is not always that way to others and sometimes not even to yourself.   

The language we used is not only a way of communicating it can also act as a barrier, excluding those who are not privy to its rules.  It can make the world which it attempts to describe appear esoteric, archaic or pretentious. 

But maybe we should not be too harsh on words; after all it is really not their fault.  Words don’t really carry with them any inherent meaning and so can’t be blamed if they are taken the wrong way.  In short – they are nothing without context.  

I was lucky enough to be taught my Intermediate WSET by two different Masters of Wine.  The first during a tasting session asked us all to take a sniff of a particular wine (a Gewürztraminer or something or similar rich fragrance) and asked us “does it smell sweet?” to which we all replied an emphatic “yes!”.  He then let loose a semi-smoking “WRONG” and went on to tell us that sugar was a non-volatile comp pound and was therefore odourless etc.  The next day our second tutor to our surprise and delight picked up a glass smelt it and said “wow what a nose! nobody’s telling me that this doesn’t smell sweet.”  He then proceeded to get us to sip the wine and see for ourselves how “sweetness on the nose does not necessarily equate to sweetness on the palate”.

The first tutor succeeded in making us all feel stupid and increased the chance of us following his lead and likewise attempting to make others feel similarly stupid in the future.  The second, while providing the same information gave us the confidence to use our own language as long as it conveys the spirit of the intended message.    

The reason why critics such as Oz Clarke work on television is not due to any kind of ‘dumbing down’ of the language but rather it is thanks to the openness and sincerity of the delivery – that is words and attitude together.  This is what breaks down the old barrier between those who know and those who don’t. 

However, the bottom line is that the majority of people will never have more than a passing interest in many ins and outs of the world of wine, just as I take only marginal interest in which washing powder I buy.  Yet the advantage that we in the wine industry have over Daz is our great resource of people who came into it due their fundamental fascination in the object of their business.  This is potentially a great antidote the mock-enthusiasm that predominates much advertising and which can alienate the cynical consumer from the very industries which seek to court them.       

So even if I forget myself and start telling the potentially bemused customer about the importance of clonal selection as long I am doing it in a sincere and animated way (conveying the idea that the wine in question is worthy of such frantic babbling) I know however imperfectly that I am doing my job.

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The ¡GoCornas! Winery of 2010

The ¡GoCornas! winery of the year is… (¡shock/horror!) a Cornas!

Dom. Vincent Paris, Cornas, France

I had the great pleasure of visiting Mr. Paris in the blazing Cornas heat of a couple of summers ago.  His is an unassuming winery being neither small nor large, neither modern nor old.  It is striking only by dint of an air of intense functionality which it quietly exudes, reminding me somewhat of the working farms amongst which I grew up.  Here no fetish of rusticity is cultivated as nothing is  cherished or preserved  extraneous to the matter in hand.  Mr. Paris himself, in keeping with the spirit of the premises, is softly spoken yet with an underlying confidence which one cannot helped but be impressed by. 

Most of the producers we met in the Rhône liked to labour the point of being “first and foremost a farmer” and that the “proper work is all done in the vineyard”.  One of the most slanderous things one could say about their neighbour was “Monsieur such et such spends far too much time pottering around in his winery”.  It was therefore quite striking to hear our friend Mr. Paris proclaim something along that lines of “others [in the appellation] may have better plots, but I have better wine making methods.”  While I cannot make any informed comment as to the technical legitimacy of such a claim, I will testify that his wines do indeed standout boldly from others in the district.  While we might be tempted to say that all the best Cornas is elegant and with some degree of freshness (even if by “elegant” we simply mean “balanced” and by “fresh” “not past it”) these are unlikely to be the words which most readily spring to mind to describe the character of the appellation.  The genius of Mr. Paris’s wines lies in their ability to harness both the brooding depth, concentration and spicy varietal character one would like to expect from classic Cornas whilst exhibiting a delicacy and lightness of touch which is totally charming.  The palate is not flooded by a tirade of flavour but is rather presented with several sumptuous courses, one after the other as if one were munching on Wonker’s Three-Course Dinner Chewing Gum. 

For me what was one of the most exciting tasting experiences of the year was of the 2007 Le Geynale Cornas.  Le Geynale is a sub-section of the celebrated Reynards vineyard.  The vines here were planted in 1910 on pure granite on steep slopes which enjoy the maximum possible amount of sun and therefore the richest, ripest grapes.  The fruit was tended and vinified here by Mr.Robert Michel until his retirement in 2006.  As none of his immediate family were able to take up the mantle the plot was put onto the open market.  Happily it was Mr. Michel’s nephew (our very own Paris) who was the first to express serious interest.  However, not possessing the sufficient capital to acquire the plot independently he went into joint ownership with UK wine merchants Thorman Hunt.   

So, 2006 was Mr. Michel’s last vintage making 2007 Mr. Paris’s first.  The latter told us that his plan was to impose his own will on the plot and gradually bring the Le Geynale in line both stylistically and production-wise with the rest of his range.   Despite already being a firm Paris convert and less of a fan of the Robert Michel bottling’s I couldn’t help feel a little apprehensive about the prospect of the loss of a unique wine.  Tasting the 2007 on site it appeared to really be a continuation of the Michel wine with much bolder, riper fruit and bigger tannins than the Paris Granit bottles,  lacking the trademark definition of the Paris style. 

This year (two years on) I got another chance to sample the 2007 at the Thorman Hunt London tasting.  With that little bit of bottle age the wine had developed into something quite quite wonderful.  It still was a very different animal to the Granit 30 and 60 due to its sheer opulence, but its poise and liner structure clearly demonstrated more kinship than was evident on my first tasting.  It had one of the most memorable finishes of any wine I have ever tried: a long succulent endnote of what I can only describe as buttered caramel popcorn.

It should be fascinating to see what impact the Paris hand will have on Le Geynale over the next few vintages.  Perhaps dizzy heights may be reached now that he has the plot to par with his method.

Vincent Paris is represented in the UK by Thorman Hunt & Co. Ltd

 And the Runner up…

Canneto, Montepulciano, Italy

Similar to Dom. Vincent Paris this estate is supported by distant wine enthusiasts and benevolent benefactors.  The chief winemaker here is a Mr. Carlo Ferrini who is doing more than his fair share to bolster the image of the Vino Nobile appellation.  The DOCG, so often the poorer cousin of brothers Chianti and Brunello, is done much honour here.  Their Nobile is as dark and as brooding as many a sturdy Brunello with more than enough poise and elegance to match.  The 2006 exhibits a wonderfully savoury, herbal, menthol nose and is full, rich and succulent on the palate with big dry tannins on the finish.  This is a wine that would repay decanting and perhaps a few more years under its belt.  At less than £20 retail this is stunning stuff indeed. 

The basic Rosso di Montepulciano is also worth seeking, but basic it is everything but. Thier Riserva I have only had occasion to try once (2004, the current release) is of a broader more extracted character with riper almost cooked fruit and did not impress as much as the regular Nobile.  Perhaps in time it will develop some of those more appealing savoury notes which makes the other wines from this property so alluring.   

Some of the Year’s other Most Striking Wines

A.A. Badenhorst, Paardeburg, South Africa

Secateurs Chenin Blanc 2009

Fruit comes from sixty year old vines.  On the nose it is fresh and fragrant with distinct notes of honeysuckle.  Plenty of Chenin grip on the palate but with a sumptuous texture and a long fresh finish.  The 2010 is similarly wonderful but of quite a different character – greener, grassier with a less honeyed/developed palate.      

Dom. Colinot, Irancy, France

Irancy Cote de Moutier 2008

A shing light of the Yonne, this is a very fresh and mineral wine with just a touch of that healthy greenness you might expect from such a cool climate Pinot.  On the palate the dominant impression is again one of freshness with some bolstering dry tannins.  This is a complete and bracing wine which could teach many d’Or wines a thing or two about general deportment.  It neither lacks anything nor carries any extraneous luggage.  Very lovely and distinct.   

Weinbach, Alsace, France

Pinot Gris Altenbourg Cuvee Laurence 2007

There is a slight animally/yeasty note on the nose here along with some mealy cereal oakiness.  On the palate it is medium dry, full, perfumed, a touch spicy and impeccably balanced. 

Mas du Daumas Gassac, Languedoc, France 

Vin de Laurence 2007

An oddity.  A cream coloured desert wine made with a blend of Sercial and Moscatel.  The nose evokes various Indian spices while the palate impresses via the stark contrast it offers against the visual appeared of the wine in the glass – an opaque milky haze offset by ultra-keen precision and lineal transparity.  Succulent and poised.        

 Fattoria San Lorenzo, Marche, Italy

Verdicchio dei Castelli di Jesi Riserva Vigna dell Oche 2006

Fragrant and sumptuous – a heady mix of rich, mouth-coating white fruit, creamy potatoes and big but well-judged oak.  Quite viscous on the palate but with excellent grip.    

Szepsy, Tokaji, Hungary

Aszu 2005

Beyond description. 

Pierre Gimmonet, Champagne, France

Flereon 2002

Pale gold in colour.  Aromas of black tea, yeast, sweet spice and nougat.  It is full and rich on the palate with a long, dry and complex finish.

Gonzalo Byass, Jerez, Spain

Tio Pepe En Rama

A new product for GB, an unfilerted fino with approximately only a 3 month shelf life.  I really hope they continue with this as it is quite quite lovely with the slightly hazy colour of scrumpy and a beautiful but powerful nose of flory apricots and citrus fruit.  The palate is fuller, richer, and more mouth coating than Tio Pepe proper and with a finish that would make it cheap at twice the price.  This is Fino turned up a couple of notches.

Ch. de Pez, St Estephe, France


The standout wine from a stating of several dozen 2008 Clarets due to its early expressiveness.  It has a very distinctive nose of brooding bramble fruit and engine oil.  Very dark, powerful and multidimensional with a spicy, creamy palate.  

Dom. Laroche, Chablis, France  

1er Les Vaudevey 2008

Surprisingly rich on the nose with sweetshop notes of jellied candies along with the more expected mineral contingent.  Excellent grip, blanaced, succulent but assertive.  Excellent stuff.   

Gosset, Champagne, France

Grand Millesime 1985

Rich, succulent, clean, still crisp with cooked apples and walnuts.

Dom Catherine & Pierre Breton, Bourgueil, France 

Vouvray Petillant Naturel 2008

An Incredible nose of spiced apples and fresh cider.  Medium sweet with a lovely lightness of touch.

 Qunita do Noval,  Portugal

2007 Vintage Port

A touch heady, quite a bit of dry spice and black treacle with much less obvious fruit than the 08.  On the palate full with liquorice and dry tannin. Masses of potential.

Egon Muller, Mosel, Germany

Kabinett 2007

Golden colour, beautiful nose, ethereal, honey, citrus, waxy plastic, mineral, off dry, succulent, long rich finish.  This is a perfect wine- one which the intricate complexities can be quietly mused over sniff by sip or can be happily glugged down by the pintful  

Mount Horrocks, Clare Valley, Australia

Cordon Cut Riesling 2009

Fresh with hints of green veg, apples, cinnamon and other spices.  Lucuous but with the acidity to match.

Tyrrells, Hunter Valley, Australia

Vat 47 Chardonnay 2007

Open, very fresh, a touch of mealy oak but with the overriding impression of freshness.  Rich, mouthcoating, succulent on the palate with lovely acidity and a long finish.

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Wine Option: Too Much Choice, Not Enough Options

I was on the internet yesterday just having a look to see if there was a PDF there of an article I wrote for a magazine to e-mail my mother, in order to prove to her that I don’t write a blog just because no-one else will have me.

Anyway, it turned up in facsimile form on a website I have never come across before – www.wineoption.org. They had featured my piece, which dealt with the language gap between people who work in the wine industry and the public at large, as it related to some of the issues which the site concerns itself with. In their own words they are “dedicated to making the wine trade more responsive to the needs of the average consumer and seeks to make it easier for wine drinkers to enjoy a glass of wine with simple enjoyment and peace of mind. One of its first tasks is to remove the obstacles which make it so hard for consumers to find a choice of lighter, healthier products in the wine category similar to the choice found in the food category.” The existence of the website highlights the fact that a sizable proportion of the population are not having a particularly satisfying wine experience. That they are not given the opportunity to easily acquire quality wines and/or styles of wines which they really enjoy. And that many simply put up with bad wine or wines which don’t really suit them through force of habit tempered by low expectations. This website is a mouthpiece which represents those who have become weary of doing so. Their principle demands and reasons for concern are:

1. The wine trade has traditionally placed its focus on connoisseurs and wine snobs rather than the much greater number of ordinary unpretentious people who enjoy wine.

2. We feel the wine industry should take much more trouble over making wines which respond to today’s consumer concerns and issues.

3.We’re deeply concerned about the relentless increase in wine alcohol levels along with recent trade focus on cheapness and mediocrity.

With regards to the first point I think that only a very small proportion of the wine trade focuses its attention on connoisseurs and wine snobs. Here I take it upon myself to take the term “connoisseurs” to refer to hobbyists whose consumption patterns are primarily based upon leisurely amateur research into their chosen field of interest i.e. via the acquisition of extra information immediately available neither on the bottle nor in the place of purchase. As for wine snobs I take this to mean people whose consumption is based negatively upon the exclusion of certain categories of wines in favour of certain other categories. There is also the pejorative implication that this exclusion is not based upon balanced experience but prestige, price etc. Snob then is only a short vowel away from snub. Although not being at all experienced in the business side of things I would hazard to say that the wine trade, if it were to be considered as a single identifiable entity, is first and foremost dedicated to making profit. Pandering to the connoisseurs and the snobs is therefore not an end in itself but a means to that end. But I would also hazard to say that rather than being the principle groups via which profit is achieved they are secondary to the selling of large quantities of relatively cheap, low quality wine (as reason number 3 acknowledges). The very stuff ignored by the connoisseurs and shunned by the snobs.  

Instead, I suspect that the sentiment behind point number one is more symptomatic of a semi-fictional aura of exclusivity.

There is no prima facie evidence to suggest that wine ought to be any more exclusive than any other field of knowledge which requires conscious effort to negotiate. I think that wine enthusiasts are often seen as pretentious because they take an interest in something of the everyday world which all are involved in. They talk about drinking wine as if there is something incredibly complex or magical about it. People who talk about astrophysics are never accused of the same pretensions because the meaningless words and phrases they use are of another world and therefore do no alienate us from our own tables. I have quite a number of times been accused of being a music snob because of my love of classical music and despite the lack of any assault on my part of alternative forms of art. It is necessary to realize that the everyday is incredibly complex and magical and seeing it as such is not pretension but a very sincere form of love. Both fortunately and unfortunately while music and wine are democratic – solar winds are not. Myth and specialized language, while no doubt being somewhat off-putting to the uninitiated, allow enlightening associations and connections to be made which would otherwise remain obscure. The everyday world deserves as much colour as the fantasy one, especially as each bleeds into and informs the other.


There is of course also the association of wine with the exclusivity that monetary wealth engenders. This is amplified in countries which do not have a long history of wine production and/or local consumption. Wine in such places is defaulted as a luxury item and even when it becomes generally accessible the cultural residues exclusivity stubbornly persist.

However, regardless mystique perhaps the main reason why many of us find it difficult to make a sound and informed decision when buying a bottle of wine is down to the plethora of products available to us. Faced with a display of any product two 30 metre aisles long with prices ranging from the cost of a sandwich up to your monthly food allowance – just about anyone will be phased by the variety on offer. The tendency is therefore (for all – right up to the most expert) to pounce on any bottle which offers some kind of reassurance, be it by price, label design, familiar words or whatever. Choice for most then becomes constraint rather than opportunity. The exposure to overwhelming abundance breeds not only shallow familiarity but also simulated familiarity, for instance with wine bottles adopting the aesthetic trappings of more recognizable brands/appellations etc.

The paradox is that the very thing which make the purchasing decision most simple (attraction via label design) is also the most esoteric. I am not referring to the standardized technical data pertaining crus, grape varieties, production methods etc. but the saturation of branded non-information which serves to further bury and obscure anything of any real relevance. This is not to imply that the Burgundy vineyard classification system is particularly insightful to most, but simply that the few bits of decent information which are/could be on a bottle of wine are hijacked by the desire/necessity of the distributor to sell via an image. If all the extraneous detail were to be banished from wine labels clear intelligibility would not ensue, but at least we might know where to start.

I think it is certainly true that there is a lack of adequate communication between people in the wine industry and the public at large. Many in the wine industry spend most of their time talking to other people in the wine industry. Also within a company labour is divided in such a way that a person responsible for the production of a particular article has no contact with the people who consume it. Likewise the people who “brand” it and market it also often have little contact with either that producer or even the people to whom it is meant to appeal. Often in the wine shop (my place of work) we will receive new products or re-designs of old products which appeal neither to the contents of the bottle nor to the prospective drinkers of it. It is an awful generalization I know but I might be tempted to say that winemakers who care passionately about their wines usually show correspondingly callous indifference to the method and manner in which they are presented to the drinker.

As to the second point, that the wine industry should take much more trouble over making wines which respond to today’s consumer concerns and issues, it must be said that while this is a very valid point in terms of wine distribution it is only partially applicable to wine production. Due to the nature of winemaking producers cannot quickly respond to consumer’s stylistic demand (trends and fashion) what they can do, however, is respond to more long term concerns and issues via their winemaking. One such issue which the site pays particular attention to is summed up in the third point, namely the relentless increase in wine alcohol levels. This is a concern mirrored in many parts of the wine industry with many are genuinely tired with plenty of wines routinely surpassing the 15%abv mark. But perhaps in a few years we will see this trend to reverse, the reason why it hasn’t happened yet is that, as I said above, it generally takes winemakers a number of years to respond to the public’s stylistic demands. Personally I do not think high alcohol levels are a problem as alcohol is a structural component of a wine and so as long the wine in question has corresponding levels of depth which necessitate the existence of high actual alcohol levels then so much the better. High levels of alcohol are (or should be) symptomatic of a wider trend for fuller flavoured wines which may or not be a problem depending on your tastes. The only time high alcohol is a problem for a specific wine is when that high level is unjustified in terms of balance. The problem is really being able to locate a bottle which properly suits your criteria – how do you go actually about finding a low alcohol wine? Here massively extensive pseudochoice (rows and rows of virtually indistinguishable wines) is no match for what we might call genuine choice in which the drinker is presented with a smaller selection of easily identifiable and stylistically diverse wines.

Anyway, if what I have just written above seems somewhat defensive it is not intended to be. Instead I think that many of us in the wine industry would do well to take note of this website and take on board its legitimate concerns – concerns which are easily neglected particularly if we spend most of our time talking amongst ourselves rather than with people at large.

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Dom Perignon 2002

Both Andy Warhol and the venerable Pérignon are no doubt gently riddling in their graves. I of course refer to the recent release of the tri-brightly coloured Andy Warhol “tribute” DP bottles. Yet, despite the eagerness to indulge in such crass marketing ploys (and who wouldn’t if they work?) Moët still occasionally make, unlike corpses, implausibly good wines. And the contents of these inspired creatively, arty, creative bottles is just that – implausibly good, filled as they are with the pinnacle of fluid subtly and loveliness that is Dom Pérignon 2002.

Dom Perignon 2002

I was fortunate enough to try it alongside a glass of Krug 1998 at a Champagne event in the capital last week. I’m sure that tried in isolation or indeed along with more or less any other Champagne, the Krug would have been more than impressive. The DP to my mind showed itself to be an off-duty thoroughbred race house gently twitching its muscular rear quarters – the very embodiment of latent power tempered by inherent grace. Despite its youth it seemed to possess a crystal-clear balance; that rare ability to exude both depth and transparency. The Krug, on the other hand, was a far more corpulent and pampered animal. Or if it were the same genus then it had had its hindquarters cleaved from its body, marinated in exotic spice and served with mushrooms in the quietly lavish and comfortable surrounds of an upmarket izakaya.

Via this annual event I have been observing the development of Cristal 2002 over the past few years. As a much bigger wine than the DP it lacks its rival’s impeccable poise in its extreme youth, but it is just beginning to really open up. Two years ago it was big and bland. Last year some of those autolytic notes were beginning to sneak through. This year it was positively pungent. I’m very grateful to Roederer rep for failing to organize the advertised 2004 vintage in time for the event.

Krug 1998

The other highlight was the wines of Perrier Jouet which are always both safe and exciting. They seem to have the most consistently and stylistically excellent range of wines right from NV up to prestige cuveé level (although I have never had chance to try their ridiculously expensive Belle Epoque Blanc de Blancs).

Its such a shame that all of the above wines are far beyond the means of most wine drinkers, including myself who only gets to drink such things because I work within the industry. It is a shame because while there are other regions which can provide equivalent quality at comparatively microscopic prices, what Champagne has to offer in terms of actual qualities is quite unique. Thank God there is plenty of superlative Sherry knocking about the place to keep our minds off financial implausibility of purchasing decent Champagne for oneself.

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Erik Satie: My kind of Barolo

I am still feeling a little giddy five hours after being swept of my feet by a quite unexpected Barolo. Over the last week or so I have been treated/subjected to the delights/posturing of a good few dozen Piemontese Nebbiolos at various tastings across the capital and none have stuck me half as much as the wine which prompted the following ramblings:

The Ghost of Erik Satie

Erik Satie, one of the most distinctive voices in modern music, thought that the greatest crime a composer can commit is to bore their audience. Satie’s music is notable for its lack of development, in that each piece presents the listener with a scene which is beautifully presented but never elaborated on. Within a very short space of time all that there is (indeed all that could possibly exist be in these little self-continued universes) is laid bare in a most candid and poignant manner. They come onto you like an apparition out of the darkness, offering a vision that is both familiar and strange. His works by no means lack weight and cannot be accused of just being fanciful ditties. Rather it is their clarity, lack of affectation that give them a sense of masslessness as they deftly skip to-and-fro between the cultural realities of fin de siè cle Europe and Satie’s own and our own phantasy world.

The Tomb of Richard Wagner

With a lot of these young Barolos and Barberescos, particularly the tannic 2006s, trying to get the most out of them from a couple of small sips at this early stage in their youth is more like casually listening to Wagner. Wagner demands time, patience and investment. Otherwise he is 2 parts boring and 3 parts preposterous. His is a “total art” for which one needs to prepare and brace oneself for.

What many people (and some winemakers, I dare say) do not seem understand about the grape is that it is not about brute power and concentration. Nebbiolo has, or should have, one of the most delicate, perplexing and transportative bouquets of any wine. Its heady sweet-savoury aromas when allowed to should have the ability defy description and any obvious or direct correspondence to objective earthly aromas.

For me the good Barolo has something ghostly about it – in its near transparency and ability speak of sensual zones removed from the fruit n’ soil realties of other wines. Yet, entirely of the spirit world it certainly is not – its formidable structure should mean that it has the uncanny ability to reach out, grip your throat seemingly from nowhere like a restless presence inhabiting the hidden in-between spaces of the world. In short, it is not entirely of this world and not entirely removed from it.

My kind of Barolo has much more of Satie about it than it does Wagner. My kind of Barolo is that of Anselma Giacomo.

Anselma Giacomo is a small producer that has been producing wines in the hills of Serralunga d’Alba since 1900. Unfortunately their wines as of yet are unavailable in the UK, but they are looking for the opportunities to export.

Maria Anselma at today’s tasting showed me a photo of the snow-covered vineyards of Rionda in winter, pointing out her patch of vines next, those of (the fabulous) Massolino and a patch she said was not used by viticulture. “What do they grow there then?” I asked. “Strawberries” she replied, “the soil is also just right for them”. Either those are some bloody tasty (and expensive) strawberries or that is one hell of a stubborn farmer.

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Tengoku no Sake (Heaven’s Sake)

 I was a little tentative before going to the Kuromoto saké tasting at the Japan Foundation in London on the 15th of September. For quite some years I have been expounding the delights of Japanese rice wine to (mainly sceptical) friends and colleagues. Maintaining, as I did, that saké (or Nihonshu to give it its proper name – “sakéin Japanese referring to alcoholic beverages in general) could not only attain the levels of complexity as wine but that it could also boasts a similarly wide variety of styles.

Barrels of Dedicated Sake at a Tokyo Shrine

 The reason for my nervousness was that it had been about four years since I had lived in Japan and regularly partook in the national tipple. Since then, substituting teaching for a career in the wine industry, I like to think I have developed a slightly more critical palate, and so my worry was that my previous love of rice wine may turn out to be an unenlightened drinkers love of exotica?

I certainly didn’t want it to be a repeat (in reverse) of the time when I came back to England and realized that I had been talking nonsense when I told my Japanese friends and students that the eating habits of my fellow Brits wasn’t as primitive they assumed.

I am, however, pleased to say that my claims as to the relative merits of saké were not built upon either fetishism or mere nostalgia. Within the 200 different bottles on offer at the tasting there was evidence galore to support saké ’s claim to wine-like complexity. Both in terms of nose and palate most went beyond that level you get in simple wines when several static flavours are detectable and easily identified. Instead they had that ethereal quality which defies easy and immediate articulation, with the flavours and aromas continually shifting and developing within the space of a single sniff or sip. I must admit I found it an incredibly frustrating task to write detailed tasting notes as my previous wine experience seemed to constrain me, making me too eager to reach out for well-used adjectives that always seems to just miss the mark. Using a vinous vocabulary in the end saw me through but seemed a bit like using a tennis racket to play badminton. If forced to generalize we might say that where the ideal of fine wine is a play of between balance and depth. Whereas for premium Nihonshu is between balance and weightlessness.

In terms of variety the range of different taste experiences was impressive; ranging from the sweet, light and floral to fuller more savoury and assertive brews. This diversity was particularly striking given that the saké s on offer represented a very narrow band of their category. All without exception were Junmaishu (made without the addition of brewers alcohol), a category that only makes up a relatively small (but growing) proportion of Nihonshu. The thinking is that Junmaishu as a more “natural” product appeals more to the British market. Although it must be noted that for many years all saké imports to the US by tax law could only be Junmaishu, which may contribute to their predominance in European exports. Stylistically those saké s made with the additional alcohol (Honjozo sake) tend to be a little lighter in body and softer on the finish and are in no way considered by the Japanese to be inferior to the “purer” Junmai saké s. It was also clear that the organizers had excluded some of the more unusual kinds, such as Nigorizake (cloudy saké ) Namazake (unpasteurized live saké ) Koshu (old saké ) as well as the sweeter styles perhaps less suited to western palates.

Too much sake

From a wine drinkers point of view the one thing that Nihonshu significantly lacks is acidity. As far as I can see this is the only (physical) characteristic of saké that prevents it from being considered on the same terms as fine wine. For wine, acidity may be viewed as its structural backbone and the key factor in determining aging potential. Saké on the other hand has almost always been designed to be drunk within the year and ideally as fresh as possible. Aged saké does exist but it is still very much a niche market (and an acquired taste. Imagine an Oloroso that has undergone extensive deacidifcation regime. But as Philip Harper points out in his excellent guide it maybe a category which ’whisky-loving, sherry-swilling Westerners may be quicker off the mark than the Japanese, who lack a tradition of pungent, matured beverages’. (Harper, Philip (1998) The Insider’s Guide to Sake Tokyo: Kodansha International p. 37)

While saké sales in the UK have increased manifold in the last decade (10 years ago only a handful of products were available, now there are hundreds being imported) it seems that it remains an unknown quantity to most consumers in the UK. Those who try (quality) Nihonshu for the first time are usually surprised by the gentle elegance of drink in complete contrast to its image of pungent hangover inducing firewater. From personal experience while I find that more and more people in the UK are becoming more and more knowledgeable about Japanese cuisine this has not led to an corresponding understanding of saké .

The optimum amount of sake

Nihonshu is potentially a very accessible drink even to the novice drinker. The bitterness of red wines and the sharpness of whites which I often hear my customers complaining of are entirely absent in saké due to their low levels of acidity and absence of tannins. Also the information given on the ornately designed bottles is exceptionally thorough to say the least, including the sweetness level given by way of a simple numerical scale. However, even with imported bottles most of this useful information is not laid out in a way which is particularly approachable to non-Japanese consumers.

The tasting event at the Japan foundation focused exclusively on the premium end of the Nihonshu market rather than the “house wine” types you are usually presented with in a restaurant when simply ordering “saké ”. And I think they are right to do so as the only way to get people interested in a product for which there is no previous habit or tradition is to treat them to its finest examples. What Nihonshu lacks is a channel through which its virtues can be disclosed. As it is neither wine, beer or spirit but instead its own unique category it has remained largely unchampioned by European connoisseurs in those fields. In the US things are slightly different with far more post-war exchange between the two countries and the existence of high profile saké critics like John Gauntner.

The other condition which may contribute to a greater understanding is the increasing sophistication of consumers who are more and more beginning to appreciate the inter-functionality of individual wines, beers, spirits etc. By which I mean how a certain wine, for example, is not necessarily best approached as an independent entity removed from its gastronomic/social setting. Nihonshu with its unique flavour and structural profile could therefore potentially make quite a niche for itself on the western dining table.

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Having the Wine of My Life

Last night I dreamt that a childhood ambition that seemed so close to fruition was only to be washed away by an unapologetically clumsy auntie. I was to deliver a bottle of 1787 to a restaurant, which in the dream appeared more like a supermarket, open it, check it for faults and decant it in preparation for the “archbishop’s” dinner. This I duly did but as I was only entitled to a covert sommelier-sample I decided to give the only wine a tentative sniff, thereby sweetening the anticipation for the monumental sip of my first communion. The wine was the colour of brick dust and gave off next to no scent but time, I thought, would coax it out of its shell and allow it to reveal itself in all its glory. Back at my lodging I let the mouthful of brown liquid I had preserved lay untouched for several hours until a number of relatives besieged my cell, violently dispelling the quiet air of meditative expectation that had enveloped the room. As one cannot get rid of one’s relatives as easily as one can get rid of other intruders I resigned myself to the prospect of sharing my moment of reverence. To my sister standing at the sink I first offered the cup. She lowered her head to inhale as I lifted the wine towards her, yet as she sniffed some soap suds slowly dripped from her nose and chin onto the side of the vessel. By quickly tipping the cup I narrowly avoided allowing the lather to breach the rim. Angrily I then set it down on the draining board in readiness to castigate the careless of my sibling. But alas! Before I could do so my auntie, who took it upon herself to indulge in some housework, knocked over the unhappy beaker with a pile of dirty plates. I watched in horror as the numinous liquid drained from it, mingled with the greasy bubbles and soggy remnants of meals past and then faded into memory with only a few relics of brick dust remaining in the bottom of the cup.

While this was indeed my dream, it was and is not my childhood fantasy but that of one of my customers whose fascination with Château Margaux clearly infiltrated my slumberant mind. And so luckily for me I did not feel too despondent when I woke up this morning. At present I do not have any fantasy wines as I have fairly recently tried a bottle which has so exceeded my previous expectations as to the sensual possibilities of a wine that it has temporarily (I hope) negated my capacity to fantasize beyond it. On tasting this wine I felt that I had entered Year Zero; that all that came before this is just a flight of fantasy with no real value, and all that will come after will be judged in the shadow of this monolithic beverage. Is there really any point in drinking anything else after this?

I had a similarly melodramatic moment on hearing a particular piece of music last year. Well it wasn’t strictly music more ritual chant and instrumental accompaniment, but it made me think that there wasn’t any point in making music anymore , as the pinnacle of what it strives to achieve has already been reached. I am, however, glad to say that I soon got over this album and again had faith in the endless possibilities of music generally. And so I hope that I will get over that bottle and see it merely as an individual expression of what is possible rather than the final word on its limits.

Chalky Shutterchance for the Tourist

I was lucky enough to visit Philipponnat and the Clos des Goisses vineyard earlier this year. Rather than giving an extended run down on the virtues of the property I direct you to Tom Stevenson’s excellent article For Better or Worse: Clos des Goisses 1951-1998 (see http://www.wine-pages.com/guests/tom/goisses.pdf). As far as I understand in past years the regular range Philipponnat wines represented rather a significant step down from their famous top cuvee, being not much more than solid né gociant wines. It does seem like now, however, the leap from their blended Champagnes to the single vineyard Clos de Goisses is not so vast. And this, it must be pointed out, is not due to the latter coming down to meet the former. A very good blanc de blancs is now being made, although it does represent a bit of a departure for the Pinot Noir focused house. Their non-vintage non-dosé wine, which incidentally and inexplicably has a completely different character to its dosed equivalent, is for me one of the best zero-doasge wines on the market. But it is the 1522, particularly the white, that manages to emulate a little bit of the glory of its bigger brother. The 2000 was particularly delicious with a biscuity nose of sherbet, sweet spice and white pepper and a powerful but elegant dry palate. And the 2002 with that extra acidity looks set to evolve into something quite quite special. My only criticism is that the range to me seems a little too spread out and lacking strong stylistic consistency. I would prefer to see a more uncompromising statement as to house style by halving the number of wines. But then again this desire is probably more of a product of my own romanticization of the house along with a love of easy classification.

"How many cocks?"

As far as the Clos des Goisses is concerned it is a monumentally singular and impressive wine. It is recommended that it should be decanted (at whatever age) before drinking and that being exposed to the elements for a good hour or so will do it nothing but good. Charles Philipponnat said over lunch, a little provokingly perhaps, that he thought that bubbles were not at all important to Champagne. That he had not interest in them and that they were just an incidental feature of the wine. While I’m sure that anyone who has ever tasted a great Champagne when it is as flat as a pancake will agree that the bubbles are definitely not the singularly most important aspect of a Champagne, I challenge anyone who says that they do not serve to make the special more special.

Unfortunately we did not have the pleasure of tasting any really venerable bottles of the Clos, although we did have a magnum of 1976 regular Philipponnat disgorged by Charles on the spot. The wine was good but not great, quite savoury with yeasty notes, some wood smoke and the kind of fruit you get in good Normandy cider.

As you may have guessed my year-zero wine was indeed a Clos des Goisses, but not one I tried from source at Philipponnat but one – the ’96 vintage – my boss managed to get from Sainsbury’s for 40 quid. It was drunk by him and his friends on the occasion of his birthday in the adjoining restaurant whilst I was tied to my duties in the wine shop. A little glass of each of the wines including some venerable Tignanello and a smidgen of d’Yquem were thankfully brought through to me which I sipped in between selling bottles of Cloudy Bay and elderflower liqueur. The d’Yquem was fantastic, the Tignanello a little disappointing and the Clos des Goisses the revelation that I described earlier. The bouquet was such that I initially thought it a crying shame to consume it, but after finally taking the plunge and taking a tentative sip the palate asserted itself as the rightful seat of this wine, demanding to be sated with more sacrifices. I did, however, manage to resist and made the half glass last several hours in which time it just got better and better.

Looking back at my tatsings notes it seems that I only allocated nine words (three spelt incorrectly) in a feeble attempt to do this phenomenal wine justice. I therefore include in full Alan ‘Burghound’ Meadows more literate and informed critique below:

“One of the greatest examples of the ’96 vintage, this wine has it all with elegance, intensity, subtlety and grace, not to mention buckets of unrealized potential that will enable this beauty to improve for at least another decade and perhaps longer. I can only imagine just how good this would be from magnum format! The nose is discreet, reserved and pure with lemon, green apple and layers upon layers of fruit framed by just the right amount of yeast influence that continues onto the exceptionally dry and tight flavors that are crisp and refined as well as superbly intense yet through it all there is this underlying sense of harmony, as though all of the elements are working in concert. The greatest wines, at least those cut from classical cloth, persuade through the subtlest means and so it is with the ’96 Goisses, which is indeed a great wine by any measure. While it is drinkable now, for my taste preferences a lot of potential would be left in the glass and I wouldn’t start in earnest on this for another 5+ years. 97 points. Tasted 2007” Burghound Issue 28

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