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 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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Musical Drinking: Des Esseintes’ Mouth Organ

Whilst in my teens I read Oscar Wilde’s Portrait of Dorian Gray. I was struck by the novel in general but was particularly intrigued by a certain passage which relates how hero’s path to ultimate destruction was accelerated by the corrupting influence of an unnamed book. Gray, as you may recall, purchased multiple copies of this terrible volume and had them bound in various materials of different shades and hues so a copy would always be at hand which cosmetically corresponded to his current emotional/physical situation. It was not so difficult tracking down this book as its identity is now widely known and was probably even mentioned in the introduction of my Penguin edition of the Wilde Text. I immediately ordered one from my local book shop on my lunch break from school and soon after its arrival proceeded to devour the book in a day or twos fervent reading. The result was a feeling of near readerly euphoria; a sense of being filled to overflow with images of sensuality both pleasant and sickening. It was a meal that filled but did not nourish, no doubt the precise reason why Wilde himself made use of it.       

  The book in question, A Rebours (Against the Grain/Nature) by J.K Huysmans, is one without any real plot.  It is, at least in my reading, more of an account of the struggle between the intellectual idealization of things versus the reality of their corporeal imperfection.  For example, in the passage I have included below the hero’s taking of a whiskey has quite unintended consequences. The dram instead of hitting the spot and simply ‘sounding a single note’ gives rise to uncontrollable associations and transports him to the tortures of the dentist’s chair.   Huysman’s parable serves to remind us of the pitfalls of an unqualified and disembodied sensuality with the warning that the world and worldly objects should not be treated as mere platforms to the sensual – only be disregarded when the desired state is reached.  On the contrary, the sensual is a channel through which to experience interconnectedness and ultimately realize your place within its world.        

What has this to do with wine? You may well ask. Now then, the moral of the story – or at least what I take it to  be – has everything to do with wine. As is it not a thing which is routinely idealized above its physical station? I think I could say with some confidence that drinking and talking about wine as a means of transcending its (and your own) everyday reality is somewhat of a hazardous enterprise. Instead a more healthy pastime might be to consider wine as a complex human creation through which multiple strands of social/historical interaction pass.  And therefore being a tool to help inform and even shed new light on the everyday.       I count the following extract as one the influences to my subsequent interest in wine. It deals with the ability of physical objects to transcend corporeal banality through imagery, suggestion and intellectual connotation. We know a wine can smell of virtually anything besides grapes, and here Des Esseintes, the (anti)hero of the book, pushes the association further to the world of musical sounds. It is a fairly sizable chunk from chapter four and takes off from the point where Des Esseintes finally neglects his heavily jewel encrusted tortoise.    A poor creature that can no longer move on account of its  finery.      

Portrait of JK Huysmans by Lucien Descaves

“…An icy wind was blowing, that sent the snow spinning before it and soon reversed this first arrangement of black and white. The sky returned to the correct heraldic blazon, became a true ermine, white dappled with sable, where the black of night showed here and there through the general whiteness of the snowy mantle of descending snowflakes.         

He closed the window again. But this quick change, without any intermediate transition, from the torrid heat of the room to the cold of mid-winter had given him a shock; he crouched back beside the fire and thought he would swallow a dose of spirits to restore his bodily temperature.         

He made his way to the dining-room, where in a recess in one of the walls, a cupboard was contrived, containing a row of little barrels, ranged side by side, resting on miniature stocks of sandal wood and each pierced with a silver spigot in the lower part.         

This collection of liquor casks he called his mouth organ. A small rod was so arranged as to connect all the spigots together and enable them all to be turned by one and the same movement, the result being that, once the apparatus was installed, it was only needful to touch a knob concealed in the panelling to open all the little conduits simultaneously and so fill with liquor the tiny cups hanging below each tap.         

The organ was then open. The stops, labelled “flute,” “horn,” “vox humana,” were pulled out, ready for use. Des Esseintes would imbibe a drop here, another there, another elsewhere, thus playing symphonies on his internal economy, producing on his palate a series of sensations analogous to those wherewith music gratifies the ear.         

Indeed, each several liquor corresponded, so he held, in taste with the sound of a particular instrument. Dry curacao, for instance, was like the clarinet with its shrill, velvety note; kummel like the oboe, whose timbre is sonorous and nasal; creme de menthe and anisette like the flute, at one and the same time sweet and poignant, whining and soft. Then, to complete the orchestra, comes kirsch, blowing a wild trumpet blast; gin and whisky, deafening the palate with their harsh outbursts of comets and trombones; liqueur brandy, blaring with the overwhelming crash of the tubas, while the thunder peals of the cymbals and the big drum, beaten might and main, are reproduced in the mouth by the rakis of Chios and the mastics.         

He was convinced too that the same analogy might be pushed yet further, that quartettes of stringed instruments might be contrived to play upon the palatal arch, with the violin represented by old brandy, delicate and heady, biting and clean-toned; with the alto, simulated by rum, more robust, more rumbling, more heavy in tone; with vespetro, long-drawn, pathetic, as sad and tender as a violoncello; with the double-bass, full-bodied, solid and black as a fine, old bitter beer. One might even, if anxious to make a quintette, add yet another instrument,–the harp, mimicked with a sufficiently close approximation by the keen savour, the silvery note, clear and self-sufficing, of dry cumin.         

Nay, the similarity went to still greater length, analogies not only of qualities of instruments, but of keys were to be found in the music of liquors; thus, to quote only one example, Bénédictine figures, so to speak, the minor key corresponding to the major key of the alcohols which the scores of wine-merchants’ price-lists indicate under the name of green Chartreuse.         

These assumptions once granted, he had reached a stage, thanks to a long course of erudite experiments, when he could execute on his tongue a succession of voiceless melodies; noiseless funeral marches, solemn and stately; could hear in his mouth solos of crême de menthe, duets of vespetro and rum.         

He even succeeded in transferring to his palate selections of real music, following the composer’s motif step by step, rendering his thought, his effects, his shades of expression, by combinations and contrasts of allied liquors, by approximations and cunning mixtures of beverages.         

Sometimes again, he would compose pieces of his own, would perform pastoral symphonies with the gentle blackcurrent ratafia that set his throat resounding with the mellow notes of warbling nightingales; with the dainty cacao-chouva, that sung sugarsweet madrigals, sentimental ditties like the “Romances d’Estelle”; or the “Ah! vous di-rai-je maman,” of former days.         

But tonight, Des Esseintes had no wish to “taste” the delights of music; he confined himself to sounding one single note on the keyboard of his instrument, filling a tiny cup with genuine Irish whisky and taking it away with him to enjoy at his leisure.         

He sank down in his armchair and slowly savoured this fermented spirit of oats and barley–a strongly marked, almost poisonous flavour of creosote diffused itself through his mouth.         

Little by little, as he drank, his thoughts followed the impression thus re-awakened on his palate, and stimulated by the suggestive savour of the liquor, were roused by a fatal similarity of taste and smell to recollections half obliterated years ago.         

The acrid, carbolic flavour forcibly recalled the very same sensation that had filled his mouth and burned his tongue while the dentists were at work on his gums.         

Once started on this track, his recollections, at first wandering vaguely over all the different practitioners he had had to do with, drew to a point, converging on one of the whole number, the eccentric memory of whose proceedings was graven with particular emphasis on his memory…”         

Huysmans, J.K. (1969) Against the Grain, Robert Baldick (trans.) London: Constable & Company

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2005/2009 And All That

 The following piece a wrote a year or so ago after a trip to the Rhône. It concerns the indifference shown by every producer we met towards the 2005 vintage in stark contrast to everyone else’s excitement. This was brought to mind again by the hullabaloo surrounding the release of the  Bordeaux 2009s.
From my limited experience with the Bordelais I suspect that there are few who show equivalent disdain for such “great vintages” but I am also sure that they do express a similar fondness and appreciation for the “weaker” ones. There is, though, perhaps a cultural difference at play here here in that the big Bordeaux houses have a had several hundred years of history and reputation of making wines for the future.  Whereas in the Rhône wines for the present have – with relatively few excpetions – been the order of the day. Having said this, something I was really struck by recently at a vertical tasting of 2006-2009 Bordeauxs was how delicious many of the 2009s were despite their extreme youth. They generally stood out to be not only the best wines , but also the most immediately enjoyable wines in the line up. This is perhaps a result of premature youthful exuberance (on the part of the wines, not me) but as I have been told the good old-fashioned Claret of decades past would not have been so amiable at this early stage of its life. But I digress.

A storm brewing over Beaucastel

One question we are often subjected to in the wineshop is the ubiquitous “is it a good year?”. It is a question which has remained perched on the lips of dedicated drinkers since its first utterance millennia ago, and no doubt will remain there for ages to come. For those who take a particularly active interest in such things there is literature enough annually published, in pocket-sized book and periodical alike arming the enthusiast day by day, raindrop by hail-stone reports on the more presumptive issue of “will it be a good year?”.

As you might expect, we found the viticulturalists of the Rhone Valley no less concerned with the fickle vicissitudes of the weather. Whilst we were there most were eagerly hoping for a spot of rain to douse the vines that were being subjected to the intense, almost 2003-like heat. Certainly, each producer was more than willing to leap into detailed accounts on the metrological triumphs and difficulties of any given year, with accompanying looks of enthusiasm/vexation. Variation in character from one vintage to the next did undeniably manifest itself in the wines, most markedly in the contrast between the dark, concentrated 2005s and their the two softer vintages which flanked them either side. Indeed, it was the 2005s that had been singled out from other recent vintages as “the ones to look out for”. These were the wines that our customers most eagerly sought and we most enthusiastically recommended.

What was a surprise, then, was the almost universal ambivalence exhibited by Rhone’s winemakers to this celebrated vintage. As far as critics, consumers, vintage charts and wineshop workers are concerned, the superior quality of the 2005s (particularly the reds of the South) was taken as read. We may make the concession that they are perhaps not at their optimum drinking stage yet, but still the bottom line is that they are the “better” wines. So why did not a single producer we visited, North to South, show any of the enthusiasm towards these wines that we had previously expected from them?

With Mr Charvin (centre) of CNDP

 The answer manifested itself when it became apparent that what is “good” for the wine drinker is not necessarily “good” for a maker: The producer puts in one years worth of work and worry into their vineyards, but no matter how much they exert themselves they are ultimately at the mercy of higher powers. To be sure as Hugh Johnson has reminded us, what with modern wine making techniques, no really bad wines will be made even under the worst weather conditions. But still, only through massive technological mediation will the character of a wine remain totally unaffected. Anyway, after one years toil what you want as a winemaker is an end product that you can firstly, be proud of. Secondly, enjoy. And thirdly, is representative of both you and your estate. The problem with the 2005s is that they only fulfil the first of these criteria. These are great big brooding wines which by virtue of their formidable tannic content and concentration are not so pleasant to drink (yet). Nor do they really directly speak of vineyards which bore them, as all subtle notes of terroir are masked by that overbearingly powerful structure. In 2005 the weather conditions were so near perfect that much less intervention was required from the winemaker. So with the 2005s there was little to struggle against and therefore nothing at the end of the year to make them feel that they had really achieved something. In addition, they were left with a wine that was not immediately enjoyable – a finished product only in a technical sense. Most critics (and I tend to agree with them) are sure that they will evolve into majestic wines, but producers like Luc Tardy are not so sure, proclaiming how he really has no idea how they will eventually turn out.

We got a sense from these producers that far from attempting to make wines for posterity or indeed, wines to be appreciated in the cold light of the expert’s tasting room, they were making drinks that were not intended to be enjoyed in isolation from the other pleasures in life. Bernard Gripa of St. Joseph talked to us extensively on wine and food matching underlining the virtues of oyster gratin paired with St Peray. Tardy was even more candid, explicitly stating how his wines were not designed to be tasted on their own terms, but drunk as part of the occasion.

In short, it is easy for us to glance at a vintage chart and assume that one wine will be better than the other. But the greatest vintages don’t always produce wines that are always great to drink. Of course, winemakers have their own agenda – most we met aspired to a wine that best expresses their techniques and their vineyards, something which will not necessarily trouble the average drinker. However, looking back on my tasting notes it is those wines from lighter vintages and even the ones which were just past their peak, like Gonon’s ephemeral 1985 St. Joseph Rouge, which remind me most of the Rhone, the places we went and the people we met. These were wines which spoke not of the future but of the present.

Mr Luc Tardy (left) of Dom. Murinais in Crozes-Hermitage

To put things in filmic terms, as I am inclined to do, different years are like different actors; some actors cost more money than others. All have their strengths and weaknesses and all their different personalities. Some stand the test of time while others fleetingly capture the moment and then are destined to become rather dated rather quickly.

I get tired of people coming into my video shop and just demanding the best film. I try to ask them if they are after something exciting to watch on a Saturday night with friends or if they were looking for something more serious keep as part of their collection. But no, they just want the best films with the greatest stars irrespective of mood or genre. Personally I have never seen the Shawshank Redemption, i’m sure it is a very well-made film, but it doesn’t really appeal.

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Points Mean Prizes: The Righteousness of Reviews & the Parkerization of Fear

Have a glass, it is my only weakness

I wrote the following partly in resposne to a particularly tiresome customer  and partly because I came up with the rather daft phrase ‘the Parkerization of Fear’ and wanted to use it.

Robert Parker does not generally inspire the best of praise in the Europe and the UK. Or at least the idea of a semi-malignant autocrat championing blandness and blockbustery at the expense of tradition and individuality does not inspire much praise. For Europeans he has become an almost conspiratorial figure – sinisterly extending and extending his influence in all spheres of the wine economy. He seems to be for us what phylloxera was for our ancestors, a vinous boogieman (in the non-disco sense of course).    

Wine companies, however, are not the kind of children to be so easily frightened. They instead often perpetuate the myth by seeking to mark out their beverage in all its elegance and authentic glory in opposition to the dangerously extracted Parker pointing wine. How refreshing it would be to hear a winemaker or brand ambassador to conversely declare their allegiances or at least respect for Wine Critic Number 1.    

With wine and wine related literature my approach, perhaps like most people’s, is to treat it as a tool. That is not as gospel or as an end itself but as a means of enhancing my own experience regardless of the fact content. It may bore you to tears hearing people qualifying their observations with the phrase “but taste is so subjective”, yet within the cliché there is an important point: It is not one about me smelling strawberries while you smell raspberries but about our basic approach drinking and thinking about wine. When deciding on a film to watch you consult someone whose opinion you not only trust but whose movie preferences roughly correspond to your own. In the same way that you won’t read the a tabloid review section if you have an interest in Avant-garde German cinema. There are no right and wrong ways to approach wine, only sensible or misguided ways for the individual to approach wine at a particular given time. This concession does not preclude education or “betterment“, rather it encourages it by acknowledging the role of audience focused media and that audience’s ability to transform itself. We have seen this quite recently in terms of consumption across the board in the increased interest in the origins and circumstance of productions of goods generally.    

The criticism that I most often hear of Parker’s is that he has a particular taste. I think that we all would admit that this cannot be otherwise. The only possible criticism I can see stemming from this is not of Parker but of an unenlightened readership who take his word/point at face value, assuming that Parker’s judgment, correct judgment and their own judgment are synonymous. However, in my experience working in a wine shop this is seldom the case. Perhaps my customers are an unusually erudite bunch but I like to think that their active as (opposed to passive) use Parker and other critics is the norm rather than the exception. It is true there are people who just look at the points and are thereby probably missing out on a lot and are not doing the intricacies of their own unique palate any justice. But on the other hand they no doubt have other things to do – walking the dog, stamp collecting, extreme sports etc.    

I get the impression, though I could be wrong, that many dismiss out of hand Parker without actually reading him or just going by his reviews. My impression of him as a writer as a champion of regionality, diversity and terroir contrasts sharply with the dominant image of him within the industry. Whether or not you agree with his slant he still can be a very useful recourse if just for the simple fact that he has been to wineries I haven’t, drank wines that I’ve never tasted and knows things which I don’t Criticism, in my opinion, must therefore be divided in two – that which relates to his writings proper and that which relates to their wider impact. The question of if his efforts have led to any kind of wider homogenization of wine is a matter both too for complex me to fathom and without a doubt too multifarious for Robert Parker himself to consciously determine.    

The one thing that I find it difficult to forgive Mr. Parker for is not the invention of the points system (indeed quite a sensible idea) but the invention of the points system as a journalistic tool. A method of scoring is a useful, even essential shorthand for personal records. It allows you to revisit in your mind the qualities of particular wine by elaborating intended intensity of the various adjectives you may have used to describe the wine in your notes. But such a system when used publicly, unless the reader has an intimate knowledge of the writer’s previous notes, risks simplifying and obscuring the subtleties which it first sought to promote.  

Alan “Burghound” Meadows though himself a firm advocate of the 100 point scoring system articulates the problem most succinctly when he requests his readers to acknowledge that “…the score is a summation of the taster’s thoughts about a wine. It does not actually express those thoughts. Clearly, a mere number cannot fully represent the nuanced, detailed impression conveyed by a tasting note” (see, my emphasis). Yet even with this realization i’m sure that for the most experienced wine enthusiasts there is still that psychological barrier to overcome when selecting the most suitable wine for the occasion when a less suitable one with a higher score sits besides it. In this sense points are the text messages of reviews; handy, convenient and easily taken the wrong way.      

The other day in the wine shop a customer accosted me with a half bottle of Left Bank Bordeaux. Bypassing the usual courtesies they demanded a review. Whilst leading them round to the front of the shop where I could perhaps get my hands on a suitable volume or search for something on the internet I thought I might explain a little about the wine myself but I was cut short. Only a written review was acceptable. Not being a massively prestigious wine or from a celebrated year a specific account from not forthcoming so my manager offered his services stating “I’m afraid we can’t seem to find a review, but I can offer my own.” Again a rebuff. The wine was eventually bought after I managed to find a brief anonymous account online which detailed its Cabernet to Merlot proportions.    

While I am very happy to say that customers of such obnoxiously dismissive ilk are few and far between the experience does highlight something about the power of the written word. It is still able to cloak itself in a guise of authority which far surpasses that of its spoken cousin. It is perhaps a little more lightly attired than it once was due to the slight debriefing it suffered through the democratizing ways of the internet, but it still represents the final word on this and just about all other subjects. Again the thing to do is to read actively rather than passively as (it is blazingly obvious here) any idiot can post something on the internet.

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