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Monday 25th August 2003
Back from France last night. A pleasant family holiday where wine took a rather back-seat role, but an appropriate one: with two other couples and our respective tribe of enfants we enjoyed copious quantities of fairly modest wine at the table every lunch and evening meal. As chief wine buyer, I stuck almost exclusively to the local wines Ė Ďlocalí in this sense referring to the wines of the whole of the south west of France (we were in the Lot, near the villages of Cressensac, Tournelle and HŰpital St Jean). This takes in a nice spread of different wine styles, all of which tend to offer lots of flavour for the money. We did reds from Cahors, Fronton, Bergerac and Coteaux de Quercy, complimented by the whites of Gaillac and JuranÁon. We missed out Madiran and a number of other notables, but it was great fun to explore some good examples of authentic, terroir wines along with good food and without breaking the bank.

Two wine buying experiences to report. First, I stumbled across an impressive wine shop in Orlťans, where we stopped on the way back home. The Cave Marc & Sťbastien (7 Place du Chatelet, 45000 Orlťans, tel 02 38 62 94 11) is a friendly, modern-looking, well-stocked shop of real interest to geeks. Iíd only been browsing a couple of minutes when a glass was thrust into my hand (a barrique-aged Muscat de Frontignan), and I was asked what I thought of it. I picked up a few interesting bottles here at good prices and would have gone back for more if Iíd had time. The second experience was my first encounter with Majesticís Wine and Beer World, in Calais. Itís open until late on Sunday evenings (unlike most French outlets) and as long as you arenít looking for anything too posh, itís a great place to stock up on some well chosen cheapies on the way back to the ferry, sea cat or tunnel. The commercial centre where it is located is a much nicer experience than fighting through the hordes at the grotesque monument to the horrors of modern retailing that goes under the name of Citť de Europe, which I vowed never to return to after my last visit.  

Wednesday 13th August
Rest is part of the normal pattern of life. Itís healthy to take a break every now and then, and opt out of the daily grind Ė in taking a step back, often you end up with a more healthy perspective. Rest is seen as a bit of a waste in the 24/7 pattern of UK and US society, where continual activity an essential piece of evidence we use to reassure ourselves that we are so important we simply donít have time to stop. Well, Iím not very important and I need to stop now and again, so Iím off on holiday tomorrow for 10 days, and Iím going to take a complete break. This means I probably wonít be updating wineanorak until August 25th. I apologise for this Ė itís something Iíve thought about quite carefully. I could have arranged for someone else to update it in my absence, but itís very much my own direct communication with readers, and I want to keep it that way. Keeping wineanorak going, however, is anything but a chore: I do it for fun, as a hobby, and Iíd keep doing it even if it didnít pay.  In some ways, I quite admire the continental Europeans: the French close almost everything for two hours at lunchtime, donít open on Sunday, and then disappear for the best part of the month of August. And they survive. Theyíre probably healthier for it. Weíre off to a small village in the Dordogne, to a house with a big swimming pool - ah, the pool - and pretty grounds. Itís the same place we went last year, and we had a great time. Itís not in any wine region, but the nearby appellations of Gaillac, Cahors, Bergerac and Monbazillac, and then slightly further afield Jurancon and Madiran, are a rich source of interesting and largely inexpensive wines. Southwestern reds are brilliant food wines Ė sometimes a little stern for casual sipping, but ideal at the table. I guess weíll be eating and drinking a fair bit. I hope to come back inspired and refreshed, with lots of great new ideas.

I was quite surprised to see myself quoted in the recent news piece by Patrick Matthews on www.decanter.com about the demise of La Vigneronne (you'll have to find this yourself on Decanter's site, I can't hotlink to it from a train carriage - it was from August 5th, I recall). He e-mailed me asking for the whereabouts of a discussion on the subject on one of the bulletin boards, which I pointed him towards. Next thing I know, a quote from me has been lifted from a discussion I had there. Well, it was nice of Patrick to give this site a mention, and it's true that no publicity is bad publicity, but it does make me look like I talked to Decanter about this. The moral of the story is watch out what you say online, and don't say anything you wouldn't want to be quoted on later. In the final analysis, though (goodness, I'm beginning to sound like a football manager - 'at the end of the day, John, it's a match of two halves'), you just have to trust the journalist not to twist what you've said for the purposes of a good story. 

Tuesday 12th August
The hot weather looks being a big boost to the UK wine industry, with 2003 set to be a bumper crop. This follows hot on the heels of a very successful harvest in 2002. Last year, we had a rather crappy summer all the way through until September, but then settled, warm and sunny conditions carried through to harvest time. So it could be time to begin exploring the delights of English wine, for those not yet familiar with it. The BBC news site has a well written news piece on the rosy prospects for the UKís 2003 harvest here. Itís nice to see that wineanorak.com takes pole position on Ďrelated internet linksí. Thank you, whoever you are (the piece isnít by-lined). As for my patch of vines in Twickenham, theyíre doing quite well, with about a quarter of the vines now in their third year and sporting some healthy looking grapes. Iíve been using powdered green sulphur for mildew control: if anyone knows where I can get hold of some wettable sulphur to spray, please contact me. Iím also going to be planting some Phoenix, a grape variety resistant to fungal disease, which probably wonít need any spraying at all. Elsewhere in Europe itís unclear as to whether this hot spell is the unalloyed good news for the 2003 vintage that some are claiming it to be. It will certainly be the earliest vintage in Bordeaux and Burgundy in history, but hotter doesnít automatically mean better. What it does mean is that grapes will stand a better chance of being harvested before Autumn rains, which will be good for quality, but thereís a danger that some finesse and quality will be lost through higher alcohol levels and shorter hang time. Letís wait and see, eh?

Sunday 10th
The heat wave continues. So how do I spend the UKís hottest ever day (officially 100 degrees Fahrenheit at Heathrow today, which is five miles down the road from here)? By playing in an all-day five-aside tournament. I have drunk about 14 gallons of water, along with a couple of beers at the end, and I havenít peed once. It was good fun, but Iím rather glad we didnít do better Ė six group games were enough, so it was a relief not to go into the knockout stage. Yesterday was spent somewhere much more appropriate, at the beach. We had a great time at the lovely Ė and relatively uncrowded Ė Suffolk town of Aldeburgh, just down from what is turning into the London suburb of Southwold. Apparently, every other property is Southwold is owned by a Londoner, and Aldeburgh, while not yet that bad, is going the same way. Itís a pretty place, though, and on a sunny day with a good offshore breeze its irresistible. Turning to wine, itís a little difficult to choose at the moment. Itís only as the temperature dips a little in the evening that I can think about anything other than ice-cold lager. Last night I opened a 2000 Vinsobres ĎLes Hauts de Gramenoní from Gramenon. In Robert Parkerís Wine Buyers Guide, he mentions that Gramenon bottles with very low sulphur dioxide (SO2), but he also goes on to say that it is bottled with high CO2 to protect the wine. Evidently, high CO2 doesnít protect against brettanomyces (why should it?), because this wine is loaded with brett (to my palate at least; I havenít run any chemical tests). Itís not entirely unpleasant, but thereís a tell tale metallic tang and lots of cheesy, animal and smoky/spicy aromas that are not terroir, but microbially derived. It needs food.

Tuesday 5th August
For those waiting anxiously for August's wines of the months, apologies. I'm going to do them soon, but in the meantime I have several deadlines to contend with, including two Portuguese commissions and a feature for Wine magazine. In the meantime, enjoy one of the funniest wine websites I've come across in a while. It's entitled 'Bum wines', and it deals with its subject matter brilliantly. To quote from the introduction: 'Call them bum wines, street wines, fortified wines, wino wines, or twist-cap wines.  Whatever you call these beverages for the economical drunkard, this page explores the top five, in alphabetical order.  So curl up on a heating duct and enjoy...' Brilliant satire. 

Monday 4th August
Time for another extended tasting note. Itís a balmy Sunday evening. This weekend, Twickenham has basked in 80 degree heat and enjoyed cloudless skies. But while Iím generally a sun-lover, the thing I appreciate most about these summer days is not the midday heat, itís the evening warmth. Us Brits normally have to hurry indoors once the sun goes down, confining our al fresco dinners and late night drinks on the patio to the realm of holiday experiences. But on nights like tonight, we can sit outdoors enjoying the smells, sounds and mood of the night. All thatís missing is the cicadas buzzing in the background.

Wine choice was tricky this evening. Most of my stash is currently boxed up and inaccessible. It came down to a choice between a 1994 Nine Popes from Charles Melton, and a 1999 Douro Reserva from Borges. The Portuguese wine won out, partly because itís less grand and Iím currently on the way back from a chest infection. As a result, Iím a little unsure of my fine-tasting ability, so take this into consideration when reading my note. Besides, the Melton bottle has an emotional attachment: I bought it back in March 1996 from Oddbins Fine Wine, the day before my first visit to a wine region Ė Australiaís Barossa Valley. And the first vineyard I visited there was Charles Meltonís. Iíd been enjoying his Shiraz which back in 93-94 was stocked by Oddbins for £7.99. A bargain at that price: now it hovers around £20 and I canít summon any enthusiasm for it.

The Douro wine itself is not a perfect one, but itís just right for tonight. I get a bit frustrated with the notion of the Ďbestí wine. You want a wine thatís appropriate for the occasion on which it is being served. That changes. Thus thereís no such thing as a Ďbestí wine. This Douro wine shows some nice herbiness. Itís quite savoury, with some cherry-like fruit flavours. Good acidity keeps it fresh and makes it food friendly. Thereís some spiciness, too, along with a little slightly-too-obvious toasty, roasted oak character. It finishes with some tannins that make me think of biting into plum skins. Hard to score, and I donít think scores do wine justice because they tend to ignore context and personal preference. But if Iím pressed, Iíd say mid to high eighties. Eminently Ďdigestibleí, too. This wonít last longÖ

Thursday 31st July
Sad news that La Vigneronne, one of Londonís most interesting wine shops, is to close. It was something of a mecca for wine nuts. Mike and Liz Berryís small operation on the Old Brompton Road was unique in two respects. First, they specialized in the wines of the South of France, and to some extent were responsible for bringing many of the new wave of premium Languedoc producers into the radar screens of UK wine lovers. This was a shop not afraid of having a hopelessly unbalanced range, strong on regional France but with big gaps elsewhere: how many other retailers would list the Arbois wines of Jacques Puffeney, for example? The eclectic nature of their range is without parallel in the UK, I suspect. The other remarkable facet of La Vigneronne was its tasting program. Two or three nights a week hard-bitten wine geeks would troop down to the cellar to taste through a bunch of wines gathered around a particular theme. The quantity, breadth and quality of the tastings was amazing, even if they seemed to get a little more frequent and commercially driven of late.

Not all is lost, though. While La Vigneronne as we know it is closing, the shop is changing hands. Itís been purchased by Holland Park merchant James Handford MW. I know James and his colleagues David Penny and Greg Sherwood reasonably well, and they run a very good wine shop. Early indications are that they will still carry many of the Languedoc wines that have made La Vigís reputation, while at the same time broadening and balancing the range. The tasting program is likely to continue. Weíll be watching anxiously as the transition takes place, but the early signs are that 105 Old Brompton Road will still be a rewarding detour for wine geeks.

Tuesday 22nd July
Last night I attended a thoroughly interesting tasting (another - I seem to be on a bit of a roll at the moment). This was the ultimate Musar vertical: 20 vintages of the red, spanning back almost four decades, plus four of the white as a sort of sideshow. For those unfamiliar with this wine, Musar is a Lebanese wine that inspires a cult-like following. It is full of unusual flavours, itís still relatively affordable (current release is the 1997, which will set you back around £11) and it ages very well. Rather appropriately, this event was held in a Lebanese restaurant, Maroush, where the staff were remarkably accommodating and waived the corkage charge. It was a privilege to be one of the 11 participants for what must count as one of the most extensive line-ups of this wine gathered for a single event. The tasting itself was organized on the internet and turned out to be an amazing collaborative effort, with everyone bringing one or more of the wines. Full notes will follow. From memory, the wines of the 90s were all showing very well, with the exception of 1995 which was corked. 1991 was classically styled and quite refined, 1993 riper and sweeter, 1994 was very ripe and sweet. 1996 is in a much lighter style and not for the long-term (but still nice) and 1997 is very promising Ė quite big and chunky. All were drinking very well now. The 80s wines were all pretty good, although one or two were starting to tire. The pick of the older vintages was the 1972, which was showing very well. 1966 and 1967, the two representatives from the 60s, were still alive and interesting, with the 1967 the lighter but perhaps the most expressive of the two. A memorable evening.

Monday 14th July
Attended a really interesting tasting today. Organized by Sam Harrop, a winemaker working for Marks & Spencer, it consisted of a line-up of 25 leading Syrah-based wines, tasted blind. But this was different. The goal of the tasting was to assess the role Brettanomyces (a contaminating yeast) plays in the flavour of various styles of Syrah. On the one hand we have the camp who thinks that at low levels brett is a complexing factor; on the other we have those (including most winemakers) who think it should be avoided at all costs. Throw into the equation the fact that thereís some level of debate about whether certain wines are bretty or not, and it all becomes horridly complex. This is why this tasting was so useful: the group which I was part of, consisting of various trade people, were asked to rate whether we thought the wines were bretty, to what degree, and whether this was a positive or negative thing. Sam Harrop is now going to send samples of these wines off to a lab to test for brett so that we can see whether our perceptions were correct. It will also answer, to a degree at least, the question of whether or not these brett is an intrinsic part of the character of certain wine styles. The motivation for this unusually focused tasting comes from the fact that Harropís MW dissertation is on this topic. The wines we tasted (together with my scores Ė remember, this was double blind) included 1990 Grange (90/100, I called it as an older Aussie), Rostaingís 1995 CŰte Blonde CŰte RŰtie (87/100, I called this as old world in a new world style), Sean Thackreyís Orion 1996 (94/100, showing brilliantly and for me the wine of the tasting), Henschkeís 1996 Hill of Grace (85/100, OTT Aussie style in my notes), JL Chaveís 1997 Hermitage (91/100, tasted quite evolved), and Ogierís 2000 CŰte RŰtie (90/100, correctly called as CŰte RŰtie). I eagerly await the results of the lab tests.

Wednesday 9th July
Last night I stood on a nail. My foot is very sore. But this is irrelevant. Slightly more relevant to wine (but only just) is an interesting article in todayís Nature ĎScience Updateí: itís a news piece entitled ĎCopycat waitresses get bigger tips: mimicked diners are more generous to staff and othersí. The study described looked at an American-style restaurant in Southern Holland (hmmm, bet that didnít have too many Michelin stars), where the average tip left nearly doubled for the mimicking waitstaff to Ďnearly 3 guildersí (less than a pound, a bit more than a dollar). To be fair to the seemingly tight-fisted Dutch diners, apparently service is included in the bill and a tip is genuinely a gesture of appreciation. The article makes me think of some John Cleese-like character in Torquay who reads this and then tries to put it into practice with disastrous results.

Another news story that caught my eye is a classic and slightly grotesque one, entitled ĎMan Drives Home, Pedestrian in Windshieldí. Itís a brilliant piece of news writing that just gets more bizarre with each carefully phrased paragraph. Sounds like something from the Onion.

Saturday 5th July
Itís a week ago since we left our home of seven years in Twickenham. It was a good house, but far too small. Weíre now settled in rental accommodation up the road, which is home for the next three months. Itís bigger than the last place, which makes a lot of difference, but still a good deal smaller than the house we have had an offer accepted on, a couple of miles from here (pictured right). This Victorian pad is enormous, but it needs a lot of work, including fitting central heating, repairs to the roof, rewiring and total redecoration. The goal is to have most of this done, to budget, in the next two months and three weeks. Letís hope it all goes OK. I think weíre slightly mad taking this on, and so do our friends and family. They are usually right. No cellar, alas, so it looks like Iím going to have to get a standalone unit, Eurocave or similar, to keep my decent bottles in.

Now the move is over Iím able to concentrate on some articles that need writing. Iím in the fortunate position of having five current commissions.  Iíve just finished one for Harpers on Ďreductioní, a complex winemaking/technical concept that Iíve tried to make interesting without dumbing it down, and Iím currently researching another on mechanisms of terroir, which should be interesting. Then there are three for Wine Magazine on topics that Iím very keen on, starting with wine and the brain. Itís all great fun, but Iím keen to make sure that I donít neglect this site, which will remain regularly updated. Looking back over the last year, Iíd say that the amount of original content on wineanorak bears comparison with (or even exceeds) that of any other UK wine website Ė and bear in mind that a lot of other sites use user-generated content (primarily in the form of bulletin boards) to boost their visitor count and page views.

Sunday 29th June
Apologies are due for a reduced frequency of updates on wineanorak. Moving house is a complete hassle, especially when you are stupid enough to hire a van and do it yourself. I reckon Iíve lost a stone in the last three days with continued shifting of heavy boxes, not to mention a modest wine cellar. Thankfully my back has proved reassuringly sturdy, without a twinge despite a rather dodgy lifting technique. Weíre all sorted now, so normal service should resume. Over the last few nights Iíve had a couple of bottles of cheap Aussie fizz Ė Seaview and Nottage Hill, to be precise. They arenít complex, but theyíre pretty well made. Despite the crude mousse (big bubbles), the acid balance is quite good and the vaguely neutral fruit flavours are fine when the wine is chilled down enough. As occasion wines theyíre fine, and theyíre remarkably food compatible, too. Of course, decent Champagne is peerless among sparkling wines, but itís also £20+ a bottle. These Aussies weigh in a bit over a fiver and they are much more pleasurable than cheap Champagne at twice the price. We should be drinking more of them. Tonight Iím sipping Alain Graillotís Crozes Hermitage 1998. Bottle seven of a case, and this is not a wine you can be neutral about. It has amazingly savoury, cheesy flavours, with high acidity backing up the raspberry fruit. As it is evolving these cheesy, green olive flavours are in the ascendant, making it quite a challenging wine. I wonder: where do these cheesy flavours come from? Are they microbiological in origin? I donít think the wine is typically bretty, but they must be coming from somewhere. Itís a mood wine: some evenings itís just to my taste; others, and itís a little too much.

Thursday 26th June
Today I have been a white van driver. Itís a big transit panel van that weíve been using to move house in. Driving a white van changes the way you think. You enter a special club; your temperament is altered. Suddenly youíve moved upwards in the hierarchy of the road. Other white van drivers give you a nod. And parking and reversing are suddenly a complete nightmare. The amazing thing is that when you get back in your family saloon, it feels like driving a formula 1. A Mondeo never felt so exciting. Contrast and context I guess. If you are used to drinking wine lake plonk, an Aussie branded wine will taste like heaven.

Returning to the subject of wine, last nightís tipple was a 1997 Roc des Mates from Ch‚teau Cazeneuve, a Pic St Loup wine I bought in quantity a few years ago from the now defunct Fullers (a great buy at £6.99). Itís still alive, with a lovely meaty edge, but it has started to develop some caramelly notes. Very nice but even better a couple of years ago. Tonight, after a hard dayís moving, itís a cheap but tasty Grenache from Peter Lehmann Ė a little alcoholic, but with lovely sweet herby fruit. A bargain at £4.03 from Sainsbury.

Monday 23rd June
After a busy weekendís packing, my wine stash is now ready to move. Iíve put it into sturdy six pack containers purchased from
www.winebox.co.uk, neatly labelled with the contents. The fact that Iíve managed to keep it down to some 200 bottles is only because Iíve exercised a great deal of restraint, buying in twos, threes and (in rare cases) sixes, rather than 12 bottle cases. After some deliberate efforts to drink stuff up, Iím now overweight in Northern RhŰne (something Iím pleased about) and Australia (which Iím buying little of at present), underweight in Bordeaux (I may have to redress this soon, now that en primeur prices seem to have softened) and Burgundy (I have no decent Burgundy at all!). Iíd also like to start adding some decent new wave Portuguese wines to my stash, and supplementing the Spanish section. Alsace and the Loire could do with a bit of a bolstering, and I'd like to add to my Languedoc stash. I'm doing well with Bandol (Provence) but poorly with Champagne and the south west. Then thereís Italy, Austria and the USA, all of which have rather token coverage at present. So hereís the big question: with a cellar, do you decide to be a generalist (broad, shallow coverage) or a specialist (in depth, narrow representation)? And what's the ideal size? 

Iíve also decided that I was wrong. As one reader has pointed out to me, the Ďseek and findí method of cellar tracking is daft when you have more than a couple of hundred bottles. It makes sense to run a spreadsheet of cellar contents, or else you are likely to miss the optimum drinking windows for much of your collection. There are few things worse in the wine world than to see someone with a cellar full of wines that are all past their best Ė this is quite likely to happen with mid-range Bordeaux, for example, as our recent old wine offline amply demonstrated. Old wines past their best all begin to taste the same Ė of old wine.

As an aside, thereís a report on the BBC news website about the Californian wine industry, caught in a bit of a down cycle. It will be interesting to see whether this slump, whose main impact seems to be on Central Valley (the hottest, crappy quality region) grape growers, extends also to premium Napa, Sonoma and Coastal producers whose offerings currently seem rather expensive.

Wednesday 18th June
Time for a cellar inventory tonight, in advance of my impending home move. Itís not a straightforward process, unfortunately Ė I donít have the privilege of a walk-in cellar (one dayÖ). Instead, I have to lift a trapdoor in the floorboards and lower myself between two closely spaced joists into the void below, which is approximately 4 feet in height. Thereís no capacity shortage, and the maximum temperature stays comfortably on the right side of 20, with some seasonal variation. My storage method leaves something to be desired, and lifeís too short to have a spreadsheet of the cellar contents. So each time I go down there, there are some pleasant surprises and also a few shocks Ė stuff I forgot I had. This reminds me of the episode from Jancis Robinsonís wine course [aside: she richly deserves her recent OBE], when she was visiting Peter Lehmann. She asked him how he organized his cellar. ĎThe biblical methodí, he replied. Whatís that? ĎSeek and ye shall find, my dearí. Itís a bit like that with mine, although I suspect Peter has substantially more bottles. Iíve still not thought about how Iím going to store the wine in the new place. As another aside, I have to confess Iíve not actually seen the place weíre renting yet. Such is the rental demand for 3 bed houses round here, you have to move quickly, and so we made the decision based on Fionaís report alone. Iíve seen it from the outside and it looks sort of OK. Am I mad?

Sunday 15th June
Moving house. Itís a hassle and itís very expensive. Weíre on the move, although not far. Weíve sold our house at last Ė we exchanged contracts on Friday Ė and in less than two weeks time weíll be carting all our stuff approximately 650 yards to our new pad, also in Twickenham. The ins and outs of why we are moving would bore even the most devoted reader stiff. Suffice to say, we need somewhere bigger than a 3 bed terrace, but the various options weíve been looking at havenít worked out, so weíre going to rent. Our little pad has appreciated dramatically over the last six years, so weíll have a bit of capital to play with when we next buy. Incidentally, although the motive behind our move hasnít been to speculate on the property market, all the signs point towards an imminent Ďcorrectioní in house prices. Indeed, the Economist magazine recently carried an extensive review of the housing market in Europe and the USA, and predicted a bubble-bursting drop of 30% in the UK (see www.economist.co.uk). That would help our cause greatly. How does this relate to wine? Well, Iíve got a cellar Ė more like a modest stash Ė to shift. Some 300 bottles, and the new place hasnít got any decent storage options. Currently, the passive underfloor storage is pretty good, hitting a maximum of about 18 centigrade in the height of summer. Iím nervous about not being able to keep my wine cool enough, and I donít much fancy professional storage, because Iím not organized enough to keep a good record of what Iíve got and I like to drink on impulse. Perhaps when we buy again Iíll get a Eurocave or equivalent standalone cellar device. In the meantime, Iím not sure. Youíd think Iíd have bigger things to worry about than a few bottles of wineÖ

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