wa2.gif (4241 bytes)

abut9.gif (3095 bytes)

abut12.gif (3207 bytes)
abut10.gif (3636 bytes)

abut11.gif (4039 bytes)

Jamie's Blog...older entries

Sunday 2nd December
A brief one today. Since Thursday I've been offline. In hospital, to be precise, undergoing some fairly major surgery. Fortunately, it all went pretty well, and I'm now recovering from home, but I'll be out of proper action for another week at least. Tonight I'm back on the wine -- natural pain relief -- and it's a tasty, meaty, savoury red from the South of France: Château Pech Redon 1998 Sélection Coteaux du Languedoc La Clape. Delicious stuff with just a twist of bitterness to make it a very good food wine. After three days of hospital food and broken sleep patterns (I was on an old-fashioned 18 bed ward), it's nice to resume a semblance of normality. As an aside, while the standard of care in our ward was pretty good, my suggestion is that patients should be given half a bottle of plonk with their dinner each night…

Wednesday 21st November
Yesterday evening: a tasting of 22 wines from the south of France at La Vigneronne. This was a rather condensed version of their hugely successful October wine fair, held for the benefit for those like me who were unable to make it. It was a strong line up, with some fairly serious, personality-filled wines. It was also nice to bump into Robert Helms and Robert Asher, two regular offline dining companions with far more tasting experience than me, and absolutely huge cellars. But working my way through this line-up made me think about what a poor deal a lot of wines get. Imagine you achieved the dream of many geeks and had your own wine domain. You go to every effort to make the very best wines your precious terroir can yield. Yet the crucial reviews by influential critics that can make or break your venture in many cases are based on a quick sniff, a slurp and a hastily jotted note. At this tasting, most of the wines deserved to be taken home and drunk at leisure, preferably over the course of a meal, with sufficient time for contemplation. Imagine attending a job interview and being given just three minutes to sell yourself. You'd feel (rightly?) aggrieved -- unless of course you landed the job. It's from this perspective that I try to approach every tasting. I want to give the wine a chance to impress me; I want to look below the surface. Every now and again I try to make a point of purchasing wines that I've sampled in a large-scale tasting, taking them home and drinking them, and then comparing my notes. It's a necessary check. I know this sounds slightly pompous and melodramatic, but it's a great responsibility to publish opinions that you know will be read by a lot of people, and it's one I take seriously. Why? Well, I'm kind of old fashioned, and I want the good guys (the ones doing the best work) to finish first. Don't you? And while it would be nice to never have to say anything negative, unless critics are prepared to chastise the poor along with praising the good, then lazy, incompetent, greedy or highly-media-savvy producers will continue to hitch a ride on the backs of those doing genuinely good work.

Saturday 17th November
It's Saturday evening. Just on my way home from the Decanter Fine Wine Encounter. I'm worn out, my teeth and fingers are stained red, but it's been a worthwhile day's work. Tasting in earnest from 10am when the doors opened until closing time (without a break), I managed to cover 25 producers in detail out of 99. I could have done with a couple more days to get round everything. It's an extravagant event. As well as the posh surroundings (the Landmark is a lovely hotel) and the big Riedel glasses, there's an almost wasteful abundance of decent wine being poured and spat. Of course, not all of it is spat: unlike trade tastings where almost everyone spits (except the odd lush here and there), at consumer events like these there's a sizeable minority who swallow. They must be completely crazy. Indeed, by late afternoon there were several dozen people wandering around visibly inebriated. Example: I was standing at the Royal Tokaji company table, working my way through some thick, sweet, unusual wines when a large, horridly drunk young chap asked for a pour. He got a generous sized slosh, which he then proceeded to knock back like a shot of vodka. The pourer and I watched amazed as his eyes glazed over, his face drained of colour and his lips started trembling. I was convinced that he was about to throw up, but fortunately on this occasion he managed to compose himself. No doubt he chucked up shortly afterwards over someone else's table. As an aside, I'm impressed by the patience and generosity of the mixture of winemakers, PR people, agents and retailers who staff the stands, pour endless samples and answer the same questions again and again. It must be frustrating for them when people aren't prepared to try through the range but just want a quick sniff and slurp of the top wine. If you are attending a tasting like this in the future, I'd urge you to remember the tasting etiquette of not standing rooted to the spot blocking access to the spittoons or the tables themselves: get your pour, and then stand back. And when there is a crowd behind you waiting for their next sample, it's not a good time to tell the person pouring all about your last holiday in Tuscany. Sermon over.

Thursday 14th November
Two tastings yesterday evening. First, a good show put on by Bibendum who were pouring about 50 of their wines at their usual tasting venue of Home House. Getting there just after 5pm meant it wasn't too crowded, and I managed to work my way through in just over an hour. Some interesting stuff. The 1998 D'Arenberg Dead Arm has been much talked about since receiving 96 Parker points, and was showing well: underneath the lush, spicy fruit there was a fair whack of tannin. Lots going on here: it will be interesting to see how it develops. For current drinking, the 1997 Katnook Odyssey Cabernet was remarkably lush, exotic and open. Completely over the top in style, but very tasty in small doses. From the old world four cask samples from the successful 2000 vintage caught my attention: Poujeaux (Moulis), La Clotte (St Emilion), Beauregard (Pomerol) and Clos Fourtet (St Emilion). They're all deep, concentrated, inky wines at present, but the right bank trio in particular showing good potential. However, it's a perilous task assessing the potential of wines such as these at such an early stage. Full notes on all wines to follow of course. A couple of tube journeys later, I was at the La Vigneronne 1999 Jaboulet tasting. A solid enough line-up here, with a very nice Hermitage Blanc (Chevalier de Stérimberg), an authentic Côte-Rôtie (Les Jumelles), but a poor showing from the 1999 Hermitage La Chapelle, which was disappointingly light. It'd be a brave person who'd shell out £50 for this in the hope of it metamorphosing into something complex and interesting with 15 years in bottle. To finish with, I was quite taken with the Réserve Personelle Muscat de Baumes-de-Venise, which was delightfully perfumed and not at all cloying. Final thought: life is good. I only had to wait 1 minute for a Richmond train from South Kensington. A personal record.

Tuesday 13th November
Another winey week. Last night was another of the infamous Handford blind tastings, put on by Greg Sherwood. Greg's cute little trick is to give dodgy clues, while we're all thrashing around in the dark. One wine that foxed us was a bizarre white Châteaueuf du Pape from Domaine de Val Frais. This was a weird, rustic little thing with a palate just like a fino sherry (honest!). From the evident faulty winemaking and waxy, high-acid finish I guessed a Savennières -- at least I was in the right country. Greg hinted that this might be good with Tapas, which prompted me to question my call at least half the gathered tasters to plump for Spain. Mean trick. Another difficult wine was the rather unusual Pazo de Senorans 2000 Albarino. It wasn't particularly aromatic: a subtle, delicate, slightly neutral effort I thought. My guess was Alsace Pinot Blanc, but Greg fooled us by suggesting it might be a warm climate wine. Galicia? Warm climate? Hmmm. We all did better with the 2001 Cloudy Bay Sauvignon Blanc, and I was glad I spotted the rather austere Chamonix Cabernet Sauvignon as South African. Apart from this, though, it was another humbling experience. This evening I'm trying to combine two tastings (A&B Vintners and La Vigneronne's Cahors), and then tomorrow evening it's off to Bibendum followed by another La Vig event (Jaboulet's 1999s). Finally, for those of you who don't subscribe to Wine magazine, I'd urge you to rush out and buy a copy of the December issue (or at least leaf through one on the news stands). That's all I'm going to say ;)

Friday 2nd November
A recent news item on Decanter.com gives an intriguing glimpse of how the modern media machine works. It concerns the loss of the grapes from ‘an entire experimental vineyard’ in China, owned by Spanish producer Miguel Torres. These vines were apparently stripped clean by ‘birds and inquisitive locals’. Sounds newsworthy? Read a little deeper. Before you conjure up mental images of hordes of Chinese laying waste to many hectares, look at the size of the vineyard concerned. Just 50 kilograms of grapes were lost. We’re talking about 20-30 vines, here folks: that’s fewer than I’ve got on my allotment. And this would make a paltry seven or eight gallons of wine. This is a complete non-story. No wonder Torres is ‘phlegmatic about the loss’. In fact, he’s probably quite pleased, because it’s bought him much sought after coverage in the wine media. No doubt his PR people, working hard to keep the Torres name in the news, will be delighted. Adam Lechmere, Decanter.com’s editor who penned the piece almost certainly realizes this is a total non-story, but is happy to run it because it looks interesting, and is just the sort of slightly unusual fluff piece that editors love. All in all, a fascinating example of how the modern media works: clever PR people create press releases out of quirky non-news (and sometimes deliberately staged) events, that are then turned into fluff pieces by savvy news editors whose primary job is to entertain their readers: a win–win situation for both. The only loser is the intelligent reader, and the producers who don’t get coverage because they refuse to join in the media hype game.

Monday 29th October
With the spectacular rise and (equally spectacular) fall of Internet entrepreneurs, it’s easy to forget what made the Internet so popular in the first place: it remain a wonderful communication medium. Of course, it’s not as trivial as it once seemed to make pots of money out of it, but it can be brilliantly successful in fostering discussion and debate. An example: this afternoon I read a thoughtful piece in the Financial Times on university funding. On the FT’s website the journalist’s e-mail address was provided, so I made a quick response. Within an hour, he had replied to my message, answering in detail a couple of the points I raised. Voila! Interactivity.

One of the best uses of the Internet is to bring like-minded enthusiasts together, free to discuss their passion. And as far as wine is concerned, there are discussion boards aplenty, to suit just about every palate and level of discussion. Wine information is no longer the preserve of the professional writers and publishers; it’s in the hands of the masses. Everyone is now a critic. But there’s a fascinating twist to this: there is the possibility that what geeks say on these public fora will be read by the winemakers, journalists or critics being discussed. And when they respond to the criticisms of their public, it can make for gripping reading. Two examples from recent days. First, a post was made to the Wine Lovers Discussion Group about British journalist Tim Atkin’s article in the Observer newspaper. This piece was critical of the direction Australian wine has taken, and spawned a lively (but still-civil) debate. A quick e-mail message later, Tim sportingly showed up to join in the discussion. Second, a far more fractious exchange on Mark Squires’ bulletin board. One of the participants began knocking the assessments of Robert Parker and his assistant Pierre Rovani of the 1993, 1994 and 1997 vintages in Burgundy. Several others join in. Lo and behold, who should pop up to answer the critics but Pierre A. Rovani himself (he covers Burgundy on Parker’s behalf). As participant Don Rockwell alludes to, what normally happens in these threads where a wine celeb under discussion shows up is that people backtrack, retract or tone down their criticisms, and start sucking-up. But here they don’t, and it makes for some great reading.

Saturday 27th October
Browsing the shelves of Threshers wine shops is rapidly becoming a depressing experience for wine geeks. I popped into my local branch for the first time in a while and came away pretty much appalled at the range on offer. I'm not just being a snob here: a few years ago there was usually enough interesting wine to make choosing a bottle there an interesting dilemma. Since then, however, the range has contracted and many interesting wines have made way for dull, industrial replacements. Now, the shelves are dominated by the big brands and standardized pap. And it's not as if they're cheap: for most wines in the shop I could think of a more interesting alternative for the same (or less) money. Does the average consumer realise this? Probably not. In the end I bought a bottle of the richly-textured, aromatic Rueda from Marques du Riscal, for £5.99. A nice wine, but cheaper elsewhere. Not that I'm drinking wine at the moment: for the last week or so I've had a bad cold that has just about wiped out my sense of smell. Very frustrating, especially because it means I've had to pass on the excellent La Vigneronne wine fair, which I should be slurping and sniffing my way through as I write. Let's hope my critical faculties are back in action again in time for next week's Majestic press tasting.

Monday 21st October
News on the grapevine is that Majestic are expanding into France. Keen to cash in on the cross-channel booze traffic, last week they bought out Les Celliers De Calais S.A. (who trade as The Wine and Beer Company) for £7.25 million. This will give Majestic four new wine warehouses in striking distance of channel ports: two in Calais, one in Cherbourg and another in Le Havre. But if you are travelling soon, don't expect to see the Majestic flag flying: these outlets will continue trading as the Wine and Beer Company until Christmas, when the Majestic rebranding will start. From the Wine and Beer Company's rather garish website, you can take a look at what the current range is like. Compared with Majestic's, it looks extremely predictable, with big brands and generic wines predominating, although these have sold pretty well by all accounts. When Majestic do their make-over in the new year, they plan to double the size of the main store in Calais to 14000 square feet. This will certainly increase the options for cross-channel shoppers, who now have a range of UK retailers to choose from, including Sainsbury, Tescos and Oddbins. It's a while since I last crossed the channel for wine (my tip is to avoid the dreadful Cité de Europe), but there are now quite a few web resources to help planning this sort of trip. One such site,
www.day-tripper.net, is a comprehensive guide to cross-channel shopping: a good idea, let down by a nasty, cluttered web design. Perardel is one Calais-based wine retailer that I've heard mentioned positively; again, their website isn't too hot. However, no discussion of booze cruises would be complete without mention of Eastenders. This extremely successful pile-em-high outfit is owned by the now rather famous Dave West, who cut rather an incongruous figure when I spotted him at the London Wine Trade Fair in May. Their website is brilliantly naff, and I particularly like the reference to the wines of 'E & J Gallow'. Ironic?

Tuesday 16th October
I'm still working my way through a bunch of Pic St Loup (a commune in the Coteaux du Languedoc) wines that I bought a couple of years ago. At the weekend I opened another bottle of the Vieilles Vignes 1997 from Château Lancyre, one of several purchased from Tesco (they used to stock this and the excellent Grande Cuvée). A blend of old vine Syrah and Grenache, it's a medium-bodied wine with a lovely meaty, cheesy, earthy character that's quite typical of wines from this region. Other favourite producers of mine from this region include the wines from Domaine de l'Hortus, Mas Brugière, Château de Cazeneuve, Chateau L'Euzière and Mas des Costes. Pic St Loup has a cooler climate than most Languedoc regions, and the wines from this region seem to show greater definition and distinctly meaty, earthy flavours that remind me of the Northern Rhône, with a touch of herbal 'garrigue' character often thrown in for good measure. The Fullers chain used to carry a splendid range of these wines, but since their take over by Unwins, just a few of these remain (including Chateau L'Euzière 'Les Escarboucles' and a couple from Cazeneuve), and Tescos have dropped the Lancyre range. Now Pic St Loup is almost exclusively the preserve of specialist wine merchants. Handford and Lea and Sandeman stock the two Domaine de l'Hortus wines, Ballantynes have the Ch. Cazeneuve, Noel Young used to have the Mas Brugière (not sure whether they still do) and A&B Vintners also offer Pic St Loup wines from time to time. Prices are still reasonable, and they are worth seeking out.  

Wednesday 11th October
It's the dream of many wine-lovers to one day own their own vineyard. I confess, I've often thought about how nice it would be to spend my days ambling among my vines, tending them with care under a more benign climate than that we experience in England. Then, at harvest time, I'd gather a trusty band of pickers and we'd pluck the healthy, fully ripe grapes, vinify them and a new cult wine would be born. People would queue up outside the cellar door desperate to purchase even a few bottles, and I'd have to allocate the wine carefully to those I felt would appreciate it most (thus satisfying my sense of justice). Of course, this romantic idea of life as a vigneron is all bollocks, but it’s a nice fantasy. But as long as you've got a small patch of land to cultivate, there's nothing to stop you growing your own vines. It was partly so I could catch a glimpse of the wine producer's perspective that I've been busily planting vines in my garden and, latterly, in my allotment in Twickenham. Forget the winemaking; the first couple of years have given me some idea that even producing healthy grapes is no trivial feat. Last week, the few bunches of non-rotten grapes on my Pinot Noir vine were devoured in their entirety by some hungry squirrels. I've heard of losing grapes to birds, and even baboons (this is apparently a problem at Klein Constantia, whose wines I reviewed earlier this week), but I didn't think squirrels were a threat. The good news is that the squirrels have yet to discover the delights of Bacchus, Huxelrebe and Madeleine Angevine grapes, so these are safe for the time being.

Friday 5th October
Just a brief plug today, for a superb bookshop. If you are turned-off by the Borders/Waterstones-style megabookstores, you might find the wonderful Daunt Books (Marylebone High Street, central London) a refreshing experience. Old-fashioned retailing at its best. It's beautifully laid out and the books are imaginatively displayed. There's a small but interesting selection of wine books, and further wine titles are hidden among the main displays in each of the nationally arranged sections. Nearest tube: Marylebone (Bakerloo line), although it's walkable from Oxford Circus and Bond Street tubes.

Monday 1st October
In the Times today, we read about the latest internet tycoon to fall on hard times. Craig McCaw is selling off many of his possessions, now that his personal fortune has plummeted from US$9 billion to (just) $2 billion. I mention this because included in the sale is his ‘vintage wine collection’, worth $200 000. Nothing odd about a billionaire having a wine collection, I hear you say. But in this case there is: Craig is apparently a teetotaller. And in a quick trip over to the Guardian I find that Malcolm Gluck is at it again: one of his familiar tactics is to take a highly lauded and expensive wine, and then suggest that an inexpensive supermarket offering is its equal (or even, its better). This time it’s Californian cult wine Screaming Eagle, and the wine Malc thinks matches it is a Fitou from Asda. There may still be some left if you rush…

Sunday 30th September
This last week has seen some unseasonally fine weather in London, ruined only by heavy rain on Saturday. It's a time of the year when the wine world has a particular interest in weather reports (in the northern hemisphere, at least), as for the next month or so vignerons will begin harvesting grapes for the 2001 vintage. Expect press releases from the key French regions (Bordeaux in paticular) to be willingly disseminated by a largely uncritical—and compliant?— wine press. Forgive my scepticism, but you could write most of them without going within 100 miles of any vineyard region. They start off by mentioning frost scares, dwell a little on some minor climatic difficulty (this is to make them sound plausible), and then talk about how things all came right in the end and the grapes arriving at the winery in a beautifully healthy condition. By the time you've finished reading, you breathe a huge sigh of relief and start planning your 2001 en primeur purchases. A subtle twist on this theme is to discuss some weather problem that resulted in a smaller but higher-quality crop, or—in cases of disastrous deluges at harvest—to explain how the better (unnamed) producers succeeded by picking 'between the rains'. Keen readers of this blog will by now be asking about conditions at the Twickenham vineyard, my motley collection of some 40 vines planted on an allotment in west London. Well, because I haven't got any wine to sell, I can tell you the truth. The vines, aged between one and two years old, aren't 'in production' yet. But this year—a year when the vines in my back garden have been decimated by oidium, despite regular spraying with Bordeaux mixture—have produced three bunches of delicious Bacchus grapes (the other varieties are Huxelrebe, Madeleine Angevine and Pinot Noir). These have a lovely honeyed flavour. Interestingly, there's quite a difference in how one bunch at the top of the plot tastes compared with a bunch from the middle: is this 'terroir' in action? I suspect I'll have enough grapes next year to vinify. The first English 'cult' wine? Watch this space.

Wednesday September 26th
: from Arthur Goode, my brother (he's the one on the right in the picture here).  

Invited to put together a guest blog, and given the expansive brief to write about something vaguely connected with wine, I feel compelled to write about my recent trip to Siberia. I spent eight days in this extraordinary place. The nearest I came to anything vaguely connected with wine was an advert on the plane inviting me to let the mood take me to Bordeaux, and something I was offered in a rustic wine carrier that tasted absolutely appalling (but might come in handy in a few weeks time when the temperatures drop to minus 40). As is the custom we drank, smiled and saluted Russian wine, truly the best, even though I think it originated in Moldova. I don’t think the Russians do wine anymore; I’m sure that one of the most serious considerations that had to be made when granting the Baltic and Central European states their independence was all that wine-producing land slipping through their fingers. But something they do produce -- and pretty well -- is beer.

The problem Russia, and particularly Siberia, have with alcoholism is well documented. It is due to a combination of two social factors. One is the Russian cultural value that if you’re going to do something—even self-damage—then do it properly. It enabled them to destroy their own capital city to prevent first Napoleon then Hitler successfully invading—a tactic called Total Warfare (incidentally, the British Army tell their recruits three things—eat whenever you can, you don’t know when your next meal might be; keep your weapon in good condition and never let it out of your sight; and don’t march on Moscow). The second contributing factor is the boredom and harshness of life out there. It wasn’t exactly Mardi Gras during the Soviet Era, but things have got a lot harder since then.

With Pepsi and Coca Cola battling it out for control of the drinks market, their bright adverts and huge red canopies cropping up everywhere, there doesn’t seem to be any danger of international competition for the hundreds of Russian breweries. And if at night they Russian people get slaughtered on Vodka, it seems to be beer that gets them through the daylight hours. There is no taboo against drinking in public, and with the free market well and truly established but the laws of taxation and trading not quite so, little booths are all found on every available corner and in all the subways, each lined with the huge range of bottled beers, priced at about 15 Roubles (25p) for a litre. Throughout the day I would see people of all types and dress, picking up a beer from one of these stalls, opening it on the bottle openers attached to the kiosk, and walking off down the street swigging it.

Jane MacQuitty’s recent claim that British beer is the best in the world would find my Russian hosts up in arms, and with good cause, it turns out. Our Siberian beer night was an eye-opener for me. We worked our way from very pale lager types to almost black dark ale from Murmansk (inside the Arctic Circle). I’m not too keen on the darker beers but was I was quite taken by the pale ones. All the beers seem to be strong on flavour, in a rich style. Their ‘light beer’ was fantastic – a cross between Stella Artois and Summer Lightning-type ales – a lager/ale hybrid. But perhaps most impressive was the vast selection of these bottles in kiosks and supermarkets. Perhaps someone from Siberia might be similarly struck by the sight of entire shops given over to selling different types of wine in the UK. There. I mentioned wine.

Wednesday 19th September
It’s been a winey sort of week so far. Monday night I had beer and a curry with Brian Fletcher, chief winemaker with Sicilian pace-setters Calatrasi. Marketing manager Christian was also present, and it was fun to hear about some of the challenges involved in making premium wines in Sicily, Puglia and Tunisia. (Aside: did you know that there are 17 000 hectares of vineyards in Tunisia? Nor did I.) Today I’ve been at a fascinating tasting for Wine magazine, comparing (blind) 30 organic wines with 30 non-organic counterparts. Organized by Monty Waldin, a frequent commentator on organic wine, it will be interesting to see how I rated the different wines when we get our crib sheets. The full write-up of the tasting should be published in the November issue. This evening I’ll be off to my regular haunt La Vigneronne for a rather posh 1971 first growths tasting. Report to follow soon. Then on Thursday, back again to La Vig for a blind tasting of Mourvedre. All good fun.

On the grapevine, I heard that Decanter.com have made some rather drastic cuts: apparently, six of their nine staff will be leaving. I don’t know how this will affect the look of the website. You have to pull in a fair amount of advertising revenue to pay nine salaries, or else you need a lot of subscribers to the pay-content you offer (in this case Decanter’s fine wine tracker, a service I’ve never even been remotely tempted by).

Previous entries (some gripping reading!)

Back to top