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Jamie's Blog

[For the uninitiated, a 'blog' (or weblog) is a web journal with links. This gives me a chance to add short, 'off the record' style items that wouldn't merit a separate article. I'll try to keep entries informal, frequent, brief and (hopefully) interesting. We might even have the odd guest blog. Let's see how it goes.]

Monday 14th January
Fancy a bit of wine travel? If you've got an innovative idea you could earn yourself a £3000 travel bursary, courtesy of the Geoffrey Roberts trust. Got to be worth a try. The press release is as follows:  "Geoffrey Roberts Award 2002 - go travel! The Geoffrey Roberts Trust has three thousand pounds  (approximately five thousand US dollars) to give away. The annual Geoffrey Roberts Award is an international travel bursary worth given to a potential achiever in the worlds of food, drink or hospitality. The committee of the Geoffrey Roberts Trust, a UK-registered charity established in memory of a pioneer importer of fine New World wines, is now seeking applications for the 2002 Award, deadline March 29, 2002. Full details and an application form are available at www.jancisrobinson.com/geoffreyroberts. Previous winners have included Jane Adams who played an important part in introducing the farmers' market concept to Sydney, Australia; Peter Kindel who travelled round Europe with Caroline Smialek researching farmhouse cheese production and is now big cheese at Artisanal, Manhattan's haven for cheese-lovers; and South African Kate Thal who is using her bursary to research organic wine production and has been running the wine division of a major London restaurant group. The 2001 entries came from eight different countries and the winner was Dru Reschke, a 26 year-old whose family have farmed in Coonawarra, South Australia for several generations and now make their own wine. He wants to develop his potentially extremely valuable scheme for processing toxic winery effluent using enzyme research. He plans to travel to the US to see how winery effluent is managed by the big California companies and to survey wine tourism there with a view to improving wine tourism back home in Coonawarra. News of his Award reached him on his father's 60th birthday, so it was announced to all and sundry at the celebrations at Coonawarra Town Hall that night. Runners up included Patrick Farrell MD MW, a California doctor who wants to write a book about wine and health; Fiona Bird, Scottish mother of six who is keen to encourage more children to cook; and a lively 20 year old Teh Peijing who wants to broaden the range of wines imported into Singapore. The judges were James Herrick of the Languedoc, David Brown of La Potiniere and John Mariani of New York, as well as committee members Sally Clarke of Clarke's restaurant in London W8, Willie Lebus of Bibendum Wines and wine writer Jancis Robinson. Applications are invited from anyone of any age, based anywhere in the world, who can convince us that they will learn something while spending this travel bursary that will improve the worlds of food, drink or hospitality." 

Thursday 10th January
There's been a bit of a Spanish theme to my day, and one chap in particular, Alvaro Palacios, has had a significant role (although only through his wines). First, at a press tasting put on by 'The Bunch' (a fairly loose coalition of independent retailers, involving Tanners, Adnams, Corney & Barrow, Yapp, Lay & Wheeler and John Armit), the wine that intrigued me the most was the 1999 Bierzo from Descendientes J Palacios. Bierzo is a small, hilly region in the northwest of Spain, inland from Galicia and at the margins of Castilla y León, and this wine is the first vintage of a new project shared between Alvaro Palacios and his nephew. Two wines have been made: Bierzo Carullón, the top wine, and this regular Bierzo from bought in grapes (both are predominantly Mencía, the local grape, that was once thought to be the same as Cabernet Franc). Beautifully packaged with an elegant capsule, this is an opaque purple colour in the glass. Concentrated and dense, there's lots of lush, pure fruit, lots of oak and a fair whack of tannin hiding underneath. A big wine, it will be interesting to see how this develops. Yours for £16.45 from Corney & Barrow. Then, this evening was a tasting of new Spanish releases at La Vigneronne. Lots of very tasty stuff here, including a lovely 2000 Torres Fransola (their splendid premium Sauvignon), a wonderful, dark, meaty 1997 Alion and three lovely Riojas from CVNE (1994 Vina Real and Imperial and 1991 Vina Real). There was also a sensationally good 1982 Contino Gran Reserva, full of life and energy even almost 20 years on. But the most interesting wine for me was again from Alvaro Palacios: his 1997 Finca Dofi. This Priorat wine is initially a little too showy and oaky on the nose, but the palate has a beautiful mineral intensity underlying the complex herby fruit. Really interesting stuff. It'll set you back a cool £45. Yes, that's the only hitch: these days, premium Spanish wines ain't cheap.

Wednesday 9th January
Went to an interesting tasting last night. It was organized by Peter May, who runs the Pinotage Club (very 'niche'), and the wines on show were the ten Pinotages voted as South Africa's best in a well-known blind tasting competition organized by the ASBA bank and the Pinotage Organization. I won't say much about the wines here (full write-up will of course follow), but the tasting format deserves a mention. There were sixteen of us seated either side of a long table, and we poured our own samples using a snifter glass on which Peter had marked a line. This measure was carefully calculated so that each person got precisely one sixteenth of a bottle (46.875 ml). It sounds odd, but it's an ingenious solution to the tricky problem of getting enough samples out of a single bottle, and 46.875 ml is actually quite a good sized pour. For each wine, participants on one side of the table then had to comment turn, and although people were allowed to pass, few did. I found it a revealing exercise, and a great way to assess a set of wines. First, there was plenty of time to evaluate each wine in detail, and, second, it was instructive to hear other people's views. Here was a bunch of geeks, who just by virtue of being motivated enough to pay to attend a wine tasting must represent the upper-most segment of the wine-buying public, yet there was an amazing spread of opinions. It would have been impossible to come up with any sensible consensus, and it's certainly not a case of some being right, some being wrong.

Saturday 5th January
Popped into the local Oddbins (Twickenham) last night and was surprised to see the 1999 Beaucastel on the shelves. As most readers are probably aware, Beaucastel is one of the leading properties in Châteauneuf du Pape, making wines that invariably age brilliantly (see my notes on a recent Beaucastel vertical tasting), and it's not a wine you usually see on the shelves of high street wine merchants. I asked about the price (it wasn't indicated) and was nicely surprised: at £19.99 a bottle this is a real bargain. Had you bought en primeur last year you'd have paid £225 per case in bond from Bibendum (they aren't especially expensive), which works out at £23.40 per bottle when duty and VAT are tagged on. A typical shelf price for this wine would probably be in the region of £30, if you can find it. Should you get hold of some, don't drink it now: 1999 ws a good vintage but it really needs tucking away for five years, or better a decade. It will last 20, I suspect. Note added later: my press contact at Oddbins tells me this was a pricing mistake. I was charged the price for the 1997 (no longer stocked); the 1999 should have been £25.99, and is available in Fine Wine stores plus a few selected branches.

Wednesday 2nd January
For those of you who may have missed it, can I recommend to you Andrew Jefford's recent evening standard piece. He suggests that the last year "…has been the worst year for British wine drinkers that I can remember and the free market is revealing itself to be a strange and greedy friend." This breif but punchy article takes a rather Waltonesque look at the state of wine retailing, combined with a rather non-Waltonesque criticism of Britain's alcohol culture ("Moderate drinking and informed enjoyment are beautiful and life-enhancing; drunkenness is pathetic, ugly and sad.") He's right, of course. On the high street, Threshers, Wine Rack, Victoria Wine and Bottoms Up (all part of the same chain, owned by a Japanese investment bank) are very poor these days; only Oddbins continues to shine, although we'll all be watching carefully now that the Castel Frères takeover has been confirmed. And the supermarket ranges are contracting, with the continued rise of the brands. The shame is that even as recently as two or three years ago, they were so much better. He finishes on a positive note: "Not all the news, of course, is bad. It's a great time to be a wine merchant: the death of the high street and the rise of brands mean there are yawning gaps for wine merchants to exploit, though few do this with any imagination. If you're prepared to put a bit of effort into your shopping, too, it's a great time to be a drinker." This brings me back to one of my new year wine resolutions: I must shop more creatively this coming year.

Monday 31st December
New year's eve, and chance to reflect on the past year and think towards the next. And time for some wine resolutions. Number 1: drink less but drink better. Always a good idea. Number 2: be more creative in buying wine, supporting the merchants who really do good work, even if it's more hassle than popping into the local supermarkets or high street outlets. Number 3: buy more educational bottles, leaving my comfort zone more frequently. Part of the joy of wine lies in its diversity. Number 4: travel more. It's hard to write about wine regions with any great insight if you've never caught the real flavour of them first-hand. Finally, number 5: keep perspective, seeing wine integrated as part of a rich, healthy lifestyle, not as an end in itself. I'm sure I could think of more, but that's enough to be getting on with. 

Saturday 29th December
Four wines last night shared with internet wine personality Yixin Ong, who was stopping over at our modest abode in Twickenham as part of the first leg of his world tour. First, a youthful, expressive Riesling from the Wachau in Austria (Knoll's Ried Loibenberg Loibner Riesling Federspiel 1999). Very minerally and a little closed last night, I'm sipping the remnants as I write, and it's showing a lot more complexity. Completely different, the next wine was quite a nice surprise: the fairly modestly priced Zind Humbrecht Herrenweg Turckheim Riesling 1993 was punching well above its weight. Very expressive nose, minerally and limey; palate fruity, spicy and with a touch of residual sugar. Alsace again for wine three: Marc Kreydenweiss' 1998 Clos du Val d'Éléon. It's an unusual blend of Pinot Gris and Riesling from an old vineyard that Marc has restored, and is another mineralic wine, but with a touch of Pinot Gris fatness and a slightly austere palate. I like it, but Yixin isn't keen. Finally, a surprisingly rich cool-climate Italian red from the Lagrein grape (thought to be an ancestor of the Syrah grape by some). The Laimberg Lagrein Dunkel Riserva 1998, Südtiroler Alto Adige is a very deep, almost black colour, and shows an attractive rich, sweetness to the fruit, but it avoids being confected or artificial. It's quite a big, dense wine, but a real softie: I'd be interested to know what sort of oak this sees. Fiona was probably bored stupid by a lot of the wine talk, but she was polite enough not to say anything about it. Yixin is only in his early 20s, but he has wine knowledge beyond his years. One of the many topics we agreed on was the state of wine discussion on the internet. It was a lot better a couple of years ago in the golden era of the Wine Lover's Discussion Group (WLDG), where many of the leading internet wine personalities first met (I'll probably get into trouble for saying this). These days there's not enough interesting discussion there, and the alternatives that have sprung up tend to lack both the breadth of knowledge and international spread of participants that the WLDG enjoyed in its glory years. Best are the ones that don't take themselves too seriously.

Thursday 20th December
Unable to shave for a few weeks following my op, I'm currently sporting a beard. I don't like it, but at least while I'm a member of the face fungus club I've got a good excuse to turn my sights aside from wine for a short while to focus on real ale, the bearded folk's tipple of choice (apologies here to all bearded readers for this gross mischaracterization). I'm actually a great admirer of cask-conditioned ales (to give them their correct name), a unique and living product, but one which has been under severe threat in recent decades. That cask ales still exist at all is largely thanks to one outfit, the Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA), a grass-roots organization of enthusiasts who have lobbied and campaigned successfully to preserve and promote this worthy drink. According to their website, CAMRA's mission is to act as champion of the consumer in relation to the UK and European beer and drinks industry, aiming to promote quality, choice and value for money; support the public house as a focus of community life; campaign for greater appreciation of traditional beers, ciders and perries as part of national heritage and culture; and seek improvements in all licensed premises and throughout the brewing industry. They also publish the successful Camra Good Beer Guide, which steers drinkers to pubs where cask ales are taken seriously and are properly kept. If you want to know a bit more about real ale and how it is made, then there's a well written primer here. It makes me wonder whether there's a need for similar organizations to CAMRA, but fighting to preserve the regional identity and character of the classic wine styles. In the light of the rise of branded, manipulated, international style wines, I suspect there is.

Monday 17th December
The last weekend we've been visiting relatives who've just moved down to the west country. A village called Braunton, in North Devon, to be precise. It's just inland from Croyde, where we spent a pleasant but chilly afternoon playing with the kids on the beach. Croyde is bizarre. The population is split neatly into two polarized but quietly coexisting groups: half the locals are bungalow-inhabiting retirees, the other half are the surfers (almost all of whom are under 30). Surfing is a religion here. Even though the temperature was only just above freezing point, there were still three or four surfers out there chasing a few unremarkable breakers. They're barmy. But the most remarkable episode of the weekend occurred in a rather soulless carvery-style pub we had a quick drink in on Saturday evening. If you order white wine in this pub (we didn't; we were on beer), you get a choice. It's between 'dry Chardonnay', or 'medium sweet Liebfraumilch', both of which are dispensed from beer-style nitrogen driven taps. A punter ordered a dry white wine, and after three quarters of the glass had been filled, the barrel (or whatever the pressurized container the wine comes in is called) fizzled to a stop. The barman, with no trace of shame, asked the aforementioned punter whether they wanted this glass topped up 'with some medium sweet'. The punter, remarkably, agreed. But then perhaps this is not so remarkable: after all, we geeks make up but a tiny, marginalized group of society. For most people, wine is just a commodity, and they would no more worry about the exact type of wine they were drinking than the brand of instant coffee or sliced white bread they popped into their shopping trolleys. I think this is changing, but it looks like the pub industry won't be leading the way…

Tuesday 11th December
A few nice surprises lurking among several bottles consumed domestically over the last week. Last night was a very satisfying Alsace white (Materne Haegelin Riesling Bollenberg 1999). Bone dry, with an intensely appealing savoury minerality. A bargain at Majestic's £5.99 multibuy price. Also from Majestic was another remarkable bargain from California: the Durney Cabernet Sauvignon 1994, which they are shifting for a penny under four quid. There's a touch of seductive blackcurrant fruit on the nose, and this leads to a concentrated, intensely savoury palate with mouth-drying tannins and a fair whack of oak. Normally I suspect this would retail for about £10, so you can view this either as a slightly flawed (overaked and drying out) £10 wine, or a superb, semi-serious £4 wine. I like it. Certainly the most unusual wine of the week was a 1994 Chapel Hill Riesling, from the Eden Valley of South Australia. Bought a number of years ago in a Wine Rack clearout sale, I thought I'd see how it's doing with several years' bottle age. It's a golden colour with a subtle, evolved, petrolly nose and a marmalade-tinged palate. It's still alive, but I don't actually like it that much (lesson, if you are cellaring a certain type of wine, first make sure that you like what it's likely to turn into). Also a tiny bit disappointing was the Terra de Lobos 2000, Ribatejo (£3.99 Waitrose). Recommended by Jancis Robinson a month or so ago (before she went purple), I found it enjoyable enough but was a little put off by the bubblegum edge to the rather confected nose of sweet herbal fruit. It smells like they've been using the same cultured yeasts and techniques (including carbonic maceration) that are used for most commercial Beaujolais. The next day some of this faux sheen had blown off, and there was some intriguing chocolatey richness to the otherwise light palate, so maybe Jancis' recommendation wasn't too far off. I'd been expecting great things from the next bottle, a nicely packaged Château L'Euzière Cuvée Les Escarboucles 1998, Pic St Loup (£8.99 Unwins). Before local winemerchant chain Fuller's was taken over by Unwins a couple of years back, wine buyer Roger Higgs had sourced an enviable range from this fascinating Languedoc commune. The L'Euzière is one of the few remnants of this, and while it is nice enough it lacks the meaty, earthy character that is so typical of its better peers. It's showing a bit too much oak, too. I wasn't disappointed with the Sainsbury's Prestige Claret 2000, but only because I wasn't expecting much in the first place. Even the fact that it's made by an Australian can't help disguise the presumably crappy, dilute, slightly unripe grapes it was wrought from. No value here, even at half price (precisely £2.19, I believe). Finally, to finish on a high note, I was very impressed by the San Biagio Barolo 1996, Piedmont (£16.95 Berry Bros). Made in a modern style, but still a relatively light colour for such an obviously concentrated wine. The Nebbiolo grape isn't about fruit: instead, in a good Barolo you get a wonderfully complex herby, spicy, undergrowth-like character, along with a fair whack of tannin. It's infanticide to broach this now, but it's still enjoyable even in its youth. Quite lovely.

Monday 10th December
I don't like to be negative, but if I'm going to be any use as a wine commentator, there'll be times when I have to criticise the poor as well as praising the good. So when I found out about the 'Chardonnay of the Century - Million Dollar Challenge' in a Decanter news piece, I knew straight away that I'd have to be entering negative mode. Why? It's completely and utterly barking. Give me a moment and I'll try to explain why it is one of the silliest ideas I've heard in a very long time.

The competition has two rather disparate goals. First, it aims to identify a list of the world's leading 100 Chardonnays from several thousand they hope will be submitted, and to identify from this list The World's Best Chardonnay. The person submitting this wine (be it producer or even private collector) will win a prize CDN$500 000. Second, each wine must be submitted in case quantities, with six bottles going into he cellars at the University of British Columbia, Vancouver, for 'research' purposes. More about this later.

My main gripe is that the foundation for this competition is the fantasy that it is possible to identify the 'best' Chardonnay, or that such a wine even exists. While a good taster can sort a group of wines into broad quality categories, within each of these subsets the exact ranking will largely be a matter of personal preference and taste. While California and Burgundy, for example, both produce some world class Chardonnays, the difference in style is such that they can't really be compared head-to-head. It would be just as daft within Burgundy to attempt to compare a top, unoaked Grand Cru Chablis with a first-rate barrel-fermented Mersault. They're different. Now add to the equation the effect of age, and the silliness is multiplied yet further: some people prefer old wines to young. Who's to say which opinion is correct?

Using my oft-quoted analogy, asking the question 'what is the best wine?' is about as sensible as asking a carpenter 'what is the best tool?'. The merit of a particular wine is highly context-dependent. Given access to any Chardonnay on the planet, some days I might prefer a full-on Montrachet, other days a toasty South African, and yet other days a crisp, unoaked Chablis. Each style can be thought of as best in its own context.

Competitions are largely a marketing exercise. The fact that the competition allows entries from private collectors acknowledges that half-decent Burgundy producers don't bother entering competitions. Most of them have no problems selling their wine every year (after all, they don't make a great deal, unlike their counterparts in Bordeaux), and have nothing to gain (and a lot to lose) by having their wines 'judged' by someone with little experience or understanding of what they are all about. It will be interesting to see whether the competition does attract the sorts of Burgundies that are widely acknowledged to be among the best expressions of this style.

Finally, about that 'research project', a second goal of the competition. Dr Hennie van Vuuren is the chap behind it all. He heads up the newly formed Wine Research Center, and states that 'the objective of the study is to determine the aging potential of the world's top one hundred Chardonnays and to establish the contribution of soil type, rootstock, Chardonnay clones, yeast, barrel and aging on the quality and finesse of this varietal.' But the University hopes to have up to 20 000 bottles of the finest Chardonnays by the end of the contest. If research is really their objective, wouldn't it be simpler just to ask some of the leading producers for samples, and then use these? Why the competition? My other question: if they are conducting research into just the top 100 (600 bottles altogether), what will they do with the other 19 400 bottles? I think I might apply for a faculty position here, especially if they fulfil their intention to hold the competition every four years with a different variety each time! Care for a glass of Montrachet, Professor?

Previous entries (some gripping reading!)

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