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Jamie's Blog

Wednesday 3rd April 2002
There’s some great entertainment to be had over at the Wine Lover’s Discussion Group, one of the net’s busiest locales for wine discussion. The episode in question begins with an innocent-looking question about magnetic wine ageing, which then spawns three further threads developing the topic. Some of the posts are genuinely funny. Every now and then, someone new pops up trying to peddle a device claiming to alter the tannic structure of a wine by means of magnetic fields. You can understand the appeal of a device that aims to simulate twenty years’ worth of cellar development with just a few minutes zapping by a magnetic field. But anyone even slightly scientifically aware would be extremely skeptical about these sorts of devices. As one poster says, ‘The claims don't make sense unless everything we know about chemistry is wrong’. Another quips, ‘The only difference between this and a scam is that a scam is pitched in such a way as to be believable’. They are quite right of course: there really is no way that a magnetic field like this could alter the chemistry of the wine in any way that would simulate ageing. Extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof, and the burden of proof in this case lies with the one making the bizarre claims. And, of course, there’s no data to back these claims up with. Yes folks, it is quite appropriate (and not at all closed-minded) to dismiss magnetic wine ageing immediately and forcibly. The whole thread was reignited by the involvement of a wine celebrity. I’ve blogged before about the fascinating interactions that ensue when a wine celebrity gets involved in an online discussion, and this is no exception. In this case, the celebrity in question doesn’t participate directly, but through private e-mails to one of the individuals on the board, which are then disclosed. It turns out that, against their wishes, the wine celebrity’s name was used as an endorsement by someone selling a magnetic wine ager. Remarkably, the celebrity in question had taken the magnetic wine ager seriously enough to test it with a couple of bottles of wine, in a rather misguided spirit of open-mindedness. You can read the discussion that ensues here, here and here.

Sunday 31st March
On Friday night I broke my first Riedel glass. It’s a sort of rite of passage. Riedel glasses are de rigueur among wine nuts, and the first time you break one is a coming-of-age moment. I must confess, though, that while I’ve always admired the Riedel portfolio, I’ve never owned a full set, let alone several sets of these ‘stems’ (as they are known among the cognoscenti). I own just one Riedel, and it’s the cheapest one they do – the Overture, at a mere £6.50. But it’s a brilliant glass, and for the last few years I have been using it as my standard tasting glass for both reds and whites. The other all-round-useful glass Riedel make is the vinum Chianti, at £11 or so. This is a versatile stem, slightly larger than the Overture, and it was one of these that I broke on Friday. Riedel glasses have very thin rims, and when this one smashed it completely disintegrated with a high-pitched tinkle. Embarrassing when it’s someone else’s glassware, but these things happen. My host wasn’t upset though, and proceeded to open one of the Jamet 1999 Côte Rôties that he’d purchased en primeur on the basis of my glowing recommendation. Very generous of him. Do I still rate it as highly a year on? Probably, yes. It’s still highly perfumed, but some of the initial sweetness and prettiness on the nose has given way to more meaty, savoury notes, with lots of green olive character that’s such a hallmark of traditional styled Northern Rhône Syrah. The palate is currently quite challenging, with firm, fine-grained tannins and high acidity, and there’s the merest whiff of oak. All in all a brilliant interpretation of Côte Rôtie, but one that could do with five years to open out fully.  

Friday 22nd March
I have a cold. Colds are bad news for those who have to taste wine professionally. The human olfactory system is a relatively blunt and frustratingly inconsistent tool at the best of times, so the deterioration in performance induced by viral infections effectively puts an end to serious wine tasting. Even if I can still smell relatively well, I’m reluctant to trust judgements made with an underperforming nose, so I’ve shelved plans to attend the big Spanish trade tasting this week, and also a smaller Languedoc bash put on by a retailer. I wonder what the really serious wine pros do when they get colds. What would happen if Robert Parker, on whose palate so many peoples’ livelihoods depend, were to be struck down with a bout of coughs and sniffles just before one of his all-important Bordeaux preview tastings? How would the trade cope without his ratings? It would be a disaster. When I was researching a recent feature for the wine trade magazine Harpers, I spoke to a number of scientists researching taste and smell. This produced some fascinating insights. More senior readers will be interested to discover that human olfactory performance drops off steadily after the age of 40. This is partly thought to be due to normal ageing processes, but also because of pathology. Putting that in more straightforward terms, each time you have a cold, it permanently knackers your ability to smell to some small but appreciable degree. So by the time you start drawing your pension, the chances are you will have had multiple colds and the damage they will have wrought to your olfactory epithelium will be noticeable. So it’s the same old story: as you get older you gain experience but you lose performance. The good news is that there is no noticeable reduction in the sense of taste (i.e. the relatively limited information that comes from the tongue) with age. 

Thursday 14th March
I’ve been feeling a little sluggish today after an enjoyable wine dinner last night at the House of Commons, hosted by Decanter columnist and MP Sîon Simon. Present were four ‘members’ and two ‘strangers’ (to use the official terminology) -- myself and Decanter editor Amy Wislocki. Some nice wines, too. Sîon brought two lovely Rhônes. First, the deep, rich meaty JL Chave Hermitage 1988. Still deep coloured, tannic and tight, but with lovely complexity. Hermitage is a patchy appellation, but I’ve never met a Chave that I didn’t like. Second, the 1998 Côte Rôtie from Rene Rostaing. Yes, it’s a bit young, but it displayed plenty of that savoury, meaty, green olive Syrah fruit that makes this one of my favourite appellations. Rostaing has a bit of a reputation for overdoing the oak, but not here: this was authentic enough for me, and I’m a bit of a Northern Rhône traditionalist. My contribution was a bit more hit and miss. The 1995 Arbois Savagnin from Jacques Puffeney fell into the latter category: it’s not supposed to be a vin jaune (the Jura’s answer to fino sherry, matured under a flor of dead yeast), but it still had that tangy, salty, fino nose, coupled with vicious acidity. Weird. How I feel about a wine like this depends on my mo
od. Some days I can sort of persuade myself that I actually like this sort of oddity; other days I wonder how the winemaker could have spawned such a vinous Frankenstein. The second Goode contribution was the 2000 Cotat Sancerre ‘La Grande Côte’. This is no doubt a worth effort, but it got a bit lost in the crowd. Or maybe it’s just that there’s a limit to how good Sauvignon can be. Fortunately I hit the mark with the 1996 Ridge Geyserville. Predominantly Zinfandel in the classic Ridge style, this seemed much fuller and richer than another bottle of the same wine I had a couple of weeks back, which had begun to drop its fruit a touch. One other scribbled entry in the notebook reveals that I quite enjoyed the 1990 Gevrey Chambertin from Mortet, which showed some tasty undergrowth character and quite a bit of chewy tannic structure. A good evening.

Wednesday 13th March
I’m in the process of pensioning off my old IBM Thinkpad 600 laptop on which wineanorak has lived for the last couple of years. The new machine is a faster but somewhat flimsier-feeling Dell, which currently lacks the comfy familiarity I have with my Thinkpad. I’ve also bitten the bullet and decided to move away from Outlook Express as my e-mail program, which I've now officially replaced by Eudora. Outlook has proved itself to be a serious liability in terms of security: over the last couple of months I’ve been hit by two viruses, one of which was particularly nasty and disabled my antiviral software, making it tricky to clean up. OK, I was stupid in not doing weekly updates to the virus scanner, but without Outlook I wouldn’t have been hit by these malicious worms in the first place. The transition hasn’t proved straightforward, and I spent most of yesterday evening head-scratching, but I’m almost done. Laptops are amazing things. It’s like having an extension of your brain. Clearing out the old machine, I’ve rediscovered all those old feature ideas, bits of background research and hastily typed thoughts that without my laptop would have been lost forever. OK, it’s nothing I couldn’t have done with good old fashioned pen and paper; it’s just that modern communications and portable computers have made the whole process so much more focused, accessible and space-efficient. Just think: with a laptop, digital camera and access to a telephone line I could travel the wine world and still publish wineanorak on a daily basis. Now that would be fun… On a separate issue, I've recently had my first news piece published on Decanter's website, on the identification of a fifth taste receptor. And for those of you who subscribe to the wine trade magazine Harper's, look out for a 2000 word feature on the science of taste and smell as it relates to wine tasting, due out in the next couple of weeks I think. Gripping reading. Other goodies to look forward to include my first Decanter feature (commissioned but not yet written) and a short 300 word piece in the G2 section of The Guardian. It's starting to take off...

Thursday 7th March
As I write I'm sipping a delicious Syrah: it's my third time with the 2000 Vin de Pays des Collines Rhodaniennes from Domaine Mouton in the Northern Rhône. Yours for £6.50 from La Vigneronne -- I bought eight, but should have got more. What more could you want from a relatively inexpensive red? It's got some of that distinctive, meaty, green-olive tinged nose typical of a good Côte Rôtie. Perfumed and very savoury, it's medium bodied with good acidity. Good with food, but enjoyable on its own, too. You could spend substantially more and get something less authentic and far less satisfying. You probably think I'm mad, but I'd prefer this Mouton to two rather expensive Northern Rhône wines I tried this week at Bibendum's en primeur tasting. First, the Hermitage La Sizeranne 2000 from Chapoutier. It's not a bad wine: medium bodied and quite chunky, it's reasonably sophisticated, but the spicy oak currently dominates the nose and the palate. My problem is that a wine from this exalted appellation should be special; this is distinctly average. At an en primeur price of £30.74 per bottle, average just won't do. The second wine is the 2000 Côte Rôtie Cuvée Classique from Rene Rostaing. A vivid purple colour, this has a spicy caramel-edged nose. The palate is woody and spicy, with firm, dusty tannins. It's currently quite wood dominated and unintegrated, but my main problem is that it doesn't display any of that wonderful Côte Rôtie character. I'll happily pass at £23 per bottle. Hmmm, pour me another glass of the Mouton.

Monday 4th March
Kew Gardens
is an interesting place, even in March. We spent an interesting half-day there on Saturday, which turned out to be a brilliantly sunny spring day. Kew has a remarkable collection of plants, but (as far as I am aware) no Vitis vinifera (grape vines), alas. However, my browse through the various glass houses got me thinking about plants in general. I’m fascinated by them. Is suspect the grape vine would make most peoples' top ten list of important plants, along with the likes of the olive tree, arabica coffee, wheat, barley, rice (the world's most important food crop) and cocoa. People underestimate plants. We tend to think of them as unremarkable, stationary, background-ish sorts of organisms. This is wrong. Instead, we should think of them as very clever environmental computers. The outside world is heterogeneous, and whereas we monitor and compute the environment and then use this information to move to where we consider it to be the most favourable (or fit for our means), as sessile organisms plants use environmental information to determine their growth form. They can sense light, gravity, humidity, air quality, fungal attack, insect predation and even touch, and then compute this information to alter their growth form and internal chemistry. Some of these responses are pretty specific: for instance they can release volatile signal chemicals in response to being munched by a specific species of caterpillar that then act as an airborne SOS to recruit the parasitic wasps that prey on this uninvited diner. Nifty, eh? In part, viticulture is a science built around manipulating these environmental responses in grape vines. Good growers seek to encourage the vine to produce the best quality grapes. It’s somewhat of a black art, as the scientific basis behind producing great as opposed to merely good grapes is poorly worked-out. Who understands the science behind terroir? We can describe geology and climatic conditions, and prescribe pruning practices and other viticultural interventions, but it’s another matter to actually link these scientifically with grape characteristics, let alone the qualities of the final wine.

Sunday 24th February
Spring is on its way in Twickenham. Out in the garden the daffodils are in bloom, providing violent splurges of yellow amid the late winter browns and greys. The pear tree leaf buds are swollen and bursting with latent potential, and the grass seems to have taken on a fresher, lighter-green hue. I have finished pruning the still-dormant vines, and in their reduced, lifeless state it's hard to imagine that they'll be capable of bursting into vigorous life in just a month or so. Today, though, is still cold and wet and grey, so we've not yet seen the back of the long English winter. In a bid to overcome my self-diagnosed bout of SAD (seasonal affective disorder, suffered by those of us inhabiting far-northerly latitudes), I've spent the last week in the Tenerife, the largest of the Canary Islands. Brilliant sunshine and temperatures in the mid-twenties centigrade are very welcome at this time of year, and in addition to self-indulgent beach-bumming we hired a car and explored. Of interest here is the fact that Tenerife produces a fair amount of wine, and is the proud possessor of no less than five Spanish DOs. I checked out some of the vineyards, and they look really weird; unlike anything I've ever seen before. The knarled old vines, dormant at this time of year, are trained low along the ground, like wizened, geriatric snakes. They are frequently supported by forked sticks, just a foot or so above the barren-looking volcanic soil. As to the wines, I only tried a couple, so I can't really comment. Instead, my best wine moment of a non-wine-focused trip was provided by the sensationally good Torres Fransola 2000. From Penedès, it's predominantly Sauvignon Blanc, together with a dash of the local Paralleda grape, and half of the wine was fermented in new American oak barrels. But don't let this put you off: the oak merely adds some texture and spicy complexity to what is a brilliantly full flavoured, aromatic wine -- one of the best examples of Sauvignon I've experienced. Two other more modest Torres wines also impressed. The 2001 vintage of Vina Sol (a white wine made from Parelleda) is a wonderful example of commercial winemaking. Retailing for around 5 Euros, it is crisp, aromatic and delightfully poised, with good acidity. It's red sibling, the Sangre de Toro 2000, is a Grenache/Carignan blend showing an attractive savouriness along with a good density of fruit. Both of these cheapies are superb, versatile food wines. 

Wednesday 13th Febraury
An interesting tasting yesterday at the Lansdowne Club, put on by McKinley Vintners. The club's dress code stipulated that 'gentlemen' had to wear jackets and ties: a quick phone call confirmed that this category included me, so it was the first trade tasting I've attended wearing a suit. It's actually quite fiddly tasting with a tie on. You have to make sure that when you bend over the spittoons (in this case it was those awkward little table-top efforts -- I much prefer the bigger floor-standing ones), your tie is not in your spit stream. Very important. Highlight of the tasting was a vertical of Champagne Gosset. We were treated to four vintages of Grand Millésime (82, 85, 89,96), three of Celebris (82, 85, 89), and as a special treat four older vintages of Gosset Brut (52, 61, 75, 76). All these were impressive wines, but most fascinating were the four 'old ladies'. The 1976, from magnum, was fresh and still quite fizzy, tasting pretty youthful in a complex, high-acid style. 1975 had a gentle mousse and showed subtle, complex creamy, toasty characters with just a touch of caramel: lovely balance. Then the 1961, which was made some years before I was born. This was more evolved, with some herby complexity and rich, warm flavours. How do you describe wines like these, let alone rate them? The 1952, from a great year, was absolutely fascinating. This is a deep yello/gold colour. Not much fizziness, but a wonderfully complex, herby nose with creamy, toasty elements and a touch of yeastiness. The palate is rich and smooth: it's actually hard to pull out any dominant features, but there are lots of savoury flavours that are all pulling together to create a harmonious wine. Relatively few clarets and virtually no Burgundies will be in such good shape after some 50 years, although I should imagine that the near-perfect cellaring conditions at Gosset will have contributed to the graceful ageing of these wines -- after all, Champagne is notoriously sensitive to poor storage.

Thursday 7th February
Forgive the completely non-wine related nature of this entry, but we have a new addition to our family. He's a 10-month old black and white moggy named Oswald. But this is no ordinary feline. Oswald is in fact a celebrity cat. We feel very honoured by his presence in our home. His previous owner was none other than Eric Clapton, the mega-famous, semi-iconic guitarist and rock personality (hard evidence for this is provided by the picture on the right). But don't get the impression that Eric doesn't like cats. The story is that Oswald was hired by Clappo's PA at his country residence and studio, Hurtwood Edge (a photo of which can be found here) , to keep the mouse population down. Apparently, when she left for the USA, there was no one left to look after the poor cat, and through a friend of a friend he found his way to us. He's settled in well (I'll post a photo of him soon), but has the annoying habit of preferring the bathroom sink to his litter tray. Nice. Is it my imagination, or do his ears prick back attentively when I play my guitar?

Tuesday 5th February
A very profitable afternoon spent at the New Zealand trade tasting, held at regular haunt Chelsea Galleria. This is part of Chelsea Football Club's Stamford Bridge stadium, which is now hardly recognizable as a football ground with all the development that has taken place over the last few years. It seems that Chelsea FC is an industry, loosely based around a football team. Diehard Chelsea fans can even live there, should they so wish. Back to the tasting. You get good trade tastings and bad ones; this was definitely in the former category. Not too crowded, lots of interesting wine, and well laid out (a special central series of tables with wines organized along varietal lines, and individual producers showing at the tables around the periphery). It can be quite hard work tasting dozens of Sauvignon Blancs, so I spent most of my time tasting through the ranges from different producers. The overall standard of New Zealand wine is admirably high. The Sauvignons now cover a spectrum of styles, from rich and rounded to crisp and acidic. Choose which style you prefer. Chardonnay is now the most planted grape in NZ, but the results are mixed, at least to this palate. Few are overoaked, but there are too many examples showing a sort of papaya/tinned peas character that's a little off-putting. Riesling is crisp and citrussy, but still trying to find its identity I feel. Does it age? There are a few interesting Semillons, and some variable results with Pinot Gris. Gewürztraminer isn't really working that well, although a few producers have done OK. Of the reds, Cabernet and Merlot blend quite well, although some overoaked examples exist. But what really excites me is New Zealand Pinot Noir. I tasted some 25 different Pinots, and these were uniformly good, with 10 or so real stand-outs. Special feature to follow.   

Sunday 3rd February
There's an excellent letter from UK drinks writer Jim Budd in the latest edition of Decanter. (March 2002). Unfortunately, the letters section is not on the Decanter website, so I'll try to summarize Jim's main points, and explain why I think what he is proposing is such a good idea. It concerns the timing of the Bordeaux en primeur tastings, which take place in the March/April following the vintage. Thus journalists will soon be tasting the 2001 wines, which are still in barrel and whose components haven't yet been assembled into the final wine. For wines destined for long ageing, this is simply too young. Budd suggests that considering the economic climate and the high demand (and prices) for the 2000 wines, why not use this opportunity to delay the 2000 en primeur offer for a year. Thus Bordeaux would be in step with Burgundy and the Rhône, regions that are only just offering their 2000 en primeurs now. This extra year would make a big difference. Critics would be able to taste the final, assembled wines which, while still infants, would be easier to assess finally. And customers would have to wait a year less for their wine once they had paid for it. Motivated consumers would also be able to taste before they buy, just as they can now with Burgundy and Rhône cask sample tastings put on by some merchants. This is a good thing: while critics are extremely useful, palate preferences differ even among experience tasters, and these differences in style aren't conveyed by a score out of 100, which is the currency now used by most merchants in their en primeur offers. Jim also proposes that "all the cru classé chateaux should take part in the tastings organized by the Union des Grand Crus, rather than the first growths and others with similar pretensions obliging the press and merchants to visit them. And there should be no separate tastings arranged for influential journalists." Sensible suggestions, but is there any chance of these consumer-benefiting changes being adopted?

Thursday 24th January
My first assessment of the 2000 Burgundy vintage is now up. Over the next few weeks, expect to see other critics publish theirs. I haven't really tasted enough wines to give you any definitive conclusion, just 80 or so. In fact, I wonder how useful verdicts that generalize a whole vintage are, even if you break down your conclusions along regional lines. There are just too many variables involved (e.g. when grower chose to pick, microclimatic variation, viticultural techniques, winemaking techniques), all of which can affect the quality of the finished wine. The other source of 'noise' here is the rumour mill. Critics like to talk to each other and read what the others are writing. There's a lot of conferring over spitoons, and while some individuals take pride in ploughing their own furrow, others are happy to follow in their wake (forgive the mixed metaphors). So what ends up getting marked down in vintage charts is a highly subjective opinion, often bolstered by a self-referential form of vinous Chinese whispers, that is impossible to ground in any reality. Take the 1996 and 1997 Bordeaux vintages. Most commentators would agree that the former was a 'better' year. From my experience, this rings true. But how do you put a number on it? And for drinking tonight, some of the 1997 wines are a much better choice than many of the 1996s. What these charts also ignore is the idea that people differ in their style preferences, and that the characteristics that cause one person to choose vintage A over vintage B might cause another person to prefer the latter. Yes, the vintage chart is a convenient way of trying to help people through the maze of vintage variations, but it takes so many short cuts that I'm not sure the eventual result, a number, is any use at all.

Thursday 17th January
The Burgundy 2000 season is upon us. Suddenly we’re awash with cask sample tastings and en primeur offers. With the exercise of all the self-control I could muster, I’ve restricted myself to just two Burgundy 200 tastings, at Bibendum and John Armit (reports to follow). Refreshingly, there's so much less hype surrounding the release of the 2000 Burgundies vintage than there was with the Bordeaux 2000 circus last March, which was hyped endlessly. This prompts the question: why are the annual Burgundy releases relatively low key compared with Bordeaux? A few suggestions. First, much less Burgundy is made. Even the larger domaines (I'm not including the big five negociant houses here) may have just a few hectares of vines, spread over several different vineyard sites. A classed growth in the Medoc will typically have 20–40 ha of vines—and there are lots of them. So there's a lot of top Bordeaux to sell, which means that merchants stand to make a lot more money from their en primeur claret offers than from their tiny allocations of domaine-bottled Burgs. Second, many Bordeaux properties have a substantial advertising budget—after all, claret is a very image conscious wine. It therefore makes sound commercial sense for wine magazines to devote a lot of space to Bordeaux. Yes, Bordeaux is an important wine region and people are interested in it, but the commercial reality of Bordeaux advertising money means that magazine editors aren't worried about overdoing their Bordeaux coverage. The third reason that the Bordeaux en primeur is hyped so much is that top claret is an investment medium. Yes, it's a little bizarre that fermented grape juice should be bought as an investment, but a lot of en primeur purchases are made by people who have no intention of drinking the stuff. The final reason for all the hype is the way in which Bordeaux en primeur is released. It's sold impossibly early, even before the final blends are assembled, in the March following the harvest. All a potential purchaser has to help them decide what to buy is the opinions of journalists, who have bravely slugged their way through scores of thick, tannic, mouth numbing cask samples and tried to give their best impressions. And the wine is released in batches (or tranches) by the Châteaux, in an attempt to get the best possible prices from this highly speculative market. Thankfully, Burgundy is different.

Previous entries (some gripping reading!)

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