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Jamie's Blog...archive

Sunday 26th May
The London International Wine and Spirits Fair is one of the key events in the wine trade calendar. This year was the first at ExCel, an impressive new venue way out in Docklands. It’s a real improvement on tired old Olympia, but a bit of a trek from central London. Mind you, the amount of moaning there was about this venue change on the Circle of Wine Writers forum, you’d have thought they’d moved the event out to Norwich. No, despite the extra travel (with the Jubilee Line working it’s pretty straightforward) and lack of local eateries, ExCel is a far better venue for this event. My rather screwed up diary meant I could only manage one afternoon this year. For those of you who have never attended, the trade fair is a huge event, with many hundreds of producers and agents flogging their wares. It’s massive. You could spend all three days working hard here and still not see everything, although it has to be said that there’s a lot of ‘commercial’ wine on show that’s not particularly exciting. Faced with this daunting vinous array, my approach is to focus on just a few stands and do them thoroughly, and this year it’s a strategy that proved productive. The South Africans have a very strong presence at the fair, and I chose two producers to focus on: Warwick Estate (Mike Ratcliffe was very helpful here), and Delheim. Then I stopped by Portuguese specialists Raymond Reynolds to try the impressive madeiras from Barbeito (including one from 1900), and re-tried the Niepoort Ports. Next on my hitlist were the wonderful Austrian wines from Bründlmeyer in the Kamptal, followed by a productive 40 minutes tasting through the CVNE and Contino Riojas, with the Contino winemaker. To finish off with I had a quick chat to Lisa, one of the Calatrasi winemakers (new wave Sicilian, Puglian and Tunisian wines), and then tried a whole batch of high-end California wines. The benefit of an event like this is that you can get the cellar door experience without the travelling, and it’s a rare chance to chat to winemakers and producers who don’t always make it to other trade shows. For the wine journalist, it’s a real feast.

Wednesday 22nd May
Last night’s dinner with Dirk Niepoort, held in the private room at Alistair Little, was one of the most enjoyable wine evenings I’ve had in a long time. Not only was I lucky to be among the 20 invitees, but also Danny Cameron, who organized the event, was kind enough to seat me next to Dirk. The wines were superb, verging on the sensational in places. Full notes to follow. We kicked off with two whites: the Redoma Branco 2000 and the Reserva 2000, both full flavoured, elegant and with good acidity and well integrated oak. Dirk says that he’s ‘not keen on fruity wines’, and avoids malolactic fermentation to keep the wines fresh. Then the Rosé 2001, which is an unusual, full flavoured concoction. Unique. The first of the reds was the taut, focused Quinta da Napoles 2000, which we tasted alongside the richer, more fleshy Redoma 1999. Both were superb. Up a notch yet further in quality, we moved to the two new flagship wines, the 1999 Batuta and 2000 Charme. I’ve written about Batuta before: this has to be one of most exciting table wines yet from Portugal, and looks set rub shoulders with the wine world’s elite. Only 3000 bottles are made, so you’ll need to be lucky to get hold of some -- it’s already changing hands for silly money on the domestic market. The Charme is fascinating, and an example of Dirk’s passion for experimentation and pushing back boundaries. He says he’s sort of aiming at a Burgundy style here, with the goal being ‘finesse, finesse, finesse’. The wine is fermented in lagares with the stems to add some structure and character, and in this inaugral ‘experimental’ vintage Dirk also used 200% new oak (the wine was racked from new barrel to another new barrel). Just two barrels were made. Apparently the 2001 vintage will see further refinement and livelier acidity. We also tried cask samples of the 2000 Redoma and 2000 Batuta, which were huge, vivid creations, hard to assess so early on in their lives. Then, as if this were not enough, came the ports. First, the 1970 Vintage Niepoort. It’s hard to be objective about a legend, especially when I hadn’t been spitting a drop all evening. But this is drinking perfectly, and the few who were left by this stage enjoyed a few glasses… Dirk then poured three 2000 ports, all blind. All were brilliant, but I was completely smitten by the first poured, identified as number three. This turned out to be the 2000 Vintage: a full, structured, impossibly intense effort with huge concentration and class. By this stage, it was late, and I had to tear myself away to get the last tube home. The 4 mile walk back from Richmond (the buses had finished) was a pain, but it was well worth it.

Tuesday 21st May
It’s the start of a busy week. Over the next three days thousands of wine trade people will be converging on the London International Wine and Spirits Fair, one of the pivotal events in the wine trade diary. Tonight I kicked off with an ‘offline’ dinner in Notting Hill, where I finally got to meet Stuart Yaniger. Those who are veterans of the online wine discussion scene will probably already be familiar with him, and his unique blend of online humour (see the blog entry for 17th April). He’s the co-inventor of one of the leading synthetic corks (see www.neocork.com), but is also famous for his role in creating one of the classic Côte Rôties. For it is Yaniger who persuaded the Ogiers to produce ‘La Belle Hélène’, a vieilles vignes cuvée from the famous Rozier vineyard that has been aged in 100% new French oak. The latest release of this wine scored 100 points from influential American critic Robert Parker. Yaniger brought along the 1995 vintage of this wine, which he helped make. It’s sensational. To be honest, I was expecting not to be wowed by this wine: normally the 100% new oak treatment puts me off. But it had that trademark nose of complex liquoricey, meaty fruit with just a hint of green olive that really grabs me, together with a full bodied meaty, spicy palate. It was just brilliant, showing lots of typicity without in any way being oaky or modern. Lovely. Plenty of other interesting wines tasted tonight, which will be written up in full later. Tomorrow night is a very promising Dirk Niepoort dinner, which I’m very much looking forward to, and then on Thursday I intend to visit some key producers at the wine fair.   

Tuesday 14th May
I’ve decided that, much as I love it, cricket is a game based almost entirely around fear. Although I enjoyed playing for the Wine Trade XI last Friday, my perfomance was decidedly mixed. We were playing against the Gentlemen of Essex, which consisted almost exclusively of members of Coggeshall Town cricket club, whose ground we were using. Apparently it’s a satellite ground for the county side, but Nick Oakley, our captain, assures me that I won’t be out of my depth. I’m horrified to discover, though, that Coggeshall have an overseas player, a young Australian plying his trade during the Aussie winter. If a team is serious enough to have an overseas pro, then, I figure, I’m out of my depth here. Worse is to come: Nick thrusts the new ball into my hand and asks me to open the bowling. Is he mad? I’m not one to shirk back from a challenge, but the only emotion I’m feeling is fear. I haven’t played properly for more than a decade, and I’m bowling against guys who, if I should pitch it just a little short or full, will smack me around the park. Fortunately my four overs cost a semi-respectable 21 runs. Then, we take a wicket, and in comes the Aussie. He’s good. He blasts the ball everywhere, taking 22 off just one over. Then, when I’m fielding at a rather deep mid on, Aussie boy takes a big whack at a slightly underpitched ball. He doen’t quite judge it properly, and it goes soaring up into the air. The ball hangs there for what seems like minutes as I realise that I’m the nearest to it. Fear. I move into position, but get it wrong and don’t even get a hand to it. Silence. Humiliation. A few overs later I get another chance when the other batsman dollies one up for me to catch. If I’d missed that it would have been bad. A boozy lunch follows – we each had to contribute a match fee supplement of two bottles of wine – and then Coggeshall complete their innings, declaring at 285 for 6. In response we did rather well, until a mid order collapse saw me going in at number 10 with some 70 runs required off seven overs. I guess the sensible thing would have been to block out everything for a draw, but I don’t get to bat very often, and the bowling was inviting. My first ball I whack for four, the second for two and the third is a straight one, which I miss. I hear the death rattle behind me. A brief but enjoyable innings, and we’re all out for around 230 a few balls later. Despite the fear, it’s still a great game.

Wednesday 8th May
An interesting couple of days coming up. Tomorrow, I’m tasting at the International Wine Challenge, the world’s largest blind tasting event. It’s the competition with the most significance for the UK wine trade, so even though I’ve been a bit critical of the results in the past, it’s only fair that I get to see behind the scenes – this will be my first year tasting at this event. Hard work, though, by the sounds of things. I have to be there by 8.30 am, and it’s over in Docklands, a bit of a trek from just about everywhere. I’ll write up my experiences on this site, of course. Please don’t let me be faced with 200 sub-£5 Chardonnays to wade through. It’ll put me off wine forever. Then Friday is a potentially more enjoyable day. I’ve been selected to play for the Wine Trade Cricket XI against the Gentlemen of Essex (yes, they managed to find 11 of them in the end…). For ‘selected’ read captain Nick Oakley was desperate for an 11th hour replacement and rang round his address book. But I do fancy myself as a handy sort of cricketer, Boycott-like with the bat and Hadlee-like with the ball. Well, we’ll see how Friday goes. The match fee is two bottles of decent wine.

Friday 3rd May
Nice to get a mention in the Telegraph magazine last week (click here to see it). These events do increase traffic a bit, but there’s nothing you can do to encourage them. You just have to do your best, keep putting up the best content you can, and hope that it gets the recognition you feel it deserves. And while we are on the subject of recognition, those of you with access to this week’s copy of Harpers (the wine trade mag) should turn to page 34 and study intently the feature titled ‘systems making sense’ that you’ll find there. Feedback welcome. On a totally different subject, I was in Oddbins last week and a punter rolls in. Middle aged, quite posh, well spoken. He goes up to the two chaps behind the till, and without a hint of irony or embarrassment asks the following question. ‘Have you got any Cloudy Bay?’ I have to say, the staff were very patient explaining why they hadn’t, and why he probably wouldn’t be able to get hold of any. (For those readers not familiar with the Cloudy Bay phenomenon, visit here.) Anyway, yesterday I wandered into my local Threshers for a look round. I do this occasionally just to stand amazed at how bad the selection is these days (mostly big brands) and how high the prices are. I was browsing the shelves and to my amazement, there it was. They must have had at least two cases of Cloudy Bay Sauvignon Blanc 2001: six on the main shelf, six in the fridge, and a dozen on a separate display shelf. Yours for £15.99. I confess, I almost bought one out of surprise. You just don’t see this on the shelf in the UK, and particularly not in May (it’s released in October/November). But I didn’t. I’ve tried the 2001 three times, and while it’s a good wine, I’d rather have the brilliant Seresin 2001 (£9.99 from Noel Young) or the Isabel Estate 2001 (£9.90 Noel Young). But if any readers absolutely must have Cloudy Bay, e-mail me and I’ll tell you where to find it…

Sunday 28th April
Yesterday was an enjoyable day spent with friends Nick and Susan Alabaster. As you’d expect when geeks like Nick and I get together, we had some interesting wines with dinner, but it all started off with an unusual experiment. Nick presented me with two Riedel Syrah glasses loaded with equal measures of what looked to be very similar wines. I took a sniff of each and they appeared to be identical, with a wonderfully complex gamey, spicy nose and some deep, meaty fruit. Clearly a bit of evolution here, but still quite firm spicy tannins on the palate. Was it my imagination, or was one of the wines just a little fuller and tighter than the other? Whatever, these were both very hard to tell apart. Almost certainly a top-notch Châteauneuf du Pape with a few years bottle age. Nick confirmed that both glasses were in fact the same wine and that I had some in my possession, at which point I guessed correctly that it was the 1995 Vieux Télégraphe. But why the two glasses? Nick explained that this was because he was serving from two different bottles, one of which had been stored horizontally for five years, the other upright. Conventional wisdom is that wine should be stored lying on its side in order to keep the cork moist, but here was an experiment (albeit with an n = 1) showing that with young wines it really doesn’t matter at all. I inspected both corks, and after seven years in the bottle they are still very elastic, and it is clear that there’s no danger of them shrinking and letting air in over this sort of time scale. Of course, with this tiny sample it’s very difficult to conclude anything: if one of the wines had been oxidised, this could simply have been bottle variation. But the fact that they were very nearly identical shows that we needn’t worry about storing relatively young wines upright, even for fairly long periods. Unless you are cellaring elderly bottles, it’s also probably a bit unnecessary to fuss about the humidity. For the record, the other wines we drank included a wonderful 1995 Ogier Côte Rôtie, a delicious 1999 Roc d’Anglade (Langeudoc wine made by Remy Pedreno and Rene Rostaing) and a rather disappointing 1996 Girardin Santenay 1er Cru Les Gravières. 

Monday 22nd April
I’ve mentioned before how much we Brits like to talk about the weather. Well, in Twickenham it’s been a remarkable April so far, with a stream of bright sunny days and virtually no rain. Today in London it’s sunny and 20 °C, with a light breeze. Perfect. Late spring is one of my favourite times of year, bursting with potential and freshness, and it’s usually at this time each year where I vow to play more golf. This year, I say to myself, is the one where I unlock all my latent talent, and get my handicap down to single figures. I have visions of myself as a sort of maverick genius, a bit like the young Seve Ballasteros, blasting balls around and making miracle recoveries from seemingly impossible lies. Hitting some balls on the range at the weekend, though, the truth slowly dawns on me that while one shot in ten I play is staggeringly good, it’s the nine that aren’t (including one or two truly dreadful ones) that let me down and keep me hovering around the nineties. The key to golf is consistency and accuracy, and this takes hard work and dedication, in addition to any natural ability. Still, as long as I hit a couple of great shots each round, and sink one or two long puts, I usually go home happy. I digress, though. The focus of this blog is wine storage. In the UK we’re blessed with a fairly benign climate. This makes passive wine storage – keeping wine without any active cooling – an option for those who have a suitable space. This could include a north-facing room with the central heating turned off, a cupboard under the stairs, or a proper cellar even. At home I’ve created a space under the floorboards in one of our downstairs rooms, which is about 4 foot high. There’s room for a couple of thousand bottles, although access is tricky. The temperature reaches about 18 °C in the hottest part of the summer and dips to about 5 °C in the winter, so it’s not ideal, but it won’t kill the wine. But passive storage is a risky bet for long-term ageing of fine wine, especially as the ambient temperature begins to creep up to the early 30s. For those with the resources and space, there are three serious options for storing wine at home. First, the wine fridges made by the likes of Eurocave, Transtherm, Miele, Norcool and Vintec. Best are the first two, which are designed with wine bottle storage in mind. The others are cheaper and based around standard-sized refrigerators, so space usage isn’t as economical, but they still do a good job. Damage is upwards of £800, depending on capacity. Second, building your own insulated cellar space (in the garage?) and installing a specialized air conditioning unit designed to keep the room at a steady 11-12 °C. A good option, but not as straightforward as it seems. Budget required: upwards of £1500. Some guidance is offered here. Finally, for the relatively well heeled, the spiral cellar, a French invention now taking off in the UK, is worth considering. You’ll need about £7000 for this, which seems a bit steep for the work involved. I wonder how much they cost in France...

Wednesday 17th April
Slightly sad news for London-based wine lovers is that St James’ Street merchants Justerini & Brooks are to close their London shop. This has been a happy hunting ground for me, with its mouthwatering selection of fine wines at tempting prices. The ability to order from the full list and then collect by hand has made it possible to buy odd bottles rather than full cases, and it will be a shame to lose this facility. Neighbours Berry Bros & Rudd are still there though, and I’ve made recent use of their website to order single bottles and then specify London shop pick-up, thus avoiding delivery charges and the need to buy in case lots. I was in there earlier picking up a couple of bottles for tonight’s wine anorak Côte Rôtie tasting, and was horrified to see a collection of rather pricey magnums of Bordeaux displayed in the window, sitting there in the glare of full sunlight. Hmmm. Talking about Côte Rôtie, one of the best websites for information on these wines – Stuart Yaniger’s ‘the stupids’ site – is inexplicably offline at the moment. For those not familiar with the Yaniger style, here are a few of my favourite quotes. On Ogier: "For whatever reason, Ogier's Côte-Rôties seem to hit me right in that part of the brain pleasure-center that they used to wire up in rats to get them to starve to death from being too busy pushing the stimulus button to bother doing things like eat or drink. " On tasting the wines at a visit to Gallet: "From a 10-year-old barrel, grey with experience, the fruit is just pure, flowery syrah, perfectly focused and firm, the wee-est bit reduced. It gave me a stiffie. " On St-Peray: "My happy exception to the ‘Sparkling St-Peray sucks’ rule has been Darona. I've passed many a bottle of their NV Brut through my corporeal filtration system. But they've dropped the NV from the line-up, and the vintage stuff is quite mediocre. Even worse is the flabby Demi-sec, a wine that brings the image of Roseanne to mind. " Finally, on Lezin-Lagnier: "I'm always curious about what Lezin-Lagnier will do. Their Condrieu is legendary, some of the most foul fluid to ever be sold for human consumption. This years version is reminiscent of two-week-old road kill marinated in rubbing alcohol. Yum! And their horrible Condrieu has been joined by an equally horrible '98 Côte-Rôtie. Lord knows how this is made, but it doesn't even vaguely resemble a grape product. Buy all you can for the sheer novelty value."

Previous entries (some gripping reading!)

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