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Jamie's Blog... continued

Thursday 26th December
What did Santa bring you? I got a digital camera. This will make adding images to the website a slightly more straightforward process—currently it involves the use of a 35 mm SLR and scanner. Now I can take a picture, transfer the image to the laptop and run it through Fireworks, then to the website in less than 15 minutes. I'll probably still rely on the SLR for foreign trips though, because I'll want to shoot off lots of high quality images, a process that will be beyond the storage capacity of the digital camera's memory. The image on the right (not helped by the direct flash) shows some of the wines consumed chez Goode this Christmas. Silvio Jermann's normally impressive Vinnae 1999 was a bit lost on me this time (I've got a slight cold), but the inexpensive Dourosa 2001 (made for Waitrose by Quinta de la Rosa in the Douro) worked quite well, with good balance and some Douro character. Lustau's Old East India Sherry is a rich, tangy Christmas warmer. The 1995 Passadouro is for later this evening, and the Domaine Bertagna Hautes Côtes de Nuits 'Les Dames Huguettes' 1999 could be mistaken for a New Zealand Pinot Noir. 

Monday 16th December
The British obsession for a bargain is remarkably deeply ingrained, and slightly depressing. The difference between US wine-lovers and UK wine lovers is telling here: Americans want to know which are the best wines; the Brits want to know which the best value wines are. Indeed, the UK wine market now seems to be moving to a model of almost exclusively promotion-led sales. The model is to pitch the RRP of branded wines slightly on the high side, pricing a £4.49 wine at £5.99, for example. You don’t expect to sell many wines at this price: instead, you know you are going to shift large volumes when you run it on promotion at the lower price for a week every two months. Everyone’s happy, especially the stingy bargain-obsessed shoppers who think they’ve got a bargain. Virgin wines seem to have a novel slant on this, which appears to be modelled on the way that Laithwaites (including the Sunday Times Wine Club, and several other similar operations) works. Virgin have started producing their own branded wines, where they stick their own label on wines produced for them. These Virgin-only brands form the core of their range, and they are slightly on the pricey side. This allows Virgin to knock £40 or 25% off a case, for example, and still make money while the British punters are delighted that they’ve got a bargain. If some people then buy these wines at full price, even better. 

On a visit to Tesco over the weekend I was stunned by the extent of the price cutting on the brands, and the extent to which they dominated the wine department. I suspect producers who aren’t joining the price-cutting game are going to find shifting their wines a bit of a struggle. Let's be fair to the brands, though. They do offer reliable, if uniform, drinking at reasonable prices, and with the discounts going on you can buy pretty cheaply at the moment. My tip: if you really must drink branded wines, stick to Australia. They tend to have the edge over California (the worst), South Africa, Chile and Argentina. Most European brands aren't up to scratch yet.

Thursday 5th December
As I write I’m watching the hotel inspector episode of Fawlty towers. This is the one where Basil Fawlty hears that a hotel inspector is in town. He assumes that one guest is the hotel inspector and fawns over him, only to find out that his real business is spoons. Meanwhile, another guest orders a bottle of 65 Aloxe Corton (bear in mind that the series was filmed in 1975). He complains that it is corked, to the bemusement of Fawlty. ‘The cork has reacted with the wine’, explains the guest, and insists on a replacement. Fawlty reluctantly agrees. Moments later, he quizzes the guest. ‘Are you having the lamb or mackerel?’ When the guest replies, ‘The lamb’, Fawlty’s response is, ‘Oh good, I’ll have one standing by just in case’. Later, Fawlty approaches the guest, ‘I trust you enjoyed your Corton?’ Guest replies, ‘More like a 66. Lots of body.’ Fawlty’s response, ‘Most people in here can’t tell a Bordeaux from a Claret.’ Brilliant stuff.

My three most recent wine purchases have all been Iberian. First, a couple of Portuguese wines from Corney & Barrow, both made by Sandra Tavares: Chocopalha 2000, from her parents’ estate in Estremadura, and Quinta do Vale D. Maria 2000 from Christiano van Zeller’s estate in the Douro. The first I'll be drinking soon; the second I'll hold for a few years to let the oak integrate properly. The third purchase was one of my wines of the month, the Marqués de Griñón Dominio de Valdepusa Syrah 2000, from Toledo in Spain. I like to check out my own recommendations. In fact, I’m drinking this now. It shows a remarkable concentration of pure raspberry and blackcurrant fruit, with some liquoricey complexity. It is a striking wine in a modern style; my only slight criticism is that with its 15% alcohol, it does seem a tiny bit hot and alcoholic. This is a prime candidate for alcohol reduction via reverse osmosis: it would be fascinating to do a sweet-spot tasting of this wine at a range of alcohol levels. Interestingly, Stephen Spurrier has also selected this wine as one of his picks in this month’s Decanter. Surprisingly, though, Spurrier likens this to Hermitage. It’s nothing like it. This is most definitely a hot-climate expression of Syrah, and bears little resemblance to anything from the Northern Rhône. It will be interesting to see how this evolves.

A total aside. Last weekend we had a family day out to the Christmas festival at Portsmouth's historical dockyard. This included a tour of HMS Victory, Nelson's flagship at the battle of Trafalgar. An atmospheric, history-loaded visit. But the remarkable fact of the day was learning that each sailor in Nelson's fleet was allotted a daily drink allocation of 8 pints of beer, or 2 pints of wine, or half a pint of rum. Which would you choose? Ironically, drunkenness on board ship was severely punished.

Thursday 28th November
Another nice press mention today for wineanorak.com, this time in The Guardian. The article in question can be found here. Author Louise Ferguson comments, 'Wine writers offer a good source of information, but make sure you're dealing with an independent, not a free-sample swigger.' I'd like to think I was both! It simply wouldn't be possible to do a good job as a wine writer unless you took advantage of free tasting opportunities, both in the form of home-delivered samples and more frequently trade tastings. Having said this, I do purchase quite a bit of wine myself. Can't help it. I'm a geek. In fact, I think I do a better job of wine criticism because I do have the perspective of a consumer, as well as someone peripherally connected to the trade. I find it easier to think like one of my readers simply because I would be reading this site if I wasn't writing it. It came as quite a surprise to me to find out that many people in the wine trade, even some winemakers, aren't all that interested in wine. To them, it's simply a job. However, I still have a semi-romantic notion that an individual with a deep passion for wine will stand a better chance of putting together an interesting list (if they are selling the stuff) or making a classic wine (if they are producing it) than someone less hooked by the subject. I've got a great respect for passionate wine makers and retailers.  

Saturday 23rd November
Today I turned 35. That’s halfway to 70. If I were a professional footballer they’d be calling me a veteran. But I reassure myself that in terms of writing about wine, I’m just a yoof; one of the youngsters. What better way to spend a birthday than tasting wine? So I headed off for this year’s Decanter Fine Wine Encounter, held in the elegant surrounds of the Landmark hotel, adjoining Marylebone station (where the rack rate for the cheapest room is a cool £330 should you wish to stay). I go to a lot of tastings, but the Decanter event still stands out as one of the best—and probably the best of the consumer events. The line-up of producers is very strong, you get to taste out of Riedel Chianti glasses (much better than the usual ISO glasses used at trade events), and the crowds are manageable (although one of the rooms was unbearably busy for a while just before lunch). Unlike last year, where I crammed in 25 different producers (about a quarter of the total), this year I managed a more leisurely dozen, including Inama, Hanzell, Château Beychevelle, Abadia Retuerta, Craggy Range, Mas de Daumas Gassac, Domaine l’Hortus and Coltubueno. I called it a day at about 2 pm because I wanted my palate to be fresh enough to appreciate some birthday wines this evening: after a full day’s tasting the last thing I usually feel like is more wine. Readers living in striking distance of London might want to make space in their diaries for the Decanter Italian Fine Wine Encounter, which will be held at the same venue on Saturday 17th May 2003. 

Friday 22nd November
On Tuesday night I attended a seminar given by Nicolas Joly of Coulée de Serrant (Savennieres, Loire), one of the leading proponents of biodynamics (a method of farming with an unusual philosophical basis that has been adopted by many high profile producers, such as Domaine Leflaive, Domaine de la Romanée Conti, Domaine Leroy, Kreydenweiss, Zind Humbrecht and Deiss). After his seminar, I had a chance to ask him some questions, and found him animated, articulate and likeable, even if some of his ideas seem a little foreign to someone used to a more scientific approach. I’m currently writing a feature exploring biodynamics, so I’ll try to keep my powder dry for now, but I thought I’d share a few quotes from M. Joly.  

“Different artists paint the same landscapes in different ways. It is the same with vines expressing terroir. This is why it is absurd to have created clones: the repetition of one specific vine a million times. Clones are a lie to the diversity that each specific vine expresses. Taking the ‘best’ clone and producing millions of samples is absurd. This understanding of the ‘best’ is absurd.”

“Chenin Blanc is like a difficult child: they will go on to be either a genius or a terrorist. Too often we see the terrorist version of Chenin.”

“Europe is full of fabulous musical instruments, which are the sites where the vine is planted. The musician is the wine grower. The acoustics are the farming practices, and these are essential. The more your farming kills life the worse your acoustics are. Let’s play our musical instruments; let’s rediscover the value of farming.”

“The more you help the vine to do its job, by means of a live soil, proper vine selection, and avoiding poisonous treatments, the more harmony there is. If the wine catches this harmony well you have nothing to do in the cellar: potentially it is all there.”

“Reinventing complexity through technology is a lie to the consumer.”

“Re-yeasting [using yeast cultures] is absurd. Natural yeast is marked by all the subtleties of the year. If you have been dumb enough to kill your yeast you have lost something from that year. “

“There is an enormous wisdom in the shape of a barrel. Ask your dog. Put a barrel beside the kennel and in 12 hours the dog will have chosen to sleep in the barrel. The barrel is in the shape of an egg, and has the shape of life forces.”

“I am experimenting with replacing wood by clay. Clay can cure; it is strongly linked to the sun. Amphorae can be an alternative to oak barrels.”

Tuesday 12th November
As I write I’m sitting on a train carriage painted with the ‘Think red, think Côtes du Rhône’ message. The French are finally fighting back against the almost irrepressible tide of new world branded wines, but I’m not sure that entire appellations can be used effectively as a coherent marketing entity, especially not appellations as disparate as Côtes du Rhône. Savvy wine buyers know that the best way to buy wine is not by the appellation, but by the grower or producer. This applies whether the appellation in question is Côte Rôtie, Gevrey Chambertin, Chablis or Vouvray. This isn’t to say that appellations don’t matter – they have played a crucial role in ensuring the continued diversity of French wines – just that they are not a guarantee of quality that they are widely held up to be. [For an extended treatment of these issues, see an article I wrote a few months ago on appellations as brands.]

My latest foray into the world of consumer magazines is now out: for an overview of Portugal’s red wine styles, nip down to your newsagent and pick up a copy of this month’s Wine magazine, which comes complete with a Portuguese supplement that I was asked to contribute to.

A number of non-wine-geek friends have recently commented that they’ve been following this blog. Even my family, who despair that I’m so bad at phoning them, use the blog as a way to follow what’s going on in my life. I imagine they get a pretty distorted picture of life chez Goode from this. In an effort to redress the lack of non-wine related material appearing here, I’d like to spend a few moments looking back at the past weekend. It was a significant one, because for the first time in 13 years Manchester City (my team) beat local rivals Manchester United. In fact they hammered them. United were dreadful, and it was a joy to watch. City have had a terrible time in the last decade while United have enjoyed global domination, so it’s nice to see the balance shift a little. It is now almost 30 years since City were consistently better than their neighbours, but I live in hope that the circle will turn once more.

Thursday 7th November
Had a good experience the other day at Waitrose’s Canary Wharf branch. This new flagship store has a number of bar-style food points including a sushi bar and a steak and oyster bar: nothing terribly remarkable about this but the good news for wine lovers is that you can pick a wine from their extensive selection -- including some choice bottles from their Inner Cellar -- and drink them with your food for a modest corkage charge of just £5. Since I’d heard this was opening I’d been itching for an excuse to visit, so I arranged to meet up for lunch with a good friend, Mike Rigby, who works for the Telegraph group in Canary Wharf. [Incidentally, it was Mike who introduced me to wine for the first time, a decade ago.] With our competently prepared fillet steaks we enjoyed a bottle of the Wither Hills Pinot Noir 2001. Over the last vintage or two this has proved to be one of the best New Zealand Pinot Noirs, with some savoury, meaty complexity underlying the sweet, ripe berry fruit. The 2001 seemed a little too sweetly fruited to match the steaks well, but it’s still a lovely wine. Congratulations to Waitrose for this inspired, wine-lover-friendly initiative.

I opened another bottle of the Grande Cassagne ‘La Civette’ 2000 last night. This is the second bottle in a row that has begun to referment: it is slightly cloudy, with an unusually exaggerated earthy character on the nose, a prickly, spritzy edge to the palate and just a few fine bubbles at the bottom of the glass. I’m not going to return the remaining bottles, though. Why? Because it would send the wrong message back to the producer. I am assuming they have taken a small risk by not filtering the wine, and this time it has not paid off. But if as consumers we want living wines that haven’t been stripped of a lot of their character by excessive filtration, then I think we have to share a bit of that risk. Besides, La Vigneronne sold the wine cheaply, at £4, and at this price I’d rather be quaffing the rest of my case of La Civette with the odd bottle showing a little bit of refermentation than a bland industrial concoction with no soul.

Thursday 31st October
A few interesting wines in recent days. First, another bottle of the super Vin de Pays des Collines Rhodaniennes 2001 from Jamet. I bought several of these from my local Majestic -- credit to them for stocking this, because it’s not widely available. Why do I like it? It’s not a blockbuster of a wine; rather, it is a wine with ‘edges’, as Ernst Loosen puts it. Behind the bright, peppery raspberry fruit there’s some meaty richness: not a lot, but just enough to add complexity. It wins you over slowly, with its almost Burgundian weight and acidity. There’s some genuine Northern Rhône character here, which is rare even in much more expensive wines (this cost just £5.49). France produces a lot of interesting inexpensive wines, and it’s a shame that we so rarely see them over here: the supermarkets here can’t really deal with small parcels of wine, and instead have to rely on the big negociants and the branders. Sticking with France, a completely different but equally interesting tipple is the Chante Coucou 1999 from Elain da Ros. It’s from the Côtes du Marmandais in the South West of France (further inland and south a bit from Bordeaux, I believe), and this is a big, inky, dense wine. It’s a little austere at the moment, with taut savoury plum and berry fruit, and massive tannic structure, but with food it works really well. Again, not a wine to win you over immediately, but there’s lots of interest in this personality-filled monster. A serious effort, and I’m glad that I have another 10 of these left, bought from La Vigneronne for a ridiculously low price in one of their sales. Finally, last night I turned to Portugal, and the 1996 Douro Reserva from Quinta do Crasto. The dominant feature here is a roasted, tarry edge to the herby fruit, but I can’t work out whether this is a Douro character, or a result of the American oak. It’s shed most of its fleshy ripeness, and the acidity is beginning to take hold: it is anyone’s guess as to how this will develop further, but I’ll be drinking my remaining couple of bottles up soon. Still, satisfying drinking, and I think of Crasto's spectacular vineyards as I sip it.

Friday 25th October
On a recent trip to Baltimore I managed to hook up for an offline wine dinner with Wayne Hicks. I’d met Wayne on a previous visit to the USA – that time Madison – when he responded to an offline invitation posted on the Wine Lover’s Discussion Group, so it was nice to get a chance to drink wine with him again. We met at Corks, a small, reasonably upmarket restaurant in the Federal Hill area: as well as boasting an impressive, nicely annotated list of sensibly priced US wines, Corks allow you to bring your own wine for a modest corkage of US$10. We enjoyed two contrasting European wines. Wayne brought the 1994 Léoville Barton. This classically structured wine seemed a tiny bit closed at first, but after decanting it opened up quite nicely. With brilliant balance between the slightly spicy, minerally fruit and cedary complexity, this is an elegant wine that embodies many of the qualities of great Bordeaux. The second wine, which I picked up at Berry Bros’ Heathrow branch on the way out, was a completely different beast, the 1997 Mouchão from Portugal’s Alentejo region*. But ‘beast’ is the right descriptor for this wine. It’s inky dark, with an intriguing, savoury dark-fruit character and a pleasant bitter tang on the finish. Like the Bordeaux, however, this wine changes dramatically in the glass, exhibiting much more pronounced chocolatey, spicy richness on the nose after half an hour or so. It’s a brilliantly poised wine: not too modern, not too old fashioned. Both wines demonstrate that you can miss a lot from just a quick taste – the longer you spend with a decent wine, the more you understand it. It’s akin to the difference between just shaking someone’s hand and having a lengthy conversation with them. Moral of the story: you need to ‘drink’ regularly as well as just ‘taste’. Critics take note.
Evidently, at £16 the Mouchão is a less expensive wine than the Léoville Barton: lest my loyal readers think I’m being cheap, I should explain that the offline arrangements were only made once I was in the USA, hence this was the only wine I had available. Just thought I’d clarify this one… 

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