Thursday, October 19, 2006
For more information on biodynamic wines and how they are made, go to this section of Dr Jamie Goode's excellent Wine Anorak site or to the Biodynamic Agricultural Association which covers all manner of biodydynamic farming.
The following producers are all wholly or at least partially biodynamic.
The Carlei Green Vineyards
VOE (Antiyal )
Château Le Grave (Fronsac)
Falfas (Côtes du Bourg)
La Tour Figeac (St Emilion)
A. et P. de Villaine
Chateau de la Tour (in part)
Domaine de la Romanée Conti (in part)
Domaine La Soufrandiere (in part)
Dominique et Catherine Derain
JM Brocard, Chablis (in part)
Erick de Sousa
Raymond-Boulard (in part)
Andre et Mireille Tissot
Domaine Lèon Barral
Catherine et Pierre Breton
Château Tour Grise
Clos de Ch. Gaillard
Clos Roche Blanche (Touraine)
Coulée de Serrant
Dom de la Sansonniere
Dom Saint Nicholas (Fiefs Vendeens)
Domaine de l'Ecu
Domaine du Closel (in part)
Domaine Filliatreau (in part)
Domaine Saint Nicolas
Chateau de Roquefort
Domaine de Trevallon
Domaine Sainte-Anne (Bandol)
Clos du Joncuas
Domaine de Villeneuve
Domaine Jacqueline André
Freiherr Heyl Zu Herrnsheim
Prinz zu Salm-Dalberg & Schloss Wallhaüsen
Cascina degli Ulivi
Cascina degli Ulivi (Piedmont)
Do Zenner (Sicily)
Gulfi Ramada (Sicilia)
Josko Gravner (Friuli Venezia Giulia)
La Castellada (Friuli Venezia Giulia)
Leone de Castris
Nuova Cappellata (Piedmont)
Radikon (Friuli Venezia Giulia)
Teobaldo Cappellano (in part)
Vadopivec (Friuli Venezia Giulia)
Albet I Noya
Compania de Vinos Telmo Rodriguez
Descendientes de José Palacios
Dominio de Atauta (Ribera del Duero)
Dominio de Pingus
Black Sears (in part)
Brick House Vineyards
Cooper Mountain Vineyards
Littorai (in part)
Patianna Organic Vineyards
Tuesday, October 17, 2006
Unlike the behaviour of a Bordeaux negociant called Savas which has just been found trying to sell customers in Taiwan 14,400 bottles of "Bordeaux" which was in fact basic vin de table. For this little lapse, Savas will have to pay the princely fine of EUR5,940 ($US 7,442). Savas is evidently quite a careless company when it comes to AOC rules - they were also charged with illegally tinkering with the equivalent of some 22,500 bottles of wine to make it come up to Appellation standards - but not as well known as Giscours or Duboeuf, so the world is less likely to learn about this particular scandal...
Monday, October 16, 2006
Beaujolais to benefit from UK, US and Japanese marketing campaign
According to research carried out for the Beaujolais region, the people most susceptible to enjoy its wines (and the ones who'll presumably be the targets of the marketing) are 40+ femails who "appreciate fruity wines which are easy to drink on all occasions". I read this shortly after coming across a letter to the Guardian that included a bright riposte to David Cameron's statement that he stood "for optimism". The writer referred to something called "the opposite test" which requires you, whenever you hear any kind of portentious claim, to ask yourself whether anyone would ever say the opposite. If not, the claim can be declared vacuous. Clearly none of Mr Cameron's opponents would want to stand for pessimism, but how many non 40+ femails would be out there specifically asking for fruitless wines that are rarely easy to drink? The Beaujolais researchers should take a look at - or perhaps a taste of - the kinds of wines 30 year old men and women enjoy drinking. They are all, more or less, fruity and easy to drink, and they bear labels like Californian White zinfandel, Chilean Merlot, Vin de Pays d'Oc Chardonnay and Australian Shiraz.
Beaujolais's problem has been one of variable quality, over-pricing and rotten brand-management. Its name is now, for all but a few (of us) who love it, debased and old fashioned. But the researchers are right in believing that there's nothing wrong with the style. The sensible solution to many of Beaujolais's woes - and the one that would long ago have occurred to a New World wine company - would be to relaunch at least some of the wines under a different name. Instead, the region and the French government are about to spend millions of euros on trying to explain the difference between Beaujolais and Beaujolais Villages and between both of these and Brouilly and Cote de Brouilly. And on uprooting large swathes of redundant vines.
Health warnings on wine bottles
If today's news reports are to be believed, Britain will soon follow the US lead in imposing obligatory health warnings on wine. Inevitably and predictably, several of my friends and colleagues in the wine fraternity have risen to the bait and pointed out among other things that a) these warnings have had little noticeable effect on the other side of the Atlantic and b) that if Cotes du Rhone is to come with a warning, similar rules should apply to Coca Cola. Both responses are perfectly valid, but a more dispassionate observer might be forced to point out that, possibly, just possibly, the wine world is only reaping what it sowed. In Britain as elsewhere, the wine industry has done its utmost to pretend that fermented grape juice is not like other forms of alcohol. Unlike beer and whisky, the argument has gone, wine is part of human civilisation: stuff that is enjoyed in moderation, with food.
Of course this is so partially true as to be a nonsense. No-one who has sat through a Burgundian banquet singing proud songs about the red nose one has gained from drinking copious amounts of Pinot Noir, or watched Frenchmen in bars downing a mid-morning "coup de rouge" could honestly support the with-food and in-moderation line for a second. And nor could anybody who's spent any time in a London, Sydney or New York bar watching "Chardonnay Girls" at play.
Sugar is sweet, enjoyable, fattening, tooth-rotting and bad for your heart. Wine is an alcoholic beverage and just as inextricably associated with all of the desirable and undesirable characteristics that are attached to those two words. As Christopher Carson recently stated in the 12th annual Wine & Spirit Education Trust lecture, the time has come for the wine industry to work "with government and not against it...[and be] vigorously committed to preventing alcohol misuse". Carson's role as a bearded sage, chairman of Constellation Wine Europe and of the UK Wine & Spirit Trade Association gives him a highly influential voice, but it's a pity he didn't make some of these points rather earlier. The wine trade (and other parts of the alcohol industry) should long ago have acknowledged its responsibility and begun going into schools preaching the coolness of moderation with the same kinds of skills that the anti-meat campaigners have been promoting vegetarianism.
Health warnings are only the first step. How easy would it be to find reasons to oppose a zero-alcohol rule for first-year drivers, or unnder 25 year-olds? Or a cut in the UK drink-drive permitted limits to the levels imposed elsewhere? And anyone who imagines that raising the legal drinking age to 21 is impossible should try raising the subject in the US: there are all sorts of issues that bother Americans today, but the requirement to prove your age on the way into a bar by flashing a driving licence does not seem to be one of them.
I suspect that the battle to avoid the eventual imposition of these kinds of restrictions in Europe may have already been lost, but anyone who thinks it's still worth trying to fight them off would do better to follow Carson than the well-meaning brigade of protestors whose voices are currently being raised against the health warnings.
Saturday, October 14, 2006
Thursday, October 12, 2006
This story which follows hard on the heels of a similar saga at Mayfair Cellars, coincided with the news of the closure of World Gaming, an online gambling firm whose raison d'etre disappeared when President Bush moved to prevent it from taking bets from US citizens. The difference between these cases is of course that anybody who invested in any online gambling outfit did so in the knowledge of the risk they were running. There were apparently several pages of warnings in the share prospectuses that specifically outlined the likely consequences of the US authorities doing what they have just done. The people who lost at Uvine thought they were on far firmer ground. This was, after all, a highly sophisticated wine business run by Christopher Burr, a well respected Master of Wine and former International Head of Christie's Wine Department.
But, as Burr admitted in September 2006, the company which used a computer system designed to handle £50m of trade a week, never managed to make a profit between its launch in late 1999 and its effective demise seven years later, despite the feverish activity surrounding the 2000, 2003 and 2005 Bordeaux vintages.
Uvine survived for as long as it did, thanks to heavy early backing by dot.com players such as US hedge fund Moore Capital (which enabled Uvine to buy another wine merchant called Michael Morgan in 2001) and by the ongoing reluctance of the wine world to acknowledge that its feet were made of clay.
It would be good to be able to say that Uvine and Mayfair are unlucky exceptions to the rule, but they are not: there are far too many other UK firms (reportedly including some well-known names) operating at marginal profits whose retail customers would be in a similar position if the axe fell. Which raises an interesting question for anyone who bought 2005 Bordeaux, or has 2003s or 2004s sitting in a merchant's bond. In the latter case, I'd advise taking a careful look at the way records are kept and individual cases of wine identified. If there is no clear indication on your boxes that their contents are yours - or an easily followable paper chain - I'd have the wine transferred to a bond where you can take responsibility for their storage yourself. Precisely the same rules will apply to people who bought 2005s, but sadly they can only wait with their fingers crossed until the wine hits British shores.
Thursday, October 05, 2006
2006 has been a busy year for Robert Joseph. Since January when he handed over the reins of the International Wine Challenge, the world's biggest wine competition which he launched in 1984, the controversial critic has been busily revising new editions of his guide to French Wines and his Ultimate Encyclopedia of Wine, editing the first global guide to wine tourism, the Wine Travel Guide to the World and preparing his next book, a study of the future of wine.
FW: You have been writing about wine for around a quarter of a century. What are the biggest and most surprising changes you have seen?
RJ: The wine world has gone through a complete metamorphosis. The most obvious change is of course the fact that most of us now drink wines with grape names on their labels, produced in countries no one thought grew vines, and more than likely poured from a bottle with a screwcap or a box with a tap on the side. And then of course, there's the fact that far more wine than ever before is branded in some way or other – from Hardy's two-bottles-for-the-price-of-one efforts to Cloudy Bay Sauvignon Blanc which still has a cult status nearly 20 years after it was first produced. Over the last five years, wineries have been opening in the New World, at an extraordinary rate of one every three or four hours. I used to find that a pretty dazzling thought – until I took a look at what has been happening in France. In the autumn of 1989, an extraordinary 494,000 French winegrowers completed forms to say they had harvested grapes for wine. Last year the figure was 183,000. So, by my calculations France alone has been losing two winegrowers an hour for the last 15 years. There's no longer any room for the producer of just another Muscadet or Beaujolais.
But I think that all those obvious changes are actually symptoms of way that, like food, wine has become more than something you simply consume; for a growing number of people, it's a lifestyle pursuit. For some, it may simply be a matter of showing off a bit of sophistication by offering guests the smartest, newest wine on the block. But there are plenty of others who want to know a bit more about the background to what they are drinking. I get far more requests than in the past to host private tastings and to talk about wine at dinners, and there's a definite boom in wine tourism.
FW: So we're all becoming wine buffs?
RJ: Far from it, thank goodness. Wine anoraks are no more fun to be with than hi fi buffs – unless you happen to share their single-minded obsession. To be honest, I don't think that there are hundreds of thousands of people out there who want to study wine and to take courses and to learn all about the difference between St Emilion Grand Cru and St Emilion Grand Cru Classé. That's where the French who think that the answer to the woes of their wine industry lies in "wine education" get it so wrong. I think that for most people, wine is like classical music. They build up their knowledge and discover what they like piecemeal - in all sorts of ways – from a newspaper article here, or a radio feature, or by wandering around a wine cellar while they are on holiday. And just as some people collect several of recordings of the same opera, others are perfectly happy with a single cd of Mozart's greatest hits. And that's where the New World wines with their immediate drinkability and informative labels have definitely scored. Their producers have done their utmost to remove the mystique from wine and to make it accessible to everybody. And that open attitude is just as apparent in the way they welcome visitors to their wineries.
FW: How do you define New World?
RJ: Actually, having just referred to the New World, I'd far rather that the terms Old World and New World were dropped; they smack of Animal Farm's "Four Legs Good; Two Legs Bad". In fact they're a convenient form of shorthand for two different philosophies: the one whose producers are driven by tradition and local custom and the other that tries to be in tune with what its customers enjoy. There are some stubbornly arrogant Old-Worlders in Australia and South Africa and some innovative New Worlders in European countries like Spain and Italy.
FW: I notice you left France out of that last list. The French are having a hard time at the moment against competition from the New World. How do you rate their chances of fighting back?
RJ: Let me start by saying that I love France, and I love French wine. That's why I find the current plight of the French wine industry so exasperating. It's like watching your best friend sinking into the mire. My best effort at a prescription is to suggest that the people who run France's wine industry (and it is horribly centralized), get the wax removed from their ears so that they can hear what people want from their wines and their labels. They could also invest in a few round-the-world airline tickets and take a look at the way wine producers in other countries receive visitors. Am I the only person to find it extraordinary that the Denbies vineyard in Surrey offers a better experience than almost any chateau in Bordeaux? In France, all too often the only way to gain admittance to a cellar is by appointment, and once you re inside, a knowledge of the French language and the likelihood that you might buy some wine can seem almost obligatory. The trouble is that nowadays, more and more of us visit wineries in pretty much the same way as the characters in the movie Sideways – as a weekend or holiday activity. That's why the exceptions to the French rule like Georges Duboeuf's Hameau du Vin in Beaujolais and Olivier Leflaive's winery restaurant in Burgundy are so welcome.
FW: Where do you think does wine tourism best?
RJ: Well, as I discovered when I was researching the book, there are some tough competitors out there. The Americans - by which I don't simply mean the Californians - are a hard team to beat. If you go online to http://www.michiganwines.com/, for example, you can find out about the nearly four dozen wineries in that state, restaurants, wine festivals and so on in a way that isn't possible for most of Europe's classic regions. The only negative thing to say about the Napa Valley is that, maybe it is a victim of its success as a tourist attraction. Around 15 million people visit the wineries there every year and, it's big business. You have to buy tickets for the tours and tastings and in some of the larger wineries it's easy to imagine that you are in part of Disneyland rather than in a place where wine is actually produced. The wine regions of Australia, South Africa and New Zealand are all great places to visit. In Marlborough in New Zealand, for example, there are at least a dozen winery cafes and restaurants, not to mention vineyards where you can be taught to prune vines and wineries where you can sample all of the smells associated with wine. Elsewhere in the New World, it's more hit-and-miss, but Chile and Argentina have some great winery hotels and one of the best wineries in the world for tourists is in Venezuela.
FW: And what's the best way to go about being a wine tourist?
RJ: It depends on your level of interest – and on that of the person or people with whom you might br travelling. When I'm in a wine region, I'll try to visit six or maybe even more wineries in a day, provided distances between them aren't too great. But I'm on a mission: I have a limited amount of time to cover a certain amount of ground. For a keen wine tourist, I'd recommend four wineries as a maximum and for those with a more casual interest, maybe one or two before a leisurely lunch. As a rule, I'd recommend being as honest about your knowledge or lack of it as possible. Don't let the winenmaker or guide talk over your head, but by the same token don't let them talk down to you if you already know about how wine is made, for example. Say what you think when you're given a wine to taste, but say it politely. If you let a winemaker know that you didn't like a particular wine – and why, it might help him or her to find something that would be more to your taste. On the other hand, expressing the right kind of intelligent appreciation can be like moving onto a new level in a computer game: it could lead to your being offered a taster of something better and/or older.
FW: On a broader topic, which countries do you think are producing the most interesting wines?
RJ: That's easy. Italy is the most exciting wine country on earth at the moment because it's the one place where tradition and inventiveness are coexisting side by side, and often in the same wineries. But there are all sorts of things going on in Portugal, Austria, Spain and Southern France, so the New World is going to face a lot more competition.
FW: Does the New World really make wines that match the best of Europe?
RJ: It depends what you mean by the best. If you ask whether I have ever tasted a New World wine that is quite as good as Chateau Margaux 1953 or Mouton Rothschild 1945 or indeed Haut Brion 2005 and the answer is probably not. But that's a bit like saying that there aren't any composers who have matched Bach, Beethoven and Mozart. The far more relevant question is: can the Antipodes, the Americas and South Africa make wine that is as good as or better than the 97% that most mortals actually get to drink, and the answer to that is a resounding yes.
FW: So how do you see the future?
RJ: Well, I'm still working on the book, but there are all sorts of factor that we'll have to take into account – from global warming, which has already helped to raise the alcoholic strength of the wine we drink, to GM – which, if permitted, might enable winemakers to reduce it. If we've lost some of our reverence for the icons of the past, I wonder how long some of the newer icons will retain our interest. All I do know is that we're on a roller coaster that I for one would never have imagined 25 years ago.
The Wine Travel Guide to the World is published by Footprint at £19.99
The Complete Encyclopedia of Wine is published by Carlton Books at £19.99
French Wine is Published by Dorling Kindersley at £12.99
Monday, October 02, 2006
I cannot remember the day I realised that the world – the world of wine – was round. But I do know that when I lived in Burgundy, like everybody else, I was fully convinced that it was flat. The Pinot Noir grape, it had been proven, only produced good wine in the soil and climate of a small region called the Cote d’Or. Of course attempts had been made to grow it elsewhere – in Sancerre, Alsace and Champagne, but in none of these places did it produce red wine that was remotely comparable to the efforts of Burgundian villages like Volnay and Vosne-Romanee. Much the same could be said for that other Burgundy grape Chardonnay, while Sauvignon Blanc and Chenin Blanc only performed at their best in the Loire. Challenging these beliefs by trying to mimic Burgundy or Sancerre elsewhere was like sailing over the edge of the world.
Then, of course, came the 1970s when a Pinot Noir from Eyrie vineyards in Oregon beat a set of red Burgundies, and Californian Cabernets and Chardonnays triumphed over their French counterparts in Steven Spurrier’s famous 1976 “Judgement of Paris” tasting. For a while, it seemed as though this was the moment when the Old World had to acknowledge the curvature of the globe. But in fact all that happened was that the flat map was redrawn. The new credo was that Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, for example, needed to be grown in places that were as similar as possible to Burgundy. In fact, of course, there were huge differences between the soils of Puligny Montrachet and Carneros in California, but the followers of the amended faith were happy to gloss over these anomalies. What mattered, above all they said, was the climate. Experts charted the “degree days” – average temperature during the growing season - of the classic regions of France and did their utmost to match these conditions when planting in the New World.
If you had asked any of the followers of the original or expanded flat earth beliefs (by which I mean 99.99% of the wine community) they would all have agreed on one absolute rule. Wine of any kind can only be produced between the latitudes of 30 and 50 in the northern or southern hemispheres. Anything closer to the North or South Pole is too cold, while grapevines simply don’t do well in the tropics because they need to rest over a cold winter.
But then news began to leak out of vineyards in Thailand, between the 14th and 18th parallels. Conditions here are tropical; indeed in the Siam vineyard which was founded by one of the men behind the energy-drink Red Bull, the grapes are grown on islands and harvested from boats. In another hillside vineyard, vineyard workers sit astride elephants and irrigate the fruit with water from the beast’s trunk. The very idea of trying to make wines in these conditions might seem to be eccentric to say the least, but the budding Thai wine industry (there are six wineries at present and others due to open soon) was not launched on a whim. The King of Thailand commissioned a study in the late 1970s that took a dozen years to decide that the project would be worthwhile.
Now the obvious question is “How good are the Thai wines?” and the honest answer is that they are not currently likely to cause the owners of chateaux Margaux or Cheval Blanc to lose any sleep. But the examples I have tasted (under the Monsoon Valley label) are a softer, more pleasant drink than most cheap Bordeaux. And, for those who judge by results, the Thais are still planting vineyards, while the Bordelais are currently uprooting theirs – and sending the equivalent of 44,000,000 unsold bottles of their wine this year to be turned into industrial alcohol.
But Thailand is only the most romantic example of a growing number of wine regions that are situated over the edge of the old flat earth. Last year, Decanter magazine tasted a range of wines from the New World and gave their highest marks to the La Reserve Cabernet Shiraz from Grover Vineyards, near Bangalore in India. At the time, most of the news coverage focused on the fact that the wine was from the subcontinent, and produced with the help of the ubiquitous Michel Rolland, but no one pointed out that the vineyard is close to the 13th parallel, around 4,000 kilometres nearer to the equator than it ought to be. This is in fact India’s most southerly vineyard – most of the others are planted closer to Mumbai but, at the 18th parallel, they hardly conform to the old 30-50 degree rule.
India is going to be a country to watch – both in terms of production and consumption – but so is Brazil, and this is where you’ll find what is certainly the most commercially intensive effort at what Thai-based wine writer Frank Norel calls “New Latitude” winemaking. In the warm, dry Sao Francisco Valley, between the 9th and 10th parallel, a carpet of vines is being unrolled. The region barely existed 20 years ago, but it is already supplying 15% of Brazil’s needs and is expected to triple production over the next four years, by which time it will be the source of one glass in every two that are drunk here.
Yields per harvest are high here – by classical European standards – but the lack of a winter means that here, as elsewhere in the New Latitude, vines can produce two vintages per year. Actually, they could produce more, but producers prefer not to wear the plants out completely. The early releases from Sao Francisco are perfectly acceptable, and again considerably more drinkable than that unsaleable Bordeaux. So far, the Shiraz shows great promise (Miolo’s Terranova is a good example), but there is no reason to suppose that other varieties will not thrive as well.
The idea of picking wine grapes more than once a year is not as novel as one might imagine. Way back in 1578, Don Juan de Pimentel, the governor of Venezuela wrote a book in which he describes vineyards near Caracas being harvested three times a year. Today, the Pomar winery, which opened its doors in 1986, is the sole quality-conscious upholder of the Venezuelan vinous tradition, but the wines it produces close to the 11th parallel have won medals in international competitions such as the Challenge International du Vin in Bordeaux. By far the most surprising award-winner among the New Latitude wineries, however, has to be Chaupi Estancia Palomino which won a Commendation (the equivalent of a mark of at least 14/20) at the 2004 Decanter Awards in London. This winery, established 15 years ago, makes its wines from vineyards at 2,400 metres above sea level – and just 10km from the equator.
All of these wines beg the essential question: how is it possible to make wines in conditions that were once thought to be impossible? The simple answer is that we now know a lot more about plants and the way they grow than we used to. Like every other living thing, vines are programmed for survival and are a lot more adaptable than was previously imagined. But vinegrowers are also a lot more sophisticated than they were. Precise use of irrigation and careful pruning will significantly affect the way the vines grow, and the amount and ripeness of fruit they produce, but there is now a new piece of artillery in the grapegrower’s arsenal. Crop regulating hormones sound as though they could only have been produced by genetic manipulation, but in fact they occur naturally in all living things. The trick today lies in extracting them from the plants and then using them to influence the way the vines grow. Those who favour absolutely natural winemaking will quite reasonably balk at this kind of procedure, but they should be equally – if not more – concerned by the huge amounts of synthetic chemicals used by growers in Europe. My guess is that Brazil and India, in particular, will both help to ensure that New Latitude wines will begin to be taken at least as seriously within the next decade as New World wines were in the 1980s. So far, of course, very little notice has been taken of them at all. But when you believe that the world is flat, there is very little reason or temptation to go peering over the edge.