Sunday, November 05, 2006

A Good Movie?

A Good Year - a review
Ever since rumours began to emerge that Ridley Scott was making a "wine film" in Provence with Russell Crowe, at least some members of the wine world have been rubbing their hands in anticipation of another Sideways. Well, I'm sorry to be the one to pour cold water on those hopes. Firstly A Good Year is – and is not – a "wine film". In a world of remakes, this movie could easily be reshot for a Saudi Arabian audience with remarkably few changes to the script. Running the screenplay through a "search and replace" programme that substituted "horse" and "stable" for "wine" and "cellar", and a relocation from southern France to southern Ireland would go a long way to permitting A Good Year to be reshot as A Good Season. Russell Crowe would still undergo a rural epiphany, but instead of giving up a career as a city slicker for life among the vines, he'd turn into a race horse trainer.

Of course, one might reasonably say that Sideways was simply a classic buddy-movie/ road-movie that happened to be set in a wine region, but it was a much, much better film than A Good Year. Scott's movie certainly looks good; indeed if the tourist authorities of London and Provence had commissioned him to knock up one of his commercials for them, sections of this film are almost certainly what he'd have delivered. The actors are all pleasant enough to watch too – indeed I'd happily watch Marion Cotillard, the female lead read the collected speeches of Jacques Chirac, and demand a rendition of the works of Donald Rumsfeld as an encore. But the film is one of the most lightweight efforts I've seen in a long while – and quite impossible to recognise as the work of the man responsible for Blade Runner. Don't get me wrong: this is not a bad film. Indeed, it's the kind of undemanding stuff I'm happy to find on offer in a plane on the long flight to Australia. But even romantic comedies – the category in which this wants to be included – need more of a plot than is on offer here. The film and the Peter Mayle novel on which it was based, were apparently cooked up by Mayle and Scott over a boozy lunch in much the same way that the two men must have conceived of clever 30 second commercials in the days before Mr M took root in France.

The story, such as it is, can be recounted in three sentences without spoiling the enjoyment of the film. Max, an orphan, spends summers, as a child, with his uncle Henry (nicely played by Albert Finney) who appreciates the finer things of life and owns a beautiful Provencal chateau and vineyard. By the time we meet him as an adult, Max has evolved into a noughties London version of Michael Douglas in Wall Street. But then, of course, Uncle dies, Max returns to Provence, falls in love with the place and with the delicious but hard-to-get café-owner Fanny (Marion Coutillard) and decides to give up on London and move into his old uncle's shoes.. And that, is more or less it. Russell Crowe is well cast as the city slicker but never begins to make us believe in the rural epiphany.

So what about the wine? I'm all too aware of the tedious readiness of bee-keepers or collectors of toy soldiers to pick holes in the veracity of cinematic moments concerning their special interest. But it seems fair to to consider A Good Year'd vinous veracity, given the fact that wine and winemaking supposedly lie at the heart of this movie, and that scriptwriter Marc Klein who admits that he knew nothing about Provence or wine when he took on the project, apparently "spent almost a year" researching both. It is very hard to see what Klein learned, that he could not have picked up by reading a couple of magazine articles. Stated bluntly, when it comes to wine, the film is almost totally incoherent. Early on, Max's best friend – a wine buff, we are told - sets the tone by wrongly identifying a Burgundy as a Bordeaux in a restaurant. Easily done, but less easy when the shape of the bottle is clearly visible. We are subsequently asked to believe that wine-loving Uncle and his devoted French winemaker Duflot not only produce a wine that is so revolting that almost no one in the film ever manages to swallow it, but also a "garage wine" with a cult reputation. Oh, I forgot to mention that the provenance of the garage wine is supposedly a mystery (which must make commercial distribution a little tricky) though anyone who has seen the vineyard artlessly and incongruously strewn with gravel might well guess.

Perhaps my biggest disappointment, though, was the fact that despite Ridley Scott's brilliant (though easily accomplished) job of making us all want to follow Max in moving to Provence, he fails to evoke the peculiar magic the wine can have on people. Two films have done this brilliantly: Sideways, in which you can almost smell the Pinot Noir that Maya is drinking and Babette's Feast, in which we first see Stephane Audran luxuriating in the first taste of great wine – any wine – after a long puritan sojourn in the snowy wastes of rural Denmark. Even more memorably, a few minutes later in this same film, comes the sight of an old woman who plainly sucks lemons as a hobby being seduced against her will by a glass of red. Ridley Scott is a very sophisticated evocative director; maybe one day he'll return to the subject of food and wine a lot more fruitfully than he did here.

A spoonful of sugar

A piece that originally appeared in Wine International magazine
Mary Poppins doesn’t often feature as an authority in articles about wine but, after tasting a range of the biggest-selling reds and whites in Britain and America and analysing the stupendous success of Yellow Tail (the Australian wine whose annual sales have grown from zero to over 120,000,000 bottles in under five years, I thought it time to give her the recognition she deserves. A spoonful of sugar not only helps the medicine go down; it does positive wonders for ordinary wine and food. The Romans knew about this, of course – and made plentiful use of honey. Asian cooks favour palm sugar while the sweetener of choice for manufacturers of supposedly savoury foods, from peanut butter to flavored crisps is more likely to be corn syrup, but the principle is the same.
The attraction of sweetness is one of nature’s little tricks to draw animals and birds to the fruits that will provide the energy they need. But its appeal is more complex than that. In his latest book, ‘Taste’ ( from Max Lake, the Australian surgeon-turned-winemaker-turned-authority-on -flavours-and-smells (of whom more in these pages, soon) points out that sugar evokes ‘warm and pleasant feellngs’. Even more interestingly, sugar apparently fosters what the men in white coats at the food factories call ‘go-away’ – a handy piece of jargon referring to the way it ‘allows fatty foods to be swallowed without leaving the inside of the mouth coated in fat particles’. In other words, the addition of a little sweetness to your prawn flavoured crisps enables you to eat a little more – and get a little fatter. No one knows more about this than the burger chains whose buns routinely contain 25% sugar.
If you except milk shakes, cream liqueurs, tea, coffee and hot chocolate, fat isn’t a significant component of most drinks, but in wine, as in Coca Cola, sugar can help to improve what the white-coated ones call ‘mouthfeel’. But it does more than that. As Lake points out, sweetness is a potent seasoning that brings out other flavours. Tomato sauce tastes better with a tiny amount of sugar and a wine with a higher sugar content has ‘a more lifted bouquet’ than one that is otherwise identical.
The wine world has traditionally been ambivalent towards sweetness, when it falls outside the realm of bottles that make a point of being fortified or made from super-ripe grapes. Almost everything else is supposedly dry.
Except of course, that it isn’t: most supposedly dry wines contain a certain amount of sugar. In France, where Mars Bars and Coke are relatively recent arrivals, this might commonly be around the two grammes per litre (0.2% of the finished wine) that the yeasts were unable to convert into alcohol. In the New World, especially North America, a ‘dry’ wine might have five times that level of sweetness. Interestingly, US wine writers argue over whether the sugar begins to be perceptible at five, six, seven or eight grammes. Most Frenchmen would claim that it is noticeable at four. Much, however, depends on acidity. Brut Champagne, for example, with up to 15 grammes of sugar can taste quite dry – if it has is enough acid bite. New Zealand Sauvignon is often sweeter than it seems – for precisely the same reason. I find sweetness in red wine more offensive, but the success of Piat d’Or in the 1980s and Yellow Tail and Blossom Hill today prove there are plenty of people who appreciate it. Some popular reds in the US now carry seven or eight grammes of sugar, and there is a move in France to follow suit. Producers of Rhone reds and of Muscadet – once the embodiment of dry white wine, but now increasingly hard to sell –are now making wines with four or more grammes.
All of which may come as news to the authors of websites and books promoting the Atkins, anti-carbohydrate, diet, most of whom presume anything less than a ‘medium sweet’ white to be totally free of sugar, and thus of carbs.. In fact, as Sutter Home’s website frankly acknowledges, a glass of typical Californian Chardonnay has around 3 grammes of carbohydrate, so, one bottle would give you around 15 grammes , or one carb. Which funnily enough, is roughly the same as you’d get from a teaspoon of Mary Poppins’ sugar

Cuisine in the Land of Oz

A piece originally published in Wine International magazine

The Australians are an ungrateful lot. None of them ever troubles to thank the British for giving them a truly priceless gift: the inferiority complex they used to refer to down under as ‘the cultural cringe’. If the Brits hadn’t made all those jokes about yoghurt having more living culture than their former colony, and about wine with names like Chateau Chunder it is quite possible that the fiercely competitive Aussies might never have had the drive to build the Sydney Opera House - or its world class movie and wine industries.

But while the rest of the world has been focusing its attention on Margaret River Cab-Merlot, Mad Max and Moulin Rouge the Aussies have been proving at home and away that they are every bit as skilled and inventive with their frying pans and casseroles as they are with their fermentation vats and film cameras. Somehow, extraordinarily, this young country has developed a vibrant food culture with which some self-satisfied British foodies might have a hard time competing. For anyone doubting the depth and breadth of interest in the subject that now exists in Australia, there was no better place to be than Adelaide in October 2003 for a biannual event called Tasting Australia. Created by two British imports, David Evans and popular local television-chef Ian Parmenter, this is an extraordinary celebration of quality hedonism I’d love to see copied elsewhere. For a solid week, visiting journalists and cooks such as Fernan Adria of El Bulli, Nick Nairn and Rick Stein leave their hotel rooms at dawn to tour around key regions of South Australia and experience local wines and foods, ranging from recent Aussie passions such as olive oil, verjuice - an alternative to vinegar, made from unripe grapes - and quince paste (produced in the Barossa Valley by a local food doyenne called Maggie Beer), to yabbies - local crayfish - roo tail - gourmet possom pate and goat’s cheese from a tiny, wonderfully-named outfit called Udder Delights. As a veteran of three of these events, the most vivid memories I have carried home are of the enthusiasm, commitment and knowledge of the producers of all this food and drink. I learned more, for instance, about the character of different varieties of olive tree in Australia than I was ever able to discover in Italy.

The Aussies could actually teach their European counterparts quite a lot about 21st century farming. Instead of relying on subsidies from Brussels and bribes to leave land to its own devices, they are out there looking for ways to make food taste better - and bring in more profit for the farmer. While our cattle farmers are still coming to terms with the way their efforts to create cheap steaks and burgers resulted in mountains of mad cow carcases, their counterparts down under have quietly been moving into the realms of luxury meat. And you can be sure that there’s little that’s more luxurious than Wagyu beef. Once known as Kobe after the Japanese region where the cattle were traditionally farmed, this is carefully reared, corn and grain-fed meat with unique, fine, fat-marbling. As a recent article in the Sydney Morning Herald put it, Wagyu beef now ‘pops up on restaurant menus as frequently as Boney M albums at garage sales’ - despite a cost to the chef of up to £20 per pound. But so too, do all sorts of other locally produced ingredients ranging from Australian Manchego cheese to wild lime chilli marmelade made from outback-grown ingredients known locally as ‘bush tucker’.

The media tour was only part of the Tasting Australia experience; the public, in the shape of some 30,000 residents of the Adelaide and its suburbs were also treated to a Writers’ Festival and a ‘Feast of the Senses’ in parkland on the banks of the River Torrens which flows through the city. Here, to the accompaniment of good live jazz people interestedly browsed and grazed their way past dozens of stalls offering samples of local fare and theatre sessions at which big name local and visiting chefs flexed their culinary muscles. The Adelaideans take this kind of event in their stride, partly because they are used to living in a city that boasts more restaurants per inhabitant than anywhere else in Australia and, I’d wager, most cities in Europe. The Central Market, one of Adelaide’s jewels claims to showcase 48 regional styles of food, and is enough of an attraction to warrant guided tours.

All of which begs a question: is there any such thing as Australian cuisine? To which I’d respond with a query of my own: given a set of bottles that might include unoaked 12% Hunter Semillon, 14.5% Barossa Chardonnay, Tasmanian Pinot Noir and Margaret River Zinfandel, can anyone define a single style of Aussie wine? The answer in both cases is that ‘Australianness’ consists of of an appreciation/requirement for flavour (the blandness often found in the US is rarely encountered here), coupled with a readiness to experiment and an unusual openness to all sorts of influences, from Italy to Indonesia. The most extraordinary thing about this is the speed at which both food and wine cultures have evolved. 50 years ago, when Max Lake the surgeon-cum-winemaker-cum-gastro-philosopher first visited Europe with his wife Joy, the flavours on offer shocked them to the core. Looking back, Joy says now ‘I’ll never forget the taste of my first Italian coffee, but that was just the start of it...’ Today, while the comfortable blandness of Starbucks lattes has regrettably gained a tiny foothold in Sydney, it is easier to get a decent coffee in Australia than anywhere else in the English-speaking world. Revealingly, this country is second only to Italy in its per-capita ownership of domestic espresso machines, and in its taste for real coffee in the shape of a ‘short black’ a ‘long black’ or a machiato - an espresso with a small shot of milk. Caffeine-lovers down under can now pay the Coffee Days Gourmet Coffee Club $27.50 (£12.50) per month, for which they get a pound of beans from a different part of the world. After which they are invited to pop along to a chatroom at where they can discuss their reactions. The rationale behind the company is simple: according to is founder Mark Rotenstein ‘Australians love coffee, but we haven’t educated ourselves to the same level as [we have about] wine’.

Neal Whitaker, a British-born editor who arrived down under from the UK five years ago is fascinated by how much greater the hunger for words and images of food and wine is in Australia than in the UK - and by the fact that despite a polulation a third the size of the UK, there are actually far more food magazines down under than there are here. He carefully disassociates himself from the cynical view that Aussies read about food because there is so little else for them to do, but agrees that the cultural cringe and the isolation of being thousands of miles away from anywhere are both still far stronger than most Australians would care to admit. Whatever the cause, it was revealing that Whitaker’s most recent trip to London was for the launch of a UK version of Delicious, Australia’s biggest-selling food magazine. Vogue Entertaining, another excellent recipe-packed Antipodean monthly for which Whitaker is responsible, is still sadly only available in the UK as an import.

The food revolution has undeniably been fueled by a conspiracy of two forms of migration. On the one hand, since the 1970s, every year, vast numbers of young Australians have set out on voyages across the globe before or after going to university. Rumours that this rite of passage is, like voting, a legal requirement in Australia, have never been proved, but it’s a very rare Australian who hasn’t spent a year or so backpacking and in Europe or Asia - or probably both. If this kind of travel which involves living and generally working in foreign countries rather than flitting through through as a tourist, has been credited as inspiring the Aussie taste for wine, it has done even more to create an openness towards, curiosity about, and knowledge of a wide range of foods and dishes. It is no coincidence that the Lonely Planet guides are published in Melbourne. The newly acquired taste and tolerance for foreign food those itinerant Aussies carried home with the souvenirs of their trips, was fueled by the huge influx of Asian and European immigrants who, between 1951-2001 helped to swell the population by over 116%. (for comparison, the equivalent figures for the US and Britain are 80% and 17% respectively). The impact of that immigration cannot be exaggerated. Switch your television to the SBS network, and you’ll see the news in languages ranging from French to Lithuanian. Read the SBS Guide to Eating out in Sydney and you’ll find restaurants offering regional cuisine from Iran, Laos, Malta, the Philippines, Poland, Serbia, the Ukraine and Uruguay. One chapter is memorably devoted to ‘Lebanese, Iraqi and Armenian’ restaurants. While many of these restaurants offer genuine examples of the cooking to be found in those countries most of the cooks have been happily influenced by their environment. Stefano Manfredi, one of Sydney’s most respected chefs and restaurateurs put it well: ‘When the Italians arrived in Australia, they treated it as though it were another part of their own country, a rather larger island rather a long way south of Sicily’. Palermo, Pisa and Perth all have their own versions of Italian cookery.

The Italian acccent is evident throughout Australia, but what sets modern Aussie cooking apart is probably the way that Asian ingredients, flavours and techniques are now taken as much for granted as garlic might be here. In the wine section of a recent weekend edition of the Sydney Morning Herald, for example, a Clare Riesling, was paired with a vegetable tempura; for the Hunter Semillon, the recommendation was salt-and-pepper squid, while Chardonnays are variously matched with chicken satays and Sang Choy Bao. Never heard of that particular Malaysian dish? Don’t worry, nor had I. But I was just as challenged by ingredients like the galangal required for the recipe for Green Chilli Nahm Jihm that appeared in another part of the paper.

Perhaps the final word on the state of food down under, and the final adieu to any lingering culinary cringe, should go to Jeremiah Tower, the chef who is known in the US as the father of California cuisine and one of the world’s leading culinary commentators. ‘These days’, he wrote recently in the New York Times, ‘London and San Francisco are the gastronomic suburbs of Sydney. Australia is the epicentre’.

Saturday, November 04, 2006

Blind faith

The way wine critics taste and assesss wine professionally has very little in common with the way most normal mortals consume it on a daily basis. And in some ways the professionals' method is fundamentally flawed. A bit of contextual information can, after all, make a huge difference to the accuracy of the way anything is assessed. I was reminded of this by a report by the Independent art critic, Thomas Sutcliffe, of the ‘Secret’ exhibition at the Royal College of Art. This annual event consists of 2,600 postcard-sized pictures by students at the college and – in presumably rather fewer numbers – by world famous artists. And, it’s the nearest the art world ever gets to a blind tasting, because all of the works are unsigned and on offer for the same price. – £35. So the picture you buy could be a good or bad original by a reputed master, or a good or bad copy or pastiche by a student.
Setting them out in this way, Sutcliffe says, levels down, rather than up. ‘Deprived of the normal guidelines for taste – track record and name and contemporary fashjion – you’re as likely to find yourself thinking that there’s not much to choose between acknowledged talent and unknowns as you are reassured that quality will always shine out... It really is quite difficult to tell the difference between incompetence and a sophisticared imitation of incompetence’.
Critics as illustrious as Clive Coates eschew blind tas ing completely, reasoning that, for example, some producers’ wines, look far better or worse at particular stages of their evolution . Giving a verdict after a single anonymous encounter is like taking a photograph of horses when they are half-way around the track – ignoring the fact that the grey that’s lagging behind the others has a history of putting on a late sprint into the winners’ enclosure. And what about the bottles twhose contents are let down by a less than great, but not actively TCA-laden, cork?
Other critics allow themselves the freedom to review their marks and words after the labels have been revealed if a wine seems atypical. But this kind of correction-by-hindsight inevitably carries its own dangers. A pair of winemaking friends in France told me of a fascinating tasting they had set up with a group of fellow enthusiasts. It all started out in a completely traditional way. Eight bottles of red were set out for assesment in camouflaged bottles. Marks were collected and totaled and an order of preference was anounced. When the results were set against the unmasked bottles, the tasters were surprised to find that they were quite different from what might have been expected. In particular, the wine they had almost all liked best most bore the label of an estate in Bandol, while the similarly near-unanimous loser carried the unmistakeable livery of Chateau Margaux. Naturally everyone present reviewed their notes and marks and poured themselves fresh samples.
Witth the knowledge they now had, the tasters were able to find qualities in the claret they’s previously missed. It was, they agreed, typical of a young Médoc to underperform at this stage of its career. And so the conversation continued, until the hosts revealed the cruel trick they had played. In fact, neither Margaux nor Bandol had featured in the tasting. All the wines had been produced iin various other parts of Languedoc Roussillon and decanted into empty bottles from more illustrious regions. As it happens, I wasn’t one of those who were duped at that event, but I might easily have been. And so might almost every other wine lover.
A few weeks ago I spent some time walking around an exhibition of what I thought were Cartier Bresson photographs (I was in the Fondation Cartier Bresson in Paris) marvelling at tthe Gallic master’s characteristic style and skill. Thanks to poor signposting, I’d carefully looked at 20 or 30 pictures before discovering that they’d all been taken by a brilliant near-contemporary called Inge Thorman.
Unfortunately for those who favour a world divided neatly between black and white, the human brain is not and can never be, an analytical machine. We all carry the baggage of previous experience and knowledge. Ultimately, we all have to choose our own way to judge everything around us – and remain ready to be made fools of all too regularly.

Thursday, October 19, 2006

Biodynamic Producers - a list

Having been invited to talk on the You & Yours BBC Radio4 programme about biodynamic wines, I thought it would be useful to try to put together a list of producers who use these methods. (I would welcome recommendations of others that would enable me to update this list). To find out where these producers' wines are available, I'd recommend wine-searcher. Alternatively, Artisan Wines of Chester are currently currently offering a biodynamic box with 12 bottles from four producers at a special price of £95 - a saving of £16. The producer speaking for the biodynamic cause is Vanya Cullen who'll be at the other end of a phone line at the vineyard in Margaret River in Western Australia while we unscrew the cap from her brilliant Diana Madeline 2003 Cabernet-Merlot (available at £29 from Noel Young)

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.

Jasper Hill
The Carlei Green Vineyards

Nikolaihof Wachau
Weingut Geyerhof

Santa Emiliana
VOE (Antiyal )


Bott Geyl
Eugene Meyer
Marc Tempe
Marcel Deiss
Martin Schaetzel
Pierre Frick
Zind Humbrecht

Château Gombaude-Guillot
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
Emmanuel Giboulot
Jean-Claude Rateau
JM Brocard, Chablis (in part)
Pierre Morey
Thierry Guyot

Alain Reaut
Erick de Sousa
Erik Schrieber
Francoise Bedel
Jacques Selosse
Jean-Pierre Fleury
Raymond-Boulard (in part)

Andre et Mireille Tissot

Languedoc Roussillon
Domaine Cazes
Domaine Lèon Barral
du Traginer

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
Huet (Vouvray)
Chateau de Roquefort

Château Romanin
Domaine de Trevallon
Domaine Sainte-Anne (Bandol)

Clos du Joncuas
Domaine de Villeneuve
Domaine Jacqueline André
Domaine Montirius
Domaine Viret
Eric Saurel
Marcoux (Châteauneuf)

Freiherr Heyl Zu Herrnsheim
Prinz zu Salm-Dalberg & Schloss Wallhaüsen
Weingut Eymann
Weingut Hahnmühle
Weingut Sander
Weingut Wittmann

Cascina degli Ulivi
Cascina degli Ulivi (Piedmont)
Do Zenner (Sicily)
Gulfi Ramada (Sicilia)
Josko Gravner (Friuli Venezia Giulia)
La Biancara
La Castellada (Friuli Venezia Giulia)
Leone de Castris
Massavecchia (Tuscany)
Nuova Cappellata (Piedmont)
Radikon (Friuli Venezia Giulia)
Teobaldo Cappellano (in part)
Trinchero (Piedmont)
Vadopivec (Friuli Venezia Giulia)

New Zealand
Millton (Gisborne)
Providence Vineyards


Albet I Noya
Alvaro Palacios
Compania de Vinos Telmo Rodriguez
Descendientes de José Palacios
Dominio de Atauta (Ribera del Duero)
Dominio de Pingus
Mas Estela

Black Sears (in part)
Brick House Vineyards
Ceago Vinegarden
Cooper Mountain Vineyards
Coturri Winery
Littorai (in part)
Patianna Organic Vineyards
Robert Sinskey

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Pour encourager les autres? (Bad boys in Bordeaux)

It is always important to get your priorities right. Georges Duboeuf was charged recently with the crime of adding Beaujolais Villages to Cru Beaujolais - and suffered global opprobrium. A few years ago, in Bordeaux, Chateau Giscours suffered similar public shame when it was revealed that it had used oak chips in its second wine. (So, it seems had several other chateaux in the region, but they got away with it). Both these offences would probably have passed unnoticed in the New World (provided the Duboeuf blending complied with the 85/15 allowances), but in France's Appellation-driven world they were seemingly little short of worthy of the guillotine.

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 bad for the brain?

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.

(Don't) Drink Me

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

2006 Bordeaux - less historic than expected

Less than 10 weeks ago, Bordeaux seemed set to produce another great vintage (as I mistakenly suggested in a blog in July). Today, as the grapes are in, the talk throughout the south-west is of red wines that resemble 1999 and 2001: ripe (unlike 2002) but lacking in depth and colour. The exception to this rule seems to be the Medoc, where some of the best wines of the vintage will have been produced, but even so, there will be few claims to greatness. Quite how the market will react to this kind of vintage after the hysteria that surrounded the 2005s, remains to be seen...

Thursday, October 12, 2006

Caveat Emptor

The collapse of the UK wine merchant and exchange Uvine with estimated debts of £1-2m will ring horribly familiar bells with anyone who has been following the wine trade over the last two or three decades. As will the revelation (by Jim Budd on that Graham Wolloff, the administrator brought in to try to oversee a sale of the company has apparently reported the situation to the Department for Trade and Industry, in his words, as he is "obliged to do where criminal conduct is suspected."
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 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

First Glass Travel

The following interview appears in a Fine Wine supplement to the Guardian newspaper.

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, 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

Wine Tourism

It has been a long nine months gestation, but the first edition of the Wine Travel Guide to the World is now, for better or worse, on its way to the printers and, all being equal, the finished book will be in the shops at the end of October. I'm sure we'll discover all sorts of typos, and others will help by pointing out the ones we'll have missed, but Footprint, the guide's publishers, have done a tremendous job of producing a book to the kind of schedule I'm used to from magazine publishing. And, given the speed at which things change, that's something for which I am really grateful.

Monday, October 02, 2006

Discovering the earth to be round

The following article appeared in the Russian magazine Magnum and in a special Fine Wine supplement to the Guardian newspaper

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.

Thursday, July 27, 2006

Bordeaux 2006 - Yet another vintage of the century?

As August swings into view, the news from Bordeaux is of temperatures of 40 C. and national fears by the French government of a repeat performance of 2003's apalling death toll among old people. Drought is a problem, of course, as it was in 2003, (and irrigation is still illegal), and there are already quiet whispers that this could be yet another warm dry year, producing the kind of rich, intense wines that have caught the fancy of the US critics in 2003 and 2005. Another great year would be welcome of course - though it's worth noting that 2001 and 2004 were both pretty good, in their leaner, more traditional ways - but it would raise some interesting questions about the prices that have been asked for the 2005s. The buzz from New York - where such things are ultimately decided - is that some of the people who said they wanted top 2005s at any price are balking at the premium those wines finally carried. reported that retailers such as Sam's in Chicago, Federal Wine & Spirits, in Boston', McCarthy and Schiering in Seattle and the Park Avenue Liquor Shop in New York have all seen customers going cold on cost of the new vintage and that none of these merchants is enthusiastic about buying more than their initial allocation. One of the trends of this vintage seems to be that the prople who have been buying the top wines are super-rich individuals who are new to the market. Traditional first growth buyers have traded down to second growths and even lower on the ladder.

So, the obvious question is how ready these new buyers will be to go on buying a succession of highly priced "historic" vintages. Once the goose has been laying golden eggs on a daily basis, eggs however glittery can lose their appeal...

Saturday, March 18, 2006

French Lesson

An unpalatable prescription for the French wine industry

The following article appeared in the April 2006 edition of Wine & Spirit magazine

This is, to put it mildly, not a great time to be a French winemaker. Various speakers at the annual Wine Evolution conference in Paris in January revealed how French wine was being hammered into the ground across the globe by Australia and New Zealand. But the low point in the sad litany of statistics came when the figures for Canada appeared on the screen. Shipments to Quebec, traditionally one of the most pro-Gallic areas of the world, fell by over 35% last year. It was as though some of George W Bush’s supporters had begun to wonder whether there was something to be said for the Taliban after all.

Falling sales overseas and at home have finally forced France’s winemakers to wake up to smell the coffee – only to discover that the bitter black aroma they understand has been supplanted by something a lot more like a Starbucks skinny latte. And the experience has created widespread confusion and despair. In Burgundy a grower with vines in the Cote d’Or – and a cellarful of stock – asked a British visitor in bewilderment, “what are we to do…? It’s not as if we’re railway workers who can go on strike to get what they want”.

Within France, supposedly serious proposals include a suggestion that the government to take responsibility for wine sales and marketing. More usefully, there is a serious acknowledgment of the need to cut production – by uprooting vines and limiting yields – and to improve quality – by imposing appellation controlee rules more rigorously. In Languedoc 12,500ha, of vines have already been torn up, while the figure – so far – for Bordeaux is 1,800ha. But simply focusing on quantity and quality is rather like approaching a cancer patient with a sharp knife and a packet of sticking plasters.

Vine-pull schemes, like factory closures and forced redundancies, certainly help to cut excess production, but they don’t solve thornier problems such as why decent, inexpensive Sauvignon Blanc from Bordeaux is a drag on the market while sales of pricy New Zealand Sauvignon are flying into the stratosphere. Which brings us to the question of quality. How is anyone to define what is and isn’t a “good” wine? Ask most French – and many British - critics to judge between a typical, noticeably tannic, gently acidic claret and a soft, slightly (or more than slightly) sweet, branded Aussie Cabernet and they’ll go for the Old World wine. Then offer both bottles to a consumer almost anywhere and you’ll get a very different response. Ask most Frenchmen why their country is currently one of the most profitable in the world for McDonalds – and why you can’t drive through the city of Bordeaux without passing at least three sets of golden arches.

Simply making less of the same wines better will not solve France’s problems. Some French wines – from Muscadet to basic red Bordeaux - just don’t suit current tastes. Kodak could have gone on improving its black-and-white film, but that wouldn’t have helped much in a world that has switched to digital colour. Black-and-white film no longer features on its Kodak’s menu, but it will happily sell you a digital camera or paper on which to print out your pictures.

That kind of pragmatism is not available to France’s wine industry. A winegrower in an appellation region like Bordeaux or Burgundy can’t significantly change the style of his wine – or launch a new one – as legally he might in Italy. And even if he were to persuade his neighbours that the appellation rules should be amended, nothing can happen until an official in Paris has applied his rubber stamp. And, that can be stopped by lobbyists from other parts of the country. So, when Jean Thevenin wanted to produce a sweet wine in Macon Clesse, his efforts were blocked by producers in Sauternes and the Loire. And when Bordeaux tried to create a Vin de Pays for itself, the plan was sabotaged by the Languedociens, who feared moustache-twirling competition for their Vins de Pays d’Oc.

We live, whether we like it or not, in an age where the brand is king. According to a recent Dutch study of 200 children reported in the Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology, most two-to-three year-olds recognized eight out of the 12 logos they were shown. While France’s winemakers have busied themselves creating ever more obscure appellations and rules, the New World has been building brands. While the Gallic philosophy has been that it is up to the client to learn to understand its labels and appreciate its styles, Antipodeans and North and South Americans and even some other Europeans have been simplifying their packaging and flavours. It is no accident that Yellow Tail (120,000,000 bottles sold globally last year) has a striking label with colour-coded capsules for the different grape varieties – and 10 grams of sugar per litre in the reds (compared to the paltry one or two grams that are commonly found in basic Bordeaux). Of course, French producers can quite reasonably say that they don’t want to compete with wines like Yellow Tail. The only problem is that, across the world, these and other branded New World wines are the ones whose sales are growing fastest. In Britain, the top four best selling brands are seeing growth of 48%, while unbranded wines are standing still or sliding backwards.

But surely, the French would argue, our appellations are our brands. The notion of the appellation-as-brand has four drawbacks. There is the obvious risk that in any region, the lowest common denominator will potentially spoil the game for the higher quality players. In France, Jean-Marie Chadronnier of Dourthe freely admits that selling his Dourthe No 1 Bordeaux Blanc is made more difficult by the generally poor reputation of white Bordeaux.

Even if the quality issue were resolved at a stroke, there would be the small matter of stylistic consistency. Penfolds fans know what to expect from wines bearing the Penfolds label; In France it is impossible to know whether a Vouvray or Alsace Gewurztraminer will be sweet or dry.

Brands need skilled management and marketing – and often quite substantial budgets - if they are to survive. And there is a limit to the number of brands a market can sustain. If, as has been predicted, General Motors goes bankrupt this year, the finger of blame has already been pointed at its plethora of ill-focused brands.

One of the reasons most supporters of the French appellation system give for its maintenance, is that other countries are busily setting up similar designations of their own. They are missing the point. In the New World, appellations are optional - garments to be worn or discarded at will, rather than the straitjackets favoured in France. But far more crucially, many of the newest appellation areas are facing the same problems as their counterparts in France. British supermarket shoppers are no more aware of Mudgee or Mount Benson than they are of Madiran and Montravel.

The situation of French wine today is horribly reminiscent of the British motor industry of the 1970s and 1980s. Despite an illustrious history and the global prestige of names like Rolls Royce, Bentley and Jaguar, a badly run industry, riven with disputes and featherbedded by the taxpayer was making a confusing array of cars too few people wanted to buy or drive. Rescue of a kind, came in the form of investment by Japanese manufacturers who listened to their customers. Today, Britain has become very good at making Japanese cars. What if a similar fate awaited France?
Today, the fastest selling French wine in the US, with sales of over 250,000 cases, is a Vin de Pays d’Oc called Red Bicyclette. It was produced and launched in 2004 – after extensive consumer research – by E&J Gallo.

So what is France to do?

The recipe in 12 parts

1) Teach France’s wine producers to listen to their customers.
Establish an annual bursary to send 2,000 young French men and women to work for 6 months in wine retailers and (non French) restaurants throughout the world. Learn from the successes foreigners have had with French brands like Fat Bastard and Red Bicyclette.
2) Introduce a national vine-pull scheme.And link it to a staged removal of state subsidies (see below). In other words, people who refuse to take advantage of a payment today know that they will have to fend for themselves in the foreseeable future.
3) Allow multi-regional blends that are subject to the same restrictions as in the New World.
In other words, if Pernod Ricard want to make a French version of their Jacobs Creek by blending grapes from the Loire, Bordeaux, the Rhone and Languedoc Roussillon, give them the total freedom to do so. And if the customers for those wines want them to be sweeter than is traditional in France, don’t stop them from applying the Australian technique of adding a little concentrated grape juice.
4) Make appellations optional
Where producers choose to sell their wines under local or regional appellations let them do so, but if they prefer to offer wines under a broader designation – as is now common in Italy - don’t stand in their way. And stop allowing growers in one region from preventing their counterparts elsewhere from defining their own styles.
5) Remove all restrictions on varietal labeling
Stop the ludicrous inequalities that allow Bordeaux producers to print Sauvignon on their whites while preventing Minervois from printing Syrah on its reds.
6) Remove all rules on yields and irrigation
Water is a valuable resource. Meter it and charge winemakers if they want to irrigate their vines. But don’t ban the practice. Allow the market to decided what is and isn’t overcropped and/or over-irrigated
7) Remove the distillation regime
Take away the safety nets that allow producers to receive government money for excess wine. Unsold wine should be treated in the same way as unsold bread and cakes.
8) Remove Paris from the equation
Allow producers and regions to run their own affair. Study the Australian model and remove all unnecessary red tape.
9) Provide loans to cooperatives to encourage them to develop and merge.
France’s cooperatives are the biggest hope for its wine industry. Today some 870 of them produce just over half of the country’s annual harvest. Most of it is poor to average and little of it is branded, but a exceptions to the rule like Nicolas Feuillatte and Jacquart in Champagne, La Chablisienne in Burgundy, Wolfberger in Alsace, Plaimont in the South West and Val d’Orbieu in Languedoc all show what could be achieved if these businesses were properly run. The recently-launched Blason de Bourgogne, a brand jointly shared by four cooperatives, also demonstrates how old regions can play the same games as the New World.
10) Remove the focus on vintages for more basic wines
Modern consumers want consistency. Encourage the kind of inter-vintage blending (up to 15%) that is done in other countries to produce attractive commercial wines
11) Subsidize wine tourism.
Compare the Hunter or Napa Valley with the Medoc and Cote d’Or and it is clear that very few lessons have been learned from the New World. How many wineries have restaurants or cafes? How many have shops? How many offer safe playgrounds or picnic areas? In a world where retailer’s shelves are shrinking wine tourism may be the only hope for small producers. The Champenois, Duboeuf with its visitor centre in Romaneche-Thorins, Olivier Leflaive with its restaurant and Mouton Rothschild with its museum all show the way, but these are exceptions to the rule…
12) Create a national research centre and improve education
Plenty of claims are made for the quality of research in France, but there is little evidence for it taking place on a national or regional basis Where are the studies on different kinds of closure? Of irrigated versus non-irrigated vineyards? Of different clones of grapes like the Petit Verdot? Copy the Australian model of the Wine Research Institute, and levy money from producers to fund it properly. Teach wine business. Teach winemakers how and why to build up mailing lists and how to increase their direct sales. Launch courses covering packaging and marketing, including lessons on what works best in specific markets.

And if all of this seems too tough, I have a radical alternative that President Sarkozy might care to consider: threaten Lous-Vuitton-Moet-Hennessy with nationalisation unless it takes over the entire industry, possibly in conjunction with Pernod Ricard and Castel. The firms that manage brands ranging from Cloudy Bay and Jacobs Creek to Moet & Chandon and Krug couldn’t do a worse job than is being done today.


A teenage girl watched her mother cutting up a ham before putting in the oven. Why, she asked, was the meat always cooked in two pieces. Her mother replied that everything she did in her kitchen had been passed down from her own mother who had routinely cut the ham in half. Still curious, the girl raised the question with her grandmother – who said that she too had simply followed the family tradition. Fortunately, the great-grandmother, a sprightly woman in her early nineties, was still around to provide the explanation. “Oh, there’s no mystery” she said. “We never had a dish big enough to accommodate the whole ham”.

Wednesday, March 08, 2006

Wine International is Dead

The following article appeared in Update, the newsletter of the UK Circle of Wine Writers, in early 2006

Wine International breathed its last on December 10th with the publication of the magazine’s 262nd monthly issue, though Buddhists – no pun intended – may take some comfort from its semi-reincarnation as Wine & Spirit. As one of the magazine’s progenitors and sometime guardian, I’m not going to offer a belated eulogy over the corpse, but I thought a discursive obituary might be in order – if only to enlighten a wider audience about how wine magazine publishing actually works.

First things first. To set the record straight, the only crime William Reed, the new owners of Wine Intl could fairly be accused of with regard to Wine Intl is euthanasia. The magazine was losing money and had been doing so for much of its existence. Without the rather considerable amounts of cash that its child, the International Wine Challenge, brought home every year, the end would have come long ago. Perhaps if the ailing publication had changed its lifestyle or moved home at some earlier stage, it might have survived and even thrived, but that kind of conjecture is hardly fruitful at this stage. (And it is perhaps relevant that no major consumer publisher has ever attempted to buy the magazine or launch a rival).

I’m not ideally suited to judge whether Wine Intl was, or was not, a very good publication. I would claim, however, that it broke new ground when it first appeared and, over the two decades of its existence played a significant part in the consumer wine revolution we are still living through. It seems strange to think that when Charles Metcalfe and I produced the earliest issues, Australia was still exotic, and supermarkets were still struggling to convince people that they genuinely competed with “specialists” like Peter Dominic and Augustus Barnett. Under a series of editors – myself, Joanna Simon, Margaret Rand, Ruth Cobb, Susan Lowe, Chris Orr, Chris Losh and Catharine Lowe – it tried on a number of different sets of clothes. Every now and then, it flirted with becoming more populist (aka dumbing down) in the hopes of selling more copies in supermarkets. At other times – particularly more recently - it ascended to the higher ground of en primeur and tastings of Champagnes from different villages.
However, while it was clear that populism reduced popularity, when we counted the number of copies we sold every month, there was depressingly little correlation between what we thought of as good and less good issues. Imagine a Bordeaux chateau that sells roughly the same number of bottles of its 1997 and 2002 as of its 2000 and 2003, and at a similar speed and price, and you will get the picture. Covers influenced circulation somewhat, but since a substantial proportion of the readers were subscribers (as is the case for Decanter), and the total number of copies on news stands was relatively small, (as is the case for Decanter), the overall impact was far less significant than one might suppose. In branches of Oddbins and Majestic, the pattern was clear: five or six magazines would be bought every month by the same five or six people. All of which, of course, begs the question of how many copies we actually sold.

If you had asked the publishers of Wine Intl for this information, the official answer was that we printed 30-35,000 copies. Which is rather like the producer of a play telling you how many seats there are in the theatre, rather than the number of tickets that have been purchased at the box office. The magazine publishing world offers a perfectly good means of avoiding this kind of fudge. Any publisher who wants to can jump through a few hoops to get an ABC – neatly named after the Audited Bureau of Circulation – figure for the number of copies sold, or distributed in other ways. Country Walking, for example, supports its claim to be “Britain’s best-selling walking magazine” by proclaiming an audited average monthly sale in 2004 of 47,274 copies. Well over twice or possibly thrice as one might reasonably believe Wine Intl or Decanter genuinely to have sold in the UK.

Wine International never had an ABC, though surprisingly few of the advertisers, for whom such details ought to matter, ever requested one. But then, presumably the same could be said for the people who placed ads in Decanter which does not choose to offer an audited circulation figure either.

What Decanter can convincingly say is that it has a significant – over 40% - readership outside the UK, and this is crucial, because getting people occasionally to buy, let alone subscribe to, a wine magazine in this country is far, far tougher than most wine writers might imagine. (When Wine Magazine became Wine International, sadly the addition of the adjective represented the major part of the effort to expand its number of overseas readers). In Britain, over the years, a succession of circulation managers tried all kinds of wheezes. We piled up copies in WH Smiths, in Waitrose and in Oddbins, and we offered subscriptions at knock-down rates to Barclaycard customers, to doctors and lawyers and to members of the Sunday Times Wine Club. Copies were distributed on Eurostar trains and generous discounts were offered to wine clubs. None of this was easy or very fruitful. The WH Smiths of this world see special-interest magazines like Wine Intl and Decanter in much the same way that Tesco view an £8 Pecharmant. Wine Intl took up the same amount of shelf space as Penthouse or Country Living, but sold infinitely more slowly. So, the chances are that a wine magazine will either be tucked away behind faster-moving fare – or that it won’t be stocked at all. And of course, the less visible you are, the lower the sales, and the greater the reason for refusing to give you space in the first place. The only hope of breaking this pattern is to secure a slot next to the till – the news trade’s answer to the gondola end in a supermarket wine department. And here too, the same retail rules apply. Simply getting onto the shelves of a big newsagent chain costs money nowadays and premium positions like these come at a painfully high price. A single month of this kind of prime exposure in a specific set of WH Smiths stores could easily set you back £20-30,000 – hardly the kind of money you’d rush to spend without feeling pretty confident of a big uptake in sales. We took this route sometimes for our most boring issues of the year – the ones packed with IWC winners – and did indeed sell more copies, but never saw the increase carry over to the following months’ issues that were full of beautifully written articles.

In simple terms, there is no current evidence that the UK can single-handedly sustain a consumer wine magazine. With the demise of Wine Intl, we are left with Decanter (heavily sold overseas), World of Fine Wine (tiny and even more reliant on sales to other countries) and Fine Expressions (new and far too focused on whisky to qualify as a wine magazine). This is really quite curious, when you consider that countries like Latvia, Eire, Korea, Georgia, India and Thailand all have glossy wine magazines and that Russia and Japan can each field several. So why not Britain? The answer that used to be given was that consumers got as much wine writing as they needed from newspapers, but with the shrinkage of coverage in papers like the Sunday Telegraph, Sunday Times and Evening Standard, that’s highly debatable.
My own view, for what it’s worth is that the explanation is glaringly simple. Why would a country, most of whose wine drinkers resent paying more than a fiver for a bottle of wine (only 12% of wine is sold at above this figure) want to splash out £4 on a magazine. Of course there is a fine wine market – all those people who flock to taste Burgundy en primeur every January for example - but I suspect that a large proportion of them either rely on the advice of their merchants or place their trust in industry-standard ratings from Parker and the Wine Spectator. Or both (as in the Farr Vintners Bordeaux en primeur listings).

It is revealing that our inability to sustain consumer wine magazines is echoed in the field of food publishing. BBC Good Food may still flourish – thanks largely to the presence of tele-chefs, but more up-market offerings like BBC Gourmet Good Food, Taste and A la Carte have all foundered and the word on the street is that neither Delicious nor Olive are, as it were, bringing home as much bacon as their publishers might have hoped.

It is instructive to compare the UK and US wine markets. On the other side of the water the greatest growth is at the higher end of the price scale. (In Britain we talk up the rise in sales of over-£5 wine, but an average retail price per bottle that remains pegged at £3.84 reveals some pretty vigorous activity in the bargain basement.) Of course we sophisticated Brits mock the credulous Yanks who splash out what we think of as silly money on wines with Parker or Spectator points. But our right to a superior stance is undermined by the fact that few of us have ever tasted many of those wines – for the simple reason that they don’t hit these shores. Or do so in such tiny quantities that they by-pass the press completely. London does not have a dedicated wine shop that is as good as several in New York, and the owner of the brilliant Lavinia stores in Paris, Barcelona and Madrid is planning to move into Moscow and Shanghai but sees no appeal in trying to retail wine in the British capital.

The usual target of blame for the state of the UK wine trade is the supermarkets who are pictured as being somehow morally deficient in the way they handle wine. Wine writers and merchants are as free with their opinions of what the supermarkets ought to do about wine as London cabbies are with their views about Ken Livingstone and immigrants. Unfortunately all these criticisms miss the point. Supermarkets are no more “in the wine business” than they are seriously in the business of selling DVDs or petrol. The generic name by which they are known speaks volumes: they are indeed “super” “markets”: big places where goods of various kinds are traded. I don’t recall seeing many wine merchants rising in solidarity with Levis when Tesco and Asda started to sell jeans at rock bottom prices, and I’m sure that there are a few members of the trade who succumbed to the temptation to buy a discounted copy of the latest Harry Potter in Tesco rather than support their local Ottakers. Ah, the wine experts say, the supermarkets are stupid. All they need to do is get their customers to trade up and we’ll all make more money. Given its evident inability to generate profits from its stores, Tesco clearly needs this kind of advice. Especially from traditional wine merchants, producers and writers whose ability to accumulate wealth is famous across the planet.

But that’s quite enough irony. If the supermarkets aren’t to blame, let’s throw the brickbats at the innately cheapskate British public who at least can’t answer us back. Sadly, this doesn’t quite wash either. There is plenty of evidence that the most tightly-wadded Brits can be persuaded to fork out more than is logical on a pair of Nike trainers or the latest iPod. And I’d argue that they do so for the same reason that the Americans and the Swiss and the Japanese all splash out on flash bottles: wine, and more specifically classy wine, is something to which a growing number of people in those countries aspire. Unlike Britain, the country where people earning two or three thousand pounds a week think a £6.99 bottle of wine appropriate to serve to their dinner guests on a Saturday night.

If you accept my premise that Britons aren’t generally excited by the idea of sampling finer – and pricier – wine, the blame surely has largely to be placed at the door of the people whose livelihood is derived from communicating with the public: the readers of this organ. While we hacks can share some of the credit for increasing UK wine consumption beyond anyone’s wildest expectations, we also have to take a corresponding amount of the responsibility for killing the aspirational quality that even Mateus Rose once enjoyed. We have helped to reduce wine to the level of beer or milk: a beverage most people neither have, nor wish, to think about very much. Value for money has become synonymous with cheapness. The very idea of a wine writer promoting a prestige cuvee Champagne as good value at £50 is almost unthinkable. But just switch on your television and watch half an hour of Top Gear. In one recent show Jeremy Clarkson and Steve Coogan were seriously debating the relative merits of the latest efforts from Aston Martin and Ferrari. Neither car would leave much change from £175,000, a figure both petrolheads freely acknowledged was a fairly considerable sum. But that acknowledgment didn’t reduce their evident passion for these gloriously impractical vehicles. Watching the two men throw the cars around the track should have moved any but the most pedestrian of souls – which helps to explain why Top Gear is such a popular programme. Of course Clarkson and the gang also have to cover more workaday vehicles; earlier in the same show, he explained that viewers had requested advice on which sub-£8,000 hatchback to buy. So, a pair of runabouts were duly and very, very rapidly recommended - in much the way one of us might name a drinkable £3.99 supermarket cava, or a café that produces decent sandwiches.

I loved Clarkson’s admission that cheap, good-value-for-money Japanese hatchbacks don’t get his juices going. Maybe if more of us took the same approach to wine, and allowed our enthusiasm for the vinous counterparts of cars that cost as much as a two-bedroom-flat in Leeds, we might encourage a little bit more courageous exploration by Britain’s wine drinkers. I am writing this a few hours after hearing Andrew Jefford hosting a discussion of luxury foods and drinks on Radio 4’s Food Programme. Inevitably, perhaps, the caviar, foie gras and Dom Perignon were tasted alongside dyed fish eggs, duck pate and Tesco Champagne. In each case, the guests – Sean Hill and Michelle Roberts – unhesitatingly identified and preferred the genuinely luxury product but, compared with Clarkson and Coogan, the enthusiasm was distinctly muted. I can’t imagine that the programme will have sent many listeners rushing out to experience their first taste of DP

For those people reading this who mutter “so what!” or rub their hands in glee at the thought that the greedy Champenois won’t be banking any extra pounds, I’d simply offer a few statistics. According to AC Nielsen, the rise in UK wine consumption has slowed to 5 or possibly even 1.5%, depending on the figures you choose, with sales of the top four brands now rising by 48%. In other words, if you’re not a big New World brand, you’re lucky not to be sliding backwards. It is, of course, always dangerous to assume that trends will continue, but if this one does, who’s betting that Tesco et al will take the logical step of trimming their ranges even further than they did in 2005. And Terry Leahy will have every justification in doing so: after all, he’ll be obeying his mantra of listening to his customers and giving them what they want.

Of course, there will be a backlash by people who want something a little different or better – which will be good news for Philglas & Swiggott, Wimbledon Wine and co, but that won’t help the overall picture. The opening of another opera house doesn’t slow the decline in the sales of opera CDs.

So, this is a call to arms. If we as British wine writers really do love wine from the foot of the mountain to the summit it’s time for us to share that love, passion and excitement unashamedly with a wider audience – and to admit that while some of the best things in life are free, some of the others cost a lot of money. And are none the worse for that.