Thursday, April 17, 2014

Does fine shiraz cause amnesia?

Australian wine lovers have become very concerned over reports that consumption of old, high quality Shiraz may be linked to severe amnesia. Attention was drawn to the risk when it was revealed  that Barry O'Farrell, state premier of New South Wales claimed that he was unable to recall receiving a gift of the AU$3,000 bottle of 1959 Penfolds Grange that had apparently been couriered to his home. Other users of this type of product report similar memory problems after its consumption. One regular consumer was unable to say precisely how many glasses he had drunk on the previous evening while another was not even able to accurately estimate the number of bottles she had consumed over the course of a month.

Fortunately robust Aussie humour has been brought into play by producers of other products that are not currently associated with memory loss. It is not clear whether there will be a major shift in consumption to these products from Shiraz. At least I can't remember reading anything about any such shift...

Red Bull and KFC have fun at Penfolds' expense

Friday, April 11, 2014

Why I didn't go to taste en primeur...

A number of people have asked why I did not go to Bordeaux this year to taste the 2013 vintage en primeur. There are two good reasons why I ought to have gone - as a number of my friends did. First, there's the journalistic/intellectual angle. Surely I should have wanted to taste the wines for myself, especially given the controversial nature of the vintage? My response is to draw a parallel with the theatre. These wines are not really at a stage where they can be properly judged, especially given the lateness of the harvest. This is arguably always the case when tasting en primeur where one is often trying to assess samples to which press wine has yet to be added and in which samples vary from barrel to barrel. But in vintages for which there is a strong demand, there is a logic for judging them before the rush to buy begins. With the best will in the world, no such rush was ever likely this year. The most optimistic Bordelais talk about these wines finding buyers "within three years". I reckon that gives me plenty of time to taste them at my leisure - at events like Vinexpo in Hong Kong in a couple of months time.

The second reason is rather trickier, because it has to do with my loyalty and commitment to the region. On this basis, attending the annual en primeur circus is like turning up at a family Christmas or Thanksgiving dinner, or to watch your football team play every match. I'm pretty sure that this is the way the Bordelais view en primeur: an annual party they go to a lot of trouble to put on. Turning down the invitation is just bad manners.

And so it would be, if en primeur really were a party, like the Fete de la Fleur event at the end of every Vinexpo. But of course it's not; strip away the fripperies and it's no more nor less than a commercial showcasing of a range of products to a set of potential purchasers and media that are likely to influence their purchase. 

My problem is that I while I love the opportunity of buying good wine at an appealingly low price in return for making an advance purchase - much like saving money on an airline ticket - I see neither logic nor appeal in buying a questionable product at a cost that may well actually be higher than the one I'd pay in a year's time.

The Bordelais have conveniently forgotten that en primeur, is a recent construct, not an ancient pillar of their temple. The system we know today was born in the 1960s and, like sur souche, the on-the-vine buying that preceded it, was devised as a means of helping often financially precarious estates to manage their cashflow. The chateaux that are at the heart of the en primeur circus today all have money - plenty of it - in the bank. They no more need to sell en primeur than I - or anyone else - need to buy that way. 

Paranoia in Bordeaux Part 2: Twitterphobia

Q. What do the chateau owners of Bordeaux have in common with Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the prime minister of Turkey?
A. Like him, they - or at least a fair number of them - fear and hate... Twitter.

Until quite recently, the Bordelais made use of fairly straightforward lines of communication when they wanted to tell the world about their latest wines. They simply showed them to a select group of merchants and critics who generally spread the word in a more or less predictable - and controllable - fashion. The merchants were a polite bunch who may have grumbled privately about prices but knew that, if they wanted to be sure of getting the next - possibly great - vintage they had to buy this - rather less attractive - one. And being overly critical of something they would have to sell made little commercial sense.

The press were rather less easy to manage, but a mixture of charm and hospitality - including the opening of a few choice older bottles - generally kept them on side too. They may have questioned whether the miraculous September really had rectified the damage caused by a cold rainy summer, but they rarely rocked the boat too vigourously.

Crucially, with the exception of less than a handful of globally-visible critics, few enjoyed an audience that extended beyond a small group of wine buffs and professionals in their own countries. Information also moved far more slowly. British Bordeaux buffs, for example, had to wait for weeks until Decanter had converted its tasting notes and marks into a glossy magazine.

Blogs and newsletters brought more immediacy, but it was Twitter that really changed the game. Almost overnight, news and views could be spread instantly and virally. Tasting notes appear on line almost as soon as the spit hits the spittoon - and the most interesting, and controversial, tweets are spread across the planet in a way that is as unpredictable and uncontrollable as the weather.

When producers were quoted in the French press as describing Chinese buyers as "stupid enough to pay the high prices" of the 2010s, the comment was picked up within hours by British bloggers whose tweets were translated into Mandarin and read by Chinese buyers who were not entirely pleased to be treated as fools. Punishment for the Bordelais came in the form of canceled purchases for those 2010s.

This year, comments by chateau owners about "a conspiracy by UK press to destroy the vintage" are coupled with teeth-clenched anger about Twitter. The favourable online chatter that appeared on the platform in 2009 and 2010 were acceptable; the negative response given to the 2013s and their pricing is evidently not. I can - almost - sympathise with the victims of all this criticism; nobody likes to hear uncomplimentary things being said about them and what they have done. But I'd sincerely recommend that they keep their anti social media feelings to themselves if they don't want them to be spread - like this post - online, through the very same means of communication they so fear.

Wednesday, April 09, 2014

Paranoia in Bordeaux

Early this morning, Maria Miller, a British government minister, finally bowed to the inevitable and resigned. A politician who had been vocal in calling for transparency over members of parliament's expenses in 2009 had been been found to have over-claimed £5,600 or £45,000 (depending on who's counting) more in her own expenses. For several days before she accepted her fate, Ms Miller's supporters had vainly tried to claim that the media was unfairly treating her as a scapegoat. This position was somewhat undermined by the fact that many in her own party were as critical of her as any journalist.

An hour or two later I read that Christian Seely of Chateau Pichon Baron was complaining about a "concerted effort" to undermine the 2013 en primeur campaign and "
to talk the vintage down in the press"
To be fair to Mr Seely, a clever man I really like and respect, he was facing a tricky task. His chateau has, I'm sure, made a pretty decent 2013, especially given the challenges of the vintage, and he's played the game - at least partly - by reducing his prices by 17% against the 2012. But, and it's a huge but, he needs to sell some wine. And that means saying stuff that he certainly might not be saying if he on the buyers' side of the desk. 

If 2013 has had a poor press since the time of the harvest, that might have just a little to do with some of the comments that were made by producers at the time. British-born Gavin Quinney, owner of Ch Bauduc,  and a contributor to said that 2013 was the worst vintage he could remember and that  "the reds will be extremely variable at all price points". Stephane Derenoncourt bluntly called it a "shit vintage" and Michel Rolland told that 2013's were "drinking wines... not for ageing". Visitors to Bordeaux during the harvest returned with horror stories of ugly, rotten grapes. 

But the people who really matter  are the ones who are going to are being asked to buy these wines and, as Liv-Ex
reveals, over 70% of the professionals who have tasted the first growths ranked them as fourth or fifth in quality when set alongside 2007, 2008, 2011 and 2012. While a few chateaux have bucked the trend and produced really high quality, long-lived wines, they are the exceptions to a rule in which 2007-like "restaurant-wine" is actually something of a compliment. Mr Seely acknowledges that the previous four vintages have all dropped in value since they were released en primeur. He boldly suggests that this one will buck the trend. Maria Miller's supporters may similarly believe that she will bounce back after her present travails. I wouldn't bet on either. However good the best 2013s, I cannot see any reason to buy them in barrel today when I could spend my money on older wines in which I have reason to believe.