Languedoc & Roussillon Top 40
After years in the vinous wilderness, Languedoc & Roussillon have reinvented themselves in the past decade, transforming the reputation of Southern French winemaking from biggest contributor to Europe’s wine lake to the most exciting place in the world to be making wine. There’s more about that in this month’s newsletter, but regular customers will be more than aware that I love the south and have been working hard to increase our selection of interesting wines from the Languedoc & Roussillon. My efforts in this arena have brought me in to close contact with the guys at the ‘Maison du Languedoc’, sort of an international trade mission set up to promote the food and wine of Southern France. They organise lots of great events across London and beyond, both for consumers and trade buyers like myself – notably the superb ‘Sud de France’ festival taking place throughout September. One of the most important events in their calendar is the ‘Top 40’ tasting, where they showcase the best wines of the region as selected by an esteemed panel featuring some of the country’s foremost experts on southern French wine. And me. Having cut my teeth at the Decanter World Wine Awards earlier in the year, I was really pleased when they invited me to sit on the Top 40 panel, but I did have a little trepidation about tasting with luminaries like Charles Metcalfe, Anthony Rose (The Independent), Isa Bal (Head sommelier at the Fat Duck), Eric Nairoo (MD of Caves de Pyrenne) and MWs including Peter McCombie and Isabelle Legeron. Quite a line-up, but all thoroughly nice folks who made me feel very welcome despite looking about 12 years old. The set up was a bit more relaxed than Decanter, although everything was also served blind. We tasted through the wines in flights (there was 153 in total split between the 3 teams) and divided them into yes, no and maybe. Initially we had whittled them down to about 55 yesses, so they were retasted and we got rid of the stragglers. Once we had our top 40, the next task was to decide on the best in show for white, red and sweet, so the highest scoring wines chosen by the 3 teams were retasted and eventually we voted on the best. My pick for both red and white was not the eventual winner (4th and 2nd respectively) but when the wines were revealed I was very happy to see that I had selected Peyre Rose Clos des Cistes as my favourite – one of the wines that we directly import! So it didn’t actually win, but at least I confirmed my opinion that Peyre Rose make the best wine in the Languedoc. I can’t reveal any of the actual results because they will be released to much fanfare in September, but there were some shocking omissions, a suprising winner and plenty of our wines made the cut so i’ll fill you in on all that soon.
Tonight’s 1989 Bordeaux Tasting – A Preview
As the 1980s drew to a close, Jive Bunny were topping the charts and the England team were stumbling to qualify for Italia ‘90, but Château owners and drinkers alike could look back fondly at a decade that had given them more top quality Bordeaux vintages than most others in the 20th century. After a good vintage in 1988 (one which turned out better than initially expected), the Bordelais were in buoyant mood and reacted with their customary gusto to excellent weather conditions right from the off. Following a mild winter May was hot and dry, prompting early flowering and setting a trend for sweltering temperatures that was to continue throughout the rest of the growing season. The summer started early and remained hot and dry until after the harvest was completed – so hot and dry in fact, that 1989 was the hottest year on record since 1949 and the earliest harvest since 1893. With all of this sun it would be easy to think that the ‘89 vintage was plain sailing, but that was not exactly the case. While the high temperatures meant early ripening for the fruit in an analytical sense (sugars and acids), the shorter growing season left the grapes without the required phenolic (or physiological) ripeness. This presented the chateaux owners with a dilemma – should they pick early to preserve acidity levels and prevent the wines from taking on too much sur-maturité (over ripeness), or should they wait for full phenolic ripeness to avoid massive sugar levels and green, harsh tannins. The answer to this difficult question would dictate what sort of wines each chateau made and there was no universally accepted ‘right’ way to do things. This issue of physiological ripeness was particularly acute for Cabernet Sauvignon and therefore it had a much bigger impact on the wines of the Médoc. Estates on the right bank picked relatively early (some getting started in August) as Merlot doesn’t need so long to achieve a high level of phenolic ripeness – the Mouiex properties in Pomerol and St Emilion delayed picking until the first week of September and the fruit they brought in was superb so expectations were high for the quality of the wines. With things a bit more complicated over on the left-bank many winemakers lost their nerve and on the advice of their risk-averse oenologists they sent out the pickers early, missing the opportunity to harvest fruit that would’ve proved to be spectacular if they had waited. Those that did wait were rewarded, producing wines that stand up to those made in the other great vintages of the 20th century. So how was the vintage received by the critics? Well, at the time there was a great deal of positive press for the ‘89s, resulting in proclamations that it was the vintage of the century. Of course, a century in Bordeaux tends to mean 2 or 3 years, but nevertheless the feeling was very positive and the wines showed very well when they were young, fetching the highest prices of any vintage released up to that point. Michael Broadbent scored the vintage 5* and called it “Unquestionably a great vintage”. Robert Parker has never been quite so enthusiastic as other commentators (with the notable exception of Pomerol), feeling that it pales in comparison to its younger sibling 1990. The Roberson team have always felt ‘89 has been an excellent performer in the many verticals we’ve hosted, but 21 years on it will be fascinating to taste how the wines have developed with their combination of low acids and high tannins. Read more about this tasting by downloading the tasting brochure from the night.
Henri Bonneau – The Genius of Châteuneauf-du-Pape
As we have just recieved some new wines from the eccentric Henri Bonneau I thought it might be worth sharing some thoughts about this most exciting of producers. Now 68, Henri Bonneau has been consistantly turning out some of the finest Grenache-based wines the world has ever seen since his first vintage in 1953. Twinkly of eye and filthy of mouth, his wines are made with love, individuality and passion. Whilst the Bordelais are vying with each other to see who can construct the slickest monuments to wine and ahem..commerce, Bonneau is stumbling around a dark, mould encrusted cellar of quite horrific proportions. No Gehry designed glass walkways or Bacon triptychs on the walls, rather a continual quest to avoid falling into one of the twenty metre chasms that puncture the floors of his grotto. From this inauspicious location however, wines of unbelievable extraction, fruit, strucure and elegance emerge, from years and years in old oak casks. Bonneau is a staunch believer in Grenache and rarely vinifies anything esle Bonneau has 5 levels of wine, each made as a barrel selection up to ten years after vintage. In ascending price order these are, Les Rouliers, a vin de Table, a straight Chateauneuf-du-Pape, Cuvee’s Marie Beaurrier, Celestins and a rare Cuvee Special, last seen in 1990. We should enjoy the wines and the personality of Henri while we can, as characters like this in the world of wine are all too few.
The Wines of Sean Thackrey
We have just recieved the new vintage of Sean Thackrey’s new ‘house’ blend, Pleides XVIII and I just wanted to share an extract of an interview with this most compelling of personalities. I think it gives a really honest, intelligent and humble expression of the winemaking art and why anyone should consider buying one of his wines. To, me his wines express everything that’s good about wine. “Someone once asked me why they should buy my wines, when there are so many others out there; I replied that there are many people out there, too, but only a few are friends. They aren’t interchangeable, and I like the thought that my wines would be prized in the same way – for offering pleasures uniquely their own. Of course this means my wines will have an equally individual audience, for that very same reason; after all, while they may be my friends, they won’t be everybody’s. “So I like to think of myself as making wine first of all for myself, not from ego, but as a plain necessity of procedure. I have to make the decisions and carry out the work, and I don’t know any way to do that other than to proceed according to my own pleasures. But this does simplify the question of offering those pleasures for sale: since I never offer wines I don’t enjoy drinking myself, my entire “marketing strategy” is simply to find those whose pleasures agree. Some don’t; no doubt there must be wine-drinkers who can’t imagine why anyone would like my wines; but then, there are far more than I can supply who think they’re some of the best wines they’ve ever tasted. “Well, guess what? I just want my wines to go to the second group; that’s all. “That’s their natural market. We agree about what we enjoy, and that simplifies life in the best way. Since I never release a wine I don’t like, I can be pretty confident they’re going to like the wines I do release, simply because I like those wines myself. In other words, we agree about what good company is, and good wine should never be less than that. Why have dinner with a wine whose company you wouldn’t enjoy if it were a person? “The Pleiades is the perfect example, since its only intention is to be good company. But what is one’s idea of good company if not the immediate expression of one’s actual personal pleasures? When I used to eat at La Coupole in Paris years ago, I’d be seated next to a hooker, or a Marxist accountant, or a pig broker and his wife from the Auvergne, and I’d find out all sorts of things about which I hadn’t had a clue before; while being benevolently supplied with Belons and Sancerre, confit and Vacqueyras, and of course I’d wish I could eat there every night. So of course I want the Pleiades to be that sort of company; on the other hand, that isn’t the sort of company everyone wants.”
Bordeaux En Primeur 2009 – The Story So Far
I’m not sure if you’ve heard, but Bordeaux 2009 is the most amazing, most spectacular, most investment-worthy and sought-after vintage since 2008. If you want to have the privilege of buying some, then join the queue now but be prepared to trade in your house, mother and all your worldly possessions for a chance to, maybe, if your lucky, buy one case of Lafite’s seventh wine. OK, so that’s how some people are looking at the En Primeur campaign, but many of us are genuinely excited about buying in to what is undoubtedly a superb Bordeaux vintage. Wading through all the hype surrounding the ‘09s is proving to be a hard task, but the question on many people’s lips is “how is the campaign shaping up so far?” The releases continue to trickle out at a snail’s pace and after the initial hoop-la in the press we are left waiting anxiously for the first of the big guns to drop. It has been mostly low to mid-level wines released to this point (at quite reasonable prices, generally about 20% higher than in 2008). This has been great news for people looking to buy top quality wines for drinking, with most producers excelling in an almost perfect season. Some of the more notable releases in the last month have been Ormes de Pez, du Tertre, d’Angludet and Certan de May along with most of the Sauternes and Barsac wines (apart from top dog d’Yquem). The good news, if you haven’t heard, is that it’s a fine vintage, on a par with 2000 and 2005 – especially for the Left Bank communes including Sauternes and Barsac. The bad news is that even the relatively low level wines released for far have been selling out rapidly, leaving many would-be customers disappointed. Sadly, this does not bode well for the more popular classed growths and top investment wines, which will be sold on an allocation only basis – and a strict one at that. Part of the reason for the drawn-out release programme is down to the efforts of the Borldelais to encourage Asian buyers into the En Primeur market. Most of the top producers were hawking their wares last week at the monster trade show that is Vinexpo in Hong Kong. With that over and done with, we are expecting a slew of releases early next week, with the campaign hotting up for the month of June. A strong Chinese Yuan (and U.S Dollar) will make the top wines a better proposition in foreign markets than here in the UK, where prices will be high compared to previous years. Even if the Bordelais ‘only’ go back to 2005 prices (which is unlikely), we are looking at a net increase of at least 30% in real terms. When you consider the fact that most producers are releasing less wine each year en primeur and to much greater worldwide demand, it’s easy to see why the top wines are becoming commodities rather than something to share with friends. The added demand and fevered speculation surrounding 2009 is also beginning to drag up prices from previous vintages, many of which are currently looking decidedly undervalued by comparison. With this in mind we are recommending not only 2009, of course, but also 2008, 2006, 2005 and 2003, all strong vintages with great wines for drinking and investment.
Judging at the 2010 Decanter World Wine Awards
A couple of months ago I was approached by the good people at Decanter Magazine to join the judging team for the 2010 Decanter World Wine Awards. It is a four day affair that takes place in London’s Parson’s Green and after putting myself forward for the Burgundy and Languedoc & Roussillon panels (naturally) I was delighted to get L&R – could have been something like Croatia or, heaven forbid, Bordeaux. So how does it work? Well, after arrival (breakfast was laid on, as was a delicious lunch) we assembled in a large room that was full of round tables. There were two tables per regional panel and each one was for four judges and their twelve glasses. Some of the judges rotate throughout the week – for example Oz Clarke (lovely guy and genuinely passionate about wine) was with us on Languedoc & Roussillon for Wednesday but on Thursday he had disappeared to pastures new. A number of flights are delivered to the tables throughout the day and it is up to the judges to pour, taste, make notes, score the wines, discuss them in the group and finally settle on whether the wine should be non-commended, commended, bronze, silver or gold. Each panel has a regional chair who is almost like a referee, courting opinions from his/her judges and then either agreeing with the consensus or overruling in favour of their own opinion. Apparently all the regional chairs have their own ways of doing things and some of them can be a little forceful when it come to the final decision, choosing to go with their own opinions over that of the judges on the panel. My chair was the esteemed journalist Andrew Jefford (one of the very best wine writers there is imho) who was not only a lovely bloke but also very democratic in how he came to a final decision on the wines. All the wines are served blind and the judges are given a spreadsheet informing them of where the wine is from, the varietal blend, alcohol level and an approximate price. The flights tend to vary between six and twelve wines and there are different quality levels of wine in the same group – the common thread tends to be the appellation that the wines come from. When a wine is deemed to be worthy of a Gold medal it will always be referred to the regional chair and often to the guvnor himself – Steven Spurrier. Mr Spurrier prowls the rooms sniffing out the potential gold medals and a hushed silence falls when he is presented with an aspiring wine. In a Del-Monte like moment he will then give it the yes or no and an affirmative answer is usually greeted by whooping and hollering from the panel that selected it. I only had three or four opportunities to whoop (or indeed holler) and only in one of those cases had I scored it as a Gold medal myself. Still, it is always nice to see winemakers get rewarded for all the hard work they have put in. So, after a tiring (yes, really) couple of days what did I think of the whole thing? Well, it was great fun and definitely something I would like to do again, although I must admit to having reservations about scoring wines by committee. I think there is too much room for compromise and in a field as subjective as wine criticism, I would sooner take a single opinion from an individual that I trust rather than an aggregated opinion from a group. That said, when everyone agrees that a wine is superb you can be pretty sure that you are on to a winner.
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