Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Lightening Up

Life, which maintained a reasonably civilized tone for most of the start of this year, regained a bit of imbalance this weekend with the arrival of my sister and her boyfriend from Dublin to check out alpaca farms around Bordeaux.

I know, for many, the connection between alpacas – a lama like creature with three stomachs that hums or whistles when happy or worried – and Bordeaux – the world's best known wine region – might be zero. But believe me, it exists. I have seen them, and heard their little hums and whistles.

The weekend before the sister arrived, I ended up in Spain, at a conference* on the increasing quality of wines being the enemy of their diversity. Lucky I did, partly in terms of it being a total eye-opener into extreme winemaking, and partly because I got my liver slightly back to abnormal by closing a bar in the tiny but picturesque town of Ronda. If I hadn't I think my sister might have caught me unawares.

But to go back to extreme winemaking, am I the only one that didn't know about evangelical types like Alvaro Palacios, Ales Kristancic and Dirk van der Niepoort from Spain, Slovenia and Portugal?

Kristancic is the inheritor of his family's wine business established in 1820. As well as his existing range of Movia wines – all biodynamic – he now produces about 2,000 bottles per year of Lunar, a moon wine, which takes an impractical three days to settle after transportation.

"I bury specially built wooden barrels, with no metal to distort the power of the moon, full of grapes for eight months," he said. The barrels are left underground so the grapes into wine process benefits more fully from the moon cycles.

It looked funny, but it tasted great.

At an earlier session – on the issue of whether vineyard management techniques contributed to a wine's character (I know, I know, silly question) – Alvaro Palacios, who runs his winery of the same name, was declaiming his belief that truly great wines only come from vineyards planted hundreds of years ago by monks.

"I just can't understand why no one understands this," Palacios said, frustrated at having being told by the moderator that he was out of time. "I am not crazy, the monks chose the best places," he said. "It's in the wine – the calm of these vineyards that have been here for centuries. You feel it inside you when you drink, it is not just a taste," he said.

I never got to taste it, but if I ever see it I will buy it, simply on the strength of that. Imbibing centuries old calm just can't be bad thing.

On the issue of taste diversity, and the inexorable trend toward riper, sweeter wines – as well as foods – Dirk van der Niepoort who works in the Douro, said it is partly down to it being easier to talk about big things.

"It is difficult to describe the lack of something," he said of the difficulty of recreating a demand for more subtle wines. "Everyone wants the number one, best, biggest. It is not easy to say a wine is less, and then expect people to pay the same for it."

He also believes that wines need to lighten up in other ways. "Modern consumers are forgetting that wine is supposed to be fun," he said.

"My parents went to restaurants to drink wine because it was fun. They are not able to tell me what those wines tasted like, even when I ask them over and over. They just say it was fun."

Oh, and as for my sister, who is serious about fun, it was her fault, and no one else's, that I ended up organising a Riverdance session at 3am in my local bar where they serve really good whiskey really cheap. Six euro's a glass for Irish and seven for the Scottish version. Poor liver.

*WineCreator (Ronda, Spain) "Towards Diversity and Innovation in Winemaking"

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Bordeaux 2007 influencing Bordeaux 2006

Almost half a year ago I wrote that the Bordeaux 2006 prices might come down in the future (see posting from 10 November 2007). But if I take the omnipresent complaining about the 2007 vintage into account, it is very well possible that people start diverting to Bordeaux 2006, which is still widely available at primeur price level.

A somewhat comparable effect could be seen with 2005 and 2004, but for a different reason: confronted with the incredible prices of the 2005 primeurs, people went back to the - still available - 2004 primeurs. Prices for the 2004 primeurs had seemed quite normal until then, but could - in the light of the new 2005's - be redefined as low. And today people might revisit the 2006 primeurs for their relatively interesting quality. Which of course might have an effect on its future price trend. Average 2006's we will still see as bargains in the near future, I think, but the most interesting wines of that vintage have just become a little bit more interesting. Time will tell, eventually.

Talking about bargains: I just read a great blog posting from the Californian retailer domaine547. Apparently, Château Caronne Ste Gemme 2005 (Haut-Médoc) is being dumped at a local supermarket for only 14 dollars (EUR 8,78), while domaine547 asks the normal price of 30 dollars (EUR 18,82). To me domaine547 is clearly setting an example by writing this straightforward - and funny - story, and simply suggesting its customers to seize this "ridonkulous steal", as they call it. Honesty, transparancy, etc. will survive in the end, as can also be read in the reactions. Just for the record: in Holland this wine was offered en primeur - two years ago - for about 12 euro.

Finally, sometimes you see something that makes you think: wow, if only I had thought about this... just check out this great idea: First Blush!

Friday, April 18, 2008

Bordeaux 2007: Wine Spectator and Jancis Robinson on Bordoverview

This week two reviewers published their ratings: James Suckling (in Wine Spectator) and Jancis Robinson. Personally I am quite inclined to follow Robinson's observations. For example it was through her that I 'discovered' Clos Badon Thunevin, just one of the wines that I really like.

It is clear that both Suckling and Robinson intend to give a clear sign about the vintage. None of the wines received a top rating. The scores of both tasters are remarkably low when compared to 2006 and especially 2005. Coming across as an explicit signal in the direction of the châteaux: bring down your prices. One of my contacts in Bordeaux however just told me that this is not something to expect from happening. It will become a hard to sell vintage.

Are there any remarkable results? Maybe the high rating which Jancis Robinson gave to Château Lascombes, a somewhat troubled estate - no steady ownership, and being accused of bringing forth modern wines that lack the typicality of a Margaux. But apparently they did a good job in 2007. Also worthwhile mentioning: the good scores for the Dutch-owned Château Giscours and Château du Tertre, and the always quite classic Château Phélan-Ségur. So apparently working with two different consulting oenologists can lead to a ... balanced result?

Well, why not just check it all out for yourself.

Also interesting: the Ten Bordeaux 2007 Wines To Buy according to Jane Anson.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Funky Bordeaux 2007 primeur words

One of the best conversations I had during the primeurs, apart from the one about some of the Margaux 2007's smelling of old socks, was about wine words.

This year I tasted blind for the second time, and decided somewhere about half way through the first tasting that I would, in revolutionary manner, write down what the wine actually tasted like to me.

I could, I decided in a blinding flash, do this because, a) no one has so far checked my notes from any of the four previous primeur tastings I've done, or given me a telling off for using the wrong words. And b) I do not actually write about the taste of wine, so my words, are in fact, only for me.

Please try to overlook the fact it has taken me four primeurs, i.e. four years, to actually realise this, but until now I was searching faithfully for those flavours that everyone seems to talk about, thinking that if I didn't find them it 'my bad' as the rappers say.

You know the flavours I mean, 'dark fruits', 'red fruits', 'floral notes' and so on. I can never, or at least only very occasionally, actually, find those. And if I do I am not always 100% sure of what I am talking about. The problem, I now think, is that I just don't eat enough fruit. I eat, and have eaten in my life, lots of sweets, lots of chocolate and the obligatory once-a-day-when-I-remember apple.

Living in France I realise that here is a whole nation that actually eats fruits at least three times a day. And not just apples either. Plums, pears, strawberries, blackberries, raspberries, red currants, black currants and so on. I have eaten them, just not very much. The staples in Ireland were gooseberries and rhubarb – so I am a little better when it comes to whites.

But anyway, having had this revolutionary thought, tasting suddenly became fun. When I tasted tequila, I wrote down 'tasted of tequila' instead of trying to think of some kind of fruit, red or black, that tasted of tequila and then writing that down.

When I tasted, or smelt, tobacco I wrote that one down, although that was not so revolutionary as things like tobacco, leather and chocolate are actually OK to talk about in wine terms.

More pleasing was the writing down of 'butterscotch Lifesavers on Saturday afternoon in sunny garden' – that was a red by the way.

Or 'old socks'. And my old new favourites 'flat' and 'energetic'. I also took great pride, as a former house painter – as in I did it for a living – in identifying hints of turpentine in one or two. I also, gaining confidence, tried out a few more, 'wouldn't mind it for lunch on a rainy Monday' sort of comments.

Naturally I didn't actually talk about any of this – the impossibility of suggesting – in Bordeaux and during primeur week – that I had just tasted a potentially nice rainy, Monday lunchtime wine was too, well, too impossible.

Then, it happened. At a press lunch. I overheard another journalist, who turned out to be bilingual French/English, talking about how he was better at describing a wine in English, when he could say things like 'funky teatime wine', than in French. And indeed, 'fétide (my online dictionary's translation of funky) vin pour l'heure du thé' is just not the same thing.

After that everything fell into place. I still did not have the courage to actually talk about my new vocabulary out loud, but that was fine, I had found it.

At least it was fine until the end of the week, when I whizzed though one tasting describing at least a quarter of the wines as FBD (flat, dull, boring – because the tastes, if there were any, were too inconsequential to go looking for), and then, went to the closing press lunch. Where, after a glass of really fantastically good Rauzan-Ségla 1999, and another of Kirwan 1998 I told everybody about FBD and old socks. Something I now regret.

You see, writers are writers for many reasons. Partly because being a painter can be hard on the back. But also partly, because they learn early in life, that writing things down, and having a moment to consider them, is generally preferable to saying things out loud and then being unable to edit them. But there you go. It happens.

As to the rest of the 2007's I can honestly write down that the whites were mainly very good. Fresh, crisp and clean. Like good shirts.

The sweet whites were instantly likeable, though none that I tasted had that searingly fresh finish that I once had from a glass of Château Nairac sauternes, but maybe it was colder and/or older. These were after all primeurs.

And the reds, well as you know. The reds were either really bad, FBD or genuinely good, funky, picnic slash teatime wines. Voilà.

Voilà, by the way and just to even up the 'what language is good for what' score, is an unbeatable way of ending almost anything, and untranslatable, in English anyway, in less than three words. So French.

Friday, April 11, 2008

Bordeaux 2007 live on Bordoverview

Since this week the Bordoverview website opens with the 2007 vintage, instead of 2006. With the ratings from the Decanter team, one the first sources to present its scores. On Bordoverview you only find the numerical scores (which can be sorted and filtered in every desired way), to see the tasting notes behind these scores be sure to check out the Decanter website.

A striking score again for Le Dôme, the St-Emilion Grand Cru 2.85 hectares garage wine from Jonathan Maltus. Steven Spurrier must love this wine: for all four vintages presented on Bordoverview this wine is granted five stars, the only other wines who received four five stars in row are the 1st classed growths Haut-Brion, Lafite and Margaux. Also Maltus' other St-Emilion wines are very well received by Spurrier: especially the micro-cuvées Les Astéries (1 hectare) and Le Carré (1.6 ha), and also the slightly bigger Château Laforge (5.7 ha).

The consulting oenologist hired by Maltus is Gilles Pauquet. This week the data for the consultant-oenologist column have been updated extensively, and by filtering (clicking) on a person's name, you can directly see which wines are made under his of her supervision. A very interesting view for example is the list of châteaux being advised by Michel Rolland. But also the list for Jacques Boissenot is impressive. How not to interpret this information: all these wines are more or less the same. The correct interpretation: the choice for an oenologist tells you something about the style of the wine. But I must say, there really aren't that many oenologist... so the risk of some uniformity is not inconceivable. To put it mildly. But let's not get into that at this moment.

I simply invite you to discover the new Bordoverview with its new features and data. And see for yourself which Bordelais are making which wines. It's quite a small world, actually.

Monday, April 7, 2008

Bordeaux 2007 and Orléans 2007 (just an alternative)

It is really a mental switch from thinking about the pure, mostly small-scale, straightforward Loire wines, to thinking about the highly professionalised, somewhat highbrow world of Bordeaux. As written earlier, I haven't tasted the 2007 primeurs myself - I instead visited the Loire valley last week - and from what I read it seems that I didn't really miss anything. An 'average vintage' is what I read most, and since euphemisms are common when denoting vintages, this can't be a very good sign. This at least accounts for the reds, the whites are supposedly quite good or even very good in 2007. So I think I know what I should buy for my daughter who was born in 2007: Sauternes.

For red the climatic conditions just weren't very good. The year started off good with early flowering, and ended nice and sunny around harvest. The summer in between however was rather wet. Favouring the grand terroirs with the best drainage, and that's where the most expensive wines come from. A classic situation. If you want to read an excellent summary of the 2007 vintage check out what Jane Anson writes on her blog.

Another discussion that will never end is that of the prices. I always learnt that one shouldn't talk about money. But when people talk about Bordeaux and the new wines, if the subject isn't quality, it is money. Prices in Bordeaux have risen a lot over the last years, and with the 'average' 2007 vintage buyers are urging the châteaux to lower their prices, while the majority of châteaux are saying they simply follow the law of demand and supply. If you want to read more about the money-issue, be sure to check out Guy Woodward's news item on the Decanter website.


And then to experience the superb wines of the Loire, for prices at which you couldn't even buy a cork in Bordeaux. No money talk, just quality is what we talk about. For example of the wines from Clos Saint-Fiacre from the young appellation Orléans. Bénédicte and Hubert Piel create the most elegant, sappy and pure wines on their northerly terroir, of which I especially found the red outrageously delicious. The perfect example of a 'drinking wine', and the perfect answer to the doubtful and widespread habit of over-extraction. Piel's aim is to make a light structured wine yet with intense healthy fruit.

The ultimate routine: lots of work in the - natural - vineyard, perfect fruit at harvest, and then hardly any work during winemaking. Nature will transform the healthy berries into healthy wine. But in real life, there will still be plenty of work after harvest. If only it were to get people introduced to these unknown beauties.