Blind tasting. One of my favourite activities in the world. Maybe even my favourite. Tied in first place with padding along the beach in North Denmark.
I will never forget the first time I met Rajat Parr. The entire evening is etched in my memory. I had heard on the grapevine that he was a pretty good taster. Pretty good to say the least. Phrases like “the best blind taster in the world” had been thrown around. So, his reputation preceded him. It’s difficult to know how much truth lies in rumours like these, and I wasn’t sceptical, but I was curious to see whether he really was that good or whether it had been exaggerated.
I was coming back from Burgundy a couple of years ago. My plane was delayed by two hours, so I landed at 8pm instead of 6pm and I was particularly exhausted. Michael Sager texted me when I landed and said, “come to Hackney Road, Raj is in town and you need to meet him.” I very almost didn’t go but Michael persisted and just said “come on!!!” so I dragged my tired butt onto the train and out to Hoxton.
There is an amazing little wine shop in Chassagne-Montrachet – Caveau de Chassagne – that has a separate list if you ask nicely, where there are all sorts of incredible wines hiding – think Henri Jayer old vintages for dayzzzzz. I can’t exactly afford Jayer, but there’s also a great Rhône list and on that trip, I had spied a bottle of Hermitage blanc by Guigal, in my birth year – 1991. It was only around 40 euros so it got stashed in my suitcase straightaway.
I didn’t know at the time that this would be serendipitous and that that bottle would be the wine that would define one of the most important vinous memories of my life.
I had originally planned to drink it with my dad (sorry dad) but when I arrived at Sager + Wilde and was introduced to Raj, Michael whispered to me, “let’s blind him on something!”
So, instead of choosing something from the list, I got that bottle out of my suitcase behind the bar.
Michael and I gave a glass to Raj and leant back, like excited school children waiting to see who got the lead in the school play.
Raj swirled the wine glass in his hand absentmindedly, chatting with us, took a sniff and instantly said, “Hermitage.” He hadn’t even tasted the wine.
He took a sip, and said “Guigal. Early 90s.”
My brain exploded. I was completely and utterly speechless. Dumbfounded. It was the perfect way to meet someone who has today become such a dear friend and mentor. It is perhaps the single moment that told me, you are on this path for good. That was it. I was hooked. Transfixed. Obsessed. This is not a drill.
When we showed him the bottle, there was no celebrating, just a small smile and a shrug. Raj is an incredibly humble man and he reflects the importance of humility in the face of wine.
I can only aspire to one day be sitting in a wine bar, to be introduced to someone just embarking upon their career, to be challenged to a blind tasting of their birth year wine and to nail it casually in one go.
Raj, thank you.
Et cela sera pour combien de personnes?
Qu’une personne s’il vous plaît.
Many of us city dwellers lead rather chaotic, fast & furious lives (by furious here I mean full of energy, as opposed to anger). Those of us in the wine trade have the advantage of leading a life where work and pleasure somehow become inextricably intertwined; a blessing, but also one that means we can end up burning the candle at both ends.
I discovered the joys of solo dining by necessity when I packed my bags and moved to Beaune six years ago as a bright eyed and bushy tailed 21-year-old. My budget was much smaller then than it is now (saying that it’s still not huge - hello wine trade) but I had almost no friends in Burgundy at that time (save for my dear friend Edouard Maurisset-Latour who pretty much saved me from an existence of intense loneliness), so when Edouard wasn’t around I would occasionally traipse down the 16th century steps of my apartment and explore the gastronomic streets of Beaune by night.
I quickly realised that solo dining wasn’t scary at all; in fact, it was deeply soothing. I sat in many restaurants and watched the world go by - watching fellow diners and coming and going, conversations full of laughter, joy, and sometimes neither. At the same time, I would be taking in everything about that restaurant all alone. Of course, dining with companions is equally as enjoyable - I’m not a total loner - but the companion in question will take at least 75% of your attention. Alone, the restaurant is allowed 100% of your attention, and in return, it gifts you much needed time to your own thoughts.
This weekend I was in Champagne for the first time, alone, to visit Adrien Dhont and Timothée Stroebel. I headed to Le Bocal on Friday night, the most adorable miniscule fish restaurant behind the fish market, which I found via an article by Peter Liem. I ate homard bleu and drank biodynamic Les Meuniers de Clémence by Lelarge Pugeot. A pairing from another universe where lobsters and Champagne bottles roam hand in hand. Bliss. The service was impeccable and the butter was something divine - no idea what was in it but I think some kind of fish roe. If you are a fan of fish and Champagne, this place won’t let you down.
The second night, Adrien told me “go to The Glue Pot. It’s like an English pub, but not, with an epic wine list.” Weird, I thought, but sure, I’ll go with it.
I had some work to do, so went back to my Airbnb and headed out at 21:15, without a reservation.
I walked in and wondered whether someone had slipped some acid into my coffee earlier. RED. So much red. Red carpets, red leather chairs, red walls. Errrrthing red. Based on a (shit) English pub - it looks even more like a (shit) English pub from the outside, with a DJ bashing out pretty good electronic music, but with acoustics that are so good that nothing seemed too loud or blare-y. TVs showing what I can only assume to be some very strange talent show with people riding penny farthings and doing intense acrobatics on hover boards. Handstands and splits galore. Fucking fascinating watching, I’m not going to lie. I was glued, no pun intended.
The service - some of the best service I’ve ever had, brilliant and caring staff and Stephan, the owner, is such a character and knows his wine inside out.
Now, the most important part: THE WINE LIST. Not going to spoil it for you but go and you shall not be disappointed. Some of the most interesting cuvées and best prices I’ve ever seen in a restaurant.
The food. Exactly what I needed after a long day of tasting. The most delicious camembert deep fried snacks - it’s actually really hard to get deep frying right without being greasy. These were perfect - crisp and so fresh. Next, the most tender, mouth-melting veal I’ve had, with glorious nutty comte cheese which was the pairing from the heavens with Clos Rougeard’s Brézé Blanc 2011 - not exactly a wine you get to drink every day.
I try to dine alone at least once a month. It almost verges on therapy for me. It is one of my favourite activities in the world. I have many friends who find the idea weird or even scary; I just hope by writing this perhaps some of the solo dining doubters out there might give it a go. I’m sure it’s not for everyone, but go on - have a try. You might be surprised and you might even start joining me in making some of those “Reservation for one, please.”
Peter-Allan, P-A for short, is one of South Africa’s most talented winemakers. By that, I mean that he is one of the very best at conveying what the site in question gives us, to the final glass.
During a recent, particularly vinous “off duty” dinner at Noble Rot featuring older vintages of Leroy (say waaah), I stopped and got my notebook out because wine, after all, can be the lubricant to Great Chat, and this was an interesting one.
The wine that started this particular Great Chat was the Gabriëlskloof Syrah on Sandstone. It’s a really serious wine that totally bowled me over. Bright, savoury and pure with tons of energy and lift, with a lovely ever-so-subtle warmness on the mid palate that would otherwise land me right in Côte-Rôtie territory. There are gentle wild flower notes, violets and irises, with dried herbs and lots of peppery characters lifting the finish with a real oomph - particularly white and pink peppercorns shine through. There is less fruit as opposed to “other” characters here - rockiness and smoky reduction give the wine its shoulders, and there is an amazing, mouthcoating crumbly texture that definitely appears to come from somewhere.
But where? That is the question.
P-A begins by explaining that the sandstone creates vines with half the trunk diameter of the vines from the cuvee that sits on shale (the cuvee of which is named, funnily enough, Syrah on Shale) due to extra water stress. He believes this imparts more of these savoury notes onto the wine, particularly the pepper.
Meanwhile the shale cuvee has 30-50% clay in its soils, which means the plant grows faster, producing more dark fruited, earthy and inky wines, in a way comparable to Cornas.
He continues, “I often believe terroir is actually a question of absence. What is absent from the soil (nutrient deficient soils for instance) naturally means the grape pulls what is best out of it, and it struggles - this struggle brings those spicy notes to the forefront.”
“The vine expresses what it is grown on, and the salinity translates this in the glass.”
“Look at the Mosel. Those soils are extremely stressful - there is no matter there, and they stress the Riesling. This means you get the most out of Riesling as a variety - the roots push deeper and deeper as they struggle to survive.”
Peter’s wines are imported by Liberty.
This photograph landed in my inbox this week and it might be the most excited I’ve ever been about an email. It doesn't look like much (let’s be honest), but it’s very special. What is it?
It’s Merlot’s Mum. She had been lost, and some thought she would never be found. She is now being grown (albeit only with three plants) by Clement Dubos in SW France.
If you had told my 20-year-old self, busy going out to as many music festivals as still getting a 2:1 in her French degree would allow, that she would be sitting down at age 27 to buy and download a research paper entitled Parentage of Merlot and related winegrape cultivars of southwestern France: discovery of the missing link, she probably would have given you the side-eye look of questioning, and a response resembling something like…
Yet here I am, at 27 years of age, head-over-heels with ampelography.
Ampelography is related to the identification of grapevine varieties and species. Why is that so important? Jancis Robinson, Julia Harding and José Vouillamoz included 1,368 varieties in their Wine Grapes bible (these are grapes specifically used to produce wine, outside of this there are thousands more).
So while it is clear we have hundreds of exciting options out there to make wine with, unfortunately, the modern day world appears to have fallen out of favour with variety in wine.
Ask a friend who doesn’t work in the industry what they like to drink, and I think the following wines are more often than not the answer:
Argentinean Malbec, Merlot, New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc, Australian Shiraz, Italian Pinot Grigio, Prosecco, Rioja, and for those that can afford it – Burgundy and Bordeaux.
Why is this a problem?
Let us start with why it’s not a problem. These countries/regions/varieties are successful for a reason; they have pushed for quality in some sense of the word and offer reliability. My own favourite region in the world is Burgundy and I drink a lot of it. I’m not going to tell myself or you to stop drinking the wine that you love and trust, just like I am not going to tell you to stop cooking your favourite comfort meal or ordering your favourite pizza.
However, let’s keep comparing it to food. Do you eat the same meal every day? The answer is likely not. Imagine how boring our culinary life would be if we walked into the supermarket and were faced with only aubergines and apples.
That’s not to say aubergines and apples don’t play an important factor in our lives; without them we wouldn’t be able to make parmigiana or tarte tatin.
But we don’t only have aubergines and apples. We have choice.
So why do so many always buy the same wine, or the same grape variety? Comfort perhaps; reliability. Bad experiences.
But our lack of exploration in wine, in humans, is leading us down a difficult and dangerous path.
A startling statistic tells us that the 20 most prominent grape varieties in France accounted for 91% of vineyard area in 2012, compared with 53% in 1958.
This means we are around 9% away from having only 20 grape varieties in France.
This is the vinous equivalent of us only having 20 ingredients available to use from France for our meals for the rest of our lives.
We have many things to blame for this, and I won’t delve too far into them. Phylloxera, financial stability, reliability, the globalisation of certain tastes and the creation of certain brands all have a role to play.
Historically, ampelography has relied on our human eyes and hands. We have looked at vine species and guessed as damn close as possible what they are, but we are not omnipotent, and we make mistakes. We were also unable to link varieties to one another.
Everything changed drastically in the early 2000s with the introduction of DNA testing for vines led by Carole Meredith at UC Davis in California. Drum roll please… suddenly we were able to create factual family trees of grape varieties. Grape geneticists quickly got to work.
One link had been missing for a while. We did not know who Merlot’s Mum was.
She was found one day growing up a building in the Southwest. After DNA testing, it turned out she was also the missing link for Malbec’s family tree; Merlot’s Mum is also Malbec’s Mum.
They named her Magdeleine Noire de Charentes.
Had it not been for this stray, ancient vine, Magdeleine, whose species had metaphorical sex with two lovers (in the form of grape varieties) back in Shakespearean times or before, and a grapevine stork dropped off two babies in Merlot and Malbec form, these two grape varieties would have never existed. Can you imagine? I can’t.
I had the pleasure of dining with Jean-Claude Berrouet in the summer of 2018 to taste the wonders that he is achieving with Merlot via Twomey across the pond from Bordeaux where he crafted one of the world’s most iconic wines; Pétrus. It is not an overstatement to say that we would not be living in the world of wine as it is today without Monsiuer Berrouet. We spoke about ampelography briefly. He asked me whether I know who Merlot’s mother was.
“But of course,” I answered. “She is Magdeleine Noire de Charentes. I’ve even named our wine tasting group after her.”
He smiled; it was the kind of smile that crinkles at the sides of the mouth and eyes, warming up the whole face.
It matters. Jean-Claude knows it matters. I know it matters. I hope we all know it matters. Plant diversity and genetic diversity is crucial in our world; there would be catastrophic consequences without it.
I asked Dr José Vouillamoz, Grape Geneticist and a huge inspiration to me, to comment,
He said, “In 2009, my colleagues at INRA in Montpellier have published the discovery of the missing link in the parentage of Merlot: it is a natural, spontaneous crossing between Cabernet Franc and Magdeleine Noire des Charentes. At the time of the discovery, only five vines of this plant were still in existence: one in northern Brittany growing in a forest, and four in the Charentes growing in front of farmhouses. This missing link was on the brink of extinction, yet it is the parent of the second most planted grape variety in the world. This illustrates the importance of conserving the old, obscure or minor grape varieties that are our heritage as well as a source of genetic diversity and a possible solution for climate change.”
Let us save Merlot’s Mum, let us look after her, nurture her, safeguard her and fix this predicament we find ourselves in. Merlot’s Mum is a metaphor for all indigenous varieties. I strongly believe that the combination of our ability to genetically test grape varieties, as well as a growing faith in our own varieties and individuality, are the reason that for the first time in many years indigenous is on the up. Indeed we can take it one step further; it is not only in their homes but also away from their homes; look at what young Jaimee Motley is achieving in California with the Savoyard gem, Mondeuse (Syrah’s grandparent!) I believe this will become one of the most exciting wines in the world. Winemakers have more love and trust in their local varieties and pour such energy and love into their cultivation that quality shines. As a result, suddenly we see the once lesser-known varieties pop up on the other side of the world.
So -this is a small plea for help from us. Next time you buy your wine, whether it be from an independent merchant, online, or in a supermarket, have a read and look for something different. Try a grape variety you don’t know; even better, try one you can’t pronounce. Ask the store staff for advice on indigenous grape varieties.
Tell me about the wine you find. Tell your friends about it. It might be the start of a lifetime of vinous exploration.
Wines, like people, come and go. Some become our best friends, some remain etched in our memories, and some get pushed to the bottom of the memories pile and resurface many years later; not unlike that friend you had when you were five who suddenly appears in your dreams for no reason. Others, quite simply, are forgotten forever and dissolve into nothingness.
There are bottles we buy with eager anticipation to open the same day. There are bottles we buy with the purpose of ageing, but open far too young because of impatience.
There are bottles that are opened at “perfect” maturity.
Then there are bottles that lie patiently waiting; ones that lie with ears pricked when their owner walks into the cellar.
“Hello! I’ve reached my peak drinking window according to the critics, it’s time to open me!!!” they shout, their voices muffled by their corks, but their owner leaves them snoozing on, so that eventually their journalistic drinking bracket has long expired and they fall into a deep slumber, having given up hope and wondering whether they shall ever see take a deep breath of oxygen into their liquid lungs again.
I recently attended a tasting where twenty-one of these wines were, as if by miracle, gently poked awake from their deep slumber. I’m not sure who was more surprised – me or the wines.
Dégustation Vieux Bordeaux took place on the 17th January. I will start by saying I cannot do these wines justice.
We must remain humble in the face of wine, and in the face of experience. Older wines, like our elders, have far, far many morestories than us to tell. It is up to us to listen to them. Without them, we know something; but that something is gravely stunted.
I cannot tell you about the vintages, and I cannot tell you how the châteaux were run at the time. Nor will I try.
I can, however, do my best to put into words how they tasted, and tell you how they made me feel.
I often speak about alive wine, and I like to think that alive wines sometimes choose to tell us their secrets. Most of these wines were alive, and many of these wines shared their secrets with me. Wouldn’t you want to share your secrets, if you had been told to sleep for between 138 and 95 years? These wines lived in another era; and they want to tell us about it.
1881 Château Léoville Poyferré (Averys bottling)
Alive and kicking; this was one of my favourites that I nuzzled in my glass for a very long time. Somehow still with a flickering and bright ruby core, it was clean and ever so pure on the palate; not unlike tasting the vinous equivalent of a fresh red wine-meets-water spring. There was black raspberry skin and packed black earth with dried tobacco leaves. Cherry stones lingered on the palate with a crunchy texture and oh – that acid. In old wines, acid seems to take on a personality of its own. There was an apple-like acidity of vibrancy. Once the acid settled, the wine showed its other feathers; tree bark and a sap-like delicacy with pine cones and apple pips. Fresh mint leaf made a gentle appearance on the finish. a fresh savoury wonder; so light on its feet; a vinous enchanted forest. After all; Hans Christian Anderson died only six years before its birth.
1907 Château Haut Bailly
Slumbering a little still; ashy, dense, dark and brooding. Cedar and ash, wood smoke and undergrowth. Less overt fruit here than with the 1881 but still showing remnants of its blackcurrant and bramble nature. Sooty woodiness but somehow finishing so bright. Slumbering but alive.
1911 Château Brane Cantenac
I have never, and I don’t think I will ever, taste anything like this again. Either the wine did die and it came back as a ghost, or it decided, “to hell with this waiting game!” and flamboyantly took on wine profiles that none of us had seen before. Regardless, its aromas were definitely kicking. Sour yoghurt – frozen yoghurt style, cocoa powder, chocolate chips. Mushroom dust. Blue cheese; even epoisses as one taster added.
1914 Château Pichon Longueville Comtesse de Lalande
Oh, what a wine of powerful energy. A muscular, almost jagged, nose and structure; a beautifully confident structure. A thorny, mossy character on the palate, with truffles and dried porcini mushrooms chiming in. Savoury fruits of the forest suddenly awakened after a minute or so; as if to yell quietly - … we’re still here. It finished with black smoke; as if to say, now you see me, now you don’t.
1916 Château Smith Haut Lafitte
Only just alive; somewhat on its death bed. Soy sauce and dried hay and barnyard pull through, with a tangy, umami character, joined by a last leap of faith via dried flowers of a heathen nature. A gentle side of coal joins the finish which made me think the deathbed might be near.
1916 Château Gruaud Larose
Hello, you – very much alive and proud to be so. This wine has its morning suit on with a cigar in hand. Dense, smoky and savoury; nutmeg and cinnamon spice peeking their heads out here. Wild thyme and dried branches make an appearance, with a certain olive skin character that’s very appealing and lifts the palate of the wine. Lavender joins on the finish and the tannin structure falls onto the palate like gentle snowflakes. What a wine.
1916 Château Durfort Vivens
Bright and tangy with primary fruit still a gung-ho somehow. Some electric brightness here despite the lighter body; bramble skin and bramble leaf with direct vertical zippiness. Perhaps less characterful, but still lovely.
1918 Château Haut Bailly
Savoury and earthy on the nose; hot earth on a summer’s rainy day. Dust and white smoke; ashy, with less fruit, but the subtle blackcurrant pith that remains pokes its head through.
1918 Château Marquis de Terme
A bit volatile here. Not sure what happened here but I think we lost one to another world. Man down, RIP.
1918 Château Léoville-Las Cases
I cannot even describe what this wine gave to us. Giggles and eyes of astonishment appeared. Some looked puzzled, others looked enamoured. We all tried to reason with its aromas. This, amongst all of the wines, was the one with most personality. It certainly showed us its one-of-a-kind peacock feathers. I’m not even sure we can say peacock; this is a breed of its own – some sort of mythical bird. Pure blackcurrant juice met frozen bramble sorbet, which met some kind of black cherry liqueur which met blood orange confit. There was an outstanding amount of fruit here, and almost no tertiary character. Wine can defy all laws sometimes, and this wine was testament to that.
1919 Château La Lagune
Somewhat under the radar, this little one left me spellbound. Cigars and cedar on the nose suddenly lifted out of nowhere to bring blackberry pips and black cherry stones, with a confident side of spice; almost fiery and chilli like, with black and white pepper sprinklings. One of those rare wines to carry a rumbling energy from within.
1920 Le Tour de Tertre (?) - labelling confusion, unsure of this wine’s existence – is it a ghost?
The first of the wines to be led by graphite; a quality I greatly desire in Bordeaux. A hot summer night of tarmac and dust joins the nose, but not much fruit is here.
1920 Château Brane Cantenac
Goodness; just beautiful. Ethereal, pretty, elegant and dancing; in its ballet shoes. Truffles and fresh vanilla pods meet on the palate with fresh bramble fruit. Simply the definition of ethereal.
1922 Château Lanessan
Woody and minera, dustry tannic structure. Wild bark character, like sucking on wood. It may sound crazy but this tasted like a vine with an added side of tomato leaf.
1924 Château Pavie
1st corked, sob.
2nd - Graphite, black lead, woody and forest like. Bloody and metallic.
1924 Clos Fourtet
Plush, rich, savoury fruit, very powerful, weighty on palate, bur bright acid lift. Umami, sweet soy sauce. Bloody and meaty.
An enormous thank you goes to the wonderful, entirely inimitable, Roy Richards. Roy - thank you for this incredible generosity. I know you’ll probably shake your head and tell me to oh shush, but truly - the world of wine would be a much dimmer state without you. You were one of the key contributors to its shining state today.
If you’d like to read more about what he achieved and why we owe him one, Jancis wrote a brilliant piece here.
A shorter version of this article was published in the Masi Foundation’s Le Venezie magazine.
The wine world doesn’t often have cause to be grateful to football, but were it not for the so-called “beautiful game” Gerard Basset might never have moved to England, discovered wine and his own talent for it, changed the way this country offers hospitality to travellers and given the English the reflected glory of being able to claim the world’s most qualified wine professional as our own. Basset, who is so charming and modest you might suppose he had barely a qualification to his name, is in fact the only Master of Wine (MW) who also possesses both a Master Sommelier and a Wine MBA qualification; he has also won the World Sommelier Championships. Best Sommelier in the World hardly seems the title for someone with is the opposite of boastful.
Basset, born in Saint-Etienne near Lyon and an avid supporter of the home team to this day, came over for an away game against Liverpool, 40 years ago. “I was 20 years old, delivering washing machines and TVs,” he remembers. “I thought England was just a place where people drank tea all the time and it never stopped raining, but in fact I really liked Liverpool.” He came back to work, and at 26 moved to England permanently and became a waiter, with a view to a career as a restaurant manager. Everyone in his new workplace assumed he knew all about wine because he was French, but in fact, he had grown up being served a little wine in his water (“it’s very refreshing”) but with nothing decent on the table. “Wine then was like salt,” he says. “You don’t look closely or get excited about different kinds unless you’re really geeky about salt, you just put it on your food”. A couple of times a year, his parents would buy something half-decent but other than that, they drank plonk – which was hardly the view of France from across the Channel. “There was a catering student who was moonlighting as a waitress a couple of evenings a week,” Gerard recalls. “She’d attended a lecture on wine and didn’t understand what noble rot was. I didn’t have a clue what she was talking about! I had to quickly buy a book so I could answer her questions.”
And that was how a Frenchman began his wine education in, of all places, England. He ended up Head Sommelier at luxury Hampshire hotel Chewton Glen, where he got on so well with manager Robin Hutson that when the latter decided to venture out on his own, he asked Gerard to be his business partner. “But I had no money! I had a 100% mortage on a flat I’d bought for £52,000 that was now worth £34,000. So I actually had less than no money. But Robin said don’t worry, I’ve got shareholders.”
They went down the road to Winchester, which had wealthy inhabitants and a brand new motorway, and opened a hotel that would start a revolution – although they didn’t realise that at the time. Hotel du Vin was informal but never basic; the rooms were comfortable, with fresh milk in the minibar, quilts and power showers, and the food and drink were, of course, fantastic. It was 1995. They would surely have succeeded anyway, but they got help from an unlikely source: a murderess. The trial of serial killer Rosemary West began just as they opened, in the Crown Court round the corner from the hotel, and the journalists reporting the trial kept them booked solid for months. “We had 13 bedrooms but had to keep one for ourselves as we had no night porter yet,” Gerard recalls. “Two we reserved for holidaymakers but the others were booked out by journalists and they told their colleagues in food and wine about us. It’s terrible, because it was an awful case, but we profited from it.” By the time he and Robin sold to rival chain Malmaison a decade later, they had six hotels. Gerard and his wife Nina opened TerraVina, a small hotel in the New Forest, in 2007; they have just relaunched it as a boutique B&B called Spot in the Woods.
Meanwhile, he was amassing a preposterous number of qualifications and awards – from his MW and MS to Wine Personality of the Year, Industry Legend, an OBE for services to hospitality in 2011, and a slew of Best Taster gongs. He loved the challenge of competitions, he says – “being able to compete really gave me the incentive to learn and to improve. It’s like a sport, you need to practice all the time” – and he was fascinated by the way the wine industry was continually evolving. “In the late 1980s everybody loved the exuberance of New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc; in the 1990s we all wanted full-bodied reds that were rich, rounded and quite extracted. Fashions change but the quality just carries on improving.” Sure, he admits, you can still find awful wine if you really try, but there’s much less of it, and “the technology improves, there are fewer and fewer faulty wines and people are becoming much more knowledgeable.”
He can, of course, take some credit for this expansion of knowledge, via both his own career and the many top sommeliers he has mentored, from Xavier Rousset, who started London’s 28-50 chain of wine bars, to Ronan Sayburn, who is CEO of the Court of Master Sommeliers and Head of Wine at London’s pioneering private wine club 67 Pall Mall. He has also helped to cut through some of the wine world’s excessive formality; just as the Hotel du Vin chain replaced starch with comfort, so Gerard’s style of dining stays focussed on the diner’s pleasure. “Wine is convivial, something to enjoy,” he says firmly. “I don’t want to impose anything. If a table want to drink Madiran with Dover sole, why shouldn’t they? You can offer the benefit of your knowledge but only to people who want it. I always tell young sommeliers not to insist that people have this or that. Some will love wine but some will just want to have fun with their friends, and your job is to help them and not to try to be clever.” And yet, he is one of the world’s top talents at food and wine matching. He is simply a great sommelier: he understands that the dining experience, however elevated, is not supposed to be about him, unless he is the customer.
He is humble, but not self-effacing. He is proud of his MW “because I’m not academic, and those are exams that some people who have been to university don’t pass. And I’m proud of becoming World Champion. I’d come second three times, and was starting to think I’d never get it!” He recognises what the Hotel du Vin chain achieved, and he is also delighted to have been awarded the 37th International Civilta’ Del Vino Prize (International Wine Culture Prize) by Masi. He waxes lyrical about the three days spent at their winery – “They were amazing, we were so well looked after, and the food and wine were sensational!” One of the wine-world evolutions he is enjoying is the evolving attitude to Italian wine: “Once, it was all about Tuscany and Piedmont, but now there’s an understanding of how great the wines of the Veneto can be.” He thinks Valpolicella is still underrated, like so many wines that were beloved in the 1980s. “Beaujolais, Muscadet: people don’t realise how good they are… but they’re all coming back, as they deserve to.” I can’t resist asking: what would he serve with a Masi Amarone? “Probably a slow-cooked meat that is quite tender and rich, like a beautiful stew of wild boar or beef…” But as usual, he refuses to be prescriptive. “If it’s summer, you’ll want something lighter. The most important thing is that the company is good: nobody stops to analyse the wine when they are having a great evening, and that’s just as it should be.” Gerard Basset has dedicated his life to ensuring that people do indeed have a great evening, and so they have, in their thousands, thanks to his charm and expertise. Even for a man as humble as this one, that is surely something of which to be very proud indeed.
The morning of the second of January rolls around and we open one eye drearily. January; the dark, bleak month of less alcohol, salad leaves and exercise.
There is one, sole aspect that makes it an enjoyable month. Burgundy.
Ah, Burgundy. Eyes cloud over, a faraway gaze quickly becomes etched.
“I just asked you a question. Were you not listening?”
“Oh. Sorry. I was just thinking of Pinot Noir and how much I would like to elope with it.”
As I wrote here, my heart is still very much lodged somewhere in the limestone of the Côte d’Or.
January brings with it the opportunity for us city-dwellers to gain an invaluable insight into the vintage to be released later in the year, in this case 2017. I feel the Burgundy en primeur tastings are somewhat more insightful than their (very) distant relatives, the Bordeaux en primeurs, which continue to baffle me (approximate blends and sky-high tannin that don’t come very close to the final wine, no thanks). While tasting young wines from tank or barrel can be difficult, Burgundy is a little more forgiving. Pinot Noir in particular lends us a hand; thin skins and delicacy offer more of a window into both climate and terroir, thus we are able to gain early glimpses into what the vintage will bring. Chardonnay, while perhaps a little tighter, and sometimes a little meaner, is quicker to form and to give its own opinions to us on how it will become. Personified, Young Pinot is the Shy Cute Kid, Young Chardonnay the Defiant Kid, while I would argue that Young Cabernet is the kid in the corner screaming and being difficult.
Speaking to growers, echoes resounded in the room of équilibre: balance. 2017 brought with it regular yields for the first time in a string of lower yielding vintages with frost, hail and rot conditions being the ever-present enemy.
Olivier Giroux of Domaine du Clos des Rocs reminded me, “it is always a question of viticulture, balance comes from working in a balanced manner.” This is true; while vintages can throw balanced years into the universe, they can also throw imbalance, and ultimately it is down to the grower to manage the vintage in question.
The tasting showed me that 2017 is a bright, pleasant and early-drinking vintage, with the wines, especially the whites, really singing at this moment in time. The whites are structured and bold, with tons of energy and balance. They’re incredibly open and honest at this stage but there’s a certain backbone running through them that makes it clear these will cellar.
I was in Burgundy in mid August 2017 for a week and it was hot. It’s not a hot vintage by any means, but the reds are ready and softly plush; much more so than the strikingly zippy and classically acid-driven 2016s that I’m so enchanted by. Nonetheless they are charming, giving and alluring in their bright fruit. Stems brought freshness to several wines in this line-up.
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I mention two growers twice; in both line-ups; Nicolas Faure and Thibaud Clerget of Y. Clerget. Both growers had stand-out wines and they are ones to watch; Faure for the wines’ incomparable lift and lightness, and Clerget for the ultimate purity of fruit.
The below were particular stand-outs (in no particular order).
Antoine Jobard Meursault Les Tillets: Wonderful tension and that special, inimitable rock salt poise, unique to the wine in question, that is only possible by working in a subtly careful reductive manner. Balancing on the edge of leanness, on precisely the right side of the tightrope. Lemon and lime zest and pith predominant with such length. Truly stunning.
Y. Clerget Meursault Les Chevalières: Elegant and gentle pear flesh, pear skin and hazelnut skin notes, ever so fresh with a lick of nutmeg on the finish. Pure and very true to place, carrying itself almost weightlessly with a vibrancy not always present in Meursault.
Heitz-Lochardet Chassagne Montrachet 1er Cru La Maltroie: Saline and crunchy with real bite; dense and tight-wound; a very exciting future here and quintessentially Chassagne but with real lift on the finish.
Clos des Rocs Pouilly-Loché Révélation: All of the Clos des Rocs wines were singing, and it was a joy to try their sans souffre cuvee. Sparky, bright, energetic; many, many layers here with a delightful almond savoury balance to the delicious, juicy fruit - a real palate journey.
Nicolas Faure Bourgogne Aligoté “La Corvée de Bully”: WOoOoOoH - stop the (wine) presses. Lipsmacking, moreish, damn delicious Aligoté from old vines (1914) in Pernand Vergelesses. Hella yea; this is one of the best Aligotés I have tasted to date and happily danced in glitter on its own in a sea of Chardonnay. Magnificent.
Domaine du Roc des Boutires Pouilly-Fuissé En Bertilonne: Clear, bright, mineral, pure. Quietly confident and any white Burgundy lover’s dream; elegantly classic.
Ballot Millot Meursault 1er Cru Les Genevrières: Such a wine. Snappy, matchstick, white smoke goodness, straight from the womb. This needs time but it’s going to be *very* good and I can’t wait to return to this in a few years’ time. A very promising future for this grower is evident.
Paul Pillot Chassagne-Montrachet: Intense, exuberant, giving, fleshy, fiercely defiant and lifted. Lovely and a brighter expression of what we might be used to from Chassagne with more focus on poise and fruit skin than fleshy notes. Gorgeous subtlety here.
Domaine Berthaut-Gerbet Bourgogne Hautes Côtes de Nuits
From talented young superstar Amélie Bertaut comes this beautiful, perfumed and lifted Hautes Côtes that far exceeds its appellation. Lilacs, peonies and fresh raspberry juice - singing and so bright, a true delicate delight.
Domaine Duroché Gevrey-Chambertin “Les jeunes rois”
There is a reason some domaines enjoy whispers of their names around the trade, and Duroché is one of these for good reason. This is a striking expression of Gevrey; powerful, bold, with real oomph. Fresh cherries rolled around in herbs and spices, with a finish that goes on forever. A stand alone wine.
Mark Haisma Morey-Saint-Denis 1er Cru Les Chaffots
Every now and then you taste a wine that makes you stop and just nod. This was one of them. So much intensity of flavour but without being punchy; there is lift and elegance on the back palate here. Bright black cherry skin, wild thyme and ginger and elegant wild strawberries. Such a fine, clear and certain expression of Morey fruit.
Georges Noëllat Vosne-Romanée 1er Cru Les Chaumes
A wine that speaks of elegance of fruit; subtleties and of the secrets of terroir. Very pure, delicate, but with underlying structure that will keep this wine alive for a long time.
Domaine Nicolas Faure Nuits-Saint-Georges Les Herbues
I was so taken aback when I tasted this wine. It’s rare that a Burgundy knocks me sideways out of pure surprise; this succeeded. A long, semi carbonic alcoholic fermentation (21 days), with ageing in foudre. Very gentle pigeage. The fruit is so pure and vibrant;
Domaine Y. Clerget Volnay 1er Cru Monopole Clos du Verseuil
Another wine from one of Burgundy’s young talents. This, together with the de Montille, provides the quintessential essence of what I deem young Burgundy to be. Transparent minerality, red cherries as picked from the tree, crunchy and pure, with so much more to give, without giving any away; that is the secret to fine Burgundy. This wine possesses that quality.
Domaine des Lambrays Clos des Lambrays Grand Cru
A blast from the past; Boris Champy was the first winemaker I ever worked with and learnt from. To see his first vintage at Lambrays was a joy; spiritual, bright, classic Pinot; tightwound and coiled, waiting to show its feathers with age.
Domaine Henri Gouges Nuits-Saint-Georges Clos Fontaine Jacquinot
Few come close to achieving the Gouges expression of NSG. This cuvee, its first debut, exceeded even itself. With the deep underbelly of Nuits-Saint-Georges and its bramble edges, this has a certain elegance to it and speaks of floral notes; of lavender and wild flowers.
Domaine de Montille Volnay 1er Cru Les Mitans
As with the Clerget above, this speaks of Pinot Noir in Pinot Noir’s essence. Fragrant as fragrant can be, with finesse and poise that makes me wonder whether the extent of these characteristics is unique to Volnay. When I close my eyes and envision Burgundy, this is what I see.
Domaine Confuron Cotetidot Vosne Romanée Les Suchots
Wow. Vosne with broad shoulders; this is a wine with rumbling depth, power and energy; a wine that will outlive us all. Crunchy wild blackcurrants and wild strawberries with earthy, mineral tannin structure. 100% whole bunch is always employed at this domaine and together with later picking, provides these wines with an immense power-balance-freshness scenario. I was quite bowled over by this, and while I’m not sure it’s the wine to drink right this second, there is something immensely singular, marked and, simply put, special here. Quite remarkable.
Rosé doesn’t have to look like it’s just come out of a paint catalogue selling various hues of pale pink, ergo this post on what I deem to be one of the finest rosés in the world.
Indeed; that word, “rosé”. What do we even mean by that? Isn’t it a shame that our market has become dominated by almost only “pale, shimmering rosés that bring you back to your time holidaying on the Côte d'Azur”? Pur-lease. What’s worse, there is a whole generation of drinkers who don’t believe in darker shades of rosé because they assume the wines will be sweet (bad White Zinfandel is predominantly to blame for this).
The rosé segment, or should I say, the direct press red segment, has so much more to offer than “nice” pale rosé the colour of “pretty petals with a hint of salmon.” Yes, these wines serve a purpose and are enjoyed, and granted, you don’t have to think about those wines as much, but the segment also has wines that are capable of much thought and deep contemplation. Wines of intellect, of wonder, that surpass vinous segmentations. Wines that are able to speak of a place, exactly as this one does; the Burgenland.
I first tasted this wine with its makers; Eduard Tscheppe and Stephanie Tscheppe Eselbock, in their wonderful home in the depths of the Burgenland. Not only does this family make wonderful wine, they are incredibly kind, welcoming and full of love for life. We drank it at dinner and it made me stop eating and marvel at the contents of the glass for many, many moments. I had never tasted anything like it, and the colour of its contents radiated from within the glass. The wine was alive, and it was definitely speaking.
30-year-old vines; Zweigelt, Blaufrankisch, Roesler from limestone, slate and gravel. Hand harvested, destemmed, direct press with a couple of hours on skins. Fermentation in 500, 1,000 and 1,500L barrels. Aged in 500L barrels for eight months. Bottled unfined, unfiltered, with no sulphur addition.
Imagine picking cranberries from a cranberry bush, rolling them around in a bowl of fresh earth, thyme, rosemary and white pepper, blowing off the remnants into the cool summer air, crushing some raspberries with your forefingers to attain the juice only, gently breaking the cranberrys’ skins with your teeth, enjoying the fresh rush of acidity that comes with it and licking the raspberry juice from your fingers. That’s how this wine tastes.
It is the tale of a difficult vintage, but one of eternal optimism where two vineyards become one through the mergence of the Winifred and Josephine cuvees (nearly all of Josephine was lost due to frosts and hailstorms).
It is a reminder that in life, we can be optimistic or pessimistic, but that the best results are born from optimism, hope and determination.
As we are about to pop the cork to 2019, I find myself thinking about the current state of the wine trade in the on-trade and indie sector in the UK, particularly London. I am not going to address Brexit.
We have never seen so much diversity in terms of wine as today; the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. This means a competitive and somewhat flooded market, but there is always space for interesting new quality-driven wines and the increase in small, grower-focussed importers is testament to that (you know who you are - Flint Wines, Keeling Andrew & Co, Newcomer, Uncharted, Kiffe my Wines, Under the Bonnet, Modal, Nekter, Otros Vinos, the list goes on…) You guys rock, and London’s wine scene would shine far less brightly without you. I can’t write this without mentioning veterans Les Caves and Vine Trail, and the original Richards Walford, who were some of the first to light the flame - you have inspired others to do the same and you keep fighting the good fight.
2018 has seen Mass Twitter Debate about the never-ending topic of innovation. I could write an essay on this, but my own stance can be summarised in one sentence:
Let’s welcome innovation when it focusses on quality, terroir, and purity of expression (e.g. eggs!), but please, let us not put our wine in whiskey barrels - this is not the future of wine.
So, hopefully we won’t see whiskey barrel (et al.) wine making an appearance in 2019, but what will we see?
Last year I wrote this, where I scribbled my predictions for 2018: (more) Gamay, The Return of the Rich White, the darker rosé, Greece, English still wine, the Savoie, Armagnac, Canada, Grower Champagne and New Wave wines. I think it’s safe to say now that we’ve had a boom of all of these categories in the on-trade and independent sector, save except for Armagnac. I think this was more of a personal dream, although I still think there is space for more artisan-led spirits in the market. I’d drink them.
I believe we’ll see continued growth for all of these wines, joined by:
Still more Gamay. Yep, couldn’t resist. It’s global domination time.
More Alpine wine! Bugey, Isère, Coteaux du Grésivaudan, Geneva, etc. As we have such an increased interest in the Savoie, I believe we will see more and more interest in the surrounding viticultural areas. This will be mainly for Mondeuse, but very much also for the whites and for lesser-known reds. I clearly remember discussing Persan at the Ampelographic Conference in 2016, and it was still very much a dream that Persan would become a grape variety on the tips of everyone’s tongues. Yet here we are, with Persan listed in many of the top restaurants of New York, and some in London. What’s next? Etriare de la Dhuy anyone?!
SIDE NOTE: we need to study these regions carefully. How bloody confusing is it that Mondeuse is named PersanNE in a Bugey dialect? WTF?
More Chenin! Yes, we’ve been #CheninCheninChenin - ing all year now (I returned twice to Racines to learn from our Chenin Queen, Pascaline), but this is in no fear of slowing down. Aside from the obvious French and South African examples, where we see an astounding number of small, terroir-driven growers that are thankfully taking more and more space on our lists, California is starting to knock at the door too. Australia and New Zealand - show us your grower Chenin (please!) The likes of Jauma, Shobbrook and Millton exist, but there is definitely space for more.
Side note: as I write this, Imogen Taylor of Nekter Wines has mentioned that she and Jon are considering Geyer Wine Co’s minimal intervention, no SO2 Chenin. Snaps for Nekter!
More pepper. We’re all Northern Rhône nuts, there’s nothing new there, but I think we’ll see even more pepper wine popping up next year. Let’s get #Rotundone trending, and more Pineau d’Aunis, thank you.
Side note: will we start to see a differentiation of Serine vs Syrah on lists? I’d like that.
Sake! We’re a bit behind New York here (cough, harumph you say, but it’s often true). My introduction to sake there made me ponder whether we’ll start to see more in London. As if by magic, I stumbled upon the Kanpai sake brewery in my ‘hood, Peckham. Small batch, natural and bloody good. Hats off to them, hopefully this is the start of London’s #sakerevolution
New York State: Disclaimer: I’m biased as I’m working on a campaign for them for Westbury, but regardless of this bias I was beyond impressed with what I saw on a trip in August. Small, terroir-focussed growers doing beyond epic things with both vinifera and hybrids. FLX Riesling, Blaufränkisch and hybrid petnats, please!
Side note: I am certain that carefully made, terroir-conscious hybrids not just from NYS but from across many regions will start to appear on lists more within the next five years.
Indigenous grapes, from everywhere but especially from Alto Adige (niche but I hope so). Alois Lagader has given us a head start with their Comet series: Moscato Giallo, Blatterle, Fraueler, and Versoalen please?
US wine: further afield…? Will we start seeing “other” states make more of an appearance? Idaho, Virginia, Maryland? Pennsylvania? There is much to explore on US soil.
Mexico! Tresomm’s Aligoté proved to me that truly anything is possible in our world of wine. The Mexican wines in the UK petition starts here.
New World Gewürztraminer. “You what now?!” I hear you cry. I’m still to taste many I like, but the Gewürz from Bloomer Creek completely and utterly blew my socks off. Scrap that; it blew my socks off so hard that they combusted into milions of tiny pieces of cotton. It’s a world class Fine Wine. I fell in love with a Gewürz! Who would have thought. If they’re doing it, is someone else too? Show yourself, please.
And for me? Write even more, as Hugh Johnson says, “Always scribble, scribble, scribble.” Not every post has to be 2,000 words and perfect. Keep learning, keep writing, keep studying, keep tasting.
I caught up with Diana Snowden-Seysses in October whilst on a brief pit-stop in Burgundy. Diana herself was just back from Napa, as she balances her work according to Mother Nature’s harvest times via Burgundy and Napa.
I stand with her in the cellar in Morey-Saint-Denis, where we get ready to taste the 2017s from barrel, which are just about to be racked: a good time to taste. It’s her first time tasting them since June. She says, “Closing the bung for a while helps me to not intervene. It’s important to let the wines become what they want to become.”
We taste extensively from one year old barrels, all of which (apart from some experimental Stockinger additions) are from the Rémond cooperage, which the domaine has worked with since Jacques’ very beginnings. They have refined and crafted their signature toast over many years; a long toast over relatively low heat, which give a slightly sweet structure to the wine. Diana muses that while the barrels still create their Dujac-stamped wines, vintages (and thus fruit) are getting riper. Global warming is very real.
“Global warming is changing our oak regime. Jacques used 100% new wood, whereas we are reducing that to 40% for villages and 70-80% for premiers and grands crus.”
The oak regime at Dujac is the ultimate partnership, even mastery, of wood and wine, and this is the ultimate example of human intervention to guide soil, vineyard, plant and climate to show its utmost capacity for wine. Often in wine, we omit one key factor of terroir; human interpretation. Dujac is an exceptional example of the human hand aiding terroir, as Diana muses, “wine is the ultimate form of human civilisation.”
Each barrel we taste has backbone, guidance and a structure, allowing the fruit to express itself in its purest form. This is what the carefully skilled work of the cooper, and many examinations of barrels and listening to the results, gives to a wine.
SO2 is kept low, and Dujac was one of the first domaines to trial UV lightbulbs for sterilising barrels instead of sulphur candles, enabling the domaine to avoid residual sulphur in barrels.
The Vosne-Romanée 1er Cru Les Beaux Monts showed crunchy, bright, fresh but dense with cherry flesh, with such lift and raciness. Tense and bright with a shadow of poised, smoky reduction; this has an exciting future.
Diana muses that it’s important to walk the line of reduction; a pure form of reduction that comes from fine lees and environments poor in oxygen.
We study the Vosne-Romanée 1er Cru Aux Malconsorts “four ways;”
1. From one-use Rémond barrel – this seems more mineral, with a crunchy, earthy core, but light footed and with such length and gentle floral tones. The sort of wine that makes you question and look deep in the glass. Diana says, “Yes. I love wines that you have to go and find.”
2. From a new Rémond barrel – so beautifully integrated; oak and wine; a supportive marriage. A high tone wine – bright, dense cherry skin, more closed and tightly fisted with a smoky, ashy edge.
3. In Stockinger, “Y+” - a soft, textural component. Slightly broader shoulders, a little more oomph here, with some subtle reduction – definitely still in early stages of its life, still figuring itself out.
4. In Stockinger, “Y” – open, pretty, giving in its red fruits; plums, raspberries and cherries upon cherries. Fleshy and so pretty, with a floral, peony edge. Diana muses that this feels more Dujac.
A cooler profile; raspberry skin, perfumed notes; irises and rosehip with an underlying serious, stony, almost iron-like side. Still rather tight fisted.
This took my breath away; very much a being of its own. Ephemeral, gentle, flirtatious and shy, all at the same time. A wine that carries different notes with every aroma; a song that gives different meanings every time. Bergamot and lillies, lavender, earth and white truffle. Imagine peonies held hands with wild strawberries and have a dust bath together with a sprinkling of wild herbs.
Clos St Denis
A darker fruit profile here, somehow more brooding. Black cherries and gentle mint with rosemary and undergrowth, met by cherry stones and a lick of graphite. Earthy and deep, still hiding a little.
Clos de la Roche
Lifted, with prominent blood orange and orange rind on the nose; a beautiful and bright partner to the perfumed cherry flesh. Distinct minerality on the palate, zippy and textured; very fine tannins led by a mineral, gravelly, gently dusty profile.
Tight, white smoke profile. More reductive at this stage. Violets, lilacs, wet earth, olive tapenade and savoury, herbal elements. Some real grip, with a brisk edge, this is going to be quite something when it comes into its own.
2016s, bottled wines
“I love the energy of the 2016 wines,” Diana says.
Vosne-Romanée 1er Cru Aux Malconsorts 2016
So bright and youthful, a youngster seeing the world through its own eyes for the first time. A herbal approach – thyme with cherry skin. There is a distinct crunchy stoniness on the mid palate with a lifted, scented edge. Rosehip oil with fresh roses on the finish. Elegant and delicate.
Diana notes, “it took me ten years to really love Malconsorts. It is elusive, hard to pin down. Beauxmonts is more obvious; they are dense wines. I think it took ten years of biodynamics to get these vines to really show their stuff.”
Clos St Denis 2016
Bright red cherries and violets, peony petals and juicy bramble berries, even with a lifted grapefruit edge. There is a delicate floral profile of dried roses and persimmon. So textural on the palate; plush, silky, satin-like, with delicate fine grained tannins.
Clos de la Roche 2016
Cloves, blood orange and ripe cherry fruit, fleshy and giving lots early in its life. Nutmeg joins on the palate, with a juicy, sappy core of fresh cranberries, with delicate earthy tones of undergrowth and tobacco. A lifted finish of exotic spice and frankincense and liquorice.
Whole bunch here tends to sit at 80%, whereas for the Romanée-Saint-Vivant and Les Gruenchers the domaine carries out 100% whole bunch, due to the ancient vine material giving small clusters and small berries.
We discuss the role of stems in winemaking. Due to the potassium in the stems, you lose tartaric acid in the wine, but the stems give the ever-important freshness and lift to wine. Therefore, even with lower acid in hot years, the wine is capable of lifting itself and of showing its floral, perfumed side. The bunches give explosive and beautiful aromatics; for Diana this scent is home.
Diana ponders on our conversation and disappears back into the cellar, resurfacing with a bottle.
“I thought on the topic of stems we should taste this.”
It is Echezeaux 2003.
2003 was hot. Due to the early nature of the vintage, the harvest crew had not yet arrived, so it was Diana and Jacques in the cellar, and Jeremy in the vineyards. Diana laughs, remembering;
“There were only eighty five days from flowering to harvest, usually it is 100. I spent the vintage on the forklift! It’s the only year where we did everything with 100% whole bunches. Cleaning the destemmer would have been too much to cope with!”
It is deeply perfumed, light on its feet with underlying deep, rich bramble and black cherry fruit. A side of dusty roses and peonies lifts the wine and helps it to dance on the palate. There is some white pepper here, with bergamot and rose oil, finishing on undergrowth with a wild, mossy character.
It is the perfect example of the potential of stems. Even in one of the hottest years of the past two decades, 100% whole bunches here give this wine such lift. When hot vintages, winemakers risk jammy fruit profiles, but stems offer the fruit a hand to the dance; carrying the wine and adding wild dimensions that leave you seeking descriptors in the glass.
I have experienced several momentous vinous moments in my five-year-long career. If I sat down with all my tattered notebooks and bundles of tasting sheets, I could count over fifty wines that have been wines of a decisive, consequential or even life-changing and opinion forming nature.
There are the wines that have made tears threaten to cascade down my cheeks; the age defiant, deeply honest and utterly unpretentious 1989 Guy Breton Morgon wines of the world. There are the wines that have tapped at my mind’s door, startling me and begging me to consider entirely new and unexpected realms of possibilities; the Jean Pierre Frick sans souffre vs 10mg/L Steinert Grand Cru Riesling 2012 duos of the world; a set of what could be defined as vinous fraternal twins. They remain deeply embedded in my mind. There are the winemakers whose work and whose wines are so vitally entwined with the viticulture of their region that you just want to grab them and thank them for simply existing and for advancing the modern-day world of wine in ways nobody could imagine possible. These are the Rod Berglunds of the world.
It would be an impossible task for me to single out one of them; I would be committing infidelity to the others. There is, however, one recent gathering of friends that makes my thoughts whirl, and indeed a new categorisation for wines that I have adopted, while not always on paper, at least in mind.
Rewind to the beginning of July. I find myself sitting in a room bathed in red; not just any red, but a rumbling, reverberating red that fills the room with a deep hum of energy. I’m in London’s Mandrake Hotel. I am about to sit down and Drink Like a Scythian with Rajat Parr and Abe Schoener.
The tasting that is about to unfurl will be one that fulfils Todorov’s definition of the fantastic. Did it really happen? Yes, these wines are in existence, but are their personalities, or was this a figment of my imagination? Can wines have personalities? Can wines be Scythian; Scythians may no longer exist in their original historical context, but is there a wave of Scythian winemakers tapping at the gates to a modern vinous Scythia?
This somewhat strange tale has its roots in last January, in a cold and wet New York, in the dark, alluring and grungy wine bar that is The Ten Bells. Raj, who had just been listening to the Dan Carlin podcasts, headed in through the doors only to stumble upon friend and fellow winemaker, Abe Schoener. The ancient Scythians wrestled their way into a wine-fuelled conversation between the two, and that was that. The path of Scythian wines had been forged.
On this hot, red night in early July, Raj explains that we will look at the concept of a different world, era and people, and attach this to wine; these are “nomadic wines, not wines of promotion”.
Abe nods, “we will follow their conceptual development, we will interact with these wines on a Scythian scale.”
The Scythians were famously nomadic, never settling and never adhering to laws of any city. Abe inhales, “in a way, it’s the opposite of an attachment to terroir, or an appellation system.”
The wines are served blind.
I do not give the wines tasting notes; Scythian wines do not adhere to traditional tasting notes: they break the mould. They do not adhere to format. They (the wines) made this very clear to me; thus instead I give unto each of them an individual Scythian personality.
2016 The May I, Hiyu Wine Farm, Oregon, U.S.
Here, we have a wine that’s one of the secretive Scythians; a little one with an angelic face and a saintly smile, but one that is hiding something. Why? It is somewhat of a paradox; on paper, you might expect this wine to be somewhat feral. It comes from a four vintage (2013 – 2016) solera of 90-120 day macerated Pinot Noir and Pinot Gris from the original 2.5 acre parcel of the Hood River Valley farm. In reality, it is breathtakingly pure and there is no funk to speak of. It demonstrates Columbia Gorge. It takes the notion of terroir and bastardises it in the most courageous manner.
We sit in silence. Raj smiles and nods. “This wine is the epitome of what it is to live a Scythian lifestyle.”
2016 Spitzer Graben, Martin Muthenthaler, Wachau, Austria
A truly Scythian wine; a bold one that rings clearly with intent. It’s a leader-of-the-battle type of Scythian. It defies laws. It’s also a wine that mirrors its maker; Martin Muthenthaler. It does not speak of appellation; there is no terminology such as Federspiel or Smaragd. The wine simply stands on its own two feet and speaks of where it is from: extreme conditions, naked stone and the coolest climate: the last vineyard before viticulture becomes agriculture.
2001 Trebbiano d’Abruzzo, Valentini, Abruzzo, Italy, Abruzzo, Italy
Edoardo Valentini was known locally as the Lord of the Vines, and well, this wine is Lord of the Wines. Here we have the Scythian that is wearing the crown: The King. It is deeply unique and once again from extreme viticulture: mountains. Trebbiano (aka Ugni Blanc, one of the basic wines used to produce Cognac and Armagnac) is also the most planted in Italy, and - let’s face it - can produce dull, characterless wine. Here, however, it produces some of the finest white wines of the world. This wine embodies what it means to be profound. It made the hairs on the back of my neck stand up.
Abe, “It mesmerized all of us. The instance of completely shattering the typicity of the region, and establishing a towering classicism at once.”
2015 Summum, Evening Land, Oregon, US
This wine is not Scythian on paper: it is pure, mineral driven Chardonnay from Oregon. I feel it is one of the most successful restrained, Burgundian-style fine wines of the new world. However, its raison d’être is undeniably Scythian; it is made by sommelier-trained Rajat Parr, together with Sashi Moorman, born out of a joint vision to create terroir-driven minimal intervention wines that do not adhere to the big, ripe wines that the West Coast is renowned for. From 1984 plantings, this comes from volcanic soils using biodynamic practices and aged in 500L Stockingers. It is fiercely precise and true to its roots. It is the adventurous Scythian; the Scythian that takes dares to go against the grain. Rajat Parr, sommelier-turned-winemaker is one of our true living Scythians.
2014 Njord, Pinot Noir Précoce, Zealand, Denmark
This was my contribution, and it was a true beacon of light. A hard-to-track-down Scythian escapee wine, this is made in such small quantities that it is quite impossible to find. I read about it online and after speaking on the phone to wine merchants and sommeliers in Copenhagen, I managed to find it at Palægade, and thanks to co-proprietor Simon Olesen I was able to bring this one bottle back to London as a #SuitcaseImport. It comes from young Frühburgunder vines planted on Zealand from a real pioneer, Sune Albertsen (whom I have not yet met, but I am sure he is also a Scythian). This particular cuvée comes from what he deems to be his best vines, planted on the highest part of his vineyard. We pour it, and it reveals its robes; a shimmering, translucent copper colour that I have never seen before. It is so unusual in colour that it shocks me and even manages to incite worry: could it be faulty? It’s not. Phew. It presents itself as a ghost of Pinot. The palate is captivating and giving; extremely complex with layers upon layers of dried flowers; lilacs and roses blended with dry earth, rosehips and heathland. It is elegant and dances on the palate, a true ballerina of a wine. It is a Black Swan.
Abe remarks, “What is the system that defines a beautiful wine as opposed to a failure?” It’s true; the colour of this wine is utterly unconventional but that does not mean that it is not deeply and intrinsically beautiful. Once the wine is revealed, he breathed, “I am shocked. I expected this wine to be a nice effort that we would patronize kindly, but it is utterly substantial, dense and complex. What a Scythian Revenge.”
NV Facsimile, Jérôme Prevost, Montagne de Reims
A carefree Scythian! This is a Champagne that is not afraid. Two hectares only, old vine massal selection, indigenous yeasts, no dosage, vinous and powerful, from 100% Pinot Meunier and proud of it, this cuvée is everything that corporate Champagne is not. It is intrinsically wonderful. It is regal, defiant, fiercely proud of itself and focussed. It is a wine that has all of its dials set to the “max” setting.
1999 Le Champ du Clos, Pinot Blanc, Yves Dufour, Aube, France
Having stopped in Champagne before making the pilgrimage to London, Abe tasted with Yves’ son, Charles Dufour. After explaining the notion behind this tasting, Charles’ eyes sparkled and he disappeared, resurfacing with this bottle. It is a rare breed Scythian: 100% Pinot Blanc with 15 years on the lees and zero dosage. It is astonishingly intense and vibrant; a vinous ball of energy. I thought this was some form of experimental Champagne, perhaps under flor, but had no idea it was this old nor that it was Pinot Blanc. An intellectual wine.
2016 Trousseau Singulier, Stéphane Tissot, Jura, France
The Jester Scythian. It teases you: it is a wine that toys with toys with volatility and greenness on precisely the right side of the line; resulting in a deeply complex, ethereal wine, in fact one that is rather hypnotic. A very difficult wine to encapsulate on paper, and it knows it. Cheeky little Scythian.
2014 Cornas, Philippe Pacalet, Rhone, France
The rebel Scythian. The nephew of Lapierre, Pacalet’s delicate yet racy and sometimes piercing, Burgundies are exemplary wines of low/no-sulphur vinification in the region. Alas, here we have a négoce Cornas, because… well why not? It is a gossamer of a Cornas; a free spirited wine born from the desire of exploration.
2014 La Severità di Bruto Farina, Scholium Project, Sonoma Mountain, U.S.
A beautiful, mythical beast. This would be a Scythian of legends; one with superpowers and a beautiful golden plait to the floor. There is so much power here that it is almost unsettling and overbearing, yet it is power of such beauty that the entire room is spellbound. It is deeply romantic. It is the Scythian that captures everybody’s hearts. It is brought to fruition by our other Scythian: Abe Schoener. Philosopher-turned-winemaker, his approach to winemaking is best described as Academic X Scythian.
2009 Jakot, Radikon, Friuli, Italy
The Leader: The Director of the Scythians. Working closely together with the King (Valentini), this Scythian would set guidelines for the other vinous Scythians. It is a wine that is entirely unafraid of being different; a wine that spearheads individualism and tells all the others to not be afraid. It raises its eyebrows; “You want to ban the word Tokaj? Fine!” It booms with laughter, picking up the word by its forefingers and flipping it around, ergo Jakot.
As Abe summarised, this was a tasting to “discuss the subtle relations between the savage nomadism of the ancient Scythians and the wines we love.”
It was a seminal tasting. All of the wines were seminal in their own way. They stirred emotion in us. It was a tasting without judgement, a tasting where we drank, not spat. The wines raised questions, and they gave answers. They surpassed reality and delved into the realm of the mystical.
There's a grape rattling the door handle to enter the world of fine wine, and guess what? It's a hybrid.
La Crescent was developed by the University of Minnesota and released in 2002. According to wine-searcher, its ancestry involves vinifera, riparia, rupestris, labrusca and aestivalis.
Its direct parentage is St. Pepin (derived from Seyval Blanc) and the vinifera Muscat Hamburg (offspring of Muscat of Alexandria). It is particularly suited to (really) cold climates, such as Vermont.
I first tasted this grape variety via Vinu Jancu, a wine from Deirdre Heekin's biodynamic La Garagista project, which I listed at Grapes By Girls: The Orange Edition, an event I did in collaboration with Ben's Canteen highlighting skin contact wines made by women. Its deeply intense aromatics were unlike anything I had tried before and it is a taste that has mentally stayed with me.
The next time I came into contact with it was with at the release of the Chëpìka, Nathan Kendall and Pascaline Lepeltier's daring Delaware and Catawba hybrid petnat project. There, I met Ethan Joseph, winegrower for Shelburne Vineyard and his own label, Iapetus.
IAPETUS TECTONIC 2017, Champlain Valley, Vermont
From McCabe's Brook vineyard (planted 2008) and Mt Philo vineyard (planted 2010). Vines are trained to a hi-wire system. Both sites have a slightly western aspect and north-south row orientation for max. sunlight exposure. Soils are deep: (get ready for it) - well drained, sandy/stony loams, glacial till derived from limestone, calcareous shale, schist, and quartzite and on sandy deltas, beaches and terraces that are underlain by medium-textured lacustrine deposits. YES! Hybrids on special terroir. This is exciting. What's more - Iapetus is named after the ancient sea which was once covering the ancient bedrock on which these vines grow.
Destemmed and crushed, stainless steel fermented with indigenous yeasts. Fifty days on the skins. Three-quarters of the wine aged in neutral oak on the lees with weekly battonage for three and a half months, the other quarter was aged in stainless steel. Unfined and unfiltered.
It's thrilling, and so complex. A lively yellow peach and apricot, sea air nose. On the palate, there is some herbal notes of rosemary oil and thyme that meet yellow grapefruit pith. There is a distinct golden berry aroma, with tangerine pith and a subtle tamarind spice finish. What a wine.
Around a year ago, I first tasted Jean-Pierre Rietsch's Pas à Pas Savagnin rose at Frenchie in Covent Garden, London. It's a wine that stuck with me so much so that I chased it all the way to New York City. JK not really, but it was a wine that left its mark on me; one of those enigma wines that leaves an imprint. When I found it again on the list at Ten Bells, we ordered a bottle and it took my palate straight back to that enigmatic state.
It started when I was studying Frenchie's by-the-glass list. It's a really great place to drink BTG as the list is extensive and full of really interesting wines thanks to a great wine team, an open-minded train of thought, and that ingenious device, the Coravin.
I came across a wine from Jean-Pierre Rietsch, who I had read extensively about but whose wines I had never tried as there's not much (if any) in the UK. I ordered it, and alas the girl behind the bar checked with me what kind of wine I like, as this was a solera wine and thus I might find it slightly out of the ordinary. Great - it's important in the restaurant world that the team knows how to approach the consumer with wine; this isn't exactly your straight-down-the-line Alsatian Riesling or Pinot Gris. Savagnin Rose is, according to Wine Grapes, the non-aromatic version of Gewürztraminer and produces "wines that are closer in style to Savagnin Blanc than Gewürz."
Thanks to Bertrand Celce, I found out that vinous thing of magic began somewhat as an experiment, due to a stuck ferment (indigenous yeasts, cold winters) back in 2011. Rietsch waited for the 15g/L residual sugar to recommence for a couple of years, but it never did, so he added some 2013 juice to restart the ferment. He then added 2015 whole cluster wine a couple of years later, where it finished its fermentation. Alas, a sort-of solera system began, and according to Celce, Rietsch plans to continue replacing the volume that is bottled with juice from new vintages to continue the solera.
The wine? It's fantastic. Heady dried rose petal and white flower notes; potpourri-like scents, meet almond skin, laced with crunchy rock salt. Thrilling and demanding; crunchy and powerful as hell but beautifully in balance. It's a real thought provoker.
Perhaps this wine may not be what we're used to from Alsace, indeed perhaps you may throw in the word "atypical." This does, however demand the question of: what do we deem as typical? What is typicity, and has typicity in wine become a model of what is deemed "correct," repeatable and invariable? I'm all for winemakers making wines like this, and let's hope that their voices carry. If you haven't yet reached for Jean-Pierre Frick's book, du vin, du l'air, do so...
In the summer of 2017, I met with Fabien Duperray of Jules Desjourneys in Beaujolais. To say I was bowled over by his wines would be an understatement, so when he insisted that I go to meet his friend Jean-Yves Bizot in Burgundy, my nose ended up in Vosne-Romanée.
I met with Thomas Berry, Bizot's assistant winemaker, who led me down to a small cellar, that was barely half full. Berry explained that the chaos of the weather of 2016 meant that yields were down by 55%, to only 9hl/ha. For Bizot, yields tend to sit at a maximum of 25hl/ha. This is also low, and is down to specific pruning techniques. In the vineyard, vines are pruned very short, to just one spur with two buds and one cane with three buds (like Guyot, but shorter and not bent). In addition, he never trims the apex, so vines are free to keep growing. Not cutting them is crucial, explained Berry, as this means that the energy can continue to store its energy over winter.
Jean-Yves began working at the domaine in 1995, which had previously been rented out by his parents. His father was a doctor and didn't have time to tend to the vines, thus they had been rented out to other growers. Jean-Yves, who had trained as a geologist, took a degree in Oenology and turned his hand to winemaking.
The domaine originally consisted of 2.5ha when Jean-Yves began, and has since added parcels in the late 2000s in the suburbs of Dijon - Le Chapitre and Marsannay, Clos du Roy, bringing the size of the domaine to 3.5ha.
After his oenology degree, it was in the cellar where everything he thought he had learnt went out of the window. He spoke to his father about how his grandfather tended the vines and vinified the wines, and as a result stopped using herbicides. He also began to look into reducing sulphur and using zero sulphur in 1998. By 2001, the domaine was working entirely organically.
Discussing sulphur, the domaine uses none throughout vinification, only adding a tiny amount a couple of weeks before bottling. Berry explained that SO2 extracts tannin, so if you add SO2 to a wine that sits in oak, this will extract the oak tannin and thus hide aromas.
Vinification is very gentle. Extreme sorting takes place in the vineyard (taking up to a couple of minutes to check each bunch), in order to avoid any further manipulation in the cellar. Whole bunches are crushed by foot in wooden vats, after which indigenous fermentation is launched. Maceration only lasts around a week, after which the wine is crushed and fermentation rapidly occurs. The wine is pressed five days later direct to barrel, transported by gravity through a hole in the floor to the cellar, straight into all-new Rousseau barrels (meaning there has been no previous sulphur and no need for sulphur). Here the wine remains for 16 - 18 months, after which the team bottles everything by hand. Three men sit from barrel to barrel, one marking the level, one filling the bottle and the other corking. The whole process takes about a month.
We tasted through some wines in bottle.
Vosne Romanée 2015
From Les Saules, Les Communes and Les Colombières.
Crushed rock and bright raspberry skin nose with underlying incense and violet notes and a distinct saline edge. On the palate it is brilliantly tense with bold energy and a spicy, minty finish.
Marsannay Clos du Roy 2015 (0.3ha)
The parcel is located right by Chenôve, just before Dijon. The nose is more fruit forward, with bramble notes and an almost broody ashy nose. On the palate it is very lively, also tense and more muscular than the Vosne, showing some savoury pine kernel notes and some undergrowth.
Vosne Romanée Les Jachées 2015 (0.7ha)
Bright blood orange nose with some subtle Christmas spices, with orange peel and lemon peel and some white pepper. A very pretty delicate body with some more incense coming through with air. A very elegant body with silky, very soft tannins.
This comes from Les Orveaux and Les Treux. Les Treux is occasionally also declassified to create a Vosne Romanée Premier Cru.
There is heady, opulent black fruit here; black cherries and bramble, as well as some red cherry flesh. Very pure and dense, with more structure, you could say less "gourmand" than the others. It is spicy, with a lean, direct approach. Very much still a baby, with an incredible lingering finish of fresh cherries and perfumed rose hip notes.
Bourgogne Le Chapitre 2014
Historically a very important wine, which punches high above its Bourgogne classification. The nose is driven by raspberry flesh and cherries. Tannins are a little more rustic with an intense bite and a zippy fresh fruit finish.
Vosne Romanée 2014
Pretty, perfumed nose with distinct violets and peonies. On the palate, a direct, quite tight structure, showing cherry stones and raspberry skin with a delicious, savoury finish showing fresh bark.
Bourgogne Hautes Côtes de Nuits Blanc 2014 (0.2ha)
Wow. Gorgeous bright apricot notes, super energetic with bright, pithy yet rich citrus and citrus oil notes. There are some savoury cashew, chewy, almond skin notes on the palate, joined by fresh pineapple and fresh acacia honey notes on the finish. Absolutely delicious.
Suffice to say, since I visited and tasted these wines I am smitten.
Imported by Wimbledon Wine Cellars.
I wrote here that I thought (and hoped) that we'd see more of the Savoie this year. True to my words, I can't get enough of Mondeuse, nor Jacquère and Altesse (aka Roussette).
I was introduced to the region back in 2016, when I was in Gascony for the journées ampélographiques initative founded by Plaimont Producteurs, whose press and trade activity I handle in the UK.
Plaimont has been working tirelessly for decades now to reintroduce the long-lost grape varieties of South West France post-phylloxera, to save plant heritage and reintroduce varieties that could have been lost for the wrong reasons. A startling statistic tells us that the 20 most prominent grape varieties in France accounted for 91% of vineyard area in 2012, compared with 53% in 1958. WHAT. ARGH. This shocks me to the core.
The aforementioned ampelographic days were introduced to take place every four years both as a form of research get-together but also as a very important means of battling the erosion of vine genetics that has been occurring over the past fifty years (for many sad reasons - phylloxera, lower yields, the globalisation of taste and "safety" in international grape varieties, difficulties with foreign pronunciation and so on).
In 2016, Plaimont welcomed the Savoie and Charentes to take part for the first time. Regarding the Savoie, representatives from the Pierre Galet, the Alpine ampelographic centre, spoke about their indigenous grape varieties. Similarly to Plaimont, the centre is carrying out important work to bring back lesser-known Savoyard grape varieties. They have, like Plaimont, also created vine conservation vineyards and are carrying out microvinifications. They have a particular success story with Persan, which represented 500 planted hectares in the 1950s, but which almost disappeared in the 1980s. Today, it represents circa 20 hectares, and with its lifted aromatics, acidity and potential for ageing this figure is growing. Yay.
At the tasting part of the journées, we tasted all sorts of lesser-known grape varieties of the Savoie such as Verdesse, Mondeuse Grise (mutation thought to have disappeared but reintroduced to Vassal collection by Pierre Galet in 1950*), Mondeuse Blanche, Persan, Dureza (from the Arras-sur-Rhône representing just one hectare of plantings), and of course, our slightly more well-known, Mondeuse. Back vintages of Domaine Prieuré Saint Christophe were available to taste (1997 was in particular, truly incredible). As such, my love for this grape variety was born.
Mondeuse, as written in Wine Grapes, is an old grape variety, first documented under its current name in the Dauphiné, but likely dates back as far as 1731 in the Jura under the name Maldoux (see the book for further details). It is possible it is much older than this. According to José Vouillamoz, DNA parentage analysis has shown that Mondeuse is either a progeny or parent of Mondeuse Blanche, which means that the grape is either a half-sibling or grandparent of Syrah*. Wow.
The grape variety also saw a sharp decline in the 1970s. In 2009, there was approx. 300 hectares* and the number is now steadily increasing. There are also small plantings in Switzerland, and in California, with Carole Meredith having led the way. I have yet to taste hers, but I was fortunate enough to taste Jaimee Motley's example from barrel last year in Sebastopol. Jaimee is assistant winemaker at Wind Gap wines, both for Pax Mahle and Scott Schultz's own label, Jolie Laide, and has recently begun her own label under Jaimee Motley Wines, seeking out Mondeuse, Chenin Blanc and Cabernet Sauvignon.
Also according to Wine Grapes, there are plantings of Mondeuse in Australia, with Buller and Brown Brothers, but this is cofermented with at brown Brothers with Syrah and Cabernet Sauvignon.
So, to continue to one of my many obsessions du jour...
MONDEUSE 2014, DOMAINE BELLUARD (Les Caves de Pyrene, purchased at Soif) - Vin de Savoie, Terroir du Mont-Blanc
I first drank this in the park on a not-so-balmy summer's day (we hoped, the weather was fickle) with Doug and some of the Les Caves team last year and it has stuck in my mind since, hence the spontaneous trip on my lunch break to pick up a bottle. Belluard is a biodynamic producer on the Mont Blanc terroir, and is particularly well-known for its whites and work with Gringet. Dominique Belluard also has 0.5ha of Mondeuse on glacial soils with moraines and layered limestone.
The 2014 vintage was the last time he has made it in amphora, after which he switched to concrete eggs. Zero sulphur is added.
The wine has a lifted inky nose of white pepper, fresh moss and blackcurrants. Beautifully silky and so fresh, with an almost cooling effect in the mouth.
In addition to La Deuse of Gilles Berlioz (Dynamic Vines), this is a truly pure and intricate expression of the grape variety.
MONDEUSE 1991, GENOUX ALEXIS, ARBIN (Brought back from Cafe Brunet in Annecy by Rajat Parr who has just been travelling in the region, - Raj, eternally grateful for this. Thank you.)
... A wine that seems to have defied time. This was one of those wines that in a rare whirlwind moment entirely surpasses anything you could have ever imagined it to be. Special times like these still take me entirely by surprise, take my breath away for a minute, and leave me pondering for many days. I just wish I had more. One day I shall return to it; I am determined to rediscover its wonders.
The future of Mondeuse
José Vouillamoz, co-author with Jancis Robinson and Julia Harding of Wine Grapes, together with Frank Merloz has founded the International Trophy of Mondeuse. It took place in Geneva in 2014 and in Chambéry in 2016. The next edition will be announced soon. A huge thank you to them for shining the light on this grape variety, and let's hope we see continued success with plantings not just in France, but worldwide. See French notes on the 2014 edition here.
* Wine Grapes
I was in the midst of drafting a piece on the importance of self-love and introspection when my friend Jamie Goode posted this. Coincidence has its funny ways, so here are my own thoughts on the not-so-often discussed matter.
Isn’t it bizarre that this is a question we repeatedly ask one another, in the morning, the middle of the day, in a meeting, on coming home, on the phone...? How are you? This is such an odd form of mumbling politeness; one that is so often only meant half heartedly. So we go on in our day, answering “yeah, good thanks,” but perhaps never really stopping to ask ourselves the question. How am I? Am I doing ok?
So are you? Are you really doing ok? Are you happy? And what does happiness truly mean to you?
I heard once, that in life, we need the triangle sequence of friendship/family/romance, work life, and living situation to be in balance, in order to be happy. We can continue without one, if we lose two we fall into disarray.
I don’t particularly believe in this. A change in circumstances at the beginning of 2017 saw me pedal at full speed through my intense career, working as hard as possible. This was, and is, a natural path for me as writer still in a full time job, a writer who has seen her life become utterly devoted to wine and thus to travel, but it was also a way to distract myself and to avoid dealing with emotion, because we don't want to examine our raw human emotions. Society's how are you conditions us to shy away from them when we shouldn't.
Dissecting this triangle has made me contemplate: as someone utterly in love with my job, having my nose in a glass of wine brings me deep joy. However, for myself and others, publishing an article, writing a wine list or hosting a tasting may make you happy, but does it give you a feeling of intrinsic peace? Probably not. A living situation, no matter how good it is, also won’t give you this. Nor does friendship and family alone; yes, good friends and family are crucial: they cast a happy love net, good feelings and a support network, but do they result in deep, innate happiness?
So what does? I had had enough of feeling almost-happy last year, and nothing I did would seem to result in true happiness. I was so focussed on bringing happiness to others but frustratingly I wasn’t quite there. I barely felt like writing anymore, I was exhausted. I took myself to do some yoga for the first time in years and everything changed. The little segment of time devoted to me during my practice gives my brain and my body time to be by itself, to rest and to heal. It has taught me to look after myself. If we don’t look after ourselves, what do we have? We see many people, particularly in hospitality, who are burnt out, tired and perhaps unhappy. Instead of the aforementioned triangle, happiness first and foremost comes from self-love. Leading a busy life means it becomes easy to forget yourself. I never used to give myself any time. Yoga has taught me that. Be kind to your body, don’t abuse it. Allow yourself to feel the raw human emotions I discussed earlier, and allow yourself to deal with them, no matter how painful they may be. We must be happy within ourselves in order to bring happiness to others, and it is crucial that we are comfortable within ourselves before entering relationships, in order to bring out the best in our partners.
In addition to giving yourself self-love, surround yourself with people who love you, and take time to figure out who these people are: probably still the people who ask you the awkward British, how are yous, but ones that truly mean their words. The ones who will pause and listen if you shrug and say, hey, not actually that great. And who understand that it's ok to feel that way.
...and those that don’t? Well, there are plenty of those people out there. There are people who will mock you, there are people who will talk about you behind your back. There are people who won't be happy for you. Smile at them, hold your head high, and keep going. Give zero ****s about them. Many people in life will attempt to project their own insecurities on you. Let them try, because, do you know what? They can’t get to you. Don’t let them. Life is too short.
... and if you make a mistake? Move on. It happens to all of us. We are human.
All of the above realisations mean that, for the first time in a while, hey - I'm really happy.
However you want to, whether through yoga, meditation, or even just ten minutes in the dark alone with your thoughts, taking a deep breath and unite your body with your thoughts, and remember that we are grounded. Take time to feel the connection between the ground and your feet. We are here on Earth, with nature and all the wonderful things that exist on our planet, which for me very importantly includes our vines and the people devoted to them. Remind yourself of what’s important in your life and be thankful for it, and be thankful for one very important thing: we're alive.
In fitting with my resolution to write more, I've decided to write up every wine we taste on Friday afternoon here at Westbury (we do blind tastings every Friday). Our office is in Clapham Junction, so Philglas + Swiggot and Soif are regular haunts for interesting bottles - both have exceptional lists and we are really spoilt to have them here (thanks guys).
Today's choice is Palmiet, by Johan Meyer, from Elgin, South Africa. I picked it for two reasons:
1) my close friend Immi Taylor is leaving me next week (sob) to do harvest there, which is bloody exciting and I am so jealous. I will be visiting her in March
2) I think it is one of the best value Chardonnays available, and actually, I challenge you to find a better one for this price.
The wine is from Elgin, one of the coolest vinegrowing areas of South Africa. It has a high altitude of 5-700m with more cloud cover and rainfall than other regions. The vineyard is farmed organically and the wine, in Meyer style, is made with minimal intervention.
Only free run juice is used and fermentation is natural. Old 500L French oak barrels are used and 1/3 of the grapes are whole bunch fermented for eight days and pressed into fourth fill 500L barrels. Ageing takes place for ten months. Oxidation occurs in some barrels to add to complexity.
NOTES: Fresh raw cashew nose with a distinct but subtle herbal oil character with yellow grapefruit pith. On the palate it is immensely saline with a dense, crunchy texture. Nice lime-y palate with intense minerality. Very similar in style to some top Burgundies with that struck match nose, but perhaps a little harsher, a little wilder in spirit. It is so, so good. An absolutely delicious wine and I challenge you to find me a better Chardonnay at this price.
A proper terroir wine, from properly tended vineyards, treated properly. It's wines and guys like these that make wine the most exciting tangible product of our Earth. Thanks Johan for making this!
1 - More Gamay, and fizzy Gamay. We've already had a huge increase in Gamay in 2016 and 2017, but I think it will continue. More and more of the grape variety is being planted around the world, and I think we'll start to see an increase of international examples too. This leads me to Sparkling Gamay. I don't know why this isn't more of a "thing" yet. It should be. Importers take note! Some excellent examples are being made both in Beaujolais and further afield, both as petnat and as traditional method. Hopefully some more will land on UK shores.
2 - The Return of the Rich White. Yes, we all love lean and mineral styles that taste like sucking a salt encrusted piece of flint, but I think there's a growing place for richer whites (not necessarily oaky, but in body) from Roussanne, Marsanne and Viognier for example. The best examples are like drinking a liquid hug, and who doesn't want that?
3 - The darker rosé. There's very much still a place on wine lists for pristine pale pink rose petal hued wines that taste like drinking the beach, but there are also some deeply moving darker rosés with soul and depth. I think, and hope, that we will see more of them. Look to Ad Vinum (Tutto) and Les Arabesques (Kiffe my Wines) for excellent examples.
4 - Greece. Slowly but surely taking up more wine list space in London restaurants, I think we'll see more airtime for Greek wine in 2018; not just for Assyrtiko but from the country's wealth of highly interesting and qualitative grape varieties.
5 - English still wine. While British sparkling wine will definitely continue to boom, I think we'll also see more still examples with promise. Ortega is tapping at the door and may well create something unique for the UK.
6 - The Savoie. Underrated and often forgotten about, the Savoie produces truly stunning wine. 2017 has seen a surge in interest for Mondeuse, which will definitely continue into 2018. I think we'll also see more of an interest in Persan and the highly unique Roussette which is unlike any other wine on Earth.
7 - Armagnac. This is more one for myself. I really love Armagnac and hope we'll see a bit more of it. I wonder whether the artisan whisk(e)y crowd may turn to Armagnac, which I see as Cognac's more rustic, less shiny and less branded cousin. We'll see...
"Grower Champagne" will continue to boom. I think we'll also continue to see more Aligoté, and Spain and Tenerife will continue to fascinate us all. "New Wave" South African, Californian and Canadian wines will only continue to gain momentum, as people realise that the soils of the New World are able to create extremely compelling wines in the right hands.
For me? My "resolutions" are to write more spontaneously (and more in general), and to worry less about perfection. Also to do more yoga, take more time to myself, and to remember to be grateful and thankful. 2017 was intense to say the least and rather a "hamster in a wheel" year, with some hugely difficult occurrences to overcome in my personal life, so while I hope to achieve even more this year, I must also take time to pause, and reflect, be happy, and just simply be.
Happy New Year!
Richard Hemming wrote this great summary of the state of wine writing in 2017.
I lead a somewhat contradictory life as a PR person and as a wine writer. Although seemingly opposite jobs, my day-to-day life working in wine PR teaches me greatly about writing and, I hope, makes me a better writer myself. As I am writing this on my lunch break, my desk looks like a newspaper spontaneously combusted on it. I have cuttings of wine columns and wine mentions appearing from every orifice. I have 31 tabs open on Firefox, the majority of which lead to wine articles and Twitter feeds. When I’m working, and when I’m not working, I’m reading wine articles. I am obsessed. I have post-it notes all over my desk with wine writers’ names on them as reminders to scan/send samples/read articles/send articles/suggest wines, repeat. The cycle goes on.
I am lucky to work for incredible clients, all of whom create wines I really believe in. Part of my job is to create engaging content and material about their wines and vineyards, and to communicate this to wine writers. If wine writers as a result like the wines and write about them, then my job is done and I’m happy. I will have helped to achieve recognition for a winemaker somewhere in the world, whether that be for a £6 wine or a £50 wine, from a tiny pocket in Gascony or a majestic vineyard in Chile. I also will have opened somebody’s eyes to an aspect of wine and given that person a nugget of information or a memory of taste to store in their brain, which also makes me happy. It is incredibly fulfilling.
This Twitter feed features @thesommelieruk. @Thesommelieruk seemingly would like to write. He or she said there should be more columns at the bottom end, stating, “Would love to (write) but....magazines want names and reputations and then those folk already preach to the converted. I will not get a notice as who the hell am I? Do wineshow presenters look like adsa £3.50 drinkers? Or even £4.99ers? On offer!”
Sigh. There are a few things wrong here.
Wine presenters looking like Asda £3.50 drinkers
"Wineshow presenters" aren't Asda £3.50 drinkers, although I'm not really sure what you mean here by looking like one. Anyway, back to the £3.50. If you are an Asda £3.50 drinker (which at the moment will buy you this on offer priced at £3.50 down from £4.48, which I personally think is a huge insult to wine, “Aromatized Wine-Product Cocktail,” what the f*** even is that – please don’t put wine in my aromatized cocktail, and please don’t aromatize my cocktail in the first place), I really don’t think you’re going to care that much about the contents, or want to. Unless that Aromatized Wine-Product Cocktail is so gross that it persuades you to spend a little bit more on your wine next time, we are really unlikely to convert the £3.50ers anyway. If you really care about wine, you would buy something else with £3.50. Maybe a beer.
Check out the Vinonomics by Bibendum below. If £5 only gives you 37p for the actual wine and thus for the grower, £3.50 will give you barely anything. Those vineyards are highly unlikely to be well tended and the wine will not give you a profound experience, let alone a positive experience in the first place.
I do see your point that we need to provide wine recommendations for those with less money to spend. If you have less to spend on wine, and you wish to spend between £5 and £10, our national wine writers are doing a fantastic job already. Jamie and Matthew’s columns, for example, cite great GV bottles for under £10 every week. I wouldn't say they "preach to the converted" - anybody is able to pick up the Sunday Express to read Jamie's recommendations. This consumer isn't necessarily already a convert.
Magazines want names and reputations
Yes, of course they do, and they should! Wine writers have spent yearsandyearsandyearsandyearandyears learning about wine and writing about wine. Some are completely and utterly dedicated to it. Jamie Goode spent the majority of this year travelling in order to communicate as much as possible about wine. Richard wrote this song entirely dedicated to grape varieties in 2010. Neal Martin has written 204,959 words on Burgundy. It’s comparable to a sports company hiring a famous athlete for an advertisement. Adidas hired Nastia Liukin for this advert. Would they have hired someone who isn’t entirely dedicated to gymnastics? Don’t think so. Wine writers have reputations because they are dedicated.
So, wine writers, thank you for being dedicated. Thank you for another great year working with you all and for inspiring me. I look forward to another year with you all.