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Wine articles

Who will be the next Robert Parker?

Photograph by Christopher Barker

Searching around for a sequel to Empire of Booze, my book about the British and alcohol, the obvious choice is to look at other countries and their influence on what we drink. A friend suggested Khanates of Booze. There’s potential for dozens of books: Duchies of Booze, Republics, Sultanates, Oligarchies, Kleptocracies of Booze! First though, here’s a look at America’s influence on wine, the Republic of Booze:

It’s easy to see the American influence as solely about homogenisation. When we think of Americanisation it’s Budweiser that springs to mind, drinks made simpler, blander for the big broad American palate. Yet the American influence is far more complex than that.

American wine hit the headlines in 1976 for the first time with the so-called Judgement of Paris. This was arranged by English wine merchant Steven Spurrier. He pitted the best of Bordeaux and Burgundy against the best Cabernets and Chardonnays from California. The wines were tasted blind by a mainly French judging panel. The winners were both Californian. The outcry was immediate. Many of the judges thought they had been somehow duped. It is the tasting that inspired a thousand articles and put Californian wine on the map as well as making Spurrier’s career.

Perhaps even more influential was the American wine critic, Robert Parker. Parker deliberately styled himself as the anti-British critic, not that he was anti-British, well maybe a little, but that he was the antithesis of the clubbable British wine critic. Parker saw this type as being far too close to the trade to give an objective assessment of the wines. He had in his sights someone like Hugh Johnson who, as well as producing innumerable books, is also the chairman of the Sunday Times Wine Club, makes his own wine and used to own a shop on St James’s selling wine paraphernalia. Parker saw himself as the champion of the consumer. His newsletter (now a subscription website) takes no advertising and he doesn’t accept hospitality from producers or merchants. He instituted a system for scoring wines out of 100 (well out of 50 really as the score starts at 50.) Wines that scored more than 90 sold out quickly.

Parker championed wines made by growers. All over the world, but in France especially, growers were bypassing the power of merchants and bottling their own wine. The adulteration scandals in Bordeaux and Burgundy made wine lovers think that the only way to guarantee quality was to go directly to the grower. Wines were increasingly bottled at the châteaux, rather than in London. Whereas previously most Rhône and burgundy would have been sold under the name of a négociant, now it was the producer. Parker and other American wine critics enabled customers to cut out the middlemen and some of these growers became very wealthy indeed.

You can see Parker as he sees himself as a true American maverick who shook up the wine trade, but I see continuity in his approach. The wines that he was most confident with were ones that would have been familiar to a Victorian drinker: claret and claret-style wines (Napa Cabernets), port, and wines from the northern Rhône. Like port shippers and British wine writers before him, he was simplifying wine for English-speaking people who didn’t know that much about it. His scoring system was a master stroke. Now there was a seemingly objective way of measuring how good a wine was. I don’t like this wine, Parker gave it 93, I’ll take two cases. Most controversially, Parker actually changed how wine was made. It was noted that he often gave the highest scores to the biggest, most alcoholic and oaky wines and some producers began to make wines in this style. They cut yields drastically, left grapes to ripen longer, extracted heavily and then lavishly matured it all in new oak. Whether this was a deliberate attempt to curry his favour or just the way that fashions in wine were going anyway isn’t always easy to judge, but wines did get bigger when Parker was in his pomp. We can criticise these wines, but this is how the new wine drinkers of America and the world liked them. The analogy is with the change of port from a dry to sweet wines or the sort of burly adulterated clarets sold in London. It was a very British attitude to wine: we won’t learn to appreciate the difficult wine, make it bigger, sweeter, stronger and more oaky to suit us. Many British wine writers held their noses, preferring a more classic style of wine, not realising that Parker was merely following in the footsteps of the British market. Parker, and he would probably hate me for saying this, has very British tastes.

The Judgement of Paris, too, was also more evolutionary than revolutionary. You can see this as a victory for California and evidence of the decline of France, but you can also see this as a continuation and affirmation of British tastes. The Californians were comparing themselves against wines created for the British market. They won because they tasted like claret and white burgundy. Both Parker and Spurrier played a part in the revival of Bordeaux which had been in doldrums since the late 19th century. The 1980s, 90s and 2000s were a period of astonishing prosperity for the top châteaux.

Driven partly by consumer champion’s such as Parker and by advances in technology, wine at all levels is now of a quality that would amaze the 19th century British drinker. It is very rare to have a bad bottle these days (though quite easy to have a dull one.) Much wine is now sold by big brands such as Penfolds in Australia or Casillero del Diablo in Chile. In 2004 a film was released called Mondovino about the globalisation of wine. It claimed that producers all over the world were creating wine in an international style. There was even a word for this “Parkerization” – wines made to appeal to Parker’s palate. The film was a cri de coeur arguing that if we didn’t act soon then the local, unusual or difficult styles would disappear under a wave of oaky Cabernet. It never happened. At my local Marks and Spencers supermarket in far from fashionable Lewisham, south-east London, I can now buy Greek, Croatian, Turkish and Georgian wines made from indigenous grape varieties. In the 1990s southern Europe was alive with the sound of chainsaws grafting Chardonnay, Cabernet and Merlot onto rootstocks, now there is interest in previously neglected grapes such as Cinsault, Fiano and Xinomavro.

Now no one country, style or man can be said to dominate. Parker has been unseated or rather stepped down, he sold his website in 2012 and is now in semi-retirement, and his place taken by a thousand bloggers, writers, sommeliers, importers, winemakers and enthusiasts. It’s worth reading this article by Simon Woolf on Jancisrobinson.com on where the next Robert Parker might come from.

This is a very heavily edited version of the afterword from my book, Empire of Booze

Categories
Wine articles Wine of the week

Wine Grapes and All That

‘Verdelho should not be confused with GODELLO, a variety from Galicia in Spain that is also cultivated in the Portuguese Dao region under the name Verdelho or Verdelho do Dão. . . . It has been suggested that Madeira’s Verdelho is identical to a Sicilian variety called Verdicchio (often erroneously spelt Verdecchio, unidentified, but distinct from VERDICCHIO BIANCO.)’

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‘The Scots (originally Irish, but by now Scotch) were at this time inhabiting Ireland, having driven the Irish (Picts) out of Scotland; while the Picts (originally Scots) were now Irish (living in brackets) and vice versa. It is essential to keep these distinctions clearly in mind (and verce visa).’

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One of these quotes is from 1066 and All That by W.C. Sellar and R.J. Yeatman and one is from Wine Grapes by Jancis Robinson, Julia Harding and José Vouillamoz. I’m sure readers will know which is which.

We tend to think that learning about grape varieties is as an easy way into wine: Cabernet Sauvignon tastes of blackcurrants and smells of tobacco, Riesling of limes and kerosene. To an extent this is true. Initially it seems so much easier than learning about the French appellation contrôlée system or the German wine laws. The problem comes when you delve a little deeper into exactly which grapes are in your wine.

I bought a bottle of wine from my local wine merchant, Bottle Apostle, a couple of weeks ago called Camillo de Lellis Biferno Bianco 2010 from Molise in Central Italy. I’ve had a few vintages of their red so was curious about the white. I didn’t pay any attention to the grape varieties mentioned on the back of the bottle until I got home where I was disappointed to know it was made from Trebbiano and something called Bombino Bianco. Trebbiano, known as Ugni Blanc in France, is considered one of the world’s dullest grapes suitable only for distillation; it’s used to make Cognac. Still I’d paid for it so I thought I should drink it. Initially it tasted very neutral with just some lemons and a vague nuttiness. After a while I started to notice what a lovely texture it has, a certain sherry-like oiliness. The nuttiness takes on a distinct almondy note and then there are peaches and a little bitter twist like peach stones. Very pretty, reminding me simultaneously of white burgundy and perhaps an aged Australian Semillon or Marsanne. Excellent value at £9.99. So it would seem that Trebbiano in the right hands can be good.

But which Trebbiano? Wine Grapes lists eight different kind. The famously dull one is Trebbiano Toscana. Seeing as my wine is from Molise, it’s probably made from Trebbiano d’Abruzzo which, DNA profiling has shown, is not related to the dull Tuscan variety. In fact, it may be related or even identical to Bombino Bianco, a native of Puglia. The back label to the wine is not helpful as the Italian suggests that Trebbiano and Bombino are the same whereas the translation seems to be saying that it is made from two grapes, Trebbiano and Bombino.

That’s the problem with grape varieties, they’re slippery little bastards. All that Chilean Merlot you drank in the 90s turned out to be Carmenere. Recently the Australian have been getting very excited about their Albariños, a grape native to North West Spain (like Godello). Now it seems that many may actually made from Savagnin – a grape from which Gewurztraminer mutated from. See how slippery they are, one minute you’ve got a Savagnin and then it mutates into a crazy pink grape that makes wine that smells of rose petals and lychees.

According to Wine Grapes, the Pinot family, Noir, Meunier, Gris and Blanc, are genetically identical. In fact more than one type of pinot have been found in the same vine. It’s one of the things I love most about wine is that just when you think you’ve grasped something, it slips out of your grasp. Buy this amazing work of scholarship and you’ll realise quite how little you know.  I’ll be writing more on this book in future.

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Books Wine articles

The Wild Bunch by Patrick Matthews

This is the second half of an article that appeared in Slightly Foxed magazine last year. Click on Lynch’s book for the first part.

Kermit Lynch’s book, Adventures on the Wine Route, surveys a depressing 1980s landscape of French producers cashing in their birthright and homogenising their wines for the international market. Patrick Matthew’s 1997 book, The Wild Bunch: Great Wine from Small Producers, is about the fight back. He surveys small producers not just in France but around the world willing to take risks to make distinctive wines. It would be hard to think of characters less alike that Lynch and Matthews. Patrick Matthews is diffident, mischievous and not nearly as knowledgeable or sure of himself. This counts in his favour as one feels that Matthews is learning as he goes along and bringing the reader with him. That’s not to say that he is a beginner but where his knowledge is lacking, he doesn’t gloss over his ignorance in waffle or superfluous technical details, he makes it an asset. Endearingly, he even gets drunk at a wine tasting (something one cannot imagine Lynch ever doing) and argues with a buyer for a supermarket.

Matthews was not part of the wine establishment. I’m pretty sure that he was never invited out to Bordeaux to taste the new vintage. In the Wild Bunch he was looking to challenge received opinion but unlike some other self-styled ‘outsiders’ he never comes across as chippy. Take the vexed matter of scoring wines for example something that Lynch abhors. Instead of decrying it Matthews came up with his own idiosyncratic scoring system on the basis of two criteria: oddness and niceness. He scored them out of five instead of the more usual 20 or 100:

‘The quirk this creates is that a wine I like a lot can still get low scores: for example a neutralish white Bourgone Aligote which is neither very strange nor a real crowd-pleaser (1/5 oddness 1/5 niceness).’

Notice how his system tells you how the wine will taste rather than saying that one is better than another.

When the Wild Bunch was written the hot topic amongst British wine writers was something called the ‘Wine Revolution.’ This ‘revolution’ consisted of young, usually Australian wine makers overturning centuries of European lethargy and producing fruity wines that were named after grape varieties such as Cabernet Sauvignon or Chardonnay rather than places in Europe. This was the era of supermarket wine guides with names like Superplonk and Juicy! It was also the time when wine critics Oz Clarke and Jilly Goolden competed with each other to come up with ever more outlandish descriptions on their television program. ‘Mmmmmm deck chairs on the Titanic’ was one I remember clearly. Matthews was not impressed. He was ahead of his time in championing the local, the diverse and the obscure. These terms are now platitudes; the stuff of lifestyle journalism. But when Matthews was writing this book he was championing something genuinely new. Today terms such as ‘organics’, ‘biodynamics’ and ‘natural’ wines are the new orthodoxy of wine with even industrial wine producers paying lip serve to them. Matthews is ever alert to how the best intentions can ossify into dogma: ‘there are echoes of cults, evangelism, even show trials’ he writes after interviewing a producer who had gone ‘organic’

Early on in the book, Matthews explicitly rejects the whimsical style of wine writing noting that: “these encounters (with wine makers) tend to be reported in a maddeningly sketchy way:   ‘her/senor/ monsieur so-and-so has some fascinating opinions which make a visit to his cellars an education in every sense!’ Like a good travel writer, he is able to capture the personalities of the people he meets with a few deft phrases. Here he is on Olivier Merlin, a young Turk from Burgundy, and his wife:

‘The couple personified the romance of wine. They were young 1980s people (something you could tell from Oilvier coloured-framed specs a la early Jancis Robinson) and they’d seized the moment.’

It’s not only people who shine out of the book, I know few writers who can capture a place so elegantly:

‘The sherry bodegas have something of the air of Oxbridge colleges with their courtyards and immaculate displays of flowering plants (not to mention the all pervasive smell of Sherry)’

Here he manages to be witty without ever being flip or facetious. The book is often very funny but you never doubt how seriously he takes his subject. It is based mainly on interviews with notable people from within the wine business. Matthew’s frame of reference, however, is much wider than this. To back up his points, Matthews calls into service the likes of Flaubert, Pliny, Bob Dylan, Arabic lyric poetry and a novel by Dorothy L Sayers – ‘the only detective story I know that turns on the sleuth’s unerring palate.’

Whereas Lynch is a pillar of the wine world and his book a bestseller, Matthews is a more shadowy figure. The Wild Bunch, originally published by Faber, has been out of print for years though it is easy to get hold of second-hand. He published another book called Real Wine in 2000 for Mitchell Beazley and later a book called Cannabis Culture. He then seems to have disappeared. Perhaps the precarious life of a wine writer did not appeal. Certainly one cannot imagine him having a weekly newspaper column recommending supermarket wines or appearing on Saturday morning cookery programs. Last I heard he was running a falafel stall in Hoxton Square. I hope that he is happy wherever he is and still enjoying good wine.

Since this was published, I have been in touch with Patrick Matthews. His falafel business, Hoxton Beach, is thriving, I often have lunch at the stall on Goodge Street, and he is still enjoying good wine, we had a nice Marcillac, some rare old amontillado and a surprisingly good supermarket own-label Sauternes when I saw him last.

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Books Wine articles

Wine and crime

The novel A Long Finish by Michael Dibdin focuses on a grudge between two families of vignerons in Piedmont. Though I can’t recall the plot in any detail, there’s a murder (obviously), something about access to land for truffle-hunting and the roots of the grudge during war, what comes back to me clearly are the descriptions of the wine. One of the families gets a high price and international repute for their wine, a Barolo I think, whereas the other are in poverty. Their vines are just over the border of the region so can only call their wine Nebbiolo d’Alba. The former family makes sleek crowd-pleasing reds beloved of people who buy wines based on scores. There are rumours that they blend their Nebbiolo, the only grape allowed in Barolo, with some Cabernet Sauvignon (or even Merlot!) to make it more immediately appealing. The poorer family make something dark, earthy and ultra-traditional; the sort of wine that takes years to show its best. Here the wines represent the differences between the families but also the divisions within Italy itself.

Whilst reading the book, I longed to try the wines. Now whenever I have an old-fashioned Piedmontese red, I think back to the Dibdin’s writing. I was reminded of this when I read about a tasting evening that Hersilia press are putting on to promote their Italian crime list. There’s something about the murkiness of Italian politics that lends itself peculiarly well to crime fiction. It takes place in Oxford on Thursday 19th July from 6pm at the Portobello restaurant. Highlights include an Aglianco from Terredora to go with the Neapolitan novels of Maurizio de Giovanni and a Valpolicella Ripasso from Tommasi to drink with A Private Venus by Giorgio Scerbanenco. Italian are good at crime, very good at crime fiction and make some superb wines so this promises to be a rewarding evening.

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Wine articles

Can I be Franc with you?

Cabernet Franc has had a chequered romantic life. There was a fling with Sauvignon Blanc that led to the birth of a child, Cabernet Sauvignon. Later a drunken one night stand with a grape whose name is now forgotten resulted in Merlot. As the Greeks have taught us, children have a tendency to usurp their parents. And lo, these two brash upstarts eclipsed poor toothless Cabernet Franc in Bordeaux, and then went off to conquer the world leaving Daddy only a small principality in the Loire (there was a final son, Carménere, who in the manner of youngest sons throughout history was sent to the Americas to find his fortune.)  Happily for this most elegant of grapes, fashion in wine has started to swing away from big bold alcoholic wines towards something a little more drinkable. The key word these days is freshness something that old Cabernet Franc has in spades. In the past, it had rather too much freshness and not enough fruit. The reds of the Loire, Chinon, Bourgeuil, Saumur and Anjou, could be green and ungenerous in light vintages. Today the wines are considerably riper, a consequence perhaps of global warming or just better work in the vineyard and the cellar. Thanks to the interest in ‘natural’ wines, the Loire is about the coolest (in both senses of the word) place on the planet to make wines. The Franc is back and showing the upstart grapes who’s the daddy.

Saumur ‘Les Nivieres’, Cave de Saumur, 2010 – £7.99 (Waitrose on offer for £5.99 until 8 May)

Ripe modern Loire Cabernet Franc at a good price. For me the hallmark of Loire Cab Franc is a mouth drying fresh taste that reminds me of licking slate. As I’ve never licked slate I don’t know why this is what springs to mind but try it and I think you’ll know what I mean. Whereas in the past this slateyness was all you might get from the Loire this one also with a friendly dark fruitiness (blackcurrants perhaps.) Very nice if served chilled.

Hilltop Premium Cabernet Franc, Eger Region, Hungary 2009  – £9.50 (The Wine Society)

This is what happens when the variety goes on holiday somewhere hot. On the nose it’s very perfumed, very aromatic, very Cabernet Franc with some toastiness from oak aging. In the mouth the extra sunshine shines through. It’s positively voluptuous with hints of caramel and honey but all balanced by trademark Cabernet Franc freshness.

Chinon ‘Les Roche’, Alain & Jerome Lenoir 2004 – £14 (259 Hackney Road)

This is not the sort of wine that welcomes you into his home, kisses you on the cheek and then offers you a drink. Instead it lurks menacingly in the dark and dares you to take a sip. I took a sniff and got a hint of strawberries before a powerful stench of dungeons came in and overwhelmed my nose. Another sniff, strawberries and perhaps oranges and then cold dank dungeons again. It’s a bit like that in mouth, hints of ripe fruit menaced away by black tannin. With pheasant stew the menace retreated and the wine became drinkable and ultimately rewarding. There’s so much going on here. It’s a hugely complex and uncompromising wine that needs food and ideally decanting a day in advance.

*I’m not just being metaphorical here, Cabernet Sauvignon really is a cross between Cab Franc and Sauvignon Blanc, Merlot is a cross between Cab Franc and Magdelaine Noire, and Carmenére’s other parent is Gros Cabernet. (source Wine Myths and Realities Benjamin Lewin MW 2010)

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Interviews Wine articles

M. Guibert’s philosophy

When a wine is labelled as organic or biodynamic, I tend to greet it with suspicion. This is partly my cynical belief that many producers describe their wines as such mainly for marketing purposes and partly a suspicion of movements in general that I alluded to in a previous post. Patrick Matthews in his book the Wild Bunch puts it well. He notes ‘echoes of cults, evangelism, even show trials’ in the language used by organics more dogmatic adherents.

As much as I don’t like organics as a movement or a marketing tool, I do like the philosophy behind it purely because it seems to make better wines. Or I’ll put that differently because there are some awful organic wines: the producers I like tend to either be organic or use such a minimal amount of fertilizer, fungicide etc that they might as well be. That is why Samuel Guibert from Mas de Daumas Gassac is a man after my own heart. When I asked him about organics he said that he wasn’t interested in politics, yes they farm organically but they don’t put it on the label. There’s no worthiness and no dogma. Many of the wines he enjoys are not from organic, biodynamic or ‘natural’ producers. He just wants to keep the family estate as nice as possible and that means not polluting the locale. He described it with mischevious gleam in his eye as ‘selfish environmentalism.’

And what a spectacular environment it is. Most vineyards are actually very dull. Vines themselves are not interesting to look at but at Mas de Daumas Gassac the vines are interspersed with garrique – the local name for the bush. They integrate into the landscape.  You can see the effect in this video of M. Guibert:

The red, mainly Cabernet Sauvignon with a small amount of many other varieties, is justifiably famous. I liked it a lot but would like to try it after at least ten years in bottle. You really need to treat it like a good Bordeaux. The white, a blend of Viognier, Chenin Blanc, Petite Manseng, Chardonnay, is more immediately accessible but will also age. The 2003 was delightfully nutty when I tried it recently.

The one I am going to recommend is a little bit different. I had it on New Year’s Eve and then again in France. It’s a fizzy rosé made from the Cabernet vines too young to go in the red and it is delightfully frivolous. So much nicer than those dreary rosé champagnes and only £15 a bottle. Sound too expensive? A decent rosé champagne would cost you at least twice as much and be half as much fun. It’s also six times more delicious than the best prosecco and eighteen times more stylish than cava. It will also make you irresitible to the opposite sex.

Mas de Daumas Gassac Frizant Rose 2008, Vin de Pays de l’Hérault Vin Mousseux