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Burgundy Maps

I just received a query by email from a wine student struggling to find decent wine maps for Burgundy. My Burgundy guide includes some grand cru maps, but these are obviously inadequate for someone trying to get a comprehensive overall view of a particular commune.

I made these suggestions:

1. nearly all the major Burgundy texts or recent years/decades (Clive Coates, Jasper Morris, Remington Norman) include such maps. Try local bookshops or Amazon.

2. if you’re actually in Burgundy, call in at Atheneum in Beaune (www.athenaeumfr.com)

3. online options:
(a) http://www.climats-bourgogne.com/en/#/LesClimats
(b) http://www.vinotopia.be/maps/ (Vinotopia – needs Google Earth – never tried it myself)

4. Shop online for maps:

Does anyone have any better resources? Do please add by commenting below if so.

Hints to InterLoire on the 2012 Salon

François Chidaine’s recent resignation from the InterLoire executive, reported here and here, was very telling. Chidaine runs what is undoubtedly one of the Loire’s leading domaines, and his quality-orientated focus is vital if the Loire is to receive the attention and trade it deserves. His criticisms of InterLoire clearly indicate that they have a very different focus; their objectives are not clear, they lack ambition, funds are misspent on pointless exercises such as Touraine primeur and – most pointedly in view of my current situation – the Salon des Vins de Loire comes in for some particular criticism. This, he says, is a “bureaucratic machine” which “doesn’t deliver value for money” and, “if it does not evolve, it will disappear”.

I hope you will excuse me hanging onto Chidaine’s coat-tails but I’m going to weigh in behind him. I have no strong knowledge of Touraine primeur (other than one from Henri Marionnet which is often pretty good, but it is not really a market that a regional body should by piling into I think) but I have plenty of experience of the Salon by now. Considering this is an international showcase for the Loire’s wines, there is plenty wrong with the Salon. Here are four InterLoire/Salon problems that need addressing, and some suggestions:

1. Work for the good of the Loire overall. Around the Salon a programme of ‘off-events’ has built up. The Renaissance tasting (Nicolas Joly and biodynamic domaines) in Angers is the best known, La Dive Bouteille at Château de Brézé another, also this year a Loire Bio Salon and ‘Puzelat & Friends’ (which sounds more like a variety television show than a tasting but wil no doubt feature the wines of Thierry Puzelat and his biodynamic peers).

Last year the Salon was moved forward one day, Sunday-Tuesday, directly clashing with off-events. You aren’t permitted to leave your stand at the Salon unmanned, therefore vignerons were forced to choose one event over the other, or rope in friends to man their stand.

This year the Salon has been moved back, putting a whole week between the off-events (which kick off January 29th) and the Salon (startng February 6th). If this was competitive business, you could understand the tactics, but InterLoire is supposed to be helping, not hindering.

As a result this year visitors have to choose between the two tasting opportunities, or fork out for a long stay in Angers, or make two separate trips. Alice Feiring told me she is doing the off-events, not the Salon. I’m doing the Salon, not the off-events. Visitor numbers may well be down.

Get your timetable sorted InterLoire. Work in advance with your wine colleagues, even if they are not InterLoire members.

2. As well as working more closely with the off-events, be more inclusive with non-members. Some top domaines aren’t members; no Foucault, no Foreau. Is this a fait accompli? Or could a new approach change this situation? Think: what could you do to involve these domaines?

3. Sort out your support for visitors. I’m happy to travel to the Salon with no real support at all and have done so every year up until now. I have had one night in a hotel paid for each year (although this year I believe I may get more support – which I shan’t turn down!), nothing more up until this year. But the support you do offer is useless. This includes:

(a) a discount code for Air France…that is only valid if you fly into Nantes airport. I suspect this is useless for most visitors; it is certainly no use to me, as my regular route is Edinburgh to Paris. Why not have a code that I could use to fly into Paris? How many Salon visitors will fly into Nantes? Why be so selective?

(b) the offer of a paper SNCF rail travel voucher, to be handed over when buying at the counter; seriously, how many of those travelling to the Salon do you think might turn up and buy their tickets on the day? As I suspect is the case with most visitors, I book my tickets online months in advance. Why would I want a voucher to get money off an expensive buy-on-the-day ticket?

4. Sort out your website. Seriously, it’s now one week to the 2012 Salon. Why, when I look at the website for this hugely important tasting fair, do I see:

(a) scrolling news items with the generic “Lorem ipsum dolor…” text because you have launched an unfinished website?

(b) a floor plan for the 2011 fair?

(c) a list of exhibitors for the 2011 fair?

(d) a list of “Prepare your visit” links which lead to a page stating:

This page is empty. There is no content actually published here. Probably an update ist [sic] acitvated [sic]. Please try again in a few moments“?

(e) blank photo and video sections?

(f) Dead, greyed-out links to social media sites – hover the cursor over the top to be helpfully informed “We’re working on it!”?

I’m sorry, but you’re not “working on it” quite hard enough.

The New Sancerre

It is somewhat strange that although it was Sancerre that first drew me to the Loire, these days the wines of this most famous of all Loire vineyards hardly ever pass my lips. I can’t recall which domaines I was drinking in those very early days, more than twenty years ago, although I am certain that the wines of the Vacheron family had a place in my cellar; I visited their domaine for the first time in 1992, and carried the bottles back to the UK with me.

With the passing of time I came to realise that I found more variety, joy and individuality in the wines of Anjou, Saumur and Touraine, and Sancerre passed into memory. More lately I discovered how brilliant the underdog Muscadet could be; not the watery-green acid-juice of old, but wines of distinction, minerality, balance and freshness. What better foil for seafood and similar could there be (actually Muscadet from the top names is much more than that, so I will hope you will forgive me this clichéd pigeon-holing)? Sancerre almost ceased to exist. Why opt for such a wine, when there is Marc Ollivier’s Clos de Briords to be had, or Damien Laureau’s Savennières Roches-aux-Moines, or a Clos du Bourg sec from Domaine Huet?

Plenty of reasons of course, but one force that drove me away was the confusion – not just in my own mind, but in some of the wines as well – between Sauvignon Blanc and Sancerre. As I explored the world of wine for the first time it was only natural that I discovered New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc. At first I loved the wines; all that vibrant gooseberry fruit, all that zip and verve. Much of this zingy-fruity juxtaposition was due to (a) picking ripe fruit for the fruit-rich character the New World is so good at, and (b) picking some grapes deliberately early, bringing the slightly unripe zingy freshness to the wine; it was some time before I discovered this trait was down to the higher methylpyrazine levels in grapes not fully ripened. I drank them with pleasure, even in the earlier Winedoctor years; there are plenty of positive notes buried deep and not-so-deep on these pages. But, in more recent years, this has not been the case. I tired of the slightly raw attack of acid that I sensed Sauvignon Blanc was giving me; it seemed caricatured, forced even. I tired of the flavour profile, which always seemed so in-your-face; there’s only so much passion fruit and capsicum I can take in a wine. I dropped the wines from my drinking inventory.

The wines have not entirely disappeared though; my wife still adores New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc, and so I still have a slow but steady drip of bottles coming though my hands, including in recent years wines from Montana (just before they rebranded as Brancott Estate) and Villa Maria. I really don’t like them. They scream VARIETY and WINEMAKING whenever I taste them. Early last year I tasted two vintages of the Montana Sauvignon Blanc in quick succession – the 2009 and 2010 if I recall correctly – and concluded these wines were exactly what I shouldn’t be drinking. And yet in October, I read Jamie Goode’s opinion of the 2011 vintage, as he raved about what great quality and great value it is. To be balanced, I think he is probably right. It’s just that I don’t like it. I commented as such on his blog post.

As for Greywacke, the latest darling of the New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc scene, I’ve tasted the 2009, and recognise it as a step closer towards my palate than many of New Zealand’s simpler wines. The rawness isn’t there, although I still found it focused on fruit (admittedly with some rather wild, unusually garriguey flavours too). That’s OK if that’s what you want, and many people do. Just not me. But let’s not turn this into an anti-NZ post. Just to be clear, I acknowledge the wines are well made and good value, and appeal to many. It’s just that they mask what Sauvignon Blanc is really capable of. If you persist in drinking New Zealand Sauvignon above all other styles, you’re only halfway there in really understanding this variety.

About three years ago I rediscovered Sancerre, and ever since then my consumption has been creeping ever-so-slightly upwards. The bottles have to fight with those of Guy Bossard, Marc Ollivier and Jo Landron for my attention, but they are holding their own. The reason for this was my discovery that Sauvignon Blanc can be a superb translator of terroir. But the terroir has to be allowed to speak, and early picking to enhance methylpyrazine levels, extremes of fruit ripeness and heavy industrial-style winemaking (and perhaps other aspects I/we don’t understand) can obscure this. This ability to display its origins suddenly catapults Sauvignon Blanc to a much more interesting level in my mind; when in this style, not only is the structure and flavour-profile much more subtle, balanced and less in-your-face, Sauvignon Blanc becomes a much more cerebral, thought-provoking, engaging wine.

Much of Sancerre lies on Kimmeridgian limestone marl (or terres blanches as it is known locally), especially in the western reaches of the appellation, including the oft-praised cru Chavignol. This is the same band of chalky limestone that runs across the upper reaches of France, and it reappears at Chablis and in the southern Champagne region of the Côte des Bar. Wines from thoughtful growers aiming for something other than simple fruit expression from these slopes have a solid structure and firm, stony, minerally character; to my mind, they are more closely related to Chablis than other Sauvignon-based wines. The composition and substance of the wines are similar; I hope that, in the same way New World Chardonnay and Chablis are recognised as very distinct styles, with Chablis the ultimate cool-climate expression of the variety (although “expression of the soil” would be more appropriate to my mind) we can develop a better understanding of Sancerre in the same manner, through drawing similar distinctions. Other soil types in Sancerre give different styles of wine; there is caillottes, pebbly Portlandien/Oxfordian limestone; I’m not sure I could draw an easily defined or indeed identifiable tasting distinction between these wines and the Kimmeridgians. But then around Sancerre itself there is silex, or flint, and these wines are certainly distinctive. Whereas the limestone wines are solid, structured, these are much more filigree in style, with lacy fruit character, often with tinges of ripe citrus fruit, tangerine perhaps, or peach. They are fascinating to taste, especially when compared and contrasted with the limestone wines.

Not a hint of gooseberry, capsicum, passion fruit or the dreaded cat’s pee anywhere, you note?

I believe – although I am willing to be corrected – that much of this Sancerre rediscovery is not just down to changes in my own palate, but to improved awareness and confidence at some Sancerre domaines regarding their wine and their terroir, with new-found comfort at being distinct from New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc rather than feeling a need to imitate that very successful style. And, perhaps hand-in-hand with that, a more concerted effort to aim for appropriate ripeness (rather than greener, methylpyrazine-influenced style) in the fruit, enhancing terroir expression in the process. This is The New Sancerre. The wines of François Crochet have been very convincing in this regard, and to a lesser extent Pascal Reverdy. The wines of Alphonse Mellot – a totally biodynamic estate – have also been highly regarded by many, although suddenly much more convincing – in view of the arguments put forward above – are the single-vineyard wines of Domaine Vacheron, which have suddenly burst onto my tasting and drinking radar again, almost twenty years after my first visit to their domaine. I tasted the new range of lieu-dit wines in London late last year, and found them hugely convincing; these are brilliant wines, very expressive, displaying distinctive terroir-related characteristics, definitely “wines worth talking about” to quote Hugh Johnson. I will be writing them up as soon as possible. And the likes of François and Pascal Cotat hardly need a mention, such is their fame. Although the wine I tasted last night was from none of these domaines; it is not from an unknown domaine, not by a long shot, but it is from a vigneron not previously discussed on these pages (part of my promise to myself to try to ‘discover’ more rather than just sticking with old favourites). More importantly it is delicious, and very true to its marly origins. It will be my Wine of the Week on Monday….for now, its identity remains a secret.

Ten Recent Wines

Some notes on ten wines tasted recently, everything from Champagne through to Port. I will also file these notes on the Winedoctor profile pages where appropriate.

Charles Heidsieck Mis en Cave 2004 Brut Réserve NV: Based largely on the 2003 vintage. A lemon gold hue in the glass, and a moderate-to-fat bead. On the nose this has certainly evolved, showing some caramel and biscuit tones with a richer brioche background and a good layer of fruit too, with a gently dried character. More harmony on the palate than I sensed last time, less fat, still rich but composed and in balance; there is a good seam of lemony acidity and a fresh mousse, but a rather grippy, sappy edge to the texture of the wine. Definite development here, more harmony, and plenty of fresh character, with notes of thyme and sherbet. And despite the base vintage being 2003, plenty of bitter grip at its core, and a long, sappy, bitter finish. A good wine, and one that has certainly gone in the right direction. 16.5/20 (January 2012)

Lanson Gold Label Brut 1998: As with previous bottles, pale straw and a very fine bead. It seems more evolved than I expected, starting off with an open, soft, expressive caramelly and coffee character. There’s a little nut praline behind it, but what I don’t find – perhaps surprisingly for Lanson – is much in the way of freshness or definition. A similar character on the palate, soft and caramelly substance, but there is also a brighter acid backbone here than the nose suggests. It just all seems a little disparate today, present but not correct I suppose. Long, sappy, sour fruit finish. It’s this latter element that suggests most of all that this needs more time. 17/20 (January 2012)

Vincent Pinard Sancerre Rosé 2009: A good salmon-pink hue in the glass, with a faint orange tinge in the background. The nose is very clean and fresh, with a stony reserve that brings to mind delicate red summer fruits rubbed against white pebbles, with slightly fatter, if rather leafy-herby elements, coming in later. The palate has a good and very dry substance, remaining very well defined, with lots of vigour and punch through the middle, with some creamy red fruit favours coming out from behind the lively structure. This is substantial, with an appealing, minerally depth to it in the finish. Attractive wine. Alcohol 14%. 16/20 (January 2012)

Couly-Dutheil Chinon Clos de l’Echo 1997: Only a few subtle tones of maturity on inspection, and still plenty of red pigment here. Initially quite bright, then showing more density on the nose, with a fresh violet tone overlaid on a more gamey, autumnal, meaty character. Also a little vegetal streak at first, although not as green as I recall from previous bottles. Instead I find darker, denser fruit, although nothing rich or creamy, it has a crunchy, acid-bound black fruit character, and also a little celeriac does come through here from time to time. There is some substance too, although it yields to a sappy, lightly astringent finish. Rather more reminiscent of my last bottle rather than the first. Good though. 16/20 (January 2012)

Marcel Lapierre Morgon 2009: From the hands of the late Marcel Lapierre, this wine has a dark yet vibrant character in the glass, the aromatics possess brilliant fruit, fresh and beautifully poised on the edge of ripeness. There are hints of blackcurrants and a raspberry tartness, intense and concentrated but not sweet or creamy. It has a perfumed, floral, crunchy-skin style which lends it a wonderful vibrancy. There is some super savoury-edged fruit, an intense backbone of vibrant acids, and overall a supple, lively, vigorous and vibrant midpalate leading into a linear, crunchy finish. Super stuff. 16.5/20 (January 2012)

Caiarossa (Toscana IGT) 2007: The blend this vintage is Cabernet Franc (25%), Merlot (25%), Sangiovese (16%) and Cabernet Sauvignon (14%). Small quantities of Petit Verdot (8%), Syrah (6%) and Alicante (7%) make up the balance. Dark and dense matt hue. The nose combines a lovely freshness, redolent of just-ripe red cherries and cranberries with the richer tones of oak, suggested by aromas of smoky-smouldering charcoal and caramel. A rich and polished texture on the palate, ripe and with sweet fruit, although with a heavy oak influence over the top, all spiky tannins and charcoaly caramel. The finish is filled to the brim with oaky grip. This needs a good few years in the cellar for this wine to fully integrate, but it holds promise, which I particularly find in the freshness of the underlying fruit. Good. 16.5/20 (January 2012)

Léon Beyer Gewurztraminer Vendanges Tardives 2000: A rich golden hue in the glass, a little deeper in colour than I expected. The nose takes a little while, an hour or so in fact, to fully open up. When it has done so there are fairly classic aromas here suggestive of the variety in question, notes of bacon and baked tropical fruits, with orange zest and a bitter orange pith. There is an appealing , polished, white fruit character to it, but it never really assumes the intensity or focus that I would really have liked to have seen. There is a rather relaxed style, showing good substance in the mouth, with some grip and body, but it carries a slightly sense of fat softness too. The acidity is on the low side, a varietal issue, and this doesn’t help the composition of the wine, which lacks real vigour as a result. Grippy, rich, long, mildly interesting, but ultimately lacking true definition. 14.5/20 (January 2012)

Domaine de la Rectorie Banyuls Cuvée Leon Parcé 2001: A richer hue than I recalled from my most recent tastings, but looking back at older notes I see it seems pretty consistent. There is undoubtedly a little twist of Brett seasoning the aromatics here, as there is a sweet intensity of fruit and a savoury character too, but it comes with tobacco and a telling gamey edge. It is very rich though, sweet and structured, and although this gamey character comes though on the palate it plays second fiddle to the very polished, cigar-tinged fruit, which dominates, remaining very grippy and rich right into the finish. Absolutely delicious wine, and one that knocks spots off the two subsequent bottles of Port. 17/20 (January 2012)

Croft Late Bottled Vintage Port 2004: A dark, richly coloured wine. The nose possesses sweet fruit in a very clean and expressive style, with black and a touch of blue fruit, smoky-smouldering embers too. There is not a hint of spirit to it, and it has an admirable brightness and freshness despite the depth off aroma. On the palate it shows a great texture, rich and sweet, with moderate tannins but also bright acidity and although the alcohol comes through here it seems wholesome and in keeping with the sweet, plush, ultimately simple but nevertheless very welcoming fruit layer. I find some more savoury elements in the finish, the only suggestion of a deeper complexity. All the same this is a really lovely composition; it is not an intrinsically great wine but one that has been very well put together, it offers great value, and is a real step up from the wines of the Croft of old. 16/20 (January 2012)

Delaforce Vintage Port 1985: The cork here behaved just as it did with my last bottle a few years ago, crumbling into a myriad pieces. Port tongs would have been the better option. In the glass this wine has really faded, and these last two bottles don’t reflect the potential I saw in one bottle many years ago. At the centre it has a tawny-toasty hue, with very little red pigment, and there is a wide and watery rim. The nose is gently spicy and aromatic, with soft sandalwood, baked figgy fruit, leather, earthiness and a little spirit. Attractive sweetness at the start, and this is maintained through the midpalate, but around that there swirls some firm alcohol. There is a pretty layer of leafy-earthy fruit as suggested by the more savoury aromatic tones, but the wine is still showing the bones of its structure underneath. With three data points now it is pretty clear that this wine is heading downhill and unlike some 1985s, which are still going strong, I would advise drinking this sooner rather than later. 16/20 (January 2012)

2012 Weekend des Grands Crus

This message from the Union des Grands Crus de Bordeaux, concerning the 2012 Weekend des Grands Crus in May, may be of interest to some Winedoctor readers, especially with a 2009 focus for the event:

We have the pleasure of informing you that the Seventh Weekend des Grands Crus will take place in Bordeaux on 12 and 13 May 2012.

To celebrate the new year, the Union des Grands Crus de Bordeaux are pleased to offer you a 10% reduction on the Grands Crus Tasting.*

The fascinating, varied programme of events lasts an entire weekend.

On Saturday, the Grands Crus Tasting, held in Hangar 14 in Bordeaux from 10.30 to 17.00, provides a unique opportunity to taste over one hundred fine wines from the Union des Grands Crus de Bordeaux, presented by the winemakers. This year, the main focus will be on the outstanding 2009 vintage, together with another vintage from the 2000s selected by the owner.

The Connoisseur Dinners on Saturday evening will be held at the following estates: Troplong Mondot, Labégorce, Phélan Ségur, Malartic-Lagravière, and Coutet. This promises to be a fantastic evening for exploring the subtle harmonies of food and wine so typical of fine French cuisine. These dinners will feature different wines with each dish, to showcase the diversity of the Bordeaux Grands Crus.

Also on Saturday evening, the new generation of owners will host participants under forty at the Soirée des Grands Crus: great wines and a chic buffet in an elegant wine-bar setting, with entertainment by a leading DJ.

Several activities are scheduled on Sunday to round out this gourmet weekend experience: vineyard tours (three itineraries: St-Emilion & Pomerol; Pessac-Léognan, Graves & Sauternes; Médoc), open days in the St-Julien, Pauillac, and St-Estèphe appellations, as well as a golf tournament at the Golf du Médoc.

See the UGCB website for more details and to book.

Bordeaux Pricing: Mixed Messages?

Interesting to follow up on my post last week entitled Boom and Bust? concerning forthcoming Hong Kong auctions and the reined-in expectations for how the wines would sell. The weekend just passed saw these auctions take place and the predictions were unsurprisingly accurate, perhaps even not pessimistic enough. Last year the sales netted over $34 million, and the projection for this year’s Chinese New Year sales was $23 million. In the end the sales netted just $18.7 million, reported here in Bloomberg News.

Talk of millions of dollars spent on wine never seems real to me; the wines traded at these auctions – for example, 1870 Lafite-Rothschild (the provenance was good on that one – kept at the château until 2003), a case of 1990 DRC and so on – are way out of my reach. Nevertheless, although the sum spent here is more than I will earn in my entire lifetime, it is still a massive drop – nearly 20% down on estimate, and 45% down on last year’s takings.

Of course these are different sales, of different wines, so its not quite the same as the Liv-Ex indices (which track the value of specific wines over time) falling, nevertheless the finding still seems significant. Two comments from the piece are worth noting:

“Wealthy Chinese and other collectors focused on the very best older vintages and Burgundies such as DRC Domaine de la Romanee-Conti at Hong Kong weekend auctions, passing on other lots in anticipation of further price declines this year.” – indication that this market continues to turn away from Bordeaux, focusing on Burgundy instead. Some wines – such as 2003 Lafite-Rothschild – went unsold. It wouuld be interesting to see a breakdown of what sold, and what didn’t.

“In general, today was cheap but I think there will still be a correction.” – a comment from one “collector” (terrible word). Clearly, market confidence is falling.

Contrast this, however, with recent moves in the 50 index from Liv-Ex, which seems to have stabilised a little in the past two weeks. A mixed message, it seems? I’m not so sure; we may see this slide further in coming weeks once the news of this poor performance at auction sinks in.

Postscript: See more detail, including top lots and hammer prices, on the Wineyields website.

Pithon-Paille: Open Doors

A message from Pithon-Paille which will be of interest to all those visiting the Salon des Vins de Loire in early February:

Dear Sir and Madam,

We are wine growers and Negociant-Eleveur (grape buyers) and work with the following appellations:
Anjou, Savennières, Coteaux du Layon, Quarts de Chaume, Crémant de Loire, Chinon, Bourgueil and Saumur Champigny. We proudly work in organic methods certified by Qualité France.

Our cellar will be open on Sunday 5th February from 10 am to 6pm for a tasting of our wines and a visit of our cave. We are located 25 kilometers (15 miles) south of Angers on the A87- exit 24. We will be hosting winemaking friends who will propose their wines also for a tasting.

Here are the dates of the professional wine salons early 2012 where we will be presenting our wines and you will be able to taste our selection:

Jan 23-25: Millésime Bio, Montpellier
Jan 28-29: Renaissance des Appellations, Angers
Feb 5: Open doors, St Lambert du Lattay
Feb 6-8: Salon des Vins de Loire, Angers
Feb 21: Hors-Piste – Gaillardises – Vinisud, Aéroport Hôtel, Maugio

If you are unable to make it to any of the salons and would like more information about our wines, feel free to contact us at the address below.

Yours sincerely,

Wendy Paillé – Jo Pithon

Boom and Bust?

A Bloomberg report today highlights several forthcoming auctions in Hong Kong which will test the market for highly traded (and highly expensive) first growths, which should be of particular interest as a follow-on from my post late last week, China Coughs, Bordeaux Trembles?.

Hong Kong has become a wine hotspot in recent years, primarily consequent upon the abolition of a previously hefty tax on wine sales. Several major auction houses now have a presence there, and forthcoming events include auctions by Acker, Merrall & Condit, Sotheby’s and Zachys. Last year, report Guy Collins and Frederik Balfour, the pre-Chinese New Year sales netted over $34 million, but projections for this year are already way down at $23 million. Of course, that all depends on the quantity and quality of the lots on offer, but I think it very likely that this more restrained outlook is largely due to falling wine values, as revealed by the recently published Liv-ex 100 data for the end of 2011 (see post linked above).

It will be interesting to see if the fall is universal, suggested tightening belts and closed wallets, or if there is a swing away from Bordeaux (the sales include large formats of Petrus and other frenzy-inducing delights) and towards Burgundy (DRC in particular features), suggesting evolving tastes and changing interests. I look forward to seeing the reports; not because I’m suddenly fascinated by wine and finance combined, but I’m certainly eager to learn of falling fine wine prices.

On a perhaps related issue, this story on the BBC news website is tangentially related. It notes that Barclays Capital have concluded that skyscraper construction appears to come in waves that precede periods of depression. Whether this is true or not I don’t know (surely there are skyscrapers being built all the time?) and the association may be rather weak, and of course a banking group might just be a tensy-weensy bit biased when it comes explaining why there is a global recession ongoing, but the article does note that of all the world’s tall buildings currently under construction, over half are in China, which has certainly seen a huge boom-time recently. And after the boom…comes what?

China Coughs, Bordeaux Trembles?

There’s been a massive amount of chatter on wine blogs and in the Twittersphere this week about wine pricing, with particular relevance to Bordeaux. Although this is a subject that seems to be permanently bubbling away just beneath the surface, it has been brought into full view again by the publication of the latest Fine Wine 100 Index figures for December 2011, showing a large and persistent decline across recent months. As the vast majority of wines in the index are Bordeaux (95% are red Bordeaux), the implication for the Bordeaux market is clear. “Is the bubble bursting?“, some have asked.

It’s worth taking a quick peek at the Liv-Ex Fine Wine 100 Index as there a couple of obvious points to be borne in mind when viewing it – see this Liv-Ex blog post to look at the latest plot, and first note that the y-axis doesn’t kick off at zero, but at 175. And second, the x-axis is truncated, running back as far as January 2007. To point out these facts is not a criticism, it is only natural that a plot be ‘sharpened up’ in this manner before publication. But it is important that we be aware of these features, as the plot could be extended down to 100 (which was the starting point) and back for several years, both of which would put the current falls into a very different perspective.

The big news that has been circulating is the published drop of 14.85% for the value of the index compared to January 2011. It’s clear from the plot in the link above that there has been a drop (since July 2011). And with a 3.9% drop in December, and similar decline in the Liv-Ex Fine Wine 50 Index (which focuses purely on the Bordeaux first growths) there’s no sign of an immediate slow up in this slide. Indeed, the fall in this latter index was one of the largest (the fourth largest, to be precise) since it was created in 2000. As an aside, auction sales also slowed during 2011, coming down from a 75% climb in 2010 to a ‘mere’ 14% climb in 2011, as reported by Bloomberg.

Take a look back a year, though, and we can see that the index is still considerably above its January 2010 position, and continuing back in time year-by-year it is also still way above its value in January 2009, January 2008 and January 2007. And let us not forget how the index was fashioned back in January 2004; it kicked off with a value of 100, and so the value of the index in December 2011 – 286.33 – means the portfolio of wines within the index are still trading at 2.8 times their value seven years ago; investors with a long term plan are still very much in the winning.

So this doesn’t look like the bubble is bursting, although I concede (as a drinker, hope?) it might be a ‘slow burst’; it depends on how this decline pans out over the coming year (and through the Bordeaux 2011 release). But although these declines are of great importance to investors, there is a long, long way for the index to fall before prices hit the level at which this news is important to drinkers. Nevertheless, this is still a correction in Bordeaux prices with some – such as Lafite, as reported here in Decanter – falling in value by more than 40%. Of course the biggest climbers are always likely to be the biggest losers, and Lafite 2008 is a case in point. Released at a ‘low’ value which saw it sell at retail in the UK at a price around £1500 it was soon trading at prices more like £13000. Unusually for a wine (because fools like you or I might think the value was related to the quality of the wine, or influential point scores – not entirely true, I’m afraid) the value was greatly bolstered as recently as October 2010 by decoration of the bottle with a Chinese figure 8, again as reported in Decanter. If there is any wine destined for a tumble, surely it is wine that sees rising price fluctuations based on labelling?

Which brings us to China. Why the big fall in prices in recent months? China seems to be important (“d’oh“, you might say). I was particularly taken by this comment, by Sophie Kevany published in Wineyields, on why Bordeaux has had the confidence to put in place such massive price hikes in recent years:

Although in-depth market studies on Asian and Chinese markets are not apparently behind the 2010 price hikes, many top flight producers will happily tell you they’ve spent the last few summers fending potential Chinese buyers – for both their wines and their chateaux – from their doorsteps. And after that, as one producer said off the record, who needs research?

Of course if Chinese interest is on the wane, then prices are bound to correct. Despite rampant growth in China their economy is in less than perfect health, with fairly strong inflation as reported by the BBC, with a high of 6.5% in July 2011 (when the index started to slide – not that I am suggesting correlation here), and still running at 4.2% in November 2011 (the most recent available figure). The WineSociete China, who describe themselves as “China’s Leading Organization for Wine Education & Appreciation” (no, it is not a Pancho Campo operation as far as I am aware), report that these changes reflect reduced cash availability and lending by Chinese banks. More illustratively, they also report that the massive rise in wine prices has been mirrored in China by similar climbs in value of everything from property to fine jade pieces to dahongpao tea. There are, however, no reports – that I have found – describing falls in value of these assets.

Of course the super-rich who may well be buying up pricy Bordeaux might not be affected by such issues, but if they turn from Bordeaux to other regions such as Burgundy (as reported in Harpers) or if as has been reported as a possibility on Twitter the Chinese finally wake up and realise what over-inflated prices they are paying (I’m not sure about this one myself – but include it for your consideration) then further correction is inevitable. The 2010 campaign also has a role to play of course, with Justin Gibbs of Liv-Ex describing the pricing of Bordeaux 2010 upon release on BBC Radio 5 two days ago as “the nail in the coffin” of the value of the Bordeaux market. Prices that were bad for drinkers (I bought zilch – those more wealthy than I may have loaded up, but they are now watching the prices fall – ouch!) and bad for investors too (too high for surety of gains, and of course falling value since).

And so it seems we should look in two directions if trying to gauge how the Bordeaux market will far in the coming year. First, to China, to the health of her economy, to wine sales in Hong Kong, and the balance of Burgundy-interest against Bordeaux-interest. And second, to the Bordelais themselves, and the 2011 campaign. I think release prices will (wishful thinking, perhaps?) come down, reflecting the vintage and the market, but if the Chinese are still hammering on the doors of Bordeaux, with “rucksacks of cash” as described by Sophie Kevany, then there is no telling what could happen.

2011 Loire Vintage Report

Every year Charles Sydney comes out with a sequence of informative vintage reports – here is the latest:

Loire Valley 2011 harvest report
‘Le Grand Ecart’ – ‘The Splits’
Charles & Philippa Sydney

Apparently the wish ‘may you live in interesting times’ is considered a curse by the Chinese. Here in the Loire, times are certainly interesting, sometimes a challenge too, but equally hugely rewarding – especially in a vintage like 2011!

You’ll have gathered from our preliminary report that the start to the vintage was 3 – 4 weeks earlier than usual (around the 22nd August in Muscadet) and less than even. To the extent that early September we gave serious thought to calling this the ‘black and white’ vintage to reflect the quantities of carbon and sugar being used to correct rot and an obvious lack of ripeness in wines picked in the hot, damp conditions of the start of the harvest.

You may also remember our report on the 2002 ‘Lazarus Vintage’ when we quoted Pierre Couly saying that it was the first 3 weeks and the last 3 weeks that counted – and that the rest of the summer was, frankly, irrelevant…

Which sort of sums it up…. and explains the ‘Le Grand Ecart’ bit, ‘The Splits’ in ballet… with some wines showing the extremes of 1994’s horrors and others exceeding years like 2005 and 2009 for quality and fruit.

Muscadet was … compliqué. Given the financial problems of a region still trying to recover from the 2008 spring frost, too many people didn’t have the money to treat against rot or mildew – and it showed clearly during the harvest when you could see a patchwork of brown leaves (mildew) contrasting with healthier green – and vineyards that had not been and never will be picked. Tasting the juice, contamination with géosmine was obvious, so it was a great relief to see those négociants who were buying in grapes (Lionel Métaireau chez Bougrier, Pierre Sauvion at GCF’s Lacheteau) systematically treating the juice with carbon, racking it onto the lees of the 2010 vintage and boosting the fermentations with aromatic yeasts.

Tasting the wines 6 weeks later was a revelation – dramatic proof of the improvements in winemaking over the last 20 years, as the wines are fresh, aromatic and delightfully easy. Not long keepers, maybe, but they’ll be fine until the 2012s come on stream next year.

Meanwhile, further proof of the improvements of the last 20 years was visible chez Pierre Lieubeau at La Fruitière and Jérôme Choblet in the Côtes de Grandlieu, where coherent, reasoned vineyard management allowed them to wait till the grapes were ripe, picking between 11 and 11.5% at harvest. The photo on the left says it all!

For the sauvignons in the Touraine, things were clearly not easy either – with the word ‘compliqué’ on every grower’s lips and serious choices needing to be made on how best to work the grapes as problems of rot and géosmine were widespread, not sparing growers in Sancerre or Pouilly either – while Quincy had to cope with yet another harvest decimated by hail.

For some growers, hand picking with a severe ‘tri’ selective picking was the answer – in others, I’d say quality was better assured with the new generation of machines like the Pellenc, which with their built-in tri assured a fine harvest with the ability to pick rapidly as grapes reached ripeness.

Despite the obviously difficult vintage, the results are good – big, easy-going wines with loads of fruit, lowish acidity (which may upset the fans of minerality but which will most certainly please the average consumer) and plenty of concentration and flavour.

And then those 3 weeks of sunshine started to kick in…

The red cabernet francs of Chinon, Bourgueil and Saumur-Champigny are textbook examples of the importance of terroir – and of modern vineyard management : the early-ripening sand and gravel vineyards needed picking by mid-September as they were starting to show signs of rot. Up the slopes, however, better drainage and exposition meant the growers could wait, with Couly-Dutheil, Charles Joguet and Philippe Vatan each waiting until the last week of September to pick their better vineyards, bringing in grapes with (a) a big grin and (b) full phenolic maturity, with degrees in some cases hitting a neat 15°…

The results with these growers are real stunners, wines with huge, fat and soft fruit and that delicious sucrosité and low acidity that comes with genuine maturity – wines easily on a par with (and maybe better than) 2005.

Up river, the chenins of Vouvray and Montlouis are fine too – despite problems we associate with high density planting and its associated low foliage and grapes close to the soil, the vintage is fine, almost certainly better than 2010. There’s loads of fruit, loads of flavour and a balance of acidity that’ll make these really tasty wines to drink young.

Downstream, though, in the Anjou and – especially – in the Coteaux du Layon, the chenin blanc has really shown the world-beating potential of the Loire, with Gilles Bigot at the Château de Fesles bringing in his first ‘tri of Bonnezeaux at between 22 and 23° potential, while in Chaume young Stéphane Branchereau picked 20 hectolitres (that’s 5 x 400 litre casks) with a potential of 32°.

Damn… we could have called this the ‘smiley vintage’ again!

A final point – prices…. Joe Punter won’t have noticed, but over the last 4 years the guys have worked hard to hold or even reduce prices, which are often lower now than they were 10 years ago. This year isn’t that different in that we expect your beloved chancellor to raise duty by another 12 pence – but it is different in that for the first time in over five years the pound has gained some ground against the euro, making our wines that touch more competitive – and effectively compensating for that *@xxarggh duty increase, so I hope you’ll understand us relaxing a bit of the pressure and accepting the occasional price increase where necessary to ensure continued investments in improved quality.