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Blind Tasting the Rhone

I currently have a lot of samples stacked up for tasting, and most of the bottles hail from the Rhône Valley, although Austria, Portugal and New Zealand are all represented.

When I have a large backlog of samples like this it is always tempting to open a dozen or more and just taste through them, especially when I have a busy period coming up (Bordeaux 2011 – my trip next week, plus all the writing up that will be required immediately on my return). But I resent doing this, because this turns an opportunity for a more thorough examination of the wine, taking my time over it, taking a second pour as required, into nothing better than a slurp’n'spit tasting. What’s the point of a busy winemaker in the Douro or Kamptal sending me a pile of bottles if that’s all I’m going to do?

What I’ve been doing instead is comparing and contrasting, blind tasting two bottles at a time, so that I get something out of the bottles (some useful palate education), but they get something out of me (some focused time). And because my family have been joining in the tasting and assessments (and I’m blown away by the tasting ability of all my three offspring, but my daughter especially – she wipes the floor with her two brothers) I’ve tried to pick out some easy contrasts. Here are the most recent two:

A 2010 Côte-Rôtie vs. 2010 Châteauneuf du Pape (both barrel samples)
This was meant to be easy, and it was. The only possible confusion might have come from the very primary nature of the fruit in both wines, but as both seemed true to (a) the varieties involved and (b) the climate the differentiation didn’t challenge anybody. My three teenagers don’t know their Rôtie from their Pape (yet) but once I gave some hints at which flavours (there was a classically sweet, brown-sugar crumble edge to the Syrah blackberry vs. the roasted-cherry Grenache) and texture (much more viscous in the warmer climate wine) then the wines were identified.

A 2010 Condrieu vs. 2010 Châteauneuf du Pape Blanc
Well, here is a pair that demonstrates the humbling effect of blind tasting; I hoped this would be another very easy comparison, but it was not, and indeed I backtracked on my first impressions. The textures were very similar, the acidities low, the aromas and flavours both reticent, at first at least. The Condrieu showed a lick of alcohol that made me think of the south, whereas the Châteauneuf showed a peachy character at first, which made me think of Viognier. But with a little time in the glass the Condrieu opened out to reveal certain aromatic Viognier characteristics, and the Châteauneuf hunkered down into a savage, savoury, rather wild character. I switched around, and got it right. My daughter, of course, once given some hints on Viognier aromas and flavours, spotted it without a hitch.

So this is fun, but also constructive and instructive, on several levels. Not only do I remind myself of the need to be analytical and precise when tasting (which blind tasting encourages I think), I also continue to show my children alcohol as something akin to music, art, theatre, film or whatever, to be enjoyed, mused over, investigated, discussed and respected, rather than as fuel for a binge-derived ‘high’. In each case we have tasted along with dinner, not a role for alcohol I was introduced to as a younger man. Will this mean their teenage years see different interactions with alcohol to those I ‘enjoyed’, one or two of which were very negative indeed? Who knows? I hope so.

The growers were Pierre Gaillard, La Ferme du Mont, François Villard and Domaine de Cristia by the way. Obviously I will write up all the wines as soon as possible, somewhere in the midst of a huge Bordeaux 2011 I suppose!

Bordeaux En Primeur: An Alternative Guide for Critics

It’s not long now until the frenzy and fury of Bordeaux 2011 kicks off. I will be there, tasting the barrel samples, my seventh year tasting and reporting on the nascent wines at this early stage, my fifth year of travelling to Bordeaux to do it. But for some, I know it might be an exciting first trip to the region to taste. So here’s my eight-point guide to would-be critics – perhaps those looking to fill the shoes of Robert Parker, who must surely retire sometime in the next thirty years – on how to make their mark.

(1) First up, you need to get out there as early as possible. Make sure you hit the primeurs week, and don’t go a week later, all the châteaux will be boarded up. Go earlier, at least a week before everybody else, to make sure you taste the wines first; this will be useful when it comes to point 2, below. If possible go several months earlier, and taste the fermenting must. Even better, make your predictions from a trip out last September, just from tasting the fruit; that way you can be certain your report was filed first. If you missed that opportunity, then consider this; the primeurs visit might be a good opportunity to pass your judgement on the 2012 vintage as well. File next year’s report now!

(2) In your report, use the word “Scoop!” a lot. Remember to include the exclamation mark, this is an integral part of the phrase. Use the word “Scoop!” when reporting your scores, via Twitter if possible. If you are so inclined, and don’t have your own scores, just regurgitate Parker’s. Just be sure to use the word “Scoop!” when you do so. Remember: with every score, there’s a “Scoop!”.

(3) Ignore naysayers who criticise you for travelling out early to “Scoop!” everybody else. Michel Bettane was the main critic of this practice last year, as reported by Decanter here. Fortunately, as the practice is here to stay and Bettane said last year that if it continued “this will be the last year that we play the game” then it seems he won’t be there to bother/criticise you anyway. Provided he sticks to his word, of course.

(4) In your report, there are several key ingredients that cannot be omitted. The first is a comment on the weather during the tastings. If fine and sunny, say so, and comment that this is great for tasting, thus implying your notes and scores are the best and most reliable. If dull, cloudy and wet, make sure the reader is clear just what hard work this has been for you, and how much you have striven to make sure your notes and scores are still the best and most reliable. This is despite the fact that the effect of a change in atmospheric pressure on carbon dioxide solubility – the usual mechanism by which weather is said to affect the taste of wine – is so small as to render such comments absolute drivel. See here for more detail on this.

(5) The next key ingredient of your report is to mention horses, but this must only be done in the context of a visit to Pontet-Canet, or at least driving past Pontet-Canet, or perhaps looking at Pontet-Canet from a distance, from the tasting room of Grand-Puy-Lacoste perhaps. Yes, I know you will see a few horses dotted about the region in other vineyards, on both banks, but you should realise by now that these are rented by the châteaux for primeurs week to fool the visiting journalists. There is a reason the race course in Pomerol was ripped up you know; it’s because the Bordelais were so entertained by their “How many journalists will mention that horse I rented for a week in their reports” sweepstake that nobody was visiting the real horse races.

(6) By no means should you mention how attractive the many attendants at some of the châteaux are, or imply that those châteaux that employ the most beautiful girls might make the best wines. Neal Martin has that aspect of en primeur all sewn up, and you need to make your own mark.

(7) You must, at least twice in your report, mention that there is much more to Bordeaux than the grand cru classé châteaux, that the region is full of unsung properties and overlooked appellations which deserve our interest. And that the region should not be criticised for ludicrously high prices, because that only pertains to the top 1% of the region. Stress that many of the smaller winemakers are struggling to avoid bankruptcy. When it comes to reviewing the wines, however, only taste grand cru classé châteaux. Do not report on little châteaux. That would be a waste of your time. Besides, all the best lunches and dinners are provided at the big-name properties. You aren’t going to be inundated with platters of foie gras and Sauternes if you choose to taste and take lunch at Château No-Name in Blaye, are you?

(8) Finally, on the matter of scores, you must use these. Make sure you score out of 100, as everybody knows Bordeaux drinkers don’t understand anything else. Yes, there are drinkers out there who get the idea that scores themselves are a blunt and flawed tool, and are not an inherent flavour detected in the wine, and there are even some that can get their head round the 20-point or five-star systems, but all these people drink Burgundy so you must not cater for them. Remember to give at least 100 points to two wines – especially weaker wines – as that way you are bound to be the critic with the highest score for those wines, meaning you will get quoted the most. Oh, and remember to write “Scoop!” at the end of your 100-point notes.

That’s my guide; stick to these eight basic rules, and you will be a famous Bordeaux critic in no time.

Perfection: The New Norm?

Although there are nay-sayers who claim that Parker’s influence is on the wane, anecdotal evidence gathered during many visits to Bordeaux (so I suppose I am referring specifically to Parker’s influence for this region, rather than others he has written about in the past) strongly suggests otherwise. I have sat and listened to famous figures in Bordeaux describe their success measured in Parker points, and to rank themselves within their appellation based on how their Parker scores measured up against their peers. When Bordeaux proprietors use a critic’s scores to benchmark their success, and track improvement in the wine across a sequence of vintages, you know you have an influential critic on your hands. One who not only has the clout to influence the purchasing decisions of the consumer, but to influence the style of wine made within the region.

Parker undoubtedly has changed Bordeaux, in many respects for the better. The wines have certainly improved; I think there is probably a broader spread of desirable (perhaps not an ideal choice of words, but I’m trying to avoid using ‘better’ or ‘higher quality’, for reasons which will become apparent in one moment) wines coming out of the region today than there were 20 years ago. The story at so many châteaux – such as my recently revitalised Rauzan-Ségla profile – is one of regeneration, refurbishment and even rebirth that this has to be true. And this applies to many petits châteaux, as well as at the grand cru classé level.

But with a move upwards in quality – there, I said it – there has come also a change in style; this is why I shy away from describing modern Bordeaux as simply ‘better’. Bordeaux today is not the wine it once was. The Pontet-Canet of the 2009 vintage is not just a more convincing version of the 1994; today Bordeaux is ruled by richer, creamier wines, with slicker fruit, and more slippery textures. The winemaking has changed. The style has changed. It has, in many cases, changed to please certain palates. Or rather, one certain palate. When your success, and your sales, are measured in Parker points, that is inevitable.

We have seen some good examples of the benefit to the proprietors of garnering high praise (by which I mean high scores) from Parker within the last week, with the publication of his 2009 scores. There was a veritable feeding frenzy; some bloggers cried ‘scoop!’ (a word that always calls to mind the writings of Evelyn Waugh, rather than any hint of journalistic success) as they published the scores, with a focus on 19 (or was it 16 – there seems to be some confusion, and I’m not feigning apathy when I declare that I really can’t be bothered totting them up for myself) 100-pointers. Wide-eyed Parker followers managed to crash the erobertparker.com server as they scrambled to get hold of the scores, forcing a subsequent email-apology from “The eRobertParker.com Technical Team” (not from Parker himself, note). And naturally the prices rocketed; in the UK Smith-Haut-Lafitte – for example – went from £60 to £141 overnight as a result of its high score.

The conclusion – from the behaviour of the score-touting proprietors, price-gouging retailers and blood-crazed consumers – is to conclude that Parker still has a strong relevance to Bordeaux. Indeed he does. But admitting that a critic has relevance is not a conclusion that they are the sole, unquestioned, universal palate to which we must all reverentially yield. There is no denying that he moves the market, but he moves the market for a section of buyers, not all buyers. There are many Bordeaux buyers out there who have independent thought and have the confidence to identify that their palate and Parker’s are not one and the same. This is as important as ever with the 2009 vintage. The aforementioned stylistic shift in Bordeaux has been accentuated in the 2009 vintage; when writers use words such as “opulent” or “hedonistic” for these wines these are not simple metaphors. The wines really do have this style; the term that I thought fitted best was “velvety” (which just goes to illustrate how difficult putting a wine into words can be…..which is why scores were introduced, surely) but you could just as easily settle for Parker’s “glycerine”. The 2009 vintage is one that that has given us all more turbo-charged, glycerine-infused, unctuously “perfect” wines than ever before, so perhaps no wonder Parker refers to 2009 as “unquestionably the greatest Bordeaux vintage I have ever tasted“.

For those who prefer savoury, more classically styled wines, however, this is perhaps the worst vintage ever. And although I would place myself in neither the classically-savoury nor the sweetly-modern camp (I can see some pleasure in Bordeaux in all its forms….even the slightly fat and unctuous ones from time to time, as well as the drier more savoury types), I just want to give some recognition out to the lovers and drinkers of old Bordeaux. If you can remember when 89 was considered a strong score that really meant something, when Smith-Haut-Lafitte wasn’t ranked the same as Latour, when the word “scoop” wasn’t so over-used, when score inflation hadn’t crammed 20-ish wines to the very extremes of scoring (time to press the 100-point reset button, surely?), when scores didn’t have so much influence on whether or not you were the critic most likely to be quoted on the shelf-talker, when supposed ‘perfection’ wasn’t The New Norm, when tasting notes had more influence than numbers, and when there was more respect for the individuality of one’s palate, I just want you all to know that I hear you. I know you’re out there. Hold strong. You are not alone.

Calls on Bordeaux 2011 Pricing

The pricing of next year’s Bordeaux releases – from the 2011 vintage – will be some of the most hotly debated ever I think. With two very expensive vintages back-to-back, widespread economic crisis, faltering prices of older vintages and a ‘lesser’ vintage, it would seem the prudent decision would be for prices to come down. I am sure they will; the question is, by how much?

In a report in Drinks Business by Patrick Schmidt two UK wine trade figures express an opinion:

Adam Brett-Smith, MD of Corney & Barrow, is quoted as saying “Unless they do something of unbelievable drama there is going to be no interest at all” and that the top châteaux had lost “the loyal bread and butter customer”.

In a similar vein, Gary Boom of Bordeaux Index says “I haven’t sold a case of first growth Bordeaux for months to a person in the UK who I think is going to drink it” and alleges that the Bordelais have done irreparable damage.

I’m don’t think there is “irreparable damage” [my italics] here; yes, the prices hurt, but it could be argued that 2009 and 2010 were certainly a class apart, setting a new benchmark for Bordeaux quality as well as pricing. If the quality was there (and it was – both vintages are great), and the wines sell (yes, I’m aware that there may be huge stock retention to limit supply and bolster price) to those wealthy enough to afford them, then there is little that the more cash-strapped consumer (i.e. me – maybe you too?) and the wine trade can do. The real damage will come if the prices do not fall back with the 2011 vintage. Bordeaux has a history of taking two steps forward with pricing, then only one step back – with the 1996 then 1997 vintages, 2003 then 2004, 2005 then 2006. If they do that in 2011 I think the exodus away from Bordeaux primeurs will not just be with the consumer, but with some big-name merchants as well. The comments from Boom and Brett-Smith certainly suggest that.

I hope the Bordelais make some wise decisions next year. If not, I hope they have some very large warehouses.

Read the full article by Patrick Schmidt here.

Points: for the Palate, or the Wine?

Following on from last week’s post, this week I am thinking of points again. Having said that, whereas last week I voiced a freshly-formed opinion that came from reading Terry Theise’s excellent Reading Between the Vines, my thoughts this week have been knocking around my head for much longer.

You know the old adage; you have to read the tasting note, and not just the score. It’s a ‘warning’ that has long been voiced by many critics and publications where wine opinions are accompanied by a number. The score tells you whether the critic liked a wine or not. So should the tasting note although sometimes, especially with more ‘technical’ analyses, it’s not that easy. Sometimes you can read a note and yet when you come to the end remain uncertain as to whether the critic actually liked the wine; this is where scores can be useful – they provide a quick and easy view into which wines the taster thought ‘best’ on the day. The note can achieve much more than this, though, because, language is so much more descriptive than mere numbers. The tasting note can describe the style of the wine.

I’ve tasted a lot of Bordeaux in my time, with a focus that starts in the 1980s, with occasional forays back to older vintages such as 1975 and 1961. But more recent vintages have come under greater scrutiny, as I’ve made regular assessments of vintages from 2003 onwards either at two years of age when the wines have just been bottled, as well as tastings at four years of age at the Institute of Master of Wine, and I’m now a regular visitor to Bordeaux for the primeur tastings. My experience with these most recent vintages and my trips to Bordeaux have taught me many things, from the veracity (or lack of it) to be found within barrel samples, to the huge size of the Bordeaux region (a drive from one appellation to the next can take a long time).

But one thing I have learnt more than anything else is that points are rubbish at describing wine.

This has been hammered home by the recent 2009 and 2010 vintages in Bordeaux. By now you will know that 2009 is widely acclaimed as a great vintage. You will probably also know, even if the thought of it makes you roll your eyes in despair at the marketing hype, that 2010 has also received a lot of positive press. This latter vintage currently remains in barrel, so (in view of what I wrote above) we should remain circumspect for the moment, although having tasted a handful of 2010s in Bordeaux in October I’m confident – as the wines seem to taste better and better with each encounter – that the early reports on quality are not unfounded. And so we have two great back to back vintages. Both have received praise, and both have been showered with high scores.

None of which tells you anything about how the wines actually taste.

The two vintages are completely different. Like chalk and cheese, Laurel and Hardy, Sarkozy and Merkel, you would never mistake one for the other. One is round, voluptuous, seductive whilst the other is firm, composed, generous but less easy to appreciate (I’m talking about the wines, not the politicians). The 2009 vintage has given us big, creamy, velvety textures, quite unlike any other wines I have tasted before. The 2010 is much more classic, much more ‘of Bordeaux’ I think, and as it takes on a little weight or flesh in barrel I think I may come to prefer it to 2009, much more than I did during my primeur tastings. It can be joined by a thread to previous vintages, such as 2005, 2000 and 1996 on the left bank. You can’t do that with 2009; there are no valid comparisons.

At no time, now or in the future, will a point-based assessment tell you that. And yet both critics and consumers seem so hung up on scores. James Suckling and his “I’m 96 points on that” videos spring to mind; why is that a valid statement to make about the wine, when you have decades of tasting experience and could do so much more to describe the wine, give something to your readers (or viewers) that actually informs? And a handful of MWs and other critics I’ve talked with seem totally obsessed with points and how they validate their palates. The post-tasting back-slapping when critics score wines at the same level (agreement between Critic ‘Smith’ and MW ‘Jones’ that the just-tasted Château X is a 95-pointer – this really happens!) is always amusing; it suggests that the two believe that the points are an intrinsic quality of the wine, there to be perceived by palates that – if they settle on the correct number – are clearly ‘great’ palates. And yet, if you like voluptuous wines rather than structured wines you should be scoring 2009 high, whereas if the opposite is true you will prefer 2010. In the same way, some will prefer La Mission Haut-Brion, and some will prefer Haut-Brion (would that I could afford either!). Points, I think, do little to help us understand any of these wines, but do much I think to inform us about the palate of the taster, to which they are perhaps more closely related.

Perhaps this latter aspect of points is the most useful. If you can gauge the taster’s preferences from the points they dish out, perhaps this implies they are a consistent ‘taster’, and you can judge therefore whether (a) the critic’s opinions are useful to you, and (b) whether your tastes align with (buy the wines they like) or are different from (buy the wines they don’t like) those of the critic. If you look at the scores and find you can’t gauge the author’s tastes or preferences, perhaps they aren’t a very good ‘taster’, and you should walk away.

How did you sleep last night?

As I hinted in my recent introduction to my latest set of notes concerning 2009 Bordeaux, I’ve been reading Terry Theise’s Reading Between the Vines. I don’t seem to read as many wine-related books as I used to, a symptom of how busy I am with Winedoctor I suspect, but that’s something I’ve been working to rectify recently. It’s important to read and hear what others have to say, as it can challenge and stimulate the mind. And it can be very pleasurable too – I enjoyed Theise’s book immensely – and with that in mind I know I should pen a short review for Winedoctor. Soon, I promise.

One of Theise’s arguments concerns the use of points or scores when rating wines, and the peculiar way this has filtered through from wine critics to wine consumers. I have to confess I had just taken this activity for granted, as ‘normal’ behaviour, and yet if you stop and think about it for a moment, the whole practise suddenly looks really weird.

Scoring wine appears, for the wine trade, to be a necessary evil. It’s necessary for the critic, as this is how they convey their ranking of a wine, superb or otherwise. Whether it is Decanter’s five stars, or the 100-point system favoured by Parker and Wine Spectator (and many others – I sense that some feel the 100-point system gives them credibility), or the 20-point system favoured by the British and European press (Jancis Robinson, the now-retired Clive Coates, World of Fine Wine, La Revue du Vin de France) just about all critics use some sort of method of rating or ranking wine. Even the likes of Hugh Johnson has his buy a glass/buy a bottle/buy the vineyard system. It’s a way of conveying which wine you thought ‘best’, which were in the middle, which were ‘worst’.

Scoring for the trade also appears to be part-and-parcel of the job. Theise appears to detest scores, and makes an impassioned (and very convincing – after a page or two of his argument I was ready to rip up scores forever) plea against their use. Nevertheless, he also admits to using them himself, but only within the context of his wine catalogue (he is a wine importer as well as gifted writer, by the way). They’re necessary to sell wine, it seems. But when drinking at home, it is pretty clear that he does not use them.

But what about the wine consumer? It’s not necessary to score a wine when you drink it at home. Sure, you might have used the critic’s score to settle on which wine to purchase, but once you have it on your table, shouldn’t you just enjoy it? Part of the pleasure is delving into the wine, sensing its nuances, understanding its context within the world of wine (by which I mean its origins, I guess), seeing its beauty. I’m all for that. Part of the pleasure is also enjoying the wine within its current context, not within the larger world of wine, but within that environment, with that meal, on that holiday, on your balcony as you savour a beautiful sunset. I’m all for that as well. And part of the pleasure may be some discussion or debate, with your drinking partner or dinner companion if you have one, or perhaps online on a blog or forum. That’s also something I would support. But why the score? What’s the (sorry about this pun) point?

So many aspects of culture are reviewed and recommended (or trashed!) by critics; films spring immediately to mind, but also restaurants, theatre productions be they drama, stand-up comedy, ballet, opera or otherwise, books, new music releases, and so on. And yet in so many respects debate among consumers about these cultural genres remains free of points and scores. Earlier this week I watched Scottish National Opera perform The Barber of Seville; I went because I am an opera fan (not a knowledgeable one) and not because I read a review, but I’m sure the production has been written up, picked over, reviewed and quite possibly awarded a rating of some sort by some expert somewhere. But I didn’t leave the theatre saying to my two companions “wow – I’m 96 points on that opera – how about you?“. Wouldn’t that sound rather infantile?

In case you think my argument is hackneyed (the old “how many points for that Botticelli?” argument) then let me be clear that this isn’t the message/question I’m trying to get across. I accept, as Theise seems to do, that points are a necessary evil and that critics and the trade will continue to use them despite their many flaws. So I’m not trying to argue away scores on the basis of “wine is art and you can’t score art”, because that’s been done too many times before. The question I’m asking is this: why do so many wine-interested consumers feel that wine appreciation must involve assigning a score? If you’re not a critic, or a wine merchant, what is the purpose in scoring wine? Do you feel it gives your opinion some sort of validity, or does it facilitate debate, perhaps? And if you do score wine, do you also score other aspects of your life?

And coming back to the title of my post….did you have a 90+ point sleep last night?


It’s been pretty hectic recently, with two major Bordeaux tastings – of the 2007 and 2009 vintages  – in the last few weeks. I’ll be writing them up imminently, with 2009 first in the queue, following the UGC tasting in mid-October. But first something tangential, an aspect of wine tasting I confess I haven’t considered in any great detail before, and that’s the effect of changes in atmospheric pressure on our assessment of wine.

Low atmospheric pressue is said, by some, to have a negative effect on the taste of many wines, and although the mechanism remains up for debate the most commonly proffered explanation is related to carbon dioxide moving out of solution with the arrival of low pressure (taking with it freshness and vigour) and moving into solution with the arrival of high pressure (reinvigorating the wine). Why would my mind turn to this, at a tasting of Bordeaux 2009 at two years of age? Simple; the tasting prompted me to think back to the 2009 primeur tastings in April 2010 when, in their Bordeaux 2009 reports, the low atmospheric pressure system which passed over Bordeaux during the tastings was reported as negatively influencing the showing of the wines by a number of critics. Perhaps the most notable comment on the effect of the low pressure system was from James Suckling, who has such tasting acuity he felt the wines change as the clouds rolled in, as documented in this blog post. And similar comments came from Robert Parker, in his Bordeaux 2009 report, but in this case describing the beneficial effect of the higher atmospheric pressure and clearer skies that blessed Bordeaux a week or two before the primeurs proper got underway, the wines tasting bright and fresh as a result. I would link to his comments, but they sit behind a paywall so there seems little point. They are within the introduction to his Bordeaux 2009 primeurs report, if you are interested.

Reviewing the atmospheric pressure over Bordeaux during the primeurs week in April 2010, however, suggests a story rather more complex than some have suggested. On the Sunday, as the main week of tastings kicked off, the pressure was a very reasonable 1018 mbar, before dropping to 1004 and 1003 mbar on Monday and Tuesday, rising again to 1010 and 1017 on Wednesday and Thursday respectively. The preceding week had seen a similar dip but also, in a similar fashion, some days where the pressure was respectable, whereas those tasting a week or two later enjoyed much higher pressures. Thus the atmospheric pressure was indeed on the low side, especially on the two days at the start of the week, although on many other days the recorded figures are, on retrospective examination, unremarkable. If you believe it is not absolute figures that are important but the changes in pressure, a detrimental fall at the start of the week was more than matched by a beneficial climb thereafter.

Either way, these figures look less than convincing to me. First of all, if the atmospheric pressure really has such an important effect, why did I not see (of course, I may have missed it – please let me know if any critics commented on this) reports that the wines tasted later in the week were showing much better than earlier in the week. Secondly, taking the measurements at face value, the pressure certainly varied, but these are very small changes. How likely is it that they would influence carbon dioxide solubility at all?

A little research led me to any number of documents and publications, but I will link to just one, the most useful and pertinent I feel, which is this paper, The Solubility of Carbon Dioxide in Water at Low Pressure (links to pdf, so you will need Adobe Acrobat if you click this link), published on the National Institute of Standards and Technology website. It’s from 1991, but as the laws of the universe haven’t changed too much in the last two decades, I think it is still relevant. “Low” in the context of this paper, by the way, means less than 1 Megapascal (which is 10 times atmospheric pressure) – you would be surprised how many papers focused on pressures much higher than this.

Looking at the paper, Figure 4 is the most important for my argument. To save you clicking through, I’ve reproduced it here, without the authors’ permission, I hope they will forgive me that.

Normal atmospheric pressure is 1013 mbar, so just above 0.1 MPa on the pressure axis going up the left-hand side (which is a logarithmic rather than linear scale, by the way). Trace the line across and you will see this corresponds, using the 20ºC plot, to a carbon dioxide solubility about 0.07 mol%. Now, consider these two situations:

(a) how wine tastes in an aircraft. It has long been held that wine does not taste as good at altitude, even in commercial airliners where the cabin is pressurised. Let’s suppose this is related to reduced carbon dioxide solubility because of the lower pressure within aircraft – although pressurised, they are not pumped up to 1013 mbar. Instead, a figure of 750-800 mbar would be more typical – that is why your ears still pop as you ascend and descend. Find 0.075 MPa (i.e. 750 mbar) on the Pressure axis on the left and, again using the 20ºC line, you will see this corresponds to a solubility of about 0.05 mol% – about a 30% reduction. I might be prepared to believe, therefore, that changes in taste of a wine under these conditions might be due to carbon dioxide solubility. It’s not proof, I’m merely suggesting plausibility.

(b) now consider this – Bordeaux primeurs, March-April 2010 vs Bordeaux UGC tasting, October 18th 2011. Let’s take the lowest pressure for the former, from the data presented above, which was 1003 mbar, or 0.1003 MPa. The latter figure, taken at midday on October 18th 2011 in London, was just a shade over 1010 mbar  (0.101 MPa) – I’m using this figure as I haven’t heard any comments about how bad the wines tasted on the day, but you could take a higher figure if you wish – my argument would still hold. Look at the Pressure axis – both figures lie a mere hair’s-breadth above the 0.1 MPa marker. Tracing across to the 20ºC line illustrates that carbon dioxide solubility is essentially the same, about 0.07 mol%. In other words, no big change. A fraction different. I really do doubt that such minute alterations could have such a profound effect on the taste of a wine. I’m not saying I have disproved it, of course, but there is certainly a lack of plausibility here.

My conclusion is that if you believe the taste of a wine is negatively affected by low pressure weather systems, you might need to find a better explanation than carbon dioxide solubility. Big changes (such as on an aircraft) might have some effect, but I’m dubious about atmospheric fluctuations. The taste of a wine is an interaction between palate and wine, and I wonder whether weather doesn’t have more of an effect on the owner of the palate, than on the wine. This is particularly important when considering conditions during the London tasting, where tasters ‘endured’ pressures very similar to those during the primeurs (1010 mbar vs 1003 mbar), and yet I do not think we will be reading reports of how difficult the wines at the UGC event were to taste from all the acute and sensitive palates in attendance. 

After all, it’s easy to comment on how atmospheric pressure affects your ability to taste, assess and comment when you need to generate a ‘story’ about the vintage, and outside there are gales blowing and rivers are bursting their banks (as was the case in Bordeaux in March-April 2010), but when the cues aren’t there (mild Autumn day in in London, October 2011), I don’t think it is such a prominent thought in many minds. Even though atmospheric pressure on the day of the tasting in London in 2011 was very similar to that experienced in Bordeaux in 2010.

Maybe some of these pressure-sensitive palates aren’t quite so sensitive after all?

Bordeaux: who are you reading?

Once upon a time, before the arrival of a myriad internet sites dealing with wine, you had to work a little bit to obtain good quality information, even on such a heavily discussed region as Bordeaux. It would have meant a magazine or newsletter subscription, perhaps, or maybe you could learn from discussion and debate at your local tasting group. These days it is potentially all at your fingertips. One of the most popular wine regions, there are more websites and blogs covering Bordeaux than ever before, and if a little heated debate is your thing there are plenty of online discussion forums where you can exercise your Bordeaux-demons as well.

But when it comes to divining whether the author of the blog or website you have just discovered has wine and perhaps even the very soil of the vineyard running in his (or her) veins, or is merely out for an injection of grandiose hedonism disguised as journalism, a few pointers might be required. Here’s how to distinguish two reporters on Bordeaux. I’ll call them Mr WineGeek and Mr Hedonism.

On setting up a visit: Mr WineGeek visits a property and tours with the technical director; it’s the best way to get a true feel of the philosophy behind the estate, and what makes it different from others. Mr Hedonism tours with the proprietor, not a mere employee! The only exception might be if the proprietor has a hot daughter, in which case a tour with her would be OK. Gotta get me some photos of this babe for the blog!

On who to visit: It is important to take in and report on a variety of levels within Bordeaux, thinks Mr WineGeek. First and second growths are all very well, but what about under-performing properties, lesser estates, cru bourgeois châteaux or similar? These all deserve review and reporting. Mr Hedonism holds a different point of view. He won’t travel without appointments at Lafite, Cos d’Estournel, Lafleur and Valandraud at the very least. Where else could he go? What about Cheval Blanc? Hmmmm……..no sexy daughters to photograph…..but they do put on a fabulous spread! Settled – Cheval Blanc it is!

On the importance of the vineyards: Mr WineGeek gets his shoes muddy walking in the vineyards. This is especially so when amongst the vines after a night of heavy rain; you can almost lose your shoes the feet can sink so deep! Connecting with the vines is the best way to understand the soil and vines the staff have to work with. Mr Hedonism’s response to the suggestion of a walk in the vineyard is abject horror. What about my Gucci loafers? Besides, when’s dinner?

On vintages: Mr WineGeek spends his time getting to understand the region in all its forms, especially looking at lesser vintages as well as the more successful. Thank you for the taste of 2009 and 2010, he might say, but what about lesser vintages? Could I taste your 2007? By contrast Mr Hedonism will spend his time bathing in grand vintages and nothing less. It would be great to taste your 1961 again? What about over dinner tonight….your place, naturally?

On dinner: A slightly solitary and independent existence is the price Mr WineGeek pays for maintaining his independence. He will ensconce himself in distant accommodation, his evenings filled with simple pasta dishes and an inexpensive bottle or two, perhaps to taste with a colleague. But Mr Hedonism’s gastronomic radar is on full-tilt on this trip; there’s nothing like a multi-vintage dinner with the proprietor to help form an ‘independent’ and ‘balanced’ opinion of the château. Really….this evening? Why, of course I’m free! I’ll be there at seven. Why don’t you open the ’61? You are? Oh my…the 1861?! I’ll be there at six-thirty.

On photography: Mr WineGeek takes his camera so he can take photographs of the vineyards, individual vines, the châteaux and staff at work, steel fermentation vessels and barrels. Mr Hedonism takes photographs of the plates of food alongside the 1861.

On independence: Finally, Mr WineGeek returns home with a pile of tasting notes and photographs of châteaux and vines. He has tasted and formed his opinions in his own universe, insulated as much as possible from the marketing spiel of the châteaux. He will publish his spell-checked but otherwise unamended notes online. Sometimes he gets it wrong and has to change course when he retastes the wine after bottling, or at four years or older, but the opinions are sound and his own. Mr Hedonism returns home with a pile of tasting notes and photographs of filet mignon and hot babes. He has tasted and formed his opinions in his rather less insulated universe, and has made many new ‘friends’. He will publish his spell-checked notes online…after cross-referencing them with Parker’s opinions. He would never disagree with Parker….because to do so would mean he had got it ‘wrong’.

All thoughts and comments, as always, are welcome.

Plagiarism: the worst yet

I know a lot of what I write is ripped off, often without linking back to Winedoctor or providing any credit. Finding small portions with a link back on other sites delights me – I’m very happy for that. Finding whole pages, with no link and no credit (and often stamped with someone else’s copyright statement) is depressing.

Thanks to Sarah Abbott who brought this site to my attention: Grand Tree Wines.

I lost count of the number of Bordeaux profiles reproduced on this site. Just click the appellation options in the “Grand Cru” box, bottom left, to find the links. I’ve had no response from emailing the two addresses given on the site, and no response from their hosting company, nicenic.com.

Perhaps it is because I’m writing in English? Or perhaps, as is often the case, the first action is to ignore my protests? Would anybody with a better grasp of Chinese (nicenic.com appears to be a Chinese company, although Grand Tree Wines are based in Hong Kong) like to protest on my behalf, or should I persevere in English?

Censorship by Harassment?

You never stop learning; recently I’ve been enlightened as to some of the features that make for a good blog post, and some that don’t. Good blogging is different to journalism, or “wine writing” per se, which is not widely regarded as the cutting edge of investigative journalism (even if the prose itself can be quite cutting at times). Some words that come to mind as I write this that would perhaps describe an admirable blog post include spontaneous, honest, provocative, engaging and stimulating. Feel free to suggest more.

Some of these thoughts have gelled in my mind following a post made by Jamie Goode concerning the wining of a Decanter Trophy by a Chinese wine. In it, Jamie highlighted the winning of the award, contrasted against other opinions on the wine which were quite negative (it having been assessed on blind tasting by Joe Wadsack and Tim French, two people “with palates I respect”, said Jamie). It was all kicked off by this article, by Victoria Moore, who won a Roederer award this year in relation to this column in the Telegraph.

In my opinion, Jamie over-stepped the mark with some of his comments. But that’s OK, after all it was his personal opinion he was expressing, in his honest fashion. It’s up to Jamie to judge where his ‘mark’ is, and he will post according to it, not to my ‘mark’ or any other. I gave some criticism of the research (or lack of) Jamie had undertaken before posting, but perhaps I shouldn’t have. A different point of view would have been to accept that it was never meant to be a heavily researched newspaper article carrying multiple levels of evidence to back up his statement. It was an opinion piece….and it matched many of the features describing good blogging I have listed above; it was certainly honest and provocative. In keeping with that it stimulated a lot of debate, one of the joy of blogs; and whereas I strongly disagreed with some of Jamie’s statements, I would defend his right to make those statements for as long as the debate continued….and for many moons afterwards.

The piece has generated some interest across the internet, such as Nerval’s piece here, where he likens it to wine racism – but note that he is referring to some of the blog comments, not Jamie himself. I’m not sure I agree with Nerval’s opinion though, as I have to confess I thought the comments on Jamie’s blog post included a lot of informed opinion, in some cases based on some knowledge and experience of tasting Chinese wine. I note Nerval doesn’t mention in his blog post whether he has tasted any such wine himself. Nevertheless, as with Jamie, I would defend Nerval’s right to express this opinion. But let’s not go off on a tangent; this isn’t about Nerval.

So returning to Jamie’s post, you will notice I have linked to Victoria Moore, and to Nerval, but not to Jamie’s original post. The reason for this is simple; the post was deleted. Jamie says so here. There’s no strong reason given, although Jamie admits “it upset people”.

It certainly did upset people. And I find some of the reactions the piece generated to be difficult to understand. Let’s look at Decanter for a moment; and perhaps envisage a ‘model’ response to criticism of their Wine Awards. It seems to me that if you have a robust process for wine judging (which is certainly the case at Decanter), when unusual and thus newsworthy results come out in the wash are subject to external criticism you should fall back on your process; for trophy winners at the Decanter World Wine Awards (at which I judge, although I am certainly not important enough to judge at the level this wine attained – I stick to the Loire where we rarely award a gold, never mind a trophy) this would involve blind tasting, multiple tasting panels giving multiple levels of assessment, no information as to country of origin given to tasters, only price band and style, and so on. You have the high ground, so to speak. Stick to it. Issue some well-chosen words, a calm rebuttal, provide clarity on the judging process for those who don’t know it inside-out. Maybe leave it at that?

In this situation, though, something else seems to have happened.

First up, a little rumour regarding a strongly worded interaction between Jamie and Guy Woodward, Decanter editor, on the night of the Roederer awards. To quote Neal Martin, commenting on his Twitter feed – “I keep hearing rumours that @guyawoodward gave @jamiegoode a Chinese burn backstage at the Roederers. Is Gripper Stebson back?” For those outside the UK and unfamiliar with ‘Gripper Stebson’, he was the archetypal school bully in Grange Hill, a long-running and enormously popular children’s television drama about life in an English comprehensive school. Rumour-humour from Neal? Most humour is based in truth of course, and Neal isn’t the only source of reports of a strongly-worded interaction (the phrase I heard was “bollocking”) between Guy and Jamie that evening.

And then, on his blog, before the whole thread was deleted, Jamie wrote of the reaction to the post, describing “Phone calls from the publishing director on a Saturday; bullying and rudeness from the editor and posts from the chairman of the awards…”. It’s clear he took some personal heat for what he wrote. Ultimately Jamie admits to feeling “vulnerable” in a subsequent posting on Twitter: “Going to bed glum – expect people to be fair and objective – maybe expecting too much? Feel vulnerable now”. The next day he deleted the post. What has happened to induce this feeling of deflation, and induce Jamie to go on and delete his Chinese wine post? It looks, from my distant viewpoint, as if Jamie has been hounded out of expressing his opinion, though a process of personal face-to-face interactions, telephone calls and blog posts.

It was perhaps, to my mind, in places, an ill-worded opinion that Jamie expressed, but a few poorly chosen words are no longer the ‘great crime’ here. I am worried that a far greater wrong has been committed, and that is one of censorship by harassment.