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What makes a good wine website?

Attending the 2011 Roederer Wine Awards earlier this week I was struck by Charles Metcalfe’s (Charles, who I admire very much, is chairman of the judges) comments regarding the book submissions. It was, he said (I am paraphrasing here – I wasn’t recording anything you know!) that it had been a very strong year for submissions in this category, not a statement that I found surprising in a year marked by numerous high quality publications such as Jasper Morris’s Inside Burgundy. More notably, any suggestions that “print was dead” were firmly laid to rest, he said.

I suppose this comment reflects a fear that print wine publishing, which has long been dogged by a relatively small target audience, was to die in the face of publishing online (there are some very high quality websites dealing with wine – it is a subject matter that seems to have taken very well to the internet) or by publishing in electronic formats (e-books or similar). But then that got me thinking; why should this fear arise? After all, wine websites and wine books do not offer the same features; what makes a good book is not what makes a good website. And that led me to consider – what’s a wine website for?

I’ve come up with a handful of criteria. Let me know what you think of these:

1. Wine websites should provide original information free of editorial constraints

(a) For example, writing online facilitates coverage of unsung regions. I am afraid I still consider the Loire to be one such region. I never started Winedoctor with a Loire focus despite the fact it is a region I adore; that’s because I never started with a plan – it was pure enthusiasm! It has grown, especially over the last 3-4 years, into its Loire ‘role’ (along with Bordeaux – I enjoy the paradoxical elements of pairing these two regions, by the way!).

The Loire will never (perhaps that is a bit pessimistic, but I will leave it as ‘never’ for now) be treated in the same detail in print as regions such as Burgundy or Bordeaux. Chatting once with a World of Fine Wine employee, I asked when the magazine would ever feature the Loire. “Never, if our reader feedback is to drive what we publish” was the response. This can’t be taken as an official line (It wasn’t editor Neil Beckett I was talking to) and admittedly there has been a Cabernet Franc tasting featuring some wines from the Loire published within the last 12 months, but beyond this I don’t think we can expect to see the Loire in print much. Whereas online, writers such as Richard Kelley and Jim Budd (and me?) are free to write about this region for the benefit of anyone who might be interested.

(b) And this segues nicely into the next point; whether or not the region is unsung, publishing online does not fetter the volume and style of writing – the author is free to go wherever they wish, for as long as they wish. Chatting at the Roederer’s with Neal Martin, who continues to write amazing articles of great depth coupled with fine humour on Wine Journal, within the confines of erobertparker, a recent Suduiraut profile he published amounted to 70 000 words; which print publication could handle that? None; and yet I know there are readers out there who enjoy that level of detail and discourse.

Sure, there are problems with self-publishing online; a lack of proof-reading for instance, meaning more shpelling mistgakes and grammatical errors, as well as losing those unsung benefits of editing (improving the flow of articles, chopping out useless tangential issues, etc.) but overall the pros outweigh the cons.

I don’t think a wine website should provide a home for advertorial at all – in print the need for revenue generation unfortunately gives us the advert disguised as article. The internet shouldn’t play host to this, and yet I fear that there are, somewhere out there, bloggers who may – shock, horror – be writing very positive words about wine they have received as part of marketing campaigns. This is a major problem with online credibility. Having been approached to participate in such schemes, which I naturally rejected, I know generating ‘recommendations’ for a wine by ‘blessing’ the blogging community with free bottles in exchange for review really happens. Secondly, I don’t think a wine website should be a home for recycled articles, unless (i) they are a very minor part of the site, or (ii) publication online actually adds something (such as an expanded version – free of print constraints – perhaps with more detail, or more accompanying wine recommendations). Unfortunately, there are big-name writers out there who have websites which consist largely of recycled material from print columns. These author’s don’t really ‘get’ the internet; and I find their approach to publishing online tired and rather cynical.

2. Wine websites should facilitate communication, discussion and feedback

The days of ‘top down’ dissemination of wine information have gone; the internet has democratised wine writing; it is the numerous blogs and forums online that have achieved this, with two top UK examples being:

(a) Jamie Goode’s blog – a very fine blog running alongside Wineanorak where Jamie isn’t afraid to be controversial. The discussions can get a bit spiky at times…which is why they are so engaging of course. I do enjoy joining in from time to time; debate is good.

(b) Tom Cannavan’s forum – the original UK forum which has engendered the creation of a very real online (and subsequently offline) community.

Encouraging feedback and interaction is why I added this blog to Winedoctor. There is certainly room for improvement though.

3. Wine websites should offer entertainment

This differs for different people – for many the printed word is preferable; although I accept that online video has a role, I’m reluctant to believe that video is the most ‘desirable’ online format. Video cannot convey the depth of information that a written article can, nor can it deal with complex arguments so well. Done well, it can add to the value of a resource, but done poorly it contributes to the dumbing down of the internet, shifting it one step closer to something more akin to television than the book. There are plenty of readers who clamour for detail, not superficialism, otherwise (in print) the World of Fine Wine wouldn’t be so successful, and (online) Neal Martin’s profiles wouldn’t receive the praise they do. Video can illustrate and entertain, but let’s not forget the value of the written word.

Returning to my starting point, it is strange that Roederer don’t seem to have published details of winners online, but thankfully Jim Budd (amazing, considering he wasn’t even at the awards) has saved me the job. See the winners here.

Bordeaux: trade down or trade away?

There’s a very telling thread over on the UK Wine Forum regarding Bordeaux, and how the changes in prices seen over the last decade have influenced spending within the region. If you’re an interested wine drinker, especially if you have a particular penchant for Bordeaux, then it’s well worth a read. If you’re a Bordeaux proprietor, reading should be mandatory; after all, you need to understand how concertedly a section of UK consumers, once avid Bordeaux addicts, are turning away from the region.

It’s no secret that Bordeaux prices are rising, and the reasons for this change have been discussed at length, here and elsewhere, so I don’t intend re-examining the root causes here. Suffice to say that over the last ten years prices of classed growth chateaux have skyrocketed. This means that for many UK consumers, the top wines are now financially out of reach. Let’s see this through the eyes of an imaginary buyer of Bordeaux called, for no particular reason, Peter. Peter is a fan of the wines and ten years ago this is what he would typically buy:

Latour, Ducru, Pontet Canet, Léoville-Barton, Cantemerle, Batailley

Even ten years ago Latour was a bit of a treat, but he could still stretch to half a case. Of course since then, that’s no longer true, and Ducru became unaffordable as well. But that’s OK, that still leaves him with some excellent, iconic wines, unparalleled in terms of style and quality; you can’t find a Léoville lookalike coming from the Languedoc, or Rioja, or Margaret River, and so on. So in more recent vintages, say up to 2008, he bought these wines:

Pontet Canet, Léoville-Barton, Cantemerle, Batailley, Angludet, Citran

The latter two additions keep Peter’s stock topped up, and the under-appreciated Angludet can do very well in the cellar (I’ve certainly tasted very convincing examples at over 20 years of age). But then come the price rises of 2009 and 2010, and more of Peter’s favourites go out of reach, the first two wines on his list now disappearing beyond Peter’s €1000 per case limit. So Peter weighs up what he can afford, and it looks like this:

Cantemerle, Batailley, Angludet, Citran, Fourcas Hosten, Thieuley

And Peter feels a little dejected, for several reasons:

(1) Peter is used to drinking exciting wines such as Latour and Ducru. He doesn’t deny that Fourcas-Hosten and Thieuley are well made, and are readily identifiable as Bordeaux, but he knows he won’t get anything like the epicurean experience he used to have when he could afford Ducru.

(2) Peter was happy to accept first growths and super-seconds disappearing out of reach; most regions have their iconic and unaffordable wines. And after all Peter’s friend Paul, a Burgundy drinker, accepts that tastes of grand cru wines from the likes of Leroy and DRC are treats rarely experienced. But now Peter can’t even afford Léoville-Barton or Pontet Canet, and Cantemerle is he best he can hope for. This is a little like expecting Peter’s friend Paul to give up not only the grands crus, but all the premiers crus as well. Would the Burgundy drinker be happy with only village level wines?

(3) Most importantly (and this was the point that was made so nicely in the above-linked thread), Peter looks at his list and sees the wines there as ‘value’ Bordeaux, wines for any occasion rather than a fine, weekend dinner. He was happy to add them to the cellar to open on occasion, for midweek drinking perhaps, but he isn’t so interested if these wines are all he can afford to add to his cellar. They say less about Bordeaux than Latour or Ducru, and more about well made red wine. And because of the Bordeaux association the prices aren’t exactly low, they don’t look like such great ‘value’ after all. Peter looks around and sees that, for less money, instead of drinking decent lower-end Bordeaux like those above he can drink amazing reds from the great schistous terroirs of the Languedoc, or he can discover new wines from Priorat and other regions in Spain previously unknown to Peter, or he can drink the very best wines of Chinon or Saumur-Champigny, or good wines from Australia or South Africa, all for much less money. And so Peter begins to do just that.

Peter decides not to trade down within Bordeaux, but to trade away.

It’s a warning shot across the bows of Bordeaux; be careful alienating old long-standing customers as you chase new, more wealthy customers more ready to part with grand sums of money for your wines. The whole wine world has pulled its socks up, and there are now great wines being produced everywhere, and most are now much more affordable than Bordeaux. You are driving old customers to these other regions, and although some will no doubt come back when your new customers stop buying, and the prices of classed growth wines fall to more reasonable levels, the tone of opinions expressed suggest to me that many will not.

All of this sets a very fascinating context for Bordeaux 2011; how will the Bordelais price their wines for these disparate markets? As once-faithful buyers reject even a successful vintage such as 2010, based on price, how will they respond to 2011? That’s a subject for another blog post, on another day, I think.

The Nonsense of Scores

It might seem a little hackneyed to talk about wine scores but I’ve certainly been thinking about the validity of scoring this week, in part stimulated by this website, Score Revolution. Although to be fair on me I’ve long had concerns about scores, how they are used by critics and by consumers, and the effect they have had on the world of wine.

The Score Revolution site proposes an anti-score manifesto; as the manifesto goes, “if wine is, as we believe, a subjective, subtle, and experiential thing, then by nature it is unquantifiable“. That’s an anti-point message; I think some people have interpreted it as an anti-critic manifesto, but that isn’t the case, as the manifesto continues “To discuss a wine’s tannins, acid, balance, structure, fruit, etc, is essential. To share our thoughts and experiences with other humans is arguably one of the most important parts of drinking wine. To introduce a score to this process is condescending, overly simplistic, and often largely inaccurate.” The aim seems to be to shift the emphasis away from scores, and to develop greater respect for the wine and what it is trying to say.

There are certainly many ridiculous facets to the process of scoring wine. Some which particularly bother me include:

(A) A score is taken by many as an intrinsic, inherent quality of the wine, as embodied by the phrase “that’s a 98-point wine”. Wrong. Scores actually rate to an interaction, not the wine itself, and other people may have very different opinions. I know of MWs and critics working for important international journals who subscribe to this ‘intrinsic’ view, who gain solace from tasting in groups and rating the wine the same as their peers, as if a different opinion somehow meant there was something wrong with their palate, or more likely the other taster’s palate. It’s all pretty nonsensical, and a good reason why I continue on using my little 20-point scale, rather than switching to 100 points as many have done. I could go on about this perhaps flawed thought process of mine at length, but will save expanding on this particular point for another day.

(B) Scores are increasingly clumsy. Because critics tend to score higher and higher, for various reasons (including genuinely ‘better’ wines, whatever ‘better’ might mean to that critic, but also the need for hyperbole to ‘sell’ their opinions and scores over those of other critics) there is an increasingly narrow range of scores available. The 100-point scale only runs from 89 to 100. This ‘grade inflation’ towards a self-imposed ceiling of 100 points means that today, rather than aiding communication, the 100-point system actually inhibits sensible reporting.

(C) Scores are increasingly inadequate. As wine quality improves, the chance of a bottle of top-class Bordeaux or Burgundy disappointing simply because of bad winemaking (whether it be poor fruit selection, too high a yield, dirty infected barrels or whatever) is less likely than ever. Looking at Bordeaux as an example, vintage variation is more narrow and even in poor years such as 2007 the chateaux work hard to make a decent (if ultimately over-priced) wine. What is more important today in determining whether you enjoy a wine or not is style; that is greatly varied and certainly merits description, which a numerical report can’t do. Some indication of structure, how the wine feels in the mouth, is far more important to me than (a) any description of flavour and (b) any score. In other words, the old adage that you have to read the tasting note and not just look at the score is more true today than ever before. It also helps if you understand your own preferences. Understanding those of the critic in question also helps, but if they write a decent descriptive note then the reader can at least understand the style of the wine; I’ve long tried to do that (and I know I go on about the flavours as well, but that’s as much for my benefit as anyone else’s!).

Having said that, I do find scores beneficial for me personally. My own scores that is, not anyone else’s! That is because descriptive notes such as mine sometimes look like an uncertain judgement; you can read them, and find yourself asking at the end “yes, but did you actually like it?”. Years later, returning to the note, I might ask myself the same question. Scores remind me (and could inform you too) of whether that is the case. What I don’t mean them to be is a persistent judgement on the wine into the future, or seen as some inherent characteristic of the wine, nor are they meant to describe the wine’s style. They do indicate in an admittedly blunt manner what I felt about the quality of the wine though, alongside my notes which describe the style. Seen like that, with an appropriately relaxed eye, they seem less evil to me. Having said that though, I come down on the side of the anti-score manifesto. We certainly need more emphasis on the wine, its origin, what it says of the terroir and what experiences it might offer us, and we should focus less on some inadequate attempt to provide a numerical representation of all that.

$15,000 for a Lecture?

Do you read Spanish? If so, take a look at this piece about Jay Miller, the Wine Advocate’s reporter on Spain. If not, you could take a look at this translation, although be warned – it has the usual mish-mashed sentences of online auto-translators.

The essence of the article is this; a trip to Navarra made by Jay Millar, arranged by Pancho Campo’s Wine Academy, cost €100,000. There was a time when this would have been hotly debated on Parker’s forum, but now that it sits behind a paywall for subscribers only, not only is that less likely to happen, if it does you can’t see it. Nevertheless, there are a few paying subscribers willing to take Parker to task on this, and the thread made it to 46 posts before being locked by Mark Squires, the board’s heavy-handed moderator.

Parker’s response was to indicate that it was a paid lecture, and it was $15,000, not €100,000, and “and where is there any conflict? He, as all of us do, are paid to give lectures“.

Holy crap! $15,000 for a lecture?! For a psychologist turned wine retailer turned Parker side-kick? There’s hope for me yet.

One of the defences that has been wheeled out in this situation is that payment for a lecture is a reasonable expectation, and that it happens in many professions, for example medicine. Yeah, sure, but as a member of several academic societies and UK medical colleges, including a role as webmaster for one, I have a ball park figure in my head (I’ve seen the accounts) for the honorarium typically paid out. And it isn’t $15,000. It’s closer to 1% of that, with some travel fees on top of course. It’s frequently a fairly nominal payment. Parker’s blind to the issue though, as he writes “I can’t possibly see any conflict with what Jay has done,but if you actually know anything, I am all ears“. If Jay commands $15,000 for a single lecture, I can’t help wonder what payment Parker receives for his Asian tours when he tastes, wines and dines over a course of many days.

Is there a conflict of interest here? It’s a close call in my opinion, as this was a regional body paying, through the independent Wine Academy, for a service. I myself have been in receipt of assistance from such regional bodies – for example, when attending the Salon des Vins de Loire, I find that InterLoire are usually willing to pay for 1 or 2 nights at my chosen hotel (as declared in my annual Winedoctor Disclosures). That doesn’t influence what I say about any one wine, or any collection of wines. What really stinks here is the sum involved; nominal honoraria and travel expenses from regional bodies (not individual producers) seems acceptable. $15,000, however, seems excessive. For example, if that sort of payment were made between a drug company and a prescriber, it would certainly lead to investigation; the recently introduced Bribery Act (links to audio file) would see to that (not that I am suggesting there has been any bribery here, not at all, but in my experience in the UK the threat of personal prosecution seems to have made those with a hospitality budget more cautious, and thus under the new legislation such a payment would perhaps never happen). The linked file gives some indication of how dinners and similar hospitality might be viewed under this act.

What is really surprising though is the invective directed towards his more critical subscribers by Parker. “Is it me or is the internet turning into a refuge for hate-mongers and ad-hominem attacks on others?“, he asks. Remember, these are Parker’s paying subscribers, who he seems to suggest are “hate-mongers”. And also liars, when he goes on to state “You have made accusations about Jay’s conduct and standing that are totally false“. The response from the author of the allegedly false statements is just bristling with lawsuits, and it was just seven posts later that the thread was locked.

Thank you, Philippe Vatan

A lot of the thoughts swimming about my head the last day or so concern Bordeaux 2010, in particular the jaw-dropping prices of the newly released classed growths and equivalents. For my wallet these wines aren’t priced to drink anymore. And I’m sitting here trying to deflect my thoughts away from this, because I see little point in entering a lengthy diatribe which would, ultimately, reflect my own position on what wine, specifically young Bordeaux sold en primeur, should cost (or perhaps “what I would like it to cost” is a better way of expressing it). And you’ve heard all the arguments for and against – it’s a free market/world….high consumer demand and restricted supply….a wine is worth what someone will pay for it….Bordeaux isn’t just the top ten chateaux you know….the Chinese will buy it if you don’t….etc., etc. – before now, here and elsewhere.

Thank you Philippe Vatan of Chateau du Hureau, a Saumur estate with a good reputation. Proprietor Philippe started off in orchard management, growing apples, before switching to vines and viticulture. Thank you Philippe, because you and many like you still make wine that is wine, priced to be opened alongside a meal. Priced so that I could, should the whim take me, buy a bottle or a case without checking this month’s credit card statement first. Priced lower than the cost of my car, which can not be said of many recently released 2010 Bordeaux.

Having tried Philippe’s 2009s at a tasting earlier this year (written up this week: 2009 Touraine & Centre), I found two of the wines delightful, although the Lisagathe was very volatile and needed to be left alone. Happily Philippe is going to send another bottle for me to retaste, so I will be looking at this wine again later in the year. For the moment though, here are some older notes from February 2010:

Chateau du Hureau Saumur Blanc 2008: A minerally nose here, an open style, with a lovely polish to the palate. Good structure too, nice grip, fresh, with slightly plump citrus fruits. Rather softer acidity at the core, but a good substance to it. This is certainly ripe, with a touch more grip and presence in the midpalate than at the start. The fruit has a slightly dried character which I like. Good wine. 16/20

Chateau du Hureau Saumur-Champigny Tuffe 2008: The domaine cuvée, due to be bottled early 2010. The vines average about 20 years, ranging from 8 to 42 years old. From 14 separate parcels, with a clay-limestone terroir. Fresh but with a hint of plumpness to it, with stony red fruits, very typical of the appellation. A polished style, moving into cherry stone fruit, with a good flourish of tannins at the end. Really appealing. 16.5/20

Chateau du Hureau Saumur-Champigny Fours à Chaux 2008: This parcel of vines has soils of clay, limestone and schist. A great colour in the glass, although the nose is rather closed. There is fruit here though, although it has a rather crisp and crunchy style. Beautifully fresh on the palate, with a tingling acid core. Is this the acid zip of the schist? Nice tannins at the edges. Good, but difficult to judge definitively with that rather shut-down nose. 16.5-17.5/20

Chateau du Hureau Saumur-Champigny Lisagathe 2008: From argilo-calcaire soils right behind the Hureau property, with vines ranging from 25 to 48 years old. Very bright fruit on the nose, cherries and smoke, cranberry too. Good depth and character for sure. So supple on the palate, just gliding around the mouth, beautifully polished. Good midpalate tannins, with a ripe style backed up by a vigorous acid backbone. Smoky fruit, the barest hint of confit to it, but nevertheless a very appealing style. It finished very long. A vin de garde I think! 17.5/20

Of note, Philippe has a new website, here: www.domaine-hureau.fr. I particularly like the “organic growing” section where he gives some accounts of his steps from chemical farming to organic viticulture. It is all too easy to be evangelical about organics and biodynamics and to point a wagging finger at those who haven’t taken up the mantle; but Philippe’s piece highlights some of his concerns as he made the change, especially his thoughts regarding style and quality of the resulting wines, the damage ploughing may cause, and what to do when you finally forego the use of weedkillers. Interesting stuff! They also have some mature vintages, white and red, from 1989, 1990 and 2000, for sale, for very fair prices (I will avoid making any further Bordeaux 2010 comparisons). Do take a look.

This is my final post before my summer break, I will be back hopefully refreshed with new notes, opinions and more, from July 25th.

It’s only wine, init?

UK newspaper The Guardian recently ran a short online piece on corks, and their apparent comeback over the recent rise of the screwcap. You can see the original piece here:

Why corks are popping once more (guardian.co.uk, June 21st)

If you actually click through to read the article, you will immediately see some of its many shortcomings. It is a tragically short piece; just four paragraphs (totalling nine sentences) on the return of cork. With no real conclusion, it reads as though another dozen paragraphs have been lost somewhere between submission and publication. Fair enough, there’s nothing wrong with pithy, to-the-point journalism, except that this piece is also very unbalanced, with no exploration of the issue at hand; it reads very much like some re-worked press release.

The author is Hannah Olivennes; take a look at her other listed articles and you will see her name attached to some ‘bigger’ stories, on a counter-terrorism review and the closure of children’s residential care homes, but always in partnership with other journalists. So she is an intern, and a ‘trophy’ intern no less, as Hannah is the daughter of actress Kirsten Scott Thomas. Berry Bros. & Rudd have Alexandra Mentzelopoulos (daughter of Corinne, proprietor of Margaux) who works in their glamorous Basingstoke offices, learning about the UK wine trade….and the Guardian have Hannah Olivennes, clearly learning the ropes at the newspaper, perhaps as part of a degree in journalism?

The crowning glory of any internship would of course be to see your own piece published. Unfortunately for Hannah, her colleagues have under-estimated the response a nine-sentence PR-rehash would generate from those who take wine and wine closures very seriously, and the piece has backfired on Hannah, who I suspect has learnt much about the newspaper industry during her internship, but not a lot about journalism. The poor quality of the article – and let me be clear, the ultimate responsibility for this lies, in my opinion, with her supervisors/editors, not with the inexperienced Hannah – was quickly seized upon by online Guardian readers. Two pages of comments exist, although in a display of heavy-handed moderation worthy of Mark Squires (Squires moderates the erobertparker.com board, deleting criticisms, censoring anti-Parker comments, at one time even censoring mention of opposing voices such as Alice Feiring and Wine Berserkers, words which were automatically replaced by the board software with ************* – you can’t make this stuff up!) many have been deleted.

The ultimate message here for me is not that the newspaper staff at the Guardian need to look after their interns better, instead of hanging them out to dry by allowing them to publish rubbish work, nor that they should be encouraging a little more journalistic thought in their interns, even though I think that is probably true. Instead I wonder if the piece went to publication because it was perceived that it didn’t really matter. After all, it’s only wine, not a story on terrorism or a looming social services disaster. It is indicative of the disregard the UK mainstream media have for wine and wine writing, neither of which are treated seriously. This cork piece is perhaps part of a much broader dumbed-down landscape, one which also features “shopping list” wine writing articles instead of real wine writing, in which otherwise erudite authors, as well as Malcolm Gluck, publish superficial articles which are primarily lists of low-priced wines currently available from supermarkets as a substitute for saying anything interesting. Finding any articles of merit concerning wine in the UK mainstream media, is near to impossible.

Because, ultimately, it’s only wine, init?

Oxidised Wines: Where’s the ‘Charm’?

Oxidation is on my mind again this week (so are the prices of Bordeaux 2010, but let’s just park that for this week), for a variety of reasons. Like when I tripped up in January, mistaking the obvious oxidation seen in two wines from Pithon-Paillé as an evolution of the Pithon-Paillé style (into a ‘natural’, ‘oxidative’ or rather oxidised style), when in fact they were just tired samples, as I discovered when I had the opportunity to retaste. And the adverse effects of oxygen were again seen at Tom Cannavan’s Top 50 Portuguese Tasting, where there were all manner of oxidised wines, including two reds that weren’t showing well at all (I pointed both out to Tom and in each case the second bottle was better) and one dry white which was firmly ‘oxidative’, and an oxidised sweet white right at the end.

Let me explain my use of the terms ‘oxidised’ and ‘oxidative’ here. A few weeks ago I posted on oxidative versus oxidised. I really liked one comment, from The Wine Mule, which went “Having said that, at our place we say “oxidative” when we think the effect is deliberate, “oxidized” when we think it’s unintentional.” Having spent some time mulling over this issue since last posting, I’m going to develop this one step further and say a wine is ‘oxidative’ when the exposure to oxygen influences the style of the wine, but without generating overtly oxidised (acetaldehyde) aromas. Thus Bollinger is oxidative, as was one of the whites at Tom’s tasting (I forget which one – my notes will tell all, when I get around to proof-reading and formatting them). Other wines – including two reds at Tom’s tasting, and so many ‘natural’ wines I have tasted from the Loire (to which many would try to give validity by using the term ‘oxidative’ – there’s a good example in this recent post from Jamie Goode, who declares that a wine which appears oxidised on ‘first sniff’ is profound, beneath the ‘oxidative aromas’), as well as those two tired Pithon-Paillé wines – are just oxidised.

There is almost certainly a very grey and fuzzy dividing line between oxidative and oxidised, but there is nevertheless a dividing line – one that is personal, for my palate – slowly taking shape. And the obvious thing to do with those wines that fall on the oxidised side, rather than those that are oxidative, is to call them as faulty. At the recent Natural Wine Fair in London I glean from online musings that Margaret Rand may have made a point along these lines. From Jancis Robinson’s Purple Pages:

I am told there was some disagreement between British wine writer Margaret Rand and natural wine importer Douglas Wregg of Caves de Pyrène, the major exhibitor at the Fair over the question of oxidation.

That’s second-hand info. For news from the horse’s mouth, let’s go to Alice Feiring’s blog:

The next day flaws were again the focus at Doug Wregg’s presentation on how to sell the wines to restaurants. There, wine writer Margaret Rand, pirated the conversation. Flaws once again. She admitted that there some lovely wines out there but there were too many that were wrong: she pointed to oxidative [Note the use of ‘oxidative’ instead of oxidised there. I wonder if that was the word Margaret used?] flavors and aromas. Flawed beyond redemption.

It sounds like Margaret sees oxidation as a fault. Me too, Margaret! But let’s step back and consider this position for a moment. If the oxidation (or ‘oxidative style’ as they might describe it, erroneously in my opinion) is part of the winemaker’s desired goal, then perhaps this is inappropriate? After all, how can a desired style be deemed a ‘wine fault’? Certainly this seems to be Feiring’s view, who suggests Rand’s question should have been:

There are those nuts outside loving these wines, but they’re flawed. I don’t get it. Can you explain where you find the charm here?

Which is of course crazy. If a wine is oxidised, it is oxidised. You can’t expect someone who finds wines dominated by the aromas and flavours of oxidation to be abhorrent – a group which probably includes myself, but perhaps Margaret Rand as well – to just look for “the charm”. Whether you view oxidation as a fault, or as an interesting element of a ‘natural’ wine, if I don’t like it, then I don’t like it. If John Gilman can give catastrophically low score to Pavie, based on nothing more than over-extraction and a bit too much alcohol, then I can do the same with wines defined by oxidation. In other words, you can tell me oxidation is not a wine fault, but when it comes down to my opinion of the wine, those that are oxidised have such a dull homogeneity that I will never rate one highly. And so ultimately it doesn’t matter whether I report the wine as faulty (which is what I wish I had done with those Pithon-Paillé wines), or just give it a low score and describe why in my report (which is the route I originally took with Pithon-Paillé) the message remains clear. The wine ain’t good!

And it doesn’t matter how often you suggest I look for the ‘charm’.

Because there isn’t any ‘charm’ in wines where all the beautiful purity of the fruit, the expression of the sun and the soil, and all the tiny nuances that allows differentiation between one wine and the next, between one terroir and the next, is smothered by the all-blanketing homogeneity of oxidation’s principle molecule acetaladehyde, which tastes the same no matter the variety or terroir.

Oxidised or Oxidative?

I’ve been trying to get my head around the terms "oxidative" and "oxidised" recently, and specifically how they relate to one another. It stems from something I read some time ago, ascribed to Thierry Puzelat if I remember correctly, concerning his angst that many people who taste his wines and write them off as oxidised can’t tell the difference between an "oxidative" style and a wine which is oxidised. I’m afraid I can’t remember where I read it – a quick Google didn’t turn it up again, but if you know the article I am referring to do let me know.

First up, off the top of my head, a quick recap. Wines can be made in oxidative or reductive styles. Because yeasts ferment wine under anaerobic conditions they generate lots of unusual and smelly compounds including hydrogen sulphide and mercaptans which would otherwise be neutralised by oxygen. Don’t switch off, I’m going to keep this simple (I need to so I can understand it!). If the wines were made and bottled without any contact with oxygen at all (unlikely) my understanding is that these compunds would persist in the wine, and we would notice them as soon as we opened the bottle. Because of this (and perhaps for other reasons as well) wines are generally allowed some exposure to oxygen at some point during fermentation and/or élevage – racking is an important example of this, and it can markedly influence how a barrel sample (and ultimately the wine) tastes. Through these processes the wine moves away from the reduced end of the spectrum, nevertheless it doesn’t move too far – on the whole modern winemaking tends towards a reductive rather than oxidative style, as a safety net I think, as many are fearful of oxidation. Some even toy with more overt reduction in their wine; the Vieilles Vignes Santenay I drank last night was one example, and the same matchsticky aroma it possessed could also be found in Michel Chapoutier’s Sélection Parcellaires which I tasted in Tain l’Hermitage last week.

Move in the other direction – increasing or altering the point of exposure to oxygen – and you can move into oxidation. This style of winemaking was once far more prevalent, and is still embodied in a number of styles, Ambre Rivesaltes for instance, Vin Jaune from the Jura, Sherry, Madeira and so on. Oxidative versus reductive methods are also important in determining style in Champagne, with Bollinger the classic oxidative style I think, with many others favouring a reductive style. But, sticking with still wines, modern winemaking values fruit freshness and definition in the mouth over these more slippery oxygen-influenced styles. Hence today, most wine is made with protection from oxygen in mind.

So oxidative styles depend on exposure to oxygen (d’oh!). Which implies that the "oxidative" style and wines that are simply "oxidised" must surely be part of the same spectrum. Control the oxygen, so that it impacts on the style but without influencing it so much that the wine begins to take on the characteristic baked-earth-baked-orange flavour of every other oxidised wine in the world, and you have a wine you can describe as oxidative. Take your eye off the ball, and you have something that resembles Madeira. Delicious wines in their own right, but not necessarily a style or process that suits, for example, the beautifully floral and minerally Chenin Blancs that originate from the Loire Valley.

So where is the cut-off between "oxidative" and "oxidised"? I suspect it is very nebulous, and impossibe to define, a rather grey area on a fading spectrum of style, because I suspect it will differ from one taster to the next. I find the wines of Bollinger to be "oxidative" in style, but I can’t imagine anyone describing them as "oxidised". I think the same of the wines of Juchepie, which move away from the freshness of many other Coteaux du Layons into a deeper, more burnished orange-gold style, and what oxidative trace exists is well hidden by their flavoursome and complex character. Others don’t like the style (they were once described to me as "too oxidative" by a UK wine writer), but I like them very much, whereas I would perhaps tolerate the same character in dry Chenin Blanc less well I think. Perhaps this indicates that my "tolerance" is actually just where I am prepared to draw the line, as it seems that my "tolerance" depends on the style of wine….or perhaps even my "understanding" of the style in question?

Is it the fact that the oxygen-influenced (hedging my bets!) wines of someone like Thierry Puzelat are marked by notes of bruised apples and cider, rather than the overt more "Madeirised" flavours of baked-earth-baked-orange noted above, that he describes them as oxidative rather than oxidised? Ultimately, whether these wines are "oxidative" or oxidised, when the beautifully floral and fresh apple-pear aromas of young Loire Valley Chenin Blanc are replaced by more cidery characteristics, the wine is – in my opinion – ruined by oxygen. Therefore I would cal it not "oxidative", but oxidised. Wines where the style is infuenced, but the wine not oxidised, can be termed "oxidative". But I acknowledge this "understanding" is subjective and dependent upon my personal interpretation of the wine.

Do you think I have got this right? I’m looking not so much for comments on individual wines or winemakers, but on my understanding of oxidative versus oxidation and the point where one crosses into the other? Any comments gratefully received.

Latest trend in wine writing: ‘bubble’

Here’s a link to The National Business Review (whatever that is) which carries an article on the Andrew Lloyd Webber sale of wines held at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel in Hong Kong. What tickled me was the opening statement:

In a sure sign China’s growing prosperity is reaching bubble proportions, bidders have paid top dollar in Hong Kong for part of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s vast wine collection.

Oh. I see. Well, the author (Nevil Gibson….no, I haven’t either) must be referring to the currently proposed ‘Lafite bubble’, which was of course said to be ready to burst (incorrectly, in my opinion) in December by Andy Xie, an article on which I commented here. So let’s have a look at the wines then. What vintages of Lafite, and how much? Here goes:

1990 Domaine de la Romanée Conti – a magnum for £17,460
2002 Domaine de la Romanée Conti – three bottles for £8400
1982 Chateau Petrus 1982 – a case for £48,500

The sale also included “the finest white Burgundies ever for sale in the region“.

This doesn’t smell of a “burst bubble” (of whatever) to me. Assuming it was the Chinese and not ex-pats or similar who were buying (Gibson doesn’t specify), the story here is surely:

– the Chinese are buying other Bordeaux than Lafite, for “top dollar”.
– the Chinese are looking beyond Bordeaux to Burgundy, DRC specifically, but others too.
– ALW has wisely sold off lots of risky white Burgundy. He must know his wine, after all. Maybe.

Looks more like a widening of China’s appetite for expensive wine, than a burst bubble, to me.

Have a free bottle, link to us?

I think the blogging community is a wonderful entity, a seething body of (sometimes) knowledge-rich personal opinion which can provide an outlet for new writing talent. Some blogs are better than others of course, but the good ones should always rise to the surface.

I’ve never really considered Winedoctor to be a blog; it predates the creation of blogging software by years, I code the pages on good old html, and I think the content is more ‘editorial’ than the ‘stream of consciousness’ style that can make some blogs so fascinating to read. It also has a healthy body of advertisers who have recognised that the quality of content and regularity of update, over more than ten years, is worth supporting. Thanks to all of them!

Advertising revenue when blogging is like gold dust I think, as indeed is all income generation online – see this post by Jamie Goode in his blog, and this opinion by Tyler Colman. The latter post includes a comment from a blogger which states “but really where I ‘make money’ is off the free samples I receive that save me actually having to spend money on wine. Last year alone saved me $1000 in wine“.

I think this is the big danger for bloggers – viewing “free wine” as the primary benefit of blogging means you never turn down a bottle, and the pressure to write something favourable – so that your only ‘income’ stream continues to flow – must be immense.

This morning I found this email in my inbox – it gave me a telling glimpse into how some retailers think bloggers are to be ‘used’. I have anonymised the name of the store, by the way:

Hi Chris,

I came upon thewinedoctor.com and was wondering if you would be interested in reviewing free sample bottles from our online wine store, xxx.com. Specifically, I was thinking of a relationship where where you could choose one of our wines each month and write a review on your website. We would send you the wine free of charge. All we ask in return is a link to the wine product page (i.e. http://www.xxx.com/xxx_CHATEAU-DE-BEAUCASTEL-CHATEAUNEUF-DU-PAPE-BLANC-750ml-2006). One small caveat: the link can be anywhere except at the very bottom of your post, because it has better SEO value that way. Please let me know if you are interested. We can set an approximate monthly target for the wine you select, i.e. $100. Again, there is no cost to you.

Very truly yours,

I receive free samples of wine (not that much considering how much I write about it – most notes come from attended tastings or home purchases) but never with the impication I have to write about them. Some bottles never make it (such as the other bottles of Beaujolais I received alongside this 2009), others receive appropriate criticism such as some of these Slovenians, or these Moldovan wines (I have even had requests for notes to be taken down, or left up but with scores removed, after my honest appraisals – naturally I refused). And of course some I rave about, if appropriate – see here!

But this isn’t what is happening on the back of this received email reproduced above. This request for blog reviews isn’t about encouraging critical review or supporting budding wine writers, it is about Search Engine Optimisation. That’s what he means by SEO – this is the process of targeting links towards a page (and many other activities) to build the ‘strength’ of the page, so that it appears higher in the results pages of search engines such as Google. The fee paid for this link is clearly one bottle of wine (which you have to write about, obviously), value up to $100. I think any blogger who accepts such a deal has zero credibility – and they will be easy to spot, as they will be linking to www.xxx.com (sorry, still can’t bring myself to release the name of this US retailer) once per month.