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The Roederers: Who Will Win?

Well, not me for a start.

I think there’s a tendency to maintain a muted air of disinterest about the annual Roederer Wine Writing Awards. I can think of several experiences where a UK-based writer has feigned unawareness (“…oh really, there are wine writing awards, who would have thought it? Oh, and an online category too?” – and this was after the closing date) only for me to see them go on to be shortlisted. Is this to avoid having egg on your face if you don’t make the shortlist, I wonder? How vain.

The Roederers started up four years ago, if memory serves me correctly. Their inaugural year was the first time a specific ‘online’ category was introduced, and thus the first time I entered. The next year I didn’t have time, and the year after I am unsure, but think I probably entered. This year I know I entered, because for the first time I’ve been shortlisted for an award.

The award ceremony is this evening, and even though it is a slog for me (5 hours on the train there, and an overnight sleeper – or ‘don’t-get-much-sleeper’ as I think of it – for the return journey) I’m going, even in the face of certainty (and I mean certainty) that I won’t win. Why go then? Well, I think it is an honour to be shortlisted, and I’m glad to go, show my face, and acknowledge their acknowledgement, if you see what I mean.

Here are the categories I entered:

Category 6 – International Wine Website of the Year 2011
(not shortlisted)

Tim Atkin M.W. – www.timatkin.com
Tom Cannavan – www.wine-pages.com
Jamie Goode – www.wineanorak.com
Neal Martin – www.erobertparker.com (Neal Martin’s Wine Journal)

Category 7 – online Wine Columnist / Blogger of the Year 2011

Tim Atkin M.W. – Various from www.timatkin.com
Alice Feiring – Various from The Feiring Line www.alicefeiring.com
Jamie Goode – Various from www.wineanorak.com
Chris Kissack – Various from www.thewinedoctor.com
Peter Richards M.W. – Various from www.winchesterwineschool.com

Predictions? I am loath to make any, the only certainty in my head being that, against some stiff competition, I won’t win. I think this might also be the first time Neal Martin has been shortlisted, so I wish him well, but Tim, Tom and Jamie all have strong reputations, the latter two for their online work (and this is an award for the website note) especially. As for the blogging category, I think it is probably a three-horse race between Tim, Alice and Jamie. But who knows? I suppose only one thing is sure; at least the Champagne being poured should be good!

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.

Roederer Awards: shortlisted!

So my ‘Thank you’ to Philippe Vatan has turned out to be not quite the final post before my summer break after all. Just hours from my departure to Tuscany, I am absolutely delighted to learn I have been shortlisted in the Roederer 2011 Awards, in the online columnist/blogger category.

I always wondered what it would feel like to be shortlisted for something – now I know! It feels great, I am delighted to be listed alongside such erudite writers. In my category, these include Tim Atkin MW, Jamie Goode, Alice Feiring and Peter Richards MW. So the competition is stiff, and I wouldn’t place any bets on me to win! But to be shortlisted is a really welcome accolade. As I said, I’m delighted!

For the full shortlist in all categories, see here.

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 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.

Suckling’s Videos

I was beginning to come around to the idea that Suckling’s videos were fabulous jokes, self-aware parody with a new, enlightening and as yet unrevealed message/direction, based on the repeated contradictions:

- in his first video, he stated he would seek out undiscovered wines, before then showing clip after clip of him in world-famous vineyards in Bordeaux, Tuscany and Napa.

- in his second video, he claims perfection is probably not attainable, before then going on to show clips of him awarding points to wine, eventually reaching 100 points on several different occasions.

But if you look at his youtube channel you can see that he has revised video #1, removing the “search for undiscovered gems” intro, suggesting to me that he wasn’t even aware of the comical contradiction. Hmm….

Of course, it’s all great publicity for his new site, which I’ve just contributed to. I feel so used!

If you do go to view Suckling’s videos, be sure to watch the “Searching For Perfection with Synthesizer background” version. The sound effects are very reminiscent to the half-buzz half-whine that you would hear in old Flash Gordon films. It only needs one of Ming the Merciless’ space cruisers, bright red, with a pointed spike on the nose of the ship, to come crashing through the wall behind suckling as the noise reaches a crescendo, to complete the picture. Surely it would be pretty easy to splice that in?

Big News – Cellar Tracker Integration!

Cellar Tracker users may well already be aware, but yesterday Eric LeVine announced partnerships with four new ‘content channels’ – the provision of tasting notes from wine professionals within Cellar Tracker – one of which is none other than my humble self. It’s an absolute delight to team up with Eric and Cellar Tracker in this way, as I find CT an excellent and very powerful tool – I’ve been using to to keep track of my stock for many years now.

CT users who wish to do so can now see my notes with their wine inventory, so hopefully increasing the usefulness of all this tasting work I do! Also, I now see all my own scores and tasting notes next to my wines in my cellar; I have to admit that seems a little weird, as if I am talking to myself, although it’s no different from having all my notes online on Winedoctor of course.

To read more see Eric’s latest newsletter.

To get started with Cellar Tracker if you aren’t already using it, visit the CT homepage.

Vaynerchuk on Vouvray

Whilst surveying the internet, seeing who thought my François Pinon Non Dosé Vouvray was non-vintage and who thought it was a 2006 (see post below), I came across this video of Gary Vaynerchuk tasting three Vouvrays.

Vaynerchuk is undoubtedly a phenomenon, although I have never really understood his appeal to wine drinkers. His energy and enthusiasm is admirable and infectious, so I guess that must be a large part of it. But it has always struck me that his real talents are in business and in inspirational speaking, and that wine is just a vehicle for these ambitions for him. Secondly, with all the controversy about wine critics’ ethics in the past 12 months (a good starting point for the discussion is this post on Dr Vino’s blog) it has amazed me that a wine merchant (Vaynerchuk’s base is Wine Library, a New Jersey merchant) should become such an influential reviewer of wines. It strikes me that this is the most profound conflict of interest ever, which I can only imagine most people, finding they like his very honest style, choose to overlook.

Back to his video. Gary manages to mash up a lot of the French here (interesting pronounciations of François and moelleux), and ends with an incredibly cheesy “YOU, with a little bit of me, we’re changing the wine world”. But he talks of the wines with good insight and clearly he has some good tasting knowledge. And what’s more he is clearly an advocate of François Pinon’s undersung wines, so whatever conflict of interest there might be, he’s made the right choice here! It’s worth a watch.

The Ledbury, East Coast Trains & Churchill

No connection between these three (as far as I know), just two recent food/wine events worth noting and the painful journeys involved.

I spent a lot of time trying to catch up with myself last week, which was particularly difficult considering I dedicated most of Friday travelling to London for lunch at the Ledbury in Notting Hill, a gathering in honour of the presence of Eric LeVine, of Cellar Tracker. Both my journeys were complicated by East Coast trains reducing services, using the recent weather as an excuse. The 5:50am from Edinburgh was cancelled leaving us all to board the 6:00am instead, a slower train which arrives in London 30 minutes later. On the return journey, my train to Edinburgh terminated early at Newcastle; although most trains are full when they leave London at this point they are probably less than half-full, so it is viable for the company to shove everybody off and make you wait for the next train, thus saving them a few quid. I spent an unexpected 30 minutes on a freezing platform eating a disgusting sandwich and drinking a disgusting coffee from the Costa bar. Yuk.

Was lunch at the Ledbury worth these near-10 hours of travelling? Yes! It was a superb meal, which I will have to write up for Winedoctor. I am trying to include notes on meals beyond the boundaries of Edinburgh (although I am usually failing!). Suffice to say for now it was a stunning four-course lunch. It was notable that when I sat down I was eating in a 1-star restaurant, but when I got up to leave later it had 2 stars, as the Michelin awards for 2010 were released as we dined. It was a well deserved promotion for proprietor Nigel Platts-Martin and chef Brett Graham.

The vinous highlight of the weekend that followed was this bottle, the 1993 Winston Churchill from Pol Roger. I’m committed to drinking more Champagne at the moment, especially in anticipation of my new Champagne guide to be added to the site this year. I’m not sure what prompted me to open it, save perhaps the only experience at the Ledbury which I found a tad disappointing. With the news of their elevation to 2-star status (or at least that was the excuse!), the ever generous Linden Wilkie of Fine Wine Experiences produced, as if by magic, a magnum of 1996 Dom Pérignon Rosé for everybody to toast the chef. It was a big-hearted gesture which I am sure we all appreciated, but coming after 14 other wines, including three dessert wines (a Vouvray which I provided, a sweet Austrian Pinot Noir and a Tokaji) as well as a sweet amuse and a plate of caramelised banana galette with ice cream the wine certainly didn’t receive the attention (or the palate) that it deserved. Tasted under such conditions, I won’t be able to write the wine up… a great shame.