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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.

Winedoctor Newsletter

New for the Winedoctor’s 10th year online – the Winedoctor Newsletter!

Next year sees the completion of ten years of writing online on Winedoctor, and with that realisation I have decided to revive an old Winedoctor feature. Many years ago – perhaps as far back as 2002 or 2003 – I would send out an occasional newsletter to notify subscribers of recent major additions. It was a low-volume affair, at most a once-monthly mailing, with no spam. With time, though, it was something I let fall by the wayside. On reflection, I’m not sure why.

Things have moved on since then; I have travelled and tasted more than I ever thought possible, with regular visits to Bordeaux (right, me outside Chateau Margaux, December 2006 – they did let me in, honest!) and annual visits to the Loire, as well as quick trips to Champagne, Burgundy the Languedoc and beyond. Winedoctor has thus evolved into a very significant resource, and today I have many more visitors than I had back in 2003!

The web has changed too; there are now hundreds of wine-related fora, websites and blogs and it is increasingly difficult to keep track of what is available. For Winedoctor (and also for many other sites) using an RSS feed, a feature I have provided since 2006, is perhaps the best way to keep on top of things, but an occasional newsletter from me to you might also be helpful. I promise the mailings will not be too frequent (once monthly is likely), there will be no spam, no disclosure of your email address to anyone else at all, and it will be easy to unsubscribe should you wish to. To sign up, please visit my subscription page.

Greetings from the Tasting Room

The message reproduced below, sent by a merchant in Greater Manchester by email (unsolicited), landed in my inbox just a day or two ago. It left me very perplexed, if you can understand what this message is trying to tell me please do let me know:

Greetings from the Tasting Room, Hale Village where it is grey and wet. Not great weather but, for the moment at least, there are no bonfires! Although I suspect that’s only because everything is so wet that you couldn’t start a fire unless you have a Napalm filled flame-thrower.

Great excitement in the village the other day when Fudge caused a minor panic but all was solved with a packet of haribo tangfastic. Fudge, the mild mannered mutt wearing a fashionable collar was found wandering the streets but was captured at Portland with haribo tangfastic mix and the tag enabled me to contact home. This is not the first time Fudge has wandered, his owner explained, before setting off to collect the pampered pooch.

We have some terrific deals on Champagne at the moment and a selection are listed below. All prices include VAT.“

They go on to list some fizz, at fair prices, but not bargains (so little point in me reproducing here).

My youngest son provides us with a tasting note for tangfastic, with which he is familiar. He says “I’ve had them, they’re fizzy“. That’s the only plausible link between Champagne and the intro blurb I can think of. If you have a better association, do let me know.

Jancis Robinson’s Wine Course

I’ve just spotted that Jancis Robinson’s Wine Course, one of the most enjoyable vinous TV programmes to have ever hit the screens, is now available in its entirety on Youtube. Each edition has been cut into four to make a quartet of 8-9 minute videos. I’ve just watched episode 1, quarter 1, and it is quickly apparent why Jancis has become so popular over the years. It is not just her huge depth of knowledge and great expertise, but she is a great communicator.

The videos do look a little dated, and it is notable that jancis kicked off by stressing that wine was for everybody, reflecting on its one-time status as a drink for the elite middle classes and upwards. These days I don’t think this is such an important aspect of introducing people to wine, which over the last couple of decades has enjoyed a rapid democratisation, in Europe at least (I don’t pretend to know how wine is approached even in the USA, never mind newer markets such as India or China). Today wine is clearly for everyone, part of the weekly shop if you only care to walk down the appropriate aisle of the supermarket.

I’m looking forward to watching a few more of these; I am sure regular Winedoctor visitors will find many of the points made quite basic, but as the series progresses Jancis gets to meet and travel and it should make for interesting viewing. If I recall correctly she even interviewed Didier Dagueneau, who died last year, for her Sauvignon Blanc episode. That alone should make it complusory viewing!

Youtube link to Jancis Robinson’s Wine Course

Postscript: and the videos have disappeared – apparently a copyright issue. let’s hope they appear again soon.