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Is Natural Wine Spoofy?

Spoofy wine. You have probably heard the term. If not, a quick 101; the term ‘spoofulated’ or ‘spoofy’ seems to have come out of the East-Coast US wine scene (although I welcome corrections on this – it’s not as if I have spent time researching the etymology) and is on occasion used to describe wines that are made in an overly slick, international style. There’s no definition of what it is that makes a wine spoofy, but a few typical features might be a long hang-time (giving over-ripe and indistinct flavours, sweetness and low acidities), cold maceration (giving a slick presence of fruit and plenty of well-fixed colour – at least that’s my take on it), and plenty of new oak (to tart it up). Of course, one person’s tarted up wine might be another persons nirvana, so from that point of view it isn’t a term I have ever used (before now, anyway). Such wines naturally deserve critique, but to me the term ‘spoofy’ always seemed to be imbued with more than a hint of derision, not just for the wines but also for those who drink them.

Spoofy wines are ‘wines of process’; they aren’t so much about the the fruit, they are more about the winemaking, about the technique. Spoofy wines hide their origins; taste a spoofy wine from St Emilion and it doesn’t speak of the terroir, whether it be sandy (I have to confess when thinking of the style certain sandy-terroir St Emilions spring to mind first) or from the clay or limestone of the plateau and côtes (I can certainly think of one or two here as well). What you get is jammy and ill-defined fruit, sweet oak, the whole package polished to a state of ambiguity.

What is the antithesis to spoofy wine? Natural wine is surely the answer, wines that are ‘honest’, some would say ‘authentic’ or ‘real’, or some similarly indefinable term.

The word ‘natural’, when applied to wine, is imbued not with derision, but with superiority. Our wines are natural, ergo yours are unnatural. The term is no less challenging to define than ‘spoofy’, so I’m not even going to try, but ‘natural’ wines do tend to follow a schema in the same manner as spoofy wines, although here it is nothing to do with hang-time or oak. Instead, the important aspects of the fermentation are the negatives; no enzymes to clarify the juice; no manipulations with added acid, tannin, colour or similar; no preservatives, most notably no sulphur dioxide. There are some positive rather than negative correlations though, the most notable of which would have to be the widespread use of novel fermentation vessels. There is, apparently, nothing more ‘natural’ than a wine fermented in qvevri, amphorae or a concrete eggs. Another correlation is extended skin contact, in some whites, giving us orange wines.

However you look at it, ‘natural’ wines are also ‘wines of process’. Even though much of the winemaking schema is about what the winemaker shouldn’t do, as opposed to what he/she should do, there is to my mind an undeniable dogma to it. Even though the original intention may well be to let the wine express its origins without manipulation, as a consequence of following this dogma many ‘natural’ wines I have encountered do not achieve this stated aim, and instead they display characteristics reflecting the winemaking process, obscuring the origins of the wine. This isn’t true of all ‘natural’ wines of course, an example that ticks all my boxes being the 2012 La Lune from Mark Angeli, a wine which sings so clearly of Chenin Blanc and schist. But so many fall short of achieving this. Instead, their origins are obscured by features such as oxidation (the most common problem), refermentation, Brettanomyces or other funk, all of which are direct consequences of the winemaking dogma. Indeed, these are the ‘natural’ wine equivalents of the slick texture, ill-defined fruit flavours and the new-oak vanilla and toast we find in spoofy wine. Therefore, is it not true to say that the two wines are fundamentally the same; whether ‘natural’ or ‘spoofy’, are both not basically process-driven wines that fail to speak of their origins?

Bordeaux 2015 Harvest: Word from the UGCB

The pace of activity in Bordeaux seems set to pick up in the next couple of weeks. While the season has on the whole been warm, dry and sunny, the rain in August reminded everybody that it could all go wrong at any minute. There was rain last night around Bordeaux, and there are storms forecast across much of France for the rest of the weekend. The most severe weather forecast looks to be restricted to the Mediterranean coast, but there is a possibility of storms in Bordeaux, as well as the eastern and upper Loire Valley.

Bordeaux 2015

Here is an update received this morning from Bernard Olivier (pictured above with wife Anne), president of the Union des Grands Crus de Bordeaux, and proprietor of Domaine de Chevalier. It is, of course, typically upbeat.

2015: the dawn of a great vintage…

Located on the 45th parallel, the northern limit for the world’s great red wine regions, Bordeaux likes sunny summers to produce great vintages. The months of May, June, and July 2015 were among the hottest and driest on record. Water stress, so important for stopping vegetative growth and starting the ripening process, took place early, in July, and brought on a magnificent véraison (colour change) in early August. I have not seen such an early, even véraison since 2009. All our grapes were red by the 15th of August and many of them were already deeply-­colored.

Fortunately, the month of August was less hot and more wet, which gave a certain vigor to the vines.

Dry white wines

This month of August enabled the grapes, especially the white wine grapes, to “breathe” and retain their freshness. The first grapes were picked at the end of August. Their juices were superb and the weather forecast for the next two weeks is looking excellent… We are thus quite confident this will be a great year!!!

Red wines

The Merlot grapes will be harvested the last ten days of September and the Cabernets the first two weeks of October. These are showing magnificent potential, but we still need six weeks without a major disturbance.

Sweet white wines

The Sémillon and Sauvignon Blanc grapes are slowly reaching perfect ripeness. As with every vintage, botrytis will call all the shots, but the conditions conducive to its development are all there.

It has been several years since Bordeaux has seen the dawn of such a beautiful vintage…

There are still a few weeks of suspense left before this promise is fulfilled.

Bordeaux 2015 Harvest, Smith-Haut-Lafitte

I normally refrain from writing about the Bordeaux harvest unless I have some first-hand information to offer. Otherwise, it is too easy to end up as nothing more than a conduit for the Bordeaux marketing machine. Having said that, I am feeling optimistic about 2015, and so I figured it was worth bringing a little harvest news direct from Bordeaux onto the Winedr Blog. After all, the year has been favourable so far, with warm dry weather in May, June and July, albeit followed by a wet August but good weather again so far in September (incidentally, having spoken to vignerons in Vouvray, they described very much the same pattern).

Château Smith-Haut-Lafitte

This immediately seems more promising than 2014 (a very cool year saved by an Indian summer), 2013 (a washout), 2012 (a late and wet harvest with uneven ripening and rot at the end) and 2011 (also a wet, late harvest with rot at the end). By contrast harvest in 2015 is now underway, in good conditions. Here’s a report from Château Smith-Haut-Lafitte, received yesterday, September 9th:

Harvest serenely started on the 31st of August with the young vines of Sauvignon Blanc. We are taking our time. The fresh nights and wonderful sunny days allow the berries to refine their maturity day after day. At SHL, it is not the acidity level that triggers the harvest but the aromatic and phenolic maturity according to our daily grape tastings.

The first juices offer a beautiful tension, volume and the perception of acidity is higher in mouth than what the analysis forecasted… Despite the drought and beautiful weather of the summer, the levels are reasonable: around 13%.

At this comfortable path, we will start our old precious and fragile Sauvignons blancs on gravel, ploughed by horse for 20 years, starting tomorrow, 10th of September. One week earlier than 2014, we think we will start the reds next week with the young Merlots on gravel. As usual the Cabernets will be last. All parameters are ideal to offer a great vintage.

Putting thoughts of the team at Château Smith-Haut-Lafitte enjoying a ‘comfortable path’ to one side for now, the key piece of information here is goood acidities in the harvested whites. A warm vintage such as 2015 is bound to hold some promise when it comes to reds, but it is easy to overlook the negative effect on whites. I increasingly find some 2009s from Bordeaux and the Loire seem rather soft, and I will be looking out for signs of this when I next visit (next month, and naturally for the primeurs next year).

More harvest news as and when I receive it, and of course I will get some first-hand information when I visit for myself.

Moulis Oenocturne

Forever overlooked, save perhaps for a few famous names such as Château Chasse-Spleen and Château Poujeux, the viticulteurs of Moulis have come up with a new idea to draw in the punters: Moulis Oenocturne 2015.

In a region not renowned for embracing oenotourism (although I think this view will soon have to be reappraised the way things are changing in Bordeaux), in Moulis they will be hosting (today, so if this is of interest you will have to make your travel arrangements quickly) an evening of tasting in the village square in Moulis-en-Médoc.

Moulis Oenocturne 2015

Entry to the tasting costs just €9 (€7 for early-bird bookings, but it goes without saying that we’ve missed that) which gets you a tasting glass, access to many of the wines of Moulis all from the 2012 vintage, music from Fellini Félin and the opportunity to visit the 12th-century church. There will be street food too, from a diverse array of “food trucks” (I am delighted to learn, having been informed of this event tonight, that French for “food trucks” appears to be “food trucks”!).

Anyone in Bordeaux who fancies going can catch one of the navette buses being laid on, departing from the Place des Quinconces in the city centre. The tasting is 19h00 until 23h00. For the bus timetable, telephone 05 56 58 32 74.

Reprised: New in . . . the Loire

Last year – around about this time as it happens – I ran a series of profiles of young, new, up-and-coming and next-generation vignerons working in a variety of appellations throughout the Loire. I recall introducing the series of tastings and reports in my New in….the Loire blog post. It was the first time I cast the spotlight onto some real Loire Valley stars, including Thibaud Boudignon, Jérôme Billard of Domaine de la Noblaie, Domaine Perrault-Jadaud, Florent Cosme, Laura Semeria of Domaine de Montcy and more than a handful of others.

Looking back now, these are not just a collection of Loire Valley curiosities. Some of these domaines have become important fixtures in my personal tasting calendar; discovering the wines of Laura Semeria, for example, was something of a revelation. She seems to excel in both Cheverny (in both colours) and Cour-Cheverny, and is already an important name to add to what was really a rather brief roll-call of domaines of interest in this part of the Loire Valley (a comment which is in no way meant to lessen the significance of François Cazin, Domaine de Veilloux and Domaine des Huards, who all make some top-notch wines). In Chinon, Domaine de la Noblaie is one of the best discoveries I have made in recent years; the wines of Jérôme Billard (pictured below), both red and white, are pure, classic, vibrant and fresh. This is a name to consider alongside other Chinon stalwarts.

Jérôme Billard

It is vital, I think, that any wine writer specialising in one particular region or style continues to explore in this manner, both to broaden their experience and to uncover new talent. It is also important, I have realised, that I should probably highlight these new discoveries and new profiles for readers more clearly. With daily updates featuring new (and refreshed) Bordeaux profiles, Bordeaux and Loire tasting reports, updates to my Loire wine guide (coming on nicely I think….the forthcoming treatise on Sauvignon Blanc should be of interest) and more, I think it is too easy for new profiles of less-than-familiar Loire domaines to get a little lost in the mix.

With this in mind I have decided, Frankenstein-like, to once more give life to my New in the Loire ‘tag’ (as can be seen on my home page) to highlight new profiles of interest. As was also the case last year, I will use this ‘tag’ to highlight profiles of domaines completely new to me, and coming up I have profiles of Domaine Bois Brinçon (in Anjou), Pierre Morin, Vincent Grall, Vincent Gaudry (the latter three all in Sancerre), Domaine Rocheville (in Saumur-Champigny), Domaine Sérol, Domaine du Picatier (these last two in the Côte Roannaise) and a few others. I will also use it to highlight new profiles of domaines that, while perhaps already familiar to fans of the wines of the Loire Valley, are being profiled on Winedoctor for the first time ever; candidates here include Clos la Néore, Domaine de la Cotelleraie and Les Maisons Brûlées.

September Subscription Opportunity for Merchants

During the primeur tastings in Bordeaux last April I handed out some business cards with an extra treat – a code stuck on the back for a free no-obligation Winedoctor trial, knocking down the usual cost of a four-week trial from a heady £15 down to absolutely nothing. It wasn’t quite Willy Wonka’s golden ticket (especially as I handed out more than just six) nevertheless judging by the number of sign-ups it was a pretty popular freebie. I imagine most of those signing up came looking for Bordeaux information first of all, either my primeurs report or some snippet of information from my many Bordeaux profiles. Well, they were all at the Bordeaux primeurs, weren’t they?

Now in a Loire frame of mind, I had thought of doing the same at next year’s Salon des Vins de Loire, but the number of merchants I bump into there is often very small, and more often than not it is the same handful of people, the same stalwart attendees, merchants often known for the strength of their Loire lists (among other things). Contrast that small group of Loire devotees to the hoards that invaded Bordeaux for the primeurs, when I handed out eighty of the hundred cards I ‘amended’.

Bordeaux primeurs

I am currently surging forward with new Loire profiles, with the likes of Domaine Guiberteau today, Clos la Néore last week, Domaine Thomas-Labaille before that, not to mention Domaine Bois BrinçonVincent Grall, Château de Targé, Domaine Sérol, Domaine du Picatier and Domaine de la Cotelleraie, not to mention updates on all the usual subjects including Richard Leroy, Pithon-Paillé, Les Roches Sèches and others. So I figured now, throughout September, would be a good time to offer the same trial to Loire merchants. Or indeed any wine business. If you are a merchant or run a wine business (no matter whether you specialise in the Loire or not) and would like to enquire about a free four-week trial on Winedoctor, please email me from an appropriate, work-related email address, and I will see about setting one up for you.

Unlike my annual subscriptions the trials do not auto-renew/auto-extend, so there is no catch. You don’t need to enter credit card information to take one up. You only need to do that if you wish to extend beyond the trial period, once the four weeks are up. The offer is open until September 30th only, and is restricted to those emailing from email addresses clearly indicating they are a recognisable wine merchant or other similar wine business.

A Bordeaux Guesthouse

During a visit to Château Haut-Bailly a year or two ago I learnt of the purchase by Robert Wilmers of nearby Château Le Pape. To me the acqusition of this second estate made perfect sense; quality at Château Haut-Bailly was being pushed to the maximum, the reputation of the estate was (and still is) in the ascendent, and the confident prices were already reflecting this. Having tasted the 2012 Château Le Pape a couple of years ago, and also the 2014 Château Le Pape during the primeurs earlier this year, it was clear from these wines that this is a domaine with potential. If the team apply the expertise they have developed at Château Haut-Bailly (pictured below) to this new acquisition we could have the latest Pessac-Léognan success story on our hands here.

Château Haut-Bailly

The estate is not just about wine though; I learned today that the property has been converted into guesthouses, so if you fancy a stay among the vines to the south of Bordeaux this might be an option for you. The propery has several bedrooms, a shaded terrace and a swimming pool overlooking the vineyard. There is also, of course, an option to visit the cellars at Château Haut-Bailly and to dine at the Table Privée de Haut-Bailly. The kitchen at Château Haut-Bailly was established in 2010 by Tanguy Laviale. Even though I believe he has since left, to set up Garopapilles, now apparently a firm favourite with the locals, just about everyone I speak to still rates the Haut-Bailly table as one of the best private dining venues in the region.

The guesthouse has been renovated by local artisans and the Compagnons du Tour de France (a French organization of craftsmen and artisans dating from the Middle Ages), while the gardens have been designed by landscape artist Camille Muller. As you can imagine, this is a high class vacation venue. The price is, I am told, €220 per room, per night. No doubt, for the venue and the experience, perhaps with a tasting of Haut-Bailly thrown in, it will be worth it. If you book a room, do let me now what it’s like.

If you’re interested, check out the website: Château Le Pape.

The Wine and Health Tedium: A Self-Help Programme

This week has seen yet another round of wine and health stories hit the press. No surprise there, as it seems no week goes by without another puffed-up piece getting the health journalists scribbling in a frenzy. Fear not. Here is my two-point guide to how to handle the onslaught of wine and health stories.

1. Ask yourself – why do you drink wine?

Did you take up drinking wine because you saw it as a medicine, to be adminstered daily, a decision taken after doing a careful analysis of all the possible health benefits (lower incidence of heart disease, for example) set against all the possible disease consequences (the fear-inducing consequences traditionally trotted out are accidents, liver disease and cancer), in the process working out correct dosage, time of administration and so on?

No, I thought not. Me neither.

I fell into wine (not literally) because it fascinated me. The most frequent way I feed my fascination is by putting the stuff in my mouth, sometimes swallowed, sometimes spat out. It’s not just about the taste of it though. It’s also about understanding the varieties, the geology of vineyards, the story of the great châteaux of Bordeaux and other regions. It is about culture and art and how they interdigitate with wine (if you don’t agree that wine is culture, is art, that is). It’s about the people and personalities involved, and their beliefs (sometimes entertainingly loopy). It’s about the larger-than-life characters who import, market and sell the stuff. It’s about the critics and their foibles, and the occasional controversy that swirls around them. Not for one second, when tasting or drinking wine, do I think about the health benefits or risks associated with a daily glass. It’s not why I drink wine.

2. Ask yourself – do the media always get health stories right?

The sad answer to this is no. Medical studies published in even very reputable journals tend to be selling you a message, and it is this ‘message’ this generates the story that follows. A sensible journalist might also speak to the source to follow up on this. In both cases (whether reading or speaking), however, the journalist is still relying solely on the opinion of the authors, which is a little like getting a wine critic to rate his own palate (“it’s the best there is, mate”). It lacks a certain independence.

You need a more critical stance when interpreting medical studies. You need an understanding of statistics, and rather than relying on the words of the authors (which, being frank, not infrequently overstate the findings of the research, and which – perish the thought – sometimes reflect their personal bias concerning the matter at hand) you have to interpret what the study really means. This is where journalists seem to fall down, I suspect because they don’t largely have a clue about statistics. For example, in this study on light-to-moderate drinking which hit the news this week it was reported here, in the Guardian, that “US study finds light drinking linked only to minimal increase in risk of all cancers” which is lifted straight from the paper. And yet, if you look at the statistics, it is clear that no such association was demonstrated. No such association was proven. There was no increase in risk. We’ve fallen at the first hurdle. That’s before we even get into a discussion about the difference between association and causation, and all the other problems you find with epidemiological research such as this.

So I guess the next question will be “Chris, please debunk more of this wine and health nonsense”, but I’m sorry, this is a two-part self help programme, and we have reached the end. There is no third step. For a response to this third question, may I please direct you to step one as described above.

Exploring Sherry #12: Gonzalez Byass Fino Delicado

In more than fifteen years of writing on Winedoctor I have always tended to steer towards identifiable domaines, where every bottle tells a tale. Wines from négociants, co-operatives, supermarket own-brand bottlings and so on all have their place in the wine world, but rarely have they ever piqued my interest. I think the main reason is that with such bottles vital details of the wine’s story – its origins, the terroir, the person who tended the vines – are obscured. The label, instead of being informative, suddenly becomes something of a barrier.

In Sherry, I have found an exception to this personal rule. Perhaps it is because the process of making Sherry tends to obscure some of these details anyway. Perhaps it is because it is usually pretty obvious which bodega has been charged with supplying the wine. Or perhaps it is just because some own-label bottlings are really, really good. How do I know this? Well, here’s one example (and it won’t be the last)…..

Gonzalez Byass Fino Delicado

The Delicado Fino is produced exclusively for UK supermarket Waitrose by Gonzalez Byass, and its origins are not too obscure, as it is sourced from the Tio Pepe soleras, which gives us a link back to the recently enjoyed Tio Pepe En Rama. Its presentation clearly evokes thoughts of the Finos Palmas wines, but the wine inside is – to the best of my knowledge – distinct from that range.

In the glass the wine has a rich, golden-yellow hue in the glass. There are some lovely flor notes on the nose, very classic, very expressive too though, with nothing subtle here. It is fino with a little age on it I think, but not too much. Underneath the flor there is some desiccated orchard fruit character, dried apples especially. It feels really fresh and lively. There follows a full, broad style on the palate, textured but light-footed, with a delicate acid backbone. This has really good poise and a real sense of harmony, the whole wine gently waltzing through to the finish, where it rounds up in a long and lightly grippy end. This is really nice stuff, characterful and refreshing. 16.5/20 (August 2015)

Drink the Wines you Care About

When I first started getting into wine I looked for guidance; don’t we all? Someone to lead us by the hand, tell us what we should be drinking. I think it is traditional at this point to say I turned to a big name critic such as Parker, but in fact in those very early days it was more likely UK columnists or annual UK guides that I would use. It wasn’t long before I realised my little wine collection was very narrow in style though (I had lots of mid-priced Australian Cabernet and Shiraz, and not much else) although looking back that wasn’t the main problem. The biggest problem was that I had a collection of wine that was driven entirely by somebody else’s palate. Each individual wine was reliable, but overall it was a dull collection. It lacked variety. It lacked adventure.

These days, I don’t follow anyone else’s palate but my own. “That’s easy for you”, you might say, “you travel and taste a lot, but the rest of us don’t have that advantage”. OK, that’s a fair point. I’ve visited the Loire Valley three times this year, and Bordeaux once (and I expect to be back to both before the year is out), so I do taste a lot of young wines and can therefore act as my own guide for my buying decisions.

I have a counter-argument though; the thing is, I don’t just buy wines which I have tasted and dutifully scribbled down notes and scores for. Some wines from the Loire and Bordeaux I buy blind, simply because I care about these two regions. I care particularly about the Loire Valley, its wines and its vignerons – you probably have to, in order to want to write comprehensively and consistently about it, as it is a huge and sprawling region. I also care about Bordeaux, although I really think I should be caring more about the litle appellations and domaines these days, and less about the big boys and girls of the cru classé châteaux. But that’s a topic for a different day.

Damien Laureau

As a consequence of this deep interest in these two regions I often buy wines blind, with absolutely no knowledge of the domaine, having never tasted the wines in question. For example, sticking with the Loire Valley, in June I drove past a domaine in Savennieres I was unfamiliar with. I was on a busy (self-imposed!) schedule and so didn’t stop, but I have since bought a bottle to taste. I have no idea what to expect when I pull the cork. And in Sancerre, which I also visited in June, I was reminded of a domaine I briefly visited in 2013 but never wrote up (it was a flying, rather informal visit). Seeing these wines in the UK recently, I also bought some of those to see what they’re like, again completely blind.

Now these wines might not be the best wines in the respective appellations, but to me that’s not important. Maybe on pulling the corks I will find they are actually quite bad, but honestly that’s not important either. I could, I suppose, restrict myself to drinking only the best; I could pore over my notes and exclusively buy only Damien Laureau (pictured above) and Claude Papin in Savennières, from François Cotat and Gérard Boulay in Sancerre. And then I could pore over someone else’s notes and buy only the best from Piedmont, or from California, or from Australia. But the problem with this latter approach, as I realised many years ago, is that you end up drinking to the preferences of someone else’s palate.

Rigorously following notes and scores (mine or anyone else’s!) removes a sense of adventure from wine drinking. Among all the safe bets and sure things, if there is a region you care about, it is good to sometimes open a bottle with absolutely no idea what the wine will be like. Good or bad, every bottle counts, because if you care about the region in question, the bottle will enhance your understanding of it. It will become part of your wine journey. And while I still buy wines based on my own tastings, in the Loire and in Bordeaux, ultimately I have realised exploring my favourite wine regions this way – with a mix of the known and the unknown – thereby developing a deeper and broader understanding of Savennières, Sancerre and so on, is much more fun than slavishly following a palate or guide in the hope of always having a minimum-90-point experience.