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I once recorded my train of wine-thought here, but such opinions - together with news of Winedoctor updates, 'readers' letters', off-the-cuff tasting notes and more - can now be found in the Winedr blog.

Wine Thoughts

Bordeaux Vineyards Devastated

Reported in Sud-Ouest on Wednesday, May 13th: a huge hailstorm on Tuesday night/Wednesday morning this week appears to have devastated a number of Bordeaux vineyards. Quoted in the article is Catherine Dufour, deputy director of the Chambre d'Agriculture de la Gironde, who indicates that St Emilion and Graves are the better known areas of the Bordeaux vineyard to be hardest-hit, with more damage in the Entre-Deux-Mers, Côtes de Castillon and Côtes de Bordeaux appellations.

Hailstones: image © Sud-OuestTuesday night's storm came soon after a stormy Monday afternoon characterised by gigantic hailstones (see image on right, courtesy of Sud-Ouest). The vines won't yet be in flower, but they are in leaf and it appears many have been denuded of all greenery and in some cases even the wood has been damaged; that isn't surprising looking at the size of the hailstones, and at some of the other pictures on Sud-Ouest which in some cases show damage sustained to local properties (broken glass or exterior light fittings, for instance). With that level of damage to the vines this obviously has implications for the 2009 harvest, but perhaps the 2010 harvest as well. There are already reports emerging over some properties having lost up to 90% of the 2009 harvest, including some famous names in St Emilion. So far there is no news of any damage in Pomerol.

An updated report on Sud-Ouest today (Thursday 14th) does indeed suggest some vignerons will have lost the entire harvest; Joël Duffau, of the Entre-Deux-Mers estate Château La Mothe du Barry, explains how in five minutes a resplendently green vineyard was laid to waste. It is less well known vignerons like this who suffer most in this sort of catastrophe; famous estates have funds in reserve, old vintages to sell, or perhaps more willing creditors, but little family-run estates in less prestigious appellations who work hand-to-mouth, year-on-year, are the first to go under. I hope this isn't the case for Joël Duffau and his neighbours. (14/5/09)

A Letter from Laroze

I received this message earlier this week by email from Guy Meslin of Château Laroze, a Grand Cru Classé estate in St Emilion. I though it was worth reproducing here, especially as it seems to be an open letter to primeur tasters.

Dear Chris,

The way the recent primeur tastings in Saint Emilion took place profoundly disappointed me and has left me quite bitter.

You tasted nearly 500 wines and did not see fit to make any remarks about Laroze, a Grand Cru Classé!

The Grands Crus Classés are of fundamental importance in Saint Emilion in order to characterise a vintage. Tasting them is essential for you to be credible in your comments. I cannot help but feel that your priority was to rush to check out wines which in my view are of secondary importance, such as those of the fashionable winemakers, the garage wines which are given scores although they are not made in marketable quantities large enough to satisfy your readers’ curiosity, since the volumes they are produced in are microscopic and purely speculative.

Laroze produces on average 100,000 bottles of classed growth wines per year, which is substantial within our appellation and represents the strength of a real property that happens to be amongst the top ten classed estates. We continuously invest our people’s hard work and a lot of money in this enterprise to keep it on a regular on-going development path.

Every year the Association of Saint-Emilion Grands Crus Classés organises a special tasting for you; this year, it was held at La Tour Figeac, while last year it was at Laroze and you attended.

The only way our small agricultural companies can establish and maintain our notoriety is by working with you, because we do not have sufficient resources to finance advertising campaigns. So, stopping by to see us and tasting the Grands Crus Classés should be at the top of your list. Of course, this would also help you save time at the other tasting venues, because you will have already covered a good number of the important wines.

To get this issue and all its attendant disappointment over with once and for all, I’d like to suggest a way of doing things during the futures week which would be effective and would avoid all frustration:

I believe Mr Suckling has found the best way. He couldn’t care less about all the hype around the tastings and goes off to a nice place, which you can find in Saint Emilion, and has all the samples delivered to him that he wants to taste, and works calmly and comfortably through them.

A group of journalists could do something similar. In my humble opinion, you need to take the lead in this, because the winegrowers are not able to get together. They want to drag you around from place to place, trying to keep you the longest possible with them, so you do not have time to go elsewhere.

If you did things the way I suggest, you would not waste time rushing here and there, trying to keep up with X and Y, who are all competing for your attention. Mr Suckling starts off with a non-exhaustive list of wines and contacts the growers by E-mail. He gets through all his tasting in three or four days, without embarking on any estate marathon, and remains very relaxed about the whole procedure.

To make sure I leave a good taste in your mouth, here is Jean-Marc Quarin’s take on Laroze 2008: (I have removed this note for reasons of copyright - Chris)

This is the fifth best score of the Grands Crus Classés, which I feel should be higher considering the quality of the observations. - GM.

Hoping this letter will provide you with food for thought,

Kindest regards

Guy Meslin

First, a few observations, some of which might be nitpicking, but...

So this looks like an open letter to Meslin's list of journalistic contacts. Don't ask me how I got on it, but I am. I must admit I have some sympathy for his cause. He is running an estate of some size, turning out 100000 bottles of presumably drinkable wine, and yet despite having the grand-sounding ranking of grand cru classé he is losing out to garagistes and similar, who are apparently doing their best to foil my efforts to taste Laroze and other usurpers to their crown by keeping me talking when I visit. I do suspect he is correct with his first point; given the choice to taste the latest vintages of either Le Dôme or Laroze, I suspect many would choose the former; that doesn't mean I condone this decision, as a tasting note on Laroze is likely to have a broader use than one on Le Dôme, but that is what I suspect would happen. But his second point is rather strange; I have experienced difficulties getting into certain properties to taste, but never any difficulty getting out!

His view that journalists should ensconce themselves in a nice little restaurant somewhere is rather a romantic one I feel. It might work for Suckling (with whom I crossed paths at Margaux which rather suggests he deviated from his scheme somewhat) but frankly not for the vast majority of journalists who, individually, or indeed even as a group, carry little clout. In addition, what do we have when 30 or 40 châteaux send their bottles to le restaurant for a tasting by a dozen journo's? Just that - a tasting, and there are already plenty of those going on, including a UGC St Emilion tasting at Figeac (which I attended) and the aforementioned St Emilion GCC Association tasting at La Tour Figeac (which I didn't attend). Most journalists wanting to taste St Emilion will attend the former I think, those wishing a broader view of the appellation will, as Meslin desires, visit the latter as well. I didn't because with less than four days for the whole of Bordeaux I needed the time to also visit the UGC Pomerol tasting, and on the same day visit the Moueix offices, Cheval-Blanc, Angélus, Le Pin, Ausone and Vieux Château Certan (none of which I felt were trying to delay me going anywhere).

There are two solutions, neither of which involve the request that the Thienponts pop a bottle or two of Le Pin and VCC over to the local bistro for me to sample. An ideal primeur tasting would provide complete coverage, so the first solution requires the Bordelais to drop all the politics and pomposity (so it will never happen) and for the grander estates to join the communal tastings. That means everybody has stacks more time to taste, and Laroze gets a look-in. Here's to dreams! Perhaps more pragmatically, Meslin should consider joining the UGC. This isn't a global solution to the problems with the en primeur circus, but with his wines positioned at both the UGC and Association tastings Meslin would at least get the exposure that he obviously craves and no doubt deserves. (1/5/09)

A brief report from the Decanter World Wine Awards

When I first started being more choosy about the wine I drink I, like many others I suspect, paid some considerable attention to competitions such as the Decanter World Wine Awards (although in those days the only contender of any note - that I can remember, anyway - was the International Wine Challenge). It was a good way to find some guidance when exploring new regions, or to stock up on midweek drinkers which were of good quality ("medal-winning" quality, I suppose) but which were also well priced. There are, however, some issues with these sorts of competitions. First, and this is the standard criticism trotted out, the results are often said to reflect the opinion of a panel of palates, rather than the words of one finely tuned, rapier-like critic. As such the wines that win are said by some to be those that have broad appeal rather than those of any great individual character, wines free of negative traits rather than possessing positive ones. Another issue is that the results sometimes seem nonsensical; after all, how can a relatively inexpensive Australian Cabernet Shiraz or a humble Cru Bourgeois wine from the Médoc win a gold? Shouldn't they always go to Grange Hermitage and the latest vintage of Lafite-Rothschild?

For the past two days I have been judging the Loire submissions to Decanter's annual wine competition; it was my first time judging at such an event, and it has been both enjoyable and educational. It has certainly allowed me to formulate a more complex consideration of the first criticism above. I still think the point has some validity, in that this is a very different style of wine information to that provided by an individual critic, but that is not the same as considering the results invalid. In fact, having just looked at about 150 Loire Valley wines along with Jim Budd, Sarah Ahmed and Nigel Wilkinson I am content that the wines' true qualities were correctly perceived, that delicious wines were appreciated to be so, and those that were dull, uninteresting or similar were rejected out of hand. Yes it was a consensus opinion, but the wines to which we gave awards were no less exciting, interesting or tasty for that. There was in fact a surprising consensus on the majority of the wines, although occasionally there was a firm and wide difference of opinion when a super-juror (in our room, Steven Spurrier) was called in to decide. But this happened only twice, so it is hardly a defining characteristic of the results. The simple truth is, the good wines shone through on the day, and I am more certain than I was before of the validity of panel tastings (or at least of our panel!).

In addition to that point, it is probably worthwhile pointing out that there is no guarantee of success when submitting a wine to this competition; there is no pressure to award medals to wines that shouldn't make the grade. We were fair on the wines, judging each one thoughtfully, but we were also quite severe I think. Personally I wasn't about to go throwing gold medals around willy-nilly (nor any grade of result for that matter), as any quick look at the results (when revealed later in the year - I can't say anything yet of course) will reveal. I think this approach is very necessary if such results are going to have any degree of credibility.

With regard to the latter criticism, concerning 'missing' wines, this still stands I suppose. A wine competition can only judge those wines submitted, and there is just no need for some producers to submit their wines. This is one reason why although the results of such competitions can be useful, they should not be the only source of information you use; a blinkered, quasi-religious following of the results will limit your wine horizons, because the great and esoteric are rarely found here. So to discover the likes of Huet, Philippe Foreau, Philippe Alliet, Clos Rougeard, Alphonse Mellot, Guy Bossard, Luneau-Papin or similar (naturally I could go on) you need a specialist source of information....someone who makes the effort to taste these wines, travelling to the Loire as required. But to know what good examples of Saumur-Champigny or Touraine Sauvignon are heading to the UK market as you read this, or indeed to find any particular style at any particular price point, backed up by the opinion of a panel of judges led by a seasoned regional chair, then the Decanter World Wine Awards (or indeed the International Wine Challenge, which I know less well but which has broadly similar aims I think) is the way to go.

For some pictures of the event (I don't have any as only regional chairs are allowed to take cameras, as a means of intimidating their panel members), unfortunately including a close-up mugshot of me but happily including fellow judges Sarah and Nigel see Jim Budd's blog. (24/4/09)

Dr Vino Blog

I have been back from Bordeaux about two weeks now, and it is amazing to see the majority of first growths already released. I don't even have all my notes added to the site yet, although the most important ones are all up; just Sauternes and a few minor appellations to go. My plan was to add some of those today, but something far more interesting in the blogosphere caught my eye; two fascinating posts on the Dr Vino blog.

The most recent of the two concerns the independence of wine writers, and the ethics of press-trade relationships. Until recently this wasn't something that concerned me, simply because I had never received anything that might be remotely compromising. It is only in the last couple of years that I have been able to take advantage of press trips, mainly to Bordeaux, which brought access to properties previously unassailable, as well as good organisation and timekeeping (something I value more than any financial advantage). At first I didn't really know what to do about what are essentially gratuities, but then I realised that the only solution was to disclose each episode of hospitality (as I have done with my Bordeaux 2008 Pessac-Léognan notes) and then let the reader decide for themselves what impact it might have (none, in my opinion...I'm just not that spineless). So that's my policy - accept and disclose. The policy at the Wine Advocate has always been no hospitality, but what was once just Parker is now a team, and it seems as though not all are singing from the same hymn sheet:

Wine Advocate Ethics

Next up, the previous post from Dr Vino, in which he documents an email discourse between Slate columnist Mike Steinberger and eBob forum moderator Mark Squires which resulted from Squires first posting a comment critical of a recent article by Steinberger, and then deleting the whole thread (a common 'moderation' technique on the board, it seems) without giving Steinberger opportunity to debate the points raised by Squires. The exchange of emails that ensues is eye-opening to say the least:

The X'd files

Next week on Winedoctor, notes on 2008 Sauternes, and lots of Champagne. Have a good weekend. (17/4/09)

In Bordeaux

Well, I'm not really in Bordeaux, not yet, but after the weekend I should be, as this coming Monday sees the kick off for the primeur tastings of the 2008 Bordeaux vintage. I will be flying out on Monday and tasting begins that very day.

There's already been a lot of debate about the tastings, some of which recurs annually and usually revolves around April being far too soon to assess the wines properly, and of course the expected high prices. Some points, perhaps, are more particular to 2009, especially those that indicate the market simply isn't able to bear another Bordeaux campaign right now. Add economic insecurity to those high prices and you have a recipe for...well, not disaster, but certainly disinterest.

On these grounds I think attendance at the primeurs might be down a little, as buyers and even some critics judge the trip to be of limited worth when the market is so disaffected. Who will be reading the notes, or buying the wines? Fair enough, perhaps fewer people than usual. But let's not fall into the trap of misinterpreting disinterest from the market as a comment on the quality of the wines. That's not possible just yet; there have been hardly any tastings of 2008 Bordeaux, and so it is too soon to be dismissing the wines. Note, however, that I write "hardly any" rather than "none". Based on my tasting of 2008 right bank Bordeaux in London a couple of weeks ago, this vintage is no failure; thirty or so wines (mainly Fronsac, Castillon, Pomerol and so on) from the Cercle Rive Droite, an association of right bank estates, showed nicely. Many of the properties were unfamiliar to me, so it isn't impossible to make direct comparisons, but taking the wines as a whole they left me with a much better impression that many 2007 tastings did last year, with a darker character but fresher frut (as well as the usual disappointing collection of right bank interpretations of "The New Black Wine" - dark as the night sky, over-extracted, low-acid, soupy affairs). How the style and quality of the vintage compares to other "good but not great" vintages such as 2001, 2004 and 2006, however, it is still too soon for me to say.

So I will be there on Monday. And Tuesday....and so on. My internet connection may be limited, but I will do my best to get online and update the site. In the meantime, here's a taster of my schedule, which consists of a mix of UGC tastings (of communes, hosted by one property) and of visits to the more prestigious estates who don't join in with these tastings.

Monday
1615: Arrive Bordeaux 1700: Pessac-Léognan UGC tasting at Smith-Haut-Lafitte.

Tuesday
0900: Montrose. 0930: Cos d'Estournel. 1030: Lafite. 1130: Latour. 1215: Pichon-Lalande. 1300: Sociando-Mallet. 1445: Léoville-las-Cases. 1545: UGC tasting of St Julien, Pauillac and St Estéphe at Branaire-Ducru.

Wednesday
1000: Moueix Estates. 1115: UGC tasting of St Emilion at Figeac. 1400: Cheval-Blanc. 1430: UGC Pomerol tasting at La Conseillante. 1545: Angélus. 1630: Le Pin.
1700: Ausone. Also possible Thunevin tasting at La Dominique.

Thursday
1000: Margaux. 1100: UGC Margaux tasting at Marquis de Terme. 1230: Sauternes UGC tasting at Dauzac. 1400: La Mission Haut Brion. 1645: Leave for UK.

That should keep me busy. (27/3/09)

In Burgundy

Today just a quick note to describe - albeit very briefly - perhaps one of the most vinously remarkable days I have ever lived. This morning (by which I now mean yesterday morning) I was walking amongst the Grand Cru vines of Chablis (yes, I have come to Burgundy for a few days - I arrived Wednesday), particularly in a small plot called La Moutonne, which straddles Les Preuses and Vaudésir. Then, after a tasting of Chablis from generic appellation up to Grand Cru level, spanninng the vintages 2001 to 2008, I returned to the Côte d'Or where I looked at vineyards in the Pommard, Beaune, Volnay and Meursault appellations.

Then, with dinner, a selection of wines both young and old, but mainly the latter. We tasted not only 1970 Beychevelle, a wine from my birth year, but also 1969 and 1959 Chambertin from Albert Bichot. Served blind, the two wines were clearly Burgundy and they had a fine intrinsic quality, but otherwise I would never have guessed that they were this old such was their freshness and vigour. Tasting colleague Richard Bampfield MW, however, not only correctly spotted the two vintages, but then named the vineyard without even a hint of deliberation. Wine three then appeared; I wasn't even sure this was Burgundy, but again Richard nailed it, without pausing, as 1947 Chambertin. What a night!

Say what you like about blind tasting, that it is a parlour game, a party trick, and so on. Yes, I agree that what is important is the enjoyment of the wine, regardless of vintage or label. But to identify wines in this way can't be disregarded; it demonstrates a huge depth of knowledge and tasting experience. The entire table of guests were, myself included, stunned. And the wines? Yes, they were fabulous; I especially liked the Beychevelle, for obvious reasons, but those Chambertins! Naturally, a full write up is on the cards. (20/3/09)

Nicolas Joly on YouTube

Today instead of my planned update I can't resist linking instead to one of Gary Vaynerchuk's latest interviews, featuring Nicolas Joly, posted to YouTube last Monday. Following this week's major addition, my updated and expanded profile of Nicolas Joly and the Clos de la Coulée de Serrant it seems very appropriate to do so; now everyone can see and hear Joly for themselves. Gary, the Wine TV persenter, certainly has a distinctive style, although I thought it a little reined in for this interview. Maybe it was just less apparent in the shadow of the character sitting next to him.

Near the beginning of part two Vaynerchuk states "I'm getting so much nuttiness in this". He was referring to the 2004 Clos de la Bergerie. This comes shortly after Joly seems unable to remember, in response to Vaynerchuk's question, the name of any of his Savennières peers, other than Pierre Soulez who has retired, having sold all his vines.

Gary Vaynerchuk's interview with Nicolas Joly: part one and part two. (26/1/09)

Not a Busy Week

Although I haven't really been run off my feet with things to do this week, I still don't seem to have been able to knuckle down to work. I think that has changed today, but otherwise I have been procrastinating wildly with the help of the internet. Other people seem to have got back into the swing of things much more quickly, however, which has meant there's no shortage of interesting material to read.

I thought in recognition of the hard work of others that I might highlight a few of the more entertaining blog updates here:

Thoughts from 2008