Thursday, 27 March 2014

Bordeaux 2004 Ten Years On

Bordeaux 2004 has always been an unassuming vintage. It was swamped by the hoo-hah around 2003: while that year was all excess, 2004 was unremarkable in all but yield. The weather was fine, with decent rainfall and plenty of sunshine, and good conditions for harvest. Some said that the vines remembered the drought and heat of 03 and over-compensated, but whatever the reason, yields were extremely high, and those producers who couldn’t put in time in the vineyards in July and August, controlling yield by dropping fruit, ran the risk of dry tannins and green flavours. As Stephane Von Neipperg of Canon La Gaffeliere said at the time, ‘Those who did no green harvest produced high yields, and consequently tended to overextract in order to concentrate the middle palate and avoid having dilute wines.’ The market was sluggish (the US had splurged on 2003 and wasn’t really in a mood to buy, and China was but a twinkle in Gary Boom’s eye).
Talking of whom, here we are again at Bordeaux Index, the dynamic wine merchant in London’s Hatton Garden of which Boom is the founder. Its neighbours are the jewellers and gem merchants who have traded here for hundreds of years. It's the sort of street where stocky men in tight suits stand in the shop doorways, cracking their knuckles. BI seems very at home.

Every year Bordeaux Index shows some 70 wines 10 years on, and this morning the 2004s are lined up.

I’ve come to the tasting with high expectations. The 04s are much-loved for their restraint. Oz Clarke told me recently he bought more 04s than any other vintage, ‘because it tastes like Bordeaux.’ The best wines have classic claret profiles – restrained fruit with sharp edgy tannic grip dissolving to a wonderful refreshing juicy finish.

There are a few disappointments – I know Palmer is highly praised by many but I didn’t find the perfume that characterises the property. Brane Cantenac was thin (dodgy bottle, we wondered?). The wines that were lacking were not so much over-extracted but simply dull – hollow in the mid palate and finishing on a dying fall. Giscours, for example. You couldn’t fault it for 90% of its length but then it was like the last step of a staircase unexpectedly missing. Some have drying tannins which just aren’t going to get any sweeter.




But the highs were very high indeed – and remember also the wines are reasonably priced, by and large. You don’t need to buy Chateau Palmer at £1,300 a case when you can have Talbot at £420.

These wines are still young, and many are closing off for a long hibernation from which they’ll emerge full of charm, but at the moment are tight and surly. I thought the St Juliens very fine, Margaux patchy, Pauillac excellent. I liked the St Emilions and many Pomerols. The first growths are splendid.’

In his introductory notes to the tasting, Michael Schuster says, ‘”Classic” is a description which is likely to remain with [these wines]. In the traditional sense of the word, meaning whose overall proportions and flavours are restrained and moderate… and in a world increasingly filled with heavyweights, that, in my view, is a virtue.’

Quite. The best wines of this vintage taste classic. Like Bordeaux.



TASTING NOTES
(all prices in bond, case of 12)

ST EMILION Grand Cru Classé, 1er GCC

Grandes Murailles £270
Lovely dense sweet tarry nose with licorice. Bright sweet fruit on palate and soft tannins becoming juicy and with grip. Damson, fresh ripe plum. Tannins dusty and ripe, clove and cinnamon

Pavie Macquin £550
Some rotted notes alongside agreeable dry tannins – slight touch of cabbage and tinned peas on the palate moving to sweeter dark fruit notes. Slightly hot

Larcis Ducasse £395
Tightly-wound at first opening into breathy freshness with sour cherry and plum, open and fresh but perhaps hollow  on the mid palate. Finishes on a dying fall

Canon la Gaffeliere £550
Closed discreet nose with nice evolved sweet cassis notes and mown grass and nutmeg. Perfumed. Delicate. Really classic palate full of life and freshness but with this sharp tannic edgy grip leading to juice. Very fine

Magdelaine £395
Interesting dry pot pourri perfume, very classic palate with restrained blackcurrant, damson and dry tannins becoming juicy. Nice finish but falls off slightly.

Troplong Mondot £400
Really lovely opulent nose with violet perfume, mown hay turned over in the field, damp earth. Open, breathy palate, dense sour food-friendly tannins but a drying length

Clos Fourtet £500
Fresh and lean nose with licorice and tobacco. Bright, very lean, very classic, full of interesting meaty damsons and dark fruit. Tannins almost in the back seat but present throughout. Good long juicy length

Canon £450
Marmite and savoury notes first on the nose, then damp earth, then on the palate this sour, earthy, juicy classic profile, tannins still on the way to releasing juice. Puts me in mind of a rack of lamb dripping with juice

Figeac £700
Grass, late summer grass on the nose. Bright, peppery notes on palate, blackcurrant, incredible dry tannins going into juiciness, very soft almost disappearing length. General impression of savouriness and freshness and grip to the tannin

Angelus £2,400
Lovely opulent nose, violet perfume and hints of rot – ripe mulberry lying in the orchard grass, drowsy buzz of wasps. Dry present tannins but releasing  juice throughout the palate, dry at end but a gripping pent up dryness that will be released slowly, with a rack of lamb. Powerful

Ausone £4,200
Very bright very fresh tannins following blackcurrant fruit – power (heat) and refreshing, structured acidity and tannins. The whole like a teetering delicate scaffold, robust enough to stay standing but possessed of an airy weightlessness. Very fine.

Cheval Blanc £2,900
Fresh open & interesting – very charming – good tannic heft becoming juicy, still some primary oak characters, earthiness, dark fruit. Full of life and good length

POMEROL

Gazin £450
Savoury nose, damson and hint of clove and herbs on palate, bright, dense young and dry tannins, still juicy, lovely pot pourri and preserved spiced fruit on palate, sweet juicy length

Nenin £450
Savoury sweet nose, very open slightly undistinguished palate with perhaps one dimension too few. Tannnins lacking grip but good finish – just the mid-palate lacking

Clinet £600
Intense nose, mulched blackberry and truffley autumn earth, open and fresh, then palate delicate and charming with the softest most integrated tannins and superb juiciness leading to more grip and a strongly defined end. Fruit is dark, sweet, not brooding but charming  - plum, damson, blackberry

Clos L’Eglise £475
Fresh and juicy blackberry palate with fresh tannins and acidity. very nice, agreeable, not complex

La Fleur Petrus £1,250
Really attractive floral nose  - violet and mown grass – missing something on the mid palate – some tannic grip?.

La Conseillante £750
Open fresh attractive perfumed nose.as above – where is the mid palate?

Trotanoy £800
Good fresh bright and very juicy at the end – but a slight fall off at the finish – not exciting

Petrus £14,000
Lovely chocolatey dense nose – full of power and fine tannins, earth, chocolate and brisk acidity. The palate is initially dry then tannins detonate to juiciness leaving the palate invigorated. Lovely
  
HAUT MEDOC

Potensac £170
For the first time I have an impression of oak – too much of it, drying under the top lip and dominating. Don’t see a great future for this

Poujeaux £250
Fresh with grip. Lean, fresh, dense blackcurrant fruit, falling off at end to a dying fall

PESSAC-LEOGNAN

Malartic Lagraviere £360
Fresh and open, breathy palate. Attractive, full, perfumed (old sandalwood and cedar) all in a very low key

Smith Haut Lafitte £515
Big earthy truffley NW style nose – very fine open beginning  to the palate with violet perfumed dark damson-blackberry fruit. Very juicy, very attractive  without a complex end palate

Dme de Chevalier £420
Savoury nose. Open palate not intense but full of restrained fruit (can you be full of something and restrained?). Juicy and incredibly charming, offset by good strong dense chalky tannins that carry the whole thing through. Power and finesse.

Haut Bailly £500
Lovely cool elegant nose and the same for the palate – sour plum and sour cherry, hint of salt and savouriness – low key and classic. Lovely strong restrained length. Classic – it tastes like Bordeaux

La Mission Haut Brion  £1,150
Power. Bright fruit and superb acidity leading to grippy fresh tannins. Intriguing – length not massive but will go on – delicate

Haut Brion £2,600
Closed – juice and power under the radar – spice and perfume – giving nothing away. I’ve not had this wine before (not since 2005) and everyone pays tribute to its freshness, perfume and power. This bottle was simply not opening up to me. A great shame

MARGAUX

Du Tertre £300
Very attractive nose and lovely entry, fresh, open and incredibly juicy (almost too much so). Length carries on forever, impression of roundness and fullness, opulence

Giscours £420
Fresh nose, open and delicate palate, lots of juice, lots of attraction, long and sweet but again a slight feeling – is this it? Where is the grip on the mid palate?

Malescot st Exupery £400
Same as Giscours. Nice and open and juicy but slightly closed, not exuberant in any way, prematurely stooped

Brane Cantenac £400
Savoury barbecued beef nose, full dense tannic rush to start and going into – what? – some fruit, some acidity, but the fruit dies quickly. Disappointing  dry finish. I would drink this asap. I wonder about the bottle

Lascombes £550
Nice strong savoury nose, disappointingly angular palate.Oak tannins predominate

Rauzan Segla £450
Fine sour palate – classic blackcurrant straight off the bush. Nice freshness, nice finish though short

Pavillon Rouge £990
As Rauzan. Agreeable, fun, but in the end it’s not going to make the evening

Palmer £1300
Expecting perfume off this one – none of that – sharp tannic  edge, drying length. Closed for the duration. Come back to it

Margaux £3,000
Green, peppery, sweet tannins, lovely end palate, lots of green hay and spice; hot and ripe but balanced and concentrated. Exotic and powerful
  
ST JULIEN

Gloria £275
Savoury, meaty nose, full of life, (more than Palmer) much more vibrant and alive – good strong tannic length that is just getting juicier.

Clos du Marquis £300
Fresh and open, full of life, slightly astringent tarry note to early palate -  dense sweet juicy tannins, uncomplicated but very charming. Some oak still needs integrating but tannins will get juicier ** buy

Talbot £420
Really attractive perfumed tarry nose reflecting the decayed grandeur of the chateau itself. Can I detect cigarette smoke amongst the preserved damson and plum? Palate restrained but very precise – lots to like

Beychevelle £780
Fine delicate fruit, lots of juice, fine fruit but it’s more compote than fresh – it’s a ghostly essence of blackcurrant rather than the full cassis rush. Length short

BranaireDucru £400
Nice fresh nose with sour plum and licorice. Very bright fruit (damson) and good breathy length, it seems,  though there’s a fall to dryness

Gruaud Larose £400
Full and fresh, ballsy and uncompromising – but surely a wine at 10 years old shouldn’t have such teeth-furring dryness? Juice kicks  in at the end but still…

Leoville Barton £480
Elegant, restrained, with tannic dryness and juice and leading to sweet blackcurrant  and a nice dry length. Drinking beautifully now

Leoville Las Cases £1025
Lovely blackcurrant nose – very bright and hopeful – intense and restrained palate with dryness leading to some sparse wintery juice

PAUILLAC

Pichon Longueville Comtesse £800
Fine tarry nose with blackcurrant fruit – dense – full of character – quite restrained and tarry – dense tannic length but with juice

Pichon Longueville Baron £850
Powerful young feeling to this wine. Overwhelming intensity of fruit and and inky, opulent tannins. Excellent

Mouton £3,050
Dense sweet intense juicy very ripe tannin. Juicy fresh fruit  - blackcurrant and blakberry.

Lafite £5,300
Strong fresh but with really powerful overlaying tannins.intense – more power than you’d ever expect with this velvety, soft, perfumed nose. Still green notes on It – attractive

Latour £3,600
An aroma of chocolate, coffee and dense sweet fruit – cassis and briar – gives way to a palate for which the three words which spring to mind are tannin, power and tar, followed by concentrated gouts of more cassis and an earthy violet perfume. Superb

ST ESTEPHE

Cos d’Estournel £800
Beguiling sweet nose with damson and christmas plum… tarrry palate,  opulent and full of life

Montrose £530
Very fresh open bright palate – lots of juice early on, lots of charm, full of interest. Nice length, with spice and dense, concentrated fruit power

Top 5 Best Value
Clos du Marquis
Du Tertre
Talbot
Grands Murailles
Malartic Lagraviere

Top 5
La Mission Haut Brion
Cheval Blanc
Montrose
Canon la Gaffeliere
Clinet

Wednesday, 26 March 2014

Subtle or dilute? Koshu divides opinion

Of all the wine regions of the world, the Yamanashi prefecture of Japan has to be one of the least-known. Cosmopolitan consumers may be on nodding terms with Chinese Cabernet Sauvignon, happily open southern English sparkling, and are familiar with wines from Turkey, Georgia or Moldova, but there aren't that many who have tasted Koshu of Japan.


Koshu – a large, pink, thick-skinned and fragrant grape – has been grown as a table grape in Japan for a thousand years, but only in the last century has it been vinified. And only since 2010 has it been officially recognised by the EU as wine grape and thus allowed into Europe.

The efficient trade organisation Koshu of Japan, a grouping of 15 wine producers, was set up in 2009 by Shigekazu Misawa, managing director of Grace Wine, one of the most internationally-recognised producers. Koshu for wine is produced primarily in high vineyards in Yamanashi province, at the foot of the 3000m Mount Fuji. About 300ha is planted, the majority Koshu but a fair amount of international varietals as well. Grace Wine, for example, has four hectares of Koshu and 9ha of Bordeaux varietals and other grapes. It produces a US$100 Chardonnay which sells well in Australia, the winemaker (and owner’s daughter), the Bordeaux-educated and internationally-trained Ayana Misawa says.

KOJ’s aim is straightforward: to increase awareness of Koshu in international markets – and, according to Misawa, to increase plantings to 3000ha within 10 years. Judging by the latest packed London tasting and standing-room-only seminar, with the eminent Gerard Basset MW MS OBE on the panel, it is succeeding in the first aim. Jancis Robinson MW OBE is a keen supporter, praising the wines’ ‘delicacy, purity and limpidity’.


Koshu is an intriguing grape, producing wines that are both delicate and aromatic but with a certain food-friendly robustness. At their best the wines’ high acidity is contrasted by white flower and lychee aromatics – which can sometimes slip over into Turkish delight and parma violets – and a tart, tannic finish. Some examples are aged sur lie, giving them exotic yeasty notes reminiscent of sake.

Steve Daniel of distributor Novum Wines lists five wines from Grace and places them both in the restaurant market and in independents, and top outlets like Selfridges. ‘They are my kind of wine,’ he says. ‘Ethereal, esoteric, with that tense minerality that reminds me of Santorini, or Etna – you can taste the volcano.’ While most exponents say the finest match is with sushi, some, like Roger Jones at the Michelin-starred UK restaurant the Harrow at Little Bedwyn, insist they go well with British food.

Koshu has many fans. Selfridges wine and spirits buyer Dawn Davies reports healthy sales of two wines from Grace, despite prices of around £20 (€24), and Marks & Spencer’s Emma Dawson is taking the Sol Lucet from Kurambon winery, slightly cheaper at £12.99 (€15.60). Sweden’s Systembolaget is interested too, its buyer Johan Larsson telling Meininger’s he has snapped up 3000 bottles of Grace’s Private Reserve. He feels it offers a point of difference - ‘Koshu is not your average Sauvignon Blanc or Chardonnay. It gives personality; it’s something to write about’ – and also notes that Sweden is the biggest consumer of sushi outside Japan.

Koshu fits nicely with the latest trends in white wine consumption – for lower alcohol (Koshus seldom come in at more than 12%), for aromatics, for freshness – and a general interest in esoteric, unusual wines. There’s also a craze for all things Japanese, Davies says, pointing to the popularity of the 20-odd sakes and Japanese whiskies she lists.

Koshu’s rise has been swift, and it’s not difficult to find sceptics. The Daily Mail’s Matthew Jukes, who consults for upmarket London restaurant Bibendum (no relation to the importer of the same name), balks at what he describes succinctly as ‘nose-bleed’ prices.

On a restaurant wine list, prices would get out of hand, he says. ‘Most of the still Koshus will be £85 (€102) on an average list,’ he told Meininger’s. ‘Only white Burgundy and a handful of other world classic white wines are more expensive on my Bibendum list for example. The sparklers will be around the £129 (€155) mark, which is the same price as NV Billecart-Salmon Grand Cru Blanc de Blancs and NV Gosset Grande Réserve for example and more expensive than every other NV Champagne.’

Prices aren’t his only problem: he also considers most Koshu ‘dilute’. Another respected London-based journalist, Margaret Rand, said, 'They're perfectly pleasant, and they get a bit better year by year, but the world is awash with white wines of far more character. There's a certain amount of hype about Koshu, and it's honestly not justified.’

There are many wines which polarise opinion, but few which give rise to such heated debate. Koshu’s fans reckon its detractors confuse subtlety for dilution, its critics say it’s a case of the emperor’s new clothes. The arguments will continue, but there is no doubt that the wines will continue to intrigue.

Recommendations

Grace 
Grace Kayagatake 2013
11.5%
Aromatics, blind, would put you in mind of a very fresh and delicate Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc. Quite sharp acidity on the tongue, very fresh and almost dense quality to the fruit – lime and ripe kiwi, almost earthy
£17.00 thesampler






Lumiere Hikari Koshu 2011
10.5%
Nice yeasty, leesy, bready aroma. Good mouthfeel, ultra-dry but with nice lemony, lemongrass and cooked pear fruit. Nice weight, tart, dry, almost tannic mouthfeel. Excellent with sushi

Suntory Premium Koshu 2013
11.7%
Amazing very light pink tinge almost clear colour, slight aroma of white rose petals and rose water. Very light, sweet pear mango and pineapple, delicate, precise, persistant acidity, very good length. This is the most commercial and outward-looking of the Koshus tasted

Soryu
Soryu Koshu 2012
10.3%
Hay and straw aromas, dense sharp acidity, very full mouthfeel with rather nice breathy juiciness. Very light and dry, good acidity, falls a bit short at the end





Sol Lucet Koshu 2011
11.7%
Notes of brioche on the nose and yeast on the palate. Bone dry on the attack then very gentle waves of fruit – lemongrass and lime – mitigate the dryness.  Finish is almost juicy. Again – sushi!

L’Orient Koshu 2011
10.5%
Bone dry, steely, tightly-wound. Fresh citrus flavours on the palate together with cut Granny Smith. Intense.
Around £15 Tazaki Foods 020 8344 3000

Rubaiyat 
Rubaiyat Koshu, Marufuji Winery 2013
11.2%
White flowers, apple flowers and pink blossom with hints of clove and cinnamon – on the palate, Turkish delight and sandalwood. All tank fermented and aged. Spicy.








Wednesday, 19 March 2014

Vinous Grand Guignol: on Hedonism, Yevgeny Chichvarkin and wine for a Tuesday supper

This article first appeared in Meininger's Wine Business International

The London wine world prides itself on its cosmopolitanism, its central position between the great markets of east and west, its close relationship with dozens of renowned chefs and familiarity with some of the world’s greatest restaurant cellars. But it didn’t know what to make of Hedonism.
Hedonism: Peter Michael, and venerable old Inglenook

Never before has a wine shop generated such fascinated interest. “Shop”, in fact, is the wrong word: more than anything, Hedonism is theatre, performance art, a kind of vinous grand guignol. Nobody had seen anything like it. Victoria Moore of the Daily Telegraph suggested that if Tutankhamen had had a taste for fine wines, this is what his tomb would have looked like. It was as if Angelina Jolie, say, had turned up unannounced at a suburban dinner party.

Eyebrows were raised, and they stayed raised. Hedonism has hardly been out of the news since it opened its doors in Mayfair’s Berkeley Square in August 2012. From the back story of its extraordinary proprietor, the billionaire Russian exile Yevgeny Chichvarkin, hounded out by a vengeful Vladimir Putin, to the lavish verticals of Chateau d’Yquem, Screaming Eagle, Sine Qua Non, the vast collection of rare whiskies, the display of nine-litre Salmanazars of Bordeaux first growths, the £58,000 Mouton vertical, the 27-litre Torbreck The Laird, it is gold dust for journalists.

There was some disdain at first. ‘I can’t decide if all this makes me want to weep, or throw up’ the critic Andrew Jefford wrote last year on Decanter.com, on receiving a press release from Hedonism announcing the arrival of a £1.2m Penfolds vertical. He relented later, saying he had nothing against it: ‘It’s a great place for Russian oligarchs to do their wine shopping…’

Hedonism: Pingus
 Alistair Viner, formerly Harrods wine chief and now running the buying operation at Hedonism, insists his clientele is far more varied than that. Of course a good deal of it is well-heeled Mayfair (it’s a short lunchtime stroll from Asprey, Stella McCartney or the Bentley showroom), but there are also people ‘who pop in during their lunch break…it’s too early to see any pattern but it’s pleasing to see how many customers are from the UK.’

The plan from the beginning was to ‘make the space luxurious but welcoming rather than intimidating. No matter what your level of interest, you’re going to enjoy it.’ Viner and Chichvarkin asked the question, ‘how do you do the super luxury and not scare away the everyday person?’ and studied high-end shops around the world to see what pitfalls they could avoid. They paid attention to materials, for example. Hedonism’s fittings could be described as ‘playful millionaire rustic chic’ – lots of rough-hewn wood,  wheeled stools carved from single massive chunks of oak, a witty chandelier made entirely of Riedel glasses. ‘If you go to a Bond Street jewellers there is nothing bare or earthy about them,’ Viner says, and they often have small doors. ‘They have these wonderful window displays but this little door and you think, “do I dare go through the door?”’ So Hedonism has big windows and big doors, and the first display rack you see contains wines in the £15-30 range. Another detail: nothing (apart from the Yquem vertical, back-lit in glowing golden light like the Holy Grail itself) is behind glass. ‘People lose sight of the fact that everything put in a bottle was put there to drink. We make it tactile, you can touch a 27-litre bottle of Torbreck or a Salamazar of claret.’

Affordable Hedonism: Man O'War, Cloudy Bay Te Koko
 Viner says they ‘consciously worked to defuse those issues [of intimidation] and also to make wine fun.’ Indeed, there’s a pleasing Willy Wonka feel to some of the seasonal displays, designed by the window dresser who does Harvey Nichols. For Halloween they put in motion-activated scary voices around the shop, and a coffin complete with skeleton. On April 1st they put ‘Closing Down – Everything Must Go’ in the window. ‘It fell on a bank holiday but it still had a good impact, especially on the staff, who didn’t know,’ Viner says, deadpan.

That’s all very well and democratic – you can look and touch, and have a good laugh, but how many people pull out their (titanium) credit card and pay £25,712.80 for the magnum of 2006 Romanée Conti from Domaine de la Romanée Conti, or a bit less than £15,000 for a bottle of 1940 Macallan Fine and Rare 35-year-old whisky?

Not very many, naturally. Viner says he’s made ‘several’ sales of over £100,000, but stresses that out of the 7,500 lines it carries (including over 1000 whiskies, dozens of gins, rare bourbons, sake, tequila and almost every other kind of spirit) , Hedonism lists 800 wines under £30, and people regularly drop in for £15 bottles. This lower end of the list is eclectic and calculated to appeal to a discerning non-expert: Greek wines like Gaia’s Wild Ferment Assyrtiko from Santorini, Vin Jaune, a nicely-chosen range of lesser-known Spanish DOs, half-bottles of Napa icons like Shafer’s Hillside Select, interesting picks from Portugal, Germany, Sicily and Sardinia.

Not so affordable Hedonism: Screaming Eagle
Browsing Hedonism’s shelves is not merely an academic exercise. Half a dozen of London’s most influential wine critics, surveyed for this article, agreed. Neil Beckett, editor of the World of Fine Wine, says the range is ‘terrific’. ‘Most of us won’t ever be in the market for the 1811 Yquem and the like, but it’s wonderful to be able to walk in off the street, well into the evening or at the weekend, and find such a range of fine and rare wines, often with the maturity that they need.’

Beckett went on to praise the inclusion of ‘difficult to source’ wines like Equipo Navazos Sherry, Bussaco Branco Reservado or Château Chalon Vin Jaune. Another journalist, the food writer Fiona Beckett (no relation), had high praise on her website Matching Food and Wine for the staff, which she found the ‘affable kind of chaps who wouldn’t look out of place on the floor of Majestic.’ It is this common touch which makes Hedonism such an unusual experience. The staff are indeed affable, and seem equally at home whether pouring samples at the big tasting tables for billionaire whisky collectors, the Prince of Malaysia and his friends, or a local worker in his or her lunch break looking for a £20 bottle for supper.

It’s a mix of the high serious and the downright eccentric. Favoured clients who come in for tastings can choose their music – it’s not unusual to hear Tom Waits, Joy Division or the Nutcracker Suite swirling round the precious wines – and, because the tasting area is kept at a brisk 17C, they are given fluffy white blankets to put over  their shoulders.

Exotic: Yevgeny Chichvarkin among the Sine Qua Non
Then there is the exotic presence of the owner. Yevgeny Chichvarkin made his fortune in his 20s with Evroset, Russia’s biggest mobile phone company, which he sold in 2008 for (an unconfirmed) US$400m. He had to leave Russia in 2010 when he was accused of extortion and kidnapping – charges which have since been dropped and which he insists were cooked up by the Putin government, which he loathes and openly accuses of murder. He has never been back. He is a tall, dishevelled, handsome figure in his mid-30s, limping (he suffers from gout), sometimes draped in a blanket. He wears a voodoo-ish amulet around his neck, and the staff treat him with kindly respect. He insists he knows nothing about wine – ‘Alistair advises me and says I have terrible taste’ – but his formidable business acumen is in no doubt. The idea for Hedonism hit him when he first came to London and happened to have bottle of a fine Rioja, the Roda Cirsion 2001, and found it impossible to get hold of another. ‘That’s when I thought of an upscale wine shop with luxury service’. London is the perfect place for such a shop because he knows of nowhere else with such a concentration of the super-wealthy. It will take them three years – 2015 – to break even, he says.

Screaming eagle? Tom Waits
Viner, who joined in 2011, says it took ‘several million pounds’ and a year of ‘looking in all corners of the world for iconic wines’ to build the stock. He used his extensive contacts list to ferret out wines from private collectors, US and UK brokers, auctions and merchants. The signature collections like the Screaming Eagle and Sine Qua Non, and the 128 vintages of Yquem, came from dozens of different sources, ‘about 70 different people, private collectors,’ Viner says. ‘That gave me even more hair loss and sleepless nights.’ He likes to search out the quirky. ‘I’m always looking for interesting things, that may be affordable but are also exciting and newsworthy. It’s all about looking underneath.’ He’s just bought ‘a huge collection of kosher wines’, he says.

A charge that is often levelled at Hedonism is that it is more museum than shop. How, people wonder, are they going to maintain such a rarefied list? So many of the wines are, if not unique, then scarce enough to be virtually irreplaceable. Viner is unworried. ‘Do we worry about keeping restocked? Yes and no. There’s enough wine out there, and there are always other iconic wines to replace what we have. It would be almost strange if we always had those things in stock.’ If the great wines were easy to get hold of, it would defeat the point. ‘So we had ’47 Cheval Blanc but we sold it. Sorry, you’re too late. If you want it you’ll have to wait, and it’ll be a long wait.’
Let me titillate you some more... the jakes 

Hedonism could so easily be ludicrous, but the wine world has taken it to its heart. Winemakers visiting London make a point of dropping in and paying their respects to Chichvarkin and Viner, and the coolly efficient CEO Tatiana Fokina. Dom Perignon chef de cave Richard Geoffroy was there recently. It’s a natural fit, you might say – of course the likes of Geoffroy would welcome any merchant which puts his wines in front of Mayfair’s millionaires. What is more telling is the near-universal vote of confidence from journalists, a group which is quick to condemn excess. Look at the ridicule heaped on Penfolds for its Ampoule, a hermetically-sealed capsule of 2004 Bin 42 Kalimna Cabernet Sauvignon in a wooden display case that retails for more than £100,000, and of which only twelve have been made. According to Penfolds, when the lucky buyer decides to open the Ampoule, ‘a senior member’ of the team will ‘travel to the destination of your choice … to personally attend a special opening ceremony’. As an exercise in hubristic folly it couldn’t be bettered.

In fact, Viner got the only Ampoule allocated to the UK. After a year and a half it’s still there in the corner, gathering dust, its £120,000 pricetag hanging limply. Hedonism has many better things for the customers to spend their money on.

Thursday, 6 March 2014

Full-on full English for the launch of Salon 2002

Corney & Barrow celebrated the launch of Champagne Salon 2002 with a full English breakfast, which of course included shaved truffles and Haricots a la mode Delamotte (baked beans, cooked in Salon’s sister wine, if you really need to ask). The nice upstairs room at Mess at the Saatchi Gallery was flooded with sunlight, on a morning of such luminous gorgeousness (such as only Chelsea can provide) it was no surprise to see London’s finest wine hacks turned out in force. Corney’s even coaxed Decanter’s Sarah Kemp out of her lair in the Blue Fin Building in Southwark. Full-on full English, bacon-wrapped sausages and all, washed down with vintage Champagne at ten o’clock in the morning is what they call a no-brainer.
 
Salon 2002 English breakfast, Corney & Barrow style
Salon, of which the 2002 is only the 38th vintage since the founding of the house by Eugene-Aimé Salon in 1905, is produced in minute quantities: there are 62,000 bottles and 5000 magnums of this vintage. Compare that with Dom Perignon’s six million plus (according to most best estimates) and you begin to see what ultra-exclusive means. Corney’s share their  allocation with Vineyard Brands in the US, Alfa in Singapore and Paolo Pong’s Altaya in Hong Kong, leaving about a pallet and a half for us, and guests including Matthew Jukes snapped up cases there and then, so that’s a few less already.

Chef de cave and Salon Delamotte president Didier Depond described 2002 as ‘one of the very best vintages in Champagne. I compare it with 1982 for quality.’ 2002 is the first vintage since the 1999 (which was launched in Notting Hill’s fish and chip restaurant Geales in 2011).

According to Depond, Salon is the only house not to produce a 2000 vintage, which he dismissed as ‘very trendy – a perfect marketing vintage.’ Nor a 2012, though of course they have very much less choice of grapes: Salon is made from pure Chardonnay grown exclusively in Mesnil-sur-Oger in the Côte des Blancs, from a one-hectare plot owned by them, and 19 other smaller plots.

Vinification is in stainless steel and there is no malolactic fermentation. The 2002 was disgorged at the end of 2013 after ten years on the lees.

'Say "Haricots"': Didier Depond of Salon
The next Salon releases will be the 2004, 06, 08 and 2013. The 2008 will be released around 2024, only in magnum, ‘to preserve the wine’s intensity and acidity,’ Depond said.

He eulogised the 2002’s ‘pale, yellow green’ colour, and ‘explosion of white flowers’ on the nose. ‘I love the vivacity,’ he said. Rebecca Palmer, Corney & Barrow’s leather-clad associate director and Champagne buyer, said the wine is ‘captivating and enigmatic: gossamer-fine, [its] tiny bubbles seem to skim weightlessly over the palate.’

Indeed. A light-gold hue tinged infinitessimally with green, and – apart from the white flowers, the blossom, the fine acidity – a lovely hint of rain-washed hedgerow. And those bubbles do dance.

Others agree (although not exclusively: a well-known critic did murmur afterwards that he was ‘underwhelmed’). Jukes obviously loved it, and Richard Hemming, who writes for jancisrobinson.com, praised the wine’s ‘quiet authenticity’.

‘It’s convincing,’ he said. ‘At twelve years old, it is just hitting its peak, and will surely keep going for decades. I've tasted quite a few vintages of Salon, and the 2002 is one of the best at a young age, with the potential to be their best ever.’


Champagne Salon 2002 is sold exclusively by Corney &Barrow in the UK, priced at £1,325 per case in bond. One case only per customer.

Wednesday, 26 February 2014

Noble Rot magazine - giving the middle finger to the wine establishment

‘Fucking hell,’ says Lily Allen, ‘what the fuck is that?' It's the only instance I can think of which pairs the comely balladeer (she's basically Ian Dury as reimagined by William Gibson, if you will, in drag) with a Trousseau from the Jura. The interview is given a further salty tang by the photo, in which the first thing you notice is Allen’s middle finger, cheerily saluting the photographer.

Samizdat: Noble Rot
That jaunty digit is what Mark Andrew and Dan Keeling’s Noble Rot magazine set out to give the world of wine writing – stick it to pomposity, verbiage, ‘the mind-warping, shallow dull content of most wine magazines’ as Jamie Goode is quoted on the back cover. And 90% of the time they’re spot on. Each issue (we’re on number 3) aims to be ‘totally different and better than the last,’ Andrew says.

Noble Rot is a fresh and stylish antidote to the established wine press. A disparate bunch of writers, chefs, photographers, artists, wine merchants and winemakers sound off on whatever topic tickles them and the editors. So in this issue we have Richard Hemming on getting pissed (‘the love of wine and the love of inebriation are as intertwined as Muscadet and oysters’), Cave de Pyrene’s Doug Wregg on Georgia, Allen tasting a flight of eclectic goodies like the Philippe Bornard Trousseau and Arnot-Roberts’ North Coast Syrah, a ‘21-year-old illustrator from Omsk’, sommelier Wieteke Tepperna, Neal Martin and so on.

I don’t know Dan Keeling, a former A&R man who signed Allen to Parlophone (so he’s alright by me). Andrew is a polymath whose day job is senior wine buyer for Roberson, the best wine merchant in London. He’s a Burgundy expert, Sonoma, more, can’t utter a sentence about wine without the word ‘structure’ in it, says bracing things like ‘the most boring wine regions in the world are Bordeaux, Napa and Stellenbosch’ because he thinks they’re ossified closed shops. He loves magazines, the physicality of them, and refuses to put Noble Rot online on the basis that 'everything is online, and if everyone's doing it, we want to go the other way.'

He admires Anthony Bourdain - Kitchen Confidential is one of his favourite books, because Bourdain 'contextualises' food and cooking and restaurants.

‘I love context,’ he says. ‘Most wine writing puts wine in a sealed bubble with no attempt to show where its place is in the wider world of art and culture.’ Noble Rot – which is funded through the crowdsourcing site Kickstarter to the tune of £11,607 with 276 backers – tries to prick that bubble.

Mostly, it works. The Lily Allen interview is a delight, capturing the wit and detachment that make her songwriting so brilliant, and ends with a lovely riff on the coolness of Cornettos; Daniel Primack takes a scalpel to the ‘rare wine’ orthodoxy: ‘I might start a new venture called the Even Rarer Fine Wine Company. There’s a nice interview with Kermit Lynch, and I liked Graham Hodge’s thoughts on wine labels, and getting the designer of the Chemical Brothers album covers to critique labels like Kung Fu Girl and Petrus (didn’t like the first, adored the second).
Cheery salute: Lily Allen

Sometimes you feel it’s a bit self-consciously iconoclastic, or there’s a whiff of too-clever-by-half school magazine writing. Hugh Jones’s grape biographies are just too whimsical – ‘Syrah was sitting in a cherry-red wing-backed leather chair in his study smoking a cigar…’ – I’ve always found anthropomorphism too cutesy for my taste. Then there are the Dolly Parton descriptors, which are no fresher now than when the kids at Wine X magazine were trotting them out a dozen years ago. And the wine and music thing. There’s always someone who’ll tell you that love of music and love of wine go together, especially classical music - the more Teutonic the better – Wagner nuts are particularly tedious on the subject. But it’s a trope that goes through the industry, so while the bloke in red trousers can’t shut up about the Ring Cycle and how it goes wonderfully with Barolo, at the hipper end of the spectrum there’s all these references to Daft Punk and the Stone Roses.

Many wine writers are under the widespread delusion that broadcasting one’s music tastes confers credibility. There are some serial offenders, insisting on telling us what’s on their iPod, or 'turntable' as if they're teenagers on work experience at the NME instead of lauded wine critics. You know who you are. Take it from me – you may be brilliant on trellising systems and much else besides but no one gives a tuppenny fart what you think about the Arctic Monkeys.

But these are cavils. There’s so much to like about Noble Rot. It’s got a nice samizdat feel, Louise Sheeran’s illustrations are superb, it’s authoritative and witty, and you know you can rely on the writers’ opinions because – in the end – Mark Andrew is very, very serious about wine.





Sunday, 9 February 2014

How green is my valley: French winemakers in Napa

'Purity, precision, structure, texture': Melka
Recent cooler vintages in Napa have encouraged producers to look for restraint in their wines. But how much is the style change welcomed by French winemakers in the region, asks Adam Lechmere

Read the full article here

This article first appeared in The Drinks Business

See also:
Interview: Ann Colgin
Francis Ford Coppola at Inglenook - from Decanter
A visit to Screaming Eagle - from Decanter
Tim Mondavi - The Decanter Interview
The Historic Vineyard Society of Sonoma
Stag's Leap Wine Cellars - Keeping the Faith - from World of Fine Wine
Napa Mountain vs Valley Floor
'We've got two wine OBEs in the audience today' - A Napa masterclass in London

Thursday, 30 January 2014

Interview: Ann Colgin

At 9 a.m. on a delicious November morning, with a white mist rolling in the valley, Colgin’s IX Estate vineyard glows in the fall sun. It is a scene drenched in beauty, but it can be deceptive, especially when you remember the quantity of high explosives deployed to blast out the vineyards.
Colgin's IX Vineyard, Pritchard Hill, Napa

"I had been looking for a great piece of untouched hillside property for many many years," says Ann Colgin, who is businesslike, polished, and heralded by two fluffy white dogs (named Corton-Charlemagne and Gevrey-Chambertin to reflect her love of Burgundy). "I just fell in love with this particular parcel." The parcel was the 125-acre IX Estate on Pritchard Hill, which Colgin and her husband-to-be Joe Wender bought in 1998. They spent a year planting 20 acres of cabernet sauvignon with the help of "12 earth-moving machines and a bit of dynamite," completing the winery buildings in 2002.

Colgin’s history is well known. A Christie’s auctioneer with a degree in art history (an unfading passion: her home is filled with art and antiques, and she interrupted our interview to bid – successfully – for a painting by iconic American artist Ed Ruscha), she and her then-husband Fred Schrader started coming to Napa in the late 1980s. A burgeoning interest in wine was fueled by a meeting with consultant Helen Turley, and in 1992 she secured a parcel of grapes from the renowned Herb Lamb vineyard on the lower slopes of Howell Mountain. Robert Parker noticed – and smiled upon – the inaugural Herb Lamb Cabernet Sauvignon, and the Colgin reputation was born. She continued her search for vineyards, in 1996 purchasing the three-acre Tychson Hill north of St Helena. Two years later Colgin alighted on Pritchard Hill.

Her IX Estate sits high on this rocky eminence on the eastern side of the valley, just north of Atlas Peak. Colgin has illustrious neighbors, with some of them – Dalla Valle and Bryant Family for example – existing, as she does herself, in the ultra-rarefied heights of the Napa cult. It’s a term she disdains (she comes from Waco in Texas, where the word has different associations, she is wont to say), but the dictionary definition – "devotion or homage to person or thing" – is apt. Parker, for one, describes the estate as "Nirvana." Prices, while not reaching the stratospheric heights of Screaming Eagle are hefty. Few vintages of any of the cuvées retail at less than $500 a bottle.



One of the main attractions of Pritchard Hill is the extraordinarily poor soil. When a vintner up here tells you he took out rocks the size of Volkswagens, he doesn’t mean VW Beetles but slab-sided vans. There’s nothing unusual about using dynamite to break up the ground. It can cost anything up to $250,000 per acre to prep land for planting. Colgin’s landscaping efforts were comprehensive. The author James Conaway, in his controversial book "The Far Side of Eden," devotes some pages to it: a "scary" rockpile of "Brobdingnagian proportions," boulders rolling down and smashing municipal water pipes, abatement orders issued.

The neighbors claim Conaway "over-dramatized" the situation, but there is no doubt that Pritchard Hill has had extensive cosmetic work. It's all gleaming blacktop and electric gates, and behind them, palatial, rough-hewn wineries with tinkling waterfalls playing artfully down the rocks. Sometimes, the words "theme park" come to mind. There are some big-name consultants up here, crafting wines that for all their polish can lack a certain character.

I must stress that I don’t include Colgin’s wines in that bracket. They are universally admired – Robert Parker recently handed out 100 points to the 2010 Estate Syrah, the 2010 Cariad and the 2010 IX Estate (that makes nine perfect scores since the first vintage) – and it would be absurd to suggest they are anything but excellent. I haven’t tasted the 2010s, but I can vouch for the purity and freshness of the 2009 IX Estate, its dense, tar-and-nettle nose, the peppery, plummy rush of the palate and the beautiful precision of the tannins. Moreover, tasting back through the years to the 1995 Herb Lamb Vineyard, Colgin’s fourth vintage, you can see a consistency in the breathy earthiness, the minerality and the balance.

That the wines should remain consistent through changes of winemaker is key to Colgin’s vision. When one considers the nature and ego of top-end Napa consultants, this can be a difficult proposition. Her first winemaker, Turley, was described by Jay McInerney as "Valkyrie-like"; her second, Mark Aubert, left Peter Michael Winery to join Colgin and then took off in 2006 for Bryant – by all reports with little warning. He was replaced by his assistant, Allison Tauziet, the current winemaker. Also employed is Bordeaux consultant Alain Raynaud, a controversial figure in many circles for championing riper styles. A constant presence has been veteran viticulturalist David Abreu, who looks after all the vineyards.

While Colgin may be a Napa cult in any accepted sense of the term, its admirers insist it is different from many of its peers. Joss Fowler, fine wine director at London merchant Fine + Rare, calls it a "serious" wine. "The price of some boutique wines rests on their boutiqueness rather than quality, but people see the price of Colgin as commensurate with quality." Lovers of great wine, he says, gravitate naturally from high-end Bordeaux to Colgin.

Sometimes, though, when tasting the highest-end Napa wines, you long for an edge. They are so perfect they leave you slightly breathless, and you find yourself looking for a break in the seamless purity. Sitting in the winery’s handsome tasting room with Colgin, I quote Chris Millard at Newton Vineyards on Spring Mountain, who values "rusticity" in his wines – wild briar blackberry, for example, as opposed to cultivated fruit. The temperature doesn’t exactly drop, but there’s a moment of silence. "There has never been a rusticity in our wines," Colgin says. "What’s happened is we’ve taken it to another level with focus on purity of flavors."

Mist in Napa Valley from Pritchard Hill


Colgin is fluent and frank in interview, with a disarming throaty laugh and a readiness to be amused (as when I suggest there’s a hint of marijuana on the nose of the 2006 IX Estate: "Ha! That's one we haven’t had"). When it comes to her wines, she is keen to get across the intimate, almost claustrophobic focus of her operation. Multiple different parcels are picked and vinified separately. There may be as many as 27 individual picks, sometimes one side of the row, and the other days later. "We’ve taken it to another level with the focus and the purity of our wines," says Colgin. "There is so much precision in what we do. We micromanage. I think of it as more like a bonsai – it’s very dialed in." Indeed, as Colgin’s chief of staff, Paul Roberts, says: "Viticulture here can be on a level that very few people are operating on."

Colgin herself believes that "this project is so dedicated and specific, it sets us, along with a handful of other producers, apart. It transcends the idea of Napa Valley." Is this a sleight of hand, the notion of being at once rooted in the soil, and transcending it? You wouldn’t catch a Burgundian suggesting his wines transcended the Côte d’Or. Colgin’s dedication to terroir is manifest, however. She returns again and again to the primacy of site. "The land trumps the winemaker. Fifty years from now there will be a different winemaker, but he or she will continue to express this site.This area is known as Sage Canyon, and there is that sense of earthiness and herbs de Provence that is inherent in the land. The essence comes through in the wines."

In the end, it all comes down to place. Sitting up here, gazing through the picture windows while the mist disperses and reveals the valley below, you can feel slightly removed from reality. And the wines themselves (let’s not forget how much they cost) can seem not of this planet. But then you taste that spice, earth and perfumed fruit, and feel yes, they do seem pretty rooted.

(This article first appeared on wine-searcher)

See also:
Francis Ford Coppola at Inglenook - from Decanter
A visit to Screaming Eagle
Tim Mondavi - The Decanter Interview
The Historic Vineyard Society of Sonoma
Stag's Leap Wine Cellars - Keeping the Faith - from World of Fine Wine
Napa Mountain vs Valley Floor
'We've got two wine OBEs in the audience today' - A Napa masterclass in London