Thursday, 23 October 2014

Tickets, still out of time and still as popular

Just how preposterous is Tickets? It’s been open three years now and it still takes some serious string-pulling to get a table. From the bell-boy uniforms (the door-girl wears a ringmaster’s topper), to the three-language menus, our waitress’s opaque patter, and the carefully-created air of controlled mayhem, the place has the feel of a chaotic pantomime in a provincial theatre.

Delicious cool draft on the palate: Tickets edible cocktail
The décor is a jaunty post-retro hotchpotch of big top and music-hall: brickwork, a 1960s bare-bulb cinema marquee above the bar, 19th-century playbill menu graphics – all cheekily ironic. There’s even a hint of send-up in the wait staff’s greeting,‘Hi, I’m Beatriz and I’m here to look after you this evening’.

So there you sit, trying to make sense of it all, getting nowhere with the menu and its daft divisions – so what is the difference between tapa and finger-food, and how big is this dish, and what the hell is an airbag baguette anyway? And there’s a guy in the middle of the room dressed like a flunkey doing something with dry ice (and dry ice is as dated as Gordon Ramsay’s swearing). After five minutes of Alice-in-Wonderland back and forth with Beatriz– she’s explaining spherification and thinks we’re being wilfully dim – she says, ‘why don’t we start with the olives?’ and we snap our menus shut and settle back to enjoy the Cava.

Jaunty post-retro hotchpotch: Tickets
Tickets, the brainchild of the Adrià brothers – Ferran (of El Bulli Foundation and whose late restaurant was just up the coast in Rosas), and Albert, who have said the time for high-concept fine dining is past – opened in 2011 and is still the hottest molecular bar in Barcelona. It’s supplanted the achingly avant-garde Tapas 24, now seen as very año pasado. ‘A tourist trap,’ one of my local colleagues sniffed. Tickets has a four-month waiting list. It's also got a list of sponsors as long as your arm, from Estrella Damm to Coca-Cola to Sharp, Lavazza, Riedel and a whole lot of faceless media-souinding outfits.

From the moment you arrive and see the dismembered penny-farthing in the window, you know you’re in for a performance. Indeed, the menu tells us the whole affair is an ‘Adrià Entertainment’ presented by the ‘Tickets Theatre Company’. It all seems rather over-produced, and we’re just beginning to be dismayed by the paucity of the wine list (short and unimaginative), when something wonderful happens. The food arrives.
Just what the hell is an air baguette?

First, the spherified olives. Spherification is the first trick you learn at molecular cookery school. Invented by Ferran Adria 10 years ago, it’s an alchemical process by which a solid is liquified then re-formed into a sphere when suspended in a calcium bath.

When done to an olive it produces a thing looking very much like an olive but whose greenness is somehow greener, as if we’re suddenly in Technicolor, whose texture (they explode on your tongue) is like cooled, molten salted honey, and with a flavour of such delicate salinity and umami meatiness that it’s like eating the first olive ever.

Then we’re entranced by the ‘Edible cocktail’ a slice of Granny Smith marinaded in beetroot juice and fennel, an appley crunch releasing a delicious cool draft on the palate. Then cod crackers, crisp saltiness and a slow-developing, intense flavour of fish.

The oysters have a lovely smokiness and concentrated taste of the sea, and the ‘pearl’ – spherified wakame seaweed – detonates deliciously. Then there are the air baguettes, little wands of hollowed-out loaf wrapped in pata negra ham, and mini-air-baguettes filled with foamed manchego, and anchovies on toast with tomato and fake scales of edible silver. Then cumin-marinaded 6-hour pork which is so melting it has to be scooped up in your fingers.

A mild disappointment was lobster with pimento sauce, fine and picante but lacking in the surprise factor that had everyone flocking to Rosas in the first place. This is the law of diminishing returns: you approach every dish expecting fireworks. There’s no place for the merely delicious.
Pipette: passé

The puddings are fun, delicious, slightly dated (any dish with a self-basting plastic pipette...), but still the flavours have us guessing – was that verbena with the coconut ice cream?

Tickets is a mini-Bulli, a kids’ version of the molecular Mecca, cheaper, faster, slightly easier to get a table, with a wine list that is frankly unchallenging. What I loved about it was the exuberance and the lack of cynicism. Everything’s done with a knowing wink, but it’s an inclusive joke (pace the sponsors). I get the feeling it could only work in Barcelona – that knowing London scene would regard it with ennui and a raised eyebrow. The crowd’s interesting, definitely not the ultra-aware hipster bunch it would attract in Shoreditch or Clapton, rather more office workers and hen-parties. The room erupts into Happy Birthday at one stage. Very uncool, and rather sweet. As one of my party said, ‘you can only do this sort of thing if your second name’s Adrià’.

The bill for four with two bottles of wine, and four glasses of liquoreux, came to just shy of €300.




Monday, 13 October 2014

Rite of passage: Vérité takes its place alongside the world's first growths

There’s a she-bear stealing grapes from one of Jackson Family Wines’ Sonoma properties and I thought – for a moment - I’d use it as an intro for the Decanter feature I’m writing on JFW’s CEO, Barbara Banke. Something along the lines of, ‘Banke gives it a wide berth, and I’m sure the feeling’s mutual – it would take a brave bear to tangle with the formidable etc etc.’ A bit glib, of course...


Banke may be modest (the family/corporate pic on the website has her in the second row, a loyal and valued head of the public relations department, say) but formidable she certainly is. Since her husband Jess Jackson died in April 2011 she has increased JFW’s holdings to the tune of 14 new estates (from Oregon to McLaren Vale), spending some US$100m a year for the past three years. If JFW was a force in California three years ago, it is now well on the way to international First Growth cachet.

This is a deliberate and planned policy, as evidenced by the latest tasting of the company’s flagship wines, Lokoya, Cardinale and – at the very top of the pyramid – Vérité.

Banke, often accompanied by one of her daughters, both of whom are deeply involved in the family company, has been coming over to London every autumn for the past few years to show the latest vintage of these wines, which are made in small quantities from the premium vineyards of Napa and Sonoma. Lokoya is 100% Cabernet Sauvignon, made by Chris Carpenter from the four great high-altitude appellations of Napa: Mount Veeder, Spring Mountain, Diamond Mountain and Howell Mountain. Cardinale, also by Carpenter, is a Cabernet-Merlot from Oakville.

Vérité was born in 1998 when Jess Jackson suggested to the French winemaker Pierre Seillan (originally from the Loire but with a Bordeaux pedigree) that he could make a wine from Sonoma ‘as good as Petrus’. Ninety-eight was cool and ‘Bordeaux-like,’ Banke says. ‘It rained all the time’ and the wine (which I haven’t tasted) is ‘ageing very well’.

Standing, left to right: Jennifer Jackson Hartford, Don Hartford, Laura Jackson Giron, Rick Giron, Barbara Banke, Christopher Jackson, MacLean Hartford. Seated, left to right: Katherine Jackson, Julia Jackson, Hailey Hartford.

There are now three Vérité wines based on some or all of the five Bordeaux grapes, sourced from the Sonoma appellations Alexander Valley, Bennett Valley, Knights Valley and Chalk Hill. According to Jackson’s – and Seillan’s – vision, each wine aims to evoke a different Bordeaux terroir. The Merlot-based La Muse is inspired by Pomerol; Le Desir, Cabernet Franc, is St Emilion (Cheval Blanc is frequently mentioned at tastings), while the Cabernet Sauvignon-based La Joie takes Pauillac as its benchmark.

They don’t slavishly ape Bordeaux (I always think American winemakers must get sick of the constant referencing). ‘Of course not. These are California wines,’ Banke says. 

This year’s tasting marked a coming-of-age for the wines. In a low-key fashion, without much noise, Banke and her right-hand man Nick Bevan put together a splendid line up of international icons, including Lafite 2001, Tenuta dell’Ornellaia 2004 and Mouton 2004, for a comparative tasting.

Pitting your wine, blind or otherwise, against the established greats is something of a rite of passage for new world wineries aspiring to first growth status. Eduardo Chadwick does it to great effect with his well-known Berlin Tasting series, and every year there's any number of Judgment of Paris lookalikes.

This was an eccentric exercise in a way –  we tasted Grange 2007 and Pingus 2007 against Cardinale 2007 – that is, a Shiraz and a Tempranillo and a Cabernet. It wasn’t done blind: ‘The idea wasn’t to do a Judgement of Paris,’ Bevan said. ‘But to show that our wines can genuinely hold their own alongside the first growths of the world.’

And hold their own they did. However great the company (the Lafite 01 was effortlessly poised)  they were never eclipsed, and in some cases they sang – I was particularly impressed by how the Cardinale showed against Grange and the overoaked Pingus.

For what it's worth, Robert Parker, and latterly Antonio Galloni, love these wines. Parker has handed out seven 100-point scores to Vérité since 1998.

I love tasting the 2011s, a famously cool and difficult vintage. I was in Oakville, at Opus One, and Screaming Eagle, in October of that year. Those winemakers who celebrate restraint were pleased with the quality (if not the quantity) – Michael Silacci at Opus was particularly excited. But it was an incredibly difficult year, with producers losing row after row to botrytis; no one was complacent about it.

2011 Tasting
The Dorchester Hotel, London, 7 October 2014

Vérité La Muse 2011, Sonoma County
14.3%
89% Merlot, 7% Malbec, 4% Cabernet Franc
Very elegant restrained nose with hints of briar fruit and damson and ripe plum, sweet cherry, tobacco leaf with undertow of fresh nettle. Sour plum and damson on palate, snapped stalk greenness, not dense but feeling of lightness and open freshness. Length elegant, the tannins tactile and chewy and never taking over but delivering welcome fresh juice like tiny darts in the mouth.

Vérité La Joie 2011, Sonoma County
74% Cabernet Sauvignon, 10% Cabernet Franc, 7% Merlot, 6% Petit Verdot, 3% Malbec
13.8%
Lovely fresh nose, savoury, mint and marmite, some medicinal and saline notes. Structure and precision – tannins tightly-wound, dense dark damson fruit in high register, ending in tannins with dry grip releasing back-palate juice. Savoury, saline length

Vérité Le Desir 2011, Sonoma County
14%
54% Cabernet Franc, 36% Merlot, 5% Cabernet Sauvignon, 5%  Malbec
Opulent nose with dark chocolate and coffee – roast fresh coffee – with ripe briar fruit. Palate perfumed, ripe dark fruit at first then redcurrant, coffee and chocolate, mouthwatering freshness from the acidity. Dry, arrow-sharp tannins dissolving to juice. A tour de force.

Cardinale 2011, Oakville
14.5%
Cabernet Sauvignon Merlot 
Intensely lush and opulent medicinal nose with great concentration. Palate elegant and powerful with dense dark fruit and brisk acidity, lovely juiciness setting off elegant dry tannins. Full length, continues for more than a minute and then subsides slowly. Delicious

Lokoya Spring Mountain 2011
14.5%
Cabernet Sauvignon
Almost raisined nose leading to fresh and bright open palate, graphite, stony minerality, open and juicy, fresh, with wonderful cedary brightness. Elegant

Lokoya Diamond Mountain 2011
14.5%
Cabernet Sauvignon
Tight ungiving nose. Refreshing acidity, very approachable, juicy, mouthwatering cherry and damson fruit. Rugged, dense with juicy acidic finish

Lokoya Howell Mountain 2011
15%
Cabernet Sauvignon
Massive, tarry, sweet fallen black stone fruit, lovely tactile grainy tannins. Wonderful freshness borne out of intense acid and tannin. Length very fine

Lokoya Mt Veeder 2011
14.5%
Cabernet Sauvignon
Carpenter calls Mount Veeder ‘the beast’. Quite undemonstrative nose, tarry, then on palate really powerful tannic edge, intensely dry, powerful with concentrated dark fruit slowly gathering itself to push through the tannin. This will evolve, the tannins will calm, the fruit will sweeten. Good length

Comparative tasting




2004
Vérité  La Muse 2004, Sonoma County
Lovely dense sweet nose with ripe plum and damson, then on restrained coffee and mocha, sour plum, saline/mineral texture, very open and fresh, sense of juice and freshness

Tenuta dell’Ornellaia Masseto 2004
Tar on nose, powerful, intense tarry chewy tannins, ripe macerated black fruit. Powerful and rather brash

Chateau Mouton-Rothschild 2004
Wonderful evocative perfumed nose, lots of elegant earthy notes, tannins in a lower key, there’s perfume and grip but the juice is restrained, holding back now, leading to dryness at finish, charming but lacking in punch

2007
Cardinale, Oakville 2007
Damson bright fruit, dusty dry tannins, tannins dominant and strong, very powerful, very strong, still incredibly young and powerful

Grange 2007
Tarry intense medicinal nose. Opulent palate, very new world with sweet raspberry fruit, dark chocolate – almost jammy! – tannins intense and precise to the end with very good length, length intense, concentrated, massive.

Dominio de Pingus 2007, Ribera del Duero
Slightly closed nose. Sinewy, chewy tannins almost swamping sweet blackberry fruit, which comes through with graphite, and smoky damson. I find the oak – 23 months new French - drying and over-powerful and I fear the tannins are not going to get any sweeter.

2001
Lokoya Mt Veeder 2001
Deep spicy nose – brooding – then very juicy, the tannins giving out juice from dark fruit, ripe plum and damson, even hints of sloe. Full-bodied and concentrated, with extraordinary structure and fine length

Tenuta San Guido Sassicaia 2001
Struck match and coffee nose, dense knitted dry tannins, full savoury even meaty nose. Perfumed palate, concentrated dark fruit, very fresh acidity with dry tannins dissolving to juice. Fine length

Chateau Lafite-Rothschild 2001
Sweet and wonderfully juicy from the beginning – poised and precise, fine-grained tannins, acidity and oak beautifully integrated, dark plummy fruit concentrated and intense. Effortless finesse, standing out even in this company as quite masterful.

In addition, the following wines were tasting at AWC, London, 6 October 2014

Vérité 2011 - see above

Vérité 2007

Vérité La Joie 2007, Sonoma County
Gorgeous cedar (old armoire) nose, velvety almost porty raisined grape aromas, pot pourri. Still very young, a bit closed now,  tightly-wound tannins holding out promise of juice to come, overall fresh and brimful of potential.

Vérité La Muse 2007, Sonoma County
Toasted oak on nose, meaty and savoury notes hint of very ripe redcurrant, even tending to jam. Palate with powerful tannins, ripe, fresh acidity carries through to finish, though there seems a slight disjoing in the integration of acidity, tannin and oak. Lovely length, and as wine opens in glass any angularity softens.

Vérité Le Desir 2007, Sonoma County
Wonderfully savoury, tarry nose, then bright, fresh tannin and acidity on palate. Fresh and dense, opening out to juice and sweetness of blackberry and blackcurrant fruit, integrated oak and acidity and leading into a pure, concentrated finish. magnificent

Vérité 2004

Vérité La Joie 2004, Sonoma County
Tarry perfumed nose with sweet ripe black cherry and damson. Fruit carries through satisfyingly to palate with saline notes and brisk minerality, very intense chewy tannins, hints of camphor. The tannins are there, young and vibrant to the end, dry but releasing spurts of juice. Lovely

Vérité La Muse 2004, Sonoma County
See above

Vérité Le Desir 2004, Sonoma County
Nose has a wonderful freshness - fresh cigar, even a note of hay - getting some age now, sweet ripe fallen damson and pot pourri, lovely earth and dark, spiced chocolate, camphor. Velvety tannins enriched with black cherry, the whole freshened by racy acidity. Delicious


Monday, 22 September 2014

Heroic viticulture: Ribeira Sacra and Rias Baixas

‘The vines drink stone,’ Fernando Gonzalez says, surveying his vertiginous vineyards. The Mencia here in Ribeira Sacra grows on terraces built into 85% slopes –roots forge their way through slabs of slate and schist that look as if they wouldn’t sustain lichen, let alone vines. Hence the hyperbole. The topography of Ribeira Sacra is not the least remarkable thing about this isolated, mountainous DO in the centre of Galicia. Its history too is extraordinary. While there have been vines here for centuries (the Romans made wine here, as they did over much of Spain), and Gonzalez’ terraces look as if they have stood for many decades, the present vineyards in fact are no more than a generation old. Once covered in terraces, over the last 80 years the hillsides were abandoned; the Civil War and increasing rural poverty were to blame, Gonzalez says. All the skills of the previous generations were almost lost – ‘between me and my grandfather there is no inheritance’.
Adega Algueira: 85% slopes

But 30 years ago he gave up his job in banking and mobilised his family, clearing the forest and revealing the crumbling terraces, which they rebuilt by hand, stone by stone. That was on the south side of the River Sil – the northern bank is untouched. ‘Thirty-three years ago, this side of the river looked like the opposite bank,’ Gonzalez says. He’s pointing to a densely-wooded hillside; looking closely it’s possible to see the remains of terraces amongst the dense green foliage. Gonzalez found vines gone wild, winding round scrubby oaks in symbiotic harmony. He took cuttings, identified them, and if they were viable, used them as the base for his replantings. He had to be careful though – previous generations had favoured vigorous but uninteresting varieties like Palomino, and he wanted only the native grapes: Mencia, Trousseau (called Merenzao here), Brancellao, Treixadura, Godello and Albariño, amongst others.

Gonzalez’ property, Adega Algueira, is one of the most renowned in Ribeira Sacra. The wines are fresh, structured and light, their profile exactly suited to the wine-drinking public’s taste for restraint. The major UK importer Bibendum, which lists half a dozen of Gonzalez’ wines, finds them ‘truly stunning’. Ferran Centelles, formerly of El Bulli and now working with the restaurant’s founder Ferran Adria on his new educational foundation, called the Cortezada 2011, a blend of Godello, Albarino and Treixadura, ‘singular and extraordinary’.

Centelles is a Catalan sommelier of wide experience, but he professed himself ‘incredulous’ at the ‘heroic viticulture’ of Ribeira Sacra. It is a landscape which demands much of its winemakers. Gonzalez himself, a charming man, with the slightly  wild demeanour of the zealot, has devoted his life to the cause while retaining his sense of humour. ‘It’s cheap to work the land here,’ he says, ‘because you’ve got no alternative but to do it yourself.’

A few miles east along the Rio Sil, in a region where the export of slate was the prime industry, lies A Coroa, another property that is at once ancient and modern. The first winery here dates from 1750, but was abandoned some 100 years later. The present owners bought the land in 1999, and re-established the winery in 2002.
Slate at A Coroa

A Coroa produces four highly-regarded Godellos under different vinification regimes – the Godello Lias for example spends four to five months on lees – on slate and schist soils. Godello has been reclaimed in Galicia, by dint of the hard work of producers like A Coroa, Algueira and – further east still in Valdeorras – Rafael Palacios. The younger brother of Alvaro Palacios of Penedes, Rafael makes wines under the cultish As Sortes label, and is convinced of their ageworthiness. Jancis Robinson MW agrees – she recently tasted Palacios’ superbly concentrated 2011 and recommended keeping it ‘at least until the end of the decade.’

Winemakers are opinionated, and the debate about the ageing properties of the two great white grapes of Galicia, Albariño and Godello, will live on long after the wines themselves have turned thin and brown. Fernando Gonzalez, for example, reckons acidity is key. The stony slate and gneiss soil of Ribeira Sacra, he says, is ideal for supplying the freshness and acidity that will ensure endurance, whereas the richer soils of Valdeorras can create ‘a problem with acidity.’ Palacios would disagree.

Acidity is much more of an issue in the coastal Rias Baixas DO. Galician topography is very varied, as evidenced by the radical differences between the central DOs  – Ribeira Sacra and Valdeorras – and the widely-spread Rias Baixas. The western coastline of Galicia, where the four  sub-regions of Rias Baixas lie, is made up of a series of deep, funnel-shaped inlets which thrust inland from the Atlantic. The land is low-lying, ocean-influenced, more humid and cooler than the central regions.

Rias Baixas was created a DO in 1988, but the production of wine here has changed little over the centuries. To combat the damp atmosphere vines are trellised on the pergola system, stout granite posts a metre and a half high, holding up a roof of shoots. Production is fragmented amongst thousands of tiny vineyards: there are 177 producers in Rias Baixas, but 7,000 registered grape growers farming 4,000ha of vineland. ‘It’s pretty low-tech,’ Andrew McCarthy at Bodegas Castro Martin says. ‘This part of Galicia is very poor and rural.’

Rodrigo Mendez (with Bibendum's Gareth Goves at right)
The peculiar nature of viticulture here encourages the growth of cooperatives like Condes de Alberei and Martin Codax, which have some 700 members between them and a dynamic export market (Codax partners with Gallo in the US, and is well-known in the UK, selling Albariño under both the Codax and the Burgans label). There is also a good deal of corporate ownership – companies like the Portuguese giant Sogrape, and fishing multinational Pescanova have stakes in the region.

With multitudinous growers, and often scant loyalty between grower and producer, experimentation can flourish. Rodrigo Mendez, a winemaker of exceptional and eccentric talent, sources grapes from a variety of remote vineyards, most within a hundred metres of the sea. His reds, from the indigenous varietals  Caiño, Espadeiro and Loureiro are renowned (a Pinot Noir is raised in a handful of barrels in his garage) and his whites are steadily gaining a stellar reputation. He also makes wines with Raul Perez, referred to by Robert Parker as a ‘visionary’; their Sketch Albariño is aged in bottle at the bottom of the Aurosa estuary.
Pergola trellising, Rias Baixas

Mendez’ methods are natural – foot-treading, no filtration, no fining, wild yeast fermentation, little temperature control – but his wines are sophisticated, beautifully structured and made with a sharp eye on international markets. They attract the enthusiastic attention of Bibendum and Spanish specialists Carte Blanche, as well as distributors in the US, after glowing reviews by Neal Martin on Robert Parker’s website.

While winemakers like Mendez champion a wide range of local varieties – Galicia has 60 indigenous grapes – it is Albariño which dominates. This is partly for its international appeal: the wines are fresh and easy-drinking, absolutely in tune with current style trends. But specialists also point to its complexity and ageworthiness.

One of these is Vicente Cebrian, the owner of Rioja’s Marques de Murrieta, whose  C16th family estate is Pazo Barrantes in Salnes,  the central DO of Rias Baixas. Salnes produces 99% Albariño and Cebrian loves to demonstrate the grape’s possibilities. He believes eighty per cent of Albariño in Rias Baixas ’is released too early’, and points to his vibrant 2000 Pazo Barrantes as an example of the way it can age with elegance and grace.

Vicente Cebrian and eucalyptus, Pazo Barrantes
Aged Albariño is something the public isn’t quite ready for, McCarthy says, but  a glance at Bibendum’s figures for Castro Martin demonstrates the health of the sector as a whole, with a 39% sales increase over the last four years. As the economic crisis in Spain grinds on, it is exports which keep this bodega and many others alive. McCarthy sends some 70% of his production abroad, with half going to the UK, and the other half to the rest of Europe and elsewhere, including five to 10,000 cases to the US and 12,000 to Australia. ‘If we relied on our domestic market then we would be doomed,’ McCarthy says.

Galicia is remote, historically isolated from the rest of Spain until the motorways were built a generation ago. Traditionally it has been a region of subsistence farmers – and to an extent it still is. Those pergola trellises may be ideal for keeping vines far enough off the ground to avoid rot, but they also free up the space below to grow hardy vegetables or graze livestock. The crisis is still felt here. ‘Those who most relied on the domestic market have felt it hardest,’ McCarthy says. The result of falling domestic sales has been a surplus of grapes and a drop in prices – small growers have no compunction about offloading grapes as cheaply as possible.

There have been failures – Rias Baixas’ 177 wineries were 200 a few years ago – but there were no ‘constructor’ wineries (those built on shaky economic foundations with the proceeds of the building boom in the south of Spain) in Galicia, as there were in Rioja and Ribera del Duero, so the fall has been less severe.

The focus is now on export, to the rest of Europe and the US, and in this, Galicia ‘can be counted a real success story’, Stuart Grundy, Bibendum’s buying director for Europe says. He attributes this to the global interest in Albariño, particularly Rias Baixas, ‘but now the lesser-known regions are channelling their energies that way too. Most of the top wineries have strong sales in the US.’

The global movement towards restraint applies to reds as well as whites and Galicia’s climate is ideally suited to produce light, fresh and acidic reds. Mencia, which is best-known in neighbouring Bierzo DO, works particularly well in the hills of Ribeira Sacra. As does Trousseau, native to the Jura and loved by artisan winemakers from South Australia to Sonoma. Adega Algueira has a very fine example which sells out in France, Gonzalez says. The critics like it so much ‘they refuse to believe it’s a Spanish wine’.

Sculpture, Pazo Barrantes
Winemakers in Galicia face many hurdles: the hard-scrabble life of hillside growing, humidity, damp and rot, economic uncertainty. But – despite what the French may say – their uniqueness is their strength. The climate and topography (someone described it as like ‘a Mediterranean Wales’) is so singular, and so singularly suited to producing wines of finesse, power and longevity, it is very difficult to mistake the best Galician wine for anything else.

(Tasting notes to will be added in due course)

Wednesday, 17 September 2014

Visigoths and Viognier - the relentless Gerard Bertrand

This article first appeared in Meininger's Wine Business International

Winemakers can be restlessly inquisitive, constantly searching for new terroirs to explore. Big wine companies are the same, though for different reasons. A Burgundian, say, will have his eyes on Oregon, or New Zealand, for the challenge those regions present for Pinot Noir; a Bordelais might look to Napa (there are more than a dozen French winemakers working at the highest level there) to grapple with the novel challenge of too much sun. Where wine corporations are concerned, simply change the word ‘explore’ to ‘exploit’ and you have their raison d’être.
'My focus is here': Gerard Bertrand

Gérard Bertrand works to a different scale. He is interested solely in his home region, the great swathe of southern France that is Languedoc-Roussillon. ‘I was born in the vineyard and my dream was always to reveal the terroir of the south of France,’ he says.

Bertrand took over the family property, the 60-hectare Domaine Villemajou in Corbières, on the sudden death of his father Georges Bertrand in 1987. Gérard was 22, and still playing rugby at national level (he continued to play for the next ten years, captaining his team, Stade Français in Paris, from 1992 to 1994). From the start he took his responsibilities seriously, ‘assuming the leadership in the region’ as he puts it. ‘Other companies are global and I have a deep respect for that, but my focus is here.’

He quickly established the Gérard Bertrand brand, and began to acquire properties. In 1992 he bought Domaine Cigalus in Bizanet and ChâteauLaville Bertrou in La Livinière, and ten years later he acquired what has become the company’s flagship, Chateau l’Hospitalet in La Clape, a winery and three-star hotel which is the centrepiece of the Bertrand philosophy of ‘l’art de vivre’ – the art of living.  The group now has 10 estates and more than 550ha of vineyard. It produces a bewildering array of wines, from the ten estate cuvées, to the top end Cigalus, La Forge and Tautavel – which retail at around €30 a bottle – the Grand Terroir range, the Art de Vivre range and others. He produces 1.5m cases, generating a turnover of €60m. It would seem he has conquered the Languedoc-Roussillon. Would he ever consider finding new terroirs outside the south of France? ‘No. My life and soul is here – I think we are continuing to develop what we have. I want to be the best in the region.’

Chateau l'Hospitalet
In person, Bertrand is a commanding presence, the very type of the broad-shouldered rugby international, though slightly dishevelled, as if he is unused to wearing a suit and tie (‘I just wanted to lean over and straighten his collar,’ one female public relations executive told me after an interview with him). He works the international circuit, ever-present at trade fairs from Montpellier’s Vinisud, to Prowein and the London Wine Trade Fair. He is so used to giving interviews and explaining his mission to promote the south of France that there’s a tendency to lapse into inspirational jargon. ‘I feel like a missionary,’ he says. ‘My goal is to share with the consumer the lifestyle of the south of France: wine, gastronomy, culture and art, and then deliver the message in the cross – fraternity, peace, and love.’

‘The cross’ refers to the distinctive Bertrand logo, the four-armed Visigoth cross, which is beamed three metres high onto the outer wall of the new l’Hospitalet chai, and which according to the company’s literature is laden with significance, ‘…its four elements and its twelve points of the zodiac represent the perfect perpetual cycle of time and nature…’

While that might sound like new-age mumbo-jumbo, the Gérard Bertrand brand is rooted firmly in reality. It dominates the south of France, exporting to 100 markets worldwide and garnering a clutch of international awards. When Bertrand says, ‘In many regions and countries we have opened the market and created the south of France category’, it is not an empty boast.


One gets the feeling he runs the company with an eye for the smallest detail (there’s no doubt he would far rather be in the vineyard or the blending room than at a trade fair). He tastes ‘more or less three mornings a week’ and is in the vineyard once a month through the year, and several times a week before and during harvest. He gives the same attention to his international markets, concentrating on North America and Asia, but excluding China at least until 2020, he suggests.

‘China is important and interesting but not for the next few years. They don’t have the knowledge and experience yet – they don’t recognise a label until it becomes a brand - and they are full of stock as they produce a lot of wine.

‘We can represent the future for them because they like the taste of the south of France, but you have to educate thousands and thousands of people.’

Bertrand returns again and again to the theme of education. Many winemakers are evangelical in their determination to promote their region, and he is no exception – indeed, his entire life is dedicated to demonstrating the potential of his many terroirs. Critics recognise this potential: three Bertrand wines were in the final listing of the UK’s Sud de France Top 100 competition, out of over 600 entered, with Château de Villemajou Grand Vin 2011from Domaine Villemajou– Georges Bertrand’s original winery – taking a trophy. At the 2014 Decanter World Wine Awards, Bertrand’s wines won several gold medals and two coveted Regional Trophies, for the Réserve Spéciale Viognier and a 1974 Rivesaltes which the judges described as ‘Wonderful stuff’.

Tim Atkin MW, who chairs the Sud de France Top 100, considers Bertrand ‘charismatic, passionate and deeply knowledgeable about his own region’ and ‘one of the key figures in the renaissance of the Languedoc-Roussillon.’

Chateau La Sauvageonne

Size, scale and reach play a major part in the success of the brand. Bertrand bestrides the Languedoc-Roussillon like a colossus: his estates stretch from the recently-acquired Chateau la Sauvageonne in Montpellier to Laville-Bertrou in La Livinière; there are properties in La Clape and Boutenac, and another recent acquisition, La Soujeole in the Malepère appellation near Carcassonne. The terroirs are wonderfully varied in altitude and topography: Domaine de l’Aigle in Limoux is one of the coolest and highest in the region and produces restrained and elegant Pinot and Chardonnay; Domaine de Cigalus in Boutenac is more Mediterranean and planted to Grenache, Carignan and Caladoc as well as international varieties. There are few grape varieties Bertrand doesn’t source.

So there is reach, but the scale of each estate is manageable – production is almost artisan for the smaller estates. There is no irrigation (‘the roots go deeper and reveal the terroir’), and 300ha of the portfolio are now biodynamic: ‘The philosophy is to be sustainable at least, and then organic, and then biodynamic,’ Bertrand says, adding that he follows the biodynamic calendar where possible. This annual calendar – as most famously set out by Maria Thun and her son Matthias - uses lunar and solar cycles and planetary movements to advise which periods, either ‘fruit’, ‘flower’, ‘leaf’ and ‘root’ days, are best for different operations in the vineyard or winery. ‘We respect it for the top wines, and only bottle on a flower or a fruit day. For the others, we use it at the end of the tasting to see what kind of day it is.’

Another facet of Bertrand’s philosophy (he uses the word frequently to describe his view of winemaking) is a clear focus on the taste and style of the different terroirs. ‘To reveal the terroir you need to feel it. When you suck limestone you get a taste of mineral  and salt, from silex you get iron. And of course, to understand the terroir you need to work on it and spend time on it.’

This focus is not only for the higher-end terroir-driven wines. Swirling his basic-level Picpoul de Pinet in his glass – a wine which sells for around €12 – he is still concerned that it should deliver some sort of typicity. ‘Why do I like this? It’s an easy wine to understand. It’s fruit-driven, it has minerality, it’s crisp, you salivate and you need another glass. It’s not a complex wine but it has the taste of Picpoul – you can feel the taste of the grape.’ The same goes for the best-selling rosé Gris Blanc. ‘We’re looking for the taste of Grenache Gris. It’s a modern wine with an old traditional varietal.’

This surely is part of the ethos – to take what is traditional about the south of France and turn it into something modern, approachable and marketable. Revealingly, Bertrand chooses to answer another question. ‘Twenty-six years ago we were in three markets, and now we’re in 100.’

There is a relentless focus on markets: after all, one man’s mission to educate is another man’s brilliant salesmanship. At the massive new chai at L’Hospitalet, capacity is increased, but Bertrand says that is not the most important aspect of the building: ‘We needed to have a very modern and attractive winery to align with the market’ – and to have more storage space for the library of past vintages that he is amassing, in order to demonstrate the ageworthiness of his wines to future generations of consumers.

Bertrand is at his most eloquent and enthusiastic when discussing ‘the soul of the appellation’, as he puts it, and at the heart of it all is Corbières, where he grew up. Of the Corbières Grenache Syrah Mourvèdre, he says, ‘This is my origin, the place where I was born. It is a beautiful place. I love the story of Corbières, it’s one of the most exciting places in the world. It’s alchemy, to get such juice from such a hard landscape.’
Villemajou: 'the soul of the appellation'

When one considers how long wine has been made in this region, Bertrand’s mission is in its infancy. He has 39 vintages under his belt and is not yet 50 – ‘I have a good level of energy and I resist stress’ – does he feel there is a lot more work to do?

‘My goal is to see Languedoc-Roussillon recognised as a Grand Cru, to be on a level with the best in the world. I’m very happy with what we have done in the last 20 years, and there are a lot of things to do in the next 20. But we’re not in a rush.’


Thursday, 31 July 2014

Oaked Sauvignon Blanc - balance, complexity and a welcome respite from cat's pee

[This is a digested version, though with more recommendations, of a longer article on the US website zesterdaily.com]

Was there ever a danger of Sauvignon Blanc going the same way as Chardonnay – of an ‘Anything but Sauvignon’ movement to match the ABC craze?

Here’s the former Slate columnist Michael Steinberger, for example, mocking the grape's "chirpy little wines wholly devoid of complexity and depth … a limp, lemony liquid that grows progressively more boring with each sip." Articles with titles like '10 Alternatives to Sauvignon' are more and more common; I've heard independent merchants talking about increasing requests for a crisp white, 'but not Sauvignon'.

But there's no evidence to suggest Sauvignon is in danger of even the smallest blip in sales. Bibendum, the Wine Society and many other retailers reports sales as strong as ever.

A tasting (in July at London Cru, the capital's first urban winery) comprised 32 oaked wines from Australia, New Zealand, California, Chile, Loire, Bordeaux, South Africa and Turkey.
All the wines had oak treatment of some kind. Some were barrel-fermented, some spent 10 months in new French oak barriques, others far less time, 50% second-use barrels, others eight month medium toast, others 15 months in old oak. … With oak, the variables are infinite.

Looking down the list, a common factor was restraint. I didn't expect such freshness and restraint in the American wines, for example, although the New Zealanders showed their classic colours -- gooseberry, robust sweaty aromas, nettle and grass. Surprising also was the complexity on show: judicious use of oak tempers the green pepper or asparagus flavours that people can find offensive, and bring more of what UK critic Sarah Ahmed calls "the Bordeaux style, more lemon oil notes -- it's a striking feature."

"Limp and lemony … devoid of complexity"? Not at all. The best of these wines have bracing acidity and fine complex fruit. I noted the following flavours: apple, pear, sour apple, sugared pear skin, honey, apple custard, fresh hay, salinity, river mud, lemon, lemongrass, apricot, sweat, earth.

I used the descriptor "gooseberry" three times, "cat's pee" not at all.

Top 10 oaked Sauvignon Blancs
Prices are approximate; oaking regimes as supplied by winery

Larry Cherubino ‘Cherubino’ 2013, Pemberton, Western Australia
100% Sauvignon Blanc
100% new, 3 mths ageing
Delicate gooseberry and hint of oak on the nose. Sour apple and pearskin palate leading to tropical notes – sweet stone fruit. Long and elegant, very fine
Alc 12.5% £25.99 UK: Inverarity Morton, Drinkmonger ; US n/a

Château Talbot  Caillou Blanc 2012, Bordeaux blanc, France
74% Sauvignon 26% Semillon
35% new oak barriques, 35% 1yr old, 30% 3rd fill for 8 mths
Unexpressive nose but quickly a lovely interesting palate with honey freshness salinity, good ripe acidity, mouthwatering sweet pear and peach and fine, sophisticated weight
Alc 14% £15/$27-30 UK: Fine & Rare; US: Millesima, MacArthur Beverages
chateau-talbot.com

Château Brown 2012, Pessac-Léognan, Bordeaux, France
64% Sauvignon 36% Semillon
8 mths in medium toast barriques, 50% new, 50% 2nd fill.
Really fresh impression of intense chalky acidity, fine pear and apple (Granny Smith) with an almost tannic heft. The mid-palate is dry with promise of a dissolve to juice. Lovely, mouthwatering wine
Alc 13.5% £25/$36 UK: Soho Wines, Ellis of Richmond, Tesco; US: Owen’s Liquors, Kessler Wines and Spirits
www.chateau-brown.com

Huia Sauvignon Blanc 2013, Wairau, Marlborough, New Zealand
100% Sauvignon Blanc
A portion was fermented in neutral French oak barrels.
Elegant refined nose with nettle and hint of green mown grass. The palate unmistakeably New Zealand, with gooseberry, lime and more nettley, hedgrerow flavours. Fine fresh acidity, fine weight
Alc 14% £13/$15-20 UK: Winedirect, Quintessentially Wine; US: Astor Wines, Lincoln Fine Wines

Yealands Winemakers Reserve 2013, Awatere, Marlborough, New Zealand
100% Sauvignon Blanc
30% fermented and aged in French oak barrels, 5% new
Classic sweaty nose with gooseberry, intense and powerful palate with dancing acidity. Lovely fresh, fearlessly classic Marlborough Sauvignon
Alc 13.5% £14.95 UK: Great Western Wine;  US: n/a
www.yealands.co.nz

Valdivieso Wild Fermented Single Vineyard 2012, Leyda, Chile
100% Sauvignon Blanc
Aged for 6mths in 500l French oak barrels
Powerful aroma of struck match at first, hint of reduction, earthy smell of river mud, not overwhelming, then on the palate lime and lemon, vanilla, robust acidity, very open and refreshing, good length, complex and very fine
Alc 13% £13.95 UK: Winedirect;  US: n/a
www.valdiviesovineyard.com

Chimney Rock, Elevage Blanc 2010, Napa Valley, USA
47% Sauvignon 43% Sauvignon Gris
Two thirds Fermented + aged for 6mths in Fr oak, 1/3 new, 1/3 old
Fresh with honey and creamy notes on the nose, repeated on the palate with grainy, dense acidity, passion fruit, kiwi, excellent weight and mouthfeel, good zippy acid length
Alc 14.5% £24.99/$22-25 UK: Cellarvie, Matthew Clark;  US: Grapeswine.com, Saratoga Wine Exchange, M&D Fine Wines and Spirits, widely available
www.chimneyrock.com

Duckhorn Napa Valley Sauvignon Blanc 2102, Napa Valley, USA
83% Sauvignon 17% Semillon
15% barrel-fermented in new oak, 5mths sur lie
There’s noticeable oak on the nose and early palate serving to enhance the pear and spiced apple flavours. Good weight and length. Fine
Alc 13.5% £28 UK: thewinetreasury.com;  US: Gramercy, Wally’s Wine and Spirits, widely available
www.duckhorn.com

Mondavi Fumé Blanc, Napa Valley, USA
87% Sauvignon 13% Semillon
Barrel fermented
Fresh and creamy, tropical, creamy notes of apple and custard, then spice (sandalwood), giving an exotic character. Very well-made, nice racy acidity at end
Alc 13.5% £16/$9-12 UK: Templar Wines, Matthew Clark;  US: widely available
www.robertmondaviwinery.com

Lis Neris, Picol, Friuli Isonzo, Italy
100% Sauvignon Blanc
Some of wine aged for 11mths in 500l Fr oak
Classic grassy aromas, hay (fresh hay), savoury denseness to palate, good weight, citrus character rounded out by ripe apple, excellent zesty length with good acid balance
Alc 14% £24 UK: Fields Morris and Verdin;  US: Mister Wright Fine Wines and Spirits, Wine Ranger Cellars
www.lisneris.it

[For a fuller version of this article see zesterdaily.com]




Friday, 25 July 2014

Smart wines: Ten Years of Vilafonté

A tasting of Vilafonté Series C from 2003-2012, with Zelma Long, Phil Freese and Mike Ratcliffe. London 16 July 2014

(see also my interview with Zelma Long on wine-searcher.com)

Zelma Long says she’s reading a book by furniture maker Peter Korn, called Why We Make Things And Why It Matters. ‘He talks about his craft and how he uses his heart, his intellect and his hands and how this fulfills a basic human need to exercise the emotional, the physical and the intellectual.’ She finds winemaking the perfect route to this rather practical karma.

The heart? Zelma Long
The head, the heart and the hands. It’s tempting to stretch the analogy (possibly to breaking point) to see which of these roles is filled by the trio that founded Vilafonté. Long and her husband Phillip Freese met Mike Ratcliffe of Warwick Estate in Stellenbosch in the 1990s, and some time after that they decided they should make wine from the ancient soils of the northern flank of the Simonsberg Mountain. They bought 40ha in 1997, and planted to four Bordeaux varietals, leaving out Petit Verdot. ‘We knew the site would produce rich enough wines,’ Freese says.

They share out the jobs: Long is the winemaker, Freese in the vineyard, and Ratcliffe on marketing. They’re very good at what they do. Ratcliffe for one is a tireless ambassador for the winery, for Warwick and for South African wine in general. The fact he’s a born marketeer is evidenced by the tasting mat in front of me, where each wine is labelled with a two-word plug, ‘seamless and firm’ for the 2010, ‘balanced and expressive’ for the 09 and so on. I’d say he’s the head, in our (stretched) analogy.

Mike Ratcliffe, Zelma Long and Phil Freese
Freese was Mondavi’s vineyard guru for 13 years, designed and planted Opus One’s vineyards next door, and likes his technological aids. He pioneered a ground-penetrating radar system called EM38 which detects variations in soil, they use the Leaf Water Potential measuring system, as well as deploying the Normalised Difference Vegetation Index (NDVI), a system developed by NASA, which uses satellite imaging to measure relative vigour of the vines. He has that rare gift of combining vast knowledge with an avuncular manner and an ability to explain complex subjects simply. Vine stress, he says, is a matter of ‘subjecting the vines a near-death experience without them actually dying. They’re psyched-out by that.’

Long herself is measured of speech and quick to laugh. Her career started in the late 60s with UC Davis, an internship with Mike Ggrich at Mondavi, an offer of a job, a decade there as chief winemaker, subsequently CEO of Simi in Sonoma, founded Long Vineyards with Bob Long, a host of international consultancies, together with Vilafonté. She’s now embarked on a PhD in performance art at Davis, because, she says, ‘If you’re a confident individual with an active mental capacity you need new challenges through your life.’

Vilafonté is a 42ha vineyard planted on ‘vilafonté’ soil, which according to Ratcliffe is one of the oldest soil types in the world, between 750,000 and 1.5m years old. ‘It has been stripped of much of its inherent capacity, with a low production potential.’

They make two wines, the Merlot-dominant Series M and the Cabernet Sauvignon-based Series C.

'Psyched-out vines': Vilafonté 
The vineyards are the highest-density in South Africa. Vines are stressed, berries are small and intensely-flavoured. ‘Smart wines,’ Robert Joseph said as we tasted. You have the feeling you’re in good hands. There was not a single disappointment in the ten-year line up. ‘We look for clarity and purity,’ Long says, and uses the rather lovely image of the ringing of a bell: ‘You get that brilliantly clear clear sound.’ And as with a bell, you know instinctively if there’s the tiniest flaw in the metal – a false note introduced in the clarity. There are none of those. Take the 2007, and early-ripening, low-sugar year, 74% Cabernet Sauvignon. At first you wonder where you’re going as your palate deals with the structure – the insistent tannins and bold acidity – then you catch glimpses of fruit, and you realise where you are, and can see the life ahead for the wine.

Structure, elegance and purity of fruit characterise the wines. There is considerable vintage variation both in fruit character and tannic and acidic levels, as well as grape proportions. Cabernet Sauvignon is always the majority of the blend, but it can be as low as 51% (11) and as high as 75% (10).

These are smart, modern (in terms of their structure), beautifully-made, serious wines, and they are astonishingly cheap, at less than £35 for later vintages. Wines of this quality, of this pedigree, from Bordeaux, or Napa, or, increasingly,  Sonoma, or Tuscany, would be twice, three or four times the price.

Vilafonté is a work in progress. The vineyards are getting older and are becoming ‘more balanced’, Long says, ‘and we have become more expert. We have learnt how to work with the tannins, to refine the structure. We feel we are beginning to master this site.’

The wines
Available from FellsCoe Vintners, theDrinkShop.com, Sawinesonline.co.uk and extensively in the United States. From £35 bottle

Vilafonté series C 2003
82% Cabernet Sauvignon, 9% Merlot, 7% Cabernet Franc, 2% Malbec
Rich savoury nose, exotic spice and perfume, cassis. Lovely sour damson and sloe palate – rich acidity and soft tannins. Very juicy length, elegant, goes on and on stimulating the palate. Sensational finish – 5 minutes and after that still flashbacks. ‘This exemplifies the potential and future of the vineyard’ (Long)

Vilafonté series C 2004
52% Cabernet Sauvignon, 35% Merlot, 9% Cabernet Franc, 4% Malbec
Deeper, rounder nose with the same rich spice as 03, and some delicate hay notes. Sour damson and sloe, also some very high notes of balsamic raspberry. Very fine tannin, less concentration at end than 03 but soft and very charming

Vilafonté series C 2005
66% Cabernet Sauvignon, 22% Merlot, 6% Cabernet Franc, 6% Malbec
Dense, tannins grip on the attack rather than develop in mid-palate. Structure very evident here – not a hint of roundness but precision, austerity, sour salted dried plum flavours. Tightly-wound and rigid, powerful sour length giving little juice. Bordeaux-like, St Estephe or Pauillac at their most ascetic

Vilafonté series C 2006
54% Cabernet Sauvignon, 40% Merlot, 6% Cabernet Franc
Delicate ‘old armoire’ nose. Very pure, cassis, damson, sour plum, sloe. Grainy, very textured, tactile tannins giving great gouts of oak-infused tobacco-flavoured juice. Intense and young. ‘It has its own kind of grace’ (Long)

Vilafonté series C 2007
74% Cabernet Sauvignon, 11% Merlot, 9% Cabernet Franc, 6% Malbec
Tannins hit instantly and form a scaffold through which glimpses of austere fruit can be seen. Intense, wild, giving little away, juice at end. Very concentrated, leave for at least three years for tannins to work some suppleness. Great concentrated  juicy length with hints of sweetness to come. Classy

Vilafonté series C 2008
66% Cabernet Sauvignon, 28% Merlot, 6% Malbec
Lovely savoury edge to nose that’s  been missing in the last few vintages. Even the aromas have length and memory. Tannins after 15% of palate come in fighting, delicate juicy heft, powerful. Dark fruit, stewed damson, bitter lick of sloe. Length  gentle but still insistent – much more feminine wine at the end

Vilafonté series C 2009
54% Cabernet Sauvignon, 27% Merlot, 11% Cabernet Franc, 8% Malbec
Round, more of an international approachable bent, sauve tannins which nevertheless grip tight, but the fruit takes equal billing here – fine sandalwood box, violet, plum skin marinaded, continuous juice from mid-palate

Vilafonté series C 2010
75% Cabernet Sauvignon, 10% Merlot, 10% Cabernet Franc, 5% Malbec
Hint of chlorine and salt on nose, tannins have robust sour edge, more lick of sloe and salted plum, then hay-juice and tobacco juice, leaving impression of soft old wood at end. ‘When I made the blend for this I thought it would be the finest Bordeaux blend I had ever made. I don’t think it’s there yet. It’s very tight and compact and unevolved.’ (Long)

Vilafonté series C 2011
51% Cabernet Sauvignon, 26% Merlot, 14% Cabernet Franc, 9% Malbec
Rich, rich nose, redolent of tar and muscovado sugar and marinaded dark fruit. Intense concentration, more tar but tannins, smoke and nettley green leaf and juice kick in at same time, leading to a comprehensive symphony of taste. An eager puppy. Will be magnificent as tannins and juice find their place

Vilafonté series C 2012 (not yet released)
52% Cabernet Sauvignon, 19% Merlot, 22% Cabernet Franc, 7% Malbec
Wonderful complexity to the nose, salt and smoke, hints of balsamic, crushed raspberry leaf. Tannins soft at first then getting grip but never overwhelming. Juice released in sweet and sour spurts, tannins gripping and insistent to end.

(see also my interview with Zelma Long on wine-searcher.com)


Tuesday, 8 July 2014

Impeccably turned out: Corney & Barrow company profile

This article first appeared in Meininger's Wine Business International

In 1992 Corney & Barrow did something that earned it the opprobrium of its peers. ‘Bastards, renegades and traitors was what our noble friends in London called us,’ Adam Brett-Smith, the wine merchant’s managing director recalls.What Corneys had done to provoke such fury was to break ranks and set up one of the first wine broking businesses in the UK. In those days broking – buying and selling on behalf of clients – was a cosy and lucrative business. As Brett-Smith puts it, ‘you bought from anywhere and sold to anywhere.’ No attention was paid to provenance, an issue of such all-consuming importance in today’s fraud-ridden fine wine world that it’s incredible to think it was once seen as a mere detail. In setting up Corney & Barrow Broking Services, the merchant turned that on its head.

‘We tried to redefine the way the broking business operated. We set up standards on broking with absolute emphasis on provenance. We would never buy from auction, never buy from America and never buy from Asia. They were very expensive rules, and it cost us a lot of money, but it was the right thing to do.’

English renegade: Adam Brett-Smith
This of course put the comfortable practices of Corneys’ competitors into unwelcome focus – hence the string of pejoratives. In conversation with Brett-Smith, who joined the company in 1981 as a junior salesman and was made managing director before the decade was out, such epithets are the last thing which come to mind. A man for whom the word ‘urbane’ could have been invented, impeccably turned out, almost cartoonishly tall, he is the very picture of an Englishman. Does he – and the company – trade on that Englishness?

‘I don’t think any of us feel we need to drape ourselves in the Union Jack but there is a subconscious push. One of the legacies of history is that on the whole the Brits are quite well liked. No one’s quite sure why they like us but there are indefinable virtues that still exist.’

He defines those virtues as ‘trust, knowledge and the trading culture’, the British ‘trading instinct, the desire to go elsewhere and build businesses in other areas. It’s not odd to deal with a British wine merchant in Hong Kong, for example.’

Corney & Barrow is the third in the triumvirate of great and long-established British wine merchants. Established in 1780, it is about a hundred years younger than Berry Bros and Justerini & Brooks. It has offices in Hong Kong, Singapore, Edinburgh, Yorkshire and East Anglia, and – under the Corney & Barrow Group umbrella, a thriving wine bar business. Turnover last year was £49.7m, with the eleven wine bars, all concentrated around the City of London financial district, adding £16.3m to the bottom line.

Like its peers (between them they have just short of 800 years’ experience selling wine) Corneys appears both old-fashioned and resolutely modern. The first to set up a provenance-based broking service, it was also the first to recognise the importance of sole agency, a concept that was ‘much derided at the time’, Brett-Smith says.

‘The pursuit of exclusive representation was something the traditional British wine merchant didn’t do.’

It started with Petrus in 1978 or 80, and taking on the Pomerol icon was something even they didn’t quite understand – ‘it was the exception that proved the rule’. A decade later Corneys wooed Aubert de Villaine, proprietor of Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, and set the mould for a strategy that is now the company’s unique selling proposition. Of the 600-plus wines on the list, there are 50 agencies, chosen using the simple criterion, ‘wherever good and great wine is grown’, and taking producers of 10,000 cases or less.

If the list is impressive – DRC and Petrus, Comte Georges de Vogüé in Chambolle-Musigny, Domaine Leflaive in Puligny-Montrachet, Champagne Salon and Delamotte, Conterno in Piedmont, Dominio de Pingus in Ribera del Duero, Achaval Ferrer in Mendoza, Hyde de Villaine in Carneros, and dozens of other resonant names – there’s also something slightly claustrophobic about it.

There’s barely a claret, for example, that doesn’t come from the J-P Moueix stable (Christian Moueix and Brett-Smith have known each other for years), and you’re hard-pressed to find anything from California that isn’t either Hyde de Villaine (a partnership between Carneros mastermind Larry Hyde and Aubert de Villaine of DRC) or bona-fide blue-chip like Colgin or Harlan, or indeed Moueix’s Dominus.

In the words of one well-placed London professional, ‘part of me thinks it’s brilliant, and the other half thinks it’s absurd. I love Champagne Delamotte, but do I want to drink that to the exclusion of all others? No.’ 

Brett-Smith makes no apologies. ‘We don’t want to be an enormous basket of every fine wine in the world. Our goal is simple: to supply to the end consumer wines that are exclusive to Corney & Barrow in all the markets in which we operate. We want to be an inch wide and five miles deep, rather than five miles wide and an inch deep.’

It’s the very definition of ‘specialist’, but what about nurturing new talent? ‘We love taking something that is derided, or no one knows anything about, and believing in it and communicating it,’ he says, remembering how Pingus was once unknown, ‘a domaine in Spain’. The bodega’s founder Peter Sisseck salutes Brett-Smith’s vision: ‘They had a lot of courage. I couldn’t have done it without them.’  

Sisseck is anything but an iconoclast now – his latest vintage is on the list at not much less than £300 a bottle – and some may raise an eyebrow at the thought of Corneys as a champion of the derided and misbelieved.

But it’s well to remember that the company’s business model has held good for some decades. One of the reasons for this is the care it takes with the clientele, which Brett-Smith puts in the 35-55 age group. As people get older, he says, they buy less fine wine that requires ageing, so the list of private customers (there are about 550 active on the DRC list) is self-regulating. At the same time, he has an active policy of employing younger people, on the basis that ‘the age of a client is closely linked to the age of the salesforce – usually about eight or twelve years older.’

Keeping your clientele young is vital for survival in any business, as is looking to the future. Brett-Smith predicts that in generations to come (‘When I’m long gone’) his successors will be faced with two developments. The first is logistics. It’s quite possible that, as is happening in Bordeaux with Latour and others opting out of the negociant system, ‘domaines will access the end consumer without any intermediaries,’ and merchants must build storage facilities against that eventuality, just as the big negociants in Bordeaux are doing. ‘We have a shed in Scotland,’ he says.

The second development is that merchants may become growers and producers themselves. Is this something he’s considered? ‘It remains an option. We’ve looked at a shareholding in production.’


Brett-Smith will say no more, but he seems to have been right on a number of counts already, and there’s no reason to suppose he’s lost his touch.