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 Bordelaise 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]

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

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

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

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

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:, Saratoga Wine Exchange, M&D Fine Wines and Spirits, widely available

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:;  US: Gramercy, Wally’s Wine and Spirits, widely available

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

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

[For a fuller version of this article see]

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

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,, 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

Tuesday, 8 July 2014

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.

Friday, 4 July 2014

For all my friends and colleagues turning 50...

From Four Quartets (Little Gidding)

Let me disclose the gifts reserved for age
To set a crown upon your lifetime's effort.
First, the cold fricton of expiring sense
Without enchantment, offering no promise
But bitter tastelessness of shadow fruit
As body and soul begin to fall asunder.
Second, the conscious impotence of rage
At human folly, and the laceration
Of laughter at what ceases to amuse.
And last, the rending pain of re-enactment
Of all that you have done, and been; the shame
Of things ill done and done to others' harm
Which once you took for exercise of virtue.
Then fools' approval stings, and honour stains.
From wrong to wrong the exasperated spirit
Proceeds, unless restored by that refining fire
Where you must move in measure, like a dancer.

Thursday, 3 July 2014

Regional profile: Navarra

Navarra: Garnacha to the fore?

This diverse region struggles to compete against Spain’s most powerful brand, Rioja. Is it time to forgo the emphasis on ‘serious’ red blends and international whites so that its native varieties can come to the fore?

Read the full article here

This article appears in the August 2014 issue of Decanter magazine 

Sunday, 29 June 2014

'All of a sudden it connected': Stags Leap District celebrates its quarter century

This is a longer version of the article which appears in the current issue of The World of Fine Wine

Stags Leap District was established as an American Viticultural Area (AVA) in 1989, and its annual Vineyard to Vintner event, when the region’s 20-odd wineries throw open their doors to their loyal public, was chosen to mark its quarter-century. Over the course of a blazing weekend at the end of April, gleaming black limos and minibuses (many with gold hubcaps) swept up and down the three-mile stretch of the Silverado trail that neatly bisects the AVA, carrying Stags Leap enthusiasts from a dozen different states. Texas plates were much in evidence.

The weekend celebrations were kicked off by a seminar on the lawn at Shafer, compered by AVA lawyer Richard Mendelson, and Kelli White, the chief sommelier at Press in St Helena. On the panel, Michael Beaulac of Pine Ridge, Elizabeth Vianna of Chimney Rock, John Shafer, Dick Steltzner, John Conover of Plumpjack (the owners of Odette, the latest additon to the district), and Stag's Leap Wine Cellars vineyard manager Kirk Grace talked us through a vertical of vintages, starting with the 1977 Cask 23 (notes below). Mendelson teased out Shafer's and Steltzner's reasons for alighting in the district in the late 60s. For Shafer it was slope: 'I'd researched and my goal was to find hillside,' he said, 'Bacchus loves the hills.' Steltzner: 'I didn't know it was Cabernet land but I knew it was good drained land. I knew it was good for grapes.' He'd been drinking Inglenook Cabernet with duck he'd hunted, he added, so he knew its possibilities in the valley.

Three miles long and a mile wide, Stags Leap is the smallest sub-district in Napa. It’s not the first – Howell Mountain was established in 1983, and the one-winery Wild Horse Valley in the far south in 1988 – but it is one of the most renowned. This is due in part to the status conferred upon the as-yet-unofficial region when Warren Winiarski’s 1973 Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars Cabernet Sauvignon eclipsed a clutch of Bordeaux first growths at the 1976 Paris Tasting.

While the district’s bigger properties are gradually being taken over by corporations – Chateau Ste Michelle and Antinori paid US$187m for Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars a few years ago, Stags Leap Winery is owned by TreasuryWine Estates; Mondavi, which has substantial holdings of Sauvignon Blanc in the south-west quarter, is owned by Constellation, Chimney Rock by Terlato WineGroup, Pine Ridge by the Crimson Wine Group – Stags Leap District is still dotted with smaller family operations.

There are rich enthusiasts like Greg Lindstrom, who produces 500 cases from a tiny hillside property, or Susie and Tom Jinks’ Robinson Vineyards where the couple's three daughters are very much in evidence, taking orders or handing out pizza on Vineyard to Vintner day, or the Ilsleys, who farm 23 acres (9.3ha) next door to Shafer, where David Ilsley is vineyard manager. Then there is Baldacci Family, and Regusci Winery, formidable family companies both. Even Silverado Vineyards is family-owned, albeit by the powerful Miller clan, descendents of Walt Disney.

Old labels at Robinson: LOL
Taylor Family Vineyards is typical of the smaller property, what could be called a ‘mom and pop’ set-up if it wasn’t for the fact they are sitting on tens of millions of dollars of land. Growers since 1976, they started producing their own Cabernet and Chardonnay from their nine acres next door to Silverado Vineyards in 2002. ‘It’s been an adventure,’ Sandy Taylor, the current president says. You get a sense of pioneering can-do from these families. Tom Jinks at Robinson dug their pocket-sized cellar 'by hand' he says with some pride, and indeed he looks the kind of person who can wield a pickaxe. It's a far cry from the multimillion dollar makeover at Stag's Leap Wine Cellars, less than a mile away.

Towards the Silverado Trail from Lindstrom's knoll
One of the first people to identify Stags Leap in the late 1950s (for the purposes of clarity the apostrophe-less post-AVA spelling will be used throughout, irrespective of dates referred to) was Nathan Fay, the grower from whom Winiarski purchased one of his most iconic vineyards. Fay sold grapes but made a few barrels for himself, and his 1968 homemade Cabernet seems to have gained mythic status. He gave it to John Shafer, who remembers it as ‘stunning…rich and delicious with lush dark fruit,’ as his son Doug described it in his book A Vineyard in Napa.

‘That’s what started the Cabernet movement,’ Dick Steltzner – who planted his Cabernet vineyards in the early 70s and together with Shafer was one of the architects of the AVA – told me over lunch. ‘They [Shafer, Winiarski, and Joe Heitz as well] tried Nate’s homemade wine and all of a sudden it connected.’

Winiarski was so taken by the wine he bought a 36-acre prune orchard (prunes were big business in the region - at one time they were fetching higher prices per ton than grapes) 'as close to Fay's vineyard as I could get it' he told me. That was in 1970. He planted a portion to Cabernet Sauvignon and called the vineyard SLV, sending one of the first vintages, the '73, to Paris in 1976, and straight into the history books.

At the same time, John Goelet, a descendent of the Bordeaux negociant family Guestier, was looking around for prime Cabernet land and with the help of Bernard Portet also bought plots next to Fay, producing  the first Clos du Val vintage in 1972.

Any discussion of what makes Stags Leap different comes back to land. ‘It was founded solely in the soil and the geography,’ Allison Steltzner, sales director of the family winery said. The Palisades, the craggy range that marks the eastern boundary, have a peculiar inward curve, Steltzner says, that circulates cooling winds from San Pablo Bay in the south.

This creates different growing conditions from the rest of the valley, Dick Steltzner puts in. ‘Because of our air movement we have smaller leaves, so we have more sunlight on the fruit.’ Earth, wind and sun come together in the perfect combination. The volcanic alluvial soils of the lower hills – what they call the benchland – are light, and give more stress to the vines, the grapes are more exposed to the sun, but cooled by the wind. Stags Leap District winemakers reckon they have more hangtime than the rest of the valley, giving the grapes more phenolic ripeness, which coupled with cool nights allows acid retention. ‘You get that velvety texture to the wines.'

Every vintner in the world makes claims for the uniqueness of his or her region, of course, but – at their most elegant – the wines of Stags Leap do have characteristics that set them apart from, say, those of neighbouring Rutherford or Oakville. ‘There is a common thread that runs through them,’ Vianna reckons. ‘It’s in the nature of the fruit profile. There’s a backbone of black fruit, and there’s more structure.’  For others it’s acidity. ‘It gives tension and vibrancy, and wonderful ageworthiness’ to the wines, Remi Cohen, the winemaker at Cliff Lede Vineyards, says. Winiarski himself talks of the ‘mystical unity’ of terroir and winemaker.

Stags' Leap Winery's motto - 'Yield to no misfortune'. Apt, 
given the many tragedies that have afflicted successive
By the time Shafer and Steltzner got together in the mid-80s to discuss their AVA proposal, it was obvious that Stags Leap District was Cabernet territory, but they had no plan to restrict plantings. ‘It was a marketing ploy,’ John Shafer said. The only boundaries to the AVA were horizontal and vertical, with an upper limit of 400ft (122m). Newcomers like Lindstrom (2005), Cliff Lede (2002) and Odette (owned by the Plumpjack group) are testament to the openness of the appellation. Doug Shafer: ‘When [new owners] came in, people asked me if I was worried, and I said, “No, it’s great, bring it on. They’re our neighbours, they’ve got Stags Leap on the label and they’re making really good wine”. This is America and you can plant anything you want.’

The creation of the AVA wasn’t all Californian laissez-faire. ‘It was controversial,’ Richard Mendelson, the lawyer who worked closely with Shafer and Steltzner on the proposal told me. ‘There were issues about the name, a long litigation process.’ Both Warren Winiarski and Carl Doumani, then owner of Stags’ Leap Winery (he sold it to Beringer in 1997 and started Quixote) had had their own battle over the name, a case which was settled in 1986 by apostrophe – Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars but Stags’ Leap Winery). Winiarski, a keen supporter of the idea of an AVA was nevertheless against calling it Stags Leap, thinking it would be confusing for consumers to have two wineries and an appellation with the same name.

There were other issues, particularly about the land which lies to the west of the Silverado trail. ‘The boundary was the most controversial,’ Mendelson said. Steltzner and Shafer wanted the Silverado Trail to be the western boundary on the basis that the heavier soils nearer the Napa River, to the west of the Trail, were not suitable for Cabernet. Silverado Vineyards – founded by Diane and Ron Miller in 1978, and one of the first to plant Cabernet – contested that decision and managed to get the size of the district doubled, to inlcude Silverado and also the 400 acre Wappo vineyard owned by Mondavi, mainly planted to Sauvignon Blanc. How much of a controversy was it at the time? Not that much, Silverado’s general manager Russ Weis told me, ‘ours was a foundational vineyard in establishing the reputation of Cabernet Sauvignon in the district. The original decision was just an oversight.’

The chai at Cliff Lede Vineyards
Although the only legal limits are geographical, in reality the appellation is self-regulating. Ninety per cent of the district’s 1300 acres (526ha) of vineyard are planted to Bordeaux varietals, of which 80% is Cabernet Sauvignon. Stags’ Leap Winery, with its extensive Petite Sirah plantings, is an anomaly that would never happen today. At Odette, a strip of fallow land marks where a parcel of Pinotage was recently grubbed up, to be replaced by Cabernet. ‘It would make no financial sense to plant anything else,’ marketing director Christian Ogenfuss says.

Indeed. We don’t know what Jean Phillips, formerly of Screaming Eagle, paid for the 114-acre (46.1ha) vineyard next door to Odette which she bought in 2012. She would have bargained, as the vendors, Pillar Rock winery, had had trouble with taint, but top Stags Leap land can go for up to US$1m per acre (US$2.47m/ha), and is seldom less than half that. As for Cabernet grapes, if you can find them you’ll be paying US$7,500 a ton, way above the Napa average of US$5,500. But it’s academic, Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars president Steve Spadarotto says, as there are hardly ever any Stags Leap District grapes on the market – the wineries use up everything they own, and any growers are tied in to long-term contracts.

Rising land and grape prices mean rising wine prices. ‘There is such a limited supply of Stags Leap fruit,’ Spadarotto says, ‘the economics are screamingly obvious.’ US$120-150 wines are now the norm. In the 25 years of its existence Stags Leap District has become, in Ogenfuss’s words, ‘the financial appellation.’

Stags Leap District tasting notes

This is a highly selective list of wine tasted during three days in Stags Leap in April 2014.

**tasted at the Shafter seminar

Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars Cask 23 1977**
Earthy fresh bright lifted nose with cherry fruit and savoury, saline, even beefy notes. Such beguiling sweet fruit with spice cinnamon and clove, forest floor, old book leather and red apple skin. Soft tannins and lovely gentle length.

Steltzner Cabernet Sauvignon 1980**
Aroma of ozone on the nose, mossy wood sunk in river mud, pencil lead. Bright acidity on the palate, fruit falling off but present and full of charm, light dry tannic length and some juice to the finish with great grip on the end tannins, though losing their elasticity and juiciness. On the downward curve, the ghost of bright youth remaining

Shafer Hillside Select 1988**
Light perfumed nose, violet and very old cigar box. Lovely bright tannins, the fruit moving to autumnal flavours – dark cherry, ripe plum, raisins, port, a hint of ripasso. A beautiful old wine heading into elegant  old age

Doug and John Shafer, inscrutable, and Hillside Select 91
Shafer Hillside Select 1991**
One of the finest Napa Cabernets I have had, and that is with some competition. Gorgeous perfumed sandalwood nose, fine earthy aromas, fine minerality, soft tannins with lingering grip, lovely perfumed juice on the middle palate alongside bright fruit, perfect weight and balance. The whole fresh, long, and very much alive. Delicious

Pine Ridge Rutherford Cabernet Sauvignon 1999**
Bright cassis on the nose, cherry wood and sun-warmed earth with hints of chocolate. Blackberry and blackcurrant with higher notes of raspberry on the palate, secondary flavours coming in – hints of raisined fruit, some sweet porty notes - tannins dry and dissolving into juice. Bright finish

Chimney Rock 2002**
Cherry and mentholyptus, some herb and mown grass, salinity, ozone, hint of sea-mud, then hay on the palate, dry tannins with juice on the mid-palate, very structured with lovely juicy length which persists. Secondary flavours underpinned by still-young tannins and brisk acidity

The elegant curved roof of the new Odette winery
Odette Cabernet Sauvignon 2012**
The district’s newest addition, created in 2012 when Plumpjack bought 46 acres of Dick Steltzner’s vineyard on the eastern edge of the Silverado Trail. ‘I don’t know how much you paid for it in 1965, but it was certainly a hell of a lot less than we did,’ John Conover of Plumpjack joked.
Bright lifted nose with cherry, chocolate notes. Instant tannic grip on the palate, very sweet dark cherry and sandalwood , dry dissolved tannins leading to juice and freshness, very fine perfumed length, food friendly, persistent for a good minute. Young and vibrant

1.    Clos du Val Cabernet Sauvignon 2010
Very discreet, earthy dark fruit nose with hints of tobacco. The palate has sour plum, coffee, high notes of tobacco, very fine cigar leaf. The tannins are fine-grained releasing juice in a long, elegant finish. Complex and structured

Cliff Lede Vineyards Stags' Leap District Cabernet Sauvignon 2011
Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot
Formidable 55acre operation founded by Cliff Lede in 2001, with David Abreu in the vineyard and Remi Cohen in the winery. Also buys fruit from Andy Beckstoffer’s To Kalon. Every vineyard named after a classic rock anthem, Stairway to Heaven, Bohemian Rhapsody, Born to be Wild and so on. Music blasts between the tanks at tastings.
Intense earthiness on the nose and then a juicy centre. Powerful concentration of fruit and big, bold tannins but with a nervy precision. Huge and unusual (given Lede’s rock ‘n’ roll style), not jammy, almost a hint of rusticity.

Cliff Lede Vineyards  Moondance Dream 2011
Cabernet Sauvignon with small proportion Petit Verdot
Amidst the cassis and chocolate and tar on the nose is a waft of fresh green mown grass which lifts the aromas. On the palate, black olives and nettle-green, suave tannins (unexpected again – there’s something almost camp about these wines – brash but oddly feminine)

Lindstrom Wines Cabernet Sauvignon 2011
Celia Welch (of Rutherford cult Scarecrow fame) is winemaker at this 500-case family operation, established in 2005 on a high rocky knoll in the middle of the district
Fresh green on the nose – hay and blackcurrant. Really splendid juice on the palate, lovely weight and mouthfeel, precise, intense ripe blackcurrant and damson, chalky tannins carrying through to a fine finish

On the lawn at Robinson Vineyards
Robinson Vineyards 2009 Cabernet Sauvignon
Another homespun (if you can use such a word in Napa) small producer, growing since the 70s but making the first vintage in ’98. Tom Jinks dug the pocket-sized cellar ‘by hand’, he told me
Red fruit getting darker on a complex nose, then blueberry on the palate, and tight, close-knit tannins. A big, tannic wine with grip, but freshness of acidity persists throughout saving it from jamminess

Ilsley Vineyards Malbec 2011
Just down the hill from Shafer in the northern district. David Ilsley is vineyard manager at Shafter
Very fine dark ruby hue, bright cherry and sweet damson on the nose, grainy fine tannins with more cherry, damson and plum. Good concentration, bold, open palate with wonderful juiciness and perfume

Baldacci Family Vineyards Brenda’s Vineyard Cabernet 2010
Established 1997, growers supplying Mondavi and others, until first own vintage in 2000. Also have 20acres in Carneros
Tar and chocolate, spiced damson, intense dry, tight tannic grip, powerful  but fine acidity giving freshness and lift. At the finish the tannins explode into juice, literally mouthwatering wine

Malk Family Vineyards Cabernet 2010
South African born Brian Malk bought a tiny 2-acre plot on the eastern slopes of the district in 1998. His first vintage was 2003, made by winemaker Robbie Meyer
Fresh berry and chocolate on the nose, ripe and spicy with soft, easy tannins and good length. Classic but unadventurous, the tannins too soft to add much-needed grip

Regusci Winery Estate Cabernet Sauvignon 2011
Jim Regusci (whose resemblance to the late, great James Gandolfini – or Tony Soprano - is so marked that he is frequently stopped in the street for photographs) makes a range of bold, classic wines in one of Stags Leap’s most historic properties, the handsome 19th century stone Grigbsy-Occidental Winery bought by his grandfather in 1932.
As so often the case, the top-end cuvées were rather hot and extracted for my taste, but this lower-level Estate 2011, with 4% Merlot, had much more restraint. Bright nose with some leather and attractive damson fruit. The palate is surprisingly exotic, with a perfumed nettley greenness at the end, along with classic juicy tannins.

Hartwell Vineyards Estate Cabernet Sauvignon 2011
A high-end, sophisticated operation owned by septuagenarian millionaire Bob Hartwell, the winery counts Heidi Barrett and Celia Welch among its winemakers. Also a Sauvignon Blanc from Carneros. Bob told me when he was looking for Cabernet land in Napa, he was advised, ‘get as close as possible to San Francisco Bay, but not as far south as Carneros, which is too cold for Cab,’
The estate Cabernet has 15% Petit Verdot. Bright woody nose, lovely juice on mid-palate with ripe plum, black cherry, powerful spice and violet perfume. Fine finish.

Stags’ Leap Winery Twelve Falls Estate Red 2010
Cabernet Sauvignon, Petite Sirah, Merlot
Lovely elegant decay on the nose, powerful acidity, tart blackcurrant very dense and concentrated, green pepper notes, chalky tannins, juicy warm length and dense tannins

The superlative Ne Cede Malis 2010
Stags’ Leap Winery Ne Cede Malis 2010
Petite Sirah, field blend inc Tannat, Viognier, Sauvignon Blanc, Muscat
Lovely sweet cooked raspberry nose with balsamic strawberry, medicinal and fragrant. The body is tight and structured with intense dense tannic heft. Very juicy, with leather and minerality. Intense, concentrated, precise, an anomaly in the district that would be unlikely in today's Cabernet hegemony

Taylor Family Stags Leap Cabernet Sauvignon 2011
24 acres, 10 in vine. The Taylors bought their plot next to Silverado Vineyards in 1976, and started their Cabernet vineyards in 1991. Also make a Yountville Sauvignon Blanc
High dark fruit tones on the nose – blackcurrant and wild blackberry predominant. Dense grippy grainy tannins, dark fruit notes move to high-toned raspberry leaf on palate. Very fine length