Friday, 3 July 2015

"Are we making money on Bulgaria? Probably not": the ever-optimistic Simon Berry of Berry Bros & Rudd

This article first appeared in Meininger's Wine Business International

It’s fitting that Simon Berry, the chairman of this august company, should have sent his staff on a training course in communication at RADA, the equally-august Royal Academy for the Dramatic Arts, where Berry sits on the board. There is a strong sense of theatre in many British wine companies, and Berry Bros and Rudd is no exception.

Widow Bourne's Coffee Scales at Berry Brothers & Rudd
No 3, St James's St (note the Widow Bourne's coffee scales)...
The shop at No 3 St James’s St, Piccadilly, which Berry’s has occupied since 1698, has a Dickensian charm that would not be out of place on a film set. Entering the headquarters is pleasantly disorienting. The highly-polished floor, worn and burnished with the feet of three and a half centuries, creaks like old ship timbers, and a warm smell wafts up from the cellars. The wine world loves Berry’s, because of its history, because of its quintessential Englishness, and because in its upstairs rooms it throws excellent dinners with fabulous wines. When Steven Spurrier ran a 30th-anniversary edition of the Paris Tasting, Berry’s naturally hosted it.

St James’s St is the shop front, as it were. The real business goes on in Basingstoke, 50 miles away, in an unlovely warehouse in a utilitarian business park. This is where Simon Berry, 7th-generation chairman, works from a featureless office looking out onto a car park. It’s almost indecently modest. But such is the potency of this extraordinary company, even in Basingstoke history seeps through the plasterwork. It’s helped by the lithographs of the BBR founding fathers on the walls; in conversation Berry constantly refers to them.

But great age, in a company, is no guarantee of longevity. BBR would not be where it is today were it not run by businessmen. It would not be the consistent winner of prestigious awards, and it certainly wouldn’t be turning over £150m a year. There’s little fusty or old fashioned about BBR. It was the first wine merchant into Heathrow, running four shops in four terminals before axing them all in 2006. It launched its first website (under the auspices of Martin Brown, who went on to start Wine Searcher) in 1994, before BBC Online and Amazon. BBR was an early adopter of the online trading platform model, and BBX, launched in 2010, has sold £60m of wine in 75,000 transactions. Its education division ran 370 events last year, while the wholesale division grew nine percent. Berry was responsible for many of these developments, particularly the ground-breaking website, and all took place on his watch: he has been with the company in various directorial roles for 30 years, the last ten as chairman.

...and Basingstoke

BBR are also publishers, selling 10,000 copies of Jasper Morris’s Burgundy (they came out with an i-pad version while many publishers were still working out what to do with the new technology). And they are brewers, owning 40 per cent of Anchor Brewing in San Francisco. There have been confident and far-sighted acquisitions. In 2003 they snapped up the importer FieldsMorris and Verdin (netting Vega Sicilia, Au Bon Climat and Ridge at the same time); four years later came Mistral Wines (Château de Beaucastel, Perrin et Fils…); in 2012 they bought Bordeaux importer and negociant Richards Walford.  There are two royal warrants; Edward VII was a loyal customer – the liquor The King’s Ginger was mixed especially for him in 1903. There are offices in Hong Kong, Singapore and Japan. Berry Bros and Rudd would seem to be as solid as a rock.

The London Shop

Which made the rash of headlines that surfaced two years ago all the more shocking. “Berry Bros posts £7.3m loss” said the Daily Telegraph in October 2103. Then, a year later, the Grocer reported BBR was ‘upbeat’ despite its second pre-tax loss, this time of £5.5m. Then there was local difficulty in China that has resulted in an ongoing lawsuit. BBR is not commenting on any of the court cases it is or has been involved in, but the reports in the Hong Kong press make lurid reading. The Apple Daily (Hong’s Kong’s biggest-selling newspaper, akin to the UK’s Daily Mail), for example, reported that St James’s street had been mortgaged – a rumour Berry dismisses with a wave of his hand. Then there are rumours of arrests and misappropriation of databases. The claustrophobic Hong Kong wine world likes to gossip and the idea that Berry’s was “in trouble” took hold.

“People I knew who were BBR clients were coming to me and asking me if it was true, were their wines safe?” one Hong Kong merchant told Meininger's. BBR stores millions of pounds of wine for its customers. Its enormous warehouses (capacity 9m bottles) are stacked floor to ceiling with palettes of the finest wines of the last 200 years, from Haut-Brion to Screaming Eagle. Two-thirds of BBR clients keep reserve stock here. To doubt such a company is almost an offence against the natural order.

The basic facts of the case are that BBR is involved in litigation with its Chinese collaborator of 14 years, ChinaPlus Wines, owned by the businessman KK Mui. ChinaPlus ran the Hong Kong division of BBR under a ‘marketing and distribution agreement’, with veteran Bordeaux buyer Simon Staples in charge and KK Mui as chairman. The dispute, about the exact nature of the agreement, is dragging on and could last another few years yet, Berry says. “The Chinese are good at prolonging these things.”

But the headlines  and the fog of rumour in Hong Kong can’t have been helpful. “What went wrong was that there were some fundamental differences in attitude and expectation. They were cultural differences on both sides,” is all the diplomatic Berry will say.

All this is happening at the end of a five-year development plan that has shaken things up across the BBR empire. The programme includes an extensive re-shuffle of senior staff both in London and Asia, notably with Hugh Sturges leaving after 12 years as managing director and Staples moving from Hong Kong to Japan. A new warehouse was built in 2012 in Basingstoke, St James’s St is being extended. Then there’s Anchor Brewing, the company being brought for its distribution channels, to sell BBR’s “core boutique spirits” like No3 Gin and Pink Pigeon rum, as well as to tap into the vibrant craft beer market.
Simon Berry, 7th generation chairman

The plan was kicked off in 2010 with the selling of Cutty Sark whisky to the Edrington Group, swapping it for Edrington’s Glenrothes whisky brand. On the surface it looked like an odd deal: Cutty Sark sales in 2010 were £60m, generating profit of £5m, while Glenrothes sales were £3m. The rationale behind the sale, Berry says, was that Cutty Sark was up against brands such as Pernod Ricard’s Ballantine’s and Diageo’s J&B, and Berry didn’t want to compete in that arena. “Glenrothes gave us the ability to do something pretty good and niche and have a head start.”

Since the purchase of Glenrothes, its sales have tripled to £9m a year. But just as Cutty Sark was sold, the bottom dropped out of the Bordeaux market. BBR sold £60m of Bordeaux 2010 en primeur, but the 2011, and all subsequent vintages brought in a fraction of that. It must have been quite a hit. How are they filling the hole?

“Good question. It only leaves a hole if you don’t think of en primeur as being a windfall,” Berry explains. BBR never relied on en primeur. The huge sales of 2009 and 2010 were “the icing on the cake,” he says.

In the warehouse at Basingstoke
But, he also admits, “we didn’t think there would be three years when en primeur would be non-existent.” This has pushed back forecasts: the company now expects to hit profitability in 2017. “We are feeling very optimistic because we are very aware of the brand. And getting more focussed on who we want to be.”

Berry points to one of his ancestors on the wall. “That man there, Charles Walter Berry, said the job of the wine merchant is to be the closest link between the people who make the wine and the people who drink it. We still believe that our job is to go out and find wine.”

There are 4,000 lines in the wine division. Bordeaux, Rhone, Burgundy and Italy are deeply and widely represented, and there are the expected offerings from Lebanon (Musar), California (Dominus, Colgin, Ridge and their peers). The Spanish list is excitingly dense; there are wines from Jura, China, Bulgaria, Moldova.

BBR keeps eight Masters of Wine on the staff, including Martin Hudson, apparently known as “our Captain Kirk”, whose brief is to boldly explore the final frontier of wine – his are the Eastern European offerings. This again is quite in keeping: BBR was the first to permanently stock a mainland Chinese wine, the 2008 Chateau Changyu Moser XV from Ningxia. They nurture talent: Alvaro Palacios, Benjamin Leroux, Giovanni Rosso among others, have all been championed by the firm.

“Tracking the wine regions of the future is a minor but crucial part of increasing customer choice,” Berry says. But aren’t they spreading themselves thin already – Bulgarian wines can’t bring in much? “Are we making money on Bulgaria? Probably not, but that’s the advantage of being a family company. We don’t have shareholders to answer to and we don’t have to go about saying the only thing we have to do is make money.”

But there is tacit acknowledgement that a new focus has to be found. When asked what that might be, Berry lists the strengths of the company: “Education is incredibly strong; gifting – the same bottle of wine looks very different in a Tesco’s bag than a BBR bag; wine and spirits; wholesale and retail, the website, brokerage.”

The longer the list, the more difficult it is to pin down the USP. Perhaps it’s Berry himself, whose relentless optimism and old-fashioned charm  inform the company. He likes to take the long view, which you can do if you’re not answerable to shareholders. The Japan office, for example: “There are people who say you can’t make money in Japan, but it’s an incredibly sophisticated market. It sells more Burgundy than Bordeaux for example. As a family business we have the luxury of saying, ‘this is a market that takes a long time. How much do we have to change to make it work?’ There is a fit there somewhere.”

He could well go by the motto, “We shall find the key.” BBR can seem over-ambitious – building four outposts in Heathrow for example – but it's dynamic and interesting, full of surprises. And drama of course. Behind that elegant shop front there’s some pretty serious activity going on. The world would be a poorer place without Berry Bros and Rudd.

Wednesday, 1 July 2015

Bordeaux 2005 Ten Years On

Robert Parker has just published his "10 years on" scores for Bordeaux 2005. Having loved it at en primeur, his in-bottle scores in 2008 were disappointing and - according to Miles Davis of Wine Asset Managers - caused "bewilderment" in the wine trade for his "continued belief that the wines from the Medoc in 2005 are not in any way special."

You can read Davis' full report here and below, my report from the Bordeaux Index Ten Years On tasting in February this year.

Highly lauded 2005 Bordeaux stands the test of time

(This article was first published on

The 2005 vintage in Bordeaux was superlative in so many ways. The weather was a winemaker’s dream: a benign spring gave way to a hot — but not too hot — summer, with hardly any rain. What fell, fell at the right time. That led into an autumn so deliciously mellow that vignerons could amble into the vineyards and pick perfectly ripe grapes whenever they chose. The grapes were small, intensely flavored and with thick skins.

Last month, a decade past that dream season, the 2005s shone at the “Ten Years On” tasting at the London wine merchant Bordeaux Index.

From the first tastings in spring 2006, everyone loved it. Consider what they said then:

Robert Parker, the formidable founder of The Wine Advocate and its influential 100-point wine rating system, thought it “brilliant … one of the most singular years of the past five decades.” The British heavyweights – wine critic and journalist Jancis Robinson, MW, and Decanter magazine consultant editor Steven Spurrier – were bowled over. Simon Staples, the epicurean Bordeaux director for London-based wine merchant Berry Bros and Rudd, said he was “speechless.”

“It was a truly extraordinary year,” veteran Bordeaux wine merchant Bill Blatch said in the reporthe publishes after every vintage. “Easy to manage, without complications, and the almost permanently fine weather ended up by providing a wine of most unusual concentration.”
Now, as then, 2005 was a very good year

In January, at the Ten Years On tasting, I found that the 2005s were simply delightful, with succulent, rich, seductive fruit, and acidity that dances on your tongue. The wines are pure, but complex. A cornucopia of blackberry, cassis and red fruit is tempered with minerality and spiciness, then high notes of parma violet and florality.

There are some clumsy wines — the Merlot in Saint-Émilion was very ripe, with high alcohol and big tannins — and some wines have developed an oaky dryness that won’t sweeten. But they are few and far between.It’s as much a pleasure to describe them as taste them. Every wine of note is underpinned by powerful tannins that give it a structure that will ensure long aging — in some cases, for decades.

Unless you’re very unlucky, if you pick a 2005 off the shelf, you’re unlikely to be disappointed.
A pricey caveat

The only fly in the ointment is price. Bordeaux knew it had something good, and the first generation of Asian millionaires were beginning to get a taste for fine wine, very expensive­ fine wine. The 2005 was the first Bordeaux vintage that launched its wines into the stratosphere of luxury goods. The top wines are very expensive. At the very top, Petrus is more than $4,000 a bottle, and the dozen top properties — Lafite, Mouton and their fellow first growths, then Cheval Blanc, Ausone and a few others — are never less than $1,500.

But that needn’t concern us. The joy of a really wonderful vintage is its consistency.

There’s an old saying: “In a great vintage, search out the lesser estates, and in a lesser vintage go for the great estates.” It’s never been truer than in 2005. You don’t need to spend three months’ wages on the great chateaux. At every level, from $30 Cru Bourgeois to the humbler Medoc fifth growths, there are some beautiful wines to be found.

If I had to choose one region in a vintage studded with gems, I’d say the wines of the little Médoc commune of Saint-Julien are most consistently lovely. Below are my top picks from 2005, for the priciest and for the best value from Bordeaux:
Two top-10 lists from Bordeaux 2005

Prices are the average per bottle, excluding tax. All wines are available widely at retail.

Top 10, Money No Object

1. Château Petrus, Pomerol, $4,986

Château Petrus 2005 is only for the deep of pocket at nearly $5,000 a bottle. Credit: Adam Lechmere

Discreet smoky nose leading to powerful blackberry, black cherry and minty, spicy tar on the palate. Dry length releasing fresh gouts of juice. Drink 2020-2040+

2. Château Lafite Rothschild, 1st Growth, Pauillac, $1,461

The bright, lifted blackcurrant and blackberry fruit is sweet and fresh, the tannins ripe, the acidity mouthwatering, the whole complex, charming, assured. A triumph. Drink 2020 to 2040+

3. Petit Mouton, Pauillac $233

Plum skin aroma, then palate has multiple strands of juiciness through the tannins, intense and vibrant sour mash plum. Minerality and power. Drink 2018 to 2030+

4. Château Pontet Canet, 5th Growth, Pauillac, $188

Sweet and savory, bacon with plum skins, very fresh and open, discreet powerful tannins. Linear, classic, confident. Drink 2018 to 2040+

5. Château Grand-Puy-Lacoste, 5th Growth, Pauillac, $135

Savory nose with minerality, pencil lead, very linear and precise, very fresh, essence of blackberry and damson, fine sophisticated length. Drink 2018 to 2035+

6. Château Léoville Las Cases, 2nd Growth, Saint-Julien, $397

Fresh, savory, bacony nose, tannins holding blackberry, cassis and coffee flavors in an iron grip; restrained, fruit releases juice, fills the palate. Very fine. Drink 2018 to 2040+

7. Château Palmer, 3rd Growth, Margaux, $383

Very dark in hue and viscous. Discreet perfumed violet nose, incredibly subtle but exotic, lovely weight, constant interplay of dryness, juice, tannins and acidity. Drink 2017 to 2040+

8. Château La Lagune, 3rd Growth, Ludon, $102

Lovely complex savory nose, bramble and truffle, crushed coffee beans, superb opulent sweetness. Palate fresh and perfumed with secondary flavors of dusty rose petals and elegant decay. Tannins dry and dissolving to juice. Drink 2017 to 2035+

9. Château-Figeac, Saint-Émilion 1er Grand Cru Classé, $172

Restrained sour black fruit, fresh-picked plum and hints of sloe. Closed, brooding and tannic. A keeper. Drink 2020 to 2040+

10. Château Calon-Segur, 3rd Growth, Saint-Estèphe, $123

Nose very restrained, closed, palate with (at first) dry, austere tannins. Then classic briar fruit, tannins become silky. Very pure, arrow-straight acidity shows how this will mature. Masterful finesse. Drink 2018 to 2040+

Top 10 best value

1. Château Poujeaux, Cru Bourgeois, Moulis, $53

Violet perfume and sweet briar. On the palate damson and cedar, sour plum with cloves. Mouthwatering acidity, soft length. Drink 2015 to 2025+

2. Château du Tertre, 5th Growth, Margaux, $79

Sweet sugared damson and plum with perfume on nose. Palate very open and fresh with lovely tobacco and truffle, tannins releasing great gouts of juice. Drink 2015 to 2025+

3. Les Pagodes de Cos, Saint-Estèphe, $62

Château Cos d’Estournel. Credit: Credit: Cos d’Estournel

Cos d’Estournel’s second wine is often more restrained than its big brother. Lovely meaty peppery nose, hint of violet perfume on palate with herb, restrained. Drink 2018 to 2040+

4. Château Gloria, Cru Bourgeois, Saint-Julien, $70

Bacon savory nose with hint of old velvet tapestry. Confident, juicy uncomplicated weight, plum and damson fruit , very nice length, good balance. Drink 2015 to 2025+

5. Château Talbot, 4th Growth, Saint-Julien, $79

Rich mineral, savory nose with great charm. Defined blackberry and coffee, discreet, old-fashioned like the chateau itself, tannins dry but dissolving to sweetness. Drink 2015 to 2030

6. Château Les-Ormes-de-Pez, Cru Bourgeois, Saint-Estèphe, $59

Fresh peppery notes on nose – very fine open juicy acid on palate, fresh, uncomplicated. Drink 2015 to 2025+

7. Château Malartic-Lagravière, Cru Classé Pessac-Léognan, $82

Very savory beef-stock nose with ripe plum. Tannins release juice and sour-sweet plum and damson flavors. Fresh, defined, not opulent, but fine. Drink 2015 to 2025+

8. Château Langoa-Barton, 3rd Growth, Saint-Julien, $85

Fresh sugared blackberry, savory mineral undertones, open and fresh with such suave tannins and juice on the finish. Very fine length. Drink 2015 to 2025+

9. Château Potensac, Cru Bourgeois Médoc, $47

Perfumed briar and tobacco nose. Fine, fresh, mouth-watering acidity and bright cassis. Grainy grip to tannins, juicy and opulent. Drink 2015 to 2020+

10. Domaine de Chevalier, Cru Classé Pessac-Léognan, $105

Rich creamy nose, blackberry compote, truffle, licorice. Palate develops fine damson, violet perfume and fresh acidity. Delicate tannins with dry grip. Incredible quality for the price. Drink 2017 to 2030+

Tuesday, 23 June 2015

"Only Ribolla can express the soul of this terroir..." Josko Gravner of Collio

Many winemakers claim they make wine only to please themselves. It implies their craft is an art, unsullied by the grubby realities of the market; quite often, they are speaking nonsense. When Josko Gravner says it, you understand exactly what he means.
Josko Gravner and his daughter Mateja Gravner

Gravner has a formidable reputation both locally and internationally. He took over his father's winery in the Collio region of Friuli, high on the Italian-Slovenian border, some 30 years ago. By his account, he started work in the vineyards when he was 14, and was put in charge of the winery when he was 18. His father's watchword was "Quality 
not quantity … but I was young, and I told him that I was going to find quality and quantity. I can still see him looking at me and saying: 'Try it, and see if you succeed.'"

Read the full article on Wine Searcher

Friday, 29 May 2015

The Valley of the Rhône is a rockin' and a rollin'

This article, with different images, appears in the current issue of Meininger's Wine Business International

Image result for jumpin jack flash jagger singing
Jumpin' Jack Flash... but does Jagger
drink Condrieu?
“I was BORN in crossfire hurriCANE,” Yves Gangloff of Condrieu howled into the microphone as his band kicked off one of the after-parties of the peripatetic wine fair that is Découvertes en Vallée de Rhône. Music is a key part of this extraordinary few days, an odyssey of tastings, discussions, dinners, seminars, masterclasses and “vigneron-rocker” evenings, all in the 250km vinous playground that is the Rhône valley.

Every wine region in entertainment mode has its peculiar character. In the Medoc they go for elaborate marquees and black tie dinners, in Burgundy, confrerie singing and heart-stopping gastronomic marathons for 600 guests. In the Rhône, there’s music, whether rock, rockabilly, or a local brass ensemble parping away in the background. Meininger’s even caught a particularly good jazz combo in a dive bar in Avignon. Gangloff’s band, The Grapeful Dead, consists of Paul Ansellem of Côte-Rôtie’s Dme Georges Vernay, Pierre-Jean Villa of the eponymous northern Rhône domaine, and Gangloff himself on vocals. They played in Ampuis, to a merry crowd quaffing the finest northern Rhônes from magnum.

The Découvertes en Vallée de Rhône started in 2001, inspired by the Grands Jours de Bourgogne tasting that covers that interesting stretch of land from Chablis to Macon. Now in its  eighth edition, it takes in the 70,000ha of Rhône valley vineyards and some 5,500 wine companies, from producers to negociants. This year there 620 exhibitors, and nine separate trade fairs, with 2,175 visitors from 31 countries.

The Palais des Papes: dramatic but draughty
The organisational power behind the four days of the event is Inter Rhône, which must – in this particular journalist’s view – be one of the most proactive and efficient trade organisations in France. Apart from the knowledgeable and helpful staff, in every centre, from Ampuis to Avignon, there was a cache of useful literature. One particular booklet, the Encyclopedia of Rhône Valley Wines, gives a comprehensive overview of the entire AOC and its 171 communes. It is needed: there is nothing more complicated than the hierarchy of a French AOC and its sub-appellations. With an influx of emerging wine-buying regions like mainland China, absolute clarity is vitally important, especially as the Chinese are looking beyond the top, icon crus to more affordable wines. A newly-fledged junior sommelier from Guangzhou may need all the help he or she can get when trying to explain the difference between Vallée du Rhône, Village and Cru.

That said, however, Découvertes is still essentially a parochial event. Seventy-two per cent of visitors are French, with a smattering of Americans (4 per cent) and Asians (about 1 per cent). There are no signs that this demographic is changing, despite the fact that the Rhône’s Chinese market is growing. Overall exports for Rhône Valley wines fell by some five per cent in 2014, but in China there was notable growth for appellations such as Costières de Nîmes and Gigondas. “Rhône is very important for us,” Xi Chen of Bordeaux-based wine merchant Maison Bordelaise told Meininger’s, adding that he had come to Découvertes with a groups of Chinese sommeliers “for enjoyment, not work.”

In his introduction to the Découvertes, Michel Chapoutier, the president of Inter Rhône, says one of its major purposes is to “profoundly experience the Rhône Valley.” It achieves this in two ways. First, and most obvious, is the fact that there is no better way of understanding a wine region than to stand in its vineyards. Delegates, therefore, were taken to the top of Hermitage hill, and given a 360° explanation of the wine region shimmering in bright spring sunshine around them.

Shimmering in the sun...on Hermitage hill
Second, and most important, the tastings themselves. From town sports centres to the magnificent (and draughty) Palais des Papes in Avignon, every available public space was taken over for tastings. One important aspect of these events was their democratic organisation: every producer, whether Jaboulet, Chapoutier or the smallest vigneron-récoltant, was allotted the same space in which to show their wines. “It’s my socialist disposition,” Chapoutier told Meininger’s. “We’re not here to say who is the biggest, but to show the range and quality of all producers.”  This distinguishes the Découvertes from the massive trade fairs that have come to dominate the wine landscape – this year, in the space of a few weeks, producers have to decide between Prowein, VinItaly and Vinexpo – which are profoundly undemocratic in the sense that the biggest companies can afford the most elaborate stands, while the smallest may get overlooked.

“This is much easier than Vinexpo,” vigneron Lionel Faury of St Joseph said, “because it’s specialised. Vinexpo is the market for big volumes and big business, but here you can talk about terroir – it’s for people who are interested in the Rhône.” At a cost of €500 a day for a stand, it’s not that much cheaper than an international fair, but the rewards are potentially greater.
Hermitage terraces...Jaboulet?

From north to south, producers volunteered the same opinions: Découvertes is valuable because it's localised and specialised, and it’s an excellent way of doing business. “My goal was to find a Danish importer,” said Stephane  Montez of Dme du Monteillet in Condrieu, “and the first guy to come by this morning was from Denmark. I have a Swedish importer, so now I just need Finland and Norway.”

Another advantage of the localised format was the opportunity to concentrate on a vintage. The Rhône – in general – escaped the terrible growing conditions the rest of France endured in 2013. Thousands of hectares of Grenache were lost to coullure in the south, but in the north a combination of a cold and wet spring and summer and fine September and October produced wines that are lighter and fresher than usual. But for many consumers and buyers, 2013 in France is a vintage to be treated with caution, so producers welcomed the chance to allow the vintage to show itself. “The most important is 2013,” Joël Durand of Domaine Eric & Joël Durand told Meininger’s. “It’s a very particular vintage, there was bad weather, we harvested two weeks late – it was different. It’s useful to get people to taste it, especially in St Joseph which is suffering from the reputation of the rest of France.”

Découvertes is not all business, though: the many halls and tasting rooms buzzed with conversation and gossip. Many producers told Meininger’s they were there simply to meet existing customers and generally catch up on news. One salient reason for this is the extremely low 2013 harvest. “Our only problem is that we have no wine to sell,” Alain Graillot of Crozes-Hermitage said. “We’re just here to meet a few customers that we know, but not develop new business.”

The 2000-plus journalists, wine merchants and other wine professionals that attend the tastings have the same attitude. Helen Savage, a UK wine writer and educator and Rhône expert, told Meininger’s she has come several times because “it is so valuable for keeping up to date with what’s going on”. Wine merchants were much in evidence: Georges Barbier of the eponymous London merchant has been coming since the beginning and finds the present set up a great improvement, he said. “All the tastings used to be in cellars and there were long queues.” The Barbier family’s prime reason to be there was to “find something new”, his daughter Victoria said, “and we’ve discovered Dme Monteillet already. It’s a great event. We’re here for three days and we’ve found two new wines. It’s got my seal of approval.”

Alongside the tastings was a comprehensive programme of masterclasses and seminars. If the tastings were an unqualified success, the academic side of Découvertes was less so. It’s a criticism frequently directed at such events – it sometimes seems as if masterclasses and seminars are tacked on in order to give the event gravitas and to attract celebrity commentators. While certain events were well organised and stimulating, others had the feeling of being hastily-prepared. This may have been a result of the sheer comprehensivity of the programme – the tiny underground cabaret club Rouge Gorge in Avignon, for example, had been divided in two in order to host 16 different masterclasses over two days, one every hour from 9am to 6pm. It was too much, and several delegates told Meininger’s they found them chaotic.

Other masterclasses were well-prepared and fascinating, particularly the introduction by oenologist Fabien Ozanne on the terroirs of the Côte Rôtie in Ampuis (where there was less pressure, and fewer delegates, than further south). A panel discussion, with Andrew Jefford, Bernard Burtschy and the prolific consultant Philippe Cambie on Trends in Wine, produced some thought-provoking arguments, such as on the origins of the rosé boom, the dangers of following fashions in wine, and the natural wine movement. On the latter, Jefford provoked laughter with his analogy between the use of sulphites and underarm deodorant: “If everyone stopped using deodorant then we would all smell of sweat,” he said. “But that wouldn’t necessarily be a good thing.”
Moins sexy... Inter-Rhone ads not as sure-footed

The Découvertes is, in the end, an exercise in publicity, something Inter Rhône has always been good at. Leaving aside the fatuous ad campaigns (“Plus sexy de CameRhône Diaz” was a low point), the Valley’s trade association is sure-footed. Its campaigns in China have been imaginative, offering prizes for the best way of expressing the colour red through different artistic media, whether painting, fashion or theatre. Their latest wheeze is to get people to make short films and publish them. In all this it consciously tries to attract a younger audience.

Chapoutier sees attracting the young  as essential, and he has announced plans for Rhône Valley winemakers and their American Rhone Ranger counterparts to sponsor the children of smaller wine producers on visits to American and Australian wine schools.

Perhaps not the effect one wants from a foie gras
"We have to make winemaking attractive to a new generation," he said. The children who saw their parents suffering through the global financial crisis need to be shown “how winemaking can be a successful business.”  The Découvertes is an example: anyone visiting could not help but be impressed by the upbeat atmosphere of every hall. Whether teenagers will be as impressed by Yves Gangloff’s version of Jumpin’ Jack  Flash is another story.

Tuesday, 14 April 2015

Oslo Syndrome: pimping up Calon-Segur, restraining Cos, and whatever you do, don't mention Michel Rolland at Figeac

It’s fascinating to see the way two St Estephe properties, both wonderful in their own way, have taken different directions.

I tasted Cos d’Estournel and Calon Segur 2014 during en primeur last  month and was mystified by one and delighted by the other.

I have always loved getting up into the St Estephe badlands and seeing the warm yellow stone of Calon Segur. There was always something otherworldly about  it – the great draughty orangery with its stone fireplace was empty of all furniture apart from an oak table, with the courteous winemaker Vincent Millet standing behind it.

The chateau and the outbuildings were always deserted (I never seemed to go there but at dusk), the whole place in a state of elegant decay.

And the wine. There is a reason Calon is held in such esteem by the British trade. It has always been luscious and opulent but also was the most classic, restrained, delicate and fresh of the St Estephes. It made Phelan Segur down the road look brash and rustic, Cos positively meretricious (but more of that later).

Calon was bought two years ago by an insurance company, Suravenir (for €200m, my friend Jane Anson reported on It's lost no time in sprucing up the property.

Calon-Segur - the new tasting room...
This was my first time at there since the sale. The first thing you notice is that the grounds look rather more svelte. Did they always have those sculpted  bushes? And isn’t the gravel rather deeper and more groomed than before?
There’s central heating – tropical – and bits of artiness, bottles sitting atop perspex plinths, and a large oil (a shiny copy) of the founder, the Marquis of Segur, looking as if he too thinks things have taken a turn for the worse.

A new tasting room has been carved out of the great reception room. There are fiddly lamps festooned  with fake-industrial wiring, lots of steel and glass furniture, pointless louvres on the windows and other bits of tat. It all looks very expensive and busy and has all the character and tastefulness of a big city Sheraton.

...and the old
All that of course could be forgiven. This is Bordeaux after all, where sublime wines come from the most pretentious and overblown surroundings. But the wine has been polished and primped along with the rest of the place. Calon 2014 is an example of what I’ve dubbed “Oslo Syndrome”. It’s the sort of wine that a tableful of businessmen at an upmarket restaurant in Oslo, or any major city of the world, would expect to be pleased with. Oslo Syndrome wines are polished, with dense and present tannins, well-presented fruit, just the right amount of acidity. Above they have to taste like a 100-point wine, or what people imagine a 100-point wine should be.

Calon 2014’s got all this. It’s powerful and ripe and modern, meaty and juicy, with fine  fresh juice to the mid palate. But it contains 19% merlot in year when merlot is bursting with fruit, and that gives it its international, ripe red fruit sheen. Just like the chateau, all the character’s been sucked out of the wine.

Vincent Millet’s explanation: We had to put it in, he said, because it was excellent and low in alcohol, so it wouldn’t  dominate. He said he and their consultant  Eric Boissenot “had a feeling that this was going to be a great year for Calon.”

Lots of people agree. James Lawther MW liked it and reminded me you have to be careful with primeurs. The way a wine tastes depends on the time of day you go, on your mood, and the dynamic of the group you’re with. “And nowadays you can tweet your opinion of a wine and it’s gone around the world in ten minutes.”

How much input would the company have  had? One of my fellow tasters has worked with producers who have been taken over by big finance corporations and he said there’s normally a good deal of interference. “They love to come down and do some tasting, have a bit of input into  the blend, feel as if they’re making a difference. It’s like owning a football team or newspaper.” They are also – of course – very keen on profitability. Mme Gasqueton, the redoubtable former owner, may have had very different ideas as to what constituted a healthy bottom line.

Cos goes the other way

...right to blow its own trumpet: Cos d'Estournel
(pic Panos Kakaviatos)
So it looks as if Calon is going one way, while Cos is going the other. For the last two vintages, since Aymeric de Gironde took over from Jean-Guillaume Prats*, the wine’s transformed. You no longer turn with relief to Pagodes and Goulée (the second third wines) as a relief from the exorbitance of the first wine. de Gironde has a light touch which is exactly in keeping with the current taste for restraint. Cos 2014 is intense, classic, with a central core of concentrated blackcurrant fruit, lean and fresh and delicious and absolutely of its place. We felt a similar change in the style last year, but put that down to the impossible vintage 2012, which demanded a lean style. Now it's clear that de Gironde is set on bringing Cos back to its St Estephe roots.

(* JGP is working for LVMH and getting very excited about an extraordinary project on the China-Tibet border - see my article on Wine-Searcher, and Jane Anson's very complete blog on She went there - I didn't)

“Calon’s always behind the curve,” one of my companions said. “Now it’s gone all international and fruity when everyone else is looking for restraint. And Cos is going the other way.”

And if you mention Michel Rolland just once more, I'll scream and scream until I'm sick

Sad, isn’t it? It reminds me of poor old Figeac and the way they hired Michel Rolland just as Robert Parker retires. You’ll remember that Eric d’Aramon disliked Parker so much that he set the dogs on him whenever he turned up for a tasting. Then Mme Manoncourt, after sacking her son-in-law (want a tip? Never marry the boss’s daughter), was on the phone to Rolland before you could say “microxygenation”, because as everybody knows he and Parker are thick as thieves, and a few 98-pointers would be a certain path to Grand Cru Classe 'A' status. But as soon as the consultant's signed up at €5000-plus a day, Parker hands over to Neal Martin and Mme Manoncourt looks pretty damn silly.

Anyway I asked the energetic winemaker there, Frederic Faye, a casual question about Rolland and his input (he’s quoted prominently in the 2014 blurb, and Faye isn’t). “Let’s get this straight,” he said, “I’m the winemaker. Michel is just a consultant.” “So how often does he come?” “Hardly at all, once or twice a month, maybe less, I don't know, it's not important.” “But he helps with the blend?” “No, he doesn't 'help' with anything. I do the blend. He just advises.”

It was all very painful. I just couldn’t bear to ask my next question, which was, if Rolland is so unimportant to Figeac, why put his name all over the brochure? Indeed, why employ him at all? After all, there are many properities which manage without him.

Friday, 20 March 2015

Heady days: Moon Mountain District AVA

Repris Winery, Moon Mountain District AVA

This article appears in the current (March 2015) issue of The World of Fine Wine

I spend a heady few days with the wonderfully diverse but close-knit group of entrepreneurs, growers and investors harnessing the terroirs of Sonoma's "newest oldest" AVA

Read the full article here

Thursday, 5 March 2015

Shining a pencil-thin beam into the machine: Philippe Dhalluin at Chateau Mouton-Rothschild

(this article first appeared on Wine Searcher)

Philippe Dhalluin is in a very good mood this rainy January morning.

He has just been blending the 2014 vintage at Château Clerc Milon, sister property to Mouton-Rothschild, and he is describing it with that mixture of pride and caution that Bordeaux uses when it has a good vintage on its hands and wants to prime the critics without being accused of hyping it up. "It's good. We're confident about the quality," is as far as he will go.

He started his winemaking career in Peru, at the Tacama estate. It was expedient, he says. There were four posts advertised when he graduated from Bordeaux's Faculty of Enology in 1982: "Two in California, one in Australia and one in Peru. Of course, everyone else wanted to go to California or Australia." There’s another thing: in France, "C'est le Perou" means "It's fabulous", a nod at the fabled city of El Dorado.
He is the managing director of Mouton-Rothschild, its sister estates Château Clerc Milon and Château d'Armailhac. He is also managing director of the other Baron Philippe de Rothschild properties: Opus One in Napa, Almaviva in Chile and Baron'Arques in the Languedoc.

As we know, Dhalluin found his El Dorado. He came back to Bordeaux, to the cru bourgeois Château Beaumont in 1985, and from there joined Patrick Maroteaux at Château Branaire-Ducru, his last job before being recruited by the Rothschilds in 2003.

Was running a first growth his ambition from the start? "It's the dream of every Bordeaux winemaker to run a first growth. They have such exceptional terroir, and we all know it's impossible to find a better expression of quality and character. To have the opportunity to vinify these grapes is an outcome for a winemaker."

It is indeed an outcome, and it's a typically low-key statement from the ever-courteous Dhalluin. There's something about him that sets him apart from his fellows, the elite group of first growth managing directors who bestride the wine world. He doesn't have the suave urbanity of Paul Pontallier at Margaux, for example, or the ferocious reputation of Latour's Frédéric Engerer; nor does he have the lineage of Jean-Philippe Delmas of Haut-Brion, scion of a winemaking dynasty. Pink-faced, suited and smiling, he looks more like a respectable family solicitor than the boss of one of the five greatest wine estates in world.

Dhalluin's resumé reads like a winemaker's wishlist: Almaviva, Mouton, Opus One.
© Baron Philippe de Rothschild S.A.; Deepix (C&R) | Dhalluin's resumé reads like a winemaker's wishlist: Almaviva, Mouton, Opus One.

But beneath the understated demeanor is a pioneering talent. Maroteaux, who praises his "huge motivation", recalls how Dhalluin arrived at Branaire and immediately set about persuading him to embark on a €6-million ($6.8m) renovation. "We were the first to install different-sized tanks and the first to have a gravity-fed vat house. That was his idea."
Since joining Mouton 12 years ago, he has overseen a radical and comprehensive overhaul of the Rothschild portfolio. Indeed, his feet were hardly under the desk before he was presenting his plans to Philippine de Rothschild. Some €40m ($45m) later, ("and 66 meetings", he adds), and the rebuildings and replantings are still going on. There's the new vat room at Clerc Milon (completed 2011), and the transformation of Mouton including a vast gravity-fed vinification cellar, many new fermentation tanks (the smallest of which holds no more than 50 hectoliters), and an experimental vineyard that, when I visit, is still a gravelly wasteland.

"This is the future," he says, surveying the perfect rows of tank lids protruding from the oaken deck of the new building. "More and more precision."

Smaller tanks mean they can find "micro-zones" within parcels, vinify them separately, and become forensically exact as to which vines to favor. Attention to detail informs Dhalluin's every move. For instance, he has enough optic sorting machines, which work by taking high-speed photographs of grapes shooting by on a conveyor belt, to process the entire harvest of the 75-hectare (185-acre) property. But he often returns to manual sorting. "It allows more integrity in the grapes," he says.

If he's excited about designing his own winery, the experimental vineyard is also going to be interesting. There's about half a hectare to be planted – "not to Cabernet Sauvignon; maybe Merlot or Cabernet Franc?" – with a view to eventually working out how to "limit the use of pesticides and fertilizer – and put forward a new form of viticulture".

The idea is to be "experimental but not revolutionary". An estate like Mouton, Dhalluin suggests, is not the sort of machine you want to tinker with. So he welcomes experiments with organic viticulture at Opus One, where there is significantly less danger of rot, and at Clerc Milon, 70 percent of which is organic, but at Mouton things progress with circumspection. "If, as a result of [going organic], you lose 25 percent of the crop, well, you have to take full responsibility for that."

So the watchword now is caution. Dhalluin tells me he's reading Roger Dion's magisterial Histoire de la Vigne et du Vin en France des Origines au XIXe Siècle (the History of the Vine and Wine in France from its Origins to the 19th Century). It demonstrates the need for a cool head, he says.

The Mouton cellar is completely gravity-fed.
© Deepix | The Mouton cellar is completely gravity-fed.

"People then didn't have the same means we have. They had the time to observe, and cultivate. It shows you have to take a certain time if you want to do something. That's why I've delayed a year with the new vineyard – because when we plant, we plant for 80 years. You have to get it right."

This doesn't mean Mouton is standing still. Dhalluin sees progress as the gathering of knowledge; he wants to shine a bright, pencil-thin beam into the innermost workings of the machine. He's not interested in debating the merits of concrete versus oak – "vats are simply tools" – but in microbiology.

"The evolution of enology is not winemaking. The great evolution is the power of analysis." We now have the equipment, he says, "to analyse compounds that 10 years ago we barely knew existed, and if we knew of them, we had no idea how they worked". He cites the rogue yeast brettanomyces as an example; it was only recently discovered that it can live in vineyards as well as wineries. "The more we understand these things the better we are equipped to express our terroir."

It sounds as if he likes nothing better than to fossick around in the lab with petri dish and test tube but, of course, that's not the case. He's abroad a lot of the time.

"You're lucky to catch me," he said, when we spoke. "I was in Paris yesterday and tomorrow I go to Hong Kong."

He visits Opus One ("more or less as a consultant") four times a year, and gives nearly equal attention to Chile and Languedoc. Then there's the ambassadorial role – travelling to Shanghai, Taiwan, Hong Kong (and wherever else the ultra-high-net-worth individuals who constitute Mouton's market hang out) with or without his bosses, Julien de Beaumarchais de Rothschild and Philippe Sereys de Rothschild, the heirs of the late Baroness Philippine, who died last year. It sounds like a lot of administration and glad-handing. Isn't it galling – as you rise in your chosen profession, that you find yourself doing less of what you love, and more of the boring stuff?

Dhalluin laughs and murmurs about the importance of meeting the people and finding out how the wines are perceived.

"I have to do these things. To run the company is my job; making wine is my hobby."