Friday, 15 April 2011

Michael Hill Smith can't use the 'e' word

Michael Hill Smith has a problem with the word ‘elegant’.

‘There’s just something not right about an Australian using it – like a Barossa producer pulling out a bottle and saying “and now this is our elegant Shiraz”.’

We’re at the noisy but excellent restaurant L’Anima in Bishopsgate for Hill Smith – founder of Adelaide Hills winery Shaw and Smith – to demonstrate Australian wine’s journey toward delicacy and refinement (he still won’t use the ‘e’ word, that’s just his natural Australian reticence. Elegance is what these wines are all about).

Hill Smith and David Gleave of Liberty Wines have selected two Chardonnays, and two Pinots, all from Shaw and Smith, and then a flight of six Shiraz – his own 08 and 09 Adelaide Hills, John Duval, Clonakilla, Greenstone and SC Pannell.

Australia’s in the throes of change. I remember Andrew Wigan at Peter Lehmann in Barossa telling me four years ago they were ‘pulling back from oak at 100 miles an hour’.

That’s now the orthodoxy among producers of Hill Smith’s stamp. Whereas reds always used to be about tannin management (in many cases they were managed out of existence), it’s now all about acids and freshness.

And like all great wine regions energetically searching for a new style (Rioja comes to mind) the best Australian producers are managing to find the modern while preserving the best points of the traditional.

So there’s cool climate Shiraz and there’s warm climate Shiraz, each trying to find that uniquely Australian style.

‘With the cool climate style we’re trying to avoid the leanness and hardness you sometimes see in cool climate wines,’ Hill Smith says. ‘We don’t want skinniness – we want some flesh on the bone.’

Modern Australia, Hill Smith says, is all about moderation and control. Chardonnay, he says, shows more than anything ‘the refinement and ongoing evolution of Australian wine’.

‘It’s very exciting. The best Chardonnays have this bright minerality, with sweet nectarine and peach fruit. It’s no longer just fruit seasoned with oak and bottle age. We are barrel fermenting, ageing on lees. We’re making Chardonnay inspired by Burgundy but with an Australian twist.’

Margaret River, whose proximity to the sea has such a beneficial moderating effect on the climate, is of course the flagship region for top Chardonnay.

Hill Smith namechecks Adelaide Hills, Mornington Peninsula, Tasmania as striving for that modern style.

And then there’s the Pinot, still relatively untried in Australia but ‘a hot category’, the producer says.

That’s at the high end, of course, where Pinot lovers, and Pinot completists, will search out anything new.

‘There are fanatical Pinot consumers in Australia. They cite clones at you. They ask “Is this MV6? Is it 777?”’

Here’s Andrew Jefford on Chardonnay in Decanter magazine:
'Everyone could do their own thing with it. Initially, that tended to mean something oaky and rich; latterly, by contrast, it has meant a wine of finer grain.'

The Wines
(all available from Liberty Wines)

Shaw and Smith Sauvignon Blanc, Adelaide Hills 2010
Delicate, bright and zesty lovely fresh acidity

Shaw and Smith M3 Chardonnay, Adelaide Hills 2009
Very fine, very classy, with peach, pineapple, some sweet citrus, hints of exotic smoky perfume, excellent acidity, very long

Shaw and Smith M3 Chardonnay, Adelaide Hills 2010
From a much cooler vintage, tighter and gentler than the 2009, fantastic texture, long and delicate

Shaw and Smith Pinot Noir, Adelaide Hills 2008
‘The first thing you want with Pinot is to get it to taste like Pinot,’ Hill Smith says. This has restrained strawberry and raspberry, sweetness held in check by good acid and ripe tannins. Aussie Chardonnay at its best can rival Burgundy but this has a way to go

Shaw and Smith Pinot Noir, Adelaide Hills 2009
Strong aromatic, almost earthy Pinot nose, not a big wine, with very fine colour, fruit more on the raspberry and cherry than strawberry side

Shaw and Smith Shiraz, Adelaide Hills 2008
Superb ripe, juicy, spicy Shiraz with white pepper and elegant (that word again!) black fruit. Very long, knitted tannins. Excellent

Shaw and Smith Shiraz, Adelaide Hills 2009
Ripe and juicy with real tannic heft. It’s young and bright and needs a year or more, but it went perfectly with the delicious rare beef tagliata and rocket main course.

John Duval Entity Shiraz, Barossa Valley 2007
A tour de force from the former Grange winemaker. Rich, powerful, pure Barossa, broad-shouldered but still fine, with dark (what they used to call ‘brooding’) blackberry fruit, juicy and savoury tannins. Real presence.

SC Pannell Shiraz/Grenache, McLaren Vale, 2006
The Grenache lends a mouthwatering juiciness to the palate, and adds brightness and lift to the fruit. Spice and dark fruit, knit tannins and bright long finish

Clonakilla Shiraz Viognier, Canberra District 2009
Extraordinary perfume and texture from this unique producer. The Viognier (there’s a decent amount – 6%) adding giving it an agreeable unctuousness and hint of violets. Exotic. Delicious

Greenstone Vineyard Shiraz, Heathcote, 2009
Powerful, finely-made, old-fashioned Shiraz. Aromas of cherry, plums, pepper, grippy, fine tannins. Power and finesse.

Monday, 11 April 2011

The golden arches McDonald’s are a Mecca for wine hacks

I’ve always disliked McDonald’s, mainly because of the disgusting food, but in Bordeaux I’ve had an epiphany.

Bordeaux’s an old fashioned town. A Sunday afternoon is like being in an English suburb in the mid-70s – all bored teenagers and bus shelters and not an open bar to be had.

Finding an internet connection is just as bad. The chateaux generally have wi-fi (pronounced to rhyme with ‘leafy’), but there’s something about the stone walls that blocks the signal.

At Lafaurie Peyraguay, where we stayed this en primeur 2010, you had to sit in a broom cupboard in the entrance hall to get a signal, and even that was poor.

Then you might find a café with wi-fi and discover they charge for it, and it still doesn’t work. And in any case, I hate giving my custom to some so mean-spirited and lacking in promotional nous that they charge for wi-fi.

But McDonald’s is another story. Generally empty, friendly staff, fair coffee, accessible power sockets – and free connection.

What’s more, everyone in Bordeaux knows every McDonald’s, as if it’s on a satnav in their inner ear.

Liliane Barton of Leoville of that ilk didn’t bat an eyelid when I asked her if she knew a McDo’s (as they charmingly style it). ‘The nearest one is Lesparre,’ she said. Lesparre was 25km away.

So the Decanter team, which starts twitching if it’s without internet connection for more than half a day, whiled away many a happy hour under the sign of the golden arches. The best McDonald’s, with the smiliest staff, is on the D2 at Le Pian Medoc.

I didn’t have a Big Mac though. I wouldn’t go that far.

Thursday, 7 April 2011

How to throw a party at Bordeaux 2010

Keep your speeches short. Martin Krajewski, the tow-headed proprietor of Chateau de Sours in Entre-deux-Mers, likes to entertain, and his parties are a respite from the formality of the Medoc.

De Sours is famous for its rosé and Krajewski rode high on the rosé boom of 2003. He's now got 85ha here, and 3ha Clos Cantenac in St Emilion. He’s now training up his son Matthew, who’s working in a lab in Bordeaux. He hasn’t been entrusted with a parcel of grapes and his own basket press yet, he says, but he’s done some pruning…

Anyway, we filed into the dining room – two long tables end to end – through the kitchen, which was rather nice. Krajewski stood up and clinked a glass.

Don’t you get a sinking feeling when that happens? In the Medoc you know you’re in for the long haul. I needn’t have worried. Our host said, ‘Welcome everyone. We’ve got some superb wines tonight. Enjoy yourselves,’ and sat down to applause.

The wines? A Figeac 2001, Mouton 66, Leoville-Las-Cases 82, Yquem 2002.

The Figeac was superb, powerful and perfumed with a hint of brett that got everyone swapping bottles and glasses, sniffing and arguing. The LLC (I’m going there tomorrow) was even better, with a freshness and jauntiness and a length that went on and on, indeed never stopped, unlike the Mouton which was venerable but with a touch of dryness on the finish. Yquem was Yquem, as the aficionadoes say.

Tuesday, 5 April 2011

Prices on Bordeaux 2010? of course we're not worried

The wine trade’s been remarkably silent on the subject of price this year.

Since 1750 it’s been an article of faith that the British wine merchants will hyperventilate when they get on the subject of en primeur release prices.

Stephen Browett at Farr Vintners usually leads the charge. He even threatened to boycott the campaign if the chateaux didn’t promise to reduce prices on the 2008 vintage. Adam Brett Smith at Corneys will put a note online – a very polite suggestion that they just won’t be able to sell the stuff if it’s too pricey. BBR’s Simon Staples lets his feelings be known. The smaller merchants squeak a bit (but not so much as to endanger their allocations).

Then the negociants in Bordeaux pitch in. But this year, not a peep.

It’s China which has done it. Until the bubble bursts, Bordeaux, at the top end, is simply not going to produce an off-vintage again. The first growths and their siblings – a dozen or so properties – will sell their wine whatever happens. The Chinese buy by brand, not by vintage.

‘There is a consensus in the wine trade that it is very unlikely that prices will come down on last year, and likely that they will stay the same,’ Jean-Guillaume Prats at Cos d’Estournel says.

He also says that if there’s an increase, it will ‘probably be accepted’.

Why aren’t the merchants howling? Because they’re making an awful lot of money. Farr sold £62m of Bordeaux last year, a third of it to the Far East. Berry’s sold £110m.

They hardly had to pick up their blackberries to do it, and the 08s and a dozen other vintages are flying off the shelves on the back of the 09.

Of course the merchants aren’t complaining about release prices – why worry, when you can flog it all to China at any price you care to mention.

Bordeaux 2010: they just can't believe their luck...

Jubilant is the word. If you’d been parachuted into the En Primeur opening party at Smith Haut Lafitte last night, you would have thought something had been slipped into the wine.

The chateau owners have thrown off the faux-sheepish mood they’ve worn for the last couple of months and are now openly celebrating what they assure us is another superb vintage.

In September, when the grapes started coming in, if you asked a chateau owner what the 2010 was like they’d shrug and say they were embarrassed to say it after 09, but the signs were it was looking really very good…

There’s no such restraint now. In the cellars at the Smith party, the always affable Patrick Maroteaux of Branaire Ducru looked as if he’d just won the lottery (which in a sense he has). ‘Fabulous,’ he kept saying, and bent my ear for five minutes on the great growing season, its hot dry days and cool nights. 

The weather gods simply can’t stop smiling down on Bordeaux. They arranged a superb growing season, and now for En Primeur it’s gorgeous, 25 degrees yesterday, the same today, fragrant wisteria blooming on the warm honeyed stone of the chateau walls… under these conditions a glass of blush Zinfandel would taste like cru classe.

‘I was unsure up to about 2 weeks ago – the tannins seemed a bit harsh and I was worried the press would find it unapproachable,’ Anthony Barton, the venerable owner of Leoville Barton told me yesterday. ‘But now I’m pleased – there’s no aggressivity, there’s acidity and freshness…’

Barton’s worried that many journalists don’t know how to taste young Bordeaux (there’s a rumour going round that James Molesworth, the new Wine Spectator Bordeaux critic, hasn’t quite got the barrel experience yet, but more of him, and his former colleague James Suckling, later).

So Barton’s delighted that his wine is so pretty. I tasted it yesterday, and it is delicious – perfumed, with lovely acid and nice grippy tannins, fresh and very fine. 13% alcohol (Barton’s harvest was one of his earliest – he’s not one to let the grapes hang).

But above all it’s approachable and comprehensible.

The press is going to love this vintage, everybody hopes. We’ll see as the week goes on but the first signs are good.

And James Suckling kicks over the hornet’s nest…

Back to Suckling, who would be twirling his moustache, if he had one, and chuckling evilly. He’s the villain of the piece - he broke the Union des Grands Crus embargo and published his notes early.

Michel Bettane, France’s eminence grise and general grand fromage, threatened to boycott en primeur if the UGC didn’t put a stop to riffraff like Suckling refusing to play the game.

Others weighed in. There were murmurs of ‘ce n’est pas le cricket’. He’s abused the trust of the chateaux, someone said.

Suckling of course is delighted by all this, and came out fighting. ‘I don't see the problem,’ he told ‘Does TF1 bitch to the BBC or CNN when they get scooped? The 2010 vintage is a great one. The weather has been fabulous. I hope it's the same next week for the others.'

To say he’s opened up a can of worms is an understatement. There are over 30 comments on’s article, posted last week –  and they’re not talking about the morality of breaking embargoes.

No – the comments are all about the point of scoring wines in the first place, the validity of those scores on wines tasted so young, and how the perfidious wine trade stitches up the press.

As Christie’s wine consultant Anthony Hanson MW writes, ‘Is there any other field of activity in the worlds of commerce or art where the producers, traders or artists have so successfully manipulated the media to pump up prices ahead of the products being put on the market?’

I don’t think it’s that naïve to think that the chateaux are quite within their rights to use critics’ scores as they see fit. It’s really no more immoral than a film distributor using favourable quotes on a poster, a good few weeks before the film is released.

Saturday, 2 April 2011


I hardly ever google myself (it makes you go blind) but did last night and found some of the most splendid abuse - a bloke called Bill Klapp calling me an 'effete douche bag' for, of all things, my pronunciation of Piedmont, which he says should be pronounced Piemonte, a la Italian. His boeuf seems to be it's British arrogance to anglicise foreign place names, so he makes a point of saying 'Venezia' instead of Venice:

'Since I spend half of my time in Italy, speaking primarily to Italian friends in Italian, it is no surprise that I would use Italian words. However, with Americans who clearly would not know what "Venezia" is, I try to educate them by saying "Venezia, you know, Venice" or words to that effect.'

Presumably he castigates his Italian friends for saying Inghilterra instead of 'England'? How I would love to be at one of his soirees.

But a question for you, 'Bill'. How do you pronounce niche? Aha! I thought so! it's a French word, my friend, so less of that post-colonial 'nitch' nonsense.

Honestly. It's poor sport really. Like shooting fish in a barrel.

Anyway - here it is - I'm only doing it so I get a link back, you understand.

After Oddbins, Bordeaux 2010

I won't mourn the passing of Oddbins, in much the same way I don't mourn the demise of my mother's cat, Dracula, a splendid black beast of of formidable killing power, who ended life incontinent and smelling of damp. His time had come, much like Oddbins'. The London Bridge branch definitely smelt mouldy a couple of weeks ago, as if there were a body under the floorboards.

Possibly there will be, if the disgruntled employees of the once-much-loved chain get their hands on the management after's revelations of what certainly needs explanation even if it's not skulduggery: the payment by managing director Simon Baile to marketing director Martin West of just over £17,000 for 'redundancy'.

This was on 8 March, after Oddbins had started talks with corporate advisers Spectrum to find a way to deal with debts of over £20m.They must have had an inkling they were headed down the tubes - everybody else did. If I had a quid for every time Oddbins was described as 'beleagured' or 'embattled' or, lately, 'stricken', I'd be a rich man. What were they doing paying out five-figure sums to directors when they hadn't paid their suppliers for months?

Creditors coming out of the meeting last Thursday when HM Revenue and Customs delivered the coup de grace (they are owed £8m) found the whole thing fishy. 'There's a lot about it I don't understand - some things don't stack up', one highly-placed figure told me, hinting that there was an awful lot more to come out about the relationship between Ex-Cellar, the company set up by Baile and his partner Henry Young to buy Oddbins from Castel (who own the charmless Nicolas stores and who had done so much to ruin the chain).

Creditors were also outspoken about Oddbins' failure to communicate with them... I found the same - when we asked the management to comment on this £17k payment to West, we were told we'd got our facts wrong. Then we produced a copy of the receipt, signed and dated, and we were told it was a ‘contractual compromise agreement’. No idea why it was called a redundancy payment on the receipt.

Anyway, it's very sad for the 400-odd employees who have lost their jobs, but as for the passing of a shop that was once a byword for innovation, quirkiness and charm, and lately had become surly, secretive and boring (not to mention smelling of damp), I'm not shedding much of a tear.

Off to Bordeaux for the 2010s tomorrow. They do things differently there... First stop the splendid Anthony Barton at Leoville Barton, who's always more than willing to talk the press... watch this space...