Tuesday, 8 November 2016

Mexico is very big guitar country...the Rolling Stones in Latin America: film premiere




Olé Olé Olé tells the story of the Rolling Stones’ América Latina Olé Tour this year, which culminated in the historic free stadium gig in Havana, the first visit by a western rock band after decades of isolation. As a rock movie it’s a conventional, access-all-areas look at a few weeks in the life of the supra-national juggernaut that is the Rolling Stones on tour – the planes, the motorcycle outriders, the “madness”, the  bonhomie (Mick: “what’s that word for bonding? That’s what we do in rehearsal”). The concert footage is amazing, and there are some wonderful aerial shots, of Lima (Keith: “Lima. It’s got enormous since I was last here in 68”) and Rio. The production values are top notch. It’s mercifully short on rock n roll clichés, if you ignore the fact that the concept of the “Rolling Stones” is one gigantic cliché in itself – the band as brand. Even the antimacassars on the plane are splashed with the tongue logo.

I’d gone along to the premiere at London’s Curzon Mayfair for a few glasses of Argentinian and Uruguayan wine – the excellent Argento, and Bodega Garzón, who sponsor the London showings of the movie – expecting to be entertained. The Stones have been around a while after all (“Please allow me to introduce myself …”), and they know how to put on a show. To my surprise, I was gripped.

Considering this quartet of multi-millionaires has been peddling the same old rock and roll for more than half a century, they come across as remarkably uncynical.

It’s often moving. There’s a sweet moment when a Cuban man collapses on the kerb in tears. “He just saw Mick,” his wife says with a gentle, understanding smile as he rubs his face. It’s hardly an exaggeration when someone - Keith, or Charlie, or Mick, or Ronnie – says of Cuba, “the Stones are a religion here”.

Jagger and Richards are the wizened prophets at the centre of it all. The latter, piratical old Keith, has been outspoken about the fact they haven’t exactly got on like a house on fire over the last decade or so, and you might wonder how they manage to seem so relaxed together in the few set-piece chinwags they have for the camera. I guess they rub along like brothers nowadays, or like the French and the British: respect, antipathy and mutual interests blended and buffed over the years into something like affection.

Then, in the corner of a dressing room, they break into a spine-tingling rendering of Honky Tonk Women, Mick crooning like a gypsy, his skinny little legs shaking out the rhythm, Keef bent double over his guitar. It brought cheers from the audience. If that was staged, then those two are better actors than I thought. There are other delicate touches that could even be accidental. In one classic backstage shot in Havana, the band’s just about to go on and the noise from the crowd is deafening. You see Jagger in his red shiny jacket (“I’m a man of wealth and taste”) actually hesitate, and for a moment he looks vulnerable.

I’m a Beatles man myself (I always suspected the Stones were more businessmen than musicians) but those songs – Satisfaction, Sympathy, You Gotta Move, Start Me Up, Wild Horses – are inscribed on the synapses of all of us. And when Jagger struts around the vast stage belting them out, the very screen bulges and pulses with the atmosphere.

As to getting a look into the psyches of the actors in this lengthy drama, that’s beyond this director’s remit. All I know is, the Stones are certainly enjoying themselves (“It all looks very festivally out there,” Mick drawls as he looks at another 50,000 fans revving themselves up), and it’s also clear they’re moved by the adulation. From the Argentinians, for example, who if they’re old enough remember what it was like under the generals, when they weren’t even allowed radios. “This would have landed us in prison,” says one grizzled Rolinga (that’s what Stones fans call themselves there). “This is profoundly touching”, Jagger’s says, simply. Music and dance is everywhere: wherever they go, the boys are serenaded. There are scissor dancers in Peru, mariachi bands in Mexico (Keith: “Mexico is a big guitar country), tango, samba, rumba and cha-cha, tribute bands in front rooms and kids singing in the street. “It’s humbling,” Jagger says, and I can see what he means – there’s the very strong impression that the Stones are welcomed as equals, not as rock stars (although there’s a devil of a lot of screaming when the lights go down, much of it by middle-aged men). And the music is fabulous. I’ve never heard Wild Horses sung with such passion as Jagger coaxes out of his voicebox.

What more do you want? Is there any more? If you’d asked me before, I would have said I’d like some insight – something like Julien Temple did with Joe Strummer in the masterful Clash documentary The Future Is Unwritten. But I don’t think the Stones go in for that sort of thing. If it was McCartney, there’d be soul-searching. Bono would be irritating, Sting even more so. But the Glimmer Twins? They’re just a pair of raddled old buccaneers, doing what they do. “How can you stop rock and roll?” Jagger asks, and it’s purely rhetorical.



Wednesday, 28 September 2016

"We're trying to fuck it up a bit ..." Modern Aussie winemaking on display in Shoreditch

(from Wine Searcher)

"A scrum of jostling hacks..." Cargo, in Shoreditch
There's nothing like a Shoreditch nightclub as a venue for a wine tasting. To call Shoreditch trendy is like suggesting the UK Independence Party is nasty – it just doesn't do it justice.

The East London borough is eye-wateringly, not-knowing-where-to-look trendy. Cargo nightclub – where the Artisans of Australian Wine event was held this week – is in the center of a barrio of booming street chic. Every bar or shop is shimmering white, or black, or self-consciously scruffy. There are restaurants in converted shipping containers where beautiful Japanese couples lunch off a bowl of three fries and a lozenge of wasabi for $45; next door you can buy a tee-shirt with a gnomic message for twice that. That's the thing about postcodes east of the City – they might look like a scene from Blade Runner, but they come with a hefty price tag.

Cargo is darkish, sweaty, the toilets reassuringly squalid (with signs warning that drugs are not tolerated). You don't want to touch the walls. At the door, dressed in black, stood Wine Australia's London chief Laura Jewell and her events manager Emma Symington, looking like they were about to ask me to step aside for a frisking. No such luck.

Of course, wine tastings have been held in nightclubs and bars before. There's any number of hip young gunslingers importing artisan wines who wouldn't dream of setting up their tables anywhere else. But it's a measure of the current state of Australian wine that Jewell and her team should choose this particular moment to hold this particular tasting in this particular venue, instead of in the hallowed marble halls of Australia House.

The avant-garde has become mainstream. It is now perfectly normal to find a Barossa Shiraz with less than 13 percent alcohol (Eden Road's wonderfully crunchy 2011 Canberra Shiraz is 12.9 per cent); whole-bunch pressing, carbonic maceration, natural yeasts and weeks on skins are standard practice. Experimentation is everywhere. The "natural", in all its myriad definitions, is celebrated. As Gary Mills of Jamsheed described the vinification of his entry-level Yarra Valley Pepe le Pinot: "We're trying to fuck it up a bit – roughen up the edges."

This is modern Australian winemaking. Read whole article

Tuesday, 30 August 2016

English sparkling wine comes of age

Nyetimber: the cruck barn, dated 1600-1605

The announcement late last year that Champagne Taittinger had bought a substantial parcel of land in Kent in a multi-million dollar investment was the best Christmas present the English wine industry has ever been given. For a house of this renown to endorse English wine in such unequivocal terms is a massive boost to the industry. Taittinger aims to produce 25,000 cases of “Premium English sparkling wine” from vines that are yet to be planted...

Read the entire article here

Monday, 27 June 2016

Tuesday, 7 June 2016

Olivier Bernard is in the wrong job... Bordeaux 2015 shenanigans remembered

this article first appeared in Meininger's Wine Business International

Olivier Bernard is in the wrong job. The owner of Domaine deChevalier in Pessac-Léognan, a chateaux of international renown, he’s also in his second term as president of the Union des Grands Crus de Bordeaux (UGCB). It’s observing him in this latter capacity that one wonders if his diplomatic skills would not be put to better use at the Quai d’Orsay – perhaps sorting out Syria, or intervening in the Ukraine.

No laughing matter: Olivier Bernard
Bordeaux wine politics can be febrile, and never more so than during en primeur, the annual barrel tastings of the previous year’s vintage. Depending on who you talk to, en primeur is either a robust, time-honoured system that works excellently – or it’s a creaking machine long past its usefulness and the sooner it goes the better.

Fuel is added to the fire every year or so. In 2012 ChateauLatour’s Frédéric Engerer caused sparks to fly when he announced the 2011 vintage was to be the last one Latour would sell en primeur. A wave of defections was predicted, though nothing has happened so far. In every mediocre vintage – such as 2011, 2012 and 2013 – merchants warn it will be the last en primeur. If the wines are not going to increase in value (indeed, if they’re going to go down in price), what possible reason is there for buying futures? The wine’s not going to sell out; far better to wait and see how it performs both in terms of price and quality. “The system will be dead if there’s no sound financial reason for buying en primeur,” Mark Wessels of the Washington DC merchant MacArthur Beverages told me.

As consumers see less reason to buy futures in Cru Classé Bordeaux, so châteaux find it more important to stand out from the crowd. And this is the problem that Bernard is faced with: every year more and more châteaux decide they will not show their wines at the collective tastings run by the UGCB. “The problem is that all over the world – and not just in wine – individuals have become stronger,” he told me. “They refuse to be a part of the collective. The First Growths have never shown their wines at the collective tastings, and there are some super seconds which have followed them. Now there are second growths which dream of being super seconds, and they won’t play the game.”

Things became even more complicated this year when Bernard announced that tastings which had previously been spread over a full week, hosted by different châteaux across Bordeaux, would now be held over two days at the vast Matmut Atlantique stadium near to the Vinexpo site. The press was horrified. “I really don't think a football stadium on the distant outskirts of the city is likely to have a particularly conducive atmosphere for wine tasting, however new it is and however much it cost,” Jancis Robinson thundered. The veteran French critic Michel Bettane was so outraged he could no longer taste blind that he threatened a boycott.

Bernard treads this minefield carefully. In response to Robinson’s and others’ complaints he said it is simply unfair that some chateaux (those which don’t show their wines at the collective tastings) are tasted non-blind, and others are tasted blind. “We just think that all grands crus should be tasted on a level playing field,” he said, rather plaintively.

Contrary to grumbling from certain sections of the press (“It was like being back at school,” one critic said) the seated tastings at Matmut were run efficiently and flexibly. Qualified sommeliers served the wines in any order the taster requested, the lighting was excellent and the glasses large and clean. We could taste standing up at the bar tops if we wanted a less formal setting.

Château owners and directors joined the press pack for lunch – Lilian Barton of ChateauLéoville Barton, Christophe Labenne of the Cru Bourgeois Poujeaux, Fabien Teitgen of Smith-Haut-Lafitte were just three I spotted wielding knife and fork – a great opportunity to discuss wines and communes we had just tasted.

Bernard thinks the format worked and he’ll keep it as it is. He gave a faint chuckle when I asked him how much he’d learnt about diplomacy during his UGCB presidency. “Diplomacy is important. But to make the right choice, and to be clear, is more important.”

Tuesday, 10 May 2016

Wine Searcher articles


I am the European Editor for wine-searcher.com. Below is a list of recent articles

Bordeaux 2015 en primeur

http://www.wine-searcher.com/m/2016/04/first-bordeaux-prices-raise-merchant-hopes
http://www.wine-searcher.com/m/2016/03/bordeaux-enjoys-the-fruits-of-the-golden-weather
http://www.wine-searcher.com/m/2016/04/first-taste-of-2015-bordeaux-full-of-promise
http://www.wine-searcher.com/m/2016/04/wrestling-with-tannin-in-2015-bordeaux

Burgundy 2014 en primeur

http://www.wine-searcher.com/m/2016/01/2014-burgundy-whites-shine-brightest
http://www.wine-searcher.com/m/2016/01/burgundy-en-primeur-celebrates-a-milestone

General news

http://www.wine-searcher.com/m/2016/04/graham-s-celebrates-queen-s-birthday-with-rare-port
http://www.wine-searcher.com/m/2016/03/margaux-mourns-pontallier-s-death
http://www.wine-searcher.com/m/2016/02/drc-s-2013-wines-strike-a-great-balance
http://www.wine-searcher.com/m/2016/01/diamonds-are-trumps-at-wine-and-spirit-sale
http://www.wine-searcher.com/m/2015/12/taittinger-uncorks-a-vineyard-in-england


Features and interviews

Tim Mondavi

http://www.wine-searcher.com/m/2016/03/q-a-continuum-s-tim-mondavi

Edouard Moueix

http://www.wine-searcher.com/m/2016/04/q-a-edouard-moueix-bordeaux-negociant

Grandes Pagos de España

http://www.wine-searcher.com/m/2016/04/grandes-pagos-mapping-the-future-of-spain-s-wine

Bordeaux 10 years on: 2006

http://www.wine-searcher.com/m/2016/02/10-years-after-bordeaux-2006

Louis-Michel Liger-Belair

http://www.wine-searcher.com/m/2016/02/q-a-louis-michel-liger-belair

Burgundy's Jane Eyre

http://www.wine-searcher.com/m/2016/02/q-a-jane-eyre

Romania

http://www.wine-searcher.com/m/2015/12/what-s-the-big-deal-about-romania

Ex-Grange winemaker John Duval

http://www.wine-searcher.com/m/2015/11/winemaker-duval-moves-back-to-basics

Chateau Latour's Frederic Engerer

http://www.wine-searcher.com/m/2015/09/en-primeur-is-a-four-letter-word-at-latour

Thursday, 24 March 2016

How to make authentic Paella Valenciana



This is Paella Valenciana, as made at Bodega Mustiguillo in Utiel Requena. Inclusion of other ingredients such as mariscos (seafood) or caracoles (snails), chorizo etc is allowed but it then ceases to be authentic.



The paella doesn't have to be cooked over an open fire but the woodsmoke adds a wonderful flavour

Olive oil
Brown the chicken and set aside
Add artichoke, green beans (bajoqueta) and white beans (garrofon)
Fry
Replace chicken
Add water, bring to boil and reduce (40-45 mins)
Add saffron (warmed and crumbled), pimenton and chopped rosemary
Add rice and cook for 20 mins
Serve


Notes:
1. The paella is the pan as well as the dish, from the Valencian/Catalan word which derives from the French paelle, which in turn comes from the Latin patella, akin in turn to the Old Spanish padilla.
2. A. Habbaba, agricultural section head of Icex, told me there is also a view that the word derives from the Arabic bakaia meaning 'leftovers'
3. The word paellera for the pan is approved by the Real Academia Española, though purists dislike it.
4. Valencians eat paella several times a week. When I visited Mustiguillo, owner Toni Sarrion told me he had not had one for four days, and he was feeling it









Friday, 18 March 2016

A vintage studded with gems: Bordeaux 2006 Ten Years On

this article first appeared on Wine Searcher

The 2006 vintage in Bordeaux was destined to be difficult. Apart from coming straight after the already-legendary 2005, the weather was far from ideal – a warm start, a broiling July (hotter, on average, than the heatwave of 2003), then a damp, cool August, a blast of heat in early September and then rain for two weeks until the end of the month.

The ripening process had been so protracted that bunches were unevenly ripe, and the rain just before harvest increased the danger of rot. It was a season when diligent – and costly – work in the vineyards, and rigorous sorting when the grapes arrived in the winery, was essential. "It was a very expensive harvest," Florence Cathiard at Smith Haut Lafitte said. "We had to select almost as if it was Sauternes."

Generalizations are hard to make. The accepted wisdom at en primeur in April 2007 was that it was a Merlot year on the right bank (the toughest decision had been whether to pick before or after the September rain) and a Cabernet year in the Medoc (the later-ripening variety was full and ripe by the beginning of October). The Graves was reckoned to have made some great wines.

Ten years later, those early opinions are borne out. At the London merchant Bordeaux Index (BI as it is now known), a small group of critics and journalists met, as they do every year, for the Bordeaux Ten Years On tasting, with 71 red wines shown. Every wine of any note was there: Petrus at £15,000 a case, Le Pin (£12,500), the big-hitting Saint-Emilions, all the First Growths and their second wines, the super seconds, fifths, fourths, thirds and a smattering of Cru Bourgeois.

The first thing to say is that – apart from the ultra-wealthy superstars that can be expected to make an excellent wine come what may – there are some very good wines indeed, others that are charming and interesting, and some that are thin and astringent. While there was a danger of picking unripe fruit, the vintage is characterized by good structured tannins and high acidity, which when handled right means wines with great ageing potential. "Its bedevilment lies in its variability," BI's Michael Schuster writes. It is a vintage that requires careful choosing.

The best wines are bright, classic in profile, with dense, gripping tannins and fine acidity. There are outstanding wines in every commune. In the Medoc,Saint-Julien shows consistently well: Talbot was a particular pleasure, Gruaud-Larose, Langoa-Barton and Leoville Barton have lovely perfume; Leoville-las-Cases is juicy and exotic (but twice the price of its neighbors). In Pauillac the energy of the best wines – Grand-Puy-Lacoste, Pontet-Canet were particular favorites – is notable.

The Graves lineup was also a pleasure. The two wines in which Michel Rolland has the most obvious hand, Malartic Lagravière and Smith Haut Lafitte, are beautifully made, calculatedly international wines with fresh ripe fruit and suave tannins; their neighbor Domaine de Chevalier is utterly different, precise and poised with sour cherry and damson fruit and brisk tannins releasing juice. Pape Clement too is excellent.

On the right bank, the earlier-ripening Merlot in Pomerol made some superb wines. At the top end, Petrus is a model of energy and harmony, its shy nose giving way to soft damson, blackberry, fine tannins and a delicate finish. Le Pin shows its colors instantly with a powerful savory nose, black cherry, the palate elegant and juicy, pretty but with a sense of power behind the structure. But note that there is far more affordable Pomerol, the best wines showing a creamy texture, developing into very precise, firm tannins. Look for Gazin, L'Eglise-Clinet and Conseillante.

Saint-Emilion, by contrast, is less consistent, with some wines showing a dryness and sour sharpness on the mid-palate and parsimonious juice at the end. The best wines managed to find ripeness to mitigate the acidity. Look out for Canon La Gaffèliere and Trotte Vieille. At the higher end, Figeac has sweet leathery damson fruit and a fine, juicy finish; at the very top, the concentration and energy, and soft creamy dark fruit of Cheval Blanc is a delight. Once again, Chateau Pavie is instantly recognizable for over-use of oak and clumsy extraction. Avoid.

2006 is not a cheap vintage: analysis from the trading platform Liv-ex shows that prices are on a par with 2001 and 2004, years which are similar in reputation. "There were some errors in pricing on release," Liv-ex's Justin Gibbs told Wine-Searcher, pointing to wines such as La Mission Haut-Brion, which had an opening price of £2,950 and is now half that at £1,480; but generally the wines are holding their value. Most of the First Growths have not dropped in price since release.

At every level and in every commune 2006 is a vintage studded with gems, the very best wines with structure and acidity to ensure another ten or twenty years ageing; there are also affordable, charming and accessible wines that are drinking beautifully now.
10 Years After – Bordeaux 2006
© Deepix


Bordeaux 2006 – wines to look out for:
(all prices approximate, case of 12 bottles, in bond)

Affordable to pricey:

Sweet pleasant woody nose leading to sour plum on the palate. Classic profile, charming, gentle fine length with some dryness.
£300, Drink 2016-2020

Attractive creamy texture on the attack, sweet dark fruit, delicate grip to the tannins and a perfumed mid-palate. Juicy and long.
£465, Drink 2016-2025

Slightly herbaceous nose, palate of damson and plum with hint of sour sloes, fresh and open, firm on the mid palate, juice released at the end.
£265, Drink 2016-2020

Fine earthy nose, instantly attractive attack with lots of juicy dark ripe fruit and ripe tannins. Polished, smart, international but very good.
£260, Drink 2016-2025

Delicious as always. Expressive nose with sour black cherry, sweet acidity, firm tannins, hints of just-ground coffee, lots of mineral energy. Superb.
£365, Drink 2018-2030

Fresh, perfumed, with lovely structure and sweet blackcurrant on the palate. Full, assured, opulent from this old-fashioned and consistently excellent property.
£420, Drink 2016-2025

Cigar-box nose, instant grip to the tannins mitigated by fresh acidity and ripe black fruit. Great persistence to the slightly dry finish,
£350, Drink 2016-2020

Complex nose with sandalwood and spearmint. Tannic density, serious weight, blackberry and ripe blackcurrant. Feels massive, dryness at end could be disconcerting until tannins release sweet juice. Will be very fine.
£380, Drink 2020-2030

Expensive to very expensive:

Coffee and blackberry nose, generous fruit, smoky, tobacco-tinged blackberry and hedgerow complemented by soft-grip tannin. Open, weighty, polished, modern. Lovely wine.
£535, Drink 2016-2030

In a ripe vintage Pape Clement can be vulgarly opulent but here the vanilla oak flavors are restrained, and there's delicacy to the sour plum fruit, precision to the tannins. Attractive in the modern style.
£700, Drink 2016-2028

Very fine earthy perfumed nose, fresh, open generous palate, creamy, with fresh-ground coffee, licorice and the merest hints of classic Palmer perfume. Firm insistent tannins and a lovely elegant finish.
£1275, Drink 2016-2030

Chateau Leoville-Las Cases, Saint-Julien 
Gorgeous perfumed nose, elegant and seductive, notes of exotic sandalwood on the palate, mint, blackberry, silky texture, endless length. Luscious, one of the best wines of the day.
£1075, Drink 2016-2030

Chateau Pichon-Longueville Baron, Pauillac 
Sweet blackcurrant coulis on the nose, rather more open and accessible than its neighbour Pichon-Lalande across the road, smoky, tannic, dense mouthfeel and then welcome juice at the end. Serious, concentrated, hefty.
£725, Drink 2018-2030

Chateau Calon-Sègur, Saint-Estèphe 
The perfume leaps out of the glass, followed by fresh ripe dark fruit on the palate, firm tannins, racy acidity alongside freshening hints of green. Utterly seductive and delicate, as only to be expected from this lovely property.
£595, Drink 2016-2030

Chateau Cos d'Estournel, Saint-Estèphe 
Extravagantly perfumed nose carried through to opulently-fruited palate, firm tannins releasing juice, baskets of cassis, blackberry, sour plum and roasted coffee beans. Dense, luscious, exotic.
£780, Drink 2018-2036

Chateau Mouton Rothschild, Pauillac 
Touted everywhere as the wine of the vintage. A shy nose revealing minerally graphite, but the palate astonishes, huge but with finesse, black fruit, cassis, mouthwatering acidity giving wonderful energy. Exceptional, even down to the oddly charming "zebra" label by the late Lucien Freud.

Underworld: the section headings



These are the section headings in Don DeLillo's Underworld. 
Summaries are my own

***

Prologue
The Triumph of Death
The Game - Cotter - Sinatra, Gleason, Hoover - Russ Hodges

Part 1
Long Tall Sally
Spring - Summer 1992
Nick Shay - Klara Sax - Big Sims and Brian Glassic

Manx Martin 1
Stealing the baseball

Part 2
Elegy for Left Hand Alone
Mid-1980s - Early 1990s
The Texas Highway Killer - Marian and Brian - Brian and Marvin (baseball) - Bronzini aged - Sister Edgar

Part 3
The Cloud of Unknowing
Spring 1978
Marvin and Chuckie Wainwright

Manx Martin 2
Stealing shovels

Part 4
Cocksucker Blues
Klara on the rooftops with Miles - Matt Shay - Eisenstein's Unterwelt - Matt and Janet

Part 5
Better Things for Better Living Through Chemistry
Selected Fragmaent Public and Private in the 1950s and 1960s
Nick in correction - the Demings at home ("the sense of a tiny holiday taking place on the shelves") - Nick - Hoover and Clyde at the Waldorf - "Crisp little men aswagger with assets" - Lenny Bruce - Chuckie the bombardier

Manx Martin 3
Meeting Charles Wainwright and Chuckie at the game

Part 6
Arrangement in Grey and Black
Fall 1951 - Summer 1952
Bronzini coaches young Matt - young Nick and his friends - Rosemary Shay - Nick shoots George the Waiter

Epilogue
Das Kapital
Kazakhstan - Sister Edgar - "Peace"

***

Notes:

1. The Manx Martin chapters appear before Elegy for Left Hand Alone, Cocksucker Blues and Arrangement in Grey and Black

2. Prologue, Epilogue and Cocksucker Blues are the only undated sections

3. Better Things for Better Living Through Chemistry is the only section to be subtitled. I have no explanation for the misspelling of 'Fragmaent' (in my Picador paperback)

4. If you search 'Fragmaent Underworld', you get six results, two of which are relevant: this blog, and Google books

5. All spellings and punctuation sic

6. Here's Observer writer Robert McCrum's essay on this "visionary edifice"

7. And here's Adam Begley's interview with DeLillo in the Paris Review

Underworld.jpeg
Cover to the 1st Edition 1997

Tuesday, 15 March 2016

"Them motherfuckers racist": how Jay Z's Armand de Brignac is coming out of the darkness and into the light

This article appears in the current issue of Meininger's Wine Business International

Eyebrows were raised when Champagne Armand de Brignac announced last year that it wanted to take its bottles “out of the night and into the daylight”. After all, this is multi-millionaire rapper and businessman Jay Z’s brand, it comes in a gold-embossed bottle with an Ace of Spades motif. It’s as closely associated with nightclubs as Frank Sinatra is with Las Vegas.

That spade shit...Jay Z and Armand de Brignac
The company – Armand de Brignac is now wholly-owned by Jay Z, who bought it outright in 2014 – is unambiguous about its new ambition. “We want to take it out of nightclubs and into the daytime,” marketing director Gerald Loparco said. “We’ve seen a strong evolution in the night industry. The new strategy is to establish the brand in the daylight. We’ve been in nightclubs too much.”

Mindful that bringing a brand blinking into the daylight also means there are fewer dark corners to hide in, the team behind the Champagne has been carefully updating its pedigree and ironing out the inconsistencies in the story of its creation.

The circumstances of Armand de Brignac’s birth are well-known, although the details remain foggy. In 2006 Jay Z – who had been wedded to Roederer’s top marque Cristal for at least 10 years, selling it in his numerous clubs and sports bars and other concessions – took offence at a remark made by Roederer’s new CEO Frederic Rouzaud. The latter, asked what he thought of the rap community being such fans of Cristal, replied, “What can we do? We can't forbid people from buying it. I'm sure Dom Perignon or Krug would be delighted to have their business." 

“Them motherfuckers racist” was how Jay Z pithily expressed his reaction in his song On To The Next One, adding, “so I switched gold bottles, on to that spade shit,” a reference to Armand de Brignac which – and this is where accounts diverge – he discovered in a New York bottle shop. In another video, Show Me What You Got, he waves away a bottle of Cristal in favour of Ace of Spades.

Armand de Brignac Brut Gold
Eight years later, in 2014, he bought the entire brand from New York drinks company Sovereign Brands.

Armand de Brignac is made by Champagne Cattier, a family-owned house with a couple of hundred years history in the premier cru village of Chigny-les-Roses. Its vineyards, notably the 2.2ha Clos du Moulin, are distinguished, but Cattier has no great international prestige. Indeed, when Armand de Brignac first came to Jay Z’s – and the world’s – notice, Cattier was not identified as its maker. The fact that Armand was a joint venture with Sovereign Brands also took some years to come to light.

From the start, journalists  in both the wine and the music business were intrigued. Armand de Brignac had appeared, fully-fledged and, at over $200 a bottle, in the front rank of Champagnes, almost literally overnight. Critics such as Jancis Robinson MW were effusive. She thought it so good, it made one of her favourite fizzes, Pol Roger 1999, seem “diffuse and ordinary”, she wrote in 2009.

But others were unsatisfied. Forbes.com’s Zack O’Malley Greenburg found the story “unravelling” as he delved into it. It was full of  inconsistencies, he said. The idea that Jay Z had found it in a New York store, for example: Armand de Brignac didn’t start shipping to the US until months after the gold bottle made its first famous appearance in Show Me What You Got. “When I confronted the folks at Cattier about this, they backtracked,” he wrote. He was told, “There’s a misunderstanding regarding how Jay saw the bottle. It was in New York, but not in a store.”

"You can't create a Champagne out of thin air..."

Over the ensuing ten years, Armand de Brignac has become used to fielding questions about its provenance. Its executives are notable for their accessibility and openness. “The Jay Z connection is very simple,” CEO Sebastien Besson tells Meininger’s. “He’s talented about spotting consumer trends.” Was he involved in creating Armand de Brignac? “Of course not. You can’t create a Champagne out of thin air.”

Besson is frank about their ambitions and reiterates what the other senior executives of the company say: their aim is to be spoken of in the same breath as Dom Pérignon, Ruinart and Krug. “We’re not shy about being a new brand. We’re not as visible as the prestige brands at the moment, but it’s amazing how much ground we’ve gained. If we’re in a Michelin-starred restaurant in New York, we’re fighting against the prestige brands.”

Price, rarity, history and quality - in that order

To exist in the rarefied atmosphere of the great Champagne marques, one has to satisfy four criteria – price, rarity, history and quality – often in that order. The first two are amply taken care of. Last year the new ultra-cuvée of Armand de Brignac was launched, a Blanc de Noirs that retails in Harrods for £695. There is another new wine, a demi-sec, which sits alongside the original Brut, a Rosé, and a Blanc de Blancs, all of which sell for between £250 and £350. Some 3,000 bottles of the Blanc de Noirs are made, and its price puts it in the same bracket as Krug Clos de Mesnil, Dom Pérignon Oenotheque, and other icons. One level down, the Brut and its siblings are on a par with Salon, Dom Pérignon, Perrier-Jouët Belle Epoque and the like.

Creating a history for Armand de Brignac is trickier. The company now takes care that Jean-Jacques Cattier and his son Alexandre are on hand to provide a bit of Gallic credibility. The Cattiers were there at last year’s launch at the Churchill Hotel in London, sticking gamely if lugubriously to the story. “This is a big adventure for us. We launched the prestige brand less than ten years ago and we’re now in more than 100 countries. We can’t quite believe it,” Jean-Jacques said.

Image result for frank sinatra and vegas
Armand de Brignac and nightclubs "like Sinatra and Vegas..."
The setting for the tasting was a windowless book-lined room, reminiscent of a St James’s Street club, all dark wood and plush armchairs. The leather-backed volumes on the shelves were real, although they had a slightly ersatz look; closer inspection revealed they were unreadable Victorian treatises on land management, or bound editions of engineering periodicals.

If the bogus-yet-plush setting was somehow appropriate, it has to be noted that there is nothing fake about the wine in the bottles. Armand de Brignac is a very good Champagne, from excellent terroir. It’s not only Robinson who rates it highly. Two other critics of international standing, Tom Stevenson and Essi Avellan MW, called it “extraordinarily exceptional.” In 2010, the Brut Gold NV was voted the world’s best Champagne by Fine Champagne Magazine (the winner in 2014 was Roederer Cristal Rosé 2002).

But there are dissenting voices too, and discreet enquiries around the London trade are likely to be met with a gentle pursing of the lips, and an arched eyebrow. “It definitely has a following but I’m not convinced of its quality,” one major London merchant told Meininger’s, making the point that “part of its cleverness is its anonymity – no one knows it’s Cattier”. Back in the Churchill, critics drew ironic comparisons between the fakery of the décor and Armand de Brignac’s lurid packaging.

The juice is exceptional...

Chief marketing officer Bernadette Knight (who comes from luxury conglomerate LVMH, whose list includes Moët & Chandon, Dom Pérignon, Krug and Ruinart) is unfazed by the criticism. “There’s some work to do on messaging,” she said. “We’ve got a job to do to reintroduce the brand. But the juice is exceptional and there is passion on the winemaking side. It’s an authentic and honest brand.”

Knight and her global marketing team (“all wine and Champagne specialists”) have been on a charm offensive, running “traditional tastings which allowed both trade and consumers to better understand, taste and feel the attention to detail, pride and passion that the 11th generation family winemakers, the Cattiers, have put into each bottle of Armand de Brignac.” She has placed the wine in upmarket restaurants worldwide, from Zuma and Hakkasan in London to LA’s Beverly Hill’s Hotel and Wolfgang Puck’s Spago, Johannesburg’s Signature and the St Regis, Singapore. “As we grow, what will remain most important to us is the continued focus on craftsmanship, quality and small batch production,” Knight adds.

The input of Jay Z himself is harder to nail down. He has an empire that is estimated to be worth some $550m, so a few thousand bottles of Champagne can’t occupy him that much. “He brings his sensibility to the brand. He was involved in  the design of the bottle, and he directs where the company goes, but he isn’t involved in the winemaking process,” Alexandre Cattier says.

Knight adds to this: her boss is looking far into the future. She tells Meininger’s, “He wants to create a legacy for his family. He has said, ‘This is the legacy I want to leave behind for my children’s children.’ Jay is a businessman. He wants to make a true luxury brand that stands with or without him.”

Every multimillionaire wants to own a winery. Jay Z has a brand, but is he looking around for something more concrete? “This is a family company,” Besson reiterates. “There may be a vineyard in France, one day.”