Wednesday 12 December 2012

Between Trafalgar and Waterloo, superb 200-year-old Cognac

I had the oldest wine I’ve ever tasted on Tuesday – a Cognac produced between Trafalgar and Waterloo. Jack Aubrey would have known it.

The Renault Grande Fine Champagne Cognac Reserve 1810 goes on sale at Christies today with an estimate of around £2000 – a mere pinprick beside the £80k David Elswood and his boys are hoping for for the case of Jaboulet Hermitage La Chapelle 61 (‘unquestionably one of the greatest wines made in the 20th century’ RP; ‘priceless now’ MB), or the £5000 estimate on the 1938 Macallan Glenlivet, or the £15k for the Glenfiddich 50-year-old

Looks like a magnum here...
What a wonderful 200-year-old mouthful it was, what fulgent light gold-and-chestnut colour, and what a splendid nose of cream and caramel, dense figs, honey and prunes all layered (enrobé as the French say) in dry aromatic cedar, a Victorian cigar box where pot pourri has been kept. A box where sweets compacted lie, sherry-like, reminiscent of old PX…

The palate had more dried rose petals, citrus and orange zest, and incredibly youthful honey, caramel, toffee, unctuous sweetness and spice. Impossible to believe its age – if you had this blind you would swear it was less than 50 years old. That's to do with the alcohol - at least 40% the experts round the table said - there was a pronounced heft of alcohol on the end palate - not a burn, but a very definite presence, amazing for something so old.

The wine is part of the extraordinary second Tour d’Argent sale at Christie’s (the first from the ultra-famous Paris restaurant, in 2009, raised over £1.5m), and I went along to taste over a convivial supper in the boardroom upstairs at Christie's King Street HQ.

The Dutch Cognac collector Bay van der Bunt was there, whose Old Liquors collection is one of the biggest in the world and numbers bottles that travelled with Napoleon’s army, on the back of creaking wagons. He said the North Koreans are enthusiastic customers, a fact which I find rather depressing, given the horror stories that are coming out of that benighted country.

Anyway, back to King Street. I’ve never been to a dinner where Leflaive Puligny Montrachet 09, Palmer 05, Duhart Milon 00, Margaux 88 and the inimitable Pichon Lalande 82, followed by Yquem 04, were hors d’oeuvres to the main event.

Pichon’s long been one of my favourites and the 82 was delectable, knocked the Marguax into a cocked hat (as did all the rest actually – it’s on its last legs, so much more evolved, losing its length). The Palmer was a deep beast, hefty, granitic, slowly emerging. It will be beginning to wake up in 7 years and wondrous for the next 30. The Leflaive was also very young but with a lovely restrained honeyish nose and appley palate with very good acidity. Another stayer. The Yquem was delicious, marmalade and white flowers and that beautiful salty/umami base.

Tour d’Argent’s 3rd generation owner Andre Terrail was there. Many of the pre-1850 bottles in the sale come from the Café Anglais (his great grandfather married the heiress to the legendary eaterie – I forget her name), and when the Café went in 1913, and the cellars merged with Tour d'Argent, all the bottles (along with the cutlery and decanters and tablecloths) went to Tour d’Argent.
Now Terrail and David Ridgway (the veteran head sommelier at the Tour) are clearing out a few odds and sods, such as our 1810, the prized, pre-Revolutionary, Vieux Cognac Grande Champagne Fine ‘Clos de Griffier’ Café Anglais 1788, with an estimate of £3,000-£4,000. Other venerable lots include two jeroboams (2.5L) Grande Fine Champagne Cognac ‘La Tour d’Argent’ 1805, bottled on site more than 200 years ago. Estimates of between £10,000 and £15,000.

I asked Chris Munro, who's running the sale, why they were having it in London instead of Hong Kong, which for the last few years has been de rigueur for this kind of auction. He said it didn't make any difference where you hold it nowadays - they're doing a simulcast in Hong Kong with their man Simon Tam taking bids and passing them over to London. All the biggest lots will probably go to Asian collectors and restaurateurs.

The Christie's ecatalogue



Tuesday 17 July 2012

Marques de Murrieta is rebuilt stone by stone

Evolution is the heart of all great wine: fine winemakers obsessively consider  the progression of their wines from vintage to vintage, from decade to decade, how they change in tune with the public’s perception of how a wine should taste. But fine wine is also about consistency: however much the wine evolves it must be recognisably of its terroir. The only proprietor I have ever met who has so comprehensively made concrete this tension between change and consistency is Vicente Dalmau Cebrian-Sagarriga.

‘You see that building over there?’ The energetic owner of Marques de Murrieta points to a substantial, low dwelling 50 yards away. ‘In two weeks I’m going to pull that down.’ Indeed, he’s knocked down the entire estate and rebuilt it – almost exactly as it was before.

It is an extraordinary undertaking. The Castillo Ygay, the 160-year-old centrepiece, looks from the outside exactly as it did before. But since 2007 the castle - the main massing of the original stone – and its attendant buildings have been razed to the ground and rebuilt. The only part of the original estate that has survived is the 1852 bottle cellar. There are new tasting rooms, a museum, a dining room with a kitchen ‘identical to the one at El Bulli’, Cebrian says, namechecking the now-defunct Best Restaurant in the World, new cellars, a 70,000-bottle library of Murrieta vintages going back to 1852, and a shop with Enomatic machines for tasting.

And that is just the start. The next phase, starting in 2013, will be the rebuilding of the winemaking facilities, with new tanks and new equipment. The quantity of wine produced, delimited by the size of the estate, will not increase. The entire project, both castle and winery, will come in at some €20m.

It’s the kind of audacious and extravagant undertaking you’d expect to find in California. Sandstone blocks, each the size of a small car, are trucked in and hand-hewn by a team of Galician stonemasons who have been working on site for years. When cut to size, the stones are distressed by a mason with a cold-chisel – in order for them to look old. In the vast square-footage of the castle, and the hundreds of metres of pathway surrounding it, every pockmark on every stone has been chipped out by hand. I doubt Charles Foster Kane, dreaming of his Xanadu, would have gone that far. Cebrian says the stone accounted for some 20% of the cost of the project.

Why such an extraordinary undertaking? The old castillo desperately needed renovation – the foundations, they discovered, were less than a foot deep – but they wanted to preserve ‘with faithful accuracy its original shape, identity and architectural centennial beauty,’ as I’m told during one of our many email exchanges. Castillo Ygay was simply too much of an icon to change in even the smallest degree.

So it is new, but it is old. As such it’s the perfect metaphor for what Cebrian and his technical director Maria Vargas are trying to do at Murrieta. Indeed, it’s a handy metaphor for the process of change that is going on in the whole of Rioja, with bodegas teetering on that fine line between modernity and tradition.

Discussing the project, from the bricks-and-mortar rebuilding to the development of the wines, Cebrian’s conversation is littered with the language of evolution and preservation; the oxymoronic words ‘change’ and ‘maintain’ are used over and over again. ‘You can’t stop,’ he says. ‘You need always to be in evolution.’ And on the other hand, ‘Over 12 years I have been slowly defining the style of Murrieta while always trying to maintain the identity. It’s like the winery: we are balancing tradition and identity, youth and modernity.’

The Ygay estate, which Luciano, Marques de Murrieta founded in the mid-19th century (1852 was the date of the first official shipping of the wines), is the biggest single estate in Rioja. Its 300ha are wholly-owned – unusually for the region, where it is far more common for even the oldest estates to own few hectares but to buy in grapes from dozens of growers. The vineyards, composed of old alluvial soils, clay and limestone, with a warm surface of hefty river stones, give excellent drainage and are meticulously husbanded.

‘Everything starts in the vineyard,’ Cebrian says. Vine stress is controlled by ultra-modern infrared leaf imaging techniques by which water conductivity in the leaf is measured and vines irrigated accordingly. Parcels are separately vinified, and the team – led by Vargas – are constantly adjusting maceration times and the oak regime in search of the perfect balance of colour and fruit.

The flagship wine, the Gran Reserva Castillo Ygay – a Tempranillo/Mazuelo blend which Greg Sherwood MW of importer Handford Wines calls ‘One of the three most famous labels anywhere in the world’ – is undergoing a transformation as radical, and perhaps as invisible, as the castle itself.

‘We don’t want to lose the identity American oak gives the wine,’ Cebrian says, ‘but we want to offer  more fruit and a better balance between oak and fruit.’

From the 2000 vintage the oak regime (on both Ygay and Marques de Murrieta, the entry-level offering) has been overhauled. Whereas Ygay used to spend 50-60 months in 5-7-year-old barrels, Cebrian and Vargas have shortened and intensified the process. Now it spends 30 months in oak, the first year of which is new. ‘This is the first time Ygay has touched new oak at the beginning of its life.’

Fermentation and maceration is now far more controlled, Cebrian says, at lower temperatures, ‘for less extraction but more fruit’.

The aim, he says, is to turn back the clock: to return Murrieta to the glory days. ‘What we’re trying to achieve is to move into the era of Marques de Murrieta wines of 40 years ago – wines of elegance, femininity and power, with nice balance and a lot of colour.’

There are of course two Ygays: one that is bottled after 30 months and aged for three years in bottle; and the historic vintages, which are left in barrel for decades. The 1978 is in the market now (it sells for less than £100 a bottle, amazingly), and the next release will be the 1980, followed possibly by the 1982 and the 87.

‘We want to show the market how Ygay can age in oak and bottle,’ Cebrian says.

In the €15 Marques de Murrieta, there is also this adjustment, a throttling back of extraction here, a slight lowering of the fermentation temperature there.

‘In 2008 we are turning into something more delicate and feminine. It’s exactly the same basis but we’re moving into something more exclusive. Between 2007 and 2008 you can see another touch’ – but as always he stresses the delicacy of the adjustment – ‘there is no parabola.’

Vicente Dalmau Cebrian-Sagarriga y Suarez-Llanos, Conde de Creixell, inherited one of the most venerable bodegas in Spain in 1996 at the age of 24, on the sudden death of his father, who was only 47. There was, he said, ‘a great emptiness’ in those months. He clarifies: ‘An emptiness in the sense of image. Who was the boss? What was going to happen to the winery?’

So he went to Ygay and ‘spent three years just looking. What was the new project? I knew I had to maintain the identity of the estate but at the same time add youth and modernity.’

It’s a powerful picture. A young man, a playboy (as he says he still is – ‘girlfriends, girlfriends, girlfriends’), literally at the centre of the great estate, trying to make sense of his sudden inheritance, keen to make a mark yet sensible of the weight of history and the responsibility that has landed on his shoulders.

I also get an idea that the Cebrian family – outsiders from Galicia (where the stonemasons come from) – took a while to adjust to Rioja. Cebrian’s father had bought the noble but run-down bodega in 1983 on the proceeds of the sale of TV company Antena 3, ‘but the Riojanas wouldn’t accept him. He was resented.’

The young heir had even more of a reason to stamp his authority on Murrieta: he was doing it for his father as well.

The result of his three-year contemplation of the estate was the hiring of ‘a new, young team’, with Vargas being appointed winemaker in 2000. ‘This was a new project inside the old. We began a different dialogue with the estate.’

As far as the wines were concerned, there was indeed a ‘new project within the old’. Cebrian’s father had died just as the drive to ‘modernity’ was kicking off. In Bordeaux this meant the Vins de Garage of the right bank; in Rioja a similar style – micro-cuvée, nano-yield, high extraction, fruit-layered wines – became known by the wonderfully pretentious moniker of Vinos de Autor.

‘I hate that – the concentration, the high-fruit nose, the high alcohol. But one of the first projects that Maria and I did was to make another red wine next to this new concept of Rioja. It would represent a very small percentage of our output, only 20,000 bottles, but it would be a chance for Marques de Murrieta to show this is what we feel is a modern wine.’

It would, Cebrian said, ‘send a message to the market that the son had taken over.’ Dalmau, Murrieta’s very own ‘Vino de Autor’,  led the charge. This is how Cebrian would ‘show the market how Marques de Murrieta understands the new era of winemaking in Rioja.’

He and Vargas were consciously breaking free of history. ‘With this wine we had no roots. We thought, “Let’s do something different”.’

They added Cabernet Sauvignon (the estate’s tiny Cabernet crop now goes entirely into Dalmau) to the 90%-plus Tempranillo, put it through malolactic fermentation in barrel (‘for a creamier feel’), and aged it for 20 months in 225-litre new French oak barrels.

The Tempranillo comes from the prized Canajas plot, 500m above sea level, where the vines are 50 years old – and they ramp up the concentration by green-harvesting an average of 50% of the fruit.

The resulting €80 wine is a dark, almost inky glassful, redolent of pencil shavings, eucalyptus, dark black cherry and blackberry, with tremendous potency, silky tannins and wonderful length. It is a delicious wine, made by a winemaker at the top of her game, with the best raw material and the most expensive technology available.

But, to paraphrase the French general, ‘C’est magnifique, mais ce n’est pas Rioja.’ In Cebrian’s own phrase, it is a ‘concept wine’, and for all its sleekness it is about as Spanish as the glass elevators that swoosh up and down the outside of the Reina Sofia art gallery in Madrid.

I don’t share these thoughts during the tasting as we have already discussed modernity and internationalism in some detail. While we were looking at the Marques de Murrieta I had suggested the 2008 had a more ‘international’ feel than its predecessors. What did I mean, Cebrian asked. It was more to do with the quality of the tannins and the liftedness of the palate, I thought, but it was subtle. What I called international could be described as feminine – that is, more in tune with a worldwide movement towards lighter and more delicate wines. He was mollified. ‘I thought for a moment you were saying we had lost our Rioja character.’

Not a bit of it – the Marques de Murrieta is a wonderful, terroir-driven wine. But I simply can’t say the same for Dalmau, which I think is one of those toned, somewhat airbrushed beauties one finds from high-end wineries all over the world: wines designed to wow a tableful of Korean businessmen as effortlessly as a dinner party in Oslo.

There are many who disagree. Greg Sherwood reckons ‘they don’t lose their roots. You can definitely taste Spain – there’s that hint of classicism’ and veteran Spanish expert John Radford agrees. ‘Unmistakeably Rioja, and a fascinating combination of traditional and modern.’

Sherwood concedes however it isn’t in the same league as its sister wines, whose ‘huge recognition’ and reputation mean they fly off the shelves. ‘It’s a modern style and it’s just finding its feet. It never really got the traction the other wines have.’

After our morning of tasting at Murrieta, Cebrian, Vargas and I head off for a late lunch in Logroño. ‘I have a surprise for you,’ he says, pulling a Castillo Ygay 1959 out of his bag.

It was bottled in 1989 after 30 years in barrel, with no racking,  just topping up, and it is sublime. Sprightly, bright and clean, with an extraordinary flavour of sweet quince, prunes and pot pourri, and sweet refreshing tannins.

We taste it alongside the 2004 Ygay. ‘You can see the family resemblance. They have the same structure. They are brothers,’ Vargas says.

This, I think, is unmistakeably Rioja. The 2004 is a superb mouthful of black cherry, black pepper and silky tannins, but it is a mere child beside the aristocratic 1959. How do they see it evolving?

‘It’s going to be great,’ Cebrian says. Then he adds, swirling the 59 in his glass, ‘But with this in mind, it is quite a responsibility.’

Marques de Murrieta wines:

Pazo Barrantes Albariño, Rias Baixas, Galicia
100% Albariño produced at the Cebrian-Sagarriga family estate Pazo Barrantes in Galicia, vinified in stainless steel

La Comtessa Albariño, Pazo Barrantes, Rias Baixas, Galicia
Newly-released high-end Albariño from Pazo Barrantes. Single vineyard, aged 18 months in French oak and 12 months in bottle. 3800 bottles produced in 2009

Marques de Murrieta Capellania Viura, Rioja
100% Viura from parcels grown at 300m on the Ygay estate, aged 15 months in new French oak

Marques de Murrieta Reserva, Rioja
Tempranillo, Garnacha Tinta, Mazuelo, Graciano, all from the Ygay estate. Aged 20-22 months in American oak of which at least 8 months in new barrels. One year in bottle before release

Castillo Ygay Gran Reserva Especial, Rioja
Tempranillo and Mazuelo from the finest Ygay plots. Only produced in the best vintages. Up to 30 months years in American oak, of which at least 10 months in new barrels, and 3 years ageing in bottle.

In the very best years the wine is left in barrel of decades: the 1978 was bottled in 1998 and released in 2007. The next releases will be the 1980, followed possibly by the 1982 and the 87.  Since 2000, the Gran Reserva Especial has come exclusively from the La Plana vineyard on the estate

The ‘statement’ cuvée, a blend of Tempranillo with less than 10% Cabernet Sauvignon and Graciano, all from the estate. Aged for up to 20 months in new French oak. The first vintage was 1994.

This article was first published in Decanter magazine

Thursday 26 April 2012

English dry whites are like French rock 'n' roll...

[This article first appeared in Food and Travel magazine]

[Note that the next English wine tasting is May 3rd - I'll update after it]
‘Ah, English wine, it tastes of rain,’ was a frequently-heard jibe up to a few years ago. Not any more. Now it is commonplace for English sparkling wines to win serious international prizes. The Ridge View Grosvenor Blanc de Blancs for example, won the top gong at the Decanter World Wine Awards two years ago, seeing off  the likes of Taittinger, Charles Heidsieck, and Thienot.

 English still wines are another story. Southern England, with its chalk and limestone soils and warm maritime climate, is perfect for developing the racy, nervy acids and keen fruit flavours that are so prized in fine dry sparkling wine, but up to now we’ve struggled to coax enough flavour to make anything but rather flabby, thin white wines – tasting, indeed, of rain. 

How things have changed. At the last big English wine tasting, on a beautiful spring day in London last year, the hall was buzzing like a row of Kentish beehives. As I went round the tables I became convinced that English still wines are now more than a curiosity.

Tthe finest English whites are delicious, refreshing, delicately floral, with scents redolent of the hedgerows: cow-parsley, forget-me-not, sweet hawthorn, cowslip, thistle, elder and dog rose. Many producers have found that sought-after combination of low alcohol with taste. Most of the wines clock in at less than 12% alcohol yet still have body, fruit, acidity, and length.
The best grapes for still whites are Bacchus and Ortega. Both are aromatic and floral – Ortega is a distant relation of Gewurztraminer and has some of that variety’s viscosity and perfumed oomph, but in a very understated, English way. If I was planting a vineyard tomorrow, for still wines, I’d back these two. 

At this stage I can only recommend the white wines. Enthusiasts will tell you there are very fine rosés and reds around, but I haven’t seen one that I would serve my guests as enthusiastically as the whites. Rosés can be underwhelming and damp, while reds can be rather thin and metallic. Global warming aside, average temperatures and sunshine hours in England just aren’t enough to ripen red grapes. 

While English whites are more than a curiosity, I fear it will be decades before they represent more than a cottage industry. They’re never going to be able to compete on price, for a start. However accomplished the winemaking and however delicious the wine, there is always going to be a Sauvignon Blanc de Touraine several pounds cheaper. It’s like French rock ‘n’ roll: it can be charming, but it’s always going to be the poor cousin because someone, somewhere, is producing something louder and with less effort. 

That analogy might be worth exploring further: ‘louder’ being the key word. We tasted the wines below on the hottest day of the year so far, sitting in March sunshine in a garden in Kent. They went perfectly with the benign warmth of the sun, with the feeling of spring growth all around, the delicate nettle flavours, hints of damp earth and greenness seemed quite in harmony. I can’t help feeling that riper, more fruit-forward wines might have overwhelmed. 

So there’s a time and a place for English wines. Don’t baulk at the price: over thirteen quid for a still English wine that isn’t quite as fresh or quite as fruity or floral as its Kiwii counterpart at £6.49 is pushing it a bit. But £9 for a wine that is so freighted with English terroir you could close your eyes and be in a country garden on the South Downs? I bet you spend more than that on orange juice every week.

1.    Three Choirs Annum 2011
Incredibly – almost  off-puttingly – light in colour, an attractive nose of grapefruit and summer fruits, and a bit of spice. The palate has more summer fruits, elderflower and a good mouthfilling weight and nice fresh acidity that belies the colour.

 2.    Biddenden Ortega 2011
From the vineyards of Kent, surrounded by pear and apple orchards, this has a sweet dense gooseberry nose and good weight, with perfumed crunchy apple flavours. Ortega is related to Gewurztraminer, and this has something of the grape’s florality and unction.
Best English Wine, Biddenden Vineyards, English Wine Centre, Harvey Nichols, Secret Cellar, Slurp

 3.    Chapel Down Bacchus 2011
Very pale colour, but a good healthy nose with hint of pear drops. The acidity is lovely on this wine, fresh and sweet, with notes of melon and pineapple and some nettley flavours. Light and refreshing – a wine for late morning in summer.

 4.    Camel Valley Darnibole Bacchus 2011
One of the best Bacchus around, from a multi-award-winning English vineyard. Flavours of gooseberry, crisp apple, and some elderflower, set off by clean, nervy acidity a crisp, food-friendly finish. Great with seafood.
Berry Bros £15.95

 5.    Kenton Vineyard Bacchus 2010
Powerful Sauvignon flavours (but in a good way – not sweaty or tinny asparagus but delicate gooseberry and cut apple). The nettle palate almost stings the tongue. Long and sweetly aromatic, bursting with English flavour. Very good, and an excellent price
Kenton Vineyard £7.95

6.    Three Choirs Madelaine Angevine 2010
Lovely floral, nettley character with aromatic spice, great acid balance and good length. Delicious, very light but with massive charm and character. Another one for a summer morning.
Three Choirs Vineyards

Friday 20 April 2012

An evening with Pingus at Roberson

Roberson, the West London wine merchant, runs some of the best tastings in London under the auspices of the talented Mark Andrew. A testament to the tastings’ popularity is the kind of people Andrew attracts. Neal Martin is always there, Jancis Robinson often, Michael Broadbent, Steven Spurrier, Julia Harding… all make the longish trek down Kensington High Street for the informal meetings in the room under the well-stocked shop. They’re idiosyncratic as well – there’s hardly any attempt to sell the wine (indeed, a note at the bottom of the tasting notes usually says ‘Price is indicative only as we have no stock’).

Last night they were showing Ribera del Duero’s Pingus, the most famous winery in Spain, and the most expensive. I was disappointed at first that the owner Peter Sisseck wasn’t there (I’d seen him earlier this week at a Taransaud seminar at Vintners Hall) but Andrew is a fluent and sharply informed and the wines (to me at least) need a lot of discussion which wouldn’t have been nearly so frank if Sisseck had been there.

Pingus is world-renowned as one of the most celebrated micro-cuvees of Spain, lauded by Robert Parker as ‘one of the greatest and most exciting young red wines’ he had ever tasted. Stories of the tiny yields (harvests never top 12 ha/hl), hand de-stemming, 200% new oak etc are legion, as is the legendary account of the shipwreck off the Azores in which the entire US consignment of the 95 vintage was lost, sending the price into the furthest galaxies. Prices now reach Petrus-like levels: the 2004 is over £1000 a bottle. Oak has been gradually reduced – in 2011 the wine will be aged in 100% old barrels for the first time. Sisseck told me he now believes too much use of oak is lazy winemaking – it should all be done in the vineyard.

Last night we saw Flor de Pingus (not a second wine) from 35-year-old vines as opposed to the 75-80 year-olds of the Pingus vineyards, and Psi, the result of a project by which Sisseck works with smaller growers to make ‘a low-intervention wine’ as Roberson’s notes have it.

We also had two vintages of Hacienda Monasterio, the estate bought by a consortium in 1991 and revived by Sisseck, before he started Pingus. It sits in the ‘Golden Mile’ between the villages of Pesquera and Valbuena de Duero, a stretch that includes a roll call of Ribera vineyard aristocracy, with parcels going into Vega Sicilia, Abadia Retuerta, Alion, Pesquera and of course Pingus. Sisseck consults.

The first thing to say is that these are very good wines, as my notes should make clear. Only one of them (the egregious Amelia) I wouldn’t be delighted to drink and serve. The second thing to say is that they are very expensive wines – and there’s the rub. I have to say that if I had the choice between a £500 bottle of Pingus 1997 and a dozen venerable Riojas at half the price, the Pingus might come second.

The 1997 is a lovely wine but it’s showing its age. The fruit is beginning to look tired, the tannins just on the turn towards dryness. By contrast, I had a 1959 Castillo Ygay some months ago, a wine which sells for just over £200 a bottle, which was ethereal, memorable, developing tropical fruit flavours, quince and jelly, with tannins gently ageing but without a hint of dryness – I can’t see the Pingus getting to that stage.

Likewise the £30 Psi. A competent wine but there are many Riojas or Tuscans or Cru Bourgeois that will offer more complexity, fruit and style for less than that.

Icons are icons and cults are cults, of course, and you’re paying for the name and the pedigree, the age of the vines, and (dare I say it) the Parker encomium. Which brings me to Amelia.

This is a nano-cuvee of 25 cases, from a parcel of 100-year-old vines sold exclusively to America at about £250 the bottle. It tastes like a more over-the-top Cabernet from Santa Barbara, all creamy vanilla oak and overwhelming tannins. I’ll buy a case of it for anyone who could place it in Spain, or Europe, in a blind tasting.

All power to Mark Andrew, who bought the bottles we tasted back from the States in a suitcase.

What a fascinating evening it was. The verdict? Some superb wines but at the price, and for the cultish reputation, strangely underwhelming.

2009 Psi
100% Tinto Fino
Bright cherry nose with strawberry and raspberry, nice sweet juicy jammy (but not cooked) aromas – good acid balance, though fruit a bit lacking on mid palate. Not long, disappointingly. £30

2008 Psi
100% Tinto Fino
Many more secondary flavours on nose – rot and earth – darker fruit with darker cherry and cooked strawberry flavours underneath – much more body, denser, more gripping tannins – elegant and fine but dry at the end. Seems to have more age than vintage would suggest £28.95

Hacienda Monasterio Reserva 2005
80% Tinto Fino, remainder Cabernet and Merlot
Bright bright colour – clear and fresh
Lovely dense dark fruit nose, tar and graphite, minerality, tannins present, strong and precise, spice and power but very integrated and fine, fruit (damson, cherry, sloe and plum) dominant throughout. Really superb wine with wonderful finesse. £52.95

Hacienda Monasterio Reserva 2003
80% Tinto Fino, remainder Cabernet and Merlot
Bright colour, clear and fresh. Amazing dense animal skin nose with dark dark fruit – stewed cherry and plum, blackberry and sweet blackcurrant – wonderful juicy mouthfeel with gripping tannins throughout but never overwhelming the fruit – power and finesse – superb. And very very long – effect lasts for a full minute or more. £52.95

Flor de Pingus 2004
Tarry graphite nose with blackcurrant and some mint and leather. Really full juicy mouthfeel, dense tannins starting later on the palate, juicy acids and slight lack of fruit on mid palate. Length is understated but very present. Very fresh. £125

Flor de Pingus 2003
Really dense full nose – lots going on there – sour cherry and sloe palate – a bit cooked, acids overwhelming the tannin,  fruit slightly passed, dry acid (not dry tannin) length. Length dry but satisfying. Very pretty wine. £95

Flor de Pingus 1996
Lovely dried rose petal nose, pot pourri, delicious in expectation. Palate soft and wonderfully integrated in acid and tannin, all dancing on the palate in harmony. This is a wine in a minor key – fruit and acid and tannins are gentle and smooth. Not a blockbuster but delicate, pretty length. £95

Pingus ‘Amelia’ 2006
Dense blackcurrant  nose with creamy vanilla notes, unexpected in such a line-up. Tannins strong and very present, some alcohol burn on this. There is creamy delicacy throughout but it’s all a bit over the top. A very made wine, aimed squarely at the international market, meant to wow those with deep pockets from Seoul to San Francisco. Unsuccessful – the sort of wine you’d find in a tourist tasting room somewhere like Santa Barbara. £250

Pingus 1998
Wood and earth and rot on the nose – no cream – lovely dense sweet wood and dark fruit palate. Sour, sweet, full juicy palate with lots of fruit and very integrated dusty, mature ripe tannins. Lovely. Slightly dry finish spoils the finale. £520

Pingus 1997
Fabulous meaty, truffly forest floor aromas. Really lovely delicate seductive nose. Full and delicate palate, very juicy, venerable (but should we say that about a 97 of this class?) Very pretty, sweet and still full of length and tannins. Wonderful but so developed – I wonder how it’s going to last?. £520

Thursday 19 April 2012

At Chateau Phelan Segur

(This article first appeared in The World of Fine Wine, May 2012)

In 2006 Thierry Gardinier sat down with Michel Rolland and hatched a plan to produce a new cuvee. It would be a ‘statement’, something that would show what the gravelly St Estephe mounds could produce if you really pulled out the stops. The result was Fée Aux Roses, a Cabernet-Merlot mix, taken from the oldest vines on the estate, five or six days maceration, fermented in barrel. The result is a wine that journalist Jane Anson described as ‘Rich and intense with some chewy tannins, but far from overpowering, [with] a wonderfully silky texture and a real elegance.’

Only the fact that I’ve mentioned St Estephe in the foregoing paragraph would give the uninitiated reader a clue that we’re in Bordeaux and not, say, Napa. Just look at the bottle Fée Aux Roses comes in: broad-shouldered, heavy, with a punch that swallows your fist entire.

I recently tasted the 2008 Fée with a friend, a knowledgeable amateur. We both agreed it is an excellent, well-made wine. ‘It’s soft, ripe, obviously Merlot-heavy,’ he said. ‘Not Medoc, though. It’s far more St Emilion or Pomerol than St Estephe. And it’s drinking young.’ And then the coup de grace: ‘Delicious but commercial.’

Fee Aux Roses hasn’t appeared on the market yet (Gardinier, I sense, would be far happier to forget it altogether – when I asked for more details he emailed, ‘Communication on Fée aux Roses is not “d’actualité” for Château Phélan Ségur’). The question with such super-cuvées is always, if your very best grapes were going into this, what’s going into the Grand Vin? It’s a very New World idea, to create a ‘Reserve’ (usually called after one of the owner’s children), to show ‘the true potential of the terroir’. They are all laudable concepts and ones that can produce wonderful wines, but it’s just not the sort of thing they do in Bordeaux.

Phelan is in Bordeaux but – in many ways – not of it. St Estephe, for a start, is always a far longer drive than you expect, some way beyond the manicured lawns and exotic weeping willows of Chateau Lafite, the furthest outpost of civilization for many. And St Estephe seems different, somehow. Sleepy even by Bordeaux standards, the village seems barely populated even on a weekday afternoon.

The handsome 19th century Chateau Phelan Segur and its vineyards sit high in St Estephe between two illustrious neighbours, Calon Segur to the northwest and Montrose to the southeast. Its 70ha of vineland consists of gravelly alluvial deposits - sand and stones, on gentle slopes that offer some of the finest drainage in the region. And what stones they are – some of the Phelan plots would not be out of place in Chateauneuf du Pape.

Thierry Gardinier

The quality of the soil is literally brought into relief at a point where Gardinier improved the lie of one vineyard by levelling it off, creating a terraced bank in which you can see a cross-section of the land. It is nothing but vertical sand and stone a metre deep.

There’s no doubt as to the value of Phelan’s holdings: in 2010 Gardinier sold 22ha of vineyard to Martin Bouygues of Montrose for €900,000 a hectare, the biggest sale ever in St Estephe. He doesn’t consider the land he sold to Montrose the best he had – ‘half of it was very good, the rest was limestone and clay,’ he says. ‘It was a genuine business decision. We wanted to liquify some cash.’ Indeed – the €20m-odd was used to buy a majority share in the Taillevent group in Paris, of which more later.

The vineyard Gardinier lavishes most attention on is the 25ha Houissant, acquired in 2002, and the origin of the long-standing coolness between him and another formidable neighbour, Jean-Guillaume Prats of Cos d’Estournel.

They were both after that land, a well-placed source told me. ‘They fought to the death over it.’ As well they might. Gardinier considers it the jewel in the Phelan crown.

Houissant is being husbanded with meticulous care. The rows were grassed over two years ago in order to reduce yield – at 7000 vines per hectare the vine density is lower than the 8,500–9000 vines per hectare on the rest of the property. At the moment the vineyard consists of 15 hectares of Merlot and eight hectares of Cabernet, but they are ‘going to change the whole vineyard to Cabernet,’ Gardinier says, in line with his five- to eight-year plan of making Phelan 70% Cabernet, as opposed to today’s 55% Cabernet and 45% Merlot. ‘Houissant has the potential to make 90% of Phelan Segur,’ he thinks.

Phelan is a curious mixture. Its wines are regarded as classic (Hugh Johnson considers it ‘strong and reliable…one of St Estephe’s best’)  but it always seems to have a whiff of the iconoclastic about it.

It belongs to no classification: Gardinier resigned the presidency of the Alliance des Cru Bourgeois in 2010 after withdrawing the chateau from the running. He does not bother trying to persuade the Conseil des Grands Crus Classés en 1855, the governing body of the 1855 classification, to adjust the listing, as they did when Chateau Mouton was elevated to First Growth status in 1971. ‘It would be too much effort to lobby,’ he told me, and in any case, the Place de Bordeaux - the system by which negociants trade the wines of the region – already considers Phelan a ‘cru classe assimilé’.

What about joining the new Cru Bourgeois breakaway group, the former Cru Bourgeois Exceptionnels -  Chasse Spleen, Les Ormes de Pez, de Pez, Potensac, Poujeaux and Siran – that boycotted the new Alliance Cru Bourgeois system, and forming their own group? He won’t do that either: ‘We are above all of them. We have all the attributes of a cru classé. We are a great name. We have more than 200 years of history, and we have great terroir in a top appellation.’

The Gardiniers are outsiders. The family is from Picardy; they made their money – lots of it – in fertiliser. In the 1970s, when Xavier Gardinier put his money into phosphates in Florida, The New York Times said it was ‘probably the most successful French investment in American resources’.

They had moved into Champagne in 1946, buying 2000 acres of hunting forest, planting vines, marrying into the Lanson family, acquiring Champagne Pommery and then selling the lot in 1983, snapping up Phelan, pretty much on its uppers at that stage, a few years later.

There was never any doubt as to Xavier Gardinier’s intentions. As soon as he took over Phelan he declassified three consecutive vintages and launched a multimillion dollar lawsuit into the bargain. As Jane Anson notes, ‘one of [Xavier Gardinier’s] first decisions was to recall, or refuse to sell, three consecutive vintages from 1983 to 1985.’ He even filed a US$57m suit in San Francisco against the Chevron Chemical Company, accusing the company of supplying the chateau with an insecticide, Orthene 50, that made the 1983, 1984 and 1985 vintages ‘undrinkable and unmarketable’.

According to the New York Times, ‘Phelan-Segur's suit, repurchasing the 83 wine, withholding the 84s already sold, cancelling the sale of some 85s, withholding the rest of the vintage and replacing 2,500 contaminated barrels, cost at least FF45m, or between US$7m and US$8m’.

Phelan now is part of a much grander empire, run by the three Gardinier brothers, Thierry, Laurent and Stéphane - their father Xavier is a still-formidable though ailing presence. The Gardinier holdings encompass an orange plantation in Florida which Stephane runs, the luxury hotel Chateau Les Crayeres in Reims, run by Laurent, and the Paris-based Taillevent group, which Thierry is in charge of. The ethos of the business, Thierry said, is what he calls the art de vivre – ‘everything has wine and food at the centre’. Taillevent is a huge undertaking: there is the luxury hotel at the Arc de Triomphe, L’Angle du Faubourg restaurant, and the Caves Taillevent wine merchant.

So Gardinier himself spends a small proportion of his time in Bordeaux.  The day to day running of the chateau is in the hands of managing director Veronique Dausse and chef de cave Fabrice Bacquey, who has just taken over from the veteran cellar master Alain Coculet.

Dausse is another outsider – she arrived in Bordeaux intending to buy an ice-cream business and found herself being interviewed by Gardinier and then offered the top job. She accepted the offer on the condition that she could have ‘100% autonomy’. It’s quite plain, seeing her and Gardinier together, that they are as ambitious – and unconventional – as each other, and united in a common philosophy.

‘I took the job as a challenge – that we can be the first great chateau to succeed outside the 1855 classification,’ Dausse says.

In Bordeaux but not of it. The Fee aux Roses episode is telling. How many other estates of the reputation of Phelan have done something so declassé? The Bordeaux way is to go down the scale, producing third and fourth wines. The statement wine has something of the arriviste about  it, not to mention hubris: ‘I have arrived, and this is what I can do.’

The reason I mention Fee Aux Roses is because I think it says something about the kind of people the Gardiniers are. Thierry has an endearing entrepreneurial streak that is more kitchen-table than Alan Sugar. He’s proud of the spiffy narrow barrows he designed to save the pickers’ backs, and he told me about a home-potato-growing device called H2gr0w [sic] that is frankly loopy – although he’s patenting it and has persuaded his brothers it’s worth investing half a million euros in. ‘The urge to experiment is in my DNA’, he says.

But beyond all that, above the statements, the flexing of the muscles, the general restlessness, is the high seriousness of the Phelan project. The watchword now is quality, at every level, and sparing no expense. I visited at the beginning of September when the first Merlot was coming in and the team was trialling the new US$100,000 Bucher Vaslin optic sorter, which processes grapes at a rate of up to 10,000kg per hour. There are a few of these huge machines around – Mouton uses one, as does Opus One. You set your ideal parameters of grape shape and colour, and optic technology does the rest, at bewildering speed.

Gardinier frowned at what looked like perfect grapes being spat out into the reject bin. ‘We just need to adjust it a bit,’ he said. He’s happy with the trial, he says. It is ten times faster than hand-sorting (which they still do on bunches), and far more accurate. ‘Look at this,’ he says, showing a blur of sorted grapes whizzing along on their conveyor. ‘Before, there would have been scraps of stalk getting in. Now we have only the pure grapes.’

Tasting the wines, you see the progression over the last few years. In a vertical you notice that 2004 marks a watershed. The 2001 is a magnificent wine, with a lovely taffeta nose, delicate sweet berry fruit, soft persistent tannins and juice-laden acids. It is wonderful, understated, a very fine rather old-fashioned St Estephe. Then the 2002, with its dryish length, is again in that lower register. Then the anomalous 2003, a trumpet blast of sweet fruit and cooked berries.

But alongside the 2004 I’ve written ‘Modern age’ in my notes. It has the trademark leather, mocha and cedar box nose and refreshing palate but there is a new quality to the tannins and the character of the wine. For the first time there is a roundness to the palate, and the tannins show density and power that you don’t find in the earlier vintages. If the 2002 is in a minor key, this is major. It is a modern wine. From now on – the 2005, the 2008, and the pre-eminent 2009 and 10 – the hallmarks are richness, density, purity and power.

When I put this idea – that the style is moving into a ‘modern’ phase – to Michel Rolland, he was wary (he’s nervous of a word like ‘modern’, so often used as a stick to beat him with). ‘I’m not so sure about that. We are simply aiming for more volume and sweetness in the mid-palate – that is where the real quality lies. What we have achieved in 2009 and 2010 is where we want to be, with more definition, a purity of style, freshness and above all density in the mid-palate.’

For Gardinier, 2010 sets the standard. ‘For its richness and density of tannins, and fruit. This is the benchmark.’ Later he tells me, ‘The terroir speaks for itself . It is obvious when we taste a vertical of Phélan Ségur.  Elegance, balance, precision , the quality of the tannins bringing great ageing potential, aromatic complexity, mocha, dark chocolate and spice when they are young; leather, truffles, cigar box when they are getting a little bit older.’

There is no mention of Phelan’s achilles heel: astringency and a certain dryness of tannins and length, which is notable on vintages like the 2007 and 2002. Gardinier – or more accurately, Veronique Dausse and Rolland – are working, above all in the vineyard, to achieve that great aim of richness and density.

They may be looking to the future but they are also impatient with talk of iconoclasm – they don’t want to be seen as meddlesome innovators. I sent an email just before Christmas asking Dausse and Gardinier their opinion of my idea that the 2004 vintage seems to mark a step-change in the development of the style, and my phone rang almost immediately. It was Dausse, on holiday in St Lucia  (I could hear sounds of fishing tackle being chucked around in the background).

‘It’s very difficult to see any kind of breaking point in the style,’ she said. ‘There’s a consistency  that we notice whenever we do a vertical.’

But, she added, it’s not a question of there being no evolution. It is more a question of building layers, adding components as the vintages progress.

‘For example, the 2001 is all about elegance and precision. We want to keep that elegance and also try to bring richness and density.’ She used the word enrobé, whose literal translation, ‘coated’, conveys nothing of the delicacy of the original French word.

She hated my description of the 2001 as ‘old-fashioned’ and repeated that the qualities that make it great, the classical elegance of the tannins for example, were qualities that they were taking great pains to keep. The 2009 and 2010, those examplars of the new style, would be ‘the best of both worlds, with the elegance and refinement plus the density of tannins.’ It will be an altogether more powerful wine than 2001, she said.

Every conversation in Bordeaux – every conversation anywhere, about wine – eventually comes back to those twin holy grails, power and finesse. This is what the team at Phelan Segur have set their sights on. And this is what I think the overblown Fee Aux Roses (and they’ll despair that I’ve come back to it yet again) was all about. It’s as if they have taken charge of a wonderful complex machine and opened every valve to see what it can do at full pitch. Having made their adjustments, they can throttle back and let the thing run itself, sweetly, with the lightest hand on the lever.

Tuesday 27 March 2012

At the Velodrome

The British - and especially Londoners  - have taken the Olympic Velodrome to their hearts. It’s been given a nickname, the Pringle, which hardly describes the excellence of the building but shows how affectionately we feel towards it. Approaching in the half dark of a winter’s evening everyone gets their camera out as the handsome wooden curve of the roof looms out of the dusk, with the deep blue-black sky behind it. It’s much bigger than you expect; the roof, formed of thin slats of maple, looks like the hull of a boat, like an artist’s impression of the ark.

In the distance behind us (we’ve just been bussed across the Olympic park), is the square bulk of the Westfield shopping centre with its 320 retail units. Each one’s size and shape and orientation is calculated to receive the optimum footfall, to make the most money most efficiently. Westfield is all about profit – the idea that any imagination should come into the design of it is laughable. It’s garish, crowded and noisy, and even though it’s huge, it feels claustrophobic.

The escalators, which could have been soaring aerial stairways from the top of which you could survey the whole domain (Westminster underground station, designed by Hopkins Architects, builders of the Velodrome, incidentally, is criss-crossed with escalators which give views of the cavernous underground halls they traverse) are mean utilitarian affairs, designed to deliver shoppers efficiently to their destination. Shoppers gawping at the view aren’t opening their wallets, after all.

Westfield is about making money, the Park is about spending it, they say, but that doesn’t make it any more awful, full of pointless noise and discord; even though you’re constantly moving and constantly jostled, all this activity seems quite aimlesss.

I think that’s why everyone loves the Velodrome. While Westfield shows the ugly side of 21st century mega-projects like the Olympics, the Velodrome embodies what everyone wants to believe, that behind all the bombast there’s still a type of nobility behind the idea of the greatest show on earth.

Westfield is boxy and disproportionate, the Velodrome is all satisfying curves, from that great hulled crisp-shaped top and its mirror image, the asymmetic wooden track with its vertiginous looping ends.  The banked rows of spectators mimic the swoop of the track, and above it all there’s the undulating line of that famous roof. It’s like sitting inside a Mobius strip.

Movement too is the defining feature of the Velodrome. The whole place is fluid – you step through the door and whoosh, there’s the track with a dozen cyclists on a warm-up round (if you lean on the rail you feel the vibration of tyre on sprung wood as they pass). Wherever  you stand your eye is drawn to that exhilarating noiseless motion.

The bikes may be soundless but  but if I’ve given the impression the Velodrome  on World Cup night is a quiet place, not at all. The 5000 spectators are vocal and partisan. Next to me is an entire family draped in a union jack. When Chris Hoy takes gold on the Keirin the roar is shattering, everyone on their feet shouting their heads off. Mike Taylor, the Hopkins senior partner who designed the Velodrome – my brother-in-law as it happens – is hoarse after three days of the World Cup.

Even the normal annoyances of any big British sporting event seem to be neutralised here. There are cordoned-off areas and officious types in high-viz vests telling you you can’t go here, or must go there, but they do it in good humour. Outside we’re herded into queues for the buses to take us back to Stratford, and we stand around in the cold drizzle for half an hour. In the distance you can see the huge green neon ‘Casino’ sign on the side of the Stratford complex, and the lights of the 5000-space car park, and the truly hideous 120m Anish Kapoor sculpture, charmingly named  the ArcelorMittal Orbit, whose only purpose was apparently to use up lots and lots of Mittal steel, which indeed it does.

But everyone’s looking back and up, where the Velodrome roof looms benignly over us.

Monday 19 March 2012

A visit to Opus One

Along with the Bordeaux first growths, Grange, Petrus, Sassicaia, and a handful of others, Opus One is part of that select club of wines that have true global cachet. This classic Bordeaux blend, produced from 139 acres (56.2ha) of some of the finest vineland in the Napa Valley, is only just over 30 years old, yet it is sought after from Hamburg to Hong Kong.
Halloween at Opus: Michael Silacci, me, Roger Asleson. The pumpkin is real

Opus, as everyone knows, is the brainchild of Robert Mondavi and Baron Philippe de Rothschild. As it was for the first vintage in 1979, it is still very much a California-Bordeaux joint venture: it is the only California wine, for example, whose exports are handled entirely by the Bordeaux Place.

But, public relations chief Roger Asleson makes clear, while Mouton’s winemaker Philippe Dhalluin and technical director Eric Tourbier have a consulting role and visit Opus at least three times a year, ‘we have only one winemaker, and that of course is Michael Silacci, whose decisions are final.’

I meet Silacci and Asleson on a superb early autumn day, just as the Cabernet is coming in and being fed into the mighty Bucher-Vaslin optic sorter. Silacci is bounding around the spacious winery like a teenager, studying the grapes rejected by the US$100,000 machine, which can sort grapes at a rate of ten tonnes an hour, introducing me to staff, demanding I climb a rickety gantry to see how the destalker works. Asleson the indulgent elder. You won't catch him clambering on the scaffolding but he's certainly amused by life in general.

Opus is in a constant state of self-discovery. Every aspect of the operation, from the barrel racks to cork research, is tirelessly examined. They have recently spent US$300,000 on a new Oxo-Line barrel rack system, in which each barrel can be racked, filled, cleaned and rotated independently of its fellows. ‘We produce 300,000 bottles so it works out at a dollar a bottle,’ Silacci says.

In his phrase, this fine-tuning of operations is ‘polishing the sphere’. In the realm of corks, for example, he is ‘obsessed with’ achieving nothing short of ‘99.999%’ success rate. What is his failure rate for corks at the moment? ‘One tenth of a percent. How do I know this?’

Because, he says, they open more bottles of Opus at the winery than anywhere else in the world, and every cork pulled is monitored. They even have a machine to measure the force used in the extraction: they had discovered that corks ‘whose integrity was compromised’ were more difficult to pull.

When it comes to selling the wine, prices and markets are monitored in as much detail. Around 20,000 cases are produced (the 2010 vintage was one of the biggest at 24,000, and there is no other wine apart from a tiny cuvee called Overture, of which about 3000 cases are made to be sold only at the winery). With markets to service from London to Jakarta and points in between, allocations can become stretched, and prices fluctuate wildly.

They don’t want Opus to be a trophy wine that never gets opened. ‘One of our projects is to try to equalise or stabilise price discrepancy between international and domestic wines,’ Asleson says, noting that the US$210 suggested retail price can reach US$8-900 in Brazil or in top Chinese hotels.

So prices have to be monitored and allocations juggled. They are selling less wine in the US than they did a few years ago, Asleson says – ‘but comfortably so’ – although one of the biggest markets, Las Vegas, only gets ‘perhaps 20% of what they really want’.

China is important – Opus opened a Hong Kong office in April last year – but they are aware of the danger not only of missing emerging markets like Korea, Vietnam or Singapore, but also forgetting traditional markets. Asleson reels off a list of European centres he will be visiting this year: London, Hamburg, Berlin, the Rheingau, Austria, Switzerland. ‘It is truly important to get back to Europe and the people who brought us to the dance, so to speak’.

The best way of controlling prices and servicing these markets is through good relations with the negociants, Asleson says. He believes negociants are more  transparent with Opus than with their own long-term French producers, with whom they have a more ‘inimical, more contentious relationship.’

Is that true, I asked Mathieu Chadronnier, the head of major negociant CVBG Grands Crus. It’s not a better relationship but a different one, he said, mainly because of the crucial fact that ‘Opus chose to go to Bordeaux, whereas most chateaux have no choice.’ So there is ‘mutual transparency. We sit down a few times a year to assign objectives to our partnership. We have never had a disagreement.’

Chadronnier said he looks forward every year to the release of Opus. ‘It’s a great story and a great success.’ But he can’t be making much money out of it. We’ve been discussing the importance of the Chinese market for instance, one that only amounts to a few hundred cases a year.
It is almost a study in miniature. In the last 30 years, little has changed, and improvements amount to no more than fine-tuning – an tweak in cork technology here, an adjustment to the sorting process there. As Silacci says, it’s a question of giving a further polish to the sphere.

This article first appeared in Meiningers

Monday 23 January 2012

Francis Ford Coppola at Inglenook: 'The saviour of an American Icon'

Unlike some of his more memorable movie characters, Francis Ford Coppola hasn’t made many enemies. Quite the opposite, it seems. I pondered this as I sat waiting for him at Inglenook on a beautiful October morning. It was early but there were already a few tourists about, and as the rumpled, stately figure – wearing odd socks, I noted, one bright red and one bright blue – hove into view he was accosted by two pretty young women for a photograph. Coppola embraced them both in a big hug and they tripped off happy as can be.
Why shouldn’t he be popular? He is engaging company, peppering his conversation with asides along the lines of, ‘I don’t know anything about making wine, but then I don’t know anything about making movies either. It can be an advantage.’ Women adore him (he’s a terrific flirt), and he’s surrounded by loyal and affecionate staff.

He’s also one of the world’s most celebrated film directors. He is personable, warm, amusing, accessible. He’s very, very rich. But none of that really accounts for the respect – even reverence – in which he’s held.

I was in Napa for a week and I spoke to dozens of people, winemakers, winery owners, guys in baseball caps lining the bar at Ana’s Cantina. No-one has a bad word to say of him. Why? Because he’s rescued an American icon. He’s the saviour of Inglenook.

Here is Warren Winiarski, for example, who rang me one evening to underscore comments he had made at lunch. ‘The more I thought about it, the more excited I became. It is such a high-minded, noble enterprise, to restore Inglenook to the role it once occupied.’

Then there’s Chris Howell, winemaker at Cain Vineyards: ‘He’s a hero’. And here’s Marshal Walker, a winery designer, who emailed me to say he remembered the Coppolas throwing ‘some majorly kick-butt parties. I was always impressed with the fact that he and his wife were there dancing, smoking cigars and having fun with us working class folks.’

I called Robin Lail, the dispossessed daughter of former Inglenook owner John Daniel. The sale of the estate in 1964, it is well-documented, was devastating for her. She runs her own winery now, but when a portion of the Inglenook estate, and the chateau, came onto the market in 1992 she was unable to buy. How did she feel about Coppola’s tenure there? ‘It is fascinating, and exhilarating. He reminds me of Niebaum and the way he pursued his dream.’

The dream began in the mid-19th century with the arrival of a Finnish fur-trader and sea captain of immense wealth and a yearning to make American wines to rival Bordeaux. Gustave Niebaum – ‘the Captain’, as he is always known -  bought a 1,650 acre estate near Rutherford, a spot described by the San Francisco Examiner in 1890 as one of ‘indescribable loveliness’, and built the splendid chateau that forms the centrepiece of the estate today.

Contemporary accounts show the Captain to have had an uncannily modern grasp of fine winemaking. By 1890 he was close-spacing rows to reduce yields. He introduced the first gravity-flow system in California, the first bottling line, the first sorting tables, and obsessed about cleanliness in the winery. He believed utterly in terroir.
The estate survived Prohibition, and Niebaum’s successor JohnDaniel, a great-nephew of his wife’s, carried on the tradition of innovation (he had the first bulldozer in Napa). Inglenook’s reputation grew. Vintages like the 1941 are still considered among the world’s finest wines.

But Daniel had to sell. He had two daughters – Robin Lail is one of them – to whom, for complex social and religious reasons he felt he couldn’t leave the estate. In 1964 Inglenook was bought by a joint venture of Allied Grape Growers and United Vintners. The Gallos had also been interested.

Now started Inglenook’s wilderness years. By 1969 Inglenook had been acquired by Heublein, a Connecticut-based company, the owner of Smirnoff Vodka. Heublein began to produce a wine called Inglenook Navalle, and started the process which today means most Americans know Inglenook as the cheapest of jug wines. A three-litre box of its Burgundy Premium costs $9.

This is where Coppola, flush from the success of 1971’s The Godfather, joins the story, nipping up to Napa from San Francisco to look for ‘a cottage, three of four acres, somewhere we could grow grapes and make wine like the Italians do.’

Coppola and his wife Eleanor bought the first tranche of Inglenook in 1975 and steadily bought up the rest of the estate over the better part of three decades, through rollercoaster years of bankruptcy and riches, and finally – in April 2011 – securing the rights to the Inglenook name for the reported sum of $14m. ‘My contract doesn’t allow me to say how much,’ he said. ‘But it’s in that region.’
From the start they knew they had good land. The part of Inglenook they had bought included the ‘back property’ as they call it, a swathe of the Rutherford Bench, that narrow strip of alluvial sand and silt  that is home to the To-Kalon vineyards and the best Cabernet Sauvignon land in California.

‘Everyone wanted an option on the grapes’, Coppola said, and although for one or two years they sold the fruit they soon decided, if it as was so good, why didn’t they try and make some wine themselves? ‘So I borrowed $20,000 from my mother to buy some fermenting tanks and worked with an amateur winemaker up the street. And we made the first Rubicons - 1978 and 1979.’

It wasn’t an auspicious beginning. He was broke, for a start. After The Godfather he wanted to make a Vietnam epic, but the studios just wanted more gangster films - ‘no-one would give me the money to make Apocalypse Now.’ So he paid for it himself. ‘I ended up owing US$21m - and at that stage it looked like I would lose it all because it seemed like no-one liked [the film]. I was on the verge. I was in bankruptcy.’

But he wouldn’t declare himself bankrupt. He was despondent, Eleanor was refused credit at the local stores. ‘I had arrived at a kind of paradise and I was only there in order to lose it.’ He spent the 1980s ‘doing one film a year just to pay off the debt.’

It was not until the success of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, in 1992, that he became properly solvent, and in 1995 was able to buy the next piece of the estate that came on the market, the front vineyards and the Inglenook chateau itself. He didn’t have the Inglenook name, of course, so he called it Niebaum-Coppola, filled it with memorabilia from his films and watched the visitors pour in.

‘It was unbelievable. The first year we made $9m, the second year $18m, the third year we made $40m.’

But he began to be appalled by his commercialisation of the venerable estate. He still cherished his dream of making a great wine, ‘in the spirit of Inglenook’, as he put it, and he couldn’t square that with the hordes that came to gawp at Dracula’s cape and Don Corleone’s desk. ‘I said to my wife, I’m worse than Heublein. I’ve taken this historic place, that made great wines, and I’ve turned it into a mall.’

So eight years ago, he opened the unashamedly commercial Francis Ford Coppola Winery in Sonoma, and cleared Inglenook of the film glitz. Soon, the Inglenook retail space will be closed, the better to concentrate on restoring the estate to its past glory.

And what glory. Coppola said that when he first bought the house in 1975, he and his neighbour Robert Mondavi opened a bottle of the 1890. ‘The aroma of this wine permeated the room.’

I haven’t tasted the 1890, but I have had three old Inglenooks whose aromas were as seductive. The finest, by a hair, was a 1958 Cabernet that I had over lunch with Coppola in London. Then, at dinner in Napa we had a 1951 Pinot Noir and a 1961 Cabernet, which have the brightest, freshest, most charming palates you can imagine. All who taste the wines agree. Jancis Robinson said the 1958 was ‘ethereal’, the best of that vintage she had ever had.

That tasting with Mondavi was the birth of Coppola’s ambition to make Inglenook a wine that can take its place among the greats. ‘What we want to achieve is to make a premier cru wine that is known around the world. We know that Inglenook made great wine 50 years ago, and we know it made great wine 100 years ago. So the question is to make sure we follow in that tradition.’

Now that he owns the Inglenook name, the project has shifted a gear. He has hired Philippe Bascaules, winemaker at Chateau Margaux for 21 years, as his managing director. Another Frenchman, Stephane Derenoncourt, has been consulting for some years and will continue to advise, while on the board Coppola has Craig Williams, veteran Phelps winemaker, ‘to give them some feeling of Napa’.

The first vintage of the newly-named wine will be the 2009, in an elegant Bordeaux bottle which will replace the heavy, embossed Rubicon bottle, and a label inspired by an original from the 1940s. As to style, Coppola says he wants ‘to go more in the direction of the 2010 because it has this combination of femininity and and power, freshness and elegance.’

As we taste the wines I ask how he deals with jibes that he wants to produce what one critic called ‘a frenchified California first growth’ – especially now that he’s got a brace of Frenchmen on board?

Coppola points he wasn’t specifically looking for a Frenchman: Philippe was simply the best man for the job.

Bascaules chips in. ‘I’m not here to make a mini-Margaux’, he says. ‘It’s important that I make these wines from the vineyards, not from a pre-conceived idea in my head. My job is to understand the terroir and then use meticulous selection and careful vinification to extract the best possible wines from the estate.’
Inglenook seems to be in good hands. Coppola says his role as owner is ‘to make sure the property can realise its full potential. My goal is to understand the vineyard, and to ultimately provide the ability for Philippe to create a new winery, supplementing the antique chateau winery, where we can bring in 260 acres of fruit, and put it in individual fermenters. I want to learn about not just the parcels that are vinified, but the areas within those parcels.’

Bascaules mentions  the geological survey they have underway, ‘to study the parcel limitations, as some of them may be sub-divided in the future. This parcel-by-parcel analysis will give me the lexicon I need for the future, to truly understand the Inglenook terroir. But I’m already starting to appreciate the enormous potential of the estate.’

What comes across is Coppola’s utter confidence. He knew the ‘absolute rightness’ of the decision to spend $14m (or thereabouts) on the name. He’s quite sure that he can restore the devalued brand to its rightful position. ‘Those who appreciate Inglenook’s greatness have no knowledge of the cheap spinoff wines.’ If you build it, they will come.

Throughout the day, Coppola has returned again and again to the theme of preservation and legacy. All three of his children - Roman, the Oscar-winning Sofia and the youngest, Gia (actually Coppola's grand-daughter, the daughter of his son Gian-Carlo, who died tragically during the filming of Dracula) - will take over the winery when he is gone, he says. Roman, ‘whose tendency is to hang on to the things he loved and value them’ will be nominally in charge. Coppola says there are no debts on the property.
And so the future of Inglenook is assured. Coppola has atoned for the sins of the corporations that desecrated its name, and for his own sin of commercialisation. He’s doing it for the unsentimental idea that it’s something worth preserving. And the most touching thing about the whole business is that he – the great director – still can’t quite believe it. ‘How could a guy like me, from a lower-middle-class family from Queens, end up owning America’s greatest wine estate?’

This article first appeared in Decanter magazine