Monday 15 December 2014

A watermelon salute to celebrate Yvonne May's life

‘You’ve now got a good two hours hard drinking ahead of you,’ Matthew Jukes said, winding up a series of addresses, and occasionally hilarious video tributes, in memory of Yvonne May, the late head of Wine Australia in London, who died of cancer earlier this year.

There’s something moving about laughter at a memorial service, a spontaneous often surprised burst of shared feeling. ‘We can’t give you a 21-gun salute,’ Wirra Wirra boss Andrew Kay, by video from McLaren Vale, announced to the packed hall at Aussie House in the Strand. ‘So we’re going to do a one-watermelon salute instead.’ He was standing in a field, and behind him could be discerned a sort of Roman catapult, a huge spring-loaded wooden contraption, with various busy blokes pulling ropes. The thing worked, sending the fat melon in a high curving arc, and there was a cheer.

Yvonne would have loved that affectionate slapstick. I didn't know her that well but had enjoyed her company at some boozy dinners – one particularly festive bash in Dublin with the McGuigans – and some lunches. I was at the Savour conference in Adelaide last year, where she efficiently and with a nice sense of humour handled the multiple hassles of a big affair like that

She was a calm, friendly and generous individual, and good at her job. After the doldrum years of the mid-decade when Wine Australia here suffered under a hiatus of leadership and, rudderless, alienated some sections of the wine press, she was a reassuring presence. When she was appointed in 2010 I rang her up for a comment – I think it was just before Christmas – and she was happy to chat, had a few plans up her sleeve, and gave some well-turned and diplomatic comments. In six months she’d transformed the trade’s relationship with Australia House.

‘The group was her thinktank,’ Simon Thorpe (of Negociants UK) said, suggesting someone inclusive and democratic, but with a clear sense of who was in charge. It worked. The clever young people she recruited loved her, and were devastated when she became ill.

And not just the staff – the wider trade as well. Thorpe went on, ‘She was someone who thought business should be honest, collaborative, professional and fun.’ That pretty much sums up a type of Australian attitude to work. She was made for the country, knew it backwards, and between her and the wine community there was healthy respect and affection.

The video tributes were straightforward and cumulatively very touching: a series of winemakers (in elastic-sided boots) saluting someone they liked, respected and will miss. One by one, from Andrew Wigan to Neil McGuigan, they expressed their condolences. Some chose to sit in front of a barrel and raise a glass, others to chuck a watermelon two hundred yards – the sentiment was the same.

‘I expected serried ranks of chairs, a sit-down service,’ Charles Metcalfe said (before taking to the stage for a rendition of You're the Cream in my Coffee with Oz Clarke, whose baritone made the glasses hum). ‘But what’s this? It’s a party.’

A party it was, with copious amounts of fizz (Jansz Premium Cuvée), fine canapés, and a dozen good reds and whites to try. The 300-strong crowd was a distillation of the London wine trade, sprinkled with friends and colleagues like Angela Slade, Wine Australia's US chief, who had flown over from Washington DC. David Lindsay, Yvonne’s husband, was his usual upright self, if slightly drawn. He was one of the first people I met when I joined Decanter in 1999, and he’s always been as generous with his time as she was.

Jukes was an efficient MC who knew his audience (he later told me it was the most difficult thing he'd ever done). Halfway through the tributes – from Thorpe, Neil Hadley (of Wakefield Wines) by video, and the Clarke-Metcalfe duet – he announced there’d be a break ‘to top up glasses’. Then, just in case we were slacking, he gave us that reminder about getting down to some hard drinking. We didn’t need much prompting. Yvonne would have expected no less.

Monday 1 December 2014

'Nothing modest?': The Wine Society

This article first appeared in Meininger's Wine Business International

At the Wine Society’s Stevenage headquarters there’s a nondescript storeroom which houses the archives of the 140-year-old cooperative. Here are shelves of leather-bound ledgers with membership details going back to the 1870s. Another handsome tome records the minutes of the first-ever meeting, on 4 August 1974, in which Major-General Henry Scott proposed  'a co-operative company' to buy good quality wines on a regular basis to sell to members.

That such evocative artefacts are kept in a cupboard more suited to mops and buckets is a testament to the ethos of the organisation. Where other companies might display their history in glass cases, the Wine Society is more low-key.

The International Exhibition Co-operative Wine Society, to give it its full name, came into being in the latter half of 1874, during the last of the Great Exhibitions that captivated the Victorian public (the first was the Crystal Palace Exhibition of 1851). Quantities of wine had been sent by exhibiting nations, and a series of lunches was held to publicise them. Many of the guests showed an interest in buying the wines, and so the idea of a mutual society, to source wines for members, came about.

And that is more or less what the Society has done for the last century and a half. Since then some 372,000 members have come and gone. There are currently 125,000 ‘active’ members, increasing at an annual rate of about five per cent. Each member buys a lifetime share in the Society for £40 (€50), and has access to wines from some 25 regions, sourced by a team of buyers of impeccable pedigree. There are other services: under the ‘Members’ Reserves’ plan, customers can store their wines in one of the Society’s vast warehouses, or the company will compile a cellar on their behalf, laying down red wines and white Burgundy, suggesting drinking windows and so on. The Society also keeps its own reserves, releasing them when the buyers decide they are ready for drinking. It has a retail outlet in Stevenage, where popular wine dinners are laid on in a somewhat soulless new dining room, and another in Montreuil-sur-Mer in France, but the company’s core business is mail order.

Of the 1500 wines the Society lists, about a third are own-label – the ‘Society’ range and the more upmarket, vintage-specific ‘Exhibition’ range. The main part of the list is a mix of the classic regions – Bordeaux, Burgundy, Rhone, Italy, Australia – and the new. A characteristic of members, chief executive Robin McMillan says, is that they are ‘keen on exploration. We see this as important.’ The Society was one of the first champions of Sicilian wines, and was an ‘early supporter of Eastern Europe.’ The list is rich in interest. In Spain, for example, ‘Other Spanish Wines’ runs to over 50 entries, some from the smallest and least-known DOs. There are 45 Sherries, there are wines from Romania, Turkey, Bulgaria and Morocco. There are a few holes, notably in the uninspired North American offering, and it’s essentially a conservative list (the top-selling countries are France, Portugal, Italy, South Africa and Chile), but there’s also enough of the unusual and the hard-to-find to satisfy any wine lover.
Warehouse 1, Stevenage

The Society does not pursue growth, so is happy with the modest year-on-year increase in its membership. ‘There is no growth agenda for growth’s sake. We have no outrageous ambition,’ McMillan says. ‘Of course we have to grow to be sustainable but our focus is on servicing the membership.’ It does not advertise, so new members tend to hear about it by word of mouth, or they inherit a share from a parent. ‘Modest’ is the word McMillan likes to use. ‘The Wine Society is really a well-kept secret. We’re here for our members, and not interested in any other agenda.’

Low-key its aims may be, but in reality there is nothing modest about the Wine Society. It turned over £93m last year, and is embarking on an ambitious plan to increase its considerable storage space with two vast new warehouses on the drawing board. When it moved out of London in 1965 it bought the huge industrial expanse it now occupies – the board, chaired by the legendary Edmund Penning-Rowsell, foresaw the need to expand in the coming decades. Currently it has space for around 500,000 cases, of which 230,000 are members’ reserves.

Serious wine merchants regard warehousing as key. As Adam Brett-Smith of Corney and Barrow told me recently, logistics will be the key development in the decades to come. Companies that can store large amounts of wine in optimum conditions can buy direct from producers and keep it for as long as necessary. In Bordeaux this is particularly important as chateaux – starting with Latour – may begin to opt out of the En Primeur system and sell to end consumers directly. Big Bordeaux negociant houses are maximising their acreage. Maison Joanne has temperature- and  climate-controlled space for six million bottles. For the Wine Society, En Primeur isn’t a big part of the business, but it's increasing, and with its vast square footage the Society seems positioned to exploit future developments in fine wine distribution.

And there’s also the issue of provenance. The Society buys only direct from domaines or from agents – ‘never from brokers’, McMillan says – so provenance is guaranteed, which is of vital importance as fraud becomes widespread. McMillan says he has even heard the phrase ‘ex-Stevenage’ used as a guarantor of a wine’s credentials. Again, they are ahead of the curve.

But however far-sighted it is, the Society has to strike a balance between tradition and modernity. The average age of members is a conservative 50, concentrated in London and the south-east, although with decent representation in the rest of the country. McMillan says it’s natural the customer base is more mature. ‘It isn’t for everyone. You have to be at a certain point in your wine journey. You’re choosing from literature, it requires investment and a certain level of confidence.’ Service is paramount: there’s no automated switchboard (‘over my dead body,’ McMillan says), and great store is set by the fact the printed list is available to those who want it. Apparently membership surveys suggest it’s the most digitally-aware members who insist on getting the quarterly booklet.

In terms of its digital presence the Wine Society is not cutting any corners. The majority of wines are ordered online, and spend on digital is doubling this year. This is not to create an achingly modern website, but to ‘enhance the service’, that is to make sure the ‘mobile, tablet and website experience is seamless.’ They're big on social media a well (marketing chief Ewan Murray is a prolific tweeter himself, and looks after an account with 39k followers).

So is up-to-date, but with its discreet burgundy- and-grey livery and old-fashioned nameplate logo there’s nothing remotely edgy about it. The one concession to modernity is that the ‘IECWS’ acronym in the logo has been dropped, although it still says ‘1874’.

It could be called staid, but McMillan comes back to a favoured word: ‘modest’. ‘We have an open, transparent dialogue with our members, there’s no hard sell. The tone of voice is critically important’ – but agrees that online is key to attracting new and younger members. To this end there are more features such as ‘Buyers’ Top Tens’ and ‘New wines’. The average age of new members is creeping down to a youthful mid-40s, the Society’s marketing chief Ewan Murray says.

The balance between the modern and the traditional is never more important than in the list itself. Buyers must service members’ taste for the traditional as well as introduce them to the unusual and the new. Pierre Mansour, responsible for Spain, Champagne, Sherry and Lebanon, says that on any buying trip he will spend about a third of his time searching out new talent, and the rest of the time dealing with existing producers. A good example is a recent trip to Rioja, in which he was ‘taken in the back door of Contino’ to make a special blend of the renowned producer’s 2010 Reserva. This will be ‘our own take’ on the 2010. ‘We have to put ourselves in the members’ shoes, and we know they like the more traditional style of Rioja.’

At the same time, he sourced a wine from a new producer who is experimenting with ancient Rioja varietals, indigenous grapes such as Maturana Tinta, Montastell (sic), Tempranillo Blanco, and a local strain of Torrontes. ‘I’ll take the wine if it can tell a story,’ he says. ‘If we can give our members the confidence to try something new.’

The fact that the Wine Society doesn’t pursue growth, with no shareholders demanding profits and dividends, means that buyers have more flexibility to take wines that might not be ready for some years. ‘We don’t have that pressure to push through stock to convert it into cash,’ Mansour says, citing the example of Toro producer San Roman. The Society is listing its 2010 at the moment, but the wine is produced in such tiny quantities that if they had to wait until it was all sold before they changed vintages, the 2011 would be gone. ‘The 2011 is a baby but I’ve been able to snap it up, and keep it until it’s ready for release.’

It’s difficult to find a flaw in the company’s modus operandi. It has won numerous awards, including Decanter’s Retailer of the Year three years running, as well as Wine Merchant of the Year and Wine Club of theYear at the International Wine Challenge. ‘What else could we do?’ the Decanter judges asked in 2013, going on to laud the fact that prices held steady on 1,100 of the 1500 lines, while ‘400 lines actually saw their prices reduced.’ The Society is praised by Oz Clarke (‘The quality of their Sherries alone would be an excellent reason to join’) and by Jancis Robinson MW (‘great value’).

There have been criticisms. The UK journalist Simon Woolf, who also writes on Tim Atkin MW’s website, recently took the Society to task for ‘massively undercutting all other retailers’. He cited various examples, such as the Domaine du Cros Lo Sang del Pais from Marcillac which is £8.50 on the Society list but hardly even less than £10 from other independents. This is undercutting, or deep discounting, he suggested.

‘I would change the language,’ McMillan counters. ‘Our intent is not to undercut; our model is to run a business that sources wines and offers best possible value. We don’t want surplus profits, and the mutual model demands we keep prices as low as we possibly can. People are cynical because it sounds too good to be true.’

Wednesday 29 October 2014

Supermarket own-label wines – who holds the cards?

This article is in Issue 5 of Meininger's Wine Business International, October 2014

Own-label wines have been much in the news lately. Wines from UK supermarkets such as Tesco, Asda and Morrisons have been awarded the highest accolades at the Decanter World Wine Awards and the International WineChallenge. Marks & Spencer won 280 medals this year, a haul matched by many of its competitors.

‘Another stunning victory for the UK high street via this great-value supermarket wine,’ Decanter declared in July, as it handed an International Trophy to Morrisons for its 2012 Valpolicella Ripasso from the ‘M Signature’ range. The wine retails for £8.99, and is made by Cantina do Soave, a Verona cooperative with more than 6,000ha of vineyards.

Decanter also gave an International Trophy (the top level of the Decanter World Wine Awards) to Marks & Spencer for its Eclipse Bio Bio Riesling from Chile, while over at the International Wine Challenge, Sainsbury’s, Tesco and Asda were garlanded with awards, including the IWC Own Label Range of the Year for Tesco Finest*.

Eclipse: Trophy
Own-label wines – and chocolate, coffee, tea, ice-cream, school shirts, soft toys and baked beans, for that matter – have been with us since the 1970s. Traditionally, own-label was seen as the cheaper alternative to the ‘real thing’: you knew that Sainsbury’s beans would somehow be inferior to Heinz. It’s only relatively recently, due in part to the rise of premium ranges such as Tesco Finest* and Sainsbury’s Taste the Difference (both launched in 2000) that supermarket brands have been accorded the same respect as proprietary brands.

‘It’s a great way to get customers on board and trying new things,’ Barry Dick, formerly Sainsbury’s winemaker and now at Accolade wines says. ‘They will trust an own-brand wine sooner than an unknown label. It’s a question of comfort and reassurance.’ A customer who might otherwise fight shy of Valpolicella can be introduced to the style via Morrison’s M Signature, for example.

Then there is the advantage of consistency, a concept dear to supermarkets’ hearts. ‘With own-brand you can deliver a cohesive brand of wine across world markets. It’s very compelling,’ Dick says. He adds that exclusivity is another great attraction of own-label. Anyone can sell a Casillero del Diablo Chardonnay, but only Sainsbury’s can sell Taste the Difference Chilean Chardonnay. In many cases it will be made by the same person. The higher-end ranges promote their collaborations with renowned producers. Domaine André Figeat appears on the front label of the Taste the Difference Pouilly Fumé, and when Denbies Wine Estate in southern England was signed up for the Taste the Difference English Sparkling, Sainsbury’s announced it with a fanfare. ‘It’s a great privilege to be selected,’ Denbies said.

It can also be a double-edged sword. Martin Krajewski, who owns the premium rosé producer Chateau de Sours in Entre-deux-Mers, Bordeaux, has had a 20-year relationship with UK supermarkets. He currently supplies a wine called La Fleur d'Amelie to Marks & Spencer, and Tesco stocks his Domaine de Sours rosé. Both are in the UK on an exclusive basis.

Krajewski does not supply own-label wines but he recognises the advantages: ‘For some producers having 50,000 bottles in a supermarket is brilliant,’ even though that may compromise any chance of getting the wine under their own name in the same retailer. There’s no reason why they shouldn’t, he says, but then ‘you’d be competing against yourself’.

A privilege to be selected: Denbies for Sainsburys
But he also explains that supermarkets hold most of the cards. ‘They don’t give contracts and things can simply change: they can drop you for any reason.’

The price supermarkets pay for own-label wines varies widely. Krajewski notes that he is perfectly satisfied with his arrangements at with M&S and Tesco, with whom he has strong long-term and trusted relationships, but adds ‘some supermarkets are quite capable of trying to squeeze you for less money’ when they are negotiating the next year’s deal.

No supermarket would comment on the relative prices it pays producers for own-label compared to branded wines, but one producer who wished to remain anonymous told Meininger’s that of all supermarkets, the resolutely upmarket Waitrose drove the hardest bargain, generally offering ‘ten per cent less than other supermarkets and selling at 25% more. They are the sharpest at this game.’ A Waitrose spokesman said, ‘We don’t believe this is the case, we provide our customers with excellent value and quality wines selected from around the world.’

On average, across all supermarkets and other wine retailers, more than a third of wines sold are own-label (some market watchers put the figure at 50%). It makes up some 300 of Tesco’s 800-strong in-store range, and almost the entire M&S offering. Sainsbury’s own-label wines are one-third of its range; the Wine Society, the 140-year-old mail-order cooperative, similarly bottles about one-third of its wines under its own banner.

There are many ways to make an own-label wine – it can be simply a matter of buying several tanks of Chardonnay from a cooperative and sticking a label on it. Or there are what one owner, Gavin Quinney at Chateau Bauduc in Bordeaux, memorably described as ‘tender blenders. You put it out to tender, get the samples, get to work with your test tubes, and make your blend according to a formula. It’s not winemaking, it’s a chemistry set.’

That’s the lower end of the spectrum, producing wines that are unlikely to win awards. At the other end, the supermarket is involved at every stage of the process, from drawing board to label design. Quantities also vary hugely. Marks & Spencer made 500 cases of the northern Spanish white Txakoli; a premium Taste the Difference wine at Sainsbury’s would be perhaps 2000 cases, and a mass-selling style like Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc 100,000 cases.

Getting a listing is not a matter simply of waiting for the supermarket to come calling. ‘You need to know the buyers at the supermarkets and be in close contact with them,’ Krajewski says. ‘Know what they are looking for each year, which are the growth markets or categories, produce products that can fill those niches or gaps, do it early and be prepared to wait one, two or even three years to get a listing. You also need to be pitching at the right price points and be flexible on volumes. ‘

What surprises some people is the degree of expertise the supermarkets have in-house. Marks & Spencer for example employs three full-time winemakers, two of whom are graduates of Roseworthy Agricultural College at the University of Adelaide, while the most experienced member of the department, Sue Daniels, is a veteran of 32 years in the wine business.

‘It’s the untold story,’ Daniels says. ‘Most people think there’s a man tending grapes, and that’s it.’

Getting an own-label wine on the shelf is a long and involved process. In M&S’s case, the initial impetus might come from the food category. ‘We look at things working well in the rest of the business,’ Daniels says. ‘For example, there has been a big push on Spanish foods.’ They knew the north of Spain, the Atlantic coast from Santander to San Sebastian, is renowned for its food, so they hit on the local wine of the region, Txakoli, as an addition to the range. Once two possible suppliers had been identified they were visited – ‘we make clear this is going to be a partnership’ – tank samples tasted and a bespoke blend is put together. M&S buyers are involved at an early stage in order to make financial decisions as to quantity and bottle price. ‘Then we go back later to put the final blend together.’

Supermarkets are often criticised by producers for high-handedness. It is not unusual to hear complaints that buyers drive down prices and demand producers pay promotional and other costs. One artisan winemaker in the South of France told Meininger’s his doors would in future be closed to one particular supermarket – he was offended by the buyer’s demands that he increase the residual sugar in his rosé.

The supermarkets Meininger’s has interviewed energetically reject the notion that local winemakers are sidelined. ‘It’s a very collaborative process,’ Tesco product development manager Graham Nash says. ‘I have never encountered hostility from a winemaker. We encourage them to have their views, but often they don’t want to give views, as they understand we know our customers better than they do.’

Of course, there are opportunities for conflict, Barry Dick concedes. ‘But the clever ones let you get on with it. We will have benchmarked other supermarkets and will know what style works. If they are sensible they have all the numbers in front of them and will see the advantages – they don’t have the knowledge of the UK market that we have.’

Thierry Coulon, managing director of the huge Beaujolais negociant Paul Sapin, has worked with Marks and Spencer for 18 years and provides it with a range of wines from a dozen different countries, from France to the US. He is impressed by the level of commitment the buyers and winemakers show. ‘They know exactly what they want and they take hours and hours to achieve it. Sometimes we are in the tasting room all day. And it’s never a question of them arriving and leaving on the same day – they always want to see the vineyards, to know the region, to go deep into the process.’

Coulon also stressed that buyers and winemakers take the same pains whether the wine they are blending is a high-end New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc, or an entry-level wine. ‘There’s no way of selecting a cheap wine quickly – they are just as exigeant.’

The degree of involvement of the retailer’s winemaker can vary, however. If quantities are very small, or if the wine in question is little-known, the retailer might defer entirely to the producer. When M&S wanted to try out the Japanese Koshu grape, Daniels said, ‘it would have been arrogant of us to think we would be able to blend better Koshu.'

Own-label has burgeoned in the UK for many reasons – the growing power of the supermarkets, the success of premium ranges, and the nature of the average consumer’s relationship with European wine regions, which will lead them to trust an own-brand wine much sooner than one from an unknown Chateau, Domaine or Schloss.

In the US the scene is very different: statistics are hazy but some commentators reckon own-brand accounts for only 5% of the wine market. The main reason for this, according to John Bradbury, brand manager for Codorníu-owned Aveníu Brands, is the three-tier system, under which production, distribution and retail of wines must be handled by different companies. This means a supermarket can’t create its own wine as it can in the UK, but has to employ a third party. “It’s a structure thing, not a consumer thing,” Bradbury says. But, he adds, supermarkets are cottoning on to the value of own-label. Costco has its well-established Kirkland brand, which covers everything from underwear to cookies to wine. “Its reputation for good prices and good quality is evolving,” Bradbury says, and other retailers are likely to follow suit. The branding company Winery Exchange produces the boutique H&G brand for Whole Foods Market and supplies a dozen retailers with own-branded wines. “The private label business is small in the United States,” Winery Exchange’s Sandrine Perry told Meininger’s, “but it will get bigger.”

Back in the UK, most big retailers consider their own-label offering is stable. The Wine Society CEO Robin McMillan says they are “happy where they are” with their range and are unlikely to increase it, and Nash says Tesco will stay close to its 300 branded wines.

The publicity given own-label wines by this year’s awards ceremonies means more and more producers will be keen to work with UK supermarkets, which will have wider choice and more bargaining power to produce exactly what their research tells them the consumer wants. Once again, the supermarkets hold all the cards.

Thursday 23 October 2014

Tickets, still out of time and still as popular

Just how preposterous is Tickets? It’s been open three years now and it still takes some serious string-pulling to get a table. From the bell-boy uniforms (the door-girl wears a ringmaster’s topper), to the three-language menus, our waitress’s opaque patter, and the carefully-created air of controlled mayhem, the place has the feel of a chaotic pantomime in a provincial theatre.

Delicious cool draft on the palate: Tickets edible cocktail
The décor is a jaunty post-retro hotchpotch of big top and music-hall: brickwork, a 1960s bare-bulb cinema marquee above the bar, 19th-century playbill menu graphics – all cheekily ironic. There’s even a hint of send-up in the wait staff’s greeting,‘Hi, I’m Beatriz and I’m here to look after you this evening’.

So there you sit, trying to make sense of it all, getting nowhere with the menu and its daft divisions – so what is the difference between tapa and finger-food, and how big is this dish, and what the hell is an airbag baguette anyway? And there’s a guy in the middle of the room dressed like a flunkey doing something with dry ice (and dry ice is as dated as Gordon Ramsay’s swearing). After five minutes of Alice-in-Wonderland back and forth with Beatriz– she’s explaining spherification and thinks we’re being wilfully dim – she says, ‘why don’t we start with the olives?’ and we snap our menus shut and settle back to enjoy the Cava.

Jaunty post-retro hotchpotch: Tickets
Tickets, the brainchild of the Adrià brothers – Ferran (of El Bulli Foundation and whose late restaurant was just up the coast in Rosas), and Albert, who have said the time for high-concept fine dining is past – opened in 2011 and is still the hottest molecular bar in Barcelona. It’s supplanted the achingly avant-garde Tapas 24, now seen as very año pasado. ‘A tourist trap,’ one of my local colleagues sniffed. Tickets has a four-month waiting list. It's also got a list of sponsors as long as your arm, from Estrella Damm and Riedel to Coca-ColaSharpLavazza and half a dozen media companies.

From the moment you arrive and see the dismembered penny-farthing in the window, you know you’re in for a performance. Indeed, the menu tells us the whole affair is an ‘Adrià Entertainment’ presented by the ‘Tickets Theatre Company’. It all seems rather over-produced, and we’re just beginning to be dismayed by the paucity of the wine list (short and unimaginative), when something wonderful happens. The food arrives.
Just what the hell is an air baguette?

First, the spherified olives. Spherification is the first trick you learn at molecular cookery school. Invented by Ferran Adria 10 years ago, it’s an alchemical process by which a solid is liquified then re-formed into a sphere when suspended in a calcium bath.

When done to an olive it produces a thing looking very much like an olive but whose greenness is somehow greener, as if we’re suddenly in Technicolor, whose texture (they explode on your tongue) is like cooled, molten salted honey, and with a flavour of such delicate salinity and umami meatiness that it’s like eating the first olive ever.

Then we’re entranced by the ‘Edible cocktail’ a slice of Granny Smith marinaded in beetroot juice and fennel, an appley crunch releasing a delicious cool draft on the palate. Then cod crackers, crisp saltiness and a slow-developing, intense flavour of fish.

The oysters have a lovely smokiness and concentrated taste of the sea, and the ‘pearl’ – spherified wakame seaweed – detonates deliciously. Then there are the air baguettes, little wands of hollowed-out loaf wrapped in pata negra ham, and mini-air-baguettes filled with foamed manchego, and anchovies on toast with tomato and fake scales of edible silver. Then cumin-marinaded 6-hour pork which is so melting it has to be scooped up in your fingers.

A mild disappointment was lobster with pimento sauce, fine and picante but lacking in the surprise factor that had everyone flocking to Rosas in the first place. This is the law of diminishing returns: you approach every dish expecting fireworks. There’s no place for the merely delicious.
Pipette: passé

The puddings are fun, delicious, slightly dated (any dish with a self-basting plastic pipette...), but still the flavours have us guessing – was that verbena with the coconut ice cream?

Tickets is a mini-Bulli, a kids’ version of the molecular Mecca, cheaper, faster, slightly easier to get a table, with a wine list that is frankly unchallenging. What I loved about it was the exuberance and the lack of cynicism. Everything’s done with a knowing wink, but it’s an inclusive joke (pace the sponsors). I get the feeling it could only work in Barcelona – that Londoners would regard it with ennui and a raised eyebrow, thinking they'd seen through it and not realising the joke is that it's already been seen through. And so the whirligig of irony runs round and round. The crowd’s interesting, definitely not the hipster bunch it would attract in Shoreditch or Clapton, rather more office workers and hen-parties. The room erupts into Happy Birthday at one stage, as staff bring a cake and candles. Very uncool, and rather sweet. As one of my party said, ‘you can only do this sort of thing if your second name’s Adrià’.

The bill for four with two bottles of wine, and four glasses of liquoreux, came to just shy of €300.

Monday 13 October 2014

Rite of passage: Vérité takes its place alongside the world's first growths

There’s a she-bear stealing grapes from one of Jackson Family Wines’ Sonoma properties and I thought – for a moment - I’d use it as an intro for the Decanter feature I’m writing on JFW’s CEO, Barbara Banke. Something along the lines of, ‘Banke gives it a wide berth, and I’m sure the feeling’s mutual – it would take a brave bear to tangle with the formidable etc etc.’ A bit glib, of course...

Banke may be modest (the family/corporate pic on the website has her diminutive and smiling in the second row; if you didn't know her you might take her for a loyal and valued senior staffer) but formidable she certainly is. Since her husband Jess Jackson died in April 2011 she has increased JFW’s holdings to the tune of 14 new estates (from Oregon to McLaren Vale), spending some US$100m a year for the past three years. If JFW was a force in California three years ago, it is now well on the way to international First Growth cachet.

This is a deliberate and planned policy, as evidenced by the latest tasting of the company’s flagship wines, Lokoya, Cardinale and – at the very top of the pyramid – Vérité.

Banke, often accompanied by one of her daughters, both of whom are deeply involved in the family company, has been coming over to London every autumn for the past few years to show the latest vintage of these wines, which are made in small quantities from the premium vineyards of Napa and Sonoma. Lokoya is 100% Cabernet Sauvignon, made by Chris Carpenter from the four great high-altitude appellations of Napa: Mount Veeder, Spring Mountain, Diamond Mountain and Howell Mountain. Cardinale, also by Carpenter, is a Cabernet-Merlot from Oakville.

Vérité was born in 1998 when Jess Jackson suggested to the French winemaker Pierre Seillan (originally from the Loire but with a Bordeaux pedigree) that he could make a wine from Sonoma ‘as good as Petrus’. Ninety-eight was cool and ‘Bordeaux-like,’ Banke says. ‘It rained all the time’ and the wine (which I haven’t tasted) is ‘ageing very well’.

Standing, left to right: Jennifer Jackson Hartford, Don Hartford, Laura Jackson Giron, Rick Giron, Barbara Banke, Christopher Jackson, MacLean Hartford. Seated, left to right: Katherine Jackson, Julia Jackson, Hailey Hartford.

There are now three Vérité wines based on some or all of the five Bordeaux grapes, sourced from the Sonoma appellations Alexander Valley, Bennett Valley, Knights Valley and Chalk Hill. According to Jackson’s – and Seillan’s – vision, each wine aims to evoke a different Bordeaux terroir. The Merlot-based La Muse is inspired by Pomerol; Le Desir, Cabernet Franc, is St Emilion (Cheval Blanc is frequently mentioned at tastings), while the Cabernet Sauvignon-based La Joie takes Pauillac as its benchmark.

They don’t slavishly ape Bordeaux (I always think American winemakers must get sick of the constant referencing). ‘Of course not. These are California wines,’ Banke says. 

This year’s tasting marked a coming-of-age for the wines. In a low-key fashion, without much noise, Banke and her right-hand man Nick Bevan put together a splendid line up of international icons, including Lafite 2001, Tenuta dell’Ornellaia 2004 and Mouton 2004, for a comparative tasting.

Pitting your wine, blind or otherwise, against the established greats is something of a rite of passage for new world wineries aspiring to first growth status. Eduardo Chadwick does it to great effect with his well-known Berlin Tasting series, and every year there's any number of Judgment of Paris lookalikes.

This was an eccentric exercise in a way –  we tasted Grange 2007 and Pingus 2007 against Cardinale 2007 – that is, a Shiraz and a Tempranillo and a Cabernet. It wasn’t done blind: ‘The idea wasn’t to do a Judgement of Paris,’ Bevan said. ‘But to show that our wines can genuinely hold their own alongside the first growths of the world.’

And hold their own they did. However great the company (the Lafite 01 was effortlessly poised)  they were never eclipsed, and in some cases they sang – I was particularly impressed by how the Cardinale showed against Grange and the overoaked Pingus.

For what it's worth, Robert Parker, and latterly Antonio Galloni, love these wines. Parker has handed out seven 100-point scores to Vérité since 1998.

I love tasting the 2011s, a famously cool and difficult vintage. I was in Oakville, at Opus One, and Screaming Eagle, in October of that year. Those winemakers who celebrate restraint were pleased with the quality (if not the quantity) – Michael Silacci at Opus was particularly excited. But it was an incredibly difficult year, with producers losing row after row to botrytis; no one was complacent about it.

2011 Tasting
The Dorchester Hotel, London, 7 October 2014

Vérité La Muse 2011, Sonoma County
89% Merlot, 7% Malbec, 4% Cabernet Franc
Very elegant restrained nose with hints of briar fruit and damson and ripe plum, sweet cherry, tobacco leaf with undertow of fresh nettle. Sour plum and damson on palate, snapped stalk greenness, not dense but feeling of lightness and open freshness. Length elegant, the tannins tactile and chewy and never taking over but delivering welcome fresh juice like tiny darts in the mouth.

Vérité La Joie 2011, Sonoma County
74% Cabernet Sauvignon, 10% Cabernet Franc, 7% Merlot, 6% Petit Verdot, 3% Malbec
Lovely fresh nose, savoury, mint and marmite, some medicinal and saline notes. Structure and precision – tannins tightly-wound, dense dark damson fruit in high register, ending in tannins with dry grip releasing back-palate juice. Savoury, saline length

Vérité Le Desir 2011, Sonoma County
54% Cabernet Franc, 36% Merlot, 5% Cabernet Sauvignon, 5%  Malbec
Opulent nose with dark chocolate and coffee – roast fresh coffee – with ripe briar fruit. Palate perfumed, ripe dark fruit at first then redcurrant, coffee and chocolate, mouthwatering freshness from the acidity. Dry, arrow-sharp tannins dissolving to juice. A tour de force.

Cardinale 2011, Oakville
Cabernet Sauvignon Merlot 
Intensely lush and opulent medicinal nose with great concentration. Palate elegant and powerful with dense dark fruit and brisk acidity, lovely juiciness setting off elegant dry tannins. Full length, continues for more than a minute and then subsides slowly. Delicious

Lokoya Spring Mountain 2011
Cabernet Sauvignon
Almost raisined nose leading to fresh and bright open palate, graphite, stony minerality, open and juicy, fresh, with wonderful cedary brightness. Elegant

Lokoya Diamond Mountain 2011
Cabernet Sauvignon
Tight ungiving nose. Refreshing acidity, very approachable, juicy, mouthwatering cherry and damson fruit. Rugged, dense with juicy acidic finish

Lokoya Howell Mountain 2011
Cabernet Sauvignon
Massive, tarry, sweet fallen black stone fruit, lovely tactile grainy tannins. Wonderful freshness borne out of intense acid and tannin. Length very fine

Lokoya Mt Veeder 2011
Cabernet Sauvignon
Carpenter calls Mount Veeder ‘the beast’. Quite undemonstrative nose, tarry, then on palate really powerful tannic edge, intensely dry, powerful with concentrated dark fruit slowly gathering itself to push through the tannin. This will evolve, the tannins will calm, the fruit will sweeten. Good length

Comparative tasting

Vérité  La Muse 2004, Sonoma County
Lovely dense sweet nose with ripe plum and damson, then on restrained coffee and mocha, sour plum, saline/mineral texture, very open and fresh, sense of juice and freshness

Tenuta dell’Ornellaia Masseto 2004
Tar on nose, powerful, intense tarry chewy tannins, ripe macerated black fruit. Powerful and rather brash

Chateau Mouton-Rothschild 2004
Wonderful evocative perfumed nose, lots of elegant earthy notes, tannins in a lower key, there’s perfume and grip but the juice is restrained, holding back now, leading to dryness at finish, charming but lacking in punch

Cardinale, Oakville 2007
Damson bright fruit, dusty dry tannins, tannins dominant and strong, very powerful, very strong, still incredibly young and powerful

Grange 2007
Tarry intense medicinal nose. Opulent palate, very new world with sweet raspberry fruit, dark chocolate – almost jammy! – tannins intense and precise to the end with very good length, length intense, concentrated, massive.

Dominio de Pingus 2007, Ribera del Duero
Slightly closed nose. Sinewy, chewy tannins almost swamping sweet blackberry fruit, which comes through with graphite, and smoky damson. I find the oak – 23 months new French - drying and over-powerful and I fear the tannins are not going to get any sweeter.

Lokoya Mt Veeder 2001
Deep spicy nose – brooding – then very juicy, the tannins giving out juice from dark fruit, ripe plum and damson, even hints of sloe. Full-bodied and concentrated, with extraordinary structure and fine length

Tenuta San Guido Sassicaia 2001
Struck match and coffee nose, dense knitted dry tannins, full savoury even meaty nose. Perfumed palate, concentrated dark fruit, very fresh acidity with dry tannins dissolving to juice. Fine length

Chateau Lafite-Rothschild 2001
Sweet and wonderfully juicy from the beginning – poised and precise, fine-grained tannins, acidity and oak beautifully integrated, dark plummy fruit concentrated and intense. Effortless finesse, standing out even in this company as quite masterful.

In addition, the following wines were tasting at AWC, London, 6 October 2014

Vérité 2011 - see above

Vérité 2007

Vérité La Joie 2007, Sonoma County
Gorgeous cedar (old armoire) nose, velvety almost porty raisined grape aromas, pot pourri. Still very young, a bit closed now,  tightly-wound tannins holding out promise of juice to come, overall fresh and brimful of potential.

Vérité La Muse 2007, Sonoma County
Toasted oak on nose, meaty and savoury notes hint of very ripe redcurrant, even tending to jam. Palate with powerful tannins, ripe, fresh acidity carries through to finish, though there seems a slight disjoing in the integration of acidity, tannin and oak. Lovely length, and as wine opens in glass any angularity softens.

Vérité Le Desir 2007, Sonoma County
Wonderfully savoury, tarry nose, then bright, fresh tannin and acidity on palate. Fresh and dense, opening out to juice and sweetness of blackberry and blackcurrant fruit, integrated oak and acidity and leading into a pure, concentrated finish. magnificent

Vérité 2004

Vérité La Joie 2004, Sonoma County
Tarry perfumed nose with sweet ripe black cherry and damson. Fruit carries through satisfyingly to palate with saline notes and brisk minerality, very intense chewy tannins, hints of camphor. The tannins are there, young and vibrant to the end, dry but releasing spurts of juice. Lovely

Vérité La Muse 2004, Sonoma County
See above

Vérité Le Desir 2004, Sonoma County
Nose has a wonderful freshness - fresh cigar, even a note of hay - getting some age now, sweet ripe fallen damson and pot pourri, lovely earth and dark, spiced chocolate, camphor. Velvety tannins enriched with black cherry, the whole freshened by racy acidity. Delicious

Monday 22 September 2014

Heroic viticulture: Ribeira Sacra and Rias Baixas

‘The vines drink stone,’ Fernando Gonzalez says, surveying his vertiginous vineyards. The Mencia here in Ribeira Sacra grows on terraces built into 85% slopes –roots forge their way through slabs of slate and schist that look as if they wouldn’t sustain lichen, let alone vines. Hence the hyperbole. The topography of Ribeira Sacra is not the least remarkable thing about this isolated, mountainous DO in the centre of Galicia. Its history too is extraordinary. While there have been vines here for centuries (the Romans made wine here, as they did over much of Spain), and Gonzalez’ terraces look as if they have stood for many decades, the present vineyards in fact are no more than a generation old. Once covered in terraces, over the last 80 years the hillsides were abandoned; the Civil War and increasing rural poverty were to blame, Gonzalez says. All the skills of the previous generations were almost lost – ‘between me and my grandfather there is no inheritance’.
Adega Algueira: 85% slopes

But 30 years ago he gave up his job in banking and mobilised his family, clearing the forest and revealing the crumbling terraces, which they rebuilt by hand, stone by stone. That was on the south side of the River Sil – the northern bank is untouched. ‘Thirty-three years ago, this side of the river looked like the opposite bank,’ Gonzalez says. He’s pointing to a densely-wooded hillside; looking closely it’s possible to see the remains of terraces amongst the dense green foliage. Gonzalez found vines gone wild, winding round scrubby oaks in symbiotic harmony. He took cuttings, identified them, and if they were viable, used them as the base for his replantings. He had to be careful though – previous generations had favoured vigorous but uninteresting varieties like Palomino, and he wanted only the native grapes: Mencia, Trousseau (called Merenzao here), Brancellao, Treixadura, Godello and Albariño, amongst others.

Gonzalez’ property, Adega Algueira, is one of the most renowned in Ribeira Sacra. The wines are fresh, structured and light, their profile exactly suited to the wine-drinking public’s taste for restraint. The major UK importer Bibendum, which lists half a dozen of Gonzalez’ wines, finds them ‘truly stunning’. Ferran Centelles, formerly of El Bulli and now working with the restaurant’s founder Ferran Adria on his new educational foundation, called the Cortezada 2011, a blend of Godello, Albarino and Treixadura, ‘singular and extraordinary’.

Centelles is a Catalan sommelier of wide experience, but he professed himself ‘incredulous’ at the ‘heroic viticulture’ of Ribeira Sacra. It is a landscape which demands much of its winemakers. Gonzalez himself, a charming man, with the slightly  wild demeanour of the zealot, has devoted his life to the cause while retaining his sense of humour. ‘It’s cheap to work the land here,’ he says, ‘because you’ve got no alternative but to do it yourself.’

A few miles east along the Rio Sil, in a region where the export of slate was the prime industry, lies A Coroa, another property that is at once ancient and modern. The first winery here dates from 1750, but was abandoned some 100 years later. The present owners bought the land in 1999, and re-established the winery in 2002.
Slate at A Coroa

A Coroa produces four highly-regarded Godellos under different vinification regimes – the Godello Lias for example spends four to five months on lees – on slate and schist soils. Godello has been reclaimed in Galicia, by dint of the hard work of producers like A Coroa, Algueira and – further east still in Valdeorras – Rafael Palacios. The younger brother of Alvaro Palacios of Penedes, Rafael makes wines under the cultish As Sortes label, and is convinced of their ageworthiness. Jancis Robinson MW agrees – she recently tasted Palacios’ superbly concentrated 2011 and recommended keeping it ‘at least until the end of the decade.’

Winemakers are opinionated, and the debate about the ageing properties of the two great white grapes of Galicia, Albariño and Godello, will live on long after the wines themselves have turned thin and brown. Fernando Gonzalez, for example, reckons acidity is key. The stony slate and gneiss soil of Ribeira Sacra, he says, is ideal for supplying the freshness and acidity that will ensure endurance, whereas the richer soils of Valdeorras can create ‘a problem with acidity.’ Palacios would disagree.

Acidity is much more of an issue in the coastal Rias Baixas DO. Galician topography is very varied, as evidenced by the radical differences between the central DOs  – Ribeira Sacra and Valdeorras – and the widely-spread Rias Baixas. The western coastline of Galicia, where the four  sub-regions of Rias Baixas lie, is made up of a series of deep, funnel-shaped inlets which thrust inland from the Atlantic. The land is low-lying, ocean-influenced, more humid and cooler than the central regions.

Rias Baixas was created a DO in 1988, but the production of wine here has changed little over the centuries. To combat the damp atmosphere vines are trellised on the pergola system, stout granite posts a metre and a half high, holding up a roof of shoots. Production is fragmented amongst thousands of tiny vineyards: there are 177 producers in Rias Baixas, but 7,000 registered grape growers farming 4,000ha of vineland. ‘It’s pretty low-tech,’ Andrew McCarthy at Bodegas Castro Martin says. ‘This part of Galicia is very poor and rural.’

Rodrigo Mendez (with Bibendum's Gareth Goves at right)
The peculiar nature of viticulture here encourages the growth of cooperatives like Condes de Alberei and Martin Codax, which have some 700 members between them and a dynamic export market (Codax partners with Gallo in the US, and is well-known in the UK, selling Albariño under both the Codax and the Burgans label). There is also a good deal of corporate ownership – companies like the Portuguese giant Sogrape, and fishing multinational Pescanova have stakes in the region.

With multitudinous growers, and often scant loyalty between grower and producer, experimentation can flourish. Rodrigo Mendez, a winemaker of exceptional and eccentric talent, sources grapes from a variety of remote vineyards, most within a hundred metres of the sea. His reds, from the indigenous varietals  Caiño, Espadeiro and Loureiro are renowned (a Pinot Noir is raised in a handful of barrels in his garage) and his whites are steadily gaining a stellar reputation. He also makes wines with Raul Perez, referred to by Robert Parker as a ‘visionary’; their Sketch Albariño is aged in bottle at the bottom of the Aurosa estuary.
Pergola trellising, Rias Baixas

Mendez’ methods are natural – foot-treading, no filtration, no fining, wild yeast fermentation, little temperature control – but his wines are sophisticated, beautifully structured and made with a sharp eye on international markets. They attract the enthusiastic attention of Bibendum and Spanish specialists Carte Blanche, as well as distributors in the US, after glowing reviews by Neal Martin on Robert Parker’s website.

While winemakers like Mendez champion a wide range of local varieties – Galicia has 60 indigenous grapes – it is Albariño which dominates. This is partly for its international appeal: the wines are fresh and easy-drinking, absolutely in tune with current style trends. But specialists also point to its complexity and ageworthiness.

One of these is Vicente Cebrian, the owner of Rioja’s Marques de Murrieta, whose  C16th family estate is Pazo Barrantes in Salnes,  the central DO of Rias Baixas. Salnes produces 99% Albariño and Cebrian loves to demonstrate the grape’s possibilities. He believes eighty per cent of Albariño in Rias Baixas ’is released too early’, and points to his vibrant 2000 Pazo Barrantes as an example of the way it can age with elegance and grace.

Vicente Cebrian and eucalyptus, Pazo Barrantes
Aged Albariño is something the public isn’t quite ready for, McCarthy says, but  a glance at Bibendum’s figures for Castro Martin demonstrates the health of the sector as a whole, with a 39% sales increase over the last four years. As the economic crisis in Spain grinds on, it is exports which keep this bodega and many others alive. McCarthy sends some 70% of his production abroad, with half going to the UK, and the other half to the rest of Europe and elsewhere, including five to 10,000 cases to the US and 12,000 to Australia. ‘If we relied on our domestic market then we would be doomed,’ McCarthy says.

Galicia is remote, historically isolated from the rest of Spain until the motorways were built a generation ago. Traditionally it has been a region of subsistence farmers – and to an extent it still is. Those pergola trellises may be ideal for keeping vines far enough off the ground to avoid rot, but they also free up the space below to grow hardy vegetables or graze livestock. The crisis is still felt here. ‘Those who most relied on the domestic market have felt it hardest,’ McCarthy says. The result of falling domestic sales has been a surplus of grapes and a drop in prices – small growers have no compunction about offloading grapes as cheaply as possible.

There have been failures – Rias Baixas’ 177 wineries were 200 a few years ago – but there were no ‘constructor’ wineries (those built on shaky economic foundations with the proceeds of the building boom in the south of Spain) in Galicia, as there were in Rioja and Ribera del Duero, so the fall has been less severe.

The focus is now on export, to the rest of Europe and the US, and in this, Galicia ‘can be counted a real success story’, Stuart Grundy, Bibendum’s buying director for Europe says. He attributes this to the global interest in Albariño, particularly Rias Baixas, ‘but now the lesser-known regions are channelling their energies that way too. Most of the top wineries have strong sales in the US.’

The global movement towards restraint applies to reds as well as whites and Galicia’s climate is ideally suited to produce light, fresh and acidic reds. Mencia, which is best-known in neighbouring Bierzo DO, works particularly well in the hills of Ribeira Sacra. As does Trousseau, native to the Jura and loved by artisan winemakers from South Australia to Sonoma. Adega Algueira has a very fine example which sells out in France, Gonzalez says. The critics like it so much ‘they refuse to believe it’s a Spanish wine’.

Sculpture, Pazo Barrantes
Winemakers in Galicia face many hurdles: the hard-scrabble life of hillside growing, humidity, damp and rot, economic uncertainty. But – despite what the French may say – their uniqueness is their strength. The climate and topography (someone described it as like ‘a Mediterranean Wales’) is so singular, and so singularly suited to producing wines of finesse, power and longevity, it is very difficult to mistake the best Galician wine for anything else.

(Tasting notes to will be added in due course)

Wednesday 17 September 2014

Visigoths and Viognier - the relentless Gerard Bertrand

This article first appeared in Meininger's Wine Business International

Winemakers can be restlessly inquisitive, constantly searching for new terroirs to explore. Big wine companies are the same, though for different reasons. A Burgundian, say, will have his eyes on Oregon, or New Zealand, for the challenge those regions present for Pinot Noir; a Bordelais might look to Napa (there are more than a dozen French winemakers working at the highest level there) to grapple with the novel challenge of too much sun. Where wine corporations are concerned, simply change the word ‘explore’ to ‘exploit’ and you have their raison d’être.
'My focus is here': Gerard Bertrand

Gérard Bertrand works to a different scale. He is interested solely in his home region, the great swathe of southern France that is Languedoc-Roussillon. ‘I was born in the vineyard and my dream was always to reveal the terroir of the south of France,’ he says.

Bertrand took over the family property, the 60-hectare Domaine Villemajou in Corbières, on the sudden death of his father Georges Bertrand in 1987. Gérard was 22, and still playing rugby at national level (he continued to play for the next ten years, captaining his team, Stade Français in Paris, from 1992 to 1994). From the start he took his responsibilities seriously, ‘assuming the leadership in the region’ as he puts it. ‘Other companies are global and I have a deep respect for that, but my focus is here.’

He quickly established the Gérard Bertrand brand, and began to acquire properties. In 1992 he bought Domaine Cigalus in Bizanet and ChâteauLaville Bertrou in La Livinière, and ten years later he acquired what has become the company’s flagship, Chateau l’Hospitalet in La Clape, a winery and three-star hotel which is the centrepiece of the Bertrand philosophy of ‘l’art de vivre’ – the art of living.  The group now has 10 estates and more than 550ha of vineyard. It produces a bewildering array of wines, from the ten estate cuvées, to the top end Cigalus, La Forge and Tautavel – which retail at around €30 a bottle – the Grand Terroir range, the Art de Vivre range and others. He produces 1.5m cases, generating a turnover of €60m. It would seem he has conquered the Languedoc-Roussillon. Would he ever consider finding new terroirs outside the south of France? ‘No. My life and soul is here – I think we are continuing to develop what we have. I want to be the best in the region.’

Chateau l'Hospitalet
In person, Bertrand is a commanding presence, the very type of the broad-shouldered rugby international, though slightly dishevelled, as if he is unused to wearing a suit and tie (‘I just wanted to lean over and straighten his collar,’ one female public relations executive told me after an interview with him). He works the international circuit, ever-present at trade fairs from Montpellier’s Vinisud, to Prowein and the London Wine Trade Fair. He is so used to giving interviews and explaining his mission to promote the south of France that there’s a tendency to lapse into inspirational jargon. ‘I feel like a missionary,’ he says. ‘My goal is to share with the consumer the lifestyle of the south of France: wine, gastronomy, culture and art, and then deliver the message in the cross – fraternity, peace, and love.’

‘The cross’ refers to the distinctive Bertrand logo, the four-armed Visigoth cross, which is beamed three metres high onto the outer wall of the new l’Hospitalet chai, and which according to the company’s literature is laden with significance, ‘…its four elements and its twelve points of the zodiac represent the perfect perpetual cycle of time and nature…’

While that might sound like new-age mumbo-jumbo, the Gérard Bertrand brand is rooted firmly in reality. It dominates the south of France, exporting to 100 markets worldwide and garnering a clutch of international awards. When Bertrand says, ‘In many regions and countries we have opened the market and created the south of France category’, it is not an empty boast.

One gets the feeling he runs the company with an eye for the smallest detail (there’s no doubt he would far rather be in the vineyard or the blending room than at a trade fair). He tastes ‘more or less three mornings a week’ and is in the vineyard once a month through the year, and several times a week before and during harvest. He gives the same attention to his international markets, concentrating on North America and Asia, but excluding China at least until 2020, he suggests.

‘China is important and interesting but not for the next few years. They don’t have the knowledge and experience yet – they don’t recognise a label until it becomes a brand - and they are full of stock as they produce a lot of wine.

‘We can represent the future for them because they like the taste of the south of France, but you have to educate thousands and thousands of people.’

Bertrand returns again and again to the theme of education. Many winemakers are evangelical in their determination to promote their region, and he is no exception – indeed, his entire life is dedicated to demonstrating the potential of his many terroirs. Critics recognise this potential: three Bertrand wines were in the final listing of the UK’s Sud de France Top 100 competition, out of over 600 entered, with Château de Villemajou Grand Vin 2011from Domaine Villemajou– Georges Bertrand’s original winery – taking a trophy. At the 2014 Decanter World Wine Awards, Bertrand’s wines won several gold medals and two coveted Regional Trophies, for the Réserve Spéciale Viognier and a 1974 Rivesaltes which the judges described as ‘Wonderful stuff’.

Tim Atkin MW, who chairs the Sud de France Top 100, considers Bertrand ‘charismatic, passionate and deeply knowledgeable about his own region’ and ‘one of the key figures in the renaissance of the Languedoc-Roussillon.’

Chateau La Sauvageonne

Size, scale and reach play a major part in the success of the brand. Bertrand bestrides the Languedoc-Roussillon like a colossus: his estates stretch from the recently-acquired Chateau la Sauvageonne in Montpellier to Laville-Bertrou in La Livinière; there are properties in La Clape and Boutenac, and another recent acquisition, La Soujeole in the Malepère appellation near Carcassonne. The terroirs are wonderfully varied in altitude and topography: Domaine de l’Aigle in Limoux is one of the coolest and highest in the region and produces restrained and elegant Pinot and Chardonnay; Domaine de Cigalus in Boutenac is more Mediterranean and planted to Grenache, Carignan and Caladoc as well as international varieties. There are few grape varieties Bertrand doesn’t source.

So there is reach, but the scale of each estate is manageable – production is almost artisan for the smaller estates. There is no irrigation (‘the roots go deeper and reveal the terroir’), and 300ha of the portfolio are now biodynamic: ‘The philosophy is to be sustainable at least, and then organic, and then biodynamic,’ Bertrand says, adding that he follows the biodynamic calendar where possible. This annual calendar – as most famously set out by Maria Thun and her son Matthias - uses lunar and solar cycles and planetary movements to advise which periods, either ‘fruit’, ‘flower’, ‘leaf’ and ‘root’ days, are best for different operations in the vineyard or winery. ‘We respect it for the top wines, and only bottle on a flower or a fruit day. For the others, we use it at the end of the tasting to see what kind of day it is.’

Another facet of Bertrand’s philosophy (he uses the word frequently to describe his view of winemaking) is a clear focus on the taste and style of the different terroirs. ‘To reveal the terroir you need to feel it. When you suck limestone you get a taste of mineral  and salt, from silex you get iron. And of course, to understand the terroir you need to work on it and spend time on it.’

This focus is not only for the higher-end terroir-driven wines. Swirling his basic-level Picpoul de Pinet in his glass – a wine which sells for around €12 – he is still concerned that it should deliver some sort of typicity. ‘Why do I like this? It’s an easy wine to understand. It’s fruit-driven, it has minerality, it’s crisp, you salivate and you need another glass. It’s not a complex wine but it has the taste of Picpoul – you can feel the taste of the grape.’ The same goes for the best-selling rosé Gris Blanc. ‘We’re looking for the taste of Grenache Gris. It’s a modern wine with an old traditional varietal.’

This surely is part of the ethos – to take what is traditional about the south of France and turn it into something modern, approachable and marketable. Revealingly, Bertrand chooses to answer another question. ‘Twenty-six years ago we were in three markets, and now we’re in 100.’

There is a relentless focus on markets: after all, one man’s mission to educate is another man’s brilliant salesmanship. At the massive new chai at L’Hospitalet, capacity is increased, but Bertrand says that is not the most important aspect of the building: ‘We needed to have a very modern and attractive winery to align with the market’ – and to have more storage space for the library of past vintages that he is amassing, in order to demonstrate the ageworthiness of his wines to future generations of consumers.

Bertrand is at his most eloquent and enthusiastic when discussing ‘the soul of the appellation’, as he puts it, and at the heart of it all is Corbières, where he grew up. Of the Corbières Grenache Syrah Mourvèdre, he says, ‘This is my origin, the place where I was born. It is a beautiful place. I love the story of Corbières, it’s one of the most exciting places in the world. It’s alchemy, to get such juice from such a hard landscape.’
Villemajou: 'the soul of the appellation'

When one considers how long wine has been made in this region, Bertrand’s mission is in its infancy. He has 39 vintages under his belt and is not yet 50 – ‘I have a good level of energy and I resist stress’ – does he feel there is a lot more work to do?

‘My goal is to see Languedoc-Roussillon recognised as a Grand Cru, to be on a level with the best in the world. I’m very happy with what we have done in the last 20 years, and there are a lot of things to do in the next 20. But we’re not in a rush.’