You can always tell a PR person. . .

. . . but you can't tell him or her very much. (Sorry, old joke, but still true.) Some bright spark has declared this "National Picnic Week," which sort of fits neatly with the overlap of "International Champagne Week," (which has generously been broadened to include just-plain sparkling wine), ignoring the fact that the former is always an uncertain excercise in England, and the latter should be celebrated all year. Now, a New Zealand winemaker has declared that Donald Trump is not welcome to visit his winery. As Trump is a teetotaller who hasn't announced any plans to travel to New Zealand, this seems more than a bit gratuitous, to say the least, which is something I'm happy to do.

On the road again


Years ago, when I lived in San Francisco, one of the great weekend pleasures was to drive across the Golden Gate Bridge and spend a day in Sonoma, wending my way round what was known as the Sonoma Farm Trails. Napa may have had the glamour, but Sonoma, rustic and rumpled, had the variety: Aside from good wine in informal tasting rooms, I could easily find first-rate cheese, poultry like quail, guinea hens, and ducks, herbs, fruit of all sorts, just-dug vegetables, and plenty of jams, jellies, and sauces (and recipes!) from enterprising cooks. Besides the bounty, it was a good reminder that wine is an agricultural product, with good farming at its heart.
         I had a pleasant flashback to those days last week in West Sussex, at the farm shop on the Cowdray Estate, one of the best in southern England. I stocked up on duck, chicken, pork, cheese, asparagus, and new potatoes—all organic—and, discovered, in a small building next door, the English Wine Company. There were wines available to taste, and we liked the Albourne Estate Bacchus so much we bought some (Bacchus is a grape that’s known as a “cross,” interbred from three German grapes, including Riesling—it’s hardy, can thrive in difficult conditions, and in good years makes a fresh and lively white wine, with a heady elderflower aroma; it’s perfect with light fish like plaice). I also picked up a brochure, detailing the South East Wine Route, showing a map and information on 17 wines with public tasting rooms, as well as another 17 open by appointment. Many have farm shops, and as we discovered on the way back home, when we stopped at Secrett’s farm shop near Milford, many farm shops now sell English wine—deliciously complete. Have a look at www.seva.uk.com.  

Paris when it sizzles



As Bogart said to Bergman in "Casablanca," "We'll always have Paris." As Steven Spurrier said to me 40 years ago, "I don't have a thermofax machine, but there's a chap nearby who does--I'll send you some interesting stuff." Steven set off a big bang with what became known ever after as The Paris Tasting, and I was happy to amplify it, and the wine world has also always had Paris ever since. When Warren Winiarski came over for a visit a while back, we had a bit of a reunion. Typical--Steven and I with glasses in hand, Warren with large pebbles--he rocks! (Although, to be fair, we were in a vineyard at the time, so he could say it was research.)
        Less talked about is the fact that, every time the tasting has been re-staged by Steven and various cohorts, usually on decade-marker anniversaries for the reds involved, California Cabernets always came out on top. (When we did it at the 30-year mark here in London at Berry Bros & Rudd, California took all five first places, led by Ridge "Montebello".) As Steven said, “the California wines were made to express, rather than to impress.”
        Now, the tables may have turned again: At a recent tasting of the 2000 vintage, Bordeaux beat the daylights out of the Californians. Someone was paying attention, obviously.

Serious fun in Portugal



A few countries around the Mediterranean have a delicious identity crisis—in a varietally organized world, dominated by the likes of Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, and flashy new arrivals such as Pinot Grigio, what do you do when your wines are made from quite unfamiliar grapes, singly or blended with other strange-sounding ones? Greeks and Croatians generally put the grape names on their labels and hope for the best; in the western Balkans, they seem content with local markets, exporting a bit to close neighbors who might be anti-Russian (Communism nearly ruined winemaking behind the Iron Curtain). 
        In the Douro Vally in Portugal, the problem has been different, less a matter of shifting gears than of building a new car. For many centuries, the steep, terraced hillsides above the namesake river have been planted to a hodgepodge of mostly red grapes that went into Port; now, the world is inclined more to lighter table wines. Those old vines yield superb fruit, and can make splendid table wine as well. Reform, rejuvenation, or renovation? How do you tell the story?
        For five of the region’s best small independent winemakers, the answer was to form a loose sort of bromance: The Douro Boys, whose slogan is “flying the flag for the Douro, enabling dry wines.” “We have fun, but we’re serious,” said Cristiano van Zeller, when we chatted at Decanter’s recent Fine Wine Encounter devoted to Iberian wines. They are Francisco Ferreira, of Quinta do Vallado; Dirk van der Niepoort, of Niepoort; Francisco Olazabal, of Quinta do Vale Meão; Tomas Roquette, of Quinta do Crasto; and Christiano, who owns Quinta Vale Dona Maria.
        At a Masterclass during the tasting, the flag flew well. Niepoort’s white from 2014, known as Tiara (principal grape in a complex blend is Codega do Larinho—see what I mean?) was pale gold and full-bodied, rounded but braced with quietly firm acidity. Quinta Vale Dona Maria’s two from 2013, Douoro Red and Vinha da Francisca were both vibrant, the former a little lighter (a blend of 25 grapes), the latter a touch more tannic, and a blend of only four grapes, predominantly Touriga Nacional. Quinta do Crasto’s Vinha da Ponte 2012 was bold and loaded with fruit but with muscular structure that will guarantee a long age, surely at least 20 years at best. Quinta do Vale Meão’s Douro Superior 2013 went for almost classical Bordeaux-style elegance for its multi-grape blend, another 20-year winner, surely.
        There was talk of terroir, interestingly complicated when you have so many different grapes and also many sorts of soil and exposures to sunshine along those terraces, even in small vineyards. In the end, though, as it’s about flavour and enjoyment, they’re home free. Find them at www.douroboys.com, or on Facebook.
           

White-out?



You could be forgiven for not having noticed, but the first week of May was “World Wine Week.” The second week of this well-blessed month has been declared “British Sandwich Week,” perhaps appropriate enough, as the handy meal was invented—or at least named--in England. In between these two sort-of events, May 6 was designated “International Sauvignon Blanc Day.” Busy month for food and wine! 
         What was most interesting about Sauvignon Blanc Day was that the official Bordeaux Blanc group made a great deal of noise about it, celebrating its principal grape with much fanfare, but didn’t once mention the minor but crucial partner in the blend, Semillon. If ever there were a grape worthy of being acclaimed as Best Supporting Actor, Semillon should win in a walk, but it seems to be a victim of fashion. It was once a serious contender in Washington State, but even Pinot Grigio has overtaken it there, and Chile has cut back its acreage. Only Australia honors it (and does it proud, as proven by a recent bottle of Tyrell's Hunter Valley 2005), which may be something to consider while we ponder our wine choices for “Barbecue Week,” which is the last week of May. Shiraz, anyone?

Shades of. . . Marie Antoinette


In the newest erotic best-selling novel, “Maestra,” there’s a scene featuring Bellinis, but they’re made with Champagne (Veuve Cliquot, in this case) instead of Prosecco, as they were when invented at Harry’s Bar in Venice, and now in the rest of the world. Queried about the discrepancy, the author, L.S. Hilton, quipped that in Portofino, where the scene was set, Bellinis are made with Veuve Cliquot, and “nicer than at Harry’s Bar in Venice,” a cute, if unnecessarily snotty, defense of conspicuous consumption: the spirit of Marie Antoinette lives on, obviously, as does the right to ruin good Champagne.
        That reminded me of the time I went to an event in Texas during the Republican presidential campaign years ago, where they were serving Krug and Guinness, though not calling them Black Russians, no doubt out of political caution. When we pesky journalists questioned the blend (“Waste of good Champagne!” said one, while the Irishman in the crowd said, “Waste of Guinness!”), a local big spender crowed that they were serving “nothing but the best.” In that case, we replied, we’ll just have the Krug. (The Irishman had his Guinness on the side.)

When in doubt, punt


I’ve been accused of tomfoolery over my warning of a signal of some wines being densely overblown blockbusters by identifying their bottles as having “Parker punts,” that is, deeper-than-usual indentations at the bottom of what are usually heavy bottles, regardless of the wines’ origins, grape varieties, or pedigree. I’ve been guilty of all sorts of tomfoolery in the past, but I’m not kidding.
        For example, take Sauska Hungarian Merlot 2011; it’s expensive (£75/$105 on this date), the bottle weighs 800 grams/1.8 pounds, which would come to more than 5 pounds per case of added weight over the average of most bottles, and the depth of the punt is almost to the second knuckle of my index finger. Inside: A dense, over-extracted, brooding beast, ungenerous, all tannin and muscularity, a relative of the grizzly bear that had its way with Leonardo di Caprio in “The Revenant”—a wine that fulfilled the promise of its package.
        Luckily, I also had a bottle of  Chateau de Gaudou “Renaissance” 2009, a Malbec from Cahors, standing by; Sauska went into the stewpot, this one, in a normal package and with a shallow-punted bottle a bit more than 200 grams lighter, went into me. It was lovely, did its job: to be enjoyable.

Bubbling up



British sparkling wine is having its moment, and the moment may last. In 2015, sales more than doubled, while the Wine Society saw increases of only a little less than that; restaurant listings went up as well, especially in places like Fera, in Claridge’s, Restaurant Gordon Ramsay, and many haute-cuisine hot spots in Mayfair. Tasting my way through a batch of local bubbly recently, I was quite impressed by Ridgeview (the first real breakaway wine, which won a top trophy at Decanter’s World Wine Awards a few years back), Wiston Estate, Gusborne, Theale, Nyetimber, and Furleigh Estate, which also makes the wine from Steven and Bella Spurrier’s Bride Valley vineyard. They’re all first-rate. 
        Now they’re being joined by one of France’s most notable producers: Taittinger has purchased just over 170 acres of land in Kent, which has chalky soil similar to that of Champagne; about 100 acres will be planted to Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Pinot Meunier. The wine will be called Domaine Evremond, named for a French poet who lived in England and is buried, near Spenser and Chaucer, in Poets’ Corner at Westminster Abbey. It could be an omen—40 years ago, after Domaine Chandon established a French beachhead for sparkling wine in California, there was a welcome invasion, as Mumm, Roederer, and yes, Taittinger, arrived, and were soon joined by the Spanish Freixenet, which created Gloria Ferrer. A few other producers dipped their toes in the California pool, but didn’t linger, more from marketing stumbles than anything else. Taittinger, which had a major success in California, looks like a safe bet.

More organic (in every way)


A day after I posted the item below on organic wine production, a colleague in Brazil sent me an e-mail saying, “Just back from a ‘natural’ wine tasting. Seriously one of worst wine experiences of my professional life. Everything bio, terrible. Only good thing was dark chocolate and foie gras amuse-bouche.” I hope those last two were separate, but I know what she means. A few months ago a writers’ group I belong to did a similar tasting, with wines mostly from Italy and France. It was more work than most wine tastings, and certainly more than it should have been: Not one of the dozen tasted good, even when we tried them with food (although a few at least tasted a little better then). 
        What was most irksome was the way the proponents of these wines keep saying that their biodynamic principles really and truly demonstrate their terroir, which simply traduces language, making it meaningless. What they demonstrated, in fact, was that in making wines with primitive methods, the flavours simply reflect the winemaking—they were similar to each other, no matter where they came from, or sometimes whichever grape they were made from. “Terroir” is in danger of going the way of “minerality” as a hollow phrase. (As wine-drinking may be in danger of becoming dutiful assessments of moral standing rather than sensual pleasure.)
        But on the other hand, I went to lunch and then, because it was so good, dinner, at a wine bar called Antidote, on Carnaby Street (it used to be La Trouvaille). The wine list is organic, etc., and we drank—quite happily!—glasses of Domaine de Bellevue Muscadet 2014, Domaine de Veilloux Cheverny 2011, and Domaine Ledogar Corbieres 2011. So, there is still something to talk about. The INAO, the French appellation governing body, is now preparing a report aimed at defining “natural” wine. It won’t please everybody—perhaps nobody—but it’s a start.

You say organic, I say. . . ?



Some of the best wines I’ve ever drunk were organic, or at least made from organic grapes. Some of the worst, often labelled as “natural” or biodynamic, were too, really quite punishing to drink (“enjoy” didn’t come into the conversation at all—drinking them seemed more like a duty, or maybe a penance, than anything else).
        The good ones were so good that I’ve always leaned toward the idea that, at least for small-to-medium-sized producers, organic was probably the way to go, and I wasn’t alone—around the world, the number of producers embracing the idea has grown: in the last couple of decades, the acreage of Spain’s vineyards farmed organically quintupled, France’s quadrupled, and Italy’s nearly doubled. That’s what was officially reported; the actual number of people simply adopting some or most of the organic methods was even higher. Now, however, according to an extensive survey in Europe, the numbers are dropping slightly, especially in France (there seem to be problems of administration of their Ecocert program, and people willing to go against the grain by going organic are also the sort of people also willing to go against the grain from bureaucracy). Italy, however, seems to still be moving on; their organic program is more biodiverse, and more directly participatory—it’s called “Biodistretto,” with more local control, and farmers as well as vineyardists involved.
         I can still, decades later, vividly remember drinking a range of splendid wines from the Dry Creek Valley and other parts of northern Sonoma, where there was an early and enthusiastic move to organic principles: Zinfandels from Quivira, Nalle, Seghesio, Preston, and Ridge, Barbera from several vineyards, and a whole range from early-adopter Dave Stare’s Dry Creek Vineyards. All proof enough that it can work, done sensibly.

Uruguay weighs in

I recently bought a case of wine at an auction for one of my favorite charities, WaterAid, which works to bring fresh clean water to communities in Africa, digging wells, supplying pumps, and creating plumbing systems, making a huge differences to people’s lives. The wine was a “mystery case”—all I knew was that it was white wine, donated by Decanter after a series of tastings. Half a dozen bottles were Uruguayan Chardonnay. Oh well, I thought, the money went for a good cause anyway. I’ve now drunk my way through most of them, and am pleased to report that I got quite a bargain.
          Back in the days before “terroir” and “minerality” became the dominant, all-purpose, misappropriated and eventually diluted criteria they are now, we used to judge wine in simpler, more accessible ways, beginning with varietal character, moving on to acidity, and ending up with balance (which brought in the actual winemaking)—not a bad way to go. On that useful basis, several of those Uruguayan Chardonnays were terrific, clearly respecting the grape’s flavours and aromas, with a vibrant zing of green-apple acidity running through them that never let up, and a balance that never flagged, with just the right touch of subtle oak, always inviting another mouthful: Bouza, Bodgeas Carrau, and Del Pedregal from 2014, and Marichal 2015, are highly recommended.
          Uruguay has a fascinating wine history, with an unusual climate and topography; it’s the fourth-largest wine industry in South America, and becoming export-minded. The principal grape is the red Tannat, a rough, tannic beast in France but softer and voluptuous in Uruguay (it must be the terroir!). And if you see a dessert wine called Vinedo de los Vientos “Alcyone,” do yourself a favor and try it—it’s  Tannat made with added herbs, in the style of some Amarones, and it’s a delicious chocolate-cherry bombshell with a firm tannic backbone, unique and quite wonderful.

Trapper, Moses, and me

Wayne Rogers, who played Trapper John McIntyre in the classic TV series of “M.A.S.H.,” died last week. Besides acting, he had been  a highly successful financial manager. One venture, in the early 1970s, was a syndicate that included Peter Falk, Jack Webb, and James Caan, which established a 530-acre vineyard in Paso Robles, then mostly known for its hot springs.
          Vineyards were a savvy, tax-deferring investment, but Wayne, who admitted at the time that his wine knowledge was limited to knowing the difference between Pinot Noir and Cabernet Sauvignon, got involved, even taking university courses in enology and viticulture. His enthusiasm—and financial returns—helped bring in new investors and revitalize the area’s historic wine traditions (and its annual rodeo became the only one in America featuring wine-tastings).
          We were slightly acquainted, so I wasn’t surprised when he called me one day in 1985 at my office at Wine Institute in San Francisco, but I was surprised at the reason: He'd gotten a phone call from Charlton Heston, who was appearing on stage in London in “The Caine Mutiny,” and was in a Captain Queeg-type lather. On his night off, Heston had had dinner with the American Ambassador--and been served French wine! He was indignant! He was outraged! He said the ambassador had claimed French wine was all they had in the embassy’s cellar. Not so, I told Wayne, I’d recently arranged a donation of wine left over from a California tasting to the embassy. Perhaps the ambassador had been misled.
          Wayne wasn’t mollified. “Do you really want to argue with Moses?” he said, laughing. Good point: I sent Heston a message promising that we were working to sort out the situation, and then called Geoffrey Roberts in London, the leading importer of California wine at the time, and asked him to send a mixed case to Heston at his hotel, with a note saying I was sure he’d enjoy it when he hosted the ambassador in return, and then to bill me for the wine. (A real gent, Roberts only charged me the wholesale price.) 
          Later, Heston sent me back a message saying he appreciated the quick response; I never knew if he was referring to my promise, or the wine he evidently enjoyed. Moses supposed, I disposed. That’s entertainment.
copyright 2010-2017 by Brian St. Pierre