Thursday, 9 November 2006

France Fighting Back

The wine world hit the ground running as January called us all back to our spittoons. Except that there were so many tastings in the first weeks of the year that ground-contact was optional. And not just tastings, but post mortems, predictions, analyses . . . all very useful and stimulating stuff.

So where are we? What's in? What's out? Shall we be drinking differently this summer? Will the New World continue its advance, or the old one reassert its ancestral authority?

Er, both. Early last year Australia was able to claim it had pretty much caught up with France in popularity on our tables - an amazing achievement, if it's true. It certainly had the French worried - and more divided than ever about the sanctity of appellations and the rigidity of rules. Very reasonably they ask why New world growers can plant what grapes they like where they like, while a Frenchman has to jump through hoops to plant anything at all, and risks both barrels from the law if he dares to experiment with a variety not authorized for his region.

But at the same time buyers in Britain were heard asking if Australia wasn't getting a bit too big for its boots. Some of the wines that had made it so user-friendly, the safe-bet oaky Chardonnay or vanilla-and-blackberry Barossa Shiraz were becoming a tad too predictable the fifth time round. Nor were their prices getting any friendlier.

Australia's 2000 vintage was not special. South Africa's performance is getting sharper (and the rand dropping). Chile and Argentina are in full cry despite poor Argentina's money trouble, while New Zealand is redefining itself as the chic boutique of the southern hemisphere. Should Australia be worried? Not in the least. 2001 is overall a cracking good vintage. Wine-makers are smart enough to adapt their style to stress its juicy crisp fruit. ('Unwooded' is becoming the same sort of sales tag as 'unfiltered' was a year or two ago.) Riesling is resurgent, with beautiful pure and racy examples from Perth to Adelaide, and the Clare Valley establishing itself as the Rheingau of the South.

Australian winemakers are getting more imaginative about blending varieties, too. Adding Sauvignon Blanc to their favourite old Semillon gives it a lift. The fragrant white Verdelho has come out of the shadows to make fresh wines on its own or season a too-solid Chardonnay. Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot now marry in South Australia as happily as they do in Bordeaux. I do wonder though, about the prices asked for some of the rum-and-thunder Shiraz from ancient vines in Barossa or McLaren Vale. Sweet and strong is easy: sweet and seductive is something else.

Should France really be worried, then? Not in the world market. It's going to take a long time to wean the true devotees of Bordeaux and Burgundy off the wine they worship. They are not always the obvious suspects: Belgium and Switzerland buy heroic quantities of the top wines. And the investment market, based in London but strongly backed by the USA, simply daren't look elsewhere. Futures in Coonawarra somehow don't equate to futures in Margaux.

If the battle rages on British shelves it may have something to do with our ambivalent attitude to France, our age-old love-hate relationship that dreams of summers in Perigord but remembers sneers in Paris.We all want Bordeaux and Burgundy to succeed in glorious ripe vintages (Look at the rush to buy Bordeaux 2000, despite outright gouging by top chateaux). Yet we rub our hand at blind tasting results when France is humiliated by a New World (or any other) rival.

We should keep open minds. The world is awash with dreary wines, produced in industrial quantities (and by industrial methods), whether in Oz, France or any other country. I am constantly amazed that our supermarkets offer such a range of wines that are essentially the same, wherever they come from. Try the famous appellation wines in a French supermarket, though. You will be amazed how far they dare to stretch credulity - and their wines.

Equipped with open minds we can take advantage of the good things coming from alternative sources: grape varieties other than the Big Six and countries and regions that are either overlooked or undervalued.

Where am I looking in 2002? Of course while the pound continues so strong against the euro - long may it last - Europe can't help offering us bargains. I'm looking in the east and south of Italy for full-flavoured reds. Not forgetting Sicily and Sardinia - for whites too. In recent regional appellations in Portugal for concentrated tannic wines and Spain for easier riper drinking. In Andalusia, of course, for the wine world's biggest bargain of all: sherry.

In France it is the Midi which is least pampered - although most chaotic. But the Loire valley still offers top value for money from Muscadet to Sancerre - via Anjou and Touraine. Alsace would do better, in my view, to make less late-picked stickies at high prices and give us its glorious dry wines. Champagne: how long can the bargain prices last?

Look again at Germany (I say this every year) for pure-flavoured wines that go far better with food than you think. Australian Rieslings have overtaken some of Germany's loveliest in price. Can this last? And be ready to go further east - with advice. Austria is a totally safe bet; Hungary packed with promise; Greece more and more intriguing.

We already know where we are with Chile and Argentina: more often satisfied than really thrilled to the marrow. The same with California. Its best-known wines are deadly dull - and by no means cheap, while its best rarely reach us: the mighty dollar takes care of that. Washington State bears some study, though.

Personally I'm looking harder and longer than ever at South Africa. I've never needed persuading about South African whites. Now the reds are shaking off their traditional earthy dryness to become equally seductive.

The doyenne of wine-writing, Pamela Vandyke Price (sorry, Jancis, your turn will come) is famous for her two catch phrases. 'What times!', she cries on meeting. And on parting, 'Prudent be'. These days the first is more apposite than the second.

Hugh Johnson,
Club President

France 2005

We rejoice with you, brothers-across-la-Manche, for your simply superb 2005s. For this is truly a 'year of dreams'. We have started to down them with glee, and look forward to the many pleasures lying in wait for the months, years and decades ahead.

A few extravagant prices in Bordeaux throw a highly flattering light on good producers, and even well-known producers, offering their claret at one fortieth of the price, or even less. Suddenly £100 a box (plus the duty and VAT of course) looks a complete steal for what may be the best wine in decades from the region that still, in spite of everything, holds the pole position in our national wine-drinking.

Nor is Bordeaux the only region to come home rejoicing after a near-model vintage in 2005. What pleasure we can anticipate from Burgundy as well, from Chablis in the north to the southern Maconnais and Beaujolais; the Loire is on spectacular form, the RhĂ´ne too.

In the south, sure-footed winemaking also means that mouthwatering opportunities for wine drinkers abound.

It never causes the same rush of blood, but the other European region that made some of its best wine ever (and irresistible right away; cellaring highly desirable but optional) is Germany's Moselle. In a way I hope the pfennig doesn't drop too soon, because I have designs on obscene amounts, starting with the most peachy, tingling-fresh Kabinett wines I've tasted in years.

There'll never be a shortage of reliable wines - ever again, it seems. Of truly magic ones, though, nobody knows. Best to fill your boots when you see a vintage like 2005 come in.

Hugh Johnson,
Club President

Monday, 7 August 2006

A Message from Sicily

Back brown and breathless from our Star Flyer cruise: Rome - Ischia - Paestum - Lipari - Palermo - Marsala -Ponza - Rome. 120 members on board. Nearly 120 wines tasted. Nearly 100 degrees in Palermo.

We had a series of on-deck tutored tastings to show dozens of our favourite wines; they showed wonderfully well; so no doubts about combining wine and the sea. The food on board, too, was even better than in our previous two experiences of the Star Clippers, with unimaginable buffet lunches and barbecues - all done, it turned out, by a team under two sous-chefs, a Philippino and a Jamaican, the chef being on holiday.

What did we learn, apart from the fact that Club Members have extraordinary stamina? First of all, that southern Italy and Sicily have to count among the hot spots of New World wine. They have the great advantage over the conventional New World of Australasia and the Americas of having a quiverful of native grape varieties. Yes, they can do Chardonnay and Shiraz, but who else can do Fiano and Grillo and Falaghina and Catarratto and Aglianico and Nero d'Avola and Negroamaro?

What were unknown, even barbaric names 10 years ago are now the characters and the rationale behind new-minted delicacies. When they were made under primitive conditions they gave pretty indelicate results. But we, via Brussels, have poured zillions into the treasuries of the Mezzogiorno, have not asked too many questions, and are now beginning to collect our dividend.

The evolution of Sicilian and South Italian wine has been fast-forwarded to amazing effect. Natural selection gradually produced vines well-adapted to local conditions. Extreme heat is not the only one. Drought is another, and high on the mountain slopes, extremes of every kind.

The new generation of wine-makers has gone straight to the point. Traditional methods, if there were any, were usually hokum. Modern oenology could use the aromas, flavours and structure of these grapes to far better effect. Result: a break-out from the Chardonnay/Sauvignon rut; juicy robust alternatives to Cabernet and Shiraz, Merlot and Pinot Noir. They use them straight or think up blends. In Sicily we even had a blend of Nero d'Avola and Pinot Noir - and rather good it was, too.

Two landmark tastings tell the story. Both will go down in history. The first, at a buffalo farm (milk for mozzarella) near Paestum, brought together The Club's suppliers from central and southern Italy, from Chianti to Pescara to Salento to Naples. This was relatively familiar territory seen in a new light, from Farnese's delicate touch with Chardonnay to the sweet thunder of a Selvarossa Riserva from Puglia.

The second was in the stately drawing-rooms of the baroque palazzo Malvagna in the narrow streets of old Palermo, on an afternoon when the Celsius thermometer flirted with forty. In the tradition of Club mini-festivals we had invited fifteen different Sicilian producers. The aristocracy of the island were there, their coats of arms flashing proudly on their new-minted labels.

The wines were a revelation. Europe has a great new wine country. Most of us have drunk Corvo and heard of Regaleali, but what about Firiaco's Harmonium (all Nero d'Avola)? Or Scyri? Or Planeta's Corneta (all Fiano, like gentle honeyed melon)? Or Vigna di Gabri from Donnafugata (all Ansonica, firm, almondy, big and appetizing)? There was Grillo from Chiaramonte, Insola from Almerita, Cataratto from RapitalĂ .

Getting confused? Me too. But give us time to sort it out. We have hit a seam of exotic delights none of us suspected - and we shall all be the beneficiaries.

Hugh Johnson,
Club President