Friday, 23 November 2007

Christmas Drinking 2007

Do we really squeeze all our serious drinking (by which of course I mean wine appreciation) into the last 10 days of the year? That's the picture you get: wine merchants up all night packing parcels for people who rarely touch a drop until Christmas Eve.

And then: the bubbly foams, the richest reds appear in elegant glasses, the venerable port winks ruby in the firelight. Does anyone do avant-garde Christmas? Damien Hirst maybe; the rest of us, it seems, stick with tradition. Why re-invent a formula that works so well?

It starts, of course, with Champagne. I've never understood how (or why) Champagne houses consistently threaten us with supplies running dry, amidst cries that the region must expand - and then offer us the latest bargain.

Should I worry, though, when the tried and true is offered at less than last time I bought it, just when I need it most? Whether I drink The Club's Champagne (exclamations of delight; how can it be that good), the delectable Haton (glasses stretched out for more) or a glamour brand (nods of knowledgeable appreciation) I have never known it fail to create a buzz.

Alternatives? There are lots. Christmas morning sees me sipping glorious dry rich sherry. On Boxing Day it will be English fizz: The Club's South Ridge gets everybody talking. And this year, Sparkling Shiraz! Yes really: deep red South Australian fruit, tannin and bubbles all together reach taste buds you didn't know you had. You'll never know until you try it.

This Christmas, even square old claret drinkers have to decide between juicy young wines or something more mellow. A few years ago no one dreamed of drinking two-year-old Bordeaux. Then came 2003 and 2005 with grapes so ripe the wines beg to be drunk in their first fruity bloom. In fact, with claret vintages from '99 to 2005 ready to drink this Christmas - you can hardly miss. Don't open the big-name '05's yet ... oh, all right then.

The vogue for big reds doesn't go away at Christmas. Chateauneuf? Absolutely. Fine Australian Shiraz? Why ever not? Or Italy's turbo reds, Amarone and Valpolicella Ripasso. I have Colheita port on my list, once-a-year vintage Madeira, Sauternes and my own Royal Tokaji Aszu. And just to show I haven't been dozing through life's great fashion show, Limoncello. Last year no one had heard of it; this year drink it or you're nothing. Or so they tell me.

Hugh Johnson,
Club President

Monday, 20 August 2007

The Club Cruise

Mature clarets. Starboard tack. Course 30 degrees for Portoferraio, three jibs, all staysails, topsails and topgallants. 21° centigrade.

Tasting notes starting like this generally have a favourable outcome. They only happen at all, unfortunately, on our biennial cruises on tall ships, but the memory lingers. Some come primarily for the wine and some for the sailing. Don't ask me to choose. The perfect accompaniment for a Sardinian Vermentino? Force seven on the starboard quarter off the Costa Smeralda. It could become a habit.

130 of us set sail from Cannes on July 28, supported, if that's the word, by a crew of 75, bound for Calvi in Corsica. You can do it in 2 hours 55 minutes in a car ferry from Nice. Is it a sin to feel toweringly superior? Guilty m'lud, and I want about four hundred similar offences taken into consideration. We were, after all, on our toweringly superior ship for seven whole days.

There is a time-honoured ritual to getting going on the Star Clipper. These are sailing Club President, Hugh Johnson, reports back from another breath-taking Mediterranean adventure ships, remember; the first Sailing Passenger Vessels to be registered for many many years, and some of the biggest ever. You don't just start the motor, ship a pilot and get chugging. With a great deal of uncoiling ropes and looking aloft, the first signs are acres of white canvas unfurling far above your head. You look in vain for mariners bending over the spars, though; the duty officer has a wand with big yellow buttons controlling electric motors. Nor will you be required to suffer for your sense of history either, only to listen once again to a worn out recording of a heroic chant they tell me accompanied the Onedin Line. Suddenly, the sky above you is full of booming rectangles and straining triangles of sail, incomprehensively high. The deck tilts, the breeze freshens, and 3,000 tons of ship (wine-cellar included) is heading out to sea.

You are not allowed to forget the winecellar. We could fill the ship with more passengers than the 130 Club members who so gamely volunteer, but only by using the cabins we fill with hundreds of bottles of the best. It's not as though ports of call were bereft of wine. Everywhere we stop tenders seem to surround us with crates of the local creations. Nor are we remiss about appraising them. We send expeditions ashore to scour the vineyards, invite (unreluctant) growers to come and show us their wares and congregate on the Tropical Deck in attentive attitudes, holding out glasses as though there had been weeks of drought. Still the human chain fetching clarets and Burgundies and Kiwi Sauvignons and Chilean Cabernets up from below seems to labour unceasingly. When John Kemp and his staff are not pouring for eager tasters on deck you will find them in earnest session in the saloon, discussing whether the Crozes or the Central Otago is a better match for the evening's duck breasts in honey.

Am I painting a picture of excess? It can't be so. 50 chefs and stewards laboured day and night producing every dish you can think of, but up to five people were reported at one (the only) P.T. session squeezed in before the (substantial) breakfast. And no sooner have the tenders touched the quay, wherever we drop anchor, but queues form up to read the menus of the row of restaurants mercifully within 50 metres of the landing.

There is an unavoidable tension built into the schedule of a Sailing Passenger Vessel. It is the dialogue between the skipper and the restaurant manager. We have learned over the years, and many happy voyages, that the restaurant manager must be allowed his way. Eager sailors longing to see the ship beating to windward, white water bursting from the bows, decks running with solid seas, must see their dreams for what they are. Heeling at more than 4 degrees makes the cutlery slide about. At 8 degrees it is difficult to hold a glass correctly.

The organisers were taking no chances, though. Popular, and almost continuous, as our daily shipboard tastings were, if we were to have a serious session, an epic in the tradition of The Club's Vintage Festival, it must be on land. Cindy-Marie, our travel agent and much more than that, our energizer, our tonic and scourge of the reluctant, had scouted out the ground. She had found the place, the only place, on the whole Tuscan coast where a vineyard overlooks an anchorage for such a ship, a vineyard able to host a glamorous tasting of Tuscany's top wines, to tempt their growers from as far away as Florence, and to feast the whole ship's company in style.

Italy seems effortlessly to produce elegantly saturnine young men with large estates and a passion for wine. Also slender women in Gucci with marked views on fermentation and barrel-ageing. Mario Bacci, our host on his hilltop Terre de Talamo, was the epitome of the breed. The typical Tuscan tasting list, at least on the coast, runs Vermentino, Rosato, Morellino (or Brunello or Supertuscan I.G.T., or Chianti). Vermentino cools you, Rosato quenches your thirst and the red makes you seriously hungry. Beside the tasting tent, as an emergency resource, stood an airy pavilion with half a dozen exquisite (and subtly different) prosciutti and a millstone of Parmesan. That prince of the vine, Leonardo Frescobaldi, presided over a table of his magnificent Chianti Ruffina Montesodi and his irresistibly delicious Chianti Tenuta di Castiglioni. The sun beat down on the white tents, the green vines and the glittering water in the bay. It was a scene you were reluctant to leave - until the word went round to repair to another tent sitting among other vines for a sundown collazione.

A note, here, on Vermentino, the great discovery of the cruise. Tuscany has always been notoriously deficient in good white wines, and the islands of Corsica and Sardinia not much better endowed. As we found to our delight all three have made impressive progress. Memories of Vermentino are often of a skinny thing getting by just by being cool and sharp. The best modern versions have Sauvignon-like freshness but also a plump middle and a satisfying grip; the very thing with fritto misto di mare. Best of all was the version brought on board by Valentina Argiolas from their family's winery in Sardinia. Poor girl, she had to brave a decidedly frisky sea in a tender to come aboard and show us what Sardinia (or Cerdegna) can do these days; Vermentino of almost nutty richness, resounding red Turriga made from Cannonau and treacle-dense dessert wine from Nasco - two Cerdegnan grapes we will hear more about.

The collazione? A multi-part feast, with its climax a barbecue of bistecca fiorentina that involved five chefs, a battery of steel barbecues in clouds of fragrant smoke, and half a herd hung till it was meltingly tender. Elba was our next port of call after the Tuscan coast. The Etruscan Powers made two blunders when they captured Napoleon. They gave him too nice an island to live on - and they let him escape. Elba is peaceful, green with woods, if not oversupplied with memorable wines. We enjoyed, though, the examples their creators brought on board. My choice (Napoleon's, too) is the strange sweet Muscat-scented red Aleatico.

Portovenere lies at the mouth of the gulf of La Spezia, on the borders of Tuscany and Liguria. Some of the party took a boat ride up the Cinque Terre coast to see its absurdly steep vineyards on cliffs above the sea. How much of the vintage, I always wonder, rolls off into the waves? Others stayed to explore the old town and swim where Byron swam.

For our purposes Portovenere was the port for Piemonte, and half a dozen of the best growers of Gavi and Barbera and best of all Barolo came down to greet us with a noble range of wines. Gavi, I noted, has advanced in bounds since our last visit. You can think Chablis, and Chablis Premier Cru and Grand Cru when you meet a grower like Bereagli. Dr Broglia brought us, besides excellent reds, the sort of one-off cellar treasure you rarely meet, a 25-year-old sparkling Gavi that had taken on the deep nuttiness of old Champagne. Prosecco is all very well, but after a while ...

What, I had to ask him, did our Ukrainian commanding officer make of our consuming interest - not to say obsession?

A solemn toast, and an unexpected compliment: 'Never have I had such a sober cruise'. Practice makes perfect.

Hugh Johnson,
Club President

Friday, 22 June 2007

The Art of Blending

Perhaps it is something to do with bloodlines, the appeal of the thoroughbred, that set people thinking the wine from a single grape variety is somehow more aristocratic. Is this why the word 'varietal' started, in California, as a suggestion, if not a statement, of inherent superiority? 'I'm a Cabernet Sauvignon: no dilution with inferior stuff' was the inference.

And there are wines, and grapes, that are 100% or nothing. The two that lose far more than they gain by any blending at all are Pinot Noir and Riesling. Many would argue that they are, simply, the greatest soloists in the world of wine. Their greatness lies in their purity.

What other grapes usually get all the way to the bottle on their own? Chardonnay, most prominently. It's not that the taste of another variety would sully its particular purity; more that Chardonnay offers such a perfect package of flavour. Oak offers it another dimension, but it can work even better without it. Think of Chablis. As for adding a dollop of Sauvignon or Riesling: ridiculous.

Simple fruity flavours are found more often in white grapes than in red. Hence the familiarity of Sauvignon, of Pinot Gris, of Gew├╝rztraminer and Muscat. Among reds there are fewer. Gamay (as in Beaujolais) is atypical. Red wine is (and usually should be) a more structured drink. When you ferment the skins with the juice you get away from simple (or not so simple) juice flavour. More depends on the judgement, and on the taste, of the winemaker, less simply on the grape.

The world's most famous blended wine - blended in the sense of combining two or more different grape varieties - is claret. The recipe is no secret. Cabernet Sauvignon plus Merlot plus Cabernet Franc is the M├ędoc version. The Cabernets give the punch, the smell of berries and herbs and the need for a certain age. Merlot rounds it all out, gives depth and softness and its own berry-like smell. The three grapes are close enough cousins to be confused: very far from chalk and cheese, but perfect complements. Merlot covers for Cabernet when it fails to get to perfect ripeness (Merlot ripens two weeks earlier). Cabernet covers for Merlot when it falls short on tannin, acidity and general grip.

Recipes like these have been worked on for centuries. In the past, when a better grape variety came along there was no hesitation in adding it to the mixture. Cabernet Sauvignon was added (and Malbec dropped) from the 18th century on. No one can imagine that happening today.

Even the noblest grapes, the untouchable Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, can be complementary. What is unthinkable in Burgundy is a perfect recipe in Champagne. Chardonnay gives the apple flavours, Pinot Noir the red fruit and the gravitas (and Pinot Meunier, not officially known in Burgundy, more red fruit).

Hugh Johnson,
Club President

Sunday, 7 January 2007

President's agenda 2007

Repeat after me: "Every day and in every way I am getting better and better". The copyright in that famous line belongs to Dr. Emil Coue of Nancy, circa 1922. The funny thing is that it applies to the wines of our time with no autosuggestion at all. Wine is not the only thing that is on a roll - but hey, it makes all the rest feel better, too. We are all emphatically in luck - especially with the 2005 vintage clinking its way into our wine-racks. Wine this good makes you wonder whether growers are all getting better at their job, or their job is getting easier.

It's a bit of both. Global Warming (or let's call it Climate Change) is getting a lot of the credit for a string of good vintages. (Logically it will have to take the blame for bad ones too). But sheer know-how in the vineyard and the cellar is at least keeping pace. I would give the Internet as much credit as the climate. Growers are just a Google away from solutions they might have taken years to find on their own.

It's happening everywhere. Our problem is to allot priorities. How exciting is it to be first with a Shiraz from India, or are you into new developments in Southern Burgundy? Priority one, of course, is always to deliver a wine with character at a good price.

So we juggle the hottest new numbers with wines that may have ceased to be news (nobody keeps the headlines for more than a few vintages these days). Often that's when they settle down and really get the gist. Take the Midi, for example, or parts of Australia we were excited to discover only a year or two ago. They have serious quantities of good wine now, and have to be what's known as 'ealistic' about their prices. Better wine and lower prices? It's music to our ears.

If only we understood how fashions work. What is it about, let's say, Pinot Grigio that makes it an unstoppable bestseller? Simplicity is part of it: an uncomplicated grape mercifully uncluttered by the limitations of geography. A new one from Hungary? From New Zealand? Why not: let's give it a go.

The more varieties that reach that threshold the better. Quite a few are getting there. Viognier is still a bit exotic, perhaps; you either like it or you don't. But Vermentino, Verdelho, Greco di Tufo.... Plenty of the Mediterranean staples now have their fan clubs. As for Chablis, if the Channel Tunnel were a pipeline it could hardly handle the quantities you folk out there seem to get through. It must be Chardonnay's revenge on the New World notion that it needed oak chips and sticky quantities of residual sugar to make it worth drinking.

Often, though, it's a New World producer that brings an Old World variety back into focus. Take Pinot Noir. Since New Zealand began making its super-juicy version, crisp, sweet and perfumey, more people see the point of red burgundy. Take Riesling: since Australia gave it a new spin, with wines more dry and beefy than the German or Alsace version, drinkers have started to trickle back to these European classics. Trickle, not pour, so far - still leaving the Moselles of an unprecedented string of great vintages as the greatest bargains of our time.

Do Chile-drinkers also drink Italian? Do burgundy-lovers also love Bordeaux? Half of you, if my experience is anything to go by, know just what you want: familiarity with a touch of novelty is the ticket. The other half asks the question 'What next?' There has never been a better time to be in either camp.

Hugh Johnson,
Club President