Monday, 8 December 2008

Siege supplies for Christmas

With all the wagon-circling that’s going on these days, and so many redskins pouring off the ridge to get our scalps (or at least make us redundant), better not lose sight of the need for proper provisioning in times of siege. The troops must be fit and cheerful, think positively, and keep their muskets oiled. I need hardly say that wine supplies are cardinal. And of course at Christmas time pretty nearly routine; original comes second to convivial under the mistletoe. Have you opted for a Thai Christmas? Then you probably know just what to drink with it – and I don’t envy you.

Routine in recent years has meant spending more money every time: notching up the claret to a cru classé, the champagne to a luxury cuvée, the Chablis to a Premier Cru and the port to vintage. I’ve loved every minute.

Must plan B, Siege Christmas, be a miserable hairshirt exercise, I ask myself. Far from it, I’ve concluded. Follow intelligent value instead of splurging, revert to a few old customs we all thought we’d grown out of. It’s a plan.

Mulled wine is one of the best economies, I find, because no one else realizes that’s what you’re doing. A couple of steaming glasses is enough for most people; you know they loved it because they ask for the recipe – and the cost is minimal. The secret? Not second-rate wine, but lots of sugar and spice and quite a lot of water. It should be heady rather than strong. My recipe uses almost a teacup of caster sugar dissolved in two or even three of boiling water to every bottle of red wine. I am lavish with orange juice and orange peel, cloves and cinnamon. I add a coffee cup of brandy per bottle to the first batch and water down successive batches progressively. Piping hot is the secret – and my wrinkle: to keep a bottle of Grand Marnier handy. The best gin and tonic has a fine layer of gin on top: the best mulled wine the slightest slick of Grand Marnier.

That was cheaper than a champagne party. My other wholly authentic Christmas champagne saver is sherry. Forgetting for the moment what is the cheapest and most versatile fine wine in the world these days, consider what warms the cockles, tastes like Dickens, sips impeccably with smoked salmon and nuts and cheery bites, not to mention oysters and shrimps. Yes, dry sherry. Either the pale/fragile fino/manzanilla version or the more manly, deep winter amontillado/dry oloroso model. My choice this Christmas, in fact, is a wine with the virtues of both, a Manzanilla Olorosa from the Lustau Almacenista Collection at £11.49 – a conversation-piece in itself. Spring the bottle fresh from the fridge, use small glasses, repeatedly, and Christmas is well away.

There are people who will simply ask for white wine and expect one of the usual suspects; either a glass of Sauvignon Blanc that tastes, frankly, a bit too garden-fresh for a winter’s day, or a Chardonnay with more weight but probably less cheeky life. Originality is a virtue here: an unexpected aromatic glass, fresh but quite punchy, is not a bad formula. Two suggestions: we have a new creation, a 2008 Riesling-Viognier blend from Clare in South Australia at £8.99, or my own candidate in the Christmas list, Royal Tokaji Dry Furmint 2006. Dry Furmint is something new. People who taste it often think Viognier, but its crisp sprightly aromas (they go bang on the mid-palate and last and last) are unique to the amazing Furmint grape. We have a few bottles left at £10.29.

People who ask for red at Christmas expect a robust round mouthful with a bit of grip. Where to start? My investigation of what I call the New Old World (ie well-learnt modern wine-making on classic European soils) keeps finding plums in the Languedoc. Some of the best comes from the unique limestone massif right on the Languedoc coast, La Clape. It seduced Eric Fabre, who was leaving Château Lafite after his years as technical director and looking for a new challenge. Chateau d’Anglès ‘Terroir’ 2005 takes the big three grapes of the south, Grenache, Syrah and Carignan, and reveals flavours that add up to something more: the modern ideal of richness in balance, polished and layered for £12.99. Call if you’re interested.

And you’ll need port. Everyone loves our ancient Andresen Colheitas. Even more Christmassy to my mind, though, is the silky softness of a 20 year tawny, a confection of raisins and old oak like nothing else you can buy. The Andresen version is £25.

Tuesday, 4 November 2008

Bordeaux 2006 – showcased in Covent Garden

Every October Bordeaux’s Union des Grands Crus, the 100-odd top chateaux of the region, hire what used to be called the Floral Hall at Covent Garden (now the Paul Hamlyn Hall – wouldn’t just Hamlyn have been enough?) to give a tasting of the latest vintage they are offering in bottle.

A member confided in me the other day that they consider this the most important of all their tastings: the opportunity to share impressions with the greatest gathering of informed palates to be found anywhere. It wasn’t just flattery. 750 professionals of the British wine trade, their traditional and still their best customers, turn up. They are carefully vetted, they come on time and they work hard. They are faced, across the long tables, with the proprietors or at least the managers of all the chateaux. Frank discussions take place about quality and price, about the style and relative merits, the durability and prospects, short term and long term, of the vintage. This is the cockpit for some intense exchanges.

The good news is that 2006 is a lovely vintage for the sort of Bordeaux most people really want, not for investment but for enjoyment. 2005 was so perfect, obviously a great classic for long maturing, that whatever came in its wake was bound to suffer by comparison. But for those who love fresh, brisk claret to help them digest their meals (its first function, surely) 2006 is gong to be pretty much a model. Some of the lighter wines were already tempting to swallow then and there.

I spent a good share of my time tasting the wines of Pessac-Léognan, the best part of the Graves. I needed a refresher: I am helping with a new book on the region. It is the only part of Bordeaux with both red and white wines of top quality, in several cases from the same chateaux. The whites, Sauvignon and Semillon grapes mixed in differing proportions, always make me think how simplistic, however striking, the big-flavoured Sauvignons of the New World tend to be. Why don’t they add the gentle texture and breadth of Semillon too? When they do (as some Kiwis are learning) it can work beautifully.

It sounds too obvious, I always think, to describe the reds of the Graves as gravelly. Too auto-suggestive by half. But texture plays a big part in their special style; a sort of grainy mattness as against the high gloss and brilliance of the Médoc. Merlot is dominant in most of them, but gravel-grown it has a different effect from its Pomerol persona. Mature it can recall warm bricks and honey. Do you want to drink that? With a rib of beef there is nothing better.

2006 is a vintage that lets the terroir show. Pauillac sassy and vital; St Estèphe sharper and more earthy, St Julien smoother with rounded corners … The biggest differences show, of course, between chateaux rather than between communes, but district style gives a framework to help understand what’s going on. I am fond of the rustic edge of the wines of Listrac and Moulis in the middle of the Médoc, just as I am of the yeoman wines of Fronsac. They stand apart from the glossed, bevelled, suave and elegant productions of the famous classed growths, as starred-restaurant cooking with carefully-reduced sauces does from a country meal.

Everyone in the Paul Hamlyn Hall knows the hierarchy, and helps its practitioners define their places in it. Generally, prices reflect differences in quality and style with practised precision. It’s a long game, already centuries old – and fascinating to see it being played at Test Match level.

Wednesday, 15 October 2008

A noisy working breakfast

You might think people who taste wine for a living would become blasé and pampered – and in a sense we do. Pouring half a bottle down the sink is not a thing many mere mortals would ever contemplate: it happens all the time when you are assessing far more wines than you can possibly drink.

A bunch of us had a working breakfast today, though, that reminded me how very un-blasé, how clear-eyed and mustard-keen, professional wine-sleuths can (and must) be. Time: 9.00am. Place: the Wolseley Brasserie (but this was exceptional; more typical would be a room at Theale with car park view or at best the Buffet Gare of a sleepy French station).

Topic: wines to pep us all up without overwhelming the credit card at the start of next year, when we celebrate Tony Laithwaite’s first 40 years of selling wine. Fresh after 40 years? That’s the point. The wine business is a sort of worldwide student body with individuals making their own discoveries, getting excited about them and passing on the buzz, all the time.

So: watch out for passionate advocacy. Anne wants you to share the new Southern Italian delights she has just found, Abi has cracked the Sonoma Coast, Thomas can’t contain his glee over this cache of treasure from high in the Andes and Helen’s secret smile tells me her new Rioja from Carlos Bujanda is going to be another bestseller.

The drill is that our buyers take soundings among contacts here. They look at lists, trail though samples and taste everything on offer. Then they high-tail it to their area of responsibility, anywhere from Chile to Champagne. They spend a furious few days eliminating all but a dozen or so strong contenders for the list, then whiz home to sell them to their peers. The argument has to be convincing, and the wine conclusive. It all makes for a noisy breakfast.

Friday, 10 October 2008

Dinner at Le Manoir aux Quat’ Saisons

The wonderful thing (or one of them) about wine and food is that there is always room for experiment. It is by definition a moveable feast. Little changes of mere seasoning can produce dramatic differences of appreciation. A different vintage of the same wine can add satisfaction or diminish it. But put one of the Philosophers of Phood, or Laureates of Liquor, on the job and you can have a life-changing experience.

Once a year or so we organize a fine wine dinner at Le Manoir aux Quat’ Saisons, Raymond Blanc’s resort hotel just south of Oxford. There is always a waiting list: Blanc and his chefs perform as utter professionals, impeccably, ingenuously, unpredictably – and our cellar-master is no slouch. We take the wines from the deepest, coolest corners of Château Theale and try some impeccable, ingenious, unpredictable match-making.

Here is the menu of our September dinner. Gary Jones was the chef, and the sommelier Arnaud Goubet.

Dagueneau Pouilly Fume Blanc 2005

Cornish crab, mango puree; grapefruit jelly & Foie Gras; ginger bread, Yuzu


Domaine G. Thomas Meursault Premier Cru Blagny 2006

Risotto of wild mushrooms, truffle cream


Domaine de la Vougeraie Nuits St Georges Premier Cru Les Damodes 2001

Skate with bacon and red wine sauce


Monteillet Fortis Cote Rotie 2001

Roasted Anjou squab pigeon; coco beans and foie gras sauce, vintage Madeira


Château Margaux 1998

Cheese course (unpasteurised hard cheeses)


Château La Tour Blanche, Sauternes 2004

Lemon Croustade


Routine, given fair weather, is to start with champagne in the private garden of the private room at Le Manoir. In this case a character champagne that was new to me: Renaudin Blanc de Blancs 2002, very evidently oak-fermented, oddly savoury, even salty. The manzanilla of champagne, I thought – and rather enjoyed it.

Didier Dagueneau was the prophet of Pouilly. It is very sad to report that he died three weeks after this dinner, piloting his light plane in the Dordogne. He looked the prophet, profusely hairy and bearded, and held almost religious views about his extraordinary Sauvignon Blancs. His aim was Pouilly Fumé as rich as possible in flavour and texture but as light as possible in power and weight. Every good producer of Pouilly and Sancerre respects his example, above all in low yields – even if few truly follow it.

The object this evening was to demonstrate the versatility of Sauvignon Blanc, partnering it with the lightest of fluffy crab meat, then the richness of foie gras. The first was a lovely marriage, helped along by the flavours of mango and grapefruit, two tastes you could easily associate with the wine as well. I was less sure about the second: fat foie gras makes anything less than a boldly sweet wine retreat into its inner dryness. Besides, one wine over two courses is usually more interesting in theory than in practice. A second one of Didier’s creations would have given us a clearer idea of his genius,

It would never have occurred to me to partner a young white burgundy with a rich dark mushroom risotto. Raymond Blanc and Gary Jones knew better. This was comfort food after the nibbled luxury of the first courses; warm mouthfuls of damp truffly forest-floor flavour. The brilliance of Blagny came in utter contrast: clean fresh draughts with a lemon bite and enough body to accompany fat food, Blagny, high in the Meursault slopes below the crowning woodland, is one of my favourite burgundy addresses.

More rich dark food with the skate in a sauce of bacon and red wine; a lighter texture and a different sort of savoury tang. The idea of a tannic Nuits St Georges to clear the palate and ‘elevate’ (as a true burgundian would say) the salty fish and bacon was inspired. Les Damodes is one of the best vineyards of Nuits, 2001 is a vintage now opening up its perfumes, Domaine de laVougeraie is a consistently excellent performer. All the elements were there: savoury richness, palate-clearing bite, salt, sweet and a touch of sharpness. The result? Even keener appetite for the course to follow.

In an ideal menu one course sets up, as it were, a question for the next to answer – and the wines do the same. The skate was tangy, the Nuits crisp with a bite. So here comes fat yielding pigeon and soft deep-fruity Côte Rôtie. Very fat, the pigeon, and sauced with foie gras and Madeira to make it sumptuous. The Monteillet family’s Côte Rôtie was new to me; for some reason I rarely buy this fashionable appellation, the Rhône at its most claret like. I corrected that when I tasted this 2001: my order went in the next morning.

All this, of course, was a mere roll of drums. The Château Margaux was still on the sideboard. I could see Arnaud, the sommelier, giving the gleaming ruby of its decanter an amorous stroke. It is asking a lot, even of a First Growth of a good vintage, to keep it as the main event after such a comprehensive warm up. Hard unpasteurised cheeses were to be its simple accompaniment.

Is it the anticipation that gives great wines their impact, like the soprano’s first aria? It always takes me a few sips and a silent pause, my nose deep in the glass, to focus and find the measure of the highest quality. Description involving currants and tobacco and tar and strawberries are rubbish when you meet the sheer rightness of great claret reaching maturity – or in this case not yet reaching it (10 years is no time at all for Château Margaux in a firmly-structured tannic vintage like 1998). It flowed across the tongue like that Chinese silk they used to call Shantung, sheen and grain combined. It filled the nose, the mouth and the throat for minutes between sips. It did all the wonderful things wine promises; far more than you could anticipate in advance.

Dessert, however perfect, is never, at least to me, more than refreshment after the heights of savoury pleasure. Of course Le Manoir’s Croustade is as good as they come. Of course the 2004 La Tour Blanche is a fine Sauternes brimming with youth. If I was nursing the last glass of Margaux it was just that I can’t bear such good things to come to an end.

Tuesday, 19 August 2008

Revival and revolution in Bordeaux … Hugh Johnson visits Le Chai au Quai

A scatter of skiffs, drifting disconsolate in slanting rain is the only shipping on the broad Dordogne. This was where barrel-barges tied up three-deep on the wharf, where wines from twenty villages started their voyage to the sea. There has been nothing in the warehouses of Castillon for decades, but there is action now. The broad pedimented front of Le Chai au Quai is once again open for business, with oak and wine, busy with courtiers and oenologists, reviving the era of the traditional quayside négociant.

I went over last week to taste the wines in their warehouse, half from different parts of Bordeaux, half from up-country, the rocky hills of Roussillon or even from Spain. The new concept is to have a central collecting, maturing and bottling warehouse for wines created by our wine makers. This was the first group assessment, to see what was working best, and what was missing, in a range of wines we will all be seeing in the months to come.

I was specially pleased to taste a line-up of what in the past was a négociant’s main standby: wines selected as typical of Bordeaux’s best-known communes. We worked down a line of the historic names: Pauillac, Margaux, Pessac-Léognan, St Emilion, Pomerol.

In the old days these were blends of small lots surplus to châteaux’s requirements. Le Chai au Quai has taken a different approach, working with hand-picked estates and bottling their wines unblended, with all their character intact, under the name of the appellation they represent. Selling us half their crop in barrel benefits their cash flow and gives us the chance to mature, finish and bottle the wine precisely as we like it.

Certainly I have rarely seen a set of generic wines so convincingly encapsulate the tastes and smells, the mouthfeel and liveliness, that makes Pauillac and Pomerol, Margaux and Pessac-Léognan legendary names.

Will we ever get back to using barges?

Friday, 1 August 2008

Hugh visits Burgundy to find growers are raising their game …

We all need white Burgundy, or so we think. Red Burgundy is more of an option: there are so many serviceable reds out there that the precious pleasure of Pinot Noir is a special-occasion thing. If I’m right it may partly explain a phenomenon I noticed on a brief visit to Burgundy last week. The reds are becoming more interesting, more satisfying and more sharply defined. Every tasting from a line of barrels poses more intriguing questions: terroir, ripeness, flavours of toast or caramel from the barrel, depth of flavour (where from?), a singing cherry note in one sample and an earthy beetroot one in another. The winemaker finds them: he doesn’t put them there. How come he is finding more of them, liberating (it seems) tastes derived only from the grapes, therefore only the ground? It feels as though sensitivity is growing; as though farmers are waking up to subtleties they never noticed. Going easy on the sugar has something to do with it. It was routine to chaptalize: sacks of sugar went in the vat whether they were strictly needed or not. When farmers sold everything in barrels to merchants they were hardly even curious about what they were making. It would scarcely affect the price, and the merchant took the responsibility.

Now they bottle everything themselves they meet their audience face to face; have to answer questions that never occurred to them before. The wine, like the transaction, becomes more immediate, more transparent - for better or worse. Inevitably the grower raises his game – and we are the beneficiaries.

2007 was not a great Burgundy year. I found some good fresh wines for drinking soon, and some for 4 or 5 years away, but nothing much of real resonance to keep for your bairns’ bairns. The old growers’ routine would have been to bluster your way through, denying the difficulties. I still heard some curious statements about exceptional soils and miraculous escapes from rot. When you are eyeballing the guy, though, with the sample in the glass beside the barrel, there is nowhere for him or his wine to hide. You admit its imperfections and (if you are wise) learn to look for virtues. No virtues, no sale.

I’m not finding quite the same thing with white Burgundies at the moment. I remind myself how majestic they can be – sailing into the future with the assurance of the great reds. I drank a bottle of 1990 Corton Charlemagne recently which was still cruising. Not so many seem built to do that these days; the word plausible comes to mind too often. We need them, though; we’ll buy them.

Friday, 11 July 2008

HMS Warrior Wine Tasting

There is probably an ancient link between gun-decks and spitting, I thought, as we milled around HMS Warrior’s mighty cannons, tasting a summer selection of Club wines. Not that Members were spitting much. With me it’s a reflex; I sometimes have to restrain myself at table. You can taste so many more wines if you stop yourself swallowing.

On the face of it it’s an odd connection: wine and a warship. But since the Warrior, the first great ironclad sail-and-steam battleship of the Royal Navy and the nuclear deterrent of its time, was rescued from being an oil jetty at Milford Haven, restored and brought to Portsmouth four years ago, she has been an irresistible attraction. And you can’t hold wine tastings on HMS Victory.

Her gun deck is enormous. There is room for 26 of the biggest Nelson-style cannons and hundreds of people. The crew lived round the guns, slung their hammocks above them and messed at the tables between them which we covered with bottles and glasses. We also took breaks from tasting to explore the decks below: the titanic engines, the stokehold with ten boilers and the vast store of ammunition. Victorian engineering is awe-inspiring. A propellor is a brake on a sailing ship. When she sailed it was hauled out of the water; all 34 tons of it. By hand: a job for 600 men.

We were a mere 250, Members and crew. A good number of us, I discovered (and might have guessed from their clean cut jaws and trim rig) were retired sailors who can’t get Portsmouth out of their systems. There is nothing very systematic at Club tastings like this, though: just a freewheeling browse through 40-odd wines picked for variety and value.

We had two visiting producers on board. The young Bernadetta Fabretti, vivacious in the Italian manner, persuaded everyone in range that her Verdicchio and Sangiovese from the Adriatic coast are the world’s best. I thought her Rosso Piceno with Conti Leopardi’s very smart label pretty amazing value: full smooth grippy red for £6.29.

Laurent Onillon (how do you pronounce it so it doesn’t sound like onion?) brought the range of summery bubbly made in Anjou by Langlois-Chateau, part of the Bollinger family. You get a lovely breezy draught of fruit from the Loire for a tenner. I specially liked the bubbly red, Carmin Rouge, made of Cabernet Franc. The Aussies make sweet sparkling Shiraz. This is altogether lighter, combining fizz and tannin to make a really crisp drink. Laurent suggested strawberries as the match; I would think in terms of charcuterie.

New Zealand, nestling between two great black guns, had a zippy Sauvignon Blanc from the Plane Trees Estate, Hunter’s very aromatic Riesling and Stonewall Pinot Noir, which at £11-odd is modest for such a fashionable wine.

The French Classic table showed Chablis from Dampt (I’m almost tired of people telling me it’s their favourite wine), the very different Condrieu, all southern warmth and spice, from Domaine Monteillet, and a super-typical 2005 Pauillac from our own Grand Chai in Castillon, Tony Laithwaite’s model winery on the Dordogne. Nothing could be more classical than 2005 Pauillac.

There was a BBQ table (Italy’s Grande Pavone for refreshment, Patagonian Merlot for authenticity, and Black Stump Durif for exactly what the name conveys). I gather Black Stump outsells all other wine in the tasting. On a table of mixed whites I was surprised by the open cheery style of an Argentine newcomer, Prickly Pear, at a fiver a bottle. I was assured it was made from grapes: ripe and fruity ones, with just enough fresh acidity. On a table of rosés I was much taken by something called Frizzante de Bomberosa from Carinena, dark for a rosé, flavoury and ticklingly half-fizzy.

To top it all off, while we were there the flagship of the modern fleet, HMS Ark Royal, raised steam and sailed from the berth next door. She’d been in Pompey for the signing of he contact to build two more, much bigger, aircraft carriers. So the Navy is sailing on after all.

I’d do it again any time; spit on the gundeck. I’m sure we’ll be assembling there for another session next summer.

Thursday, 3 July 2008

Out of Africa ...

It has been a while since the Club President has graced South Africa, much has changed.

Drinking South African wine used to feel almost like a charitable act. In apartheid years it was competently industrialised, but no one drank it in this country for fun. To celebrate liberation we tried to overlook earthy reds and fairly fresh whites in the name of progress. The white wines, all agreed, led by Sauvignon Blanc,crept ahead of the reds. Then in the mid-90s came the shock (I can still remember it) of a totally convincing Chardonnay. Then more surprising still a Pinot Noir better than California’s. Then a series of Cabernets cleansed of earth and iron, juicy, full of ripe currants: the very thing.

I missed the action on the ground, I’m afraid. Shamefully I stayed away for 20 years.I hadn’t much enjoyed my early visits, and there was too much to keep up with elsewhere. South America, not to mention Australasia, loomed larger. I found out just how much I was missing in March this year.

We rented a little house on a big beach in Walker Bay, long famous for its whale-watching (the monsters jump so close inshore they can soak you with their splashes) but only recently famous for its wines. The Walker Bay coast, and the Hemel en Aarde valley leading inland, are Africa’s first Côted’ Or: the grapes of Burgundy ripen here, seawind-cooled, to the same racy, pitched-upflavours. Go-faster acidity is the secret; fresh when they are new, long on the palate, and keeping them zinging until mellowness sets in. Few seem to avoid the corkscrew for that long.

My corkscrew was busy day and night. I Googled before the trip to find a wine merchant with a good range and found The Wine Village in Hermanus. John and Erica Platter, who have helped me for nearly 30 years with my Pocket Wine Book (their own annual guide is South Africa’s standard work) came down from Durban to show us the ropes. My brother, son and other friends from England lent their palates to the task. We hardly found a bottle of wine we didn’t want to finish.

Yes, there are well-established classics. The classic of Walker Bay is Hamilton Russell, the pioneer of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. Bouchard Finlay son is equally established and respected and their neighbour Newton Johnson, we found, makes Chardonnay at least as well as either. They have to keep pedalling hard, though, with half a dozen serious challengers on their doorstep. Nor are the Burgundian grapes the only ones to benefit from the sea-cooled conditions.Cabernet Sauvignon finds it too cool, but Cabernet Franc, the key grape of St Emilion and the Central Loire, finds its brighther by/minty flavours here. And one surprise was to find a farmer whose father came from Madeira growing Verdelho to make what almost amounts to Vinho Verde. Super-fresh white with a prickle at a mere 11% of alcohol was precisely what we needed for our lunches in the shade.

The most famous vineyards of the Cape lie across the mountains inland from Walker Bay, round Stellenbosch (which feels the sea wind from False Bay) and, higher in the encircling hills, the achingly fashionable St Helena of South Africa, Franschoek. Never having crossed the formidable Coast Range before we set out inland in a direct line north for Franschoek, to find mountain mists among crags worthy of Macbeth. The long windingpass brings you steeply down to a settlement devoted entirely to the stomach: cafes and restaurants without number.There is a Napa Valley air about the fields,but the farms, immaculate, their curving gables pipe-clayed like a Royal Marine’s helmet, have no rivals for crisp and seemly beauty. Nor has their setting of raw rock: crags stark against the sky or trailing long tresses of white clouds. Franschoek has a smattering of French names: Dieu Donné, Cabrière, LaMotte, Mont Rochelle, L’Ormarins. The flavour of Stellenbosch is resolutely Dutchand its manor houses earlier in date, most of them, than the châteaux of the Médoc. Meerlust, Rustenberg, Stellenzicht,Mulderbosch, Neetlingshof, Blaauklippen, Rust en Vrede are the future Rauzansand Pichons and Léovilles, I like to think,of the Cape.

Their destiny, I feel pretty sure, is Cabernet tempered by Merlot: the Médoc recipe. Like Napa wineries they routinely partner it with generous, well-oaked Chardonnay. Somemake fine Syrah; almost everyone feels bound to plant some Pinotage. Pinotage is the Cape’s own cross between Pinot Noir and Cinsault, prolific and pungent. One example I tried, expensively pruned for a small crop and raised in French oak, smelt of Turkish Delight, geraniums, ginger… ‘Paint’ is the conventional more humdrum comparison. It has its enthusiastic constituency, certainly,but I fear it does South Africa no favours.

The other grape that the country can almost call its own, so much has it planted and so thoroughly is it integrated, is Chenin Blanc. As the nation’s workhouse white before more alluring alternatives came along (and before Chardonnay even had an entry visa) it was used for Cape sherry, brandy and brews of allsorts – often under the nom de verre of Steen. Happily there is still lots of it, because a careful winemaker can easily make it into the sort of fresh but four square white perfect with fish, and a talented one canfocus its stony white-fruit character assomething deeply satisfying. My view won’t please lovers of Sauvignon Blanc, but after the nasal assault and the gooseberry acidity of these fashionable creations, Chenin brings you back to oenological essentials: balance, mouth - filling substance, andharmony with food.

A surprise, to our party, was how far the Cape has progressed with its champagne method (if I’m still allowed to say that) bubblies. ‘Méthode Cape Classique’ is the official formula. We found at least half a dozen that pressed all the right buttons, a process with no pain at all, either gastronomic or financial. The most we ever paid for any wine, and that a mature vintage of one of the Cape’s finest Cabernets, was £35.

If there is one iconic estate that every visitor should see it is Vergelegen, one of the closest to Cape Town and the country property of the first Dutch governor, Simon van der Stel. The 17th Century mansion, its furniture, its gardenand park with magnificent trees epitomizes the early civilization of the Cape. The modern winery, sparkling white above its vines overlooking False Bay, epitomise the future.And the wines, from bubbly to Chardonnay to what tastes to me extraordinarily like claret, send out a clarion message: South Africa has arrived.

Hugh Johnson,
Club President

Friday, 9 May 2008

Hugh reflects on the unique attraction of The Club's Vintage Festival

When I stopped to think about it (and there wasn’t much time for that) it’s pretty amazing. You invite a few thousand people to come and taste wine at the weekend and they all fall to, totally sorted and in their stride, as though they did little else.

The hall doors open, and within five minutes girls in halter tops are discussing Chianti, blokes in jeans are sniffing away at Shiraz and men in blazers are asking their wives whether they prefer the Gewurztraminer or the Pinot Gris.

It is the ultimate democratic wine discussion, where everyone’s opinion is of equal weight, where you can find the answer to any question, and where a mellow mood allows genial appreciation without pressure.

Our suppliers are as keen as our Members to be there. Pruning your vines or doing your paperwork in a village in France or Spain you feel a million miles from your customers and their expectation. Very occasionally one turns up on holiday and takes half your day – pleasantly enough, but hardly solving any problems. At the Vintage Festival you see precisely who you are making your wine for. You may be surprised by their questions, their knowledge or their lack of it, but you get an unvarnished reaction.

Members can put a face to the wine they like, hear a story to pass on, get a restaurant recommendation or even plan a holiday. The Festival does all the things that a wine label can’t: give a wine context, personality, humanity. When I am faced with a wine list I know the first thing that guides my choice: do I know any of the people whose wines are listed? If not the people, the places? It’s the polar opposite of choosing by brands – and it’s the spirit of our Club. Always has been, always will be.

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Monday, 14 April 2008


Bordeaux has a hypnotic effect on the wine trade. Wine writers too. The first week of April sees scores of scribblers with their noses deep in half-finished claret and their backs to a much more interesting show.

Vinitaly, Italy's annual national Winefest, bagged the April Fool's slot 40 years ago. I'm not sure whether Bordeaux never heard of it or decided to snub it, but that's exactly when they decided to mount the quite recent annual Primeur Circus. Let's not go into why the British choose Bordeaux, but English voices at Vinitaly are rare enough to make you turn your head. Last week I felt almost like the sole representative of our island race at a show that offers more new, different, characterful and often bargain wines than Bordeaux can muster in a dozen vintages. My effort at covering them was sadly inadequate. Where do you start when every region of the winiest of all countries has a pavilion like half Olympia to itself?

The Fair site is daunting, and frankly hideous, with all the charm of an industrial estate. (You'd think that between bouts they might get round to planting trees). Inside the hangers, though, one trade fair is much like another. It's easy to see which producers, and which regions, have juicy promotion budgets. My prize for style and imagination went to one of the poorest: Campania. Its stands were somewhere between village hall and Vintage Festival. To make up for lavish structures though, the designer has put the Campanian landscape on the ceiling. You looked up and there were the crops, the vines and corn, the rocks and the seashore, upside down above your head, with olive trees hanging down like strange silvery chandeliers. It was the image that I took away with me to sum up the stylish originality of Italian wine – and its makers.

After hours, of course, Verona more than makes up for its fairground. It is the perfect urban Italy in miniature, its palace-lined streets and piazzas absurdly rich in history and beauty (and restaurants). You can walk across the mercifully traffic free centre in 20 minutes, taking in the Renaissance, the Middle Ages, and ancient Rome in the form of the wonderfully complete arena. In April you can even find a seat unjostled in the Piazza delle Erbe, Italy's most beautiful square.

Vinitaly is about exploration. No one claims there is a simple solution to Italian wine. (Perhaps this explains the relative appeal of Bordeaux: a chateau is a chateau and a vintage is a vintage). The easiest way to explore is to go the varietal route: latch on to a grape and keep asking questions about it. Each region has its favourites – not mutually exclusive by any means. You may find, as I did that regional style often wins out over varietal differences. This was the case in Friuli in the north-east, currently Italy's best white wine zone, where Pinot Grigio and Pinot Bianco are just the best known of no less than 17 grapes that go, separately or together, into silky fresh whites. Collio is the zone name of many of the best, but you could go crazy trying to follow the permutations. At a dinner one night, entitled Bianco and Bianchi, the single Bianco turned out to be asparagus and the Bianchi an unending parade of wines aspiring to match it. With 40 different asparagus recipes and at least as many wines the permutations were palate-boggling.

Trends, then, in this cornucopia?

Good white wines are everywhere in Italy now. Fine ones are rare and great ones probably non-existent, but the old dearth of white refreshment is over, from the Alps to Sicily. One of the big surprises, in fact, is how Sicilian summers can produce such easy wines. We should explore them.

Reds? I hardly tasted a bad one. No longer do Tuscany and Piedmont hold all the aces. Grape names we had hardly heard of three years ago have started mini-booms of their own: Sagrantino, for example, in the Centre, Nero d'Avola in Sicily, Montepulciano on the Adriatic coast, Negroamaro down in the heel of Puglia. The old fatalistic formulas are on the way out as these clearer, fruitier, grapier wines become the norm.

Tuesday, 4 March 2008

The pick of Chile and Argentina ... side by side!

By teatime', I thought, 'I'll finally know which side of the Andes is which'. I'd held back at lunch to keep my wits about me. I've never seen the pick of Chile and Argentina side by side before (not, curiously, in either country), but the first teams of each were playing in central London: time to memorize the difference - if there is one.

This was our buyers' day. In the Chilean corner Vicki Stephens-Clarkson; wearing the Argentine colours Thomas Woolrych. Any hints? If it's white it's from Chile. There was advice I could clearly follow. Chile makes a pretty good show of Sauvignon Blanc, ripe but not so in your face as New Zealand. I liked the Alta Tierra 2007 from the Elqui Valley in the north and the Casas del Bosque from Casablanca; the former almost thick with melony flavour and a touch of grapefruit, the latter more delicately constructed.

Among the reds, though, could I pick them off as right-of-the-Andes or left-of-the-Andes without looking at the labels? For certain mainstream Chileans, yes. Chile gives Cabernet Sauvignon an instantly likeable, fluidly fruity character with an intriguing earthy note. From cooler regions it has a herbal and peppery smell and taste, from the warmest ones a baked berry ripeness; from the best producers a touch of both balancing and lingering deliciously. The national speciality, the Carmenère, follows the same lines with particularly bright and colourful effect. We have a lovely example, the 2007 from Gran Tarapacá, arriving in April.

Chile's other big excitement is Syrah - the fashion grape of the noughties, it seems, with the Rhône Valley madly modish and New Zealand doing beautifully with what Australia thought it pretty much had to itself. As so often the examples I pick are the less ambitious. Heavy bottles, inky wines and prodigious levels of alcohol are available - at a price. For half the price you can have, for example, the Tabali Reserva '05 from Limari or the Polkura Syrah '06 from Colchagua.

Argentina holds quite a different card: its Malbec. I remember 15 years ago tasting lines of Cabernet and choosing a Malbec (that was for British Airways, wanting a truly juicy red for all-comers). Malbec has grown up, been perfected, been blended with Cabernet and Merlot, and generally joined the top table. Schroeder Estate (Mr Schroeder had come all the way) makes a good example, intense, smooth, balanced, hugely appealing. Fabre Montmayou is fruitier, less intense, with a nice tannic touch.

Most impressive of all was Malbec blended with Cabernet Sauvignon by a master, the Catena/Rothschild Reserve that combines the names as Caro. Caro 2004 at £25 was far from the most expensive Argentine present, but to me the most exciting, with the cool-in-the-mouth harmony and fresh, juicy, palate-coating length of a job well done.

There were three vertical tastings on show to represent the dimension of time: what happens to these wines over three, five, ten years in bottle? The first was a long-established Chilean classic, Don Melchor Cabernet Sauvignon from Concha y Toro. The 1987 opened the batting. Back then the wines were lighter; a mere 12.5% alcohol. They were elegant, though, and drink sweetly at 20 years. Don Melchor is one of those consistent players, firm in youth, never greatly complex but like a sweet drive down the middle of the fairway, satisfying and lingering in the mind.

Its stable mate is a joint effort with Mouton-Rothschild, Almaviva, a blend of Cabernet and Carmenère. The early vintages are growing a little gamey, but the 2003 has the fruity brilliance of Carmenère and the depth of Cabernet Sauvignon in lovely proportions.

The Argentine entry in what you might call the Superandean class was Cheval des Andes, Moët-Hennessy's prestige creation in cahoots with Cheval Blanc; Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot in partnership. So far, I would say, so splendid. It's hard to mistake the French touch, whichever side of the Andes.

By teatime I was wondering why the two countries don't team up and call the whole delicious thing Patagonia.

Hugh Johnson,
Club President

Friday, 29 February 2008

A new partner for Port!

Retro. I don't know who coined the term, but I'm not surprised it caught on. It invites us into life's fancy-dress department. Be sniffy if you must: call it ironic when you wear flares or a topper or back comb your hair. If you're honest, though, you quite like playing a role with preset expectations. Fashion is so relentless: just as you get used to it it's off again. Cuddle up with retro. Play a part. Forget your current habits for a minute and adopt some of your ancestors' ...

Drinking port, for example.

Our neighbours in the country bemoan the (relative) trickle of after-dinner port these days. Relative, that is, to the tide that flowed on a winter's night after a day's shooting before the hedgerows filled up with policemen. To criticize the drinking and driving laws would get me ostracized: to bemoan their effect on social life in the countryside is another thing. Farmers toddling home after midnight were seldom a cause of trouble.

One result is that everybody's port is getting older. A season's supply lasts three or four seasons these days, and those rare sips are correspondingly more appreciated. What is less easy to understand is that sales of port, and demand for the best ports - vintage, but also old tawnies and colheitas - is steady and rising. If not red-faced old sportsmen, who is drinking it? Your modern urban person, that's who. And not waiting for the cloth to be cleared and the ladies to withdraw, either. Port has met pudding, with dramatic results.

I first met this modern match in a New York restaurant. I admit it was chocolate on centre stage. New Yorkers make me wonder if chocolate has some Freudian significance. But in the list of wines offered to help the chocolate down port figured prominently. Top vintage port by the glass. I put my hand up for one (and ordered, I confess, a non-chocolate pud). The port, and the blackberry crumble, were a moment of revelation. I had discovered the wine's new rôle, and one of its most perfect partners. That started me drinking port in a different light, as it were, and drinking it much younger. It's not 30 year old crusted bottles that sticky puds call for, but darkly potent, palate-massaging recent issues, intensely fruity and massively sweet. Wow!

Hugh Johnson,
Club President

Monday, 28 January 2008

An early eye on Burgundy 2006

You can get obsessed with the gossip and the day's agenda in any trade. Whether the wine trade is worse than others I don't know, but in the January week when the only topic was the new release of Burgundies en primeur it felt pretty bad. Yes, decisions had to be taken. "Short supply" say the distributors. "You'll miss the best if you don't decide". A few decisions were easy: I went mad on some Chablis (I always do) and some smarter white Burgundies from Chassagne-Montrachet, Meursault and St Aubin. New red Burgundy (and some of these wines, especially the best, are still in their barrels) poses deeper questions. The Pinot Noir is a funny grape: it can gain body, colour, roundness and flavour from what seems a thinnish start - or sometimes go the other way. I look for yummy cherry-brandyish flavours and a long finish in samples of any age. There weren't many (cherry-brandyish flavours, that is), but I suspect there are more to come.

"One of the biggest bargains on The Club's list ..."

'Economic downturn' is the catchphrase of the month. If it makes us look at the right-hand column a little nearer the top it's not all gloom, though. It's when you feel too strapped for cash to go for the safe names (and if they didn't charge a premium, what's the insurance business all about?) that you stumble on bargains. One of the biggest bargains on The Club list (now, for a long time, and I suspect far into the future) is our lightest and driest sherry, Thomas Abad's Fino. How and why does The Club sell a grownup white wine like this, with four times the flavour of almost any Chardonnay and at 15% only a tad more alcohol, for less than any of our amazing range of 40 different Chablis? For a really silly reason. Because you don't buy it. I sometimes wonder if it would move up the charts if we doubled the price. It would still be a steal. Do you ever eat smoked salmon? Do me a favour: give yourself a glass of cold Fino with it - and then another. Mystery: why did restaurants never sell Fino by the bottle? Very suspicious; they make a massively higher margin by the glass, and they know you wouldn't bother with any other white wine once you had a bottle within reach.

Hugh Johnson,
Club President