Greybeard’s Corner – Winter’s Hold 2011

The year is winding its way towards the Christmas and in the northern reaches of England winter’s icy touches are already starting to be felt, but as Europe and America’s wine now sits in tank and barrel there’s still plenty of news and views to look at in the wine world.

Towards the end of November a controlled burn of bush in Western Australia’s Leeuwin-Naturaliste National Park suddenly became uncontrolled and advanced on the Margaret River area. The enquiry into the fires has just begun in Australia and, while there was understandable concern in the initial reporting on how this may affect vineyards and wineries in the region, in the end the damage was contained mainly within the National Park and only a few hectares of vineyard were “scorched or singed” as detailed in the recent Margaret River Wine Industry Association media release.

Also at the end of November Tim Atkin penned a thought-provoking piece on his website entitled “Who pays wine critics?”. Although a good article in its own right he briefly mentioned the controversy surrounding Jay Miller’s $15,000 lecture fee during a Spanish tour, broken by Jim Budd on his blog in August. That story resurfaced and then exploded a few days later into what is now being called by some as Murciagate, by others as Campogate (after Pancho Campo, the Spanish MW with his own history of controversy, who many view as being more deserving of the criticism) when it was announced that Miller was leaving the Wine Advocate. It has since become clear that the retirement had been planned for many months but the badly judged timing of the announcement has just re-fuelled the controversy – go to Jim’s Loire to see a whole series of posts on this ongoing saga. It should also be pointed out that Miller’s palate was not always appreciated and that his departure has been regarded as a positive step by some.
As for The Wine Advocate, on the back of Robert Parker’s frank review of his reputation at Wine Future Hong Kong from early November, Neil Martin replaces Miller’s Spanish and South American tasting roles, while David Schildknecht covers Washington and Oregon, bringing an end to a hectic year at the office for Robert Parker which began with Antonio Galloni taking over California duties from man himself.

Elsewhere in the world and South Africa producers are looking to ensure the future quality of Cap Classique Sparkling wines by formalising a new quality charter with lees ageing guidelines and introduction of “Superieur” for top examples- funny how they like the French terminology!
Meanwhile Swiss researchers at the Ecole Polytechnique Federale de Lausanne have dissected what every wine lover does without thinking – swirling the wine in the glass to release the aromas – with their detailed investigations of orbital agitation and wave dynamics (video). It seems that this type of fluid shaking is critical in large scale cell culture bioreactors so the research isn’t as daft as it first sounded!

Over here in the UK and  the newly resurrected Oddbins (albeit trimmed down with less National coverage than before and nothing in the North East) is courting media attention with innovative consumer events and marketing. The Drinks Business reported on the revamp to their wines. I, like many, wish this new Oddbins well although a lot of UK consumers still associate the it with the business that closed earlier in the year, even though the name and most of the remaining stores were completely bought out by Raj Chatha’s European Food Brokers (EFB) Group who have no links to the previous disgraced administration (run by Simon Baile). It would also appear that Baile’s own venture, ex-Cellars, is not doing so well either, with Jim Budd’s recent posting showing a close-down of at least two of the stores it bought on Oddbins deathbed.

On a lighter note it seems that twice as many UK consumers are happy with wines under screwcap compared to 8 years ago, according to a Wine Intelligence press release which goes on to confirm that natural cork is still the preferred closure. It is well accepted now that the screwcap (Stelvin Closure) is perfect for wines intended to be drunk young and fresh and even for reds for limited ageing. The report summary doesn’t mention the figures for that abomination that is the plastic cork.

For myself recent weeks have been relatively kind. Two local retailers have held comprehensive supplier tastings; first Carruthers and Kent with their 1st Annual Wine Fair and then Morpeth store Bin21 with a Remembrance Day event which, when combined, gave me over 120 tasting notes to work through. I also feel like I’ve been stalking Marta Mateus of MartaVine as we’ve now met up at both of those tastings plus the Durham Food Festival, Living North Christmas Fair and Hexham Christmas Fair! With the Festive Season upon us it’s never a bad idea to know a Portuguese Wine merchant and her Lágrima White Port from Quinta do Portal will definitely be appreciated over the holiday period.

As for the NEWTS then the last two meetings have been very heavy on the reds beginning with Grenache blends, where France (sourced from The Wine Society) went up against Australia (provided by Wine Direct) in a closely matched and very enjoyable evening which saw the extracted yet elegant & complex John Duval 2007 Plexus come out as overall favourite and the meaty yet subtle Domaine De la Janasse 2004 Terres d’Argile Cotes du Rhone Villages taking best QPR at £12.95.
The next tasting was a Bordeaux blends theme with wines sourced from Majestic in Gosforth, which saw three French wines (including two Pauillacs) up against a selection of Old and New World. France fared less well here, with Spain (Agramont 2007 Crianza) and South Africa (Kanonkop 2008 Cabernet Sauvignon) showing more character at the price points, and Australia taking the group vote with the spicy, rich and smooth Petaluma 2007 Coonawarra Red.

The first Christmas event of 2011 was also a NEWTS affair with the usual BYO dinner at the Newcastle College Chef’s Academy restaurant, where some delicious food was matched by equally delicious wines from the Society members. At our table a crisp Frédéric Mochel 2008 Cuvée Henriette Alsace Riesling was alongside a rich, oaky Catena Alta 2008 Chardonnay from Mendoza; the young and fruity Domaine de la Janasse 2005 Terres d’Argile Cotes du Rhone Villages contrasted to the aged, chocolate tannins of the Barossa Valley Estate 1996 E&E Black Pepper Shiraz; and the smooth, raisined Terre di Zagara 2004 Passito di Pantelleria offset the sharply acidic but immensely sweet Magnotta 2006 Vidal Canadian Ice Wine.

NEWTS_BYOOf the 5 or 6 such Chef’s Academy evenings we’ve had with NEWTS this was the by far the best by for the quality of the food and the wine, not to mention some intelligent conversation along the way. Even more amazing was the fact that the sublime 15 year old Black Pepper Shiraz was bought for just over £10 at the co-op in Whitby a couple of years ago by fellow NEWT John!

At home and with the last 15 wines I’ve bought recently my shadowing of Marta Mateus shows, with 4 from Portugal – a still white and red plus White & Tawny Ports (MartaVine & PortoVino). Another 4 bottles hail from France; a Provence Roussane (Domaine de Palejay), a Mâcon-Villages (Dillies) and a Touraine Sauvignon Blanc (Bin21) for the whites; a Crozes-Hermitage (Sainsburys) for the reds. The remaining 7 are scattered around the world – Spain, Italy, Austria, Australia and New Zealand – including an intriguing Piave Raboso (Be/Fasol Menin) from the Veneto, a Wagram Grüner Veltliner (Corkscrew Wines) and a Kiwi Gewürztraminer (Fenwick).

This compares to the 16 wines which were opened in the equivalent time period, predominantly from France (6) and Italy (5) with the remaining 5 from the USA, Canada, Chile and Australia, yet only 4 stood out from the crowd; 2 French whites and 2 reds, one each from California and Australia.

The first white was the Domaine de Palejay 2008 Le Sablet Roussanne, a creamy wine with aspects of sweet melon, a full, rich texture and a honeyed finish. Those of you who frequent the regions market fairs will no doubt have seen Arthur Cook or his wife Josiane of the Domaine selling their wines (Arthur is from the area originally) and I recommend trying them. The second was the Couly-Dutheil Blanc de Franc, Cabernet Franc but made in a white style. This curiosity (from Richard Granger Fine Wines) had a slight hint of peach colour in the glass and was richly flavoured with floral and grapefruit notes, a touch of honey for good measure.

For red the Ravenswood Lodi 2006 Old Vine Zinfandel punched well above its £8 price tag with a meaty nose with concentrated plum fruit and oak, fine grain tannins and warming finish. I originally bought this more than 2 years ago (Asda) but deliberately kept hold of it as I’d previously had the ’03 of the same wine with 5-6 years bottle age and it was delicious. With the ’06 has proving to be same I think it’s time to but the ’09 for drinking sometime around 2015!

The last red was another with some age on it, Tim Adams 2004 The Fergus Grenache (Tesco) which I’ve been sitting on for nearly 5 years. This was smooth with a little liquorice and cherry fruit, gentle acidity and tannins – a joy to drink and a beautiful example of patience amply rewarded. Although I don’t shop regularly at Tesco when I do Tim Adams wines are pretty much a guaranteed buy – along with the Fergus he does wonderful Shiraz, Riesling and Semillon.

With more whites bought and more reds opened there was a slight shift in the overall colour of my cellar, which now has 28% white, 53% red and the remaining 19% a selection of Rosé, Sparkling, Sweet and Fortified. Of course whites get the fastest turnover, typically within 6 months of purchase while it is extremely rare for me to open a red so soon after I’ve got it home.

That’s another Greybeard’s Corner review over, much like the year. Like a lot of you I’m about to enter into this food and wine fest that is Christmas, so I’ll hopefully see you on the other side in 2012.



Also published on December 12th 2011 on Reign of Terroir

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