That’s Amarone

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In January 2012 I visited the Valpolicella-producing areas of the Veneto, with a particular focus on Amarone. It’s a lovely part of the world, with a lot of history.

Sixteenth century Venice, devastated by the Black Death and challenged by other sea-faring nations, nonetheless remained Europe’s preeminent vinous emporium, exporting and importing wines to and from all over the Mediterranean. Frequent wars with the Ottoman Empire caused supplies from the east (Greece and Cyprus) to be blockaded, which led the Venetians to develop vineyards in the hills around Verona. Inspired by the Greek example, strong red wine from half-dried grapes was made in Bardolino, Soave and Valpolicella.

By the nineteenth century this “Rosso Austero Costa Calda” (“austere red hot coast”), as it was referred to in Paris in an 1845 auction catalogue, was considered to be the “Supreme Wine of Italy … better than other Bordeaux and Hermitage.”

The wine’s name, meaning “big bitter”, was apparently invented in 1936 by Adelino Lucchese, winemaker at the Cantina Sociale Valpolicella, when he declared said of a serendipitously dry Recioto wine, “Questo non è un Amaro, è un Amarone” (“This is not a bitter wine, it is a big bitter wine”).

The Soave-based Bolla family claims to have been the first to market Amarone under that name. To commemorate the 80th birthday of Alberto Bolla on 13th April 1953, an Amarone Riserva del Nonno 1950 was bottled. This led to subsequent vintages being bottled and marketed as Amarone.

Alike in dignity

The Valpolicella DOC stretches 20 miles or so from the Adige river northwest of Verona to Soave in the east. The westernmost quarter is Valpolicella Classico, the longest-established and supposedly best area for this wine.

Valpolicella Valpantena is sandwiched in the middle before the basic Valpolicella area in the east, which was created as DOC in 1968 to exploit the moneymaking potential of the Valpolicella name. The soils are mostly the same as Classico – tufaceous and calcareous ­– but the mesoclimate is less affected by Lake Garda, the breezes of which temper the climate.

Classico is unofficially – though certainly topographically – divided into five valleys. Fumane to the northwest of Verona is a cool part of Classico, influenced by its close proximity to Garda. The Lessini Mountains sway the communes of Negrar and San Pietro in Cariano more than Garda. The Valpantena Valley is sandwiched between Lake Garda, the Alps and Verona and therefore has plenty of air circulation. The Valli Orientali (Eastern Valleys) have altitudes varying from 300 to 500 metres. As is often the case elsewhere, the better wines of Valpolicella come from hillside vineyards rather than from the plains, where the soils are more alluvial.

Three Gentlemen of Verona

In his Carmina No. 27, the Latin poet Catullus mentioned “calices amariores” (“bitter glasses”) in a lengthy passage on “the wine called Acinaticum, which takes its name from the acino berry…”

Catullus described how Acinaticum was made: “The grapes are selected from vines on locally managed pergolas, they are hung upside down, and they are stored in their amphorae, the regular vessels used. With time the grapes become hard but do not turn into liquid. They sweat out their insipid fluid and become delicately sweet. This continues until December when the winter begins to make their juice run, and, wondrously, the wine becomes new even as you find wine already mature in all the other cellars. The winter must – the cold blood of the grapes, the bloody fluid – (becomes) potable crimson, violet nectar. It stops boiling in its youth and when it is able to become an adult, it once again becomes new wine.” More than 2,000 years later, this is more or less how Amarone is made today.

Valpolicella is unique among wine regions of the world for having several styles possible from the same grapes and vineyards. First, Valpolicella “normale” is made as a standard red table wine from Corvina, Rondinella and Molinara grapes.

Two wines are possible from a process that involves drying grapes on mats or shelves in special lodges called “fruttaia”. The drying process causes the grapes to lose water and thereby increase their (relative) sugar content. If there is some sugar left after fermentation, the wine is a Recioto. If fermented to dryness and retaining at least 14% alcohol the wine is Amarone. Grapes for these wines tend to be a selection of the best, which does not necessarily say much for the quality of the “normale” wine.

Over the last decade production of Ripasso and Amarone has increased while the production of Valpolicella has decreased. Between 2000 and 2003 production of Amarone doubled. By 2006 one-third of all Valpolicella grapes were being used to make this most expensive of Veronese wines.

A third (or fourth?) Valpolicella wine is “Ripasso”, which involves pumping the “normale” wine over the lees of the Recioto to cause a minor refermentation. Masi first marketed this Ripasso style in the 1980s.

Big and bitter

Amarone is an expensive and painstaking wine to make. Grapes are selected and transported to the winery in single layers; they are dried and must be carefully monitored to prevent rot (which affects colour and acidity); the dried grapes yield only about half of what they would otherwise give; and the wine is aged for a significant period before release.

Historically Amarone was an oxidative and often volatile wine whose main attraction was its richness of flavour. Modern wines are much fresher and better counterpoise the forceful acidity, alcohol and bitterness that so characterise Amarone.

Styles and quality vary tremendously – this is Italy, after all. In March 2012, 12 family-owned estates (Allegrini, Begali, Brigaldara, Masi, Musella, Nicolis, Speri, Tedeschi, Tenuta Sant’Antonio, Tommasi, Venturini and Zenato) grouped together to found the “Familia dell’Amarone” (Amarone Family) organisation.

The “Amarone d’Arte Manifesto” of the Familia states that Amarone is “now threatened by overproduction, without regard for those areas which are most suitable for the production of Amarone, and using only the minimum production standards set out in the official regulations, with a consequent decrease in quality. It has recently been subjected to sales strategies from large scale distribution channels (that) squeeze prices and force producers to sacrifice quality.”

The families’ response is “artisanal dedication… the exclusive use of the best positioned vineyards, superior viticultural techniques, precise bunch selection during harvesting, prolonged drying periods (“appassimento”) for the grapes, and ageing in high quality barrels. Amarone d’Arte is a wine of great value. Its quality is recognized in both the price it commands and its prestigious image on international markets.”

The older wines tasted were often profound but, on the whole, as the Colonel says in Hemingway’s Across the River and into the Trees, “I believe that the Valpolicella is better when it is newer.”

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Snippets from Henry H. Work’s “Wood, Whiskey and Wine: A History of Barrels”

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This week’s TLS had a review of Henry H. Work’s Wood, Whiskey and Wine: A History of Barrels.

Among the snippets of information in this book is that Henry III purchased 1,445 casks of “good Gascon wine” in 1243. Drowning his sorrows after the Battle of Taillebourg, perhaps.

On a Great War theme, The Times noted in 1917, “The fine health of the French troops in Gallipoli and in France is considered to have been largely due to their consumption of wine”.

According to Work, the price of a French wine barrel (of what size and made with which oak?) has risen from about $300 in 1982 to about $1,500 today. This mirrors the price inflation of top wines – particularly in Bordeaux – that use barrels. But I would not suggest that the vaunted price of Bordeaux nowadays is due to the cost of barrels.

The Romans preferred to store and ship wine in clay amphorae, using wooden barrels to collect urine for tanning. Taking the pee? Back to Bordeaux…

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Two great Aussies: Bob McLean 1949–2015, Richie Benaud 1930–2015

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Bob McLean  Milton©Wordley08_B&W.jpg-

Bob McLean (image courtesy of Milton Wordley

I was deeply saddened to hear that Bob McLean had passed away.

I first met Bob though Matt Gant, who was then winemaker at St Hallett, in (I think) 2004. Matt told me that Bob had planted a vineyard on top of Mengler Hill and that I should go and see it and meet Bob. I did and I loved the man straightaway. He was big, funny, generous and had influenced the Australian wine industry massively.

I was awed by his Barr Eden vineyard. It’s very remote, very high-up and planted to bush vines on rocky soil. On another visit in 2009 I saw the aftermath of a recent heatwave in South Australia. Vineyards across the Barossa had been scorched – the leaves looked as though somebody had run a hot iron across them. But Bob’s baby vines, having to stand on their own feet to survive rather than sucking up irrigated water, were absolutely fine. Fifty or a hundred years from now Barr Eden will be a vineyard to bear comparison with Hill of Grace. It will be a marvellous tribute to a lovely bloke and one of the most accomplished wine professionals of his generation.


Richie Benaud in front of the Pavilion at New Road, homeground of my birth county Worcestershire, in 1961

Another great Aussie has also departed.

I never met Richie Benaud but enjoyed his commentary from my early days of watching cricket in the mid-1980s. He’s long been acclaimed as the finest of all TV sports commentators but people have often forgotten what a great cricketer he was, unbeaten in seven series as a Test captain at one time the highest wicket taker in Test history.

Another good ‘un who will be greatly missed. 

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More cricket and (lots more) wine: Lord Harris’s wine consumption

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Over the weekend I finished reading my last cricket book of the winter before the season begins. Only 13 days to go until the first match of the year at Lord’s – yay!

Begrudgingly, I must congratulate the Aussies on their fifth World Cup win. I fear for England during the forthcoming Ashes. Much better to think about other things for now.

indexRamachandra Guha’s A Corner of a Foreign Field: The Indian History of a British Sport is a broad overview of a big and complex country and its relationship to cricket.

It’s obvious that British imperialism planted cricket in India but the subtleties of this, involving caste, race and religion, are labyrinthine. It was a place that turned English gentlemen into dipsomaniacs.

Guha quotes a letter from Lord Harris, the Kent and England cricketer who was Governor of the Presidency of Bombay 1890-1895, to Lord Wenlock. It summarises the “Number of bottles consumed in Government House in 1890-1”:

Champagne 2,414
Claret 1,123
Hock 368
Sherry 411
Port 271
Liqueurs 144
Brandy 123
Whisky 545

Assuming that Harris was entertaining for 365 days of the year, this equates to nearly seven bottles of Champagne and three bottles of claret every day, as well as at least a bottle of most of the other wines and spirits. I hope he shared them with somebody.

Governing Bombay was doubtless a difficult job. “Would he not escape it all to play cricket and drink port in Poona?” asks Guha, sympathetically.

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A Perfect Ten? A Decade of the Fine Wine Market

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To commemorate the tenth anniversary of Fine Wine International, its editor Ove Canemyr asked me to do a ten-year overview of the fine wine market.

It has been a topsy-turvy decade since Fine Wine International was established in 2004. A graph showing the annual turnover of wine auction houses over the last ten years would look like a map of the Himalayas, with dramatic peaks and vertiginous falls.

It seemed as though the good times would never end. But on 15th September 2008 the party ended. Lehman Brothers filed for bankruptcy and the credit-crunch began.

The turn of the century boom could not last forever. Even on hot summer days, there might be a rain cloud that can burst at any moment. The global economy is still fragile. But the fine wine market remains staggeringly robust, with record prices frequently achieved.

Chinese whispers

There is no doubt that the most significant change to the international wine market was the emergence of China and its bao fa hu (“explosive rich”).

China’s economy grew by an amazing 9.8% in 2005, over twice the 4.3% growth rate forecast for the world economy by the International Monetary Fund. In a September 2014 report, the global information company IHS predicted that China would overtake America to become the world’s biggest economy by 2024.

China and the other Asian economies are producing a massive middle class with enough disposable income to chuck a chicken in the pot – and a bottle in the fridge – whenever it wants to. As an example of how auction houses have taken advantage of the decade-long boom, Acker Merrall & Condit’s premium has risen from 16% in 2002 to 23.5% in 2014. Most people would be pleased to have given themselves a 47% pay rise over that period.

But there is also the risk of flooding what remains a relatively small market. There is still a lot of stock in Hong Kong for merchants to sell. Private cellars are full to bursting and new collectors tend to stop buying when their cellar is complete.

For wine merchants and other sellers of luxury goods, Xi Jinping’s “election” as leader of China in November 2012 was arguably more important than Barack Obama’s re-election as President of the United States in the same month. Xi vowed to crackdown on corruption with an “iron fist”. The price of top Bordeaux has subsequently cooled.

Lafite of strength

Lafite, and particularly its 1982 vintage, was probably the most sought-after fine wine in the last decade. Its price gains have been astonishing. According to the London-based fine wine exchange Liv-ex, it went from £2,613 in December 1999 to £25,000 by November 2009, an increase of 856.9%. If that rate were maintained until December 2019, a case of Lafite 1982 would then be worth nearly £250,000.

As of September 2014, Lafite 1982’s average auction price was £18,073. The supernova inflation of recent years has ended and the bubble has burst. Overexposure, excessive prices, forgeries and the Chinese government’s clampdown on gift giving have led buyers to look elsewhere. The brightest star in the current market is Domaine de la Romanée-Conti.

As this issue of Fine Wine International went to press, Sotheby’s had announced an auction to be held in Hong Kong on 4th October 2014. The centrepiece of the sale is what Sotheby’s claimed was “The Most Valuable Wine Auction Lot Ever Offered”: A 114-Bottle Romanée-Conti “Superlot” of 19 consecutive vintages 1992–2010, with six bottles per vintage. The estimate was HK$12–20 million / US$1.5–2.5 million / £930,000–£1.5 million. Burgundy’s market supremacy at the moment was confirmed by it accounting for over 40% of the total number of lots in the sale and approximately 70% of the value.

It’s possible that Burgundy – and particularly DRC – could follow the Lafite model: Hugely increased interest and prices, a sudden spike, and then a collapse back to pre-hype levels. Short-term speculators please note. Some wines will continue to fall in value; others will gain. That is the way of the free market.

Genuine fakes

The Los Angeles Times of 1st December 2006 reported on the gargantuan wine buying activities of 30-year-old Rudy Kurniawan, an Indonesian-born scion of a hugely wealthy Chinese family. Kurniawan was allegedly spending more than $1 million a month on fine wines and was the anonymous vendor of New York auction house Acker Merrall & Condit’s two record-breaking “THE Cellar” sales in 2006

Fast-forward to 2012 and Kurniawan was exposed as possibly the biggest wine fraudster of them all. In February 2012 there was huge controversy about a London wine sale conducted jointly by Spectrum Wine Auctions and Vanquish Wines. It was alleged that the consignor of many of the wines was Kurniawan. Doubts were cast about several wines and 13 lots were withdrawn after label and capsule discrepancies were pointed out.

For Kurniawan, who used to refer witheringly to traditional merchants as “dusties”, the game was up. On 8th March, one month after the London auction, the FBI arrested Kurniawan in Los Angeles on five counts. Here, for the first time, fine wine fraud on an industrial scale had been exposed – not just a few bottles but hundreds.

In August 2014, Kurniawan was sentenced to 10 years in a US prison, ordered to forfeit £11.9 million and pay over £15 million in restitution. The man himself might now be locked away but, depressingly, many – hundreds, possibly thousands – of his fakes and forgeries are still in circulation.

The pressure on “experts”, especially at auction houses, to get it right first time, every time is greater than ever. But there is an inherent conflict of interest when an auctioneer “appraises” a cellar. Because auctioneers rely on consignments for their livelihood there are always demands from managers and shareholders to “authenticate” potentially valuable wines.

Unlike in the art and stamp worlds, there are hardly any completely independent third-party authenticators in the wine industry – there are too many conflicting interests and not enough wine to make it viable as a fulltime occupation.

Being a “wine detective” sounds like a nice career but, as art and stamp authenticators would confirm, in such a job you make enemies rather than money.

Back to the futures

Expensive Bordeaux en primeur campaigns have become normal. The 2005 campaign was the most expensive ever, 2009 and 2010 ditto, and 2011 not discounted enough vis-à-vis the previous two (and far superior) vintages. Underwhelming wines were made in 2012 and 2013 but prices remained high. There are better and less expensive vintages available than 2013. Surely the system is becoming unsustainable?

And yet the world, or at least parts of it, keeps getting richer. According to Forbes magazine, 20 years ago there were 140 billionaires worldwide: In 2006, that number had risen to 793, 23 of whom were based in London. By 2014 there were 72 billionaires in London. There are more rich people than ever. Somebody bought a copy of Superman’s “Action Comics No. 1” for $3.2 million on eBay in August 2014. Transfer fees spent by English Premier League clubs in the same month was a record £835 million.

The long-term fundamentals for the fine wine market remain unchanged: There is an increasing number of very wealthy people with an appetite for fine wine, which by its very nature will always be made in relatively small quantities. This is why – and how – owners of top Bordeaux estates will always sell their wines at what for most people are outrageous prices. Ten years from now the eye-watering prices of recent en primeur campaigns will probably seem like bargains.

Through the looking glass

Much of the work of the wine trade, like any other business, is about trying to forecast trends. But in an industry that is based so much on weather and on global economic conditions no outcomes can ever be guaranteed.

Auction house totals in 2013 were down for the second year in succession. Prices have remained firm though volumes have fallen.

History shows that wine prices go up over the long run, albeit with many peaks and troughs. This is like climate, because even wild fluctuations in the weather (like the scorching hot summer of 2003 across Europe) will have little effect on what will happen over a century or more. So the most sought after fine wines will continue to increase in value and Bordeaux will not turn into the Barossa.

Happy birthday

To celebrate ten years of Fine Wine International, readers can raise a glass of outstanding 2004 Barolo or Barbaresco. It was also a fine year in Spain and Australia.



(12x75cl including premiums)


September 2004 £4,055

September 2005 £8,970

September 2006 £7,475

September 2007 £14,055

September 2008 £19,570

September 2009 £23,659

September 2010 £34,840

September 2011 £31,294

September 2012 £31,037

September 2013 £21,726

September 2014 £18,073

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Cricket and wine: Percy Fender and Jack Fingleton

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I read a couple of classic cricket books over the weekend that threw up references to wine.

hp photosmart 720Richard Streeton’s 1981 biography of the great Surrey captain Percy Fender describes how Fender went into the wine trade after retiring from playing. Initially called Herbert Fender & Co., his firm later became Fender, Tennyson, Yetts & Mills.

“Tennyson” was Lionel Tennyson, grandson of the poet and a former Hampshire and England cricketer, and described by John Arlott as “a Regency Buck born out of period”.

From High Holborn the company moved to the old police court in Marylebone Lane, where the former prison cells were ideal for wine storage, and later to Grosvenor Street and finally Mount Street.

Fender was extremely diligent with his products. When he went to Australia for the Centenary Test in 1977 he was offered the opportunity to export his own brand of whisky but insisted that it had to be bottled in Scotland. “I am as proud of my own whisky as any of my cricket records”, he said; “I was not going to run any risk of it being blended with Japanese or anybody else’s brands.”

I believe that Percy’s son Peter was a director from 1952 to 1972 before founding his own wine firm near Exeter. Later he worked in insurance. (Very sensible…)

f2d9c466c90492b8a16c4311d27b24c6Jack Fingleton’s The Ashes Crown The Year is his account of the 1953 Ashes series when England beat Australia at home for the first time since 1926. Long waits for England to regain the Ashes are nothing new.

Fingleton recounts the Cricket Writers’ Club dinner held at Skinners’ Hall on 20th April 1953. The wines were “Liebfraumilch Red Siegal 1949, Chateau Neuf (sic) de (sic) Pape 1949, Warre 1927.”

I don’t know anything about “Red Siegal” and can only guess that it was a contemporary brand, though 1949 was a great vintage in Germany. It was also outstanding in the Rhone.

Warre’s 1927 was a classic vintage declared by 30 shippers, which I believe remains the all-time record. Now very rare and expensive – if you can find it.


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Noble Prizes: Nebbiolo Nobile

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After the fire that destroyed the Palace of Whitehall in 1698, the Widow Bourne established a grocer’s shop at No. 3 St James’s Street in central London. This grocer’s shop is now Berry Bros. & Rudd, which has strong claims to being the UK’s or even the world’s oldest wine merchant business.

The eighth – and probably the tallest – generation to work for this distinguished business is David Berry Green. Since 2009 David has lived and worked in Serralunga d’Alba, where he is able to pursue his passion for the great Nebbiolo wines of Piedmont. “Everyone seems to have heard of Barolo and Barbaresco but very few people seem to realise that they’re made from Nebbiolo,” he says. “For me it is the unsung hero of Italy’s great wines.”

In addition to Barolo and Barbaresco, Nebbiolo wines are made under the Langhe Nebbiolo and Nebbiolo d’Alba DOCs, which typically cost half as much as the two killer Bs. Requiring less ageing than Barolo or Barbaresco, they are not as dauntingly tannic and provide useful cash flow for winemakers whose top wines might not be released until five years after the vintage.

Nebbiolo d’Alba DOC was established in 1970 and must be 100% Nebbiolo and aged for 12 months. It can be “declassified” to Langhe Nebbiolo, the wider-reaching DOC that was introduced in 1995 as a de facto “second wine” option for Barbaresco and Barolo producers. Of course this being Italy meant that the new legislation quickly became as tangled as a bowl of spaghetti, with Langhe Chardonnay and Langhe Arneis, among many others, soon appearing. Allowing the wines to include up to 15% of non-Nebbiolo juice and not specifying minimum ageing requirements compromised the integrity of the Langhe Nebbiolo DOC. The result was a mishmash of wine styles that looks like a traffic jam in Turin.

Leaving aside Italian wine politics, David Berry Green was so impressed by the quality of Langhe Nebbiolo and Nebbiolo d’Alba that he conceived a plan to showcase them to an international audience of buyers and writers. So, in April 2011, he presented a tasting of 52 wines, followed by a seminar, in the Castello di Serralunga d’Alba.

Highlights of the tasting included a smoothly textured 2009 Nebbiolo d’Alba from Renato Ratti and firmly tannic 2008s by Bricco Maiolica, Edoardo Sobrino and Beppi Colla.

The Langhe wines, which are essentially declassified Barolo or Barbaresco, were on the whole a bit better than the Alba examples, with superior concentration and structure, though some were rather atypical. The chocolate and coffee aromas of the 2009 Langhe Nebbiolo Bricco Maiolica (again) were reminiscent of the chocolate-scented air of Alba, where the Ferrero Rocher factory churns out Kinder Surprises and Nutella.

Chionetti’s 2009 was suspiciously purple in colour – not how “classic” Nebbiolo should look. Maybe there was a bit of Dolcetto in that 15% concession. Cascina delle Rose’s, Pier’s, Marchesi di Gresy’s and Produttori del Barbaresco’s 2009s were all fine-grained and typical of the modern, user-friendly style of Nebbiolo.

Elio Altare’s 2009 Langhe Nebbiolo had pulsing acidity and, to my admittedly myopic eyes, a slightly cloudy colour. It tasted good, though. Some of the wines were more tar than roses, such as those of Domenico Clerico and Ettore Germano, two eminent producers who are left of centre in the debate about the use of new oak with Nebbiolo.

It was a varied bunch. As Berry Green put it, “There was a notable difference between those Nebbiolo wines conceived as such in the vineyard and then vinified through to an early drinking wine and those producers who make it as an afterthought – a Barolo or Barbaresco declassified after a couple of years’ ageing, a wine cut off at the knees to suit the market, neither fish nor fowl, neither early drinking nor built for ageing.”

Over 50 Nebbioli before lunch is a challenging proposition. With teeth as black as if they had been dyed in pitch, the main speakers managed to stand up and deliver considered and amusing speeches. UK wine writer Margaret Rand, Pietro Ratti – head of the Consorzio di Tutela Barolo Barbaresco Alba Langhe e Roero – and UK importer Michael Palij MW led the discussion.

The debate was largely concerned with whether the wines should be marketed as “second wine” Barolo and Barbaresco, which might undermine the “B” brands, or whether their Nebbiolo heritage should be promoted, in which case they become disassociated from the big Bs (except, as Palij pointed out, “buono”). Palij also suggested that we ignore the debate about “modern” or “traditional” producers of Nebbiolo and instead concentrate on making “good” wine.

Not much Nebbiolo is made outside north-east Italy. It is a very particular grape and wine. “There are some wonderful, finely-laced wines here that really don’t get out into the wider world”, Berry Green asserts. “I want people out there to get to know Nebbiolo and not be daunted by the power and price of Barolo and Barbaresco.”

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Johnny 5: Anniversary Vintages for 2015

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What to drink when celebrating an anniversary in 2015?

Vintages ending in “5” include some of the greatest years on record. But there are also some of the worst harvests ever.

If you’re fortunate enough to be celebrating your 100th birthday in 2015 you’re unlikely to find anything from 1915 with which to make a toast. It was a wartime vintage with lots of rain but few grapes and hardly anybody to pick them. However, it was – would you believe – a good vintage in Germany.

Some great Port was made in 1935. A decade later, what is perhaps the most acclaimed of all European vintages gave birth to some legendary wines. Michael Broadbent MW describes it as “arguably one of the greatest vintages of the 20th century (producing) long-lasting wines of the highest quality”.

Throughout France ungrafted, mature vines – none had been replaced during the war – gave the highest quality grapes. In Bordeaux, Mouton Rothschild, despite having an ill-equipped winery, was particularly brilliant. Broadbent has famously described Mouton 1945 as “a Churchill of a wine”, and not just in reference to the wine itself, either. To commemorate the end of the war, this was the first vintage of Mouton to feature a bespoke label, based on Churchill’s “V for Victory”, by a young French artist called Philippe Jullian. Every vintage since, Mouton has enlisted an artist to design a new label.

In June 1993, the château’s then owner Baroness Philippine de Rothschild served the ’45 to more than 200 guests at a dinner. The idea was to pour magnums, of which only 1,475 were made. However, when a magnum was opened for inspection, the maître de chai decided that the wine was not yet ready and bottles were served instead. Maybe they’ll try again this yea

Good red Burgundy was made in 1955, with fine examples of Sauternes (especially d’Yquem), Champagne and Port also produced.

I have heard stories of mould growing in vats during the 1965 vintage. It was a shocker. Fast forward to 1975 and there are excellent Pomerols (especially Pétrus), Sauternes and Champagnes. Defying the trend for ubiquitous excellence or mediocrity in France’s classic regions for “5s”, ’75 was very bad for Burgundy. It was a good year for Penfolds Grange.

It was excellent just about everywhere in 1985. Red Bordeaux, Sauternes, red Burgundy, southern Rhône, Champagne, Port and California all enjoyed a rewarding vintage. The real star of this year is Tenuta di San Guido Sassicaia, which was the first Italian wine to be awarded 100 points by that maker and breaker of reputations Robert Parker. He described it as “one of the greatest wines I have ever tasted, from anywhere” and it retains a strong reputation.

I entered the wine trade in 1996 and I recall the excitement about 1995 white Burgundy (though 1996 turned out to be even better). The reds weren’t bad, either. Champagne, Rhône and Bordeaux were all of a high standard.

Moving into the noughties and the era of massively hyped and expensive blockbuster vintages, 2005 Bordeaux was acclaimed as “vintage of the century” – at least until 2009.

Probably there is better value to be had in Burgundy in 2005, which Jasper Morris MW called “the most uniformly successful vintage I have seen in my career”. Unlike American critics, he’s not given to hyperbole: For him to make such an assertion it must be a really good vintage.

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The China Syndrome: Shanghai International Wine Challenge

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With Chinese New Year imminent (on Thursday 19 February), I thought I’d revisit an article published by Langton’s in 2011 that described my experience of the Shanghai International Wine Challenge.

Having read and heard so much about China and its miraculous economy I was desperate to visit. So I was thrilled to have been invited to visit Shanghai in September 2011 as a jury member of the 6th Shanghai International Wine Challenge (SIWC 2011).

SIWC is, the organisers told me, “the first International professional commodity competition located in Shanghai Waigaoqiao Free Trade Zone. This is the only wine competition that is fully supported by Waigaoqiao International Exhibition & Trading Center of Wine & Beverage, and will become the most influence wine challenge in China.” It is “the only wine challenge that (is) fully supported by the governmental organisations.”

As of 1 August, 500 wines from a dozen or so countries had been received – which, by my usual work rate at the Austrian Wine Challenge, is 5 days of tasting. By myself. The SIWC rate was about 60 wines a day, so not too onerous.

The jury was “global”, with judges coming from (as residents if not actually born there) Australia, Brazil, France and the UK. It was a good crowd. The distinguished Iain Riggs of Brokenwood and the immensely likeable Daniel Binet of Ballabourneen – both from the Hunter Valley – were the Aussie representatives. Riggsy was the Chairman and ensured that larrikin standards were maintained through the week: there was always a cold beer or three at the end of the day’s tasting.

The Challenge was held at the shiny new “All in Wine” centre at the “Waigaoqiao International Exhibition & Trading Center of Wine & Beverage”. Like a Napa winery there was new wood everywhere. And I don’t mean barrels. The aroma of new money was more piquant than some of the wines.

China is a rapidly developing wine market, which means there is a lack of logistical experience for competitions like this. For example, wines were poured into individual glasses and then served rather than having six or so glasses and pouring wines into those all day long. At lunchtime, when tasters and staff enjoyed good food, a Tsingtao beer and a very loud restaurant owner berating his staff in full view of customers – shouting loudly at your staff is quite normal here, I was told, and for an Englishman (and Australian) it was very entertaining – the used glasses were not cleared away. A minor matter admittedly but it kept the tasters waiting to resume duties.

A few wines were in the wrong categories, like a sweet Riesling in a dry flight or – not sure how this happened – Sangria in a Grenache flight. Some of the “sommeliers” were trying to open Stelvins with corkscrews. But if you’ve never seen or drunk a bottle of wine before what would you do? It’s easy to criticise such sciolisms but the half-full wine philosopher would say that there is an outstanding opportunity to educate people in China about the joys of wine.

Now that the cricket team is so useless the Aussies have to be given some Chinese wine gongs to cheer them up. Actually, it was a good competition for Australian wine. “Best” trophies were awarded to Kalleske Moppa Shiraz 2010 for Best Red Wine and Best Shiraz; Angove Vineyard Select Clare Valley Riesling 2010 was the Best Riesling; and Ballabourneen Hunter Valley Semillon 2009 won Best Semillon. Of course I had nothing to do with Ballabourneen’s Stuart Chardonnay 2009 winning the Best Chardonnay award and a Gold Medal. Wines were tasted blind.

Four more gold medals were awarded to – respectively – Millbrook Winery Barking Owl Shiraz Viognier 2009, Kalleske Moppa Shiraz 2010 (again), Angove Vineyard Select Clare Valley Riesling 2010 (again) and Angove Vineyard Select McLaren Vale Shiraz 2009.

Thirty-three silver medals went to wineries including Angove, the Colonial Estate, Ballabourneen, Bethany, Deep Woods, The 8th Estate, Houghton, Kalleske, Millbrook, Mitchell, Paulett, Pegeric, Pyrenees Ridge, Shaw Vineyard Estate, Simpatico Wines, Song Lines, Southern Highland and Woodlands Wines.

Bronze medals were awarded to Angove, Ballabourneen, Barokes, Bethany, Berton Vineyard, Brokenwood (no bias here!), The Colonial Estate, HJ Estate, Jacob’s Creek, Kalleske, Stanley Lambert, Mitchell, Pauletts, Pegeric, Pirathon, Printhie, Raintree, Shaw Vineyard Estate, Simpatico Wines, Song Lines, Southern Highland, Veritas, Windowrie and Woodlands Wines. Phew!

Time spent away from the tasting room out and about in Shanghai was fascinating. As in Beijing, where I spent a few days before arriving in Shanghai, it seems as if an entirely new city has emerged over the last two decades. The Blade Runner-like cityscape – all skyscrapers and fizzing neon – suggests nothing of “old” China. Vast amounts of money have been earned and spent over the last two decades. To paraphrase Robert Browning, the Chinese like whatever they look on, and their looks go everywhere.

The Chinese are becoming rich and they want people to know it. A French wine merchant friend in Shanghai told me, “China is still a nouveau riche country, all about face and ‘bling.’ A Chinese customer opens the wine list and points at the most expensive thing, usually Lafite, which they have a fetish for. You could replace it by corked Shiraz – they wouldn’t tell the difference.” Despite this, he says, “Everyone is waiting for the rise of the middle class. Once they’re rich enough, educated enough, curious enough, then… BOOM! We’re getting there.”

Asians appreciate some of the broader cultural implications of fine wines. They like the “invented tradition”, to use Eric Hobsbawm’s phrase, of fine wine. There is a nascent interest and understanding in China, or at least in Confucianism, of what fine wine supposedly represents – balance, harmony (ho) and a sense of place, and that this ho comes from the unique conditions of a specific geographical site. This is where many Australian wineries are positioning themselves at the moment.

As for the long-term prospects for Australian fine wine in China and elsewhere, as Zhou Enlai, Premier of the People’s Republic of China from 1949 until 1976, replied when asked about the impact of the French Revolution of 1789: “It is too soon to say.”


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Bonhams Restaurant

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Last night (Tuesday 10th February) I was invited to Bonhams to have a look around their new bar and restaurant.

There were a couple of Andy Warhol works on display in anticipation of Thursday’s “Post-War and Contemporary Art” sale. Down the road at Sotheby’s they were holding a sale of “Contemporary Art”, which totalled £123.5 million, including a Gerhard Richter “masterpiece” that sold for £30.4 million. Prices for modern art continue to dazzle.

imageTom Kemble’s menu looks concise and simple with a Scandinavian theme (haunch of deer!). Prices are reasonable for Mayfair W1.

The Pol Roger Brut Reserve NV was delicious. Its softness and hint of brioche suggested some bottle age.

Now, the wine list. Richard Harvey MW and Anthony Barne MW of Bonhams’ wine department have put the list together with restaurant manager Rebecca Russell and sommelier Charlotte Edgecombe. It’s not massive and has a focus on French classics, particularly Bordeaux and (white) Burgundy. Richard Harvey mentioned that he’d secured an allocation of Screaming Eagle direct from the winery, which meant that somebody on their regular mailing list lost out.

Where it really distinguishes itself is in its offering of older fine wines at very reasonable prices. For example, Cheval Blanc 1982 is listed at £750. A quick glance at shows this wine listed by UK merchants at £450 to over £800 (ex-VAT). With restaurant mark-ups typically at 250–300+%, Bonhams’ price is exceptionally generous.

There are a couple of Enomatic machines that dispense wines by the glass. I noticed Faiveley’s 2012 Bourgogne Chardonnay at £8 a pop – again, very reasonable.

With such a well-chosen and priced wine list there is sure to be interest. At any rate, it’s a very nice staff café.

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