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 Wine-Searcher.com 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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Mouton Dressed As Lamb: The Wine Labels of Château Mouton Rothschild

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In the aftermath of Sotheby’s recent ex-cellars sale of Mouton Rothschild wines in Hong Kong, it’s an opportune moment to republish an article that I did originally for Artists & Illustrators magazine, which in those days was a sister publication to The World of Fine Wine.

What wine is best drunk with Bacon? Château Mouton-Rothschild has a long history of commissioning artists to design its label for each new vintage. By Stuart George

In addition to being one of the world’s greatest wines, and one of only five Bordeaux “Premier Crus” (“First Growths”), Château Mouton Rothschild has a long history of commissioning artists to design its label for each new vintage.

ImageTo commemorate the first bottling of the wine at the château itself, Baron Philippe de Rothschild commissioned Jean Carlu to design a label for the 1924 vintage. The “ram” image that he created was a visual pun on “Mouton”, which is an old French word for “hill” but also the word for “sheep.” This began the tradition of incorporating a ram into the label design. The vine and the pleasures of drinking are also recurring themes.

The 1945 “victory” year was the first Mouton since 1924 to feature a bespoke label. In a great Bordeaux vintage, Mouton was particularly brilliant and is now acclaimed as one of the greatest wines of all time. Former Christie’s wine auctioneer Michael Broadbent MW (Master of Wine) describes Mouton ’45 as, “A Churchill of a wine”, and not just in reference to the wine itself, either. The young and unknown artist Philippe Jullian based his label design on Churchill’s “V for Victory.”

Not all the labels have been completely bespoke, though. Picasso’s Bacchanale for the 1973 wine (which was made after Picasso’s death and subsequently dedicated to him) and Kandinsky’s label in 1971 were reproductions of existing works of art. Nor does the label necessarily convey any message about the vintage that it illustrates.

Designing for Mouton is a difficult challenge for an artist. There is very little space to work with – just the top half of the Mouton label, or about 8cm x 4cm – so the works are not always typical. The only instruction to artists is, “make it horizontal.” Emilia Kabakov, wife and spokesperson of the 2002 label’s artist Ilya Kabakov, says, “The Mouton label was probably the smallest piece he’s ever worked on. It was very different from anything he’s done before. The requirements were very specific.”

The Polish-German artist Balthus’ drawing of a naked girl for the 1993 label caused a minor scandal in the US, where the draconian Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (in America, these things are inextricably linked) censured the label and prohibited the sale of the wine. Mouton was forced to sell its wine in the US with a neutral label that showed only the ochre background.

For the 2000 vintage, Mouton was dressed as lamb. In place of a paper label, the image of the 16th century “ram of Augsburg” from the Mouton museum was transferred to the bottle using a specially developed relief enamel technique.

2005 specimenThe Prince of Wales’ 2004 watercolour contribution commemorated the centenary of the Entente Cordiale – the part-secret agreement between France and Britain that was signed in London on 8 April 1904 – and shows a French landscape.

The 2005 wine, to be released to the market in Spring 2007, shows a work by the Italian sculptor Giuseppe Penone. His design for Mouton includes a handprint, and evokes the vine-grower’s “green-fingers” and the splayed hand of the drinker.

With such an international mix of artists, a display of Mouton labels would make a fine modern art gallery. In February 2007, there was a three-week exhibition in New York of the original artworks that have been reproduced on the Mouton-Rothschild label. To complement the exhibition (and vice versa), Baroness Philippine de Rothschild, who has been the owner of Mouton-Rothschild since the death of her father in 1988, offered wines from her personal collection for sale on February 28. Among the highlights was a 1945 Jéroboam (equivalent in size to six standard bottles), only 24 of which were produced. It was knocked down for $260,000.

Although these price spikes were probably caused by a pleasant luncheon with a famous owner, Mouton was the most-traded fine wine of 2007. On average, Mouton increased 50 percent in price during the year, outperforming the wine market as a whole. Mouton used to command a premium because of its bespoke labels, which were collected avidly, but nowadays the château has to justify its price solely by what is inside the bottle and not what is on the label.

Although the artists are never paid for their work, they do receive ten cases of wine – five of that year’s vintage, plus five of their own vintage year. (The lucky ones have been born in 1945, 1959, 1961…). Which brings a whole new dimension to “drinking away one’s earnings.”

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Kaia Kaipe: Spain’s best restaurant wine list?

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A few years ago I had a memorable visit to Kaia Kaipe restaurant in Getaria, which was subsequently written up for Sommelier Journal magazine.

Getaria, 30 miles or so west of San Sebastián, was birthplace of the explorer Juan Sebastián Elcano, who completed the first circumnavigation of the world in 1522. Since 1962 this small fishing village has been home to Kaia Kaipe, a spacious but unassuming restaurant so highly regarded that the 3-star Michelin chef Martín Berasategui (of the eponymous restaurant in nearby Lasarte-Oria) has been seen here with his family.

The classic aperitif in this part of Spain is Txakoli, a bone dry, slightly sparkling, and intensely acidic white wine. There’s plenty of that available at Kaia Kaipe but there are also four cellars holding a total of 40,000 bottles, comprised of 1,000 different labels. Additionally, there is a 4,000 bottle “colección privada” (private collection) with Rioja vintages back to the 1920s. This list is not officially available to the public—except to “friends” of Igor Arregi, current owner and manager of Kaia Kaipe and grandson of its founders. He says, “From time to time we enjoy these wines with family and good friends—usually winemakers—who value these wines. But the ‘colección privada’ is not for sale.”

The main cellar, where 40% of the inventory lies, is in a separate building close to Kaia and kept at a constant 59°F, with a separate white wine / Champagne cellar at 41°F to keep the wines chilled during their brief journey into the restaurant. Wines are sourced from over 100 suppliers.

“I don’t have a favorite wine,” admits Igor. “It depends on the time, what is going to be eaten, the weather… There are so many variations and so many alternatives.” However, he particularly likes Salon Champagne, Comte Lafon’s Meursault Premier Cru Charmes, and “a good red Rioja Alavesa”.

The restaurant’s double-barreled name reflects its two floors. “Kaia” means “port” and “Kaipe” means “below the port” in the local Basque language. There is a barbecue outside the front of the restaurant at the “Kaia” level that overlooks Getaria’s small harbor.

Since the Spanish smoking ban that became law on January 2, 2011, Kaia’s dining room is non-smoking. Those desperate for nicotine must go outside. “There is more demand for the tables on the terrace of Kaipe,” says Igor, “many visitors ask for a table outside or they eat in Kaia and then smoke on the terrace.”

The restaurant has its own fish farm in which fresh catches are stored until they go to the kitchen. Igor visits the local fish markets daily to obtain the best produce.

The seafood markets of the Spanish Basque coast are intensely competitive, especially in San Sebastián where there are nearly 100 good restaurants. “The supplier knows how much turbot will enter a port— Pasajes, Saint-Jean-de-Luz, or the various ports of France—because he has contact with the boats,” Igor explains. “Then he goes to these ports to bid for the best fish and bring it to us. But I like going to the San Sebastián market anyway to see what kind of fish come that day. If I’m interested, I buy it. I’m always looking for the best quality. I never ask the price.”

When I visited Kaia, 31 fish dishes were listed on the menu—but only five meat dishes. With my companions Jesús Madrazo of Contino and Oscar Urrutia of CVNE—who know Igor well and are easily able to access the “colección privada”—I ate a starter of “kokotxas de colin à la romaine”, a local dish of the battered flesh from the throat of a hake. This dish is very richly flavored—and, as a rare delicacy, relatively expensive.

More fish starters were ordered. Crabe au four, or roasted spider crab, is prepared with onion, butter, pepper, and tomato, and flambéed with a little bit of Cognac. The crab’s shell is filled and then cooked quickly at a fairly high heat. Txipirones is fried squid with onion. All these were delicious with a glass of Txakoli.

The main course was turbot, cooked on the barbecue downstairs and seasoned with oil, Txakoli, and garlic. Juan Mari Arzak, another 3-star chef of the Basque country, once declared that the best turbot in Spain is found at Kaia.

White wine is the obvious choice to accompany these fish dishes but the local preference is for mellow old Rioja—“the older the better”, according to Jesús Madrazo. With the turbot we drank 1976 CVNE Imperial Gran Reserva, bottled in April–May 1981, and 1976 Viña Real Gran Reserva, an Alavesa wine aged in American oak that tends to unfurl more quickly than Imperial. It was soft and charming but less interesting and impressive than the Imperial.

It took Juan Sebastián Elcano three years to travel the world. It is worth making a similar journey to enjoy the hospitality, the fish menu, and the wine list at Kaia Kaipe.

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Back to the Future: Barossa Vintages 2004–1947 Tasting

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In honour of Australia Day, here’s an article first published by Langton’s in 2011 in which I reported on a memorable tasting of Barossa wines.

I loathe the London International Wine Fair, held each May. Like the MCG, it is too large and too crowded, with too many naff wines. But having enjoyed 14 Coonawarras back to 1982 at the 2010 Fair, this year Wine Australia was again triumphant with an outstanding tasting of “Barossa Vintages” back to 1947.

Hosted by James March of Barossa Grape & Wine Association Incorporated with Ben Glaetzer of Glaetzer Wines, Matt Gant of First Drop and Toby Barlow from St Hallett, the tasting gave a fascinating overview of Barossan winemaking styles and standards over the last seven decades.

According to March, the purpose of the tasting was “to give a sense of where we’re from but also where we’re heading to – and we wanted to share some great wines with some great friends.” The older wines are extremely rare. “For anything from the 1960s you need to knock on Colin Gramp’s door and ask nicely”, said March.

The first wine of the tasting was 2004 Bethany Semillon, so luminously green-gold that it would probably glow in the dark. Although still very fresh and bracing on the nose, the palate – lightly gilded by oak – was more developed and had the toasty flavours of aged Semillon. This very distinctive and impeccably made Australian white wine will prosper for at least another five years.

I was born in 1974 and finding a decent drink with that vintage on the label continues to be a challenge. The ’74 Yalumba FDR1A Barossa Valley was made in “the second wettest year on record” according to the brilliant BarossaVintages.com website. Like Ricky Ponting, the Yalumba was clearly past its best. The very oxidised and animal nose improved with aeration and the palate hung onto some feisty acidity. But it’s getting thinner rather than smoother.

The 1978 Orlando Shiraz Barossa Valley was in much better condition and was quite a pleasant wine, with some brittle tannins lurking on the finish. Gant thought that the wine had a low pH and suggested that augmented acidity had enabled the wine to endure.

The 1980s was a period of wines being “built rather than made” reckoned Glaetzer. But the two examples here from that decade were not in that style. Peter Lehmann’s 1981 Shiraz Barossa Valley was distinctly minty but drying out. It needs to be drunk now before it completely shrivels up.

Mint was also recognised in the 1984 Saltram Mamre Brook Cabernet Shiraz Barossa. Like the Lehmann, the fruit was barren, though a bit of haggard tannin was hanging on for life. Glaetzer liked it, calling it a “standout… It’s pure fruit, no oak”.

Five wines from the 1990s were presented. Henschke’s 1991 Mount Edelstone Shiraz was very representative of its Eden Valley origins, according to Gant. Again, the Barossa mint was there but leathery aromas gradually engulfed it. I didn’t mind the brett because the texture was so good – smudged tannins and twitchy acidity. Drink now to 2015 if you are broadminded about its flavours.

St Hallett Old Block Shiraz 1992 was a good wine – earthy flavours, puckish acidity, and a finish that glowed like a fireplace. From the same vintage, Elderton Estate Shiraz Barossa Valley was made in the epic style, all rich fruit and new oak. Gant called it “a classic of its time.”

The pulsating acidity of the 1996 Rockford Basket Press Shiraz Barossa Valley was very distinctive. Its dark, earthy flavours were not dissimilar to those of the Elderton, though the tannins presented a soft landing rather than a bump.

Having had so many terrific wines over the years from Charles Melton (and enjoyed his company at his cellar door), the Nine Popes Barossa Valley 1999 was disappointing, with odd plasticine smells. It must have been a poor bottle.

From the noughties, Ben Glaetzer’s 2005 Amon-Ra Shiraz Barossa Valley had so much rich, sweet fruit that it almost coagulated. However, it was not at all overcooked and finished as boldly and emphatically as an exclamation mark. Matt Gant’s single vineyard 2008 First Drop Fat of the Land Greenock Shiraz Barossa Valley had engagingly bright fruit and acidity.

The tasting concluded with two masterpieces. The flame-coloured and green-hued 1959 Saltram Wine Estate Vintage Rare Tawny didn’t have a hair out of place. As smooth as a river stone, its intensity went through all the way to its sunshine finish – warm and joyous. Nobody knows – or cares – what grapes it was made from.

From the era when the Barossa made fortified rather than table wines, the 1947 Jacob’s Creek Barossa Tawny was made in the first year of the Barossa Vintage Festival. Green-hued like the Saltram, it had a finish as triumphant as England’s win at Sydney in January.

Summing up the wines and how they had been made, Gant commented, “Everything old is new again… We’ve never made more intelligent or sensitive wines as now.” In the Barossa, then, it’s back to the future.

 

 

 

 

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“A piddle of Purbricks”: Tahbilk 1965-2009

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To commemorate the 150th anniversary of Tahbilk, tastings were held across Europe in May 2010. Alister Purbrick, CEO and chief winemaker at Tahbilk, presented a tasting in London of 43 wines, spanning the vintages from 2009 to 1965.

Alister’s grandfather Eric Purbrick began working at Tahbilk in 1931 aged 28; he presided over 55 vintages. Three generations of Purbricks worked together for the first time in 1978, when Alister started at the age of 24.

Having wanted to push Tahbilk’s wines towards a more modern style, Alister was asked by Eric after tasting the 1962 Special Bin, “Well, old boy, if you think it’s so good, why do you want to change our reds?” Alister conceded the point. The wines would continue to be aged in big, old oak barrels with a bit of new oak seasoning.

Some innovations were achieved, though. For the 1979 vintage new equipment was installed and the 1860 Vines Shiraz was bottled as a single vineyard wine for the first time.

Despite his old school approach to winemaking, Eric was ahead of his time in using varietal names on Tahbilk labels, which were introduced in 1965. He used to tell audiences, “We don’t make clarets and Burgundies, Hocks and Chablis, but we do make excellent light and heavy red dries and full bodied whites.”

In the first Tahbilk newsletter, published in April 1971, Eric wrote, “I have found that Tahbilk Marsanne does improve after several years in bottle. I recently tasted a 1965 which showed excellent bottle age with a full bouquet and with that, what I call, Marsanne ‘flinty’ finish.”

The oldest example here was the 1973, which still had a couple of year’s life in it. The 1979 had the characteristic honeysuckle flavour of aged Marsanne, or at least of Tahbilk’s Marsanne. The ’82 was creaking but the ’92 was lovely, retaining enough acidity to keep it refreshing and lively for at least another five years. The low-yielding, frost-affected 2007 vintage was brisker than the 2009, which had relatively lower acidity because of the scorching “Black Saturday” on 7 February 2009. For a wine that ages so well, it remains outstanding value for money.

The “1927 Vines” Marsanne comes from a single block of vines planted in 1927 by Alister’s great-grandfather Reginald Purbrick, who had purchased the Tahbilk estate in 1925 with money made from the sale of the Bacchus Marsh Concentrated Milk Company Pty to Nestlé. The price was £44,879/3/0, now equivalent to $32 an acre. Reginald is the only Australian ever to become a Member of Parliament in Britain – though Welsh-born Julia Gillard is even better qualified!

Perhaps not as forthcoming as the basic Marsanne, the inaugural 1998 old vines was more developed and, for that matter, charming than the 1999, 2000, 2001 and 2002.

Tahbilk Shiraz is fruit- rather than oak-driven, with a bit of new oak makeup but not so much as to overwhelm the juicy Shiraz fruit and big, fleshy tannins – the 2006 was a good example of this style. The Eric-inspired winemaking remains largely in place. Open-top vats are used, with no header boards or plunging. Some new French oak is used nowadays but before 1992 older barrels were utilised.

The 1968 Tahbilk Shiraz was senescent, smelling and tasting like old claret from an indifferent vintage. The 1971 still had some verve, though it smelled as though it had been in a damp cellar for a long time. The 1986 and 1998 were similarly styled, with big, fleshy tannins and leathery flavours. The tough 1991 was less appealing.

For a wine of such ancient provenance, the “1860 Vines” Shiraz was pleasingly light on its feet and not at all extracted or cumbersome. The 1996 and 2004 were paragons of what this wine can represent: a middleweight, with some elegance and fleshy but not extracted tannins, supported by tasteful use of oak. It is the only Tahbilk wine listed in the current Langton’s Classification of Australian Wine.

The Tahbilk Bin Series became Reserve in 1985. The Reserve Shiraz was introduced in 1994 as a companion to the Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon and has been labelled as Eric Stevens Purbrick Shiraz since 2002.

The 1971 Bin 57 was brown and oxidised but there was enough fruit in the middle and acidity on the finish to maintain it as an interesting drink. Also made from Shiraz, 1974 Bin 60 conserved some sweetness on the mid-palate but was mostly dried out on the finish.

The Reserve 1996 and 1998 were disappointing, the former perhaps tainted by TCA and the latter already veering towards oxidation, though there was a glimmer of brightness on the finish.

Eric Stevens Purbrick Shiraz 2002 showed more oak influence than the previous Bin and Reserve wines but was very congenial, as always with Tahbilk. Even with its 14% alcohol, the 2004 was charming, elegant and temperate.

The 1965 Cabernet Sauvignon was the oldest wine shown at this tasting, with some of the old cellar smell of the 1971 Shiraz. There was a bit of sweetness on the mid-palate but the finish faded into timeworn dryness.

The toasty 1971 was less immediately engaging than the 1976, which had endured better than some other wines of this age. The 1981 was even browner than the older wines. The smooth and flavoursome palate redeemed the disappointment of the ‘92’s nose. The leafy Cabernet character of the 1998 was much more interesting than the neon-purple, oak-sustained 2006.

In 1952, Eric Purbrick introduced the Reserve Cabernet, which subsequently became a series of Bin wines. The 1968 Bin 51 had a similarly warm and appealing nose to the 1984 Bin 71. There was something unpleasant on the finish of the 1976 Bin 57, alas. The sweet and juicy 1998 was much more appealing than the vaguely oxidised 1992. Similarly styled to the ESP Shiraz, Eric Stevens Purbrick Cabernet 2004 had supple fruit and some oak dryness on the finish.

Eric Purbrick had a rhyme that he would recite to amuse audiences:

You’ve heard of a gaggle of geese,

A flock of sheep,

A herd of cattle,

And even a pride of lions.

Well, I’d like to make a toast to

A piddle of Purbricks.

This 43-bottle “piddle of Purbricks” told much of the history of Tahbilk and, by extension, of the Australian wine industry.

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Project Front Foot Start of Season Report 2014-2015

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Here’s the latest report from my friend Vic Mills about his tremendous work with Project Front Foot, which was conceived in Mumbai’s Dharavi slum in February 2009.

PFF is Kit 4 Kids campaign in two distinct phases: the first to publicise the project and collect cast-off, out-grown and second-hand cricket kit and equipment in the UK; the second to get the kit to Mumbai and then set up and run a series of coaching clinics for the slum children.

The full report can be downloaded here; I reproduce his “Founder’s Message” below.

frontpageFounder’s Message: A project in transition

In late October we started our sixth season at the Indian Gymkhana in King’s Circle: a remarkable achievement. It only seems yesterday that I emailed Chris Way at Reality Gives requesting a meet and a chat about an idea I had. We met at Leopold’s cafe in Colaba. The meeting took less than an hour; the outcome simple: OK, go do it!

Thanks to the efforts of a hard-working band of volunteers in the UK, and generous donations from children, families, clubs, and first-class counties we have taken over two tons of clothing and equipment to Mumbai since the autumn of 2009. In so doing we have kitted-out not only the children of Dharavi, but also donated equipment to fourteen schools, four orphanages, two NGOs, and four children’s foundations involved in cricket, volleyball and football.

The efforts on the ground in Mumbai have been no less industrious. Thanks to the work of Chris Way, Peter Woolcock, and our coaches Bhavana Patil and Harshad Bhojnaik, Project Front Foot has a coaching programme of which it can be rightly proud. Indeed, the current structure is a blueprint for both the current season and the way ahead.

However, through no fault of our own, the goal posts, or in our case the stumps, have been moved. The airlines we have dealt with over the last six years – BA and Jet – have both reduced the amount of free checked bags they are willing to offer.

front_top_rightTo this can be added the recent decision by Reality Gives to reduce their funding to Project Front Foot. They will still cover the wage bill for our coaches and assistants, a generous gesture in itself, but will concentrate the bulk of their funding on child education within Dharavi.

The cornerstone of PFF has always been the recycling of cricket clothing and kit. This, in turn, has given us an identifiable link with Dharavi, the centre of Mumbai’s recyling industry. However, the decision of the airlines, combined with that of Reality, means a rethink on project policy. A policy that needs to take into account the minimal cost of buying kit in India compared to that in the UK.

While still in a position to take several bags of recycled clothing and equipment from the UK to India, the way forward is to buy the bulk of our kit in Mumbai. Reality has a link with a sports goods manufacturer who would be able to supply all our needs at a discounted rate. This change of policy, however, would require more funding than we have been able to secure in recent years.

The UK charity £ is currently stretched to breaking point; the 186,000 registered international and local charities vying for ever-decreasing funding. As things currently stand, Project Front Foot has enough funds to continue for one more season, two at a push. If you can help in any respect, however modest, with our funding needs, then do please get in touch.

Vic Mills

December 2014

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Burgundy 2011: Not a perfect ten – but a good eleven

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Herewith my review of 2011 Burgundy, first published by Meininger’s Wine Business International.

January is a time for new beginnings and fresh starts so it is an appropriate time to taste new releases. Each year the leading UK importers and retailers of Burgundy show their wines to the press, the trade and – increasingly often these days – to private clients. Any plans for a January detox have to be put on hold.

In 2013 there were nearly 30 tastings spread over two weeks in mid-January, sometimes with five tastings in a single day. The tastings were so comprehensive that the leading French critic Michel Bettane came to London because the offerings here are now even more extensive than in Paris.

It was a challenging vintage for growers, though there wasn’t the big freeze of 2009. A pleasant spring began in mid-March, with a relatively early flowering period in the second and third weeks of May that was more or less the same as in 2007.

There were a few storms in May, which led old timers to predict a hot and stormy summer. It rained in June but this didn’t prevent a hosepipe ban when the sun came out again and temperatures reached 40ºC, burning some grapes. Early July was warm and dry too, recalling 1976. But then it rained and the month was much wetter and cooler than expected.

During July and August the weather alternated between sun and rain. Cool temperatures prevailed. In the Côte de Beaune, hail caused some expensive damage to Grand Cru Chardonnay vineyards during July. There was hail in Corton-Charlemagne on 20th May, Rully on 12th July and Gevrey-Chambertin on 23rd July.

The result of these capricious late-summer conditions was an exceptionally early harvest. Waiting for full phenolic ripeness was a gamble that many growers felt was not worth the risk. Some growers started picking in the last days of August – only the sixth time that grapes have been harvested in August but the third time this century, and earlier than for the sun-drenched 2003 vintage. François Labet of Château de la Tour told of how he harvested in Clos de Vougeot on 1st September, the earliest since their records began in 1890. Frédéric Lafarge started picking on 31st August; Patrick Javillier – astonishingly – on 23rd August. “I refuse absolutely to harvest in August”, declared Frédéric Mugnier – so he began on 2nd September.

The greater part of the harvest was during the first and second weeks of September in sunny conditions. From 1st September it did not rain for 75 days. Laurent Ponsot, who generally harvests late, finished on 16th September, which by his standards is very precocious. Did somebody mention climate change?

Early harvests do not always promise a generous crop, though, and the exceptionally low yields of 2010 – down 35-50% overall from 2009 – affected this year’s harvest too. Overall it was 13.7% larger than the 2010 crop and 11.5% smaller than 2009’s. White wine yields were about normal but the reds were particularly affected, with Vosne-Romanée still suffering from the vine-killing frost of December 2009.

Climatically similar to 2007, 2011 is a difficult vintage to generalise. Essentially, good growers made good wine: “Pas de bon vin sans de bons raisins”, as some growers philosophise. But the efforts of lesser vignerons and inferior vineyards sometimes produced unattractive, green wines. Acidity levels were quite low and some reds needed chaptalisation even to reach 12.5% alcohol.

It’s not a vintage that will excite people. Even if it’s better than 2006, 2007 and 2008 it’s not as good as 2009 and 2010. The sales pitch this year was “drinkability”: these are wines for relatively early drinking and can be enjoyed while waiting for the superior ’09s and ’10s to mature.

Jacques Devaugues, who began working at Domaine de l’Arlot only three weeks before the vintage, describes the red wines as “precise, neat wines with crunchy fruit and soft, elegant substance. They are fine, structured wines, with beautifully balanced acidity and which clearly gain depth and density when we come to wines from the old vines.” Labet says, “This is a vintage full of flavours that reminds me of 1985.” Thierry Matrot of Domaine Matrot believes, “The reds are appetising – ‘gourmand’ – with lovely, pure, red fruit aromas.”

The whites are inconsistent. In Chablis it was wetter than in the Côte d’Or. Some excellent wines were produced but the overall standard is nowhere near that of 2010. Vincent Dampt admitted, “This vintage is quite different from 2010. First of all the acidity is much lower than 10’s. The wines I think have less potential for ageing but the good thing is that they are enjoyable young.”

The combination of huge global demand with a succession of small crops means that prices have remained firm. Prices were very high in November 2012 at the Hospices de Beaune, which had its best ever total. Doubtless the presence of the lovely Mrs Sarkozy (whose currently unemployed husband is teetotal) encouraged bidders.

Adam Brett-Smith, managing director of London merchant Corney & Barrow, thinks that the current supply-demand trends of Burgundy are changing the dynamics of the merchant-producer relationship. “The buying role is becoming a selling role,” he believes; “You’re selling (producers) the chance of working with you but they know they could work with dozens of people and by nature they are very conservative.”

Many estates have kept to their 2010 prices; others have raised their demands by 5-8%; and a few have looked at the paucity of 2012 barrels in their cellars and increased by 15-20%. Many estates are retaining stocks of 2011 to give them something to sell next year. With so little wine available prices are bound to go up.

British wine merchants can hold to last year’s prices because the exchange rate when they paid for their wines had improved by 5% or so since October 2011. For US buyers the rate has improved by about 2% over the same period, though there was a spike in the final week of July 2012 when the dollar strengthened by 10%. Eurozone clients do not have the ability to leverage against a weakening currency and must swallow any ex-cellar price rises.

It’s all relative, though. Burgundy 2011 is better than Bordeaux 2011 – and much better value.

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Burgundy 2010

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The second of my previously published Burgundy vintage reports. I can still remember the taste of some of those 2010 Chablis… Wonderful wines.

The release of the new Burgundy vintage into the UK market has become as much a feature of the New Year as wine writers trying not to drink in January. Journalists might want to rest their jaded, post-Christmas palates but selling Burgundy in January and February provides merchants with much needed turnover during an otherwise quiet trading period.

From 2nd to 16th January 2012, there were over 30 tastings in London, with up to five tastings on some days. It was estimated that 2,000 wines were available to sample. The tastings were so comprehensive that the leading French critic Michel Bettane came to London because the offerings here are now even more comprehensive than in Paris.

The 2009 vintage was a year when the climatic conditions prevailed over terroir – the wines tasted of sunshine rather than of soil. By contrast, 2010 is, as Frédéric Mugnier puts it, “a classic Burgundian vintage”. Overall the wines are not as rich as those of 2009 but they are more precise, with pure flavours, brisk acidity, and fine tannins.

It was a challenging year for growers. On 22nd December 2009, shortly after the United Nations Climate Change Conference had been held in Copenhagen, a severe frost hit the Côte de Nuits and temperatures reached -21°C (-5.8°F). Primary buds were decimated. It was the worst frost for years and reminded many people of the 1985 and 1962 growing seasons – which, it turned out, produced exceptional wines.

As spring began the damage became apparent. Vincent Morey described, with some horror, using a power saw on his old Cordon Royat-trained vines in Santenay to cut away the dead wood.

The flowering season was cool and damp, leading to coulure – small, barely formed berries dropping off the vine – and millerandage – small, seedless thick-skinned berries. Both these drastically reduced potential yields.

There was little sunshine until June. The first half of July was very dry and hot. “Août fait le moût” goes the saying but August was dull. The so far joyless weather of 2010 continued into September, with outbreaks of rain causing widespread mildew, oidium and botrytis that further blighted yields.

On 12th September there was a hailstorm – originating from above the Mont de Sène overlooking Santenay – that fell on Chassagne, Meursault and Santenay and caused much damage. Electricity in the air caused nearly ripe grapes to go brown or blue overnight.

The final trial for growers was the heavy rain around Nuits Saint Georges and Vosne-Romanée on 24th September, which interrupted or delayed harvesting.

Jasper Morris MW, Burgundy buyer at London merchant Berry Bros & Rudd and author of Inside Burgundy, called 2010 “a tale of the unexpected, as the wines are far better than the growing season suggested, or indeed than the growers thought at harvest time.” Morris considers the reds “very classical, with much more red fruit than black, and very few green notes.” He describes the whites as, “very aromatic upfront, dense and fleshy in the middle, and with very good acidity behind. Meursault is particularly fine, while further north Chablis is superb”. Indeed, Bettane – not known for hyperbole – declared that 2010 was the greatest ever vintage for Chablis.

Yields were exceptionally low in 2010, down 35–50% overall. UK importer Roy Richards said, “I have not seen cellars so empty of barrels since 2003. For example, Domaine Grivot’s average annual production is of 72,000 bottles. In 2009, it was of 82,000. In 2010, 51,000.” With volumes so low, most producers held their prices. The perplexingly strong euro – as of January 2012 at about the same rate against the dollar as it was in January 2009 – continues to make the wines relatively expensive.

The much-hyped Chinese thirst for Burgundy is, for the time being at least, an urban legend. Record auction prices for Domaine de la Romanée-Conti do not help other growers sell futures. Marc Dupin of Louis Jadot admitted, “We sell in a year in China what we sell in a week in Africa”.

This surprisingly good vintage is best summarized by Guillaume d’Angerville: “The wines are crisp, pure, straightforward and persistent, with a very fluid finish. Not enough of it, though!”

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