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)

(Source: Liv-ex.com)

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 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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