All That Sparkles: English Wine

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It’s a wet Bank Holiday Monday, so I though I’d reproduce an article on English wine first published by Meininger’s Wine Business International in 2011.

English humour has often travelled well. Monty Python and Benny Hill were exported worldwide to the delight of local audiences. English wine was also considered to be highly amusing. In 2008 it was reported that Prince Charles had converted his Aston Martin to run on wine from a Wiltshire vineyard (in fact, it was bioethanol fuel distilled from surplus wine).

Today, however, there is less joking about English wine – and particularly its sparkling wines. There has been an unofficial Royal seal of approval for English fizz. Chapel Down was allegedly drunk at (or after) the wedding of Prince William and Catharine Middleton. The Queen served Ridgeview Fitzrovia Sparkling Rosé 2004 at the state dinner to honour the visit of President Barack Obama. A vineyard has been planted in Windsor Great Park with Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier. And if all that weren’t enough, Royal approval of English wine was confirmed when the Duchess of Cornwall became President of The United Kingdom Vineyards Association.

Even when the jokes were coming thick and fast, English sparkling wines were winning awards, which have generated much positive PR. “A lot of our sparkling wines, particularly those that have succeeded in blind tasting competitions, have more than proved that for their price they more than match Champagne” says Julia Trustram Eve, Marketing manager of the English Wine Producers association.

Guys and dolls

The modern English wine industry was established by Major-General Sir Guy Salisbury-Jones, who planted a vineyard at Hambledon in Hampshire in the early 1950s, apparently the first commercial vineyard to be planted in England since the Middle Ages. More vineyards and wineries were created through the 1960s and 1970s, typically by retired major generals with little practical experience of viticulture or winemaking.

By the 1980s, though, the industry was increasingly professional and becoming more attractive to outsiders. The Anglophile Americans Stuart and Sandy Moss purchased Nyetimber in 1986. On the advice of the Champenois, they planted Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier vines in 1988. The first commercially available vintage (1992) was released in 1997 and awarded a Gold Medal and the trophy for Best English Wine at the International Wine and Spirit Challenge. “The Nyetimber effect”, as Trustram Eve calls it, was the catalyst for more English sparkling wine to be made from the classic Champagne varieties.

It wasn’t just professionalism that enabled a sparkling wine industry to develop, though. According to Stephen Skelton MW, viticultural consultant to several English wineries, “The weather and climate change has made English sparkling wine possible. The double fermentation of sparkling wine helps acidity but there’s no doubt that we can now ripen Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. Conditions for growing grapes have got better – higher daytime temperatures, warmer nights and longer growing periods have meant higher sugar levels. We’re growing varieties that we could only dream of when the first vineyards were planted post-war. Chardonnay was tried and it just wouldn’t ripen.”

Producing good quality, reasonably priced still wine relies on affordable land and plenty of sunshine, neither of which are in much supply in England. At any rate, English vineyards are closer to Champagne than to Germany, from where so many English vines came. Michael Roberts of Ridgeview says, “Sparkling adds value to the product. We don’t have enough added value in still wine.”

On the spur of the moment

The show-success of English sparkling wines has caught the eye of some noted wine industry dignitaries. Christian Seely, the English-born Managing Director of AXA Millésimes (which owns Château Pichon-Longueville, Château Suduiraut and Quinta do Noval, among others) formed a partnership with former banker Nicholas Coates to make sparkling wine from two vineyards in Hampshire using what they unofficially call “Méthode Britannique”.

When the wife of the distinguished writer Steven Spurrier bought a farm in Dorset in 1987 he “realised there was a lot of chalk in the soil. I asked the Chablis producer Michel Laroche to come and see it and he took some soil samples back to Auxerre and pronounced them fine for Chardonnay. The summer of 1987 was a washout and I forgot about the idea until a few years ago, when it became plain to me that some of the lower part of the farm was perfect for vines.”

Spurrier presented a dossier to Jean-Claude Boisset and family at Vinexpo in 2007. They became interested in a joint venture and suggested planting the best ten hectares of Spurrier’s land with vines from Pépinières Guillaume (vine supplier to Bollinger, Pol Roger, DRC and others). Boisset would then distribute the wines worldwide.

The first 12,500 vines were planted in May 2009, from which the first crop will be harvested this year. So far 20,000 vines have been planted on five hectares, with the remaining five to be completed next year. Ian Edwards at Furleigh Estate will make the wines.

“My inspirations are Pol Roger and Ridgeview”, says Spurrier. “I plan to make a blend of not less than 30% Chardonnay and not more than 70% Pinots and a Blanc de Blancs, probably 2/3 and 1/3. The wines will be as elegant as possible.”

Despite the Spurrier-Boisset partnership, however, only one Champagne producer (Pierson Whitaker) has actually bought a vineyard in England. Michel Chapoutier has expressed interest in making (still) English wines but according to Skelton “a lot of (overseas) people have expressed interest but nobody has actually done it yet.”

Trustram Eve adds, “We’re aware that there’s been interest expressed by one or two Champagne houses. It’s tailed off because of the recession but they want to invest in the future here in the same way that they have invested in other parts of the world. I believe that land here is a tenth of the price of land in Champagne – so it represents good value for money!”

The Price is Right

Spurrier has high ambitions, then, but there still remains the challenge of selling English sparkling wine at a price the same as, or at least close to, that of Champagne. “They seem happy to pay around £25 at the moment for the top English sparkling wines”, comments Spurrier. “I must admit that this surprises me but I think there is more demand than supply at the moment.”

Susanna Forbes of the website says, “Once people have made the effort to get to a winery, they seem to have more of an understanding about size of operation, so they are not too surprised that it’s not two for a tenner. English wine seems to be doing well in positioning itself nearer to Champagne than to Cava or Prosecco.”

Roberts admits, “(In the early days) we didn’t dare put ‘English’ on the label because it was a negative marketing move. But after a wonderful decade of publicity the perception now is that it’s very good value. A typical price still beats a BOGOF, discounted Champagne. Pricewise we’re not really competing with Champagne.”

Skelton comments, “We can produce good sparkling wine from Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. The question is whether it can be done economically, which depends on costs of production and retail prices. At £10 it’s not worth doing. At £30 it makes a lot of money. So somewhere between those two figures you can make money. Purchasing land is obviously a major cost. We don’t have an economy in which you can buy grapes like they do in Champagne. Most producers here have to buy their own land at £6,000-10,000 per acre. But in Champagne it can be any figure you want up to €10 million per hectare. English grapes cost a third to half the price of Champagne grapes. Production costs – fermentation, rémuage, dégorgement, bottling and so on – are not markedly different to Champagne.”

English wine is taxed like any other (imported) wine. “There’s nothing we can do to avoid taxation”, admits Trustram Eve. “We’re not lobbying for it because it’s not something that is going to move. But a £25 bottle of English sparkling wine is more than comparable in quality to a bottle of Grande Marque Champagne at £35-40.”

Cellar doors of perception

The easiest and most profitable way to sell English wine is at the cellar door, as Forbes explains: “Cellar door sales means less takings going to the middle men. With the small production volumes that most wineries deal with, it makes them vital to the English wine industry. Equally importantly, it builds a strong fan base, which is why wineries that don’t really need to open are doing so. Similarly, newer operators who already sell out swiftly and have built a good reputation have ambitious visitor centre plans as part of their winery growth projections. This physical connection is all the more important with the relatively high prices being charged.”

“Profitability hangs on retail prices”, says Skelton. “But volumes are minute and very little wine is sold on the market away from the vineyards. This will increase as the new plantings come into production but who knows what will happen to the price? Is it going to be a substitute purchase for Champagne or will it be an entirely new market?”

According to Trustram Eve. “Our (planted) acreage since 2004 has nearly doubled, most of which has been planting of traditional sparkling wine varieties.” Increased plantings implies increased production but many of these new plantings will not be bottled for several years yet. “We have had some pundits talk about over-production”, she adds, “but we are and will be producing a fraction of what Champagne produces.”

England has successfully exported muffins, cricket, Tony Blair and various members of the Royal Family but is the world ready for English sparkling wine? “Exports are starting and it is a sector that is going to grow”, says Trustram Eve. “Some is exported already to the Far East, to Scandinavia and to America but there’s a lot of potential for new labels coming onto the market.”

According to Michael Roberts, 40 million bottles of Champagne and 60 million bottles of sparkling wine are sold in the UK annually so “we’re trying to find a home for 5 million bottles.” Ridgeview exports to Finland, Norway, Denmark, Holland, Estonia, Switzerland and Ireland. Roberts says, “Yes, we see an overseas market for English sparkling wine. There is less resistance to the word ‘English’ overseas than there is in England. It’s a very valid brand.”

Skelton, however, is less convinced by the need or desire to export: “I don’t see much of a market overseas. We have a massive market so why would you go overseas with all the expenses involved? Would you rather spend two weeks touring America trying to sell English wine or get more visitors to your vineyard and work out a way to increase your price?

Diamonds are forever

With the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee and the London Olympics coming in 2012, hopes are high for English sparkling wine. The industry continues to grow and, through employment, land management and regional tourism, is contributing to the rural economy. Spurrier thinks that the future is “very strong, provided that only Champagne grapes are used and the quality is kept high.”

Ridgeview has trademarked the “MERRET” name for “English Quality Sparkling Wine”. With Nyetimber, Ridgeview is working on defining quality production parameters that English sparkling wine producers will be encouraged to sign up to. It is named after Christopher Merret who, according to the British wine writer Tom Stevenson, wrote of how “gay, brisk and sparkling wine” was being drunk in London more than 30 years before sparkling wine was first made in France and nearly 70 years before the first Champagne house was established.

“It needs more than a generic name to differentiate it from wines not made from Champagne varieties or not made by the Champagne method”, says Roberts. “I want to create a name for when wines have gone through a very stringent process and to encourage people to use the name. It will be a licensed trademark rather than something that has gone through the European Union to become a formal appellation.” He has done this, he says with typical English scepticism towards the EU, “to avoid bureaucracy.”

“Sparkling wine is without doubt the flagship of the English wine industry”, says Skelton. “It opens doors, generates interest and provokes the feel-good factor.” Now all they need to do is win some medals at the Olympics.

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The Wine Forger’s Handbook: Unadulterated Tales

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After the recent publication of my friend and colleague Noah Charney’s The Art of Forgery, I thought that I’d publish an extract from The Wine Forger’s Handbook, which I co-authored with Noah.

Adulteration of wine – adding different or inferior wine to a superior and genuine wine – has a long history. The Roman philosopher Pliny the Elder complained that “genuine, unadulterated wine is not to be had now, not even by the nobility.” He was referring to fraudulent examples of Falernian, the most luxurious wine of Ancient Rome. Then, as now, the most sought-after wines were at most in danger of being reproduced illicitly.

In Medieval London it was illegal for tavern keepers to keep French and Spanish wines together in the same cellar with German wines, an easily circumvented attempt to prevent mixing or substitution. Even high literature preserves a warning against adulterated wine. “The Pardoner’s Tale,” part of Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales, relates:

Now kepe yow fro the white and fro the rede,

And namely, fro the white wyn of Lepe,

That is to selle in fysshstrete, or in Chepe.

This wyn of Spaigne crepeth subtilly

In othere wynes, growynge faste by,

Of which ther ryseth swich fumositee,

That whan a man hath dronken draughtes thre

And weneth that he be at hoom in Chepe,

He is in Spaigne, right at the toune of Lepe,

Nat at the Rochele, ne at Burdeux toun…

Chaucer, who was himself a “messenger” (sometimes described as a “spy”) for King Edward III, knew a thing or two about deception. His father was a London-based vintner, so he knew a thing or two about wine, as well. Chaucer warns that Bordeaux wines are being substituted with less expensive Spanish plonk. Concern that what is on your wine label is not what is inside the bottle is nothing new.

Frederick Accum’s 1820 “Treatise on Adulterations” criticised the adulteration of wines. The wine dealer who “practises this dangerous sophistication, adds the crime of murder to that of fraud, and deliberately scatters the seeds of disease and death among those consumers who contribute to his emolument.” This may sound a little harsh but a brief conversation with a collector who has been defrauded into purchasing fake wine will show that being fooled is taken personally – and the victims are often out for blood.

No one was ever physically harmed by a fake painting (unless it was dropped on their foot), but adulterated or fake wine poses a potential health risk. This is especially the case in China, where food safety regulations are still lax, and where the majority of counterfeit luxury goods originate. In March 2011, the official Xinhua news agency reported, “the quality of food safety supervision and inspection would be a primary task in 2011.” It may be a case of too little too late.

China, it seems, is the main source of large-scale fraudulent wine, as well as other counterfeit luxury goods. A 2008 study of illicit luxury goods entering the United States (estimated at $287 billion per year in illegal profits), found that 85% of all counterfeit luxury goods, from Gucci handbags to fine wines, came out of China. An estimated 750,000 jobs have been lost in luxury goods industries, due to the under-pricing and rapid sales of fake luxury goods cheaply produced in China and now displacing legitimate products for consumers.

In the world of fine wines, there are two main types of fraud. Chaucer mentioned one of them: filling a genuine bottle with an inferior wine, like mixing Bordeaux with less expensive Spanish wine. The second category is logistically easier: label fraud. This involves pouring cheap stuff into a fake bottle with a fake label that imitates the good stuff.

Fraudulent attempts at replicating French classics led to the creation of the Appellation Contrôlée laws, which are intended to protect the producer and consumer. As Cyrus Redding wrote in 1833, “The best test against adulterated wine is a perfect acquaintance with that which is good.” This is easier said than done, however. Particularly for truly rare wines, like anything produced in the 18th century, there are few people who have tasted the real thing and therefore have a point of comparison. When the now-well-known Hardy Rodenstock’s alleged Jefferson Lafites were tasted, no one knew what they should taste like.

One must keep in mind, however, that adulteration is not necessarily fraudulent. In Ancient Greece, for example, wine was often diluted with water. The inferior wines of Galatia were usually cut with pine resin to make them drinkable. Nowadays this is called Retsina – and it’s still undrinkable. Rodenstock is said to have argued that his Jefferson Lafites were topped-up with new wine to increase their value when they were re-corked. This maybe a convenient excuse, but such procedures are not unheard of. One can see how there are many points of confusion that arise in the world of wines, even without intent to defraud. It is therefore a ripe market for criminals to infiltrate.

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Dutch Angles: Lidewij van Wilgen of Mas des Dames

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This profile was first published in Gilbert & Gaillard magazine.

Sitting on the terrace that overlooks her vineyards, it is not difficult to see why Lidewij van Wilgen decided that there was more to life than making PowerPoint presentations.

Weary of the advertising industry, she came to France in 2002 and made her home in an eighteenth century farmhouse near Béziers: “I always loved to drink wine and I heard of this region as the New World of France, so it would be easier to fit in here. And it’s close to the sea – I love sailing.”

A contiguous 14-hectare vineyard that lies in an amphitheatre-shaped valley surrounds the house. “The previous owner knew that as a whole estate it was rare and wanted a lot of money for it”, remembers Lidewij. “An American bought it but then pulled out.”

The buildings and vineyard were in poor shape when she moved in. “It was badly managed over the last 20 years”, she says. “The farmhouse still had sand floors. Even the villagers were upset by it.”

After its purchase by Lidewij, a team from the University of Bordeaux inspected the estate’s terroir thoroughly. One of the technicians ate (sic) some soil and declared that he had tasted something similar at Pétrus. It took “at least four years” to renovate the vineyards, which are now farmed organically: “It’s very easy to be organic here. There is a natural eco-system.”

Lidewij studied for two years at a winemaking school in Béziers. It is not easy for a Dutch woman to be judged by Frenchmen on her tractor-driving skills: “With wine you start at zero, minus ten even, because you’re Dutch and you’re a woman. But it’s healthy in life to let something go and start again.”

She was studying fulltime whilst trying to bring up three young children alone. “In the beginning it was really hard”, she admits. “I would ask a local to plough the vineyards and he would call my ex-husband in Holland to ask if he should do this. I was really alone.”

She makes just the four wines, with the emphasis on clean, pure fruit. She asserts, “If you have clean grapes you don’t need to do much. Our way of winemaking is common sense, really.” Things are kept simple and honest: minimal use of sulphur, pigeage rather than remontage, and no new oak.

The tiny winery “means that I can make the quality of wine that I want to make. You can do everything by hand.” Rather than use agents, she sells direct to merchants and restaurants. About 30,000 bottles are made of Mas des Dames and another 20,000 or so of unlabelled wines for airlines and so on.

Mas des Dames blanc is 100% white Grenache, labelled as Vin de Pays d’Oc because the Coteaux du Languedoc appellation does not permit monovarietal Grenache.

The rosé is made from Grenache, Mourvèdre and Syrah. “I didn’t like rosé before I became a winemaker but I wanted to make one in the south”, Lidewij reveals. “I use really high-quality old vineyards so the wine is expensive to make. I sell it at a cost price.”

The unoaked La Dame is less structured than La Diva, the deep colour of which comes from old, low-yielding Alicante. The two- or three-year old barrels used for La Diva are sourced from Burgundy and Côtes du Rhône.

Unlike many other femmes du vin, Lidewij was not born into wine; instead, she chose it. Mas des Dames’s name comes from Lidewij and her three daughters, who are the most recent in a long line of female owners and residents at this property. Perhaps a winemaking dynasty has been established.

The early days were a struggle but even now “there’s always something, a fire in the vineyard or the pump that doesn’t work.” But Lidewij still relishes her life: “To have 24 acres of the world that are your responsibility is a good feeling.”

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Australians: No good at cricket, good at Chardonnay and Pinot Noir

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Who would ever have guessed that England would regain the Ashes so resoundingly? Not me, especially after the debacle that I witnessed at Lord’s.

Australians clearly have no aptitude for cricket. However, they do have a talent for winemaking. A while ago I went to a Wine Australia tasting seminar in London of “benchmark” Chardonnays and Pinot Noirs. Tom Carson, winemaker at Yabby Lake, Chairman of judges at the National Wine Show in Canberra and presenter of the Landmark Tutorials Pinot Noir class, led the tasting.

The seminar was held to showcase high quality examples of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir and the regional differences between them, as well as the lighter touch of Australian winemaking in recent years.

Ten Aussie Chardonnays and ten Pinot Noirs were tasted blind, mostly from the Melbourne “dress circle” regions of Geelong, Macedon Ranges, Mornington Peninsula, Sunbury and Yarra Valley, and mostly of the challenging 2009 vintage, when bush fires raged across Victoria in February. A couple of ringers from New Zealand and France were sneaked into each flight to ensure that tasters were paying attention.

The first three whites came from Mornington Peninsula. Eldridge Estate’s Chardonnay wasn’t ponderous but nor was it light on its feet. Nonetheless, it was a good drink. The single vineyard Kooyong Faultline was brisker and more mineral but the blistering acidity of Yabby Lake’s Tuerong Chardonnay was too much for me.

I have fond memories of going to Shadowfax on my one and only visit to Geelong in November 2004. Matt Harrap, a Kiwi-born larrikin whose brother Steve I had befriended when I was in New Zealand earlier that year, hosted me. He looks and sounds the part – scruffy, dirty and extremely potty-mouthed. But he knows what he’s doing. The pan-Victorian 2009 Shadowfax Chardonnay was lively up front and then presented a soft landing on the finish.

The Chardonnay ringer was Kumeu River’s Hunting Hill Chardonnay from northwest of Auckland. I don’t think that anybody spotted it – I certainly didn’t – but it did have less of the stone fruit seen in the Mornington wines.

De Bortoli Estate Grown Chardonnay 2008 was monochrome, though it had good depth. Maybe it needs a bit longer. The nicely textured Yering Station Estate Chardonnay was very well made, as one would expect of the Rathbone family’s impeccable portfolio.

Giant Steps’ Chardonnay from the Sexton Vineyard was wearing plenty of new oak makeup, as was the Yabby Lake Block 1 Chardonnay, which had also clearly enjoyed some time with its lees.

The second ringer was Chassagne-Montrachet Premier Cru Les Chenevottes 2009 from Philippe Colin, which was more sullen and brooding than any of the previous wines. Its earnest richness of flavour marked it out as being un-Australian. No sunshine in a bottle here.

By comparison the Oakridge Chardonnay was dazzling. Tom Carson pointed out that wines like this from the Upper Yarra are often fresher and more mineral than wines from the Lower Yarra such as De Bortoli’s. The final Chardonnay was the 2010 from Coldstream Hills, as elegant as always.

The first of the Pinot Noirs was orange-hued like a mature Barolo – or Burgundy. It couldn’t be Australian – could it? But it turned out to be the 2008 Estate Grown Pinot Noir from De Bortoli. It was much fresher than its colour suggested – a good wine.

By Farr’s Tout Pres is a densely-planted (9,000 vines per hectare) and potent take on Aussie Pinot. Herbal rather than fruity, Carson described it as “a pulverising wine, with lots of character in the bottle.”

Coming after two such distinctive wines, the neon-red of the Eldridge Estate Pinot Noir was a shock to the eyes. Its distinctly minty flavours were tasty but far from typical of Pinot Noir. There was also a hint of mint with the Stonier Reserve Pinot Noir – perhaps it is typical of Mornington wines, if not of Stonier’s general style. Mint was also detected in The Moorooduc Pinot Noir.

McCutcheon Vineyard Pinot Noir from Ten Minutes By Tractor wasn’t quite as glossily smooth as the Eldridge Estate but its herbal, chocolaty flavours were very appealing.

The next wine was a bit funky. It must be Burgundy. No… It was Yabby Lake’s Pinot Noir. This had some tannin too, which wasn’t noticeable with the others. After this came something with an austere finish. Burgundy again, surely… It was Yabby Lake’s Block 2 Pinot Noir.

The woody flavours of the eighth red wine were charmless. It improved a bit with aeration but Domaine de l’Arlot’s Vosne-Romanée Premier Cru Les Suchots 2009’s self-conscious hauteur was not for me.

By Farr’s Tout Pres was probably the biggest wine overall but the Felton Road was a sizeable mouthful of Pinot Noir, too. It stood out from the others for its dark rather than red fruit aromas and for its concentrated elegance. The deep ruby of the Kooyong single vineyard Ferrous is not really correct for Pinot.

As with the whites we finished at Coldstream Hills, whose Pinot Noir 2010 was not quite as sweet and juicy as the Moorooduc but still very pleasant. Like the Tout Pres, there was some noticeable grip on the finish.

The overall standard was very high, then, though regional differences were not easy to ascertain. The use of oak with Chardonnay has been reined in and there is less use of malolactic and lees stirring these days, with more natural ferments. Tannins were skilfully managed, though some of the flavours were rather offbeat and distinctly minty for Pinot Noir.

Tom Carson concluded, with a nod towards the greater knowledge and promotion of regionality, “to understand Australian wine you need to place it in the context of where and when it was grown – the terroir, its sense of time and place.” For him, the best Australian wines are “uncluttered by winemaking.” The finest examples in this excellent tasting proved his point.




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Review of “Stealing Rembrandts: The Untold Stories of Notorious Art Heists”

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I’ve been enjoying the recent episodes of the BBC series “Fake or Fortune?“, in which the sleuthing of its presenters always entertains and impresses me. They ought to do something similar with old and rare wines.

Anyway, I here reproduce a review of Anthony M. Amore and Tom Mashberg’s Stealing Rembrandts: The Untold Stories of Notorious Art Heists, first published in the Journal of Art Crime.

Although over the last two decades or so other artists have overwhelmed his once vaunted prices, Rembrandt remains an iconic figure. Certainly, he is well known to thieves who were unable to resist gunning for works stored in galleries with negligible defense against robbery. Rembrandt’s 1632 portrait of Jacob de Gheyn III has the dubious honor of being the “most oft-stolen painting in the world”. As an International Herald Tribune headline once declared (with uncharacteristic wit), “Rembrandt Needed a Night Watchman”.

Authors Amore and Mashberg—the former the head of security at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum and the latter an award-winning investigative reporter—explain how media hype of record prices can attract the attention of thieves. They cite the Goldschmidt sale at Sotheby’s in 1958 as the “triggering event” for high art prices that led to criminal interest in art. Three years later Rembrandt’s Aristotle Contemplating the Bust of Homer became, at $2.3 million, the then most expensive painting ever sold. Doubtless potential raiders noticed this.

The litany of Rembrandt thefts from the 1960s is blamed on “a widespread failure of imagination among owners and caretakers”. Paintings might sometimes be bulky but they rest in galleries “secured by little more than ceiling wires or a few screws.” Even today, “the only physical deterrents come in the form of velvet ropes and guards whose long days of boredom can be read in their slumping body language.”

The Internet has helped art thieves immeasurably. Museums and galleries often publish floor plans and architectural renderings online. On Google Earth anybody can view the roofs, exteriors, and grounds of a public building. A museum packed with so-called “laser” technology is far from impregnable. Lasers need electricity, which is easily cut-off.

Galleries continue to wrestle with the contradictory requirements of accessibility and security. Several layers of protection might shield The Mona Lisa but this is impractical for most other artworks. Thus valuable paintings become sitting ducks. As Denis Ahern, director of safety and security at London’s Tate Galleries, says: “If you want to give public access to original artworks, there will be risk, and there is no real defense against a thief who is willing to kill in order to steal.” Amore and Mashberg’s grim conclusion is that “Effectively, art theft can never be stopped.”

Art theft is, say Amore and Mashberg, “a costly and sordid global racket.” Art crime sometimes has disturbing implications. For example, several heists have been linked to drug trafficking. But some onlookers view art theft as class warfare, with little sympathy available for extremely valuable and “unattainable, inaccessible, even incomprehensible” works that are stolen, especially from a private collection. Amore and Mashberg point out that—paradoxically—works stolen from public galleries, which represent the apotheosis of public sharing, are not at all “liberated”. A valuable work of art stolen from a public space cannot be seen by anybody, rich or poor.

Valuable works of art tend to be so well known that it is impossible to sell them on the open market. The Hollywood notion of the wealthy art collector stealing paintings à la Thomas Crown simply doesn’t exist in reality. During one of several interviews conducted for this book, the infamous New England art thief Myles J. Connor Jr. says, “It’s far too risky when the item is internationally notorious… These people are rich enough to buy art legitimately, anyway.” More often paintings are used as “hostages” to barter for something, whether it is money or a larger political or personal purpose. Rembrandt’s works “are not so much stolen as kidnapped—or ‘art-napped’—with some sort of extortion, reward or ransom in mind.”

The broader themes of art theft are well covered, as are the specific details of several heists, but a few errors have crept in that betray a lack of knowledge of British geography and history. For example, they refer to “Birmingham New Street Station in London”. A quick glance at a map would have prevented this embarrassing error, in which the principal station of Britain’s second city (population 3.5 million) is sited in London. Rembrandt’s Mother Reading is dated as 1630 and, the authors state, “was acquired by Britain’s Earl of Pembroke under the reign of King Henry VIII”—but Charles I was King of England, Scotland and Ireland from 1625 to 1649. Worcester (Massachusetts) is, according to a note, “pronounced WOOS-ter”, which is (to this Worcestershire-born reader) a novel pronunciation. In England or America it is pronounced WUSS-ter. Americanism such as, “although those crimes come with an asterisk” might confuse a non-American reader (at any rate, they confused this English reader).

Stealing Rembrandts has a high moral tone, repeatedly emphasizing that crime doesn’t pay. The haughty message of this book is that “art thieves have been far better at accruing prison time than wealth… Better in the long run to steal the money from the museum’s donations box than its famous works of art.” The authors also note the damage done to artworks by criminals, calling them “knaves with knives”. The clumsy thieves of various paintings in Moscow in 1927 cut various paintings from their frames but, declare Amore and Mashberg, “were not complete vulgarians”—the paintings were recovered four years later, having been sealed and covered in a special composition to protect them from damage.

Perhaps art thieves should consider the fate of the criminals Adriaan Adriaanszoon and Joris Fonteijn, their dissections depicted by Rembrandt in (respectively) The Anatomy Lesson of Dr Tulp and The Anatomy Lesson of Dr Joan Deyman.

Anthony M. Amore and Tom Mashberg

Stealing Rembrandts: The Untold Stories of Notorious Art Heists

Palgrave Macmillan 2011

ISBN 978-0-230-10853-0


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Laying Down The Law: Natasha Law

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I had the pleasure of meeting Natasha Law a few years ago and profiled her for Artists & Illustrators.

Having recently moved in to her south London studio, the decorators’ brushes and paint pots lying around suggested that Natasha Law was doing a bit of DIY renovation. But these are, in fact, the tools of her trade, with which she creates her signature semi-clothed, cropped and fragmented nudes.

IMG_0154Law’s work requires a complex, time-consuming process. She usually starts with modelling sessions in which she photographs and draws her sitters. The resulting line drawings are projected onto aluminium sheets, and she then decides the colour scheme and how to crop the image. Having used board originally, nowadays she applies gloss paint to aluminium, like Gary Hume – “I always loved his work,” she says.

The last and most difficult part of the process starts when she applies the colours onto the aluminium panel. Multiple layers are necessary to produce the bold colours, and each layer requires long hours of drying, sanding and repainting. It doesn’t help that she “keeps having changes of mind about colour…”

Law’s choice of material, as well her subject, evokes the aesthetic of Pop Art. Her flat, bold block colours are reminiscent of Tom Purvis’ posters and Tom Wesselmann’s nudes. Her celebrity clients, connections in the fashion world, and bright artworks recall Andy Warhol. The Factory in Peckham, perhaps? “I wish!” Her drawings are also minimalist in style: “I like the idea of reducing shapes and colours. I think of them as a still-life.” Photography influences her work, and she cites Ryan McGinley, Terry Richardson and Juërgen Teller as favourites.

Big Sister

Born in 1970, Natasha is the older sister of the actor Jude Law. “I don’t fully appreciate how famous he is,” she admits. “It always seemed to help with the press coverage, though the work and shows went on regardless. But I realised that papers had the hook with the ‘Jude Law’s sister’ story in brackets. I can’t knock it, even if it has a risky side, too. We’re linked together and the press might turn against one or the other.”

She studied History at Warwick University, graduating in 1992, and then travelled in India, where she will be holding a show in November with Natasha Kissell, who is also on the books at Eleven Fine Art. She speaks highly of Eleven’s Charlie Phillips: “He’s been in charge of me for five or six years. He takes a backseat and knows how I work, and when to rush me or not. You get to know each other after a while!” Many of her previous New York shows were curated by Blair Clarke, who continues to take US-based commissions on behalf of Natasha.

Having done art at school, “It was shuttered for a bit, but I got back into it in India.” After her travels, Law studied graphic art at Camberwell College of Arts in South London before becoming involved with fashion illustration when she designed a catwalk show invitation for her then-sister-in-law Sadie Frost in 2002: “After graduating, you grab things, and a lot of things evolved without any hard and fast plan…I fell into set building.”

She is old enough (or rather, young enough) to have been part of the “Frieze” or “YBA” generation, but she came to art too late to be part of that zeitgeist. “I did the history degree first, which meant that I was never going to be at art college at the same time as the Britart crowd, but they were definitely that bit older…They seemed a different generation, really. I’m a pretty solitary person anyway – I don’t like groups or movements, so it was far more likely that I’d be painting in isolation… Painting is such an isolated job, isn’t it?”

Lip gloss

Natasha has had a long collaboration with the FrostFrench label, designing everything from prints to show sets. (FrostFrench went bust at the end of July 2008). Lou Lou and Law is a fashion-design partnership with London designer Ann Louise Roswald, which Natasha says is “mooching along!” Roswald says of her partner, “I don’t know how she juggles everything – her three kids, her illustrations, working with me – but somehow she does and she’s a total breath of fresh air with it.”

Having designed book covers for chick lit novels, she says, “I seem to have cornered the market in break-up novels!” She has done cover designs for Penguin and Macmillan, among others: “There’s a security to it, in that you are often working to a set brief.” She calls this illustrative work “my side-income,” and would like “to narrow the divide between illustration and the boldness and the chunkiness of the paintings.”

“Gloss has fulfilled my needs and intentions,” she says. “It’s quite sculptural, with some relief qualities.” By 2010, though, apparently all household paints will be acrylic rather than gloss – “so I need to stock up or start exploring new ideas.”


Natasha Law was born in 1970 and educated at Warwick University and Camberwell College of Arts. She has had sell-out exhibitions in London and New York, and her work appears regularly in The Sunday Times “Style” section. She is married to scriptwriter Finton Ryan, whose credits include the BBC dramas Party Animals and Hustle. A typical gloss on aluminium work by Law costs up to £6,000.

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Georgia on my mind

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With the recent terrible floods in Tbilisi in mind, I am publishing this brief overview of Georgian wine. I really hope that the city recovers quickly and that this beautiful country continues to warmly welcome visitors.

Jean Chardin (1643-1713), who travelled extensively in Eastern Europe and Asia, wrote of Georgia, “There is no country where they drink more or better wine”. Pushkin preferred Georgian wine to Burgundy.

Winemaking is deeply embedded in Georgian culture. Children’s schoolbooks show the grape harvest. The 20-metre high Kartlis Deda, or Mother Georgia, statue in Tbilisi is said to represent the Georgian national character: in her right hand is a sword to greet enemies; in her left hand she holds a bowl of wine to greet friends. Whatever alien life encounters the spacecraft Voyager will be greeted with the traditional Georgian drinking song “Chakrulo”.

Meals are usually drunk with wine, often homemade. The cache is dipped into as and when required – for example, when a thirsty English journalist is visiting. Special occasions are celebrated with a supra (feast) overseen by a tamada (toastmaster).

The Caucasian mountains in Georgia and Armenia harbour what Patrick E. McGovern, author of Ancient Wine: The Search For The Origins of Viticulture, describes as “probably the most ethnically diverse and linguistically rich area in the world.” The Georgian language, with a 33-letter alphabet, dates to the fifth century. The Kartvelian “ywino” is still the spoken word for “wine” in Georgia today. Georgians assert that the word “wine” is derived from “yvino”.

Wine is not just an excuse for bonhomie at dinners and social occasions. It is also representative of Georgia’s adoption of Christianity, as evidenced by the winemaking facilities at Gremi church and Nekresi monastery, among many others. Winemaking here goes back to pre-Christian – that is, Pagan – times, when the cult of Dionysus was followed enthusiastically.

A long history
Early human fossils were uncovered between 1991 and 2005 at Dminisi, a small town in the province of Kvemo Kartli in southeast Georgia. The fossils are about 1.8 million years old, the oldest ever found in Europe. It was here that archaeologists found grape pips dating to the 5th and 6th centuries BC. Traces of cultivated wine were also found on Shulaveri Hill, south of Tbilisi.

According to McGovern, Vitis Vinifera, which accounts for 99% of the world’s table wines, originates from the Taurus, Caucasus and Zagros Mountains. The greatest concentration of wild and domestic grape remains from the Neolithic to the Bronze Age (c. 8,000-3,000 BC) is in Georgia.

Nikolai Vavilov, a Russian botanist, claimed that wine was first made in Transcaucasia, the region that is now Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan. Revaz Ramishvili, an ampelographer at the Georgian Agricultural University, studied wild grapevines in Georgia and believed that the high morphological variability of the wild plant fitted well with Vavilov’s theory that Transcaucasia was the world centre of the domesticated grape.

As McGovern writes, “Transcaucasia stands as a model of how a wine culture can emerge and remain vibrant over centuries and millennia.” He adds cautiously, “Whether it is the ‘home of viniculture’ will require much more research”.

Dry weather and dry wines
Georgia is about the same size as Switzerland. For such a relatively small country, it has an extraordinarily diverse climate and ecology. For example, Transcaucasia has over 6,000 plant species.

The Georgian landscape is dramatic, with rivers, forests and snow-covered mountains. Old churches, scattered like smoke among the foothills of the Caucasian Mountains, represent a more prosperous past. At over 2,000 metres above sea level, Ushguli is claimed as the highest inhabited village in Europe.

Constantly veiled by rain clouds coming in from the Black Sea, western Georgia is wet and humid, with annual rainfall of 4,000 mm. If it is raining in Tbilisi, they say, it is raining in West Georgia. The extreme east, however, is as dry as a desert, with only 100 mm of rain per annum. Georgia has many mesoclimates in which to grow its more than 500 indigenous wine grape varieties.

In Soviet days there were 120,000 hectares of vines but Georgia’s vineyards were cut by 2/3 during Gorbachev’s crackdown on alcohol. Today total plantings are 44,000 hectares.

Kwevri queries
The Travels of Sir John Chardin was published in 1686. In it Chardin describes how wine was made in Georgia: “They hollow the larger trunks of great trees, which they make use of instead of tubs. In these they bruise and squeeze the grapes, and then pour out the juice into great earthen jars, which they bury in their houses, or else hard by… And when the vessel is full, they close it up with a wooden cover, then lay the earth upon it.” Over 300 years later, this is exactly how wine continues to be made in Georgia.

Kwevri are earthen jars in which wine is fermented and stored. In the Georgian National Museum in Tbilisi there is a kwevri that has been dated to 5,000-6,000 BC.

Georgians like to point out that a kwevri is not an amphora, which refers principally to clay vessels in Greece and Italy that were used mainly for storage and always above ground. By contrast, a kwevri is buried underground up to the neck in the marani (wine cellar) to create a simple form of temperature control. (The larger the kwevri, the higher the fermentation temperature.) Kwevri were being used in Georgia long before amphorae were being used in Greece.

Like an amphora, a kwevri is usually made from clay but it is a slightly different, conical shape, which allows the lees to fall to the bottom and makes racking easier. When wine is made everything goes into the kwevri – the grapes with their skins, stalks and everything else. The wax-lined kwevri is used for all the main processes of winemaking – primary fermentation, malolactic fermentation and storage. The wine sometimes stays for up to two years in the kwevri before bottling. When white wine finally emerges, it has the glowing amber colour of maple syrup.

Kwevri was pushed aside in the Soviet push for quantity over quality. “Some of the big wineries that had kwevri used them to store diesel fuel… Kwevri is of huge national identity in Georgia and was a threat to the Soviet regime”, explains John Wurdeman of Pheasant’s Tears winery.

Dissonance and rough edges come naturally to the Georgians. Their polyphonic music is dissonant; their spicy food is piquant; and kwevri wines can be dauntingly tannic.

The state of Georgia
Georgia today is a different place to the one visited by Hugh Johnson in 1987 when he was researching his The Story of Wine. The intelligence services blocked his attempts to access archives. But he still found enough to convince him that Georgia had the most convincing claims to be the cradle of wine.

“Georgian Wine in Jars” is listed by Slow Food as one of its “Presidia” that “comply with production rules that respect tradition and environmental stability.” Kwevri winemaking is a tradition that spans 8,000 years – or 8,000 vintages. As John Wurdeman puts it, “there hasn’t been a year here, through all the invasions and the Soviet years, that wine in kwevri has not been made.”

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“A Piddle of Purbricks”: Tahbilk 1965–2009

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With the Australian Test team in town, I thought I’d revisit an excellent tasting that was held to commemorate the 150th anniversary of Tahbilk, when 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 years’ 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 A$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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Ashes to Ashes: England vs. Australia again…

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With the First Test imminent, I though it would be timely to republish an article that I did for Oxford University Press in anticipation of Australia’s tour to England in 2013.

On 10 July 2013, a potential 50 playing days of Test cricket — ten consecutive Test matches of up to five days each — between England and Australia began. Try explaining to an American how two national teams can play each other for 50 days (or even five days). Or how a match can be ended by “ bad light” in a floodlit stadium. As the distinguished cricket and music writer Neville Cardus wrote, “Where the English language is unspoken there can be no real cricket, which is to say that Americans have never excelled at the game”. Cardus was perhaps unaware that the world’s oldest international sporting rivalry is not England against Australia, which began in 1877, but United States against Canada. A match between these two great cricketing nations was played in Manhattan in 1844. Try explaining that to an Englishman.

For the dedicated follower — people who, like me, have travelled 9,000 miles to watch a match or, if they have to remain at home, stay up all night watching or listening to coverage — England vs. Australia is the ultimate sporting rivalry. The Ashes, as Anglo-Australian bilateral cricket series have been called since 1882, appeal strongly to casual sport fans. For many it’s the only cricket they ever watch. The prestige of The Ashes has always partly been its relative infrequency – each team visits the opposition once every four years.

However, after the ten-match run in 2013–14 Australia will be in England again in 2015. Three series and 15 Tests in only 36 months is perhaps taking for granted the goodwill and spending power of the public and the durability of the players. On 30 July 2013 the draw for the 2015 World Cup was made. The co-hosts Australia will be in the same pool group as England; they will play the opening match of the tournament on 14 February at the MCG.

This year and next year — and the year after that — the players might look at the opposition and think to themselves, “oh no, not you again…” Too much of a good thing? Match receipts suggest not. Tickets that could be purchased upon release for less than £100 were being offered by ticket agencies at up to £1,000. Demand is insatiable because sport is entirely unpredictable. Not even the finest cricketers can control the weather or freak injuries.

This Ashes decathlon is not unprecedented but it is uncommon. The last time England and Australia played ten consecutive Tests against each other was in 1974–75, with six Tests in Australia followed by four in England. The inaugural World Cup was a caesura between the two series.

In 1920–21 there were five Tests in Australia and then five in England. Captained by the hard-nosed and imposing “big ship” Warwick Armstrong, Australia won 5–0 at home, the first time that England had been whitewashed in a five-match Ashes series and not repeated until 2006–7. Five and five, home and away, was also the basis of two consecutive series in 1901–2.

History suggests that England will struggle Down Under this winter; Australia has always won back-to-back series. An England victory in 2013–14 would be an historic first. But form says that England will prevail.

In 43 Tests from 1989 to 2005 Australia won 28 to England’s seven. It’s not that long ago that some people were suggesting that an Ashes series should be of three matches. The Aussies were bored with winning so easily; the Poms were worn down by constant beatings. India and South Africa provided more of a contest for Aussie cricketers and more of a spectacle for supporters.

The sensational 2005 Ashes, when England regained the urn after losing every series since 1989, changed all that. Since then that little urn has been harder fought for than ever. From 2001 to the 2010–11 series 30 Tests were played with 25 results and only five draws. The Ashes have never been more competitive.

England’s captain Alistair Cook and Australia’s Michael Clarke make a fascinating, diametrical contrast: Cook the country boy and Clarke the city boy; the English accumulator and the Australian stroke player. Cook is a cautious leader, more often seeking to avoid losing than pursuing a win at all costs, a reminder of the dour 1960s. Unlike Clarke he inherited a strong, successful team; his task is business as usual. Clarke’s job is to reinvigorate Australian cricket, as Allan Border did in the late ’80s. But some commentators have questioned his aptitude and appetite for the job. In recent years his own playing form has been majestic but the team has continued to struggle.

Cricket is constantly evolving. “Nothing is so fleeting as sporting achievement, and nothing so lasting as the recollection of it,” wrote the historian Greg Dening. England dominates now. In 20 years it might be Australia again. So it goes.

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Project Front Foot End of Season Report 2014-2015

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A message from my friend Vic Mills, who runs the very worthy Project Front Foot, which provides kit, coaching and age group matches for a hundred children from Mumbai’s Dharavi slum during the November to May season.

The PFF End of Season Report can be downloaded here.

“Just a quick note to introduce the PFF End of Season report. More review than report, the document covers our sixth season in Mumbai from December to June along with a series of (I hope) inspirational photographs. Well worth a read when you next get ten minutes over a cup of coffee. Atmospheric too given the temperature hike this week.

On the fundraising front our flagship summer initiative – 50 for Front Foot – is still up and running and will be for the rest of the season. If you would like to contribute, in the process adding your own Half-century Highlight, please click on the following link to our Just Giving site .

With all good wishes

Vic”    DSCN1401

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