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 website. Like Ricky Ponting, the Yalumba was clearly past its best. The very oxidised and animal nose improved with aeration and the palate hung onto some feisty acidity. But it’s getting thinner rather than smoother.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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





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“A piddle of Purbricks”: Tahbilk 1965-2009

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You’ve heard of a gaggle of geese,

A flock of sheep,

A herd of cattle,

And even a pride of lions.

Well, I’d like to make a toast to

A piddle of Purbricks.

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

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Project Front Foot Start of Season Report 2014-2015

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

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

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

frontpageFounder’s Message: A project in transition

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Vic Mills

December 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Burgundy 2010

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Burgundy 2009

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With the new (2013) Burgundy vintage due to be released into the UK market in January, I thought I’d republish some previous vintage reports. Herewith my overview of the excellent 2009s.

January is a time for new beginnings and fresh starts so it is an appropriate time to taste new releases. Each year the leading UK importers and retailers of Burgundy show their wines to the press, the trade and – increasingly often these days – to private clients. This year (2011) there were nearly 20 tastings spread over two weeks in mid-January, sometimes with five tastings in a single day.

The pre-campaign hype asserted that 2009 would be the latest addition to the Burgundian tradition of fine vintages ending in a “9”: 1999, 1979 (for the whites), 1969, 1949, 1959 and 1929. The weather through 2009 pointed towards a fine vintage. Spring was mild and June, July and August were hot, with occasional downpours that caused fears of mildew, particularly the weekend of July 14th. But there was no mildew and September was sunny and windy. Clive Coates MW, author of The Wines of Burgundy, said, “The weather conditions and the state of the fruit as it was being collected moves me to put 2009 up with 2005 and 1999 as the very best vintage of the last 25 years.”

Overall, the reds are elegant and moreish, with ripe rather than aggressive tannins. The whites are richly flavoured and have the same docile acidity as the reds, which reminded some tasters of 1992. These are wines that will make charming drinking in the short to medium term. Although the richness and generosity of the fruit recalls 2005, the 2009s are unlikely to endure as long as the best ’05s. The reds might turn out to be similar to the 1985s, some of which matured very quickly. Their generous and ripe style, however, is likely to please sommeliers and restaurateurs, who will see a relatively quick return on their investments.

Producers are also happy with the wines. Guillaume d’Angerville of Domaine Marquis d’Angerville thinks, “The 2009 wines are harmonious and complete and they decisively express their Pinot character.” The d’Angerville wines are among the best and are well worth cellaring. As usual, the Volnay Premier Cru Clos des Ducs had superior tannins and length to the other Volnays.

Domaine A & P Villaine’s manager Pierre de Benoist feels, “The 2009s are wines of the sun, with a spectacular texture, racy minerality and plenty of character.” A & P’s Bouzeron 2009, made from Aligoté, was a pleasing discovery and the Mercurey Les Montots has excellent richness and structure for such an unassuming Burgundy village.

The Chablis grower Vincent Dampt likens 2009 to 2006: “It’s a vintage that is similar to 2006 but more concentrated.” His wines were quite plump, though they retained the characteristic green apple flavour of Chablis. The Premier Cru Lys is quite fat but the Côte de Léchet is leaner and finer. Domaine Billaud-Simon’s Chablis Premier Cru Montée de Tonnerre is very clean, with a mineral finish. Domain Jean-Paul Droin’s Montée de Tonnerre is also a good example. In Chablis those who picked early were able to retain acidity in the grapes and make characteristically brisk wines.

Of the negociant bottlings, Louis Jadot’s Côte de Nuits wines show bright, sweet, juicy fruit, sometimes verging on jammy. The Côte de Beaune reds give a bit more to chew on, becoming more structured as the vineyard becomes smaller and the price becomes higher. Of the top-end whites, Jadot’s Bâtard-Montrachet and Chevalier-Montrachet Les Demoiselles Grands Crus were both very good, with splendid length. The Montrachet was already very drinkable, with the 100% new oak barely discernable.

Maison Louis Latour’s wines were satisfactory but Bouchard Père & Fils’s selection was very poor, with too many bitter and extracted wines. Perhaps they will taste better once finished and bottled.

Most people are happy with the quality of the wines, then. But even if the euro has fallen against the dollar, it remains strong against many other currencies, making exports expensive. Johnny Goedhuis, one of the leading retailers of Burgundy in the UK, said, “Prices of the 2009s are realistic. Burgundian growers haven’t gone mad. They are more expensive than the 2008s but not ridiculously so. 2009 may well be the last opportunity to buy well-priced red Burgundies before increasing demand from Hong Kong, Singapore, and Mainland China really affects prices.” Goedhuis noted that prices at the 2010 Hospices de Beaune were up by 15% overall, driven largely by demand from Chinese buyers.

Despite the challenges presented by exchange rates and economic conditions, sales have been terrific. Jasper Morris MW, Burgundy Director at Berry Brothers & Rudd, was very pleased with the campaign: “Two days into our offer and we’ve already had more orders than in ’08, ’07, or ’06. We were one of the few merchants that stayed faithful and supported producers in ’06, ’07, and ’08. That’s paid dividends now.”

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Genuine Fakes: An encounter with a bottle of 1787 Lafite

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In June 2010, while in Hong Kong on business, I was invited to visit a private cellar in the mountainous and densely populated New Territories region.

The cellar was, on the face of it, astonishing, filled with every great vintage of every desirable wine. The owner claimed to have the world’s largest collection of Pétrus, for example. An entire wall of wine racks was filled with Pétrus vintages back to the early 20th century. Without having been able to look very closely, I suspect that a lot of these amazing bottles were a fake or forgery.

Lafite 1787

A genuine fake? Lafite 1787, photographed by Stuart George in 2010

In the entrance to the apartment block, pride of place was given to a glass case containing the oldest, and probably most notorious, bottle in this apparently fabulous collection – a 1787 Lafite, engraved with the initials “Th.J”.

How this bottle ended up in the lobby of a Hong Kong apartment block is a tale of money, hubris and damaged reputations.

This blog post is an amended version of an article first published by Fine Wine International.

Jefferson in Paris

Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826), third President of the United States (1801-1809) and the principal author of the 1776 Declaration of Independence, lived in Paris from 1784 to 1789 as Minister to France. Jefferson was an enthusiastic drinker and bought large quantities of wines from France’s classic regions, particularly Bordeaux.

In 1985, a German wine collector called Hardy Rodenstock – a.k.a Meinhard Görke, a manager and publisher of Schlager music – claimed to have discovered a cellar in Paris that contained several old bottles, including 1784 and 1787 Lafite, some of which were engraved with the initials “Th.J”.

Having been authenticated by Michael Broadbent MW, about the most experienced and honest man in the wine trade (and a hugely enjoyable companion at lunch or dinner to boot), the engraved 1787 Lafite was sold at a London auction on 5 December 1985 for £105,000, a record price for a single bottle of wine that still stands. Other bottles of Jefferson Lafite were subsequently sold, including the one that now resides in Hong Kong.

Rodenstock’s reputation as the source of extraordinary wines became unassailable. His tastings were extraordinary, such as the weeklong, 125-vintage vertical of Château d’Yquem at Munich’s Hotel Königshof in September 1998.

Cinder’s embers

Despite repeated requests from Broadbent, Rodenstock never provided anything but vague stories about cellars in Paris and Venezuela. He would not even disclose how many bottles he had found.

Broadbent contacted Cinder Goodwin, who had spent 15 years editing Jefferson’s Memorandum Books. She could not find any record of wines of the 1787 vintage in Jefferson’s meticulous records. Goodwin also noted that Jefferson initialled his correspondence as “Th:J”, with a colon, whereas the bottles were engraved as “Th.J”. Nonetheless, the sale went ahead.

Other details subsequently emerged. Rodenstock was apparently known among Bordeaux antiques dealers for buying old, empty bottles. It would have taken an eighteenth century engraver about three hours to write “Lafite 1787 Th.J” on a glass bottle – and Jefferson owned hundreds of bottles.

Weird science

The surge in demand for fine wine, particularly in Asia, has motivated fraudsters. To all those fake shoes, clothes and bags can now be added wine.

Like expensive watches, fine wines are relatively inexpensive to make. Their value comes largely from their status as a Veblen good, coveted for their high price. The gulf between production costs and retail costs and between supply and demand can be exploited.

It is relatively easy to fake wine. All one needs are a bottle, a label and some wine, all of which can be readily and inexpensively obtained. Fakes vary in their ingenuity. Some are very crude – with photocopied labels, for example – but others are much more sophisticated.

The traditional, and still most reliable, way of judging if a wine is fake or not is to taste it. But very few people have the experience and ability to declare that a bottle of, say, Pétrus 1921 is the real thing. Even then, bottles vary tremendously according to storage conditions. And by opening a bottle the evidence is destroyed.

There is no way to date old wine scientifically. An old bottle cannot be x-rayed like an old painting. Some of Rodenstock’s bottles have been subjected to radioisotope analysis, which measures radiation levels. These tests showed that the wine is definitely older than the atomic bomb explosions of the 1940s. But that certainly does not prove that it was made in 1787.

French Fryes

The American collector Russel Frye has established Wine Authentication Services (“The war on counterfeiting starts here”). Frye lists ten wines as those “heard or read about most often or found to be most publicized”: Cheval Blanc 1921 and 1947; Lafite 1787 Thomas Jefferson (single bottle format) and Lafite 1870; Lafleur 1947 and 1950; Latour à Pomerol 1961; Margaux 1900; and Pétrus 1921 and 1947.

In 2006, Frye sued a California wine merchant for selling him counterfeit wines that were allegedly from Rodenstock. The case was settled out of court in February 2008.

Broadbent successfully sued Random House, the UK publisher of The Billionaire’s Vinegar, in October 2009. As Broadbent’s solicitor put it, “The book made allegations which suggested that Mr Broadbent had behaved in an unprofessional manner in the way in which he had auctioned some of these bottles and that his relationship and dealings with Hardy Rodenstock, who discovered the original collection, was suspected of being improper.” The book is no longer available in the UK.

It is nearly 30 years since Rodenstock bestrode the fine wine world like a colossus but the litigation goes on. Probably we will never know the truth about that bottle of Lafite 1787 – but my close encounter with that bottle, and my photograph of it, suggest that it’s not quite what it claims to be.


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Applications now open for Postgraduate Certificate Program in Art Crime and Cultural Heritage Protection

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My friend and colleague Noah Charney, with whom I co-authored The Wine Forger’s Handbook, has just announced dates for his 2015 Postgraduate Certificate Program in Art Crime and Cultural Heritage Protection.

A copy of the Prospectus can be downloaded here.

The early application period for the 2015 Postgraduate Certificate Program in Art Crime and Cultural Heritage Protection is open through November 15, 2014.

The Association for Research into Crimes against Art (ARCA) 2014 Postgraduate Certificate Program in International Art Crime and Cultural Heritage Protection program will be held from May 29 through August 15, 2014 in the heart of Umbria in Amelia, Italy.

In its seventh year, this academically intensive ten week program provides in-depth, postgraduate level instruction in a wide variety of theoretical and practical elements related to art and heritage crime. By examining art crime’s interconnected world, students experience an integrated curriculum in an interactive, participatory setting. The programs’ courses include comprehensive multidisciplinary lectures, class discussions and presentations as well as field classes, which serve as the backdrop for exploring art crime, its nature, and impact.

Each course associated with the program has been selected to underscore the value of, and necessity for, a longitudinal multidisciplinary approach to the study of this type of criminal behavior and enterprise.

This program has been designed to expose participants to an integrated curriculum occurring in a highly interactive, participatory, student-centered setting. Instructional modules include both lectures and “hands-on” learning in the form of case studies, presentations, in situ field classes and group discussions. At the end of the program, participants will have a solid mastery of a broad array of concepts pertaining to cultural property protection, preservation, conservation, and security.

Students explore such topics as:

art crime and its history
art and heritage law
art crime in war
the art trade
art insurance
museum security
law enforcement methods
archaeological looting and policy
heritage looting
art forgery


This interdisciplinary program offers substantive study for post-graduate students of criminology, law, security studies, sociology, art history, archaeology, and history as well as art police and security professionals, lawyers, insurers, curators, conservators, members of the art trade.

Important Dates

November 15, 2014 – Early Application Deadline
January 01, 2015 – General Application Deadline
February 01, 2014 – Late Application Deadline
April 2015 – Advance Reading Assigned
May 29, 2015 – Students Arrive in Italy
May 30031, 2015 – Program Orientation
June 1, 2015 – Classes Begin
August 7, 2015 – Classes End
August 8-15, 2015 – Students Housing Check-out **
Nov. 15, 2015 -Thesis Submission Deadline

**Some students stay a few days to one week longer to participate in the August Palio dei Colombi, Notte Bianca and Ferragosto festivities.

For questions about programming, costs, and census availability, please write to us for a complete prospectus and application at:


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Portholes: Tawny and Colheita Ports back to 1937

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As the autumn sets in, I start to get a taste for Port. This article was first published by Fine Wine International and others in 2010.

At Vila Nova de Gaia, on the south side of the Douro at Porto, the river flows under the Ponte de Dom Luis towards the Atlantic, 550 miles from its source in northern Spain. Dazzling light and ferocious heat bounces off white stones. Other than access to the river (and the lower taxes that brought Port producers here in the first place) it seems an unlikely place to make and store wines.

IMG_0001Tasting rooms here usually have huge plate glass windows to allow visitors to enjoy the sights and sounds of the riverfront. Although there are always several rabelos (wooden boats) parked on the river outside the Port lodges, much of the romantic imagery associated with Port has gone. Nowadays wines are moved to Porto by truck rather than these rabelos; machines rather than feet crush grapes.

Because of the river, cellars are always above ground, typically with wooden ceilings and stone floors. In Calém’s cellar and museum there are marks to indicate where floods have reached. In 1909, for example, the Douro reached five metres above its usual level.


In July 2010 I visited Vila Nova de Gaia and tasted Tawny and Colheita wines from the Sogevinus group, owned by the Spanish financial company Caixanova, whose wine holdings comprise Barros, Burmester, Calém, Gilberts and Kopke.

Good quality grapes from A- or B-grade vineyards in the Cima Corgo or Douro Superior go into Tawny Ports. After the decision has been made to create a Vintage Port or Single Quinta wine, what is left can become a Tawny.

Tawny is usually aged in large barrels called pipes, historically between 580 and 630 litres (550 litres in the Douro) but in practice as much as 60,000 litres. Calém has some 100-year old barrels that are occasionally renovated with new wood but the original frames are always retained. These elderly containers are sealed with wax to prevent and cure leaks.

The age cited on the label of a Tawny Port is merely an approximation. These wines are complex blends of older wines and younger wines, like a family gathering. Blended non-vintage wines such as these, for which consistency of style and flavour is essential, depend on the winemaker’s skill and judgement. House styles can be detected: Calém is elegant; Barros and Kopke more structured; and the Burmester Colheitas retain a rustic edge that age cannot wither.

Careful stewardship is needed to ensure that a wine that spends 50 or more years in a cask is in good condition when it is bottled. Like a young child, a Tawny Port requires constant attention. They need to be racked at least once a year; more frequent racking means more oxidation. Firm acidity is needed to endure all that time in wood.

Father Time

A Colheita is a wine from a single year that has been aged in wood for at least seven years – essentially a vintage-dated Tawny. But most Colheitas are aged for much longer than this.

IMG_0008In his novel Todos os Nomes (All The Names), the Nobel Prize-winner José Saramago wrote, “even though the clock would like to convince us otherwise, time is not the same for everyone.” Whereas Tawnies are largely a matter of nurture, vintage-dated Ports such as Colheita depend largely on nature and the conditions of the year in which the grapes were harvested.

Like Tawnies, Colheitas do not evolve in the bottle. However, different years of bottling mean different wines. Kopke has Colheitas back to 1937 that are bottled to order (or for the visit of English wine writers). The wines that I tasted in July 2010 will taste differently if I am fortunate enough to revisit again in a few years’ time.

The economics of aged Ports are challenging. It means locked-up capital, loss of wine by evaporation and high insurance charges. A Port Shipper has to make wine that will not be bottled or sold for perhaps 50 years or more. A modern bank manager would be appalled by such a business plan.

The modern taste is for lighter, fresher wines and food. Considered passé by many drinkers, fortified wines are not drunk often these days. They need to be special. It is sad that such marvellous wines should have to justify themselves but the best Tawnies and Colheitas are very special indeed. They deserve to be preserved and enjoyed.


The following wines were tasted at Vila Nova de Gaia with Fernando Oliveira, Master Blender for Barros, and Cátia Moura, Communication Manager for Sogevinus.

IMG_0007Barros 10-year old White Port (cask sample)

Same winemaking as for the red wine. Colour as per a red tawny, suggesting profound oxidation. Dried fruits, a bit raisiny. Rich and warming. Hard to tell from a red 10-year old Tawny Port!

Kopke 20-year old White Port (cask sample)

Established in 1638, Kopke is the oldest Port brand. Its wines are sold in distinctive hand-stencilled bottles.

Kopke is pioneering 20-, 30- and 40-year old white Tawny Ports, though two or three other Port houses make 10-year old white.

Colour as before. Almond aromas and a softer finish than the 10-year old, with less fire on the finish.

Kopke 30-year old White Port (cask sample)

Colour as before but more wood is apparent on the finish. The acidity is much more perky than the 10- and 20-year olds.

Kopke 40-year old White Port (cask sample)

Another step-up in acidity: now it is as taut as a guitar string. Fernando Oliveira explained that oxidation caused water to be lost; consequently the acidity becomes more apparent. The finish is mellow, with waves of that exulcerating acidity balancing the 100 or so grams per litre of sugar.

Calém Colheita 1989 (cask sample)

Amber tawny, like the sunset over Porto. The nose is soft, evoking oranges and some spice. The acidity and 125 or so grams per litre of sugar are balanced with each other like Leonard Cohen’s bird on the wire. Delicious.

Burmester Colheita 1979 (cask sample)

Deeper colour than the 1989. A softer nose than the 1989 but the palate is rather woody, like that of the Kopke 30-year old. (This is 31 years old!). The texture is suave but the flavours are unappealing, dry, austere and hoarse.

Burmester Colheita 1963 (cask sample)

Back to the sunset colour of the 1989. Some wood flavours again but also honey. Beautifully textured, with cleaving acidity across the palate and on the finish. Sweeter than the others, perhaps. Marvellous length – like the Douro, it goes a long way. Of course 1963 was an outstanding Port vintage.

Burmester Colheita 1955 (cask sample)

Colour as before. Beautiful nose of spices – cinnamon, perhaps. Some wood influence on the palate again but this is not quite as fine as the 1963. Like an out of focus photograph, it remains blurred at the edges

Burmester Colheita 1937 (cask sample)

Pale brown, like the burnt cream of a pastel de nata. Deeper, darker nose, with some spices again. Some spirit on the nose, too. Soft, complex and balanced on the palate. Yum. Jane Fonda was also born in 1937 – I think that the Burmester has aged better.




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Auction Spectators: Asta del Barolo

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This account of a wet afternoon at the Asta del Barolo 2011 was first published by Langton’s. I doubt that things have changed much in the Langhe since this visit…

It rained heavily in Barolo on 13th March but over 200 guests braved the weather to attend the “XII Edizione” of the “Asta del Barolo” (“Barolo auction”), held in the WineMuseum Castello di Barolo and simulcast to H One Restaurant in Hong Kong and Ristorante Garibaldi in Singapore.

The chief auctioneer was Giancarlo Montaldo, the former President of the Enoteca Regionale del Barbaresco. He was accompanied by three “personalities” (as the Italian writer and blogger Franco Ziliani witheringly referred to them): Federico Quaranta, a food and wine broadcaster; Edoardo Raspelli, the best-known food critic in Italy; and the American wine critic James Suckling – always called “Giacomino” (“Jimmy”) by Ziliani – who has continued to live in Italy since his departure from Wine Spectator.

The Asta is run under the auspices of the “Accademia del Barolo”, an association founded in September 2010 by eleven Barolo producers who, says Ziliani, “have always been very well-treated, I would say with velvet gloves, by the still-influential magazine ­– though much less than in the past – Wine Spectator and its former editor and deux ex machina for Italy, James Suckling.”

The 36-lot auction took three and a half hours to complete. Of course, this being Italy meant that auction rules and conventions were soon abandoned. The PA system was raised to jackhammer volume to counter the chattering Italian voices and the bidding increments were largely ignored.

Lot 36 – “I 150 anni dell’Unità d’Italia”, a 12-bottle collection of Barolo from the 2006 vintage with each bottle signed by its producer to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the unification of Italy – was intended as the final “showpiece” lot of the auction but was actually sold between lots 21 and 22. Suckling took the gavel for this and, although the published estimate was €1,200, started the bidding at €2,000 and eventually sold it for €4,000. Its market value would be approximately €600.

The auction totalled €39,320 against an estimate (or “starting price”) of €15,580. The average lot price was €1,092.22 against an average estimate of €432.78. Room bidders in Barolo paid €16,510 for 15 lots. Hong Kong bought 11 lots for €11,560. Ten lots went to Singapore for a total of €11,250, giving it an average of €1,125 per lot, higher than either Barolo or Hong Kong.

Suckling bid successfully for two lots – lot 5, three magnums of Azelia San Rocco 2001, and lot 27, two bottles each of Paolo Scavino’s Cannubi, Bric del Fiasc and Rocche delle Annunziata of the 2000 vintage, which Suckling called (notoriously, in some people’s opinion), Barolo’s “greatest vintage ever… a year I rate a perfect 100 points”. Suckling generously (or, depending on your point of view, ostentatiously) took the bidding from €500 to €800 in one go when the bidding increment was €50. He paid €1,300 for this lot.

The proceeds of the auction were donated to the Don Bosco Hotel and School at Sihanouk Ville in Cambodia. Brother Roberto Panetto of the Catholic order of The Salesians of Don Bosco formed it in 2006 to help “Cambodia’s youth to find work with dignity in society, and thus to lift them out of poverty with its accompanying threats to a worthwhile and fulfilled existence.”

The auction’s fundraising is very worthy; its wines are good and the food excellent. But its politics are not to everybody’s taste. Ziliani wrote before the auction, “Given the certain entertainment assured by the Raspelli-Quaranta-Suckling trio, this ‘edition’ of the Asta del Barolo can be followed live on large screens positioned in Alba under the porticos of Piazza Savona, where we are certain that there will be the municipal police to contain the overflowing enthusiasm of the crowds that cannot be admitted to the Falletti Castle in Barolo…”

There were no large screens or police (or Ziliani, for that matter). The Asta del Barolo’s style might not please everybody but it supports a worthy cause and turns ostentatious self-indulgence into moral excellence. And who can argue with that?

“I Vini dell Accademia del Barolo” tasting notes

Eleven wines of the Accademia del Barolo formed lot 36, “I 150 anni dell’Unità d’Italia”. But the lot had 12 bottles: Pio Cesare contributed its “Classico” 2006 to the case but this was not available to taste because the producer is not a member of the Accademia del Barolo… Back to politics again.

The 2006 vintage in the Langhe became controversial when the distinguished winemaker Bruno Giacosa chose not to bottle any Barbaresco or Barolo. Other producers were more positive. On the whole, it is a tough, tannic and – dare one say it – old-fashioned Barolo vintage. The more elegant wines will probably mature into something very worthwhile, if not of the highest class. But those wines that have been smothered in so much new oak that the wine is suffocated by its tannins do not inspire as much confidence.

Azelia Barolo Margheria 2006

A good example of this powerful and tannic Barolo vintage. This has all the necessary components but falls short of greatness. The tannins remain obdurate.

Michele Chiarlo Barolo Cerequio 2006

Darker aromas than the Azelia, with a greater balance between the acidity and tannins. The curtains have not yet opened.

Conterno Fantino Barolo Mosconi 2006

Oak tannins here are piled up like icing on a cake. Very burly and lacking the elegance of Chiarlo.

Damilano Barolo Cannubi 2006

The first wine of the day to show the unmistakeable orange tinge of Barolo. Elegant and taut, needing time to open up.

Poderi Einaudi Barolo nei Cannubi 2006

Not as impenetrable as the Conterno Fantino but this has tannins as dumb as stone.

Gianni Gagliardo Barolo Preve Riserva

Some sweetness on the finish. Pleasant and elegant Nebbiolo fruit.

Franco M. Martinetti Barolo Marasco 2006

Fleshy rather than extracted, with plenty of acidity to counter the imposing tannins. Not quite as elegant as Signor Martinetti, who is always immaculately dressed in a nice suit and brown brogues.

Cordero di Montezemolo Barolo Monfalletto 2006

Rigorously built palate, with the tannins and acidity nicely counterpoised. Some sweetness to the fruit, too.

Podere Rocche dei Manzoni Barolo Vigna Cappella di Santo Stefano 2006

Back to the bumptious style, with the fruit carpet-bombed by oak. Impossibly tough and tannic, with no charm at all.

Paolo Scavino Barolo Bric del Fiasc 2006

Similarly textured to Martinetti – the wine, that is, not the suit – with flesh rather than bone and a bit of fruit sweetness.

Vietti Barolo Castiglione 2006

As dry as sandpaper on the finish but the wood-influenced tannins are relatively well contained.

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