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Wednesday, 26 November 2014

Scoring Points, Tellin' Stories‏

Most people think paying anything more than £6 a bottle is mad. Most of the industry think anything under £6 is shit. So that’s what we are selling. Shit.
 
- John Hegarty, Founder BBH
 
I regularly hear fellow wine writers bemoan that " we need to do more to simplify wine for the consumer" in a sort of self-chastising refrain.
 
Who is "the consumer" here? In the words of David Ogilvy, the consumer is not a moron, she's your wife.
 
Another adman with an opinion on selling wine is John Hegarty who advised the industry to "lose the mystery but keep the magic".
 
An excess of simplification
 
Look around and there is actually no shortage of ostensibly helpful simplification that is in practice anything but: Grands / Premiers / Bourgeois Crus; local classifications - some once and forever, others revised periodically; AoC, IGP, DOC and DOCG; declared vintages, reserva, old vines.
 
There is not so much a shortage of helpful simplification as a screaming excess of it.
 
What is needed to cut through this haze of obfuscation is a global common standard - a benchmark or currency for wine quality.
 
There are, of course, competitions which award medals and trophies to wines, but the market for these is self-selecting, so they are inherently limited.
 
And, of course, there are different competitions with different Chairmen, judges, focus and motives.
 
The least worst option
 
The nearest we have to a global standard for wine quality assessment is the points system - be it on the 100-point, 20-point or any other scale.
 
Used properly, a sensible points system has the potential to make wine assessment completely transparent to even the most uninitiated - so, you're saying a 17-pointer is better than a 15-pointer? Duh!
 
This if course leaves unanswered the question of which wine is the better value or the one I'll actually prefer, but that's an entirely separate matter.
 
Just as an arthouse film can have the critics raving but show only to a limited audience whilst a mindless summer blockbuster sequel breaks box office records, so there is no guarantee the average consumer (who, remember is spousal, not moronic) will prefer a more highly-rated wine.
 
Tellin' stories
 
Telling stories is for me the funnest part of writing about wine - the people, the struggles, the drama; this is what writing is all about.
 
But an article with just my opinions and recommendations is subjective, non-comparable and non-scalable; it is an old-fashioned, cottage-industry approach to wine reviewing. It helps raise general awareness, but it does not aid broader, more systematic analysis.
 
The problem with wine is that one bottle looks pretty much the same as another on the shelf, so the temptation, if you can't recall a review that sounded interesting, must be just to pick whatever's on special offer.
 
Choice architecture
 
One retailer that has really nailed the issue of helping consumers decide which wines to buy is Naked whose Choice Architecture is second to none; but the system is not universal - it only works for what Naked happens to sell and the ratings are driven by Naked's self-selected customer base.
 
Meaning that if you are the kind of person who likes the same sorts of wines as Naked's customer base, you'll like Naked's wines.
 
Scoring points - (Big) Data, Analytics and Stories
 
So, if we - wine writers, in general - really believe in simplifying wine for consumers, it behoves us to express as clearly, transparently and comparably as possible our assessment of a wine's quality.
 
That means giving it a points-based score, just as film and restaurant critics do in the free newspaper I read on my commute back home every evening.
 
To this bald, quantitative assessment we may then add a narrative, long or short, again as is done in my newspaper.
 
But qualitative data cannot readily be compared and if I want to make use of wine assessment on any kind of scale in order to make choices, I need factual statistical data, not qualitative information, such as stories.
 
Stories may inspire, but they do not facilitate analysis and therefore, in isolation, arguably complicate rather than simplify.
 
Wine-writing as story-telling is the Top Gear approach - mostly entertainment with some factual basis.
 
Where story-telling is at its most insightful is in marrying it to data - thought-leadership based on rigorous analysis of data is the basis of the modern era. It's called Big Data and the world is only just beginning to see the potential of what can be done with it.
 
To tell stories about wine that are not based on data analysis is quaint and Old School - a beguiling, artisan throwback to an age we felt was simpler.
 
Real insight starts with quantitative data, involves analysis and ends with story-telling.
 
Paris match
 
So, I do not believe that point scoring of wine, for all its imperfections, is something to consign to a circle of Hell; rather, when done right, it has the potential to bring some much needed simplification to wine assessment and provide us with the data to tell more factually-robust stories rather than merely entertaining or evangelising.
 
As a final thought, it has been much argued over in the 30+ years since it took place, but the judgement of Paris showed the true value of tasting and scoring wines utterly objectively and out of all context, based only on what is in the glass.

Saturday, 22 November 2014

On Gentlemen Amateurs and Professionals‏

Jamie Goode's first article for Tim Atkin's site is essentially a hand-wringing pean to the cult of the (Romantic) Gentleman Amateur in wine-writing against a perceived rising tide of (Analytical) Professional Critics.
 
(Romantic) Gentlemen Amateurs, in the British / Old World tradition, think broadly and tell stories - about wines, wine-makers and regions. They are caught up in the mystique of wine - perhaps even a little in the mystery.
 
By contrast, (Analytical) Professional Critics take a narrowly clinical, traditionally transatlantic / New World approach, eschewing visits to wineries and dinners with producers to concentrate solely on what is in the glass and to allocate to it an utterly objective score. In theory, if not actually in pactice.

Whether paid or unpaid, the Romantic Gentleman Amateur's mindset is that of a soulful artist whereas the Analytical Professional Critic is clinically detached from the subject matter.

The Romantic Writer sees a dinner with the winemaker as an opportunity to discuss the vision and develop a better understanding of the wines; the Critic believes that you can only judge what is in the glass and avoids any invitation that might even hint at a compromise of independence.
 
Both approaches are valid and there is clearly a market for both - some people want to buy into the Romance of wine, to hear the stories that go into the glass.
 
Others are less sentimental and seek an objective, clinically reliable, measurable assessment of which wines they should buy and which to avoid.
 
Neither is correct to the exclusion of the other - it's that old chestnut of horses for courses.
 
I know which type of person I'd rather have round for dinner - and also which person I'd rather do business with.
 
Jamie's article misses the point in several areas, I feel:
 
- it posits the Romantic subjective, contextual writer / Analytical distanced, objective approach to wine assessment as a false conflict; there is no conflict, just two different, but equally valid, approaches
 
- he damns the points-based system as fundamentally flawed on the basis of grade inflation, rather ignoring the fact that subjective wine writers can equally wax overly lyrical about undeserving examples
 
- there is an unhelpful, somewhat sneering attitude towards the points-based approach; at the same time, there is a self-righteousness about the cult of the Gentleman Amateur that I find rather unconvincing
 
The article also fails to consider a middle way of telling stories about wine, but also assessing them objectively.
 
Interestingly, the MW's blind tasting exam forces its students to focus solely on what is in the glass - it is, I believe, a good discipline to learn and one I try to apply when assessing wines myself.
 
But I also like the stories, the human side of wine, its Romance and an understanding of what the winery is looking to achieve.
 
To my mind, Jancis Robinson (an MW) is the person who best embodies this approach - read one of her FT Weekend articles and there's usually a narrative followed by points-based recommendations.
 
So I see no conflict - rather, just a false provocation which in any event is somewhat self-serving; the market will decide which types of assessment it wants and the ones who succeed will be those who best provide the consumers of wine commentary and analysis with what they are looking for.

And no amount of Canute-like hand-wringing will change that.

Other related articles

Friday, 21 November 2014

Not Just For Summer Picnics - Provence Rosé

Provence wine dinner at Hakkasan
 
Provence rosé is a wine defined by its production method - much like sherry, port or Madeira.
 
It is also, like Champagne, an occasion wine - suited to summer picnics and lazy Sunday afternoons in the garden.
 
If it is not as unfashionable as sherry and Madeira, nor does it quite command the price premiums of Champagne, let alone of pink fizz.
 
And yet there is no problem selling it; only 17% is exported and Britain is the fourth-placed export market (after the US, Canada and Belgium, it seems).
 
But the UK is on a rosé roll - with sales up 70% year-on year, it seems we are finding more occasions to drink pink.
 
To demonstrate that roses have a purpose outside of summer picnics, the CIVP organised a Provence rosé tasting dinner. With Chinese food. Indoors. In winter.
 
Six wines were paired to a buffet of dim sum, fish, chicken, beef and vegetable dishes.
 
If there was a common stylistic genus - fresh, elegant pinks - there were also nuanced differences between all the individual wines that comes partly from wine-making and partly from terroir.
 
Provence has three AOC regions, 15 permitted grape varieties and requires all wines to be a blend of at least two from the five major varieties.
 
Elevation is also a factor - low-lying grapes near the coast are picked in late August, whilst higher-altitude grapes do not come in for another two months.
 
As we sampled the wines over dinner, my tasting notes are correspondingly brief - all are 2013 vintage; a good year generally.
 
Domaine de Grand Cros, Cotes de Provence (Noel Young, £11.99) Grenache, Cinsault, Semillon and Rolle; pleasant all-rounder
 
Mirabeau, Cotes de Provence (Waitrose, £8.99) Grenache, Syrah, Cinsault; more maceration gives some fruity bubblegum aromas - needs food to come into its own, but works well
 
L'Oratoir de St Andrieu, Coteaux Varois de Provence (Red Squirrel Wine £10.99) Grenache, Syrah, Cinsault, Rolle, CS; crisp precise, linear and mineral

Secret de Leoube, Cotes de Provence (Daylesford Organic, £20) Grenache, Cinsault, CS; very full bodied and textured - organic, old vines, with some creaminess from malolactic fermentation

Domaine Houchart, Cotes de Provence St Victoire (The Wine Society, £8.50) Grenache, Syrah, Cinsault and Mourvedre; smokey, mineral, precise and powerful with some lees aging

Chateau Vignelaure, Coteaux d' Aix en Provence (James Nicholson, £14.95) Grenache, Syrah, CS; limpid & precise; long, with good underpinnings, some leesiness and the merest hint of oak

Wednesday, 19 November 2014

Wine of The Month: Three Christmas Languedoc Wines

Three Languedoc wines for Christmas
 
Languedoc wines make excellent Christmas drinking - big, spicy, food-friendly reds that match well with a roast dinner and all the trimmings.
 
Christmas is not a time to be taking risks; with so many people around the table, you need some serious crowd-pleasers that will keep everyone happy.
 
Domaine de Fontsèque 2012, Corbières (£11, M&S) a southern GSM+C blend of southern varieties, ripe dark fruits, freshness and a lick of toasty oak. Warming, hearty and spicy.

Château de Pennautier 2013 Cabardès (£7.95 The Wine Society, also at Majestic and Berry's) Another blend of generally southern French varieties, this wine is full of cassis, dark fruits, Christmas spice and even a touch of spruce pine.

It is substantial and warming, cut through with freshness and a slightly earthy character that certainly needs food.

Muscat de Saint Jean de Minervois, Vin Doux Naturel (£6.30, half-bottle, Tanners) roasted peaches and apricots, smothered in heather honey and dusted with sweet spice; rich and deliciously sweet, but also fresh and precise.

Match the reds with roast turkey with all the trimmings and sauces, whilst the sticky will work with crème brulee, lemon torte with Chantilly cream, or a chicken liver pate starter.

Other related articles
Two Co-op Reds For Christmas
South West France Wines Christmas Masterclass

Friday, 14 November 2014

IWSC, McGuigan and Catena Dinner

A tasting of IWSC winners, Catena and McGuigan wines
 
The outgoing and newly installed Presidents of the IWSC could not, at first acquaintance, be more different; petite Argentinean Laura Catena is glamorous with a mischievous, lilting accent whilst Aussie Neil McGuigan is an effusive, heavy-lifting, salt-of-the earth, rough diamond.
And yet they both have one thing in common - the immigrant's work ethic and desire for constant self-improvement. In Neil's words, you get up every morning and ask yourself how you can do things better.
Is it fair to say that with less of a heritage about established norms, less to lose / more to gain and fewer vins de garde generally, the New World needs and welcomes this attitude more than the Old? Let's say it's probably a helpful oversimplification.
 
We started our evening with a tri-partite tasting of IWSC winners (mostly Golds), then Catena and ad McGuigan wines before a dinner matched with some of Laura's and Neil's flagship wines.
 
I am, in general, a supporter of wine competitions; any wine that has been tasted and assessed by a panel and awarded a sensible medal holds little to fear for the open-minded wine enthusiast. Faced with a wall of unfamiliar wines in a supermarket, I will always pick the medal-winner.
 
And the IWSC judges did not lie - the award-winners were all good.
 
At the entry level, McGuigan's vibrant, zesty whites and spicy Syrah showed precision and nuance, something the Catena wines rather lacked but which works for the US market.
At the top-end, however, it was all reversed: the Aussie reds were like American supercars - big, muscular and substantial, but lacking finesse - whilst those from Argentina were ballerina-esque - lithe, delicate and nuanced yet powerful.
My wine of the night was the Catena Zapata Adrianna 2010 - until the Catena Zapata Nicolas 2004 (below centre, in magnum) was poured.
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Sunday, 9 November 2014

It Was Twenty (Five) Years Ago Today‏

Twenty five years ago today, the Berlin Wall came down. I was six weeks into my first year of Russian Studies and it was a febrile time: protests in Eastern Europe were changing the geopolitical landscape; those in Tienanman Square were resulting in crackdown.
 
At home, we had a housing crash, recession and an embattled leader who had spent too long in power.
 
The world was becoming grungey - and grunge was set to take over the world, even if it didn't yet know it.
 
In the battle for global superiority, the US had resolved to confront the USSR head-on with an arms race to bankrupt the Soviet Union.
 
Their response was Gorbachev - the most pragmatic and charismatic leader we had ever seen from Eastern Europe.
 
As a callow, rebellious and therefore left-sympathising teenager, I was in awe of the way Gorbachev was taking the game to the West and seeming to come out on top; naively, I found the harsh blend of realpolitik, self-righteousness and hard-headed assertiveness of the Thatcher-Reagan Transatlantic Alliance rather distasteful.
 
When state after Eastern European state rejected communism with impunity from Moscow, we rejoiced vicariously, patronisingly.
 
When Ukraine became an independent country, we barely noticed and mostly still referred to it as "the Ukraine", implicitly believing it to be some sort of little Russian province. We knew nothing about the student protests in Kyiv that had led to an independence that ultimately caused the collapse of the Soviet Union.

As Democracy seemed to come to Russia, vodka seemed to get the better of Boris Yeltsin, the hero of the anti-Gorbachyov coup who, standing on a tank, had faced up to the would-be coup plotters.
 
Russia's economy swung from growth to recession on a regular basis against a background of privatisation, crony capitalism and a currency crisis.
 
For my part, I always seemed to just miss out on the party. By the time I'd got my professional qualification, the expats had been recalled from Moscow and there were no plum jobs going there for newly-qualified accountants.
 
Instead, I was sent in to tidy up the hangover party - firstly with a global soft-drinks company who had over-invested as part of a trade war against the incumbent "blue" rival (Pepsi, being the underdog of the two, had been more politically acceptable in Eastern Europe than the brashly American Coke - and more than happy to do a deal).
 
Later, I spent five years at an ad agency's regional office closing down loss-making businesses in peripheral Eastern European countries whose economies never quite made it, then doing deals to add to the marginal businesses we owned in the bigger markets.
 
This included signing up a Russian business in Moscow; firstly a non-equity licensing deal, later an ownership stake and finally full control.
 
I watched with approval as Moscow seemed to become more cosmopolitan and middle class, relying on the age-old principle that an aspirant middle class inevitably demands democracy and the rule of law; in this context, the arrest of Mikhail Khodorkovsky and the exile of various oligarchs seemed like little more than speed bumps in the uneven road to western norms.
 
Like many, I suspect, I did not pay enough attention to the background of arrests, poisonings and invasions that gave the lie to the idea that Russia was turning into a well-behaved country.
 
In early 2014, I watched aghast first at the Russian annexation of Crimea and then at the subsequent hybrid war in eastern Ukraine; the isolated incidents had been one thing - the settling of a few old scores, perhaps the odd excess - but Russia had guaranteed Ukraine's territorial integrity in numerous international treaties in return for the country giving up what was at the time the third largest nuclear arsenal in the world.
 
Moreover, the US and UK had been signatories to those same treaties guaranteeing Ukrainian independence and territorial integrity. It could surely be only a matter of time before actions were taken to put right the wrong.
 
Instead, there was rhetoric, the shuffling of ministerial papers and feet and finally a few sanctions that may or may not prove effective in time; the dependence on cheap Russian gas surely cooled any heads intent on swift, decisive action.
 
And so, 25 years on from the fall of the Berlin Wall, 100 years on from the start of the first world war, on Remembrance Day 2014, I remember the dead, displaced and threatened of Ukraine and hope for a restoration of peace, prosperity and democracy to that much fought-over borderland country where I spent a year of my life and to which I am still bound.

Слава Україні!

Other related articles
It Was Twenty Years Ago Today
Kicking The Kremlin
 

Saturday, 8 November 2014

Château la Tulipe de la Garde, Bordeaux Superieur 2012

Château la Tulipe de la Garde 2012 from Sainsbury's

2012 was not a great vintage in Bordeaux - cool and wet, it was a year where the wines are light early-drinkers and where a gentle hand in the cellar was needed.

This Tulipe de la Garde, a Bordeaux Superieur, makes a virtue of necessity; from a year in which it was simply not possible to make substantial age-worthy wines, it feels light, fresh and deft with a little pleasantly lingering oak on the finish.

There is good blackberry and cherry fruit, a supple freshness and no rough edges at all - it's a balanced, enjoyable, textbook, easy-drinking old world Merlot.

Match the freshness of this wine with pate, chicken or mushrooms.

The marketing is at least as interesting as the wine itself - Dutch winermaker Ilja Gort, who sports a beret and distinctive facial hair, has his image emblazoned on the cork along with the slogan "Life's too short for bad wine", whilst the back label proudly lists the various awards the wines have won and invites me to subscribe to the chateau's newsletter.

It should come as no surprise, then, to learn that Gort has a background in advertising and seems to have listened carefully to iconic British adman, John Hegarty, on the subject of promoting wine.

£10 from Sainsbury's (reduced to £7.50 from November 19th until December 31st); provided for review.

For more on Gort, see his YouTube video here.

Other related articles
Tulipe 2009 - a good year
Tulipe 2011 - another difficult year

Andrew Barrow is enthusiastic about Gort's communications skills, Simon Woolf less so.