Discovering the Rhône Valley

At the end of a challenging year across France’s wine regions, it’s great to hear that the Rhône valley has had a larger harvest than 2013, and early signs are that the 2014 wines will be ones to watch. One of the Rhône’s most renowned producers, Michel Chapoutier, has remarked that lower temperatures have contributed to the creation of wines that will demonstrate the individual character of the wines within each appellation.

Household names

Rhône valley 2014 vintage will be a good year?

Rhône valley 2014 vintage will be a good year? (source: Wikipedia)

Historically the Rhône has lagged behind Bordeaux and Burgundy in terms of the global popularity of its top wines but as prices have soared in both rival regions, many savvy investors as well as drinkers have turned their attention to the Rhône. Some of the appellations have become household names, widely associated with quality – wines like Châteauneuf-du-Pape can be found in any British wine merchant or even supermarket. Quality is generally high but there is great variation between wines and vintages, with 13 permitted grape varieties within the appellation. Grenache is often the dominant grape in the top wines from Châteauneuf-du-Pape.

Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery

Elsewhere in the Rhône, investment grade wines come from the historic Northern Rhône appellations of Hermitage, Côte-Rôtie, and Saint-Joseph. Some of the world’s finest examples of Syrah-based wines come from these regions. The practice of blending a small amount of white grapes into the wine originates from these regions, and this has been adopted most notably in Australia and California. Some amazing wines can be found from the New World, made in the Rhône style, although they won’t please every palate, in many cases the more showy and high-alcohol style wines that initially emerged have been toned down over the years.

Buying to drink

If you’re buying to drink, great value reds can be found in the Rhône as well as extraordinarily fresh aromatic white wines and rich, honeyed dessert wines. It’s worth diving in at the deep end to see what style you like – Syrah-based reds tend to have a deep, dark, berry flavour and a characteristic hint of white pepper, and they can age majestically. But if Syrah isn’t your style, there is plenty more on offer from the Rhône.

Watch this space

As an investor it’s undoubtedly worth keeping an eye on the region – Robert Parker turned his attention to the Rhône some years ago, demonstrating great passion for the region’s sultry, brooding reds. This inevitably placed the spotlight on the region, but prices have not inflated at the rate of Burgundy and Bordeaux. There are still relative bargains to be found. Producers are optimistic about what 2014 will bring, so we’ll be keeping a close eye on these wines when they are released.

The Future of Wine Futures

Much has been written this year about Bordeaux’s en primeur campaign, and it is unclear whether buying ‘wine futures’ will become a thing of the past. Bordeaux négociants have suffered in the last few years as Chateaux have steadfastly refused to reduce their prices in response to demand. Is it possible that next year’s en primeur campaign could be the last of its kind?

A good deal for negociants

Future of en primeur hangs in the balance (source: Wikipedia)

Future of en primeur hangs in the balance (source: Wikipedia)

The way the system works at the moment, wine is offered for sale based on samples from the barrel offered in the April after the vintage. Historically this has been a good option for negociants to get a good deal on wines that have not been bottled yet. It’s not without risks of course, but in the past it was an exciting way of procuring the top wines before they had been released at a significantly lower price than what was commanded once they were bottled. And of course the price that the negociants pay is significant in terms of how this filters through to the end consumer.

For the last 5-6 years, negociants have shied away from en primeur – it hasn’t offered them a particularly good deal with the Chateaux retaining much of the profits. One weak campaign after another has ensured that the future of en primeur hangs in the balance now.

Resistance to change

Bordeaux is well known for being fairly resistant to change, with very few changes being implemented since the 1855 classification. Recently there have been signs that wines that perform above and beyond their classification are gaining some recognition but contrastingly, the recent declassification of Chateau Pontet-Canet’s 2012 second wine has reminded us that change is rarely embraced.

The time to act is now

Ultimately the future of wine futures lies in the hands of the chateaux owners – weak campaigns with little uptake can only demonstrate to them that prices need to be dropped in order to generate any interest. Pricing needs to be addressed now, since it looks like 2014 is going to be a good vintage, far better than 2013. One more poor campaign could spell the end of en primeur – something that has been historically important and that is completely unique to our industry.

There’s no time like the present – the 2014s are likely to be attractive wines so a drop in price might not even be required, but the Chateaux must realise that an increase could do a lot of damage.

Sending the wine back

Have you ever tasted a wine and felt that it just didn’t taste right? Sometimes wine flaws are fairly obvious, but occasionally you’ll encounter a bottle with a less obvious flaw. Should you keep drinking and see if it improves, or should you ask for a replacement?

Cork taint

Cork taint, can you recognise it?

Cork taint, can you recognise it?

Estimates on the proportion of bottles affected by cork taint vary from around 1 in 7 to 1 in 12. Of course, we can’t be certain – many people that encounter a corked bottle will not recognise it as such, and so rather than asking for a replacement, they will make a mental note that the wine is bad and ensure that they never buy it again. Cork taint is caused by bacteria in the cork, and is characterised by a musty ‘wet wool’ smell. It can be pungent and overpower the wine, or it can be relatively gentle and quite difficult to detect at first. Once the bottle has been opened the corked wine will deteriorate, so a bottle that you are unsure about initially might reveal itself to be tainted after a short period.

Sulphur

If cork taint is best characterised by a ‘wet wool’ taste, sulphur is best characterised as a ‘rotten egg’ smell. A wine with a sulphuric stink might improve on decanting, but if it refuses to lift then you’re going to want a replacement bottle.

Oxidized wine

Imagine uncorking a wine, leaving the bottle open for a week, and then drinking it – it wouldn’t taste very nice, would it? This is what oxidized wines taste like – oxidization happens because the bottle has been poorly sealed and air has crept into the wine. White wines are more susceptible since the tannins in reds play a role in preventing the wine becoming oxidized. It’s actually a more common fault than cork taint so if you can’t detect that ‘wet wool’ characteristic but your wine still doesn’t taste right, it could be an oxidized bottle.

Ask the sommelier

If you’re not enjoying the wine, ask yourself whether the wine has a flaw. If you can’t taste any fruit in the wine, or the fruit is overpowered by off-flavours, something is probably wrong. It’s absolutely fine to return it to your wine merchant (depending on their policy, of course) or if you’re in a restaurant, ask the sommelier to try it and get a replacement if appropriate.

Bordeaux – the AOC Status question

Chateau Pontet-Canet, regularly regarded as one of the wines of Bordeaux that punches above its fifth growth status, suffered a blow recently as the 2012 vintage of its second wine Les Hauts de Pontet-Canet failed to gain AOC Pauillac status. Consequently it will be bottled as ‘Vin de France’.

Chateau Pontet-Canet (source Wikipedia)

Chateau Pontet-Canet (source Wikipedia)

Second wines are made by many prolific Chateaux and are often considered to be wines for the consumer to enjoy while they are waiting for their top wines to mature – embodying the ‘house style’ of the Chateau in a wine that is approachable in its youth. Increasingly second wines of first growth Chateaux like Les Forts de Latour and Carruades de Lafite are being snapped up by the Chinese market.

Thinking outside the amphorae

Pontet –Canet’s owner Alfred Tesseron has expressed great surprise that his wine was rejected by the tasting panel responsible for approving or rejecting AOC status. Wines can be rejected if it is thought that they are not typical of the appellation they represent. A change did occur with Les Hauts de Pontet-Canet in 2012, in that the winery began using amphorae (large clay, gravel and limestone vessels) to age the wine, reducing their use of new oak. This may have contributed to the perception of the wine as not typical of its region.

Appellation rules dictate that when a wine is submitted for AOC Pauillac status is rejected, it cannot be sold under the lesser AOC Bordeaux label, so it is automatically relegated to Vin de France. Early signs suggest that in spite of the initial shock, sales of Les Hauts de Pontet-Canet 2012 will be largely unaffected.

Does status matter?

The fact that sales of Les Hauts de Pontet-Canet are likely to be unaffected raises the question as to how much AOC status matters. Whether it is AOC Pauillac or Vin de France, the wine still bears the name of Chateau Pontet-Canet, an undeniable stamp of quality. Elsewhere in France, many producers have become jaded with having their wines rejected by AOC panels and rather than bother with the expense and inconvenience, they choose to release their wines as Vin de France. This also gives them more freedom to experiment with wines that are perhaps less typical of the region.

Watching with interest

Time will tell how significant the downgrading of Les Hauts de Pontet-Canet will be in Bordeaux’s history – press attention on this story and the pioneering use of amphorae could end up making the wine even more desirable in the marketplace, which undermines the notion that a wine must be typical of its region in order to gain quality status. Watching this story emerge undoubtedly are the owners of Chateau Pichon Baron, having recently launched a new second wine of their own from the same vintage. As the market for second wines continues to grow, there will be plenty of others watching with interest as well.

Cautious optimism for 2014 Bordeaux vintage

It has been a tough year in Bordeaux, and on the back of negative press surrounding the lacklustre en primeur campaign for the 2013s, much sympathy has been felt for growers this year. As July brought unseasonably cold conditions, and August brought extensive rain, it seemed like nothing could salvage 2014.

The Indian summer that saved Bordeaux

Chateau Mouton-Rothschild

Chateau Mouton-Rothschild

But a bright, sunny September has done just that, and far from being a salvage operation, it is starting to look like 2014 could be rather a good vintage. As the Merlot grapes are being picked, it has become apparent that they are in impeccable condition. Very little sorting has been required indicating exceptional quality, and this is a good sign for the Cabernet grapes that will remain on the vines a little longer before they are picked. In 2013, the inconsistency in quality of the grapes required an immense effort to sort them in order to achieve the precision required at this crucial point in the harvest. Chateau Mouton-Rothschild reportedly required almost 700 pickers in one day. Additionally, the quantity of grapes in 2014 is large – which is great news for growers since 2013’s harvest was relatively small. Another small harvest could have caused substantial problems in supplying the market.

Merlot… and then Cabernet

As late as mid-September, the red grapes were still being left on the vines while growers everywhere crossed their fingers that the weather wouldn’t change in order for the grapes to reach the correct level of acidity. It’s a risk of course, and if the weather changes, it could be the case that the Merlot-based wines fare better than the Cabernet-based wines, which has happened in previous years.

The rest of France

Across other parts of France a similar pattern is emerging with Champagne, the Loire Valley and Alsace set to produce more wine than last year in the North, and Beaujolais, Burgundy and Rhone also up on last year’s production. However there is some inconsistency across Burgundy’s appellations due to problematic hail storms during the season affecting some vineyards, and similarly in Languedoc-Roussillon whose production is likely to be less than last year.

There is plenty more finger-crossing to be done before 2014 can be declared a success – but it is a tribute to the exceptional skill of Bordeaux’s winemakers that it now seems very likely that some classic wines will come from this harvest when early signs suggested that it was set to be a disaster. We say, watch this space!

Making wine in a city, a war zone, and a desert

LDN CRU Mixed Dozen

LDN CRU (photo from official site)

Wine writer Jamie Goode recently reported on the first vintage of London Cru, the first ever UK-based ‘urban winery’. You might think a city center is an unusual place for a winery, and you would be right! Unsurprisingly, the grapes are not grown in London, but rather sourced from several well-known European wine-making regions such as Languedoc-Roussillon and Piedmont. However all of the vinification is done in London, and it will be very interesting to taste these wines. London is not the only unlikely place where wine is made though – so today we’re looking at some of the other more unusual locations around the world where wine is made against the odds.

Northern Territory, Australia

You might not expect grapes to grow in the baking heat of the climatic extremes in Australia’s Northern Territory, but there are a small number of vineyards there. Hampered by a short, hot growing season, achieving ripeness is a struggle and consequently fortified wines tend to fare better. Existing largely as a tourist novelty, slightly better examples can be found around Alice Springs where the land is slightly higher and cooler.

Golan Heights

Even as Syrian rebels and government troops exchange fire nearby, the successful Golan Heights Winery continues to cultivate grapes for wine in this Israeli occupied plateau. In spite of the war they continue to grow the business. Golan Heights is not the first winery to attempt ‘business as usual’ in the shadow of a war, many exceptional wines were made in Lebanon during times of civil war including Lebanon’s most famous wine Chateau Musar, whose winery was known to transport grapes across the front line while the war was raging.

China

Not satisfied with snapping up top Bordeaux, China now has its own thriving wine industry. The sheer size of the country means there are plenty of suitable areas for grape growing, although there is a substantial shortage of quality indigenous grapes, making it difficult for Chinese winemakers to impress internationally. But there are one or two award-winning wines starting to emerge, and many winemakers achieving great results with grapes like Merlot, Riesling and Chardonnay.

So, will our wine shops soon have sections designated to Chinese wines, the same as they do for Chilean, New Zealand or South African wines? There’s a long way to go, but ‘watch this space’ is the message here.

How does a wine become a ‘cult’ wine?

A new Napa Valley wine has recently been tipped for ‘cult wine’ status. King of Clubs, a collaborative effort between Robert Mondavi, restauranteur Justin Anthony and entrepreneur Christopher R. King, is likely to follow in the footsteps of wines like Screaming Eagle and those of Harlan Estate and other Napa superstars. But what factors give a wine ‘cult’ status?

A big name doesn’t hurt

Robert Mondavi is one of the world’s most influential winemakers. Other wines that he has been involved with such as Opus One, a collaboration between Mondavi and Baron Philippe de Rothschild, are representative of the Californian blockbusters with which his name is associated. So it’s no surprise that this latest project involving Mondavi is set to be a huge success.

Parker describes your wine as ‘utter perfection’ 

‘cult’ wine BWC wine

how does a wine become a ‘cult’ wine?

It doesn’t hurt to have Robert Parker give your wine 100 points, which was the case when little known boutique Californian winery Screaming Eagle found their Cabernet Sauvignon suddenly in high demand. Parker’s ‘utter perfection’ comment was actually about the 2010 vintage, sending its price per bottle skyrocketing and generating interest in older vintages on the second hand market. Due to small production, tiny allocations, and allegedly a waiting list to get on the waiting list to buy a bottle directly from source, Screaming Eagle’s cult status has all but ensured most of us will never see a bottle, let alone taste it!

The elusive artisan factor

Spain’s Bodegas Vega Sicilia winery is the home of the country’s most praised wines, including flagship wine Unico. But the estate’s most elusive wine is Unico Reserva Especial – an extraordinary wine that is a blend of great and often very old vintages. The Reserva Especial is a blend of Spain’s indigenous grape Tempranillo with Bordeaux’s Cabernet Sauvignon. It is impeccably crafted, and has a true artisan quality. It is released infrequently and in high demand, so allocations are small.

For the most part, these cult wines exist as an intriguing distraction to both the fine wine drinker and the investor – the drinker might spend a lifetime trying to secure a bottle and hoping it will meet with their expectations. The investor will do well to remember their names and look out for the next King of Clubs in order to get their hands on it before Parker does.

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