Wine investment: A worrying state of affairs

IMAG0028Bear with me, the link I am about to make is tenuous. It’s often disappointing when something that you wanted to believe was true turns out to be nothing more than a sham. In the case of the Wizard of Oz, that sham was a wizard who sustained the myth of his powers using smoke and mirrors, shielding his worshippers from the reality that he was just an ordinary man from Omaha who got lost. Thanks to the power of fiction, the wizard effected a happy ending by proving to Dorothy and her friends that the answers they were seeking were always within them.

When it comes to wine investment, there has been no shortage of instances when people wanted to believe something to be true. Rudy Kurniawan is perhaps the most famous recent fraudster, but don’t forget about the case of Labouré-Roi’s fake pinot noir or even the somewhat mythical Thomas Jefferson bottles, documented in the book The Billionaire’s Vinegar.

We need not travel too far to find cases of wine fraud. A daily visit to Jim Budd’s blog keeps us up to date with just about every instance of nefarious activity in the wine investment world, some elaborate and some not.

The latest story that caught my eye was that of opportunists attempting to capitalise on clients of the now-defunct wine investment company European Fine Wines. EFW was a company that many of us wanted to believe was the real deal and free from the troubles associated with other collapsed wine investment firms, but deep down there were plenty of suspicions floating around. This all came to fruition in 2014, when EFW’s phone lines went unanswered and the staff had reportedly been ‘sacked’.

Indeed, once the company went under, it left behind a trail of unhappy former clients and dubious practices. Sadly, they did so right under our noses. On three occasions in 2012 and 2013 it held tasting events where, looking back, it seemed to wish upon itself all the scrutiny and suspicion it could muster. I wrote about the first of these tastings back in May 2012, where the wines lined up on the table consisted of Haut Brion, Cheval Blanc, Yquem and more from the 1998 Bordeaux vintage. The event was peppered with clients and journalists alike, but any scrutiny that was in the air was drowned out by a fog of first growths.

Later that year, the company held a Christmas tasting. The first growths were fewer in number, but the volume of financial journalists attending was uncanny. If they had something to hide, they were doing an unbelievable job of hiding it out in the open.

It was at this tasting that an unhappy client’s story of cold-calling and potential mis-selling (unverified), began to raise my suspicions. What he told me was all too familiar. A slick sales person from EFW  cold called him and sold him a story about the thick profits that could be made by investing in wine and how EFW would handle everything for him. The person on the phone was pushy and persuasive, of course, and managed to part the client and his money with ease. And because this person knew nothing about wine, especially not Bordeaux, EFW sold him second-tier wines from lesser vintages at prices that were very likely unfavourable.

The unhappy customer was angry but realistic. He figured he had been duped, but thankfully didn’t lose a fortune. When he received an invitation to the Christmas tasting, he attended because he wanted to see for himself if the company was legitimate. I gave him my card and told him that if he wanted further help with his situation, I could recommend a few avenues for him to follow. He never did get in touch.

A year later, another tasting invitation landed in my inbox. It was near the end of 2013 and this time there were no journalists present and the wines were all lower-tier. The atmosphere was also much frostier than usual. Something had clearly changed at EFW.  Six months later, the company would be gone. Rather than follow the path of successful and trusted brokerages, companies like EFW seem designed to make quick profits by taking advantage of naive clients by promising fast profits. The problem is that if there is money to be made in wine, it doesn’t come quickly.

In a recent interview with the Telegraph’s Victoria Moore, famed American wine critic Robert Parker said that there is no way to make a quick buck out of wine, adding:

Speculation is one of the ugly down-sides to Bordeaux. I think these speculators have finally, especially the Chinese and some other wealthy people, recognised you can’t make money on them. Now if you’re buying it to sit on it for 10 to 15 years ….but speculators are looking to turn things over.

Truer words were never spoken. We all know the adage; if it seems too good to be true…

Not a drop worth drinking part II: The customer is always right

ID-1009400Harry Gordon Selfridge was famous for his eponymous department store, which transformed the humble act of shopping from an undesirable but necessary evil, to the unnecessary act of frivolity that is the engine of Oxford Street today. Perhaps.

Mr Selfridge has also been credited, along with Marshall Field, for coining — or perhaps just popularising — the phrase ‘the customer is always right.’ In the quest to secure as many sales, and therefore as much profit, as possible, the belief was that no matter what the customer said or did (perhaps short of theft), they were always right. Or for those who go to Burger King, they can always have it their way.

Taken to its logical conclusion, this mantra would be the undoing of retail. And perhaps, in a way, it has. Retailers these days give people what they want, not simply what they need. Why else do we have Primark selling cut-price clothing and household goods? Never mind where or how their products are made, and what it does to the environment.

As axioms go, this is as true for clothing as it is for wine. In their quest to satisfy their customers whims, supermarkets are stocking their shelves with whatever is cheap and sells well. Is it what the customer needs? No. Is it what the customer wants? Yes, but only insofar as they want something that is a) cheap, b) familiar and c) uncomplicated. The everyday person wants an everyday wine, so why make it challenging by stocking the shelves with Georgian saperavi or Greek assyrtiko? Only the nerdiest of the nerds will buy that.

If avoiding confusion were the objective, our supermarkets wouldn’t provide excessive choice at all. And yet, this isn’t the case at all. During a recent shopping trip as part of my quest to find a cheap and drinkable muscadet, it was in a tiny Sainsbury’s outlet in the London’s financial district where I was presented with a confusing site. While its small wine fridge at first seemed to contain one of all the usual suspects (one Chablis, one Sancerre, one Soave and so on), this was not the case for our old friend pinot grigio.

For there was not just one, but seven of the devils lined up all in a row, each one as uninspiring and insipid as the next. Logic would dictate that if Sainsbury’s sees fit to sell just one Chablis, one Sancerre and one Soave, then one pinot grigio ought to do as well. But it seems that, in an effort to pile it high and sell it cheap the customer who is always right, loading the shelves with pinot grigio is giving them what they want.

As Lettie Teague wrote in the Wall Street Journal, pinot grigio seems to defy logic:

Watery. Insipid. Neutral. Boring. Few wines underwhelm as thoroughly as pinot grigio. Yet it’s a consistent best seller—retailers tell me that they can’t keep the stuff in stock.

This is not simply a problem at Sainsbury’s, to be fair. And it’s not simply a problem in the UK either. At a vast supermarket of a wine store in western Canada, there stood an entire shelving unit loaded with pinot grigio, each bottle no more compelling than the others. When I asked why they needed to sell some 40 different variations of pino grigio, the shop assistant slumped her shoulders and gave a quiet, frank response: people buy a lot of it, so they stock a lot of it.

Not that pinot grigio is all bad. In the right hands, made with good grapes and with care and attention, it can become a wine of character. As Peter Grogan once wrote in the Telegraph,

Bad winemakers will make bad wine regardless of the grape varieties they’re growing. Poor old pinot grigio, being an obliging and productive old fruit, has fallen in with some rather undesirable types.

Undesirable indeed. Sainsbury’s take note.

Not a drop worth drinking

wpid-dsc_0565.jpgIt is often said that wine drinkers these days are spoiled with choice, but surely the people who say such things have never ventured into a typical supermarket. The shelves may be heaving with wine, but how much of it do you actually want to drink?

Worse, still, if you have your mind set on buying something specific. Not esoteric, mind you. Just…specific. No problem if you are seeking pinot grigio, a generic bottle of Rioja or a a generic Kiwi sauvignon blanc. But think twice if you set off with anything particular in mind.

This was all brought into sharp focus this week as I set off on a shopping trip to buy one type of wine from as many retailers as possible. The wine in question? Muscadet.

Now, Muscadet has never really been considered a fashionable wine. Not like Chablis, which is synonymous with the 1980s. Nor pinot noir, which more or less had a starring role in a film. But with more and more wine drinkers, critics and sommeliers seeking greater value for money and food-friendliness, you’d be forgiven for thinking Muscadet would be among those in high demand.

Certainly, I am not alone in my thinking that the wine retailers would be awash with stuff. Rather than spend good money on premier cru Chablis, the masses would rather opt for a better value Muscadet sur lie, I concluded. And so it was on this basis that I set off in search of fine examples of this wine that would form the basis of a blind tasting for an upcoming blog. There would be one each from some major high street retailers, as well as from independent merchants. The premise behind the experiment? To see if what the big name Goliaths sell can come close to matching the quality of the small and nimble Davids.

The shopping trip started off with success. The nearest independent, Amathus in Leadenhall Market, came through with a bottle of Domaine du Haut-Banchereau Muscadet Sevre et Maine Sur Lie 2013 for £7.95.

This would set the price target. Can the big retailers deliver a better wine for the same price? Well. The concept was sound. The shopping trip was not.

The Tesco local to my office near the Bank of England had only the cheapest form of Muscadet available, from its lowly “Simply” range for £4.49. This would not suffice.

It was even worse at the Waitrose around the corner. Plenty of pinot grigio, sauvignon blanc and Californian rosé. But no Muscadet.

And what of Sainsbury’s? Well, Sainsbury’s was no better.

To their credit, when I tweeted about the City of London’s Muscadet drought, both Tesco and Sainsbury’s did their utmost to find out where it was hiding. Waitrose was unusually silent on the issue, but this is probably because their time is being monopolised by complaints about mouldy cherry tomatoes and conference pears from the middle classes.

So, after round one of the great Muscadet challenge but before a single bottle has been opened, the score is independent merchants 1, major retailers 0.

 

 

 

Tasted: My highlights from the Gerard Bertrand portfolio

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Gerard Bertrand is a winemaker that is in many ways the exception to the rule. As a fairly large producer, you would probably expect the wines to be good but not exciting. But this is not the case at all. Instead, high quality seems to be present at all levels. Gerard Bertrand’s affordable wines punch above their weight, while the premium wines tend to hit all the right notes, showing none of the negative qualities that wines from other large outfits often produce.

At the heart of the organisation is Gerard Bertrand himself, an almost unfathomably tall man who has a soft handshake and a youthful charm. And even though the wine business he runs is modern, efficient and has grown to contain some nine individual estates, he is no industrial magnate. He speaks of the tradition of winemaking, the importance of terroir and his love of the Mediterranean lifestyle and the gastronomic traditions that go with it.

wpid-dsc_0449.jpgIn my previous post, I recalled my visit to Gerard Bertrand’s Chateau l’Hospitalet in December. The weather at the time was wet, blustery and cold. But none of that mattered because there was plenty of wine for us to taste. And it was the good stuff, too.

After tasting 15 wines in one sitting, I was impressed by the high level of quality. I wouldn’t hesitate to buy any one of them if I found them on a merchant’s shelf, although I would by lying if I said I didn’t prefer some over others.

So, without further ago, here is what I made of the wines. My preferred wines are marked with an asterisk.

Domaine de Cigalus IGP Aude Hauterive 2012 Rose
A blend of merlot, syrah and caladoc. Salmon pink with a copper hue. Hints of strawberries and cream with a meaty aroma over top. In the mouth it had medium acidity and was dry with a bit of roundness. In style it seemed more like a white wine than a typical rose.

*Chateau de Villemajou Grand Vin AOP Corbieres 2013 Blanc
Blend of marsanne, roussanne and vermentino. Barrel fermented. Lemon green in colour. Plenty of lemon and citrus on the nose with peaches, apricots, as well as a creamy oaky/vanilla note. On the palate this is rich and rounded, with citrus and wet stones, along with peaches and apricots. It has medium acidity and a long finish.

Aigle Royal Chardonnay AOP Limoux 2013 Blanc
100% chardonnay, medium lemon/green in colour. This is an oaky wine with a prominent chardonnay nose that exhibits fresh vanilla and stone fruits. It also has a fruitcake quality that comes through. On the palate it is rounded and oaky, with a mineral quality to it. It has medium acidity and a long finish.

Domaine de Cigalus IGP Aude Hauterive 2013 Blanc
Blend of chardonnay, viognier and sauvignon blanc. Medium lemon colour. On the nose, this had a fruity nose that expressed lemon and citrus fruits as well as lychees and grass, and clearly allowed its sauvignon blanc and viognier to come through. On the palate it was fruity but still restrained, showing plenty of citrus with medium acidity and a long finish.

Domaine de l’Aigle IGP Haute Vallee de l’Aude 2012
100% pinot noir. This had a spicy nose that expressed vegetal characteristics and a blast of seabreeze. It seemed fairly closed, but there were hints of vanilla. Still clearly in development, it had medium tanning and red berry fruits, as well as medium acidity. This is a fairly basic pinot noir that needed a bit more time to show its true colours.

Aigle Royal Pinot Noir IGP Haute Vallee de l’Aude 2012
100% pinot noir. This is a step up from the previous pinot, with an expressive nose of vanilla, red fruits and spices. On the palate it had an enjoyable dose of brambly red fruits, medium acidity and tannins, and a medium to long finish. Still in need of development, this wine gave me the impression that it would turn into something great with a little but more time.

Chateau la Sauvageonne Grand Vin AOP Coreaux du Languedoc Terrasses du Larzac 2012
Blend of syrah, grenache and carignan. Deep rub red in colour, with deep aromas of black fruits, boiled sweets, spices and garrigue. On the palate it showed more black fruits, plenty of spice and medium tannin. This was extremely pleasant and deep, and would benefit from more time in bottle.

Chateau de Villemajou Grand Vin AOP Corbieres Boutenac 2012
Blend of carignan, syrah and grenache. Deep ruby red, with an immediately recognisable Corbieres nose: meaty and with barnyard aromas. This was warm and earthy, with garrigue and something floral, perhaps violets. On the palate it showed sweets, dark fruits and medium tannin. This is a very good Corbieres.

*Chateau l’Hospitalet Grand Vin AOP Coteaux du Languedoc La Clape 2012
Blend of syrah, grenache and mourvedre. Deep in colour with plenty of dark fruits and a hint of oak on the palate. This was complex and enjoyable in a hedonistic way. Aromas of olives, herbs, spices and truffles abounded, as well as something that I can only describe as the warmth of the region. On the palate it was rich and warm again, showing more dark fruits and olives with a saline aspect to it, with medium tannins and a long finish. This will likely develop with time in bottle.

*Domaine de Cigalus IGP Aude Hauterive 2012
Blend of cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc, merlot, syrah, grenache, caladoc and carignan. This might have been the best wine of the tasting, which is why I bought a bottle to take home with me when I visited the vineyard’s shop before I left. This is deep purple in colour with a spicy nose that expresses dark fruits, racy oak and once again that sense of warmth. On the palate it has yet more dark fruits, medium tannins and a very fresh feel while also being rich and warm.

Tautavel Hommage aux Vignerons AOP Cotes de Roussillon Villages 2011
100% grenache. This had a very typically grenache nose that expressed gum candies, ripe olives and truffles. In the mouth this is rich and viscous, with mild to medium tannins and a soft feel. It had plenty of dark cherries and berries, but a bit of a flat finish. It is well made, but perhaps wasn’t hitting the right notes on the day.

*Le Viala AOP Minervois La Liviniere 2012
Blend of grenache, carignan and syrah. Deep purple in colour, with a gamey/barnyard nose. Very much an enjoyable Minervois, offering up aromas of spice, dark fruits and pepper. In the mouth this was all about dark fruits, with medium acidity, medium tannins and a long, lingering finish. This was among my favourites on the day.

*Le Viala AOP Minervois La Liviniere 2001
Blend of grenache, carignan and syrah. With 13 years of age at the time of tasting, this was deep ruby in colour with some bricking at the edge. The nose was dominated by mushroom/truffle aromas along with dark olives, bruised dark fruits, violets, chocolate, pipe tobacco and marmalade. In the mouth it showed warm dark fruits, more spice and wonderful complexity, along with medium tannins and a long finish. Very likely my favourite wine of the day.

La Forge AOP Corbieres Boutenac 2012
Blend of carignan and syrah. Deep ruby with a fairly closed nose that hinted at dark fruits and vegetal aromas. The palate was much more expressive, with flavours of soft dark fruits and boiled sweets, with medium acidity and a long finish. This wasn’t showing all of its qualities but will likely develop into something great with time.

La Forge AOP Corbieres Boutenac 2004
Blend of carignan and syrah. Ruby red with a bit of bricking at the edge. On the nose it had aromas of mushrooms, spices and black fruits. There was also the same theme of warmth that many of Bertrand’s wines show, as well as olives, peppers and floral aromas. On the palate it had integrated tannins and an obvious maturity, having had 10 years to develop. There was more black fruits with boiled sweets and fruit gums. A good wine.

A weekend at Chateau l’Hospitalet

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Truth be told, I hadn’t realised that there was such thing as a pruning festival. But when the invitation appeared in my inbox, I wasn’t going to question. It was one that I couldn’t resist.

And so I found myself on a flight to Montpellier, France, in early December, set for a drive towards the La Clape appellation and, specifically, Gerard Bertrand’s Chateau l’Hospitalet near Narbonne. I had been there just a few months before. I knew the way. I knew what to expect. Except, of course, that back in August the weather was warm, even when it was raining. I hadn’t quite anticipated just how warm it wouldn’t be this time around.

When I landed, it was raining. And the opposite of warm. A punishing wind was blowing from the northwest and the rain came down in sheets. I regretted not packing a warm coat. Or even a jumper. All I had was a rain shell, a fleece and a Helly Hansen baselayer. My only hope was that we wouldn’t spend much time outside.

After a pleasant night of beef and wine in the Chateau l’Hospitalet restaurant and a solid sleep in my room, I woke the next morning to do what any sensible man would do prior to what was surely going to be a long day of tasting wine and gorging on food. I went for a run through the vineyards. Wearing shorts and a T-shirt. This would have been fine had it not been a) colder than a Siberian deep-freeze and b) blowing a gale that was as sharp as a Gillette razor.

At 11 a.m. we had our first wine tasting and 15 glasses of wine stood before me.

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The list of wines was an extensive tasting of some of Bertrand’s best vineyards and cuvees:

  • Domaine de Cigalus
  • Chateau de Villemajou
  • Domaine de l’Aigle
  • Chateau La Sauvageonne
  • Chateau l’Hospitalet
  • Tautavel Hommage aux Vignerons
  • Le Viala
  • La Forge

In another post I will list each of the wines tasted along with my notes and verdict on each one. For now I will just say that the quality level, as always, was high and all of the wines were well made and worthy of attention. Particular favourites included Cigalus, l’Hospitalet and Le Viala.

I would like to say that we spent the afternoon indoors savouring these wines in the cosseting warmth of the chateau. However, our hosts felt that it would be much more memorable for us to spend as much of our day outside as possible given that the wind had picked up, the driving rain had set in and the temperature appeared to have plunged to a level I wouldn’t have expected in southern France.

And this is how I found myself walking head first into a bracing wind and sideways rain, following a labradoodle through a grove of white oak trees as it sniffed around for truffles. I kid you not.

Surprisingly, we the dogs did, indeed, sniff out a few truffles (the proprietor could have showed me a lump of mud and I would have nodded my approval), and we, the people merrily following those dogs, did shiver and complain about the wind within our warm coats, rain jackets, gloves and hats. All the while, the dogs’ handlers looked entirely comfortable and unbothered by the weather without the assistance of any gloves or hats or what I would have considered warm clothing for the conditions.

And then we saw a mule. This, as it happens, was the pruning element in Pruning Festival. And we did prune, albeit for only a few moments until our hands were too cold to squeeze the clippers.

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Again, the mule’s handler was ungloved and unhatted, yet unperturbed by the chill. How do they do it?

At this point, our group was beginning to lose its nerve, diminishing by ones and twos as the punters gave up and headed back to the chateau. We were drawn by the warmth and the wine, and the promise of a dinner heavily laden in truffles.

Next time, I’ll tell you about the wine.

Winter reading: Sediment — a wine book for the rest of us

51Bgtb7y7gL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Despite having made my profession as a writer of various persuasions for most of the past decade, my reading list has been shamefully thin on the ground. Finding time to read seems to be more difficult and less appealing than ever, particularly when the other option is to vegetate on the sofa while watching reruns on Netflix.

This time six years ago I somehow managed to devote a worrying amount of time to reading Robert Parker’s Bordeaux cover to cover. That tome, all 1,200 or so pages of it, took a year to read at a pace that was, to be honest, as good as a few pages here and there until I’d had enough of Parker’s constant use of the phrases ‘blockbuster’ and ‘sleeper of the vintage’. Informative as it was, it was also an excellent sleep aid.

Since then I have somehow managed to read several other dry books on wine, but as the years have passed by, my ability to complete them — or even make it more than a few pages in — has diminished. I never did managed to read the entirely of the World Atlas of Wine, informative and valuable as it may be. But I do like to refer to the maps on occasion.

No matter what I read, a book needs to give me a reason to keep reading it. If it fails to grab my attention, to entertain me, to pull me into its narrative and hold me there until the final page, I can put it down and quickly forget about it. Some books I read quickly; other books will remain in limbo for several years as I dip in and out of their pages when I can be bothered to think of them. This is why I never did finish the Mayor of Casterbridge. I read Far From the Madding Crowd many years ago when I still had the patience, whereas the Mayor of Casterbridge tested my patience one too many times.

Wine books are no different from any other. They either pull me in or they push me away. I sincerely doubt I would have the patience to read another of Parker’s imposing reference books, for example. But give me something with a story to tell, a dash of wit and humour, and we’re in business.

This is the case for the only wine book I have managed to read in its entirety in the past year was Sediment: Two Gentlemen and Their Mid-Life Terroirs.

As I have also written for 12×75.com, this is a wine book that raises topics and views that are seldom seen among the wine press. It speaks to several audiences at once, from the everyday wine drinker who simply wants to know whether or not they should attempt to drink wine out of a box, to the sophisticated collector who has a sense of humour. While the book is based largely on posts that have appeared in the blog, the adaptation works because few of us have probably read all of their previous posts. There are times when a compendium is a good thing.

I devoured this book in a couple short sittings. In other words, on the seats of two discount airlines in early December. What would normally have been an uncomfortable hour and a half being flogged duty-free products and scratch cards by bedraggled flight attendants, I simply zoned them out and buried my head into the world of CJ and PK.

Sediment explores with humour and humility the minefield that is buying and drinking (and less frequently investing in) wine, whether it is bought in bulk from a co-operative in the south of France, a Germany discount retailer on the UK high street or from a merchant in St James’s Street in London.

Sediment: Two Gentlemen And Their Mid-Life Terroirs
By Charles Jennings and Paul Keers
John Blake Publishing
£12.99