Tasted: The Outsiders of Languedoc

wpid-dsc_0689.jpgWhen I first heard of the group of wine producers known as The Outsiders, I had visions that they were a band of outcasts akin to those conjured up by SE Hinton or even Camus.

I was clearly over-romanticising. The Outsiders in this case are anything but a band of misfits and societal outcasts. Instead, they’re a group of winemakers. All of them upstanding citizens. At least as far as I could surmise.

This is a group of winemakers operating in Languedoc-Roussillon who come from all over the world and from a variety of walks of life but, crucially, are not native to the region. What they have in common is their active decision to settle in Languedoc-Roussillon to make wine.

There are times when calling oneself an outsider is something to embrace. When it comes to the bureaucratic labyrinth that is the regulatory framework of the French appellation system, being an outsider is often seen as a disadvantage. The stubbornness of the appellation system is no place for an iconoclast, where decades of tradition are preferred over ‘frivolous’ notions of commercial viability, free enterprise and experimentation. Despite this, it seems that these Outsiders have been able to overcome, or embrace, the bureaucratic machine and carve out a niche for themselves.

As part of their effort to market their wares to UK merchants, this group of international winemakers (they come from all over the world, from America and Australia to the United Kingdom, Switzerland and yes, within France itself) hosted a small tasting in London back in early May.

Looking back on my rather shabby notes, I can see clear evidence that this was a decent tasting despite having experienced the onset of a head cold that same morning. First, I managed to write notes against every wine on the list, a clear sign that I neither grew bored with the wines, nor daunted by their numbers. Second, the greasy fingerprints left behind on the paper suggest that the spread of charcuterie and cheese on offer was more than adequate. Of course, as the photo below shows, reading the chicken scrawl that is my actual notes does present a bit of a challenge:

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As a tasting that included a broad range of wines from across the Languedoc region, it is hard to make generalisations or make sweeping statements about the producers. Quality levels were high, but there were obvious differences among the producers in terms of what they are trying to achieve. Some are aiming for affordable, accessible wines, while others are aiming for something a little more profound. In other words, you won’t be having any flashbacks to that time you bought vin en vrac from what looked like a petrol pump behind a dusty shed.

If I’d had the foresight to, say, scribble down scores for each of the wines I tasted, I’d have a much easier time selecting my favourites from this group. But where is the fun in that?

Anyway, enough of my digressions. Here are my highlights from a good bunch of wines. Some of these winemakers are still seeking distribution here in the UK, while some are available to buy from various merchants and supermarkets, although I’ll be darned if I can remember which ones.

Chateau Rives-Blanques Occitania Mauzac Limoux 2013

A still white wine made from the mauzac grape, this is a rich wine that is matured in oak and offers up stone fruit flavours. This is a delicious wine that has a lot of heft and fruit behind it while still being dry

Domaine Sainte Rose Le Pinacle 2012

There is quite a lot to like about all of the wines of Domaine Sainte Rose, but if I had to narrow down my choice to just one, it would be Le Pinacle 2012. Consisting of 95% syrah and a 5% dash of viognier, this has the style of Cote Rotie with a lush palate and medium body. It has an attractive earthy character backed up by red fruits and the potential for a long life.

Chateau d’Angles Grand Vin Red 2010

La Clape is one of the great wine regions of southern France and this producer has brought some Bordelais swagger — complete with red trousers — to the area. The grand vin is a real pleaser, with a high level of mourvedre in the blend to make a deeper, bigger wine that has an attractive balance of fruit and earthy flavours.

Chateau Beauregard Mirouze Fiare 2010

I might be at risk of selecting too many ‘top’ wines from this tasting, but this was among the standouts from Chateau Beauregard Mirouze. With 18 months of barrel age, this displayed dark fruits (prunes and raisins) and had a deep, broody, earthy, chocolatey character to it. In many ways it was sunshine in a glass.

Domaine Saint Hilaire The Silk Chardonnay IGP Pays d’Oc2012

In the past I was never a big fan of chardonnay from the south of France. At times it seemed flabby, overripe and lacking any real character or complexity. But this is something different. It could very well be a competitor to decent Burgundy, having a healthy but not excessive oak treatment, not to mention a real elegance and finesse about it. Close your eyes and you think you’re drinking something from the Cote de Beaune or even the Cote d’Or.

Domaine La Madura Grand Vin Blanc 2014

This was a delight, a barrel-fermented, sauvignon blanc-dominant wine.Fermented and matured in older barrels, this older oak treatment is immediately noticeable on the nose, while on the palate it is rich with citrus and stone fruits, and has a long finish.

Domaine Turner Pageot La Rupture 2013

Another white wine that grabbed my attention. This was a lot like a white Bordeaux to me, made of sauvignon blanc but in a restrained style that is free from the more modern take on SB that has proliferated the market. Fresh, mineral and a good match for food. Not a whiff of cat pee to be sniffed.

Domaine Modat Le Plus Joli 2011

This is warm, spicy and very much a syrah from the south of France. With 80% syrah and the balance consisting of grenache and carignan,  this Rousillon displays licorice and nutmeg, with fine tannins and a long finish.

Chateau Saint Jacques d’Albas Le Chateau d’Albas Minervois 2012

A blend of syrah and grenache, this is aged 12 months in barrel and offers up all that is good about Minervois. It is warm, with fine tannins and a backbone of ample red fruits .

Domaine de Cebene Les Brancels Faugeres 2012

All of the wines from this producer were excellent, but Les Brancels seemed to stand out to me. This was what was described as the ‘house blend’ of syrah, grenache, mourvedre and carignan. I love the wines of Faugeres and this displayed all the characteristics that keep bring me back: warmth, earthy aromas a flavours, a good backbone of fruit and a fine complexity that pulls it all together.

Not mentioned…

Two other producers that were at the tasting but without a mention here were Le Clos du Gravillas and Domaine Le Clos du Serres. This was for no other reason except that my notes for these producers were a bit too sparse (likely because I was chatting rather than writing) for me to be able to write a recommendation.

 

 

 

 

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.

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

Wine tastings: Everyone for themselves

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In theory, the wine tasting is a wine lover’s utopia; dozens of bottles of (potentially) great wine free for the taking. So when an invitation arrives on my doorstep asking if I’ll attend this tasting or that, turning it down would be a sign of insanity, surely?

Well, yes. And, well, no.

The decision to go to any wine tasting is often made under the assumption, and anticipation, of how good it is going to be. Endless tastes of wine! Fine Bordeaux, Burgundy and everything else! Every sip a winner!

And so along I go, effervescent with excitement.

Seldom, if ever, does the mind consider the reality of many big public tastings:  a room of punters packed in tighter than the Northern line at rush hour. The Lingering Larrys who hover over the bottles, preventing anyone else from receiving a sample. And then there is that inevitable crowd of people who arrived drenched in a fog of cologne.

So what do I do? As a newly anointed British citizen, I do what everyone else in my adopted home does: I tut and mutter under my breath.

I have learned, over time, that there is a critical mass for wine tastings. Too few people and it can be sparse and awkward, particularly if a proprietor keeps hovering over your left shoulder, curious to know what you think following every sip. Too many people and it can seem as though you’ve waited 10 minutes just for a thimble full of wine (the retailers Naked and Virgin spring to mind).

A wine tasting needs to be just the right size. One in which you can lose yourself in the crowd but not feel as though you’ve waited so long for a sip that when you return home you’ll find your children have grown up and left for university.

The reason I write about this is because there is one tasting that I’ve been meaning to write about for more than a month now. Back in September I found myself at the Berry Bros & Rudd Wine Club tasting, held — where else? — in the Long Room at Lord’s Cricket Ground. It was a warm evening, the room looked onto the pitch and the late-summer breeze could be felt through the open windows. It was a very Berry’s crowd, too, which meant that my Canadian twang and lack of red trousers almost certainly marked me as an outsider. But no matter.

The list of wines was generous — 24 in all — and the group was big but not heaving. Perfect.

A British wine critics recently said that there is no venue better for a wine tasting than Lord’s Cricket Ground. I would tend to agree, even if it means my journey home is slightly convoluted.

And so what of this tasting? Much to my long-suffering girlfriend’s chagrin, this was one where I wrote detailed notes for each wine. I loved the Old World white wines, from the Le Caillou Blanc de Chateau Talbot 2012 (grassy, light and floral with a hint of caramel) to  the Bianco dei Colli Della Toscana Comitale 2013 (bright flavours of lychee and passion fruit with wet stones).

Then there were the Old World reds, such as the Domaine Jean Fournier Marsannay Clos du Roy 2011 (brambly fruits with a great mid-palate and a long finish) that ticked nearly every box for a good pinot noir, or the Celler de Capcanes Cabrida Garnatxa Vinyes Velles 2009 (deep, dark, black fruits with notes of cedar and a broody complexity) that showed how much great wine can be found in Spain.

Perhaps the most interesting wine on tasting was Chile’s Bodegas RE Chardonnoir 2012. This is a white wine made from 60% chardonnay and 40% pinot noir that smells like a Champagne, giving off nutty aromas of yeast and biscuits as a result of spending two years on its lees, while the mouth is lush and full, offering subtle hints of oak and a well-rounded finish.

These were but a few of the two-dozen wines around the room. And even though I didn’t like everything I tried (the Santa Celina Torrontes 2011 and Mullineux Kloof Street Chenin Blanc 2013 both left me wanting), I walked away happy in the knowledge that I found at least six that I loved without having to partake in a rugby scrum to try them.

Wine investing: Time out of the market

It’s time in the market that counts the most when trying to make a decent return on an investment, the experts say. This may very well work for equities and bonds, but when it comes to wine I’m inclined to say that not being in the market at all has been one of my best investment decisions to date.

If anything, I consider it redemption following my decision several years back to invest in a gold mining fund at a time when it was near its peak. One quickly learns the phrase ‘throwing good money after bad’ when faced with losses that exceed your age by a distressingly wide margin.

Considering that during my day job I’ve spent much of this week observing a bit of a meltdown (I’m sure I’ll eat my words over this) in the world’s financial markets, I decided that it might be fun to see how bad equity investors have fared compared to wine investors.

(Coincidentally, over at Sediment Blog there was also a feature on investing in wine this week, but you can rest assured that their piece is much more entertaining than mine and, mercifully, does not contain any charts.)

With my financial hat on, I decided to pull up some charts using data from Wine Owners and take a closer look at the situation.

The nifty chart below shows the performance of the S&P 500 (green line), FTSE 100 (orange line) and Wine Owners First Growth Index (blue line) in the three years to 4 October 2014 (the latest date for wine data). In terms of recent wine investment performance, it speaks volumes about how the market has responded to those over-inflated en primeur campaigns in recent years.

chart (2)Source: Wine Owners as at 10/10/2014

What we see here is a three-year loss in the region of 25% for investment-grade Bordeaux wine. This is in contrast to the approximate 18% gain for the FTSE 100 and 56% rise for the S&p 500.

I know where I’d rather have my cash socked away. And I know what I’d rather be doing with my wine: drinking it.

Of course, a little perspective does help with things and, as everyone knows, wine investment stretches beyond just three years. So here are the same indices over a five-year period.

chart (3)

 Source: Wine Owners as at 10/10/2014

Things still aren’t looking good for wine then.

See that little peak in the blue line? That looks eerily similar to the point at which I invested in that gold mining fund all those years ago. Lo, I have learned much of these many passing years.

But what if we looked at the data in a way that made it tell an entirely different story?

Thanks to the benefits of hindsight, we can all look back into the past and find a chart that will make us want to kick ourselves for not wagering everything on Lafite and Latour.

Like this chart, for example, which shows the performance of those same three indices between 31 January 2007 and 4 October 2014.

chart (4)

 Source: Wine Owners as at 10/10/2014

Thanks to its lower correlation to global markets during the financial crisis of 2008 (millionaires cut staff but not wine budgets, perhaps?) wine has grown by 110% compared to the rather weedy 5% for the FTSE 100 (not including the most recent meltdown) and the slightly more respectable 37.7% return for the S&P 500.

[EDIT: While wine had a ‘lower’ correlation to global markets, this does not mean it is not correlated. Indeed, a longer-term perspective of wine investment performance shows that wine is still correlated to global economic events and has experienced its own downturns during times of market pressure. Moreover, as an asset class it is not immune to peaks and troughs, and the value of wine can go down as well as up.]

So what does this tell us? Well, if you’re an equity investor who has been sweating bullets this week as markets around the world have dipped, rest assured that you’ve done better in the past few years than someone who invested in wine.

If you’re a wine investor lamenting your losses, hold in there and hope for the best. I’ll be sure not to tell you about how cheaply I’ve been buying 2010 Bordeaux lately.

Big Mac vs Dead Hippie: On junk science and fine wine

Can you tell theID-100261094 difference between a £2.59 Mcdonald’s Big Mac and the £8.50 Dead Hippie burger from London’s MEAT liqour, purveyor of fine but pricey burgers?

Of course you could. One is anaemic and flat in flavour, clearly the product of mass production and cheap ingredients. The other is literally dripping in flavour, is handmade and cooked to order, and most important of all, loaded with expensive ingredients.

Few would dispute the vast differences between these burgers. So why is the opposite true when it comes to wine? The flow of news stories telling us that seasoned wine experts, from Masters of Wine and some not, who are unable to point out the cheap, £4 wine out of a group containing some of the world’s most expensive wines is practically interminable. But recently it seems that the volume of these articles has been on the increase — helped along the way, no doubt, by publications like the Daily Mail.

If you thought it was safe to progress through the summer without encountering a news article that dismissed wine tasting and wine critics as being entirely useless, well you were wrong.

Back in July the Mail, our favourite sensationalist newspaper and purveyor of mindless twaddle designed only to stoke rage among anyone remotely reasonable in character, proclaimed that its taste test of cheap wines from Lidl and expensive wines from top Bordeaux chateaux resulted in ‘hilarious’ results.

The article featured Oz Clarke, the expert, and two people who, shall we say, are more likely wine ‘experts’ insofar as they are expert at drinking it.

The only thing hilarious about the article, from what I could surmise, was that Oz Clarke pretty much nailed the entire tasting and yet the Daily Mail still tried to convince its readers that no one could ever tell the difference between a £4.99 Aldi Bordeaux and a £514 bottle of Chateau Haut Brion. Except Oz Clarke for the fact that Oz Clarke clearly could and in fact did.

This is a topic that gets more than its fair share of coverage, both in the anti-wine snob national press and among snooty bloggers like me. Politics has the debates over taxes and the welfare state; the wine world has the debates over natural wines and whether or not critics can do the one thing they have spent their careers doing: picking out the good ones from the bad.

Newspapers love a good headline. The Daily Mail knows this better than anyone, but it isn’t alone. The New York Times has been known to weigh in on the debate. So too the Guardian, which more often than not prefers to make absolute declarations in order to drive more traffic to its site more than it probably cares about the topic itself.

Then there is one of my favourite media outlets: NPR. It could, just like the others, spice up its stories to more sensational levels to drive traffic. But this is the house of reason and analysis we’re talking about. Sensationalism doesn’t  register in a radio network where the newsreaders sound as though they are whispering the news to you while sitting in a wing back chair by a roaring fire.

NPR also has a reputation for analysing a topic at a level much deeper than most other media outlets, so it came as no surprise that their discussion about the validity of wine tasting (Is wine-tasting junk science?) briefly veers into discussions philosophy rather than the mechanics of comparing a £5 bottle of wine with one worth £500.

The article also sums up wine tasting in a much more eloquent manner than my burger analogy above:

If you know English, then you are expert not only at discriminating significant English sounds, but you also spontaneously and reliably appreciate their meaning. Someone with no acquaintance with English can’t do any of this, even though his or her sensory organs may be in fine working order.
— Alva Noë, NPR, 8 August 2014

So is wine tasting junk science? The question I ask is, who ever said it was a science? I think the Daily Mail article provided us with all the conclusions that we need, even if it was unintentional.