Wednesday, 29 June 2011

Miguel Torres

Wine and the City chats to the godfather of Spanish wine, Miguel Torres, at the Torres HQ in Villafranca del Penedes about the 2011 Wineries for Climate Protection conference in Barcelona, his work in China and plans for retirement on the eve of his 70th birthday.

Saturday, 25 June 2011


Wine and the City and Adam Lechmere of taste two Torres greats: Grans Muralles 2007 and Mas La Plana 1996 at the Torres HQ in Villafranca del Penedès just outside Barcelona. Torres was the 2002 Decanter Man of the Year and was recently honoured with a lifetime achivement award by The Drinks Business.

Tuesday, 21 June 2011

Oliver Bolton, Alibi

Wine and the City heads to Lutyens on Fleet Street to chat to Oliver Bolton, the 27-year-old founder of Alibi, billed as the world's first Pretox drink – which includes Milk Thistle, Gingko and Sarsaparilla among other ingredients, about how he came up with the idea of a preparatory health drink, secured funding, and got the brand off the ground. Bolton also speaks of his desire to crack the US market.

Sunday, 19 June 2011

Taste of London

On Friday evening, armed with an umbrella and a steely resolve, I made the muddy pilgrimage to Taste of London. On arrival at Regent's Park, I was surprised to find an army of umbrella-wielding foodies blocking the entrance. The fact that so many people had ventured out in the torrential rain is a testament to the British resolve. Were we all brave or just bonkers?

This was to be my first taste of Taste. Two years ago I'd luxuriated in the Scottish sunshine at Taste of Edinburgh, where I ate enough pork belly to have me oinking all the way home. Taste is an experience that lends itself to sunshine. Eating in the rain is odd and unpleasant. But with the near biblical torrent showing no sign of stopping, I was determined to squeeze some enjoyment out of the experience, if only fleeting. Soggy map in hand, I hoofed it to the Bocca di Lupo stand, where I paid six crowns (Taste currency) for their shaved radish and celeariac salad with pomegranate, pecorino and truffle oil (below), which, mercifully, was sensational, and worth braving the rain for alone.

From the crunchy radish and tangy pecornio to the juicy pomegrante pips that glinted, ruby-like on the plate and the final flourish of truffle oil that I could taste in my mouth the next morning, the salad was a symphony of flavour and texture. I was off to a good start. While waiting for the dish, I got talking to the guy on the neighbouring Gelupo stand - Bocca di Lupo's sister ice cream parlour. Unsurprisingly, sales were slow, but the Hendrick's granitas were proving popular due to generous gin pours. Desperate times call for disparate measures.

Still hungry, I moved swiftly on to Opera Tavern across the park. Having circled the icon dish in my programme earlier that day, by the time I arrived at the stand I was dribbling in anticipation, having read Marina O'Loughlin's paean to the pork burger a month before in the Metro. It sounded sublime, and I was about to get a slice of the action.

I eagerly handed over my 14 crowns (£7) and waited, whetting my appetite further by watching the bad boys being made in the open plan kitchen, their tops white from a dusting of Manchego. Finally it arrived. I ate it in three bites. It was every inch as good as the review – mixed in with the pork, the foie gras gave it exquisite richness, juiciness and depth of flavour, while the Manchego made it unmistakably Spanish.

On a food high, my next stop was due to be at Gauthier Soho to try their Top Dog Deluxe – a smoked Strasbourg sausage served in a pain au lait filled with honey bacon and mustard mayo, but my mind kept wondering back to the Bocca di Lupo balls. The trio looked so tasty, I got plate envy from those around me enjoying the spherical treats.

Unstoppable in my quest, I squelched through the mud – Taste by this point had become something of a gastro Glastonbury, back to the Bocca stand, where 12 crowns got me three deep fried delights: olive stuffed with veal and pork, tomato risotto and mozzarella; by far the best of the three. Biting into it, the warm white goo quickly cascaded down my throat, serving as central heating on this shiver-inducing night.

Having enjoyed so many savoury snacks, I was craving something sweet to end the evening on a sugar high. The Asia de Cuba Mexican doughnuts had earlier caught my eye. I thought they would be long, Churros-like tubes filled with butterscotch sauce, so was slightly disappointed to find them perfectly round. And while they were fluffy and light, the centre wasn't nearly sticky enough. The accompanying Motijo sorbet however was on the money. Sharp, smooth and with an alcoholic kick, it proved the ideal palate cleanser, though my lack of crowns forced an early exit.

Trudging out of the park, the rain still pouring, my thoughts turned to the Top Dog Deluxe. Should I buy some more crowns and have one last taste? I decided against it. Sometimes the idea of a dish is just as sweet, if not sweeter than the reality...

Wednesday, 15 June 2011

Hush Heath

On Monday I spent a glorious day in the Kent countryside at Hush Heath vineyard, where owner Richard Balfour-Lynn unveiled his shiny new winery to a large chunk of the wine trade, including the newly-honoured Gerard Basset OBE. After a leisurely lunch and an amble across the 30 acre estate, I caught up with Balfour-Lynn, who owns the Hotel du Vin and Malmaison hotel chains, to quiz him about English sparkling wine and his ambitions for the estate.

Monday, 13 June 2011

The Beaujolais Boys

Last week I spent three glorious days in Beaujolais travelling around both the north and south, taking in a number of the Cru villages, where I was pleasantly surprised to find a number of dynamic young winemakers reshaping the region with their experimental, open-minded approach to winemaking. Seven out of the ten winemakers I visited were under 35, with the youngest two just 25 and at the helm of their respective wineries.

Not only are they pretty poster boys for the region, they're an exciting sign of things to come. With their enthusiasm and lack of fear in taking risks, the boys are re-energising the Beaujolais region and injecting it with a much-needed dose of cool. Desperate to shake off the negative connotations of bananas and bubblegum brought about by Beaujolais Nouveau, this new wave of winemakers look set to send Beaujolais in a very exciting direction. Move over The Douro Boys, The Beaujolais Boys have arrived!

Colin Farrell lookalike Julien Merle makes old vine natural wine from 8 hectares of vines on schist and limestone soils in Légny in the south of the region. The charismatic 30-year-old is passionate about promoting the quality of the wines coming out of southern Beaujolais. "There's a lot of snobbery towards the south in the north. They think we're not up to scratch," he admits.

27-year-old Fabien Chasselay is something of an alchemist, experimenting with a variety of styles, from nutty white Beaujolais to a sparkling Gamay and an 100% Pinot Noir. Having worked a stint in Rutherglen, Australia, his latest trick is a pair of sweet wines made from Cognac and partially fermented grape must. "I like to keep challenging myself," he says.

Angelic-looking Cyril Picard manages his family estate, Château de Cercy, in Denicé. The 35-year-old's philosophy is focused around making gutsy, structured, full-bodied, old vine reds as a way of proving you can make serious wine from Gamay. He also makes two delicious 100% Chardonnays. The big, bold and ballsy top-tier Cuvée Marly La Reserve is turbo-charged Beaujolais produced in miniscule amounts.

With his piercing blue eyes and bulging biceps, Charly Thévenet would look more at home on a catwalk than in a vineyard. The 28-year-old keeps things simple, producing just one 100% Gamay from his 3 hectares in Régnié. The resulting Grain & Granit has already caught the eye of American wine author and importer Kermit Lynch, who has snapped it up for the US market.

At just 25, tall, dark and handsome Mathieu Mélinand is chief winemaker at his family's 20-hectare pink granate and sand property Domaine des Marrans in Fleurie, which boasts vines up to 120-years old. Mélinand is a purist, vinifying each parcel separately for maximum expression. He also macerates the wines for up to three weeks for higher concentration.

Baby-faced Paul Henry Thillardon makes wines in the Burgundian style from 6 ha. in Chénas. The enterprising 25-year-old negotiated a deal to rent both the vines and the corresponding winery from a local doctor, who he pays in part in wine. Thillardon is passionate about making wines with character, and is experimenting with soil types. He plans to hold a rock concert at the winery next month.

Friday, 3 June 2011

The Yeatman hotel

Ask anyone in the wine trade if they’ve been to the Douro Valley and their eyes tend to brighten. Among the cognoscenti, it regularly ranks as one of the most beautiful wine regions on the planet, and yet the rest of the world doesn’t seem to have caught on yet. This is soon set to change. Enter Adrian Bridge, the towering CEO of The Fladgate Partnership – owner of Taylor’s, Croft and Fonseca, who is on a one-man mission to turn the UNESCO World Heritage site Oporto into a destination city through his ambitious new hotel project, The Yeatman, which opened its polished doors last September to much fanfare.

The family-owned five-star hotel is named after the much-loved Port producer and personality Dick Yeatman (Bridge’s father-in-law’s uncle), and occupies a monstrous slab of land in quiet Vila Nova de Gaia, a hop across the bridge from Oporto proper. Set amid 2.6 hectares of landscaped gardens atop the city’s historic Port lodges, the hotel boasts magnificent views of the Douro River and city below, speckled with terracotta-roofed houses that shine like new pennies at night.

With the aim of regenerating Vila Nova de Gaia and giving wine tourism a big push, the project began in 2006, took 20 months to build and cost €35 million. Embarking on such an ambitious undertaking in the midst of a recession may seem misguided, but Bridge is adamant that it was the right decision to see the hotel through to fruition. “It seems like a mad thing to do during a recession but travel is the one thing people don’t cut. They may stay closer to home, but they never give it up altogether,” Bridge tells me over lunch at The Yeatman Restaurant on a grizzly Monday in March. It’s his birthday, but he’s taken time out from celebrating to meet with me and explain his aims for the hotel.

An outpost of the Roman Empire and home to Port shippers for over three centuries, Oporto is one of the oldest European centres and was historically a merchant city. Bridge believes that the continued consolidation of Port companies is leaving warehouses empty and freeing up space in the city for culture, tourism and gastronomy initiatives, with The Yeatman serving as Oporto’s flagship hotel. “I want to put Oporto on the map. I want the whole city to benefit from the hotel – a rising tide lifts all ships,” Bridge enthuses.

“The Yeatman was designed around the view,” Bridge continues. “It was very important to me that every room had a view. With such a stunning cityscape on our doorstep, I wanted to make the most of it.” And make the most of it he has – not only do each of the 82 rooms (ranging from €240-€780 a night), have a jaw-droppingly beautiful view and private balcony, but every bathroom, prettified with traditional Portuguese ceramic tiles, has shutters that open out into the bedroom and the view beyond. “We wanted the rooms to be light and bright,” Bridge tells me. “Light is incredibly important.”

The expansive presidential suite is very Bond-like, equipped with a copper bathtub and a round revolving bed operated by remote control. Another suite boasts burnt orange walls and a barrel-shaped bed with a mirrored ceiling. “I had some explaining to do when I showed some old ladies round last week,” jokes general manager Pedro Alvellos. Continuing with the quirky design theme, the outdoor infinity pool is shaped like a decanter. On my visit it was covered with a net to keep out the local seagulls that have taken to landing in it for a dip. “It’s a real problem,” admits Alvellos. “I don’t know how to keep them out.”

Most of the rooms, including the 12 suites, are sponsored by a wine partner and furnished accordingly with paraphernalia relating to the corresponding winery. “We have 65 wine partners from across Portugal, including Dow’s, Graham’s, Niepoort and Quinta do Noval,” explains Bridge. “I could have gone down the Taylor-Fladgate route, but I wanted to be an ambassador for all Ports and Portuguese wines, and for the hotel to show off what we as a region and a country can do.”

In “The Library” reading room (as well stocked with cigars as it is books), Yeatman Restaurant and Dick’s Bar, pastel colours abound, from mint green to powder blue – the set-up is straight from the pages of Country Homes & Interiors, minus the labradors. The hotel enjoys a diverse clientele, mainly from Portugal and the UK, but also from France, Spain, Germany, Scandinavia and America, with a sprinkling of Brazilians and Chinese. “We get the Spaniards at Easter, the French in August and the Brits throughout the summer,” says Bridge.

The Yeatman’s 25,000-bottle cellar stocks the world’s largest range of Portuguese wines. “We’re lucky because our wine partners sell us old and rare vintages,” says Bridge. “We’ve got nearly 1,000 wines on our list.” Winemaker dinners are held at the hotel every Thursday. Focusing on a different wine partner each week, they attract wine lovers from across the city, while a cookery school is in the pipeline.

Wine director Beatriz Machado has created three lists for the hotel: an affordable selection kept in Enomatic machines that changes weekly, a seasonal selection to pair with award-winning chef Ricardo Costa’s cuisine, and a top-end library selection. Costa is going great guns at The Yeatman restaurant, serving up traditional Portuguese ingredients reinterpreted for 2011. Presented with flair, Costa's cooking is exemplary, and will do much to raise the game of Portuguese fine dining, perhaps even putting it on the international map.

The accent is on fresh produce, with a large offering of locally caught fish. The tasting menu matches dishes to a selection of wines by the glass, and experiments with everything from duck foie gras and truffle mash to crayfish and apple, and a peanut butter, banana and toffee tart. The hotel also features a 10-room wine spa – Portugal’s first, based on the Caudalie Vinothérapie Spa at Château Smith Haut Lafitte in Bordeaux. This offers an array of treatments (from €65) such as barrel baths, pulp friction massages, Merlot wraps and Cabernet scrubs, along with a Roman bath, sauna, Turkish hammam and the rather meek sounding “tepidarium”.

The eco-conscious hotel uses solar panels and a reverse osmosis system to purify harvested rainwater, while the sprawling gardens are managed as a refuge for endangered local plant species and a haven for migratory birds – there are even plans for a butterfly greenhouse. Other al fresco features include a croquet lawn and lounge bar. Bridge is confident in his quest to send tourists home as Port lovers and to put Oporto firmly on the wine tourism map. “Oporto receives 700,000 visitors a year. My aim is to train them up and have them go away as ambassadors for both Port and the Douro region. We’ve been around for over 300 years and we aren’t about to leave. This isn’t about a self-serving short-term goal. This is for the long-term.”

Thursday, 2 June 2011

Bordeaux wine labels in China

When bordeaux first growth Château Lafite announced that it was to feature the Chinese symbol for the figure eight on every bottle and magnum of its 2008 vintage in celebration of its new vineyard venture in China, case prices for the wine went up by nearly 20% overnight. The number eight in China is considered especially lucky, as the Chinese word for eight (ba) is similar to the word for prosperity (fa). Eight is considered so auspicious that the Beijing Olympics began at eight minutes and eight seconds past 8pm on 8 August 2008.

With less than 1% of the Chinese population (10 million) able to speak English fluently, the power of symbols as communicators cannot be underestimated. Able to transcend language, a symbol can be instantly absorbed and understood. “Symbols can be very powerful and immediate communicators in their own right,” says Roddy Kane, director of Hugo & Henry. “Take the Nike ‘tick’ – you don’t have to see the Nike name to know what the image is and, more importantly, what it stands for.”

With China now the most important market for Bordeaux – a case of Lafite ’82 sold for £70,000 at a Sotheby’s auction in Hong Kong last October – the Bordelais are taking interesting measures in a bid to get noticed in China, from renaming and repackaging to reinventing their brands. Already the darling wine of China, Lafite’s savvy decision to capitalise on Chinese interest and take a risk to enter a new market has made the 2008 vintage almost the sole preserve of Chinese buyers.

Before the announcement, a case of Lafite 2008 was trading on Liv-ex at £8,500. By lunchtime the day after, it had risen to £10,160, with some London merchants completely running out of stock. At the time, a spokesperson for Lafite said she didn’t know what impact the design decision would have on the value of Lafite ‘08 in China, though the suits at the château must have known that their astute move was marketing gold, and a red rag to the bullish Chinese market. Six months on, the wine is trading at around £15,000 a case, up almost a third in value since the initial price spike.

luck and respect

“To the Chinese, Lafite 2008 is the most prestigious gift you can give – a way of giving luck and respect to the recipient,” says Simon Staples, buying director at Berry Bros & Rudd. The London fine wine merchant is selling its remaining cases of Lafite ‘08 at £15,888. “We’ve manipulated the price a bit, but it’s seen as super-lucky for our Chinese customers,” says Staples. Was it a crass move on the part of Lafite? “No,” he says. “Lafite has shown it understands its consumer and is at the top of its game. I’m not aware of other châteaux changing their labels, but it’s going to happen. Call it the Lafite effect – we haven’t seen anything yet.”

However, not everyone is equally applauding. Kevin Shaw, founder of drinks design and packaging agency Stranger & Stranger, is more cynical about the move: “It’s marketing at its absolute crassest – an opportunistic ploy to drive up prices. The Chinese believe they can influence their fortunes with a few well-known talismen: the number eight, the colour red and the metal gold. They don't like white space because emptiness is unlucky and black reminds them of death. So good luck to them, and a big, fat, gold and red lucky eight to the Bordelais too. I’d have preferred to see Lafite spend its budget on tamper-proofing so a consumer would have a greater chance of drinking a real bottle of Lafite in China. Bordeaux has its eye on Asia these days – we’re going to see many more labels done by the Chinese printer.”

On the subject of fakes, Staples believes that the Lafite figure eight symbol could be easily faked, and will in no way protect the château from counterfeiting. Such is the demand for fake Lafite in the Far East that at a recent wine trade fair in China, people were openly selling fake Lafite – as you would Louis Vuitton handbags at a market – in a small room next to the main tasting room. But it’s not only Lafite which has got creative with its labels in a bid to curry favour with the Chinese. Château Mouton Rothschild chose Chinese artist Xu Lei, director of Beijing’s leading contemporary art museum, to design its 2008 label. Based on an ink drawing, the blue-hued label features the château’s signature ram standing on a rock between two moons.

Last January, rumours alone that a Chinese artist would be chosen for the ’08 label saw case prices rise from £1,800 to £2,200 overnight. When the news was officially announced last November, Mouton ’08 became the most traded wine on the Liv-ex exchange. “China has become a major consumer of fine wine, so it seemed a natural choice to select a Chinese artist,” explains Mouton Rothschild managing director Hervé Berland. Last year, wine design agency Barlow Doherty rebranded La Source, the top cuvée of right bank Bordeaux winery Château de Sours, with the Far East in mind. “The new gold label has gone down really well over there,” says director Abigail Pitcher. “We also created gift boxes for the château to help attract the Far East buyer.” The company has since created specific Chinese labels for both a Southern French and an Italian winery. “Bespoke labels for China are definitely on the rise, and red and gold figure heavily in the design brief. ‘Bling’ is still big out there, despite us having moved on in the West,” says Pitcher. The Chinese love of gold may explain why Château Palmer and its second wine, Alter Ego de Palmer, have done so well in the Far East. Both wines have gold labels, making them ideal business gifts.

Meanwhile, last year Margaux second growth Château Brane-Cantenac revamped its label for the 2007 vintage, simplifying the striking signature gold design, and turning the capsule from red to black and gold. According to Stephen Browett of Farr Vintners, there is a strong rumour that Margaux second growth Château Rauzan-Ségla, bought by Chanel in 1994, has commissioned Chanel creative director Karl Lagerfeld – who recently designed a trio of limited edition Diet Coke labels for Coca-Cola – to design its 2009 label. A Lagerfeld label would have immediate appeal in China – now the fastest-growing consumer of leather goods and jewellery worldwide, where Chanel is the second most lusted after luxury brand behind Louis Vuitton. “Rauzan-Ségla hasn’t been selling well in China, so a Chanel label would certainly give it a boost,” says Staples.

But getting a fashion designer or artist to create a bespoke wine label is nothing new. “With their latest antics to attract interest in Asia, the Bordelais are only doing what the Champenois have been doing for centuries,” says Jack Hibberd, research manager of Liv-ex, in reference to Champagne’s savvy hook-ups with artists and fashion designers. Since 1983, Taittinger has commissioned contemporary artists to commemorate vintage years for its Artist Collection series – both Roy Lichtenstein and Robert Rauschenberg have created signature labels for the Champagne house – while last October, Dom Pérignon released a limited run of Andy Warhol-inspired bottles with pop art-influenced red, yellow and blue labels for its 2000 vintage, designed by Central St Martins School of Art and Design students.

Another way the Bordelais are attracting the attention of the Chinese is by streamlining their second wines with their first. In a country where being seen to be drinking the right wines is crucial, the more a second wine looks like a first the better. Take Carruades de Lafite, or “baby Lafite” as it’s known in China. The label is almost identical to that of Château Lafite, differing only in the wording, while third wine Duhart-Milon’s label also bears a striking resemblance to the first growth. To the Chinese, drinking Carruades is the next best thing to drinking Lafite – “all our Carruades has gone to China. It’s been such a success because it looks so much like Lafite”, says Stephen Browett. “The Chinese want the best or the closest approximation to it. To them, drinking Carruades is drinking Lafite,” agrees Simon Staples.

In 2008, Château Haut-Brion gave its second wine a makeover, changing the name from Bahans Haut-Brion to Le Clarence de Haut-Brion, revamping the label to incorporate the château and rehousing the wine in Haut-Brion’s signature wide-shouldered bottle, making it incredibly similar to the original. Meanwhile, Château Lynch-Bages, known as Lan Chi Pat in China after a famous Cantonese opera singer, went down a similar route to Haut-Brion in 2009, changing the name of its second wine from Château Haut-Bages to Echo de Lynch-Bages, redesigning the label and tidying up the Lynch-Bages label while they were at it. Co-owner Sylvie Cazes says the rebrand has “made a big difference” in the Asian market.

ahead of the curve

One of the first châteaux to market its wine in Asia, Lynch-Bages was ahead of the curve in terms of understanding the needs of the Asian consumer. “I learnt very quickly that in order to be successful, it was essential to market wine with easy-to-pronounce names because consumers don’t often speak foreign languages,” says Lynch-Bages co-owner Jean-Michel Cazes. Most of the top châteaux have nicknames in China – Château Beychevelle, which has proved popular in Asia due to its distinctive Viking ship label, is known as “dragon boat wine”, while Calon-Ségur is called “flying dragon wine” because “tianlong” means celestial dragon in Chinese. Meanwhile, Ducru-Beaucaillou has been translated to “bao jia long”, meaning “treasure”, “good” and “dragon”.

The most successful wine packaging in Asia marries elements of Western sophistication with Chinese culture. The French are cornering the market with a culturally aware approach to marketing and an understanding of the importance of thinking locally. “The Bordelais have always been in tune with their customers, whether it be the Brits in the 19th century, or the Americans in the ’90s. They move where the demand is,” argues Liv-ex’s Jack Hibberd. But a word of warning to those looking to make over their brand for the Asian market: “Don’t underestimate the Chinese,” says Simon Staples. “They're an extremely savvy nation and any interlopers will be sussed out immediately.”

Wednesday, 1 June 2011

Randall Grahm, Bonny Doon

Wine and the City chats to Randall Grahm, founder and winemaker at Bonny Doon Vineyard in Santa Cruz, about his ambitious new hybrid project in newly acquired vineyard land in San Juan Bautista, where he plans to develop a super-hybridized vineyard from grapes grown from seedlings then replanted into own-rooted vines, in a marked shift from stylised wines, to wines where nature is allowed to take its course.