Thursday, 29 March 2012


I’m standing in a snaking queue populated by gazelle-like glamazons in six-inch Louboutins and slinky Issa dresses. Peering behind me, I spot former England football coach Sven-Göran Eriksson in a charcoal grey suit. He notices that I’ve clocked who he is and seems pleased at the recognition, beaming back at me with a toothy grin. We are in the coat queue at Novikov, the newly opened pan-Asian/Italian restaurant of friend of Putin, Arkady Novikov – Russia’s answer to Sir Terence Conran. Opening his first venture in Moscow in 1992, Novikov has steadily built up his restaurant empire, and now has over 50 sites in the city – including the GQ Bar and Vogue Café – under his diamond encrusted belt. Branching out of Moscow, the mogul has chosen to open his first outpost outside Russia in Mayfair.

Audaciously placed opposite paparazzi favourite Nobu on Berkeley Street, the 400-seater is the size of a small country. Manned by a burly black-clad bouncer, the revolving doors reveal a dimly lit bar prettified by the aforementioned glamazons. For Novikov is where the beautiful come to feed. All are tall, tanned, buffed and botoxed. Everyone looks vaguely famous. They probably are. Split into two restaurants, skip the more vanilla Italian and head East to the pan-Asian side, filled with more wood than a lumberjack’s holiday home. Everything that doesn’t move is wooden, from the ceiling and the floor to the tables and chairs, even the vases, home to snowstorms of white orchids, are wooden. I fear if I stay still for too long, I too will be turned to wood. A honeycomb pattern carved into the black wall panel reminds me of Doris Salcedo’s Shibboleth, affectionately known as “Doris’s crack” – the lightning bolt-like fissure that once spanned the length of the Tate Modern’s Turbine hall.

The glass-fronted kitchen is filled with nimble-fingered chefs frantically fulfilling orders. Giant king crab legs poke provocatively out of ice, as if engaged in a synchronised swimming routine. Despite its sprawling size, tables in the Asian side are so tightly packed, I’m privy to my neighbours’ Russian ramblings. From the open kitchen to the trendy lounge music, Novikov has cleverly been carved from the same mould as London’s chicest pan-Asian offerings: Hakkasan, Nobu, Zuma and Roka, like the stepbrother they never wanted. I’d turned up expecting Novikov to be a lesson in style over substance, but was pleasantly surprised by the quality of the food. Split into snacks & soups, dim sum, salads, sushi, charcoal grilled, wok dishes and rice & noodles, having perused the menu online, on asking for our order, I unscroll a sheet of paper besmirched with pink highlighter and proceed to reel off the dishes I desire, waiting for the waitress to flinch. To her credit, even after dish twelve, she kept her cool, diligently scribbling as I rattled them off quick as gunfire.

Round one consisted of an army of colourful California rolls wearing what looked like clown wigs of burnt orange flying fish caviar. Filled with fresh crab meat and just sliced avocado, we were off to a flying start. To follow came an artfully presented plate of new style salmon sashimi in a yuzu soy dressing. Cut into triangles, the translucent slithers of silky salmon were crack to the tastebuds, achingly fresh and lifted by the lemon tang of the yuzu. One of many culinary highlights was the crispy duck salad in an umami-rich Peking dressing. Flecked with jewel-like pomegranate seeds, the still warm duck was perfectly pink and pleasingly crisp, tamed by the yuzu-drizzled leaves into a refreshing, juicy, deliriously good dish worth returning for alone.

Out of the frying pan came golden brown nuggets of rock shrimp with chilli lemon mayo, neatly packed into a china bowl like deep fried popcorn, their light and crispy batter enhanced by a satisfying kick of heat from the dip. One of the only duff notes of the entire meal was the tuna tartare. Molded into a candyfloss pink mound, in a hat tip to Russia, the crest was decorated with a spoonful of Royal Beluski caviar fashioned into a blackberry. The dish had a disconcertingly smooth texture more akin to wallpaper paste than the shard-like fragments you expect from a good tartare. Amplifying the horror was an entire absence of flavour. Equally bewildered, my dining companion stopped shuddering when served a trio of pork su mai dim sum finished with tiny pocket squares of black truffle. Appearing like cupcakes in pleated cases, the meaty morsels packed a serious flavour punch, the juicy interiors complemented by the earthy truffle.

In terms of liquid pleasure, the wine list has a heavy Italian bent, with many bottles borrowed from the sister restaurant’s stock. Happily, our ebullient sommelier went off piste, offering us a bottle of Domaine Schlumberger Les Prices Abbés Riesling 2007 from Alsace, its mouthwatering, off-dry, lemon sherbet and sour apple character refreshed by searing acidity, which, in turn, assuaged the spice in the food. Lingering over the wine, we moved to the main event – the litmus test of any pan-Asian restaurant: black cod. Novikov’s arrived enshrouded in a crisp brown leaf that had to be theatrically unwrapped, revealing an enticing slice of fish gleaming with glaze. Falling off the fork, the ice white slithers were enchantingly sweet. You can’t cut corners with black cod – it needs to lounge in a miso marinade for 24 hours before being cooked, further proof of the substance behind Novikov’s style.

Desserts are an event – I opted for the chocolate orange praline, recalling the interior of a Jaffa Cake, served with a tennis ball-sized scoop of palate cleansing blood orange sorbet. With courses hovering around the £17 mark, reaching a peak at £55 for the 150g seared wagyu sirloin, feasting like an oligarch at Novikov doesn’t come cheap, but the rewards are plentiful. The food is well considered, artfully presented and nearly always expertly executed. Nobu should be worried – the (sushi) knives are out.

Novikov, 50 Berkeley Street, London, W1J 8HA; +44 (0)20 7399 4330

Château Guiraud awarded organic logo

Grand Cru Sauternes Château Guiraud has been awarded the Agriculture Biologique (AB) farming logo – France’s national logo for organic products since 1985. As reported on, The 2011 vintage will be the first Grand Cru Sauternes to carry the logo, and one of the only châteaux in the Bordeaux 1855 classification to be certified organic. Products carrying the logo must contain more than 95% organic components, and be produced within the EU.

The château started to experiment with organic farming 15 years ago and today uses no artificial pesticides, fertilisers or herbicides in the production of the sweet wine. In 1996, fed up with constant chemical treatment of his own private 15 hectares of vineyards, director of the property Xavier Planty decided he wanted to work differently. Learning the ropes with a 12ha vineyard, he suffered a number of setbacks, but working alongside an agricultural engineer, he began to regenerate the soil with liquid manure to replenish the grassy vegetation that grows naturally around vine stock.

“Rather than feed the soil with fertiliser, we feed it with bacteria; it’s easy to go bio,” Planty said. “Illnesses such as mildew are closely monitored, and with weather conditions known up to a week in advance, treatment can be giving preventively. It’s incredible to see how the fauna and flora have returned,” he added. An insect census of Château Guiraud’s 100 hectares of vineyards found 635 different varieties, compared to fewer than 200 in “conventional” vineyards.

To help expand biodiversity, 3.7 miles of hedges have been planted to help protect insects and feed them in spring. The multiplication of insects which feed on vine predators has allowed Planty to dispense completely with insecticides since 2004. While Guiraud was the first Bordeaux grand cru to experiment with organic growing, Saint-Emilion Grand Cru Château Fonroque was first to win the organic label in 2006.

The Aquitaine region is the third largest in France to experiment with organic vineyards, behind Languedoc-Roussillon and Provence in southwestern and southern France respectively. Aquitaine now has 300 organic-certified estates and 400 working towards certification. Organic vineyard area in France doubled between 2007 and 2010, then increased again by 28% between 2009 and 2010 to 50,268 hectares.

Wednesday, 28 March 2012

Ex-Mafia vineyards to boost Italian economy

Unicredit bank is to help fund the establishment of new vineyards on 150 hectares near Palermo confiscated from ex-Mafia boss Michele Greco, who died in prison in 2008. As reported on, the funding is part of a €1.2 billion EU project to integrate ex-Mafia land, including vineyards in Sicily, Calabria, Puglia and Campania, back into the legal economy.

Nicknamed "The Pope," Greco, the one time head of the Cosa Nostra, was serving a life sentence for ordering numerous murders, including the 1982 assassination of Italy's top anti-Mafia fighter, Carlo Alberto Dalla Chiesa, and his wife. The investment project aims to boost the flagging Italian economy, creating jobs which will help to establish a culture that rejects, rather than protects, organised crime. It also puts Mafia land confiscated by authorities back into productive use.

"What was an emblem of the economic force of the Mafia is now becoming a symbol of Sicily's rebirth," Sicilian economic commissioner Gaetano Armao said at the Vinitaly trade fair on Monday. So far €61m has been invested in relaunching ex-organised crime businesses. The project involves 125 hectares of vineyards and 800 hectares of olive and citrus trees. "The companies show that by defeating the Mafia you can begin to legally produce wines, oil and high-quality agricultural goods in the interest of the workers and the producers," Sicilian governor Raffaele Lombardo told AP.

Most of the land converted into productive use by the project has long been left fallow by former masters after they are jail. “By the time the vineyards can be turned over to new owners, most of the vines have died from neglect and need replanting,” said Francesco Galante, a spokesman for the Libera network, which oversees the reintegration of Mafia lands. At the beginning of the project there were acts of intimidation, including arson fires.

"It was discouraging, but then the project did well and created opportunities to work. At that point, the mood changed and the acts of intimidation stopped,” said Galante. Libera's wine business, including Centopassi – on show at Vinitaly – produced half a million bottles in 2011, generating €900,000. Each of the Centopassi wines is dedicated to someone assassinated by the Mafia. The white wine – Grillo – is a homage to Nicolo Azoti, a union leader killed in 1946.

Tuesday, 27 March 2012

Bollinger Vieilles Vignes

During a recent visit to Champagne, I was lucky enough to try the near mythical Bollinger Vieilles Vignes Françaises 1997 at Clos Chaudes Terres behind Bollinger HQ in Ay with the Wine Chick Kate Powell. The 100% Pinot Noir comes from ungrafted vines from this tiny pre-phylloxera clos and the neighbouring Clos St-Jacques. Only 3,000 bottles are made in exceptional vintages. See what we thought here...

Friday, 23 March 2012

Bond boosts Bollinger sales in Asia

Champagne Bollinger’s connection to the James Bond films is helping boost sales of the brand in Asia. “They go crazy for Bond in Asia, which is really helping with brand recognition and giving our sales a boost,” Bollinger president Jérôme Philipon told the drinks business.

“I didn’t appreciate how powerful the Bond brand was for Bollinger in Asia until I saw it. There’s so much hype surrounding the new film Sky Fall out there already," Philipon added. Bollinger has collaborated with the Broccoli family – owners and producers of the James Bond films – for 37 years, in the longest standing relationship between a film series and a brand.

“They originally came to us as they wanted to feature the most British of Champagnes in the film, and we have a big connection to the UK, being the first Champagne to be given the Royal Warrant,” Philipon said. He revealed the brand “hadn’t paid a penny” for it to be featured in the Bond films, but was lucky enough to have an incredibly strong relationship with the Broccoli family.

Having appeared in Casino Royale, Philipon confirmed that Bordeaux Premeir Grand Cru Classé Château Angélus will not be appearing in the forthcoming film. “We had the meeting last week of all the brands involved in the film and Angélus owner Hubert de Boüard was not present,” he said, admitting he is keen to do more with the Bond association due to its positive impact on the brand.

“We’ve got a couple of limited edition Bond-branded bottlings that we’re going to launch in October to coincide with the Sky Fall premier, but I’m sworn to secrecy on the details at the moment,” he said. Directed by Sam Mendez, Sky Fall will have its world premiere in London on 26 October. In addition to Daniel Craig in the role of Bond, it also stars Javier Bardem, Ralph Fiennes, Dame Judy Dench and Helen McCrory.

Outside of Bond, Bollinger is keen to step up its presence as the pouring Champagne at other movie premieres, and will be working with premieres in London, Shanghai, Hong Kong, Australia, New Zealand and the Middle East in the coming year. The house is also nurturing a number of grape varieties permitted in Champagne that have been abandoned. An experimental plot adjacent to the prestigious Terre Chaud Vieilles Vignes vineyard in Ay is planted with Savagnin, Pinot Gris, Pinot Blanc, Petit Meslier, Gamay, Arbanne and Pinot Teinturier.

“I’m really proud of what we’re doing with these plantings. We want to make the most of our terroir and experiment with all the different grapes and see what works,” Mentzendorff’s marketing and wine director Elizabeth Ferguson said, adding, “These varieties were rejected and abandoned in the Champagne region over time, but with the threat of global warming, the high acid varieties might become a vital component in the blend in the coming years.”

Tuesday, 20 March 2012

Glenfiddich breaks world record at auction

An extremely rare bottle of Glenfiddich Single Malt Scotch Whisky sold at auction last week for a record-breaking £59,350, at an event celebrating the distillery’s 125th anniversary. As reported on, the 55-year-old bottle of Glenfiddich Janet Sheed Roberts Reserve, one of only 11 in the world, smashed the record for the most expensive bottle of whisky ever sold at auction.

Described by master blender Brian Kinsman (above right) as having “a very strong pear taste,” the bottle was bought by Mahesh Patel, an Atlanta-based real estate developer. Held on New York's Liberty Island last Thursday, the auction was co-hosted by Kinsman and Entourage star and environmentalist Adrian Grenier (above left). Proceeds from the auction will benefit SHFT Initiatives, the charitable arm of SHFT, a website founded by Grenier and film producer Peter Glatzer to promote sustainability issues.

Late last year Grenier launched a sustainable wine, Stomping Ground 2009, a Shiraz, Grenache and Mourvedre Rhône-style blend made from organic and biodynamic grapes from sustainable vineyards in Paso Robles, California. "You don't have to be a stick in the mud to do right by the planet,” said Grenier, who offered up a surprise auction lot on the night – a date with him. “I’ll throw in a bubble bath,” he declared after jumping on stage with the auctioneer.

The whisky was created to commemorate the 110th birthday of Janet Sheed Roberts, granddaughter of Glenfiddich founder William Grant, and the oldest living person in Scotland. Janet Sheed Roberts Reserve has quickly established itself as the benchmark for fine and rare whiskies, with the first bottle fetching an unprecedented £46,850 at Bonhams in Edinburgh last December.

A second bottle was sold for £44,000 in February at an event hosted by Prince Harry at the Honourable Artillery Company in London in aid of Walking With The Wounded. "We're excited to have kicked off our 125th anniversary year in such an unprecedented and memorable way," said Lindsay Prociw, senior brand manager for Glenfiddich.

Saturday, 17 March 2012

Pernod to push premium wines

Pernod Ricard UK is turning the spotlight on its premium wines in order to bridge the gap between shoppers who are willing to trade up on wine, and those who actually do. As reported on, of 2,500 consumers surveyed, almost 60% said they were willing to spend more than £7 on a bottle of wine, though in reality only 11% do.

Pernod’s premium focus has been spurred on by the fact that light wine is in decline, with volumes down 2.3% on last year. “The market is flat for the fist time in many years, so we need to inject value into the category,” admitted Pernod’s deputy managing director Simon Thomas. “Premium wine is our fastest growing category, and with such a high percentage of consumers willing to trade up, it’s a compelling growth proposition."

According to Thomas, retailers could expect an average of £2.74 more a bottle from premium wine. Defined by PRUK as priced between £6.50 to £8.50, research showed premium wine is appealing to both connoisseurs and aspirational wine consumers, though Pernod has chosen to focus its energy on “floating voters” that dip in and out of the category. The company aims to make the most of its premium offering in the off-trade by making the wines readily available, attractive to look at and built around a special occasion.

Chris Shead, Pernod’s category insights director, believes the “enormous gap” between consumers’ intention to buy premium wine and actual buying habits provided a big opportunity. “The intimidating wall of wine in supermarkets drives consumers pick wines by price. We desperately need to improve the in-store experience to entice shoppers to trade up,” he said. Describing premium wine as “the engine room for growth,” Shead believes the current economic climate has lead to more people entertaining at home, who are treating themselves to better quality food and wine as a result.

To allow retailers to capitalise on the premium sector, PRUK will be offering help with in-store marketing, focused around promoting occasions. “Special occasions provide the best opportunities for trading up, so we’re giving them a big push with on-shelf video barkers, occasion neck collars and occasion cases,” said wine channel director Lee James. Pernod is also looking to maximise opportunities at deli counters with suggested premium wine pairings for cheeses and meats, and recipes on the back labels of Campo Viejo.

Friday, 16 March 2012

Lafite winery in China underway

Domaines Barons de Rothschild has begun construction of a winery in Penglai in China’s Shandong province in order to capitalise on the thirst for fine wine in Asia. As reported on, in partnership with CITIC East China Group, the new winery, in the only coastal wine producing area in Asia, is expected to produce 120,000 bottles of wine a year.

After fifteen years of research on grape planting in Asia, Lafite selected the port town of Penglai as the optimum site for its Chinese property. The company has invested £10m in the 1.73 hectare winery, and the accompanying 25 hectare estate. A completion date for the project has yet to be given. Lafite will plant different kinds of grapes in accordance with soil constituents, without the use of chemical fertilisers.

“The world’s top luxury brands are all very interested in the Chinese market, Rothschild is no exception,” said Zhang Lu, a Shanghai-based analyst at Capital Securities Corp. Outside France, Lafite also owns Bodegas Caro in Argentina and Viña Los Vascos in Chile. Penglai has a quality grape growing area of more than 10,000 hectares.

Wine production in the region has doubled to 140,000 tons in 2011 from 2005, while the number of winemakers increased to 70 from 39 in the same period. Chinese wine imports meanwhile, were worth over US$1.27bn last year, after an annual increase of 88%. According to the latest figures from Vinexpo, Asia is on course to become the world’s second biggest market for wine within the next three years.

Chinese consumers will increase the amount of wine they drink by 54% by 2015 as consumption reaches 1.9 to 2 liters per person, the Vinexpo study found. The value of wine purchases may outpace volume in the next four years, helped by high-end consumption in China, which is now the fifth largest wine market by volume.

Thursday, 15 March 2012

Bob Bob Ricard

A good restaurant is one that transports you from the humdrum of everyday life into another world – a temporary cocoon of comfort. Diner deluxe Bob Bob Ricard is such a place. From the moment the black cloaked doorman ushers you in, the journey begins. Designed by David Collins, who previously prettified The Wolseley, Bob Bob Ricard’s lavish interiors evoke an Edwardian Orient Express carriage, from the plush midnight blue booths complete with pleated lampshades and velvet curtains, which allow for intimacy amidst the buzz, to the smoked mirrors and brass railings running from booth to ceiling.

Table tops are marble, equipped with an electric socket for the silver toasters brought out at breakfast and during afternoon tea, and a golden “Press for Champagne” button. Cubist chandeliers hang from a high Venetian-mirrored ceiling, while walls, covered in paper fashioned from Japanese book bindings, are festooned with ancestral portraits, the subjects of which gaze haughtily into the middle distance. Throwing gender stereotypes out the train window, waiters wear pale pink jackets and ties while waitresses sport turquoise waistcoats.

Russian owner, Leonid Shutov, is keen to please. Every last detail is considered, from the pink and white placemats, menus and plates etched with the BBR emblem, to the pink and gold coasters – even the water bottles have a pink and white label. Attention to detail is fastidious, each intricacy adding to the pleasure of the experience. Unable to resist the lure of the Champagne buzzer, I press it excitedly, feeling momentarily transported from train to plane. Seconds later, our waitress appears and tempts us into two glasses of rich yet refreshing Pol Roger NV – Churchill, I’m sure, would have loved buzzing for his favourite fizz.

Our feast begins with a taster platter of Zakuski (Russian canapés) taken with a shot of Kauffman 2008 Selected Vintage Vodka served at a brain-freezing -18ºC in a charming cut crystal glass. Among the Zakuski is a communion host of creamy foie gras topped with shaved black truffle, quail egg mayonnaise nestled in a lettuce leaf with a razor-thin slither of salty anchovy, and a tiny white dish filled with jellied ox tongue that recalls the meaty interior of a pork pie.

A duo of exquisitely executed cold starters arrives shortly after: a flamboyant take on the ever-popular beetroot and goat’s cheese salad, and a textured venison tartare. The paper-thin beetroot shavings resemble rose petals, with fluffy goat’s cheese sandwiched in between like cream. The meaty medallion of venison meanwhile, is smooth, subtle, pure and lovely. It whispers deer rather than shouting its origins from the plate. Resting on top is a raw quail egg, its yellow innards invitingly on display, begging to be drizzled on the meat. While the egg adds lubrication, drops from an accompanying bottle of Tabasco give a vivifying kick of heat.

Nicolás, our French waiter, urges us to try the three cheese soufflé, made with Parmesan, Wigmore and Shropshire blue, served with a peanut-flecked apple and endive salad. Bob Bob Ricard is fond of apple – it weaves its refreshing way into a large number of dishes as the garnish of choice. Also present in the soufflé is a ghostly trace of truffle. If dishes don’t visibly contain truffle, they are redolent with the ghosts of truffles past. Spewing forth from its ramekin like a Mount Etna eruption, the light and fluffy soufflé’s meringue-like form reminds me fondly of a cheesy baked Alaska.

Alongside the soufflé, we’re served a duo of scallops resting on discs of apple served with grainy black pudding and a truffle dressing. The scallops are pleasingly meaty, but for £13.25, more than two would have been preferable. To wash them down, Nicolás recommends a bottle of 2007 Kumeu River Hunting Hill Chardonnay from Auckland – a creamy white with hints of lime and limestone. Tightly woven and beautifully balanced on the palate, notes of honeysuckle, orange water and Brazil nut are given weight by the judiciously judged oak.

The wine list is incredibly fairly priced, with a maximum mark-up of £50 per bottle added to the trade price, meaning many bottles are cheaper than high-end retailers. BBR is also the only place in the UK offering Château d’Yquem by the glass – the 1998 vintage is currently on sale for £26.75. I digress. Our main event is a slab of crispy suckling pork belly in a (gasp) truffle gravy dotted with glistening globes of apple sauce. The belly meat is achingly tender, while the crunchy cracking adds texture, proving a great match for the Kiwi Chardonnay.

Desserts are worth leaving room for, though this shouldn’t be hard, as portion sizes are fit only to fill up diners of Borrowers proportions. My companion’s Eton mess arrives neatly packed into what looks like an ice pink bath bomb drenched in strawberry sauce. I opt for the trio of homemade ice cream, the waitress kindly accommodating my request that all three of the trio be salted caramel.

Bob Bob Ricard is a one off. Interpreting classic British dishes like prawn cocktail and chicken kiev with a Russian twist, hat tips to the owner’s homeland can be found in frequent caviar cameos on the menu. While portions are small and prices high, there are few restaurants in London that offer such escapism. Clasped in its welcoming bosom, the restaurant takes you on a journey back to an age of elegance – a flight of fancy that requires a vivid imagination to get lost in, but a voyage worth taking. When we reach our final destination and disembark, having stepped out of the fantasy, I feel a pang of sadness, as I make my way home down the sodden Soho street.

Bob Bob Ricard, 1 Upper James St, London W1F 9DF; Tel: +44 (0)20 3145 1000; a meal for two with wine costs around £150.

Wednesday, 14 March 2012

Mood and wine matching

Forget food and wine matching, 2012 is all about mood and wine matching. Wine retailer Oddbins has launched a new website where customers can select wines according to their mood. As reported on, the site features suggested wine pairings for times of passion, contemplation and even adversity, along with wines suited to staying in, going out, or celebrating.

After a bad date, the site suggests drowning your sorrows with a bottle of Morellino di Scansano Ventoso 2010, preferably while listening to Portishead. It also recommends “writing your life story” with the help of a bottle of Bourgogne Pinot Noir 2009 Nuiton-Beaunoy, and a zippy Quinta de Azevedo Vinho Verde 2010 while watching motor racing.

The quirky new site offers a music pairing for each of its wines, from Taylor Swift (above) with Montemar Malbec, and Elbow with Grange Des Roc Blancs 2009, to Abdullah Ibrahim “after a long birthday dinner” with Churchill’s 10 Year Old Tawny Port. For less mood-driven consumers, the site also features the more conventional categories of country, grape, price and style.

The retailer plans to increase the number of wines on the site from 100 to 500 in the coming weeks. "E-commerce is an extremely important part of the new Oddbins. The design and content of the new website is in keeping with the Oddbins philosophy of making wine as accessible as possible for consumers,” said managing director Ayo Akintola.

Love it or loathe it, Oddbins is at least making an effort to inject a bit of fun and humour into wine buying. Wine desperately needs to reach out to younger consumers, and music matching is an ideal way of making wine more appealing to a younger audience. Most of us pick wines to suit our mood, albeit subconsciously, in the same way a song will strike a chord one day and jar the next. I’ve yet to put the music and wine matching theory to the test – have any matches worked for you?

Tuesday, 13 March 2012

Argentina needs to “focus on whites”

Argentina needs to start focusing more on its white wines, according to one of the country’s top producers. As reported on, Alberto Arizu of Bodega Luigi Bosca believes there is a real opportunity for high-end white blends in Argentina, and Chardonnay from the Uco Valley.

Speaking at a lunch hosted by Bancroft Wines at Gaucho in Piccadilly, Arizu (above) said: “We’ve shown the world that Argentina can do reds, now it’s time to prove our worth with our whites. Chardonnay is the second most important white grape in Argentina and we’re discovering new areas to plant it, like Lujan de Cuyo. Argentinian Chardonnay has a unique character to Chile and other New World examples."

Arizu cited the bodega’s Gala 3, a premium blend of Chardonnay, Viognier and Riesling, as an example of what Argentina can do outside Torrontés. “We’re one of the few bodegas to be working on premium white blends, and are reducing the amount of time our Chardonnays stay in oak.” He pinpointed Chardonnay from the Uco Valley as having improved “tremendously” in the past few years, producing some of the best examples of the grape. “The quality has gone through the roof. You get more freshness at the higher altitude,” he said.

Though he also sees a chance for Torrontés to quench a global thirst for freshness. “We need to ride the wave of the global demand for fresh, aromatic, dry whites – Torrontés is ideally placed to satisfy this thirst,” he said. Arizu also spoke of the importance of seeking out and shouting about Argentina’s best micro regions for Malbec. “Malbec differs greatly depending on where it’s planted. Those from the Uco Valley are floral and fresh, the Vistalba and Lujan de Cuyo examples are red fruited, while Malbecs from Las Compuertas are full bodied, spicy and complex.

“We need to communicate these terroir differences to consumers so they understand the diversity of styles of Malbec. We’re not shouting about it enough,” he asserted. Malbec aside, Arizu is keen to focus on Pinot Noir and Syrah in Argentina, both of which have huge potential but remain largely undiscovered. “Our challenge will be to develop these grapes in the most suitable terroirs, like Maipú and San Juan for Pinot,” he said.

Arizu described the Asian market as “where Brazil was 20 years ago,” but spoke of the “great potential” Argentinian wine has in China with the new generation. “They are better educated about wine and more open-minded to trying new things. The best way to promote our wines will be with the quality/price message,” he said. “A Wines of Argentina office opened in Beijing last year, which will be hugely important in spreading the word about our wines in Asia. More wine brands need to have a presence in China in order to open the category up,” he admitted.

Monday, 12 March 2012

Fine wine more solid than FTSE 100

While the FTSE 100 has been delivering poor returns in the past five years, fine wine investment is booming. The Wine Investment Fund has posted double digit returns over five years of 10.04% compared to 0.03% returns in the FTSE 100 over the same period. However, the market has taken some hits during the economic crisis, with the investment falling 15% in 2011.

Andrew della Casa, director of The Wine Investment Fund, told the Daily Telegraph that this fall is a correction from a 76% increase since the end of 2008. He predicted that by the end of 2012, the Liv-ex Fine Wine 100 index will finish 10% above its 2011 year-end level.

"So far this year it has risen 3%. Now may be the most advantageous time to buy into the fine wine market since January 2009,” he said. Last week, the Liv-ex Fine Wine 50 reached a 13-week high.

Sunday, 11 March 2012

The power of wine competitions

Wine competitions are a lottery. Evidence of the random nature of the results came to light in 2009, when winemaker and retired statistics professor Robert Hodgson published a report in the Journal of Wine Economics, which found that the winning of a gold medal at a wine competition can be statistically explained by chance alone. The report analysed over 4,000 wines entered in 13 US competitions. Of the 2,440 wines entered in more than three competitions, 47% received gold medals, but 84% of these same wines also received no award in another competition, indicating that the probability of winning a gold medal at one competition is stochastically independent from the probability of receiving gold at another. Hodgson concluded that there was almost no consensus across the 13 competitions regarding wine quality. “I take awards results with a huge pinch of salt because there’s such a huge chance for random results,” admits Andrew Maidment, director of Wines of Argentina.

But despite this rather damning report, or perhaps because of it, producers in their thousands continue to enter wine competitions, presumably under the premise that if you make a competent wine and enter it into enough competitions, that wine will almost certainly win gold eventually. Though some producers, such as South Africa’s Eben Sadie and Ken Forrester, have spoken publicly about their dislike of the wine competition model, refusing to enter any of the awards on the market. For those that do take part, wine competitions are a win-win situation for both the organisers and the participants, with the former putting them on for the profits, and the latter entering for the visibility and bragging rights a medal win brings. Further along the buying chain, consumers gravitate towards award winners in supermarkets, using the shiny gold medal sticker as a quality signpost, while retailers continue to rely on medal winning wines to boost sales.

Wine competitions serve all sectors of the industry, but with the recent proliferation of competitions flooding the market, is their power becoming diluted? Singapore-based wine writer and editor Ch’ng Poh Tiong is skeptical about the number of new competitions that have appeared in recent years: “There’s an ocean of different competitions from every wine region in the world – every wine fair has one – it’s mind-boggling.” Deborah Pratt of Canadian wine producer Inniskillin agrees: “The increasing amount of wine awards out there starts to dilute their importance. Consumers are less likely to react to the results if the market is flooded with similar competitions.”

So which competitions still carry weight? The big three: The Decanter World Wine Awards, International Wine Challenge and the International Wine and Spirits Competition appear to be in a league of their own from the rest of the competitions around the world. “As with all things, from cars to hotel chains, the brand is important,” says Poh Tiong, adding, “Reputation is everything, otherwise you’re just another competition from the rabbit’s hat.” The big three aside, Jo Ahearne, winemaker for Marks and Spencer, believes competitions with a specialist focus like the New Wave Spanish Wine Awards “give a narrower spotlight” on the winners. Local competitions are proving important in their own markets, such as the Concours Mondial de Bruxelles, Vinitaly, the Australian show competitions and the SA Awards in South Africa. “Occasionally, medal wins at a local competition can have wider influence,” says Michael Cox, director of Wines of Chile. “A big win at an Australian show can affect sales substantially, and make or break a wine’s reputation,” Cox adds, though Poh Tiong believes the idea of Australian judges awarding medals to Australian wine to be “almost inbred.”

Having organised The Wine Review Wine Challenge since 1991 – a successful wine competition born of Singapore-based wine magazine The Wine Review, Poh Tiong decided to discontinue it last year and launch an online wine competition geared around matching wines with Asian food – the Perfect Pairing Awards. “We were part of the wine awards mix, but there were so many like us, so I decided to do something completely different and focus on food pairings. It was a cold-blooded business decision, but a differentiation worth making,” says Poh Tiong. The competition pits wines against three popular dishes from three key Asian cities – this year Singapore, Hong Kong and Beijing took part. “It seemed a logical path. There’s a lot of focus on pairing wines with Asian cuisine and I think it answers the needs of the consumer,” says Poh Tiong.

Producers are becoming more cynical about wine competitions, and discerning about which ones they enter. “Wineries are getting a bit tired of supporting someone else’s bank balance,” says Gary Jordan of South African producer Jordan Wine Estate. “With everyone trading off each other, you have to ask yourself, ‘what am I getting in return?’” If properly publicised, a medal win can lead to a surge in sales. “We see fantastic sales uplifts on award winners. The increase depends on the base sales, but you can double, triple, or even quadruple sales quite easily with a well marketed win,” says Sainsbury’s wine buyer Julian Dyer, adding, “The quality of our own-label wines is unparallel, but our customers don’t necessarily know this, so an award win is a great way of proving their worth.” But recently, both winemakers and retailers have noticed that big wins don’t have the impact they used to. “You can’t win a medal and expect your wine to walk off the shelf. It’s a lot harder work now; you really have to let your customers know about it,” says Jordan. Simon Doyle of Concha y Toro agrees: “Ten years ago, awards wins had a much more immediate impact. Now it’s more steady as you go, with a gradual increase in sales rather than a sudden surge.

In a bid to shout about its numerous award wins, Concha y Toro has released a print advert featuring a wine rack filled with CyT wines, each of them labelled with their medal win alongside the tag line: ‘Which award-winning wine is your favourite?’ “Awards are one more tool in the promotional tool box,” says Alison Dillon of Wines From Spain. “We’re fortunate in the UK to have some of the top international competitions on our doorstep, but it remains to be seen whether this emphasis will shift as Asia starts to flex its wine buying muscles,” Dillon adds. In terms of catching the consumer’s eye in the aisle, opinion is divided as to whether or not to use medal stickers. “I try not to put stickers on my bottles, it’s not our style – they end up looking like Christmas trees,” says Jordan. Andrew Maidment of Wines of Argentina thinks consumers don’t understand the differences between the competitions, let alone the medals: “I read an article that said consumers consider a ‘commended ‘ award better than a bronze medal, because bronze is seen as coming third and commended means experts have given it the thumbs up.”

Stickers aside, in which markets does a big win matter most? Outside the UK, the US, Canada and Asia take awards results the most seriously, especially from the big three (DWWA, IWSC and IWC). A points-driven culture, American consumers are more open-minded about wine recommendations. “Awards results are very important in the US market. Consumers have grown up with Robert Parker and The Wine Spectator scoring wines out of 100, so a big win has an immediate impact over there,” says Concha y Toro’s Doyle. With a lack of concrete knowledge about wine, coupled with a keenness to learn, awards results also have a big impact on Asian consumers’ buying habits. “The average Asian consumer hasn’t even heard of Decanter, but if they were in a supermarket faced with four similar wines, they would gravitate towards the one with the medal,” says Poh Tiong. Doyle agrees: “Wine knowledge in Asia is at a much less mature level than in Europe, so consumers are still looking for pointers when choosing wine, and an award win carries weight. Chinese retailers are also more open-minded about marketing award wins,” he says.

Many wineries seeking representation abroad enter international competitions in the hope that a gold medal might land them a UK listing. “A big award win at an international competition could make us taste that winery’s wines if we didn’t know them, and see if they suited our style,” says M&S’s Ahearne. Maria José Sevilla, director of Wines From Spain, believes the New Wave Spanish Wine Awards serve as a barometer for UK wine trends. “We’ve seen positive effects from the awards in terms of a foot on the export market for some and new listings in the on– and off-trade for others,” says Sevilla. Though not everyone is in favour of wine competitions. Chief wine critic of The New York Times Eric Asimov can’t see the point of them: “I don’t pay attention to wine competitions and put no stock in the results. The idea that tasting several hundred wines in a day is going to yield credible and meaningful results is a myth that I’d rather not do anything to uphold. It doesn’t present consumers with the best wines in the world, only the best of what were available. Robert Parker and The Wine Spectator still carry more weight in the US with their ratings than the results of any of the big wine competitions," says Asimov.

Love them or loathe them, wine competitions are here to stay, serving both as a benchmark for producers to see how their wines match up against their contemporaries’, and a valuable quality signpost for novice wines buyers. For Andrew Maidment of Wines of Argentina, it all boils down to the need for a point of difference. “There’s a desperate desire among producers to make their product stand out. The market is so fiercely competitive, if your wine isn’t instantly recognisable as unique, then you’re a nobody.”

Article originally published in The Drinks Business magazine.

Friday, 9 March 2012

Gorgeous by Graham Beck

Gorgeous by Graham Beck, the first brand-exclusive sparkling wine bar in South Africa, has opened its doors at Steenberg Vineyards in Constantia. As reported on, taking its name from the favoured term of endearment of South African sparkling wine pioneer, the late Graham Beck, Gorgeous features the full selection of Beck’s Méthode Cap Classique wines.

Decked out with wallpaper by Vivienne Westwood and Tom Dixon light fixtures, canapés come courtesy of executive chef Garth Almazan of the winery’s Catharina’s restaurant. Among the dishes created to complement the sparking wines are Saldanha Bay oysters, poached tiger prawns and asparagus and goat’s cheese risotto croquettes.

Gorgeous will only offer Beck’s sparkling wines, either by the bottle or glass, with prices starting at SAR40 per flute and SAR200 per bottle. On show will be the brut NV, rosé NV, demi sec NV, vintage blanc de blancs, vintage rosé and the iconic Cap Classique flagship, Cuvée Clive. The bar will be open seven days a week and won’t take reservations.

Gorgeous is the latest addition to the Steenberg estate, formerly owned by Beck (pictured), which also features a hotel, spa, 18-hole golf course, Bistro Sixteen82, and Catharina’s restaurant. Beck died in July 2010 aged 80. Entering the wine business in 1983, he was a constant champion of Méthode Cap Classique sparking wines, which he made and sold through his estate, Graham Beck Wines. Beck bought Steenberg Vineyards through his Kangra Group in 2005.

Thursday, 8 March 2012

Ornellaia picks Chinese artist for 2009 art series

Super Tuscan Tentuta dell’Ornellaia has chosen Chinese artist Zhang Huan for its limited edition Vendemmia d’Artista 2009 series. As reported on, interpreting the theme of equilibrium, reflecting the character of the 2009 vintage, Huan has created a series of works around the figure of 6th century B.C. Chinese philosopher Confucius.

Entitled “Questioning Confucius,” Huan’s works include a steel sculpture of the Chinese thinker, which has been placed in the winery’s courtyard. He has also created a limited series of large format bottles, including 100 double magnums (3L) featuring a Confucius image and quotation on the pursuit of wisdom, and 10 Imperials (6L) of the philosopher during different stages of his life.

The jewel in the crown is a single Salmanazar (9L) with an oval steel sculpture engraved with the philosopher’s portrait (pictured). "Confucius thinks people should find their own position and move forward instead of disturbing the natural order of things. It is wrong to overdo it,” said Huan. “The theory of harmony between man and nature tells us to respect nature and the universe so as to establish a world of equilibrium where we can live together peacefully,” he added.

The Vendemmia d’Artista series was launched by Ornellaia in 2009 with the goal of recovering the tradition cultural patronage popular during the Renaissance. On 27 April, the winery will host a Sotheby's charity auction at the Mandarin Oriental hotel in Hong Kong, where 21 of the 111 limited edition bottles, including the Salmanazar, will be auctioned off. The net proceeds of the event will be donated to the H2 Foundation for Arts and Education.

"Every year we commission a great artist to produce a work that captures the essence of the wine, the nature of the vintage, and its personality,” said Ornellaia’s chief executive Giovanni Geddes. “In four editions of Ornellaia Vendemmia D'Artista we have raised over €600.000. A drop in the ocean, but we are proud to have been able to contribute,” he added. Based in Shanghai and New York, in addition to sculpture, Huan works as a performance artist and photographer.

This is not the first time a Chinese artist has been chosen to create a wine label for a high profile property. In 2010, Château Mouton Rothschild asked Beijing-based artist Xu Lei to design its 2008 label – a blue-hued ink drawing of the Château’s signature ram standing on a rock. The number eight is considered particularly lucky in China, as the Chinese word for eight (ba) is similar to the word for prosperity (fa).