Monday, 19 November 2012

The death of the wine writer?

Last Friday, I wrote a news piece on based on wine writer Andrew Jefford’s comments from the European Wine Bloggers Conference in Izmir, Turkey, earlier this month, where he hailed the wine writer to be “dead” in a keynote speech. The piece attracted a lot of attention and debate, so I thought it was worth featuring here on my blog. Interestingly, I am an example that goes against Jefford’s argument, as I make my living as a full-time wine writer.
I appreciate that I am hugely lucky and in a minority, but there are still a few of us out there, and the traditional media of newspapers, magazines and books is far from dead, but rather being forced to adapt to our techno-focused times. There will always be room for talented writers in all fields – you just need to work incredibly hard and network your butt off in order to succeed in today’s ever-competitive publishing industry. What do you think – is the wine writer dead?
Here’s the Jefford story I ran: Award winning wine writer Andrew Jefford has hailed the wine writer to be “dead”. During an address at the European Wine Bloggers Conference in Izmir, Turkey, last week, Jefford said: “The fact that this conference exists is proof that the old wine writing world has disappeared. The creature which we used to call ‘a wine writer’ has died.” Jefford revealed in his speech that print articles represent under 40% of his income, a percentage that is falling every year, describing it as “the least remunerative of the things I do.”
He suggested the word “communicator” as a better descriptor of today’s wine professionals. “There are no more livings to be made exclusively in the old way. The wine world probably doesn’t need more writers,” he admitted, though said there was still a need for “multi-tasking communicators”. He also warned against those seeking to become “generalist” wine writers. “Can anyone hope to be a generalist in a wine world which, like the universe, is expanding rapidly in every direction?,” he asked.
With the rise of the internet, Jefford believes the “old gatekeepers”: newspapers, magazines and publishing houses, are becoming less important as an arena for wine writing. “Those who can generate income without recourse to the old gatekeepers will be creating the most durable and profitable model for wine writing in the future,” he said.
Finally, he made a plea for more humour and irreverence in today’s wine writing. “There is an urgent vacancy for humorous, witty, caustic writing about wine powered by gonzo irreverence. The vast majority of wine drinkers take it for granted that wine is inseparable from hilarity. Almost all of us take it too seriously, too earnestly, too reverently,” he said, urging wine bloggers to  “let rip”. 

Wednesday, 14 November 2012

Vintage cocktail trend gathers pace in London

The recent trend for cocktails made from ancient spirits is gathering pace in London with the news that boutique Shoreditch bar the Nightjar has launched a cocktail list featuring rare vintage spirits at deliberately affordable prices. The ambitious menu is made up of scarce examples of all the major spirits sourced over the past two years by co-owner Edmund Weil and bar manager Marian Beke at auction and through specialist dealers. 

Given the Nightjar’s speakeasy theme, the aim was to create a collection of cocktails made with bottles from the golden ages of alcohol history. “While other bars might crank up the price of vintage spirits to eye-watering levels, ours sell at affordable prices so a wider audience can enjoy incredibly fine alcohol,” says co-owner Rosie Stimpson. Highlights include a bottle of 1863 Hannisville Rye from Hannis Distillery in West Virginia, which predates Prohibition by 57 years.

Also on the list is a rare Monticello Rye from Baltimore dating back to the 1880s, the favourite brand of Baltimore journalist and anti-Prohibitionist H.L Mencken. Regarded as one of the most influential American writers of the first half of last century, Mencken spoke out against the temperance movement, calling Prohibition “a horror”. Other vintage spirits featured include El Chico rum from the 1930s, Dow’s Pigeon Blend Scotch whisky from the 1920s, Marnier Lapostolle Cognac (c.1910), and Fox's Cherry Brandy from the 1940s.

“We’re excited about offering our customers the chance to sample what are essentially liquid time capsules,” said Beke. Measures are available from £30, while a Manhattan made with rye from 1863 and a Martinez mixed with 1910 Old Tom gin are priced at £100. A taste of British liquid history is available through a rare bottle of Pimms No. 1 (c. 1905), from the brand’s heyday when the company was owned by Mayor of Lonodn Frederick Sawyer.

Last month, “maestro” bartender Salvatrore Calabrese broke the Guinness World Record for the most expensive cocktail at The Playboy Club with “Salvatore’s Legacy,” priced at £5,500 a glass. The cocktail was composed of 40ml of 1788 Clos de Griffier Vieux Cognac, 20ml of 1770 Kummel Liqueur, 20ml of 1860 Dubb Orange Curaçao and two dashes of Angostura Bitters from the 1900s.

Thursday, 8 November 2012

Guigal dinner at Christie’s – The La Las: La Mouline, La Turque, La Landonne

While they might sound more like a Telebubby than a trio of some of the world’s finest wines, people are going gaga for the La Las. La Mouline, La Turque and La Landonne, affectionately known as the La Las, are the three single vineyard wines of Guigal, the most famous and finest producer in the Côte Rôtie. 
Having clocked up more perfect 100-point scores from influential wine messiah Robert Parker than any other wine producer, Pétrus and Screaming Eagle included, the La La’s have become some of the most highly sought after wines in the world, not least due to their miniscule production. In 2007, the 2003 vintage of the La Las set a record for the most expensive Rhône wines ever released, with bottles selling for as much as £500. Imagine my delight then, dear reader, when I was invited to taste all three at an intimate wine dinner at the plush King Street HQ of Christie’s auction house.
Taking my place beside our affable Antipodean host, Guigal’s brand ambassador Brett Crittenden, we were quickly brought up to speed with the estate’s rich history over a glass of Guigal’s waxy, honeyed and intensely aromatic La Doriane Condrieu 2010. Setting out as a teen to earn a living picking apricots, having arrived in Ampuis, an ancient village in the Côte Rôtie boasting a 2,500-year winemaking history, entrepreneurial Etienne Guigal soon secured a job at Vidal Fleury, at the time the most powerful producer in the Rhône. Guigal’s rise through the ranks was meteoric, working his way up from cellar hand aged 14 to cellar master in the 1940s.
Before Crittenden proceeds with the story, we’re served a rich terrine of foie gras fragrant with white truffle oil and tempered by jasmine jelly. Tucking in, Crittenden continues… Having accrued sufficient experience, in 1946 Etienne branched out and founded his eponymous estate, E. Guigal, in Ampuis. In addition to the near-mythical La Las, Guigal produces wine from appellations across the Rhône, including around 45% of Condrieu’s annual production, but is best known for playing a pivotal role in raising Côte Rôtie's global reputation. 
Guigal shot to international fame in the mid ‘80s when Parker heaped praise on the La Las, commenting: “I have never seen a producer so fanatical about quality as Marcel Guigal.” The Maryland critic’s backing helped catapult Côte Rôtie onto the international stage, allowing it to emerge from Hermitage’s shadow.
 Gagging to try the reds, we begin with a comparative tasting of Château d’Ampuis 2003 and 2005. Made in vast quantities compared to Guigal’s single vineyard wines, with around 30,000 bottles produced each year as opposed to a few hundred cases of each of the La Las, while 95% of all Côtes du Rhône is based on Grenache, Guigal has always chosen to showcase Syrah. The inky 2005 had the edge over the spicy 2003, its dense, expressive nose showing notes of plum, pepper and blackberry, though both matched well with the accompanying, perfectly al dente, autumnal mushroom risotto.
Succumbing to blindness in 1961, Etienne handed over the reins to his son Marcel, who adopted a simple winemaking approach: low yields, organic viticulture and minimum intervention in the cellar. His relentless work ethic and dedication to quality has cemented Guigal’s place in history as the world’s leading Rhône estate. Snapping up Vidal Fleury in 1984, Marcel then acquired, restored, and in 1995 relaunched the wines of the aforementioned Château d'Ampuis. Today, Marcel’s son Philippe, a father of young twin boys, looks after winemaking at the estate. With 60 hectares in the Northern Rhône, he is custodian of the finest collection of old vine vineyards in the Côte-Rôtie.
With our roast duck main on the table, it was time to try the legendary La Las, each of which undergoes a staggering 42 months in new oak before bottling. Expectations were great. We sensibly begin with the most restrained of the three – La Mouline 2006. The intoxicating perfume of its exotic nose offered floral spice, wild herbs, bacon, earth, iodine, truffle, red cherry, minerality and hints of summer fruits, along with a polished palate of spun silk. Making its debut in 1966, La Mouline, a mere 400 cases of which are produced a year, is the first of the La Las to be harvested. Made from old vine Syrah and Viognier from a single vineyard in the Côte Blonde, the wine includes the highest proportion of Viognier of Guigal’s single vineyard wines (around 10%), and as a result, is the most floral, feminine and elegant of the trio.
Next up is La Turque 2006, described by Brett as having an “electricity” to it. Reigning from a parcel of old vines inside the Côte Brune, La Turque, meaning “The Turk”, is typically a blend of 93% Syrah and 7% Viognier. Displaying both the power of La Landonne and elegance of La Mouline, La Turque started out in 1985, and, like the other La Las, is aged in 100% new French oak for 42 months. Straddling both spheres, it is denser and more opulent than La Mouline, but less powerful, structured and tannic than La Landonne. The ’06 showed notes of damsons, blackcurrants and violets, and had an enticing vitality to it. Like La Mouline, production hovers at around 400 cases a year.
Dinner hit a powerful note with Guigal’s beast of a wine – La Landonne 2003, crafted from 100% Syrah, making it by far the most tannic of the trio. Bottled first in 1978 from 20-year-old Côte Brune vines, the lack of the softening touch of Viognier makes it the most masculine of the La Las. The ’03 was packed with blackberries, black cherries, chewy tannins, tobacco and truffle notes, though refreshed by a mineral core. While taking much longer than the other two to mature, La Landonne, I’m told, rewards those patient enough to wait for it to reach its full potential. The 2003 was still miles off maturation.

Ending with a glass of La Turque 1994, which, while retaining the energy of its youth had mellowed magnificently, mirroring the elegance of La Mouline, I bypassed the selection of Rhône cheeses in favour of a midnight amble around the gallery on the lower floor, scattered with modern artworks worth millions still in their bubble wrap leaning nonchalantly against the walls. From a Damien Hirst dot painting to a cryptic quintet of Gerhard Richter doors, to see such valuable works in such a casual context was a rare and thrilling treat. 

Wednesday, 7 November 2012

Trotter’s wine treasure trove up for grabs

Chicago chef Charlie Trotter is to sell off his treasure trove of a wine cellar from his eponymous fine dining restaurant Charlie Trotter’s, which closed this August after 25 years of service. As reported on, the 4,0000-strong collection, featuring an array of large format bottles, will go under the hammer at Christie’s New York. The auction house has split the collection into 700 lots, selling the first half live on November 16, and the second half in an online-only auction from 20 November to 4 December.
For a quarter of a century, Trotter’s 1,800-bin wine became renowned for both its benchmark fine wines and savvy buys. The Christie’s sale will feature offerings from the world’s premier wine regions, including Burgundy, Bordeaux, Champagne, California, Tuscany and Piedmont. Among the large-format bottles, are double magnums of Château Haut-Brion Blanc 1994, imperials of Château Lafite, Latour and Mouton-Rothschild, and 15L Nebuchadnezzars of Château Pichon-Longueville and Lynch-Bages.

A fizz fan, Trotter’s cellar also boasts a large number of magnums of Krug and Dom Pérignon Oenothèque 1990. Highlights of the live sale include a dozen bottle lot of Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, including La Tâche 1996 and 1999, and DRC 1997. Also up for grabs are Domaine Leroy Corton-Clarlemagne 1995 and Vega Sicilia Unico 1970. Meanwhile, the online sale will feature over 400 lots, including five bottles of Château Cheval Blanc 1945 expected to sell for £5,000, with estimates beginning at just £31.
Trotter, 52, was among the first to popularise tasting menus and was an early advocate for cooking with fresh, seasonal ingredients, offering vegetarian menus and even a raw menu for guests. He is currently pursuing a graduate degree in philosophy and plans to open another restaurant after he finishes his studies, though remains tight-lipped about any further details.