Monday, May 31, 2010

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

The Greatest Winery in the World

As ever, a morning tasting and simple lunch at the Domaine de la Romanée-Conti is the most important, and most enjoyable, part of my annual trip to France, or, should I say, Burgundy. This year there was the extra anticipation of tasting the ‘09 wines from barrel, and the somewhat surprising newcomers to the Domaine, its vineyards in Corton.

Alas, I shall have to wait to taste the Cortons. They are in the second cellar – part of what was the winery of the monks of the Abbey St Vivant 900 years ago – above which a new office is being built for the Domaine, after 100 years in the simple, indeed spartan, office and reception area around the corner.

These works have temporarily blocked access to the second cellar, so I had to content myself with Aubert de Villaine’s answer to my question ‘Do they speak more of Corton or more of the Domaine?’ (A Dorothy Dix, I will admit). The response ‘Corton, absolutely – it is another world.’ Further questions led to the confirmation that the same vinification techniques were used, in ‘09 with a very high percentage of whole bunches.

Much has already been written about the ‘09 Burgundy vintage, along with the ‘05 the only two really successful vintages of the decade for pinot noir. It so happens that they are among the greatest vintages of the past 40 or more years, quality more than making up for the lack of quantity.

Moreover, ‘09 has made, or will make, everyone happy: the grape growers, the winemakers, the shareholders, and the consumers. Yields were good (for the low-yielding Domaine 28 to 33 hl/ha, around two tones per acre) and the growing conditions so perfect that there was little or no need to sort out defective bunches (rot, etc) in the vineyard or in the winery.

Aubert de Villaine says the vintage has elements of ‘59 (supple, succulent pinots that entranced drinkers from the word go, but had greater longevity than the ‘85s, that started on the same track) and ‘99 (in Aubert’s view, the greatest DRCs made in his time). And there is one thing that is immediately obvious as you being the tasting in the cellar: the ‘09s have the same deep colour of the freakish ‘99s.

The wines have a velvety richness and a profound depth of flavour that is almost shockingly seductive. Theoretically, you have to wait 20 or 30 years for the very different seduction of the perfume of DRC to take you in its embrace. This, certainly, is true of the Grands Echezeaux and Romanée St Vivant, and the more formidable, masculine even, Richebourg. They certainly speak of their terroir and overall provenance, but also of the vintage.

With the two jewels in the crown, La Tache and Romanée-Conti, the fulcrum swings a little, the grace and elegance of these two wines shining through. Here you have the best of all possible worlds.

Contrary to rumours that have swirled around Australia for the past few years, Aubert de Villaine has no intention of retiring any time soon. To his great relief, he has retired as Mayor of Bouzeron, a town so small the mayor sweeps the floor, puts out the cat, attends suicides (successful or not), and is on call 24 hours a day.

He is gradually inducting his 32 or 33-year-old nephew Bertrand de Villaine into the business as an assistant; at first it was for one day a week, now two. While he is genuinely interested in wine, Bertrand has built up a small chain of optometrists (his wife is an optometrist) that is still growing. So no one is in a hurry.

In the vineyard, one hectare of Romanée St Vivant is in the middle of a three-stage replanting programme. It is not that the vines are so old they have ceased to be productive, although there were planted by the prior owners, the Marey-Monge family, rather that the style of the wine is not true to the vineyard. Tasted from barrel (the last third is still to be replanted) it was easy enough to see the difference, but only the Domaine would not hesitate to remove it.

The customary tasting of blind bottled wines followed the barrel tasting. First up was a ‘99 Echezeaux (vintage disclosed), then another – something clicked without thought and I said ‘90, which it was. Discussion followed on the precocious character of DRC’s Echezeaux when it is young, when five to ten years old capable of upstaging its far more illustrious DRC stablemates, and we agreed the ‘90 was at its peak. Another foray into the museum cellar eventually led to another bottle. Disaster for all: Aubert inadvertantly showed the chalked E 64 on the side of the bottle. ‘Did we see it?’ to which there was only one answer, and the cork was already out. Moment of glory denied? Improbably. Embarrassment avoided? More likely. Anyway, the wine had been recorked in 1988, and was in fine fettle – all the slightly foresty/mushroomy nuances to the bouquet, and fraises du bois on the palate. A more than satisfactory lunch wine.

Monday, May 24, 2010

The cork, screwcap and diam debate

The passion and spirit of the late Dr John Middleton continues to walk the paths of the Yarra Valley. Mount Mary’s recent newsletter has some interesting things to say about screwcaps, against a background of a move from one-piece natural cork to Diam. I have no quarrel about the choice of Diam, although I question the belief of the Mount Mary team that the overriding problem of one-piece natural cork is or was TCA, when in fact the major problem is random oxidation due to the inherent variability of each and every cork’s oxygen barrier capacity.

What is intriguing is the assertion that one should ‘consider the copper that is added to wines under screwcap to keep the sulphides at bay’. No competent winemaker would add copper in such an amount and at such a point of time that any copper or copper sulphate would remain in the wine. We certainly don’t do that at Coldstream Hills, and I am pretty certain there are very few who do.

The carbon footprint issue also arises. Anyone who has been to Portugal to see the cork production process knows that considerable amounts of energy are used at various stages of the harvesting and treatment of cork, before it is then transported around the world. Diam involves an extra level. It may be light, but it has a considerable volume, and this is part of the shipping cost calculation. Screwcaps are made in Australia with minimal transport/carbon footprint consequences. This, I readily acknowledge, will have passionate advocates on either side of the debate. Also, I am unaware of aluminium toxicity causing proven health problems in Australia. It’s certainly not asbestos.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Lunch at Domaine Dujac

Lunch at Domaine Dujac with a super-wealthy American quartet who just happened to have a bottle of ‘82 Krug with them and a bottle of ‘08 Ramonet Bienvenues Batard Montrachet, the Krug as fresh and lively as the day it went into the bottle (or so it seemed). Prior tasting of refined, elegant ‘07s and seriously powerful (for Dujac) ‘08s. Two masked bottles for lunch, one fresher than the other, both ethereal and proclaiming ‘78 as their vintage: Charmes Chambertin more difficult to pic, then a ‘98 Charmes Chambertin. I was happy with the dregs of the ‘78.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Auprès du Clocher

Small but very good new restaurant in Pommard Auprès du Clocher (1 rue de Nackenheim, 21630 Pommard; phone +33 3 8022 2179 – no fax/email). 2007 Coche-Dury Meursault on wine list at $100 irresistible. Owner/chef Jean-Christophe Moutet spent 16 years at Lameloise (3 star in Chagny) and it really shows. Brilliant €40 menu; top presentation and even better tasting dishes freshly inspired, not derivative.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Discounting – nothing new under the sun

The other day I was re-reading a book I wrote in 1994 for the Australian Wine and Brandy Corporation: A History of the Australian Wine Industry 1949-1994. At page 42 I quoted Gunther Prass, then Chief Executive of Orlando saying ‘I remember the first discount I came across; in 1978 a discount of 5c per 4 litre cask to Tooth Wine and Spirits in Sydney for the supply of five semi-trailers of cask wine.’

What started as a trickle, rapidly became a torrent, and by 1982/83 was out of control. The Bulletin magazine (27 April 1982) commenced a major article on the state of the wine industry with the following: ‘Savage discounting of wine has become the ultimate marketing folly for the Australian wine industry. What started as a means of carving out a market share has turned into a deadly war of survival for the country’s 300 odd wine producers.’ I went on to write

‘During 1981 and the early part of 1982, GJ Coles acquired 54 Claude Fay’s stores (a chain which had itself come into being in the latter part of the 1970s), 14 Liquorland stores and the Colonial Cellars’ chain – all in Sydney alone. Woolworths had acquired or opened 36 outlets in New South Wales, while by April 1982 Myer already had 90 outlets across the country, having purchased the San Remo and Crittenden’s Fine Wine stores in Melbourne.

If the buying power of the chains put huge pressure on the wine companies, it also put pressure on the independent fine wine retailer, and established a cyclical pattern which has continue through to the 1990s. The smaller independent retailer either has to excel with the quality of its service, advice and wine selection; form an alliance with other similarly operated stores and hope to gain leverage against the wine companies and wholesale distributors; or accept the offer-which-cannot-be-refused from a corporation seeking to have the best of both worlds – up-market fine wine stores and real bulk buying power. More than a few such aspirants have leant that the best of both worlds is not easily attained, with a consequent merry-go-round of ownership.’

And to think that 30 years later we are wailing (justifiably) about the collective power of the Coles and Woolworths groups.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Blast from the past: UK Wine & Spirit Magazine in August 1990

James Irvine (of Irvine Wines) is a self-confessed bower bird, and the other day sent me a photocopy of a quite long, Focus Interview (of myself) that Anthony Rose wrote for the UK Wine & Spirit Magazine in August 1990.

The interview covered many things, but the question and answer that James Irvine was interested in read as follows:

Anthony Rose: How do you see the future direction of Australian wine? Is there a danger of supply outstripping demand and the industry dragging small winemakers down with it?

James Halliday: Yes, there is a danger. The industry’s paths of history are littered with these corpses of under and oversupply victims. There’s no question that we’re going to see a radical repositioning of chardonnay. The position that chardonnay has had over the last 20 years is irrational. Why on earth should chardonnay bring A$2000 a ton when semillon, which costs precisely the same amount to produce brings A$500 a ton. It makes no sense. We’re going to see chardonnay ranged on the shelves at the same price at the bottom end as Rhine riesling, or anything else you care to name ... 100 per cent in casks. ... Plantings of chardonnay are going to double over the next year or so. Those who’ve hung their star on chardonnay are going to have a tough time of it.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

UK wine scams

I am a member of the UK-based Circle of Wine Writers, and have been a member for many years. I have lost track of the scams run in the UK by $2 companies offering deals of the century on Champagne and Classed Growth Bordeauxs. You pay your money upfront for en primeur offerings, and promised delivery (or large resale profits) once the wines become available. In the alternative, the wines will be purchased on your behalf and safely cellared in ideal conditions. The only problem is the entrepreneurs simply pocket the money without bothering to even go through the motions of securing the wines. Now a recent report from the UK says that hundreds of people are believed to have lost money after responding to two national newspaper advertisements by offering ‘huge savings on fine wines and Champagnes’.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Rat Attack

Ever since after a month-long overseas trip to France I returned to find that a rat had taken a particular liking to six bottles of 1916 Chateau Coutet, gnawed away the lead capsule and then as much as it could reach of the cork, before pushing the remainder of the cork into the bottle with its nose, I have conducted more or less continuous warfare against rats in my cellar.

It has never occurred to me that screwcaps might be subject to rat attack. Ken Helm ( has sent me the following email, and photographs of the damage caused to screwcapped bottles in his cellar. Amazing!


Rat in the Racks May 4 2010

Rats attacking the screw caps on wine bottles, in wine racks, have been noted by Ken Helm of Helm Wines in Murrumbateman. The cold wet weather at this time of the year, forces rats and mice to seek shelter in buildings, and a cellar can be very attractive for them. This has uncovered a problem as yet not reported.

It seems that Rats like to chew the tin foil of screw caps which can result in loss of valuable wine (see photo). The damage can be expensive, and Ken recommends precautions be taken, by collectors who have their cellars in garages or under the house which is open to rodent occupation.

Friday, May 7, 2010

Doom and Gloom in the Wine Industry

Many parts of the Australian wine industry are under sustained economic attack. While there is broad recognition that the vineyard area of Australia needs to be reduced, there is much debate about the where and the when. The when is a bit like carbon trading, with a lot of grape growers waiting for others to make the first move. The where is even more contentious. The Winemakers’ Federation of Australia has sent briefing teams around the majority of the premium regions outside the Riverina/Riverland irrigation areas suggesting that anything up to 40% of the vineyard area in the region being visited is not economically viable, and there should be a substantial reduction in the vineyard area.

So far as I can understand it, the rationale is that it is in fact only the Riverina/Riverland areas that are capable of growing grapes at a sustainable price per tonne. If that is true, the logic is very strange. The Riverland Winegrape Growers Association executive Chris Byrne has given an interview in which he makes the following points:

“The Riverland grape grower was getting 66c from a bottle of wine in 2000, but it has dropped to only 27c a bottle this year.”

The Riverland Winegrape Growers Association has reported that the price per tonne for Riverland grapes has fallen from $673 in 2002, to only $265 this year, lower than the price of grapes 20 years ago.

Quite apart from the fall in prices per tonne, Riverland production has dropped from 432,000 tonnes in 2005 to just 260,000 tonnes this year.

Mr Byrne is quoted as saying “The region’s grape income this year is utterly unsustainable, with businesses only surviving by liquidating assets.” He added that at least 4,000 hectares of vines had been taken out of production in the Riverland in the past three years. He continues “If the price we receive for grapes this year continues, we could lose that many more hectares again.”

The Catch 22 is that a sufficient rise in grape prices to make the growers happy, matched by a reasonable margin in the FOB prices for wines headed to Britain, will make the wine unsaleable.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Hoddles Creek Estate

The discreet entrance of Hoddles Creek Estate verges on the Burgundian model, where there is a small metal plaque the size of an A4 sheet of paper at best, or nothing at all. The latter is apparently based on the presumption that if you have business with the winery, you will know where it is (mostly underground, sheltered by the house of the winegrower). Hoddles Creek Estate is one of the little known jewels of the Yarra Valley, owned by the D’Anna family, with son Franco the winemaker, producing superb wines at ludicrously low prices. More to come in a few weeks, but in the meantime, go to or 505 Gembrook Road, Hoddles Creek, VIC 3139.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Penfolds and its annual release

Peter Gago, Andrew Caillard and I gathered to taste the new Penfolds releases for a live video cross to the United States, New Zealand and (if my memory serves me right) Sweden. The photos show us at work, and, from the other side of the fence, our tele-keepers likewise at work.

No question that the brilliantly fine 2008 Reserve Bin 08A Chardonnay reflects the continued refinement of Penfolds’ chardonnays, and of Australian chardonnays in general. It is a light year removed from the first vintage of Yattarna, as, for that matter, is the 2007 Yattarna. The 08A was one of the highlights for me. 96 points; drink to 2023; 13% alc/vol; screwcap; $90

Of course, everyone is interested in the Grange; for reasons of protocol I was not able to do an up-to-date tasting for the 2011 Wine Companion, relying instead on the September 2007 Rewards of Patience tasting. In fact, not too much has changed. The ‘05 is a more classic and compact wine than the ‘04. The fruit line of the ‘05 is glossy and smooth, the tannins and acidity acting as a break, and giving tightness. It has a long future ahead. 96 points; drink to 2045; 14.5% alc/vol; cork; $650

The Henry Review – Steady as it goes

Notwithstanding persistent leaks that there would be a volumetric tax based on the alcohol content of all alcoholic products, the Government has decided to stay with the existing system for wine. It won’t please everyone in the industry (especially not Margaret River and Tasmanian movers and shakers) but most are pleased with the outcome. Stephen Strachan, Chief Executive of the Winemakers’ Federation of Australia, says:

“Unnecessary change would have devastated the wine industry at a time when it is dealing with its toughest period in more than two decades. Our modelling shows that taxing wine in the same way as packaged beer, and removing the WET Rebate, would see 95% of wine increase in price, sales volumes fall by 34%, 29,000 hectares of vineyard become redundant and about 12,000 jobs lost.

Most of those jobs would be in regional areas where wineries are crucial contributors to tourism and thus to economic development.”

The cynical will say that this (along with many other responses by the Government to the report) is driven by the upcoming election. There will doubtless be continuing concern that this is a not-now, and a probably-later decision.

Global warming and early vintages

It seems to have been taken for granted that early vintages are bad news for wine quality. I have begun to ask winemakers whether they believe the quality of their wines has suffered from early picking, and, so far, with the exception of the cauldron of 2009 in the Yarra Valley, all have responded in the negative.

In Alex Head’s autumn newsletter and mail list offer he touches on the November 2009 heatwave that savaged fruit-set for grenache, reducing yields by up to 90%. He then continues (and I quote), ‘One feature this early burst of heat introduced was an accelerated ripening of all varieties across the Barossa. One grower pointed out that in 25 years he had never seen riesling and cabernet picked at the same time. This unusual occurrence meant that all my vineyards had ripe, brown, crunchy seeds, deep colours and physiological ripeness at lower than normal baumes (potential fruit alcohols). I took advantage of this feature and picked in the first weeks of March, pushing hard my philosophy that freshness, natural acid and low alcohol will ultimately produce the more balanced and drinkable wine.’

Incidentally, he also characterises the 2009 vintage as similar to the very cool 2002 growing season. And so it was, except for the terrible two weeks of heat and fire in early February; the weather either side of that event was particularly good, and is the reason why many quite beautiful chardonnays and rieslings were made.