Tuesday, 30 September 2008

Weird Grapes

My neighbours have nearly 30 hectares of near perfect viticultural vines. They work 7 days a week 365 days a year in order to look after the land. They are delightful people, two brothers in their late 50's/early 60's who live in a ramshackle farm house at the top of the hill with their mother(who must be well in to her 90's)!

Their father passed away a few years ago. He was known locally as the 'helicopter man' as he drove around with an open top Citroen 2CV with a large electric fan cooling him down! Sounds like a bit of a character. The family arrived in this area(originally from Spain) with no possessions over 60 years ago. They have grafted all their life and built up their vineyards and never sold anything. They have absolutely no ostentatious trappings of prosperity. They are just very hardworking people who know a lot about the soil, the vines, the winds, the rain, the sun and how to make things grow! ...essentially the most important things in life.
They are old fashioned in their approach to viticulture but they weigh up decisions with 50 years experience rather than the latest fashion.
They pick all their grapes by hand. The picture on the left is the harvest team in full action. I lasted about 15 minutes before I was left behind! They were picking grapes on the vines about 200 metres from our house. I was intrigued to see a mixed block of white and red grapes. Apparently this was the norm 50 years ago when this vineyard was planted. The grapes in the picture on the right (which looked incredibly healthy) are a mix of Listan (white) also known as Palomini Fino and Aramon (red). Look up wikipedia for more info. But these grapes are an essential fabric of the amazing mix of life in the South of France.

Friday, 26 September 2008

Vin de Merde

A Languedoc producer has recently produced a wine and labeled it 'Vin de Merde'.
He has attracted attention...and he has sold all his 5000 bottles that he produced.
Jean Marc Speziale from Aniane near Montpellier said that he wanted to bring attention to the Languedoc and let people be aware of the hidden gems.
I just think he is an idiot. I have had enough of these stupid wine labels. Cats pee on a goosberry bush Sauvignon Blanc was funny initially. Fat Bastard Chardonnay was also OK. Arrogant Frog and Ribet Red have a sense of irony as the wine is produced by a smart and decent quality French wine producer (at least he has a sense of self deprecating humor).
But 'Vin de Merde'.....is just classless and naff. Or am I just an old fuddy duddy?

Tuesday, 23 September 2008

This was an intesting article from The Independant Newspaper yesterday:

British wine buffs rediscover taste for claret

By John Lichfield
Monday, 22 September 2008

Sales of claret have soared largely because of the exceptional quality of the 2005 harvest

Getty Images

Sales of claret have soared largely because of the exceptional quality of the 2005 harvest

Britain is rediscovering its 800 years old taste for Bordeaux wines. After a collapse in sales to the UK five years ago, exports of medium and higher quality red Bordeaux, or claret, are booming – defying the economic crisis which haunts other parts of the French wine industry.

Sales of Médoc and Haut Médoc appellation wines – long a British favourite – have more than doubled in quantity in the 12 months to the end of June. Sales of the higher price "village" appellation wines from the same areas have increased by 28 per cent. Overall exports of Bordeaux to Britain, red and white, have increased by 13 per cent in volume in the year to July and by 52 per cent by value – despite a sharp fall in overall wine exports from France to the UK.

What explains the sudden shift in British tastes? Are UK wine-lovers abandoning their flirtation with "New World" and Spanish and Italian wines and returning to their first love, Bordeaux (a taste established when south-west France was English-ruled in the Middle Ages)? Yes and no. The boom reflects a wider recovery in the fortunes of even the cheapest forms of Bordeaux, which were in deep crisis until a year ago. But exports of medium and higher quality red Bordeaux to Britain, and the US, have exploded in the last year largely because of the near-mythical reputation achieved by 2005 claret, regarded as one of the finest years in living memory.

The cheaper forms of red Bordeaux – and all white Bordeaux – have not benefited to the same extent. They have suffered, like many other French wines, from the collapse of sterling and the dollar against the euro. Total exports of cheap and middle-range French wines have tumbled by 15 per cent this year. It is noticeable, however, that other growing regions – such as Languedoc and Côtes du Rhône – have suffered far more than Bordeaux or Burgundy.

"The figures are very encouraging," said Jean-Philippe Code, chief economist of the CIVB, the main trade body for Bordeaux wines. "Britain is one of our most important markets."

Sales of middle-range Bordeaux wines – those which retail in Britain at between £6 and £10 a bottle, and especially those from the Medoc – were "quite exceptional", up 118 per cent. While cheaper Bordeaux did far less well, partly because of the high value of the euro, the highest-quality Médoc, which carries individual village names and sells at £10 to £25 a bottle, also jumped 28 per cent.

M. Code says the boom can be explained in large part by the "2005 effect". That year's Bordeaux vintage, both red and white, but especially the red, is regarded as the finest for many decades. Though it can be kept, middle-range 2005 Bordeaux is now drinkable and has been appearing – and rapidly disappearing – in wine shops and supermarkets in the UK in the past 12 months. The 2006 Bordeaux vintage is also thought to be very good, but 2007 is considered mediocre.

"It is clear that the French, or some of the French, are beginning to get their act together," said Richard Halstead, operations director for the British marketing company, Wine Intelligence.

"The British love affair with French wine has never really ended. There is a large, educated public in Britain for French wines at a good price, especially wines that will keep and prove to be a good investment."

"All is in the lap of the gods," said André de la Bretesche, director of the association of producers of generic Bordeaux and Bordeaux Superieur.

"The next two weeks are crucial. If we continue to have fine weather, the 2008 red vintage could be marvellous."

Yes....Bella Wines have some superb 2005 Bordeaux wines available.

Saturday, 20 September 2008

Inside the monster

This is the inside and outside of a grape harvesting machine. In the pic on the right the side hoppers are normally lower down...it was just being cleaned at the end of the day and the kids thought it looked like a monster. The machine is loud and bulky. The grapes are essentially riddled as they pass through the white bars (that look like whalebones) on the left. The grapes and bunches drop down in to the plastic light brown pouches which then transfer the grapes in to the big side hoppers. When the hoppers are full they are emptied in to a trailer and the grapes are taken to the winery.
More and more machines are being used around the South of France and the traditional pickers are becoming scarce.
Some stats:
1.It takes 8 pickers and two porters/tractor drivers one day to pick one hectare of grapes by hand. The grapes arrive steadily at the winery over the course of the day. The grapes will be in good condition (bunches intact)with very little abrasion. Perfect for making wine. Presuming all 10 workers are earning the basic agricultural minimum wage then this is a costly exercise.
2. It takes one man driving a grape harvest machine and one man driving the tractor with trailer approximately 2-3 hours to pick the same area (one hectare). The grapes arrive much quicker at the winery, however they have been severely shaken/battered.

The advantages of hand picking are obviously the quality of the grapes. However the economic advantage of the grape harvest machine are also significant. The machines have certainly evolved enormously over the last few years and they are less hard on the grapes....but there is still a lot of free run juice arriving with the grapes at the winery, which is not ideal when the winemaker wants to control the fermentation more precisely. The other advantage of the machine is the pure speed. The vineyard owner can be far more precise for harvest and also pick all his grapes at absolute optimum ripeness...whereas a team of pickers take a long time to get around all the vines.
I love tradition but these monster machines seem to be taking over.....this machine cost €70,000. The cost/investment should be justified over a five year period.

Thursday, 18 September 2008

Wine Traditions

The harvest has started slowly in the Minervois. After the white grapes were picked there has been a slight lull as the red grapes ripen a bit more. Wine growers just want the acids in the pips and the grapes to ripen a tiny bit more before the main part of the harvest is picked. The roads are all blocked with tractors, trailers and the monster harvest machines as some of the early (softer skin) reds are being picked.
This morning I got in to the office early to get some work done. At 7.30am some friends who work in the winery stopped for their 'breakfast' with their daughter. I was pleased to see that the menu consisted of a baguette, some coarse pate and a bottle of red! Some traditions are superb. It certainly beats a cup of coffee and a bit of toast. At least there were low 'food miles' involved.

Wednesday, 17 September 2008

Why is always the most expensive wine corked?

I visited customers last week in England and tasted some fantastic wines.
Decisions now have to be made for pre Christmas orders, so it is an important time.
With one wine merchant I set up a tasting of three different vintages of Chateau Haut Maurac, Cru Bourgeois Medoc. It was really interesting to see the 2003 next to the 2004 and then the 2005. These wines will sell at the important price level between £12-£15.
To review:
2003 Ch. Haut Maurac....very smooth evolved, but very well balanced style. Good depth of spicy blackcurrant and creamy oak harmony. Decanter selected this for Septembers Wine of the Month.
2004 Ch. Haut Maurac....more earthy and classic 'old fashioned' style of Bordeaux...similar to Ch. Cissac. No faults just old style and fleshy rather than soft fruits.
2005 Ch. Haut Maurac....very interesting to try again having tasted several times. Still showing exceptionally well. Absolute perfect balance with super intense deep dark mature fruits and evident oak showing its current youthfulness....this will age for another 5-7 years at least.
Then we poured the 'piece de resistance' a Saint Emilion Grand Cru from the 2005 vintage that we were both really looking forward to...it would potentially retail at £27....IT WAS CORKED.
I know that much has been written about natural corks versus plastic corks as well as alternative screw cap closures....but this was really frustrating. Nobody really knows the true statistics for the percentage of corked wines. Maybe it is 1%, but it could be as much as 5%. What other industry would tolerate this level of wastage/spoilage?? My frustrations are financial! I traveled a long way to visit a good customer and allocated a specific time (9am!) to taste an important range of wines. We were both deflated and annoyed that the sample was corked but we both realized that this is an ongoing industry issue. The wine world evolves and has innovative periods...it has certainly evolved from the time when a rag was stuffed into an urn!...but we still need to do something about cork taint, TCA and corked wines.
However the tasting finished on a high note when we tasted the stunning Mas Amiel Mini Maury NV. (in the picture)This is a rich 100% Grenache wine with a blend of red fruits and a hint of mature dark fruits. If anyone likes chocolate! This is THE wine. A must for the Christmas table this year.

Monday, 15 September 2008

Mediterranean Diet

Here it is!!!!!!!!!!!!
A diet consisting of olive oil, grains, fish, fruit and vegetables.....low amounts of meat and dairy and reasonable levels of alcohol are nine per cent less likely to die of heart disease!!!!!!!! Apparently 1.5 million people have been surveyed in order to find this amazing statistic.
More importantly adherents to this diet are 6 % less likely of developing all forms of cancer and the likelihood of being diagnosed with Parkinson's disease or Alzheimer's is 13% less.
All these stats are from Florence University. We certainly conform to this fresh healthy diet although perhaps I increase the red wine quota from time to time. Well someone's got to look after the 'wine lake'.
As we spend a large part of our time in the South of France we certainly notice the minimal amount of dairy products in the standard diet. It is quite an achievement to find fresh milk locally. However we retain our northern European desire for delicious milk chocolate. Also having a four year old son who survives on Nestle Nesquik powdered chocolate can test the limits.
PS The picture is Max 'guarding' the amazing profiterole wedding cake for Jo and Imogen's great wedding back in June.........it was delicious.

Tuesday, 9 September 2008


In the Sunday Times I read that Nicolas Sarkozy is looking at English city centres and especially Croydon in order to plan and develop areas of Paris!!! Bonne chance Monsieur Sarkozy. Maybe he ought to start closer to home. Montpellier is the delightful capital of the Herault department and capital of the Languedoc Roussillon region. It is very clean, it has a fabulous functional tram. It has modern architecture that blends seemlessly with the older styles. It has .....a very good university, a very good medical school, major international business (Dell are one of the largest employers) a clean and efficient airport, a half decent football team, a very good and young rugby team playing in the Top 14 division in a fantastic new stadium (built for the Rugby World Cup last year).And.....Montpellier is c 15 minutes from the beach. It took me 8 minutes from the motorway to get to the centre of town AND find a parking space within 100 metres of my meeting place! I am looking forward to being in London later this week!!!!
The reason for my visit was to explore promotional possibilities for the 'Sud de France' brand with some of the French governmental export associations. It is great that the whole Languedoc Roussillon wine and food area is uniting behind a simple and evocative banner such as Sud de France. Unfortunately the meeting has resulted in loads more work!! But hopefully we shall see a positive result for 2009.
After the meeting it was great to catch up with Matthew Stubbs MW and find out more about his new Vinecole project. We are surrounded by fabulous wine and food in the South of France but two areas that need expanding are wine education and wine tourism. Matthew has just started his wine education school and I plan to visit soon.

Sunday, 7 September 2008

Weather update on harvest 2008

Here are some lovely ripe Muscat grapes that were picked and processed on Friday. These grapes will be destined for a light fresh blend..probably with Vermentino, Grenache Blanc and Sauvignon Blanc.
We checked out some of the Syrah vineyards that had been hit hard by the hail storm on Thursday evening. The result has been that the grapes were picked yesterday (Saturday) and brought straight in to the winery. The decision being that they are not going to be in good condition if they are left on the vines, so it is best to pick a bit early now and a decent rose wine might be salvaged. It was strange to see the winery in full go at 6.45pm on Saturday evening when most of the French struggle to work a full 5 days most weeks. They had received 30 tonnes of grapes during the day. So this was evidently serious!
We had more rain last night (started at 5.45pm and lasted 90 minutes), but the wind has been a bit stronger and the vines are clearing. Lovely bright and very warm, sunny day on Sunday. The main part of the red grapes will be picked this coming fortnight.

Friday, 5 September 2008

Weather Disaster in the Minervois

Just had a frantic cellar rat charging in to my office!
Apparently last nights storms were far worse than expected. The storms had hail stones...the nightmare of grape growers.
The initial (slightly hysterical and very over dramatic French) reaction is that there has been major hail damage around the village of La Caunette and Minerve. The quote of 'wipe out' and '100% loss' was deciphered through the puffing Frenchman.
This could be serious as some of the top wines for www.lestroisblasons.com are from the hills around La Caunette and Minerve. I will zoom up there later today to find out what is going on....pics to follow.

Purple Cauliflowers and Storms in France

Well, what a weird 24 hours. Sue and I popped in to the Corbieres region yesterday and just needed to grab some fruit and veg for lunch. On entering a small veg shop in a small town you suddenly appreciate the French attitude towards food. I have never seen a veg shop with a selection of 3 different colors of cauliflower. Maybe it is global warming, maybe there is a nuclear plant nearby...I don't know. But it does make eating a bit more fun.

On another important note we had major storms in the Minervois last night. This is a crucial time for the grape growers as the white grapes are being picked and the reds should be started next week. The storm swirled in from the Montagne Noir and after masses of dramatic lightning the heavens opened. The folk down in Narbonne looked to take the brunt of the storm, but we still had a lot of rain over a two hour period. We have certainly needed rain in this area over the last few months and it is not a major issue. The critical period is over the next couple of days. If the humid/damp weather remains there could be a risk of rot in the grapes. If the cleansing vent du nord strikes up then we could be saved. The other key issue is that many of the soils around here have a clay base.....so it is a nightmare maneuvering a tractor with clogged wheels. Think of a swan trying to take off from an icy lake with too heavy wellington boots.

Thursday, 4 September 2008

Chateau Monty on TV tonight

This should be an interesting TV program on Channel 4 in the UK tonight. Monty Waldin is a UK journalist, who has been partially living in Italy recently. Monty has been writing for a few years now and he is approaching 40......sounds familiar.
Monty's passion is biodynamics. he has written books and articles on the subject and now he has been commissioned to make a television program. I saw a TV camera chasing Monty around an organic wine tasting in Perpignan earlier this year.....now it all makes sense.
I take my hat off to Monty as he is now putting his knowledge to practical use. The program will show the ups and downs of his adventures working a vineyard in the stunningly beautiful Roussillon area and trying to make a wine following the (slightly weird and cranky) principles of biodynamism. I am regularly visiting Mas Amiel winery, which is virtually next door to Monty's vines (the other side of the village of Maury)so I will be watching tonight.
Look forward to seeing how he gets on.......

Wednesday, 3 September 2008

Surge of Rose

PARIS (Reuters Life!) - Rose wine seems to be shedding its image as a sweet, unsubstantial summertime tipple if recent sales figures from around the world are anything to go by.

Despite a dreary summer that has had Britons reaching for their umbrellas as often as for their picnic baskets - sales of rose wine have risen by about 30 percent this year, according to the trade magazine Off-Licence News.

One in every ten bottles sold is now pink in color -- that's up from one in twenty bottles just three years ago.

The figures are indicative of a global renaissance for rose, particularly for top end wine whose quality and complexity is fuelling the boom.

In the United States, sales by volume of rose wines priced over $8 a bottle have risen just short of 50 percent in 2008 year according to Nielsen, a market research company.

"Where there used to be a $10 plateau for rose wines they're now all the way up to $50," says Chip Hammack, director of K&L Wine Merchants in Los Angeles.

"They're catching on a lot in the Los Angeles area because a lot of people go to the Cannes Film Festival and they get exposed to really good rose and they come back and look for it," he says.

While the U.S. and UK markets might be more prone to wine fashions the true test of rose's rebirth is in France, where some media reports say sales of rose could outstrip sales of white wine this year and account for one in every five bottles of wine sold.

On the sunny shores of the Mediterranean, near the main rose producing region of Provence, the wine has been a stalwart of the lunch table or the beloved pre-dinner 'apéro' for generations.

But it's the increasing presence of fine roses on sommeliers' lists in chic Paris restaurants, long the exclusive domain of grand French reds and whites, which underlines how far rose has come.

"There's a real change in the thinking about rose. It used to be for the barbecue or on the 'terrasse' or for holidays and festivals in the sun," says Virginie Morvan, purchasing manager at Chez Lavinia, a stylish eatery in central Paris.

"But now, wine growers are investing in making wine that can be drunk at the table, even with meat, and these are wines that are full-bodied," she says.


That's right - even with meat!

This new view of rose, particularly with young drinkers who are bucking historical consumption trends by drinking far less wine than their forebears, is a boost to French winemakers battling climate change, currency fluctuations and rising costs of production.

However, there is a concern that, just like in the 1970s when sweet, blush wines had their moment before fading into obscurity, the current rose success story will be a passing fad.

Jean Jacques Breban, President of the Interprofessional Council of Provence Wines, said the aim was to make good quality, affordable wine.

"On the one hand we must continue to improve the product - I think that's the most important. On the other hand, we must keep our feet on the ground and we must keep it reasonable when it comes to the price," says Breban.

The improvements in the product in the last twenty years have been immense.

Alain Combard, the owner of the rose producing vineyards at Domaine Saint Andre de Figuiere in Provence, admits there once was a time when rose wine often was simply surplus red wine and white wine mixed together.

Now, he says, the skill and attention that goes in to making rose has become an art form equal to the making of a classic red or white.

Red wine grapes are pressed and the skins and seeds are left to interact with the juice for just the right amount of time, usually a few hours, to give off color but not the deep tannins of a full red wine.

"A good rose is fruity but with some depth. It's a wine where once you have a glass you say to yourself 'why not another?' It's a wine that gives great pleasure," says Combard.

Tuesday, 2 September 2008

Back to School...Will anyone drink wine again?

Kids are back to school, Summer is gradually drawing to a close. Although it is still very hot during the day the mornings are a bit fresh. The grapes are ripening and tractors and harvest machines are at the ready for the imminent harvest.
The only thing to concern us is the global financial market. When everyone seems to be economizing and cutting back on expenditure........will anyone drink wine again?????????
A couple of quotes from Winston Churchill

"A pessimist sees the difficulty in every opportunity; an optimist sees the opportunity in every difficulty."

and specifically regarding wine supplied by Bella Wines!

"I am easily satisfied with the very best."