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Ramón Bilbao Mirto: A Rioja vertical

Mon, 22/07/2019 - 10:21
Ramón Bilbao Mirto is a 100% Tempranillo sourced from the estate's best vineyards in Rioja Alta.

Ramón Bilbao has produced just 11 vintages of Mirto since its first release 20 years ago, in 1999, but it’s now, without doubt, one of the most important and influential wines in Rioja.


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Producer profile: Château Haut-Bailly

Sun, 21/07/2019 - 08:10
The new line-up from Haut-Bailly.

Why is Château Haut-Bailly still such an insiders’ wine? Is it because this discreet, bijou estate makes only a few thousand cases of grand cru classe de Graves. Or is it also because canny collectors jealously like to keep it a closely guarded secret?

  • See Decanter Haut-Bailly tasting notes below

One thing is clear – today Haut-Bailly is one of the most consistent and quintessentially elegant clarets. Another is that its estimable quality stems from an exceptional red wine terroir, which its various owners and custodians have often done their utmost to reflect during its illustrious history. In effect therefore, Haut-Bailly has been doubly blessed – both by its proprietors and its position.

The vineyard sits adjacent to the château in a single unified block on the highest ridge of the Pessac-Léognan AC. The vines fall away on a gentle gradient, giving perfect exposure. A special mesoclimate protects it from spring frosts, while a mix of gravelly soils and subsoils provide minerals, moderate water stress and excellent drainage. Jean-Bernard Delmas, formerly of Château Haut-Brion, has famously described it as ’a truly great terroir’.


Haut-Bailly – a timeline

1461 Earliest records of vines on the estate’s gravelly rise

1630 Owners Firmin Le Bailly and Nicolas de Leuvarde expand and consolidate the vineyard to its present-day size of 33ha

1872 Alcide Bellot des Minières buys Haut-Bailly

1918 Haut-Bailly is bought by Frantz Malvesin

1955 Estate acquired by the Belgian Daniel Sanders

1979 Jean Sanders takes over from his father

1997 Véronique Sanders joins Haut-Bailly

1998 Robert G Wilmers purchases the property from the Sanders family

2000 Véronique Sanders appointed estate manager (and subsequently president)

2002 Gabriel Vialard becomes technical director

2012 Robert G Wilmers buys and renovates Château Le Pape

Magic formula

This all took a number of years – and not an inconsiderable amount of cash. ‘Bob’s investment was a bubble of pure oxygen for Haut-Bailly,’ says Sanders. ‘His understanding that the quality of the wine was paramount and that everything flowed from there enabled us to move not just faster, but also further.’

The impact really showed in the 2004 vintage. ‘That was the first big step,’ says Sanders. Another came in 2008, and it’s no coincidence that these two classical vintages are not the most lauded in Bordeaux. ‘This is one of the strengths of Haut-Bailly,’ she adds. ‘We always outperform in the so-called off-vintages.’ The 2013 has to be tasted to be believed, proving Haut-Bailly never misses.

With every vintage, her aim is constant: to bring out the best of Haut-Bailly’s prized terroir. What she’s looking for is a subtle balance between finesse and concentration. ‘My goal is fruit purity, freshness, smoothness and structure with soft, ripe tannins and pronounced aromatics.’ The blend varies from year to year, sometimes quite dramatically, which is further testament to Haut-Bailly’s remarkable consistency. Her harvest-time secret is always to pick the Merlot early for freshness and wait and wait for the Cabernet, harvesting it at the last possible moment.

‘Ultimately, I want a new golden era for Haut-Bailly, as we enjoyed in the 19th century,’ she says. Some (myself included) would argue that she and Wilmers have already achieved it. In today’s market it’s impossible to outperform and out-price the first growths. But Haut-Bailly has unquestionably closed the gap, taking the estate to new heights. Today it is a grand cru classé de Graves that enjoys the equivalent of ‘super-second’ status, often without the attendant price-tag. Most recently, Wilmers bought and renovated an estate nearby called Château Le Pape, which already shows great promise under Sanders’ supervision. ‘Bob always has plans. He is always looking. He often jokes by saying, “I have a good team here and I want to keep it busy”.’

Sanders clearly thrives on the challenge and couldn’t be more fulfilled. ‘There’s something magical about this place that I feel very intensely.’ The same goes for Wilmers and the rest of the remarkable group of people who love and care for this gem of a vineyard.

Haut-Bailly couldn’t be in better hands.

The post Producer profile: Château Haut-Bailly appeared first on Decanter.

California and Prohibition: Collateral damage

Sun, 21/07/2019 - 07:44

Call it absurd. Dub it naive. Describe it, hyperbolically, as the most asinine, most fruitless curb on alcohol ever conceived. We are, of course, speaking of the 18th Amendment of the United States Constitution, which, exactly a century ago, gave the American federal government the means to severely impede the sale of ‘intoxicating liquors’. Ratified, theoretically, to foster a better society, Prohibition proved to have the opposite effect. The forbiddance of alcohol ushered in an iconic era of bootleggers, speakeasies and a wholesale disregard for an amendment that engendered far more problems than its supporters had so naively believed it would resolve.

Ironically, however, all signs would indicate that wine had never been a prime target of prohibitionists, whose sights were set mainly on spirits, an aspect wine-grower Andrea Sbarboro had pointed out as early as 1907. In one of his pamphlets he wrote: ‘No nation is drunken where wine is cheap; and none sober, where the dearness of wine substitutes ardent spirits as the common beverage. It is, in truth, the only antidote to the bane of whiskey.’ But what did this matter? Wine was lumped in, its de facto ban causing untold damage to wine-growing throughout the nation – most devastatingly in California, then as now the most prestigious, most widely planted state in the union.

Prohibition timeline

Late 19th to early 20th century The ‘dry’ movement intensifies in the US; California wine is thriving

1907 Wine-grower Andrea Sbarboro argues that wine is not whiskey

16 January 1919 The 18th Amendment is ratified; sales of ‘intoxicating liquors’ are prohibited

16 January 1920 The Volstead Act takes effect; home winemaking and bootlegging surge

1923 Georges de Latour, owner of Beaulieu Vineyard, plants new vineyards for the booming sacramental wine business

1927 Grape sales for home winemaking reach fever pitch; bootlegging is now rampant

5 December 1933 The 21st Amendment takes effect; Prohibition is repealed

Post-Prohibition Recovery of California wine industry slowly begins; draconian rules are no help

1966 Legendary wine-grower Robert Mondavi founds eponymous winery

24 May 1976 Judgement of Paris wine tasting confirms the quality of California wine

Beaulieu Vineyard in Napa survived Prohibition by making sacramental wine

Cruel blow

On the eve of Prohibition, the California wine industry had been thriving for several generations, the finest wines produced exclusively from Vitis vinifera grapes sourced from familiar regions such as Sonoma or Napa (the former at this time was far better known than the latter) and some other districts. By 1919, about 121,400ha were under cultivation, with more than 700 wineries in operation, all worth, San Francisco Judge DD Bowman asserts, ‘annual revenue[s] of $30,000,000’ for state coffers. ‘In 1919,’ remarks Prohibition authority Vivienne Sosnowski, ‘during an especially glorious autumn before Prohibition, the world was still full of promise for all the wine and ranching families of the valleys. But that promise, along with their faith in their country, would soon be brutally broken.’

On 16 January 1920, the National Prohibition Act came into effect. Better known as the Volstead Act after arch-prohibitionist Andrew Volstead, the effects of Prohibition were all but instantaneous. For example, what to do with some 643,520hl of ready-to-go California wine that, especially after a bountiful 1919 harvest, could no longer be sold? More importantly, how were wineries and the many thousands of families whose livelihoods depended on them going to survive? Could Prohibition be combated by regulatory loopholes? By selling wines illegally?

Congressman Andrew Volstead

According to American wine historian Thomas Pinney, ‘the simplest and most common response to Prohibition on the part of American wineries was to simply go out of business rather than try to stay alive by undertaking new enterprises’, such as making dried table grapes or switching to unfermented grape juice production. Indeed, the challenges seemed insurmountable, from impromptu government agent visits that might, and occasionally did, end with being shut down, to preposterous regulations that permitted the production of wine but not its sale.

Grapes for making sacramental and medicinal wines are loaded into open railroad cars in the vineyards of Guasti, California. Credit: Philip Brigandi, Library of Congress

Survival techniques

Yet some wineries in California did manage to survive, often ingeniously. Legal loopholes were crucial, the most effective being the permittance of home winemaking. ‘In the first vintage of the Prohibition era, 1920, more than 26,000 railroad cars of fresh grapes rolled out of California,’ Pinney reports, with many of them bound for the East Coast for crafting into wine in American kitchens, basements and garages. By 1927, the number of carloads exceeded 72,000, with vine plantings in California nearly double pre-Prohibition levels.

Unfortunately, Pinney notes that the grapes were mostly of deplorable quality: ‘The great explosion of grape planting that took place under Prohibition was not of grapes suited to making good wine but of grapes fit to be transported long distances and capable of attracting an uninstructed buyer – “shipping grapes” rather than true wine grapes.’ Among red ‘shipping grapes’, the most popular, remarks American wine historian Charles Sullivan, ‘were Alicante Bouschet, Zinfandel, Petite Sirah, Carignan and Mataro (Mourvèdre)’. White grape versions were usually far worse.

Other wine-growers turned to religion. At Beaulieu Vineyard (BV) in Rutherford, Napa, for example, winemaker Leon Bonnet crafted wines for the diocese of San Francisco, as the Volstead Act excluded wines meant for ‘sacramental’ purposes. In fact, the religious wine business boomed so well for BV owner Georges de Latour that he took over the lease at Wente Vineyards in Livermore Valley across San Francisco Bay, so that he could sell their fine white wines alongside his own quality reds. We may, nonetheless, only guess as to the percentage of such wines being accompanied by a blessing, to say nothing of wines legally prescribed for medicinal reasons – another Prohibition loophole.

Alternatively, wine-growers merely disregarded the Volstead Act, their wines openly available up and down the coast. In San Francisco, Pinney asserts that restaurants ‘were well supplied by small winemakers in the Bay Area that continued to work despite Prohibition’. He also claims that: ‘Successfully open places were never arrested. The anecdotal literature is pretty big. My impression is that a café or restaurant in wine country, or in a place like North Beach, San Francisco, could serve wine without fear.’ Prohibition agents, moreover, knew exactly what was going on, but largely had the good sense to look the other way – a notion confirmed by wine-grower Everett Crosby, who, Pinney observes, later recalled that at a speakeasy in Pleasanton, Livermore Valley, ‘the mayor and his aides were regularly to be seen through the unshuttered windows… across the street from city hall as they stood at the bar drinking the local red wine’.

Bootlegging, of course, was how wines reached local restaurants and speakeasies. ‘There was a tremendous amount of bootlegging,’ Sullivan claims. ‘In Santa Clara, for example, the local sheriff was probably defeated in an election in an attempt to enforce the law.’
Furthermore, he says: ‘It was not even necessary to bribe. The grapes came from Sonoma and Napa, barged across the bay… At Bargetto [on Monterey Bay], they made limitless amounts of wine. They even had an underground transfer network between the buildings.’ Until the repeal in December 1933, these were the principal ways California wineries could survive and, in some instances, thrive.

A bootlegger’s wreck, 1932

Beyond Prohibition

But by the time of repeal, the overall damage had been done. Compelled by a fed-up public and the dire need for new revenues as the Great Depression intensified, the 21st Amendment might have revoked Prohibition, but it hardly restored California wine-growing to its former status. By the end of 1933, only 380 wineries existed, having risen from 177 at the start of the year in anticipation of repeal. Worse, the entire state, notes Pinney, was nearly devoid of quality grapes. The total hectarage of Cabernet Sauvignon was less than 325ha, with Pinot Noir down to 243ha, 182ha for Riesling and 121ha for Chardonnay. The question now was how to rekindle a once flourishing wine industry from these paltry figures? Would knowledgeable wine-growers ever rediscover the stupendous potential of California’s finest sub-regions, vineyards and sub-sites, and perhaps one day even give their European counterparts something to think about?

Then there was the nature of repeal itself, which largely placed alcohol (including wine) in the direct control of the states. ‘It’s very simple,’ Sullivan crossly describes. ‘The 21st Amendment was a disaster: it solidified states’ rights over wine matters and, via the 10th Amendment, screwed up everything. Just ask a [California] wine-grower today. The restrictions, such as transport through states, are ridiculous. All I’ve heard from wineries is jabbering of the paperwork they have to file to get anything done.’

Today, though rules in California are more relaxed than in many places, the remnants of post-Prohibition regulations remain, their antiquated stipulations stymieing market access across state boundaries and rendering difficult even straightforward initiatives. For example, to welcome visitors at wineries and offer samples, owners must jump through hoops to secure the requisite permits.

Attitudinally, the effects of Prohibition also took decades to efface. Thanks to the huge reputational damage caused by home winemaking, the decades following repeal cast a pall over American confidence in local wine quality. Individuals, most famously the indefatigable Robert Mondavi, would gradually set matters to rights from the mid-1960s onwards, but the truth is that the execrable wines produced during Prohibition soured the national palate for a very long time – much like what happened to the reputation of German Riesling following regulation changes in the early 1970s.

Perhaps the most injurious effect of Prohibition was that it helped convince generations of Americans that wine as a lifestyle choice to be judiciously incorporated at mealtimes, for example, was somehow improper. And while great strides have been made to combat this misconception in recent years, the damage had been done and has yet to be fully undone.

Truly then, call it ridiculous. Dub it immature. Describe it, with worthy exaggeration, as the most unintelligent, most futile check on alcohol ever attempted. But never, ever, ever call Prohibition uninteresting.

Just trying to survive: bootlegging in California

In Vivienne Sosnowski’s book When the Rivers Ran Red: An Amazing Story of Courage and Triumph in America’s Wine Country, bootlegging was big business. It was also risky, with thousands of Prohibition employees ‘at the ready to do battle against… smallholding grape-growers and winery owners’ covertly barging their grapes and wines across San Francisco Bay’. Sure, most officials could be bribed, but not always. Some were even downright crooked, including bosses ‘charged with stealing alcohol and even giving away books of official prescription forms for “medicinal” alcohol [wine] as Christmas gifts’.

Yet people needed to survive, with most wine-growers only bootlegging as a last resort: ‘To choose to be a bootlegger was, for them, a cruel blow to their self-respect and a huge risk: of being arrested or paying an onerous fine, having their winemaking facilities knocked apart by the axes of federal agents, trucks confiscated, children and wives terrified.’ As for Prohibition employees, although some succumbed to dishonesty, for others it was a low-paying job like any other and included Sundays off.

Julian Hitner is a wine historian currently researching a book on the complete history of Bordeaux. With special thanks to Thomas Pinney, author of A History of Wine in America, and Charles Sullivan, author of A Companion to California Wine, for their invaluable assistance.

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Introducing Coteaux Champenois: Champagne's still wines

Sat, 20/07/2019 - 08:30
The grand cru of Oger in the Cote des Blancs produces some of the regions's top wines.

Champagne is the world’s most famous sparkling wine, its secondary fermentation in the bottle known as la methode Champenoise.

But before the monks Dom Ruinart and Dom Perignon realised the potential of capturing bubbles in bottles – thanks to advances in glass technology and with the relatively new medium of cork as a stopper – the wines were originally still.

Scroll down for Steven’s tasting notes from a recent Charles Heidsieck Coteaux Champenois tasting

As the laws of appellation came into being in the early 1930s, the still wines took the clumsy title Vin Originaire de la Champagne Viticole, to be changed in 1953 to Vin Nature de la Champagne. While this expressed exactly what it was – and there were some excellent examples of grand cru Chardonnays from the Cote de Blancs and grand cru Pinot Noirs from the Montagne de Reims (Bouzy especially) – the INAO changed the name in 1974 to Coteaux Champenois.

What had been a wine for the connoisseur from specific vineyards of quality could now be produced from all over the region and of course it was not, as the sparkling version was, better and much more profitable.

By the mid 1980s, these wines had vanished from the market, leaving only two brands of note: Moet & Chandon’s white Château de Saran from the château’s vineyards outside Epernay, and Bollinger’s red La Cote aux Enfants from a plot of Pinot Noir behind the cellars in Aÿ.

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Liber Pater to release world’s most expensive wine

Sat, 20/07/2019 - 07:30

Only 550 bottles of Liber Pater’s 2015 vintage were produced and just 240 set for release in September this year – priced to ‘show the real and old taste of Bordeaux’, according to the estate.

Speaking exclusively to, Liber Pater’s owner and winemaker, Loïc Pasquet, said that no price can truly pay justice to Bordeaux’s 150-year history but that his mission was ‘trying to maintain our ancestors’ practises and keep the original taste of Bordeaux intact’.

Pasquet acquired the estate, based in the Landiras commune of Graves, in 2005 and has set about reviving rare grape varieties, including Coulant and Castets, and using amphorae to make wine in a pre-phylloxera style. He believes that this highlights the ‘exclusivity’ of Bordeaux.

He has also planted at higher-than-usual vine densities of 20,000 vines per hectare compared to an average of 10,000 across the region today.

How Liber Pater 2015 was made

Liber Pater’s 2015 vintage is made entirely from ungrafted vines and comprises a mixture of rare grape varieties once commonly grown in Bordeaux including; Petite Vidure, Tarnay, Castets and St-Macaire, alongside the better known Petit Verdot and Malbec.

The cuvée was vinified in grey, clay amphorae of 250 and 400 litres, with a two-month maceration period followed by three years ageing.

Pasquet says the 2015 has sensations ‘rarely found in wines from Bordeaux due to the change in the taste post-phylloxera’.

He said it was ‘a pure wine with honesty, finesse and elegance, like the old taste of Bordeaux pre-phylloxera. It has a delicate nose with floral aromas and hints of crunchy black forest fruits, with silky tannins and long fine finish.’

‘Protecting’ Bordeaux heritage

When questioned on the appetite in the market for a Bordeaux wine at such prices, Pasquet said, ‘Wine aficionados and collectors want to appreciate the original fine wine of Bordeaux. It’s a unique experience. I’m doing what needs to be done to protect our heritage.’

He added: ‘I’m doing my very best to produce amazing wines and working very hard in the vineyard on a daily basis, but I don’t have any doubt that everyone is doing their best.

‘I’m a strong believer that Liber Pater wines will always be exclusive. The use of ungrafted vines is exclusive, 20,000 vine per hectare is exclusive, indigenous grape varieties is exclusive and amphorae are exclusive.’ Other wineries around the world use amphorae, notably in Georgia, but they are rare in Bordeaux.

The 2015 will be labelled as a Vin de France, unlike previous vintages that were labelled as AOC Graves, owing to the use of grape varieties not authorised by Bordeaux’s official guidelines.

World’s most expensive wine

The wine, which is being sold in six-bottle cases, has been on offer to the estate’s mailing list for the last six months on a strict allocation basis, priced at €30,000 a bottle (/£26,600/US$33,420).

That makes it eight times more expensive than the estate’s 2011 vintage, which is around €3,000 per bottle.

The 2015 vintage is the estate’s sixth release since Pasquet took charge, alongside the 2006, 2007, 2009, 2010 and 2011.

There will be no 2016 or 2017 due to frost and replanting, but a 2018 vintage will be offered in 2021.

Speaking about the 2018 vintage, Pasquet said it’s ‘going to be a fantastic year and we are very excited for what we have been tasting so far, so watch the space.’

Decanter’s Jane Anson will visit Liber Pater in the coming weeks to taste its wines. Look out for her full report on


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Quiz: Best way to serve wine

Fri, 19/07/2019 - 12:37
Scroll down and click in the box to start our quiz on serving wine.  See more wine quizzes here

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Could red wine help power a mission to Mars?

Fri, 19/07/2019 - 10:01
'I told you we should have brought an extra case...'

Astronauts may be able to use resveratrol, an antioxidant compound found in the skins of red wine grapes, to help them maintain bone and muscle mass on Mars.

A daily dose of resveratrol could help the human body cope with Mars’ partial gravity, says an initial study published by Frontiers in Physiology journal this month.

Its research comes as the world marks 50 years since Neil Armstrong became the first person to walk on the Moon, with NASA working on plans to send humans back to the lunar surface and on to Mars after that.

First growth on Mars?

However, it’s unlikely that astronauts will be loading up their space shuttle with Château Angélus or Romanée-Conti for a daily toast on the red planet – although it wouldn’t be the first time a top-tier French wine had been to space.

Previous research suggested that a resveratrol dose would probably only be high enough to affect human health if taken in supplement form.

One would have to drink somewhere between 505 litres and 2,762 litres of red wine to obtain 1g of resveratrol per day, estimated a 2016 study published in the peer-reviewed journal Advances in Nutrition.

That would likely bring new challenges to astronauts’ ability to perform tasks on Mars.

The Advances in Nutrition study did add that its figures were based on levels of ‘unbound’ resveratrol in red wine, adding that there might be ways to unlock more of the compound. This aspect was poorly understood, it said.

More study needed

Researchers in the Frontiers study subjected rats to conditions similar to Martian gravity and gave them 150mg of resveratrol per kg of body weight, mixed into a sugar and water solution.

While it found some evidence that resveratrol could help maintain muscle mass in Mars-like conditions, it recommended further research, particularly around dosage and any associated risks.

Full citation: Mortreux M, Riveros D, Bouxsein ML and Rutkove SB (2019) A Moderate Daily Dose of Resveratrol Mitigates Muscle Deconditioning in a Martian Gravity Analog. Front. Physiol. 10:899. doi: 10.3389/fphys.2019.00899

More articles you might enjoy: Space wine is possible but far, far away When a bottle of Lynch-Bages 1975 flew into space Red wine fights ageing…but only if you drink 2,500 bottles per day


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The Chenin Blanc renaissance?

Fri, 19/07/2019 - 09:52
Sorting the Chenin Blanc at Radford Dale in Stellenbosch.

Chenin Blanc has a very strong claim to be the world’s most versatile grape variety, successfully producing dry and demi-sec wines, all the way through to lusciously sweet, as well as sparkling – and not forgetting brandy and ‘sherry’ styles in South Africa.

The grape has the rare talent of producing some of the most sublime wines that can age for a century or more – while also being capable of making some of the most disgusting wines if picked unripe and vinified badly!

From workhorse to high quality

It can be difficult to produce high quality Chenin as it’s capable of producing large crops, making it popular as a workhorse variety, especially in South Africa and California. However, as the emphasis has increasingly been on making interesting and high-quality Chenin, world plantings have been cut by half over the last 30 years.

Scroll down to see Jim’s top picks of Chenin Blanc from the Loire and South Africa

As well as Chenin Blanc’s versatility, it has a remarkable ability to age: as mentioned above, great sweet vintages can remain magnificent for a century or more, and I have been privileged to taste several Chenins from the 19th century. And we celebrated my father’s 90th birthday in 2009 with an amazingly youthful 1919 Le Mont Moelleux Vouvray from Gaston Huet – a memorable occasion!

Chenin Blanc’s two principal regions in terms of quality are South Africa, where it is the most planted variety, and the Loire. Vincent Carême, who makes wine in both the Loire and in South Africa, says of the differences: ‘The South African climate is much more extreme – very hot and very dry. Broadly speaking, South African Chenin has more weight with an exotic fruit character, while those from the Loire are more mineral.’

Chenin Blanc renaissance: Loire & South Africa Awareness

The first International Chenin Blanc Conference was held in Angers from 1 to 3 July. A major aim of this conference is to raise the profile and appreciation of Chenin which, because of its past reputation as a workhorse grape, means that it does not have the same repute as Chardonnay or Cabernet Sauvignon, for example.

But it’s clear that the variety has history, its own unique characteristics, is adaptable to climate change, and can be very long-lived.

The next edition of the conference will be held in 2021 in Cape Town.

Chenin Blanc at a glance:

World total 35,000ha

South Africa 17,242ha (53% of production)

Olifants River: 2,821; Breederkloof: 2,796; Paarl: 2,743; Swartland: 2553; Worcester: 1,860; Robertson: 1,546, Stellenbosch: 1,344; Northern Cape: 1,038

Loire 9,700ha (28% of production)

Anjou and Saumur: 5,282; Touraine: 3,668; Loir et Cher: 303; Sarthe: 153

California 1,938ha (9% of production)

You may also like: Loire 2018 preview: appellations to know & top wines Top South African white wines Regional profile: Savennières

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Comparing Bordeaux's two Château Pichon estates

Thu, 18/07/2019 - 11:48
Château Pichon-Longueville Baron on the left of the D2, and Château Pichon Longueville Comtesse de Lalande on the right.

Visitors to Bordeaux cannot help but admire the gorgeous architecture of Pauillac’s two celebrated second growths – Château Pichon-Longueville Baron and Château Pichon Longueville Comtesse de Lalande – facing each other along the Médoc’s famous D2 highway, known as the Route des Châteaux.


See Jane Anson’s tasting notes comparing the two Château Pichon estates:



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Anson: Why we need ethical fine wine

Thu, 18/07/2019 - 11:31
How much should social responsibility and environmental credentials be used to define fine wine?

Isn’t it about time that we start defining ‘fine wine’ by how seriously the producer is about taking care of the land and the people who work on it?

And that means not only applauding the ones that do, but seriously questioning the ones that don’t.

This long overdue correction was at the heart of a panel discussion on social sustainability that I chaired during the Fine Minds for Fine Wines event, held by the Areni Institute in Bordeaux last week.

The idea was to look at social and environmental sustainability programmes currently underway, but I came away thinking that the only way for things to truly change long-term is if we have a wholesale redefinition of what a luxury wine should encapsulate.

We already know that consumers today are demanding more social responsibility from brands. Doing more than paying lip-service to sustainability, diversity and being a ‘good global citizen’ is expected, particularly from luxury brands that are going after the most discerning consumers.

You have to look outside of wine to see the most high profile examples today. In the UK, all industries with a turnover of at least £36 million must publish an annual statement on slavery and human trafficking within their supply chain, to make them take responsibility for labour practices that affect their products.

Reducing impact

There’s a quiet revolution going on; look at the wave of start-ups designing clothes that have less impact on the planet.

These include Allbirds sustainable wool shoes and Unbound Merino, which uses fabrics that that need far less washing. Then there is Patagonia, the clothing company that famously took out a full page ad in the New York Times detailing the environmental impact of manufacturing its jackets, and asking people to think twice before buying them.

It’s been noted many times that the wine industry needs to take the lead in environmental discussions, because it’s among those on the front-line of the impact of climate change; a message that is particularly timely with AOC Bordeaux announcing the inclusion of new grapes as a response to rising temperatures.

Antoine Gerbelle, a French journalist with Tellement Soif, pulled up Saskia de Rothschild on Twitter this week for saying in an interview that Lafite is not organic or biodynamic because not every vintage is favourable.

‘A wine that sells at €500 per bottle?’ Gerbelle said. ‘Look no further for the authors of Bordeaux bashing – they do it to themselves.’

But the conversation needs to go much further than organics or biodynamics, and recognise that there’s also an increasing need for transparency about social sustainability in luxury wine estates.

I’ve never heard of a Bordeaux château, for example, raising their wine price by 50% in a good vintage, such as 2010, and then using some of that profit to pass on to the pickers who brought in the grapes.

It might happen, but if so the estates are not doing a good job of communicating about it.

Gerbelle’s outrage was echoed on the sustainability panel by Ixchel Delaporte, author of Les Raisins de la Misère, published in 2018, turning the spotlight on, as she sees it, ‘Bordeaux’s corridor of poverty’ along the D2 road that runs past the Médoc’s top châteaux.

Last week she chastised the châteaux owners present at the event for the vast inequalities in the region and the way that seasonal workers are treated.

Delaporte is relatively easy for châteaux owners to dismiss, because she’s so single-minded in her presentation that she over-generalises and gets things wrong.

It is of course also way too easy to target Bordeaux for issues that are found world over, but all the Bordeaux estates that aim to make a luxury product would do well to listen to the message rather than bristle at its delivery.

The simple truth is that there has to be more to luxury today than wines that taste wonderful and have a history that most of us can only dream of.

Providing opportunity

One of the most impressive contributors to the international panel was Laura Catena, of Catena Zapata, in Argentina.

Not only has she extended her own company practices to form a country-wide fine wine and viticulture charter known as ‘The Bodegas de Argentina Sustainability Protocol’, but the idea of providing true opportunities for workers to progress within the organisation is part of their DNA.

This includes language classes for all workers who would benefit from it, for example, and an array of routine cross-skills training.

An example of this opportunity is Roy Urvieta. One of the most successful academics at the Catena Institute of Wine, the research facility that Laura Catena founded in 1995, came from within the company.

Urvieta grew up in a small town in the Uco Valley and got his first job as an operator in the harvest reception area of a local winery.

He spent many years working there in the morning and afternoon, then in the evenings he would study oenology. The Catena family supported his studies when he began to work for them, right through to when he achieved a PhD in agricultural science in both Buenos Aires and UC Davis.

The family also works with the local rural high school in Tupungato to teach vineyard and winemaking skills to the pupils. The aim is to cultivate skills and a sense that working in wine could be a serious alternative to simply leaving and moving to the nearby cities for work.

There’s no question that things are happening in Bordeaux also.

Château Lafite Rothschild, for example, has been quietly employing 30 to 40 refugees each year through the programme Action Empoi Refugiés, a foundation that Saskia de Rothschild recently brought to Bordeaux from Paris.

For now, they come mainly for the few months around harvest, but there are openings for one or two each year to join the permanent staff, and Rothschild is hoping to work with other châteaux to extend the programme.

Over in Moulis-en-Médoc, Jean-Baptiste and Véronique Cordonnier, of Château Anthonic, began the Vignerons du Vivant programme in 2018.

The first year saw 11 Médoc estates taking part in the programme to help find work for unemployed or under-qualified 18- to 30-year-olds by giving them a free nine-month training course in organic farming.

Jean-Baptiste has also begun a programme of tree planting following the principles of agro-forestry management. Careful analysis of the needs of different parts of the vineyard, such as protection of ditches or drainage channels and plus benefits to the soil, has led to the planting of specific trees, including oak, elm and pear.

Château Anthonic plants hedgerows in the ditches surrounding vineyards, creating wildlife corridors between nearby wooded areas. Credit: Antonio Pagnotta /

He is clearly interested in forest management, as he owns a Pro Silva forest – a Europe-wide system of sustainable forest management – in the Ariège area of southwest France.

He plans to build a new winery here entirely from his own sustainable wood over the next few years.

By combining these two social and environmental initiatives, the Cordonniers could begin to creep up the luxury wine scale if we were to initiate this new definition of what makes a wine truly sought-after, rare and authentic.

Recent research has suggested that tree planting may be the cheapest and easiest way for us all to tackle the carbon emissions.

At the very least, if châteaux want to charge upwards of €100-a-bottle for their wines then they need to begin asking themselves why consumers should not expect to feel good about that purchase for their conscience as well as their taste buds.

Missing the point?

But perhaps most important of all is the understanding that this goes far beyond a marketing necessity.

One of my most illuminating discussions came with Will Berliner of Margaret River’s minimal-intervention wine, Cloudburst.

His observation has stayed with me: ‘Everyone at this conference is talking about how to move their brand forward, about how to not miss out as the world of luxury changes. But merely tapping into “sustainability” as a ploy to connect to the consumer and thereby grow market share, entirely misses the point.’

You may also like: How sustainable is your wine? Bordeaux winemakers allow new grapes to fight climate change Taming Château Trotanoy: Wines from 1998 to 2018 Bolgheri 2016: One of the best vintages ever?

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What’s the perfect serving temperature for red wine? Ask Decanter

Wed, 17/07/2019 - 10:59
Wait! I need to get my wine thermometer...Quick guide to red wine serving temperature
  • Light, fruity reds: Serve these reds slightly chilled, at 12-13 degrees Celsius (54 – 56 degrees Fahrenheit)
  • Medium-bodied reds: Serve between 14 and 16 degrees (56 – 60 degrees Fahrenheit)
  • Full-bodied reds: Serve between 16 and 18 degrees Celsius, (61 – 65 degrees Fahrenheit)

It can be hard to generalise among grape varieties, but you’d typically find Beaujolais (Gamay) and Valpolicella Classico (Corvina) towards the lighter, chilled end of this spectrum.

Pinot Noir is going to straddle light and medium, with some styles of Rioja (Tempranillo) in the mid-range and then the Cabernet Sauvignon-dominant and Syrah / Shiraz wines of this world in the full bodied band.

Credit: Annabelle Sing / Decanter

Oak, ageing and structure

Certain grape varieties just have more tannin, colour and potential to create full, structured wine than others.

That said, if you have time, think about the age of the wine and also how it has been handled in the cellar. If you’ve had it before and so know the producer’s style, think about the structure and profile of the wine last time you tried it.

Is that Rioja Crianza or a Gran Reserva, with at least 18 months spent in oak barrels, for example? If you’re a fan of Piedmont, do you have a Langhe Nebbiolo or a full-on Barolo DOCG?

These are important questions, because chilling red wine will amplify any oak and tannin present. Presumably, you’d like to taste some fruit, too.

Is your red wine too warm?

Equally, a red wine can become soupy if too warm. Alcohol levels may then feel out-of-balance and the wine’s natural structure and freshness can be lost. Where did that acidity go?

Wine is a question of personal taste, but these are generally considered undesirable qualities.

Many of us have probably experienced a soupy red wine at one time or another, whether on holiday in a warm climate or in a restaurant that hasn’t got its wine cellar under control. Don’t be afraid to ask for the ice bucket for a few minutes.

What does ‘room temperature’ mean?

The old adage about room temperature is a red herring.

If you can, it’s better to stick to specifics. A wine fridge with temperature control is obviously the gold standard here, but a simple wine thermometer can also help, or knowing the temperature of the room you’re in.

Trust your gut instinct, too. ‘I can’t recall the last time I used a thermometer either at home or in a professional environment,’ master sommelier Xavier Rousset told Decanter in 2016.

Aside from obvious faults, how balanced does the wine taste?

If a red wine needs warming up slightly, then you can always cradle the glass in your hands to improve things.

Watch out for temperature changes during drinking, though. ‘The temperature of wine rises dramatically in the glass, so your classic 18ºC Bordeaux becomes (depending where you are) 22ºC or more in the glass very quickly,’ said Rousset.

‘The hardest thing by far is to maintain the correct temperature throughout the time of consumption.’

See also: At what temperature should I serve white wine?




The post What’s the perfect serving temperature for red wine? Ask Decanter appeared first on Decanter.

Don’t panic: World wine supplies rebound from historic low

Wed, 17/07/2019 - 10:46
Enough to go around...Pressure eases after global wine production rises in 2018.

World wine production hit 292m hectolitres in 2018, the second highest total since 2000 and up 17% versus 2017, said the Organisation of Vine & Wine ahead of its annual congress, in Geneva, Switzerland.

That is equivalent to 38.9bn bottles and reflects strong rebounds for the world’s three largest producers, Italy, France and Spain, which were hit by frost and a severe late-summer heatwave in 2017.

The OIV warned last year that it expected global wine supplies to ‘dramatically tighten’ after production fell back to 1960s levels.

Things are never that simple in reality, of course.

Some regions were hit harder than others in 2017 and supply from particular areas or estates depends on release dates and existing stock levels. Big harvests, by contrast, don’t always mean higher quality.

Global wine consumption was 246mhl in 2018, led by the US, and has been stable in recent years, the OIV said.

Which countries produced the most wine in 2018?

Italy topped the world wine production league for the fourth year in a row, weighing in at 54.8m hectolitres (hl), up 29% on 2017.

France was second, on 48.6mhl, up 34% on 2017, and Spain was third, on 44.4mhl, up 37%.

Beyond Europe, Chile and Argentina saw their 2018 harvests rise by 36% and 23% respectively to 12.9mhl and 14.5mhl.

The US has shown more consistency in recent vintages and its 2018 crop produced 23.9mhl, up 2% on 2017.

Not everybody produced more wine in 2018, however.

Severe drought hampered winemakers in South Africa, which saw production fall by 12% to 9.5mhl.

And a fall in yields saw China produce 9.1mhl in 2018, down 22%, said OIV.

Its figures showed that 108mhl of wine worth a total €31bn flowed across country borders in 2018, based on export data. That means 2018 trade flows were level with 2017, it said.

How much wine does a vine produce? Ask Decanter


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Tasting the diversity of Rioja terroir

Wed, 17/07/2019 - 10:41

Rioja is an extremely well-known brand in its own right, in a sense not dissimilar to Champagne: they both produce a little over 300 million bottles per annum and are often the ‘go-to’ in terms, respectively, of Spanish and sparkling wine.

There’s much more to Rioja than this as any visitor will soon discern. Its landscape recalls Burgundy in terms of topography, and it is this sheer diversity which Rodolfo Bastida, Ramón Bilbao’s engaging winemaker, is keen to underline during this seminal tasting.

Bordeaux, he tells us, is only slightly larger than Rioja and yet is made up of 60 different appellations…Rioja only has one. For all the intrinsic merits attached to the strong recognition of ‘brand Rioja’, the time is right to stress variety and complexity.

‘I like to paint with a small brush’ says Rodolfo, and very intricate and impressive are his vinous paintings.


Rodolfo stresses two things: firstly, that Rioja should be analysed along a west-east (rather than a north-south) axis, and secondly that the key to quality is fundamentally equated to altitude and, tangentially, relative proximity to the River Ebro.

Climate change has brought the harvest date forward by up to 20 days over the last two decades and has prompted the development of vineyards located at higher altitudes, where the husbandry can be at its most challenging. The west-east division mirrors styles referred to as Atlantic and Mediterranean, both climate and soils appreciably different as one moves away from the protective lee of the Cantabrian Mountains.

The tasting

Rodolfo’s tasting visits seven specific crus located across the region, all sharing altitudes of 400-700 metres and contributing – to a greater or lesser degree – to the two key Ramón Bilbao labels, Vinedos de Altura and Reserva Original (also tasted).  It’s a truly fascinating exercise to disseminate the style of the blended wine from its components. Rodolfo will one day, I am sure, be encouraged to bottle at least one of these superb crus on its own.

The diversity of Rioja terroir:

The two commercially available blended wines are followed by the seven individual cru wines, which are not available to buy.

About Ramón Bilbao

Ramón Bilbao was founded in 1924 and is now a significant name in Spain. Its 4 million bottle production may still be dwarfed by the likes of Campo Viejo (30 million) and even CVNE (8 million) but it’s now regarded as a highly influential torchbearer for the region, both in terms of quantity and quality.

The winery is located in the town of Haro, with most of the 250 hectares of owned vineyards in the western ‘Atlantic’ sector of Rioja Alta. There are also contracts covering a further 900 hectares, spread across the entire region, including both Rioja Alavesa and Rioja Oriental, previously known as Rioja Baja.

You may also like: Quality Rioja 2010: Panel tasting results Comparing Artadi terroirs: Single vineyard wines The push for Rioja crus

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Wasps may save California vineyards from 'invasion' by Chinese fly

Tue, 16/07/2019 - 11:00
An adult spotted lanternfly...

Researchers are concerned about the potential spread of the spotted lanternfly, which first showed up in the US in Pennsylvania five years ago but was found in Virginia vineyards in early 2018.

The brightly-coloured, sap-sucking flies could damage California vineyards, according to UC Riverside, which is trying to get ahead by testing whether a type of ‘sesame seed-sized wasp’ can help.

‘We hope to be ready to release these wasps immediately when the spotted lanternfly shows up, giving us a really strong head start on the invasion,’ said Mark Hoddle, director of the Center for Invasive Species Research at UC Riverside.

The spotted lanternfly has the potential to harm grapevines, as well as some fruit trees.

‘It secretes copious amounts of “honeydew,” a waste product that encourages black, sooty mould and damages a plant’s ability to grow,’ said Hoddle.

UC Riverside said has been granted $544,000 from California’s Department of Food and Agriculture to test whether the tiny wasps, also from China, could be a solution. However, testing will take three years.

The wasps are known to lay their eggs inside those of the lanternflies. Wasp larvae then eat their way out.

UC Riverside said it was also important to test what impact the introduction of the wasps might have on local ecosystems.

Some insecticides have proved effective against the spotted lanternfly, according to the Virginia Vineyards Association.

The flies feed on the so-called ‘tree of heaven’, itself an invasive plant species. One method of trapping the flies is to use one of the trees as bait, before targeting them with insecticide.

See also: Concerns rise as grape-rotting fruit fly found in Bordeaux vineyards

The post Wasps may save California vineyards from 'invasion' by Chinese fly appeared first on Decanter.

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