Thirty years on - keeping up appearances

I have devoted considerable time and thought to the subject matter for this ‘watershed’ (or should it be wineshed?), my 30th anniversary, and 360th consecutive article to appear in Decanter. To put it another way, I have been dithering, or what world-weary editors and publishers call prevaricating.

Perhaps something retrospective, along the lines of ‘you probably read about it here’ – for example the Screwpull, Chateau Musar, white wine not red with cheese, ‘Burgundy is a minefield’, oh, and alcohol – but Daphne said I would be boring and boastful; in any case, how am I to know that some other wine commentator had not got in first?

So, having reached the age of indiscretion, I might as well take up the cudgel and try to sort out some confusion and anomalies, adding a barbed comment or two on global taste and tasters.

I make no apologies for following up Steven Spurrier’s article, ‘The importance of colour’, in the March issue. Is the appearance of wine important and worthy of description? By ‘appearance’ I mean all visual aspects: colour (hue), depth, intensity, clarity. I agree with France’s leading wine critic, Michel Bettane, that, in effect, there is no point in describing the minute variations in, say, a line-up of young Bordeaux, particularly of a relatively uniform vintage like 2005. In fact, in an as yet unpublished review of this vintage, I preface my notes by stating that the appearance of individual wines will not be commented on unless a wine is unusually dark and dense or unimpressively weak.

In any case there is a logical approach to wine: first of the senses, sight; next, as one picks up the glass, the sense of smell; finally its taste. Moreover I have never forgotten, and always take note of, the legendary Professor Peynaud’s remark that the appearance and nose of wine will give one virtually all one needs to know, and that the actual taste of the wine merely confirms its maturity, quality, style, typicity – you name it. He was, of course, mainly referring to red Bordeaux.

I agree with Robert Parker – the appearance of red Burgundy is of lesser importance; indeed it can be remarkably misleading. First of all, the skin of the Pinot Noir is thinner than the Cabernets, and in theory, at least, the pigment will – as elsewhere – be deeper, more vivid in a hot year. However, as referred to in my book, Vintage Wine, and touched upon recently by Clive Coates MW, the variables are as much, if not more, due to the infinite subdivisions of vineyard sites, multiplicity of producers, vineyard work and vinification.

Something that concerns me more is the opacity of many ‘modern’ reds, highly praised, highly priced. One glance and I move on. It is difficult from the appearance – and, to a slightly lesser extent, smell and taste – to tell whether an example of the winemaker’s art (perhaps craft is a better word) emanates from the New or Old World for example, and my close friend and colleague, Steven Spurrier, is well aware of this. He sources the wines for Christie’s Wine Course, and as is apparent from his articles and notes published in Decanter, he is open-minded and his knowledge far ranging. I am just a performing monkey. But during the autumn I put my foot down, complaining about the similarity – and, for me, near undrinkability of some of the reds selected for the Christie’s sessions I regularly conduct, tastings of the ‘major grape varieties’ and ‘The Bordeaux Grapes’.

Is the depth and intensity of colour important? It is certainly significant, for it immediately alerts me to its style and content: oodles of fruit perhaps but, pretty certainly, high alcohol, high extract and a tannin-laden finish. Lapostolle’s 2004 Cuvée Alexandre, 100% Merlot, 14.5% alcohol; from Rustenberg, the 2003 John X Merriman Bordeaux blend (Cabernet Sauvignon 72%, Merlot 42%, Cabernet Franc 15%, Petit Verdot 1%) – glorious, but, at 15%, swingeing alcohol; Robert Mondavi’s 2001 100% CS, an unnecessary 14.5% but an attractive wine; Wither Hills 2004 Pinot Noir, 14.5%; Susana Dominio del Plata 2004 Malbec, 14.3%; John Duval 2004 Entity Shiraz 14.5%. From Chile, South Africa, California, New Zealand and Australia respectively.

A similar line-up could include New Spain’s reds – or, more like it, blacks – and fashionable Italians. Well, they are impressive. But will any of them be given a chance to mature, to show their paces? I doubt it. Yes, colour is important. It gives one advance warning. On someone’s website I was once described as a dinosaur; initially rather offended, I now agree. Give me an old-fashioned, fine, mature 12.5% Left-Bank claret any time.

Speaking of Bordeaux, I noted with interest, to say the least, that the celebrated Pomerol-based consultant, Michel Rolland is divesting himself of ‘around 20 Bordeaux clients’, including Château Kirwan. Well, well. I do hope that the Left Bank will now stick to what it does best, making wine for keeping and drinking.

What Michael’s Been Drinking This Month

Good ordinary claret

In response to Susie Barrie (Merchants’ Own Brand Tasting, April issue): I too prefer a classed growth, but after a breakfast of fresh orange juice and Champagne I find a relay of half-bottles of Berry’s wholesome and inexpensive Good Ordinary Claret copes more than adequately with the post-operative medication which is currently interfering with my palate. Better next month, I hope.

Written by Michael Broadbent