Monday, 29 March 2010

Does every wine region need a Rene Barbier?

Ryan Opaz was paying more attention than me. As part of our trip to Alimentaria 2010 last week, we went on an organised jaunt around the Empordà region of northern Catalonia. At one of the wineries we visited, the proprietor said something I paid little heed to. It was only when Ryan brought it up again over dinner that its import became clear.

What did they say?

'We need a René Barbier' Ryan quoted.

Now, say what you like about René Barbier (personally, I reckon he's a genial, bearded Frenchman-in-exile [cf. Jean-François Hebrard of one of Toro's top wineries, Quinta Quietud]) or his wine, Clos Mogador (I know it's not cool to like the wines Robert Parker does, but I reckon it's pretty bloody good), the man is the jewel in Priorat's crown. Barbier was the bloke who put Priorat on the map; he stands as the biggest name in the region; ask for a top Priorat, people say 'Clos Mogador'.

So why would a winemaker in an interesting, small, up-and-coming region like Empordà be waiting for their very own René Barbier? Well, because once you have a big name with lots of praise/points, the idea is that everyone rides on the back of it.

There is a school of thought (to which I subscribe) that says this is not necessarily a good thing, but it might be germane to examine why, currently, the 'René Barbier phenomenon' exists.

Wines are not as ingrained as they once were. In Europe, previous generations drank wine with every meal. The producer (often a local co-op) was more or less irrelevant, as was the provenance - it was normally the closest wine region to hand.

But consumption has dropped dramatically, co-inciding with increasing awareness of brand, name and reputation, often led, it must be said, by savvy marketing. Therefore, perhaps coming from the consumer's privilege to have an abundance of choice (or from ignorance - it depends on your point of view), we gravitate towards the best-known name or the name with the best reputation or the name we see in advertising. This also applies to producers vying for share in the export market.

Thus the situation I experienced on the Toro stand at Alimentaria last week. Almost all wineries in Toro had a bottle of their wine for punters to taste, yet it was no surprise to see the Numanthia wine (the 'Barbier' of Toro) empty with an hour or so. In fact, despite a tiny number of die-hards tasting as many wines as the tannin and alcohol would allow, the majority of toffs who came to the stand gravitated immediately towards the Numanthia (like a socialite to Louis Vuitton) and proceeded to eulogise loudly to their compatriots.

It is possible that we are coming to a situation whereby in order for one to 'know' Rioja, one must have tasted Muga or Ramirez de Ganuza; Toro, Numanthia or Paciencia; Priorat, Barbier or Palacios; but no more. Because we are playing this game of identifying the greats, of requiring a 'hero' for every region, we might also kill off a more demanding, tougher but more interesting, life of adventure.

It was even true among ourselves - the invitees to Alimentaria - over dinner that evening. We ended up discussing 4Kilos, Mallorca's 'Barbier' wine made famous by top Spanish taster José Peñin. Again, the 'top wine' elected by the 'top' critic.

And so Empordà might spend its days hoping that Jancis or Parker (yes, themselves the cream of the crop) will elect one of their number to the Pantheon of required drinking (i.e. 'oh, if you go to Empordà, you must taste [insert 'Barbier' name here]').

While assured this will indeed promote the level of the region, we might lament the situation that allows the jewel in the crown to become all we see of the regal headgear.

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Friday, 13 November 2009

The future of wine writing (part one)

I'm not even at winefuture in Rioja and I feel I can contribute to the debate. For starters, this is both a good and a bad thing. Good in that it shows the usefulness of social media (two words I hate - it's like calling a text message a conversation), and bad in that, well, I really should be there.

Firstly, Gary Vaynerchuck of winelibrarytv fame had all the bloggers and twitters in raptures. Which is fair enough: he's very good. I'm also sure his contribution to the discussion was the most valuable. But we all seem to suffer collective myopia when it comes to Vaynerchuck because, after all, he's actually a wine merchant.

Odd, then, that he's up there on a podium with a bunch of journos, telling other journos how to communicate on the web. If that's the future (which if more producers and salesmen were more canny, it would be), then I'm sorry folks but objective wine writing has died.

But, I hear everyone cry, his heart's in the right place. And this heralds my second point:

There seems to be this unspoken, collective idea that because we're all on social media (staring blankly into a screen with a glass of wine by the keyboard, blogging, twittering, etc) we are collectively nice with each other. We're facebook friends with PRs; our twitters are re-tweeted by producers; and our blogs are commented on by 'rival' journalists.

How can the volume of information (from all sources, be they PR or journalist) that these social media sites provide make the future of independent, clear-sighted wine writing any more secure?

Because, as Gary Vaynerchuck has shown, the content (or the context) doesn't matter, it's the delivery that counts...

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Friday, 28 August 2009

What your wine choice says about you


August is a traditionally quiet time for the wine industry. Everyone, from chateau owner to lowly grape-picker is off on holiday. And wine news is no different.

Bearing this in mind, thus comes the wine report of the month, courtesy of Food Quality and Preference, in which a bunch of scientists say that "drinkers who preferred a sweet taste in wine were more likely to be impulsive". Your wine choice reveals your personality, it said. And after they had tested 45 people, they reckon that those who chose dry wines were more 'open'.

Which is useful if you're going on a date.

Using 45 people to base a report on is perhaps a little tenuous but the researchers may have latched onto something.

Therefore, in the spirit of the thing, I thought I'd add my observations and suggestions:

  • Choosing Sauvignon Blanc shows you are independent. It's passé but what the hell. Invite Sauvignon drinkers to your party, but serve them something else.

  • Drinking Australian Shiraz has similar connotations. Being given a bottle at a barbeque, however, could also indicate an ingrained desire to go for what's safe and/or uphold the status quo.

  • The novice wine drinker who choses South African Chenin Blanc likes adventure, but not too much, and does so because it's the only rival to Pinot Grigio at the cheaper end of the drinks list.

  • A penchant for Gewurtztraminer shows a hankering for the 1970s, or in younger drinkers a love of all that is frivolous. Might also reveal high levels of overindulgence on sugary snacks at a younger age.

  • The lover of Riesling is truly great and should be your friend.

  • The lover of Madeira is always right but is likely to have better after-dinner stories than you.

  • A desire to drink Cabernet Sauvignon shows an adherence to the old order of things and is likely to tease out hidden, right-wing beliefs.

  • The Pinot Noir drinker should be avoided at all costs - they have nothing good to say and are rarely useful in company.

  • Beware also the fan of Pinotage - he or she is likely to cause embarrassment and will argue with your guests. Ensure a taxi is ordered.

  • A lover of red Rhône is midway between a religious hermit and a fork-wielding peasant. May be useful in company, but only as a conversation-starter.

  • Merlot is not bad. Its aficionados are likely to favour potato-based dishes.

  • The Champagne drinker is a good, genial person who doesn't let details get in the way of a good time. If they hand you a glass, however, beware. They are trying to get into your pants.

  • People drink Cava to keep Champagne drinkers from handing them a glass.

  • Chardonnay fans should only ever pick top Burgundy. If they do not, ensure you are well-stocked on tissues.

  • Barolo is the stock in trade of the gentle uncle. Drinking it shows an addiction to guilty pleasures and confused feelings at prep school.

  • Lovers of Tuscan wines are dreamers. Similar to the Champagne drinker, they are little concerned with what is in their glass, and are pleasant enough company. They are apt to be a little touchy. It is not advisable to talk about relationships in their vicinity.

  • Rioja drinkers buy portraits of old men and hang them in the toilet. They are sociable enough but don't press them too hard on any subject.

  • Lovers of Sauternes are notoriously fickle. They will either arrive very early or very late. They will have owned a Sade album.

  • The Port drinker is a great asset to any dinner party but will physically hurt you if given the chance.


  • Remember this is only a guide. Do not let your friends know you have read this.

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    Wednesday, 12 August 2009

    Climate change and wine


    There's a problem with affluent men above the age of 35. They don't believe in climate change. Utter the words 'climate change', 'global warming', 'total destruction' to them and they plug their fingers in their ears and start humming the tune to the Dambusters.

    It's odd, isn't it, that such conservative views (right-wing, king-of-industry, protect my right to pollute) should have absolutely nothing to do with the conservation of their world. Or the wines they love. Perhaps, of the hippy generation, they only care about the now, about themselves, about the wines they love to drink now. They love their world so much, they are intent on destroying it. Blindly.

    I was a climate change sceptic until I phoned the Met Office in the UK a couple of years ago - the place that looked after our weather reports (not that that lends them any basis in fact, but they know more about the weather than most of us). I asked. They replied. It's quite simple people: climate change is a fact. No matter how much you trot out your dodgy arguments, or say 'we'll it's been colder than usual this year', the people that look at the weather are agreed.

    Now, just how dangerous we are making our planet for ourselves I guess is up for discussion. But can we please get to this stage and start talking about what the hell we are going to do about it.

    Because otherwise, my fat, rich, Merc-driving friends, Burgundy, Napa, Bordeaux, Barolo, Rioja, the Mosel and Champagne will not be making the wines you so love to gobble up.

    Not that you have will have to drink the soupy Shiraz that Bordeaux will be making in 100 years' time. You couldn't care less about your sons and daughters right?

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