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What is… Botrytis

A most noble of rots indeed. Noble rot? Surely a contradiction in itself..

No, it really is – botrytis, or “noble rot” is a GOOD fungus that likes moist conditions & ripe grapes. A rot that makes the finest sweet wines in the world, think Sauternes, Tokaji & Riesling Auslese. Scientifically known at Botrytis Cinerea, & from the same family as Stilton & penicillin, the fungus has 2 guises, both of which are at the mercy of the weather gods, “noble” or “grey’. No prizes for guessing the black sheep of the family.

 

In perfect conditions, there is just the right amount of humidity for the fungus to permeate the skin of the grapes, followed by dry sunshine. Which is why the Graves area of left bank Bordeaux, Sauternes, makes such worthy botrytised fare; subsidiary river Ciron’s close proximity to the Garonne creates a naturally occurring mist that allows the rot to take hold, followed by beautiful Southern French sunshine. This dehydrates the grapes from within, but maintains the all important sugar levels, making for a intense & complex glass or 2. Yes please. Should the humidity decide to stick about, grey rot sets in, ruining the grapes & not making for any glass at all; a most perilous nobility indeed!

Legend varies depending on its provenance. The Germans, as ever, have done their homework & spun a yarn of Homeric worth. With dates, of course. The tale starts in 1775 at the Bishop of Fulda’s estate. Each year, the harvest of his precious Riesling grapes awaited his say so. However, this particular year the abbey messenger (who had been dispatched to give the holy green light) was robbed en route to the estate, so harvest was delayed by 3 weeks, just enough time for botrytis to nobly install itself. The grapes were deemed unworthy & given to peasants who duly produced a most delicious wine. Spatlese (late harvest) went on to have global acclaim in all its delicately balanced glory.

 

Not to accept defeat, especially where German neighbours are concerned, Hungarian legend puts its stake in a good couple of centuries earlier, the first record of an aszu (wine from botrytised grapes) in works from 1571. Towel turning stuff indeed.

 

Modern day botrysised wines are some of the finest & highly regarded bottles around. From Sauternes’ “liquid gold”, Chateau d’Yquem, to Hungarian Tokaji being coined “Wine of Kings. King of Wines” by Louis XIV. This noble rot generally comes with a fairly noble price-tag to boot. And justly so. Perfect weather conditions don’t manifest themselves year on year & the grapes have to be picked by hand. A labour of love with an understandably small yield. Some things are worth their scarcity.

Grape requirements are thin-skinned & tight bunches. So, Riesling, Semillon, Chenin Blanc & Furmint; spanning German, French, South African & Hungarian varietals. Tasting notes range from honey to ginger to mushroom & come in at varying levels of acidity, depending on the grape itself & how long the rot is allowed to settle in.

 

So there we have it; delicious with dessert, or indeed cheese, or even as an aperitif. Botrytis can come to stay any day, provided he packs his airs & graces. Also a strong contender for scrabble, not to mention hangman. Versatile AND virtuous. I’ll drink to that.

 

 

 

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  • Top 10 Christmas Drinks

    ‘Tis the season, after all.. & if you’re going to do it, you mayaswell do it well. With appropriate thirst & abandon. Herewith JFT’s Top 10 festive quenchers. Comments, additions & heckles welcome.

     

    Mulled Wine 

    But of course.. Everyone’s favourite sticky cup or ladle; nothing quite encapsulates the Christmas smell like it. Drink in bulk before carols. With a mince pie or 6. Tastes have (thankfully) evolved over the years, from a pestle & mortar heavy medieval gruel; to Victorian Mrs Beeton’s abstemious addition of a large cupful of water to every pint of wine; to a staggering £60 a glass at the St Pancras Hotel. (& it doesn’t even have any gold in it. Yet)

    Try: Delia’s modern day classic. WITH the brandy.

     

    Grog 

    This season’s lemsip. And for good reason. The original combination of heated water, rum, lime & sugar was used on long seafaring voyages. Coined by a particularly charismatic Vice-Admiral who wore a well-weathered grogam cloak, and so was known as “Old Grog” which far belittles grogam’s silk, mohair & wool constitution. Much like the powers of grog itself. Add in a splash of brandy if you’re feeling brave/particularly in need; measures are traditionally by the compass, due North being neat rum, West pure water.

    Did you know: Nelson’s body was preserved in a barrel of rum after Trafalgar. Legend would have it sailors then drank the contents, giving rum it’s nickname, Nelson’s Blood. Oh grog most gruesome.

     

    Sherry

    Just like a good moustache or prawn cocktail (well, nearly), this fortified wine from Cadiz is back in all it’s Granny & vicar warming glory. AND it just happens to be a most versatile number: sup as an aperitif, or with your tapas or with your cheese; or EVEN a digestif. Ticking every Christmas box & some. Not titillating your tastebuds, try cooking with it, your moules will thank you.

    Try: Perching on a barrel & matching plates to glass at London’s original sherry bar http://barpepito.co.uk/; there are 19 to get through. (all in the name of research)

     

    Bubbles 

    Celebrations wouldn’t be celebrations without the customary popping of corks & well, Christmas feels as good a cause as any. Whilst traditionalists might opt for champagne’s big houses, (& why not, who in their right mind would turn down a glass of Krug, or indeed Dom Perignon!?) there’s also wealth of of sparkling wines to get in a fizz about. French cremants, Italian proseccos, Spanish cavas, sparkling Sussexs, to much further afield; cork popping is (fortuitously) a global pastime.

    Pop some trivia: Winston Churchill was Pol Roger’s greatest ambassador, “in victory, deserve it; in defeat, need it”, or just drink & be merry with neither.

     

    White 

    Whilst the season generally conjures cosy log fires & red wine, a good white can go a long way at a party. & depending on what you’re eating on the day itself, something light & delicious with course 1 (& that you can potentially come back to); we say drink both! AND you’ll need something sweet with that brandy-doused pudding, a casual Chateau d’Yquem should do the trick.

    Fact: in 2011 Yquem made headlines by being the most expensive bottle of white ever to be sold, an 1811 for £75,000.

     

     

    Red 

    Well, for starters it’s THE colour of Christmas. Along with gold. Which Yquem ticks off nicely. Red can also be full of the fruity, gently spiced & warm flavours we associate with Christmas. And delicious with goose. AND turkey. Almost needs a credential top 10 in it’s own right! All hail the pinot noir, & if you’re packing the traditional punch, burgundy it has to be. A little acidity will help cut through all that heavy food & hopefully stave off snoozes until the sofa. Now for how good have you been this year, Grand Cru, Premier Cru or Villages? Aim angelic with a Domaine Romanée-Conti, can but ask!

    Labour of love: There are over 600 ways to label burgundy due to a very rigorous appellation system, so worth doing your homework!

     

     

    Port

    Father Christmas’ favourite tipple needs no introduction: compliment your cheese, or indeed Christmas pud. Delicious, sweet & VERY moreish, port initially became popular when the English were at war with France, & therefore aligning yourself with ANY of their produce was effectively high treason. Well, thank the manche they did, stilton, cheddar & chocolate can now sing from that precariously balanced bunch of mistletoe.

    ALWAYS: pass port to your left, else you may be faced with being asked whether you know the Bishop of Norwich. & no one likes their trivia being tested at this stage of proceedings. Rolling on to the day after the night before…

     

    Bloody Mary

    A drink that sounds like it might be named after a particularly gallow-happy queen might not seem the obvious choice for an already pounding head (unless it really is THAT bad), but the combination of stomach settlers, vitamins, salt, kick & booze really does work. Or reacquaints you with your thirst at least. Best recipe..? On our wish list; generous slugs of vodka, little slug sherry, fresh tomatoes, Big Tom, Tabasco, Worcestershire sauce, horseradish, lemon juice, salt, pepper & celery. In no particular order. Or try Craft of the Cocktail for more precision on the matter.

    A dram of a dare: At last year’s Tabasco annual Bloody Mary competition, one of the winners went for a Tequila & Mezcal base, topped off with a Lagavulin 16 year old malt.

     

    A festive ale

    Sometimes you just can’t beat a good ale. In a good pub. Maybe some peanuts. Not ones to shy away from the seasons wants, the brewery’s have come up trumps with some wonderfully festive brews to oh ho ho us off our stools. The Belgian leading the merry way, of course: St Bernardus Christmas is spice infused, dark & alluring. AND comes in at a particularly merry 10% ABV; close to home Bateman’s Rose Nosey is a copper-coloured ode to all things yuletide. More readily available than it’s Belgian counterpart. (AND a good half less alcoholic too)

    Beer for a wine lover: Try Dogfish Brewery’s Noble Rot, where botrisysed grape (that make the likes of Sauternes) juice is infused twice during brewing. Lightly spicy & subtley sweet. Wonder whether it goes with cheese?

     

    Christmas Punch 

    Arguably saving the best til last, and for good reason. Christmas punch is a license to really go to town. Sweep the cupboards & fill the ladles. Much like Granny’s secret Christmas cake recipe, you don’t need to necessarily share EVERYTHING that goes in. Bars & bloggers can do that for us. Pimms works just as well winter-warmed & spiced as it does with lawnside croquet & cucumber sandwiches. Or for something a little more off the beaten track, US blogger Jen really goes to town with her concoction. 

    Over a cuppa: Punch came over with the teamen from India & is a loanword from Sanskrit. What would Judy say?

     

    (more…)

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  • Top 10 wine gifts

    A wine-lover or buying a present for one? Peruse this list with for some inspiration..

     

    1. Bicycle wine rack

     

    Finally something for cyclists to carry their bottle in style!

    https://www.cyclechic.co.uk/shop/accessories/oopsmark-bicycle-wine-rack

     

    2. Coravin

     

    Launched in UK earlier this year, Coravin allows you to take wine from the bottle without allowing any oxygen in, so you can chip away at your favourite bottles over whatever time period you chose.. Clever but definitely for the less traditional wine-lovers!

    http://www.coravin.co.uk/coravin-systems/coravin-device-101501.html

     

    3. Vinalito wine aerator

     

    Does what it says on tin, simply pour wine through for immediate effect!

    http://www.thegreatgiftcompany.co.uk/him/age/all_gifts_for_him/wine_aerator.htm

     

    4. Moustache corkscrew

     

    Handily doubles up both bottle-opener AND practical moustache for those who don’t want their drinking to be impinged.

    http://www.drinkstuff.com/products/product.asp?SearchField=moustache&ID=7363#.VIdE6ChnHww

     

    5. Vingardevalise

     

    Lightweight & ‘virtually indestructible’, this foam-lined wheely suitcase has Bond written all over it; weighing in at 20kg while transporting a case isn’t bad going. Can remove foam if you only want 6 bottles. A travelling wine enthustiasts must!

    http://vingardevalise.com/

     

    6. Wine hive winerack

     

    Taking inspiration from our beloved bees; SF based outfit who make everything out of locally sourced recycled aluminium.

    https://www.winehive.com/

     

    7. World Atlas of Wine

     

    Can’t go wrong with the 7th edition of this trusted wine encyclopedia from Hugh Johnson & Jancis Robinson.

    http://worldatlasofwine.com/

     

    8. Silo decanter

     

    A marriage of form & function with emotionally pleasing results! Double-walled decanter that keeps wine at right temperature.

    http://wearevessel.com/collections/silo-design/products/silo-bottle

     

    9. Engraved wooden wine box

     

    Personalise with vintages, names & messages; In & out of the box with a few different template designs.

    http://www.gettingpersonal.co.uk/gifts/personalised-luxury-wooden-wine-box-vintage-year.htm?cf=1

     

    10. Krug Flanerie

     

    Carry & cool your Krug with style; the picnic bar just raised itself rather substantially.. Comes complete with bottle of Krug Grand Cuvee therefore better value than it might first appear!

    http://www.b-21.com/Krug-Grande-Cuvee-Flanerie/productinfo/FCKRFLNVAE/#.VInIeihnHww

     

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  • Wine investment – what next?

    Buying & selling wine for investment is by no means a new phenomena. Enthusiastic drinkers with eyes bigger than their capacity, be it body or cellar, have always erred on the side of caution when a good vintage comes along. The dwindling availability of said year will of course make it even more desirable & push the price up. Throw in a few good years to age & things start to get interesting. So, it is easy to see how wine became an increasingly popular investment, even to the less thirsty amongst us.

     

    In the volatile market of the late ‘90s, investors looked for more tangible assets. Wine ticked a lot of boxes: in finite supply, ever-increasing global demand AND as a perishable asset (or for something infinitely more raw & appealing, HMRC’s “wasting chattel”) exempt from Capital Gains Tax (CGT) provided you are not a regular trader (although this is inevitably a rather grey area, dependent on its ‘to drink’ date). Throw in a heady mix of the emotional & functional, it would seem rude not to. (And if all else fails, at least you’ll be well-watered & broke, rather than just the latter)

     

    As Joe Roseman, author of SWAG (Silver Wine Art Gold) astutely surmises: in a time the “government keeps interest rates below inflation” investors naturally look to more physical assets as a store of value and “the prudent saver is called upon to bail out the reckless borrower”. On a macro level think the Eurozone, micro think opportunist investment companies.

     

    This surge in demand for wine, both to buy & sell, was initially wonderful for the industry.   Wine investment seemed easy to understand & no longer the preserve of an old boys’ network and/or family heirloomed cellars. Anyone could buy wine & anyone could sell it. AND it delivered good returns, sometimes in excess of 10% year on year. Sales of investment grade wines from Mouton Rothschild & Lynch Bages in Bordeaux, to Armand Rousseau in Burgundy, to Australia’s Penfolds Grange rocketed. Bordeaux, of course, led the way in the investment world: sales at en Primeur (where the vintage is sold whilst the wine is still ageing in the barrel) became market-floor bidding wars & prices soared, peaking from 2009 to mid-2011. However wine is, of course, not exempt from the trials & tribulations of a global market & the second half of 2011 saw prices drop dramatically. As shown in the Liv-ex Fine Wine 100, charting the prices of the 100 top/most desired wines here

     

    Alongside traditional channels, people looked for new ways to buy & sell wine. Wine investment companies, complete with traders & brokers, sprung up, all chomping at the bit to beat the market. Wine Funds became commonplace & online trading platforms like Liv-ex gave wine it’s very own stock exchange.   Part exchange, part index provider & with a logistical arm, Liv-ex provides a solid backbone for the industry, bringing a much-needed level of opacity to the wine valuation process in creating both an accessible & transparent marketplace.  A well-executed contrast from the cloak & dagger opportunists.

     

    As positive as this all was, wine is not a regulated industry. This lack of regulation left the door wide open for scam traders AND naïve investors. A preyed on B with unscrupulous aplomb, & before B knew it they were investing life-long savings into a commodity they knew little about. Wildly over-exaggerated returns were flung around left, right & centre; any profits immediately reinvested. It was increasingly difficult to get a grasp of what the actual value was of this “stock”. B’s fate lay at the hands of A’s wiley trading.

     

    Dig a little deeper & the gulf between the Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) investment guidance & that of its unregulated counterparts become only too apparent. Wine investors have simply adopted a traditional wine merchant model, never meant for investment, that has neither evolved or adhered to standard best practice of the financial world. Inevitably the subversion of this model, where the wine is bought 20% below market value (or alleged market value) with brokers charging 10% commission on exit, or 35% up front, gave traders free pocket-lining reign. And it was thirsty work, of course.

     

    There was no RDR (Retail Distribution Review, which filtered cowboy IFAs out of the equation with an advanced benchmark qualification) in unregulated wine. Perhaps if these brokers had been put a similar level of extraction, trusting investors would have been left with something altogether less bitter on the palate.

     

    To pick at the most obvious seams: there is no aligning of objectives between manager & investor, meaning parties are mis-incentivised & mis-sold respectively. Instead of structured & performance related incentive fees, investors were locked into their portfolios by the brokers’ commission structure, which in the case of the 10% at exit option, necessitates double-digit wine price growth just to break even. The 35%ers had long since run for the hills, storage & insurance companies in hot pursuit.   And when they ran/drove their very fast sports cars, the invested stock left behind was often in ‘umbrella’ accounts with no clear ring-fencing of their clients’ assets (& in many cases read life savings), leaving it extremely vulnerable upon company collapse.

     

    So, when things started to level out late 2012, early 2013, the cracks started to show. Albeit crevices & there was nothing gradual about their discovered. Investors were locked into their tumbling portfolios & the resulting debris covered many a track. This flurry of frenzied trading saw many of these wine investment companies go into liquidation. In fact well over 50 over the past 4 years.   Nedim Ailyan, Director of Abbot Fielding, leading insolvency practitioners with great experience in the wine world, cited “mismanagement on a colossal scale” in their clear up of Bordeaux UK in 2012. With creditor claims over £10.5 million & assets at £2.5 million, it doesn’t take an economist to disentangle a problem. And this was only 1 of 8 cases they were working on at that given time. Colossal suddenly feels rather diminutive. And more recently Bordeaux Fine Wines, European Fine Wines, Encarta Fine Wines, Worldwide Wealth Collections & 1855.com to name but a few. The list feels eerily familiar.

     

    With an average of 15p returned per £1 invested in these liquidations, life-savings were not what they once were. Investors, even those who had been more resilient to the perpetual hard-sell approach were at a loss. Herein lies the next door that a lack of regulation rather sadistically opens wide. The traders walk out of the liquidation with their lists; previous investors see no way out & make an easy target. The inevitable reinvestment game commences as the traders set up again, going through their ‘To the Rescue!’ lists systematically.

     

    There is hope, however. Earlier this year the court shut down 2 wine investment consultancies (set up specifically to help victims of previous investment scams) for their “cynical targeting” of vulnerable investors, forcing them to reinvest wine with vastly exaggerated returns. Again. The crack-down has commenced.

     

    Prominent wine writer Jim Budd leads the way with his investdrinks blog, going to great lengths to publicly name & shame companies, like this latest post on Vinance here. He believes cold calling “and the associated sales have blighted wine investment”. With the FCA taking a strong stance against the use of “fraudulent” cold calls, he sees the Wine Investment Association’s (WIA) omission to follow suit as “perhaps a fatal flaw”. This of course leads into a bigger discussion as to whether self-regulation can actually work. “Quis custodiet ipsos custodies?” To quote Juvenal from his Satires “Who will guard the guardes themselves?” With many of the WIA directors actively involved in the wine investment market, can the bar really be set high enough?

     

    An independent & wider-reaching body exists in the form of the Wine & Spirit Trade Association (WSTA) which offers sound support & advice, campaigning for transparent & fair industry practice. It is particularly well versed when tackling fraud (for a useful PDF & our corresponding comment follow link here) , but is not (& does not presume to be) a regulatory body, so is powerless to implement actual change. With a wealth of information availably online, it does, however, do a fantastic job in building public awareness, so we are at least moving in the right direction: pushes for greater regulation & higher professional standards in the industry feel like important milestones.

     

    But what next? Faith needs to be restored in the industry – more regulation, more whistle-blowing & more transparency. But how? An INDEPENDENT regulatory body with power to control alternative asset classes (oh yes, wine does not stand alone.. rather predictably the same “investor managers” crop up across all of them) would provide a solid structure for the industry to pull around. And pull together it must. What would happen if merchants simply stopped selling to these companies? If change comes from within, then let the core of the industry fly its flag. Dress & support this change with greater transparency & simplified process, we could be on track to nurturing the stock, trade & passion that will keep it afloat.

     

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