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What is.. Biodynamic Wine

Well, it sounds very exciting – alive & of the moment – but what is it really all about? & how much does it really differ from regular organic? Or indeed regular regular.

 

Quite a lot, it transpires. The biodynamic movement continues to sweep through the wine industry, converting many a top winemaker along the way. And, although not without its sceptics, produces wines of critical acclaim. Even globally renowned critic, Mr Robert Parker, has adopted its methods his co-owned Domaine Beaux-Freres in Oregan. Interested piqued? Mine too.. Definitely worth digging a bit deeper.

 

Biodynamic Agriculture is by no means a new movement: it was first introduced by a certain Austrian philosopher, Rudolf Steiner, in his lectures of 1924. Steiner’s “spiritual science” does not make for an easy read, but its essence is a simple one: of the farm – its soil, animals & plant – being one living organism, & therefore all its components being inextricably linked. Combine that with an awareness & sensitivity to astrological forces, it is easy to see why it has met with such success in the world of wine making where the end product is so dependent the minutae detail of its origin & the dedication & skill of its grower. Not to mention surrounding climactic conditions.

And the beauty is, the deeper you dig, the weirder & wonderfuler it gets. In order to be certified biodynamic, growers must adhere to the strict 9 “preparations” as listed by certifying body, The Demeter Society. These preparations are specific mixes of cow manure, plants & quartz (silica), many of which are prepared/held in specific animal parts (from the humble cow horn to rather more gruesome “skull of a domestic animal”). These of the earth tinctures are then ‘dynamised’ by hand-stirring in alternate directions for an hour or so & then applied to the vines at times dictated by both the phases of the moon & positions of the astrological constellations. No one ever said cosmic connectivity was easy.

 

It is these obscurely precise treatments, coupled with a dedication to working harmoniously with the cosmos, that differentiate biodynamic with that of organic. Whilst both practices shun the use of any chemicals, the biodynamic movement unquestionably comes from more of a spiritually holistic (& indeed mythical) school of thought. Problem with a pest? Simply catch a young virile member of said pests community; remove & burn its skin & then scatter over the affected area when Venus is in the sign of Scorpio. I did promise weird.

 

This is, however, where biodynamic farming gathers its critics: some of Steiner’s prescriptions feeling more akin to a religious cult than holistic farming system. And whilst there is an undeniable gulf in biodiversity & soil health in between it & regular farming practice, trials between biodynamic & organic lead to inconclusive results. Or perhaps conclusively, there is no difference noted.. However the proof is, of course, in the pudding. Or in this case glass.

 

And the glass looks a rather bountiful one, with some of the biggest estates either steadfastly flying, or experimenting with the biodynamic flag.  Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, , arguably one of the best & certainly most expensive wines in the world has been organic since 1985, & after experimenting with biodynamic methods for some time, has fully converterted as Aubert de Villaine found it “the best way to be as close to the vineyard as possible, and for the vines to be most in harmony with nature”. Staying within Burgundy, perhaps one of the most interesting cases is that of Domaine Leflaive, another wholly biodynamic estate. Family owner Anne-Claude Leflaive cited a particular terroir of older vines: riddled with disease they were advised to replant. Since the vines were considered ‘lost’, they decided to experiment, employing solely biodynamic preparations. 20 years on they are now their oldest vines & a picture of health. Domaine Leflaive went fully biodynamic in 1997 after 7 years of taste trials vs organic methods, so not a decision taken lightly.

 

Both de Villaine & Leflaive were, however, trailing in the wake of the Loire’s Nicholas Joly. Seen by many as ‘the godfather’ of biodynamic wine, ex-banker Joly took over his family’s estate, Chateau de la Roche aux Moines, as a modern agriculture sceptic. Until, that is, he came across a book on biodynamic farming.   He made his first biodynamic wine in 1981 & the estate has been fully so since 1985. Joly is a globally published & celebrated author on the matter, inspiring both consumers & growers alike. Rather infamously he has “Nature Assistant” rather than “Winemaker” on his business card.

 

Over 450 vineyards are now fully biodynamic across the world. And this figure continues to grow as many dabble with its ethereal ways in their quest for bottled perfection. Whilst many producers eschew some of the more “voodoo” practices (Demeter thankfully does not stipulate ALL of Steiner’s lore), the ecological harmony promoted by a biodynamic philosophy seems indisputable. Wine is a product evocative of its source; if that source is chemical & barren, one would expect it to taste so. If the source is rich & diverse, nourished & protected by only what is naturally available from that very area, then you would something rather more true to its roots.

 

Whilst cynics may suggest the reason biodynamic methods have been so successful in wine is because it’s the one agricultural industry whose mark-ups can afford to, the success itself is harder to criticize. Be it through grower devotion, or something altogether more other-worldly, biodynamic wine tastes delicious. Whether it is any more so than its organic & less so counterparts is of course subjective, but in a world where we are increasingly aware the health of our surroundings, & indeed ourselves, biodynamic farming feels like a hearty nod in the right direction. And given that we deign to tinker with the tipple of the Gods, it somehow feels wise to keep Mother Nature on our side.

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  • Calendar Month Ahead – February

    Look for our monthly roundups of what’s coming up in the month ahead.. We see the list as ever-evolving (& aware it’s currently London-centric) so any additions are more than welcome – we look forward to growing month on month!

    It may be the ‘Tuesday’ of the months, but February is alive & kicking in the wine world, with ample glass-more-than-half-full fare most evenings that should roll us into March nicely..

     

    Monday 2nd

    Saint Emillion Grand Cru Classe Chateaux dinner
    Oxford & Cambridge Club, London

     

    Tuesday 3rd

    Classic Fine Burgundy, Tour de Cote d’Or
    West London Wine School, Fulham

    Love Wine & Film (runs to end of Month)
    Cantina Del Ponte, London Bridge

    Decanter’s Discoveries from Greece, Italy & Bulgaria tasting
    Chandos House, London

     

    Wednesday 4th

    Grape Debate: Cabernet-Merlot Blends
    West London Wine School , Fulham

    Opus one Vertical Tasting
    Handford Wines, Kensington

    Source Food & Drink Trade Show (Until 5th)
    Exeter

     

    Thursday 5th

    Wine Beats Vol.1: Austrian Wine Revolution
    Shoreditch Studios, London

     French Independent Wine Growers
    Royal Horticultural Halls, London

     

    Monday 9th

    Grape School: Lesson one, essentials
    D’Vine Wines, Clapham, London

    Red Bordeaux drop in Tasting (runs to 15/2)
    Le Pont de la Tour, Shad Thames, London

    Vivat Bachhus, Newton Johnson Vineyards
    Farringdon EC4A 4LL

     

    Tuesday 10th

    Chateau Angelus Masterclass
    Tower Hill, London

     Ehrmann’s annual portfolio tasting
    The Music Room, Mayfair, London

     Austrian Tasting
    Institute of Directors, London

     

    Wednesday 11th

    Brunello through the 1970s
    Justerini & Brooks, SW1A 1LZ

    Fizz from Dorset
    Pont de la Tour, Shad Thames, London

     

    Thursday 12th

    2005 Red Bordeaux
    Handford Wines, Fulham

    Mentendorff Annual Portfolio Tasting 2015
    Royal Opera House, London

    Romantic Ruinart Champagne Tasting
    Bluebird, Chelsea

     

    Sunday 14th

    World of Wine experience tasting day (
    Old Bank Hotel, Oxford

     

    Monday 16th

    Grape School – Lesson two: The Big 5
    D’Vine Wines, Clapham

    Two Paddocks Wine Tasting
    Plateau, Canary Wharf

    Bandol Drop in Tasting
    Le Pont de la Tour, Shad Thames, London

    Spanish Fine Wine Tasting
    Vivat Bacchus Farringdon

     

    Tuesday 17th

    Vintage Roots Trade Tasting
    Pain Quotidien, Borough Market

     

    Wednesday 18th

    Butlers Basic Bordeaux Wine Tasting
    Brighton, BN2 9XJ

     

    Thursday 19th

    St Chinian Tasting 2015
    La Maison de la Region Languedoc-Rousillion, W1G 0PD

    Battle of the Bubbles
    The Penthouse, SW1Y 4TE

     

    Sunday 21st

    Wine Lunch
    Caledonian Club, London

     Laithwaite’s Wine Nottingham Tasting Afternoon & Evening
    The Albert Hall, Nottingham

    ThirtyFifty 1 Day Wine Course
    Brasserie Blanc, Southbank

     

    Monday 23rd

    Grape School – Lesson three: The Floral & Aromatic
    D’Vine Wines, Clapham, London

    Berry Bros Rhone 2013 Tasting
    One Great George Street, SW1P 3AA

    Liberty Wines Portfolio Tasting
    Manchester

     

    Tuesday 24th

    Chateau Pichon Longueville Baron Tasting
    Tower of London

     

    Wednesday 25th

    ThirtyFifty wine tasting Evening & Antipasti
    Brasserie Blanc, Southbank

     Explore Germany Portfolio
    Vinoteca Marleybone, W1H 5BD

     

     Thursday 26th

    Secret Wine Supper
    The Rookery, Clapham

    Spain Trade Fair
    Tobacco Dock, E1W 2SF

     

    Saturday 28th

    Icons of the wine world
    Saatchi Gallery

    https://www.a-matter-of-taste.com/Event/index/3

     

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  • Wine Words 1

    Struggle with some of wine’s more ‘floral’ language? Look out for JFT’s tasting note translators in our regular ‘Wine Word’ entries.

    Kickstarting with some old favourites..

     

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    Fleshy | ˈfleʃi |

    Wine with a vivacious, lively quality that dances in your mouth with substance to back it up.

    Like: a delicious fruit crumble

    In use: “A soft, fleshy, up-front styled Pauillac that will provide delicious drinking over the next 10-15 years, the 2006 Haut-Bages Liberal is dark ruby/purple in color and exhibits notes of licorice, roasted herbs, black currants, and plums. It is a sexy, round, silky-textured wine that seems something of an “outlier” in this tannic vintage”

    (Robert Parker reviewing Haut Bages Liberal 2006)

     

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    Sweet tannins | swiːt ˈtænɪnz |

    Wine retains it’s red fruit, whilst having a clean & defined ending on the palate.

    Like: a good blackberry

    For example: “This consistently high quality estate’s 2006 exhibits aromas of cedar, black currants, black cherries, loamy soil, and background toasty oak. Medium-bodied and richly fruity with sweet tannin, it should drink well for 5-6 years. Good value.”

    (Robert Parket reviewing D’Aiguilhe 2006)

     

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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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  • Top 10 wine films

    As Christmas rapidly approaches & evenings in become more of a scarcity,  a good film can provide a welcome excuse to cosy up & lay low. Wine films often get fairly mixed reviews, so we’ve compiled a top 10 of varying levels of wine-focus; worthy, we feel, of opening a bottle & settling in for the night.

     

    1. A Good Year (2006)

     

    A wine-lovers’ take the good life as British investment broker Max (Russell Crowe) inherits his uncle’s chateau vineyard in Provence. Trading in desk for vines, we see Max reliving his childhood & becoming softened by the vines & pace of life. Beautifully shot (directed by Ridley Scott) & a fine ode to Provence.

    Drink: A Provence rosé would be the obvious choice!

     

    2. Mondovino (2004)

     

    Documentary that tracks the effect of globalization on the wine world, specifically how capitalization & ego can control markets. It’s polarizing fare, as its’ long & really goes to town on some of the major characters in wine (Michel Rolland, Robert Mondavi & Robert Parker respectively). Hones in on their dogs when things get a bit close to the bone. Worth embarking on if the above titillates.

    Drink: depends what camp you want to sit on: a rustic Sicilian Nero d’Avolo or a bold Californian number. Luckily it’s long enough for both.

     

    3. The Secret of Santa Vittoria (1969)

     

    Set in an Italian village during WW2, this beautiful old film tracks the battle of wits & bottles between the village mayor & occupying German forces who want to take all of their wine which the villagers have hidden in a secret cave. The Germans are given a few thousand bottles, but know there is a lot more lurking somewhere.

    Drink: well a Nebbiola or Barbera d’Alba of course

     

    4. A year in Burgundy (2011)

     

    Follows California-dwelling native-Burgundian Martine Saunier on her trips back home over the course of a year in doing so giving a rare insight into some of the oldest families in Burgundy. The love & dedication of the vignerons, from La Romanee Conti’s Lalou Bize-Leroy who is still involved in every aspect of the making of her wines, despite being in her 80s; to Dominique Cornin’s assertion that he really does have the best job in the world as he roams around on his horse carriage through his vines. A beautiful & extremely touching glimpse of an extremely specialist area.

    Drink: well I hardly need say, when you see the passion that goes into it’s creation, you will appreciate all the more.

     

    5. Tu seras mon fils (You will be my son) (2011)

     

    From Burgundy to Bordeaux, 2011 was quite the year for the 2 French greats. Although rather than a documentary, here we have a French film with all the tensions & passions we have grown to expect. Set in a fictional right bank estate, Tu seras mon fils sees the estates domineering patriarch set his down-trodden son against an upstart young winemaker in a battle for its inheritance. With cameos from the real estate (Clos Fourtet, as Bordeaux officionados will notice), this feels like a fictional trip down reality lane.

    Drink: Clos Fourtet if you’re feeling like pushing the boat out, but anything from St Emilion could suffice

     

    6. French Kiss (1995)

     

    Kevin Kline as the (not-so) prodigal son of a family of Loire winemakers who comes to the aid of fiancé in distress Meg Ryan on her way to France to confront her straying husband to be. Kline sits next to her on the flight, planting a stolen diamond necklace & vine cutting in her bag. After a comedy of deceptions, Kline & Ryan, travel through France on a few more, with sweeping vineyards providing a stunning backdrop to their respective games. Full of gallic reference, both the charming & the less so.

    Drink: A good Loire should do the trick

     

    7. This Earth is Mine (1959)

     

    A wonderfully twisted melodrama set at the end of the prohibition, portraying the issues that divided Napa valley in the 1930s. Claude Rains is patriarch of a Napa family who still insists on making wine every year, seeing it as a gift from god.   His wayward & callous grandson is determined to shift the grapes to bootleggers in Chicago instead. A telling & eerily resonant tale for the modern day.

    Drink: Well probably an Inglenook Rubicon (where it was filmed), to stay true to its roots.

     

    8. Red Obsession (2013)

    Russell Crowe takes the viewer on a moody & atmospheric journey across the continents, starting in Bordeaux & ending in China, or does it? Red Obsession is a beautifully shot Australian documentary that addresses the soaring Asian-Bordeaux relationship & the bubbles it creates, both financial & emotional. With interviews across the industry, wine is given an almost mythical quality & cultural juxtapositions, although rather simplistic, do all the talking they need to; obsession being a friend most fickle in nature.

    Drink: A Bordeaux worth obsessing about.. (there are many!)

     

    9. Somm (2013)

     

    Documentary following 4 men’s quest to become master sommeliers; real people trying to follow their passion under immense pressure, devoting their lives & sometimes sanity, to the humble grape. Since its inception 40 years ago, only 200 candidates have reached top sommelier level & here we see way, alongside unprecedented access to a world normally shrouded in secrecy. A voyeuristic tale via the lenses of hope, friendship & obsession.

    Drink: Anything. But make sure you’ve done your homework.

     

    10. Sideways (2004)

     

    Comedy/drama following 2 middle-aged men & respective crises on a road trip through California’s Santa Ynez vineyards. Miles (Paul Giamatti) is a struggling writer in life-rut & his friend Jack is a cad about to get married. Wine divides then brings them back together, becoming an extended metaphor for their friendship.

    Drink: Califonian Pinot Noir. Lots of it.

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  • Wine Spitting – how to do?

    “Nasty habit young feller, you born in a barn?” and thus Josey Wales, as played by Clint Eastwood, is chastised for spitting by an old lady in the 1976 revisionist western.

    Wales, a Missouri farmer hell bent on revenge for the murder of his wife and son, spends much of the film spitting – he gobs on dogs heads, on his foes corpses and in one scene uses his gobbing skills to ward off a scorpion.

    Spitting is indeed a nasty habit, socially unacceptable in most day-to-day walks of life, generally and rightly frowned upon it is only within the context of the wine tasting room that wine spitting, and good spitting at that, is indulged without raising eyebrows.

    To the novice wine taster, the act of spitting a mouthful of wine can be a nervy affair, there is an art to it which we’ll come on to but spittle delivery is fraught with danger – splatter down one’s shirt, worst still, splatter down someone else’s.

    But even for the seasoned wine taster, spitting is source of nerves and dread of the spittle based fauz pas.

    Wine writer Sophie Dening is a seasoned taster and as director of London Wine Session, knows her way around a wine fair but gobbing techniques still perplex… “Cunningly at my own wine festival I have volunteer professional sommeliers who know me and are aware of my imposter status and kindly ignore my fey parabola. Since I started Wine Sessions my projectile confidence has definitely improved.”

    So how to spit with confidence? As with all challenges in life it takes practice, experience or, if you’re invited at short notice to a tasting, access to the internet and a quick poke around on You Tube where in the nervous gobber will find plenty of tutorials and words of wisdom…

    “Spit tight” “Aim for the wall of the bucket” “Don’t go for the long arc on the first spit” and most importantly “don’t wear a white shirt”.

    “It’s like when you’re learning to roll cigarettes” according to Dave Simpson, owner of Market Row Wines in Brixton Village, “Sitting quietly in your bedroom hoping your mum doesn’t walk in, so during quieter moments grab a bucket and start spitting. Eventually you’ll hit the bucket and not someone else’s shoes.”

    Basically, everyone gets it wrong, there’s not a novice tasters nor scarlet nosed booze hound that hasn’t ruined a shirt, suffered from splash-back or gobbed in to a decanter of rare wine in error.

    As Sophie Dening, still practicing wisely surmises “I hope that, one day, I will spurt nonchalantly and elegantly, with a dignified straight back. Until then I’m basically going for not dribbling.”

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  • The wine diet

    The nations’ battle against various food types is a well-documented, treacherous & fickle one – from the lowly potato to a truffled foie gras amuse-bouche, no corner of fridge or cupboard is left unturned. The one consolation being there are many a Dietician Lieutenant General jostling behind their current leader, waiting to wage war on the new enemy in vogue.

     

    Carbohydrates, being in most of what we eat, have withstood the ravages of war, but under the same breath, are no stranger to being in enemy corner. By the simple equation, Carbs = Energy x not enough exercise/a little bit greedy = fat, they sit pretty as a rather easy (& logical, I’ll grant) target. Quack indeed.

     

    Whilst it is easy to consider our food consumption in terms of basic groups & types, it is only relatively recently that drinks, namely alcoholic, have come to our attention. And whilst of course it’s a case of everything in moderation, comparing tipples yields some interesting results, especially for the carb-conscious amongst us.

     

    This great infographic from Wine Folly does exactly that. The GOOD news is that our humble grape fares remarkably well, dominating the bottom of the graph. Obviously the more residual sugar, the higher carb content – a glass of Sauternes or Tawny Port comes in only 5g less than a sweet liqueur & is over 6x a glass of dry red or white – that said, we tend to (or should!) drink these in smaller quantity. & they are ever so delicious.

    carbs-in-wine-and-alcoholic-drinks

    More good news lies in how we eat with wine. It tends to slow us down, ergo we eat less. Throw that in with its high vitamin C content & links to lowering cholesterol, I think the battlefield is ripe for a new, wine-enthusiast leader.

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