Thursday, 11 February 2010

Wine media: time for an honest reappraisal

It's interesting how certain items of news about the wine media seem to have got everyone all a twitter. The Observer newspaper has announced that they are reducing the length of Tim Atkin's column and a notable guide to Spanish wine (Peñin) will now only be published online. What's more, last year Condé Nast's Gourmet magazine was axed and over the past few years the presence of wine commentators in British newspapers has dramatically dwindled.

I have spent a large proportion of my career either working in wine media or on the fringes of it. After a few years in wine retail, in 1995 I joined Mitchell Beazley publishers where I edited books such as Hugh Johnson's Pocket Wine Book. I worked with a broad range of specialist writers and experts. Within the wine trade, these were all highly respected, courted 'celebrity' figures who all continued to be extremely important once I moved into public relations. This was rarely the case outside the confines of our world. Of all the writers I worked with, only Hugh Johnson, Jancis Robinson and Oz Clarke would have any relevance to most of my personal acquaintances. If you asked people in the street, I doubt whether many would have heard of them (although Oz Clarke's name might have rung a bell!).

The wine trade values the press enormously and unreservedly. Third party endorsement plays a key role in marketing such a complicated product to the public, especially in the UK where consumers often find themselves overwhelmed by the choice of wines available. Despite being aware of the limited circulations of specialist publications such as Decanter (approximately 40,000), I'd be interested to know what proportion of these figures is made up of members of the wine trade. Wine is no longer a niche product, but wine appreciation is most certainly a niche activity and a tiny proportion of consumers want to read about it; they just want to drink it. How much time do you spend reading about music, for example, as opposed to listening to it? Probably very little.

Whereas wine in the print media is becoming increasingly limited, the internet is the perfect arena for current coverage of niche subjects. Mentioning Jancis Robinson again, here we have an example of someone who recognised this early on. Her website with its subscription-only 'purple pages' is kept entirely up-to-date and she even has another Master of Wine, Julia Harding, working as her assistant, enhancing her impressive authority. Other British wine websites such as Jamie Goode's, Tom Cannavan's and Drinking Outside the Box on (especially the podcasts) are also well regarded and have strong followings. An exciting recent addition is which, in the light of the gradual demise of newspaper wine columns, is an obvious development. Several wine writers are involved (including Joanna Simon, ex-Sunday Times, and the aforementioned Tim Atkin) which allows visitors to the site to latch on to the writer whose taste most chimes with their own. Then, of course, there are the numerous food and wine bloggers out there.

Despite being slow to acknowledge its rapidly growing power, the wine trade has much to gain from new media. Whereas print media is generally a one-sided form of communication, online you can generate useful dialogues with your consumers and monitor their reactions to your products. As for the wine press, well-informed, passionate communicators will always have a voice, whatever the medium.

Tuesday, 9 February 2010

Claret: love of a lifetime, not just for lunchtime

My great love affair with French wines began with Burgundy (elegant, sensual wines that evoke specific historic vineyards) and, more affordably, the Loire Valley where I spent a year as a student – again deliciously elegant wines that articulate a sense of place. Gastronomy in general also plays a great role in these regions and you feel these are places where you are encouraged to indulge yourself. Bordeaux seemed different. It always hovered on the radar, but had an off-putting upright, somewhat mean presence. It's traditional airs seemed more suited to gentleman's clubs than my modest table and terms like 'luncheon claret' made me bristle.

After nearly 20 years things have changed. It's not that I don't still passionately adore Burgundy, but I have found a large space in my heart (and 'cellar'*) for Bordeaux. I've come to realise is that Bordeaux is deeply and reliably satisfying and, surprisingly so, right across the price spectrum (perhaps due to improved winemaking and global warming). I've also had the privilege of visiting the region as a Master of Wine student and had the opportunity of tasting some truly outstanding wines.

What I love about red Bordeaux is its neat restraint and poised structure that happens to be delicious with some of my favourite food; I am particularly partial to the cigar box complexity of maturing great claret. Just recently we had some mutton chops with a bottle of Château La Tour Carnet 2001. Refreshing acidity, subtle earthy berry fruit and mellowing tannins. Beautiful. If you like unadorned, high quality meat (especially lamb), Bordeaux is a wine for you. What's more it it isn't too alcoholic, only reaching 12.5 to 13 degrees. I also get a huge thrill drinking particularly mature wines (especially when they're at least as old as me – says she born in a decent vintage year).

As Bordeaux is such a large wine region (until recently producing more wine than Australia) and draws on a useful palette of grape varieties, it offers the consumer a lot more scope than Burgundy, for example. If you're able to lay down cases of wine for the future, it makes a lot of sense to buy 'en primeur' and a bottle price of  £10 to £15 will get you some lovely age-worthy wine. For this price, of course it won't be a glitzy famous name, but it will give you several years' memorable drinking. My La Tour Carnet cost about £12 per bottle and a quick look on showed that it would now cost £20 to £25. More recently we bought some clarets from our daughter's birth year, 2006, which we are looking forward to start drinking in two or three years' time (bearing in mind that great claret benefits from a decade or so). I like to see it as investing in your future enjoyment.

* My 'cellar' is currently a great big mother of a refrigerated wine storage cabinet accommodating about 20 cases.

Here are a some current suggestions. (Prices are for mixed cases of 12.)

Waitrose Reserve Claret 2007 (£5.02): light, soft and fruity for everyday drinking.

Christian Moueix 2005 Bordeaux (The Wine Society £7.95): good value Merlot-based wine from the same producer as Château Pétrus, star of the Right Bank.

Château Liversan 2006 Haut-Médoc, Cru Bourgeois (Waitrose £8.54 on offer until mid Feb): juicy, succulent great value Cabernet-based wine.

Dourthe Barrel Select 2007 St-Emilion (Waitrose £9.49): lovely example of Right Bank from a highly reliable Bordeaux label. Still quite youthful.

Château Moulin à Vent 1999 Moulis-en-Médoc, Cru Bourgeois (Majestic Wines £10.99): an excellent price for a handsome, mature wine for drinking now.

Château Léoville Las Cases 1990 St Julien 2eme Cru Classé (Majestic £220): a truly great, thrilling example of the best Bordeaux has to offer. Robert Parker awarded this wine 96/100. One for very special occasions (and deep pockets)!

Bottles lined up for a tasting at Château Cantemerle in 2003

(The top picture shows the haunting Miss Havisham-like old cellars at Château Lafite)