Saturday, December 1, 2012

At long last, a wine gadget that takes your breath away

MY LOCAL wine shop has doubled the space allotted to wine accessories in the run up to Christmas. Are they any good? The inadequately short spout on my Screwpul aerator achieves nothing for all the gurgling; a decanter is better for divesting wine of sulphite aromas (or a food blender). A gadget to soften tannins would need to deliver extreme temperatures and pure oxygen. My Vacuvin Champagne Saver broke after a few bottles - it's now as little use as a spoon in an open bottle’s neck. Offer breath-test kits for Christmas - a gendarme once showed me she didn't know how to use one at the roadside, and sent me dizzily on my way.

Full article first published in The Connexion (December, 2012)

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Go for something new, not Nouveau

WHEN the Nouveau is released on the third Thursday of November, wine lovers everywhere unite in a thirst for Beaujolais - for one night we are all from Beaujolais. But where is Beaujolais from? Wine experts are muddled and even Beaujolais Crus are hard to identify as being from Beaujolais when you inspect their labels. Why do experts say it is part of Burgundy? It isn't. It has its own signature grape (Gamay), viticultural traditions and distinctive terroirs (Haut and Bas). The best Beaujolais Crus come from vineyards in the best Beaujolais-Villages terroirs and are compared to fine Burgundy reds - a mistake only a muddled wine expert would make.

Full article first published in The Connexion (November, 2012).

Saturday, October 6, 2012

Wines that fly do not always take off

WHY does flying in a cabin at 30,000 feet affect aroma and flavour perception? Fatigued palates, inappropriate food and wine service temperatures and a cabin’s lack of fresh oxygen all inhibit taste. But the most curious factor is the cabin's white noise. Paul Sapin makes airline wines on an industrial scale in France. They are not intended to express terroir - like airline meals, they need to do battle in the sky. Taittinger’s Comtes de Champagne won best First Class Sparkling Wine for Air France in Business Traveller's Cellars in the Sky competition (held recently in a London hotel). Does this delicate Champagne taste of anything at 30,000 feet?

Full article first published in The Connexion (October, 2012)

Thursday, September 6, 2012

'Tis the season of mystification not mellow fruitfulness

HYDROMETERS and spectrometers are on hand this month when winemakers trade farm overalls for white coats and morph from bacchanalian artisans into pointy-headed geeks. Cellars are transformed in a flurry, too. As suddenly and completely as Prohibition speakeasies flip-flopped from boozy saloons into respectable cabaret diners just before a police raid, tasting tables with half-finished bottles are replaced by a jumble of oenological paraphernalia and clean jars yeast, sugar and acid. Give winemakers a wide berth in September - they prefer to discuss specific gravity or the Higgs boson rather than mellow fruitfulness.

Full article first published in The Connexion (September, 2012).

Monday, July 30, 2012

Enjoy some fruity passions found in the hedgerow

TED the blacksmith, Sister Lucy, Jones the church organist, Mrs Wigley, Fowles the chemist and old Mrs Pickering are my merry companions this summer, though I am not holidaying in Camberwick Green. I'm reading Margaret Vaughan - the Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall of wine-making. Where others see a hedge of wild flowers, she and her village oenophile friends see gallons of Hedgerow Punch. Despite her sensible shoes, she praises the “leg-buckling” quality of Mrs Wigley’s oak leaf wine. I re-read her Dandelion wine entry before grasping why it had her “negotiating her knicker elastic”. Learn the secrets of simple, Post Order winning, hedgerow wines.

Full article first published in The Connexion (August, 2012)

Sunday, July 1, 2012

Tasting tour can be dull marketing or a magical delight

WHEN I gate-crashed another party’s tour in the tasting room, during a visit of the Mondavi winery in Napa Valley, California, their guide, Pamela, primly told me to rejoin my group whose tour was just starting. She had sized me up as a drinker, ejecting me for a sobering 90-minute tour with the tasting room as the longed-for, penultimate step. Gatecrashing a tour in the tasting room undermines a winery's strategy to turn uneducated visitors into educated ones. Knowledge acquired on a tour becomes relevant to visitors, becomes part of their identity (no matter how temporarily); and identification leads to consumption, for those prepared to wait.

Full article first published in The Connexion (July, 2012)

Friday, June 8, 2012

Waiter, waiter! There’s a snake in my wine

OF ALL THE wine faults, a snake in your wine must rank among the most unpalatable. It may be one of the commonest in wines made from mechanically-harvested grapes. If you get mousiness on the palate, however, you will be relieved to learn this is a sign of Brettanomyces yeast (a winemaker’s most common and vexatious friend/enemy) not mice. It can be treated with large doses of SO₂ - winemaking's equivalent of the military's "bomb a village to save it". But with wine increasingly packaged in Bisphenol-rich plastic bottles and plastic-lined containers, and man boobs on the rise, a snake may be your wine’s least venomous fault.

Full article first published in The Connexion (June, 2012)

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Absolute mangoes 2.0

EVER since Jilly Goolden exclaimed “Absolute mangoes!” on the BBC’s Food and Drink programme, earning unintended titters, wine has had a communication problem. Web-friendly wine merchants say we should eschew overripe or unhinged tasting notes in favour of comparisons from unconventional sources, like music or film, as in: "I'm getting heaps of Shirley Bassey. Absolute Goldfinger." Malcolm Gluck was a pioneer of this sort of nonsense in The Guardian where a wine might be "a gruff old bruiser". The next time a wine-loving computer geek compares a Pinot Noir to Brad Pitt on the gangster film Snatch, just reply "Absolute mangoes!"

Full article first published in The Connexion (May, 2012)

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Revolutionary battleground in a vineyard

A radar blip-size Loire Valley sweet wine appellation has become the epicentre of a battle over titles and “Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité”. As Loire Valley neighbours reinact the French Revolution, with Girondin supporters of a plan to use grand cru titles pitched against Jacobian egalitarians, I wonder: what is the point of sweet wines, ennobled or not? They make pointless aperitifs - one glass suffices to curb the most insatiable appetite - and the idea they go with desserts must appeal only to drinkers with a firewall against diabetes. Meanwhile, the Loire Valley dispute is covered in The New York Times, which shows there is nothing like a fight to attract attention.

Full article first published in The Connexion (April, 2012)

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Timely reminder that wine should not be rushed

SLOW FOOD has publised its second wine guide in English - 18 years after its first English-language wine guide. Why has Slow Food taken so long to turn its attention back to wine? Part of the reason is that wine is already perceived as a slow product. But is it fair to say that wine isn’t a “fast” product? Unscrupulous winemakers do accelerate winemaking and aging using common techniques. Sadly, “live fast, die young” old-before-their-time wines won’t leave good-looking corpses. There is little evidence that wine is consumed leisurely nowadays, either. Slow Wine 2012 reminds us that not all the wines of our time respect it or are worthy of it. 

Full article first published in The Connexion (March, 2012).

Friday, February 3, 2012

No need to fear competition by Chinese reds

FOLLOWING the victory of Chinese red wines over French ones at a taste-off in Beijing, The Connexion asked: “Should French wine growers be nervous?” My answer is "no". The competition pitted China’s best against some ho-hum Bordeaux wines. And, as Spanish winemaker Miguel Torres told me, “China doesn’t have any good terroir.” Even so, the French now make Champagne, Burgundy and Bordeaux imitations in Ningxia province - an obliging hussy of a terroir just south of the Gobi Desert. Enjoy the spectacle of Chinese wine officials trying to establish China's wine credentials, like a U.S. presidential candidate trying to establish his Irish roots.

Full article first published in The Connexion (February, 2012)

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Bomb victim’s daughter presses for Sarkozy corruption inquiry

PRESIDENT Sarkozy’s 2012 re-election bid could be hit by allegations of illegal kick-backs and irregular arms dealing – which campaigners believe led to the deaths of 11 French workers in a 2002 bomb attack.

I spoke exclusively to Sandrine Leclerc, daughter of one of the victims.

Nicolas Sarkozy is being urged to explain his involvement in a potentially highly damaging 17-year-old corruption scandal involving suspected kickbacks from arms sales to Pakistan.

Investigators suspect the alleged kickbacks were used to fund a failed presidential campaign Mr Sarkozy ran for his mentor and ally, former Prime Minister Eduoard Balladur.

The case – known as L’Affaire Karachi – centres on a bomb attack in the Pakistani city which killed 11 French naval workers in 2002.

Investigators are looking at claims the bombing was motivated by anger at then president Jacques Chirac’s decision to stop huge commissions on the €800m arms deal being paid to Pakistani officials and middlemen.

Chirac suspected kickbacks from the deal supplying Pakistan with three Agosta submarines were used to finance Balladur’s political activities. Chirac had beaten Balladur, his bitter political rival, in the 1995 presidential election.

Sandrine Leclerc, daughter of one of the attack victims and co-author of On Nous Appelle Les Karachi (They Call Us the Karachis), spoke to The Connexion about the expanding investigation into the affair that saw two of Sarkozy’s close allies arrested in September.

Mrs Leclerc said: “We are encouraged by recent developments which support our conviction that political corruption and the stopping of commission payments linked to the Agosta contracts were excellent motives for the deaths of our loved ones.”

In September, police arrested Thierry Gaubert, a financial advisor to Sarkozy in 1994-1995 when he was Balladur’s budget minister and campaign treasurer. Mr Gaubert is being investigated over links to a Franco-Lebanese businessman, Ziad Takieddine, who is charged with fraud over the submarine sales to Pakistan.

Sarkozy’s special advisor and former Interior Minister, Brice Hortefeux, is the subject of another investigation into whether he unlawfully obtained information from an investigation into the affair and then contacted Mr Gaubert before his arrest.

Transcripts of telephone conversations published in French newspapers are said to indicate Mr Hortefeux warned Mr Gaubert that his wife had “given up a lot” when questioned by investigators.

Police also arrested Sarkozy’s close friend Nicolas Bazire, who was in charge of Balladur’s private office and presidential campaign director.

A witness at Mr Sarkozy’s 2008 wedding to Carla Bruni, he is accused of complicity in the misuse of public money.

The lawyer for the victims’ families, Olivier Morice, said these developments had created “panic at the highest levels of the state.”

Mrs Leclerc also wants Sarkozy to clarify his role in the setting up of Luxembourg company Heine, which victims’ families and investigating judges suspect was used to channel tens of millions of francs in kickbacks into Balladur’s campaign coffers.

“We want to know why Mr Sarkozy would set up a shadow company in a tax haven to channel commissions if they were legal. We believe complex and inventive financial schemes were devised to manage kickbacks.”

The investigative website Mediapart has quoted a Luxembourg police report linking Sarkozy to the setting up of two Luxembourg companies at the time, including Heine.

Mrs Leclerc also wants the Conseil Constitutionnel France’s highest constitutional authority, to make public its deliberations concerning Balladur’s presidential campaign finances.

His accounts were rejected by the body because of the movement of suspect quantities of cash, but they were later validated by then committee president, Roland Dumas.

Sarkozy has angrily denied allegations of kickbacks and irregularities in Balladur’s campaign financing and has repeatedly promised to hand over all relevant documents.

“He hasn’t kept any of his promises: to hand over documents; to keep victims’ families informed; to meet with us – we’ve had everything but his support,” Mrs Leclerc said, referring to undertakings Mr Sarkozy made to families during their only meeting with him in 2008.

The families achieved “an important step forward” last month, when the Conseil Constitutionnel ruled documents relating to the Karachi attack, which the government had withheld due to military confidentiality, should be handed over.

The committee said the rules surrounding state defence secrets were too restrictive and that this was preventing judges from carrying out their investigation.

Mrs Leclerc said the victims’ families had been hampered in their search for the truth from the beginning, at every turn and from the highest levels.

“After the bombing, we were encircled by government officials. It was bizarre. We were told what to do and think. We were told Al-Qaeda was responsible. A lawyer was imposed on families.

“I never saw the lawyer. It turned out he was the lawyer for the interior minister, Nicolas Sarkozy. He bluntly told my co-author, Magali Drouet, to ‘get over it’.”

The families hired lawyer Olivier Morice in 2008 when Mediapart and Le Point published details of a 2002 government report which concluded that the bombing was probably linked to the ending of commission payments on the Agosta contracts – an opinion shared by the current judge investigating the attack, Marc Trévidic.

The judge initially appointed to investigate the bombing, Jean-Louis Brugière, maintained for six years that the attack was the work of Al-Qaeda.

“Bruguière told families that the attack was certainly the work of Al-Qaeda, though he had evidence to the contrary.

“We would have been happier if the bombing had been the work of Al-Qaeda. The idea that our loved ones died because of a political financing scandal is grotesque,” Mrs Leclerc said.

Victims’ families want Mr Bruguière, who retired in 2008, to answer accusations that he obstructed the course of justice by failing to reveal to families the doubts of French pathologists who conducted an autopsy on the presumed bomber.

Mrs Leclerc said the families are also considering laying a complaint of manslaughter against Chirac and former prime minister Dominique de Villepin if they suspected retribution would follow the decision to stop Agosta commission payments.

Mr de Villepin has asked to be heard by the judge investigating the Agosta deal, Renaud Van Ruymbeke, reputed to be one of France’s most ruthless independent investigative judges.

Mrs Leclerc said the Legion of Honour medal posthumously awarded to her father had been buried in anger “somewhere in the garden” by her mother. “My father didn’t die for France. He probably died because politicians put their own financial and career interests before the safety of French defence workers,” she said.

First published in The Connexion (December, 2011)

Monday, January 2, 2012

My ultimate New Year's resolution for wine Tour de France

IF YOU USE the Mayan calendar, you will know that it’s coming to the end of its 5,125-year cycle this year. If you’re also inclined to apocalyptic thinking, you might assume that the Mayan calendar’s expiration heralds the actual end of days, too. Why risk assuming the end isn’t nigh? I resolve this year to try the best wines from France’s 12 wine-growing regions and treat myself to bottles from legendary producers. Call it a “wine bucket list”. Those who anticipate an 'end of the world  moment' typically refer to the period afterwards as “the Great Disappointment”. But if you follow my advice, you won’t be disappointed. You will, however, be penniless. 

Full article first published in The Connexion (January, 2012)