Category Archives: Book Reviews

Wines drunk, friends made, fortunes lost.

I promised a review of  Stevens Spurrier’s book “Wine – A Way of Life”, in a previous post. I was looking forward to wine world gossip and I wasn’t disappointed.  Steven clearly states that the book is not an autobiography but a memoir of his life in wine, and he’s right. The book bounces you about all over the place, following the threads and personalities that have made Steven the wine authority he has become. Those looking for a history of the wine business might find this frustrating but the insights to the people and places, as well as the wines, that have made our wine business what it is today are fascinating.

He is charmingly candid about his adventures, some more successful than others, and about the money spent, lost and occasionally gained. Like a pantomime character, you want to help by shouting ‘look out behind you’ and you see potential disaster looming as he embarks on another brilliant idea – and in hindsight so does he.

For many of his projects he was just too far ahead of his time or just not in the right place at the right time. But goodness me what a lot of places he has been.

His early adventures as an unpaid trainee, going from pillar to post at some of the most prestigious wineries of the world, would make any aspiring cellar rat’s eyes pop today.

But he certainly was in the right place at the right time in 1976 when he organised what has become known as ‘The Judgement of Paris’. Although after the sulks from the French wine trade it might not have felt so at the time.

wine a way of life

Steven spurrier – still dapper after all these years!

Steven is well aware of the privilege of the places he has visited, the people he has met and wines he has tasted and he generously shares them all. Despite the years and the wines he has lost none of his wonder and enthusiasm for the ‘wine game’

He rarely dwells on those who have taken advantage of him, berating himself for a lack of business sense. Steven doesn’t seem to hold any rancour, at least nothing to make him bitter or to change his relaxed and charming demeanour.

I can’t claim that Steven introduced me to wine, but during my ‘formative’ years in Paris, straight out of university, many an evening spent at the Blue Fox (often affectionately known as ‘The Flu Box’ as the evening wore on) certainly did nothing to dissuade me from entering the business. Even now, every time I see Steven, it takes me back to those carefree times. This book will do the same for anyone fortunate to have frequented the critic’s bar and restaurant, shopped at les Caves de la Madeleine or tasted at l’Academie du Vin.

Choose wine for the mood not for the food is one of Stevens many gems, I suggest this Wine-A Way of Life will put you in the mood for a glass from Steven’s latest vinous adventure: Bride Valley.


The Drinking Woman’s Diet.

I have finally got my hands on a physical copy of my new book: The Drinking Woman’s Diet. It’s been a long time coming. The idea for this book originally came about at the end of wine tour in Bordeaux. A client, groaning from a week of fabulous food and wine, asked me ‘how do you do this all the time and keep in shape?


The Drinking Woman’s Diet finally!


Well the first answer is I don’t do it all the time, but I do it a lot; I drink wine for a living. I teach wine classes, run tastings and talk at wine dinners for professionals and enthusiastic amateurs around the world. I take people around vineyards and wineries of Bordeaux and, with the objective of keeping an open mind, I constantly sample wines from around the world and taste my way through wine regions.

It’s a wonderful job but, as with many things, there is a downside. The benefits of wine drinking are constantly being lauded in the press but so are the risks. Adding insult to injury, wine goes with food, and tasting dinners are rarely very light affairs. So, as well as keeping an eye on the state of my liver, I try to keep an eye on my waistline.


All in a days work?

As I chatted with my client and started sharing a few tricks and tips, she suggested I write them down and hand them out before starting the wine tour. So the book started by sharing a few survival tricks and techniques: the lessons I have learnt from French women, from my friends, therapists and other yogis to try and maintain a healthy body in what may initially appear an unhealthy industry.

Not long after this conversation I went for an acupuncture consultation. The acupuncturist said well there’s nothing really wrong with you, except perhaps for your liver; he stuck a couple of needles in between my thumb and forefinger and next to my big toes to help it out. Not long after that, at the Mayr clinic in Austria, the Doctor looked into my eyes, pinched my cheek and said aha – your liver. That was before I had even mentioned that I drink for a living.

This made me think that I should take an even closer look at this drinking habit of mine. As a female baby boomer, I’m right there in the category of drinkers increasing their health risks through their habits. And I’m not alone.

At the recent launch of his book, Wine – A Way of Life, Steven Spurrier was also asked how he managed to stay so trim, despite working in the wine business. His answer: Vanity. Vanity is a great motivator; as a woman and a fairly vain one at that, the effects of excess boozing are seen not just in the liver, but also in your eyes, in your skin, your waistline so I was interested in seeing how I can allay these side effects of my chosen lifestyle and what the motivators are and how to harness them.

wine a way of life

Steven spurrier – still dapper after all these years!

Why The Drinking Woman? Well I’m a woman and I drink! In the book I have tried to speak from my point of view and experience. Researching the various ideas was a lot more time consuming than I anticipated, there is a lot of weird and wonderful theories out there, so I tried to focus on what worked for me.

I have already been asked ‘what about men?’ Men are more than welcome to read along, but women are at a disadvantage when it comes to drinking. The recommended limits for women are lower than for men.

Drinking Women

Dedicated to Drinking Women;

Many of my friends work in the wine industry (and many, many more support it through their drinking habits). I thought I had better start looking at ways to keep my liver happy and healthy while maintaining my love of wine. This includes yoga. I have a passion for yoga and when I recently organised some wine and yoga retreats in Bordeaux the question was raised how can you seriously combine wine and yoga. Aren’t wine drinking and healthy living incompatible? I don’t think so. Mindfulness is a key tenet of yoga, and a big deal right now – I’m all about mindful drinking, enjoying and paying attention to what it is you are enjoying.

Yoga at Lamothe

Wine and Yoga at Château Lamothe Bergeron

Over the time it has taken me to research this book it evolved into a compilation of advice from various health, fitness and beauty specialists, medical reviews and books, put together to help fellow wine lovers who are not prepared to give up their habit but not prepared to sacrifice their health either.

The title is a little misleading, but it is a great title. This is not a weight loss diet, but weight loss, if you need it, should be a happy by-product of following the healthy lifestyle tips in the book.

The strap line on my web site is: Knowledge increases pleasure. Knowledge is also power, power to make the right decisions. Deep down you know if your drinking habit is an issue, if it’s affecting your waistline, your health, your performance, and your skin so let’s stop hiding from it and work out how to enjoy a drink and still be on top of our game.


Eat your greens French style – with truffle oil and walnuts!

I like to stay fit and healthy and I hope to grow old not too disgracefully, but not too carefully either. The book will not give you an excuse to drink to excess but I’m not looking to demonise drink either, after all wine is how I make a living. I hope the book captures a holistic approach to health, including diet but also yoga, sleep and so much more and that The Drinking Woman’s Diet will provide some inspiration on how to enjoy wine without putting your figure, your face, your health or your sanity at too much risk.

You can buy a paperback copy here or the e book on line or please e-mail me if you would like a signed copy. And of course Bordeaux Bootcamp is still available on Amazon if you want to learn more about Bordeaux and it’s wines












Christmas gift ideas for the wine geeks in your world.

Now it’s December, I feel it’s safe to offer some Christmas gift ideas. It is perfect timing for the release of Château Margaux’s 2015 vintage. With its exceptional golden silk-screen print on the bottle instead of the classic label, it’s the perfect festive presentation. A bottle of Château Margaux will always be a superb present for a wine lover but this is the gift that keeps on giving. Even when the wine is drunk – probably not for another 10 years or so – you will want to keep this special bottle. It’s the first (and probably only) time that the chateau will produce such a bottle. This vintage is exceptional not only for the quality but also as it celebrates two hundred years of architecture with the inauguration of the new Norman Foster designed cellars. Perhaps most importantly, it was the last vintage of director Paul Pontallier. A well deserved homage.

Château Margaux 2015 unique bottle.

Château Mouton Rothschild edits a special label for every vintage, and has done since 1945, choosing a new artist for each vintage. This year’s release of the 2015 is no exception – the difference being that this is the first label to be signed by the new generation following the death of Baroness Philippine de Rothschild in 2014. The artist Gerhard Richter has created the piece of art for this year’s release, the original of which will now join the fascinating exhibition of all the original art behind the labels in the museum at the Chateau. The artwork is inspired around the notion of blend – a key of course to making fine Bordeaux.

Château Mouton Rothschild 2015 label.

Something to drink that from? Most regular imbibers have their favourite stemware but you might want to take a look at the new range Baccarat has created with Bruno Quenioux. Called Château Baccarat, the four glasses, sold as a ‘kit’, include a champagne flute, 2 wine glasses and a spirit glass. With the beautifully Baccarat presentation they make a great gift, although you’ll have to buy one for each member of the family or party if you all want to drink together. I do have a wine tour client that always brings his own selection of wine glasses with him when he tours – so that could work too!

The four glass set from Baccarat.

Baccarat also launched a new perfume this year to celebrate the 250 years of the Crystal house. Called Rouge 540 Baccarat and created by perfumier Francis Kurkdjian, it is unsurprisingly presented in a beautiful crystal bottle created by Georges Chevalier. It takes its name not from wine but as a reference to the emblematic packaging and the temperature needed to create the red colour in the crystal – very seasonal.

If classified Bordeaux for a top vintage or the crystal to sip it from aren’t quite in your Christmas gift budget, books about wine make excellent, and easier to ship, gifts for your favourite wine geek. Knowledge increases pleasure is my strapline after all.

No one wants to read a diet book during the festive season so I’ll come back to you in the New Year with details of my next book ‘The Drinking Woman’s Diet’, but I do have a reading recommendation for you: Jane Anson, Contributing Editor and Bordeaux correspondent for Decanter Magazine, is the author of several books I have previously recommended including Bordeaux Legends and The Club of Nine. Her latest book, Wine Revolution, is a brave move away from her usual ‘terroir’ of the top classified growths of Bordeaux into the world of organic, biodynamic and other ‘natural’ wines. You would be mistaken for thinking that it is simply a manifesto for small is beautiful; it is a well-researched look at the natural wine movement from both big and small producers. There are some Bordeaux wines in there but it is an around the world wine trip (including a Welsh sparkling), illustrated by stunning vineyard photography. Some of these wines themselves would make excellent Christmas presents alongside the book.

Wine Revolution

Wine is not normally on children’s Christmas wish list but humour me for a shameless plug for my husband’s book, The Golden Dolphin. Written for our granddaughter, who plays a key role in the story of course, it harks back to a tale he made up about the Dolphin that graced the label of Château Guiraud when we owned it.

The hero of the Golden Dolphin

Instead of offering stuff why not offer a wine experience? Berry Brothers and Rudd is my go-to recommendation for wine events be they gourmet or education but of course I’m going to recommend offering a wine tour for 2018.

I’m involved with two wine tours in early 2018 organised by Decanter Tours that promise to be a little different to a classic tour. The ‘Wine and Design Tour‘ will see me with London interior Abigail Hall interior designer and author of Cushions and Crime, leading a small group around Bordeaux and it’s Chateaux. Abigail will be expounding upon the architectural and design styles of Bordeaux and I’ll be sharing the wines from the properties whose design and architecture both in the chateaux and the cellars we’ll be admiring.

The beautiful Bordeaux architecture explained

If by May your new year’s resolutions are still holding, join yoga teacher Martine Bounet and me for a wine and yoga weekend. Not as incompatible as it sounds – yoga classes held in beautiful chateaux will be followed by a tastings of the wines and you will learn how a little meditation could improve your tastings skills. If you fancy these themes – you can plan a tailor made trip along these lines for a group of friends. Any hen parties in your plans for 2018?

Wine and Yoga – on your wish list for 2018?

Can’t wait until next year? It’s still not too late to squeeze in a pre Christmas trip to Bordeaux. If you do, you can call in at Château Phelan Segur for their Christmas box – a Christmas themed cooking glass in the chateau followed by a tasting and lunch. Perfect to get you into the Bordeaux Christmas spirit.

Merry Christmas!



The Golden Dolphin

Some of you might know that it was Sauternes that brought me to Bordeaux. Or rather, the fact that my husband to be was based there, running the family vineyard: Château Guiraud.

Hamilton moved from Canada to Bordeaux in the late 1970s to renovate the château. At the very heart of the appellation, this 1st growth of the 1855 classification was in a very sorry state; with trees growing through the buildings and the wine not living up to it’s status. Under the Narby stewardship of almost 30 years Château Guiraud, a 1st Classified Growth, was restored to its former glory.

One of the many ways Hamilton put the Château and the wines back on the map was by opening the doors to the public, welcoming visitors seven days a week, and opening a restaurant in one of the cottages belonging to the estate on the edge of the village.

Chateau Guiraud with the well that features in the story.

When the 1981, the first vintage under Narby ownership was bottled, Hamilton decided to add the symbol of the dolphin to the label. My father-in-law was in shipping and the dolphin, a friend to all mariners, had become the family emblem. As the Guiraud label was traditionally black and gold, the Golden Dolphin was created.

The Château Guiraud label with the Golden Dolphin

Visitors to the vineyard would often ask ‘why is there a Golden Dolphin on the label?’ Hamilton, being a bit of a raconteur, would get fed up of telling the same old story, and was known to embroider things a bit. So was born the myth of the Golden Dolphin.

The story went that a magical Golden Dolphin on its way up the nearby Garonne river lost its way and swam up the Ciron. The Ciron is the cool stream that is the source of the misty mornings in the region, the famous Sauternes micro-climate that encourages the development of Botrytis Cinerea, or noble rot. It is this noble rot that concentrates the sugars in the grapes, transforming and creating the unique aromas of these world famous sweet wines.

Morning mists from the Ciron

The story continued that this Golden Dolphin became trapped in the well at Château Guiraud and once saved, promised to come back every year to ensure an excellent harvest – I paraphrase a little.

The hero of the Golden Dolphin

On the birth of our grand daughter, Margaux, Hamilton decided to put pen to paper and write the story down for her. It became more embellished along the way; Margaux of course plays a major role in saving her magical friend.

Our son William and his wife Amy, both artists, illustrated the story and the Golden Dolphin book was born.

Encouraged by friends’ enthusiasm, we decided to publish, and you too can now learn the secret of the Golden Dolphin of Sauternes.

Available from Lulu and Amazon if you would like a signed copy please e-mail me.


The Art of Bitter.

As research for my upcoming book ‘The Drinking Woman’s Diet’, I’ve just finished reading Bitter: A Taste of the World’s Most Dangerous Flavour’ by Jennifer McLagan.

I’m loving the research; one book or article leads to another and it gets more and more fascinating. Bitterness is interesting; the role it plays in stimulating the liver and helping digestion as well as adding complexity to the palate in food and in drink. Despite what my instagram feed might lead you to believe my exploration of bitterness is not limited just to tasting different aperitifs.

Bitter by Jennifer McLagan

Bitter by Jennifer McLagan

The book is amazing in several ways; first the intriguing subject matter, second the photos and, last but not least, the recipes. But it’s more than a recipe book. McLagan also talks about the history of taste and how the basic tongue model that I taught years ago for 4 basic tastes (sweet, acid, salty and bitter) is now out-dated, although she does agree that bitterness still hits us at the back of throat.

With her charming understated humour and personal anecdotes, the book is full of little nuggets of information such as how the herb rocket was considered an aphrodisiac and how children have more taste buds and are more sensitive to bitter as even a small amount of bitter poison can harm. She bemoans the fact that commercially grown fruit and veg aren’t as bitter as they used to be (yellow grapefruit for example). She also warns us not be too masochistic, bitterness can still be poison in excess.

Bitter chocolate one of the mouth watering photos from the book.

Bitter chocolate one of the mouth watering photos from the book.

As well as the history and philosophy of taste she looks at different ingredients and offers some really cool, often surprising recipes, tobacco panna cota anyone?

Of particular interest for wine tasters, she looks at different types of bitterness and how the boundary between bitter and harsh can be tricky – is it a taste or a sensation? Interesting for an analysis of tannins too. For those of us who struggle to interpret elusive aromas in wines: she shares the reassuring fact that the area in our brain where odour is detected is not well connected to our verbal centre – so now you know.

I’m not really a beer drinker, more of a wine and gin sipper, but amongst the bitter drinks she includes in her round up, she claims that a glass of bitter lager has more anti oxidants than in a glass of red wine or a cup of green tea and she extols the anti bacterial properties of hops. So when a new ‘bitter’ arrived on my desk it caught my attention, a chance to broaden my horizons, specially accompanied by the tag line ‘The Art of Lager’, as McLagan also mentions the importance of visual in tasting.

Lager and art? Well brewing like winemaking can be considered an art, but Paolozzi Lager is named after Eduardo Paolozzi, a Scottish artist from Italian parents, hence the rather un Scottish name. He believed in ‘Sublime in the Everyday’ creating art from the ordinary and is regarded by many as the ‘Father of Pop Art’.

A monumental drink

A monumental drink

Brewed by Scottish, English and Canadians at the family-owned Edinburgh Beer Factory, the lager is now being launched in London for the opening of the Whitechapel Gallery’s exhibition for the artist. Paolozzi is better known in London than in his hometown of Edinburgh. His massive artworks are to be found in the Tottenham Court Road Underground, the British Library, the new Design Museum in Kensington, Euston station, Pimlico station, the Queen Elizabeth II Conference Centre, Kew Gardens, as well as smaller artworks at The Ivy and Le Caprice restaurants. I hope they serve the lager there too, would be fun to sip it and look at his work.


The brewers claim the lager is not too bitter, but it is bitter enough for me to be perfectly refreshing. Perhaps I’m one of the ‘supertasters’ McLagan mentions – more research needs to be done!

Sipping the beer may not be speeding up my reading but I’m so taken with Mclagen’s writing I’ve just ordered her previous book ‘Fat: An Appreciation of a Misunderstood Ingredient‘ – another descriptor that we see in wine. Goodness knows when my book will get finished at this rate – delaying tactics or just an inquisitive mind?





More Indian Ocean Cusine

I thought a dip in Indian ocean would be a nice way to start 2017! I have already written about the cuisine of Mauritius and more recently. As an island, it is the perfect place to discover fish and seafood, its situation on the spice routes and the rainbow nation with Asian, Indian, South African, European and even Australian influences all add to the diversity of the cuisine here.

Willibald Reinbacher, (Willi to his friends), has been the chef at the Shanti Maurice Hotel since 2010 at about the time we discovered the Ayurveda Spa there. Originally from Austria and now married to a Mauritian, he has made the island his home.

Breakfast at the Shanti Spa

Breakfast at the Shanti Spa

I was already impressed by the way he incorporated the Ayurveda theme of healthy eating into his cuisine, using local ingredients and Indian spices to create dishes that you would never guess were part of a healthy eating programme. He has been sharing this cuisine not only in the restaurants of the hotel but also taking guests to the local markets and inviting them into the hotel herb garden and kitchen.

His skills and familiarity with the regional culture and cuisine, not just of Mauritius but also across the islands of the Indian Ocean, have increased his repertoire. So much so that he has curated his favourite recipes from across the Indian Ocean into a new book: Aquacasia.

Aquacasia, an exploration of Indian Ocean cuisine.

Aquacasia, an exploration of Indian Ocean cuisine.

The ocean theme is at its heart, hence the name. The spectacular photos, especially the underwater ones, are an inspiration. The warm Indian Ocean is teaming with fish, each island having a different variation on the same recipes for their local species. Given that you may have over indulged during the festive season, the recipes based on seafood are healthy. Langoustines with Vanilla and Prawns on Sugarcane Skewers are a couple of my favourites.

A dip in the Indian ocean or in the pages of the book?

A dip in the Indian Ocean or into the pages of the book?

It’s not only seafood though; the wonderful chapter on spices is a showcase for all the Asian influence so present on the island and given that Mauritius is tropical the local fruits and of course Rums are also featured in the desserts chapter.

It is at once a recipe book with easy to follow recipes, a coffee table book with beautiful photos and either an invitation to visit Mauritius or, if you have been lucky enough to visit, a souvenir of your stay.

He doesn’t reveal the secret to his amazing Rum Baba though; you’ll just have to join me at The Shanti for that!

Bon Appétit!

Bon Appétit!



Booze Books for Christmas

There are so many good books about wine, spirits and tasting and Christmas seems as good a time as any to take a look. Here are four recommendations as gift ideas for like-minded wine geeks, beginners or even to add to your own Christmas stocking.

I mentioned Decanter Journalist, Jane Anson’s previous book Bordeaux Legends, in the run up to Christmas a couple of years ago. Well, she has done it again with this beautiful book. She has teamed up with photographer Andy Katz to profile the Bordeaux vineyards known as The Club of Nine.

The Club of Nine by Jane Anson and Andy Katz

The Club of Nine by Jane Anson and Andy Katz

His photos are spectacular. Even having lived near these properties for almost 30 years, I found the images as surprising as they are breath-taking. You can see more of his beautiful work on this web site.

The Club of Nine is the term used for and by what are considered, by most, to be the nine top properties of the region: The five Red first growths of the 1855 classification; Haut Brion, Margaux, Latour, Lafite Rothschild and Mouton Rothschild. (Although technically Mouton only became a 1st growth in 1973.) Then there are the original two First Growths A from Saint Emilion, Château Cheval Blanc and Château Ausone and the neighbouring Chateau Petrus from Pomerol. Although the Pomerol appellation has never ‘benefited’ from a classification, received wisdom and market prices concur that Petrus is the leading light of the appellation. Finally there is Chateau d’Yquem. Yquem was granted the highest accolade of Premier Grand Cru Classé Supérieur in 1855, outranking them all, such were the heady days of the 19th century for the sweet wines of Bordeaux.

This is more than a ‘nickname’ for a group of top terroir wineries, but also a forum where the technical directors of each property regularly meet to discuss and share, technical issues, research and the challenges their properties and the region face.

The question now raised is that, based on these selection criteria of classification, should we talk of a Club of 11? Both Chateau Angelus and Chateau Pavie were promoted up to Premier Grand Cru Classé A in the last, Saint Emilion Classification. But then again that was in 2012, so let’s not rush things!

There’s a lot of history surrounding the properties mentioned above and Bordeaux history is intimately linked with that of England, right back to Eleanor of Aquitaine, in the 12th century. Eleanor is one of the many British, influences mentioned in recently published Empire of Booze a humorous look at the history of booze and the role the British empire has, and continues to, play. Written by wine and spirits journalist, Henry Jeffreys and published through the website unbound, it’s a read that will take you backwards and forwards through time but also from London, to France, Portugal, Spain, Scotland and as far as Australia – a terrific read.

Empire of Booze by Henry Jefferies

Empire of Booze by Henry Jefferys

For some lighter reading, perhaps as a gift to those not quite so far down the wine geek road, Jancis Robinson‘s recently published The 24-Hour Wine Expert, is a cracking introduction to the wine world. Covering everything from tasting to serving from geography to varietals and much more. Just enough to get any beginner through the first steps of wine appreciation and perhaps start them on the road to wine ‘geekdom’ – you have been warned.

Become a 24-Hour Wine Expert with Jancis Robinson

Become a 24-Hour Wine Expert with Jancis Robinson

And for a completely different take, try Jo Malone My Story. It has nothing to do with wine, but interesting for tasters as it is all based around her acute sense of smell, such an important part of tasting. So much so that the very opening pages of the book are scented with her signature scent Pomelo – a Sauvignon Blanc with that perhaps?

A great sense of smell - Jo Malone's Story

A great sense of smell – Jo Malone’s Story 

Booze, business and politics.

Three books that shine very different lights on alcohol, its international reach and the personalities behind the products make interesting reading for anyone intrigued by how the international wine trade has evolved and continues to do so.

Over 30 years ago, back in the days before I really worked in wine, I sat next to Peter Max Sichel at a lunch in New York City. Fresh from grad school in Paris it was my first trip to the US in a semi professional role; helping out a non-English speaking friend promote his wines in the American market. It was quite a trip. As well as getting me hooked on the wine business, I also met my future husband.

Peter Max was a charming dining companion, this was back in the mid 80s when Blue Nun was still a major brand selling over a million cases every year in the US alone. At the grand age of 93, he has just published his memoirs,The Secrets of My Life: Vintner, Prisoner, Soldier, Spy. The book reads like a chat with a friend, cheerful and fondly told tales of friends and adventures from his childhood in Germany, schooling in the UK, his exodus across Europe via Bordeaux in the war, his time at the CIA and finally as a major player in the wine world when wine was become part of the everyday life of many Americans. It is a fascinating social history as well as a history of wine. He certainly has the authority to claim ‘It is safe to say that there has been more progress in making good wines in the last forty years than in the previous five hundred’.

The Secrets of Peter Max Sichel's Life

The Secrets of Peter Max Sichel’s Life

In the wine world he is known for his role in making bringing Blue Nun the first global wine brand but little did I know at the time what an interesting man I was sitting to at lunch that day. Blue Nun still exists, although no longer in the  Sichel portfolio which now better known for Château Palmer and Chateau Angludet in Bordeaux as well as their Bordeaux brands such as Sirius. Should you fancy a trip down memory lane, the Blue Nun web site takes you back through the old labels and advertising, goodness the wine world has changed.

In his conclusions he mentions the current role of China in the wine world. He should know, he was stationed in Hong Kong with the CIA and was well ahead of the curve suggesting matching Chinese food with Blue Nun as you can see with a video with Ken Hom on the Blue Nun site. Sweet Bordeaux wines are still banging the same drum, promoting sweet with Chinese Cuisine today.

Since the Middle Ages, Great Britain has always been the leading market for Bordeaux. The US market for wine that Peter describes so well never toppled it from its pinnacle but China did. Chinese demand for Bordeaux has been growing quickly since 2009. In 2012, as the pricey 2010s were delivered, China’s purchases peaked at almost 354 million Euros and the at UK about 420 million euros but the volumes are not the same. England is cherry picking buying ‘only’ 250 K hl, whereas the volumes in China are almost double (no wonder British wine critics are always giving Bordeaux a hard time about being so expensive!). Some of that wine heading to the UK may well end up in China too.

Purchases by both markets have come down from these heady heights, volumes have remained relatively stable in the UK but prices have come down, unsurprisingly with the subsequent more affordable vintages but volumes are down considerably in China – volatile stuff.

If you want to understand what is really behind this volatility and how it is affecting the global market for Bordeaux, I highly recommend Suzanne Mustacich’s new book Thirsty Dragon: China’s Lust for Bordeaux and the Threat to the World’s Best Wines.

Thirsty Dragon

Thirsty Dragon

Suzanne is an American journalist based in Bordeaux and is a contributing editor for the Wine Spectator. She uses her journalistic skills to get to the bottom of the Bordeaux boom in China and who are the major players behind it. It’s more complicated than it sounds with London and Hong Kong playing key roles and investment in vineyards going backwards and forwards between Bordeaux and China – it’s not a one way flow. It is a rip-roaring tale of personalities, both Chinese and French, buying, investing, marketing and making wine.

The Chinese market is a fascinating one, China has, despite it’s image for flamboyant purchases, settled firmly in the affordable range of Bordeaux, in no small part to restrictions in the official ‘gift’ market. If it has Bordeaux on the bottle that’ll do nicely, and this, as Suzanne explains so well, is why the Bordeaux chateaux purchased by the Chinese in Bordeaux are mainly from the affordable Entre Deux Mers region. We are talking about 100 approximately out of over 7 000 so not exactly the invasion some press coverage would have us believe. The two books show an interesting comparison between how the wine world used to function and how it is functioning today.

Drinking in America

Drinking in America

The third book  takes us back to the US, and back in time. It is not specifically about wine but about the role of alcohol in making America the land it is today. Susan Cheever’s Drinking in America: Our Secret History is written with a definite bias against booze, the author has obvious had her issues with drink herself and in her family as alcoholism raises its ugly head regularly and in a very personal way. But she tells a fascinating and often amusing story of booze through the history of the US and her theories as to how the nation may well have been shaped differently if, for example the original settlers had perhaps used churches instead of taverns as meeting houses. She also raises ideas about how prohibition set back the cause of the vote for women and how Kennedy may have survived his assassination in Texas if his CIA carers had not been nursing hangovers that morning. It makes for interesting if controversial reading. The drinking culture in the CIA was addressed in Peter Sichel’s book too – a full circle.

Booze, spooks and international trade, there’s more to this wine world than tasting. Exciting times.



Terroir: The science behind the soil.

Terroir when discussing wine can be a controversial subject. Not only does the definition vary from country to country or person to person but opinions as to its influence on the final product and just how that influence happens is also open to debate.

Does the definition include only soil and topography? But then there’s climate and microclimate, and what about the role of man as a grape grower and even as a wine maker – how does that fit into the definition?

Bdx micro climate

Does the definition of terroir include the maritime climate of Bordeaux?

Wine being defined by the place it’s grown may be a European or old-world concept, but things are changing. Although most European wines are still very much about the place, it is the foundation of the appellation system after all, the influence of the wine maker (or consultant wine maker) is playing a larger part. Famous wine makers and consultants now sign off on wines around the world. Interestingly in the ‘new world’, it would seem the opposite is happening. Whereas as once the role of the wine maker and wine-making techniques was paramount, the notion of terroir and its influence seems to be gaining ground (pun intended). Could it be that the new and old wine worlds are reaching a consensus?

Where does the influence of terroir end and wine making begin? The wine cellar in the heart of the terroir at Chateau Feret Lambert in the Entre Deux Mers

Where does the influence of terroir end and wine making begin? The wine cellar in the heart of the terroir at Chateau Feret Lambert in the Entre Deux Mers

In many regions it’s all about the place, Bordeaux very much so, Burgundy even more and on my recent visit to South Africa, Haskell, Jordan and Klein Constantia the identification and isolation of different terroirs was at the forefront of every conversation.

The Terroir wall at Ellerman House Hotel in Cape Town show cases the variety of South african wine terroir.

The Terroir wall at Ellerman House Hotel in Cape Town show cases the variety of South african wine terroir.

With improved techniques such as measuring soil resistivity, satellite technology (and good old fashioned digging of holes), the notion of terroir is becoming more precise. In Bordeaux, recent investment in the cellars has all been about smaller and smaller vats; each vat destined to receive the grapes from a specific plot as a better understanding of terroir leads vineyards to divide their land into smaller and smaller units.

Plot by plot identification at Chateau Rauzan Segla in Margaux

Plot by plot identification at Chateau Rauzan Segla in Margaux

This has always been the case in Burgundy; here you can stand at certain crossroads and almost touch three or four different appellations. Unlike Bordeaux with our blends, in Burgundy they only really use one red varietal, Pinto Noir, so the personality of different plots has to be down to the place; the terroir. Wander through a Burgundy cellar and the many barrels may each contain wine from a different plot, each one a different appellation. It’s not unusual to see 6 or more different appellations in one cellar, all grown and vinified by the same team.

Not so in Bordeaux. We blend varietals but we also blend terroir, all those row of barrels from the different plots in a Bordeaux cellar will end up being blended together in to one, two or maybe three different wines. So why cultivate and vinifiy each plot of land separately if you are going to end up blending it all together?

Two reasons: As we have a more precise understanding of the terroir it allows for a better choice of grape varieties best suited to each plot, to produce a better wine. But there’s more to choose from than just varietals. It’s also the clone of the varietal and the rootstock. As Bordeaux vines are grafted, the grower has a choice of rootstocks that suit different soils, either limiting or increasing the vigour of the plant. But these choices are only made every sixty or seventy years or so when replanting.

Old vines, well adapted to their terroir?

Old vines, well adapted to their terroir?

The second reason is more about how we treat these plots year on year; how the soils are ploughed and fertilised, how the vines are pruned, trellised and trimmed and the all important harvest date. Ripeness can vary enormously from plot to plot depending on soil composition; clay soils tend to be cooler, gravel soils warmer, sun exposure can also change – it all adds to the terroir puzzle.

How does working the soil influence terroir.

How does working the soil influence terroir?

So coming back to that definition of the term, what of the role of the grower? Does terroir remain the same or has man changed it? In regions like Bordeaux where grapes have been grown since the middle ages one suspects that yes, man fiddling about with the terroir since they first started planting vines has had an effect.

Man has had an influence on terroir in historic vineyards - such as here in Sicily

Man has had an influence on terroir in historic vineyards – such as here in Sicily

A key example is drainage. Water is a key element in terroir: the soils’ ability to retain or drain. While many vineyards of the world are suffering from drought, in Bordeaux’s maritime climate we tend to have too much water. Drainage is a Bordeaux obsession, a lot of time and money is invested in insuring good drainage either natural or giving it a helping hand. The famous draining of the Medoc peninsula by the Dutch in the 17th century gives the site we know today – very different from it’s original ‘terroir’.

Drainage ditches in the grey clay of Chateau Cheval Blanc in Saint Emilion

Drainage ditches in the blue clay of Chateau Cheval Blanc in Saint Emilion

Then there is fertilisation, composting, ploughing and chemical treatments; continued over hundred of years surely this too has to affect the sense of place? The return to a more natural and eco friendly approach to vine growing after the excesses of the 70s is perhaps also a desire to return to a more real sense of terroir?

Most wine drinkers may not know or care what terroir means; they may choose their wine as a function of one or several grape varieties. But those of us who are lucky enough to taste wines from different places, and people, will recognise that the same grape variety can produce many different styles of wine depending upon where it is grown.

In Bordeaux we generalise by saying a right bank Saint Emilion is Merlot driven and a left bank is Cabernet Sauvignon driven. But look closer and we see this benchmark differentiation is not always strictly true. For example in the Medoc, in the Moulis and in Listrac appellations, you will find properties here that have a high percentage of Merlot, but they still taste like a left bank wine, they still have the taste of the place. It’s important that it does, one of the categories looked at when wines are assessed for their appellation certification is indeed typicity, this sense of place.

So you can start to see the importance of understanding terroir. If this has whetted your appetite for the subject I can recommend two books, that I have mentioned in a previous post,  to help you take the idea further.

Charles Frankel is a French, wine-loving geologist. In his book Land and Wine: The French terroir, he paints an fascinating picture of the terroirs of all the leading French wine regions and how they came to be. He tells a story that starts 500 million years ago and, instead of dry science, the subject matter includes not just the rocks but how they got there and how other historical influences give us the vineyards we have today.

Land and Wine by Charles Frankel

Land and Wine by Charles Frankel

Jamie Goode, is a leading British wine blogger under the name The Wine Anorak, in the latest edition of his book Wine Science, the application of Science in Wine Making he has included a chapter on how soils shape wine as well as the original chapter on terroir.

Wine science by Jamie Goude

Wine science by Jamie Goode

It addresses the question of exactly how terroir influences the taste of the wine in your glass. Or does it? Jamie is first and foremost a scientist and he brings this rigour to the subject of vine growing, wine making and wine tasting. In our more romantic vision of wine we often forget it is a science, he manages to remind us without losing any of the passion he obviously has for wine.

A little knowledge may be a dangerous thing, these books might create a thirst for more, consume with moderation.

Bordeaux Bootcamp

Bootcamp cover1

Bordeaux Bootcamp, the Insider Tasting guide to Bordeaux, is now available for sale on Gumroad please click here for more details.

Please leave a message below if you would like to receive a copy at a special price for the blog readers and I will send you the discount code.

It is also available on Kindle.

Happy Reading.