Thursday, December 6, 2012

Smash and Grab......

That yesterday’s increase in Excise Duty on wine is catastrophic for the Irish wine trade in Ireland is without doubt. Never has it been so clear that wine importers and independent wine retailers in Ireland need a lobby group.

An increase of just 10 cents on a pint of beer (anyone else find it weird that the Government still operates on Imperial measures for beer?) and nothing on spirits is a credit to the lobbying power of the VFI - and presumably both NOFFLA and DIGI (whoever they claim to represent?)

An almost 50% increase in Excise Duty on wine to a staggering €2.78 a bottle (and double for bubbly) says it all. A lonely letter published in the Irish Times on Tuesday (My Letter to the Irish Times) isn’t going to change much….

Who was that again who represents the interests of the Wine Trade here? Oh yeah, no-one. It was obviously just too easy a target for the Government.

It’s an absolute certainty that jobs will be lost in importers, independent retailers and also in hotels and restaurants as all these groups struggle with falling sales and reduced margins as we desperately try to remain competitive (no chance) against the lure of the North and the larger supermarkets who can afford to continue to discount whilst taking profits in other areas of their retail offering. There are a couple of brave people talking about no price rises, but bravery should be confused with stupidity and there’s a fine line between the two. Sales will fall and prices will inevitably go up.

And why did they not ban below-cost selling of all alcohol? That would have protected jobs. Because the Government makes the same amount of Excise Duty per bottle of wine irrespective of what price it is sold at. The Excise is levied as the wine leaves the warehouse, long before it hits the shop floor. So in a bizarre way, the Government benefits from the below cost selling of alcohol as they actually get more revenue from increased promotional sales. Just don’t tell that to the Health service or anyone who is a victim of alcohol abuse.

But there may be a bigger conspiracy…. admittedly far fetched, but bear with me…Excise is levied as the wine leaves the warehouse, or more correctly as it’s taken off the computer system in the warehouse and it can then technically be put into a “Duty Paid” area. It is not levied on the sale of a bottle in a shop. At the end of each month, the Revenue take by direct debit the Excise bill an importer/wholesaler has run up. This is guaranteed money to the Revenue as we all also have to have Bank Guarantees in place to ensure Revenue get paid irrespective of what happens.

Last night, prior to the midnight deadline, there were tens of millions of Euro worth of Excise charges (not wine, just Excise) incurred as importers shifted wine out of "Under Bond" status to avail of the old Excise Rate before it rose. (As an aside, it will be interesting to see what happens this – some importers may hold their prices at the old rates, or some may charge the new rates whilst having benefitted by being charged the old rates by Revenue – it’s a tempting option as every 100 cases sold nets them an extra €1,000.)

But that’s just a diversion, albeit an interesting one. The real story is that up to €50M in Excise is guaranteed to flow to the Revenue at the end of January (when the December bills are paid) from importers who did this. On top of this is Vat @ 23% on the value of the wine taken out of Bond. That also goes to Revenue at the end of January.

So there’s a pretty nice pot of maybe up to €100M coming the way of the Revenue within 60 days. In the meantime, the Government could get – and wholly deservedly so – an unprecedented attack on the unjust, unfair and discriminatory rise and realise the error of its ways – as jobs really are at stake.

The Finance Bill (which in effect “legalises” many of the Budget decisions) is published every February and in this they could then decide to reverse the misguided Excise increase. Then we’re all back to normal – but the Government has just pocketed a quick €100M by pulling a stroke on us all.

Smash and Grab……? Stranger things have happened….

Friday, November 30, 2012

Picked - Finally....

Picnic on the boat!

A quick trip over to Slovenia by Sinead recently to check the wines reminded me that I hadn’t actually finished relating what happened all the way back at Harvest time. After Sinead’s frustration (see here Definitely Not Picking Time!), I headed out full of expectation at the end of September.

On arrival, there was a very mixed situation…

Sipon that ruptured and rotted following rain
Deceptive - actually sunburnt with upripe acidity

The Sipon, to use a great Irish phrase, was knackered – banjaxed and beyond saving. Possibly inspired by Sinead and her filthy language, another great phrase was born: in short, “the Sipon was a complete catastrofuck.”
More rot......
Thsi is what we managed to salvage

The Modra Fankinja on the other hand, was a thing of beauty.

Nice open bunches of ripe Modra Frankinja


Sugar levels were perfect, no sunburn, acidities tasted good, pips were ripe and just crunchy with no bitterness – and nothing was overripe – the grapes tasted fresh and ready to go. Picking was effortless and before we knew it we had everything in one of our new wood fermenters.

De-stemming in the cool night air
All ready for fermentation...

The plan was to keep the must at a lowish temperature for a couple of days and then to allow a natural fermentation to start. Our low-tech approach involved re-filling plastic water containers and freezing them. But as any First Year Science student will tell you, ice floats (how did we manage to forget that), so actually getting the cold distributed throughout the vat was a little more difficult. Plus, we didn’t want to mix things up too much to “force” extraction. Anyway, they seemed to do the job and after two days we took out the ice and fermentation began naturally pretty quickly – I think it may even have begun down in the depths of the vat prior to that.

Over the coming days we kept any punchdowns to a minimum (where you break up the “cap” of skins and pulp that forms at the top and push it back down) and got used to just touching it regularly to check it was still damp and also taking a good sniff – although this was pretty much guaranteed to lead to a sharp intake of CO2 up the nose – try it – you won’t forget it quickly!

One mildly “controversial” idea we did go through with was to chaptalise the wine – adding sugar – to add the equivalent of a half degree of alcohol – bringing it up to an estimated 12.5%. There are plenty of things you can add to wine – and at various stages – but of them all, sugar is the least intrusive. It is entirely and very simply converted to alcohol by the yeasts, it adds no actual sweetness. Of course, unscrupulous winemakers add tonnes of it to unripe grapes to bring up the alcohol level, but we wanted to try for a totally different reason. Over the years we have come across numerous winemakers who deliberately add a SMALL bit every vintage as they believe it adds an extra “x-factor” to the flavour and mouthfeel of their red wines. Marie-Andrée Mugneret vividly describes remembering as a child the smell of the sugar being stirred into the already fermenting vats.

The interesting thing is that when I went to research what to do, it transpired there’s not very much written about it all! Of course, there’s plenty about chaptalisation in general – but on a high volume scale – and even then, very little guidance as to how the sugar is actually added: is it dissolved, or just poured in? And all at once, or over a few days? Away from how you actually do it, the boring bits are that approximately 17 grams if sugar per litre will increase the alcohol by 1% - and that you can dissolve 2kg of sugar in 1 litre of water. So it was out with the weighing scales and pots and pans.

Just think.. if you're a huge winery with 1,000,000 litres a year and you want to bring everything up by 1% alcohol, you need 17 Tons of sugar!

As I added the syrup into the open fermenter later that night, I managed to convince myself that I was totally mad, and almost chickened out – but in it went…!

Over the next few days as fermentation continued, we kept punchdowns to a minimum as we were happy with the extraction already achieved. In fact, over the whole fermentation period we only punched down three times. Total maceration time from harvest to press was 21 days.

And the result tastes fantastic! Meanwhile the poor old Sipon was limping along through fermentation, and beginning to smell of mushrooms. Trust me, that is not a good smell to have in your wine! There are of course all sorts of chemicals you can use to strip out these odours/tastes – but they tend to strip out most of everything else as well, so we’re destined for a rather unusual, but small volume, mushroomy Sipon…

But that Modra Frankinja – now that makes us happy!

Still the most beautiful view from a Wine Press anywhere - sunrise from Miro's cellar

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Lies, Damned Lies and Statistics...

There’s plenty of chat around about what might happen in next week’s budget. In fact, most of us are pretty much fed up with hearing about it. Plenty of things have been well flagged, including a likely increase in Excise Duty. Much like our attitude to the whole austerity fog that we are all lost in, we seem to accept these impending changes with little more than a benign resignation.

So for example, instead of jumping up and down about key issues like below cost selling of alcohol (how difficult can that actually be to introduce?), we’re all expecting an increase in Excise Duty next week of around 50 cents per bottle with a “well, it could be worse attitude”. Sorry, but how much worse?

I’ve heard of politicians “kite flying” ideas by leaking crazy ideas to convenient contacts in the press, and then sitting back to see how a madcap scheme pans out. Well, whoever it was that flew the idea of an Excise increase “only for the retail trade” idea in the weekend papers, please stand up. If there was ever a more ridiculous idea, I have yet to have the pleasure of stumbling across it. This proposal was explained with the assured logic that by not increasing Excise on pub sales, we would project jobs.

Now, I’m not an economist or statistician – but I do know where we wholesale our wines. And let’s see… that would include both pubs and retailers. So along with re-printing all our price lists, incurring the wrath of all our customers, endless whinging about how we can’t take it any more and so on, we’re now also going to have two different invoice systems. And as for our Bond, I pity them trying to determine if Bould Betty’s is a pub, bistro or lap dancing club when they release the wine from Bond and allocate the Excise Duty.

Seriously – whoever thought of that idea should quietly slip out that back door of Government buildings and think of a new career…..

So what about the statistics? Well, rather conveniently, the boffins at the Wine Institute in California have been checking bottle banks all over the world and have just published the latest world rankings for wine consumption. And not just for 2010, but very interestingly for the past three years. So from our Celtic Tiger peak in 2007 to the rather more austere days of 2010, you’ll note that wine consumption in Ireland has dropped by 8.3% to 16.89 litres per annum per head. Not a catastrophic drop – but not exactly a growing market ripe for an increase in tax.

More interesting is the drop from 2007 to 2008 – a whopping 25% drop. I don’t have the burning passion to go back over previous Budgets, but I’d guess that those figures overlap with the catastrophic rise in Excise Duty some years back that coincided with us all rushing up North to buy all our drink. If sales fell here, you can be sure the tax take fell too – and funnily enough, that Excise hike was subsequently reversed.

So in a market of falling sales, what makes best sense – increase the price of the product (when it’s still going to be available for less close by), or decrease/hold the price?


Aside from my rant, there are some great figures in the report. How about the fact that those in the Vatican City consume more wine per head than ANYWHERE in the world – a whopping 70 litres per head in 2009? That’s almost 5 times what we drink!

And Kuwait, where it looks (surprisingly) like the average is about a glass of wine per person, per year, managed to register an increase of 389%!

You can see the complete list here: Per Capita Wine Consumption by Country

Monday, November 5, 2012

Definitely Not Picking Time - F**k it

Sinead here, making my annual appearance on the blog. I was close to giving it a miss this year since I didn't get to harvest our grapes or start the process of managing fermentation.

After two weeks in Slovenia I boarded the plane back to Ireland feeling like an expectant mother who had been sent home from the delivery ward having presented with false labour. I had learnt much and had great fun being involved in the harvests of others but felt lonely for my ‘baby’. It seemed everyone else had a new arrival in the winery, someone to coo over and nurture. Even Liam’s gentle nudges to blog something, anything, of my thoughts while out there failed to move me towards the keyboard.

Luckily, writer's block took a jolt as the Aerlingus flight left the tarmac and I realised that my harvest blog should take the form of a poem. Inspired by Brian Millar's take on the John Cooper Clarke song 'Bloody Chickentown', (see previous blog). I had the masterpiece done and dusted by the time we landed in Dublin. Avert your eyes Granny...
Am I in labour? Sugar levels are only half the story

Definitely not Picking Time
By Sinead Cabot
The fucking dates were fucking wrong
Miro is a fucking nong
The fucking sugar’s fucking high
The fucking ground was fucking dry
The fucking pips won’t fucking brown
The fucking rain’s now coming down
The fucking Sipon’s fucking split
The fucking Sipon’s fucking shit
The fucking MF’s fucking slow
Pick - fucking yes or fucking no?
Fucking vintage is passing me by
Think I’m gonna fucking cry
Samo fucking hurt his head
I picked his sauvignon instead
Lela was my picking mate
Humming songs that were x-rate
Fucking acid’s fucking low
Acidify – yes? No, fucking NO!
“Fucking milk by fucking March”
(Samo, that’s a little harsh)
Thank you to my Slovene friends
Fun fucking vintage in the end!
With due respect to John Cooper Clarke and Brian Miller. "Evidently Chickentown" is a poem by the English performance poet John Cooper Clarke. The poem uses repeated profanity to convey a sense of futility and exasperation ... - Wikipedia.

MF in the poem is the black grape variety Modra Frankinja, (Austria's Blaufrankish and Hungary's Kekfrankos. Sipon is the Slovene name for the white grape variety, Furmint.

Continuing my journey home I dropped in to Easons at Heuston Station and the first book I saw was “F**k it: The Ultimate Spiritual Way” by John C Parkin. Coincidence? I bought it, of course, and had it finished by the time the train pulled in at Westport. A great read and I felt so much f**king better. You should buy it. Now F**k off!

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Definitely Picking Time...

I think Sinead's frustration must have peaked when she emailed me (back in lovely wet’n’windy Westport) this poem she spotted on Tim Atkin's website (obviously too much time browsing and too little time picking...)

Says it all really:
Definitely Picking Time
by Brian Miller

the fucking sky looks fucking dim
the fucking forecast's fucking grim
the fucking fruit won't fucking set
the fucking farm's in fucking debt
my fucking pay's a fucking crime
evidently picking time

the fucking grapes are fucking shot
they're fucking ripe or fucking not
the fucking wind's a fucking gale
the fucking clouds mean fucking hail
there's fucking roos in fucking herds
and fucking flocks of fucking birds

the fucking tractor's fucking old
there's fucking fog and fucking mould
the fucking picker's fucking late
the fucking grapes won't fucking wait
the fucking press wont fucking screw
and fucking frost is fucking due

the fucking ferment's fucking stuck
the fucking riesling's fucking muck
the fucking sugar's fucking low
the fucking yeast won't fucking grow
the fucking vineyard's fucking wet
the fucking oak's got fucking brett

the fucking help's a fucking nong
the fucking label's fucking wrong
the fucking things won't fucking stick
the fucking line's too fucking quick
the fucking experts fucking ain't
the fucking corks have fucking taint

fucking parker fucking stopped
so fucking exports fucking dropped
the fucking dollar's fucking high
the fucking poms went fucking shy
the fucking yanks are fucking broke
the fucking world's a fucking joke

the fucking boss he fucking moans
the fucking bars want fucking rhônes
the fucking pubs are fucking holes
fucking woolworths, fucking coles
the fucking website fucking sucked
the fucking market's fucking fucked

there's fucking heaps of fucking bills
the fucking reps are fucking dills
some fucking writer's fucking rung
my fucking knee's gone fucking bung
no fucking reason, fucking rhyme
definitely picking time.

With due respect to John Cooper Clarke. ...

"Evidently Chickentown" is a poem by the English performance poet John Cooper Clarke. The poem uses repeated profanity to convey a sense of futility and exasperation ... - Wikipedia.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Harvest 2012.... almost...

We headed back to Westport at the end of August as the kids were going back to school. Prior to leaving, we weighed up all the options, took measurements of this and that and pretended to ourselves that we had some sort of idea as to what we were doing and when we would actually pick the grapes.

We decided that Sinead would come back just two weeks later to start picking – and made plans for one of the earliest harvests ever.

If we ever had the need to see into the future, we really needed it then – not only for the grapes, but also into the pricing strategy at Aer Lingus. I’d be a liar if I didn’t acknowledge that even after a long, hard summer of work in the vineyards, some thought also goes into minimising the cost of shuttling back and forwards at harvest time!

So with flights booked, Sinead headed back over to Slovenia in mid-September. But of course it had rained in the meantime….. come on, who said this was easy! Now began a waiting game…. Rain meant that the vines were refreshed and had started working away again on getting those gapes fully ripe. But at the same time, the threat of rot was increasing…

It wasn’t actually that much rain, but it had vastly different effects on the Sipon and Modra Frankinja.

The Sipon just gave up. After a long dry summer, the grapes had hard, tight skins. The additional water caused them to rupture – particularly where they had been previously affected by oidium – and once ruptured, they started to decay. But they still weren’t ripe enough to pick.

Beginning to rupture - but still unripe in background..

The Modra Frankinja, on the other hand, had lovely, slightly springy skins and relished the additional liquid – a bit like giving a slightly limp balloon a few extra gulps of air. Things were looking better here – but still not quite ready…

Now that looks a bit better!

Sinead busied herself helping with friends’ harvests for earlier ripening varieties like Sauvignon Blanc, Muscat Ottonel and even some Traminec – and also getting more and more frustrated…..

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

New Toys..

In advance of the harvest we ordered two of these 500L wooden fermentation vats to experiment with. French oak, low toast and all very exciting....

Made even more exciting by the delivery truck knocking out power to the whole area by hitting an overhead cable when driving off. Shocking.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

2012 Growing Season

It’s now almost the end of October, and in most wine growing regions in the Northern hemisphere, the grape harvests for dry wines are drawing to a close. The pickers have had their last lunch, gulped back their last glass of fresh grape must and the presses have been cleaned that one last time. The daily ritual of taking readings during fermentation slows – just like a fermentation – and a certain loneliness descends. It’s over for another year…..

But in order for us (and this Blog) to go forwards, we have to go backwards first (hopefully only metaphorically..). The growing season in 2012 was a mixed bag – to say the least. There were more peaks and troughs as the weeks passed than I can remember in a long time.

The season got off to a slightly shaky start after a relatively mild winter. Following a bumper harvest in 2011 of generally high quality, expectations actually weren’t that high for 2012. Irregular flowering in the Spring was a little worrying, but the fruit set was reasonable – and in some ways, pointed to a natural lowering of the yields. Also, depending on the grape variety, irregular flowering can also help to open up some tight bunched varieties such as Sipon/Furmint. So we were relatively happy by early Summer.

As the weeks passed, things looked good. Weather was warm, precipitation was average and both oidium and peronospera seemed relatively benign. Veraison came and went – it’s an amazing thing to see – when the grapes of red varieties turn from green to red – it’s difficult to describe exactly how quick it happens, but you can get up more morning and suddenly notice it has started. One of the amazing tricks that Nature can pull and that reminds you how little we often understand about what goes on around us. For example, why don’t red grapes start out as red grapes – why do they need to change colour halfway through…?

Around this time (July) thoughts also turn to a de-leafing strategy. There are two main reasons for doing this in a vineyard:
  1. To open up air circulation around the bunches – and thus lower problems with fungal diseases such as oidium – and to increase the effectiveness of any sprays being used – so that they actually get as far as the bunches.
  2. To open up the bunches themselves to additional sunlight. In many vineyards, there is a sunny side of each row, and a less sunny side – normally the side that gets the morning sun. Aside from the fact that the majority of the actual ripening work is done by the leaves (photosynthesis), there’s a school of thought that believes that exposing the grapes/bunches to sunlight at an early stage actually helps build up a resistance to possibly sunburn later on in the season. Think young pale-skinned kids on holiday – or maybe not….
The second option, irrespective of your opinion as to its effectiveness, it of course rather difficult to plan for – to the best of my knowledge we’re still a awaiting the ability to see into the future and thus the power of accurate advance weather forecasts still eludes us. But this hasn’t quenched our obsession for just trying to guess what’s coming down the line….. take too many leaves off and get a serious blast of sun (e.g. 2003) and you get burnt grapes, take too little off and get lots of rain and grey days (e.g. 2010) and they never ripen properly.

Anyway, we went the full hog and decided we’d let the wind and sun dance around our bunches’ nether regions… and happily stripped away most of the surrounding foliage from the bunches.

But it wasn’t the extreme heat that was to prove problematic, rather the lack of rain. For almost five weeks from the middle of July to the end of August, there was no rain. It was of course sunny, with a few days that touched 40 degrees at the end of August, but the lack of water was more noticeable. To put it into perspective, I cut the grass only twice from the beginning of June to the end of August!

Yet vines are amazing plants – we read a lot about terroir and the suitability of one place or another to host vines, but until you see a really challenging growing season at first hand, you forget how resilient these plants can be – provided they are in the right place in the first instance. We were amazed at how the vines coped – even late into each afternoon, their shoots would still be standing proud, dancing in the breeze, with no sign of wilting.

But there are some vines that are less able to adapt – even if they are on an appropriate terroir. Young vines are particularly susceptible to drought as their root systems haven’t developed sufficiently. In and around Jeruzalem there has been a huge amount of activity planting new vineyards – a sure vote of confidence in the region – and these new vines were severely tested during the dry spell. As it wore on, you could begin to see how the soil in an individual vineyard was responding – the general types are heavy clay and also sandy soils – with vineyards that have both showing a remarkable difference in how they coped.

Young vines - note how the different soil types show up in drought

As the dry spell dragged on, it began to wreak havoc with other crops – corn was particularly badly affected, with many planting just simply shutting down, unable to ripen the cobs. Over in the west of Slovenia, in Primorska on the border with Italy, the drought had a devastating effect on the vineyards as the soil structures are quite different.

But over in our corner in the East, the vines soldiered on very well. However there were some strange things going on in the background. A quick check on acidities showed them to be all over the place. Ripening was far from even. Vines that had been left with a heavy yield struggled to get everything ripe. The difference between “morning” and “afternoon” sides of the same rows became greater.

Pretty high acidity!

Sugar levels did continue to rise, albeit slowly. It became clear that much of this rise was more to do with evaporation within the grapes (and thus higher sugar by default) rather than an actual ripening process. The vines had effectively shut down.

And as for our de-leafing strategy? Well, on the Sipon we had some bunches with sunburn (so much for that theory), but mostly we had grapes that had hard skins, with searing acidity. For the Blaufrankisch (Modra Frankinja) things were better: the bunches were more open with a lower yield and no sunburn – although there was a little bit of raisining beginning to set in by the end of August.

Sunburnt Sipon - should have used suncream... Note how unripe the gapes in the background are.

Checks at the end of August indicated a very early harvest was on the cards – and one that could be very irregular – acidities and sugar levels were still all over the place.

I was reminded of a marathon – I can cycle until the cows come home, but running still eludes me – but in a marathon people talk about hitting “the wall”. As we came to the end of August, I really felt the vines were hitting the wall – they were tiring from the effort, the ground was parched, the fruit was heavy – and they just wanted to give up.

And then there was word of rain on the way. Never was something so hoped for, and yet so feared at the same time! Too much rain and everything would be ruined overnight – vines drinking up all that moisture and dumping it into the grapes, to have them rupture and rot straight away whilst still unripe. Or too little, and the vines go on struggling and will deliver unbalanced grapes. There was plenty of discussion as to what was the “right” amount of rain to wish for…

In the end, the rain came – and would keep some people happy, and other not so much. Typical of 2012!

Rain on the way....hopefully...!

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

What is it about Wine Ads....?

The French used to advertise wine with all sorts of references to silkiness, smoothness, femininity and occasionally sexuality. That is of course before they were effectively banned from even mentioning it in their own Press......nowadays we're lucky if we see a moody shot of a lonely glass of wine with some "vague" tagline... "Merlot... soft and sophisticated" or "Les Vins de Bourgogne.... Simply Classic (or Classique!)"

The Americans seem to have taken a more "in-your-face" type approach. Strong male characters who manage to be a weird hybrid of confidence, arrogance, humour and vaguely annoying....

I wonder how many times they had to re-shoot him catching the bottle as he gets into the Limo....

And then the Aussies - well, as we have seen, they're a pretty blunt bunch of people as we saw before.....

Fancy a Beer for St. Patrick's Day?

Sunday, September 9, 2012

The Return of Merlot.....

I'm supposed to be doing a million and one other things, including writing some proper blogs, but just stumbled across this....

Nicely done!

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Rotten Neighbours - Part Three...

Ok – one more quick thing…

We hear a lot about rot and how it causes problems with grapes – either during the growing season, or at harvest time. What does it start out like, and how quickly does the problem spread? Of course, there aren’t any absolute answers as we’re dealing with Nature here, but it’s interesting to look at some generalities.

Above are two bunches from different vines at the same time. The one on the right looks much healthier (more uniform etc.) and the one on the left has some evidence of mildew – but at first look it doesn’t seem too bad…

The same two bunches three hours later…..

The rate at which the bunch on the left has declined is astonishing. Of course, being cut from the vine does accelerate the process, but the path to decline had already started by the time it was picked.

As an interesting end note, it’s worth remembering that many vineyards are often far away from the actual winery and we hear a lot about the transport of grapes. Conscientious producers may pick and transport at night – or in smaller boxes – all to avoid what you see above. Essentially, once picked, any less than perfect grapes will immediately start to decompose more rapidly and risk spoiling the rest of the bunches they are in contact with. Of course, diligent picking should have eliminated them in the first place – but that’s not always the case – and of course where machine harvesting is employed (in more places that you would think) it’s impossible to control…

Friday, August 10, 2012

Getting Bottled....

“Getting bottled” had an entirely different meaning to be when I was growing up…, but those young, foolish (and so, so fun!) years are long behind me.

Now getting bottled involved something a little less dangerous – and in reality a lot more fun. As many of you will know, we ran some trials on making both a red and white wine last vintage. The white (Sipon/Furmint) is still at a rather awkward stage (what a great euphemism that is) and is languishing unloved in the corner of the cellar.

But the reds are proving lots of fun at the moment. There are three variants of Modra Frankinja (Blaufrankisch): a cold macerated steel tank fermented one (“Marbles”), a normal temperature, open fermented one (“Traditional”) and a final one comprising the press juice from the first two combined (“Press”). The cold macerated version had been tasting delicious, and since there are only about 150 litres of it and it seemed “ready” (whatever that is – we have yet to discover) so we decided to bottle it. And I think – if we are very honest – part of the thought process was to stop ourselves drinking our way through it bit by bit – as if opening a screwcap was ever an obstacle….

I’d like to think we were following the great Burgundian tradition of bottling direct from the cask or tank, but the reality was that we just didn’t have a bottling machine. And anyway, doing it this way was much more hands on!

So we now have a little stash of regular 75cl bottles, some Magnums and a few smaller 50cl “sampler” bottles all packed up in the corner of the cellar. It’ll be interesting to see how long we can keep our hands off them….

The Traditional one has been racked from the barrel and is now resting in a steel tank for bottling around harvest time. Meanwhile the Press version continues to be the awkward child – with a heavy bout of reduction making assessment particularly difficult. So like any bold child, we have banished it to another room – in this case, the darkness (and oxygen) of the barrel that the Traditional juice just came out of.

We’ll see how it responds….

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Rotten Neighbours - Part Two

Two years ago I wrote a Blog about the problems that can arise when neighbouring vines aren’t looked after – I called it Rotten Neighbours (Rotten Neighbours). To my surprise it became our most viewed Blog – not because I think people are interested in the challenges of inter-vineyard oidium spread, but more because quick look at Google analytics showed that many people are obviously doing searches for “Rotten Neighbours”. Says a lot for the community spirit…

Incidentally, our second most popular Blog (isn’t Google analytics great!) was about luxury Champagne and contained the all important keywords “Cristal” and “Ace of Spades”. If I just add “sex” to this one, the combination of all of the above should ensure many people without any interest in wine whatsoever will stumble across this post….

Anyway, for anyone with some interest – or who hasn’t given up reading by now – you will hopefully be pleased to know we have new neighbours. And more importantly, they have an interest in returning their vineyard to a workable and cared-for state.

My enthusiasm for supporting this approach led me to offer to help out in clearing the vineyard. There are lots of pleasant things in winemaking (not least drinking the finished product), but there are many undesirable tasks that should always be avoided wherever possible: shovelling pressed pips and skin from a finished press onto a trailer along with ten million fruits flies is a good example. Climbing inside a press to clean it along with same flies is another. Clearing a vineyard is also now a good contender for a high ranking. It’s all done manually as a tractor can’t even get into the vineyard because it’s so overgrown. Sweat, sneezes, scratches, bites, trips, sore arms, sunburnt face, soggy shorts, itching, tears (almost), salty skin (from sweat), thirst, stings, blisters, aches and many more whingy ailments contribute to making it an “interesting” experience for a soft-skinned Irish lad.

But we did it – or rather Miro did the majority of it… and I did a bit…..

But underneath all that jungle of growth lay something rather special – or at least potentially rather special. A vineyard that hadn’t been sprayed regularly – and thus free of a build-up of insecticides. A vineyard that hadn’t been artificially fertilised for years. A vineyard where the vines, through lack of attentive pruning, had in many cases found a natural, low yield for the fruit. And of course, plenty of rot. But great potential to start afresh next year….. In the meantime, Miro decided to green harvest all the fruit with the exception of 1 bunch per shoot. It’s a risk given the dangers of the last bunch getting rot, or being hit by hail – but if it pays off (and it has so far), some very interesting wine could be produced from it….

And so we wave goodbye to the Rotten Neighbours – and hopefully hello to a hole new bunch of readers who came looking to find out how to solve that awkward problem of neighbourly music being played too loud, unsociably late parties, rubbish being dumped in the garden… and of course luxury Champagne and sex….

Monday, July 30, 2012

President Tastes our Wine....... and Survives...!

Well, it was an opportunity too good to miss. The President of the Republic of Slovenia, Dr. Danilo Turk, was among the attendees at the Salon Jeruzalem 2012. He was doing a walkabout and chatting/tasting with each of the Producers presenting their wines. Miro cheekily decided that it would be a good opportunity to give our "marbles" Modra Frankinja (Blaufrankish) its very first public outing.

Notwithstanding that it was mildly oxidative, a little weird and definitely unusual in a room full of white wines......

But he seemed to like it.... and most importantly, came to no harm...!

We'll have to post off a bottle to Michael D.....

Friday, July 27, 2012

Salon Jeruzalem 2012

Slovenia….. back in Slovenia and so much to catch up on….

I have a love/hate relationship with this Blog: I really enjoy the writing (and thinking) when I get a chance, but when it gets abandoned for a few weeks as you run around doing other things, it starts to climb inside your head and slowly destroy you… “it’s been 2 weeks since your last Blog, it’s been 4 weeks since your last Blog…” I envy the people who are able to manage their writing like their bodily functions – I have yet to master that discipline.

That doesn’t mean though that all the news, information and opinion just dissipates into the ether – it just gets clogged up inside the brain and will no doubt come tumbling out over the next few weeks in a cacophony of Blogs - can writing make a noise? If a keystroke is made and no one hears it, does it exist…!

Anyway, first up – and some 6 weeks ago - was the 10th Salon Jeruzalem. This is an annual tasting in the picturesque village of Jeruzalem high up in the hills in Eastern Slovenia (now referred to as Stajerska Slovenia for winemaking purposes). This one ticks all the boxes – amazing location, good wines, well organised – and a great concert on a balmy evening to get the whole thing going….

The main tasting takes place on the Saturday when the local winemakers show off their wines. I have been at the last five (I think) and it has been interesting to note the changes. First off, there seemed to be many more “international” visitors this year – lots of spoken English overheard – (incl. NZ and Australia!) and also a good smattering of German and Austrians from just across the border.

The other gradual change has been the change in winemaking styles. It’s clear there has been a major move away from white wines with some residual sugar (although there are still some) to wines that trade on their “freshness” and pure, crisp fruit – and there were some outstanding examples of these. But in my opinion, the styles on offer also need to evolve to include some wines that are a little more “interesting” – that’s not a disingenuous comment about the "fresh" wines at all (they are essential for the region), but there is room for a slightly more gastronomic style – wines with layers of flavour, quirky personality, complexity – and memorable. They are definitely emerging. Winemaker Miro Munda (Miro Vino), for example, took the unusual choice of not showing any examples of his current vintage “fresh” wines, choosing instead to showcase older vintages of his “XL” range – a single wine (normally a blend) produced each year that he believes encapsulates this more “gastronomic” style.

Verus (Verus) were also there, and their wines were another highlight. They are closer to the “fresh” style, but each wine emphasises fruit quality, variety and complexity without being sacrificed to the “cool, crisp, wet” style that some of other wines exhibited. Samo and Lela Kolaric also had a great set of wines – I think their 2011’s are their best to date, with the Sauvignon Blanc in particular outstanding.

All in all, a great event – and one that is well worth a visit to see what is on offer here.

All photos are by Dejan Beyer and you can see more here: Salon Jeruzalem 2012 Photos

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

New Agency List 2012

How about some wines that you can actually enjoy right now? No waiting for the next two years…..

We actually published our new Agency List a few weeks back, but with all the other distractions, I have just realised that I forgot to mention it here.

You can download a full copy here: Cabot and Co Agency List 2012

There’s plenty of new stuff……including.......
  • Some fantastic German wines – outstanding Spatburgunders/Pinot Noirs from Fritz Becker and Paul Furst along with truly special Rieslings from Philip Wittmann, Klaus Peter Keller and Gunter Kunstler....
  • Truly original and remarkable Blaufrankisch from Roland Velich of Weingut Moric and crisp, fresh Gruner Veltliner from Gerald Waltner – both in Austria.......
  • The fantastic, poised, elegant 2010 white Burgundies from Pierre-Yves Colin Morey.....
  • Some great value new Southern Italian finds.....
  • Delicious, savoury 2009 red Burgundies.....

Many, many more old friends and plenty of new ones in the making….

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Is it Just Me?…... Part Deux.

The Bordeaux 2011 Primeur “campaign” whimpered to a close last week. And here’s yet another Blog about how silly the Bordelaise are/were with their pricing, how little they understand their market and the imminent collapse of all things Bordeaux-related. Never has so much been written about so little wine being sold…..

And it’s an easy subject to take pot-shots at – like kicking someone when they’re already down – a nasty activity. But I have this morbid fascination with the actual business thinking behind all of this, so please excuse the indulgence in some genuine head scratching.

But first, one caveat: we love Bordeaux. Few regions in the world come close to delivering the excitement in opening a mature bottle of elegant, complex, ethereal wine. We also have many customers who love Bordeaux too, and selling both en-Primeur and back vintages is an important part of our business. So I think we have a small right to a bit of a whinge.

At the end of this year’s circus, it would seem that very little wine was sold. The UK trade reports selling only 10% compared to previous years. Here at home, we couldn’t find a single compelling reason to recommend any wines to our own customers and consequently suggested they didn’t buy anything – or at least hold off until the wines are physically available in bottle. The only reason to buy something today is if you need it today, or if it will be more expensive tomorrow. The first consideration obviously doesn’t apply to en-Primeur, and the second has clearly been forgotten by the Bordelaise.

It looks like Option B predicted in the Blog below was the course followed by the majority of the Chateaux – keep the prices high and protect the Brand…

And we are definitely (and unfortunately) talking Brands here. If you take out full page advertisements in the Wall Street Journal and the Financial Times, you’re reinforcing a brand. If you spend millions on developing new cellars that not only function well, but look like the set of a Ridley Scott movie (given an unlimited budget – how mad would that be..?), then you’re talking about a Brand.

So you create your Brand, gently nurture it and grow it steadily. But genuine Brands depend on delivering exceptionally consistent quality – a Gucci handbag should always be the same high standard, a Bugatti Veyron has the same engine each time etc. etc. However, where wine is concerned, there is one small problem: Nature. How about a brand where the quality changes each year, where the stitching sometimes works – and sometimes doesn’t, where the engine sometimes has 12 cylinders and sometimes has 11? It wouldn’t really work, would it? You’d expect all the duds to be thrown out or sold off quietly at a major discount.

That’s the problem with wine – and hopefully the ultimate protector for the consumer. No matter what fantastic cellars the Bordelaise build, what dinners they host, what ads they take out – they can’t beat dear old Mother Nature. Sure, they can do their damndest to overcome it with all sorts of technical wizardry, but at the end of the day, it has to be taken into account.

So assuming the role of Nature has to be acknowledged – if not publicly, then certainly privately, in planning your world-dominating Brand, imagine the business plan you put in front of the Bank, or Alan Sugar: “Ummm, well if the weather is good, our revenue will be in the region of €18,000,000, but if it’s bad it’ll probably be about half that….” You’d be laughed out of the room for presenting a plan that essentially relied on the unreliable – Nature.

Take Two: you go to the Bank and say “no matter what happens, we’ll keep the price up and the money will keep coming in so revenue will be stable”. Sounds good in theory – but pretty difficult in practice – at least you would think so.

No so the Bordelaise. For some mad reason, all their business plans seem to assume that all the wine will be bought every year. And if it isn’t, don’t worry, they’ll just hang onto it until we need it. The problem is that the majority of the Chateaux don’t actually sell their wine – at least in the conventional sense. It passes though a number of hands before it actually reaches the end consumer. Wine Merchants (like ourselves) are the last point of contact before it passes into general consumption – and believe it or not, we respect our customers. We’re not going to sell them a faulty Gucci handbag or half-baked Bugatti Veyron – at least not without telling them so, and offering a huge discount.

And please indulge one quick aside: this notion that we’re all rip-off merchants who make a fortune en-Primeur. The normal trade margin for en-Primeur is 10% - that means for every 10 cases of Lynch Bages you buy, you have to sell 9 of them before you have even a hope of making any money. And in a bad vintage, selling that first 90% of stock before you can make anything is pretty tough. There are plenty of other regions producing quality wine that we can make a larger margin on.

So there’s a disconnect between the people owning and building the Brand and those expected to represent and actually sell the Brand on the ground. And those of us selling the Brands know how important good customers are – and we’re not about to try and piss them off by selling average quality but expensive wine – no matter what the Brand is.

Here’s my own business plan for running my own Bordeaux Chateau and selling all my stock each year.....

 Assuming I’m a highly regarded Chateau producing excellent quality wine, I pick a price that is a substantial discount to the market price – so let’s say €50 per bottle. I then communicate this to all my end-customers (i.e. wine merchants) and ask them what volume they will commit to each year. If I make 25,000 cases, then I need 2,500 of them (from all over the world) to take just ten cases each. I then guarantee them that the price will rise by no more than 10% for a good vintage, and drop by no more than 10% for a bad vintage – assuming they continue with their allocation. In the good years their customers will be very happy, acquiring wines for a reasonable price that will increase substantially in value. In the less good (never bad!) years they will still get a very good wine at a reasonable price. I can go to the Bank with a genuine business plan – and be clear in my mind that my job is to get on with making wine that will keep my customers happy.

I don’t get involved in trying to guess the market, outprice my rivals, lose loyal customers and chase the latest and greatest rumour about a “new” region of the world being interested in Bordeaux. I save a fortune on advertising as I already have loyal customers (advertising only appeals effectively to potentially “disloyal” customers) and I understand the single biggest issue with making wine: it’s made lovingly to provide enjoyment.

Now if only there was a wine region like that…….

Oh yes, Burgundy.

And Italy.

And Germany, Spain, Australia, Slovenia, Austria……

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Is it just me....?

It’s Bordeaux Primeurs time again….. the time when the majority of the Classified Growth (and many other) Bordeaux Chateaux release their most recent vintage for sale to the Trade – in this instance the 2011 vintage. The only catch is that the wines won’t be available for another 2 years – they’re still in barrels at the respective Châteaux. The upside (normally) is that by stumping up early, you can get them at an attractive price, so that by the time they are physically in bottle you have saved yourself a few quid based on what you’d pay two years from now. Plus you can acquire some of the more limited and sought-after wines.

The 2011 vintage faces a few challenges in the marketplace though. Firstly, it follows quite possibly the two best back-to-back vintages since 1989 & 1990. Secondly, the reaction from the critics has been less than enthusiastic, with most of them rating it an “average” vintage. But the elephant in the room is the pricing. After two stratospherically priced vintages for admittedly stunning wines, how will the Chateaux price their wines?

It seems to me there are two options:
  • Price them at a big discount to 2009/2010 and get the wines sold. However the problem is that if 2012 turns out to be (another) vintage of the Century, there’ll be much wailing and gnashing of teeth when they then hike their prices back up again to 2009/2010 levels. But at least they are priced according to quality.
  • Price them at a small discount to 2009/2010. Probably no one will buy them, but at least the value of the “brand” is protected and price stability is maintained. In years to come, the market will eventually absorb the wines (remember the 1997’s) and in the greater scheme of things, they will (eventually) seem cheap (relatively!). The only problem is that the Chateaux need enough cashflow to sit on the stocks – but after 2009/2010 they may have that.

So far, it looks depressingly like the second scenario is the one being played out. The few releases so far have shown small decreases on 2010 prices, but nothing to get excited about.

There seems to be little reason to rush out and buy any of the 2011’s, particularly if it looks like they will still be available for a similar price in two (or five) years time. If you already have some 2009’s and/or 2010’s to look forward to, there is no reason to buy 2011. If you don’t, then you still don’t need 2011 – just find some delicious 1998’s or 2001’s, the majority of which will be below the 2011 release prices and are drinking beautifully now.

If the Châteaux decide to play the game of chicken and sit it out with high prices, the next group to suffer will be the Negociants and traders. There’s obviously money to be made selling Primeurs when the demand is there. But the customer is (and should always be) first and the thought of “pushing” an average vintage on customers this year is rather unappealing to us – even if it means a loss of revenue. I’m a big fan of Bordeaux and we get great allocations and sold a huge amount of the 2009’s and 2010’s. To be honest though, we have plenty of delicious Blaufrankisch, Burgundies, top German Pinot, quirky Italians, tasty Languedocs, and so on to get behind in the absence of anything exciting from Bordeaux....

But there are some who depend on selling Primeurs slightly more - for an important injection of business into their annual turnover.

This morning, for example, Chateau Beychevelle was released by Negociants in Bordeaux at €45.50 to the trade – a not insignificant price. As with any release, the emails from European merchants began to arrive almost immediately…..

“The good news this morning is the release of Beychevelle at a sensible price. With its iconic label of a sailing boat, this famous Saint Julien is very popular in Asia where it is known as "Dragon Boat Wine…."

“New this morning from the Medoc, Beychevelle, which is beloved by the Far East because of its distinctive dragon boat label….”

Is it just me, but does trying to sell a wine on the basis of what’s on the label and whether or not Asian people like that label, smack slightly of desperation?

They do mention the price as being the "cheapest in the market", but in reality it's only about 15% below the 2010 release price and a staggering 100% above the 2008 release price!

There must be some objective tasting notes out there somewhere that might be better to mention….. oh yes….

“A little on the lean side and maybe slightly lacking in flesh and fruit. Not as polished and charming as usual. A touch lean and short.”
“It has crisp acidity and firm backbone with a grainy, masculine, tobacco tinged, tapered finish that is a little raw at present.”

Hmmmm……. But of course, you've always wanted a wine with a Ship on the label haven't you…..

To be honest, I don't really blame the merchants. It's the whole system whereby the Chateaux are trying to extract the maximum value before the wines enter circulation, and therefore offering minimum incentive to the final consumer that is at fault. The merchants are just middlemen, albeit getting a little desperate.

It’ll be an interesting campaign..!

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Please remain seated.....

This month's Decanter magazine landed in the postbox yesterday - complete with a special supplement on Austria and a rather complimentary review on the Moric Blaufrankisch 2010 that we import and have been raving about for a while...

19 Points and Five Stars is pretty excellent, but it's the "Remain seated though: this is just the entry level wine" that I really like!

If you want to read a bit more about Roland and his wines, have a look at a previous post on Wine Weekend - Moric - you need to scroll down through the Post.

Monday, April 30, 2012

The Irish High Street - alive and well...?

I have been on the road a lot over the past few weeks and aside from getting ever more concerned about my rapid consumption of diesel, I have been poking around the various towns I trundle through. True, the independent wine shops face determined competition from the multiples, but independence is also a great asset - encouraging flexibility, imagination and increasingly important - ingenuity!

There are a host of other categories of independent retailers that are subject to the same pressures - but I spotted one the other day that I don't think will suffer much competition from the likes of Tesco or Aldi.....

Guns and Music - now that's a novel combination!

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Three Very Different Wines (well six actually)....

What with all the travelling and sampling at this time of year, when it comes to sitting down to open an actual bottle of wine to enjoy, the selection tends to be a bit more eclectic and the hunt is always on for something a little different.

First up was something very different! Sinead is just back from Slovenia where she has been pruning the vines. An unseasonally warm start to the year meant she was late (as far as the vines were concerned!), but all seemed good by the time she left. There was also the small matter of checking our wines that had been sitting quietly in Miro's cellar all Winter. As you can see from the picture, brining samples back on the plane isn't exactly a glamorous activity - washed and sterilised baby food jars are the best option! We had the three different Modra Frankinja (Blaufrankisch) cuvees to try: "SS (Stainless Steel)" was the cold-soaked version, "Plastic" was the one fermented in open crates and "Press" was the combined press juice from the two. Of them all, the one tasting best was the "Plastic" - normal fermentation using natural yeasts in open containers - lovely complexity. The "SS" tasted much more primary, and more "juice"-like (rather than wine). The "Press" one was tainted by baby food! They still need to undergo malolactic fermentation, so some more changes to come....

All were washed down with some of our own duck breasts - a very tasty treat!

A few nights later I was rummaging around trying to find something different an I unearthed a bottle of Baudry's Franc de Pied 2002. I'm a huge fan of all the Baudry wines, and had completely forgotten we had this. It's a relatively rare/unknown cuvee made from a parcel of un-grafted (i.e. pre-phylloxera) vines in the Clos Guillot vineyard. In short, it was stunning. This would give any Bordeaux over €100 a run for the money - yet I think it cost about €10. It could pass blind as a top elegant Graves. Must try and find a few more bottles.

Finally, something purchased out of curiosity at auction: partly because I couldn't find anything particularly positive about the 1982 vintage in Burgundy and partly due to the combination of producer and vineyard. We have imported the wines of Louis Michael Liger-Belair and they are now amongst the most sought-after red Burgundies around. Yet many of the vineyards only returned to Louis Michel's direct control over the past decade - some of the most prestigious (including La Romanee) had been leased out to Bouchard. This particular Vosne 1er Cru "Aux Reignots" is now no longer bottled by Bouchard as the vineyard has reverted to Louis Michel - and so technically exists no more under this label. Amazingly it was in pristine condition, now fully mature, and an absolute joy to drink.

Three great reminders of the amazing diversity that wine can offer.

Friday, March 16, 2012

Fancy a Beer for St. Patrick's Day....?

As the Shamrock gets drowned around the World tomorrow, and as the tipple of choice is normally beer, how about this to convince you....

Actually, I stumbled across this by chance. But what fascinated me was that at the end of the clip, some other associated video options popped up and I had a look.

Wow - these guys have a serious chip on their shoulder... or a tongue placed very firmly in their cheek - I'm not sure which to be honest with you. You decide...

The Swirl

The Sniff

The Stall

As their website says "The main problem with wine is the taste..."

Gotta love marketing!

Happy St. Patrick's Day!