Sunday, 30 December 2012

NATURAL WINE: a reply to @ Jamie Goode


Doug,

 

I was interested to read your broad defence of Jamie’s position, even if it did fail to answer the specific points I raised in my post. Urging me, and for that matter Jamie, to come and float with you at wine’s discursive surface is, I’m afraid, harder than you make-out; it’s not that we can’t swim, I’m sure we both enjoy a lark in the shallows every bit as much as you, it’s just knowing that there is a world of explanations, causes and effects churning in the depths below makes some of us want to dive down deeper. When I use words like terroir and aldehydes, or consider the consequences of a lifetime spent drinking non-“natural” wines, I want to know exactly what I have committed myself to.

 

As critics, buyers and sellers of wine we come to the production process quite late on. Notwithstanding this, few of our customers share in the kind of privileged access we have to production – to the people, vineyards and landscapes – and it is incumbent upon us to represent them in an accurate and interesting way as we can. In choosing Paul Draper as an exemplar of everything that is worthy of adulation in the wine industry, I wasn’t making a cheap shot. When someone as coherent, respected and successful as Draper makes statements about typicité and terroir I find it hard to maintain objectivity, because the quality of the wines leaves little room for scepticism.

 

It’s worth reflecting on the success of Ridge Monte Bello ‘71 at the Judgement of Paris 30thAnniversary re-tasting. Producers like Draper are in many ways operating in the ugly, primordial stages of a wine’s life. Young, cloudy, CO2 saturated wine shows little congruence with the finished products that are sold to consumers or tasted by critics, yet it is during this period that most of the repercussive decisions about a wine’s future evolution are made. Rather like the Jesuit mantra which takes the boy at seven and returns the man, winemakers intervene at these early and confused stages of development to provide positive and predictable outcomes. In the case of Monte Bello, or the blending of vin clair in Champagne, the implications of these decisions are realised within an elongated temporal framework that is in a substantial way determined by the winemaking; the released bottle of Monte Bello or Blanc de Noirs is not like some capricious desert flower that blooms fitfully, rather its flowering is actively nurtured and sustained. When Paul Draper says that S02 addition is necessary for his wines to reveal their typicité, I suspect he is alluding to this very point. The ‘71 Monte Bello was as recognisable and representative of the limestone hills of Santa Cruz Mountains in 2006 as it was in 1976. Durability, it might be argued, is part of the vineyard’s intrinsic character.

 

The same nature/nurture argument can be made in a different way. Each year, candidates put themselves through the MW exam. Thirty-six wines are tasted blind, and every year candidates identify and differentiate claret from Napa Cabernet, Pauillac from Margaux, and one vintage year from another. When I took and passed the exam in 1998 I correctly identified 5 vintages of Cos d’Estournel, even though the most valuable bottle I had tasted in the six months prior to the exam had been a Château St Pierre, St Julien, 1989. There was no heavy hand of winemaking here, nor the obfuscation of origins; how could there be? Blind tasting is the ultimate test of typicité, and the Institute’s position on natural wines is that their inherent instability makes consistent identification impossible. In the year-long preamble of tastings that leads up to the exam, natural wines show too much variability; the students wouldn’t stand a chance: they are not considered a fair test of ability.  Nature alone only gets you so far, and it certainly won’t allow one to conclude that natural wines provide the best viewpoint from which to assay either typicité or terroir.

Terroir has always been one of the touchstones of the natural wine movement, and as I said at the start, it’s one of the topics that encourages me to dive through the discursive surface of wine descriptions. The late Peter A. Sichel once claimed that only a small fraction of Bordeaux’s vignoble properly had terroir, and he urged parsimony in the term’s attribution and use. For a long time he had the support of wine producing allies in the New World, who mockingly depicted terroir as either a pernicious European marketing stunt, or an apologists charter for unripe fruit and poor hygiene. But then, somewhere along the track these protagonists either gave-up on this line of attack or lost the argument, because today terroir is everywhere.

 

I have written extensively on the terroir of Burgundy, but Sichel’s home region of Bordeaux throws up some often alluded to but scarcely understood examples of terroir. The soil at Pétrus is predominantly clay, but incorporated into the clay is smectite, a volcanic mineral that dramatically changes the soil’s physical and chemical properties. Conditions within damp smectite clays are so anaerobic that new roots struggle to grow, while old roots die. Consequently, the vines' extraction of water is impeded, even though the clay can feel wet to the touch. The expansion is so dramatic that after 10mm of rainfall, the soil self-seals at its surface, so in a wet year like 1967, the vines can still be subjected to beneficial levels of water stress. Conversely, in dry years smectite clays shrink and crack, encouraging water and root penetration which, in turn, maintains a restricted but valuable flow of nutrients and water to the vine - invaluable in an anisohydric variety like merlot. This is an empirical account of how the soil at Pétrus regulates vine performance, but it’s not the full account of terroir, because it takes human intervention to shape the raw materials from the vineyard into a finished wine that contains all the identifiable tropes of Pétrus, which include homogeneity and stability, and the concomitant ability of the wines to age and plateau.

Accordingly, in Sichel’s historiographical account, we are better-off thinking of terroir from a qualitative perspective, as a tool that provides us with a means of differentiating between the quality of wines drawn from a small, circumscribed area (here, Pomerol), rather than a system of demarcation built upon regional taste. In other words, the pedological element of terroir is best applied qualitatively at the micro/vineyard level. The fruit that comes off the vine that grows up my house might yield a wine with a distinctive character, but this doesn’t mean it has terroir. Thus far, there is no differential, qualitative subdivision that needs adjudicating upon in Lyddington.

 

The meaning of terms changes over time, but terroir now seems so ubiquitous as to be rendered meaningless, which is a shame because people like Cornelius van Leeuwen at Bordeaux University are patiently building a detailed scientific account of the term as articulated by Peter Sichel. Like so much of science, huge efforts are required to move small distances, not that this discourages people like Van Leeuwen. Cheval Blanc took the decision to exclude certain vineyards traditionally incorporated into their Grand Vin as a result of Van Leeuwen’s survey of the property, which is a useful example of the way in which empirical analysis can help inform viticultural decision making for the better. The same point can be made about Paul Draper; I don’t know any winemaker who makes a more detailed study of tannin polymerisation, and while the results of these analyses don’t ultimately decide maceration lengths, racking intervals, or, indeed, SO2 additions, they do bring additional qualification to the scheduling of these procedures.

 

The global appropriation of terroir has lessons for the natural wine movement. It’s a logician’s slogan that there is “no entity without identity”, thus if you define yourself too loosely, anything goes. As far as I can work out, given that there appears to be no specific definition for what is allowed or prohibited in “natural” wine, the production of natural wine is compatible with a range of beliefs and practices whose adherents would normally be quite antagonistic towards each other, like genetic modification (GM promises disease-resistant, no-spray vines), organic production (“chemical-free” farming), or the sanctioned use of synthetic fungicides via Integrated Pest Management or so-called “sustainable” regimes (lutte raisonnée).

 

Re-joining you at the discursive surface again, it may surprise you to learn that I have bought, and will continue to buy wine from AA Pian, Cousin and Mazel; they are good wines, in fact, they are very good wines, and part of the 5% I identified in my original post. As I recall, I didn’t say all the wines were bad, I just pointed out that the natural wine movement has a long tail of unstable, acetic and, at its tip, quite horrid wine. I think it would be impossible for us to arbitrate between our respective opinions on some of these wines, although I am more than happy to concede that clumsy, heavy-handed oenology is just as capable of returning disappointing bottles.

 

My real difficulty however is with your invocation of terms like typicité, and terroir, used interchangably and as a defence of your position. You accused me of being a self-styled wine academic, but from my perspective you have misappropriated terms and then nominated yourself as the guardian of them. By countenancing instability as a price worth paying, you demean winemakers; and you deprive them their role in the remarkable aesthetic transformation that turns perishable fruit into, balanced, enduring, age-worthy wine. Ageing is a property of terroir but for you the temporal element of production risks complete evisceration. By minimizing man’s role in the terroir mix you posit a false dichotomy between winemaking and terroir. Yet terroir has always been a synergy between man and nature; without human sensibility, creativity and intervention it’s hard to see how we even get started along this dirt road in the first place.

 

Most conspicuously, the use of sulfur dioxide brings a degree of consistency to the product (as evinced by Draper), and allows blind tasters to successfully adjudicate on age, origins and grape varieties, yet this is not typicité as you construe it in your argument. You are like a painter who believes he’s done his job once the paints are mixed. From my side of the glass at least, nature is not a sufficient condition for art; terroir is qualitatively-driven; and the best test of typicité is via blind-tasting.

 

Wine is one of the more satisfying ways through which we view turbulent nature, so let’s agree to keep the chaos outside the bottle, not within it.

For Doug's response   -  

Saturday, 8 December 2012

Field trials: When nature lets you down

This was an experiment I conducted in 2011. I wanted to see what happened to Pinot Noir if  we restricted precipitation ingress through the period veraison  -3 weeks. We could detach the covers, and allow some rainfall to hit the ground, but it didn't rain.



We lifted the covers after veraison, and still it didn't rain.


No rain until harvest, in fact.

Thursday, 6 December 2012

Pétrus: a postsript

 
 
 
 
 
 





Back in 1990 I was a customer of Pétrus. I bought 24 bottles of 1989 en primeur, and sold them when the price doubled to £1000 per case, cannily entering the market before the Bordeaux bubble burst; only it never did.  At around the same time I visited the Château. After a short tour, my colleague was asked his birth year, and was either honest or stupid enough to reply “1967”.  A magnum of 1967 was summarily opened. I have drunk 64, 67, 70, 71, 82, 85, 88(twice), 90, 95, but the 67 remains the most memorable. What that says about me, storage, vintage, format and terroir I haven’t fully worked out yet.

Twenty years later I returned to Pétrus, this time by bus. The Domaine had immodestly bolstered its fortifications. Like an Edgware “semi” whose owners think erecting 2 tons of ornamental railings somehow re-configures their house as a palace, the old maison of Pétrus just seemed diminished by its new wrought iron defences. There’s an obvious need to keep unwanted visitors out (somebody from our bus was trying to get through the gates in a tangerine Wolves strip), but you would feel pretty foolish if you’d travelled across the World on a pilgrimage to Bordeaux, only to spend your time viewing the top châteaux off the tarmac. I know this because I was on the road with a group of angry Texans, who up to that point had roamed through the region’s petits châteaux drunk and unimpeded. Exclusion hadn’t figured in their plans, as it hadn’t mine. Since my last visit I’d become an MW and written a few scholarly papers on marketing, Burgundy and terroir. Wine related employment had at long last shoved holiday jobs, platitudes and lies off the bottom of my résumé; yet despite all my attempts to turn this short list of achievements into a persuasive case for entry, I couldn’t get through the gates of Pétrus for a second time. Schmucks like me and the Wolves fan needed to find satisfaction in life’s lesser extravagances, like air-conditioned coaches, on board toilet facilities and window seats.

My psycho-analyst wife told me (in a tone that sounded like a threat) that after divorce, one partner normally does well whilst the other struggles. Pétrus’s fortunes were clearly in the ascendancy, and mine had taken a dive. Once the Belgians had the Domaine to themselves; now the rest of the World was at the party. Pétrus has become a global signifier of good taste, and demonstrating this level of discrimination and discernment was never going to be cheap; too many buyers, and one seller: prices went north, and the wines went West, then East.

Good taste is enduring, built upon myths of perfection and imperishability, whereas the merely fashionable is transient. It’s hard to think of a future in which we’d say of Picasso’s les Demoiselles d’Avignon “It has had its day”. By contrast, the orange-and-blue-check Kenzo trousers I bought as a student had already had their moment when I resuscitated them off the £5 rail. Worn around college they singled me out as a guy with poor dress-sense and short legs. The durability of taste is bound-up with the imperishability of its objects, and the persistence of our desire for them.

Similarly, Bordeaux’s reputation is founded on its long-lived Crus Classés; in fact, a disproportionate part of the wine business seems dedicated to representing and projecting this particular dimension of clarets’ personality. In his excellent book “The Billionaire’s Vinegar”, Benjamin Wallace accuses the fine wine establishment of hubris. In a memorable passage, Wallace reports a Rodenstock tasting where the moderating Michael Broadbent MW dismisses one taster’s scepticism of what turned out to be blends of dud 60s vintages as inexperience with pre-phylloxera clarets. Wallace relentlessly depicts Broadbent as a posh spiv intent on blurring the boundaries between hauteur mercantilism and expertise.

Broadbent sued Random House for deformation and won, though the moratorium on the books publication only applied to the UK. The Rodenstock affair reminded us that wine is mortal. Nineteen forty-seven Cheval Blanc will never be the liquescent equivalent of Seurat’s sublime study of infinite perspective le Port de Gravelines, because wines’ chemistry is fundamentally unstable, and its pleasures perishable, albeit it an interesting way.

Those who have had a dog die on them know it’s a tough call. On the way to the vets you’re looking for those vital signs - a wet nose, a wagging tail, licks - which mean you can turn the car round. Tasting old wines is pretty much the same thing. I have attended confréries when some very old wines have been poured; and I would be honoured if Michael Broadbent chastised me for being “green” in the presence of pre-phylloxera bottles, because I have only ever drunk one: Lafite 1858. Afterwards I wrote of the wine: “We eulogised it; gave it a wake; and were careful not to say it was long-dead”. Just like an old dog kept alive for too long, we urge knackered old wines onwards into ever more decrepit futures. Wallace beat-up Broadbent because he was pompous, but like most of us he just proved fallible when faced with yet more evidence of the mortality of things. Not once in those confrérie tastings did anybody stand up and say this wine is finished, even though we often read it in each other’s eyes. 

One consequence of Pétrus inflation is that I drink less of it. The last bottle I drank was 1988, which was mine; unmistakeably mine as I’d ripped the label and botched its value. Today’s Pétrus owners are a disparate international bunch, often separated from their bonded cases by thousands of miles or on-going court proceedings, so I suspect the trend for less rather than more Pétrus in my life is set to continue. On the radio the other day I listened to a programme about Gaelic dialects dying out. Less than 100,000 speakers, and a language risks terminal decline; on this basis, I just wonder how many people in the future will have drunk enough vintages of Pétrus to pass meaningful judgements upon it. The fate of Pétrus might be like that of pre-phylloxera clarets where all the intellectual property became tied-up with too few people, and we know how that story ended-up. With this in mind, perhaps now is the right time for me to pass my verdict on Pétrus, based upon the limited number of vintages I have tasted, which is, perhaps, more than you. It’s certainly more than those I met outside the Château’s gates in 2009. Consequently, I am dedicating the remainder of this text to the drunken Texans and the Wolves supporter who in his tangerine football strip reminded me of one of those tropical birds cruelly carried away from its familiar habitat by a freak storm.

The first thing to say is that Pétrus is a serious wine; a little melancholic even; and it doesn’t always show well against other top growths – unlike Haut-Brion, say. Instead, it lurks in the shadows, and when every other wine has contributed it’s all to the evening’s merriment, it’s still there, brooding, like Mr Darcy in a glass. I once served the 1988 to friends, together with Vieux Château Certan 98. I’d bought a case of the Vieux Château Certan 98, and just one bottle of the Pétrus. Through the evening, everyone agreed that the Vieux Château Certan was much the better wine, and such great value in comparison; it was joyous, and just seemed to donate every last drop of itself towards the purposes of our pleasure. When all our guests had left, I cleaned up the kitchen, except for a pair of glasses that held a fraction of each wine. The Vieux Château Certan seemed spent (we really couldn’t have asked any more of it), but that damned meniscus of Pétrus, the wine I had underestimated to my cost before, was still smouldering away; resolutely knocking its point home; filling me with doubt.

And what does Pétrus taste of? Like wine; like Bordeaux; like Pomerol, really - though there is a difference. Fundamentally, it’s the same stuff: merlot, oak, plums, silk, and sweetness; the silty-scent of time’s passage; yet the elements appear bonded together into a unique configuration, as if to create a bolder and more robust allotrope of Pomerol; and it’s this statuesque quality that makes Pétrus such an enigma to me. Before the Rodenstock affair I thought all wine was mortal, whilst afterwards I knew it was; except it feels like nobody told the people at Pétrus that the game was up. In Disney’s telling of Cinderella, everything starts reverting back at midnight: the coach becomes a pumpkin again, and the fat mouse is back in his rags; but the slipper carries on, keeping the story alive. The palace ball is a preamble. Patience is rewarded: The Prince gets his princess, just as Mr Darcy turns out to be the good guy; and an hour after our dinner guests had left that night, I quietly admitted to myself, in a dark corner, that the 88 Pétrus was the better wine.

Psychoanalysts, my wife included, will tell you that the best stories don’t so much frustrate desire, as postpone satisfaction. The 67 Petrus I drank in Pomerol was the most compelling wine I have tasted from the Estate, because at 23 years of age it was ready to drink. If you are born in 1967, then the normal wine trade practice is to age yourself by a year, and make your hosts open a 66. But believe me you don’t need to do this at Pétrus , if you ever get in, that is.

Pétrus may stoke the embers of old wine trade tales about wine immortality, but it also slays one particular myth that has been doing the rounds for far too long.  I was always told Bordeaux’s best vineyards have deep roots, which somehow access a hidden trove of deeply buried minerals. The soil at Pétrus is predominantly clay, but incorporated into the clay is smectite, a volcanic mineral, that dramatically changes the soil’s physical and chemical properties. Conditions within damp smectite clays are so anaerobic that new roots struggle to grow, while old roots die. Consequently, the vines struggle to extract water from the soil despite the fact the clay feels wet to the touch. The expansion is so dramatic that after 10mm of rain, the soil self-seals at its surface, so in wet year like 1967, the vines can still be subjected to beneficial levels of water stress. Conversely in dry years, smectite clays shrink, and crack, encouraging water and root penetration, which in turn, maintain a restricted but valuable flow of nutrients and water to the vine. This is terroir, for those who were beginning to see it everywhere they looked.

Pétrus is, then, both icon and iconoclasm. It is the exemplar of terroir, and deserves distinction; but at what cost? For most drinkers the wine has effectively become priceless, and they’ve been out the game for a long time, which is disappointing. We sometimes need to catch a resemblance of a region’s best wines in more affordable bottles, so we can appreciate their qualities better. This inflation in value has made fortunes for some, and ruined the reputations of others, making the English wine trade look like a school for scoundrels at the same time. It was large Pétrus formats that finally exposed Rodenstock’s fraud, when Moueix audited their records and found they hadn’t made Imperials in the 1921 and 1928 vintages; though Rodenstock’s fraud now looks insignificant next to recent revelations of Asian warehouses full of counterfeit bottles. The prospect of spending fortunes on bottles and them not being authentic is very real; not that this will bother everyone. The only time I tried 1982 Pétrus, was after I’d listed it at a smart London hotel restaurant. A woman came into the restaurant alone. She ordered à la carte, and then picked a bottle each of Krug Rosé and Pétrus 82 off the wine list. She took a sip of both wines, paid the bill and left. We were all bemused, until the receptionist worked out that her husband was staying in the hotel that night, but he wasn’t alone, and he wasn’t with her. Ouch!

Monday, 19 November 2012

Which tasting notes will help my red wine age?


 
 

 












On passing the MW you are required to participate in the Institute’s education programme, and as part of this obligation I spent several days marking students tasting notes. The best notes were deductive - the Institute has an exacting approach to notation – whilst the worst answers just kept on plundering a limited lexicon of descriptions, like a still-life artist condemned to rearranging and painting the same bowl of fruit over and over and over again.

Subjecting nouns to this sort of functional and metaphorical shift in usage is meat and drink to the wine trade. Anyone who has ever stood-up in front of a crowd of diners with a glass of wine in hand knows nothing pacifies a drunken mob better than the timely naming of a fruit: “raspberries here”, “plums”, “blackcurrants” etc , and it’s tempting to think the better the wine the more elaborate and more exotic these depictions must be. Yet it seems that just as you can induce a trance by staring into a mirror for too long, so continually hanging your nose over the same wine will eventually bring-on olfactory hallucinations. How else can we possibly account for people conjuring up such queasy mixes as cassis, cherries, bacon-fat, Asian-spices, pepper, liquorice and garrigue within one glass? And at what point does wine tasting become legalised solvent abuse?

Often tagged onto these longer notes are “drinking windows”, and it’s not unusual to find that there is a correspondence between the over-endowment of descriptors and the number of years to peak maturity. Discursiveness and ageing potential seem inextricably linked.   You think its complex now, blah, blah, blah, Asian spices, blah? Well, you ain’t seen nothing yet! 2025-blah.

Somewhat against the trend, I am increasingly persuaded that ageing potential follows on from wines’ homogeneity rather than the faux-complexity found by over-zealous tasters. In my recent blog on Otago (The Heart of Lightness) I drew out the differences as I saw them between Otago and the Cote de Nuits:   

"Depending on your point of view, a prism either scatters light into its constituent wavelengths or refocuses them back into a single beam. Loosely applied, this seems a reasonable analogy for the differences I tasted between the Pinot Noir of Felton Rd and the wines of Vosne Romanée; viticulture, vinification, elevage, maturation, and polymerisation act like a lens in Burgundy, drawing everything to a point, whereas at Felton Rd, the studied application of the same techniques produces a hugely varied palate."

If you taste red burgundy whilst feigning ignorance of its appellation divisions, then the wines can be categorized according to the purity and intensity of the rather singular red fruit character they possess, and the extent to which the rustic counterpoint to this fruitiness is replaced by condensed and soluble tannins. In other words, the trend towards homogenisation is a good sign in young red burgundy. In fact, I would go as far as to say that the ageing potential for Pinot Noir is inseparable from this process of youthful coalescence.

And why stop with Burgundy. The best wines of Pomerol can have a lozenge-like softness. I recently wrote of Vieux Chateau Certan it was “Blissfully simple”, which might sound like I was damning the wine with faint praise, when in fact I was utterly entranced.

Richard Smart taught us that deep shade is the enemy of high quality wine production, and since he first published “Sunlight into Wine” we have been slowly learning about the intricacies of the relationship between light exposure and wine style.  At first, sunlight exposure and long hang-times sounded like good prescriptions in cool and temperate climates, yet the more I taste and compare wines drawn from different hemispheres and continents, the more convinced I am that long exposure to direct and diffuse UV builds flavour at the expense of homogeneity. Chilean Pinot might taste of blackberries, cherries, rhubarb, coffee, ivy and resin, but it’s hard to work out how wines inclined towards such youthful divergence will do anything other than fracture further apart with age. Far from being the prerequisite for ageing, youthful complexity perhaps mitigates against anything but future decline.







 
 

Monday, 12 November 2012

Otago: The Heart of Lightness

 







  










The flight from London to New Zealand is the closest I will ever come to intergalactic travel. On my last trip I stayed for 4 days. After a weekend in the air, the plane touched down in Queenstown late on a Sunday afternoon. Saturday had been lost, light turned into darkness, 24hrs whittled down into a quick bowl of soy-drenched noodles in Hong Kong.
At the airport urinals, flanked by two giant Polynesians, the three of us pressed together like the pipes of a church organ, I pondered Darwin’s observation that evolution encourages diversity rather than dominance, and that Nature likes a niche, and one size really doesn’t fit all. I wasn’t built for oceanic migrations, they weren’t built for airline seats, and all three of us were too tall to dock effectively with the low-slung porcelain bowls in front of us. The man to the right of me seemed intent on making a particularly personal statement about the shortcomings of standardisation by recklessly  hosing my hand-luggage. The horror!
Queenstown offers geography in the raw: mountains, lakes, rivers, lenticular clouds and adrenaline-filled rides between them; but most importantly, it held out the prospect of sleep. I rolled into bed at 10pm, only to find that the Boeing’s west-to-east navigation had wedged a void of space-time between me and unconsciousness. I switched on the AM radio, and caught the tail-end of some irate exchanges about the Chinese taking Kiwi jobs, and rallying calls to resist the New World order of slave cities and poorly made white goods. Calm was restored by a record break, Allan Sherman’s ”Hello Muddah, Hello Faddah” followed by “Big John”. The combination of moribund songs and fury was reminiscent of my childhood. the scene was set for 70s punk to explode into these angry famers' 21st Century lives.
The following day I drove out to Cromwell, past Chard Farm and through Gibbston Valley. The day’s first visit was Mt Difficulty, where all the money seemed to have been spent on the smart new canteen. I tried a few uncared for bottles, ullaged by out of season visitors, but the guy pouring them still seemed zombified by summer’s mass influx of tasters. When I asked him about oak handling, he replied that “the wine showed good fruit”; and he reacted to my question about “malo” by pointing me toward the male loos.
Next-door to Mt. Difficulty is Felton Road, where I was greeted by the expansive Nigel Greening. Immediately Nigel started referencing France and Germany, making anecdotal associations between his vineyards and the finest terroirs of Vosne and the Mosel. One of his pets, I soon found out, was called “Jancis”. Minimizing degrees of separation seemed to be at the bottom of nearly everything Nigel said, and after half an hour I concluded that all Europe had contributed to the making of Felton Road in one way or another.
Vineyards at Felton Rd are called “blocks”. At Mt Difficulty the viticulture had been slapdash, whereas the “blocks” were immaculate: shoots of even length and even vigour carrying similar amounts of crop. Nigel went into considerable detail about biodynamic production: goats, hawks, cover crops, preps; yet, as ever, the whole reasoned panoply of self-contained production seemed at odds with the accompanying anti-enlightenment yarns about totemic animals. The conversation went from a reasoned and visible account of the workings of an enclosed agricultural system to absurd anthroposophical flights of fancy. The goats were doing a good recycling job, that much I could see, but by the time Nigel had finished I was prepared for a bleating chorus of Odl-lay odl-lay odl-lay hoo! hoo! 
Despite all of Nigel’s attempts to lock them together like the north and south poles of a magnet, Otago isn’t Burgundy. The first wine we tried was a Chardonnay. Someone whose name meant nothing to me had likened this to “Montrachet” I was told, but it wasn’t. Wild fermentation had supplemented the simple citrus nose with flavours of yeast and barley. It was a good wine, quite acidulous, and a fitting reward for all the hours spent in the vineyards.  Next we had a pair of Pinot Noirs, Felton Rd Estate and Block 5. Nigel got into his stride about how they had identified thin seams of calcareous gravel within the schist, and the roots had threaded along these, so despite the fact Bannockburn’s geology seemed very different from the Côte de Nuits, the cameo appearance of marl had contrived to make them twins of a sort. As I tasted the wines, Nigel reiterated the cross-hemispherical connection with an anecdote about draught horses ploughing la Tâche, but my memories of hideously extended air travel were all too raw for this.  
Otago is cooler and drier than Burgundy, it’s also geologically younger. At the height of summer the bleached karst scenery of the Côte d’Or can evoke the Midi, whilst Otago in February still looks periglacial, with fast moving streams icily under lit by refracted blue/green light. But stepping out into the late “Central” summer the most striking contrast is not the landscape but the luminance; New Zealand’s sun seems nearer and hotter, like the encroaching star of an apocalyptic sci-fi novel. 
“Sunlight into Wine” was one of the seminal texts of my MW studies, and inevitably it influenced my tasting of Felton’s Pinot Noir. Not only is irradiance 40% higher in Otago than it is in Burgundy, but the lateness of the harvest means bunches hang in the sunlight for longer. What struck me about both the Felton Rd and Block 5 was the range of flavours; there were black fruits, red fruits, rhubarb, citrus, ivy, oak and spice; in fact, if wine quality was measured by the lexicon of descriptors a single variety could inspire, then Otago Pinot would be slugging it out with Californian Zinfandel and Barossa Shiraz for best in show. The contrast with the Côte de Nuits could not be greater. The finest red burgundies show homogeneity in fruit character, their flavours pretty much tow in the same direction and the attribution of quality is in part a measure of the intensity this red fruit element attains; the lasting impression is something like a perfectly sustained piano note, rather than a damped chord. By contrast, the Block 5 separated into a range of different flavours, a melange of tart, ripe, overripe and spicy characters that were all vying for my attention.  
Depending on your point of view, a prism either scatters light into its constituent wavelengths or refocuses them back into a single beam. Loosely applied, this seems a reasonable analogy for the differences I tasted between the Pinot Noir of Felton Rd and the wines of Vosne Romanée; viticulture, vinification, elevage, maturation, and polymerisation act like a lens in Burgundy, drawing everything to a point, whereas at Felton Rd, the studied application of the same techniques produces a hugely varied palate.
After Felton Road, I called in at Burn Cottage. Where Nigel had managed to make biodynamics sound like la dolce vita, Jarryd Connelly played out the role of the ascetic priest: filthy finger nails, crumpled, his hands buried up to the elbows in preps, he was some of Kurt Vonnegut’s mud that happened to sit-up. When I first met Jarryd he was hand-weeding 60,000 vines, though he subsequently sent me an e:mail asking my thoughts on the potential benefits of weed stress on young vines (There are none.)  The wines are made by Claire Mulholland and Ted Lemon, a formidable team, and the first vintage of their Pinot was more subtle than Felton Road’s, though I’m not sure subtlety is what one should necessarily expect or even strive for in Otago.
Wanaka is more humid than Cromwell, and its rainfall totals are not dissimilar to Burgundy’s, but the high irradiance levels still rip moisture out of the soil faster than it can be replenished. Rippon Vineyard borders Lake Wanaka, and the views to Mt Cook arguably make it the World’s most photogenic vineyard, but don’t be fooled into thinking this idyll is incapable of doing useful work.
Nick Mills took over Rippon from his pioneering father. Nick worked a few vintages in Burgundy, and spent long enough at DRC to tell me their viticulture wasn’t the best he’d seen, though the wines were something else. Nick wasn’t unctuous; he was spare with his commentary. He gauges how much he needs to tell  you from the rigour of your questioning. Like Burn Cottage and Felton Rd, Rippon is biodynamic, and as part of the tour I was taken to the estate’s fermenting compost piles; in fact, we spent 40 minutes with the compost, which made me think that Nick was deliberately trying to break the spell of the vista. Compost is essential to Rippon, not least because Nick dry farms the older vineyards. Pinot Noir seems to show at its best when the supply of water and nutrients is uninterrupted, and the magnitude of the compost piles proved this balance was hard earned.
Rippon’s Pinot Noir did seem more homogeneous than Felton Rd’s: it was softer and less exotic; but the preference for one estate over the other is a matter of individual taste. I liked Nick a lot too.  At the end 16,000 miles of travel you need to be inspired, because you’re a wreck, and Nick did this. After 3 hours at Rippon, I got back into my car, returned to Queenstown and did what I had wanted to do for the previous 3 days, slept until morning.   


Saturday, 13 October 2012

MW Students of the World Unite


I think it’s about time you organised a student revolt. One of the frustrations with the MW when I took it was that in the absence of anybody being confident about teaching  the “content” of the theory papers, the institute obsessed with “schema”.  This seems to have become worse. The dissertation in becoming a “proxy MA”, is in danger of testing methodological competence at the expense of commercial, viticultural and enological interest, in the same way that MAs only really exist to get you into good habits before you’re let loose on more meaningful research. The MW is not a proving ground for PHDs and Post-Docs, but it does rely upon a lot of hard work from examiners and mentors, and I just wonder what is in it for them if the dissertations and study yield such barren and piecemeal conclusions.  
 
 

Tuesday, 9 October 2012

Once a Master of Wine, always................







Bernard Schoffit was the first winemaker I chaperoned around London. Bernard turned out to be an an exemplary Alsacean: he looked like an athletic lover and, if needed, could wrestle a bear to the ground. He was a judo black belt, a force of nature, with an appetite to match; one night in Colmar, he ordered so much Vendange Tardive Pinot Gris and choucroute I woke up with moobs, and for a short while afterwards became completely intolerant of any kind of meat, fruit or vegetables.

Two months later, Bernard came to London.  We spent the day enthusiastically introducing his Domaine to journalists and restaurateurs, but every time I got a whiff of his Vendange Tardive Pinot Gris I came over all queasy, the potency of involuntary memory pinging me back to Colmar’s bloating pigfest. Bernard was sickening too. For ten hours he manfully struggled with our language whilst stubbornly refusing our hospitality and food. The aura of constant hunger and lust that surrounded him in the Vosges had become tarnished by his day in the City. Like Elliot when he found ET floundering in the drain, I felt an overwhelming need to get my fading guest “home”.

That evening, as an aperitif, I had lined-up a range of Australian wines for Bernard to taste. With its umlauts and spired-bottles, Alsace is a winemaking backwater, so I thought I’d give Bernard his first opportunity to try Clare Shiraz, Margaret River Cabernet and Hunter Semillon. We would then go for a curry, another novelty, as Colmar didn’t even have a kebab house, and lamb jalfrezi sounded mercifully pork and cabbage-free to me.

We drank some good wines: an old Magill Shiraz, Cullen Cabernet/Merlot, Tyrell’s Hunter “Riesling” and Grange. I waited for the epiphany, the shot of fruity L-DOPA that would free Bernard from all the volkgeist and chauvinisme that until that moment had “France” fulfilling every one of his vinous needs. But our tasting passed without acclaim or enthusiasm: “Fruit juice, not wine”, was his  withering appraisal. The ten year-old Grange got the highest accolade of the night: “Pas mal”. The curry didn’t fare any better. Perhaps Bernard was put-off by the novelty colours and the refracting film of cohesive-ghee that made tiny atolls out of his coral-dyed chicken; or maybe he thought that the dented stainless-steel dishes had once trafficked excised organs to the hospital furnaces. Either way, Bernard hardly touched his food. It was as if he was trying to protect his own rarefied sense of gewürz (spicy) from the thuggish assault of masala-sauce and the garnet meat of the kheema naan. The hot white towel could not have come soon enough: a steaming flag of surrender, hastily unfurled.

During the 1980s, the emergence of California, Australia and Chile as wine producing nations had flung open the doors of wine consumption, and I’d charged through. For me, France no longer owned “wine” in the same way it had done for previous generations.  For all Bernard’s dawn’til dusk encounters with vines, I felt that I was more open-minded and better informed than him. Alsace is, after all, geographically isolated from the rest of France. At the same time, Robert Parker seemed to be having similar sorts of arguments over his 100 point scoring system, which offered a degree of equivalence between regions and continents.

This unequivocal attitude got me through the Master of Wine examination. Identifying 36 unknown wines requires that you ditch the aesthetic for the ascetic.   You can’t spend precious exam time atomically splitting Meursault and Puligny, and they don’t hand-out marks for genuflection no matter how good the Monte Bello tasted. I wanted “bankers”, easily recognisable wines: Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc, Crozes-Hermitage and, if it came to it, Vendange Tardive Pinot Gris, as long as I got that wave of identifying nausea when I nosed the liquid. The only wine that fazed me in the exam was Cos d’Estournel 1990, which caused an inappropriate rush of excitement, the stirring of something deeply repressed, like those bewildering endocrinal pangs that must come to wild animals that are born in zoos. Five vintages of Cos correctly identified. The red wine paper was a triumph. Something in the genes my mum said; our pre-historic ancestors must have smelt terrible to each other, I thought.

There is an inevitable period of re-tox after the exam. I went to work in Champagne, off to the blurry world of blends and brands. It seemed an opt-out from all those choices the exam presented me with, but like a fervent Buddhist I found something enlightening in this singularity.

Blends are the nemesis of blind tasting. It’s hard enough remembering all those grape varieties, let alone their possible combinations, and in Champagne the mix of grape varieties, villages and years is endless. I was well practised in deciding between continents, so when I was given 10 Montagne de Reims vin clair to taste, my palate went numb. They were all Pinot Noir, and all from Champagne, two facts that together negated any contribution I could bring to the on-going blending discussion. In pursuit of the MW, I had visited New Zealand, Chile and Australia. I had offered unsolicited advice to Chilean winemakers, warning them of the dangers of reduction; and told one of New Zealand’s top Pinot Noir producers to replant his vineyards. Before I took the exam these put upon souls must have been sticking pins into “John” effigies, but the voodoo either didn’t work or veered into the examinee next to me whose glasses all smashed to the ground, spilling the Cos. By contrast, our cellar master rarely left Champagne. Verzenay, Oger and Bouzy marked the limits of his world. His authority was necessarily circumspect. We were both in the business of authenticating identity, except he was working with finger prints where I was making do with the Bumper Book of Flags.

When you bake bread you don’t want to overdo the eggs and butter, or else your baps might turn into scones. Similarly, the tirage is not a post-harvest potlatch into which you empty everything that’s in the cupboards. Like electro-magnetism, certain elements attract each other, whilst others repel. Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of this blending process is the fact that it’s a preamble to a second fermentation. In Bordeaux, blends between Merlot and Cabernet are pretty much stabilised before they go into bottle, whilst young Champagne is charged with yeast and sugar, primed for its next round of tumultuous reactions, and then crown-capped.

The prise de mousse brings amplification in character and style. Full-bodied wines will end-up lumbering, and blends that are tired at the outset will taste oxidised. Your starting point necessarily dictates the character of the finished wine. Get it right, and you boost the intensity and flavour of the wine, but not necessarily its vinosity.  

Studying these neglected facts of Champagne’s production closely, I came to realise that the region has a strong qualitative connection with the rest of France. In particular, there exist a range of minerally-salty flavours that not only dominate Champagne, but also underscore the wines of the Loire, Burgundy and the Haut Medoc. (Think of the difference between Badoit and tap water.) At times this seasoning can seem overdone, its bitter element can reinforce unripe phenolic characters, particularly when acids are high, but in the Grands Crus of Burgundy and the Crus Classes of Bordeaux this mineral element not only adds flavour, but it enhances and fortifies the other tastes of the wine too.

Two things came out of this appreciation: firstly, that the Echelle system pretty much measures the intensity of this mineral element, and relates it back to chalk; and secondly, that throughout my MW tastings this particular property, shared by some of France’s finest wines, had eluded me.  It needed a long and myopic encounter between me and Champagne to reveal itself. 

These thoughts take me back to Bernard, and the lack of appreciation he showed for the trousseau of Australian wines we tasted before the disastrous curry. Bernard was prejudiced precisely because his experience of global wine production was so limited. He judged the wines by what they lacked, whilst I was busily enthusing about what they had. One of the real challenges of the MW exam is to shed yourself of preconceptions. I often thought that the lack of regular exposure to Crus Classes and Grands Crus might disadvantage me in the exam, but it probably meant I was usefully impartial to what was in my glass, which is the prerequisite for success in blind tasting.

Thirteen years on from passing the MW, the once wide-open doors of the New World are now almost completely closed to me. Only Ridge slips through with any regularity. Like Bernard, I am hopelessly neurotic in my wine preferences, and France pretty much has the run of our house: Chablis and Champagne in the summer, and Chambolle  from autumn to spring. Once you start drinking wines from above 47 degrees north, you stop flying south for  the winter. It is difficult to imagine a wine exam that could be harder than the MW, the gradients at times seem impossibly steep, but like climbing any ladder, the real revelations come when you finally get to kick the rungs away.

 

 

Saturday, 29 September 2012

Is this the problem with 2005 Red Burgundy?






Figure 1 Water deficits in mm: 2009vs2005vslongterm trend. Cote de Nuits
 
 



Below (Angleterroir? post) I drew attention to the water requirements of anisohydric grape varierties – pinot noir, syrah, merlot – and the fact that in non-irrigated regions they can be acutely sensitive to droughts, whereas isohydric vines – cabernet sauvignon, grenache  - can better regulate and maintain vine water status through control of leaf stomatal aperture.  We might extrapolate from this that in Bordeaux, cabernet has a greater overall affinity with the region's rapidly drying sand and shingle soils than does merlot, and (Angleterroir? post) this might account for the  synergy between merlot and the smectite clays of Petrus.

In 2005, Burgundy’s summer was very dry, though spring rainfall levels had been plentiful. Through July and August the difference between vine evapotranspiration and precipitation became acute, reaching levels that would ordinarily impair vine metabolic function and nutrient uptake (P at flowering; Mg/K/Ca between flowering and veraison). The vines that were best able to cope with this drought-regime would have been those that had access to a supplementary source of water. The proximity of limestone aquifers, and their capacity to capillary feed moisture into the overlying soils would have been hugely advantageous in the CdN's better Crus, whilst superficially rooted vineyards planted on deeper soils may have much been less tolerant of the anomylous climatic conditions.  
It will be interesting to follow the fortunes of the vintage, which when it came to market was highly acclaimed. It may well be that for the reasons outlined above, the wines turn out to far less consistent than was originally thought. 






 

 

Wednesday, 26 September 2012

Soil Moisture: Tixover Vineyard


This is the latest from the vineyard AG sensor. It shows the impact of the recent rain on soil moisture levels. We still need to calibrate it against soil moisture availability, because it is one of the truisms of soil hydrology that water capacity and availability are not the same. Late rainfall is an issue for UK vineyards because it relieves hydric stress precisely at the point when you need it to add impetus to ripening. 

 

Tuesday, 25 September 2012

Three Vinetrail Loire Whites


 

“Pineau d’Aunis” is not “Pinot d’Aunis”. Homonyms ain't what they used to be. I no longer confuse “new” with “knew”, but in accepting Richard Kelley MW’s invitation to taste Pineau d’Aunis, I muddled-up the novel with the familiar. Pinot d’Aunis sounded much more interesting.

“No! Pineau. P-I-N-E-A-U. Red chenin; it’s blended with Arbois to make a Rosé…in Cheverny; and they make a red wine out of it near Jasnières: Coteaux du Vendômois”

As Richard spoke, the river I thought I knew spilled free of its mapped basin, adding tributaries and vineyards as it surged. I had always thought that Robin Yapp had done a meticulous Victorian job cataloguing and collecting the complete genus of Loire chenin, but Richard’s obsession seemed as boundless as the new river he was describing.

Pineau d’Aunis has the flavour and bitterness of chicory, I soon learnt; and not much “red” colour.  It could easily be one of those wartime proxies; an ersatz “cabernet franc” to wash down the lard “butter” and margarine “chocolate”.  One of the wines we tasted was bio, which seemed a pointless hardship for the producer as it was the worst of the lot. Everything had been tried, but nothing so far seemed to be working. Pineau d’Aunis is a hateful glass of wine; that’s really all there is to say.

Richard may not have identified the source of the Loire for me, but in Vendômois he had brought me to its nadir, the place where this giant vignoble finally bottoms-out. French wine production has a broad base, there is viticultural life below Muscadet and gros plant, it’s just we don’t very often get to taste it, unless you get lost south of Le Mans. Being at the foot of the pyramid is tough, but in France you either fit in or ship-out. If you find yourself at the bottom of life’s pile, La Répubique will normally find a way of aggrandising your useless job into a pensionable profession; whilst the reward for not planting pinot noir in the Vendômois was Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée status, granted in 2001. Authenticating the bad can sometimes accentuate the good. 

“Travelling” through life facing backwards” is a Chinese maxim, but it might equally well apply to France, where “the past” and “tradition” always seem to be plonked down squarely in front of you, so it’s a relief to come across wines from ambitious growers “who are challenging conventions and perceptions”; which is how the Muscadet of Domaine de la Quilla was introduced to me. The wine underlined the fact that Muscadet and Chardonnay are genetic twins whose personalities occasionally overlap. A long lunch had left me feeling like I'd been shoved into my lounge suit, a snugness duplicated by the la Quilla, which packed a lot of wine into the glass. Tasted blind, I would have guessed Chablis; it was voluminous, and lacking in that abrasive sea-air tang that ordinarily singles Muscadet out.  

The second wine I tried was Sauvignon de Tourraine “le Petiot” 2011, from Domaine Ricard. I’ve always drunk Sancerre and Pouilly-Fume, but as a single variety, sauvignon had to register success in the Southern Hemisphere before I began to appreciate wines from closer to home. On a rainy day “le Petiot” gave my mood a lift: a chlorophyll-loaded draught of spring that chased away the gloom. It had power, too, its character pressing out from within, as is the way with all the better wines from this latitude. Back in New Zealand, sauvignon’s simple pleasures are being increasingly overlooked, lost beneath the hubris of research and analysis; a postmodern wine blight, if you will.   All these people troubling themselves with what I want, when all I really care about is having a choice. The same might be said for la Quilla’s wine too. Isn’t Muscadet supposed to be an austere wine that needs the support of local shellfish and the Vendéen sunshine to show at its best? Versatility comes at a cost, starting with a loss of identity.

The last of Vinetrail’s Loire whites was the Montlouis-sur-Loire “Premier Rendez-Vous” 2010, from Lise and Betrand Jousset. I had drunk this wine before, at L’Enclume, with their eight course tasting menu.  L’Enclume’s food is consistently beautiful. Each plate is like a still life. There are elements of draughtsmanship in the presentation, neat rhomboids of fish and meat that you don’t really want to demolish. It is a treat for the senses, but perilous territory for wine. Jousset’s Montlouis was perfect; to the rich dishes it brought texture and a firm acidity, while its flavours of quince and barley didn’t overwhelm the Morecambe Bay cockles. If a course ever wanted for seasoning, there is a lick of saltiness from all the underlying limestone, though Simon Rogan’s food really needs no amendment.

I neglect the Loire, perhaps because my point of entry for most regions is through their red wines. Huge volumes of Loire cabernet franc sluice though Parisian wine bars, but I find the wines  a little back-to-front, just like that Chinese maxim: the flavours I want in the background are in the foreground, and all those tight tannins can cause the wines to finish before they ever get started.  Pineau d’Aunis did nothing to change my opinion of Loire reds, but I have decided to buy a TomTom, just in case I find myself lost near Vendômois, on the way to Montlouis-sur-Loire .

 

Saturday, 15 September 2012

The River Cottage Canteen, Axminster




We shouldn’t be surprised that “The River Cottage Canteen” sounds a lot like the “The River Café Canteen”, the latter is one of Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s almae matres (Eton and St Peter’s College, Oxford being the others), though he left under a cloud after just eight months. Indicatively, eight months in a restaurant is about the time it takes to go from dishwashing to glass polishing, and these responsibilities might have hastened Hugh’s downfall. Perhaps, like Narcissus, he just became too obsessed with his own image isometrically projected onto the posh Riedel glassware, a big face on a small bowl; and maybe in these moments of studied reflection he and his employers simultaneously saw another future for Hugh, one that required him to leave the River Café with immediate effect.

The River Café’s loss was Channel 4’s gain. There have been nine series of The River Cottage, which in terms of broadcast hours and screen time puts Hugh right-up there with the likes of Rodney and Del Boy. Better still, for Hugh, are all the spin-offs that come from the series: a stack of books, two Canteens and a cookery school. Nobody seriously wanted to follow the Trotters into Nelson Mandela House, but we all want a piece of Hugh and his living, breathing larder. Just like one of those battery hens that Hugh is always trying to save, The River Cottage just keeps on laying.

The success of the BBC’s Pot Black was put down to the advent of colour TV, when the snooker balls finally broke-free from all the black and white camouflage. Likewise, the nine series of The River Cottage have coincided with the arrival of bigger, surround-sound versions of the sitting-room TV. Over nine years, Hugh’s image has become engorged by plasma, his veg impossibly green, and the instruction to boycott the value-aisles sounds like a personalised message to me and our dog, Roly. Because The River Cottage isn’t just family viewing with the foul-mouthed gags of the celebrity guests edited out along with the Dorset rain and fog: as with all the campaigning, it crosses the species divide.

My wife’s interest in River Cottage isn’t the same as the dog’s and mine. She loves the japes, the guests, the “vintage” affectation, and the forager camping it up in the hedgerows. She seemed saddened by Hugh’s recent haircut; maybe she just wanted to run her hands through those draping curls that in HD resembled a pair of dagged spaniels’ ears.  If Hugh wanted someone for Elope to River Cottage she would be there with Roly, who seems fixated by the story of the piglets; after hours of viewing and repeats his feeble dog mind has pieced together a chronology of events that runs like a children’s rhyme, weeners-pigman-knackerman-pork. Together, on the sofa, as man and dog, we have become obsessed with the crisp, marmaladey rinds of “Spice” and “Baby” that appear from Hugh’s antique Aga; the mouth-watering golden sunset of fat at the end of the hour-long River Cottage day.

The Axminster Canteen lies on the East Devon border, but most importantly it provided me with an opportunity to play the top predator at the head of River Cottage’s televised food chain. John Updike, once asked the question “Why does Nature demand so much fucking?” and after nine series of The River Cottage and the incessant comings and goings of the pigman and the slaughterman I have realised that it’s not Nature but people like me who are driving this crazed treadmill of bestial sex and mortality. From the very start, Hugh may have been developing a well-reasoned argument for improving animal welfare, but from my side of the television screen, the amber vision of all that crackling had begun to possess me. Axminster was destined to be an epic encounter between me and the three little pigs. Waiting at the table, I conjured-up the movements of the slaughterman, urging him through the gates of River Cottage, and then parking him up, over by the sty.

Endlessly repeated episodes of The River Cottage had brought me to this point. I looked around the restaurant: there was no Hugh, and no sign of the Chef whose whiskers seem forever stuck in that scratchy stage. Perhaps they were at Tesco, or the new Dorchester Poundland; another campaign, with Hugh foisting himself like the Ancient Mariner on Axminster’s shoppers as they sleepwalked their way towards the brutalised BOGOF carcasses. The shame was that if they had been at the Canteen, then surely they wouldn’t have allowed my food to come out as it did. Long roasting should bring a sepia tint to a haunch, but this pig’s fat had been braised into a mottled, pale ghost of my expectations; whilst the veg appeared as blanched and colourless as the snooker balls on those old black and white TVs.

I suspect the latest series of The River Cottage will be much like the old one. When I think of West Dorset now, I don’t think of Hugh’s husbandry, or the personable forager; instead, I think of deep space, and whorls of stars spiralling towards an abysmal fate. Just as black holes drag everything into themselves, distorting time and space, so The River Cottage sucks everything in, before filtering and spitting it out the other side.  I feel like I’m being fed something Hugh has already chewed-over in attempt to make it seem more palatable, like baby food, only it tastes like that pulped gruel they served me at Axminster. Daft professions, old utensils, the Citroen 2CV, yurts, jam-making, things out of their time and place, all mashed together, whilst the world beyond of Vauxhalls, bad jobs and Hugh’s wife seems strangely absent.

If I’m down on Hugh it’s because I was disappointed with his food, yet at home I am the only dissenter. My wife, daughters and dog still enjoy the show, and a happy family is as important to me as happy pigs and chickens are to Hugh. After nine years the wheels had come off the Trotters' Reliant Robin, yet the River Cottage keeps on rolling along. Being good at something requires dedication. Hugh spent eight months trying to be a chef, and eight years making TV programmes. The continuing popularity and re-commissioning of his show underlines the fact he is rather good at the latter. Just make sure you don’t confuse the River Cottage Canteen with the fabulous River Café Canteen, or think Hugh is a great chef, because he isn’t.