Sunday, 25 June 2006

My Round: Richard Ehrlich cracks two cases of oenological obsession

Published: 25 June 2006 in The Independent on Sunday

Who would choose to go into the wine business? By and large, it remains people who love wine. I've talked recently to two people working in very different areas of the wine industry, and both fit that description to a T. One is a Dutch wine enthusiast named David Bolomey, whose website (http://www.bordoverview.com/) I first learnt about from the excellent wine blog at http://www.spittoon.biz/. David hasn't yet made a penny from his arduous labours. But they have certainly paid off for us wine drinkers - or for those who like to buy the wines of Bordeaux en primeur.

The 2005 vintage has attracted loads of enthusiastic comment from all the people who cover this area. How do you find out what they're saying, without buying every single publication where they're published? By going to David's website. He has assembled a list of the major estates with rankings from most leading commentators. Using a system developed in his work for a Dutch financial consultancy, he has spent countless unpaid evenings gathering data for his database. "I did it because I love buying en primeur," he says, "but used to spend a long time looking for information. So I thought, 'Why not make an overview and search for myself?'"

David is unsure of how he'll make money from his work, adding: "I don't want to make consumers pay for information that should be free." In the meantime, what he's done is not just free but incredibly useful. You can organise the tables by several criteria - recommendations from eight leading commentators, size of estate, AOC, cru ranking, composition of the blend. And the site is updated daily. There's no information about where to buy, but it's still a nifty little labour of love. I hope it eventually makes him money.

Someone who is making money from wine is James Bercovici, a young merchant who abandoned his inchoate legal career to set up The Big Red Wine Company. James owes the change of plans to a dodgy VW camper van. He and his future wife motored around the southern Rhône in the summer of 1995, and the van kept breaking down in vineyard-dense areas. While waiting for the AA to fix it, they tasted. They talked to vignerons. Eventually James realised that it was wine that really interested him. He started BRWC (under a different name) in 2000 with just five growers, all of whom he had met on his travels. Now he has 25 growers in his hand-picked stable, and while the southern Rhône is still his principal interest, he also has a few growers in Alsace, Bordeaux and Italy.

Big Red Wine is still a tiny operation, selling around 2,500 cases of wine a year. Sales have roughly doubled in the last two or three years, and naturally that pleases James and his wife and their three young children. But he insists that he is "not interested in becoming the next big thing" - he prefers "steady organic growth" which allows him to continue to know his producers, their wines, and his customers. "I want to be the kind of wine merchant I would like to buy from. And I want to buy only wines that I wouldn't mind being stuck with, if they don't sell." He also wants to spend time with his children, who sometimes tour the vineyards with him. Vignerons who supply lollipops are greatly appreciated.

Three of the BRWC wines are highlighted [below]. All are of high quality and profound individuality, which is just as they should be from a merchant of this type. To order them, you will have to make a call or send an email: James rejects online ordering because he likes to find out what customers like and guide them to the right wines. This isn't necessarily the way to get mega-rich. But, then again, I don't think that's what James is looking for.

JP & JF Becker, Alsace Grand Cru "Froehn" 2000 Riesling Classic petrol character developing with age; ripe honeysuckle, stone-fruit flavours (out of stock).

Domaine des Anges Cotes du Ventoux 2005 Blanc "L'Archange" A remarkable white from this mostly red appellation. Complex flavours integrated by careful oak treatment.

Domaine Brusset, Cotes du Rhone Villages Cairanne 2003 "Vendange Chabrille" A tremendously powerful Grenache/Syrah blend, but subtle too. One of the best Cairanne I have ever drunk. (Now the 2004 vintage)

Four big bottles from small suppliers - by Tim Atkin MW

Published: Sunday June 25, 2006 in The Observer

When the email arrived, I wasn't sure what to make of an invitation from the Association of Small Direct Wine Merchants. Had a group of vertically challenged importers banded together to stand on each other's shoulders like some vinous circus act? Or were they just referring to the diminutive size of their businesses when set alongside mail-order giants like Laithwaites and The Wine Society?
I was intrigued enough to go along to their first ever tasting. The ASDW was set up last year to protest against some of the anomalies in the 2003 Licensing Act and their effect on small businesses. The organisation has since grown from seven founders to 20 members and has expanded its remit to become a trade association with its own website (http://www.asdw.org.uk/) and an appealingly amateurish newsletter, Grapestalk Most of the members are enthusiasts.
By this, I don't mean the sort of people who bore you witless at parties about the Château Musar they had with dinner last night. These men and women are the real deal: genuine lovers of wine who can't help sharing their passion with other people. The majority of the companies are small affairs - a Tesco store probably sells more wine in an hour than most of these guys manage in a year - but that's what makes them appealing.
As consolidation takes hold, the UK wine market is increasingly dominated by large retailers and producers who tend to serve one another's interests. One- and two-person bands importing wines from small domaines are a welcome antidote to the power of the big boys. Most of the ASDW members know their suppliers personally and, in many cases, are the exclusive importers of their wines. In general they specialise in a single country or area, be it Spain, Italy, Australia, Champagne or regional France.
The ASDW members are a diverse bunch. The majority are part-timers dreaming of wine as a full-time occupation, but a few of them, such as The Big Red Wine Company, Amordivino and the Boutique Wine Company, have already taken the plunge into deeper financial and logistical waters. Others have day jobs as varied as publishing, law, materials and logistics management, IT, land registry and banking.
I wasn't crazy about all the wines at the ASDW tasting, but the average quality was high. More to the point, most of the wines were new discoveries, rather than the me-too brands that occupy so much retail shelf space. All of the merchants have websites and are happy for you to mix and match your own cases from their lists. Delivery charges vary from company to company, so check online.
There were a dozen wines I could have recommended, but eventually I got down to four. From Provence, the Domaine des Anges Cotes du Ventoux 2005 Blanc "L'Archange" is a rich, mealy, honeyed white made entirely from the comparatively rare Roussanne grape, while from further south, the 2003 Neffiez, Cuvée Balthazar, Coteaux du Languedoc is a dense, hauntingly perfumed Syrah with notes of liquorice and black olives.
Country specialists provided my other two picks. Italian-focused Amordivino was showing a complex, robust, pasta-bashing 2001 Taurasi, Urciuolo made entirely from Aglianico, while the Boutique Wine Company had the poised, minty, vanilla-perfumed 2003 Eppalock Ridge Shiraz from a brilliant 2,000-case producer in Heathcote, Victoria. Like the members of the ASDW, small really can be beautiful ... sometimes ...
tim.atkin@observer.co.uk

Sunday, 18 June 2006

Our television debut!

Sunday Lunch Live: UK Food & Drink Channel

Susie Barrie recommended JP et JF Becker's Alsace Riesling (out of stock) from the "Kronenberg" lieu-dit and the 2001 vintage.

Wednesday, 14 June 2006

Praise from Steven Spurrier

One of the UK's most profound palates, Steven Spurrier came along to the recent ASDW tasting and sent me this simple and straightforward email a week later...

"Congratulations on your selection"

ASDW's inaugural wine tasting

In June 2006, BRW participated in the first ASDW press tasting in London. It was well attended and we were pleased to met and spend considerable time with Steven Spurrier (who later emailed me with the kind words "congratulations on your selection") and other leading critics. We were fortunate to have been written up in the following weeks by Richard Ehrlich in the Independent on Sunday and, together with ASDW colleagues, by Tim Atkin MW in the Observer both on 25th June. Susie Barrie also featured one of our wines on Sunday Lunch Live. Other articles appeared later in the year.