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.