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Neal Martin's Review of 2019
BY NEAL MARTIN | DECEMBER 27, 2019
“Common sense and a sense of
humour are the same thing, moving at different speeds. A sense of humour is
just common sense, dancing.” — The late, great Clive James
IntroductionApart from heart surgery, this year went much as expected. I shouldn’t be glib, but humour is what carries you through tough times. Two thousand and nineteen was... surreal. The first four months, I was mentally processing the shock that another birthday can no longer be guaranteed, as age ushers you into “snipers’ alley.” Then there was interminable waiting and the trauma of surgery, mustering the determination to recover physically and, just as importantly, mentally, in order to return to blessed normal life. Thankfully, that was possible, albeit with a few scars and a new strict diet (easy to maintain once you’ve spent time in a cardiac ward; you won’t want to return). Perversely, the entire episode was morbidly fascinating and – even if it didn’t feel that way at the time – a positive experience. I learned a great deal about life and death. I discovered what is truly important and what is petty. I gained a slimmer figure in middle age. Call me Benjamin Button, but I do look younger. There were odd little bonuses, such as inadvertently rediscovering a passion for vinyl and briefly stepping outside of wine and collecting my thoughts. Above all, the kids still have a dad. I had a lucky escape; tragically, many do not get that warning shot across the bow.
Does it change you? No, in the sense that I reverted back to the person I was before; I didn’t mind him. Yes, in the sense that mortality now loiters offstage, giving a merry wave, so don’t waste the little time you have. Every second is a second gone. Is my attitude toward wine different to what it was 12 months ago? I have not lost my passion for tasting and writing about wine, as attested by my productivity. However, my alcohol intake is far less than it used to be. Wine is not the be-all and end-all. It is no mystical elixir upon which life depends... but I still bloody love it.
Health issues will affect me for the rest of my life. I will never be completely out of the woods. Next year is about putting my best foot forward and grabbing opportunities. It’s a cliché, but I have no intention of living life anything less than to the fullest.
So let’s take one last look back at 2019. I’ll start with my passions – wine, food and music – before branching out into other areas for a bit of fun.
I asked my wife to take this photo exactly
one week to the hour after I underwent eight hours of heart surgery. I wasn’t
exactly in a condition to run a marathon. But it is amazing how the body can
Despite self-imposed abstinence for half the year, I didn’t half drink a few good bottles. Again. This is thanks to my job, hard work and friendships with amazing and generous wine lovers (they know who they are). These bottles are listed in chronological order and take absolutely no account of rarity or price; I loved drinking that 2014 Rully Chênes from Dureuil-Janthial in Beaune and marvelling at the time-defying 1865 Latour in Hong Kong. There are even a couple of champagnes on the list! No Selosse, but then again, who knows what will happen in 2020?
Wine of The Year: 1991 St. Joseph - Domaine Jean-Louis Grippat
Although there are far more elusive, ancient and wallet-busting bottles on the list, I’ve racked my brain and nothing gave me more pleasure than this St. Joseph, poured blind at Noble Rot restaurant in London with a couple of mates. Bliss.
Wine of the Year (Money No Object): 1865 Château Latour
Born in one of the legendary 19th-century vintages. How could this 154-year-old Pauillac taste so crystalline? Maybe it’s the magic in them pre-phylloxera vines?
White Wine of the Year (Money No Object): 1999 Montrachet Grand Cru - Domaine Ramonet
This bottle looked at the 2001 Montrachet from DRC and then, once it had spent an hour sizing up the opposition, wiped the floor with it. Astonishing precision and complexity.
Red Wine of the Year (Value for Money): 2018 Syrah Estate Reserve - Lismore
There are so many great-value offerings from South Africa. Winemaker Samantha O’Keefe is creating some amazing wines from her vineyards. [Postscript: this was my choice despite learning of the terrible wildfire that wiped out Samantha’s home. Fortunately, the vines seem to have survived and the bottle cellar was untouched. She’ll be back.]
White Wine of the Year (Value for Money): 2017 K5 Argiñano - Bodegas Txakolina
A fabulous Spanish white with stunning tension and salinity, and at around €20 on a list? Yes, please.
Sweet Wine of the Year: 1893 Château d'Yquem
It was not the name of the château or the age, but the circumstances of the growing season that ensured this was easily the most remarkable sweet wine of 2019.
The following were memorable and I have no apologies for drinking any of them. I mean, would you refuse if you had the chance? I thought not.
1900 Château Latour
1932 Chambertin - Domaine Joseph Drouhin
1937 La Tâche Grand Cru (Moingeon Bottling)
1945 Château Mouton-Rothschild (the bottle in Hong Kong and not the ex-cellar one in Paris)
1945 Musigny Vieilles Vignes Grand Cru – Domaine Comte Georges de Vogüé (half-bottle)
1945 Château Haut-Brion
1945 Château La Conseillante
1945 Château Léoville-Las Cases
1955 Château Petrus
1957 Bâtard-Montrachet Grand Cru - Domaine Jean-Claude Ramonet
1959 Nuits Saint-Georges Les Murgers 1er Cru - Domaine Jean Camuzet
1959 Château Lafite-Rothschild (magnum)
1959 La Tâche Grand Cru - Domaine de la Romanée-Conti
1959 Scharzhofberger Riesling Spätlese - Egon Müller
1959 Châteauneuf-du-Pape - Domaine Clos des Papes
1959 Vieux Château Certan (magnum)
1959 Château Mouton-Rothschild
1960 Corton-Charlemagne Grand Cru - Louis Latour
1964 Krug Collection Privée Champagne (magnum)
1964 Mazis-Chambertin Grand Cru - Domaine Roty
1964 Barolo Riserva Speciale - Aldo Conterno
1964 Château Lafleur
1964 Rioja Gran Reserva - Marqués de Riscal
1969 Moutlouis Demi-Sec - Domaine des Liards
1971 Corton Grand Cru - Domaine Bonneau du Martray
1971 Clos de la Roche Grand Cru - Domaine Jean-Marie Ponsot
1975 Scharzhofberger Riesling TBA - Egon Müller
1978 Bonnes-Mares Grand Cru - Domaine Clair-Daü
1980 Vosne-Romanée Les Petits-Monts 1er Cru - Domaine Hudelot-Noëllat
1981 Krug Collection
1982 Château Mouton-Rothschild (jeroboam)
1985 Château Léoville-Las Cases
1988 Bâtard-Montrachet Grand Cru - Domaine Etienne Sauzet (magnum)
1989 Château La Conseillante
1989 Château La Mission Haut-Brion
1989 Château Haut-Brion
1990 Clos de la Roche Grand Cru - Domaine Hubert Lignier
1994 Cornas - Thierry Allemande
1994 Paul Sauer - Kanonkop
1997 Château Poujeaux
1998 Jurançon (Lot L98C03) – Clos Joliette
1999 Charmes-Chambertin Vieilles Vignes - Domaine Denis Bachelet
2000 Bollinger Vieilles Vignes Françaises
2000 Montepulciano d’Abruzzo - Valentini
2006 Château Lynch-Bages (double magnum)
2009 Château Lagrange
2010 Meursault Les Tillets - Domaine Roulot
2010 Bienvenue-Bâtard-Montrachet Grand Cru - Domaine Jean-Claude Bachelet
2010 Chablis Les Clos Grand Cru - Domaine Vincent Dauvissat
2010 Grands Echézeaux Grand Cru - Domaine de la Romanée-Conti
2014 Meursault Clos des Ambres - Domaine Arnaud Ente
2014 Rully Chênes - Domaine Dureuil-Janthial
2017 Porseleinberg - Porseleinberg
2017 Santorini Assyrtiko - Artemis Karamolegos Winery
2018 Huilkrans - Alheit Family Wines
2018 Not Tonight Josephine - Savage Wines
N-V Olerasay - Mullineux Family Wines
N-V 40-Year-Old Boal Vinho do Embaixador – Barbeito
N-V 50-Year-Old Terrantez - Justino’s
Most Extraordinary Tasting of the Year: Petrus Vertical in London/60th birthday in Bordeaux
Two extraordinary tastings are indelibly imprinted upon my memory. The first was back in January, when I was reeling from bad news. Consequently I experienced the elation of drinking more than 20 legendary vintages of Petrus stretching back to the 19th century while contemplating the darkness that lay ahead. The second was the recent splendid 60th birthday celebration in Bordeaux. It was not just the consistency of the sublime 1959s, but the bonhomie, banter and friendship that accompanied those bottles.
Article I Most Enjoyed Writing for Vinous: Pichon-Lalande Vertical
Having treacherously stripped out all information pertaining to viticulture and vinification and boring stuff like that, I rebuilt the article around Nicolas Glumineau’s lifelong passion for Goth guitar heroes The Cure. The piece demanded multiple edits over many months to shape it the way I wanted, so that his answers mirrored mine. Looks easy when you read it, but trust me, it’s not. Wine writing is too often formulaic. It’s good to occasionally throw away the rulebook and pen something outré and unique to communicate the subject from an alternative perspective.
Most Important Article I Wrote: Facebook Post on March 14
When I was diagnosed, the first thing I wanted to do was read testimonies from people who have undergone a similar operation. I basically wanted to hear happy endings. Initially, I began writing a piece designed to nip in the bud the circulating gossip about my non-appearance at en primeur. In the end, it turned into something that was hopefully a bit more entertaining and meaningful. Subsequent to its posting, I received many private messages from people who had been encouraged to undertake a health check, or just found it comforting to read about someone facing a similar situation. Heart conditions are far more common than I ever imagined, but you get through it. You can still read the two entries before and after surgery on my Facebook page.
Article Published Against the Odds: Port 2017 Declaration
I have reported on every Vintage Port Declaration since the 2000. The 2017 Declaration inconveniently coincided with my surgery. Forget it? No way. I encouraged port houses to send samples in advance. The Taylor Fladgate wines were tasted and written up the Friday before my Monday operation. In the end, the entire report was composed in waiting rooms at either Royal Surrey or St. George’s Hospital, at one point with a catheter attached to my left arm. Finally, against the odds, the piece was published in timely fashion. Hooray! A small but important victory.
of the Year: Xaya (Saint-Jean-de-Luz)
There were several lunches and dinners that stick in my mind. Of course, the first with friends at Food by John Lawson after my recovery was loaded with meaning, as it marked a tentative return to my previous life just three weeks post-surgery. Though not exactly “match fit,” I was relieved to indulge in fine gastronomy – and, moreover, in the unlikely location of the seaside epicurean desert where I grew up. In terms of the food on the plate, The Ledbury blew me away. Despite having dined there dozens of times since it opened, I was blown away by the subtlety of Brett Graham’s culinary skill.
Xaya – my favourite meal of the year; humble but delicious food.
But this year I gained a newfound appreciation for simple food and fresh ingredients, so the one dinner I would repeat was at Xaya in Saint-Jean-de-Luz. I can still taste that zingy salmorejo and octopus, and – no offence to anyone I have shared a meal with – there will never be better company than my two daughters.
Most Memorable/Fun Meal of the Year: Otto’s (London)
By a country mile, the most fun meal was at Otto’s in central London. I did not expect to be eating grouse à la presse with a reduction made from three 1964 Pomerols or wearing a Viking helmet with horns long enough to spear an orbiting satellite. But what the hell! I still laugh thinking about that afternoon.
Any reason to reproduce this photo!
Worst Meal(s) of the Year: St George’s Hospital - Benjamin Weir Ward (London)
Look, I was not expecting Escoffier in the kitchen. But the food at St. George’s Hospital fell way short of dismal expectations. It was slopped on the plate like I was an inmate, and every tasteless dish was loaded with salt. How ironic that at the moment when the body desperately cries out for fresh food, vitamins and minerals, patients must eat such poor fare. The daily budget for each NHS patient is less than £3.00 for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Go figure.
I cannot describe how good that bottle of
Food Parcel of the Year: Noble Rot “Rescue Package”
By day four of my post-operative weekend break, I was craving something edible. Thanks to Dan and Mark of Noble Rot restaurant, who heeded my distress call and dispatched emergency rations down to the hospital, couriered in a “Sex, Drugs and Pinot Noir” tote bag. Chateldon never tasted so good. Rations were shared with the nurses on the ward.
Best Album of 2019: Titanic Rising by Weyes Blood
The third album from Natalie Mering is grandiose, heartfelt, passionate, clever and fun. It’s probably the album I listened to the most over the last 12 months, and it has lost none of its power. I keep finding nuances that I had missed within its epic production.
I also loved the following:
Quiet Signs by Jessica Pratt - Once you are accustomed to her unique voice, this has spectral beauty.
Psychodrama by Dave - Astonishingly clever UK rap from the multi-talented Dave
All Mirrors by Angel Olsen - An epic album, so far from Olsen’s lo-fi beginnings
Ghosteen by Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds - A masterpiece carved out of an artist’s grief
Love Will Find A Way by Philip Bailey - Sublime R&B/jazz fusion by the former Earth, Wind & Fire genius
Encore by The Specials - Most comebacks by artists are pale imitations of what made them great. Not this.
Norman Fucking Rockwell! by Lana Del Rey - Nothing sounds like LdR, who inhabits her own universe.
Serfs Up! by Fat White Family - The grotbags sorted out their bust-ups and hard drug habit to make this great album.
Beware of the Dogs by Stella Donnelly - Fantastic debut from this Australian singer-songwriter
MAGDALENE by FKA twigs - Warping R&B into new shapes
ANIMA by Thom Yorke - The Radiohead frontman’s most satisfying solo work to date
Remind Me Tomorrow by Sharon Van Etten - Full of wonderful, epic songs
Purple Mountains by Purple Mountains - RIP David Berman
GREY Area by Little Simz - The polymath who is the not-so-little Simz
Assume Form by James Blake - Intelligent left-field pop; clever use of collaborators
Best Songs of 2019
Winner: “The Cleaner” by Squid
Released on the cult label Speedy Wunderground, “The Cleaner” is a mash-up of Talking Heads, LCD Soundsystem and disco that forms the centrepiece of Squid’s Town Centre EP. If you have a penchant for avant-garde pop music, then “The Cleaner” may well be up your alley. This Brighton-based collective might be massive next year. Don’t say I haven’t warned you.
“Bright Horses” by Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds
Simply one of the most beautiful songs you will ever hear, and one of the most devastatingly sad.
“Movies“ by Weyes Blood
The cinematic “Movies” was the highlight of Weyes Blood’s third album, imbued with grandeur and pathos. If you have not heard it, find the fabulous video on YouTube that enhances the whole experience.
“Cellophane” by FKA Twigs
FKA twigs sings, acts and looks as if she was born on another planet rather than in Tewkesbury. She is currently the most forward-thinking and adventurous artist of the last couple of years. Fact.
“Narcissus” by Róisín Murphy (Crooked Man Mix)
Oh-so-funky trance/funk hybrid, courtesy of the former Moloko singer. Impossible not to dance to.
“Old Man” by Stella Donnelly
Wonderful laid-back sunny indie from the Australian chanteuse, but in fact a Trojan horse carrying a lyrical message that chimes with these enlightened #MeToo times.
“Juice” by Lizzo
The catchiest song of the year. The happiest song of the year. The fact that she is a classically trained flautist makes Lizzo even more awesome.
“Feet” by Fat White Family
I love how this band stormed back with the pulsating “Feet.”
“Too Real” by Fontaines D.C.
I didn’t get into their album as much as others, although I do like the riffage of this song.
“Not” by Big Thief
From the band that released not one but two great albums in 2019, this is one of my favourite tracks.
“Seventeen” by Sharon Van Etten
There is a tinge of Springsteen about this epic track, released at the beginning of the year. It still sounds as brilliant at the end of the year.
Favourite Book of the Year: Machines Like Me by Ian McEwan
A thoroughly enjoyable and thought-provoking tale set in a counterfactual, alternative timeline that examines how the first invented humanoids might interact with society. Funny and thought-provoking, it is one of McEwan’s best novels.
TV of the Year: Fleabag (Season 2)
The first season was smutty and hilarious, but it finished with jolting melancholy that prefigured the pathos of the astonishing second season. Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s script was word-perfect. Andrew Scott revealed in his role as the priest battling between faith and unrequited love, and the final scene, at a deserted bus stop, served as the perfect ending, and one so true to life. May there never be a third series. Like Fawlty Towers and The Office – other members of an elite group of comedies to which Fleabag belongs – two seasons is perfect.
Purchase of the Year: Ion Max LP Turntable
The Ion Max LP turntable from PC World cost just eighty quid and came with a tinny sound that any audiophile would ridicule. But it changed my world. I was not in a good place when my surgery was cancelled after four months of waiting. Desperate for something to occupy my mind, I bought the cheapest turntable I could find so that I could play the 700-odd vinyl records that had been gathering dust for a few years, and in particular to play an extended mix of Prince’s “Mountains” that was unavailable on any streaming service. I moved the printer and set up the turntable next to my Mac. The ritual of unsheathing the record, placing the needle on the groove and hearing that crackle... it was like bumping into an old friend. My consumption of music changed at that very moment. Later I upgraded to a Rega P3 with its unparalleled sound and spent weekends crate-digging for used vinyl. It was the exit door from my all-consuming passion for wine; monomania is never healthy. The Ion turntable has since been donated to a friend, but I will always remember the impact it had at a tricky time. They say music can save your life. It can.
Film of the Year: The Favourite
Admittedly, I did not go to the cinema much. I did enjoy Oscar winner The Favourite, though I was unprepared for how deliciously rude it is.
Conversation of the Year: Anaesthetists
The best conversation was with two lovely anaesthetists in their scrubs about the current Bordeaux 2018 en primeur. Unfortunately, I fell asleep just as I was getting to the exciting bit.
The Words I Shall Never Forget
“I have good news and bad news...”
Uttered by the doctor during an angiogram as I was lying on my side staring at a live image of my beating heart.
Most Frequently Heard Sentence Before Heart Operation
“When is your operation?”
Most Frequently Heard Sentence After Heart Operation
“You’ve lost weight.”
Most Vital Piece of Clothing: Body Warmer from Domaine Grivot
This garment was given to attendees at a tasting/dinner a few years back. It kept my body at a perfect temperature at a time when I found it difficult to regulate myself.
Hero of the Year: Obvious...
There are actually three heroes: the surgeon who performed the heart operation, the matron in charge of the high dependency unit at St. George’s Hospital and a teenage Somali nurse who probably has no idea how brilliant she is.
Villain of the Year
They will remain nameless, but I’ll let them know when I see them.
Achievement of 2019
Publishing 100+ articles on Vinous in the same year as major heart surgery. They don’t write themselves. I wish they would.
Goal for 2020
Get to the end of the year in one piece.
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Beyond Wine: Album Review of Titanic Rising – Weyes Blood, Neal Martin, May 2019