Written in the Stars: Bordeaux 1865-2020


The Yellow Advertiser

When I was a young scallywag, my brother and I appeared in the “Yellow Advertiser”, a free local newspaper. We featured in a weekly column where rosy-cheeked kids gushed about their hobby to a readership more interested in listings for second-hand Ford Capris or Southend United’s latest humiliation on the pitch. Our obsession with Lego had spawned a town that had ridden roughshod over planning permission and sprawled across my bedroom, and it was time to tell the world. Looking back, it’s a miracle that I never became a town planner.

It’s a couple of hours before the last in a series of dinners promoting my book: The Complete Bordeaux Vintage Guide 1870-2020 (just in case you need reminding.) I’m seeking inspiration for tonight’s homecoming speech, something I can riff on, so I ask mum if she can nip upstairs to fetch a homemade folder where she keeps invitations, orders of service and newspaper cuttings that each mark her sons’ significant milestones or claims to fame. Leafing through this veritable time capsule, I find the original page cut from the Yellow Advertiser dated September 1982. I study the grainy photograph and grin as an 11-year-old me looks back, attired in a trendy Adidas t-shirt that compensates for a haircut that no loving parent should inflict upon their child. Reading the anodyne interview in the same house forty-one years later, when asked about my intentions for adult life, I replied that I would like to become an author. I guess that has come to pass, even if not the métier nobody could have predicted. Then, my eye is drawn to another article on the same page. I gasp…

First book signing event in early April.

The Promotional Campaign Begins

I’ll explain why later. As mentioned, April and May witnessed a series of dinners to herald publication. I have quickly gleaned that unless you’re the younger sibling of a royal family with a chip on your shoulder, the author does all the promotional legwork. Therefore, these dinners are vital in terms of gaining attention and keeping my 528-page newborn in the public eye. Of course, the added bonus is that each evening is festooned with bottles worth scribbling about, not that it was my sole motive for writing the tome.

The first event is in early April, organized by London merchant, Bordeaux Index. Anneka, an American expat who I’ve had the pleasure of knowing for many moons, has had a novel idea of an informal event that would see guests milling about a hipster basement wine bar in Spitalfields Market. To be honest, I’m not sure. I envisage a more formal setting in salubrious surroundings. Nevertheless, I put myself in her capable hands and, arriving early, entered the bar to find pillars of pre-signed copies in their luminous orange glory awaiting new owners. I hope they like it.

Any doubts about the success of the event soon vanish. Anneka’s pulled a blinder. The basement soon resounds with chatter and laughter, the casual and carefree ambiance reflecting the tone of my tome. A Spotify playlist comprising the eclectic songs throughout the book’s timespan plays in the background. Set to random, there are a few mystified faces as White Christmas makes a rare mid-April appearance. Anneka makes an impassioned speech, metaphorically smashing the champagne bottle against the hull of “H.M.S. Bordeaux Vintage Guide” and I almost blush with embarrassment. I’m soon dedicating dozens of copies, including one or two guests requesting dedications that are as rude as possible. I must be the only wine scribe that entertains debased requests. I can’t imagine Hugh Johnson scrawling expletives across the title page of The World Atlas of Wine. Talking of which, tonight’s 1970 L’Evangile epitomizes everything to cherish about mature Pomerol: fragrant and leafy yet with presence. Also, the 2011 Suduiraut punches well above its weight. I could not have asked for a better night and thank Anneka for organizing the perfect launch party. We promise to meet soon for a proposed Madeira blowout.

The following week, I entered another basement, this time at the members’ club, 67 Pall Mall. This is a La Paulée style affair, with each guest bringing their own wine. The risk is that each vinous contribution varies dramatically in value, therefore one relies on attendees entering into the spirit of the occasion, pouring wine irrespective of what might have been paid. I mean, did the Three Kings argue about one offering frankincense and the other myrrh when visiting baby Jesus? If they did, it was edited out of the New Testament. No, tonight is about sharing fermented grape juice.

There are around two dozen guests, nearly all new faces. The initial invitation stated that “Neal wants to be challenged”, which was misconstrued as “bring anything other than claret”. A bit bizarre celebrating a book on Bordeaux drinking wines from anywhere else. So, another communique is hastily dispatched, encouraging guests to ignore the previous message and the finest claret known to mankind (or words to that effect). The result is an eclectic mélange of vino that thankfully leans towards Bordeaux with the one unexpected diversion to Serbia. And why not? I’m smitten by the broad-shouldered, toothsome magnum of 1952 Cos d’Estournel and an effervescent 1959 Gillette Crème de Tête that’s hardly aged a jot - another pertinent reminder of the joy of Sauternes.

April 13 is publication day. Yay! I envisaged a lavish soirée: a banquet from the pages of an F. Scott Fitzgerald novel, a bacchanal that would make the Met Gala look tame. In the end, I cancel the trapeze artists, fire-eaters and burlesque cabaret and hire the private room at Noble Rot Soho.

Now, there is a cardinal rule not to mix normal people with wine geeks. It’s like blending Cabernet and Pinot Noir, and nobody does that except John Malkovich. After hours of interminable debate about triple-Guyot pruning or which winemaker is infected with Brettanomyces, normal people begin losing the will to live and I’d rather have no fatalities on publication day. Yet tonight, I break the rule. Collectors and wine trade reprobates commingle with school and university pals and thankfully, nobody wants to kill anyone by dessert. Guests are taken aback when I ask everyone to close their eyes and put their hands together for an improvised prayer. I beseech God to spare us corked bottles and that everyone will have a jolly good time and that my book will outsell JK Rowling. Amen. God responds by making sure my precious 1967 Magdelaine reeks of damp cardboard. Thanks God. Probably retaliation for my blasphemous Burgundy report intros. Thankfully, we are compensated with a sublime 1989 L’Evangile and the best bottle of 1986 Latour that I have tasted in a long while, even if it’s not peak Latour.

Following a break for primeur, dinners recommence with a first and certainly not last BYO in the private room at Medlar in Chelsea. Around fifteen serious “oeno-friends” are coming and the caliber of bottles is high. Jordi, the organizer of many a tasting in this parish, ominously forewarns he will serve his contribution blind and judging by his cellar, it’s not going to be Matéus Rosé. Everything is set up for a memorable night, even though the restaurant is let down by the non-arrival of half the global supply of Zalto stemware. I receive a panicked call from the head sommelier, who’s having visions of everyone drinking 1945 Margaux from a goblet wine glass similar to the one used by Grandma to sip Harvey’s Bristol Cream on Christmas morning. Fortunately, it sounds like we can assemble a mishmash of available stemware. Crisis avoided.

Guests drift into Medlar from various workplaces; familiar faces, friendships cemented through wine. “Cemented” is apposite since these relationships are solid and like fine wine, they last and deepen over years. Some I’ve known since the salad days of my career when we all had less grey hair and could afford Burgundy. It’s a boisterous soirée, so our sommelier has her work cut out, keeping the rabble in order whilst ensuring every wine receives appropriate decanting at optimal temperatures. The evening starts with the oldest Right Banks, shimmying over to younger wines to match the beef tataki, before returning to some veterans. Skipping back and forth through decades keeps palates on their toes, and it’s an ordering that I’ve used for all dinners afterward.

We kick off proceedings with the 1971 Hors-Série champagne from Piper-Heidsieck, a limited release of a singular champagne that spent no less than 48 years on the lees, yes years, not months. That’s longer than Andy Dufresne was imprisoned in Shawshank (1994 vintage in case you’re wondering where to find that classic film). This was the third or fourth bottle opened in recent weeks, and it is bestowed delectable truffle scents and a quite penetrating, ginger-infused palate. One of the early stellar showings is the finest bottles of 1964 Cheval Blanc that I have ever encountered. It merits that rarest of accolades…perfection. This legendary Saint-Émilion holds the room in the palm of its hand as it reveals ineffable grace and purity. Every sip reconfirms its otherworldly brilliance, a shoo-in for one of my wines of the year. Jordi’s mystery bottle is dispatched early. It is utterly sublime and beguiles one and all. Fielding guesses about the vintage, most of us are a century out as it is revealed to be the 1865 Giscours, which I subsequently parse out for a Cellar Favourite. Cue intakes of breaths and the odd “flippin’ ‘eck”. Later, we are treated to wonderful bottles of 1985 and 1945 Château Margaux, both magical in their own right, though the latter never touches the rarefied realm as Mouton or Haut-Brion in that année de victoire. My own contribution is a bottle of 1955 Domaine de Chevalier that epitomizes everything magical about mature Graves. I should mention there are other bottles poured this evening that I reassigned to other articles, for example, 1959 Lynch Bages and other forthcoming articles on Vinous. We end up chewing the fat long past bedtime.

The following evening, I returned to 67 Pall Mall for another dinner organized by Chelsea Vintners. Now, this event is one for intrepid oenophiles happy to swish their blade through rotten reputations and taste vintages no sane person would touch with an extended barge pole. Nothing ventured, nothing gained. Tonight’s roll call is certainly one that fills gaps in the database, and I’m the masochist up to the task. It’s always a gamble, and, to be honest, it doesn’t quite come off. There are misfiring wines such as 1964 Meyney, a subpar 1982 Pavie and a woeful 1974 La Lagune. But you have to kiss a few frogs to find princesses, which on this evening is a Pauillac-like 1969 Beychevelle and a fine-boned 1976 Figeac. Sadly, the 1962 Haut-Brion is off-colour, but the 1981 Cheval Blanc remains one of the finest wines of that vintage, the 1982 Domaine de Chevalier solid and certainly undeserving the desultory 55 points from my old boss. My favorite of the night is the 1970 Grand-Puy-Lacoste, which sports a classic pencil box nose with surprising elegance on the palate. The wines might not have delivered, but that does not preclude a wonderful evening.

Then there is an intimate soirée held at Brighton’s best restaurant, Wild Flor, a restaurant previously reviewed on Vinous Table. There are around a dozen attendees, and for this event, I have sourced the bottles myself. The Gods did not smile upon us at 67 Pall Mall, but tonight, every bottle reaches its full potential...except one. Admittedly, I did not have high hopes for the 1968 Figeac that was born in an appalling growing season. At best, I hoped it might entertain drinkability. It didn’t. Interestingly, visiting the estate just a few days earlier, I was informed that then proprietor Thierry Manoncourt, a qualified engineer, sprayed his vines with an anti-rot product subsequently banned by authorities; information only divulged after the wine was poured. Grimaces around the room say it better than words, and we move on quickly. Everything else shows splendidly. The 2020 Brane-Cantenac Blanc is a wine I would pour to the chorus of those claiming that the Left Bank cannot create delicious dry whites. The 2015 La Conseillante is young yet classy, albeit without the mineralité of the subsequent vintage. To my pleasant surprise, the audience elects the 1970 Gloria wine of the night. It’s a vintage that I have not encountered for many years but it is charming, slightly rustic, and fusty, but with sublime balance and an elegant finish. Finally, the 1953 Batailley. I was hoping that this bottle would reach the standard of the 1955 or 1961. It didn’t. Yet it acquits itself well with a tobacco-scented nose that could not come from anywhere else than the Left Bank, the palate cohesive yet just lacking the vim and vigor of 1955. After 70 years, there is always a risk, but it was a risk that pays off tonight.

A second dinner chez Medlar is a predictably lively affair organized by Burns & German Vintners. One gentleman tells me that he has flown in from Dubai just to meet me. I’m honored. I find it hard to persuade my kids to come downstairs for supper, let alone across international borders. As usual, much of the evening is spent debating music choices, and yet again, I am forced to justify the omission of Pink Floyd. It’s nothing against the prog rockers. They were edged out by the one song per year limit and their fault for refusing to release 45rpms. Anyway, there are plenty of wonderful wines, including a double magnum of 1997 La Conseillante and a precocious 2009 Monte Bello from Ridge Vineyards that are a decade away from readiness, though stealing the show is a rare magnum of 1985 Château Musar from Lebanon. Apparently, large formats were never sold outside the country. It’s fleshy and sumptuous, reminiscent of a Grenache, utterly seductive and at its peak. A third dinner at Medlar (yes, it’s a popular haunt) is a charity event in aid of a very worthy cause: Lia’s Wings (www.lias-wings.org.uk). It’s another great crowd. The cross-table conversation starts sensibly as I discuss the book and various vintages before the conversation descends into a heated debate as to why there is no Bruce Springsteen, just as the Spice Girls’ “Wannabe” plays on the restaurant’s sound system.

My neighbor turns to me.

“You’re kidding me, aren’t you? Are the Spice Girls really in the book?”

I simply advise him to turn to 1996.

Music aside, the 1982 La Conseillante, 1990 Léoville Las-Cases and 1998 Haut-Brion are all sublime, whilst the 1980 Yquem is a pertinent reminder that it takes a catastrophic growing season to deny a delicious Yquem.

Not all the events are in the UK. The series of dinners in Hong Kong will be written up early next year. One held at Vine Bistro at Glenelly’s winery in Stellenbosch saw Cabernets from Bordeaux pitted blind against Stellenbosch. The 2009 Léoville Las-Cases distinguishes itself as one of the best wines of that vintage and more classically styled than you would presuppose. Unfortunately, my books failed to arrive in South Africa, so I denied signing copies. I autographed my own personal copy and invited guests to make bids and donate money to charity.

Remembering Friends

Among this cavalcade of soirées, the one that I most anticipate is in Southend-on-Sea, my town of birth. The audience will include parents and siblings, assorted aunts and cousins, a lively gaggle of oldest friends and forty-odd guests. The venue is The Pipe of Port. By sheer coincidence, it is a basement bistro frequented in my halcyon days of nightclubbing to down swift sharpeners before hitting infamous nightclubs like Tots or Mr. B’s. Its floor was strewn with sawdust back then, just as it does now. In fact, it’s probably the same sawdust. The only difference is that nowadays, under new management, The Pipe of Port boasts a stonking wine list and serves a 100-point chicken and chestnut pie.

The basement throngs with friends and family. These are folks I’ve known almost my entire life. Surveying the dimly lit bistro, I have what you might call a “memento mori moment” because I’ve reached an age when you cannot guarantee everyone present will be together in the same room again. These feelings are prompted by Anneka’s passing just three or four weeks after the first event in Shoreditch after a long and valiant fight against illness. It reminds us to cherish occasions like these.

There is a celebratory, almost carnivalesque atmosphere. Many attendees’ knowledge of wine goes little further than its intoxicating virtues. Spending precious time analyzing wine when you could be necking it down your throat seems a ridiculous endeavor for some people, and I completely understand that point of view. Nevertheless, even they are astounded when the aperitif turns out to be a Chardonnay not from Burgundy or Napa but literally up the road in Essex. A county, hitherto the butt of so many jokes, is rapidly becoming renowned for its clayey terroir. Who knew? The 2020 Octagon Block Chardonnay from Danbury Ridge deservedly wins fans around the room: packed full of tropical-tinged fruit with an appealing waxy texture. I flit from table to table and make the occasional speech, so busy that I pen just one tasting note for the superb, if nascent, 2019 Phélan Ségur, laden with juicy blackberries yet not so tannic that it welds your gums together. Give it a decade, and you will have a great Saint-Estèphe on your hands.

Written In The Stars

In front of my audience, I muse upon the irony of how a boy raised in an abstemious family in Essex ended up as a wine writer.

It begs the question: How on Earth did I get here? Was it meant to be? Asked that question regularly over the years, I habitually reply that it was by sheer chance my career unfolded the way it did, a series of freak and fortunate happenstance and a side order of serendipity.

Or maybe not?

Let me return to the aforementioned article in the Yellow Advertiser, at the point where I gasped. Remember, I hadn’t seen this page since I was 11 years old. As I’m about to fold it away, my eye catches the article below, whose headline reads: “See the last of the summer wine in an Essex vineyard.”

The Twilight Zone theme tune plays through my head. What are the chances that a local newspaper printed an article on the subject of wine on exactly the same page as my interview back in 1982? This predates the UK’s emergence as a serious player in the wine industry by at least a decade when viticulture was inchoate, little more than a hobby for a few landowners. The odds must be millions-to-one. The article mentions how vines were planted 12 years earlier and that the forthcoming craft fair will feature Colchester oysters and Morris dancers. If only Morris dancers were provided at all châteaux visits hereon in.

Maybe my vocation was written in the stars after all.

Whatever the answer, it beats being a town planner.

© 2023, Vinous. No portion of this article may be copied, shared or re-distributed without prior consent from Vinous. Doing so is not only a violation of our copyright, but also threatens the survival of independent wine criticism.

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