A drink in the last-chance saloon?


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Photograph: Jason Lowe

Photograph: Jason Lowe

As our team board the plane for a week in Bordeaux, our Chairman Simon Berry reflects on the current state of en primeur, the quality of the 2014 vintage and what the future holds for the world of Claret post-Robert Parker.

The 2014 Bordeaux vintage, if you believe what you read in the newspapers, marks a watershed. A Claret-shed, possibly. If the Bordelais ‘get it right’, all will be well. If they ‘get it wrong’, the Cassandras will tell you, then civilisation as we know it will crumble to dust. At a wine trade event a week or so ago several distinguished members of the trade were discussing the latest pronouncement to emerge from the Médoc: ‘a miracle vintage’, someone had proclaimed. ‘Absolutely correct,’ said one wag. ‘It’ll be a miracle if they sell a bottle’.

But before we write Bordeaux off as a hopeless cause, it might be worth thinking what’s going on here. One thing’s for sure: good wines will have been made in Bordeaux last year. I was in the vineyards when the harvest was being brought in last October, and it was clear that the vintage was already a success. Perhaps not the ‘vintage of the century’ which, astonishingly, hasn’t come along for at least four years, but certainly more successful than anything since 2010: healthy grapes, ripened by a final few weeks of beneficent weather, and as a result smiling faces.

The Clarets of 2014 will be classic, more typical Claret if you prefer; ‘better’, in many people’s view. Very few will ‘get it wrong’ as far as the standard of the wine is concerned. Where they do, it’s our job to inform you of the fact – or, at the very least, decline to list the wine.

‘Getting it right’, in effect, means getting the pricing right; and here there is less cause for optimism. From the outside, it seems very simple. The UK trade sent an open letter to Bordeaux a few weeks ago pointing out that it’s not rocket science. All Ch. Plume de Ma Tante has to do is surf to Wine Searcher, and look up the current market price for earlier vintages of its wines – 2010, for example, or 2008, or if they’re feeling very confident (and there are any bottles still out there), 2005; then make sure that the 2014 Ch. Plume de Ma Tante sells for a lower price than the earlier vintages. Quite, as my old maths master used to say, easily done.

However the Bordelais châteaux throw up their hands in exasperation at such a suggestion. Don’t we realise that the euro has weakened in the last year, they say? Don’t we realise that such an action would mean that the 2014s would be released at a lower price than the 2013s, 2012s and 2011s and that would mean (they don’t say) the négociants of Bordeaux sitting on warehouses of stock that would be impossible to sell?

Up until a few weeks ago Bordeaux was putting its faith in America. China may not have proved to be the goldmine of their dreams; the traditional European markets may be proving too demanding and unappreciative – but the United States had hardly bought en primeur since 2008, and with the dollar strengthening and the euro weakening surely the transatlantic market would open up? Then came a bombshell: Robert Parker, the man who single-handedly created the boom in Bordeaux prices in the early 1980s, announced that he will no longer be visiting Bordeaux for the en primeur tastings, and instead would be passing the baton to – Choc! Horreur! – a Brit. Not only a Brit, but Neal Martin, a Brit with much more traditional tastes than His Bobness.

As I write, Bordeaux is in a state of apoplexy at this news. What will this mean for the market – and will the Americans (all 320 million of them) buy if their oracle fails to pronounce from the mountaintop? Will they have to take the irritating British wine merchants a little more seriously, and find prices that the market will support, rather than finding markets prepared to pay their prices?

To sum up, nobody knows how the next few weeks will pan out. No one knows if the Bordelais will let reason prevail, and thereby save the en primeur market. No one knows if they will set prices to support the négociants, and the en primeur market will continue to stagger on, defying rumours of its demise, as it has for many years now.

I would venture to suggest, however, that it doesn’t really matter. It certainly doesn’t matter to you, the buyer of wine. The en primeur system, so far from being ‘time honoured’ as one Bordelais described it last year, has only really been around in its current form for 35 years. If it didn’t exist, no one would invent it from scratch. If the Bordelais do ‘get it wrong’ as far as prices are concerned for this vintage, they will certainly make some very good wines; and there will be plenty of other vintages on the market, and plenty of other wines from other parts of France, Europe or the rest of the world which will prove excellent investments, if only in future pleasure.

Follow our team in Bordeaux as they walk the vineyards, taste the 2014 wines and talk to the people who made them: they will be posting updates on the blog, Instagram, Twitter and Facebook.

Category: Bordeaux Wine

Below the surface: the Napoleon Cellar


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Photograph: Joakim Blockstrom

Photograph: Joakim Blockstrom

Dipping two storeys below No.3 St James’s Street, Katie Cooper, Wine Club Manager, explores the extraordinary history of our Napoleon Cellar.

Deep beneath the shop at No.3 St James’s Street lies the Napoleon Cellar, named after Louis-Napoléon III, the nephew of Napoleon I. These days, it hosts long lunches and sumptuous dinners for up to 37 guests, as well as our annual Wine Club walk-around tasting, but its history can be traced back to the 1800s, when France’s fate was uncertain and the country’s future leader held secret meetings there to plot his return to power.

Following the defeat of his famous uncle at Waterloo in 1815, Louis-Napoléon was, with his mother, exiled from France. Following the death of Napoleon I’s brother in 1831, he became heir to the dynasty and started plotting the Bonapartes’ return to power.

A modest chap, Louis-Napoléon wrote, “I believe that from time to time, men are created […] in whose hands are placed the destiny of their countries. I believe I am one of those men. If I am wrong, I can perish uselessly. If I am right, then providence will put me into a position to fulfil my mission.” His attempted coup in 1836 failed, and when he tried to seize the throne again in 1940, he was unsuccessful and imprisoned: for the time being it seemed that poor Louis-Napoléon was destined to “perish uselessly”.

Escaping in 1846, he returned to Britain and took up residence a short walk from Berry Bros. & Rudd, in a townhouse on King Street (apparently with a small staff of 17). As Chartist riots raged throughout the country, the authorities deemed it necessary to appoint special constables to defend St James’s Palace: Louis-Napoléon signed up for special duty alongside his friend George Berry, a second-generation wine merchant in St James’s. The truncheon used at the time by le petit Napoléon can still be seen in the cellars at No.3 today.

Fearful of assassination, Louis-Napoléon took to hiding in the cellars at No.3 St James’s Street. Realising the underground location’s potential, he used the cellars as a base to meet political allies and formulate public statements or correspondence, in preparation for his return to France and to power. As a regular visitor, he was also one of the many people to be weighed on the giant coffee scales in our shop (10 stone 8 lbs, in case you were wondering) and gained 4 lbs over the two years he spent in Britain.

Louis-Napoléon was evidently plagued by paranoia, as Sherer, the reputed editor of The London Standard, described following a meeting with the future Emperor: “During the whole time I was at work Napoleon never once left my side. Suspecting all, trusting none, even at this period in his career, he evidently thought that were he to turn his back, I should pocket one of his copies.

By 1848 France had descended into another revolution which gave Louis-Napoléon the opportunity he needed to return home unimpeded and be declared President of the Second Republic of France (the first to be elected by popular vote). He went on to become Emperor; and it was under his reign that Baron Haussman’s public works were commissioned, reconstructing Paris with the grand avenues, magnificent parks and smart squares that the city is known for. Most importantly for those in the wine trade, it was Emperor Napoleon III who requested a cataloguing system for the best wines from Bordeaux in 1855, a classification which remains influential to this day.

It was arguably Louis-Napoléon’s dealings under the shop at No.3 St. James’s Street that laid the way for his return to power, thus the Napoleon Cellar of today bears the name of our illustrious French guest.

Read more about the history of Berry Bros. & Rudd.

Visit the Napoleon Cellar yourself by attending one of our lunches or dinners.

Category: Miscellaneous

Whisky Retailer of the Year


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Having just recovered from the surprise (and celebrations), Rob Whitehead – Berry Bros. & Rudd Spirits Buyer – takes a moment to describe the privilege of being awarded Global Whisky Retailer of the Year (Single Outlet) at the 2015 Icons of Whisky awards.

The Icons of Whisky awards celebrate distillers, retailers, distributors and educators, and are the partner ceremony to the World Whisky Awards, both hosted at the Waldorf Hilton with real aplomb by Whisky Magazine.

Although Berry Bros. & Rudd has sold whisky for generations, it is only since the turn of the century that they have become a focus in our London shop, following the opening of a dedicated spirits room in 2001. Our range of whiskies covers four continents and upwards of 600 bottlings, which, in addition to over 300 other spirits, offers a taste of the fascinating breadth of distilled delights being produced today.

It was an absolute honour for our efforts to be rewarded by winning Global Whisky Retailer of the Year (Single Outlet).

Other notable winners on the evening were Kavalan in Taiwan who claimed the much-coveted World’s Best Single Malt award along with Master Distiller of the Year for their charismatic lynchpin, Ian Chang.

Read the full list of winners at the 2015 Icons of Whisky awards and browse our range of whisky.

Category: Spirits

Alcohol: on the ascent?


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Photograph: Jason Lowe

Grapes ripening in the sun at Hewitson, South Australia. Photograph: Jason Lowe

In response to queries regarding the rising alcohol levels in wine, Martin Hudson – Master of Wine and Wine Education Specialist – examines why ABVs (alcohol by volume) might be on the rise, and whether or not they actually are.

Wine is more alcoholic than it used to be: probably true, but why? There are a number of possible explanations, not necessarily including a conspiracy by liver specialists to drum up business at your local hospital. For wine to be more alcoholic, the grape juice has to contain more sugar, which in turn means that the individual bunch of grapes has received more solar and thermal energy. There could be a number of reasons for this. As volumes of wine drunk in most wine-producing countries have reduced, there has been a move away from higher yields of lower-quality wine, to lower volumes of better wine. If yields from individual vines are reduced, then each bunch of grapes will receive proportionately more energy from the photosynthetic effect of the leaf canopy, and therefore will have more sugar in the grape juice.

Improved canopy management (the control of the leaf canopy above the developing bunches of grapes) from the 1970s on has increased the level of exposure to solar radiation in the so-called fruiting zone of the vine. This has raised sugar levels, and hence alcohol levels. Improved medium-term weather forecasting has also had an effect. Fifty years ago there was reasonable certainty about the following day’s weather, but thereafter predictions were rather vague. Modern, satellite-image based predictions allow for accurate forecasting typically three or four days ahead. Fifty years ago, if grapes were more or less ripe and tomorrow was forecast to be dry, there was an incentive to arrange for the picking teams to arrive early tomorrow morning, whereas improved forecasting can allow a more relaxed view, thereby ensuring grapes are fully ripe (and sugar-laden) prior to picking.

The isolation and propagation of yeast strains with particular favourable fermentation characteristics may also have had an effect on alcohol levels, as such yeasts are often more efficient at turning sugar into alcohol than the cocktail of wild or indigenous yeasts which would historically have been the norm.

Fashion has also probably played a part in this process, as many consumers have learned to love the riper flavours and softer structure of wines exposed to more sunshine, a process not hindered by the tastes of some influential wine critics. As flavours and tannins ripen, and acidity reduces during the maturation process, sugar-levels inevitably rise.

Finally, is wine really more alcoholic? The answer is probably yes, but some caution is needed before jumping to this conclusion. The gradual increase of average summer temperatures over the last few decades will also have an effect on wine levels. That said, the levels of alcohol on wine labels have been notoriously inaccurate (and invariant) in the past, and some of the acknowledged great vintages from Bordeaux had alcohol levels that would not seem out of place today – 1947 Cheval Blanc was reputed to be over 14 percent ABV when bottled.

Category: Wine School