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Pedigree Vintage

mid-December 2008

a few hundred 2007 Northern Rhône reds and whites were tasted in early December, and there are certainly wines of some pedigree around in this vintage, which is less flashy than the Southern Rhône. Notes to be posted over the coming weeks. In both North and South, the 2008s I have tasted have been OK, as they say . . direct fruit, and more in the glass than the doomsayers (at least those who deem any poor year in Bordeaux equals a poor year everywhere else in France) have been muttering.

There was a foot of snow on 11 December, it lying for some days at 300 metres on the plateau above Côte-Rôtie: that made for very cold, dank cellars and nutters trying to overtake me on snow-bound roads. Water reserves in the Northern Rhône are now back to normal, the first time in several years, so perhaps 2009 starts out on a well-balanced footing. The Southern Rhône is still short by I would estimate around 20-30% of its "normal" water reserves.

Pricing is going to be a hot topic in 2009. With a good vintage in 2007 and a dodgy year in 2008, one would think that the growers will go all out with prices as high as the market will take on the 2007s. But we have an enormous slowdown, and galloping unemployment. Will 2008s be a lot cheaper? Well, they should be, but then the crop is down by at least 30%. So lowering prices on a greatly reduced crop is not easy to do, especially if the bank is breathing down your neck. Some high profile merchants have gone long on buying up large stocks of 2007 Côtes du Rhône reds, with a view to buying up very little of the 2008s, and hoping for a good vintage in 2009 to keep supply of that wine going.

In Britain, with its particularly enfeebled economy, the added bugbear is the weakness of sterling, collapsing against the Euro as I write. Duty increases from November only add to the gloom. This is the pragmatic Celtic-Anglo Saxon way of hitting merchants, as opposed to the Gallic one of banning internet comment on drinks and generally making people feel bad about working in the wine trade or growing vines.

Our cheval mascot, Cornas, raced twice in November, which was once too often, and "he was quiet when saddled" on the second occasion, despite his owner claiming he was a hardy New Zealand-bred. He finished 7th in that race at Ascot, by the way. Maybe Auguste Clape should feed him some oats and tell him to get a grip. His next destination is to jump larger obstacles after a rest over Christmas. Maybe some Yuletide Syrah in the bran mash . .?

Plans for the vineyard visit will be firming up in the next 2 months. The target date is likely to be towards the end of May 2009. Happy Christmas to readers in the meantime.

Local Growers

December 2008

Cornas kicks off the Northern Rhône village wine festivities. that occur every December. This is when the local growers have a chance to sell their recent wines to their nearby public, and a frequent sight is that of septuagenarians wheeling their diable trolleys ("diable" because of the two handles that stick out) laden with cases to people`s cars. I first attended the Cornas Marché aux Vins in 1973, when it was called the Festival of the Syrah and the Roussette. Those were long days, with post-midnight assembly in the cellar of Auguste Clape. I shall be back there again this year for the 2008 version, and then a series of 2007 tastings and domaine visits across all the Northern appellations.

The Cornas Fair is followed a week later by the Chavanay Wine Fair, with more of the Saint-Joseph, Côte-Rôtie and Condrieu vignerons present, that little bit nearer their homes.

2008 in the Southern Rhône has fared reasonably well: fruit without great stuffing around it has shown up at Châteauneuf-du-Pape, Gigondas and Vacqueyras. But the fruit is clear. Meanwhile, the 2007s there boom along, with bags of fruit and abundant sweet appeal. Some wines are facile, and lack tannic structure - these are not the wines of a Great Year. The best domaines seem to have that all-important tannin, are very good indeed, and can live well. 2007 notes will be fed in from mid-December, after my visit to the Northern Rhône that starts in this first week of December.

The cheval mascot, Cornas, has run twice since the last news was posted - 5th at Ascot, then 8th at Newbury, both in hot handicap hurdle races over 2 miles. I am a shade poorer after these two sorties, and have not yet heard from Nick Brookes of Vine Trail about the inside story. This month`s Allez Cornas! award therefore goes to the village before its Marché aux Vins.

I repeat the advice to see the Châteauneuf-du-Pape 2006 whites, listed under the sidebar 2006 Southern Rhône, and also to keep in touch with the STGT and w.o.w. categories - the latter invariably points to good value wines. Added recently has been the Perrin et Fils collection of Southern Rhône wines - an extremly strong line-up - and these are listed under Perrin et Fils in the Châteauneuf-du-Pape appellation.

Horse Buisness

Mid-November 2008

CORNAS alert. Our cheval Mascot Cornas ran 4th in a good race at Sandown Park last week. His trainer, Nick Williams, is also a chartered accountant, like his wife. They train about 15 horses with great amounts of care and attention, no doubt the same way as they look at The Books. Cornas is now due to run at Ascot on Friday 21 November, in the 3.50 pm 2 mile Handicap Hurdle, and has a chance. I will be en route for Châteauneuf-du-Pape, but will be urging him on or flapping my wings in support. Nick Brookes of Vine Trail will be on the spot, and will relay post-race reports. ALLEZ CORNAS!

Note that new Gigondas domaines have been inserted, and 2007 Gigondas tasting notes for those domaines. Also, at Crozes-Hermitage, the new Domaine Philippe & Vincent Jaboulet, and an update on the 2007s from Vincent Paris at Cornas and Yves Gangloff at Condrieu. Please see the Châteauneuf-du-Pape 2006 whites, and keep in touch with the STGT and w.o.w. categories - the latter invariably points to good value wines.

Precise Selection

November 2008

the harvest is in, the die is cast for 2008. It is certain that yields are markedly down on the abundant 2007, and I suspect that the better names will rise to the top in a year that will need precise selection. Areas that escaped the abundant September rains, and hail, will fare best. I am told that Languedoc endured less rain than much of the Southern Rhône this year, and that Alsace shows promise on its Rieslings.

I set off to the Rhône 3 times in the next 6 weeks, starting with a close look at Gigondas in the first week. I will cover 2006s, 2007s and some raw cuvées of 2008 Grenache to get an idea of matters. Please note that there are now more Gigondas domaines entered, and that some of those who also produce Beaumes-de-Venise, notably Domaine de Cassan and Château Redortier, are also now logged up.

The end of October also brought the very sad news that Monsieur Henri Brunier, the most amusing and charming proprietor of the Domaine du Vieux Télégraphe, died at the end of the month. See Goings-On for a closer appreciation of him. There was also the passing of Henri Estevenin, one of the colourful characters of Châteauneuf-du-Pape, a restaurateur, and booming bon viveur whose sons run the Verger des Papes restaurant near the Château.

Gradually the net is spreading to cheaper wine appellations such as Costières de Nîmes, where I have added the good value Château La Tour de Béraud, under the same ownership as the accomplished Château Mourgues du Grès.


October 2008

what a crazy month was September 2008. Whacky or what? I experienced some of the turmoil first-hand when working in New York, Boston and London. Already the wine merchants are offering the Menetou Salon or Quincy rather than the Sancerre, or the Costières de Nîmes rather than the Rhône Villages. The Rhône growers joined in the general volatility with difficult weather in the first half of the month - notably two large storms in the Southern Rhône - but then welcomed the Mistral to blow from North to South and so commence cleaning-up operations.

Châteauneuf-du-Pape growers started to pick their Grenache around 21 September, and Gigondas got going a week after that. Morning temperatures of 9-10°C (48-50°F) rising to day levels of not more than 20-24°C (68-75°F) suggest a good year for the white Rhônes. Yields are well down on 2007 - 20-40% off - and it will be a year demanding careful selection by buyers: for the growers, precise, watchful and pre-emptive vineyard work will pay its rewards this year. Playing catch-up in the cellar will be a dodgy course of action.

Here on the website, there were more domaines loaded under Gigondas in September, and this will continue in October. A new Châteauneuf-du-Pape domaine, Domaine des 3 Cellier (one half of the now discontinued Domaine Saint-Benoit) has been added, and also the awakening Domaine Durieu and the steady, traditional Eddie Feraud.

The big news at Gigondas in September was the purchase by the Perrin family of Château de Beaucastel of the excellent, STGT Domaine des Tourelles - see Goings On for the explanation. A series of tastings of white Châteauneuf-du-Pape 2006s has also been done, and will be rounded up, along with the prominent Châteauneuf-du-Pape 2006 reds, under the 2006 Southern Rhône left hand tab during this month.

Visits to the Rhône to taste 2006s and 2007s and some vats of 2008 will occur in the next months leading up to Christmas. We also bid farewell to the home photograph of my runner beans (still giving crop on 3 October, 2008) and greet a shot of Gigondas from the air that I took in February 2008. In rainy vintages, Gigondas often performs well, helped by the altitude and later ripening of its vineyards. A sound September is, of course, a pre-requisite.


September 2008

the flowering beans retain their picture slot, but their coulure has been similar to that experienced by the Grenache in parts of the Rhône - when the flowers do not convert into fruit. Lack of sunshine hours has been a big problem in England this summer - August is about 97 hours versus an average of 165 hours. Down in the Rhône, growers are crossing their fingers for a good start to September, but have been boosted by a hot and fine second half of August. Please see Goings-On for some latest reports from the growers.

On a personal note, two visits to Moscow have marked my August, a Moscow that had a third week of heat around 25-33°C, high indeed. Wine exists in something of a desert in Russia, since taxes are punitive for those on a normal working wage. A typical Côtes du Rhône red sells for around £40 or US$73 in a restaurant. In good food shops, such as the one on the main avenue of Tverskaya, Guigal and Paul Jaboulet Aîné are on the shelves, with off vintages such as 2002 present, but also recent Beaumes-de-Venise sweet wines including the 2006 that bear the new Jaboulet labelling. Smaller Rhône domaines do not figure among the oceans of Bordeaux.

One small venue of note is Le Sommelier, address 5 Smolenskaya Street - opposite the Ministry of Foreign Affairs on the main Ring Road - one of the seven splendid Stalin era buildings. This is on the west side of the city. You can smoke a cigar and eat Jabugo Iberian ham, while sipping a domaine wine here, with a variety of choices. Côtes du Rhône red from Domaine Charvin and Condrieu from Yves Cuilleron are both available there. The telephone number is +7495 7826363, web http://www.lesommelier.ru/. Good hunting!

Another mention of dinners in the Rhône for April or May 2009. Let me know if this piques your interest - some have replied already, and this is restricted to subscribers. Email me at jll@drinkrhone.com, por favor.

In September, I will be in New York and Boston at the start of the month, and the next vineyard visit will be after the growers have harvested - some time in October, therefore.

Great Cultivation

August 2008

Cornas, le cheval mascot, has been rudely usurped by my own efforts at cultivation, just when vignerons are doing likewise in their vineyards. The beans that are flowering on the left are Scarlet Emperor, a classic Runner Bean, and on the right is Hestia, a dwarf Runner Bean. Both have been grown from organic seeds, but the year in southern England has been as tricky as it has in much of Europe, with very little sustained heat of any note. The beans are currently being cropped and the family feel healthy. I have always though that wine writers should be obliged to grow crops so they understand the vicissitudes and pitfalls that await anyone trying to make wine. That might rule out rather a lot of scribblers, probably no bad thing.

In the Rhône vineyards, we enter the bend into the home straight for 2008, with weather in August playing a major role in the outcome for the 2008 vintage. There has been widespread mildew in the vines after so many constant rainfalls in May and June - nothing large, but enough to wipe away any treatments. It was also cool at flowering time. Please see Goings-On for some more comments on 2008 so far.

There is also a tasting review of Paul Jaboulet Ainé, with the wines entered under their domaine heading. The 2005s and 2006s were put under the spotlight in May, 2008. The Tavel 2007s have been covered, and also little retrospectives on 2003 and 2000 Châteauneuf-du-Pape reds.

This month I have two visits abroad, not connected with the wine, so there will be gradual progress in entering Gigondas. I am also considering organising some dinners in the Rhône around April or May 2009. These would involve drinking a young vintage or two, and one that was more mature, say 5 to 8 years old. Some growers would be present, and there would be a vineyard visit on the day of the dinner. This is a very early idea, but it would be helpful if any subscribers could register their interest. Because space is limited in many of the venues, this will be reserved for subscribers only. Please contact me at jll@drinkrhone.com

Delicious Meals

July 2008

we retain Cornas, le cheval, as our photo mascot, even though he is taking a summer rest and probably galloping around some prime West Country turf near his stables. A small degree of extra sophistication has hit town this month, as links are created to wines singled out in tastings. I have given the STGT wines their own slot, as this is so fundamental to the approach that I most appreciate and respect.

From June, the highlight in London was an exceptional lunch at the 1 star Michelin Ledbury restaurant, a dish of ravioli of crab and lemongrass with sweetcorn and girolles being the complete star: beautiful with the Saint-Péray Les Pins 2006 from Domaine Gripa. Before that I was in the Rhône, which had its first really warm weather on Tuesday 17 June, after 5 or 6 weeks of indifferent climate. Outbreaks of mildew were reported in the Gard area, west of the river in the Southern Rhône, and elsewhere growers were struggling to contain that and some oidium on their vines. Cool weather, a lot of small rainfalls and no stable high pressure meant that copper or sulphur treatments for mildew and oidium were not gripping on the vines. At that stage the harvest was about 10 days behind the time of recent vintages.

To be posted this month will be a very full appraisal of 2005 at both Châteauneuf-du-Pape and Gigondas, as well as notes on 2006s and some 2007s. About 35 Tavel 2007s will also be put up, as these wines are obviously time sensitive. The new wines will be flagged up when entered in the section marked The Wines, where each domaine`s close-up is to be found. Visan, a Côtes du Rhône Village with some promising domaines, is finally emerging from a long dormant phase, and some 45 wines from there will be posted up, with their domaines as well. This is the sort of place that should be offering good value for money as winemaking standards improve and younger growers look after the vineyards more carefully than previous forebears.

For the moment, sample domaines that are free to all to assess what you receive on drinkrhone.com are Domaine Courbis and Jean-Michel Gérin in the North, and Domaine Pierre André and Domaine Chante Cigale at Châteauneuf-du-Pape in the South. This should give a flavour of what to expect. I can always be contacted at jll@drinkrhone.com as well.

Snake Attack

June 2008

I am leaving my cobra story for anyone who may stray on to the website, just to show that international travel surely ain`t what it used to be: this comes from the Hotel des Cocotiers in Douala, Cameroun, the only hotel where I have witnessed a snake in Reception. This was being lit up by a man in Wellington boots, who retreated each time he tried to hit the reptile, only infuriating it even more. I was watching this panto, when a waiter sidled up to me. The Camerounais have a wonderful sense of humour, and delivery. He knew me well from previous visits: "Bon jour, chef," he started - "pas bon, eh?" I didn`t know whether I should comment on the badness of the situation - no-one checking in etc - or the badness of the man`s aim. I opted for the classic British middle way: "C`est vrai, non. Where does the snake come from?" He informed me that they had been clearing some land next to the hotel, and this snake had been knocked out of a coconut tree. He reserved the best to last: "C`est un cobra ......... pause for effect ...... femelle, vous savez" and doubled up laughing. The female of the species, oh my goodness - this is SERIOUS!!

Snake Attack

June 2008

I am leaving my cobra story for anyone who may stray on to the website, just to show that international travel surely ain`t what it used to be: this comes from the Hotel des Cocotiers in Douala, Cameroun, the only hotel where I have witnessed a snake in Reception. This was being lit up by a man in Wellington boots, who retreated each time he tried to hit the reptile, only infuriating it even more. I was watching this panto, when a waiter sidled up to me. The Camerounais have a wonderful sense of humour, and delivery. He knew me well from previous visits: "Bon jour, chef," he started - "pas bon, eh?" I didn`t know whether I should comment on the badness of the situation - no-one checking in etc - or the badness of the man`s aim. I opted for the classic British middle way: "C`est vrai, non. Where does the snake come from?" He informed me that they had been clearing some land next to the hotel, and this snake had been knocked out of a coconut tree. He reserved the best to last: "C`est un cobra ......... pause for effect ...... femelle, vous savez" and doubled up laughing. The female of the species, oh my goodness - this is SERIOUS!!

Racer Supreme

May 2008

The really big news in April was the triumph of my friend Nick Brookes` horse, Cornas. Nick is the supremo of Vinetrail, http://www.vinetrail.co.uk/, and a full-on Rhône supporter, as can be judged by the name of this beast that was actually bred in New Zealand. Not called Hawkes Bay, then Nick? Cornas prevailed in a 2-mile hurdle race at Wincanton, near another noted Rhône merchant`s stable, that of Yapp Brothers, http://www.yappbrothers.co.uk/. Boy, this is becoming a merchandising intro. The nub of the matter is that Cornas won at 12/1, a very considerate starting price for those not into the turf: ie invest 1 bottle on him, and receive a whole case, plus your original bottle, in return. He went unbacked by me, as at that precise moment I was in the ladies lavatory, the one with the door open, on the M4 motorway service station having received food poisoning in a Tapas restaurant in Monmouth, Wales. 3 members of my extended family were also felled in similar fashion. Go Cornas, and beware tapas in Monmouth.

Reduced Delicicies

April 2008

a reminder that Hong Kong very smartly reduced wine duty from 40% to ZERO on February 27, 2008 - what a move to tie up the burgeoning Asian market, a real hub there from now on. Berry Brothers have a wine education school starting up, and there is big action there now. Here in Britain, we were hit with increased duty on wine - 15p a bottle if I recall - in the mid-March budget. Second: Le Parisien, the French newspaper, published an article on Champagne last year, and it has been deemed by the Judge of First Instance to have constituted publicity for wine. The threat is now that all articles on wine in France should bear a health and pregnancy warning. Websites on wine in France are also menaced by another judicial move that may prevent them showing any publicity. If all young drunks got hooched up on wine, this might be more explicable but all growers feel under threat now from this sort of over-reaction and grim disapproval from those on high.

The only other commercial tip I can relay from my weeks in France in January is - try not to fly internally: the Air France monopoly will cost you about twice more than your local aller-retour flights from a nearby country. Some 2007 Pomerols may be OK, as will the southern Rhône. At the moment, 2006 views have been posted on a series of Châteauneufs, including Beaucastel, Clos des Papes and Rayas 2006, for instance. More will be posted this month.

In the meantime, you will see that the website has moved to a subscription service. The cost is £40 a year. The idea is for a data base that is gradually built up over time. The website will be updated on a gradual basis, but it should be treated as a live archive rather than a daily or weekly newspaper. I emphasize that I do not and cannot earn my living from wine writing, so I also work in communication training, which takes me around the world, far from the vineyards. So blocks of data will be loaded at intervals. Please do not expect daily updates.

I am often asked the question - when is the Southern book coming out? My answer is: my post-tax revenues from the 700+ page Northern book so far - advance and royalty - are less than US$4,000. Expenses obviously lurch this figure into a blazing Syrah red. I would expect - and hope - that many of you would not get out of bed for such derisory income for work that took over 2 years. So you do what you can: the website is the first stage towards a Southern book.

One other item of news: on 28 March, 2007, I formally participated in the purchase of 0.8795 of a hectare at Cornas, split between the site of La Genale and Thezier. A group of British and Scandinavian wine enthusiasts and professionals assembled the necessary to acquire this land and to rent it to the nephew of the vendor for a 40-year period. The seller was Robert Michel, who was taking his retirement. The nephew is Vincent Paris. He will continue to produce a wine called La Geynale. As a result, I declare an interest in the domaine Vincent Paris, as of spring 2007. VIVE LE CORNAS!

You may note that the website is a little more polished than before. You can now search more easily for specific wines, specific vintages or specific tasting notes triggered, for example, by how many stars you seek in a wine. If you want a 4-star St-Joseph, go to Search, plug in St-Joseph in the Vineyard box and 4 stars in its box, and there should be an abracadabra moment of revelation. Scroll down past mountains of Guigal and St-Joseph is there at the bottom, in correct alphabetical order. I cross my fingers on your behalf(ves).

This is a site intended to cover the Rhône Valley wines, people and vineyards. It is being gradually launched, since its composition will be the fruit of over 30 years' work, and that means a mighty number of little orange Rhodia notebooks (must be size 14).

My name is John Livingstone-Learmonth. I am the author of 4 books - "The Wines of the Rhône" - published by Faber & Faber in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s. My latest work on the region, The Wines of the Northern Rhone, was published by University of California Press, on sale from November 2005 (US$55, £ 35.95). It can be referenced on http://go.ucpress.edu/livingstone-learmonth.

The book won two Awards in 2006. The first was a Special Commendation for the André Simon Award. It has since been voted the Louis Roederer International Wine Book of the Year 2006. Press reaction has also been favourable, and I have received some enthusiastic e-mails from readers in countries including Canada, Sweden, Denmark, Australia, even England. None from France yet, but I am informed of an American gentleman who likes to drink at Willis Wine Bar in Paris. He was seen seated at the counter with a bottle of Clusel-Roch Les Grandes Places and Barge Côte Brune Côte-Rôtie on either side of him, my book in front of him, muttering "this book is going to cost me a lot of money." He has since returned to drink a magnum of Clape Cornas.