Liv-ex interview with Giovanni Geddes da Filicaja of Ornellaia and Masseto, part two

MILANO, 11 06 09 FRESCOBALDI -IL VINO IN TEMPO DI CRISI- PH: SIMONA CHIOCCIA

Last week, Liv-ex published the first part of an interview with CEO of Masseto and Ornellaia, Giovanni Geddes da Filicaja. In it, he discusses business strategy and the fine wine market. In the second part, below, Giovanni shares his views on pricing wine, Parker’s retirement and the Vendemmia d’artista project.  

When were the first vintages of Masseto and Ornellaia?

Ornellaia came first – the first commercial vintage was 1985. The first commercial vintage of Masseto was 1987. In 1986 we produced Merlot dell’Ornellaia with its own unique label, but the name Masseto came in 1987.

What makes Masseto so popular?

It has become a magic name. It’s a magic wine because it really has a very, very strong personality. It comes from a special place – the terroir is very important. This makes it unique.

Clay soils, Merlot grape, small production – sometimes it’s described as the Petrus of Italy…

Others are describing it this way. I don’t think it’s very similar – it’s more opulent than Petrus. However, there are similarities in terms of volume. Another similarity is the pricing. Petrus hasn’t followed the same pricing model as other Bordeaux wines. It has increased progressively, but not as fast. It’s exactly the same for Masseto.

Which are the best Masseto vintages?

Masseto is probably better known for its warmer, very powerful vintages: 2001, 2006, 2011 and 2012 – but cooler vintages like 2007, 2010 and 2013 result in very fine wines that are not as powerful. The ratings are often just as high for these vintages as the warmer years, especially 2010. We didn’t expect this because it didn’t have the same power.

The 2012 is very fruity – it’s elegant and very good.  2013, I think, is just behind 2010.  It’s a wine that you can probably drink earlier than you would drink the 2001 or 2006. It shows wonderful elegance, finesse, and depth.

Do you feel that any of your vintages have been underrated by critics?

2007 was a very elegant wine that I loved, but it didn’t get the ratings we expected – 96 points from the Wine Advocate.

What does Parker’s retirement mean for you?

It doesn’t matter to us because we haven’t built our brands around any one wine writer. I don’t think there will be anybody as powerful as Robert Parker in the future. There will probably be three or four publications like Wine Advocate, but none as important.  One is Wine Spectator which caters for consumers interested in wines at lower price points. Antonio Galloni is very highly regarded in America, as is James Suckling. The Italian critics have slightly lost their clout – their ratings are more complicated and people don’t understand as easily; the Americans are very pragmatic with their 100-point scores.

Is there a danger that we have too many good vintages these days? The days of the 70s and 80s, where you had a variety of vintages, are gone. If we don’t have the weaker vintages any more, will we have too much wine?

I believe that this has a lot to do with the economy – you need to look at the vintages in this context. If you look at the 30s and 70s, people didn’t put the same effort in and they didn’t have the technology.

I also think that consumers will increasingly look at the brand before they look at the vintage. The tendency is to look at the brand and say, ‘I am drinking a great wine – what vintage is it?’ rather than looking at the vintage first.

This is partly related to wines being drunk earlier. Once they are sold I think wines are probably drunk within 18 months. You find less old wines in restaurants now, so people will get used to younger wines.  Because of all of this, it’s very important that the brand guarantees the absolute quality, and not just the vintage.

In our case, the brand is significantly more important unless you are a serious collector or working in the auction business. I think this puts us in a stronger position than Bordeaux.

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Your background – your studies and then your early work – is commercial. Has this informed how you think about wine?

I think that I have addressed wine from the perspective of the consumer, at a very high level, and also as a merchant, rather than just looking at what we produce.

To market the wine you need to have the best wine maker who is also be able to present themselves, and no-one can do the job of presenting themselves unless he knows what he is talking about.  You can’t just rely on public relations.

So you need the economists and the wine maker.  The other thing that is very important is to build a team who work together – completely together – from the vineyards to the final consumer.

It is also important to talk to the key quality collectors in the world.  We’ve been very good at doing that with the press.

To produce a great wine, you also the need to help of the economy to make it greater – great wine costs more than simple wine.  You cannot take shortcuts at anything. Value comes from the consumer. It doesn’t come from cutting cost. It comes from getting a better price.

Does the way you think set you apart from other producers in Tuscany?

Yes, very much so.  Most of the wines are being produced by producers. They think of the cost first – it’s seen as an agriculture business first and foremost. You have to understand what it means to build value.

So a lot of people focus on producing the best wine and then as a secondary thought they have to go on and sell. But they think of just selling it – but not going beyond this and communicating with collectors, and so on.  They don’t think they have time to do it – maybe they are too small, but then they stay small.

You can produce a great wine at a low price just with good skills in the vineyard.  And if you let the world sell it for you and the market sell it for you, it’s not such a bad business…

Yes, but you are looking at running a business just to have enough money to make a good living.

To establish a brand with more value for long term investors, for your family and for your country – because a brand is something valuable even for your country – requires more than this.

Top fashion labels understand that they are brands, not just textile producers making t-shirts. At that point they change from being a company of ten to a company of 1,000. A company like Loro Piana, which is now part of LVMH, is valued in the billions. They were t-shirt producers before.

After understanding this, a similar thing happened to wine producers in Tuscany.  They had to move to the next level with merchants and with the consumer because that’s where the value starts.

 Can you tell us about the Vendemmia d’artista project? How do you choose the artist?

[Every year since the release of Ornellaia 2006 in May 2009, a contemporary artist creates a work of art and a series of limited edition labels drawing inspiration from the single word chosen by the Winemaker to describe the character of the new vintage. A limited number are created and sold at auction.]

We have a curator who has been with us since the beginning. He’s a curator professionally – he’s worked all over the world – and he happens to be the brother of my brother-in-law. We start by defining the character of the vintage – brainstorming together – but he does it mostly. On that basis we look for an artist. It’s a challenging thing to do because great artists are very difficult. It’s a tough job!

This helps us to present the wines and talk about the vintage in a different way.

 What would you consider to be the greatest achievement in your career?

As a company, I would say the growth of Ornellaia and Masseto and the separation of the two brands, which is not complete and will take a lot of time – you need separation of people and the brand, and most importantly you need your own winery. Many of the important things in the world are defined in this way.  You think of the White House, you think of St Peter’s – the building itself is very important. Without having its own winery, Masseto remains a wine and not an estate.  And so building one must happen.

But if you take Ornellaia and Masseto as a whole and the development of the brands in particular, they probably represent my greatest achievements.


Liv-ex interview with Giovanni Geddes da Filicaja of Ornellaia and Masseto, part one

Giovanni Geddes da Filicaja is the CEO of Ornellaia and Masseto. Liv-ex recently caught up with him to find out more about his work and views on the world of wine. In the first part of the interview, published below, Giovanni discusses business strategy, the fine wine market, and the relationship between Ornellaia and Masseto.

 How did you get into the wine business? What brought you to Ornellaia e Masseto?

I didn’t go straight into wine. I started at an import company, then became involved in Remy Martin. So I was focused on spirits and Champagne rather than wine specifically. But I had always been interested in wine: my family had wine properties and land, though we didn’t produce commercially.

When I moved into wine – first to Antinori, then as a consultant, and then to Frescabaldi – I became more and more interested in the wine, particularly looking at where there were opportunities in Tuscany to produce some of the greatest wines in the world. I think Ornellaia and Masseto are now recognised as two of the great wines of the world, and they’ve grown a lot. Since I became CEO, the company’s revenue has increased six-fold.

Is this because of increased production?

It has been partly through increased production but mostly through adding value. Masseto’s increase is all about its value. The largest volume ever made by Masseto was in 1999 when we made 38,500 bottles. Now we produce around 30/32,000 bottles.

Ornellaia’s increase has been about both production and value.

How has the pricing of your wines evolved over time?

We don’t change our price according to the character of the vintage. Instead, we change it consistently with the market. We’ve never decreased the price, only gone up or remained stable. For example, our current release price is 3.5 times higher than of the 2001 vintage.

What if the market went down?

We have to be very careful with the volume that we want to put on the market. For all our Ornellaia wines. This means maintaining and building demand which is bigger than what we ship.

So take 2001 for instance. The economy wasn’t strong at all. The wines did not have the image they have today, and so I decided to hold back Ornellaia – about 30% – and sell it over the years, but not reduce the price.

In 2002 I reduced the quantity of Ornellaia. We produced a lot more of Le Serre Nuove, the second wine, but never reduced the price. We remained stable with the price until 2005, and then we moved on.

Is there a ceiling?

Masseto is a real collectable. With the current volumes – and it will stay at that volume – it will remain collectable.

Still, there is a lot more consumption than one might think because a lot of very wealthy people are drinking it. For them the prices aren’t too high, so we still find a lot of Masseto being sold in top restaurants.

If we look at price increases Masseto is up by about 50% in the USA over the past three years. Petrus has increased by about 10%. But Petrus is two thousand dollars; we are seven or eight hundred dollars – so there’s still a gap.

Ornellaia is produced in higher volumes. It keeps growing: the standard price now varies from $200-220. In restaurants it is very high – beyond $500 in top New York restaurants.

What happens to the Masseto grapes that don’t make it into Masseto?

The Masseto vineyard has an excellent capacity to produce perfect grapes, so we are talking about a very, very small portion of the grapes that don’t go in Masseto.

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How did you go about defining the relationship between the two wines?

Strategically, my point was that Masseto would be a very different wine from Ornellaia, with a completely different label. It would be more expensive, with the opportunity to be the very top wine of Italy – and very international in terms of taste and positioning.

I didn’t want Masseto to compete with Ornellaia. I wanted Ornellaia to be the flagship of the estate, and Masseto to become an estate on its own. And in order to achieve that, I started by separating any activities like tastings and so on.

I changed the name of the company from Tenuta dell’Ornellaia to Ornellaia and Masseto. So when we bottle Ornellaia we use ‘bottled by Ornellaia’ and when bottling Masseto we use ‘bottled by Masseto’.

And how about distribution?

The next step was to separate distribution. From the 2006 vintage we started using La Place de Bordeaux, though we also have direct distribution in Italy, the United States and Canada.

Distribution to the rest of the world, with the exception of a very small allocation to Germany and Austria, goes through La Place, which has about 50% of the allocation.

The growth has been fantastic. I had followed Opus One – David Pearson [CEO of Opus One] is a very good friend. We discussed distribution on a number of occasions. La Place has done a fantastic job for Opus One’s wine, and it’s doing a fantastic job for us as well with Masseto.

What makes La Place so successful?

They have a lot of history, and this has given La Place knowledge of really good buyers – the top buyers of the world.

We have a different history in Italy – there is no comparable system, so we have had to market the brands on our own.

I don’t think that La Place could work as well with a wine that is not established already – they don’t have the means to promote it. However once the wine is established, they can do a fantastic job. Now, within say the first two to four days, they will sell something like 70% of the Masseto allocation.

By the end of November last year, 88% was sold. This was due to repeat demand from several customers – we have over four hundred customers buying from La Place nowadays.

Does it matter where – which countries – your wine is sold?

It does and it doesn’t. We try to spread out our distribution, but ultimately it ends up where the market demands, and that is fine.

La Place give us all the data – they tell us which countries they have sold the wine to, by country.

Has this changed in the past decade?

Yes it has, very much so. Asia is much more important than it used to be.

Bordeaux experienced problems from mid-2011. Demand from Asia had priced European buyers out of the market. When this demand died down, it was not possible to sustain prices…

About 15% of our sales are accounted for by Asia and this is very much concentrated in Hong Kong and China. This is a much smaller percentage than is sold in Italy. Europe as a whole is huge for us Germany, Switzerland and the UK in particular. We could sell more to the UK, but we limit it – otherwise half would go to the UK and then spread out around the world again. So it is quite balanced.

Do you ever offer older vintages direct from the estate?

This year we auctioned wines from the cellars of Ornellaia. These were wines that had never left the winery before, so we put them in slightly different packaging to indicate this – something that was particularly attractive to collectors. We sold them at three different auctions in New York, London and Hong Kong. The greatest success was in Hong Kong, then New York and then London.

Masseto and Ornellaia regularly trade on Liv-ex. What is your view on this?

I think it’s a good thing. It shows that there is demand.


 

Liv-ex interview with Michel Rolland, part two

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Last week, Liv-ex published the first part of an interview with Bordeaux winemaker and consultant Michel Rolland. In it, he discusses his career and winemaking philosophy. In the second part,  below, Rolland shares his views on Bordeaux and wine criticism. To view the interview in French, please click here.

There was lack of consensus on the quality of Bordeaux 2015, as shown by the Liv-ex En Primeur survey results. Do the tasters know what they are talking about?

You know, for the past 40 years I have enjoyed around 3000 new wines each year and I’m still not sure.

However I find that your non-consensus is good on two levels. First, it shows that a broad range of wines may appeal to a broad panel of tasters. This is rather positive. A consensus would mean that there is an objective ‘good’ and everything else is bad.

How about the critics, specifically?

We all know that there is one person that determines the market, even though he only reviews California now: Robert Parker. He’s the only one who has managed to build a commercial consensus behind him. He had followers and created social networks before anyone else in wine.

Today, there are people that I like such as Robert Joseph, Michel Bettane in France, Antonio Galloni in the US and Neal Martin in the UK. These people taste with professionalism and honesty that I do not doubt, but they are struggling to have as many followers as Parker did at the time.

Why do you think they don’t have Parker’s influence?

First, the market is much more complicated than it was in the days of Bob Parker. 30 years ago, when he came to a tasting that I organised, we tasted 220-230 samples in total, and then it was over. Today, I think it would have been incomplete if he tasted 800. This complicates things.

The opportunity Parker had was to taste significantly less wine. At the time he enjoyed France, Italy, Spain, the US, South America and Australia. Today, nobody can do that: just for France, there is a specialist in Bordeaux, a specialist in Burgundy and a specialist in the Languedoc.

Does this make them more expert?

No, because the best way to be an expert is to be broad – to taste everything. The more you reduce your field of view, the less expert you are.

So to become an expert critic, we must enjoy everything – a lot and often?

Exactly. It takes time to become a good taster. However, you also need talent. I always compare it to sport: everyone can run, but some run faster than others.

Do you think there will be a new Parker?

No, for the reasons I mentioned before. Nobody will have same opportunity now. No-one can have the same influence.

Do you think the influence he had was a good thing?

That’s a good question! No. Intellectual hegemony is a form of dictatorship. However, unlike other dictatorships where one can force people, nobody had to listen to Parker… but everyone did!

How do you see the role of social media currently and in the future?

I have had two thoughts. First, I was absolutely convinced that social networks were an opportunity to spread knowledge about wine. The problem that we have now is that they are not used for tasting notes but for fighting. I find them too aggressive.

Aggressive to whom?

Ultimately, to everyone. At times, about wines or to winemakers, journalists – or amongst themselves. If a person claims to have tasted an extraordinary bottle of white Lagravière Malartic 2005, a wave of people will go against him. There is a kind of aggressiveness in the words; there is no consensual exchange that could move the debate forward.

I thought – and still think – that the situation can improve and be positive. Today it offers the only opportunity to cover the entire wine production globally. If you were tasting 2,000 wines 30 years ago, you’d need to be tasting 20,000-25,000 today. Who can do that? No one. If people enjoyed a bottle of Pontet Canet in Tokyo, New York, San Francisco, London or Paris and shared their experience online, it could become helpful for the consumer.

And maybe bring some consensus among a group of people?

I think so. This could be positive, even if it is complicated today when everyone wants to strengthen their reputation. People are more concerned about their egos than the intrinsic quality of the wines.

Do you think that tasting from barrel at En Primeur is a system that works well?

No, because as we said, it is very complicated. Tasting young wines is extremely technical.

So when should the wines be tasted?

When they are bottled.

Immediately, or a little later?

Perhaps 15 months later.

There would be no En Primeur system…

Not necessarily.

You want a system without En Primeur tasting?

If you look at scores for all wines from the past 20 years, you’ll see that some received poor marks but went on to become very good. Take Larcis Ducasse for example you’ll see monumental differences between scores. When you compare the assessments with sales prices and volumes – information that the properties can give ten years later – you’ll find that that the initial score has little impact on En Primeur sales. Instead, the wine falls into its usual price range and will sell as usual if the vintage is good, but will not sell if the vintage is bad – even if it received positive reviews.

So the individual score of a wine does not change the release price, even if the wine received 98 or 100 from Parker?

No, but this can offer a small boost.

What do you think of blind tastings?

I’m not a supporter of blind tastings. I do it a lot because it’s fun, but as an approach to tasting professionally I don’t like it much. You lose the spirit of tasting a little – and it is already necessary to be focused enough while tasting, even without needing to identify the wine.

Do you think the critics have sometimes under-scored your wines?

I don’t think about this too much, or judge them. Parker never really rated my own wines highly.

I assume you are aware of “Bordeaux bashing”?

Yes, there has been Bordeaux bashing and there still is.

Why?

I don’t know. In Bordeaux, we must have a sort of arrogance that does not please everyone.

But five years ago, everyone loved Bordeaux…

That’s true. I believe the arrogance of Bordeaux is shown in the prices of 2009 and 2010. Interestingly, however, it was only the prices of the very top wines that increased significantly – the others rose less.

The world of commerce and consumption poorly digested this price increase on 2009 and 2010. Then we came across more complicated vintages in 2011, 2012 and 2013.

So this is mostly due to release prices in 2009 and 2010?

Effectively. On top of that, Bordeaux fell in love with the Chinese market and became distracted from its traditional markets. Again, wine is not poetry! You have to make sales.

Are those who are “Bordeaux bashing” wrong?

I don’t think there is a reason for Bordeaux bashing specifically, but there is some truth in it. Bordeaux had a moment of madness on pricing in 2009 and 2010 and with its market orientation: China, rather than the traditional markets like the UK or USA. Some prices soared as China started to buy. It is true that this isn’t the best way towards a balanced market; it’s the best way to be criticised – and that is what happened.

What do you think of buying wines – especially the great wines of Bordeaux – for speculative purposes?

I think as long as wine is a speculative product, it is reassuring for the sector. Some point out that we can’t drink the firsts, seconds or other famous wines. I always say to people that there are a lot of good wines from the lower crus. We don’t need to drink Margaux, Latour or Mouton Rothschild every time that we drink wine. There are other very good wines – some that are much cheaper can be very pleasant.

The speculative side pleases me. As long as there are auctions that will make everyone dream, fine wine will remain a luxury item. If Louis Vuitton and Cartier are successful it is because they offer things you cannot buy every day and not everybody can afford, but can dream about.

Do you think fine wine is good investment?

I think that buying fine wines is a very good investment, even today.

Which?

Bordeaux or Burgundy – French. The United States has a good reputation, but specifically within the United States. They are beginning to find success in Hong Kong but less so in England. Old bottles of fine French vintages remain a sure bet.

If you could, what would you change in Bordeaux?

Nothing really! You know, it’s like all great systems. It can be criticised, but is there anything better than the selling power of Bordeaux? No – even if the market in London partly grew thanks to the merchants. Bordeaux has an international network of distributors with a lot of power – and this is great. Of course, you could blame Bordeaux for the margins or distribution, but on the other hand it is the only market in the world that can do everything. Personally, I would not change anything.

Which region or country do you think the greatest potential for the future?

I have high expectations for countries such as Bulgaria, Romania, Ukraine or Georgia because of the climate and soil in the area surrounding the Black Sea. I think this region has a great potential.

How would your family describe you?

According to my wife: high standards for myself and others; a perfectionist – obsessive. I do not support mediocrity: we must always be more ambitious.

In the wine world, who do you admire most?

A lot of people! In Bordeaux, I had a great teacher, Émile Peynaud – he is hard to beat. I admired Pascal Ribéreau-Gayon very much. In trading, John Paul Jauffret was one of my mentors. I have also liked many great winemakers at various points in my life.

And today?

When you are 70, it is others who are watching you. So it’s a little different, but there are many wine producers that I admire such as my colleague Stéphane Derenoncourt who has had an absolutely remarkable journey, and even families like the Perses, and Alain Vauthier. In the Médoc, I would name people like Alfred Tesseron or the Cuveliers of Poyferré. In the US, there is Bill Harlan: someone who saw the big picture before anyone else in wine. He is a marketing genius. I have liked many people in my life. There are unusual characters like Marcel Guigal. It’s hard to make a list! Many people have experienced successes and shown intelligence.

What is your greatest professional achievement?

To experience my 44th harvest – I think few people have made more than 40 harvests. In fact, this must be my 75th harvest if we take into account the northern and southern hemispheres. I am sure that few people have had this opportunity and this chance, and it’s a very satisfying thing on a personal level. When I was young, I wanted to travel. I think I have been quite successful!


Liv-ex interview with Michel Rolland, part one

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Michel Rolland is a Bordeaux-based winemaker and consultant with a global client base. Liv-ex Director Anthony Maxwell recently caught up with him to find out more about his work and views on the world of wine. In the first part of the interview, published below, Rolland discusses his career and winemaking philosophy. The second part of the interview will be published next week. To view the interview in French, please click here.

Can you tell us about your background in wine? How did you become a consultant?

I grew up in a family of winemakers – I didn’t consider anything else. I started in the laboratory, as was done at the time, and eventually became a winemaker.

When I grew tired of this, I thought I could give advice to others. So I worked hard, and then consultancy work came gradually.

How many producers are you currently consulting for?

I work with seven employees and we manage a total of 230-240 accounts.

In how many countries?

My team advises in 14 countries. I have personally made wine in 21 different countries.

When consulting for a producer, what is your end goal?

To make my client happy! Like everyone else.

And what makes a customer happy?

When their wine sells. You know, we can approach wine as a cultural form – like poetry or music – but nobody makes wine because they are an artist. Even if I am an artist, it doesn’t make my clients happy. They are happy when they sell their wine. They spent money on producing it and want to maximise their profits. This is business.

And how do you achieve this? How do you increase the price of a wine?

There are several scenarios.

When a client comes to see me because he wants to get into the wine business out of nowhere, I give him various options then the choice is with him because it is his money.

Initially, it is only the quality that matters, and it is often necessary to invest in improving it without expecting immediate returns. We also consider where its fits into the market – positioning is essential. We make the wine with this in mind, and how this enables us to finance the operation. We mustn’t forget that wine is business!

We also look at marketing, though if the quality is not there, it’s not worth doing the marketing.

Take the case of Harlan Estate: we were making great wines before we were asking big prices. This has taken 25 years, but the potential was there originally.

So you knew that the potential was there from the beginning for Harlan?

Yes. I thought the potential was there but that the wines weren’t that good at the time. Then, fortunately, 1990 came along. This wasn’t a great vintage in Napa, but I thought that we could make good wine. Then 1991 and 1992 followed. These were two good vintages in Napa – relative to Bordeaux

Are you able to be objective in the qualitative evaluation of a wine?

I would say that I have my own objectivity. Quality is not the same for everyone: there are opinions that you share; others that you don’t share. My personal objectivity is a relative one in some ways. I do not take a wine and say whether it’s good or not: I try to make a wine that will achieve a goal. The goal is the market, the customer – in one or more countries.

You have previously said that your job is 70% psychology and 30% oenology. What does the psychology involve?

The psychology involves convincing people that they will get there one day. This isn’t easy – there are all sorts of obstacles, climate and otherwise. For example, the press response to the wine is not always what you expect. These are unknowns that we can’t predict, so you have to stay in touch with people and reassure them of the purpose of their work.

Take the Bordelais. Historically, they all thought that they were making the best wine in Bordeaux. Yet 40 years ago, there was more bad than good. I had to succeed in telling them that, maybe, the wine could be better but without saying that it was bad. These ideas could sometimes cause them to become frustrated. So early on the psychology and relationships were very important – but later we had to prove to them that what we said was verifiable. The psychology is very important.

Are you a businessman or an artist?

I’m certainly not an artist! It’s not a job where you can be an artist because success is too dependent on realism. There are many small organic wineries that I work with because I have a very open mind, but it’s not my main focus. My job is to work with people that are not necessarily artists.

Parker clearly admired the style of your wines. Is your influence affected by his retirement?

So far no clients have told me that I’m not needed now that Parker is retired!

Certainly a positive note from Parker can make life easier – even if it isn’t everything – and it was a useful point of reference. However, Bordeaux continues to sell today even without Bob Parker: 2015 saw a successful En Primeur. I think it was a great vintage, though not the most homogenous – there are good, so-so and, frankly, bad wines. Still, sales were made fairly and correctly at satisfactory prices.

Why do you think some critics they say there is a ‘Rolland style’?

What bothers me with the ‘Rolland style’ primarily is that I have trouble defining it. If I look at ten bottles of wine that I make from Bordeaux, Italy, Spain, South America and North America, I can’t identify a common style. It is true that when you drink the young wines, you can detect the oak. However if you put them side by side – wines that were made in 2000, 2001, 2002 and 2003 – you will find that the Chilean are often Chilean, the Argentinians are very Argentinian and the Bordeaux are Bordeaux.

Jancis wrote in a report that she could detect the clarets that had seen your influence…

I have invited her to taste them blind several times but she has not accepted. If she would like, I would be ready to offer again. It is almost certain that the wines will deceive.

What are the most common errors made by winemakers?

Not to go all the way – and this is perhaps what is lacking in the wine market in general. In general the winemakers do not make a lot of mistakes but it would sometimes help to be stronger commercially or with marketing. Some think that as soon as the wine is sold to the merchant, they have done what they need to do. This is not the case, as the second part begins – you need to strengthen the brand.

The disadvantage of this profession is that you need to know everything: the vine, the wine, bottling, selling, marketing… It is therefore a relatively complicated business, but some do it very well.

Apart from that, there was once the issue of excessive production, which has now disappeared.

You are in favour of using technology. Where will it stop? If we could produce Lafite Rothschild in a laboratory, would that be a good thing?

Technology isn’t everything, but it has allowed us a lot of progress. We have never before drunk wines as good as we do now. Today, even the wines that we say are bad are still good. This is similar to the history of the car: we can’t say that technology has damaged the car industry, just as it hasn’t spoiled wine.

You said that nobody wants ‘loser wine’. What is a ‘loser wine’?

As I said earlier, wine is made to be sold. If it does not sell, this reveals a problem. In my experience, I have never met anyone disinterested in selling their wine – even among the richest people.

In Bordeaux, there is a petit château called Château Pabus owned by a wealthy and friendly American. It has five hectares of vineyards and a fantastic cellar. But his goal is still to sell. He was happy when I told him that his wine is exceptional, but he will not be happy if it doesn’t sell.

How have your preferences and the preferences of consumers evolved over the last 20 or 30 years?

Consumer preferences, not my own, are important. I don’t work for me, even though I know what I like – indeed, I have done for 20 or 25 years. In a business like mine, it is necessary to have an eye on what the consumer enjoys. In the world of wine, the consumer is like the labour code in employment: when a new law passes, it must be taken into account. Similarly, when consumers’ preferences change, it is necessary to change the wines slightly in terms of fruit, acidity and alcohol.

Are you a trend setter or trend follow?

We must remain modest: one is never a trendsetter. I am a follower of trends. The market is always right.

The second part of the interview with Michel Rolland will be published on the blog next week.


Hong Kong Economic Times interviews Liv-ex Director James Miles

james

In June, The Hong Kong Economic Times Ltd interviewed Liv-ex Managing Director James Miles. In the interview, James discusses his personal links to Hong Kong, background as a stock analyst and interest in wine. He says that he became interested in the possibility of creating Liv-ex after realising that, “the wine market was like a very unsophisticated stock market. If we could establish an exchange to increase efficiency and transparency, the risk of investment can be reduced greatly”.

James continues to explain the similarities between the Liv-ex indices and the US stock markets, suggesting: “[They are] just like the US stock index, US Dow Jones 30 index, S&P 500 index and Russell 2000 index”.

The interview continues to cover how China has influenced the market in recent years, both towards its 2011 peak and subsequent decline. James then discusses the wines of Bordeaux with a focus on Lafite 1982’s international popularity.

The interview was originally published in Chinese. To download a translation of the interview in English, please click here. For the Chinese version, click here.


Finding the heir to Parker’s throne

correlation

Despite Robert Parker’s recent retirement from reviewing Bordeaux, his scores continue to have a profound impact on price. With Parker’s influence likely to decline as time goes on, there has been considerable discussion around what or who will influence the market next. Will there be an heir to Parker’s throne, or will a system based on consensus or average scores emerge as the market’s new barometer of wine quality in Bordeaux?

As a preliminary exploration of this issue, Liv-ex has measured the correlation between individual critic scores and the prices of the last ten physical vintages of the Bordeaux First Growths. We tested a sample of four popular critics: Robert Parker, Neal Martin, James Suckling and Jean Marc Quarin.

The chart above shows how closely correlated the prices of these wines are with scores from the respective critics. The results suggest that Parker Points still enjoy the greatest correlation with price, although the other sampled critics are not far behind.

Naturally there are many factors influencing any market, and fine wine is no different. For example, brand, vintage quality and age are also likely to influence fine wine prices. In addition, there may be issues with the direction of causation in our analysis, with scores perhaps being influenced by prices – blind tastings apart – or being correlated with each other. It will be interesting to observe how the market eventually choses its successor to Parker Points.


 

 

Liv-ex interview with Tim Atkin MW, part two

On Monday we published the first part of our interview with journalist, presenter, wine judge and photographer Tim Atkin MW.  In part one we discuss his career in the world of wine, wine writing and the changing role of the critic. In the second part, below, we discuss the wine industries of Bordeaux, Spain and South Africa.

Has the wine industry in Bordeaux and the style of wines produced changed throughout the course of your career?

The first Bordeaux vintage I wrote about was 1986. What I thought about Bordeaux then is still true today:  it’s the most interesting market in the world for wine. It produces comparatively large volumes of fine wines that are talked about and traded. Added to that, you’ve got vintage variation, you’ve got consultants, you’ve got diversity of style. I think Bordeaux is an amazing region and some of its best wines are among the greatest I’ve ever drunk. Primarily, though, what interests me is the way it’s marketed, sold and commoditised. As a journalist, I find that really interesting.

Having said that, I think that there was a stylistic line in the sand with the 1982 vintage. This was the vintage upon which Parker built his reputation and also the start of the rise and rise of Michel Rolland. I think that together they changed the way most wines are made in Bordeaux. They would defend their position and say that they like the style of wines that they have promoted, and there is nothing wrong with that. But I sometimes miss the older, fresher style of Bordeaux that needed a couple of decades or more in bottle to show at its best.

So where is Bordeaux at the moment in terms of style and place in the market?

Recently there has been a bit of a reaction to the style that Parker seems to prefer. We are slowly moving back to wines that are slightly fresher, and that I think have better balance.

The world of fine wine has diversified so much that you can find fine wine almost anywhere these days: the playing field is broader and flatter. Bordeaux used to dominate the scene like some enormous Himalayan mountain range. Most people thought that all the world’s greatest wines came from Bordeaux, with a few from Burgundy, Champagne, the Douro Valley, the Mosel and Barolo. I don’t think that’s true anymore.

En Primeur has become a system that consumers have lost a bit of love for because they got stung with the 2009s and 2010s. I also think that in a world of Amazon Prime, Twitter and immediate news, waiting 18 months for a case of wine to arrive is a bit passé. And if the wine has decreased in value, people are right to ask themselves if they’re being ripped off.

There has been a lot of discussion about Bordeaux’s lack of appeal to millennials. Do you see this as an issue for the region?

I have a lot of Bordeaux in storage, but there’s very little in my cellar at home – it’s just not something that I drink much of these days. I’m not a millennial, obviously, but I don’t think I’m atypical in that consumers – even in my generation – are just not drinking Bordeaux as much. People who are in their 30s are drinking even less Bordeaux. And people who are drinking wine in their 20s are drinking almost no Bordeaux. I think that’s a real worry for the Bordelais and I don’t think they’ve seen the car crash coming.

Yes, the top 50 properties are always going to sell their wines because they are in demand and they are very good – they are luxury goods. But they are like a hot air balloon that’s drifted away from the mooring of Bordeaux itself and they are just looking down at this thing from a few thousand feet and chucking the occasional sand bag out at the peasants down below. It’s not a unified region and it’s hard to see how the region will function economically in the long term. They probably need to pull out some vineyards.

Are any Bordeaux wines undervalued?

Bordeaux is so diverse that it is difficult to generalise – but that’s what makes it fascinating. I think that the sweet wines are very undervalued, as are the dry whites. There are even Crus Classés that are undervalued, Grand Puy Lacoste and Rauzan-Ségla being good examples.

Do you have a favourite Bordeaux vintage?

Easy. 2010. I love 2010 everywhere. I think the idea that 2009 was as good as 2010 is laughable. Some of the 2009s have already started to seem a bit pruney and overripe, although it was obviously a very good vintage for some châteaux. For me, 2010 is the great vintage of the last 15 years – in Bordeaux, Burgundy, Montalcino and Rioja… It is just a fantastic European vintage. The last time that you had a vintage like that – that was good almost everywhere – was 1990.

You wrote that “a greater focus on terroir is essential in Spain”. What are the key problems facing the Spanish wine industry?

Spain’s biggest problem is that it is the biggest bulk wine supplier in the world, with an average price of just over a Euro per litre. Spain produces a lot of cheap wine and has to shift it as effectively as possible. It all comes down to economies of scale. And subsidies.

By and large, Spain is not perceived as a fine wine producing area. But that’s just so wrong. There are a lot of amazing wines in Spain at the moment, and not just from classic regions like Rioja, Ribera, Priorat and Jerez. Just look at what’s happening in Ribeira Sacra, Bierzo, Empordà, Tenerife, Mallorca and Manchuela, to take only a few examples.

Why are those not expressed as terroir wines?

I think they do express their terroir, but sometimes the people who produce them are not allowed to identify specific vineyard parcels or their villages on labels. It’s a real problem for Spain. A lot of the Consejos, who administer the DOs, or appellations, are run by politicians, cooperatives and large companies whose primary interest is to flog as much booze as effectively as possible, often at cheap prices. It’s is not really in their interests to promote the fact that many of the best wines tend to come from specific vineyards.

And why is this important?

I think that the current approach is short sighted. If Spain had a better fine wine image it would help to improve the whole country’s wine industry, making it easier to sell the best Spanish wines at higher prices. It is crazy that you can buy Valenciso Rioja Reserva 2009, which is an amazing wine, for £17, when that wine should cost £40 if you were comparing it with the rest of the world.

But I think that Spain is starting to rectify its image problem. The younger generation is starting to go back to the land – a lot of them have taken their parents’ vineyards out of co-operatives. And the power of the big merchants who buy bulk wine, and of the co-operatives – although there are some good ones – is waning.

You’ve recently published a lengthy report on South Africa. What is exciting you most about the country’s wine industry?

I think that South Africa is the most exciting wine producing country in the world at the moment – and there are unbelievable bargains. It is a little bit like Spain in one sense, where there’s a lot of bulk wine and grape prices are depressed. Having said that, there is this amazing generation of young winemakers that has emerged since the first democratic elections in 1994. The winemakers in South Africa in their late 20s or 30s are just an unbelievably talented group. And the good thing about grapes being so cheap is that anybody can create a winery. I like the dynamism and the creativity of that. I think that South Africa is a place to watch.

What are the challenges facing the wine trade in South Africa?

One of them is that the price of grapes is too cheap. Farmers are realists. The first vines that they pull out are the ones that yield least – and they tend to be the oldest vines. That’s what happened in Spain, too, where plantings of Garnacha have suffered.

It is a great shame that the bulk areas are a lot more profitable than those producing fine wine. It is tempting for grape growers to go somewhere where they can irrigate, and prune and pick their vines mechanically.

It also goes back to this issue that that people think that fine wines can only come from a narrow band of regions and countries. South Africa and Spain both have image problems, though I think that is changing. I hope that over the next fifty years the perception of what constitutes fine wine will become much more diverse and that both countries will benefit.

Which other regions do you feel have improved the most over the last decade? Which have the most potential?

Argentina still has masses of potential. So has Italy. We tend to focus on Tuscany and Piemonte but I think there are many great wines being made in Italy. Sicily still has enormous promise, as does Basilicata on its volcanic soils. Parts of the Abruzzo are amazing; parts of the Friuli area are incredible. I think Italy is an amazing country.

I also keep thinking that the Languedoc’s day is going to come – the wine just keeps getting better and better. Again, they just don’t achieve the prices that I think they deserve. This is great for consumers, but less good for the people making the wines.

Do you think these regions need the support of the critics?

Yes, and I think this is where critics can be useful. Parker, in his pomp, was capable single-handily of doing that – and sometimes he got the right answer. Now it is much harder. There is this guy in South Africa called Chris Alheit who Neal Martin and I both like very much. Both of us gave his initial releases very high scores. I am not saying that he succeeded because of that, but I think it helped.

I can almost have a bigger influence in a country like that, where I am one of only a handful of critics who are seriously reviewing the wines, than I can in Bordeaux where nobody is going to go, “Oh wow, Tim Atkin has given it 100 points. I am going to buy 1,000 cases”. The further you are from the epicentre of the fine wine world, the easier it is to have an influence.

Do you have any favourite emerging winemakers?

Roberto Oliván of Tentenublo in Rioja is pretty special, as is Sebastian Zuccardi in Argentina. And there’s a ludicrously young winemaker in South Africa called Reenen Borman at Boschkloof who is already a star. His Epilogue Syrah is the best South African red wine I’ve ever tasted. This kid is 28 and he is off the charts brilliant.

What would you consider your greatest achievement to be so far?

To go on making a reasonably good living out of something that is basically my passion, and continuing to live like a student in some ways. I am also proud of some of the writing I’ve done. I think I’ve written in an entertaining and approachable way about wine, and, I hope, got some people into wine.

How do you see the wine industry changing in the next ten or twenty years?

I think it’s very hard to say. The one thing that people underestimate is climate change, which is the single biggest thing we face if it continues to accelerate at the current rate. I think that some fine wine regions won’t be growing the grapes that they are growing now, certainly in twenty years and maybe even in ten years. Access to water in drier areas is going to be crucial.

I reckon the influence of Bordeaux will continue to decline, personally. This is partly because of the younger generation. The people coming online are going to want to drink different things. So we’ll see more diversity, probably different regions, and maybe the existing regions will grow different things or be forced to do so because of different, hotter temperatures.

What’s your next project?

I haven’t written a book in a very long time because I have wanted to wait and write book about something I am passionate about. However, yesterday somebody came up with an idea for a book and I thought, “that’s a great idea”, so I think I may finally do it. It’s the kind of wine book that isn’t a specialist monograph on one region, however important those are. It’s the kind of book that I would want to see people reading on the tube. So it would use all of my experience about wine but would do it in a sort of way that I would hope is entertaining, and journalistic really – treating wine as a subject that is worthy of enquiry.

To read the first part of our interview with Tim, please click here.


Bordeaux 2016 harvest – Quantity and quality

The 2016 harvest in Bordeaux is now entering its final phase. In the post below, Bordeaux grower, winemaker and writer Gavin Quinney (@GavinQuinney) offers an update on its progress so far.

Nature has been kind to Bordeaux this year. A bumper crop for many, and a fine harvest – so far. It may be over for some growers in this vast region but there are plenty of bunches still out there, as numerous chateaux hold on for the later-ripening Cabernets and the last Merlots from cooler soils.

There has been no rush, no panic, to bring in the grapes. After the bone-dry summer, the vines enjoyed some overdue refreshment thanks to heavy rain on the night of 13 September. It cleared up soon afterwards and, since then, we’ve had dry and sunny weather for the build-up to the harvest – and for the picking itself – with just one more night of rain on Friday 30 September during a crucial four week period.

Most importantly, given that we’re now well into October, is that there has been no pressure from grey rot on the reds at all. At least, none that I’ve seen in the last fortnight, from St-Emilion to St-Estèphe, and this has given viticulteurs and winemakers more breathing space over which parcels to pick and when.

Without wanting to jump to conclusions about the vintage while the grapes are still rolling off the sorting tables, it’s fair to say that there’s quality and quantity in Bordeaux in 2016. Here’s what we do know:

  • Bordeaux had a wet Spring, which proved to be helpful given the drought that was to follow.
  • Only a few unfortunate vineyards were hit by the late April frosts that so adversely affected the size of the crop elsewhere.
  • Most vineyards – though not all – managed to avoid problems with mildew during the damp weather in May and June.
  • Courtesy of excellent weather during the flowering in the previous vintage – or even the two previous vintages – the vines produced plenty of potential bunches in 2016: ‘une belle sortie.’
  • The flowering in early June this year was remarkably successful, especially on the Merlot, given that the weather was pretty mixed. (See daily rainfall chart below.)
  • We had almost 12 weeks of glorious summer weather – for holidaymakers – from 23 June to 13 September, when many areas of Bordeaux saw just a tenth of the normal rainfall.
  • Young vines on dry, porous ground suffered in the drought and the heat. There won’t be much Grand Vin produced from the tiny grapes from those poor things. Not this year.
  • Some estates, as is often the norm, cut back the crop with successive green harvests, notably on the Merlot. Most vineyards in the so-called ‘lesser’ appellations don’t do this. And can’t afford to.
  • Two nights of rain on the 13 and 30 September accounted for most of the month’s rainfall. Far better this than multiple days of drizzly weather during the harvest.

rainfallchart

  • The amount of rain on 13 and 30 September varied for each region: Margaux (50mm on 13/9, 8mm on 30/9), Northern Médoc (32 and 15 at Bégadan), Léognan (47 and 28), Saint Emilion (32 and 10), Blaye (43 and 9) and Entre-Deux-Mers (50 and 35 at Haux).
  • The dry whites were harvested in September in fine weather. Picking dates varied considerably, even in the same appellations. Most growers are reportedly extremely happy with their yields. (Given the drought, where did all the juice come from?)
  • The Merlot harvest began in September, with some of the action taking place in the last week of the month but most of it – across the region as a whole – in the first week and a half of October.
  • Several estates in the Médoc began picking their Cabernet Sauvignon in the first week of October, while others waited until this week, from the 10th onwards.

monthlygrid

  • October has, so far, been dry. We’ve had mostly sunny days, no rain and properly chilly mornings from 5 October.
  • 2016 is a later harvest and in keeping, timing wise, with what they call ‘classic’ Bordeaux vintages. Cumulative temperature comparisons put 2016 on a (lateness) par with 2008, 2010, 2012 and 2014, oddly enough.

It would be wrong, given what I’ve seen, to make assumptions about who picked what and when, and to question whether they did the right thing. I have, though, been surprised to see that some estates decided to harvest certain blocks, while others waited to pick their vines nearby. Each, as they say, to their own.

It’s the third year in a row – 2014, 2015 and now 2016 – when there’s been minimal rot on the reds, in contrast to the ‘challenging’ 2013 harvest. There was also pressure, at the time, to pick both the 2011 reds and the 2012s (both good but not great vintages) towards the end of those harvests as rot started to take hold. Other vintages with minimal rot? 2000, 2005, 2009 and 2010.

Chateau l’Eglise Clinet, Pomerol (Merlot)
Chateau l’Eglise Clinet, Pomerol (Merlot)
Vieux Chateau Certan, Pomerol (Merlot)
Vieux Chateau Certan, Pomerol (Merlot)

The yield on the Merlot, prior to those ‘green harvests’ mentioned above, is the biggest I’ve seen since 2004 and the quality is far superior to that attractive but uneven vintage. As Bordeaux is 89% red and Merlot accounts for two thirds of that 89%, it’ll be a big crop out in the sticks. (The maximum yields have been set last month at between 5000 and 5800 litres per hectare for red, depending on the appellation.)

Yields on the Cabernet Sauvignon are lower than the Merlot, and the harvest is far from finished. As so much of the reputation of the vintage will be based on the great estates of the Médoc and their Cabernets, there’s still so much to play for in the next few days.

Chateau Leoville Barton, St-Julien
Chateau Leoville Barton, St-Julien

I’ll report back on what we might expect from the wines – there’s no lack of colour on the reds, that’s for sure – and what some of the key players make of it all.


Liv-ex interview with Tim Atkin MW, part one

tim_atkin_mw

Tim Atkin is a Master of Wine, journalist, presenter, wine judge and photographer. He writes for a number of publications, as well as running his own award-winning website, timatkin.com. Tim kindly set some time aside for an interview with Liv-ex. The interview will be published in two parts. In the first, published below, he discusses his career in the world of wine, wine writing and the changing role of the critic.

How did you get started in the wine industry?

I did a French degree and during my year abroad I lived in Avignon. I’d love to claim that I spent every weekend in Châteauneuf-du-Pape, but I didn’t. To be honest I wasn’t that interested in wine and I coasted through university like most people without any idea of what I was going to do afterwards to earn a living.

I ran a magazine called The Idler with two mates and when I left, I applied to a magazine company for a job and they said, “oh you sound interesting, there’s a job going on a wine magazine. Do you know anything about wine?” And I said, “Not really”. And they said, “Well, there’s a job going and they would like to interview you to be an Editorial Assistant”. So I went out and bought Serena Sutcliffe’s Wine Drinkers’ Handbook – which I still have – and read it overnight. I turned up to the interview wearing my father’s boating jacket and carrying a copy of the Literary Review because I thought it would made me look more intellectual. And I got the job.

The magazine company I got the job on also ran something called The Good Van Guide. So I could have got a job on The Good Van Guide. I could have been Mr Van.

What happened next? What triggered your interest in wine?

I liked the journalism more than I liked the wine. The wine trade in 1985 was very male dominated and you know that old line “your first son goes into the army, your second son goes into the church and the third one – the stupid one – goes into the wine trade”. It was a bit like that really. In those days I thought “I don’t think I’m going to stick this out for very long”. I wanted to get into political journalism or sports journalism. Then the more I did it, I thought “actually I quite like this”. I started to travel, which is one perk, but I liked the people who made wine much more than the people who sold it.

The older I got the more the wine trade changed – I think the wine trade has altered massively for the better in this country – and I became more and more fascinated by the subject. I remember talking to Brian Croser, the Australian winemaker, and I said, “don’t you ever get bored of wine?” and he said, “How could you get bored of wine? It’s geology, geography, it’s politics, it’s economics, it’s sociology, it’s people, it’s flavour”, and I thought, “You’re right – what a great job”. So I sort of spent five years thinking, “Do I really want to do this?” – being a bit English and miserable – and then I thought, “Actually I do want to do this”.

Then I was lucky. I got promoted to run the magazine I was on, Wine & Spirit, because people left above me, and then I won a wine writing award, and then I got the job at The Guardian as their wine correspondent. Aged 27 I was suddenly The Guardian’s wine correspondent, having barely been to Bordeaux. I learned very quickly just by doing it, and I hope by having an open mind, and just by being a journalist first and foremost; asking a lot of questions. I have always been good at asking questions.

Now what you do is so diverse. How do you manage all the different parts of your career?

When I got a job on The Guardian it became comparatively well paid and in those days you could live just from a newspaper column. Now, unless you have very modest expectations, you can’t. What has happened is that we have all had to diversify. My column in The Observer, where I was wine correspondent for 17 years, got reduced in size at just the right time. I left and it meant that all of the things that I do now – the diverse portfolio – emerged out of that. To be honest I am more fulfilled now than I have ever been.

I still think of myself as a writer, but I think more accurately you’d call me a communicator these days. I write, I taste, I judge, I teach, I give speeches and I take photographs. And I also publish other, award-winning writers on my site, timatkin.com.

As a communicator, what makes you different? What’s your USP?

I suppose enthusiasm – but other people have that. Also an open mind. I don’t have a fixed view of what is fine wine or what isn’t fine wine. I like to think I am reasonably approachable and that I’m not a wine snob.

I write about lots of different areas – but not hundreds. I have increasingly decided to specialise in certain places. Rather than being an intellectual windsurfer where your knowledge isn’t that deep, you don’t cover as much ground but your knowledge is bit deeper. So I mostly write about Burgundy, South Africa, Argentina, Rioja and Bordeaux.

Can you tell us what led you to study for the Master of Wine?

I got half way through the Diploma course and the person giving the lecture about Portuguese wines was quoting extensively from an article I’d written. I thought, “Why am I doing this? Why am I paying to do this if somebody is just using my material?” So I gave up. That was 1987. Then, in the late 1990s, people started asking me if I could help them with blind tasting. Friends who were doing the MW would come to my house and I’d line up wines and ask, “What’s this? What’s that?” Having done this for a few people, I thought, “I could pass this” and in slightly a foolhardy way – and I do like exams and I am competitive – I thought I’d do it. And so I did it.

In a previous interview, you said: “Wine writing is changing for the better as at least one dinosaur waddles off into the sunset”. Can you explain what you meant by this?

I was referring to Parker, but he is just the main representative of a certain type of wine writing. I’ve never met him and I’m sure he doesn’t care what I think. But I think that his approach is outdated. With a few exceptions, he doesn’t appear to feel the need to go to places, talk to people, walk through vineyards, and try to understand what they are trying to do. He is a kind of uber-critic who just judges what’s in the glass. This is not the sort of wine criticism that appeals to me. I think that you are missing out on a lot of those things that I talked about – the 98% of things that make wine interesting. If wine is just a liquid in a glass in front of you then I don’t really want to do that.

For all that, it might have been a bit unfair to call him dinosaur, because I do respect his work ethic and his honesty. I’m less convinced about the kinds of wines that he appears to like: ripe, fleshy and high in alcohol. For me, they are not the way forward. I think that more and more wine drinkers are moving away from those wines, though not necessarily the trading platform and market in general. I think the trading market is still dominated by the post-1982 Bordeaux world, which is a world that he helped to create.

So how about blind tasting?

I enjoy doing it. I enjoy challenging myself and I think it leads to discoveries. There is a place for it. But the type of wine writing that I like is about stories – about people. I think that makes wine interesting. So that involves talking to winemakers about their wines and often tasting with them. I want to learn from them and I’ve got enough experience to filter out the bullshit while I’m tasting. Sometimes I just ask people to be quiet for a moment or two.

I do points. I’m a child of Parker – not literally – but if it is just a case of saying, “this is 98 points and it tastes of blackberries” then it’s not very interesting. I mean, you are looking at centuries of civilisation – Western and otherwise – and it ultimately becomes too reductive and maybe even a little absurd.

And that is why I focus on just a few the places. I like to go there and spend time talking to people and visiting their vineyards. And think that every year I learn more about them. In my view that makes me a better critic, one who understands those regions better.

I’ve just spent two weeks in Rioja visiting 72 bodegas. Not many critics do that. I don’t do that in Bordeaux, to be honest, as much as others do because it is not my primary focus. I review Bordeaux because it is an important part of the fine wine world and market. And it’s there, like Mount Everest. But I’m happier in Burgundy, the Cape, Argentina or Spain.

There’s quite a lot of rivalry among Châteaux in Bordeaux and among the trade. Is there rivalry in the critics’ world?

I think there’s probably a bit. As is always the case with these things, there are people that you like more than others. Some people are my friends, and some people are people I would not particularly choose to spend an evening with. But that’s fine.

I think what is happening now is that there are about twenty critics worldwide who are reasonably important in different areas, and I think that’s good because you get diversity of opinion. I might not like the same wine as Jancis [Robinson], Jancis might not like the same wine as James Suckling who might not like the same wine as Neal Martin – but I don’t think that is a bad thing. We’re all different; we all like different wine styles.

I think it’s time for consumers to grow up in a way. Consumers should say, “I don’t want to be told by just one person” and follow that person as an oracle. Instead, look at a variety of things the way you would if you were buying a car or a hi-fi system. You would look at different reviews – a pool of opinions. I think that is positive. I really do.

What would be your view on an average or consensus score for wine?

I think it’s dangerous. I sometimes get accused of marking too highly in South Africa, for example. It is a country I am very passionate about and I think the wines are underrated. On the other hand, I don’t often over-score in Montalcino, for example, as some people do. But at least you know my scores are my scores, for better or worse.

I like what you guys [Liv-ex] do during En Primeur where you can look down a list of individual critic scores and say, “five people really liked, for example, Lafleur or Pétrus this year – it’s probably pretty good”. If only one person liked it everyone else gave it 85 points it probably isn’t very good, unless you happen to think that person’s palate is the one that always chimes with yours. I think an average score is a bit dangerous personally.

Do you see the role of critics and writers changing with the role of the internet and peer to peer sites such as Cellar Tracker and Vivino?

Yes, probably. There are more and more points of view. What may happen, and this is partly wishful thinking, is that, because there is so much noise out there, really good, informed criticism will become increasingly important. It’s a paradox in a way: the more information there is, the more useful reliable information becomes.

On the other hand, I have always been a democrat.  I like diverse of points of view, even when they aren’t necessarily ones I share, so there’s something very positive about consumers rating and discussing the wines they’ve bought and drunk. Why should only professionals have a view? Why should it not be the person that walks into their local Wine Rack? Their point of view may not be as informed as mine, because it is what I do for a living, but theirs is still a point of view, and if they want to exchange it with each others, that’s great.

The second part of Liv-ex’s interview with Tim will be posted later this week. In it we discuss the wine industries in Bordeaux, Spain and South Africa.