John Stimpfig revisited the club on a cold and damp Thursday evening in February for a memorable tasting themed ‘The Man from Decanter he say yes! - great wines chosen by a great writer’.
John’s earlier career was in marketing and PR (so he would surely approve of the tasting title?). It also included stints at the FT and our familiar friend, the Oxford Times. So how did he get into wine in the first place? It may sound clichéd, but he took a year out in Australia around the time that their wine was really coming into its own. Before going, he decided to sample some classic fine wines as a kind of exceedingly short and intense crash course. He chose a Chablis and a Châteauneuf du Pape (and the rest was history!). While Down Under, he fell in love with the Hunter Valley and South Australia, and when he got back he somehow fell in love with the WSET, going on to achieve the Diploma! He became a highly-awarded wine writer. Since 1993, he has won a range of prestigious awards for his writing from such as Louis Roederer, Lanson and Glenfiddich. John is clear that he sees himself as a journalist with a passion for wine and the story therein, rather than as a critic.
In what was essentially a desert island wines (John pointed out that he could never narrow it down to fewer than eight in such a scenario as he wouldn’t get off the boat otherwise, and thus has no singular Desert Island Wine to speak of), we tasted sparkling, white, red and botrytised wines spanning a range of styles.
Along with the wines, he also shared with us some of his musings/observations on the Wine World:
- For some of the younger audience members who had been too young to drink then, he told us about 1982 being a watershed moment in Bordeaux in terms of the sheer quality. I suppose some of our less young members could bring some to the next Christmas party?!
- In 1996 he joined Decanter, albeit on a zero hours contract. I think it’s fair to say that this has shaped his wine experience more than anything else (Decanter that is, not the contract). What with the wines he has ‘had to’ taste, and the people that he has ’had to’ meet, it must have sometimes felt like having a job!
- He spoke of the continuing death of print – Decanter may survive off the back of its awards, but that makes it a unique success story. Where one used to read interesting articles about wine with depth, today’s desire for instant gratification has seen a move towards what are mostly brief shopping lists, lacking any real detail or writing skill.
- John talked about Robert Parker. Here, John is somewhat of a rarity in that he’s a fan. He revealed that RP is essentially a savant taster: he could give 200 wines virtually the same scores two weeks after tasting them. And that RP’s favourite Bordeaux isn’t even the most RP in all of Bordeaux ... RP certainly has enhanced the wine world in sheer commercial terms. Whether he has influenced the direction of the wine itself is up for discussion: is it merely coincidence that (the most highly regarded/priced) wines have increased in alcohol and body over the last two decades while global warming has begun to take effect? Or have producers chosen to make wines to earn more RP points as that is how to ensure big prices and big sales? For every action there is a reaction, and the wine world certainly seems to have changed tack: earlier picking and less extraction have formed a stylistic change towards lower alcohol, less full bodied and more subtle wines in recent years. Perhaps we have RP to thank? Or, it’s just a natural oscillation which has occurred because people always want to innovate and do something new? Modern science and knowledge sharing mean that every winemaker now has a choice of how to craft their product.
- John highlighted 2003 as a tipping point in the wine world in terms of global warming. In an albeit Francocentric model, that year was notoriously hot to the point that it was hard to make normal wines. Lower abv Bordeaux (circa 12 degrees rather than 14) hasn’t been seen since, to some people’s chagrin
- How big is John’s cellar? He keeps his wine in the cellars of Edmund Penning Rowsell (late of FT fame, along with the Wine Society), and it’s big, though it was empty when he moved in. Probably worth a visit...
- 2004 Judgement of Berlin: Chile versus France/Italy, and by France we’re talking Châteaux Lafite, Margaux and Latour in the 2000 and 2001 vintages... And yes Chile won, in the guise of ‘Viñedo Chadwick’. John admitted to having a soft spot for Chile (as well as South Africa) and told us to look out for Casa Marin, Matetic, Leyda, Ventisquero, Maycas del Limari, De Martino and J Bouchon.
- ‘The older I get, the younger I like my wines’ was the quote of the evening. He was bravely voicing what a lot of people clearly think. The palate changes with age, but perhaps more so with experience? While not necessarily citing RP again, a palate which has seen big and bold may simply cry out for nuance, freshness and delicacy.
- If we had a time machine, we could do worse than go back to Decanter’s 40 year anniversary. A huge bash with some strange antics, though you’ll have to ask John for specifics...
Eight wines were enjoyed in the tasting, a sparkling, followed by three whites, three reds and a botrytised dessert wine:
- Taittinger Prelude NV Champagne – 50% chardonnay, 50% pinot noir
From one of the largest vine owners at 288ha, John selected this wine in honour of Pierre Emmanuel, the larger than life President of Taittinger who gave up the reins only last year. This was in the elegant style as Champagnes go, but seemed to grow on members and left us wanting more. Their top cuvee, ‘Comtes de Champagne’, is apparently something even more special, though somewhat outside the budget of a standard OWC tasting!
- Florita Riesling 2017, Jim Barry, Clare Valley, South Australia – 100% Riesling, ~£30
Made by the 3rd generation of the Barry family, this was textbook Aussie Riesling, with lime and grapefruit on the nose, and a touch of petrol. The 2-4g residual sugar gave it an almost pithy bitter quality, and it was certainly refreshing. John assured us that it would go for a while yet
- Viña Errazuriz, Aconcagua Costa Chardonnay 2018, Chile – 100% Chardonnay, ~£20
Labelled as a cool climate terroir wine, this is from the Costa sub-region of Aconcagua, so nearer the coast. The winemakers have certainly achieved a very elegant and poised white, with green freshness, though also noticeable oak on the finish. Deserves the adjective Burgundian, without a clear sign of which Burgundian area/style it most mirrors. Probably white wine of the evening, especially given the price
- Villa Bucci, Verdicchio Classico Riserva 2017, Castelli di Jesi, Marche, Italy – 100% Verdicchio, ~£30.
Verdicchio is a grape which suffered a poor reputation a few decades back, but which has many of the hallmarks of classic Italian white wines – good acidity, a certain subtle florality, and a definite tailoring to food pairing. The Marche is a small and unspoilt region about half way up Italy’s Eastern (Adriatic) coast, which has some excellent producers, and of course its very own grape varieties such as Lacrima of the reds: Umani Ronchi is just one producer to look out for and consider Sartarelli, Garofoli and La Monacesca as well. A total contrast to the previous wine in colour and mouthfeel, being much rounder and almost honeyed
- Petalos 2017, Bierzo DO, Descendientes de J Palacios, Spain - ~100% Mencia, ~£20
Often the advent of the red wines after whites in a tasting seems to afford the first red an unfair advantage, almost like a breath of ‘fresh’ air, with all the flavour components that come from fermentation on the skins. This was dark fruited on the nose, and savoury on the palate, bringing tar and liquorice, though not at all heavy as per most of the Spanish new wave. Surely the sophisticated wine they drink in Vicky Cristina Barcelona? It is sometimes available in Majestic if you’re lucky
- Tenuta San Leonardo 2011, IGT Vignetti di Dolomiti, Italy – 60% cabernet sauvignon/the rest Merlot/Carmenere/Cabernet Franc, ~£100
This was reminiscent of a super Tuscan, and indeed the proprietors were friends with Antinori, but had something a little different about it. Made using old fashioned techniques. On the nose there was smokey bacon fat and dry fried bell peppers, surely courtesy of the Carmenère? It was complex on the palate, big and rich, but not at all sickly. Red of the night, a privilege to have tried.
- Chateau Haut-Bailly 2014, Grand Cru Classe de Graves, Bordeaux - 65% Cabernet Sauvignon/35% Merlot, ~£75
‘The problem with 2014 is that it was followed by 2015 and 2016’. Quite. A classic Bordeaux, which held its own against the San Leonardo, though made in a more modern style. From neither bank, but a fine wine just as Domaine de Chevalier’s Pessac Leognans. Bought by an American banker, Bob Wilmers in 1998, this story ends with an inordinate number of locals attending his funeral as he did things the right way (Liverpool not Manchester United). John is co-writing a book on this chateau with Jane Anson
- Royal Tokaji 2013 Blue Label 5 Puttonyos, Tokaji Aszu, Hungary – Furmint, Harslevelu and Muscat de Lunel, ~£30 (50cl)
Crazily inefficient grape picking method yields crazily good dessert wine in north east Hungary. Crazily high residual sugar balanced out perfectly by crazily high acidity. Only 11% abv. Given that it smelt so strongly of marmalade, I feel that marmalade could fetch far more than it does – incidentally, which came first, botrytis or marmalade? John assured us that it lasts extremely well in the fridge, though perhaps not everyone’s. A quite delicious end to the evening
Everyone who truly enjoys wine is a salesperson in some sense, through the wines we share with others and inadvertently encourage them to buy, or through the way we talk about or answer the questions people ask us about wine. John epitomises this, as someone whose career has focussed on selling the wine world to wine drinkers as a fellow appreciator, without being directly employed by any particular vested interest. His art is the written word, his subject wine. The world of wine provides many great characters and many plot twists: a potentially great vintage can turn to disaster at so many points in time, with weather and human judgement coming into play at numerous key junctures. We want to hear about the success stories and the disasters. By writing about wine in an intellectual and entertaining manner, John helps us to experience amazing wines without them even passing our lips (okay nose) – that is surely what people pay for when subscribing to Decanter?
As John alluded to, wine is going through a difficult period, with Climate Change looming ever larger and general economic uncertainty. Not trying to extract a living from selling wine directly increasingly looks a good call on his part! Maybe the biggest lesson to be learned is that all of us wine appreciators should do what we can to sustain that which we hold so dear? We should all try to spread the good word as far as possible.