Interview with Mr. Chris Kissack (Winedoctor)

luni, 25 iunie 2012

Dear reader, here's the interview with Mr. Chris Kissack, as promised.

I want to thank Chris for taking his time with this interview and for the extensive answers .Very much appreciated!

I hope you'll enjoy it!

@Photo credit: Jim Budd

1.      1. First of all, how did you get into wine and why are you so passionate about the Loire Valley wines?

Chris: Two very good questions there, the answers to which are related. To look first at how I got into wine, you perhaps need to understand the wine market in the UK in the 1970s. It was very different to the market we have today. The UK has long been a traditional market for the great traditional styles of Europe, especially Bordeaux, Burgundy, Germany, Port and so on. Nevertheless these wines were mostly drunk by a small section of the population, those from the upper classes, or who were perhaps more travelled than others, and to most of the other people (such as my family) wine was an unknown. The UK was not traditionally a vine-growing country (there were a few vineyards, but mostly as a hobby – today there are many and they are very successful businesses in some cases) and so wine was not part of our culture. Many British people saw wine as being a ‘posh’ drink that you had in a restaurant, or on a Sunday, and as the UK started to embrace wine in the 1970s and 1980s the first wines many people drank were cheap, industrial, sweetened German under one or two brand names. That was my experience of wine as a young man.

Then at university, on holiday with friends in France who were well travelled, I began to discover ‘real’ wine. I began to understand that all those confusing names I had heard of – Châteauneuf du Pape, Bordeaux, Champagne – related to specific regions, and specific styles. I began to read to understand more, and was heavily influenced by British authors Hugh Johnson and Oz Clarke. Hugh had a wonderful style and broad knowledge, and Oz’s enthusiasm was infectious. I never followed big-name individual critics like Parker, only discovering his work years later. My early years were about discovering wine for myself, not following recommendations of a critic, and so in those early days I learnt about wine from the world over, including countries such as Romania, by buying, tasting and drinking.

As for the Loire, within a few years I was sufficiently passionate about wine to want to spend a summer holiday in a wine region, and when I looked the Loire was the closest! I drove from my student home in Liverpool to the Loire, and visited domaines in Chinon, Bourgueil, Saumur, Sancerre and other famous appellations. I was amazed at the high quality of some of the wines, wines which I did not think you could buy in the UK (you probably good, but in the pre-internet days finding distant wine merchants who stocked such wines was much more difficult). I also discovered the beauty of the region, the ancient châteaux, the peaceful Anjou countryside, the foods – cheeses, rillettes and other specialties - and I fell in love with the Loire in its entirety, not just its wines. I still visit regularly, every year, to keep my Loire reports up to date with fresh reviews and tasting notes.

2.      2. Please tell me your honest opinion on natural and biodynamic wines. Do you think they represent the future of winemaking or is it just a “trendy” movement?

Chris: That’s another two questions! First, biodynamics. I think there are elements to this that are probably very sound and have a good effect on the vineyards, including the health of the soil. I think there are also some elements that are akin to astrology, which are thus no more than nonsense. There are also some hidden elements that might not be as ‘healthy’ as we think – although both organics and biodynamics result in the absence of manufactured chemical pesticides and herbicides, both allow for the use of copper in the vineyard, and large amounts of this heavy metal may not be any less evil than chemical products. One major difficulty with knowing whether biodynamics is better is the lack of rigorous trials; at Château Margaux, for instance, they have plots of vines tended using traditional, organic and biodynamic methods. The biodynamic consultant is convinced the biodynamic vines look healthier, but Margaux-manager Paul Pontallier admits he cannot see any difference. People with a belief in biodynamics are biased, this is human nature. Perhaps the most important evidence in support of biodynamics is that many of the wines are of very high quality, but then many of the wines are made by fastidious winemakers. Would the wines of Huet, Zind-Humbrecht or Pontet-Canet be any less great if the vineyards were not biodynamic?

As for natural wine, this minimally interventional approach to winemaking is very welcome, as it challenges the status quo regarding ‘safe’ winemaking. The wines can be vibrant, pure and alive, with such wonderful fruit definition. Sometimes, however, the avoidance of sulphur or other methods to protect from oxidation results in wines that are oxidised. These should be distinguished from those that have an oxidative style, meaning the character of the wine has been influenced by exposure to oxygen during winemaking, but which aren’t oxidised. These latter wines I enjoy, but oxidised wines I do not. That does not invalidate traditionally oxidised styles (such as Sherry, Vin Jaune, etc.) nor indeed does it invalidate the oxidised natural wines. If that is how some winemakers or consumers wish their wines to be, so be it! But I don’t personally enjoy oxidised Loire Sauvignon Blanc, for example.

I don’t think either is the future of winemaking or just a “trendy” movement. Both are here to stay, but neither will take over the world. Biodynamics is not for everybody. Nevertheless I do think more and more producers will move towards more ecologically sound methods of viticulture, either organics or at least ‘viticulture raisonnée’. Natural wine is here to stay also, but I think it will remain an interesting sector of wine rather than a dominant one.

3.      3. Do you think Robert Parker is still an advocate of the wine consumer?

Chris: Yes and no. Robert Parker has done a lot for the world of wine. In the 1970s the quality of some wines coming out of Bordeaux was lacklustre, even from some very grand names. Through his easy to understand points system he empowered consumers. The châteaux saw that his points meant good sales and with financial backing (most of the top Bordeaux châteaux are owned by big business these days) they invested and sought quality, making better wines, bringing higher scores and ushering in higher prices. We have seen the culmination of this with the very high releases prices in 2009 and 2010 (and, inappropriately, in 2011). Thus Robert Parker has done a lot for consistency and quality in Bordeaux, so there are lots of good quality wines to choose from today. But his work has also generated increased interest in the wines of the region, increased demand, increased the confidence of the châteaux, and thus many top wines are now much more expensive than they used to be.

We saw the Parker effect in the 2008 vintage most clearly; many châteaux released early, partly because they under-estimated Parker's opinion of the vintage, and partly because they wanted to display sensitivity to the world markets, which at the time were looking decidedly shaky. Hubert de Boüard de Laforest of Angélus opened with a 40% reduction in price (a big drop down from the over-priced 2007 vintage), and many others followed suit. Nevertheless the campaign was sluggish (although not quite as bad as the more recent 2011), and ultimately it was rescued only by Parker's strident opinion, as he unexpectedly lauded the quality of the wines. Upon the publication of his scores, some of which suggested a potential 100 points (Lafite was give a range of 98-100, for example), sales kicked off and prices of some châteaux, initially very favourable (for the consumer), rocketed.

In short, a lot of profit (or potential profit) was made, but it was the middlemen, négociants, merchants and dealers who raked in the cash, not the Bordelais themselves. Parker’s scores did not help consumers, as prices climbed as a result – only those brave enough to buy before he published got the best prices. And Parker's facilitation of post-release profiteering was a financial blow to the Bordelais, who have in recent years increased release prices to keep this profit for themselves. It was the 2008 vintage that hardened the resolve of the Bordelais to wait for Parker's scores, and to keep release prices high. In one respect, it was Parker's late over-scoring of the 2008 vintage (his revised scores, released in 2010, trended downwards, to the bottom of his score ranges or lower) that caused the Bordelais to hold back in 2011 as they waited in hope of a Parker salvation.

Clearly Parker loves what he does, and he deserves his success I am sure. He has done much good for the consumer over the years, but as indicated above sometimes his opinions work against the consumer. 

4. Do you believe in the true objectivity of a wine critic? Does this objectivity even exist? And I’m thinking about the recent case involving Jay Miller and Pancho Campo.

Chris: This is a question that deserves an incredibly complex answer. There are so many qualifications to the situation. I will try to keep it as short as possible!

I believe all critics should aim for objectivity. Few, though, have the financial clout to remain truly independent of the wine trade. The aforementioned Robert Parker is one, Jancis Robinson another. These writers make enough money from their work to fund independent travel to wine regions. But for the vast majority of the wine writing community, the work – which does not pay well – is insufficient to cover these expenses.

Thus most writers depend on the trade to some extent, either press trips or ‘tastings over dinner’. This is inevitable. If you would like to see the back of this, then you will find most wine writers would have to stop writing and find work elsewhere, as I don’t think it is possible to write high quality and informative material without travelling and tasting. What is important is that these benefits are declared, so that the reader can judge for him/herself. I have been doing this for several years now; at the end of the year I publish a register of benefits received, in other words what paid-for press trips I have been on, what dinners I have attended where someone else paid, what accommodation I benefited from and so on. Readers can see where they think I might have been influenced. It is a practice that seems to be well received, but unsurprisingly it has not really caught on. I think many writers would rather keep that information to themselves.

As for the Miller-Pancho case, that was something slightly different. Here the allegation that was made against Pancho Campo was that he charged for access to Jay Miller on a rare trip to Spain (Jay Miller once famously said “I don’t do vineyards”, and had never visited Spain when he took on the reviewer’s job for that country for the Wine Advocate). There was a string of emails supporting this allegation uncovered by Jim Budd and Harold Heckle, two reporters based in the UK and Spain. As a result of their work Parker severed any dealings with Pancho Campo, and he left the world of wine to return to his original business activities, which seemed to be events promotion. He was investigated by the Institute of Masters of Wine, although we do not know the result of their report as he resigned his MW status with the agreement that the report would not be published. Jay Miller also resigned, although that was already in the pipeline we are told by Parker. Budd and Heckle received a lot of flak for their work from participants on Parker’s forum, but the fact that they won the Born Digital Wine Award for best investigative story just a month ago indicates the significance of their work.

5.      5. Do you think that a wine blogger has the power to educate the consumer? What’s your opinion on the future of wine blogging?

Chris: Yes, blogs have an important role, but as with any other medium there are good examples of blogging and also bad. The best inform, entertain, say something important. The worst are insular, infrequently updated, ill-informed and uninteresting. The former can educate.

One of the key problems with blogging relates to your earlier question about objectivity. I have more concerns about free wines in exchange for good reviews published by an amateur blogger, than I do about the objectivity of an established critic. I know for a fact some businesses, merchants or PR companies, solicit good reviews in exchange for free wine, sometimes sent on a regular basis. I know this as they have approached me (I rejected their offers, naturally). But that means when you see a blogger writing reviews on many wines from just one or two merchants you have probably found a “free-wine-for-good-review” site. These blogs will always exist, but happily will never gain many followers as they are usually dull and ill-informed.

Wine blogging is here to stay, and alive and well. But it is just part of a toolkit for communication, one that might involve – for a professional wine writer – a bigger website, activity on social media sites such as Facebook, Twitter, etc., lecturing, chairing tastings and sessions, newspaper colums, book writing and so on. The idea of a standalone blog catapulting a writer to stardom is less likely now than it was five years ago when that came with a novelty value attached. There is so much blogging noise these days it is so difficult for the quality writers to shine through I think. In support of this I know of one or two blogs, of really high quality and interest, which receive very little publicity. They should be more famous.

6.      6. Do you have any knowledge of the Romanian wine industry? Have you ever tried a Romanian wine?

Chris: A little knowledge, not as much as I would like, and I have certainly drank wines from Romania. When many in the UK were discovering wine, as they moved away from sugary-sweet dirt-cheap German brands to other wines, both Romania and Bulgaria were well placed on the shelves in the UK. The wines were often of good value and quality. They seem to have lost some of that shelf position these days, as the competition for shelf-space has increased dramatically. 

I remember a few good Pinot Noirs from the Dealu Mare region, wines that offered good value early on as I discovered wine. I also have some fond memories of sweet wines from around Murfatlar. Even though this was in the early late-1980s and early-1990s I could pick up vintages from the 1960s for a very good price. They were some of the first sweet wines I ever drank, and were a fine introduction to the style. Now I drink sweet wines every week; Romania has a lot to answer for!

7.      7. Please name the top 5 wine experiences you’ve had so far (mainly involving older wines).

Chris: There are so many to choose from, but let’s see….

In 2011 I flew to Bordeaux to taste and drink the wines of Château de Fesles with the Boivin family who used to own the property a few decades ago. Fesles is in Bonnezeaux, in the Loire, but the family today live in Bordeaux, where some still work in wine. We tasted vintages back to the 1924 Fesles Bonnezeaux, with other vintages on the table including 1930, 1947, 1955, 1959 and 1970, plus some younger wines. It was amazing to taste these ancient wines with the descendents of the men who made them. The 1947, a great vintage in the Loire, was my favourite.

In 2009 in Burgundy, over dinner with Philippe de Marcilly, commercial director of the revitalised négociant Albert Bichot, we tasted many brilliant wines young and old. Some of the younger white wines were perfect with a platter of oysters and lobster, but then with subsequent dishes there came a sequence of older wines, all served blind. The final quartet, all Chambertins from the Domaine du Clos Frantin, in the 1978, 1969, 1959 and 1947 vintages, were some of the most exquisite wines of Burgundy I have ever tasted.
Not an experience necessarily rich in older wines, a trip to meet Michel Chapoutier in 2011 was a highlight of the year. The wines were, at the highest level – meaning the Sélections Parcellaires – really impressive, perhaps the most remarkable being a 1991 Ermitage Le Pavillon, one of Michel’s first vintages having taken over the running of the business. But the whole trip was a madcap adventure that I will never forget. I wrote it up extensively on my website,

Encounters with ancient bottles from the 1940s are rare, and so it was a real treat when I visited Château La Conseillante in Pomerol during the 2010 Bordeaux primeurs to be treated not just to a taste of the latest vintages, but also a selection of older wines, poured in order to celebrate 140 years of ownership by the Nicolas family. The 1990 was super, but the 1945 was more ethereal, haunting, aged and yet still pure and fresh. What a wonderful wine! Encounters with wines such as these are one of the delights of reporting on wine, and La Conseillante is a top-class estate in Bordeaux today. It was one of the domaines that I chose to profile in my recently published book, a 2012 Pocket Guide to Bordeaux.

Finally, not too many young wines, but dinner with Yves Guégniard (of Domaine de la Bergerie), Claude Papin (Château Pierre-Bise) and Vincent Ogereau (Domaine Ogereau) in early 2012 was a real treat. I started with a tasting of the latest releases from all three domaines, a tasting which went on for most of the afternoon, but then we sat down and had dinner together, experiencing the wines as they should be encountered, with food. They showed superbly, and reinforced my belief that the Loire is an under-appreciated wine region. The oldest wine was a 1990 Anjou Rouge from Claude Papin, but it was the younger sweet wines, such as the Domaine Ogereau Coteaux du Layon Saint Lambert 1997, that really impressed on the day.

10 comentarii:

George Mitea spunea...

Truly a respectable fellow, Mr. Kissack. Jod job, Ciprian, thanks for the interesting read.

Ciprian spunea...

Thanks, George! Indeed, great answers from Chris! And I underestimated his knowledge of the romanian wines :)

George Mitea spunea...

Who would have thought: the sweets from Murfatlar:)

Ciprian spunea...

:)) Yep, those were the times of cheap sweets from everywhere. But remember the '86 Muscat we drank at Murfatlar :)

Dan spunea...

Very insightful interview and first of all, in line with Chris blog info. Especially the part about the future of wine blogging.
Am i wrong in counting more than seven questions above? :))

sunmirror spunea...

This guy really makes me thirsty for wine. Now I have to get those Sélections Parcellaires from somewhere ... :)

Ciprian spunea...

Dan, you're not wrong, just a little journalism trick :)) So many questions to ask but I had to keep'em as tight as possible :)

Ciprian spunea...

Sorin, I wish you a happy hunting :)

Dan spunea...

Yep, we know you're a natural! And Chris was kind enough to answer all the questions..:))

Ciprian spunea...

Yep, he's a natural, too :)

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