I have been travelling all autumn. Since doing the harvest in Bordeaux I've been to Moldova, Italy, Spain, Bordeaux (again), Burgundy, Rhône, Provence and Australia. So I have now been grounded for the beginning of 2003. "Sit quietly and write." Yes, dear.
I rented us a plane to get to Moldova ... not something I've done before but then you try getting to Moldova avoiding airlines that fly converted bombers and like to crash. Most people don't even know where Moldova is ... squashed between Romania and Ukraine, it's on the western edge of the Russian Steppes and just about the poorest country in Europe. Its entire industrial economy seems to have collapsed, ruined factories are strewn everywhere. As we circle to land at Chisineu, the capital, it looks like the bomb has fallen here.
Mind you the air is crystal clear, there is no pollution. The roads are empty too, but there is lots of lovely dark, black, rich-looking soil and agriculture seems to be doing well ... in a pre-war sort of way. Geese flock everywhere, and the horse seems to be the main rural form of transport.
I tell you it is all very organic! All over the place, organic gets all over you. The silver lining on total economic collapse is no chemicals and no GM, they can't afford them. Moldovans may be poor but they eat and drink well. As we found. They wanted to impress, and did. They also have this Russian thing about proposing little toasts to everyone throughout the meal. And everytime they make sure you drain your glass of wine, brandy, vodka, all three, whatever, who cares any more? Then they want to dance. It's tough, eating in Moldova.
But the agriculture is in good nick compared to what I remember from my visits to Communist Bulgaria in the seventies. There, I remember great teams of people just sitting around in the barren fields, presumably because that's what they were told to do. Here, when The Wall fell, they split up the failing State Farms into individual smallholdings. Alas these also failed ... after a lifetime being told what to do it must be hard to suddenly become a self sufficient farmer. So they put the big farms back together as co-operatives, which seem to be working. Well, the one we saw did. I think it's something to do with being left alone to sort themselves out. There are no longer any bright ideas and new initiatives coming down from the men in the Ministry, Farmers seem to enjoy that. I notice the Moldovans haven't applied to join the EEC.
And Moldova is seriously back in the wine business, supplying vast amounts to Russia ... the company we buy from is over the million cases to Moscow already. And our first shipment from this state of the art Italian/Russian (I know, sounds unlikely but believe me it works extremely well) winery went down very well with you our customers and the new 2002 vintage, which we tried, tasted potentially fabulous.
Moldova is a northerly wine region ... like Burgundy, Alsace, Germany and the Tokay region of Hungary; it has the potential, and indeed the tradition, of making wine of the very highest and most refined flavour. All it needed was a brand new, well designed, well run winery and some top winemaking talent. All of which it now has. Jean Marc spent two days combing through hundreds of vats and cherrypicking the best. My role was to distract Moldovan attention from this and attend banquets and press conferences, make speeches and drink toasts. Watch this space for the results mid 2003.
We flew to southern Italy where we, and quite a few other 'flying winemakers', are having a great time doing what might be called 'viticultural archeology'. In and amongst all the bits of Roman, Etruscan etc ruins that litter this land are also bits of old vineyard. In Campania, north of Naples, lie vineyards of ancient grape types like Greco di Tufo, Fiano, Primitivo and Falanghina. Tended by peasants for centuries, vinified maybe not too cleverly, and only very rarely ending up in a bottle with a label. Discover an ancient patch of one of these varieties on some steep, favoured hillside and with skill you can make astoundingly good wines. It always seemed impossible to really 'crack' this region. I like the place so I tried hard for years but I think I didnt have the right connections. The small growers sold everything locally to friends and the only export was dull stuff from big companies. But these patches of vine straggling, unruly fashion, across steep hillsides mixed in with olives, corn, tomatoes, peppers, oranges, lemons - and all things nice - it's the way it was done in Roman times, and before. And ecologically it's the best way to do it. Incredibly beautiful.
We also went over to Ortona on the east coast, where the same sort of situation applies and we work extremely successfully with a company of three lads called Farnese; Valentino, Philippo and Camillo. The 2001, in casks a year now, is truly magnificent ... I swear you can see its richness just from the lethargic way it streams from pipette to glass. This is down in the Farnese dungeons where the '3' has been sitting undisturbed.
Then to near Toledo in southern Spain, from a region where the vineyards, and all vegetation, are quite lush and dense and hilly, to a region where the vineyards consist of small scrubby bushes stretching endlessly across a vast stoney plain - the flat and vast vineyards of La Mancha. Here in an old cellar, deep underground (of necessity, given the heat here), we are ageing a wine made from extremely old vines in nice oak casks just as they do in Rioja. It was in fact a Rioja chum of ours who inspired this scheme. Gonzalo was always saying that the wine of his poor home region, La Mancha, would be just as good as any Rioja if only it could recieve the same ageing in oak and the same loving care. So we found the cellar and a partner and sent in the barrels ... watch out for La Finca Muñoz 2001 ... its now been bottled by Jean-Marc and it is very impressive.
These wines are the results of Laithwaites Own Production Department set up by Anne Linder in 1988. I may have come up with this Flying Winemaker name and notion but it was Anne who took on the job of getting French and Australian winemakers to work together. One young woman responsible for making millions of bottles of wine in wineries all over the place, from Chile to Czeckoslovakia, Burgundy to Barossa, using a combination of unreconstructed peasant farmers, some of wine's wildest winemakers and up to eight languages. I was mad to think it could be done. But Anne must have been totally out of her tree to actually do it.
We flew into Bergerac on the way home to see how the Dordogne vintage was looking ... and it's looking good. I doubt many can claim that but then we only work with great winemakers. These guys can make great wine no matter what the vintage throws at them ... almost. My eldest son Henry, him with his 2.1 in Biology and fancies he'll be a winemaker now, was well and truly dropped in the deep end of the vat. Assisting Celnie Rousseau who was 'flying' round five cellars, he was left alone in a big cellar in the Dordogne to make four vats - one white, one pink and two reds. First day the cellar is struck by lightning, all power down, no pumps, chilling or anything. Welcome to the world of Flying Winemakers, son. Sorry, very busy my end so just sort that out then will you!
A week later I went to see the results of 2002 in Burgundy - very good indeed ... Jean Marc says. I have been doing this job for 30+ years, but fermenting wines in any region but my own Bordeaux are still very hard for me to judge. But things are less good in the Rhône. André Roux is probably the best winemaker I know, but even he has problems when the cellar is four foot under water. Chusclan had its vintage washed away quite literally with a roaring wall of Rhône floodwater in the cellar and throughout the village. The damage was considerable. Vines do not like being drowned any more than people do. Mind you, wine itself is resilient stuff. Outside the bottle may be covered in mud but inside the wine is fine. Hundreds of casks may have been picked up and thrown around the cellars but what was eventually decanted out of them was really rather good. A whole bunch of wines which would never normally be put together ... 'the hand of God' in this ... I hope our buyers will agree and snap up this wine. I can see the offer now; 'Wines not only grown by the Rhône but actually blended by the Rhône'. The village looks in remarkably good fettle considering. We chomped our baguettes and drank in both village bars and everyone seemed as raucously festive as usual. No moaning. It must be the wine.
In Provence they have had plenty of rain too. St Tropez was deserted in late November, however the day we were there the sun shone all the way along the corniche to Cannes. No cars, no tourists, no crush - just sun, low prices and stunning views, its the best time to go. Despite the poor weather, there are some excellent wines. St Tropez really does have remarkable old vineyards dotted around between the billionaire residences.
And then on to Australia, to Adelaide and McLaren Vale. This, so far, has been one of the hottest, driest seasons on record. A couple of days before we arrived the English cricketers just melted in Adelaide's 40 degrees. But rain was slanting in horizontally for our first two days and I had to wear all my clothes at the same time to keep warm. The vineyards enjoyed it though and if the rain didn't wash all the pollen away it will be a good crop in February. We stayed at Redheads This is going to be a 'studio winery'. We have donated a building and some equipment for young or young-ish winemakers to use to vinify, or micro vinify, small - no, tiny - cuvees of very special wines.
I will be back, if they let me out of here, in March to watch and learn. These people have already won acclaim and high marks - Parker 91+ for a couple of moonlight wines they made in their garages. This year they are aiming to go 95+.
Not people who lack ambition, these Aussies.
But then neither are we.