So Neal, What Can I Expect?
BY NEAL MARTIN | FEBRUARY 13, 2018
Just to get this straight, I prefer to be behind not in front of the lens. I make an exception here as it is my introductory article and you might wonder what I look like. Johan Berglund took this in the hills above Vosne-Romanée.
Why I Write (The Way I Do)
Wine writing is a narrated voyage. It says as much about the writer as the wines they encounter en route. My journey really began back in June 1996 as a buyer for a Japanese importer, when I began visiting vineyards and winemakers, diligently chronicling each and every wine that crossed my inquisitive palate. It took an unexpected turn when I debuted Wine-Journal in 2003 and three years later took another twist when a message from Robert Parker popped into my inbox. Eleven years later and the bearings change once more. Here I am, listening to woozy jazz in a hotel lobby in Lower Manhattan writing the first entry in this latest chapter, fresh from being introduced to the all-star Vinous team. Who knows where it leads. All I know is that my passion for wine is a lifetime journey that only ends when I do, taking all those vinous memories with me to leave an archive of words. So best make sure they’re worth reading.
Posing outside Petrus around 1999 judging by my smart attire. This was when I was working for a Japanese importer. You forget how many châteaux and even famous names’ facades were grey and a tad shabby until recent makeovers.
In 2002, when I tentatively tiptoed into wine writing, my governing ethos was to narrate the journey in a personal manner. I am ostensibly a stenographer, typing the voice concurrently running inside my head when I taste wine, manifesting verbiage that tends to read as if I am speaking directly to you. Yes, you. Like an old friend casually nattering away. The prose is nipped and tucked, perhaps furnished a light-hearted preamble: an amuse bouche to ease you in before the main course. It is likely to be embroidered with quotes and observations; decorated with metaphors, wry asides and a dash of finest Essex humour that together, hopefully makes it worth reading. One central tenet is my belief that wine is ineluctably connected with nearly all facets of life, art and culture and therefore the writer is obliged to at least try and bridge them together, hence the anecdotes and extraneous references to wine that obliquely say so much about it. This is all done whilst keeping the essence of that original narrative, one that boils down to me telling you about the wine and its maker.
My style is not everyone’s cup of tea. I get that. However my maxim is that you should write for those who enjoy your work rather than those who don’t. Like wine, your words cannot please everyone. After many years of feedback it would seem a vast majority appreciates the way I have communicated about fermented grape juice and I see no reason to change. Suffice to say, if you enjoy the way I write then you are going to enjoy Vinous even more. If you do not... Well, there’s little I can do.
What Can I Expect?
Now I have got that out the way, what can Vinous readers expect? Well, as I forewarned AG (and I gotta keep this quiet because he is sitting in a hotel breakfast room just a couple of tables down from me) I am going to corrupt Vinous, just as I planned for The Wine Advocate all those years ago. No...no...no... Not corrupt. That has a negative connotation. More like “leading astray”. Like that boyfriend or girlfriend you dated as a teenager, the one met with simmering parental disapproval and yet looking back, boy, what you would give to relive those days. They made you a better person. I want Vinous to be an even more fun place to visit than it is now. My career has been a counter-reaction against po-faced, pretentious prose that wine can attract, too often overly serious or technical. Sure, let pH levels and IPT figures rain down. At least leaven it with a passage or aside that makes your audience laugh or think or elicit some emotion, a piece of cerebral shrapnel embedded long after you finished reading. A list of pH levels will not do that. And if it does then you either have an odd way of looking at wine or you are an oenologist.
I usually write several articles simultaneously, parcel ‘em up and send them off once they are ready, after which I am too embarrassed to ever look at them again. Some come together in a matter of hours and others necessitate research and input from winemakers to do them justice. Part of the reason I joined Vinous was that it resembles the original Wine-Journal insofar that it comprises a steady stream of articles. This suits the way that I write. However, it means that I cannot always predict what comes next because pieces usually come together organically. So I will give advance notice of impending articles on a weekly basis like Vinous’s other reviewers on “Your Say”. However, you should expect off-the-cuff spontaneous articles, some that I might work on secretly, in order to keep Vinous readers alert. You will just have to keep checking in.
Bordeaux, Burgundy, South Africa and New Zealand. Those are the regions burdened with my palate and prose. So let’s broach them one by one.
I love Bordeaux. I don’t love it because of the glamour, glitz and grandeur that lest we forget, only exist at the top of the pyramid. I don’t love it because I can brag about some expensive bottle. True, many come my way and who am I to refuse? I don’t love it because of years of exposure to the hyperbole, “euphemized” to death by château owners. I love Bordeaux because it had been my focus from day one. It was the region that ignited my vinous affair and having visited regularly for over 20 years it is part of my DNA. My double helix resembles Cabernet Sauvignon. Twenty years. I can remember when many châteaux were family-owned and not the gilded annex of a luxury empire, when the D2 road was free of those bloody speed bumps and when en primeur bore semblances to financial rationality. I’ve tasted an obscene number of iconic and benchmark wines, most of the legendary Clarets from the 20th century (though not the 1928 Cheval Blanc in case you have a spare bottle). I’ve walked round all the major vineyards, met all those I need to know, seen kids grow into winemakers and a couple of winemakers turn into kids. I don’t lock myself away in a sterile room, disconnected, analyzing one wine after another in misguided belief that this modus operandi guarantees impartiality. I discover what makes a property or winemaker tick, consider its influence upon the wine, tell the story. Then I will impartially tell you if is an elixir beyond compare or so bad that it serves as a health hazard...and everything between.
AG and I have a shared goal to make Vinous the unquestioned number one source of information on Bordeaux, just as it has undoubtedly become for numerous other regions. Not just notes and scores, but information, interviews and photographs – anything at our disposal. When I first examined the site’s database for Bordeaux, I instantly knew that I could ramp it up to the next level and fill in some gaps, while adding tasting notes that could use an update. This necessitates continuous coverage of crisscrossed horizontals and verticals to the point where the database is not going to know what’s hit it.
Lined up is a charabanc of verticals stretching back decades, First Growths to minor crus, revered vintages and off-vintages given equal respect. At time of writing there are six horizontals of Bordeaux vintages being prepared, indeed my teeth are still stained purple from a blind tasting of over two-hundred 2014s. Expect multiple examinations of the same wine in different settings, placed within context of other vintages and its peers. I also plan to continue covering Cru Bourgeois every vintage, the smaller and less prestigious regions that lest we forget, make Bordeaux an extremely affordable region...if you know where to look. Living just over an hour’s flight away from Bordeaux airport I will be visiting regularly to provide year-round coverage.
Expect plenty of verticals on Vinous. Here’s a taster.
People always ask which I prefer: Bordeaux or Burgundy? I love them both. Burgundy is more intellectually challenging, infuriatingly complex and more unpredictable than Bordeaux. Yet it captures the spirit and the soul of wine like no other. Once bitten by the Burgundy bug then there is no antidote, well, apart from the ever more irrational price tags. There is only one way to tackle Burgundy and that is spending a lot of time there. Having first visited in 1997, in the last five years I have devoted between 10 and 12 weeks in the vineyards and the cellars. That will continue. Like Bordeaux, I intend on publishing a couple of articles a month, maybe more. Without giving anything away there are some astonishing tastings and wines waiting in the wings. Then again, it is even more vital to find where value lies in this increasingly expensive region, those under-the-radar producers, the new generation turning round domaines and the less explored enclaves within Chablis, Mâconnais, Irancy and the Côte Chalonnaise.
Readers can look forward to an examination of Mugneret-Gibourg accompanied by a flurry of tasting notes that include some exceptionally rare older bottles.
Long-term NM readers (both of you) will know that I have dedicated a lot of time to the Cape. Why? Because it is the most dynamic wine region in the world, changing year by year to the point where the top ten producers today are unrecognizable from just five or six years ago. Sure, there remains a swathe of substandard wines that tarnish the image of South Africa and reinforce prejudices. However, the best South African wines are world class and remain unbeatable value for money.
Spectacular view from the vines in Waterkloof that overlook False Bay.
It is a country that I covered between 2008 and 2011 and visited every year before handing coverage to my colleague at TWA. I am looking forward to returning back to country that was progressing so rapidly when I left it. One thing I will not be doing is white water rafting that almost killed me when I foolishly tackled the rapids after three weeks of tasting back in 2008.
In addition, I intend to dip into areas of interest that I have written about in the past. People will know my love for Madeira and Vintage Port, for Philippe Gayral’s fantastic Vins Doux Naturels, those mesmerizing Tokaji (expect a comprehensive vertical from the Royal Tokaji Company) and would you Adam ‘n Eve it, even English sparkling wine.
In addition, of course I will be contributing regularly to “Cellar Favorites”, the first one already dispatched and also to “Vinous Table”. Here I will naturally lean towards the flourishing restaurant scene here in the UK as well as countries I visit on assignments, although as readers of Hedonist Gazette will know I tend to discuss more than the food and the booze. My first is a sensational Italian restaurant that I chanced upon over New Year. Also, there will be a new section on this site where Vinous writers can publish opinion pieces. In this respect, let’s just say I have a lot to get off my chest. Some of my own contributions will be serious whilst others will be controversial or just pure fun. I will be tackling topics such as alcoholism in the industry, the perils of score inflation, en primeur, changing attitudes to winemaking in Bordeaux and so forth. Finally, you will be pleased or horrified to know that one of my requests of AG was the resurrection of my monthly music column that was forced into hiatus last year (long story). I have been inundated with many people bereft of a musical compass and demanded its return, and I hear AG will be making contributions of his own. Maybe they are more interested in my opinion on the Spice Girls reunion than the latest releases from DRC. I’ll probably be telling you both. Maybe not in the same article. Or maybe I should and ask Aubert de Villaine, if La Tâche was a Spice Girl, which one would it be?
I will leave you with that profound question.