Neal Martin's Review of 2019
BY NEAL MARTIN | DECEMBER 27, 2019
“Common sense and a sense of
humour are the same thing, moving at different speeds. A sense of humour is
just common sense, dancing.” — The late, great Clive James
Apart from heart surgery, this year went much as
expected. I shouldn’t be glib, but humour is what carries you through tough
times. Two thousand and nineteen was... surreal. The first four months, I was
mentally processing the shock that another birthday can no longer be guaranteed,
as age ushers you into “snipers’ alley.” Then there was interminable waiting
and the trauma of surgery, mustering the determination to recover physically
and, just as importantly, mentally, in order to return to blessed normal life.
Thankfully, that was possible, albeit with a few scars and a new strict diet (easy
to maintain once you’ve spent time in a cardiac ward; you won’t want to return).
Perversely, the entire episode was morbidly fascinating and – even if it didn’t
feel that way at the time – a positive experience. I learned a great deal about
life and death. I discovered what is truly important and what is petty. I gained
a slimmer figure in middle age. Call me Benjamin Button, but I do look younger. There were odd little
bonuses, such as inadvertently rediscovering a passion for vinyl and briefly
stepping outside of wine and collecting my thoughts. Above all, the kids still
have a dad. I had a lucky escape; tragically, many do not get that warning shot
across the bow.
change you? No, in the sense that I reverted back to the person I was before; I
didn’t mind him. Yes, in the sense that mortality now loiters offstage, giving
a merry wave, so don’t waste the little time you have. Every second is a second
gone. Is my attitude toward wine different to what it was 12 months ago? I have
not lost my passion for tasting and writing about wine, as attested by my productivity.
However, my alcohol intake is far less than it used to be. Wine is not the be-all
and end-all. It is no mystical elixir upon which life depends... but I still
bloody love it.
issues will affect me for the rest of my life. I will never be completely out
of the woods. Next year is about putting my best foot forward and grabbing
opportunities. It’s a cliché, but I have no intention of living life anything
less than to the fullest.
take one last look back at 2019. I’ll start with my passions – wine, food and
music – before branching out into other areas for a bit of fun.
I asked my wife to take this photo exactly
one week to the hour after I underwent eight hours of heart surgery. I wasn’t
exactly in a condition to run a marathon. But it is amazing how the body can
self-imposed abstinence for half the year, I didn’t half drink a few good
bottles. Again. This is thanks to my job, hard work and friendships with
amazing and generous wine lovers (they know who they are). These bottles are listed
in chronological order and take absolutely no account of rarity or price; I
loved drinking that 2014 Rully Chênes from Dureuil-Janthial in Beaune and
marvelling at the time-defying 1865 Latour in Hong Kong. There are even a
couple of champagnes on the list! No Selosse, but then again, who knows what
will happen in 2020?
Wine of The Year: 1991 St. Joseph - Domaine Jean-Louis Grippat
there are far more elusive, ancient and wallet-busting bottles on the list, I’ve
racked my brain and nothing gave me more pleasure than this St. Joseph, poured
blind at Noble Rot restaurant in London with a couple of mates. Bliss.
Wine of the Year (Money No Object): 1865 Château Latour
one of the legendary 19th-century vintages. How could this 154-year-old
Pauillac taste so crystalline? Maybe it’s the magic in them pre-phylloxera
Wine of the Year (Money No Object): 1999 Montrachet Grand Cru - Domaine
bottle looked at the 2001 Montrachet from DRC and then, once it had spent an
hour sizing up the opposition, wiped the floor with it. Astonishing precision
Wine of the Year (Value for Money): 2018 Syrah Estate Reserve - Lismore
so many great-value offerings from South Africa. Winemaker Samantha O’Keefe is
creating some amazing wines from her vineyards. [Postscript: this was my choice
despite learning of the terrible wildfire that wiped out Samantha’s home.
Fortunately, the vines seem to have survived and the bottle cellar was
untouched. She’ll be back.]
Wine of the Year (Value for Money): 2017 K5 Argiñano - Bodegas Txakolina
Spanish white with stunning tension and salinity, and at around €20 on a list? Yes, please.
Wine of the Year: 1893 Château d'Yquem
It was not
the name of the château or the age, but the circumstances of the growing season
that ensured this was easily the most remarkable sweet wine of 2019.
following were memorable and I have no apologies for drinking any of them. I
mean, would you refuse if you had the
chance? I thought not.
Chambertin - Domaine Joseph Drouhin
Tâche Grand Cru (Moingeon Bottling)
Mouton-Rothschild (the bottle in Hong Kong and not the ex-cellar one in Paris)
Musigny Vieilles Vignes Grand Cru – Domaine Comte Georges de Vogüé
Château La Conseillante
Château Léoville-Las Cases
Bâtard-Montrachet Grand Cru - Domaine Jean-Claude Ramonet
Saint-Georges Les Murgers 1er Cru - Domaine Jean Camuzet
Château Lafite-Rothschild (magnum)
Tâche Grand Cru - Domaine de la Romanée-Conti
Scharzhofberger Riesling Spätlese - Egon Müller
Châteauneuf-du-Pape - Domaine Clos des Papes
Château Certan (magnum)
Corton-Charlemagne Grand Cru - Louis Latour
Collection Privée Champagne (magnum)
Mazis-Chambertin Grand Cru - Domaine Roty
Barolo Riserva Speciale - Aldo Conterno
Gran Reserva - Marqués de Riscal
Moutlouis Demi-Sec - Domaine des Liards
Corton Grand Cru - Domaine Bonneau du Martray
de la Roche Grand Cru - Domaine Jean-Marie Ponsot
Scharzhofberger Riesling TBA - Egon Müller
Grand Cru - Domaine Clair-Daü
Vosne-Romanée Les Petits-Monts 1er Cru - Domaine Hudelot-Noëllat
Château Mouton-Rothschild (jeroboam)
Château Léoville-Las Cases
Bâtard-Montrachet Grand Cru - Domaine Etienne Sauzet (magnum)
Château La Conseillante
Château La Mission Haut-Brion
de la Roche Grand Cru - Domaine Hubert Lignier
Cornas - Thierry Allemande
Sauer - Kanonkop
Jurançon (Lot L98C03) – Clos Joliette
Charmes-Chambertin Vieilles Vignes - Domaine Denis Bachelet
Bollinger Vieilles Vignes Françaises
d’Abruzzo - Valentini
Château Lynch-Bages (double magnum)
Meursault Les Tillets - Domaine Roulot
Bienvenue-Bâtard-Montrachet Grand Cru - Domaine Jean-Claude Bachelet
Chablis Les Clos Grand Cru - Domaine Vincent Dauvissat
Grands Echézeaux Grand Cru - Domaine de la Romanée-Conti
Meursault Clos des Ambres - Domaine Arnaud Ente
Chênes - Domaine Dureuil-Janthial
Porseleinberg - Porseleinberg
Santorini Assyrtiko - Artemis Karamolegos Winery
- Alheit Family Wines
Tonight Josephine - Savage Wines
Olerasay - Mullineux Family Wines
40-Year-Old Boal Vinho do Embaixador – Barbeito
50-Year-Old Terrantez - Justino’s
Extraordinary Tasting of the Year: Petrus Vertical in
London/60th birthday in Bordeaux
extraordinary tastings are indelibly imprinted upon my memory. The first was
back in January, when I was reeling from bad news. Consequently I experienced
the elation of drinking more than 20 legendary vintages of Petrus stretching
back to the 19th century while contemplating the darkness that lay ahead. The
second was the recent splendid 60th birthday celebration in Bordeaux. It was
not just the consistency of the sublime 1959s, but the bonhomie, banter and friendship that accompanied those bottles.
I Most Enjoyed Writing for Vinous: Pichon-Lalande Vertical
treacherously stripped out all information pertaining to viticulture and
vinification and boring stuff like that, I rebuilt the article around Nicolas
Glumineau’s lifelong passion for Goth guitar heroes The Cure. The piece demanded
multiple edits over many months to shape it the way I wanted, so that his
answers mirrored mine. Looks easy when you read it, but trust me, it’s not. Wine
writing is too often formulaic. It’s good to occasionally throw away the rulebook
and pen something outré and unique to
communicate the subject from an alternative perspective.
Important Article I Wrote:
Facebook Post on March 14
When I was
diagnosed, the first thing I wanted to do was read testimonies from people who
have undergone a similar operation. I basically wanted to hear happy endings. Initially,
I began writing a piece designed to nip in the bud the circulating gossip about
my non-appearance at en primeur. In
the end, it turned into something that was hopefully a bit more entertaining
and meaningful. Subsequent to its posting, I received many private messages
from people who had been encouraged to undertake a health check, or just found it
comforting to read about someone facing a similar situation. Heart conditions
are far more common than I ever imagined, but you get through it. You can still
read the two entries before and after surgery on my Facebook page.
Published Against the Odds:
Port 2017 Declaration
I have reported
on every Vintage Port Declaration since the 2000. The 2017 Declaration
inconveniently coincided with my surgery. Forget it? No way. I encouraged port houses
to send samples in advance. The Taylor Fladgate wines were tasted and written
up the Friday before my Monday operation. In the end, the entire report was composed
in waiting rooms at either Royal Surrey or St. George’s Hospital, at one point
with a catheter attached to my left arm. Finally, against the odds, the piece was
published in timely fashion. Hooray! A small but important victory.
of the Year: Xaya (Saint-Jean-de-Luz)
several lunches and dinners that stick in my mind. Of course, the first with
friends at Food by John Lawson after my recovery was loaded with meaning, as it marked a
tentative return to my previous life just three weeks post-surgery. Though not
exactly “match fit,” I was relieved to indulge in fine gastronomy – and,
moreover, in the unlikely location of the seaside epicurean desert where I grew
up. In terms of the food on the plate, The Ledbury blew me away. Despite having
dined there dozens of times since it opened, I was blown away by the subtlety
of Brett Graham’s culinary skill.
Xaya – my favourite meal of the year; humble but delicious food.
year I gained a newfound appreciation for simple food and fresh ingredients, so
the one dinner I would repeat was at Xaya
in Saint-Jean-de-Luz. I can still taste that zingy salmorejo and octopus, and – no offence to anyone I have shared a
meal with – there will never be better company than my two daughters.
Memorable/Fun Meal of the Year: Otto’s (London)
country mile, the most fun meal was at Otto’s
in central London. I did not expect to be eating grouse à la presse with a reduction made from three 1964 Pomerols or
wearing a Viking helmet with horns long enough to spear an orbiting satellite.
But what the hell! I still laugh thinking about that afternoon.
Any reason to reproduce this photo!
Meal(s) of the Year: St George’s Hospital - Benjamin Weir Ward (London)
Look, I was
not expecting Escoffier in the kitchen. But the food at St. George’s Hospital fell
way short of dismal expectations. It was slopped on the plate like I was an
inmate, and every tasteless dish was loaded with salt. How ironic that at the
moment when the body desperately cries out for fresh food, vitamins and
minerals, patients must eat such poor fare. The daily budget for each NHS
patient is less than £3.00 for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Go figure.
I cannot describe how good that bottle of
Parcel of the Year: Noble Rot “Rescue Package”
four of my post-operative weekend break, I was craving something edible. Thanks
to Dan and Mark of Noble Rot restaurant, who heeded my distress call and
dispatched emergency rations down to the hospital, couriered in a “Sex, Drugs
and Pinot Noir” tote bag. Chateldon never tasted so good. Rations were shared
with the nurses on the ward.
Album of 2019: Titanic Rising by Weyes Blood
album from Natalie Mering is grandiose, heartfelt, passionate, clever and fun.
It’s probably the album I listened to the most over the last 12 months, and it
has lost none of its power. I keep finding nuances that I had missed within its
loved the following:
Quiet Signs by Jessica Pratt - Once you are accustomed to
her unique voice, this has spectral beauty.
Psychodrama by Dave - Astonishingly clever UK rap from
the multi-talented Dave
All Mirrors by Angel Olsen - An epic album, so far from
Olsen’s lo-fi beginnings
Ghosteen by Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds - A masterpiece
carved out of an artist’s grief
Love Will Find A Way by Philip Bailey - Sublime R&B/jazz
fusion by the former Earth, Wind & Fire genius
Encore by The Specials - Most comebacks by artists
are pale imitations of what made them great. Not this.
Norman Fucking Rockwell! by Lana Del Rey - Nothing sounds
like LdR, who inhabits her own universe.
Serfs Up! by Fat White Family - The grotbags sorted out
their bust-ups and hard drug habit to make this great album.
Beware of the Dogs by Stella Donnelly - Fantastic debut from
this Australian singer-songwriter
MAGDALENE by FKA twigs - Warping R&B into new
ANIMA by Thom Yorke - The Radiohead frontman’s most
satisfying solo work to date
Remind Me Tomorrow by Sharon Van Etten - Full of wonderful, epic
Purple Mountains by Purple Mountains - RIP David Berman
GREY Area by Little Simz - The polymath who is the not-so-little
Form by James
Blake - Intelligent left-field pop; clever use of collaborators
Songs of 2019
“The Cleaner” by Squid
on the cult label Speedy Wunderground, “The Cleaner” is a mash-up of Talking
Heads, LCD Soundsystem and disco that forms the centrepiece of Squid’s Town Centre EP. If you have a penchant
for avant-garde pop music, then “The Cleaner” may well be up your alley. This
Brighton-based collective might be massive next year. Don’t say I haven’t
Horses” by Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds
of the most beautiful songs you will ever hear, and one of the most
cinematic “Movies” was the highlight of Weyes Blood’s third album, imbued with grandeur
and pathos. If you have not heard it, find the fabulous video on YouTube that
enhances the whole experience.
by FKA Twigs
sings, acts and looks as if she was born on another planet rather than in Tewkesbury.
She is currently the most forward-thinking and adventurous artist of the last
couple of years. Fact.
by Róisín Murphy (Crooked Man Mix)
trance/funk hybrid, courtesy of the former Moloko singer. Impossible not to
“Old Man” by
sunny indie from the Australian chanteuse, but in fact a Trojan horse carrying
a lyrical message that chimes with these enlightened #MeToo times.
catchiest song of the year. The happiest song of the year. The fact that she is
a classically trained flautist makes Lizzo even more awesome.
“Feet” by Fat
I love how
this band stormed back with the pulsating “Feet.”
by Fontaines D.C.
get into their album as much as others, although I do like the riffage of this
“Not” by Big
From the band
that released not one but two great albums in 2019, this is one of my favourite
by Sharon Van Etten
There is a
tinge of Springsteen about this epic track, released at the beginning of the
year. It still sounds as brilliant at the end of the year.
Book of the Year: Machines Like Me by
thoroughly enjoyable and thought-provoking tale set in a counterfactual,
alternative timeline that examines how the first invented humanoids might interact
with society. Funny and thought-provoking, it is one of McEwan’s best novels.
the Year: Fleabag (Season 2)
The first season
was smutty and hilarious, but it finished with jolting melancholy that
prefigured the pathos of the astonishing second season. Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s
script was word-perfect. Andrew Scott revealed in his role as the priest
battling between faith and unrequited love, and the final scene, at a deserted
bus stop, served as the perfect ending, and one so true to life. May there
never be a third series. Like Fawlty
Towers and The Office – other members of an elite group of comedies
to which Fleabag belongs – two seasons
of the Year: Ion Max LP Turntable
Max LP turntable from PC World cost just eighty quid and came with a tinny
sound that any audiophile would ridicule. But it changed my world. I was not in
a good place when my surgery was cancelled after four months of waiting. Desperate
for something to occupy my mind, I bought the cheapest turntable I could find
so that I could play the 700-odd vinyl records that had been gathering dust for
a few years, and in particular to play an extended mix of Prince’s “Mountains” that
was unavailable on any streaming service. I moved the printer and set up the
turntable next to my Mac. The ritual of unsheathing the record, placing the
needle on the groove and hearing that crackle... it was like bumping into an old
friend. My consumption of music changed at that very moment. Later I upgraded
to a Rega P3 with its unparalleled sound and spent weekends crate-digging for
used vinyl. It was the exit door from my all-consuming passion for wine; monomania
is never healthy. The Ion turntable has since been donated to a friend, but I
will always remember the impact it had at a tricky time. They say music can
save your life. It can.
the Year: The Favourite
I did not go to the cinema much. I did enjoy Oscar winner The Favourite, though I was unprepared for how deliciously rude it
of the Year: Anaesthetists
conversation was with two lovely anaesthetists in their scrubs about the
current Bordeaux 2018 en primeur.
Unfortunately, I fell asleep just as I was getting to the exciting bit.
Words I Shall Never Forget
“I have good news and
the doctor during an angiogram as I was lying on my side staring at a live
image of my beating heart.
Frequently Heard Sentence Before Heart Operation
“When is your operation?”
Frequently Heard Sentence After Heart Operation
“You’ve lost weight.”
Vital Piece of Clothing: Body Warmer from Domaine Grivot
garment was given to attendees at a tasting/dinner a few years back. It kept my
body at a perfect temperature at a time when I found it difficult to regulate
the Year: Obvious...
actually three heroes: the surgeon who performed the heart operation, the matron
in charge of the high dependency unit at St. George’s Hospital and a teenage
Somali nurse who probably has no idea how brilliant she is.
of the Year
remain nameless, but I’ll let them know when I see them.
100+ articles on Vinous in the same year as major heart surgery. They don’t
write themselves. I wish they would.
Get to the
end of the year in one piece.
You Might Also Enjoy
Vinous Table: Xaya, Saint-Jean-de-Luz, France, Neal Martin, October 2019
Two Imaginary Boys: Pichon-Lalande, Neal Martin, August 2019
An Ineluctable Pair: 2017 Vintage Ports, Neal Martin, June 2019
Beyond Wine: Album Review of Titanic Rising – Weyes Blood, Neal Martin, May 2019