Best of 2016: Neal Martin

Another year over and what have I done? Looking over my shoulder as the festive fag-end of 2016 whizzes past, I am thankful that I reached the end in one piece since too many of my music and winemaking heroes, plus a couple of friends, did not. I presumed I would saunter into middle age like entering a wrong room, accidentally falling into a benign period of stability and routine, and who knows, sobriety? Weekends practicing my golf swing, listening to jazz and driving within the speed limit. On the contrary, if anything my forties are as crazy, haphazard and unpredictable as my halcyon partying days, at least those I can remember. Only now the wine has improved. A rough calculation says that in 2016 I spent some 20 weeks traveling across the globe, time when the privileged joy of venturing afar is countered by the tug of home. I made countless visits to wineries and vineyards so that Father Christmas already needs to send me a new pair of hiking boots. There have been days bejeweled with mind-boggling, time-buckled bottles to ten dollar bargains - both as precious as each other, I should add. Perhaps most importantly, on route I have met a life-affirming and eclectic group of kind, generous and engaging people...well, mostly. This piece includes my vinous retrospective of the year augmented by cultural lists, such as my favorite film and television, a couple of last-minute fun additions such as "Most Mental Day"- when I found out what it was like to become "news," if only for 24 hours. I will broach music separately for those wondering in what direction to bend their ears. Next year starts how this year finishes - at full tilt. I'll be flying down to the Cape to catch up with South Africa, Zurich for the next Matter of Taste event, straight into 2014 Bordeaux in bottle that will dovetail into 2016 en primeur (and exactly how many emails from châteaux have already fluttered over from Bordeaux barely able to contain their excitement about their extraordinary or magical 2016?). Given the embarrassing backlog of articles from this year's tastings coupled with what is penciled in for next year, my advice is to strap yourselves in for 2017. But in the meantime, here's a brief look at the last 12 months.

Top 3 Most Outstanding New Or Current Release Wines of the Year

Bordeaux - Red
I was going to include 2015s here, but perhaps instead I will select wines that are in bottle.

2014 Château Montrose - Full in-bottle report due early next year. A recent re-tasting in bottle at the property confirmed my barrel assessment - this is a supremely gifted, modern-day Saint Estèphe. 

2012 Château Trotanoy - I love the 2012 Right Banks. Sure, Le Pin and Petrus etc. are the business, but to my mind, this Pomerol icon represents great value. Stash it away for 15-20 years to enjoy it at the peak of its powers.

2013 Château Valandraud - A 2013? Really? Recently re-tasted and showing what "Bad Boy" Jean-Luc Thunévin" can do when the odds are stacked against him.

Bordeaux - Sauternes

2013 Château Coutet - Don't forget that whilst 2013 red Bordeaux was a bit of a damp squib, it was a great vintage in Sauternes. Coutet is on a roll at the moment under the Baly family, a Barsac that has been so consistent in recent years.

2015 L'Extravagant de Doisy Daëne - Farewell to the late, great Prof. Dubourdieu. Writing this, I thought they should rename it "Cuvée Denis" in his memory. Denis' passing was a loss to Bordeaux as Prince's was to the world's funkiness.

2011 Château de Myrat - The Sauternes that came back from the dead under the de Pontac family. Enjoy this Sauternes and retell the story

Burgundy - Côte d'Or
I have chosen three winemakers that I have championed in recent articles, rather than just selecting obvious names.

1)    2014 Chassagne-Montrachet 1er Cru Les Grandes Ruchottes - Domaine Bernard Moreau. Got to have some of the astounding 2014 white Burgundies here. Alex Moreau (pictured) is just making fantastic wines and guests adored them at the Matter of Taste dinner in London this April.

2)    2014 Bourgogne Chapitre Vieilles Vignes - Domaine Jean Fournier - From a vineyard virtually within the Dijon suburbs, Laurent Fournier proves you don't need a fancy Premier or Grand Cru to fashion delicious Pinot Noir. 

3)    2014 Fixin les Crais - Domaine Denis Berthaut - I could have chosen others with higher scores, but let's shed light on one of the overlooked appellations in Burgundy. Amelie Berthaut has radically improved the wines and has a lifetime of great wines ahead of her.

Burgundy Chablis
Chablis represents great value, perhaps even more so now compared to the prices in the Côte d'Or. Growers have been decimated by the 2016 growing season so give them some support. Kudos to the Goisot family in Saint-Bris for furrowing a singular path and creating wonderful wines. 

1)        2015 Chablis Grand Cru Les Clos - Vincent Dauvissat

2)     2014 Saint Bris Corps de Garde - Guilhem et Jean-Hugues Goisot

3)     2014 Chablis Montée de Tonnerre - Domaine Raveneau 

ere I will belatedly write what I had intended following the announcement that my colleague Lisa-Perrotti-Brown will take over coverage of Oregon from 2017. It has been an absolute joy to visit Oregon over the last couple of years, not only in terms of tasting the wines, but meeting so many passionate winemakers...and a few crazy ones (you know who you are - keep it up). I'll certainly keep track of developments in the future and who knows, I might pop up at IPNC one year (if I am forgiven). Here are three wines that will make me miss Oregon, where the best is yet to come...

1)    2014 Pinot Noir Maresh Vineyard - Arterberry Maresh

2)    2014 Pinot Noir Clos des Oiseaux Vineyard - Walter Scott

3)    2014 Pinot Noir Casteel Vineyard - Bethel Heights

Top 3 Greatest Value Wines of the Year

I am going to choose three Cru Bourgeois here, as a reminder that Bordeaux still represents unbeatable value once you step away from the top labels. If they are not under $25, then they are not going to be much more. Expect reports from Bordeaux nether regions in 2017.

1)    2014 Château du Tailhan (Haut-Médoc)

2)    2014 Château Tour Seran (Médoc)

3)    2014 Château Hanteillan (Médoc)

There was a brilliant quote by writer Jon Bonné in Noble Rot magazine recently: "Pinot Noir wants to be loved, Gamay likes to f**k." Well, I f**ked my way around Beaujolais in 2016, one of the most dynamic regions in France. Forget Beaujolais Nouveau - these are lip-smacking, delicious wines full of joie-de-vivre and newfound complexity. And most of them are f**king cheap.

1)    2015 Côte de Brouilly - Château Thivin

2)    2014 Morgon Corcelette - Daniel Bourgon

3)    2014 Moulin-à-Vent Champ de Cour - Richard Rottiers (pictured on the left with other Bojo dudes.)


1)    2014 Chablis 1er Cru Clos de Lechet - Sylvain Mosnier

2)    2014 Bourgogne Aligoté - Domaine Guilhem et Jean-Hugues Goisot

3)    2014 Bourgogne Tonnerre "Sagara" - Sonia & Marc Cameron

South Africa
As I delayed my trip to South Africa to January, I won't list any here, suffice to say that South Africa continues to represent astonishing value for money.

Odd Bottles aka "The Dirty Dozen"

What is more dull and boring than just tasting beatified vintages from famous growers ALL the time? Erm...quite a few things come to mind: sorting out VAT receipts, watching paint dry, a.n.other blog proclaiming to change wine writing forever, Mahler's 7th... The joy of wine? It's the contrast. It's the outliers, the misfits and the oddballs. Crap vintage derided and mocked by the entire world? Bring it to me and I'll give it a whirl. I don't care. I've an open mind. So here's the weird bottles, the off-vintages, the supposedly decrepit, the interesting background stories that make my job as interesting as tasting any of those in the "Best of..." list.

1956 Château Léoville Barton - A vintage decimated by a late frost, it has an appalling reputation and consequently wines are elusive. This was the first I tried. It was drinkable. Well done. Next year, I am starting a campaign to persuade Lilian Barton to reinstate this magnificent art deco label for the grand vin. Who's joining me?

1991 Château Valandraud - Jean-Luc Thunévin only made a tiny quantity of his debut vintage (better than having to sell it off to the local co-operative though.) Still respectable after 25 years. Garargistes made wine that couldn't age, yeah?

2005 Château Trottevieille Vignes Vignes - by far the most elusive Bordeaux from the Saint Emilion property that comes from old Cabernet Franc vines. Only about 100 bottles that are beautifully packed in an engraved bottle but I have never seen one for sale.

1972 Bourgogne Rouge - Domaine René Engel - should have been dead. Wasn't.

1950 Château Laville Haut-Brion Blanc – as usual, old vintages take a while to open in the glass. A perfect way to commence an evening, 1950 not being particularly renowned for its whites.

1963 Chambertin - Groffier-Leger - I had bet on this not actually being 1963, rather 1964 to save face. Upon first sip, it was drinkable, so no way was this 1963. Sometimes chicanery tastes better.

1986 Bâtard-Chevalier - Pessac-Léognon - Olivier Bernard briefly names his 2nd label white after a Burgundy vineyard. No doubt mystified a few buyers who wondered why the bottle was the wrong shape and did not taste of Chardonnay.

1978 Eyrie Merlot (Washington State) - a bottle opened by Jason Lett, made by his pioneering father when he was short of cash and bought fruit "over the border" from Oregon. Delicious!

1998 Haut Bailly "Exceptionelle Vieilles Vignes / 1986 LeovilleLas-Cases (Cuvée Petit Verdot) - you'd be surprised how much experimentation goes on in Bordeaux. Two cuvées that I tasted and written up in 2016, the first for private consumption, though a handful might get to see what a 30-year old Petit Verdot tastes like. There are others I know of. I could tell you, but I'd have to kill you.

1881 Château Batailley - the oldest vintage in their cellar. The Castèja family outrageously popped over dozen of them during en primeur. And why the hell not? Bravo.

1960 Château Les Carmes Haut-Brion - fooled me when opened at the property. You sure there isn't a drop of '61 in there? Who knows. Who cares?

1945 Château d'Issan - made at Rauzan Ségla because they winery had fallen into total disrepair. Did that compromise the wine? You'll find out soon.

Best Vertical / Retrospective Tasting of the Year

This is incredibly difficult, so I will choose one for my two regions: Bordeaux and Burgundy. For Bordeaux, not the Petrus vertical back to 1964 or the hilarious 1950s Claret rock 'n roll dinner replete with magician who has left me wondering how the hell he put a glass block into my clasped hands whilst standing on the opposite side of the room. It has to be the vertical, or rather verticals of Château Montrose. I conducted three on separate occasions including two with managing director Hervé Berland, one in London and one at the property, so that in total I tasted 62 vintages spanning three centuries. When I write it up it should be the most comprehensive overview of the property ever published. It attested the sheer consistency throughout the entire 20th century, only the 1970s and early 1980s showing any weakness. Regarding Burgundy, the d'Auvenay soiree was once-in-a-lifetime and the six-hour La Paulée straight a into three-hour dinner redefined hedonism. But it must be the Domaine René Engel retrospective back to the 1940s. Partly because many of these bottles will never be seen again, partly because Philippe Engel's wines formed much of my Burgundy education back in the day when I could afford them, partly because of his untimely passing in 2005 meant that a tasting as comprehensive as this would one day be nigh impossible. I listed the most memorable below.

Domaine Rene Engel 1943-2004 - Once in a lifetime retrospective of three generations of the Engel family, many bottles now non-existent and exorbitant in price. Moving. 

Valandraud 1991-2014 - The only time Jean-Luc Thunévin has ever conducted a complete vertical - blind. The bad boy even had the audacity to pair them with the likes of Cheval Blanc and First Growth. 

Petrus 1964-2005 - Spectacular evening of all the great Petrus vintages including the epic 1982 en magnum. I had drunk them all before, but it is never any less enthralling than the first time.

Petrus/Lafleur/Le Pin - A dreamlike, three-way face-off between the most iconic Pomerols throughout the greatest vintages in recent years, including 1982, 1989, 1990, 1998, 2001 and 2005. Want to know the results? Coming soon.

Domaine d'Auvenay dinner - A gobsmacking array of 20 bottles from Domaine d'Auvenay including several vintages of Chevalier-Montrachet. Has this ever been done before? Has Lalou done it before?

Montrose 1919-1982 + 1895-2010 + 1893-2014 - Where do you begin? Three epic verticals of one of the most consistent château of the last 120 years. The eventual report will be definitive. There is only one place you'll be able to read it, and it's not "Anglers Weekly."

Siran 1947-2012 - It's so refreshing to explore some of the less-known Bordeaux estates through time, especially ones that are on the up like this Margaux. More to come in 2017.

La Paulée in Beaune - This is not the Meursault la paulée, rather a smaller private one. The bottles were astonishing (1961 Romanée-Conti, 1949 Clos de Tart, etc.) but it's the sharing with friends that really matters - a pertinent reminder of what these wines are for. Not to barter or profit, but martyrs to communal drinking pleasure.

Fifties Rock 'n Roll Party! - Hilarious and raucous 1950s-themed soirée replete with preprandial magician, 1950s soundtrack, "Elvis" mini-burgers (thanks Jodie) and killer wines such as 1953 Léoville-Las-Cases, 1955 Latour, 1955 L'Evangile and 1959 Palmer inter alia. Plus a gentleman that works for a famous auction house dressed as Marilyn Monroe. You know who you are. You know you enjoyed it.

Domaine de la Romanée-Conti 1999 (Complete) - The complete set from the Cuvée Duvault-Blochet to Romanée-Conti. Heaven is a place on Earth, sang Belinda Carlisle. I think she was referring to nights like this. I was weak in the presence of beauty.

Clos Rougeard 1985 - 2012 - A foray into the Loire with an astonishing vertical of 20+ wines from this revered Loire producer. I've never written it up. Maybe I should?

Batailley 1881-2010 - The Castèja family opened a dozen bottles of iconic vintages. A dozen EACH vintage, like 1900 and 1945. Kudos for the audacity and generosity.

1986 Bordeaux Horizontal - Touring Bordeaux properties and tasting 1986s was a fascinating journey back in time, notwithstanding that interviewees are often much more candid then when they are promulgating the latest vintage. 

Most "Oh...F.F.S." Corked Bottles Of 2016

We have all been here. Your heartbeat quickens as you reach for that amazing bottle, you take one sniff and the same thought goes through our head. F.F.S. (Look up the acronym if you don't know.) Fortunately, there is no question that there are less TCA-affected bottles than ten years ago and some growers are moving to alternative closures. Still, this quintet were corked and made everyone a bit "miffed"...

  1. 1970 Petrus
  2. 1990 Vosne-Romanée 1er Cru Cros Parantoux - Henri Jayer
  3. 1982 Château Margaux
  4. 1999 Montrachet - Domaine de la Romanée-Conti (premox)
  5. 1996 Chevalier-Montrachet Grand Cru - Domaine Leflaive (magnum)

Best Dinner of the Year

If I am to judge the best dinner in terms of food on the plate, then no contest: Martin Berasategui in San Sebastián was off the charts, even if I did manage to spray myself with squid ink. HG on its way. Factor in wine and it becomes trickier, although the lunch that included, amongst others, pristine bottles of 1978 La Tâche, 1961 Palmer and 1961 Petrus beats a Pret-à-Manger. However, if I could go back and repeat a single one, then it would be Franca Manca pizzeria in Knightsbridge before Sir Simon Rattle conducts the Mahler's 7th at the Proms. It wasn't the pepperoni pizza. No, it was there that I realized for the first time that my daughter was talking to me as an independent and young beautiful adult, rather than a child. Sure, privately I was wishing we were off to see Iggy Pop or Kendrick Lamarr instead of being dragged along to see a bloody 80-minute symphony (didn't Gustav Mahler consider loo breaks?). On the other hand, not every child has good music taste. 

Top TV Programs

 1)    Stranger Things - If I was asked to describe my perfect TV drama, then it would be Stranger Things. Then again I would not have the inspired idea of giving Winona Ryder a lead role. Everything about this retro-80s sci-fi mash-up of X-Files, Poltergeist, John Carpenter, The Goonies and Stephen King all played against an astonishing soundtrack by Aussie duo "Survive" was perfect. Series 2 is being filmed. Cannot wait.

2)    Fleabag - Like a filthy Brigitte Jones, it was not the smuttiness or the barbed one-liners that made Phoebe Waller-Bridger's six-part comedy such a treat. It was the unexpected way in which midway through it tilted on its axis and flooded the narrative with pathos, much in the same way as the original The Office. It left you rooting for its refreshingly flawed libidinous character Fleabag. Olivia Colman playing a baddie was inspired.

3)    War & Peace - I am not a fan of historical dramas, however, the BBC's dramatization of Tolstoy's epic novel was magnificent.

4)    The Fall (Series 3) - On paper, the most boring and predictable series ever, since the murderer is fighting for his life and confined to a hospital bed. Talk about a hemmed in storyline. But the subtle way in which the script ratcheted up the tension was genius, climaxing in an explosion of violence before its unflinching downbeat ending. Gillian Anderson confirms herself as an actress at the peak of her powers (like Olivia Colman) and Jamie Dornan makes amends for 50 Shades of Grey.   

5)    Hypernomalisation - A three-hour gonzo documentary that explains everything you need to know about capitalism, the Middle East crisis, terrorism, bankrupt politicians and why 1996 blockbuster "The Rock" prompted the invasion of Iran in 2003. Totally brilliant. Utterly depressing.

6)    Flowers - Olivia Colman (again) and Julian Barrett lead a brilliant cast in one of the most twisted British comedies for a long time, written by über-talented 29-year-old Will Sharpe. Think Broadchurch crossed with The Mighty Boosh, the Brothers Grimm, Kramer vs Kramer and The Ring (Japanese original). Yeah, that good.

7)    Who Do You Think You Are (Danny Dyer) - I've never really understood the attraction of watching Z-list celebs trace their family lineage back to some doe-eyed Victorian harlot or picaresque pickpocket against some tragic background story (cue tears, 150 years later). But Danny Dyer's story unfolds in such spectacular fashion that it makes every other episode of the genealogical documentary pale in comparison. A soap star whose every other word is cockney slang and grew up in a rough part of the East End is de facto, directly related to Thomas Cromwell, King Edward III and William the Conquerer? Would ya' Adam and Eve it? 

8)    The Night Manager - Basically, Tom Hiddleston auditioning for Bond. His coolness when it all kicks off in the final episode prompted a nation to cheer as Hugh Laurie got his comeuppance. 

9)    The Amazing World of Gumball – Cartoon Networks genius children’s animation is funnier than most adult dramas and ten times as clever.

10) Black Mirror (Series 3 – “San Junipero”) – Although I felt that Charlie Brooker’s dystopian vision of the very near future lost a little grit in its translation from terrestrial TV to Netflix, this particular episode was original, uplifting, sad and moving. 

Top 3 Films

1)    The Lobster - So I am at a swanky dinner and I'm sitting opposite a suited Far Eastern wine collector who probably makes more money in a day than I will in a lifetime. I happen to mention that I had just watched The Lobster, directed by Yorgos Lanthimos. He jumps up and points at his wife downtable. "See...SEE! He has seen The Lobster. That film on the plane. He thinks it's brilliant. You were wrong...WRONG!" The Lobster is a dark, surreal, unsettling and thought-provoking film starring Colin Farrell and (yet again) Olivia Coleman amongst a very strong cast. It makes no apologies for its absurd premise that seems straight out of a JG Ballard novel. You'll either love it or hate it. I loved it.

2)    Equity - A drama set in the world of finance where even the hero's morals are discarded by the end. It met with tepid reviews, but personally, I never thought an IPO would be so riveting.

3)    Love & Friendship - Kate Beckinsdale revels in her role as a cold-hearted bitch from hell in a fire-cracker script adapted from a Jane Austen novel. Wickedly spiteful.

Most Mental Day of 2016

April 20. Geezer on the blower from Daily Telegraph, Paris office. Caught wind I'm taking over Bordeaux from Robert Parker. Answer a few mundane questions. Nothing unusual there. Noon. Telephone ringing every ten minutes with yet another national newspaper or press agency desperate for an interview. BBC Radio 4 asking if I can go on the Today program the following morning - a car will pick me up at four in the morning. I didn't know that time of the morning existed. An hour later, doing a telephone interview with Nick Higham for the Six O'Clock news. Ten minutes after that: Today not necessary, as they've bagged me for the national news tonight. More requests including FT, The Daily Telegraph (London), Daily Mail, BBC World Service, Southend Evening Echo and...shit...The Sun. Some hack has dug up an ex-girlfriend with lurid details of bedroom antics. How was I to know that an egg-whisk is not supposed to go there? Put off Sun interviewer. Escape madness by picking daughter up from school. Come back. Man with large camera and priapic lens loitering on doorstep. Pissed off winemaker? No. Says he's come to snap my photograph. Works for The Sun. Shit. Do photo-shoot on the green near dog waste bin. Realist my right arm is still covered with Dulux White Gloss for weekend. F.F.S. Try to hide arm. Fail. Go back inside. Phone rings. "Hi, it's Ian from The Sun..." Shit. Do interview. He's actually polite, clearly knows nothing about wine, but hey, when has that stopped anyone becoming an MW? Seems more interested in the fact that I come from Essex. Six O'Clock news on Radio 4 features interview with "famous" wine critic Neal Martin. Refuse to listen. Hide. Hear family laughing downstairs. Following morning, page 9, The Sun, "WORLD'S TOP PLONK EXPERT IS ESSEX BOY" and "I HATE WINE SNOB...I WROTE MY GUIDE IN McDONALD’s”. Mostly fictitious, but hey, it reads nicely. Wine recommendations are not from me, but purloined from a Parker guide, therefore probably the best wine recommendations The Sun has ever made. No egg-whisk. Safe. And breathe.

My Coolest Moment (The Only One...)

My coolest moment was manning the wheels of steel with fellow DJ Dan Keeling at the charity "Skin Contact" gig as Islington Academy. Big shout out to Richand Hemming who put the whole thing together - wine tasting of Rhône wines followed by brave peeps from the wine trade singing with the fabulous house band. Kudos to the BBR girl who absolutely nailed CeeLo's "Forget You." We supplied the tunes until midnight. Our only rule? Vinyl only. Having "retired" from the decks in 1992, I wondered whether it would be the same? But everything came back immediately. There is absolutely nothing as thrilling as playing a song and seeing a crowd spontaneously react, though I doubt anyone has actually followed The Jesus Lizard with the Village People. I was able to play all of my old Prince 12-inches in homage to my hero, whilst Dan's inspired spinning of Chris Rea's "Josephine," naturally the euphoric Ibiza house remix, meant that they had to turn the power off to stop us all from dancing. I hope Richard does it again, as it was a lot of fun. (Photo by Colin Hampden-White.)

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