31 May 2011

The almost abstract beauty of Bordeaux wine architecture

A couple of recent visits to Bordeaux impressed me, once again, with the care and attention to detail that has been taken, over recent years, in terms of archicture, its details and its restoration, and the art works that are now part of the decor of so many Bordeaux châteaux that you visit. Sure they have the money to do this. But they also have the taste to do things right, and this doesn't happen everywhere. There is something that seemes to have always linked top Bordeaux wines to architecture. This aspect is part and parcel of their brand image, and one only has to look at a few labels to see this. In this case, the 5 first growths, only one doesn't have a building on its label (Mouton Rothschild).

Over recent years, considerable investments have been made to pursue this connection between art, architecture, and the wine estates of Bordeaux. Here are a few images to prove my point, and there are so many more examples...

This is a secondary building on the estate of Château Labegorce, in Margaux

This a a painting by the Spanish artist Tapies, hung in the old winery at Château Lynch Bages, Pauillac. The hanging of this exhibition is perfect and fits in so well with the place.
And below are a couple of details from the same place...

The ones below were taken at Château La Louvière, in the Graves region (Pessac-Leognan)

Visiting top Bordeaux châteaux these days can be likened to visiting an art gallery, and the wines are usually very good too. Only problem is I cannot afford them any more !

all photos by David Cobbold

30 May 2011

Seal and soul

I have been enjoying the Soul album (that is the title) of the Nigerian-born singer Seal for some time now. This is one of my favourite titles on the album, which is comprised of retakes of (mostly) classic soul hits. This one is by Sam Cooke, another all-time great. Soul lives! And you should also hear Seal's retakes of some Otis Redding numbers. Totally respectful and yet totally individual. The man is very good.

When the night has come
And the land is dark
And the moon is the only light we'll see
No I won't be afraid, no I won't be afraid
Just as long as you stand, stand by me

So darlin', darlin', stand by me, oh now now stand by me
Stand by me, stand by me

If the sky that we look upon
Should tumble and fall
Or the mountains should crumble to the sea
I won't cry, I won't cry, no I won't shed a tear
Just as long as you stand, stand by me

And darlin', darlin', stand by me, oh stand by me
Stand by me, stand by me, stand by me, yeah

Whenever you're in trouble won't you stand by me, oh now now, stand by me

Oh stand by me, stand by me, stand by me
Darlin', darlin', stand by me, stand by me
Oh stand by me, stand by me, stand by me

29 May 2011

The underdog lives on in rugby

No pictures for this post as the games are too recent for me to be able to find any on the web.

This is just a short and general comment on the three games I watched this weekend. Both the English and the French rugby championships are now in their final phases or have finished.

The English championship final was played yesterday (Saturday) between the Leicester Tigers and the Saracens, from London. It was a replay of last years final between the same two teams, but this time the Saracens won, having made most of the play and then by just hanging on in an interminable last sequence, defending courageously their goal line against incessant pick and go pummelling by Leicester. Until then however the match had been, for the most part, very pleasant to watch and Saracens deserved their win, showing far more initiative and play than Leicester, who were solid but very uninspired favourites for this game. This is the first time the London team has won an English championship.

The French final will be played next Saturday. It will be between Toulouse, who convincingly beat Clermont, last year's champion, in the semi-final payed on Friday evening, and Montpellier, surprising victors of Racing Metro, one of the two Paris teams. The latter was a heart-stopper of a game that saw Montpellier win by just one point (26/25) right at the end of the game. Clearly the underdogs, they also showed more flair and, finally, guts to believe in their chances to the finish. They dominated the first half before Racing pulled back and went ahead in the second half, looking to have the game tied up 5 minutes from the end. Montpellier never gave up however and deserved their victory.

So out of the three games, two were won by the underdogs. I like the message that this delivers for sport and for the rest.

Toulouse are clear favourites for the French final. They will have had one more day to recuperate than Montpellier. They also have huge experience of final stage of top competitions, as well as a very cohesive team. But Montpellier, unless they have exhausted themslves in yesterday's game where they gave just about everything, could cause another upset. They have nothing to lose and have shown that they can beat any team in France this year, provided they manage to hold their discipline, clearly their weak point. 

27 May 2011

When does life become still?

First an apology to regular followers of this blog for not having posted much recently. It must seem as if I have been trying to illustrate today's title. In fact my life has been far from still on the professional front over recent weeks, and hence I have had little time to write articles and put together images.

Walking past an art gallery window late last night and seeing a fine Dutch still life in the window triggered off a thought process about this theme for painters.

Why is it called "still" life? I suppose because the objects being painted could not move of their own accord. So why call it "life" then? Surely living things move? The French call this genre "nature morte", which literally means "dead nature". In a way a more accurate term, although perhaps a little morbid.

I suppose by far the greatest masters of this painting subject have been 17th century Dutch painters such as Willem Kalf (above and below). One can but admire not only the incredible technical mastery of this work, but also the beauty of the colours and the subtlety of the composition. Dead nature? No way! Just the joy of looking at fine (or simple) objects and feeling through one's eyes the textures, colours and shapes as surely as if one was touching, smelling or tasting them.

A contemporary Dutch painter called Karl Zipser somehow perpetuates this tradition with his photographic-like yet very refined paintings of fruit that have a magical sense of stillness and timelessness about them.


Between these dates, and in a different spirit, we have the equally powerful work of Paul Cézanne, who produced, around the turn of the 19th and 20th century, dozens of paintings and drawings of (mainly) apples which are quite exemplary in the way they give life to the suject, not trying to copy nature, but to create another form of object with a life of its own on the canvas or the sheet of paper.

Not only does the technique of painting change here, there is also a shift in the conventions of composition: for instance, in the painting above, when the plate with biscuits is allowed to break out of the frame on the right, or the Japanese influenced use of space. And there is also the simplicity of the setup, close to that of the painters own life.

And you do not have to "finish" a painting or make the surface smooth to give it an incredibly intense "reality" of its own. This man is a master!

Next time you eat some fruit, think of these....


20 May 2011

The Gironde estuary, near Bordeaux

Crossing the Gironde by the ferry that takes you from Lamarque (between Margaux and Saint Julien), on the left bank, to Blaye on the right bank. The currents alter the colour of the water, brownish yellow from the silt on the banks to grey-blue as one encounters deeper water in the centre of the estuary. It is down this stretch of water that the wines of Bordeaux built their history, travelling via the Atlantic at the mouth of the estuary to markets further north. 

18 May 2011

The most beautiful motorcycle ever made?

I am doing this partly for those of you who have not already seen this machine (ie, those who do not get Bike Exif or Southsiders or le Dépassionné, or maybe other bike-orientated blogs that circulate). I am also doing it because, depite the fact that I am not necessarily a fan of show bikes, which are often all show and no go, I find this machine so beautifully made and designed that it just takes my breath away.

This Falcon one-off is a totally hand-built remake of the legendary Vincent Black Shadow, with just about everything except the engine (and that has been carefully rebuilt with performance parts) specifically designed and made using modern materials, whilst remaining inspired by original Vincent parts. It is as much a piece of sculpture as it is a motorcycle. I have no idea how it rides, and it looks as if one should not attempt more than a few miles on it at one time, but it just looks so.....

1. For some reason, I am not able to enlarge these pictures, which came from the Bike Exif site. Maybe this will change and I can let you see more detail in the future.
2. The last picture shows the bike without the fuel tank so that you can admire the frame and general set-up. It is delivered with a second, larger fuel tank as well as the one in the first picture.
3. It is produced by Falcon motorcycles, in California: a company set up to built just ten individual bikes at a rate of one per year, each one based on a "classic" bike from the past. 
4. I have no idea how much it costs, but certainly a small fortune. The owner is a lucky person.

16 May 2011

end of rugby season blues

Given the image above, taken at a recent Stade Français versus Agen game at the Charlety stadium in Paris, another suitable title for this article could well be "The blues of a Stade Français supporter".

Indeed, I have 2 good reasons to have those good old rugby blues at the moment. The team I have supported for a number of years, because I live in Paris and walked to the old Jean Bouin stadium to see games, has seemingly lost, we hope temporarily, that mysterious ingredient that one could name its "soul and spirit", as well as quite a slice of its rugby skills. It is also, seemingly, losing players faster than it is acquiring new ones. This is largely due to financial difficulties which I hope will be temporary.

The national French Premeier League, called Top 14, is drawing to its final stages with just the semi-finals and the final to be played. Stade Français was nowhere near qualifying for this phase, and in fact finished at a miserable 11th position out of 14, its lowest since it regained the top division (and won the championship) in 1998. It has since been French champion another 4 times.  Well, the wheel turns, and you cannot win all the time, but the performances of Stade Français Paris have usually been quite dispiriting to watch this year.

The team has however managed to limp into the final of the Amlin Challange, a kind of second division European cup, where it will play the London team of Harlequins, which ironically was the team I supported when I lived in London years ago. The game will be played next Friday evening in Wales, and, to be honest, I would not put any money on Stade Français to win this game, especially as the Quins went and beat Munster in Ireland in the semi-final.

So I have those end-of-season rugby blues, double dose. Yet I will watch and cheer my team in front of a TV screen in some bar or pub in Bordeaux where I have to be this coming weekend. I will also try to wach the other games to come, both the Heineken Cup (the prime European cup, whose final will be between Leinster and Northampton), as well as the three final stage games of the French championship. I just love watching this game, as much as I enjoyed playing it.

People ask me why I don't change allegiance and support the Metro Racing team (the other top Paris rugby team). Well, although I have a lot of respect for that team and enjoy seeing them play, I do have some loyalty and I will remain a Stade Français supporter, despite the current hard times. I mean do you just give up and stop playing because you are losing a game? And, when the new Jean Bouin will finally get built, I can again walk to see my games of rugby. 

9 May 2011

wine in Luxemburg

I was recently in Luxemburg to be a judge at a major international wine competition (the Concours Mondial de Bruxelles, which is a very well-organsied event) and I had a little spare time to visit some of the vineyards and one of the producers. Actually this is by far the largest producer, a cooperative wine cellar whose production accounts for some two thirds of the wine from this tiny country. Unfortunately it is, by what I tasted, far from being the best, but at least I was able to get a look at the often spectacular vineyards that lie along the left bank of the Mosel river, even if I was appalled by the percentage of them still being "dealt with" in terms of weed control by chemicals.

I am not a fanatic of the "all organic" approach, but I do believe that soils should be properly cared for. I also know these vineyards are very steep, but there must have been other techniques in use before the discovery of this chemical and seemingly lazy approach since the vineyards here are very old.

A Luxemburg Mosel vineyard which uses the old single stake system, but whose soil has unfortunately been turned into a kind of dead concrete by constant use of weedkiller and no work on the soil.

The wines that come from vineyards like the one above are not exactly fascinating! Most of what is produced at this cooperative is sparkling wine. These appear to win plenty of medals at international competitions like the one for which I was judging, but I did find the ones that I tasted during my visit there particularly underwhelming. Maybe they have other stuff available.

peace along the border, looking across the Mosel towards Germany

The Mosel at this point forms the border between Luxemburg and Germany. Rising in France, it continues into Germany and many very fine wines come from the spectacular slopes that rise above it, north of the town of Trier. But, for the moment, I must say that the wines of Luxemburg are a bit of an enigma to me. I have yet to taste one that really inspires me, although I did try a few very decent still white wines and an good rosé made from pinot noir. Maybe I did not try the best, or perhaps producers here are a bit lazy, given the relative ease with which thy can sell their produce in the local market.


Marketing gadgets seem, at times, to take pride of place over quality wine-making

At least they make wines, as the pipes on the tanks say so...

and wine knows no frontiers, as we should know...


all photographs by David Cobbold

7 May 2011

more guzzi specials

The other day I saw a really nice example of one of these on Bike Exif, the excellent Australian bike web site. After a few clicks I found a few more that are to be added to my growing collection of images which may serve me for a future project (oh well, we have to dream on, don't we?).

If you want to go back to the previous selection, here is the link:

We shall start with the Bike Exif example, which apparently was built in Italy for an English customer. Not sure about the nappy-wrapping on the pipes, but the rest looks great! It has managed to epitomise that chunky, muscular feel that the Guzzi delivers when sufficiently undressed and subtly re-worked. Here are two shots, rear, then front...

And here are a few more bikes from other sources, all of which have their strong points.

The black one above is a beauty, but then so is the one below, for at least two reasons

5 May 2011

Wine of the week: Stirbey Cramposie, from Romania

I have just returned from a few days spent in the vineyards of Romania, where I learnt a lot, met some fine people, and discovered some grape varieties of which I had never heard before and whose wines I had certainly never tasted. I think that wine is, as much as anything, about travelling outside of your self whilst exercising a form of introspection of your sensations. And these sensations emerge on different levels, both sensorial, emotional and intellectual, mixing surprise and recognition (in alternation), memories and awakenings, elation and, sometimes, boredom through repetition.

One thing that you will not encounter in Romania, at least if you stay away from "international" grape varieties, is repetition and boredom!  I am not saying that all the wines made here from international grape varieties are boring. On the contrary, some of them are excellent and could stand well against international competition. I tasted some excellent cabernets, merlots, syrahs, pinot noirs and sauvignon blancs, for example. But travelling to a country for the first time, and especially to a country that has a long-standing wine-making history (older than France anyway), what I hope for above all is to be surprised, to learn, and to discover something different. Here is one of the wines that I enjoyed during the past days and which fits this bill perfectly. There are more to come!

Stirbey is a smallish (25 hectares of vines) family estate in the attractively hilly and wooded Dragasani district that lies about 150 kilometres to the west of Bucarest. It overlooks the broad valley formed by the River Olt, which flows south from the Carpathians into the Danube (see top photo). The estate (apart from the catastrophic communist interruption!) has been in the Stirbey family for centuries, and has now thankfully returned there. The current owners have regenerated the vineyard, rebuilt the winery and are making some excellent wines with the help of Oliver Bauer, a very cheerful and friendly winemaker from Germany.

Oliver works for the Kripp-Stirbey couple and is as conviced as are the owners of the merits of local Romanian grape varieties. They have planted or, in some cases, reclaimed in older vineyard plots, the following local varieties: cramposie, feteasca regala and tamaiosa romaneasca (whites), and the very interesting red novac. Alongside these they also grow sauvignon blanc, cabernet sauvignon and merlot. All the wines are impressive for their limpid, lifted style (very little and deft use of oak, and only for some of the reds), and their apparent capacity for ageing. The winery only re-opened less than 10 years ago, so it is of course early days to be talking about ageing for these wines. Yet I tasted a 5 year old Feteasca Alba that has taken on an added dimension with regard to its younger cousin.

The wine I want to talk about today is probably not one that will conquer the world. It is called Cramposie Selectionata (meaning "selection"). Cramposie, I was told, is a very old variety that goes back in Dacia to pre-Roman times. For those non-latinists out there, Dacia was the name the Romans gave to this province of their empire, and to which the poet Ovid was exiled. Maybe he drank some wine from Camposie? I hope it will give me similar inspiration! In any case, I would not mind being exiled here, provided that I could live in the country as the local small town is fairly depressing!

The wine I tasted at Stirbey is light (in colour, as in alcohol). Light, crisp and lively white wines are not perhaps the most popular style in today's markets. But this wine is all that one could want on a hot summer's day, or indeed as a refresher after tasting a bunch of tannic young red wines as a substitute for beer (something us winos tend to resort to on occasion). As you can see from the photographs, its colour is so pale that one could almost confuse it with water. Its has a delicately floral nose and it just tiptoes onto the palate with such fragrant delicacy that you feel your body come alive, as after a cool shower. A finely refreshing glass that begs for another one, since the acidity is there but in no way agressive, and the texture has been beautifully handled. No wonder they sell out of this every year!

I will have some more to say about this, and other estates, in a future and more general article on Romanian wines. It should be noted that the domestic wine market in Romania favours white wines over reds, although the latter are increasing their share. I have seen this wine on retail at prices between 7 and 9 euros in Romanian, Austrian and German markets

all photographs by David Cobbold

3 May 2011

Rembrandt hotel in Bucarest, and what makes for a good hotel

The Rembrandt Hotel in Bucarest (Romania) may not look all that impressive from the outside, but it provides, and in the right manner, everything that I need (and like) from a hotel in a city. Read on...

So just what do you need from a city hotel?

I guess that travellers’ requirements of a hotel can vary a bit, but maybe not that much. I find that mine are fairly simple, and, although a little refinement can make all the difference between the purely utilitarian and the relaxing and even life-enhancing, this refinement has nothing to do with rampant “luxury”: it has to do with the owners thinking about the kind of people who might come to their hotel, and their corresponding needs.

I should state straight away that I dislike large hotels: for their crowds, their impersonality, their endless dark corridors and look-alike bedrooms, etc. I do not need people to carry my bags nor wait on me hand and foot. And who needs 10 different bathroom products which clutter the wash-basin area? Or four towels per person? I suppose that a television set in the room can be useful or distracting, but I am very happy without one most of the time (unless it is showing rugby, cricket or motorcycle racing that is!).

museums turn into banks, and banks into cafés in Bucarest, but all with a special style

So what exactly is required, apart from a small, human scale to the hotel?

A good situation has to be the first requirement. If your hotel is in the wrong place, most of what follows will not really help much. And the right place usually means, for a town hotel, a fairly central location, if possible in a quiet pedestrian area, with not too much night-time noise around it and with good connections for the traveller (parking, trains, buses, taxis etc). Friendly and helpful staff has to be number two. Then we need bedrooms that are simple and quiet (good acoustic insulation from the outside and from neighbours is essential), which I like to be decorated with sober good taste, not too colourful, and using natural materials as much as possible. Good lighting that can be simply modified, and that includes a light strong enough to make reading in bed something other than eye-torture or involving gymnastics. Free wi-fi, obviously (why on earth should one pay extra for this these days?).

Then come those small personal touches, inspired by the owner's ideas, that make that extra differnce, like the local weather forecast chalked on a blackboard in the breakfast room (see photo below)...


To resume the general approach that should transpire in the place, one should feel “at home” but with a difference that stems from a sense of eager discovery that is part and parcel of travelling. The guideline of any such hotel should go something like this: keep it simple and relaxed, make it look and feel good, and keep things working.

How many places do this well? I have no idea, but probably a growing number. The trend towards “boutique” hotels has clearly done a lot in this direction. But they need not have the glossy and useless trappings of so-called luxury to make them good. There is one in Bucarest, Romania that I tried recently for one night and that has got things just right. It is called The Rembrandt Hotel.

If you go to Bucarest, you could do worse than giving this place a try. It also has some really fine, simply elegant and yet functional furnishings, beautifully made of oak (no varnish or other crap on it either), that gave me additional pleasure as a former cabinet-maker.
Rembrandt Hotel
Str Smärdan 11
tel : 40 21 313 93 15