28 Apr 2012

My next bike should be a KTM 690

I have already mentioned here my current (and dreadfully recurrent) Ducati woes. Ducrappi perhaps we should call these things, despite their excellent performance, usually good looks and general sex appeal. And the attitude of the French importer is beyond description in terms of after sales service!

I have had a kind of a love affair with the first version of the Multistrada, and have owned 2 of them. The second one (a 2005 1000S model) has had SOOOO many problems due to defects in its materials that I have now fallen heavily out of love with the thing. The new Multistrada is too heavy, too complicated, and too expensive for me. And I find the thing a bit ugly to boot. Plus I do not feel like putting any more money in these people's pockets. 

This winter I have had the time to consider my needs, as well as my financial capacity, quite carefully. I went to the Paris bike show last December and had a good look around.
(see here:  http://morethanjustwine.blogspot.fr/2011/12/paris-bike-show.html). I have come to the conclusion that too many modern bikes have gotten heavy and over complicated. This is partly due to masses of electronic devices that we don't know how to fix and in some cases barely need. We also have no idea how long they will last. These machines are also, on the whole, uselessly powerful. Unless you are going to run a bike on a racetrack, where on earth can you use anything more than 100 horsepower? All machines sold in France are limited to this level, but if a machine has been designed for 150 horsepower or more, it seems rather likes chopping off one foot to bridle it to that extent. Then there is the price factor, which cuts out all those mouthwatering specials from artisan builders. I already have the rebuilt Norton Commando anyway. 

So, as soon as the latest painfully expensive repair is completed on my Ducati, it will be sold and I will emigrate from Italy to Austria, go down in size and get something light, fun, simpler and (I hope) solidly built. And I will sell it while it is still under guarantee and go buy another one (if the bike is good) or something else.

This is the picture I took at the bike show of KTM's latest Superduke 690. Although I am not a fan of orange on a bike, the looks will do. KTM have softened the very angular look that the previous version had and which did not attract me. I will probably go for the black version and lose those nasty decals on the tank. A couple of other accessories (KTM have been smart and brought it out with an extensive catalogue) to make the thing a bit more practical, and we will be back in business. Here are some more pics:

I have read a few road tests and done one myself. It seems this version is far more useable and comfortable that previous ones, and that one can even do distances with it. Not much wind shelter up front though, is there ? Back to long treks on a single? Maybe not. It can always go on the trailer and be used wherever. But this is the most powerful single ever sold as a road bike. We'll see if I can stand the vibration! When I road tested it for a short while on some twisties, I had a lot of fun instantly. The bike is very light and well balanced and you can just throw it about. I was so busy anticipating the next corner that I didn't feel any vibration. In fact it seems amazingly smooth for a single, but doesn't much like pulling away from under 3000 rpm (then neither does my Ducati). Braking is very good, even if the fork dips a bit when braking hard, and you can even brake when leant over without it righting itself much. Nice feeling when you are running out of road! 

Not sure that I'll be doing a lot of stunting, but it certainly feels like it would enjoy that stuff too...

So let's hope those guys at Ducati finally find the parts and we can all go to Austria for a change of scenery. Been a long time since I has a single-cylinder road bike. In fact the last one must have been this venerable BSA Bantam 150cc two-stroke, back in, what, the early 1960's! Mmm, think I'll feel the difference...

26 Apr 2012

Drawing bikes, by Alex Oxley

Alex Oxley was an English illustrator, specialised in bikes and cars, who worked between the 1930's and 1950's. I had never heard of him untill my honorable fellow-blogger and fellow bike maniac, Hugues de Domingo, whose birthday it is (or nearly), posted a series of Oxley's drawings on his excellent blog, Le Dépassionné (see link somewhere down on the left).

24 Apr 2012

Two really good wines

After the first wave of electoral fever here in France last weekend, I felt like drinking something from other places.

Guess why? Well, the stupidly xenophobic party currently called "National Front" that has virtually no programme except for taking France out of Europe and throwing all non-French people out (I am hardly exagerating!) managed to get about 18% of the votes here on Sunday. At least they came in only third. In a way, it might have been better in the long run for them to come second, then they would have had to show their real and rotten mettle and would have been soundly beaten in the next round. Perhaps not on second thoughts.

Enough of that and on with some good things in life, ie 2 really good wines that I drank with friends the other evening.

1). Weingut Schloss Sommerhausen, Auxerrois Extra Brut Vintage 2004, Franken, Germany

On the left, the aperitive wine is a very fine sparkler from Germany's Franken (Franconia) region, in the centre of the country. This is probably one of the coldest wine-making regions in the world, and you can feel this in the incredibly fresh and crisp nature of this wine. The makers are obviously experts at producing sparkling wines, as this has very fine bubbles and just as much, if not more delicacy than many Champagnes. The bottle we drank was made from the rare Pinot Auxerrois grape, and was very lightly dosed as an Extra Brut (less than 5 grams, I expect). Amost clear as water in its colour, but the flavours are all there, with an incredibly delicate touch, perfect balance and good length. It leaves the palate feeling very alert and refreshed, wanting another glass. 
I have seen it on sale at around 25 euros, which is not cheap, but it is well worth that. It goes to prove that one can find treasures amongst the vast mass of usually indifferent German sekt.

And here is a picture of part of their vineyards. Need some south-facing slope to get grapes ripe here, I expect:

2). Mazzei, Fonterutoli Chianti Classico 2009, Tuscany, Italy

On the right of the top picture, a more classical choice (no play of words intended!) with this really good Chianti Classico from the very old family Mazzei, who have been established in Tuscany since 1435. That of course has no bearing on their ability or will to make a good wine or not, but it is a fact nonetheless. The wine is just about everything one could want from a modern Chianti: finely textured and full of fruit, with that gloriously juicy freshness that seems so regularly present in Italian reds, especially from hilly Tuscany,and just enough structure to ensure that it has the character to go with flavoursome dishes. This is not a huge overpowering wine: it proves once again that it is not necessary to be "big" to be beautiful!
I paid a little under 20 euros for this in a retail shop in Paris and it was worth every centime. When wines are that good, they just disappear so fast that you need another bottle. I didn't have one so we remained very reasonable in our consumption that evening.  

22 Apr 2012

Election times

It will have escaped few of us that this year is pretty heavy on elections in some of the world's major countries (not sure quite how one defines "major", but the term is widely used and will have to do for the moment). I can think of the Presidential election in the USA, coming up in November, the similar one recently held in Russia (anyone care to define "similar" in this case?), and of course, for those of you who can put France on the map, the one currently under way here in France where I live.

Elections, in the democratic sense, are things that are not held in all countries in the world. And some of these countries are big, such as China, or very rich, like Saudi Arabia. In other countries elections may be held, but their results are not always upheld by those that really hold power (ie the military). They may also be rigged to a greater or lesser extent. This means that those of us who live in democracies should be pretty damned grateful that we have the opportunity to vote from time to time. And that we don't have people with guns in the voting booths!

That said, I am a lousy example myself. It is very much a case of "do as I say, not as I do". I have lived in France for close on 40 years and have yet to become a citizen of this country. I cannot therefore vote in major elections, although I am allowed to in those held for the European parlaiment, or for the local town council. I am ashamed to confess that I have never honoured either of these. It is of course a little weird to me that this country, France, in which I have lived and paid my taxes for the best part of my life, does not allow me to participate in the election of its political elite. But those are the rules of the game and, if you don't like them, there are 2 options: move elsewhere or ask for citizenship. I have recently decided to take the second option.

Now, assuming that I had made this epic decision some time ago and that the French authorities, in their great largesse, had accepted me as being, now, "French", for whom would I vote in the Presidential elections that are having their first round today?

You should first be aware that the French presidential election is not a parliamentary election. The President is the head of state, as in the USA. He (or she, but there has yet to be a lady President in France), is elected on the basis of direct universal suffrage (each person on the electoral role has one vote). Any number of candidates can enter, and the top 2 go through to a final round two weeks from now. Since the inception of the 5th Republic, the system has almost always put the candidates of the two major parties  (one so-called "right-wing", and one so-called "left-wing") into the final round. But there was one major exception when, in 2002, the socialist candidate, Lionel Jospin, was beaten into third place in the first round by the ultra-nationalist candidate, Jean-Marie Le Pen. The second round i 2002 then saw a massive 80% victory by the outgoing President, Jacques Chirac, as even the leftie voters rushed to block the possibility of letting Le Pen anywhere near power.

Nobody seriously expects that tonight's results will see a similar scenario, although Le Pen's daughter seems likely to come in third place, behind the two favourites: the outgoing President, Nicolas Sarkozy, and the socialist candidate, François Hollande.
The other candidates are a very mixed bunch. Likely to come 4th is a former socialist senator called Jean-Luc Melanchon, now turned demagogue and ally of the moribund communist party. His fiery meetings and cloud cuckoo-land promises seem to have seduced quite a large number of dreamers and protest voters. His one good point, in my book, has been his frontal attacks on the Front National candidate, Marine Le Pen. Equally unrealastic of course, is the latter's programme, which is also laced with the latent "fear and loathing"  content of all far-right politics. Then we have the "centre" candidate, François Bayrou, who came 3rd five years ago. He has played a very personal, but honest card that has had the result of reducing his electorate. Telling people what they do not enjoy hearing is never popular, but he is surely right about the necessity for France to get itself out of debt. There is also a "Green" candidate who has managed to lose most of the electorate that party had before, plus the usual marginals: a couple of Trotskists on the far left and another break-off one from the right wing.

You may or may not gather from the above which candidate would probably get my vote, if I had one to give. It would certainly not be the outgoing President Sarkozy, whose philistine, often flashy and inevitably flash-in-the-pan activities have not impressed me much over the past 5 years. The social-democratic party man Hollande does not generate huge waves of enthusiasm in me either, but he does at least seem to be serious and honest, although some of his electoral promises are quite absurd (but then who keeps electoral promises, once they are in there?).  Bayrou too seems honest but he has no chance. So I guess it would be a case of faute de mieux (a.k.a. "for want of something better"). All the same, I will be applying for citzenship, without too many illusions.

18 Apr 2012

Michael Connelly and screen versions of crime novels

The official trailer for The Lincoln Lawyer, the first crime novel by Michael Connelly featuring lawyer Mickey Haller

I recently watched the film based on Michael Connelly book "The Lincoln Lawyer" for the second time, this time on TV, having first seen it on the big screen when it came out here in France in 2011. I enjoyed it immensely both times. It stands up really well and I would rate it as an excellent screen adaptation; better than Clint Eastwood's slighly flat and overtly classical version of Blood Work, in which he himslf played the retired (but still active) FBI invesigator Terry McCaleb. The Lincoln Lawyer, directed by Brad Furman, has the feel and pace than is inherent in Connelly's writing, despite the fact that Connelly stayed away from the script writing. 

I have read quite a lot of Connelly's books and reckon him very high in his field. The best? What does that mean? Very good for sure. Connelly can write, he builds a story really well, manages suspense with mastery, and gives his characters flesh, humanity and enough of a dark streak for one not to be totally surprised whatever they get up to. This leaves him plenty of liberty to take his characters to places some way from their starting points. The peregrinations and doubts of Harry Bosch, for example, have taken him in and out of the LA homicide squad, and in and out of relationships too. Mickey Haller is not exception to this trend as having been a defense lawyer to start with, he accepts, in one book the position of Public Prosecutor. This is already anticipated in the scenario of the Lincoln Lawyer, when a police officer asks Haller "just which side do you stand on, Haller?" These guys are credible and all anti-heroes, likeable and smart, but flawed and at a distance from us.

It is as if Connelly knows where his characters are going, but you don't and the game is to discover their paths as the intrigue unravels. And the bad guys are, usually, monstrously perverted whilst remaining credible. Witness "The Poet", or indeed the baddie in the Lincoln Lawyer. No, I won't tell you who he is, but here is a link with more information...

Read on...(or watch the film)

15 Apr 2012

Wines of the week: Le Roc des Anges in the Roussillon

Its not that I am getting to be blasé or anything, but it does happen that weeks can go by without any single wine in particular really impressing me. About a fortnight ago I tasted a very special Valpolicella from Masi, but I didn't take any notes or photos at the time: I was enjoying it too much! I taste many wines in most weeks, and some may be good or even very good. But not that many leave me with that kind of feeling that I want to try them again as soon as possible, maybe even buy some, or perhaps go to see the place they come from.

Maury Op. Nord 2009 from Domaine Les Terres de Fagayra,
and Roc des Anges vin de pays des Pyrenées Orientales 2008

Last week a couple of the wines from an estate called Le Roc des Anges (the Angels' Rock: great name for a place) did all three things for me. Actually one of them is called by another name as it comes from a different estate, but they are both made by the same wife and husband team, Marjorie and Stéphane Gallet. This other wine is a red fortified Maury and is called Op. (for Opus) Nord from the 4 hectares estate that the Gallets acquired 4 years ago and which is named Domaine Les Terres de Fagayra.

The Roussillon is the name given to French Catalonia, and its capital is Perpignan, which a painter whose work I dislike, called Dali, famously described (actually its railway station) as "the centre of the world". But then he was the number one poseur. The area lies against the north-east Spanish border, squeezing itself into the narrow band of land between the Pyrenees mountains and the Mediterranean sea, wrapping itself around the mountains in a precarious balancing act. Although much of the plains and coastal reaches of the Roussillon have been ruined by the usual horrific sub-urban sprawl, laced with motorways, "commercial" zones, caravan sites, billboards and the rest of the usual trash, most of this region is ruggedly beautiful land which bears the imprint of its violent topography, not to mention past wars, winds that may blow for more than half the year, hot sun and frequent droughts.

Marjorie at work in her winery

The Gallets met while they were both oenology students at Montpellier University. Marjorie started the estate more or less on her own as Stephane had a job managing a large estate nearby called Mas Amiel. Now they work together. The 26 hectares of Le Roc des Anges are comprised of something like 50 different plots of vines, which, in this rock-strewn and constantly folding landscape makes for some very variable orientations, altitudes, and soil types, not to mention the varieties planted since they have acquired, bit by bit, many plots planted with old vines. This hard-to-work area has been progressively abandoned by the older generation of local vinegrowers, who, with rare exceptions, did not make their own wines but delivered their grapes to merchants or cooperative wineries. As there is an altitude factor involved, their whites are incredibly fresh for southern whites, but it is the reds, or one of them, that I am going to try to describe here. 

This is produced from a plot of very old (over 100 years) Carignan vines. I first sampled this wine, in Marjorie's first vintage, back in 2002 and it knocked me out then. This week I tasted the 2008 vintage. Don't be fooled by the label and the 1903 printed in bold type: that is the year in which the vines were planted. 

Carignan is a much maligned grape variety as it was for some time planted in the wrong places. But is particularly suited to this extreme climate and the low yields than result from the terrain and the lack of water, as it retains acidity despite the summer heat. Hence it never feels heavy, as can be the case with grenache, also widely planted around these parts. Carignan produced from old vines can be quite remarquable, like this one. 

The aromas are as intense as they are closely intermingled, and so are pretty hard to describe. The have shades of spices, wild black fruit, wood smoke and seem rich and warm without being overbearing. The natural warmth of the flavours is perfectly tempered by the ingrained acidity which makes the wine seem vibrant and crisp. The texture is still slightly rough, but that simply evokes images of the ruggedly sharp rocks that litter the land. The freshness continues right to the finish, drawing the wine along a passage of flavours that continue to delight one. I would like another glass please.

The Maury is comparable to a Vintage port on account of the fortification technique used to produce it. It is hence slightly sweet, having been fortified with 10% added alcohol during fermentation. But its tannins, acidity and texture are sufficient to make one almost forget the 16.5% alcohol content. Made with Carignan and Grenache (I think) it will probably last for a long time and I would be very interested to try a bottle in 20 years or so if I'm still around. Maybe I shouldn't have another glass of this, but it tempts me....here's some blue cheese, let's see if that works.

And here is the link to their very well-designed web site, in case you want to know more: http://www.rocdesanges.com/fr/index.html

As for me, I think I'll be heading there sometime this summer on my new bike (that's another story to be told sometime soon).

10 Apr 2012

Admirable Albert Camus

I have long been a considerable admirer of the French journalist, writer and philosopher Albert Camus (Nobel Prize for litterature in 1957), although I am ashamed to say it has been a long time since I read or re-read any of his work. It started for me at school in the early 1960's when I read, as part of the imposed syllabus for French A-levels, his short masterpiece of a novel, L'Etranger.

This book literally took my breath away (I admit to having been an impressionable adolescent when I read it), not only by its very direct, almost brutally abrupt and limpid style, but also by the implacable tragedy of its story and the ambiguity that this revealed, as a sort of cameo portrait of some of the attitudes that comprised French colonial presence in Algeria, where Camus was born and lived until the Second World War. Camus also manages, rather like Don Delillo in contemporary American litterature, to create, alongside stark reality, a dream-like atmosphere in this book. 

Albert Camus was, in some ways, a larger-than-life character. In any case someone who clearly lived life to the full, although his attitudes, especially in politics, were always realistic, down-to-earth, unpretentious and yet without in any sense betraying a true, inner ethic. He was in a way an antithesis to cynics like Sartre who sacrificed ethics on the alter of dogmatism, supporting the Stalinist régime despite all the evidence to show that it was a totalitarian abomination. And of course the two fell out over this, and Sartre and the rest of the communist-inspired intellectuals that seemingly ruled quite a bit of media and publishing in France at that time never ceased to pile abuse on Camus afterwards. 

Camus premature death in 1960 was in a car like the one above, a Facel Vega. But he was not at the wheel and the car belonged to his publisher, Gallimard. A recent theory has upheld that the car was sabotaged by the KGB, in retaliation for Camus' firm denounciation of the Soviet invasion of Hungary in 1956 and ensuing exactions perpetrated by the Russians. Whilst there is no secret about Camus' steadfast opposition to all forms of tyranny, this seems a little far-fetched. The road was icy and probably not in great condition, and the accident happened at night. Added to which, the Facel Vega, which was the French motor industry's only effort at a sports car, was big and heavy, rear-wheel driven and powered by an American V8. The car went of the road at some speed and wrapped itself around a tree (see below). Camus died instantly and Gallimard shortly after.

I suppose this form of untimely death has added to the man's "romantic" legend. I don't personally buy into this sort of thing as I don't find road accidents particularly romantic. Anyway, the whole point of this article is not about this aspect of things, but about the thoughts, attitudes  and writing of Camus.

Very recently, a French journalist working for Le Monde newspaper discovered, in archives stored in Aix-en-Provence, an article written by Albert Camus in 1939 and due to be published, on November 25th of that year, in a two page broadsheet that he edited at the time in Algiers, called "Le Soir Républicain". In fact the article was censored and so never appeared. One should perhaps remember the context. France and England had declared war on Nazi Germany after Hitler's invasion of Poland. France was thus at war, but the German invasion of Belgium and France had not yet taken place (this would be in April 1940). Yet this article was censored!

Here are a few extracts from Camus' article whose applications, obviously, are almost (and sadly) universal and timeless.

"It is hard to evoke freedon of the press these days without being treated as excessive, alikened to Mata-Hari or said to be Stalin's nephew. Yet this form of liberty is just one of the many faces of liberty itself. Our obstination in defending it is therefore fully comprehensible if one is capable of understanding that this is the only way to win this war.
Naturally, all forms of liberty have their limits. But they should be freely accepted and recognised. As to the obstacles that currently stand in the way of freedom of thought, we have already said all that we have to say. But we will keep on saying it as long as we are able to...."

"One of the good precepts of any worthwhile philosophy is never to indulge in useless regrets about an inevitable situation. The question in today's France is no longer to figure out how one can preserve freedom of the press. It is rather to find a way for a journalist, confronted with the evident loss of this freedom, to retain his liberty of thought. The problem is no longer collective but individual."

Camus goes on to explore the means that can and should be used by a journalist in a situation where he is restricted and under surveillance, as during wartime. He names four: lucidity, refusal, irony and obstination.   

He concludes his article with his own ironical touch; "Truth and freedom are all the more demanding mistresses as they have few lovers".

I think I will be reading some more of this man's writings soon. Read on...

2 Apr 2012

What makes a wine "great"? The example of Shafer Hillside Select from Napa

I have also addressed this topic in an article, published today and in French, on another blog that I share with four other wine accolytes called "Les 5 du Vin" . This article is a bit different though, so those who read French and both blogs will be spared much repetition.

The question of what defines a "great" wine will never be fully answered, as all aesthetic judgements are invitably, to a great extent, personal. Then there are the usual semantic issues: what sense do we impart to the word great? We sit in the sun and have a beer after some physical and mental effort and say "this feels great". Obvously this sense is different when we talk about a "great" wine as opposed to a "good" wine. A "great" wine implicitly takes us into another vinous dimension, mixing the sensual with the analytical and involving our memory, all being intimately linked to an intense sense of pleasure or well-being.

maybe these are the places in the brain where we experience great wine?

I tend to think a bit about this question every time I get to taste a wine that strikes me as being exceptionally good. Of course the taste element here is primordial, but is that sufficient? After all, taste is personal, and, like all forms of aesthetic judgement, one's taste can be questioned and even disowned by those who have different tastes. Yet, in the matter of wine, there tend to be currents of consensus which establish reputations for "great" wines. These reputations, propagated by media and word-of-mouth, duly increase demand which goes on to inflate the prices, adding that financial ingredient that serves (for too many people!) as an indicator to "greatness". So, can one retort that all this is bullshit based on someone's personal opinion and then reflected by snobbery backed up by high prices? Not entirely, and for two main reasons.

First of all, earning more money from a product enables the producer to invest larger sums in improving it, or at least in maintaining its initial quality. This is eminently true in the case of wine. Bordeaux's 1855 classification was based on the trading values of each wine, but those values reflected market perception by a number of different professional actors, not just a single person's opinion. And the additional funds that are received by the most expensive wines enable their owners to maintain or increase investments, hire the best people, and generally do everything they can to stay at the top of the reputation hierarchy whilst still earning good money. The notion of consensus of opinion is also an essential element of a wine's reputation, and these opinions necessarly come from a wide spread of experts: ie professionals who have long experience in tasting different wines and who can apply the notions of relativity, prediction and reliablity to the wines thay are tasting.

Prediction and reliability? Yes, because the time factor is essential in the notion of a great wine. Great wines can stand the test of time in a way that other wines cannot manage. They must also be consistent in their quality, as far as possible, and despite the variations in weather conditions. They will differ whilst staying on a comparable quality level. What mother nature cannot provide, man has to compensate, usually by restricting production to allow only the best grapes to be retained to make the "great" wine. 

So we have three essential qualities that have to be united in a "great" wine. Perceptible quality, above that of the majority of its peers, regularity of that quality, and the capacity to age gracefully for as long as possible. I will put aside the price factor which tends to be a corollary of the previous three, unhappily for those of us without considerable means. All these requisites are met by a wine from Napa Valley that I had the good fortune to taste recently through a series of 17 consecutive vintages, running from 1993 to 2007.

The wine in question is the Shafer Hillside Select Cabernet Sauvignon, which is one of the top range of wines from this Napa producer, from their hillside vineyards in the Stag's Leap District. The Cabernet is part of the Hillside Select range, itself one of other sub-ranges in the Shafer portfolio. Shafer is not a huge, but a sizeable producer with an excellent reputation for consistency. The family moved to Napa in 1973 and this wine, I believe, was first produced in 1978. We are on the Silverado trail here, and this naturally brings to mind the amazingly far-sighted words of Robert-Louis Stevenson, back in the early 1880's, in his account of his honeymoon voyage called The Silverado Squatters. One should bear in mind the context of these words, which coincided on the one hand with the end of the gold and silver rushes in California and on the other with the demise of European vineyards caused by the louse called phylloxera: "so, bit by bit, they grope about for their Clos Vougeot and Lafite. Those lodes and pockets of earth, more precious than the precious ores, that yield inimitable fragrance and soft fire.....The smack of Californian earth shall linger on the palate of your grandson." Stevenson did not know at the time that phylloxera in Europe would be circumvented by grafting, but he got the future of Californian vineyards right!

Early plantings at the future Shafer estate in the foothills

Shafer are neighbours of the famous Stag's Leap Wine Cellars, whose 1973 Cask 23 won the famous "Judgement of Paris" event held in Paris in 1976, when, in a blind tasting, French tasters rated it above the best from Bordeaux at that time. This success firmly put Napa on the fine wine world map and encouraged many other entrepreneurs to come and settle there. Now Napa Valley, between the mountain ranges that border it to east and west, is wall-to-wall vineyards.

The home of Shafer and part of their hillside vines running up the sides of Stag's Leap towards Atlas Peak

Looking back down the Stag's Leap sector, from behind the Shafer house and winery

Since the proof of the pudding is in the eating, let's get down to the wines and how they tasted. I started the tasting with the oldest vintage in the series, 1993, since age should comes before youth (in tasting), since the more powerful alcohol and tannic structure of the younger wines would have overpowered the more delicate older vintages. I have picked out my favourite wines from this continuous series of 17 vintages. But they were all very good to excellent. In fact  it was the most consistant long series that I can remember in any vertical tasting, together with Ridge Montebello, from the Santa Cruz region.

Prices for these wines in Europe can very a lot, according to the vintage and the country in which you are buying (as well as the merchant). One can find some of the vintages I tasted in France, for instance, at prices between 150 and 350 euros per bottle. They may well cost less in the UK on account of greater presence of US wines and so more competition. This makes them less expensive at the moment than their equivalents from the Bordeaux left bank (1st and 2nd growths), many of which have been hit by rampant speculation recently. Yet it still puts them out of my own reach, but then we don't all deserve greatness, do we? 

Shafer Hillside Select Cabernet Sauvignon 1993
Seamless, yet still taught, with smells reminiscent of pencil sharpening (lead + cedar shavings) over an undercurrent of fruit. As elegant as it was on the palate, just gliding along, still firm and upright, enrgetic yet restrained, very fine in its texture. Lovely balance and good length. Still quite youthful and surely good for another 20 years if needed.

Profound and heady on the nose, with very fine fruit aromas and just a touch of that pencil lead that is so characteristic of aged cabernet sauvignon. The flavours are more broadly spread that for the 1993, but the texture is just as fine, and perhaps more so. Deliciously elegant finish.

The nose is full and yet quite tender in its fruit. The texture on the palate is a touch closer to velvet than to silk, and the wine has seemingly greater power and body than the previous ones. Very good and perhaps more classically Napa in its style.

Magnificent nose that is both fresh and finely tuned in its fruit and other aromas. The flavours on the palate are just as beautiful. It seems just a touch warmer that some but everything is in good balance. A splendid wine.

Rich, rounded and very intense in its fruit aromas that shos great clarity. Solidly built and very long, its tannins are still quite noticeable but have a lovely velvety texture that shows their integration.

Magnificent nose, both youthful and profound. Complex and elegant. Although still quite taught and firm through its tannins, this is a truly majestic wine that will become even greater with time. Its natural power has beeen perfectly harnessed and this will run for ever.

The nose has the edge if finesse that suits me, alongside its considerable depth of fruit. Extremely velvety in its texture, which will become more refined in time, this has density, great length and charm.

The nose is rather closed, but the substance seems very compact and extremely promising on the palate. This is clearly a stylish wine that does not just rely on its power to impress one. Balance and harmony are there, in the making. Just add some patience!

Father John and son Doug Shafer

None of the other vintages disappointed me in any way, although I did feel that there is a drift towards higher levels of alcohol wih the most recent ones. These are clearly wines for the long haul. I know that more and more people insist on drinking their wines young, when they can resemble the rather nasty-sounding "fruit bomb" descriptive used by some people. This is not the case with this wine, which usually shows admirable restraint. But I do feel that it amply rewards ageing and most of the vintages that I tasted will probably be around for longer than me and be all the better for that!

Yes Shafer Hillside Select Cabernet Sauvignon qualifies in my book as a "great" wine.