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 2021 In the Rearview Mirror

BY NEAL MARTIN | DECEMBER 20, 2021

In a slight change of format, I recount the last year month by month. Instead of a “Top 100 Wines from East Uzbekistan, Pet Nat Rosé Category,” I’ve just racked my brain to remember some of the bottles that stuck in my memory and helped me through 2021.

January

I. Hate. January. I am suffering acute January blues while the world is in full lockdown. COVID-19 cases rocket to the point where I look at the daily statistics through my fingers. All events are canceled. Life is canceled. The blank tasting calendar reinforces how much my routine had revolved around traveling, dining or wine events, which are three good things for life to revolve around. I’m tetchy. I hibernate in my lockup, located between the town’s refuse site and an abattoir, sampling 2018 Bordeaux, like solitary confinement in Alcatraz but with more Grand Cru Classés. Pallets of wine land outside my house like UFOs; my driveway has been renamed “Roswell.” Boxes are lugged across town (good for my “guns”), whereupon countless bottles are opened, fingers lacerated by razor-sharp capsules as a polystyrene mountain grows behind me. What to do with all the glass after Surrey County Council confiscated the bottle bank? That’s a bit inconvenient when around 1,000 bottles of wine are arriving – or at least those that passed UK customs, whose thirsty officers have a penchant for claret. Still, my neighbors are happy as Larry when opened bottles materialize on doorsteps (can’t let good wine go to waste). I serve blind the remnants of 2018 Petrus with Mrs. M’s shepherd’s pie, in what might be the only time this food and wine combo has ever been attempted. It actually works rather well. I make a mental note to suggest it to Olivier Berrouet… if I’m ever allowed to travel to Petrus again.

Memorable bottles: 2014 Sérilhan; 2018 Petrus

February

I turn “the big five-oh” in February. When I turned “four-oh,” I organized the infamous KFC at The Ledbury bash. Ten years later and The Ledbury’s future is uncertain as the nation’s restaurants are mothballed. A few are offering take-out meal kits. I order one from the excellent Lorne (see below) for a half-century innings that needs celebrating, since I almost didn’t get there. Dressing up for the occasion makes it feel special; I don my ludicrously expensive tuxedo, which has enjoyed one poxy outing in two years (and no, it was not to Guildford’s refuse site or the abattoir). A very munificent friend wings two bottles of 1971 La Fleur-Pétrus for the dinner (thanks once again). Birthday aside, I continue plowing through 2018s. With tastings, dinners and travel eviscerated, I feel anxious about the wellspring of future articles. My once fathomless reserve is being whittled down. Is this the end? Maybe I’ll be forced to review sub-five-quid supermarket wines or, even worse, natural wines. My palate will never forgive me. At least I had my first COVID vaccine. It feels like the start of a fightback.  

Memorable bottles: 1971 La Fleur-Pétrus; 2019 Minimalist Wines Stars In The Dark


My daughters filling in as waitresses for my 50th birthday in the middle of lockdown. They did a grand job and I didn’t have to pay them.

March

Last year, as we entered the first lockdown, spirits were lifted by the unseasonably warm and sunny weather. It signified hope. This year, the weather in March is absolute crap. En primeur is canceled for the second time toward the end of the month. Practically the day after the 2018s have finished washing up on my driveway, the first of another 1,000 bottles of 2020 begin arriving, with attendant requests for Zoom chats. At least the COVID figures are turning the right way and we are on the prime minister’s “Road to Recovery.” I just hope there are no roadworks en route.   

Memorable bottles: 2018 Fourcas-Hosten Blanc, 2010 La Dauphine

April

In April, I am swamped by primeur samples and Zoom calls, constantly mouthing “You’ve got your mute on” to my computer screen. Zoom has been a savior, yet it makes me yearn to see people in the flesh. Restaurants are allowed to reopen, though only for al fresco dining. Hey, I’ll take that. I book two dinners, one at the sensational Brat. I cannot describe the elation as Tomos Parry’s legendary whole turbot graces our table after months of domestic dining (no disrespect to Mrs. M’s culinary skills). The turbot and the socializing are almost too much. It’s life-affirming to be out with friends, chatting over the hubbub of noise, that unfamiliar sound of shouting and laughter. The following week sees my first upmarket wine dinner with a 1982 La Tâche that steals the show. Decadence is back on the menu – as long as it’s outside.

Memorable bottles: 2007 Rolly Gassmann Pinot Gris Rottleibel de Rorschwihr Vendanges Tardives; 1971 Domaine Clair-Dau Gevrey-Chambertin Clos Saint-Jacques 1er Cru; 1982 Domaine de la Romanée-Conti La Tâche; 2008 Mvemve Raats MR de Compostella

May

Okay, now we’re talking. In May we have the first day with no recorded COVID deaths in the UK, though this is a false dawn – we’re far from being out of the woods as Delta rears its ugly head. I have my second jab. I know it’s not 100% protective, yet it makes me feel better by exactly the same percentage. Inside dining is permitted at the end of the month, and I venture into London to catch up with friends and see if they can remember who I am. By chance, I bump into someone taking elevenses in Soho. It’s a novel feeling: the unexpected delight of seeing a familiar face, the forgotten randomness of everyday life and the cheery hello. I have not traveled to France since last October, so at the earliest opportunity, one day before Macron changes the rules of entry at the end of May, I throw everything in the back of my car and drive from my home to Bordeaux. It might be a 1,000-kilometer schlep, but with hardly a traffic cone in sight, it’s a breeze, even if my daughters have infected my perfectly curated car playlist with Korean boy bands. Six weeks are planned: three in Bordeaux, then Mâcon, Beaujolais, Chablis and, finally, fingers crossed, the Burgfest white 2017s postponed from last year. On the downside, my French has become even worse, if that is linguistically possible.

Memorable bottles: 1978 Château de Pommard Pommard; 2007 Jacques Selosse; Extra Brut Millésime Grand Cru; 2007 Domaine Sylvain Cathiard Romanée-Saint-Vivant Grand Cru 

June

The month of June is spent tasting like my life depends on it. I suppose it does, really. I am one of the first foreign journalists to make it to Bordeaux, so everyone welcomes me like their long-lost son. There is no one else really here, and it feels like I have the run of the region. So, what are you gonna do? Well, I just line up one visit after another, tasting 2000s and 2001s and numerous verticals (notes for which will rain down in coming months; pack an umbrella if you don’t like Bordeaux). The region suffered frost earlier in the season, but flowering went stupendously well, and my three weeks here coincide with a blissfully hot spell. This transpires to be the region’s only moment of optimism.


Perhaps my most memorable visit was to Haut-Bailly, where I conducted a major vertical with Véronique Sanders and toured their new winery. Article in 2022.

Ominously, the weather breaks on the day I drive across the Midi to Mâconnais, with horrendous storms upon entering eastern France. The final days are plagued by extremely volatile weather. Caught in a biblical hailstorm in Fuissé that decimates the crop outside, I am humbled by Mother Nature. The following week, my love for Beaujolais is reignited during my brief three-day tour, while Chablis is idyllic, even though winemakers are already visibly fatigued by the upheavals of the season, not to mention the prospect of a tiny crop. “I want to fast-forward to 2022,” says one vigneron. Don’t we all?

Memorable bottles: 1994 Domaine de la Bongran Viré-Clessé Cuvée Botrytis; 2017 Anthony Thevenet Morgon Cuvée Centenaire; 1990 Domaine Servin Chablis Vaillons 1er Cru; 1973 Coutet; 1952 Latour; 1966 Haut-Bailly; 1982 Lynch-Bages; 1961 Ducru Beaucaillou; 2001 Le Pin; 2010 Léoville Poyferré; 1926 Canon (magnum); 1942 Doisy-Daëne


Spectacular sunset over Saint-Émilion with a magnum of 1926 Canon and various non-Bordeaux wines.

July

The first few days of July are spent in the Côte d’Or. Burgfest is back, albeit with depleted attendance, but hey, it’s time to get the show on the road. It’s a joy to taste the 2017 whites. Even the England football team have got their mojo back, and I celebrate their victory over Germany with a 2016 Bourgogne Rouge from Coche-Dury that cost peanuts on a wine list at Maufoux. My French adventure has been just the tonic, though the drought of material to write about has transformed into an enormous backlog. Still, a prudent squirrel stores enough nuts to keep his family fed during winter, and so it’s reassuring to have a pile of tastings to write up, whatever happens in the future. As soon as I get back home, I taste around 500 South African wines dispatched from the Cape and wonder when I’ll be able to visit that wonderful part of the world again. It’s a blissfully sunny week that, as I will subsequently discover, constitutes Britain’s entire summer. The biggest disappointment this month is canceling my family’s flights to Japan. I miss my annual Tokyo fix, but unlike my better half, at least I can see my mum.

Memorable bottles: 1964 Couly-Dutheil Chinon; 1985 Jaboulet Hermitage La Chapelle; 2018 Kanonkop Black Label Pinotage; 2020 Lismore Chardonnay Estate Reserve

August

To compensate for having to cancel the family trip to Japan, I book a vacation in Edinburgh in August, gambling on the notorious Scottish inclemency. In fact, the jet stream conveniently shifts sunny weather northward. Edinburgh’s dining scene blows me away, and the much-needed family holiday is an unexpected success; the highlight is riding horses around Loch Lomond. Call me the horse whisperer.


Yours truly and the spectacular Scottish landscape. Unfortunately, I didn’t find time to eat haggis or the infamous deep-fried Mars bar.

For the rest of the month, the weather is just pants. I start dabbling with a secret project that I’m working on in my garden office, looking out at the summer that never happens. I’d finally paid a crack team of Bulgarian builders to spruce up my backyard in May, but it remains unused, since it pours incessantly. Still, I make it my aim to reconnect with friends, and so the second half of August is spent flitting between lunches and dinners at the likes of Lorne, A Wong and Hunan (all of which will appear in Vinous Tables in the future).

Memorable bottles: 1951 Latour; 2011 Domaine Ballot-Millot Meursault Les Perrières 1er Cru ; Mullineux Family Wines Olerasay 1°

I’ve been drinking a lot of off-vintage claret this year. Nothing matched this gorgeous First Growth from a terrible vintage at Hunan restaurant. Look out for this in a future Vinous Table.

September

Traveling recommences in September, and it’s just like old times. A week in Burgundy tasting the 2017 reds is followed by my first flight since February 2020 to Bordeaux in order to start tasting the 2019s in bottle. It’s too much to do everything in December after the Burgundy marathon, and the earlier visit gives me a chance to witness the harvest firsthand. Most of the time, wineries are as quiet as a closed library, and so I cherish the moments when they are teeming with action. In London, Southwold finally returns to taste the 2017 vintage. As predicted, after the doldrums of COVID, everyone is rushing to organize postponed or canceled dinners and tastings. It’s almost overwhelming, yet how can you turn down invitations after the drought, not knowing what lies ahead? The backlog of material reaches new heights. The squirrel has enough nuts for several winters.

Memorable bottles: 1983 Domaine Charles Joguet Chinon Clos de la Dioterie; 1949 Malartic Lagravière; 1985 Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars Cabernet S.L.V.; 1965 Pichon-Comtesse de Lalande; 1986 Léoville–Las Cases; 1999 Château Rayas Châteauneuf-du-Pape Réserve Blanc ; 2017 Royal Tokaji Company Tokaji Betsek 6-Puttonyos 

October

The tastings continue unabated in October. A most enjoyable evening is spent at 67 Pall Mall, at a charity dinner themed around wines that signposted my career. The highlight is neither the 1982 Mouton-Rothschild nor the 1999 Richebourg from DRC, but the rare bottle of Blue Nun, painstakingly sourced from the supermarket for the princely sum of £5.49. Tesco promises that it is not a Rudi Kurniawan fake, but you never know, so I take it to be analyzed, just in case. It represents the wine my family drank on special occasions when I was growing up in deepest Essex. We didn’t all grow up suckled on Lafite by matron. A cheeky Roumier horizontal of 1988s at Noizé follows hot on its tail, restoring the sense of bacchanalia nixed by COVID. Then, in mid-October, I drive to Burgundy for five-and-a-half weeks of intensive tasting of the 2020s in barrel, conducting around 130 visits. I stay in a rented apartment so that I can chill during the evenings and, when not totally fatigued, cook for myself. The previous year, winemakers had greeted me with open arms because a) they had not seen anybody, b) there was no one around, and c) they had a fairly easy and very early picking. This year, a) they have seen a few people, b) everyone except the East Asians is descending upon Burgundy, and c) they are knackered after a difficult season and a harvest that happened a month later than last year. 

Memorable bottles: 1988 Pol Roger Winston Churchill (magnum); 1988 Domaine Roumier Bonnes-Mares Vieilles Vignes; 1959 Lafite-Rothschild; 1998 L’Eglise-Clinet; 1988 Jean-Louis Chave Hermitage; Blue Nun

November

Taste. Write. Repeat. In November I become intimate with the RN74 artery as I drive up and down visiting wineries in the Côte d’Or, tasting 2020s from barrel. Unfortunately, I realize that I will have used up my 90-day visa allowance five days before my return date. Merci, Brexit. I manage to maintain a steady pace and never overstretch. Evenings are spent in my rented apartment, watching “Squid Game” (or at least the parts that are not too gory, which amounts to about five minutes per episode) and typing up notes and winemaker chats. I decompress by going out and socializing with fellow scribes or sometimes winemakers. I regulate my diet, since I’m training for the Foulées Beaunoise, a 10.4-kilometer run coinciding with Hospices weekend. This is my first formal race, and I love all 62 minutes and 51 seconds of it. Locals cheer us on from Beaune to Pommard and back, though nobody forewarns me that the route ascends the Pommard incline halfway around. I feel a sense of achievement, since I couldn’t even run around the corner until recently. I am motivated by another munificent American friend who promises to crack open a 1980 Clos de la Roche from Domaine Ponsot that afternoon. (They should offer that to all marathon runners.) One upside to returning to London early is that I can attend a superb Roumier Les Cras vertical, though I will remember the evening as the first time I read the word Omicron. The light at the end of the tunnel suddenly seems further away. 

Memorable bottles: 1980 Domaine Ponsot Clos de la Roche Grand Cru; 2013 Domaine Leflaive Chevalier-Montrachet Grand Cru; 2017 Domaine David Moreau Santenay Cuvée S; 2017 Domaine Emmanuel Rouget Bourgogne Hautes-Côtes de Nuits Blanc; 1999 Domaine Georges Roumier Chambolle-Musigny Les Cras, 1967 Climens

The reward for my first-ever official race: one of the most legendary Burgundy wines of the decade.

December

With Omicron dampening spirits and suddenly eviscerating the welcome semblance of predictability that was returning to our lives, December begins in fine style with back-to-back bacchanals, a 1971-themed dinner for those denied celebrating our milestone during lockdown, followed by a fabulous Burgundy dinner with Rousseau and Cathiard galore. Then it’s off to Bordeaux to finish tasting the 2019s, mainly on the Right Bank. I catch up with Antonio Galloni over a splendid dinner, the first time we have met face to face since December 2019. The funny thing about Antonio is that he’s a bit like the 1982 Léoville–Las Cases, in the sense that I’ve known him for years, but he looks exactly the same as when we first met. Anyway, we discuss this and that, drink this and that, and hope it’s not another two years before our paths cross again.  

The year is drawing to a close with ominous predictions of the infections coming down the track. All I can do is brace myself and be merry… while I can.

Memorable bottles: 1971 Produttori di Barbaresco Barbaresco Rabaja; 1966 Clinet; 1921 Siran, 1988 Krug Collection; 1990 Domaine Rousseau Gevrey-Chambertin Clos Saint-Jacques 1er Cru, 1948 Taylor’s Port

2021 in Music 

Album of the Year

My album of the year is Promises by Floating Points, Pharoah Sanders and the London Symphony Orchestra. This album pushed me out of my comfort zone into that terrifying territory of… jazz. Ambient jazz! But I was entranced by the cyclical nature of this mélange of electronica, jazz and strings, a hypnotic arcing piece that takes you to another place, which is always useful during a pandemic.


Promises by Floating Points.

Songs of the Year

Normally, as I begin compiling my songs of the year, my pessimistic side assumes that it was not a particularly fecund 12 months of great music, and then as more and more songs are added to the list, I alter my view and conclude that it was a bloody great year. And 2021 is no different. Listening to the playlist on Spotify, these choices all confirm that music is exciting, diverse and vital, now more than ever.

My song of the year is the debut 7-inch “Sick and Tired” by Lime Garden, a four-piece from Brighton (see below). It’s catchy, it’s quirky, and I love the skittering drumming that kind of reminds me of early Talking Heads, notwithstanding that fledgling bands need all the support they can get right now. 


“Sick and Tired” by Lime Garden. 

The following songs are also must-listens. Readers can hear them on a Spotify playlist that I put together. Listed in no particular order: 

“Scrapper” – Enola Gay

Loud, angry and visceral, this almost snatched my single of the year. And what a guitar riff! 

“Such Is Life” – Teen Mortgage

Washington punk duo channel Nirvana into these 138 seconds. Play after above if you just need to let off steam.

“And Everything Changed (But I Feel Alright)” – William Doyle

Just a gorgeous melody, though not representative of his excellent album.

“Slowly” – Newdad

So many great bands from the Emerald Isle at the moment; Newdad are one of them. 

“Alcohol” – Sault

From the enigmatic collective’s lauded Nine album. 

“I Don’t Live Here Anymore” – The War on Drugs ft. Lucius

Tell me you’re not dreaming of driving through the California desert at sunset when you listen to this 1980s cinematic masterpiece.

“Wet Dream” – Wet Leg

Hottest band of 2021? Their second single is one of the catchiest and funniest of the year. Best thing from Isle of Wight since Level 42.

“Like I Used To” – Sharon van Etten and Angel Olsen

Two leading indie artists unite with the expected sublime results.

“Let It Hurt” – The Anchoress

Apparently Catherine Anne Davies, a.k.a. The Anchoress, earned no money through streaming royalties in 2021 – a crime when her songs are as good and as vulnerable as this.

“Introverted” – Little Simz

How much talent has Little Simz got? Well, it’s certainly not little. Bombastic rap with huge ambition.

“Scratchcard Lanyard” – Dry Cleaning

Lyrics that mess with your head. Now where’s my Tokyo bouncy?

“Boilermaker” – Royal Blood

Rock x funk = “Boilermaker.”

“Sometimes I Forget You’re Human Too” – Bored At My Grandma’s House

From her wonderful debut EP, released in early 2021.

“Witchoo” – Durand Jones & the Indications

Cool, laid-back funk soaked in Brooklyn vibes. 

“It’s Not That Easy” – Lady Blackbird

The album version is great. Her live version on “Later… with Jools Holland” is even better.

“Showstopper” – W.H. Lung

The title of the lead single from their sophomore album sums up this song.

“Violet Light” – Bleach Lab

A perfect slice of early-90s-inspired indie, produced by Stephen Street.

Gig of the Year

I only went to one gig in 2021, which is one more than 2020. Even so, Lime Garden’s tiny show at Guildford’s Boileroom encapsulated everything I love (and miss) about live music. They played half a dozen songs, and each was 99 or 100 points. I much prefer seeing artists taking their first baby steps rather than a heritage act in some soulless arena. The other bonus about this gig was that the headliner didn’t rock my boat, so I was home in time for my 10 o’clock bath. Yeah, I can’t quite pull the all-nighters that I used to.

Lime Garden. You ’eard ’em ’ere first.

Restaurant of the Year

My favorite restaurant this year is Lorne in London. Why? Well, they supplied the meal kit for my birthday in February, but really, it’s because when I returned for two meals in the summer, the quality had gone up another level. Straightforward but thoughtful cooking. Fantastic wine list. Cozy venue. Attentive and friendly waitstaff under co-owner and ex-sommelier Katie Exton. It has not been an easy ride since they started out, but I can safely say that Lorne is firing on all cylinders. Go there. (Also, shout out to the stunning lunch at Sola in Soho.)

Lunch at Lorne with Joel. He helped launch my website back in 2003 and was handsomely paid in wine.

TV of the Year

The golden era of television continues, and like most people confined to their homes, TV and streaming services were a godsend. Perhaps the show that left the biggest impression is the über-successful Korean drama “Squid Game.” The opening episodes left me rather nonplussed; the goriness is difficult to watch and I’m a bit of a wuss. But as it progressed, I had to admire the unrelenting brutality, the hidden depth and twists, and the redemption of the main character. I also thoroughly enjoyed “Call My Agent,” because it is so goddamn French and so well acted by its ensemble cast. I wish they were not making a fifth season, though; the downbeat ending to the fourth series is perfect.

Film of the Year

Though I did actually go to the cinema TWICE to see No Time To Die, my favorite flick of the year was Sound of Metal, starring Riz Ahmed, brilliantly playing a heavy metal drummer dealing with deafness.

Book of the Year

I must admit that I read far too little in 2021, but my favorite book was Klara and the Sun by Kazuo Ishiguro, a strangely affecting story of artificial intelligence and redundancy. 

Heroes of the Year

Doctors and nurses. All of them.

Hopes for 2022

Some sense of normality. Also, to make inroads into the enormous backlog of big, juicy Bordeaux verticals. And the aforementioned secret project.

© 2021, Vinous. No portion of this article may be copied, shared or re-distributed without prior consent from Vinous. Doing so is not only a violation of our copyright, but also threatens the survival of independent wine criticism.


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