To ‘Premier’ or not to ‘Premiere’

As a quick primer to start, just in case wider readers are unaware, Laithwaites are one of the UK’s leading online and mail order wine merchants.  Over time they have expanded to include a growing number of retail outlets, as well as being the hidden face behind other mail order wine clubs (for example, ‘The Sunday Times’ newspaper offering).  If you google ‘Laithwaites Premier’ you will pull back a handful of results, mainly for their Premier Cru Brut Champagne, but if you add the ‘e’ and search for ‘Laithwaites Premiere’, you will pull back different results altogether.

Taking a step back, I’ll allow my story to unfold. Whilst using cashback site Quidco for a general Laithwaites purchase, I was browsing user feedback comments and happened to notice someone mention that, when twinned with the Laithwaites Premiere service, buying wine became even better value. I was comfortable with the idea of using a cashback site – an easy way to get anywhere between 5-10% of the (pre-VAT) order amount back to your account, simply by making the purchase through their web portal. When buying (for example) a £100 case of 12 bottles of wine, it is virtually the equivalent of getting one bottle entirely for free, which for me has quickly become a no-brainer. What I wasn’t aware of, however, was what Laithwaites Premiere was, and I’d been an active customer of theirs for several years. Premiere means ‘the first instance’ and Premier equates to ‘first in importance’ or a luxury top level tier. Was this a one-off service that I’d missed, or a premium service that I didn’t qualify for?

           Laith Prem Pic

Even when you google the name correctly, you will literally find only a couple of web pages for this un-advertised service, but it gives you a flavour of the top level detail. For a one-off payment of £40 per year, Laithwaites will add two bottles to each 12-bottle order you make – one red, and one white. What is impressive is that this includes the 12-bottle cases that you buy as part of your mail order wine plans (one case per quarter – surely the entry level point of being a mail order customer) and so that already gets you 8 additional bottles per year. Based on the £40 charge, this equates to just £5 per bottle, which is a fair bargain as it is. Buy any other cases throughout the year, and the price per bottle dilutes even further.

I contacted Laithwaites to ask why the service wasn’t advertised as it seemed to offer very good value to anything over and above the most dormant of their base. It puzzled me that they are very quick to publicise bolt-on offers to reduce delivery charges (pay a one-off cost and then all further deliveries are free), but not this offer. The response that I received detailed that Premiere wasn’t a hidden proposition, but was only offered to customers at certain times in the year.   This seems odd as I have bought from them for years and make a beeline for this sort of offer. I would have surely noticed it (as I did when spotting the comment on Quidco) and to this day, the links seem buried on their website and I can only easily retrieve them via google.

On to the wines themselves, the site describes them as being to the value of £15 – joint value, not per bottle (I was initially very excited!), and the plan is described as being all about the discovery of new wines that you may have not tried before. Here’s what I have received:

May 2015

Le XV du Président 2014, Cotes Catalanes IGP, France – £8.99 LINK

Elqui River Sauvignon Blanc 2014, Chile – £8.99 LINK

June 2015

Santa Julia Malbec 2014, Mendoza, Argentina – £8.99 LINK

Lime Leaf Verdejo 2014, Vino Blanco, Spain – £7.99 LINK

July 2015

Picco Attila 2013, Venezie IGP, Italy – £8.99 LINK

McPherson ‘The Full Fifteen’ Chardonnay 2014, SE Australia – £8.99 LINK

I won’t go in to my tasting notes for each of these wines, but safe to say the price-point is circa £8.99 and these are solid entry (or slightly above) level wines all garnering 3 or 4 star ratings (out of 5) from customers. They also cover a multitude of regions, both new and old world, and an array of grape varieties, with no duplication over the last quarter. The plan delivers exactly what it claims in that these are well made wines, not quite in the customer favourites camp yet, but ones you may wish to try in order to get them there.

In summary, I certainly think the plan is well worth a punt. Just today I purchased a case of customer favourites red wines and their premium reserve counterparts. These 12 bottles came with a free bottle of Opi Malbec from Argentina (which serendipitously happens to be one of my go-to bottles from Laithwaites) added free on a deal as I purchased prior to the 5th August. When added with the 2 Premiere bottles and subtracting the Quidco cashback, this comes to an amazing £6 per bottle – awesome value for tried and trusted reds, and even better than general supermarket value.

Hence, I’m spreading the word. Give ‘Laithwaites Premiere’ a google.

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Wirra Wirra Scrubby Rise Chardonnay 2013 – Taste Panel

Off to Adelaide in Southern Australia for this months’ tasting note, and to sample the Wirra Wirra Scrubby Rise 2013 Chardonnay. The vineyards were originally established in 1894, but the modern day story starts in 1969 when two cousins (Greg and Roger Trott) re-built the abandoned winery from scratch, and produced their first wines in 1972.

Wirra Wirra takes its name from a local tribe who built a viewing platform (nicknamed The Jetty) to look over the majestic Scrubby Rise vineyards below (which are ironically flat and bereft of scrub). The charming front label artwork by Andrew Baines takes its cue from the fact that The Jetty overlooks a sea of vines as opposed to a body of water, and depicts a bowler-hatted man rowing a red boat through the vineyard.

                   Wirra Label

The Scrubby Rise range are the entry level wines for Wirra Wirra, and I was drawn to try this Chardonnay in part due to the fact that they are clear to state that this is an unoaked version. Although heavily oaked Aussie Chardonnays are now firmly a thing of the past and to do an unoaked version is hardly the latest trend, if it’s clearly stated on the label as a taste cue, I find it interesting to see how the producer fills out the palate.

Wirra Wirra Scrubby Rise Chardonnay 2013 – Adelaide, Australia 12.5% – £8.49

The colour of the wine is an inviting pale lemon, with slight green hints to the rim. The nose has a medium intensity of dense yellow tropical fruits, and I can pick up smoky tones and a buttery richness which lets you know that this is Chardonnay through and through.

The palate has a decent medium weight to it, and feels extremely round and mouth-filling.  Chardonnay is a well-known neutral grape variety, and the fruit notes do indeed play second fiddle to the weightier butter and oil.  This gives it a rich and full quality but it hits you first and slightly drowns out the clean lines of the fruit. What fruit I do detect is a continuation of the yellow tropical, such as melon and dried pineapple, along with the generous flesh of stoned fruits such as nectarine (the official notes say white peach, but I’ve never had one, so couldn’t say). There’s a slight touch of lemon citrus in the mix, and I will say that the juicy fruits and refreshing acidity counter balance the richness well.

The end palate and finish are then infused with touches of brown spice and a whiff of smoke. As the acidity drops away, a slight sour grapefruit note comes through, and indicates that this is a wine that is the sum of its parts, as opposed to a clean varietal. The finish is commensurately fairly long and brooding.

                    WirraWirra TP

This is an interesting wine and if I didn’t know better, would have said that it had seen at least some older cask ageing. The official tasting notes state that this is a fresh and clean wine, but the net result to me based on this tasting was that the producer had carved a wine that is less about the fruit and more about the tertiary characters (not necessarily just woody notes, but also the rich cream from lees ageing, and the touches of nutmeg spices). Strange.

That said, this is an enjoyable entry level wine, with perceptible complexity for the (slightly above) entry level price, and potentially better with food (alas, I tried it on its own). Anyone looking for unoaked Chardonnay in the French style (even accepting the differences in climate) may, however, be disappointed.

Many Thanks to Tesco, Wirra Wirra and Gonzalez Byass for the opportunity to taste this wine.

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UK 2015 vine growth report: July

Time now for a quick status check on how my vines are progressing. As I write, the weather has clouded over but has lost little of the warmth, and days are regularly seeing temperatures in the low twenties. We had two days of rain last week which was the first of any consequence in quite a while. The end of June / start of July is home to two British institutions both known as much for what they are, as for the impact of the usual rain, but music fans at the Glastonbury festival didn’t need their wellies this year. Similarly, the Wimbledon tennis championship keeps a day clear (middle Sunday) to allow matches to catch up from rain delays. This year, it wasn’t needed. On to the vines themselves.

                    Month 3 vines v1

Furthest along is my Catarratto, which continues to show good vigour, and is now in the late stages of flowering. My Chardonnay continues showing its characteristic high vigour with vines going off in all directions, and the Ortega has grown slightly, albeit still far behind the other varieties. My concern with these latter two now focuses on the fact that they are not showing any signs of late flowering. Both are early budding and early ripening, so well suited to our cooler climate, but with only approximately 12 weeks to go until harvest, I think they should be more advanced by now (especially with the warm weather we’ve been having). As the vines are not yet 3 years old, perhaps there will be a limited crop from them this year, and I will concentrate on the older Catarratto vines.

                  Month 3 vines v2

Also of interest is that the Ortega shows a white powder on its leaves which quickly disappears once they are full exposed.  Detailed growing notes on this variety are a little hard to find, so I’m not sure if that’s a well-known characteristic, but hopefully it is nothing to worry about and, apart from some darkening of some of the older leaves (due to water stress), the vine looks healthy. I’m definitely going to step up the watering at this crucial time as the weather forecast for the next few weeks is still warm, if not sunny.

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Dom Pérignon; New Dawn (part 2)

Part 7 of my Dom Pérignon History Series

At the start of 1963 Britain was in the grip of the coldest winter for nearly 300 years. Conditions in France didn’t fare much better and, after a harsh winter, summer was cold and damp, leaving a crop blighted by dilution and rot.

Highlighting the true spectrum of vintage variation, weather conditions in 1964 were excellent. A mild and dry winter punctuated by periods of severe frost continued until the end of April. An unusually hot May prompted the vines to flower around the 12th of June, and the rest of summer continued to be warm and sunny, with little rain. Harvest began on September 16th, and the resulting wines proved to be one of the great classic vintages in champagne. It would also mark the end of an era for the brand, as it was the last vintage to use small wooden casks and concrete vats for the first fermentation.

Winemaking techniques were progressing significantly in the early 1960’s with pioneers such as Emile Peynaud pushing the virtues of using stainless steel containers, which had proved successful in the dairy industry. Along with the standard benefits of steel being inert (thus avoiding oxygen spoilage) and giving the winemaker the ability to accurately control the inside temperature of the vat (controlling spoilage through extremes), the changeover also had one significant side effect. Replacing existing equipment with newer larger vats meant that they could begin to raise production levels in line with the growing demand.

Fittingly, for the final vintage seeing wood, the 1964 is described as a dark and dense wine, albeit still fresh and not over-bearing. The nose contained hints of raisin, alongside toast, vanilla and hazelnut. The palate contained arabica, and musky accents of new leather and sandalwood, giving way to vanilla, spices, nutmeg and dried fruit. Tasted in 2004, the wine continued to show the nutty tones from age and the freshness of its youth, but the palate was now joined by persistent butterscotch running throughout the exceptionally long finish.

The vintage was released on to the market in 1971 and, as was now becoming the norm, a Rosé vintage was also produced.

The weather pendulum swung back the other way in 1965, and winter and spring were mild and cloudy. Temperatures stayed moderate throughout summer, leading to a late and unremarkable vintage, picked from the second week of October.

1966 was a landmark year in many ways. The swinging sixties were in full swing, and England finally managed to win the World Cup. The French also had something to celebrate as the year produced another excellent vintage. A warm and consistently dry summer ensured that there were no issues with disease or rot, and picking of the fully ripened fruit began on September 22nd. The good weather conditions continued throughout the harvest.

The wine produced was mineral and smoky on the nose, and vanilla blended with honey, gingerbread and dried apricot on the palate. The Rosé from this legendary vintage had meringue, tea, roses and fleshy Pinot Noir flavour.

Away from the wine now being produced in stainless steel for the first time, the 1966 Dom Pérignon also saw other changes. First was the introduction of a bespoke capsule (the small metal cap that protects the top of the cork and adds structure within the metal cage). Up until this time a standard Moét capsule had been used (see picture below), but from now on, the capsule used would be specific to Dom Pérignon. The original design was black in colour with the brand name written in red, within a red circle. This design would comprise part of the packaging until the 1988 vintage.

        DP Capsules

A further change came in the presentation of the bottle, and the custom box that it came in (see picture below). Vintages from the 1950’s had been presented in thick double-walled cardboard bottle covers for protection, but that packaging now evolved in to an oblong box with varying designs for the next few vintages. The plain gold coloured box was used in stores such as Harrods for the rarer magnums, whilst the green boxes used for the standard vintage were adorned with pictures of Jean-Remy Moét and Pierre Gabriel Chandon.

   DP Boxes

The final declared vintage of the 1960’s was the difficult 1969. Weather conditions throughout the year had been wet and unstable, leading to significant mildew, and late flowering. September finally provided the dry sunny spell that the grapes needed, and the slightly delayed harvest began on the 1st of October, but gave a lower yield than usual.

With a subtle nose, the palate of the wine was full of stone fruit and preserved citrus fruits, twinned with notes of caramel, undergrowth and faded flowers. The wine was quite restrained on release and took some time to show its full depth of palate. The vintage, classed by many as great but not excellent, was released to market in 1976.

One final thing of note is that the 1969 was the first vintage to use pewter foil to dress the top of the bottle, covering the cork and capsule. To protect the seals from invading dirt and dust, traditionally, bottles were dipped in to a wax sealant which quickly dried and formed a protective layer. True to its 18th century style origins, Dom Pérignon had heretofore been sealed this way, but made the subtle change as new covering options became available. Bottles of the 1969 have been seen with both styles of seal, and so the changeover happened at some point during the production of the vintage. The Rosé, which was released two years after the vintage wine, therefore tended to have the pewter seal.

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Crisis 1865: 150 Years of Phylloxera #MWWC18

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The below essay is in response to the monthly wine writing challenge (#mwwc18). The subject matter for this month is ‘crisis’.

I’ve read a lot recently about Bordeaux being in crisis, and how another year has crept by with a less than successful En Primeur campaign. With the top rated vintages of 2009 and 2010 now slipping further away, many drinkers around the world are slowly losing faith in the once exalted wines, and are seeking solace elsewhere. Whilst it is true that the Bordeaux En Primeur campaign only features what amounts to a handful of estates, the knock on effect is felt further afield and, along with the Chinese-Bordeaux love affair significantly cooling of late, ‘Brand Bordeaux’ has taken a knock that will affect any producer in the wider area. Customers are therefore having to be creative about where they spend their wine money, and the net result actually forms a positive, giving a spectrum of other producers an opportunity to increase their sales. With the limited Burgundy production pretty much already spoken for, people are reported to have been gravitating towards the Rhone as a quality French alternative.

My point is thus: From within a crisis, lies opportunity.

In contrast to the big money, sprawling chateau and significant foreign investment we see today, at one time wine production in France could have been a byword for disaster. In fact, disaster is too small a word for it, and crisis is far better suited. The diminishing En Primeur interest is small fry compared to the destruction seen during the years of conflict and occupation of the first and second world wars. Not only were the dreams and potential of an entire generation wiped out in the battlefield, but also those of a younger generation, as many children died in the vineyards collecting the grapes to keep businesses afloat.

France was in serious trouble and, adding insult to injury, the scars of war followed another crisis that was only just being resolved. A crisis that, even 150 years after it first occurred, still influences pretty much every bottle of wine that we drink today. From pretty much anywhere in the world.

Phylloxera.

I’m sure most readers of a wine website will be familiar with its cause, the effects, and the struggle to understand and combat it (If not, there are a handful of very good books that go in to immense detail about it). What these books rarely touch on is the opportunities that came out of the biggest crisis ever to hit winemaking. With hindsight, and with the ability to leave aside the human factor (the vineyards grubbed up, lost fortunes, and broken livelihoods and the debate of whether the end justified the means), Vintners were able to start afresh. With this came the ability to re-choose, or simplify the varieties that they were growing, perhaps even planting to fashions of the day. It gave them the opportunity to re-think their plots, and perhaps move away from the plains on to hillside slopes. It allowed the botanists to further their understanding in to the lifecycle of vineyard pests and what a vine needs to survive. It developed the concept of grafting vines, which is still practised today to be able to quickly change which varietals are being grown. In a perverse way, it even fuelled the notion of a wine nirvana – the untouchable ‘pre-phylloxera’ wine, which creates interest at auction, or provides a unique selling point. Champagne such as Krug’s Clos du Mesnil, for example, comes from a tiny walled and un-grafted plot, and because of this very fact sell for hundreds of pounds per bottle. The even rarer Clos d’Ambonnay can sell for thousands per bottle.

Following Phlloxera, and the destruction of thousands of hectares of French vineyards, cheap wines were imported from Spain and re-labelled as French, in order to satisfy the continuing customer demand. To stop this adulteration and to control production levels, the appellation contróllée system was developed and introduced. This fierce protection of place spearheaded by France has been now copied in virtually every part of the winemaking world, from American AVA’s to the German Pradikat system. If it wasn’t for Phylloxera, the appellation system may never have been developed, certainly not as early as it was, and perhaps even the notion of terroir would not be so prevalent.

Of course the stringent (certainly in France) appellation system has its critics, and I look on with amusement as the infant English wine market already looks to impose strict boundaries on production (based on county divisions as opposed to anything terroir linked). What does make Sussex better than Kent? Perhaps Kent will then try harder than Sussex, and go on to produce better wine?

From one big crisis 150 years ago, come so many opportunities.

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Bodegas Beronia ‘Dos Maderas’ 2009 Rioja Reserva – Taste Panel

Wine tasting, food matching and dressing up – could there be a more interesting way to spend the evening?!

Beronia Kit

This latest taste panel comes courtesy of the fine people of Bodegas Beronia who hail from the world famous northern Spanish region of Rioja. What was supplied, however, gave more than the usual opportunity to try a wine and reel off a tasting note. Alongside the wine were several food items, recipe cards, moustache, and a traditional woollen beret, in order that you could recreate traditional Txoko (pronounced Chock-Oh) conditions in northern Spain. The preparation of food is a group activity there and friends form societies (Txoko’s) where they prepare the meal together, eat together, occasionally sing together, and wash it all down with great wine.

It was this group mentality that led to the founding of Bodegas Beronia in the Rioja Alta in 1973. Four local businessmen decided to take their get-togethers a step further, and actually make the wines themselves, with a commitment to producing Reserva and Gran Reserva wines in the traditional Rioja style. From this humble beginning, Beronia have worked their way up to be in the top 10 Rioja wineries in the Spanish market. Spanish wine giant Gonzalez Byass recognised the quality of their production early on and have invested in to the company since 1982, ensuring that Beronia delivers both tradition and innovation at the same time.

The Reserva 2009 ‘Dos Maderas’ is comprised of 94% Tempranillo, with dashes of both Mazuelo (Carignan) and Graciano rounding the blend out. This is then aged for 18 months in barrels made exclusively for Beronia, and comprised of two distinct types of oak. The French oak barrelheads bring touches of spice to the wine, whilst the American oak staves add seductive vanilla flavours. It is this unique ageing touch that gives the wine its name: ‘Dos Maderas’ literally translates as ‘two woods’.

The tapas selection supplied included snacking chorizo, a dried nut/fruit selection, and a tin of anchovy stuffed olives. To turn this in to a full meal to share, I took inspiration from one of the recipe cards and served lamb shank with creamy mash, asparagus, and an onion, garlic and red wine jus. All cooked, of course, whilst wearing my traditional costume! The wine was left in an open top decanter for one hour before serving.

Beronia Selfie     Beronia Bottle

Visually the wine was a reassuring assertive inky dark colour, almost opaque. The nose was amazingly powerful and full of flavour, and it hit you before your nose was fully in the glass. The aroma was like falling face first in to a blackberry bush (without the ‘ouch’!). Strong hits of dark cherry were followed by blackcurrant, and then topped up with mocha and finally refreshing vanilla and violets from the American oak.

The palate initially showed fine grained medium tannins, but when paired with the fatty Lamb, they disappeared, leaving the ripe black cherry to take the lead. There was also upfront spice from the French wood, and the full body of the wine is kitted out with blackberries, bramble, tobacco and molasses. American wood also makes its mark on the palate with a lovely hint of coconut marrying in to the vanilla tones and it’s no surprise at all that this stunning wine won a Gold Medal at the International Wine Challenge in 2013. The alcohol level is 14% but, given this and the amazing powerful concentration of fruit, the wine is in no way overpowering. A gentle balanced acidity glides it through, and a little alcohol warmth provides the backbone.

Wonderful stuff on its own, and it went amazingly with the fatty meat cutting through the tannin and the silky fruits matching the creamy mash. Even though this wine can easily be enjoyed now it has the backbone and fruit stamina to keep for another decade. World class.

With thanks to both Bodegas Beronia and Tesco for providing the wine, tapas selection and Txoko costume used in this tasting.

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