Laithwaites Autumn Press Tasting – Standout Sparklers!

One of the suppliers I rely on for my wine consumption is Laithwaites.  Having been a customer of theirs for several years and liking to taste widely I was comfortable that I had tasted a good portion of their wines on offer.

I found out how wrong I was at their recent Autumn tasting, held at their flagship London store near to London Bridge.  My pre-tasting strategy was originally going to focus on tasting familiar wines in a critical environment and trying the wider ranges of my favourite producers but, as it transpired, I had only tasted a mere handful of the wines presented.

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Upon arrival I was warmly greeted by wine buyer Beth Willard who has been responsible for sourcing some of my previously blogged about favourites from Romania (Paris Street) and I spent the afternoon tasting alongside such luminaries as Justin Howard-Sneyd MW, Julia Harding MW and Victoria Moore (wine correspondent for the Telegraph).

With 155 wines on show I managed to taste just over half of them over the course of several hours.  I won’t go too far in to detailed tasting notes as these can be a chore to read if you’re not a Laithwaites customer and think you may never ever taste the wine, but I will pick out my highlights; wines that I felt privileged to taste or producers that I think you may consider to follow in the future.

In this first half of my report I will list my favourites amongst the Sparkling wines on offer.

Laithwaites Theale Vineyard Chardonnay 2011, Berkshire, England, 12%, £24.99

These vineyards and the Laithwaites head office are only a short drive away from where I live in Berkshire and so I will always be a big supporter.  The 2011 vintage in the UK was something of a roller-coaster with a great start followed by a lack-lustre summer followed by great harvesting conditions.

This pure Chardonnay had a lovely light and airy palate, a fresh and quaffable mousse and focussed on the citric forward lemon qualities.  With a touch of nice bitterness on the back palate to add some substance, this was at once immediate and yet structured enough to see some mid-range ageing.

Charles Heidsieck Brut Réserve NV Champagne, France, 12%, £42

Charles Heidsieck continually win award after award and so I naturally gravitated towards this bottle.  A lovely gold colour in the glass and a rich bold lemon flavour on the nose, this blends complexity with a light quaffability that just evaporates in the mouth.

Given that 40% of this NV blend comes from reserve wines that can be over a decade old it’s easy to understand how they marry such depth with such immediacy.  Long-lasting finish.

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Charles Heidsieck Blanc des Millénaires 1995, Champagne, France, 12%, £120

Moving up the quality ladder and on to their prestige offering I must admit that I didn’t spit this wine out as tasting etiquette would dictate, and I also went back for seconds!

There is the customary biscuit and bread notes of a lees aged Champagne on the nose. With 21 years under its belt this wine manages to retain an awesome freshness with a lush acid that makes the palate almost evaporate.  As well as the customary citrus notes there is a lovely moodiness that permeates throughout.  Delicious.

I’ll leave it there for the Sparkling on show (with a small apology that the above doesn’t even touch upon the myriad of different levels of Prosecco available), but a final honourable mention must go to the:

Lanson Noble Cuvée Brut 2000, Champagne, France, 12.5%, £90

I’d personally had two bottles of this previously and the first showed wonderfully, being both fresh for 16 years old, as well as deep with honeyed ageing characters.

The second bottle that I opened, which I did with friends on a special occasion, had an over-whelming blue cheese nose that carried on to the palate.  I hastily retired the bottle believing it to be something of a fault but, when trying the Vintage again at this tasting, the blue cheese note was once again evident.

I chatted this through with wine buyer Davy Zyw who could detect what I was referring to but felt it was a natural part of the overall evolution of the wine as opposed to a fault.  It was certainly interesting to compare them but I remain unconvinced that the cleaner wine was the odd one out.

Checking the official Lanson tasting notes it certainly makes no mention of it, and offers up traits of honey, pear and spices instead.  It therefore remains a mystery to me at this time as to which bottle wasn’t showing correctly.  Intriguing.

In my next piece based on the tasting I will go in to the best of the whites and reds that I tried and would recommend.

With thanks to MHP Communications and Laithwaites for inviting me to this event.

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The Wine Show Chelsea & Sparkling Masterclass

Building on the success of the inaugural event last year the Wine Show Chelsea returned to London last week and I decided to pop along to try it out for myself.

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Held over three days in the historic Kings Road Chelsea Town Hall venue, the show was devised by wine trade publication The Drinks Business to bring together the best that London merchants have to offer.

Having been to many wine shows in the past I was initially a bit worried as there were only twenty exhibitors in place, but this doubt was unfounded and in the end, I only managed to visit eight of them such were the diverse offerings and knowledgeable experts on hand.

Firstly though a diversion, and I was signed up to a Sparkling wines masterclass pitting England against the rest of the world.  Hosted by not one, but two (!), Masters of Wine (MW’s) this was a rare insight in to the critical tasting approach at the top level of wine appreciation, as well as being a good refresher of the ‘why’ you are tasting what you are tasting.

Hosted by the editor-in-chief of The Drinks Business Patrick Schmitt MW, we were invited to blind taste and rate the 10 sparkling wines on offer, giving our own thoughts on grape variety, climate and key taste indicators.  Michelle Cherutti-Kowal MW then worked us through our reasoning; guiding, correcting and validating our theories as to the origins of what we were drinking.

The general winners on the day were the English wines which, hedging the bets somewhat, comprised 3 out of the 10 wines.  Also showing well was a Loire Valley Brut NV and the ‘curve-ball’ Canadian sparkling from Benjamin Bridge.  Having reviewed this wine only a few months ago, I was a bit annoyed that I didn’t recognise it (although that was the whole point of the curve-ball), but it did make my top 3 wines of the session along with the aforementioned Loire Brut and a Champagne de Castelnau NV Brut Reserve.

Masterclass completed it was then off to the exhibitors at large and I kicked things off with producer and re-seller Caves d’Esclans and their array of French rosé.  We were able to taste from both 75cl bottle and magnum to compare, and I concentrated on working my way up towards the Chateau d’Esclans Garrus 2014.

This small production wine has a retail price of circa £80 and is known by some as the ‘Dom Pérignon’ of the rosé world, which of course piqued my interest.  It was a lovely pale, creamy yet spicy drink, but I couldn’t say that it justified the high price tag.

Now that I had warmed my palate up I moved on to the Finest Fizz stand, and a clutch of £30+ Champagnes (including 2 from Hautvilliers, the birthplace of a certain Dom Pérignon – sorry, I’ll drop the links now!).

Highlights here included their ‘skinny’ rosé (£40) which has just 275 calories per bottle, equivalent to one large glass of an average red wine, and the Bernard Pertois Blanc de Blancs Grand Cru NV (£34) which was a creamy dream likened to Krug (and probably a hint as to why Krug are trying to get the winemaker to work on their team).

Next up were my friends from boutique merchant Friarwood who had a lively selection of reds and whites from across the globe.  The team were so full of stories, anecdotes and general wine knowledge that I probably did more talking than tasting at this stand, but I did manage to try a velvety organic Super-Tuscan from Conti di San Bonifacio (£18.50) and a delicious 2010 Chateau Fonplegade GCC from Saint Emilion (£47.50).

I then crossed over to iDealwine, an international wine auction site who had the wine that was probably the highlight of the show for me – a 1989 Chateau Suduiraut Sauternes (£64).  Tasting as fresh and inviting as the day it was made, this 27 year old sweet wine was a rich nutty, honey and caramelised taste of greatness. Delicious.

Wine importer Hard to Find Wines gave me my first taste of a wine from Luxembourg.  From the far right east coast of the country, the vineyards straddle the Moselle (as it is called here) and gave off a very similar experience to the Germanic wines from the Mosel.  Made from the Auxerrois grape, the wine was lean with a very direct acidity.

Also on show was a Malbec from Franschhoek in South Africa.  A grape more akin to other countries, Malbec is beginning to be planted in many other countries for the first time and it was interesting to try this blood-red variant full of bitter chocolate and mocha notes.

The above notes really only scratch the surface of my time at the show and I can easily say that it was phenomenally rewarding, giving me access to a really great masterclass, some stunning wines, and some truly great people.

With thanks to The Drinks Business and Unionpress for the ticket used for this tasting.

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UK 2016 Vintage Report #7 – October

A final note now on the progress / harvest of my 2016 grapes.

The recent weather has turned fully autumnal and temperatures have plateaued at around 10°C each day (and obviously cooler overnight).  The rain, which had been sporadic since the start of October, has picked up and most mornings are now damp from overnight showers.

As I write, we are just in the midst of several showers and they are forecasted for the week ahead.

Tracking nicely ahead of my other varieties from the start of season, my Ortega was the first to be picked on the 9th of October.  Prior to picking I tested the sugar content of the grapes with my refractometer and they came out at 20-21° on the Brix scale (which measures the sugar content of the grapes).  This converts as a potential alcohol content of 11.5% and is absolutely spot on for a white grape in the south of the UK.

Apart from some mite damage during the season my only lament is that the overall crop was significantly down on expectations (this was a feature for all of my varieties this year, and that of the wider UK as I’ve seen).

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I’ve unfortunately given up on my Chardonnay crop.  I was rather holding out as this is a late ripening variety but, even with the recent rains, the grapes have not swelled and have remained small and hard in nature.  The leaves have turned in colour, much the same as my cropped Ortega, and this means that the saps are descending and there is no future growth to see.

For purely academic reasons I also tested the Brix ° on these grapes which came out as a lowly 9, or a potential alcohol of 4.7%.  Perfect only for the health conscious amongst us!

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My MVN3 began changing colour towards the end of last month and have now reached the point where all berries have universally transformed (it’s a real shame I still don’t know exactly what variety this is!).

The current Brix ° as I write is 13, or 7% potential alcohol.  I’ll be leaving these grapes a further week or two to realise their potential alcohol, prior to picking them.

Yields for the MVN3 have proved to be best overall (but this is likely due to the different cane training I used on the vines last winter).  I will be training all varieties the same from this point on and looking forward to the 2017 vendange.

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Laithwaites Premiere Tasting – October 2016

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A Laithwaites Premiere tasting now and the two choices for October 2016, both of which are completely new to me.

Journey’s End Pathfinder 2014, Stellenbosch, South Africa, 13.5%, £12.99

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This is apparently a ‘top tip’ from Laithwaites, handcrafted and offering a Bordeaux blend with a New World ripeness.  It’s a blend of 40% Cabernet Sauvignon, 30% Merlot and 30% Cabernet Franc.  Founded in 1995 by an Englishman, his ethos is all about creating an amazing wine from a small scale quantity.

I like the label of this wine as it evokes the simple detail displayed by the classics, and with Stellenbosch being the absolute epicentre for fine wine making in South Africa, the £12.99 price-point (which is slightly above average for the Premiere scheme) created high expectations.  The wine is sealed under screwcap.

In colour this is a dark (but not opaque) youthful purple with a nice clear water white rim.  The nose is full of clean and pure fruit but again speaks of its relative youth (although we are talking 2+ years at this point).  There’s a clear hit of blackberry and crunchy cherry (from the Cabernet), cake and spice (from the Merlot) and light vanilla florals (from the Cabernet Franc), and so this is a wine that absolutely shows its constituent parts.

When I first had a taste shortly after opening the bottle there was a distinct spritz on the palate, again highlighting the vibrancy and youth of the wine.  After a while this disappeared, but it is still an important indicator of where this wine is on a trajectory of its ageing cycle.

The palate continues the dark cherry notes and blackcurrant, as well as showing touches of both dark chocolate and coffee, but we’re still very much in pure fruit territory.  There’s a light chalky tannin as well as a vibrant acidity that works through the palate, but the overall tone is one of youth.

If I’m honest the wine feels pretty one-dimensional and I could maybe, if I tried really hard, imagine other core fruits such as damson in the mix.  It’s certainly a powerful palate giving the best of what it has got, but the price-point and the youth it shows work at odds for me.

The end palate, long as it is, shows some smoke, but was still a bit too ‘tomato’ tangy for my liking.  It would be tempting to say ‘try with food’ as that is sometimes a way to mask an imbalance within a wine, but my over-riding thought here is that this needs more time. Whilst there’s a certain silk to the palate there is still a rustic nature.

The provided tasting notes state that this wine is best consumed by 2021 which isn’t that far away really.  This leaves me a bit confused as to how far this one can go, and I’m not sure that £12.99 is a fair price for something that needs a bit of love and warmth to make it come alive.

Pico Attila Chardonnay/Ribolla Gialla 2015, Venezie, Italy, 13%, £8.99

Next up is the white wine offering, and what a very good looking bottle this is.

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The simple, factual front label makes it almost look like the faceless bottle you can sometimes find as the house wine in restaurant, but don’t be deceived.  There are plus points, from the fact that the wine is sealed under cork, but even to the fact that they’ve gone for a slightly arched bottle shape giving a subtle notion of premium.

The wine hails from the mountainous northeast of Italy and, coming from the strategic frontier of the Roman Empire, is named after the hill that (as legend states) Attila the Hun’s soldiers built out of their helmets in AD 452.  It comprises the native grape variety Ribolla Gialla alongside Chardonnay, 20% of which was aged in oak.

In colour, even for a wine as young as 2015 there is a nice deep lemon yellow colour with gold hints. The nose is clean and full of fresh lemon and lime, a touch of dried pineapple, pear drops and a hint of honeysuckle and golden syrup.

The palate is full of bruised green apple, pear drops, honey, and there’s also the cream and butter from a good Chardonnay.  Medium and gloopy in weight, there’s an almost bronze quality to the palate adding a stability and a depth to the core fruit.  Whilst the last wine showed its youth, this wine hides it, despite it being the younger of the two bottles.

Layers of flavour envelop each other and I continually jostle between the core fruit and the deeper flavour profiles.  This is great on its own, and would be even better with food.

A clear winner this month, and it is the cheaper of the two bottles, I recommend the Pico Attila Chardonnay/Ribolla Gialla 2015.

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Cru Bourgeois Tasting – 2014 Official Selection

I recently had the pleasure of attending the trade tasting of the wines that make up the 2014 Official Selection of Cru Bourgeois de Médoc.  Set within the splendour of the British Academy in London, three rather large rooms were given over to showcasing some 183 different wines.

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The Cru Bourgeois quality system incorporates those wines from the Medoc peninsula that sit outside of the famous ‘1855’ classification.  To qualify as Cru Bourgeois a wine must be blind tested and approved by a panel of wine professionals two years after the harvest.

The 2014 selection features 278 Cháteaux producing 30 million bottles of wine.  That’s equivalent to 33% of the Medoc’s production.

With 68 wines on show from the Medoc and another 68 from the Haut-Medoc I was already sensing palate fatigue from going through these larger appellations, and so decided to focus my tasting on getting close to the smaller appellations.  These included Listrac-Médoc (7 wines on show), Moulis (12), Margaux (10), Pauillac (3) and Saint-Estéphe (15).

What follows is my thoughts on the style offered up by each appellation followed by my standout wine.

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Overall the wines from Listrac-Medoc would best be described as rustic and crunchy with good grippy tannins.  Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon were the dominant grape varieties here with small amounts of Petit Verdot peppered throughout.  Stylistically the wines had dark cherry overtones topped up with spice, wood and fruitcake.

Standout Wine: Cháteau Capdet.  70% Merlot/30% Cabernet Sauvignon.  A vibrant colour in the glass with a wonderful perfumed nose full of fruit and vanilla.  Red cherries led the way with a soft and gentle blend working well with the grippy tannins.  Good weight.  N/A UK

Moulis

Everything moved in to more subtle and silky territory as we moved just slightly south to Moulis.  There were good powerful wines that had been made with such a lightness of touch that pure clean fruit abounded and the length of each was long.  Many wines were incredibly perfumed and tannins were evident, but lighter in texture.

Standout Wine: Cháteau Lalaudey.  This was a tough one to call but this wine just pipped the others for me.  It was full of black cherry and even a touch of meat, but in amongst the darker notes I could find menthol and vanilla as well.  The palate was pure silk in a glass.  66% Cabernet Sauvignon, 25.5(!)% Merlot, 5% Cabernet Franc, 3.5% Petit Verdot.  N/A UK

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Margaux

As we headed towards the banks of the Gironde the colour of the wines on show seemed to take on a darker, inky black colour.  The silky texture and vanilla fragrance which I adore was still evident and I made several references to both chocolate and confection throughout my notes.

Standout Wine: Cháteau la Fortune.  I used several punchy adjectives for this wine including rich, dense and chewy.  The principal fruit is of black cherry with savoury notes coming through.  Again, this was made with a lovely fragrant nose and a silky smooth palate.  Good fortune indeed!  74% Cabernet Sauvignon and 26% Merlot.  N/A UK

Pauillac

With only 3 wines on show from this appellation it was pretty hard to gauge the full parameters, especially as one wine did nothing for me whatsoever.  I did note that the alcohol levels were also going up as I moved onwards, and were sitting at 14% here as opposed to 13% in Margaux.

Standout Wine: Cháteau Plantey.  This Merlot/Cabernet Sauvignon blend (55%/45%) combined the lightness of fragrance on the nose with a powerful and weighty body filled with ripe black cherry, confectionate notes and a good grippy tannin.  Very pleasing to taste whilst being brooding at the same time, I was left thinking that this would have been taken to an even higher level with the right food. N/A UK

Saint-Estéphe

As we move northwards up the banks of the Gironde, the rusticity seemed to creep back in to the wines of Saint-Estéphe.  There was lots of power and tannin on display, alongside spice and vanilla/wood fragrances.

Standout Wine: Cháteau Tour des Termes.  A Merlot heavy blend (60%) with Cabernets Sauvignon and Franc, and some Petit Verdot along for the ride too.  A lovely deep nose, crunchy black cherry, fruitcake and spice.  The blend has been extremely well executed to form a rich and weighty palate.  This one is actually available in the UK too – £25 from Nicolas.

Following a spot of lunch I did spend some time tasting through the various highlights of the Medoc and Haut-Medoc just to ensure I had covered them off.

In closing it was a real privilege to taste through the classification, especially nestled alongside some noted professional palates.  It’s a real shame that a good majority of the wines are not available in the UK, but conversely, that also made the tasting more unique.

With thanks to Jo at Belleville Marketing for the invite.

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