November sees Laithwaites bring its flagship LIVE event to Manchester as part of a national tour, with 2018 events scheduled for both Cardiff and Glasgow. Unable to attend their recent autumn showcase due to diary clashes, when the LIVE show pulled in to London recently I took the plunge and signed up to help out at the event to understand how the complete experience operates.
Happy to take on any role, whether moving boxes behind the scenes to helping customers with buying queries, I secretly hoped to get a role on a producer’s stand. Not only would this give me direct customer contact, it would also allow me to focus on specific wines and sell their virtues and history in a personal 1-2-1 way.
Several days prior to the event my joining instructions arrived and, with some trepidation, I opened the envelope to see the role I had been allocated. Success – I would indeed be running my own stand, but for niche wines that I, and likely many of Laithwaites’ customers, would be unfamiliar with.
Due to a very healthy domestic market, Austrian wine is fairly unknown in the UK as relatively few bottles make their way over, certainly not in the numbers compared to stalwart countries such as France, Italy, Spain etc.
That the Laithwaites Austrian wine selection was tacked on to a stand alongside German wine was already quite telling, and I gradually realised the scale of my task. Not only was I now the sole public face for an absent winemaker’s hard work, my role was also to draw in and enlighten customers to wine from a country they may not ordinarily consider, made from grape varieties they may not even be able to pronounce, let alone know or trust.
Able to try the wines on the day ahead of the session, my natural curiousity ensured that I picked up a bottle of each ahead of time to evaluate it properly at home. From producer Winzer Krems, the wines are labelled as Danaris, derived from the ancient name for the Danube River which flows through the region.
Wine-making in Austria is focused on the eastern side of the country, and Kremstal (where these wines hail from) is one of the top production areas.
Danaris Blauer Zweigelt 2015, Kremstal, Austria, 13%, £9.99
Although Blauer Zweigelt may not be near the top of a list of grapes to try, this Austrian speciality (a crossing of two different varieties, created in 1922 by a Dr Zweigelt) is considered a premium variety. In short, it’s the right grape grown in the right place.
Attention to detail comes in the form of hand-harvested grapes, and both of these wines benefit from the clay and limestone based soils. The clay retains moisture and swells the fruit flavours, working in conjunction with the less dense, free-flowing limestone which adds acidity and freshness.
The nose and palate provided sour red cherry, stewed prune and sweet blackcurrant, backed up with light vanilla, violets and black pepper spice. The medium body had an active but mellow acidity, twinned with a good weight that washes easily across the palate.
The light upfront cherry with later touches of spice was reminiscent to me of Pinot Noir paired with the best back-palate of Merlot, or perhaps a lighter Shiraz.
Something my home tasting noted, but which wouldn’t necessarily have been apparent at the LIVE event, was the difference that a bit of aeration had on the wine, really bringing out a liquorice character.
Danaris Grüner Veltliner 2016, Austria, 12% £10.99
Thanks perhaps to a hip sommelier movement, Grüner Veltliner, although still niche, is the more popular of the two varieties, potentially down to the tendency for it to be abbreviated to GrüVe (“groovy”). Once again this is a signature Austrian grape variety.
With a golden colouring in the glass, this had zesty lime, pear and crunchy green apple on the nose, with a lingering white pepper finish. The palate added refreshing well-ripened tropical pineapple, a touch of cream, lemon citrus, light peach and a touch of vanilla florality.
The oily, gloopy rich medium weight in the mouth blended well with the refreshing acidity, providing different fruit layers, both sweet and sour. Overall this is a very composed, complex wine with an almost aged quality that really fills the senses.
The Doors open!
Once the event doors were opened everyone naturally headed for the Champagne and Sparkling wines (which are always positioned as the first stands to greet you) or to their favourite producers, and it was a good 25 minutes before the first curious drinker arrived. I needn’t have worried though as, shortly after this, a trickle of interested faces began to turn in to a steady stream.
By the end of the night I had poured wine for people trying Austrian wine for the first time, experienced Austrian oenophiles looking for bottles similar to those they’d enjoyed whilst on holiday there, generally curious wine lovers, as well as slightly tipsy people looking for anything at all.
Whether they were simply interested in trying the wines and having their own quiet contemplation, or looking to me for more detailed information to help them with the why they were tasting what they were tasting, I enjoyed every second of the evening and cannot wait to volunteer for the next local event.
If any other wine lovers out there are thinking of dipping their toe in the water with volunteering, I would wholeheartedly recommend it!