Digby Fine English & Gurasu: Introducing the English Sparkling Wine Glass

I’m a big fan of stemware and devote much house space to carrying different glasses designed to enhance varying wine styles. Given the number of tie-ups that proliferate the wine world (I’m fresh from trying UB40’s Red Red Wine!?) I’m actually surprised that more wine critics haven’t jumped on the stemware bandwagon over the years.

Wine guru Jancis Robinson launched her new glassware a couple of months back. For those not familiar, Jancis has pared her range back to just one glass, suitable for all wine styles. The logic being that, whilst there are certain small fractions of extra pleasure that can be gleaned from style-specific glasses, the regular drinker has no space to store them all, and the proliferation of styles available means that wine begins to become a little less approachable.  All very true.

Digby Bottle

Shortly after I was interested to see negotiant Digby Fine English announced a new shaped glass, specifically designed to draw out the best qualities of English sparkling. Although English sparkling goes from strength to strength in terms of quality and renown, work continues to drive its identity (is it English sparkling, Merret, British fizz?). The clear visual identity of a bespoke glass is a logical step, but would it actually make a difference to the taste? I popped along to the launch to find out.

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Patrick Schmitt MW began by explaining that the launch was very timely, tying together two of the hottest wine trends at the moment: English wine and stemware. He likened the Digby concept to the well-publicised comments by Maggie Henriquez, CEO and president of Krug, who led the field in suggesting that Champagne should no longer be served in flutes. Arguing instead that the wider rim of a white wine glass would better release the full aromas and sensory potential, she said that drinking Champagne from flutes was akin to “going to a concert with ear plugs”.

Proceedings were then handed over to Trevor Clough, CEO of Digby, and Joanna Maya, the designer and owner of luxury crystal glass producer Gurasu. Trevor took the lead, explaining that the new design was 2.5 years in the making, being required to hit a number of touchpoints. For him, fine wine is all about the nose, the complexity, the personality, and what he described as “the length of the conversation”.

The grapes that Digby buy in all come from producers along the chalky south downs of Kent, Sussex, Hampshire and Dorset. Having a wide pick of grapes on chalk gives their wine fresh acidity and drive, and Trevor wanted this precision to be reflected in a modern, linear design, as well as being able to quickly express the complexities of the quality fruit.

Digby 22

We were offered up their 2010 Vintage Brut in four different glasses: A flute, an ISO glass, a coupe, and the new Digby design. All of the wines had just been poured, and all at the same time (we were not told if all the flutes had been filled first, and the Digby’s last).

A couple of years back when there was a general shift away from the flute to serving Champagne in a white wine style glass, I made the transition and have never looked back. Here though, the flute was more like a test-tube, extremely thin and long. The wine never stood a chance.

Jumping forward to the coupe, there is a good reason that this was dropped as a sensible vessel for sparkling wine.  Swirling the liquid to aerate it is nigh on impossible without spilling, the nose of the wine was non-existent, and the journey of the bubbles was short and largely non-visual. Aside for one thumbs-up for the coupe on the grounds of ‘romance’, both the coupe and flute scored a monumental thumbs down from all present.

Here’s where it got a bit harder as, for me (and the general consensus), there was actually very little between the standard ISO wine tasting glass and the Digby. Both gave well on the nose and we could start appreciating the bready, toasty notes and citrus/orchard fruit. For me, the ISO filled out the palate making it feel fuller and rounder, whereas the Digby really lifted everything, making it smoother, softer and a lot more about the mousse.

With the flute and coupe almost out from the start, and feeling the odds had been somewhat stacked towards the Digby, I asked why we hadn’t had the opportunity to taste against a white wine glass, as per the Krug conversation. Apparently, this was considered but ultimately not run with. I wonder why?  In summary, there was a Digby difference but, I may err toward Jancis, in that it becomes fractions of extra pleasure.

Digby Glass

Clearly Digby and Gurasu have taken their time over the design, going through many iterations before hitting on the one that gave them the elegant, Georgian, classical style they are rightly proud of, but I was also interested to know if there had been any sort of ‘space-race’ to be first to market?

Trevor explained that, whilst they had worked on the project in something of a bubble, he was not aware of any other English producers who were doing a similar thing. He went on to say that, if any were and created a differing design, it would be welcomed so as the consumer could get the most from their wine.

Digby range

Available through the Digby website and via Harvey Nichols, a single glass is available for £32.50, or you can purchase two with a bottle of the Digby Vintage 2010 for £100. Each is handmade from lead-free crystal (the exact make up is a secret!), and is dishwasher safe.

With thanks to The Drinks Business for proving access to this masterclass.

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WSET Level 1 in Sake

Sake is pretty hot right now in the wine world, with The Wine Show even giving over part of episode 2 of their 2nd series to this Japanese style.  Personally it is something I’ve never been exposed to and, knowing very little about it in terms of the production methods, the alcohol content, or even the final retail price, I jumped at the chance to get involved in a recent WSET Level 1 course.

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For anyone familiar to the production of wines and spirits certain things were very similar.  Frankly this was a god-send as, even with this being an introductory level 1 course, things would very soon head off towards the unknown.

The primary base ingredient for Sake is the starch-rich rice grain.  Unlike grapes, which have a natural sugary liquid, just as in the production of spirits, trapped sugars within the starch need to be teased out (via koji mould) and converted to sugars.  Once this is done, the yeast are then able to eat the sugar in the normal way of standard fermentation.

Whilst 3 things remain constant to a Sake – they all have to go under fermentation, filtration and finally bottling, a big differentiator is whether high-strength distilled alcohol is added, as this completely changes the style and labelling terms.

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Junmai (which translates as ‘pure rice’) sees no extra alcohol added, and these sakes then continue up the quality levels to junmai ginjo and on to junmai daiginjo (‘dai’ literally meaning ‘big’).  If high-strength alcohol is added, a junmai will become a honjozo instead, which will then move up the quality scale to become a ginjo and then a daiginjo.  All semi- sensible so far.

Rather like a Chinese restaurant you next overlay your style to your base wine to create the full combination.

There are sparkling sakes, cloudy unfiltered variants (Nigori), unpasteurised sakes (Nama) and aged ones (Koshu), and you can end up as we did, trying a sparkling nigori junmai diaginjo.  Added to this, in the exam at the end, you were expected to be able to reel off the Japanese language/letters for each of the styles in scope.  Not an easy thing to do, although well achievable as it transpired, due to a few hints and tips from our tutor.

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Various other things became apparent throughout the session, such as the way that the individual grains of rice are polished in order to strip away the malted creamier outer layers giving way to the fruitier floral aromas derived from the centre of the grain.  The more time and effort that goes in to this process, giving a higher polished ratio, is what gives a substantially different flavour profile to the more expensive examples (the ones we tried on the day made it up to ~£70 a bottle).

Sake is a wine made to be drunk young, within 1-2 years and, excepting the Koshu style (dating to 2008), all of the wines on show were from 2017.

Here’s a quick rundown of the extremely interesting bottles (and can!) that we tried on the day, most of which came with their own cute descriptive name.  Such was the enthusiasm from the students involved that a couple of people brought their own sakes in to be part of the line-up, and I was extremely pleased to be seated next to a Japanese student who was able to provide me with more depth on the subject than the course was there to provide.

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Style: honjózó, “Sky Conqueror”, 70% polishing ratio, 15% abv – Malted cereal with a touch of banana (a flavour well expected in sake), this was earthy and meaty, but retained the malted porridge lactic style.  Nice fresh acid.

Style: junmai daiginjo, “3 Peaks”, 33% polish, 15% abv – a touch of green to the usual water-white colour of sake, this had fresh banana and pear drop on the nose as well as sweet, ripe cantaloupe melon, pineapple and lychee.  It’s amazing to step back and think that all of this flavour comes from grains of rice.

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Style: junmai, “Waning Moon”, 50% polish, 16% abv – just like banana bread on the nose, a fairly high acid was joined by mushroom, earthy characters and umami on the palate.

Style: ginjo, “Konishi Silver”, 60% polish, 13.5% abv – Very floral nose, with smooth cream palate and a very light intensity.  Refreshing lactic style with unripe banana and pear drops.

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Style: daiginjo nama, “Snow Blossom”, 50% polish, 16% abv – despite the pretty name, this older unpasteurised example was past its best and gave off a little spritz and rotting vegetable.

Style: nama honjozo, 70% polish, 19% abv – A vibrant young example of the unpasteurised style (which lets youthful sakes stay more ‘alive’).  Hard to explain, but his did have a zesty ‘alive’ quality in the glass and on the palate.  Positively dancing with freshness, cream and lactic acid.

Style: junmai daigingo usu-nigori, “Misty Mountain”, 65% polish 17% abv – hints of candyfloss and confected fruit on the nose, full bodied cereal style, with high spice and umami.

Style: sparkling nigori “Pearl”, 45% polish, 12% abv – pear drops on the nose, the weight on the palate came in two layers, first the effervescence and then the fruit below.  A short, but precise, finish.

Style: junmai daiginjo koshu, 40% polish, 15% abv – Nutty, almost like a golden tequila, with a good creamy texture.  Some pickled vegetable on the nose, but not on the palate, and a medium finish.

This was a thoroughly interesting session with many take-homes, not least from the quality of the labelling, diversity of styles, and the sheer labour of love that goes in to making a traditional sake, but also in the fact that it adds an almost brand-new layer to my love of wine, and the wines are so hard to get hold of in the UK outside of specialist importers.

Fantastic!

The WSET (and their partners) currently run both Level 1 and Level 3 courses in Sake.

Wine Australia Masterclass – Margaret River Chardonnay

As part of the recent London Australia Day tasting I attended a celebratory Margaret River Chardonnay masterclass hosted by Sarah Ahmed.  Like last years McLaren Vale Grenache event, it put an extreme focus on both variety and location.

Lineup v2

Western Australia (WA) is well away from other Australian wine production, and the recent 2017 vintage marked 50 years of wine making in the region.  A landmark 1966 research paper by agronomist Dr John Gladstone detailed that the free-draining gravelly soils and consistent wet winters/dry summers provide the perfect conditions for viticulture, which was the catalyst for modern day wine-making in the region.

Home to luminaries including Cullen, Leeuwin and Cape Mentelle, people often note that terroir and wine-making techniques are key to the finished wines, but less focus is given to the vine clones used.  In the case of Margaret River Chardonnay, this is absolutely key.

Introduced as a 1957 experiment to detect viruses, the Gin Gin clone is fairly unique to WA, giving late ripening low yields and smooth textures from high skin/juice ratios.  Known as ‘hen and chicken’, the clone produces grape bunches of different sizes, larger and fully ripe fruity ‘hen’ berries mixed with smaller less ripe ‘chicken’ berries with characteristic high acidity.

The 3 flights highlighted the differing aspects of regional Chardonnay through 8 multiple award winning wines (94+ points from respected critics).  All had precision, richness and depth of fruit.

First 4

Flight 1 – Acidic Drive and Textured Fruit

Lenton Brae Southside 2016, 13.5%, £16.95 – Winemaker Ed Tomlinson was on hand to guide us through his wine as well as some insight to the fellow producers he knows so well.  From the northern part of the region, grapes are hand-picked and go through a wild yeast ferment to add texture.  With oak playing a secondary character, this wine showed a mineral, linear, high acidity and a depth of lime citric buttered fruit.  A medium plus finish which retained smoke and butter.

Fraser Gallop Estate Parterre 2016, 13.5%, £24.95 – Another from the north, and similar in style to the Lenton Brae.  A big advocate of the acidity found in the Gin Gin clone, the 2016 harvest saw warm/rainy/warm weather, allowing the grapes to deliver layers of flavour.

Golden green in colour, this was densely packed with fleshy apple/pear and a twist of tropical melon.  A subtle touch of chalk led the way to a rich, fruit driven finish.

Stella Bella 2016, 12.5%, £18.99 – From the central part of Margaret River, grapes are hand-picked and whole bunch pressed.  This took all of the cues from the first two wines but added in more butter and, if possible, more acid.  As a note of interest, this producer wasn’t showing at the main event and so it was a rare opportunity to taste.

Second 4

Flight 2 – Use of Oak and Malolactic Ferment

Xanadu 2015, 13%, £18.49 – Back to central Margaret River and the first of two wines aged in oak (25% new in this case) and that haven’t seen malolactic fermentation.  The 2015 vintage saw early mild weather followed by a warm renaissance.

The difference in fruit character here was very evident, becoming thicker and with added tang.  There was still an extremely fresh and biting acidity and a lightly grippy finish.

Flametree SRS Wallcliffe 2016, 13%, £31.99 – This relatively new winery (2007) sits at the very northern tip of the region.  The grapes were picked several weeks early for the 2016 vintage (early Feb), pressed in French oak puncheons and left to age on the solids for an extended period.  This manifested itself in solid and darker green fruit notes, a dense weight and a light grippiness to the end palate.

Vasse Felix Heytesbury 2016, 13%, £39.99 – The nose was dense, rich and showed smoke from the 9 months in new French oak.  Malolactic fermentation provided a lush creamy, yeasty character.  A good wedge of lime set off the weight and depth of the rich ripened lemon and butter.  For me this was in my top two wines of the masterclass.

Flight 3 – Traditional Oak Spice and Aromatics

Flowstone Queen of the Earth 2014, 13.3%, £32 – Another young winery with their first vines planted in 2004.  Hand harvested and fermented in French oak (50/50 new/old) and the first wine on show not reliant on the Gin Gin clone.  A wonderfully spicy nose and stylistically different from everything in the tasting thus far.  Very rich with a zippy acidity and a heavyweight fruit finish.  Intense green fruit and an oaky overtone.

Leeuwin Estate Art Series 2013, 13.5%, £75 – A fitting end to this retrospective, and a stunning wine from pioneers Vasse Felix.  The 1980 vintage was the first to be singled out by Decanter magazine for being of exceptional quality, and from vines just 4 years old.  This wine saw 6-8 hours of skin contact, 100% barrel fermentation in new French oak and regular lees stirring.  There was a massive depth of flavour here, just on the nose alone.  Powerful green lime and kiwi was followed by dried pear (a Gin Gin characteristic) and, at 5 years old, this was still as fresh as a daisy and looking like it could last a whole host longer.  Having recently scored 100 points from Matthew Jukes, it also got top points from me and was the highlight of the masterclass.

With thanks to Wines of Australia for providing the ticket used in this tasting.

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Wyfold English Sparkling: 2006 – 2009 Vertical Tasting

The multi-award winning English Sparkler Wyfold has just released its 2013 Vintage, and when the chance came up to taste the original trilogy of Vintages, including two never commercially released, I jumped at it.

Wyfold trilogy

Following the death of Formula One engineer Harvey Postlethwaite, his widow Cherry was keen to fulfil his vineyard-owning ambitions, and in 2003 she purchased land in the Chiltern Hills and planted 14 rows of vines.  Teaming up with best friend Barbara Laithwaite (Director of the eponymous wine mail order giant), both passed their viticultural qualifications at Plumpton College, and a new venture was born.

As a start-up winery with no onsite production facilities, this was given over to famed English producer Ridgeview who, in return for a sizeable portion of the crop, would turn the grapes in to a fully realised sparkling wine.  Both the 2006 and 2008 Vintages fell under this agreement and, as such, the final production numbers were too small to justify a release.

Wyfold is made in the traditional Champagne method using the classic grape varieties of Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier.  Of interest is the solid reliance on Pinot Meunier, sometimes considered the lesser Champagne variety.  Even though it forms just 16.5% of plantings, with the variable UK weather it can sometimes fare better than the Pinot Noir (33.5% of plantings).

In 2006 the number of vines was upped to 4,000, and increased once again in 2014, with 9,000 vines now spread over 2 hectares.

Vines3Wyfold (June 2017)

Following the two successful production runs (2007 was a write-off due to poor weather), fully contracted wine-making was put in place from the 2009 Vintage to ensure that all of the bottles produced would be labelled under the Wyfold name.

The resulting wine was quick to receive critical acclaim and won the prestigious Judgement of Parsons Green.  The subsequent releases of the 2010 / 2011 vintages have fared just as well, winning a succession of medals, trophies and high scores by esteemed wine magazine Decanter.

Wyfold Vineyard Brut 2006 (52% CH/32% PN/16% PM), Oxfordshire, UK, 12%, £N/A

Even though 2006 was a generously yielding year, due to the SWAP agreement the final number of bottles produced under the Wyfold name was just 576!  This first vintage is also unique in having a label that was thereafter discarded as being ‘too rustic’ to compare to other quality Sparkling/Champagne wines.

Wyfold 06 Label

Medium golden yellow in colour with rusty bronze tints and an extremely fine beading from the traditional production method.  On the nose there was mature, woody, bruised/baked golden delicious apple, a touch of dried lemon curd, cinnamon and biscuit.  This smelt just like an apple orchard in autumn.

The palate delivered upfront mousse that immediately frothed up, and a clean striking acidity laced with light refreshing lemon citrus and green apple.  The aged fruit complexity was there but it still managed to deliver youthful character and vibrancy.  Light as a feather but carries a huge creamy weight that fills the mouth. The syrupy bruised fruit finish was medium plus.  I’m a big fan of this ‘very-English’ tasting sparkling.

Wyfold Vineyard Brut 2008 (76% CH/9% PN/15% PM), Oxfordshire, UK, 12.5%, £Unreleased

Under the SWAP agreement, a mere 296 bottles of the 2008 were crafted.  Due to the minuscule production, bottles were adorned with standard labels as opposed to vintage specific ones, and the Vintage, although bottled, went undeclared and unreleased.

Wyfold 08 label

Medium straw yellow with golden hints and a fine bead, this is noticeably more youthful than the 2006.  The nose has bread, butter, honeyed citrus, yellow tropical fruit, and is much more in line with a traditional Champagne as opposed to English Sparkling.  The aromas are there but needed teasing out, and this still feels a little closed/restrained.

The palate once again had a vibrant fresh mousse and a good splash of fresh lemon juice.  This time around the apple played much less of a part.  The lighter mid-palate of the 2006 has really been filled out here, but overall, this is probably more singular in tone.

I asked Barbara Laithwaite as to where Wyfold was stylistically sitting in terms of England vs. Champagne and she said she is looking to balance the two.  The south facing gravel/limestone site is perfect for the Champagne style but, being fairly high at 120m altitude, you also get the late start/long season which encourages the hedgerow/apple orchard fruitiness.

The medium finish added a touch of syrup and the pleasant bitterness of grapefruit.  This one is only just starting to come in to its own and has a life ahead of it sadly only limited by the small number of bottles available.

Wyfold Vineyard Brut 2009 (63% CH/17% PN/20% PM), Oxfordshire, UK, 12.5%, £33

Now free of the SWAP agreement, the full run of 2,449 bottles were produced which, in the time between tasting the wine and writing up these notes, have now completely sold through.

Wyfold 09 label

Medium straw yellow in colour with golden tints, the nose was full of fresh zesty lemon citrus.

The lemon carries through to the palate which adds a bready richness, light white pepper spice, and the customary syrup to the end palate.  The overall sensation is rich and dairy, and the cream is just starting to settle in against the acidity which still characterises the palate.  As before this is a very even blend that fills the mouth.

Very quaffable and easy drinking, the medium length finish is all about the lemon, with just a touch of grapefruit bitterness at the end.  I have no doubt that this will settle further with time.  Overall this was a wonderful and rare tasting of the initial 3 productions from Wyfold showcasing a crystal clear evolution of labelling and style.

With the new plantings bedded down and a good sized 2014 harvest, a Rosé has now been added to the range.  Check out the latest news at the Wyfold website, or click here to buy the 2013 release (whilst stocks last).

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Zind-Humbrecht – Herrenweg de Turckheim & Hengst Tasting

Earlier in the year I attended a glorious tasting of wines from top Alsatian producer Domaine Zind-Humbrecht, comparing their Clos Windsbuhl and Rangen sites.  I was doubly chuffed to recently receive a further invite, this time focused on their Herrenweg de Turckheim and Hengst sites.

A further bonus was that the tasting would be conducted by none other than winemaker Olivier Humbrecht MW. Olivier is one of just a handful of winemakers with the MW qualification and, as expected, his 90-minute lecture was an absolute joy.

Humbrecht MW

Humbrecht practise non-interventionalist winemaking and are incredibly passionate about making pure wines that speak for themselves.  Certified bio-dynamic some 13 years, Olivier stated that he believed that the winery was a “place that you can damage a wine, not make it better”.

As a listed ‘Domaine’ they are only allowed to use grapes produced in their own vineyards, which span some 100 acres and make approximately 200k bottles.  Their yields are much lower than permitted and perhaps some 2-3 times less than fellow producers.

The tasting today concentrated on 3 different grape varieties from different vintages: the drier style of Riesling, the sweeter Gewürztraminer and the mixed bag that is Pinot Gris.  Olivier rolled out the very interesting statistic that Alsace has as much geologically diverse soil as the entire land between Chablis and Chateauneuf.

To save any duplication in the tasting notes below, or perhaps to act as a summary, all the wines tasted were incredibly pure of flavour, rich in texture, incredibly mouth-filling and satisfying.  Truly exceptional quality.

Humbrecht Lineup

Riesling 2015 Herrenweg de Turckheim, 12.5%

Bottled as recently as February 2017, Herrenweg is situated on the gravelly valley floor, just outside of the village of Múnster.  Being the product of a single vineyard the wines have more character and increased fruit concentration.  The 2015 vintage was very hot, with June/July temperatures regularly hitting 30-40° C, giving stress to the vines as well as the vignerons.  There was, however, just enough rain to ensure a good acid/alcohol balance.

Light yellow in colour with golden highlights, the nose is both intense, concentrated, almost golden, yellow fruit.  A touch of apple and a streak of minerality carry through to the palate which is characterised by a fresh acid.  Everything is smooth and precise, with the juicy bruised Golden Delicious apple joined by gloopy lemon curd.  Very long finish.

Pinot Gris 2010 Herrenweg de Turckheim, 14.5%

Temperatures on the 19th Dec 2009 dipped as low as -19° C giving the coldest winter for a very long time and a subsequent small crop.  Further frost damage saw many buds lost and rain persisted during flowering.  This is the 3rd smallest vintage since 1989 and would have been the 2nd smallest had 2017 not had more problems.

The golden colour of the wine comes from the ripeness of the grapes and the botrytis as opposed to the 7 years of age it has at this time.  After the first wine tasted there was noticeable extra sugar on the nose as well as rich butter, bees wax and honey.

The palate showcased very pure golden yellow tropical fruit, thick rich lemon curd and honey. A very present acidity was well balanced.  Superb, with not a bit of the palate wasted.

Gewürztraminer 2013, Hengst Grand Cru, 13.5%

A top growth south facing sloped vineyard on a red limestone base, Hengst is the German word for ‘Stallion’.  2013 was another small crop vintage but, as the vines are an impressive 62 years old, overproduction is not an option.  With older vines it’s less about the volume of grapes, but more about the flavour concentration.

Olivier pointed out that Gewürztraminer is an aromatic grape which makes an aromatic wine but, just as with perfume, can be overpowering if you don’t get the balance right.

A medium yellow with green gold tints, the nose was full of orange peel and lychee.  The palate was softly sweet but densely packed with golden tropical fruit, tangy peach and satsuma.  A light spice paired with a good level of acidity kept this going in the mouth for ages.

Humbrecht Closeup

Gewürztraminer 2010, Herrenweg de Turckheim Vieilles Vignes, 13%

A rarer late harvest wine from the tiny 2010 crop makes this a wine that almost shouldn’t exist.

Golden yellow in colour with intense melon-dominant juicy yellow fruits, there’s also hints of orange peel and lemon curd.  The palate was sugar sweet, honeyed, with rich butter, bees wax and mandarin.  The acidity was high but well balanced.

Pinot Gris 2007, Herrenweg de Turckheim Vendange Tardive, 15%

A good but complicated year was how Olivier described the 2007 harvest.  A rainy start gave way to hot and dry conditions allowing good ripeness but a lot of botrytis.

A lovely aged medium amber in colour, the nose was both pronounced yet slightly restrained and full of deep dark honey, sticky toffee and caramel.  The palate oozed with a gloopy oily sweetness full of sweet lemon citrus, mature honey, and lifted by touches of mandarin and peach.

This filled all of my mouth with its silky charm.  Substantial length – well in to multiple minutes – which carried on long after the end of this superb tasting.

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Laithwaites Vintage Festival 2017

Laithwaites recently opened the doors on their 38th Vintage Wine Festival and, fittingly for the ever expansive world of wine, it was bigger than ever before.  Not only were they showing over 380 wines on the day but they had representation from Turkey from the first time and were now including their incredibly popular sensory session ‘Tasting in the Dark’.

2017 Laithwaites Vintage Festival

The Fine Wine room was once again in place meaning that, along with the tasting theatres and other assorted activities (including an ‘I’m a Celebrity…’ influenced pairing of jungle critters to wine), there was a seriously wide array of activities to cover off in the time.

Having been a Laithwaites customer for many years and having been to other portfolio tastings of theirs I decided that the general tasting room would be tackled only where time permitted.  In the end, aside from a handful of English wine producers (including Ridgeview), I simply didn’t get the time.  How curious to attend a wine tasting and spend virtually no time at all in the main wine tasting!

To be fair though, the Fine Wine upgrade is a complete and absorbing experience in itself and in many ways equal or better than some standalone tasting events I’ve been to.  Mildly saddened that they hadn’t used the Willy Wonka-style glass elevator from last year, this year’s entry was via an equally glamorous private staircase complete with red carpet.

2017 Red Carpet Laithwaites

Now split over multiple rooms the Fine Wine experience is bigger than ever and more of a Fine Wine floor.  I spent two full hours tasting through the majority of the 67 wines and spirits on display and, perhaps mischievously, tried a couple of them more than once.  My first three pours were all very much double-tasters, with my perennial favourite Dom Pérignon (2006, £120) to start me off.

Alongside this was the ever reliable Krug Grande Cuvée (£130) and the Charles Heidsieck Blanc des Millénaires 1995 (£120).  Having been an award winning stalwart for at least 10 years, my host informed me that the stocks of this exalted 1995 wine are now running down and Heidsieck are heading for the new vintage.  Although she wouldn’t confirm which year this would be, she did say there would be a leap forward, and my money is on the powerful 2002.   My only regret here was that the Roederer Cristal wasn’t on display as per last year even though they have moved forward from the 2007 to the 2009 vintage.

2017 Laithwaites Vintage Festival Fine Wine Room

Other rare wine highlights included:

  • Cháteau Gruaud-Larose 2001 – £80. Black cherry fruit with woody touches.  Seriously good length
  • Cháteau La Tour Carnet 2010 – £45. Extremely floral nose, light tannin, silky soft fruit
  • Prunotto Bric Turot Barbaresco 2013 – £45. From Italian genius Antinori.  Subtle but intense, fragrant and feminine
  • La Rioja Alta Gran 2004 Reserva 890 (served from Magnum) – £145. One of the last bottles remaining from this vintage, it was soft and retained a vibrant acid whilst having tertiary coffee notes and almost the character of a tawny port

Following my Fine Wine session I headed off to the tasting theatre for a 30-minute session with ‘Mr Wine’ himself, Oz Clarke.  Whilst always being a part of the Laithwaites brand, at this festival Oz was almost omni-present, to the extent of a camera following his every move around the event.  This session though caught the raconteur at his relaxed best and gave us a canter through some of his ‘Desert Island Wines’.

Hosted by Master of Wine Justin-Howard Sneyd, the session was a rollercoaster of wit and repartee, running well over time as Oz discussed wine, film (he was in the first Superman film if you hadn’t spotted him), train trips, TV co-host Jilly Goolden (he still won’t confirm if they are or aren’t married!), and how he found his love of all things vinous.

Oz Masterclassjpg

His choices on the day included:

  • Support for English vineyards through a Rosé from Wyfold Valley (I’ll be visiting here shortly so look forward to a vineyard review in due course)
  • A classic Bordeaux 1969, amazingly still available through Laithwaites from producer Château La Tour du Roch-Milon
  • A fine example of stalwart Australian producer Penfolds and their classic Bin 311 Chardonnay 2015
  • A nod to the well-respected wines of Spain with the Altos de la Guardia Reserva 2011

As hinted at earlier, Oz could seriously talk for hours such is his passion and wealth of experience on the subject, and he did run over by some 15 minutes.  Nevertheless I was able to have a quick catch-up with him at the end of the session to gauge his thoughts on the possibilities of him bringing wine back to mainstream TV following the success of The Wine Show.

As well as confirming that James May is still too much of a man in demand following the Top Gear decampment to Amazon and, as full of praise as he was for Wine Show host Joe Fattorini, Oz was just beginning to convey to me his view as to why the new show hadn’t been a complete success in his eyes when a bunch of four ladies mobbed him for a photo opportunity.

Frustratingly that was the last I heard on the subject from him.  How I would have loved to have finished off that conversation!

Due to the session running over and the impromptu Q&A after, my time at the event was now drawing to an end.  I scarcely had time to match a dried bee to an Aussie Shiraz at the ‘I’m a Celebrity’ stand before it was time to go.

Once again this was a wine event not to miss and, although I scarcely spent any time in the main arena at all, pound for pound on the samples tried in the Fine Wine room, I certainly covered my fair share of ground and came away with many taste memories.

With thanks to Laithwaites for providing the tickets used in this tasting.

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Moser XV Cabernet Sauvignon 2015 – Chinese Wine v.2

With the news back in January that Sainsbury’s were stocking two Chinese wines it’s not entirely surprising to find that Tesco have now followed suit.  It’s also no surprise to find out that China’s premiere winery Changyu are involved once again; this time alongside Austrian stalwart Lenz Moser.

Whilst both names might be unfamiliar to the UK market, Changyu have been producing wines for over 120 years and the Moser family have 15 generations of experience so both are old hands.  What was a surprise, perhaps even a shame, was that (just like the Sainsbury’s Chinese range) I found this wine tucked away on the bottom shelf in the furthest corner and you would really have to be looking for it to find it.

Moser XV.JPG

Moser XV Cabernet Sauvignon 2015, Ningxia, China, 14%, £8.50

The 2015 vintage was widely hailed as a good one for China, and the vines used to produce this Cabernet Sauvignon range between a very respectable 12-18 years of age.

Ningxia is in the northern-central part of China, and this wine is produced in the ‘up-and-coming’ Helen Mountain region.  At 1,100 metres above sea level, the grapes are able to fuse the cooler high altitude temperatures with the arid soils and long sunlight hours (a third longer than Bordeaux) seen during the growing season. The warmth allows the grapes and their flavours to ripen fully whilst the cooler temperatures allow the berries to keep their freshness.

The bottle itself was very attractively packaged and similar in style to a classic Bordeaux.  Finished with a red foil cap and branded cork, the white label displayed classic chateau imagery and scripted text (some of which was still in Chinese). The front and back labels also both proudly stated that the wine was chateau bottled, just like their Bordeaux counterparts.

On to the tasting and this was a medium youthful purple in colour, although slightly muted in tone and not shining bright like many young wines.

The nose came in several layers, beginning with ripe redcurrant fruit, before being joined by the pronounced floral perfumes of both vanilla and violet.  This fragrance continued with a second wave of light red fruit, very reminiscent of strawberries and cream.

The palate contained darker fruit and was more black cherry in nature, and there was a very distinctive light and drying tannin, almost tea-like in quality.  For a nation as tea-loving as the Chinese that seems fair enough!

Knowing that this wine was unoaked, overall it had quite a woody herbaceous feel and lots of green herb notes and a touch of bell pepper.  Whilst this did add an almost sour element to the palate, the overriding sensation was of ripe fruit, a peppery smoothness and a spicy velvet quality.  The palate was fairly long, carried by fruit warmth and alcohol.

The label suggested a food match of either beef or lamb and I think it would be a good match to make, just to round out some of the herbaceous and sour tones buried in the layers.

The Moser XV is available now from Tesco priced at £8.50 and carries a recommended drinking window of now to 8 years of age.

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Domaine Zind-Humbrecht Masterclass

Jolene Hunter, the South African born winemaker at renowned Alsace producer Domaine Zind-Humbrecht, was in town recently to present a selection of their wines in a terroir masterclass.

Zind Humbrecht

Although the individual families have been making wine since the 17th century, the modern day story really begins in 1959 when Léonard Humbrecht married Geneviève Zind.  Since this time the Domaine has grown to hold 40 hectares, including some of the very best parcels in Alsace’s top Grand Cru and Lieu Dit sites.

Now run by Léonard’s son Olivier (one of the rare number of winemakers who also holds the MW qualification), the Domaine is well known for its non-interventionist policies and have long practiced organic procedures.  The Domaine was certified fully biodynamic in 2002.

Rather than simply presenting us with a handful of the circa 30 wines in their portfolio, we were specifically comparing three grape varieties (Riesling, Pinot Gris and Gewurtztraminer) across two different Alsatian terroirs.

Windsbuhl

Clos Windsbuhl

Clos Windsbuhl is the more northern of the two sites and situated in Hunawihr.  The vines are spread over 5.5 hectares and planted at 350 metres above sea level which, when paired with the moderating effects from the great swathes of forest to the west, keeps the vines nicely cooled throughout the warm growing season.

The soil here is known as muschelkalk which is an extremely old form of limestone, and the resultant wines are full of clean and pure fruit expressions with well-defined acidity.

Zind Humbrecht Riesling 2014, Clos Windsbuhl, Alsace, 12.5%

Medium straw yellow in colour and with a deep citrus nose.  Rich gloopy palate full of creamy lemon, honey and white pepper.  A very precise streak of acidity cuts through the weight keeping this well balanced.

Zind Humbrecht Pinot Gris 2012, Clos Windsbuhl, Alsace ,13%

Strict sorting was required in the ripe vintage of 2012 and this ripeness was very evident on the nose.  With a similar youthful colouring to the Riesling, the nose here had touches of peach skin to the green notes of lime and apple.  The palate was slightly sweetened by the 36.5 grams of residual sugar and had a fleshy lemon curd quality.  Very clean and intense fruits played the lead here against a mellow acidity.

Zind Humbrecht Gewurtztraminer 2013, Clos Windsbuhl, Alsace ,13%

Golden in colour, the nose of this wine was full of sweet honey and lemon and extremely powerful.  A nice and firm weight in the mouth, the lemon citrus took the lead here backed up by green flesh on the end palate.  Like the Pinot Gris before it, a mellow acid took the rear and allowed the ripe fruit to sing on its own.  Very refreshing.

Thann

Rangen

We move south now to Rangen, and more specifically to the Clos Saint Urbain, which is the only site in the whole of Alsace that is fully classified as Grand Cru.  Sites are on very steep slopes here and are all fully worked by hand as mechanisation is impossible.

The soil is mainly composed of volcanic black rocks and fragments known as Grauwacke which brings out stronger, denser fruits and darker smoky notes.  The darker direction of the wine is also immediately visible in the more golden colouring.  The rocky fragments heat up quickly in the day warming the grapes and concentrating the sugars.  Once again the cooling effect of the high altitude, and the cool night temperatures allow sufficient acidity to remain.

Zind Humbrecht Riesling 2014, Rangen de Thann, Clos Saint Urbain, Alsace, 12.5%

2014 was a good vintage here and this resulting wine possesses a gold colour and lighter body.  The palate is lean, with a pin-point acidity matching up to the strong green lime and smoky notes.

Zind Humbrecht Pinot Gris 2012, Rangen de Thann, Clos Saint Urbain, Alsace, 14.5%

Golden green in colour, the nose of this wine was full of creamy citrus lemon and lime.  On the palate this is joined by fleshy apple flesh, cream, white pepper spice, and hints of peach.  Rich and smooth with a mellow, but defined, acid.  Fleshy palate, rich and smooth.

Zind Humbrecht Gewurtztraminer 2013, Rangen de Thann, Clos Saint Urbain, Alsace, 13.5%

Deep golden yellow in colour, the nose was full of sweet honey and lime nose, and a blossom fragrance.  Made from 34 year old vines, and with 42 grams of residual sugar, this was intense and sweet but not at all cloying.  Lots of deep honey and textured lemon.

Selection Grains Nobles (SGN)

One final comparison came in the form of the sweeter SGN style.  Made from strictly selected berries that have been affected by noble rot, these partially raisined grapes lose their water content leaving the rich and concentrated sugars.  SGN is the highest rating of late harvest wine in Alsace.

Pinot Gris Clos Windsbuhl SGN 2008, 10.8%

2008 was a good year for producing SGN wine as the weather was wet in the summer and then dry before harvest allowing the rot to stop and the rasining to commence.

Bronze in colour with very pronounced toffee and sweet honey on the nose, the dense weight was at no point cloying, and the high acid well balanced the ripe fruits of lemon citrus and green apple.  More matured fruit notes from dried pineapple and lemon curd.  Very long finish.

Pinot Gris Rangen de Thann Clos Saint Urbain SGN 2009, 11.8%

This wine was more of a deep gold in colour (the effect of the volcanic soil).  On the nose there was toffee, bruised and brown apple and light florality.  The palate was just like drinking liquid toffee and extremely satisfying.  Creamy and sugary, the acid was more towards medium in this wine and the overall sensation was nicely rounded.  Very long finish and extremely pleasant wine to finish on.

With thanks to Gonzalez Byass for the tickets to their portfolio tasting and Domaine Zind Humbrecht masterclass.

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Champagne Deutz Masterclass

Champagne Deutz were in town recently as part of the Gonzalez Byass 2017 portfolio tasting, and commercial director Etienne Defosse was on hand to guide us through a masterclass of eight of their wines.

Founded in 1838, much of their production is consumed domestically in France and so this session was a rare and welcome opportunity to taste through their standard Brut NV, their Vintage Champagnes, and their prestige Amour range.

deutz

Producing a mere 2 million bottles per year (a drop in the ocean compared to the annual 300 million bottles produced in the Champagne region), Deutz have 42 hectares, 80% of which are classified at either Grand Cru or Premier Cru level.  This accounts for 20% of their grape needs (a fairly high amount by Champagne standards), with the compliment bought in from the Cru status vineyards of local growers.

The house has 150 individual vats each containing one particular component of their wine.  This distinct and high level of separation gives them absolute control and flexibility when blending their final cuvées, and their NV, for example, contains the grapes from up to 40 different sites.  40% of their annual production is kept as reserve wines for future blending.

The big take-away from this tasting was just how rich and vibrant their wines are, from the classic and classy NV’s through to the rich, layered and yet fantastically ‘alive’ Amour vintages with 10+ years of age already under their belt.

Champagne Deutz Brut Classic NV ~ £30

The base of the current Classic NV is comprised 50% of grapes from 2013, with the compliment made up of 2012 and a touch of 2011.  The NV Champagnes account for 85% of Deutz production and Etienne enlightened us with a good level of detail of the costs involved (€6.50 per kilo of grapes and each bottle needing 1.5kg of grapes to make).

Composition is split evenly between Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier, and the house style is accessible, fresh, lively and crisp for immediate pleasure.

Champagne Deutz Rosé NV ~ £40-45

The current Rosé NV is comprised of 50% reserve wines, mainly from the 2011 vintage.  Fully refreshing and bursting with strawberry and cranberry fruit, this showed a good complexity at this level.

Champagne Deutz Blanc de Blancs 2009 ~£55

Hailing from the great year of 2009 this Blanc de Blancs had a wonderfully layered texture throughout.  The nose was full of bread and brioche, cream and a touch of smoke to the citrus.  The palate followed this up with lemon curd, a twist of lime, and blossom florality.

No oak is used in the ageing process and so the density and complexity here is fully achieved through the detailed blending.  Etienne did mention that one very large barrel had recently found its way in to their cellars, with the Chef de Cave clearly trying out a new cuvée!

Champagne Deutz Rosé Vintage 2009 ~£55

With 80% Pinot Noir in its composition, the Rosé had a fragrant nose, immediate strawberry and then headed off to the darker notes of raspberry and redcurrant.  To achieve the precise colouring and fruit characters a vat of red wine is added; at just 5 to 7% of the overall blend.

As a point of interest Etienne disclosed that the same red wine vat is used for the colouring of both the NV Rosé and the Vintage Rosé but, even so, the difference between the two Champagnes was obvious.

Champagne Deutz Brut Vintage 2007 ~£50

I’m pretty sure that this was my first tasting of a 2007 Vintage Champagne, with the wet summer weather and uneven ripening resulting in many houses side-stepping the year.  When quizzed on this Etienne responded that they almost always try to make a vintage expression, only recently failing to do so in 2011 due to vegetal characters in the Pinot Noir.

Etienne also divulged that the bottling was smaller than many vintages and so is already becoming harder to find.  Using a greater compliment of Pinot Noir than usual (65%), this had a very distinctive nose (fennel, apparently) and followed it up on the palate with biscuit, ripe green pear flesh, and honeyed citrus.

deutz-amour

Amour de Deutz Blanc de Blancs 2006 ~£100

Amour de Deutz Blanc de Blancs 2005 ~£100

Amour de Deutz Blanc de Blancs 2003 ~£100

First produced with the 1993 vintage, we were treated here to a trio of the most recent Amour releases.  Many characteristics were present across all three vintages, not least the distinctive, almost luminescent colour (Imperial Gold, so we were told).

All three featured developed noses full of bread and biscuit, with a touch of nuttiness to the older two years.  They were also all able to show off a freshness and vibrant mousse that showed no signs of dulling down any time soon, and the layers of cream and butter were a true treat.

The 2005 and 2003 both showed what felt like a small amount of tannin, and there was an identifiable smoky quality to the 2005.  The 2003 had a particularly great depth and character.  All were wonderful and long lasting on the palate.

We ended the session with one fun anecdote surrounding the Amour range.  Since the 1999 vintage Deutz have produced a limited bottling of 365 numbered Methuselahs; one for each day of the year (and yes they do make 366 in leap years!).  One particular customer who is an avid James Bond fan has block-reserved the bottle number 007 for all future releases.

With thanks to Gonzalez Byass for the tickets to their portfolio tasting and Champagne Deutz masterclass.

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The Chinese Way – Changyu Noble Dragon

Trying the ever-expanding line-up of weird and wonderful wines available has never been easier, and these days even the budget supermarkets have gotten in on the act with their ‘Discovery’ series (Aldi) and ‘Wine Atlas’ range (Asda).

I was surprised and very interested though to hear that Sainsbury’s had added a Chinese red wine to their range last month, which was then followed shortly after by a white wine from the same producer.  Initially something of a tie-in to Chinese New Year, they were available for a short period by a tempting introductory price which has now reverted back to a standard RRP.  For the time being then it seems that they will form part of their core range.

China can sometimes hit the wine headlines for the wrong reasons (not least the bottle forgery and rife counterfeiting that appears to go on), but very rarely get mentioned for the wines that they actually produce.  Always on the lookout for unique opportunities I decided to give them both a try.

Founded in 1892, Changyu is the oldest and largest winery in China, located in Yantai, a coastal region in the Shandong Province on the eastern side of the country.  The Noble Dragon brand was created in 1931 and so, even though these wines may be relatively new here in the UK (BBR stock a small range), there is still well over 80 years of winemaking experience being brought to the table.

Both of the bottles are smartly presented with sandy labels approximating the look of old parchment paper and the use of a traditional-looking scripted font.  The line drawing of their estate is akin to many an old-fashioned bottle label and perhaps hints at their love of all things Bordeaux.

changyu-red

Changyu ‘Noble Dragon’ Red Blend 2013, Yantai, China, 12%, £10

This red blend is mainly comprised of Cabernet Gernischt (aka Carménére) and complemented with both Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc.  Cabernet Gernischt is something of a regional speciality and the sprawling 1400 hectares used by Changyu equates to 70% of the plantings in the whole of China.

On the nose there is pure, ripe juicy dark fruit of blackberry and redcurrant, followed up with a touch of smoke and the florals of both wood and vanilla (the wine is aged for 6 months in small oak barrels).

The palate, whilst full of all the dark fruit suspects you would expect from a triple-Cabernet blend (blackcurrant, black cherry, plums) was just a touch drying to my palate.

The fruit is well ripened and forms the backbone of what this wine is all about in the mouth, but the class and depth comes from the wood ageing and the Cabernet Franc which adds further perfume.

The acidity is prominent, just on the edge of too much, and the net result is that it feels a touch too thin.  This probably isn’t also helped by the modest alcohol level of 12%.

The end palate adds touches of bitter chocolate and coffee, but the fruit drifts and the overall length is quite short.  Whilst this is well made and representative of a soft fruit lighter bodied blend, I did find myself missing the crunchy fruits from a good Cabernet.

I’m very glad to have explored it at the introductory price of £8 which is about the right price to me for the style and character.  At the full price of £10 there would be other bottles ahead of it in the queue, so I’d be interested to see how well this sells to the general wine-buying public at that price-point.

changyu-white

Changyu ‘Noble Dragon’ Riesling, Yantai, China, 12%, £9

Riesling is another grape that thrives in Yantai and, when looking at the deep golden yellow colour of the wine, its surprising to discover there is no wood ageing involved.  There was also a slight spritz in the glass perhaps suggesting it was bottled fairly quickly after ferment.

The nose had a good tropical tone with dried pineapple, lemon citrus, and a touch of green apple flesh evident.  This wine is once again all about the ripe clean fruits, but is raised by a twist of blossom florality giving it some depth and interest.

The palate veered towards a sweeter Riesling style, and the low alcohol level probably helped to give it an off-dry feel.  A medium weight and almost golden gloopy texture brought forward the fruit from the nose and added in honeysuckle, yellow melon, and a little peach.  The fresh acid cut through, balancing the fruit and drew you towards a hint of bitterness (and perhaps slightly under ripe fruit) on end palate.

The wine had a good length with a slightly tangy nature, is priced well at £9, and pipped the red to be the best out of the two bottles.  Worth looking out for!

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