The Other Side Of The Tasting Table

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.

Front of Stand

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.

Game on.

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 BZ

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 GV

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.

First CustomersThe 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.

My Side Of Things v2

If any other wine lovers out there are thinking of dipping their toe in the water with volunteering, I would wholeheartedly recommend it!

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The Vineyard at Stockcross – ‘Judgement of Paris’ Tasting Menu

Sir Peter Michael, owner of 5 star vinous hotel experience The Vineyard, was directly inspired by the 1976 Judgement of Paris; the famous play-off between the traditional wines of France and the upcoming wines of California.

It’s therefore fitting that they offer a tasting menu which pays tribute to the original event, accompanied only by French and Californian wines.

Comprised of 7 courses, each dish allows you to decide which wine works best with the food, and if you prefer the French or US offering.  Opting for the full sensory experience I decided to taste my wines blind, replicating the conditions of the original event.

(Note: The individual dishes change seasonally as do the perfectly paired wines.  What follows are my thoughts based on those served on the day).

Course 1 – Beef sirloin tartar, sorrel sorbet, raisins and bone marrow crumb matched with:

  • Peter Micheal Winery (PMW) L’Aprés Midi (Sauvignon/Semillon) 2015, –
  • CaliforniaCháteau Tour des Gendres (Sauvignon/Semillon) 2015, Bergerac Sec, France

The US wine managed to trick me as it was in the lighter style.  The Bergerac boasted a silky texture with melon and tropical yellow fruit, and seemed almost too intense for their climate.  The PMW had a lighter colour and, alongside rich buttery oak, was characterised by a light airy character and peach and tangerine rind.

1/0 to the USA

Course 2 Lobster Raviolo

Course 2 – Lobster ravioli, citrus bisque, grapefruit, pickled ginger, basil matched with:

  • Donelan ‘Nancie’, Chardonnay 2012, Sonoma, California
  • Sophie Cinier (Chardonnay) 2014, Pouilly-Fuissé, France

The intense lime, mineral nose and refreshing acidity made the Poilly-Fuissé easy to pick out against the rich lemon curd style of the Donelan, but it was this weight that made it blend all the better with the Lobster and the Cajun style sauce.

2/0 to the USA

  • Course 3 – Foie gras ganache, pistachios, cherry and brioche ice cream matched with:

Domaine Loew, Les Cormiers Pinot Gris 2014, Alsace, France

Just one wine was to be matched with this course but, served in an opaque black glass we had no identifier as to whether it was white or red, let alone French or American.

The intensity and sweetness of the lemon matched up to the cherry very well, almost to the point of revelation.  A touch of cakey/bready spice in the wine very reminiscent of shortbread, cleansed the palate after the rich foie gras.

By default France wins, but its 2/1 to the USA

Course 4 – Roasted cod, cauliflower, curry and coconut matched with:

  • Peter Michael Winery Le Moulin Rouge (Pinot Noir) 2008, California
  • Domaine Audoin, Cuvée Marie Ragonneau (Pinot Noir) 2010, Marsannay, France

The PMW felt a little artificial, with the acid a touch too high and a mid-palate that didn’t have enough to excite.  It was straightforward compared to the Audoin that delivered a floral vanilla nose and redcurrant fruit.  Soft and delicate it blended well with the curry and the coconut.

France wins, making it all square at 2/2

Course 5 Loin of Lamb

Course 5 – Loin of lamb, turnips, baby gem, girolles and lamb jus matched with:

  • L’Aventure, Cóte á Cóte (Rhone blend) 2007, Paso Robles, California
  • Fortia 2012, Cháteauneuf du Pape, Rhone, France

Both made using the signature Rhone varieties of Grenache, Syrah and Mourvédre, the French offering was lighter in colour and more floral than its counterpart, offering up ripe black cherry fruit.  A mouth-watering acid worked very well with the lamb jus.

The L’Aventure, inky and youthful purple in colour despite its age, was dense, rich, spicy and alcoholic, and a seriously robust wine.  Mistaking this power for the classic hallmarks of Cháteauneuf and the fact that the depth of colour confused me, I guessed this one wrong.

Regardless of the confusion, the Cháteauneuf worked best.

France take the lead 3/2

Course 6 Peach Melba

Course 6 – “Peach Melba”, raspberry sorbet, almonds matched with:

  • Elysium Black Muscat 2014, Andrew Quady, California

Another single wine served in black opaque glassware to further intrigue and confuse, and this one completely outwitted me.

Thick and gloopy in consistency, this was syrupy and full of rich tropical melon and pineapple.  With a lip-smacking acidity it went wonderfully with the raspberry and the overall acidity of the dish, BUT it transpired that this was a sweet red wine!

Once armed with this information I found tinned raspberry and plum, but this was a good example of tasting with your eyes vs. tasting with your mouth

The US win by default.  All square at 3/3

Course 7 Chocolate Caramel Tonka Bean

Course 7 – Chocolate, caramel, hazelnut and tonka bean matched with:

  • Justin Vineyards, Obtuse (Cabernet Sauvignon) 2012, Paso Robles, California
  • Cháteau Coutet (Semillon) 1998, Barsac, France

The Cháteau Coutet was made in an oxidative style, amber in colour, and offering bruised brown soggy apples, thick honey, and summer cider.  Having said that, the slushy quality went very well with the peanut butter food and caramel notes of the food.

The Obtuse, whilst having an over-the-top (in my opinion) sweetness did actually pair well with the numerous sweeter aspects of this dessert (especially the chocolate), but was quite singular in tone.

A tough call at the final hurdle but:  France wins 4/3

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