Climate Change – A Silver Lining?

Climate change is a subject that’s been high on the public agenda over the last few months, especially if you’ve been trying to navigate around London during the protests.

According to NASA we’ve seen 17 of the warmest 18 years on record since 2001.  Following the unseasonably warm weather in April and May I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t happy at the prospect of a long hot summer, but in all seriousness, things are really heating up.

Alongside industries such as energy, fishing and even skiing, the production of agricultural crops, including the grapes destined to be turned in to wine, is poised to change dramatically, potentially to the point where we need to re-write the book.

Vines thrive the world-over where the climate meets their individual varietal characteristics.  A good example of the scale of change can be found in the revered French wine region of Burgundy. 

At a northerly latitude once deemed to be at the top end for successful grape production, the cool inland climate allows the thin-skinned Pinot Noir grape to perfectly ripen throughout the long warm summers without being scorched.  Even though the French don’t tend to varietally label their wines, it’s well known that the Pinot Noir grape is the heart and soul of the world-famous Burgundy.

What though if the climate gets too hot for this delicate grape?  Suddenly the entire profile of the wine would change as the vines were pulled up.  Hardier grapes from the warmer south of France would potentially need to be moved northwards as the temperature rises.  Could we be seeing Burgundy made from the spicier Grenache or Syrah varieties in the future?  It seems unbelievable, but that’s what some experts have said may happen in as little as 20 years time.

Alongside the warmer temperatures we are also seeing more and more evidence of volatile weather conditions hitting the vineyards.  The US has suffered devastating wildfires, sudden hailstorms have decimated the years-worth of work in minutes across France, Germany and Italy, whilst South Africa and Australia have suffered from severe droughts.

As something of a silver lining to the doom and gloom, we’re now seeing new wine regions appear in the land where it was once too cold to successfully produce well-ripened grapes.  The most obvious of these is our own home-grown wine industry which, thanks to rising temperatures, has turned from little more than a hobbyist activity to a serious world contender in roughly 25 years.

English wines have been served to royalty and heads of state, have taken off in the US, and go from strength to strength in wine competitions year after year.  If our world leaders continue to stall on addressing and tackling the seriousness of climate change, given that we now successfully compete with the quality of the Champagne region some 250 miles south of London, how long will it be before the south of England becomes the new Burgundy?

This article was originally published in the June 2019 edition of The Ocelot. For more of my articles, please click here.

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The UK’s smallest commercial vineyard?

English sparkling wine is on the up – there’s no doubt about that. It’s been served at many prestigious events, ranging from the Oscars to the marriage of Kate and Wills.

Laying claim as one of the smallest vineyards in the UK, certainly one of the smallest commercial vineyards, was that of Laithwaites; the UK mail order wine empire founded by Tony Laithwaite. This year the company celebrates 50 years of bringing quality wines to you, direct from the cellar door.

Being a Windsor native Tony was keen to keep his local roots, but when the business had outgrown their humble railway arch premises, he was looking for suitable land to grow the business.

In a south facing site located just off the M4 in the Berkshire town of Theale, he found enough space for the office and, in the barren land in the back where the builders were storing their machinery and redundant materials, the space to plant a vineyard.

Tony in the Vines

In 1998, under the supervision of Champagne doyen Thierry Lesne, 704 Chardonnay vines were planted over a mere 0.14 of a hectare. In addition to being a commercial venture and marketing tool for customers, the vines doubled as both a staff labour of love (each vine was tagged with one of their names) and for training exercises. The first vintage was the 2002.

Trains Opposite

Situated directly across from road from Theale train station, the shelter and heat of the surrounding estate buildings were enablers to coaxing out the full maturity of the grapes. Even with the most meticulous of hand harvesting, grape picking took just a couple of hours.

With no vinification facilities on site Tony consulted his address book, roping in the late Mike Roberts of English Sparkling legends Ridgeview to produce the final cuvée. With the 2003 giving 756 bottles, the bumper crop of 2004 giving 1,274 and the much smaller 2011 giving 600 bottles, the average yearly yield for the site was around just 750 bottles per year.

When Laithwaites decided to relocate their HQ a few years later the landlord requested that the vineyard be removed at the same time, and 2015 saw the last grape harvest from the Theale site.

It was impossible though to consider that the vines should simply be ripped up. Uprooting any well-established plant is usually folly, but doing it 704 times would be unthinkable. Wouldn’t it?

Using industrial machinery, the removal of the vines commenced in March 2016 and, against the odds, they were successfully transported over 100 miles away to Devon where they now thrive once again.

Safe in Devon

Sadly, and such is the nature of progress, the Theale vineyard land is now the flat, grey and uninspiring dispatch area for online giant Amazon.

Now v2

The recently released, but increasingly rare 2012 is now available. The next couple of years will see the arrival of the ‘13, ’14 and ‘15. The last vintages from a vineyard that no longer exists. Rare wine indeed.

2012 Vintage

Tony Laithwaite’s book ‘Direct’, detailing the history behind the rise of his current empire, is now available via various book retailers including Amazon.

 

 

Will Orange Wine ever hit the mainstream?

Orange may be the new black in the criminal fraternity, but in the wine world, orange is the new red, white or rosé.

Orange Wine

Although based on an ancient style of wine-making, orange wine (also known as amber wine) is a style that has re-emerged over the last few years and, although still something of a rarity, the trend continues to bubble just below the surface waiting to hit the mainstream.  Despite renowned wine authority Hugh Johnson once describing it as “a sideshow, a waste of time”, such is the building of the movement, the latter part of 2018 saw the publication of a book (‘Amber Revolution’ by Simon J. Woolf) completely devoted to the style.

Unlike red and white wine, where neither are actually coloured red or white, orange wine is specifically named because of its colouring.  It doesn’t, as some may fear, actually taste of oranges.  The making of orange wine is something of a hybrid, taking the red wine process of allowing the pressed grape juice to spend time with the dark grape skins absorbing the colour, and applying that to the white wine grapes, which would usually be separated in order that the juice remains clear.

The resulting wine retains the florality and freshness of a white wine, but with the body, structure and style of a red.  The skin contact, which can last for a few days all the way up to over a year, allows the resulting wine to develop further, picking up tannins along the way.  The longer the wine stays in touch with the grape skins, the more complex and intense it becomes.

The merging of the red and white production methods also brings together aspects of each wine in to the taste, resulting in a versatile style that straddles both.  As such, white wine fans who like a nuttier and honeyed style will enjoy it, and red wine fans who enjoy the lighter more floral style will also be rewarded.

Orange wines are also good news for those that like to match their food to their wines.  Wine expert Amelia Singer (The Wine Show) praises the versatility and suggests pairing them with dishes from India, Morocco, Ethiopia and Persia.  The acidity and nuttiness are also good matches to a well-stocked cheese board, as well as the light tannins lending themselves to charcuterie plates.

Orange Wine 2

Although Marks & Spencer have long been advocates and include an orange wine within their range, getting your hands on a bottle is still a little tricky outside of specific wine merchants.  The fact that they pair well with diverse foods is potentially a bonus as it may lead to more restaurants adding them to their lists. 

As more and more people seek them out and the passion continues to grow, this is when the supermarkets will want to get involved.  So keep an eye out, especially as summer draws in and people go searching for a medium-style alternative to rosé.

This article was originally published in the April 2019 edition of The Ocelot. For more of my articles, please click here.

Lanson Wimbledon Champagne Cooler Jackets

Wimbledon season is once again upon us in the UK which means two weeks where people are allowed to go tennis crazy even if they’re not too bothered by the sport.  The drinkers among us, whatever their sporting pleasure, have something else to look forward to; the return of the Wimbledon Lanson Champagne cooler jacket.

Lanson have been supplying Champagne to the thirsty spectators of the tennis tournament since 1977 and became the official supplier in 2001.  The brand have long been producing specially designed cooler jackets, such as their super-cute Christmas editions, and their 2012 editions to commemorate both the London Olympics and the Queen’s 60th Jubilee Celebrations.

Lanson 2009

Although a simple purple zip up design had been produced in 2009, it was 2013 that saw them pair the two activities together in earnest, beginning what has become a popular yearly tradition.  Let’s take a look at some of the previous designs.

2013 – Ball Boy

The famous Black Label Brut NV came dressed in a ball boy’s purple tennis shirt, with buttons to the top, and a collar trimmed with green/purple.  The Rosé Label Brut NV naturally came in a pink t-shirt variant with purple/white trim, whilst the White Label Sec Brut NV was dressed in a white t-shirt with green/purple trim.  All were adorned with the Wimbledon Championships logo.

Lanson 2013

2014 / 2015 – Tennis Ball

This time around the Brut and Rosé came dressed as tennis balls, the Brut in custom yellow ball colour, and the Rosé in an appropriate pink shade.  Both neoprene jackets were finished off with a detachable Lanson branded charm to the rear zip (this was replaced with a fixed yellow tennis ball for the 2015 re-issue).

Lanson Tennis Ball

Lanson Tennis Ball v2

The White Label Sec came in a specially designed bottle wrap rather than a cooler jacket.

2016 – Ball Boy v2

Taking its cue from the 2013 design, this second ball boy variant substitutes the previous buttoned shirt design for zips, adorned with yellow tennis balls (as per the 2015 release) on the openers.  The Black Label Brut NV was now housed in a blue jacket, as opposed to the previous purple colour.

Lanson Ballboy v2

2017 / 2018 – Tennis Court

Each of the 3 bottles are currently available in lawn green jackets with the front ‘label’ in the appropriate colour for the bottle housed within.

Lanson Tennis Court

An exclusive design of the recently introduced Green Label Brut Organic Cuvée was produced to commemorate the 150th year of the All England Lawn Tennis & Croquet Club.  This was only available at club events and for its members.

Many of the jackets throughout the years have been available in multiple bottle sizes including 20cl, 37.5cl, 75cl and magnum.  In addition a limited 20cl yellow ‘Polo’ version of the t-shirt design was available through specialist retailers, such as Selfridges.

Lanson Yellow

As each of the 3 designs have now been used twice, next year (Lanson’s 42nd year of association with the tournament) should see a completely new design produced.

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Q&A with Peter Stafford-Bow, author of Corkscrew

I recently reviewed and recommended Corkscrew, the debut novel by Peter Stafford-Bow.  To delve a little further in to how the novel came about I caught up with Peter for a chat.

Corkscrew Sleeve

Vinesight: Hi Peter, thanks for taking the time to chat with Vinesight.  They say that everyone has one book in them.  What made you want to write yours?

Peter Stafford-Bow: Writing a novel occurred to me around four years ago. I was working in South Africa and had a lot on time on my hands, especially at weekends.  I made a few notes, then after a few months started writing in earnest.

The literary inspiration didn’t come from the world of wine but from the Flashman Papers, a series of novels by George Macdonald Fraser set in the Victorian era featuring a caddish cavalry officer. Written in the seventies they’re rather out of style now, but they got me thinking about the parallels between modern multi-nationals and the mercenary activities of organisations like the East India Company.

I was also struck by how little fiction has been written about the wine trade, rather than books set in some sunny spot in Provence. Apart from Rex Pickett’s Sideways and Tony Aspler’s detective series, there’s not much.

VS: Ah, yes, the inevitable mention of Sideways.  Did the success of that novel influence you at all or was it not really a concern?

PSB: Corkscrew is such a different book to Sideways that I wasn’t concerned about it occupying the same space.  Sideways is a character-driven, mid-life crisis comedy, whereas Corkscrew is a pacey, satirical thriller about big business, hung around a picaresque, coming-of-age story.

VS: I enjoyed the ‘parallel universe’ aspect of the book, Gatesave supermarket, Pink Priest wine etc.  I thought the Minstrels organisation was genius.

PSB: Given the behaviour of supermarket executives it seemed prudent to use made-up names for the corporate entities, whether retailers or wine companies.  I wanted to write a book that would appeal to non-wine enthusiasts and wine geeks alike.

The Minstrels of Wine is the richest part of the story from an ‘in-house joke’ perspective. I wanted them to be a mixture of the Masters of Wine, an Oxbridge college and the Knights Templar so there are plenty of historical and wine references in there.

VS: A lot of the book sound both plausible yet absurd at the same time, examples being a dull sales conference interrupted by a herd of cows, or international shipments of wine full of illegal immigrants.  As the book is loosely based on your career, what’s the balance between fact and fiction?

PSB: Oh, it’s more than 50% true, for sure, and the retail conference is inspired by stories of a certain UK retailer in the 1990s who presented ‘wooden spoon’ awards to humiliate suppliers that had displeased them. Anyone involved in international wine logistics knows that ‘hitch-hikers’ are a common occurrence.

VS: Did you achieve your career success at the same rate as Felix, starting at the bottom, smashing your targets, and generally being in the right place at the right time?

PSB: Corkscrew is definitely not an autobiography, I’d be in prison or dead for sure! Felix’s ascent is extraordinarily rapid which wasn’t the case for me at all! Like all careers, you need a combination of hard work, skill and timing, and I definitely subscribe to the theory that luck is when preparation meets opportunity. The world of wine buying is not back-stabbing at all, quite the opposite in my experience, so that’s a vile slander on my part.

VS: Alongside the main wine buying side of the story there is the parent plot of Felix getting involved with the mafia and causing an international incident. Did you ever consider having the book simply working up to, and culminating in the final Minstrel exam?

PSB: Corkscrew definitely needed to be more than ‘Confessions of a Wine Merchant’. It would have been like Ian Fleming just writing about the budget approval process at the Ministry of Defence.

VS: Haha, indeed.  I was also very amused to read that there is an even more raucous version of the book in existence?

PSB: The ‘NSFW’ version.  I’m sure there are a few still lurking in independent London bookshops and wine merchants – essentially they’re a lot more sweary, which my publisher felt might offend certain markets.

VS: Just as Sideways had its Pinot Noir, do you think the same will happen to Asti Spumante now that Felix has brokered the largest ever deal?

PSB: Oh, undoubtedly! I’ve long felt that Asti Spumante has been unfairly eclipsed by Prosecco, which is usually a rather dull drink.

VS: You’ve just recorded the audio book for Corkscrew and the book is finally being properly published.  What’s next?

PSB: The sequel is currently with my agent. I’m very excited about it – it picks up where Corkscrew finishes and I think it’s an even better novel. The Minstrels of Wine play a large part, as do Paris-Blois International, and there’s plenty of hair-raising peril in French chateaux.  A 10-part Netflix adaptation of Corkscrew would be good too.

VS: One last question: What’s your desert island wine and why?

PSB: It would have to be Sherry. I’m cheating, of course, because that allows me everything from a bone-dry Manzanilla (perfect on the beach) to a luscious PX (to pair with all the mangoes and coconuts lying around).

VS: Peter, thanks very much for your time.

PSB: Cheers!

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Book Review: Corkscrew by Peter Stafford-Bow

The success of Sideways can be a double edged sword when it comes to wine literature.  Do you try to tread in the same footsteps and risk comparison, or are you able to create something with its own identity?

Corkscrew (or Corkscrew – the highly improbable, but occasionally true, tale of a professional wine buyer to give it its full title), the debut novel by Peter Stafford-Bow firmly falls in to the latter camp. Doing the rounds as something of a self-published cult novel within the wine fraternity since 2016, the book has deservedly been picked up by publisher Thistle and makes its official bookshelf debut in July.

Corkscrew Sleeve

I grabbed the chance to have a good thumb through an advance copy and am extremely glad that I did.  Usually I’d steer away from calling a book ‘a real page turner’ as that’s surely the point of any half-decent book but, despite two very active children, I was able to finish Corkscrew in 4 sessions over a long weekend.  It’s a real page turner.

Billed as ‘part thriller, part self-help manual and part drinking companion’, the satirical story follows university dropout Felix Hart as he navigates his accidental foray in to the wine world, working his way up from part time assistant at a local wine merchant to becoming Head of Wine (Ale, Spirits and Salted Snacks) for a major supermarket chain.

His meteoric rise is punctuated by jealous colleagues unable to rise to the challenge or move with the times, a tremendous dollop of luck, and mind altering substances applied at pertinent points.  Felix is the archetypal loveable rogue – I was reminded throughout of Edmund Blackadder, cutting corners and creating devious plans, but always coming out on top.

Very firmly putting the ‘screw’ in to the book title, whilst largely rubbing his colleagues up the wrong way, Felix does have a knack with the ladies who usually get more than just the wine that they order.  The novel jumps from being a blend of Sideways and The Wolf of Wall Street, to Sideways meets 50 Shades of Grey at various points.  Even James Bond would consider getting out of the spying game and in to the wine trade as a way to better attract the ladies.

The book has a wonderful British sense of humour about it and I’d dearly like to quote some of my favourite lines but they’re simply too rude for repeating in the open, so I’ll give you a flavour with one of the less extreme examples.  Instead of a situation being so quiet you could hear a pin drop, we hear “it was so quiet you could have heard a spider wanking in the store room”.  Maybe not to everyone’s taste, but they pepper the book with brightness.

I even laughed out loud reading the acknowledgements section (you’re not supposed to do that, right?) and the fact that this version of the book was actually tamed down from an original NSFW version!  How I’d love to have a read of that.

The other aspect of the book that worked for me is the parallel world that it operates in, with Felix working at Gatesave (the curious offspring of real supermarkets Gateway and Kwik Save), and selling ‘Pink Priest’, a clear nod to ‘Blue Nun’.

The parallels and characters form the crux of many well-constructed farces which you can enjoy without any wine knowledge at all but, if you do have some, you’ll pick up on the even deeper in-jokes.

The best of these is how the ‘Masters of Wine’ institute has been replaced by the ‘Minstrels of Wine’.  Taking its cue from the extremely feared MW entrance exam, becoming a Minstrel expands the scope in to something bordering on the private institution seen in Eyes Wide Shut.

Blindfolded hopefuls are led to tables containing 180 samples of wine for the “legendary all-night combined tasting and classical music recital in front of the thousand strong chamber”.

In a complete reversal of reality, you actually get disqualified if you spit the wines, and vomiting also results in an immediate fail, but there’s bonus points available if your tasting note rhymes.  Those that pass the tasting can then move on to performing a classical piece of music for the judges.

If the lead-up and exam itself is a huge climax, there’s still a further story to immerse yourself in including the mafia, firearms, illegal narcotics and international diplomatic relations!

This is a well-paced book that weaves from sub-plot to sub-plot effortlessly, making it extremely moreish and easy to return to.  Fully recommended, I give it 5 stars out of 5.

Corkscrew by Peter Stafford-Bow is available from all good booksellers (and probably a few rubbish ones too) from July 12th.  You may also like to read my chat with the author here.

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The Vineyard at Stockcross – Wine hotel and cellar visit

Vineyard Scene set

Living just over a mile away I really have no excuse (except my bank balance) not to visit 5 star hotel The Vineyard more often.  As the name suggests it’s a wine inspired hotel with an extensive list of 3,000 wines available including 100 served by the glass.

Owned by panama-wearing Sir Peter Michael who made his fortune in the tech industry, the link to the USA is strong.  Frustrated that he couldn’t afford vineyard land in Burgundy he was inspired to buy in the US through the 1976 ‘Judgement of Paris’ tasting – a landmark playoff between the traditional wines of France and the relatively unknown wines of California.

With the judging panel being almost exclusively French the outcome seemed virtually assured but, as history tells us, the US wines won on the day much to the critic’s chagrin. Purchased in 1982 he now owns the eponymously named Peter Michael Winery in California and roughly 27% of The Vineyard’s wine list hails from the USA, naturally including many bottles from his own vineyards.

A recent significant birthday provided the catalyst I needed and I booked in to the hotel and on to their ‘Judgement of Paris’ tasting menu, pairing up seven specially devised courses with both a French and American wine (more of that in a separate post).

Wine Tunnel

Upon arrival the exposure to wine begins almost immediately with the imposing and impressive tunnel that greets you as you enter reception.  Aiming to contain at least one bottle of everything on the menu (so that bottles can be quickly located when ordered by guests) the low lit and temperature controlled ‘floor to ceiling’ perspex walls house hundreds of bottles of Bordeaux and Burgundy.

What becomes noticeable when you enter the tunnel is that, whilst the central portion of the floor displays the rocky and stony vineyard soils transported from the Peter Michael Winery, the other half of the floor is transparent and looks down to a lower cellar containing bottles from around the rest of the world.

A welcoming glass of wine is provided when checking in (which is surely how every hotel should be!) and can be drunk whilst enjoying the huge ‘Judgement of Paris’ fresco that adorns one whole wall.

Wine Fresco.JPG

Commissioned by Sir Peter and titled ‘After the Upset’, the fateful day is immortalized in the artistic style of Da Vinci’s ‘The Last Supper’.  Although not present at the original tasting, Sir Peter cheekily sneaks in on the left-hand side to oversee proceedings.

To make the most of the experience I booked myself in for a chat and tour with sommelier Milena.  Hailing from France, and clearly relishing the wider UK availability of bottles from all over the world and the exposure that comes from working at such an esteemed establishment, she was happy to answer any number of questions that I had.  The inevitable question of her favourite bottle was immediately met with “Sassicaia 1990”.

Of the many tour highlights, the first was the visit to their ‘bottle graveyard’, a vast collection of all the wonderful empty vessels enjoyed by numerous diners over the years.  Many classic labels were present and it was awesome to drink in (pun intended) the wonderful memories and nights these bottles had produced.

Wine Graveyard

From these ‘front-of-house’ cellars we worked our way up to the third floor and, with ‘cellar’ being a complete contradiction in term, visited what would qualify as their wine ‘vault’.  Under lock and key the huge ‘floor to ceiling’ wine racks housed the deeper parts of their 30,000 bottle collection, including mostly duplicate bottles as well as those of different size formats.

Wine Vault

It was a real treat to get up close and personal with their older Champagnes, but no tour would have been complete without seeing the jewel of their collection; the most expensive bottle on their wine list.

It was definitely no surprise to find out that it was Pétrus, but this was a double magnum of the lauded 1982 vintage listed at £20,000, which Milena believed had been there since the hotel opened.

Wine Petrus

Alas I didn’t have a big enough wallet for the Pétrus but I did join in with a tasting of their monthly ‘Icon’ wine.  A good reason for the added extravagance would have been the old saying of ‘when-in-Rome…’, but we were firmly placed in Umbria for the Italian wine Patrizia Lamborghini Campoleone 1999 (£205 per bottle).

Comprised of a 50/50 mix of Merlot and Sangiovese from vines planted in the 1970’s, the very small yields of one kilo of grapes per vine are fermented in new French oak for 12 months followed by blending and another 6 months in the cellar.

Icon Wine Italy 1999

The outstanding wine, blending fig, chocolate, tobacco and truffle was the precursor to an equally outstanding dinner, which you can read about here.

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Vineyards of Hampshire 5th Wine Festival & Cottonworth Vineyard Tour

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The 5th annual ‘Vineyards of Hampshire’ wine festival was held recently and, welcoming the opportunity to try a whole host of local wines not too far from my doorstep, I popped along.

‘Vineyards of Hampshire’ is an umbrella name for 8 producers:   Danebury, Exton Park, Cottonworth, Hambledon, Hattingley Valley, Jenkyn Place, Meonhill and Raimes.  With each site taking it in turn to play host, the festivities this time were held at the Decanter and IWSC award-winning Cottonworth Vineyard, located in the heart of the Test Valley.

The wineries, alongside a line-up of local food producers, were set up in a marquee surrounded by the delightful installation of a vine maze.  Especially planted at the site as a focal point for events, the circular maze has some light-hearted obstacles to keep you searching for the exit, or perhaps to keep you trapped within with a glass of something nice.

DSC_0038

I wasn’t able to spend too long investigating though as, true to form, the late July weather was marked with grey clouds and some very heavy downpours.  This forced pretty much all of the attendees in to the central marquee causing much difficulty when trying to spend some quality time with each producer.  The deep queues also made further sense when I heard our host saying that attendance this year was something like 50% increased on last year.

Breaking free of the festival crowd I took a tour of the site with owner Hugh Liddell, who came across not just as knowledgeable, but also incredibly passionate about the vines and land itself.

DSC_0028

Having started out in the vineyards of Burgundy, his own personal winemaking philosophy is based around an intense relationship with the land.  Multiple times in conversation he was keen to point out how he aimed to harness and celebrate the chalky aspects of his south facing slopes.

A humorous moment came as he described the effect of the free-draining chalk soil on the vine roots, leaving them ‘stressed’ and searching for nutrients.  He mused that, like the best artists and poets, this stress brought about the best results.  Later on at the festival we were able to taste his Classic Cuvée and Rosé and both were notable for their pale colouring and soft and uplifting qualities on the palate.

With a terroir reminiscent of the Cóte des Blancs, Cottonworth are naturally growing the 3 classic Champagne varieties of Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier along with a tiny amount of Pinot Précoce.  Since the first plantings went in to the ground just over a decade ago they have been carving out their own corner of the growing UK sparkling wine market.

Forming part of the larger family farm, the grazing land once used for cows has been transformed plot by plot.  Covering some 30 acres, Hugh has specifically chosen individual sites where he believes the grapes will grow to the best of their ability.

We discussed the recent frosts that hit the UK (as well as many of the grape growing parts of northern Europe) and Cottonworth was badly affected, losing between 50-70% of their crop dependent on the plot.  Whilst they don’t currently produce a Vintage wine, 2017 will see them dipping in to their wine reserves to maintain a decent level of bottles available to market.

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The badly hit 2017 harvest wasn’t Hugh’s first brush with frost and the crippling crop losses that can occur.  He explained that the family had sold off some of their land to well-known UK producer Nyetimber allowing him to buy two vineyards in Beaune, France, taking him back to his winemaking beginnings.

The first year they suffered 90% crop losses due to frost and, adamant that the same thing wouldn’t happen again, worked in collaboration with other local vintners to burn wet bales of hay to form a protective layer of smoke above the vines.  Hugh recalled how the widespread smoke made it almost impossible to breathe in the vineyards, but the vines remained safe!

The conversation then moved on to pruning which, as a grower of vines myself, I found extremely interesting.  Hearing his views on how best to trim, canopy manage and prepare the vines for the following year will definitely affect how I look after mine.

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Following the tour it was then back to the festival to try some more wine, and thankfully the sun had appeared meaning that there was a bit more space to manoeuvre around the stands.  All in all, this was a very interesting and informative event, and I look forward to returning in 2018 to see who the next host will be.

Technical Info

Cottonworth Classic Cuvée NV – 45% Chardonnay / 46% Pinot Noir / 9% Pinot Meunier, Alc 12.5%, Dosage – 6g/l, RRP £28

Cottonworth Sparkling Rosé – 43% Pinot Meunier / 32% Pinot Noir / 18% Chardonnay / 7% Pinot Précoce, Alc 12%, Dosage 9g/l, RRP £30

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Laithwaites Gloucester Distribution Centre – June 17 Visit

The distribution facilities of the UK’s leading mail-order wine merchant Laithwaites are in Gloucester (UK) and I popped along to see how they’ve evolved in the decade since the custom-built facility opened for business in 2007.

Gantry v4

Replacing the older Theale based warehouse the new site clocks in at 178,000 square foot – just larger than two football pitches.  Once there in person it certainly felt larger with the hangar-like facilities easily feeling they could house several full sized aircraft.

Full production runs to over 40,000 cases a week, increasing to over 60,000 at peak performance (October-December).  As I visited there was £15m of wine spread out before me (rising to £70m including the customer storage deposits in their climate cooled facilities).

Being ahead of the game in logistics can sometimes automatically equate to being ‘state-of-the-art’ but, as I was to learn, that is only 50% of the situation.  What initially appeared as a fairly manual enterprise was actually a well-honed machine and, impressively, part-designed by the staff.

I donned my high visibility jacket and headed out to the recurring hum of machinery.

The full roster of warehouse staff runs to 120 but a core staff of 22 ‘pickers’ collect each bottle of wine ordered.  In peak season when the business does a good slice of the year’s trade there will be over 40 of them, half provided by an agency, half being directly employed.  Having lunch in their canteen was a truly multi-cultural experience with various different languages on display.

Working a 12 hour shift of four days on-four days off, the team are responsible for picking up to 30 cases of wine per hour from a total list of some 2,500 products.  After some detailed research it’s no wonder the management team felt it was impossible for mechanics to replace the talent.

Trolley

Their ‘assistant’ for the trip is a metal trolley capable of holding 10 cases of wine at any one time, but it still requires a human hand to pick up each individual bottle and build each wine box and the cardboard separators from scratch (proudly, almost all from recycled card).

Each picker is equipped with a headset capable of responding to their direct commands.  A full suite of training housed in a bespoke training area allows potential crew members to re-enact the 10-case trolley packing conditions experienced on the floor to see if they can handle the bottle juggling to come.  They also get to record the 23 prompts which the central headset system will understand, interact with, and update from.

As they spend more and more time picking the wines the picker can customise the system, speeding up the delivery, pitch and even the sex of their picking partner.  Being new to the system I literally couldn’t understand a single word of the prompts a seasoned picker chose until it was slowed down to (what I considered) a reasonable speed.  It became clear that these are very well trained and attentive people.

Wall of Boxes v1

With the constant pressure of new orders and the fact that they are picking 10 different cases of wine at any one time, it’s inevitable that errors might creep in.  Placing popular and regularly purchased bottles close together for speed aids in aiming for a fail rate of just 1 in 1000 bottles but the warehouse has led the way in letting staff be the keeper of their own destiny and they run a well-publicised and incentivised suggestions scheme.

Two examples highlighted to me were very simple processes for the company to install and showed that the very best suggestions can often come from the front line.  The first contained a simple mesh that split the front 5 packing cases from the back 5 which stopped hands slipping through and giving the first layer of the wrong case the wrong bottle.

The second innovation was the addition of numbered tags above each pallet of wine, crucially only visible when in front of the pallet itself.  If the picker quoted the wrong confirmation number their interactive headset received an error message letting them know that they were not in the right place.

Once full peak-time requirements begin to bite, the warehouse will be a 24 hour a day operation and accuracy will need to be a fundamental, almost automatic reaction.

Staff are augmented by a brand new fleet of 8 forklift trucks that can access the 16,500 pallets stored 14 metres high in the narrow aisle racking.  Subconsciously guided by aligning magnets buried in the warehouse floor to stop them veering in to the wine laden racks, they even have blue lights projected in front to avoid potential aisle collisions.

Forklift

For every part of the process that seems manually driven, robots appear at the end building the pallets delivered to the 3rd party couriers for distribution.  Capable of handling 1,100 cases at any one time, one final puff of lasering smoke brands the cardboard boxes with their wine club identity (the facility handles both Laithwaites and Sunday Times Wine Club customers), and they are efficiently shrink-wrapped ready for delivery.

Shrinkwrapped Cases

Even though everything is centrally pulled together by a simple barcode, it was a truly wonderful experience to see wines picked from one side of the warehouse being married with the right remittance slip and address label on the other side.  I will never look at buying online wine in the same way again.

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Book Review: Vertical – Passion and Pinot on the Oregon Wine Trail – Rex Pickett

There can’t be many people interested in wine that haven’t seen or aren’t familiar with the 2004 film ‘Sideways’.  Starring Paul Giamatti (Miles) and Thomas Haden Church (Jack) as old college friends who go through US wine country ahead of Jack’s impending marriage, the film (and book that it was based on) was a love-note to the Pinot Noir grape and managed to change real-life perceptions of the variety whilst forcing negative light on Merlot.

What’s perhaps less known is original author Rex Pickett penned a sequel to Sideways; Vertical, which was originally self-published way back in 2010.  Following some ‘pruning and adjustments’ to the content and with a bit more funding behind it, the book is now about to be re-launched to a wider audience.

Vertical

In a strange blending of art imitating life imitating art, the previously downtrodden character of Miles (a depiction of Pickett) is now the successful author of a book called Shameless.  This novel, which is clearly the same as the real-life Sideways, was then made in to a successful film (in both the book and real life).  Miles is now scouting for ideas for his new book (which has technically already been written as the book Vertical).

Vertical follows Miles as he heads off to a speaking engagement at the International Pinot Noir Celebration in Oregon and, roping along Jack for support, they are also joined by Miles’ ailing mother Phyllis and her carer Joy.

From the detail and attention that has gone in to such things as the passing scenery, the driving routes they take, and even which way the wind is blowing, it feels that Pickett is writing first-hand about his own trip to Oregon off the back of the success of the real Sideways. Rather than read it as a first-hand Pickett narrative, given how much Giamatti and Haden Church absorbed and became the characters of Miles and Jack in the Sideways film, I chose to read the book with their voices in my head, rather than treat them as simply the Martin and Jake characters who star in the Shameless film.

I read the first half of the book, almost in one go, whilst the sun was streaming in through a window.  Such was the beautifully composed narrative I was immediately transported to the blue skies of wine country, ready to jettison my life and head off on such a wine adventure myself.  Even at 10am in the morning I was thirsty reading it.

I’m always wary of any book that carries a back-page review that says ‘laugh-out-loud funny’, but there were several moments throughout their road trip I did indeed laugh out loud.  Clearly imagining the chilled-out Haden Church delivery of Jack, one whole story arc is a joy to read.  I won’t spoil the details, but suffice to say I’m now well aware of what priapism is!

I’d also be willing to get the Kickstarter fund going to make the movie, just to see the moment that the brake comes off of Phyllis’ wheelchair on a vineyard terrace and she goes tumbling down through the steeply sloped vines whilst Miles, Jack and Joy chase after her.  Or where Miles gets dropped in to a pool of his despised Merlot!

The comedic situations in the book mean that you’ll enjoy it even with no prior wine knowledge, but there’s plenty of references here for those in the know, even if a few do seem a little superfluously thrown in (e.g. “I didn’t know very much….relying heavily on Jancis Robinson’s brilliant encyclopedia on the subject, The Oxford Companion to Wine”).

There’s certainly enough detail for you to make your own wine pilgrimage to match that of the book which, after reading it, is exactly what you’ll be wanting to do.

A great read, and well recommended.

With thanks to Loose Gravel Press for providing the review copy of this book.

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