Decanter & Majestic tasting guide – November 2015

The tasting circuit comes alive in November as producers vie for your festive custom.  Despite having tickets I was unable to attend the Tesco event, but did get along to the Decanter Fine Wine Encounter which is always a fabulous day out with over 120 producers showing 600 different wines.  As a regular visitor for a decade now it was nice to see a few new producers this year, and first amongst these was Champagne house Charles Heidsieck.  Browsing through the show catalogue I noticed they were showing their 1995 Blanc de Millénaires (RRP ~ £150).  This was a wine I simply had to try and I wasn’t disappointed with the creamy, toasty dried fruit signs of age merging with light vanilla spice and vibrant mousse to keep it perky.

Also attending were Amazon, promoting their new ‘Fine Wine’ platform which stocks top quality brands such as Ornellaia, Opus One and Trotanoy.  Sadly none of these were available to taste on the day, but they did show off some fine old Rioja Gran Reserva’s as well as some newer premium Australian and Italian wine.

UK vineyard Nyetimber usually attend to keep up the home side, but absent this year the mantle fell to Bride valley, which is the estate of Decanter consultant editor Steven Spurrier.  He and his wife Bella were on hand to pour and give us the background to their Dorset operation which boasts 25 acres of southeast facing slopes benefitting from having the chalky Kimmeridge soils.  Similar in terroir as northern France, they concentrate on the 3 Champagne varieties to produce a fine sparkling wine up there with the best that this country is offering.   I do hope that we see more UK producers being invited/accepting to take part as I’ve done a few vineyard visits this year and the quality is something to shout about.

Not shy in coming forward these last few years are the Prosecco producers who were out in force again, and I got chatting to the chaps from Carpené Malvoti who lay claim to being the first ever producer of Prosecco.  There’s been much talk in the UK of the rise in popularity of Prosecco and the subsequent shortage if demand keeps up to its current levels.  I was keen to understand whether this was truth or simply media hype to stimulate sales.  He assured me that, whilst true, it was currently only confined to the lower level (but still quality) DOC wines as opposed to the DOCG level.  It will be interesting to see if this demand creeps in to top level offerings or whether people are simply interested in Prosecco as a cheap fizz.

My standout wine of the show would have to go to Heitz Cellars Martha’s Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon 2009.  Having tasted their range before I gravitated towards them and this wine was pure velvet and silk, the 6 years of age having softened any tannic qualities away.  The fruit was as intense as you would expect with super ripe black cherry, blue plum, light spices and a fresh acid meaning that this was an absolute pleasure to drink.

Next up was the ‘Majestic Wines Winter Showcase’.  The rain may have been drizzling as I arrived, but I was set at ease with a ‘welcome’ glass of Laurent-Perrier’s superb NV Rosé.  It’s far from being the most expensive bottle of Champagne that I buy, but this is a lovely palate-pleasing Champagne I truly save for special occasions.

Also showing that night was the 2014 Cótes du Rhóne from Majestic’s new own-brand label ‘Definition’, which aims to capture the quintessential qualities of the world’s best wines.  This CdR was a powerful 15% wine, full of black cherry, wood, spice and light tannin, not unlike a Chateauneuf.  Also pouring alongside various reds and whites was a Tuscan Pinot Grigio from Banfi, an Amarone Classico from Masi, one sweet wine, and the multi-award winning Manzanilla Sherry from La Gitana.  My highlight of the evening came from a Brunello di Montalcino, again from Banfi, which had all the characteristics I love about old Bordeaux.  Dried red cherry and raspberry mixed with old wood and cedar, coffee, lightly grained tannin and a warming 14% alcohol carrying it through to a satisfying long finish.

I was a little disappointed that the regular tasting table wasn’t open that night (allowing you to try another 10 or so wines).  Previous tasting evenings have allowed this but apparently the volume of people expected would wipe out their entire weekly allocation of tasting wines.  A shame, so I’ll have to pop back.

Majestic recently dropped their 6 bottle minimum purchase, but with single bottle prices being raised slightly to reflect this, the discounts still kick in when you buy 6 or more bottles.  In addition to the 10% discount being offered on the tasting night, a Champagne promotion was running offering 33% off – a stunning 43% discount.  Being rude not to, I picked up the Laurent-Perrier Rosé and some Bollinger Grand Année 2005 in festive preparation.  At £35 and £53 respectively, this was certainly something to celebrate!

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Member 1,555 – A variety of varieties – #MWWC20

The following essay is my submission for this months Wine Writing Challenge.

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Just over a year ago, whilst idly browsing wine sites on the internet, I saw something that made me bristle with excitement – ‘The Wine Century Club’ (http://www.winecentury.com).  Listed as a fun and adventurous approach to trying new wines and creating a record of your vinious experiences, the club was set up by Steve De Long of the De Long winery, and was open to anyone who has tried at least 100 different grape varieties.  As I write this essay, it has over 1,600 members worldwide.

Researching what it was all about and when it was set up, my enthusiasm was slightly dulled by reading comments from people who didn’t seem to understand why you would participate.  They were eager to point out that there was little reason as you didn’t really learn anything from the process and that there was no way that you could recall every variety that you had ever tried.  They went on, stating that even if you took the most meticulous of tasting notes, the fancier or rarer varieties were likely to be miniscule parts of a blend and therefore unable to be singled out as having been ‘tasted’.  Whilst these are valid points, I stuck to my reasoning that it encourages you to broaden your palate, actively search for something new to try, and I made a vow to actively study up on any new ‘finds’ that I may make in the process.  In addition, aside of it being another way to make wine drinking fun, it was a challenge, and challenges are meant to be met.

I set about starting my list.

There are multiple tiers of membership (up to 500 varieties tried!), but when you go for your first 100 varieties you don’t need to list the specific bottle you have tried.  Indeed the whole structure of the club is based on the honour system, in that you’re only fooling yourself if you cheat.  May the wrath of Bacchus curse your palate, as the entry form states.

I went through the provided list of varieties, checking off the ones that there was no doubt that I’d drunk at some point – Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Cabernet, Pinot, Riesling etc.  When switching between bottles in regular drinking it probably feels like you are trying a lot more different varieties than you actually are, and my list petered out at somewhere around 40 different types.  Where could I go next?

Thankfully as a diploma student of the WSET (Wines & Spirits Education Trust) I had spent multiple weeks in a classroom environment trying flight after flight of wine, and part of the whole point was to ensure that you were well acquainted with a wide variety of styles and tastes.  To further aid the learning process you were expected to take detailed notes and thankfully I still had mine.  Scores more varieties hit my list and took me well over my 100 variety target, and I was able to start fleshing out my lists with the actual producers and vintage details which added more legitimacy to my application.  Even allowing for things like disputes from synonyms (Zinfandel and Primitivo, for example) I had enough to join the club, and so I sent off my form.  A good month later (the club is based in the US and I am in the UK) I was the proud recipient of a splendid certificate, and happy in the knowledge that I was only one of 30 people in the UK (who have participated, obviously) to have reached the 100 mark.  Well, I was happy for a second, and then I was already working out how to reach the next rung up.

Trying 200 different varieties was a daunting thing, but this made me think all the harder about the task at hand.  I dusted off the tasting notes from my wine club purchases which added a few more ‘off the beaten track’ varieties to the list, but it was time to up my game.  In a moment of serendipitous timing, wine magazine Decanter announced that they would be hosting their first ever Mediterranean Wine Encounter, bringing together producers from stalwarts France, Italy and Spain, as well as up and coming countries like Israel, Croatia, Turkey and Slovenia.  Looking through the event catalogue my eyes were alight at the number of varieties that were featured that I had never even heard of – Pavlos, Goustolidi, Callet, Krassato – and needless to say, I booked my ticket there and then.

I was now up to about 170 varieties when I hit upon the fact that, whilst exploring these far flung places making wine, there were plenty of English (aka Germanic) varieties that I hadn’t even tried.  I set about scheduling up visits to numerous UK wineries (which you can read about in some of my earlier blogs).  This added a few more obscure ones to the list – Rondo, Kerner and Huxelrebe to name just three, and my list now stands tantalizingly close to the all-important figure of 200 varieties tasted.  I now actively (and excitedly) scan the supermarket shelves and wine lists online or in restaurants, looking to add to my expanding collection.

As Christmas approaches, wine season kicks in to gear here in the UK and I have several tasting events lined up over the coming weeks.  Here’s hoping that they have a few new varieties to try alongside the usual suspects!  The whole experience has been tremendous fun for me – why not give it a try for yourself?

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It’s all Greek for me

Last weekend saw Decanter magazine put on their usual March Fine Wine Encounter, but for the first time the event was completely devoted over to wines from the Mediterranean. Looking specifically at these wines threw up quite a few firsts for me and is a well-timed move by Decanter. Merchants and even some supermarkets are already starting to stock or broaden their ranges from countries such as Israel, Lebanon and Turkey, and this in turn means that customers are able to start trying these wines without specifically hunting them out. A quick look at the awards being dished out further paints the picture – In the 2009 Decanter World Wine Awards (picked purely as it was the nearest historic Awards catalogue to me as I write) Turkey won only one bronze medal – In the 2014 awards they won over 40 medals. Obviously producers need to be entering their wines in the competition in the first place, and the number of those entered certainly has gone up, but you get the picture.

Wine enthusiasts are always looking for the next thing – I think it’s an inherent part of being interested in wine (it certainly is for me). With prices pushing certain wines out of reach on the one hand and the glut of commercially successful variety wines on the other, the time seems right to delve in to what’s been going on in these hitherto unembraced countries. Hand in hand with this is the education piece – I mentioned the tasting to a worldly-wise family member and their reply was that they didn’t even know wine was made in some of these countries.

There’s also good news for the casual wine drinker and that is, as well as becoming more widely available, the wines are pretty darn good too. It’s easy to forget that these countries having been honing their craft for years, and constitute the oldest places on earth to have been making wine (Old-Old World Wine, if you like). Like anywhere, I’m sure there are still many works-in-progress to be found, but for those shown at the Decanter event I’d be happy to pay the same price as I pay for my regular bottles. I’d certainly get a renewed vigour in sharing them with others to spread the word.

My top takeaways from the day, in no particular order:

  • Moschofilero – a Greek white grape – makes a deliciously peachy and floral Sparkling.  I tasted the Amalia Brut NV from Ktima Tselepos.  I’ll be looking more at this variety.
  • Slovenia are making Sparkling wines (the Slovenian term is Penina), so you may soon be drinking Penina alongside your Cava’s and your Prosecco’s.  The wines tasted on the day were in large part Chardonnay, blended with smaller amounts of Rebula (AKA Ribolla Gialla from Friuli).
  • Rapsani is a small high altitude Greek village making smooth jammy reds.  Having tasted the offerings on the day, I now have the badge to prove I am a #rapsanilover.  Greece showed really well on the day for me, definitely proving that (and I’m sure that they’d agree with me here) some of the uninspiring wines that they were quite famous for, are now a thing of the past.
  • And finally, honourable mention for the lovely chap pouring at the Villa Conchi stand, who admitted to me that they were new to the show circuit and launching a new range of Cava’s.  This was the first stand I went to on the day as I like to start with Sparkling, and I don’t think he had his pour levels quite sorted out.  They were as big as you’d get when buying a glass of wine in a restaurant!  Too good to spit though and a lovely creamy Brut Imperial NV.

Overall, producers seem to have found a good balance of producing wines from indigenous grapes to create their own regional USPs (unique selling points) and the more internationally recognised varieties, so as not to scare off traditionalists. It remains to be seen whether drinkers will take to obscure grape varieties such as Krassato or Kalecik Karasi as they have to Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Grigio. I was thoroughly happy with the day though – a lot of new avenues to discover and over 20 new grape varieties tasted. Having been to many Decanter events in the past it did feel a little quieter than previous ones focusing on more established regions so, with my above enthusiasm noted, there is definitely more inroads to go to get the masses excited about these wines.

The good news is that they are now clearly on the agenda. For me, I was actually happy this time around with less attendees (the flagship November event can be quite rowdy with thirsty tasters three deep at particular producers!) as it gave more chance to have lengthy chats with the winemakers (whose first language is not necessarily English), and to taste through their whole offerings rather than just picking highlights.

Yamas!

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Oldies and Goldies

The world of wine moves fast.

Sure, there’s nothing ground-breaking about that statement, but just recently I’ve reached the point where I’ve started re-buying books for my wine library. Books I kind of already own. Even many published as recently as the 1990’s are now only useful when drawing historical companions, or accessing information that gets dropped from newer texts.   Grape varieties mentioned have long since been pulled to the whims of fashion, and locations and even countries not talked about, are now merrily creating great wines.

It was whilst reading a book on the USA, studying up for an article, that I finally took pause for thought. The book was a weighty tome, ‘fully revised’, but authored in the late 1980’s, so wasn’t new, but still within the lifetime of someone yet to reach 30. Whilst delving through a wealth of detailed statistics, it dawned on me that I was, basically, wasting my time. The USA to all intents and purposes went through a wine reboot in the early 1990’s when Phylloxera came back for another crack. Plantings on a compromised rootstock (AxR1) left them susceptible to a new strain of the killer louse, and what came after – the grape varieties, the vine densities, the sites – were now being started from scratch. I’d need to buy a newer book.

At around the same time, I managed to pick up the first edition of the leading UK wine magazine Decanter. Although the cover price was a mere 40p, I managed to purchase it for just £4 thanks to a leading online auction site – Inflation aside, that’s less than the cover price of an issue today. For a publication first hitting the shelves in 1975, I was expecting to view the 40-year old content with a mild curiosity. What struck me was that a number of things still remained true to this day. Articles answering the question “How can I drink good Bordeaux without paying too much per bottle”? Wine loving celebrities (in this case, Michael Caine) putting their money in to wine futures. Regional profiles, the latest auction news. Even Hugh Johnson was there! Aside of the current vogue for extensive tasting notes, scoring systems, and good deals for weekday wine drinking (did such a concept exist in the 1970’s?) the spread of articles was very similar to today. Maybe not so much has changed after all?

To tie these two anecdotes together, I’ll move on to the Decanter Book review page – another publication stalwart. Within the titles listed one stood out, mainly as it had a half page and picture devoted to it. The book – ‘The Great Wine Blight’, the subject – Phylloxera. Using my internet purchasing skills again it wasn’t long before a cheaply purchased copy came through the letterbox, and a thoroughly enjoyable read it was too, sparking all sorts of ideas on a future article on Phylloxera. For all the bad that it has done, costing vast sums of monies to prevent and putting smaller growers out of business, surely it must achieved some good things too? Vignerons were no longer tied to the crops that they had, and could potentially turn to fashionable grape varieties. Replanting could also take in some of the newer ideas such as density planting, vine training, and site/aspect location.

It was pleasing to me that a publication from 1975 was still bringing new knowledge and insight to this reader some 40 years later. The final irony is that I have since had to buy a newer book on Phylloxera, as the older one didn’t have the details of the 1990’s invasion. I’d need to buy a newer book.

n.b. An abridged version of this post was published in Decanter magazine in September 2014

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