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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Laithwaites Vintage Festival 2016

It was a typically drizzly April day as we gathered outside Old Billingsgate Market in London for the Laithwaites/Sunday Times Wine Club 2016 Vintage Festival.  The damp weather was, however, tempered with impressive views across the River Thames, the venue being directly across from The Shard and in clear view of London Bridge.

Founder Tony Laithwaite braved the elements to greet us all as we waited patiently for the session start time to arrive and, as if sensing the eagerness of the crowds, a stream of servers began to descend offering small samples of either red, white or rosé wine.  This was a nice touch and clearly warmed myself and those around me and kicked off conversation between strangers.  In a further stark contrast to my recent wine event queuing experience in New York, whether it was down to the rain, all exhibitors being ready or Tony getting impatient for the event to start, he announced that we could all go in 15 minutes early.  This may not be much extra time as the crow flies, but again, it was certainly appreciated.

LaithFest1

Once inside the venue we were immediately faced with Champagne house Laurent Perrier and a cluster of English Sparkling wines including Ridgeview. For me, sparkling is the best way to get the event going but, having been a fan and customer of Laithwaites wines for many years my strategy for this tasting was threefold:

  • Try wines from countries that do not appear in my usual cellar

I still really fail to find and try red wines of a decent quality level from the USA, and ditto German wines.  Then there are countries such as Moldova and Romania where any invitation to taste is a must.  Finally there is the humble white wine which, as primarily a red wine drinker, I tend to skip unnecessarily.

  • Trying the next level up wines from favourite or respected producers I am familiar with

Everyone has their favourite wines, but trying the Reservas, Gran Reservas, Limited Editions and Select Parcels is a good way to work out whether to ‘stick’ or trade up.  Looking back at the evening I didn’t actually manage to succeed too well in this category, such was the overall quality and volume of wine and producers that I had no prior exposure to.

  • Cherry picking the extremely pricey wines on show that I probably wouldn’t be able to try outside of an event like this

OK, so perhaps a bit shallow to do things merely on price, but it allowed me to check out the odd Coté Rotie (£31) and Pauillac (£40) that I would otherwise miss.

Talking of expensive bottles, I was lucky that my entrance to this event included the ‘Fine Wine’ upgrade – access to a whole host of top quality wines in a limited access VIP setting to ensure a relaxed tasting.  Entry was via a lift to a mezzanine level (slightly evocative of a Willy Wonka Glass Elevator type scenario) where you were greeted by a member of staff and handed a brand new catalogue of further wines to taste.  Without wishing to sound too nerdy, it was like unlocking a brand new level in your favourite computer game.

LaithFest2

As a lover of Champagne I was immediately in my element being served the Krug NV (£130), Dom Pérignon 2006 (£120) and the Cristal 2007 (£130), alongside the Roederer NV (£40) and vintage 2010 (£50).  Krug, even at NV level, is always a pleasure such is the quality, and I’m very familiar (as readers of my blog will know) with the DP 2006.  One of the highlights of the night though was tasting the 2006 Cristal.  Having had some earlier vintages (2000 and 2002) I had cultivated a view that this was always going to be a very sweet wine that my palate didn’t agree with.  The revelation was that the 2007 is actually a really refined and not overly sweet wine at all.  That alone made my night but it continued with, amongst others:

Drouhin: Famed Burgundian estate showcasing their Beaune 2009 (£45), Nuit-Saint-Georges 2010 (£40) and Clos de Vougeot 2011 (£115)

Trapiche: One of Argentina’s top wineries and of extremely small production, so trying wines like the tres14 (£35) is an absolute privilege.

Penfolds: No introduction is necessary for Penfolds and this was a chance to try the Bin 311 2014 (£25), Pinot Noir Bin 23 2009 (£27), the Barossa Bin 138 2013 (£25) and the RWT (Red Wine Trial) 2013 (£90).

To be honest, these notes could go on and on such was the sheer diversity and volume of the event, and I’ve only scratched the surface of what was on offer.  As you can probably tell though, this is a serious must-attend event and one I will add to my regular wine events calendar.  The ‘Fine Wine’ room (at just a £20 upgrade to the ticket price) is simply a revelation.

As I was leaving the venue I was pleased to see that, if the complimentary tasting glass that each attendee received was left at the venue, they were quickly tidied and divided up in to boxes of six allowing you to take home a full box.  An awesome reminder of a great night!

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

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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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