On Her Majesty’s Secret Service – Grape picking at the Queen’s private Vineyard

DSC_0007 (1)An autumn day blessed by gorgeous summer sun

Having children and living not too far from Windsor, a trip through Windsor Great Park on the way to Legoland is almost a certainty.

Early one Saturday in late September I was able to make an unusual turning off of my usual route and, by putting a special vineyard pass on to my car dashboard, pass through a set of unassuming white gates that, on any normal day, you could easily miss.

In rock-star terms what was actually happening was an ‘Access All Areas’ moment and the neon-jacketed walkie-talkie wielding guard waved me through to a private area within the parkland owned by the Queen, and on the periphery of her Windsor Castle residence.

DSC_0024 (1)Vines gently sloping down towards the water

Outside of Royal staff, access to the private area is very much by invitation only and, as a guest of Laithwaites, I was about to visit their hidden-away vineyard and pick the grapes of the 2017 harvest.

DSC_0012 (1)Helpful hints as to what grapes to pick and which to discard

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Leased from the Queen, Tony Laithwaite is now the man trusted to oversee the production of the Royal Sparkling wine and, with Tony being a Windsor native, it seems only right that he should do so.  The vineyard has been in existence since the 12th century, planted for Henry II during his marriage to Eleanor of Aquitaine, but with the location so remote it was no surprise to hear that during recent times the production of wine had stalled.

In 2011 the Crown Estate and Royal Farms allowed Tony to re-plant the vineyard to revive an almost 1,000 year old tradition.

DSC_0019 (1)Vineyard roses, used as an early warning sign for disease

My day was spent working with their Chardonnay vines (they also produce the classic Champagne varieties of Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier), picking the clean bunches and manually removing the compromised berries from bunches where rot or mildew had set in, so that only the best fruit remained.

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These were then collected up ready to be transported off to leading UK producer Ridgeview for processing as there are no on-site production facilities in Windsor.

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The first harvest of Great Windsor Park was the 2013, with the 4 hectare south facing plot yielding grapes to make just 3,000 bottles.  Released in 2016 with a good deal of hype surrounding both the resurgence of the vineyard as well as the Royal connection, all of the available bottles were snapped up straight away.

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The second vintage of the wine, the much anticipated 2014, is about to be released and on a break from the picking I was lucky enough to give it a try alongside Tony Laithwaite himself.  If the first release was characterised by crisp apple, peach stone fruit and a more delicate style, this second release has more body, weight and richer fruit tones, and feels like a real step forward.

DSC_0029Master of Wine and BBC’s Saturday Kitchen wine expert Peter Richards lends a hand

The grapes of the 2017 harvest will now undergo 3 years of ageing and finally hit the shelves (if the bottles don’t sell out straight away) in 2020.  I look forward to picking a bottle up as a fitting way to remember a great day.

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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.

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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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Wyfold Vineyard Visit – June 2017

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I recently had the pleasure of doing a little working stint at Oxfordshire based Wyfold Vineyard, helping to re-trellis just a few of their 9000 vines as they look towards their summer growth spurt.

Trellising

Not open to the public, and well hidden-away down some very tiny country lanes, the two hectare Wyfold site is part of the empire of Barbara and Tony Laithwaite, the couple behind leading mail order wine merchant Laithwaites.

Roots and Soil

Planted in the early part of the century on stone and gravel soils at an altitude of 100 metres, the cool climate site is home to just the classic Champagne grape varieties (Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier).

Buds

Used to create an exceptional multi-award winning sparkling wine since 2009, the range has now expanded to add a sparkling Rosé from the 2014 vintage for the first time.

Son Henry Laithwaite now runs the show on a daily basis alongside his business partner Ben Postlethwaite and all were present on the day to guide us through our tasks which, on the page, didn’t sound too taxing.

Merely being required to adjust several different trellis wire heights to direct the vines skyward, the generous springtime summer sun heat was both a blessing and a curse.

Like most vineyard work in the UK, payment came at the end in the form of a wonderful home-cooked meal supported by copious amounts of wine.

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In addition there was the provision of musical entertainment in the form of ukulele based band Pure Fluke as well as the genial conversation of vineyard friends both old and new.

The Band

To top it all off we were basking in the late eveing sun in the lovely surrounds of a vineyard, and any heat fatigue and other aches and pains instantly disappeared.  All in all this was an insightful and rare visit to a vineyard not readily accessible, and another chance to directly help towards the success of English wine.

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With thanks to Laithwaites for arranging this vineyard visit.

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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.

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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 Premiere Tasting – November 2016

As December is fast approaching, it’s high time for a quick run-down of the November offerings from the Laithwaites Premiere scheme.

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The Black Stump Chardonnay/Pinot Grigio 2016, SE Australia, 12.5%, £9.49

The Black Stump Shiraz is very familiar to me and also probably to the majority of Laithwaites customers as it remains ever-present in many mixed cases and is always at the top of their bestsellers lists.  What remains a lesser known quantity to me is their white offering – a Chardonnay/Pinot Grigio blend.

Plantings of Pinot Grigio are still a rare thing to find in Australia and comprises a solid 35% of the blend here.  The name ‘Black Stump’ comes from a mythical place in the Australian outback to which locals would remark that a quality product was “the best thing this side of the black stump”.

We have a different saying here in England, so let’s see if this wine is indeed the best thing since sliced bread!

The lemon colour in the glass sparkles with a lovely golden and warming hue.  On the nose there is a broad range of aromas to pick up, a veritable compote of the warming ripened summer fruits promised by the golden colouring.

There’s touches of apricots, peach, yellow melon and pineapple, and I can also detect the green fleshiness of apple.  Visible tears (another hint towards the well ripened fruits and sugars) rounds out the full appearance of the wine.

On the palate this is a ripe and citrus forward wine, with the freshness, grassiness and florality from the Pinot Grigio working with the weight and butter creaminess from the Chardonnay.  Alongside the notable citrus you again get the full sensation of the tropical golden fruits.  A good gloopy mouth-filling weight pairs well with the lovely tangy acid that runs throughout.

A touch of spice on the finish hints to an underlying complexity and I think this wine will evolve nicely with a little further bottle ageing.  A good persistent finish, and a very nice wine.

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Casa Rural 2012 (100% Tempranillo), Vino de la Tierra Castilla, Spain, 12.5%, £11.99

Castilla seems to be popping up a lot for me recently so I was very interested to see this bottle arrive.  Even as recently as 5 years ago La Mancha in central Spain was known as a seriously hot flat central plain good only for growing workhorse varieties, but here we are with a pure Tempranillo reminiscent of the Riojan style of the north.

Grown at high altitude to counteract the heat and aged for 6 months in American oak barrels to flesh out the palate, this wine is very interesting to view in the glass.  Most wines have a subtle difference between the central (core) part of the glass as opposed to the colour of the rim, but with this wine there was a wide distinction between the darker rim and cherry-light core.

On the nose there was light red cherry and redcurrants and a very defined florality.  Kicking off with fresh violets, this then added the vanilla from the oak ageing and moved on to the confection of liquorice.  Tertiary notes such as these are good indications of the ageing that has taken place.

For all of the power on the nose the actual body was, although medium, something of a lighter overall sensation and incredibly silky and smooth.   The blackcurrant fruits were packed to the brim and followed by the redcurrants and cherry, and perhaps even a touch of strawberry.  For all of the clean well ripened fruit this remained a light and airy wine, perfect for drinking on its own.

Lightly chewy in texture and retaining meaty and lightly leathery characters, the acid remained just less than medium and kept everything fresh.  The florality carried straight through to the pleasant and medium length aftertaste, keeping this as an entirely respectable ‘higher than average’ priced wine.

Result: It’s hard to pick a winner out of these two wines as I like them both for different reasons.  Happy that the scheme has thrown up two interesting wines instead of one, this month I’m calling it a draw.  Happy drinking!

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Laithwaites Autumn Press Tasting – Standout Whites and Reds

Further to a previous blog where I highlighted the best Sparkling wines on display at the recent Laithwaites Autumn press tasting, here’s my top highlights from the red and white wines on show.

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White Wines

Tiago Cabaco Encruzado 2014, Alentejo, Portugal, 13%, £12.99

I must have visibly lingered over this wine a little too long as the wine buyer came over to chat to me about it.  Winemaker Tiago is only in his mid-thirties, and this is his signature eponymous bottling which is limited to about 2000 bottles.

The blend is pretty unique and perhaps one that people will either like or hate, with traces of minerality alongside wood notes and a salty finish.  There’s a good warmth from the alcohol and a long length, and it has the right structure to pair well with food.

Savage White 2015, Western Cape, South Africa, 14%, £27.50

I adore nice touches to a wine’s presentation and the old-school wax seal on this bottle looks great, as does the minimalistic label.

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The new world sunshine gives you lots of well ripened tropical and gooseberry fruit here, and a lovely smoky finish sets it off perfectly.  This is another white that would be greater with food as it has tons of power to match up to the flavours, whilst not being over-powering to drink on its own.

Newton Johnson Southend Chardonnay, South Africa, 13%, £14.99

Hailing from a family run winery, this has a lovely spicy creamy nose and bags of creamy flavour on the palate.  The lemon citrus plays the central role but there are also traces of orange peel and white pepper spice.

Rounded off with a good long finish this is great at this price point, but sadly not available through Laithwaites.co.uk at this time.

Red Wines

Chateaux Sixtine 2014, Chateauneuf-du-Pape, France, 15%, £30

This Grenache based blend had a rich blackcurrant nose and was absolutely rammed full of spice, cassis, mocha and chocolate.  Warmth from the alcohol and a grippy tannin keep this wine happily lingering in the mouth for a long time.

Again this is another wine that is unavailable from Laithwaites at this time.

Chateau Belgrave 2000, Haut-Médoc, 5éme Cru Classé, France, 13%, £45

Inky dark in colour, this Cabernet based blend had an intense nose of bitter chocolate.  Alongside the blackcurrant and spice there remained a generous acid matching well with the grippy tannins.

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The finish was rounded and refined if not a little too short.  In fairness this is perhaps to be expected from a wine of this age, and it was tasted alongside a lot of youthful wines on the day.  Although great, this feels like a wine to drink sooner rather than later, so grab it while you can.

Gran Fontal Syrah 2008, Vino de la Tierra de Castilla, Spain, 15%, £28

Using grapes grown at an altitude of 830m this cheery wine packed a decent weight punch and balanced it’s powerful black cherry and spice with a vanilla note and a lovely fresh acid.  For a wine with 15% alcohol this kept it mouth filling and not overpowering.

Alongside the core fruit I could also detect traces of herbal tea and menthol so there’s a good degree of complexity to be found from the 8 years of age. Points are deducted for the heavy glass bottle but loads of bonus points are given back as this is currently down from £28 to £12.99 on Laithwaites.co.uk.

Vina Tondonia Reserva 2003, Rioja, Spain, 13%, £28

The colour of this 13 year old wine was moving towards garnet and the nose has picked up tertiary tea-like characters.  The acid is still fresh though and ensures that this is an easy drinking refreshing wine with mature character.  I doubt this will last much longer so it’s one to drink soon.

As you can see there were certainly some impressive wines on display although a few are frustratingly not currently available.  At an event level, what I did find incredibly interesting was the lack of the wines that Laithwaites frequently laud as their ‘Customer Favourites’ – the likes of Black Stump, Il Papavero, Calabria etc.

None of these wines made an appearance and I was unable to source any member of the team on my way out to find out exactly why.

The range on offer certainly made me re-evaluate my thoughts towards Laithwaites and, although I have widely blogged about my wine-plan wines and their Premiere range, this felt like a company that I had only barely scratched the surface of.

I’ll certainly be paying more attention in the future.

With thanks to MHP Communications and Laithwaites for inviting me to this event.

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Laithwaites Autumn Press Tasting – Standout Sparklers!

One of the suppliers I rely on for my wine consumption is Laithwaites.  Having been a customer of theirs for several years and liking to taste widely I was comfortable that I had tasted a good portion of their wines on offer.

I found out how wrong I was at their recent Autumn tasting, held at their flagship London store near to London Bridge.  My pre-tasting strategy was originally going to focus on tasting familiar wines in a critical environment and trying the wider ranges of my favourite producers but, as it transpired, I had only tasted a mere handful of the wines presented.

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Upon arrival I was warmly greeted by wine buyer Beth Willard who has been responsible for sourcing some of my previously blogged about favourites from Romania (Paris Street) and I spent the afternoon tasting alongside such luminaries as Justin Howard-Sneyd MW, Julia Harding MW and Victoria Moore (wine correspondent for the Telegraph).

With 155 wines on show I managed to taste just over half of them over the course of several hours.  I won’t go too far in to detailed tasting notes as these can be a chore to read if you’re not a Laithwaites customer and think you may never ever taste the wine, but I will pick out my highlights; wines that I felt privileged to taste or producers that I think you may consider to follow in the future.

In this first half of my report I will list my favourites amongst the Sparkling wines on offer.

Laithwaites Theale Vineyard Chardonnay 2011, Berkshire, England, 12%, £24.99

These vineyards and the Laithwaites head office are only a short drive away from where I live in Berkshire and so I will always be a big supporter.  The 2011 vintage in the UK was something of a roller-coaster with a great start followed by a lack-lustre summer followed by great harvesting conditions.

This pure Chardonnay had a lovely light and airy palate, a fresh and quaffable mousse and focussed on the citric forward lemon qualities.  With a touch of nice bitterness on the back palate to add some substance, this was at once immediate and yet structured enough to see some mid-range ageing.

Charles Heidsieck Brut Réserve NV Champagne, France, 12%, £42

Charles Heidsieck continually win award after award and so I naturally gravitated towards this bottle.  A lovely gold colour in the glass and a rich bold lemon flavour on the nose, this blends complexity with a light quaffability that just evaporates in the mouth.

Given that 40% of this NV blend comes from reserve wines that can be over a decade old it’s easy to understand how they marry such depth with such immediacy.  Long-lasting finish.

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Charles Heidsieck Blanc des Millénaires 1995, Champagne, France, 12%, £120

Moving up the quality ladder and on to their prestige offering I must admit that I didn’t spit this wine out as tasting etiquette would dictate, and I also went back for seconds!

There is the customary biscuit and bread notes of a lees aged Champagne on the nose. With 21 years under its belt this wine manages to retain an awesome freshness with a lush acid that makes the palate almost evaporate.  As well as the customary citrus notes there is a lovely moodiness that permeates throughout.  Delicious.

I’ll leave it there for the Sparkling on show (with a small apology that the above doesn’t even touch upon the myriad of different levels of Prosecco available), but a final honourable mention must go to the:

Lanson Noble Cuvée Brut 2000, Champagne, France, 12.5%, £90

I’d personally had two bottles of this previously and the first showed wonderfully, being both fresh for 16 years old, as well as deep with honeyed ageing characters.

The second bottle that I opened, which I did with friends on a special occasion, had an over-whelming blue cheese nose that carried on to the palate.  I hastily retired the bottle believing it to be something of a fault but, when trying the Vintage again at this tasting, the blue cheese note was once again evident.

I chatted this through with wine buyer Davy Zyw who could detect what I was referring to but felt it was a natural part of the overall evolution of the wine as opposed to a fault.  It was certainly interesting to compare them but I remain unconvinced that the cleaner wine was the odd one out.

Checking the official Lanson tasting notes it certainly makes no mention of it, and offers up traits of honey, pear and spices instead.  It therefore remains a mystery to me at this time as to which bottle wasn’t showing correctly.  Intriguing.

In my next piece based on the tasting I will go in to the best of the whites and reds that I tried and would recommend.

With thanks to MHP Communications and Laithwaites for inviting me to this event.

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Laithwaites Premiere Tasting – October 2016

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A Laithwaites Premiere tasting now and the two choices for October 2016, both of which are completely new to me.

Journey’s End Pathfinder 2014, Stellenbosch, South Africa, 13.5%, £12.99

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This is apparently a ‘top tip’ from Laithwaites, handcrafted and offering a Bordeaux blend with a New World ripeness.  It’s a blend of 40% Cabernet Sauvignon, 30% Merlot and 30% Cabernet Franc.  Founded in 1995 by an Englishman, his ethos is all about creating an amazing wine from a small scale quantity.

I like the label of this wine as it evokes the simple detail displayed by the classics, and with Stellenbosch being the absolute epicentre for fine wine making in South Africa, the £12.99 price-point (which is slightly above average for the Premiere scheme) created high expectations.  The wine is sealed under screwcap.

In colour this is a dark (but not opaque) youthful purple with a nice clear water white rim.  The nose is full of clean and pure fruit but again speaks of its relative youth (although we are talking 2+ years at this point).  There’s a clear hit of blackberry and crunchy cherry (from the Cabernet), cake and spice (from the Merlot) and light vanilla florals (from the Cabernet Franc), and so this is a wine that absolutely shows its constituent parts.

When I first had a taste shortly after opening the bottle there was a distinct spritz on the palate, again highlighting the vibrancy and youth of the wine.  After a while this disappeared, but it is still an important indicator of where this wine is on a trajectory of its ageing cycle.

The palate continues the dark cherry notes and blackcurrant, as well as showing touches of both dark chocolate and coffee, but we’re still very much in pure fruit territory.  There’s a light chalky tannin as well as a vibrant acidity that works through the palate, but the overall tone is one of youth.

If I’m honest the wine feels pretty one-dimensional and I could maybe, if I tried really hard, imagine other core fruits such as damson in the mix.  It’s certainly a powerful palate giving the best of what it has got, but the price-point and the youth it shows work at odds for me.

The end palate, long as it is, shows some smoke, but was still a bit too ‘tomato’ tangy for my liking.  It would be tempting to say ‘try with food’ as that is sometimes a way to mask an imbalance within a wine, but my over-riding thought here is that this needs more time. Whilst there’s a certain silk to the palate there is still a rustic nature.

The provided tasting notes state that this wine is best consumed by 2021 which isn’t that far away really.  This leaves me a bit confused as to how far this one can go, and I’m not sure that £12.99 is a fair price for something that needs a bit of love and warmth to make it come alive.

Pico Attila Chardonnay/Ribolla Gialla 2015, Venezie, Italy, 13%, £8.99

Next up is the white wine offering, and what a very good looking bottle this is.

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The simple, factual front label makes it almost look like the faceless bottle you can sometimes find as the house wine in restaurant, but don’t be deceived.  There are plus points, from the fact that the wine is sealed under cork, but even to the fact that they’ve gone for a slightly arched bottle shape giving a subtle notion of premium.

The wine hails from the mountainous northeast of Italy and, coming from the strategic frontier of the Roman Empire, is named after the hill that (as legend states) Attila the Hun’s soldiers built out of their helmets in AD 452.  It comprises the native grape variety Ribolla Gialla alongside Chardonnay, 20% of which was aged in oak.

In colour, even for a wine as young as 2015 there is a nice deep lemon yellow colour with gold hints. The nose is clean and full of fresh lemon and lime, a touch of dried pineapple, pear drops and a hint of honeysuckle and golden syrup.

The palate is full of bruised green apple, pear drops, honey, and there’s also the cream and butter from a good Chardonnay.  Medium and gloopy in weight, there’s an almost bronze quality to the palate adding a stability and a depth to the core fruit.  Whilst the last wine showed its youth, this wine hides it, despite it being the younger of the two bottles.

Layers of flavour envelop each other and I continually jostle between the core fruit and the deeper flavour profiles.  This is great on its own, and would be even better with food.

A clear winner this month, and it is the cheaper of the two bottles, I recommend the Pico Attila Chardonnay/Ribolla Gialla 2015.

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Laithwaites Premiere Tasting – September 2016

Thanks to welcoming a new addition to my family in the last four weeks my Laithwaites Premiere September review comes in the dying hours of the month.  Better late than never though, here are my thoughts on the current bottles, and they’re both ones which I have never tried before which is always a treat.

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Los Cardos Sauvignon Blanc 2016, Mendoza, Argentina, 11%, £10.49

Interestingly enough the literature which I received with the wine was referring to the 2015 vintage as opposed to the 2016 (an incredibly young wine) which is what I am tasting today.  It also stated that the alcohol level was 13%, whereas the bottle label describes it as just 11% which is a bit of a difference.  A quick internet search does indeed show that the literature is wrong and this wine is positioned at the lower alcohol point.

The vineyards that the grapes are sourced from are located at the characteristically high levels you expect from Argentina; some 1,000 metres above sea level.  The constant sunshine but reduced temperatures of the high altitude ensures you have well ripened fruit whilst retaining the lighter floral characters of gently ripened grapes.

In colour this is lemon yellow with green-gold tints. The nose is light, fresh and bright with green apple and pear flesh, citrus lime, watermelon, grapefruit, and a touch of cream.

The wine has a full rounded gloopy body that is filled with flavour.  Alongside the lime citrus and cream from the nose there is a full on dollop of gooseberry that melds with the green flesh of apple.  The acidity is crisp and well balanced against the lighter profile of the wine and the end palate has a lovely dash of zippy zinginess to keep things juicy and lifted in to the good length finish.

This is a pleasant little number which is full of flavour but delicate at the same time, and you need to be careful not to over-chill which would kill some of the subtler nuances.  The £10.49 price tag is just a little over and above what I’d expect to pay for this, but it’s a good example of New World meets Old World Sauvignon Blanc.

I can imagine this would pair very well with fish, but I had fish for dinner last night, and it’s steak for me tonight.  What better time then to move on to the red selection!

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Cuvée du Vatican Réserve de l’Abbé 2014 Cótes du Rhone, France, 14%, £9.99

Well known for its power and full flavour this Rhone wine (comprised of 80% Grenache and 20% Syrah) comes with the suggestion of giving it an hour decant ahead of drinking.  Always looking for a good taste comparison I decided to do just that, but also to take a glass straight out of the bottle to gauge the difference.  Now that summer has died out and there are a lot less flies about I’m happy to get my decanter back in to commission.

Happily the bottle supplied matches the one I was expecting and, sure enough with a little air time, the raw flavours and hollowed out mid-palate spread and expanded in to a rich finish.

A dark brambly purple in colour, the nose of this wine is full of Syrah spice and the crunchy black fruit from the Grenache.  There’s also hints of pepper and cloves, blackberry, redcurrant and a nice warmth from the alcohol.

On the palate there is the instant hit of black cherry and berry alongside a medium chalky tannin.  The mid-palate adds spice, bitterness, dark chocolate and prune, and the overall sensation is quite brooding with traits of meat, tobacco and leather.

A fresh acidity sears through the top of the palate, nicely cutting through the darker notes of the wine and the fatty elements of my steak.  Even after a bit of decanting this wine still retains a ‘rustic’ profile, but paired with the food it is well balanced and in character.

At the £9.99 price-point this one sits about right for me value-wise and, whilst both were well structured wines, on that point it ensures that the red wine comes out top of the two Laithwaites Premiere offerings this month.

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Laithwaites Premiere Tasting – July 2016

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Time for the latest Laithwaites Premiere wines now and, after a good year in the scheme, this is the first time that I’ve received a wine that I’m already familiar with.  When you’ve found a wine that you know you like it’s easy to enjoy it, forgetting about the mechanics, so I welcome the opportunity to critically evaluate it again.

First we head over to Spain and the north-west central region of Rueda which is known mainly for white wines, including their speciality grape Verdejo.  A nicely warm continental climate gives the vines hot sunshine during the day and, when twinned with the high altitude of the plantings, cool temperatures at night allowing the grapes to fully develop their aromas and flavours.

Tesoro de Castilla Verdejo 2015, Castilla, Spain, 12.5%, £7.99

In the glass this is a pale lemon colour with subtle golden green hints.  The nose is full of waxy lemon citrus, white florality (reminiscent of a lily) and has a good level of intensity to draw you towards it.

The palate has a good medium weight with a waxy oily quality much like a Chardonnay.  The first fruit hit is the generous lemon and lime citrus followed by a touch of grassiness.  By law some Verdejo’s (not labelled as Rueda Verdejo) can include as little as 50% Verdejo in the blend with the rest topped up with either Sauvignon Blanc or Macabeo (Viura), and this can account for the SB like grassy qualities.  In this case though the wine is 100% Verdejo and so it is down to mere grape similarity.

The acid is well balanced with the fruit creating a juicy, gloopy, almost voluptuous mouth-feel.  There’s a tangy fruity end to the palate which lasts for some time, and even perhaps a small amount of tannin.

The wine is clearly all about the core citrus fruits and I enjoyed this more than I thought I would.  Having conducted some research on the Laithwaites website I found that this wine has scored slightly less than 2 stars out 5.  Added to this was the fairly low price-point of £7.99 (when compared to other Premiere offerings) and I was ready to treat this as a fairly academic review.  When reviewing a wine I usually conduct it based on my initial thoughts from the first appearance, returning to clarify my views with a glass later in the day or even in the following days.

Imagine my surprise then when I was fully about to start my third glass without writing even the first line of a tasting note.  I tasted this on a gloriously warm day which perhaps worked to the wine’s advantage, but many of the lower starred reviews had commented on an unbalanced acidity of which I saw no sign at all.  A good bottle and one which I would happily purchase again.

Papavero

Il Papavero Primitivo 2014, Puglia, Italy, 14%, £8.99

Primitivo (aka Zinfandel in the US or Tribidrag in Croatia) is a spicy plummy grape from Puglia in southern Italy.  This bottle is a Laithwaites customer favourite (me included) so it is no surprise that I have enjoyed it on many occasions.  I do find it odd that it forms part of the palate-expanding Premiere scheme when it is so widely recognised, and perhaps Laithwaites could have included the equally well-rated, but not so best-selling white or rosato from the range.

If the map view of Italy is shaped like a boot, then Puglia is situated at the heel of the boot. The land here is flat and rolling and one respected wine academic once described it to me as ‘the heel without the hills’.

Care has gone in to the presentation of the bottle with the label (highlighting the English translation of ‘Il Papavero’) depicting a poppy.  In the glass this is a dense, dark (but not quite opaque), ruby purple.

The nose is forthcoming and full of ripened black cherry, pepper spice, brambles and vanilla, and feels warm, velvety, rich and rewarding.  Nestled amongst the vibrantly youthful fruit there are also tertiary characters lurking and I could detect leather and tobacco.

The Palate, like the nose, is rich and fresh and full of black cherry, pepper spice and meaty characters.  The overall palate feels complex yet smooth and mellow, and thoroughly impressive at this price-point.

There’s also the Italian hallmark of high acidity (allowing the wine to be enjoyed with the local cuisine of tomato and meat dishes) but it counterpoints equally with the richer meatier aspects of the wine.  A pleasure to drink.

Verdict: A tough one this month as the Il Papavero absolutely has the upfront complex qualities, but there’s kudos points for the hidden charms of the Tesoro de Castilla, so I’ll call it a draw.

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