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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Laithwaites Premiere Tasting – May 2016

Maybe it’s because the sun has finally arrived here in the UK or maybe it is just good labelling, but both the wines supplied as part of the May offering from Laithwaites Premier looked absolutely inviting and ready to drink.  Added to which they are two wines that I’ve never heard of before, let alone tried, so it’s another great opportunity.

Belle Saison

La Belle Saison Sauvignon Blanc 2015, France, 11.5%, £8.99

Unusually for this scheme, this white wine is on the low alcohol side clocking in at just 11.5%, but the price-point is still where you’d expect for a good quality Sauvignon Blanc.  The question is: can it deliver on the palate?

French Sauvignon Blanc traditionally hails from the Loire, but this wine is labelled simply as a ‘Vin de France’ and so no identifiable geographic indication is clearly given.  In fact, this wine hails from various vineyards across the south-west of the country, allowing the winemakers to create a consistent blend.  To me, £8.99 seems a little on the high side for a wine that is sourced from such a wide arena, but at least we can applaud the efforts to craft a typical French Sauvignon Blanc.

From the hands of winemaker Hervé Sabardeil (who also makes Laithwaites favourite Chante-Clair), this wine is bottled under a nice green screw-cap which well accentuates the lemon yellow wine.  The label, as mentioned above, speaks clearly of a summery floral wine, which is exactly what you get.

In the glass, the pale lemon yellow is joined by green tints to the rim.  A good intense nose is filled with the light fresh green fruits of apple and pears along with a touch of honey and peach.  There are also the signature fragrant notes of cut grass to add to the fresh lemon.

The palate dances between yellow and green fruits, delivering the flesh of green apples and pears and then jumps towards tropical yellow melon.  The varied fruit salad notes continue with both traces of banana and dried pineapple discernible.  Overall this is a zesty, slightly tart, mouth-watering wine.  The medium weight is balanced well against the lip-smacking acids, with the fruits delivering a good long satisfying length.

Refreshing, utterly drinkable without food, and a good example of a cool climate Sauvignon Blanc.  What isn’t noticeable, but you can raise a glass to, is the lower alcohol level.  This allows you to feel just that bit better about the next glass, even if the bottle price won’t.

Mulberry Bush

The Mulberry Bush Shiraz Merlot 2015, Robertson, South Africa, 14%, £8.99

I seem to be trying more and more South African wines recently which is probably testament to how much more accessible they have become.  In addition, in my continual bid to stay away from the well beaten track and broaden my horizons, I find myself trying less and less Shiraz and Merlot and so this is something of a homecoming.

This bottle (55% Shiraz, 45% Merlot) comes from third generation winemaker Jacques Bruwer and, with famed wine writer Hugh Johnson extolling the virtues of the Cape for quality and value, we should be in for a treat.

We’re in the south-west of the south-western tip of South Africa here, nestled between the mountain ranges of Langeberg and Riversonderend in the Robertson region.  Long sunny days are tempered with the cool misty nights and coastal breezes rolling in from the Indian Ocean, which allows the grapes to have an elongated hang time throughout the season, and fully ripen to maturity.

In colour this is an inky-dark youthful purple in colour.  On the nose there are dark plummy notes alongside redcurrant, damson and raisin, and the tertiary characters of fruitcake and coffee.  Overall it’s a winter warming scent with sweet spices and varnished wood.

As you would expect from the Syrah and Merlot grapes, the palate of this wine is heavy on the fruitcake and spice characters, alongside further notes of wood and brambles.  There’s redcurrants, black cherry, plums, damson, figs, all providing a well weighted body.  I’d also say, given the name of the wine that there’s some mulberry in there too!

The fruit is full, ripe and crunchy in character, and a medium acid draws the cherry and warmth from the relatively high alcohol (14%) in to the end palate.  Overall this is a smooth and mellow wine, perfect with meats or stews, or even on its own, and it was nice to reacquaint myself with these grape varieties after what has probably been too long.

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Laithwaites Premiere Tasting -April 2016

April may well and truly be over, but I’ve still got the two Laithwaites Premiere bottles to review, so here goes.

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First up is the Campanula Pinot Grigio which is actually already something of a best-selling white from Laithwaites, so it is great that it forms part of the Premiere range as these schemes can so often be for pushing wines that aren’t selling well.  Whilst I’m familiar with their (now unavailable) Pinot Noir, I’ve never tried any of their white offerings, so this is a good opportunity.

Another point of interest here is the fact that this wine is from Hungary and not, as you may well initially expect, from the Pinot Grigio stronghold of northern Italy.  There’s a good historical reason for the grape making the journey to Hungary, dating back to when the King of Naples’ daughter married the Hungarian King and he became a great patron of her Italian roots, culture, arts and science.

Named after the bluebells that grew around the vineyards, this wine is produced by winemaker Gábor Laczkó in the northern central village of Etyek, some 50 kilometres from Budapest.  This Pinot Grigio was ‘commended’ at the International Wines & Spirits Challenge 2015.

Laith Campanula

Campanula Pinot Grigio 2014, Dunántúl, Hungary, 12%, £8.49

The wine is a light pale lemon yellow in colour with inviting golden hints to the rim.  The nose is pronounced, strong and intense, with clear green apple flesh, citrus, some cream and a whiff of spice.  The depth of the nose is suggestive of a nicely weighted palate, and this is indeed what you receive.

On the palate the fresh green flesh notes last throughout, and are added to with apple pips and pear.  There’s prominent lemon and lime and a mouth-watering acidity that means the overall sensation is fresh and more-ish.

The end palate is rounded out with a slight woodiness to match the ripe fruit, and the finish is all about the fresh apple and cream texture.

Overall this is a very nice white, and well crafted, but at £8.49 a bottle, it might just be a touch expensive.

Next up is a Spanish red blend from Extremadura, which is towards the south-west of the country, bordering Portugal.  The label tells us that the ‘Silver Route’, of which the wine takes its name, was the principal trade route used by the Roman Empire.  Cutting Spain north to south, the route allowed the Romans to move localised specialities such as wine and the famous iberico hams, to different parts of the country to trade for other materials.

The Extremadura region has deep red soils, and the Tempranillo (70%) and Syrah (30%) used for this bottling are from old vines based in Badajoz, just south of Merida.  From the combination of using the naturally spicy Syrah grape, a hot Spanish climate, and the intensity that comes from the concentrated lower yields of older vines, I’m expecting this to be a punchy wine.

Laith Silver Route

The Silver Route 2014 Tempranillo/Syrah Blend, Extremadura VdT, Spain, 14.5%, £8.99

The bottle looks great with the silver design setting off the dark colour of the wine superbly.  The kaleidoscope label is carried across to the top of the screw-cap which is a nice touch and shows a good bit of thought and care for the overall design.

In colour this a nice deep youthful purple colour, and the strong ripe fruity nose greets you well before your nose reaches the glass.  This is still a youthful intense, slightly confectionate black fruit-forward wine, with warmth and spice, and a definite nod towards currant fruit puddings.

For all that you detect on the nose, the palate is surprisingly not over-powering and has a medium weight, but it is crammed full of flavour.  Initially it is rich and spicy with dark fruit cake notes alongside bitter dark cocoa, and coffee.  You also get the hit of the ripe black fruits as well as a little light grainy (chalky) tannin.

A fresh medium acid keeps this gliding across the palate, but the overall sensation is quite moody and dark, with the fruit playing second fiddle to the more complex secondary notes such as the cake and cocoa.  This is the character of the wine, more than the complexity, but this is still an enjoyable easy drink.

The length is medium and really makes the most of the chocolate.  I like this one for the price and it gets an overall thumbs up.

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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.

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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.

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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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Laithwaites Premiere Taste Panel – September 2015

I wrote back in July about the Premiere selections from leading online wine merchant Laithwaites where, for a one-off yearly charge, they send you 2 additional bottles to try every time you purchase a case of wine.  These additions are specially picked wines by the Laithwaites team, the idea being that, because you haven’t ordered them, you probably won’t have tried them, and this promotes a good way to expanding your wine horizons.  In my first 3 months as a member I noted that the selections provided seemed firmly rooted at the £8.99 price-point, so I was pleased and interested when this months’ selections turned up with recommended retail prices set at £9.49 and £9.99.

Time to see if the extra pennies would add much in terms of the quality of these new discoveries.

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Pago Centro Sauvignon Blanc 2015 – San Antonio, Chile – 13.5% abv – £9.49

A pleasing pale straw colour, with visible tears in the glass hinting at the high alcohol level from the well ripened grapes.  The San Antonio valley is coastal and so the natural heat of the climate is moderated with the cool sea air, giving a long balanced growing season.

The nose is extremely full with a myriad of fruits and fragrances vying for attention.  Alongside the grassiness that you would expect from Sauvignon Blanc is a touch of dried tropical fruit alongside apples and pears, citrus, kiwi and asparagus.

This medium bodied wine is packed with a mouth-watering acidity.  The key notes are fleshy green apple, intense lime, cream, and just a touch of oil.  The interesting thing about this wine is the way that the layers approach you – one minute you are experiencing the fresh citrus, the next is a fruit medley, and then it is back to the citrus.  This carries on throughout the finish, which is extremely long and enjoyable.

After I raved about the Tesco Finest Sancerre last month, I am now completely converted to Sauvignon Blanc around the £10-£12 price-point.  Being primarily a red wine drinker, and well aware of the fashion for Sauvignon Blanc and the (too) abundant choice in the entry level arena, it has not been something that I have gravitated towards.  The producer here is top Chilean estate Luis Felipe Edwards, who have teamed up with award winning New Zealand winemaker Matt Thomson.  Clearly winemakers from New Zealand know a thing or two about producing Sauvignon Blanc, and the team effort here and the strict selection of grapes has produced a beautiful wine.

I’m definitely going to pick up more of this.

Don Mendo Gran Reserva 2008 – Carinena DO, Spain – 13% abv – £ 9.99

From the north-eastern Spanish region of Carinena, this wine is a blend of Tempranillo (60%), Grenache (30%) and Carinena (10%).

6 years maturing in both barrel and bottle have helped to give this wine an opaque dark appearance.  The nose is an austere, dark, stewed and confected mixture, with hints of red cherry sweetness and notable liquorice, and was actually incredibly similar to the nose of a Port.

The palate is smooth like velvet, but in contrast to the heaviness of the nose, the body comes though as medium and not over-bearing at all.  Dark cherry hits you straight away, and this gives way to a slightly distracting acidity which floods the mid-palate somewhat.  The finish is of a decent length and does retrieve some of the fully ripe fruits, but I detected a slight alcohol burn (which is odd as this isn’t that high alcohol).  After the first glass I left the wine to air for an hour and came back to it.  In fairness, the acidity had dropped away, the weight had rounded out and newer flavours of dark chocolate appeared to give the wine the body it needed.  This is a wine that I would recommend to decant first, and I don’t think I saw it at its best.

In summary, I think I need to try a further bottle to fully evaluate it.  It didn’t grab me straight away, which a good wine should be able to do, but there is clear evidence of good wine-making technique.

Even allowing for the need to re-try the Don Mendo, I adore the Pago Centro, which gives the ‘try a new wine’ experience a 50% success rate, and keeps me an advocate of the Premiere scheme.  I’m already looking forward to next month.

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