The Wine Show Chelsea & Sparkling Masterclass

Building on the success of the inaugural event last year the Wine Show Chelsea returned to London last week and I decided to pop along to try it out for myself.

chelsea-logo

Held over three days in the historic Kings Road Chelsea Town Hall venue, the show was devised by wine trade publication The Drinks Business to bring together the best that London merchants have to offer.

Having been to many wine shows in the past I was initially a bit worried as there were only twenty exhibitors in place, but this doubt was unfounded and in the end, I only managed to visit eight of them such were the diverse offerings and knowledgeable experts on hand.

Firstly though a diversion, and I was signed up to a Sparkling wines masterclass pitting England against the rest of the world.  Hosted by not one, but two (!), Masters of Wine (MW’s) this was a rare insight in to the critical tasting approach at the top level of wine appreciation, as well as being a good refresher of the ‘why’ you are tasting what you are tasting.

Hosted by the editor-in-chief of The Drinks Business Patrick Schmitt MW, we were invited to blind taste and rate the 10 sparkling wines on offer, giving our own thoughts on grape variety, climate and key taste indicators.  Michelle Cherutti-Kowal MW then worked us through our reasoning; guiding, correcting and validating our theories as to the origins of what we were drinking.

The general winners on the day were the English wines which, hedging the bets somewhat, comprised 3 out of the 10 wines.  Also showing well was a Loire Valley Brut NV and the ‘curve-ball’ Canadian sparkling from Benjamin Bridge.  Having reviewed this wine only a few months ago, I was a bit annoyed that I didn’t recognise it (although that was the whole point of the curve-ball), but it did make my top 3 wines of the session along with the aforementioned Loire Brut and a Champagne de Castelnau NV Brut Reserve.

Masterclass completed it was then off to the exhibitors at large and I kicked things off with producer and re-seller Caves d’Esclans and their array of French rosé.  We were able to taste from both 75cl bottle and magnum to compare, and I concentrated on working my way up towards the Chateau d’Esclans Garrus 2014.

This small production wine has a retail price of circa £80 and is known by some as the ‘Dom Pérignon’ of the rosé world, which of course piqued my interest.  It was a lovely pale, creamy yet spicy drink, but I couldn’t say that it justified the high price tag.

Now that I had warmed my palate up I moved on to the Finest Fizz stand, and a clutch of £30+ Champagnes (including 2 from Hautvilliers, the birthplace of a certain Dom Pérignon – sorry, I’ll drop the links now!).

Highlights here included their ‘skinny’ rosé (£40) which has just 275 calories per bottle, equivalent to one large glass of an average red wine, and the Bernard Pertois Blanc de Blancs Grand Cru NV (£34) which was a creamy dream likened to Krug (and probably a hint as to why Krug are trying to get the winemaker to work on their team).

Next up were my friends from boutique merchant Friarwood who had a lively selection of reds and whites from across the globe.  The team were so full of stories, anecdotes and general wine knowledge that I probably did more talking than tasting at this stand, but I did manage to try a velvety organic Super-Tuscan from Conti di San Bonifacio (£18.50) and a delicious 2010 Chateau Fonplegade GCC from Saint Emilion (£47.50).

I then crossed over to iDealwine, an international wine auction site who had the wine that was probably the highlight of the show for me – a 1989 Chateau Suduiraut Sauternes (£64).  Tasting as fresh and inviting as the day it was made, this 27 year old sweet wine was a rich nutty, honey and caramelised taste of greatness. Delicious.

Wine importer Hard to Find Wines gave me my first taste of a wine from Luxembourg.  From the far right east coast of the country, the vineyards straddle the Moselle (as it is called here) and gave off a very similar experience to the Germanic wines from the Mosel.  Made from the Auxerrois grape, the wine was lean with a very direct acidity.

Also on show was a Malbec from Franschhoek in South Africa.  A grape more akin to other countries, Malbec is beginning to be planted in many other countries for the first time and it was interesting to try this blood-red variant full of bitter chocolate and mocha notes.

The above notes really only scratch the surface of my time at the show and I can easily say that it was phenomenally rewarding, giving me access to a really great masterclass, some stunning wines, and some truly great people.

With thanks to The Drinks Business and Unionpress for the ticket used for this tasting.

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Aldi (7th Panel) Wine Club Tasting #5 – Muscadet Sévre Et Maine 2015

I’m nearing the end of my 6 tastings for Aldi and so here we are already at my penultimate note.  Today we’re travelling to the western end of the Loire Valley, itself located in western France, and trying a Muscadet Sévre Et Maine.  The name of the wine comes from the area as well as the two rivers that flow through the Pays Nantais.

The grape variety used for this wine is Melon de Bourgogne (aka Melon in the USA) which, as the name suggests, was traditionally a variety grown in Burgundy.  Aside of some US plantings it is now so synonymous with the Loire that the grape is even sometimes known as Muscadet.  Whilst the grape variety might be unfamiliar to many, the fact that the French plantings survive in the Loire is a good indication that the variety works in this maritime northern climate.  This adopted homeland, alongside a fussy marginal northern climate (especially when moderated by the cool ocean breezes and the cool air from the Loire River itself), mean that we should be looking for both a delicate wine as well as a good overall quality.

Aldi Muscadet

The Exquisite Collection Muscadet Sévre Et Maine 2015, Loire Valley, France, 12%, £4.99

This wine is bottled under screw-cap as many a fresh youthful white wine is, and once again has the pleasing (to my eye) Royal blue coloured seal to offset against the green hue of the bottle.

In colour, this wine is on the lighter side of lemon yellow and has lovely green tints to the rim.  The nose is one you don’t want to over-chill and kill the flavours on, as it pairs a lightness of touch with an intense delivery. It draws together a myriad of sensations which kick off with lots of lemon, a whiff of lime, green apples, grapey characters, and a touch of peach.

In the mouth the first thing I notice is the gloopy quality and good weight that the wine has.  This is closely followed by a generous acidity which manages to be both all-encompassing and yet direct and linear.  Next up is a crisp delivery of lemon citrus, fruity peach, a dash of orange peel, and a slightly sour ending, which for me is like taking a huge bite in to a grapefruit.   The fruits are under-pinned with a smoky creaminess that comes from the lees (yeast) ageing, which is indicated by the addition of the words ‘Sur Lie’ on the bottle.  This ageing is what also gives the wine its gloopy weight and definition.

The tangy acidity continues on the palate for some time after the swallow, along with some of the sour grapefruit notes.  Overall this is an extremely juicy, bouncy, vibrant and fresh wine which will go perfectly with light bites, and most fish or seafood dishes, as well as patisserie.

I always write my own tasting notes before looking at the back of the bottle or included notes for the suggestions of the producer, and one thing that was mentioned a couple of times but completely evaded me (no matter how hard I looked) was mint.  I simply couldn’t find it, but it’s worth mentioning it in case that’s your thing.

Overall this is an incredibly refreshing, and once again extremely competitively priced wine, given the layers of flavours that can be found.  At just 12% alcohol (which was once the norm but, thanks to the New World and global warming, is probably actually considered a low alcohol level now) my own personal palate yearns for a bit more of the robust and fuller bodied white wines that I am used to.  That’s not a criticism of the wine or how it compares to other bottles of Muscadet (of which delicacy is a key trait) but merely to highlight that whilst this does have an intense character, it is notable for a lighter, subtler style.

With thanks to Aldi UK for supplying the bottle used in this tasting.

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Seeing double

When writing ‘seeing double’ in a wine column it could well be expected that it would be a reference to the effects of over imbibing. Today’s post, however, is looking at the subtle complexities within wine education. When trying to understand any complex subject matter it’s best to have access to clear information, however, the further you look in to something, the cloudier it becomes.

This might all sound like I’m talking about peering through a glass of badly oxidised wine, but I’m actually talking about the curious double use of many terms, or terms similar enough to confuse the learner. It was whilst looking at a map of Spain last week, or more precisely at Galicia in the Northwest, I did a double-take, spotting that the capital city is named Santiago. Both in and out of the wine world, when you think of a capital city called Santiago you’re more likely to bring Chile to mind. “Fair enough” I hear you say, the Spanish Santiago is unlikely to come up in many wine texts, and so naturally is unlikely to cause confusion. Indeed, many places have the same name as others – here in Berkshire I live not 5 miles away from Hermitage, but I’m nowhere near to the famous French hill known for its top quality Syrah. So well known in fact, that when Syrah was imported in to Australia, they christened the grape variety ‘Hermitage’. Thankfully this confusion (and many others, such as the USA making ‘Burgundy’) were outlawed at the end of the 1980’s when French designation laws protected the name.

Herm2Herm         One Hermitage to another

In terms of other confusing place names there is Rioja. Any wine lover knows (and probably loves) their Spanish Rioja, but there is also another – La Rioja, and that’s in Argentina.

Regions can be a pain too; California has a Central region, but so does Chile. There’s also the Central Vineyards of the Loire. Let’s not forget Coastal regions; South Africa has one of those, and the Californian coast is split in to the North coast, North central coast and South central coast.

I’m reminded of the upset that followed a recent WSET exam when the question ‘write a paragraph about VDP’ came up. Many students naturally assumed that they would be writing about Vin de Pays, the classification for French wines that sits just above Vin de table. Imagine the surprise then when the results came back, which told them they were supposed to be writing about Verband Deutscher Prädikats, a German quality wine classification.

There’s always some initial confusion with Muscadelle / Muscadet / Muscat (I seem to recall a multiple choice question in an early WSET exam I took that looked to pick up on this). Muscadelle being a Bordeaux grape variety, Muscadet being a Loire Valley wine (made from the Melon grape), and Muscat being a widely used grape variety.

My pet peeve ‘double’ has to go to Italy where they have a grape from the Piedmont region called Barbera. The Piedmont region is also home to a wine called Barbaresco, and naturally enough you might assume that the grape makes the similarly titled wine. Not so. The Barbera grape is commonly used to round out blends, and Barbaresco is made from the Nebbiolo grape. Now, it was the Italians that thought that the sparkling wine Prosecco being made from a grape also called Prosecco was so confusing, that the grape variety was officially renamed to Glera. Personally, I think that the Barbera situation is just as confusing!

There’s doubtless many more doubles in the wine world waiting to trip us up. I’d be interested to hear of any that you’ve come across, or have had trouble with in the past.

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The ‘Lost’ wine region

For some time now I’ve been intrigued by the ‘Kimmeridgian Chain’ – numerous vineyards set within a belt of distinct soil (AKA Terres Blanches), that diagonally cuts its’ way across northern France (see picture below). The belt itself is a by-product of a geological feature known as the Paris basin – plates of land staggering progressively inwards. As part of this sagging process, a defined strata of land became exposed between two layers; an older Jurassic era ridge of crushed marine deposits, comprising a hard limestone top on a chalky marl base (marl is composed of lime-rich clay and silt). The name Kimmeridgian is said to originate from the village of Kimmeridge in Dorset,England where there is a well exposed coastline of similar age and soil composition.

map b

The distinct soil mix brings differing attributes to resulting wines, even those produced in the same wine regions, but not within the belt. In some cases, different grape varieties are used to compliment the soil variation. This being the case, why were these unique vineyards simply swallowed up in to other wine regions? Regions that are many miles away, across land not used for viticulture. Given that the French invented the concept of terroir – that the place is so important to the wines it produces – and that the French have the most delineated wine/land appellation system in the world, why were these areas not grouped together by themselves to form a new region?

Within this belt we find:

– The Aube – The southern vineyards of the Champagne region

– Central Vineyards (AKA Sancerre, Pouilly, and several other village sites) – The eastern end of the Loire

– Chablis – The extreme northern part of Burgundy

Parent region has had little effect on the reputations of world famous places such as Sancerre, Pouilly (as in Fumé) and Chablis. This fame though, is largely down to the unique expressions of the crisp white wines produced, and this stems from the unique soil. Chablis sits 75 vine-free miles north of the Cóte de Nuits in Burgundy, and the towns of Sancerre/Pouilly are about the same distance away from the next vines in the Loire. With the Loire valley being over 170 miles in length you will naturally find numerous grape varieties, soil types, and even climatic influences, but Sancerre/Pouilly find themselves planted over to Sauvignon Blanc/Pinot Noir as opposed to the main Loire white/red varieties of Chenin Blanc/Cabernet Franc. As the soils along the banks of the river have a greater composition of rock/schist compared to the chain, different varieties thrive. Co-incidentally, Decanter recently ran a feature on the red wines of Sancerre, suggesting they were more Burgundian in style, and unlike any red you would associate with the Loire.

In Chablis, they may use the Burgundian variety of Chardonnay, but they produce a very different style of wine. Chablis is widely respected for its crisp mineral whites full of refreshing acidity, and linear precision. This is streets away from the archetypal Burgundian Chardonnay; a deep brooding body with creamy/buttery textures from subtle oak barrel influence. Again this comes from differing production methods (favouring Stainless steel as opposed to barrel), and the unique terroir – the Chardonnay grape working magnificently on the cold limestone and clay.

It’s a different story when we look at the Aube in southern Champagne, as they haven’t yet managed to find real fame on their own merit. Just over 100 years ago, The Champenois – notorious for protecting their brand – drew up their permitted production zones, and excluded the Aube on the basis that their grapes were of a second standard (they had no Premier or Grand Cru sites). The Government even went as far as passing a bill to that effect but, unsurprisingly, this didn’t go down well with Aube vignerons, and the rioting that followed in 1911 saw a worried government hastily annul the original bill. The Aube were finally officially admitted in to the region in 1927, but their role has simply been to provide the grapes to round out Champagne blends. If the Aube vignerons hadn’t persisted in the uphill battle to be part of a region that was so dismissive of it, could they have pushed harder with their wines, achieving better than just producing grapes suitable to only form part of a blend? Being mainly planted to Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, both key components of Champagne, but having the clay based soil of the Kimmeridgian chain instead of the deep chalk found elsewhere in Champagne, they’re capable of producing a Pinot more Burgundian in style. A feature late last year by US publication Wine Spectator suggests that wines from the Aube are on the up, but time will tell.

Should these villages have historically clubbed together and formed a mini-region of their own to produce world class Sauvignon Blanc, and Pinot and Chardonnay to rival their Burgundian neighbour? Perhaps, due to the fact that quality will always shine through, maybe it hasn’t mattered in which region they sit. It’s interesting to ponder.

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