The Other Side Of The Tasting Table

November sees Laithwaites bring its flagship LIVE event to Manchester as part of a national tour, with 2018 events scheduled for both Cardiff and Glasgow.  Unable to attend their recent autumn showcase due to diary clashes, when the LIVE show pulled in to London recently I took the plunge and signed up to help out at the event to understand how the complete experience operates.

Front of Stand

Happy to take on any role, whether moving boxes behind the scenes to helping customers with buying queries, I secretly hoped to get a role on a producer’s stand.  Not only would this give me direct customer contact, it would also allow me to focus on specific wines and sell their virtues and history in a personal 1-2-1 way.

Several days prior to the event my joining instructions arrived and, with some trepidation, I opened the envelope to see the role I had been allocated.  Success – I would indeed be running my own stand, but for niche wines that I, and likely many of Laithwaites’ customers, would be unfamiliar with.

Due to a very healthy domestic market, Austrian wine is fairly unknown in the UK as relatively few bottles make their way over, certainly not in the numbers compared to stalwart countries such as France, Italy, Spain etc.

That the Laithwaites Austrian wine selection was tacked on to a stand alongside German wine was already quite telling, and I gradually realised the scale of my task.  Not only was I now the sole public face for an absent winemaker’s hard work, my role was also to draw in and enlighten customers to wine from a country they may not ordinarily consider, made from grape varieties they may not even be able to pronounce, let alone know or trust.

Game on.

Able to try the wines on the day ahead of the session, my natural curiousity ensured that I picked up a bottle of each ahead of time to evaluate it properly at home.  From producer Winzer Krems, the wines are labelled as Danaris, derived from the ancient name for the Danube River which flows through the region.

Wine-making in Austria is focused on the eastern side of the country, and Kremstal (where these wines hail from) is one of the top production areas.

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Danaris Blauer Zweigelt 2015, Kremstal, Austria, 13%, £9.99

Although Blauer Zweigelt may not be near the top of a list of grapes to try, this Austrian speciality (a crossing of two different varieties, created in 1922 by a Dr Zweigelt) is considered a premium variety.  In short, it’s the right grape grown in the right place.

Attention to detail comes in the form of hand-harvested grapes, and both of these wines benefit from the clay and limestone based soils.  The clay retains moisture and swells the fruit flavours, working in conjunction with the less dense, free-flowing limestone which adds acidity and freshness.

The nose and palate provided sour red cherry, stewed prune and sweet blackcurrant, backed up with light vanilla, violets and black pepper spice.  The medium body had an active but mellow acidity, twinned with a good weight that washes easily across the palate.

The light upfront cherry with later touches of spice was reminiscent to me of Pinot Noir paired with the best back-palate of Merlot, or perhaps a lighter Shiraz.

Something my home tasting noted, but which wouldn’t necessarily have been apparent at the LIVE event, was the difference that a bit of aeration had on the wine, really bringing out a liquorice character.

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Danaris Grüner Veltliner 2016, Austria, 12% £10.99

Thanks perhaps to a hip sommelier movement, Grüner Veltliner, although still niche, is the more popular of the two varieties, potentially down to the tendency for it to be abbreviated to GrüVe (“groovy”).  Once again this is a signature Austrian grape variety.

With a golden colouring in the glass, this had zesty lime, pear and crunchy green apple on the nose, with a lingering white pepper finish. The palate added refreshing well-ripened tropical pineapple, a touch of cream, lemon citrus, light peach and a touch of vanilla florality.

The oily, gloopy rich medium weight in the mouth blended well with the refreshing acidity, providing different fruit layers, both sweet and sour.  Overall this is a very composed, complex wine with an almost aged quality that really fills the senses.

First CustomersThe Doors open!

Once the event doors were opened everyone naturally headed for the Champagne and Sparkling wines (which are always positioned as the first stands to greet you) or to their favourite producers, and it was a good 25 minutes before the first curious drinker arrived.  I needn’t have worried though as, shortly after this, a trickle of interested faces began to turn in to a steady stream.

By the end of the night I had poured wine for people trying Austrian wine for the first time, experienced Austrian oenophiles looking for bottles similar to those they’d enjoyed whilst on holiday there, generally curious wine lovers, as well as slightly tipsy people looking for anything at all.

Whether they were simply interested in trying the wines and having their own quiet contemplation, or looking to me for more detailed information to help them with the why they were tasting what they were tasting, I enjoyed every second of the evening and cannot wait to volunteer for the next local event.

My Side Of Things v2

If any other wine lovers out there are thinking of dipping their toe in the water with volunteering, I would wholeheartedly recommend it!

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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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Moét & Chandon Academy, London – Review

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Moét & Chandon have set up camp for the next two weeks in the Oxo Tower, London to spread the word about their Champagne, their history, and an opportunity to taste through their range. This is the first time that such an academy has been run, and on one of the hottest days of the year so far, you couldn’t get me through the doors fast enough.

The academy is split in to two halves of 45 minutes each. First up is approved WSET educator Jonny Gibson, providing a bite-size history of the company, and then guiding you on a walk through the vines (literally!). In a no expense spared move, Moét have transferred rows of all three of the grape varieties found in Champagne (Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Meunier) in to the first stage of the tour. Interestingly the vines have been growing in artificial sunlight for the last 3 weeks to make them a little more advanced in growth than they would be at this time of year. This, in turn, makes them a little bit more interesting to look at (as a small time grower of Chardonnay I was worried that my own ones were well behind!).

In order to appreciate what happens next to the grapes, we were treated to an exciting and rare opportunity to try the still base wines for M&C Impérial NV (Non Vintage). This is something that few outside of the blending team and key Moét staff ever get to try. Base wines will be re-fermented in bottles, and a full three and a half years later, you have the final product. It was fascinating to be able to compare these base wines with the finished product later in the academy, in order to fully appreciate just what the second fermentation adds. Following a video demonstration of how bottles are disgorged/readied for sale, it was on to the tasting area which is being run by the husband and wife team of Peter Richards MW and Susie Barrie MW (both will be familiar to viewers of BBC1’s Saturday Kitchen). As they’re taking turns to present back the tasting sessions, whilst Susie was on-hand throughout, Peter was very much running the show today.

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Bizarrely enough for a Champagne tasting, the first wine to be tasted was a Prosecco! It’s understandably a rarity for Moét to include an Italian sparkler in their tasting line-ups, but it helped to set the scene as to how classic the entry level Non Vintage is.

The line-up of M&C wines tasted were as follows:

Brut Impérial NV, paired with Cheese Gougére

Rosé Impérial NV, paired with a mini tart of Olives, Tomato, Basil and Pesto

Grand Vintage 2006, paired with a Puff Pastry tart with Caramelised Onion and Mushroom

Ice Impérial NV, paired with Raspberry Macaroon

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In the interest of space I won’t go in to my personal tasting notes for each pairing, but suffice to say, there was more than one surprise for me here, and the food matching was an unexpected element to the academy. Also of surprise, was the inclusion of the M&C Ice Impérial which made its debut in the range only last year, and is not something I’d heard of before. This is a specific blend, made to be served over ice, and is a lively fresh experience that will no doubt be extremely popular over the warmer months.

The ever affable Peter Richards was a joy to listen to and made time for everyone afterwards. I’ve been on a fair few cellar tours and tastings in my time, and the one thing that brings them alive for me (apart from getting to try the wines) is the small anecdotes which are useful when getting complex matters across, or make for good use as small talk at parties. For instance, I was aware that the pressure in a bottle of Champagne was the equivalent to that found in the tyre of a double-decker bus, but this was also augmented with the fact the pressure is also the equivalent of being 50 metres underwater. And did you know that Champagne corks have been measured leaving bottles of Champagne at 60 miles per hour?

I was highly amused at Peter’s own way of remembering the key starting issue of how to pronounce the word Moét. The main way people tend to pronounce it is Mo-ay, but as that can be rhymed with ‘No Way’, you know it’s not right. If you pronounce it Mo-et, that’s not right either, as ‘Mow it’ is something you do with your grass. Finally, the way to get it right was to think of the great Champagne you are tasting and to think ‘Mmmm, wet’, ergo Moét (or Mwet). I think he was right that it sounds much better in a French accent when saying it correctly, and I think it will take me some time to get out of the grass mowing pronunciation.

The Academy was a fantastic experience, and a huge thank you goes to both Tesco and Moét for providing the opportunity!

The Moét Academy runs at the OXO Tower, London until the 24th April with limited tickets still available

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