Laithwaites Vintage Festival 2017

Laithwaites recently opened the doors on their 38th Vintage Wine Festival and, fittingly for the ever expansive world of wine, it was bigger than ever before.  Not only were they showing over 380 wines on the day but they had representation from Turkey from the first time and were now including their incredibly popular sensory session ‘Tasting in the Dark’.

2017 Laithwaites Vintage Festival

The Fine Wine room was once again in place meaning that, along with the tasting theatres and other assorted activities (including an ‘I’m a Celebrity…’ influenced pairing of jungle critters to wine), there was a seriously wide array of activities to cover off in the time.

Having been a Laithwaites customer for many years and having been to other portfolio tastings of theirs I decided that the general tasting room would be tackled only where time permitted.  In the end, aside from a handful of English wine producers (including Ridgeview), I simply didn’t get the time.  How curious to attend a wine tasting and spend virtually no time at all in the main wine tasting!

To be fair though, the Fine Wine upgrade is a complete and absorbing experience in itself and in many ways equal or better than some standalone tasting events I’ve been to.  Mildly saddened that they hadn’t used the Willy Wonka-style glass elevator from last year, this year’s entry was via an equally glamorous private staircase complete with red carpet.

2017 Red Carpet Laithwaites

Now split over multiple rooms the Fine Wine experience is bigger than ever and more of a Fine Wine floor.  I spent two full hours tasting through the majority of the 67 wines and spirits on display and, perhaps mischievously, tried a couple of them more than once.  My first three pours were all very much double-tasters, with my perennial favourite Dom Pérignon (2006, £120) to start me off.

Alongside this was the ever reliable Krug Grande Cuvée (£130) and the Charles Heidsieck Blanc des Millénaires 1995 (£120).  Having been an award winning stalwart for at least 10 years, my host informed me that the stocks of this exalted 1995 wine are now running down and Heidsieck are heading for the new vintage.  Although she wouldn’t confirm which year this would be, she did say there would be a leap forward, and my money is on the powerful 2002.   My only regret here was that the Roederer Cristal wasn’t on display as per last year even though they have moved forward from the 2007 to the 2009 vintage.

2017 Laithwaites Vintage Festival Fine Wine Room

Other rare wine highlights included:

  • Cháteau Gruaud-Larose 2001 – £80. Black cherry fruit with woody touches.  Seriously good length
  • Cháteau La Tour Carnet 2010 – £45. Extremely floral nose, light tannin, silky soft fruit
  • Prunotto Bric Turot Barbaresco 2013 – £45. From Italian genius Antinori.  Subtle but intense, fragrant and feminine
  • La Rioja Alta Gran 2004 Reserva 890 (served from Magnum) – £145. One of the last bottles remaining from this vintage, it was soft and retained a vibrant acid whilst having tertiary coffee notes and almost the character of a tawny port

Following my Fine Wine session I headed off to the tasting theatre for a 30-minute session with ‘Mr Wine’ himself, Oz Clarke.  Whilst always being a part of the Laithwaites brand, at this festival Oz was almost omni-present, to the extent of a camera following his every move around the event.  This session though caught the raconteur at his relaxed best and gave us a canter through some of his ‘Desert Island Wines’.

Hosted by Master of Wine Justin-Howard Sneyd, the session was a rollercoaster of wit and repartee, running well over time as Oz discussed wine, film (he was in the first Superman film if you hadn’t spotted him), train trips, TV co-host Jilly Goolden (he still won’t confirm if they are or aren’t married!), and how he found his love of all things vinous.

Oz Masterclassjpg

His choices on the day included:

  • Support for English vineyards through a Rosé from Wyfold Valley (I’ll be visiting here shortly so look forward to a vineyard review in due course)
  • A classic Bordeaux 1969, amazingly still available through Laithwaites from producer Château La Tour du Roch-Milon
  • A fine example of stalwart Australian producer Penfolds and their classic Bin 311 Chardonnay 2015
  • A nod to the well-respected wines of Spain with the Altos de la Guardia Reserva 2011

As hinted at earlier, Oz could seriously talk for hours such is his passion and wealth of experience on the subject, and he did run over by some 15 minutes.  Nevertheless I was able to have a quick catch-up with him at the end of the session to gauge his thoughts on the possibilities of him bringing wine back to mainstream TV following the success of The Wine Show.

As well as confirming that James May is still too much of a man in demand following the Top Gear decampment to Amazon and, as full of praise as he was for Wine Show host Joe Fattorini, Oz was just beginning to convey to me his view as to why the new show hadn’t been a complete success in his eyes when a bunch of four ladies mobbed him for a photo opportunity.

Frustratingly that was the last I heard on the subject from him.  How I would have loved to have finished off that conversation!

Due to the session running over and the impromptu Q&A after, my time at the event was now drawing to an end.  I scarcely had time to match a dried bee to an Aussie Shiraz at the ‘I’m a Celebrity’ stand before it was time to go.

Once again this was a wine event not to miss and, although I scarcely spent any time in the main arena at all, pound for pound on the samples tried in the Fine Wine room, I certainly covered my fair share of ground and came away with many taste memories.

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

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Domaine Zind Humbrecht Masterclass

Jolene Hunter, the South African born winemaker at renowned Alsace producer Domaine Zind Humbrecht, was in town recently to present a selection of their wines in a terroir masterclass.

Zind Humbrecht

Although the individual families have been making wine since the 17th century, the modern day story really begins in 1959 when Léonard Humbrecht married Geneviève Zind.  Since this time the Domaine has grown to hold 40 hectares, including some of the very best parcels in Alsace’s top Grand Cru and Lieu Dit sites.

Now run by Léonard’s son Olivier (one of the rare number of winemakers who also holds the MW qualification), the Domaine is well known for its non-interventionist policies and have long practiced organic procedures.  The Domaine was certified fully biodynamic in 2002.

Rather than simply presenting us with a handful of the circa 30 wines in their portfolio, we were specifically comparing three grape varieties (Riesling, Pinot Gris and Gewurtztraminer) across two different Alsatian terroirs.

Windsbuhl

Clos Windsbuhl

Clos Windsbuhl is the more northern of the two sites and situated in Hunawihr.  The vines are spread over 5.5 hectares and planted at 350 metres above sea level which, when paired with the moderating effects from the great swathes of forest to the west, keeps the vines nicely cooled throughout the warm growing season.

The soil here is known as muschelkalk which is an extremely old form of limestone, and the resultant wines are full of clean and pure fruit expressions with well-defined acidity.

Zind Humbrecht Riesling 2014, Clos Windsbuhl, Alsace, 12.5%

Medium straw yellow in colour and with a deep citrus nose.  Rich gloopy palate full of creamy lemon, honey and white pepper.  A very precise streak of acidity cuts through the weight keeping this well balanced.

Zind Humbrecht Pinot Gris 2012, Clos Windsbuhl, Alsace ,13%

Strict sorting was required in the ripe vintage of 2012 and this ripeness was very evident on the nose.  With a similar youthful colouring to the Riesling, the nose here had touches of peach skin to the green notes of lime and apple.  The palate was slightly sweetened by the 36.5 grams of residual sugar and had a fleshy lemon curd quality.  Very clean and intense fruits played the lead here against a mellow acidity.

Zind Humbrecht Gewurtztraminer 2013, Clos Windsbuhl, Alsace ,13%

Golden in colour, the nose of this wine was full of sweet honey and lemon and extremely powerful.  A nice and firm weight in the mouth, the lemon citrus took the lead here backed up by green flesh on the end palate.  Like the Pinot Gris before it, a mellow acid took the rear and allowed the ripe fruit to sing on its own.  Very refreshing.

Thann

Rangen

We move south now to Rangen, and more specifically to the Clos Saint Urbain, which is the only site in the whole of Alsace that is fully classified as Grand Cru.  Sites are on very steep slopes here and are all fully worked by hand as mechanisation is impossible.

The soil is mainly composed of volcanic black rocks and fragments known as Grauwacke which brings out stronger, denser fruits and darker smoky notes.  The darker direction of the wine is also immediately visible in the more golden colouring.  The rocky fragments heat up quickly in the day warming the grapes and concentrating the sugars.  Once again the cooling effect of the high altitude, and the cool night temperatures allow sufficient acidity to remain.

Zind Humbrecht Riesling 2014, Rangen de Thann, Clos Saint Urbain, Alsace, 12.5%

2014 was a good vintage here and this resulting wine possesses a gold colour and lighter body.  The palate is lean, with a pin-point acidity matching up to the strong green lime and smoky notes.

Zind Humbrecht Pinot Gris 2012, Rangen de Thann, Clos Saint Urbain, Alsace, 14.5%

Golden green in colour, the nose of this wine was full of creamy citrus lemon and lime.  On the palate this is joined by fleshy apple flesh, cream, white pepper spice, and hints of peach.  Rich and smooth with a mellow, but defined, acid.  Fleshy palate, rich and smooth.

Zind Humbrecht Gewurtztraminer 2013, Rangen de Thann, Clos Saint Urbain, Alsace, 13.5%

Deep golden yellow in colour, the nose was full of sweet honey and lime nose, and a blossom fragrance.  Made from 34 year old vines, and with 42 grams of residual sugar, this was intense and sweet but not at all cloying.  Lots of deep honey and textured lemon.

Selection Grains Nobles (SGN)

One final comparison came in the form of the sweeter SGN style.  Made from strictly selected berries that have been affected by noble rot, these partially raisined grapes lose their water content leaving the rich and concentrated sugars.  SGN is the highest rating of late harvest wine in Alsace.

Pinot Gris Clos Windsbuhl SGN 2008, 10.8%

2008 was a good year for producing SGN wine as the weather was wet in the summer and then dry before harvest allowing the rot to stop and the rasining to commence.

Bronze in colour with very pronounced toffee and sweet honey on the nose, the dense weight was at no point cloying, and the high acid well balanced the ripe fruits of lemon citrus and green apple.  More matured fruit notes from dried pineapple and lemon curd.  Very long finish.

Pinot Gris Rangen de Thann Clos Saint Urbain SGN 2009, 11.8%

This wine was more of a deep gold in colour (the effect of the volcanic soil).  On the nose there was toffee, bruised and brown apple and light florality.  The palate was just like drinking liquid toffee and extremely satisfying.  Creamy and sugary, the acid was more towards medium in this wine and the overall sensation was nicely rounded.  Very long finish and extremely pleasant wine to finish on.

With thanks to Gonzalez Byass for the tickets to their portfolio tasting and Domaine Zind Humbrecht masterclass.

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Champagne Deutz Masterclass

Champagne Deutz were in town recently as part of the Gonzalez Byass 2017 portfolio tasting, and commercial director Etienne Defosse was on hand to guide us through a masterclass of eight of their wines.

Founded in 1838, much of their production is consumed domestically in France and so this session was a rare and welcome opportunity to taste through their standard Brut NV, their Vintage Champagnes, and their prestige Amour range.

deutz

Producing a mere 2 million bottles per year (a drop in the ocean compared to the annual 300 million bottles produced in the Champagne region), Deutz have 42 hectares, 80% of which are classified at either Grand Cru or Premier Cru level.  This accounts for 20% of their grape needs (a fairly high amount by Champagne standards), with the compliment bought in from the Cru status vineyards of local growers.

The house has 150 individual vats each containing one particular component of their wine.  This distinct and high level of separation gives them absolute control and flexibility when blending their final cuvées, and their NV, for example, contains the grapes from up to 40 different sites.  40% of their annual production is kept as reserve wines for future blending.

The big take-away from this tasting was just how rich and vibrant their wines are, from the classic and classy NV’s through to the rich, layered and yet fantastically ‘alive’ Amour vintages with 10+ years of age already under their belt.

Champagne Deutz Brut Classic NV ~ £30

The base of the current Classic NV is comprised 50% of grapes from 2013, with the compliment made up of 2012 and a touch of 2011.  The NV Champagnes account for 85% of Deutz production and Etienne enlightened us with a good level of detail of the costs involved (€6.50 per kilo of grapes and each bottle needing 1.5kg of grapes to make).

Composition is split evenly between Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier, and the house style is accessible, fresh, lively and crisp for immediate pleasure.

Champagne Deutz Rosé NV ~ £40-45

The current Rosé NV is comprised of 50% reserve wines, mainly from the 2011 vintage.  Fully refreshing and bursting with strawberry and cranberry fruit, this showed a good complexity at this level.

Champagne Deutz Blanc de Blancs 2009 ~£55

Hailing from the great year of 2009 this Blanc de Blancs had a wonderfully layered texture throughout.  The nose was full of bread and brioche, cream and a touch of smoke to the citrus.  The palate followed this up with lemon curd, a twist of lime, and blossom florality.

No oak is used in the ageing process and so the density and complexity here is fully achieved through the detailed blending.  Etienne did mention that one very large barrel had recently found its way in to their cellars, with the Chef de Cave clearly trying out a new cuvée!

Champagne Deutz Rosé Vintage 2009 ~£55

With 80% Pinot Noir in its composition, the Rosé had a fragrant nose, immediate strawberry and then headed off to the darker notes of raspberry and redcurrant.  To achieve the precise colouring and fruit characters a vat of red wine is added; at just 5 to 7% of the overall blend.

As a point of interest Etienne disclosed that the same red wine vat is used for the colouring of both the NV Rosé and the Vintage Rosé but, even so, the difference between the two Champagnes was obvious.

Champagne Deutz Brut Vintage 2007 ~£50

I’m pretty sure that this was my first tasting of a 2007 Vintage Champagne, with the wet summer weather and uneven ripening resulting in many houses side-stepping the year.  When quizzed on this Etienne responded that they almost always try to make a vintage expression, only recently failing to do so in 2011 due to vegetal characters in the Pinot Noir.

Etienne also divulged that the bottling was smaller than many vintages and so is already becoming harder to find.  Using a greater compliment of Pinot Noir than usual (65%), this had a very distinctive nose (fennel, apparently) and followed it up on the palate with biscuit, ripe green pear flesh, and honeyed citrus.

deutz-amour

Amour de Deutz Blanc de Blancs 2006 ~£100

Amour de Deutz Blanc de Blancs 2005 ~£100

Amour de Deutz Blanc de Blancs 2003 ~£100

First produced with the 1993 vintage, we were treated here to a trio of the most recent Amour releases.  Many characteristics were present across all three vintages, not least the distinctive, almost luminescent colour (Imperial Gold, so we were told).

All three featured developed noses full of bread and biscuit, with a touch of nuttiness to the older two years.  They were also all able to show off a freshness and vibrant mousse that showed no signs of dulling down any time soon, and the layers of cream and butter were a true treat.

The 2005 and 2003 both showed what felt like a small amount of tannin, and there was an identifiable smoky quality to the 2005.  The 2003 had a particularly great depth and character.  All were wonderful and long lasting on the palate.

We ended the session with one fun anecdote surrounding the Amour range.  Since the 1999 vintage Deutz have produced a limited bottling of 365 numbered Methuselahs; one for each day of the year (and yes they do make 366 in leap years!).  One particular customer who is an avid James Bond fan has block-reserved the bottle number 007 for all future releases.

With thanks to Gonzalez Byass for the tickets to their portfolio tasting and Champagne Deutz masterclass.

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McLaren Vale’s Great Grenache – Masterclass (Part 2)

In the follow up to my first article on the wines presented in the ’McLaren Vale’s Great Grenache’ masterclass, presented in tandem with the London Australia Day tasting event, below you will find my thoughts on the final 5 wines tasted.

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As a short reminder, the mission statement for the session was to highlight that “Grenache delivers what Pinot Noir promises” and, with the use of Burgundian techniques such as whole bunch pressing (and malolactic fermentation) to drive the softer fruits and the use of well-seasoned French oak, it is possible to craft well-structured/balanced wines as opposed to simply warm climate Grenache fruit-bombs.

Yangarra Estate ‘High Sands’ McLaren Vale Grenache 2013, 14.8% (£80)

One of the most northerly vineyards in McLaren Vale, this fine parcel of land is high altitude and low producing.  Being made from the prized older Grenache vines, the nose of the wine had an austere, almost fortified quality with perhaps a whiff of diesel.  The palate is equally rich, concentrated and spicy, with tight tannins and acidity.  Sarah pointed out how well structured the wine was instead of being a 15% fruit-bomb.

Nick Haselgrove Wines ‘The Old Faithful Northern Exposure’ McLaren Vale Grenache 2013, 14.5% (£30)

An award winning wine hailing from the north and situated at high altitude.  Coming from just 5 hectares (and not made every year) this is an extremely rare wine to come by (just 1,470 bottles) and therefore a pleasure to taste.  Aged in seasoned French oak for 40 months this was a voluptuous mix of red cherries and berries and all the spice and liquorice you would expect.

Caught Redhanded ‘Oscar Reserve’ McLaren Vale Grenache 2012, 15.2% (£?, not currently imported)

Although a typo in the show-guide had this listed as the 2016 its placement in the flight and the darkened colour of the wine gave it away as having a few years of age.  Destemmed berries are aged for 12 months in seasoned French and USA barriques, and a small amount of 2015 Sauvignon Blanc (3%) has been added to keep things vibrant.  The nose contained very fragrant cherry notes which carried on to the palate.  This wine has mellowed with time but still retains an inherent spicy note.

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Chapel Hill Winery ‘Bush Vine’ McLaren Vale Grenache 2010, 14.5% (£22.50)

Hailing from the 2010 vintage, which was the first year to see good rainfall after several years of drought, this wine exuded a wonderful rose perfume.  My notes listed this as a mellow wine in terms of both the settled tannins and the silky nature of the fruit.  Indeed it was so relaxed that at no point did you feel that you were tasting a wine packing nearly 15% alcohol.

As you would expect there were notable tertiary characteristics providing the intrigue of old vines.  This was probably the standout wine of the session for me.

d’Arenberg ‘The Beautiful View’ McLaren Vale Grenache 2010, 13.6% (£60)

I tasted a full flight of the d’Arenberg wines on their table in the main event but didn’t recall seeing this wine, which was part of their ‘Amazing sites’ programme.  I had a quick check in with Sarah after the masterclass and it transpired that this was a special pick and, for one reason or another, d’Arenberg had not released any vintage more recently than the 2011.

Located in the loamy clay soils in the north of McLaren Vale where the hills begin to ascend, the grapes for this wine (which are 1/3rd old bush vine) are trodden by foot part-way through the fermentation, which is completed in seasoned French oak.

Still retaining (an albeit slightly muted) perfume on the nose and clean blue plummy fruit there is clear development on the palate with leather and farmyard qualities discernible.  The tannins are still evident but finely grained and a vibrant acidity keeps this lively in the mouth whilst juxtaposing the complexity.

Overall the masterclass was a fantastic insight in to how Grenache performs in the complex geological make-up of McLaren Vale, and I got exactly what I needed from the wines on display.  You can read Sarah’s own write-up of the new breed of McLaren Vale Grenache’s and the driver for the masterclass here (complete with a small soundbite from yours truly!)

With thanks to Wine Australia for providing the ticket to this fascinating masterclass

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McLaren Vale’s Great Grenache – Masterclass (Part 1)

It’s always a great opportunity and pleasure to learn directly from the experts, getting their forensic insight as to the finer details of a wine.  As part of last weeks Australia Day tasting I attended the ‘McLaren Vale’s Great Grenache’ masterclass led by Australia and Portugal wine specialist Sarah Ahmed.

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Being more familiar with Grenache from a France/Spain perspective this was a good way for me to become more acquainted with it when produced in a warm climate (nearby Adelaide is the driest of Australia’s capital cities) and, knowing that Sarah would choose wines specifically to run the gamut of what McLaren Vale Grenache has to offer, I looked forward to being able to understand and appreciate how the various flavour components are driven specifically by terroir.

As something of a hangover from the old days of fortified wine, McLaren Vale has 1/3rd of Australia’s plantings of Grenache.  The geology of the region is incredibly diverse with something like 40 different soil/rock types but, in a nutshell, the sandier and lower lying south gives way to more complex and rockier soil in the north as the altitude ascends in to the inland mountain ranges.  It was likened to looking north as if “reaching for the spice rack”.

If there was any kind of mission statement for the session it was to highlight that “Grenache delivers what Pinot Noir promises” and, with the use of Burgundian techniques such as whole bunch pressing (and malolactic fermentation) to drive the softer fruits and the use of well-seasoned French oak, it is possible to craft well-structured/balanced wines as opposed to simply warm climate Grenache fruit-bombs.

The wines on show clearly proved that this was the case and there were some wonderfully fragrant, well-judged blends where you would be hard pressed to say that you were drinking 15% abv.  You can read much more about the scene setting and lead-up to the tasting here.

The flight of 8 wines ran from the most recent vintage backwards and presented many wines that were not available to try in the wider tasting event.  In this first part of two pieces on the masterclass I will go through my notes on the first 3 wines tasted, with the remaining 5 wines covered in the 2nd part.

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Wirra Wirra ‘The Absconder’ McLaren Vale Grenache 2015, 14.5% (£40)

From towards the southern central part of McLaren Vale with a blend of southern sand and the stone and schist soils of the north, this wine was also on show at the main event and I was keen to see if my notes differed when casting a more critical eye on it.  What came across more in the masterclass was the crunchiness of the fruit and the spice and leathery notes.  Sarah pointed out that the wine spends 9 months in seasoned oak and, perhaps being made aware of this, I became more attuned to those qualities.

Other than that I recorded a lightness of touch on the palate in terms of delicate aromatics and a fresh and fruity quality.  Cherry and plum fruits abound and a light grippy tannin is evident.

Serafino Wine ‘Serafino Reserve’ McLaren Vale Grenache 2014, 14.5% (£25, not currently imported)

Sarah described how the sandy soils really come through on to the wine in the shape of the sandpaper tannins, as well as the lighter soil type highlighting the lighter notes and aromatics.  Indeed this wine was full of fragrance and contained mouth-wateringly fresh cherry and kirsch flavour.

The juicy fruit was matched with a well-pitched acidity, with only the slightly raw tannins off balance.  Nevertheless this wine was the epitome of the reason that I placed myself in the masterclass, to see how the landscape makes it’s presence felt in the end product.

Bekkers Wine ‘Bekkars’ McLaren Vale Grenache 2014, 15% (£50)

Up to the north of McLaren Vale now where the soils comprise sand, ironstone, loam and clay, and another good example of how the darker denser make-up brings out the darker denser notes of the Grenache.

We had clearly hit a different level of richness and concentration with this wine, but again it was so well balanced against the medium acidity.  With hints of both black and red fruits, invigorated and lifted through 20% whole bunch pressing, the 18 months spent maturing in seasoned French oak drew out the spicier notes which rounded out the whole.

To keep reading about the next 5 wines in the flight and the conclusion of the masterclass, please click here.

With thanks to Wine Australia for providing the ticket to this fascinating masterclass

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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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Pol Roger Champagne Masterclass (Part 3)

Presented here are the second half of my tasting notes from the recent Pol Roger masterclass in London, presented by 5th generation family member Hubert de Billy and managing director of the Pol Roger portfolio, John Simpson MW.

A few notes on the wines:  Pol Roger had been using concrete vats since 1930, introducing cask barrels in 1975.  Stainless steel came in to play in 1985 and their entire operation moved to steel in 2012.

Vintage Pol Roger is a blend of 30-40 villages.  They have 92 hectares of their own, but have access to 33,200 hectares in total.   They have stated that they will happily buy up any adjoining land to their vineyards that comes up for sale but, as the average cost of a hectare of land is 1.4 million euro’s, they are sometimes adding plots the size of an average UK back garden.

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Pol Roger Brut 1999

This wine is the colour of dark hay but carries with it a lovely golden rim.  The nose is dense with a good intensity and leaves a full and rich impression.  This begins with dried yellow fruits, honey and light brioche, and moves in to darker tones of old wood and candied burnt sugar.  The palate manages to retain vibrancy whilst showing the signs of good ageing.  A mellow acid glides you through burnt toast, herbaceous notes and a clear biscuit character.  These give way to dried apricot and pineapple, and a clear long finish extremely reminiscent of toffee.  This is a well-structured wine which wasn’t hugely respected at the time (coming straight after the great 1998 and just prior to the millennial vintage), and is ready for drinking now (although will last for a further 20 years).  For me, it was probably the highlight of this masterclass.  Wonderful stuff.

Pol Roger Brut 1996

I may have been imagining it but there were almost hints of red in the dark gold colour of this wine.  A distinct ‘high’ nose spoke of a wine just starting to oxidise and tire, it gave off touches of wet undergrowth, leather and coffee.  The nose was also distinctly yeasty (it took me right back to visiting the Guinness factory in Dublin).  The palate was still vibrant although also showing age with over-ripe and dried yellow fruit, a light tannin and slightly cloying candied sugar.  Dark and brooding with coffee and nuts, a light cream and the persisting acid mean that it is an austere wine that can still give pleasure, but needs drinking up soon.

Pol Roger Rosé 2006

This was the dark colour of wild salmon, but the nose was light, floral and expressive, with red cherry and smoky, savoury characters.  The cherry leads the palate, followed up by strawberries and cream.  There’s a clean medium acid running throughout which glides you through some smoky characters and just takes the edge off the underlying sweetness of the wine.

Pol Roger Cuvée Sir Winston Churchill 2004

Released this year, this grand cuvée is deep golden yellow in colour.  The nose gives off fresh citrus lemons and ripe yellow melon before heading off in to sweet coffee and rich cream, toast and a popcorn-like buttery character.  There was also some fleshy green apple and pips hidden amongst the darker notes.  The palate is dense, nutty (certainly walnuts), ground coffee, savoury (some cheese), with sweet spice and mellow acid.  A lovely long finish, and somehow ‘golden’ in taste.

Pol Roger Sir Winston Churchill 2000

Even darker gold in colour than the 2004, this wine also has amber hints to it.  The nose begins with stewed green fruit, and a slight oxidised character.  The herbaceous, sweet woody notes tell you that this is a wine that has seen some good ageing.  The palate is full and round, very dense and very creamy.  Guided with a medium acidity, the lemon citrus and apple flesh lead on to dried pineapple, peach skin, milky coffee, and nuts.  Despite these later darker tones the wine retains a vibrant and refreshing mousse and is a juxtaposition of light and dark.  Wonderful for drinking now or keeping.

These tasting notes round out my blog on what was an extremely pleasurable and memorable event.  The first part of my tasting notes from this event can be found here.

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Pol Roger Champagne Masterclass (Part 2)

Presented here are the first half of my tasting notes from the recent Pol Roger masterclass in London, presented by 5th generation family member Hubert de Billy and managing director of the Pol Roger portfolio, John Simpson MW.

A few notes on the wines:  Pol Roger had been using concrete vats since 1930, introducing cask barrels in 1975.  Stainless steel came in to play in 1985 and their entire operation moved to steel in 2012.

Vintage Pol Roger is a blend of 30-40 villages.  They have 92 hectares of their own, but have access to 33,200 hectares in total.   They have stated that they will happily buy up any adjoining land to their vineyards that comes up for sale but, as the average cost of a hectare of land is 1.4 million euro’s, they are sometimes adding plots the size of an average UK back garden.

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Pol Roger Pure Non-Vintage

The ‘Pure’ release has no dosage added to it, meaning that no final sugar mix is added and it is extremely dry in character.  This non-vintage (and the Brut release below) is an even split of the 3 Champagne grape varieties (Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Pinot Meunier), and hail from between 60-70 different villages.  The colour is a clean youthful lemon, and the citrus carries on to the nose where it is joined by yellow tropical notes.  The body of the wine is light and airy, crisp and linear with just a touch of cream.  The palate is equally light and airy with the lemon notes coming to the fore.  Without the sugar, this is indeed a pure wine that allows you to detect even the smallest of traits, and I can just detect subtle red fruit characters from the pinot noir that would usually get lost.  The downside is that, without the sugar, the acidity is extremely noticeable.  Whilst it has a good length it is fairly one-dimensional (and tasted extremely thin after tasting the Brut).

Pol Roger Brut Reserve Non-Vintage

Like the Pure before it, this wine has been aged for four and a half years instead of the required three years to ensure that, even at NV level there is some complexity.  The blend here is therefore comprised mainly of reserve wines from the 2010 vintage, with both 2009 and 2008 also included to round it out.  The Brut has additional colour to it, adding gold tones in to the lemon yellow.  On the nose you can sense immediately that it is denser and richer (especially so for an NV Champagne), and you get the stalwart characters of honey, bread and cream.  The palate is much rounder than the Pure, giving you a creamy full mouthfeel.  Vanilla, toast and nuttiness are detectable as well as preserved lemon and cream.  The acid is much more restrained and integrated here.

Pol Roger Blanc de Blancs 2008

Encouraging us to commit this wine to memory we were told that there are now no longer any bottles of the 2008 left for sale (these bottles had been especially partitioned for the tasting).  Pol Roger make very little Blanc de Blancs and the grapes all come exclusively from Grand Cru vineyards.  The nose was floral and rich with discernible vanilla nestling alongside the lemon and tropics.  There was also hints of smokiness.  The character of the wine is very light, but the body is weightier and adds peaches and apricot to the citrus cream.  Delicate with lots more peach in the finish.  This wine needs 10-15 years to reach its full potential.

Pol Roger Brut 2006

Released just a month ago, this vintage needs 10-12 years to mature fully.  There are gold hints in the lemon colour.  The nose is extremely distinctive, expressive and intense, with nuts, dried honey and dried yellow melon coming through clearly, followed by toasty notes.  Conversely the palate is light and airy and, although still quite closed, you can detect the citrus developing in to broodier characters with touches of smoke.  Whilst vibrant and quaffable, this will need time to open up fully to show its true character.

Pol Roger Brut 2004

Like the 2006, this wine shows gold in its lemon colouring and has a distinctive nose, this time moving towards dense wood and oak.  Behind this you get preserved lemon and fruit, candy spice, violets, and floral spices.  The palate is rich with cream and butter characters, and there are touches of nut and toast, but the sum total isn’t as dense as the nose would lead you to believe.  The palate almost needs to catch up with what the nose offers, and needs 10-12 years to develop fully.

The second part of my tasting notes from this event can be found here.

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Pol Roger Champagne Masterclass (Part 1)

Being that its now 50 years since the death of British war time Prime Minister Winston Churchill, it seems a perfect time to consider a retrospective on what was his adoptive brand of Champagne – Pol Roger.  The below notes will act as a background to a tasting I attended in London on the 7th November 2015.

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Winston was introduced to Champagne fairly early in his life and, even though he was born in 1884, he was recorded as purchasing Pol Roger as early as the late 1890’s.  The first serious receipts kept in the Pol Roger archive show that in 1908 Churchill bought a stack of the 1892 and the 1895 vintages and was already on the road to being a very good customer. These records, rather unfavourably, also show that Churchill was incredibly bad at paying his bills – sometimes up to 3 years late!  Champagne in those days was different to that which we know today, with a high dosage (sugar mix) added and an element of cognac also present to provide the sweetness (the dry Brut style of Champagne is a post-World War 2 phenomenon).

When asked why Churchill had immediately turned his head towards Pol Roger, our host Hubert de Billy (5th generation family member) stated that drinking good Champagne was the character of the Victorian gentleman and it could have gone one of three ways.  At the time the available Champagne was largely split between the 3 P’s – Pol Roger, Pommery and Perrier Jouét.

The Pol Roger story begins in 1849 when he received a few vineyards from his mother, primarily with a view to produce fruit to sell to other producers.  In tandem with this production, some grapes were held back in order to produce wine made purposely for the consumption of the family.  It wasn’t long before this ‘family’ wine was gaining more plaudits than that of the wines produced by the people he was selling his grapes to.

As time went on, further land was acquired.  As he couldn’t sell the wines in France (being in direct competition with the producers who were selling his other grapes), he looked to the UK.  The first bottle was sold here in 1874, and production sat at circa 3,000 bottles in total.  Even today the firm only produces 1.6 million bottles each year.  To put this in to perspective, the total amount of bottles produced annually in Champagne is circa 300 million, of which Moét produce 30 million bottles on their own.  This clearly shows that the bottles produced by Pol Roger are only a drop in the ocean.  The nearest family owned producer, in terms of volume, is Bollinger.

Churchill had a penchant for older wines as opposed to getting his hands on the latest vintages and, after somewhat exhausting supplies in the mid 1950’s of the heralded 1928 vintage, he moved on to the equally wonderful 1945.  He then progressed on to the 1947 which lasted him until his death in January 1965.  It’s estimated that throughout his life he managed to work his way through something like 42,000 bottles.  That’s a lot per breakfast, lunch and dinner, and it was said that during the austerity of the 1930’s he had to limit himself to one bottle per day!

The first Cuvée Winston Churchill vintage was the 1975 and comprised a blend of mainly Pinot Noir (an 80/20 split with Chardonnay).  Normal vintage Pol Roger is split 60/40 in Pinot Noirs favour, but in order to be true to the style of Champagne that Churchill favoured (Chardonnay was only a small part of the blend until the 1930’s), the Pinot heavy blend was retained.  In a further step towards authenticity, the Cuvée also only uses grapes from vineyards that would have been available to Pol Roger in Churchill’s lifetime.  The essence of the brand remains ‘the heart of the best’, and a wine that needs breathing like the best white wine.

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The true rarity of Pol Roger comes from the fact that they are one of only a handful of all the Champagne producers still in family ownership and, prior to beginning the tasting, Hubert was asked to take a few questions from the floor.

Q.What’s the strategy of the house?

A. They are able to take a long term view instead of pleasing short term shareholders or trends. The company are always working for their children’s future and, whilst the famous saying is ‘time is money’, they are able to say ‘time is quality’.

Q. How do they guarantee the quality of the grapes from external growers?

A. Hubert confessed that they are in 5 year contracts with their grape growers so, in some respects, short term variations in quality are unable to be addressed. The net result of this is that they must maintain an element of trust with their long term partners.

Q. Which is the best bottle he has opened?

A. The ‘one that he is selling!’ As an aside to this joke Hubert did express a penchant for a recent Jeroboam tasting of the 1988.

In the two articles that follow I will describe the wonderful rundown of 10 wines from the producer that culminated in two vintages of their very rare Winston Churchill Cuvée.  What came through very clearly was, buy this wine when you see it, as the low quantities and high qualities make it a rare purchase indeed.

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