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.

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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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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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There’s no bad wine……?

Talking to a Master of Wine (MW) a while back, I mentioned that recently I had tasted a wine that I could only describe as horrible. His retort still sticks with me – “There are no bad wines, just wines that you wouldn’t buy”. It’s actually quite a sound statement – a wine may not to be to my liking, but there will be merit in there somewhere, be it identifying that the producer has cut corners using oak chips, or they’ve picked the grapes too early.  Good critique should be along these lines as opposed to a simple like/dislike.

With this in mind, I have been mulling over an article that was published last month in various media outlets (Google 75% Wine Based Drinks for a selection), exposing what essentially amounted to rogue wines being sold in supermarkets alongside normal wine. Cue a certain amount of shock/horror along with cries that someone somewhere (be it the supermarkets, the producers) were trying to get one over on us. The exposé originated from online supermarket sommelier wotwine? who are a team of wine experts (including several MWs) who taste through wines sold in supermarkets to give advice on what to buy. This is a good website, given the sheer volume of wine available in our combined supermarkets.

During their regular tastings some wines were noted as ‘lacking genuine character and dilute’. On closer inspection they noticed that some were actually subtlety described on the back label as being ‘wine based drinks’ (WBDs) – in other words, only 75% of the drink was actually wine, topped up with either grape juice or, more likely, water. And yet here they were, in similar shaped bottles, adorned by labels that made them look every inch like a wine, on the same shelves as all the other bottles. I definitely agree that it was a good call by wotwine? to bring these bottles up for debate, but find myself disagreeing, or certainly thinking that they were being unfair to these WBDs, and I’ll explain why.

Within a supermarket environment, strangely my whole attitude to wine changes. I watch food & wine matching sections on programmes like Saturday Kitchen and think “yes, this afternoon I’m going to rummage around my local store and pick up 6 really cool bottles” but when I get there, without fail I always slip in to supermarket mode. I become less the wine lover picking out select bottles and immediately flip to someone looking for bargains – weekday wines, being drawn (albeit consciously) to the little red labels that denote discounts or offers, looking at the bin-ends and maybe being a little daunted (or time conscious) by the aisles of wine available. Something about that supermarket environment just seems to focus my mentality to how I buy food or household goods, or how-much-other-stuff-could-I-buy-for-the-same-price logic, rather than the luxury, spontaneity, and indulgence in a merchant. I go there to buy supermarket wine, and my expectations are set accordingly.

The focus of concern in the article centred on two issues  – firstly, that the wine shouldn’t be on the shelves with normal wine as it was a pale imitation, and secondly, that it generally tasted foul. Indeed wotwine? were quoted as saying they wouldn’t pay a penny for it. Regarding its placing on the shelf, I offer a similar example – supermarket own Cola. These cheaper products sit on the shelves alongside market leaders Pepsi and Coke, but there is no call to segregate these less intense products, even though the taste of own brand cola is streets away from them. It’s not that the own brands are not real cola or that they are bad (many people are happy with them).  There’s just some cola you wouldn’t regularly buy.

Invariably it comes down to either brand and/or price, and that’s no different to these WBDs. Most supermarkets split wine sections in to red/white, and then in to country of origin. That’s it. When shopping (for example) in the Australian reds section, if you want something lighter in alcohol (unusual for Oz as the sun fully ripens the grapes), and are looking in the budget range of £4.50 per bottle (as these WBDs are), what’s the point in having them split away somewhere else? The customer makes the choice as to what they want.

To move on to the quality of the wine itself, there was no other way for me to decide other than to seek out a bottle for myself. I opted for the Australian ‘Copper’ red wine, 12.5% abv from Sainsbury’s. The pricing is a worry – £4.50 per bottle is entry level, but this was priced at £6.25 a bottle – only available for £4.50 when buying 2 for £9. At £6.25 we’re well in to my tried-and-trusted everyday wine drinking price bracket, and you can get more for your money.

In colour it looked no different to any other youthful red. On the nose it was sweet confectionate black cherry and sweet spices, some vanilla and, more worryingly, something that smelt like furniture polish. The palate hits straight away with upfront cherry, but dissipates fairly immediately, leaving a hollow middle. Any length is solely sustained by cloying sugars. In its favour it does have good acidity. My review generally concurs with wotwine? who list it as ‘sweet’ and ‘thin’, but it is still a wine (12.5% abv) albeit a little suspect at the recommended price point

I don’t agree though that the supermarkets are to blame for tricking customers in to buying it, or that it’s undrinkable. In the end the proof will of course be in the sales figures, but it was not a wine I would recommend to others, or buy again.

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