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.

LaithFest1

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.

LaithFest2

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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Barefoot Refresh – Crisp Red review

Off to California for this weeks’ tasting note, to try part of the ‘Refresh’ range from Barefoot. This is a new range in the UK and consists of a Crisp Red, a Crisp White, and a Perfectly Pink Rosé wine, each blended specifically to be served over ice. Hmmm, Red wine over Ice??

Barefoot

The seeds of Barefoot were sown within the California wine explosion of the 1960’s but the real story starts in the mid 1980’s when founders Michael and Bonnie Harvey set up Barefoot cellars and created the footprint logo that still adorns their labels today. Since 2005 they have been part of the wine behemoth Gallo.

The ‘Refresh’ range has been available in the USA for a year or two now (they have already added two extra wines – a Summer Red and a Sweet White), but as summer approaches the UK and thoughts turn to refreshing al fresco drinking, the appearance of this wine is well timed to tap in to what is a growing market. Spearheaded some time ago by the trend of cider with ice, the momentum is building, and you may recall that in April I reported on the new Champagne-over-ice blend that Moét have just launched here.

Maybe on one or two occasions I’ve popped an ice cube in a glass of White or Rosé if the bottle has not been cold enough, but I’ve never had the inclination to do that with a red wine, and for that reason I’ve decided to review the Crisp Red from the range, which is a blend of Pinots Noir, Rosé and Grigio.

The clear bottle (unusual for a red wine) shows a vibrant clear dark cherry red wine, and the screw cap opens with a subtle pfffft. The spritz in this wine comes from carbonation (the bottle clearly states this is an ‘aerated semi-sparkling wine’ from the addition of carbon dioxide) as opposed to anything approaching the methods used to create the bubbles found in Champagne etc.

The nose was clear red fruit – a summery fresh blend of strawberry, raspberry, red currants and Cranberry. The palate carries on the veritable fruit salad mix – but what impressed me the most was the body of the wine. I was expecting it to be a fairly light bodied, perhaps that of a Rosé but, retaining the character of a red wine, the body was medium.

I didn’t actually try the wine without ice to see how it tasted, but I assume it was sweet like concentrate. Without wishing to over-complicate the bottle, the specific blend was created by chilling the wine, which kills the yeast and stops the fermentation early (at approximately 10% abv). Sugar remains unconverted to alcohol, and it is this sweetness that allows the wine to retain its medium body without becoming washed out and tasteless through the dilution of melting ice cubes.

To sum up, this bottle was every bit as refreshing and moreish on a warm day as Sangria or Pimms, and the fruity length was pleasing, a touch sweet, but not cloying.

The only worry for me here is that this style of wine, and its lower alcohol level meant it was very easy to drink it – in many ways it didn’t feel like I was drinking wine at all, but some sort of wine alternative. Before I knew it I was halfway through the bottle! Oops.

Thanks to Barefoot/Gallo and Tesco for providing 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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Missing in action

With wine being such an everyday commodity, I find it fascinating that there’s the prospect of trying a magical elixir that we may never have been able to taste. The quest to taste the mythical ‘untainted’ pre-Phylloxera wines is something of a holy grail for both wine professionals and amateurs alike but, as time goes on its less and less likely that the opportunities will arise. There is an easy way, however, of getting a piece of the action when it comes to rare wine.

Something becoming increasingly common is the resurrection of lost or believed extinct grape varieties. In a market that probably doesn’t need another Sauvignon Blanc or Chardonnay, searching out these obscure varieties can be a clear path to creating a unique wine that really stands out. For me the quest conjures up images of an Indiana Jones type character searching around distant fields in forgotten towns – perhaps talking to old locals in the hope that one of them remembers an elderly man who once had a vineyard. Now this may sound either dramatic or romantic (or both), but with the wine industry going through several reboots due to issues like Phylloxera or prohibition, the world markets stopped and started. This meant that plantings were grubbed up or even abandoned, and it’s finding these forgotten outposts that is the gateway to tasting wine from another time.

A book entitled ‘The Wild Vine’ by author Todd Kliman follows the near extinction of the Norton grape variety, which hailed from the US state of Virginia. Once upon a time at the 1873 Vienna convention, a bottle of Norton was awarded the very grand sounding award for ‘Best red wine of all nations’. In spite of this, fate had a different idea and Norton was forgotten. It was re-discovered in 1965, and with the persistence of grape crusader Jenni McCloud, it has come back from the brink and is now considered to be the only American vine variety good enough to make premium wine.

Legendary Spanish wine producer Miguel Torres is also striving to rediscover lost vines. As part of a caretaking exercise to respect and understand the tradition and history of his region, Miguel began placing advertisements in the local Barcelona press asking if anyone knew of any obscure varieties being made in vineyard outposts. Fast forward to today and Torres lays claim to have resurrected 45 grape varieties from obscurity since 1984. Certainly the last couple of times I’ve tasted through their ranges at wine fairs, they’ve included some weird wonders such as Querol, or the Samso and Garro varieties blended in to their Grans Muralles.

Now you may be thinking that this is all very well, but you’re unlikely to bump in to any of these grape varieties with ease and be able to taste them. You may be surprised then, to hear that there are some grape varieties saved from near extinction that are widely available in any reasonable supermarket selection. Potentially you may even have a bottle of them in the house now!

Viognier is a grape hailing from the Northern Rhone in France, and whilst today it is common (France had 4,395 hectares (10,869 acres) given over to Viognier in 2009), it’s astonishing to think that as recently as 1965 plantings had dwindled to just 14 hectares (35 acres). That’s roughly the size of 27 football pitches, and could have been 100% wiped out by just one bad frost or serious hail shower. The Viognier vine has a tendency to suffer from coulure (the failure of grape development following flowering) and was prone to providing low yields, and so many farmers simply gave up and moved on to easier to handle varieties. To see its’ resurgence is remarkable, and it’s now produced across the globe, faring well in diverse regions such the USA, Australia and New Zealand.

And then there’s Carménère. This Bordeaux variety disappeared following the outbreak of Phylloxera (for the same reasons as Viognier), and was thought lost forever. Thankfully it was later discovered thriving in Chile where it was mistakenly thought to have been Merlot.

Incidentally, whilst some regions do have smatterings of plantings that managed to escape Phylloxera, as Chile is surrounded by either desert, sea or mountains, it’s one of the few wine producing countries not to have seen the Phylloxera outbreak. As the Bordeaux varieties were imported from France before they themselves suffered from Phylloxera, Chile still grow grapes on ungrafted vines, and therefore they are probably your best bet today of trying a ‘pre-Phylloxera’ wine. Obviously production methods, wine style and all sorts of other aspects have changed over the years, so I only mention it with tongue planted firmly in cheek.

Everyone loves an underdog story, and whenever I see or get to taste a Viognier or Carménère I tend to go for it. It reminds me that I may not have had the opportunity to do so, if things had been only slightly different.

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Oldies and Goldies

The world of wine moves fast.

Sure, there’s nothing ground-breaking about that statement, but just recently I’ve reached the point where I’ve started re-buying books for my wine library. Books I kind of already own. Even many published as recently as the 1990’s are now only useful when drawing historical companions, or accessing information that gets dropped from newer texts.   Grape varieties mentioned have long since been pulled to the whims of fashion, and locations and even countries not talked about, are now merrily creating great wines.

It was whilst reading a book on the USA, studying up for an article, that I finally took pause for thought. The book was a weighty tome, ‘fully revised’, but authored in the late 1980’s, so wasn’t new, but still within the lifetime of someone yet to reach 30. Whilst delving through a wealth of detailed statistics, it dawned on me that I was, basically, wasting my time. The USA to all intents and purposes went through a wine reboot in the early 1990’s when Phylloxera came back for another crack. Plantings on a compromised rootstock (AxR1) left them susceptible to a new strain of the killer louse, and what came after – the grape varieties, the vine densities, the sites – were now being started from scratch. I’d need to buy a newer book.

At around the same time, I managed to pick up the first edition of the leading UK wine magazine Decanter. Although the cover price was a mere 40p, I managed to purchase it for just £4 thanks to a leading online auction site – Inflation aside, that’s less than the cover price of an issue today. For a publication first hitting the shelves in 1975, I was expecting to view the 40-year old content with a mild curiosity. What struck me was that a number of things still remained true to this day. Articles answering the question “How can I drink good Bordeaux without paying too much per bottle”? Wine loving celebrities (in this case, Michael Caine) putting their money in to wine futures. Regional profiles, the latest auction news. Even Hugh Johnson was there! Aside of the current vogue for extensive tasting notes, scoring systems, and good deals for weekday wine drinking (did such a concept exist in the 1970’s?) the spread of articles was very similar to today. Maybe not so much has changed after all?

To tie these two anecdotes together, I’ll move on to the Decanter Book review page – another publication stalwart. Within the titles listed one stood out, mainly as it had a half page and picture devoted to it. The book – ‘The Great Wine Blight’, the subject – Phylloxera. Using my internet purchasing skills again it wasn’t long before a cheaply purchased copy came through the letterbox, and a thoroughly enjoyable read it was too, sparking all sorts of ideas on a future article on Phylloxera. For all the bad that it has done, costing vast sums of monies to prevent and putting smaller growers out of business, surely it must achieved some good things too? Vignerons were no longer tied to the crops that they had, and could potentially turn to fashionable grape varieties. Replanting could also take in some of the newer ideas such as density planting, vine training, and site/aspect location.

It was pleasing to me that a publication from 1975 was still bringing new knowledge and insight to this reader some 40 years later. The final irony is that I have since had to buy a newer book on Phylloxera, as the older one didn’t have the details of the 1990’s invasion. I’d need to buy a newer book.

n.b. An abridged version of this post was published in Decanter magazine in September 2014

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