Laithwaites Premiere Tasting Notes – November 2015

Another Laithwaites Premiere tasting now, with the below bottles comprising the November offerings.  I was pleasantly pleased (but not 100% surprised with Christmas coming) that the slightly higher price-point recently seen has been maintained, with these bottles coming in at £9.49 and £8.99 respectively.

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La Croix de Bordeaux 2014, Bordeaux AOC France, 100% Merlot, 12.5%, £9.49

This AOC Bordeaux comes from Entre Deux Mers (literally translating as ‘the entry-point of two seas’, sitting as it does at the meeting point of the Gironde and the Garonne).  We’re in the southerly part of Bordeaux here, and this wine is particularly championed by Laithwaites as their ‘house’ claret, taking their buyer through 50 different blends before he settled on this one.

In appearance it is an opaque deep inky purple – the solid colour coming from thermo-vinification for maximum results.

On the nose you can detect ripe, slightly tinned fruit, both red and black.  Of the confectionate notes that take the fore, there is solid red cherry, alongside brambles and earth.  On the whole it is a dense and solid nose, much like the appearance.

The palate is a touch drying, and I wasn’t surprised when I later read the tasting notes that highlight time and again that this is a food wine.  The characteristics of Merlot are evident in their tick-list fashion – spicy black cherry fruit giving a subtle warmth, alongside the raisined fruitcake.  I can also detect further fruit, with touches of blueberry, and there is a refreshing acidity to balance out the drying character and grippy grainy tannins that persist.  The tasting note describes them as ‘minimal’, so perhaps I was doing this wine a dis-service by not trying it with food to get the full winemaker vision.    Overall though, this is a smooth, soft and fruity example of Merlot if not one I would pick up at this price point.  But that’s what the Premiere service is for!

Bees Knees Chenin Blanc Viognier 2015 – South Africa (Western Cape), Chenin Blanc/Viogier blend, 14%, £8.99

Globe-trotting winemaker Leon Esterhuizen has returned to his South African home to work with his beloved Chenin Blanc (known as Steen in South Africa) in the terroir that brings out the best from this this French varietal.  Indeed, Laithwaites loved it so much that they christened it ‘The Bees Knees’, which is high praise indeed for an inaugural offering (although the wider family who produce this wine have been involved in production some 30 years).  The wine is listed as Western Cape which is a fairly sizeable area, but this white is produced in Somerset West, which overlooks False Bay (the horseshoe shape bay in the southwest), and draws in premium grapes from nearby Stellenbosch.

I always find it amusing to try youthful wines from the southern hemisphere as, with this 2015 vintage, it’s easy to forget with our harvest only just over, this has still managed to have some age attached to it, the grapes being picked towards the start of our calendar year.

Pale lemon in colour, a controlled cool vinification followed by two months of lees (dead yeast cells) contact, ensures that this wine has a good, medium weighted mouthfeel.  The Chenin grape gives off its naturally oily notes, and the sum of this with the lees ageing is a dense and satisfying palate full of honey and cream.  Alongside the majority (80%) of Steen we have 20% of Rhone grape Viognier added, just to balance out the oiliness and give florality and lightness to the overall palate.  True to form we get touches of both florality (white flowers and vanilla spice) and hints of tropical fruits added, with both peach and dried yellow melon evident.

The linear and persisting acid ensures that the blend remains balanced, and draws the tropical fruit to a warm conclusion.

At £8.99 this is a lovely fresh, full and ‘touching on complex’ example of where South Africa can excel and produce wine that is thoughtful, and highlights the positive characters that belie the fact that the region is fairly new in terms of production.  This was actually the cheaper of the two bottles presented this month but (and like previous months I say this as primarily a red wine drinker), the Laithwaites selection for November has again turned up a White winner for me.

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Taste of London / Les Dauphins

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The Taste of London event draws to a close this weekend, bringing the curtain down on the spectacular array of food and drinks from both artisan producers and premium brands.  The setting was the magnificent manicured surroundings of Regents Park, and the sun was fully shining on the 200+ exhibitors.  Some of the finest food establishments in London were represented including those of celebrity chefs Theo Randall and Marcus Wareing, who were happily milling around with attendees answering any questions and posing for photos.  I desperately wanted to try Marcus’ Salted Caramel soft serve honeycomb ice cream, but ran out of time, and thus my foodie highlight remained a dish from the restaurant chain MEATliquor.  Specialising in American style meat dishes, I tried their ‘Dead Hippie Slider’, and the meat was sooooo juicy. It’s clear that the chain is appropriately named.

There were also numerous cooking demonstrations from world renowned chefs, and I attended the session led by Andrea Zagatti, sampling his delicious air dried duck and white asparagus dish.  The WSET were also on hand in ‘The Mr Vine Wine Theatre’ to run masterclasses, led by wine expert Jane Parkinson, on wine tasting and wine-food matching.

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Alongside multiple beers and ciders, the world of wine was very well represented, from the traditional French (Laurent Perrier) to the less-seen Thai (Monsoon Valley).  It was also great to see representation from English wine producers such as Chapel Down and Digby showing their wares.

With that said, I was attending courtesy of Les Dauphins, a French wine producer from the sun drenched vineyards of the southern Rhóne who, in my opinion have one of the most striking wine labels on the market, which really evokes a traditional France.  The team were happy to let me taste through the full range that they were showing on the day which comprised of their Reserve White, Reserve Red, Cótes du Rhóne Villages Grande Réserve Red, and the Vinsobres Red.  My favourite was the Villages Grande Réserve, which was full of flavour, yet easy to drink on its own.  The Vinsobres, although clearly more complex, had a firmer tannin and needed to be paired with food (I’m sure there is an irony in me saying this, tasting it on its own at a huge food and wine event).

After being (easily) coaxed in to recording a short promotional video for them (which is due to appear online anytime now – I will post a link to it when available), I was the proud owner of a goody bag, including a poster of the fabulous label artwork but, more importantly, a couple of bottles of wine to take home.  Without further ado, here’s my verdicts:

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Les Dauphins Cótes du Rhóne Reserve White 2014 – 12.5% abv – RRP £7.99

White wine definitely comes second to red wine in the southern Rhóne and so it’s always good to taste one.  This is a blend of Grenache (65%), Marsanne (15%), Clairette (10%) and Viognier (10%), and the grapes are picked at night or in the early morning to preserve their freshness.  The resulting wine is matured on its lees for 2-6 months, and the back label describes it as a “white with attitude”.

The colour of the wine is a straw lemon, with hints of green and gold. The nose is a full intense and expressive mix of green and yellow fruit – pear and grapefruit to start, moving on to ripe yellow melon, peach and dried pineapple.

On the palate you receive a deliciously weighted body, comprised of dense tasting fruits.  The green fruit continues, twinned with lovely zesty lemon citrus.  The acidity is medium and well balanced, and the oil and butter tones all add to the luscious weight of the wine.  This, in turn, aids the medium-plus length which is carried by the fruit and citrus.  A pleasure to try and reassuringly distinct in this price bracket.

Les Dauphins Cótes du Rhóne Red 2014 – 13% abv – RRP £7.99

A traditional Rhóne grape mix of Grenache, Syrah and Mourvedre (respectively 70%, 25% and 5% of the blend), the bunches are totally destalked, go through regular pumping-over to aid extraction, and are then matured in concrete tanks.

The colour is a youthful vibrant purple.  On the palate, a refreshing acidity guides you towards youthful ripe dark black fruits of both cherry and currants, and touches of plum.  Tannins are evident, but fine grained and well structured, and the medium weight is rounded out with perceptible spice and pepper.  All in all, this smooth wine gives you a deep dark warmth and leaves a medium-plus length behind it.  A good quality wine in this price range.

With thanks to Les Dauphins for providing both the wines and entrance to ‘Taste Of London’.  All reviews are conducted impartially.

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Yalumba ‘Butcher, Baker & Winemaker’ dinner

Yalumba Dinner 1

Australian wine producer Yalumba were in London this week for their ‘Butcher, Baker and Winemaker’ dinner, and I was one of those lucky enough to have tickets. Bringing a touch of Barossa magic (and sunshine, as it happens) to Maida Vale gastropub The Truscott Arms, was Yalumba winemaker Louisa Rose, who has worked for the company for 22 years and has been chief winemaker since 2006.

The evening was scheduled to begin with canapés in the private garden terrace but, due to the waiters focusing on serving the Yalumba Y Series 2014 Riesling (no problems for me here!) and the growing number of people arriving (there were circa 40 in total) the goats cheese nibbles had only just arrived by the time we were all to be seated in their first floor private dining area.

Following greetings from Andrew Fishwick (owner of the Truscott Arms), Head Chef Aidan McGee (who regaled us with a strangely bizarre lecture on creating authentic bread), Louisa welcomed us to the evening, gave us an overview of Yalumba, and also provided an on-going rundown of the wines that were being poured for us. As an aside, I’ve written about Yalumba wines recently following a tasting panel, which you can find here.

The dinner itself consisted of 4 courses and 6 further wines to try. First up was a charcuterie plate (image, below left) consisting of pressed pork, potted duck, smoked pork, cured beef, celeriac, gherkins, capers and crispy sourdough. With this we were served a white wine and a red wine – respectively Eden Valley Viognier 2013 and Old Bush Vine Grenache 2013. Due to the sheer amount of different foods to be matched either with the white or the red wine, and trying to remain in the conversation with other guests, I must admit my tasting notes rather escaped me at this early point. Louisa was also still giving us an on-going dialogue, but what I do recall is her commenting on how Viognier is a great food wine, and that there isn’t really a bad pairing for it. Judging by the myriad of food that was quickly cleared from my plate, I’d have to agree.

Yalumba Dinner 2

It was then quickly on to the fish course (image above right, sorry – I started before I remembered to take a photo), and we were served Halibut in a Yalumba Roussanne reduction, with grapes, spinach and salsify. Naturally the wine served here was the Eden Valley Roussanne 2013. Like the Riesling and Viognier before it, the colour of the Roussanne was a vibrant green and yellow, almost luminous. The palate here was creamy fleshy green fruit, with a spice that really perked up the fish, and a great length. It’s lucky that I enjoyed the pairing, as my +1 sprang on me that they didn’t eat fish and so I ended up with two portions.

Yalumba Dinner 3

Next up was the main course (image, above left) of Beef cheek, carrots, spring greens and smoked mash. Paired with this we had two red wines; the Patchwork Barossa Shiraz 2013 and the Signature Cabernet Sauvignon Shiraz 2010. There were two standout food and wine pairings in the evening for me, and the Beef cheek, smoked mash and Cabernet Sauvignon was the first of these. The cheek was cooked to perfection and the creamy mash melded with both to create a rich and textured whole. On its own, this was the best wine of the evening (and probably not coincidentally, the most expensive at £30 a bottle)

The final course of the evening (image, above right) was English strawberries, lemon verbena curd, strawberry jam and ice cream. Paired with this we had the FSW8b Botrytis Viognier 2014 (FSW stands for Fine Sweet Wine). This was the second excellent food-wine match of the night for me, and the strawberries worked amazingly well with the luscious tropical sweetness. I was slightly miffed to see that our table mat (if you like) was a fill-in-form to be able to order any of the wines featured in the evening, which for me commercialises what is meant to be a social gathering, but it was extremely hard not to fill it in and buy some of this luscious sticky.

Although there were too many people in attendance to make this an intimate affair, the sheer unknown of your dinner companions was actually a great element, and I spent the evening happily chatting away with two chaps who worked behind the scenes at Majestic wine, learning a few things, and passing other knowledge back. Louisa did ask the gathered crowd on several occasions if they had any questions, but as is typical, very few put themselves out there to ask anything in front of that many people, and I did come away missing the one-on-one winemaker aspect that I felt this dinner had promised. That said, once dinner was over our hosts invited everyone downstairs to the main bar area to continue the drinking, but alas, my carriage awaited and I had to leave.

All in all a memorable night with great food, great wine and great company.

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Yalumba panel tasting

Time for another Tesco taste panel submission now, and this month it’s a double-whammy of two wines from respected South Australian producer Yalumba. Based in the Barossa Valley, Yalumba are a rarity in the wine world as they are still in the hands of the original family and are now run by the 5th generation descendants of founder Samuel Smith. Founded in 1879, they are notable for their commitment to the sustainability of the surrounding environment, and parts of their estate are farmed both bio-dynamically and organically. South Australia is fortunate to have some of oldest vines in the world, and Yalumba have made a clear commitment to their care and cultivation by establishing the Old Vine Charter – a guarantee that consumers have clear age provenance of the vines used to produce the wine, and to act as a barometer as to both the quantity and quality. The charter tracks vine age from 35 years to those that can be said to have been alive in 3 different centuries, and so there is some serious heritage to understand and protect. Yalumba also get bonus points from me as a producer leading the way preserving the Viognier grape (which I reference in my earlier article Missing in action).

Anyway, on to the tasting!

Yalumba Two

Yalumba Old Vine Bush Grenache 2013, South Australia – 14.5% abv – £11.99

The bush vines in the ‘Old’ category span between 35-80 years old and, due to both the nature of a bush (as opposed to larger trellised vines) and the reduced vigour of old age, crops are small but full of flavour.

The nose gives off clean deep fruit notes pairing rich red cherry with vanilla and violets from subtle oak influence. In conjunction with both the deep colour of the wine and the visible tears on the glass (betraying the alcohol level which clocks in at 14.5%), it prepares you for what could be a huge wine. What actually transpires is a full, rounded body, paired with an appealing acidity which glides the wine through your palate with such smoothness that it’s a pleasure to drink. In the mouth, the red fruits are now more towards berry and currants, with a little spice and warmth from the alcohol helping the fine tannins.

This is all at once juicy, chunky, subtle and extremely precise with its concentrated fruits. For me it truly melted over the palate and if tasted blind, I’m not sure I would have had the alcohol as high as it is. That said, there is a warmth from the alcohol that allows this wine to linger in the mouth for some time after. Delicious.

Yalumba Y Series Shiraz/Viognier 2012, South Australia – 14% abv – £9.99

On opening the bottle, there is an immediate hit to the nose of ripe dark red cherry, clean fruits and spice. In the glass, this opens out and again we have vanilla and violets from wood influences. The palate is medium bodied with medium acidity and minimal tannin, and all about the primary fruit blend of cherries and berries which, for me, jumps between both black and red fruit.  The refreshment comes from the inclusion of Viognier in the blend, which both compliments and juxtaposes the Shiraz. Overall this is a pleasant everyday wine to drink with or without food, which is exactly what I think Yalumba were intending it to be according to their literature.

Comparing both of these wines side by side (bottles were served in Riedel glasses, un-decanted, and tasted over 2 separate days), I personally think it is definitely worth trading up from the Y series to the Old Vine. As pleasant as the Y series is, for just £2 extra per bottle you are in to a whole different world of quality, and from an everyday drinking wine to a wine that you would want to keep for those nights when you want to guarantee a good bottle.

Many thanks to both Tesco and Yalumba for providing the bottles used in this tasting.

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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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