The advertisement was attractive enough: a double-page spread in my copy of the Decanter magazine promised ‘Europe’s Greatest Wine Event, an unrivalled tasting of the world’s best wineries, more than 600 wines to taste, meet the winemakers in person, etc’. Curiousity (and the need to prepare for a blind tasting exam) led me to fork out the £90 for the 2-day ticket, and to fly from Delhi to London. The Decanter Fine Wine Encounter is a consumer wine tasting event, organized every year by the Decanter magazine. If you’re a wine lover who occasionally travels to London, I would recommend timing a trip to attend the event as I did. Read on to find out why…
Day 1: Saturday, November 13, 2010
With just over a 100 wineries showing 600+ wines, I need a plan. My goal is to get through 100 wines a day, enough for a 6-hour period – taking the time to make a quick evaluation of each wine, and to make legible tasting notes!
Luckily I arrive on time (despite a London Underground strike on the day) and I start with the Italians. The first booth in front of me is Fontodi (from Tuscany). This is a great place to start – the owner Giovanni Manetti is there. Unusually for Tuscany, he has a 100% Sauvignon Blanc (Meriggio 2009), a 100% Pinot Noir (Case Via 2007) and a 100% Syrah (Case Via 2004). The Pinot Noir is good, and the Sauvignon Blanc impressively mineral. The truly excellent wine though is his Super Tuscan – Flaccianello della Pieve 2007. A 100% Sangiovese, Mr. Manetti explains that this was one of the first Super Tuscans made. Chianti Classico DOCG regulations now allow 100% Sangiovese so why does he still classify his wine as an IGT? The wine is now an established name as an IGT he explains, and he refers to his pique with the bureaucrats who had refused to let him call this a Chianti when he first made the wine many years back and wanted to!
Great start made, and 20 minutes expended at the first booth – I decide to move on. Mr. Manetti extends a kind invitation to visit his winery. I’m coming Mr. Manetti – so be ready for me, and we will pop open another bottle of your fine Flaccianello (what is the oldest vintage in your cellar?)! I go through a few other Tuscan wineries, before finishing up with Col d’Orcia (available in India through Ace Beverages apparently). The Chairman of Col d’Orcia, Mr. Francesco Marone Cinzano, is there and he seems happy enough to meet an Indian Sommelier. He’s pouring some excellent wines as well – including several vintages of his Brunello. I take the chance and taste all the Brunello vintages he’s showing: 2005, 2001, 1999, 1990 and 1980. A great opportunity for an impromptu vertical tasting! The 1980 is the most impressive – developed but remarkably still showing some youthful fruit, structure and potential for more development!
Next I hit the Piedmontese wineries – going through some Barberas, Barolos and Barbarescos. Notable was Ceretto (distributed in India via Aspri), whose three 2005 Barolos (Bricco Rocche, Bricco Rocche Brunate and Bricco Rocche Prapo) were all very good. Fredrico Ceretto (the owner) was there and we chatted about his wines and Italian restaurant scene in Delhi. Barolo/Barbaresco wines are misunderstood in India and inevitably drunk too soon. At least a few fellow Indians have told me that they hate Barolo with a vengeance! Too bad – they were likely drinking it for the name, too young, without food (or with the wrong food) and just did not know what to expect! Probably they were expecting another Amarone (that’s Italian too after all!), and what they got instead is a thorough scraping of the gums! I’m tempted to say ‘good for them’, but I should play nice!
It’s around 2.00pm already, and I must remember to take a break for lunch. Even though I’m spitting diligently (I’m a grown up wine professional now!), some alcohol does seep into my blood stream from all the wine I’m going through. So food is essential if I’m to avoid the fate of the guy standing next to me at the Tramin (Alto-Adige) booth. He’s having trouble standing straight, but is pretending to take notes anyway – making childish squiggles on a piece of paper. Swinging side-to-side he pronounces his slurry judgement “this is the grrrreatest Pinot Grigio I’ve everrrr tasted”. The winemaker ignores him politely. I step outside the venue (the very fancy Landmark hotel), and luckily there’s a great British culinary institution right in front of the hotel. This of course is Marks and Spencer (M&S Simply Food). I grab a ham sandwich and eat it sitting on a bench. I remember thinking what a great ‘high-low’ combination this is – some very fine wine paired with a M&S ham sandwich.
With 2.5 hours ahead of me, I decide to concentrate on the Rhone Valley and Rioja. I take an hour to taste nearly all the wines (about 20) of the four Rhone wineries present – M. Chapoutier, Vidal-Fleury, Paul Jaboulet Aîne and Domaine du Grapillon d’Or. I like Chapoutier’s Condrieu Invitare 2009 (I normally do not like Viognier). Their 2007 Hermitage (Monier de la Sizeranne) is impressive, as is a Shiraz from their winery in Victoria, Australia (Domaine Tournon). I get through the other major Rhone appellation wines available (Crozes-Hermitage, Côte-Rôtie, Côtes du Rhone, Chateauneuf-du-Pape and Gigondas). Quality and values abound – with all the fuss about Bordeaux this year, surely more people will turn their attention to these fine wines that are relative bargains.
Finally, I come to the part that I have been looking forward to: Rioja. I’ve recently tasted some older Rioja vintages starting from the 1950 to the present day – and I have been astonished in some instances by how well these wines have aged or held up. I’m fast becoming a big fan of Rioja so it’s a pity that Spanish wines in general, and Rioja wines in particular, are almost completely absent from the Indian market. I start with Bodegas Luis Cañas/Bodegas Amaren. José Miguel Zubia, Director Comercial, is present and is taking great care to explain each wine. Each of the 8 wines that he pours is very good or excellent. My top-vote though goes to the Hiru 3 Racimos 2005 which is a 100% Tempranillo from 60-100 year old vines. The wine has loads of fruit, minerality, and is structured and long. The Amaren, Tempranillo Reserva 2004 (also 100% Tempranillo from 60-110 year old vines) is equally impressive. Mr. Zubia and I talk about his wines, and he becomes the second person that day to invite me to visit his wineries. This must be my lucky day – I’m actually being invited by fine wineries to visit them. Or are they just being polite? I finish up Spain particularly relishing the Muga reds (Torre Muga 2005, Seleccion Especial Reserva 2005) and Marqués de Cáceres, Gran Reserva 2001. The more I taste Rioja’s, the more I become convinced that these are among the greatest red wines in the world.
With 45 minutes to spare before the end of the day, I spend some time tasting California wines from Cakebread Cellars and Silver Oak Cellars. The wines are all good and well-made, but they mostly stop short of being excellent with the exception of a few instances. Silver Oak’s Alexander Valley Cabernet Sauvignon 2006 is excellent (wonderful nose of blackcurrants, plum and sweet spices, balanced, structured and long). The Cakebread Napa Chardonnay 2009 and Carneros Reserve Chardonnay are both concentrated, lush, full of tropical-fruit and with balanced acidity – but I’m surprised by how alcoholic they feel. The label on the Carneros Reserve Chardonnay says there’s 14.8% alcohol! That’s a bit too much for me.
I move on, planning to leave as my palate seems exhausted. But right near the door of the hall there’s Burgundy beckoning – Maison Louis Latour and Maison Louis Jadot. I decide to spend the last 30 minutes of the day with Burgundy. I don’t regret the decision. Both houses have 8 wines each on offer, and I sample all 16. Both Maisons are impressive across the range. What a contrast the Mersaults, Chassagne-Montrachets and Beaune Blancs are to the California Chardonnays! New World vs. Old World is an old debate. I know which side of the fence I sit on this one and it ain’t California! I end the day with a red wine: Louis Jadot’s Domaine des Heritiers, Beaune 1er Cru Theurons 1997. Developed – pale with a garnet rim, complex, lifted nose of strawberry mingling with old leather, meat and liquorice. On the palate – wonderful concentration and lift with gentle tannins still evident. Long, complex, delicious and a wonderful way to end Day 1 of Decanter Fine Wine Encounter!
Day 2: Sunday, November 14, 2010
I got through 90 wines on Day 1 – somewhat short of target but good nevertheless. I feel sure that my efficiency will improve on Day 2 – I know the layout of the halls and where everyone’s located so my navigation will be quicker. Day 1 was devoted almost entirely to the Old World. I decide to start Day 2 with the New World.
Five Kiwi wineries were present, together showing over 35 wines – of which I managed to taste most. The famed Kiwi consistency was amply on display. Almost all the wineries were showing their entry level Sauvignon Blanc’s as well as the premium level. Some of the premium Sauvignon Blanc’s were truly excellent – Ara Resolute Sauvignon Blanc 2008 showed a restrained nose with a distinctive stony minerality on the palate, with great balance, precision and a long, lingering finish. The Villa Maria Single Vineyard Southern Clays Sauvignon Blanc 2009 was similarly impressive, as was the Isabel Estate Sauvignon Blanc 2010. The minerality, balance and precision of these wines marked them out and made them memorable. They deserve every bit of the success they’re experiencing in the market. Ara, Villa Maria and Isabel Estate all showed very good to excellent Pinot Noirs – the Isabel Estate 2006 Pinot Noir was particularly good (earthy, red cherry fruit mingled with truffle, compost, good acidity, structure and a long finish). With such an impressive line-up, it could be hard to pick favourites among the NZ wineries – if it were not for Craggy Range, which clearly tops my list! Otago Station Riesling (Waitaki Valley), 2008 was excellent, as were the Merlot Cab Franc blend ‘Sophia’, Gimblett Gravels Vineyard 2006 and the 100% Syrah ‘Le Sol’, Gimblett Gravels Vineyard 2007. The Gimblett Gravels terroir is known to be special, and Craggy Range is doing an excellent job exploiting it.
Morning fruitfully spent, I move on to South Africa. I start with Rupert & Rothschild’s excellent Chardonnay (Baroness Nadine 2008). I’m more than impressed with the wine – ripe baked apple, peach, apricot, sweet spice, undertones of earthy minerality – all tied nicely together with balance and restraint. The Bordeaux blends (Baron Edmond 2007 and Classique 2008) show similar class, sophistication and restraint (especially the Baron Edmond 2007, 13.5% abv). I move on to Rustenberg which proves to be another class-act. The John X Merriman Stellenbosch Bordeaux Blend makes an impression as does the Syrah 2008 and Cab-Shiraz blend RM Nicholson 2009. These wines are all fuller-bodied than Rupert & Rothschild coming in at between 14% and 14.5% abv, but they carry the alcohol exceedingly well. On to Meerlust, whose wines prove to be very good to excellent through the range (with the exception of the 2008 Chardonnay which was a bit too ripe and baked for my taste). The 2008 Pinot Noir is delicious (cherry, strawberry and vanilla wrapped in earthiness and tobacco, with decent complexity). The Bordeaux blends Meerlust Rubicon (2006 and a Magnum from 2004) are exceedingly convincing, and should evolve beautifully with age. With their concentration, structure and balance, longevity is guaranteed. All Meerlust wines that I taste have a very distinctive savoury quality to them – I speculate that this might be the oak. The proprietor Hanes Myburgh, who is pouring the wines, explains it as the influence of the terroir and the proximity to the sea. All the Brodeaux blend/Cab Sauv wines I tried from the three South African wineries are comparable in my book to Cru Classé Bordeaux. That makes them automatic bargains. I know what I’m going to do with this information – stock my cellar, and definitely put these wines on the next restaurant wine list I make or update. Fortunately, all three wineries mentioned are distributed in India by Brindco. There are more South African wineries present, but it is already 1.00pm and I decide to move on to Australia.
I start with Wakefield (Clare Valley) whose Jarman Chardonnay 2008 and Jarman Riesling 2007 prove to be very good. I promise myself (once again!) that I will drink a lot more Riesling from Australia’s cooler regions in the future – the examples I’ve tried recently (including some Botrytized/sweeter styles from Tasmania) have all been consistently very good. I go through some of the wines from Domaine A/Stoney Vineyard and Penfolds, before ending up with Yalumba. The Yalumba Eden Valley Viognier 2009 turns out to be very good. The key thing is that the wine feels balanced with decent acidity (not flabby or cloying as sometimes Viognier can) and that makes it easy to appreciate its aromatic qualities of white flowers, peach, apricot and perfume! The Yalumba Bush Vine Grenache 2008 turns out to be delightful – only a medium colour that promises delicacy, wonderful red fruit, soft tannins, spiciness on the finish and complexity overall. I inquire about the wine and I’m told that the fruit comes from up to 100-year old Grenache vines – some of the oldest in Barossa and even in the world. These older vines are the treasures of Baorssa and it’s no wonder that they give wines of such complexity. Another superb Yalumba wine that I taste is the Yalumba Signature Cabernet Sauvignon Shiraz 2005 – again from 50-70 year old vines, whose fruit quality is wonderfully evident on the nose.
By the time it is 2.30pm and I’m done with the last Yalumba wine, I start to feel the shortage of time. I’m registered for the ‘Half a Century of Superlative Port’ masterclass which starts at 4.00pm so with just an hour and a half remaining, I must pick up the pace. So far at the event, I have not tried a single wine from Chile, Argentina, Hungary, Greece, or even Bordeaux! The note taking will have to take a momentary backseat, as I try to get through at least some of these wines. I decide to make a quick run around Bordeaux – I’ve recently tasted most Grand Crus from the 2006 vintage at a Masters of Wine tasting in the Vintners Hall, but there are other vintages here and some Bordeaux Blancs that I do want to try. Before I hit Bordeaux, I spot a lone winery from the Loire (Château de la Roulerie) and I taste their wines. The Cab Franc 2009 is very good. The highlights though are the three semi-sweet and sweet wines from Coteaux du Layon 2009. On finally to Bordeaux, I start with Château Olivier (the 2001 Rouge is drinking very well now), move on to Ch. Carbonnieux ( the Blanc 2008 is stunning – barrel fermented 65% Sauvingon Blanc, 35% Semillon, wonderful nose of cut grass interlaced with the slightest undertones of honeysuckle, dry, balanced and long and delicious). The lack of time forces me to skip most others and I arrive at Ch. Branaire-Ducru (the 2004 and 2005 are both excellent, especially the 2005 – the nose more restrained than 2004, but solid structure, concentration, minerality and length). I end up at Ch. Lagrange and try the three vintages they’re showing – 2007, 2004 and 1995. Lagrange 1995 is outstanding and a very good way to end my limited Bordeaux tasting for the day. It still has a young colour, showing little sign of age even though it is 15 years old! On the nose, it has loads of fruit, tinged with notes of meat, leather and tobacco. On the palate – still good structure, long and complex! This Bordeaux has a long life ahead of it and is a small reminder of why top Bordeaux wines command the prices they do (even if we strip out the speculation)!
At this point, it’s almost 3.30pm and I suddenly start to feel buzzed – and my head is throbbing a little. Why is this happening (?) – I’ve been spitting diligently all day. Am I getting drunk? I realize that I have forgotten to eat today! The last meal I had was breakfast early in the morning. If I’m to enjoy the Port session, I absolutely have to get some food in my system. Once again it’s M&S to the rescue – I garb a quick sandwich and spend another 20 minutes tasting. I stop by the Fournier booth as I’ve heard of their reputation with Tempranillo and I’m not disappointed. The Spiga 2005 and especially the Alfa Spiga 2004 (both 100% Tempranillo from Ribera del Duero), are excellent. On both – the nose reminds me of a Burgundy Pinot Noir! I chat briefly with the proprietor Jose Manuel Ortega, and move on to Ch. Coutet (Barsac/Sauternes). I try their two wines, the Ch. Coutet 2004 (very good) and 2007 (fantastic)! Finally, it’s time to call it a day and move on to the Vintage Port session where more delights await.
The Vintage Port session (Half A Century of Superlative Port) was one of the highlights of the Decanter Fine Wine Encounter for me. I had the chance to taste some absolute gems – including the rare Dow’s 1966, Graham’s 1963, Warre’s 1960 and the exceptionally rare Graham’s 1955. A line-up like that deserves a separate article and I’ll write that at some point.
Attending the Decanter Fine Wine Encounter 2010 was definitely a good investment and worth every minute that I spent there. It was different from the trade shows that I usually attend – where the focus is on the business of finding suppliers/importers and there are all kinds of wines (not just good wines). At this event by contrast, the focus is on enjoying the wine – and most of the wineries are reputed producers that were showing good to excellent wines. So what was missing at Decanter Fine Wine Encounter? If anyone at Decanter is reading this article (or reading it to this point!) – I do have a wish-list. For one, I would have liked to see Sherry and Madeira represented. I may have missed something, but I did not see a single Sherry or Madeira at the event. As the pages of Decanter keep reminding us, these are among the greatest (albeit underappreciated) wines in the world. I would also have liked to see more Burgundy and California. There’s always a wish-list, but it does not detract in any way from the excellent show overall!