Sunday, 28 February 2010

The London Vintage Festival Part III of III


The London Vintage Festival is on Friday 16th and Saturday 17th April 2010 and I prefer the Saturday daytime session.

After a morning drinking white wine, fizz including Champagne, maybe a taste or two - always two actually, strictly for comparison purposes - of rosé, and a lunch interlude matching Italian varietals with some hearty fare to soak up the alcohol, the hardest part is deciding where to start, and end, an afternoon drinking red wine.

Most of the great expressions of the winemaker's art and science, craftsmanship, skill and experience, will be on show and available for tasting. This year including a range of so-called fine wines.

Lightest to heaviest is logical but with so much choice how do you work out what to sacrifice, because you simply cannot try everything? Although I do give it a good old go.

Do you drink only 'classic' old world red wine? Work your way through the likes of Bordeaux, Rioja and Barolo? But where does that leave the Super-Tuscans? 

Dare you confine yourself to a single country? France is too predictable surely? Begin with Bordeaux, Burgundy, the best of the Rhône? It's very limiting.

That would be like confining yourself to a single North American state. California anybody? Pinot Noir from Carneros, Monte Bello from the mountains, Santa Cruz Syrah. Or is it Shiraz? Somebody please do let me know once all the US winemaking states - how many at the last count? - agree on what that darn grape's called.

What about the best representations of a single dominant grape variety? Cabernet Sauvignon is again the obvious one. Compare and contrast claret, a couple of states like California and Washington, something from South America - Argentina or Chile? New Zealand, South Africa, Lebanon's Château Musar anyone?

Me, I'm dedicated. Committed even. Or do I mean tight-fisted? Am I really doing my damnedest to try something of everything or am I just determined to get full value for money by drinking my way around the priciest wines on show? 

Because in all honesty I won't be swirling an everyday Chilean Merlot round my glass, cheap South African Chenin Blanc - Steen is such an ugly word - won't pass my lips, nor will the merest hint of anything called 'blush' assail my nostrils.

No, to me it's about sampling as many examples as possible of the very best. From Merlot-rich red fruit aromas and flavours, through the intense blackcurrant of Cabernet Sauvignon to the spices of Syrah before ending up with the dried desert fruits on the forest floor that epitomise mature red Burgundy. By that time I can barely say that sentence of course. Try it yourself after two tasting samples of every great grape variety - dried desert fruits on the forest floor. Hopefully it's the only floor we end up on.

Back to the beginning. Perhaps start with a lighter, juicier red wine, just to get us up and running, maybe a Beaujolais Cru - Morgon is the longest-lasting - then head for the right bank of Bordeaux for St Emilion and Pomerol, before the Rhône's heavyweight Châteauneuf du Pape and subtle Côte-Rôtie, which is worth tasting alongside Spain's Priorat.

Maybe it's the hour for big Aussie Shiraz or US Zinfandel time - perhaps chuck in a South African Pinotage for a moment's contrast - before comparing classic left bank Bordeaux with the Californian competition and a Super Tuscan or two. Or three, if they're any good. 

I like to finish my exploration of dry red wine in Burgundy and recommend stopping off along the way for a Rioja Gran Reserva or two - two just for comparison that is - to get used to that barrel-aged, oaky, acorn, chestnut and conker frame of mind. I need a pause to adjust my eyes from red and black to brown and amber, realigning my nose and palate from the concentrated mature fruit of Bordeaux and meritage styles to the autumnal essence that makes for the most traditional ripe expressions of top vintage Pinot Noir. 

Finally, before all that alcohol has a chance to make a lasting impression on my ability to drive home - only joking, I'll be on the first/next/last/any train out of London Victoria - there's time for a brief foray among the festival's fortified favourites. 

This is where you see the niche and specialist winemaking countries and regions really come into their own. Rutherglen Muscat, Mavrodaphne from Greece, Madeira from, well, Madeira.

Spain and Portugal in particular get a proper look in with Sherry and Port respectively. By this point the moments for the subtleties and refinement of chilled Fino and rich Ruby may have long passed but it's well worth lingering a while over deep and dark Oloroso and Tawny. 

Because by now, the journey round the world's greatest wines is almost over. 

One last chance to grab a glass of something - anything - just to round the whole event off. What will it be? There's a temptation to go back to a favourite - that would likely be Condrieu for me - but the palate may not be able to appreciate it any more; very little tastes of anything distinctive by now, so it'll have to be something bold and quite different. 

How about Tokaji Aszú, from Hungary? Tokay to you and me? If it's good enough to feature in that country's national anthem surely it must be worth sampling half a glass to sustain you on the journey home?

Three last things: 

1. Don't forget to place your order for all your favourites on the way to the exit
2. Don't forget to collect your hat and coat from the cloakroom
3. Remember as you leave the building, it's mid-April, it's mid-afternoon and the sun will be blinding. So too will the headache.

The Sunday Times Wine Club London Vintage Festival is at the RHS Lawrence Hall, Greycoat Street, Westminster, London SW1P 2QD, on Friday 16th and Saturday 17th April 2010. Bookings 0845 217 9122. www.sundaytimeswineclub.co.uk

Thursday, 18 February 2010

The London Vintage Festival Part II of III

As advised in Part I, the next London Vintage Festival looms large on the viniferous horizon. Friday and Saturday, April 16th and 17th 2010.

If, as I always do, you plan to spend the morning sampling the best fizz, white wine (and rosé?) that the festival's winemakers have to offer, then the afternoon provides a chance to hunker down with some of the world's greatest expressions of red wine.

Before then, it's worth enjoying a gastronomic interlude and what better place to spend it than Italy? 

Italian wines are historically and traditionally solely created to partner with food. In Italy, if you're drinking you must be eating and vice versa. So now is the time to have a glass of something distinctive and deliciously Italian with your lunch. 

Pinot Grigio is all the rage, so for that reason alone it's probably best avoided. Like over-oaked and blowsy Aussie Chardonnay was wine's big hair of the eighties, Pinot Grigio may end up crossing the noughties credibility line like the waistband of Simon Cowell's designer slacks.

Italy has such an extensive range of regional grape varieties it would be a shame not to sample some. 

It's difficult to predict which of a fabulous selection of alternatives you might find, but if you're finishing off your tour of the world of whites why not try to hunt down something a bit different? Beware though, as the names of Italian grapes can be as confusing as those of the pasta. Pecorino or Passerina - which is the long thin one, which is short but fat? 

You may like a Greco di Tufo from Campania, maybe with a few years on it, or enjoy a popular favourite such as Gavi from Piedmont or San Gimignano's Vernaccia.

Of course, if your choice of lunchtime repast requires something more robust - and I do recommend the pies - now may well be the moment to make your switch to red. 

What about one of the really big hitters? The three Big Bs? Brunello di Montalcino, Barbaresco and Barolo, the supposed Wine of Kings and King of Wines? Depends if you prefer Sangiovese or Nebbiolo. Or a blend?

My personal favourite is Amarone. I adore the big spicy chunky meaty powerful weighty flavours derived from that unique mix of semi-dried grapes, perfect with a hunk of rich game pie. 

Otherwise, you can always play it safe. Very few Italian wines are as expressive of the nation as Chianti. Don't worry about it being a cliché either - a cliché is a cliché precisely because it's understood by everybody. Remember you're supposed to be having a break from 'proper' drinking and filling up on food in preparation for an afternoon sampling the world's great red wines, so make sure you eat properly while you enjoy your Chianti, to stave off later intoxication and consequent embarrassment. 

That way you'll avoid replicating my friend's faux pas, who had to repeat her question of an Italian master winemaker who didn't understand what she meant when she asked if he had some 'fava beans to go with a nice Chianti'. So un-Italian. So uncool.

© 2011 John Alexander

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