Thursday, 24 March 2011

Festival Fever 2011

The London Vintage Festival 2011 is nearly upon us. It always begins, and ends, the same way. For some, an ambulance is never far behind. If you haven’t been, do go. If you have, go back. It’s a wonderful day. If you like wine. And don’t mind being a daytime drunk.

I prefer the mid-day sessions rather than the evenings. On Saturday afternoon you can wander innocently into the streets of Westminster, where the dazzling April brightness of it soon sends you scurrying for cover into the Army and Navy stores, a most excellent English institution where they will happily relieve you of what sanity you have left by way of pickpocketry masquerading as retail therapy.

If you haven’t been, make a plan. Start with quality bubbly – Champagne or something English, from the chalk-rich Sussex Downs. I prefer RidgeView but they may not have it. Do make sure to have two glasses, strictly for comparison.

You could work your way through the quality whites as so-called fine wines are also available for tasting. Head for the Meursault. I rarely recommend any white as highly as I do Meursault. Remember they are mere tasting measures, so have two glasses, for comparison.

This is where you may begin to get drunk. Spittoons are provided, but so much of the wine is way too good to discard.

If you're an Old World kind of drinker maybe veer towards a top heavy Chablis; Hugh Johnson prefers Premier Cru to Grand Cru so see if you agree with him, compare and contrast, maybe add in a smoky Pouilly Fuissé. Consider Sancerre alongside premium Kiwi Sauvignon Blanc.  

Jancis Robinson loves the petrolly madness of Riesling – no wonder the Germans gave us the speed limitless Autobahn, their heads forever swimming in Riesling fumes.

Rosé? If you must. You’ll have to seek it out. In France I buy the Floralies, if I’m 100% honest with myself, mostly for the bottle. It has a woman’s curves.

You’ve probably had a dozen half glasses of top quality wine by now. Plus a glass of rosé.

If you spent the morning sampling the best fizz, white wine (and rosé?), the afternoon provides a chance to hunker down with some of the world's greatest expressions of red wine.

In between, enjoy a gastronomic interlude in Italy? Italian wines are 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. Just as over-oaked and blowsy Aussie Chardonnay was wine's big hair of the eighties, Pinot Grigio may end up crossing the credibility line like the waistband of Simon Cowell's slacks.

Italy has an extensive range of regional grapes so it would be a shame not to sample some during your tour of the world of whites. 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? Look out for Greco di Tufo from Campania, maybe with a few years on it, or Gavi from Piedmont and San Gimignano's Vernaccia.

Of course, if your choice of lunchtime repast requires something more robust, 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. How about a big chunky meaty powerful weighty Amarone, derived from that unique mix of semi-dried grapes, perfect with a hunk of game pie. 

Or you can 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. You're supposed to be having a break from 'proper' drinking in preparation for an afternoon sampling the world's great red wines, so 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.

During lunch you can discuss where to start, and end, your afternoon drinking red wine. 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 you can 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?

So make a plan. Will you be doing your damnedest to try something of everything or will you get full value for your ticket by drinking your way through the most exclusive wines of the show? Maybe this is not the time for everyday Chilean Merlot or cheap South African Chenin Blanc - Steen is such an ugly word - perhaps it's about sampling as many examples as possible of the very best. From the intense blackcurrant of Cabernet Sauvignon through spicy Syrah before ending up with the mushrooms and truffles on the forest floor that epitomise mature red Burgundy. Hopefully it's the only floor you end up on.

You could start with a lighter, juicier red wine, just to get up and running, maybe a Beaujolais Cru - Morgon is the longest-lived - 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, just for comparison purposes.

Then finish your exploration of red wine in Burgundy while taking in a Rioja Gran Reserva or two along the way - two just for comparison that is - to get used to that barrel-aged, oaky, acorn, chestnut and conker frame of mind, realigning your 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 your senses - particularly your sense of balance -  enjoy a brief foray among fortified festival favourites. 

This is where you see niche specialist winemaking countries and regions 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 subtleties and refinement of chilled Fino and rich Ruby may be beyond you but it's well worth lingering 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 - 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 boldly different. 

How about Tokaji Aszú, from Hungary? If it's good enough to feature in their national anthem it must be worth half a glass to sustain you on the journey home? 

Three final 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 belongings from the cloakroom
3. It's mid-April, it's mid-afternoon and the sun will be blinding. So will the headache.

The London Vintage Festival is at the RHS Lawrence Hall, Greycoat Street, Westminster, London SW1P 2QD, on Friday 15th and Saturday 16th April 2011. Bookings 0845 217 9133. 

1 comment:

  1. This post is a godsend for the festival - a really good read. I'll be at the festival this weekend; maybe see you there :)


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