I’ve been at this whole ‘wine tasting/reviewing’ business for while now, but for one reason or another I hadn’t quite plucked up the courage to register myself as a member of the ‘wine press’ before. You see… there is a whole world of exhibitions and wine tastings that take place almost completely out of the public view, for the simple reason that they’re only for members of ‘wine Trade’; partly for tax and duty reasons and partly because, well, let’s be honest… have you seen the state of most beer festivals? *Shudder*. These events also tend to be free and allow access to 100s of wines; in fact the London Wine Fair had over 5000 available to try. So when I found out I was able to get the day off work to attend the Fair this year… my hesitation flew of the window and I was in there like a rat up drain pipe!
When I arrived at the Kensington Olympia that morning I didn’t know what to expect but I certainly wasn’t expecting it to be that huge. Upon entering I was confronted with a sprawling mass of humanity weaving their way through what can only be described as a cross between ‘The Motor Show’ and ‘The Ideal Home Exhibition’. It was disorientating to say the least.
So I wondered around at first to explore a bit… where do you even start in a place with that many options open to you? I wasn’t even sure how this was all supposed to work to be honest. Was there etiquette in place for how to request a tasting? Turns out not so much… it was a no-holes-barred free for all, and not on the side of the attendees but rather the stand operators trying all they could to show you there wines. Eventually I found myself in an area with some Sparkling wine producers and realised if I was even going to attempt some sort structure to the day I’d be better off sticking to white wines in the morning and reds in the afternoon… So did the patriotic thing and started out with some English Sparkling Wine!
The Wines of Exton Park
I’ve tried a fair few English Sparklers over the last couple years so I hunted for something new to try as my first wines of the Fair and found a stand for Exton Park, a relatively new vineyard from Hampshire that’s been planting the holy trinity of sparkling wine varieties: Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier for the last ten years and is starting to show real promise on it’s investment already. Their wines have a real ‘Grower Champagne’ terroir presence to them with a notable chalky minerality running through them all… something I’m sure will only increase with time as they learn more about the potential of their site and I’m sure we’ll see a greater variety of Vintage wines from them as well.
Of their wines my top three were:
Exton Park Brut Reserve NV: (60% Pinot Noir, 40% Chardonnay) Bright citrus fruit (lemon) and yeasty brioche aroma with a hint of chalky minerality. Fresh acidity on the palate with concentrated lemon and steely thread of mineral structure. Youthful still, but a little more bottle age will add more autolytic complexity.
Exton Park Rosé Vintage 2011: (80% Pinot Meunier, 20% Pinot Noir, aged 30 months on its lees) Buttery toasted hazelnut aroma with a honeyed sheen to it. The palate is full of red berry fruit, cream and has a taught acidity.
Exton Park Blanc de Blanc Vintage 2011: (100% Chardonnay) Toffee and butter scotch aromas with plenty of yeasty brioche to enjoy. The palate has clean citrus fruit with bright acidity, green almonds and stony minerality running through with lots of yeasty complexity on the finish.
Now you may be thinking to your self… “Is he really going to bore us to death with tasting notes for the rest of this article?” Don’t worry, I won’t subject you to that; from here on out this is a tasting note free zone!
Prosecco – Contarini & Lo Spumante Di Venezia
My plan, after finishing tasting the lovely wines of Exton Park, was to wonder find myself some Champagne as a counterpoint to compare Exton’s wines to… but I accidentally made eye contact with a gentleman at the Contarini Prosecco stand close by and he clearly wasn’t taking no for an answer. So before I could blink twice I was shepherded over to their domain and presented with their wares.
Of the three tasted, the Prosecco stood out in a class of it’s own. At this point my gracious host insisted on passing me over to his neighbor (Lo Spumante Di Venezia) to try his Conegliano Valdobbiadene DOCG wines so I could see the difference in quality between the two classifications. These were elegant wines… less rounded fruit and more clean-straight lines of minerality and acidity; think cocktail party rather than lazy afternoon in the garden.
Club Tresors De Champagne
Escaping my charming Italian hosts proved harder than imagined as these boys loved to talk! In the end I adopted a simple if stereotypical method extraction… that is to say I waited until an attractive young lady passed by in one direction and I slid away in the other!
It didn’t take me long to find some Champagne stands close by and as luck would have it they were all smaller ‘grower champagne’ producers belonging to an association aimed at promoting small independent Champagne Houses. To become a member of the club producers must make Champagne on their own premises from start to finish, using only grapes from own vineyards and meet high quality standards for their work. The politics of Champagne can be a little murky to outsiders at the best of times, but can be split loosely between those who buy grapes to make Champagne and those who grow grapes from which Champagne is to be made. The introduction of ‘Grower Champagne’ to the market has in some was bridged this divide… but make no mistake, these guys pride themselves on being ‘Growers’ first and foremost!
All in all I made it through four producers from this group of twenty eight… wines from Hervieux-Dumez, Sanchez-Le Guédard, Joseph Loriot-Pagel & Rémy Massin et Fils. All of them highlighted the mineral/terroir signature that grower Champagne’s are known for and a fantastic comparison to show the level that Exton Park wines are operating at. Needless to say if you’re a fan of character driven champagnes with more on their mind than emulating House styles, than the wines from this group will provide a lot of drinking pleasure for your money.
E.Guigal & Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon
By this point in the day I’d tasted sparkling wines for the last few hours and I knew I had a Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon Tasting Class coming us fairly soon. So I went looking for something to transition me from white wines to red in preparation and bumped into an acquaintance working his way through E. Guigal’s range of white and red wines from the Rhone… which seemed like an inspired idea to me… so I joined in.
I’ve tried a few of E.Guigal’s reds before but never their White Rhone’s and I was converted right away! The combination of intense peach fruit and waxy textured body, sits right in my wheelhouse and the quality progression as your move up the range from ‘Cote du Rhone’ through ‘Saint Joseph’ to ‘Condrieu’ is clear to see. The reds were spot on as well; each exactly what you’d hope for from its region and price point, especially the ‘Hermitage’… all I can say is ‘NOM!’
As I made my way towards the Napa Valley tasting I couldn’t help but watch transfixed as this rather dapper gentleman slowly worked away at opening this huge bottle of Champagne; which would have been impressive enough if I hadn’t spotted this towering giant of a Champagne bottle close by… we all know size shouldn’t matter but come on!
After finally arriving at my destination, if a little insecure, I sat down to learn about Napa Valley Cab Sauv. The aim of the tasting session was to explore the diffrences between wines grown on the Valley floor and those grown at higher altitude up on the hillside… something, which proved rather tricky to demonstrate. The wines were all superb and great examples of classic Napa Cab Sauv; the only real stylistic diffrences between the valley and hillside wines coming in the nature of their tannins. The Valley floor wines tended to have softer/rounder tannins and those of the hillside more rustic structured tannins; which dare I say probably makes hillside wines batter for long tern aging and development.
Little Beauty, The View Fine Wine Enclosure & the Nyetimber Bus
I spent the next hour or so exploring the ‘Esoterica’ area upstairs on the mezzanine; an area that allows smaller niche producers a presence at the Wine Fair, that wouldn’t normally be able attend without being part of a larger group. I was rather impressed by a New Zealand producer going by the name ‘Little Beauty’ and all of their wines had a balance, character and charm to them. I’m someone for whom the classic Kiwi Sauvignon Blanc has lost its luster and it takes a lot now to make be sit up and pay attention rather than simply pass it by; Little Beauty have two on offer, one classical and one barrel fermented and both are gorgeous. There’s a restraint to the usually out of control acidity and herbaceous that normally accompanies these wines, which are instead focused firmly of minerality and fruit character. I was a fan of the barrel fermented Sauvignon Blanc especially with it brining a new world spin on the classic Bordeaux Blanc profile. They also produce exceptional Riesling, Pinot Gris, Gewürztraminer and Pinot Noir (Especially their Black Label ‘Wild Barrel Fermentation’ wines.).
By this point I’d been tasting wines for over six hours already and to say I was flagging would be an understatement, so I was seriously contemplating calling it a day, when I slid passed the restricted access Fine Wine area… gazing longingly at a group of Chateauneuf de pape producers showcasing the recent vintage… when I get a tap on the shoulder from the security guy who’d spotted my press pass: “You coming in?” he says… (Time slows down to a crawl)… “Yes. Yes I am!”
My time in there was something of a blur but I did taste an exceptional bottle of Grand Cru Burgundy, Corton-Charlemagne 2014 by Louis Jadot and a swath of young but promising Chateauneuf de Pape with more mature bottling’s for comparison. I was especially taken with the wines of Domaine de la Charbonniere and Domain du Pegau; their top wines were beautiful of cause but their whites were superb as well, as was Domain du Pegau’s rosé.
As expected of an area called ‘The View’… the view from balcony across the fair was stunning and I could just about make out the Nyetimber Bus at the far end of the hall and coming full circle back to finish on an English sparkling wine seemed like the perfect way to round out the day. So I wove, ducked, dodged and shimmed my way through the crowds to towards my finishing line… only to slide to a standstill at the booth for one of my favorite Spanish wine producers! Vintae make incredible wines that show there’s so much more to Spanish wine than simply Rioja. In particular they are pioneers in championing old vine Garnacha and cultivating ancient vines in general. The Matsu range of wines from the Toro region (available at your local Majestic Store) is a case in point. The difference between the three wines is almost solely of the age of the vines and as the vines get older so does the face on the label. The difference vine age makes to the character and depth of the wine is something to behold and each of these wines provide serious value for money at their respective price points.
Nyetimber is my by far my favorite English sparkling wine (there are still many I’ve yet to try though) so I was a happy camper indeed as I crossed finish line at last sampling their latest offerings as fair wound down around me for the day. I had a great time and felt like I’d achieved something having worked my way through well over 100 wines, but I was knackered and had two whole days of work still ahead of me before the weekend! Next year I’m taking the week off work and I’m going to pace myself over the three days of the fair, after all I’m no longer the spring chicken I used to be.
Thanks for reading this strange rambling little article; please let me know your thoughts and whether I should do more of these.