The fun of the fair

(by peter)

What do you get if you cross fruit cake and Wensleydale with a jeroboam of Belle Epoque 1995 and a French blimp?

It sounds like an ungodly union.

But all these things could be found in close proximity this week at the London International Wine Fair, which took place in the cavernous Excel exhibition hall in Docklands.

It’s a gigantic event, equivalent to an aircraft hangar pumped to the rafters with booze and hot air.

This monumental gathering of the wine world takes place every year. It’s intense, frenetic and hugely worthwhile – if you have the stamina of a hyperactive, booze-fetishist ox.

I was there on Tuesday, giving a seminar entitled “Take a fresh look at Chile: a focus on Chardonnay and Syrah”. And both Susie and I were in attendance on Thursday to give the IWSC food and wine matching seminar.

The idea for the former was to showcase the very best in new-wave Chilean wine through two varieties which I feel have come on leaps and bounds in the last few years in Chile.

It was a great tasting, largely because the wines were so brilliant (thanks to all the producers for sending them over). If you’re looking for wines with real personality, elegance and drinkability, then look no further than these wines. They all point at a very exciting future for Chile.

One wine (Aristos) was bottled especially for the event after spending three years in barrel. Another (SoldeSol) came from the winemaker’s personal reserve. So thanks Pedro, Louis-Michel, François and Felipe!

In all, the wines were as follows.

  • Maycas del Limarí unoaked Chardonnay Reserva Especial 2008, 14.2%
  • De Martino Quebrada Seca Single Vineyard Chardonnay 2008, Limarí, 14.1%
  • Aristos Chardonnay des Andes 2007, Cachapoal, 13.9%
  • SoldeSol Chardonnay 2005, Traiguén, 14%
  • San Pedro 1865 Limited Edition Syrah 2007, Elqui, 14.1% (£18)
  • Matetic EQ Syrah 2007, San Antonio, 14% (£18)
  • Polkura Block G+I Syrah 2007, Marchihue, 14.9% (£20)
  • De Martino Alto los Toros Syrah de Alcohuaz 2008, Elqui

As for the blimp, that was an innovation by French wine producers. It was funny at first but lost its appeal after repeatedly buzzed the seminar I was giving. Why focus on improving an ailing nation’s wine output when you can invest in a buzzy blimp, eh?

Moving swiftly on…Susie and I had a great time on the Thursday matching food with some outstanding wines, all of which had won major awards at this year’s International Wine & Spirits Competition (IWSC).

They gave us a list of wines and we, like kids in a sweet shop, cherry-picked the best and most food friendly, to go with an array of tasty morsels.

The line-up was as follows:

  • Champagne Charles Heidsieck Brut Rosé Millesime 1999 (£78, First Drinks Brands) – paired with Nigri salmon sushi
  • Chablis 1er Cru Les Vaillons Vieilles Vignes 2007, Domaine Laroche (£25, – paired with white crab meat
  • Dönhoff Kreuznacher Krötenpfhul Riesling Spätlese 2006 (£18.04, Waitrose) – paired with chilli chicken fillets
  • Baron de Ley Gran Reserva Rioja 2001 (c.£25, Bottle Green) – with jamón Serrano
  • Waitrose Solera Jerezana Manzanilla Pasada NV (£7.78, Waitrose) – with Marcona almonds and green olives
  • Château la Varière Bonnezeaux les Melleresses 2007 ( – with French apple tart
  • Sandeman 20-year-old Tawny Port (c£25, John E Fells) – with dark chocolate
  • Blandy’s Vintage Bual 1968 (c£56, John E Fells) – with rich fruit cake and a slice of Wensleydale cheese

The wines all showed brilliantly (as you’d expect of bottles that had almost all won Gold best in class at the IWSC). Particular highlights were the enchanting, youthful Dönhoff Riesling, the Manzanilla Pasada (at under £8 and at least 7 years old…a steal) and the magisterial 1968 Bual.

The food matches all worked well, too, and the capacity crowd seemed happy to listen, munch and slurp their way through the tasting with smiles on their faces.

Which is always the way we like it.

Roll on next year…

(ps here’s a video of Susie I took before the tasting started – gives a flavour of the fair in all its glory:)

Our finds of the fair

BARGAIN OF THE FAIR: Waitrose Solera Jerezana Manzanilla Pasada NV, 17% (£7.78, Waitrose) – what a wine at this price. We realise sherry’s not the most fashionable drink, but chill this down and sip it with almonds, olives and jamón and suddenly you’re as bang on-trend as Cheryl Cole. Salty, tangy, complex, persistent and just a beautiful wine. So versatile with food. One tip: once it’s opened, don’t keep it for longer than a few days in the fridge, because this kind of delicate, elegant style with soon lose its vibrancy. Drink up!

Maycas del Limarí Reserva Especial 2009, 13.5% – the latest vintage from this northern Chilean operation, and the extra experience shows. The wine was aged for quite some time on its lees pre-release and it shows: this is no aromatic bomb, it’s more of a mineral-tinged, taut and structured Sauvignon. Very classy. Very refreshing.

Dönhoff Kreuznacher Krötenpfhul Riesling Spätlese 2006, 8% (£18.04, Waitrose Wine Direct) – a mouthful in all senses. From one of Germany’s finest exponents of Riesling, this is sublime stuff. Elegant and delicate yet hugely flavoursome, refreshing and exquisitely balanced. It’s quite rich from the sugar but the acidity is vibrant and perfectly in balance. So young – give it another decade easily. Great with lightly spiced food such as a Tempura prawns with a sweet chilli dip.

Vega Sicilia Valbuena 2003 – tasted blind alongside a pretender rival (Hacienda Abascal, in itself a very decent wine), this clearly showed its class, breeding and longevity. This may not be the best vintage from Vega Sicilia, or its top wine, but it shows multi-dimensional flavours and great complexity. Intense, floral, savoury and with great textural finesse, it’s still a baby. But that vibrant acidity and taut structure bodes well for another 10-20 years at least. (Though I’d add Susie later tasted it and thought was drinking now and didn’t have such long legs…only one way to sort that argument out..!)

Perrier Jouet Belle Epoque 1995 (en jeroboam) – tried this alongside the 1996 in the same large format. Both were, to my mind, delicious. Given the format, neither had evolved super fast. The 1996 was still taut, concentrated, intense and very impressive, very showy. The 1995 by contrast was more of a purist’s wine: less intense and punchy but more subtly harmonious and a lovely drinking wine. It’s the kind of wine that allows a fleeting moment of tranquillity and flavour delectation amidst the madness that is the London Wine Trade Fair. And for that alone it gets a thumbs-up.

Errázuriz Don Maximiano Founder’s Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon 1996, Aconcagua, 13% – this stalwart Chilean icon Cab has been around for some time, but it holds its age well. The wine was cellared in impeccable conditions in Errázuriz’s Panquehue winery before being brought over for the fair. It was in great condition, with lovely juicy fruit on the palate holding up the leathery, dried fruit and rubbery flavour profile. Touch of oxidation on the finish but hey, it’s a teenager now. Linear, understated (preferred this for its subtlety versus the more masculine, firm and alcoholic 1997, produced in the “drought” vintage).

Aristos Chardonnay des Andes 2007, 13.5% – a wine bottled straight out of barrel (where it has spent three years) especially for my new-wave Chilean tasting on Tuesday. From the brand new joint venture between terroir specialist Pedro Parra, winemaker Francois Massoc and Vosne-Romanee producer Louis-Michel Liger-Belair, this is sensational stuff. The fruit is sourced from plots in the Calyptra vineyard, at over 900m altitude into the Andes foothills. The guys make their own barrels and go for an extreme approach. The result is quite brilliant: it’s edgy, even funky, but my goodness it has personality, complexity and elegance. Just gorgeous. Before I tasted it, Pedro had compared the vineyard to Meursault Perrieres. Having tasted the wine, which has definite nuances of Burgundian sensibilities, I find his optimism justified. Will be available from 2011 in Justerini & Brooks.

Blandy’s Vintage Bual 1968 – not sure what the vintage conditions were in 1968 – neither Susie and I were born – but whatever they were, they’ve conspired with the winemaking expertise at Blandy’s to make a sensational wine here. It’s been aged for 36 years in oak casks in the Madeira lodges (the “Canteiro” system), slowly caramelising the flavours and adding wonderful richness and elegance to the wine. Only just over 4,000 bottles of this wine have been released – but at this price, it’s cracking value. Madeira is such an under-appreciated wine style, but if you like blue cheese, fruitcake, or simply meditating over your wines – then this is the one for you. Rich, vibrant, complex and full of soul. A joy to experience.