The Rhône harvest has started with the whites being picked first as usual. Quality is good and the vineyards are in great shape. The reds too look very promising as long as the fine weather holds.
Here are two pictures showing grapes being prepared for the very rare vin de paille, with the hill of Hermitage visible in one. Grapes – marsanne by the look of them – are laid out in bunches in a well-ventilated room where they will slowly go raisin like to be then pressed. What comes out is a very sticky, thick, honey-like juice which will very slowly ferment over a year or two, or longer to make an intensely sweet wine.
These photos are courtesy of Jacques Devernois, cellar master at Paul Jaboulet Aîné.
Katharina’s verdict on the 2014 vintage was similar to that of the other producers we met – it was a tricky vintage. It seems that the results are very dependent upon when one harvested, as there was considerable rain in September. Katharina was excited about what she termed as the return to a ‘classic Mosel vintage’, whereby the wines need to be given time to develop and they reflect a ripeness of acidity. For this reason, Katharina generally releases her wines late – we currently have two lovely older vintages – the 2004 Wehlener Sonnenuhr Riesling Spätlese and 2010 Bernkasteler Badstube Riesling Auslese – available to buy (both £24).
From here we travelled along and across the Mosel to Kues on the opposite bank to Bernkastel.
We were greeted by Monika Sartoris, as the owner, Sofia Thanisch, was away on a business trip. Their villa is located in a stunning position overlooking the Mosel and famous ‘Doctor’ vineyard.
Here I discovered an idiosyncracy of the German language. So far, I have always seen ‘Bernkastel’ written with a ‘k’ in the middle and ‘Doktor’ likewise. However, their Berncasteler Doctor wines are written with a ‘c’, which harps back to the previous century when they were written in the English way. As the wine was registered as a trademark at that time, they continue to differentiate it from their other wines to this day.
Next we moved onto Lieser to meet Thomas Haag at his estate. Thomas has recently been awarded ‘Winemaker of the Year for 2015’ by the publication Gault & Millau. Thomas’ property is less traditional than most of the other producers , with the modern tasting room more akin to a bistro/restaurant than the historic halls, and castles we had visited previously. In particular, his wine labels were a breath of fresh air, as they were uncluttered and distinct, although some contain the Schloss Lieser coat of arms.
His wines were very fresh but with an almost salty, mineral flavour, which is a characteristic of Thomas’ style of terroir. Two of his wines – Riesling Kabinett Dry 2014 (£12.50) and Niederberg Helden Riesling Spätlese (£16) – feature in the Germany 2014 offer.
German wine labels
The origins of German wine names date back to the middle ages and are often linked to important aspects of life at that time, such as religion (Papst – ‘Pope’), nature (Vogelsang – ‘bird song’) or professions (Apotheke – ‘Pharmacy’). Indeed, even today a large percentage of the vineyards in this region are still owned by the church.
As so many producers have heritages dating back many hundreds of years, they naturally want to depict this history within their wine labels. So they often incorporate a Gothic font and coats of arms, as well as quite traditional names (which are long due to German language). The label can evoke a military feel, can be quite confusing for the would-be buyer to understand and are not necessarily clear as to how dry/sweet the wine will be. Often there is a sweetness code/grading on the back label, however.
I was pleased to see a new label by the son of Carl von Schubert and those from Thomas Haag which are much cleaner and clearer than typical German labels.
Neck labels came about in the late 1900s, I was told, by Christian Vogt at Karthäuserhof. At this time it was common practice to chill wines in the rivers/streams/lakes of estates during hunting/shooting parties. (Eitelsbacher Karthäuserhoberg used to be one of the longest names and had the smallest labels.) After a few hours of chilling, the bottle labels often came off due to being immersed in the water and the identity of the wines was no longer known. So, neck labels were born, as the water level enabled them to stay intact, so the guests still knew which wine was which.
To find out more about wines from this region, the importance of riesling and classification of German wines by sugar levels, visit our How to Buy Germany Guide.
The last appointment on our tour was at the home of Willi Haag, where we received another warm greeting by his family, who have been based in the village of Brauneberg since 1500.
Willi told us about the Flurbereinigung which is taking place gradually across all vineyards in this region. It aims to consolidate the plots owned by individual winemakers and to make them more accessible and hopefully safer than before. Previously the Haag estate had 50 plots spread across the Mosel region, but now that has been reduced to eight, which is easier to manage.
We finished our tasting trip with a sip of a superb Auslese and Beerenauslese from the 2010 and 2011 vintages. It was like tasting pure nectar – an exquisite, aromatic encounter with wines that will keep for many years to come! A Kabinett wine from Willi Haag features in the Germany offer – Brauneberger Juffer (£10.95).
The lasting impressions I will take away from my first trip with a buyer are as follows:
• Sebastian Payne MW’s ability to know how a wine will open up and taste in a few months’ time and his meticulous attention to detail when comparing the different tastings of a wine
• The importance of climate and the harvest start date on the livelihood of producers
• The friendly welcome we received from all producers, irrespective of the size or status of their estates
• The steepness of the vineyards and the dangers of hand harvesting the grapes
• The high quality of German wine which is flavoursome, diverse and covers a spectrum of sweetness levels, as well as being low in alcohol – and how it offers such extremely good value for money
• Sebastian’s passion for his role and for only selecting wines that he is confident that members will buy and that they will enjoy.
Marketing Campaigns Manager
Campaign manager and wine student Yvonne Blandford accompanies buyer Sebastian Payne MW around the vineyards of the Mosel and, amongst the steep vineyards, steely rieslings and gothic scripts, rediscovers her love of German wine…I have worked for The Society for just over two years in the Marketing department. Many moons ago I lived and worked in Germany where I first fell for the wine, although these were the bad old days when all German wine meant to most of the UK market was sugary Liebfraumilch and Black Tower.
So it was a great privilege to be given the chance to join Sebastian Payne MW earlier this year on his buying trip to Germany and having recently passed the WSET (Wine & Spirit Education Trust) Level 2 exam, it offered me the chance to rekindle my love for German wine and hone my skills by watching a master at work.
As we set off from Frankfurt-Hahn airport in the direction of the Mosel valley, Sebastian explained about the region and producers we would be visiting over the next two days.
The purpose of our visit was to make the final selection of wines to feature in the 2014 Germany offer. Sebastian had already tasted many of the wines at the ProWein exhibition in Düsseldorf earlier this year and he wanted to assess how they had developed in the interim.
Reichsgraf von Kesselstatt
This was my first experience of witnessing the close relationship Sebastian has established over the years with the producers and the high level of respect they have for him. I observed how Sebastian tasted each wine, meticulously writing notes on each and then referring back in his book to the notes he made on that wine at ProWein to see how they had ‘opened up’.
The von Kesselstatt winery has extensive plots in the three main areas of this important wine-growing region of Germany. Vineyards occupy much of the slopes adjoining the Mosel, Ruwer (pronounced ‘roover’) and Saar rivers and von Kesselstatt own approximately 36 hectares in total.
Their Josephshöfer wines emanate from the grey slate Graach vineyard, whereas the Scharzhofberger vines are planted in red Devon slate – von Kesselstatt’s Niedermenniger Herrenberg Kabinett (£9.50), Josephshöfer Kabinett (£12.95) and Scharzhofberger Kabinett (£16.50) feature in the Germany offer.After a buffet lunch, which was much needed after our crack-of-dawn start, we were on our way. As we travelled through the valley to our next appointment, I was staggered to see how steep the vineyards are.
Value for money
The vineyards in this region are predominantly built on the hillsides rising up from the three rivers. Gradients of 80° are not uncommon which makes machine harvesting of the grapes virtually impossible. The producers all employ large numbers of pickers in the autumn, who have the back-breaking task of hand harvesting the grapes whilst gingerly negotiating the slopes.
I did see a few metal ‘chair lifts’ at the bottom of slopes that Sebastian advised were used to ascend and support pickers on the steepest gradients, but the majority of harvesting appears to be done by sure-footed workers from eastern Europe.
Taking this hand-harvesting method into account, which must be fraught with danger, it seems to me that German wines are actually very good value for money when compared with other wines grown in flat vineyards around Europe.
Maximin Grünhaus, Mertesdorf
We were met by Dr Carl von Schubert, whose family bought the estate in the 19th century and has lived here ever since. The estate lies at the foot of a long steep south-facing slope on the left bank of the Ruwer river, about 2km from where it joins the Mosel. It is divided into three separate, but adjoining vineyards: Abtsberg, Herrenberg and Bruderberg.
Carl kindly gave us a tour of his cellars where barrels are manufactured from the oak trees on his land and which store their riesling, pinot blanc and pinot noir wines. The lower levels of the cellars are so old that black mould covers the walls, roof and barrels – formed from the high humidity of 80-95% which is fed by the volatile acidity, alcohol, etc. that originates from the yeast. The mould is an excellent regulator of the humidity in the air and takes decades to form in this way. I didn’t find this particularly pleasant to touch, but it is something that makes them the envy of many producers, (or so I’m told!).
Herr von Schubert was an interesting man who recounted humorous anecdotes of family weddings on his estate (he has a number of children of marrying age!) and his attempts to prevent wild boar from destroying the vines – 68 were shot last year alone in this region! These shooting parties have enabled Carl to diversify into selling produce like wild boar paté, so it is a win-win situation for him!
Our last appointment of the day was to Karthäuserhof where we were greeted by Christian Vogt, chief winemaker. Like Maximin Grünhaus, all their vines are grown in the vineyards surrounding their estate, which is quite unusual for the region, rather than owning a mixture of plots dotted around various vineyards.
We were taken to the historic tasting room of this picturesque villa, which was surrounded by beautiful wisteria in full bloom in the warm May sunshine.
As Sebastian methodically tasted the wines and compared them to his earlier tasting at ProWein, Christian explained the history of the tasting room to me. It dates back to 1895 when the great grandfather of the current owner had to convince the father of his future bride that he was worthy of her hand in marriage. He had everything produced for the room including three marble wall displays by Villeroy & Boch of local scenes including Trier and Cochem.
Over dinner that evening in the ancient Roman city of Trier, Sebastian, Bernd and I talked about how hard these producers have to work to maintain their businesses. Many travel frequently to all corners of the world in an attempt to get restaurants, hotels and wine merchants to list their wines. What had become very apparent to me in the few hours I had spent in the wine region, was the importance of climate on the producers’ livelihoods and that within the space of a few hours/days their whole year’s work can be ruined if it rains too much or if there’s a hail storm. The crucial decision as to when to start harvesting is an extremely hard one to make and again can have catastrophic or tremendous results. I now begin to understand the high numbers of suicides that take place within the wine growing industry.
Marketing Campaign Manager
• Yvonne’s dispatch on Day Two will feature JJ Prüm, Dr Thanisch, Schloss Lieser and Willi Haag, as well as some useful information on Germany’s oft-tricky wine labels. Look out for it on Society Grapevine tomorrow…
• The fruits of this trip can be found in our Germany 2014 offering.
Sebastian Payne MW started work with The Society in 1973, although he joined as a member along with his brother in 1967. Who better, then, to select a wine from each of The Society’s decades in Stevenage to taste with 60 lucky members at our recent celebration of 50 years in Stevenage?
The wines were almost, but not quite, incidental to the wealth of anecdotes that came forth during 60 fascinating minutes spent in our newly refurbished Members’ Room. Here are just a few of the stories, together with a brief look at each of the wines.
With a wealth of wine from South America, Eastern Europe and other newer stars elsewhere now available on The Society’s List, there were myriad choices for this decade’s wine. Sebastian kicked things off with a wine from this decade, the multi-IWC-award-winning (but sadly all gone now) The Society’s Exhibition New Zealand Chardonnay 2013, made for us by Paul Brajkovich at Kumeu River. Warming tropical fruit in a Burgundian style – the perfect illustration of what our Exhibition range, launched in 1999, is all about: benchmark examples of their kind offering excellent value for money, made for us by some of the world’s top names.
The committee showed great imagination and courage in deciding to move from our three cellars in London to purpose-built premises in Stevenage, taking advantage of the grants and tax breaks being given to businesses who moved to the new towns. Our cellar and bottling plant (closed in 1991) moved in 1965.
Christopher Tatham, buyer from 1958 to 1972 had a simple rule of thumb: ‘Wine should be delicious. When you put it in your mouth, do you like it? Would you pour another glass?’ Christopher was the first Society buyer to insist that each wine had a comprehensive tasting note. Albert Cable, general manager at the time, was someone who, according to Sebastian, wrote ‘commendably short’ tasting notes, e.g. ‘A complete wine’.
Vouvray Le Mont Demi-Sec 1969 from Domaine Huet (currently available for £120 per bottle or £65 per half bottle) has aged beautifully because of the high acidity in the wine. There are only 10 grammes of residual sugar, so it’s almost ‘sec’, but it has a lovely structure and lightness of touch with such depth of flavour.
Several scandals (including Norwich-bottled Beaujolais that wasn’t Beaujolais!) reared their heads in the 1970s. Thankfully The Society’s impeccable and transparent sourcing, something that has been key throughout our 141-year history, did us a lot of good in the trade and in the eye of the consumer.
The Society has always had a nose for the quirky as well as the classic. Chateau Musar is very much in the first camp and has, overtime, put a foot firmly in the second. The Society was the first UK merchant to regularly import Musar, starting in 1971, and we remain firm friends with the Hochar family. The wine has a cult following. The late Serge Hochar was a charismatic winemaker who possessed vibrancy and passion for his vocation. His approach of seemingly minimum intervention led to a wine that his son Gaston describes as “amazing but disturbing”.
Sebastian presented the 1977 (the year of his first daughter’s birth, and also the year he became a Master of Wine). It’s a blend of cinsaut, carignan and cabernet sauvignon. A nod to the legendary inconsistency of the wine, which of course is a large part of its cult appeal. was given in Sebastian’s comment: “When Musar is good it is mind-blowing, and sometimes it’s not. I don’t know which glass you’ve got …”
The 1980s was the decade in which wine noticeably started to get better, as the weather was generally improving. It all started with 1982 Bordeaux and quality worldwide has, in the main, progressed pleasingly. In this decade we listed over 500 wines at once for the very first time, we started accepting credit cards and our Wine Without Fuss subscription scheme started. Sebastian became head of buying in 1985, hence his next choice of wine.
La Rioja Alta 904 Gran Reserva Rioja 1985 comes from a bodega with whom we have a long and fruitful relationship (La Rioja Alta make The Society’s Exhibition Rioja Reserva). Its silky texture and warming flavours of smoky and spicy strawberries and plum encapsulate what the perfect Rioja should taste like.
The 90s began and ended with warehouse expansion at The Society (warehouses 2 and 3 were built), and our Stevenage Cellar Showroom opened its doors just as 1989 ended and 1990 began. Our flagship French wine region, Bordeaux, suffered terribly in 1991, 1992 and 1993 because of the vagaries of the weather , but not before the stellar vintage of 1990, rightly considered to be one of the great vintages of the century.
Our long-term relationships with growers are many, including the Barton family. Sebastian chose Château Langoa Barton 1990 to taste, the estate so well run by Anthony Barton since 1985, his uncle Ronald before him and his daughter Liliane now. The 1990 is very good – velvety in texture with rich flavours of cassis and raspberry overlaid with leather and tobacco. If you had to describe what old claret should taste like, you couldn’t do much better than this.
This was an exciting decade when The Society really flourished. Our website came into being (today over 60% of our business happens via this channel), South America, and Chile in particular, showed us what it can do, assisted greatly by the expert buying of Toby Morrhall, achieved through great relationships with the growers. These relationships epitomise how we go about our business, with honesty, loyalty and integrity. Our ‘Wine Championships’ started in 2001 – an annual blind tasting and benchmarking exercise of our portfolio.
It seemed appropriate to finish off our tasting with celebratory bubbles from The Society’s longest-standing grower. Alfred Gratien has been supplying sparkling wine and Champagne to us since 1906, and Alfred Gratien Brut 2000 (currently available for £42, or £27.50 per half) is a rich, beautifully structured fizz that would grace any occasion.
We raise our glasses to the next 50 years in Stevenage.
Members who use our website on mobile phones and tablets may have noticed some changes recently.
We want members to have a great experience regardless of which device they choose to use, and with more members accessing the site via smaller screens (nearly half of all visits to thewinesociety.com are now made by mobile and tablet), we realised that our service needed to be improved.
So what’s different?
Members viewing The Society’s website on a desktop or laptop computer will notice very little difference. However, for mobile and tablet screens, content should now be readable without the need to zoom or scroll left to right. The design will automatically adapt to fit the screen optimally, whether you choose to view in portrait or landscape.
You can read more about the individual changes here (with tips on how to navigate the new design, should they be required).
The success of this project depends entirely on the quality of members’ experience, and we welcome your feedback.
Any members accessing the site via mobile or tablet since the responsive website was launched on 9th June, 2015 are very welcome to either e-mail feedback to email@example.com or complete this short questionnaire.
Head of Digital Marketing
Janet Wynne Evans gets acid indigestion at a music festival…Another festival season draws to a close and I’ve yet to sample Glasto and glamping. I just feel too old – though many who go, including some recent headline acts, are older even than me – for anything beyond one night only at a more intimate gathering, and only then if a walking miracle from my musically misspent youth is coming to town.
Lower-key events, where every penny of a limited budget is rightly spent on the music, can be a bit unsophisticated, infrastructure-wise. No trendy ‘pop-up’ eats, unless you count a bap shooting out of a toaster to ricochet off a burger, and forget the Bolly tent. It’s beer, beer and more beer, often as much vital sponsorship as social lubricant. One venue recently rebranded itself to honour a prominent lager brand (probably not the one you’re thinking of).
Whether or not keeping the bar open for the duration of the performance was part of the deal, it was unwise, given the dwindling capacity, elderly plumbing and compromised balance of superannuated jazz cats such as myself.
As yet another projectile of said lager shot from a tremulous paw down the back of my neck (‘sorry, babes!’), I wondered irritably why these things can’t be sponsored by Domaine de Chevalier (attention, Olivier Bernard).
Just one plucky refreshment stall was offering wine, a choice of four of the usual by-the-glass suspects. Already, one of these stalwarts had been crossed out and no prizes for guessing which.
It’s at times like this when I marvel at sauvignon blanc. Yes, it’s delicious but one of the joys of wine is its diversity and scope for consumer capriciousness. In my formative years, Vouvray and Bergerac were hot, or, in today’s parlance, ‘cool’. Sauvignon came either from the Loire or Bordeaux, or, at great expense, from California where it was called Fumé Blanc, another creature altogether.But then, New Zealand galvanised the grape, with Chile and the Cape in hot pursuit, and a rightly rattled Loire and Bordeaux fought back in earnest.
How we’ve lapped up this war of the worlds, glass in hand! According to the Wine & Spirit Trade Association we Britons drank over 750,000 litres of it last year alone, placing it way ahead of any grape of any colour, and consumption is still on an upward trend.
Enough, surely! My inner wine merchant fervently wants the wheel of retailing to turn again, to other grapes that deliver equal excitement and gratification. But the real me, on that bright summer’s night, craved a glass of sauvignon blanc, and not just because there wasn’t any.
Of course, there was a bottle in the fridge when I got home, as, I suspect there is in most people’s, waiting for a chance to hit the spot, just as it is, or to shine even more brightly with impromptu fish and chips, cold chicken or a midnight feast of melted goat’s cheese on toast. Or, come to that, to wash down the supermarket smoked-salmon sandwiches we gratefully fell upon between sets.
Note to self: smuggle it through in a cool bag in future and don’t ever forget how much you love it.
Janet Wynne Evans
Fine Wine Editor
And Now For Some Salsa…
The salty and the piquant tend to make natural partners for sauvignon blanc. With three kinds of herbs, capers, mustard, anchovies, garlic, wine vinegar and lemon juice, a classic salsa verde is a cinch. I like to serve this vivid green supercharged sauce with white fish such as hake or cod. Serving it with oilier delights like salmon may be too much of a good thing.
Recipe: Grilled Hake with Salsa Verde
The ingredients below will make a generous tubful of sauce, and you should aim to finish it off within a few days out of respect for the fresh components, and the fact that with every passing day it looks more like pond-weed. But it makes such a sublime addition to cold chicken, baked potatoes, steamed greens and more besides that this should not be a problem.
• a couple of very generous handfuls each of parsley and basil leaves
• a similar quantity of dill or tarragon
• a smaller quantity of mint leaves (about ten big leaves should do it)
• 1-2 cloves garlic, to taste
• 1 tablespoon capers, well rinsed
• 4-6 salted or brined anchovies, rinsed
• a good teaspoon of Dijon mustard
• a dash of red wine vinegar
• a tablespoon of lemon juice
• Up to 100ml olive oil, to emulsify. No need for expensive extra-virgin.
• freshly ground black pepper, or white if you prefer
• 4 thickish hake fillets, about 150g each, skin on, scales removed
First make the salsa verde: Rinse the herbs and dry thoroughly on kitchen paper before mincing them in a food-processor or blender. Add the garlic, capers and anchovies, and blend again. Transfer the mixture to a bowl. The next bit is best done manually. Stir in the mustard, vinegar and lemon juice and then add the olive oil very gradually, whisking until you have a pesto-like consistency. Season with pepper and give it a final stir. The anchovies and mustard will provide enough salt.
Now for the hake: Run your fingers over the flesh to check for pin bones which should be tweezed out to avoid cruelty to guests. Lay them skin-side up in the base of a grill pan (lose the rack). Brush with a little oil and season well. Place at the top of a preheated grill, and remain on duty lowering the position or heat when the skin begins to bubble and blister.
Depending on the thickness of the fillet, it should take 8-10 minutes for the flesh to turn opaque. Be careful not to overcook. A fork inserted into the fillet should meet with no resistance.
Lift onto warmed plates and remove the skin, which will readily peel off to reveal the moist flesh below. Some (myself included) like to eat the skin, but it’s not everyone’s choice, so best assume the latter. Add a dollop of salsa verde, having the bowl on hand for reinforcements if required. Tender little new potatoes, simply steamed or crisp, thin French fries make delicious partners.
Any self-respecting sauvignon blanc on our List should handle this with aplomb. The verdant Marlborough style is especially well-suited, but the choice is yours!
Clearly, you can never have too much sauvignon blanc, and your Society has taken that to heart, with the result that we now need to liberate some warehouse space. For a limited period, members are invited to stock up and save money on a cosmopolitan selection of sauvignons from France, New Zealand, the Cape and Chile.
Well, it’s started. This provocative (at least in wine trade circles) headline appeared in The Telegraph last week extolling the virtues of a vintage not even harvested let alone safely in the cellar.
Bordeaux has seen some freak conditions so far this summer and now needs some rain if even a good vintage is to be delivered. For ‘near perfect’ we’ll wait until we have visited, tasted and talked to producers the length and breadth of Bordeaux (and not just the salesmen!).
Yields may well be low in many regions of France; there seems plenty of evidence for that so far but not enough to start talking up prices at this early stage.
Thank goodness for the common sense closing remarks in The Telegraph’s article from Bordeaux producer and blogger Gavin Quinney who commented that, given that harvest for reds is in late September, ‘most of us sit there with our fingers crossed and won’t say anything until the fat lady sings.’
We’re with the fat lady, if admittedly hoping we might all have another 2005 to look forward to.
Jo Locke MW
Sebastian Payne MW celebrates 42 years at The Wine Society this year. During that time he has seen the Buying Team grow from just one in 1985 (himself – although he started at The Society in 1973 as promotions manager, he didn’t officially take a full buying role until the mid eighties) to its current size of seven active buyers scouring the globe for the best the wine world has to offer.
One constant over that period of three decades has been Sebastian’s role as Italian wine buyer.
Sebastian’s involvement with Italian wine started even before taking on the buying role he is now synonymous with, as assistant to the wine buyer of the time. `We were buying Italian wines in the 70s but not in a serious way. We had about eight reds and six of them were Chianti,’ he recalls.
It wasn’t until visiting Italy’s largest trade show, Vinitaly, in the early eighties that things started to take shape. At the time the easiest solution for a UK wine merchant or supermarket looking to stock Italian wines was to approach one of a few large companies in Italy who could effectively offer an off-the-peg range of Italian wines. No need then to invest time and money searching the length and breadth of a country whose sheer size let alone regional and stylistic diversity was for many an obstacle.
For Sebastian, Vinitaly 1982 changed all that, establishing The Society’s first direct Italian supplier, Hofstätter in the Alto Adige, a relationship that still stands today.
Sebastian has visited Italy every year since 1990. With each visit he meets with established suppliers and one or two new prospects, gradually widening the range – a policy which over the last 25 years has seen strong relationships develop and bear fruit while still introducing exciting new finds and freshness to the range.
One such visit in the early days of his tenure was to a producer in Panzano, in the centre of Chianti country. The Society had been buying Chianti from a producer in the town for a few vintages and while the wine was good, the owner of the winery was a little unpredictable (and easily distracted with an obsession for making Vin Santo!). His neighbour at the time was a terracotta tile maker who also had an interest in Chianti having purchased an estate some decades earlier in the late 60s.
His name was Dino Manetti and his wine was called Fontodi. That initial meeting was in 1985. Today, Dino’s son Giovanni Manetti will be familiar with many members who have attended one of The Society’s Italian tastings in recent years, as the relationship continues.
Dealing with suppliers in some regions, particularly during the early days in Campania, hasn’t always been so smooth. Business practices that today would be considered outrageous were unfortunately much more commonplace. It wasn’t unheard of for a buyer to taste one thing at the winery and yet receive something quite different at point of delivery. These producers fell by the wayside and a core of reliable trustworthy growers were maintained – growers who shared The Society’s view of a building a successful long-term relationship.
One of the key roles of a Society buyer, as Sebastian sees it, is to `sell the idea of The Society to the producers so that they want to sell to you’. Understanding that their wines are being sold directly to interested wine drinkers who appreciate and understand where the wine has come from is a big pull for producers and reflects the reasons why many choose to make wine in the first place. It is with those growers and producers who fully understand this that we have developed the longest and most fruitful partnerships.
On the subject of communication, Sebastian modestly describes his grasp of the Italian language as ‘Cellar Italian’! He is happy to converse on wine-related topics drawing upon a vocabulary partly picked up at university studying the classics but mainly garnered from years spent in the company of growers and producers. However, by his own admission he’s less comfortable discussing the finer points of Serie A. The nice thing about Italians, he says, is that they don’t mind when you get it wrong.
Sebastian has witnessed a remarkable rise in the popularity of Italian food on these shores during his tenure, a huge boon to Italy’s wine industry. He cites more confidence amongst wine drinkers to explore new wines that might pair well with the cuisine, and also less fear in pronouncing Italian wine names!
The big international varieties such cabernet and merlot used to play a much larger part in The Society’s Italian range than they do today. Here Sebastian is unequivocal that, like any wine-producing country, Italy should show a point of difference and be true to its own individual character; and that this is best expressed by the local grape varieties.
An example of this individual character being lost and then slowly regained can be seen in Sicily. Sebastian first visited Sicily in a buying capacity in 1992 and described an island where many producers seemed intent on trying to emulate the success that Australia had had with big well-known grapes. In doing so, the island’s wines had lost their own unique sense of character. It took years of external influence from winemakers and buyers alike to help push Sicily back on track and to regain its confidence in its own individuality. Anyone who has tasted wines from the nerello mascalese grape grown high up the sides of mount Etna will be glad they did.
Since stepping down as chief buyer in 2012 (a mantle he had held for 30 years) Sebastian has been able to dedicate more time to take up what he describes as `unfinished business’ with Italy. It would seem that this investment in time and energy has paid dividends as Italian sales at The Society have increased strongly in the last three years and the range continues to flourish.
When asked about the biggest challenge he faces as Italian wine buyer for The Society the answer comes readily: the biggest challenge and paradoxically the biggest attraction is the sheer diversity of wine styles, regions and grapes. The excitement that there is always something new to discover goes hand in hand with the complexity of the region and as Sebastian points out, ‘if you are interested in a subject then the more complex it gets the more fascinating it becomes.’
Whether sharing his fascination or simply looking for something delicious to open, our membership has been well served by this approach over the past three decades. With Sebastian noting that Italian winemakers are approaching native grape varieties with renewed confidence, better winemaking and better knowledge, the future also looks bright for fans of the country’s wines.
We’ll drink to that.
Marketing Campaign Manager
Members can sample Sebastian’s current finds in our ‘Italy: From Top To Toe’ selection.
‘England can’t make decent wine’ is a phrase that I have been forced to roll my eyes at far too often.Despite all the appreciation from wine writers and the international awards and plaudits loaded upon the wines of our fair isle, many people are still entrenched in the idea that the wines will never match up to those from more established wine regions.
Personally, I take great umbrage with this and feel that it is an assertion made either upon out-of-date experiences or a place of comically overdone wine snobbery. In response to this I feel the need to fly the flag for English wine whenever the opportunity arises.
Our new English wine offering is just such an opportunity.
In my opinion what will change the minds of all the naysayers are the sparkling wines produced in England which are a particular speciality of ours.
With producers such as Nyetimber, Camel Valley and Ridgeview it isn’t hard to see that quality is there. The wines from these producers generally cost about the same as the cheaper wines from the Grand Marques Champagne houses, but I find are often of a quality that far surpasses these and are easily worthy of competing amongst the Champagnes priced at £40-50.
The wines offer wonderful balance, finesse and refreshing acidity, they are delicious to drink young and some have the ability to age fantastically too. Their quality has been praised by wine writers such as Oz Clarke, Victoria Moore and Hugh Johnson to name a few, and have accrued countless medals and trophies at the Decanter Awards, International Wine Challenge and the International Wine & Spirit Competition.Now as a reality check, it has to be acknowledged that it is hard to make top-quality wines in England: our climate is too cold and wet for a whole host of grape varieties. Indeed, considering the weather we have experienced this summer it is a surprise that we can grow grapes at all! It is unlikely that world-class red wines will ever be made in the UK, but with Cornwall less than 90 miles north of Champagne it’s easy to see that with the right grape and site selection it is more than possible to make great sparkling wines.
Alongside the general climatic difficulties, in common with other wine-producing regions, we do experience vintage variation. This can be especially dramatic in the UK; when we have a bad vintage it can be devastating, such as that in 2012 when some producers dumped their whole harvest. In Champagne they would have been able to utilise the less-good fruit, beefing up the blend with better wine from previous vintages. This isn’t the case in the UK yet, being a young producing country the reserves of old vintages haven’t had time to build up to such an extent yet. But this will come in time: as English producers become even more established and build up good reserve stocks, vintage variation will lessen and blends overall will improve further in quality.Finally, one very exciting aspect for me about the current state of English wines is that ther are new wineries being founded and new vineyard new sites that are being found around the UK all the time.
Bluebell is a great example of a newcomer to the scene, having only released their second vintage this year. The wine is delicious and very distinctive to those from other English producers with a fuller-bodied, creamier and more developed style than the lighter and elegant Ridgeview or Camel Valley wines.
Our English offer has been put together to showcase some of the best wines that England produces and in a variety of styles. For me the England’s Finest Sparklers case in particular is a terrific showcase of the top-quality wines that can be made here.
With the superb quality of the 2014 vintage, the ever-increasing experience of the UK’s winemakers and their commitment to quality we should all be looking forward to seeing the development of our wineries in England over the next decade and with this the new treasures that will be unearthed.
Marketing Campaign Manager
We shouldn’t need fine summer weather to enjoy good rosé wine; and of the myriad rosé being produced today, nothing quite matches the glamour and elegance of pink wine from Provence.Our latest offering of rosé from the region aims to prove this.
Provence has always been about pink wine, and today it represents 88% of the region’s entire production.
It used to be sold mainly in skittle-shaped clear-glass bottles and to be honest was rarely that good. Often mass produced from high yielding grapes and with little technology to improve quality, rosé de Provence was often a serious disappointment. That is changing and more and more, I’ve been enjoying my forays into the pink-tinted world of Provence.
Provence has always about mass and about a few beacons of brilliance. The beacons have become brighter of late and every year they grow in number.
Why the change?
1. Better technology used to make cleaner wines.
2. Real investment, often from outside the region. Louis Roederer and Perrin are two names to have invested here.
3. Climate change.
4. Competition from elsewhere.
5. Genuine desire to improve quality with lower yields, better husbandry, and better choice of grape varieties.
As growers try to make better wines by reducing yields and using better grape varieties such as mourvèdre, the wines have suddenly become more flavourful, characterful and even better to be drunk with food.
Not so long ago, I had the great pleasure and honour of taking a small group of Wine Society members to the Rhône. One lunchtime we were in Cairanne where there is an excellent bar à vin with, not surprisingly, an excellent wine list. Of course we had an impressive Cairanne from the equally impressive 2010 vintage. This was a brilliant red but actually not quite what was needed with lunch during June.
However, the other wine we had was just the ticket and something wonderful to show off, particularly as it is only its second vintage. This was Miraval, a Côtes de Provence made by the Perrin family but owned by Hollywood stars Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie.
It was perfect: a wine with charm and ease and coping well with all the food that was put before us. And in came in a magnum. Magnums have become the in thing for top Provence wines and they do indeed make a real impact at the table.
On rosé and food
I drink rosé throughout the year. It is just a very easy wine to serve. It refreshes and it goes unerringly well with everything, and Provence rosé from good estates not only keeps well but improves in bottle and is often better after the summer is over.
Eggs and tomatoes are a real ‘no’ for most wines, and yet rosé wines work really well, unperturbed by the strong flavours even of salad dressing. With fish, especially grilled or fried, there is little better and likewise simply prepared meats including all manner of charcuterie.
So how to serve rosé?
Simplicity itself. There is no need to decant or to open hours before. Light chilling suffices but not so cold as to erase all the flavours.
1. Lighter styles
• Côtes de Provence, Domaine Houchart Rosé, 2014 (£7.50): very round tasting, easy, no hard edges. Versatile. Best drunk very young.
• Côtes de Provence Rosé, Château Barbanau 2014 (£9.25) & Coteaux Varois Saint-Qvinis Rosé, Domaine de Fontlade 2014 (£7.50): two crisp and bone-dry thirst quenchers that can be enjoyed with or without food and ideally now and over the next three or four months.
2. Mid-weight pinks
These all have more concentration and much more flavour. While remaining versatile, they come into their own with food. Lovely now but all will continue improving over the next few months.
Examples of this style:
• Sainte-Victoire-Côtes de Provence Rosé, Domaine Houchart 2014 (£8.25)
• Mas de Romanin, IGP Alpilles 2014 (£8.75)
• Côtes de Provence Rosé, Château Riotor 2014 (£8.95)
• Côtes de Provence Rosé, Château de Galoupet Cru Classé, 2014 (£9.95)
• Coteaux d’Aix en Provence Rosé, Château Vignelaure 2014 (£12.50)
• Domaine Richeaume, IGP Méditerranée Rosé 2014 (£14.95)
• Côtes de Provence, Miraval Rosé 2014 (£14.95)
3. More weight still
Bandol and Palette, with two wines represented in this offer:
Both will again work even better with food and better still with quite big dishes such as lobster or crab.
I was very fortunate enough to have enjoyed a bouillabaisse prepared by Lulu Peyraud of Bandol’s Domaine Tempier and reputed to have been one of the best interpreters of Provençal cooking. Both white and rosé were served alongside, with the rosé edging it and perhaps coping best with all the flavours of crab, garlic and saffron.
Replicating the dish is not easy. The fish markets in Marseille are hardly next door though these days there is Eurostar service from Saint Pancras. So maybe it can be done…!