When you’ve been in business for almost two hundred years, it’s safe so say you have had to move with the times. Richmond-based Ellis Wines chose London’s Vintners’ Hall for its 2019 annual portfolio tasting, with a focus on the ‘experiential’, including ‘wine trails’ and a fusion of old world classics and newer innovations. There were more than 300 wines to try, as David Kermode, aka Mr Vinosaurus, reports for The Buyer.
Old World France and Italy dominated the tasting, but there were newer names in the mix, including a funky Chenin and an ethereal Syrah.
Take a stroll along any high street and you’ll see retail is changing fast. As stores are shuttered and the big names fall like dominos, the smartest operators are dodging the perfect storm by grasping the importance of ‘the experience’ to the modern consumer. It has been a prominent focus for the venerable John Lewis chain of department stores. And it appears to be working in the wine world too.
Ellis Wines chose the imposing Vintners Hall for its annual portfolio tasting, offering up around 300 wines, with more than fifty individual producers in attendance to wax lyrical about their creations. So far, so conventional, you might think, but there were themed ‘wine walks’ too, and the sense that the event was trying to fuse the classics with the less conventional.
“Experiential is really important now”, Director James Ellis told me, “you can’t stand still, you have to be innovative. Our customers’ guests need to have a great experience.”
That means training of course, a real priority for Ellis over the last year or so. “We have to give our guys something to talk about with our wine selections”.
For all the talk of innovation and diversity, the biggest drivers of growth for the merchant have actually been France and Italy, classic regions where the company has strength through its history. Fifty percent of the range is French, with the Italians now what Ellis calls a “hot ticket” too.
By-the-glass has been a significant focus over the last year, as has premium rosé. Then there’s vegan, which merited its own table this year, alongside organic and biodynamic, to showcase an extensive, and growing, range. A sign of the times, from a vintner established in 1822.
My Ellis Tasting Top 10 (trade prices):
Having a distinctive Champagne is, of course, a USP and family house A R Lenoble definitely delivers for Ellis. For the first time, it is releasing non-vintage wines containing reserve wines aged in magnum under natural cork. The process began in 2010 as a defence against climate change. Lenoble’s Christian Holthausen told me that anyone who pretends that the region getting warmer isn’t a threat is “firmly in denial”. The reserve wines are stored at 1.5 bar pressure, to keep them “frozen in time”, preserving freshness and acidity.
Champagne AR Lenoble Grand Cru ‘Blanc de Blancs’ NV ‘mag 14’ (£29.75), with its 40% reserve wines from magnum, has real muscle for a Blanc de Blanc. Intense with crunchy green apple and lemon shortbread, this offers originality, and something distinctly experiential, at a sensible price.
Italy is clearly a strength for the Ellis buying team, amply illustrated by its newest recruit from Soave. The wines of Balestri Valda first impressed me on a press trip last Autumn. The estate, tucked away in the hills of the Soave Classico DOC, also makes absolutely delicious honey, encouraging bees to provide a proper polyculture. Founded by Guido Rizzotto, it’s now run by daughter Laura, who has revolutionised the visual appeal of the wines, bringing along her slightly sceptical father. The results are impressive, but, most importantly, so are the wines.
Balestri Valda Soave Vigneto Sengialta 2016 (£13.50), from a specific plot that’s home to many of the bees, offers tense lemon, juicy peach, and the invigorating mineral depth that’s the hallmark of good Soave. The Balestri Valda Soave Classico 2018 (£9.50) is also a good choice, offering tipicity for less than a tenner, trade price.
From the biodynamic selection, Cantina Orsogna Civitas Pecorino 2018 (£10.85) is one to seek out, with a fresh nose of citrus and ripe melon, there’s impressive palate weight and texture and a definite mineral note. This would make a smart wine by-the-glass.
We’re all talking about Furmint at the moment and it’s apparently being embraced by UK consumers. Château Pajzos Dry Furmint 2017 (£10.35) is a nice find. Bright, tight and light at 11% ABV, this vegan wine feels in tune with the zeitgeist.
South Africa had a strong presence. Laibach Vineyards, close to the renowned Kanonkop in Stellenbosch, were showing a range of wines, many of them sporting labels inspired by the ladybirds, used to tackle mealy bugs. My favourite was the experimental organic Laibach Sur Lie 2017 (£12.50), fermented and aged in a mix of old barrels and concrete eggs. Layers of ripe apple, pear and peach, with a lovely plump texture, this offers delicious complexity for the price.
Ellis must be chuffed to have Chateau d’Esclans on its books with all the attention Whispering Angel gets. The 2018 was on show, but I actually preferred the Rock Angel Rosé 2017 (£22.65), pale even for Provence, this is restrained, tempting you into the glass with enchanting gentle wafts of summer fruit and a grapefruit tightness.
For the reds, there was a confident showing from the negociant Lestapis. Chateau La Gardera Bordeaux Superieur 2016 (£9.00) is generous in every sense, with blackberry, dark plum crumble, and a little cocoa, it represents a bit of a steal for the price.
German-born Kai Schubert was one of the 50 producers who attended the tasting He had come further than most. Together with wife Marion Deimling, they travelled the world in search of the perfect place for Pinot Noir. They settled on Martinborough, on New Zealand’s North Island. She does most of the winemaking and the Schubert wines were among my favourites on my most recent visit to the country.
Organically produced, Schubert Block B Pinor Noir 2015 (£28.95) has seductive, smooth red and black cherry, a notable earthiness, with a little tobacco too. They also produce a divine Schubert Syrah 2015,(£28.95). A lifted, delicately perfumed nose of violet, wild cherry, blueberry and subtle spice, this has more than a whiff of the Northern Rhone about it, making for an unforgettable, ethereal, ‘experience’.
David Kermode is a wine presenter, writer, broadcaster and judge with his own website vinosaurus.co.uk