Making the shortlist for the IWSC’s Wine Communicator of the Year was just one of the many highlights of 2021 for David Kermode. His podcast The Drinking Hour has been drawing in listeners far and wide and, given that travel was still exceedingly restricted throughout most of the year, he did manage to make it to a large number of events many of them detailed here in his review of the top drinks of 2021 seen through the lens of 10 very different glasses.
“Smooth as an oiled eel, it made the most perfect G&T of ’21. And we needed plenty of those…” writes Kermode about Mediterranean Gin by Léoube.
Reflecting on my tasting highlights a year ago, written as we descended into the abyss, after a Christmas that never was, riding a third wave of coronavirus into another lockdown with the then-nascent vaccines our only distant hope, it is heartening to reflect on how much has changed for the better.
Then, as new year bashes were biffed, trips were curtailed and we settled down for a night with Deliveroo and Jools Holland, the overriding feeling was one of good riddance. Things could only get better. And, by and large, they did. Well, kind of…
Covid 19 still exerts a grim control over our lives, not to mention livelihoods, as it continues to mutate in what must surely be a spiral into ultimate irrelevance. However, this year, most of us have had our lives back: we have rushed back to bars and restaurants, taken to the skies again, and, in my case, even skis.
Though a significant number of tastings continue to be virtual, their mini-sample bottles still ubiquitous, and press trips remain a real rarity, the direction of travel looks much more promising and this year offered some proper tasting highs:
Half an hour lost in the backstreets of Shepherds Bush in the company of Anne Krebiehl – a master of wine, rather than map reading, it transpires – could mean only one thing: it was a Krug event. This was trademark ‘rough luxury’ for the launch of Krug’s 2008 vintage, with chef de cave, Julie Cavil.
The new release is hugely impressive, but needs a little time, so it was the Krug Grand Cuvee 164 edition that stole my heart. Based on the ’08 vintage, a blend of 127 wines from 11 different vintages, the oldest 1990, this provided the longest tasting note of 2021, such that it would probably be easier to note the things I didn’t find. Complex, opulent, surprisingly fresh with vibrant orchard fruit and luxurious filo-like layers of flavour that lingered longingly like a lost labrador, it was just perfection.
Belles and smells
Though travel was limited this year, I was delighted to have a first chance to visit the legendary Maison Belle Epoque, a shrine to Art Nouveau on Epernay’s Avenue de Champagne, to sample Perrier Jouët’s new ‘Banquet of Nature’ menu. Inspired by renowned Parisian chef Pierre Gagnaire and created by protegée Sébastien Morellon, the divine tasting flight is accompanied by a superlative sensory experience, devised with chef de cave, Severine Frerson, featuring complementary natural elements of nature to smell, taste or touch.
Though the 2012 vintage arguably attracts more acclaim, I found myself most taken with the Perrier Jouët Belle Epoque 2013. With its perfect poise, cool green apple freshness, delicate wild meadow flowers and plumply proportioned stone fruit, it felt like the quintessence of sophistication, fittingly enjoyed at what must be Champagne’s most elegant address. Beautiful now, this will grow ever more graceful.
Just being there
As England’s footballers know better than most, it is not all about winning, but also taking part. If you’ll please indulge me, a personal highlight of 2021 must be the moment I found out that I had been shortlisted in the final five for IWSC Wine Communicator of the Year. I only began the ‘second act’ of my journalism career five years ago, so to find myself nominated alongside the likes of the eventual winner, Sarah Heller MW (many congratulations to her), plus titans Tim Atkin MW, Angela Aiello and Aleesha Hanshel was a moment I shall certainly remember … not least because I celebrated with Dom Ruinart Blanc de Blancs 2009.
Released to celebrate 50 years of Dom Ruinart vintage, entirely Grand Cru Chardonnay, chef de cave Frédéric Panaïotis has etched a classic that draws a fine line between ripe, generous stone fruit and cool, steely freshness with a luxurious puff of nutty patisserie richness. I was impressed to see that The Buyer’s chef de presse, Peter Dean, declared it to be even better “the next day”. I shall never know…
It’s not often that you’re invited to an 850th birthday, so it was a pleasure to help the team at Schloss Gobelsburg celebrate last summer. To mark the occasion, chief winemaker Michael Moosbrugger has created Schloss Gobelsburg, ‘Tradition’ 50 years, an extraordinary multi-vintage blend from 31 vintages, encompassing half a century. Complex, complete and fascinating, there are textured layers of candied peel, greengage, bruised apple, white pepper and honeycomb. A wine to savour and also to reflect on the understated prowess of one of Austria’s most accomplished winemakers.
Born in secret
Another legendary name marking a big birthday this year was The Grange. Incredibly, this world-beating wine was created in secret by Penfolds’ Chief Winemaker Max Schubert 70 years ago, in defiance of his bosses. His great legacy was celebrated during a lavish dinner at Waddesdon Manor, where we enjoyed vintages going back to the enchanting-yet-fading 1979. The latest release, Penfolds, The Grange 2017, is still a baby, but my God it’s good. 100% Shiraz, for only the 7th time in its history, it is surprisingly approachable, sleek and supple, with a berry-fruited crunchy freshness that I had not expected to find. This is a keeper, obviously, but it offers a tempting amount of pleasure right now.
130 years young
Vermouth has never been more popular, nor so commercially successful, so it was fitting that another birthday celebration, for the legendary Cocchi, was hosted in lavish style, at Hide on Piccadilly, by father and son double act, Roberto and Giorgio Bava. Cocchi Barolo Chinato 130th edition is based on a recipe developed in the nineteenth century for export markets, but the base wine is a Barolo DOCG from the 2016 vintage. Dark, brooding berries combine with cinnamon, cedar spice, liquorice root and tobacco leaf to deliver an incredibly intense, uniquely satisfying tincture that’s best enjoyed neat, though I confess it has been tested in the mother of all Negronis.
When Sacha Lichine left Bordeaux for Provence, most of his peers thought he’d lost the plot. When his Chateau d’Esclans launched a premium cuvée, Garrus, at a hundred pounds a pop, his sanity was questioned once again. Even as a huge fan of Provence rosé, I will admit to having had my own doubts about the price tag, but having tasted it last summer, ahead of an interview with Lichine for my podcast The Drinking Hour, I was well and truly sold. Garrus represents not just the pinnacle of the portfolio, but also a step change for the category. Powerful, complex and generous, it is also fabulously fresh, effortlessly precise and marvellously mineral, somehow capturing all that modern Provence rosé represents and then raising it.
Gin, the Med way
Provence producer Château Léoube is another standard bearer for the new Provence, so I had high hopes for the launch of its Mediterranean gin. I wasn’t disappointed. First and foremost, it’s a proper gin, juniper-led, but using botanicals that grow on the estate, it includes olives and fennel seed, giving it the most sublime savoury streak. Smooth as an oiled eel, it made the most perfect G&T of ’21. And we needed plenty of those…
Some might be surprised to see a Kiwi Sauvignon Blanc in my top ten, but Pyramid Valley North Canterbury Sauvignon + is no ordinary savvy. Organically made in a combination of old barrels, tanks and clay amphora, this sub £20 wine offers real concentration from the vibrant fruit, proper precision, with added textural charm from some skin contact. The + refers to the small amounts of Riesling and Pinot Gris added to the blend, in a delicious wine that truly transcends the sum of its parts.
And a starry night
Finally, to round off the year, the legendary Annabel’s was transformed into a festive gingerbread house for a charity fundraising gala, hosted by the Birley Wine Club, which raised more than £100k for the Food from the Heart campaign, launched last year by Richard Caring’s family to help feed children in need. A seriously plentiful supply of two vintages of Cheval Blanc – ’05 and ’09 – provided lubrication for the generous bidders, with Chateau Cheval Blanc ’05 undoubtedly my highlight. Concentrated, intense and structured, it retains a fabulous freshness, with the supple tannins almost playful. It is little wonder so much was raised for a great cause.