Not having gone to a Corney & Barrow tasting for a while, Justin Keay was expecting to find wines mainly from France and the wine buyers to be mainly wearing pin stripes. How wrong you can be. In selecting his ‘Seven Magnificent’ wines from the Autumn Portfolio tasting held at Mayfair’s Nobu restaurant, Keay found that none actually came from France instead they are from South Africa, Chile, Greece, Argentina, Portugal, Germany and Italy – reflecting the massive strides that the buying team at Corney & Barrow has made in diversifying its portfolio.
“So does C&B = France? Well, yes, but like so many other quality importers it is also clearly evolving to meet changing tastes and clearly has its finger firmly on the pulse of what’s popular right now. A more appropriate equation would be C&B=France +++” writes Keay.
In my mind at least, Corney & Barrow is virtually synonymous with French wine and all the traditions that go with being a specialist importer of the stuff. The royal warrants, the striped City suits that dominate at client tastings, their high profile at the annual en primeur Burgundy and Bordeaux tastings… all point to an importer still largely defined by their excellent French list and thus slow to catch onto the other regions which have become increasingly popular elsewhere in the trade.
Like all wild generalisations, there is more than a grain of truth in this. Amongst C&B’s agencies are none other than Château Petrus and the legendary Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, a tasting of which earlier this year in London had the trade queuing around the block at 10am. There are many other great French names, as you would expect from an importer that can trace its lineage back to 1780, a year in which the American Revolution was getting underway and when, in Lord North, Britain arguably had an even worse prime minister than it does today. Arguably.
But the story doesn’t end there. As its website says Corney & Barrow continues to “search the globe for new and exciting wines to add to our portfolio.” So on a wet and windy late September lunchtime, determined to dump my C&B=France preconceptions, it was these wines from the more far-flung regions that I went to investigate at the importer’s Autumn tasting in Mayfair’s Nobu.
Of the 85 wines on show, 36 were indeed from France – a solid range as you’d expect including a firm, appealing NV Blanc de Blancs Brut from Delamotte and some terrific red and white Burgundy. But passing swiftly on, the line-up revealed how far afield Corney & Barrow is looking these days.
The importer has had great success with its Sanziana range from Cremale Recas in Romania, especially the excellent value Pinot Noir which sits alongside the inevitable Pinot Grigio and Merlot, all of which offer excellent value at just over £8 a bottle. This wasn’t here.
But to compensate were some unexpected gems including a rounded, fruit forward Moschofilero 2017 from Semeli Mantinia Nassiakos; two good albeit pricey Californian reds (Othello 2012, from Napa’s Dominus Estate and HdV Belle Cousine Hyde de Villaine 2012 from Carneros) and also from the Golden State, two less expensive whites (a solid, fruit forward Chardonnay 2016 from Bakestone Cellars and a full on, well-developed Sauvignon Blanc 2017 from the famous Cakebread Cellars).
There were also lots of new arrivals from South America (Argentina, and in particular, Chile). And there were some wines from Peru, the Intipalka Syrah and Chardonnay 2017 from Vias Quierolo in Ica. Having not tasted Peruvian wine since backpacking around the country many, many years ago I had really wanted to like these wines more: good value though at £8.75 and an interesting talking point about a country few associate with wine at all.
Also of note were some good wines from South Africa, Australia and New Zealand – including a delicious 2016 Elephant Hill Syrah from Hawke’s Bay showing Corney & Barrow has seriously got its teeth into the New World.
So here’s my Magnificent Seven, from seven very different countries:
Vino Rosato, Az Vitivinicola Nervi 2018 (Italy)
C&B also showed the delicious red Gattinara from this Piedmontese producer which had fantastic expression and wonderfully soft tannins, but this pink younger brother, at almost one third the price (£15) was a real scene stealer. I wasn’t the only one sneaking back for a second – and third – taste of this wonderfully zesty, strawberry and damson-flavoured wine. Proof that you can make a really good rosé out of Nebbiolo, and at a great price.
Riesling Trocken Rudesheim Berg Sclossberg Erstes Gewachs, Schloss Schönborn 2009 (Germany)
The Rheingau gets lots of respect as Germany’s foremost historic wine region but not so much street cred as the likes of Nahe, Mosel, Saar and Baden vie for the Riesling crown. But this wonderfully rich wine, from one of the country’s most historic houses, with 670 years of wine cultivation behind it, is a fantastic wine, wonderfully rich but also zesty and fruit-forward. And fantastic value at around £20.
Manoella Branco, Wine & Soul 2017 (Portugal)
Field blends are all the range in the Douro these days with producers making great wines from varieties all growing together; often found on old vines, winegrowers can struggle to name all the varieties, which is what makes the field blend so interesting. Most though tend to be red, so this white wine, comprising Gouveio, Vioshinho, Rabitago and Codega de Larinho is quite unusual. It was also more citrusy and at 12.5% lighter than I had expected, but moreish nonetheless.
Malbec Finca Altamira Achaval-Ferrer 2015 (Argentina)
With so many Malbecs on the shelves these days, it is easy to become blasé about South America’s best known red wine, but this is a stunner. Full on, with lots of complexity, it is still quite young and will repay careful ageing. A serious wine with a hefty price tag, but worth every penny.
Jeunes Vignes Xinomavro 2017, Thymiopoulos (Greece)
Made by one of the undisputed masters of Greece’s greatest red variety, this low yield, unoaked entry level wine is akin to a youthful Nebbiolo but with a haunting intensity that only Apostolos Thymiopoulos can bring to young vine Xinomavro. A real cracker.
Torontel Naranjo Maturana 2018 Maule Valley (Chile)
I confess I had never heard of Torontel, one of the varieties that go to make the famous South American spirit Pisco, but the variety – part of the Muscat family – works crackingly well in this natural orange wine. Quite full on, rounded and aromatic, with undertones of spice, pear and pepper, the wine has eight months skin contact and is made from 80 year old vines. Different, well-priced and well worth trying.
Hawequas, Mont du Toit Kelder, 2014, Paarl (South Africa)
This wine, exclusive to C&B, took me somewhat by surprise. A Cabernet Sauvignon dominant blend made with hand-picked quality fruit, this has a soft, sumptuous structure supported by fine tannins and is drinking really well. Lots of spice and gentle toasty oak on the palate.
So does C&B = France? Well, yes, but like so many other quality importers it is also clearly evolving to meet changing tastes and clearly has its finger firmly on the pulse of what’s popular right now. A more appropriate equation would be C&B=France +++.
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