Chris Wilson picks his selection of wines for the mid-high end on-trade from The Dirty Dozen, a diverse, eye-opening and mind-opening tasting. Proof, he believes, that it’s the smaller importers who have the vision and palates to deliver wines that deviate from the run-of-the-mill offerings elsewhere. They understand that sommeliers, restaurant buyers and ultimately the end customer are desperate to kick against the beige brands and mainstream trends.
The Dirty Dozen tasting had 24 wines shown from each of 12 of the UK’s most esoteric wine importers, an illustration of how the smaller, innovative importers are finding a niche in the market.
A rough and ready basement in the heart of Soho was the venue for this much-anticipated tasting. In the bright and unpretentious space beneath Poland St’s Phonica Records 12 of the most interesting and esoteric wine importers gathered to show off their wares.
Each was restricted to 24 wines, but that was more than enough to get a flavour for each importer’s portfolio as they clearly picked the most exciting and original wines they could lay their hands on.
A common theme across all 12 tables theme was the ‘weird and wonderful’, with many novel varieties and blends on show and a broad spectrum of winemaking techniques from the avant-garde to the downright crazy. Even those importers who specialised in a single country were showing off-beat wines which took the taster into unchartered territory.
For all these ‘out-there’ wines there were enough classics on show to make for a well-balanced tasting which kept everyone on their toes. In fact this juxtaposition only proved to strengthen the case for both camps; the esoteric wines tasted even more ‘crafty’ and ethereal when tasted alongside the classics, whose pedigree and style was simply heightened in this environment.
In order to tackle this beguiling event I’ve selected a handful of wines from each importer which I think are perfect for the mid-high end on-trade, they all offer something that should pique the interests of sommeliers and customers alike. All prices are duty-paid ex VAT.
This was the first table I visited and had the tasting ended here too I would have gone home happy.
First up was an attractive and delicate traditional method sparkler from Russian River. Iron Horse Classic Vintage Brut 2010 (£28) had a grapey, limey nose with hints of toast that really drew you in. It was light with a smash of green fruit followed by some vegetal character and a fizz that was persistent and refreshing. Delicious and proof that California can make fine sparkling wines.
So many quality whites to choose from, the 100% Semillon (£13.20) from Washington State’s Ecole 41 was weighty and honeyed with well managed oak and delightful apple, apricot and lime notes.
In contrast was the L’Apiculteur Viognier 2015 (£16.95) from Le P’tit Paysan, this Rhone-style Californian white was waxy and tight with knife-edge balance and some tropical fruit but not too much.
Two reds really stood out. Anthelia Shiraz 2013 (£11.25) from La Vierge in South Africa’s Hemel-en-Aarde had a restrained nose then BAM! the fruit jumps out on the palate; black fruit, red fruit, ripe fruit, it’s all there. Then comes the tannin to balance all that ripeness. Smooth and deliciously confected on the finish.
The stand-out red though was from winemaker Sean Thackrey in Sebastopol, California – his Pleiades (£21.50) non-vintage blend sees numerous wines thrown together to create a smooth, multi-dimensional wine that’s confusing at first then comes together brilliantly. It’s a light tawny colour and packs a punch on the palate, raspberries and green olive along with some cedar wood. A serious wine.
Austrian Pinot Noir isn’t something you see on many restaurant wine lists, but judging by the quality of this 2014 Pinot (£10.80) from Johanneshof Reinisch in the Thermen region, it really should be more popular. This was cherryade-red thanks to the 20-25 days skin contact, and some of this cherry character shone through on the palate along with capsicum and white pepper. A pleasing ‘heat’ on the finish, which will make this a great wine for game this autumn.
At the other end of the scale was the Grenache Estate 2014 (£21.71) from Clare Valley’s Adelina. Made from vines a minimum of 80-years-old it’s a big, rich master-blaster of a wine with plums, redcurrants and cedar.
Two wines really shone on this all-Italian table. The 2014 Grüner Veltliner (£14.51) from Klaus Lentsch in Alto Adige was creamy with almond, smoke and mineral characters. A great foil for seafood. Just further south in Piedmont a 2010 Nebbiolo Langhe (£17.34) from Mirafiore was equally impressive; a real cherry-bomb wine with vanilla, ripe fruit and good tannins, all strung together with a medicinal/iodine note which ran through from start to finish.
Made from 50-year-old vines from a single vineyard site the ‘Ovide’ Sancerre 2014 (£16.92) from Gerard et Pierre Morin really was special. Intense with a bell pepper spice, it was grassy and fresh with incredible length. Another cracker was the 2014 ‘Love Red’ (£15.50) from Broc Cellars in California. Made in Berkeley from carefully-sourced grapes, this is a Carignan and Syrah dominant blend that sees no added sulphites and has a real raspberry and cherry kick – like sucking on a cherry Tangtastic. Fantastic!
The best sparkling wine at the tasting was on H2Vin’s stand and hailed from Hampshire. Exton Park’s Blanc de Noirs NV (£19) was focussed and precise with great length and not stingey on the fruit. The other stand-out wine here was Albert Mann’s 2014 Pinot Gris (£14.25) – this Alsatian white was bright and vibrant, packed with fruit and knocks the socks of most – if not all – Italian PGs.
Its’s always a pleasure to taste a textbook example of a famous variety, and this 2015 Sauvignon Blanc (£11.90) from family winery Te Whare Ra in Marlborough was just that – grassy, crisp and full with a little green pepper spice. A red which also followed this no-nonsense formula was the 2015 Mourvèdre (£14.95) from Mother Rock Wines in Swartland, South Africa. This is what Swartland is all about, it was full but not jammy, the fruit had great purity and was balanced by great acidity and tannin. Wonderful balance all round.
On the whole Flint deals in the classics and its table was like a tick-box of great European appellations (with a smattering of California and Oregon too). The 2015 Sonnenuhr Riesling (£11.50) from Weingut Heinrichshof was sharp and fruity with a classic aromatic Riesling nose and an almost petulant edge. A wine with real pep. A French classic which raised its head about the others was Domaine Pierre-Jean Villa’s 2014 Saint Joseph Preface (£17.50). It was classy and restrained with gamey notes and great length.
This Portuguese specialist had a raft of interesting dry red and white wines on show – such as the 2015 Terramatter Vinho Verde (£18.90) from Quinta do Soalheiro which was fresh, peppery and saline – as well as couple of fortified selections. The 2004 Single Harvest Madeira (£18.90) from Vinhos Barbeito was majestic – all hazelnut and Christmas pudding; a complex and deeply satisfying wine.
Another, and totally different, fortified wine which stuck its hand up was Casa Mariol’s Vermut Negre (£11.15) from Terra Alta in Spain. This was a great palate awakener with vibrant herbal and honeyed characters to off-set the deep red fruit – whack some ice and tonic water in this and you have a long drink of real promise.
There was a real buzz around the SWIG table and looking at what they had to offer it’s easy to see why. From the totally bonkers John Strikes Again Under a Veil of Good Fortune (£14, half bottle) from AA Badenhorst – a Vin Jaune from Swartland made from Chenin aged under flor – to Raffaele Palma’s aromatic, zesty and edgy Puntacroce (£20.90) it was a truly eclectic mix. Man-of-the-moment Pieter Walser had two wines on show under the BLANKbottle moniker; the 2015 Im Hinterhofkabuff white (£13.50) is a barrel-fermented Riesling while the My Koffer red (£15) is made from Cinsault and was tight and silky with blood orange, frangipane and strawberry characters.
With a focus on Italy and France, there was real quality here, and a lot of still wines served in magnums which is always nice to see. The 2013 Rafalot (£17.50) from Domaine Vinci made from 100-year-old Carignan vines was concentrated and mineral with rustic but rounded red fruit. Domaine Guillot Broux’s Les Combettes Mâcon Chardonnay (£15.67), meanwhile, was toasty and buttery with great body. Both superb food wines.
You don’t see wines from Georgia at every tasting, but there were two here. The highlight was Vita Vinea’s 2014 Kisi (£14.34) which was golden in colour with a developed nose and marmalade and almond notes. A touch of sweetness here, but this is dry and tangy. Also boasting marmalade characters was a Grüner Veltliner & Gelber Muskateller Eiswein (£14.50) from Helmut Lang. It was rich but clean with a crisp honeycomb finish.
A great end to a diverse, eye-opening and mind-opening tasting. Proof, if needed, that it’s these smaller importers who have the vision and palates to deliver wines that deviate from the run-of-the-mill offerings elsewhere. They understand that sommeliers, restaurant buyers and ultimately the end customer are desperate to kick against the beige brands and mainstream trends, and long may it continue.