It is a direct link to the consumer through its retail outfit that gives Lea & Sandeman insight into what wines do and do not work, says co-owner Charles Lea. Celebrating 30 years in June this year, and just receiving a Royal Warrant from HM Queen Elizabeth 2 last week, Lea explains to David Kermode that it is this insight that has allowed Lea & Sandeman to see, for example, that millennials are finally waking up to German Riesling and realising it isn’t at all bad.
Apart from a new German Riesling producer, David discovered a range of new rosé, plus a selection of reds falling into two distinct categories: picnic and barbecue.
As I walked into the Lea & Sandeman tasting, in the homely surroundings of a Fulham pub, I received a seemingly random question by text, from a friend, a well-known BBC broadcaster and occasional wine enthusiast: “Should I return to German wine?”
I’m not sure when he left to be honest, but my answer was – of course – a big fat ‘ja’.
If my response needed any validation, it came a mere ten minutes later, from the trestle tables at the White Horse.
The direct link to the consumer
Lea & Sandeman has a direct line to the punter, through their four west London stores, so they have a pretty good idea of what’s pricking people’s interest at a given moment.
“I would say there is much more enthusiasm for German wine than there was a decade ago,” co-founder Charles Lea told me, “and it’s coming from a more sophisticated younger audience, who understand it, and realise it’s not necessarily sweet.”
So millennial buyers, free from prejudice, de-coding those notorious labels, raving about Riesling? It’s the stuff of dreams for Germany’s VDP and the new signings on show certainly supported the sentiment.
The latest ‘find’ for Lea and his team is the Mosel’s Lehnert-Veit, led by 10th generation winemaker Peter Lehnert, whose wines are a paean to purity. The Kies 2016 Riesling Trocken is all about fruitiness, with grapefruit and lemon blossom suggesting just the slightest nod to some of the sweeter German wines of the past, despite being technically dry. It’s a good value refreshing summer wine at an RRP of £14.95.
From a little further up the slate slopes, comes the superior Schiefer 2016 Riesling Trocken, RRP £16.50, where the wines take on a sublime stony edge. It’s all exquisitely balanced, with lip-smacking limey freshness, and feels more like the great food wine Riesling was born to be. Both wines find themselves in tune with the times, at 11.5% ABV.
The advantages of being ‘small’ with one foot in both on-trade and off
Lea & Sandeman now sells direct for four German wineries, but it’s little wonder Lehnert-Veit was given exclusivity for the four wines on show at this particular tasting.
Charles Lea believes the retail side, which accounts for a third of the business, gives them a specific advantage: “We will take things on that we can hand-sell in the shops, that are going to be really interesting to a restaurant sommelier”.
The on-trade operation makes up another third of Lea & Sandeman, with direct sales and en primeur accounting for the rest, but Lea acknowledges that they remain a smaller player. Perhaps that’s no bad thing, given the tumult at the bigger end of the market over the last month.
“We are perfect for smaller winemakers: our biggest is 60 hectares and our smallest just over four. The danger is that you can get lost with a bigger player. That fact gives us access to some excellent producers, with whom we work as a partnership.”
A range of summer rosé to cater for this still booming category
Lea doesn’t see any end in sight for the recent rosé boom either: “We have a bigger range of rosé wines again this year. Each year we’ve bought more, we have sold the lot, so we are stepping it up a gear again”.
Some of the 2017s were still showing their youth, in the rush to get them on to the tasting table, but the Languedoc Roussillon’s Domaine Saint Felix Grenache Cinsault will shape up to bring plenty of summer fun, with its simple, fresh, punnet-of-strawberries character a bit of a steal at an RRP of £7.95.
At the punchier end of the rosé price spectrum, Bandol’s Domaine Tempier 2016, RRP £27.95, offered a rich feast of complexity, with peaches and cream, cherries and berries, all contributing to a serious wine of significant weight, with a memorable finish to rival a summer sunset.
Picnic and barbecue reds… weather permitting of course
The reds on show fell into two distinct categories: picnic and barbecue. The former was dominated by Beaujolais, with six wines, leading off with the Domaine Rochette 2016 Beaujolais Villages, offering a wonderful whiff of summer greenhouse, with crunchy red cherry, blueberry and cranberry, at an RRP of £13.25.
Rochette’s Brouilly and Morgon were also showing well, but my favourites were a sleek pair from Fleurie’s Alain Coudert: Clos de La Roilette 2016, RRP £16.50, named after a racehorse, has dark cherry, rose petals and cinnamon, with energy, juicy tannins and an elegant finish. Its late harvest sibling, Clos de La Roilette Cuvée Tardive, RRP £18.50 offers a richer, deeper, more complete, summer crumble of red fruits and spice, with an invigorating sense of tension in the final furlong.
Finally, just a few feet away, but several miles apart by style, Tim Smith Wine’s muscular selection of Aussie Shiraz battled it out to be the best for the barbecue. Produced from select parcels, some from 100-year-old vines, the 2015 Tim Smith Barossa Shiraz, RRP £26.50, felt like the torchbearer, with its rich herbal black fruit, dark chocolate, charred cedar and nutmeg. Despite all that heft, this award-winning wine still manages to retain a sense of freshness and, although it’s not an obvious one for casual summer glugging, it left me really longing for a seared steak and barbecued corn. Now all we need is summer.
David Kermode is a writer, commentator and broadcaster with his own site vinosaurus.co.uk