A discerning wine expert with very particular tastes, David Kermode aka Mr Vinosaurus, did not expect to come away from the annual Mentzendorff tasting in London crowing about the wonders of Pinotage. But that’s exactly what he did do after tasting the new wine from Hamilton Russell. A self-confessed Port snob, Kermode was also lured into tasting Croft Pink, with a very unlikely food match.
Also on Kermode’s ‘must have’ Mentzendorff buying list is a 1968 Port, a 2007 Bollinger Vintage Champagne and, yes, that Pinotage.
For a long time, I took the view that if Kwik Fit sold wine, it would be Pinotage. All that rubber and oiliness felt more Goodyear than Grand vin. Things have changed, of course, and a new generation of winemakers are putting their hearts and souls into developing South Africa’s native grape into something of which they can be proud. I’ve tasted some decent examples, but I never imagined I’d emerge from the Mentzendorff tasting with a Pinotage in my top tier.
That winning wine was the Ashbourne 2015 (RRP £45) from husband and wife team Anthony and Olive Hamilton Russell.
They’d previously used Pinotage to anchor a blend, but decided to focus on making it a varietal wine in its own right. Using a proportion of blonde barrels for fermentation, then a two-thousand litre foudre for ageing, they’ve put the focus firmly on fruit quality – and it shows. The wine offers dark cherry and plum, subtle spice, smooth texture and a long finish. Olive Hamilton insists the grape (a cross of Pinot Noir and Cinsault) is ripe for a renaissance:
“The crimes against Pinotage were man-made, the rubbery thing was always a fault, due to things like overcropping. It’s a unique grape for us and we feel we’re just starting to explore its potential”.
If Pinotage was an unlikely star at the tasting, then it shared the stage with some more conventional winners. For an agency with 150 years of history, it seems fitting that two of the other highlights represented both of its big name shareholders.
Owned by Bollinger and Fladgate Partnership, Mentzendorff chose the classy surroundings of One George Street, to showcase a portfolio that feels tailor-made for a luxurious lock-in across Parliament Square: Bollinger, Chanson, Chapoutier, Henriques and Henriques, Taylor’s and Fonseca are all on the books.
Famous for its Pinot Noir bias, Bollinger offered up the Brut non-vintage and Brut Rosé (RRP £45), the former offering its trademark complexity and the latter demonstrating that good pink is about more than just strawberries. Commercial Director Guy de Rivoire was also on hand to show off the newly-released 2007 Le Grand Année and its Rosé sidekick, each with an RRP of £90. Both are impressive, as you’d expect, but the Vintage Brut won my ‘Bolly off’, with its rich feast of smooth, smoky oak, brioche, lemon shortbread, and toasted hazelnut, and a long, lingering finish.
The classics continued, with Domaine Chanson exhibiting around 20 wines, representing the different shades, and price points, of Burgundy. At the affordable end, I loved the Viré Clessé, (RRP £18). With its vivid mix of citrus, honey and wet stone, it represents great value, as does the Givry, (RRP £21), which has slightly savoury black and red cherries, and gentle spice.
Chapoutier’s range continues to expand, with the latest wines being an example of what happens when you take the Rhône to the Douro. Pinteivera 2013, (RRP £22), is an artfully crafted Touriga Nacional-dominated field blend, with a distinctive cherry, tayberry and blood orange character. Mentzendorff sales director James McKenna is a big fan: “The Chapoutier Douro wines are really exciting and they offer incredible complexity for the money”.
Alongside the Rioja stables, there was something slightly different, with Bodegas Roda Sela 2014, (RRP £12). Fresher, fruitier, and more approachable than we’re used to, this would make an excellent wine by the glass.
Spring’s not far away now, so thoughts turn to rosé with the team from new signing Aix out in force. Famous for the magnums that fly out of the door at Majestic, the standard bottles are now exclusive with the agency. Offering a welcome blast of fresh strawberries and cream, this blend of 60% Grenache, 20% Cinsault and 20% Syrah is sunshine in a bottle. “Rosé is bought with the eyes”, according to Aix’s Victor Verhoef, “if the colour is too deep, people don’t think it’s fresh”. Victor insists that rosé is increasingly being seen as a winter wine too.
Akitu is a new name on the Mentzendorff list. A relatively recent arrival in New Zealand’s Central Otago, it’s been making waves with its two wines, A1 and A2, with the former being the premium option, (RRP £30). With some of the best branding I’ve seen, the wines offer exquisite, ripe, purity of fruit, although the 2016 is still a little bit closed, compared to the delicious earlier vintages I’ve tasted.
After a refreshing row of Manzanillas from La Gitana, the final stretch saw the tables groaning under the weight of fine, aged Madeira and Port. Henriques and Henriques offered up an intense and delicious 50-year-old Tinta Negra. Not to be outdone, Taylor’s also unveiled their newly-released 1968 single harvest Tawny, (RRP £175), which is surprisingly fresh, floral and delicious. Fladgate CEO Adrian Bridge told me it was his own 50th birthday that inspired the decision to release the wines annually: “My friends all assumed I’d have enough Port, so I received things like Cognac, but it made me think we needed to be offering an option for 50th birthdays, and we’ve sold out each year we’ve done it”.
With declining sales, Port producers have needed to innovate and one relatively recent NPD was Croft Pink, (RRP £9). As a Tawny snob, I’ve never liked it much, but I was persuaded to try it with white chocolate, and was surprised to find it really works. On top of the challenge to my Pinotage prejudice, that’s not a bad outcome for a couple of hours in a tasting room.
David Kermode is a writer, broadcaster and consultant, with his own website www.vinosaurus.co.uk