At an imaginative vertical tasting given by Darren De Bortoli, the Australian sticky Noble One was paired with Dutch and English artisanal cheeses. The wines started with the first ever vintage of 1982, Black Noble and Rare Botrytis Semillon, a wine described by De Bortoli as a wine geek’s wine “journalists love it but nobody buys it.”
For the De Bortoli tasting there were two cheese experts for the pairing: in the English corner was Clara Melluish from Neal’s Yard while Dutch expert Frederic Van Tricht was flown over Antwerp with an array of unusual cheese, one of which was highly addictive and had Victor Smart trying to buy some of this ‘special stuff’.
Late in the afternoon in Borough Market (now recovered from its recent trauma), the sun is slanting through the windows of the Neal’s Yard cheese shop illuminating two hundred-odd wine glasses already filled and set out on a long table. The array of golden hues from various vintages going back 30 years is a study in lusciousness and unctuous sweetness that whispers, “guzzle me”.
But we are not permitted to indulge ourselves, not yet at least. Our host Darren de Bortoli, head of the eponymous Australian wine producer, is a winemaker with a serious intent – and a disciplined approach is being demanded of us guests.
We are to be taken through a vertical tasting of 11 different Noble One wines from the award-laden De Bortoli Wines portfolio, kicking off with Noble One 1982 (alcohol 12.0%), the winemaker’s first vintage of sweet wine, an extremely rare bottle which was opened specially for the occasion.
This tasting is to be an unhurried and very deliberate process. For every wine two different artisanal cheeses has been chosen, one by Neal’s Yard’s expert, Clara Melluish, and another by a mainland Frederic Van Tricht, based in Antwerp. That’s 22 cheeses, each one worthy of a short gastronomic treatise, ranged around the plate that every guest has in front of them. Concentration is all.
The context of Noble One’s creation was the lacklustre Australian wine scene of the seventies and early eighties when the French still ruled the roost.
The de Bortolis family were making an adequate range of products but thirtysomething Darren de Bortoli wanted to pitch the business up against the best in France, Sauternes producers in particular. One assumes this was done out of youthful ambition rather than sheer boneheadedness. Anyway, it worked.
The botrytis fungus conveniently resides naturally in Australia and once the de Bertoli winery had overcome the local growers’ consternation at being told to let their Semillon grapes ‘go rotten’, it found itself busy making a top-notch sweet dessert wine.
Labelled “Sauternes” in the first year, a name soon dropped, the range of de Bortolis dessert wines have been awarded trophies, medals and awards galore – my estimate is a total of around 500.
For the original 1982 vintage the climatic conditions were superb. A balance of long, warm days and sprinklings of showers produced the humidity necessary for the botrytis to spread and grow in late April. This first vintage was lush and plump with delicious peachy fruit and with good acidity and a spicy finish.
From the original 1982 wine we move on to the 2013, then the 2010, then to the 2006, to the 2001, the 1995, 1991, 1986 and 1984. The cheese pairings are exquisite and for a cheese amateur like me the vocabulary to describe the tastes is itself intriguing. A cheese may be “almondy”, but it may also be “pretty animal”.
I put the British cheesemaker’s pairing’s choices slightly ahead as a match for the individual vintages. But Frederic from Antwerp has something up his sleeve. For the Rare Botrylis Semillon 2002 (12.5 %) he has selected an Old Groendal.
Like the Noble Rot wines there is a good deal of happenstance about this product. A mistake in the recipe produced an unappetising and altogether sub-standard Gouda-like cheese. Miraculously, however, allow this rare ‘experimental’ cheese to mature for a year and it transforms itself into something majestic. Its sweet creaminess is offset by tiny crystals that form in the ageing process. “It is addictive”, Frederic declares.
The Rare Botrylis Semillon 2002 is itself a bit of an oddball. The Semillon fruit has a degree of botrytis infection that imparts the Noble Rot flavours but without the sweetness level. It is very much a wine geek’s wine. As Darren explains stoically, “Nobody understands the style. Wine journalists love it, nobody buys it”.
Finally, we have worked our way through the various flights and come to the last, Black Noble (alcohol 17.5 %). When the botrytised Semillon grapes are harvested for Noble One, some is held back and then fortified with a neutral grape spirit. A touch of brandy spirit is added for further complexity before Black Noble is transferred into used Noble One barriques. Concentrated and viscous, the wine has a bouquet that hints of toffee, coffee, and raisins. The term “amber nectar” surely should have been held in reserve for this.
As we leave, still savouring the uniqueness of the individual wines and the salty tang of the cheeses, I sidle over to Frederic and inquire discreetly where I can get my hands on his ‘special’ cheese. “It is addictive, isn’t it”, he says with a knowing smile, then shrugs and explains that it’s impossible to buy in the UK. But if I contact him in Belgium, he will, he says, see whether there is anything he can do for me.