Salvador Dali, the calorific value of Guinness and Georgian Architecture. It may seem find to find a link between these subjects, but they all featured in the fascinating presentation by Joe Wadsack at the “How to be a Winemaker evening” at Hambledon vineyard, which I’d bought for a birthday present for my fizz loving other half!
Arriving to a backdrop of beautiful winter skies, nestled on the side of a valley on the chalky hills of the South Down National Park in Hampshire (England), Hambledon Vineyards hosts a creative calendar of events from the perhaps expected ones such as wine tastings, WSET qualifications through to the more eclectic Yoga in the vineyards. Hambledon is the oldest commercial vineyard in the UK, started in1952 by Sir Guy Salisbury-Jones, with lots of advice from the Pol Roger Cellar Master, their vines are planted with the classic Champenoise grapes of Chardonnay, Pinot Noir & Meunier.
But the evening’s event with Joe, was not arrogantly designed to promote their own (superb!) sparkling wines – but an opportunity to directly compare a variety of fizz in the company of one of the most knowledgeable & entertaining communicators in the Wine Trade. A real tour de force, with endless energy, whose enthusiastic presence is quite compelling, Jo’s mind works like a Classic American Pin Ball machine – bouncing everywhere, landing on subjects at a tangent, scattering fascinating nuggets of knowledge as he enthuses around the central theme. I wish it were possible to have Joe on a rewind function, you are so overwhelmed with the depth of knowledge, it would be fabulous to have him on catch up to listen again later!
Tasting events can often be too formal and rather off putting for the consumer, but this was a remarkable privilege whilst being great fun! There were only 6 wine lovers at the event (due to the bad weather) listening to Joe’s years of experience of the wine world for almost four hours! With such a select number, there was a great opportunity for interaction & discussion – the lady who was there as part of her Year Long celebrations of her 50-th birthday, who was emphatic about her love of Bolly through to the lady from the New Forest decided dislike of Cava – for all, it was fascinating opportunity to taste a range of sparklers side by side.
A glass of Hambledon on arrival was served with some delicious patés, including vension and smoked salmon to stave the hunger pangs!
The tasting kicked off with a glass of Prosecco – Conegliano Valdobbiadene La Marca to be precise – which qualifies as DOCG, Italy’s’ highest wine classification. Prosecco has really taken off in the UK, since 2008, sales have increased by 6000%!!! Joined now by the Scandi counties and the US in their love of this classic Italian sparkling wine, this marketing phenomenon shows no sign of abating. A shaft of brilliance from Joe described Prosecco as the Lager equivalent of the Sparkling wine club (not in a bad way!) . Uncomplicated, reliable, low acidity, quite mono dimensional, this is easy drinking fizz ideal for BBQ’s or rainy Tuesday evenings after a bad day at work.
Personally I am not a fan of Prosecco (except for some Colfondo styles, which are bottle fermented but this is a tiny production compared to the big companies), but the La Marca poured as first wine was fresh crisp green apples, simple clean and unchallenging – and would find great success in many wine bars. Moving up the production method scale, using oak barrels and bottle fermentation, next up was Cordoníu Cava from the vineyards of Penedès, just an hour outside Barcelona, Spain. Although Cava has lost out recently to Prosecco in the UK at the entry level price, it still is huge consumption in Spain. Our small group were not that enthusiastic, it was more yeasty which was more layered in flavour, but slightly flat on the fruit, and as Joe pointed out, suspect it was a bottle fault (it happens) as certainly usually a much more enticing wine. Top end Cava is a heavenly delight such as the Grand Reserva 457 but at a price over £100 a bottle, I should expect so! But despite the poor showing of the Cordoníu this evening, generally speaking for a party wine, you get more complexity from your Cava than Prosecco at same price point. Interesting also to hear about how one of Cava’s main grape variety, the weirdly named Xarel- lo which gives acidity to the wine, is now increasingly being planted for still wines in the region.
Amongst the critiques of the wines, the aim of the evening was to show how a winemaker would approach making the final sparkling wine blend. Joe shared the brilliant BLIC theory (I am not going to explain here as would spoil for anyone yet to attend the evening) – but it shows consumers an insight into how the professionals in the wine trade approach a wine.
Our third glass was back to the classic Home of sparkling, with the omnipotent Champagne Laurent Perrier on show. The bubbles were much finer than previous two, making it a more appealing texture and sensorial perception. Joe’s refreshing honesty about the marketing aspect of the big Champagne brands and how that has helped them to dominate this market for so long – working out to an average of £10 a bottle of your Champagne bottle price goes on marketing alone! The LP (whose strong market presence is down to the trade off as wine bars still clamber to get their hands on the delicious LP Rosé) was discreet but with lovely pink grapefruit note on the nose, notably more complex but to my taste just too technically perfect – everything was there but no passion.
Last in the flight of finished wines was the Hambledon Classic Cuvée, which although is a NV was based on the 2014 vintage, when the quality of the Meunier (previously known as Pinot Meunier) grapes was outstanding. Keeping an objective view, despite tasting it in its spiritual home, of the four the Hambledon won for pure individuality, complexity and interest in the glass. Blend of 40% Chardy, 31% Meunier & 29% Pinot Noir made with 7.6 gms residual sugar per litre, it charmed the group.
This stage of the evening is where it became fascinating technical for those who have never blended wines before. Hambledon’s brilliant Events Manger, Katrina Smith along with their Wine Maker Felix Gabillet (yup – French!) had lined up four versions of Hambledon to taste – in which the only varying factor was the amount of dosage added at the end of fermentation. This decides the mouthfeel, texture, taste and aging potential of the wines, and for famous names of Champagne is usually about 10 gms per litre added, but Hambledon have done extensive research on varying dosage levels.
Kicking off with the Zero dosage, understandable racy acidity, with a nose like a Nashi pear, with waxy white lilies – it simple danced on the tongue, a thrilling wine but not for those of a nervous disposition! The 4 gms dosage per litre had more roundness – and interestingly 5gms / litre is the magic number to help the wines aging slowly and gracefully. 6gms / litre in comparison felt quite heavy but with attractive biscuit notes and good long finish – very easy to drink! 10 gms had a different bubble formation and to my personal taste was slightly unbalanced as lacked the necessary acidity. But totally fascinating and the group loved having the possibility to taste these wines side by side for a direct comparison. Even more fun, was the choosing of which dosage to go into the bottle we were each given to take home – so all off to the cellar to bottle and label our own Hambledon after a delicious supper cooked by South African Steve, one of the team who makes a mean Coq au Vin, ideal to soak up the tasting and paired superbly with a surprise Alsace Pinot Noir!
Having first focused on getting the vineyards as they wanted, Hambledon is currently undergoing a huge investment with new gravity fed cellars and tasting room. So do go and visit them at this exciting time in their (and English Wines’) development. The momentum of English wine is on a roll – no longer a laughing stock to amuse our cousins over the Channel – but there are some outstanding sparkling wines being made in England. Certainly, where I live on the South Downs, there is an explosion of vineyards being planted all around. Increasingly also the still wines are gaining attention – but the sparklers are the stars, even getting listings on export markets (including France!).
A brilliant evening, and a real privilege to have the company of Joe and his immense knowledge – not to mention pithy quotes – not sure how we got onto the subject of Merlot, but his view on this grape variety was “The Tofu of the wine world, only to be used to numb the pain of attending a child’s party”! Joe’s parents ran a gastropub, he was an RAF pilot for a spell, before heading to Bordeaux to study wine making and went onto to become wine buyers at several UK companies including Waitrose. His enthusiasm for all things food & drink – along with a healthy dose of refreshing honesty – meant for a brilliant – both fun & informative – evening in his company.
Hambledon are holding another date for this course later this year – for details do contact Katrina Smith on email@example.com
Oh and in case you’re wondering apparently Guinness brewed in the UK is only 210 calories a pint vs 600 for that which is cask conditioned in Ireland!