The Sunday Times Wine Club Vintage Festival

A glorious sunny but freezing Saturday morning in April – what better way to give the day a lift by going along to a wine tasting that started with a snifter of Rosé from English star producers Ridgeview – swiftly followed by a glass of Krug and as a comparison another taster of Dom Perignon!

Being in the wine trade for over 20 years, there are so many trade tastings that I love to attend – serious tastings usually with a specific professional aim – but there is one Consumer Tasting aimed totally at Wine Drinkers rather than those in the trade, that I make time for each year.

Tony Laithwaite started his own wine importing business 50 years ago and founded in 1973, with the eminent Hugh Johnson as President, The Sunday Times Wine Club. Laithwaites  has done much over the years to help lessen the more formal stays of the wine trade and open it up to wine lovers keen to learn but often intimidated by the mystique or formality of wine.

Today Laithwaites in all its guises including the Sunday Times Wine Club is the largest Direct Sale wine merchant in the world – which makes it all the more remarkable the loyalty they maintain with their customers.

If for you, Laithwaites means mid-range easy drinking wines, quaffable but not that interesting - it’s time for a revisit. The huge range of wines is a vinous cornucopia of delights including small family run wine estates, many of whom have worked with the Laithwaites family & team for over 20 plus years.

Sunday Times Wine Festival

The annual Vintage Festival is now housed at the brilliantly located venue of Old Billingsgate with perfect view over to Tower Bridge and the Shard looming on the opposite bank.

There were 332 wines on show (plus a few beers and ciders sneaking under the radar) – no voucher system restricting what you can taste, just 87 different stands manned by Winemakers from all over the globe wanting to share their wines with you! In only 3.5 hours that’s quite a gallop around the wine world in one place!

Think of your favourite grape variety or your favourite region and you’ll probably find it somewhere in the hall. As well as great to see customers heading to their long time favourites, there was also opportunity to experiment – Feteasca from Romania or Cabernet from Moldova anyone?

First stand to welcome visitors strongly flew the flag for English Sparkling wines. Including the Wyfold Vineyard from the Thames Valley owned by Tony’s wife Barbara – which won the Battle of the Bubbles recently in a NZ vs UK sparklers to celebrate the Cricket in NZ!

Tony has owned a vineyard near St Emilion for many years and today in Castillon also has a beautiful cellar on the banks of the Dordogne River, where their in house wine making team produce a great range of wines.

Each stand is grouped into country zones within the venue – so into France, you could call into the welcoming Bougrier for some crisp Loire Classics or continue to taste attractive Beaujolais Cru, elegant Chassagne Montrachet, spicy reds from the Rhone and seductive wines from “the Lafite of the Languedoc” Mas de Daumas Gassac.

One my favourite wine estates appeared in the Hungary area – Royal Tokai, not only showing the fabulous intense unctuous Blue Label 5 Puttonyos but also showing their two Dry wines from Furmint and gloriously perfumed Yellow Muscat respectively.

Italy was strongly represented from estates reaching from Piemonte in the North through to Sicily in the South. The Poggio al Lago Ripasso showing why this style is so food friendly being perfectly balanced between a light Vapolicella and an intense Amarone (and Ripasso pairs perfectly with lamb and on trend ingredient beetroot!) . The ever smiling couple of Paolo & Anarita Masi were showing a strawberry scented Tuscan Rosé perfect for summer as well as their always very approachable Chianti Reserva.

Iberia is something that Laithwaites do very well – and their range of Portuguese wines are a source of fabulous value whites & reds. From a 17th century estate in the middle of Portugal, comes Lobo & Falcão with a white from mostly indigenous Portuguese varieties with a touch of Moscato, resulting in a refreshing peachy white. Its opposite pair in the red camp at under £9 a bottle punching above its price tag with spice and depth – a great crowd pleaser if you can bear to share.

I was impressed to visit Barbeito from Madeira – the wines of this small Portuguese Island in the Atlantic Ocean are sadly fast disappearing as fortified wines fell out of favour.  If you do one thing this weekend, please do go and buy one bottle of Madeira – it’s an incredible wine to sip & savour slowly, all it needs is good company, though the Dry versions also work with a host of foods such as roasted mushroom paté. Their Sercial 10 Year Old is wonderfully vibrant, dry and packed with dried fruit nuances.

Laithwaites have so many Spanish wines in their range, that Spain has its own sub zone of the hall – great news for Tempranillo fans! Baron de Barbon Reserva 2010 was a lovely expression of Rioja and their delicious Gran Reserva 2005 crying out for a plate of griddle lamb chops! Familia Martinez Bujanda were showing a great range as benefitting one of the best producers in Rioja  - including their single estate Finca Valpiedra Reserva 2009 – drinking well now but still has time to age very gracefully.

A host of Chilean estates were showing everything from a crisp Sauvignon Blanc from Viña Falernia on the edge of the Atacama Desert, one of the driest places on earth, through to a smooth Merlot from Viña Tarapacá.

It’s always a pleasure to taste at the New Zealand stands, especially at one of my all-time favourite producers, Hunters Wines. Their range of wines is stunning – but for me their Gewurztraminer with complexity, roses & lychees flavours is delicious – I showed this wine at a Charity tasting fund raising for the RNLI recently, it pairs beautifully with salty blue cheese. Good also to find something new at Insight Wines, whose dry Riesling with a little bottle age of the 2012 vintage showed how well this grape variety is suited to New Zealand.

There are so many delicious wines on the main floor for everyone to taste, that it might seem strange to also sell tickets to The Fine Wine Room, but it’s a fabulous part of the Festival if you want to get a bit more serious about your wines.  It also shows the excellence of world class wines that Laithwaites stock, which surprises some who may see them as a source of great easy drinking mid-range wines.

First stand in had Krug Grande Cuvée & Dom Perignon 2006 (as President Hugh Johnson said, “Not often you seem them on the same table”) – and for lovers of Classy Champagne. Louis Roederer Cristal 2007 was beckoning a few stands along.

Heading to Chablis, there was the great opportunity to taste Five Grand Cru’s from Domaine Servin.  For me the Les Preuses 2014 was glorious if still young – and tasting the Blanchot 2012 showed how well these wines develop in bottle. And for Chablis, ridiculously good value.

Staying in Burgundy, Drouhin were showing their minerally Puligny Montrachet and a rather lovely Red Beaune 1er Cru Champimonts, full of raspberry leaves (not literally!)

Moving across to the Rhône, the Ferraton family were showing their spicy reds including a glorious Ermitage Les Dionnières 2011. Not being in a Bordeaux frame of mind (it happens occasionally!), I skipped the three Bordeaux Fine Wine stands, but eagerly tasted at Weingut Leitz from the Rheingau in Germany. Superb wines across the range, but they were showing their amusingly named, award winning  Eins, Zwei, Dry Riesling 2015 in Magnum. It has appealing apple & lime notes and energy in the glass – it’s an impressive sight poured from Magnum (traditional German long slim style bottle), perfect for a party and would pair brilliantly with griddled seasonal asparagus.

One of the great aspects about all wine tastings is the opportunity to catch up with old friends and none more so than seeing the charming and always full of energy, Maria Jose of Lopez de Heredia from Rioja.  Brilliant to taste their Bosconia 2004  & Tondonia 2003 side by side, with the Tondonia showing richness but none of the excessive heat of the vintage. A friend tasting with me was bowled over by their Crianza – which at under £14 for wine of this quality is v good.  In the superb words of Tony Laithwaite “Wine is an emotional thing so wines made by your friends taste better than anything else.”

A mixture of Italian wines were grouped on one stand – including the superb Barolo Bussia 2011 from Aldo Conterno in Piemonte, where the glorious ethereal quality of their style shone through – still young but I wish there had been a plate of white truffles with pasta to hand!   One of the most talked about wines in the Fine Wine room was La Poja 2010 from Allegrini in the Veneto, Italy. A single varietal wine from Corvina (one of the main varieties of Valpolicella & Amarone), it was supple, fresh and linear – delicious.

Tuscany appeared in the guise of Grattamacco from Bolgheri on the Tuscan coast, whose Vermentino was beautifully refreshing and their Cabernet dominant Bolgheri Superiore was pleasing all those who like Bordelais blends with a twist.

Not usually a huge fan of wines from the Barossa, but I was impressed with the Rockford Basket Press Shiraz 2007 – there was power but thanks to balanced wine making and age in bottle, there was lovely mint & spice but still great freshness.

Trapiche from Argentina showed four Malbec’s showing the elegance from the high altitude of the Uco Valley from vineyards at 1200 meters above sea level for the Coletto Single Vineyard 2011.  But the wine that really sang was their Imperfecto 2011 – Never has a wine been so wrongly named as this was Perfection in a glass –principally Malbec with a whisper of Cabernet Franc, it showed complexity, minerality, freshness and deep dark fruit – a delight!

Wine is all about enjoyment not money, so I am not sure I should write the next sentence, but just to show what a great consumer tasting this is: The Fine Wine Room alone had 62 wines on show and if you bought a bottle of each of them it would have cost you £2357.39! So a great way for consumers to take their wine experience to the next level without costly mistakes of having to splash out without knowing anything about the wine first.

To keep the hunger pangs at bay, many of the stands on the main floor had bought regional nibbles with them to pair with their wines – but there are also a handful of foodies stands including Cheese from Paxton & Whitfield, Gressingham Duck and Iberico Ham. The fabulous Gorvett & Stone were selling their delicious handmade chocolates – the perfect thing to take home for energy levels later! (they do mail order – and the Fresh Mint Truffles are spectacular!)

After a hard 3.5 hours tasting – what better wine to finish off with than 20 year Old White Port from Andresen – Aged white port is so rare, and this example is heaven in a glass full of spice, marmalade & dried apricots – just the thing to revive!

My apologies to all the producers not mentioned – as could not fit them all in!  I skipped South Africa Australia & Argentina on the main floor completely though the seductive Malbec of Fabre Montamayou and the always popular wines from Familia Zuccardi were super busy every time I looked across!

A great consumer event for wine lovers of all interests – whether you fall into the “I know what I like” camp looking for more of the same variety or region – or keen to experiment, The Sunday Times Wine Club Vintage Festival covers all bases! An opportunity to meet in person these wine makers who’ve flown miles to share their passion for their wines with you!

So many wines still to discover, so I’ve put the date in my diary for next year already – it will be on 28th & 29th April 2017 at old Billingsgate – See you there!

Tickets already available at early Bird Discount on this link:

Links to Producers: