Words by James Lawrence
It started before the UK lockdown began. Ever since Covid-19 reared its head in Asia, analysts and marketeers have been busy attempting to forecast how global consumers will respond to the pandemic. The UK wine trade is bursting with data and anecdotes; all signs point towards the familiar and safe.
At the end of March, merchant Berry Bros. and Rudd experienced the biggest day of digital sales in its history, capitalising on a population craving excitement in defiance of lockdown blues. Other retailers have also experienced a massive jump in online sales. But while digital sales have spiked, retailers report that consumers seem to be sticking to familiar – and arguably overexposed – tropes and wine styles. The imperative to sample the esoteric appears to have been temporarily curtailed.
It’s very understandable. Now more than ever, the familiar is comforting, safe and reassuring. We all have our comfort zones, in wine as in everything else. Yet there has arguably never been a better time to stray away from the ubiquitous and widely available. Boredom is everywhere. Social media is rife with it – the collective sighs of a population forced indoors. This is where the esoteric becomes useful: wine is wonderfully various, and you’ll never know what potential new favourite you’re missing unless you stray into uncharted territory. But then again, the choice between the familiar and unknown is a false dichotomy – why not have both? Here are some ideas for more exploratory drinking, coupled with some of the best – and widely recognised – wines that hit the pleasure spot.
Champagne Bruno Paillard Grand Cru Blanc de Blancs N.V
This house produces the epitome of elegant, refined Champagne. Even during lockdown we have things to celebrate: Bruno Paillard Blanc de Blancs is perfect for socially-distanced birthdays, anniversaries and hen parties. The Champagne is comprised of first pressed Grand Cru Chardonnay grapes exclusively from the Côtes de Blancs. A “Demi Mousse” fermentation process is used; when the still wine is decanted for its second fermentation in the bottle, less sugar and yeast is added than normal. This results in a less powerful bottle fermentation, producing a lower pressure and therefore less fizz. Bursting with citrus fruit, figs and honey, it begs to be savoured.
Where to buy: thewhiskyexchange.com
Billecart-Salmon Rose N.V
It is hard to imagine a more perfect lockdown treat than this elegant, salmon pink coloured rose from venerable house Billecart-Salmon. A weighty and textured style of rose, better paired with food than served as the 6pm quaff. I opened a bottle last week and it seduced with its soft-scented strawberry, raspberry and citrus aromas and flavours. Exquisite.
Where to buy: jeroboams.co.uk
And the new kid on the block
Fitz Sparkling Wine N.V
There is no debate, no point in arguing: English sparkling wine now rivals the most expensive bottles from across the channel. The vast majority of investors have decided to closely emulate their competitors in Champagne, in everything from grape varieties to production methods. This is no bad thing, but the owners of Fitz have decided to do something quite different. Using both classic Champagne grapes and funky varieties like Seyval Blanc and Reichensteiner, the fizz is made using the ‘charmat method’, which is how Prosecco is made. The result is ideal summer quaffing: zesty, lively on the palate and bursting with summer fruits. And a very attractive price tag.
Styles that deserve to be better known
Alzinger Riesling Steinertal Smaragd 2018
Ah Riesling, why are you not loved and adored? Despite the endless proselytizing of the wine trade, Riesling remains in the shadow – at least in the UK market – of more popular styles like Kiwi Sauvignon Blanc. But this Austrian Riesling is stupendous, offering both the fruit and racy acidity of a top NZ Sauvignon, with the added bonus of a velvety texture and endless complexity. Buy it! I promise you won’t regret it. Winemaker Leo Alzinger is at the top of his game.
Where to buy: winebuyers.com
A welcome favourite
2018 Wild Horseshoe Sauvignon Blanc, Diemersdal, Durbanville
This is my favourite Sauvignon Blanc from South Africa. Despite the popular misconception that New Zealand holds a virtual monopoly on excellent examples of this ubiquitous grape, South African winemakers also do it justice. This particular expression offers a refined and ‘funky’ take on the variety: benefiting from lees and skin contact, the wine mixes up tropical fruit with notes of yeast, raw meat, vanilla and honeysuckle.
RRP £71 (case of 6)
Where to buy: jeroboams.co.uk
Definitely not tried and tested
Heimann Kekfrankos 2017, Hungary
Remember Bull’s Blood? Hungary’s ‘premium’ red wine export that was rough as sandpaper. This is nothing like that. Made by maestro winemaker Zoltan Jr Heimann, this Kekfrankos – a red grape widely found in Austria and Hungary – is classy and refined. Offering the mouthfeel of a good red Burgundy, the wine is soft, supple and very fruit-forward. Hungary’s answer to Fleurie perhaps?
Where to buy: novelwines.co.uk
Three familiar classics
CVNE Imperial Reserva 2015
Everybody loves Rioja – particularly in lockdown. There is something very comforting about aromas of vanilla and red berries, underpinned by a velvety texture and soft, supple tannins. CVNE has always made ‘traditional’ Riojas; once derided as passe, they are now achingly back in fashion. This bottle proves why.
Where to buy: majestic.co.uk
Chateau Lassegue 2015 St-Emilion
A fantastic St-Emilion that really punches above its price point. The 2015 is a standout example from this lovely property, owned by Californian wine magnet Barbara Banke. Expect ripe, supple tannins married to aromas of black fruits, plum and spice, with blackcurrant, blackberry and mocha on the palate.
La Crema Pinot Noir Monterey 2017
Every Pinot Noir lover is constantly hunting for the definitive wine that delivers pleasure and value in equal spades. For this much-loved grape can run to thousands of pounds, yet it often disappoints (yes, even expensive bottles) as much as it delights. Thankfully, this wonderful example from California falls into the latter category. The supple tannins, the generous mouthfeel, the lush, scented berry fruit – there is nothing to dislike. It deserves 5 star treatment; try La Crema with duck.
Where to buy: amazon.co.uk