Hotting up in Chile

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Sebastian De Martino in the vineyard

Chile may be the slimmest of all wine countries, but it certainly isn’t thin on the ground when it comes to diversity, says Amanda Barnes

It is telling that most Chileans take their title as a “good-value” wine producer to be a burdensome insinuation that their wines are pedestrian and dull. But that assumption couldn’t be further from the truth with the exciting wine scene in Chile today.

Wine producers are tireless in their quest to conquer the far extremes of Chile with new roots and vines. The traditional parameters of viticulture are being broken on an almost annual basis as producers push further north to the limits of the Atacama Desert, deeper south between the lakes of Patagonia, higher into the Andes mountains and creep closer to the cool, Pacific coastline.

One of the true trailblazers of Chilean wine today is De Martino, which has vinified wines from over 350 different vineyard sites across Chile searching for the most distinct and expressive terroirs. Established in 1934, this family winery is based in the heartland of high-quality Chilean Cabernet Sauvignon – in Maipo – however Cabernet is just one feather to De Martino’s bow.

Winemakers Marcelo Retamal and Eduardo Jordan split their time traversing across large distances in Chile to visit their far-flung vineyards and produce an array of characterful wines. Their latest additions represent some of the most compelling new categories in Chile: mineral and precise Chardonnay from the cool, coastal vineyards and limestone soils of Limarí; rich and wild Malbec from the old vines of Maule; spicy and brooding Syrah from the lofty heights of high altitude Elquí (the highest vineyard in Chile at 2,000 metres); and juicy Cinsault from the granitic hillsides of Itata.

The only element in common between the wide range of wines in De Martino’s portfolio today is the transparent style – having honed their winemaking down to minimal intervention, rarely using new oak or foreign yeasts. And just occasionally ageing in amphora.

The result is wine that speaks of a place, and the many places and varieties on offer reflect the growing diversity that exists in Chile today, making it one of the most exciting New World wine countries.

You can no longer pigeonhole Chile into a handful of varieties, regions or styles; and while you can, luckily for us, still call it “good value”, you certainly cannot call it boring.

Our Wine of the Week is our Chilean Sauvignon Blanc, made by De Martino; find out more about the wine here.

Amanda Barnes is travelling around the world in 80 harvests, find out more about her project and follow her journey here.

Category: New World

News and views from the London Wine Fair

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The view out over the trading floor at the London Wine Fair, Olympia

This week the wine trade gathered at Olympia for the annual London Wine Fair. With tastings, masterclasses, seminars and industry briefings taking place over three days, we sent Sophie Thorpe to report on the issues facing the industry today

While wine producers swarm west London to tout their wares, the London Wine Fair offers more than a trading floor – it’s a place for discussion, from trends and tricks through to challenges and success stories. We followed two key issues on this year’s agenda.

The B word

The fair opened with a panel discussion on the topic dominating headlines: Brexit. Chaired by Miles Beale, CEO of the WSTA (Wine and Spirits Trade Association), the panel considered what lies ahead for Britain’s wine industry. Currently, the UK is the world’s second largest importer of wine, both by volume and value.

While there was little certainty about the future among the panel members, they were united in one desire: as Jean-Marie Barillère (Président of the Union des Maisons de Champagne) put it, “We don’t want disruption in the trade.” The hope is that the now-confirmed transition period should ease this.

Sam Linter (Head Winemaker and Managing Director at Bolney, a wine producer in Sussex) suggested that while the weakening of the pound has led to growth in the export market for English wine (growth of 100 percent for Bolney), winery equipment – often sourced from France and Germany – is now more expensive than ever. The problem of labour also looms on the horizon, depending as they do on a skilled, European labour force for vineyard work, a force that simply isn’t available in the UK. While the Foreign Secretary has described English wine as “Brexit juice”, this small and premium market (less than two percent of the UK’s consumption) won’t be able to fill a void left by EU products, and may suffer with any economic downturn.

Leendert Vis (Chief Innovation Officer, JF Hillebrand Group) suggested that Brexit offered nothing the nation didn’t currently deal with, as the UK already imports plenty of wine from beyond European borders. Paul Sorrentino (VP/GM Europe, Middle East & Africa, E&J Gallo Winery) saw Brexit as a possible opportunity for increased sales of New World wines, and for the UK to exploit its Commonwealth ties with preferable trade deals.

Troy Christensen (CEO of Enotria&Coe) suggested we were witnessing a “seismic reshaping of the on-trade”, with the landscape set to look very different in five to 10 years. He noted that economic uncertainty has already had a huge impact on the on-trade (citing the closure of various chains, Prezzo, Carluccio and Byron, among others). With the rise in the minimum wage and food inflation of nine percent, Brexit has exacerbated an already difficult market. Labour also poses a threat to bars and restaurants, many of whom depend upon 18 to 23-year-old Europeans. He also, however, said that “the opportunity is there for us to make an impact” – pointing out the rise in sales of Prosecco (up 23 percent) and gin (up 20 percent).

At another panel, the IWSR, suggested that in fact EU regulations had stifled innovation not just in winemaking but also in packaging, and that we may see a rise in 50cl bottles and more premium bag-in-box offerings (not just the return of the imperial pint).

Seeking equality in the industry

This year’s fair was the first in its 38-year history to have a female head, Hannah Tovey. Wondering why this might be, she arranged for a panel on Tuesday to discuss gender diversity in the industry, chaired by Regine Lee of Women in Wine London. While (according to a Wine Intelligence study) women represent 55 percent of the UK’s wine drinkers, they represent only 43 percent of the jobs in the UK wine industry, and only 35 percent of jobs at the top level.

Alex Ririe (Managing Partner of Strategic Development at Coley Porter Bell/Ogilvy and UK member of the WSET Alumni Advisory Board) pointed out that studies suggest women buy wine differently – and buy more. A 2012 study by Liz Thach proved that though women and men like red wine equally, women tend to buy more white wine. Joe Fattorini (of The Wine Show) said that “self-treating” was proven to be the reason for a quarter of all wine purchases… yet was something men didn’t do. Anne Jones (Waitrose Category Manager: Wines, Beers and Spirits) proffered that there was a danger in statistics: the evidence is that women spend less, are less interested in provenance and less confident buying wine – but, “do we want to cater to that market, or do we want to change those statistics?” She also pointed out that there was often less of a difference in the numbers than headlines might make it seem.

She went on to declare that equality required a long-term cultural shift. She pointed to the recent Drinks Retailing News “100 Most Influential People in Wine”; in 2018 there are no women in the top 10, only six in the top 50 and 17 in the top 100. Alex, meanwhile, highlighted her wish for awards such as the “Decanter Man of the Year” to be renamed to remove implicit bias.

Joe Fattorini suggested that packaging was key to encouraging female drinkers. Citing research around Lynx deodorant, he suggested that women were being put off drinking wine by corks – suggesting that heavy 75cl bottles and having to “yank out corks” didn’t appeal, that corkscrews required a “male power grip” versus a screwcap.

There is, Alex pointed out, however, a risk of playing to the lowest common denominator – the temptation by marketeers to “put some flowers on it, make it pastel”. She ventured that, regardless of whether it is men or women, we should be aiming to increase consumers’ confidence and knowledge. Anne went on to state that it was “everyone’s responsibility not to use gendered language” when describing wine – ie using the terms feminine/masculine to describe the style of wine; while Alex suggested that there was also much to be done in the on-trade, ensuring that the wine list and order was given to the right person in a restaurant or wine bar, not automatically the man. Hear, hear!

It’s clear there is plenty more to be discussed and resolved, preferably over a glass of something good – roll on the London Wine Fair 2019.

Category: Miscellaneous

The remarkable whiskies of yesteryear

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Old and rare spirits in a cabinet at No.3 St James’s Street

As we start dusting off bottles in preparation for our tasting on 1st June, Jonny McMillan from our Spirits team considers a couple of the very special whiskies set to be uncorked

Of all the remarkable whiskies in our upcoming tasting, perhaps most interesting is the pair of 1968 Speyside whiskies from Macallan and Longmorn, bottled by Berry Bros. & Rudd in the early 1980s.

These legendary whiskies would have been produced quite differently to their modern counterparts, using archaic strains of barley. Most likely floor malted at the distillery, these barleys would yield much less alcohol, but imparted a different character to the spirit. The wash would have been fermented with brewers’ yeast, probably taking a few more days than the more active distillers’ yeast used today, and the pot stills would have still been coal-fired. Some say these production techniques made a real difference to the character of the spirit produced, while others are more sceptical. You can be the judge.

Another fascinating aspect to these whiskies is that they’ve spent more than 35 years in glass. It’s impossible to say which aspects of their character are down to this gentle “old bottle effect”, as it’s become known, but often a slight oxidative character arises in these antique bottles which only adds to the enigma.

What is for certain is that these bottles are now massively collectable, and with auction prices sky rocketing and the number of bottles dwindling, who can say when this pair of ancient Speyside whiskies will be tasted again.

For your chance to taste these historic bottlings, book here for our tasting, hosted by our very own Ronnie Cox and Doug McIvor.

Category: Spirits

The cellarman of St James’s

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Allan Perry in the cellars at No.3. Photograph: Joe Woodhouse

He’s tasted almost 150 different vintages, seen four decades of change and survived Norman Shelley’s scrumpy: Alexis Self talks to Berry Bros. & Rudd’s Allan Perry

If you’ve bought a bottle from No.3 St James’s Street in the last 37 years, chances are it’s passed through the hands of Allan Perry. On Friday 27th April, No.3’s ebullient, wise-cracking Cellar Manager, nicknamed Amyl, called time on a career that has lasted nearly four decades. During this time, he has seen five chairmen come and go, tasted a wine from every vintage since 1870 and watched as Berry Bros. & Rudd has grown from a relatively small – and still quite parochial – West End wine merchant, to an international business with offices in Tokyo, Hong Kong and Singapore. Though it has modernised considerably in the past few decades, the company still retains some of the Old-World charm you’d expect from a business founded in the 17th century.

That said, it probably didn’t feel particularly charming when a 20-year-old Allan first walked through its black-green doors on Friday 28th March 1981. Before he answered an advert in the South London Press – a St James’s Street wine merchant that was looking for a cellarman – his experience of the wine trade didn’t extend much further than Victoria Wines: “I thought it’d just be a shop, like an off licence or something, so when I first walked through the doors, I was blown away,” Allan says.

He was met by a man in a pinstripe suit, who barely looked up through his horn-rimmed spectacles before asking in an intimidating drawl, “Can I help you, sir?” Allan was told to take a seat to wait for a director to come down and interview him. Led to The Parlour at the back of the shop, which back then reeked of old cigars, the street-wise 20-year-old must’ve made an impression because, “the same day I got a call from his secretary asking if I could start on Monday”.

Nowadays, 20-year-olds are considered precocious if they’ve moved out of home, but No.3’s newest cellarman had already been in London for three years, working in a chemical factory – from which he gets his nickname – and a few bars. Before that, when he arrived from his native Liverpool, he slept rough while looking for employment. I’m surprised to hear he was born by the Mersey, not only because of his south-London twang, but also the large “MUFC” tattoo on his right forearm. “Oh yeah, I’ve my foster father to blame for that. He was from Manchester and used to take me down the East Lancs Road from Liverpool to Old Trafford aged eight – I’ve been hooked ever since. You can change your religion but not your football team.” Being a QPR fan, I nod in grim agreement.

“You can change your religion but not your football team.”

It must have been intimidating then for a young man with his background to walk into that environment. “It was. The shop was dark, cold and gloomy then and there were just two guys who worked up there – Gill Gagen and Richard Colman – who looked like they were born in pinstripes and were always immaculately turned-out.” The only room off the shop – now the Merchant’s Room – was where the switchboard was located. “It was managed by a lady called Sue Wren, who worked here for 40 years,” says Allan. “The switchboard was manual so whenever she transferred a call, she did it by hand, unplugging one line and moving it to a different socket.”

Elsewhere, pen and paper were as high-tech as things got: there were more than 150,000 bottles of wine in the cellars back then, and each one’s location had to be carefully noted. The wine arrived twice-weekly on a flat-bed truck, “There was usually 10 pallets with 40 cases of wine on each one, which had to be unloaded by hand – it used to take two hours to get the whole job done.”

Cases of fine wine weren’t the only things Allan was obliged to lift in his new role. Soon after he joined, a particularly drunk aristocrat – let’s call him “Lord Perch” – popped in after a long lunch at a nearby club to pick up something to take home. “He walked in swaying and said, ‘I’m just going to take a seat’, sat down on the old No.3 coffee scales and promptly fell straight backwards, arse over tit. Gill, again barely looking up from his high sloping desk, said, ‘Can you help Lord Perch to his feet? He appears to have lost his footing.’ I couldn’t believe it – I think his grandson’s still a customer.”

All that lifting constituted thirsty work, and the cellarmen used to have two barrels of beer delivered a month, one bitter and one lager, to keep them refreshed throughout the day – “there was 44 pints in each barrel, they usually lasted about two weeks.” Beer-breaks were a tradition: “We used to have four a day, the first was at 10am – which wasn’t officially a ‘beer-break’, but you’d have one anyway.” Unfortunately, due to the presence of moving machinery in the vicinity, health and safety inspectors put paid to their daily refreshment in the early 1990s. But, luckily, the Red Lion pub in Crown Passage still survives for a post-work grip – “that place hasn’t changed at all, I still see punters from the early days”.

“We used to have four beer-breaks a day, the first was at 10am”

Legend has it that there is a secret passage leading from the cellars into the Red Lion. Sadly, Allan is quick to dispel this rumour: “There are probably loads of small tunnels that have long-since been filled. There was always talk of one that ran under Pall Mall to St James’s Palace. In the early 1990s, when they were doing building work at 62 Pall Mall, they uncovered it. It was really well-constructed and it even had a small washroom and toilet off it. It was bricked up after about 50 metres though. CID came round to check that we couldn’t stroll through into the palace.

In Henry VIII’s day, the Palace’s tennis courts were located on St James’s Street, with artesian wells running under the building to deliver the water supply. A particularly big one was discovered a few years ago during the refurbishment of the Pickering Cellar. It’s now covered with glass so that customers using the cellar’s WC can look down into the inky depths. “I wanted to put a skeleton down there holding a bottle, that would have really given them a fright,” says Allan.

The presence of customers in the cellars is a far-cry from Allan’s early days. With most of the stock now in Basingstoke, No.3’s cellars have been opened up to more than 1,000 events a year. “We used to not see anyone for months, now we help lost customers find their way back to their tables every day,” Allan says. Given the combination of good wine and two and a half acres of labyrinthine cellars, this is perhaps not unsurprising.

Few customers – or, indeed, staff – have had the privilege of tasting the same quantity and quality of wines as Allan, who has to check every bottle which is opened from the house reserves. “I tasted an ’82 Le Pin which blew my mind and had a bottle of ’28 Fonseca Port which was superb, really incredible, and I’m not a big Port drinker.” Of all the wines he’s handled and tasted, the sweet ones are the oldest. “We opened a bottle of 1832 Tokaji a few years back. It was amazing to think of where this thing had been, it was like drinking history. About 1998, the company put one of these tiny bottles up for auction; it was bought for six grand.”

“There was always talk of a tunnel that ran under Pall Mall to St James’s Palace”

Allan doesn’t exactly fit the stereotype of your typical wine connoisseur but his knowledge and experience is astonishing. He insists that, despite its sometimes-fusty image, Berry Bros. & Rudd has always been an inclusive place, welcoming of anyone with a hunger and desire to learn about wine. There have been many eccentric personalities over the years, but one – Norman Shelley – sticks in his mind. “He was an old chippy who drove in everyday from Somerset to repair things around No.3. A lot of the time he’d be fixing the floorboards in the shop, which would constantly need replacing. In order to make new boards look old, he’d mix together tea and coffee and paint them. He used to make his own scrumpy and bring it in to work. I once asked him what he put it in and he said: ‘You know, the usual stuff – spiders, frogs’ heads’. It was lethal.”

Come May, the smooth-worn, grey York flagstones of No.3’s cellars will miss Allan’s familiar tread. So what’s next? “I want to visit more of Britain, see what these islands have to offer.” But first, we’ll see you in the Red Lion, Amyl…

Category: Miscellaneous