Wines, Vines and Good Times – Wine Tasting in South London

Last night I went along to the inaugural meeting of ‘Wines, Vines and Good Times’. Rubbish name, but a very nice lady called Ruth setting up a wine appreciation club in Balham, London.

Last night was just an introduction – so all the wines were on the house – and Ruth had chosen sparkling wines as the introductory topic. Maybe the thinking was that everybody is supposed to like champagne and sparkling wine – it’s never been my favourite, but you can still explore the extraordinary difference in the appearance, smell and taste of apparently similar wines.

Ruth really seems to know her stuff, which I love. I find my wine knowledge is restricted to France, and to Tuscany & Umbria. Have a look at where The Chain Gang operates our bike tours and it will be pretty obvious why. Get me on dessert wines from Monbazillac or the Coteaux du Layon, or the clarets of the 1855 classification, and I’m as happy as a pig in shit.

But, the minute we start talking about South Africa, New Zealand, Chile or the US, and I’m afraid to say I haven’t got a clue. Literally. I know absolutely nothing about them – except that the most southerly vineyard in the world is in New Zealand.

Not terribly useful information, but it is true. So I do enjoy the old blah blah blah about cepage, ageing, blending and single vintage sparkling wines when they relate to all of these ‘New World’ wines. I’m always a bit in awe that anybody can know France, and French wines, and then know all the others as well. But unless she’s a bloody good actress Ruth knew her stuff and it was fascinating.

The last wine of the evening was a vintage champagne from 2001. We tasted it alongside a blend from the same champagne house made to their house style using wines from various years, like most champagne is. The rule is a vintage champagne uses grapes from the same year.

Most champagnes blend from several years to maintain a consistent house style. Not the cheap champagnes (as if such a thing existed!), but all champagnes, including renowned names like Moet & Chandon & Veuve Clicquot. If a champagne bottle has a year printed on the label, it’s a vintage, from a single year.

This doesn’t mean it’s better, although it probably means it’s more distinctive, more interesting. The winemaker, or vigneron, will make decisions about the ‘cepage’, the combination of Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier, the three grape varieties allowed in Champagne.

They’ll make decisions about the length of time in the barrel, how long the wine will spend on the lies, how much sugar to add. The most interesting thing about last night’s vintage champagne is that it was from 2001. A rubbish year, when very few champagne houses bothered with a ‘vintage’ so you already have a clue that the winemaker thought they’d done extremely well with their grapes that year.

And it was delicious. Tasting the vintage and the non-vintage side-by-side, the non-vintage tasted lovely, but after tasting the vintage, the non-vintage just seemed to disappear. You always find this when you’re tasting, you have to be careful about the order. A delicious, but subtle wine will seem pallid, odourless and tasteless if you taste it immediately after an over-powering wine.

Anyway, enough of all that. Ruth is planning one event a month, and the next event, on March 13th, is on the subject of Chardonnay. There was a bit of a reaction to the ubiquity of Chardonnay in the late ‘90s, people would chuckle over the mnemonic ‘ABC’, Anything But Chardonnay. It was always unfair.

These same people never realised that the very best champagnes, the ‘blanc de blanc’ (which means white juice from white grapes only, which is a shorthand for 100% Chardonnay) are made from Chardonnay, and the most amazing white wines in the world, the wines from Meursault, Puligny-Montrachet and Chassagne-Montrachet, are also 100% Chardonnay.

So I hope our exploration of Chardonnay is an interesting one, and if anyone is likely to be in Balham, south west London, on March 13th 2008, let’s meet up at Ruth’s ‘Wines, Vines and Good Times’, even if it has got a dodgy name.

See you at Café Melié on Bedford Hill, Thursday 13th March, 8.00pm. Probably not too many of our American, Canadian and Australian friends, but you’ll be welcome in spirit.

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