The Wine Gang’s Christmas Fair

POSTED ON 08/11/2010

It came, we saw, they went. The Wine Gang’s Christmas Fair, that is, on Saturday and the 600-odd satisfied customers who swirled and slurped and in some cases even spat their way through the 698 wines our exhibitors put on for tasting at Vinopolis. From the moment go, there was a hum under the cathedral-vaulted brick roofs of the Victorian railway arches in Borough Market this year and the hum rapidly crescendoed into an excitedly appreciative but not inebriated buzz.

This was the second year of The Wine Gang’s Christmas Fair and the event was marked two particular features. On the one hand, we held four masterclasses for the first time. The speakers were Michel Chapoutier (sélections parcellaires), Damian Martin of Wines of Ara (New Zealand sauvignon blanc and minerality), Jean-Claude Mas (the new New World of the South of France) and Ken Forrester (Cape chenin blanc). Each brought with them that something extra of personality and in-depth experience to the event. I had the pleasure of introducing the extraordinary Michel Chapoutier and the Rhône master’s electrifying tour de force kept his audience spellbound.

The new Wine Gang © Charmaine GriegerThe new Wine Gang © Charmaine Grieger

The other feature that made a difference this year was the arrival on the scene – and their introduction to Wine Gang followers – of David Williams of The Observer and Jane Parkinson from the Drinks Business, both coincidentally Welsh speakers. It was a special pleasure to be able to introduce David and Jane to everyone and there was no doubt that their presence added immeasurably to the warmth of the atmosphere. In fact it’s been heartening to see the overwhelmingly positive response we’ve had from the wine world generally to their coming on board the good ship Wine Gang.

Despite their departing The Wine Gang to pursue their own careers, Olly Smith and Tim Atkin MW were on typically exuberant form on Saturday, making their own contribution to the day with well-attended wine walks. It underlined the fact that we will be sorry to see them go. As co-founding members, their contribution has been immense and we wish them well in their future ventures. Olly fans meanwhile don’t despair. The irrepressible Mr.Smith has pledged to return to future Wine Gang events and we’ll do our utmost to hold him to his word.

The only problem with hosting a mega-party like this is that you’re so busy trying to ensure that everyone’s having a great time that you sometimes forget to have one yourself. As it happened, I thoroughly enjoyed every minute of the day. It was great to welcome enthusiastic Gang subscribers and customers who were not yet signed up to the Wine Gang. I think we did sign up a significant number of newcomers so welcome to all new gangsters.

Yalumba's Louisa Rose © Charmaine GriegerYalumba's Louisa Rose © Charmaine Grieger

Equally, we were delighted to see the illustrious likes of Joel Peterson of California’s Ravenswood and Australia’s Louisa Rose of Yalumba (no relation), both of whom showed an interest in hosting masterclasses next time round on, respectively, California old vine zinfandel and viognier in Australia. Good too to spot from afar such wine press luminaries as Rosemary George MW and Robert Joseph, who tweeted yesterday ‘The Wine Gang may have lost Tim Atkin and Olly Smith but yesterday's Wine Gang Fair was a great event’.

As a co-host, you tend to spend much of your time mothering and shepherding (fortunately not having to police though; this crowd is a superior group of wine lovers that doesn’t come to get trolleyed but actually to taste and interact with the exhibitors). One exhibitor told me how much she enjoyed The Wine Gang event because she didn’t have to, as she does at some other events, ‘hose the crowd’. Hose the crowd? Literally, that is, simply pouring wine into glasses held out by outstretched hands that might as well belong to robots for all the interest they actually take in the wine and its producer.

As much as the enthusiasm of customers makes this show, so equally do the variety and quality of the exhibitors. I think we have a pretty unique mix of retailers, wine producers, importers and generics. Among retailers for instance, the lion’s share of the high street is represented, with the likes of Waitrose, Marks & Spencer, Majestic, Oddbins and Sainsbury’s leading the pack. Top quality independent wine merchants are much in evidence too, with some fabulous wines from Armit, Adnams, Corney & Barrow, Great Western Wine, the Wine Society and Laithwaites.

Importers may not be well known to the public but companies of the pedigree of Liberty Wines, Maisons Marques et Domaine, Mentzendorff, Stevels Garnier and Stratfords strut a remarkable level of quality stuff. And along with producers like Yalumba, Gonzalez Byass, Freixenet, Chapoutier, Fonseca, Plaimont and Louis Latour, organizations such as Sopexa (French wine), ViniPortugal , Wines of Chile, Beaujolais, Languedoc, Bordeaux, New Zealand Winegrowers, Oregon Wine Board, Washington Wine Commission, Wines of Lebanon, Romanian winegrowers, contribute immeasurably to the gaiety of the day.

Jane Parkinson © Charmaine GriegerJane Parkinson © Charmaine Grieger

My only regret through all of this was that I didn’t have nearly enough time for tasting wine, despite being in the great halls for the two three-hour sessions. Sure, on the wine walk I took round (some dozen or so consumers per walk), I got to taste at least one wine at each of the tables my group visited. We started with the youthfully palatable 2008 Peña de Pato, Dão, from Sogrape, £7.49, Majestic, which I cleverly managed to mistranslate as duck’s foot when it was pointed out to me that the feather on the label suggested that it meant, quite rightly, duck’s feather.

On we went to Wines of Lebanon where one of our group said they were surprised to see Lebanese wines because ‘isn’t Lebanon a Muslim country’? The question was tactfully swept aside by the owner of the vibrant 2006 Domaine des Tourelles, Bekaa Valley, £11.60,, with words to the effect ‘we are a broad church’.

Next up was a great value old stalwart in Bacalhõa’s 2007 Tinto da Anfora, £5.99, Sainsbury’s, and we then found ourselves on the Yalumba table, in the presence, to my surprise, because I had no idea she was going to be there, of Louisa Rose herself, Yalumba’s chief winemaker. I was going to show the deliciously spicy Yalumba Barossa Bush Vine Grenache, but I deferred to Louisa’s choice of wine for our group, which was the 2009 Pewsey Vale Riesling, £10.99, Oddbins, a classic Eden Valley Dry Riesling with all the freshness and citrusy tang you’d hope for from a wine of which Louisa is justifiably proud.

Fun of the Fair © Charmaine GriegerFun of the Fair © Charmaine Grieger

Our next stop was Languedoc where we tasted an aromatically spicy, juicily red-fruited Corbières, the 2008 Atal Sia, a vivid unoaked blend of carignan, grenache, mourvèdre and syrah from Domaine Les Ollieux Romanis, £12.89, At the Plaimont Co-operative table, next door, I toyed with showing the delightful sweet Pacherenc du Vic Bilh, but because it was sweet and we hadn’t yet reached the end of the walk, I plumped instead for the 2008 Le Faîte Blanc, £14.99, Adnams, a traditional blend of the local petit manseng, gros manseng, arrufiac and petit courbu. This went down very well indeed, literally, being appreciated for its combination of richness, personality and refreshing tang on the aftertaste.

Sticking with the indigenous variety theme, I chose the 2009 Pecorino, £9.99, from Marks & Spencer, and this dry white from Le Marche on the Adriatic surprised most people to find a grape variety with the same name as Italy’s famous sheep’s cheese. The majority loved its crisp dry individuality, one or two walkers showing slight frowns as if to say ‘I’m not quite sure about this one’. And finally to the 2009 La Différence Carignan, a smooth rich Roussillon red appreciated as much for its robust flavours as its friendly £5.99 price tag from Tesco. Yes, vive La Différence!

So that was that for another year then and we’re aiming next year to add new events to The Wine Gang’s portfolio, so watch this space. And before signing off, I should just add that none of this could have run as smoothly as it did without the organizational skills of Judy Kendrick and her team on the one hand and Sue Harris’ Westbury PR on the other.

David Williams © Charmaine GriegerDavid Williams © Charmaine Grieger

As for my favourite wine of the day, it was tough because when I did get a chance to taste a few wines, many of them were quite gorgeous. If there was one, shall we say, desert island wine however, for sheer greatness it would have to be the 2007 Domaine Leflaive Meursault 1er cru Sous le Dos d’Âne, £59.99, Corney & Barrow. Charming name apart (under the donkey’s back), this biodynamic white Burgundy from Anne-Claude Leflaive is one of those ravishingly pristine wines with a stamp of authority and complex layers of flavour that bring home the difference between great wine and the rest. No-one could say it was cheap, but in a world besotted with value on the one hand and investment wine on the other, sometimes you have to remember that it’s inspirational wines like this that make aspiration a worthy aim.

Our sponsor