On Saturday we travelled to London for the Decanter Spain & Portugal fine wine encounter. We’d downloaded the catalogue in advance and been blown away by the breadth and quality of the offerings. That’s the beauty of Spain and Portugal: it’s not just wine, but also cava, sherry, port and Madeira. We perused the catalogue on the train and with hindsight I should have made a list of what I definitely wanted to taste. Once there. I fell into kid in a sweetshop mode and all method went out of the window.
We arrived at the Landmark Hotel and were impressed by the elegant venue. We checked our coats, donned our wristbands and grabbed our glasses. We had a “discovery theatre” session booked at 11.30, so we spent the first 30 minutes in the most civilized way imaginable, tasting 5 Gramona cavas. While they were all excellent, there were two stand-outs; the first of which was the Imperial, Gran Reserva 2007. The charming Spanish ladies on the stand explained that this spends 5 years maturing on the lees and uses a small amount of liquor from a solera system. It had an amazing creamy texture and nutty aromas and flavours. I absolutely loved this and would happily drink it instead of champagne on any (or every) day of the year, even Christmas. The other favourite was Celler Batlle, Gran Reserva 2004, made only in exceptional years and bottle-aged for 7 years. Again, this had lovely creamy nutty flavours. Bonus points: the grapes have been grown organically and the winery is in the process of becoming biodynamic. The cavas certainly had the clean, fresh flavours of organic winemaking.
We were then summoned to the discovery theatre for our tasting session with Paco Casas of Pago de los Capellanes. Sr Casas started by giving us an overview of the estate’s vineyards, with different parcels consisting of very different soil types, before leading us through a tasting of 5 wines, all 100% tempranillo. The Joven, Crianza and Reserva were all excellent, but the Parcela El Nogal 2009 and Parcela El Picon 2009 were exceptional. My favourite was the El Nogal, which had a powerful aroma and flavour of violets and bitter chocolate, but Mr R13 preferred the El Picon, saying that it had more structure and complexity and better ageing potential. He has expensive tastes: it’s about £140 a bottle. The stuff of dreams, but I think that it will need to stay there at that price.
We then headed back to the grand tasting and visited the Faustino table. Faustino I Gran Reserva 2001 was named by Decanter as its number 1 wine of 2013. We had drunk a bottle at home, and been underwhelmed: we thought that the fruit was overly dominated by the oak. However, we retasted it on the stand and were much more impressed: the fruit and oak were in perfect harmony. Perhaps we had a bad bottle at home. We do have another one (it’s within our price range) so I’m looking forward to trying it again. We also tasted the 1994 vintage of the same wine. The bottle had only just been opened, so we excused its apparent lack of fruit and agreed to return to retaste it after it had had a chance to breathe. Sadly, we forgot to do so. I also tasted the whites and rosés, which I thought were pleasant and easy-drinking, but not particularly exciting.
Our next encounter was a revelation. While at the very popular Faustino table, I saw a table with no visitors and a lovely but rather lonely-looking Spanish gentleman (Conrado Herrero of Bodegas Ontañón) waiting for someone to taste his wines. I insisted that we go to talk and taste with him and I am so glad that we did – this is where the kid in a sweetshop approach paid off, leading to a wonderful discovery. His Clarete 2013 was a deep pink wine in the Bordeaux style, hence “clarete” rather than “rosado”. It was bursting with flavour and had a lovely long finish for a rosé. His Reserva and Gran Reserva were both 95% tempranillo topped up with 5% graciano, which gave the wines a deliciously fresh minerality. We finished with the Ecológico 2011 (100% tempranillo) which tasted of freshly-picked strawberries with the earth still on them (in the very best of ways). Sr. Herrero informed us that Ontañón wines are very popular in Japan and Switzerland, which I thought was interesting.
After a slight detour with a grumpy Portuguese young man (no names mentioned), we decided that it was time for some sherry, so we visited Viniberia Almacenista Selection Sherries, where we tasted 2 different Finos (Pedro’s Almacenista Selection and Sanchez Romate Hnos, Fino Perdido 1/15 Butts), a Manzanilla (Antonio Barbadillo Mateos, Sacristia Manzanilla AB, En Rama 2012) and an Amontillado (Pedro’s Almacenista Selection). By this point, my tasting notes were becoming less specific and more fanciful. My one-word note for the Amontillado was “orgasmic” and a drawing of a (let’s call it happy) face. Fortunately, we already have a bottle of this at home from our local Majestic, so I will borrow their more coherent note: “The subtle and delicate bouquet, suggests notes of hazelnut on the nose, yet with light reminders of yeast but smooth on the palate giving a fresh finish.” That’s how the professionals do it. As an aside, this table had a dish of the finest roasted almonds that I’ve ever tasted, which were absolute perfection with the sherries. The guy on the table did promise to give me a poster if I went back later in the show (perhaps he was flattered by my admiration for his nuts) but, once again, I forgot. (It was turning into that sort of day.)
We had to abandon our sherry tasting before getting to the Oloroso and Palo Cortado in order to join our second discovery theatre session of the day, this one with Ramos Pinto. We tasted their Duas Quintas Reserva (a blend of Touriga Nacional, Touriga Franca and other Douro grapes) from 4 different years. These were all good, but what blew our minds (and palates) was the Vintage Port 2011. Despite its youthful years and appearance, it was absolutely bursting with fruit flavour, accompanied by firm tannins that will support its ageing. This was an absolute stand-out port.
Inspired by this reminder of why we love port so much, our next stop was the Sogevinus Fine Wines table, where we tasted Barros Very Old Dry White Port and Burmester 40 Year Old Tawny Port. My notes had become non-existent by this point, but I did draw big smiley faces by both of these.
At this point, we decided to call it a day. There was so much left that we wanted to taste (Niepoort, Blandy’s Madeira …), but we didn’t have long left to grab a bite to eat (our lunch had consisted solely of water biscuits) before catching our train home. We went to the nearby “La Fromagerie”, where Mr R13 had a charcuterie plate and I had an excellent and varied cheese plate (washed down with apple juice – we’re only human).
The fine wine encounter was a great experience, giving us the opportunity to taste an enormous variety of wines of the highest quality. The only downside (if you can call it that) was that it was rather overwhelming for the keen amateur, as opposed to the seasoned professional. I will definitely attend future Decanter tastings, but think I should perhaps adopt a more organised approach. When I was learning to scuba dive, the rule was “plan your dive and dive your plan”. Should I plan my next tasting and then rigidly stick to the plan? Or, without the danger of running out of air, decompression sickness and being eaten by sharks, should I allow serendipity to play a part, which can lead to some unexpected and delightful discoveries?