• Simon Reilly

Discovering Daniel Ham's Off Beat wines in lockdown

Lockdown started with good intentions. I wrote a list of jobs. Painting various parts of the house, build those planters that have been sitting in their box since they arrived a few months ago, build that shelving unit for the cellar, sort out the filing cabinet. Ooh, I’ll have time to some wine articles too.

I came across the list the other day and was able to tick off none of them.

I tried to come up with excuses in my head to explain why I had failed to deliver my home improvement plans. Home schooling, entertaining the kids, days of never-ending conference calls…. playing too much golf? I wasn’t fooling anyone, I’ve always been a lazy bastard.

But the wine articles, I think I’ve got a decent excuse for that. To write a wine article you need something to write about. I’m generally compelled to write after a memorable winery visit, a meeting with an inspiring producer or a tasting of a range of exciting new releases. I ain’t done any of that during lockdown. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve drained some cracking bottles of wine over the last few months but who wants to hear about bottles of wine in my cellar that are probably not available to buy anymore?

Anyway that all changed last night. I received an excited message from Al from 161 Food & Drink (my local wine bar, in Sydenham), who also runs wine importer/distributor Wines Under the Bonnet. This has grown from a Loire Valley focused natural wine importer to other areas of France, Germany, Italy and now England.

“You about tomorrow, got some English wine I would like to get under your nose?”, went the message. Fortunately I was able to fit it a visit to 161 into my busy schedule of not doing home improvements, generally being lazy and playing golf.

The wines in question are by Salisbury based English wine maker Daniel Ham. Wines Under the Bonnet have just clinched exclusive distribution of his wines, made under the Off Beat Wine label, although he does sell some direct too. These are fun wines, mainly from hybrid varieties you’ve probably never heard of, including one that sounds a bit like sexy lobster, or it does when Al says it anyway.

Daniel learned the ropes at Plumpton College and has worked at some of the top English fizz estates, starting at Ridgeview in 2012 before moving on to Langham where he has been winemaker and director for the last 5 years. He started making wines on the side from bought in fruit in 2018 and the fruits of his labour are now hitting the market. The style of these wines is very much hands-off winemaking, with little or no sulphur used.

I tasted three very different wines but they were all very clean, pure wines with real freshness and interest. Volumes are low for his first wines, but he is looking to gear up production from here as he has now secured his own cellar space, so I think we will be hearing a lot more from Daniel and his Off Beat Wines in the next few years. He is definitely one to keep a look out for. The fact that the labels are stunning (designed by a local artist called Stephanie Leighton) will help you spot them.

Anyway, here are my thoughts on the wines;

Mind Over Matter, 2019, 10.5% (£25 retail)

Pet Nat made from 36% Siegerrebe (pronounced “sexy lobster” by some) and 64% Solaris. The Siegerrebe spent time in amphorae before being blended with the Solaris in steel tanks. Slightly soapy lemon sherbet nose, lots of fresh acidity and a grippy texture, almost waxy. Then its all about grapefruit pith on the finish, both flavour and texture. Really intense.

Skinny Dip, 2018, 11.5% (£29.40 retail)

100% Solaris which has had 3 months on skins in a 800 litre amphorae, then steel tank for 10 months and 6 months in bottle. It had also been open most of the day when I tasted it, at which point it had an alluring Italian aperitivo style nose full of orange rind and herbal notes. Complex, savoury spice on the palate, quite saline. Compelling stuff. Al did say it was much tighter on opening with a bit more stone fruit, with the savoury notes developing with air.

Wild Juice Chase, 2019, 10.4% (£26 retail)

100% Triomphe D’ Alsace (love this grape name!). Apparently this was sparkling but hat had gone by the time I’d tasted it but it didn’t matter. This is glorious! Lovely red berry and cherry, a touch of spice and a certain creaminess to the nose. So juicy with a lovely spine of acidity. Long and persistent. Just delicious juice!

Wines distributed by Wines Under the Bonnet. Available to buy retail from 161 Food & Drink