You know that feeling when you pay someone to do some work for you and you can't help feeling they got the better deal? Well that happened to me at the day job last week. We've paid some consultants so much money in the last 12 months that they invited a few of us out for some special pre-Christmas drinks...on them. Yes, we definitely paid them too much.
Alas, this bitter sweet pill was made all the more sweeter by the fact that they at least did some homework and worked out I was into wine. Two of the blood sucking parasites, sorry consultants, invited four of us to The Sampler in Islington for a bit of high-end wine tasting. So six of us set off on a 90 minute canter around some of the 80 odd bottles The Sampler had for tasting last Wednesday afternoon. Well it was almost Christmas after all.
Before I get onto the wines, a quick summary of the business model at The Sampler. It is by no means a new phenomenon, having been around for almost 10 years now, starting in 2006. As well as being a proper wine merchant and shop where you can just buy wine as normal from an assistant, they also have up to 80 bottles available to taste from fancy machines which keep the wines drinkable for a few weeks. You simply get a card, top it up with cash Oyster style, and then slot it into the machine and pick which wine you want to taste. You can have 25, 50 or 75ml servings of each wine available. So it allows you to taste before you buy or else taste iconic wines which are otherwise unaffordable by the bottle.
As you can imagine, I was rubbing my hands with anticipation at what might be on show. I wasn't disappointed. I cannot recall just how many we sampled in total as there was a bit of sharing of samples, and my notes went from well intended initially, to quite brief, to non-existent by the end. However, I have included what for me were the highlights of the tasting below.
Kicking off with the whites. I tried about half a dozen or so and these were the definite stand outs. Both thoroughly recommended:
Gaia, Assyrtiko, Wild Ferment, Santorini, 2014 – what an amazing wine. Really smoky nose. Lovely oily, briny texture followed by a dry, citrus finish. I’d like to try this with roast chicken as a change to burgundy. (£22.50)
Guy Farge, Condrieu, Grain d’Emotion, 2014 – I don’t buy much Condrieu as it tends to be pricey (this one was £34) but when I do taste it I love it. This was all about apricots and slipped down so smoothly. So subtle and elegant. Would be perfect as an aperitif or with a fishy lunch.
First up, the icons…
At the top end, you have Chateau Margaux 1937 (yes, 1937!) and Lafite 1966. Both of these were interesting rather than enjoyable. I don’t want to sound ungrateful as at £135 for
a 75ml sample of the Lafite it was a privilege to be able to taste these icons. However, a bit like
kissing the queen, the privilege outweighed the pleasure.
The Margaux still had fruit aromas and you could still taste the fruit, but the finish was a bit savoury and drying. At £600 a bottle I think you would want a bit more than that, wouldn’t you?
The Lafite was at the other end of the scale. Still massively powerful and tannic. Hard to believe it was almost 50 years old. Balsamic notes on the nose, hints of fruit and leather and then the
powerful tannins take over. The finish is massively long. But this bottle was £900.
I do think for wines like these, this is the wrong tasting environment. The Lafite needs decanting for a good hour at least and needs food. I am sure this would improve things greatly. However, my overall conclusion on tasting these wines is that wines that old are really of value for interest rather than enjoyment. And at these prices, I just couldn’t justify it, even if I could afford it.
It was the in between ones which were the highlights for me. I am a bit of a Northern Rhone pervert, so the opportunity to sample Guigal’s single site Cote Rotie wines was a real honour and provided my favourite wine of the tasting with La Mouline 2001. The small amount of Viognier blended with the Syrah gave it a really fragrant nose. Soft, supple and spicy with a finish that went on forever. A desert island wine. I also tried La Landonne 2001, which was almost as good but didn’t quite have the same complexity as La Mouline. These are not cheap at £300 a bottle but represent much better value than the Bordeaux.
As I said earlier, you generally know when you’ve paid too much for something when you get
something for free. Well, this happened again. The kind people at The Sampler saw that we had topped up their Christmas bonus quite significantly in the space of an hour or two, so gave us a “free” sample of the 1997 Roumier Bonne Mares, a grand cru Burgundy. This was probably the overall winner of the tasting as it was proclaimed a knockout by all six of us tasting. Drinking perfectly at almost 20 years old, it was soft, round and elegant with a really powerful red berry fruit flavour. In a parallel universe where I am really rich, I will drink this with my turkey on Christmas Day.
And now on to something I could actually afford to buy….
Haut Batailley, Pauillac, 2003 – quite a hot vintage in Bordeaux, so this was quite forward and drinking well now. Very plummy and full bodied, almost a bit new worldy. Would be great with steak.
Rioja Bordon, Gran Reserva, 1978 – can’t believe this is almost as old as me! Still tastes young and full of life. Very elegant. Lots of vanilla, tobacco and dark fruit. Nice acidity on the finish. Everything in balance.
Biondi-Santi, Brunello di Montalcino, 1995 – some of my fellow tasters almost spat this out, so not to everyone’s taste, but I loved it. A really deep clay brown colour, reminiscent of well hung raw
venison. Aromas of tar. Almost porty but a very complex wine with a long savoury finish. This would be great with a hearty stew of the aforementioned venison with some cheesy polenta.
So what are the learnings from this tasting?
First up, I would not buy wines more than about 30 years old, except the odd bottle for interest, or if I found a random bargain. I just don’t think they give the enjoyment that a wine at 10-20 years can offer. Buying at a younger age allows you to track its development over time, assuming you buy a case. There is nothing more depressing in the wine world than rushing to finish a case that is clearly running out of legs. With the bottle variation that naturally exists, the risk of disappointment just increases as they get older.
Secondly, and this is not a new revelation, first growth Bordeaux is just not worth it. At a third of the price, I’d much rather drink the Cote Rotie. But even that is too expensive. The marginal returns in wine start to fall away above £20-30 in my humble opinion. Spending more than £100 a bottle is just not worth it in my book, and anything over £50 needs to be special. There is so much good wine in the world, you don’t have to break the bank. My approach is to explore and find great wines which offer great value. Without exploring for yourself you’ll only hear about great wines which already cost too much.
Lastly, The Sampler provides a brilliant service for wine lovers or beginners who can taste wines without the expense of buying a full bottle, and find new wines that they love. One of my fellow tasters who lives nearby said that he sometimes pops along on a Friday or Saturday night for a nosey and to try some of the ever changing wines. He invariably heads home with a bottle of something he has never tried before. Not a bad way to kick off a night in…