It’s around 1pm on Wednesday and I’m walking through a big black door in Soho, entering the tight confines of a hallway to a very old town house. One young lady vets me, another locates my name on a list and hands me a badge with my name on it. I climb a somewhat rickety stairway and enter the first of three crowded rooms on the first floor. The noise being made by the throng of people, all clutching expensive wine glasses sloshing various hues of fermented grape juice, suggests a really good party in full swing. This is Red Squirrel‘s Portfolio Tasting at Black’s Club on Dean Street.
Most wine tastings for the trade are hushed affairs, taking place in large, light-filled rooms, and to be quite frank, the largely male, middle-aged, trade tasters at some of these events regard chatting as, at best, mildly impolite when there’s a morning’s hundred wines to work through. But Red Squirrel are a bit different. Nik Darlington started this new agency out of a spare room in 2012 out of a desire to see the wines of Liguria gain wider recognition. Three years later the business has grown from this eclectic beginning. The wines remain quite eclectic, though not for the sake of it, living up to the company slogan, “Don’t drink alike”.
The tasting was well attended. Plenty of the younger crowd of bar owners, savvy sommeliers, bloggers etc. I started off in a back room smaller than my bathroom, vying for the spittoon with David Williams, Rosemary George, a blogger and a MW, and then almost clashed heads at the spittoon in the next with Helena Nicklin. Judging by Twitter the turnout must have pleased Nik.
Red Squirrel showed 100 wines, with many producers present to pour them. Don’t expect a tasting note on every one, but at the same time, a short piece would not do justice to the best wines on show – so please bear with me. By the end you should get the idea that I tasted some lovely new discoveries and had a great time. Everything below is seriously worth checking out if you are even mildly adventurous.
That first room, somewhat cramped by a large day bed backed by an even larger mirror (we are in Soho), contained the starting point for Red Squirrel, two producers from Liguria. Five wines from Francesca and Roberto Bruna began with three Pigatos of increasing complexity, all fresh. Majé, the lightest, Le Russeghine more complex, and U Baccan an altogether more serious, yet wild, expression of the grape variety which is seen as distinct from Vermentino in this part of Italy. A blend of mainly Grenache and Syrah, Pullin Rosso, was nice, but the ethereal Rossesse Riviera Ligure di Ponente was my star for originality, pale with hints of cherry, redcurrant and Earl Grey tea. Little colour, yet not a rosé, a truly different take on table wine.
There’s a nice looking recipe from Emily Scott for a lemon sole pairing with the Pigato Le Russeghine on the Red Squirrel Blog, a simple recipe which sounds just perfect for this wine from Emily’s description.
Altavia is their second Ligurian producer. For me, their Rossesse, with a touch more colour and body/concentration, impressed me even more on the day, though I keep thinking how I really need to study a whole bottle of both. Bruna’s 12.5% to Altavia’s 13.5% might well sway me over lunch. Altavia produce one of the most unusual terroir-grape variety pairings I’ve come across, a Ligurian Touriga Nacional called Thend (sic). A 2005, still primary. Not wholly sure this is legal in Liguria but it sure was impressive, and ageworthy, but probably a bit chewy at present.
One other wine deserving mention (although the three wines in this room from Bodegas Arribes Del Duero, near the border with Portugal, were all good) is effectively a sparkling Muscadet – a Méthode Traditionelle Melon from Frédéric Guilbaud. Fresh, non-aggressive, 12%, very enjoyable.
The next room showed four producers of a frighteningly high level of excitement. Vinteloper is the label of David Bowley (Adelaide Hills). Nine wines were shown in his absence, including two very different Watervale Rieslings of real interest, eclipsed by three very different Pinot Noirs. The Adelaide Hills Pinot 2013 is a real Aussie with mint and eucalyptus in the background. The 2014 version is gentler, fresher, less muscular. The Odeon Pinot, from Lenswood, is more serious and complex. The 2012 has the makings of a very fine wine indeed, smooth and concentrated, though just shy of £60 on the retail list.
Kloster Ebernach (not to be confused with another well known German estate with a very similar name) has an Aussie connection. Martin Cooper, whose wife is German, started out in his native Western Australia, put in stints in Burgundy and the Finger Lakes, and ended up at the less fashionable end of the Mosel, making what some might call highly fashionable, modern wines. Martin showed a nice Pinot Blanc and an equally nice Riesling Halbtrocken (he told me he also does a Feinherb). The two wines I liked best were Das Antwort Ist Riesling (The Answer is Riesling), a nicely labelled (see below) Auslese with 65g/l r/s, and his Experimental Orange Riesling. This has 13% alcohol, sees 40 days fermentation in wax-lined barrels, 100% malo, and has a really lovely nose.
Martin and one of his un-Germanic labels
Eschenhof Holzer is from Austria’s Wagram Region, and was represented by Arnold Holzer who makes the wines with brother Matthias. The whole range here, new to me, was a revelation, with some excellent Gruner Veltliners, Roter Veltliners and Zweigelts. I can only really single out two wines, though all seven tasted really merit comment. The Orange is fermented in open steel for three weeks and the 2013 then saw 18 months in small French oak. A lovely skin-contact wine made from rare Roter Veltliner, with one of the “noses of the day”. The 1995 Gruner Icewine was made by Arnold’s father and left, hidden away. Incredibly complex on nose and palate, a stunning one-off which I think Red Squirrel have taken all of. Body, length, balanced acidity, it has it all right now. Moreish in a way that detests how this comes in halves -it should have been bottled in magnums! Everyone wanted Arnold to just keep on pouring.
Arnold and his lovely Wagrams
The biggest queues in this room were at the Emil Bauer table, but I think the wine names had something to do with this. Alexander and Martin are the fifth generation to run this Pfalz estate. Of course, quality is to the fore, but the brothers have also reinvented the range with some irreverent labels: Bullshit Grauburgunder, Asshole Sauvignon Blanc, My Merlot is Not The Answer, and Sex, Drugs, Rock & Roll Riesling. German wine is certainly changing. These wines may not yet be in the very top rank, but they are fun and will appeal to younger drinkers. They are also very good.
Clos Cibonne, in the hills overlooking Toulon, is unusual in that they concentrate on the rare Tibouren grape. Their two Cuvée Tradition wines are very good, the pink being a serious food wine, quite savoury with a nice acid finish. The red is peppery, bright and structured with tannins, but also showing real individual character. It reminded me (just a little, mind you) of the much more expensive Chateau Simone from Palette. Both Tradition cuvées have 10% Grenache added to 90% Tibouren.
One of the stars of the tasting came from Spain, Alella in fact, and is a style I buy very little of – Cava. Don’t be put off, Parxet Titiana is not like most other Cava’s you’ll have tried. This vintage dated 2011 is made from Pansa Blanca, hand picked, very cold fermented (giving it an amazing linear freshness), to give a wine which underneath the bubbles has fresh citrus, stony pear and a garrigue-like (what is Catalan garrigue?) herbiness. The blurb says that Alella’s sandy-granite soils elevate the acidity. It certainly elevates this wine way above the dull offerings we so commonly find under the Cava name. A star in the making here. I hope that Red Squirrel went long on this producer. At £16.99 retail, a real bargain. My favourite retailers, please take note!
Just time for a couple of Italian estates to end on, certainly producers in the “last but not least” category. Franco Mondo is run by the founder’s grandson Valerio, from the town of San Marzano Oliveto, near Asti. Three nice Barbera reds were shown, but they were eclipsed by a delicious Monferrato Bianco, made from a blend of a third each Cortese, Favorita and Chardonnay. The nose was more complex that many pure Cortese, with fruit, herbs and spice, complementing a round, mouthfilling palate.
Tenuta La Pergola (Cisterna d’Asti) was a great place to finish. Four wines, all very nice, but the first of them perhaps being one of the half dozen-or-so best wines on show – the Grignolino. I have a soft spot for these secondary (actually, let’s say third-tier) Piemontese varieties. I seek them out in restaurants in the region, and in shops like The Sampler and Vini Italiani in London. This just might be about the nicest Grignolino I’ve tasted for a long time. Different to many, it’s very pale indeed, and ethereal (like Bruna’s Rossesse). More of that Earl Grey or green tea thing going on (not sure where it comes from but Cédric Bouchard’s saignée pink Champagne, Le Creux D’Enfer, has the same thing and I love it). It’s not a weakling, however. The deceptive pale colour packs 13.5% alcohol, so when Oli North on the Red Squirrel Blog extols its virtues as a lunchtime wine, remember that some of us might need to share the bottle, unless an afternoon nap is in our plans.
La Pergola also showed two nice examples of varieties not often seen from Piemonte over in the UK, Bonarda and Croatina. I finished with a wine not listed, a beautiful strawberry scented, gentle and fresh Freisa, another variety I have a soft spot for. It was very tempting to ask for a glass to slug back, to remind me of sunny days in the Monferrato Hills, before I struck out into London’s afternoon drizzle, but thankfully my whole journey home was refreshed by the aromas emanating from my Algerian Coffee Stores (just round the corner) purchases, rather than an alcohol induced snooze on yet another delayed service from Victoria.
A very good tasting, and a few hours well spent in exploring the boundaries of the London Wine Universe. The Red Squirrel portfolio has shaped up to be one of the most interesting and adventurous in the UK, and if you want something different this is a great place to look.
There are actually two, no three, Red Squirrels in these photos