The Finest Wines Available to Humanity is not some deluded statement of intent, at least I don’t think so, but is taken from the cult 1987 film, Withnail and I. Withnail says “we want the finest wines available to humanity, and we want them now”. It is perhaps this most famous line, or at least most knowing, that Darren Smith has chosen to pillage for the name of his wine company.
Darren has worked in the wine trade for many years, including a spell at London’s innovative The Sampler, and as a wine writer and journalist. In 2018 he took the ultimate step, after working a number of harvests, to become a winemaker. Since then, he’s worked around the globe. So far, he’s released wines working in collaboration with three producers, in La Palma (Canary Is.), Bio Bio (Chile) and Bairrada (Portugal). The wines are all at least organic, hand made and easy to drink. The first bottle I tried was so good that I bought the rest of his currently limited selection. There is certainly a wine from Georgia on the cards, with a couple more collabs ready to bottle soon, and Darren is also starting to sell some of the wines from his collaborators.
Darren’s initiation into winemaking came from working with Dirk Niepoort as an intern at Quinta de Nápoles in the Douro. Already a big fan of Niepoort’s Poeirinho, a wine made from the Baga variety, he ended up being sent down to the Niepoort vineyards in Bairrada (and Dão). The work was punishing, but like most newcomers to wine production, he’d fallen in love and knew this was what he wanted to do. Of course, the key to hard work is lots of play too, and this was a period when Darren’s palate was educated with, indeed, some of the finest wines available to humanity.
The result of this period was a collaborative cuvée Darren made with Sergio Silva, Niepoort’s vineyard manager down in Bairrada. It comes off old vines grown on the chalky soils of Quinta da Baixo. The idea was to make an old style Bairrada, by which I mean a short fermentation (albeit updated to stainless steel), giving less extraction, lower alcohol (12.5%) and overall a lighter and more elegant wine with finesse. But there’s also a nice bit of texture to chew on the way down. With lots of red cherry and plum as a bonus, it’s extremely tasty.
Interestingly, I’ve drunk Niepoort’s “Lagar de Baixo” Baga from the same vintage, and they do taste remarkably similar, but that’s no bad thing as the Niepoort version is such great value, and a good example of a woefully under rated variety. What both wines share is a delicious lick of acidity. This focusses the freshness and lifts the wine, making it quite easy to drink. Whatever the experts may say about the oak monsters of our world, drinkability has to be a hallmark of any great wine. I’m not saying Darren’s Baga exhibits “greatness”, but it is a great bottle as far as satisfaction goes.
At around the same time as he ventured to Portugal, Darren began what is currently a two-wine collaboration with Viki Torres, on La Palma in the Canary Isles. Regular readers will be no strangers to Victoria Torres Pecis, whose wines I discovered a few years ago, via the portfolio of Modal Wines. I’ve rated Viki’s wines highly enough to call her the new star of the Canaries (see my article here , where you can read more about Viki’s story and her wines).
La Palma is the most westerly, and fifth largest, of the main islands in the archipelago, but it rises almost a full seven thousand metres in height (that’s more than 4,000 metres below the sea and 2,426 metres above it), making it one of the steepest islands in the world. The vines are literally grown on the slopes of one enormous, and indeed active, volcano, whose crater is a full ten kilometres wide. This means that the vines grow on black volcanic ash soils, known here as “picón”, at altitudes up to 1,200 masl. Viki’s base is at Fuencalliente, near the island’s southern tip, but she farms vines in different parcels all over the island, and some are way up at those heights (which makes for a long harvest of around three months to bring in grapes from all those varied microclimates).
The first wine I drank from Darren was his collaborative cuvée of Listán Blanco (aka Palomino Fino in its homeland of Jerez), which he made with Viki in the 2019 vintage. It comes off the black soils from plots in the southeast and southwest of the island. It was shockingly good. Darren said of Viki’s wines that they are like a cave-aged goat’s cheese (of which plenty are made on La Palma) as compared to a triangle of Dairylea, which analogy readers outside of the UK might be a little nonplussed by, though I’m sure you get the idea.
I can say the same of this Listán. It’s a saline beauty, dry but with apple freshness, with (you don’t expect this) notes of honey as well. It creates a lingering finish and, with minimal sulphur added, it has a real vivacity. You don’t really expect, and half don’t believe, that it contains 13% alcohol. Delicious stuff.
There’s another (white) wine Darren made as a collab’ with Viki, called Is That the Milky Way? I’ve yet to try this one, but the photo on the label shows the inspiring view of the Milky Way, which can be seen in the night sky above the clouds on La Palma with the naked eye. It’s made from Albillo Criollo. Darren’s Albillo cuvée comes from a vineyard called Barranco Pinito, up at 1,000 masl, which forms one side of a steep ravine. Unusually, this is in the south of La Palma, because most of the Albillo is up on the north side of the island. Viki doesn’t farm these vines, which are outside the DO, and Darren purchased their grapes from a local farmer, making the wine at Viki’s place.
The fourth wine wearing Darren’s “TFWATH” label comes from far away Chile. It’s a collaboration this time with Roberto Henríquez, who farms in the Itata Valley of Bio-Bio. I’d already tried Roberto’s amazing wines via Wines Under the Bonnet, his UK importer. The variety is País, the classic “peasant” variety of Chile, brought over by the colonisers from Spain, originally for use by monks for their Communion wine, four hundred years ago. It’s probably the same variety as Listán Prieto, originating in the Gredos Mountains where some of the world’s finest Grenache is now being made. Interestingly, another place you’ll find the variety is on the Canary Islands, some cuttings having been presumably sold when the fleets touched land there en-route to South America.
The original wines made from the variety would have been very simple and rustic, and they remained so for almost all of the four hundred years-or-so that they have been cultivated in Chile, very much disdained by the forward-looking large producers who felt that Cabernet Sauvignon and Sauvignon Blanc, etc, were a somewhat safer and more commercial bet. País was well and truly ignored…except by a few.
Roberto Henríquez originally trained in agronomy and worked as a vineyard consultant, so he knew where there were plots of very old vine País. Through tasting these wines, given to him by the farmers, he was able to understand the variety and its qualities, and most importantly, to bring those qualities to the fore in his own wine, making all the right decisions based on quality alone.
Henríquez got a taste for natural wines when working in The Loire (he’s also worked in South Africa and Canada, so has quite wide experience outside of Bio-Bio). His own País cuvées (Rivera del Notro and Santa Cruz de Coya) are pretty sensational for this variety. The latter vineyard comprises vines over 200 years old up at an altitude of 350 masl. I’m wondering whether Darren’s País comes from this 3-ha site? He describes his cuvée as coming off “black basalt sand, dry farmed and unfiltered”. At least we know he found the grapes for his collaboration after a drive along dirt roads near the backwater village of Millapoa, which is where “Coya” comes from.
So, these are Darren’s four wines. So far. I mentioned Georgia, and I saw in one of his regular updates that a trip to Western Georgia is in the offing for Darren. The lucky man is going to make a collaboration in Imereti, with Baia Abuladze. She makes wine with her sister, Gvantsa, both having a commitment to traditional winemaking methods, which (not always the case in Imereti) includes using “Churi”, the Imeretean name for Qvevri.
They are making wine to the east of the Sairme Mountains in a region with a unique microclimate, particularly with the high solar intensity caused by the higher angle of the sun’s rays. I’m expecting another special wine from Darren, assuming he can get to Georgia for this year’s harvest. The Abuladze sisters’ wines are as far as I know only available in the UK via tasteofgeorgia.co.uk , but Baia made the 2019 “Forbes 30 under 30” List, and is clearly a name to watch in her own right.
Before Georgia there will be a couple more wines to sink your teeth, I mean tongue, into. Bottling soon will be a Moratella Rosado 2020, made in collaboration with Monastrell and Garnacha specialist Julia Casado. Julia is a very small-scale artisan producer (@ladelterreno) in Bullas, a region in the province of Murcia which more or less fills the gap between Jumilla and the sea in Southeastern Spain. Naturally it’s a region of old and neglected vines, perfect for Darren’s preferences.
Next up after the Rosé will be Mollar Cano 2021 from Peru’s Mala Valley. This is a wine Darren made with Pepe Moquillaza. If you don’t know Mollar Cano, you may well have tasted the variety under the name of Negramoll, from the Canary Islands. It originated (probably) in Andalucia and ended up in the Canaries on the way out to South America, like so many other varieties.
Pepe is interesting in that he’s well known for producing a revered Peruvian Premium Pisco called Inquebrantable (which translates as “Unbreakable”). In Peru a lot of very basic, often poor, wine is made as a by-product of the Pisco industry. Pepe has turned this on its head and is at the very forefront of quality, natural, wine in Peru, a tiny segment of the market but sure to gain ground. It will be very exciting to taste the new Peruvian wine from Darren.
So where can you find The Finest Wines Available to Humanity? The first thing to say is that quantities are pretty small…and running out every week. There are a couple of London retail locations, one market, where Darren can be found on a Saturday, or you can contact the man himself (when he’s around in the UK), perhaps via his Insta (@tfwath).
Those retailers are The Sampler branches and Lechevalier, a wine bar and shop on Tower Bridge Road. You can also try them at two restaurants: Skye Gyngell’s Spring at Somerset House and the immaculate Leroy in Shoreditch. One of the best ways to pick up the wines is to head to Westgate Street Market, in London Fields, if it’s not too much of a hike. Darren is there on Saturdays, and there’s usually a chance to taste. Otherwise, especially for everyone outside of London, drop Darren a line and he can arrange to send out the wines, with the usual shipping of course. They come directly from London City Bond (LCB). On Instagram he’s @tfwath or go to firstname.lastname@example.org.
I’m only a couple of wines in on my journey but I cannot see myself wanting to miss any of Darren’s upcoming releases. Mind you, a word of warning. I am far from being the only one to be getting acquainted with these wines.