Blog post by Phil Probert, 15th November 2023
I arrive at Hotel du Vin after a brisk walk in the morning sun of a clear November day to find that Paul, Jamie and Tara are already there and everything is looking well in hand. The tables are already groaning under the weight of wine and a display of gift boxes and bags is being created in the centre of the room. The front desk has the all-important wine lists and tasting glasses laid out ready and Tara is giving the guest list a final double check.
The calm before the storm, a nice change from previous years where there's been an energy of barely contained panic with forgotten spittoons or misplaced corkscrews causing mayhem. Now after quite a few years of practice we seem to have things under control. A round of coffees are ordered and the serious business of tasting and familiarising ourselves with the wines on each of our tables, ensuring they are all in tip-top condition.
Then it was time to welcome the first guests of the day. Typically our lunchtime session eases us into the day with some of our trade customers and those dedicated wine lovers who choose especially this session to spend a little longer talking to us about the wine as it is a little quieter than the later sessions. To my left on our Christmas Exclusives table Des is in full flow extolling the virtues of our new Kaiken Malbec Bonarda Petit Verdot blend £12.99, “An explosion of flavour and better than many wines at twice the price!!” It’s hard to disagree. The Rasteau Les Ribes (19.99) has been missing from our shelves for a year or two but is a powerhouse of Rhone Valley brilliance that Des is busy re-introducing to smiling faces, while the Oscar Tobia white Rioja (21.99) in all its classic Rioja oaky lushness might be less universally popular, but those who do like it, like it very much! The red from the same estate at £17.99 is one of the bargains of the entire table.
The first Session comes to a close and we take a quick break to take on sandwiches and sample some of the wines on other tables. Simon presides over our after-dinner selection where our new Saperavi from Bedoba in Georgia is tasting particularly full and brambly, wanting only a fireplace to sit next to, while any cheeseboard would be graced by our trio of sweeter treats: Monbazillac Tirecul La Graviere (28.99), Xixarito Pedro Ximinez (26.99) or Quinta de Retiro Novo Vintage Port (26.99). But it is the English Sambuca (29.99) which is the most surprising of all - sweetness which is balanced by a fantastically intense hit of aniseed that reminds me of being a small child and breaking my teeth on small bright red boiled sweets.
Session two begins before we know it and I am faced by a group of well turned-out ladies in white jumpers and shirts - a test for the steadiness of my pouring hand which, this time at least, I pass and all move on with their white sleeves still pristine! Paul has a fine selection of premium wines which are proving very popular, and he and Jamie manfully pour samples of Burgundy brilliance in the form of the silky and beguiling Mercury 1er Cru Marcilly les Heritierd (49.99) and the Burgundy inspired Hungarian Kovacs Nimrod winery’s 777 Pinot Noir and Battonage Chardonnay which all draw appreciative gasps. However it is the Champagne Devaux Cuvee D Rose (74.99) and Pierre Mignon 2015 (39.99) which steal the show: the Pierre Mignon with its freshness and fine balance is much admired and the Devaux Cuvee D Rose stands out as a truly luxurious rosé Champagne, aged for 5 years to optimise the flavour - delicate red fruit and orchard fruit kiss the palate and then spill over into a delightfully complex finish that is both crisp, evolved and moreish.
I look over to the front desk and see that Tara has a steady stream of guests taking advantage of our special wine fair discount off any orders placed today. She is ably assisted by her daughter, Lucy, who has come along to lend a hand.
Over on the opposite side of the room I see a group gathered around our spirits specialist visitor, Tony, co-founder of the Yorkshire Dales Distillery. He's showcasing their range of rather special spirits including a new one on our shelves, the Smokey Ram Vodka as well as their justly popular gins, Purple Ram, Wild Ram and Desert Ram, and their new Intrepid Ram Golden Yorkshire Rum, which I later found out he'd been recommending with a splash of Fever Tree ginger beer to great effect.
Before we know it, session two ends: plates for crackers are replenished, glasses washed and more wine bottles opened, then we are into the final evening session which whizzes by with a happy buzz and increasing volume as we enter the second hour. The different plans of customers become apparent; some have chosen which wines they want to try and they systematically work through fizz, whites and reds separately making circuits of the room, some just want to try a couple from each table, while others aim to work their way through everything, throwing away into the spittoon anything not to their taste and savouring the wines they enjoy. We admire the ambition of this final group, although sometimes their plan comes awry around the midpoint of table four.
At the end of the evening session, Tara asks one of the remaining guests (aka stragglers!) to pick out a winner from the entries to our draw to win the fabulous gift-boxed bottle of Italian Ferghettina Franciacorta Rose Vintage, A murmur of sorrow from those in the group that it's not their lucky day, and a shout out for the winner, Stephen, who is not in the room at the time. If you're a Stephen, please check your email, as the bottle hasn't yet been collected!
And so finally it is time to bid everyone a good night and pack away all the wines which have not been opened and argue among ourselves over the particular merits of the wines we have tasted and decide which we are going to take home with us. I sneak away with half a glass of Saperavi and enough for a full glass of the infinitely dark and savoury Bramare Malbec (39.99) which goes very nicely with a bowl of reheated chilli and a lump of stilton and crackers while I watch Match of the Day to unwind. Then it’s up bright and early on Sunday for the usual taxi service to ballet, swimming lessons and birthday parties.