Gentle reader, if you’ve read between the lines in some of my blogs about theatre-going and travel, you might have come to the conclusion that Mrs Chrisparkle and I are partial to the occasional glass of something grapey before a show; and at the interval; and with dinner; and on holiday; and so on. Up until recently we would happily imbibe any old Pinot Grigio or Sauvignon Blanc that a pub, restaurant or theatre would serve us; and for home consumption, we would have been happy to stock up (half-a-dozen at a time of course, to get the discount) on happy wines from the aisles of Tesco or Waitrose without too much deliberation – we knew what we liked, and we liked what we knew.
But recently, we’ve noticed something rather alarming. That chirpy pub wine that always kept us contented now seems to have gone off the boil, not that you would boil wine, but you get my drift. The favourite old bottle choices in the Indian or Thai restaurants are no longer hitting the spot. Why? Because for the last six months or so, we’ve been buying our wine from Northampton’s new independent wine retailer, the Northampton Wine Connection, 11 Derngate, in the heart of the town. The shop is run by Graham, Mark and Laura and their passion for their product is palpable. What they don’t know about the wines on their shelves, really isn’t worth knowing. And it’s not just wine there either. They’re particularly hot on local producers, so they have a range of Northamptonshire beers, and the (increasingly famous) Warner Edwards gin that is distilled in Harrington. They also stock white wines from the New Lodge Vineyard at Earls Barton, and they’ve even got some really appley cider that’s made there too. Mrs C very kindly bought me a celebratory bottle of Cognac a few weeks ago, and, not knowing her Colombard from her Ugni Blanc, sought advice from them as to which of their extensive range she should buy. She bought the surprisingly reasonably priced Jacques Denis Grande Champagne 1er Cru, and, I can tell you now, it’s utterly sublime.
The big question when it comes to wine is, does it taste totally yummy? There’s only one way to find out – to taste it. And that’s one of the very entertaining aspects of the Wine Connection; on the last Saturday of every month they hold a wine tasting where you can try a dozen or more wines from their current stock. We’ve been a few times now, and it’s always a jolly, sociable event, where your taste buds get to broaden their horizons and maybe try some wines that you wouldn’t normally consider.
At last Saturday’s wine tasting Laura took us through the first few bottles. We started off with their two Le Magnolie wines; a prosecco and a spumante rosé. They are superb. Light and celebratory, we’ve already bought a number of these and they’re great for parties or just for starting an evening off with some crisps or nibbles. Actually, we didn’t need to taste these this time round, as we feel we already know them intimately! The first wine we did taste was a Moscato 47 AD, from Roncade in the Veneto district of Italy. It has the added bonus of only being 7.5% strength – Mrs C and I always like to go for wine with a lighter alcohol content wherever possible, as they’ve got fewer calories and you’re less likely to get plastered. It’s ever so slightly sweet and sparkling, which makes it a perfect solution to the rather intoxicating alternative of the Champagne Breakfast.
Staying with the sparkling but getting much more serious we tried Vixen, a sparkling red from McLaren Vale in South Australia. At 14% it’s a heady brew; a devilish mix of Shiraz, Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc, and instantly appealing as a result. It’s after trying about four or five wines at a wine tasting that you remember that you’re just meant to have a sip or two and then pour the rest away; that way you can remain relatively sober and alert throughout the tasting so that those you taste at the end are appraised just as critically as those you tasted at the beginning. That’s what you should do… but it’s terribly hard to waste such nice wine!
On to stage two of the wine tasting, downstairs with Graham, and four champagnes awaited us. Mrs C and I are extremely fond our champagne, and will crack open a bottle at the slightest opportunity. “It’s Wednesday! Yeah! Let’s have some champagne.” The first we had to try was the Charles Chevalier Champagne which the Wine Connection have adopted as their House Champagne. It blends Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Pinot Meunier grapes and at 12.5% it packs a really tasty punch; also it tastes every bit as good as one twice its price. I shall definitely be stocking up on some of that soon.
Then came three champagnes from the Maison Borel Lucas, supplied by a local guy who has started up his own small champagne import business. In order, they were the Cuvee de Reserve, a Rosé NV and finally a Grand Cru. They’re all very satisfying; but I particularly liked the Rosé as normally I would expect it to be a little sweeter somehow; this example was extremely serious. Then there were two other whites to try – a 12% Soave by Serenissima, remarkably smooth and rounded for a good value Soave, which I would normally associate with a much dryer taste; and a Piantaferro Falangina which was very nice but not entirely to my taste – in an evening of taste sensations that one just sat on my tongue and did nothing much. One final rosé on offer – again by Serenissima, a Merlot rosé which is an assertive and serious wine that we’ve bought before. As we knew what it would taste like we had no need to try it again; but somehow that didn’t seem to quite matter.
Then we moved to the reds: first up, a 13% Sicilian Syrah from Piantaferro that was absolutely superb. I wonder if the first red you taste after lots of different whites and rosés always tastes great? But I thought it was yummy. Then the last two bottles in the “proper” wine tasting were the big guns. A Poderi Colla Nebbiolo, 13.5% and every 0.1% of it latches itself to your juices. Once it’s washed around your mouth a couple of times, it sticks solid; you’ll taste it for ages afterwards. This is the kind of wine you drink one evening and on the next morning you’ve got a mouth like a birds’ cage. But I really loved it. The only thing that could beat it, was the final wine of the night, a 2008 Scuola Grande Amarone. It’s like the Big Daddy of the Valpolicella family. It’s 15.5% would you believe, so you really have to stagger your drinking of it – or it will stagger you; or make sure you’re sharing it amongst a number of like-minded friends. It was simply beautiful.
Even though that was the end of the “official” wine tasting, back upstairs Mark has an add-on treat. Every so often they keep aside a few bottles for tasting in order to get feedback from their customers as to whether we think a wine is a good choice for them to stock and whether we would be likely to buy it at any given price point. There were six extra wines to try, all from small producers in Spain. The first, a white, was simply delicious and they had already wisely decided they were definitely going to stock it. The next four were red Riojas, all at different stages of oakiness. The first was a Joven, i.e. young and without oak and everyone agreed it was a super wine and they would definitely buy it. The next three had been in the oak for six months, one year and two years respectively. General consensus was that the six month and the one year wines didn’t have that much of their own identity, and that in comparison, the cheaper Joven, or the more expensive two year wine, were a much better bet. Finally there was a wine called Ciceron, and that was gorgeous too; but by this time I was unable to take any meaningful notes to explain its wonders any more fully. I’m sure you’ll understand why.
So if you’re into decent wines or want to broaden your knowledge and sample some classy vino, why not try attending one of the Wine Connection’s Saturday night tastings. You get a good discount if you buy twelve bottles and I can vouch for the fact that every single wine we have bought has tasted just as good at home as it did in the shop. Spend over £75 and you don’t have to carry any purchases home with you – they will deliver locally. You can follow them on Twitter (@NorthamptonWine) or Facebook too. Great fun, great tastes and great service – you can’t go wrong!