Event to make you SITT up and take note

09 March, 2007

Some tastings put a smile on your face, while others leave you scowling in bad-tempered frustration. I don't want to spend too much time on the latter - they know who they are, or at least they would do if they took a look at my mien on the way out - but I think I may have attended one of the worst-run tastings ever in an upstairs room at Vintners' Hall recently.

The tasting, entitled Cava Pasión: Live the Diversity, was a series of PR own goals. I could have lived with the fact that one of the people running it appeared to have taken her morning shower in perfume, but was really annoyed that around a quarter of the wines weren't there, and that those that were tended to be in wrong order, leaving tasters to fumble through ice buckets.

Add the absence of pricing information (call the importer, mate) and the presence of lunch in the same small room and you can understand why I was scowling. The really irritating thing, at least for the Catalans who paid to put the tasting on, was that there were some interesting wines on show. My suspicion, however, is that no journalist will bother to write about them.

And what about a tasting that left me beaming? Well, the third edition of SITT ( Specialist Importers Trade Tastings) was arguably the hottest ticket of the year. Or rather tickets, since the same tasting was held in Manchester and London.

This in itself is a welcome recognition that there is life outside the capital. But the tasting is so good - and so useful if you're a journalist - that I'd consider attending both venues next year so that I can get round more tables.

If you weren't at either tasting, it is a busy, bustling collection of 40 specialist importers, with expertise in countries as varied as Italy, Spain, Germany, South Africa, France, Portugal, New Zealand, Australia, Greece and Austria, as well as a good smattering of generalists.

Any event that enables you to assess wines from the likes of John Armit, Charles Taylor, Corney & Barrow, Genesis Wines, Laymont & Shaw, Laytons, Moreno, OW Loeb, Raymond Reynolds, Richards Walford, Seckford Agencies, Thorman Hunt, Vintage Roots and The Wine Treasury has to be one of the highlights of the year.

More to the point, the quality was almost universally high. I picked and chose my way around the room, but I hardly tasted a bad wine in three hours. How often can I say that of a tasting held by a generic body, a supermarket or an off-licence chain? Never.

It was also a pleasure to talk to people who, in many cases, source the wines themselves and have a detailed knowledge of the regions th ose wines came from.

Is there a place for such passion and knowledge in today's multiple grocer-dominated, deal-obsessed wine business? I believe that there is. Independent wine merchants may account for less than 5 per cent of the retail sector (and a bit more of the on-trade), but en masse they are what makes the trade interesting - at least for me.

The fact that nearly all of the major retailers have launched or revamped their fine wine ranges in the past couple of years (and in the context of the price most punters are prepared to pay, that means anything above £7.99) suggests that their ultimate aim is to put independents out of business. But on the evidence of that SITT tasting, they've got no chance.

Flying winemaker has flown Médoc

How are we supposed to read flying winemaker and Merlot guru Michel Rolland's decision to give up consulting for 15 properties in the Médoc and Graves, including Châteaux Kirwan, Camensac and de Fieuzal?

Is it a question of Rolland recognising that, as he approaches his 60th birthday, he should work fewer hours and enjoy the money he has amassed as the world's most famous consultant? Or is there something more interesting going on? Could it be that producers have begun to see the limits of employing someone who works for more than 100 different properties? Rolland is a brilliant winemaker and an even better marketer of his own services, but maybe his orbit is beginning to shrink.

Rolland has made it clear that it was his choice, and his alone, to reduce his workload, but the comment by Kirwan's general manager, Nathalie Schÿler, to Decanter's website that "we felt that we have a great Margaux terroir and that the wine needs to be identified as a high quality Margaux" suggests that at least one of Rolland's decisions was not entirely unilateral.

Maybe Rolland's "lighter" workload (he's still got more than 85 wineries on his books in France, Chile, Argentina, South Africa and the United States) marks the high water mark for the international wine consultant. In future, I suspect, wineries will rely more on local oenologists to give them advice, rather than the here-today-see-you-in-six-months views of someone who cannot, by definition, know their wines and vineyards as well.

Like Robert Parker, whose rise to prominence and power parallels Rolland's own, the great Frenchman is a one-off. Some might argue that it's no bad thing.

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