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NatWest Bank Wine Society tasting

Every three years, I am invited to present some wines to the National Westminster Bank Wine Society in central London. There are usually around 40 people wanting to taste a broad range of Southern Rhône wines and tonight I managed to squeeze in a round dozen. For me, as any tasting, it was a good opportunity to revisit some wines I haven't tasted for a while and to see how others are progressing (and, in some cases, just taste them again for the sheer pleasure of it). Inevitably not everyone is going to enjoy every wine - I find that on one occasion I prefer one wine to another but on a different night my opinions may be reversed but, then, I am talking degrees of liking rather than absolutes. The most controversial wine of the tasting was Xavier Vignon's "Blanc": more about this in the next paragraph.

The Society has the very sensible policy of starting the meeting with a full glass of the first wine. Meetings start around 6pm straight after work so it is a pleasant way to unwind into the evening and chat with friends before the speaker gets going. I decided to go in with guns blazing: Domaine des Anges' 2005 "L'Archange" Blanc. I was not alone in enjoying the pure Roussanne: several people told me how much they had enjoyed it, lamenting the fact that there are too few examples of this variety at an affordable price. The wine is quite fat but with good, balancing acidity. Plenty of varietal character: stoned fruits, flowers and a little spice. And, of course, a little oak. It was followed by the Xavier Blanc from Xavier Vignon: very pronounced nose, the seven varieties merging well now although the Viognier and Roussanne are more obvious to me. The palate is quite surprising with quite a bubblegum/confectionary character. As I indicated, not to everyone's liking (that said, it's supporters love it). The third white was the more restrained 2005 Châteauneuf-du-Pape Blanc from Domaine de Cristia. One or two murmurs from people who would have liked to taste their more famous reds but this has to be one of the top white CDPs at this level, very refined with good acidity and fair length and, once again, the Roussanne taking centre stage (anyone spot a theme here?)

On to the reds, starting with Xavier's Côtes du Rhône 2004, intended as a good introduction to quality wines from the region. Nods of approval for this mid-weight, youthful wine which has surprising depth on the palate and a nice, spicy edge. Good potential for a CDR that punches well above its weight. Moving up the appellation hierarchy, the next two wines were taken together: Bressy-Masson's "Paul-Emile" and Côteaux des Travers' "Prestige" both 2005 Rasteau wines. The former has a deeper colour and more intense nose with concentrated fruits and lots of texture, the tannins suggesting this will be liquid velvet when it has fully settled. The Prestige is very different: a sweeter nose and palate with new oak providing a supporting role (the older oak in the Paul-Emile is barely noticeable). I would opt for drinking this now and over the next couple of years at which point the Paul-Emile can pick up the baton. Next came the Xavier Rouge, the third wine from Xavier Vignon this evening. Very dark, the nose not as expressive as I expected (only bottled in June) but the palate reveals a powerful, complex wine, tannic with great potential - or good with blood according to my notes (I assume I meant rare meats). Quite New World - if I didn't know better I would not be surprised to be told this is a top Napa Valley wine except, of course, it would cost ten times as much if it were.

Wines 8 and 9 were presented together because they were both blends of 60% Grenache and 40% Syrah made by outsiders. However, ex-London restaurateur Dominique Rocher's "M.Paul" from Cairanne in 2000 is a darker, richer wine with bold, sweet fruit and a hint of the oak the Syrah is matured in than the 2001 Gigondas from Château Redorter. This latter wine shows the lighter touch (colour and style) of the cooler climate of the hills around Suzette where Etienne de Menthon lives with his family and grows his vines. Elegance and restraint seem to be watchwords here. The wines rarely, if ever, get top Parker ratings as they are not show pieces but, rather, they are well-crafted wines for real enjoyment. The final pair of reds was, inevitably, from Châteauneuf-du-Pape with the ultra-traditional 2001 from Clos des Brusquières up against the modern-styled 2004 from Raymond Usseglio. The difference in colour was far more obvious than with the previous pair: the 2001 was brick red compared with the 2004's ruby-purple hues. The older wine was very immediately drinkable: I suggested that it would not be sensible to leave the bottle overnight as it would oxidise in just a few hours. A good example of the trad style, drinking very well though. Raymond Usseglio's 2004 is a different animal with more guts. A bigger wine with a thicker texture and dusty tannins, still a little tight (more so than when I tasted it with Raymond in August and with the barrels still lurking in the background. A superstar in the making.

The mixed case was rounded off by Bressy-Masson's non-vintage Rasteau Rancio, a superb example of this increasingly rare style and, it was agreed, a real bargain (I think people expected it to be at least twice as expensive). Obviously these wines are not to everyone's taste but wouldn't it be dull if we all liked the same things all the time. Apart from anything else, you'd never get tickets to the plays you want to see or the books you enjoy would be forever going out of stock, a bit like Playstations at Christmas.


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