Exploring Laithwaites’ Eastern Promise

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I was very excited to be invited to a wine bloggers’ tasting recently with a bit of a difference. This one was hosted by Laithwaites, in their swanky showroom under the railway arches next to Vinopolis in London. However, the unique opportunity was to meet Tony Laithwaite in person, something I gather he rarely does.

This is a man who has been working with wine for over 40 years – doing the hard bit of getting wines from cellars and into the hands of customers. Parts of the wine business may be developing and changing very fast these days, but over 40 years of experience, and of leading and innovating most of that time, does result in a certain amount of wisdom. 

I have been in the wine business for a few years now, and I’ve met some very famous people in the trade. It is still a bit strange to taste alongside someone like Jancis Robinson and talk about twitter for example, or to chat regularly with people whose faces most people will only have see on television, like Olly Smith, Tim Atkin or Oz Clarke, but even if in a small way, we are all in the same business – wine communication. There is always something different about meeting well known characters from other parts of the wine business, such as winemakers or retailers.

Unsurprisingly, I guess, Tony Laithwaite turns out to be very much like his image. Laithwaites and its vast sales empire do trade off the image of the man who travelled around the world picking up small parcels of wine to hand-sell in the UK, but you can still see the personal commitment of the man himself, and his enthusiasm for the wines even if there is now a team of wine buyers and wine makers in the business. He still buys & sells the wines, and has recently started blogging and tweeting his thoughts from around the world. 

I had a great chat with Tony, and his wife Barbara, about Turkey, Bulgaria (where I lived for a year and where they’d been some of the earliest to list wines from) and all sorts of aspects on online wine communication. I should say that Laithwaites are a sponsor of the Born Digital Wine Awards that I co-organise through Vrazon, and we did cover some of the goals we share, but the discussion was informal, fun, and very casual.

The main reason for being there that night was to join fellow wine bloggers to taste through a range of Laithwaite’s wines from unusual sources, including Turkey, Greece, Georgia and India – plus they then added a couple extras from Hungary, Moldova, Bulgaria and Romania. What wine adventurer could resist?

Mantra Sauvignon Blanc 2009 – INDIA (£8.99)
This was an interesting take on Sauvignon Blanc and dispelled my fears (to be honest) of tasting a wine from India. The taste was pleasingly tropic and citrus, with some grapefruit and lime. It lacked a little zip and isn’t cheap at £9 but how many Indian wines can people say they’ve tried? Could be a great one for a surprise at a party.

Thema Assyrtiko Sauvignon Blanc 2011 – GREECE (£11.49)
This is a fresh, crisp wine with “mouth-puckering” acidity, but there was a tasty pithy citrus as well as a hint of honey/nutty note. I’m not sure I wouldn’t have preferred it to be 100% Assyrtiko (a native grape, unique to Greece) and once again, the small production means the price is not cheap. However, Greece does make some lovely wines that consumers really ought to try, so maybe a few Sauvignon Blanc lovers will give this a go as their stepping stone.

Vinart Kalecik Karasi Syrah 2010 – TURKEY (£10.99) [not on sale yet]
The Kalecik Karasi grape is steadily becoming a favourite in this household as I try to taste as many examples from Turkey as I can. This wine is a blend of this native Turkish grape with Syrah and is maybe a more softer and more international in style than some I’ve tried, but the red fruit and plummy style would probably make an unusual complement to grilled meats and BBQs even in the UK. 

Tbilvino Saperavi 2010 – GEORGIA (£8.99) [not on sale yet]
The cheapest, but possibly most interesting wine in this group. This is inky dark stuff, with purple, plummy fruit and some leafy green herbal hints too. The deep, young tannins and acidity in this wine do scream out for a rarer meat or spicy tomato vegetable partner to dance & tangle with … and when it does, I suspect you’ll find it as unusual and exciting experience.

I also enjoyed the second group of wines which, once again were from unusual places, but worth travelling to (at least from bottle to bottle) and here are a couple of favourites:

Albastrele Pinot Grigio Cahul 2010 – MOLDOVA (£7.79)
I very rarely would recommend a Pinot Grigio, and I’m sure that in time we will discover that Moldova offers some unique grapes of its own too, but this wine was surprisingly attractive, with a honeyed, herbal nose which was much more interesting than most watery stuff associated with this grape. The taste included some white flowers and pear fruit, very much as one might expect from Pinot Grigio’s of a much higher price than this. Worth trying.

Colina Piatra Alba Pinot Noir 2009 – ROMANIA (£7.29)
Once again, the cheaper wines do well. It is very hard to get Pinot Noir wines at this price, but this simple, drinkable wine has pleasant wild strawberry and red fruit notes and a lighter body that would make it a fun wine to drink on a hotter day we hope to have this summer.

This was an interesting event for meeting people and exchanging reminiscences, and learning about some new places that wine drinkers can choose to explore. The wines are maybe a little expensive for what they offer today, but volumes are still small and there are always ways with retailers to get deals, so you might be able to reduce these a bit. 

However, wine should also be about exploration and unusual experience, not just cash, so if you’re looking for a bit of a change and fancy heading East this year, I hope you find something to your taste.

For some others’ takes on this tasting, check out these posts: