He’s moved since my last visit, but since he wishes to remain strictly anonymous (a secret agent of sorts) I’d better not describe the house or the street. Both, while grand, are discreet. The bottles were neatly arrayed in a room on the garden side of the house, well away from prying eyes.
I last wrote about The Collector in Decanter magazine almost two years ago, in May 2011. Anyone who read that column might remember that this is a man with a singular yet unquenchable passion – to find, purchase and bring home wines made from the world’s obscurest varieties. Since his work seems to take him (I don’t ask questions) to Europe’s dingier cities as well as to its glossy capitals, he has ample opportunity to come home heavily laden. The collection needs venting on a regular basis. Almost by definition, these are not wines for keeping.
In order to impose a little order on the clamorous mob, he decided to call his latest showing ‘North’. These were, in other words, the least well-known varieties chosen for high latitudes. Naturally, most of them were red. (That’s why they are least well-known.)
Tasting with The Collector is a nail-biting experience: you hope for unexpected sunbeams of sublimity, but you realise at the outset that the darkly macabre awaits. Corked wines aside, the most repellent bottles of the day were a sweet yet herbaceous 2009 red Regent from the Rheinhessen; a stringy old 2006 Eyholzer Roter and a 2006 Resi which tasted like detergent, both from the Visp valley in Switzerland’s Valais; and a couple of jangly Uhudler from Austria which The Collector had fished from Amazon, especially the cherry-red one from Concord and Ripatella (which tasted more like bad gueuze than wine). He’d also found a chaotically grungy natural wine made in Brooklyn by the Red Hook Winery from grapes grown on Long Island’s North Fork, but since those grapes proved on scrutiny to be Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc it was dismissed as an interloper.
Things got better. My first Canadian Savagnin (the 2010 Meglomaniac ‘Eccentric Savagnin’ from Oliveira on the Niagara Peninsula) was soft, doughy, fatty, like a kind of cross between Sylvaner and Sémillon. Very different from edgy Jura versions — but then the 2009 Heida (a synonym) from Giroud in the Valais’ Chamoson was no less fatty and buttery. The Swiss, I recalled, are fans of malolactic fermentation – and the latter wine had spice, too. Well, it is Gewurztraminer, after all (almost).
The case for Regent (a Diana x Chambourcin cross, so with hybrid genes) was made more convincingly than in that slushy Rheinhessen wine by a 2009 version from Weingut Schlosshof in the Ahr, which was full of cherry and cherry-kernel complexities; while no less intriguing was a Cabernet Mitos (Cabernet crossed with Blaufränkisch) from Durnau in the Ahr, the 2006 from Schlosshof. This was astonishingly deep, beefy, rich and low-acid, though a little dangerous on the bacteriological front. Mineral, too. Note to self: go to Ahr.
The 2009 Cabernet Dorsa (Cab in bed with Dornfelder this time) from Hirschhof in the Rheinhessen was softer, cleaner, fresher and more uneventful, with an attractively bitter-edged finish. Other worthwhile scores went to the generously black-fruited 2009 Cornalin (Humagne Rouge) from Badoux in Aigle in the Valais and a delicious but frivolous 2011 Vernatsch (Schiava) from Georg Ramoser in the South Tyrol’s Saint Magdalena. The Collector liked Henry of Pelham’s 2010 Baco Noir Reserve, though I found its oak a little heavy-shouldered. None of our Portugiesers excited; we couldn’t see much future for André or Garanoir; while the 20€ Samtrot (Pinot Meunier) from Grafen Neipperg in Wurttemberg made that family’s purchases in St Emilion look prescient.
I’ll spare you the rest. As I slipped down the front steps and scuttled away up the street, humming Anton Karas’s ‘Harry Lime theme’, I took three conflicting thoughts with me.
First of all, it’s hard to reach a conclusion about any variety until you have tried a perfectly vinified example from a talented wine-grower working in a distinguished site. That ‘big ask’ must often mean that little-grown varieties are dismissed before they have a chance to prove themselves.
Instinctively, I root for varietal diversity — but I have to admit that we’re lucky to have our major set of two dozen principal varieties. If we didn’t, wine might be much less popular a drink than it is.
Thirdly, tastings like this leave you flushed with gratitude for the wine-buying skills of professional intermediaries: importers, merchants, sommeliers. I’ll say no more.
Written by Andrew Jefford