If proof of wine's social prowess were ever needed then it could be found at London's Landmark hotel, where guests made and re-made friends while tasting hundreds of the world's greatest wines at the Decanter Fine Wine Encounter 2015.
Sir Winston Churchill understood the social (and political) value of a great wine, once describing Champagne as the ‘oil of government’. It was somewhat fitting, then, that the curtain on the Decanter Fine Wine Encounter 2015 – the largest to date – was raised with a masterclass of Pol Roger, Churchill’s favourite Champagne.
A packed room enjoyed a double-act performance from Hubert de Billy, the great-great-grandson of house founder Pol Roger, and James Simpson MW, MD of Pol Roger in the UK.
Inbetween the camaraderie, the class was treated to two vintages of Pol Roger’s Sir Winston Churchill cuvée, the 2004 and 2000, plus Pol Roger 2004, 1999 and 1996.
It set the tone for a weekend of super-charged wine tasting across three rooms at the Landmark, attended by around 2,000 people.
Pol Roger was followed by sumptuous double-header masterclass of Cheval Blanc and Yquem wines conducted by Pierre Lurton and Yquem winemaker Sandrine Garbay. Vintages included Cheval Blanc 2000, plus Yquem 2007 and 2009.
Other masterclasses included one hosted by Château Pontet-Canet and comprising of a vertical tasting of vintages from 2003 to 2012 inclusive, and another hosted by Château Cos d’Estournel, where guests tasted mature vintages from 1975, 1986 and 1996.
In the grand tasting rooms, a queue quickly formed at the château Montrose stand once word got around that the estate was pouring its highly rated 2009 vintage.
Some visitors were keen to re-create their own Judgement of Paris tasting by following the Montrose 2009 with a first taste of the newly released Insignia 2012 from California’s Joseph Phelps.
Elsewhere among the 129 exhibitor tables, visitors were treated to top Sauternes from 1er cru classé estates Climens and Coutet, while Muga Gran Reserva Rioja 2006 also proved popular.
There were also a host of New World gems from Argentina, Chile, Australia, South Africa and Australia. Among those representing New Zealand was the Giesen single vineyard Clayvin Syrah 2012 vintage, which won the international trophy for best Rhône varietals wine under £15-a-bottle in this year’s Decanter World Wine Awards.
Several friendships were made at the tasting tables. ‘We’ve known each other since Gosset 2004,’ quipped Kate Balnaves, a philosophy teacher.
Alistair Ross, who has been to every DFWE since the beginning, came prepared with a spreadsheet plan for the day’s tasting with his friend, Nick Burstin. ‘I spent all of yesterday evening putting this together,’ he said. ‘This is our best wine of the day so far,’ the pair added, holding aloft a Felsina, Fontalloro 2011 from Tuscany.
There were more Super Tuscans on show during a Sunday masterclass hosted by Decanter contributing editor Ian D’Agata, including Sassicaia 2002 in magnum, Ornellaia 2007 and Fontalloro 1990.
‘It was wonderful,’ said Nicholas de Lange, professor emeritus of Hebrew and Jewish studies at the University of Cambridge. ‘I knew little about Italian wine before and now I feel I know a great deal.’
Upstairs at the DFWE discovery theatre, Wynns Coonawarra Estate winemaker Sue Hodder held forth on an array of top wines, including the Black Label Cabernet Sauvignon 2010.
Before that, guests were taken on a tasting tour of grands crus and premiers crus from Chablis, followed by a class on new wave Malbec emerging from France’s Cahors region – considered the grape’s spiritual home.
Susan Ross, of Diamond Creek from Napa Valley, said, ‘It was a fabulous event. And it’s a very cosmopolitan audience. We’ve had people from around the world coming to our table with great intellectual curiosity and great energy.’
There were also wines from lesser known producer countries, such as Turkey, Greece and Slovenia.
Alongside the wines, wine lovers were able to see live demonstratations of wine preservation system Coravin, decanting system ‘ifavine‘ and take a blind tasting test with WaterAid. There was also olive oil and information on WSET courses, plus the chance to taste artisan chocolate from Cocoa Runners.
Retired Decanter columnist Michael Broadbent was on-hand to sign copies of his Vintage Wine book, alongside Oz Clarke and Julia Harding MW, who also did book signings.
Waitrose and Amazon also offered guests the chance to look at their fine wine ranges. ‘Very few people know we sell wine, and good wine, so we wanted to raise awareness,’ said Theunis Scheepers, of Amazon.co.uk.
The only issue for organisers was breaking the news to guests that two days of tasting were coming to an end. Still, as Vera Lynn sang in the British Second World War classic song: ‘We’ll meet again’.
Last but not least, thanks goes to Riedel for supplying endless crates of wine glasses for the occasion, and also to Belu Water.
Look out for write-ups of DFWE masterclasses on Decanter.com this week.