Friarwood’s 50th Anniversary Tasting
When I had my restaurant, I was of course, inundated by wine suppliers trying to sell me wine. As my list was considered pretty adventurous and avant garde in those days, I didn’t have much time for conventional, run of the mill wholesalers.
One such of these was Friarwood, who seemed to major on Bordeaux wines and as a consequence, I never bought anything from them.
But the other day I received an invitation from Friarwood to attend a tasting to mark the 50th anniversary of the company. I did notice that their portfolio had far extended from the boundaries of France and although they are still carrying enough French wines, there seemed to be sufficient interest for me in wines from other countries. The tasting was being held a short distance from where I live – so why not, I thought.
A new, young and dynamic team have taken over Friarwood since the death of its founder, Peter Bowen and whilst they still have top Bordeaux wines a-plenty, they seem to have plenty of scope to interest the adventurous.
Eschewing the French wines on show, there were indeed, wines of considerable note and interest to taste. Here are my top three producers.
Top of the tree – Capensis Chardonnay 2013 – South Africa
This is, unusually, in the wine world of today, a single product venture producing a Chardonnay sourced from some of the best vineyards in South Africa. Currently fruit is sourced from vineyards in Stellenbosch, Overberg and Robertson and blended by Graham Weerts, a South African who also currently oversees winemaking for the Jackson Family Vineyards in California and other parts of the world. Part owner of the winery is Barbara Banke, the widow of the late Jess Jackson who founded the Kendall-Jackson label and Capensis is owned jointly with Antony Beck, the owner of the Graham Beck Winery where Capensis is vinified.
Clearly, a lot of care and attention has gone into the production of this premium wine and it does have a price to match – £94.30 a bottle – but it’s deep and unctuous, smooth with a tremendous feeling of balance between the fruit, oak and acidity. 2013 is the first vintage produced and it certainly augers well for the future and I would expect this wine to rank with the greatest Chardonnays in the world. I’m giving it a tentative 4 stars PLUS, but I would expect it to merit 5 stars at least in subsequent vintages with the further experience the winemaking team gains.
Exploratory – Benjamin Bridge sparkling wines – Canada
I have been aware, for a long time, that there are some very decent wines coming out of Canada particularly the Ice Wines, but never thought that I would be able to come across some really decent sparkling wines from that country, and from a province not normally noted for its wines – Nova Scotia. My immediate reaction was that Nova Scotia was far too north to be able to sustain winemaking, but the Gaspereau Valley, where Benjamin Bridge is located, is on the same latitude – parallel 45 – where a famous wine from the Rhône Valley is made. But the growing season in the Gaspereau Valley is more akin to that in Champagne rather than in the Rhône Valley and there the similarity ends. Nevertheless, the summer days are warm enough (and probably even warmer now with global warming) to achieve decent drinkable wines.
My previous experience of Canadian sparkling wines occurred when I visited my sister-in-law in Toronto where I was offered Cold Duck (later upgraded, or maybe downgraded) to Baby Duck. It was pretty sickly stuff and perhaps my sister-in-law had the right idea to dilute it with water, but the three Benjamin Bridge sparkling that were available at the tasting were eye openers.
Benjamin Bridge also produce still wines (although none were available to taste) made mostly from the hybrid varietals, such as Ortega, as one sees in England, but as in England now, with the benefit of global warming, there is also the full gamut of Champagne grapes, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier as well as Sauvignon Blanc, Riesling and Cabernet Franc.
But it is to the sparkling wines that are the main thrust of this estate. Benjamin Bridge Brut 2011 (100% Chardonnay) was sharp and dry with good biscuity flavours, but perhaps with a little hard aftertaste. 2 stars and retailing at £30.00. The Brut Rosé 2011 had lovely raspberry undertones to add to its balance on the palate – equal parts of Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier made up with 15% Chardonnay. 3 stars here £33.00 and possibly a better price/quality ratio to the Blanc. Finally the Brut Réserve 2008 showed nice maturity of flavour – an equal blend of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay and at £48.00 for a reserve is (as are all three wines) akin to English sparkling wine prices. 3 stars again.
This would certainly make a nice change from a supermarket Champagne to impress your friends with. And for those to whom it is important – they are organic.
Value – Castra Rubra – Bulgaria
Ever since I visited Bulgaria in 2015, I have been impressed at the price/quality ratio of some of their boutique wineries and it was pleasing to come across one here that I had not encountered before.
Castra Rubra was a state owned winery called Telish until 1999 when it was bought by Jair Agopian. Continuing on the previous theme of producing bulk wines, Jair finally got fed up and decided to take a step into the unknown (upwards, he hoped) by engaging famous French oenologist, Michel Rolland, in 2006 to consult on a programme of upgrading the quality of the estate to premium wines. There is a fair spectrum of labels produced including a large range of kosher wines (but these were not tasted) starting with what is now their entry level range – Motley Cock Red and White. Sporting a vivid label of a cock (these would be natural House wines for the excellent Motto del Gallo restaurant near Lugano in Switzerland, but I digress) only the white 2013 was available for tasting – a blend of Viognier, Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay (proportions vary from vintage to vintage) had an emphatic pungency which would have been an excellent accompaniment to smoky fish dishes. 2 stars PLUS and at £11.00 good value. (Remember under £12 for a 2 star wine meets our value criteria). Organic to boot.
The Dominant range, representing their mid-price range, was represented here by the red 2011 – a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah. Miles away from your Aussie Shiraz/Cab, this was smooth and easy drinking – mid weight on the palate but well balanced with integrated oak. (8 months in new French barrels) 2 stars PLUS again and still well priced at £10.80.
Perhaps a little disappointing was the Nimbus Pinot Noir 2013 Maybe it was a bit closed up but it didn’t seem to me to display true varietal flavours and if I had tasted it blind, I wouldn’t have thought it to have been Pinot Noir. 2 stars here and at £21.50, I felt that there was better value elsewhere in the range.
By contrast, Butterfly’s Rock 2011, an organic blend of Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Syrah, had good length and complexity with nice brambly fruit and was by far the most exciting wine in the range. 3 stars PLUS and at £17.70 meets our value criteria of a 3 star wine selling for under £18.
Their Petit Manseng 2011 was pleasant enough but perhaps without the intensity required for an accompaniment to a Bulgarian baklava. 2 stars and £15.70 for a 50cl. Bottle.
So I have now changed my views on Friarwood. Apart from the top three above there are some interesting wines from Italy, Spain and the USA, as well as wines from the French regions, Burgundy and of course, Bordeaux. They supply hotels and restaurants and have their own retail outlet at
26 New King’s Road
SW6 4ST, London
020 7736 2628