I had heard of the legendary ‘Southwold’ tastings around the wine trade for the past 20 years - usually muttered in hushed voices by a small and select group. The event consists quite simply of a select group of tasters coming together once a year to taste their way through an almost complete vintage of Bordeaux in the charming surroundings of the Swan Hotel in Southwold. As the UK’s most easterly point, it’s never been the easiest (or quickest) place to get to; this year there was the added challenge of the first snowfall of 2013 which, whilst it made the journey more taxing, made the scene of arrival somewhat more dramatic. We were in for something special.
Jancis Robinson, Stephen Spurrier and Neal Martin represented the journalists, along with some great and good from the trade. The vintage to be explored was 2009 – over-hyped or truly legendary? Either way, what a vintage to taste as one’s first attendance to the group.
The tastings are held in a one large room on the second floor of the Swan Hotel, around one large table with 12 glasses in front of every place and spittoons dotted around. The wines are served in flights of 10-12 wines, all served blind but with the contents of each flight known; it’s just the order which is kept secret. The wines are tasted in communes so that neighbours and rivals are tasted against each other – and if any wine shows badly or seems out of place, a second bottle is opened or added to another flight to give it a second chance. It really is thoroughly comprehensive and a tribute to the skill, organization and contacts book of the man behind it all – Bordeaux legend Bill Blatch.
Despite what many people might think, tasting 120+ wines in a day is no holiday – it is bloody hard work and reminded me of my days studying Oenology and the days spent fine tuning our palates with endless blind tastings. The only respite – and the only way true professionals save their palates from fatigue – was a very good glass of beer at half time; it became obvious why Adnams hosted the event as the beer was on fabulous form and very welcome every time.
And now the vintage. 2009 – supposedly the greatest vintage to have ever passed Lord Parker’s lips – boasted a multitude of wines hitting the magical 100 points and had estates and communes across the board being rated as their best ever. There was little doubt it was going to be a real pleasure to taste through the wines. And so, to wit:
In short it is, at times, a truly stunning vintage, and when the wines hit the vinous high, my god were they good… wines that still show Bordeaux as the best place on the planet to grow Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot… wines of such power and complexity yet delivered with such grace and balance that it made you stop, smile and lose yourself for a moment as the flavours developed on the palate… a vintage that everyone should have a case or two in the cellar as these wines will bring pure pleasure to your glass over the coming years. They were showing brilliantly now and I long to see how they develop with a little bottle age.
We will be offering ‘my picks’ – the wines which really blew me away – over the coming weeks so keep your eyes peeled!