JULIAN HITNER TORONTO WINE CONSULTANT

"For love of everything that is wine"

SATURDAY, APRIL 7, 2007

~A brief essay on the Decanter London (England) wine tasting & other excursions~

     While this might not exactly come as a great surprise to most wine enthusiasts based in Toronto, the city of London (England) is one of the finest centres in the world for purchasing and experiencing premium-quality wine. Boasting dozens of fine-wine shops and countless tasting events year-round, London (England) is, for lovers of wine, practically everything the city of Toronto is not.

     About a month ago, I returned from this glorious city back to the good-old-insecure, glitch-on-the-map that is Toronto, having spent almost an entire week immersed in a seeming flood – both selectively and qualitatively – of different types of fascinating wines. To be certain, while there were many highlights to this six-day adventure of almost non-stop ‘wine exploration’ (of which I shall elaborate later), none was more brilliant than the wine tasting I attended on 24 February 2007. Presented by Decanter wine magazine and held at the magnificent five-star Landmark Hotel near Regent’s Park on an appropriately dreary-London (England) Saturday afternoon, this was one of the finest wine tastings I have ever been fortunate enough to attend. Taking place in three architecturally-delightful ballroom-sized rooms of various square-footage and Baroque-to-Victorian-style character, the tasting featured dozens upon dozens of French wines from different premium-end estates throughout France, from Bordeaux and Burgundy to the Rhône and the Languedoc (along with three respectable Champagne houses).

     To put it bluntly, this London (England) tasting was far superior to any wine tasting I had ever attended in Toronto. In what ways? Let me count them.

     One. The tasting – nicknamed the Decanter Fine Wine Encounter – was not a mere two-and-a-half hours long (as they almost always are in Toronto, no doubt for some obscure reason), but a respectable six hours in length, starting at 11:00AM and ending at 5:00PM. As such, unlike most Toronto tastings where one can oftentimes observe individuals (such as myself) hurrying from table to table in an effort to sample as many items as possible before time runs out, people at the Decanter tasting were able to take a noticeably more leisurely approach, sampling wines at a comfortable pace while conversing with the pourers (who are usually the owners). Does this not sound like a much more civilized manner of sampling than always feeling rushed? Hopefully, it does.

     Two. As the afternoon progressed at the Landmark Hotel, there was never an instance (at least from what I was able to observe) when a specific wine ran out, as the Decanter organizers seemed to have been mindful enough to ensure that there would be more than enough bottles to handle even the most enthusiastic of ‘samplers.’ Indeed, this really does stand in direct contrast to the majority of wine tastings I have ever attended in Toronto, where people are often warned on their tickets that certain wines will invariably run out during the course of the event. And how do organizers of Toronto wine events respond to this concern? Why, they use ‘controlled pourers,’ whereby an individual receives (at least usually) a one-ounce sample! At the Decanter tasting, I was almost always given a healthy portion of wine to examine; in fact, I sometimes even had to ask the owner to stop pouring.

     Three. While many wine enthusiasts in Toronto (including myself) routinely balk at the cost of attending a wine-related event put on in our fair city (such as the tastings presented by ‘Vintages’ of the L.C.B.O.), even the most frugal-minded of people may have difficulty arguing that the price of attending a Decanter Fine Wine Encounter is unreasonable. For two people, the cost of attending the Decanter Fine Wine Encounter at the Landmark Hotel was £65.00, which translates to approximately $150.00 CAD. Thus, for the price that I shelled out to attend this particular tasting, I was able to sample around two hundred or so different wines that would set a person back an approximate average of $40.00 CAD per bottle, at least! All things considering, such a median is extremely high if one were to compare it with any tasting put on in Toronto, specifically when one takes into account the extraordinary number of items there were on hand for people to sample and enjoy.

     And so, it does appear certain that wine tastings put on in London (England) – specifically those presented by Decanter wine magazine – are on a different level of both civility and reasonableness than most held in Toronto. This being said, however, the greatness that is the ‘London (England) wine scene’ hardly concludes there. In addition to actual wine tastings, the capital of England is home to some of the finest wine stores in world; and I delighted, in this particular article, to be able to offer Toronto-based wine enthusiasts – and lovers of wine throughout the world – a guide to which stores one must attend whenever visiting the city of London (England).

     Now, the first store I stepped foot in while visiting London (England) was that of Berry Bros. & Rudd, which is located at 3 St. James Street, not far from Green Park Station. If one has ever been to their website before, one will understand me when I say that Berry Bros. has one of the best selections of premium French wines I have ever seen. At the same time, however, at their London wine shop, one ought not to expect neither helpful nor courteous service. Quite the contrary, the persons with which I was made to communicate in the standard English language still makes me shudder more than a month after the fact! Though no one can dispute these persons’ knowledge of wine in general (most of them are, in fact, ‘Masters of Wine’), few people would also dare to dispute their repulsively aristocratic attitude and undesirably discourteous stench. My advice: if visiting London Berry Bros., place orders on their excellent website, and pick them up at their store. That way, all you have to ask of these peculiar forms of ‘makeshift aristocratic life’ is to fetch the items you have ordered from their cellar. (*If the point has not already been made, I found the people who worked at this store horrifically disagreeable, and hope they learn a few manners when dealing with their 'commoner betters' the next time I pick up an order from their store.*) Sorry to say it, but I’d still order from them, for their website is one of the best in the world for its type --- I picked up a bottle of Château Pichon Longueville Baron (vintage 2000) and a bottle of Château Rauzan-Ségla (also vintage 2000).

     Moving on, the next store I stepped into was far more civilized; it was the wine department of Fortnum & Mason, a high-end food store located at 181 Piccadilly (not far west from Piccadilly Station). Let me say right from the start that I was truly impressed at their level of selection, prices, and service; no wonder the Royal Family is said to shop here! Aside from offering a very impressive array of wines from which to purchase, the staff at Fortnum & Mason were among the most polite and helpful individuals I had the privilege of encountering throughout my wine-related travels in London (England). The gentleman who assisted me, a man of rather limited stature for sake of identification, was admirably patient and polite with my questions, and referred me to some very fine premium Bordeaux half-bottles that are now resting comfortably in my wine cellar back in Toronto. I take my (figurative) hat off to him and his colleagues, for, without question, I have every intention of shopping at their wine department in the future --- I picked up two half-bottles of “Alter Ego” (vintage 2003) by Château Palmer and a half-bottle of Chateau Musar (vintage 1998).

     To continue, the next store I visited was none other than the wine department of the world-famous Harrods department store, located right outside of Knightsbridge Station and owned by the equally-famous screwball Mohamed Al-Fayed. On the whole, I found this store to be somewhat lacking in both overall service and selection. Granted, there was no shortage of fine items from which to peruse, but the prices were not particularly decent --- I did not pick up anything from this store.

     Another few stores I went to while in London (England) were small-to-medium-sized outlets owned by Jeroboams. To my delight, each store offered quite an impressive range of high-end items at reasonable-enough prices. Because Jeroboams has stores throughout London (England), I managed to visit three of them during my stay: (1) 13 Elgin Crescent in Notting Hill; (2) 56 Walton Street in Knightsbridge; and (3) 50-52 Elizabeth Street in Belgravia. At each store, the staff on hand was very friendly and helpful, as well as ever-ready to help me locate an item I could not find on their shelves --- I ended up happily purchasing two half-bottles of Château Brane-Cantenac (vintage 2003), a half-bottle of Phélan Ségur (vintage 2003), and a half-bottle of “Bahans” by Château Haut-Brion (vintage 2003). (*As one can clearly see, I consider it a good idea to purchase half-bottles whenever one wishes to bring back a decent assortment of alcoholic-related purchases back into good-old-primitive Canada*).

     On the same day that I visited most of the stores in the above paragraph, I also came across an outlet that was as equally grave a disappointment as Berry Bros.; it was none other than the ‘prestigious’ Corney & Barrow. Located at 194 Kensington Park Road in Notting Hill (and boasting a very large inventory on their website), this store is nothing but a depressing hovel in an upscale area of London (England). Aside from their staff seeming to be made up of useless chair-sitters, their in-store selection is limited, overpriced, and paltry --- I did not buy anything from this store (nor order anything from their website, nor do I intend to do so in the future).

     The last store I visited while in London (England) I would probably quantify as the most memorable; it was the wine section of Harvey Nichols department store, which is located right next to Harrods. To be honest, I did not expect this particular establishment to offer nearly as brilliant a selection as it did, nor to retain such a polite and affable staff as it possessed. And yet, in terms of service and availability of wares on hand, this store was far superior to the names of its more recognizable counterparts, such as Berry Bros. and Corney & Barrow. I am happy to have spent about an hour at this store, browsing their extraordinary selection of items, conversing with the staff, as well as enjoying a glass of Champagne at the tasting bar --- for myself, I bought a full-bottle of Puligny-Montrachet by Domaine Leflaive (vintage 2002).
    
To thus conclude, it does seem readily apparent that the city of London (England) is the place to be if one is an enthusiast of wine, so much so that I have had to omit in this essay several experiences I had – in addition to those already mentioned – enjoyed during my stay. Such is the extent to which I would much rather, as an enthusiast of wine, reside in London than in this catastrophe I call Toronto, or, more politely, ‘home.’



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