In the first of a new quarterly column, Hanneke Wilson, the Wine Steward of Exeter College, tells us what the Senior Common Room is currently drinking. This time, it’s wines fit for a Queen — and the ultimate summer sherry.

Champagne

By Hanneke Wilson (Merton, 1981)

It has been a busy year for the wine steward, with lots of special events to celebrate Exeter’s 700th anniversary.  One of the grandest occasions was the visit by our Honorary Fellow Queen Sofía of Spain, whom we entertained to lunch in May.  We started with an English sparkling wine called Ambriel made by a pair of Oxford graduates, Charles Outhwaite, who read History at Exeter, and his wife Wendy Outhwaite QC, a graduate of St Hugh’s.  They own a vineyard in Pulborough (South Downs, West Sussex), where the greensand soil and the benign microclimate are particularly suited to the growing of grapes for sparkling wine.  

In 2008 they planted their 9.5 hectares with 30,000 vines, the Champagne varieties Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier, which are meticulously tended by a whisky-drinking Afghan vineyard manager.  The vineyard yielded its first crop in 2010, and these grapes (70% Chardonnay, 27% Pinot Noir and 3% Pinot Meunier) are the basis of the first Ambriel ‘Classic Cuvée’ (£27.50, Ambriel), which was launched on 6 June 2013, and is continuing to improve with bottle age.  Although the wine-making is the ‘traditional method’ of Champagne, its brisk acidity marks it out as English, but there is nothing thin or aggressive about the wine: it is dry and refreshing, with a thrilling density and complexity.  

Queen Sofía does not eat meat but she loves fish.  The gently sweet taste and firm texture of the monkfish that was served made it an excellent match for a modern Spanish white, Godello 'Almalarga', Ribeira Sacra 2012 (Adega Pena das Donas) (£12.95, Lea & Sandeman). Native to Galicia, Godello is a fascinating grape variety, which was once in danger of extinction, because it ripens late and with difficulty, and is grown so high up on the steep banks of the river Sil that it is susceptible to frost damage; its skin is bright green, and so is its juice.  Its long cool ripening season brings natural acidity, without heaviness or high alcohol. ‘Almalarga’ (meaning magnanimous) is made from 80-100 year-old vines, which give the wine its intensity of flavour; no oak is involved.   It smells of greengages, with hints of aniseed and fresh mint, and on the palate it is mineral, with a firm texture.  

Ambriel and the Godello share an invigorating zestiness that makes them lovely summer drinking, but in truth they are available – and will taste delicious – all year round.  However, there is a wine that is released in late spring and should be consumed within three months.  It is a fino sherry.  Fino ages under flor, a film of yeast that protects the wine from oxidation.   To ensure consistency, clarity and a long shelf life it is heavily filtered and clarified, and these treatments strip a great deal of the flavour out of the wine.  In order to allow us to taste fino at its best, some of the leading houses have recently started releasing a small quantity in the spring, when the flor is at its thickest, and bottling with only minimal treatment: they call it fino en rama, meaning raw or pure fino.  Tio Pepe 2014 Release Fino En Rama (Gonzales Byass) (£15.95, Tanners), blended from two of the best casks in the solera, is a particularly successful example of this unique style of wine.  It smells of rich chicken stock, almonds, herbs and bergamot, and tastes intriguingly smoky; but the greatest surprise is the texture: ordinary fino is lean and light, but the en rama version is fleshy in texture and full-bodied, because some of the yeast cells remain in the wine. Their presence is also the reason why Fino En Rama should be drunk over the summer.  At 15% alcohol it is no stronger than many New-World reds, so serve it in proper glasses, with food (shellfish, fish, chicken or ham) and finish the bottle.  I had feared that this would be a wine for brisk consumption in Château Pedantry only, but with perfect timing, Exeter’s wine-loving Bursar suggested consommé accompanied by a glass of sherry as the first course for our Fellows’ Feast in July, so a six-pack is now in the cellar.  Floreat Exon!

Dr Hanneke Wilson (Merton, 1981) is the wine steward of Exeter College.

Image by Anders Adermark under Creative Commons license.