There were lots of stand out wines, but I'll just focus on a few that caught my attention...
Starting with the whites, we kicked off with a Muscadet, which comes from the mouth of the Loire on the Atlantic coast of France (as you can see from my rather fetching hand-drawn map). The name of the wine simply reflects the grape variety it's made from (the variety was originally called Melon de Bourgogne, referring to its roots, but nowadays it's more often referred to simply as Muscadet). It's quite a light wine (normally just 12%) that should show crisp acidity, simple freshness and a taste of the sea. A good example is one the great seafood wines of the world - indeed when having a plate of oysters for lunch, Muscadet challenges Chablis and Champagne for the title of best partner.
The top Muscadet usually comes from the subzone Muscadet de Sèvre-et-Maine, which you should look out for on labels. This area has the best climate and soils within the Muscadet appellation. Furthermore, a lot of really good Muscadet is aged sur lie. Hang on, let's have a quick aside on the lees...
The lees are the sediment of dead yeast cells that sit in the bottom of the fermentation vessel after the yeasts have fallen on their own swords in the noble act of converting the sugars to alcohol. Leaving the wine on the lees for a period of time after fermentation has finished imparts a richer, fuller character to the wine, adding body, mouth-feel and toasty interest. In Muscadet the wines are normally left on the lees until the Spring following the vintage (so about four to six months) before filtering and bottling. Producers of Muscadet that want to print 'sur lie' on their labels must carry out the ageing and bottling process in their own cellars.
So, seeing a bottle labeled Muscadet de Sèvre-et-Maine sur lie is usually a good indication of quality. Of course you still need good growers and a good producer! The example we had was a Muscadet Sur Lie 'Chantegrolle' from Domaine Poiron Dabin. It showed a terrific combination of freshness but with lots of added interest from the time it was on the lees. Very good value at £7.75 a bottle, it was a great start to the tasting.
The next whites that caught my eye were from from Domaine André Kientzler in Alsace. I've been to the producer a couple of times, most recently having bought their superb 2007 Grand Cru wines. However, these wines are moderately expensive (around £20 direct from the producer, so they would be much more in the UK if you could find them) and they need to be aged for quite a while before you can broach them. Consequently I was pleased to find their 'regular' bottlings of both Pinot Gris and Gewurztraminer at the tasting, as these wines are very good value and can be enjoyed immediately whilst the Grand Cru bottles are maturing in the cellar.
Both the Pinot Gris and the Gewurz were spot on examples of how a regular Alsace cuvée should be. The Pinot Gris was spicy, clean, fresh, not at all cloying and with a long, round finish. The Gewurz showed the usual lychee profile, but not over the top as so many are. Gewurz can often be very 'fat', meaning it can lack acidity. However, the Kienzler example was far from it, with pleasing freshness and classic spicy Gewurz character. If you want to get to know decent varietal wines from Alsace, I would recommend these highly. Although the tasting was only showing the Pinot Gris and Gewurztraminer, the Genesis Wines website indicates that they are also selling the Pinot Blanc and the Riesling, all for between £11.25 and £13 a bottle.
Moving on there were a couple of very classy wines from domaine Geyerhof in Austria. The Grüner Veltliner 'Hoher Rain' was a lovely example, with clean, aromatic, citrus flavours and a long finish. A really good example of one of the darling grapes of the last couple of years. Austrian wines are never cheap, without much economy of scale, but they are usually well made and are still fair value considering the high average standard. This one sells at £12 a bottle which is very good for the quality.
The other wine from Geyerhof was their Riesling Kirchensteig. At £22 you would want this to be first class, which fortunately it is. It would happily sit at the same table as almost any Alsace Grand Cru Riesling or a dry German Riesling from the Rheingau. It was showing all the classic Riesling notes, but with far greater depth, complexity and length than most. A really good wine. The current release is very young (2008), which you would want to keep a couple of years in the cellar if you could manage to resist it.
Moving onto the reds, I was really impressed by a Coteaux du Languedoc from the sub-zone La Clape. Let's have another quick aside, this time on the slightly confusing Coteaux du Languedoc appellations...
In May 2007 the blanket Languedoc appellation was finally created, which spans from the mouth of the Rhone right round to the border with Spain, encompassing all the existing appellations in Languedoc and Roussillon. The aim is to improve quality across the board and the regional appellation insists on at least 50% GSM (Grenache, Syrah, Mourvèdre) for red wines, with Carignan and Cinsault (traditional varieties deemed inferior) limited to a maximum of 30%. The current Languedoc appellations continue to exist alongside the new regional appellation - the new hierarchy simply makes them sub-regional appellations within the Languedoc regional appellation. The only change to them is that their appellation rules must be at least as stringent as the new rules for the regional appellation. So this is good news for all appellation wines from the Languedoc. However, the appellation Coteaux du Languedoc is itself an umbrella appellation, with 8 sub-appellations within it. Consequently Coteaux du Languedoc is being removed (it's been given grace until 2012), with its eight sub-appellations becoming sub-appellations of the regional Languedoc appellation instead. So at the moment we have wines sold as Coteaux du Languedoc - Pic St. Loup and Coteaux du Languedoc - La Clape, for example, which after 2012 will become Languedoc - Pic St. Loup and Languedoc - La Clape. Got it? Anyway, name change aside all of the sub-zones are a great hunting ground for excellent value for money wines with a real sense of place.
The example we had was a 2006 bottle of 'La Falaise' a Coteaux du Languedoc La Clape from the highly rated Château de la Negly. It had lots of local character with well integrated tannins, good acidity and a fine structure. With a few years bottle age it also showed complexity and well handled oak. Long and lip-smacking this would be perfect with a rich Daube Provençale. At £15.75 this isn't cheap, but is well priced for what it is.
Following the Languedoc we moved onto Spanish wines, including a couple of truly superb bottles from the ultra trendy appellation Priorat. It's a high-up dry windy appellation found inland from Barcelona. The best examples come from extremely old bush-trained Cariñena (Carignan) and Garnacha (Grenache), making big, powerful wines (easily reaching 15% abv) with huge extract and structure designed for fairly long ageing. Monsters. In a good way. However, these really top Priorat wines are incredibly expensive (normally starting at about £40 and going up to well over £100) and aren't really for most people's pockets, the author's included.
In recent years, following the new found fashion for the appellation, some Priorat wines have made it onto the market that sell for about £10 and are approachable much younger. Both Waitrose and Sainsburys sell one of these modern mid-priced wines for example. These lesser Priorats can be very decent, but they don't really have the character of their serious big brothers. What has been missing, in my view, is a few wines that have the quality of the big boys but aren't quite so damn expensive.
For this reason I was really pleased to find these two wines from Portal de Priorat. The first one, called Negre de Negres comes in at about £22 whereas the top cuvée Somni will set you back £32. OK, this is still obviously a lot of money, but they were the real thing, which you often have to pay more like £60 for. Although the Somni was even more rich, deep, full, complex and long, I would recommend the cheaper Negre de Negres in particular - at £22 it might fall into the category of expensive but it's actually great value and well worth digging into your pockets for. Not that it should be important, but I thought the black and white fine-nib drawn labels were splendid and extremely original. Good for Portal de Priorat.
There were lots of other fine wines to be had and I must say it was a really good tasting. Genesis wines are mainly a trade seller, but they do also sell retail from their website, although you have to buy wines in cases of six. You can find them and all the wines discussed at www.genesiswines.com