Vagabond’s mission is to help you discover great wine. Whether you do that via our sampling machines or by drinking our selections elsewhere we hope we’re taking your wine tastes along a special journey with us.
While we’re content to see you do this a sip at a time there are those among us who prefer to go deeper, who take the long view on their wines. We’re not about to label you as ‘collectors’ or ‘nerds’ but you do like to stash a few bottles, maybe a case or two, aside just for the right moment. Perhaps you’re intrigued by what old wine tastes like, maybe you just want to keep up with the wine trends of the world or perhaps you’d like to share this passion with your children or grand children in the future.
If you’re at all curious about curating a wine collection of your own we’d like to help. But we won’t be recommending the same old wines that the current collectors circuit choose because the world of elite wines, that repay conscientious storage, is greatly expanded these days.
There’s a bit more to building up your wine stash than a subscription to erobertparker.com and cross-referencing the score to price ratios. We know you’re more than capable of choosing wines based on your own tastes but hope you’ll like a bit of advice from us too.
If you’re looking for investment opportunities, a portfolio manager, LIV-EX trades and the like then, sorry, you’re already well catered for elsewhere. If, however, you value the quality of your wine and want to embark on assembling a splendid array of quality bottles then read on. We’re looking for adventurous drinkers who want distinctive and delicious bottles without be pinned down to the established strictures. You’re about cutting your own path not following the crowd aren’t you?
What makes the grade for the discerning Vagabond’s Cellar?
It’s the hardest question to answer. The dowdy sounding ‘fine wine’ doesn’t do it justice. But we’ve learnt that some bottles just have the extra 2% that take them into the realm of illumination. They make you think, dream and imagine. They instil a sense of calm, of desire, of thankfulness. They occasionally might take a while to get used to but then they never stop being fascinating, rewarding and delicious once you’ve understood their charms. There’s more truth and grace, a higher sense of purpose, purity and allure about these wines. They’ll make you want to travel, to visit the vines, to commune with their guardians and to talk about their virtues to the point where your friends might say ‘I remember when you only drank plonk’. They’re special, they may have philosophical portents, connect you to history, geography, science and art and then linger long in the memory after the bottle has been emptied. Magic juice that some might see as possessing a divine sort of power over our taste buds, a hotline to the celestial.
What doesn’t make the grade?
There’s lots of adequate wine around. The stuff that dulls the edges after a hard day, and, we don’t mind admitting, sometimes that’s all you need; A bit of fruitiness, no hard edges, helps the dinner go down, brings on sleepiness, that sort of thing. It’s cool, but it misses the magic.
What’s the budget here?
The key to unlocking the secrets of the VGB Cellar is knowing where to find the best wine value. The past fifteen years has seen price inflation for the established stars of Bordeaux, and now Burgundy, ascend to the levels only the very wealthiest can afford. But even in these places some good buys can be had. While we won’t draw an upper limit we don’t expect to pump your credit card for more than £60 per bottle and often expect it to be half or even less that. As an added benefit you’ll also be getting better than our retail prices.
There’s a reason for this budget. When France’s Revue de Vin de France magazine ran an article a few years ago on how much does it costs to make your wine they estimated the production costs of the world’s most coveted wines, such as Chateau Petrus from Pomerol (of which a poor vintage past its prime is currently retailing in the UK at £750). They found little reason to exceed £30-40 of costs per bottle to the producer. After that everything else is hype, demand over supply, Veblen goods, and the general stoking of egos.
What are the Vagabond Cellar sweet spots?
The things we’d like to be putting in our wine racks to enjoy and discover over several years (decades even) are the following
Loire Valley Chenin Blanc and Cabernet Franc
Probably the last bastion of traditional wines from France that hasn’t been scooped up and deposited in some 1%ers vault. But that time is coming to judge by the enthusiastic revelling occurring in New York among the sommelier elite there. They simply cannot get enough Loire wine down their own, and their patrons, necks. It’s time to get involved.
Chenin Blanc, the Cinderella grape, a bit dirty and neglected, certainly never taken to The Ball to meet The Prince, is having a fairy godmother moment. From the parched dry mineral essences of Savennieres west of the city of Angers, to the scores of newbie youngsters making full-on, back-to-nature variants, to the illustrious majesty of Vouvray, and, these days, Montlouis, Chenin Blanc is proving a worthy addition to the discriminating wine lover. Its charm lies in its versatility; Chablis-esque dry styles that seem to have transferred their flinty soil to your glass, perfumed and alluring demi-secs that tease and tantalise with texture and panache all the way through to the Wagnerian pomp of the exquisite late harvest sweet wines. These wines evolve splendidly over decades. The greatest only hitting their stride at 25-30 years old and then capable of holding on for what ever life we have left in us.
It’s a similar story with the Cabernet Franc grape. Neglected and looked down upon by the imperial might of Bordeaux who deign it to be merely a blending partner to ‘freshen up’ corpulent Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon wines and often castigated as making nothing but simple, light quaffing wines for cheap Parisian bistros by the guidebooks. Maybe it’s climate change but a mouthful of proper Chinon, Bourgueil or Saumur Champigny will very quickly remove those prejudices. Where this vine flourishes on limestone and is treated with care it makes endlessly graceful and complex wines that a few adherents know will keep on developing for a couple of decades attaining graceful singularity with little sign of giving up the ghost.
Factor in the amazing 2014 and 2015 vintages and you’ll understand why this region tops our list of love.
OK, it’s a huge category, fraught with anxieties and hang ups, hand-wringing and cruel mutterings but Germany has come into its own. The fact that, as we used to say about Italy, they keep the best stuff for themselves, says it all really. There’s a few key points to take on board
Riesling. No one does Riesling as well as the Germans. Be it bone dry, which gets it elevated to God-like status in Germany itself, or the filigreed, distinctive, acid versus fruit high-wire act that is embodied by the off-dry, low alcohol versions of the Mosel, there are plenty of wines seeking comfortable racks and engaged drinkers to reward over ten to thirty years. But they won’t mind a bit if you can’t resist and want to get involved early either.
Spätburgunder. It’s Pinot Noir in German, and Germany grows a lot of it. It’s the third largest producing country after France and the US for this indisputably noble variety. Pinot Noir’s brilliance comes from being a ‘transparent’ grape that can hold its point of origin in its flavour profile like no other. Equally, if its fickle criteria are not satisfied, it can be as embarrassing as the clumsy kid taking a penalty for the school football team. 2016 has begun with US wine writer Jon Bonné hailing the ancient kingdom of Swabia as one of the focal points for wine this year, zooming in on the Spätburgunders of Baden in particular. Burgundy may be the model but modern Germany, and ancient Swabia, are the designers to hunt out.
South Africa’s Cape White Blends and Syrah
Last September a lucky few of us got to attend a tasting in the basement of a Soho record shop that brought the analogue renaissance to wine from The Cape. A joyous event that showcased brilliant wines unlike anything produced anywhere else. And by winemakers who are just getting their mojo on while leaning on their surfboards too. CWB, Cape White Blend, is a stand out being fashioned from old vines, some of the oldest on the planet in some cases, whose gnarly trunks and deep roots invest their grapes with powerful extracts and captivating flavours. Bringing together Chenin Blanc, Roussanne, Semillon and a host of neglected varietals with modest winemaking interferences has wrought a new genre and several instant cult hits. We’re sticking our neck, along with many others, out for the longer term prospects here. The Rand to Sterling exchange rate makes us smile like children feeding ice cream to a dog too. Will we one day be saying ‘do you remember when you could get a bottle of Donovan Rall for £30? Ludicrous!’
The Cape was always trying to be a red wine country after Apartheid ended but riddled with virus-damaged vines and a heavy-handed approach in the wineries the new Bordeaux utopia was bound to wither away. In its place a renegade bunch of wines from old Mediterranean varieties has arisen. Syrah leads the pack; Rhone Valley-ish in style with violets, tapenade and bacon aromatics over velvet black fruits and spicy, spiky structures. These bellow essence of the land from the glass but retain a languid style that is comfortably modern and reassuringly traditional at the same time.
Reds from Provence
One word here: Bandol. It’s more than a retirement town for the well-off to enjoy a carafe of pale rosé while gazing at super yachts. Up in the craggy hills lurks a bewildering monster; The Mourvédre. A grape whose thick skin imbues it with vivid purple in youth and some of the densest tannins around that, in the hands of a skilled vigneron, can be cajoled into bringing forth elegance and mystery. Like a circus lion-tamer jabbing a chair at The King Of The Jungle while yelling ‘Yah! Yah!’ this is nerve-wracking stuff. But nowhere near as cruel or nasty. Blueberry, leather, roast meat, sunshine and herbes de Provence seem to coalesce into a vison of the deep south. Out the corner of your eye you can almost see a sun-bathing lizard darting into a rocky crevice. The best of Bandol will happily tarry under the cork for a couple of decades before revealing their beauty.
Galicia, Garnacha and Gredos
It was the ever thirsty, proto-alcoholics, of the Roman Empire who deemed vineyards necessary on the perilous slopes of western Spain. Remote, inaccessible and bothersome to farm it is little more than incredible that vines remain in the ground here. Not only that but that a small, fastidious group of Spaniards have decided to revive what was considered some of the best wine of the peninsula by those who marched behind the SPQR banner two millennia ago. Mencia is the key grape but several native obscurities inform what passes as vineyard land here. Imagine Pinot Noir subverted as a flick knife wielding ballerina and you begin to grasp the nail biting tension these reds relish in. By turns vibrant redcurrant, lascivious sloe berry and damson but crammed with tension and poise from a spine of acidic thrill-o-city. This wild wine from the wild countryside.
Garnacha, Grenache if you prefer, is a chameleon grape being the mainstay of much of the southern Mediterranean and Iberia. It can be Brian Blessed yelling ‘I’m fifteen bloody per cent alcohol’ or it can be vapid juice that’s pallid enough for the skinny nerd on the beach to kick sand in its face. Between these opposites exists a group of wines unified by expressing their origins from ancient vines in remote outposts, namely the Gredos hills west of Madrid. They have had their former heavy oak cask armours removed to reveal their virile, muscular shapes in full. When mention of venerable, eccentric Chateauneuf-du-Pape estate Chateau Rayas gets bandied about in connection to them you know that the wine press will be hot on the trail soon enough. For the time being their track history for bottle age is unknown so consider them short-termists and enjoy a slice of the action.
A whole book, several volumes in fact, could be quickly dispensed in dealing with Italy. Suffice to say outside of Tuscany’s established stars and Piedmonte’s treasures there’s life a-plenty for the avid wine lover. Friuli’s eccentric whites extend over the border to Slovenia and it’s ‘take no mess’ reds have gained cult followings.
Sicily is the third great region of Italy these days. Volcanic by nature, clandestine no more, virulent with success and teeming with talent. It’s heading for the stars now.
The taut and lithe white of Campania from Fiano grapes around Avellino remains a curveball for the cellar even for experienced Italophiles but it transcends time to become creamy and can rival some serious Cote d’Or produce on occasion.
The foothills of the Alps provide numerous oddities clinging to their terrain and refusing to be subsumed by such wan priorities such as free time or leisure. Their makers live in obscurity but taste a Gattinara from Traviglione and you’ll be wondering what all the fuss about Barolo was.
If California exited the Union, it’d be the world’s eighth largest economy. Little wonder then that it’s domestic wine market is bedecked with stellar wines at prices that have as much to do with padding egos as such prosaic matters as land prices and labour.
While the state wrestles with its tendency to excessive and bloated wines with Mr Parker’s famous ‘skyscraper textures’ (whatever they might be) a disparate band of wines are moving centre stage defined by a desire for drinkability, freshness, allure, balance and place. These wines are still luscious to palates brought up on austere clarets and bootstrap Chianti but have brought focus to a diverse region that was in danger of getting into the ‘it-all-tastes-the-same-to-me-ism’. Proper Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, full of refinement and flavour, intense Cabernets built to last and retain their savoury edges, rollicking Syrahs and even a Merlot or two that could convert anyone who’s wine education beings and ends at that time they watched Sideways.
Chile’s Next Generation
Factory of inoffensive jug wine the Valle Centrale may be but dig deeper down the Chilean coast to the southerly region of Maule and a wild freedom of expressive wines is emerging that runs contrary to the country’s conservative attitudes. Here peasant grape growers are finding themselves beneficiaries of investors who want a slice of their ancient vineyards. The vines here go back over one hundred years in many cases and have been reproduced from the original cuttings that the Spanish and French brought with them four centuries ago. As such they are a precious repository of the vine’s genetic material. Europe’s vines, ravished and nearly lost forever by imported maladies in the nineteenth century, live on in their vinous Eden here. The Carignan, Cinsault and Pais grapes excel but remote outcrops of Malbec pepper the land too. Winemaking is, thankfully, ordered and orchestrated, by mutual agreement, to respect the land and minimise the hand of the winemaker thus allowing greater purity and flavour definition from the vines themselves. These are exciting times for a place that was just ten years ago unknown to most Chileans themselves.
Think of Portugal as a mini Italy that is just discovering its regions, its grapes and its potentials. The Douro Valley, long known for the Ports it makes, dominates the table wine scene but cast a wider net and you’ll discover the intense, rugged red wines of Dāo or the emergent refinement of Bairrada and its feisty grape, Baga. The expansive Alentejo region has enormous amounts of decent everyday wine but a few historic and notable estates too who have remained true to themselves, their vines and their land and are only now realising the benefits.
Poor old Greece. You invent the better parts of the western world and give it wine and what do you get in return? ‘It’s not Retsina is it? God I got so drink on that stuff when I was 15 on a school trip once…’ Help the poor souls out by checking their brilliant reds from Xinomavro or Agiorgitiko grapes. Discover the beautiful wild lands of Naoussa and refresh your summer drinking with bone dry whites from the volcanic soils of Santorini. Then never speak of your Retsina ordeal again.
Austria & Hungary
The secret has been out the bag for some time now; Austrian wine is really really really good. Gruner Veltliner, the oft peppery white that has some of the tanginess of Riesling and the pith of Sauvignon and the racy edge of Albarino, can age magnificently and is just about perfect with the meals that no wine dares to partner – I’m looking at you artichokes and asparagus. Across the border the Blaufrankisch (or Kekfrankos if you’re in Hungary) grape takes a leaf from Pinot Noir and puts a Danube spin on it being darker and lustier with a headstrong edge that makes you feel it could challenge other, bigger, heavier hitting reds.
Huh? Off the beaten path, never heard of it wines that offer exceptional value. How does Champagne fit into this schematic? By being a region that is rediscovering itself that’s how. How many Champagnes can you name? Probably about five or six. Did you ever talk to someone who has visited the region? They all same the same thing: ‘well the visit to [big brand Champagne] was OK and I learnt a lot but we tasted the stuff made by some little guy down the road and it was twice as good and much cheaper’.
So that’s what we want you to discover. And yes, it sounds like the same story, a new band of younger producers turn back the clock to make less industrial more artisanal products, but it’s true. There’s potential for Champagne to be more than wedding toast and birthday juice these days, think of it as serious wine that happens to have bubbles and you’re on the way to drinking better already.
So that’s just a snapshot of the awesome things we reckon you might want to consider for your burgeoning wine collection (oh, there we go, we called it a collection). No points for future liquidity or financial gain but huge points for creative, exhilarating, rewarding wine drinking experiences.