I have several favourite wine shops in London, and unfortunately Jeroboams just opened a new branch on Kensington High Street, which means I’ll have to split my loyalties four ways instead of three. Currently they’re divided between Huntsworth Wines on Kensington Church Street, The Good Wine Shop in Chiswick, and Your Sommelier, who get bonus points because they’re an online shop who deliver to the door.
Tastings-wise, I normally stick with La Cave à Fromage in South Kensington: they pair excellent cheeses with good wines. Their truffle cheese event a few weeks ago was epic.
I hadn’t been to a tasting at The Good Wine Shop before, so I wasn’t sure what to expect. But I couldn’t resist something that used this as their event picture, so I signed up and went along.
The other people there were wine experts, or at least the guy who sat opposite me was. He was fascinating and we had a very nice evening trying all the unicorns. When he discovered my limited knowledge of wine, he said “You’re starting your wine journey with unicorn wines? That’s like starting to read English literature with John Donne!” I agreed, and told him that sounded like exactly the kind of thing I’d do.
What is a unicorn wine?
For those of you who have read this far and are thinking, what the hell is she talking about? Am I allowed to ask what a unicorn wine is, or should I already know? Fear not. I will put you out of your misery.
A unicorn wine is a wine that’s rare or hard to find. This could be because only a few bottles were made, or because only a few bottles are available in your country. Maybe it’s from a small, niche vineyard where production levels are low, or maybe something happened that meant only a few bottles were released. Maybe it’s an older wine and there aren’t many bottles left. In any case it’s unusual, like stumbling across a unicorn in a forest.
Most people guard their unicorns fiercely, as you might expect, but The Good Wine Shop’s proprietors like to be a bit rebellious and share their unicorns with other people. This is just one of the many reasons why I like them.
How to taste wine
There are ways and means of doing it “properly” of course. If you want to know how to do it like a pro, you can read Tim Gaiser’s guide. Otherwise you can just do what I do, which is more like this WineFolly guide. If you’re not attending a professional event where you’ll be tasting dozens of wines, you don’t need to spit them out. In this case we were tasting eight wines, and eight half-glasses isn’t really enough to get me drunk, so that was fine.
When you read wine reviews, you’ll see people using words you might not understand – or rather, words you do understand, but not in the context of wine. Velvet, oak, blackberries – lots of people pick out individual flavours and talk about them with other wine buffs.
If you taste a wine and think ‘I can’t detect any of the things people are talking about’, don’t worry. And don’t pretend you can. Think about what the wine invokes for you: it might be quite different from what other people find in it, but that’s OK. You’ll often have much more interesting conversations if you just let your mind wander and your imagination do the describing for you.
Tasting the unicorns, I wrote down a few impressions:
- What they smelled like
- What they tasted like
- Any images / thoughts / memories they brought up
So without further ado, here’s what I thought.
Michael Wenzel “Garten Eden” Furmint 2016 (Austria)
The first notable thing about this wine was the bottle.
I thought it was cool when I first saw it, and decided it was even cooler when I learned the story behind it. The vines are planted in red quartz soil, and the label shows the rock you can find in the soil where the grapes are grown. It’s also pretty and would look very nice in my bedroom, so it may have to come home with me at some point.
It’s a dry white wine, which generally isn’t my favourite thing, but this one was very nice.
The notes I made were:
Smells kind of meaty? Reminds me of something I used to buy in a sweet shop as a child. Minerally sweetness, quite soft. Not quite candy floss? OH maybe that Scottish blue candy floss the travelling fair people used to bring? It feels like a fairground in the evening.
I had quite a lot of contact with travelling fair people in the first few years I lived in Scotland. Being Romani, we lived in a group of caravans, and although the people who ran the travelling fair weren’t Romani, there’s a certain kinship felt between people with aligning lifestyles. So they’d swing by and say hello when they arrived, and bring us fairground treats (like the blue candy floss which this wine reminded me of), and they’d let the children ride the circus animals, and sometimes they’d ask some of us to be in the circus if there was a gap in the programme. This was how at six years old I had a brief stint as a circus contortionist.
But back to the wines.
Château Rayas Châteauneuf du Pape Blanc 2009 (Rhône Valley, France)
Yes, you read that right: a white Châteauneuf du Pape. Unusual enough in its own right, this one is particularly hard to find. It’s made from 50% grenache blanc and 50% claret.
The notes I made:
I really like how it smells. It has that buttery thing going on. Kind of unpleasant to drink though. Again there’s a sweetness but there’s something synthetic about it, like the fake cookie dough you can buy on Deliveroo (I’m talking about Naked Dough here) or like a hint of Play-Doh. Or maybe the tablet my mother used to make.
(Scottish tablet is a bit like fudge, but different: it’s smoother and feels more plasticky somehow.)
A final hint of something aniseedy but not enough to make me love it.
An interesting thing happened: once I’d tasted the next wine and then gone back to this one, the Châteauneuf du Pape smelled unpleasantly sweet, but tasted much better.
A.A. Valentini Trebbiano d’Abruzzo 2002 (Abruzzo, Italy)
A dry Italian white wine, this Trebbiano (I kept reading it as ‘Tribbiani’ because I’ve just finished binge-watching all of Friends again) was developed by Edoardo Valentini. He kept his cards close to his chest: this is a wine shrouded in secrecy, which naturally makes me love it.
The notes I made:
Smells darker than the last one. Fishy? Tuna? Slightly metallic smell. Very nice, but still not quite as much fun as #1 (the Furmint). Bread? Like a tuna sandwich on grainy bread. Tastes like late summer, sitting in the garden shed in Sussex. Damp? Darkish. Kind of burny and wood.
I did warn you that I’m not actually a wine critic.
Benoît Dehu Coteaux Champenois Rouge 2011 (Champagne, France)
The first red on the list! How exciting. Red is my favourite colour of wine.
The notes I made:
Smells like blue cheese, the nice kind that’s been left out all day. Like that elongated log you buy from Whole Foods. I just realised I forgot to eat lunch.
I am intrigued by this wine. There’s something watery about it. Like those really old books below the ground that are growing mushrooms on them.
I have no idea which books I was referring to here, but I did get a very potent image of mouldy books in the dark. I can’t think of a time when I would have actually seen them, or walked through a space that held them, and yet I can see them like I was there. This was partly why the wine was so intriguing to me.
The notes continued:
I feel like with this wine you have to make a decision: you can either decide to taste it as a fruity orchardy summer day with hay, or a dark damp winter evening with old books.
This was the only wine I bought a bottle of before going home. Now I have a unicorn all of my own!
I think I enjoy wines with split personalities. My favourite wine in Florence was similar, in that to me it seemed to have two distinct flavour profiles, both of which invoked different thought processes and imagery in my mind, and I liked how I could decide which one to have a conversation with, or try to enjoy them both at once.
Giuseppe Rinaldi “Tre Tine” Barolo DOCG 2012 (Piemonte, Italy)
I do like a good Barolo. This was the wine I was most excited to try when I read the list before turning up, and yet it was the one that did the least for me. I didn’t dislike it, it was quite nice, but it didn’t move me in any way.
The notes I made:
Kind of sweet n’ sour. I didn’t really taste anything obvious initially, it was a bit of a blank slate. Very dry. I think it may have been overwhelmed by the cheese I just ate. Smells a bit grassy maybe?
Apparently this is one of the hardest unicorns to acquire, so in a way I was glad I didn’t fall in love with it because it would have been frustrating to be unable to take it home.
Cayuse “Cailloux” Syrah 2004 (Washington, USA)
Most of the time when I drink a really good Bordeaux, I taste butter. I’ve wondered why this is for ages, and I asked the guy who was hosting the evening. He told me the answer, but unfortunately I didn’t write it down and now I’ve forgotten it. I’ll have to go back and ask him again.
Anyway, this wine had that buttery thing going on. The notes I made:
Summery. Buttery. Like something’s melting because it’s so happy. Like when you’ve been in the sun all day and your suncream is just getting to that pleasantly melty stage in the early evening when you’ve been in the pool.
Berries when you taste it – the kinds that explode like weevils on your tongue.
I have never actually eaten a weevil, but ever since I watched that scene in The Lion King where Timon & Pumbaa are eating insects, certain types of food remind me of eating weevils. I don’t know why weevils specifically. That’s just where my brain goes. Hey, I don’t make the rules. I just live here.
Back to the notes:
A little bit toasty again, but summer toasted. Sweetcorn a bit maybe too?
It’s a very pretty colour too. Very feminine; a girl in summer, a blonde.
I think I felt like if this wine were a human, it’d be someone like this:
Anyway, let’s move on before things get too exciting.
Dunn Vineyards “Howell Mountain” Cabernet Sauvignon 2004 (Napa Valley, USA)
The description on The Good Wine Shop’s website says Dunn’s wines are “probably the most elegant and complex wines in the whole of Napa” and I have to say I agree.
I made copious notes about this one:
Smells dark and dry, like late twilight during a drought. Smells kind of insecty almost?
I don’t know what’s with the insect obsession. I don’t think I’ve ever eaten one, and yet they seem to be popping up in my wine reviews.
Very smooth, fairly dry but not too tanniny. I wanted to keep it in my mouth. Like when you haven’t smoked in months and then you have a cigarette, and you just want to prolong the experience.
Not the buttery taste, but something else… long green vegetables with white bits: leeks?
I feel like I want to sit with it: keep it in my mouth for a while. I don’t want it to leave. Like when you have a friend over and you don’t want them to go home at the end of the evening.
I feel like I should interject here that I don’t keep my friends in my mouth. This post could turn into an interesting game of Never Have I Ever…
But anyway, back to the notes.
Air. Candles. Small flames. Warmth. Homely. Warm.
Dust? Light wood, like an engineered wood floor that has old oak floorboards underneath. Maybe a fireplace? But one that hasn’t been used for a while.
If you can make sense of any of that, you’ll be doing a better job than me.
Château d’Arlay Vin Jaune 1990 (Jura, France)
I was quite excited about this one as well, because vins jaunes are from Besançon, where my family is from. The Jura vine, or vignoble jurassien, is an integral ingredient in the process, and this wine is from those vines.
I loved the cork: it was made of wax. The wine itself I was less excited by, and yet there was something quite special about it even though I wouldn’t say I exactly enjoyed the taste of it.
The notes I made:
Smells like: raisiny biscuits. Biscotti? Stale fruitcake. Industrial loos.
Tastes much better when you have it with the comté cheese they paired it with.
This wine is from the oldest family estate in the world: it hasn’t changed hands since 1018. It was definitely interesting, and one I wouldn’t mind trying again, but not one I’d rush out to buy.
So, there we have it: my first experience of unicorn wines. If you’d like to read more coherent notes about them, take a look at the post by The Good Wine Shop. Suffice it to say I enjoyed sacrificing some unicorns for an evening, and I’d be happy to participate again.