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At the Bar with Hal Wilson

Hal Wilson of Cambridge Wine Merchants looks back on 2019’s top vintages - and forward to the fine wines 2020 will bring

The Roman god Janus, after whom January is named, had two faces, one looking into the past and the other to the future. Taking my inspiration from the deity, I’d like to share my perspective of a year gone and the one to come.

When it comes to selecting wines to sell in our business, vintage is extremely important. Wine is made but once a year, when all the weather patterns of the previous 12 months combine to deliver poor, good or possibly exceptional quality grapes from which it is made.

Most wine is produced in ‘goldilocks’ regions of the world where it is neither too hot nor too cold, yet in any given year conditions vary and the vineyard owner has to show all their ingenuity and experience to maximise the quality of the grapes.

Vineyards at sunset in autumn harvest (23359649)
Vineyards at sunset in autumn harvest (23359649)

2019 saw us introduce some exceptional wines from the 2017 and 2018 vintages, but we also had to select with great care as both years offered huge challenges to winemakers around the world. 2017 gave us late spring frosts that dashed many a northern European vineyard owner’s hopes, from Sussex to the South of France, while 2018’s wet spring and incredibly hot dry summer resulted in large harvest but not necessarily great quality. In the Southern Hemisphere exceptional drought conditions in South Africa were very challenging in 2018, while New Zealand suffered cyclones at harvest time.

The great success stories were in the Douro in 2017, where terrific vintage Port was made for the second year in succession (an extremely rare event), while England, Germany and the French regions of Alsace and Burgundy excelled in 2018. Chile, Argentina and Australia all reported great harvests.

2020 will see more of the best 2018 vintage wines arrive on our shelves, as well as the much anticipated 2015 vintage from Brunello di Montalcino, where wines can only be released for sale four years after harvest. But what of the new 2019 vintage? Will it be exceptional, as in other years ending in a 9, like 2009, 1989, 1959 and 1949? Here’s a little guide to the regions of the world I’m most excited about tasting and buying from this year. . .

Southern Hemisphere

Some white wines are already on our shelves and the most excited winemakers in the Southern Hemisphere are from New Zealand (at least they didn’t win the Rugby World Cup as well. . .), where many are calling 2019 the best vintage they have ever seen: perfect ripening conditions followed a warm growing season with no frost. The Sauvignon Blancs I have tasted so far are all rich and flavourful without losing the defining acidity that makes them so moreish. Our very own ‘V’ Sauvignon 2019 is right up my street at £9.50 a bottle. Chile too enjoyed great conditions, particularly for red varietals, so look out for these arriving in the UK from the spring onwards.

Northern Hemisphere

We will no doubt remember that the University of Cambridge Botanic Garden registered the UK’s highest ever recorded temperature, at 38.7C, last July, and that intense heatwave stretched over much of Europe. I was cycling in the Pyrenees on the date that record was set in Cambridge, and the computer on my bike peaked at 48C. Such intense heat both reduces the size and thickens the skin of the grapes as they try to survive, which in turn means smaller volumes but potentially high quality of juice. The best regions in Europe are likely to be Germany, Bordeaux and Austria, while California has returned to better fortune after the devastating wildfires of 2018.

When you look forward to 2020, please make plans to visit the great independent retailers in Cambridge. We can’t wait to see you! Cheers.

Hal Wilson is the owner of Cambridge Wine Merchants, which has branches on King’s Parade, Bridge Street and Cherry Hinton Road, as well as managing the University Centre Wine Bar on Mill Lane.

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