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Theale Vineyard Founder’s Reserve Blanc de Blancs 2004

Theale Vineyard Founder’s Reserve Blanc de Blancs 2004

This week, English sparkling wine with a difference. A wine from a backyard vineyard, planted on an artificial, landscaped hill, in minute quantities. This is Theale Vineyard’s Founder’s Reserve. For Theale Vineyards, read Tony Laithwaite.

Theale Vineyard Founder's Reserve Blanc de Blancs 2004UK wine drinkers will be familiar with the name of Laithwaite, wine’s original man in a van. He started out in 1969 bringing wine into the UK in a Ford Transit van, for sale direct to customers. The business empire which grew from this humble beginning, and which goes by the name of Direct Wines Limited, includes the Sunday Times Wine Club, the NatWest Wine Club, the Barclaycard Wine Service, the British Airways Executive Wine Club, Avery’s, Virgin Wines and Warehouse Wines, all of which make Laithwaites the UK’s largest wine retailer by some considerable distance.

The vines are planted on the sunward, south-facing side of a landscaped slope adjacent to the Laithwaite’s new headquarters in Theale. As Laithwaite himself writes, once the construction work had been completed he was faced with a large pile of rubble behind his new buidlings. Rather than have it carted away, it was covered with topsoil, landscaped and planted with vines, all Chardonnay. They planted up with the advice of a few friends from Champagne and Burgundy, ending up with one of the UK’s smallest vineyards at just 0.14 hectares (although I should point out that there are several much smaller sites).

The first release from the vineyard was with the 2002 vintage, but it seems as though the wine really made some waves with the 2003, which picked up a couple of awards in the International Wine Challenge (silver medal) and the French sparkling wine competition Effervescents du Monde (top ten position), and was well ranked in a blind Decanter tasting in early 2008. The quantities are usually tiny, in keeping with the vineyard, with just 756 bottles of the very successful 2003, and with the 2004 the label declares 1274. They are made under the watchful eye of Mike Roberts, who is perhaps best known for his work at Ridgeview, now perhaps the best known of all the English sparkling wine estates.

Theale Vineyard Founder's Reserve Blanc de Blancs 2004So onto the wine, the 2004 Theale Vineyard Founder’s Reserve Blanc de Blancs. The association with Ridgeview is immediately apparent on removing the foil, as to my surprise underneath the cork was retained by a Ridgeview capsule (and the cork was the same). As for the wine, in the glass it displays a hugely effervescent bead at first, settling down to gentle stream of moderate size bubbles. The nose is really accessible and open, with aromas of creamy-nutty white fruits, enrichened by little notes of caramel and praline. There is also a fine seam of minerals, rocky-stony notes, although they are gentle rather than hard. Very nicely balanced and fresh on entry, with very good acidity cutting through the well-presented creamy flavours, providing a good supporting structure. The mousse is fine, and it rounds off with a flourish of smoky, chalky, minerally flavour on the finish. There are plenty of good elements here, some of which remind me stylistically of a good Champagne, but the chalk and stone – which the more fanciful will no doubt relate directly to the rubble buried beneath these vines – are more reminiscent of the Loire, a good Vouvray or Saumur. All in all, this is an exceptionally good wine which drinks very nicely, with the minimum of fuss. In recent years, English sparkling wines really have made the grade. 17.5/20 (22/12/08)

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