With wines as good as this, George Clooney’s house didn’t get a look in

A heavenly daze at the Villa d’Este symposium on Lake Como

I have been to any number of meetings and trade shows in places such as the Bellagio Hotel in Las Vegas, crumbling forts in Rajasthan, aircraft hangars in Frankfurt or just the Olympia exhibition centre in London. People tend to stand around in clumps, straining to read name-tags while drinking tepid coffee in the breaks between endless pep talks and lectures. It is difficult for me to focus on these after spending three days on the shores of Lake Como. Officially, it was the ninth Villa d’Este Wine Symposium, but we were actually in heaven. This 16th-century villa in 25 acres of gardens was once owned by Queen Caroline after she fled from George IV and has been one of the grandest hotels in Europe since the 19th century.

The show was devised by a voluble French oenophile called François Mauss, who started every event by rather incongruously shouting ‘Yabba Dabba Do!’ (‘Simply because I am a great fan of the Flintstone family’.)

This annual gathering of 200 people from every continent is the Davos of the wine world — what other event could attract Aubert de Villaine, the co-director of Domaine de la Romanée-Conti (DRC), plus the great eponymous winemakers Marchesi Piero Antinori of Tuscany, Egon Müller of Mosel and the Rousseau Père et Fils of Burgundy? Aubert told me it is the event he likes the most, mainly because of the informality and opportunity to taste extraordinary wines.

There was a scramble for places at three vertical tastings of Vega Sicilia Valbuena, one of the greatest Spanish reds; Rieslings from Weingut Egon Müller; and a spectacular flight of Gevrey-Chambertin and Chambertin from Domaine Rousseau. For this last I had to settle for a place in the pouring room but it was worth it, as there are rarely opportunities to compare a flight of his greatest wines, which cost £1,000 or more per bottle. Interestingly, when you taste great young wines back-to-back it is the lesser vintages that are more approachable, although the 2010 Chambertin silenced the entire room with its perfect poise and balance.

You encounter new faces at every meal, which can lead to trying amazing bottles that they have brought along. Inevitably, there is label one-upmanship — is that a Yquem 67 or a Montrose 89 — and who brought along that Trotanoy 71? Aubert managed to steal the show by opening three different DRC bottles, including a rare Bâtard-Montrachet 2008, made purely for the family. I once had a 20-year-old 1988 Bâtard at the Domaine and was amazed at how vigorous and young it was.

A number of winemakers offered tastings in the Imperial Room, even some from Georgia gamely showing their wares. Others were from more recognisable brands such as Angelo Gaja, Jean-Luc Colombo and Chateau Montrose. There was an excellent workshop by Cherie Briggs, chief winemaker at Nyetimber, the oldest (and in my view) best, of the English sparkling wines. The important thing is to judge such wines on their own merits and not against how closely they taste like Champagne. There was an amazingly youthful Blanc de Blancs 1996 in magnum and the impressive single vineyard Tillington 2010. What makes this one to watch is that, while this is arguably the best bottle of any English sparkling wine yet produced, the vines are only four years old, so they will definitely improve.

And what about conclusions? I thought it extraordinary how the influence of Robert Parker, once the most feared critic in any category, has all but vanished from conversation. Despite the underlying threat from global warming, there was a definite sense that we are in the midst of a golden age of wine-making with more diversity than ever before. I suspect that the next Symposium this November will be virtually sold out, given that Aubert is having a vertical tasting. The fee of €4,000 might sound steep, but it would hardly pay for a magnum of any of his wines. Of course, there are numerous distractions from Villa d’Este such as a short boat ride to George Clooney’s villa, but no one I met stirred much beyond the various tasting and dining rooms or the classical statuary on the hillside. When you are surrounded by memorable wines and friendly faces, who wants to wander beyond the gatehouse?


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