London 2012: The Olympic wine carrying a torch for the Games
The London Olympics will be the first to have its own ‘official’ wines – so where will they stand in the medal table?
They’re coming to watch athletes squelch their way across waterlogged track and sodden pitch. So it won’t have occurred to Olympic ticketholders to consider the quality of the wine on sale. But this drenched summer, they might just be grateful for the fact that London’s vinous preparations have not been neglected. Far from it. They’ve been painstaking – two years in the making – and have also involved some very clever tricks and quite a few ructions.
“This is the first time that the Olympics have had their own official wine,” says Michael Saunders, the MD of Bibendum, the agent tasked with supplying the catering and events companies who will serve and sell it. As well as the larger selection of wines, from English fizz to the gorgeous Jura savagnin, that will be served, there are three special London 2012 wines: a red, a rosé and a white.
From the start Saunders and Bibendum’s commercial director Kirstie Papworth tussled over them. “She insisted that the wines had to be from the 2012 vintage,” he says. “that it would look daft to have London 2012 on the label and 2011 in the small print. We argued. A lot.”
Sound logic, certainly; but, as Saunders soon realised, nightmare logistics. Especially considering some of the other demands: that Olympics wines be sportingly Fairtrade, that they not be bottled in glass (given that they would be on sale in event arenas). The latter meant factoring in more time for PET bottling in France.
Obviously only southern hemisphere countries come into play if you want wines from the current year to be delivered in bulk to England by the end of June or early July at the latest.
Chenin blanc from Stellenbosch was a good choice for a white in terms of taste – it has some personality yet still makes obligingly easy-to-drink wines with a lick of acidity.
“I wanted a wine that could combat any British weather,” says Bibendum’s Iain Muggoch, who describes the project as “probably the most nerve-racking thing I’ve ever worked on”.
Bush vine chenin is also, as Kirstie Papworth says, “synonymous with South Africa, and the yields on these vines were seven tons per hectare compared to 30-plus over the mountain”, which gives a better flavour concentration.
With days ticking past, the grapes were picked early – from February 15-17 (the harvest would normally have continued to the end of the month) with a potential alcohol level of 11.5%, a chunk lower than the more usual 13%. The worry now was that the early picked grapes might translate into a wine with hard, green flavours. So the winemaking team took a punt. They fermented the grape juice with yeast strains used for sauvignon blanc that have been selected to emphasise aromatics, and which they hoped might keep any harsher notes in abeyance. It helped that in making a wine for a one-off event, they could afford to concentrate on upfront energy. This stuff is, with luck, going to be drunk by the end of August; it doesn’t need backbone to keep it going once its first flush of youth has died away.
That’s why, when blending in April the team looked for aromatics and ease – “fluff, if you like”, says Iain – rather than acidity, grip and austerity that it would need to keep it going later. The end result has a sherbetty tropicality that I’d be more than happy to drink on the Mall watching volleyball in the rain.
But for me it’s the red of this Olympic triumvirate that’s the real triumph. It’s from the Seival Estate in Brazil – a nod to the 2016 Olympics – a country best known in vinous terms for its sparkling whites and the strange wine-growing region of the São Francisco Valley, in which they have two harvests a year. It’s absolutely perfect for the job; soft enough but not slack and slippery and definitely not dull – “I wanted to keep a trace of that typical southern Brazilian earthiness,” says Iain. The real genius here, though, is the small amount of gamay they’ve added to the syrah-tempranillo blend which lifts what might have been quite a robust wine with a touch of bright freshness, really picking it up with a bit of pace. There’s only 5 per cent of gamay in the blend but it makes a difference – and just as well, because the winery only had 10,000 litres and it all went in; more wasn’t an option.