The happy return of the Dirty Dozen

ArticlesJust Williams

The Dirty Dozen may look rather different to its original iteration of 10 years ago. But for David Williams, the collective still captures the essence of all that’s exciting about the UK’s wine scene

 

At 10 years old, The Dirty Dozen tasting is at a curious point in its evolution. A number of the original founders are no longer on the bill, among them important names that embodied the trailblazing spirit of the first Dirty Dozen event in 2011, such as Vine Trail, Roberson, Flint Wines, The Wine Barn, Aubert & Mascoli and Indigo.

This might lead to speculation along the lines of the famous head-spinning philosophical conundrum of Theseus’s Ship: can a vessel that has had all of its constituent parts replaced over the years really be said to be the same ship it was when it was first made? In the same spirit, the UK wine trade might ask: Just how many of the original members of The Dirty Dozen can the event stand to lose before it becomes something else altogether?

For now the question is still just about moot, and not only because of the continued presence of such founding members as Astrum, H2Vin, fortyfive10°, Clark Foyster and Raymond Reynolds. The recruitment of the newer players has for the most part been sensitively done. The likes of Ucopia, a spanking new Latin American specialist set up by ex-Las Bodegas man Laurie Webster, the classical Burgundy and Germany specialist Howard Ripley and the consistently excellent, ever-adventurous Yapp and Carte Blanche, for example, are each simultaneously different enough and similar enough to their predecessors for punters to not notice the joins. Safe to say there is still an ethos here, a recognisable kinship among the different suppliers and their wines.

Susana Esteban, a star of Alentejo

And that means the event still has the capacity to excite its audience of independent merchants, sommeliers and press. It’s still a must-visit tasting. All the more so, perhaps, after an 18 months during which it was possible to speculate that such events might never happen again.

Indeed, once I’d got over the emotionally confusing strangeness of being in an enclosed space crowded with unmasked tasters spitting into cardboard cups, I found dozens of memorable, and not at all dirty, wines at the triumphant return event at Glaziers Hall by Southwark Cathedral in late September.

Among the highlights were several wines from Spain, a country that, despite the absence of Indigo, has become a real collective specialism of the Dozen, a reflection of Spain’s relatively recent emergence as a fertile breeding ground for avant-garde small producers.

The Dozen’s Spanish offering took in the full range of the country’s modern artisan winemaking. From Carte Blanche’s stock of natural and nearly-natural, terroir wines I was completely bowled over by the gossamer-soft, pure high-altitude Valencian white made (in a mix of amphora, neutral oak and stainless steel) from the fascinating local variety Merseguera, Baldovar 923 Cañada Paris 2018 and by two equally haunting, but very different interpretations of Sierra de Gredos Garnacha offered by Ca di Mat (Valautin Garnacha and Los Peros Tinto).

 

Once I’d got over the emotionally confusing strangeness of being in an enclosed space crowded with unmasked tasters, I found dozens of memorable, and not at all dirty, wines at the triumphant return event at Glazier’s Hall

 

But at the opposite end of the scale, I loved, as I always do, the refined silky-savoury magnificence of ultra-traditionalist Rioja producer López de Heredia’s Viña Tondonia 2008 and was fascinated by its Swig stablemate, Bodegas Valsardo Reserva Superiore 2002: a parcel of mature Tempranillo from a vineyard next to Peter Sisseck’s Pingus, made in a supremely elegant (12.5% abv) way that would have put it completely at odds with the big fruit, big oak wines being made in the region at the time.

The western half of Iberia also had plenty to offer in the shape of the usual fabulous offerings from such celebrated vanguard Central Portuguese producers as Luis and Filipa Pato and Dirk Niepoort, but also in the lesser-known, but intriguingly balanced, succulent southern wines from Ramilo in Lisboa and Susana Esteban in Alentejo (both courtesy of Raymond Reynolds).

One consequence of the line-up shake-up, however, is that the spread of specialisms was arguably wider at this edition of the Dozen than ever. From Corsica (H2Vin’s excellent Clos Canarelli and Yapp’s elegant Domaine Torraccia) to Georgia (Clark Foyster’s peerless Orgo), and from Greece (the sometimes quirky, sometimes eccentric, but always compelling roster put together by Maltby & Greek) to new-wave South Africa (superb new releases from Keermont and BlankBottle courtesy of Swig), The Dirty Dozen remains one of the most cosmopolitan tastings around.

It’s a busy global-bazaar where you can see how Dirk Niepoort’s Mosel project stacks up alongside the classic masters of the region, Howard Ripley’s JJ Prüm and Fritz Haag; where a singing Baden take on Blaufränkisch (Yapp’s Klumpp Cuvée No 1 2018) can be tasted alongside Prieler’s take on the grape from Burgenland; and where Malbec’s graceful side comes out in wines from Mendoza (Susana Balbo); Patagonia (Bodegas Noemia) and Cahors (Mas del Perle).

All of which enthusiastic reporting is really just to say the current iteration of The Dirty Dozen was fun. I’m very glad it’s back. And long may it continue.

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