My Uncle used to say: “You can tell a good bottle of wine, by how many stories poured from it.” So, as I release the cork from a chilled bottle of very nice Sauvignon Blanc, let me tell you about the time, not so long ago (last week in fact), when I took up the kind invitation to visit the sumptuous Champany Inn in Linlithgow.
Entering the 16th century pan-tiled building, I was greeted by Jason Davidson, son of Anne and Clive who together both own and run this iconic Scottish restaurant with its 16 luxury bedrooms, and adjoining Chop and Ale House. After also being warmly welcomed by Anne, Jason invited me down to view their cellars – and that’s where the story really begins!
The deceptively long cellar houses approximately 36,000 bottles! (That’s a lot of storytelling!) And as I passed through the collection of old Italians, elegant French and rich Spanish, I was met by Mike Anthony, the expert Sommelier, who introduced me to their notable South African collection, generated by the Davidson’s South African family connections.
Having been fortunate enough to spend a fair bit of time out in South Africa’s winelands, I was looking at a display I could really relate to, both as a personal preference when it comes to drinking wine, but also each bottle triggered fine memories of a stunning part of the world.
I read recently that while South Africa is considered a ‘new world’ wine country, the tradition can be traced back over 350 years to 2nd February 1659, when the first grapes were pressed and South Africa's wine story began. Despite its African geography, the Cape winelands, situated at the southern-most tip of Africa, enjoy a Mediterranean climate with cool, wet winters and warm dry summers. And together the mountain slopes and valleys form the ideal habitat for the wine grape. Added to which the sea breezes from the Atlantic and Indian oceans cool the vineyards during the warm summer afternoons, which slows the ripening process and creates the intense fruit flavours that are so popular with lovers of South African wines.
I was invited to sample two elegant wines that have both earned the privilege of carrying the Champany name, but aren't born from a vast Linlithgow vineyard. They have been carefully selected and imported from the Newton Johnson Vineyards - family run winery situated in the Upper Hemel and Aarde Valley near the breathtakingly beautiful coastal town of Hermanus. (Hemel-en-Aarde literally means heaven on earth).
Newton Johnson specialise in creating limited quantities of premium wine, and are proud to boast that they operate to the ‘old world philosophy’ of ‘creating wines with a sense of place’. And after pulling the cork from the chilled Sauvignon Blanc, the fresh citrus aroma fruit characters live up to that promise!
The delicate colour disguises the clear, bright refreshing flavours. Pleasant notes of citrus on the nose give way to a more herbaceous type of Sauvignon rather than tropical fruits. And for the connoisseur, note that the wine has 8% Semillion, which adds some complexity and a little more 'interest' to the wine.
Next, I’m treated to the elegant ‘Champany Thistle’ red, and another story. I learned that it’s made up of three grape varieties, Syrah, Mourvèdre and Grenache. And while the wine is predominately Syrah, the Mourvèdre is added to give the wine some backbone while the Grenache adds a little more perfume.
It has a fairly bright, youthful colour. Raspberries and redcurrents on the nose - with a subtle, nicely judged, oak. Velvet tannins with a good, long elegant finish.
But why the name ‘Champany Thistle’? Well, in South Africa it’s against the wine laws to have more than two grapes as the name of the wine. So while the likes of ‘Cabernet – Merlot’ is fine, ‘Syrah - Mourvèdre – Grenache’ is not. For this reason the Davidsons took inspiration from the large thistles that grow outside the Cocktail Bar windows at Champany, and made their find legal! Unfortunately the thistles have been-and-gone for this year, but they will be back! As will I, as on my departure I discovered the establishment’s Champany Cellars wine shop, an Aladdin’s Cave of fine wines, where you’ll find the Sauvignon at £11.50 and the Thistle at £15 a bottle. But that’s another story…
Tony Bibby owns and runs FORTY-SIX, a creative consultancy that works across a range of international blue chip companies. And when he’s not doing that, he transfers his creative skills and thoughts into stories for children. One of his original ideas, “Teacup Travels” is being developed and produced by PLUM Films in Edinburgh, into a series for CBeebies.
Thanks to Champany Inn, Linlithgow, West Lothian, Scotland, EH49 7LU. For reservations call: 01506 834532.