A Weekend in England’s Wine Country

28 Jan

It’s become a source of pride for The Wine Wandeerers to say we live in England’s wine country, now that our beautiful floral whites are being taken seriously and our bubbly winning international blind tasting awards against the grandes marques of Champagne. So we were quick to accept an invitation to visit Chapel Down, now the country’s biggest wine producer and, given its stash of medals, many would say the best.

Chapel Down sits just outside the lovely mediaeval village of Tenterden, but we preceded our visit with a night across the Sussex border at the seaside.    Here, The Gallivant Hotel at Camber Snds  fields a restaurant serving the kind of simple but inventive food which showcases good wine better than any tasting cellar, and we tasted a few bottles of Chapel Down which really came into their own with chef Ben Fisher’s culinary inspirations.

Our sommelier chose Kit’s Cody 2011, a 100 per cent chardonnay to accompany Ben’s pigeon breast and confit leg with cauliflower couscous. That’s significant in itself, as it’s only in the past few years that climate change has made production of English chardonnay, which requires a longer growing season than other grapes grown here, even possible.

The chardonnay was very good, but it was the Bacchus Reserve 2012 which followed it which produced the first gasps of surprised appreciation. The intense floral notes and absolute delicacy are what make still English whites so special, and this was a gorgeous bottle, which did not overwhelm Ben’s crab ravioli, flavoured with enough tarragon and fennel to stand up to the wine.

What really knocked our socks off, though, was the Pinot Noir 2011 which came with a sublime dish of Romney Marsh lamb, the local meat which really deserves a PDO of its own. Making reds in a country with a limited amount of sunshine is always going to be a challenge, and the hard to make pinot noir is the greatest challenge of all. This one had the fabulous, seductive nose and crystal-clear clarity you expect from a good pinot noir, and followed through absolutely on flavour. We found out later at the vineyard that there are only a few bottles left, and the 2012 is not of the same ilk, so this is a bottle to bag quickly, in person at the vineyard or online.

Apparently reds are not what people go to Chapel Down for – they come for the famous award-winning bubbly, and often leave with a bottle of Nectar, the limited quantity dessert wine. The 2013 will not be released for more than a year now, but we had a preview with Ben’s utterly sensational chocolate and peanut butter slice. This time the wine took a back seat, not surprisingly given the robust flavours of the dessert.
Next morning we diverted to Winchelsea, another great little town the other side of Rye with a great deli-cafe, Winchelsea Farm Foods, which showcases fine local produce including the organic meat of Elm’s Farm. We picked up great lamb, beef and pork before stopping at the vineyard for lunch at the elegant Swan Bistro, which serves what might be the best home-made white bread in Britain, and a taste of some vintages we hadn’t yet sampled. The Flint Dry white which was a good partner to ham hock terrine and picallili was a revelation- 60 per cent chardonnay blended with three other grapes – pinot blanc plus the unpronounceable Huxelrebe and Reichensteiner, it packed more of a punch than the 11.5% ABV suggests. The Union Red was not so impressive – it’s worth forking out the extra few quid for the sensational pinot noir to see what Chapel Down can do with a red.

The bubblies are always going to be the stars of the show at Chapel Down, and we feel the pinks are still the best. Decanter agreed, awarding the Rose Brut NV a Gold last year, and it also bagged a bronze in the International Wine and Spirit Competition. Strawberry notes are its most famous characteristic, and interestingly actual strawberry juice features in a much less well-known Chapel Down product, their curiously-named Curious Apple No. 1 cider. The Wine Wanderer who is a cider connoisseur actually felt he preferred it to any of the bubblies we tasted this year!

Divine wines from the south of France meet comfort food from the north at Brasserie Chavot

22 Nov

Eric Chavot is one of those French chefs whose return to these shores after a stint abroad we are celebrating in spades.   Like Pierre Koffman and Bruno Loubet, similarly lost to London for a while and recently reclaimed, he earned his Michelin stars years ago but now prefers to serve classic, affordable cuisine in an informal brasserie setting – how blessed can we get?

Comfort food was on our mind when we checked into Chavot’s brasserie adjoining Mayfair’s Westbury Hotel this week.   He is particularly known for his choucroute garnie, and we expected to accompany this feast of sausages and sauerkraut born in north-eastern France with an Alsace riesling.  Instead, sommelier India Salcade surprised us with a stupendous white from the opposite end of the country.

Le Grand Blanc is a curious mix of grapes – chardonnay with the rarely seen rolle and grenache blanc – but it is a revelation.   Big and yet fresh at the same time, it is the most seductive white we can remember tasting this year.  It more than stood up to the smoked pork belly and bangers and played well to the winey sauerkraut(actually, a bit too winey – we prefer our sauerkraut the traditional way – a little sharper and well-flecked with caraway seeds).

We also missed the meaty frankfurter which is a staple of choucroute in Alsace, although well done Eric producing the turned waxy boiled potato which is also an essential, and invariably tastes better than any boiled potato you’ve had in Britain outside the Jersey Royal season.

Talking of Jersey, that was where the plump, briny oysters came from, although they were served in the Bordelaise manner with a little crepinette sausage.    With them came another lovely white  from the south – an Entre Deux Mers from Chateau Deville.  It’s easy to forget it was the French, rather than the Australians, who thought of blending sauvignon with semillon – this confection of 80 per cent sauv and 20 per cent sem was just the ticket.   We missed those little slices of pumpernickel that come with oysters in France, but the home-made bread was great, and so was the generous pat of butter.

The fact Chavot is not truly a traditionalist was borne out by the starter which earned raves when the restaurant opened earlier this year.   Deep-fried soft shell crab is hardly French, even if you serve it with aioli, and these little beauties came from India.   Deliciously crisp, though, and delightfully served on a board topped with French newspaper, accompanied by yet another really sumptuous wine from the south. Chateau la Coste Bellugue from Provence, proved more powerful than its blush of palest pink suggested, with cabernet sauvignon and syrah punching up the usual mix of cinsault and grenache.

Ile flottante for dessert could have used crackly toffee on the meringue instead of in the creme anglaise, but the baba au rhum was just about the best we’ve ever tasted.  And the room is truly beautiful-elegant but not a bit stuffy.

Brasserie Chavot, Conduit Street, London W.1.
(0)20 7183 6425


Dinner by Heston – and a trip round the world in a wineglass

23 May

Gazing out over Hyde Park from the uber-hot London restaurant with the city’s best park view, it was odd to suddenly find ourselves transported to Provence, Tuscany and Andalucia before coming full circle back to the South of France without leaving Knightsbridge.  That’s what wine can do for you – transport you to the place you first tasted a special drop and bring all the sense of mise-en-place flooding back , and no-one is more susceptible to being transported by their adventures in a glass than The Wine Wanderers.

Turns out that Dinner, Heston Blumenthal’s restaurant at the Mandarin Oriental, has not only just leapt to no. 7 in the World’s Best 50 Restaurants list, it has a fabulously diverse and esoteric wine list.  Had we been drinking wine by the bottle, we’d have been transported to Argentina by a Catena Zapata chardonnay last enjoyed in Buenos Airea; as it was we relived several imbibing adventures in Europe with extraordinary dishes based on Britain’s own culinary adventures over the centuries.

Naturally, we  started with Meat Fruit, Dinner’s famous 15th century-inspired signature dish.  It’s a rich parfait of chicken liver and foie gras double-wrapped in mandarin-flavoured jelly, dimpled to resemble a whole mandarin.   We chose a beautiful pale golden-pink Bandol  from Domaine Tempier, best-known for their sublime reds; there may have been a touch of mourvedre in it as well as the quintessentially Provencal mix of cinsault and grenache.  This rose proved a perfect complement to London’s most coveted starter, which came with satisfyingly trencherman tranches of smoky grilled sourdough.

Turbot with cockle ketchup proved controversial; the salty, sweet and sour cockle dressing was tongue-ticklingly oceanic, but not necessarily a perfect match for the delicate turbot.  Nor was the Friuli pinot grigio first suggested a perfect partner.  A glass of Ballot Millot Meursault hit the spot much better and reminded us of past meanderings through the Burgundy vineyards, discovering the great, sumptuous whites which never disappoint; pure hedonism in  a glass.

There was no argument about the Chianti Riserva from Casale dello Sparviero accompanying one of the world’s finest pork chops, a thick cut of black foot Iberico served fresh instead of more commonly as slivers of the world’s finest ham.   Sangiovese can be so disappointing, but sublime when properly made; we first appreciated the best at Terme di Saturnia in Tuscany.   A spelt risotto with the chop transported us to Lucca, where they revere and celebrate this under-appreciated grain.

Then it was off to Seville, where we first appreciated how well sherry partners food, for dessert, thanks to the Gonzalez Byass Apostolos palo cortado  accompanying brown bread ice-cream with salted caramel.   An Uroulat Jurancon alongside tipsy cake served with glazed pineapple fresh off the rotisserie brought us back to southern France – before, after three hours, it was time to end our reverie and step out into the here and now of London’s Hyde Park.   We always  expected great food from Dinner, but the wine list and world trip of happy memories were an unexpected bonus.

From Slovenia with love – zelen, sauvignonasse and pinot noir to die for

14 May

The Wine Wanderers have tracked some great bottles to the cellar door on their travels, most often from some restaurant in France to a vineyard down the road.   But this time a glass of pinot noir in a London gastro-pub drove one of us 1000 miles to Slovenia to find the genius who made it.

That restaurant was The Jugged Hare, which inspiredly featured Marjan Simcic as winemaker of the month.  They were in good company; Simcic’s award-winning wines are listed by The Fat Duck, China Tang and good restaurants across the globe.   The wine was a pinot noir so staggeringly good, it was no surprise it commanded £16 per glass in the City.

Turns out Simcic is a fifth-generation wine-maker in Slovenia’s Goriska Brda region skirting the Italian border who has won countless international awards – and his pinot noir is just the start.   Marjan’s wife, Valerija, presented a sumptuous sauvignon blanc 2009 matured in oak, a gorgeous 2007 merlot from their Opoka range, named for the stone which peppers the soil, and the 2010 vintage of that heart-stopping pinot noir.  We also recommend Simcic’s pinot grigio, which knocked our socks off at the earthily delightful Jugged Hare.

Simcic was one of several top-class winemakers visited in this region and the nearby Vipava valley whose bottles deserve to be better-known.  They include Sutor, whose pinot noir 2008 is divine and whose malvasia won a Decanter silver medal in 2009.   The 2011 vintage was sumptuous, ditto Sutor’s 2010 sauvignon blanc.

Scurek, another five-generation winemaking dynasty on the border, has won gold for their Stara Braida white, a blend of the indigenous(but difficult as a single varietal) rebula with sauvignonasse, malvasia and a touch of  piccolit.  This last is usually a sweet wine in Slovenia, but Scurek makes a dry version which is to die for; sumptuous enough to partner foie gras, great with cheese and amazing even without food.  Scurek’s Stara Braida red  was as close as I came to any of the country’s seductive refosk; 25% of it joins merlot, cabernet franc and a little cab sauv in a heady blend.   But I wish I’d been close enough to the Adriatic coast to visit Santomas, whose own 2005 refosk, tasted at Valvas’or in Ljubljana, was sublime.

Valvas’or also introduced me to a drop-dead-gorgeous sauvignonasse from natural winemaker Borut Blazic, whose vineyards fell into Italy when the border was redrawn.  He makes only 3000 bottles from this grape (known as tokai friulano before the EU forced a name change);  the 2006 is spectacular.   Blazic has a US agent but no UK distribution, and my mission is to spread the word; this white deserves publicity!

Ljubljana’s best restaurant, the excellent and innovative JB, makes a point of showcasing Slovenia’s best wines, and I have them to thank for an introduction to a super zelen.  This grape, exclusive to the Vipava valley, is a revelation and makes the best possible aperitif in a country full of great wine; the best I tasted was by Pasji Rep and came in a distinctive woman-shaped bottle.

From Piemonte pain and pleasure to super sakes

6 May

The Japanese are thought of as austere and the Italians effusive, so it was interesting to experience the reverse of these stereotypes, at least in drink, last week.   And all without leaving London, as The Wine Wanderers progressed from wine tasting in Knightsbridge to sampling sake in the heart of Mayfair.

We started at that shrine to Italian glamour, the Bulgari hotel, which is hosting a series of wine tasting sessions to provide insight into the offerings of Italy’s top wine-producing regions.  Long fans of heady Barolo, we were delighted at the chance to learn what else Piemonte produces – until we started tasting.  The fact this region is more celebrated for its reds may have something to do with the austerity of its whites.  A Roero 2010 Arneis displayed notes of – er – laundry detergent, and even the more approachable Erbaluce di Caluso  only livened up when partnered with morsels of buffalo mozzarella.

Dolcetto, Barbera and Nebbiolo are Piemonte’s glorious red varietals, but the Dolcetto d’Alba Vietti 2011 seemed a tad monastic.  We were happier with a Barbera brought to life by some accompanying charcuterie – head sommelier Sam Heathcote recommends monkfish to bring the best out of Dolcetto.   Only when the Barolo finally came out – a lovely example from Giacomo Fenocchio – did we feel as seduced as we expect to be by the great, voluptuous reds which Italy does like no-one else.   If you want to get to know some of these, book in at the Bulgari to taste Tuscans with Sam on June 17.

From Knightsbridge it was on to Bruton Place for dinner at Umu, a Michelin-starred Japanese restaurant whose warmth and buzz diminishes any notions of stereotypical austerity even before you get the menu.   It had to be sake to complement chef Yoshi’s rirgorously authentic food, and a Shirakabegura Daiginjo from Hyogo, with fruity aromas, made a perfect aperitif and also a great complement to Yoshi’s sashimi selection.   This included paper-thin slices of sea bass served with an intriguing yuzu and chive dip, as well as our favourite yellowtail and some surprisingly great raw mackerel.

With the seared toro which followed,  a seasonal Urakasumi Tokubetsu Jumai Shiboritate from Miyagi was suggested.  This was rich, yeasty and somehow slightly dry, slightly bitter and slightly sweet all at once – an outstanding accompaniment to unctuous, rich and fatty tuna belly.

The piece de resistance was the wagyu beef, which came with a blisteringly hot slab of Himalayan rock salt on which to cook the thin slices to our taste(interestingly, medium proved better than rare at extracting the flavour of the fabulous fat within the meat).  We complemented this steak-fest with a Kamoizumi Nigori Ginjo from Hiroshima, unfiltered and looking more like milk.    Barolo is also a fine partner for steak, but for great wagyu you can’t beat great sake, and it was the Japanese who sent us home happiest last Thursday.

Exciting wines from Chile? A reality, thanks to Aurelio Montes

1 Apr

I was privileged to take wine recently with Aurelio Montes, a legend in his own Latin American lifetime.  A free thinker who believes his grapes and the men who tend them benefit from spiritual sustenance like beautiful music while they work, Montes is that rare creature among Chilean wine-makers, a risk-taker.

If Chile has been missing a mention in these pages, it’s because their wines tend to be so darn bland.   Reliable, yes – you’ll rarely find a £5 bottle of Chilean which is undrinkable(with the exception of some carmeneres) – but rarely exciting enough to write home about.   The Argentinians on the other side of the Andes have been making most of the wild experiments with varying degrees of success, but the result that much more excitement has been coming out of Mendoza than Casablanca, Colchagua and the Central Valley.

Montes, named 1995 Chilean Winemaker of the Year, has shown faith by expanding the Chilean terroir, planting grapes in a coastal valley where no wine-makers have attempted to cultivate before.   Namely in the hinterlands of Zapallar, a little Pacific beach resort where summer sea breezes and morning fog inform the wine, as does slow ripening during a cool autumn.

The Outer Limits experiment has worked; these are terrific wines, even given their hefty price points(around £17 for the beautiful, grassy but full Sauvignon Blanc, £27 for the  pinot noir, heady with violets, and the somewhat more austere CGM – carignan spiked with grenache and mourvedre).

The Icon range is an even riskier venture in a recession; for £30-plus per bottle, the drinker has a right to expect something out of the ordinary.   Folly. which commands £40,  is certainly an outstanding Syrah, with all the complexity the grape can offer; it would be hard to find a better partner for red meat.    However, I  take issue with Montes on Purple Angel.   Chile has embraced carmenere as its own, but there’s a reason it disappeared from European vineyards 150 years ago, and it may well be that austere aftertaste of burnt coffee.

However, Montes is to be applauded in every other respect – not least for making very drinkable wines at the £12.99 level; in this Alpha range, the Chardonnay is to be particularly recommended, with unusual apple and pineapple notes which lend it extra liveliness.   And he makes an entry-level range at £7.99 I will be prepared to take on trust if I come across it.

Montes says the secret of his wines is that he lays out the barrels on feng shui principles and plays Gregorian chants to them 24/7 while they mature.   It sounds daft, and is bound to have taken an extra investment in the winery.  But it’s all part of what makes Montes wines much more worth drinking than the average bottle of Chilean plonk – you can taste the investment.

Incidentally, Montes is now growing in Argentina, too, and bottling under the Kaiken label.  Naturally, there’s a Malbec, but I think I prefer his Chilean Malbec overall for its subtety, ditto Montes’s Chilean chardonnay to the Kaiken, which does not display the old-fashioned white Burgundy sumptuousness Argentina’s Catena Zapata winery has brought to this much-mistreated grape.

From Rioja to Leeds with love – an extraordinary red, a delicious rose and a Montrachet taste-alike

22 Mar

Leeds may seem an odd place to discover a range of beautiful and unusual Spanish wines, but there is a link between the city of muck and brass and Luis Alegre of Rioja.   That’s the local importer who has introduced this maverick winemaker to The Foundry, an award-winning wine bar in the canal-side  complex which has extended and revitalised the city’s dining and entertainment scene.

I was impressed enough that The Foundry offered  Cotes de Provence rose by the glass – always, for me, the perfect aperitif, even far from the Med on a bitterly cold day – but Phil Richardson, Foundry co-owner who clearly knows his bottles, suggested I try Alegre’s rosado instead.  It was crisp, dry and delicious, in spite of being a pale strawberry colour which doesn’t, for me, hold a light to the golden pink of Cotes de Provence.  It did, however, remind me that we’ve never been disappointed yet by a rose sipped in Spain.

The wine, made by one of the young Turks who is changing the face of Rioja as we know it,  went down a treat with chef Shaun Davies’s white onion and Stilton soup, and had enough body to stand up to my thick, beautifully-seared veal chop, the shade of whose rare middle it exactly matched.  But Richardson had other ideas, pouring me a glass of Alegre’s Koden 2010 – and that’s where the wow factor really kicked in.

The strange name is apparently an Aztec term to describe a woman in her prime, and that was certainly true of this blend of this far from classic tempranillo aged in new French oak for six months.  What you get is a marriage of sumptuousness and elegant restraint in a rich ruby package which seems astonishing value at £6.25 a glass.

The Koden was a fabulous match for the earthiness of the ceps and other wild mushrooms garnishing the chop and the rich marsala cream sauce, and I would happily have left with only two great new wines to tell you about.  But Phil insisted I take home a bottle of the Alegre white Rioja 2011 to see if I agreed it resembled an old-fashioned French Burgundy.

I had my doubts that a concoction of 90 per cent Viura and 10 per cent Malvasia grapes could in any way approximate 100 per cent Chardonnay; indeed, the first tentative sip brought sour apples to mind.   But how the wine changed with food; it does indeed become reminiscent of a Montrachet, which may be a lot to do with the nine months it spends in oak from the Troncais forest.    This unusual wine won’t be for everyone, but it’s worth a fiver a glass to investigate when you’re in Leeds and want to try wine and food Michelin has recommended for six years running.

As for Alegre, you can’t miss the winery if you happen to be in the Rioja Alavesa, where it’s one of two very distinct and futuristic buildings on the horizon.   The one by Frank Gehry which looks like a mini-Guggenheim Bilbao belongs to Marques de Riscal, the makers of much more traditional Rioja.    The circular one on the hill resembling a flying saucer is Alegre’s


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