An evening at Pied à Terre

Regular readers will know that blind wine tasting is not one of my fortes. You can read about my misadventures at the Oxford vs Cambridge annual wine competition here. But I think when the pressures off, I might actually be getting better at it.

My wife and I were invited down to Pied à Terre – a Michelin starred restaurant in Fitzrovia – for a meal. I’ve noticed that other wine bloggers such as The Wine Loon have also been down so it seems that Pied à Terre are doing some of PR push with London’s influential wine blogging community.

We sat in the front of the restaurant in a cosy little room. In fact cosy would be a good way to describe the whole experience, there was none of the starchy formality you usually get in Michelin-starred places; nobody interrupted our conversation to explain the food. Just to give you some idea of how non intimidating this place is, one of the sommeliers looked just like cuddly comedian Michael McIntyre.

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I won’t go too much into the food but it was also nicely unfussy: a huge octopus tentacle with romesco sauce and squid ink tasting much like it might in a good restaurant in Barcelona despite the Jackson Pollock presentation, and the partridge breast cooked rare and served with a confit leg and red cabbage was almost like something you might get at Rules.

Rather than Mcintyre man, we had an avuncular Frenchman, Emanuel Hardonniere, as our sommelier and in a non-competitive he way brought out wines and asked me to guess what they were. I started badly thinking a white Tokay was Burgundy, I got better with a Cape wine guessing, sorry deducing, correctly that it was a Muscat.

And then I literally caught fire correctly identifying a Greek grape variety, a Xinomavro; next he gave me a wine to try which I thought was a St Emilion but turned out to be a Lalande de Pomerol, very close, though I did guess the vintage correctly, a 2010; my last near triumph was with a sweet wines served with the pudding which I thought was a Jurançon but it turned out to be a Pacherenc du Vic Bilh, again very close, both are from South West France and made from Gros and/or Petit Manseng.

The only off note in evening was a natural Gamay from Serbia with a serious dose of hamster or goût de souris as the French call it – some sort of yeast or bacterial infection that you only notice as you swallow. It’s something not uncommon in ‘natural’ wines – come on lads, just use a bit of sulpur!

We finished with one of my favourites, a Rivesaltes served with pear cooked in port and thankfully by this stage of the night M. Hardonniere was no longer playing games with me.

Below are the bottles we tried. All were good in their own way except the Serbian Gamay (top row centre right) though I have heard good things about it when it’s not infected with the stench of rotting rodent.

 

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This week I’m drinking. . . . . port

Me last Christmas: I can’t understand why I’ve put on so much weight. We didn’t do that much feasting.

My wife: yes but after every meal you had cheese and port

My problem with port is that I find it a bit too delicious. If there’s a bottle open in the house then I’ll want a glass every evening and when you’re having a glass of port you’ve got to have some cheese. And then it all starts to add up. So I’m taking  a port break until Christmas proper kicks in when I’m going to go a bit mad.

But before I take my port holiday, I have to tell you about a special offer at Tesco. They are selling Taylor’s 10 Year Old Tawny for only £16 until 11th December. It normally sells for at least £20. This is one of my absolute favourite fortified wines. I love the combination of bright strawberry fruit and then layers of walnut and tobacco. It’s one to give to people who think they don’t like port because it’s much lighter than vintage or vintage style ports – though still 20% so don’t knock it back like claret like I did one year.

I did a talk recently with Slightly Foxed magazine with some Taylor’s tawny for the audience to try and everybody loved it. In fact it completely upstaged me as everyone just wanted to talk about how good the port was.

Perhaps that could be the advertising line for the Port Marketing Board – the trouble is it tastes too good – and then adverts could show the havoc caused by the irresistible port. I don’t think it’s been done before.

Port Foxed

Photo of me sitting on a throne whilst high on tawny port.

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This week I’m drinking . . . . the Christmas Negroni

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I’ve been sent these rather lovely looking bottles from Martini. They are Martini Rubino Vermouth, Ambrato Vermouth and Martini Bitters. There’s something of a vermouth revival going on at the moment with delicious new products from South Africa (Badenhorst), Australia (Regal Rogue) and England (Asterley Bros). Perhaps in response to this competition, the old guard, Martini, have raised their game with new premium releases. I’m a big fan of the standard Martini Rosso which is hard to beat in a Negroni so I was keen to see how this drinks measured up. Furthermore Martini have also launched the 1872 Bitter to compete with Campari head on. I’ve been playing around with these bottles for a few weeks now and have come to some conclusions:

  1. Both the Rubino and the Ambrato totally rock either on their own or with tonic water. The Ambrato is a bit like Noilly Brat Ambré with nutty vanilla notes. The Rubino is quite delicate with sour cherry fruit and a light bitterness, a bit like a northern Italian red wine. They also work great mixed with white wine or prosecco.
  2. The Ambrato was superb in a very dry martini adding a subtle fruity and nutty note to the drink.
  3. The Martini Bitter is less thick and bitter than Campari. It’s very orangey like a halfway point between Aperol and Campari. Just with soda, I prefer Campari but mixed with grapefruit, orange juice and soda the Martini Bitter wins.

Of course this is all pissing about to the real point which is how do they fare in a Negroni. Here the results were interesting. The Rubino worked really well in a sort of lightweight Negroni using Aperol but it was rather overpowered by the Martini Bitter.

My favourite vermouth for a Negroni is the mighty Cinzano 1757 Rosso which is powerful, complex and has something of the port about it. This gave me an idea, why not use port to boost the vermouth? So I mixed half a shot of Martini Rubino with half a shot of Bleasdale The Wise One ten year old tawny (I know it’s not strictly a port, I’ll come on to that later). The result after a bit of playing about was absolutely outstanding. The extra sweetness, richness and nuttiness of the port lifted the whole drink and seemed to accentuate the herbal quality of the vermouth:

1/2 measure of tawny port or similar

1/2 measure of Martini Rubino

1 measure of gin and a little bit extra – I used my special house gin

1 measure of Martini 1872 Bitter

1 piece of orange peel

Combine ingredients with lots of ice cubes.

Australian “port” is sweeter than proper Portuguese stuff so I added just a splash extra of gin to counteract it. I think it needs to be a tawny port because you wanted that wood-aged nuttiness on the end. In fact what this reminded me of more than anything was an aged negroni I had at Bar Termini last year.

I am going to call my new creation the Christmas Negroni and I intend to drink a lot of them over the festive season.

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This week I’m drinking . . . . Viña Majestica 2010

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Note uninspiring label 

I almost didn’t try this wine because the label is a bit dull, it’s part of Majestic’s Definition Range. I know you shouldn’t judge a book by the cover and all that but when there are 200 wines to try you have to make entirely arbitrary decisions. Then I noticed from the embossed bottle that it was made at the Torre de Oña estate which is owned by La Rioja Alta, one of my favourite rioja producers so I had a small glass with my lunch (I would also recommend the sausage rolls at Lord’s cricket ground where the tasting was held) and I was extremely impressed. It has the classic tobacco, ripe strawberries and melty tannins that you’d expect in a far more expensive rioja reserva but it’s only £10.99 when you buy a case. I’m going to serve it in my 19th century claret jug which holds two bottles and my guests will think I am really spoiling them.

I was at La Rioja Alta recently and though I can’t make a direct comparison, from memory this wine could compare with far more expensive offerings from this producer. I thought it better than Viña Alberdi Reserva 11 – currently £18.25 at Oddbins – and more enjoyable than the Viña Ardanza 08 – £22 at Majestic. Though the Ardanza should improve with a couple of years in the bottle, if you want a rioja for drinking now the Majestic own label one is unbeatable. So unbeatable in fact that it seems rather foolish of La Rioja Alta to release a wine of such quality for such a low price. On my tasting note on cellartracker, someone called Slimes (an assumed name, I assume) wrote:

“I thought I’d let you know that the next vintage will be made by a different producer. When I first tasted the 2009 at the winery, the staff at RA seemed to be a bit miffed that this was going for £10.99, so it’s no surprise that Majestic will have to source this from someone else over the next few years. I’m sure if you speak to your local store, they’ll happily give you a call when there’s sign of a vintage-change.”

My advice would be to hurry down to Majestic and load up on the 2010 while you still can. Then all you need is a 19th century claret jug.

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Behold! The mighty claret jug. Doesn’t it look very Tyrion Lannister?

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This week I’m drinking. . . . a very nice South African Chenin

In Blackheath there are two clothes shops: one caters for Richard Hammond, all expensive jeans and mid life crisis leather jackets, and the other for James May. I often wondered who is buying all the paisley, surely even millionaire former Top Gear presenters can’t buy that many shirts. . . . . and then I went to the New Wave South Africa tasting earlier this month.

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It took place in a warehouse/ nightclub type venue in Shoreditch, the PA was playing Led Zeppelin at deafening volume and everywhere you looked there were middle-aged men in floral shirts like the one above.

Never mind the wines where good. South Africa has long been my least favourite large wine-producing country but the new wave Rhoney blends from Swartland have a verve to them (and not a single stinky red at the whole tasting, hurrah!) that makes me want another sip and then another. They’re real drinkers wines. One producer described his Cinsault as “smashable” which seems about right to me though whether the general public is happy to spend £17 on a wine for knocking back is another matter.

As good as the reds were, and some were very good indeed, it was the whites however that stole the show: vivid appley Chenins with magical acidity and textured Cape blends of Chenin, Viognier, Grenache Blanc etc and a couple of Palominos that were like flor-free Manzanillas if you can imagine such a thing.

I noticed that The Wine Society is doing one of my favourites for only £11.95:

Tania & Vincent Careme Chenin Blanc Terre Brûlée 2015

This is made by a Loire producer so you’d expect they know their way around Chenin. It smells sweet, like cooked apples and cake, it’s very ripe but balanced by a bracing acidity – it’s a made to make your mouth water.

I left the tasting with my ears ringing and my eyes assaulted by paisley but my palate thoroughly refreshed.

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You can’t appreciate wine without getting (at least a little bit) drunk

If an alien came down tomorrow and read Decanter magazine, he or she (or perhaps some new completely unthought of sex from the Alpha Centauri), would never guess that the subject being written about was not only meant to be fun but was in fact an intoxicant. I’m not singling out Decanter for special criticism, almost all wine writing no matter how vivid and evocative is written from the point of view of absolute sobriety. I can think of no other activity where the literature on the subject is so far removed from most people’s everyday experiences.

We enjoy wine because it is alcoholic. None of the culture built up around wine would exist if it weren’t intoxicating. As much as we might like to think that wine tastings are in the words of Dr Frasier Crane “just about wine and clear constitutional procedures for enjoying it”, we should be honest that the reason most people attend them is at least partly to get drunk. How drunk though depends on the crowd. Before Christmas I put on what was grandly billed a “port masterclass” at a shop in Brockley. The audience consisted largely of grandparents of my daughter’s friends. Most had polished off a bottle (not of port I hasten to add) before I attempted to talk them through the ports. Needless to say there were no spittoons; teenagers on a school trip would have been an easier audience to control.

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Artist’s impression of last year’s Brockley wine tasting

Michael Broadbent certainly wouldn’t have approved. He wrote that “it is nothing short of ridiculous to drink one’s way through a tasting.” Of course there’s a good reason why pros don’t taste like south London winos. I don’t want the buying team at the Berry Bros half cut when assessing the new Burgundy vintage.

There is, however, a happy medium between Brockley Bacchanalia and the asceticism of the professionals. A wine tasting when done properly works like an ancient Greek symposium in that you have a formalised way of talking, in this case about wine, and you all drink at the same rate. Overt drunkenness is frowned upon but so is total sobriety.  A degree of intoxication helps British people to shake off their self-consciousness and talk freely about wine. Wine talk doesn’t seem so pretentious when you’ve had a few in like-minded company. If you taste sober you miss the true joy of wine appreciation which is the interplay between wine’s intellectual and visceral side

Recently I had been forgetting this important fact. ‘Tasting wine with you isn’t fun anymore’ my wife told me. At wine events which were meant to be social, I spent my time frantically scribbling notes, spitting, trying to get round quickly and getting impatient with lingerers. I was tasting like a pro when I should have been drinking like an amateur.

Interestingly it is only wine that has this gap between how a professional and an amateur function. You can’t properly assess a whisky without gauging how it goes down the throat (or so the experts claim) which is why whisky tasters rarely have more than ten in a flight. It’s the same with beer. I judged a beer competition recently where I tried over a hundred beers and didn’t spit once. Which is perhaps why you rarely meet a thin beer writer. Can it be a coincidence that beer and whisky are seen as fun and unpretentious whereas wine still suffers from accusations of snobbery?

You’d never guess it from attending most professional tastings but people in the wine trade can be quite fun. You can catch a glimpse of this by reading Noble Rot magazine, a small circulation publication which is something of the in house magazine for the wine trade. Alongside suitably reverent features about cult Burgundy producers are pieces written from something of an off-duty perspective ie. no spittoons! In fact the amount of feasting and drinking in its pages would probably give the British Medical Association a collective apoplexy.

But the best writing on wine has often been done by amateurs, Roger Scruton for example, because they don’t have the disconnect between wine appreciation and intoxication. It’s the same with television. The most entertaining programme made about drink in recent years was a Christmas special presented by restaurant critic Giles Coren and comedian Alexander Armstrong. There was not a spittoon in sight. It just goes to show that wine can be fun as long as you remember to swallow occasionally.

A shorter version of this appeared in the Oldie. 

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This Week I’m Drinking. . . . Chalkdown Sparkling Cider

This is the cider I’ve been waiting for. I’ve been interested in cider (or cyder perhaps) since 2010 when I started reading about how high quality high strength sparkling ciders were made in the 17th century by men such as Sir Kenelm Digby and Lord Scudamore. These ciders achieved such high repute that the French ambassador pronounced one Vin de Scudamore. You can see how prestigious they were by visiting the museum of London where there’s an exquisite glass that belonged to Scudamore engraved with apples which was used specifically for cider. You wouldn’t use such a glass for farmhouse scrumpy. Indeed cyder spelt with a Y, was considered quite distinct from the sort of thing drunk by farm hands. I wrote more about this cyder heyday here.

It was a brief flowering, these noble cyders, but they have never entirely gone away. According to Pete Brown & Bill Bradshaw’s cider book, Bulmers used to make a bottle fermented cider that was marketed like champagne in the 1920s. Today you can buy quite a few bottle-fermented ciders from Burrow Hill in Somerset, Ashridge in Devon, Tom Oliver in Herefordshire, and Gospel Green in Sussex. The first three are made from cider apples so they have a bittersweet taste, some tannin and a certain funkiness. They’re West Country ciders but the Gospel Green is made from sweet apples on the South Downs, an area which is now famous for its sparkling wines. Gospel Green is made in tiny quantities – about 8,000 bottle a year – but I thought that if someone could make something as good but in supermarket size quantities they would be on to a winner.

Well it’s here.

The Chalkdown 2013 Cider is made from apples grown on the South Downs though it doesn’t say which varieties. It costs costs £10 from Waitrose (though annoyingly they seem to be out of stock on their website at the moment) or £11 direct and I can’t think of a sparkling wine I’ve had that beats it for the money. It combines the green apple deliciousness of a cider like Aspall’s with honeyed yeasty notes like you might get in an English sparkling wine. I drank the whole bottle to myself and because it’s only 8% felt fine the next day.

This is what we should be drinking instead of prosecco or cava. In fact if I was getting married again, I would serve it my wedding.

 

 

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