Wine articles

Odd flavours, off flavours

There’s a lot of talk at the moment amongst us wine bores about natural wines – wines made with no additives and little or no sulphur. Positions have become entrenched, harsh words have been said. I foresee a schism. The debate, as far as I can tell, boils down to this: those who don’t approve of natural wines say ‘some of them are horrid’ and those who do either reply ‘well some of yours are horrid too’ – this is known as the schoolboy defence – or ‘what is horrid? – the French  philosopher defence.

The problem with heated debates is that they only serve to obscure the facts. Uncommitted bystanders are asked to choose sides when actually what we want is information. The novelist Nicholas Blincoe put this rather well recently when he said that the argument over Europe could be boiled down to one side shouting ‘cappuccino’ and the other side ‘gypsy.’ We’re left none the wiser. 

As natural wine is made in a risky way, it doesn’t seem  a controversial thing to say that there is a greater chance that some of them will have faults, some of them will taste horrid. The logical retort would be yes, there is this risk but it’s worth it for the highs that can only come from wine made in this way. I call this the cycling without a helmet defence. Perhaps it is dangerous but it’s worth it on a sunny day to feel the wind in your hair. It’s not one that anyone seems to use and I’m not sure why. Would accepting that natural wines have a greater tendency to spoil undermine the whole concept? Does anyone outside the wine world really care? Is anyone reading this post?

I will give you an example. I tried a wine called Fou du Roi 2010 from Les Temps de Cerise at a recent Roberson tasting.  It had the most gorgeous ripe vivid fruit, a touch of CO2 sparkle, and a lightness and and sense of fun that shouted ‘natural wine’ Then, however, a wave of something I can only describe as badly kept real ale hit me. I’m not sure what the technical term for this is, or whether there is is even a technical term.

Generally I would describe myself as a natural wine enthusiast. I am also very tolerant of ‘faults’, vinegar, oxidation, etc. I can deal with. I particularly love old school Rioja, Chateau Musar etc with all their quirks and foibles. I like a bit of Brett – a yeast infection that makes a wine smell of old socks. I like white wines made with skin contact so that they turn orange. Basically I love wine. But one thing I can’t put off as a quirk is that stale smell. It means that I am reluctant to order any wine described as natural on a restaurant wine list. I’ve had this often with natural wines, gorgeous fruit and then old beer.

Some of these wine were from highly-lauded producers. What I want to know is whether they were meant to taste like that.  Everyone else at the Roberson tasting was slurping and spitting without recoiling. Am I abnormally sensitive? In order to appreciate them do I have to get used to this taste?

The following week I went to a tasting organised by the wines of Jura. Now here are some seriously peculiar wines. Imagine a cross between white Burgundy and a sort of farmhouse sherry and you’re nearly there. The best wines – Vin Jaunes and Cotes-du-Juras – were oxidised and some of them had a sharp tang of acetic acid – vinegar. These wine were on the whole amazing. Last night I had a Rancio wine from the Roussillon – yes that means rancid – the wine is left in old barrels, not topped up and left to oxidise in the heat until they take on nutty, fruity flavours. All these things in a table wine would be considered faults but here they are elevated into something beautiful, especially with a nice piece of Gruyere. 

If there is anyone out there who knows the technical term for the stale ale taste, please could they let me know. I want to learn! 


Giaconda Dining Room

I wrote this for last year. Since then the Giaconda has been refurbished and extended. There is now a bright airy garden room out the back. The food is as good before and the wine list has some interesting new stuff. When I went last week they had a superb waxy Spanish white called Manuel de la Osa – a natural wine that was vivacious rather than wacky. They also now have table clothes for even more sound absorption. 

These days I seem to be having a lot of lunches with the hard of hearing. To make matters worse I am myself slightly deaf – probably a legacy of a youth spent in Northern nightclubs. I fear that I’ll end up like my late grandmother who just used to reply ‘whisky’ to every question. I work near Soho so am spoiled for choices when it comes to eating. Unfortunately the minimalist/shabby chic trend in London restaurants means that none of these places has the vital noise-absorbing fabrics that I need when eating out: no curtains, no carpets, and most new places in Soho don’t even have cushions. If you want to have an informal lunch where you’re intending to do more listening than drinking and gesticulating, where does one go in central London?

Then I remembered that the Giaconda Dining Room has a nice, thick black carpet. The sort of carpet you can imagine a 70s Bond villain having in his bedroom. It’s an odd little restaurant about the size of a mobile phone shop crammed between the music joints on Denmark Street. This was where I decided to meet my elderly guest. He was already waiting for me when I arrived. I greeted him and he said something I couldn’t quite hear. ‘What?’ I replied. ‘I thought you said that this place was quiet,’ he said. So despite the carpet, it’s not the quietest of restaurants. It really is a very small room and it was full. This place was a pioneer in the small room/great food school of restaurants that has swept London in the last couple of years. But whereas places like Polpo or Duck Soup appeal to the young, the Giaconda customer is rather different. It’s more – and I mean this in the best possible way – bourgeois. The people at the table next door are more likely to be lawyers, doctors or publishers, than the advertising or film-business people that you get on Dean Street.

My guest immediately took to the Australian waitress. The waitresses are always the same: Australian Tracey and Slovakian Katerina. They rule the tiny floor with the rod of iron necessary when keeping such a crowded room in order. I have a phobia of being bossed about in restaurants but from these two I don’t mind. Underneath their forbidding exteriors they’re both cheerful, knowledgeable and very good at waiting, a rarity in London. They’re also dressed a bit like the waitresses in Betty’s Tea Rooms, which is a bonus for me.

Like the waitresses’ outfits, the food is not fashionable. It’s sort of French and sort of Italian but served in gentlemen’s club-sized portions with lots of comforting offal – the two signature dishes are a breaded boneless pig’s trotter for starters and ox tongue with parsley and capers. My guest went for the bream on the specials list (there’s always good fresh fish) and I went for veal kidneys. My kidneys were cooked with cherry tomatoes and capers. They were the best kidneys I’ve had a long time: browned on the outside and bloody in the middle, very tender, very meaty and not stinky like lamb’s kidneys can be. The bream was apparently superb; I don’t like eating off other people’s plates. Sadly my guest wasn’t drinking; he claims to be too old to drink anymore. It’s a shame because the wine list here is good. There aren’t any self-consciously ‘natural’ wines, just lots of good quality Old World wines, most of them for under £40. It’s a list to drink from, not to show off. For the lawyers there are a few upmarket burgundies of both persuasions whereas we publishers stick to the bottom end. My favourites are a crunchy Marcillac from Domaine du Cros, a pungent Faugères from Domaine Léonides and there’s a nice old Rioja from Urbina. To go with the fish they always have a decent Vinho Verde, Muscadet and a Txakoli. Wines by the glass change daily depending on the whims of the staff and there are a few halves.

Though the Giaconda Dining Room has been open for only about four years, it feels like somewhere that has been around since 1952. It’s an anomaly on the London restaurant scene because it has no concept, no big idea. You cannot see it expanding into a mini chain. What it reminds me most of is a small family restaurant in a back street of Naples or Palermo just getting on with doing what they have always been doing. The chef is an Australian called Paul Merron. The waitress who served us is his wife. When he broke his arm in a cycling accident not long after opening, he simply closed the place as there was no one else to do the cooking. That gives you some idea of how small this operation is.

By the time my guest had finished his Eton Mess he was beaming with happiness. ‘What a lovely little restaurant’ he said. When offered coffee, he said that he couldn’t at his age. A few days later my father (not deaf, though often pretends to be), called to say that he was meeting someone he hadn’t seen for years for a good long lunch. Could I suggest anywhere?

Giaconda Dining Room, 9 Denmark Street, Soho/Covent Garden, London WC2H 8LS, tel +44 (0)207 240 3334,

Spirits Wine articles

Home Soleras

I’m afraid it’s more drunken experimentation this week rather than incisive commentary on natural wines or Bordeaux 2012.

Ever since I learned that sherry is created by blending vintages together in a Solera so that the finished drink contains minute quantities of very old wines, I have tried to incorporate Soleras into my everyday life. When I smoked rolling tobacco, I used to put the the dregs from my packet of Cutter’s Choice into the new packet. Thereby small quantities of ancient tobacco were seamlessly blended in with the fresh stuff. Most of the time you couldn’t taste it though occasionally you’d get a really horrible dry cigarette. The reason I did it, however, was to provide a link to the past even if the past was only two years ago. I was trying, in my own studenty way, to create tradition.  I still do something similar with coffee beans.

I was reminded of this blending when last night I poured myself as glass of La Guita Manzanilla. It was from a litre bottle bought at Gerona airport which had been open in the fridge for nearly a week. It had rather lost its nutty bite and I was going to relegate it to cooking duties when I had the bright idea of pouring it into a glass which had a tiny amount of a Rancio Sec (a sherry style wine from Domaine de Schistes brought back from the Rousillon – more on this wonderful drink later) lurking at the bottom. The ratio was something like one part Rancio (mmmmmm rancid) to a hundred parts sherry but difference was startling. It was as if Dr George Clooney in his ER days before he became all political and tedious had applied those electric shock things to it. The nuts were back and how!

It’s worth trying this experiment at home as it gives you an insight into the wonders blending. It sounds heretical mixing two different wines together but this sort of thing is not uncommon in the wine world. Ripasso Valpolicella is made by fermenting the wine on the lees of an Amarone, Cote Rotie used to be fermented on the lees of Condrieu and I think Randall Grahm used to market a wine which was a blend of Washington State and Mosel Rieslings. In the the wider world of drinks, this sort of mixing wouldn’t raise an eyebrow: Scotch owes much of its complexity to being aged in used Sherry or Bourbon barrels.

What I had created was a kind of sherry martini. The Rancio functioned as the Vermouth and the tired Mazanilla as the gin.  Purists might shudder but really rather fine wines can be used as ingredients in cocktails. At a recent trip to a bar in Islington, 69 Colebrooke Row, I had a drink called a Woodland cocktail which was a blend of gin, amontillado sherry and a homemade bitters made from leaves. Rather than being a waste of the rather good amontillado used – something from Fernando Castilla as I recall – it actually complimented and heightened the flavours. The result was utterly harmonious. A word of warning here, though this kind of alchemy works with fortified wines, I very much doubt your best Burgundy would benefit from the home Solera treatment.

Wine articles

Ice wine

One of the drawbacks of having a wife who doesn’t drink very much is that it often means I drink more. Brought up by thrifty parents and taught at school to always finish what was on my plate, I hate to see things go to waste.  I’ve now got to an age where one glass over my usual two to three glasses can lead to either snoring or the dreaded waking up at 3am sick with worry about the mortgage or the price of cheese. So on one hand I have my frugal Scottish side and, let’s face it, my in-built love of booze screaming drink it and on the other my love of a good night’s sleep and marital harmony telling me not to.

Recently I was faced with a conundrum. We were going on holiday the next day and I’d picked up some Turkish food for supper. We had just under 1/2 a bottle of rose in the fridge (Chateau Barthes Bandol Rose, £9.99 at Majestic and really quite nice), not nearly enough to go with spicy grilled lamb for two. So I opened a bottle of red (Blind Spot GSM £7.50 The Wine Society.) Problem solved but after demolishing nearly half of the red I realised that I had to stop or they’d either be snoring, sleeplessness or even a hangover, none of them good when you have to get up at 5am to catch a flight. I’d have to let the wine go to waste unless of course i could preserve it some way.

Then I had a moment of inspiration/ light drunkenness, I popped the wine in the freezer and off we went to France. On our return I defrosted the bottle  curious as to how it would taste. It would have been interesting (though not very) to try the previously frozen wine against a fresh bottle but instead I had to rely on memory. It still tasted good but it was lighter, fruitier and simpler. A moderately serious wine had been turned into something frivolous and rather delicious. All went well until the last glass because at the bottom of the bottle was a purple sludge. That sludge was the seriousness that had been removed during the freezing process. I had inadvertently created Ice Wine.

Do you remember the craze for Ice Beer in the mid nineties? There was a lot of guff about smoothness and ultimate refreshment but actually the purpose of the ice process was to remove flavour from the beer. Tiny particles that contained beery tastes – yeast, hops etc. – were frozen and filtered out of the beer. The brewers had created something for those who found Sol a little too characterful. I think the big wine companies are missing a trick here. Many drinkers love bland products; many commercial wines are already chilled and filtered heavily. Instead of keeping it quiet, they should be shouting it from the treetops: Pinot Grigio Ice! Cava Ice! Sauvignon Blanc Ice! Come on marketing people, wake up!