Monthly Archives: July 2013

some unexpected Dagueneau loving…

There is a quirk to my personality that glories in the underdog (there has to be a reason I am a Quin’s supporter) and relishes the fall of Goliath.  So when a good friend produced a bottle of the infamous Didier Dagueneau Silex 2008 on Saturday night, there was a momentary flicker of malicious excitement as I prepared to be delightfully underwhelmed in the face of such an awesome reputation.

Well, I am glad that I wasn’t wearing a hat, as it would have taken some chewing.  Despite being a hardened Sauvignon Blanc sceptic, the wine could only be described as sublime.   Three days later, shunted around on an over-crowded, sweaty, rush hour tube; squeezed between garlic breath on my left and BO armpits on my right; I could withdraw into the sanctuary of the memory that is the Silex.

It was quite a line up we had on Saturday night, but the Silex stood out from the crowd, glowing with an ethereal elegance, the like of which hasn’t been seen since Ingrid Bergman graced our screens in Casablanca.  What I prize in a wine is understated power and grace and this, the Silex has in spades.  It wasn’t all bulging muscle and posturing, that was more the remit of the Pur Sang, but it had the incredible concentration, the effortless fluidity of mineral weight, spiced lemon grass, dried herbs and sun-baked stone as the flavours ebbed and flowed against your consciousness.  The great wines don’t require words.  The quiet smiles and unanimous silence around the table spoke volumes.

Suffice to say the 2011’s have just arrived in the Bancroft warehouses and my name is now on a case.

-Alex


New Fizz-Kid on the Block – Billecart-Salmon Sous Bois gets the wine monkey treatment.

Champagne is a complex masterpiece involving multi staged blending procedures, multiple fermentations, extensive autolytic ageing, dosage and disgorging carried out over many years which makes Champagne the ultimate display of science, patience, knowledge and art. 

Admittedly this is of little interest to the majority of champagne drinkers.

It is the lifestyle that Champagne encapsulates; the hedonistic world of power boats, polo and (if you are lucky) princes.  It is the drink of the ‘beautiful people’.  This luxury association is one of the great successes of the Champagne houses. 

However, Champagne, especially younger Champagne, has a fairly racy acidity which is suited to food rather than the aperitif occasions for which it seems to be predominantly drunk. Maybe we are getting old, but all this racy acidity is a recipe for heart burn which does not quite fit the glamorous lifestyle of the rich and famous.  The problem is that it requires patience for the acidity to soften and integrate through ageing, and quite often consumers are adverse to the added complexity and richness that aged Champagne assumes. 

So, for all you Champagne Charlie’s with heart burn who don’t feel like gulping Gaviscon in between crystal flutes of champers, the wine monkeys have happened upon the perfect Champagne for you.

It is the newest cuvee from the pedigree stable of Billecart-Salmon; the Billecart-Salmon Sous Bois.  Now, not only are we Champagne lovers, but we also love to taste something a bit different so this fitted the bill nicely.  Unlike the majority of Champagne’s on the market the Sous Bois is entirely vinified in oak. 

On initial examination we must admit we were under-whelmed by the label. Though it was obviously depicting the age rings of a tree, it is the colour of caramel Angel Delight which brings back less than attractive memories of school dinners circa the 1980s.

The proof, however, is in the pudding.  The nose is a beautifully seductive and richly elegant combination of toffee, yeast and baked apples. The palate is unashamedly upfront with a sweet American toffee apple and vanilla entry. The mid palate is a delight, the acidity, though fresh, has a softness to it that allows the wine to caress the palate, the autolytic notes are subtle but dance in the background enhancing the vanilla oak notes.  As one would expect from Billecart-Salmon, the mousse is fine and persistent, the finish long but mellow.

Though the Sous Bois doesn’t have the intense complexity and depth of the other top oaked Champagne’s, and its modern vanilla toffee notes could be considered somewhat ‘nouveau riche’ in style by more traditional tasters, it is undoubtedly a beautifully made, premium, crowd-pleasing wine.  This is an attribute far too often over looked by many wine geeks, especially when catering for weddings or large celebrations.  It is most certainly the Champagne of choice to be drinking at the next exclusive polo event, where its glamour and enjoyment will last beyond a single chukka.

-Alex


Back down the rabbit hole – lunch at The Fat Duck

Seven years ago, not long after I started working in the wine trade, my then-Manager of the Oddbins shop I worked at announced she was leaving to head back to her native New Zealand. And before she left England, she said, she wanted to visit the Fat Duck. Now, I have to confess that at the time the name itself meant little to me other than vaguely knowing that it was meant to be Very Good and Very Expensive. But as I had few responsibilities to spend my rather minimal wages on and (lets be honest) have always enjoyed a good meal out, I said I would go with her. As it turns out one of our other colleagues decided to come along too so it was the three of us that hopped on the train from Paddington one morning bound for Maidenhead, and beyond there – Bray.

And suffice to say, it was simply magical. Actually going there with no preconceptions – or indeed any real idea of what expect – made the whole theatrical experience so much more thrilling. It was easily the best meal I had ever had, both in terms of the food and the overall experience – and is a meal that has stayed with me ever since then. I fear I may have mentioned it rather more times than I possibly should have over the last 7 years to my friends and family, but such was its impact.

Fast forward 7 years to a room where we three monkeys were heads bent, pens scribbling, studying as hard as we could for our forthcoming exams. Then up came an idea – we needed something to look forward to post-exams, a big treat, something to work towards. “The Fat Duck!” one of us said. And so we decided to save our pennies, eat Pret sandwiches during our study evenings rather than visit Planet of the Grapes (our favourite study night location) and look forward to a decadent lunch at the Fat Duck. And of course, for Alex and I, the fact that Rémi who we got to know and had so much fun with on our Australia trip is Assistant Head Sommelier there was just the icing on the cake.

This Saturday the day we had been waiting for came around. And there I was back at Paddington station with two good friends heading back to Bray. I have to admit to a slight nagging worry – would this trip live up to my earlier visit – which surely has been viewed through rose-tinted spectacles for the past few years? And within those seven years the price of the tasting menu had doubled – would it still be worth it?

03d8c-img_0849

The winemonkeys and the Fat Duck

I should not have worried. Once again, on entering through the discreet wooden door, you step – not into a normal restaurant, but instead fall down the rabbit hole into the world of the Fat Duck. A world where your gin and tonic isn’t served in a glass but is frozen with liquid nitrogen and given to you as a spoon-sized ball, perfect to pop in your mouth where it sublimes to leave an incredible freshness of flavour: the perfect palate cleanser. A world where you are given a gold watch to put into a teapot of hot water where it dissolves into a gold-flecked consommé ready to be eaten. A world where candles can be lit and then eaten and where even Lenka eats snails. I won’t go into detail about the many courses we ate, for I fear I could not do them the justice they require – but have a look through the photos below, and if you want to know more then you’ll have to make a booking and go down the rabbit hole yourself.

Making nitro G&T

Making nitro G&T

However, I do feel that I should touch on the wines we drank as we are the winemonkeys afterall. “Would you like a glass of champagne?” – one of those questions that has just the one answer: yes. And so Rémi presented us with our first wine of the lunch – Moët 2002 – which was just perfect as we perused the tome that is their wine list. When you are wine geeks like us choosing from a wine list like that is a lot of fun but also takes quite a long time. We were nearing the last drops of our Moët when we finally came to a decision on two bottles that would fit both our budget and also (hopefully) give a good crack at matching some of the many and diverse dishes ahead.

Decisions, decisions...

Decisions, decisions…

First up was the Smaragd Riesling Steinertal 2002 from F.X. Pichler in Wachau, Austria. ‘Smaragd’ refers to the top level of the local classification system in Wachau, where the grapes are picked late so the wines tend to be quite rich and deep in style but also dry. It proved to be a real star, matching many of our first few dishes – and particularly with the savoury edge to the wine beautifully complementing the dish of jelly of quail and crayfish cream served with truffle toast and oak moss.

Oak moss, truffle toast, jelly of quail and crayfish cream with Pichler Riesling

Oak moss, truffle toast, jelly of quail and crayfish cream with Pichler Riesling

Following the Riesling we were due to move on to our red wine, Jasmin Côte Rôtie 1999, but Isa – the Head Sommelier – kindly presented us with a wine specifically to match the ‘Mad Hatter’s Tea Party’ mock turtle soup instead. This turned out to be a sherry, La Bota Amontillado, and for me it was the best match of the meal. The nutty, savoury Amontillado coped tremendously with the varying flavours and textures of the mock turtle soup and accompanying toast sandwiches. It also proved that the right wine match can really lift a dish up to another level: the whole is better than the sum of the parts. Sherry is so wonderfully food-friendly, and for all you sherry-phobics out there, I challenge you to try this match and not get it.

The gold-flecked mock turtle soup, amazing with Amontillado

The gold-flecked mock turtle soup, amazing with Amontillado

The Côte Rôtie had a hard act to follow after that sherry but proved a lovely, if rather more predictable, match to the beautifully tender lamb dish. And then – just when we were thinking that maybe we should have also considered a sweet wine – Rémi appeared with a half bottle of Simčič Leonardo – a sweet wine from Slovenia made from the Ribolla grape variety where the grapes were dried for 6 months to concentrate them before pressing and fermentation (this is the passito meth od of sweet wine production). A delectably sweet wine to end on, and a particularly lovely

Verjus in egg with Simcic Leonardo

Verjus in egg with Simcic Leonardo

Whilst this is getting on to be quite a long blog, I don’t think it right to end without mentioning the other star of the meal beyond the food and wine: the staff. I cannot emphasise enough how fantastic they all were, the service was so slick and everyone was so friendly and enthusiastic. Julien, the junior assistant restaurant manager who served us, was particularly fun and knew just the right way to banter with us – variously convincing Alex that they grow tiny mushrooms by planting seeds directly in the mock egg in the turtle soup dish, and persuading Lenka to eat a snail. So, thank you to the whole team at The Fat Duck for making our lunch one we will surely never forget. I hope its less than 7 years before I get to go again!

Emma

The monkeys with our friend Remi

The monkeys with our friend Remi


A tale of Purley wine (Part 1)

On a visit to Denbies winery near Dorking a couple of years ago I bought a Chardonnay vine on the spur of the moment. For really, what is a wine monkey without a vine? (As a quick aside – if you ever happen to be near Dorking, Denbies is worth a visit – if only for the hilarious ‘wine train’ tour of the cellars. Anyone who has been will know what I mean. Denbies is also the largest vineyard in the UK and produces quite a range of different wines, including a rather nice rosé if memory serves as well as the obligatory bubbles). Anyway, said vine was really a stumpy little thing, not much of a looker, but was duly planted in the garden in a sunny, south-facing spot. Cue huge excitement the following spring when the first buds appeared and began to burst. However, visions of the delicious wine we could produce were shattered when said buds were nibbled off by a passing squirrel overnight. Thus ended the first vintage of Purley wine.

The first buds before the squirrel ate them

The first buds before the squirrel ate them

 

This spring the vine was carefully enrobed in chicken wire when the buds began to appear to prevent the hungry squirrels striking again. And happily the buds burst and quickly grew to form lots of lovely shoots and leaves. The last couple of months have seen the vine growing nicely. We did have one slight worry when the leaves turned yellow – but a quick look at my MW books suggested a nutrient deficiency (likely magnesium, but molybdenum and manganese were also possibilities) and happily a swift application of fertiliser helped to solve that problem. And that put paid to any thoughts of organic production. Then, just a few weeks ago, I spied the first inflorescence amongst the leaves. This is the part of the vine that forms the flowers – and then the grapes. It actually looks like the stem of a mini bunch of grapes. It was the first indication that we might get a crop of grapes this year.

Now all we needed was some good weather to trigger flowering. And – lo and behold – that’s exactly what we have. So I am very happy to report our vine is flowering nicely, and I hope to see the first tiny grapes appearing in the next few days or so. Now, for any of you who haven’t seen vine flowers before, they’re not the most beautiful in the world being both tiny and with a catch-it-and-its-gone smell. I actually got engaged recently and one of my friends suggested having a bouquet of vine flowers. Which sounded like a great plan until I showed her what a vine flower looks like. Plus, of course, I doubt any winemaker would be very impressed with me picking the vast number of vine flowers that would be needed to make a bouquet as it would mean that those vines would then produce no grapes.

Vine flowers

Vine flowers

 

The current weather we’re experiencing with warmth and little wind is perfect for flowering so fingers crossed we should get a good fruit set (essentially each flower to self-pollinate and form a grape berry). And now the fun begins…just what is the best way to make wine from 1 vine? This is something I am going to ponder over the next few weeks. Quite a lot needs to be considered – how best to decide the picking date (for I cannot pick too many grapes to taste or I shall have none left), how best to crush and press the fruit, what vessel to ferment in, whether to add yeast or not and also whether to add sulphur dioxide (and where to source some). And that’s not even considering whether to chaptalise or not (this is when you add sugar prior to ferment to increase alcohol in the wine – done routinely in cool climates around the world). So, any thoughts on how best to produce my Purley wine? All helpful comments gratefully received!

I shall keep you all updated with how the vine fares over the summer and autumn – and I am anticipating a harvest date towards the end of October. Then all things being well the monkeys may get to taste some Purley wine!

Emma