Giles MacDonogh

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On a Half-Empty Eurostar:
Paris and the Loire

Posted: 7th December 2015

At the end of last month a variety of issues led me to make a rare sally out to Paris and the Loire. It had been an age since I had been to the French capital to do any more than change trains I took a half-empty Eurostar and just over two hours later I was walking from the Gare du Nord to friends in the rue des Martyres. The state of emergency was still in force after the Friday 13th Massacres and armed soldiers patrolled the streets, but that had failed to completely dampen the spirits of the market folk and when I dropped into a florist I was dragged into a light-hearted, bogus matrimonial row between the owners of the shop.

Evenings were spent in the company of old friends too long neglected, but on Sunday I slipped away for lunch in Montparnasse, noting that many of the smaller restaurants in the backstreets were shut, probably as a result of the preposterous 35-hour week. That left little more than a collection of nasty-looking crêperies and the garish cookshops on the boulevard. I am told that since so many people were gunned down on restaurant terraces, Parisians now avoid going out at night, but in most areas restaurants still function well at lunchtime. In the evening only a few bewildered American tourists venture out to eat.

After lunch in a dismal chain-joint, I allowed myself a nostalgic walk back to the slopes of Montmartre. As I emerged from the rue de Montparnasse I recalled the atelier above the Théâtre de Poche and the alleyway that ran down to it, and the midget hockey player who used to park her mini outside the concièrge's lodge in the early hours; there was the late George Hayim's flat in the next-door building, painted garish colours to lure in roughs from the cinema queues. I suppose those crude murals are long gone.

The cinemas were mostly still there, but the magnificent interiors of Chez Hansi appeared to have been ripped out (choucroute has gone out of fashion?) and the place turned into a fashion shop; and there was Félix Potin's art nouveau building, and there 106 bis rue de Rennes, a place of many happy and some sad memories. I walked down the rue du Cheche Midi - the good Italian restaurant was still operating, but closed that day. I looked at all the magnificent hôtels particuliers on the way. Sometimes a light illuminated some fabulous boiseries on the piano nobile of the many palaces in the Quartier Saint Germain.

In the rue du Bac there was the Frégate where I used to eat in solitary splendour until they took away my credit card; and there the bollard in the Louvre where Anne B crashed her Mercedes in a fit of passion. I strolled through the gardens of the Palais Royal and had a look at the prices at the Grand Véfour, the first three-star restaurant I ever ate in. In the Galérie Vivienne was the wine shop of the late Père Legrand and A Priori Thé, which used to be run by a large, sententious American lady married to an Englishman we called Terry the Cake. I have to take my hat off to her creation: it has endured more than thirty years.

I walked past more wonderful buildings in the rue de Montmartre and the rue du Faubourg de Montmatre. The monster gargote Chartier, which used to be filled with poor students eating bread and rillettes for a franc, now has its own souvenir shop like the Hard Rock Cafe in London and the prices have gone up a bit. Avoiding a man sitting in a pool of his own urine I crossed the road and noticed A la bonne mère de famille for the first time. It has a perfectly preserved interior of c1860. I was now within striking distance of the friends who were putting me up and more than ready for a flute of champagne. An old mucker came to dinner who regaled us with wicked stories and provided just the sort of merry distraction I needed.

On the Monday morning Tim Johnston and I set off for the Loire. After a lifetime in French wine, Tim runs Juvenile's Wine Bar together with his daughter Margaux. There was a time when Tim and I used to make this sort of road trip fairly often: in the summer of 1981, I got to know the vineyards of Bordeaux on the back of his motorbike and later he introduced me to the Beaujolais, Sancerre and many different parts of the Rhone Valley. It wasn't easy getting out of Paris that day: the world's leaders were meeting in Le Bourget and much of the Right Bank was shut off. There was a suggestion that the Mouche and her daughters had hitched a lift in Air Force One and were getting some shopping done on the Champs Elysées.

Once we crossed the Seine the traffic flowed rather more freely and we are able to reach Vouvray by lunchtime. We ate in the Val Joli opposite the famous Hardouin delicatessen. We had Hardouin cochonailles to eat and I had a veal chop after. We drank a 2012 dry Haut Lieu from Huet. Later we popped across the road and stocked up on rillettes and other good things.

We had gone to Vouvray to see Catherine Champalou as Tim needed some of her wine for the bar. We tasted some lovely 2013s, 2014s and 2015s from their clay and clay-cum-sand soils: dry, off-dry and sweet; as well as a splendid little sparkler. Then after a mishap or two we headed down to Chinon as darkness enveloped the Loire Valley.

We were making for the Clos des Capucins, which was recently acquired by my old friend Fiona Beeston. It was a little too dark to admire the view so we all settled down to a cosy evening tasting Fiona's lovely second wine: 'Perfectly Drinkable' (and epithet conferred on it by her charming father, the journalist Dick Beeston, who died earlier this year) as well as the much more serious wine from the Clos itself. The 2015s were still under wraps, but the vintage looks very promising.

The full glory of the estate's position dominating the castle in Chinon was not revealed until the following morning when I went out past a gaggle of hens onto the front lawn and took in a breathtaking view of the favourite castle of England's Angevin kings, not to mention the mediaeval bridge over the Vienne. We were due to meet François Houette at ten, who has a business selling truffle trees, and who figures large in the revival of truffle hunting in the region around Chinon. Houette showed us dogs, and two miniature sows which he had trained to sniff out truffles in the local woods. The trees he sells - chiefly oaks and hornbeams - are impregnated with truffle spores so that customers can be assured of harvesting a few precious tubers of melanosporum in the appropriate season.

We drove round various terroirs of Chinon where Fiona explained that some of the best such as Les Piquasses have a percentage of sand in the soil that gives the local Cabernet Franc (called 'Breton' in Chinon) its distinctive qualities. We had a look at the vines that made 'Perfectly Drinkable' and then went into Chinon itself for a coffee and a walk.

Chinon is still a lovely little town with its huge castle and there are several fine mediaeval churches and plenty of good houses too. Like all of provincial France, parts are decaying. The present mayor, Jean-Luc Dupont, thinks he knows the cure. He seems to be determined to leave his mark on the place and achieve a leg up in politics by building a shopping centre in the car park under the castle. I presume this will mean the supermarkets will drive a breach through the walls and the small businesses that are the pleasure of country towns of this sort will be destroyed by trash and the discounted prices of super-national competitors. Perhaps Prince Charles should take up Chinon's cause and protect it from this dreadful mayor? Charles's family used to live in the castle after all.

We had lunch at the Auberge des Coteaux at Cravant which stocks virtually all the cheaper cuvees produced in Chinon. It is a proper, rustic bistrot with a generous all-inclusive menu. We drank Pascal Lambert's  2014 Chinon Les Terrasses.

In the afternoon we had a look round Fiona's walled vineyard and all the delightful nooks and crannies carved into the rock where she keeps her wine and the different preparations for biodynamic viticulture. One nook I envied most revealed itself as a proper bread oven. Under the lawn there is a sort of grotto containing an ancient kitchen range, a perfect setting for bacchanalian revels.

We went to see the local grower Etienne de Bonnaventure at the Château de Coulaine who has a small amount of white wine as well as some ungrafted vines like those that existed all over France before the scourge of phylloxera struck at the end of the nineteenth century. Phylloxera cannot live in pure sand, but Chinon's soils would be sandy loam at best and the risk of infection would still be there. Of the wines from the ungrafted vines I liked the 2006. Etienne revealed that the ungrafted vines ripened later than the others. The best of the grafted vines were from his vines in Les Piquasses and the Clos de Turpenay.

The depressed economic state of France is obvious pretty well everywhere. We went to see one grower whose majestic home had seen better days and whose family were crammed into the one or two rooms they were still able to heat. The local ring road now raced past their door. After a series of disasters, the winemaker himself had taken to sleeping above one of his vats. The most striking thing about our visit was the behavior of his dog, which became visibly worried whenever he picked up a bottle. When the dog heard the cork pop she barked furiously for a minute before calming down. As he had a lot of corks to pop, we witnessed the performance several times. The dog was touchingly worried about her master.

After that, we went to the Café Français, a rather good bar. It was in the centre of Chinon and had been some sort of municipal brothel in the nineteenth century. Today it is more like a good pub. We were joined by a young English chap who lived in Chinon and was well versed in local politics. It was hard to imagine being young and living in sleepy Chinon, but he seemed to manage. When it became too much he had a flourishing business designing nightclubs in Paris. We had dinner at the Auberge Val de Vienne à Sazilly, a stylish restaurant some way outside Chinon. I had foie gras, a copious tête de veau sauce ravigotte, cheese and a tarte fine with an almond ice. After some white burgundy were drank Bernard Baudry's 2012 Clos Guillot. A good cognac was needed to get that down. I was more than ready for bed when we returned to the Clos des Capucins.

Tim and I drove back to Paris early the next day. The police were still swarming, trying to find the missing perpetrator of Friday 13th. We had lunch in Juveniles and I ate a rather good poached egg with bacon and mashed salsifis and some veal breast. Then there was a bit of shopping to do: spices from Roellinger; sweets from that marvelous old-fashioned Tetrel, the sweetshop in the rue des Petits Champs that remains unchanged since the thirties and which still sells some unusual bottles of wines as well; and bread from Tim's favourite baker in the rue des Martyres. I slept for most of the journey back to London, on a half empty Eurostar.


Adieu Mario, German Gourmandises, Rare Whisky and a 40-Year Old Decanter

Posted: 2nd November 2015

RIP Mario Scheuermann (1948-2015)

Mario expired from a heart attack on 15 October. He was sixty-seven. It is an indication of how suddenly he was taken from us that his last tweets were sent on the day of his death and still give every indication that he believed all was well.

Along with Rudi Knoll, Mario was credited with being the pioneer of modern German wine writing. In the Eighties he was enmeshed with the men behind the reforming Charta movement - Bernhard Breuer and Graf Matuschka (both of whom incidentally died premature deaths) - in their call for dry German wines, and he was one of the first to hanker after the classification of German wines that would eventually be realised by the VDP, the association of top German wine estates.

Mario always claimed he was the only German wine writer who had had a proper journalistic training. I have no idea if that was true, but he was a fine taster and his judgements on wine were invariably sound. Later on he became one of the first wine writers to embrace the Internet and see the possibilities of working with Twitter.

Mario was born into a wine making family from Neustadt on the Pfalz wine road and graduated from his grammar school or Gymnasium to the local press before branching out into food writing at the end of the seventies. He was the author of a dozen books, the first of these - on wine - appearing in 1985. In those early days he wrote as much about food. He was quite a sybarite.

Somewhere along the road he became a friend and Boswell to the controversial Hardy Rodenstock (real name Meinhard Görke), a Walter-Mitty figure who earned his bread managing German pop-singers and who was famous for collecting ancient vintages of Yquem, Lafite and Latour. Rodenstock now stands accused of cooking up bogus bottles of these First Growths, feeding them to the great and good at his Munich dinner parties and occasionally selling them off to unwitting American millionaires. Virtually every famous wine writer you might choose to name fell for these concoctions hook, line and sinker and jotted fulsome notes about them in between making small talk with the Schlagersängerinnen (Bavarian equivalents of Sandy Shaw or Millie Small sporting spurious Anglo-Saxon monikers) and the football players who were Rodenstock's habitual côterie. When Rodenstock went to ground after the revelations contained in the excellent book The Billionaire's Vinegar Mario absented himself from his usual haunts for years, although to do him credit, he defended his friend Rodenstock to the last and angrily maintained there was no truth in the allegations that he had knocked up those precious nectars in the basement of his home.

Looking back at it, I must have got to know Mario thought the official Salon tastings in Klosterneuburg. He and I were the only foreigners invited to judge Austrian wines in the sober surroundings of Austria's top wine school. The juries were presided over by the school's wonderfully dignified principal, Hofrat Josef Weiss. Mario and I were very often in agreement about the wines, and in particular about the tiresome and ill-advised use of oak in so many, and we became firm friends.

Mario used to set up wine-tastings in Hamburg and elsewhere at which contributing growers paid hefty fees for participation. There is nothing wrong with that - all wine competitions are organised to make profits for their organisers after all. If you were not careful, however, you were roped in to help and I don't think much money ever was ever reassigned to his assistants! I was warned about this very early on, and always resisted manfully. He used to try to get me to translate his books into English as well and once endeavoured to lure me to Hamburg to talk about my book on the last German Kaiser. There was no money offered and my fares were not to be paid either, but it would apparently have been a 'great honour' for me to attend. For some reason I declined.

I did occasionally consent to work with Mario. For two or three years he arranged a wine 'challenge' at the beautiful castle of the Winkler-Hermadens, Schloss Kapfenstein in Styria and I used to come as one of two or three professional tasters who joined a panel composed of famous growers from the South Styrian wine road. Mario was at his best then, mellow and warm with his fetching baritone voice, petting the family dog Moritz, avuncular with the Winkler-Hermaden children, puffing on a big cigar, encouraging (at a price!) the local growers and above all telling them to enter his Hamburg wine fairs where they might achieve the recognition they deserved.

My favourite memory of Mario, however, will remain an evening in Vienna, when Berthold Salomon had organised a dinner in a private room at Steirereck, then the city's best restaurant, in its original location in the IIIrd Bezirk. Mario arrived late with a young and bewildered-looking girl on his arm whom he described as his secretary. Gently questioned across the table, however, she denied holding that or any other position under Mario and confessed uneasily that she had not met him before that day when he had picked her up in the street. Our host, Berthold did his best not to notice, but somewhere towards the end of the meal, Mario's captive saw her chance and bolted. When Mario perceived that his butterfly had escaped he ran off after her but she evidently gave him  the slip, for he returned a few minutes later, empty-handed and red in the face. He did not remain flustered for long: warming to a rowanberry schnapps and a cigar he acted as though the girl had been a figment of our collective imagination. Shortly afterwards he married his Hungarian wife, confiding in me that her parents were younger than he was.

As I said, there were a number of years after the Rodenstock story broke when Mario went off the radar. I noticed him again three years ago when he came to the Vievinum wine fair in Vienna and seemed reborn to past form. I last saw him in Wiesbaden in August, plotting as ever, constantly conferring with two men during the Sneak Preview tastings, but a cheering sight for all that as he trotted between the tables saluting old friends left and right of the central aisle of the tasting room at the Kursaal. It is his warm, engaging presence that I shall miss the most.

Adieu, and take thy praise with thee to heaven!

Nils Henkel and Gut Hermannsberg

Two days before Mario's death, on 13 October, I was invited to a dinner at Christie's in South Kensington organised by Tesi Baur and the World Gourmet Society. The food was prepared by Nils Henkel, who had taken over the famous Gourmetrestaurant Lerbach in Mönchengladbach from Dieter Müller, and had two Michelin rosettes. The wines came from my old friends at Gut Hermannsberg and were presented by the estate's administrator, Tobias Fricke.

There were four little dishes: a plate of 'burnt' mackerel, couscous and 'oxalis' (wood sorrel); Arctic char with mashed cress, char hard roes and an elderflower/caper vinaigrette; some fine preserved belly pork (which might have benefited from longer braising) with sour fennel (in the manner of sauerkraut) and a roast onion bouillon; and an excellent coconut rice pudding with a pomegranate-cum-ginger sorbet, mangoes and coriander.

As I said, the wines were all from Gut Hermannsberg, the former Prussian State Wine Domaine constructed after closing the copper mine at Schlossböckelheim a century ago. The present owners positively cultivate the terroir aspect which means that the wines can be austere - although the sekt we started with was fairly bland. The 2014 dry Schlossböckelheimer Riesling was still quite aggressively sulphury, but promising; while its 2013 stable mate from the Steinterrassen was typically high in acidity from its less-than-favoured vintage;  the 2010 Grosses Gewächs from the Kupfergrube was the best of the dry wines, nicely balanced with a nutty nose and a peachy palate; a classic 2013 sweet Spätlese from the Steinberg stole the show: the solution in 2013 was to leave a little more residual sugar to cover the otherwise searing acidity.

Diageo Special Releases

The world of whisky writing has changed almost beyond recognition in the last decade. I attended  a tasting of wonderful old whiskies on the 20th of October and was amazed not to see a single journalistic face I knew at the old Doric Armoury in Hyde Park, not even that stalwart of hard liquor Ian Wisniewski, although I was later assured that he had been there, I must have missed him in the depths of the immense crowd. Still there were compensations for the lack of old cronies in the whiskies themselves.

There was, for example, a 40-year old Cally from the huge Edinburgh Caledonian distillery that closed in 1988. It was pure grain and had an estery, nail-varnish-like nose and a fruity, nervous palate quite marked by oak (£750); an unpeated 17-year old Caol Ila from the northern tip of Islay with an intense, chocolate-like aroma and a typical salty tang on the palate with a hint of chilli (£90); a 'Select Reserve' from Clynelish, rich and oily with a waxy favour and charming fruit (£550); the fourth official bottling of Dailluane, a 34-year old malt with a heathery nose and a flavour of pears and chocolate together with a suggestion of peat (the floor-maltings closed in 1983 - £380); a 25-year old Dalwhinnie with a nose reminiscent of pastry and a light, feminine body (£325); a 25-year old Pittyvaich from a still that lasted only twenty years, that I found heathery, earthy, rich and chocolatey to the degree that I regretted that the place had been so pitilessly slaughtered in its prime (£250); a 12-year old Lagavulin smelling of kippers with a hint of dried apricots on the palate. It was almost my favourite, and the cheapest in the collection (£80); a peaty 32-year old Port Ellen from the now demolished distillery on Islay with a touch of kippered herring about it, but not nearly so domineering as the Lagavulin. The palate was leathery and salty (£2,400); and finally my favourite, a 37-year old Brora that was fruity and leathery all at once and had the perfect balance of fruit which seemed to go on and on forever (£1,300).

Decanter

It was Decanter magazine's 40th Birthday Party on the 22nd, held upstairs at the ICA in Carlton House Terrace. I had only visited the bit of the building on the Mall before, and was surprised to find there was a civilised part where you could admire the Nash architecture, not to mention the view out over St. James's Park on an unbelievably balmy night in late October.

I could not pretend my connection with the magazine goes back to its foundation. I began working for the now defunct WINE in the early eighties and only flipped to Decanter at the end of the decade. I knew two of the three founders well enough: Colin Parnell, a shy man who rarely emerged from his office, and the Australian Tony Lord, who was Parnell's perfect opposite: coarse, rude and drunken for all the time I saw him, if he had a more sedate side to his character it possibly only revealed itself while he was asleep.

Not that he slept or ate much as it might have interfered with his drinking. When a doctor put him off alcohol because he had managed to contract typhoid in South America, he drank beer, because he said that wasn't alcoholic. There was a story about his staying in smart hotel where he had got out of bed to find the sheets smeared with alarming brown stains. Assuming the worst he stripped the bed before calling the laundry. While he was discretely folding the sheets, however, he got a whiff of the brown stuff and it dawned on him that it was nothing more sinister than the chocolate the obliging chambermaid had laid on his pillow as a goodnight treat.

There were usually fireworks when the good Lord turned up at tastings. He would generally get it into his head to be rude to someone. Once it was a highly respected lady MW who drew his fire, when he loudly speculated on the colour of her pubic hair. Her husband was a gentleman of the old school, and for a moment I thought he was going to have to satisfy his wife's outraged dignity by striking Lord, but at that precise moment a group of men picked Tony up and ushered him out of the building.

When I first started working for the magazine it was based in a Gothic Revival building by Battersea Park Station and from the tasting room you could watch the trains coming in and out. After the tastings we sat down to lunch to evaluate the wines. A barrel-shaped former restaurateur called David Wolfe was often there, sleeping between mouthfuls but he would spring to life when his opinion was canvassed. The commissioning was performed by a shy young chemistry graduate called David Rowe. I went all the way to Chile with David, a man possessed of a fine sense of humour and I remember him doctoring bottles of wine with vinegar that were discretely passed to an annoying know-all we called 'Arturo Prat', who was insisting that the Sauvignon Blanc he was drinking in heroic draughts was not acetic. We knew better.

None of these lively early figures in the magazine's history was at the birthday bash, Colin and Tony have departed this life, David went to live in Bordeaux and I think might still be there. His successor as editor fell foul of the publishers and went to Paris where he led a wild and picaresque existence for a while. The only witness to those distant days present was a radiant Emma Wellings, who worked under Rowe for a while, and is now running a wine PR firm. Decanter is a much sleeker, tighter, slicker institution now and a reflection of a more serious, professional approach to wine that is in keeping with the Zeitgeist. When Tony Lord retired to Australia he found to his chagrin that there were few people left who would drink wine with him at breakfast. Still, fuelled by lashings of Gosset champagne, we let our hair down that night and let us hope the magazine outlives us all.


More German Wines and Chablis in Provence

Posted: 5th October 2015

As if the tasting marathon in Wiesbaden were not enough, there were more German wines to be tasted in London last month, courtesy of Justerini & Brooks. With the admirable Hew Blair at the helm, J & B has the agencies for some of the very best domaines in Germany. Again the focus was on 2014, but the estates had been kind enough to tack on a few other wines and unlike Wiesbaden, the focus was not necessarily on the dry grand cru GGs so there was a chance to taste the rare Kabinetts and Spätlesen and even the odd Auslese that was made last year.

One of those I had not seen was August Kesseler's Lorcher Seligmacher ('the one that blesses you'), a really lovely wine. Emrich-Schönleber brought along some really super traditionally sweet wines from his Halenberg site (blue slate and quartz) in the Nahe, a splendid Kabinett, a Spätlese and even an Auslese. There were more treats from Helmut Dönnhoff: a spicy Riesling from his 45-year old vines on the red sandstone soils of the Höllenpfad; another from the slate soils of the Leichenberg; a Spätlese from the Oberhäuser Brücke and another (even better) from the Hermannshöhle. There was even a drop of gorgeous Auslese, made from the ripest grapes: there was little or no 'noble' rot in 2014, just pernicious 'green' rot.

For an ostensibly old-fashioned wine merchant like J & B, selling often to died-in-the-wool customers who like off-dry and sweet German wines and abjure the 'newfangled' dry wines, this was of course a chance to show off the sort of things you don't meet in Wiesbaden. Forstmeister Geltz Zilliken had a sensational Saarburger Rausch Spätlese that exuded almost tropical fruit aromas. The Auslese might overtake it with time, and to remind us how good these things can be, there was a delicious 1999 Spätlese.

Maximin Grünhaus is one of the rare top estates that is not part of the VDP. The wines come from former monastic vineyards that were segregated to provide wine for the abbot's table, while lesser quality stuff was doled out to mere monks. The monks drank leaner wines, but still, I would have been a joyful cenobite with the 2014 vintage, and an even happier abbot with the Herrenberg Spätlese, although it should not be approached for four or five years yet.

Fritz Haag has been one of a handful of top players in the Mosel for a generation. Again the sweeter wines were pleasant surprise, such as the 2014 Brauneberger Kabinett and the Brauneberger Juffer Sonnenuhr Spätlese and Auslese No. 10, with its redolence of peaches and mangoes.

Willi Schaefer in Graach is another one of those Mosel estates that has Riesling fans salivating at the mere thought of the wines. Two Kabinetts shone for me: the Himmelreich and the Domprobst. Willi Haag's son Thomas makes the wines at Schloss Lieser. The GG had impressed me greatly in Wiesbaden, but here in the Caledonian Club I had the chance to sample the Helden Spätlese with its whiff of lavender and a glorious Auslese and a Goldkapsel (top Auslese) too. These wines are still quite closed. It would be a great pity to open then for five years or more.

Riesling enthusiasts think of JJ Prüm as a sort of place of pilgrimage. It is very rare that you get the chance to taste the wines anywhere else, which are made in tiny quantities. Nor are they easy to evaluate as the sulphur on them does not clear for around five years, and as young wines they are frankly stinky. It is a bit like the Battle of Austerlitz, when the battlefield was shrouded by mists which were eventually burned off by the sun allowing Napoleon to trounce the Russians in one of his most celebrated victories. After half a dozen years or so, the wines are sweetness and light. In this collection the 2009 Graacher Himmelreich Spätlese was just about ready to drink (even if it would be better to wait) with its creamy peachiness, while the Wehlener Sonnenuhr from the same vintage was hugely lush and dense. The best of all was the 2008 Wehlener Sonnenuhr Spätlese.

A couple of Rheingauer to finish: Josef Spreitzer, the current star of Oestrich had brought in a lovely collection, and Wilhelm Weil in Kiedrich had produced a powerful Kabinett that should satisfy anyone who shuns the dry GGs.

September means Provence and the Ventoux. They had had a blistering summer that was quite unlike our non-event here. By the time I arrived on the 16th, the whites were in but storms were gathering and Florent Chave, the winemaker at the Domaine des Anges, thought he would be forced to bring in the black grapes as quickly as possible. The Grenache looked good, and the Syrah, he said, was very healthy. It would would certainly be a fine year. Rain came down in torrents on the morning of the 17th, but the next few days were hot and windy and you would not have known there had been a drop of moisture, as the ground was very soon rock hard again.

A good summer was reflected in the quality of the fruit and vegetables in the market, melons were good and sweet and the lavender honey was back. Last year the cold and rain disorientated the bees and there was almost none to be had. The prices have shot up and I doubt they'll come down again. Pierre Bruno brought up a few kilos of figs from his place in the Var and taught me how to make fig jam. Figs being so sweet, you only need to add 500 grams of sugar per kilo of fruit, and then you stop the cooking as soon as the mixture begins to bubble. It makes a delicious brew, somewhere between a jam and a compote.

There were moments when our fare was more Provencal this time than it usually is and I even ate an aïoli one night at La Calade in Blauvac although I search the markets high and low for brandade de morue, I never see it.

The highlight of the trip was once again our tasting at Bob Huddie's place down in the village. He had brought out a collection of chablis from the 2012 vintage. I used to go to Chablis in January every year at a time in the nineties when many growers used to smother their wines with oak. It was nice to see that most have given up now, and the wines had that characteristic flinty, 'mousseron' character untrammelled by alien vanilla aromas and with impressive length.

Indeed, I think I liked them all, from the humble Petit Chablis wines of Agnes and Didier and Vincent Dauvissat to the Premier crus Les Fourneaux from J-P Grossot, the Montée de Tonnerre from Louis Michel and above all the Vosgros from Gilbert Picq. There were two Premier crus from William Fèvre: Vaillons and Vaulorent, both of which were slightly marred by the smell of sulphur. I think this will come off with time. Certainly there was nothing wrong with the structure. Of the two Grands crus: the Louis Michel's Grenouilles and the Moreau Naudet Valmur, I'd say the former could be happily drunk now, but the latter needs a couple of years yet before you might broach it. Both are classics.

As usual, we settled into an excellent lunch cooked by the wonderful Isabelle: summer truffles with rock salt, Bob's spicy tomato soup, a magnificent daube, cheese and lemon or orange givrés (a sorbet served in the fruit's shell)  Magnums of 2006 Château Cantemerle accompanied the daube, and an envoi came in the form of some Domaine Charvin Châteauneuf-du-Pape, one of our host's favourite wines and rightly so: the wines are full of fruit and spice and the winemaker neither dresses up the fruit with oak nor does he impoverish his basic cuvées by making small batches of overpriced wine to impress American critics. It was sheer delight.


A Tasting Marathon in Wiesbaden

Posted: 1st September 2015

For the last few years I have travelled to Wiesbaden in late August to taste three or four hundred of the new vintage's Grosses Gewächs wines released by the VDP, the organisation that represents almost all of Germany's top estates. Grosses Gewächs ('GG') are dry wines made according to a Burgundian notion of 'climat'; products of the best individual plots of soil or terroir. Sites are therefore deemed more important than they were in the old German tradition of 'Prädikat,' or grading by residual sugar content, which implied that the best wines were the sweetest.

Dinner in Münster-Sarmsheim

The night before the big tastings in Wiesbaden, we hacks were treated to a tasting and dinner at the Kruger-Rumpf estate in the Nahe. As the Nahe is a very small region, they had teamed up with the red wine-producing Ahr to present some good bottles from the cool 2004 vintage. The 2004 had been chosen not just because it was now mature, but also because it was said to resemble the 2014. As we assembled in the courtyard armed with a glass of local Sekt, a small trickle of rain fell, the first drops to bless the torrid growing season in 2015. The summer heat had been so unrelenting that picking had already begun in the neighbouring Pfalz.

The 2014 vintage was presented by the affable Georg Kruger-Rumpf. I was dreading another 2013, where the wines were often sharp and unripe and where all sorts of unsatisfying shenanigans had been used to correct the acidity, but Georg assured us that the grapes were ripe at the time of the September rains which caused the rot to set in. Those who were careful to discard putrid bunches and berries (that means the top estates who can be assured of a higher price for their wines) were able to make good if not great dry wines. On the other hand there was no return to the long slow autumn, or 'goldener Oktober', so beloved of German winemakers and there will be few good traditional sweet wines in 2014, beyond a scattering of Kabinetts.

I am a great fan of the Nahe, and of Kruger-Rumpf in particular, and their first wine, a 2004 GG from the steep, slate Pittersberg was no disappointment. The real star of the Nahe, however, is the Hermann Dönnhoff estate and the 2004 Hermannshöhle was a dream of a wine. Just a few steps behind it in quality was the Schäfer-Fröhlich Felseneck, grown on one of the Nahe's many patches of volcanic soil.

After these flights came dinner served with a set of 2014 Nahe wines and some 2012 reds from the Ahr. We had a salad of Saumagen (a stuffed pig's stomach, a sort of Palatine haggis), lambs lettuce and Bergkäse and my favourites were the lemony Emrich-Schönleber 'Mineral' and the apricot and grapefruit-scented Steinrossel from Prince Salm. Next we were served some braised oxcheek topped with a slab of foie gras which worked best with the Nelles Burggarten Pinot Noir, the Mayer-Näkel Sonnenberg and the Deutzerhof Eck. We finished off with an arty plum crumble and some traditional sweet Kabinetts from the 2014 vintage. The two most promising seemed to be the Gut Hermannsberg  and the Dönnhoff Leistenberg, but it is early days for these classics yet.

The Show Continues in Wiesbaden

The real tasting began the following morning and continued for two days. I started with the Rieslings. My impression seemed to confirm everything that Georg Kruger-Rumpf had said: these wines (north of the Main at least) were exemplary German dry whites. In the Mosel, Heymann-Löwenstein was on top form, with both the Kirchweg and Stolzenberg in Hatzenport promising great things. In a more well-mannered, feminine style, the Winninger Röttgen was also lovely. Clemens Busch also had a great year (but the leading French wine guru Michel Bettane disagreed with me at the party that night!) with his wines from the Marienburg in Ponderich. I felt Ernst Loosen had come down a notch (again Bettane was of the other opinion) but he has had the ball in the air for so long it would be only human for him to tire. Still, his Wehlener Sonnenuhr will be a treat. 

It is a sad fact of life that estates go up and down. One that seemed to have regained its past form in 2014 was Geheimrat J Wegeler which also produced a stunning Wehlener Sonnenuhr as well as a delightful wine from the legendary Bernkastler Doctor site. There is a lot of legend at the Doctor, and a good deal of myth too, but this wine I would recommend highly to anyone.

Thomas Haag at Schloss Lieser made a very fine Niederberger Helden as well as lovely Brauneberger Juffer Sonnenuhr and his father Wilhelm at Fritz Haag (unsurprisingly) produced a wonderful wine from the Sonnenuhr as well. Reinhold Haart on the Wintricher Ohligsberg and in his slice of the Goldtröpfchen in Piesport, made sublime wines as usual, and built to last. Grans Fassian in Trittenheim turned out both a delicious Laurentiuslay and a gorgeous Apotheke.

In the Ruwer my top wine was the chunky, citrussy Kanzemer Altenberg from von Orthegraven who also made a wonderful Ockfener Bockstein in the Saar. Also from the Saar came a marvellous Saarburger Rausch from Geltz Zilliken. My discovery of the year here was Peter Lauer, the author of a splendid Ayler Kupp and a Schodener Saarfeilser that was almost as good.

It did not surprise me that there was nothing outstanding from the Saale-Unstrutt or the Mittelrhein, but I have to say that Pawis's Freyburger Edelacker from the former is a very creditable wine, while Toni Jost, the former star of the Mittelrhein, now produces better wines from his sites in the eastern Rheingau. I approached the Rheingau nervously, as it had been more or less routed in 2013. As it transpired, I had no need to worry: the region has returned to top form.

In Hochheim the top wine was the super-dependable (but oddly unfashionable) Domdechaney from Domdechant Werner. In Martinsthal, the best estate was Diefenhardt which seems to be surging ahead at the moment. Weil's first rate Kiedricher Gräfenberg was still very closed but also extremely promising, while in Hallgarten, Prinz at the Jungfer and Barth on Schönhell brought forth super wines. There was a fine Hallgartener Hohenrain from Jung, and a wonderful Marcobrunn from the State Domaine at Eberbach.

In Oestrich, both Wegeler and Spreitzer made masterly wines in the Rosengarten. Spreitzer might have used a bit of oak on his Mittelheimer St Nikolaus but it is lovely for all that. In Hattenheim the leaders were Spreitzer (Wisselbrunnen) and Barth (Hassel), while in Winkel Fritz Allendorf made superb wines in Hasensprung and the Jesuitengarten.  His chief rivals for supremacy in the latter are J B Schönleber - also a beautiful wine - and our old friend Wegeler.

Schloss Vollrads had returned to form, and on the Johannisberg there were great wines from the Schloss itself and from the Prinz von Hessen at Klaus. At Rüdesheim, the best Berg Rottland was from Johannishof and the nicest Berg Schlossberg from Wegeler who also produced a first rate, playful wine on the Geisenheimer Rothenberg.

By now I had reached the Nahe and two outstanding wines from Kruger-Rumpf: the Dautenpflänzer and Im Pitterberg from Münster-Sarmsheim. It came as no surprise to me to find that Dönnhoff's Norheimer Dellchen was one of the best wines of the year, nor was the Hermannshöhle or the Schlossböckelheimer Felsenberg far behind. Helmut Dönnhoff has received some stick of late, since he transferred responsibility for winemaking to his son, Cornelius, but these 2014s show that the estate is by no means be written off.

In the southern Nahe, the wines become more powerful, especially as they approach Monzingen. The best here were from Schäfer-Fröhlich.

There was good news from Prince Salm at the old Villa Sachsen estate at Bingen in Rheinhessen. I liked both the Kirchberg and the Scharlachberg. The south-east facing Rhine Terraces did well in 2014, with a good Nackenheimer Rothenberg from Gunderloch and an even better one from Kühling-Gillot (who also came into his own with this vintage). The star of Pettenthal was Rappenhof (another estate to watch), but closely followed by St Antony and Gunderloch. St Antony made good things in Ölberg and Hipping, and the Rappenhof on the Herrenberg.

I was less impressed by the wines of the Wonnegau this year, although I admired Groebe's Westhofener Aulerde as well as both Gutzler's and Wittmann's Morstein. Wagner-Stempel in Seifersheim made a spectacular Höllberg, and the Heerkretz was good as well. In Dittelsheim, the star was Winter, particularly on the Kloppberg.

In general, as I proceeded south, I was less and less impressed. There were good things in the Pfalz but few outstanding wines. Philipp Kuhn's Im Grossen Garten vineyard in Grosskarlbach stood out and Pfeffingen's Ungsteiner Herrenberg was not far behind. For the first time ever, I think, none of the top holdings of the famous 'Bs' (von Bühl, Bassermann-Jordan and Bürklin-Wolf) in Forst or Deidesheim stole my fancy.  In Forst the best for me were Achim-Magin and Georg Mosbacher. Achim-Magin and possibly Bürklin-Wolf led the pack in Pechstein, and Mosbacher excelled on the Freundstück.

In the Jesuitengarten, Achim-Magin led the field by a length while the most monstrous Ungeheuer was Mosbacher's, followed by Bürkin-Wolf's. Achim-Magin romped home in the Kirchenstück beating Bassermann-Jordan by a furlong. The best of the Bassermann-Jordan collection was the Deidesheimer Kalkofen. In general the 2014 wines from the Pfalz lack some of their characteristic power. There was some decent stuff from Rebholz in the south.

In Franconia the Staatlicher Hofkeller in Würzburg made a very good Stein, but there were no other wines from within the city walls that thrilled me. The top scorers were Sauer, Wirsching and Paul Fürst. Sauer was at his best on the Lump, Wirsching on the Julius-Echter-Berg and Fürst the Centgrafenberg.

Württemberg seems to have stepped a few paces forward, at least as far as Riesling is concerned. I liked the Verrenberg from Prince Hohenlohe-Oehringen, and Graf Neipperg's Ruthe. The best of all is Aldinger, particularly his Lämmler, although it is worth looking out of Schnaitmann too. Nothing at all excited me among the crop of Badenese Rieslings on show.

That finished off the Rieslings for me. For the Franken Silvaners it came as no surprise that the quality should reside with Wirsching on the Julius-Echter-Berg and Kronsberg and Horst Sauer on the Lump. I liked Schmitt's Kinder's Pfülben and Bickel-Stumpf's Mönchsberg too.

Weisser Burgunder (Pinot Blanc) is quite often coshed with oak in Germany - a simple formula that makes creamy wines that are pleasant enough but lack breed. The best tend to be from the south, but my favourite 2014 was actually Pawis's pretty, buttery Edelacker from Saale-Unstrutt. I also liked Philipp Kuhn and Bergdolt in the Pfalz and even more, Seeger's Herrenberg Oberklamm from Baden. The Grauer Burgunders (Pinot Gris) tend to be big, oaky, alcoholic monsters. The best for me were Andreas Laible's Plauelrain am Bühl, Freiherr von und zu Franckenstein's Abtsberg Pfaffengässle, Bernhard Huber's Bienenberg and Salwey's Eichberg and Henkenberg in Baden, all of whom avoid the pitfalls of over-oaking the pudding.

The reds shown in Wiesbaden this year were mostly 2013s and not really very promising from north of the River Main. I was short on time by then and took advice from my friend Claude Kolm, who pushed me towards Franconia and Baden. The results were fairly predictable. In Franken the star was once again Paul Fürst. All his wines need time but the most approachable was the Centgrafenberg, and the most closed the Hundsrück. In Baden the honours fall to Bernhard Huber. The most open for the time being are the Bienenberg and the Wildenstein; the Schlossberg and the Sommerhalde need to be put away for a few years. My next favourite in Baden was Salwey on the Kaiserstühl. The Eichberg is particularly good. Both Huber and Salwey have lost their paterfamilias recently, but it seems that in both estates, the winemaking is in safe hands with the new generation. Dr Heger is also very good.

It should be borne in mind that many top estates were absent from the tasting and that a lot of the smaller wines may well have been affected by rot, but from what I saw, the dry white wines from north of the Pfalz were often excellent, and there were some good reds in 2013.  

Moldovan Wines

Just one more thing: I also had some Moldovan wines from Laithwaites which I thought worth a few lines of praise. The Chateau Vartely Cabernet Sauvignon 2013 was really excellent quality for £8.99: quite chunky, but full of tangy blackcurrant fruit. The other wines in the series were a big, supple red and an oaky white, both of which came in heavy glass bottles. The quality of the wine-making was excellent in both cases, but I would have preferred a more integrated use of oak in the white: Purcari Rara Neagra 14 (£11.49), Alb de Purcari 13 (£16.49).


The Sorry Demise of D R Harris

Posted: 11th August 2015

I normally write about wine and food in these pages, but bitter constraint and sad occasion dear compels me to diversify a bit, and talk about the chemist D R Harris. Harris's has been a feature of St James's for some 225 years and I have been buying soaps, shampoos, lotions, oils and ointments from Harris's since I was a lad of eighteen. First of all it was the almond oil soap that seduced me, then the coconut oil shampoo. For a while I used their 'His' brand of aftershave, but since I became a mature brute I feel I have less need of the great smell of Brut and have forsworn all forms of scent. There was a nice face lotion apparently made from cucumbers which I bought for a while, and a 'His Silky' bath oil which also found favour. It was rebranded (I think) 'Albemarle' (my publishers were in Albemarle Street, so that was cosy), and of course there was the lavender oil shaving cream which I use to this day. I am quite devoted to anything with lavender oil in it.

Harris's is part of the extended purlieus of Jermyn Street where old-fashioned men buy shirts, shoes, soap and occasionally cheese. Although it is patronised by royalty and must take in its share of dukes from Whites and earls from Brooks's, it is not a snooty place, at least not until recently. For years and years, two delightful ladies in white coats have served customers with considerable charm. As Harris's was always a dispensing chemist, licensed to issue aspirin to any griping grandee who might have been poisoned by the food in his club, there was nothing chichi about the shop. The problems began (as always) when the marketing men got their feet in the door and then the products I liked so much began to mutate. The first run in I had with Harris's concerned 'Albemarle', which appeared to change its nature (and its colour) overnight. As it was already fiendishly expensive, I wrote off it as an unjustifiable luxury. Then there was a problem with the soap, which no longer smelled of roses and carnations, but they rectified that soon after and I have had no more cause to complain. In the course of my gentle remonstrations with the ladies in the white coats, however, I learned the reason for the 'drift': Harris had long since ceased to manufacture its wares, but commissioned others to make them up from their recipes, often with unfortunate results. The next hiccup concerned the shampoo: what had been dense and granular suddenly became sloppy. A new manufacturer was tried out, and it returned almost to normal, and that was how things remained until a few months ago.

The big changes occurred when Harris's owners decided to redevelop their wonderful old premises. The shop itself, which is regularly besieged by groups of admiring tourists, was considered to have insufficient window-display space and the heritage-boffins have been hoodwinked into allowing them a bit more. I doubt the upper floors have been generating sufficient income either. The premises were shut and remain shut, although we are told that they will reopen soon. Until that day, the business has been split in two. The nice ladies in the white coats who made up the prescriptions were relocated to Bury Street, while the more profitable business of selling soaps and unguents was moved to a small shop at the southern end of the Burlington Arcade in Piccadilly.

The real rot seems to have set in in this Piccadilly branch (which I was told will be retained when St. James's reopens). The first time I went into the new premises I was told by a rude young assistant there were no large pots of shampoo and there would not be any for months. Had I tried shopping online? The next two occasions I dropped in passed off without major incident. I was even given a 'loyalty card' by a well-spoken managerial type and told if I spent an awful lot of money I would get something for nothing. When I finally did obtain the shampoo, however, it bore not the slightest resemblance to the original, it was both sloppy and gelatinous - and not in the least bit granular - and it smelled of bananas rather than coconuts. It could have been any cheap shampoo, except that it was very expensive. Last week I entered Harris's new branch for what was possibly the last time. The man who gave me the loyalty card looked at me as if I was something the cat had brought in. He was serving some tourists who were dithering over their purchases and he was clearly expecting to make a lot of money. I wanted a refill for my shaving bowl which a cost a mere £10.99. Apparently at that price, I did not even merit a paper bag let alone a smile or a word of welcome. Enough is enough, I said to myself, as I slipped the soap into an old canvas bag I had on me, I don't think I shall be coming here again.

In truth, Harris's decline mirrors a general malaise that has affected much of Jermyn Street and the streets around. The old gentlemanly trade has been written off as worthless. Loyal customers are shoved aside in the hope of appealing to tourists. Some parts of Jermyn Street they can keep. Nothing in the world would have ever induced me to enter the spivs' paradise that is Turnbull & Asser. Hilditch & Key is only marginally better and hosts semi-permanent sales. Paxton & Whitfield has changed hands, but it is, at least, still a good cheesemonger. I have ceased to patronise the barber Ivan, as I now use Cypriot Michael here where I live, and it has become part of the Trumper's empire. Harvie & Hudson is still very much its old self, and even if Mr Hudson is no more, an octogenarian Mr. Harvie still serves customers in the shop at the Haymarket end. The shoemaker Trickers is also largely unaffected, but I have heard grumbles about New & Lingwood, and even from Old Etonians, whose loyalty is formed early on at the branch in Eton High Street.

I suppose I must now take my trade to Floris? It is a hard, hard thing to change the habits of a lifetime.

Irish Days

On Bastille Day I was invited to be guest speaker at a Provençal dinner a the Kildare Street Club in Dublin, at which the wines of the Domaine des Anges were to be served. It was a sunny day, and I had a nice - if sober - walk round the city before I had to perform my role. The next day I was driven up to a friend's Queen Anne house in Termonfeckin in County Louth, a delightful place buzzing with bees and animals of all descriptions. My family was arriving that night so we went to the fishmonger in the harbour at Clogherhead, and popped into various shops in Drogheda to lay in supplies.

The Fisherman's Catch in the Clogherhead Harbour is owned by John and Michelle Kirwan, who supply it from their own fishing boat. There is a splendid range and we bought turbot and 'black' sole. It seems the black sole is the same as the British 'Dover' sole, but many people in Ireland dispute this and claim the black sole is a native of Dublin Bay. The local beach is covered with the remains of razor clams. They are extensively fished and a big earner locally as they are all shipped out to an insatiable Chinese market. The natives, it seems, won't touch them. In Drogheda, butchers' shops revealed the strong tradition of Irish pork butchery, which pops up at the fictional Dlugacz in Joyce's Ulysses with its' hanks of sausages, polonies, black and white'. Nowadays at least, Irish butchers' shops are very pink, with their mounds of sausages, boiling bacon and 'rashers.' Strangely enough, natural casings seem to be a rarity and the sausages that accompany rashers, eggs, black and white puddings in the standard 'fry' are straight. The fry deserves 'World Heritage Status' as it is still just about the most reliable meal in Ireland now that you need to drive for miles for a stew or a plate of bacon and cabbage.

The weather blew hot, cold and wet, although there was glorious sunshine on the day we left. We went into Dublin, to look at Trinity among other things. The city seems to have completely recovered from the gloom of five years ago and is so crowded with Continental teenagers it is hard to maintain your feet on the pavement. The collapse of so  many businesses, however, has resulted in their places being taken by chains so that, with the exception of the traditional pubs, much of the city's character has seeped away. It is hard enough now, to find an old fashioned baker in the centre of town, but you can get sourdough and ciabatta virtually anywhere. Irish 'brown' or 'soda' bread, on the other hand, is available pretty well everywhere in the country. Our local town, Drogheda is still depressed and there is a lot of unemployment. We paid the obligatory visit to Saint Oliver Plunkett, or rather his head, which after it quit his body at Tyburn was taken home and eventually set up in St Peter's church.

Our homage to St. Oliver took place before a feast for which a local butcher had pickled and smoked a great length of pork. Friends arrived from the North, bearing gifts, including a magnum of 1955 Margaux from Château Marquis de Terme. It was mid-shoulder, and becoming acetic. Still it had a good twenty minutes life in it before it became too sharp. There was also a 1955 port from the Real Companhia - perhaps not the greatest '55, but still a treat. The best wine with the pork was a 2012 Hochheimer Kirchenstück GG from Domdechant Werner. We all seem to drink red wine with pork these days, but a good dry Riesling like this has the cut and thrust to deal with the fat and seemed to me at least, a much better solution. People are very down on white wines these days, I suppose because now that they are mostly technically correct, they have become utterly boring.

Our idyll in Ireland was sadly short. On Sunday night we flew home to spend a quiet summer in London.


Wines from the Brno Road

Posted: 1st July 2015

The road from Austrian Vienna to Brno in the modern Czech Republic has enormous historical resonance. For a large percentage of Austro-Hungarian Jews, it used to be the highway to success. Brno was one of the staging posts for the Imperial capital, just as Breslau was for Jews starting out on their way to fame and fortune in Berlin. Southern Moravia remained largely German speaking after 1918 and Brno (or Brünn, as Austrians and Germans called it) was still to a great extent a German city twenty-one years later when Hitler invaded Bohemia and Moravia and harangued the crowd from the steps of the town hall. At the end of the War, a furious Czech minority wrought its revenge by ousting the city's German-speakers. The expellees hit the road to Vienna on the so-called Brno Death March, dying in droves along the way.

They were driven along the Brno Road or Brünnerstraße to the Thaya River where Czech Southern Moravia ends and the Austrian Weinviertel begins. There Austrians rescued the luckier ones. I don't suppose there are many survivors left, but if there are, they won't have forgotten.

Both the Weinviertel (nomen est omen) and Southern Moravia are wine regions, the Czechs produce their wines with the same grapes as the Austrians, particularly in the vineyards around the town of Mikulov formerly Nikolsburg: and that means Grüner Veltliner and Weissburgunder (Pinot Blanc). Nikolsburg was incidentally where the Hochheim star-winemaker Gunter Künstler's father came from. He was another of the German-speakers hounded out in 1945, eventually finding his way to the Rheingau where he worked as a cellar hand for the Michels at Domdechant Werner.

I am happy to say, however, that not every story of the Brno Road, is as tragic. These days the 'Brünnerstraße' is chiefly a metaphor for wine. The road was famous for the vineyards found right and left and little wines that - according to a coarse local epithet - had the capacity to draw in your shirt tails up through your backside. The 'Brünnerstraßler' was therefore a byword for a lip-smackingly, shoulder-shudderingly, acidic wine. But sharp wines have their uses too and the village of Poysdorf on the Brünnerstraße is the home of the base wines for Austrian Sekt or sparkling wine.

The high watermark of Austrian Sekt was the Gründerzeit, after the formation of the Dual Monarchy in 1867. It was the time of Strauss waltzes and louche comings-and-goings in Vienna's Prater park; of Der Rosenkavalier and the slightly risqué tales of  Schnitzler and Stefan Zweig; of Lehár and the Merry Widow. It was also the period chiefly associated with Dr Freud. All those libidos and lots more were fuelled by Sekt, and notably from the establishments of Schlumberger, Mounier and Kattus in the Viennese suburb of Döbling. In the nineteenth century there were dozens of other names to conjure with, but their numbers declined with the fortunes of Empire. There was even one in Retz with the delicious and possibly well-founded name of 'Verderber' (Despoiler).  Kattus no longer uses the champagne method but it makes some excellent still wine in Nußdorf. The base wines for its Sekt still come from Poysdorf. If you are interested, Schlumberger has a good Weissburgunder cuvée, and Mounier makes a pure Riesling Sekt.

I mention Poysdorf and the Brünnerstraße because I was entertained to a lavish dinner last Monday by those hospitable Merry Widows Linn Rothstein and Charlotte Bendel and to my surprise they had a collection of bottles from Helmut Taubenschuss, the best grower in Poysdorf by a very long chalk, and an estate which I have always believed to have been massively undervalued. Naturally we started out with a nicely zingy Sekt, but then proceeded to Grüner Veltliners and Weissburgunders that were every bit as good as I remembered them from my first encounter with the wines a quarter of a century ago.

As I said, most of the grapes grown in Poysdorf are used for Sekt, and Sekt houses like Welschriesling for its clean, neutral character. This will explain why the Taubenschusses make still wine with it. Unlike most Weinviertel growers, who lead with that Grüner Veltliner which adapts well to their mostly clay soils, Helmut Taubenschuss's best wines have always been his Weissburgunders from the Steinbergen, which (and this is often true of the cultivar) have remarkable ageing potential. Nor are his Grüner Veltliners bad: with time they throw off interesting peachy aromas. He also has respectable Riesling wines gown on the loess soils of the Waldberg.

Taubenschuss is not the sole good grower in the northern stretch of the Brünnerstraße and there is always new blood bubbling up - Taubenschuss himself is a good example of this, as he has largely handed over the reins to his sons Markus and Thomas. In Wilfersdorf, for example, there is the last fragment of what was once a vast Liechtenstein estate. When I last visited, they had forty-two hectares (100 acres) of vines and made some very creditable reds from Zweigelt and Merlot and well as highly-prized Traminers and Rieslings. It has been a long time since I have seen the wines or the estate, but I hope one day to be able to taste what progress they have made.

The vineyard accounts for only a fraction of the 3,000 property which is still owned by the Princes Liechtenstein, more famous for their tiny principality on the Swiss Border. Eight thousand acres may seem pretty big, but in 1945, the section south of the Thaya was little more than an annexe. The Czechs made off with the rest of it, as that was located north of the river. That bit of land amounted to around 200,000 hectares, or half a million acres. I don't suppose the Liechtensteins have forgotten either.


The Land of Dumplings

Posted: 1st June 2015

I have been spending many happy hours leafing through Willi Kinger's beautiful tribute to his mother Hedi's cooking (Hedi Klingers Familienkuche Brandstätter, 2015 ISBN 978-3-85033-888-2). While I am extremely familiar with Lower Austrian food, the Klingerhof, Willi's family restaurant, was at Gaspolthofen in the Hausruckviertel in Upper Austria, and the cooking reflects a more pastoral if not rustic world (with some similarities to Bavaria and Bohemia). There are far fewer allusions to the original multicultural society that was Vienna, where Slavs, Magyars, Jews and Italians rubbed shoulders with the more Teutonic Viennese and the confusion flowered on the plate.

Cheese spreads - without the nod to Hungary that is Liptauer - are reminiscent of Bavaria. Broth is served with 'Einlagen' (floaters) as it is all over the southern half of the German-speaking world. Hedi's Frittatensuppe, for instance, with its strips of pancake, is the Flädlesuppe of Swabia. The commoner Einlagen are things like Leberknödel (liver dumplings) which I have craved since childhood when I was served them in the great - and long-since vanished - Schmidt's restaurant, the favourite resort of academic 1938-ers in London's Charlotte Street, before I scoffed a portion of roast goose and Sauerkraut.

Some of the ingredients that are vital for reproducing the flavours of Upper Austrian cooking have a bad reputation here. I went across the road to buy semolina ('Griess' in German), which not only makes the Grießknödel or semolina dumpling to go in soup, it is a vital part of many other dumplings. My mind travelled back to school, and semolina puddings with a great splodge of jam in the middle which you stirred vigorously to incarnadine the thick and otherwise tasteless gruel. On other days we had tapioca, which was every bit as nasty. The boys called it 'frog spawn'.

I paused over the meat dumplings, they were stuffed with fat bacon, 'Grammeln' ('pork scratchings' - those packets of dessicated cartilage you buy in pubs do not offer an adequate translation) or lard. My children have been raving about them ever since we were given them at lunch by Micki Moosbrugger at Schloss Gobelsburg. Some ingredients, however, would be hard to obtain or replicate, and not just those crunchy bits left over when the pork fat is rendered to lard, but also good Austrian Speck, which isn't quite our bacon. Paprika, for instance, comes in all shades and sizes in Austrian grocers' shops. One thing I can get easily, however, is fresh Styrian horseradish, which brings tears to your eyes as you shred it. My wife was taken with the Krenfleisch she had in a Viennese Beisl once. That was boiled beef, while Hedi uses a pork knuckle. The horseradish is then shaved on top and the whole served with a 'julienne' of vegetables. I shall use Hedi's recipe for boiled beef (meat from the shoulder) and adapt that.

Hedi's food is 'Hausmannskost' - really good home cooking -  rather than 'gastronomy'. A Fleischloaberl meatloaf looked just the thing, and there were useful tips on how to improve even the roasting of a chicken or making a better Wiener Schnitzel or Backhendl (fried chicken) or indeed 'gezogene' apple strudel, which is superior to the one I make with filo-style pastry. I reflected that the one man around here (the butcher Martin at Elite Meats in Swaine's Lane) who knew how to prepare veal for a Schnitzel, had recently shut up shop after a lifetime serving fussy 1938-ers and their heirs, the victim of another greedy landlord. I will miss him greatly. Austrians and South Germans are also masters at cooking veal sweetbreads. They are good in France, of course, but it is sometimes worth crossing the Rhine to see them at their best.

Where the Upper Austrian idiom is strangest to us is in the frequent use of potato starch to replace flour. The foundation stone of so many recipes is simply mashed potatoes. We come across this style of cooking only when we eat Italian gnocchi and I don't suppose many people do their own, although I have a certificate somewhere which says I learned to make them on a cookery course in the magnificent setting of the Gritti Hotel in Venice. Potatoes are boiled in their skins, peeled and pressed or riced. Once cold they are mixed with butter or soured cream, eggs and semolina before being worked into a dough. They are pressed down to make a two-centimetre-thick paste. The paste is formed into cups, filled, topped and scattered with flour. With some small variations for sweet and savoury, this is the basis for the region's rich and varied dumpling culture.

I decided that I had better make some dumplings and pressure from the family meant trying out the famous Marillenknödel (apricot dumplings) they had first experienced in the Wachau. There were more problems with ingredients: the recipe called for 'Topfen' (quark), but fresh curd is hard to come by here so I bought ricotta instead.  Nor could I say that the apricots available in my Turkish greengrocer were quite up to those from the Danube Valley, but so be it: I was able to get pretty close to Hedi's list.

It is remarkable how quickly the mixture of potatoes, ricotta, flour, semolina, sugar and lemon peel loses any taste you might associate with mashed spuds. The next stage was to make a sort of sausage out of the paste, cut off two centimetre-thick slices, flatten them and wrap them round raw apricots. These were then covered in flour and set aside to poach in boiling water. When they began to 'dance', I turned them to a pan filled with breadcrumbs fried in butter before bringing them to the table.

I was worried that the apricots had had a chance to cook in the water, but they were perfect, even if there might have been just a jot more sugar. The dish was a huge success, not least with my fruit-hating son, but he was adamant that he really wanted Fleischknödel, so it looks like Hedi's book will have to come out again soon.


Judgement of Wapping

Posted: 5th May 2015

One of the nicer sides of judging the Decanter World Wine Awards is its new location in London's Docklands. Once you have negotiated the bleak hinterland around Shadwell Station, the tastings are in the old Tobacco Dock, which despite some fairly crude restoration and adaptation, is what it says on the packet: the place where tobacco leaves were matured in Georgian and Victorian England (wine was housed downstairs) before being made into cheroots, cigarettes and pipe tobacco. Many of the original iron columns and roof beams are still in situ, which makes for a pleasant distraction when your jury is slow to reach a decision on a particular flight of wines.

Another pleasant aspect is the new judges' pub. Until we moved two years ago we had the famous Sloaney Pony on Parson's Green to hand to cool down after a day's tasting; but now we go to the Captain Kidd, a former riverside Georgian workshop that was sympathetically and convincingly turned into a pub in the late eighties. From the windows or the terrace you look out on the estuarine river below Tower Bridge, with its muddy banks, ravening seagulls and occasionally surviving wharves, and can reflect on how all this land - north and south - served to provision a mighty empire on which the sun never set.

Many of our tasters don't give the thing a thought, of course, they simply amble down to the Captain after they have finished work and generally find a lot of familiar faces from the wine trade and wine journalism mingling with the locals.

After the second day of judging Germany I was happily ensconced in the Captain while I listened to a senior Master of Wine talking about her beginnings in the trade. The MW-qualification has now become so famous that people have lost touch with its primary purpose, which was to master the technical aspects of trading in wine in those far off days when such activities also centred on London - and to some extent these very same docks. Until the seventies, most wine shipped to Britain arrived in cask, to be bottled here. Only incredibly posh wine arrived by the dozen in smart, branded wooden cases. While it was on the water, wine shipped in bulk often developed sicknesses and fell apart and before it quit London Docks, it had to be treated with various cures and chemicals to bring it back to life. All this 'primary care' was part of the original MW's remit.

Performing some sort of technical wizardry to rescue a sickening wine was very relevant to our panel this year, as the mainstay of the German wines before us was from the 2013 vintage. It was not a great year. It rained a lot and rot set in, causing many growers to harvest before the grapes were properly ripe. The result was high acidity on the one hand and insufficient body on the other. Growers scratched their heads to find a means to solve the problem of making attractive wines out of such unpropitious material. One solution was to lower the acidity by performing a secondary, malolactic fermentation that would turn the sharp malic acid into lactic acid, giving the wines a tell-tale creaminess that Riesling-lovers generally abhor. Another was to ferment the wines in small oak casks (or - as was often the case - to perform both a malolactic fermentation AND ferment them in cask). This was also meant to soften the wines and give them a little more fat, but Riesling-aficionados don't usually like that either. The third way was simply to deacidify, but that ran the risk of leaving the wines soft and spineless. That option was also not likely to please lovers of proper German wines.

Not too many people - sadly - thought of an obvious fourth solution, and that was to stop the fermentation early and make semi-dry to semi-sweet wines. Ideally, 2013 should have been a 'Kabinett-year'. Leaving 25 or more grams of sugar in the wines might have achieved a balance between acidity and sugar making them at once more attractive and easier to drink. They would have been low in alcohol, which was also the tradition for German wines until quite recently. This could have been the perfect way out for the Rheingau, for example, where the wines were very disappointing in 2013. The Pfalz was also lacklustre, with many of the wines missing their usual substance, but we are not so used to Kabinett wines from the Pfalz which was one of the first German regions to develop a reputation for dry Rieslings. I can see that it was not an easy decision to make.

The reds too were slightly less thrilling than they have been before now. The bulk was from 2012, which was not the easiest of years either. Despite all the publicity given to Pinot Noir of late, we have not seen really good German reds since 2010.

All of this sounds a bit gloomy, but it was not. I think we awarded eight gold medals over two days, and I satisfied a long-held ambition by seeing a sparkling Riesling receive a trophy. There were also some lovely sweet wines that are often a compensation for us Teutons.

And fortunately the Nahe managed to make some very good wines. The Mosel, once again, did better than the rest because the grapes ripened later there, after the damaging, rot-inducing rain and were able to take advantage of the autumn sun.

Back at the Captain, a woman for a neighbouring jury was describing the depressing experience of tasting flight after flight of Chinese wines. 'Yours', she told me, 'was the merry table'. It appears that despite all the reservations that we might have had about the 2013s, we were having lots of fun and she was deeply envious. Nature may bowl us a tricky ball from time to time, but if any team really knows how to whack it, it must be the Germans.


Rhône-Rangers

Posted: 1st April 2015

Some time in the first months of 1980 I was standing with a friend on the platform of St Paul station on the Paris Metro. A big man was sitting on a bench nearby with his head sunk deep in his hands. The friend remarked sopra voce: ‘he’s got a hangover.’

The man on the bench looked up, and stared at us through bloodshot eyes and speaking in accents that distinguished him as a former British public schoolboy, he grunted, ‘I certainly have’.

That man was Charles Lea, founder of the excellent London chain of Lea & Sandeman and one of the more endearing - and now most senior - men in the British wine trade. We talked, and he told us that he was doing up a zinc opposite the formal entrance to the Bibliotèque nationale for another Englishman called Mark Williamson. This was the incubation of Willi’s Wine Bar which was to become a sensation over the next few years. It is still alive and kicking, and continues to be the first stop for most Americans wanting to know about the wines of the Rhône Valley.

I told Lea I worked almost daily in the library’s reading room and he suggested I come in and look the place over. It wasn’t long before I put my nose round the door and saw Charles at the top of a ladder with a paintbrush in his hand. He introduced me to Mark and I came to the opening party. For several years after that, I repaired to Willis whenever I had put in a long stint at the library.

Mark had trained as a chef, but he also was part of an interesting little group of Anglo-Saxons who worked in Paris at the time. The flypaper was Steven Spurrier, proprietor of the Caves de La Madeleine in the Cité Berryer. Steven’s shop, and the wine courses he ran there, was highly in vogue. He trained large numbers of young English people who shifted cases and fetched wine from the warren of cellars downstairs. Most of his trainees have long since resurfaced as pillars of the wine trade. Mark too was a former intern, as was the late Ivan Paul, who had bought his own wine shop in the rue Vaneau by then, a congenial place where much more wine was drunk by the owner and his friends than was ever sold to customers. The oddest of all the Caves de la Madeleine apprentices was ‘Gilly’, who, despite being quite the rudest man I have ever met, was put to work serving customers. Thank heavens for the unflappable Mauricette who was there to restore any damaged egos.

A few months after he opened, Mark Williamson was joined by Tim Johnston. Tim was a considerable authority on the wines of the Rhône. A decade before, he had tumbled out of the wrong end of his public school and ended up in the wine trade. After a period in the Médoc he was chosen to run a vineyard in Provence and learned more about the practical side of wine than was usual then. Tim was suspicious of me at first but we became good friends when he moved on to Bordeaux to run a wine bar there and I was working the summer in the archives in the rue d’Aviau. I was writing a dissertation on the history of the Bordeaux trade, but it was never submitted, and my attempts to get the project published in book form never came to anything either.

It was Tim who introduced me to many of the greatest wines in the Northern and Southern Rhône. Having started out as a claret-man, I became passionate about the Rhône, and the first book I ever wrote on wine dealt with the Rhône Valley’s three noblest grape varieties: Syrah, Grenache and Mourvèdre in their various manifestations all over the world. I see it can be bought for as little as 28p! When it came out in 1992, I dedicated it to my infant Goddaughter Margaux Johnston, who now manages Juveniles, the Paris wine bar Tim created when he split off from Mark.

Although I have specialized in other things since (Austria, Portugal, Germany, to name but three) I always return to the Rhône with particular pleasure. Last month, after a gap of more than a decade Rhône Vignobles had a tasting in London. I started with the growers from the north. The Condrieu Le Grand Vallon from Domaine Villard was all the better and more authentic for not being blighted by new oak, for the same reason I liked its stable-mate, De Poncins, far less. There were superb whites from Louis Chèze too, indeed I loved all four wines he brought along. I would have been happy with his simple Côtes du Rhône white, with its little aroma of hay from the Marsanne grape, but real class was apparent in his Pagus Luminus Condrieu with its typical apricot blossom aroma. Chèze has two gorgeous red St Josephs (both 2012), an ordinary one, and a superior version called  ‘Les Anges’.

Laurent Combier is an old friend, but he seemed to have tripled the amount of land he farmed since I saw him last. When growers do this, the quality often suffers, but his Crozes Hermitage wines seem as good as ever: with those haunting tar-and-peony aromas so typical of granite-grown Syrah. The best, however, was the 2013 Clos des Grives made from vines planted in 1952, where the soil is pebbley and not granite.

I used to love Alain Graillot’s wines, but I was disappointed this time. The best was the 2005 La Guiraude. Domaine Voge in Cornas has always been a reliable house, as much for its hay-scented St Péray (Terre Boisée) as for its reds. The 2013 Cornas Les Chailles had just been bottled. It looked very promising. The rest of the tasting covered the Southern Rhône, with a few Châteauneufs, like the Domaines de Beaurenard and La Janasse. Beaurenard has an excellent Rasteau as well, but naturally the Châteauneufs are best, such as the 2009 Classique. The real treat, however, was the old vine wine, made from a plot planted in 1902. La Janasse had a pure Grenache ‘Chaupin’ which was wonderful, but even that was also upstaged by a multi-varietal old vine wine from 2011.

Portuguese wines also preoccupied me at one stage of my life. I don’t suppose many people read my book on the subject, but I was amused to see that German Amazon had disposed of several copies of it recently. I dropped into the New Douro tasting at the Ambassador’s Residence last week, but I was sorry not to have enough time to talk to so many familiar faces.

I did make it to see Tiago Alves de Sousa, who is the real rising star of the Lower Douro and Cristiano van Zeller to taste his wines from the Quinta Vale Donna Maria. A rare bird was Dirk Niepoort who has become one of the world’s wine superstars. The quality of the wine, however, has not diminished and Coche (the label of which reproduces the dashboard of his Ferrari) was quite new to me, and stunning.

Another old friend it was a pleasure to see again was David Baverstock of Esporão. He now makes the wines at Quinta dos Murças in the Douro as well as those from the big estate in the Alentejo. Murças had a splendid 2011 Old Vines Reserva. David has the privilege of making Sir Cliff Richard’s wines on his Algarve property too. Vida Nova must be a consolation to Sir Cliff in these difficult times.

On the way home I dropped off at the Westbury Hotel to see Matt Wilkin, who was showing the wines from Domaine de Bargylus in Syria. The Saadé family owns both this property on the Syrian Coast and the very successful Château Marsyas in the Lebanon which is now nudging the great Château Musar as the Lebanon’s most celebrated wine. While the Lebanese Civil War has fizzled out, the Syrian one continues its sickening course, and yet, this Christian family somehow contrives not only to produce the most civilized of beverages from their lofty vineyards, but also make wines of fabulous quality and finesse. Their determination goes some way towards restoring my faith in the survival of civilization.

As I was leaving, Matt packed me off to Richard Kelly of Dreyfus Ashby who was presenting a vertical of Moulin Touchais in the Loire Valley stretching back to 1971. They were all very different, but the 1997 and 1971 appealed to me most. The latter was wonderfully youthful and exuberant. Richard is now importing the wines of my friends at Domaine des Anges which can only be good news. He reminded me of our last meeting in Tournon in the Rhône Valley in 1993, when the late Gérard Jaboulet opened a bottle of his 1961 La Chapelle.  For both of us, it was a testament to how good top Northern Rhône wines could be. I noted ‘a bouquet of game and liquorice, with a feeling of sweetness - almost sweet pastry - on the palate.’ Richard said, even after a lifetime in the trade, it was ‘still the best wine’ he had ‘ever tasted.’


Quiet Days in Mormoiron

Posted: 2nd March 2015

Twice a year for two decades now, I have travelled south to the Domaine des Anges near Mormoiron in the Ventoux region of Northern Provence. I go for a few nights in February and September, but the February trip is billed as a quiet time, when good food and wines from the estate are enjoyed by a relatively small number of convives.

I normally fly to Marseille, and then there is a drive lasting about an hour and a half. For the first time this year, however, I made the entire journey by train; setting out from St Pancras (four minutes from Kentish Town) and arriving in Paris two and a half hours later, in time for lunch with members of the party who had flown in from Dublin. I met them at the flat of another, who sadly could not join us, as he had just undergone major surgery. After lunch we took a taxi to the Gare de Lyon for the second leg of what proved a wonderfully painless journey. One up for the train, I thought.

A part of my job is to cook, but we got in fairly late that evening, and a recipe for pork chops with a duxelle of mushrooms was pushed under my nose. The star that night was a magnum of winemaker Florent Chave’s latest triumph: the pure Grenache 2011 Séraphin. I have been sceptical of this wine up till now, as I found it too reductive and believed it needed a few months in an old cask to develop the nose, but our host, Gay McGuinness, had opened it hours in advance and it was producing plenty of very attractive aromas.

In the kitchen there was considerable excitement over hunks of boar Gay had picked up that afternoon, together with a score or more smallish truffles. I put the haunch straight into a marinade composed of two bottles of estate red, half a pint of wine vinegar and some olive oil, naturally adding a large bouquet garni of the herbs that grow around the mas or farmhouse. It was a small haunch, evidently from a very young beast. The truffles had been frozen in late December, but they still smelled promising when I opened the plastic box. The season had been extremely short due to warm, wet weather latterly crowned by heavy snow. France’s truffles have been struck by irregular harvests these last few years: the tubers don’t like warmth or excessive rain, nor to they respond to heavy frosts. It seems that good harvests happen one year in three or four now. There used to be many more truffles on the market and they were bigger and of better quality.

The problem with freezing truffles is that they lose their texture and become mushy. Once they had defrosted, I put them straight in to olive oil to prevent further oxidation, but there was no getting round the fact that they were not as pungent as they might have been.

We deployed them for the first time the following evening, when we obtained a large guinea fowl from a new shop selling fresh fruit and veg and other local specialities on the road to Mazan. Once we had done our shopping, we took off for Le Barroux, a hilltop village with a large castle between Caromb and Malaucène. The Germans apparently destroyed the castle because they saw signs it was being used by the Resistance. In fact, the mess inside had been caused by German units that had been billeted there some time before. In the sixties a new house was constructed within the ancient walls. There was no one around to let us into the castle but we enjoyed an aperitif in the sun at a friendly local restaurant instead. The Guinea hen was cooked ‘en demi-deuil’ with slivers of truffle inserted under the skin on the breast. I then worked up a sauce with the juices and fresh cream. We had the Domaine’s top Archange red that night, as well as a rogue bottle of Pauillac - a 1998 Château Haut-Batailley. No one was very clear as to where it had come from, but it was welcome for all that.

I have become used to the fact that shops pop off one by one in the region - like ten green bottles. Mormoiron has lost both its butchers. The shop on the Mazan road was a notable exception in this farewell symphony. It was market day in Carpentras on Friday and we found another impressive newcomer there called Le Grenache where we were able to stock up on some things which the estate does not make (champagne). Carpentras has but a few pockets of decent shops, as most of the smarter folk have moved out to the more genteel atmosphere of Pernes, leaving the town to its mainly North African inhabitants. Much of Carpentras now looks little different to the Mahgreb.

Still, the sun was shining again and we bought the few things we needed from the market before settling at a café opposite the lovely, truncated fifteenth century cathedral.

We cooked our haunch of boar that night. It was impressively tender after its 48-hour soak in Domaine des Anges red. I made some mashed potatoes and shaved in a great many truffles. The boar was acknowledged to have been a triumph, even if the truffles were somewhat less than heroic.

So far, we had had three lovely late winter days with glorious sunshine, but on Saturday the rain came down in torrents until the Mistral rose late in the afternoon to blow it away. On Saturdays the market is in Pernes, but with half-term starting that weekend and the miserable weather, there were few stalls set up beside the little river that borders the old town with its many fountains. We went to the tiny baker’s shop, Martin Richard in the rue Valentins, who makes his wonderful organic bread in a century-old oven. One woman sold us her last pigeons and quails and made us a present of some duck pâté as she was impressed by our fortitude. The two women who normally sell the local lavender honey were absent, possibly because of the school holidays, possibly because there have been a couple of bad harvests in succession and the bees have made but little. On the way back I tried the organic greengrocer in Mazan and the new shop, but neither had any. I finally tracked down a few pots in the cave Cooperative in Mormoiron. The price had risen sharply.

We had bought some good fresh ravioli in the market stuffed with ceps and ate those before we attacked our pigeons and quails that night. We left on Sunday. The wind had chased away the rain and it was brilliantly sunny again. We had our duck pâté and a pot of foie gras ready for a picnic on the train, but things began to go wrong around Lyon, when the train made an unscheduled stop. I had premonitions of disaster. There was too little turn-around time in Paris and I realised I risked missing my Eurostar.

Because half-term was drawing to an end in Paris, the queue for taxis snaked three times around the station forecourt, and yet I had too many bags filled with hunks of fresh boar, sausages, butter, honey and wine for the Métro. Every set of traffic lights seemed to be against me. We coasted by the shrine to Charlie Hebdo on the place de La République, but I had little heart for sightseeing. I arrived at the Gare du Nord two minutes before the train was due to leave and the man at the gate agreed that I had missed it. He told me to go to the ticket office where they would issue me with a ticket for the next train.

But it wasn’t as simple as that. The trains were full. The woman in uniform could not put me on a train before following morning. I wondered which Parisian friend might put me up for the night, but before I accepted my destiny I mentioned the late incoming train from Avignon. Her demeanour changed: how late, she asked. I saw my chance and exaggerated a little (not much). In that case she told me, ‘I can put you in First Class, leaving at 18.40.’ It was a hair-raising quart d’heure but in the end, I got home for dinner, and somehow even managed to travel in luxury.


The Power of Sex:
Hunting the Black Winter Truffle

Posted: 3rd February 2015

The black truffle season runs from December to March and God willing - in a fortnight or so - I shall be at the epicentre of the truffle-producing area in northern Provence. Between them, the Vaucluse and Drôme départements account for some sixty percent of French truffles. Périgord, which has the higher-sounding name, is good for about a third of this. I have been told it has been a short, poor season and truffles have been scarce since Christmas. Prices are quoted locally between €600 - €750, and twice that in Paris. I placed my orders early with reliable locals and with any luck my short stay will be blessed by a few memorable meals.

Not everyone is ready for truffles. The smell of a ripe truffle is earthiness made flesh. It is reminiscent of the bedroom: tangled sheets after a sticky night of sex. For the uninitiated, it can be disgusting. Travelling back from the professional truffle market in Richerenches in the Vaucluse a few years ago, I wrapped my precious acquisitions in a paper handkerchief and popped them in my pocket. I did not think of them again until I was 30,000 feet above the ground, somewhere between Marseille and Lyon.

I was conscious that the man sitting next to me was eyeing me with a blend of discomfort, suspicion and malevolence. When the fasten-seat-belt light went off, he got up and moved well away to another seat further down the aircraft. It was only then that I realised that he objected to the smell emanating from my pocket.

Had my fellow passenger known the odour hailed from that small, black, carbuncular tubers that the founding father of gastronomy, Grimod de La Reynière called ‘the foretaste of paradise,’ I imagine he would have asked to have a look (or even a sniff). Few people have the good fortune to experience the true flavour of truffles. At most the truffle they encounter is represented by a tasteless black fleck in the centre of a piece of foie gras (and probably only a piece of beetroot or horn of plenty mushroom - the standard duplicity), or some inert summer or Chinese truffle, fraudulently labelled Tuber melanosporum and sold at a huge price from a fancy delicatessen. The nearest thing to an authentic smell comes from those the little phials of oil in which a truffle has allegedly been bathed, and which are as often as not manufactured by an adroit combination of chemicals.

To a pig or a dog, however, that smell is meaningful enough. They know where to find them in the tangled mass of oak scrub that is the Mediterranean forest or maquis. A dog will need training, but for pigs it is innate. A sow finds the smell reminiscent of the boar’s scrotum, a thought so delicious to her that she is reluctant to yield up the truffle once she has taken it from the earth. Dogs are more pliant: a piece of bread or a biscuit will generally induce them to drop the truffle. In the old days there were proper turf wars over the maquis as truffle hunters asserted their rights to operate in a small piece of land known to yield the plumpest and the best. The land was never their own, but they assumed hunters’ rights whether the landlord liked it or not and most of the latter would have lacked the courage to stand in their way. These days, however, many of them have created truffières: a collection of local oaks planted on sandy soils that remind the truffles of their natural habitat. Truffières have the advantage of being easier to police.

As Pierre Sogno’s novel Le Serre aux truffes so vividly narrates, criminality and truffles are never far apart. Prized truffle-dogs are poisoned, sacks of truffles go missing from the gatherer’s homes and all manner of theft is a daily occurrence until the sources run dry at the end of February.

Some of the greatest fraud takes place at the market where the brokers come to acquire truffles for leading restaurants and grocers. Payments are strictly in cash. The French revenue service - ‘le fisc’ - must never know how many truffles have been sold. The hunter trades from the boot of his car. Any unfamiliar face caught snooping, and the hatch is slammed shut. The truffle-hunter sits on the boot brows knitted, his arms fiercely crossed until the stranger goes away.

The brokers are used to their shenanigans and some fraud is tolerated. They will buy if at least seventy percent of the bag is good. The more cynical brokers then sell the thirty percent of Chinese and tasteless summer truffles on to the canners who promptly defraud gullible consumers. Another trick is to increase the weight of the truffles by sticking clods and lumps of iron into the crevices of the tuber and then rounding it off with mud. Before he buys, the broker goes to work with a sharp knife, dipping into the sack offered by the hunter and scraping at the truffle to find any concealed weights. Too many instances of fraud from the rugged-looking fellow in the cloth cap and windcheater and the broker will never buy his truffles again.

At the restaurant Beaugravière at Mondragon near Orange, the chef Guy Jullien takes his truffles very seriously. In season black truffles are piled two or three feet high in a huge salver in the centre of his kitchen. He is so well known in the area that he gets the pick of the crop: tubers the size of tennis balls are scrubbed clean and glisten like so many pieces of wet coal. The aroma is sensational. At the slightest provocation he will design a menu entirely around the truffle: soupe VGE was created for the former President Valéry Giscard d’Estaing - truffle slices cooked in a goose stock under a puff pastry lid, the smell of which explodes under the diner’s nose when he breaks through the crust; a truffle omelette (in reality, scrambled eggs with truffles - the standard Provencal preparation); a chicken demi-deuil (‘half-in-mourning’) with slivers of black truffle inserted between the skin and the flesh to perfume the bird; a whole brie cheese, horizontally cut in two and filled with truffles; and vanilla ice cream, peppered with truffle flakes... The taste is indescribable. The atmosphere is electric. There are moments when you can hear a pin drop - so enchanted are the diners by the taste of heaven.

Black Truffle Risotto

(Starter for 4)

Ingredients

30g Black Winter Truffles approx.
1 litre of chicken stock
180g Carnaroli or Arborio rice
1 small onion, chopped very fine
2 tbsp Extra Virgin Olive Oil
250ml dry white wine
50g butter, diced
50g finely grated Parmesan
Salt to taste

Method

Using a mandoline, shave two-thirds of the fresh truffles into a mixing bowl. Grate the cheese into the same bowl, and add the diced butter and 1tbsp olive oil. Mix gently.

Bring a small saucepan to the boil with the stock and keep it simmering. Meanwhile using a heavy based flat-bottomed pan, sauté the onion in olive oil until translucent. Add the rice to the onion and heat through until all grains are hot and coated in oil.

Add the wine to the rice and stir until dissolved. Then add 1 ladleful of hot stock, again stirring until dissolved. Keep adding small quantities of stock until rice is cooked. This will take approx. 15-20 minutes from adding the wine. Rice should be al dente and the risotto the consistency of a thick soup. Turn off heat, add the butter-fresh-truffle & parmesan mixture and quickly beat into the risotto until it is creamy. Leave for 1 minute.

Serve the risotto in bowls. Shave any remaining truffles over the individual portions at the table.


Dusty Bottles

Posted: 5th January 2015

December is the party season and even in these lean, twilight years there are plenty of invitations if you want them. I don’t take many bites from the apple, but on the corporate side I went to both the Pernod-Ricard and the Chivas Brothers lunches, the latter in the Burroughs Distillery in Kennington where Jim Long showed me how they had recently turned the place into a museum with many opportunities to sample the gin as you admired the exhibits. This seemed an admirable development from the days when the distillery turned its back on its public; after all gin and London have walked out hand in hand for centuries.

I went to most of the Christmas parties given by friends and agents and to a curious concert at the Bulgarian Embassy where a man played a traditional Balkan flute while a lady sang and children amused themselves by scampering through the guests’ legs.

Among December’s special treats I would have to list the dress rehearsal of Tristan und Isolde and the Bad Sex Awards. In Stephen Gould, Nina Stemme had a tenor who was her equal, although I have to say John Tomlinson was sadly croaky. The Bad Sex Awards crowned Ben Okri - or rather, didn’t, because he didn’t turn up - but it remains about the best party of the season and a great tribute to the late Bron Waugh, who conceived it, and his son Alexander, who presents the show now. After I had my share of such distractions, London shut down as usual and Christmas reared its head.

Christmas feasts have become more paltry with the passing years, particularly when it comes to wine. Gone are the days when - in my mid-twenties - I went off to Hédiard on the place de la Madeleine and returned FF400 (£40) the poorer but armed with a bottle of 1971 La Tâche. There were just two of us then, with champagne, a haunch of wild boar and even a bottle of indifferent Pomerol in reserve. Needless to say I drank most of it. That wine costs over £3,000 a bottle today - and in bond. If anyone is interested, Berry Brothers has magnums at £26,000 and rising.

There was a little shop opposite the church of St. Roch in the rue St. Honoré that had a nice collection of first growth clarets. I remember being able to buy good years like 1961, 1962, 1966 or 1970 for a few hundred francs, which was possible for a once-a-year treat; also Nicholas used to bring out old bottles from its massive cellars in Charenton and these were distributed around its Paris branches. Their Yuletide window displays were the source of many, largely unfulfilled fantasies, but one Christmas I recall the 1966 Haut-Brion, and there were surely other wines of that quality. Another year a couple of friends (the German-wine guru Joel Payne was one) clubbed together to buy me a bottle of 1955 Yquem for my birthday. The cheapest I can find it now is £555 a bottle but I don’t imagine they paid a tenth part of that.

The globalisation of wine snobbery seems to have put paid to these cheap-ish treats. Ordinary people simply cannot afford to drink the top wines anymore and even those plutocratic Tampa or Orlando dentists who used to collect first growths and send first-class airline tickets to the likes of Michael Broadbent, seem to have ceded their places to Hong Kong businessmen and Shanghai traders; although one new friend admitted to me last month that he had bought three cases of 1982 Mouton thirty years ago and that now they were ripe, he opened one every Christmas and believed his 36-bottle cache would see him out.

There are still one or two half-decent things derrière les fagots here, although they won’t console us quite like the friend with his rack of Mouton. We started with some Mumm, a champagne that has got so much better in recent times that you feel obliged to take back all the nasty things you have ever said about it. Food had come from all over, it seemed: some fabulous goose livers flew in from the Central Market in Budapest and two of the largest lobsters I have ever cooked came up from Devon for Christmas Eve. They deserved a bottle of Corton-Charlemagne at the very least, but I had only some Chablis Montmains from my old friend Bernard Légland to give them, and the 2011 was greatly superior to the 2010, which I found rather stringy. There was a little treat in the wine for the Vacherin Mont d’or, a 2001 Castello Vicchiomaggio Riserva which was rich and luscious and tasted of blackberries.

I opened some Pol Roger on Christmas Day, still non-vintage, but from a case I bought when After the Reich came out, so 2007. It must have been cellared in 2004. Old NV champagne from good houses is rarely disappointing. That went with the liver. With our goose I had planned to sacrifice a magnum of 1998 Château Talbot had been hoarding since 2001 and as it transpired, one of our guests had brought a bottle of Haut-Batailley from the same vintage.

I was mildly disappointed by the Talbot, which I found a bit crumbly and wondered whether I hadn’t stored it badly. The Haut-Batailley, though a less prestigious wine, was more unctuous. We finished off with some 2003 Gewürztraminer Eiswein from my favourite Styrian grower Alois Gross, which was a rather more lyrical dessert than our commercial Christmas pudding, which had been made by Bloomers - or so it said - and he’d hidden a very sweet orange in the middle of it. After that we went upstairs and wept at Random Harvest.

My family went to the country soon after Christmas, leaving me with a fridge full of leftovers. There was more than enough there to last the week they were away. Only one night did I rebel and buy something different, and that was for New Year’s Eve. In Britain we do not have any culinary traditions for the end of the year besides getting drunk and throwing up. Many years ago I decided I would adopt the Italian practise of eating a zampone or cotechino sausage with lentils and mashed potatoes. The lentils are supposed to represent the money you hope to earn in the following year. I thought they would be enough and this year I omitted the mash - after all, it’s the money that counts.

I also bought some Italian lentils, but discovered far too late, that I was supposed to soak them, so I used red, Ethiopian ones instead, cooking them in goose stock. Even a small cotechino proved plenty of sausage.

Naturally an Italian meal calls for Italian wine and poking around in a little stash I keep I found some 1997 Pronotto Barolo which I thought would do me fine. There was a pipkin of Mumm in the fridge, about a glass and a quarter, and that I drank as an aperitif.

The star of the show was the Barolo, which was I think the best wine I drank during the Christmas feast; although it should be added that this was not the single-vineyard wine. It had quite pronounced aromas of violets and the most gorgeous filigree acidity and a huge length that kept coming and going in waves across my tongue. The tannins were fine and silky, and it provided voluble company while I watched Greta Garbo as Queen Christina. There were even a couple of glasses left over for New Year’s Day.

And so I begin a new year...


Gifts from Greece

Posted: 1st December 2014

There is really so little to report, I have had my shoulder to the wheel for two months now, but am pleased to say that I have now rejigged the book I was writing, and I hope for calmer, more creative days in Advent, until the next storm blows up again in the New Year.

The most interesting wine event this month was an informal tasting of Greek wines at the house of a neighbour who lives up by the Heath. I have occasionally written about Greek wines and was aware that they were not the dire collection we used to poke fun at in Greek restaurants a generation ago - Domestos and Otello and all. They began to change in the eighties and from the nineties there were some really very impressive wines indeed. This tasting served as a useful reminder of all that.

Greece is hot, but it is also mountainous, which means that winemakers wanting to avoid head-busting, coarse wines can climb the rock escarpments and plant where the cold breezes preserve aromas in the grapes. Such was the 2013 white Mantinia from Tselepos in the Peleponnese, which was made from Moschophillero grapes and grown at 700 metres and was both lively and spicy. Another good white was the 2013 Malagousia from Gerovassiliou in Epanomi, Macedonia. It is made from the eponymous Malagousia grape, which was rediscovered in the nineteenth century and exists only in minute quantities. The wine was apparently vinified in oak before, rendering it ponderous, but this was good and sappy with a slight redolence of lemons and parsnips.

The dry whites that steal the show in Greece are those from the volcanic atoll of Santorini. Opinions were divided on the 2013 Assyrtiko from Gaia, but I was not so put off by the sulphury smell and revelled in its great length and structure. Many preferred the 2013 Assyrtiko from Hadzidakis, which had a nose reminiscent of freshly crushed raspberries and a pretty good weight to it, albeit worn gracefully. Unlike some of the wines that night, this was available for purchase from the Wine Society.

I am not a great fan of oaky whites but the 2012 Assyrtiko from Sigalas was really lovely: intensely lemony and creamy from the bâtonnage, a terribly impressive wine.

We passed onto reds and Greece’s top black grape the Agiorgitiko. The 2005 Nemea Reserve from Parparoussis is grown in an amphitheatrical vineyard at an altitude of some 700 metres. It had a red berry cheesecake nose - raspberries, strawberries and cherries, but plenty of acidity betrayed its mountainous origins. In the nineties I recall the Greeks - like everyone else for that matter - were keen to plant the MacVarieties, and there was a lot of Cabernet and Chardonnay about. Our tasting included a 2001 Tselopos Cabernet Sauvignon from Aviotopi in Tegea in the Peloponnese. Again it was high grown and both chunky and slightly alcoholic but redeemed by an alluring spiciness. The 2005 Estate Red from Alpha also led on foreign cultivars, in this case Syrah and Merlot topped up with a bit of native Xinomavro. It comes from Amynteo in Macedonia. I liked its coffee and plum aroma which I assumed derived from the 40 percent Syrah, and it was well made with fine, cooling tannins.

Quite an oddity was the 2010 Mavrotragano (‘black crunchy’) from Hadzidakis on Santorini. There was a little volatile acidity with an astringent plum and cherry taste, but the wine was long and endearing. Sometimes wines are better for being unusual - there are so many around now that have now character at all. The 2000 Cava from Mercouri in Korakohori in the Peloponnese was made from a blend of Refosco and Mavrodaphne. Refosco was one of the varieties the Venetians pedalled round the Aegean and is chiefly found on islands like Kefalonia. This had a nice mature nose with some of that cherry-astringency of the Refosco I like in Slovenia.

There were two desert wines we attacked after dinner: a 1991 vin santo from Argyros on Santorini and a 1997 Chortes Mavrodaphne from the Peloponnese. I presume the vin santo also owes its name to Venice and the days when their mechant marine shipped the sweet wines of Candy (Crete) throughout Europe. It is aged for fifteen years in big tuns and reeks of leather and figs. It was quite gorgeous. The Mavrodaphne is made from sun-dried grapes made using a method that blends Hesiod and the Douro Valley. One large cask is filled every year. It smells of Demerara sugar and is hugely good.

The Leithaberg tasting at the beginning of the month was perhaps slightly less inspiring. The Leitha Hills are the old demarcation between Austria and Hungary. They are chalky and rise above the misty, shallow Neusiedl Lake The land suits certain Burgundian varieties such as Pinot Blanc (Weissburgunder), Pinot Noir and St. Laurent and when growers plant Blaufränkisch, it has a richness to it you will not find in Mittelburgenland. They have recently benefited from one of the new Austrian DACs which imitate other protected regions in Europe. Some faces were familiar - although it has to be said that it was their fathers I knew best. Others at the tasting were new to me.

There highlights were the 2013 Blaufränkisch Ried Satz from Markus Altenburger which had the virtue of being light and approachable when so much Blaufränkisch is tough and heavy; the 2009 Blaufränkisch Thenau from Birgit Braunstein; the 2011 Leithaberg DAC Blaufränkisch from Schloss Esterhazy; the 2012 Blaufränkisch Rosenberg from Toni Hartl; the 2012 sweet Ausbruch from Winzerschlössl Kaiser; and the 2011 Blaufränkisch Tannenberg from Nittnaus. Nittnaus wines have come on by leaps and bounds of late. I find the Leithaberg wines are much more enjoyable than those from their vines in Gols.

Georg Prieler in Schützen has taken over the family estate from his sister and is just about as good as it gets in the region. His Seeberg Pinot Blanc is always recommended. There were three Blaufränkisch wines on show: the 2011 Johanneshöhe, the 2012 Leithaberg and the 2011 Goldberg. The last is the flagship wine and the most Burgundian of all. They are all good and Georg has inherited his father’s deft hand with oak. Erwin Tinnhof’s wines are also favourites of mine and far cheaper than Prieler’s I would be quite happy with his 2009 Leithaberg Blaufränkisch. The 2012 Leithaberg was also impressive from Wagentristl who was also showing a delicious Muskat-Ottonel and Muskateller Trockenbeerenauslese. Enquiries to www.leithaberg.at.

Just a few days ago I had a little pre-Advent treat when I went to Moët & Chandon’s HQ in Belgravia and had a glass or two of the 2002 Dom Ruinart. It was a vintage which only did well from Burgundy upwards, but it was very good in champagne. I am only sorry that I am not able to buy several cases of it for my son’s twenty-first, but it might be over the top by then. Moët recently sent me some sparkling wines from their Argentinean operation. I was very impressed, they were quite beefy, and the rose perhaps a bit too techno, but they knocked the spots off a lot of cheap champagnes.

Spey whisky had another party in the Tower of London to launch its Michael Owen malt, in honour of the football player. It is a great thing to go to an evening party in the White Tower: you climb the stairs feeling a bit like Saint Thomas More, but with perhaps a little less trepidation. The famous poppies were still in the moat when I arrived, and Tower Hill was heaving with tourists come for a last glimpse of the red sea before it parted. The whisky was young and quite coated with oak, but it was a nice dram for all that. This month I also took a shine to the 2003 Balblair malt, which is quite the opposite. It must have been made in reused Bourbon hoggies for there was scarce any feeling of oak at all. The result is perfectly linear and austerely pale with a little heather honeycomb sweetness.

The same stable delivered some Caorunn gin. I drink about six glasses of gin and tonic a year, but I enjoy them, especially when it is hot. This gin has unusual botanicals such as apples, dandelions, rowans, heather and bog myrtle (who caused a bit of hilarity in the house) but it was a lovely complex palate for all that, although I am not sure that the prescribed slice of red apple did it many favours. I also received a bottle of Three Barrels Honey brandy, which looks as if it might perform a small role in the mince pies this year.

The only other thing to report here has been the arrival Zebag smart wine carrier, a device that will either transport six bottles or may be transformed into a hanger with space for a case. I should say it would make an unusual but useful Christmas present. www.cuckooland.com.

Now I need to go and marinate the goose livers.


Why I Make My Own Bread

Posted: 3rd November 2014

We had an important anniversary in 2011: it was half a century since the Chorleywood Bread Process or ‘CBP’ was born, signalling an end - in dietary terms at least - to the prolonged horrors of the Second World War.

Twenty years before, in 1941, the government had decreed the addition of calcium to flour to prevent rickets. Then German U-Boats rendered flour itself scarce and in 1942 the authorities responded with their gritty, beige ‘National Loaf’ that exploited every scrap of a grain of wheat. The ‘wholewheat’ loaf was chiefly composed of bran - husks - and it continued to labour in the national stomach until rationing was abolished in the mid-fifties. Relief came when the all-singing, all-dancing pre-packed CBP sandwich loaf was announced, itself a spin-off from the American-style ‘Wonderloaf’ invented by Otto Frederick Rohwedder, which had rolled out sliced and wrapped as early as 1927.

After those long years of austerity, CBP bread was a runaway success; one of the first swallows of the Swinging Sixties that brought us cheap chocolate bars and deep-frozen battery chickens. Technologically speaking it was far more advanced that the American Wonderloaf. British baking scientists had isolated a method of using hard fats, doubling or tripling the amount of yeast and adding chemicals in a bid to bake a loaf in a fraction of the time it took to make a traditional loaf. Named after was the research station in Chorleywood in the northern suburbs of London which developed the method, CBP bread had the added advantage of being patriotic, as it made use of low protein wheat which was usually thought unsuitable for bread making, but it was pretty well all that British farmers could supply.

Now eighty percent of British bread is made according to the Chorleywood Process, and it is the object of some pride in industrial baking circles. The Bakers’ Federation even wheeled out Anthony Worrall-Thompson to make a series of videos extolling its virtues. From Britain it is set to conquer the world and its soft tentacles have pushed out as far as South America.  One by one the bastions fall. It even threatened the home of the world’s most famous bread: France. Délifrance had made considerable progress selling fresh dough to bakers until the public belatedly rang the tocsin at the violation of the breakfast baguette. Now a decree stipulates that bakers’ shops have to make it clear whether they bake their own bread or not.

Despite a smattering of fancy bakers in prosperous parts of London and elsewhere in Britain, CBP bread has routed the opposition. The traditional British loaf used to be quite easy to find. As a child living just off the Gloucester Road in London there was a lovely little bakery more or less where that whacking-great Waitrose is now. There were great fluffy white farmhouse loaves under a dusting of flour, bloomers, tins and split tins; and I remember the great slabs of pure white bread that fell from the bread knife at teatime. English bread was quite distinct from French, German or Italian bread. Ours was not a sourdough culture. When a treat was decreed, the baker sold meringues or choux pastries and filled them with whipped cream, but that was nothing to the man on the corner of Drayton Gardens and the Fulham Road who made an incredible confection of cream, walnuts, chocolate and toffee that was a sure-fire way to seduce children.

When we moved west, there was Beatons in the Earl’s Court Road, where stout Welsh ladies, dressed in pinnies and cotton bonnets, fetched white and wholemeal loaves from their racks. Beatons had another branch in the King’s Road in Chelsea offering much the same stock. It disappeared long before its sister, making way for the chichi Crabtree & Evelyn which had a line in biscuits, but not bread.

Returning from seven years in Paris in 1985 I went to live in Islington, then famous for housing Messrs Blair and Broon. There were still plenty of working-class local bakers then, but they fell victim to gentrification and the supermarkets. There was one of the Essex Road, possibly two in Upper Street, not to mention the place in Cross Street with its centennial ovens, where I was once sent by the FT to watch the chef Bruno Loubet cook a series of dishes ‘à la boulangère.’ That old baker’s shop has been many things since it closed, but every time I pass it I wonder what happened to those ovens.

When I took my daughter to the Almeida last week, I noticed that Islington had become a paradise for people looking for pâtisseries selling cakes, sourdough loaves and viennoiseries. There was an affluent, cosmopolitan, middle-class clientele that thought nothing of shelling out more than a fiver for a pain campaillou or a boule.  For we plebs, there are still industrially produced bloomers and tins from Greggs.

Around here in Kentish Town, the only traditional place left is Crusty Bloomers (sic) in Brecknock Road, which is admirably maintained by a family of Poles.

But, chin-up, nil desperandum: that deep ravine that separates the pain des pauvres from the rich man’s loaf is as old as bread. The Ancient Egyptians are credited as being the first people to make leavened bread, but it is almost certain that risen loaves were only available for the patricians. This remained the case both in Ancient Greece and Rome, where the poor ate barley cakes and the rich alone could run to white, wheaten loaves.

The risk of fire and the expense of creating and maintaining proper, pukka ovens meant that those white, wheaten loaves were only baked in monasteries or in the castles of the barons during the middle ages, while hoi polloi made do with bowl-shaped flatbreads into which they spooned their nourishing pottage.

For most people, white bread was a treat seen only at the monastery gates or at certain communion Sundays. One of the features of the Roman ‘saturnalia’ that survived in various forms into the nineteenth century was that once a year the servants were served by their masters, and on that day alone, they ate white bread. Envying the master and his bread has fuelled countless riots and revolutions over the years, most prominently during the French Revolution. Not for nothing was the baker formerly the most hated man on the high street and the miller the butt of the cruellest jibes. In 1789, French Jacobins immolated bakers whenever they got the chance.

Bread has been associated with revolution since Jesus Christ, God of Bread and Bread of God. Not for nothing have the prudent French continued to regulate the price of bread since the excesses of the Terror.

Industrialisation and the fierce heat of the coal fire allowed the poor to dream of white bread for all, but the possibility of making mass-produced risen loaves attracted adulterators from the first. Almost as soon as British grocers offered cheap risen loaves, Parliament was obliged to introduce legislation forbidding the use of chalk and other additives aimed at making cheap coarse flour look whiter and more refined than it actually was. Britain led the way in providing industrial bread but companies such as the Aerated Bread Company (ABC) and Hovis - itself remarkable in that it sought to make palatable wholemeal bread - were constantly looking for a means to cut costs by using cheaper materials.

Supermarkets are now the leading source of bread in the UK, but just what is the ‘hot, crusty bread’ they sell? Unless it is branded Gail’s, Baker & Spice or Poilane, it is most likely to be some cunningly disguised form of CBP heated up on the premises. Food served warm benefits from legislation that does not require suppliers to print a list of ingredients - at least not in this country.

Concern is growing about the nature of industrially produced bread, however, and some have gone so far as to suggest it should carry a health warning. I don’t mean the just the disgruntled customer a few years back who found an overcooked mouse in a loaf he bought from Tesco, but many dieticians who seek to explain the huge rise in allergies among young people. Just looking at the list of additives in an average loaf is likely top cause alarm. Let’s use remind ourselves of the basic ingredients - flour, water and yeast. I leave you with an appetising list

Fat comes in the form of palm fat or oils, to improve volume, soften the dough, prolong the shelf life of the bread and create a finer cell-structure. In traditional bread it is gluten that provides structure and prevents the bread from collapsing, but the British flour used in the CBP contains little or no gluten so Gluten is put in to provide texture. Hydrogenated fats have commonly been used in the past, though large bakers are fazing them out, possibly replacing them with fractionated fats. These don't contain or produce transfats, which have been associated with heart disease. Salt is added to allow yeast to grow while reducing competitive bacterial growth. It affects the flavour. Esters such as monoglycerides and diglycerides are thrown in to act as emulsifiers. They control the size of gas bubbles and enable the dough to hold more gas and therefore grow bigger, making the crumb softer. Emulsifiers also reduce the rate at which the bread goes stale. Calcium propionate is used to inhibit mould, as is vinegar (acetic acid). Commercial bread often gives off a telltale smell of vinegar. Preservatives are necessary for prolonged shelf life. Anti-fungal compounds are also used. A whiter crumb is ensured by enzymatically active soya flour containing lipoxygenase enzymes. Soya flour not only whitens flour but makes the dough softer and more malleable enabling more water to be added. Another method used by millers is to bleach the flour with chlorine dioxide gas, making white flour whiter and having an ‘improving’ effect. Bleaches have been used as a substitute for the natural ageing of flour. Another additive is the flour oxidizer azodicarbonamide. This is banned in EU, Canada, Japan, Australia and New Zealand, but permitted in the US. Small amounts of ascorbic acid (vitamin C) are used. It is either added by the miller or prior to baking. This is the most common oxidant used in the EU, mainly for wholemeal and whole grain breads and helps retain gas in the dough making it rise more and giving a false impression of value. It is used in all bread in the UK but mills are prohibited from adding it to wholemeal flour. Starch enzymes and protein enzymes are employed to break down wheat starches to sugars to feed the yeast and to ‘mellow’ the gluten to allow for reduced mechanical mixing times. Enzymes are also adapted to survive baking temperatures and great variations in pH to impart preservative and softening qualities to the finished products. All enzymes used for baking in the UK are de-natured hence are not required to be labelled. L-cysteine hydrochloride (E920), cysteine is a naturally occurring amino acid used in baking to create more elastic doughs, especially for burger buns and baguettes. It may be derived from animal hair and feathers. Some of the chemicals in the CBP have subsequently been banned: potassium bromate, for example.

America - the creator of sliced white - cannot use the CBP, as its strong flours are unsuitable. Widespread reports on the poor quality and unhealthiness of supermarket bread have led some customers to vote with their feet. Many people now resort to bread machines which replicate some of the processes of properly made bread, but often require additives and ‘dough conditioners’ of their own and are far from ideal. When all is said and done: the best and cheapest solution is to make your own.


Rare Treats in Scotland and Provence

Posted: 2nd October 2014

Cracking Oysters

September should start with oysters, and so shall I. I nipped out on Monday 8th September to watch the Tabasco British Oyster Opening Championship at the Holborn Dining Rooms in London. The idea of a few natives and some Pommery champagne was a powerful incentive, not to mention the spectacle of some spirited oyster-shucking.

Once I had been equipped with a glass and an oyster, I quickly noted Tristan Hugh-Jones proceeding at a sedate pace through his test lot of thirty molluscs. He had every right to, as the Loch Ryan natives came from his beds. I once went to see his father on a day trip to the Rossmore oyster beds near Cork. I ate dozens of Pacific oysters (superior natives were rare then), drank several pints of stout and slept soundly on the aeroplane all the way back to London.

The Championship is an annual event organised by Carolyn Cavele of Food Matters, but I could not recall how long it had been since the last time I attended. It was good to see a few old friends, including the chef David Dorricott who reminded me (as if I needed reminding) that he had cooked the dinner for the launch of my first book A Palate in Revolution back in 1987. I can still taste the truffle-laden turkey he prepared that day, according to the fragmentary recipe of the Société des mercredis. Another familiar face was the wealthy novelist Martin Amis. At least I thought it was Martin Amis, and I nearly went to commiserate him on the bad reviews he had received for his latest book, but at the last moment I was not so sure. Someone kindly went to ask him if he were indeed Martin Amis, but he denied it, telling his interlocutor he was ‘John the Journalist’ and promptly took out a sheath of paper and began writing feverish notes. Surely no one takes bad reviews that seriously?

Glenlivet at £18,000 a Bottle

September actually started in August on Speyside when I had a rare trip up to Speyside with the Glenlivet Distillery to taste their newest release: a 50-year old malt, but I had been forbidden to speak of it before now. It was one of those trips that meant getting up before five to catch a plane to Aberdeen and after I was treated to a post-prandial massage at my hotel, I fell asleep for a couple of hours in my hugely comfortable bed at Meldrum House Hotel and Golf Club. Once I had come back to life, I spent the time before dinner ambling about the course looking for wild mushrooms. I found a few phallus impudicus, and several golf balls, but nothing edible. After a fine dinner in the hotel, the Glenlivet’s Heritage Director, Peter Prentice, staged a tasting of the range of malts in a pigeon loft in another part of the hotel: as ever I was bowled over by the ‘new make’ with its redolence of sweet pears and honey. This Scottish ‘schnapps’ knocks the spots off a German ‘Korn’. The 12-year old was neither fish nor fowl: not the best age for the Glenlivet; but with the 15-year old French oak there was more character: crystallised fruits, chocolate and marzipan. An 18-year old had been in Bourbon casks before being finished off in Douro pipes. This was super: walnuts and Seville oranges; and then there was a gorgeous 25-year old that had grown up in a sherry-butt. It was followed by the crowning glory - the 1983, which tasted like rather good, runny marmalade.

There was a litany of special treats of that sort. For a start the sun came out and stayed out until the day we left. Then there was a huge fry at breakfast, with added haggis: a beast that appeared more than once on our plates. We then climbed into two buses and went to a ‘smugglers’ bothy’ on Carn Liath, the hill above the original Glenlivet distillery at Ballindalloch that was licensed in 1824, the Duke of Gordon taking advantage of 1823 Act that finally legalised distilling. Before then Glenlivet was made with a kettle and coil like any other moonshine and probably tasted a bit like that excellent ‘new make’.

There on the hill, we were entertained by a man with a collection of birds of prey. I volunteered to perform with two other men and a South American hawk, which then flew over our heads, under our arms and through our legs to demonstrate its extraordinary abilities. The pièce de la résistance was a bald-headed eagle. Once he made his appearance all bird-life on the mountain disappeared and even the beasts in the fields below looked nervous.

We took little moon-buggies and went up Carn Liath to a place where we could see for miles around. We were shown the Braes, where the Duke apparently protected the local Catholics. The purple heather was flowering and it was teaming with grouse and plover. We had a quick dram and some canapés before heading back down the hill for an elaborate lunch cooked by a proper French chef, with freshly grilled local lobster and venison he said he had despatched himself.

After looking at Josie’s Well (still the source for much of the water at the distillery) and a tour of the distillery in the company of the ebullient distiller, Alan Winchester, the great moment was upon us. Just a hundred bottles of the 1964 malt had been released and with a mighty price tag of £18,000 each. It was the colour of ancient tawny port and smelled very strongly of oranges, although Winchester identified the fruit as pineapples. The palate was predictably concentrated and smacked of honey, Seville oranges and toffee. 

There was another treat in the form of the 1966. The 1964 had been in a Bourbon cask, but this marginally younger whisky was in a sherry-butt. The cask had not been broached and at around 49 percent I found it sullen. A little water freed its tongue: it was tannic from its long incarceration in its butt, and sweet, but then a glorious taste of oranges broke through, like a Turner sunrise after a murky night.

That evening we went to Fyvie Castle, which is just everything that you could wish for from a Scottish castle with its massive, mediaeval towers and Frenchified ‘tourettes’. It was previously owned by the Setons - as in ‘The Queen, my lord is dead’ - then passed through many hands until it ended up in the possession of the Scottish National Trust. In England that would be the end of the story: those killjoys Health and Safety would take control, the place would be disneyfied, kiddified and little notices would be erected to tell you how wicked they were, the feudal lords who once lived within the walls. In Scotland it appears to be different: when the Forbes family moved out to a smaller house in the park, they left all their clutter behind, and the place is still inhabited by their spirits. The live-in custodian also proved a great host and entertained us with wit and a fine tenor voice so that he brought the castle brimmingly to life. They even allowed us to take our champagne with us as we toured the house with its magnificent furniture collection, its single Batoni and collections of Raeburns and Lawrences. At dinner Alan Winchester performed Robbie Burns’ Address to a Haggis with more mock-heroic humour than I have ever seen it done before, revealing a missed vocation as a comic actor. The evening was rounded off with Noel Coward and other songs around the piano.

I have been spoiled by other lovely whiskies too of late, such as the Devil’s Punchbowl III from Arran with its rich sweet marzipan body and pepper and salt finish.

Cold Comfort

I don’t know what I think about cold coffee. Gregory Peck orders one in one of my favourite films, Roman Holiday when Audrey Hepburn squanders his money on champagne. Unlike Peck’s coffee, Minor Figures was cold brewed rather than left to go cold.  It has had some take-up and I understand Selfridges and Harvey Nichols are now stocking it. I have a Tetra Pak of it beside me here now and am sucking it up through a straw as I write. Not a bad brew and it has a nice chocolate and malt taste. I think it might be better on a warm day, but what the hell! Maybe Gregory Peck knew something I didn’t?

Meat Porter is a new online butcher’s service for people who can’t get out to the shops. The boss, Stefan Porter, tells me he is pitching at the higher end, using sources that generally supply top restaurants, so that you can have your favourite steaks, roasts, sausages and game delivered to your door. I have to admit I am exceptionally lucky here in Kentish Town, in that I have now six butchers within easy walking distance, ranging from the cheap and cheerful to the chic and expensive and I would never buy a cut of meat that I hadn’t been able to admire first; but not everyone has that chance now, so maybe that is where Meat Porter will prove its worth.

Crew Bourgeois

On 25 September the Cru Bourgeois organisation of Bordeaux put on its annual tasting. It is a huge affair with 188 wines open for tasting. Like many others, I simply made a selection based on prejudice: been good in the past, was awful when I last had it, might have improved... The wines I liked best were as follows: La Cardonne (little classic), Haut Barrail, Loudenne, Les Ormes Sorbet (Cabernet dominated, another classic), Rollan de By, Arnauld, Dillon (which I liked enormously), Gironville (cheap), Magnol, Ramage la Batisse (one of my top wines), Le Boscq and Le Crock.

Provencal Revels

Last but not least, there was the September Provence gathering at the Domaine des Anges where our spirits were slightly dampened by the death of one of our number: Brian Shiels. As the new whites were in the vat and beginning to ferment, I made an onion tart (Zwiebeltorte) and Florent Chave obliged me with a couple of bottles of Sturm. I am not sure the idea of wine with 2-3 percent alcohol appealed much, but the tart went down all right. No one drank the 1985 Rozes port I brought down bar one chap who poured it into his Archange by mistake then complained to me that his wine tasted funny. Ah well, such is life.

The high point, as ever, was the tasting that Bob Huddie put on in his house. This time we looked at six wines from Pessac-Léognan in the Graves of Bordeaux in the 2008, 2009 and 2010 vintages: the modest Château Gazin-Rocquencourt, Château de Fieuzal, Château Malartic-Lagravière, Château Smith-Haut-Lafitte and Château Haut-Bailly. Irish-owned Fieuzal had quite a pull for our largely Irish group, most of whom knew the proprietor, Lochlann Quinn. I had pleasant memories of almost all the properties, including Smith-Haut-Lafitte, where Madame Cathiard once offered me the chance of a beauty treatment that involved soaking in the hulls of freshly-pressed grapes. Realising it was too late to do anything about my appearance I told her that ‘I preferred to take my treatment internally.’

Gazin-Rocquencourt amply proved his worth with an aggregate score of 90.3 for all three vintages - Bob Huddie likes to use 100-point Porker-ratings. Both Fieuzal (90.4) and Malartic (90.5) trailed behind the rest of the pack, not least because the 2010 Malartic was corked. I think I liked the Fieuzal more than most, as I gave spectacularly high marks to the 2008 and 2009. My top wine was the Domaine de Chevalier, which I have always loved and have always appreciated its excellent value-for-money. It was seductive, but not flashy. For me Smith has a hint of showiness about it which puts it in another camp. It is perhaps significant that Porker gives the 2009 Smith 100 points. Haut-Bailly was harder to taste, as it was nowhere near ready to drink in any of its incarnations.

The overall scores for the top three were as follows: Chevalier 94, Smith 93.6 and Haut Bailly 95.3. Our tasters preferred the 2010 vintage, the 2009 coming second, but there was not much in it and I have to say, they were a stunning set of wines.


Wine & War

Posted: 4th September 2014

I’m just back from a nine-day ramble taking in Germany, Austria, Belgium and France. The tour started with wine and ended in war, to be more specific: the opening engagements of the British Expeditionary Force in August 1914.

The first stop was the big VDP ‘sneak preview’ tasting in Wiesbaden in the Rhineland. I flew in on Sunday and we had a relaxed evening at their HQ in Mainz where were given an introduction to some of the better wines of the south German state of Württemberg - where the elite organisation has sixteen members - and a delicious meal cooked by a local (that is Württembourgois) chef: brawn, stuffed Hohenlohe pigeons with ceps, a peach sabayon and Württemberg cheeses.

The typical soil of Württemberg is Keuper: a marl that contains large quantities of gypsum. My friend Mario Scheuermann maintains that the soil makes excellent Sauvignon Blancs, and indeed the Aldinger Große Reserve is possibly the most convincing Sauvignon Blanc I have had from Germany. Aldinger is clearly a star: his 2009 Lämmler Lemberger (Blaufränkisch) was also among the best of the bunch. Of the other whites, there were good Rieslings from the Fürst Hohenlohe, Wachstetter, Schnaitmann and Wöhrwag and Schnaitmann also topped my score for his Pinot Noir (Spätburgunder). Wöhrwag and Fürst Hohenlohe made very good Lembergers, but the best of these, I felt, was the Grosses Gewächs (grand cru) from Graf Neipperg.

The tasting began in earnest the next morning, and I was able to deal with 299 2013 whites and red wines (chiefly from 2012) before I left the following afternoon. It was clearly a difficult vintage, and winemakers had responded by de-acidifying, putting the wines through malolactic fermentation and using every which means in order to make them easier to taste and sell. The usual platitude applies: the best winemakers will make the best wines even in the worst vintages. Some regions fared better than others. There were good white wines from the Nahe and the Mosel and some lovely 2012 reds from the Ahr; but in 2013 the Rheingau had a bad year, ending a succession of good vintages that goes back some twenty years; and equally disappointing was the Pfalz, which is usually thoroughly reliable.

So in the following list I have confined myself to the three star wines. First come the Rieslings:

In the Mosel I was impressed by Heymann-Löwenstein, whose most attractive wine for now is the unusually charming Hatzenporter Kirchberg. Clemens Busch made several excellent wines, but I felt the best was the Marienburger ‘Rothenpfad’. It is not surprising that Fritz Haag should have scored top marks for both his Brauneberger Juffer and his Juffer-Sonnnenuhr: there are few growers of this quality anywhere in the world.

It seems odd to leap from top growers like Haag to Bernard Pawis in Saale-Unstrut, but his Freyburger Edelacker was such a lovely wine that I feel I cannot pass over it in silence. Then came the lacklustre Rheingaus of which the Spreitzer Oestricher Rosengarten was my favourite, followed, perhaps by his Mittelheimer Sankt Nikolaus. Josef Spreizer has soared to the first rank of hock-makers in the last few years. The only other Rheingau to score top marks was August Kesseler’s Berg Roseneck.

The Nahe had the highest average score, but then, it has far fewer growers than the Rheingau and many of them are among the best in Germany. There were exciting wines from Kruger-Rumpf (also on the Binger Scharlachberg in Rheinhessen) and Crusius and some very promising ones from Gut Hermannsberg, but the best of all were from Dönnhof (Dellchen, Felsenberg), Schäfer-Fröhlich (Kupfergraben, Stromberg, Felseneck) and Emrich-Schönleber (Frühlingsplätzchen, Halenberg).

Quality was much more variable in Rheinhessen. The names that stood out from the Rhine terraces were Kühling-Gillot (Pettenthal and Ölberg), the Staatsweingut in Oppenheim for the Ölberg and St Anthony for Orbel. Elsewhere I admired the Brüder Dr Becker for their Dienheimer Falkenberg. There were no top scorers in the southern Wonnegau this year.

As I said earlier, the Pfalz had clearly had a hard time in 2013. The honourable exceptions were a startling Pechstein from Acham-Magin, two wines from Bassermann-Jordan: the Ungeheuer and the Kalkofen, and an unexpectedly good wine from Bergdolt-St. Lamprecht from the Reiterpfad. Rebholz’s Im Sonnenschein had an enchanting nose too: indeed I found his wines looser and less Calvinist than usual.

My discovery this year in Franconia was Fürst Löwenstein and his Homburger Kallmuth, although I was also enchanted by a Randersacker Pfülben from Schmitt’s Kinder.

The Franconian Rieslings led me directly to the Silvaners from the same region. Once again the Fürst Löwenstein wines were in the vanguard with their Kallmuth, but here there were also excellent wines from tried and trodden sources such as the Stein from the Juliusspital in Würzburg and the Eschendorfer Lump from Horst Sauer. The Juliusspital also made a fine wine at the Julius-Echter-Berg as did Paul Weltner, who was new to me but whom I now see was ‘newcomer of the year’ in Feinschmecker magazine in 2012.

I moved on to the mostly 2012 vintage Pinot Noirs (Spätburgunder) starting with the Ahr. You recognise the stylistic differences between the leading producers here: Kreuzberg and Mayer-Näkel make seductively fruity wines - chiefly strawberry or raspberry-scented, while Jean Stodden’s wines are distinctly earthy. Ludwig Kreuzberg excelled on the Silberberg in Ahrweiler and the Sonnenberg in Neuenahr. Mayer-Näkel was best from the Sonnenberg, the Kräuterberg in Walporzheim and the Dernauer Pfarrwingert. J J Adeneuer had a superb wine from the Walporzheimer Gärkammer. In the the Rheingau, the best reds were from Kesseler and the Staatsweingut in Aßmannshausen. Both excelled on their Berg Schlossberg sites.

Over in Saxony, I gave a gold medal earlier this year to a Pinot Noir Zadel from Schloss Proschwitz. I still find it a lovely wine. I unearthed nothing so good in Rheinhessen or the Pfalz, although one of Philipp Kuhn’s wines was promising. In Franconia I gave top marks to Fürst’s earthy, Burgundian Klingenberger Schlossberg. His other reds needed much more time.

There was a compensation in the wines from Baden. The late Bernahrd Huber, who died so tragically earlier this year, had left a really superb Maltedinger Bienenberg as well as a series of consistently good wines from his other sites. I also admired the wines of Andreas Stigler on the Kaiserstuhl.

I failed to taste the other ‘Burgunder’ varieties, as I had to catch an aircraft to Vienna that afternoon. That night I ate at the Dombeislin the First Bezirk, where I was told the manager, Hermann Botolen, was the best sommelier in Vienna. The purpose of the dinner was to taste the wines made by Dorli Muhr and Dirk van der Niepoort on the 300-metre Spitzerberg in Carnuntum, immediately to the east of Vienna. They have twelve hectares of the hottest spot in Austria and produce wines with plenty to fruit from their chalk soils and some impressive Syrah as well as a Merlot-Cabernet blend. Obviously the main accent is on their fine Blaufränkisch wines made from 50-60 year old vines which are rather richer and more powerful than the Lembergers from Württemberg I had tasted a couple of days before. These are foot-trodden in Dirk Niepoort’s trademark style. The 2011 struck me as the best of these. The estate also makes an orange wine which ferments in amphoras. I confess I am sceptical of these, which are currently the height of fashion, but the 2012 seemed very pretty, and had a little apricot taste.

I spent the night in Krems, and the next day was spent visiting (or rather revisiting) local growers beginning with Fred Loimer in Langenlois. Fred’s domain has grown to a massive sixty-three hectares since I last visited him and he has gone organic as well, something that necessitates doubling his costs and workforce. He has also taken over Gottfried Schellmann’s estate at Gumpoldskirchen south of Vienna, which used to make very good wines and I think these broad-shouldered brews are among my favourites in his collection. He also makes a good ‘Burgunder cuvee’ called Am Mannhartsberg and a flavoursome Pinot Noir on the Decant site to the north of the town. There are the ‘natural wines’ too labelled ‘Achtung’ (which should amuse British schoolboys) and Loimer proved his point about their lasting properties by bringing out a 2006 Gemischte Satz (field blend) which I liked the best of the Achtungen.

I had never paid a call on the man-mountain Bernhart Ott in Feuersbrunn before and I was much looking forward to that. I knew the wines well and his concentration on Grüner Veltliner, which in his hands produces great fat, almost sweet-tasting wines from his essentially loess soils on the south-facing Wagram. The Wagram looks for all the world like some Aztec pyramid rising up to over 300 metres above the Danube.

Like all modern Grüner Veltliner it seems, Ott’s wines have become a little less massive in the last few years, but his Faß 4 is a model with its pineapple aromas. Der Ott is nicely plump, it is a blend of his three ‘crus’: Spiegel, Stein and Rosenberg. I was still looking for the lentil taste by which I identify Grüner Veltliner, especially when grown on loess. I eventually found it in his Rosenberg 2013. Ott was keen to show how well they aged, and again the 2004 Rosenberg was the one I liked most among the mature wines. Ott is justly famous for QVEVRE: the wines he makes in Crimean amphorae like Roman wines. The idea was to allow the Grüner Veltliner to speak rather than the winemaker, so the fruit is shoved into the amphora and allowed to ferment dry. Six months later the wine is drawn off. It was here (naturally) that the lentil taste was at its most noticeable. Ott also has a lovely collection of schnapps including an apricot (Marillen) and his own take on London dry gin.

I had seen Markus Huber in the Traisental comparatively recently. Like everyone else, it seems, his hectarage has increased. He drove us up to the vines and we saw the bags of human hair he hangs around them to put off the deer that would otherwise eat his crop. He and the wonderful Ludwig Neumayer more or less carve up the small appellation between them, but if Huber is brasher, slicker and more savvy than Neumayer, his wines are still zingingly fresh and full of electrifying directness which makes them hard to resist. I was quite struck by his 2013 Riesling Engelsberg, his Weissburgunder Hochschopf from the same year, which is grown at 380 metres on limestone, not to mention a 2010 Berg Riesling and a 2013 Riesling Eiswein.

We finished the day at Willi Bründlmayer’s Heurige in Langenlois. Bründlmayer’s domain was always one of Austria’s biggest but with the huge growth of some of his neighbours he seems to have taken a step backwards; also his son, Vincent has now come of age, so he too has his own vineyards which Willi says he has sold him at cost price! Bründlmayer’s wines have slimmed down a lot over the years in a quest for lightness and elegance. In some cases I miss the old style, like - for example - the old-vine Grüner Veltliner with its hints of botrytis and a thundering alcoholic presence of 14-15 percent. The modern style of Grüner Veltliner seems to me to obliterate its character by rendering it some sort of second-rank Riesling. The one I liked best was actually Vincent’s Spiegel. Of Willi’s wines I still admired the Riesling alte Reben (old-vine) Heiligenstein wines. When we tasted the 2003, it had even a nuance of the baroque about it.

The next day was properly baroque in that our mature wine tasting of wines made by members of the Traditionsweingüter took place in the magnificent setting of Schloss Gobelsburg. The Traditionsweingüter is a collection of Austrian estates which has made considerable progress towards classifying sites and creating a system of crus in some (the Wachau, for example, won’t play) of the appellations in the Danube Valley. In this they resemble the VDP, and like the VDP, however laudable, they have yet to find any comprehensive official recognition. Again I shall mention only my top scorers: of the Grüner Veltliners they were the 2010 Stein from Ott, the 2009 Vordernberg from Buchegger and the 2006 Grub from Schloss Gobelsburg. The Türk winery in Krems has been a favourite for some time now, and I was not disappointed by their 2006 Frechau. Then came a 2002 Oberfucha from Ilse Mayer at Geyerhof, and a 2004 Rohrendorfer Gebling from Hermann Moser. Besides Ott on the Wagram, Karl Fritsch is still up there with his 2010 Kirchberger Schlossberg.

We then graduated to Riesling, of which my top wines were the 2006 Silberbichl from Malat, the 2004 Steinhaus from Hiedler, the 2004 Gaisberg from Schloss Gobelsburg and the 1999 Hollenburg Goldburg from Geyerhof.

The weather had picked up again and there was a lovely mood at lunch out in the garden under the shadow of the church. The afternoon was spent in the company of the geologist Professor Maria Heinrich who first gave us a lecture on the local soils then took us up onto the Gebling with its round pebbles and then the Heiligenstein. I found a pebble that she told me had been washed down from a riverbed in Bohemia by a glacier and some amphibolites that were part of the primary rock soils of the Heilgenstein and contained little sparkly bits of mica. These have now joined the other fragments here that will doubtless cause much mirth and bewilderment to my more distant descendants.

The day was crowned with a barbecue at the new Malat hotel in Furth-Palt in which the pièces de la résistance were two beasts despatched by our host: a boar and a deer, and jolly good they were too.

Our final tasting occurred next day at Schloss Grafenegg. I had been there many years before and met the old duke who resided in this vast pile and made decent wine in his vineyards. I recall that he used to keep the old wines among the tombs of his ancestors. Since then, the Metternich-Sandors have made an arrangement with the Lower Austrian government and a music festival now takes place here every year in a magnificent open-air concert hall. That night we were promised Klaus Florian Vogt singing extracts from Parsifal and Lohengrin, and Beethoven’s Seventh conducted by Andris Nelsons with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra.

There was work to do first: the 2013 Grüner Veltliners and Rieslings. I have already noted my disappointment with the 2013 Grüner Veltliners, but I realise that the problem is as much stylistic as anything to do with the vintage. It appears that winemakers make the wines too cold and clean up the must until all flavour has been removed before the ferment. The result in most cases is perfectly bland. Modern Veltliner is made reductively, meaning that the aromas are suppressed. In my case that means you can generally tell which wines you are going to like by looking at them: the darker ones appeal more.

Here then is a short list in no particular order: Hiedler Kittmannsberg, Türk Frechau, Gobelsburg Grub (this used to be a dream of a wine), Dolle Heilgenstein, Mantler Moosburgerin, Proidl Pellingen, Mantler Spiegel, Türk Thurnerberg, Markus Huber Berg, Neumayer Zwirch, Leth Brunnthal, Fritsch Mordthal, Ott Rosenberg, and Fritsch Schlossberg.

It is ironic that since many parts of the English-speaking world have learned to say ‘Grooner’, the character of the variety has been all but lost. In Austria it still plays second or third fiddle to Riesling, and the Riesling of that year has much more to recommend it. Those that shone for me were the Hiedler Gaisberg, Gobelsburg Gaisberg, Hirsch Heiligenstein, Hiedler Steinhaus, Topf Strasser Wechselberg Spiegel, Geyerhof Oberfucha, Malat Silberbichl and the Neumayer Rothenbart.

Two days later, after a twelve-hour pit stop in London, I went to war in Flanders, following the destiny of the First Battalion Irish Guards to the Marne. Neither wine nor food had much to do with it, although I should point out a couple of restaurants that hit the spot. Betty and Franck Helmlinger at Les Menus Plaisirs in Villers-Cotterêts were able to provide an excellent service in a pretty town which, like so many in France now, is losing its gastronomic face. They proved the most charming and amenable of hosts. On our second night went to A La Bonne Idee not for from Pierrefonds in the Forêt de Compiègne which has a Michelin rosette and had a sensational albeit hurried meal. We stayed at a lovely former coaching inn, Le Régent in Villers-Cotterêts, where the Helmlingers also do the catering when required.


‘Dungheap Food’ - Eating out in Berlin

Posted: 5th August 2014

I probably spent a good part of every year in Berlin between 1991 and 1997, after that my visits became increasingly sporadic until now, when I suppose I am lucky if I drop in for a day or two every three or four years. The city has certainly been stumbling to its feet since the fall of the Wall and when the rebuilding is finished (and who knows when that will be) there is little question that it will be the most exciting place in Europe.

From a purely gastronomic point of view, there is a danger that with so much rebuilding and in-filling the beastly chains will muscle in and Berlin will be packed with chain restaurants, branded cafés and ‘concepts’ (how do you eat a concept?) like everywhere else in the world. When Berlin was just an island in a hostile Soviet ocean, the multiples gave it as wide a berth as all but the hardiest tourists. There were few posh restaurants, and fewer comfortable hotels. In that time the standard offering was the wholesome Berliner Kneipe or pub where you ate local food. If we don’t look out, this might simply disappear.

I had this problem flying in to Berlin on the 2nd. By the time I had checked into my hotel in the Linienstrasse and obtained some cash, I was hungry, but the myriad restaurants at the top of the Friedrichstrasse did not seem right for a Londoner: Chinese, Japanese, Thai, Pan-Asian, Italian, tapas, pizza, eat-all-you-want etc. is just what I find at home. I craved something authentic. After much hesitation I found it on the Torstrasse: a proper old Kneipe with Gothic script and bogus beams and a long menu of regional German food. Mine host (who looked as if he had been drawn by Heinrich Zille) had to be chivvied away from the television he was studying closely, and I think there were no more than four of us eating that evening. Still I had good beer, good schnapps and good Rindsroulade. I went back to my hotel full and watched some sort of German Inspector Morse spin-off on the gogglebox.

From the following morning I fell into line with my university people. We lunched in an Italian place behind the Humboldt University which offered vast pizzas and pasta dishes not to mention heroic salads. I missed a trick though when I saw one of our number had a plate piled high with tagliatelli and girolles. At night we ate tapas: No Misthaufenkuche for us: visiting academics do not eat ‘dungheap food’, a word used by some foreign visitor to sum up the food of Wilhelmine Prussia.

Once I had quit my fellows I reverted to my quest for authenticity. Berlin is still good for small food shops. Where I was staying in the Bayrische Viertel there were three or four excellent bakers within easy walking distance with the Streuselkuchen and marzipan Plunderschleife my children liked for breakfast. There was a huge array of different breads, with a 50-50 wheat-rye loaf we ate until they ran out and we took the rye-dominated Schwarzwälder instead. From the local shop I discovered an excellent initiative to encourage Berlin beekeepers. You could buy packages of three 10cl pots of really strong-flavoured local honey. When I left I stocked up on Brandenburg linden honey for home. It has always been a great favourite. I used to buy it from a beekeeper who had a stall outside Schloss Rheinsberg.

Apart from huge numbers of pubs, the Viertel had wonderful greengrocers with masses of tempting ripe fruit and wild mushrooms. Most summers in Britain I don’t eat peaches or apricots, because the fruit seems to be suffering from an identity crisis which makes it believe it is some species of apple. There were delicatessens and butchers too and a wonderful old-fashioned confectioner. Downstairs from our flat was a large organic shop selling produce of all sorts. Perhaps the oddest place local to us was a hundred-year old winery restaurant in an alleyway off the Berliner Strasse where you could eat à deux in an adapted wine tun.

In a vaguely Teutonic idiom there are plenty of Austrian restaurants now in Charlottenburg and Wilmersdorf, where you may eat a half-decent schnitzel, but that is not really berlinisch. The first night we were all together as a family, we found an unpretentious place where we could buy Fritz Allendorf’s excellent hock by the litre and eat variations on matjes herrings or Pfifferlinge, the local German name for what the French call girolles and we (inaccurately) chanterelles. With the alternating rain and sun, it was a marvellous time for mushrooms, and I was able to buy a big punnet of them in Potsdam for my host’s dinner party on Saturday.

It was so hot in Berlin that I drank more beer than is my wont. Most of this was Weizen or wheat beer. There were old favourites such as the Weihenstephan that I drank in a themed place on the Hacke’scher Markt with white and Käsekrainer sausages from the Bavarian state farm, but the most interesting was the organic Weizen from Braumanufaktur I had in Potsdam. It was quite dark and tangy. The company has its own brew-pub and you can sample all their specialities there.

Most children like sausages, so from that point of view Berlin is ideal, but it was not always easy to get the message across to them that sausages tend to be bought from stalls or vans and not from bars and cafes. The Currywurst so beloved of Berliners was wholly disdained but some Berlin foods went down well, like the Bouletten we had in the Stadtklause in Kreuzberg. The Stadtklause was a discovery: a marvellous old pub quite close to the ruins of the old Anhalt Station. From its proximity to the offices of Tagespiegel and Die Zeit, I should say was frequented by hacks. It had a collection of old pictures of the station.

One nice thing about much of the old western parts of the city is that nothing changes quickly. Walking through another of my old stamping grounds in Wilmersdorf, I noted that a fair number of the places I used to go to twenty years ago are still operating, including a Swabian restaurant called Besenwirtschaft where I used to eat the local pasta. In my various stays in Friedenau over the years I had often seen a good looking pub-cum-restaurant on the corner of the Bundesplatz and one night we went out to look for it. I had heard more recently that my old host in Friedenau, Urs Müller-Plantenberg went there once a year in January to eat roast venison and celebrate his escape from East Prussia in 1945, when he was a boy of five or six. His family managed to get the last train from Marienwerder before the Red Army cut the Germans off. Many were killed outright. Others were starved to death. The rest were banished to the west, months and years later.

Zum Nussbaum was not only still there the food was much as I imagined it. There was wild boar on the menu, Sulze (aspics), Kartoffelpuffer (potato cakes), Pfannkuchen mit Speck (bacon pancakes), Königsberger Klopse (Königsberg meatballs) and other stock north-east German ‘delicacies’. I had some excellent Königsberger Klopse and my daughter and I shared a north German summer pudding or Rote Grütze afterwards. There is a pretty front garden under the nut tree of the name, but inside there are two dark-stained, panelled Ur-German rooms with antique posters and photographs and the old-fashioned ‘Theke’ or bar. I cannot recommend Zum Nussbaum too highly for those looking for proper old Berlin restaurants.

In a way, the experience of our last night in Berlin-Charlottenburg, was similar. We were looking once again for an authentic pub. Diener is a Kunstlerkneipe or artists’ pub just off the Savignyplatz. I went into look at the pleasantly authentic scruffy interior with lots of photographs of bohemian worthies. The waitress was in a bad mood and the customers were lining their stomachs in preparation for the Germany-Brazil match, which was crowned with such a sensational victory a few hours later. The menu, however, was just right: there was Griebenschmalz (dripping) and toasted rye bread, as well as Leberkäs (meatloaf) and Kartoffelpuffer with various toppings, and there were matjes herrings and Königsberger Klopse. It was proper Berlin food, and in one of the smartest corners of the spanking new capital: Diener Tattersall, Grolmanstraße 47, Charlottenburg, 10623 Berlin, 030/881.53.29.

***

For the rest, this has been a typical holiday month and I have not been out much. I went to a dinner at Boisdale in Canary Wharf on the 15th organised to celebrate smoking and smokers. Boisdale has a nice roomy terrace for puffers and lots of the guests staggered out for a relieving cigarette or cigar in the course of the evening, leaving telltale gaps at the table. Even if I gave up smoking thirty ears ago I have to say that I am an old-fashioned liberal about these things: that you should be allowed to do anything provided it does not impinge on the liberty of others. I am also pretty sure that carbon monoxide fumes from cars are more dangerous than inhaling tobacco smoke.

On the 28th I was entertained by South Africa’s Nederburg Wines at Quo Vadis in Soho. I had not been to this venerable London restaurant since it was owned by Marco Pierre White. Marco moved in his collection of Damien Hirst stuffed sharks, cows etc, and the suggestion was that they might soon end up on the menu. I had a nice little salad of smoked mackerel with apples, celery and walnuts and some smoked haddock fishcakes with back pudding and a fried egg, followed by an almond tart. I saw no mention of beef or shark on the menu so I presume they were gobbled up a long time ago. The Nederburg wines are extremely good value at £8.99, particularly the slightly old-fashioned oaky Winemaster’s Reserve Chardonnay and Cabernet. It was also a chance to meet the telegenic farmer Jimmy Doherty, who makes splendid things on his farm near Ipswich.


Vienna and Back

Posted: 1st July 2014

The sun has come out and life has perked up a little since May. June had the added charm of a few days in Vienna with fresh white asparagus, big black cherries, strawberries and wine.

Champagne Bars

Last month I forgot to mention the tremendous deals offered by Searcy’s London champagne bars which provide tasting menus that are good value for money. The Boller nights look particularly toothsome:

Champagne Tasting at One New Change
Tuesday 22nd July at 6.30pm 
Join us for the ultimate Henri Giraud Champagne tasting experience. You’ll enjoy 4 glasses of Henri Giraud Champagne and sumptuous Searcys canapés.
Tickets are £35 per person

Champagne Tasting at Westfield London
Thursday 17th July at 6.30pm 
Join us for the ultimate Bollinger & Ayala Champagne tasting experience. You’ll enjoy 3 glasses of Bollinger Champagne and a signature Brut from its sister House Ayala,  alongside sumptuous Searcys canapés. 
Tickets are £35 per person

Champagne Jazz Party at Westfield London
Thursday 14th August from 7.30pm
Join us for a perfect evening of live jazz soulfully paired with a Bollinger & Ayala tasting flight and nibbles to soothe you into the weekend.
£20 per person tickets include:
Reserved Table in our luxurious lounge area 
1 x 50ml of Bollinger Brut, NV, Bollinger Rosé, NV, Ayala Brut, NV. Nuts and Olives.

Bookings: 020 7871 1213 or events@searcyschampagnebars.co.uk

Quite distinct from these offers the price of a good sandwich at a glass of champagne is very reasonably pegged at £10. A salad and a glass of fizz is just two pounds more. I am not sure you’ll do much better than this in the current economic climate and when Jeffrey Osborne persists in seeing wine as his principal cash cow.

Spain and Sherry

The first week of June had a Spanish theme. On the 3rd I attended the lavish launch of Iberica’s new restaurant near Farringdon Station in the city. Albert Adria, brother of Ferran Adria of El Bulli fame, and Nacho Manzano designed an extraordinary molecular meal that was well lubricated with the best sherries (Tio Pepe fino en rama) and Spanish wines. Two days later on the 5th there was a tasting and dinner at the Hispania restaurant organised by the Andalucian Tourist Board.

It was prefaced by a tasting led by Beltran Domecq which was a chance to get my tongue round some lovely sherries, such as the fino en rama from Williams & Humbert and the exquisite palo cortado from Gonzalez-Byass. There were seven courses (yes seven - including dessert) of red tuna with different sherries. Strange as it might seem, the preparations were all quite different and the presence of the tuna in the pudding merely suggestive, so it was actually quite a nice dinner, and I am grateful.

Vievinum

Every two years the Austrian growers display their wares in the Hofburg - the Habsburg winter palace in Vienna. It is a mammoth undertaking arranged over three days with lots of parties in the evening for those who have spent their days slurping and spitting wine. Here are my findings - space only permits me to include those which struck me as very good or excellent.

The fair is for professionals only before midday and it is worthwhile getting to the Wachau room at ten each day before the area is swamped. As a friend from Langenlois said ‘Three types of people come here Giles: serious winelovers; people who want to get the full value of their €40 ticket back; and genuine alcoholics.’ By four o’clock all the stands are blocked by crowds of drinkers who look with horror at anyone who spits out their wine and it is quite impossible to taste any more. I have never actually seen a fight break out, but it would not surprise me in the least.

For the past 30 years, all coverage of Austrian wine has begun with the Wachau, a region that has grown in importance since the Second World War and which was already committed to dry wines before the 1985 scandal. It is also necessary to hit the stars first. These winemakers are as well known to Austrians as soccer slebs are here and growers often attribute only a few bottles to the fair which are quickly drunk up. I headed straight for the genial Franz Hirtzberger. The best were the 2013 Honivogl Grüner Veltliner Smaragd and the Hochrain and the Setzberg Riesling Smaragds. Lukas Pichler seems fully in control now at FX Pichler and the wines are more confident: the Loibner Steiner Smaragd was possibly the best Wachau Grüner Veltliner of the vintage and there were gorgeous Riesling Smaragds from the Loibenberg and the Kellerberg. Rudi Pichler makes his wines as tight as a spring. His best Grüner Veltliner - the Wösendorfer Hochrain - was up with the frontrunners. Of the Rieslings it was also the Hochrain that excelled. Toni Bodenstein at Weingut Prager continued his series of wonderful wines: Grüner Veltliner Achleiten Smaragd and its even greater ‘Stockkultur’ version (ie old vines planted in 1937 - he calls the vineyard ‘a hospital’), the Riesling Federspiel from Steinriegl and the Wachstum Bodenstein particularly struck me. The latter was one of the best Austrian wines of the year.

There was return to the top table for the wines of Emmerich Knoll sensational Riesling Smaragds from Loibenberg and Schütt; a glorious Vinothekfüllung and a sweet Auslese. The Nikolaihof was bathing in glory after the Wine Spectator gave one of their wines a perfection-rating. The 2006 Im Weingebirge ‘Baumpresse’ (tree press) was lovely with its rose-petal scent, but the 1997 Vinothek wine was even better.

It has been a while since I tasted the wines of the Tegernseerhof, but I have always admired them. They had a splendid Riesling Kellerberg Smaragd and an impressive Gemischte Satz Smaragd made from 80-year old vines in a promiscuous vineyard. Alzinger too had a promising Riesling Smaragd from the Loibenberg and a bottle of his 2009 Steinertal reminded how good that had been. My old friend Högl disappointed me this year: only his ‘Vision’ Riesling Smaragd stood out, and fortunately not just for its silly name: gimmicky names are a poor alternative to vineyard sites. Johann Donabaum made one of the few tip-top Grüner Veltliners this year with his Spitzer Point Smaragd. His Riesling Setzberg was also first rate. The Setzberg also nurtured the second best Riesling Smaragd from the Mauritiushof (Gritsch). Their best was from the Tausendeimerberg.

The Weingut Schmelz occasionally grabs at my heartstrings. This year I admired the off-dry ‘Beste von Riesling’ which had a little taste of fresh apricots like so many 2013 Rieslings. Schmelz also made one of the best Grüner Veltliners on Pichl Point with a beautiful, poised, lyrical finish. The big Domäne Wachau co-operative also made a top Grüner Veltliner Smaragd on Achleiten.

The Weingut Pichler-Krutzler is owned by Erich and Elisabeth Krutzler and has vines in the Wachau and the Kremstal. The core of their Wachau vines lies close to those of Elisabeth’s father and brother at FX Pichler in Loiben. For me the best Wachau wine was the Loibenberg Riesling, but there is also a wonderful Pfaffenberg from the Kremstal with that haunting fresh apricot smell.

As you have probably seen, the 2013 vintage appears to have favoured the Rieslings more than the Grüner Veltliners, but it may also have been a stylistic choice as there were some exciting Grüner Veltliners from the Kamptal (see below). Now that the world has discovered ‘Grooner’ (rhymes with ‘crooner’) Austrian winemakers seem to want to strip it down and concentrate on elegance, rather than any inherent character the grape might possess. The lentilly taste Grüner Veltliner gives off on loess or primary rock soils was more apparent on the 2012s, like the Bründlmayer Lamm. Bründlmayer’s best wine for me was the Zöbinger Heiligenstein Riesling 2012 with its classic ripe white peach taste. Some of Bründlmayer’s neighbours in Langenlois are Ludwig and Maria Hiedler whose organic wines which get better and better every year and as always, they have a lovely Weißburgunder (Pinot Blanc) with an ethereal finish. The Rieslings from Steinhaus and the blended Maximum also bowled me over. Another Langenloiser is Fred Loimer. The news is that he had taken over the old Schellmann estate in the Thermenregion which used to make great things in a ramshackle if palatial renaissance house in Gumpoldskirchen. I tasted a good, international style Chardonnay: one to watch. Rudolf Rabl is also in Langenlois. He has a vast estate by Austrian standards but he is able to make a large number of very good wines, like his sappy Grüner Veltliner from the Käferberg.

The Weingut Mantlerhof with its loess soils in Gedersdorf is another favourite of mine. They are well-known in Austria as one of the specialists for Roter Veltliner, which is a green grape. Black grapes are called ‘blau’ or blue in German. So far no one has heard of it so there has been no move to call it ‘Roater’ or worse: ‘Rotter’ in the wine trade. Sepp Mantler’s best Roter Veltliners come from the Reisenthal vineyard where he has been experimenting with open fermentation (‘botega’). He is not a one-horse winemaker and makes other lovely wines. Possibly his best are the Grüner Veltliner Reserve from Spiegel and his Riesling from Zehetnerin.

One of my favourite Kremstal estates is the Geyerhof, the home of the redoubtable Ilse Maier. She always picks late if she can and a bit of botrytis adds a taste of pineapples to the Veltliner. The very best is the Gutsreserve, which spends up to four years in cask. Nearby, the Weingut Malat has some of its best land on the slopes below the great monastery at Göttweig. The Grüner Veltliner from the Höhlgraben site has classic typicity with a smidgen of botrytis.

It is impossible to attend Vievinum without paying a call on Ludwig Neumayer from the Traisental whose wines have that zinging purity of fruit that first wooed me when I began to write about Austria a quarter of a century ago. There was a lovely Grüner Veltiner vom Stein, but once again in 2013 the Rieslings shone: the Grillenstein and Wein vom Stein above all.

Similarly, a visit to the man mountain Berhard Ott is a sine qua non. He has become the voice and benchmark of Wagram Grüner Veltliner. The wines have something of the corpulence of their maker, particularly ‘der Ott’ and the Feuersbrunner Rosenberg 2012 with its authentic lentil character of loess-grown Veltliner. The nec plus ultra, however is the 2013 Ampora wine which has not only the lentil taste, there is a little hint of bay leaves as well.

Other parts of Lower Austria yielded fewer two to three star wines. In the Thermenregion, I was very impressed by the Riesling from the Freigut Thallern. New to me was the Weingut Heggenberger with its very good 2010 Pinot Noir. I visited my old friend Walter Glatzer from Göttlesbrunn in Carnuntum and noted his lovely St Laurent from the Altenberg (see below) and Georg Prieler from Schützen in the Leitha Hills to taste his wonderful Weißburgunder from the Seeberg. Then two of Erwin Tinnhof’s wines caught my attention: the 2011 Blaufränkisch Feldmühle and the Gloriette from the same vintage. The vines for Gloriette are 55-years old and the Blaufränkisch is grown on limestone, giving it a Burgundian silkiness.

There were more sensations from Styria in the south of the country. In South Styria Willi Sattler presided over an impressive collection of 2013s, but two older wines caught my attention: a 2011 Morillon (Chardonnay) from the Pfarrweingarten and a 2007 Weißburgunder from the same site that was truly enchanting. How well these wines age! Polz’s wines disappointed me a little this year, but I did like the Sauvignon Blanc Therese, grown at 450 metres; while the two Gross wines that appealed most were the simple Steirische Klassik Sauvignon and the cru-wine from the Nußberg. Weingut Wohlmuth in Kitzeck’s best wine was a Sauvignon Hochsteinriegl grown at an altitude of 500 metres. Winkler-Hermaden in South-East Styria has absorbed the old Stürgkh estate in Klöch and had a good range of excellent if slightly understated Sauvignons.

Besides the stands where the vignerons offered their wares there were a number of side events. The most important of these for me was the red wine tasting in the Redoutensaal (either those pictures go or I do). I had recently made a selection of the best Blaufränkisch wines for Decanter and as I had a lunch that day I concentrated on St Laurent and Pinot Noir. Of the former the best seemed to me to be (in descending order) Glatzer (see above), Allacher, Dopler, Keringer, Trapl, Auer, Gisperg and Kurt Angerer; of the Pinots, Claus Preisinger, Aumann (Reserve), Heinrich Hartl, Schloß Halbturn,  Gisberg, Malat (Reserve), Cobenzl and Zahel’s Dolomit (both very good wines from within Vienna’s city limits) and Feiler-Artinger in Rust.

There was also an intriguing tasting that focussed on the geology of the Wachau and its effect on the taste of the wines which brought certain Wachaus into new focus, such as the Mauritiushof’s 2007 Riesling Tausendeimerberg, which derives some of its excellence from silicate marble; or Johann Donabaum’s Spitzer Point Grüner Veltliner of the same year which much like Bayer’s Ralais 2007 and Hitzberger’s Singerriedl of the same year is powered by paragneis. Perhaps the loveliest of these rocksucking exercises was the Riesling Schütt 2006 from Knoll the vineyard name of which commemorates the eroded shale (‘Schütt’) from the Gföhler Gneis terraces. FX Pichler’s 2007 Kellerberg Riesling owed some of its superiority to Gföhler gneis and loess.

Another exciting side event was an intimate dinner at Silvio Nickol, the new ‘gastronomic’ restaurant in the Palais Coburg. It was a celebration of Pinot Blanc/Weißburgunder organised by Georg Prieler, David Schildknecht of the Wine Spectator and the Austrian Master of Wine Andreas Wickhoff. Schildknecht in particular wanted to prove how subtle, complex and long-living were Austrian Weißburgunder (particularly those grown on limestone) and I think he succeeded admirably. The food was marvellous and some of the wines out of this world, and - as I was already aware - inextinguishable, like the Schenkenbichl from Hiedler, or Prieler’s Seeberg.

Spey Whisky Revisited

The rest of the month of was a bit anti-climactic, despite the Decanter Awards (plentiful Boller and oysters) and the annual TLS Party where the game it seems, is to try to avoid talking to anyone you might know and where, as I left, I heard a couple of ladies amusing themselves ecstatically on the other side of the lavatory wall. I had to suppress my desire to know which of our literary lionesses it might have been. I did, on the other hand, find the chance to go to Liberty Wines’ Piedmontese wine tasting and revelled in Aldo Conterno’s spicy 2009 Barolos Romirasco and Colonello.

I also had news of our friends at the Spey Distillery (sales at historicroyalpalaces.com ) who generously sent me samples of their range to taste in these rather more banal surroundings compared to their majestic launch in the Tower of London. I have to say that they all impressed me in their sweet, liqueur style, and I was struck by what tiny quantities they produce of each bottling. This is truly artisan whisky-making.

So, in ascending order, Tenné is matured in port casks and not subjected to chill-filtering. It tastes of sweet almonds and marzipan, but also has a young-ish classic Speyside character with a hint of fresh pears and some toffee on the finish. It gives the impression of sweetness and warmth.

12-year old. This is aged in new oak barrels and there is a little of that ‘Chardonnay’ character. On the other hand the dominant bouquet is of citrus fruits, oranges in particular and it is a very attractive whisky. This may be the best age-statement for the distillery?

18-year old. This was aged in sherry butts and was rich and sweet, and reminiscent of glace cherries and Dundee cake.

Chairman’s Choice. Here we enter into the range of real liqueur whiskies best enjoyed before a blazing fire. The nose is sweet and rich but behind it all is an irresistible flavour of cooked pears.

Royal Choice. This adds a further dimension of butterscotch and it is again rich, sweet and luscious. You do get the impression of long cask ageing here as the whisky is woody. I think it might be the perfect match for a Havana cigar.


An Unhappy Spring

Posted: 2nd June 2014

It has been an unhappy spring. The rain has bucketed down, and yet the Met Office has informed us this was the warmest May on record. It’s marvellous how that manage to turn bad news into something comforting. In terms of eating it has been dismal: not a cherry, nor a spear of white asparagus; a handful of sharp-tasting strawberries, and two nights ago, at long last, some minute, albeit authentic Jersey Royals. So I shall begin with royalty: the month began with a promising glimpse of it in the Tower of London, of all places, where I was invited to sample the whiskies made by a distillery I had not come across before: Spey Royal.

I suppose I must have visited at least half of the malt distilleries in Scotland, but I had never heard speak of this one in Scotland’s ski resort of Aviemore. The late and much missed Michael Jackson’s Malt Whisky Companion tells me that the modern distillery is better known for making Drumguish, which first ran off the stills in 1991. Its sister malt, Spey Royal, has been reputable in the Far East for some time, but it is unknown here.

The brand is the brainchild of two John McDonoughs, father and son, whose name should appeal to me - indeed, they might even be cousins of mine. They have splashed onto the scene through an arrangement with Historic Royal Palaces which will be selling the malts through their shops at the Tower, Hampton Court, Kew, Kensington and the Banqueting House in Whitehall at the fairly hefty price of £150 for a 70 cl bottle. The 18-year old is a toffee-rich whisky, which a pronounced, almond/marzipan taste. I wish them luck, and I was grateful, as always for the chance to see the Tower at dusk. It was a magical moment: not a tourist in sight, just the tolling of the bells and a few drilling squaddies taking orders from a barking NCO among a jumble of ancient buildings hardly known to us indigenous Londoners. It was a great treat.

Riesling is more in my parish than malt these days and there was a big tasting on 12 May. I only had time to taste the Germans but I noted some of the best Austrian producers were also there. I shall leave them for Vienna later this month. There is rather a dearth of German wine at the moment, with 2012 and 2013 making just small quantities and the bumper harvest of 2011 sold out. Hopes are now pinned on 2014, but severe hail has already eliminated large parts of the crop in some areas, the Ruwer, for example.

Many growers had only 2013s to show, although Steffen Christmann had brought his lovely 2012 Grosses Gewächs from Idig, and I was impressed by a collection of 2012s from Schloss Neuweier in Baden where the best Rieslings are grown on granite. Many growers had brought in special wines from their cellars: Schloss Saarstein, for example, topped a lovely 2013 Auslese with Gold Cap 2006, which was simply gorgeous. Maximin Grünhaus had no new wines, but a lovely Abtsberg Spätlese 2009 and a 2006 Auslese from the Herrenberg (N 14) that was out of this world.

Grünhaus’s neighbour in the Ruwer, Karthäuserhof, has had a change of ownership, but it has had no perceivable impact on the quality of the wines. There were exemplary Kabinetts, Spätlesen and Auslesen from 2013 and as a bonus, a Trockenbeerenauslese from that great sweet wine-year, 2011.

It is quite a privilege to taste JJ Prüm’s Mittelmosel wines. He is adamant that they cannot be drunk young, and the sulphury noses on his 2011s rather bore this out. They will be lovely in five years or so, particularly the Wehlener Sonnenuhr Spätlese with its taste of peaches and pears. The 2008 Sonnenuhr Spätlese is just beginning to give its all now, with its lovely cooling finish of yellow peaches. A 2009 Auslese from the same site added a hint of apricots, evidence of benign botrytis.

SA Prüm also had some decent things, but as ever it is more of a mixed bag. Very good were the 2007 Urziger Würzgarten Kabinett and 2005 Graacher Domprobst Spätlese; excellent the 2010 Erdener Treppchen Auslese. More consistent, perhaps is a Mosel traditionalist like Max Ferd Richter. I enjoyed his 2013 Brauneberger Juffer Kabinett and his 2007 Wehlener Sonnenuhr Kabinett as well as the 2002 Juffer Sonnenuhr Auslese. It is always a pleasure to try the Eisweine he picks from the Helenenkloster vineyard; in this instance harvested on 12, 12, 12. Every year the wild boars lay new plans to make off with the fruit, and every year Dirk Richter has to erect fresh defences to keep them out.

Heymann-Löwenstein is one of the Mosel’s leading terroirists, and his wines require an article of faith. Like many growers from the valley these days, he travels with a collection of stones which he thrusts at you as you taste. They tell you that the flavours of wine are dictated by the rock below the surface of the vineyard. When you sample the 2011 Vom blauen Schieffer, for example, some blue slate is brought out. The wine is stalky, wild and smoky, and yet very long and cooling. The 2011 Roth Lay is the very opposite: almost feminine and quite charming! Possibly the best was the 2012 Stolzenberg.

Another Mittelmosel stalwart is Selbach-Oster. The stars for me were the 2007 Graacher Himmelreich and the 2011 Zeltinger Sonnenuhr Spätlesen. There were a couple of properly mature wines too: the Zeltinger Sonnenuhr Auslesen from 1999 and 1995. Reichsgraf von Kesselstadt is always a curate’s egg, but there were some real highlights, such as the 2012 Ockfener Bockstein and 2011 Piesporter Goldtröpfchen Kabinetts, the 2007 Goldtröpfcehn Spätlese and the 2005 Wiltinger Scharzhofberg Auslese Fuder 10.

I passed briefly though the Nahe and Gut Hermannsberg which has reached new heights under its present owners, particularly good were the 2012 Steinterrassen and a 2013 traditional Kabinett. Also beautifully poised was the Steinterrassen Spätlese 2012. There was a majestic echo from the past: a 1989 Kupfergrube Trockenbeerenauslese. The colour was almost black, but it was all oranges and peaches on the palate. The Nahe’s greatest star, Hermann Dönnhoff was represented by a marvellous 2012 Oberhäuser Brücke Spätlese.

Wilhelm Weil in the Rheingau rarely disappoints. There was the 2012 Kiedricher Turmberg and the 2012 dry Grosses Gewächs from the Gräfenberg. The 2006 Turmberg Spätlese was sensational and the 2007 Gräfenberg Auslese wonderfully complex. There was also a wine from Joachim Flick, one of the rising stars of the Rheingau: his 2012 Hölle, which was very promising. From the Rheinterrassen in Rheinhessen came Heyl zu Herrnsheim with a good series of 2013s from its vines in Hipping and on the Brüdersberg. As a reward there was a 1983 Auslese from the Ölberg that seemed remarkably bright and youthful, and tasted of lychees.

The big Jura tasting occurred on the 14th. The region is wonderfully individual. Perched on the heights above Burgundy, the wines couldn’t be more different from those of the Côte d’Or. I think it must be true that it is hard to get grapes to ripen and the acidity levels are consequently high. Much of the wine is subjected to a second fermentation as sparkling wine, which allows for a good dose of sugar to be added. The famous name used to be Henri Maire with his ‘vin fou’. Still I like the light reds Trousseau and Poulsard, and the local Chardonnay. This time I decided to taste only Savagnin, which has an acidity comparable to Hungarian Furmint and which I am sure is some sort of cousin.

A good Vin Jaune or Château-Chalon should have bottle age to tame the acidity. With time an aroma of walnuts predominates. Some of this flavour comes from the ‘voile’, the friendly bacteria that settle on the surface of the wine much like the ‘flor’ in dry sherry. Most growers also make a reductive style where oxygen is banished from vat or cask and which highlights the primary fruit of the grape. Here is a little league table for top Savagnin:

Good: Domaine Hughes-Béguet (Savagnin 2009), Domaine Rijckaert (Arbois Grand Elevage 2010), Cellier des Tiercelines (Savagnin 2011); Very good: Domaine Jacques Tissot, Domaine Baud (Cuvée Tradition), Domaine Berthet-Bondet (Naturé, Tradition and Château-Chalon), Domaine de la Pinte (Arbois Savagnin), Champ Divin (Pollux), Domaine Joly (Vin Jaune), Domaine Rolet (Naturé 2011), Domaine André et Mireille Tissot (Château-Chalon 2007); excellent: Domaine de la Pinte (Vin Jaune), Daniel Dugois (Vin Jaune 2006), Jean Tissot (Vin Jaune 2006), Domaine Pignier (Vin Jaune 2006), Domaine Rolet (Côte du Jura Blanc 2008, Arbois Blanc Tradition 2008, Vin Jaune 2006), Chais du Vieux Bourg (Vin Jaune 2005), Domaine André et Mireille Tissot (Vin Jaune la Vasée 2007).

It’s not all white. I had some reds this month too! I had two rather lovely Malbecs from Trivento in Mendoza, a sharp-ish Reserve 2012 (£5.99 from Tesco) and a much richer Grande Reserve 2011. The Reserve had a nice high grown acidity about with lots of black cherry tastes, while the Grande Reserve was quite rich and creamy like a dish of rote Grütze, the German version of summer pudding.

Twenty years ago and more, I thought I might make my name as a tea-writer. Patronised by the charming Sethia family of London and Calcutta, I attended the long-discontinued auctions at Sir John Lyon House in London and travelled to Calcutta, Colombo, the mountains of Sri Lanka and Darjeeling. I wanted to go to the Nilgiris and Assam, but the former was dismissed as being ‘too ambitious’ in those days before the Hindu Tiger, and the latter was closed to foreigners due to civil war: they were frightened I might be kidnapped. The nearest I ever got was the airport.

There was civil unrest in Darjeeling too at the time of my first visit in 1991. I recall an envelope filled with baksheesh had to be made over to the policeman in the airport on the Terai before I could travel up to the gardens. I admired the way he was able to weigh it in the palm of his hand to ascertain that it contained the right number of crore rupees.

Although I was able to mug up a good deal about Indian and Ceylon tea, the subject was enormous: there was all the tea in China, African black tea (some of which was very good), Japanese green tea, and all those things which aren’t quite tea such as maté, Roibos and various herbal teas and infusions. I was reminded of the vastness of the subject by a visit to the Amanzi Tea Salon and shop in New Cavendish Street at the end of the month.

Amanzi paints with a broad brush. Using white (unfermented), green (slightly fermented) and black (fermented) forms of tea, maté and roibos, they make a range of refreshing flavoured drinks. They have a few classics too, such as Iron Goddess or Wuyi Oolong, St Margaret’s Hope first flush Darjeeling, a tar-and-bacon-scented Lapsang, sea-weedy Gyokuro, Yunnan Pu-erh, Japanese Gunpowder or Matcha tea. There is a lovely Jasmine tea, and some like Lychee Pomegranate that involve making artful blends of black, green and Oolong teas. They also make exciting infusions to put you to sleep or wake you up, help you to digest or inject you with energy. There are fruit teas and iced teas, smoothies, bubble teas, chais and lattes and a few cocktails - such as Mojito or Mar-Tea-Ni - that might have benefited from a slug of vodka.

I was very impressed by this new flavour-world. It was just the thing for a hot day in May, and better still, I hope for a sizzling June.

 


East of Eden

Posted: 6th May 2014

April should have been a nice, relaxing time after the travails of recent days; instead it lived up to its reputation as the cruellest month. If there was a high point, it was probably the lunch organised by Château Léoube on the 15th at Galvin at Windows in the Hilton. The chef, Joo Won, prepared a delightful meal full of vernal flourishes, and they all worked a treat with the limpid strawberry-scented rosé or its more serious brother ‘Secret’. The company was good and the sun shone, making the view of London interesting for once. How much nicer it is to be in the Hilton looking out, than to have to see that monstrosity from Hyde Park?

Léoube is one of two impressive rosé wines I’ve had this month, the other being the 2013 Pure Mirabeau which was wonderfully sappy and powerful. Léoube comes from the coast, right next to the presidential Fort de Brégançon where Flamby was snapped in his bathers with La Trierweiler not long ago, but I suggest you get that repulsive image out of your head before you try the wine and I am assured that Flamby will not be using his palatial retreat from now on. Léoube, by the way, is owned by Lord and Lady Bamford of JCB-fame.

At the beginning of the month there was an opportunity to celebrate the life of Hugo Dunn-Meynell who died last year. A stirring service was held at St. Brides in Fleet Street (although Hugo was a Catholic) with beautiful singing from their very professional choir. Memorial services are one of the things the British do best, and they provide a chance to sing all those stirring hymns we enjoyed at school. There was a reception at the Innholders Hall afterwards with plenty of champagne. I think Hugo would have wanted nothing less.

Hugo was one of the first people I met in the world of wine and food after I came back from Paris in 1985. We were both drummed in to judge a cocktail competition. He was hard to miss with his red socks and eyeglass and we ended up on the ITV news talking about the weird and wonderful things we had had to taste. In those days he ran the International Wine & Food Society in succession to its celebrated founder, André Simon. He had evidently made a lot of money in advertising and lived in some style in Mayfair. As he was passionate about the history of gastronomy, he used to commission the odd paper from me to go in the Society’s quarterly. The last time I saw him was about two years before he died when he came up with his wife Alice to have me sign a copy of my book on Grimod de La Reyniére. He seemed in good spirits, but very frail. He was a colourful figure who revelled in the joys of life; I doubt we’ll see many more like him.

On the 8th I went to a strange gathering in the East End laid on by Campo Viejo. Campo Viejo, a large rioja house in Logroño, has engaged Professor Charles Spence, who teaches psychology at Oxford, to conduct research into how wines fare under different lights and with varying musical backgrounds. There were about a dozen of us assembled there to act as guinea pigs. First of all we had to put a piece of paper on our tongues. The paper was unbearably bitter. To my surprise there were people present who found the paper quite tasteless. Spence explained that they were the ones with fewer taste buds who were rarely aware of what they eating or drinking. Then we were sent into in a whitewashed studio with a dark glass filled with rioja and had to note down how much we liked it under four different lights and an occasional blast of white noise. My scores did not vary much, but the wine seemed more astringent under green light.

Spence’s research should be of great interest to restaurants. Michelin used to award top marks to ‘palaces’ in the understanding that food tasted better in luxurious surroundings. You could achieve two stars for great cooking, but to obtain three, you needed to worry about ambience. Piped music must have a considerable effect. Charles Spence has proved that nasty lighting and annoying music don’t just put you off your food they make wine taste nasty too. As I caught the bus west, an old Swedish skin flick sprung to mind - I Am Curious: A Film in Yellow (Jag är nyfiken - en film i gult). Everybody was raving about it when I was at school, but I must have missed it.

On the 23rd George Sandeman was in town and at the old Sandeman cellars in the City. The Sign of the Don was showing a huge span of Sandeman vintage ports going back to 1944, and it was a fascinating opportunity to assess their performance since the Second World War. Many of these wines are actually available by the glass from the Sign of the Don, although some of the older vintages will naturally set you back a whack.

I visited Sandeman several times in the nineties, in what was almost certainly the nadir of their fortunes, but always enjoyed my visits immensely, largely because of George was so charming and put us all at ease. On one occasion I was part of the Sandeman crew in the barco rabelo race on the River Douro St John’s Eve. I remember tasting the 1977 in the Sandeman lodge in Oporto and being very disappointed. I ran into Michael Broadbent over breakfast in the Hotel Infante Sagres the next day, who muttered something about the 1928. That one I have yet to sample.

The 77 wasn’t performing too badly on the 23rd. The surprise for me was the 1944 (the 1945 was absent). These older vintages were really quite herbal, with a pronounced citrus and liquorice character. The 55 is still buoyant and the 63 and 66 too. Then there were some decent things in the early eighties, like 80 and 82. Sandeman returned to form with the 2007, and the 2011 looks like being quite stunning. We shall have to wait for that.

I was back in the East End again on the 28th. It was time for the Decanter World Wine Awards and I was due to do my stint as chairman of the German jury. Of course I got lost leaving the Underground station and I was half way to Essex before I smelled a rat. As it was, Tobacco Dock was quite a nice location, with exposed early nineteenth century beams and old ironwork, and there were bits of unblitzed Docklands down on the river around the Captain Kidd pub. I even passed a posh butcher on my way to Wapping. Things are clearly looking up!

We judges had been shoved into a new era of high-tech and had to perform out functions on iPads that crashed at every turn. We eventually got the hang of them, but we never did get our mid-morning coffee and lunch was after two. Your judgment is not always at its best when you see half your sentence has failed to appear on the screen or that the selfsame screen has disappeared yet again. Still, I think we did the wines justice and despite what were difficult vintages (principally 2012 for the whites and 2011 for the reds) we awarded a generous handful of golds.

The jury worked well. We are all old friends, or at least had become so before the end. The Ahr Pinots shone once again, even to the degree that we had a party of tourists from the Burgundy table who wanted to see for themselves how great Pinot Noir wines were made. I will take their visit as a compliment.

From Monday night the heirs to Bob Crow struck on the Underground and I was turfed off a train at Canonbury and made to walk home. In the absence of tube trains on Tuesday morning I schlepped from Blackfriars to Wapping, which took another hour. Had I been in a better mood I might have appreciated the occasional good view to be had from the river. That night I lingered talking of old times in the Captain Kidd, before boarding a mystery bus; then crossing from Aldgate to Moorgate to find another. We West-Enders will never get the hang of the East.


Marriage at Cana

Posted: 1st April 2014

Does it take a different sort of wine to tickle an historian’s palate? Not so long ago I gave a lecture on eighteenth century gastronomic literature at a seminar on the philosophy of taste that took place in the Maison française at Oxford. The distinguished classical historian Oswyn Murray, the world’s greatest authority on the Greek symposium, was presiding over the morning session and at half time he produced a curious bottle he had brought back from a trip to the Crimea.

It must have been an old cola bottle or something like that. He said that he had bought it from a Scythian peasant about fifteen years before, who had dug it out from behind a pile of logs. He was visibly excited, for this, he said, was produced in exactly the same way as the ancient Greek wine described in Hesiod’s Works and Days, with the grapes left out in the sun to dehydrate before being pressed for wine.

We had some of Oswyn’s wine with our sandwiches at lunchtime. I think it had once been very sweet, but with time and a less than perfect stopper, that sweetness had gone and what was left was rather sour and alcoholic. Still, it was a curiosity, and we had Oswyn to explain it, so we were quite pleased. I should probably add there was nothing else to drink with lunch, though we made up for the lack later.

In the Ratskeller in Bremen there is a barrel of wine dating back to 1648 and if you are very lucky and they think you are important they let you taste it. Again, the Peace of Westphalia and the end of the Thirty Years War make powerful calls for your historical imagination, yet the wine just tastes thick and sweet and is not an experience quite like so many of the hundred-year old and more Riesling wines I have had the privilege of tasting in Germany. The American army had the chance to drink it all up in 1945, but for some reason they let it be.

Some historical wines can actually be a pleasure - one has only to think of some fabulous old bottles of Madeira, for example. The oldest port I have ever drunk was a Dow’s 1832, made in the same year as the Great Reform Bill. It was still lively. As a rule sweet wines last longer than dry ones.

Once I was seated next to Prince Poniatowski at Lucas-Carton in Paris, which was just about the best restaurant in the world then. ‘Ponia’ was the owner of the Clos Baudoin in Vouvray and he had arrived with a few bottles of the 1871 from the domaine. The chef, Alain Senderens, had devised a special menu including a desert to do justice to the Clos Baudoin. It hardly needed Senderens’ wizardry to frame it: you had only to think of the brutal crushing of the Paris Commune at precisely the time when the flowers on the vines in the Loire Valley dropped their petals to become grapes; and this particular historic wine would have been stunning even if nothing significant had occurred that year.

Great vintages don’t always adhere to the years you might want to celebrate but some do. There was a tiny harvest in 1945, but the year produced some magnificent wines. I have had the good fortune to have had the fabulous Graham’s 1945 port several times, and courtesy of the wine writer James Suckling, on one occasion I even had the Lafite of the same year before hand, but never, I think the 1945 Mouton with its famous label ‘l’Année de la victoire’, designed by Philippe Julien. I am sorry to say that 1933, the year that Hitler came to power, was actually an excellent year for German wine.

I was in an historical mood when I tried Galilean wines for the first time. These are wines from near the ancient town of Cana and the Marriage at Cana must be one of the earliest extant description of a wedding feast. The canny groom (who had lamentably failed to provide enough wine) was accused of flying in the face of so many of his modern counterparts: ‘Every man at the beginning doth set forth good wine; and when men have well drunk, then that which is worse: but thou hast kept the good wine until now.’ (John 2, 10)

As I tasted them I imagined myself at the feast. The wines came from Lueria in Upper Galilee: a 45-acre estate owned by Josef Sayada where the grapes are grown on volcanic soils some 840-890 metres above sea level. I suspect that the wines Jesus was replicating were grown closer to the lake and both hotter and coarser.

The best of the Lueria wines was the 2011 Cabernet Sauvignon. It was quite cooling and had an authentic smack of Cabernet. It tasted of cooked blackberries but finished less well. It would cost around £20 in Britain. I quite liked the Terrace blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc. The Rosso I found hot and coarse, so perhaps more like the stuff served before Jesus was inveigled into providing the wine for the feast.

Also from the ancient world was a good wine from Cappadocia: the 2012 Kocabağ from Kaya Kapadokya. Made from the Ökuzgözü and Boğazkere grapes, it had a nice little whiff of raspberries with some of the same on the palate. It was fragrant and aromatic and there was a bit of tarry grip, but it was cooling, and not coarse or rustic. I liked it very much.

So the old wines of the Near East are raising their heads again? If you wanted, you could search out the modern descendants of Opimian or Falernian, but many of the wines of ancient Greece were nasty, and some of the modern ones not much better. And March was not exclusively taken up with the old world either: I had a nice wine from the Story Ridge Winery in California too: Panamera Cuvée Napa 2011. It was quite jammy with some confected, Cabernet Sauvignon tastes; slightly hot - a Napa failing - but not too alcoholic. There were hunky cassis tastes, length, power; it was a Napa wine all right, but good. It would also be near £20 a bottle if it were on sale here.

I have other concerns at present and spend my time praying for a miracle. Supplies dwindle while prices soar. If I only I could find someone to turn all this water into wine? But then again, I suppose he would only say ‘… what have I to do with thee. Mine hour is not yet come.’


Truffles

Posted: 3rd March 2014

It is the second of March as I write and yesterday I finally put a monster to bed. I haven’t really thought about much other than this book for weeks, but in the middle of last month there was a little pause when I went on my usual February jaunt to the Domaine des Anges in Provence.

It is, as always, truffle season and I was getting good reports for the melanosporum, the local black winter truffles. Provence, rather than Périgord, is the source for sixty percent of these. My friend in the local village of Mormoiron, Bob Huddie, reported having eaten good things in January and February, but just before I left on 14 February, the weather warmed up and it began to rain. The last truffles of the season were consequently small (not much bigger than a cherry) and not as perfumèd as they might have been. They also shot up in price from €600 a kilo to nearer €800 locally, that means they would have sold for three-times that sum in Paris.

You win some, you lose some, I thought as I arrived in Marseille in the early afternoon on Friday to be greeted by brilliant sunshine and temperatures of around 15 Celsius. Apart from an occasional downpour and a light frost one morning, the weather stayed sunny and warm. On the way to the Domaine we stopped at the butcher in Mazan to buy some braising beef. Bob arrived later with a jar containing some rice and a dozen or so small truffles for our first course. He had obtained them from his cleaner, who had dug them up in her garden. Her soils were sandy. Up on the hill where we were, the land contains too much chalk to be good for truffles.

Despite their modest size, they were better than I expected. Bob wanted some served on crostini while the rest were committed to a brouillade de truffes, sometimes called an omelette aux truffes, which is essentially scrambled eggs, without milk, cooked in a bain-marie with a little cream and lots of butter. The truffles are then mixed in at the last minute or simply shaved over the top. The idea is that they should not get too hot, as that might dissipate the aromas. I think everyone was more than happy, as they were with the beef, which was not only excellent with the Domaine des Anges Archange, but also with Bob’s magnum of Château Cantemerle 2006.

The padrone, Gay McGuinness, was actually in seventh heaven, not so much as a result of the food, but because the powerful American critic, Robert Parker had finally pronounced on his wines, awarding 90 points to two of them and giving more than decent scores to the others.

The next morning we went in to the market in the lovely town of Pernes. It was very depleted. It was the beginning of half-term and the Parisians had yet to arrive. We stopped at my favourite baker with his hundred-year old oven and bought a vast miche or sourdough loaf. On Saturday afternoon we planned to visit a neighbouring estate, Domaine Vintur, which lies on the road between Carpentras and Malaucène. It is run by the Yorkshireman James Wood, who has wonderfully precise ideas about the sort of wine he wants to make and the way he wants his vineyard to look. We did an extensive tasting and I was extremely impressed by his whites. He inherited the 2011 reds from the previous owner as they were already in the vats when his boss bought the estate. They were good too, but I expect the 2012 and 2013 to be even better.

Winter is slow-cooking time, and we had a slab of belly pork to roast that night, which I had scored deeply to make some good crackling and put a lot of spice in the white wine it sat in as it slowly melted in the oven. The joy of cooking on a wine estate is that there is always plenty of material for marinades and braising, not least in the open bottles left over from the last night’s dinner. We still had two or three of Bob’s truffles and made some oeufs en cocotte with those.

Gay had had a visit from a lady that afternoon who had been restoring a portrait for him. She asked me if we wanted any wild boar, as her freezer was full of it. Her friend in Bédouin, she said, had been trying to rid Mont Ventoux of wild boars over the previous few weeks and had enjoyed a moderate success. I naturally said yes, and asked her if she knew of anyone who had truffles? When we got back that evening the boar and the truffles were there. The woman said that the truffles had been frozen, and I should put them back in the freezer if I was going to take them home. As for the boar, I left it in its blood and emptied a couple of bottles of Domaine des Anges over it and let it fester.

We motored up to Malaucène on Sunday, a larger and livelier town than Mazan with a huge hall-church at the centre. There were even a few people on the streets and stray dogs milling around - a rare vision in Provence in February. I made the usual Irish stew, starting it well before we went out. James Wood arrived for dinner bearing gifts: wine, eggs and more truffles, that he had obtained from a contact in a local bar. Again they were small, and lightly perfumed, but they made a lovely brouillade that was just what we needed before a steaming dish of Irish stew.

Monday was relaxed. We went to the splendid market in Bédouin for a vacherin Mont d’Or for that evening, then Dave Gargan and I went into Carpentras as I had ordered a book for my boy. To my horror I saw the bookshop was closed, but there was a light burning inside and a man moving around. I pleaded with him through the grille, and eventually he agreed to sell me my book. A good omen I thought. We spent a happy few hours in the Irish pub in Mazan celebrating while the lady behind the bar gave me tips on how to cook my boar.

The boar had been in blood, wine, and a little port for two days now. I sat in the feeble winter sun, filched it out of its marinade and cut it into manageable pieces. After browning it and setting it to cook it in its juices for a good three hours I went for a short sieste.

When I woke I was shivering. I think I must have caught a chill cutting up the boar. I am sorry to say that I missed a trick as a result, for I should have put our few remaining truffles into the mashed potatoes. As it was, I had very little appetite, but I noted that the boar was beautifully tender, and the marinade, reduced by a good half, was turned into a good, rich, black sauce.

And, after that short truffle break, I returned to London and the monster.


Breakfast

Posted: 3rd February 2014

As I seem neither to eat nor drink anything of consequence any more, the best I can do is talk about breakfast, which I suppose I must concede is an important part of a hard-working day. In the morning I have what is called ‘bed-tea’ in the Indian subcontinent, except I am not in bed when I drink it and I don’t get the biscuit they invariably give you in India. The tea is the fuel required to get the family on its feet. Once the children have left or have been delivered to their schools I have breakfast. This is comparatively simple: toast, butter, jam or marmalade and coffee. Simple yes, but I have to make virtually all the ingredients first.

I started making bread nearly a decade ago because decent loaves were almost impossible to find and what was only half-way good cost ridiculous prices from chichi shops. When I travelled a lot, I bought bread on the way home: a pain de campagne (there are still no decent baguettes in London), or a Landbrot: preferably something with a bit of shelf-life. I was no longer travelling much, however, so I started making simple white and wholemeal loaves and then, about six years ago, I created my starter. Since then, I have made a 1.4 kilo sourdough loaf about once a week.

I use 500 cls of the starter to 650 grams of white flour and 100 grams of rye and a bit of rock salt. Sometimes I think about increasing the amount of rye, but I have become lazy about experimenting. I buy either a fresh, crumbly English yeast which is hugely fast and enthusiastic but sloppy and unpredictable, or a tight German one called Rapunzel, that works slowly and methodically: it appears national character may be expressed by yeasts too. The bread is very filling. Two slices will sustain you till lunchtime. Event the best commercial bread is little more than air.

Jams and marmalades I also make myself. I have just done our Seville orange marmalade. That has to last the year, but I also make Robespierre (blood orange), King Billy (orange), Harry (lime), Jack (lemon) and the Imposter (grapefruit). The advantage of the rest of the citrus fruit ‘jams’ is that they can be made in batches when you need them; and they are good, so they run out fast.

Then there is coffee. I buy small green Ethiopian beans from a shop nearby, about 500 grams lasts for ten days or so, but then, I only make coffee in the morning. They have a slightly cheesy smell when roasted that derives, I’m told, from the fact they are allowed to ferment in their ‘cherries’ before they are hulled. As they are grown above 10,000 feet, they have a good acidity, which is what I want. The Ethiopians used to roast them for me, and I could smell them as I walked up Burghley Road to collect them. Then they got so busy serving the large local Ethiopian colony that they could no longer spare the time and they taught me how to do them myself. It is a lovely way of filling the house with the smell of fresh roast coffee. You just need to keep a clean old frying pan that is used for that alone, and then you shake them over a flame for about a quarter of an hour until you see the oil beginning to coat the swelling beans. The Ethiopian gentleman told me: ‘you will know they are ready by the smell.’ You let them cool in a bowl and keep them in the freezer until you need to grind them. I grind my coffee just before I make a pot.

Of course I regret to say don’t make the butter as well. Good, unsalted French butter is now extremely difficult to find, far harder to obtain than posh olive oil, which you can buy just about anywhere in London. Sometimes I head off to Borough Market to see the man on the Echiré stand who cuts me a slab from the ‘motte’, or mound. I can generally find it at the Cave à Fromages in South Kensington, but since my daughter left the Lycée in the summer, I have less reason to go there. I have thought about acquiring a cow, but there is little space out the back and I certain the council would complain. They complain about pretty well everything.


Recessional

Posted: 2nd January 2014

So 2013 is behind us, but for me at least, 2014 has yet to arrive. I am still fighting last year’s battle, and the pleasures of the table don’t seem to be much to hand either. Two more months and I may emerge human again or I may lie lifeless at the bottom of the trench.

Still as I sit here alone (family away in Devon) at the dawn of a New Year, I can say that Christmas was remarkably good despite the lean times. I was able to find a few decent or interesting bottles and there were some lovely things to eat.

When friends came on the 21st, for example, I fished out a magnum of Schloss Vollrads Charta Rheingau Riesling Kabinet 2001. This was, I think, more interesting than good. It was a little throwback to the experimental years of the eighties when Rheingau growers wanted to make dry wines but failed to get their grapes ripe enough to produce an adequate balance. The result was a sharp-ish sort of Riesling: none of the sweetness that gave it ‘charm’ nor the power that made it viable as a dry wine. How much better have they become now that they have managed to get the grapes properly ripe. Dry Grosses Gewächs is surely the future for most German Riesling.

Then another friend came to dinner on Christmas Eve. We had already opened some Laurent Perrier NV while we decorated the tree. I generally find Laurent-Perrier is wound too tight, which makes it an unexciting NV champagne, but we’d had this bottle in the house for a couple of years and it was all the better for it. I had found a fresh foie gras at Harry’s in Kentish Town and marinated it the night before in half a glass of super-sweet Gonzalez-Byass Pedro Ximenez Noe, with some salt, pepper and nutmeg and cooked it in the morning for three-quarters of an hour in the lowest possible oven. It is lovely how the fat comes out and swims over the liver. That fat gives the foie gras a remarkable shelf life. There is still some left. I noticed it in the fridge this morning.

With the foie gras I brought out Franz Hirtzberger’s Singerriedel Riesling Smaragd 1990. I don’t recall 1990 being the greatest year, and this might have been better a while back, but it was still a super wine, in that baroque idiom that is Hirtzberger’s stock-in-trade and still makes him about the best grower in the Wachau.

Our guest has an aversion to white wine, and he had brought with him a bottle of Joseph Voilllot’s Volnay 1er Cru Les Fremiots 2005, which a Frenchman at Roberson had told him would go well with the lobsters I had popped in the pot shortly before he arrived. I was unable to confirm this, as I stuck resolutely to the Riesling: I didn’t fancy the idea of Volnay with lobsters. I drank the Volnay with the cheese and I thought it was wonderfully long and sinewy wine and an excellent choice. After our Stilton, there were a couple of bûches: one with chocolate and the other with marrons. I opened some of my old friend Johann Münzenrieder’s Bouvier Trockenbeerenauslese 1995. I think my daughter had a small glass, otherwise just me. I finished the rest watching Scrooge after my Christmas dinner.

The best wines should unlock memories, like some sort of Proustian madeleine. I don’t know when I first met Münzenrieder, but what struck me most about him was the fact that the more excited he became, the more he spoke Appetlönisch: the patois of his village on the Austro-Hungarian border. If you believe you have mastered German, think again.

We were just the family on Christmas Day. While the children unwrapped their presents there was a bottle of Roederer 2003, with a little whiff of fresh apricots which I imagined I found too on the Guerlain scent an uncle had so kindly given my daughter. The real treat was with the beef: Roumier’s Chambolle-Musigny 1er Cru Les Amoureuses 1994. It had perhaps lost a little weight in the ageing process, but the structure and length were just heavenly. I think that was the last Roumier I had: pity.

Boxing Day was back to work, although we did have a nice bottle of Denis Dubourdieu’s Clos Floridène Graves 2004. It all seems but a memory now. Back to my trench.


A Modest Proposal

Posted 2nd December 2013

It will look as if I have done sod all this month, but the truth is quite the opposite. I have written and written like a fiend. I have a deadline for a fat book looming on the 1st of March and on top of this, I was preparing an ancient tome of mine for republication as an e-book. That meant rewriting a whole chapter as well as other emendations. So I have been glued to my desk and away from the more pleasant world of wine and food.

What if anything do I have to report? Well, I tried a lovely new whisky from the isle of Arran - the Millennium Casks. It is an un-chillfiltered dram for purists at 53.5 percent with a heathery nose and a little sweetness on the palate offset by a slight saltiness on the finish; evidence that the island is lashed by a cruel sea. There was no dressing up with wood, just a lovely little malt - simple of itself.

I had the latest edition from the Vigneti Trebbio. The 2010 seemed on the light side, but an elegant wine, cool in the nose and on the palate, with some tannic grip, but not overstated, there was a bit of damson fruit, worn lightly. I see our Italian jury gave it a well-deserved silver medal.

I had a nice sinewy Garnacha from the Rioja house of Campo Viejo (£8.69 and available from Ocado, Sainsbury’s Local and ASDA). I have been to Logroño many times, but the wine particularly reminded me of the week I spent on my own in Haro about a decade ago, and my various visits to venerable bodegas to sample their old Gran Reservas. As I swirled the wine around my glass I had a quiet little nostalgic indulgence, as I remembered the half dozen restaurants around the main square with its storks’ nests and the little pedestrian street off it, which was lined with tascas. The wine companies dropped me back at my hotel in the evening, and I filled the time before dinner by teaching myself Spanish. I even bought my son his first pair of shoes in Haro. They were blue, and terribly cute.

The restaurants didn’t open before 9.30, but I looked forward to those evening meals spent in the company of a book, and the inevitable baby lambs cooked in a bread oven with a little salad and bread: a diet unchanged since Roman times.

Last week I attended a tasting of E F Wines at the Sub-Zero Wolf showrooms in Knightsbridge of a range of wines that they are selling for Christmas. Before I started however, I was shown their range of wine storage articles. This is obviously quite the Rolls Royce of above-ground cellaring. I hate to think what these things cost, but they look nice and they obviously do the trick. Wine survives quite nicely here because we never turn on the heating, but that is not something I’d recommend to the faint-hearted.

After a welcome bumper (and a mean bumper) of Taittinger Comtes de Champagne 2004, I tasted the cheaper range of wines and was quite smitten with a Château Bone 2009 at £4.45 a bottle, but then I read the small print and saw that the price included neither duty nor VAT: so £4.45 becomes a rather more meaty £7.35 and the tight, zippy Pierre Grandet champagne I tasted, was not £12.25, as stated, but £16.75. I then went over to some nice Bordeaux wines from well-known estates, and even if the prices were more substantial than they seemed, they were far from being at the level of those wines vaunted by Robert Parker. Remember: Parker points put the price up.

They were perhaps not from the greatest vintages, but I liked the old-fashioned, classic, savoury restraint in the Château Cantemerle 2008 (real price £38, case sales only) and the Pomerol Feytit-Clinet 2007 (real price £34.40) I perhaps liked even more, if in the end I decided it didn’t have sufficient length. My favourite, however, was the Domaine de Chevalier 2008 (£35.60), an estate I have known for decades and always loved. It had a little autumnal whiff about it followed by black pepper, blackcurrants and raspberries, and the most satisfying persistence. I could imagine myself enjoying that with the rib of beef that has become our ordinary Christmas dinner.

There was no beef around for me to try it out with, indeed, of the advertised canapés I saw little more than cheese, but there was a gentleman from Kelly Turkeys slicing up a brace of fowl he had cooked in one of those super smart ovens they sold in the shop. So while I chewed on a bit of turkey ‘crackling’, he explained to me why the Kelly Bronze was a superior bird. The reason is, I learned, because they grow so slowly, taking six months to reach a minimum of five kilos. Also Mr Kelly hangs them for five weeks so that the bird that arrives on 23rd December is as tender as a dream on Christmas Day. Prices start at around £80 for a five-kilo turkey.

Turkeys open the prospect of Christmas, and I am sorry to say I cannot muster a great deal of excitement. There will be squabbles over this and that and questions over whether we can run to lobster on Christmas Eve or foie gras on Christmas Day… If I had my way I’d just tick the boxes in the Foreman and Field catalogue sent to me by my old friend Lance Foreman. It all looks so good: wild Scottish salmon, game pie, Suffolk black ham, Montgomery’s cheddar… but I don’t suppose it will work out like that. In the meantime I am going to indulge myself for once by making a modest proposal which, I feel, would make Britain a better place, and it goes like this.

We hear a lot about going green and avoiding waste. This involves putting everything organic out in special containers to be taken away by the dustmen. In our case I have to confess it isn’t much, as I don’t like waste, but I throw out bones after I have made the stock and the peelings of root vegetables etc. Even that strikes me as wicked, but up to now I couldn’t think of any other use for them.

Now I have had a better idea: every ten houses should be obliged to keep a pig at some small distance from their houses but obviously not so far that it would require using motorised transport to deliver its feed. All suitable waste would therefore go into the pig rather than into the dustbin. The council would be spared the expense of collecting it and their saving would be reflected in our council tax charges. Then we can forget about these fussy, ugly little containers: pigs will eat potato peelings and a lot more besides. They would probably eat the chicken bones.

The pig would grow fat on the waste and once a year the moment would come when it would be slaughtered for hams, roasting meat, sausages etc. In many countries around the world this is a joyful occasion and an excuse to eat the perishable bits - grillades, liver, black puddings etc. Pig killing usually takes place close to Christmas.

The ten houses would chip in to pay veterinary bills and to pay the slaughterman, who would have the right to claim the traditional prizes due to a man of his cloth: the hog’s ears and tail. It would be possible for several groups of ten houses to place their pigs in common pens, that way ensuring a production of piglets. The flesh is sweeter on the sow, but one boar pig should be allocated to each pen. Obviously, if certain households wanted more than one pig that could be arranged, it would only be a matter of finding suitable space. This is easier than you think. Even in quite central London there is plenty of land which fails to earn its keep.

And if the scheme were to be a success (and why would it fail?) we might consider demolishing a few supermarkets to provide space for more pigs.

My second idea concerns fruit. Here where I live in urban north London, there are quite a number of fruit trees. Within say not much more than a hundred square feet I can think of two plums, two grape vines, one pear, one apple, one quince, one mulberry, one fig, one cherry not to mention the excellent blackberries in the old railwayman’s club. They used to be the mainstay of my blackberry jam but now developers have put up high fences and I suppose that no one touches them now. Even the foxes disdain them. Come to think of it, that derelict site would be an excellent home for our pigs.

With the exception of the apples in our garden, none of this fruit is consumed; not even by local brats. Modern children don’t scrump: they eat crisps and sweets and swill pop. This year I looked with horror into my neighbour’s gardens to see all the mulberries on the ground, and not even used to make jam. The pears from the stately tree in front the big Georgian house by the bus stop lie festering all over he pavement kicked by idle boys and picked at by soporific, autumnal wasps.

Now, my second proposal is this: every hundred houses should pay for the upkeep of a small still. I have seen then on sale for around £300. In addition they would have to pay for the services of a trained distiller in the summer and autumn months. Pace Nigel Farage, there are plenty of central and eastern Mediterranean types living here now for whom distilling fruit is second nature. I am not sure I’d trust some of the wilder Irish types who live in Kentish Town who are more used to making poitín in kettles in the west of Ireland or Caledonians who brew up Scottish moonshine in the Highlands; but then, I value my eyesight.

Naturally, like the pork, ham and sausages it is not obligatory to consume these things yourself. You could sell them either to your neighbours or to local shops. Certain areas might become famous for ham or bacon while others might attract visitors from all over Europe who just come to taste a succulent Camden hog or a limpid Kentish Town eau de vie de poire.

Come on, what’s stopping us?


Falling Asleep on Buses

Posted: 5th November 2013

Noilly Prat

I had a big treat in the middle of the month: I went down to Noilly Prat in Marseillan. The vermouth is made near Sète on the southern French coast and they are currently celebrating their bicentenary. It wasn’t my first visit, but in my senility I find it hard to put my finger on when I was there last, a British Airways boarding card wedged into the Histoire ancienne et moderne de Marseillan tells me only that I came back on 18 September. The year is not specified, and I travelled in Club - those were the days!

For the uninitiated, Noilly Prat is the vermouth at the heart of many cocktails, not least a classic dry Martini. I came across it first as an undergraduate when we were allowed to top up our 18p measures of gin with as much vermouth as we liked for 2p. This extended form of a ‘Martini’ was called a ‘gin and French’, and quite a bargain for 20p. Mixed with sweet, red vermouth, the drink was called a ‘gin and It’ - gin and Italian. ‘Gin and mixed’ combined green and red. I never saw anyone drink that. It must have been an ugly colour.

Of course the weather helped to put me in the mood. It was lovely in the south. The late September storms had passed and the harvesters were out bringing in the black grapes. Marseillan is on the Etang de Thau, a salt-water lagoon that lies behind a narrow isthmus that runs from Sète to Marseillan. The lagoon is the source for about a fifth of France’s oysters and a certain amount of gilthead bream that feed on their young.

We stayed at the Port Rive Gauche, a collection of roomy flats looking out on the lagoon which, apart from its molluscs, was home to a colony of cacophonous ducks. They knew how to make their presence felt when they thought they might be in for a bit of my - and presumably everybody else’s - breakfast. We looked due south and in the mornings the sunrises were worthy of Turner himself. I woke on my last day to see the sky from the Fighting Téméraire in the National Gallery, only, where the warship is in the painting rose the substantial hills that frame the pretty fishing port of Sète.

The sun was up when we got in from Montpellier Airport at three or so, and I went for a walk through the little town. It was equipped with a new quay for the colonial trade with North Africa, but there is an ancient core. I passed the usual codgers playing pétanque and a cluster of old buildings near the church. The shops around the stone market were just opening after the midday lull, and I was able to find a piece of fougasse and a beer. I was hungry: no food on Sleazyjet. I hadn’t eaten since breakfast.

We reconvened for dinner at the Taverne du Port in Marseillan: a party of three Italian barmen and two hacks plus attendant PRs. As Marseillan is so intimately linked to oysters, they crop up everywhere: here they were offered as a ‘mise en bouche’ with the ineluctable glass of Noilly Prat, which - yes, they proved their point - worked quite well with them. Then I had some pumpkin soup, the sweetest of scallops deglazed with Noilly Prat and some prunes soaked in armagnac with vanilla ice. I then left the bartenders to their merrymaking: too late for me.

The trip proved to be a three-day rendez-vous with the local Picpoul de Pinet white, and as luck would have it, one of the base wines of Noilly Prat. First at dinner there was a 2012 from the Domaine de Bridau, which, with its sappiness upstaged a Château de la Mirande of the same year. Better, perhaps than both was the Bergerie from the Domaine de l’Hortus. The Taverne, by the way has a most astonishing collection of whiskies and other spirits, and the owners close up shop at regular intervals to go on buying trips.

The next morning we met Jean-Louis Mastoro, the charming cellarmaster at Noilly Prat. He had set up a tasting of Picpoul and Clairette wines on a table in the vines above the lake. In the distance we could see the half-submerged wooden scaffolds of the oyster farms, and there were oyster shells everywhere in the soil, a constant reminder of the primary vocation of the lagoon. Noilly buys in its wine, but only these two varieties are used. Picpoul gives the body to the blend and Clairette the length. Italian vermouth charcoal-filters the base wines, but Noilly respects them more, making for a far more vinous vermouth.

Back at the firm’s headquarters, Jean-Louis filled us in on the history of the firm. It was founded by Joseph Noilly in Lyons: a more probable place to find a vermouth company than Marseilles. Vermouth (after all) comes from the word ‘wermut’ meaning absinthe. Absinthe was culled from the mountains, along with the herbs and flowers used to flavour the ‘vin cuit’ or ‘vino cotto’ of Savoy. Claude or ‘Claudius’ Prat, who married Joseph’s granddaughter, decided to move the firm to Marseilles, where he’d be closer to the export trade to the French colonies in North Africa and elsewhere. In 1855, he officially became part of the office furniture and the company became Noilly-Prat. After Claudius’ death, Noilly-Prat was run by his widow, the fearsome Anne-Rosine. The last of the Prats were her two boys, who never married.

The vermouth is a complicated amalgamation of a ‘mistelle’ made from adding grape must to neutral alcohol and wine. The wine in this case are those Picpouls and Clairettes that the company leaves outside to oxidise in the sun. Some evaporates leaving a gap at the top of the cask and the wine is impregnated with the briny air that blows off the lagoon. The wine is therefore married to the sea. The founders thought they were replicating the process of ‘travelling’ the wine known to the ancients, who thought it improved as a result of a bracing sea voyage. 

The next stage is to infuse the casks filled with wine with dried herbs and spices in the ‘salle des sécrets’ or the hall of secrets. Then the casks are stirred twice a day with a an instrument looking like a scythe. This is later blended with some alcohol flavoured with raspberries and strawberries and married up to the mistelle. A bottle of Noilly Prat is on average, 16 to 17 months in the making.

There are now three versions of Noilly Prat, but the favourite is very much the ‘dry’, which is flavoured with a blend of twenty so-called ‘botanicals’: they include elderberries, coriander, lavender, oris root, camomile, Provencal herbs and orange peel. A red, created in 1956 with Manhattan cocktails in mind, has a different range of botanicals: traces of quinine, Seville orange, cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg and saffron. The third blend, the Ambré, is a comparative infant, having been released in 1986. It leads on cinnamon, bitter orange peel, cardamom and lavender.

We had lunch that day at Entre Ciel et Mer, on the quayside in Marseillan. Once again oysters were the first things dished out with our glasses of Noilly Prat. Most of them were fresh, live oysters but there were others that had been grilled with a julienne of leaks, cream and cheese. I had some crab soup, a delicious gilthead bream with a buttery polenta and some fromage blanc with red fruits. Having learned the day before how good the new range of wines from Domaine de l’Hortus was, we had their rosé. It was no disappointment. We whiled away the afternoon playing pétanque with of Jean-Louis, who was both mentor and player. Our team won.

That evening we took our coach into Montpellier for dinner at Cellier et Morel at the Maison de Lozère. It was not the first time I had sat under these thirteenth century arches and eaten the restaurant’s stock in trade of mountain ham and aligot (puree of potatoes with fresh cream and Cantal cheese). It is a bit flashy: the waiters whip up the aligot at your table and stretch it on forks to show you how elastic it is.

The ham and aligot are still de rigueur, but the menu has become more ‘inventive’ with time, ergo fussy; so that we had a steamed, lacquered foie gras served with corn, almonds, ginger and a miso emulsion, a filet of meagre on a fricassee of Paimpol coco beans, preserved lemons, lovage and olives and a ham emulsion; and finally there were some figs poached in Maury, with nougatine, a cream of spice vinegar and a yoghurt sorbet. I wonder if such elaborate descriptions really help? What happened to ‘à ma façon’? Or ‘à la façon du chef’?

Noilly had prescribed different forms of Noilly Prat to go with the menu but we rebelled and drank a 2012 Picpoul from Mas Aubanel instead. The restaurant seemed stuffy, snooty, and in the end, and despite the elaborate presentation of the dishes, not much better than the simple places we had been to in Marseillan; but I am sure that I would be wrong to judge a place on a chance visit like this and to receive a proper impression, you must order from the full menu.

Our next stop was the excellent cocktail bar at Papa Doble in the old quarters of the city. With the possible exception of Aix-en-Provence, Montpellier is the loveliest city in the south of France, full of glorious old palaces that formerly belonged to the nobility of the Languedoc. At Papa Doble, we tried out a variety of cocktails prepared with Noilly and I met a lady from Rheims who gave me excellent advice on bars and restaurants in her home town. It was about two when we left, I had no problem falling asleep on the bus back to Marseillan.

The next day started early, and was mostly about oysters. We went to see a cheerful cove at his oyster farm on the lagoon who explained the process of renting space on the lagoon from the landlord - the state. There are 650 concessions, but some people have a large number of them. You need at least three to make a living wage. A good plot can cost as much as €50,000, with a poor one at a fifth of that. The lagoon is of varying quality, with the best oyster-rearing water in the east near Bouzigues, where it is at its deepest. Marseillan is relatively shallow. It must be for that reason that the commercial name most often used for the oysters from the lagoon is ‘Bouzigues’, although our chap said there was no difference in flavour between the different oysters grown on the lake: all Bouzigues oysters taste alike. Arcachon oysters have an Arcachon taste, those of Marennes, a Marennes flavour and so on. The ‘bed’ gives the nuance of flavour to the oysters.

Oysters grow twice as fast in the warm water of the lagoon than they do in the sea. On the Atlantic coast they take four years to reach an edible size, here two, as it is warm, there is no tide and plenty of plankton to eat. Atlantic oysters, like those I have seen in Britain, are grown in bags made of metal mesh, on The Etang de Thau the seeds are hung on rope.

The oyster has an interesting sex life and one which would go a long way towards stilling the battle of the sexes in homo sapiens: the mollusc changes sex every year after procreation. The reason that we abstain from eating oysters when there is no R in the month is that they secrete an unpleasant milky liquid. This only takes place, however, when the temperature of the sea has reached 25 degrees or more; so British oysters are unlikely to give you any trouble.

So far, so good: our friend was merely reminding me of other trips to oyster beds, but there was news for me too: there is a fresh plague wiping out our oysters. In my day it was called bonamia, and was thought to derive from some product used for painting the hulls of boats, but now the molluscs are stricken with a form of herpes which is killing eighty percent of all young cultivated oysters. The other thing I learned was that, in response to this blight perhaps, scientists have bred a sort of metrosexual, eunuch oyster which grows much more quickly and therefore gives a better return. It cannot, obviously, reproduce by itself. We ate some, and apart from their impressive size, I could not tell the difference between them and the more sexually conventional oysters.

A big snack of oysters and prawns was laid out for us with a few tots of Noilly Prat. Then we got into a brace of speedboats and crossed the lagoon to Bouzigues and our restaurant, La Côte Bleue. I staggered off the boat in a state of shock: I felt as well-travelled as any wine. The copious elevenses of oysters in Marseillan had largely sapped our appetite. We had a classic fish soup and then a couple of platters of shellfish. Lots of molluscs returned to the kitchen uneaten as we climbed back into our bus and made for the airport.

Protecting Typicity

We had a last bottle of Picpoul de Pinet at the Côte Bleue, the wine which had played second fiddle to Noilly Prat during our time at Marseillan. The Appellation Protégée Languedoc-Picpoul de Pinet covers some 1400 hectares of limestone and sandy soils north of the Etang de Thau. Naturally, only wine made from the Picpoul grape has the right to the protection accorded by the AOP. Many of my wine writing colleagues dislike the system of AOPs, as they believe they restrict choice and retard evolution, but fashion has a habit of making growers do stupid things, like planting Chardonny in the southern Rhone or Grüner Veltliner in the Rheingau. I had meant to write about protected regions when I went to the Douro a few months ago, as it and Chianti were possibly the first regions to delimit their territory and create rules as to how the wine should be made, but I forgot. For more information, go to www.discovertheorigin.co.uk.

Bob Huddie’s Burgundy Tasting

Burgundy is a much larger and more prestigious AOP than Picpoul de Pinet and one that takes a lot of getting to know. After our Burgundy tasting in Mormoiron in September, Bob Huddie was kind enough to send me back my tasting notes along with the results. Bob insisted we use the Parker 100-point scale, which essentially means you give the wine 80 for being a wine, and then mark it out of twenty for quality. Nothing below 85 is worth drinking. This is apparently something to do with admissions tests to American law schools (Mr Parker is an American lawyer), where all dunderheads are given 80 lest they sue the universities for elitism, selective admission, blighting their lives, upsetting their cats etc., or worse still: take out a machine gun and murder everyone in sight. While I appreciate their concern, I am not sure I am ready for such inflationary scores myself, and I mark out of twenty. As a favour to Bob I tweaked (perhaps I should say ‘twerked’) my scores a bit to make them look a little more authentic. All the wines were from the ‘approachable’ (Bob’s word) 2009 vintage.

I get to drink very little Burgundy these days, so it was good to be shown an overview of the 2009s. I was fully in agreement with the two front-runners, but I was not so keen on the Santenay or the Côte de Nuits Villages as the other tasters. I was also a bit more generous towards the Marsannay than some and concluded that it might make a decent everyday (or at least every week) Burgundy for those of us who are unlikely to be able to afford the Bonnes Mares or the earthy Echézeaux.

1) Bonnes Mares, Grand Cru, Domaine Bart, 97
2) Echézeaux Grand Cru, Domaine Vincent Girardin, 94
3) Clos de Vougeot Grand Cru, Château de la Tour, 93
3) Beaune 1er Cru Vigne de L’Enfant Jésus, Bouchard Père &Fils, 93
3) Nuits St Georges, Vieilles Vignes, Domaine de Douaix, 93
6) Pommard 1er cru, Bouchard Père et Fils, 92
7) Pommard les Vignots, Vincent Girardin, 90
7) Marsannay Les Champs, Salomon Domaine Bart, 90
7) Côte de Nuits Villages, Vieilles Vignes, Domaine de Douaix, 90
10) Santenay 1er Cru Les Gravières, Vincent Girardin, 87

Zonin Lunch

On Tuesday 22 October I went to a wonderfully copious lunch at L’Anima, a stylish restaurant behind Liverpool Station in the City. It was half-term and the family was away, which was just as well.

The meal was arranged for top sommeliers and a smattering of wine writers, to show off the wines made by the Zonin family, either at their property in Sicily - Principi di Butera - or at their estate in Puglia - Masseria Altemura in Salento. With each course, therefore, we had two wines, one from each estate.

The meal began with a few antipasti outside in the bar: bruschetta and some squid and deep-fried courgettes with Rosamaro a zippy, pugnacious, sparkling Negroamaro from Puglia. Then we moved into a private dining room conceived in a Mussolini-Roman idiom: chunky and cavernous. If the architecture was funereal, the atmosphere was anything but, and everyone around the table seemed very merry.

The first proper course was some crab with green apple and ‘fresh leaves’ which was paired with the 2012 Fiano from the Altemura and an Insolia from Butera. The Sicilian wine I found too soft for the dish and I preferred the Fiano which seemed to have the acidity and length. A vote was taken, it seems most of the sommeliers disagreed with me.

The next course was a dish of pasta: cavatelli with sausage and thinly sliced black truffles. This was a lovely little recipe, but I didn’t think the summer truffles added much to it (except presumably to make it more expensive). It was paired with a 2004 Sasseo Primitivo from Puglia and a 2011 Symposio Bordeaux blend from Sicily. The Puglian wine was quite sweet, and despite that rustic touch, it didn’t seem to match the dish as well as the refined Sicilian.

Then came some slow roasted belly pork with n’cantarata sauce. On the left, I had a glass of Nero d’Avola Deliella from Butera and on the right a Altemura Primitivo from Puglia, which benefits from its own appellation. The Nero d’Avola was ultra-refined, with the tightest yields, but again it was perhaps less than a match for the earthiness of the belly pork. I preferred the Primitivo, which, with its fine, cooling tannins seemed to me to be about as good as it got.

At this stage I thought that I might see a bite of cheese and be off. After all, that was what was written on the menu; but no: big bowls were slapped down on the table containing roast kid (one of my very favourite dishes) with roast potatoes and artichokes and a mystery wine was brought out to accompany it. We all made a mess of guessing what it was. In the end we were told it was the 2000 San Rocco Cabernet Sauvignon from Butera. It was sublime, but the extra course certainly did me in: I fell asleep on the bus.

Halves Sherry

I admit to being a sherry junkie. Apart from a glass of champagne, I find it had to conceive of a better aperitif. Recently I tasted the range from Halfwine.com: and was quite bowled over. Halfwine sells just 37.5 cl bottles. This is a traditional size for sherry, as finos and manzanillas oxidise quite quickly and in this format, you have generally drunk them up before they have had the chance to go off. The San Léon Manzanilla Clasica has all that rough-and-tumble character you would expect, but somehow it was trumped by the fino del Puerto from Gutierrez Colosia, which had a salty intensity I can only suppose was culled from its proximity to the sea: echoes of Noilly Prat! The 12-year old oloroso from Williams & Humbert was stunning: cream, caramel, nuts and soft plums but with a fiercely dry finish. If anything, however, it was upstaged by the 12-year old Williams & Humbert amontillado: which was hugely intense and searing, a real pick-me-up. A tasting pack of all four is recommended. It costs just £30.25.

Dinner at Dinner

I hung up my restaurant reviewer’s hat before the emergence of the autodidact Bloomers at the Fat Duck in Bray and I have never eaten there. Until recently I had not tried his London embassy, Dinner, either. I went to the latter for the first time on 30 October as a guest of The Wine Club, a new venture which brings the recommendations of three top London sommeliers directly to your door for as little as £50 for a case of six.

I felt a little pang of nostalgia entering the Hyde Park Hotel that night. I remember when Marco Pierre White moved in there in his bid to get a third Michelin rosette. We got on well in those days and I witnessed him stocking up on art works and refining the dishes in his repertoire, and then the great day came when all his work paid off, and he became the first native chef to win his three stars. Soon after he moved on to the Piccadilly Hotel and lost the plot.

For a while the dining room upstairs was called Foliage, but I never really got the measure of that, meanwhile the historic Hyde Park had become the Mandarin Oriental. It was in the Foliage, so to speak, that I sat next to the late Alan Whicker at a press lunch and found him excellent company even if he had developed a distinct animus against the travel journalist Victoria Mather.

These memories came flooding back as I went through the lobby of the hotel, which was teeming: no austerity here, I thought. I was instantly put at ease by a glass of Krug Grande Cuvée while I talked to Danny Kaljee and the other men behind the club. We were in a private room but could see the dining room through the glass. It was also incredibly busy.

Like Marco’s menu, Bloomers’ comes with dates next to the dishes, but they are a bit more ancient than Marco’s were: they represent an historical dish that Bloomers has reworked before putting it on the menu. One of the club’s sommeliers (who is also the sommelier at Dinner), João Pires talked us through the menu. We ate ‘Earl Grey Tea Smoked Salmon’ which had been perked up with a sauce of ‘lemon, gentleman’s relish, wood sorrel and smoked roe’. Again I wondered why we had to know the mechanics, but it was an impressive and unusual combination. The wine that went with it was a 2012 Soave Classic from Tamellini in the Veneto (£78 for six), a lovely fresh spirited wine and just the ticket for the salmon. 

It worked less well with the chef’s ‘meat fruit’: a chicken liver and foie gras parfait that appears ravishingly in the form of a mandarin orange, and apparently dates back to the time of Henry VII. It is a very impressive creation, and very light with just enough tang from the mock-peel upholstery to stop the mousse from cloying. It needed a more aromatic wine, I thought: a dry Muscat or Gewürztraminer.

Next came a Spiced Pigeon with ale and artichokes. I didn’t like this dish so much. I wanted the skin of the almost raw pigeon to be firmer, crunchy even. It came with chips, carrots and a lovely purée of potatoes, saturated in butter à la Robuchon (but perhaps with a mite too much salt). The wine for this was a 2007 Morey Saint Denis Vieilles Vignes from the Domaine Lignier. It was very sour cherry-like and immensely long and linear, I was impressed but I missed some of the opulence I like from the generally, spicy, velvetty Côte de Nuits.

Next came the famous Tipsy Cake (1810) with spit-roast pineapple. The cake was a sort of brioche that had been basted and re-basted with cream and cognac while the pineapple had also turned on a spit and been subjected to various embellishments. I had to say that had I not known I would have been unaware of how elaborate the dish was. We had an excellent sauternes with it: a 2007 Castelnau de Suduiraut - the second wine of the estate - which set it off to a tee.

After that I felt quite stuffed, and savoured a glass of vintage armagnac before I waddled back to the tube.

This time I think I managed to stay awake.


Back to School

Posted: 2nd October 2013

The long (too long) school holidays are over, and as the children packed their bags and satchels for the new term, the wine trade came back to life. My personal rentrée begins on St Giles’s Day (1 September) with a fortifying glass of champagne. This year it was a 2006 Mumm Cordon Rouge with a lively bead and nice hint of apricot paste on the nose, Granny Smith and guava tastes on the palate, bowing out with a flavour of golden delicious apples and all the power you’d expect from a Pinot Noir-based cuvée. I like these new-wave Mumm wines more and more. It seems to me that a lot of good work has gone into improving them.

My professional duties (and predilections) have brought me to German wines again this month. On the 17th September my friend Caro Maurer presented a tasting of VDP Grosses Gewächs and other wines to her fellow Masters of Wine at the Saddlers’ Hall in the City. I am sorry that I had to leave early and miss the JJ Prüm wines but I was happy to renew acquaintance with the 2007 dry Erstes Gewächs from Schloss Johannisberg and note how much the wines have steadied now that Christian Witte is on the bridge. I was also happy to discover the 2009 Kirchberg Spätburgunder from Weingut Salwey and the traditional 2009 Riesling Spätlese from Balthasar Ress. I don’t always like hocks from Ress, but then there has been a change of steward both there and at Salwey since Wolf Salwey’s untimely death in 2011.

Two days later the Rheingau was back in town and Franz Werner Michel gave his customary press tasting at the ambassador’s residence focussing on the 2012 vintage with a few little sweeteners thrown in, such as the 1983 Hochheimer Domdecaney Beerenauslese, the 1953 Rauenthaler Baiken Beerenauslese. In contrast to these oldies, there was a 2011 Trockenbeerenauslese from Schloss Johannisberg. I was sorry not to have enough time to do justice to all the wines downstairs, but I was impressed by the 1976 Johannisberger Klaus from Prinz von Hessen and by the collection of 2012s presented by the Weingut Spreitzer in Oestrich, the Hattenheimer Wisselbrunnen in particular. From the neighbouring Weingut Wegeler the 2011 Geisenheimer Rothenberg Auslese was wonderful. There was also a fantastic 2007 Kiedricher Gräfenberg Auslese from Robert Weil.

I had to run over to the British Academy after that to taste a daunting collection of 183 2011 Médoc crus bourgeois. With a child to pick up early from school again, I selected thirty-four for tasting. My two favourites were the Château Paveil de Luze in Margaux and Château Lilian Ladouys in Saint-Estèphe. I wonder if I alarmed the mothers at the school gate with my red teeth?

Domaine des Anges

On 26 September I went to the Domaine des Anges in the Ventoux for my twice-yearly visit. The new winemaker, Florent Chave is beginning to branch out and inject some of his own personal style into the wines which are now perhaps more true to local tradition than they were when Ciaran Rooney was at the helm.

We tasted eight of the latest wines the day I arrived:

  1. Domaine des Anges white 2012. This was Ciaran Rooney’s creation - a white wine from the Southern Rhone with proper bite and freshness. This new baby doesn’t look disappointing: there is camomile and saffron on the nose, it is fat but has proper length for all that; good, honey-rich concentration and more important still, good acidity.
  2. Domaine des Anges Viognier 2012. It has a hay-like aroma on the nose that is not entirely typical of the variety, and is fat and powerful. I think it was a little muted that night, as the final blend had not been made up. A small proportion is housed in oak, the rest in stainless steel.
  3. Domaine des Anges Archange - white - 2012. This is pure Roussanne. There is a little of that hay aroma here too, but more dried apricots. It has something of the same richness I found in the ordinary Ventoux wine but there is a great liveliness here; an endearing playfulness that carries on and on: a great success.
  4. Domaine des Anges red 2011. This is the estate’s real bread-and-butter and it should be the sort of everyday wine that you are happy to drink with your dinner night-in, night-out. It was certainly spot-on: the fruit slightly jammy with suggestions of plums and cherries from a predominately Grenache blend. It is a wine of the torrid south and packs quite a punch, leaving an abiding legacy of chocolate and fruitcake on the palate.
  5. Domaine des Anges Archange 2011. The Archange is mostly Syrah. This is an impressive wine with a smell of the Provencal garrigue, liquorice, cherries and blackberries. It is clear that it was housed in oak, but I am convinced that this underpinning will soon be covered by the fruit. The tannins are fine and cooling. It needs at least another two years before it should be broached. It finishes with more memories of the south: wild thyme and tobacco.
  6. Domaine des Anges Archange 2010. There is an ever-so-slight whiff of game here, which is hardly alarming in a Syrah-based wine, as well as raspberries and redcurrants; the fruit is good, but it seems a spot lighter than the 2011. There is some tobacco and quite a lot of alcohol and wood tannins. It leaves you with the impression of power. Perhaps it is not quite the equal of the 2011, but it is still very good.
  7. Domaine des Anges Sérafin 2011. This is a pure Grenache cuvée. This wine was drawn from tank and only a very small amount is made. Reminiscent of fruit pastilles, it seemed to be going through a difficult stage. I am hoping the middle palate is going to fill out before it is bottled.
  8. Domaine des Anges Cabernet Sauvignon 2011. This is an oddity created by Malcolm Swann when he founded the estate in the seventies. It seems peculiar to have Cabernet in the Southern Rhone, but people did odd things back then. The important point about it is that is a lovely wine with an attractive cassis-like sweetness on the nose and a pronounced aroma of cigar boxes. There is a lot of that sweet blackcurrant fruit on the palate and quite a bit of alcohol too, but it closes with creaminess and more cigar box: delightful - long may it reign.

For the rest, my three days in the south were punctuated by the usual Franco-Hibernian high-jinks: curry night, Pierre’s Provencal lunch, the annual Irish stew, Bob Huddie’s wine tasting and lunch (2009 Burgundies this time) and a trip to La Calade, the local restaurant in Blauvac; and most important of all - that last glimpse of the sun before the lights go out in London for the winter.


A Tasting Marathon in Wiesbaden

Posted: 2nd September 2013

The last Monday in August is generally the first of two days tasting in the old pumprooms in Wiesbaden. They are dedicated to the ‘Grosses Gewächs’ or dry, ‘grand cru’ wines produced by the VDP organisation in the previous vintage. The VDP (Verband Deutscher Prädikatsweingüter) has around 250 members, and almost all the top estates are members. It is therefore a marvellous opportunity to bring yourself up to date on which is happening in Germany, who is on the way up and who is on the way down and just what was the quality of the last harvest.

I flew out on Sunday morning because Caro Maurer MW had very kindly got me involved in tasting in Nierstein on the Rheinterrassen organised by Felix Peters at St. Antony. Together with the famous neighbouring estate of Heyl zu Herrnsheim, St. Antony is owned by the Hanover clothing magnate Detlev Meyer. Meyer had recently acquired some new land up on the renowned Roter Hang (the Red Cliff) which looks east over the Rhine from the estate of Franz Karl Schmitt and with it he had mopped up about 300 bottles of very old wine. Some of it going back well over a century. According to Peters, Schmitt’s was one of the best wineries in Germany before the war. It was that we were going to taste that Sunday.

‘Pour faire la bouche’ were given a taste of the 2012 St. Antony Riesling - a particularly dense and attractive wine, and a 1911 wine from the Hermannshof, owned by the Schmitts. Although the latter was 102 years old, it was still lively, even if it had an unmistakable smell of cep mushrooms.

Wines of this age are always rare, but particularly so in Germany, where, if they were not drunk up during the war, they were either swilled by the armies of occupation or bartered for food in the lean years that followed; but that 1911 was not the oldest, and it was far from being the best.

We then kicked off with an 1893 Nierstein Fläschenhahl Feinste Auslese from Franz Karl Schmitt: an excellent steep site with shallow topsoil. There was also a bit of that ‘cep’ smell, but it was recognisably Riesling with a tingling acidity. 1893 was the first great vintage after the Phylloxera Blight. The grapes were harvested early after a hot summer. The wine was surprisingly powerful.

The 1895 Schmitt Auslese from Fläschenhall, was perhaps not the equal of 1893, but it was not to be written off. It smelled of horseradish and was spicy and cooling on the tongue. Peters told us that analysis had been carried out on these Auslesen, and that in the 1928 vintage, the wines had an average of 15-20 grams of sugar, 10-12 percent alcohol and about 8-10 grams of acidity. So higher in alcohol and lower in sugar than a post-war equivalent, even if they were hardly dry. Today they would be called ‘half-sweet’.

Yields were probably much lower and the wines consequently more concentrated. In the mid-19th century they amounted to just 17 hectolitres per hectare. Today it is likely to be nearer 70.

The 1914 vintage made when German armies were already deep in French and Russian territory, was not supposed to be good, but I enjoyed the Auslese from the chalky Zehnmorgen vineyard, which gave off a little whiff of apricots and ripe apples and had a long tickling acidity. It had eaten up what sugar it had and tasted bone dry.

For me it was the famous 1900 (super-sweet Trockenbeerenauslese from Fläschenhahl) that was a disappointment: but then I think we had a bad bottle.

The 1921 Trockenbeerenauslese was on excellent form, on the other hand. This is another of Germany’s most famous pre-war vintages. It tasted of caramelised apples and had a glorious rich, cooling finish.

Politics should tell you nothing about wine or vice versa, but it is perhaps sad to say that 1933 was such a fabulous year, with a long hot spring and summer. It showed in the Orbel Trockenbeerenauslese from Schmitt. The wine as astonishingly fresh and perfumed even if the finish was disappointingly hot. The Pettenthal and Auflangen (Orbel) from 1934 was also exquisite. Again it smelled of cooked apples and tasted of caramel cream. It was immensely rich, but not cloying. I think it was possibly the best of all the pre-war wines we tasted that day.

Then came a 1937 Heiligenbaum from Franz Karl’s wicked brother Gustav Adolf. Gustav Adolf made very famous Trockenbeerenauslesen before the war, and we can assume they were pure as the Nazi authorities took a very dim view of adulteration. After the war, however, Gustav Adolf resorted to malpractice and was even sent to court. He was declared bankrupt in 1993.

1937, however, was possibly the best year of the Third Reich, and even the chancellery of the teetotal Hitler stocked up on it with a massive order from the State Domaine in Oppenheim. There must have been some botrytis, because the wine smelled massively of apricots. It was wonderfully concentrated and long.

The next Trockenbeerenauslese was the legendary 1945 and from Kehr and Fläschenhahl, and once again from Franz Karl. In 1945 the spring was very cold and a late frost froze the buds off the vines and killed the German POWs in their camps along the Rhine. The old men and women who brought in the harvest can’t have picked more than a bunch or two per vine. The result was something extraordinarily unctuous, smelling of fresh figs and tasting hugely sweet. It is sixty-eight years old and will keep for decades yet. Beside it the 1942 Auslese from the Rehbach vineyard tasted weedy and smelled fungal.

Those wartime wines were remarkable given the lack of men, herbicides and equipment, but the immediate post-war wines were also miraculous: there weren’t even any foreign slave labourers about. In 1949, Germany officially split in two and the Federal Republic took power in the west. The Beerenauslese made from the Kehr vineyard that year was one of the best wines of the run: pastry, a bit of mushroom, dried apricots (botrytis), dried herbs, wonderful structure that dappled its way backwards and forwards over my tongue, cooling, powerful and long.

We leapt a decade over the economic miracle to the 1959. I suspected the wine had had a new dose of sulphur, it was bright, and well-structured, but a little short on acidity.

The first wine from Heyl zu Herrnsheim was the 1971: a lively, pear-scented Spätlese from the Brudersberg.  The year is famous for the new German Wine Law which ran so many small ancient sites together, abolishing hundreds of sonorous names. Zehnmorgen disappeared, Fläschenhall became part of Hipping etc., and to add insult to injury, it created the misleading ‘Großlagen’ such as ‘Niersteiner Gutes Domtal’, where vineyards from all over the region were able to cash in and make indifferent wine under the banner of ‘Nierstein’.

From 1978 to 1993, the dreaded Flurbereinigung began in Nierstein. Originally a measure favoured by the Nazis, it was meant to rationalise estates and make them easier to cultivate by planting rows up and down, rather than on the traditional terraces. Driving in that afternoon, I had seen just how drastic it had been in Oppenheim and Nierstein. Just one little bit on the crown of the cliff had been spared.

I didn’t like the 1982 Kranzberg Spätlese from Heyl zu Herrnsheim either much: it smelled of coffee and chicken stock cubes, but the 1993 Orbel Spätlese from St. Antony was something else. This reeked of peaches, honey and lavender and after twenty years it was immensely powerful.

We returned to the eighties with the 1988 Brudersberg Spätlese Trocken from Heyl zu Herrnsheim. I remember these wines as babies. It was the time of Charta in the Rheingau when wines were made bone dry but were terribly thin and unbalanced. You appreciated their efforts but the results were hard to love. By 1993, they had clearly worked it out: the Brudersberg Spätlese Trocken was naturally a bit strong, as the sugar had been fermented out, but it had a nice aroma of tobacco and dried herbs. Better still was the Spätlese Trocken Ölberg from St. Antony with its smell of blackcurrant leaves, great concentration and acidity.

Now came the off dry ‘Halbtrockens’: first Heyl zu Herrnsheim’s 1991 Pettenthal Spätlese with creaminess, balance and length and a touch of earthiness that was perhaps the hallmark of the winemaker Peter von Weymarn. Then the 1992 Pettenthal Spätlese Halbtrocken from St. Antony, which was all power.

After an ungainly 1997 Brudersberg QbA Trocken from Heyl zu Herrnsberg, we went on to three 2003 Grosses Gewächs wines - fermented dry in the style of French grands crus. The Pettenthal from St. Antony was slightly hot, but the other two: Brudersberg from Heyl and Orbel from St. Antony were wonderful - the Brudersberg soft in its attack while the Orbel had a more muscular approach.

There was 2004 Grosses Gewächs Brudersberg from Heyl and a 2008 Orbel from St. Antony, of which I marginally preferred the Orbel and a remarkable Orbel (St. Antony) from the difficult 2010 vintage, which had taken a year to ferment. Peters had lowered the sugar to the limit (9 grams) and somehow reduced the acidity from a massive 13 grams to eight.

We finished off with five 2012s, the last two being ‘Große Lage’ wines, which are half-sweet. There was a truly lovely Pettenthal from Heyl zu Herrnsheim.

***

The real fun and games began at ten the next morning: 418 wines to taste over two days. I managed 341. I suppose if I had missed lunch, coffee and refused to talk to my neighbours I might have tasted them all. As it was I managed all the Rieslings and all the Pinot Noirs.

I will note only the top-scoring wines: those that would merit four Decanter stars or above.

The whites were all 2012, and the majority of the reds 2011. It was a very good vintage for white wines, but a fairly short one, so that there were virtually no Beerenauslesen and Trockenbeerenauslesen. I am told there were some Auslese Goldkapseln, so top Ausleses, but probably not many. Here and there I got a whiff of botrytis, but I think there can have been very little. On the other hand for dry, Grosses Gewächs, 2012 was an almost perfect year, as there was enough sugar in the grapes to produce rounded balanced wines, but not so much to cause headaches during fermentation.

The vintage seems to have favoured the northern appellations - in particular the Mosel-Saar-Ruwer; but not so many Mosel growers present their wines for the tasting (although this is improving) because classic Mosel wines are not bone dry, as stipulated by the VDP.

The reds came from 2011 or before. The 2011 vintage was excellent, although there were some reds from the much more difficult 2010. If there were no sweet wines to speak of in 2012, there were huge quantities made in 2011 and some very good ones from the previous vintage.

Newcomers who have impressed me this year: Friedrich Fendel, F B Schönleber, August Eser (Rheingau); Battenfeld-Spanier (Rheinhessen); Lothar Keßler (Pfalz); Seeger (Pinot Noir - Franken).

Mosel-Saar-Ruwer 2012

Herman-Löwenstein, Hatzenporter Kirchberg. One of the rare wines that seemed to have a whiff of botrytis (pineapples), but maybe it was a terroir character. The fruit was slow to emerge but very delicate and playful, a delicious Mosel wine.

Willi Schaefer, Graacher Himmelreich. Hint of oatmeal on the nose; apples and peaches, maybe even white peaches, some CO2, I see this becoming quite lovely in about five years.

Dr. Loosen, Wehlener Sonnenuhr. Slightly earth, lovely smell of cooked apples, lots of fruit on the palate, very delicate, filigree finish where the trickles out from the core; lovely wine.

Fritz Haag, Brauneberger Juffer-Sonnenuhr, Some citrus on the nose, lovely delicacy of expression, classic Mosel prettiness, elegance; some apple fruit, very lyrical.

Fritz Haag, Brauneberger Juffer, Some earthiness, some citrus, some evident CO2, citrus again on the palate, all subdued now but coming slowly to the fore. This is a wine you could talk to for hours.

Dr. Loosen, Ürziger Würzgarten, Spiced pears, cloves, citrus, apples; lovely structure. It suddenly flips and becomes all ethereal lightness - wonderful.

Grans-Fassian, Trittenheimer Apotheke, Enchanting nose of granny-smith apples; there is a really captivating intensity here, power; maybe not very typical. A truly mighty wine - I can think of no better medicine.

Grans-Fassian, Leiwener Laurentiuslay, Golden delicious apples, very fresh, very appealing; very up-front in style: all sap and power.

St. Urbans-Hof, Leiwener Laurentiuslay, Grapey, apples, pears; a lot of fresh fruit here; quite forward, but with delicacy too and a Mosel prettiness. It has a lovely , seemingly endless finish.

Karthäuserhof, Eitelsbacher Karthäuserhofberg, Bit of cat, apples, earthy; lovely slate intensity, very long and impressive. Massive length.

Von Kesselstatt, Oberemmeler Scharzhofberger, Pear, but the nose is reticent, some powerful acidity, lots of oomph! This is her best wine here.

Von Hövel, Oberemmeler Scharzhofberg, Pear again (fruit of the year), fresh and lyrical, restrained but pretty, the structure is superb.

Von Othegraven, Ockfener Bockstein, slightly meaty (sulphur); pears - lovely apple and pear fruit; some citrus, great thumping power on the palate with a huge, Wagnerian finish.

St. Urbans-Hof, Ockfener Bockstein, Bit of caramel, lovely pear-like fruit; creamy, a wine that sings - super.

Forstmeister Geltz-Zilliken, Saarburger Rausch, One of those wines that you hope will live up to its vineyard name - ‘rush’ - and it does, creamy at first, but then that ‘high’ - the power. The taste is like licking the inside of a pear. The ‘rush’ is in the huge power of the finish.

Rheingau

August Kesseler, Rüdesheimer Berg Schloßberg, medicinal nose, cooling, announces its craftsmanship straight away, restrained for a modern Hock - not a Zeus - but a beautifully conceived wine.

Künstler, Rüdesheimer Berg Rottland, It was news to me that Gunter Künstler from Hocheim was making wine in Rüdesheim. It was mute on the nose (young yet), but there is masses at work below the surface; above all you note the great thrusting power. This is the Künstler we knew and loved.

Fritz Allendorf, Rüdesheimer Berg Roseneck, Pineapples and oatmeal, quite creamy, a mighty Hock with a throbbing finish, like the opening bars of Siegfried’s Death March.

Friedrich Fendel, Rüdesheimer Berg Roseneck, Nervous nose like a crisp, frosty day, very mouth-filling, with a superb development on the palate; rapier-like - Great Hock!

Schloß Vollrads, Schloßberg, Some earthiness, some pineapple; lovely classic Hock.

F. B. Schönleber, Mittelheimer St Nikolaus, Very striking nose, really quite breathtaking - rich cooked apples, huge palate and a wonderful finish. New one on me.

Josef Spreitzer, Mittelheimer St Nikolaus, Maybe not quite the equal of Schönleber, but an impressive performance. The second time I have admired his wines.

August Eser, Oestricher Lenchen, Bit of oatmeal, very attractive, excellent structure, power and length. Will reward keeping.

F B Schönleber, Hallgartener Schönhell, Oats again, again a marvellous balance. To keep.

Diefenhardt’sches Weingut, Martinsthaler Langenberg, Slightly catty; big full wine redolent of rosemary and lavender; glorious length.

Baron Knyphausen, Erbacher Siegelsberg, Very attractive nose, a little like coffee, on the lean side, but nonetheless attractive, very playful finish.

Detlev Ritter und Edler von Oetinger, Erbacher Hohenrain, barley sugar, big and mouth filling, structure, a bit of sweetness here, but it will fade over the years.

Baron Knyphausen, Erbacher Marcobrunn, Pears, Band-aid, on the palate this seemed an absolute classic Hock, long and luscious.

Jakob Jung, Erbacher Hohenrain, Bit of caramel here, brimming with force, pretty acidity cuts through it, rises to a crescendo.

Künstler, Kostheimer Weiss Erd, Nose of pears, big, concentrated and delicious, a mighty wine.

Nahe

Dönnhoff, Norheimer Dellchen, Apples, very lyrical, superb mouthfeel - what a master! Slightly peppery.

Dönnhoff, Niederhäuser Hermannshöhle, I had taste this before in London and thought it the man of the match, it is incredibly intense, with a huge impression of pears.

Gut Hermannsberg, Schloßböckelheimer Kupfergrube, The name of the estate has got shorter, but the wine is longer. Quite flinty now, but behind there is lots of fruit character and huge staying power.

Schäfer-Fröhlich, Schloßböckelheimer Kupfergrube, Bit of wet sheep (what’s in a name?), quite earthy, soft at first but with lots of class. Finishes earthy.

Dönnhoff, Schloßböckelheimer Felsenberg, Classic limes and white peaches aroma: shudderingly good.

Schäfer-Fröhlich, Bockenauer Felseneck, Earthy again, tarry and dense, this has a strong terroir character, but it is also long and distinguished.

Emrich-Schönleber, Monzinger Frühlingsplätzchen, Goethe was informed that Monzingen made the most powerful wines in the Nahe, and this is evidence: parsnips on the nose, but power that seems all rolled up into a ball - a Lazarus wine (two poets).

Emrich-Schönleber, Monzinger Halenberg, This does not have the Monzingen parsnip character, prettier on the nose, more lyrical and delicate; has a lovely tickly, flirtatious finish.

Rheinhessen

Kühling-Gillot, Niersteiner Pettenthal, Pretty fruit and impressive structure, the best of the Pettenthals. Second best - St. Antony, then Gunderloch.

Staatliche Weinbaudomäne Oppenheim, Niersteiner Ölberg, The best of the Ölbergs after Kühling-Gillot: caramel.

St. Antony, Niersteiner Orbel, Going through a difficult stage, but its potential is in its structure and a very pretty finish.

Wagner-Stempel, Seifersheimer Höllberg, This is a strikingly lovely wine, very fresh with a fine structure.

Wittmann, Westhofener Aulerde, Some coffee on the nose (as on several of his wines), a very powerful wine with impressive acidity.

Wittmann, Westhofener Morstein, very pretty nose, even prettier wine, gorgeous in its broad Wonnegau idiom.

Battenfeld-Spanier, Nieder-Flörsheimer Frauenberg and Battenfeld-Spanier, Hohen-Sülzener Kirchenstück, two noteworthy wines: consistency and power from a winemaker on the up.

Pfalz

Achim-Magin, Forster Pechstein, Rye bread and fresh pears, big and rich, long tickling finish, a little acidity oozing out, lovely.

Bürklin-Wolf, Forster Pechstein, Quite mute, some peaches (yellow) on the palate, needs time, very promising. Bürklin-Wolf the best of the Deidesheimer ‘Bs’ this year, followed by von Bühl.

Bürklin-Wolf, Forster Jesuitengarten, Barley sugar and pears, lovely mouthfeel, cooling, long, and seemingly delicate.

Achim-Magin, Forster Kirchenstück, A-M very impressive this year. Pears and incense, big and luscious from the best vineyard in Forst, slightly covered in baby fat, huge palate, peppery finish.

Bürklin-Wolf, Forster Kirchenstück, Figs (von Winning also), has a wild fig character, very delicate play on the palate, a little spice too: caraway.

Bürklin-Wolf, Forster Ungeheuer, The ‘Monster’, but not a big monster, this has a beery, yeasty smell, but a pretty structure behind.

Münzberg, Lothar Keßler & Söhne, Godramsteiner Münzberg ‘Schlangenpfiff’, seems woody, apples and very cooling fruit. New to me.

Franken

Fürst, Bürgstädter Centgrafenberg, Very nervous on the nose, like frost. Intense palate of white peaches.

Horst Sauer, Eschendorfer am Lumpen, (what happened to the ‘Lump’? One of the most evocative names in German wine) Slightly catty, very intense, pears, cats again, very long.

Of the big, big charities in Würzburg, none appealed much this year. Of the three I liked the Staatlicher Hofkeller best.

Pinot Noir

Ahr 2011 unless otherwise stated.

Meyer-Näkel, Neuahrer Sonnenberg, Some cat, raspberries, has good grip - will last - the raspberry taste pervades as does liquorice, long tarry finish.

J J Adeneuer, Ahrweiler Rosenthal, Strawberries, very luscious gooey strawberries, has an opulence to it: a hedonist’s wine.

Meyer-Näkel, Dernauer Pfarrwingert, Raspberries again, again with grip, this is a big wine that needs more time. It will develop very well.

Franken

Fürst, Klingenberger Schloßberg, Caraway, spice wine from the Master: spices and brown bread. Very long.

Seeger, Leimaner Herrenberg 2010, From the difficult vintage and a new name, one of the best Pinot Noirs in the tasting.


Silly Season

Posted: 1st August 2013

The Germans call it the ‘Sommerloch’ - the summer gap - when there is little or no news. I sit at home and work and attend to the needs of my children who are on holiday. I am happy to say they are not in a hurry to get up in the morning, so that gives me a bit more time to do what I have to do. Other households are enlivened by the earth-shattering news of sports competitions, the antics of politicians or the arrival of royal babies, but ours seems more or less immune; and long may it so remain.

Of course we heard about the Cambridge boy, and various wine merchants passed on increasingly fatuous suggestions via Twitter as to what we might drink to celebrate his arrival on this stage of fools. From what I surmised: anything they had overstocked and thought might still be hanging around when the weather broke in August.

To the best of my knowledge, Prince Charles has yet to venture into organic grape-farming at Highgrove and unless he is planning to surprise us with a Romanian wine, we have no royal vineyards. Best, therefore, to look to his cousins for a suitable tipple to celebrate the birth. Prince Donatus of Hesse looks a bit like Prince Andrew, which may or may not be a recommendation. Perhaps it is better to recall that he is a direct descendant of Queen Victoria and might be even closer to the Duke of Edinburgh. For my part, I am utterly prejudiced in his favour because his secretary, Isolde Helbig, shares a Christian name with my daughter.

Prince Donatus’s estate is next door to the famous Schloss Johannisberg in the Rheingau and is called Prinz von Hessen. It makes excellent, if rather angular wines that show their mettle in dry, sunny years like 2011 and 2012, including a reasonable estate Riesling obtainable from Majestic and which I have often seen on the shelves of my local Oddbins. Given the quality of those last two harvests, you can’t go far wrong here. If you are truly obsessed with princes, there is even a cuvee called ‘Royal’ (PDF). For all I know, it might be Carole Middleton’s favourite juice.

Last month I neglected to speak of a remarkable tasting I went to at Gaggenau in London’s, Wimpole Street in June. Gaggenau is an unbelievably smart oven showroom (I was assured it was not a shop - not even suitcases filled with fivers will convince them to part with the goods on display), and during a lull in the wine event I was shown some wonderfully swanky things. I felt more than a bit of a fraud, seeing as my oven at home scarcely works, and I have to make bread by sticking a chair against the door and turning the loaf over for five minutes at the end to make sure the dough has cooked through to the bottom.

The tasting was organised by Gaggenau together with the glossy German wine magazine FINE in Wiesbaden and was part of a week-long odyssey for seven German wine makers together with the chefs Nils Henkel, Hans Stefan Steinhauer and Harald Wohlfahrt, who were separately on hand to match their wines with the best of German food.

Having travelled a lot of Germany, I am quite aware that you eat well there. Indeed, despite all the massed choruses or rather, brass-bands that blast on and on and on over here about the wonders of British food, I would venture to say you eat rather better in Germany - particularly in the provinces. This might even be borne out by the fact that Germany is second only to France in the number of Michelin rosettes possessed by its chefs. Our little samplers that day were prepared by Nils Henkel who has two stars at the Schlosshotel Lerbach near Bergisch Gladbach in the Lower Rhine.

With the gratin of Germany’s kitchen we had some of the cream of Germany’s wine scene, all of them old friends. For these seven winemakers, Henkel had designed a little dish (it was very little) to go with a wine from each. So, with a 2012 Robert Weil Riesling Tradition from the Rheingau, we had a bit of marinated kingfish with redcurrants, kefir and sea fennel. This was perhaps the least successful dish made from frozen tropical fish, but the traditional Hock with its residual sweetness was lovely, as you’d expect from this source. Next was some lake char in a vinaigrette of watercress and capers with a Badenese wine: the 2011 Ihringer Winklerberg Grauburgunder *** Großes Gewächs Trocken from Weingut Dr Heger which was a much more winning combination. The third little dish was a Dublin Bay prawn with purple carrots and pistachios. This was matched to a truly exquisite 2011 Hermannshöhle Riesling trocken Großes Gewächs from Weingut Dönnhoff in the Nahe. It was probably my favourite wine of the tasting.

The next dish looked truly un-tempting on paper: beetroot with beechnuts and beechnut oil. It was to accompany our first red and was actually quite good. The 2009 Centgrafenberg Frühburgunder R, from Weingut Rudolf Fürst was predictably impressive. It is wonderful how Fürst sits there on his rock like Brünnhilde in her ring of flames, far away from virtually all other wineries in Franconia and makes some of the loveliest Pinot Noirs in Germany.

A nice, earthy plate of belly pork with onions and radishes was put beside some 2009 Neuenahr Sonnenberg Großes Gewächs Spätburgunder trocken from Weingut Meyer-Näkel in the Ahr Valley near Bonn. Werner Näkel explained to us the uses of oak, comparing it to salt on a potato: too little and it is tasteless, too much and you ruin the wine. A small piece of beef skirt with marrow balls and truffle vinegar was coupled with a 2009 Burgweg Großes Gewächs Spätburgunder from Weingut Knipser in the Pfalz, an estate that we have justifiably heaped with prizes before now. Finally there was a bell pepper and basil sorbet that was meant to go with a the 2012 Graacher Riesling Trocken from Weingut Dr Loosen, but at the last moment Ernst Loosen took fright at the effect of sugar on his dry wine and it was poured before the dish was distributed. The sorbet, I should add, was as delicious as the wine, and the taste kept coming back to me as I took my sedate bus ride home.

We were only a small number enjoying these lovely pairings, but the wine men said they were doing another event that night. I hope their audience realised what a right royal treat they were getting for their money.


Romania

Posted: 1st July 2013

In the second week of June I was in Romania, more precisely Transylvania, to taste wine. There was a wonderful feeling of continuity about the short trip, as the person who met us off the aircraft was none other than Dan Muntean of Halewood Vintners in Southport, Lancashire, who had performed exactly the same role when I made my last visit in 1991.

Besides being the man who created the infamous Lambrini, John Halewood, was one of the first men in the West (and the first in Britain) to see the potential in Romanian wines. This was back in Ceausescu’s time. In the early eighties, Halewood observed the success of the Bulgarian Vintners operated by the genial Margo Todorov, which marketed Bulgarian wines in Britain once the Soviet Union began to turn their back on them. Halewood thought he could do the same with the wines from north of the Danube. With time and considerable effort, the company acquired 300 hectares of vineyard land, including 100 near Sebeş or Mühlbach in Transylvania. By the mid-nineties, Halewood was selling a million cases of Romanian wine a year.

Halewood amassed a huge fortune but did not live long to enjoy it. He was found dead in his swimming pool at the age of sixty-four in the summer of  2012 and never saw his new vineyards in Sebeş. He had the gratification, however, of seeing his horse Amberleigh House win the Grand National in 2004. That had been his dream since childhood.

I am not sure whether I had done a comprehensive tasting of Halewood’s Romanian wines since the nineties before we had our first experience of them in the ancient cellars of the Casa Weidner in Sibiu. These wines came from the hot region of Murfatlar, east of the Carpathians and were made by Lorena Deaconu: decent La Umbra Chardonnay, and surprisingly good Viognier with a dash of the muscatel Tămâioasă (available from The Wine Society and Adnams for around £7). Also good was the 2009 SVS Pinot Noir from Dealu Mare (Wine Society) and rather more mineral 2009 Kronos. These Pinot Noirs from Dealu Mare were the wines that impressed me most on my previous visit. The picture that I took of the oil wells among the Pinot Noir vines eventually found its way into Hugh Johnson’s World Atlas of Wine.

The Fetească family were generally good:  the Fetească Neagră - the ‘black girl’ - is apparently a bitch in the vineyard, but the 2012 SVS was really everything that you could want - colour, punch, structure, sap, and about £8.99 from Waitrose. My favourite Fetească Neagră was the 2010 Hyperion which really shows what the girl can do. It looks hard to find in Britain, however. The Shiraz (sic) was nice, but not very Syrah or Shiraz-like.

The Romanians, and more especially the Transylvanians, insist that they are more Byzantine than Balkan and many of the things they eat betray a Turkish influence which dates from the time of the Ottoman occupation. There have also been shaped by the cooking cultures of Magyars and Germans. The Hungarians, for example, must have been responsible for the wonderful smoked pork fat I had in Sibiu, which you can obtain if you look hard in the Naschmarkt in Vienna. Brinza, or fresh ewes’ milk curd comes with every first course, along with fleshy tomatoes, spring onions, cold cuts and sliced sausages. A local taramasalata is made using fresh-water zander roes. At the Casa Weidner there were more typical Transylvanian things, such as some meat baked in bread dough - or ciolan asfumat, mamaliga muraguri or polenta with meat and cheese, Siebenbürger Sauerkraut with soured cream, a Sibiu goulash or paprikaš, pickled cauliflower and finally, ceafa - or collar of pork.

We were in Sebeş the next day. Halewood’s Transylvanian operation is not hard to spot. There is an enormous sign on the side of the hill. Many of these south-facing terraces were fallow until the replanting started. They rise to a height of some 400 metres and now the vines jostle with the former lords of the slopes: sheep and their peripatetic shepherds.

Transylvania is a white-wine region, and apart from a little Pinot Noir, there is scant ambition to change things. We tasted a good, apple-scented 2012 Fetească Albă with a nice bite and I also admired the Pinot Gris before we had lunch at the excellent Casa la Mesteceni which I extolled in my Blog last month. However, I forgot to mention his lovely thin boar, pork and lamb sausages, and a delicious plum tuica or schnapps aged in mulberry wood.

We went next to the Boieru Domeniile in Ciumbrud-Aiud. This is a very new domaine with 150 hectares of freshly planted vines. They bottled their first wines just three years ago and have invested four million euros to date. Some of the money to develop the project was granted by the EU.

When vines are young and projects as new as this one, it is often best to wait a while before judging. I was impressed by the various forms of Muscat Ottonel but most, if not all the wines seemed a little lean, and I hope they will fatten up with time. They also had a rather interesting sparkling Furmint. Although it hadn’t been long since our last meal, we were offered a ‘pup’ (kiss): flat breads filled with ricotta (urda) and either cabbage or honey. As we tasted, the weather broke and there was a tremendous storm. Shepherds anxious to protect their flocks rushed by making a tremendous noise that reminded me a train, while their dogs barked the sheep into line.

We were domiciled at Jidvei for the next two nights where a microclimate is created by the intersection of the two Rivers Tarnava. With the land rising from 380 to 600 metres, the nights are cool and instil a certain fragrance into the green grapes for white wine. The summers are hot, but the winters cruelly cold, descending to -22 in the valley, and some of the vines need to be buried to stop them from perishing in the frost. The estate owned by Claudiu Necşulescu is vast: nearly 2,500 hectares planted, and about 300 more beyond the Carpathians. Even if there are more vines at Jidvei than the whole of England and Wales put together, it is still only the third biggest domaine in Romania.

We had Würstli and fried eggs for breakfast; the sausages are a wonderful German-Balkan fusion of mutton with garlic and chilli. Apparently Transylvanians believe that ‘the best fish is a sausage’. You can forget kippers.

We drove north towards Bistriţa and Liliac. Liliac is a new vineyard created by the Austrian property developer Alfred Michael Beck, and the irrepressible sweet winemaker Willi Opitz of Illmitz acts as a consultant. Indeed, Willi made me taste the Liliac wines at Vievinum in Vienna last year, so I was prepared. The estate is run by Micu Ionna, a former teacher from the faculty of oenology in Cluj or Klausenburg.

Liliac means both ‘lilac’ and ‘bat’ (of the vampire sort), and while so much of Tranylvania shuns this very obvious image, Liliac wisely markets its wines with it. Nor, is the estate too large: there are fifty-two hectares planted on local sand and clay soils, with some thirty-eight in production. In deference to Willi Opitz perhaps, Liliac makes a sweet ‘Schilf’ or reed wine, drying bunches on reeds like an Italian recioto. After the rotten grapes have been picked off, just thirty percent of the juice remains in the bunches. The estate is at the top of a hill under a forest that shelters the odd bear who comes out at harvest time when the grapes are at their sweetest. This region used to be more famous for apples. I don’t know what bears think of those.

Micu’s wines are very good, in fact it was one of the two most promising new estates in Transylvania In encountered.  I recommend the Fetească Albă (the ‘white’ girl), the Fetească Regală (royal girl: a cross between the white girl and the Grassa that makes the famous sweet wines of Cotnari - a good restorative for the Duchess of Cambridge, perhaps) and their Sauvignon Blancs (particularly the Private Selection). They have an enchanting structure to them, and good acidity without being mean. There is an interesting Chardonnay, a Pinot Gris blend and a Pinot Noir rosé, not to mention an impressive Merlot and that famous Muscat Ottonel Schilfwein.

The other new estate that impressed me was Villa Vinea, which is owned by the South Tyrol businessman Heini Oberrauch. The first wines were made here in 2011. It is an impressive site, and once again the EU has poured a cool million into the vats. It is not too large at thirty-two hectares. The key to its quality is a little bit of Italian chic: the wine is made by the celebrated Celestino Lucin who also makes the wines at the Abbatia di Novacella in the South Tyrol.

As Kerner works at Novacella, it is planted here too. The wines I liked were the beautifully balanced Fetească Regală, the Riesling (even if it was hardly typical), the dry Gewürztraminer as well as the Fetească Neagră with its taste of morello cherries. There was also an excellent Rubin blend, with Zweigelt and Merlot and a pure Zweigelt. I left impressed, with two bottles under my arm which the baggage handlers at Heathrow Terminal Five managed to smash to smithereens, to my eternal dismay.

Our last hours were dedicated to the wines of Jidvei. There was a big dinner at the castle with a lot of Polish wine people. I had given up tasting by the time the tocaniţa arrived - a veal goulash - and boiled pig’s knuckle with cabbage. My host explained there was a lot of preserved cabbage in Transylvanian cooking. It is stored in barrels for the perishing winter. The leaves are used much as vine leaves farther south and account for sixty percent of the vegetables cooked in the winter months. Sometimes they bottle it up with some sausage - but never with fish.

The next day we were shown round the vast winery. A smell of communist times still clings to it, despite modernisation and EU gold. The only small-scale winemaking that continued in those dark years was performed by small farmers with under a hectare of land, particularly the Germans. Most men in Romania still seem to prefer palinka or tuica to wine, something I understood after drinking Vinars from Jidvei.

Obviously, when wine is made on this brobdingnagian scale it is hard even to think of nuance, but there are good things to be had from Jidvei, such as the Sauvignon Blanc named after Necşulescu’s daughter Maria, and the Muscat Ottonel which is dedicated to his other daughter Ana. There were good Sauvignons in ‘Mysterium’ and a decent ‘classic’ Sauvignon as well.  Ana had also given her name to a sappy Chardonnay. Finally I liked the pink sparkler which we drank just before a valedictory Spanish lunch.   Then it was off to the airport and home.


Confirmation Wines

Posted: 3rd June 2013

My daughter Isolde’s confirmation early in May was a lovely excuse to open some old bottles. I had been looking at a couple of dusty bottles of Pommery Cuvée Louise 1988 and wondering if they were still good. The cork came out a dream. It was a pale amber colour, but it still bubbled merrily and had the mellowness of a rich old wine. It was quite a success. It is very rare that good, old champagne disappoints. Next was Bernard Legland’s Chablis Premier Cru Montmains 2005. I like these 2005 chablis more and more, they have a lovely weight to them. Then there was the 2000 Château Haut Bages Montpelou, Pauillac, which came as a bit of a surprise with its ripe, chunky, blackcurrant-like fruit. It was à point.

And finally the 1997 Domaine des Lambrays, Clos des Lambrays which was all sinew and morello cherries: really lovely: not a velvety burgundy, but as racy as an Arab stallion. I look forward to Joseph’s confirmation. If I can coax him through First Communion, it shouldn’t be too far off.

California Dinner

A remarkably good meal at Goodman in Maddox Street on 13 May reminded me of how much I had been neglecting Californian wines. The steak was very enjoyable too: particularly the belted Galloway meat, which rather stole the show - at least as far as the food was concerned. Of the wines I noted the 2010 Bucella Merlot, the 2008 Wind Gap Syrah, the Tor Cabernet Sauvignon Clone 4 2009, and the Duckhorn Merlot 2008.

That Italian Wine

From Laurenz Moser I had the chance to taste one of his latest ventures: the Castello del Trebbio Vigneti Trebbio 2010. The wine is a joint venture between the owners of the Tuscan estate, the Swiss Felix Christen and Moser. Sangiovese, Cabernet, Merlot and Syrah grapes are fermented in amphorae to make a memorable wine, tasting of chocolate and cherries with a long, cooling finish. It is remarkable what you can do if you eschew oak, but then, giant amphorae are the height of fashion at the moment.

Jura Wines

France may be in the doldrums, but it is still a remarkable country with infinite variety where food and drink is concerned. I was reminded of this by a tasting of Jura wines on 14 May. They are incredibly individual. I have known and supported the Domaine Rolet sicne the early eighties, but I went to the region for the first time in 1988, accompanied by a friend from Lyon. She introduced me to a charming man in Poligny who opened a hand-blown bottle for us, saying that he thought it was an 1865 vin de paille. It was an extraordinary wine. Apparently people made tiny quantities which they then gave to the sick to rally them like the original aceto balsamico from Modena. This man (I forget him name) had made quite a collection.

I came back from the Jura with cases filled with samples and put on a tasting for the now defunct Octagon of Wine Writers at Stephen Brook’s flat in Maida Vale. I remember Jancis came. She admitted candidly that she had written about the wines, but never tasted them. She was also at the tasting in May.

Apart from Pinot Noir, there are two red cultivars: Trousseau, which has an aroma of brown sugar, and Poulsard or Ploussard which smells of sausages - tripe sausages or andouilettes. Chardonnay is the mainstay of the whites, but the most interesting wines are Château Chalon and Etoile made from the Savagnin grape which reminds me a little of the Hungarian Furmint with its searing acidity.

Casks of Savagnin develop a flor - a bacterial veil - like fino sherry and when that happens, the wines have a nuttiness that resembles the taste of an amontillado. There are Savagnans made in a reductive style too (no exposure to air) and Chardonnays ullaged with Savagnin or filled into Savagnin casks so that they inherit some of the taste. There are those wonderful sweet vins de paille which can be made from Savagnin, Chardonnay or Poulsard and finally Macvin, a mistelle made from local grape juice and brandy, which can be surprisingly good. A very large part of the wine produced in the Jura is sold as a sparkling crémant.

As space is short this month, here is a list of the best:

German Pinot Noir

Tom Conrad of Philadelphia has asked me to mention the exciting tours he has put together for people interested in tasting lots of German Pinot Noir. The parties are guided by the philosopher-cum-wine-critic David Schildknecht, who is also Robert Parker’s voice when it comes to Germany and Austria. Anyone interested should go to treasuresofeuropetours.com.

Portuguese Diary

[I have not written detailed tasting notes for the following post because the article is already long enough. The top wines are represented by ***. Naturally tasting notes are available on request]

It has been a couple of years since I was last briefly in Oporto, and seven since my most recent visit to the Douro Valley, so when I received an invitation to return I leapt at the chance. Of course, I am more than familiar with the country, but much has changed, even since my little book on Portuguese wines was published in 2001.

I had hoped for some decent weather, but most of Portugal has an Atlantic climate and the forecast looked grim, even in the Douro Valley. We got in on the TAP flight late and after dropping our bags at the Infante Sagres, went to the Instituto do Vinho do Porto to learn about the criteria they employ to assess port and Douro table wines.

Seven men are chosen to evaluate all port wines and decide if they conform to the various styles: ruby, tawny, late bottled vintage or vintage. The scientists at the IVP have a full panoply of tests at their disposal, but in the end, determining whether a wine is typical or not comes down to the human palate.

The IVP’s judgements are sometimes considered pedantic, especially when one of the five big houses that produce eighty percent of port decides to market something like the new-wave pink port. If they pull weight there is an appellate jurisdiction, but our guide did not believe that body was subject to pressure from the big boys.

We emerged onto the pavement from the splendours of the building. To my surprise, neither of my travelling companions had ever been to Oporto or the Douro before. I was able to point things out from time to time. Below the old stock exchange or Bolsa, where the IVP is housed, was the jumble of ancient riverside buildings that have been tarted up in recent years, particularly when Oporto was on duty as European City of Culture.

When I first came to Oporto in 1980, you walked around this part of town at your peril, particularly at night. Not that Oporto was particularly dangerous, but there was every chance you might step on a dead cat or rat and twist your ankle tumbling down the steep slopes and slippery cobbles that lead to the famous quay where Henry the Navigator disembowelled cattle to provision his naval expeditions. The Oportans ran off with the tripe, and have been know as tripeiros even since.

One night on that first visit, when I was staying in the comfort of the Lawn Tennis and Cricket Club, I escorted a party of Royal Navy sailors whose minesweepers had docked at Leixões through the streets near the Douro. We were inevitably collared by a group of prostitutes who took us back to their brothel and fed us stale biscuits and sweet wine. The women were short, fat and hairy, and not even the sailors were tempted.

The Factory House that is the centre of the British port trade is in the thick of this pungent heart of the old city, a lovely stone building designed by Consul Whitehead in the middle of eighteenth century and contemporary with the hospital by Carr of York. It is there that the members of the Association have their Wednesday lunches. It used to be an all-male affair, and of a stuffiness to take your breath away. My only taste of the occasion was in the summer of 1980 when the former headmaster of the British school agreed to take me along. Just as I was preparing to enter the hallowed portals he asked me whether I was ‘CofE’, I said ‘no, Catholic’:

‘We’ll keep quiet about that.’ He said.

For the rest, I recall a Dickensian occasion with a lot of fierce men staring at me. Finally a decanter full of port was pushed in my direction and I poured myself a glass. All eyes were on me. The pedant nudged me: ‘They want you to guess the vintage.’

I was twenty-five and not very experienced when it came to port. So I said I hadn’t a clue. It turned out to be a 1962 vintage anyhow: undeclared. So there was no chance of my having had it.

Back to 28 May 2013: we were driven across the magnificent Dom Luís Bridge to Vila Nova de Gaia. I see that now it was designed by Téofil Seyrig, who had worked with Gustav Eiffel on the railway bridge a few hundred yards up river. There seemed to be some confusion as to what part of the Taylor’s empire we were going to, but we got there in the end. Amanda Lloyd had organised a tasting for us of the most important wines made by the group. I had actually tasted the vintage ports in London, but it did no harm to look at them again.

The ones that stood out for me were the 2002 Quinta de Roeda from Croft, the 2008 Taylor’s LBV (a style invented here and one in which they still excel), the Taylor’s 10-Year Old Tawny, the Taylor’s 20-Year Old Tawny (***) and 30-Year Old Tawny (***), 40-Year Old Tawny (***), and the 2001 Vargellas Single Quinta.

Of the Fonseca ports, I liked the Terra Prima (organic port - which came as a surprise with its fine tannins and cherry-raspberry fruitiness), the Fonseca 10-Year Old Tawny, 20-Year Old Tawny (***), and the Guimaraens 1996 Single Quinta.

I have always been more of a Fonseca man than a Taylor’s person. Amanda told me that Taylor’s was meant to be masculine, and Fonseca feminine. I find Fonseca is more baroque, more opulent, and Taylor’s has a style which is all black fruits and violets. These days vintage port seems to be accessible much earlier than it was. Tasting a two-year old vintage was tough work once. First you appraised its colour by its opacity: if you could see light through it, it wasn’t good. Then you tried to dislodge the bouquet by shaking it in the glass, but for the most part it was stumm; finally there was the mass of brandy and tannin on the palate, which only gave you the faintest inkling of the fruit that would emerge after twenty years or so.

These days these babies have become quite appealing. You can already sense the mass of blackberries, figs and raspberries on the Taylor, and the more chocolate-and-cherry-like intensity of the Fonseca. What made me to favour the latter was the acidity which was pounding against he walls of my palate for minutes on end: I liked the Taylor, I adored the Fonseca.

In London, the more ready Croft impressed me too, like the good-value Skeffington. Skeffington has something episcopal about it: a tipple for bishops.

Taylor’s also has a Vargellas Vinha Velha - a sort of super premium vintage port. They make tiny quantities. It seemed marked by that fresh fig nose of Taylor’s port which is hardly surprising as both ports derive from the Quinta de Vargellas. It apparently costs the earth.

Amanda took us to dinner at the Barão Fladgate restaurant in Gaia. The main port companies are now operating swanky dining rooms like these. Taylor’s also has a restaurant with a Michelin star in its new Yeatman Hotel. The views over to the centre of Oporto are stunning, but it was too cold that late May night to stand outside with the stroppy peacocks. We came inside for white port and croquetas instead.

It used to be hard to eat well in Oporto. Most people headed out to Matosinhos where you ate simple grilled fish. There was also the trendy Bull & Bear and the rather more traditional Casa Aleixo near the country station. The Fladgate tries to use Portuguese ideas and materials, and I had a sort of chartreuse of alheira (a chicken sausage of allegedly Jewish origins) with spinach. I am sorry to say my tournedos was not good, but we made up for it with the wines: a 2011 Alvarinho from Soalheiro, a 2010 Crasto Superior and some 1997 Taylor’s port.

We had a nightcap at a local bar before turning in: bagaceira. It takes a brave man to drink bagaceira, especially after port.

29th May 2013

Still I survived it. I even slept. I met the others in the rather grand and lofty dining room of the hotel. On occasions I have found the great Michael Broadbent here, perched over an elegant breakfast, but this morning he was absent.

We had arranged to go to the art nouveau Majestic for a coffee before heading up to the Douro. We set off through the rain and arrived as they were putting out the tables. We had to take our pingos in a much less attractive place. I had been searching in my mind for the most delightful Oportan café of all. Only later did I see it: A Brasileira. No one knows what is happening.

The journey up to the Cima Corgo at the heart of the Douro used to take the best part of a day. When I first travelled to Pinhão in the summer of 1980, I took the train from São Bento station which was quick-ish but tiresome. I went by road with Johnny Graham in the spring 1981. There was a restaurant on the river in Amarante where shippers habitually stopped for lunch. I still recall the fresh shad. Then you took to the windy roads again that led over the Serra do Marão mountains which fence the Douro Valley off from the capricious climate of Oporto and which bottle up the generally baking heat of the valley itself.

This morning we crossed the Marão in freezing fog. You could not see two metres in front of you. Normally, you see the Douro in all its splendour at Mesão Frio, but that morning it was just ‘frio’, the Marão had failed us. We went to the Quinta da Gaivosa on the Corgo River. I knew the wines of Domingos Alves de Sousa from way back. They tended to be a little hit or miss. Somewhere at home I had a signed poster of him dressed in a cowboy costume.

Domingos is still in charge, but for the last decade, the wines have been made by his son Tiago. Tiago is a viticulturalist who believes that good wine begins in the vineyard. He took us up to the top of his vineyards in a four-by-four, pointing out the different forms of cultivation, from the ancient walled terraces to the modern up-and-down Mosel-style rows to hideous Aztec-style patamares, both of the latter ultimately derive from Germany. Replanting started in the seventies and eighties, when it was believed that the future lay in these new methods, but Tiago was against them, and pointed out that the vines were happier in the old walled terraces.

He drove us up to his Abandonado vineyard, where the eighty-year old vines struggle to keep alive on the steep slopes, then to Lordelo, where vines were planted in an amphitheatre-like vineyard a century ago. There are dozens of old varieties at work here, and not the check-list of five that became popular in the eighties and nineties. From both of these vineyards, Tiago makes a separate cuvée. 

The tasting with Tiago was a revelation: I had not imagined wines like these. It was certainly the best tasting of table wines we experienced in Portugal. There were some extraordinarily well judged whites, such as the Branco de Gaivosa Riserva 2009 (***) or Berço 2011, or Alves de Sousa Reserva Pessoal 2007 (***) which were sappy, crisp and long.

The reds too were stunning, models of concentrated fruit with great Wagnerian climaxes: Vale da Raposa Sousão 2010, a Quinta da Gaivosa 2008, the Reserva Pessoal 2005 (***), Lordelo 2009 (***), and Abandonado (***) - all available from Top Selection in the UK.

We had a break for a homely meal of braised turkey cheese and seasonal cherries before we tasted the ports. They were no disappointment either - spicy wines like the 2009 LBV and the 20-Year Old Tawny. I was almost surprised to hear how committed Tiago was to port, but in his view, it was a vital part of the tradition of the Douro Valley.

Calços do Tanha in Peso da Régua, does not appear to make port, although the beautiful azulejos on the vathouse walls describe the process of production perfectly. The estate, consisting of Calços do Tanha in the Baixo Corgo, Quinta do Zimbro in the Cima Corgo and the table wine Poleiros, is managed by Manuel Hespanhol and his five enchanting daughters. The wines were not quite on a par with Gaivosa, but I enjoyed the white Zimbro 2010, the simple, supple 2009 Poleiros, the 2008 Calços, the Zimbro from the same vintage and the Zimbro Grande Reserva 2007. My favourite of all was the single-varietal Touriga Franca 2007 from Calços, which had a lot of character.

We crossed Régua and drove along the south bank of the Douro to Pinhão, the centre of the region. As we approached Pinhão memories came back of earlier trips: there was Crasto on its impressive slope, there the mighty terraces of Boa Vista, here was La Rosa, the scene of the anniversary party in 2006, and up there, Eira Velha, where I stopped with Johnny Graham in 1981 and waited an age for him to settle some business upstairs with the manager of the quinta.

It was cold and raining, but there were good looking oranges on the tree outside and I decided would treat myself to one. Just as I, Eve-like, reached for the fruit, a shot rang out, and decided that the farmer was shooting at the thief. I withdrew into the drawing room of the quinta where Johnny joined me a few minutes later. He was in excellent spirits: he had spotted a partridge in an orange tree outside and seeing a loaded gun, had shot it from the upstairs window.  

Pinhão certainly used to be a dull, dusty little place. I am not sure there was even a guesthouse then. When I went in 1980 I was entertained by a ten or eleven-year old David Guimaraens and his friends in the Taylor’s lodge. The lodge is now the core of the swanky Vintage House Hotel and David is the winemaker for Taylor’s and Fonseca. He was a good host, despite his tender years: and made sure I had a good meal with plenty of port, and even took me out in a boat on the Douro to visit some farmers, carefully laying a plaid across my lap to stop me from being splashed by the motor.

It is a very short drive up hill from Pinhão to Quinta do Noval, where we were met by Cátia Moura. She gave us time to settle into our rooms before a little tour and tasting. I had only stayed at Noval once before, when the boss, Christian Seeley opened several vintages of the famous ungrafted Nacional. This time I was not expecting such largesse.

We walked round the terrace that overlooks the Douro and the Pinhão River and up some steps to see the ungrafted vines. There are just a few rows of them, about three hectares in all. On the way we passed ducks and chickens that provide fresh eggs (and the odd fowl) and a brace of black spotted pigs which came out to greet us with a few grunts and a friendly oink.

Then Cátia took us into the vathouse and through another door, back into the quinta where the tasting was set out. Christian has developed a range of table wines to add to the ports, and we tasted them first. They all had an austere, quite mineral character to them, particularly Cedro do Noval (commemorating a two-hundred-year old cedar on the terrace) and Quinta do Noval DOC, both of which I liked, as I did the single-varietal Touriga Nacional. The wine I did not get on with was the Syrah, which being grown on granite schist like the Northern Rhone, I assumed would have all that peony, carnation fruit of Côte Rôtie or Hermitage. Sadly, it does not.

The ports were familiar territory, with the exception of ‘Black’, which is billed as an attempt to win over young drinkers. As the intention was to mix it with lemonade in trendy Brixton dives, I thought it would be impertinent of me to comment. I was on firmer ground with the LBV which I tasted before a marvellous range of tawnies: 10-Year Old (***), Colheita (single vintage tawny) 2000, Colheita 1997 (***), 20-Year Old and 40-Year Old (***). The quality of these wines was wonderfully consistent with, to varying degrees, the flavours of dried figs, honey, ginger, gingerbread, liquorice and vanilla.

There were three vintages to follow: 2003, 2007 and the baby - 2011: all good, but I had the impression, all made for much younger drinking (the 2003 was to all intents and purposes ready). The most interesting was the 2007 (***), which had an appealing spiciness to it. It smelled of Jamaica Ginger cake. The 2011 (***) also promises great things.

After an aperitif of white port and tonic, together with lovely grilled and salted almonds from the estate trees and with some salami from the butcher in Pinhão, we sat down to a wonderful meal of roast kid. Serra cheese accompanied the port.

30th May 2011

There is something very old-fashioned and British about bathtubs in Douro quintas: the water comes gushing out incredibly hot and at great speed, as if a permanent team were on hand to fire the boilers. It took a while to reduce the heat and by the time I got downstairs someone had kindly placed a plate of startlingly yellow eggs and bacon before my seat. The egg must have been from the hens I’d seen the night before. I thought about the pigs: no, they could not have cured the bacon in that time.

The most cheering news that morning was that the sun had come out and it was nice and warm again. After a tour of the table wine facilities, we went to Pinhão to see the pretty azulejos in the railway station. I had been impressed by the sausages at dinner and went to the butcher as well. I hadn’t realised what I was in for. One of the two men serving instantly began to cut slices of smoked loin for me. Then came various different sorts of sausage and some raw bacon. Then he began to grill the bacon, and while he did this he cut pieces from a sourdough loaf. Then he fetched a strange metal bombe, and pressed on the top causing white wine to come gushing out into a tin cup. That I was supposed to try too.

I wondered whether this was ever going to end, but I took heart at the sight of the disgruntled faces in the ever-growing queue behind me. Thanking him for this bounty, I ordered a few sausages, which stretched my less-than-proficient Portuguese to the absolute limit. I was very grateful when I got my little package and was able to make an escape.

We drove to the Quinta de Napoles in Santo Adrião, one of the Niepoort quintas. The last time I was here Dirk was still with my old friend from Vienna, Dorli Muhr and an Austrian photographer kept popping up and taking pictures of them together. The quinta was a wreck, someone was grilling meat, and a stout Douro matron was standing miserably in a large bucket pressing botrytised grapes to make the Douro’s first ever Trockenbeerenauslese.

The place was scarcely recognisable from those days. Had it not been for the Douro River in the distance I might have imagined I was in the Napa Valley. A swanky new winery had opened, all built in the local granite. The old house has been gutted and there was no sign of Dirk, who was probably milling round the world somewhere, selling his wonderful wines.

In his place a dully efficient PR girl showed us round with two other groups: one composed of middle-class Turkish women accompanied by a solitary German man from Heidelberg (‘come and visit me, I live next to the castle’) and the other made up of three Swedish men. What they had in common was they were both missing the fireworks at home: riots in Stockholm and Istanbul.

We did a tour of the barrels, but I found the wines less exciting than before, but there was a form of compensation in a truly lovely lunch in the sun. I offended Turkish pride by talking about the Istanbul taxi driver who cheated me during Ramadan, but the women recovered and the Swedes became quite gay after a few glasses of wine. We had bolinhos de bacalao, croquetas, caldo verde soup, roast lamb and baked rice, serra cheese, an orange and an almond tart together with a range of lovely wines. I particularly like his German style white Douro: Tiara, also the 2011 Vertente and 2008 Ridoma reds. The best of the lot seemed to be the 2008 Battuta, but as I said, they were not as good as I remembered. Maybe I was still thinking of Gaivosa. There was a lovely 2005 Colheita port with the pudding.

We dashed back up the Douro after lunch for the Quinta La Rosa where I had last been in the summer of 2006. My friend Sophia Bergquist was apparently on her way to Brazil, but her parents were there and Tim showed us round the improvements made since that anniversary year. La Rosa was about the first Douro quinta to hive itself off from the big port companies (in La Rosa’s case, Sandeman) and go it alone. That was back in 1988. Since then it has led on its table wines from La Rosa and Bandeiras in the Douro Superior, although it still makes some very good port.

The table wines from La Rosa have always been a reliable bet: the 2011 white, 2010 Dou Rosa, the simple but supple, spicy red, 2010 Quinta La Rosa, 2009 Passage - which I had not met before - with its morello cherry character, and 2009 La Rosa Reserva.

The best of the ports were the 10-Year Old tawny, the 1997 Colheita, a surprisingly good ruby (you don’t see a lot of these now) and a truly stunning ruby reserve, along with a good LBV. There is also an excellent 2009 vintage.

We now faced the drive back to Oporto, but I needed to buy some cherries and some corn bread or broa in Régua. When we located the bread it was as flat as a cowpat: I presume a hundred percent maize, which means yeast would not be able to make it rise.

We were running late, so our driver took us straight to the Graham’s lodge in Vila Nova de Gaia for our meeting with Johnny Symington. We were shown the new Graham’s museum before our tasting. The lodge has been transformed out of recognition. It has a marvellous view (this hasn’t altered), which looks across the water to the Bishop’s Palace and the Cathedral. Just below the lodge is Oporto’s last big farm, a lovely ramshackle affair owned by a local nobleman who seems to like it that way and has no intention of selling the land.

Unlike the Taylor-Fonseca stable, the Symington family that own Dow, Warre, Graham and Cockburn have embraced table wines and have had quite a success with them. I was quite surprised by the quality of their organic 2011 Altano red, which I just preferred to the more expensive 2009 Reserva and the 2010 Post Scriptum, which seemed to me to be too slavishly claret-like.

The quality of the ports was no surprise, though from the Symington family brands I have to say I am more of a Dow’s man, Grahams being a mite too sweet. There were some super tawnies: 10-Year Old and 30-Year Old, and the neglected 1980 Graham’s vintage (***) as well as the Single-Quinta Malvedos 2001. We also tasted the fabulous 2011 (***). I have still to taste Dow’s, Warre’s and Cockburn’s.

After the tasting we were given a lavish dinner in the new Graham’s restaurant ‘Vinum’ which was all the nicer for the fact that people kept dropping in like Cristiano van Zeller, the owner of Crasto, and former proprietor of Noval. Some crunchy suckling pig preceded by a huge array of starters including grilled sardines and Iberico ham, with two lovely table wines: white Altano 2011 and the 2009 Quinta do Vesuvio. The real treat, however, was the 1952 Colheita port, specially bottled for the Queens Diamond Jubilee (***), a mouthful of honey, leather and gingerbread which seemed to take my palate by storm.

That should be where my visit ended, as I left before nine the following morning. I wanted to say at word about the hotel I stayed that night, however: Teatro. The slightly camp, theatrical theme did not annoy me too much - dim lights, endless curtains, racks of costumes - although it might have got on my nerves with time; no, it was this modern obsession with fancy systems. Being forced to check in your passport when you arrive at one a.m. is presumably a police requirement, on the other hand no one wants to have to fathom the switches to the spotlights in his or her bedroom when all he wants to do is go to sleep in a dark room. In the end I merely collapsed the system by pulling out the ‘key-card’, an object which makes your heart sink anyway, as it always seems to fail, and all you really want is a proper old-fashioned key.

Worse still was getting up early to find that I had to anatomise the shower (no bath) and that meant experimenting with all the knobs until something like hot water came out. Meanwhile the soap had slid off the shelf and had to be retrieved from the slippery floor. Next I had the joy of attempting to shave in a sink with no obvious plug, and in an alcove lit by two dim bulbs.

Wow, it was hip! My, it was modern! And pooh, it was useless! Time to clear out the systems - back to basics.


Happy Returns

Posted: 1st May 2013

A Multiculti Birthday

It was my birthday on the sixth and we all went out for dim sum at the lovely Leong’s Legend Taiwanese restaurant in Lisle Street. Apparently the purists shun it because the owners are not from the mainland, but it tasted pretty good to me and I noted lots of Chinese people came in and looked more than happy. I adore dim sum, possibly because some ancestral voice tells me this is the oriental version of Austrian stuffed dumplings or Fleischknödel.

After lunch, and a brief moment of reflection with some Titians in the National Gallery, my daughter and I walked up to Iberica in Great Portland Street to collect some provisions for a picnic supper. It never fails to impress me how much dedication goes into carving this pata negra. It took ages, but our patience was occasionally rewarded by a sliver of the greatest ham in the world, and that made it all worthwhile.

Some friends dropped in for cake and champagne and there was some 1995 Laurent Perrier with our simple meal: a Spanish omelette (which I made), iberico ham, green olives ‘sabor anchoa’, an old manchego cheese and a little turrón to follow. The champagne was gorgeous: it tasted of very ripe fresh apricots.

Quietly Flows the Don

For parents and godparents and those who need to think about more recent births than mine, the port houses of Vila Nova de Gaia have declared their 2011s and this month I was able to try the Sandeman release at their old HQ in St Swithin’s Lane in the City. The place was sold off decades ago and more recently the building with its ancient cellars has become a swish restaurant-cum-wine bar called - you guessed it - The Don.

It was a great pleasure to see George Sandeman again, who, despite the fact that the company is now part of the Portuguese-owned Sogrape group, is retained to front operations of this sort, and it is hard to imagine anyone doing it better. Assessing young vintage port was quite a task in the old days, but the Sandeman 2011 was an approachable wine already giving off a little hint of violets and raspberries, cola and caraway. It was really luscious already, with a certain creaminess and a taste of black fruits. It might well go into a sulk now it has been bottled, but I suspect that this wine will be drinking rather younger than most vintage port.

As a special treat there was a ‘tregnum’ of 1955. As this is my year, I considered it a late birthday present. The three-bottle size itself is a rarity and its eighteenth century form was much admired. It was a lovely port: spicy (cinnamon), liquorice, dark chocolate, figs and caramel. I only hope the 2011 ages as gracefully.

Biodynamic Wines

Floris Books has very kindly sent me a copy of Monty Waldins Best Biodynamic Wines guide. People understandably laugh at biodynamism, which is several degrees to the left, or the right of mere ‘organic’ farming. As a school of agriculture it owes its origins to Rudolf Steiner, who formulated his ideas with potatoes in mind. He was hugely suspicious of wine; also - but this doesn’t necessarily mean it is bogus - some of this sort of moon-worshipping hocus-pocus is eerily reminiscent the lunatic fringe of Himmler’s SS, whose nostrums were more or less contemporary with Steiner’s. But then, I suppose you could say, that if the SS had stuck to making wine, or indeed growing potatoes, we would all have been better off.

Be that as it may, as a French winemaker once put it to me, wine needs to cultivate its ‘beaux péchés’ and sin for the good. Most modern wine is simple stuff, better than it was, I admit, but industrially produced in great juicing plants. The ‘flavours’ of peaches, blackcurrants and strawberries are all pre-planned in much the same way as they are in other commercial foodstuffs. To achieve wine with character you have to make it by hand and you have to run the risk of accidents that could just as easily leave you with a gamma wine as an alpha.

You may not have the spankingly clean stainless steel vats, computerised temperature controlled fermentation tanks or brand new oak barrels; you might even have an ancient cellar full of cobwebs and wild yeasts, populated by venerable old casks riddled with enzymes. Some of this wildlife could possibly go on to produce unexpected aromas in the wine, but that is surely better than the fruit bonbon tastes of most of the plonk you get from the supermarket. And if biodynamists think they can achieve character by baying at the moon, stuffing cow dung into bulls’ horns and sticking them in the sod, or smearing their vineyards with nettle compote, then all I can say is, more power to them. Let’s all drink to the perdition of boring wine.

Cirio

I was cooking up a sauce made from some tender little squid the other day and remembered I had some new PET bottles of Cirio passata. I have been a Cirio man for several years now, ever since the firm was kind enough to invite me on my one and only trip to Naples and convince me that their range of tomato products was superior to their rivals’.

It was in 1998, and I stayed at the Hotel Vesuvio, and not only did they take me to the best restaurant in town (I forget the name) but we also visited a scruffy little place close to the Porta Nolana market that just made pizza bianca or Margherita, the latter naturally using only Cirio tomatoes, basil and the freshest mozzarella from Caserta, as it had done for a century or so.

In a bookshop by the Teatro San Carlo I saw a copy of my Prussia: La perversione di un’idea: da Federico il Grande a Adolf Hitler which gave me a little buzz of pleasure, then we drove up to a hill in the north of the city in a taxi driven by ‘un’ pazzo’ to admire the bay and the volcano behind. The high point of the trip, however, was a visit to their research station in the suburbs where I looked at the favoured San Marzano tomato and dozens of other cultivars. It was an odd thought that this formerly yellow-skinned pomodoro should have been introduced from the new world and that modern Italian cooking was now wholly unimaginable without it.

Cricket at the George

I have lost the knack of pubs. I am beginning to find them intimidating and it is very rare that I go into one. I really have no excuse: there are still plenty of thriving places near me, like The Vine, which is virtually next door, or The Southampton across the road, which I am told, is considered the trendiest pub in London. A couple of decades ago both were deemed to be what the Germans call ‘Kaschemmen’: criminal dives where the topers had shooters. Now, even Kentish Town is coming up in the world.

When my family was away at Christmas time, I went into the Southampton for a pint of Camden Lager, which is brewed in a railway arch here in Kentish Town. It was a good, serious pint of lager all right, but I found the pub claustrophobic. I kept having to shift around at the bar to let other people in, who tarried while they had a go at chatting up an ice-cold barmaid. I was relieved when I got to the bottom of my glass and I could go home and open a bottle of wine.

During the Easter holiday, I went to The George in Belsize Park, which was having an opening party after its refit as a gastropub. The other guests looked at ease, knew how to look relaxed standing at the bar, but I felt awkward. Some little dishes of modern pub food were passed round, but had a habit of missing me. I was only able to grab one as the Australian waitress hurried away tossing a word out from the corner of her mouth in explanation: ‘Cricket’.

I was impressed. I had never eaten cricket before. It tasted quite meaty, but it wasn’t all cricket because a large pea rolled out of it and lodged itself in the gap between two of my teeth. The rest of the time I spent in the pub was taken up with trying to poke the pea out with my tongue.

Funny sort of cricket, I thought as I walked home, I had thought it would be rather dry and crunchy, like locust in fact; and then I realised what the girl meant: croquette.

Beer

By the end of April most of us had decided it was spring anyway, even if the temperature seemed as frigid as that barmaid. I had a collection of Fordham and Dominion American craft beers from Delaware to taste and put aside my usual copita of fino or manzanilla while I went through the range. They were nice enough without being exceptional. The Wisteria Wheat was authentic, but I prefer the cloudy yeast version, and there was a decent Oak Barrel Stout and a fine Hop Mountain Pale Ale. The one that stood out for me was the Beach House Pilsner (£2.20), which had a pronounced hoppiness, and so it should, Bohemian Pilsen was bang in the middle of one of Europe’s most important hop-growing regions.

Fordham and Dominion beers are available online at alesbymail.co.uk and beersofeurope.com and at Wholefoods High Street Kensington, London, plus other boutique beer outlets across the UK.

Arran Whisky

When the Arran Distillery opened its doors in June 1995 and a colourless barley spirit began to flow into vats and casks, the people I met in the distilleries of Scotland prophesized doom. For a distillery to survive in Scotland, it needed to fill for the big bottlers, the likes of Diageo (as it is now) or Allied Distillers. No one I saw thought the magnates would want to add the outpourings of this johnnie-come-lately to their proprietary blends.

Whisky has changed, however, and instead of remaining marginal, malt whisky has seized an ever-greater part of the drinker’s imagination. Marketed intelligently - as is the case of Benromach - for example, malt whisky can exist outside the world of blends and create a global reputation for itself.

And now I have tasted an Arran 16-year old, and a fine drop it is too: not peaty like an Islay malt - that must be intentional - but heathery, with a marvellous structure and a lovely honeycomb and chocolate-like texture on the palate.

Another Milestone

At the end of the month there were the tastings for the Decanter World Wine Awards. It is the tenth anniversary and the organisers had decided it was time for a change. Looking around this week I had to admit that it was true that several of us judges are getting a bit long in the tooth. Some faces were both sadly missing and sorely missed. One prominent absentee was Arturo Prat who was commonly known as ‘Signor Confetti’ for his habit of scattering gold medals over assorted brands of expensive champagne. For my own part, I could see an advantage in this, in that there was always a bottle - or twenty - of champagne open on the gold medal table when I came down for lunch. Now the chairman of that jury is a serious Finn, and on Monday I counted just two bottles on the table, both sadly empty.

Austria is now the domain of the Swedish sommelier Andreas Larson so I retain just Germany. Once again the number of entries was disappointing, but we had some good things, and a lively new team made up of Martin Campion from Laithwaites and the MWs Caro Maurer from Germany, Andreas Wickhoff from Austria and Igor Ryjenkov from Russia, via Canada. We managed to award thirteen golds, largely as a result of the wonderful 2011 vintage: not quite in Arturo’s league, I admit, but not bad for all that.

Tonight I am off to the birthday party.


The Ides of March

Posted: 2nd April 2013

Souvenirs de Venise

March was a subdued month after that hectic February. On the sixth I went to an elegantly appointed house in Chelsea for the launch of Francesca Bortolotto Possati’s cookery book Celebrate in Venice. Francesca is the woman in change of the venerable Bauer Hotel plus a swanky new place on Giudecca, and if anyone knows how to celebrate in Venice, it must be her. There was lots of prosecco and nice little canapés, Jeremy Irons breathed in and so did a footballer I hadn’t heard of (I don’t know much about football), but I am sorry to say I never got hold of the book itself.

Still, it was jolly party and there were some old faces which gradually came into focus. As I shunted back on the tube I recalled that I have only enjoyed la serenissima on two occasions: once when I did a week’s cookery course at the Bauer’s neighbour, the Grittiand another when I judged a wine competition called the Premio Marco Polo.

When I stayed at the Gritti I had my evenings free - even if I had the unpleasant chore of reading a biography of Dr. Goebbels for a hesitant publisher. After dark my brief was to find some good, un-touristy restaurants for the paper. Unfortunately, the Gritti was next to Haig’s Bar, about the only late-night haunt in the city, so a lot of excursions finished off there, but only after I had experienced some decent if simple food across the canal in Dorsoduro.

On the second occasion, the administrators of the Marco Polo Prize gave us a few little treats to thank us for our work. One of these was a trip to the distant islands of Murano and Burano in a proper ship with masts. One of my fellow judges was a moonlighting bass baritone from an opera house in Canada, so, as we coasted back round the Arsenale to the Grand Canal, I asked him if he knew Reynaldo Hahn’s Venetian Songs. He did, and he began to sing, and I can recall few experiences more beautiful in all my born days.

Frau Schratt’s Guglhupf

There was a birthday in the house on the tenth and I made the Guglhupf from Katharina Schratt’s recipe in the Große Sacher Kochbuch.

Many Austrians decry this cookery book because they find it old-fashioned, but it hits the spot for me because it contains all the traditional things I am looking for, like this recipe from Emperor Francis Joseph’s actress-friend. In fact, the Sacher book tells you very little: ingredients ‘170g butter, 140g icing sugar, grated lemon peel, 4 egg yolks, 40g raisins, 40g blanched almonds, 280g flour and a little packet of baking powder.’

‘Cream butter, sugar, lemon peel and eggs until they are frothy. Stir in almonds and raisins and carefully fold in sieved flour, baking powder and raisins (for a second time apparently) into the stiff snow before putting the mixture into a butter and flour-covered Guglhupf mould and baking the cake at a middling temperature in the oven. At first leave the oven door slightly open...’

No, it’s not exactly a hand-holding modern recipe, and you will need at least a ring-mould. Fortunately I have a proper Guglhupf-mould because a friend bought me one in Vienna. To help with the lacunae in the recipe, I find that the amount of baking powder you need for a cake of this size is helpfully written on the packet. It takes a little over an hour to cook at 180C. The mixture is anything but ‘frothy’, indeed, it comes out a bit too dense, and you will probably need to add some milk to it before you spoon it into the mould. It certainly does no harm.

I served this with a bottle of non-vintage Pol Roger from a case I bought in 2007 for the launch of my book, After the Reich. Never have I felt so justified in my habit of ageing non-vintage champagnes: it was sheer delight, and in its playful lemoniness, one of the best glasses of champagne I have had in ages.

As for the Guglhupf, we were all as delighted with ours as the Emperor was with his.

Berry Brothers & Rudd

I am ashamed to say that I did not get out to many wine events this month, but I did pop along to Berry Bros in St James’s for their spring tasting. It was very cold outside, and pretty frigid in the cellar, which seemed to have a deleterious effect on the chiantis in particular, which were all mute and austere. Italians need more heat.

Berry Bros is hardly the place where you expect to find bargains, but most of the prices were way beyond my reach. I noted a lovely 2010 Savennières l’Enclos from Eric Morgat with a creamy, lime-like taste but was brought down to earth by the price tag of £34.25. I became similarly excited at tasting a proper Condrieu Chaillées de l’Enfer from Georges Vernay after years and years of so many lacklustre Viogniers from the south of France and elsewhere, but then at £70 a bottle...

On the other hand, one of the wines I liked best was a real bargain: the 2010 Bourgeuil Peu Muleau from the Domaine de la Chevalerie with its great sappy, raspberry-like nose which cost only £13.95. I think that was my favourite wine of all.

Also decent value (£22.95) was the 2009 Bandol Rouge fro the Domaine du Gros Noré with its very ripe blackberry character, or the sweet Pacherenc du Vic-Bilh from Domaine Pichard (£18.75 for 50cls) and the 2010 Dog Point Pinot Noir from Marlborough in New Zealand (£27.50). I also liked a 2003 sweet Vin Santo from Santorini which tasted of baked bananas (£19.95 for a half), but I don’t suppose that even if it sold like hot cakes it would help put the Greek economy back on the rails.

I had come to taste some Chinese wines from Château Changyu, particularly a range of ice wines. I had had a decent bordeaux-blend from them, but I was able to taste its more expensive big brother as well. The ice wine that appealed to me most was the cheapest - the Gold Label (£19 for a half) which had a luscious, cooked peach character. I liked the top Black Diamond Label too, but at three times the price I felt I was better off with Gold.

Hot Cross Buns

March rounded off with Easter. Having spent the evening of Maundy Thursday baking bread, I was left to make the Hot Cross Buns on Friday morning. The recipe I used said preparation took two hours, but that didn’t include the cooking. I got up at 7.30 and finally turned the buns out onto the rack at noon. It has to be said that they did taste wonderful.

Easter requires a number of special purchases: chocolate eggs, a colomba, and new season’s lamb. I would be happy with a kid, which is what they eat in Portugal, but I don’t know anyone who sells kid.

My favourite place to buy chocolate in London is Neuhaus in St Pancras Station. At Christmas time I had a saucy lady who fed me a couple of chocolates while I designed my own box. This year I made the mistake of going to Leonidas in New Bond Street. Not only were the girls decidedly un-saucy, they wouldn’t let me do my own egg saying everything arrived pre-packed from Belgium. I ended up taking a lot of Manons away in a box - sod the egg.

I was also disappointed by my friend Leo in King’s Cross, who was selling his last colomba to a Spanish family when I went in on Thursday. Quite by chance, however, I found a small one in Salvino on Easter Saturday. Honour was saved.

There was no spring lamb this Easter - there has been no spring! My butcher told me that lots of lambkins have simply died of cold. For something verging on mutton our paschal feast didn’t taste too bad. Fingers crossed for April.


Up With The Angels

Posted: 4th March 2013

Prize Whines

February was a surprisingly busy month, but not without its blessings: among other things, I was commended for the Scott Moncrieff Prize for literary translation for my translation of Blandine Vié’s book on testicles, which was a nice slap on the back.

The judges seemed to have liked my ability to tackle French slang. The receipt of my certificate, however, was a long drawn-out and rather arid business. We had to arrive at the King’s Place to take up our seats at 6.30 pm and then sit through the awards, followed by an hour of lecture by Boris Akunin and questions. If you survived that, sometime around nine you were promised a drink. I am happy to say I squashed in a cucumber-flavoured Miller’s gin before going down to the auditorium, but the spirit proved weak for all that and we did not survive the full tally of awards, let alone the lecture. We celebrated with a glass of the wonderfully stylish Duval-Leroy Femme 2004 blanc-de-blancs champagne when we got home.

Pressure of work meant missing the big Austrian tasting this year - I needed to finish the talk I was giving on Hitler’s foreign policy at St Alfred’s School in Golders Green. On the other hand I did get the chance to taste Heinrich Hartl’s excellent wines from the Thermenregion at the home base of Merry Widows Linn Rothstein and Charlotte Bendel the Sunday before. He makes tip-top Rotgipfler, St Laurent and Pinot Noir and richly deserves the many prizes we have given him at the Decanter World Wine Awards.

‘Barbarous Scythians’

I had been invited to Colchis that night: a sleek Georgian restaurant at a smart address in Notting Hill. ‘Sleek’ might strike you as an odd epithet for Georgian food, for the Georgians are descendants of the ‘barbarous’ Scythians, of whom Herodotus said they ate their own babies. This food, however, was terrific stuff:  lots of aubergines; lots of walnuts - even aubergines stuffed with walnuts; khachapuri flat bread filled with cheese; khinkali dumplings filled with beef and pork; skewers of chicken mtsvadi; chanakhi lamb stew; and roast suckling pig. My neighbour declined to eat the eye, so I scoffed it myself - delicious.

The wines were an eccentric collection proposed by Isabelle Legeron, who goes by the name of ‘that crazy French woman’. They were all interesting, if not all pleasant. Lagvini Rkatsitelli from Lagvinari was one of those super-fashionable ‘natural’ white wines which is virtually unfiltered and unsulphured which come out hazy and colloidal. It is wonderful to be able to taste such wines as this, which would have delighted the ancient Scythians, but sometimes you have to admit - albeit reluctantly - that technology has made a contribution to pleasure. I was also at odds with Le Casot des Mailloles, Poudre Escampette from the Roussillon, which tasted sweet. I much preferred the gutsy, Saperavi-based Georgian 2011 Gvino and the Georgian brandy called ‘chacha’ which caused the resident Scythians to gambol with delight.

101 Dalmatians

I was still grappling with the wines of the ‘new’ Europe the next day, when there was a major tasting of Croatian wines at Decanter’s offices. I think the coastal wines of Istria and Dalmatia went down best with me: Malvasia for the whites and Teran for the reds. I awarded scores of high silver to the following: Posip (Korta Karina), Bolfan (Riesling) and Cattunar (Muscat); Josic (Ciconia Nigra) was a ‘solid’ silver; followed by Josic (Grasevina), Cattunar (Malvasia), Piquentum (Terre) and Meneghetti; slightly less good were those worthy of a ‘solid’ bronze: Boskinac (Cabernet-Merlot and Grand - sic - Cuvée), S v Roho (Plavac), Meneghetti, Piquentum (Rouge) and Gerzenic (Muscat).

Cattunar proved the best all rounder followed by Meneghetti, Josic and Piquentum. The prices were quite high, and we felt that many of the wines would be best appreciated in a good restaurant in Dubrovnik, especially as they were unlikely to mark the wines up as much as restaurants do here.

Stillman for a Day

On the evening of the 11th I went to Scotland to be installed as Honorary Stillman at Benromach Distillery on Speyside. Benromach is owned by the Elgin bottlers Gordon & MacPhail and in my FT days I worked closely with the ex-marketing director David Urquhart in choosing the readers’ annual Christmas malt. I did not expect too arduous a time.

Early the following morning I was left in the hands of Keith Cruickshank and Mike Ross, respectively manager and stillman of the distillery, and, as it turned out, the entire team of this little gem which produces just 5,000 litres of spirit a week. The important work at Benromach takes place in a couple of interconnecting spaces: one contains the mash tun and the other the two stills and the wash backs. Virtually all the work was acquitted before lunch: the three ‘mashes’, two of which went to the wash backs to ferment, the distilling of the low wines and the making of the spirit. Once a week, on Monday morning, the spirit is filled into casks, hogsheads (hoggies) and butts and lodged in one or other of the distillery’s three warehouses.

Although, like most Speyside distilleries, Benromach was founded during the boom years at the end of the nineteenth century, it was mothballed in the early nineteen-eighties and Gordon & MacPhail did not get it working again until 1998. They acquired some stocks, which go into the old age-statements, but the new spirit of Benromach is just fifteen years old.

As production had ceased altogether, the owners had an opportunity to create what they saw as the best possible Speyside malt and they came up with a solution that looked backwards to the days when peat-kilns were still in evidence on Speyside. The resulting whisky combines a slight peatiness with all the honey-like softness that you associate with the region. They also use more than fifty percent sherry butts, which adds a fruity taste and golden colour to the spirit when it emerges in bottle after a decade in cask.

As I said, the work was hardly arduous, and the most I had to do was toss in two kinds of yeast into the wash. At Benromach there are a couple of washes, a two-day and a three-day, which make different sorts of strong beers that contribute to the complexity of the spirit. In a philosophical moment, Keith described the action of the yeast, madly scrambling to reproduce before turning to drink, comparing it to the futility of man’s destiny. I could see a new slogan coming up: make whisky, not love.

Mike then took me over to the stills to explain the significance of their shape and the angle of the lye pipe. Engineering has a big role to play in the production of whisky. Then I tasted the range with Keith: the ten-year old Benromach is slightly peaty but more dominated by a light oloroso character. There are various special editions, like the Wood Finish which goes into old Sassicaia barrels and a rare organic spirit.

On the way to Inverness Airport I bought a fore rib of heifer beef from Fraser Brothers in Forres (01309 672601). I have never understood the practice in England of celebrating the last day of meat prior to a supposed forty-day fast by eating sweet pancakes. As I cooked the rib, I imagined all those poor people out there poking at their Findus Lasagne and Tesco Bolognese sauce with nervous fingers, wondering if a horse might come galloping out. The Highland beef was perfection: meat doesn’t come much better than this.

Fizz with Food

Back in London, we had been experimenting with champagne and food. It is a notoriously tricky combination and I take my hat off to those chefs who depend on trade from the champagne houses around Rheims and Epernay: one false move and you kill the wine that provides you with the bulk of your business. There used to be a brave soul half way between Rheims and Epernay who served offal, but he already had a couple of Michelin stars, so he was hard to ignore.

We started well with the Mumm Cordon Rouge non-vintage brut. It has a pleasant pineapple and apricot-like bouquet. We paired it with a plaice in a creamy, mildly spicy sauce, which was an excellent foil and concluded that a powerful champagne won’t object to a little masala spice. There was a faint whiff of vanilla or puff pastry on the Perrier-Jouët brut which we had with a roast chicken, but the wine was killed stone-dead by a grilled red pepper - a most definite no-no. Nor did it like being matched to a homemade Bakewell tart. No surprise, you might say, but the French persist in drinking brut champagnes with sweet tarts (let no one mention actresses or bishops - let alone cardinal archbishops).

The Mumm rosé had a pretty smell of rose petals. It had to deal with an earthy dish of lambs’ kidneys in a thick sauce and stood up to the test with great fortitude. I think the clue lies in the wine’s excellent structure because the Perrier Jouët rosé, which faced a relatively easy test in the children’s home-made half-term pizzas, fell at the hurdle. It had a nice nose of plum skins, but less acidity and less power than the Mumm, which has clearly pulled its socks up in recent years. In the old days, wise men gave Mumm a wide berth. Mumm’s renaissance was confirmed by the 2004 vintage which faced a rare and bloody onglet steak and carried off the challenge with aplomb.

Looks like Mumm’s the word for Mothers’ Day.

Schloßböckelheimer Kupfergrube

I don’t like it when German wines change their labels, and even less when they alter their names. Gut Hermannsberg used to be called Staatliche Weinbaudomäne Niederhausen-Schloßböckelheim, and if you go back a little bit further, it was the Königlich Preußisch Weinbaudomäne. It lay right on the border dividing Prussia’s Rhineland provinces from Bavaria’s. It was originally created as the centre of a copper mine - hence Kupfergrube. Now the state of Rhineland-Pfalz has sold it off and - I suppose I understand - the new owners have simplified the name.

I had four wines from 2011: the Jubiläumsriesling, celebrating the century that the estate has been making wine; two village wines - Schloßböckelheimer and Niederhäuser and a ‘second growth’ Steinterrassen. The 2011s are so good that I am generally happy with estate Rieslings, which in the case of Gut Hermannsberg had a pleasant smell of apricots and a good, linear thrust. The Schloßböckelheimer was very mineral with a hint of white peaches, its leanness made it an excellent aperitif wine. The Niederhäuser was fatter and more lemony with a some peach taste on the palate - really super. Finally the Steinterrassen has an enchanting redolence of yellow peaches.

Ah, they can muck about with the name as much as they like as long as they make wines as good as this!

Domaine des Anges

Twice a year I go to the Domaine des Anges, my friend Gay McGuinness’s domaine in Mormoiron in northern Provence and the most beautiful estate in the Ventoux. The vineyard rises to 450 metres on the Montagne de Boeuf and faces the mountain, which at nearly 2,000 metres is often capped with snow in February. I find the most enchanting time of day is at sunset, when the lights begin to glimmer in the valley below, shimmering like strings of pearl necklaces in the hazy evening light.

There is a rumbustious time in late September and a rather more sedate meet in February. On this occasion were just six in the flat, buffeted by a fierce mistral most days, but there were sunny moments when we ventured out to the markets in Carpentras and Pernes to look for the ingredients for lunch and dinner. February is the time for cardoons, Swiss chard and little artichokes; spring lambs grown to winter hoggets are to be avoided.

Many of the traders have become familiar over the past decade and more, like Madame Ziaja (+33 4 90 6131 08), who sells her excellent, creamy lavender honey in Pernes; the organic baker round the corner who bakes his baguettes in an oven that is more than a hundred years old; or the itinerant, German-speaking cheese merchant who claims to milk three hundred ewes twice daily and who sells the results to make a lovely, fresh, flat gooey ewes’ milk cheese. This year there was inevitably much talk of Findus. I enquired as to whether anyone had a horse sausage and had to be satisfied with donkey. The horse butcher’s refrigerated stall was there with the rest. I noted that he had little meat to sell and concluded that must have been a shortage of horseflesh on the market.

At some later date I shall publish some of our recipes, which make full use of the simpler wines of the estate, such as ‘les poireaux façon de Mayo’ (Mayo leeks - as opposed to Wiki or Vati leeks), or the pork dish we call ‘le rôti des ivrognes’ (the drunkards’ roast) which is basted with the basic red.  I was surprised (and delighted) to find some jars of the ‘confiture des Anges’ we made in September using some very ripe greengages brought up by one of our members from the Var.

The wines of the estate are now made by Florent Chave. Florent has retained the best of his predecessor’s cuvees like the wonderfully crisp white and rosé, but added a few novelties in the form of a pure Viognier and a Grenache (St Patrick and Séraphin). Carried over are the white and red Archanges: top cuvees which are matured in oak and which repay longer cellaring. The red Archange is Syrah-dominated - cooler and more elegant than the simple ‘Ventoux’ wine; while the pure-Roussanne white is quite Burgundian in character.  Florent is very much in control, and a tasting of the last three vintages of Archange showed that there are lots of good things to come and that he also managed pull off an impressive wine in the cold, wet 2012 vintage.

Patata Brava

I was home for just one night before we left for a short family holiday in Catalonia. Palafrugell is a couple of miles from the sea, and about twenty-five south of Dali’s Cadaquès. This stretch of coast, with its secluded coves, was highly prized by the jet set in the sixties and if you avoid the bed-factories which have given the Costa Brava such a bad name you can still find pretty, and largely unspoiled beaches like those at Calella and Llafranc.

We stayed at the Casa Cox in the centre of the town and enjoyed the wonderful markets and food shops. After four days, some of the shopkeepers and stallholders had become quite friendly, such as the French-speaking woman who carved our Iberico ham, her colleague who cut the two-year old Manchego cheese, the baker with her lethal custard-filled xuxos,the bored-looking boy in the local convenience shop who wanted to chat; or the man who weighed the zingingly fresh oranges from Girona. It was all cheap and wholesome. Near the bus station was even a simple restaurant where we ate a copious, all-inclusive, three-course lunch with wine for €10.

For the most part, lunch was a picnic at home. In the evening we ate tapas in the local bars: as its name might suggest, Gretel’s Frankfurter was rather a Gothic conception decorated with lurid photographs of sausage sandwiches oozing with cheese, but upstairs there was authentic local food - proper ham, ham or chicken croquetes, Spanish omelette or ‘truita’, boquerones - anchovies steeped in lemon and garlic - Galician-style pop or octopus with pimentón; and the inevitable pa amb tomàquet: bread soaked in freshly pulped tomatoes.

Possibly the best tapas available at this quiet time of the year were from the Basque Txacoli bar near the market. Crisp patatas bravas came with a mild allioli and a bit of hot tomato sauce on the side - when we went to the cute little town of Begur, a few miles to the north, the version proved too garlicky for my daughter. Txacoli had a superb hot chorizo and fiery, deep-fried piquillo peppers.

In the ruined castle of Begur we met a middle-aged French woman who was picking wild asparagus. She explained that she had come across the mountains from Foix where the ground was still heavy with snow, then proceeded to give me a recipe for the asparagus pointing out that a certain plant would always indicate the whereabouts of the spears. Apparently you toss the ends of the little sprigs in some butter and cook them for a few minutes until tender before pouring your omelette on top.

Most people gather in the Fraternel in Pallafrugell: the big, former socialist club on the main square. I imagine that many important political questions were put to rights here in their day but now it is more like a Catalan version of a Viennese coffee house: you pop in for the newspapers, to play a rubber of bridge or a game of chess with your cronies; and like a coffee house you can eat too or simply drink a glass of beer, anisette or wine.

The wines of the Costa Brava have improved beyond measure: the local appellation of Empordà seems to have taken a hint from the wines across the border to the north and started to make some big reds rather than the usual indifferent rosés. They are mainly Grenache, spiced up with a bit of Syrah or Cabernet and the local Samsó (Carignan). Good was the 2006 Sàtirs from the Celler Arché Pagès in Capmany.

That was the last thing I drank in February: when I got home to London, it was already March.


Bloody January Again!

Posted: 1st February 2013

Christmas Leftovers

We English are rather limp when it comes to the remaining eleven days of Christmas. After the leftovers of the goose (now largely superseded by that galumphing, interloping turkey from the New World) and the cold, uninviting ruins of the Christmas pudding on Boxing Day, in purely gastronomic terms, the feast has come to a halt. New Year’s Eve, which is an excuse for dozens of oysters in France, is purely liquid - all about getting legless and throwing up to baptise the New Year. As a family, we adhere to the more sober northern Italian solution and eat a zampone with lentils, mashed potatoes and tomato sauce. The lentils - zecchine - represent the money you hope to make in the next twelve months. I am sorry to say that lentils don’t agree with me, which may be one of the reasons I earn so little. As it was, we were out at a party on New Year’s Eve, getting back just in time for a glass of Ruinart Blanc de Blancs before bed. The zampone had to wait for the morrow.

The English used to eat a Twelfth Cake at the Epiphany, it is mentioned somewhere in Swift’s Journal to Stella,but that custom too has disappeared. Because my children have always been at French schools, we have a galette des rois instead. I recall that the best Parisian pâtissiers used to put out a wonderful array of galettes of differing dimensions on the sixth, but the ones my children brought home from their London schools were miserable, dried out, butter-less things. So about five years ago I resolved to produce the galette myself. Making puff pastry is a bit like bread: you have to remember to roll and turn it from time to time, but you can attend to other tasks; and when you make your own you can use plenty of butter and add a proper tot of rum to the frangipane filling. I even found some leftover crème pâtissière knocking around to mix into the frangipane. My only problem is where to obtain the fève or bean. I imagine this used to be a real dried bean which, once found in the cake, won you the crown and made you king of the feast. Nowadays, however, they are not beans but plastic effigies of kings or queens.

These ‘beans’ are doubtless easy to find in France, but not here. I have resorted to the pound shop in Kentish Town, where I buy some gimcrack figure from The Hobbit which comes with small parts and slip two of the latter (one for each child) into the cake. This time I was hoisted by my own petard: the first fève was in my slice!

Jamming

The other culinary chore that falls just after the Epiphany, is the making of Seville orange marmalade. The bitter oranges were a bit dry this year and I had to produce two batches to replenish our stocks. I also tried making marmalade from blood oranges (‘Robespierre’). It was good, benefiting from the high acidity in the oranges, but only half of them were bloody in colour and so the resulting confection is only a slightly dark shade of orange: drat - a vindication for the monstrous Robespierre!

A Chile Start

The professional year is always slow to start. On the 14th it kicked off with a Cabernet tasting and dinner organised by Santa Rita at Claridges. There was a blind tasting of twelve wines, four of them Chilean. The turnout was impressive, with many of the great names of wine present, but deliberations was marred by the simian antics of a prominent MW who interrupted everyone mid-sentence, jeering and heckling. The poor old 2009 Sassicaia (which admittedly was not at its best) was dismissed with the b-word - ‘brett’: brettanomyces, the name of a controversial wild yeast. It used to be true that to accuse a wine of having ‘brett’ was akin to casting doubts on a man’s paternity. Now it is thought that a little brett does no harm. To be fair, chairman Peter McCombie, seemed to know how to deal with the heckler. I thought he might have gone off his rocker.

I have written before about the idea behind these blind tastings, but this one was remarkably fair and the guest speaker Brian Croser had a lot of very interesting things to say about Cabernet Sauvignon. The Chileans were impressive: the 2010 Carmen Gold Reserve was like putting your nose into a punnet of fresh blackcurrants. The best of them was the 2008 Santa Rita Casa Real, which was remarkably opulent. There were some other old-world wines there besides the Sassicaia, and the two Bordeaux stood out for me: the 2009 Domaine de Chevalier and the 2008 Pontet Canet. Neither was nearly ready to drink. I also liked the 2009 Ridge from Santa Cruz in California. The 2009 Te Mata Coleraine from New Zealand showed the worst of the dozen and the 2008 Jordan Cabernet from Stellenbosch was not very good either.

This One Will Run and Run

There was comic relief from an austere January in the form of the Tesco ‘Dobbinburger’ Scandal which erupted on the 16th. While I did my shopping in Kentish Town that day I canvassed the opinions of the locals. The Lebanese head-honcho at the excellent Phoenicia assured me that Arabs had no religious objection to horse flesh, but they respected horses and were reluctant to eat them. I suspect it wasn’t good news for the many Somali women in their flowing robes I see loading up their trolleys in Iceland across the road. That too was found to be selling Dobbinburgers, and we later learned they contained pork as well. My Albanian friend at the fruit and vegetable stall, who so kindly administered a tumbler full of bourbon in an attempt to cure my cough in the run-up to Christmas, told me he didn’t like the sound of English horsemeat as our nags were too big. In his country horses were smaller and more tender.

As it turned out, the meat did not hail from our leafy shires, but from Poland. On Twitter, someone suggested that it might have come from the horses that had so gallantly and foolhardily challenged Hitler’s tanks in September 1939. Other Twitterers had a field day at Tesco’s expense, and I laughed a lot at ‘My Lidl Pony’. In truth, I really have no objection to eating horse except that it tends to be a bit too lean, like kangaroo. Tesco’s suppliers had the right idea to mix it with beef or pork or both. In Vienna I often buy Pferdeleberkäs from the stall opposite Sacher’s, especially when I have lost money on a slow horse at the Freudenau. I used to eat the pork version, but the old Viennese in the queue were so insistent (‘aber Pferd ist besser!’) that I gave in. I note too that there is a purveyor of horse sausages just by the gates to Frederick the Great’s Sanssouci palace in Potsdam: perhaps to bait the manes of the hippophile king.

While I am on the subject of comic relief, it is that time again: for six weeks from the 1st of February wine merchants will be giving a part of their profits to charity. I tasted a slightly crumbly 2011 Côtes du Rhône Villages from Arc du Rhône (Waitrose £6.39), a sappy 2011 Visionario Bianco delle Venezie (Laithwaites £9.99) and a new-style, barrel-fermented white Rioja from CUNE (Waitrose £7.49). I was a great fan of the old-style white Riojas that were so rich and buttery after their years in oak, but they are largely a thing of the past, and there is no denying that this Rioja is a nice wine which will make you feel good while you feel you are doing good.

Germany 2011

On the 21st the German wine specialists Wine Barn gave a portfolio tasting at the former East German Embassy. There was still snow everywhere, but the sun had appeared, which lit up the creamy, regency facades of Belgrave Square. The snow had the adverse effect, however, of stranding most of the winemakers billed to present their wines in Frankfurt Airport. Walter Bibo from Schloss Reinhartshausen was one of these, so Prince Nicholas of Prussia and his son Frederick had to step in. Prince Nicholas looks uncannily like his grandfather, Crown Prince William who led the German armies at the Battle of Verdun. Schloss Reinhartshausen in the Rheingau was once owned by the Prussian royal family and Prince Nicholas retains shares in the estate.

Space does not permit me to name all the wonderful wines that I tasted that morning but it was abundantly clear that 2011 will be a great year for Germany. It is a vintage when even estate Rieslings - often the cheapest wines from the property - come into their own. Of the more highfaluting wines, the Nussbrunnen from Schloss Reinhartshausen impressed me most; Philipp Wittmann was showing two lovely Grosses Gewächs wines (Kirchspiel and Morstein) from the Wonnegau in southern Rheinhessen but I was also struck by a lovely little Scheurebe; Bassermann-Jordan had two exemplary Grosses Gewächse from the famous Pfalz vineyards of  Jesuitengarten and Kalkofen; Göttelmann’s Kapellenberg Auslese and Beerenauslese - from the Nahe - were quite delicious; Clemens Busch had made a wonderful Marienburg Grosses Gewächs in the Mosel; Bockstein Spätlese and Auslese from St Urbanshof were predictably good; there were very impressive wines such as Tausend Sterne from Laible in Baden; and some wonderful Pinot reds from Mayer-Näkel, ‘S’ in particular.

And it turns out that 2011 was a marvellous sweet wine-year too, and huge amounts were made. I should add that 2012 is also looking good, but that there will be few sweeties, as the good weather came to an abrupt end.

I might note too: excellent champagne-style sparking wines from Solter; a 2009 Wisselbrunnen Auslese and Beerenauslese from Schloss Reinhartshausen; a 2006 Schlossböckelheimer Felsenberg Auslese from Schäfer-Fröhlich; a 2006 Rothenpfad Auslese from Clemens Busch; and a 2009 Sonnenberg Pinot Noir from Mayer Näkel.

Edwin G Boring

My discovery of the month has been the works of the immortal Edwin G Boring: ‘Edwin Boring, the great historian of psychology at Harvard, discussed Hänig’s thesis in Sensation and Perception in the History of Experimental Psychology published in 1942. Boring did not reproduce Hänig’s summary sketch but rather calculated the actual sensitivities by taking the reciprocals of the average thresholds given in Hänig’s tables. On Boring’s figure, there is no way to tell how meaningful the sizes of the variations are on the ordinate. Boring’s graph led other authors to conclude that there was virtually no sensation at the loci where the curves showed a minimum and that there was maximum sensation where the curves showed a maximum and so we have the familiar tongue maps labelled “sweet“ on the tip of the tongue, “bitter“ on the base of the tongue, etc.’

I was so impressed by all that I read of Boring that I wanted to start a club in his honour. I e-mailed a former politician friend of mine to suggest that we do just that but he wanted to amalgamate it with the ‘Vowel Shift Society’ which is some pet project of his. We’ll see if this one makes it into space or falls victim to the usual post-Christmas inertia.


Resolutions in Adversity

Posted: 2nd January 2013

Convalescence

I must have caught whooping cough in October. It is a cunning bacillus which at first misleads you into believing that it is simply a mild, dry cough; then the real fun and games start about three weeks later. I realise I have been spared proper pain up until now: at its height whooping cough has to have been the nastiest ailment I have suffered in adult life. For a week there was no question of sleep, and the pain in my ribs might have been likened to a kick from a horse. Even now there are occasional rumbles but they are manageable. I see that the Chinese call it the ‘three-month cough’ so it should be over soon.

Once the antibiotics had killed off the bacteria, I struggled to attend one or two seasonal parties such as the Bad Sex Awards on 4 December. It was, I think, the twentieth year, and I must have attended almost, if not all of the hoolies since the Awards were founded by the late Bron Waugh to ridicule gratuitous sexual stuffing in modern fiction. For the past few years, the party has been held in one of London’s most beautiful rooms: the ballroom of the new In-and-Out Club at 4 St James’s Square. While waiters ply you with champagne and things on sticks, passages from offending books are read out by an actor and an actress and it can be painfully funny, particularly this year when laughter resulted in paroxysms of coughing. Although Nancy Huston won the prize for Infrared, both Paul Bailey and I felt that Noughties by Ben Masters had a better claim - at least, on the basis of the extract we heard.

The following week was my agency party where there was plenty of mellow Perrier Jouët. I was beginning to realise by then that champagne was the best medicine; that and a stiff hot toddy before bed - made from whisky with the juice of a single lemon heated up with a large dollop of honey. Champagne dries you out, turns off the nasal drip and allows you a big burst of sleep, while the hot toddy temporarily stuns the windpipe. The Pakistani doctor I saw gave me no leave to hope that any medicine could assuage the pain, and he should have known: whooping cough is endemic in Pakistan. He thought whisky as good a cure as any.

Memories of Chablis

On the 15th was a lavish two-day event to celebrate a friend’s seventieth birthday at the Savile Club. The champagne was from Deutz, but that was upstaged by a grand cru Chablis: Guy Robin’s Valmur 2005 which was a classic - all flint and honeycomb and perhaps a whiff of those little wild mushrooms the French call ‘mousserons’ and which we encumber with the name ‘Saint George’s agarics’.

The wine reminded me that for several years I was invited to attend tastings in the little town of Chablis to chose the best wines of the previous vintage. The event was in January, when that part of northern Burgundy was particularly bleak, but still the local growers put on a good show and some hogs were roasted outside and served up with hunks of andouillette and black pudding once the morning’s hard work was over. I went back again a couple of years ago, and saw some of the same faces grown longer and greyer and heard the gossip that had accumulated after a ten or fifteen-year absence.

In the old days I was part of the furniture. One year I shared the presidency with Charles Metcalfe and was introduced to the deputé for the town who was then garde des sceaux or minister of justice. At that time the annual presidents were inducted into the ordre des Piliers, albeit at the lowly level of stylobates.

The leading growers were ‘chapiteaux’: a group of crusty old men who used to meet up to drink and shoot. According to a jolly wag I met regularly at the tastings, they had a nasty accident one year when they were out duck shooting and rain forced them to take refuge in a hut with their casse-croûtes and dusty magnums. One of the chapiteaux, feeling the worse for wear, stepped outside for a leak and failed to return, but in their enthusiasm for their mature vintages, nobody bothered to check whether he was all right.

When the rain ceased, they tumbled out into mist and in the absence of ducks, took pot shots at a dark form floating on the surface of the lake. Despite the drink, several scored direct hits. Once they had emptied their ammunition they went to see what they had shot: it was their friend. No one ever found out whether he was dead when the target practice began, or whether he died from his numerous gunshot wounds. The wag claimed the affaire had been hushed up, but for all I knew he may have made the whole story up from start to finish.

When I was in Chablis most recently, Laure Gasparotto from Le Monde assumed the presidency. There were a handful of French journalists there together with a Japanese, two Americans and myself. It was a marked change from the armies of hacks who used to arrive by the coach load and who had to be put up in hotels in Auxerre for want of beds in Chablis itself. A regular was a late Jan Bertin-Roulleau, a magnificently rotund figure in a three-piece suit and watch-chain. You might have been convinced he had served as the model for the gourmand in Marcel Rouff’s wonderful novella La vie et la passion de Dodin Bouffant, had it not been penned around the time of Bertin-Roulleau’s birth.

One year when we had risen late from a lavish dinner at the Hostellerie Les Clos we found the coach driver watching a pornographic video on the screen above his seat. He tried to turn it off but we made him to rerun it to pass the time: it was two a.m. and a good half hour’s drive to Auxerre. Bertin-Roulleau was in raptures: he kept slapping his thighs and pointing at the leading man: ‘Ma foi! Il a de la santé lui! Quelle santé lui!’

He couldn’t be convinced that these endless ejaculations might have been rigged.

Oh, and with the Savile Club beef there was a Château Lannessan of the same vintage, it was good but the Valmur put it in the shade.

Jam-making

At the beginning of December I had a go at making some pineapple jam. I thought the steam might prove soothing.

Despite the small size of my household, a pot of jam can disappear in two breakfasts and that means I make up to twenty batches of jam and marmalade a year. With an average quantity of two kilos of fruit, plus the same weight of sugar, that makes my annual production about eighty kilos.

I always make a few small pots: they make useful presents.

Marmalade is particularly important as my young son refuses to eat jam. We have quite a list: ‘Mentmore’ (Seville orange) is named after the once strikingly auburn hair of a well-known architectural historian; ‘King Billy’ (sweet orange - should require no explanation); ‘Jack’ (Lemon - the coinage is Joseph’s and derives from Some Like It Hot); ‘Harry’ (obviously lime); and the ‘Imposter’ (grapefruit - Joseph dubbed it thus because it wasn’t really pink. I wanted to call it ‘Bracken’ but was overruled).

This year I aim to make a blood orange marmalade.

I assumed, wrongly, that the large pineapples I bought from the stall outside Kentish Town station would be rich in pectin. Until 2012, I was a stranger to pectin, but last year wasn’t just notable for poor flowering and pollination (no flowers on my apple and the olive blossoms on my trees dropped - so no Kentish Town olives for 2013), it was also marked by an absence of pectin. I had to add pectin to my greengage jam (‘Anne’ of greengages - but when I made some in the Ventoux from sun-baked Provencal fruit it set, albeit softly, all by itself) and I was forced to use it on both editions of the grapefruit marmalade as well.

This year only two jams that required no added pectin were blackberry I make from fruit culled from Cohen’s Field on Hampstead Heath (the name ‘Ganymede’ is inspired by mercifully chiefly nocturnal sexual acrobatics which are apparently tolerated by the Heath police) and an excellent blend of damsons and sloes which is also partially gathered on the Heath. The latter is called ‘Slow Spanker’ - commemorating a former friend who used to supplement his income by starring in porn films. Come to think of it, it might even have been his performance that Bertin-Roulleau admired so much.

Perhaps I should be less worried about using pectin. When I went to see my old friend Hans Staud in Vienna last summer, the world’s greatest commercial jam-maker showed me that he used pectin on all his jams, but then, he uses under fifty percent sugar and once opened, they need to be kept in the fridge.

I confess I was impatient with the pineapple. I should have cut it into smaller chunks and eliminated some of the core that proved so slow to soften. I added the usual amount of sugar (half by weight) but despite giving the appearance of setting when I checked the jars in the morning I found they were filled with liquid. So once again I poured the contents back into the pot, added the juice of two lemons and a spoonful of liquid pectin and brought it back to the boil.

That did the trick.

The resulting jam was quite good. It has a faint taste of fresh ginger. It has been baptised ‘Achtung Schweinhund’, but I shall let you decide why.

Memorable Bottles

Christmas is a time to bring out some of my dwindling collection of good bottles. On Christmas Eve, I made a terrine of fresh foie gras, and procured some lobsters which I had to kill a day early as they had begun to droop in the mild weather. A friend came, most generously bringing a bottle of excellent Meursault to go with the lobster, and I opened a Châteaux Grand-Puy-Lacoste 1988 to go with the Vacherin Mont d’Or. My wife had made two bûches de Noël before we rounded off with the usual sweetmeats.

I have always been a champion of the 1988 vintage, which tended to be overlooked after the very rich, ripe vintages of 1989 and 1990. Those two were more in line with the 1982, the year that brought Robert Parker fame, and I think the Guru of Maryland was unnecessarily severe when it came to the first of the ‘trois glorieuses.’ Of course my predilection has had an advantage: the 88s are still comparatively cheap!

The Pauillac was no disappointment. It had a fabulous, classic structure and elegance with magnificent persistence and a trademark taste of blackcurrants. Out of curiosity I poked my nose into Parker the next day: 85 - virtually a fail - and I was meant to have finished it up a decade ago: if you have any left don’t panic, drink it within the next three years.

We have terrible problems deciding what to eat on Christmas Day, as one child clamours for goose and the other for turkey and most years I am left to deal with the bulk of the carcass when they go to Devon. For the past couple of years, therefore, we have simply bought a nice rib of mature, heifer beef.

I had sat next to a woman from Sheffield at the Savile Club who had told me that the Yorkshire pudding should be served as a first course, so we followed suit. Then there was rib, with some red cabbage as a sop to my partly Central European origins, the remains of the Vacherin and both a Christmas and a steamed treacle pudding.

With the beef I brought out a Saint Emilion, Château Canon 1988. Again there was no disappointment. The wine had a wonderful structure. It was less sinewy than the Pauillac and there was a bit more heat from oak and alcohol. It was rich and spicy and packed with fruit paste tastes. I marginally preferred the Pauillac, but there was not much in it. Again I looked at the Guru: 87, and 2012 was billed as its last outing. I think you could ignore that and safely hang on for another decade.

After dinner it was time for the annual Christmas films: Scrooge and It’s a Wonderful Life.

How wine has changed since 1988, and very largely as a result of Parker and his favourite oenologist Michel Rolland, was brought home by a Graves brought here by a friend on the 27th: a 2004 Château Larrivet Haut-Brion. This was not a jot like the Graves wines I remembered: very ripe, very hot, very Merlot, and reeking of Russian leather. Parker thought this the best of the lot: 89 points.

By the 27th we were all looking peaky, and the fridge was full of leftovers waiting to be converted into the sort of dishes children shun (although my daughter loves a good ragú). I was relieved when the pannetone dried up and I could bake a fresh sourdough loaf. The galette des rois on the sixth will be the last throw and we can then all nurse our livers through gloomy January.


Make it Hot and Spicy

Posted: 1st December 2012

A Sparkling Lunch

It was a busy day on 25 October. I had let myself be lured out to lunch at The Greenhouse in Mayfair by Carol Duval-Leroy, the feisty head of the champagne house of that name in Vertus on the Côte des Blancs. I first met her in Vienna some fifteen years ago or more, when she was host to a lively evening at the venerable Reiss Bar on the Neuer Markt.

The Greenhouse had a new chef in Arnaud Bignon, who had cooked up a name for himself and two Michelin rosettes at Spondi in Greece. In the present circumstances it is perhaps not surprising that he has decided to come west.

It was not entirely the combination of fine food and champagne that lent the lunch its charm, it was also the very good company: I sat down with Harry Eyres, Simon Hoggart and Michael Edwards, and inevitably the conversation drifted onto political scandals. Despite Jimmy Savile (I learned he was universally called ‘Jim’ll f*** it’ at the BBC), however, or the possible identity of Tory pederasts in Wrexham, I was able to observe that a) ‘Fleur de Champagne’ - the basic Duval-Fleury cuvée - and long preserve of Sainsbury and Waitrose - was a more than reliable Chardonnay-based sparkler; b) that the vintage cuvee ‘Femme’ 2000 (virtually pure Chardonnay), is very impressive indeed, and that was also true of the 2005 Clos des Bouveries, made from a 2.5 hectare plot of old vines near the firm’s HQ.

Bignon matched ‘Femme’ with a pretty little bowl of Cornish crab covered with a dark green glaze of granny smith apples and flavoured (why do French chefs like curry powder so much?) with Indian spices. The Clos des Bouveries came with a piece of chicken breast posing as a zebra: the stripes were made from black truffles and there was a playful allusion to Halloween in the accompanying pumpkin puree.

The Great Grüner Veltliner Cover Up

Laurenz Moser V has been touring the world with his collection of Grüner Veltliners and that same day he hit the new Hotel Ampersand in London. He observed that Grüner Veltliner is now made in ten different countries and that Austria might no longer have a monopoly on the best. Of course he has a deeper purpose, he wants to show off the different Veltliner wines he makes under his Laurenz V label.

The use of blind tasting to promote wines is surely ancient. The Austrian Wine Marketing board or ÖWM has never forgotten (and I suspect they never will) the success it had with a tasting of Chardonnays organised by Masters of Wine in London on 30 October 2002, when a few ‘ringers’ or concealed Veltliners trounced some of the best-known Chardonnays in the world.

The Swedish dentist-turned-wine merchant Jan-Erik Paulson had tried out the idea on a collection of high-ranking hacks at the Bristol in Vienna earlier that year, but the results had been quite different. On that occasion I was present. Although we had all appreciated the Veltliners and many of us had put them among our favourites, none, I think, was fooled into believing they were Chardonnays. At the Master of Wine tasting in London (where I was not present), to a man or woman, they tumbled into the trap.

Laurenz Moser is also no stranger to the blind tasting technique. It used to be the stock-in-trade of the late Robert Mondavi and after Laurenz left the family firm of Lenz Moser he distributed Mondavi wines in Germany. In the eighties, I saw Mondavi putting his reserve wines on the table (Napa Bordeaux blends and Pinot Noirs) together with Bordeaux first growths and Burgundy grands crus in the hope that they would steal the show; and they often did, but maybe because the French wines were either too young or from less favoured vintages than the Californian wines. Top French wines go through a longer, more troubled adolescence than the best of California. 

When I first visited Moser in Rohrendorf bei Krems in 1991. He had his father’s (Lenz Moser IV) pioneering Bordeaux blends from Mailberg in the Weinviertel wrapped up in leaves from the Standard newspaper along with a few posh Bordeaux which were either very young or from grotty vintages. If I remember rightly, the tasting did not go well for him because I decided that the Lenz Moser wine was volatile.

The ‘Generation Grüner’ tasting in London was cut from the very same cloth. For whatever reason, most of the tasters were from Laurenz’s distributers, Bibendum, but a guarded Jancis Robinson was there too, defending the MW tasting by citing the quality of the palates on the day. She obviously felt she needed to name some of these, but the only one she managed to come up with was that of the late John Avery. I do not doubt the keenness of the palates that sampled the wines, they were probably all good Chardonnay people; only they were perhaps not as well versed in the vagaries or qualities of Grüner Veltliner as they might have been.

Moser’s selection was odd: Veltliner needs to be relatively high in alcohol to show its character, and he had intentionally only selected those that fell below say 12.5 (except for his own ‘Charming’ - officially 13.5, if not a spot more). That meant that the very best wines from the Wachau or the Kamptal or the loess-grown Veltliners from the Wagram were ineligible and Austria competed with one hand tied behind its back. Most of the Austrian wines came from the dull clay soils of the Weinviertel rather than primary rock of the Danube Valley.

And there is no reason to suppose that other countries cannot make great Veltliner. To be aromatic, the variety likes a bit of humidity, but Austria has no monopoly on rain. Austria’s present borders are political: the River Thaya, for example, which separates Lower Austria from the Czech Republic, hardly marks a climatic boundary and the same would be true of the River March that cuts Austria off from Slovakia. The only difference between the Austrian wines of the Weinviertel and those from the other side of the Czech or Slovakian Borders, is the quality of the wine-making. The same might be said of Hungary. 

My favourite wines were the following: joint first - Markus Huber, Ried Berg DAC Reserve 2010 from the Traisental (Austria) and Tamas Szecskö, Gyögyöpata/Matra 2010 (Hungary); joint third - Domaine LandArt, Pfalz 2011 (Germany) and Laurenz V Charming (Austria); joint fifth - Yealands Estate, Malborough 2011 (New Zealand) and Loos Weine - Walter Buchegger, Lengenfelder Pfeiffenberg, Kaptal DAC Reserve 2011 (Austria); seventh - Knoll, Loibner Federspiel 2011; eighth - Karpatská Perla, Male Karpaty 2011 (Slovakia); ninth The Paddler, Malborough (New Zealand); and finally, tenth - Hammel, QbA Pfalz, 2011 (Germany). It is interesting to note that my tenth choice was the wine that won the tasting.

Oxford Blues

On Tuesday 30 October I was summoned up to Oxford to give a wine tasting to ‘Bacchus’: the Oxford University Wine Club. I left plenty of time to get there but Great Western positively excelled itself in making my journey nothing short of an Odyssey. On the way out I was obliged to hop on the first train to Reading because it transpired that someone had died on the line that morning. We were all packed into the corridors like sardines, but from Reading I was able to find a relatively uncluttered slow train to Oxford, which - in the immortal phrase of Edmund Crispin - ‘stopped at every tree like a dog’.

If the journey up was bad, the down train was far, far worse: there were just three carriages, which got into Reading fifteen minutes late. Then the real fun began: we were suddenly overrun by triumphant Arsenal fans (I don’t need to ask who put the arse in Arsenal) drunk on booze and victory; each and every one of them armed with either a stinking ratburger or a six-pack of lager. The little train promptly gave up the ghost and the driver suggested we run for another. This we did, but that one took a while before it began to trundle along at a snail’s pace towards Paddington.

Earlier my ears had been scorched by that curious tuneless singing-cum-chanting associated with football matches, but now I was obliged to listen to the lilting tones of the sort of man who - in Michael Flanders’ words - ‘knew all about baboons and the number of quills a porcupine has got’. He was a corpulent, drunken, middle-class man in a suit had got onto the first train at Reading, where he had been sharpening his wits on a group of Sikhs. After we shifted onto the second train he found some real baboons and set about playing a sort of game of Trivial Pursuit with them: ‘who won the FA Cup in 1934 and by what margin?’

The yahoos were temporarily mesmerised, but one by one they recovered their spirits and began to laud their win in very un-Homeric stanzas. As Wormwood Scrubs had appeared in the distance (a place where I wanted them all confined) I wandered to the front of the train. Here I met a philosophic fan who told me ‘The English, they can’t really do this sort of thing - trains. Foreigners, well, they got trains that run on time. Not ‘ere.’ 

We crept into London after the departure of the last tube. To my chagrin the Arsenal fans kept me company on the night bus. To make the experience even more pungent, they had managed to find some malodorous cookshops opposite the station and with a tray of McNuggets in each hand they found new voice.

The actual tasting was calm in comparison. The wines had been kindly donated by the VDP in Germany and there were some lovely 2011 Rieslings, including a Münsterer Pittersberg Grosses Gewächs from Kruger Rumpf in the Nahe which I thought was sensational, as well as a Oestricher Lenchen Rosengarten Erstes Gewächs from Spreitzer in the Rheingau and a Kastanienbusch Grosses Gewächs from Dr Wertheim in the southern Pfalz which were not far behind.

I had expected the students to be badly behaved, but apart from talking among themselves much of the time, they were pretty tame. I used to crash the Food and Wine Society in the old days and the tastings often descended into a bloody riot. I remember once at a tasting in Oriel, Benazir Bhutto’s ill-fated brother Mir smashed all the empty bottles, one by one, against the wall, until that year’s Bullingdon Joke - a portly Mancunian rolling in flesh and dough who had been elected to pay for the Etonian members’ unquenchable thirst for champagne - got it into his head to throw the debris about the room. One of the shards caught a friend above the eye, and for him the evening ended in the Radcliffe Infirmary. I suppose I should count myself lucky: at least I got home in one piece.

A Bar on the Piccola Marina

On 2 November I braved the onset of frosty weather to gain first-hand knowledge of my old friend Salvatore Calabrese’s latest venture. I think it was at Duke’s Hotel that I met him - probably in the mid-eighties. His dry martinis were reputed the best in London. He was lured over to the Lanesborough when it opened and soon perfected his practice of giving you a history lesson over a glass of ancient cognac. I lost track of him after that, but I heard somewhere that he was in a suitably smart bar in St James’s. Now it seems he has put down roots at Salvatore’s bar in the Playboy Club behind Park Lane.

Now I had the chance to taste ‘Maestro’, a version of ‘limoncello’, the lemon-flavoured spirit which - like Salvatore himself - hails from the Amalfi coast. Instead of steeping the rind in rough pickling alcohol, however, Salvatore has opted to blend the lemons from his village of Maiori with his favourite tipple - cognac.

The result is obviously a more serious drink, and quite lovely on its own. He supervises production himself, making a special trip in May to ensure he only gets the best lemons. Of the various versions I tried, my favourite was Maestro as a long drink with ice and soda. I can imagine it being quite a wow on a warm day.

Salvatore’s new Liquore di Limoni is £28.90 from the evocatively-named Hedonism Wines at 3-7 Davies Street, Mayfair Tel: 0207 290 7870. At Harrods it is £31.50 per bottle.

Clouds of Glory

On 14 November I went to Davidoff in St. James’s to try Hine’s Cigar Reserve. In theory, at least, I should have puffed on a Romeo y Julieta in order to savour the qualities of the cognac, but as I have not smoked for a quarter of a century I decided to let that pass. I was, on the other hand, struck by the light and floral nature of the ‘cigar’ cognac. Most whisky distilleries - in Scotland and Kentucky - opt for the splintery old barrel that they cannot accommodate in a blend, and dub it a ‘cigar malt’ in the wild hope that the woody whisky will marry the smoky cigar. I got the distinct impression that Bernard Hine had given more thought to the matter.

Cigar merchants benefit from a clause in the law that allows customers to sample their wares in the shop (although they have to purchase something first!). It was nice to witness the rare sight of so many happy puffers smoking their Hunters and Frankau cigars indoors for a change, and Bernard Hine had been brought over from Jarnac for the occasion.

A gift box containing a 20 cl bottle of Cigar Reserve and a brace of Romeo y Julieta no 2s retails for around £48 from Davidoff and other serious shops.

The High Point of Chilean Wine

On 19 November I paid my first visit to the so-called Gherkin skyscraper in the City for a tasting of Montes Alpha wines from Chile followed by dinner. I was quite anxious to see what the Gherkin was like from the inside, and of course, take in the view, but in all honesty, close up it still looks like a child’s toy and when you are on the thirty-eighth floor you look out onto a sea of other children’s toys, only somewhere in the middle of all, seemingly calling them to order, is the backside of St Paul’s Cathedral.

I don’t think many people would describe me as an authority on Chilean wines. These days I am supposed to know about Germany - and until very recently Austria, with occasional forays into its neighbours Switzerland and Hungary. If we go back to the beginning of a thirty-year involvement with wine, however, I kicked off as an authority on Bordeaux, then switched to being and expert on the Rhone. Then for a long time it was the South of France and latterly Portugal.

My acquaintance with Chile goes back more than two decades, however. I was part of the second British specialist party to visit the country in the autumn of 1990, along with Manny Moreno - the far-sighted importer of Santa Rita - his PR-guru, the late David Balls, and the wine writers Alice King, Jim Ainsworth, Peter Bathe, David Rowe (the then editor of Decanter), Tom Stevenson, Tim Atkin and myself. We had been pipped at the post by a group composed of a handful of MWs and the then publisher of Decanter, Tony Lord: an old-fashioned Australian who loudly subscribed to W C Fields’ views on the consumption of water.

The MWs had all caught paratyphoid and one of them was brought home on a stretcher. Given Tony Lord’s aversion to water (he wasn’t known to eat much either), I cannot explain why he fell ill, but he was in such a lamentable state that his doctor put him off the sauce. He did not take that injunction lying down and made it clear he would still drink beer: because that wasn’t really alcoholic after all.

We reached Santiago several months after the MWs and the Chilean wine producers we met were extremely anxious that we should remain healthy: only bottled water, no ice in our pisco sours, steaks cooked until they were stiff, no fish… After a couple of days of this nursery food, we all longed to slope off and eat some greasy empanada from a wayside stall just for sake of a little flavour.

We got around, visiting the cellar where the great Bernardo O’Higgins hid his freedom fighters. We saw beautiful gardens and met ministers and I bought a rug and a lovely pair of lapis cufflinks, which I sadly lost, from a jewellery shop under the mountain that divides the city of Santiago in two. In the sleazy port of Valparaiso we admired the statue of the great Chilean naval hero Arturo Prat and noted his resemblance to Tom Stevenson.  Stevenson has been known as Arturo Prat ever since.

When we got home (and I am glad to say: in one piece) Tim Atkin and I wrote the trip up in depth for WINE with Tim doing the whites and me the reds.  My interest in Chilean wines was short-lived, however as I saw the Chilean export market was carved up between half a dozen companies owned by phosphate millionaires. And that ordinary Chileans could not afford these wines. They drank pisco brandy, or a coarse plonk made from the Pais grape. The wines they had taken us to see were conceived for export alone and created in a style the producers thought we’d like.

This picture has changed a lot. Aurelio Montes mentioned the huge number of producers in Chile today and Chile has produced a trump card in the Carmenère variety - which has virtually died out in Bordeaux. The country continues to discover the potential of its terroir squashed between the Andes and the sea and the vines are now longer just on the irrigated plains, but cling to the perilous escarpments of the mountains themselves.

The big treat of the evening was a vertical of ten vintages of ‘M’: Montes’ top Cabernet-based Bordeaux blend (the Carmenère equivalent is called ‘Purple Angel’). I liked the 2009 and the 2005 best, the former is big and sassy and rather obviously new world, while the latter has (despite 14.5 abv) rather more Bordelais restraint. All the Ms achieved high marks in my book, with the possible exception of the 2004, which had a little nose of tar and Bovril, and which I liked less.  

I travelled far and wide in 1990. In the spring I spent a month in Australia. I was putting together a book on Syrah/Shiraz, but as the budget for these trips came from the big producers, I was sent off to see them irrespective of whether they made any Shiraz or not. One of these was Brown Brothers in Milawa.

Milawa

Milawa was one of those cute, old-fashioned towns that seem to abound in the state of Victoria. Had it not been for their rubble-stone gothic churches, with their nineteenth century ‘hotels’, (pubs) wooden colonnades and barge-boarded bungalows, they were faintly reminiscent of the Wild West. Apart from Brown Brothers, the only gastronomic port of call was an eccentric cheese-maker who had landed in the town a couple of years before and produced a cheese using indigenous yeasts that looked a bit like a Chaource. There was also a mustard manufacturer, a pot of whose rosemary mustard I took home with me. I still use the jar for seasoned salt.

Old John Brown was suspicious of the cheese-maker and his yeasts, because he feared that some of these things might get into his wine and launch an unscheduled fermentation. He was a handsome man, looking a little bit like the actor Ray Milland, who had made his first vintage in 1934. In his shorts and white socks, he was every inch an old fashioned Presbyterian, the product of the famous Scotch College in Melbourne.

I imagine the idea of a spontaneous fermentation had about as much charm for him as a visit from the Pope. At that time Old John was surrounded by his four sons, one of whom, Roger, was to die from a brain tumour later that year.

I mention Brown Brothers because I have tasted a few of their wines again recently. They used to be safe but dull. One the stars was the Orange Muscat, which was a bit of a tarts’ wine, but as an occasional lapsus, it had its charm. I did not take to ‘Cienna Rosso’ which is a sort of Lambrusco look-alike: red, sweet and frothy. I ended up cooking some leeks in it, and adding a good measure of white-wine vinegar. It tasted much better like that.

The surprise was 2008 Chardonnay from Banksdale in the King Valley. These Australian Chardonnays used to be sickeningly oleaginous, have the texture of lanoline, were clobbered with oak and reeked of whatever - mostly tropical fruit - flavours that were suggested on the winemaker’s packet of the cultured yeast. A sip of one of these monsters was enough to make you fall head-and-heels in love with the first Grüner Veltliner that came along. But as people have got fatter in the past couple of decades, wines have got slimmer, and this Chardonnay has a relatively subtle coco-nutty oakiness and fresh, lemon and pineapple fruitiness; but more important by far, the wine has the sort of filigree acidity that makes it good with food - in our case a slab of poached smoked haddock.

Bloody Mary

By late November a racking cough confined me to barracks. I made one last outing: to watch a bloody Mary competition at the ravishing Brasserie Zédel in Piccadilly organised by Carolyn Cavele of Tabasco Sauce. Although I was not judging, I was given samplers for the various cocktails which performed wonders in my throat. Of course these tournaments have the barmen seeking originality at all cost, which means a lot of very silly, new wave bloody Marys. It may have been my sickness speaking, but the rule for a bloody Mary seemed to be crystal clear: make it hot and spicy.