February Wine and Food
Posted: 5th March 2023
Like des Esseintes in J K Huysman’s dystopian novel A Rebours (Against Nature), I travel largely in my head these days. In January I was enjoying some refreshing Hunter Semillon on a hot Bondi Beach, and in the first half of February at least, I was drinking luscious Ausbruch in Austria-Hungary. In reality I never left London. The big tasting of Austrian wines was back in the calendar at its new location above the Science Museum following a Covid break. You look out of the window at the neo-baroque finials of the Exhibition Quarter built on the proceeds of the Great Exhibition of 1851, and realise just how badly the view has been desecrated by the slab blocks in the distance. It was sunny that day, and the tasting was also a social occasion meaning handshakes here and there and catching up with old friends.
It is now over thirty years since my first book on Austrian wines was published and most of the time I see the children and grandchildren of the people I met then. There are still a few veterans about whom I knew in the nineties, Thomas Klinger at Bründlmayer, is one. Thomas was full of the power and finesse of the 2021 vintage in Austria, which he said was up there with the greats, and proved it with a playful and promising Heiligenstein Riesling.
Alphart from Traiskirchen in the torrid Thermenregion is always one of my first ports of call. All the wines were stunning, but two 2021s outshone the others: a citrusy Zierfandler Ried Otzler and a spicy Rotgipfler from Ried Pressweingarten. I dropped in on Walter Skoff, who was a big man in Styria in the old days and enjoyed a lovely 2020 dry Gewürztraminer from Ried Kranach. Georg Prieler was flying the flag for Weißburgunder/Pinot Blanc in the Leitha Hills, of which the best was the 2020 Steinweingarten. For the reds he had brought three 2019 Blaufränkisch wines. The Johanneshöhe pleased me most. Prieler has always been a ‘class act’.
So too Roland Velich at Moric with his ancient Blaufränkisch vines on steep sites in the villages of Neckenmarkt and Lutzmannsburg. They are wines that repay study, the 2019s in particular: a Reserve ‘Moric’ and a Blaufränkisch Lutzmannsburg ‘Alte Reben’ with a whiff of raspberry fruit coupled with intense peppiness and a striking acidity.
It was a huge pleasure to see Pepi Umathum in London. Pepi was riding the new wave of Austrian wines on the Neusiedlersee even before the Wine Scandal broke out in 1985. As such he was pretty well everyone’s go-to winemaker in the later eighties and nineties. His wines have lost none of their edge particularly since he has added land in Jois at the top of the lake to his original collection in Frauenkirchen.
This was originally Hungary, of course, and Pepi has recently been vinifying Hárslevelű with great success. Everything is good here, starting with a simple Zweigelt (justifiably his bestseller) to his 2018 Kirschgarten Blaufränkisch and his Blaufränkisch and Cabernet Sauvignon ‘cuvée’ Haideboden.
I actually first met Kurt Feiler of Feiler-Artinger when he was a teenager. I well remember his lovely old house in Rust. Being where they are, Feiler-Artinger balance their portfolio between scrumptious sweet wines they make near the Neusiedlersee, and the Blaufränkisch they grow on the higher slopes above the lake. A simple 2021 Zweigelt was really lovely as was the 2018 Ausbruch Rust Pinot Cuvée.
Two weeks later I crossed the Leitha Hills and the Neusiedlersee again for a Tokaj tasting in the Vintners’ Hall. The Austrian terms ‘Ausbruch’ and the Hungarian ‘Aszu’ are, of course, related. They designate ‘nobly rotten’ grapes used to enrich a late picked wine. Originally there were three Hungarian sweet wines made this way. Rust is now in Austria and the other Ausbruch/Aszu is largely forgotten. It was in Transylvania. The Furmint grape was the mainstay. In the old days it was too acidic for dry wines, but now with climate change there are excellent dry Furmints, like the wine tasting of spiced apples I had from Breitenbach. Breitenbach also makes a delicious dry, late-picked Szamorodni (‘as we get it’). The 2009 was like a nutty amontillado; and then there was the 2018 Six Puttonyos Aszu: caramel, apples and that ‘rôti’ flavour the French attribute to nobly rotten wines.
Diznoko never disappoints: an exemplary dry wine, a sweet Szamorodni and two Aszus: 2013 five Puttonyos and six in 2016. The latter is clearly the better wine, but I’d have no objection to the 2013! The 2016 was less pear/peach and more orange/tangerine. Pajzos Megzer has lots of dry wines which come highly recommended. Their 2021 late harvest Hárslevelű is a delight. The grape character is very different to Furmint with lots of orange juice and Muscat aromas.
Until recently Royal Tokaj made no dry wines, that has changed and the new range can be quite uncompromising. The 2018 Nyulaszo has a sherry-like nuttiness and the 2016 Mezes Maly dry Szamorodni is like a proper amontillado. Of the Aszu wines, the 2017 Blue Label (5 Puttonyos) is all yellow peaches and oranges. The 2017 Nyulaszo 6 Puttonyos is a step up, with that prized ‘rôti’ character.
Istvan Szepsy was the man who revived Tokaj after 1990. His wines are worth tasting. ‘Hun’ is a dry Furmint made from young vines. Hungarians think Huns were a force for the good and they are clearly right in this instance. There are two other dry Furmints: the stark 2018 Estate wine and Urban 73, which is made in very small quantities and is much spicier. There was also a sweet Szamorodni, a blend of Furmint, Hárslevelű and Sargamuskotaly (177 grams of residual sugar) with a gorgeous pineapple flavour.
And then the next day I actually went somewhere. I left London for Paris and Paris for Provence. The forecast had told me to expect bad weather at the Domaine des Anges, but it was much better than expected. As we were such a small party we stopped at La Bergerie at the bottom of the hill for dinner. In the quarter of a century I have known this place it has gone from being a pleasantly crummy bar to a restaurant, but the quality fluctuates constantly. This Shrove Tuesday it was somewhere in the middle, but it was refreshingly busy for a Tuesday night. I liked my marrow bones on toast and pigs’ cheeks with mash well enough, but the others complained about their bavettes. It is certainly not the best region of France for steak.
On Friday we went to a largely empty Bédouin for dinner at L’Escapade. The St Germain des Prés of the Ventoux was empty, due to a combination of half-term and a cold beginning to the spring season. The restaurant still bore the scars of Covid: short menus and elevated prices. Again I liked my fish soup and chicken breast cooked with honey and spices, but it was nothing special.
For the rest of the time we ate at home enjoying the abundance in France’s shops and markets. On a sunny Friday morning we drove to the market in Carpentras to get a few things I needed. Half-term meant that only two-thirds of the stalls were operating. The only worry was a drought that had lasted most of the winter, and which was unlikely to have been alleviated by a few heavy showers on Friday. There was some good local meat provided by the Ventoux Pork Initiative and on the Thursday night we had had a ravishing little shoulder of spring lamb, so small that it was hardly big enough for three men.
There were tasting notes to be written on the current range. Florent Chave told me that 2022 had been just average, but he had succeeded in making fresh, fruity wines. With all its problems, 2021 impresses me more and more: the pure Viognier Chérubim was a triumph as indeed were the mostly Syrah Archanges from 2020 and 2021. Earlier that month, I had served up a magnum of the 2005 Archange that appeared to have lost nothing in eighteen years. We also enjoyed a tasting with the neighbours, but it was otherwise a very quiet time, if a welcome reprieve from bleak reality at home.
Australia and January Wine
Posted: 1st February 2023
You catch me writing, swaddled in a collection of hats, coats and blankets, or periodically burning £20 notes like some caricature ‘Buller Boy’ - but more to feed a feeble heat to this draughty house than show off my huge wealth to the ‘proles’ tramping along outside. In the circumstances it is good to conjure up other stereotypes: Australia, for example, and think of Bondi beach-boys and girls, and warmth, and sun, and maybe even wine. O to be able to say ‘I read, much of the night, and go south in the winter.’
Wine helps. Wine is captured sunlight, and while you drink it you can fantasise about warmth. Australia is a fairly hot place in January, and it is fitting perhaps that the Australia Day tasting is the first major event in the calendar of the New Year.
I have neglected Australia in recent years, and as I walked through the room, I caught glimpses of half-remembered friends, whom I used to see often thirty years ago and more. Some of the wines were the same, others quite new. I stopped, for example at Tahbilk. When I visited Château Tahbilk in Victoria in 1990 I was shown Shiraz vines planted in 1860 which looked as solid as trees. They were older than any equivalent Syrah vines in Europe. There is still about half a hectare of these, but the wines were not at the tasting. That wine I enjoyed then costs a small fortune now. The stress at the tasting was on the antiquity of their Marsanne vines, planted in 1927 and the good, nutty wines they produced from them.
Jim Barry is one of the most famous producers in the Clare Valley. This was an impressive collection, from the crisp 2021 Assyrtiko, to the peppery 2017 Shiraz and the opulent 2019 Shiraz/Cabernet. There were a couple of single-vineyard vines: the more refined 2020 Watervale Shiraz and The cool, cherry-scented 2016 McRae Wood Shiraz.
I thought I had better go and make my peace with Brian Croser whom I offended once in a light-hearted article I wrote for Punch (those were the days). I headed for Petaluma, but it transpired that Croser didn’t work there anymore. The wines were not disappointing, even if I might have wanted a little less ‘cat’ in the White Label Sauvignon Blanc. Chardonnays were offered either partly or fully oaked (cheaper White versus more expensive Yellow Label). Both worked; and there was an austere but good Yellow Label Riesling from the Clare Valley.
Tahbilk seems to have ceased to be a château, but Château Tanunda in the Barossa is still flying the flag for France in that respect (I cried as Napoleon is meant to have shouted when he glimpsed Schloss Finkenstein in East Prussia: ‘Enfin un château!’). Tanunda is an example of the more slimmed down style of Australian wines around today, quite the opposite to the Barossa I knew back then. I liked two Cabernets: Matthews Road and The Château, but the best for me was the 2019 Shiraz made from 50-year old vines, with its rich, almost sweet fruit.
Some of the best Australians are imported by Liberty Wines, such as Shaw + Smith in the Adelaide Hills, with their very measured Sauvignon and suave M3 Chardonnay. Here were also two bottles of Henschke wine, the Johann’s Garden GSM (Grenache, Shiraz, Mataro - or Grenache, Syrah, Mourvèdre - a Southern Rhone-style blend) and a sensational 2018 ‘Keyneton Euphonium Shiraz Cabernet’. There is still a bottle of 1988 somewhere around here. I must drink that. There was even my old friend Nine Popes from Charlie Melton. My last two bottles were polished off in the 2019 Paris heatwave.
The last time I went to Australia was in 2004? I had been invited to taste 50 vintages of Wynn’s Coonawarra Shiraz. My host then was Sue Hodder, who is about to make her thirtieth vintage at the estate. At the cheaper end, the 2021 Shiraz was raisiny, ‘The 2020 Siding’ Cabernet rather smoky. I preferred the 2019 Gables which had more sweet charm. The 2019 Michael Shiraz was a big leap up in price (£80). It was impressively massive and smooth. The 2019 John Riddoch Cabernet (£125) was had plenty of character like a rich fruitcake. I tried the 1992 as well. It was distinctly earthy.
Australia has its classics, like old, unoaked Hunter Valley Semillon, for example, and the wonderful ‘liqueur’ wines of Rutherglen. There were so many serious wines at the tasting that I neglected and I felt a little naughty slipping away to try a few on the Awin Barratt Siegel stand: a fine Muscat à petits grains rouges from Campbells with an aroma of dried apricots, and its earthy, more expensive stablemate. The best for me was the Muscat from Stanton and Killeen, which was all coffee and mint. Then I fell into a long chat with Michael Awin about Peter Lehmann and some of the other great characters of Australian wine - almost all of them are long gone.
Besides the big tasting, I have had other Australian wines, such as the 2021 Taperoo Valley Chardonnay with its tastes of peaches and boiled sweets and the 2017 D’Arenberg McLaren Vale GSM, a tarry, raspberry-scented wine with a whiff of mint. The best wine I have had at home this month was the 2020 Naive Grenache from Château Maris in the Minervois. It is slightly ‘porty’ and throws its chest out a bit, but it is full of black fruits - cherries in particular - toast and game. Best of all is its frank expression. Despite its name, it is not a bit shy and in this cold January it is hugely warming.
Christmas Food & Wines 2022
Posted: 3rd January 2023
We are getting old. The house is the oldest, followed by me. The children are still young, but they too are getting older and they like wine more and more. With wine the story is much the same. We subsist on cheap stuff from local shops, but a lot of the rest is old. Some is certainly on the brink of being too old to drink, but it soldiers on, festering before the mellowing year; a situation aggravated by the infrequency with which we take a punt on some of these old bottles, I still abide by the illusion that we are waiting for the appropriate person to drop round to share them with us. ‘Some day he’ll come along…’
Certain collections are dying out. This year we said goodbye to my last bottle of great Italian wine. We have no more top white burgundy, and the red Burgundy cache is thinning out. We are also down to our last bottle of vintage port, although that is something only ever opened at Christmas. Even if there were to be some sort of windfall in 2023, I would still find it a problem to lay my hands on any really mature wines at realistic prices. With time we will have to accept that the wines we drink at Christmas may not be as good as they were.
As ever the tree went up after sunset on the 24th, and we waited for a friend to come round for dinner. She arrived clutching a bottle of Boller (which was unexpected), so we drank that before going on to the Gardet Brut Tradition that we were going to offer her. Gardet in Chigny-les-Roses, just south-east of Reims was the house champagne of le père Legrand in the Galerie Vivienne when I discovered it in the eighties. With champagne selling for knock-out prices, it is still notably good value. Of course it hardly compares to Boller, but it kept its end up, even with the smoked salmon.
This was the side of Achill Island salmon I brought back from Sligo earlier in the month. It is wonderful stuff: not wild, but the fish are kept in cages off the coast of Mayo and the cure is quite old fashioned, so the salmon is oily, smoky and rich and not that bland stuff we have got used to here. With our lobsters we had a 2020 Chablis 1er Cru Montmains, from Jean-Marc Brocard, shipped by the Wine Society under its Exhibition label. It was perfect, classic Chablis. To accompany the hard cheeses that evening (very good Colston Bassett stilton, a truffle pecorino and some proper, gooey taleggio from my friends Tony and Steve at Salvino) there was a bottle of 1990 Château Patâche d’Aux, which was in excellent condition - again a classic, mature Médoc wine. There was even a 1998 vintage port from the Quinta do Silval, with that gum cistus aroma I like so much, but it was not robust and went unto decline on the second day. The quinta is owned by the Magalhães family. Generally anglicised as ‘Magellan’ they claim descent from the great explorer Ferdinand. The port was served with my wife’s bûche de Noël filled with sweet chestnut purée.
We had intended to go to Midnight Mass but the wine got the better of us. We went the next day. The organist sang a plainchant version of the Mass and there were three good hymns which only we seemed to sing with any gusto. That’s what a Protestant schooling will do for you. Then there were presents around the tree with a bottle of 2013 Grand Cru Le Mesnil champagne, a really lovely rich, pure chardonnay wine. As I have done these past three years, I made a Venezuelan Pan de jamón stuffed with ham, bacon and olives. I had been able to get the elements for my Christmas terrine this year, so later, while we cooked the beef, we had some slivers on toast. I don’t like a heavy sweet wine with this and would have naturally opted for some Alsatian Gewürztraminer if I had had any. I opened a bottle of white 2020 Domaine des Anges instead.
The beef was our standard dry-aged heifer forerib, with red cabbage and roast potatoes. With this I chose some 1995 Savigny-les-Beaune Premier Cru Les Lavières from the Domaine Chandon de Briailles. The trick with these older Burgundies is knowing when to open them. I pulled the cork as we sat down to dinner and decanted the wine. It took about ten minutes to open up and was really lovely, but it faded within half an hour, so you needed to be quick off the mark. There were runny cheeses from La Fromagerie: a vacherin mont d’or, which was perfect, and a saint-marcellin that never happened. It curled up in its little terracotta dish like an old slipper and refused to budge. We had a Sussex pond pudding. There was plenty of port left but also a call for a sweet wine, so I found a Tokay 5 Puttonyos I’d bought for £12.99 from Lidl. It was astonishingly good, not fat and cloying but with a wonderful honeyed structure. I am only sorry that I didn’t buy more.
For the other days of Christmas the wines are the standard offering here, but to amuse my son I uncorked a couple of bottles of beer which must have been acquired in 1987 or 1988. I had been warned that they would be over the top. One as an ordinary Grimbergen (7 ABV) with a champagne cork, and the other was the ‘tripel’ version (8.6 ABV). The latter had ullaged to mid-shoulder, so it was no surprise that it had lost its sparkle. Still it had a great taste for a few minutes at least: dark chocolate and cherries. The simple beer had ullaged less and there was a little effervescence still, although that stopped quickly. There was even a hoppy bitterness and some of the chocolate taste of its big brother: not bad for a thirty-five year old.
New Year’s Eve we celebrate in an Italian way with a zampone stuffed pig’s trotter, lentils (they represent all the money you are going to make in the New Year in order to buy more wine) some tomato passata and mashed potatoes. The wine for this was my last bottle of 1997 Masi Costasera Amarone Classico. As always, it seems, it was pretty well the star of the show with its huge concentration of fruit. Age, it seems, cannot wither it. My wife had made a Maltese chocolate cake that tasted a bit like a panforte, and with that we had a bottle of Münzenrieder’s 1997 Sämling Trockenbeerenauslese from Burgenland. It was the colour of teak, but old as it was it had lost none of its loveliness on the palate. Now I will have to find something to top it when I bring out the galette des rois on 6 January.
Posted: 6th December 2022
The autumn tastings have ground to a halt. The wine trade looks to fill its coffers in the countdown to Christmas. Undoubtedly the brightest star in the firmament this November was the Union de Grand Crus, which includes many of the most famous names in Bordeaux. It was a chance to evaluate 2020, which was clearly a stellar vintage, although some growers are pointing at their 2018 as well. There were a lot of wines, and not just cru classes. I had a painful knee, so I concentrated on the classed growths. These wines were my favourites:
Graves: Bouscaut, Haut-Bailly and Carbonnieux. Top was Domaine de Chevalier: smoky, rich, concentrated but supple. The excellent Smith-Haut-Laffitte I had tasted elsewhere.
St Emilion: Dassault, Clos Fourtet, Larcis Ducasse. I had already tasted many. The best were Troplong-Mondot with its toasty, red fruits nose and wonderful structure, Valandraud was quite gorgeous on the palate, more black fruit than red, and Villemaurine - pastry rather than toast, rich in fruit, possibly a great. Pomerol: La Cabanne (in a lighter style) and La Conseillante. The best was a stupendous La Croix de Gay.
Listrac: Fourcas-Hosten; Haut-Médoc: Cantemerle. The top wine was La Lagune: cherries, well integrated, cooling tannins. Margaux: Desmirail (not sure I’ve ever had a good Desmirail before), Kirwan, du Tertre. The top was Marquis-de-Terme, announced by a beautiful colour, lovely all round, one of the greatest wines in the tasting. St Julien: Grauaud-Larose (had the 2005 at a friend’s recently, and was relieved to find it had not gone ‘big’ and Parkery), Léoville-Barton. Top: Beychevelle, an absolute classic with cedary nose and elegance, and Talbot: striking colour, toasty nose, impressive concentration (always a big wine). Pauillac: Batailley (horrid bottle) and Croizet-Bages. Best Grand-Puy-Ducasse, lovely nose, true Médocain elegance, Lynch-Bages, colour and concentration. St Estèphe: Lafon-Rochet.
Sauternes and Barsac: 2020 was not a great year for noble rot or botrytis, but Doisy-Daëne and Doisy-Védrines did well for all that. Sigalas Rabaud showed its 2015, which was the best Sauternes in the tasting.
There are wonderful Vouvrays from the Loire that are infected with noble rot too, and coupled with the pronounced acidity of the Chenin grape, they can be superb. Most Vouvray, however, is off dry, adding enough sweetness to cover Chenin’s occasional austerity. Demi-sec wines suit the food of the region with its pâtés and rillettes. Climate change, however, means increased ripeness, and that allows producers to make more and more dry wine. Take Sylvain Gaudron, who produces a bone-dry La Symphonie or even better, his Belle au naturel. Mouton Noir is new, 2021 is his first vintage, but the wines point to a ‘sparkling’ future. Domaine Paris has a sparkling wine which spends eight years on its lees, not to mention a sumptuous sweet ‘moelleux’ 2018, with 170 grams residual sugar reeking of peach and pineapple.
The most famous soils in Vouvray are chert: flint and limestone. Some of the best wines in the tasting came from the Domaine Brisebarre where the soils are predominantly clay, however, and the dry wine has a nutty, salty character. The best wine I tried was the complex 2017 Demi-Sec. Bourillon Dorléans makes lots of wines, including the sparkling cuvée Gaston Dorléans, which spends five years on its lees and has lovely aromas of ripe pears and peaches. The 2017 La Bourdonnerie Demi-Sec was nicely honeyed, and there was a proper sweet 2016 ‘moelleux’ La Levrière combining rich fruit and flintiness. This plays second fiddle to the 2016 La Coulée d’Or which was raisiny with hints of pears and pepper. The Domaine d’Orfeuilles Brut Atemporelle combines three vintages and was nicely balanced. Best of all was the 2020 Silex. There is good Demi-sec and a smoky 2020 moelleux called Réserve d’automne.
Another big tasting was Rioja. I used to enjoy my visits to Rioja, down to the last one about eighteen years ago. I spent a week in Haro on my own, passing the days with growers and entertaining myself in the evening. I bought my son his first pair of shoes there but the evenings took a bit of planning. I’d learn some Spanish, read a bit, visit a bar for a beer and watch the clock until 9.45 when I’d stroll down to the main square for dinner. Even when I lasted until ten I was still the first person in the restaurant. The menus were interchangeable: baby lambs, sometimes with a bit of black pudding to start; sometimes with potatoes, at others just bread and salad. The diet hasn’t changed much since Roman times.
Now I am stuck in the past, knowing only the famous estates, but fortunately I ran into Tim Atkin who gave me tips for the better modern producers. They were sometimes very new like Viña del Lentisco where although the vines were planted in 1930, they have only recently decided to bottle their wines themselves. The 2021 Selvanevada was excellent value at £13.30 but the real fireworks appeared with the suave 2017 Villota Selección and the 2019 Viña Gena Villota. From under the table appeared a gorgeous pure Graciano 2019 Villota.
Rioja is adapting to climate change by seeking higher vineyards and cooler expositions. Arzcuren Bodega y Viñedos makes some truly special wines like the opulent 2021 Monte Gatun, and the 2021 Solomazuelo Anfora (no guesses as to how it is aged) which grows in a north-west-facing vineyard at 600 metres. The grape variety is the rare Mazuelo, just as the 2020 Sologarnacha Anfora is pure Grenache. There is not much of the latter (under a hectare) but it is wonderful. The floral 2018 Solomazuelo is also lovely, like the 2019 Finca el Foro, a field blend made from a very small parcel of five cultivars grown in sand.
Bodegas 202 is another estate that has gone up in the world, with vines planted between 620 and 700 metres. The 2016 Aistear is pure, low yielding Tempranillo and a super wine. Macrobert & Canals was entirely new to me, It was one of the few houses (I have so many great memories of Lopez de Heredia’s Viña Tondonia) which makes a lovely white in its 2020 Laventura.
Another new tendency has been to look beyond the standard Tempranillo for new grapes. There was always masses of Garnacha in Rioja, but it was decried. Now people are more open about it. At Contino, for example, the 2019 is 100 percent Garnacha and all the better for it. This does not mean that Tempranillo is dead. The reds from Bodegas y Viñedos Pujanza are 100 percent Tempranillo and were some of the loveliest in the tasting. They ranged from the 2016 Pujanza Hado (£16) to the 2018 Cisma (£170). Cisma was upstaged in price by Bodegas Roda’s 2018 Cirsion at £195 - only 8,377 litres were bottled.
The Barón de Ley is widely distributed and good value for money. The pick of the crop was the 2017 Barón de Ley Reserva, a chunky, slightly old-fashioned Tempranillo-based Rioja (nothing wrong with that). The Bodegas Valdemar has also been looking at different grape varieties and single vineyards. The 2019 Balcón de Pilatos is 100% hundred-year old Maturana which tasted a bit like Cabernet Franc. There are 35 plots scattered over eight hectares.
Cosme Palacio is another respected house. The ‘1894’ (actually 2017) is of the new ‘Frenchy’ style and costs around £55 a bottle. Better, I thought, was the 2014 Glorioso with its mulberry tastes, which sells for around half that. Marqués de Riscal is one of the old houses created to provide wine for Bordeaux when it was devastated by Phylloxera in the late nineteenth century. They still produce great wine like the 2018 Reserva and the 2016 Gran Reserva made from 80-year old vines. CVNE is another venerable institution. The 2018 Reserva is even slightly gamy, a real classic, and a lot cheaper at c£16 than many of the new wines. Muga is another house which has been pleasing palates for generations. The top wine here is the 2018 Selección Especial, which will give you change from £30. It is still reticent, and might be better in a few years. Remelluri makes good wine under its Viñedos de San Vincente label - the 2018 - and has a really wonderful, slightly peppery 2014 Reserva.
Knee pain stopped me from going to Tim’s big Ribera del Duero tasting as well, but I had two very good ones at home: 2016 Aster and the 2018 Tinto Arzuaga Reserva. The Aster was a concentrated mass of black fruits and toast, but may be drunk with pleasure now; Arzuaga had amazing development, starting with pepper and liquorice and opening up to rich, creamy back fruits.
Tesco’s Finest 2018 Malbec is a good buy. It is quite a grown-up Malbec: creamy, peppery with a hint of almonds plus the usual black fruits and chocolate. For those who must have ‘claret’ with their Christmas dinner there is the 2018 Sirius which has good, serious grip and an authentic aroma of liquorice.
The fashion for Provencal rosé seems in no way to have abated. The best I’ve had recently was the 2021 Love Léoube: a pretty salmon pink with aromas of strawberries and lemons.
It’s that time of the year again when people are looking for good value alternatives to champagne. Most champagne is well above the £30 mark now. Own label wines are nudging £20, but Aldi has an excellent range that goes as low as £14. Cava is not to mistaken for champagne but is often good. The 2020 Vintage Cordoniu exudes mangoes, even mango skins, tangerines with a little bit of chocolate. The Reserve Cava from Roger Goulart is recommended for its fine bead, slight saltiness and pineapple taste.
The 2019 Château la Rame, Sainte Croix du Mont is a pudding wine from a satellite of Sauternes and will not be visited as often by ‘noble rot’ the fungus that gives it that characteristic ‘rôti’ taste. The wine is lighter than Sauternes but in a good year like this it can be lovely.
Posted: 2nd November 2022
Writing on a sunny All Hallows Eve and reading reports of temperatures well into the twenties all over Europe, it might appear that we have been blessed in 2022, but it should perhaps be remembered that vineyards were hit by every kind of blight, and the most destructive among them was heat. Grapes don’t actually like too much heat. They respond by refusing to take nourishment from the soil. If they are not hit by fires, they shrivel up for want of moisture. It will be a smallish crop: late frost had made sure of that even before the sun came out.
Hot years are not the best years either. Wine needs a balance of fruit and acidity, and if wines get too much sun their acidity decreases, and they lack that playfulness that renders wine enjoyable. There will be too much alcohol and too little fruit: so it may not be that 2022 is the vintage of the century any more than, say, 2003 was.
It is, of course, far too early to tell, but a good many Mainlanders are already informing us that they have had a good year. A little rain in September helped too. This was one of about fifteen really hot vintages to occur already this century to the degree that cool years such as 2021 are now becoming rare. Last month I looked at some 2021 Chablis. Despite frost, rain and cold weather the wines were much more typically Chablis than those grilled in the dog days of other recent summers. Similarly Beaujolais seemed often heavy and denatured at a recent tasting in the East End. I discussed this with an MW friend on the way to the Asda tasting in Marble Arch. He also thought you would find more typicity in the 2021s. These intemperate wines lacked the Dionysian qualities of Beaujolais. I was expecting better, but some good people had stayed away and it seems the curse of Beaujolais Nouveau has still not been fully exorcised.
The following cru wines impressed me: Brouilly - a fresh figgy 2020 Château de la Chaize, a concentrated 2021 Roches Bleues and a rich 2020 La Croquante from Château du Pavé; Chiroubles - 2020 Antony Charvet Granite, and the powerful 2020 Château de Javernand; Fleurie - a long 2020 Château de la Chaize, André Collonges Grand Vières, 2020 Patrick Tranchard’s Côte de Poncié with its black fruits and the cherry-scented 2020 Julien Sunier; Juliénas - 2019 Château de Pougelon Beauvernay; Morgon - an intense 2019 Chaffangeons and a 2020 from the Roches de Py with great colour and finish. Nothing struck me from Moulin à Vent.
The other end of the luxury scale was without doubt a tasting of Grand Cru Bordeaux at Church House in Westminster. It was a lovely sunny day and Westminster schoolchildren were spilling out of their houses in Dean’s Yard. Inside there was a smallish selection of top wines. The prices were discretely omitted from the catalogue. It was a huge treat to taste the 2020 Château Smith Haut Lafite, which just pipped the 2019 and the 2018; the same was true of the gorgeous Château Gazin from Pomerol. By this stage I was beginning to believe that 2020 was going to be the best wine in every line-up, it was certainly the case with Château Canon La Gaffelière, but when it came to Graf Neipperg’s other flagship - La Mondotte, I preferred the 2019 and 2018. With Château Rauzan Sègla in Margaux we returned to 2020 although I’d be happy with the 2018, which was almost ready to drink. At Château Brainaire-Ducru the 2020 was upstaged by the 2021 and at Pontet-Canet, the 2019.
These are, of course, dream wines. It is rare that I actually get to drink them. Luxury is still a largely French market. Frèrejean champagne was new to me. The family are cousins of the Taittingers, but their champagnes are based on the Côte des Blancs, the grand cru villages of Avize and Cramant and the Premier Cru Grauves. The best are pure Chardonnay, like the Non-Vintage Blanc de Blancs which, like the others, spends five years on its lees before release. I would be happy with that, but the 2012 Hussards is even better and contains a small amount of Pinot Noir. Pure Chardonnay again is VV26 NV Grand Cru which is made from the oldest vines and aged in second-hand oak casks. Production is limited to fewer than 10,000 bottles and the price tag leaves little change out of £150. That is upstaged by the 2008 Premier Cru Deep Sea Aged. This is straight Chardonnay again and spends a year suspended from a buoy sixty metres below the water off the coast of Brittany. Just 180 bottles are filled (Harrods has sixty) so don’t be surprised that it costs about £825 a bottle. It is rich and concentrated, and rather delicious, but then again at that price...
Despite customs duty, and a weak pound, there are still places that make wines for almost every pocket. Some of these are in East Central Europe. I was back in the East End for a tasting taking in Albania, Bosnia, Bulgaria, Croatia, Hungary, Moldova and Slovenia, plus a single Austrian. I had dropped in to taste friends from Bulgaria brought in by the Old Cellar, such as the Rubin from Georgiev and & Milkov and the Mavrud from the Rumella both in Thrace. I also tasted a number of wines from Szekszárd, near where my Austrian family lived before they settled in Vienna. I was impressed by Sebestyén and their bikavers or red blends: Mosaik, Porkoláb and Görögszó. Bikavers often strike me a lot more than straight Kekfrankos (Blaufränkisch).
A tasting of wines from New South Wales in September proved inspiring: here were some decidedly refreshing Australian whites for once, particularly from high altitude sites such as Orange. Philip Shaw makes lovely Chardonnays, The Architect and Number 11 and (red) Pinot Noirs, Winewalker and Number 8. Rowlee, also in Orange, makes a really crisp Arneis; while Mayfield had a convincing Riesling made in a Pfalz style.
From Grove Estate in Hilltops came the 2016 Think Outside the Circle, a textbook Australian Cabernet. The Hunter has rediscovered its treasures in the form of proper un-oaked Semillon and Shiraz. Leogate had a really wonderful Shiraz in the 2019 Western Slopes. Brokenwood has a reputation second to none, with a zippy 2022 and a splendidly ripe 2015. Of course it is Tyrrells that is most famous for Semillon and their 2016 was a dream. Another top Shiraz was an earthy 2014 Reserve from Hollydene.
Australia is still haunted by a (possibly erroneous) feeling that it can prove its sophistication by making much thinner wines. Its climate would often suggest the opposite. As small tasting of sustainable wines (the wines came in sachets direct from Australia), was mostly disappointing, but I liked the blueberry aromas on Giles Cooke’s 2021 Thistledown Montepulciano and Nero d’Avola, the measured 2019 Cabernet Black Label from Wynn’s Coonawarra and the 2018 Clare Valley Shiraz from Wakefield Wines.
Increasingly discount supermarkets have the monopoly for good-value wines, Lidl, with its policy of snatching stray lots of wines cultivates a certain following, as people go in the hope of finding bargains. Aldi’s buying is more staid, but its core list is a bigger (although many are only available online). Its 2015 Blanc de Blancs champagne is a star at £21.99 and there is an excellent waxy 2019 Aglianico at £7.99. From the online list don’t miss the 2016 Margaux Château d’Arsac (£19.99) or better still the juicy 2016 Pomerol Château Moulinet (£19.99). There are halves of brown sugary PX sherry (£5.49) and a really good London Dry gin from Haysmith’s at £14.99.
It had been a very long time since I had been to an Asda tasting. Again their champagne was noteworthy: 2014 Louvel Vintage Brut (£30) was rather more exciting than Pommery, and there was the chance to taste the Bollinger Rosé (£50). Among the still whites was an excellent Extra Special Albarino (£8.50) and noteworthy Pecorinos (£6) and Fianos (£6). From the reds, the Fleurie (£8.50) was tip-top. Really special was the 2018 ‘1895’ Barolo (£16.50), I can’t imagine too many rivals at this price. The Extra Special Amarone (£16) was a big, peppery wine to go with the New Zear Zampone. M Nieves Monastrell and 2017 Extra Special Rioja Reserva were both good value at £8.50, and at £12.50, the Gran Reserva from El Coto. The 2021 Ravenswood Zinfandel was all toast and cherries (£12), and for the Christmas port, there was Grahams’ Tawny (£15). For a real bargain try Mavrodaphne tasting of chocolate and malt for £6.50. A bit grander (but worth it) is the leathery, fresh figgy 2010 Dows’ Bonfim (£23). It will provide warmth when it gets properly cold.
The State of France
Posted: 7th October 2022
I got back from a few days in Provence in the middle of the month. It had been one of those vintages again: day after day at over forty degrees Celsius. My host told me that on many days he had been unable to leave his quarters before ten o’clock at night. The real problem is that this is now the norm. Cooler, wetter vintages like 2021 are exceptional; and the wines get more and more alcoholic as a result. Long ago I suggested planting Carignan or Cinsault to add to the reds; cultivars that can be picked at 12.5, give a lot of juice, and work well in tandem with Grenache and Syrah. At these temperatures Grenache might bring you sixteen percent, and it oxidises easily. Carignan is a good antioxidant and it can bring the wine down to a more modest 13.5.
I am told this will now happen. The wines are very good, but when your dinner drink nudges fifteen degrees it limits the number of glasses you might safely consume. And it is not just Provence: I met a Bordeaux grower this week who told me about a Pinot Noir he’d had from Sancerre in the ‘temperate’ Loire. It was fifteen degrees. ‘It tasted like Grenache!’ He said.
Clearly something has to be done. It’s not just the reds either. Wine is not an oil painting to be hung on the wall and admired, it is a beverage. It is there to refresh the palate and soothe the mind. I like a glass of white or rosé wine as an aperitif. It should be able to tickle my palate and excite my appetite. It won’t do that if it is fifteen degrees, low in acidity and blistering with oak. Unrelenting sun and the wrong approach will make it that way. Whites need to be brought in earlier, picked at night, and made (once again) from varieties that don’t yield so much alcohol. Picpoul de Pinet is a local, Languedocian variety, and the wines come out at around thirteen percent. Picpoul is versatile and refreshing. Rosé might be perceived as the solution, but another is to make sparkling wine, and these were among the more striking brews on offer at a recent London tasting of Languedoc wines.
The advantage of sparkling wine is that you can pick the grapes relatively green and retain the refreshing acidity. At the Languedoc tasting I noted both the Crémant and Blanquette de Limoux wines. They are high-grown, and Crémant at least mixes grape varieties to achieve greater complexity. I singled out Les Graimenous and La Rose No 7 from Domaine J Laurens as well as the pure Mauzac Brut Nature Blanquette from Maison Antech, which would make excellent aperitifs.
There were some good reds too even if many are 14.5 or more. Starting at the top: two wines from the Domaine de Villeneuve in the consistently reliable Pic St Loup - 2020 Happy Culteur and 2017 Chant des Roches both brimming with fruit; the 2019 Vignes Royales from Domaines Auriol proves the worth of the schisty Berlou sub-appellation of St Chinian; 2019 Milo from Aubert et Mathieu in Minervois La Livinière was a nice peppery Syrah-based red; the 2020 Les Sacrés from Ams Tram Gram had good body and a nice terroir nose; and two wines from ancient vines from the Domaine de la Cendrillon in the Corbières - Inédite and No 1, both 2016, were outstanding.
Vignobles et Signatures brought together some well-known French estates at the University Women’s Club. It was lovely to taste the Domaine Cauhapé in Jurançon again, the dry wines focusing on Gros Manseng and the sweets on Petit Manseng, and to learn the value of the ancillary Courbu, Camarelet and Lauzet grapes. There was a nutty 2020 Eclipse and the 2019 C de Cauhapé, not to mention the classic sweet wine, the 2020 Symphonie de Novembre. From Chinon, Couly-Dutheil was there as was their excellent Les Chanteaux Chinon Blanc and their reds, including the famous single vineyard Clos de l’Echo. There was a marvellous 2008 Banyuls Grand Cru from Coume del Mas: leather, figs and chocolate.
Also in the Women’s Club, Charline Drappier presenting her ungreedy family champagnes from their land in the Aube, including the biscuity Clarevallis, from near Clairvaux, the Cistercian abbey Napoleon turned into a high-security prison (the jail is due to be released next year), a ‘Burgundian’ Brut Nature from Les Riceys and another Brut Nature ‘Sans Soufre’ with a beautiful length. The treat was the mellow 2012 Grande Sendrée.
There were some fine Rhone wines from Alain Jaume including a buttery 2020 Butte d’Or Condrieu with aromas of lemon and apricot; a 2020 Grande Garrigue Vacqueyras and a 2020 Le Miocène Châteauneuf-du-Pape that had me thinking of poires au vin.
The Domaine de l’Hortus in Pic St Loup is an old friend. From a sappy white composed of six cultivars, to the toasty, creamy 2020 Bergerie, to the Grande Cuvée of the same year culled from mid-slope below the famous Pic, these wines have been an inspiration for forty years. Then there were some treats from Domaine Roux in St Aubin, white Burgundy from St Aubin and Chassagne Montrachet (Premier Cru Les Macherelles 2020) with a little whiff of fresh cut parsnips, and then a raspberry-scented 2019 Vougeot premier cru, Les Petits Vougeots, which needed lots of time and a more cherry-like Chambolle-Musigny premier cru Les Noirots of the same vintage.
The wines finished with the famous Château de Tracy in Pouilly-sur-Loire. There was the basic 2021, a really catty Sauvignon Blanc, and then the 2019 Haute Densité (17,000 vines per hectare) with wonderful intensity, and then 2017 101 Rangs (rows) planted in 1908. There is something of a russet apple, and real feeling of breed.
Then there were spirits: the Lesgourgues family owns the Château de Laubade estate in Bas-Armagnac, as well as Château Haut Selve in the Graves (look out for the 2018 Reserve) and Château Peyros Marie Blanque in Madiran. The 2006 armagnac from Laubade is a blend of many grape varieties and has that enchanting smell of prunes. Francis Abécassis makes cognac as well as a seductive orange liqueur and a delicious Pineau des Charentes. There is a range of cognacs from the Fins Bois: a distinguished floral VSOP and a rather more orangy XO and then the same from Grande Champagne: a VSOP redolent of pears and pastry, and an XO with rancio notes - that telltale dried apricot smell.
Jean-Paul Durup had shown me some 2021 Chablis. The year was fraught with disasters but he saw it as particularly good. I was struck by how much Chablis was returning to its original, austere character, after masquerading as a big fat, oaky white Burgundy for a couple of decades. I think the leaner year helped. Durup compared it to 2016. A fabulous Vieilles Vignes was produced from vines planted in 1905, 1926 and 1942. The Vau de Vey had an earthy, catty side, and the nutty 2019 Reine Mathilde was a blend of other premier crus. It needs another three years to bring it round.
There was more Chablis at the GCF (Grands Chais de France - the holdings of the Alsatian Helfrich family) Private Wine Days. They own the Domaines Marguerite Carillon, Michaut and the négociant houses Moillard-Thomas and Moillard-Grivot and Chartron et Trébuchet. The same austerity was recognisable in the Vaucoupin from Michaut, although Marguerite Carillon’s Beauroy was richer and oakier. The range I liked best was Chartron et Trébuchet, the Fourchaume in particular. I tasted their red Burgundies as well: aAn exemplary 2019 Pommard, a gorgeous 2019 Corton-Renardes and (unsurprisingly) a 2016 Clos de Vougeot that made me wish I could spare £215.10.
The tasting was in a secretive skyscraper by Waterloo Bridge. Another event that favours tall buildings is the annual Saint Emilion Grand Cru Classé tasting. The 2019 was clearly a spectacular vintage, but there were other wines, such as the 2016 Château Bellefont-Belcier and the Château de Ferrand or the 2009 Clos des Jacobins. For me the best of the 2019s were Clos des Jacobins, the Château la Commanderie, the Couvent des Jacobins, Château Dassault, Château de Ferrand and Château Fonroque.
Wines like these are part of the French crown jewels: their future will not be placed in doubt until rising temperatures force their owners to buy land in Normandy or Brittany. But such things still come at a huge price. I went home and consoled myself with a bottle of 2021 Château les Mesclances, Cuvée Saint Honorat, a rosé with a peachy aroma, some power and an impressive structure. And it was very good too at cooling those last rays of summer.
Paris, Berlin, Munich
Posted: 7th September 2022
It has been a long time since I travelled so much in one month, but these journeys were a mixture of duty, work and holiday and in no way was I expecting to eat or drink anything exceptional. I went to Paris in a heatwave to see my ninety-five year old mother. Being August half the shops were shut and most Parisians away by the sea. The nearest to a gastronomic experience I had was the cheap menu at the Terminus Nord: egg mayonnaise with celeriac, a chicken breast with a buttery potato purée and a pichet of Sylvaner. It was still a pleasure to be in one of Paris’s great brasseries again, to see the waiters pirouetting in their black and white uniforms, or almost buckling under the weight of their great plateaux de fruits de mer; but lobster and champagne would have been wholly inappropriate for me.
There were naturally little compensations like a proper café crème and a croissant for breakfast or the sight of immaculate cakes in the windows of a few open pâtissiers, the market in the boulevard Edgar Quinet reeking of ripe melons or the now gentrified shops in the rue des Martyres. I shall be back in happier times.
A family holiday came next. We went first to one of my favourite places in Central Europe: Bamberg, until 1803 an ecclesiastical city where the great writer E T A Hoffmann eked out a fruitful period of his life after he was removed from the Prussian bench following the humiliating defeats of Auerstedt and Jena. Bamberg is actually a city in three volumes, with its Gartenstadt, Inselstadt and Bergstadt: the one the former domain of market gardeners, the baroque island city between the arms of the Regnitz, and the seven hills of the mediaeval Bergstadt - the Franconian Rome.
As far as drinking is concerned, Bamberg is chiefly known for beer, but it lies on the eastern edge of wine-Franconia and there is even a small vineyard on the monastic Michaelsberg. Beer, however, is what you see, announced by the huge maltings that greet you as your train docks in the station. Beer is represented by Schenkerla, Spezial, Fässla, Greiffenklau, Mahrs and Klosterbräu, which make their traditional Helles and Dünkel as well as the rather more recent Weizen (wheat) as well as the local speciality of smoked or Rauchbier. These you will encounter in the various wood-panelled brewery taps which are still the best places to eat in Bamberg, but after a few days you get a little tired of the solid local cooking: Schäuferla (slow cooked pork shoulder) or Sauerbraten (roast pork) with sauerkraut and dumplings. I did have some rather good smoked liver sausages but by the time we left we were ready for something different, and even stopped for a pizza (not something I do often).
On a positive note, a finally got to the magnificent Schloss Weissentein in Pommersfelden and saw the sala terrena, which gave me many new ideas for my grotto. We will be eating a lot more shellfish this winter.
The next stop was Berlin, where we stayed and largely dined with friends. We were based in the Bayerisches Viertel in Schöneberg opposite a baker that had opened its doors in 1948, the year when the Deutsche Mark was launched and Germans emerged from the ruins to open shops. It is quite an achievement to remain in the same premises for seventy-five years. Once again my family was delighted with its range of Streusel, Bienenstich and cheese cakes, marzipan and nut slices, plum tarts and fruit turnovers, which were generally priced between 1.70 and 1.90 Euros: a snip of what you’d pay here.
Berlin is not exactly cheap, but it is a hell of a lot cheaper than London. I was struck by the wine prices in a smart local deli: a decent Minervois at eight Euros, and really good Perrin Rhone village wine for thirteen. Bear in mind that this was not a supermarket and it wasn’t buying at discounted prices and that the Euro was worth all of 85p. The city does offer German food, but every other speciality is on offer too. It was sad to record the demise of one of my favourite ‘Prussian’ restaurants: Zum Nussbaum on the Bundesplatz, but there is still Diener in Charlottenburg if you want Königsberger Klopse. The wine in bars and restaurants is not always German either and the local beer has never been special, even if there are some good brewpubs.
From Berlin it was back to Munich and southern Bavaria and a work trip. Our tour covered much the same ground as the last one, which meant we were often in the same restaurants and pubs. The excellent Schillerbräu in Munich hits you with a gigantic platter of ‘Bavarian tapas’, for example, so big that there must be a lot of waste. Other than that, standard Bavarian food looks a lot like what you find on the other side of the Austrian Border, only without the panache. Dumplings are pretty universal, either made of bread or a mixture of grated raw potatoes and mash, with buttery breadcrumbs on top, but I didn’t see any meaty Fleisch or Speckknödel. There were lots of wild mushrooms about after the rain, big heaps of chanterelles and ceps, but I only got to eat some in Oberammergau. The only really perceptible difference between Austrian and Bavarian meals is the presence of many appetising variations on the theme of Bavarian creams and some standard beer hall snacks such as Obatzda: mashed up soft cheese with onions and beer.
For me there was the opportunity to sink a Weizen in the excellent Maxbräu brewpub in Oberammergau, but I was nearly defeated by two enormous slabs of Leberkäs (meatloaf); and we were treated well at our hotel in Füssen, but when I walk down the road into the lovely, bustling mediaeval town I do ask myself if there is not a more atmospheric place to eat within the town walls? After all, visually Bavaria has so much to offer.
Beer, Monasteries and Wine
Posted: 18th August 2022
Bavaria had its own version of the Henry VIII’s Dissolution of the Monasteries, it occurred in 1803. Church lands were sold and many ancient buildings were destroyed, just as they had been in England. Being Bavaria, however, a good deal of Church land was acquired by brewers and some of these ‘monastic’ beers have acquired a considerable reputation over the past two hundred years.
It can be safely assumed that outside wine lands, all monasteries brewed beer, not just for monks, but also for pilgrims and visitors; so in many cases the men who acquired the buildings were simply stepping into the monks’ shoes. An incomplete list of surviving Bavarian monastic breweries includes Tegernsee, Irsee, Ursberg, Ettal, Andechs, Reutberg, Weihenstephan, Scheyern, Welternberg, Aldersbach, Speinshart and Kemnath, Weissenohe, Kreuzberg and Vierzehnheiligen. Monasteries required wine too for sacerdotal reasons. As Bavaria was not good for growing grapes, the wine had to be made elsewhere. Up in the Alps near Garmisch, Tegernsee imported its wine from the excellent Tegernseerhof in the Austrian Wachau.
Locally brewed beer is therefore a counterpoint to any tour of Bavarian monasteries, and not just monasteries. The locus classicus here would be the Augustinerbräu Stammhaus in Munich, which is more or less opposite the site of the old Augustinian Friary which evicted its occupants in 1803. With its grottos, groin vaults and antlers, is just about the most atmospheric beer hall in the city. They are not all like that: in July we had a good, beery meal at the Schillerbräu micro-brewery in the Schiller Strasse that was arranged in a more modern idiom.
The next day we drove towards the mountains and stopped at Andechs on the Holy Mountain above Starnberg Lake, which has a well-deserved reputation for its monastic beers. The yardstick for judging a Bavarian brewery is the bottom-fermented ‘Helles’, although a dark, ‘Dunkel’ version is always available too. Bottom-fermented beers are called ‘lagers’ in Britain, which traditionally prefers top-fermented ‘ales’. Andechs with is honey-scented Helles was no disappointment: a Bavarian Helles is generally slightly sweet and not nearly as hoppy as a pilsner. Most if not all Bavarian breweries make wheat beers (Weizen or Weissbier) and extra-strong seasonal Bockbiers. Andechs makes Bock all the year round. It was hot in Bavaria in July and Helles or Weizen suited the temperature better.
I discovered the Brauereigaststätte Zum Stift in Kempten five years ago. The building dates from the first years of the twentieth century but beer has been poured on the site for much longer. Once again its position at the bottom of the steps leading to the Basilica made it hard to resist. At that temperature the cold Weizen scarcely touched the sides of my throat. If one beer really stood out on this last trip, however, it was the Maxbräu Weissbier in Oberammergau. Here again I drank it in really intense heat, but the beer distinguished itself by a certain hoppiness that I hadn’t found elsewhere and which made it a rather more serious drink. It is the best half-litre I have drunk in Germany this summer.
There were still wines to taste at home. I did not work my way through the full gamut of the 100 best wines of Languedoc-Roussillon, but I managed a few. There was a lovely 2020 Viognier from the Domaine Saint Ferreol with some real apricot-blossom typicity (Majestic c£13.50) and a 2021 Picpoul, Reserve de Mirou (Matthew Clark c£9) with a proper minerality. Better still was the 2020 white Château de Lastours (c£13.50 from Hallgarten) which had a lovely white peach aroma and a salty finish. There was also a splendid sweet wine - 2019 Dernières Grives from the Domaine Tariquet (Wine Society c£17) with all that luscious lychee and pineapple fruit from its Petit Manseng grapes.
Having been underimpressed by Mas de Daumas Gassac when it was being sold as something incredibly special and at incredibly high prices, I found myself drinking my words when it came to the 2021 Grande Reserve de Gassac (Laithwaites c£9) with its leathery nose and rich plummy fruit. Then there was a clutch of St Chinians: the 2020 Maison Fortant Sélection Parcellaires with its bouquet of violets and palate of black fruits has no distributer for now; the 2021 Cave de Roquebrun is similarly hard to get hold of - it is a lovely supple wine; and the lack of distribution applies also to the 2020 Vignobles Lorgeril Château de Ciffre. Let’s hope all three find importers soon. Vignobles Lorgeril’s 2018 Château de Pennautier, L’Espirit de Pennautier Cabardès is a lightish wine, but none the worse for it. It is brought in by the Wine Society at c£22.50. Lastly a fortified Vin doux naturel, a 2015 Banyuls from the Domaine de la Rectorie, a wonderful jumble of leather, black olives and dried figs, but it has no importer either.
There was a last edition in the current series of online tastings from the Australians. This time the subject was Orange in New South Wales, which grows grapes at high altitudes west of Sydney. Vineyards are planted between 600 and 1100 metres, with the reds naturally occupying the lower ground. There was a tingly 2021 Chardonnay called ‘The Architect’ from Philip Shaw which must be as refreshing as any Australian white and a 2019 No8 Pinot Noir from the same source with some delightful orangey, citrus notes. The wine I liked most, however, was a 2018 Angullong Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon that was fresh, minty and tangy. The Shiraz wines, on the other hand, proved disappointing.
A friend took me to see a couple of places at the Royal Exchange in the City. The first was Oeno House, which stocks the wines of rich investors who make a portion available to buy or simply drink on their terrace behind the Exchange. The wines in their vitrines would make most heads spin. There were plenty there that I hadn’t sampled in years, not since wine became a sure investment and prices went through the roof! I noticed some bottles of La Tâche, and recalled buying the 1971 in 1980. It cost me the equivalent of £40. That was a lot for a student, but for a treat, still possible. First growth clarets were the same then. They were not so expensive that you could afford to drink them.
Besides the millionaire wines, however, Oeno has a range of very interesting bottles that would not break most banks. Four of these we tried: really gorgeous 2022 Asyrtiko from Clos Segasta on the little wine island of Toinos in the Aegean; a 2019 Joaquin from the island of Isola near Capri which was scrumptiously ripe and golden; a 2017 ‘No Name’ Barolo from Borgogno, that was suppler than most Barolos and possibly halfway to being a Barbaresco; and finally a smoky, cherry-scented, light-bodied 2018 Fedegraziani Rosso di Mezzo from Mount Etna in Sicily.
Our next rendezvous was just round the corner at Tomoka a business specialising in casks of new-make malt whisky and a wonderful little shop selling rare spirits. Jass Patel had also set up a tasting for us, this time malt whiskies from different places: Fettercairn Warehouse 2 from Scotland, Fyra from Sweden, Mosgaard from Denmark, The Cardrona from New Zealand and back to Scotland for the 1992 Bowmore Black Art 29-year old. The Fettercairn, Mosgaard and Cardrona I would characterise as sweetish, after-dinner whiskies, all delicious in their ways, with The Cordrona perhaps the most luscious of the lot. I liked the Fyra, which was not so sweet and I thought I could drink more than a glass of it without it cloying. The best of all was the Bowmore on Islay. It was quite distinctly winey with an intriguing aroma of apples.
Jass added a couple more bottles at this point. The first was a 2010 Bruichladdich, from the other side of the island to Bowmore. This was from a red wine cask and once again it was intensely winey and sweet: another after-dinner malt. His last shot was the Bowmore Octomore. This was just three years old and the distillery’s attempt to make a perfect AOP whisky, where all the materials, malt and peat, came from Islay and where the peat smoke equalled 88 parts per million - making it the peatiest whisky on the market. Apart from peat, I could smell the germinating grain on the malting floor - an aroma never forgotten. On the palate it seemed young, yes, but there was also a lingering taste of liquorice.
July was possibly even hotter in London than it had been in Bavaria. Here in Kentish Town we are lucky to have the Camden Town Brewery which makes a great array of beers and there is always something I have not tried before. There under the vats, with the trains hobbling by up above, the beer is always as fresh as possible and that includes the best selling ‘Hells’ lager, which in Kentish Town is sold in its unpasteurised idiom. No prizes for guessing the origin of the name.
Munich, Bavaria and Wine
Posted: 1st July 2022
If all goes according to plan, this will be a German summer for me and much of it spent in Upper Bavaria, a region which I had never visited before this year. I had been to Kempten in the Allgäu and even gone up into the mountains to buy cheese on a day so misty that you might have convinced me that the land around was as flat as a pancake; but the Allgäu, with its largely Swabian Protestant population, is not typical of Catholic Upper Bavaria.
In June I saw the Bavarian Alps for the first time: the lake at Chiemsee, Füssen, Garmisch, where I tried to spot Richard Strauss’s villa high above the stadium (the Alpine Symphony has been buzzing in my head ever since), the Starnbergersee, Ettal and Oberammergau with its Passion Play and wood carvers. First, I spent a couple of nights in Munich, a city I have known reasonably well since I tried to get a job there between school and university. I ended up living in a maid’s room in a crummy hotel near the Asamkirche, until I ran out of money and slunk off home.
My chief discovery of this last time in Munich was the Augustiner Stammhaus, opposite St Michael’s church in the Neuhauser Strasse. I can’t think why I had never been there before. My delight had more to do with architecture than food, beer or wine. The restaurant, as opposed to the beer hall, has the most wonderful interior with panelled walls, a profusion of antlers, vaulted ceilings and the most wonderful grottos. The Hackerhaus round the corner is also atmospheric, but not to the same degree. Hacker has merged with Pschorr, another beery Bavarian name to conjure with. Richard Strauss’s mother was a Pschorr, something which made the young Richard a man of independent means (to be Pschorr).
Bavarian food is similar to Austrian: pork knuckles, boiled beef, Zwiebelrostbraten, chanterelles with dumplings. Maultaschen (ravioli) etc. Munich (particularly around the Viktualienmarkt) has a few quirks of its own: I wanted Weisswürste, but had forgotten that decent places won’t serve white sausages after midday. Quite a long time ago I came to Munich specially to interview the then mayor, Christian Ude, about why people were no longer eating typical Bavarian food. Weisswürste were on the endangered list, but Munich cafés didn’t make life any easier with their restrictions. If you want the sausages you have to eat them out of their skins with your fingers, have beer with them and sweet mustard; and all that at breakfast time.
So I had Obatzda instead. Obatzda is a mixture of Allgäuer camembert and butter with beer and paprika. It came in the form of two huge balls, or rather two ice-cream scoops with one giant pretzel. I couldn’t manage more than a quarter. The most typical Munich meal I ate there was at Nymphenburg, where I had a huge slab of Leberkäs or pork meatloaf with potato salad and sweet mustard and a bottle of Weizen. That set me up nicely for the flight back and the chaos that is Heathrow.
The day after I got back there was a Roussillon tasting in the plenary hall at Church House. I was occasionally distracted by the different voting doors for laity, vicars and bishops. The Roussillon is the hottest part of France, so you brace yourself for lots of alcohol. I used to go at least once a year when I served on the jury there. There was a marvellous lunch at Tresserre under Mount Canigou (which we called ‘Dog Food’) and a huge party in a mediaeval church on the ‘Feast of St Bacchus’. There never was a St Bacchus, but his non-existence was still a good excuse for a beano.
In all that heat you want a white or rosé wine to be refreshing. It is not easily done. Growers pick at the beginning of August and at night to keep acidity and aromas. From the Domaine Vial-Magnères there was a 2021 Le Petit Couscouril Blanc which was crisp and fresh, or the 2021 Stellaire from Arnaud de Villeneuve. Domaine Cazes used to dominate the region. They have a muscatty 2021 Canon du Maréchal and a more serious 2021 Clos de Paulilles. The best was the Soula Blanc made by my old friend Mark Walford, who has aspired to make a top white Burgundy by assembling Sauvignon Blanc, Rolle, Grenache Blanc, Macabeu and Grenache Gris!
Reds work better. From the Château Nadal Haut was the 2017 Terre de Quarante while Dom Brial’s excellent 2021 Etreinte was supposed to sell for £9. Vial-Magnères’ 2021 Petit Couscouril Rouge as all cherry, leather and tar, The big Arnaud de Villeneuve co-op had a 2019 Oppulum grown at 200 metres (two-thirds Syrah, the rest Grenache) and made in an amphora, which was good and spicy. From Cazes the 2021 ‘John Wine’ (should go down well in the US) was lovely and rich and made without sulphites, while the 2020 Clos de Paulilles Cap Béar (Grenache and Syrah) was a real treat. Mas Bécha makes a strapping 2020 Excellence Rouge. The 2015 Soula Rouge (Carignan, Syrah, Grenache) was also a serious wine and among the best in the region.
These days what I look forward to from the Roussillon are the fortified wines, for which the region is rightly famous. The lightest and most lyrical of these ‘VDN’s are the muscats. The 2021 from Dom Brial is supposed to cost £13! I wish I had a bottle in my fridge for my nightly aperitif. From Arnaud de Villeneuve was the 2021 Tradition with its linden flower aroma. Cazes’ was always special: the 2020 was no exception: fresh, grassy and lemony and it concealed 114 grams of sugar. Pouderoux was complex: tobacco flowers, peaches and apricots.
Vial-Magnères’ 2018 Rivage is a fortified Grenache Blanc with aromas of leather, lemon, apricots and peaches. Dom Brial has a long-standing reputation for this sort of wine. The 1969 Rivesaltes Grande Réserve Ambré has spent forty years in a big oak tun getting more and more complex as the years go by: coffee, rancio, raisins, dried apricots, honey, ginger and liquorice. It leaves little or no change from £100. Val-Magnères has cheaper alternatives: the ruby-port-like 2018 Rimage (£17): cherry, blackberry, raspberry, herbs and tobacco, or the 2009 André Magnères (£36): black olives, leather and sea salt, like some wonderful old amontillado sherry. Arnaud de Villeneuve is also a big producer. Their Rivesaltes Ambré tastes of gingerbread and liquorice. Better still is the 2002 Prestige solera which was like some rich, creamy caramel cake. Cazes make a fresh vintage-style 2020 Rimage and a 2013 Ambré which spends eight years in a 100-year old cask. Again it smells of pain d’épices. And lastly Pouderoux is recommended for its 2019 organic Maury and its figgy, leathery Maury Grande Réserve.
Australia continues its online tastings. The first was ‘traditional, sustainable and organic’ Margaret River Cabernets. Again there is evidence of a cult of austerity that has followed the lush, fruity styles of the past. My two favourites were the 2018 Voyager Estate and the 2016 Woodlands. Voyager was fresh and cooling, but had some rich, cassis fruit; Woodlands was more mature, there was a taste of fresh crushed cassis, but it was certainly notable for thunder. Some of the wines had a minty, eucalyptus taste. I was interested to hear that growers attribute this to actual leaves getting into the crush.
Hunter Valley Semillon is one of Australia’s original wines. We heard from Bruce Tyrrell whom I had never forgotten telling me the culinary dream of a true Australian was a piece of steak big enough to support sixteen fried eggs. He did not disappoint the other day either: once again he was the star of the show. His 2015 HVD single vineyard was still tip-top as well. These are refreshing, high-acid, low alcohol wines. Brokenwood was also impressive.
Lastly, from Tesco, the 2021 Leyda Garuma single-vineyard Sauvignon Blanc: the wines from this Chilean, coastal estate tend to be quite mineral and this is no exception. There are good strong aromas of box hedge, nettles and gooseberries. It is intensely peppery, something I’d put down to the soil.
Getting Your Teeth into Austrian Wine
Posted: 6th June 2022
I am well aware that wine tasting is perceived as a huge joke by many people, an excuse to get pissed and bandy a lot of descriptive terms about figuring a cornucopia of fruits and flowers, but I can assure you that it is actually hard work and requires considerable stamina and healthy teeth.
It is perhaps best compared to a sport. If you get out of condition and do not practise, you will rapidly lose your ability to get through major tournaments. The Covid plague meant that most wine tastings were either scrapped, or took place at home with sample bottles large or small delivered to your door. As with everything else that happened those two years, life was on the back-burner, slow and sedate; there was no need to bust a gut. Several magazines went under and there were precious few opportunities to write.
All major events were cancelled or postponed. One was the biennial VieVinum Fair in Vienna, which I have been attending since it was created in the nineties. This May, it was back on the calendar, and once again I had to gird my loins at the prospect of tasting up to a dozen wines from around two-hundred producers. Given that it would be impossible to taste two to three thousand wines over three days I decided that I would drop in on key producers whose wines I knew, taking the temperature of the vintages I had missed.
On the day before the fair opened, there was a tasting at the Palais Niederösterreich of ninety-two wines that had excelled in international competitions. I had not tasted all of them by the end of my two-hour slot (I had not broached the reds) and some did not impress me, but I was able to make a few discoveries and confirm long-held views. Among the growers who would find themselves on pretty well every list of the best in Austria, I approved a 2019 Gelber Muskateller Smaragd from Knoll, a 2018 Zierfandler Ried Mandel-Höh from Stadlmann, a 2020 Grüner Veltliner Wein vom Stein from Ludwig Neumayer, a 2019 Riesling Ried Kirchensteig from Geyerhof, a 2020 Riesling Ried Hochäcker ‘Privat’ from Nigl, a 2020 Grüner Veltliner Smaragd Wachstum Bodenstein, a 2019 Grüner Veltliner Ried Dechant Alte Reben from Rabl, a 2019 Grüner Veltliner Smaragd Honivogl (generally the best indicator of Veltliner quality in any vintage) from Hirtzberger, a 2019 Grüner Veltliner Smaragd Ried Schütt from Tegernseerhof, a 2020 Riesling Ried Zöbinger Heiligenstein from Allram, a 2020 Riesling Zöbinger Heiligenstein from Ludwig Ehn, a 2020 Riesling Zöbinger Gaisberg from Birgit Eichinger, a 2016 Riesling Ried Heiligenstein from Schloss Gobelsburg, a 2019 Riesling Ried Gebling from Sepp Moser and a 2018 Sauvignon Blanc Ried Edelschuh from Wohlmuth. Among those who had made a huge leap forward in quality I noted a 2019 Roter Veltliner from Fritz Salomon at Gut Oberstockstall, a 2018 Grüner Veltliner Smaragd Ried Zanzl from Frischengruber; and among the few I had never encountered before, I praised the wonderful 2019 Grüner Veltliner Smaragd Ried Atzberg ‘Steilterrassen’ from Atzberg Weine GmbH.
My list provided the basis for the next three days. The first port of call was Ludwig Neumayer from the Traisental. This was to be my first proper tussle with 2021: a vintage lauded in Austria as ‘the best for 15 years at least’. The growing season was long and cool, with cold nights enhancing aromas. It also meant acidity levels at over 9 grams per litre. My tooth enamel was about to suffer a blitzkrieg.
Neumayer’s 2021 Schieflage Grüner Veltliner had all the purity of fruit you’d expect, but was very tightly wrought, like most Veltliners in this vintage. The 2021 Riesling Wein vom Stein was also gorgeous, but with added refinement and a lingering taste of apricots.
The Wachau has been Austria’s leading white wine appellation since the seventies, and the FX Pichler estate has been one of the Wachau’s big five since then. FX’s son Lukas now makes the wines from 70 sites scattered over 20 hectares. They were always hard to measure in their youth, and the 2021s are no exception. The Riesling Kellerberg was showing the most charm, but none has been bottled to date. Going on past form they will be huge.
At the Domäne Wachau, Roman Horvath talks lucidly about the great many wines he has to show. He was particularly good on Grüner Veltliner, which was hard to make well. It can produce very common wines, he says, and you need to really work at it. His Veltliner Smaragd from the Kellerberg has a pepperiness typical of the year. As a co-operative, the Domäne vinifies a great many grapes, making a Neuburger, a ‘gemischte Satz’ (field blend) and a really wonderful Müller Thurgau. He uses amphorae and for ‘Steinwerk’, matures Veltliner in a huge block of Wachau marble.
Generations have changed since I first started tasting Wachau wines. A lot of the old guard have handed over to sons and daughters. My old friend Rudi Pichler was nowhere to be seen, but I spied some of the Grand Old Men of Austrian Wine floating about over the course of the next few days. Several Rudi Pichler wines shone out, such as the 2021 Riesling Kirchweg Smaragd (those fresh apricots again), the Riesling Achleiten Smaragd, and a special treat, a 2009 Grüner Veltliner Kollmütz Smaragd reeking of pineapples, roses and pepper.
Knoll didn’t disappoint either. Young Emmerich is now in his stride. It would be hard to select just one of the wines but I think I’d give the prize to the 2021 Riesling Loibenberg Smaragd with its white peach aroma. Another old friend was Erich Krutzler, who married FX’s daughter Elisabeth and is half the Pichler-Krutzler estate. The wines have come on in leaps and bounds since I last tasted them. The one that stole my heart was not a Wachauer: the 2021 Riesling Pfaffenberg; but I’d have been almost as happy with the 2021 Riesling Steinporz. Franz Hirtzberger also had a stellar 2021 Riesling Steinporz picked on 18 October, not to mention the famous Grüner Veltliner Honivogl. It’s as tight as a clock now, but will unwind.
On to Prager, another member of the original band that made the Wachau Austria’s top white wine appellation. The wines have been vinified by his son-in-law Toni Bodenstein for as long as I can remember. Bodenstein has always been experimental. In Achleiten the Veltliner is grown on stakes rather than wires, ‘Wachstum Bodenstein’ is 460 metres up, and another Veltliner in Zwerithaler is made from vines planted in 1906 and 1909. Showing best that day was the 2021 Grüner Veltliner Achleiten Smaragd, but they are young yet, and still in cask.
In the Kamptal, Rudolf Rabl gets better and better. He has lots of land, makes oodles of different wines, but they are not only all pretty good they are all good value for money. His 2021 Langenloiser Riesling is a perfect place to start. Better known, of course, is Bründlmayer, one of a few handfuls of growers who have been part of the elect for more than forty years. I was served an intriguing 2020 Grüner Veltliner Lamm that had me thinking of Ethiopian coffee, but the real treat was a vertical of Rieslings from the Heiligenstein rock: 2020, 2016 and 2014. The 2014 triumphed in its peachy complexity. Martin Nigl took the wine world by storm in the nineties. Here I had a vertical of Riesling from the schists of Hochäcker, in which the powerful, zesty 2017 came out top.
The Salomons at the Undhof between Krems and Stein also have a rock-solid reputation. Here Bertold Salomon gave me a vertical of his Steiner Kögl Riesling from 2020 to 1979. The 2011 proved sensational: limes, peaches, a bit of coffee, but the 79 (‘niners’ are particularly favoured in Austria) was also still very much on form. Another favourite estate is Schloss Gobelsburg where I tasted an impressive collection of 2021s. The last Kamptaler I tried was from Sepp Moser: the 2019 Ganstreiberin. Niko Moser told me the vineyard is just 0.6 of a hectare, but they make a first-rate Riesling there.
Fritz Salomon in the renaissance schloss Gut Oberstockstall is Bertold’s nephew. He has taken the Wagram estate down the organic route and is a paid up member of Demeter. The style is individual, with the Veltliners nuttier and often earthier than elsewhere. There is a good, concentrated Pinot Noir too.
The Geyerhof in the Kremstal is one of my favourite estates in Austria but I thought I detected a change of style, with less of the baroque opulence I liked in their Veltliners in the past. My favourites were the 2021 Riesling Sprinzenberg and Riesling Kirchensteig - both exemplary wines.
On the north bank of the Danube is the vast Weinviertel, and right in the north is a small fragment of what was once a huge estate belong to the Princes Liechtenstein, most of which fell to Czechoslovakia after the war. We were invited to the Palais Liechtenstein to taste some older vintages of the wine, chiefly Grüner Veltliners and Rieslings: a very good 1988 Veltliner and two reserve Rieslings - 2017 and 2020 - showed great promise.
The Thermenregion south of Vienna is often overlooked. It has its own green cultivars such as Zierfandler and Rotgipfler and gravel for proper reds. It is also hot. Heinrich Hartl has achieved a fine reputation for his Pinot Noirs, such as his excellent 2018 Reserve, but I remember awarding a gold medal for a white back in the old days, and would not turn my nose up at the creamy, lemony 2017 Zierfandler. Stadlmann has been famous for his whites for many years, but I think they have got even better. I particularly enjoyed the 2021 Zierfandler and three 2020 single crus: the Rotgipfler Tagelsteiner, and the Zierfandlers from Igeln and Mandel Höh. Rotgipfler can have an intriguing spicy, rye bread taste.
In Carnuntum I had an appointment to see another friend, Hans Pitnauer from Göttlesbrunn whose red Bienenfresser has been a great success in Austria since it was launched in 1986. Here the focus is on Zweigelt and two premier crus: Haidacker and Bärnreiser. Haidacker is the more Burgundian, while Bärnreiser has always been the mainstay of Bienenfresser. I tasted two superb older vintages: 2009 and 2006.
Overlooking Slovenia in the south of Austria is Styria, with its rolling hills they compare it to Tuscany. Again the leaders have changed little since the eighties: Tement, Polz, Sattler, Gross are still the names to conjure with, but others are muscling in too. I went to Polz to taste a catty 2020 Sauvignon Blanc with a passion fruit finish and a sublime 2020 Gelber Muskateller from the Grassnitzberg. At Gross I had a serious 2017 Sauvignon Blanc from the Nussberg which had been aged for 50 months before release, and, continuing the theme, a grown up 2017 Gelber Muskateller from Perz which tasted of salty oranges - unlike the playful Muskatellers I am used to. Hannes Sabati’s 2021 version was spicier, with a hint of paprika. Wohlmuth in steep Kitzeck is further from the wine road and the wines have a different character. The 2020 Sauvignon Blanc Hochsteinriegl had a pronounced asparagus character.
Burgenland is Austria’s eastern frontier region, mostly facing Hungary. The wines are bigger here, and many are red. My first stop was to see Axel Stiegelmar at Juris. The first new wave Austrian wine I ever tasted was a 1987 Pinot Noir from Stiegelmar, so I had to try the 2017 Breitenteil, which was thirty years younger. It was no disappointment with its brimming cherry fruit, and rich cherry-like finish. Georg Prieler is another winemaker who rarely disappoints. He has made Weissburgunder a speciality, and produces positively Burgundian Blaufränkisch wines, as his father Engelbert did before him. The 2018 Goldberg Blaufränkisch was all leather, chocolate and cherries. Erwin Tinhof in Eisenstadt does wonderful things with Neuburger as well as making top-notch Blaufränkisch in his Gloriette vineyard.
The most famous name in Eisenstadt is Esterhazy. They make wines that are easy on palate and pocket like their Sankt Margarethen Chardonnay and their Grosshöflein Pinot Noir. Höpler too makes a wide range of wines, including a good Grüner Veltliner from a region little known for Veltliner and a super Viennese field blend from the Nussberg called Wirawaxt.
Moric is the brainchild of Roland Velich. The wines are made from antique Blaufränkisch vines in a far-flung corner of Middle Burgenland. It has become a cult and cults don’t come cheap. Roland was showing a few single cru 2019s that constitute the building blocks for Moric. I tasted Kirchberg, Schwemmer and Maissner. The first was the softest, while Schwemmer gives different results from limestone, loam and sand. Maissner is volcanic with plenty of iron. The first vines were planted here in 1908. The assembled Lutzmann’s Burg wine Roland describes as the ‘whole piece of music, not the individual partitions’ - the sum of its parts.
In remote South Burgenland is Uwe Schiefer, a rare winemaker with creative imagination, whose Weisser Schiefer wines are based on Welschriesling, together with other grapes according to the vintage. The top reds are Reihburg and Szapary. Szapary is 450 metres up and its vines were planted 67 years ago. The 2016 was a difficult vintage, but Uwe came out on top. A 2008 Reihburg showed how individual his wines could be, and how well they aged.
It had been a very hard slog. I got back with toothache from those 2021s and was in too much pain to taste anything that week. Earlier in May I had been to a Washington State tasting in the East End. The best winery I tasted was L’Ecole No 41 with its Bordeaux and Rhone Valley-style blends. Probably my favourite was the 2019 Merlot Columbia Valley. All the wines contained a whacking amount of alcohol, and that went for the 2016 Seven Hills Ciel de Cheval too, for me the best wine in the tasting. There were good wines from Terra Blanca and Saviah Cellars too.
Australia’s series of online tastings continued. The star of Riverina seemed still to be Deen de Bortoli whom I visited in 1990. His 2019 Durif Vat 1 is like drinking a Christmas cake and his 2019 Noble One possibly the ideal wine to serve with a Christmas cake: utterly delicious! The best of the Western Australian summer wines was the 2021 Flametree Sauvignon Blanc Semillon.
Finally two star buys from Tesco: a truly delicious Argentinian Torrontes (I am a sucker for Torrontes) as limpid as spring water and tasting of peaches and caramel and a 2018 Carmenère from the other side of the Andes with a hint of green pepper on the nose like a Loire wine, and the most toothsome summer-pudding palate.
The Return of the Sun
Posted: 3rd May 2022
The wine trade has been stretching its limbs after Covid. Some tastings are still online while others have returned to the traditional form, with producers or importers standing behind tables showing their wares. Back on the first spring-like day, 10 March, there was an Occitan wine tasting in the Royal College of Surgeons: a change from the collection of pickled foetuses and two-headed horses stashed away downstairs.
I liked the organic wines from the Domaine de la Grange, a crisp white in the 2020 Terre de Tramontane range and even better, a juicy red made from the winning combination of Grenache, Syrah and Mourvèdre. It seemed to be an excellent food wine. Interesting was the 2020 Rondeur Apassimento made from dried Cabernet Sauvignon and Grenache grapes. It was naturally quite sweet. The estate manager Nicolas de Saint-Exupéry recommended it as an aperitif. The ‘Tradition’ range from the Côte de Thongue was top notch: 2020 Prat Bibal (Grenache, Syrah, Mourvèdre), 2021 Combelle (Syrah and Cinsault) with a proper tarry Syrah taste, and 2020 Selection Sabatier (Carignan and Syrah).
Another excellent organic estate was the Domaine de Pech Ménel: a good 2021 white leads on Rolle; a 2017 Saint Chinian with a dominant Mourvèdre and impressive length; and four vintages of Château Pech Ménel - 2015, 2013, 2010 and 2009 to demonstrate how well it aged.
Château Canet in Minervois uses a special protective yeast on picked grapes that delays the onset of fermentation for a week. Two reds impressed me: the sappy 2020 with its obvious Syrah character and the 2018 Les Evangiles: 90% Syrah and a much bigger proposition.
The Domaine F Jaubert in the Roussillon makes a slightly sweet Syrah-dominated red (it’s 14.8% - if all the sugar had fermented out it would be 16%) with the lyrical name of Hexaplex Trunculus, but I was even happier with the fortified VDN 2002 Or du Temps, a blend of red and white Grenache made in concrete vats - old wines to sip on their own.
Graft buys throughout the region. I had a good, old-fashioned 2018 Xavier Côtes du Rhône, a 2020 Le Sud Pinot Noir from Burgundian Bruno Lafon, grown 200 metres up in the Limoux and a lovely 2020 Château Combel-la-Serre, Le Pur Fruit du Causse Cahors, grown on limestone, un-oaked, just 12.5% and reeking of raspberries.
Domaine Gayda was in London in April. Here the wines from the hot south are made by a cool Loire man, who ensures the whites have good acidity, something instantly noticeable in the 2021 Flying Solo white. The Chenin Blanc ‘Figure Libre’, is naturally one of his best wines - the pineappley 2020 no exception. Among the reds the 2020 Flying Solo is made of Grenache Noir and Syrah and is quite a bargain. In a similar idiom is the 2020 En Passant, which blends Syrah and Carignan. After that the wines grow in complexity: 2021 Figure Libre Freestyle combines Syrah with Grenache, Mourvèdre and Carignan to make a wonderfully haunting cherry-like brew. Villa Mon Rêve is one of two top wines along with the Chemin de Moscou (a wine for the Ukrainian General Staff?). The 2018 was also cherry-like, to which the 2016 added an element of creaminess. The 2014 was much fleshier. It was ageing beautifully.
Wines from Australia continues with its excellent online tastings with samples delivered a few days before. This month we celebrated 50 years of Chardonnay. When I returned to London from Paris in 1985, everyone was drinking Australian Chardonnay. I was enthusiastic for a while too, but that slightly oily, fruit-salad character put me off and I stopped. Australian Chardonnay is much more conscious of its Burgundian prototype than it was back then. There is some question as to whether it has gone too far in the other direction.
Oz Clarke appeared bubbling with enthusiasm both for the original Australian Chardonnay and its more stripped down version. Top growers have left the hotter regions behind. These days the best Chardonnays come from Margaret River, Great Southern, the Yarra or Tasmania, with Leeuwin, Giant Steps and Tolpuddle topping the tasting - the latter was my favourite. High up in the Adelaide Hills they can still make great Chardonnay, like the 2020 M3 from Shaw+Smith.
Phonetically Austria is a short distance from Australia and they too went to huge trouble to issue us with kits for their annual tasting, in this instance some 48 mini-bottles of wine. Those early Australian Chardonnays were over-ripe. With climate change Austria’s whites in particular are changing too and many Grüner Veltliners are hardly recognisable to someone who started watching Austrian wine all of thirty years ago.
The only Grüner Veltliners that hit the spot were those from the Domäne Wachau and Birgit Eichinger. The first DW wine was a light 2121 Federspiel from the Terrassen with a little cattiness to it and a great structure. The 2020 Smaragd from the DW’s Steinwerk Spitzer Graben was still quite closed but looked very promising. In the Kamptal Birgit Eichinger makes some of the best, ripest Veltliners for miles around, Ried Lamm in particular.
Riesling, on the other hand, has proved more constant; is it more resistant to climate change? Birgit’s 2020 Gaisberg was good - brimming with lemony, mango-like fruit. The 2019 Dürnstein Federspiel from the excellent Tegernseerhof was a lovely specimen with a classic white peach aroma. Of course this was upstaged by the 2019 Steinertal Smaragd which was much more concentrated in its peachiness. DW’s 2020 Achleiten Smaragd was also concentrated, with something of a marmalade character - quite gorgeous. The more mature 2016 Smaragd Mauterner vom Stein from one of my favourite estates, the Nikolaihof, was prettier and more elegant than the others.
At Prieler in the Leitha Hills, Pinot Blanc/Weissburgunder is a house speciality. The 2016 Ried Seeberg was as good as it gets, with its apricot-like aroma. Austrian Weissburgunder might have more potential than Chardonnay, but Gernot Heinrich is a past master at vinifying Chardonnay and he has land in the Leitha Hills too. There is a little taste of butter and confectionary sugar in his wine, but it is not exaggerated.
Some of the most lyrical Chardonnays (also called ‘Morillon’) come from Styrian hills in the south. There the Polz Brothers have planted it high up on the Grassnitzberg. The 2019 is a classic with its creamy, oatmeal and hazelnut aromas. It was one of the best wines I tasted from this vintage. Austrians also make sweet Chardonnays. In 2020 my friend Helmut Lang made a lovely Beerenauslese tasting of yellow peaches with a wonderful zesty finish.
The other main grape variety in Styria is Sauvignon Blanc. In Vulkanland in the South-East, Albert Neumeister has been a star for over 30 years. His 2019 Ried Moafeitl is unusually peppery, but impressive. The locus classicus of Austrian Sauvignon Blanc is South Styria, where dry wines were introduced by the late Willi Sattler. Now his son and grandsons make the wine: a peppery 2020 from Gamlitz, a much fruiter 2019 Kapellenweg and a Kranichberg from the same year with splendid keeping qualities. In 2020 the Sattlers made a Beerenauslese, a rare thing for Styria, with lots of lychee, mango and pineapple flavours.
The Polz brothers were also in at the budburst of Styrian wines in the eighties. Their 2020 simple Sauvignon Blanc DAC has what Austrians call an ‘elderflower’ nose (we might say ‘catty’). The 2019 ‘Therese’ is riper, while the 2017 Hochgrassnitzberg had me thinking of rosewater. Talking of which, South East Styria specialises in Traminer. There was a delicious one from Neumeister: a 2019 Steintal with a massive aroma of red roses.
Blaufränkisch is not always the most charming of Austria’s black grapes, but there are some people who really know how to handle it. One of these is Dorli Muhr in Prellenkirchen in the far east of the country. At the basic level there is a Blaufränkisch-dominated 2019 ‘cuvée’ with nice, vigorous fruit. The 2019 Prellenkirchen Blaufränkisch has a bit of pepper; the 2019 Obere Roterd is smokier, while the top wine was the limpid 2019 Kranzen.
Over in the Leitha Hills, Prieler has always been a dab hand at Blaufränkisch. Georg’s father Engelbert established these rich, Burgundian wines in the eighties, and the 2017 is cut of the same cloth. Prieler’s 2017 Marienthal comes from Rust on the Neusiedler Lake. This is a famous site, and the wine does it no discredit. On the other side of the lake, René Pöckl has a sensationally good 2019 Blaufränkisch Classique with its blackberry aromas and cooling, raspberry-like fruit. Heinrich also has an excellent 2017 Ried Winderer Altenberg Blaufränkisch from the Leitha Hills and Blaufränkisch also goes into his supple 2017 Pannobile Cuvée.
Zweigelt is a crossing of Blaufränkisch and St Laurent. IR is new to me, but their 2020 Zweigelt has a classic cherry aroma, good concentration and depth. Helmut Lang owns a St Laurent vineyard where he makes dry reds in Ried Neufeld. His 2020 was a notable success, a wine of pure fruit and huge appeal. Over in Furth in the Kremstal, the Malats have always excelled with Pinot Noir. The 2019 is light in body but full of typicity and charm.
Helmut Lang has made a ‘non-vintage’ orange-coloured, sweet Pinot Noir Beerenauslese with lots of peach, orange and dried herb aromas. Even better was his 2019 Goldmuskateller Eiswein. Again it had me thinking of white peaches.
Two further wines tried at home: the 2020 Graffigna Reserve Malbec (Sainsbury £7) was superb value for money, plenty of red and black fruits hung on an excellent structure. Secondly, a 2019 Grafite Tinta Roriz (Tempranillo) comes from my old friend Johnny Graham in the Douro. This is still quite dense and spirity and takes a good half hour in a jug to come round. It is built to last and brims with dense amaretto cherry character. A lovely 2018 Quinta do Crasto was much more evolved, but lighter in comparison.
My Mate Brett
Posted: 1st April 2022
I was at a wine writers’ dinner not so long ago. We had volunteered to bring bottles from our collections. There was a mature Côte Rôtie from a top grower on the table. I liked it, but I was told by a neighbour it had ‘Brett’. The wine was subsequently severely ostracised. Later on when most of the other contributions had been drunk up, I returned to the pariah. It didn’t seem so bad to me: there were one or two rustic notes that were well in accord with the better Syrah wines I enjoyed in my youth, so I enjoyed another couple of glasses before I left.
‘Brett’ or ‘Brettanomyces’, to give it its full name, is a wild yeast that can give a wine a farmyard character evidently much decried these days. It seems to be particularly noticeable in cask-aged wines made from Syrah (Shiraz) and Pinot Noir. Thirty years ago not much was known about it. When I travelled to Australia in 1990 (where coincidentally every second Australian seems to be called ‘Brett’) to write a book about Syrah, I was fed horror stories about the wines of the Hunter Valley that gave off an unpleasant ‘sweaty saddle’ aroma: a leathery note that could with time become stilton rinds or horse manure. When I finally reached the Valley, some examples were presented to me. One or two of these wines were indeed quite undrinkable.
No one spoke of ‘Brett’ then which was mostly (positively) associated with beer. There were various explanations doing the rounds, the most common was a hydrogen sulphide character or ‘mercaptan’ but with time scientists nailed it down to unwelcome natural yeasts that floated round barrel cellars. Steps were then taken to make wines more hygienically. The farmyard returned to its byre.
The Rhone Valley in France had provided the Syrah grape for Australian Shiraz wines. Working on the same book I visited the cellars of some of the Valley’s top producers on a number of occasions. At Guigal or Jaboulet they showed you with pride the great candyfloss moulds on their cellar walls. They definitely attributed the character of their wines to some magic performed by this fungus. Other cellars were plain filthy, like those of Henri Bonnot or indeed Jacques Reynaud at Château Rayas in Châteauneuf-du-Pape, but together with Guigal and Jaboulet, they were both beloved of the Guru of Baltimore, Robert Parker, who awarded them fantastic scores in his Wine Advocate.
Further north on the Côte d’Or, farmyard smells were also possible; indeed, one of the luminaries of the trade, Anthony Hanson made rather a name for himself by telling the world that good red Burgundy smelled like ‘shit’ (his word). That earthy character I knew and liked in top Burgundy wines I find less and less now. I should imagine that better cellar hygiene and improved technical education has more or less eliminated those unwanted, ambient yeasts.
Wines have certainly made enormous technical progress in the past thirty years. It is now possible to produce a lot more of what I might have called β+ wines for far less money: technically proficient, mostly faultless and made in semi-industrial quantities. They are good, but they are not great. Great wines need something more. I remember a grower in Châteauneuf talking about ‘des beaux péchés’ - ‘attractive sins’ - something that you shouldn’t do but which you allow because it enhances your wine. It’s risky, but sometimes it might turn beta into alpha. It could be a teeny-weeny amount of volatile acidity; it could even be a smidgen of Brett.
One last anecdote: one time my friend Willi Balanjuk took me to see a group of top Styrian growers whose chiefly white wines were eagerly sought after in Austria, Germany and the wider world. The men were much under the spell of a local carpenter who impressed them by knowing a bit about the wines that lay outside their ken. Knowing my tastes, he fished a bottle of 1982 Chave Hermitage out his cellar. The same Parker of Baltimore had awarded it 100, if not 200 points. At lunch he opened it and the growers tasted. The carpenter slurped and pronounced: ‘fehlhaft!’ (faulty). One by one the growers put down their glasses. Once again I happily finished off the bottle.
I thought of this moment when I attended a Tasmanian tasting organised by Tyson Stelzer at Church House in Westminster this month. There were some lovely sparklers from Jansz (Late Disgorged Vintage 2012), Bellebonne (Rosé 2019), Gala (Rosé 2016) and Moorilla (Muse Extra Brut Rosé 2014); but it was the still Pinot Noir wines that intrigued me most. The 2020 Dalrymple exhibited some of those fecal notes that Hanson had extolled in great Burgundy, and it was not alone: both the 2020 and the 2019 Pooley’s Butcher’s Hill were very impressive wines (2020 better of the two), but both had unmistakable farmyard noses. The Coinda Vale from the same house had much less and the 2019 Coinda Vale might have been my favourite wine of the tasting. Moving along I found more of the same at Freycinet and Gala - the 2016 in particular. Not all the Tasmanian Pinots had this character, and I liked several that were not in the slightest bit fecal - the 2018 Tamar Ridge in particular.
By this stage I had collided with an MW friend and asked her opinion of that earthy nose. I wanted to know how, given the fact that Australians had been the first people to come down so hard on Brett, this character was clearly valued in Tasmanian single vineyard Pinot Noirs. She thought for a while and told me they would describe it as a ‘funky’ nose. So funky it is. The next time someone uses the ‘B’ Word, I shall riposte - that’s funky man.
Apart from my Tasmanian epiphany, I have also enjoyed wines at the bargain end. So, for example from Aldi, I tasted a good, new Albariño (£7.99), a Glace de Rocher Swiss Fendant (£9.99), a Kabinett from Okfener Bockstein (remarkable bargain at £6.49), 2020 Castellore Chianti (great value at £4.49) and a 2019 Dealuri Feteasca Neagra (£6.49), 2020 Australian Malbec (£5.99) and best of all: 2021 Pinot Vigilate Central Otago Pinot Noir (£10.99) - delicate, mildly aniseed-scented and not funky at all.
And from Tesco there were good things too, like the incredible value Spanish rosé from Casa Mana (£4.50) or the 2020 Roseline Prestige from Provence (£15) with its hints of tangerines; but the wine I liked the best was La Folie (£14), the sparkling wine from Mirabeau, also in Provence, with its pale salmon robe and fine bready bead and an enchanting little taste of apricots. Bring on the spring!
Windy Days in Provence
Posted: 1st March 2022
For twenty-three years now I have been a regular guest at the lovely Domaine des Anges in the Ventoux region of Provence. In general a small group assembles for a quiet break in February and returns for a rather larger, more boisterous house party in September. Covid and other factors have slimmed down our numbers and two Septembers ago the party was actually cancelled, as there was no easy way to cross the French Border. Links have now been restored and things have returned to a sort of normal, at least for now.
So in the last week of February we took the Eurostar to Paris and the TGV to Avignon arriving in the Ventoux under a starlit heaven. Inside there was a lavish dinner and a magnum of a surprisingly youthful 2004 Château Potensac together with the usual panoply of fine wines from the estate itself.
Half of Boris the Boar had already been chopped up into smaller pieces and put to marinate in the estate red. This time it was not the enormous great haunch that faced me in September but the leg of a rather smaller, younger animal. I cooked it the next day. To make sure it was really tender I braised it for more than three hours with lots of smoked bacon, garlic and herbs gathered from the garden and served it with leaks and a potato purée. To start we had some leaves of chicory filled with a cream of Roquefort and crushed walnuts, and after the boar there was some excellent cheese and a raspberry tart from a local baker in Mazan. With the meat there were two 2015 Cornas wines from Vincent Paris, who has taken over some of the land previously farmed by his uncle, Robert Michel. The Granit 60 was quite muscle-bound - perfect for taking on Boris the Boar - but La Geynale had a much more seductive fruit. I presume this is the same land that won fame for Robert Michel in his day?
There was a mistral blowing that day. The wind travels south along the Rhone occasionally driving people demented with its ferocity. When the mistral is up, the skies are clear and you can pick out minute details in the distant landscape. Providing you can find a sheltered spot, you can be warm too. This year the mistral bothered us very little as we spent a lot of our time watching the situation unfolding in the Ukraine.
The next day the wind had dropped a bit and we went to the weekly market in Carpentras. Although we arrived not much later than midday, the stalls were already packing up. There were few people around, and obviously trade was anything but brisk. I was anxious to buy some of the little lavender soap bars that I like, with an image of Mount Ventoux stamped on them. There was a man up by the cathedral who used to sell them. He was still there packing up pots of honey but he told me he had not handled them for eighteen months. The woman in the market in Pernes stopped about that time too. I am coming to the conclusion that the firm that makes them might have fallen victim to Covid?
Not much had changed since September. They don't ask for your vaccine passport in supermarkets but masks are still very much the rule indoors, and in most cafés and restaurants we had to prove our status. We went to the excellent vegetable shop by the war memorial. The woman who runs it asked me if I knew a song called 'On ira'. I said no, but I knew the Revolutionary hymn 'ça ira'. She started to sing it and I joined in.
That night we had artichokes followed by two small shoulders of new Sisteron lamb with parsnips and baby purple turnips. The joints weighed in at under 1.5 kg, a size unknown to British shoppers, where spring lamb is fattened up until Easter before it is released onto market. Again we were able to find an excellent apricot tart in one of the local bakers, and I did not have to make anything myself.
Market day in Pernes is on Saturday. The mistral had finished and the little town with its numerous fountains was bathed in sunlight. There were one or two small things I needed to buy, and I wanted to see a new shop selling regional specialties up near the now defunct railway station. We had dinner at the local restaurant La Bergerie. The next day we left bright and early for home, apprehensive as to what Putin might have prepared for us in our absence.
Apart from my rare stirrings abroad, February was a quiet month. There was an interested tasting of Barossa Shiraz online which suggested that the beefy image of what was once one of Australia's most popular and reliable reds was up for 'reinterpretation' and that the Barossa was on for something new. The emphasis was on the multiplicity of terroirs in the Barossa and Eden Valleys which range from a minimum 112 metres in altitude in the Barossa to a maximum of 632 metres at Eden Ridge. High altitude wines have considerably more freshness and aroma. The area is also big: Barossa and Eden Valleys together cover some 13,500 hectares.
The Barossa Shiraz we know is often made from vines a century old and more. At its most banal it is a big whack of raspberry-scented fruit and alcohol underpinned by American oak. In our small collection of samples we had a few slightly fruitless wines, and one that wanted to be a Barolo. For me the best of the new wave wines were Beauty from Hentley Farm with its cooling fruit and length (it hid its 15 degrees well) and Paradox from Yalumba which was a fine rewriting of the story which nonetheless refused to part company completely with the image of the old Barossa.
February also marked the return to London of the Hungarian Furmint tasting. In this instance global warming has been an advantage to a grape that was a byword for searing acidity, meaning that growers no longer have to wait for a good year and a sweet wine to make a profit as there are now plenty of balanced dry and excellent sparkling wines about. A dash of the grape Harslevelu can also make a considerable difference in giving fruit and complexity to Furmint.
Briefly then, the wines that impressed me were the 2018 sweet Szamorodni from Demeter Zoltan; 2018 Mestervölgy dry Furmint and a 2013 super-sweet Aszu from Fülecky; an exquisite 2008 5 puttonyos Aszu from Hetszolo; and a collection for great things from Royal Tokaji, of which the most outstanding were the 2016 late harvest Szent Tamas and the 2017 6 puttonyos Tokaji Aszu, which was a proper explosion of coconuts, mangoes and peaches. From Szepsy there was a new wine provocatively labelled 'The Hun' and a dry, peppery 2017 Urban 73. I think 'Urban' must be one of Istvan's sons. The 2017 Cuvée Anastasia is named after a daughter and is a sweet wine made up of two-thirds Muscat and one third Furmint. It is not an Aszu, but it is still lovely. I have a soft spot for the wines from Gizella too, having so many Gisellas in my own family. Here it was the 2019 dry Bomboly that scored highest, along with a 2018 sweet szamorodni.
Bloody January Again
Posted: 1st February 2022
January breaks and my in-box fills up with messages from PR companies expounding the virtues of a meat-free month. It augurs ill. For traditional Christians, January sits like the proverbial meat in the sandwich between a meat-fee Advent and a meat-free Lent. Now, I admit there aren’t that many traditional Christians left, but January is a hell of a bad month to choose to give up meat (or fish, or eggs or cheese). Let us just look at the state of vegetables (or fruit).
In the old days you could just about make it through the month on root vegetables and potatoes and some useful imported items such as tomatoes, plus (depending on the strength of your digestion) a few pulses; but fruit and veg brought in from the southern hemisphere was and remains unreliable. It will have been frozen. Now with the Continent part-blockaded at Dover, anything that comes in from the Mainland is likely to have been frozen too for at least part of the journey. In practical terms this means that it will appear to be healthy the moment you snap it up from stall or supermarket shelf, but it will very soon decide to turn up its toes and rot.
Let me give you a concrete example. January is the month in which we make marmalade from Seville oranges. The quality of the marmalade depends on the thickness of the skins and the lip-puckering acidity of the juice. I saw some decent-looking Seville oranges for £1.76 a kg (there’s a lot of avoirdupois about these days) from Sally the Stall and bought 3kg. Their secret didn’t take long to reveal itself: they had been frozen. By the time I got round to making the marmalade the skins had softened to the degree that my fingers went through them, which made peeling them a nightmare. A week later after rigorous selection I bought another 2kg of the hardest and horniest and quickly processed them. Now we now have 27 pots to sustain us, but man may not live by marmalade alone, and overpriced bad vegetables are a poor substitute for meat. Veggie January might be feasible in Australia or California, but it is a recipe for misery here. If you want to eat vegetables and fruit, do it in July or August when they are more appetising.
January starts with two nice little traditions before it goes flat: there is the wassail of the Twelfth Night (which we forgot to celebrate) and the Twelfth Cake on the Feast of the Epiphany the next day. As we went on a day trip to Cambridge on the 5th, the puff pastry for our galette des rois had to be made the day before and the frangipane on the 6th itself. It was a triumph for all that, and slipped down very nicely at teatime with a half bottle of 1995 Lenz Moser Prestige Beerenauslese.
We were able to have a little fun from time to time. Before my son returned to university I made an ancient Sumerian lamb and beetroot stew with beer and various spices. Although with lamb currently at £18 a kg, I shan’t be buying much more hogget meat for the time being. We also rehearsed an excellent Moroccan dish of chicken with olives and preserved lemons.
The cheap fish shop in the Holloway Road reopened and I was able to rediscover the delights of pomfret, which Indians treat with the same relish as we do salmon. I also bought very good fresh prawns to make a prawn and mussel risotto. We had scallops and hake and lovely skate with black butter and capers and one night we even ate decent coley - one of those fishes that were famously reserved for the cat, like ling. Apart from two fish days a week, we ate meat, for all the reasons given above.
And wine, despite the homilies in my in-box, we drank that too. Misery requires bigger doses, not smaller ones and the non-alcoholic beer remained firmly lodged at the bottom of the fridge. With breathtaking utility bills and ever-increasing council taxes, the prospect of even higher demands in April together with an average increase in wine duty of a pound a bottle at much the same time, most of the wine consumed has been modestly priced, but good.
I might single out a few, such as the simple Stemmari Nero D’Avola which had been reduced by 20% making it particularly good for under £7. I am sorry to see the price has now gone up again. The Argentinian 2019 Viñalba Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve was nicely measured and not trite in that ‘Mac’ variety way . Equally well-judged was the 2020 Brooks Road Chardonnay from the Margaret River. Australia has put those fat babies away and this had fine acidity, no overbearing oak, excess weight or oiliness. It was a delight. The best of all was the 2017 Ascheri Barolo. Sullen at first, it opened out after fifteen minutes revealing something of that ‘Kirsch’ aroma that is so often identified by the American critic Robert Parker: a spirity cherry, but with plenty more on the palate in the form of black olives and blackberries. It did the honours with a nicely crispy, meaty duck.
Posted: 4th January 2022
I suspect for most people Christmas is a time to bring out their best bottles, but in this house at least, it is also an opportunity to locate things that need drinking up. This occasionally leads to pleasant surprises, and at others to painful disappointments. This year I noted once again that my supplies are running low in many areas. We are lacking good dry whites. We have consumed all our stock of old Chianti and Barolo. My once impressive collection of vintage port has dwindled post-Christmas to just two bottles and there are fewer than a dozen old burgundy wines remaining, which might be a relief after this year’s experience.
On the food side there have been disappointments too. For the first time in years I was unable to locate the livers to make the much-loved terrine we broach at dinner on Christmas Eve. There were some available commercially, but not at a realistic price. When the day arrived there was only a tiny tin left over from some previous year, and a bit of stag pâté sent by the Lafite Rothschilds that was as good as its pedigree. We made up for the loss with some truly succulent Scottish lobsters. Last year economies reduced us to halibut. On the cheese front, the Stilton was oppressively salty, but I had found a vacherin mont d’or, a good camembert au lait cru, and a lovely little St Marcellin. Some of the cheeses were slow to come round in our freezing house but as Christmas warmed up, they came into their own. I have learned to chambrer the vacherin by putting it close to the stove. The meal culminated with a bûche de Noël.
With the tartines we had a bottle of non-vintage Taittinger which I must have had for fifteen years. I love old champagne and this had not suffered in any way - indeed, I have champagnes going back thirty years, and I have never (fingers crossed) found one to be out of condition. I had neglected the 1982 Chapoutier white Hermitage (a present from Michel Chapoutier), which had ullaged to low shoulder. It hadn’t suffered much: it might have been the colour of teak but tasted enchantingly of honey and gingerbread. The 2011 Domaine de Marroniers 1er Cru Montmains was a Chablis of an old-fashioned, austere school that may have been just a mite too austere for its own boots. The 1990 Pomerol from Château Bourgneuf was good (all toast and game) however and proved once again that claret tends to live to a healthier old age than burgundy these days. Maybe it always did.
We finished with a 1997 Sandeman Vau Vintage port. Vau was launched in the late nineties to create an early drinking vintage style, but we were assured that it would still be possible to lay it down. There was certainly nothing wrong with it and it had a pleasant raspberry and blackberry fruitiness about it, even if it was light for a top port. It drank well from a stoppered decanter for three or four days.
We had been too tired to go to Midnight Mass, and went to a much depleted service before opening our presents on the big day. Without the terrine, we needed something to nibble on. I had made two loaves of Venezuelan pan de jamón again as that had been a success a couple of years before. It proved just right, and the second loaf did service on Boxing Day. I leave out the raisins because one of our number dislikes them, but I am not sure they pull an awful lot of weight in the recipe, then again, I don’t like ‘sweet and sour’ much. We had a scrumptious dry-aged Simon Heffer forerib for our Christmas dinner with the usual red cabbage; then the cheeses reappeared followed by a magisterial Sussex pond pudding.
We had a bottle of 2004 Jacquart around the tree. It was a gorgeous champagne with a fine bead and delicate bouquet of apricots. With the beef there were two red burgundies: the 1992 Domaine René Leclerc Gevrey-Chambertin 1er Cru Combe aux Moines and the 1996 Domaine Loïs Dufouleur Beaune Clos du Roi (1948 bottles made). The Chambertin had a slight edge on the Beaune but neither was particularly distinguished. I have spares of both. I might just drink them sooner rather than later: they aren’t going to improve. A great hit with pudding was a half bottle of 1995 Bouvier Trockenbeerenauslese from my old friend Willi Opitz.
As is often the case, the Italian wine on New Year’s Eve was one of the stars of the show. It has to accompany a dish of zampone and lentils with mashed potato and tomato passata. In this case it was a 1996 Masi Amarone. I decanted it as we sat down, but I could have done so half an hour before. There was no shortage of fruit or power. With time it threw off increasing amounts of liquorice. With the Middle-Eastern semolina, pistachio and rosewater cake there was a 1995 Feiler Artinger Pinot Cuvée Ausbruch 1995 which tasted of dried apricots and was supremely rich - almost a cake itself.
The dawn of 2022 has already broken and real austerity starts now. Not that anyone will stop drinking in this house. I have had a really good Soave Superiore reeking of tobacco, with a salty, nutty palate that will get the taste buds marching again. Some Soaves have deserved their bad name, but wines like these can delight. Wonderful too was the 2020 Casa Roscoli organic Primitivo smelling of raspberries and tar. It was not one of those slightly sweet Primitivos. This was all fruit and structure.
A glass or two of a crisp, appley Blanquette de Limoux reminded me if I needed any reminding, that we were drinking a lot more sparkling wine in Britain now than we ever did before. In the past non-champagne sparklers were reserved for receptions - weddings in particular - but now everyone is tippling prosecco by the glass.
Anthony Rose’s book Fizz! came out at the end of November. The timing is right: there is a lot of talk (some of it clearly resulting from our newly rediscovered national pride) about the quality of English sparklers, but there are other good if not great, neglected sparkling wines in the world, including German and Austrian fizz. ‘Sekt’ has a history almost as old and distinguished as champagne. My friend, the Mosel grower Enno Lippold has been at pains to convince me of the quality of some of these, which can sell at the prices of top champagnes. With all its cavas, foaming Shirazes, Vouvrays, Shampanskoyes and crémants (to name but a few), it is a world with a huge amount to discover, and Rose has proved himself the best of guides.
Tasting With Covid
Posted: 6th December 2021
A little over a month ago, I caught Covid. It came as a surprise. I had always been very careful, even when the body language of those around me proclaimed the thing was over and done with. I was double-vaccinated and recently boosted, and yet I might have been nursing the disease when I had my latest jab. I thought I had a cold: I was sneezing, had a runny nose and slightly inflamed sinuses; but there was no fever, no racking cough, and no shortness of breath. I only realised I had Covid when I picked up a stale bottle of aftershave I keep on my desk to sanitise my hands and found to my dismay my sense of smell had disappeared.
For someone in my position, to lose your sense of smell is like being struck dumb or blind. I admit, I do far less professional tasting than I used to; but all my adult life - nay, all my life - I have used my nose when shopping, to test the foods on my shelves or in the fridge to see what is good or bad to eat, or to determine the moment when something is cooked and ready. I never season things from recipes, but use my nose and tongue to assess them first. All of a sudden I had entered a world where I was groping in the dark, hoping for the best.
I had only a mild dose of Covid. I could still identify sweetness, sourness and saltiness, but my nose was useless and I had lost the retronasal ability which conveys subtler impressions to the palate. The enormity of my loss was slow to dawn on me. I ground beans for my coffee, but there was no smell, even if the coffee hit the spot alright; I lit a cone of incense for my morning bath, the room filled with smoke, but I smelled nothing. The lavender savon de Marseille was also mute. At dinner that night we had a good Corbières, a Château du Trillol from the Wine Society: the structure was there, but not the nose. It was pleasant enough, but a cheap Chianti we drank the next night was just blowsy - it tasted of alcohol and nothing more. Whisky was no better: beyond alcohol the only noticeable thing was salt. Food was uninteresting without taste. For days I could work up no enthusiasm about eating aroma-free pap.
By day three I thought I might be getting a hint of sandalwood from the incense, but when I made some salmon paste for lunch not even pimenton or fresh, grated horseradish was able to give it oomph. I cooked fish for dinner, looking hopelessly for some Indian seasoning I kept in an unmarked jam jar, but again spices did little to cheer it up, even if a dry muscat wine worked on the palate better than most whites.
On day four I could distinctly smell sandalwood in the bathroom, but this did not signal the full return of my senses. I tried chocolate but tasted only of sugar. Relief came in the form of some boquerones: anchovies in oil and lemon juice. Here was acidity and salt, and a chewy texture. Later that evening my nose picked up some kitchen cooking smells from downstairs while I watched a film in my study.
By the fifth day I was getting a faint perfume from the aftershave. I tried various vinegar bottles: my nose recoiled from the smell. My sinuses were still sensitive and I had conjunctivitis. The next day I roasted some Ethiopian Sidamo coffee beans. There was a smell coming off the beans, but I was looking for the aroma that told me the beans were done. My beans smelled distressingly like Nescafe or Maxwell House. I began to fear that Covid would permanently disfigure my olfactory sense. Fortunately I knew the coffee was ready when the beans were covered by a thin sheen of oil.
I was still nervous that we were eating tainted foods, and partly relying on colour and texture to tell me if they were past their prime. On the seventh day I made a curry. My nose was able to pick up turmeric, fenugreek, ginger and garam masala. Raw onions proved an irritant to my sinuses. On the tenth day I tried blitzing my sinuses with a bowl of Vicks’ Vapour Rub. It made my eyes sting like billy-o but I was already getting coffee grinds, toothpaste and incense. The following day I tried tasting wine with a collection of cru bourgeois Bordeaux. To my delight I picked up a pronounced fresh-crushed blackcurrant aroma on the 2019s. I got through about sixty, but an attempt to taste a hundred top Ribera del Dueros proved too much, and I had to give up. That night I made a crab sauce with garlic, chilli and parsley. It all tasted proper. I declared myself cured on day twelve when I did an online tasting of some McLaren Vale wines. I heard the others tasting. My notes were in keeping with theirs. The beast was slain.
In the circumstances it is true to say that I tasted less in November than I might have done. I was able to come away with a very good impression of the 2019 Médocs in Bordeaux, even if I had to miss the big UGC tasting the week before. From the 2018 vintage I liked best the Château Haut Barrail, Château Pontey, Château Malescasse (**), Château du Moulin Rouge (**), Château Bellevue de Tayac (**), Château Paveil de Luze (***) the last two in Margaux, and the Château le Crock (**+) in St Estèphe. The 2019s are being touted as rivals to the 1982s. I was struck by the Château Haut-Madrac, Château Laborde (**), Château Peyredon Lagravette (**+), Château Ramage la Batisse (**+), Château Léon Veyrin in Listrac and Château Lilian Ladouys in St Estèphe.
There were some treats too from the Lafite Rothschilds. First up was the 2016 Château des Laurets Baron from Puisseguin St Emilion with a rich, plumy nose and super fine tannins. You quickly recognised superior wine-making associated with Lafite. The structure is lovely and it finished with fresh crushed blackcurrants. From the same stable came the 2016 Château Clarke (one of my friend Oz’s favourite wines) which was more subdued and Médocain with sweet ripe fruit. This might even be better next year. It costs £37.72 from Penistone Wine Cellars.
I also had a couple of very fine wines from Foncalieu near Narbonne: 2020 Petit Paradis, a rare white St Chinian with a lovely creamy, lemony taste that belied its 14% power, and the 2017 Château Haut-Gléon Corbières a lovely, well-mannered wine smelling of caramel, cherries and raspberries with a dense cherry flavour.
A tasting of Vouvrays evoked happy memories for me, especially when I met Nicholas Brunet, a man who had also had the stunning 1871 wine from Prince Poniatowski all those years ago at Lucas-Carton in Paris. There was an impressive series from the Domaine d’Orfeuilles, including an eight-year old sparkler, the honeyed 2019 Silex (flint) and the sweet 2009 Reserve d’Automne. Brunet’s wines were special too, particularly the 2015 Demi-Sec, the super-concentrated 2018 Moelleux and a wonderful 1990 with 150 grams residual sugar. Also very good were the 2020 wines from the Domaine d’Aubert (Yapp Bros).
Crossing to the Southern Hemisphere, from being the home of Grenache for Australian port production, McLaren Vale has gone all Italian. I enjoyed a Vermentino from Chalk Hill, a Sangiovese from Coriole and Nero d’Avola from Hither and Yon.
And there are the Christmas spirits to think about too. Lidl had the best bargains: for £15.99 there is a creditable peated malt called Abrachan and for a pound more the Ben Brachan range of 3-year old Highland, Speyside and Islay, of which the latter impressed me most. I shall speak of a luscious, rich 23-year old Glenfiddich perhaps on another occasion. From Tesco there was an unusual, but winning gin called The Melodist (£20). The label said it contained the botanicals yuzu, green tea and lemon grass. I certainly smelled coriander and it was nicely peppery. Juniper-loving gin stalwarts might raise an eyebrow or two. There were two Tesco 12-year old malts: Highland and Speyside - both at £23. It would be hard to choose: the Highland is more chocolate and butterscotch, while the Speyside is a classic with plenty of sweetness and a nose of creamy rice pudding. A real treat was an XO cognac, 50 cls for £35 with a pretty floral aroma with some rancio, dried apricot notes and a pretty nervousness on the palate. My one reservation would be that it tasted just a little too sweet.
At the end of the month I even had a foreign adventure when I was summoned to address the Sligo Wine Society. For all sorts of reasons I love going to the land of my fathers, but it is not often the food I relish most. Mistake me not: I like good brown bread and I always enjoy a fry with rashers and black and white pudding. I want a pint of proper stout too but otherwise most of what you eat in Ireland is little different to provincial food here. Things seem to be changing, however, if the plaudits going to Chapter One in Dublin are to be believed: for a first time ever, an Irish restaurant is being lauded by British critics. Ireland needs to seize its moment now that Great Britain has gone into isolation.
After my exertions on Rosses Point I was given a present of a side of Keem Bay smoked salmon from Achill Island off the coast of Mayo, where doubtless we MacDonoghs have poached fish for centuries now. This was great smoked salmon as I remember it, rich and smoky and great to taste.
A Little Sparkle
Posted: 2nd November 2021
It’s official - confirmed in last week’s budget - we are to become a nation of sparkling wine drinkers. The outmoded tax which penalised sparklers has been scrapped and unless the wine is over 15 percent ABV (and very few are), sparkling wines are actually going to come down in price in the spring. This is an obvious nod to the burgeoning production of sparkling wine in England and Wales which will not only make wines such as the very good champagne-style, bramley and apricot-scented Chapel Down I had from Tesco recently more competitive, it will also liberate (up a point) your foreign champagnes, proseccos, cavas and Sekts.
A few weeks before this new bounty was dangled before us, I was sent a collection of ‘Winzer Sekts’ made by my friend Fred Loimer in Langenlois in Austria. They were produced biodynamically on his two estates in the Kamptal and in the Thermenregion south of Vienna. A Winzersekt is a sparkling wine made by a small producer rather than some massive industrial concern. These are ten-a-penny in both Germany and Austria. The most expensive German examples can cost up to 100 Euros a bottle and boast a tradition going back over 150 years. Loimer’s wines were shipped by Oddbins, but that seems to have ceased. If they were here they would still sell for less than Chapel Down.
Loimer’s sparklers are all a touch on the austere side and had me thinking of baking soda. The Reserva Extra Brut, for example, had just two grams of sugar in it (a good deal less than Chapel Down) and tasted quite salty. The best of them were the Rosé which boasted a panoply of fruits from quinces and peaches to strawberries and honey and the lemon-zesty Blanc de Blancs which was a real pleasure to drink. Loimer also showed his still wine Gumpold with a gorgeous lemony acidity and a very impressively structured 2019 Pinot Noir also from the Thermenregion called Anning.
Both Aldi and Lidl are about to offer champagne for half the price of Chapel Down. It may not be the best you have ever tasted, but it is quite drinkable. Their basic champagnes are a little more: the Comte de Senneville from Lidl is just £12.99 and Aldi’s Veuve Monsigny is £13.49 - and both punch well above their price. If you fancy splashing out at Aldi there are two others that impressed me: the Philizot Blanc de Noirs (£18.99) and the Veuve Monsigny Rosé (£16.99). I would also recommend the Crémant du Jura at £8.49 and the Sparkling Shiraz from South Australia (£6.99). My friend Oz Clarke tells me it was Australia’s ‘Bacchus wine’ in the old days, left in the wedding suites of antipodean motels, it was meant to give creative strength to newlyweds.
Lidl keeps a tight list, but with some considerable bargains if you are as hard up as we are. There is an impressive raspberry-perfumed Argentinian Malbec at £4.49 and a textbook Chianti for £5.99. Aldi on the other hand has wheeled out some treats, many of which will be available online only. Widely distributed is the lemony Sicilian Grillo at £5.99. Online only is the Domaine La Roche white Pessac-Léognan (£19.99) which has proper complexity. Also online and at the same price a really super and ‘typical’ Chablis Premier Cru from Albert Lucas. Again only online but at an appealing £6.49 is a 2018 Okfener Bockstein from the Saar. I can’t think of a greater bargain.
Moving to reds, there is a proper juicy Fitou at £5.49, and online an exciting 2021 Central Otago Pinot Noir for £9.99. More generally available is the 2019 Lebanese red for £7.99 with a redolence of brown sugar and big, sweet, meaty tannins from its Bekaa fruit. Then a lovely raspberry-scented 2016 Paraiso Sur Chilean Syrah (online £9.99), or a Shiraz from Cannon Springs in California (£6.99) that is worth more than its modest price-tag; or a waxy 2018 Chianti Riserva (£6.49) or (online) a 2017 Barolo for £14.99.
The real treats tend to be on the expensive side, like the 2018 Amarone (online £19.99), the 2018 Barbaresco (online) at £17.99 or the 2019 Jean Lefort Gevrey Chambertin at £24.99. There are three more lovely wines from Bordeaux: the 2015 Château d’Arsac from Margaux (online £19.99) which was both ready and authentic, and the Château Moulinet from Pomerol (online £24.99) - this was rich, with a hint of liquorice - and a 2015 Grand Cru St Emilion - Château Laforge (online £19.99) which is perfect for drinking now.
If that is too much, I heartily recommend the 2020 Crozes Hermitage, a proper Syrah at £12.99 and the 2019 Priorat (£15.99), a strapping wine with fine, cooling tannins. In a similar idiom are the 2019 Gigondas (£17.99), with its tell-tale brown sugar nose and the jammy, figgy 2018 Le Moulin Teyroud Châteauneuf du Pape (online £19.99).
Finally two Christmas pudding wines: 2019 Canadian Vidal Ice Wine (online £13.99), and 2017 Six Puttonyos Tokay Aszu (50 cls for £12.99) which is all coconuts, mangoes and pineapples.
The Cistercian Schloss Gobelsburg is a neighbour of Fred Loimer in the Austrian Kamptal. This year the estate is 850 years old, and its tenant, Michael Moosbrugger is holding a series of tastings worldwide. In October we were privileged to taste a vertical of the Riesling wines from his top, Permian rock, Heiligenstein (‘The Rock of the Saints’) site. Moosbrugger acquired a 50-year lease on the monastic vineyards of Kloster Zwettl in 1997, but the tasting took us all the way back to 1971. His period at the helm corresponds to a hotter, riper growing season influenced by global warming, which has seen a distinct rise in alcohol in Austrian wines. The wines had by the Cistercians were more hit and miss. After the Wine Scandal of 1985 the estate became chiefly famous for Messwein - wine used by priests to celebrate mass. Drinkers felt this was reliable because the priest’s wine may not be adulterated. The majority of the wine made at Gobelsburg in the wake of the scandal was mass wine.
My favourites in descending order were the 2019, 2010, 2008, 2004, 2001 and 1999 - a famous ‘Neuner’ - the years with nine in them are meant to be particularly good in Austria, and this was probably the best of all. There were fewer good wines from the monks’ time. I gave high scores to the dry 1983 (there was a sweet Spätlese), the 1973 and the 1971.
Australia is not Austria (unless you are Japanese), but I enjoyed some very good wines from Western Australia too in a comparative tasting of Cabernets and Shirazes from the Margaret River and Great Southern regions. With Shiraz it is vital to rid yourself of any desire to find those peony/carnation characters you get from granite-grown Syrah in France. At its worst, Australian Shiraz can be a potent form of raspberry cordial. Fortunately none of the Western Australian examples were like this, they were more likely to be earthy or tarry than smoky or floral.
My favourite Shirazes were the 2018 Frankland Estate Isolation Ridge from Great Southern which was pleasantly smoky as well as tasting of raspberries, and the tarry 2018 Cape Mentelle from Margaret River which came in at a hefty 15 percent, but didn’t taste like it. It was 88% Shiraz. There were a lot of varietal additions made to season it.
I still preferred the Cabernets, which were part of Margaret River’s original claim to fame, with sea breezes and cool nights bringing a rare perfume to the grapes. The 2018 Alkoomi Black Label comes from the Franklin River (Great Southern) and has a pronounced cassis character. At £15 was good value. The 2018 Domaine Naturaliste (nudists?) Rebus was richer and more confected, but still delicious. And then there was Vasse Felix which seemed the least classically ‘Cabernet’ but which represents a benchmark Margaret River style and has done for a generation or more.
And finally I come to cider, another sparkler (sometimes) and one more drink that will cost less as a result of the budget. The following ciders are available from cideriswine.co.uk. Tinson’s Anatomy from Lewes is a nice dry cider made by the champagne method with a pleasant expression of apples. You should be warned that acidity levels can be twice those found in wines and without adding correcting sugar cider can be searing. Abel Méthode Cidre (with some perry - or pear cider) is another champagne-style cider from the North Island of New Zealand. The 2019 Eden Orogenies from Vermont mixes grapes and apples, which I found very satisfying. Templar’s Choice Perry (despite its name from France) was the sort of fresh, fruity, refreshing drink I have enjoyed many times in Normandy. Berryland Rhubarb and Mead 2019 from the Ukraine was a most unusual drink but very enjoyable for all that. And finally my favourite: Riestra Sidra Natural from the Spanish Asturias, where it has quenched miners’ thirsts since 1906. I could imagine it cutting through the fat in a hunk of pungent Cabrales cheese.
Nostalgia for France
Posted: 5th October 2021
When St Giles Day dawned on 1 September, I had not seen the Mainland for nearly a year. Well, almost, I had been to Calais, just before the curtain came down in December. We went to liberate some cases of a friend’s wine from a warehouse, but I was able to nip into an Auchan and buy one or two things I needed to ‘save Christmas’ (as they say now) before we rejoined the queue for the Tunnel. I did not break bread or drink wine in the short time I was there, so it hardly counts.
In February, when I normally spend a few days in Provence, France was locked down too, and it was not until August that it became completely clear that I could travel there without paying hundreds of pounds to some crook to put my PCR test in the nearest bin. By mid-September I was ready to risk it. Spurning the cowboys, I booked a test with Boots, and was tense with excitement when my daughter told me she had been teaching a boy whose whole class had come down with it. She took the test, and two days before my departure the result came back negative. I was free to leave.
Before I could join our depleted party at the Gare de Lyon I had to visit my ninety-four year old mother who was laid up with a broken tibia in a hospital in the 14th Arrondissement. Paris looked busy, but everyone wore masks, inside and out. At the railway station I had to present my covid passport as well. There was a perceptible rigour in force, one unknown in Britain, even at the height of the crisis. Health passports were demanded in not only in stations, but also in supermarkets and cafés. You could probably get away with not having one, but only if you knew the proprietor of the shop, café or restaurant.
We arrived at the vineyard at eight that night to find lamb grilling and corks pulled. The vintage had been paused due to rain - a rare thing in the Ventoux. France has suffered much this year, but the vineyard itself had been spared up to now. The weather remained changeable for the next twenty-four hours when the sun came out. It was a delight to be there, even if covid formalities hung over us all the time, from taking a test with Thibaut the wine-loving local pharmacist to filling in the dreaded ‘locator’ form. We went to local restaurants and we ate an enormous leg of Boris the Boar, which had been left for us by considerate huntsmen. This was moistened with various vintages of Domaine des Anges, of which my favourites were the pure Grenache 2018 Seraphim, and from the virtually pure Syrah Archange, the 2019, 2018 and 2015. Tasting the wines with the winemaker Florent Chave, he convincingly demonstrated the improvement in quality brought about by using terracotta amphorae. The wines have become softer and richer.
Then came the dreaded departure. Running the gauntlet at the Gare du Nord was a process as intimidating as the famous punishment meted out by the Prussian Army. At six or seven points papers are examined and those who are not ready are sent to the back of the queue. At the end of the process we looked for solace in a glass of beer, but no beer was available in the length and breadth of the Eurostar waiting pen.
There have been French-themed tastings in London such as the Languedoc-Roussillon top-100, which featured, among others, a fine Sauvignon Blanc from the Baron de Badassière, a man who must excite a lively interest in the United States. The bad-arse Baron makes a good Picpoul de Pinet but that was not available. On the other hand I was excited about the fresh, appley version from the Moulin de Gassac. From the Plaimont co-operative I liked the 2017 Empreinte with its redolence of guavas.
Among the reds I enjoyed a juicy, refreshing 2020 Picpoul Noir from the Villa Blanche (Waitrose) and a nice, violet-scented 2020 Cinsault from the Domaine la Voûte du Verdus. There was a meaty 2019 Syrah from the Domaine les Yeuses and an old friend from the Pic St Loup, the 2019 Mas Bruguière, a spicy blend of Syrah and Grenache which brought back memories of better days. Another wine I admired was the 2017 Rieutord Faugères from Florence Alquier which had me thinking of roses and 2019 Roches Noires from the Cave de Roquebrun in St Chinian. The Château de Pennautier in Cabardès is well known here. The Wine Society has the Terroirs d’Altitude which I warmly recommend. I also tasted a lovely fortified sweet wine from the Domaine F Jaubert: the 2002 Or du Temps Rivesaltes, and realised how much I missed these wines.
I attended a St Emilion Grand Cru Classés tasting in a City tower. Getting past security was much how I imagined visiting the Bond-villain Blofeld in one of his hideaways would be. I half expected to be whisked off down the Thames in a hydrofoil. Once admitted, you could peer down at the Tower and St Pauls. All I can say about the view was that it was far nicer looking out than looking up or in. The wines I liked most were the 2018 Château Barde-Haut, the 2016 Bellefont-Belcier, the 2018 Château Chauvin, the 2012 Les Grandes Murailles, the 2016 Clos de l’Oratoire, the 2016 Clos des Jacobins, the 2018 Château de Ferrrand, the 2016 Château La Fleur Cardinale, the 2017 Château Fombrauge, the 2011 Franc Mayne, the 2018 and 2016 Château Grand Corbin (yes, I know: wasted on him - he doesn’t drink), the 2018 Laniote, the 2015 Laroque, the 2018 and 2016 Château Ripeau and most of all, the 2018 and 2016 Château La Couspraude - only the 2018 and 2016 La Tour Figeac and the 2018 and 2016 Villemaurine came close.
For the time being I shall have to be satisfied with glassfuls of France, before I can get closer to the real thing.
A Little Taste of Germany
Posted: 1st September 2021
I haven’t been this immobile since 1985, when I had just returned from six-and-a-half years in Paris. In this poor, dull, summer month of August (where the sun has been absent, scorching vines and flesh in the Mediterranean Basin) I have attended a pleasant family lunch in the Thames Valley and been on two short excursions to Ely and Norwich. Although I have been to Cambridge many, many times, I have never gone the full ten miles to Ely, a pretty little city in the shadow of a massive cathedral. At last we had a good reason to do this.
Norwich is another kettle of fish. There is a cathedral in its close like Ely, certainly, but also thirty-five mediaeval churches lying within the city’s largely extant walls and lots and lots of ancient buildings in between. Our initial reaction to Norwich was anger, however. We were denied access to the cathedral nave because that plaster cast of a diplodocus that used to be in the Natural History Museum in South Ken had been fetched up for the amusement of little Norvicians. I had stupidly put the helter-skelter and miniature golf courses out of my mind, together with all the other extraordinarily desperate schemes the Church of England has dreamed up to make people spend money in its cathedrals. When I was told that the only way I would be able to see the nave was to join the gaggle of ‘Dippy’ worshippers. I bit my lip, but my thoughts were less than Christian.
I recovered. Norwich is mostly a lovely city. The purpose of our going had nothing to do with wine or food, but we did find first rate pork pies in the great market square, and bacon rolls; and we stopped for a pint at the sixteenth century Mischief pub and even had a Chinese meal at a friendly place in an otherwise bleak corner in the north of the city, but significantly, still within the walls.
The great event as far as wine was concerned was the arrival of twenty-four 50cl bottles from the VDP in Mainz: my chance to taste the latest GGs or Grosse Gewächse (grand crus) from Germany. It should be borne in mind that the big tasting in Wiesbaden provides tasters with the chance to review around 450 wines over two days, and that twenty-four wines is nothing more than a snapshot; but these are hard times, and many of us would find it difficult to get to Wiesbaden, so the mountain was obliged to go to Mohammed.
So, what were the highlights? The following are all Riesling wines, mostly from the 2019 harvest, but with a few 2018s. All received my top rating of three stars.
Van Volxem, 2019 Scharzhofberger Pergentsknopp GG (Saar): very pale, with a lovely lime, lemon peel and almond aroma and an elegant evocation of delicate white peaches and apricots on the tongue. This wine was beautifully fresh with the finest, teasing acidity and the juiciest finish concealing considerable power.
Forstmeister Geltz-Zilliken, Rausch GG (Saar): what a great name is ‘Rausch’ (extasy). This one evokes peaches and pears and the wine has something of the Bellini about it. The same fruit cocktail returns on the palate. Again there is an impression of delicacy about it, but effete it is not: there are all sorts of developments and the fruit fairly throbs. It is another wine that should have a long innings.
2019 Domdechant Werner, Kirchenstück GG (Hochheim, Rheingau): a slight vegetal note on the nose with a hint of sweetness; rich on the palate, I suspect this one was nudging the upper limit of 9 grams per litre residual sugar; but the counterpoise is the acidity, which leaves it bursting with life and promise.
2019 August Kesseler, Seligmacher GG (Rheingau): wonderfully crisp nose that had my nostrils flaring at the suggestion of frost; then peaches, pears and pine resin - the Rheingau as it should be, with fabulous length.
2018 Gut Hermannsberg, Hermannsberg GG (Nahe): pale again, slightly meaty, pretty limes and white peaches, and far less mineral and demanding than many wines from this estate; what really impressed me was the length and structure here and the waves of juicy acidity. I can imagine this wine giving huge pleasure for many years to come.
2018 von Winning, Ungeheuer GG (Pfalz): the von Winning estate is a love-or-loath place - you either like the smell and taste of oak on Riesling, or you hate it; most of the time I would sympathise with the detractors, but this Ungeheuer (‘Monster’) I actually liked. It had an earthiness about it, as well as oak, and it was indeed a big monster, with great length.
2019 Bürklin-Wolf, Gaisböhl GG (Pfalz): again some earthiness here along with fresh cut sorrel and rosewater; the wine has good bite and considerable length and the cleanest finish imaginable.
2019 Horst Sauer, Am Lumpen 1655 GG (Franken): the famous Guru of Maryland, Robert Parker uses ‘Kirsch’ as a descriptor in his tasting notes - a reference I think to dry cherry schnapps of the sort you find chiefly in South Germany or Austria. This Horst Sauer wine made me think of cherries, but more in a distilled idiom, coupled perhaps with rosewater. Again the finish here is playful and long.
The other wines I have had this month were certainly not as exciting as these, but then again they did not cost anything like as much. I was amused by the arrival of a white and a pink Harlot and rightly predicted controversy. They are two English sparkling wines made using the ‘charmat’ tank method (like prosecco) rather than in imitation of champagne. The grapes are champagne grapes, but with added Bacchus, a cultivar which gives the white in particular a little elderflower aroma, which I thought was nice. The pink is easier on the Bacchus and has less elderflower character, but is none the worse for it. The bottles are suitably lurid. People were volubly offended when the wines were launched and I suspect that might have been the point?
I had some rosés from Tesco including the champagne-method sparkler from Hush Heath, which I liked a little less than the excellent white version. Two wines impressed me more than the very decent Provencal rosés, and they were the 2020 L’Amistanza from Planeta in Sicily and the 2019 Primitivo from Terre di Chieti in the Abruzzo. L’Amistanza was a combination of Fiano and Grecanico, taking the lean, mineral fruit of the one, and the weight of the other to excellent effect; the Primitivo was a ‘fruit bomb’, like a dense reduction of fresh ripe cherries.
I also had some nice ciders and beers. Pulpt Flare cider was my sort of thing: not one of those cloudy, serious ones but with good fizz and nice fresh apple fruit, but then I have unsophisticated tastes when it comes to cider. The Salt Huckaback from the World Heritage site at Saltaire is a ‘Neipa’ or New England IPA and is supposed to have pronounced exotic fruit flavour, in this case it would seem to be mangoes. I suppose there is nothing unusual about finding mangoes in the West Riding of Yorkshire these days. It is certainly much less surprising and far more agreeable than finding a dinosaur in the nave of Norwich Cathedral.
Cutting the Mustard
Posted: 18th August 2021
July was a month of near normality in which I did nearly normal things like enjoy a long boozy lunch with old friends and go to the opera at Garsington (which is no longer anywhere near Garsington). There was even a family excursion to seek out Roman and Saxon remains in Saint Albans, and I made a second batch of Dijon mustard that was more successful than the first, but I might still have a little way to run before I achieve perfection.
There were wines to taste too. Some very good boxes of Nero d’Avola and Greco came from When in Rome, which specialises in the wines of the Mezzogiorno. I think there is still a suspicion when it comes to bag-in-box wines in Britain, but there is no intrinsic reason why they should be nasty, and with their airlocks, they keep pretty fresh for weeks. I came across them first at the friend’s house in the Lot. She used to buy the cheapest Cahors from the cellar doors of good local growers, the sort of thing they made from young vines or from their least distinguished terroirs. As an everyday wine it was fine, and it had the advantage of being very cheap; indeed it was all the cheaper for not having to dress up in bottles and corks. The When in Rome wines were predictably full-bodied: the white Greco maybe a little hot, the Nero d’Avola a proper fruit bomb, but also the sort of thing that might put a few hairs on your chest.
I attended a Washington State tasting, and was interested to see how the sort of wines I had tasted in Kelowna in British Columbia developed as they crossed the US Border and entered the steamy Columbia Valley. There were some lovely Rhone-style wines, such as the 2018 Syrah Domaine de Pierres from the Betz Family Winery. Also good were The 2018 Pundit from Tenet Wines and 2018 Nina Lee from the Spring Valley Vineyard (both virtually pure Syrah). The last two are part of the massive Sainte Michelle Group which was responsible for the splendid 2016 Col Solare Cabernet Sauvignon (made as a joint venture with Antinori)and the 2019 Eroica Riesling made with Ernst Loosen from Bernkastel.
Also from the US there were some wines from Gallo. Gallo has continued its policy of acquiring well-known Californian estates. Some of these wines I wrote about here. I am still just as much a sucker for the Bear Flag Zinfandel. Also striking was the 2017 Louis M Martini Napa Cabernet Sauvignon: a proper Californian classic of with a bouquet of big black fruits. Frei Brothers 2019 Sonoma Chardonnay was a touch on the sweet side for me. That tends to be a problem with the whites - I am assuming that some sugar is left in order to keep the wines under 15% ABV. If you ferment them out fully they can be hefty, like the 2018 Kali Hart Chardonnay with its whacking great toast-and-tinned-peaches aromas. It was very good, but to be consumed in moderation.
New to me was the J Cuvee 20 sparkling wine. This I thought all the better for not pretending to be champagne. It was far riper and more exotic, with plenty of mango and peach tastes, some notes of straw and orange and a lingering quince-like finish. I put it alongside a couple of excellent wines from Tesco, a nice, good-value rhubarb-and-vanilla-sugar pink from Gratien et Meyer in the Loire and a really impressive Tesco English Sparkling from Hush Heath which was properly elegant in an apply champagne idiom. I thought it was really quite distinguished in a low baumé sort of way.
A treat from the Baron Edmond de Rothschild was the 2020 Rimapere Sauvignon Blanc from the Marlborough Valley in New Zealand. This was a Marlborough Sauvignon as we have grown to expect it, although I thought once again that there might have been a little bit too much undigested sugar covering the acid? It was more white peach than gooseberry: a testament to greater ripeness. It came with a big bit of Brie de Meaux also from another of the Rothschild estates, but this time just east of Paris. If I am right it was produced at the Château de Ferrières where Bismarck and Jules Favre negotiated the end of the Franco-Prussian War. The cheese was delicious.
Brie de Meaux might take me in an admittedly circumlocutious sort of way back to mustard. In St Albans I dropped into Ellis the butcher by the railway station who recommended his sausages made according to a Saxmundham recipe brought first to the city by his father, who was a Suffolk man. When we got back we put them against my mustard. In theory I was trying to make a Dijon Mustard, where the grains are no longer identifiable, but in practise I had been unable to entirely eliminate the black casing to the seeds and it still looked much more like a Meaux Mustard. It wasn’t for want of trying: I had soaked the grains for two days, cooked them in wine and vinegar, drained off the liquor and taken them to a friend with a high-speed whizzer to grind them as smoothly as possible. That meant adding back the liquor to create an appropriately creamy emulsion and adding a teaspoon-full of turmeric to make it properly yellow. Next time I am determined to use white seeds in order to get it right at last. I’ll get there if it kills me.
The Soul of Wine
Posted: 5th July 2021
In June the chance to taste wine ebbed back at a sedate pace. The first stirrings of this new spring came in the form of a promissory case from Demeter and respekt-Biodyn in Austria. It did not make it in time for the online tasting with Monty Waldin, as British Customs and Excise grabbed it and held it hostage until I coughed up some money, but it was well worth waiting for.
The wines were all biodynamic, and therefore made according to the principles laid down for growing (potatoes) elaborated by the wine-hating Rudolf Steiner. Biodynamism involves doing a lot of things that many find ever-so-slightly baffling. Some, such as the application of various natural preparations to the soil, are obvious enough, and there are particular times and stages of the moon stipulated for planting and picking etc which follow a lead from the ancients. Horses are used for ploughing. Other ideas, such as the burying of cow horns filled with dung at the four corners of the vineyard are harder to digest, but all I can say is: if it works, it is fine by me.
In the last two or three decades wine has improved immeasurably on a technical level, but in a great many instances it has lost its soul. Biodynamism may sound like mumbo-jumbo, but it does aim to restore the soul of wine. So, in a more or less descending order, here were the wines - ten Austrians and two Germans:
2019 Grüner Veltliner Kalkvogel, Weingut Herbert Zillinger
Grüner Veltliner has been going through stormy times. Part of the problem with Austria’s workhorse grape is that climate change has reduced the acidity of many wines and encouraged greater levels of ripeness that can result in blandness. Add to this a new Austrian sensitivity to alcohol, which means trying to keep everything down below 13 abv. Some grape varieties don’t respond well to moves to cap their alcoholic effusiveness. Grenache would be a case in point for a black grape, Grüner Veltliner is a green grape that needs 13 plus.
The Wienviertel between Vienna and the Czech border has been the source of many decent Grüner Veltiners in the past, but a recent trip revealed some fairly boring wines, to the degree that I despaired of finding anything I liked there ever again. This Zillinger Kalkvogel has routed my doubts. The colour was deep, the wine slightly turbid, but I instantly recognised a proper ripe Veltliner by its smell of pineapples. On the palate there was a throbbing power and wonderful length. This was great Grüner Veltliner like those that ravished me in the good old days.
2017 Marienburger Fahrlay Grosses Gewächs, Grosse Lage Weingut Clemens Busch
Clemens Busch in Pünderich needs no introduction. A member of the VDP, he is one of the very best wine makers in the Mosel Valley. This was one of two German wines in the tasting. A wine with an absolutely enchanting nose that evoked a warm apricot tart, with lots of peach-like Riesling tastes on the palate and those apricots again. In contrast to the Veltiner, this is a Riesling that is all in delicacy; and it gets better and better in the glass.
2018 Blaufränkisch Leithaberg DAC Ried Oberer Wald, Weingut Feiler-Artinger
This was one of two red wines in the case. I met Kurt Feiler first in 1991, when he was still in his teens. I find it alarming to think that he is now a mature man! And this is a mature man’s wine too that comes from just behind the Neusiedlersee where Feiler-Artinger make their wonderful sweet Ausbruch wines.
For me, the style of Blaufränkisch made in the Leitha Hills is more attractive than the more famous examples from Mittelburgenland. I find it generally silkier and more Burgundian. Kurt’s wine is one of the best. It smells of creamy raspberries, revealing the use of oak casks a bit, but the touch is far lighter than it was. There is a lot of rich cherry fruit on the palate and plenty of life in it yet.
2019 Riesling Ried Gebling 1ÖTW, Weingut Sepp Moser
I have long been an admirer of Sepp Moser’s Ried Gebling in the Kamptal, where the wines are made by Sepp’s son Niki. The Mosers are members of the Traditionsweingüter organisation and part of the nobility of the Kamptal. This Riesling is at the opposite end of the scale to the Busch wine: it has considerable body, length and power. There is a pretty citrus note on the nose and a little taste of marmalade and quinces on the palate, it is long and complex.
2019 Kapelle Weißburgunder, Weingut Leiner
The second German wine comes from Sven Leiner in the Pfalz. It has a lovely citrusy nose, but it is above all an elegant, playful wine with great, ripe acidity and length. There is something that refreshes the palate in Leiner’s wines, and a complete absence of anything ponderous.
2017 Ried Zöbinger Hirsch 1ÖTW Kamptal DAC Riesling Weingut Hirsch
Another member of the Traditionsweingüter and in Johannes Hirsch another man I have known since he was not much more than a boy. This wine improved considerably in the bottle once opened. It was not such a typical Riesling at first, but carried plenty of weight and spice with a chunky, meaty finish. By the next day its character had fully emerged and it was showing really good length and structure.
2013 Blaufränkisch Thenau Biodynamisches Weingut Birgit Braunstein
The oldest wine in the tasting came from Birgit Braunstein in Purbach, famous for its fugitive Turk. I have admired Birgit’s wines for some time. This is a relatively light and supple Blaufränkisch and not deep in colour either. It is the polar opposite of some of the big, gummy Blaufränkisch wines you meet in Mittelburgenland. It is not robust but it is very pleasant now.
2019 Parcellaire Blanc #1, Weingut Johannes Zillinger
A wine made by another Zillinger from the Weinviertel and this time a blend of Welschriesling and Chardonnay. It produces a brew with just 11 percent alcohol. One element seems to have been aged in oak and makes for a creamy wine with a taste of pears with a good shuddering length and quite a searing, high-acid finish.
NV Hollenburger Riesling, Weingut Christoph Hoch
A blend of three vintages from limestone soils near Krems. Again this wine has a very modest alcoholic reading of 11.5. The acidity is up front, but it is a refreshing, summer wine with good peachy length.
2018 Cara, Weingut Ploder-Rosenberg
Vulkanland with its defunct volcanoes is famous for making Gewürztraminer, but this wine is an exception in that it is a blend of Bronner, Souvignier Gris (both new to me), Grüner Veltliner and Weißburgunder. This was the first of the orange wines, made naturally without using sulphur and obviously spurning the malolactic fermentation that converts the sharp malic acid into a creamy lactic acid. The alcohol was once again low at 11.5 and the wine was not hugely concentrated. There were some pretty fruit notes.
2018 Chardonnay Bambule, Weingut Judith Beck
Another orange wine, this time from Gols above the Neusiedler lake. The wine was cloudy with in-your-face acidity, rather than lengthening the tail. It was long and lively for all that, but reminded me of dill pickles and cider, relieved by a little taste of peaches.
2018 Weißburgunder, Weingut Schmelzer
Another wine from Gols, and another natural wine that had me thinking of cider. The ‘malic’ in malic acid derives from the Latin for apples. It was cloudy again and frothy; and the acid struck before anything else. It was not so bad, but I didn’t quite know how I’d serve it.
Besides these Central European wines I have been out and about, including attending a reception above a ladies’ club in Maddox Street for awards given out by Bloom’s Gin to encourage all-female businesses to get off the ground. It was fun to sip gin and nibble canapés on a sunny roof terrace after being locked up all this time.
I went to the big Spanish wine tasting in Westminster, a very well-organised affair with flights of wines brought to your table. I only had time for five or six flights, but tasted good things. I was struck by the fact that there are still parts of Spain that are great value for money - like Toro, particularly from Bodegas Rodriguez y Sanzo. There were three super wines from El Grifo on Lanzerote: a Malvasia, a Moscatel de Alejandria and the Listan Negro-Syrah blend that was best of all.
As chance would have it the Roussillon tasting was in the same place. This was a moment of great nostalgia for me, having been fourteen years a member of the tasting jury in the Roussillon and latterly president. Many of names were familiar to me, such as Mas Baux or the Château de Jau. The best of Jau’s straight wines was Jaujau Ier Red (awful name), but the real joy was the Rivesaltes Ambré with its aromas of honey and liquorice. These fortified VDNs are the region’s trump card. Dom Brial had a lovely figgy Primage, like a wonderful light port and a Rancio Sec with a tarry nose and a hint of seaweed like an excellent dry amontillado.
It was a huge joy to be reminded of Vaquer, where the late owner used to make astonishingly long-lived Burgundian-style wines. Their successors bear the ‘L’Exception’ label. There is also a VDN - Préface 1994 - which smells of pain d’épices.
I liked a leathery red Carmin 2018 at the Domaine F Jaubert, but again it was the VDNs that won me round: Or du Temps 2002 was all toffee and seaweed with the sweetness of oranges - a wonderful wine for chocolate. My real discovery of the day was the Domaine Vial Magnères in Banyuls and its gorgeous fortified 2018 Rimage or the Gaby Vial 7 Ans. The best wine in the tasting was the Banyuls Grand Cru André Magnères 2009: chocolate, toffee and butter, and utterly delicious.
Finally, my top wines and prices from the Aldi tasting in May:
Veuve Monsigny champagne brut £12.99 (hard to find a better price for drinkable champagne)
Castellore Fiano 2020, £4.99.
Picpoul de Pinet 2020, £5.99
Jurançon Sec 2019, £6.99
Assyrtiko 2020, £6.99 (already a huge favourite here)
Grenache, Syrah, Mourvèdre 2019, £6.99.
Uruguayen Tannat 2019, £6.99
Maremma Riserva 2016, £7.99 (a bargain for such a high-class wine)
Le Moulin Teyroud Châteauneuf-du-Pape 2018, £19.99.
Castellore Valpollicella Ripasso Superiore 2018, £7.99
Carta Carista Amarone della Valpollicella 2017, £13.49 (earth and strawberries)
Canyon Springs Zinfandel, £7.49 (juicy raisins).
Not big on soul, maybe, but low on price.
Posted:1st June 2021
I have had occasion to observe, and in print too, that fish is subject to great snobbery. Certain fish have always been grand: Dover sole and fly-fished salmon might be cases in point - true-born Englishmen would never have turned their noses up at these; other fish, however, have grandezza thrust upon them. They become fashionable for a time but often fall from grace. Trout is a spectacular example. It used to be a very posh fish when it was still caught from limpid streams. Now it is mostly distinctly cheap and farmed, and often tastes distressingly muddy.
Sometimes (not always), the snobbery is justified; at others it is not. When I wrote about this subject thirty years ago, the upstart was sea bass. Suddenly it had been discovered and restaurant-haunting Britons couldn’t get enough of it. These days it is largely farmed, and three perfectly acceptable small bass (or even better farmed sea bream) may be had for £9 or £10. Not all farmed fish is cheap, mind you. Good farmed salmon, for example, sells for over £25 per kg. I wonder if this price will be maintained. Were the salmon farmers tilting at foreign markets? If they were it might prove curtains? My old friend Lance Forman has discovered this to his dismay.
In the past, television cooks could cause price fluctuations too. I was annoyed when some sleb cook appeared on the box brandishing a brill. That meant the end of my supplies of cheap brill, one of the best of the flatfish. The price went up overnight.
At the moment, with the exception of the farmed fish sold by Billingsgate, virtually all fresh fish is overpriced in Britain. When I question them about this, fishmongers blame the fishermen, who, they say, won’t go out any more as a result of the post-Brexit trade deal. The fact that restaurants were closed as a result of Covid was another contributory factor, apparently, but that didn’t make much sense: if they couldn’t sell their fish to restaurants, they should have offloaded it on the general public who had none to go to? Most superior fish are caught by small boats from the southern ports. The successors to Peter Grimes who ply the North Sea tend to freeze their catches. Other fish - namely cod - now need to be imported as they are not so often caught in our diminished waters. Suddenly the humble codfish becomes a smart fish and you need to reckon with a bigger bill. When I had a decent (250g) slab of line-caught cod at the Seashell last month it was £18 a portion: not exactly cheap.
It may be that now pubs and restaurants have reopened again (at least for a while) that the fishermen might be induced to go out to sea? I understand that a great many of them were not British and that they may have left the country, but the truth is that the current treaty will mean that some fish are lost to us, and that we are left with an abundance of mackerel and Dublin Bay prawns, but relatively small amounts of everything else. That will mean more recherché fish will be caught by small vessels or by rod-and-line, and most of the time that will mean higher prices.
There are fortunately exceptions and they could actually halve the price of fish in your shopping basket. In our exploration of local fish shops we have found two relatively cheap sources for fresh fish. You need to take care. There are fish shops that sell an abundance of farmed or frozen fish, chiefly to ethnic communities, to which I generally give a wide berth, but these two seem to be kosher, and everything is properly labelled ‘fresh’, ‘wild’, ‘farmed’ etc. They are not exactly the closest shops to our door, and I generally take a bus, but who’s complaining? I am not talking about turbot or halibut, but some of the poor, downtrodden fish that are rarely the stars of cooking shows on the gogglebox. I draw the line (sic) at coley, ling or whiting for the time being, but I am sure they would be matter for a fish curry, for example. On the other hand I am quite happy to buy fresh gurnard, grey mullet or dogfish. There is a way to bring out the best in any fish, but sometimes it takes time to discover how.
I had been watching my new place for a while. On Saturdays there are queues of stout African ladies who buy prodigious quantities of fish. I tend to go on Tuesdays when the place is less busy. The grand fishmongers around here are happy to do fancy things for you, they will lift fillets etc, but I don’t mind doing that myself. The new fishmonger does offer. My first purchase from him was a couple of octopus. In a way I wished I had let him gut them. I had to find a little film on the Internet, but it wasn’t so hard. I felt slightly aggrieved that I had to throw out so much from the body of the beasts, but the tentacles and the heads made a really lovely arroz with paella rice.
Another time I bought monkfish at about half the price of fresh ‘monk’ around here, and cooked it with ginger and soya bean sauce - a recipe I learned from a Korean friend in Provence. She uses conger, but they didn’t have any. On another occasion my wife brought back a huge skate wing from her discovery, which is a bit closer to home, and I cooked that traditionally, serving it with black butter and capers.
Twice we’ve had grey mullet - a much scorned fish, but one that has the advantage of size. A good mullet can weigh well over a kilo and feed four. I tend to stuff it with sorrel (which grows like a weed on the kitchen roof) and butter, but it likes a drop of wine too.
Chiefly I was excited to find some dogfish at last. This is actually a little shark that I used to see washed up on the south coast as a boy. It was mostly used as ‘rock’ salmon for fish and chips. Like conger or monk it is firm and you can use it on skewers or fry it without it coming to grief. I first realised the value of dog in the Alentejo when I was writing about Portuguese wine. They love it, and cook it with fresh coriander and a liberal sprinkling of vinegar. A simple pleasure and quite delicious, and it was a timely reminder of a lost world.
Tales of a Hunter-Gatherer: The Frigid Spring
Posted: 4th May 2021
There’s something distinctly un-funny about the weather. I am tempted to blame the government and their ‘sunlit uplands’. Every week I ask myself when I might feel a little warmth again. I long for the eczema on my shins and belly to go away. I have dreams of being able to sit outside with a book. Every week I look at the BBC and see the good times are coming, but not this week: next week. As that next week then heaves into view I note that relief has been put back for another week, and so it goes on and on, and on. Nights hover just above freezing, and when the feeble sun dims each evening I start scratching about for a matchbox to turn a few scrappy logs in the grate into a crackling fire.
One reason why I am certain that the government is not responsible for this aspect of our misery is that their reopening of pub and restaurant terraces for al fresco boozing has arrived at a time when it would only prove tempting to hardened alcoholics. As my son was due to rejoin his fellow students in the middle of the month we even booked a couple of local pubs to drink a valedictory beer. The first one was at the Lord Palmerston in Tufnell Park where they were very keen to push their slightly comic menu on us. I had an Erdinger Weizen, which in contrast to the landscape was flat; but the pub has a nice view past the neo-baroque dome of the Boston Arms in the valley below and in the distance, the Shard rises up like the spire of a gothic church.
The second beer was at the Lion & Unicorn in Gaisford Street. Once again the menu was slapped down (at 5.45 pm). Once more it made funny reading. I suspected the author was the same and that some of the produce came out of a common kitchen? Both are Youngs’ pubs. Collusion was obvious, especially when the Erdinger proved flat again. I came to the conclusion the Erdinger must have been pre-Lockdown stock. Drink draft, British beer - I found out the hard way.
I have eaten out too. By the time I met up with a friend and went to the Spaniards I had learned my lesson and foreswore German brews. I had a good pint of IPA (and we followed it up with a bottle of Chablis with our fish and chips). Unless you sat smack in the middle of the sunlight, it was tooth-chatteringly cold. When I ate in a restaurant in Notting Hill Gate the following week I wore several layers. I wasn’t going to be caught out again.
Otherwise we have eaten and drunk at home. The first memorable meal was on the 6th. I had the night off cooking as it was my birthday and I had lined up my last two bottles of Biondi-Santi Brunello di Montalcino for after the Roederer champagne. We were just trying the 1975 Riserva when a mate rang to tell me that one of my dearest friends had died that morning. To say that the celebration was muted would be an understatement, but I can report that both the 75 and the 1981 Annata were still in good nick, despite bottles that had both ullaged to mid-shoulder - and I certainly needed drink to digest the news.
New season’s lamb continued to be sold at silly prices but one day I found a tiny leg of Greek lamb, which was a treat. Otherwise our butcher Paul has gone over to New Zealand lamb until greedy British farmers return to their senses. I am out of Greek reds, but intermittently Aldi has a delicious Assyrtiko at £6.99. It makes a lovely sappy aperitif and always seems to be better on the second day but worse on the third. A little Greek shop has opened in Highgate Village selling honey, cheese, sausages and other good things. The owner is a barber whose business has been temporarily put out action by Covid. Yesterday, I found the traditional Greek Easter bread there - tsoureki - made from three interwoven plaits to represent the Trinity. They also have the honey bees make from the pine trees, a wonderfully robust flavour, which will go with the bread.
The night before my son left for the north we had a lovely meal of bitter Puglian artichokes and calf’s liver and mash followed by meringues. After that there were fewer mouths to feed and we were even occasionally reduced to two at weekends. Today I plan to go to the market in Seven Sisters in search of a more earthy range of fish. They have fresh rock salmon and conger. We’ve had good lemon soles and haddock, but the prices are still out of this world. The other day I celebrated Brexit in my own way by making salmon and kipper fishcakes. They went down surprisingly well.
But there was still no spring, no fresh basil for tomato salads, no good melons for the prosciutto; in my rooftop kitchen garden the first leaves of marjoram began to unfurl at the beginning of May, the thyme turned green but has yet to flower. I have seen not one single tempting spear of asparagus. I’ve spotted Jersey Royals at £7 - £8 per kilo. I have not bought any, but I found a small bag in Aldi for £1.20. They weren’t too bad and a few sprigs of mint have now broken through the surface outside: I generally add mint to the potatoes in the steamer. The Italian chef in Notting Hill taught me how to make proper zucchine fritte. He told me to soak the courgette strips in milk overnight and then turn them in seasoned flour. So no eggs are required, and there is no need to wither the pieces. I tried the recipe last night. We’re on the right track now.
There is still no fruit of any quality about. We subsist on oranges and are bored. We would like some rhubarb but at £1.50 a ‘pound’ (how much is that? Two sticks?) I am not buying. Last year we had rhubarb coming out of our ears. I bought some Spanish strawberries in Kilburn on Saturday. They were whopping things, hard and crunchy. Blindfold you might have taken them for miniature apples. Sodding spring, bloody hurry up!
Tales of the Hunter-Gatherer: Marking Time
Posted: 6th April 2021
Marking time is never a good feeling, especially when you are getting on in life, but when I look at my children I note that it can’t be any fun at their age either and it is possibly even worse for my nonagenarian mother, for whom life now has no sense at all. Even the smallest things are banned while the plague lurks on every corner. Life is on hold for most of us but where she lives the pandemic is making new strides and claiming more lives.
I sit and wait for news of three or four things, just as I have waited for an upturn for months. Otherwise days slip by more or less unnoticed. I am reading the wrong book (which I am not enjoying and find any excuse to put it down), I pick up a gouge, a pen or a brush, then discard it. The pandemic is perfectly uncreative.
There is just the shopping to do, and then dinner to cook, a film and bed, and an awful lot of time wasted on social media in between.
So what do the shops yield? The pumpkins have gone. I was getting fond of pumpkin puree and it was popular with the troops. Abundant cauliflowers are still turned into fritters with lots of variant spicing and I have been making courgette fritters too using feta, but that is work in progress and the bore about courgettes is squeezing out the excess fluid. One thing I have discovered in the local ethnic markets is the Bavarian radish or ‘mouli’, which is delicious braised. For a quid I can get one about two feet long. There are fewer cheap pears, and the good oranges are over. So far no rhubarb has appeared in the local shops and it is far too early for soft fruits.
The butcher Paul continues to provide us with good cheap beef, and when roasted it is dressed up with homemade horseradish made from Styrian roots bought from the local Turks. Leftover beef goes into pies with onions and fresh ginger. Lamb on the other hand is getting hoggety and the price is way too high. There are 34 million four-legged sheep in this county and the carcasses have nowhere to go but the home market. What’s more lots of lambs were born at Christmas, so why is there no new season’s lamb about? Most of the stuff on offer is too old to be used for anything other than for highly spiced koftas, neck curries or Irish stew. Paul had some very good wigeon too, which were quite a delicacy, but these are now gone.
I have been pulling out recipes for Portuguese arroz and Catalan paella to vary the menu a bit, things I can cook in the paella pan my daughter gave me for Christmas a few years back. I have revived my blanquette de veau, which I can’t have made for thirty years. For a start it is hard to get the appropriate cut of veal here, but Paul had a lump of leftover escalope meat that was lean and tender. I used silverskin onions, a variation that I learned from my old friend Monique in the rue de Rennes. Once I experimented by using orange peel and scandalised that gourmand publisher, the late Eugene Braun-Munk so much that he was still complaining about it when I last saw him, issuing from the Aurum Press in Museum Street. Sans orange peel, I think that more traditional blanquette was the best thing we ate in the whole merry month of March.
I don’t generally do the puddings, but I made a drizzle cake for a family birthday (irrigated by my last bottle of 1995 Moët) and then I awarded myself the challenge of making a Breton kouign amann such as I ate in Saint Briac in the summer of 2019. The first attempt was a flop, but I persevered and the second at least tasted right (it never really looks like much). It is a cross between a loaf of bread and puff pastry, with lots of added butter and sugar, but a good one can be delicious.
March culminated in Holy Week and Easter. I was warned that Easter Eggs would be scarce, but warned too late. Over the years I have been used to buying Belgian chocolate, generally from Leonidas, which had a good half a dozen shops in London. It seems they have all gone bar one, in Kensington High Street. Neuhaus in St Pancras Station was boarded up, and I couldn’t make any sense out of Selfridges, where I bought my eggs last year. There is still Pierre Marcolini of course, but that is way beyond my means.
There used to be a good chocolate shop at the top of Highgate Hill which closed down a few years ago, but looking for wine recently I discovered Kokoa, which buys chocolates from British artisan producers and had up-market eggs too. That rather saved the day, as even the la-di-dah Waitrose was offering nothing better than a nationalistically triumphant Hôtel du Chocolat (name-change must be on the cards now - ‘Chocolate Hotel’?) and Lindt, which is a standard cheapie, scarcely better than Cadbury and made - I suspect - under license in Scunthorpe.
I bake a dozen Hot Cross buns on Maundy Thursday for use on Good Friday. Our venerable Italian deli Salvino is still on hand for the Paschal colomba from Bauli, even if they no longer have a number of other treats associated with our modest feast. We have the colomba for breakfast on the big day. I didn’t need lunch as I scoffed the chocolates from inside my Leonidas egg (my wife had got to Kensington High Street in time). Dinner was good: some Kalamata olives, a small leg of new season’s New Zealand lamb cooked so rare that was sopping with juice, together with some potatoes roasted in beef dripping, tiny, baby broad beans and mushrooms; some pecorino sardo and Montgomery cheddar and a green salad; and finally a lemon meringue pie. To drink with the lamb we had a 1989 Canon Fronsac from Château Mazaris. We had consumed its stablemate on March 10. Both bottles were at their peak with masses of vigour. Let’s hope that they might prove a metaphor for our resurrection, and spring.
The Birth of a Wine Writer
Posted: 1st March 2021
Faced with the twin plagues of Covid and Brexit, most wine writing must be on hold. Merchants are currently living on their fat; wine writers (I assume) on state handouts. It is still not clear what will remain once the fog disperses. For the time being there are no post-Christmas sales, no trade tastings, no visits to foreign vineyards, and no chance to consume meals in restaurants with specialised lists. The future of small shipments of those interesting wines that are the spice of wine writers’ lives is now in doubt, as transportation costs have risen sharply as a result of the new post-Brexit paperwork. Previously untaxed commercial samples are now subject to duty, so you need to travel to discover novelties, which for the time being you cannot do and in all probability they will never reach these shores either. What shops will offer in the future is more likely to be produced in industrial quantities. And we can expect prices to continue to go up.
I became a wine writer nearly forty years ago. It was quite by accident. The fact that I did might be ascribed very largely to one man: Tim Johnston, who was my mentor at the time. I was living in Paris and had been writing what was going to be my doctoral dissertation on the Bordeaux wine trade in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and spending as much time as I could in the Bibliothèque nationale. The library was in the rue Richelieu then, and round the corner from Willi’s Wine Bar which Mark Williamson opened to huge acclaim in 1980.
When I had stashed away my books, I’d drop in on Willi’s for a glass of wine; especially once Tim Johnston arrived from Provence to run it, bringing with him his considerable expertise when it came to the wines of the Rhone Valley. Like Steven Spurrier at the Caves de la Madeleine and the Académie du Vin, Tim had managed to become a respected figure in French wine circles, which was no easy feat. I got to know him a little bit then. In 1981 Tim moved to Bordeaux to manage a wine bar on the place Tourny. The bar is long gone. The site is now a branch of the industrial baker Paul.
I had planned to use the summer that year to get my work done in the Gironde Archives in the rue d’Aviau in Bordeaux. I was on a tight budget and had to find a very cheap room in the crummiest hotel around. In the evening I’d go to Tim’s bar. He understood the situation at once. When I arrived he’d line up six glasses on the counter: ‘I am trying to decide which of these Côtes de Fronsac I am going to put on the list. Try them all and let me know what you think.’
The glasses remained on the counter, and I tried them repeatedly before I gave him my verdict. Sometimes he cast similar doubts about a dish he was going to put on the menu, so I would have to try that too. Had it not been for Tim, I would have had to return to Paris a lot earlier than I did, and a lot thinner.
Tim had begun life as a wine trade trainee at Château Cantenac Brown, and he knew the region well. At the weekends he and I and his wife Steph used to explore the countryside and above all the vineyards. When I went off with just Tim I rode on the back of his motorbike. If Steph came we took his car. He wangled me in on the tastings he was invited to. I remember visiting Mouton for the first time and driving to Fronsac to call on a château-owner with a Francis Bacon triptych decorating his office wall. Tim had friends in various châteaux, we’d have a pleasant lunch in a bistrot somewhere, or go to that lovely café near the ferry at Lamarque and drink Bass beer with brown shrimps called ‘chevrettes’.
And I made other friends through Tim. I went up to Château Loudenne to spend the night and look at their extensive archives. I remember visiting Jenny Bailey (later Dobson) at Château Sénéjac and a picnic on the Battlefield of Castillon. My sister, pregnant with her daughter joined me for a few days in my hotel. What had seemed like a grim prospect of a month on my own in Bordeaux turned into a memorable summer.
Tim’s job didn’t last long and he came back to Paris. The fly paper for almost all my wine contacts in France was Steven Spurrier’s empire in the Cité Berryer. Apart from Tim, almost everyone - including Jenny and Mark Williamson - had worked for him at some stage. One of the oddest Spurrier old boys was the late Ivan Paul, the scion of a family of rich maltsters near Ipswich who kept a wine shop in the rue Vaneau and got into endless scrapes. His fellow Old Etonian Charles Lea proved more level-headed and went on to found the highly successful wine merchants Lea & Sandeman in London with Patrick Sandeman (another who went to a sadly early grave). Through the Académie I met the leading lights of French wine writing like Michel Bettane, Michel Dovaz and his friend Muriel de Potex, who had a vicious parrot and lived nearby in Montparnasse. Joel Payne the Texan editor of the indispensible GaultMillau Guide to German wines was another Académie man who worked for a while behind the bar at Willi’s.
My initiation into the world of wine writing came when Tim was asked by the Franco-British Chamber of Commerce to write an article on Beaujolais for their magazine. He said he couldn’t do it alone and asked me to write it with him. I am sure he would have managed it if he really wanted to. I think another commission came later from the same source. Even if I was increasingly drawn into tasting wine and attending major events, I was still just a historian whose interest in wine was confined to a period before the First World War. Wine writing only became (an unreliable) source of income when in the spring or summer of 1984. I was asked to take over the editorship of a consumer magazine owned by a clutch of seedy Marseillais brothers based in an office above the Champs Elysées. They wanted me to sell advertising space, but I refused, and wrote wine and food articles instead.
When I returned to live in England at the end of the year there was still a little translating work on offer from the circle around the Académie du Vin. I knew little or nothing of the much vaunted wine scene in Britain, even if Steven Spurrier had opened a wine shop in Fulham and lived close to my sister in Clapham. In France we tasted almost exclusively French wines. In England the range was naturally much broader.
In 1985 a friend commissioned a commercial radio series about drink called ‘Grape & Grain’. Together with a team of professional broadcasters we recorded interviews with members of the British trade about drink. I was still working on my thesis, even if I had lost my connection to the University of Paris I. In the time I had to spare I was in the Reading Room of the British Museum and hoped that I might be able to interest a publisher in a book on the subject. Apart from a brief trip to Ireland to taste whisky (my first to the land of my fathers), I didn’t budge from Britain all year.
The following year I began to travel again. I even went back to Bordeaux to do a piece for the boys in the Champs Elysées, a remarkable trip that involved never-to-be repeated treats like a lunch at Yquem, and a dinner at the Bordeaux home of the Prats of Cos d’Estournel. I travelled with the Dutch wine writer Hubrecht Duijker and Robert Joseph from WINE magazine, the force behind the recently created Wine Challenge tasting tournament. With Robert I finally came into contact with English wine-writing. As for the Bordeaux thesis-cum-book, it was reluctantly abandoned, although a long fragment was published last year. Instead I started another book on gastronomic French history and in November 1987 that became my Opus I.
The Return of the Hunter-Gatherer
Posted: 1st February 2021
January has been a dramatic sort of month although it was hardly billed to be anything else. We finally saw the back of Donald Trump and his Lady Macbeth, and I duly designed a dish to celebrate their departure. My ‘Melanzania trumpigiana’ is made by cutting an aubergine or aubergines in half and hollowing them out. The aubergine’s meat is then cooked in olive oil with plenty of diced tomatoes, salt, pepper and thyme before being spooned back into the empty hulls with a good scattering of parmesan cheese. The mixture should obviously have a striking, orange colour. The aubergines should be finished off in a hot oven for half an hour, or can be more quickly pushed under the grill. Remember you need to cook the hulls too. They are best eaten with something light, frothy and festive. Although I say it myself, the dish is rather good. Some people think that anything bearing the name of Trump should be as disgusting as its inspiration, but I drew the line at any sort of masochism and when a dish tastes as good as this, we should be able to celebrate Trump’s passing several times a month.
The news on the home front was not nearly so pleasing. We have finally quit our holding position and taken to the skies, leaving behind us the world we have known for forty-seven years. So with rampant COVID and cloggy borders, back here in London the Hunter-Gatherer has been dogged by market dearth. I am not talking about the empty supermarket shelves that have been plastered all over the social media - I don’t use supermarkets - but rather the notable gaps in the displays in the run-down North London street markets of Kilburn, Seven Sisters and Queen’s Crescent. Some of the little things I used to get from local shops also now look as if they might disappear for a while, if not for good.
Let’s start with poultry. A lot of the middle-range stuff used to come from France and formed a hyphen between the low-price battery birds produced here and high-priced free range and organic chickens. They are mass-produced of course, but benefit from a more regulated regime. At the end of December they stopped crossing the Channel but now they are back, albeit intermittently, but complete with a £10 surcharge on a 10 kg case. This means we will end up paying a pound more for a chicken, £7 rather than £6. Duck, quail, guinea fowl and various other foreign birds are also likely to go up in price for the same reason. They are not produced in anything like real commercial quantities here.
Most of the meat we eat is produced here, but that is not always the case when it comes cheap pork, or for speciality sausages and other ‘charcuterie’. I worry for my Spanish butcher Miguel. He doesn’t look happy. For the time being he has morcillas and chorizos in stock and the other day he even had a delivery of Catalan rice so vital for paella. The pork I buy is English, but price hikes for Danish pork will inevitably affect the sort of meat that goes into schools, hospitals and canteens.
Fish has raised a stink of late. Given that we are no longer successfully exporting fish and that the restaurants are closed you might have thought it was a good moment to offer cheaper fish to the general public? But no, not a bit of it: instead of prices coming down, they appear to have gone up. I bearded one of my local fishmongers about this, and he agreed with me ‘It makes no sense, as nobody has any money.’ He spelled out the origin of the fish in his shop. The cheaper, farmed fish (bass and bream) came from Billingsgate. He didn’t buy from Peterhead which sold largely frozen fish to fish and chip shops. They took nothing from the East Coast, where the trawlers froze the fish, but had separate deals with fishermen on the South Coast. The only explanation he could offer for the high prices was bad weather, but bad grace might also apply? At least the fishermen can’t be sulking in the pub, as the pub is closed along with everything else.
Now we turn to drink. My interest in wine is twofold: I like to consume it with my dinner, of course, but I am still writing about it too. January is traditionally the time of post-Christmas sales and tastings, of which none took place. Covid is the obvious villain here, but he shares the stage with his chum Brexit. Chaos at the ports and new post-EU paperwork for ‘third’ countries has meant less wine is getting through. The FT recently predicted that a £12 bottle of wine will go up in price by £1.50. In the future many smaller producers will find the voluminous paperwork involved in sending wine to a ‘third’ country defeating and will cease trading with the UK. This will apply mostly to the interesting small producers who find their way onto restaurant lists, and constitute the chief pleasure of wine connoisseurs and writers.
Ah! But you say, what about the New World: wine has broken its European bounds and reached a wider world? Some people add (ideologically) that European wine is bad, and wine from the New World is better. This could be true, but most new world producers are big, employ dozens if not hundreds of people, and can tailor their prices to their production. If you possess fewer than fifty acres you cannot do this so easily. The French specialised press has been advising readers to look for new markets for nearly five years. Unless they can learn to pool their exports and farm out their paperwork, we are going to see much less choice in restaurants and shops.
Whether wine writing will survive is also a question. My one attempt to get samples in January was met by an impolite refusal. Last month I tasted four good Bulgarian wines made by women winemakers and four German and Austrian wines made by biodynamic producers. They were all good, but there was not enough in either to make an article. Samples sent from abroad will now be charged at outrageous rates (there is no cost advantage in sending a small package), and the price makes the exercise ridiculous. Supermarkets may still send out wines to writers, but only from what might become increasingly diminished ranges.
We may see a brave new wine world of a few clarets and continental wines with holdings of 250 acres or more, and a lot of ‘imperial’ wines (as they used to be called) from the New World. It will look a little bit like wine shops did before 1973. Add South America to this. When I went to Chile in 1990 the wines were made by nine firms. I think there are many more now, but you will get the point. The mentality there is more commercial, it is not exactly a family business, so don’t expect diversity. There will be plenty of wines at over £100 a bottle of course. A bit more duty, a price hike or three, won’t mean much to hedgehogs or oligarchs. Also the Lafites and Moutons of this world are large commercial companies controlling hundreds and thousands of acres of vines.
And Sir John Redwood will now be able to preen himself that the street markets look much as I remember them in 1972, when almost all produce barring the odd orange or banana was British: British potatoes, British turnips and British cabbages. In January it looked a bit more like 1942, but things might get better in May. There weren’t many aubergines to be had in Queen’s Crescent on Saturday either, so we shan’t be eating much Melanzania trumpigiana for the time being.
Posted: 4th January 2021
The feast is not finished, nor have the lamps expired, the tree’s still up, and although I have yet to make the galette des rois, there is already a bottle of wine in the fridge earmarked to go with the pie when it rolls out at the Epiphany. It has been a quiet Christmas, for all sorts of reasons, but we celebrated stylishly enough, not least because I still had a few good wines stashed away. The stock is dwindling, however, and I am sure we will not see their like again.
In the nineties I still wrote a lot about wine: hundreds of articles and three whole books. That meant that there was always lots of wine about, and there was more money than I needed too in those days, so I used to buy doubletons in the vague idea I might ask people round to dinner. Either there were too many purchases, or too few invitations were sent out, but this stock is what feeds high days and holidays now.
Once the tree was decorated on Christmas Eve we started with some non-vintage Perrier-Jouët. We must have had it for at least five years, maybe longer? I like old champagne, the darker colour and more concentrated aromas. It went well enough with my terrine. I had managed to procure a liver on my whistle-stop trip to Calais on the 17th. Christmas Eve is the last day of the Advent fast, and a fish night. In the past we have eaten lobsters, either bought here or brought up from the coast by my Devon-based brother-in-law. I assume the poor lobsters we normally eat were dying slow and painful deaths in the backsides of lorries on Manston Field. We had a big piece of halibut instead, which I cooked with a little wine, saffron, butter and cream, and although I say it myself, it was a triumph.
For the first time ever there was no great white burgundy to go with the fish. All I had was a curiosity: a 2010 Pinot Blanc Les Avoines from Jean Fournier in Marsannay. It was a wonderfully concentrated wine. Pinot Blanc ages extremely well, and this was just further proof.
A friend had given us some Norman cheeses that were too much for his needs, and there was a ripe camembert to follow. My Calais-bought vacherin mont d’or never ripened properly, although I was assured it was delicious on toast. I opened a 1997 Sämling 88 (Scheurebe) Spätlese from my friend Johann Münzenrieder in Apetlon. It was still walking, but with a stick. It was supposed to go with an excellent chestnut bûche.
Fortunately I had decanted some port earlier. I have run out of wines from the ‘British’ houses, but I still had some Rozès, which used to be owned by Moët & Chandon. From what I could see (the label had gone and the cork came out in crumbs) it was a 1991. It was more Graham than Dow, if you know what I mean: opulent and sweet. There were tastes of cherries, chocolate and nuts, and it was deliciously creamy: a bit like a liquid Schwarzwaldtorte. It had considerable staying power mind you and was still pleasant to drink three days later. There wasn’t much time to swill port either, as we scrambled off to a rather muted Midnight Mass at the Dominican Friary in Hampstead.
The best champagne was kept for opening presents around the tree on Christmas Day. There was to be none served on New Year’s Eve. I had some 2003 Roederer left over from a lot I was given for judging a wine-writing prize. It was no disappointment: baked apples and crystallised fruits. Before the Simon-Heffer forerib we ate some more of the terrine, but this time with a mature Saar wine: the 2007 von Orthegraven Kanzemer Altenberg Riesling Spätlese. It was as good as I expected, changing dramatically in the glass over time, but reminiscent above all of exquisite Seville orange marmalade.
The beef was accompanied by a gratin dauphinois and red cabbage liberally basted with the Scheurebe from the night before. With the rib I opened my last bottle of the 1992 Domaine de l’Arlot Vosne Romanée Premier Cru (Les Suchots?). I had the other bottle of this on my birthday, which I remembered being wonderful. There was nothing wrong with this either, mind you: tremendous power with some slightly spirity cherry fruit. There was a hint of sweetness at first, but it was on thundering good form.
As the vacherin was still not playing I had a little camembert-style cheese with truffles and a pont l’evêque. A Sussex pond pudding followed with a 1993 Eiswein from the Weingut Unger. Wolfgang Unger had taken the lease on the thirty hectares of vines at Stift Göttweig across the Danube from Krems. He died shortly after making this wine and the arrangement was taken over by his daughter Petra. I remember a charming old gent who had spent many years in Manchester and South Africa. The label gave no indication of grape variety. The wine was the colour of tea and rich and jammy.
There was a Norfolk capon for Boxing Day; not a real capon - it is against the law to castrate a cock in Britain - but a mature male bird. We had one last year and I realised how good they could be. I had noted that the hot summer had taken its toll on a number of corks among the older wines. One victim was the 1992 Nuits Saint Georges Premier Cru Les Vaucrains from Robert Chevillon. It was weeping a bit so I thought it time to operate. There was nothing wrong with the cork, and I quickly decanted the wine just before I tried it. It was a gorgeous colour and gave off a heady bouquet of creamy strawberries. The only problem was that it faded fairly quickly once the oxygen got at it. I’d made a quince tart, which was paired with Münzenrieder’s 1997 Bouvier Trockenbeerenauslese. This was all buttery raisins, with a useful seam of acidity to prevent it from cloying.
Over the next few days there were important accommodations to be made concerning the leftovers. The capon gave us a short crust pie and a risotto ‘rustico’; the beef provided a beef and Guinness pudding, using some suet I had taken off two veal kidneys and frozen. None of these merited better-than-average wine. On the 31st, however, we have a north Italian meal: a stuffed pig’s trotter or zampone with lentils (they represent the money you are going to earn) potato purée and tomato passita. With this I brought out another weeper: the 1981 Biondi-Santi Brunello di Montalcino Reserva.
This was part of a three-pack I brought back from Il Greppo in (I think) 1988 when I visited the estate with friends. I was writing an article on Brunello and wanted to interview the late Franco Biondi-Santi and his son Tancredi. The Biondi-Santi family had started Brunello in the nineteenth century. I had intended to drink the wines with the same friends, but thirty years later we have all gone into our separate corners (and one tragically to heaven) and the time has come to drink up.
As it was the wine was already down to high shoulder. I treated it much like the Nuits Saint Georges. The cork came out in two bits and I decanted it immediately before drinking. The colour was once again magnificent and the wine gave off a delightful aroma of ceiling wax and oranges with a little bit of fresh meat. On the palate there were black fruits - blackberries and blackcurrants - a wonderful structure and a cooling finish. The only disappointment was a tiny ‘point’ (as the French say) of bitterness on the finish. It was a superb end to an otherwise abominable year.
Wine & Food Diary entries posted before 2021 can now be found in the Wine & Food Diary Archive.