Thursday, June 29, 2006


Last night our managing director was entertaining a business partner in the restaurant. That means that I get to dust off some rather special bottles to impress our guests and show off a little bit. Now usually what I would do is spend a little while down in the cellar poking around to come up with a few ideas to show. Often I wont have an idea of what they are eating until they have chosen the menu, so I like to have a few options available so that when they chose their meals I am somewhat prepared.

I always chose a nice champagne to start off with. As we are aiming to impress a bit, I chose a prestige cuvee, the Clos de Goisses from Philipponnat, 1990. Clos de Goisses was the first single vineyard champagne and remains one of the most elusive and exclusive champagnes on the market. The vineyard is on the south facing slopes on the banks of the river on the outskirts of Mareuil-sur-Ay. Dominated by Pinot Noir this wine was disgorged in April 2000, meaning it spend about 9 years on the lees, giving it rich autolytic flavours. A wine that truly benefits from a decent bit of bottle aging.

Now the starters are usually always fishy in character so here I steered towards a New Zealand Savvy, this one came from Central Otago from a winery called Mount Difficulty. Central Otago is the most southerly commercial winegrowing region in the world. Located in the centre of the South Island it enjoys a continental climate, so the longer ripening season allows the grapes to reach superb levels of ripeness. The region is especially suited to Pinot Noir, but Sauvignon, Pinot Gris and some riesling is also produced here. The wine has a vibrant nose of tropical fruits typical of a Kiwi savvy, but with undertones of green peppers, gooseberries and other herbaceous characteristics. Fantastic wine!!

For the main course, as the meals chosen were Squab and Ellel Chicken I opted for a burgundy with a bit of bottle age on it, a 1988 Vosne Romanee "Aux Reas" from Anne Gros. As I pulled the cork on it, my nose was assaulted by the pungent aroma of TCA. The cork was humming!! Now Ive had bottles where the cork reeked of TCA, but the wine has been clear and untainted, and vice versa. So with some trepidation I poured a small sample into a glass and swirled and sniffed. Damn! It was foul. So I turn to my backup bottle and peel the foil, insert my screwpull and extract the cork. It wasnt as strong, but this cork reeked too. Bottle number two also proved to be corked, but not to the same extent, and given five minutes to breathe off, could almost have passed as servable. But I dont like to serve sub-standard wine, so I re-cork it, and consign it to the kitchen where it will end up in the stock. Im gutted. I was really looking forward to trying the wine and that was my last two bottles. Plan A exhausted I have to fall back on plan b, a slightly hazy bottle of Meo-Cazumet Nuits St Georges 1er Cru "aux Mergers" 1996. A much younger wine and a fine suspension of sediment, that my less than gentle journey from the cellar had disturbed. But wow, amazingly vibrant fruit flavours, with an earthy afterpunch. It took a little while to really settle down, and unfortunately there was a fine suspension of sediment making the wine slightly cloudy and opaque, but personally I dont mind that. Meo-Cazumet bottles their wines unfiltered and unfined, so I suppose a small amount of suspended sediment is inevitable.

So at the end of the day, the meal was enjoyed, the wines went down a treat, but Im still gutted about the Vosne-Romanee. Damn that TCA.

Saturday, June 24, 2006

Me and my commis

So Danny started working as my commis this week, and he's got off to a fairly good start so far. I gave him some homework last week to find out four facts about six different champagnes that I gave him. Now he had to do a fair bit of digging to get some of the information, but he rose to the challenge and came up with the information and even surpassed some of my expectations. Added to which he has been pestering me for more information and seems to be constantly questioning things which is annoying sometimes, but its also good, because he's keen and he really wants to learn.

So now I need to go and set him some more homework for this weekend.

NYE part two

Well it serves me right for getting ahead of myself, but the wines that I posted on my last post havent exactly been given the green light yet. If fact Im now on draft three (four if you count a piss-take effort), but the good news is that the wines are getting a step higher in terms of quality and appeal. I ought to have known better that the first draft wouldnt get greenlighted, but I guess I wasnt thinking straight.

So now what are we looking at? Well subject to approval we plan to start the evening off with magnums of Bollinger Grand Annee (vintage tbc). Ross rightly felt that we weren't starting the evening off with a big enough bang, and he wanted a more recognisable product that the customer could latch on to. The meursault and eden valley riesling have remained on the list so far, so I cant really see them changing much. For the main course I'm planning on a rather special wine - Mouton Rothschild 1994 in Double magnums. This is obviously subject to us laying our hands on sufficient numbers of bottles to actually do it, but what a stonking selection for the main course eh? For the cheese we are looking a putting in a Larrivet Haut-Brion Blanc 1995. Then for pudding an Imperial of Chateau Guiraud sauternes. Ross is currently contemplating the costings and we will have a few tweakings here and there to reach the final agreement, but I think we are close.

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Happy New Year!!

You might think that Im being a bit forward here, but tonight Ive been planning the wines that we will serve on New Years eve here in the hotel. Just over five months away and here I sit matching up wines to a menu that Chef came up with a couple of weeks ago. I was slightly surprised to hear we've had over a dozen enquiries about the festive package already, but I guess after nearly 15 years working in the trade I ought to know better by now.

At this stage all Im working out is a costing for the wines to go with each course. I have a spreadsheet (God bless excell!!) that works out the cost prices plus VAT, divided into portions, and then it gives me a total cost per person based on a higher than average consumption. By over calculating, I can make sure that we work out the worst case cost and track back from there. Once I'm happy with my choices, they get passed on to Andre the F&B manager to give his approval, before getting signed off by Ross. It's all about getting the right balance of choice, value and quality, because the guests are paying a lot of money to have their celebrations here, and we want to make sure that the package we offer is good value.

So what kind of wines are we looking at?

Guests will arrive and start the evening off with a glass or two of Aubry's Nombre d'Or champagne. This is an unusual champagne in that it is made from the conventional three champagne grapes (Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Meunier) with the addition of three traditional grapes (Arbanne, Pinot Gris and Petit Meslier). The last three are old grapes that have mostly been forgotten and uprooted within the region. L. Aubry fils are one of a handful of producers that still use these grapes, their arguement being that if they were used in the olden days there must have been a reason for it. The champagne has quite a floral nose, dominated by Pinot Gris (30%), with citrus and a fruity almost grainy flavour from the Meunier (15%). An interesting start to the evening.

For the first course the wine we are planning to serve is a Meursault from Domaine Roulot, 1999 "les Chaveux" Meursault. Another fairly aromatic wine, with that lovely perfumed character that I find in Meursault. It should complement the mosaic of french partridge with jellied figs and scottish lobster quite well.

For the second course, we travel down to the Eden Valley of South Australia for a riesling from a co-operative of well known Barossa winemakers and growers. The Saviours as they have dubbed themselves are comprised of some serious big names in the region - Stephen Henschke, James Irvine, Bob Berton, Peter Seppelt, and Joanne Irvine are some of the more prominent. Selected from parcels of fruit from the twelve members vineyards, and vinified under the guidance of Stephen Henschke and the Irvines, this riesling is a fantastic example of New World riesling, crisp bright citrus flavours, with a floral, rose petal elegance on the nose. Intensely fruity on the palate with crisp acidity and a lingering minerality on the finish.

We bring out one of the big guns for the main course with a 1996 La Mission Haut-Brion from Pessac-Leognan. Huge dense black fruits on the nose with a deep cedarwood and mineral undertone, this is a serious wine. Second only to Haut-Brion in the region this stellar wine has produced consistantly good wines even in challenging vintages.

The one quirk of the evening comes with the cheese course. For the crispy goats chees with winter truffle salad I'm planning on serving a Rashiku Junmai Sake. Coming from the Yamatagowa brewery in the prefecture of Fukushima, this is produced from Hanafubuki organic rice that is milled to 58% of the grain. This means that the outer 42% of the grain is polished off, leaving the purer starches to ferment. Served lightly chilled this sake has similar flavour characteristics to a sauvignon blanc which makes it an interesting complement for the goats cheese.

Finally for the dessert I'm planning on serving a Jurancon moelleux from Clos Guiroiulh. Made from Petit Manseng and Gros Manseng grapes, this wine has a richly unctuous honeyed flavour with a grapey, slightly floral nose. It should be a nice match for the mandarin and white chocolate glace souffle.

So thats about the gist of what people can expect for New Years eve in the Arkle. Now to start planning for the Westminster Suite.

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Wine Blogging Wednesday 22

Well its here again, Wine Blogging Wednesday 22 is here, with what I have to admit has been a very interesting challenge. The theme of WBW 22 was red wine with an A.B.V. of less than 12.5%. Now I thought that having a cellar with in excess of a thousand bins might put me at a bit of an advantage in finding something, but as I posted earlier, boy was I wrong. I seriously struggled to find wines under 12.5, and I was on the verge of "bending" the rules a little and doing a red at 12.5% of which I had quite a few candidates, when I stumbled upon a bottle that was 12% on the nail. Excellent, but then I found another three bottles and suddenly I had to chose which to do, which made it a bit harder, but in the end I settled for a bottle of 1982 Branaire (Duluc-Ducru) a 4eme cru classe from St Julien. Formed from a piece of the Beychevelle estate in 1666, it was purchased in 1680 by Jean-Baptiste Braneyre, before being bequeathed through many generations of the family until the late 80's. Now run by a family society under the chairmanship of Patrick Maroteaux, it is a wine that is very much under-rated. The wine is known for its rich body, fragrant aromas, with a firm palate tempered by a soft underbelly.

The cork was a bit of a bugger to get out, splitting in three places, damn thing even confounded my Butlers thief. Its one thing that I really hate about opening old bottles, and I cant wait for all these wines we are bottling under screwcap now, to mature over the years, and twenty years from now to be able to open them with ease!! So once that battle was over a small sample was poured into a glass to examine. A very clear wine, starting to look a bit dull, with a pale brick red core and a browning rim which usually indicates a good degree of maturity. On the nose the wine was a bit stinky at first, with a kind of farmyard like aroma, but that soon disappeared and the wine opened out with aromas of spiced fruit cake with quite a fruity edge to it. I was pleasantly surprised by the build up of fruity flavours on the nose, and each time I went back to sniff something else was starting to show. On the palate it was clean and quite pronounced in flavour, with the Dundee cakey flavours followed by more berry fruit flavours wrapped in the very well balanced characters of new French oak. Time has mellowed the acidity right down, and the tannins have softened up as they pass across the gums like silk, supporting the fruit flavours but never dominating them.

I think I would describe this as quite a feminine St Julien compared to more brutish Gruaud-Larose and Lagrange. I have to say that I was really impressed with this wine, more so than the 1989 which I also tasted tonight, but as it came in at 12.8% it wasnt eligable. Its on our list as Bin 230 at a not inconsiderable sum of £120 a bottle, but I really believe it is worth every pound of it.

I cant wait to read some of the other posts and see what wonderful wines the blogosphere has come up with.

Saturday, June 10, 2006

Henschke Keyneton 1986

I managed to find a couple of bottles of Henschke Keyneton Estate red 1986 on Lay and Wheelers bin end list. Ive always liked the Henschke wines, and the Keyneton was always a favourite. Up until 1999 it was made of a blend of cabernet sauvignon, shiraz and malbec, but in 99 they changed the malbec for merlot. Personally I think it was much better with the malbec as it had a more polished finish and a character that I cant really define. Dont get me wrong, it is still a great wine, and at a great price too, its a good introduction into the Henschke way of winemaking.

I sold a bottle of the 86 the other day, to someone who I honestly wouldnt have figured to go for that kind of wine. All of which shows that you cant always judge a book by its cover. I was pleasantly surprised by the wine, which showed really vibrant fruit character on the nose - big stone fruits, berries and currants with that aroma of prunes and aged fruit that I find in mature reds. (As an aside it had this awful plastic capsule which was a nightmare to remove). The colour was a gloriously violet red with russet brown rim. It was a bit dull with some hazing, but I put that down to being slightly disturbed bringing it up from the cellar. On the palate it was a fantastic wine, really rich fruit following on from the nose, with soft supple tannins still and a touch of acidity still. I dont believe that there is much more lifespan left to the wine, its not a keeper, but by heck its drinking well now. I only hope the other five bottles are as alive as that one was.

En Primeurs and our buying strategy

At the moment the 2005 Bordeaux en primeur campaign is building towards it climactic moment when the top 10-15 chateaux release their grands vins at ever more grand prices. This year we have taken a back seat to all this and decided not to purchase anything en primeur. Nothing at all, not even the DRC. All of which means we will surrender our allocations for this year and in all likelyhood if we decide to purchase next year we will have to start right at the bottom of the queue again. Its a decision that I may well come to regret several years down the line, when the cost of 2005 bordeaux may well be astronomical, and we try to purchase some stock to add to the wine-list. But its a decision that I took for a number of reasons. Our market is changing and evolving, our client base is getting younger, and that means that the sales are shifting more towards the new world. So does it make sense to continue purchasing stock that in all likelyhood you wont have a demand for in five or more years when it is ready to drink? I dont think so, and so did Ross, as he supported that decision not to purchase.

So this has forced me to look at the way we stock our cellar. Currently we have 70+ beverage suppliers on the books, of which only about 40 odd are actually active. Out of that forty, about 25 to 30 recieve regular orders, with the core of the volume being split between three suppliers. These three suppliers provide all of the banqueting wine-list, two thirds of the brasserie wine-list and close to a quarter of the Arkle list. (Although if you count previous purchases that we are holding in the cellar while it mature, then Gerrard Seel accounts for nearly 40% of the Arkle list.). Now most of the volume on the hotels stock is across the bottom end of the wine-lists. Almost all of it is sub £30, and that is made up of Banqueting and Brasserie stock. Now for the Arkle wine-list, my aim is to move towards buying a lot more of the stock through brokers. We will have a core section of the list, which will rarely change - all your "comfort" wines like Sancerre, Chablis, Pouilly Fume, Fleurie etc etc. Then with the rest of the list, I will have the freedom to manipulate the list according to the seasons, menu, my current tastes, and of course to respond to the market demands a lot more.

By buying from brokers we can purchase smaller parcels of stock that are ready to drink. Instead of being bound to purchasing several cases of wine, we will be able to buy half a dozen or so bottles, and when the wine is gone we can either replenish it, or replace it. This means that the wine-list can be a lot more pro-active to the needs of the customers. It also means I can match the list more accurately to the menu, and so change it seasonally when Simon Radley changes the menu. Which will help me to sell the wines as they can be more specifically matched to dishes.

As the prices for the top bordeaux are released soon, Im hoping that Ive made the right decision, but ultimately Im sure that I have and that the business will prove that. The next five or more years will be very interesting to watch how the prices change.

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

Wine Blog Wednesday 22, alcohol levels and taxation

The theme for Wine blog wednesday 22 has been announced and this month its a low(ish) alcohol red wine - ie less than 12.5% ABV. So when I read that was to be the theme, I went down into the cellar and started having a wee peek at some of the alcohol levels to see if there was anything here I might be able to use. Not much! There were a few wines, so next week I'll post my tasting notes on that one.

That got me thinking about alcohol levels though. This lunchtime Ive just served a lunch for eight people in the Arkle with four wines. We started off with Dom Ruinart 1993 which weighs in at 12.5%. So if that were red it might well qualify (barely!). Then with the first course of a cold gazpacho with langoustine tails and cucumber I served a Fiano di Avelino from Feudi di San Gregorio. At 13% abv this isnt too bad, but its edging onto the high end for a white wine. The main course of steamed turbot with asparagus, scallops, peas and morels was paired with a 13.5% Chassagne Montrachet "les Masures" from Jean-Noel Gagnard. You can spot the pattern of increasing alcohol levels here can't you. They finished the meal off with chocolate and praline tacos with raspberry and pistachio, paired with Rosenblums Cellars fantastic Gallagher Ranch Black Muscat. ABV? a monster 15.8%, which officially makes it a fortified wine. Which I suppose it is really, as they add neutral grape spirit to arrest the fermentation before all the sugar turns to alcohol. Now without planning it, that meal featured escalating alcohol levels. As i searched the cellar the other day for wines for WBW22, I was more than a bit surprised at the numbers. I found less than a handfull of wines under 13%, quite a lot between 14 and 15% and I was actually a bit taken aback by the numbers over 15%. There were over a dozen wines over 15%, and I must say every one of them came from the New World, mostly California, but a couple from South Africa and Australia and even one New Zealander. I guess it has opened my eyes a little bit.

Part of the "problem" is the increasing levels of ripeness that are being acheived these days. As our knowledge of viticulture increases, and the more accurate placement of vineyards and varietal planting increases, the end result is that grapes are reaching super levels of ripeness, and all the right sugars present them with very high potential alcohol levels - that is that if all the sugar is converted to alcohol. Now if they halt the fermentation before all the sugar is converted then you end up with quite a lot of residual sugar - hence a sweeter wine. Some residual sugar is tolerable, but too much and it becomes a medium sweet wine or even a dessert wine. If thats your aim then well done, but if you want a bone dry wine, you face the potential of 15%abv or higher. In the UK that means you are taxed as a fortified wine, which is why these big alcohol wines are so expensive because the rate of duty has increased to nearly £2.20 per bottle (compared to £1.45 for wines less than 15%){lets not forget that on top of the duty you have to pay VAT not only on the wine but the duty is vatable as well!!!}. So the moral of the story is that I guess it pays to keep an eye on the alcohol levels on the wines!!

Happy Devil day (todays date is 06/06/06!!)

Friday, June 02, 2006

Quirky wines

I love quirky wines, wines that are a little bit out of the ordinary. They can be unusual grape varieties like the Picpoul de Pinet or Fiano di Avelino, or it might be that the winemaker has tried to make something a little extraordinary. There are several reasons why I like these kind of wines, the principle reason being that they have a story to tell. A good salesman will tell you that if you have a short story to tell about a product it hooks the customer in. It allows you to create an affinity for a product, and make a small bond, but it also personalises the product. No longer is this wine one of 600 different wines on the wine-list, now you know a little something about it, that makes it stand out from the rest slightly. Everybody knows that you rarely chose an unknown entity over a known one. The other reason that I like these wines, is that usually the guys that make these oddball wines, or who resurrect the forgotten grape varieties are deeply passionate about what they create. This means they enter into the process with a plan, they are dedicated to what they produce and they will often go to sometimes extreme lengths to ensure a great product is the end result.

One such wine is one that I served tonight. When John and Charlie Sykes from Frogg Manor walked in tonight I knew it was a golden opportunity for me to roll out one of my new acquisitions - Frogs Leap cellars Leapfrogmilch. Needless to say they loved it, from its germanic style packaging - a not-so-subtle homage to liebfraumilch, to its more new world style flavours and off dry finish. The Leapfrogmilch is a blend of Riesling (67%) and chardonnay (33%), made by John Williams, the winemaker at Frogs Leap. Now John runs the farm on Biodynamic principles - carrying out certain vineyard functions according to the cycles of the moon, and the farm has held its organic accreditation for quite a few years now. But it goes much deeper than that. The philosophy behind Frogs leap is that the vineyard and farm are a living microcosm, so they are trying to run the estate on sustainable principles.They have even brought solar energy into the process. So behind that quirky, jokey name, lies a serious product with some very conciencious thinking.

So what does it taste like. Well it has quite a floral nose - white flowers and citrus fruits - grapefruit and lime with a gala apple aroma thrown in for added complexity. It has that kind of wet gravel drive minerality too. On the palate it is still quite acidic, but it is a good balance for the fresh fruity flavours that come out. The wine feels to have a slight spritz on the tip of my tongue, but I put that down to the acidity levels. The end finishes with a slight hint of some residual sugar and quite a pleasantly long finish. I think that really this is more of a food wine than a sitting drinking on its own wine, but it would work quite well with a wide range of dishes, even some darker fish like tuna or meatier dishes like a lightly glazed duck. And like a badly planned pun it went really well with the frogs legs in Artichoke veloute.

click on the trade section to get some more information about their organic principles and solar energy use.