Saturday, July 28, 2007

Higher or Lower? Its Alcoholic play your cards right!

The debate over alcohol levels in wine rages on, with a slightly surprising new voice on the lower alcohol camp. Randy Dunn, legendary winemaker of Dunn Vineyards, and the guy that put Howell Mountain on the winemaking map, has spoken out against high alcohol levels. Apparently the move has been prompted by his current vintage which for the first time has broken the 14% mark (14.11%ABV to be precise!). Its interesting to read his arguement ( One of his bones of contention is that by leaving the fruit on the vines for longer is actually removing the terrior from winemaking. By producing over-ripe, over-extracted wines, we have removed the individual character of the region it was grown in. Now most Californian cabs have a hot, raisined character that just gets blasted by alcohol. Back in the golden days of the California wine industry (the early 70's to 80's), each appellation had its own style, it was possible to distinguish between a Howell Mountain cab, or a Stags Leap or a Rutherford Bench Cab becuase the conditions the fruit was grown under created the character of the fruit.

Its an interesting arguement over the evolution of viticulture and vinification. Whilst browsing the Opus One website a while ago I noticed how the whole regime of how the wines were made evolved over the two decades that we listed. The early vintages had no more than 10 days of skin contact, rising to 20+ days in the early eighties, growing to 30+ in the late eighties and into the nineties, upto as much as 44 days! Conversely the amount of aging in barrel seems to have dropped from nearly two years to an average of 18 months. And if you think that Opus, being a collaberation between the old world and the new, underwent a change, what kind of changes did the Californian "old Guard" go through - Chateau Montellana, Stags Leap Cellars, Heitz Vineyards, etc. There is no denying alcohol levels have grown steadily over the years. It is not uncommon now to find wines in the 15's and even approaching the 16% level (In the UK anything over 15% is classed as a Liqueur Wine and is subject to a higher rate of taxation - £2.37 per litre compared to £1.77 per litre). Is this too high? In my personal opinion yes it is. Will I stop selling them, or refuse to list any that have high alcohol? Truthfully I dont know. At the moment we have a few wines that could be called high alcohol. Mainly Aussie but a few Cali cabs too. In most cases I think the alcohol is in overall balance with the wine, and they dont "burn", so I will probably continue to sell them, but ultimately if the public starts asking for lower alcohol wines then we will have to review the situation. So far that hasnt really happened, but then the majority of our list of old world, and lets face it, they often struggle to get the alcohol levels above 12% without chaptalising!

Looking over your shoulder.

Well its been nearly two weeks since I started my new role. Last night was my first night back in the restaurant since I changed (I had last weekend off to celebrate my anniversary belatedly.)In the two weeks, Danny has been on fire, selling loads of great wines and really pushing on the upselling. Now its partly luck of the draw - we had a few great regulars in, who love their wines, and arent afraid to spend a bit to get quality. But a lot of it is his youthful enthusiasm. He is just bursting with passion for it just now, hes keen as chips to learn more and he just goes for the jugular each and every time. If he carries on like this, I might have to get the old CV updated!!

Mouton Cadet Reserve

Cyril dropped in to see me the other day with Conor from J.W. Lees. They wanted me to try their new range of wines under the Mouton Cadet Reserve label, as well as their Chilean wine Escudo Rojo. I was familiar with the Escudo Rojo having first come across it many years ago in Glasgow. At that time Mouton was under Paragon Vintners portfolio, and the guy from Paragon sent me a mixed case of samples that included such gems a a bottle of La Grande Dame, Cloudy Bay, Escudo Rojo, Baron d'Arques and several other fabulous wines. The Escudo Rojo is a bordeaux blend from Chile, with consulting input from Moutons winemaking team. Its actually very good, and for a while I listed it, until one afternoon, cruising around the wine-section at the local Costco I came across a pile of cases of the Escudo at around half the price we had paid for it. I went ape and it ended up being delisted. Ever since then Ive had somewhat of an aversion to certain wines, and Mouton Cadet was amongst them.

The Reserve de Mouton Cadet is a range of appellation wines from the major communes of Bordeaux. There is a Graves, a St Emillion, A Sauternes, A Graves Blanc, and a Medoc. The presentation is a bit less "commercial" than the Cadet and the use of the word Reserve gives it a slightly more "upmarket" feel. Daft, I know, because legally the word actually has no support, in much the same way that "vielle vignes" or old vines has no legal definition. But there is definately quality in the bottles. The labels are rather plain and understated, but after all its the contents of the bottles that should do the talking. Ive only tried one of the wines, a box of samples with the rest arrived yesterday marked for my attention. All I await now if the prices to see if they will fit into our list.

Cyril also showed me the Barons range of wines, which I was led to believe was exclusively on-trade (must dig around to disprove this!). A slight step up from the reserve range, again there are a range of appellations for this wine - Pauillac, Medoc, St Emillion, Graves and Sauternes. I tasted the Pauillac Baron Nathanial, which if I remember from my brief visit to the Estate was the person who bought Brane-Mouton and renamed it Mouton Rothschild in early 1850's.

So a potential new line of wines to be looking at, subject to the right pricing of course, and they could well fit the bill.

Yapp Brothers.

Last week I had a tasting with Hannah from Yapp brothers. I used to deal with Yapp many years ago at Amaryllis, although the guy I dealt with was Will Baber. Yapp have a great list, very eclectic, and their two main specialities are Loire and Regional France. They are also pretty hot on the Rhone two, so I guess that have three specialities. Hannah brought along a selection of Loire whites - a Sancerre, a Quincy and a Menetou, she brought a picpoul and a cracking red from Australia. Its not often that I would sit and taste so many wines and want to list every one of them, but thats what happened here.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

A Cellarmasters Diary.

My job has been split in two now, and Tuesday to Thursday I will be based in the Cellar, Fridays and Saturdays I will work in the restaurant. So Ive created a new blog - A Cellarmasters Diary to take care of that side of my role, while Tales will continue covering the weekend aspect of my role.

Saturday, July 14, 2007

Two Aussie Classics

Got off to a racing start tonight with the return of our favourite customers. This time it was a table of four, with Danny's mummy and daddy as the extra pair. Mr B was torn between the magnum of Grant Burge's Mesach Shiraz or the recently arrives Armagh 89 and Hill of Grace 87. I thought that I knew which way he would lean, and I started off suggesting the Armagh and then see which way the wind blows.
In the end it was the Hill of Grace that got started first due to its slightly more delicate nature when I opened it. To look at it you would have guessed it was a pinot, it was very thin and light, a pale brick dust colour with a very fine suspension. On the nose it was quite restrained with very soft red fruit flavours. I was almost ready to dismiss this, but then in the space of five minutes it blossomed. This still wasnt recognisable as H.o.G., at least not in any sense that Ive ever experienced it, but as time passed it seemed to grow in stature. I went from not being sure about it, to being a bit disappointed, to being pleasantly surprised to loving it. Dont get me wrong, but the 96 we had a Paco's leaving do was utterly sensational, but this was very different, more subtle, more restrained, yet much more elegant, less of a nasal bully, more sensual on the palate.

The Jim Barry Armagh 89 however was a fairly typical Aussie shiraz, brassy fruit upfront, menthol/eucalypt tones and a lingering cassis finish, but even this had a slightly softer edge about it. The last vintage of Armagh I had was an 96 and it was a big beasty of a wine, massively dense black fruit flavours with a full menthol hit, like freebasing a packet of tunes, and a hugely alcoholic undercurrent which swept all the flavours together and flushed them straight into your bloodstream. By the time Id had half a bottle I felt like Id just down a round with Bruno - punchdrunk and all furry in my mouth. The 89 however didnt have that massive alcohol, the abv sits at 13.5%, by Aussie terms thats low alcohol these days. Many wines now sit at the top end of 14 and 15%, a few even breeze into the fortified wine bracket sitting on a whopping 16% alcohol. The 87 Hill of Grace is a measly 13%. Ill have to dig out the bottles of older H.o.G. I kept at home to see what they sit at but Id bet good money it way higher than that.

Mr B loved them, and they even got the thumbs up from Mrs B, its not often she raves about the wines as much as she did tonight. Im glad they liked them, and I hope that the next (and last) two live up to the rep that these two set up tonight.

Thursday, July 12, 2007

Dogpoint Vineyards Section 94 Sauvignon Blanc 2003

This wine is a bit of an enigma for me. I absolutely love the smell of the wine, but tastewise it isnt my bag. Its kind of odd that way, and i have to say its probably the only wine I can think of that this happens with.

Dogpoint vineyards is the efforts of James Healy and Ivan Sutherland, both ex-employees at Cloudy Bay. Well employees doesnt really do them justice, James was the winemaker and Ivan the viticulturalist. In their spare time they were making wines at a neighbouring winery and selling some of their fruit to Cloudy Bay. I think its easy to spot the influence of CB on the Dogpoint wines, particularly the Section 94 which bears a passing similarity to CB's Te Koko. But where the Te Koko overdoes the oak (IMHO), Section 94 has the balance perfectly, allowing the fruit to still shine but adding a more floral element to the wine.

On the nose the Section 94 has a very aromatic elderflower and gunflinty character, as it opens up in the glass the smokyness becomes more dominant, but still the floral sweetness shines through. On the palate this is richer and "fatter" than their straight savvy, the oak adding body and touches of spices to the flavour. Im not sure where their oak is from, but if I had to guess Id go for american, based on the more toasted coconut flavours rather than vanilla. Obviously with it having some barrel fermentation and aging, the acidity isnt as dominant, but thats a good thing. This is a food wine, but not something thats crying out for sharpness and searing acidity, but perhaps something with a bit of piquancy - caramelised scallops and cauliflower carpaccio with vintage parmesan and pea mousse.

Domaine Tollot-Beaut, Beaune "Les Blanchefleurs" 1995

This week Ive re-arranged the wine-racks in the back station in order to accomodate some of the new wines that have been added to the list. In doing so I came across a few odds and sods that seemed to have dropped off the wine-list at some stage or another, and are now classed as Bin Ends. Two such bottles were the fantastic Beaune from Tollot-Beaut - "les Blanchefleurs". Luckily for me, that night we had one of our regulars in who just loves this kind of red burgundy. So he got himself two cracking bottles of beaune for a good price, and Im sitting on two less bottles of bin end.

On the nose it had that classic mature burgundy smokyness before opening up into ripe red strawberries and raspberry, with a touch of cherry and winter spices. On the palate there was plenty more of the soft red fruit flavours, with the spice warming the palate at the finish. Pleasantly long finish which left me wanting more. Shame there was only two bottles!

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

WBW 35 - Spanish Value Wines

Michelle and Kevin at my wine education ( are the hosts of this edition of Wine Blog Wednesday and they've chosen a cracker of a theme - Spainish Value Wines (under $10 which Im going to translate to £10 because for the moment the exchange rate is in our favour - yay!!).

Im going to do two wines - one white and one red.

The White - Is from the D.O. of Getariako Txakolina, which if I hadnt looked it up I would have guessed was in Greece. Actually its on the Northern coast of Spain around the city of San Sebastian. According to my copy of the Penin Guide, there were some 220 hectares of vineyards divided amongst some 17 bodegas, producing about 1.4 million litres of wine in 2004. Less than 3% is exported, the remainder supporting the strong domestic market for wines.

Txomin Etxaniz is one of the biggest holders of vineyards in the D.O. with about 30 hectares. The white is a blend of two grapes - Hondorrabi zuri (a white grape) and hondorrabi beltza ( a red one). Until 2005 these were the only two permitted varieties, but it seems that now they are allowed to grow Riesling, Chardonnay and Gros Manseng (must be a favourite of the Basques). As far as I can tell this is just the two Hondorrabi's. On the nose it has a refreshingly zesty aroma, sharp green apples and a sweetish kind of nectarine flavour. It gives the impression that its going to be sweeter than it actually is. On the palate it has a spritz - not sure if thats from bottling under CO2 or a touch of secondary fermentation. Very clean, crisp and dry, with citrus flavours more dominant, but elements of green fleshed melon too. Its very moreish, but finishes quite sharply and cleanly. I reckon this would be fantastic with a nice seafood paella or even just a fruits de mer platter. About £8 from Moreno wines.

The Red - Is from the D.O.Ca of Priorat, in the hills above Barcalona. Cellar Cal Pla is based in the village of Porrera, lower down on the volcanic slopes. The fruit comes from vineyards with parcels of vines as old as 100 years, but the average age is about 50 years old. The wine is a blend of Garnacha, Carenina and a dash of Cabernet Sauvignon, barrel fermented and aged for at least a year in mostly french oak. Aparently the wines are unfiltered when bottled, which I find surprising because the wine is crystal clear - deep ruby red colour with damsons and winter spices on the nose. On the palate the fruit is more dominant, with currants and blackberries upfront and a touch of peppercorn and nutmeg on the finish. The finish is quite long and it ends a bit spicily, which is why I often serve this by the glass with our duck breast with honey brioche and pink peppercorn crust. Its a lovely match! OW Loeb are knocking this out for under a £10.

So thats my contribution for this month, great choice of topic.

Saturday, July 07, 2007

Gourmet 2008 - brainstorming.

Ive got to have some ideas for nexy years gourmet calendar. So in some form of brainstorming session, I thought I might throw out some ideas on here and see if anything looks any good "in the wild". Maybe get some feedback too?!?

Idea 1)
Wines of the Loire Valley - taking a more general look at a region rather than a specific producer. Obviously look at the expected wines - Sancerre, Pouilly Fume, but perhaps squeeze in something unexpected - Muscadet, Cour Cheverny, St Nicholas de Bourgeuil, Chinon who knows. Only certainty - I want to show something from Didier Dagauneau.

Idea 2)
Wines of Languedoc-Roussillon - after WBW 33 Its got my interest piqued again. Mind you, the negative side is that Ive got chuff all from their on my list at the moment apart from a quaint but uninspiring Picpoul.

Idea 3)
Wine and Chocolate evening - One for the ladies I suspect, but how cool would it be to do something like this? Im not sure cheffie would get behind it though, so I suspect this might die a death on the drawing board.

Idea 4)
Wines of the Pacific Northwest. I would love to do this one, but I know I would struggle with it. First- it is becoming nigh on impossible to find a decent range of wines from Oregon, Washington and British Columbia in the UK. What few are available all come with hefty prices, meaning this isnt going to be a cheap evening. I expect it would end up nearer the £150 per ticket, which of course is going to put people off. Im still going to persevere with this one thought.

Idea 5)
Decadence Evening - an evening off pure indulgence - Foie Gras - Jurancon from Didier Dagueneau - Caviar - Dom Perignon Champagne - Veal - Grand Cru white burgundy - Estate reared Welsh Black beef - First Growth Claret - you get the idea. Finishing with chocolate and gold truffles and obscenely expensive cognac! Be prepared to pay!!

And thats about as far as I go idea wise. We try to follow new directions and avoid repeating ourselves, but there are only so many ideas to be had.

Smells like a Pepperami!!?!

Not a description that you would expect to be hearing when youre nosing a wine, but damn me if it wasnt very accurate. The bottle was a 1986 Henschke Keyneton Estate, back when the blend was Shiraz, Cabernet and Malbec. After splitting the damned cork, I managed to get the remnants out without them cascading into the wine, and poured a very small amount into the glass to check it. Sure enough it was a rich spicy sausage like aroma not unlike a spicy pepperami. Just goes to show, inspiration comes in the most unlikely places.

l'Hospitalet de Gazin 1997 en Magnum.

These came in as a slightly botched purchase from a brokers, who had incorrectly identified them on their broking list as bottles. I was well chuffed to discover I was getting twice the volume for the same price, so we took them. l'Hospitalet used to be quite popular on Andrew Fairlies wine list when Johnnie Walker was the sommelier there, and even when Niall Keddie took over from Johnnie it sold quite well. A combination of a cracking wine at a good price from Pomerol is always going to help.

L'Hospitalet is the second wine of Chateau Gazin, one of the larger estates in Pomerol, with some 24 hectares of vineyards planted mostly to Merlot with some Cabernet Franc and Cabernet Sauvignon. The heavy clay soil is rich in iron oxide, giving it a distinctive red colour, and allowing the Merlot to "keep its feet wet". The estate combines the best of modern equipment - stainless steel vats for fermentation sit alongside concrete vats- with traditional techniques of viticulture and vinification. The grapes are all hand harvested and undergo a rigorous triage before being fermented between 15 and 25 days. Upto 18months oak aged in mostly second fill casks (upto 33% new) provides the wines with the perfect pedigree and their well deserved reputation for quality.

I hadnt experienced this wine in magnum before so there was a slight degree of trepidation. On the nose I was very surprised by the rich spicyness of the nose - very savoury with clove, cinnamon and nutmeg all quite dominant. Over time the spicyness took more of a backseat and allowed the fruit to show more - victoria plums and elderberry, with a forest fruit jammyness. By the end of the meal, the customers where really loving it.

Wednesday, July 04, 2007

Wine and Spirit Sommelier Challenge Semi Final Round two

Well the results are in for round two and I placed fourth equal. It seems I had a bad round two, placing fifth out of five, scuppering my chances. I havent read it yet, so once I have, I'll disect it a bit more. But Im still chuffed that I got through to the semi's, and there's always next year.

Tuesday, July 03, 2007

Being Environmentally Friendly.

Eco-credentials are the new black. Everyone is ardently declaring their good intentions in saving the environment. Email sigs now have the obligatory admonishment not to print out unneccessary emails, companies are looking at their carbon footprints and in some cases taking measures to "offset" or compensate for it. But what can a hotel do, or a restaurant?

Recycling is a start - we recycle glass and cardboard - obviously we use loads of glass - wine bottles, beer bottles, soft drink bottles and hundreds upon hundreds of mineral water bottles. Which brings me to an interesting point. In America, particularly San Fransisco and New York there has been a big trend recently towards shunning mineral water in favour of Tap Water. America has had this obsession with a particular brand of water - Fiji Water, suposedly one of the purest and cleanest mineral waters available. But a recent article in Fast Company magazine shows that environmentally Fiji water is perhaps the most unfriendly product. (thanks to It makes for some quite scary reading really. But it doesnt just apply to mineral water.

One of the big awareness issues of the moment is the number of "food miles" that your ingredients have travelled to get to your kitchen. Now for many restaurants that use local produce this is quite low and hence environmentally friendly. But if your restaurant is serving asparagus in March it is highly likely it has been flown in from Peru. And here we come to a crucial issue in menu design and planning. In order to be environmentally friendly as a restaurant, you must first support your local producers, but you must also change your menu more frequently to use local seasonal produce. British Asparagus is only in season for some six weeks, so to truly promote your green credentials it ought to only be on the menu for about the same length of time. The British Strawberry season is similarly short - particularly when June has been as wet it we have had, yet customers expect strawberries and cream with their afternoon teas all year round. This means we are serving Israeli, Dutch, Spanish, Peruvian, and any other country that grows them to meet a demand. And here we meet the crucial dillema that restauranteurs face - be green or keep your customers happy. Maybe we are going to have to be a bit forceful and hope that our efforts at being green will deflate any complaints (not likely!) This is only the beginning really. As a restaurant we consume a huge amount of resources - electricity, gas, heating - a huge bugbear of mine is when a single customer sits down and within ten seconds starts demanding the heating turned up because they are cold, never mind the other twenty people sat in the restaurant who are fine. As the heating is located in the basement and takes a good half hour to heat up the restaurant (its a big room!) I reckon that is uses loads of energy to heat up the retaurant by one degree. When does it become bad customer service to try and conserve energy and resources?

At the moment the industry is playing at being environmentally friendly, not for lack of will on our part- but mainly through lack of support from customers. We can be more environmentally responsable, but we need the customers to back us up and perhaps change their expectations. But as many people will soon strive to change their livestyles to become more eco-friendly then they will change their expectations of the services they use - shops, restaurants, hotels etc. But by then it will probably be too little, too late.

Domaine de la Romanee Conti, Romanee St Vivant 1972

Danny was on top form on Saturday, hes got the fire back in his belly, which is great, because I wasnt on form at all. Danny had set himself a target of selling a £250+ bottle of burgundy, and bugger me if he didnt go and sell two of the sods.

A random table of three, towards the later end of the evening, Id already approached the table to see if there was a particular style of wine they were looking for, but the guy was happy browsing. Id just taken another order when I saw Danny approach them and set to work.

Watching him work it took me back a bit to my younger days when I was full of enthusiasm but frankly lacked the knowledge to back it up. I had kind of lacked that inner voice telling when to stop and sometimes it got me into some very tight spots. In my first head sommeliers position I allowed myself to get carried away with the wine-list, filling it with trophy wines and constantly expanding it, getting ever bigger with each new wine that I tasted and enjoyed. It became an ego-fest, ever more personal, until one day I realised that I was the only one that could sell it, they were my wines, and the guys in my team that I was supposed to be teaching and guiding, didnt have a clue where to start. That was when I knew I wasnt really ready for the position I was in, and after discussing it with the HR manager I left for a new, more junior position elsewhere. I can see a lot of parallels in Danny, hes younger than I was, full of enthusiasm, but he doesnt know his limits, he has yet to experience that crash, that one humbling moment that keeps the ego in check and allows us to grow in our positions. Much as I hate to say it, when it comes I hope it is hard, and I hope it comes soon, because he has the potential for greatness whatever direction he takes in the industry.

So hes only managed to persuade the guy to take Bin 99 - DRC Romanee St Vivant 1972. I didnt think the guy was the sort to drop that kind of money on a bottle of wine, but once again Ive proven that appearances can be deceptive.

The nose if quite light at first - strawberries, a bit of earthyness about them, but then the feral character kicks in and there is a muskiness about the wine. The wine itself is very cloudy, a very fine suspension of particles, it doesnt say anything on the bottle about being filtered or fined, but if I had to guess Id say it wasnt filtered before bottling. I didnt taste this one, as it was late in the evening, and I wasnt feeling very well. Danny did, and was full of superlatives for it. The customers enjoyed it, which is of course the main objective.
All in a great wine then. Not too shabby for £270 a bottle. Fine and Rare are knocking it out at £483 a bottle according to, so I reckon its a steal at £270!