Wednesday, February 28, 2007

New Menu night tonight

Tonight we are running with a new a la carte menu. The menu looks really good, with some interesting dishes. Chefs sense of humour is evident in the names - one starter is called Pond Life and is a watercress espuma with 2 snails persillade, frogs legs beignets, red cress, chard and poached crayfish tails. I reckon it will be quite popular, despite the quirky name!

Late night last night

Im absolutely shattered today. Yesterday was my first day back after a week off having fallen down stairs, and it ended up being a sixteen hour monster of a day. I left the hotel sometime after three am this morning and crawled into bed for about four hours of fitfull sleep. So why was I so late?

Last night we had the second of this years gourmet evenings - Chateau Bauduc. We had the owner/winemaker Gavin Quinney come and talk about how, why and some of the trial and joys of what he and his wife Angela do in Creon. Unfortunately Angela was unable to join us having busted her knee, but she missed a great evening. Despite running over his alloted time (to the consternation of Ross, Paco and the Chef) Gavin kept everyone amused with witty anecdotes (some at the expense of Gordon Ramsay's team of sommeliers!!), tales of some of the trials of being a novice winemaker in Bordeaux and some of his aspirations for the future of Chateau Bauduc. I dont honestly think weve ever had such gushing praise from the guests about the speaker before. The wines were very well received too which is always a bonus. The rose we poured at the start was quite popular, 100% merlot with overnight skin contact, we were pouring the 2004 which isnt the most current vintage, but still packed fruit flavours with a deliciously savoury edge which I think set people up nicely for the starter.

For the starter we poured the Bordeaux blanc, which is 95% sauvignon and 5% semillon for a bit of depth and body. Everyone raved about this wine. Crisp, fresh and lip-smackingly good it worked a treat with chef's crab raviolis. The next wine was a love or loath wine. Roughly half the people loved it, the other half didnt. It was the Trois Hectares 2004. 100 % semillon from a small three hectare vineyard (and the cause of much hilarity when Gavin recounted the story of one the Ramsay sommeliers (a Frenchie no less!!) asking why it was called Trois Hectares!!). Its barrel fermented again for depth of character. Much less expressive than the Savvy, I loved this wine, but for sure its a food wine. I think this would have been great with the intermediate course of Seared Scallop on a bed of cauliflower puree with carpaccio of cauli and a parmesan brittle. Anyway, the next wine was the Clos des Quinze a bordeaux blend dominated by merlot (60%) with the remainder almost evenly split between Cabernets. Coming from a walled vineyard of about 15 hectares. I had double decanted it earlier in the afternoon, so it was showing very well indeed. Again everyone seemed to rave about it. That was paired with a saddle of roe deer and pumpkin spatzle. Everyone raved about that too!
With the cheese souffle we poured a more limited cuvee, the Trois Etoiles which Gavin told us was actually selected by the Ramsay team to be bottled into a separate cuvee. Hence the name - Trois Etoiles- Three stars in honour of Royal Hospital Road and Gavins first customer in the UK. This is a pure merlot and I loved it, for me it was the highlight of the night. But again it seemed to divide the room, some loved it, others loathed it. That was the end of the Bauduc wines, but as we had dessert still to come, we had to throw a ringer into the mix. We chose a Graves Superieures from Haut-Bergeron, which also received mixed reviews, but then a lot of folks dont like sweet wines, myself included.

At the end of the night as we cleared all the glasses, Danny and myself chatted to Gavin, Danny using the opportunity wisely to increase his knowledge of Bordeaux and winemaking. But he wimped out at 1am leaving me discussing future ideas that Gavin has for moving Bauduc more into the UK market, and ideas for further developing the range of wines that he has available. Next year hes got a monbazillac coming out, from a winemaker that he knows who cant get his product onto market. He talked about developing Bauduc into a brand again using contacts who again cant find a route to market in France. Imagine a Bauduc Pomerol, Pauillac or St Estephe. Anyway, I really enjoying chatting to him, and getting involved in helping him reach a wider audience. For great easy drinking Claret you cant do any worse than check out their website and order yourself a case or two of wines.

Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Trophy Ruinart

Yesterday was the regional finals of the Trophy Ruinart competition and I was due to compete in the Midlands final down at the Hotel du Vin in Birmingham. I decided to pull out earlier last week, as I wasnt "match fit" and felt that if I wasnt able to give it 100% then I ought not to go. Especially as the hotel was paying for my accomodation and travelling expenses. I had a few friends competing, ironically at Birmingham too, and it would have been good to catch up with them, but I'll get plenty of opportunities over the coming year. Ian didnt win, as he was stuffed up with a cold, and so he blew the blind tasting part. Apparently some dude named Cyrille from the Manoir won the brummie round. Good luck to him on the grand final!

Back to work

Well Im back to work today, after a week off sick with a sore back. The swelling has all gone thanks to anti-inflamatory tablets prescribed by the quack and the bruise is now a multitude of colours and slowly starting to fade. My right side is still a bit tender and hurts a bit when i cough or yawn, but I need to get back to work for my sanity. Besides moving around will probably loosen it all up a bit and make it better. Ive got loads to catch up with, so many things to get done before the end of march and our financial year. Weve still got a lot of money to move out of the cellar before April 2nd. Then we've got new racking being installed into the cold store for the white wines, so thats going to be a logistical nightmare!! Mind you once it is done we will have storage there for four thousand bottles, which will mean that I can move a lot of stock out of the holding cages and into stock, get them onto the wine-list and help get rid of some more value from the cellar. Not thats there is much in the way of white wine, a bit of white burgundy, loads of meursault and some puligny from Sauzet, but its enough.

Im working on an idea that Roger from Gerrard Seel gave me for our final gourmet of the year. We were originally looking at doing five decades of bordeaux, but seeing as we are overloaded with burgundy and grand cru burgs at that, we are now going to have a month long burgundy festival culminating in the gourmet dinner at the end of the month focussing on Grand Cru Burgundies. Batard Montrachet, Criots, Chevalier, Corton Charlemagne and of course Le Montrachet for the whites, Corton, Echezeaux, Grands Echezeaux, La Tache, Romanee St Vivant, Charmes Chambertin, Clos de la Roche, Clos St Denis etc etc for the reds. Ive spoken to Chef and he's on board to tailor the gastronomic menu around burgundian dishes, we can match wines to the menu for an all inclusive price and take a hit on the margins to move some of the stock. Im quite looking forward to it, and so are quite a few of the guests. Ive still got to finalise the rest of the years events, but it looks good so far.

So Ive got a lot to do, and Ive got the feeling that there may be some significant changes in the air soon.

Thursday, February 15, 2007

Swept off my feet on Valentines Day.

Well the years biggest Hallmark holiday has just been and passed and I missed it. I spend Valentines Evening in the Accident and Emergency Dept at the Countess Hospital in Chester after having a wee tumble at work and falling down some stairs. When I go down, my god do I do it in style!. So Im currently lying in bed at home, drugged up on painkillers for the second tine this year, with an enormous bruise on my arse (last night the swelling was as big as a subway 6" sandwich!!), a very bruised back and agony whenever I move, breath, laugh, sneeze, cough or in fact do pretty much anything.

Ive got an appointment at the quacks tomorrow, so we shall see what happens. I may be off the web for a wee while.

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Wine Chemistry and Flavo(u)r - Bakker & Clarke

On the subject of books, this tome is one I have had my eye on for a while. Its a serious geek book with an equally serious price tag - £120. Basically the authors are a pair of Food Analysts who have studied the various bio-chemical attributes of wine flavours and presented it in this weighty book. Its interest to me lies in the breakdown of the various flavour components and what causes them. For example pyrazines are responsable for a raft of flavours particularly that sharp green peppery aroma often found in warmer climate Sauvignon. For a winemaker to know how they are produced might enable him/her to suitably locate their vines in order to produce the right conditions for production of pyrazine components in the wine. Alternatively they could cheat and just add pyrazines to the wine as allegedly happened in South Africa nearly two years ago. Anyway, whiel surfing around Amazon looking for a couple of books on Italian wines to crib up on I came across the book again, and its on sale at a vastly reduced £59.40. I might have to sweet-talk the wife and see if she will let me put it on the credit card!!

Achilles Heel

With less than a fortnight until the regional finals of the Trophy Ruinart, Ive been thinking a lot recently about how much I dont know. So much still to learn and so little time to do it all in. Italy remains my biggest stumbling block, and I still find it hard enough motivating myself to get right into it and study the region. One problem is that compared to other regions, there are relatively few books on Italy. There are hundreds of books on Burgundy, loads on Bordeaux, Australia and New Zealand are fairly well covered, but when it comes to Italy, the only one I can find in the bookshops is the Gambero Rosso Italian wine guide, which is really a publishing of the results of the annual tasting by the Slow Food society. Ive been wanting to get my hands on a copy of Burton Andersons Wine Atlas of Italy, but the only ones that I can find are £160 second hand from America. It seems it is regarded as the single most authorative book on Italian wines ever written, so it seems bizarre that it hasnt been re-printed. Anyway, theres not much chance of me ponying up that kind of cash for a wine-book, although the most I have spend to date was £110 for Cocks, Ferets Bordeaux and its wines 15th Edition. (They are now on the 17th edition and it is undoubtably the biggest reference book on the estates of bordeaux and the wines they produce. )

So until I can find a cheaper copy of the wine atlas, Italy it seems will always remain my achilles heel. Unless of course I can persuade a generous supplier to take me on an educational visit (aka Jolly) to Italy!!!

Saturday, February 10, 2007

Armand Rousseau Clos de la Roche Grand Cru 1996

Last night we had a table of four regular customers in for dinner. They are a nice pair of couples who are become more regular as time goes on. The guys like their wines, mainly Burgundy, red naturally, but good champagne too. Ive hooked them up recently with Jacquesson Cuvee 729, which they are loving. They have got to the stage where they are comfortable to leave the choice of wine to me, I know what they like and how much they are prepared to pay.

As I may have mentioned we have a huge surplus of Grand Cru burgundy, so here was a perfect opportunity to shift a couple of bottles, and better yet, to someone who will appreciate it. So it was that our lucky guests got their opportunity to have this great wine at a considerably better price than it is usually listed for (£160 on the list). As they usually drink Nuits St Georges or Gevrey Chambertin it is in a similar style to the kind of wines they like.

Charles Rousseau took over running the domaine after a tragic car accident killed his father Armand in 1959. Since then he has considerably increased the domaines holdings in predominantly Grand Cru and Premier Cru vineyards based around Gevrey Chambertin. They work with some pretty old vines, the average age in his Chambertin holdings is sixty years old. The age of the vines means they only produce a small amount of fruit, but usually of a much superior quality. Another advantage to the age is that Charles never has to conduct a "green harvest". Further to the low yields they practice a severe triage of the fruit back at the cuverie to further eliminate any below-par fruit. All these measures contribute to some seriously low volumes, but luckily the quality of the wines speak for themselves and as such demand is always high.

Charles believes in partially destemming the fruit, as too much stem in the vats brings out unripe tannins and astringent characters into the wine. But by having about 20% stems you allow some aeration in the vats allowing the ferment to be more even through the vat and preventing hot-spots which can add uneven flavours to the finished wine. Perhaps unusually for Burgundy, Rousseau uses stainless steel vats to ferment the wines, with twice daily pigeage (punching down the skins to release colour) and remontage (pumping over the juice from the bottom of the vat, again to break up the cap and allow leaching of the colour. There is some debate as to the amount of oxidisation of the wine this may cause). After about two weeks the wines are pumped into a fresh vat or into 100% new Alliers oak, for anything upto 18 months.

There is no mistaking the fact that these are serious wines. The labels are very classically simple with an almost monkish script that lends the right amount of gravitas to the wines.

Clos de la Roche is the one of the Grand Cru leiu-dits of Morey-St-Denis. Actually the largest of the Grand Cru climats of Morey, it encompasses nearly 17 hectares, producing somewhere in the region of 70000 bottles. It is at an elevation of about 300 metres with a definate east facing aspect which draws pretty much the maximum amount of sunlight possible. It is often said it is the more classy of the grand crus of Morey. With its seductive aromas of deep violets, myrtille and a hint of truffle to it, all interlaced with a kind of foresty cherry aroma, this wine draws you in caresses your palate with an elegance of intensity. Imagine that relaxing feeling you feel washing over you as you slip into a hot bath, letting your muscles go and relaxing. Thats how you feel after sipping this wine. That contented "Ahhhhhhhh!!!!" rushing over your tongue and down the back of your throat. It can be a dangerous thing though. When a wine slips down that easily and so smoothly, you soon drink the whole bottle. Or two, and thats when things can get expensive. Unless you're on good terms with your sommelier!!

When I was in Burgundy last year, Bernard (Vallet) took us past Domaine Armand Rousseau and there outside was Charles washing down his tractor. Bernard told us that they were related, but that wasnt really a surprise. The nature of Burgundy is that just about everyone there is related!

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Wine Blog Wednesday 30

How quickly they seem to come around. Only last week I was at the Australia day tastings down in London, where I managed to taste my way around some serious big Aussie shiraz from Hunter, Barossa, Alpine Valley in Victoria, Great Southern (Western Aus), Eden Valley, Limestone Coast, Langhorne Creek, Heathcote, Geelong and Mclaren. Most of it was fairly textbook stuff - big black peppery, dark stone fruity, monster tannins, BIG alcohol. A few of the better wines were more balanced and had a bit more complexity about them.

Brokenwoods Graveyard Shiraz for example had more restrained spicy tones, but dense black fruit flavours with fine oak influence and silkier tannins. It was also bottled under a screwcap which is quite a brave step for a wine that retails in excess of £50.

Gapsted wines based in the Alpine Valley of Victoria in Australia had a very interesting shiraz - the Ballerina Canopy Shiraz. The fruit comes from 200 hectares farmed near Whitfield in the King Valley. Low yields and the slightly cooler climate produce intensely flavoured fruit with rich fruitcake flavours and more subtle spicy tones. Two years in american oak adds a sterner tannic structure to the wine which balances nicely with the natural fruit sweetness. Its quite a big wine at 14.5%abv but theres balance so the alcohol doesnt burn.

Berton Family vineyards, based in the Eden Valley of South Australia have a massive range of wines, mostly at the volume end of the market. However their "flagship" wine is the Bonsai Shiraz, so named because after five years trying to establish the vines in the High Eden, the vines still looked like rootlings. The quartz that dominated the thin soil soaks up the sun by day and slowly releases it overnight acting like a kind of radiator, allowing the grapes to reach exceptional levels of ripeness. The low goblet shape of the vines keeps the yield low and the fruit quality high, producing an excellent wine. Ripe plummy fruit flavours with a touch of vanillin and crushed white peppercorns on the nose and palate. The tannins grip quite strongly just now, but this is a 2004 vintage, so it needs a bit of decanting now or ideally a couple of years slumber in a cellar. There is a rich spicy finish to the wine with a flavour that seems to linger on the palate for ages. Fantastic wine at a good price.

Thats about all I have time for just now, got to get ready for service. The boss is in tonight with the chef and the F&B manager to make sure we are all up to scratch. Best behaviour then boys.

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Cowboy Style - aka Cutting Corners

Following on from a comment by Pink Man Running on a previous post I thought I might give my take on Cowboying things. There are certain occasions when we are faced with few options but to cut corners, or cowboy things in the parlance of waiters. There are a number of reasons for this, many admittedly spurious, and in all honesty the single biggest reason is a form of laziness. But then sometimes a guys gotta do what a guys gotta do. I have to admit that I very rarely cowboy things these days. I have more control over the situations in the restaurant, and I'm not under the stupid kinds of pressure that "forced" me into those situations elsewhere. On a busy Saturday night here the worst I have to face is about 50 covers, and Ive got a commis to help me. At Gleneagles I would be facing nearly a hundred, solo and in all likelyhood I would end up having to dig out one of the weaker team members in the adjacent station from the shite. Thats prime cowboy land that is.

So in the spirit of confessional here are a few moments that Ive experienced in the last ten years or so. Not all of these are my acts of cowboying, proving that its perhaps a bit more common than you might suspect.

1) Using the massively overoxidised white rioja as a last minute sherry substitute. Was very well recieved and they even asked me for the name of the sherry so they could get some. I lied through my teeth and told them some guff about it being exclusive to us and unavailable anywhere.

2) On a busy sunday lunch - it could have been mothers day when we did somewhere in the region of 300 covers for lunch, we ran out of cassis. With everyone and their dog ordering Kir Royales, I had one of my least successful cowboy ideas. Use blackcurrant cordial and dose it up with a splash of vodka. In my defense this might have worked if the hotel had used halfway decent cordial instead of this piss-poor weak assed cheap and nasty brand. Needless to say I got royally busted.

3) One month, the chef was having a terrible month with his food cost. In an effort to try and keep it manageable he cut out all purchasing for a week. One of the most popular dishes on the menu used a cassoulet made from these italian beans that were dead expensive. So the sous chef used a huge tin of cheap baked beans, washed the tomato sauce off and used them instead. That act alone shaved two percent off his food cost and helped save the day somewhat.

4) I used to work in this hotel in York that had a decent fine dining restaurant and quite a good collection of cognacs, including Remy Martin Louis XIII. Now bearing in mind this was twelve years ago, that was something very special, and hideously expensive (I think we were charging about £100 for 1/5 gil). One night as the bar manager Steve was clearing up the cognac trolley, he knocked over the bottle and ended up spilling about two thirds of it all over the carpet. Fearing that he was going to have to pay for it, he ended up making up his own blend from the rest of the Remy Range. Several weeks later we had the regional rep from Remy come in to do some training with us all. As we tasted our way through the range, Steve, myself and one other barman who knew what had happened sat in trepidation as we got closer to our fake Louis XIII. As the rep ran through his spiel and we tasted the Louis XIII he constantly gushed about how wonderful this cognac was and how it tasted better than he remembered. We were pissing ourselves.

I have to say that my cowboy days are almost behind me. Ive never pulled any of these stunts here, and nor have I ever been put into a situation where Ive had to pull something that daft here. I doubt that it would ever get to that stage, and its also a case that in some way Ive grown beyond seeking the easy way out. Its more of a challenge to face the situation and come up with workable solutions that arent as dodgy as one of Del-Boys latest gadgets. But who knows what the future holds?

Saturday, February 03, 2007

Oops I missed my birthday!!

Well not my own birthday, but on the 31st January Tales of a Sommelier was a year old! Its been a really weird experience, but one that Ive thoroughly enjoyed. It was quite bizarre meeting somebody at the Royal Agricultural Halls the other day at the Aussie day tastings who knew me from here!! And who would have thought that people all over the world would be interested!

Buying DRC

We are approaching the first of the 2007 en primeurs - the Domaine de la Romanee Conti 2004's are solicited next week. Now hopefully we should be on good footing to get what we want this year, because the agents who handle DRC in the UK forgot all about us last year. So we didnt get anything at all. Which truth be told isnt a bad thing. Its going to be interesting, because reading the forecast of the vintage from Clive Coates, the 2004's are going to be a quite good vintage for reds, but not predicted to have the length or longevity of better vintages. This hopefully means the prices will be a bit more sensible, but where the French are concerned who the hell knows!! Once we get the information from C&B we submit our "tender" ie what we would like to recieve. As the wines are usually in short supply and high demand (guess that answers the price issue!) what then happens is that C&B look at your spending record with them over the last year. The more you buy from them the better your chances of getting what you want are. So we shall just have to wait and see.

Granja Nuestra Senora de Remelluri Rioja Blanco

Just under a year ago, one of our major suppliers changed their rep. The old guy left to pursue his hobbies further and we got a new contact. The new guy is a totally different character to Chris (the old one). Noel is great, his sheer enthusiasm for wine and in particular certain wines is contagious and gets me fired up. I love it when he comes to see me, because I know that he wont bring me any crap, and I know that I wont get any bullshit from him. It was Noel who turned up one afternoon with a satchel full of wines to try, and the passion and enthusiasm to make me actually sit down and taste them with him. Im so glad that I did, because amongst those wines was one hidden gem, that through some sheer fluke of logistical errors, he had managed to get his hands on. That wine was the Remelluri Rioja Blanco. Now they only make a small amount of this wine, and about three dozen bottles make it into the UK through Alliance wines. They guard this jealously and needless to say you dont get samples. Now whether Noel just got lucky and someone at the warehouse just got careless, or perhaps being the new guy they gave some some serious ammo to come and see me, who knows.

The wine was amazing. Now Ive had plenty of white rioja before, horrible, overoxidised wines that more resemble sherry that white wine. In fact when I was at Gleneagles we sometimes used bottles of Castillo Ygay's white rioja as sherry if we ran out of Croft. Im amazed that we often got away with it!!! So I didnt really hold out much hope when Noel raved about the wine and cracked it open. On the nose it has the most amazing aromas, fresh aromatic, floral notes with white fruits and apricots. Its cepage reads more like a white Chateauneuf - Moscatel, garnacha blanca, viognier, sauvignon blanc, chardonnay, roussanne and marsanne and finally some petit courbut. It hasnt the oilyness of most white chtxneufs but a fresher almost more new worldy rhone-a-like style. I was lucky enough, having tasted it, to then be able to get six bottles. Bloody hell it wasnt cheap, but Ive taken a hit on the margin to put it on at £75 a bottle. Considering that the white Chtxneufs are priced at a similar price, thats a real steal! But when its gone its gone, I doubt Ross will sign for another six!!

Thursday, February 01, 2007

G'day mate!!

Well Im back from my first visit to the Australia Day tastings in London. My heads a bit foggy, my fingers are stained purple, and my guts are in a slight turmoil. I must have sampled about two hundred wines in all, some real belters and some fairly average ones too. I met up with a few familiar faces which was pleasant, and make some new contacts that I hope we can build into a new supplier.

I tried some great wines from small, boutiquey wineries - Gapsted Wines, based in the King Valley, Victoria. They had an interesting Petit Manseng, which you usually only find in Jurancon. It has a wonderfully aromatic flavour - think alsace gewurtz without the oilyness and its close. Their Touriga was very good as well, with a kind of violet, licorice root flavour and more than a hint of black tea. We met with a co-operative of small grower based in the Barossa whom market themselves as the Artisans of Barossa. There was a cracking chenin blanc from Rusden called Christian, after the winemaker Christian Canute. ( Beautiful banana, tropical fruit and papaya flavours. All their wines were well worth a swatch at, and will hopefully be making it onto our list after the buying embargo is lifted in the new year (fiscal - April 2, 2007). I also managed to taste some blockbuster reds - Brokenwoods Graveyard Shiraz 2004, now in screwcap - big dense red stone fruit, tons of depth and intensely tannic finish. Some of the Glaetzer wines - Godolphin being the biggest they were showing - another intensely rich shiraz dominated blend. Charlie Meltons Barossa Shiraz 2002, god I love his shiraz, layers of black fruit, tobacco, spicy tones, hints of licorice and chocolate.

By the time I left at closing time, my fingers were stained purple, my teeth probably likewise, and my head was spinning merrily as I made my way to the nearest boozer for a therapeutic pint of beer. Its a wonder I didnt fall asleep on my train and wake up in Inverness!!