Friday, March 30, 2007

The end of month blues.

We are approaching D-Day, the end of our fiscal year and the pressure is on to achieve our budget. At the moment we are about £13k short with three days to go. Its do-able, but somehow I just have a feeling we are going to come within a gnats chuff of it. But that wont stop us from pulling out all the stops over the next three services to come as close as possible. The end of the month usually means stocktake too, but with the added ballache of having to do the full cellar, holding stock and all. Usually we only count the holding stock every quarter which is fine, but obviously this falls into this months stocktake. Then as a final kick in the nuts, we have an auditor looking over our shoulder while we do it.

Now that might sound like a bad thing because perhaps we have something to hide. Thats not the case. But it is somewhat off-putting to have somebody watching you while you count the stock. Maybe its just me. So far everything seems to be going fine, but we shall have to see what they say after they witness Sundays fun and games. I confess Im not usually on top form on a sunday morning at the best of times, but to have to be in work at 9am to count thousands of bottles after four or five hours kip makes for some fun and games.

After thats over we have to empty the chill room for we are getting some new racking installed on Wednesday. This will allow us to rack up over 4 thousand bottles. So I shall be spending three full days down in the cellar next week moving stock from A to B, and back to A again. And after thats all done and racked, we have the task of adding all these extra wines to the wine list and then to the EPOS system, but the wine-list will be close to a thousand bins. Thats going to be fun to manage!

Change's Afoot

Spring time is traditionally the time for deep cleaning and making significant changes to anything. I guess thats holding true for here too. Over the space of this last fortnight we have had the core of the Arkle team handing their notices in. By the end of the May races there's only going to be Danny, Annie, Kazie, Eddie, Wieslaw and Myself left (One Commis sommelier, Library Supervisor, Commis, Commis, Commis and Chef Sommelier in order). Paco has been offered a dream job back in Spain at El Castell de Cuitat. And in the way of good managers, the staff are all going to follow him. I say all, nearly all. Truth be told, if I hadnt got the kids to think about, I would be out there like a shot. Good luck to him, Greg, Anna and Walter, Im jealous as hell and wish I could go too!!

Thursday, March 29, 2007

The infamous Bag Game (Part 3 of the Glenmorangie Embassy trip)

We arrived at Cadboll to be greeted by glorious sunshine as the sun was beginning the end of its daily arc across the sky. As the weather was so good, we decided to take a walk down to the beach before dinner. I was later to regret not taking the opportunity to get my head down for an hours kip. Anyway after a gentle stroll down to the beach and lively conversation getting to know Lindsay, Sam, Angela, Max and Frederick it was time to get changed and meet up for Dinner. Cadboll is so very civilised, they have no TVs and dinner is a communal effort around a huge oak table, a chance to converse and rejoin humanity for a while. As we sipped our Veuve Clicquot (well it is now part of LVMH) inevitably we all talked about that which we shared in common, work!!

We enjoyed a fabulous meal that night, a seafood ravioli with Langoustines and bisque reduction, I skipped the Haggis neaps and tatties, then a fabulous duck breast with berries, fondant potato and cabbage. And to finish one of the best souffles that I have ever had, a rich chocolate souffle with bits of chocolate and an Ardbeg ice-cream. The ice-cream was to die for, rich and smokey with a peaty finish with seemed to complement the chocolate perfectly. And having fed us so well, we moved into the Buffalo room for the torture to begin. Anyone who has ever been entertained at Cadboll will know the Bag game. You start off with one paper bag. The object of the game is to lift the bag with your mouth. The only rule is that the only part of your body that is allowed to touch the ground is the soles of your feet. No arms, hands, knees, elbows, foreheads, shoulder etc. Sounds simple? It is. At first anyway. Once everyone has acheived this, then they cut one inch off the top of the bag and everyone plays again. Until you are eliminated. Im quite proud to say that I got down to the last seven, and the bag was a mere two inches above the ground. (the last time I played I managed to make it to the end when all that was left was a piece of paper flat on the floor, but by god did I hurt the next day) I had anticipated that I would hurt something chronic the next day, but to my great relief there was very little pain, beyond a bit of mild stiffness the next morning. In the end it came down to Dr Bill (unfair advantage as we reckon he plays this at least once a week!), Kristelle from MHUK who used a unique side-dipping technique which was even more amazing considering she was wearing a skirt and she managed to preserve her dignity throughout!, and Max from ODG who also used an interesting technique that we thought for sure wouldnt manage it. Max took first prize when it came to the time-trial tiebreaker knocking a full second off Dr Bills time of 4.something seconds. We were all kind of gobsmacked to discover it was barely past midnight by now, so we set about a game of charades. A word of advice, if you ever find yourself at Glenmorangie House dont let the guys there do your cards for Charades unless you want to try and mime out obscure chick-flicks like Fried Green Tomatos at the Whistlestop Cafe. Mind you Graham was a bit gobsmacked when Pauline, his number 2, started her turn with Film, four words, and Lindsay shouted out Gone with the Wind, to take pole position in less than 5 second! Result!! (I was on Paulines team). We won the game, much to Grahams dispute and by now the clock had crept round to 3am. We all started drifting off to bed after a long and thoroughly enjoyable day. It was a shame to have to leave it the next morning, but I did get to enjoy a lovely hot cooked breakfast before being taken off to Inverness airport for my flight home. I was knackered when I eventually got home. I slept the whole flight home from takeoff to landing, waking with a start when the wheels hit the ground at Liverpool airport. Theres no better way to fly!

Id like to say thanks to all the team at Glenmorangie, Dr Bill, Graham, Pauline, Martin and his team at Glenmorangie House and the lovely ladies at LVMH who took us there, Kristelle and Angela. I had a wonderfull time, and I cant wait to take my wife back there for our anniversary later in the year.

Glenmorangie Tasting (part 2 of the Embassy Trip)

After our fairly in depth tour of the distillery we returned to the conference room next to the offices for a tutored tasting with Dr Bill. On the table in front of us sat seven little tulip glasses with lids and a jug of Tarlogie Springs water. We got a quick slide show about the wood management program before we started tasting.

Sample no 1.
This was a colourless liquid that was revealed to be neat spirit before ageing. On the nose it had a rough pruney aroma about it, that actually put me in mind of some grappas that Ive had in the murky past. But after adding a drop of water to it, the aromas became more floral - acacia and white roses with a touch of oriental spices. The taste was surprisingly clean with a sort of sweetness about it that I hadnt expected.

Sample no 2.
10 year Glenmorangie. Quite apple like aromas with spicy floral notes. With the addition of water the aromas became more like Verbena with a touch of Geranium and honey, like a trendy herbal tea. Without water the taste was quite harsh and prickly on my tongue, but after a dash of water the whisky was really smooth with a kind of unroasted almond and honey flavour with exotic herbs. Im getting to appreciate this more as I get older I think.

Sample no 3.
This was the Artisan Cask sample, there was quite a dominant aroma of mint with bitter chocolate and pain epice, but I think I also found a touch of cobnut in there too. After adding a drop of water it had a more creamy nose, almost white burgundy in character, with a buttery toffee essense to it. Tasting it before the water was added I found it quite aggressive with rich warming spices and caramelised nuts, but with a touch of Tarlogie water in it became more minted with pineapple like fruit flavours and a creamy finish. I really liked this one with water.

Sample no 4.
Much darker colour, to be expected for an 18year old. I was instantly reminded of Crunchies by this one, chocolate and honeycomb, but more cinder toffee than Cadbury's. There were hints of white flowers in the nose too, but they seemed to be shy. With water it became more Baklava in character, nuts drenched in honey with some chopped dates throughout. I didnt taste this because I was beginning to feel a bit pissed by this stage.

Sample no 5.
Slight pinkish tinge gives this away as the Portwood finish. This was easy - proper turkish delight, dusted with icing sugar with pastilles of 90%+ cocoa mass. There was also a slightly aftershave like aroma that Bill identified as Sandalwood. I was pissed by now.

Sample no 6.
Im getting a bit confused because I think this was the last sample that I made notes for, but Im sure there were a few more. This was a cask sample from a special cask of the Sherry wood that has had somewhere in the region of 7 years extra maturation in the Sherry buts. The colour was a rich golden amber. On the nose it was a touch sulphurous with strong aromas of honeycomb and ginger spices. Almost gingerbread like flavours, the sherry has really dominated the character of the whisky and you would struggle to identify the Glenmorangie underneath.

Head swimming we came to the end of the tasting and we had a quick question and answer session before being driven down to Glenmorangie house where we would spend the night being tortured in Glenmorangies unique way!

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Visiting the distillery (part 1)

You know things are going to get off to a bad start when they involve getting up early. No good ever comes of getting up early. In this case I had to be up at the ungodly hour of 5:30am, to get myself to John Lennon Airport for a 9:05 flight. Due to the ridiculous "security" restrictions you now have to turn up two hours before your flight is due, so I had to be at the airport for 7:05am. Which was almost pointless because the damn check in didnt open till nearly 7:30, but who am I to complain. However after a fairly uneventful flight and an hour in a chauffeur (how the hell do you spell that word??!!) driven Jaguar I found myself in the Glen of Tranquility itself - the Glenmorangie distillery, nestling on the banks of the Dornoch Firth just a few minutes drive north of Tain.

I was met by Graham Eunson who has been the Distillery manager since 1999 when Dr Bill moved down to head office in Broxburn. In the office where I was to wait until the others arrived I was introduced to Bill Lumsden who I suppose is Mr Glenmorangie, for he is the public face of the whisky and the man responsable for their innovative wood management program that has seen them "experimenting" with finishing the whisky in different barrels to add extra dimensions to the flavour. I also meet Pauline, the assistant distillery manager. So now they are going to have to change the strapline of the whisky to made by the 15 men and 1 woman of Tain. Doesnt quite have the same ring to it eh? After a short wait and a very pleasant lunch we were ready to start the Embassy trip to Glenmorangie. We began by taking a quick drive up to the Tarlogie Springs, the source of Glenmorangies water.

Glenmorangie are quite unique in the fact that the Tarlogie Springs are bubbled up through layers of limestone and chalk, which are somewhat out of place in the Granitic hills and mountains of Scotland. As a result the water is quite "hard" - ie has high levels of dissolved minerals and salts especially Calcium salts. So they guard the springs quite jealously. The water was cristal clear and when we looked we could see the water bubbling up through the sandy soil at the bottom of the spring. After walking around the spring we headed back to the distillery for a guided tour of the operation. Starting at the old malting house where in days gone by they would have malted the barley themselves, these days the barley comes from a central maltings who toast the grains to a specification laid down by Glenmorangie. The barley passes through the mills to grind it into a course flour before being added to the mash tun. Here it is soaked in 60degree water to break open the starch cells and allow enzymes to start the process of breaking down the long chain starches into short molecule sugars which the yeasts can then convert to alcohol. Once all the sugars have been extracted the solution is then passed into the washbacks where the yeast is added at nature takes its course. They aim for a quick ferment to convert all the sugar into alcohol. Once this is done the result is called the low wines, and is approximately 9 % abv. It then goes into a low wines reciever before being pumped into the first still for the first distillation. The stills at Glenmorangie are amongst the highest in Scotland and this allows the purest alcohols to reach the top where they travel down into the condensers to be collected for the second distillation. The second set of stills are slightly smaller than the first ones and again here the aim is to purify the spirit and remove the harmful alcohols like methanol. So the foreshots are the first cut, and they get re-cycled back into the process to be endlessly refined. The middle cut is the sweetest and purest ethanol and it is this that will end its days maturing in an oak cask to be become Glenmorangie. The feints or end cut is the roughest and again it is re-cycled back to be redistilled.

We were then taken round to see the place where the spirit is filled into oak casks where it must mature for a minimum of three years before it can legally be called whisky. It is in the selection of the casks that for many years Glenmorangie has led the market. Dr Bill then took us into Warehouse number three to show us the Artisan casks.

Specially selected from trees grown in the Ozark mountains of America these casks are quite special. The exceptionally slow growth of the trees means that the rings are quite tightly packed and so the wood is quite dense and tightly grained. This interacts with the spirit in a way that I cant quite understand, but it seems to have a profound difference to the "standard" Glenmorangie. Must be pixie magic! Anyway as you can see from the picture Bill gets quite excited about these casks. While in the warehouse we got the opportunity to taste the differences between first fill casks and second fills. The first fills have a much richer, more caramelised character to them, with toasty coconut flavours being dominant. The second fills were much lighter in colour with a lighter nose, more minty floral with hints of lighter nuts - hazel, cobnuts. After a bit of a nosey in there and a cracking atmospheric photo it was time to return to the offices for our tutored tasting.

Sunday, March 25, 2007

Glenmorangie rhymes with Orangey

Ive got to be up at five am on Monday. Five bloody am in the morning!!! All because I need to be at Liverpool Airport for 7am for a 9am flight to Inverness. Im off to Glenmorangie, the Glen of Tranquility, according to their strapline on the adverts that were aired on TV a few years ago.

LVMH (Louis Vitton, Moet Hennessy) the multinational conglomerate that now owns Glenmorangie has decided to develop a brand Embassy for Glenmorangie. They have picked folks from around the country to represent the brand in key regions and I was invited to be selected to cover the Northwest. So this little jolly is by way of an introduction to the Embassy and a chance for us to have a guided tour of the distillery by the legendary Dr Bill Lumsden. I have been fortunate enough to have a guided tour by the man himself many years ago when Glenmorangie was part of Bacardi. He even took us into the bonded warehouse were we sampled a cask of the first limited release, the Claret wood finish Glenmorangie. Now I confess that Im not really a whisky kind of guy, but this was the first whisky I had tried that I found I could drink. So much so that when it was eventually released over a year later I managed to track down a bottle and bought it for £60. Last year a bottle sold at McTeers whisky auction for just over £500. Thats a nice healthy return!! So I look forward to seeing what joys and sneak previews we will get this time!!

Pictures and write up to follow upon my return on Tuesday.

Saturday, March 24, 2007

Virtual Cellar Tour.

Hello and welcome to the cellars of the Chester Grosvenor and Spa, my name is Garry Clark and Im the sommelier here at the Grosvenor. Inside these doors we are currently sitting on approximately £300k worth of stock, at cost value. The last time that I counted we had just over 18,000 bottles with a selling price between £19 and £5000.

Here we have our cold store where we keep our white wines and champagnes. In a few weeks time we are going to have these racks replaced with new racking that will allow us to store 4,000 bottles in rack and a further thousand or more in cases. The Grosvenor is one of the Depositaires of the Oenotheque range from Dom Perignon, which is their wine library of late disgorged stock available in tiny quantities to the select depositaires. Currently the oldest vintage available is the 1964 which is on our list for £975 a bottle, we also have the 1966 for a modest £1250 a bottle. Previously the oldest available vintage was the 1959, of which we sold five bottles, Im led to believe that we are the most successful Depositaire in terms of sales.

We move out of the cold store and here we have the first of our two Holding stock areas. We currently hold roughly £120,000 worth of stock in our holding stock until it is more mature and ready to be listed. In addition to this we have somewhere in the region of £50,000 worth of stock held "en primeur" - much of it yet to be bottled. Once the cold store is racked up this holding will be seriously reduced as much of the wines that are approaching drinkability are added onto the list. Each year we purchase numerous wines "en primeur" - such as Domaine de la Romanee Conti wines, Petrus, First Growth Clarets and certain other high value wines. In many cases these wines wont be bottled for another two years and then they will be sent to us for storage here in our cellars. We will keep them in the holding stock for at least another two to three years before adding them onto the list. So its an awesome responsability to be purchasing wines that somebody will be adding to the list in the next seven or more years. Ive been extremely fortunate to have inherited a fantastically stocked cellar and this year will see the first wines that I was actively involved in purchasing brought into the holding stock. It will still be a few years before I get to list them.

Here we have our dessert wines. Dessert wines have taken a bit of a slump over the last year, but we are starting to see a slight resurgence in sales as people are moving away from the huge alcoholic reds of the new world and back to the more restrained wines of the old world. Currently we have our two oldest bottles in this section. Our oldest is a 1917 Climens from Barsac. The ullage level on this bottle is quite risky at bottom shoulder and judgeing by the condition of the wine inside I honestly wouldnt hold out much hope for it, but as past experience has shown you can never tell until you open the bottle. It is hard to see from the cork, but we believe that the bottle was re-corked in 1969, as the other two bottles we had, had been. We also have our second oldest bottle which is a 1921 Yquem. Comparing the colour and condition of the wines, you would see that the Yquem is much clearer and brighter than the Climens and that would lead you to think the wine would be in better condition. It certainly ought to be, 1921 being considered as one of the stellar vintages of the last century for Yquem. The Yquem is listed at £3950 a bottle and the Climens was £1200. We seem to be listing more dessert wines from the new world now, with a diversity of production methods that dont all rely on Botrytis to create the rich unctious juice to start with. We have a smashing little wine from Randall Grahm the clown prince of winemaking who makes a California Ice wine by freezing the harvested grapes in an industrial freezer before crushing them and making his "Vin de Glaciere".

We move over to look at our collection of large format bottles. This is one of the many things that convinced me that I wanted to work here when I came for my interview. Whilst quite a few places have magnums on their lists, very few indeed have Double Magnums, Imperials, Jeroboems and the like. While they can be a bugger to pour from, the centre of gravity on a half full jeroboem places a huge amount of stress on your arms, the theatre of having a large group drinking from Jeros or Imps is fantastic.

We move over to the main attraction of the cellar our red wine wall. Here is the most significant value of the cellar. Just over four thousand bottles in total racked up. Our most expensive bottle is the 1985 La Romanee Conti from Domaine de la Romanee Conti, at £5000 a bottle. To give you some idea of the price of this wine, six bottles sold last November at auction in Southeby's US auction for $119,500 (approx £10,190 a bottle), so you can see its a steal at £5000!! La Romanee Conti is a tiny little vineyard producing less than 500 cases (6bottles) a year. Demand is exceptionally high and it is not uncommon for the wine to be sold several times over before it is even bottled!

When I started here four years ago the cellar was favouring Old world wines roughly 70% old world to 30% new world. Now after four years we are close to parity - 50/50, but since November we have seen our sales swinging slowly back to the old world - France, Italy, Spain and to an extend Germany. I believe this is down to people trading up from one dimensional new world wines to more complex old world wines. I think it is also a reflection of people looking for more maturity in their wines and a bit less alcohol too. Personally I think that the best value for money is often found in the new world, but sheer quality and complexity and just plain style you have to look at the old world. There are always exceptions however.

Over the coming year we hope to further develop the wine-list to meet our ever changing demands, we continue to seek out quality from around the world, as well as searching for those producers who are willing to stick their necks out a bit and try to grow the ungrowable in the most obscure places. Californian Albarino, South African Touriga, Aussie Gros Manseng, and many other out-of-place varietials. At the end of the day our list is dictated by our customers who ask for wines. We work with over 30 different producers to seek out the best products and secure the right prices so that we can keep the accountants happy and the customers buying!! We try to involve the various team members from the Kitchen brigade to the waiting staff who are serving the wines in the Brasserie and Library and Arkle. Everyone has something to contribute to the process. Our cellar has evolved considerably in the four years Ive been here and Im sure it will continue to develop even further in the coming years. I look forward to seeing where it takes me!

Moutard Cuvee de 6 Cepages 2000

Weve got a record of journalists in for the weekend. (Not sure if that is the correct collective noun, but I like the cut of its jib!). So they were being wined and dined in the Arkle tonight by Penta our (temporary) Marketing manager, and I decided to kick start them with this little beauty. Its a relatively small domaine, and one of the few that maintains vineyards growing the lesser known varieties of Champagne. Arbanne, Petit Meslier and Pinot Blanc are all still legally permitted grapes (although it is no longer permitted to plant them). Like the Aubry brothers, Francois Moutard believes that the grapes must have been planted and used for a reason. Tasting this champagne it is easy to see what they contribute. It has a more floral, rounded character with slight hints of honey and a crisper, sharper acidity which lends itself well to be used as an aperitif. I love this champagne because it has something different. When I taste one of the big brands there is a certain "blandness" for want of a better description, there is flavour and layers of elegance to the wines, but they just seem to miss that extra personality. Thats why I love the grower champagnes so much, to me they express what Champagne is all about, the terrior of the region, the complexities the different varieties bring to the mix, and the difficulties in what is essentially a borderline growing environment. I believe that when you are buying in the vast majority of your fruit, no matter how long standing the contracts you may have with the numerous growers may be, you dont have control of your principle ingredient and ultimately you cannot have control of your end product.

Caymus Special Selection 1992

I kind of hate opening old bottles of wine. The corks inevitably are halfway knackered, and you just know that no matter how carefully you try, the bastard is going to split and you'll end up having to fish out the remains. One of the best investments I ever made was in a Cistercian Monestary in Poblet, just up the road from the Grans Muralles vineyard in Conca de la Barbera, Catalunya, Spain. For the princely sum of four euros (at the time just over a quid) I got a Butlers Thief aka Ah-So wine knife. Consisting of two thin prongs, one slightly longer than t'other the idea is to carefully slide them between the cork and the bottle, thereby trapping the cork between the prongs. Then said cork can be carefully extracted without any tell tale holes, so the domestics can consume your prized claret and replace it with Hungarian plonk. I usually use it all the time now for older bottles, because it is much more reliable.

Anyways, I decided not to use it tonight for the Caymus because the cork actually looked in decent knick and it still felt firm on top. Mistake! Bloddy thing split in two and I ended up fishing the other half out with the worm from a longer screwpull corkscrew. But it was well worth the effort. Upon opening the wine had rich black fruit aromas with mature overtones, earthyness and a hint of stewed fruit. Over time it developed richer aromas more xmas pudding like than before. Ive only got one more bottle to go, then its gone.

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Chivite Gourmet

Tonight is the Chivite Gourmet night, and two weeks ago it was looking a bit grim. We were facing the prospect of doing a gourmet night with 16 covers, only ten of which were paying. Through a hefty dose of luck and some perseverence weve managed to get 45 bums on seats tonight, of which 12 are freebies. Im happy with that.

Marife Blanco from Chivite has flown over from the Pro-Wein festival in Germany today to host the evening. Ive literally just finished decanting the reds and got changed, and Ive got to get back as the first guests have started arriving.

We are starting off with the Gran Feudo Rosado, which is 100% Garnacha (Grenache). Almost a flourescent pink in colour, this is Spains best selling Rosado. Light, fruity with rosehips and raspberries on the nose, its very dry with a hint of a spicy finish. I can guess that this would be great drinking ice cold on a hot beach with the sun blazing down on you.

The first course is being paired with the Gran Feudo Chardonnay, a fresh style of white, stainless steel tank fermented, from Navarra. The nose would suggest a touch of oak about it, but Im going to put that down to the wines maturity (two years old). Thats going with a Paella Negra (Black paella - coloured with squid ink), mussels, clams and spiced squid. with a lobster bisque.

The intermediate course is a carpaccio of tuna with a salsa of cucumbers, pepper and mediterranean herbs served with a hot red pepper gazpacho. We are pairing that with the Vina Salceda Rioja Crianza 2002. Ripe red fruit on the nose, this put me more in mind of a Beaujolais Cru - a Morgon perhaps than a Rioja. I had to really sniff the wine to find those raw meaty aromas I usually associate with Rioja. I reckon this is going to be the best match of the menu.

For the main course chef has paired an Assiette of Veal - braised cheek, tongue, pan fried sweetbreads and roasted fillet, with creamed ceps, with the Coleccion 125 Reserva 2000. Tempranillo with a dash of Cabernet and Merlot from the Navarra blended together. After double decanting this one, I reckon they should meld well together.

Weve stuck the Conde de la Salceda Rioja Reserva 2000 with the cheese course - a poppy seed tortilla with manchego cheese. This wine is my favourite of the wines tonight. Rich, opulent flavours, with a meaty backbone and spicy tobacco notes. But still fresh with fruit, and a good clean acidity at the finish. That Manchego cheese dont half hum when its melted!!

We finish the evening with the Dulce de Moscatel dessert wine, served with a vanilla panna cotta with ginger crisp and tropical fruit. Weve got mango, plums, melon and pomegranite seed all in there, with a pineapple ravioli and passionfruit. The wine is like opening a tin of fruit cocktail - grapey fruit flavours with an almost syrupy quality to it. Fresh and simple with enough acidity to clean right through the creamyness of the panna cotta. I dont like dessert wines, but this is gonna be such a winner. Even cheffie loves it.

So thats it, should be good.

Saturday, March 17, 2007

Bordeaux Day Three (our last day boo hoo!)

I woke up early (despite the offer of a lie in) and took a wander around the vineyards in the early morning mist, before settling down for the traditional French breakfast. We were all still a bit full from the night before, but after our daily dose of caffiene and croissants, we were ready for our last visit of the trip - Chateau Coutet. Maria and Damien had both done stages there while studying Oenology and so they had a connection to the estate. Not to mention the fact that Chateau Manos, the Cadillac they produce is owned by Monsieur Niotout, who for twenty years was the Maitre de Chai (Cellarmaster) at Coutet. Manos was his hobby vineyard, and he has consequently turned over the management of the vineyards and wines to the Lamothe team on a long term contract.

Coutet is a lovely little Chateau in the Barsac region of Sauternes, which like so many estates we had passed over the last two days was undergoing some serious renovations and building works. We were shown round by the wife of the current Maitre de Chai, Mademoiselle Constantin.

It was interesting to hear about their wood management program for the casks. They buy 30% from Demptos, 30% from Seguin Moreau, 30% from another major producer, then they play around with the next 10% buying from smaller coopers to try out the wood and see how it affects the wines. The last few days have really altered my persective of how the wood influences the wines. In the past, I had always considered (or been led to believe) that the choice of wood was crucial to the further development of the wines. To the extent that the exact forest the oak came from being a critical factor. However as was pointed out to us at Demptos, each forest is different, the trees are all different, so to say that Alliers oak is the best, or Troncais oak is, is kind of a falacy.

From the barrel store we went through to the pressing room, where the grapes are recieved during the harvest. Coutet has the original wooden troughs that the grapes were first pressed in, by the feet of the labourers no less. Nowadays they use basket presses with pnuematic lifts.

There are little railway tracks in the cellar floor to move the trolleys that hold the baskets around. The juice is squeezed from the grapes and runs though the little spigot in the side of the trolley and down into a steel vat. From there it is pumped into barrels for fermentation. We were treated to a taste of the 2005 from cask, and although Im not really into sweet wine, it was a very nice wine, rich without being cloying, still fairly sharp with acidity and a lovely long fruity finish - golden raisins, a touch of mango and tropical fruit flavours.

It was all over. Time to head back to Lamothe for a spot of lunch before heading of to Bordeaux airport and back to Blighty. Damien took us on a slight diversion so we could see Chateau d'Yquem.

And so our trip came to an end. I would like to thank Damien, Maria and Anne for their fabulous hospitality and for opening their home to us and looking after us so very well. Thanks also to Nige from Rodney Densem wines for inviting me along. I plan to list a few of the wines that we tasted on the trip, so more about them later.

Bordeaux Day Two

After an amazing nights kip (its wonderful what not being woken up by a gobshite of a child at 6am can do for you!!) we had a busy day ahead of us, or so we thought at the time. After the traditional french breakfast - coffee and croissants, we set off for the Demptos Cooperage, one of the main cooperages in Bordeaux. Truthfully, I wasnt expecting much from the visit, but it turned out to be really interesting and informative. Our guide for the day was full of interesting facts and bits of information, and the scale of the operation is quite mindboggling really.

Firstly you are greeted by piles and piles of wood, sitting in the open air to season. We discovered during the morning that the wood sits outside for a period between 2 years and 34 months. Each palate of staves contains enough oak to make ten barriques. Each barrique sells for roughly 600 euros. So each palate is worth roughly 6,000 euros. There were loads of palates, easily several hundred if not thousand. Our rough working outs (we were all slightly hungover after all!!) reckoned on a value in the region of 20,000,000 euros all sitting there in the yard. And thats just one cooperage. The place was a hive of activity, and it was really quite cool to watch the craftmanship that goes into making the barrels that shape the character of Bordeaux most famous wines.

After our visit to Demptos we set off for St Estephe where we were to dine at Chateau Pomys. They apparently opened especially for us, which was very good, because the food was outstanding. We had a set menu of Scallops in a vermouth sauce followed by a breast of chicken on a tranche of duck foie gras with grape sauce reduction, and chips!! Dessert was a fabulous creme caramel parfait with dark chocolate mousse. All washed down with a very very good bottle of Cos Labory 1998.

We set off refreshed and pleasantly sated for out appointment at Lafite. The omens were not good, with the snotty email Nige had recieved from them dictating the timing. " A tour has been (reluctantly) arranged for you, not at 1pm, not 1:30 but 2pm (Sharp!)" It was very interesting, and while our tour guide perhaps lacked charm, at least he was full of information about Lafite and the history of the cellars. Our tour ended in a cavernous circular "temple" under the vineyards, that wouldnt have looked out of place in an Indiana Jones film. We were given a meagre sample of 1994 Lafite while we watched the cellar team racking the barrels of 2005, prior to being bottled in the immediate future. We all thought perhaps we might have been allowed to sample this, but it was not to be. After watching them rack a couple of barrels we were escorted out the cellar and into the harsh, but glorious sunlight of the vineyard and it turned out, the end of our tour. 40 minutes. Apparently that was the VIP tour, so I would hate to see what the plebs get!

So it seemed we had plenty of time to kill, so we set off touring the region, visiting Mouton (also couldnt get on a tour, but they did let us watch a film about Mouton), Palmer, Cos d'Estournel and Pichon Lalande. It seems our luck was out, as we couldnt get a visit anywhere. So after the obligatory poses for photos we set off for Bordeaux and a cool demi of French beer in a cafe on the street.

(Bless, it all got a bit much for our Nige, who took the chance for 40 winks!)

We hit the streets of Bordeaux and managed to get a bit of retail therapy in before settling in for the night at the CIVB headquarters where they have set up a tasting bar to sample a selection of wines. We all started off with a Cremant de Bordeaux, made from semillon, which was interesting. Before making our own way down the wine-list. I chose a 2005 Chateau La Freynelle bordeaux blanc, lovely and fresh with crisp acidity and a lingering fruityness. Andy decided to hit the hard stuff and went for a 2004 Pomerol, while Nige and Paul opted for a St Estephe red that the sommelier recommended. If you are ever in Bordeaux I would really recommend going there. The pours are 15oz which is enough to get a decent taste, but not too much to limit your tasting options. The prices were really good too, my La Freynelle was only e3.00.

Suitably lubricated we were ready for dinner at La Tupina. Nige had been raving all week about this place, and it sure lived up to the hype. Rustic inside with a large open range where they spit-roast chickens and the meat is all cooked on a griddle over a roaring fire. The portions were huge, I opted for the chicken and must have been given half a large bird with a platter of chips big enought to feed my family. Damien chose a fillet steak and was presented with what must have been a full 20oz barrel fillet. By the time it came to dessert we were all stuffed to the gills, but we just had to see what they were. It was like a scene from Monty Python at the end, all we needed was for a waiter to come and ask us if we wanted a "teeny weeny wafer thin mint?"

And so our second day came to and end, one short drive back to Lamothe (and Nigels persistant Curiousity about the Red Light district and "ladies of negiotable affection") and we were all ready for an early night.

Thursday, March 15, 2007

Back from Bordeaux

Today Im back to work after my trip to Bordeaux. Ive had the most fabulous three days of food, wines and spectacular weather. Our generous hosts, Anne, Damien and Maria of Chateau Lamothe de Haux really looked after us and made us feel very welcome. I must have put on about a stone over the last three days, but it was truly fabulous.

We arrived at Bordeaux airport on monday afternoon at about 4ish local time. The sun was shining as we headed off to Lamothe. A beautiful 19th century chateau with foundations dating back to the 16th century.

After being shown to our rooms, we convened on the terrace for a glass of the white wine. Crisp and fresh it was the perfect start to a wonderful couple of days in Bordeaux. Damien then took us on a guided tour of the facilities, starting in the cuverie. We were lucky enough to be treated to a tasting the 2005 vintage which they have just finished assembling. There is a huge amount of hype about the 2005's, hardly surprising as that will be the next vintage on the market, but there is a lot of gold in them there hills. The wine was fantastic, and this is Premiere Cotes we are talking about, not the premium wines of the Medoc.

Damien took us down to the cellars of the Chateau, showing us the cave symbols that indicate that the caves may well have been home to people, much older than the date of the foundations. They even have some rare fossils of sea urchins in the limestone layers that the caves are dug out of.

That night we had a fabulous dinner, and drunk many wonderful wines of Lamothe, before calling a night at the terribly late hour of half past midnight. (Nige and Paul kept poor Damien up until the very early hours of the morning talking shite about the Spanish Civil war, Welsh mercenaries and "Marsh Rabbits"!!!) We had a busy day the next day and a terribly early start.

Saturday, March 10, 2007

1970 Chateau Lascombes Double Magnum

We had a function upstairs tonight who I managed to persuade to take two of these bad boys.

The corks were a right bastard to remove, soft and pulpy in the middle, it didnt bode well for the wines. Bottle number one with rich and vibrant with a lovely brick red core and a rusty browning rim (oooer missus!! fnarr fnarr!!). Opulent dried fruit aromas, prunes and slightly figgy with that kind of aroma you get when you open a well stocked humidor. Bottle number two was a bit more restrained at first, but after decanting developed the same fruity nose with a touch more earthy aromas and a slightly mushroomy edge. I ended up blending the two bottles together for continuity. It went down a treat apparently. They followed it up with Yquem 90 in halves.

Friday, March 09, 2007

Paul Masson White Wine Carafe.

Well this is my belated entry to Wine Blog Wednesday. After much searching I finally decided to spend my hard earned cash on this monstrosity. Back when I was still too young to legally drink, and in fact probably before I even was aware of alcohol, Paul Masson introduced their wines into the UK market. They were kind of unique in that they came in these carafe like containers and many people actually used them as flower vases and the like after they had drunk the contents. This was a happy time in the UK when Mateus Rose was probably the best selling wine in the UK and Prawn Cocktail, Black Forest Gateau and Steak Diane ruled menus the country over.

Im slightly alarmed at the label which actually doesnt specify a grape variety, and several hours of digging on the internet have led to to believe that it contains Chenin Blanc. Im going to trust what I read on the net, because to be honest there really wasnt much taste at all, chilling it made it slightly more palatable, but barely. There was a faint floral smell on the nose which I could really identify. The only saving grace was it was cheap. I paid about three quid something from tescos for this, and even at that small price, it was a rip-off. By the time you take out the duty, vat and cost of the bottle, label etc, you are talking about £1 worth of wine. Take the supermarkets profit away from that and I reckon this is about £0.40 worth of wine. The old adage that you get what you pay for is most definately true here. I paid nowt, and got less.

This challenge brought out the snob in me, and I dont really like to think like this, but honestly this was truly awful wine, I suspect only the novelty of the "bottle" encourages people to buy it. Certainly if I ever needed a vase I would probably buy a bottle and throw out the contents. It would be cheaper and better for my palate. Ive been spoilt working here and getting the opportunity to taste some absolutely fantastic wines, and so I just think that you shouldnt have to drink bad wine.

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Wine Blog Wednesday 31

Its that time of the month again, and this themes quite a challenge. Ive somehow got to find a wine that isnt conventionally packaged. So something like a bag in box, can, tetrapak and any other funky packed wines that might be out there. Sounds easy, but actually its not. While I admit I could go out and find any number of B.I.B. wines, I really dont want to hae to buy a litre or more of wine, particularly a wine that I wouldnt really drink. Im afraid this challenge is bringing out the wine snob in me. Check back tomorrow to see if I can manage to find something.

Henschke Keyneton 1986 Revisited

Its well over six months since I sold the last bottle, but by god this wine seems to have got better. Really richly intense fruity nose, berries quite dominant, with that spicy richness of shiraz jostling for attention over the currantly fruit of the cabernet and the damson and violet tones of the malbec. Still a very fine suspension of sediment in the wine, but I think this adds to the flavour and character, and it would certainly be clearer without it, but I think it would taste duller too.

Peer Pressure.

We've got a table of five in tonight that are all chefs. Well four of them are, ones the boss!! Its always interesting when you have "industry insiders" in for dinner, because I guess we are more conscious of being on show. Folks in the trade are notoriously picky about where they eat, and as such they can often spot the slightest of mistakes or errors that most people would realise. Besides which, because we are on show, we want to prove that we can be the best, so it raises our game a bit. All of which sounds like double standards, but it isnt quite like that. I know what I can be like on those all too rare occasions when I go out somewhere nice for dinner. Despite being off duty, my eye is constantly sweeping the room, watching the staff, checking out the tables, the decor, is everything in its place, checking the menus for mistakes, spelling mistakes, balancing the wine list, comparing the prices, all the while "enjoying" myself.

Chef has prepared them a special menu, and at Neils request, Ive paired wines off with each course for them. It gives me a chance to show off a little bit, and I know that Neil is quite knowledgeable about wines, so I want to give him something good, but that will complement the whole experience.

Five days and counting!

Im getting excited. In five days time Im off to Bordeaux for a jolly (erm work trip, honest!!) with Nigel from Rodney Densems. We're only going for a couple of days, but he's managed to pack a lot into a short space of time. We spending our time with Chateau Lamothe de Haux, but Nige has managed to arrange a visit to Yquem, Lafite-Rothschild, one of the main cooperages in Bordeaux, Seguin Moreau (?) and a visit to Ausone. Ive never been to Bordeaux before, so Im really looking forward to it, and especially the trip to Ausone and Lafite. Dessert wine isnt really my cup of tea, but it will still be really interesting to visit Yquem. Im charging up my batteries and stocking up on memory cards to take loads of photos.

Saturday, March 03, 2007

David Duband Vosne Romanee 1999

Ive blogged about Davids wines before, but I hadnt had the Vosne Romanee at that stage. Well tonight I sold a bottle, and it didnt disappoint me or the customer. Slight bit of bottle stink upon opening, which soon disapated to leave quite an earthy nose, with dark stone fruit aromas wrapped around an almost ethereal violet like floral tone. This grew and grew in the glass as it opened up, and the raspberry aromas became slightly more pronounced and separate from the others. For what is essentially a village level wine, this knocks the spots off many premier cru bottlings, and considering it is a mere youngster, I reckon this wine will get better with a few more years of cellaring. Its kind of tempting to take it off the list for a while to let it improve a bit, but hell its so good now, I dont want to deny anyone.

Shiny Baubles

Theres an old adage, never to judge a book by its cover. After many years in this industry Ive just about managed to get myself out of that habit. Although, like any normal human being, I often relapse and make a snap judgement about somebody or a table based on a fraction of a minutes worth of contact. I'd like to say that Im getting more accurate, but I'd be lying, Im probably right as often as Im wrong. Anyway, this particular adage sprung to mind a few weeks ago when I recieved some samples of a Cognac from a house called Godet. We had young Cyril Godet attend a gourmet dinner last year in his role as Brand Ambassodor from John E Fells for Mouton Rothschild. It turns out that he descents from Cognacias distillers who happen to make quite a wide range of cognacs. Anyway to cut a long story somewhat shorter, we needed to get a few bottles in house for the immenent arrival of one of the senior Grosvenor directors. So after swapping numerous emails with folks, we managed to track down a guy called Roshan who is the UK importer. He managed to hook me up with some samples and we were ready to rock and roll.

I was quite surprised to see what turned up on my desk just a few days later. Altogether I think they send me five bottles of cognac, and it was this that prompted me to thing carefully about judging by appearance. Im often wary when I see bottles of any kind of beverage, but especially spirits in really fancy and ornate bottles. I remember having a really rather rotten experience with Grappa that a friend had brought back from a holiday in Italy. The bottles were really intricate with sculpted fruit within the bottle and really delicate necks. What was inside however was pure firewater!! I have never in my entire life, before or since had a hangover as intense or long lasting as the one I had after we had consumed about three of these bottles between us one night. ( I ought perhaps to add that the bottles were 50cl bottles, so that equates to a bottle each.) And Ive had my share of rough nights on Southern Comfort, Pernod (thats a blast cause you can get pissed again the next morning drinking a glass of water!!), Jack Daniels and until the grappa, my worst was after a night of Guinness, which brings its own terrors to the hangover!!

The XO came in a teardrop like bottle, and actually had quite a smoothness about it, with rich raisined fruit flavours. The VSOP Selection Speciale was in a tall, slender bottle and again showed really well. I suspect that this gets a good dose of caramel for the colour, but it didnt show that in its sweetness. The Excellence is also in a tall slender bottle with a small badge at the neck to distinguish it, and silver labelling. A bit richer, more pronounced on the nose with an almost cherryish note, before a floral character became more dominant. Apparently this is an XO with the average age of the eaux-de-vies being 25 years.

The one that really picqued my interest was a pure folle blanche cognac. More delicate and refined on the nose, with white flowers, a kind of golden sultana aroma and a very lightly spiced apple note. The bottle isnt anything special to look at, and in all honesty it would probably be overlooked on a store shelf. But it goes to show that you cant judge a book by its cover, because if you do, you would have missed out on this stunning blockbuster.

On the subject of Cognacs, Ive been invited to a special tasting of Cognacs on the 19th April down at the Lanesborough hotel. David Baker from Brandy Classics is hosting a special tasting in association with the Lanesborough and he is planning on showing off some of his pre-phylloxera cognacs on the day, including an 1810, and possibly some even older than that! Im getting my holiday form in for that one, it will take a pack of wild horses to keep me away!!!

Paulee at the Devonshire

At the beginning of the week Jeremy Rata held his annual Paulee over at the Devonshire Arms. Basically about 30 people from the trade are invited to a spectacular blowout to which they bring a couple of bottles of cherished wine from their collection/cellar/store. Its usually a slightly worrying time for me, because my MD and Rata and David Nicholson from Holbeck Ghyll have this kind of schoolboyish rivally thing going on where they try to outdo each other with what they bring. This has led to trying to find something so obscure and left-wing that no-one will be able to guess what it is when its served blind. Weve had a really obscure white burgundy that is made from Pinot Blanc, Champagnes made from Arbanne, Petit Meslier and Pinot Gris as well as the three "traditional" varieties, and several other oddities. I have to confess that looking at the list of wines that were shown afterwards I get a twinge of jealousy at the blockbuster wines that are consumed. Im eagerly looking forward to reading this years list and seeing what was on offer.

This year I decided to try and focus on something extra-ordinary, a top-end Burgundy from one of the undisputed masters of the region. So I sent the boss along with two bottles of Armand Rousseau's Charmes-Chambertin 1996 Grand Cru. 1996 was the vintage that they introduced the stainless steel vats into the domaine, and I think that this shows in the smooth silky elegance of the wine. Quite floral, with notes of Violets and a background earthyness that I smelt last weekend, as I potted my seeds in the garden, with the rich earthy loam I was using as potting compost. At first the fruit character is quite restrained, but as it opens out it starts off with almost under-ripe black cherries, with alpine strawberries and a touch of redcurrants. The aromas grow into a kind of black-forest gateaux richness of cherry, red sauce and a touch of chocolate about it too. This wine charms the pants off you, quite literally, and it is that smoothness, elegance and yes, I suppose charm, that helps me to identify it. I understand from the boss, that until he left at around fourish (pm not am!!) it was undisputed star of the event. Im glad, but Im saddened at the possibility that this might be the last one he attends. Apparently there is only so much fine wine and food one can manage, and the event has grown into such a spectacle of one-upmanship that it has become difficult to appreciate all that is on offer.

Oh well I shall have to see what was on offer this year when the list becomes available, and who knows what the future may hold.