Thursday, May 31, 2007

Regions to be cheerful.

We have quite a classically organised list here. After all the Arkle is supposed to be a classical french style menu, with a modern english twist. But with over 600 bins it makes more sense to have then organised by origin. I like it like that because at the moment a lot of people seem to make their choices by country of origin more than anything else. South America and South Africa are quite popular at the moment, and if I get my way they will expand considerably on our list.

Now for all out quality I dont think that you can beat the old world. Especially France and Spain, but also Italy and Germany. Nowhere in the world is there such complexity of flavour and such defined structure in the wines. But with few exceptions they are terrible value for money. Bordeaux prices are verging on the ridiculous, and Burgundy is going the same way. Spain is starting to get more expensive too, but at the moment there is a lot of value for money to be found in the lesser known regions - Ribera del Duero, Priorato, Toro, and many others if you can find them. In the new world you have the two heavyweights of USA (California) and Australia. California represents shockingly bad value for money. With the exchange rate working in our favour at last, the wines ought to be cheaper, but incredibly they are still rising in price. Now this is mostly due to market economics - there is such a strong domestic market for the wines at home, they have no reason or need to export, and consequently they can charge whatever they want. For me Californias big problem in the UK market is the two extremes of wine. At the bottom of the market you have the floods of Gallo, Sutter Home, Blossom Hill and other mass produced "bottom-feeders". At the other end of the market you have blockbusters - cult names like Harlan Estate, Opus One, Screaming Eagle, Peter Micheal, all three figure wines. But like a donut theres nothing in the middle. It might surprise you to know there is much more to the American wine market. Oregon, Washington State, New York, in fact just about every single state (Alaska is, I think, the only state that doesnt produce wine) makes wine. But again, due to small volume production and strong domestic consumption, these wines dont make it over the pond. Canada has a booming wine industry, mostly around two provinces - British Columbia and Ontario. The problem with sourcing them is more to do with State monopoly of supply I think than anything else, but again low volume, high domestic demand will prevent them being exported in any great quantity.

Down under you have Australia and New Zealand. I love their wines, the diversity, the quality, the funky names, the intensity of flavours, whats not to love. But Im getting a little bit bored. Australia has the same situation as California regarding the two polar extremes of wines available, but their position is slightly better than Californias. I must say its getting harder to find the new boutique wines from Aus. The wines that I started out with, used to be boutique, they used to be quite limited and exclusive, but over time their fame has spread, their volumes have increased and now they are a bit more widespread than they used to be. New Zealand conversely is suffering from the reverse. Due to two consecutive low harvests quantities of many wines are seriously depleted and many of the better wines are becoming more limited. This is great, if you are lucky enough to secure an allocation. Although the other side effect of this is making the prices jump up, and lets face it New Zealand was never cheap in the first place.

So where does that leave? Well I reckon it leaves the best till last. South Africa and South America. Starting with South Africa, theres been a huge amount of change over the last five years. For me, looking through merchants wine lists, its great to finally see many of them listing more South African wines. And better wines - not that mass produced co-operative wine that the supermarkets are all knocking out. There is still a long way to go, but as many of the farmer realise that they have more to gain by turning their own fruit into wine than selling it to the co-ops, then we will start to see many more wines appearing. Of course that isnt to say that they will all be blockbusters, but from little acorns mighty oaks grow, and given the right materials, development, marketing and listings, the opportunities are there. There is a huge amount of investment into developing wine regions - and not just financial investment. Old world winemakers are turning their sights to the potential of countries like South Africa, Chile, Argentina, where the resources are available, but they lack the knowledge, skills or equipment to do the job properly. Pichon-Lalande have recently released their new South African venture Glenelly Hills to good reviews from Jancis et all. And the convenient timing of the southern hemisphere harvest allows the winemakers to complete two vintages per year - Nico van Der Merwe from Saxenburg has been doing this for a number of years at Capion in the south of France and Saxenburg, not to mention his own range of wines - Mas Nicholas and Robert Alexander.

For Value for Money, undoubtably the best place to look just now is Chile and Argentina. Two countries with a long viticultural history, it is really the last twenty years that have seen their wine industry explode onto our shelves. (Helped in no small measure, Im sure, by exploiting the weak currency of the region). As they have become better at correctly identifying the grape varieties we are starting to see two grape varieties gaining dominance in the region - Malbec and Carmenere. Malbec has almost been written off in France, relegated to a bulking out grape in Bordeaux and producing the inky black Cahors, otherwise a neglected variety. In Argentina it has found its new glory. Densely packed fruit flavours with a rich floral violet character and an almost feral gameyness about it. You can almost imagine the Gauchos swigging it from the bottle as they grill a huge chunk of blood red meat over an open fire. Carmenere is another neglected Bordeaux variety (odd isnt it that the two now dominant varieties originated in Bordeaux, yet grapes were introduced into South America by the Spanish!!), now flourishing in Chile where it produces a minty cassis flavoured red, tannic but quite elegant. I think we are only just beginning to see what they have to offer us in terms of style and quality, and as long as they continue to offer great value for money, these countries will remain high on our shopping lists.

Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Berton Gourmet.

Last night we had the Berton gourmet evening, and Paul Bartholomeus came over from Australia to host it. (Well there was also this little trade thingy he had to attend - LIWSF). Id been looking forward to this one for a while, as the wines are all top banana, but better than that they are all in the affordable bracket. Their top cuvee, the Bonsai Shiraz will be sitting on our list at around £60.

We kick started the evening with the Head over heels Sparkling Chardonnay. Fermented in steel tanks with oak staves to impart some oak character its made by the Charmat method. Think of it as a gigantic soda stream kind of thing and you arent too far off the mark. Stupidly I never actually tried this one, so not too sure what its like, but everyone seemed to enjoy it. For the starter we poured the Head over Heels Forgotten Riesling. This wine got its name because it was literally forgotten about when they were harvesting the vineyards and after a couple of extra weeks on the vines it had ripened up nicely, giving them a fairly high potential alcohol. The wine has a lovely character of citrus fruits, lime and ruby grapefruit with a green melon like finish to it. There is some residual sugar giving it an off-dry flavour. This was a really nice complement to the pork, cabbage verjus and foie gras.

The intermediate was a rose made from Sangiovese and Barbera (sounds like some funky 60's cartoonist). A lovely nectarine skin colour this had a beautiful nose of rosehips and cranberry. I kind of forgot to taste this one as well (wasnt on top form on Tuesday!). But I got loads of positive comments about this one.

Main course was paired with the Bonsai Shiraz. The name came around when a visitor to the vineyard jokingly asked them if they were growing Bonsai vines as the vines were quite stunted and low to the ground, producing really small intensely concentrated berries. I liked this wine, Ive liked it each time I taste it. When I was double decanting it earlier in the day it gave off a really powerful aroma of cassis, blackberry and that slightly menthol note that usually comes off Barossa wines. The Boss didnt really like this wine, but then Shiraz has never really been his thing, hes more of a Bordeaux variety kind of drinker.

Cheese was matched with the 2005 Reserve Cabernet from Coonawarra. The Terra Rossa soils of Coonawarra seem to be perfectly suited for Cabs, and this is no exception. Cassis, licorice, cinnamon spices and the ubiquitous eucalyptus notes all blend very well together.

We finished with the Raisined Semillon, another late harvest wine. Rich, sickly sweet, this went beautifully well with a date sponge, sticky toffee and iced walnut.

All in all a really good night, Paul was very entertaining, and everyone left nice and happy.

Found in Translation.

After a little episode last night, I got to thinking about the world of misscommunication that we work with and how much simpler everyones lives would be if we cut through some of the bullshit and got to the point. It all started with a guest at the top table last night at the Gourmet Dinner. She sent back the first wine with the meal which was a late harvest riesling - nice citrus fruit with a touch of residual sugar." Too sweet". So trying to stick within the theme of the evening I went and got her a glass of the Berton Reserve Chardonnay from La Brasserie. "Dont like Chardonnay!". "I want a Pinot Grig-e-o" Small alarm bells start ringing in my mind. As we dont do a Pinot Grigio by the glass I instead pour her a glass of bordeaux blanc - about as crisp and dry as you can find. "Not dry enough!" By now sensing defeat and reading between the lines I crack open a bottle of Pinot Grigio and pour her a glass - she's happy at last. Now if she had just said when she came in that she doesnt like wine and likes to drink barely alcoholic water then I would have known what I was dealing with in the first place and wouldnt have wasted my time or energy trying to get her to open her palate up to real wine.

Its often the same with people who insist on their wine being served at barely above freezing point. What they are actually communicating is that they dont like the taste of wine, so they want it chilled down so much that all you can taste is a vaguely watery liquid. Hey why dont you try Pinot Grigio - it tastes of nothing without chilling it down to 1 degree C!

Friday, May 25, 2007

Vallet Freres Charmes-Chambertin 1979

This became the follow on bottle to the 59 Latricieres. This is the wine that I managed to identify when tasted blind at Louis Vallet's flat in Gevrey when I went over for the Vendage last year. So there is a special place in my heart for this wine, and tonight it shone!

Very pale colour to it, with a slightly watery rim, browning right through to the core of the wine, giving it a light rustyness. On the nose the scent is divine, soft fragrant fruits with a light touch of licorice and silky smooth aroma of strawberry fruits and something a little bit feral at the edge of the wine. On the palate the wine quite literally charms you with its simple elegance - the soft red fruit flavours having a hint of light exotic spice and perhaps a hint of anise. Over the space of an hour the wine seemed to grow in the glass, with the anise taking less of a presence and the fruit taking on an extra level of ripeness.

Mr B loved it, which was the effect that I was aiming for!

Vallet Freres Latricieres Chambertin 1959

I had high hopes for this wine. Instead they were slightly dashed. This was an interesting wine, not good, but at the same time not bad just meh. It was a kind of reverse donut - there wasnt much up front, then the fruit came forward a bit and there was just nothing at the finish. Well actually thats not quite true. At the end there was an unpleasant sensation not too dissimilar to that striking bitterness that comes from tasting earwax. It stayed on the palate for far too long as well (the earwaxyness that is), almost tainting the next wine that I tasted. Shame really, but such is wine.

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Working on 2008.

In this industry we are always looking to the future. Depending on where your role lies in the grand heirarchy, will depend on exactly how far ahead you are looking. At the bottom of the scale - the commis are looking ahead to the next service - dinner (at the moment). Do they have enough plates polished, is the cutlery ready, have they got enough napkins etc. The Chef de Rangs and Head Waiters start looking to the next service - whats the table layout for tomorrow, do we need to order any extra butter, extra linen, condiments etc. The supervisors are looking to next week - have we got any functions coming up, do i need some extra cover for that shift, can we squeeze a training session in next wednesday. The managers start looking to the following month - are we going to make budget, have we got enough staff rostered on, do we need to purchase any more crockery, glassware, cutlery etc. The F&B manager is looking to the next quarter - will we make budget, what functions are coming in, training plans, payroll costs, replacing staff. The General Manager starts looking at next year - preparing budgets - what needs refurbishing - how much Capex is that going to cost. And at the top of the scale - the Managing Director is looking as far afield as ten years from now - large scale refurbishments - business development plans etc. Its quite scary sometimes when you break it all down. I bring this up, because having pretty much sorted out the New Years eve wines, my next job is to put together next years Gourmet Calendar. Im looking at 2008, and its only just the third week of May.

Now we already have the first gourmet planned. I hate to say it, but that was actually sorted out in February. Now Ive just got the rest of the year to sort out. And thats partly why Im procrastinating - Ive run out of ideas. Well not strictly true - Ive run out of practical ideas. So far Ive got five gourmets - three of them are viable, the other two are iffy. By iffy I mean that Im not sure there will be sufficient interest in the events to make them a doable option. One of them is the wines of Languedoc-Roussillon, and the other is wines of the Pacific Northwest. Now the later is a particular favourite of mine, but the hardest part of it is actually securing the wines. In my mind I would like to show some Washington wines - and thats ok because I can get hold of some Andrew Will wines from Morris and Verdun. I also want to show Oregon, and again I can get some Drouhin Oregon Pinot also from M&V, or some Jepson from Simon at Whirly wines (Ive been promising to get some off of him for a while now!). Where things start to fall apart is British Columbia. Theres a wine Id give my left bollock to get my hands on. Its from a winery called Blasted Church based in the Okanangan Valley. Their labels are just brilliant - quirky cartoonish, and while the reviews arent glowing, its had a lot of very positive press in right places. Check them out for yourselves - . The other stumbling block is the whites. I can find plenty of washington whites if I dont mind them being on the supermarket shelves as well. Well I do mind, not out of snobbery, thought. So Ive got a feeling this one might well be consigned to the maybe pile.

And thats where I run out of ideas. So if anyones got any inspiration, Id love to hear it.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

The Emperor of Scent

Ive started reading a new book last night and already Im drawn into it. Its the story of Luca Turin and how he came to be involved in solving the mystery of how we smell. Im nearly halfway through and Im hooked.

It is quite fascinating how he came to be involved in solving the mystery of how we smell, and how various apparently unrelated scientific studies and theories in fact came to be inter-related. It also gives an amazing behind the scenes insight to the secretive world of scent manufacture and perfumerie.

But best of all, after Jamie Goode highlighted it on his blog, I managed to get it for the princely sum of £1 from Amazon. I also managed to pick up a few wine related books for an equally small pittance.

Somebody thinks Im inspirational.

I came into work today to find a free copy of the new look Harpers wine and spirits on my desk. We used to subscribe to it a while ago, but I tended to find its value to me was quite limited really. So we never bothered to renew the subscription. Anyway, while flicking through it I can to an article about the ten most inspirational people in the drinks industry. It was broken down into several categories and one of them was sommeliers. Joelle Marti-Baron was selected as the sommelier and quite appropriately too. I met her once when she came here to host a gourmet evening for LVHM in her capacity as a brand ambassador for Moet. She was charming, immensely knowledgable and positively enthusiastic for the subject, and most importantly of all, she put everyone at ease with her knowledge in her willingness to share it without being patronising. I noted that Matt Skinner had been selected as the personality of the industry for the way he has appealed to a younger generation of wine drinkers and has helped to banish some of the stuffiness that unfortunately many sommeliers persist in maintaining. Then I was utterly gobsmacked to see my name come up as a nominee for the sommelier category. Alongside such industry legends as Gerrard Basset, Gearoid Devaney, and Hamish Anderson. Me, little old me. I dont know who has nominated me, but if they are reading this, then I give you my most sincere thanks. To even be considered amongst my peers as such is a great honour. It has certainly put a spring in my step and given me an immense morale boost. I will be sure to continue in my role in a way that I certainly hope inspires people to further explore the many joys of wine.

Friday, May 18, 2007

MR de compostella 2004

Yesterday I had Garech Byrne from Orbital wines come in with a selection of funky South African wines for me to try. Garech introduced me to Stormhoek last year and Raats family wines as well as the wines of Jack & Knox. This time he had some updated vintages for me to try and a couple of new wines. One of them was just outstanding, and Im hoping to get my hands on some before they all go.

MR de compostella is a bordeaux blend with a slight difference. 33% Cab Franc, 18% Petit Verdot, 17% Malbec, 16% Cab Sauv and 16% Merlot. Oddly enough when I tried the wine is did kind of remind me of a wine from California. Micheal Havens makes a wine called Bouriquot which is his homage to Cheval Blanc ( Bouriquot means little donkey) which is of course Cab Franc dominated.

The wine is a collaborative venture between two friends and winemakers. Bruwer Raats of Raats Family wines and Mzokhona Mvemve of Sagila. Aparently Mzokhona completed part of his Oenology degree from the Stellenbosch University with Bruwer and they became firm friends. They made only six barrels of wine - some 1700 bottles. The wine is currently only available through the Raats cellar door, where their entire allocation sold out in a mere seven weeks. The 2005 vintage is a similar blend and has the same low production run. That is expected to sell out even quicker, and the very limited allocation that came to the UK is to be offered to those who supported the maiden vintage. I plan to be part of that offering.

So what is it like. It has a very vibrant nose - cassis, victoria plums and brambles with layers of dark chocolate and hints of tar add a feral spiceyness to the very savoury aromas of the wine. On the palate it is very elegant, smoother than I was expecting with rich layers of dark soft fruits. There is a slightly herbaceous character on the palate which I thought was a bit thyme like and a mellow underspice - just a hint of cinnamon and perhaps a taste of star anise. The length is very supple, the tannins teasing the gums - bearing in mind this was tasted straight from opening, without decanting it - it was very graceful. I think that I would decant this wine to allow the fruit and integrated aromas the best opportunity to develop. Garech left the bottle with me, and having gone back to it tonight, it is so much richer, warmer in flavour and the fruit just bursts with ripeness while the tarry edge seems to have mellowed out considerably. Having said that there is more of a hint of chinese plum sauce and ribs about the wine tonight which adds to the appeal and isnt half making me feel hungry!!

I need to persuade Ross to allow me to get three bottles so that I can get on the ladder for next year. This is definately the beginning of the South African wine revolution, and if this wine is anything to go by the future for South African wines is going to be very rosy indeed. Go on, treat yourself!

Im tasting again!!

Well Ive been back at the tasting this week. After what seems like ages when Ive had some form of Anosmia due to a sinus infection that didnt clear up very well (not helped by my not going to the quack!). Im still not 100%, but its as close as dammit for now.

So the week started off with David Baker of Brandy Classics dropping by with a few old cognacs for me to taste. We started off with a 32-35 year old Grand Fine Champagne from Jubart & Guerry a negociant. It was quite rich and spicy but thats about all I can read from the notes.

Then we moved on to the really good stuff. A 1935 Hermitage Grand Champagne. The Hermitage label is Davids own label. He buys the cognacs from various merchants and negociants and has them bottled himself. This comes from one of the larger negoces in the region, Merinville, whom David has been working with for a while. This one had a very fine nutty - praline and walnut - aroma with candied citrus peel and a hint of chocolate, coffee. Very smooth on the finish.

Hermitage 1900 Grand Champagne. Very complex on the nose, roasted walnuts, caramelised praline, a touch of coffee, well matured medlars. On the palate I found more sultana fruit with a slightly minty freshness about the finish. The length seemed to last forever, mingling spices with a kind of xmas fruity cake like flavour. Im not really a cognac drinker but I liked this one. Unfortunately the price I didnt like, and it is unlikely that this one will make its way onto our list. (It would end up at £200 for 50ml).

1893 Tres Vieille Grand Champagne. David tells me this was bottles around the middle of the last century by one of the big established London wine merchants. He wouldnt say who it was because they had incorrectly labeled it as a Grand Champagne when it was clearly a Fin Bois. It has a much lighter, candied almondish nose about it, which David assures me is typical of Fin Bois. The guy really knows his cognacs and Im going to take his word for it. Hes only got three bottles of this one, and again the price was a bit too rich for our liking.

And that was pretty much it from David. Most of those cognacs had been shown a few weeks earlier at a big tasting hosted by the Lanesborough hotel in London. I had been planning on attending, but in the end, events here overtook me and I was unable to attend. But it was very good of David to allow me the chance to see some of what I had missed, and all being well, Im hoping to list the 1935, so it wasnt a complete waste for him either.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Pacos leaving do

On Sunday night we all had an emotional send off for Paco at the Foxcote Inn, Little Barrow. Leigh and Cathy had invited the Arkle team to say goodbye to Paco and to wish him all the best for the future. As Leigh had very generously hosted the event, I thought it would be an ideal opportunity to share a few special bottles from my "stash" that had been given to me at key points in my career.

We all gathered at the Foxcotes for champagnes and canapes, and it was great that we all dressed up for the occasion!

(Greg and Walter wearing their Duschamps ties from Mr & Mrs B, Edwin in his Bruce Lee jacket!)

Eventually Andre and Hester arrived, via Cardon Park, and we sat down to a fabulous meal. An amuse of miniature fish and chips with mushy peas, a foie gras parfait with brioche, filo parcels of langoustines and king prawns with seafood bisque, best end of lamb with dauphinois potatoes and seasonal veg, a white chocolate parfait with pear poached in red wine and spices before finishing off with some extra mature Vacherin de Mont d'Or. The food was absolutely fantastic and Kelvin and his brigade did Leigh and Cathy proud.

For the starter the guests were offered a choice of a 1988 Sauternes or a 2005 Late Harvest Chenin from Plantaganet. The Sauternes (forgot the producer!) was a rich golden orange in colour with a ripe botrytis nose and aromas of dundee marmalade and candied fruits. The chenin was much fresher (hardly surprising eh?), tropical fruit aromas with a touch of pineapple and galia melon.

With the intermediate we were served a magnum of Jean-Noel Gagnard Chassagne Montrachet, Morgeots 1995 which was given to me when I worked in Glasgow. It had a really well developed colour and was starting to show signs of oxidation, but on the palate it was still very lively, less minerality, more secondary flavours. Very filling on the flavour but it was hard to pick out defining flavours. Paco loved this wine, and I have to say it was one of the stars of the night for me too.

For the main course Leigh chucked in a few magnums of Vieux Telegraphe chateauneuf du pape 2000 which were really lovely, but only just starting to open out. They are definately worth keeping a bit longer. Then Bob put out the selection of fine wines that I had sent along.

1990 Pesquera Crinza - I think I got this bottle from a broking list when I worked at Gleneagles. Well developed aromas of mature Tempranillo, lacking the big oaky backbone of a reserva or gran reserva, but still amazingly drinkable.

1990 Mouton Rothschild - a present from a grateful customer at Gleneagles after serving their birthday party. Ive waxed lyrical about this wine often enough on here. This was a touch earthier than others Ive had, but then I guess it all comes down to the cellaring.

1996 Henschke Hill of Grace - a xmas present from Mr & Mrs B last year. Danny was loving this wine. Everything you would expect from Hill of Grace - big dense black jammy fruit with a generous dose of menthol and rich oaky finish. You could smell this from two foot away it was that powerful.

1985 Dujac Chambolle Musigny "les Gruenchers". Gifted by a particularly challenging customer at Amaryllis whom I eventually won over. I didnt hold out much hope for this wine, but I was spectacularly proved wrong on this. Me and Greg had much love for this bottle. Very light, both in colour and on the palate, there was nevertheless quite a dominant nose of strawberry fruit on this one, with a slightly feral edge to it that I love in old Burgs.

1994 Bruno Clair Chambertin Clos de Beze - Think I got this one when I worked at Amaryllis. Bit of a disappointment really, lacking a bit of flavour and character. Not sure if it is maybe in a slightly closed phase, or truthfully it may well have been seriously outshone by the other wines on show.

It was interesting that we all had our own favourites and there was quite a bit of discussion over the wines. It was really good to share them with friends who I know appreciated them.

We all had a great night, more than a few tears at the end of the night. Many thanks to Leigh and Cathy for such a fantastic night, to Bob and Kate for wonderful service. We are all going to miss Paco terribly much, hes an incredable act to follow, and Im sure he is going to do marvelously well in his new role in sunny (E)Spain. At least we've all got somewhere to go on holiday now!!

Champagne by Numbers

May races is over, and it wasnt without its challenges!!

Sales by Champagne -

Moet Brut Imperial NV - 14 bottles
Veuve Clicquot Yellow Label NV - 33 bottles
R de Ruinart NV - 99 bottles
Taittinger Brut NV - 21 bottles
Dom Perignon 1998 - 12 bottles
Bollinger Special Cuvee - 7 bottles
Laurent Perrier Rose - 77 bottles
Veuve Clicquot Rose NV - 7 bottles
Taittinger Prestige Rose NV - 48 bottles
R de Ruinart Magnum - 5 bottles

Grand total of 323 bottles representing £24,080 worth of sales for 3 days!!!

Not too shabby huh?

Saturday, May 12, 2007

A Question of Corkage

Such a thorny issue amongst both restaurantuers and of course amongst customers (in a slight irony it always seems to be the fairly wealthy that it causes the most problems with, wonder why?). I bring it up, because tonight I have a table of two who had originally asked to bring in their own wines, but then didnt like our corkage policy. So what is our policy?

In a nutshell, we dont allow customers to bring in their own wines. We are in the business of providing rooms, food and beverage, so why on earth would we allow folks to take two of the three and allow them to bring in their own booze. But like most things, we are slightly flexable in this rule. If there is a special bottle of wine that has some sentimental attachment, and importantly we dont list it, then I am prepared to negotiate a corkage fee. Generally we look at something like £50 per bottle, but that figure can be trimmed depending on what else you purchase from our list. In the past I have allowed customers to bring in some quite extra-ordinary wines, including a 1970 Pol Roger, some 1984 Claret that I had expected to be knackered (universally declared a terrible year, the wine was actually ok. I ended up halfing the corkage as a pleasant surprise.). I know of many restaurants that absolutely forbid BYO, and others are much more tolerant of the practice. Those restaurants tend to have less expansive lists and so feel it is understandable why someone would want to bring their wines.

We have quite an extensive cellar, currently numbering some 1,400+ bins, of which just over half are listed. By the end of this year I aim to have 75% of the cellar on the list in some form or another. We dont amass such a wide selection of wines for fun. Im not a trophy collector, building a list up with the best vineyards and vintages just to sit and look at them. We collect the wines in order to sell them, and so for someone to ask me if they can bring in their own Chassagne Montrachet when I currently have twelve Chassagnes on the list, I am going to say no. The people that usually ask to bring their own wines in, often justify their actions by saying that they collect wines themselves and so they are aware of the value of certain wines, and what they are really saying is that they dont want to pay our marked up prices. I can understand that, but what I dont understand is why they are happy to pay £55 for a three course meal that they could cook themselves at home from ingredients costing around £15. Its a kind of double standard.

So if you are thinking of coming for a meal, and you really want to bring a special bottle from your cellar what should you do? Firstly you should call me and speak to me about it. Thats just courtesy. I will be able to give you an idea how much corkage we would charge, and we can organise safe delivery of the wine in plenty of time to allow it to settle down after its journey. Be prepared to buy something off the list as well. If you have a special bottle of red that you want to enjoy with your main course, then you ought to choose the white from the wine-list. If we are getting a sale from the transaction then I am likely to be more flexable with the corkage charge. Whatever you do, dont bring some rubbish you purchased at the supermarket or down at Bargain Booze. Because then you are going to pay a full £50 corkage on some crappy wine you bought for £2.99. It makes you look cheap.

How do we solve a problem like Paco?

It's Pacos last day today. I feel quite sad watching him saying goodbye to all the regular guests and people he has come to know over the last few years. There is a strange mood in the library today as we all know that things are coming to an end, and that after next week everything will be different. Im going to miss him and Greg and Anna and Walter. The place wont be the same without them, but the times they are a changing.

We are going out tomorrow night for Pacos leaving party to Leigh and Cathys place - the Foxcote Inn. Should be a good night out, Ive dug out a couple of special bottles of wine from my personal stash - a bottle of Mouton I got as a leaving present when I left Gleneagles, the bottle of Hill of Grace that Mr and Mrs B gave me for Christmas, and a bottle of 1990 Pesquera Reserva that a grateful customer got me when I worked at Amaryllis. Leighs knocked together a smashing menu and hes got a few magnums of Vieux Telegraphe that he plans to consume. Should be a good night.

So, how do we solve a problem like Paco? Well it seems that, wisely, they are planning on taking their time and making sure that we get the right canididate. Andre doesnt anticipate having a replacement before the end of September. I think thats a bit hopeful, but we shall see. Whomever they get will have the chance to stamp their own personality on the role and make that restaurant their own. Its going to be a new evolution. In the meantime, Andre takes over the running of the Arkle and the remainder of us just carry on as normal.

The Chinese have an ancient curse that says "May you live in interesting times". I think its going to get very interesting here soon, and it is going to be the making of some people, and the breaking of others.

Friday, May 11, 2007

Wine Blog Wednesday 33

Quite a challenge set for this months WBW - find and taste a mid-priced wine from the Languedoc-Roussillon region. For many years Ive heard this region being touted as the next big region, in much the same way that people say that Viognier is the new Chardonnay or that German Riesling is coming back into fashion. Now Im not be-littling the region. There are some truly great whites and reds from there that I love. But they are a right bastard to sell. Now many in the know say that L-R is the potential saviour of the French wine industry, because the AOC regs are a lot looser there, and varietal labeling is permitted. These days of supermarket wine knowledge - variety is king. But you see the big problem that I have is that few of the wines that I know and love are mono-cepage, most of them are blends of anything and everything that the winemaker could plant or get his mitts on. Most of the predominant varieties are of course Rhone varieties. Carignane, Cinsault, Grenache (noir and blanc), Syrah, Mourvedre, Marsanne, Rousanne, Picpoul, Bourboulenc, Lladoner Pelut etc etc. Increasingly the more commercially viable grapes are starting to increase in plantings - Cabernet, Merlot and of course Chardonnay.

For many years the wines of this region have been the workhorse wines of France. I remember at college buying £3 bottles of Corbieres, Fitou, Minervois etc at the corner shop. These rustic red wines were amongst my first reds as I made the cautious transition from white wine to red. For all their cheapness, they were always very drinkable wines full of warming summery flavours, giving me the mental image of drinking in the garrigue amongst the scrublands of the region, sun beating down on me as I gaze over the med.

Later when I went to work for Malmaison I was introduced to more expensive wines of the region. Domaine d'Aupilhac, Domaine de l'Arjolle, Domaine Piccinini, Chateau St Martin de la Garrigue all good mid-range wines, exotic, food orientated wines that worked really well with the provincial style menu we had at the time. Finally working at Amaryllis I got to know the big boys of the region - Prieure St Jean de Bebian, Mas de Daumas Gassac, Domaine de la Grange des Peres, Domaine de la Rectorie, Puech-Haut. But they never sold, and here now, I have very little from the region on my list. In fact at the moment I have one lowly wine, a Picpoul de Pinet from Chateau St Martin de la Garrigue that I just love for its fresh, lipsmacking style (in fact isnt that what Picpoul means - lipstinger?)

So for this challenge I have to raid my cellar again. (it hasnt half taken a hammering recently!) I know that somewhere lurking at the back of my stash is a Collioure from Domaine de la Rectorie that I bought before leaving the Mal, many years ago. Ive no idea what kind of nick it is in, truthfully I dont know if it will age well, I think its a 98 vintage, but it could be older. Im sure Ive got a bottle of Bronzinelle from Chateau St Martin that only just falls into the price bracket, but its right at the back under a couple of boxes of Claret and I cant be arsed to dig it all out. I know also that Ive got a Montpeyroux from d'Aupilhac lurking in there as well, also a 98, but in the end Im going to settle for a Domaine de l'Arjolle Paradoxe, bugger me if this isnt also a 98.

Based in the Cotes de Thongue in a village called Pouzolles, Louis-Marie Tesserenc can quite rightly be called a trailblazer. Amongst the first in the region to adopt new methods, new varieties, constantly pushing the boundaries forward for the betterment of his wines and those of the region. Domaine de l'Arjolle now produces some twelve or so different wines, the majority of which are vineyard blends of traditional Languedoc varieties and more commercially viable varieties like Cabernet, Merlot and Sauvignon. Paradoxe is a blend of four - 40% Syrah, 25% each of Cabernet and Merlot and a generous 10% of Grenache finishes the blend off. It spends a whole year (sometimes a touch more) in new French oak sourced from two tonnellerie in the region. The wine has a rich smoky character, with dense black fruit flavours with a touch of stewed fruit character about them. There is a white pepper tinglyness on the nose as well which offsets the oak character quite nicely. On the palate the wine is still very firm, a rich medley of fruit, spices and slightly leaner tannins than I had anticipated. The length though is amazing, the spices and a kind of mulberry fruit flavour seem to linger on the palate for ages, warming the tongue nicely. I could just about manage a glass or two of this wine on its own, but it would seem criminal not to pair it off with some nice roasted lamb, thyme and rosemary roasted potatoes and some lightly minted peas.

Ive had a quick look at their website (all in French and they have changed the bottle to a taller bordeaux style bottle. Although that would be easier to rack, the bottle this wine comes in is just fantastic - a squat dumpy bottle - a bit fatter than the bottle Dagueneau uses for Silex.

A great topic for Wine Blog Wednesday as the region is often overlooked.

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

To Buy or not to Buy? En Primeur 2006

Silly season is due to start any day now. The bullshit is already starting to pile up, and we face a challenging decision ahead of us. Should we "invest" any money in 2006 bordeaux or give it a bodyswerve. My gut instinct is to give it a miss this year. The skinny Im getting from a few folks on the inside is that the 2006's arent worth the money they are anticipated to be offered for. Many merchants went wild on the 2005's and some are still sitting on stock of them to shift. Parker has just given 2005 another big thumbs up, and a slightly more reserved praise for a select few estates in 2006.

Our dilemma lies in the fact that if we skip purchasing this year, we damage our potential to purchase next year - particularly with Domaine de la Romanee Conti. Its made slightly worse by the opinions that generally Pomerol is the region to watch this campaign. That inevitably means Petrus and its stable mates - La Fleur Petrus, Hospitalet de Gazin, Hosanna, La Grave a Pomerol all the glory wines of J.P.Moueix. Still I think we need to rethink our purchasing plan and so my instinct to skip it still holds strong. But until we see the prices, we cant say for sure what way we will go.

You're Pretty Vacant!

How hard can it be, really, to answer a simple question? Would you like still or sparkling water? I mean its not as if Im asking you to name your favourite film or which celebrity you'd most like to shag. There are pretty much only two answers (three if you're brave/stupid enough to drink tap water) - still/Evian or sparkling/badoit. Yet Im constantly amazed when people have to devote serious brain time to this most insidious of riddles that I ask them at the start of service. Tonight was worse, much worse. Its bad enough having to deal with that on an ordinary night, but tonight was no ordinary night. Tonight was the first night of the Chester Racing calendar. So people are usually tanked up by the time they arrive here. We have to apply lashings and lashing of patience and biting of our lips when dealing with drunks. And apart from one high maintenance table, the evening seems to have passed smoothly. One down, two to go!

2,4,6 Trichloroanisole (TCA)

Ive been asked this question a few times recently. So, while my nose is still out of action I thought I would use the opportunity to answer a fairly important question - what is TCA?

The most simple answer is that Trichloroanisole or TCA is a chemical compound (C7H5OCl3) that adversely affects the aroma and taste of contaminated wines. It is a highly volatile chemical that is dectactable in amazingly small concentrations in wine. In white wines the threshold is as little as 2 parts per trillion (or in slightly simpler terms 0.000000000002g in a litre of fluid - thats really small), it goes up slightly to 5 parts per trillion for reds (not sure why, maybe because reds tend to have more complex aromas going on). But having said that everyone has different tolerances to TCA. Im very sensitive to it, and consequently Ive been able to identify tainted wines that my colleagues havent. I once came across a gentleman who was completely impervious to the TCA and was quite happily quaffing a very very very badly tainted bottle. This bottle was so badly tainted that I could smell it halfway across the restaurant (the Strathearn at Gleneagles is hardly a small room!), yet he just couldnt smell the taint at all!

For those that are able to detect it, TCA presents variously as a wet cardboardy smell, damp musty cellar like aroma, wet soil, wet old wood, or sometimes a slightly penicillin-ish like aroma. Depending on the concentrations in the wine, the aroma can be very subtle or seriously pronounced. If the wine is very cold, then the TCA will be held in solution in the wine and the aromas will be very difficult to detect until the wine warms up and the TCA becomes more volatile. This is often why in a restaurant a wine will be passed fit for service by either the sommelier or the customer (or both) and then as the wine warms up in the glass the TCA becomes more obvious and the wine is shown to be contaminated. As far as I know it isnt toxic, but considering that its primary chemical precurser is Trichlorophenol or TCP as it is more famously known I shouldnt think it would do you any serious damage. Particularly as it is often only found it very minute concentrations.

There is a huge amount of debate as to the cause of TCA contamination. Theres actually quite a good discussion about it on wikipedia at which covers it in much better detail than I care to get into. Needless to say, many of the statistics surrounding actual contamination rates are subject to much speculation and skepticism depending on whom sponsored the research - the pro or anti cork lobbies are quite dominant in this arena.

For more information check out the following pages:

Tuesday, May 01, 2007

Dominus Estate, Dominus - Napanook Vineyard 1992

Dominus is an estate with a very interesting history. Founded in 1982 by Christian Mouiex of Pomerol, Robert Mondavi and Robin Lail daughter of John Daniel Jnr the late owner of Inglenook estate. When John Daniel died, the estate was sold off, the only part remaining being the Napanook vineyards which the daughters had kept. (Interestingly enough, the remainder of the estate has since been bought by Francis Ford Copolla whom consequently named it Niebaum-Copolla in honour of Gustav Niebaum, Lail's great grandfather who founded Inglenook in 1879). Lail has since sold her share of Dominus and now has her own winery, Lail Vineyard.

Dominus produces two wines, their top cuvee, the Estate Red and their "second" wine Napanook. Now I love the Napanook, it has such a vibrant nose of raspberry jam on hot toast, it was quite a good seller at Gleneagles. Until I came here though I had never tried the Estate red. Oddly enough it is easy to tell its "related" to Napanook, there is quite a strong aroma of raspberry, along with big red berry fruits. This has more backbone to it, theres a stronger element of oak influence - cedar, tobacco and leather saddles, but the fruit rules the roost. This is a true bordeaux blend - 53% Cabernet Sauv, 22% Merlot, 22% Cab Franc, and 3% Petit Verdot, spending nearly a year and a half in French oak, about a quarter of which was new oak.

Out of Action

Im not working properly at the moment, my sinus's are swollen and full to the brim with slimey yellow snot. Lovely.