Friday, October 24, 2008

Rioja - Palacios, Remelluri and de la Marquesa

I was fortunate enough to be taken to Rioja at the beginning of the week for a brief visit. Organised by Wines of Spain and the Consejo Regulador DOCa Rioja a small group of sommeliers and wine buyers from the UK and one from Sweden were shown around six bodegas across Rioja.

I wasnt sure what to expect at first, when I saw the itinerary for the trip. I decided to not research the wineries in order to go with an open mind to them and not form any pre-judgements. Im glad that I did, for they each had something unique to offer, whether it be in their physical wineries and their methodology, or in their wines that we tasted, and after visiting six different bodegas and tasting something like 50 wines over the two days, its fair to say that its opened my eyes to Rioja as a wine and a region.

We started off with Bodegas Palacios in Laguardia. After being shown around the winery and its cellars, we were given a tasting of eight wines, all quite good, if rather average. The whites were certainly fresh and vibrant, and the reds all starting off with a slightly milky aroma - its the lactic acid our host proudly proclaimed, typical of tempranillo. From that we can deduce that their wines all undergo malo-lactic fermentation in the barrels. Off the six wineries we visited this was possibly the least inspiring, but it was interesting to see their perspective on the methods of production and it certainly is a winery with a long history.

From their we headed up to Labastida up in the Cantabria hills to visit Granja Nuestra Senora de Remelluri. This was certainly the most beautiful of the bodegas we visited.

Im a big fan of the white that they make, an amazing blend of about nine varieties - Garnacha Blanca, Malvasia, Moscatel, Marsanne, Rousanne, Viognier, Chardonnay and Viognier and finally Sauvignon. So I was really looking forward to this, and the good news was the sun was out, we were having lunch here and the reds were every bit as good as the white. They make four wines - the Blanco, a Reserva, a Gran Reserva and a Reserva Especial - the Coleccion Jaime Rodriguez, named in honour of the owner. All were astoundingly good, but for me the two standout wines were the blanco and the gran reserva. The gran reserva is a blend of 85% Tempranillo, 12% Garnacha and 3% Graciano, richly spiced and concentrated it seemed to last forever on the palate, its flavour greatly complementing the lamb chops grilled over a flame from vine trimmings. After a delicious lunch served in the winery, we took a stroll around the vineyards in the late summer sun, down to an ancient cemetary carved out of stone in the earlier life of the farm as part of an old monastery, the remains of which survive at the top of the mountain looming over us. Looking at the carved shapes in the stone, we got to thinking either the indiginous peoples were very small or the infant mortality rate was exceptionally high. They were tiny.

We left Remelluri as a tv crew was setting up to film a celebrity chefs program as he strolled through the vineyards of Remelluri discussing ingredients and picking fruit. Our destination was the Bodegas de la MarquesA in Villabuena. This was a smaller, family run bodegas trading under the name of Valserrano in the UK. Now in the hands of two brothers, Pablo and Jaime de Simon, one the oenologist and the other in charge of marketing/sales. The winery was probably the smallest of the six that we visited, but had one of the largest ranges of wines to offer. Jaime, the oenologist, proudly makes use of many of the traditional varieties and as such they offer a range of single varietal wines - mazuelo and graciano which were both amazingly different from what one would expect. The Mazuelo had a dark inky colour with a strong violet character on the nose. There was a licorice root element to the finish and a rounded warm spicy end note. With a year in a mixture of mainly french oak, the wine has a well balanced oak influence - vanillin, cedarwood and nutmeg like flavours, and well drawn out silky smooth tannins.

The Graciano by comparison had a much more herbaceous character with dark black tea and green leafy aromas, a touch of roasted nuts and defined dark soft fruit flavours. The tannins seemed bolder than the mazuelo, a little harsher on the gums, but the length was longer, more intense and a touch smoky on the finish.

Then it was time to leave and move on to our next winery. This was such a cool winery I want to give it a seperate post.

Friday, October 17, 2008


I got to thinking about some wines last night, wines that had exceeded my expectations and consequently became more prominant in my recommendations, and wines that had failed to meet my expectations and therefore been a disappointment. There have been all too many of the later over the years - one of the most prominant being Krug's Clos de Mesnil when I first tried it several years ago for a Krug Dinner that we hosted. It had been so exhalted and placed on such a big pedestal, that when I tried it, angels failed to sing praises on my tastebuds and I felt let down, and disappointed. I guess I was a bit niave about it too, because at the time I wasnt conscious of its cost. When I found out how exhorbitantly expensive it was that only added to the sense of disappointment. Anyway several years have passed and having recently had the chance to taste the new vintage of Clos de Mesnil Im glad to say that my opinion has been slightly revised.
Which kinds of leads to the point of this posting.
Last night we were host to the Champagne Academy's Northern Dinner. The last time we hosted the dinner was in 2005, and much has changed in the meantime. The Westminster suite has had a complete refurbishment, Ross has been through the Academy's program and is now an Old Boy, and weve all grown a few years older, a few inches wider and experienced many hundreds of wines in the time that passed. This years dinner was presided over by Krug - the current presidential house, with Lanson the incoming (and hence Vice-presidential) house and Veuve the departing (and also Vice-presidential) house. At one time they all fell under the LVMH stable, (for the four months that it took LVMH to strip Lanson of its premium vineyards before being sold to the Mora family.)but now only Krug and Veuve are stable mates, Lanson being a family owned business. And it is here that the expectations come into play, but before that I guess I ought to divulge the wines that we served.
The starter wine was Lansons Noble Cuvee Blanc de Blancs 1998. My expectation of this wine was quite low, because, well, it was Lanson. Thankfully, for me anyway, it exceded that expectation and was actually pretty good. Considering its youth it was pretty damned good, the acidity levels were high enough to suit the dish it was paired with (a crab meat press with cucumber jelly and caviar dentelle).
For the intermediate course we poured Krug Grande Cuvee. There were a lot of folks disappointed with this wine. I think it was because their expectations are higher than the wine could deliver. Krug is a league apart from most other champagnes - not only in price, but in every little thing that they do. They ferment the wines in french oak barrels. They vinify the parcels of wines individually. They mature the wines for six years on the lees (the mandated minimum is three years. Many houses do not mature beyond that minimum). This gives the wines an incredible richness of flavour, depth of character and a whopping price tag. But I guess it also sets them up to be knocked down.
The main course was paired with an Argentine Malbec from Terrazas de los Andes - LVMH's pet winery in South America.
The Cheese course was paired with a Veuve Clicquot La Grand Dame 1998. This was a bit of a disappointment for me. It didnt distinguish itself enough apart from Yellow Label to justify the price difference. I reckon it was too young, personally, Im assured that this wine comes into its element after about 10 years of additional ageing, so I would expect it to be reaching its peak from about 2015. But a few people raved about it, so it just goes to show its all horses for courses.
The meal concluded with the Krug Rose. I have mixed feelings about this wine. Having first tasted it when we served the Champagne Academy menu tasting back in July, I was impressed but un-enamoured of it. Then in August I had the chance to visit Krug and got to sample the rose with a dessert at lunch in the middle of the Clos de Mesnil Vineyard. The wine was divine, from the amazingly oxidized looking copper brown colour of the wine, to the rich densely flavoured nose with soft red fruit, floral tones and a touch of membrillo jelly, this was one serious, serious rose. We discovered from our hostess, that the bottle we were being served was probably in excess of 12 years old. So having spend 6 years maturing on the lees before it was disgorged and labeled, it then spent another six in the cellars of Krug before being served to us with lunch. I was hooked. I became determined to procure a few bottles and lavishly lay them down with strict instructions not to open until 2014! And then reality came home to roost, when I realised that Krug Rose isnt cheap. Now I realise that there are cost implications with Rose - there is a finite amount of red wine available to blend with the white to create the rose style of wines favoured in champagne. This scarcity often means that Rose champagnes cost a fair bit more than their white counterparts. But Krug Rose is extortionately expensive. Eyewateringly expensive. Way more expensive than DP Rose, and thats a rip to start with!! So, barring a lottery win, it aint going to happen. And that is why I think most people felt that the Krug Rose was a let down for them. Yes it was good, and yes it paired well with the dessert - an autumn carpaccio of orchard fruits with blackberry fool and coconut macaroon. But is it good value? I dont think so.
So our expectations obviously shape the way we percieve a wine. For me thats quite important. I sell wines by creating a link between the wine and the food. I make them more attractive to people by personalising them, creating something that the customer can relate to, giving them some little nugget of information that identifies that wine is some small way to something they can understand. And in doing so, I will often, perhaps unwittingly, raise their expections of the wines. Which means that if I get it wrong, the effect can be far more disasterous than it needs to be.

Friday, October 10, 2008

So much happening.

Ive been neglecting my blog of late. There are a few reasons for this, some are personal, but the main reasons are a lack of inspiration, a lack of opportunity to some extent, but primarily I havent felt the need to vent as much, and that was one of the primary reasons I started the blog. It was a cheap alternative to psychotherapy.
I plan to try and do a lot more on the blog now. Not because i need to vent again, but I want to try and prepare an "escape plan". Much as i still love my job, Im slowly coming to a realisation that I dont want to do this for the next ten years or so of my life. I figure that I want to spend no more than three more years on the floor, and if my wife had her way it would be about three more months! But I have targets that I want to achieve before I can move forward to different pastures. I would seriously like to achieve the next step on the Court of Master Sommeliers program which would be to pass my advanced course. I would like to build on this blog, and maybe take the writing to another level, perhaps get some freelance articles done. After seeing this years winners for the AA winelist awards, I want to win that. Ive got the Hotel Cateys awards dinner coming up next month, and Ive been shortlisted again for the Food and Beverage Service award (fingers crossed!!). Then in January the Michelin Guide is released and we are all hoping that we will find ourselves promoted to Two michelin stars. God knows cheffie deserves it, the menu is as good as it has ever been, and I think the whole front of house team has put every effort in to ensure that we deliver the best possible experience to all our diners. So much happening, and I want to try and keep on top of it all and continue to grow in my knowledge and experiences.

Planeta Cometa 2007

Last night was the second gourmet evening in the newly re-opened Simon Radley at the Chester Grosvenor (henceforth known as Radder's).We were showing the wines of Planeta, based in Menfi in Sicily. Unfortunately we couldnt get any of the Planeta's over, so Stephen, our account manager from Enotria played host for the evening. The evening was a great success, the guests were very happy with the food, the service and of course the wonderful wines. For me the highlight was the Cometa.
The Cometa is a 100% Fiano, a grape normally native to Campania on the mainland of Italy, but Planeta have taken it to their hearts and have produced this wonderfully aromatic - citrus and cream - almost fresh lemon curd, crisp wine that packs a punch of flavours including a herbal/floral finish that puts me in mind of a herbal tissane. This proved to be one of the more popular wines last night, but that was before people found out about the price. Its bloody expensive!! Id love to get some more in, but I doubt it would sell very well. Shame though cause it was a bloody good wine.