Monday, 7 December 2009

Supperclub London

Last week a white invite landed on my desk. It was for the launch of Supperclub London, a trendy restaurant/bar/club/chill out concept that started in Amsterdam and has mushroomed to incorporate San Francisco, Singapore, Los Angeles, Istanbul and now my smoggy metropolis. What's taken it so long? It seems like a no brainer.

The invite was in the shape of a flattened box, and asked partygoers to get creative and bring their decorated white cubes down to the club, where the best design would win a prize. The day of the launch arrived and my invite was still flat. I scanned my desk for creative tools. A set of highlighter pens glared back at me. Too garish. It had to be in keeping with the minimalist chic of the club. Then it came to me - I had a Damien Hirst moment.

I grabbed a tube of super glue from the stationary cupboard and counted out six curiously strong mints from the box on my desk, placing a dollop of glue on each and sticking them to the centre of each of the six sides. I named it Pill Box. If anyone asked I would say it was a statement about our pill-popping society and how our increasing dependence on prescription drugs is leading to our physical and spiritual decline.

The dress code said 'all white'. Indecision hit me the morning of the party. I pulled everything white out of my wardrobe and starting putting outfits together. I decided to take the theme to the extreme and stepped out of the door in white cords, a white polo neck, white brogues, a white duffle coat and a white scarf. I looked like a cross between a polar bear and a boy band member - not my finest sartorial hour.

I rocked up to the converted warehouse in Westbourne Park with my friend fashionably late at 9pm and was confronted with a shockingly long queue snaking down the street, still slick with rain. I wasn't in the mood to queue, expecting a smallish gathering of food and drink journalists rather than a full-on club night. Every Tara, Lara and Zara was there, in their Balenciaga dresses and Jimmy Choos, air kissing the bouncers and fast-tracking the queue. A group of dejected-looking paps stood by the side of the road, cameras at the ready, letting off the occasional false alarm flash.

My friend and I were told to wait in the anaconda-sized guest list queue. The other queue, we were informed, was the VIP queue. It turns out they had spectacularly over-invited, ending up with a guest list of over 1,800, so entry had to be staggered. After 40 minutes we arrived at the front of the queue, only a velvet rope now separating us from the splendours that surely awaited inside. We kept there for a further 20 minutes, watching in frustration as the bouncers let in VIP after VIP, while we were savagely held back.

Finally, the rope was lifted and we were allowed in. Walking down the red carpet, I suddenly felt horribly underdressed. Would my snowflake look cut it with the ice-cold fashion crowd? I didn't really care, all I could think about was how good my first glass of Champagne was going to taste. But even that was a disappointment. It said Champagne on the label, but tasted more like cheap sparkling wine. Alas. My thirst satiated, albeit unmagnificently, I headed into the snow-white throng. Men with movie star bodies pranced around in long johns and nothing much else, while women busied themselves perfecting their pouts.

It didn't feel like London, but Europe, or more specifically Amsterdam. There was something incredibly camp about the place. From the white sofa-beds framing the edges and the funky house music to the mohawk-sporting dancers doing Shirley Bassey renditions. After the stress of the queue and the disappointing bar, I decided to call it a night when a deliriously thin Bowie look-alike in white skinny jeans began belting out Europop. Stepping back out into the Notting Hill night, the queue outside was as long and slithery as when I arrived. The paps raised their cameras in expectation, then lowered them again without a flash as my duffle coat and I made our way down the street.

Sunday, 6 December 2009

Armand de Brignac: the Jay-Z effect

On Wednesday night I was invited to a party at the Park Lane Hilton hosted by Armand de Brignac Champagne, better known as Ace of Spades, to celebrate their Brut Gold being voted the number one Champagne in the world.

The prestige cuvée, which sells for £250 a bottle, scored 96 points out of 100 in a blind tasting of over 1,000 brands organised by FINE Champagne magazine, beating the likes of Krug, Bollinger and Dom Pérignon to the top spot. Milling about the bar in a sharp suit was Armand de Brignac CEO Jean-Jaques Cattier, a diminutive man in his mid-sixties with Martin Scorsese glasses.

I couldn't resist asking him about the Jay-Z connection, and how he felt it has affected the brand. Jay-Z after all, is Armand de Brignac's biggest supporter. Since boycotting Cristal in 2006, Jay has got behind Ace of Spades in a big way, featuring it in his 2006 music video Show Me What You Got and introducing his high profile homies, including P. Diddy and Kanye West to the brand.

'I don't mind the association with the hip-hop world at all', Cattier tells me. 'I'm happy for the exposure Jay-Z's endorsement has given the brand. He's helped get our name recognized.'

So how did a small Champagne house in Chigny-les-Roses manage to catch the hip-hop mogul's eye and in three years command £450 a bottle (for the blanc-de-blancs) and have a demand that cannot match its supply? The story goes that Jay-Z spotted Armand de Brignac in a liquor store in New York three years ago and was so taken with the bottle design that he ordered three cases from the estate to be featured in his Monaco-based music video Show Me What You Got.

Cattier upholds the story that the two had never previously met, meeting for the first time at the Cannes Film Festival last year. But it all seems too convenient that the same year Jay boycotts Cristal, a new and suitably 'bling' Champagne comes onto the market. You've only got to look at the design - the flashy gold and silver bottles with pewter ace of spades labels to realise this could only have been thought up by someone in the hip-hop industry. It's got Jay-Z's stamp all over it, and I am far from convinced that the Champagne was conceived without his involvement. Perhaps with Ace of Spades, Jay-Z is being the ultimate magician, leading us to believe the illusion that he stumbled across a brand he actually created.

Champange Cattier are adamant that Jay-Z had nothing to do with the conception of Ace of Spades, but I wouldn't be surprised if the whole enterprise was his idea; a way of expanding his ever-growing empire and sticking two fingers up at Cristal while he's at it.

But what of the Brut Gold? Did it merit its 'best Champagne in the world' status? In a word, no. Sorry Jay. The nose was closed and I struggled to get much from it. It was better in the mouth, with detectable autolytic notes along with lemon zest and crunchy apples. Clean, clear and crisp, it had a rich mouthfeel and good mousse, but in comparison with Krug, DP and Cristal, it was big and clumsy, lacking the elegance and finesse of a world-class Champagne. It was more masculine, more in-your-face, more... bling.

Wednesday, 2 December 2009

Chryseia vertical tasting with Bruno Prats

On a soggy Saturday morning I headed to the ‘discovery theatre’ at the Landmark hotel for a vertical tour through Douro estate Chryseia, presented by owner Bruno Prats, formerly of Château Cos d’Estournal, and Rupert Symington of the Symington family, who co-own the estate.

After selling Cos, Prats has ventured into the New World, with Viña Aquitania in Chile – a joint venture with Paul Pontallier, and Anwilka in South Africa. The Symington family approached Prats in 1998 to co-head Chryseia, with the aim of making a non-fortified Douro wine in the Bordeaux style from a selection of the best grapes.

Symington touched on the difficulties of making a still wine in the hot Douro, with lack of acidity and over-extraction sited as the two main problems. Prats went on to explain that the Chryseia blend, aged in 100% new French oak, is made up of grapes from four Quintas, with two main varieties used – Touriga Nacional, which, like Merlot, brings roundness and finesse, and Touriga Franca  – the Cabernet Sauvignon of the Douro that gives the wine its backbone. A number of the earlier vintages also contain a small amount of Tempranillo-like Tinta Roriz.

The wines were tasted from cradle to grave, starting with the 2007, the unanimous favourite, and ending with the 2001. Freshness is the thread throughout; something Prats and Symington feel passionately about. Their goal is to combine the exuberance of the Douro with the elegance of Bordeaux, and with the stunning 2007 vintage, they just might have done it.

Tasting notes

Chryseia 2007

Medium purple with fresh, bright, red and black Rhône-like fruit and vanilla sweetness. Rich, lively and full-bodied in the mouth, with attractive white pepper and spicy notes. Smooth, rounded and voluptuous, with grippy tannins, it had wonderful weight and a luscious lingering length. The wine of the masterclass.

Chryseia 2006

Made from 60% Touriga Nacional and 40% Touriga Franca, 2006 was a hot, stormy year. The wine needs a lot more time to come out of its shell. Deep ruby, on the nose, the cherries, red currants and raspberries were slightly jammy and cooked. The palate was fresh but rather characterless. Needs time to develop.

Chryseia 2005

A blend of 70% Touriga Nacional and 30% Touriga Franca. Deep ruby, the nose was the most Bordeaux-like of the bunch with a lovely herbaceous character and mineral core. The black cherry fruit was supple and mellow, and I found hints of lavender and violet. Smooth and round on the palate, with chocolate, licorice and sweet spice wrapped around velvety tannins. Complex, long and delicious.

Chryseia 2004

2004 was a strange year in the Douro, with no rain until August, when the heavens opened for most of the month. Deep ruby, I spotted quite a lot of sediment in the glass. With 64% Touriga Nacional, the typical red fruit aromas of cherry and raspberry dominated. Fruit forward and soft on the palate, it had silky tannins and hints of peppery spice and chocolate on the finish.

Chryseia 2003

As we al know, 2003 was a scorcher. This year bucked the trend with Touriga Franca dominating the blend at 63%, which showed extraordinary expression in ’03. It showed a seductive raspberry and cherry nose alongside delicious smoky bacon aromas with hints of chocolate and mocha. Smooth and fruit forward on the palate, with velvety tannins and bell pepper developing into a long, sweet finish.

Chryseia 2001

The weather in 2001 was textbook, so it’s unsurprising the wine showed so well. Made with a decent amount of Tinta Roriz, I found raspberries, strawberries, cherries on the mid-palate along with violets, dried prunes, thyme and roasted bacon notes. Intense, fruit forward and floral, it has retained a wonderful freshness, with soft tannins, white pepper, spice culminating in an earthy finish. Remarkably young for its years; will go on and on. 

Sunday, 29 November 2009

Cristal: hip or hype?

Last weekend we hosted our Decanter Fine Wine Encounter at the Landmark Hotel in Marylebone. It was a great turn out - just under 100 producers from around the globe came to show off their wines, including Château Palmer, Chapoutier, Seghesio and Craggy Range. Château Palmer were showing their 1996, which proved such a hit queues around the stand were five deep with tweed-clad gents jostling one another, glasses aloft, in hope of a drop.

A number of the wine world glitterati flew in to present masterlcasses, from Michel Chapoutier and Christian Moueix to the charismatic Angelo Gaja, who provided the highlight of the weekend by comparing Cabernet Sauvignon to John Wayne as a lover and Nebbiolo to Italian screen legend Marcello Mastroianni. Wayne, he argued, would be strong and powerful but a bit boring, whereas Mastroianni would bring something different to the table (or bed) every night.

I got to try some sensational wines over the two days, my highlights being Angelus 2004, Chryseia 2007, and Gaja 1976 Barbaresco, which was to die for. I'd been looking forward to the final masterclass of the weekend – Louis Roederer, as we were going to be serving Cristal 1999 in Jeroboam. They were brought into the kitchen in their bright orange wrappers like giant Christmas presents. Three of them; the three kings. We unwrapped them and left them to chill in the ice box until we received orders to pour.

Created for Tsar Alexander II of Russia in 1876, Cristal gets its name from its crystal clear, flat-bottomed bottle. Fearing assassination due to a rocky political situation, the tsar ordered the bottles of his favourite fizz to be made clear and flat so they couldn't be laced with poison or planted with a bomb.

In the late 1990s, with the emergence of 'bling' culture, rappers like the Notorious BIG, P Diddy and Jay-Z chose Cristal as their Champagne of choice, ordering it by the case load in clubs and boasting about their conspicuous consumption of it in their lyrics. Cristal became a byword for cool in the hip-hop world; the Champagne holy grail. Moët just wouldn't cut it anymore - it had to be Cris.

But the love affair with Cristal ended for Jay-Z at least in 2006, after Louis Roederer managing director Frederic Rouzard made the following comment in an interview with The Economist when asked if he thought the association with hip-hop would harm the Cristal brand: "What can we do? We can't forbid people from buying it. I'm sure Dom Pérignon or Krug would be delighted to have their business." Jay-Z quickly boycotted Cristal, moving on to Armand de Brignac or 'Ace of Spades' as it's been nicknamed, which is quickly replacing Cristal in hip-hop circles as the trophy bottle to be seen sipping from.

But what of the Cristal 1999? How did the cult cuvée perform on the night? By the time I got some in my glass, after two of the three bottles were poured in the masterclass, it had gone flat. It was like arriving at a party an hour too late. As I sipped it, I imagined what it might have been like, had I tried it as soon as the cork popped. It was certainly light and elegant with a complex and alluring honeyed nose, but worth £2,200 a bottle? Of course not. No wine is.

Panic grew in the kitchen post-masterclass when doing the routine bottle count. Where was the third Jeroboam? The masterclass leader sent a search party out to the Champagne room, while we combed the kitchen fearing the worst. Could an opportunistic ticket holder have crept in and shoved it up his lambs wool jumper? Surely not. The search party returned empty handed. We were still a Jeroboam down. Retracing the bottle's last steps, I rushed to the ice box and flung open the lid - there it was, laid back, luxuriating in the ice.

Thursday, 26 November 2009

Lanson vertical tasting

Yesterday afternoon I scuttled out of the office early to attend a vertical tasting of Lanson Champagne hosted by Tom Stevenson. The invite said it was to be held in the 'Masonic Temple' at the Andaz Hotel, Liverpool Street. I was intrigued.

Taking the lift to the first floor, I was directed through a series of carpeted corridors that lead to the temple, which was sealed off by a pair of huge varnished wooden doors etched with the words: 'For God And His Service'. The room was round, with a white marble floor and red and white marble columns evenly spaced along the walls. It was decked out like a strange courtroom - think Alice in Wonderland meets the Da Vinci Code, with rows of stern brown chairs at either side, each with their own emblem, from eagles and quills to coats of arms. 

On the ceiling, the signs of the zodiac circled a golden sun and at the far end, framed by the organ, stood a throne, its head decorated with a third eye hovering in a cloud emitting Bernini-esque beams of light. Standing next to the throne was an ashen-faced Tom Stevenson, remote control in hand. I was expecting a funny handshake, but thought better of attempting a greeting and quietly took my place next to Simon Berry.

We were handed a glass of Lanson rosé to help us get through the introduction, which, by Stevenson's own admission, was drier than a Brut Nature. The main thrust of his argument was that non-malolactic fermentation in Champagne is a trend on the rise, and we will soon see brands beyond Krug, Bollinger and Lanson experimenting with the technique. 

The fun began when we got to taste the 10 Champagnes, dating from 1996 back to 1976. It was interesting to compare the same vintages with different disgorgement dates. We tried two 1995s disgorged ten years apart (in 1999 and 2009 respectively), two 1985s disgorged in 1989 and 2006, and two 1976s disgorged in 1999 and 2008. I found myself preferring the wines that had been disgorged earlier, as they seemed to show more complexity and maturity than the recently disgorged examples, though opinion around the room was divided. 

After the tasting we got to enjoy some sensational food from the Andaz kitchen. Highlights included the goats cheese crumble with crushed walnuts (so good I had three), wild mushroom gnocci and apple cinnamon parfait with treacle sauce. At 7.30 I dashed to my second event of the evening at the HOST (Honduras Street) gallery in Old Street -  a tasting to celebrate the launch of, a wine website headed by Laura Lindsay, former sales manager of Edward Parker Wines. 

Top five 

Champagne Lanson 1996 (magnum) disgorged 2008

Clear, pale, lemon with ebullient bubbles. The nose was fascinatingly complex - with dairy notes of butter and cream lending it a Chablisian character. The Chardonnay screams out. Rounded and full in the mouth with citrus notes, good acidity and long length. Tom Stevenson once described it as 'like gargling with razor blades' (in a good way). 

Champagne Lanson 1988 (magnum) disgorged 2008

Clear, medium, gold, with a sharp citrus lemon nose and touches of honey. Crisp, fresh and silky on the palate with elegant Pinot Noir fruits, it had a good mousse, impressive length and hints of licorice and vanilla on the finish. 

Champagne Lanson 1985 (bottle) disgorged 1989

My kind of Champagne - it had a nose of hot buttered toast and a rich, full mouthfeel. It showed more complexity, body and depth than the recently disgorged 1985, with crisp acidity and a mushroomy finish. 

Champagne Lanson 1979 (magnum) disgorged 2007

Clear, medium, gold with an attractive, varnish-like nose. Light and fruity on the palate, it showed fresh lemons and apples coupled with appealing and intriguing truffle aromas. Although lighter than a lot of the Champagnes on show, it was elegant and surprisingly persistent.

Champagne Lanson 1976 (magnum) disgorged 1999

The fairest of them all, or at least the most golden. Deliciously complex with a nose of hot buttered crumpets and digestive biscuits. Round, rich, intense and full-bodied, the palate had a lovely mousse held up by a backbone of acidity and an attractive sherry-like nuttiness. I found the slightly oxidized aromas and long, toasty finish hugely appealing - my wine of the night.

Thursday, 12 November 2009

Foie gras and wine

Foie gras is like Marmite: you either love it or hate it. I love it. There's nothing quite like it. Eating a well cooked piece of foie gras is a semi-religious experience. The creaminess of the texture, the rich, delicate flavour and the way it melts on the tongue is indescribably divine. It's the nearest you can get to sex in food form.

Head chef Olivier Ripert of Le Bouchon Breton brasserie in Old Spitalfields Market is clearly in the 'love it' camp. For the month of November he has devised a menu of five seasonal starters showcasing the versatility of foie gras. Each of the dishes has been paired with a different wine, from Champagne to the more traditional Sauternes.

Never being one to turn down a challenge, I headed to the BB on Wednesday night to take on the whole menu and see which wine pairings worked best, bringing along a chef friend for an expert opinion. We were greeted in true Gallic style by a tall red-headed waiter, who appeared to glide across the tiled floor like a swan. Guiding us to our table, he thrust two glasses of Henriot Champagne - supposedly the Brut 1998, into our hands. After a whirl and a sniff we couldn't work out how this 11-year-old was still so ebullient and youthful. It also seemed to lack the complexity one would expect from vintage Champagne.

The swan soon returned with a further two glasses under his wing. 'This is the 1998' he said triumphantly, placing the flutes on the table in a graceful swoop and gliding off in the direction of the kitchen. The nose showed wonderful maturity and elegance, with an attractive honeyed bouquet and a crisp, rounded palate. It proved an excellent match for the foie gras brioche pairing - the toasty notes in the Champagne complimented the toastiness of the brioche, while the crispness of the Champagne lifted the dish, which could have easily come across too rich. We were off to a promising start.

Still only halfway through course one, we were presented with wine two: Clos Lapeyre Jurancon Sec Vitage Vielh 2005 , which had a zingy nose of freshly squeezed lemons and limes tempered with honeyed notes. Fresh and zippy on the palate it showed both the complexity of age and vigour of youth. Dish one was quickly cleared to make way for course two - Mille Feuille of foie gras with caramelised apple in a Calvados sauce. It was another great match - the apple in the rosti enhancing the citrus in the Jurancon, which had a lovely lip-smacking limey freshness. The foie gras was cooked to perfection - rich and creamy, it paired deliciously with the sweet apple in the dish, while the acidity in the wine cut through the fat brilliantly.

Without noticing, our Champagne had been swept away and replaced with two glasses of liquid gold - Castelnau de Suduiraut Sauternes 2004. Sauternes has always been considered the ultimate pairing for foie gras, its waxy sweet mouthfeel complimenting the rich creaminess of foie gras. On the night it proved the most disappointing match, paired with foie gras and ox tail terrine in a Sauternes jelly. The Sauternes was not necessarily at fault; the ox tail dominated the dish and the foie gras got completely lost. On its own the Sauternes was charming - with marmalade, apricot and orange peel on the nose and a smooth palate of white flowers and honey, but the match fell flat - the sweetness of the Sauternes jarring with the savoury ox tail.

Slightly deflated by the mismatch, we looked forward to dish four - Cassoulet of foie gras with cepes, butternut squash and spinach presented in a tiny black Le Creuset dish. The sommelier had chosen to pair it with Qupe Bien Nacido Cuvée Chardonnay Viognier 2007. Fresh, young, lively and acidic, it cut through the fat of the foie gras and lifted the dish wonderfully. We were both in raptures over this sublime combination - the mushrooms worked so well playing second fiddle to the foie gras in this symphony of flavour.

Four courses and five glasses of wine down, I had to try and find some room for the finale - Tagliatelle of girole mushrooms and foie gras, paired with Vincent Dureiul-Janthial Rully 1er Cru Les Mazieres 2005. The wine was delicious, with a crisp, fresh, apply nose and a rich creamy mouthfeel. Before I'd got my fork into the pasta, the swan had returned with a black truffle the size of walnut. He began shaving slithers onto my plate with vim, treating the truffle with the nonchalance you would a hunk of Tesco Value Cheddar. Of course I didn't want him to stop, so I refrained from lifting my hand until I could no longer see the pasta from beneath the sea of black. Diving in, it proved the epitome of what a good foie gras experience should be - an intense flavour sensation that makes you tilt your head back and close your eyes in the pure pleasure of it all.

Perhaps the beauty of foie gras lies in its exclusivity. The fact that it is saved for special occasions adds to the allure - a taste remembered that you long to experience again. How many days is it until Christmas?

Sunday, 8 November 2009

José Pizarro: Seasonal Spanish Food

On Thursday night I was invited by the Ambassador of Spain to celebrate the publication of Seasonal Spanish Food by José Pizarro, head chef across London's three Brindisa restaurants.

Making my way to the Spanish Embassy with my i-pod blasting out flamenco to get me in the mood, I was expecting the evening the follow the format of most book launches - a small intimate gathering in which to enjoy a glass or two of fizz and a sprinkling of canapés. I had clearly underestimated the size and scale of the event.

Spilling from the open door of the embassy was a long queue of smartly dressed human traffic that snaked around Belgrave Square. Party dress codes are something of a sartorial minefield. Should you err on the smart side of casual or the casual side of smart? The invitation said 'Lounge Suit', which is almost untranslatable for women. I began to panic as I notched up the number of evening dresses on display. Would my frilly dress cut the mostaza?

At the door the PR told me that the original guest list had started at 800 but had to be slashed to a mere 300. The best thing about these events is that you get to go behind closed doors and sneak a peek into realms that would otherwise remain forever closed. The interior of the building is breathtaking, with chandeliers hanging from the high ceilings.

Grabbing a glass of Cava, I entered the main room. It was heaving. It took me back to my days as a reporter for Pandora, the diary page of The Independent. Walking into a packed room where everyone appears to be in glittering conversation with one another can make for an unnerving minute or two, as you penetrate the room with an air of purpose, until that wonderful moment when you spot someone you know.

I spent my awkward minute admiring the goliath paintings adorning the walls of lords and ladies with hounds at their heels indulging in country pursuits. No sooner than I'd spotted some familiar faces a glass was tapped and the speeches began. Pizarro, looking jovial in a pink shirt, spoke of his childhood in Extremadura and how growing up in Spain all food was seasonal. The message of the book is about going back to basics: if you stick to fresh, good quality, seasonal ingredients they will speak for themselves.

After the speeches we got to try a selection of his creations. A modest 19 courses did the rounds. Standouts included the mushroom and chestnut soup, scallops with crispy ham, deep-fried goats cheese with orange blossom honey and Brandy-filled figs. When the Cava ran dry we were ushered out and given a goodie bag full edible treats - Ibérico Chorizo, sweet pimentón and vials of olive oil. A huge number of us then carried on the party into the early hours at Casa Brindisa in South Kensington.

Judging from the colossal turn out and the reaction to his speech, Pizarro is a much-respected figure who has been pivotal in putting quality Spanish food firmly on the London restaurant map. 

Photo credit: Seasonal Spanish Food by Jose Pizarro (Kyle Cathie, £19.99) with photography by Emma Lee

Saturday, 7 November 2009

Pétrus: the Pomerol powerhouse

Working as the editorial assistant at Decanter has opened a door onto another world. Every day is different and throws up new challenges. I've got to do some pretty bizarre things during my two years on the mag, none of which however were as strange as the task that befell me the other afternoon.

We are working on our Christmas issue and wanted to reflect the decadent and indulgent nature of the festive season on the cover – if you can't crack open your best bottles on Christmas Day when can you? Guy Woodward, our editor, made the bold decision of putting Pétrus on the cover.

It may sound strange describing the decision to put the most lusted after wine in the world on the cover of the the best-known wine magazine in the world as 'bold', but there is the danger that in doing so we'll alienate our readers. Pétrus is one of those wines most people can only dream about tasting. It's the holy grail and at the top of my wish list of wines to try before I die. The closest I've got so far is salivating over the tasting notes. Other luckier members of the team got to try the lauded '89 vintage last year at a dinner honouring Pétrus manager Christian Moueix as the Decanter Man of the Year 2008.

I was in full support of Guy's decision to put Pétrus on the cover, even in these dark times of recession, because magazines are all about aspiration. Glossy magazines at their best transport you to another world. If you can't wear the clothes you see in Vogue, at least you can imagine wearing them, and who can really afford to drive the Ferraris on the cover of Top Gear each month? Yet that doesn't stop the magazine from selling. People want to read about the things they can't afford to own - the fabric of the clothes, the interior of the car, the smell of the wine.

We went ahead with the Pétrus idea and I was asked to source a bottle. I called up a contact at Corney & Barrow and eased her into the idea by setting the scene of our Christmas cover. Then I dropped the bombshell - 'we were hoping to borrow a bottle of Pétrus for the shoot', I said in hushed tones, 'any vintage', I quickly added. I heard a gulp. 'Really', said the surprised voice, 'how long were you thinking of borrowing it for?' 'We'd only need it for the morning of the shoot and could have it couriered back straight after, so around 24 hours in total', I said confidently. 'I'll have to get back to you', she said, and the phone rang off.

A day later we were given the green light and were told a bottle of the 2004 vintage (currently retailing at around £800) would arrive the day before the shoot provided we could prove we were insured for damages. I had to be personally insured for the bottle and was the only person (bar the photographer and postman) allowed to handle it. £800 sounds like a ludicrously high sum, but it's a snip compared to the amount a case of the '82 vintage went under the hammer for this month at an Acker Merral auction in Hong Kong - £56,194, that's £4,682 a bottle!

On Tuesday afternoon an email pinged into my inbox that simply read, 'the Pétrus has left the building'. After an hour I made a couple of calls to the post room to check if it had arrived. It was eventually hand-delivered to me by our Polish postman. My heart started beating a little faster. Why was I getting so worked up over a wine? I get to taste fine wines nearly every day in my job but there was something about this bottle of Pétrus that incited almost evangelical reverence. I nervously grappled with the bubble wrap and eventually got it open. There it was in front of me, the embossed lettering on the glass adding to its beauty. I lingered on the label for a minute then safely stowed it away for the night.

After the shoot the next morning I was informed I had to hand deliver the bottle back to Corney & Barrow, as relying on a courier was deemed too risky. I packaged it up in polystyrene and hailed a taxi that took me across town towards Tower Hill. Unsure of the safest way to position the bottle during transit, I opted for the maximum security method of clinging to it tightly for the entire journey, petrified it might otherwise break.

I am happy to report that the bottle and I arrived safely at Corney & Barrow. It was a brief encounter - the perfect type of a perfect pleasure: exquisite and leaving me unsatisfied - what more can one want?

Wednesday, 4 November 2009

The Bathhouse: Cazadores 'día de los muertos' fiesta

I partied in a graveyard last night. Cazadores Tequila hosted an event at the Bathhouse bar in Bishopsgate churchyard to celebrate the Mexican fiesta 'el día de los muertos' – the day of the dead.

Tucked away from the bustle of the City, the Bathhouse is a hidden haunt harking back to Victorian London. Serving as a Turkish baths during the 19th century, it's now a quirky nightspot for those seeking an alternative to cookie cutter identikit clubs. Deceptively small on the outside, the venue is cavernous once you descend into its depths. Wonderfully, it has kept many of its original features, from the blue tiles on its roof to the marble bar.

On arrival I was greeted by a pair of girls in pretty dresses with skull faces. The juxtaposition of their lively outfits full of bright red flowers with their dead faces was brilliantly macabre. They offered me a Lolita cocktail - Cazadores and pomegranate with a salt rim - it was divine. I quickly moved onto the Vampiro - Cazadores with orange bitters.

Huge plates of nachos with mammoth bowls of home-made guacamole were brought in by the sexy skullstresses, theatrically carried at arms length above our heads. We were here to celebrate the day of the dead - a Mexican tradition dating back to the Aztecs, who dedicated the day to the goddess Mictecacihuatl (try saying that after a few Tequilas), known as the Lady of the Dead.

The fiesta coincides with All Souls' Day, and, rather than the spooky nature of Halloween, is seen as a chance for Mexicans to honour the deceased. During the festivities people give each other sugar skulls as gifts and graveyards are decorated with flowers while graves are turned into shrines in honour of the dead. The owner of Mestizo, a gourmet Mexican restaurant in Highgate, told me it's common for people to bring their dead loved one's favourite food, drinks and music to their graveside during the fiesta to encourage their soul to visit.

The Bathhouse had its own little shrine, with a cross centre piece made of orange marigolds, the 'flor de muerto' – flower of the dead. A nimble fingered face painter was on hand to deck us out with warpaint. I opted for the traditional black and white skull. Reading the paper on the tube home, I kept jumping at the sight of my reflection in the window – a memento mori indeed.

Monday, 2 November 2009

Fortnum & Mason: Dom Pérignon & jamón

There is possibly only one thing better than drinking Dom Pérignon 2000 on a Monday evening, and that's drinking Dom Pérignon 2000 with Joselito Gran Reserva ham, or jamón as I prefer to call it.

Fortnum & Mason had laid on a tasting of the latest 'vintage' of Joselito – 2007 – alongside millennium vintage Dom Pérignon and, as a comparison, 2006 Joselito. The two brands are more similar than you might think. Joselito is in the top tier of Iberico ham producers – a first growth of the ham world occupying the same sort of niche in its field as Dom Pérignon does Champagne, with an 'off the leg' slice price of £200/kg and an 8kg ham going for £600 a pop.

So do Dom Pérignon and jamón make for a match in gourmet heaven? You wouldn't think so, but they go surprisingly well. Neither dominates the other. The ham seems to bring out the freshness of the Champagne and tempers the acidity, while the wine cuts through the fat of the ham and cleanses the palate.

It was fascinating to compare the jamón 'vintages'. After tasting a few slithers of each, you quickly become aware of the vast differences between the two. The younger 2007 vintage was lighter in colour and more translucent. Fine as silk with marbly flesh, its delicacy and refinement proved a better platefellow for the DP than the richer '06.

The 2006 was noticeably darker - ham ages the opposite way to wine, gaining colour with age and turning from light red to dark purple at its oldest. The '06 was almost purple and had a much stronger, more intense flavour. Fattier, meatier and richer, you could taste the maturity. It had a delicious umami-rich savouriness that would pair wonderfully with a bone dry Fino or Manzanilla.

How good a ham tastes depends on three things: the breed, the feed and the ageing process. Hams are cured in cellars for varying lengths of time depending on their size. Joselito is aged for a minimum of three years and a maximum of seven. The heavenly ham, known as pata negra, comes from black Iberico pigs raised in south-west Spain. In order to be called Iberico, the pigs must have at least 75% Iberico blood, but Zac Innes, Brindisa's maestro cortador, assures me that Joselito only use 100% Iberico pigs.

The best hams, known as 'bellota', are fed acorns for their last few months, which impart a nutty sweetness to the jamón. The acorn harvest begins anytime between September and November, at which point the pigs are fattened up in a process called montanera, where they eat around 80% 0f their body weight in acorns over four months. But Iberico pigs are notoriously fussy and will only sniff out the best acorns to munch on.

Like wine, Iberico ham operates under a DO system, with four DOs currently in place in Salamanca, Extremadura, Huelva (home to the ham town of Jabugo) and Córdoba. The trend for Iberico ham is growing – earlier this year Harrods opened 5J Iberico Ham House, a restaurant dedicated to the marbled meat complete with in house 'maestro cortador' (master cutter).

Despite its rise in popularity, Iberico ham is sill very much a luxury product, making up only 5% of the Spanish ham market. Quality comes at a price – a pack of Joselito Gran Reserva will set you back £20, but the ham is at the top of its game and offers a melt-in-the-mouth taste that can't be copied – accept no imitations.

Dom Pérignon 2000 tasting note: attractive pale lemon colour with floral aromas and a light lemon lift. Subtle and refined, it showed elegance and finesse on the palate with wonderful freshness and delicate buttered biscuit aromas. Crisp, airy and rich in the mouth with honeyed nuances, the wine was surprisingly youthful for its nine years and had a long refreshing finish. Devastatingly drinkable.

Wednesday, 28 October 2009

The Sun: Vin du Soleil blind tasting

I got a phone call from The Sun yesterday. They'd seen my news story on about the release of their new wine - Vin du Soleil, and wanted to invite me and a colleague down to their HQ in Wapping for a blind tasting, the results of which you can read about here.

Born out of a collaboration between the red top's wine writer Brian Moore and Asda's chief wine buyer Philippa Carr MW, the aptly named Vin du Soleil, a blend of Vermentino and Viognier, went on sale at Asda last week, so The Sun are obviously keen to plug it.

Living by the Wildean adage that all publicity is good publicity, web editor Adam and I decided to do it. Arriving at News International we are met by feature writer Nick Francis and ushered to the 'Green room' - a windowless grey room with black and white photos of Carry On stars adorning the walls, which I could almost hear weep.

We're told by Nick to wait in the green room while he prepares the tasting. Twenty minutes later he emerges. 'Here's the plan, we're going to put you in black silk blindfolds and take a few photographs'. Horrified by the idea of these photos coming into being, I suggest it would be a better idea to cover the bottles rather than our eyes. Nick seems happy with this and promptly disappears.

Ten minutes later we're whisked into a studio and placed in front of a white desk like a pair of news readers. A man fits us with mics and the photographer begins snapping away. Nick emerges with two plastic glasses filled with wine. 'We're not going taste from these are we?' Adam asks aghast. 'You can't swirl them and the plastic will impede the flavour'. Off goes Nick again in search of suitable stemware.

Meanwhile Adam and I prepare ourselves for the challenge ahead. We were to taste six wines, five of which were around the £5 mark and one around £15, picking out the Sun wine and the £15 bottle. Participating in any kind of blind tasting is a risky business that sets you up for a potential fall - even the most experienced palates make mistakes.

Nick bounds through the door with a box full of glasses, which are promptly filled with the six wines and laid out in front of us. The camera starts rolling and we're told to look at each other and have a relaxed 'conversation' about the wines. Adam is a natural and launches into describing the first - 'light, fruity, a touch sweet', we both agree it's got some character, but isn't rocking our world. Wine number two is more to my taste. Its crisp acidity and green apple notes make me think it may be the Vermentino in the Sun blend. I boldly suggest we may have found the Vin du Soleil.

Wines three and four are dire - colourless, characterless and charmless. 'They must be Pinot Grigios' I say, looking disdainfully down the camera lens. Adam agrees. Wine five is more interesting, with appealing minerality and malolactic notes - cue lengthly description from Adam about the intricacies of malolactic fermentation. I steer the discussion on by reaching for glass six.

Mercifully it's good. Very good in fact. So good I wonder if it's the £15 wine. Lively, fresh, with good acidity and attractive floral notes Adam is convinced it's the Viognier from the Vin du Soleil blend, so we put our reputations on the line and hail it the Sun wine. At this point, camera still rolling, Nick starts waving his arms with glee and grinning. We must be right. But what of the expensive wine? I venture it must be wine two, as none of the others showed enough complexity. Adam agrees hesitantly.

The camera stops rolling and Nick tells us we're half right. We picked out the Vin du Soleil but failed to spot the most expensive wine – a Pouilly-Fuissé from Bouchardné et Fils, preferring the Jacob's Creek Semillon-Chardonnay blend. The Bouchard wasn't showing well - its supposed pear, apricot, floral and honey aromas had all but vanished. As quickly as we'd entered, we were stripped of our mics, shaken by the hand and ushered out of the studio and into the midday traffic.

Tuesday, 27 October 2009

Molecular cocktails: it's all in the mix

Ferran Adrià started the hydrocollised  ball rolling, then Heston got in on the act and now mixologists are the latest to dust off their test tubes and try their hands at molecular gastronomy. 

For the month of October Hush bar in Bond Street are offering a six-strong molecular cocktail menu devised by a duo of not-so-mad scientists Pedro Solorzano and Boris Ivan - the Blumenthals of the cocktail world.

During our mixology masterclass they seem keen to point out that the secret behind creating the perfect molecular cocktail is getting the quantities spot on. Too much alocohol and the cocktails won't freeze, too little and you've got a mocktail. 'You have to take all the elements out of the cocktail, separate them and reintroduce them in a different way', says Solorzano. 'The key is to keep the elements separate by mixing them at the correct speed', adds Ivan. 

First up I learn how to make a Piña-Cavia-da (a Piña Colada festooned with tiny rum-filled caviar-like balls). A syringe is thrust into my hand and I'm handed a white tub full of calcium chloride flakes. Flashbacks to grammar school chemistry lessons and the nightmare that is the periodic table ensue. I mix 1 1/2 spoons of the flakes into a glass of water and give it a good stir while filling my syringe with a sweet gloopy mixture of rum, apple juice and sodium. 

I then syringe drops of the rum mixture into the 'calcium bath', which makes the rum emulsify into tiny hydrocollised balls. A full syringe only gives you a teaspoon of balls - molecular cocktails are an intricate art and demand extreme patience on the part of the maker.

Pedro whips out a tub of pineapple and coconut sorbet from the fridge and spoons it into a martini glass, sprinkling it with the hydrocollised rum. It's not something you can really drink, more an alternative pudding. I plunge my spoon in, making sure I get a good dose of the rum caviar. It's hideously sweet, but the balls do taste of the Element 8 rum they were made with.

I also try my hand at the Caipiroli (a Caiprini shaped like ravioli), made from a mixture of rum, lime juice, syrup, green food colouring and sodium alginate. Dipped in the calcium bath, the mint green mixture is frozen for 10 minutes in a square mould. It's much stonger than the Piña-Cavia-da, and considerably more appealing to the tastebuds, especially when paired with the suggested green apple slices. 

Another molecular delight on the list is the B58 - a take on the B52 with the usual Baileys and Kahula and a shot of rum foam that explodes in the mouth. The glammest cocktail has to be the Element Fizz, a mix of Prosecco, rum and Grand Marnier caviar that floats ebulliently round the glass chasing the bubbles.

'We're off to Spain tomorrow to showcase the cocktails in Barcelona', Boris informs me, as he dips into the fridge and brings out his latest experiment – strawberry beer sorbet. 'We're planning on pouring it into the beer bottles and serving it like that. I want to bring all the elements of the kitchen back into the bar. The bar is the new kitchen'. 

Tuesday, 20 October 2009

Tequila: don't slam it

When you hear the word Tequila what comes to mind – the worm at the bottom of the bottle? Hideous hangovers from one too many Tequila slammers? Whatever thoughts Tequila inspires, they are unlikely to live up to the refined recollections one associates with wine. Though the spirit has noble roots – Aztec royalty used to drink it as a digestif.

It was with interest and an open mind that I headed to Mexican mecca Café Pacifico in Covent Garden for a Tezón Tequila masterclass. Like Champagne or Cognac, Tequila takes its name from its appellation of origin; the town of Tequila. The spirit is made from the agave plant, which is not a cactus as is widely (and wrongly) thought. There are over 200 varieties of agave in Mexico, but only Blue Weber Agave is used in the production of Tequila.

Much like wine, Tequila production is strictly controlled, and the spirit can only be produced in five small regions around Guadalajara in northwest Mexico. The agave plant grows on volcanic soils rich in minerals and takes around 6-8 years to mature, depending on its terroir. Plants in the highlands mature more slowly than in the hotter lowlands, where the sugars ripen earlier.

A beautiful turquoise colour, the plants are cut and left to steam in a brick oven for 36 hours to help increase their sugar content. The juice is then squeezed out and placed in fermentation vats made of American oak, where yeast is added. The spirit is double distilled before bottling, or, in the case of the Reposados and Añejos, barrel ageing.

Like wine, flavour is obtained from the oak barrels and differs depending on the amount of time spent in cask. French oak imparts a chocolate aftertaste while American oak offers vanilla sweetness. Barrels can even be charred – old Bourbon barrels are becoming increasingly popular as they offer attractive sweet smokey aromas associated with Bourbon and Whisky.

There are two types of Tequila - 100% Agave Tequila (made solely from Blue Weber Agave) and Tequila, a blend that must contain at least 51% Blue Weber Agave. The final 49% can be a blend of sugarcane and corn sugar. 100% Agave Tequilas are considered superior to blended Tequilas, offering higher overall quality and purity of flavour.

Tequila is the fastest growing spirit in the UK, reflected by the emergence of The Tequila Society (, set up earlier this year by flame-haired comedy actress and TV producer Cleo Rocos to promote the category. Chatting to Rocos, she seemed keen to promote the spirit's slimming benefits: 'Mexican women use it to diet as it contains virtually no calories – I swear by it'.

I was advised to approach the Tequila tasting in the same way I would a wine tasting - first smelling the spirit, then giving it a swirl and allowing plenty of air in when tasting. First up was the straight-to-bottle Tezón 100% Agave Plata. As it has no contact with oak, the agave flavour really comes through, so you get lovely, gin-like herbal notes on the nose.

Moving onto the Reposado, the first thing you notice is the colour. A year in oak turns Tequila pale yellow. The nose was totally different to the Plata - with wonderful vanilla sweetness, charcoal and peaty aromas on display. The Añejo I tried was aged for two years in Bourbon barrels, giving it hints of maple and a lovely long smokey length. It was fascinating to compare the three, and witness the affects of barrel ageing. 

Last on the tasting menu was 'Diva', a pink Tequila soon to be shipped to the UK. Aged in Merlot barrels for eight months, giving it an attractive Provencal onion skin colour, the spirit was astonishingly wine-like. The nose showed fascinating Port-like flavours – raisins, prunes, sultanas, Christmas cake and chocolate, while the palate was smooth, full and feminine with a long peaty finish.

But what of the worm I hear you cry! You will never find a worm in a bottle of Tequila. They only appear in Mezcal, an almost identical spirit made from Agave potatorum. The addition of the worm has nothing to do with imparting flavour, it's more of a marketing ploy to show the spirit is strong enough to kill the worm. Producers pluck the worms from the agave plants and pop them (still wriggling) into the bottles.

Tuesday, 13 October 2009

Absolut Ice Bar - too cool for school?

While I aim to mainly cover wine in this blog, there will be the odd detour into other areas of the food and drink spectrum. Last night my poison of choice was vodka, as I headed down to the re-launch of the Absolut Ice Bar on Heddon Street.

'Ice designers' from the famous Ice Hotel in Sweden have worked wonders with their picks to create a new underwater theme, so you get to knock back shots to a backdrop of star fish and octupi.

Before entering the bar, kept at a frosty five degrees below zero, a shiny blue hooded cape is flung over your head, accessorized with a pair of gloves on a string. As it's essentially like hanging out in a freezer, visits are trimmed down to 45 minute slots. This is the perfect amount of time to take in the ice sculptures, prop yourself up against the ice bar and down a couple of vodka shots served in ice glasses.

I opted for the 'sea cow' - a luminous yellow Absolut raspberry shot. Smooth and sweet, it was delicious. I went for a second but had to drink it against the clock - literally. A digital clock on the wall counts down the amount of time you have left in Eskimos paradise. By the time it ran down to zero my fingers were numb, teeth were chattering and I was dying to be back in the warm. Stepping out onto Heddon Street, the night air felt toasty in comparison. I don't think I'll ever go back, but it's one of those places all Londoners have to try once.

Sunday, 11 October 2009

Chocolate: raising the bar

It's national chocolate week and the city is buzzing with chocolate themed events, giving me the perfect excuse to indulge for 'research' purposes. I headed down to the Mayfair Hotel for Chocolate Unwrapped, the first event of its kind in the UK dedicated entirely to chocolate.

All of the big names were represented, from Artisan du Chocolat and Rococo to Hotel Chocolat. The fascinating thing for me, aside from getting to compare colours, flavours and textures, was learning about how chocolate is made - the detailed process from 'bean to bar'.

The word chocolate comes from the Nahautl 'xocolãtl', meaning bitter water. It reminded me of when I first got into wine - the excitement of discovering a new world, with its own vocabulary. From conching and winnowing to tempering, chocolate has its own language, which is as foreign as wine speak to the uninitiated.

Comparisons with winemaking kept coming up. As with wine, terroir is crucial in determining the taste and characteristics of the chocolate. Different chocolates actually taste of where they are from. And as with single vineyard wines, single origin chocolates from one plantation produce higher quality chocolate to those from a combination of sites, and companies seem keen to shout about provenance on their labels.

The chocolate making process is also quite similar to winemaking - from the harvesting (twice yearly in May and November) to the fermenting, drying, de-shelling and roasting, through to conching, where the chocolate is ground down, melted and turned with oxygen.

Only three companies in the UK make their chocolate from bean to bar. The rest buy it ready made, which they melt down and add their own flavours to. There seems to be a big debate over cocoa percentages - with 70% seen as the ideal. Some of the chocolatiers argue that it all depends on the bean, and the flavour you are going to blend it with. 'A raspberry chocolate could never stand up against 70% cocoa', one chocolatier insisted. 'The flavour can only come out at 60%'.

Chocolate certainly seems to be raising its game – there is a huge difference in quality between your average bar of Cadburys and the artisanal creations from the likes of Hotel du Chocolat. To reflect this rise in quality, an 'Academy of Chocolate' has been set up to promote fine chocolate in the UK and honour the best in chocolate making in their annual Academy of Chocolate Awards, much like our Decanter World Wine Awards.

Top 5 chocolates of the day -

Sir Hans Sloane drinking chocolate, which I tried in pellet form – made from chocolate spun around a single grain of sugar, it had a lovely crunchy, almost biscuity texture.

Pacari Raw Chocolate - 100% unprocessed cocoa made from cocoa powder, cocoa butter and nothing else. It was surprisingly smooth and, I'm told, rich in antioxidants.

Artisan du Chocolat salted caramel - their best seller, these dusted truffles burst in the mouth, filling it with delicious oozing salty caramel.

Scand Choco white chocolate made with goats milk - not the tastiest chocolate of the day, but wins points for individuality. Tastes of sweet goats cheese, which is confusing for the palate.

Rococo Darjeeling chocolate - dusted with gold, real perfume is added in order to achieve the strong Darjeeling flavour - this is apparently top secret.

Weird fact of the day: monkeys love the sweet white pulp from cocoa pods.

Saturday, 10 October 2009

PX I love you

From bone dry Finos to unctuous PXs, Sherry runs the gamut of the flavour spectrum and goes fantastically well with all kinds of food. Here are the pick of the bunch from a recent tasting put on by the Sherry Institute of Spain at the Spanish Embassy in London – olé!

Bodegas Pérez Marín, La Guita Manzanilla ****

Fresh and bright, there is clear sea air on the nose coupled with wild floral aromas and yeasty notes. Light and fresh on the palate, with an appealing savoury Umami taste and enveloping persistence. £10.99; Vinoteca

Bodegas Lustau, Puerto Fino ****

Light, dry and tangy with flor aromas and lashings of salty Marmite. On the nose are chestnuts, almonds and a hint of spice. Soft and well balanced the palate, this Fino has attractive freshness and excellent length. £13.50; Roberson

Bodegas Gonzáles Byass, Del Duque Amontillado Muy Viejo *****

Amber colour, with toasted almond, hazelnut, vanilla and caramel aromas blended with zesty lemon. Powerful, dry and nutty in the mouth with oxidized notes and surprising acidity that fades into a rich hazelnut finish. £18;

Bodegas Sánchez Romate, NPU Amontillado *****

Made in the classic, very dry amontillado style, which the Spanish favor, this is a delightful wine. The complex nose combines toasted almonds and hazelnuts, toffee and vanilla. Powerful, dry and balanced on the palate, it has an intense tang and a hint of Fino saltiness in the exquisite lingering finish. £14.99; Wimbledon Wine Cellar

Williams and Humbert, Dos Cortados V.O.S 20-year-old Palo Cortado ****

Amber colour, it showed warm vanilla and spicy notes on the nose, along with a sprinkling of salted almonds. The palate is soft, spicy and nutty with hints of citrus fruit and an attractive nutty complexity. An excellent rich mouthfeel balanced by wonderful acidity that blends into a lingering hazelnut finish. £12.99; Theatre of Wine

Fernando de Castilla, Antique Oloroso *****

Tawny colour, it has a light typical nose of almonds and hazelnuts, along with attractive citrus orange peel notes. The palate is dry, with a lovely nutty savouriness and hints of spice. A bright, vibrant wine with wonderful freshness and exceptional length. £23; The Sampler

Sandeman, Royal Corregidor Rich Old Oloroso ****

An attractive mahogany colour with a heady nose of nuts, dried fruits, prunes, raisins and sultanas - there’s a lot going on here. Lots of lovely rich ripe fruit on the palate, which is elegant and velvety rather than cloying due to refreshing acidity. £14.99; Harrods

John Harvey & Sons Ltd, V.O.R.S 30-year-old Rich Old Oloroso *****

A walnut colour, we’re in Oloroso heartland here. Rich, spicy, nutty nose with dollops of caramel and toffee. The palate is intense, mouthfilling and complex with attractive oxidized notes, fresh citrus and a creamy sweetness pairing with dried fruits into a long nutty finish. Price tbc; Bordeaux Quay

Bodegas Valdivia, Sacromonte Pedro Ximénez ****

Dark brown, the nose is rich and aromatic, with raisins, figs, plum jam and honey in the mix, alongside roasted coffee beans and a strange but appealing truffle aroma. Smooth and velvety in the mouth, it’s sweet and treacly without being cloying. £19.95; Laymont & Shaw

Bodegas Hidalgo La Gitana, Triana Pedro Ximénez *****

Almost black, it has serious legs that leave the glass with a golden brown coating. This is a very traditional PX with everything you would expect – warm wintry raisins, figs, prunes, sultanas and mince pies on the nose and an opulent palate that bursts with bitter treacle and lingers lusciously in the mouth. £12.99; Wine Rack

Friday, 9 October 2009

Phillip Schofield: My Passion for Wine

I'm in Phillip Schofield’s cellar drinking a 1982 Canon. Our interview has ended and before having his photo taken, he decides it would be a good idea to crack open a claret to enjoy during the shoot. We were given strict instructions by the PR to be in and out of his Henley home in an hour. Two hours on and we haven’t taken a single picture.

Since Decanter last spoke to the 46-year-old presenter of daytime TV’s star turn This Morning a decade ago, he’s been busy amassing a 7,500-bottle cellar of superstars that would quicken the pulse of most wine lovers. Wooden cases are stacked floor to ceiling like Jenga blocks, and at every turn is a big name – Pétrus, Cheval Blanc, Ausone, Angelus, Le Pin, Lafite, DRC, Yquem – it’s hard to think of a top wine that isn’t represented. ‘It’s the only thing I’ve got into that I’m still passionate about,’ Schofield admits. ‘Over the past 10 years it’s become even more of an obsession.’ He couldn’t be more serious about wine; every bottle is logged and he faithfully keeps tasting notes for every wine he drinks. It’s a far cry from the days of presenting children’s TV with furry sidekick Gordon the Gopher.

The country house Schofield shares with his wife, Steff, and two teenage daughters has two cellars: one under the house for ‘everyday drinking’, reached via a staircase that appears out of nowhere from under the floorboards; and a ‘long-haul’ cellar under his garage. He’s going to need a third at this rate. Standing in his impressive garage cellar, it strikes me how at odds his wine obsession is with his fluffy public persona. When it comes to wine, this man means business.

Schofield’s taste leans heavily towards the Old World – ‘there’s nothing finer than a classic Bordeaux or a beautifully elegant Burgundy’ – but he does play a little in the New World. ‘I have a four-bottle allocation of Araujo in California, which I take every year. It took three years to get three bottles. The next year someone died so I got an extra bottle – it’s dead man’s shoes.’

The self-styled ‘silver fox’ has established himself among wine’s movers and shakers, and enjoys invites to the en primeur tastings in Bordeaux and decadent dinners at the likes of Latour. Having previously concurred to save face, Schofield is now confident about stating his opinion at tastings after witnessing mistakes from the top of the wine tree. ‘I took a bottle of the 1962 to Latour, and Frédéric Engerer, the MD, didn’t know what it was. That was great!’

Even though he doesn’t buy to invest – ‘I’ve never bought a bottle I intended to sell’ – Schofield keeps an eye out for bargains. ‘The city boys are all going bust so their wine is flooding the market. They drove us into this mess so we deserve the pickings of their wine.’ And in today’s delicate financial climate, he sees his cellar as his safety net. ‘If my world falls apart, my wine collection will be my pension.’

His wine heartland is Bordeaux, but he dabbles in Burgundy through Rousseau and DRC, favouring Gevrey-Chambertin, and the Rhône – Guigal’s single-vineyard Côte-Rôties are among his favourites. Despite having more than he could possibly drink, Schofield saves his top bottles for special occasions. He’s not the type to kick back and enjoy a Latour 1982 with a movie mid-week. ‘You’ve got to open your best bottles in the right frame of mind. Wine is so emotional. A friend of mine died and I thought, sod it, I’m going to open something amazing. I did and it was dreadful. A Mouton 1982. I may as well have had a coffee.’

Does having to wake up so early for work deter him from midweek drinking? ‘Steff isn’t a red wine drinker, so if I open a bottle during the week it’s going to be me drinking it. I can’t remember the last time I re-corked a bottle and drank it the next day.’ He’s healthily blasé about the Government’s nanny-state stance on drinking. ‘I don’t care what the government says about drinking. I’m fed up of being patrolled by the fun police.’

His most memorable bottle was enjoyed last year with Jancis Robinson MW, whom he cheekily calls ‘her majesty’. Schofield had organised a Cheval Blanc vertical at culinary alchemist Heston Blumenthal’s Bray pub, The Hinds Head. ‘The waiting staff staggered over from The Fat Duck with Riedel glasses’, he recalls. ‘I’d been saving this bottle of 1947 for a decade. I remember bidding for it over the phone in a lay-by in Wolverhampton. I’ve never felt more pressure than I did about opening that bottle. Thank God it performed beautifully.

Thursday, 8 October 2009

Wine and music: notes from the glass

It all started with Aurelio Montes playing monastic chants to his maturing wine casks in his Feng Shui-optimised barrel room. I got to thinking about wine and music, and whether there really is a correlation between the two. Can what we drink be made to taste better depending on the soundtrack we sip it to? Apparently so – a study carried out by Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh found that music can affect perception in other senses and change the way wine tastes.

The research is based on the theory of cognitive priming, which holds that certain styles of music stimulate, or prime, certain parts of the brain. When wine is tasted, these areas are already active and have a corresponding effect on our perceptions of taste. Hence when a powerful piece of music such as O Fortuna from Carl Orff's Carmina Burana is played, a wine like Montes Alpha Cabernet Sauvignon is perceived as being richer and more robust than when no music is heard. Similarly, a Chardonnay seems bolder and fresher when accompanied by pop.

So which CD's do I whack on when I'm cracking open a bottle? A Tempranillo calls for something upbeat and fun – Chuck Berry or the Contours, while a Pinot demands something brooding, pensive and introspective, say Feist or Regina Spektor. Champagne goes best with effervescent and ebullient tracks from the likes of the Noisettes, Lady Gaga and La Roux, while Merlot is made for mellow music – Otis, Jack Johnson and José Gonzales. Nothing goes better with a crisp, dry Manzanilla than the passionate lyrics of Pasión Vega, or the hypnotic chords of Paco de Lucía. Syrah screams guitar – Hendrix, Guns N' Roses and Green Day would all work a treat, while I can think of nothing better to accompany a sweet, mouthfilling PX than treacle-voiced Ella Fitzgerald singing Cheek to Cheek.

Tuesday, 6 October 2009

Selfridges Wonder Bar: pleasure by the measure

Tonight was an exciting night for the team. It was the launch of our brief but brilliant two week tenure at the Wonder Bar in Selfridges. For the next 14 days, 50 Decanter World Wine Awards trophy winners will have their fine curves wedged tightly into an Enomatic machine in order to be devoured and enjoyed by the public.

To put it into perspective, 10,285 wines entered the competition this year and only 91 came away with a trophy. These 50 bad boys make up the top 1% of the wines tasted by our panel, so whatever you end up trying, it's pretty likely to be good.

On my way to the tasting I caught sight of a flashing yellow sign that formed part of one of the window displays. Framed with Hollywood-style light bulbs, it took me a while to realize it was a huge poster advertising our collaboration with the Wonder Bar. There, in the window of Selfridges, one of the biggest department stores in London, if not the world, was Decanter's name in lights, literally. It was a weird and wonderful moment. I felt excited and proud of our fifteen minutes of fame, and the fact that we've stepped outside the insular bubble the wine world is guilty of cocooning itself in.

So, how did the wines fare? I'm a big fan of the Enomatic. It's like a wine pick 'n' mix full of liquid pleasure by the measure. The beauty of it is that it drags people out of their comfort zones and forces them to try something new. Currency comes in the form card that can be topped up in multiples of ten. So £10 will get you 10 samples of wine under £10 or 5 samples of wine over £10. Once you've juiced your card the fun begins. You get that kid in a sweet shop feeling where you genuinely don't know where to begin.

I hit the wine jukebox with brio, starting with a trio of whites, moving on to an octet of reds and ending with a quartet of sweet and fortifieds. Here are my top ten...

Rustenberg, Chardonnay, Stellenbosch 2007
Light and fresh on the nose, with aromas of crunchy green apple, citrus and honeysuckle. Creamy and complex on the palate with a lovely rounded mouthfeel and appealing malolactic notes. The wine has lovely balance and lingering length.

Maison Albert Bichot, Domaine du Pavillon, Mersault Premier Cru Les Charmes 2007
A classic nose displaying wonderful minerality. We're in Burgundy heartland. Elegant and refined on the palate with buttery malolactic notes pairing with refreshing citrus and green apple. A lovely, rich, creamy mouthfeel balanced by a good acidity that cuts through it. The delicious mineral notes persist. A truly charming wine.

Weingut Johann Donabaum, Riesling Smaragd Setzberg, Wachau, 2007
A lively nose of citrus and stone fruits including lemon, lime, peach and apricot that mix with blossom and floral notes. Lots of tropical fruit on the palate, from passion fruit to lychee. The wine has a lovely acidity and underlying mineral notes. It's zippy, young and full of the joys of spring (even when opened in Autumn).

CVNE, Pagos de Viña Real, Rioja, 2002
An attractive ruby colour with a lovely savoury meaty animal nose, along with baked cherries, cedarwood and leather. A very traditional Rioja. Smooth and silky on the palate, the wine has excellent structure and persistent length. Pass me the lamb chuletitas.

Jacob's Creek, Johann Shiraz Cabernet, 2001
A lovely nose of black bramble fruit - black currants, black berries, black cherries, mint and eucalypt. Smooth on the palate, it retains its elegance despite a voluptuous full body and bold, grippy tannins weaved with wonderful spicy peppery notes.

Marchesi di Gresy, Martinenga, Barbaresco, 2005
A typically Italian nose of lively bright ripe red fruit - strawberries and bitter cherries. Vibrant and smooth on the palate with appealing licorice and smoky notes wrapped around firm grippy tannins. Balsamic notes on the finish.

Valdivieso, Single Vineyard Merlot, Curicó Valley, 2007
Slightly jammy rich ripe red fruit and vanilla sweentess on the nose mixing with black cherry, black currant, smoke and tar. A heady wine. Rich, smooth and well rounded in the mouth with lovely spicy notes coming though and the vanilla sweetness persisting in the length. I wish I could drink the whole bottle.

Bodegas Fernando de Castilla, Antique Amontillado
Elegant nutty nose of roasted almonds and hazelnuts that mix with burnt caramel and citrus notes of lemon and orange peel. Bone dry on the palate with attractive oxidized aromas, refreshing acidity and a lingering hazelnut finish.

Emilio Lustau, Sweet Oloroso, Añada 1990
Tawny colour with a sweet nose of burnt toffee, caramel, raisins and almonds. Heady and rich on the palate with an unctuous mouthfeel and impressive acidity that lifts the sweetness through to the deliciously long nutty finish.

Henriques & Henriques, 15 Year Old Bual Madeira
I've just come back from Madeira so was very excited to try this. It didn't disappoint. A heady nose of dried fruits, raisins, sultanas, figs, prunes and burnt toffee. Rich, complex, delicious and mouthfilling, with hazelnuts, almonds, vanilla and burnt sugar on the palate. Scrumptious.

Wednesday, 30 September 2009

Chocolate and Malbec - a match made in heaven?

Working for a wine magazine has its obvious perks. When an invite popped into my inbox for a chocolate and Malbec tasting it took me all of three seconds to rsvp. The tasting was tonight at Gaucho on Swallow Street. Led through the darkened restaurant past the trendy bar decked out in cow hide, I was seated around a long wooden table alongside a sprinkling of fellow chocoholic journalists. 

Four wines were laid out in front of us, while plates overflowing with jewel-like chocolates lined the far table, begging to be eaten. The 'masterclass' was led by glamorous blond chocolatier Kirsty Joly of Perfectly Tempered ( What a job - getting to pair chocolate with wine for a living. Each chocolate was exquisitely crafted - some were even decked out with Paul Smith stripes.

Our quest was to try two chocolates with each wine, and find the best match. We began with a blueberry truffle filled with liquid caramel and paired it with Michel Torino 'Don David' Malbec from Cafayate, high up in Salta. The wine was fruit forward, with intense ripe red fruit and a lovely earthy character. Tasting it alongside the chocolate was like something from Charlie and the Chocolate factory - first you get the caramel, then the blueberry comes in in interludes. It leant the wine an appealing sweetness, and the wine seemed to bring out the blueberry in the chocolate - the two complimenting each other. 

The second Jasmine tea chocolate, while attractive, seemed to jar with the wine. The chocolate and the wine were very much two separate entities, rather than a fusion of intertwining flavours. 

Our second wine was the Selecion 'G' Malbec by Domaine Vistalba from Mendoza. Light, floral and aromatic, its flavours were enhanced by the Masala Chai choc - a delicious warming flavour explosion of Indian tea, cinnamon, cloves and ginger. It tasted of Christmas and harmonized so well with the floral notes in the wine, the two creating a strange and wonderful symphony on the palate.

Round three saw us try Casa Marguery from La Consulta in the Uco Valley alongside a lemon and mint chocolate. Some got lemon first, others mint - either way the powerful choc packed a punch on the palate, bursting with zesty lemon, for me the mint then made an appearance, disappeared, then reappeared again, this time teaming up with some basil that came out of nowhere. This was my favourite wine of the evening - with its heady coffee notes. Tasting it alongside the chocolate it seemed to gain a lovely zesty lift, a lightness it didn't have before, with the lemon and mint adding a valuable freshness. The passion fruit competitor didn't come close for me.

By this point I was pretty mocha'd out, but the plates kept coming. The final match was strawberry and balsamic vs orange and cardamom with Schroeder 'Patagonian Select'  from Neuquen. While the strawberry choc was fresh, it tasted like a mouthful of milkshake and was not a patch on the divine orange chocolate, which again gave the wine an attractive lift and zesty vitality.

Then a few tricks were pulled out of the bag - in the shape of a Chimichurri chocolate, which was thankfully tasted blind. A bizarre combination of olive oil, garlic, onion, vinegar, parsley and pepper. Savoury chocolate is something everyone should try once, but it left most of us with a bad taste in our mouths. This was soon soothed by the final choc of the evening, and my personal favourite - dulce de leche.  

The chocolate and wine matching debate is one that continues to divide the wine world. Can wine and chocolate ever be bedfellows? I used to think not, but tonight has changed my mind. In Malbec we may have found the ultimate match for chocolate. When the marriage was good, the Malbec appeared to harmonize beautifully with the intricate flavours in the chocolate, the two becoming inextricably linked, adding something to the other, and enhancing the other's flavour.

But it's all down to personal taste. There is no right or wrong answer, and we all found ourselves favouring different matches. It's also hard to disassociate your love of particular flavours with your perception of how well the chocolate matches with the wine. If you're a caramel fan of course the caramel chocolate will appeal more and seem a better match than the Chimichurri. 

After the tasting I went to the first birthday party of vegetarian restaurant Tibits on Heddon(ism) street - home to the Ice Bar among other treats. There I met a fashion photographer who had based an entire university project around the theme of chocolate. Exploring the effect on his digestive system, he ate nothing but chocolate for four months until he became so ill he had to be hospitalized. His piece de resistance was an eight foot chocolate tree sculpture, which people could simultaneously eat and admire. He said he can never look at chocolate in the same way again, and limits himself to 'a bar or two a year on special occasions'. 

Friday, 18 September 2009

Madeira: tales from a small island

I flew into Madeira last night, landing in the most spectacular way. Beginning our descent, the island suddenly came into view, but we appeared to be flying right past it. The pilot made a violent turn, having to somehow land this massive hunk of metal somewhere on the tiny island.

We get closer and closer and I can see the flashing lights on the runway going crazy. It's the smallest runway I've ever seen, perched precariously close to the sea. Straining my neck to look out the window, I can no longer see the island, only the sea, which we are hurtling towards at speed. A few inches to the right and we're swimming. A hush falls upon the cabin. Everyone seems nervous, even the Madeirans. A few seconds later and we hit the ground, lurching forward from the force of the landing. But now we're speeding down the runway so fast we'll soon be off the other side and into the water. The plane speeds on, but the pilot makes a slick turn, and we're safely on the tarmack. The whole cabin starts clapping and yelping with relief. 'Beautiful, beautiful', say the three Madeiran boys behind me. We've landed. We're safe. I'm here.