Sunday, 31 January 2010

Sketch at the Royal Academy

I realise that some of my recent posts have had less to do with wine and more to do with 'and the city', but I want to expand the blog to accommodate all the cultural things I get up to, wine related or not.

Friday was a such an evening. After work I headed across town to the Royal Academy to catch the Sketch pop-up café before it folded down its cardboard tables and chairs for good.

I love the idea of the pop-up café – the whole catch me if you can concept. The café shares Sketch's flair for flamboyance, its centrepiece being a giant chandelier made from outsized reading glasses that reflect a kaleidoscope of light around the ceiling.

The walls are hot pink and covered with open books, fanned out and floating as if in some Dalínian dream. The menu is etched on a framed portrait painting with a hole in it, while a pair of harlequin dogs made from old toys by artist Robert Frampton guard the entrance.

Surprisingly restrained for Pierre Gagnaire, the food included gems such as pumpkin soup with popcorn and sexed-up salads. There was also much joy to be found in the pâtisserie section, from pastel coloured macaroons and coffee eclairs to thick slices of hazelnut cake. Having indulged Marie Antoinette-style on cake the night before, I refrained and went for a Nutella crêpe, as they were out of salted caramel. Tempted by the mini bottles of Pommery 'Pop' Champagne, I opted instead for a pot of English Breakfast.

My friend and I sat at a cardboard table in the portico on rainbow coloured wooden chairs. It felt incredibly childlike, as if we were in a giant nursery waiting for the teacher to arrive. I had read about promises of blankets and water bottles, though none were doing the rounds on our visit. Neither were the oysters – perhaps they had fled into the Thames?

Saturday, 30 January 2010

Art Tea/Arch London

On Thursday I was invited to an event that combined three of my favourite things: Champagne, art and cake. It was a party held at the chic Louise Kennedy store in Knightsbridge to celebrate the launch of Art Tea afternoon tea at the Merrion hotel in Dublin. Quite why the party was held in a clothes shop in London rather than the hotel in Dublin remains a mystery, but one I was pleased to be part of.

The Merrion has built up a sizable collection of Irish art from the likes of Jack B Yeats (brother of the poet William Butler Yeats), Sir John Lavery and Paul Henry. Taking nine paintings as their starting point, the hotel's pastry chefs were tasked with creating a series of edible art works inspired by the paintings.

The results were impressive, from the lemon panna cotta with a raspberry mousse inspired by Robert Ballagh's Homage to Fernand Leger (pictured), to the towering mixed berry bavarois with cinnamon brioche – an artisitc interpretation of Jack B Yeats' brooding blue Defiance.

Some of the pastries were more of a nod to the work than a direct representation, but you could trace the thought process behind each of them. The mini art works were passed round the heaving shop on silver trays alongside cucumber sandwiches and clotted cream scones.

I enjoyed a selection of them between sips of Taittinger, my favourite being the chocolate and star anise macaroon. The crowd was very Sloaney, awash with velvet and pearls. One lady with a broken arm was sporting a silk black sling she'd sewn herself (presumably from a Hérmes scarf). A&E chic, who would have thought...

I grabbed a goodie bag filled with vanilla macaroons and a pot of lemon curd, and made my way to the Arch London, the latest townhouse hotel to launch in the capital. On my way, I peered through the window of Christian Louboutin. It really is a shoe shrine. Each red-soled shoe resides in an arched cubbyhole, like a saint in a church, and commands the same reverence from its worshippers. There is nothing to distract you from the icons – all focus in on the six-inch demigods.

I rocked up to the Arch in the rain with my cream scarf wrapped around my head in what I hoped looked like a homage to Hepburn. It's a bad business arriving at an event fresh from the rain – bedraggled rat is not a good look. Nevertheless, I sashayed through the door, checked in my coat and sought out Champagne. The hotel has a cosy feel to it, think log fires, bookcases full of the classics and inviting armchairs.

A lot of the rooms were on show, and we were given carte blanche to explore, passing from room to room like a game of Cluedo. All the rooms had a distinctly homely feel, but with a trendy twist. It was very Wallpaper* magazine, with i-pod decks, Nespresso machines and flat screen TVs in the bath! I walked into one bathroom and saw the headline 'JD Salinger dies' flashing up in a news bulletin. It was very surreal learning of Salinger's death from a flat screen TV in a hotel bathroom – what would Holden Caulfield make of that?

Friday, 29 January 2010

Comptoir Libanais

Never one to turn down a party, on Wednesday night I went to the opening of Comptior Libanais in Finchley Road.

It's the fourth site for this Leon-style Lebanese restaurant, which has managed to win over both Time Out's Guy Diamond (it was a runner up in the Time Out Eating and Drinking Awards last year), and the notoriously harsh Giles Coren, who was charmed by both the lamb kofte and the décor.

There's something distinctly cool about the place. Light, bright and strikingly simple, it looks like it's not trying too hard, which is always good. My friends and I barely had time to perch on a silver stool and admire the surroundings before we were offered a glass of red wine, a bottle of strawberry Fanta and a selection of juices. The Fanta had that wonderful sickly-sweet taste of childhood, while the juices – lime and mint, pink grapefruit, and pomegranate were lip-smackingly fresh.

As for the wine, I was impressed to see six whites and six reds on the menu, including Château Musar 2002. Tonight were were drinking Cave Kouroum 2005 Petit Noir, a blend of Cincault, Grenache, Carignan and Syrah my Lebanese hairdresser had insisted I try the last time he was let loose on my locks. It's from the Bekaa region, on the slopes of the Barouk Mountain. We were drinking from tumblers, so it wasn't easy to asses, but it was bursting with red fruit – cherries, red currants, raspberries and strawberries. The palate was smooth and soft, with silky tannins and a hint of pepper on the finish.

It was an ideal accompaniment to the Middle Eastern food, and boy did they roll out the food. From humous with chickpeas and olive oil, to haloumi wraps, spicy chicken parcels, pine cone shaped falafel, and little bowls of cous cous and roasted vegetables. Sybarite that I am, I tried one of everything and soon started to feel like a stuffed vine leaf. Amidst our gastrotour, a harem of belly dancers emerged in scandalously skimpy outfits. They weaved their way through the crowd, shaking their Shakira-like hips to the rhythm pounded out by the over-enthusiastic male drummers.

Through the throng came orange-clad waitresses with trays of frozen yoghurt with rose water, baclava sprinkled with pistachios, cubes of honey-drenched cake and biscuits crammed with nuts. I was too full to enjoy them, but made a gallant effort to try them all. The evening finished with jars of mint tea and a goodie bag full of Eastern treats – baclava, Turkish delight, paprika, cinnamon gum and a tin of spices.

With its laid-back demeanor, chic décor and tasty, affordable food, Comptoir Libanais have tapped into the zeitgeist and conquered a niche culture-hungry Londoners will lap up. Look out Leon.

Tuesday, 26 January 2010

Gordon's Wine Bar

Every wine lover must at some point make a pilgrimage to Gordon's Wine Bar – the oldest wine bar in London. Located on Villiers street, next to Embankment, Gordon's opened in 1890 and has enjoyed a colourful history – the building was home to diarist Samuel Pepys in the 1680s.

Before becoming a bar, it served as a seed warehouse until the Thames was embanked in 1824, and shortly after opening, author Rudyard Kipling moved in as a tenant, penning the London-based novel The Light That Failed in the parlour above the bar.

The charm of Gordon's lies in the fact that very little has changed in its 120-year history. Walking down the narrow staircase, it's like the 20th century never happened. The wooden walls are covered in yellowing newspaper cuttings and old posters from a bygone era. It's full of trinkets, from grandfather clocks and ornate vintage tills, to old wine kegs and Champagne bottles cloaked in cobwebs.

I spent a happy hour at Gordon's last night, in the company of the bar's current owner, Simon Gordon. Well, his mum owns it, he runs it. We sat in 'the cage' as they've christened it, a tiny area at the back of the bar under the arches, complete with what looks like a prison door. It's where the wine used to be kept, until they recently built a new cellar. Crammed around a table in a space no taller than my modest 5 foot 5 height, the dining area is not for the claustrophobic.

With the peeling ceiling and cracked floors, it feels a bit like you're partying in a WW2 shelter. Candles wedged in wine bottles adorn the wooden tables, dripping waxy stalactites down the green glass. You can hardly move for people. I went on early a Monday night and it was rammed, even though they only serve wine. On my first visit before Christmas I enjoyed a glass of Oloroso straight from the barrel. Simon's father, Louis Gordon, was a huge Sherry fan – for 200 years the family Sherry shippers were the sole importers of Domecq to the UK.

Last night I was on the Fat Bastard, the Rhône-based brainchild of Thierry Boudinaud and Guy Anderson. I indulged in a glass of the 2007 Chardonnay, moving on to pair the '07 Pinot Noir, which uses a proportion of Corsican grapes, with my tapas. The chef kept rolling out dishes – chorizo, tortilla, pinchitos, albondigas, alitas de pollo...

After a quick chat with Simon, and a bellyful of tapas, I hoofed it to Centrepoint in my purple kilt for a Burns night party, hosted by Monkey Shoulder Whisky. Last summer, Monkey Shoulder built a tree house at the Big Chill festival, full of tables that doubled as backgammon boards. Much monkeying around ensued. Last night was a similarly raucous affair, with a devilish selection of Whisky cocktails on the menu, my favourite being the pink Scotch drink, a creamy concoction served with raspberries and Shortbread.

Scottish roast beef and mini haggis's did the rounds, while beatnik poets lyrically spouted the works of the Bard. The party was held in the Paramount members bar, designed by über-cool architect Tom Dixon. The views it afforded across the London night skyline were spectacular, but after a few pink Scotch drinks, my (tube) carriage awaited.

Sunday, 24 January 2010

Leiths School of Food and Wine

Before lunch on Friday, an email pinged into my inbox inviting me to attend a cookery course on Saturday morning at Leiths School of Food and Wine. A quick peek at their website promised classic and creative seasonal cookery in a professional but informal atmosphere – perfect. Even more perfect was their being a mere two tube stops away from me, in Stamford Brook.

The School offers an array of courses, from morning masterclasses and specialist classes on everything from cakes and cheeses to sauces and sushi, to a year-long diploma for mini Gordons in the making.

Heading bleary-eyed through the door just before 10am, I shunned the classic chef whites in favour of head-to-toe black, which would better protect me from anything flying out of the frying pan and onto my attire. Entering the classroom, a cup of coffee was thrust into my hand by a fox-like chef sporting a high ponytail.

Around the room everyone was engaged in animated conversation. I found the nearest wall to lean against and sipped my coffee. A sprightly young chef introduced herself and talked us through the menu: Jerusalem artichoke soup with Parmesan croutons, followed by Balsamic lamb steaks with pinenut and parsley salad, and finishing with Profiteroles with hot chocolate sauce. My mouth was watering.

A second chef came through the double doors and whispered something to the sprightly chef. A look of controlled horror spread across her face. She cleared her throat. 'I've just been told there's a problem with the gas, in that we don't have any. But fear not, the gas man is on his way and I'm sure he'll be able to fix the problem'. We were assured this had never happened in the School's 35-year history.

Split into three groups, we were ushered into adjacent kitchens and taught knife skills. I was on a work station with Luke, Ian and Ali, who had been bought the class as a present from their mum, sister and girlfriend respectively – like the Christmas jumpers in the Tassimo ad. We all got to work slicing our onions, Samurai-style, into tiny chunks.

Ten minutes later the sprightly chef emerged with good news; the problem had been fixed and we were cooking with gas. Onto the soup... I melted a knob of butter in one of their chic old-school copper saucepans and added the onion, sweating it down until it began to caramelise. I then flung in the artichokes, which, we were informed, weren't artichokes at all but a member of the sunflower family. Curious.

As the ability to multitask is a must for all chefs, we made a start on our Choux pastry, bringing a knob of butter to a roiling boil (whatever that is) whilst sieving 4 ounces of flour three times. Adding the flour to the boiling butter, we took it off the heat and beat it senseless with a wooden spoon for a minute until it took on the appearance of smash mash, a shamefully familiar sight. After adding the eggs, we placed little blobs of the mixture onto baking trays, turning them over after 10 minutes and punching holes in them to make way for for the cream.

The lamb steaks were the easiest to make – after marinading them for half an hour in a plastic bag full of balsamic vinegar, they required a mere minute on each side in a hot frying pan. It never ceases to delight me how simple meat is to cook – it's all the other stuff that takes time.

Meanwhile, we tossed a salad of sundried tomatoes, black olives, pine nutes, parsley and lambs lettuce, and finished off our soups in the blender. The school is a sleek operation and admittedly we did have a lot of help, but they cleverly give you the impression it's all your own doing. After a morning of hard work, it was time to enjoy the fruits of our labour. Drizzling my soup with truffle oil and the parmesan croutons I'd made earlier, it was absolutely delicious. So good in fact, I found it hard to believe it had come from my (not so) fair hands.

I was a bit disappointed with the lamb, as it was slightly less pink than I was hoping for, but the pesto sauce and pine nut salad gave it a fresh lift. I was probably most proud of my Profiteroles, purely because pastry is so damn hard to make. The chocolate sauce was divine (as all chocolate is), the cream was the perfect consistency and the pastry light and airy. I stopped at four and took the rest home. That reminds me...

Friday, 22 January 2010

Shaker Bar School

Any bartender worth his Margarita salt knows a thing or two about Molecular Mixology. It's the new buzz word in the cocktail world, and is proving so popular, there are even courses where budding Blumenthal's can learn to make a molecular cocktail full English breakfast.

On Thursday night I headed down to the Shaker Bar School in Shoreditch to sample the latest in molecular mixology. Hidden behind a black door on East road, the Bar School specializes in cocktail courses, teaching everything from flair classes, where you can learn to twist and shake your Tom Collins like Tom Cruise (there's a padded room downstairs for perfecting your technique), to the more serious five day WSET accredited international bartenters course.

Preparing our full English was Shaker founder Adam Freeth, who set up the bar school back in 2001 as part of his business management degree. The brand has now expanded to Cape Town and Johannesburg, with new schools planned for Cyprus and India.

First on the menu was the Gin-based Earl Grey Mar-tea-ni infused with lemon, served in a mini martini glass. Smokey and citrusy, it was refreshing and smooth. Next up came the Bloody Mary, served with a layer of celery air. Any food or drink with 'air' in the title screams pretentious, but I love flamboyant food, as long as the flavour backs up the fanciful robes it masquerades around the plate (or glass) in.

Round three saw us sipping on a Pancetta and Porcini Martini; a Vodka-based Martini mixed with a Porcini mushroom infused Vermouth served with a salty Pancetta strip. See-through and seriously strong, I'd be falling off my Shaker bar stool after a few of these.

The pièce de résistance came at the end, in the form of an egg. The barman diligently filled a dozen empty egg shells with pineapple and coconut foam, crowning each with a mango yolk, known as a ravioli, made from a sodium solution dipped in a calcium bath. The Pineapple and Mango Egg Colada would certainly turn Heston's head, but did it tick the taste box too? Adam assured us that if we tipped our heads back, it would fall out of the egg in one. It didn't, even after much coercion. I enlisted the help of a spoon. It was delicious.

I wonder what will be next on the molecular cocktail menu – a Sunday roast perhaps, or maybe an American breakfast; blueberry pancakes and cream soda. Whatever the mad mixologists come up with next, I can't wait to try it. Innovation should always be applauded.

Thursday, 14 January 2010

Gordon Ramsay goes East

I seem to be spending a lot of time at Westfield lately. On Monday a colleague and I headed to Jom Makan, one of London's most talked about Malaysian restaurants.

The Deputy Prime Minister of Malaysia had flown over specially to promote Malaysian food and culture in the UK, and was welcomed with a frenzied fanfare of pomp and ceremony. A hush fell upon the crowd as a swarm of photographers emerged from nowhere and began snapping away frantically. There seemed a real sense of urgency, as if it were Obama about to give his first address as President.

But something more interesting caught my eye. From across the room I noticed a crowd of people huddled around a blond head. On closer inspection I realised it was Gordon Ramsay, keeping court with a group of adoring well wishers. My heart started beating faster. I have to admit, I have a thing for Gordon Ramsay. I have done for some time. I don't know what it is – the power, the success, the confidence, the charisma, he's just got that illusive 'it'.

I'd chatted to Gordon on a few occasions during my days as a reporter for The Independent. I remember him telling me at his F Word restaurant about the time when he made Cliff Richard do a blind tasting of three wines, including his own. When it came to his wine, Cliff had spat it out, saying it was disgusting, at which point Ramsay delighted in informing him that it was his own wine. He recounted the anecdote with glee, and it made the lead story in the diary page the next day.

I have no such anecdotes to report from Monday night. Something happened and I lost my reporting mojo. My terrier-like tactics deserted me, and I found myself unable to bound up to him. It's a very tricky thing, talking to celebrities – you have to time it impeccably, as it inevitably involves interrupting a conversation. If you go in for the kill too soon you'll come across rude, but leave it too late and you miss your window. It's a paper-thin line I used to navigate with ease.

Ramsay was joined by Atul Kochhar and Angela Hartnett, who had come out to play to show their support for Malaysian cuisine. It's a clever move for Ramsay, who in the same week launched his '100 of my favourite Indian recipes' cookbook to coincide with his Great Escape programme chronicling his culinary travels through India.

Before the speeches started, I found myself directly behind him. A waitress emerged with a gigantic plate of spring rolls. Braving the throng she saddled up to Ramsay and offered him one. A look of horror spread across his face. 'Erm, not right now my darling, but thanks very much. I promise I'll have one later'. The waitress fled, crestfallen. At an event where Ramsay had clearly been paid a large sum to be seen there giving his support, he had very publicly spurned the canapés. The audacity was almost admirable.

My guest and I did the opposite, hitting the buffet hard between glasses of Champagne. The chicken satay, their signature dish, was particularly impressive. Ramsay left in a whirl of flashbulbs. I had failed to make an impression upon anything other than the noodle tray.

Wednesday, 13 January 2010

Cheval Blanc and chips

As the snow continues to fall, the fine wine continues to flow at Decanter. This week we hosted a St Emilion Grand Crus Classés 2000 and 20001 tasting. When all our tasters have gone home, I get an apprentice-like call from the tasting room that goes something like: 'Lucy, the wines are ready to see you now', at which point I ping an email round the office, letting everyone know they are ready to be tasted.

To get the best stuff you've got to be quick. This time round I was lucky enough to take home 1/3 of a bottle of Cheval Blanc 2000. I was excited, having only tasted CB on two previous occasions, both of which were memorable. The first was something of a Sideways scenario. I'd been working at one of our Fine Wine Encounters and had got to take home nearly a full bottle of 2004. Walking home with a couple of friends, we passed a McDonald's.

Unable to resist the chance of a Miles moment, we strode in and ordered the obligatory burger and fries, asking for three empty cups on top of the three milkshakes we ordered. I was tasked with pouring, so began surrepticiously sliding the empty cups under the table one-by-one, which miraculously came up full. Admittedly, a plastic cup is not the ideal receptacle in which to judge one of the best wines in the world, and I think I was more in love with the idea of the wine than the wine itself, but it was a wonderfully irreverent experience.

My second brush with the white horse came at the Chateau itself. Last July I spent a week on a canal boat along the Canal du Garonnne as part of a Bordeaux travel feature. Before my travel buddy and I set sail, we took a detour to Saint Emilion. I'd managed to line up visits at Canon, Ausone and Cheval Blanc. We were due at the white horse at 2pm. Running late from our tasting at Ausone, we careered up the gravel drive lined with perfectly pruned topiary, narrowly missing the tiny white wooden sign wedged in the grass.

We parked and made our way into the chateau, and were surprised to be greeted with a library rather than a reception. Decked out in tasteful regency furniture, small dogs stood proud inside big frames. Conscious of the fact that we'd taken a wrong turn into a private part of the of the chateau, we made our way into the hall and eventually found our group.

At Canon and Angelus we had been lucky enough to have the place to ourselves, but had to tag onto a group of six affluent Americans at Cheval Blanc. In the tasting room, one of them nudged the other, exclaming in not-so-hushed tones that it was about time to see how his '82s were getting along. They both erupted with laughter. I was impatient to see which vintage would be brought out for us to taste – 2007, or '06 perhaps. Our guide came back clutching a bottle of '04. My heart flopped. Of all the vintages in recent history, it had to be the one I'd already tried.

Deflated, I lifted the glass to my nose and sniffed. Where was the wine? Had all the character ran back into the empty bottle? It was in that awkward stage in a wine's life, a few years after bottling, when it goes back into itself and quite literally clams up. All the fruit had gone, and I struggled to get anything in the way of aroma and taste. I wanted to like it, but couldn't help but be disappointed.

Fortunately, the 2000 didn't disappoint. Enjoyed in the most prosaic of surroundings (my front room), the wine had really opened up. The nose showed a fantastic array of flavours, the first thing hitting you being the lovely dried fruit aromas of prunes and figs; it almost had a Port-like character. And yet there was lots of young fruit: plums, damsons, currants, black cherries, all wrapped around smooth velvety tannins. The palate had a sweet coconutty smoothness, which I found really attractive. Some might call it over-ripe, but I was wooed. It was a little short, but delicious nonetheless, and by far my most satisfying Cheval Blanc experience.

I guess that's the joy of wine; you get to see it grow. You follow it through its infancy and support it through its awkward adolescence. With patience, you witness its metamorphosis into a confident and complex adult, layered with nuance. That's when wine becomes really exciting; when you get to see how the same wine is progressing, like reconnecting with an old friend. I've kept the bottle as a trophy. The taste still lingers like a friendly ghost.

Sunday, 10 January 2010

Hugo D'Acosta: the Mexican Mondavi

Another year, another tasting. Last Wednesday, while most people left their desks before dark, I braved the snow and pigeon-stepped my way to Wahaca in Westfield.

Bibendum were hosting a Mexican food and wine dinner to showcase the wines of Hugo D'Acosta, the Robert Mondavi of Mexico.

Mexico City born D'Acosta, who trained in Bordeaux, owns four wineries in the Guadalupe Valley and consults for a number of others in the region. Widely considered the best winemaker in the country, his influence is almost Kurtz-like.

His first venture was Casa de Piedra, a boutique winery in Baja California, 90km from the US border. Releasing his first vintage in 1997, D'Acosta's focus was on small production and low yields that would allow for concentration of fruit. Today his wines are known for their clean, terroir-driven style, and have achieved cult status, commanding up to £100 a bottle in top Mexico City restaurants.

Masterchef winner Thomasina Miers was on hand at Wahaca, conjuring up a stunning six course menu of Mexican market food, including scallop ceviche, mole tacos and chorizo quesadillas. Each dish was paired with a different D'Acosta wine.

Around the table were Steven Spurrier (fresh from Spain), Peter McCombie MW, Waitrose Food Illustrated Editor William Sitwell, who regaled us with Gordon Ramsay anecdotes (none of them repeatable), Mark Selby (who co-owns Wahaca with Miers) dressed in a fetching green velvet jacket, and a sprinkling of long-standing Bibendum staff. 

Seated next to Spurrier was the silver fox, D'Acosta, dressed sensibly for the snow if a knitted gray sweater. He proved so modest and unassuming, he had to be asked to stand up and introduce the wines. I got the impression he was happy for them to speak for themselves, which they did, loudly.

At the end of the evening, while the chocolate con churros was doing the rounds, I managed to corner D'Acosta, keen to find out about the man behind the brand. Here's what he had to say:

"I like to keep growing my company because you should never stagnate. Inertia is my worst enemy. It's an exciting time for Mexican wine at the moment, there's a lot happening in a small region, both good and bad. It's still very fresh and experimental - there are things happening you'll never find again, and blends you like that you'll never get to see again."

On his Mondavi-like status in Mexico:

"Someone needs to be a leader and open the door. I'm very proud to have the key but it's a lot of responsibility and a big risk. If I have too much influence the region could become uniform, and all the wines might end up tasting the same. But it might get to the point where they don't need me anymore."

Has he considered expanding beyond Mexico?

"We don't have the vision to expand. We're not looking to export and perhaps that's a mistake. Perhaps we're too insular. We need to be part of the wine world to keep the project running. My aim is to show the world that Mexico is a serious winemaking country. My intentions are simple; I'm passionate about getting more people into making wine."

It's a mistake for D'Acosta to keep his wines within the Mexican borders. From their elegance to their concentration, there is so much to love about these wines, he should be sharing them with the rest of the world. I urged him to enter his wines into the 2010 Decanter World Wine Awards, a platform which will hopefully put Mexico firmly on the wine map; a place it very much deserves to be.

Tasting notes

Casa de Piedra, Emblema, 2008

Made in the Gaudalupe Valley from 100% Sauvignon Blanc, the nose was bright and fresh with lovely citrus fruits - lemons and juicy limes. Lively and elegant on the palate with a rich mouthfeel and lip-smacking acidity, it was seriously impressive. The best Sauvignon Blanc I've had in months.

Adobe de Guadalupe, Kerubiel, 2007

The winery's five wines are named after archangels. Kerubiel, a blend of Cinsault, Syrah, Mourvedre, Grenache and Viognier, is aged for nine months in new French oak barrels. It showed red fruit on the nose, with a smokey, almost charred character. Smooth and velvety on the palate, the French oak lent it an attractive spiciness. Steven Spurrier's favourite.

Union de Productores, Estapor Venir, 2007

The only wine of the spread available in the UK (£10.99; Bibendum), it's an adventurous blend of 40% Petite Syrah, 20 % Cabernet Sauvignon, 20% Barbera and 20% Zinfandel. Grown on limestone and sandy soils and aged for eight months in French-American oak, the wine is a fascinating mix of sweet and savoury. On first sniff I got lovely savoury vegetal notes, but behind them were rich red fruits - cherries, strawberries and raspberries. Elegant, refined and smooth on the palate, it had a lovely long licorice finish.

Casa de Piedra, Ensamble Arenal, 2007

A similar blend to Estapor Venir, combining Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Petit Syrah, Zinfandel and Barbera grown on sandy soils. The most expensive wine in D'Acosta's range (£22.50), it was a deep ruby with opulent red and black fruit on the nose. It had a lovely rich, velvety mouthfeel with an almost perfumed quality and a lingering spicy finish. Elegant and voluptuous, the French and Italian influence comes through wonderfully - sensational!

Tres Valles, Maat, 2007

Made from 100% Grenache grown on limestone soils and aged for a year in new oak, the wine showed hot red fruit on the nose - juicy morello cherries and ripe strawberries. Smooth and round on the palate, it was tasted very much in the shadow of the outstanding Ensamble Arenal; a tough act to follow.