Saturday, 24 April 2010

Castillo Perelada dinner at Iberica

The week started in style with the Big Fortified Tasting at Glaziers Hall and an eight course food and wine matching dinner at Ibérica Food & Culture in Great Portland Street showcasing the wines of Castillo Perelada.

Winemaker Javier Suqué was a no show, unable to fly to London due to the pesky Eyjafjallajökull volcano, whose ash emissions are wreaking havoc over Europe. It's our Decanter World Wine Awards next week and we're having nightmares about empty tasting rooms and judges stranded in different parts of the world.

Anyway, on to brighter things. Castillo Perelada, who I must admit I hadn't heard of before the dinner, is the jewel in DO Emporda's crown, and their flagship estate. While the regions of Rioja, Ribera del Duero and Priorat are well loved and respected in the wine world, Emporda is a young pretender, still striving for global recognition.

Situated on the northeastern corner of Catalonia at the foot of the Pyrenees near the French boarder, Emporda benefits from a mild mediterranean climate and has mixture of soils, from slate slopes and red clay to sandy valleys, which make for interesting, complex wines.

Originally known for its sweet wines, Emporda is now more famous for its rosés, with Macabeo and Garnacha Blanca making up 80% of the vines planted in the region. Painter Salvador Dalí, a local of Emporda and close friend of Castillo Perelada's founder Miguel Mateu, was a big fan of the estate's Brut Rosé Cava.

Perelada goes against the grain, specializing in Cava and red blends made from international varieties. The company owns over 150 hectares across five estates, including La Garriga, Malaveina and the much-prized Garbet. I was treated to a tasting of eight of their wines – Cava to start and finish, with six red blends in between, matched with an array of experimental dishes from the Ibérica kitchen.

First up of the reds was 5 Fincas Reserva 2005, a blend of Merlot, Garnacha, Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Tempranillo and Cabernet Franc aged in 50-5o French/American oak. The chefs paired this with ham two ways served on a black slate: Ibérico ham and ham croquetes. One sniff of the wine and I wouldn't have put it in Spain, but rather France. It was suave and mellow, with soft red and black fruit, bramble and licquorice. It had real depth and body with velvety tannins and hints of sweet spice.

For our second starter we drank the 100% Samsó Finca La Garriga 2006, aged for 16 month in new American oak, which was paired with sautéed wild mushrooms with cep gel and a slow poached egg. The nose was a lovely mix of sweetness from the oak and savoury notes. Equally as opulent as the first wine, it had a luxurious mouthfeel, mixing pepper, licquorice and spice and wonderful length. The mushroom dish looked like a work of art and tasted divine.

On to our first of the mains – slow cooked octopus in its own jus with green asparagus, white onion and paprika oil paired with the single estate Finca Malaveina 2006, a blend of Merlot, Cab Sauv, Syrah and Garnacha aged in new French oak. Having had a couple of extreme reactions to octopus in the past, I had to bail on this dish, opting in stead for play-it-safe cod. A more masculine wine than the first two, it had robust tannins and deeper black fruit. On the palate it was soft and silky, with a delicious velvety licquorice finish. I soon noticed that I'd written 'delicious' beside every wine; not something I normally do.

On to a classic Spanish dish, Asturian white bean stew with fabadas, chorizo, morcilla (black pudding) and pancetta – so simple, so full of flavour. This was matched with Solanes Cims de Porrera 2005 from Priorat, a blend of Cariñena, Garnacha, Cab Sauv, Merlot and Syrah aged in French oak. Grown on slate soils, it had a savory, almost herbal nose and a signature smooth mouthfeel with a spicy, peppery, meaty, Rhône-like red-fruited palate.

Now to the apogee: roasted shoulder of suckling Segovia lamb with herbs, mushrooms and green peas paired with Classic Cims de Porrera from Priorat, made from 100% old vines Cariñena and aged in new French oak. The wine was a sensational match for the lamb, which had been slow cooked for 12 hours and fell off the bone. It was the most tender, succulent and flavoursome lamb I've ever tasted - a culinary triumph. The whole table was seriously impressed. The wine wasn't bad either! It had a nose of morello cherries, raspberries, spice and pepper, with a smooth, velvety, round palate and a vanilla-sweet finish.

After the unforgettable lamb, I had to somehow find room for cheese, and the eagerly-anticipated Finca Garbet 2004. Made from a tiny 7 hectare estate, only 3,200 bottles are produced each year. The second 100% Samsó of the night, from 50-year-old vines, it was heady, full-bodied and opulent with a nose of blackcurrants, mint, licquorice and eucalypt. Smooth, velvety, fresh and long, there were hints of rosemary, game, chocolate and coffee on the palate, with a toasty lavender finish.

Having written delicious beside every wine, I got to thinking about the thread that weaved them all together – freshness. They all were all fruit-driven with good acidity and well integrated tannins, but it was their freshness that distinguished them, and while some weighed in at 14.5% abv, their freshness gave them balance and lift. I came along with no expectations and left completely converted. With wines of such quality, depth and complexity, surely Emporda won't remain Spain's best kept secret for much longer.

Friday, 16 April 2010

The Summerhouse by The Waterway

Summer is my favourite season. Admittedly, all of the seasons have their charms: autumn for its decadence, winter for its beauty and spring for its hope, but the summer months, although flippant, are my happiest.

I suppose a life can be divided into four seasons, with youth being spring and old age winter. In my mid-twenties, I'm in the summer of my life – perhaps that's why it's my favourite time of year.

Still very much in spring literally speaking, on Thursday I was invited to the opening of the Summerhouse, a pop-up, canal-side, beach house restaurant open for the next six months in Little Venice. Perched on the side of the Union Canal, the Summerhouse is the little sister of The Waterway restaurant, which lies a few metres upstream.

The interiors are very Hamptons chic – whitewashed walls bedecked with monochrome photos, polished wooden floors and navy and white striped cushions – it felt like I'd just stepped inside Ralph Lauren ad.

Arriving early, I grabbed a glass of Champagne infused with lavender, and managed to bag one of the canal-facing tables – Summerhouse prime real estate. There was a bite to the spring air, but my friend and I were warmed by the heat of the flares. The steel band soon swung into action and some seriously tasty sea-themed canapés did the rounds: beer-battered cod and chips, sweet chili scampi and crab croquettes.

The puddings were equally exciting: tiny lemon tarts, adorable mini ice cream cones and lethal Pimm's jellies. After a few more lavender Champagnes I decided discretion was the better part of valour and made a reasonably early exit. On the way out I was given a goodie bag full of summer treats to gear me up for what's promised to be a scorcher.

Wednesday, 14 April 2010

Wine and classical music matching

Much has been made of music and wine matching of late, so I was excited to receive an invite to a wine and classical music matching event hosted by leading New Zealand producer Villa Maria and the London Philharmonic Orchestra.

Rocking up to Henry Wood Hall, the LPO's rehearsal venue in Borough, my imagination had clearly run away with me – I was expecting the entire orchestra to be in attendance, playing snippets of the classical greats while wine journalists frantically swirled, sniffed and scribbled, trying to decide their perfect matches.

I arrived ten minutes late to find a small group of people sat in church pews around a tape recorder. I quickly took my place next to Philip Tuck MW and Charlotte Read, European market manager of Villa Maria.

There were six wines in front of me: Sauvignon Blanc, Guwürztraminer, Riesling, Rosé, Pinot Noir and Cabernet Sauvignon Merlot, all classic New World expressions of their varieties. Our task was to listen to six snippets of classical music performed by the LPO and match them to the six wines. At the end we would be asked to explain the reasoning behind our matches.

It turned out Philip, Charlotte and I were the only 'wine' people participating, the rest being members of the orchestra. I was looking forward to hearing their views from the musical side of the fence. Of the six pieces, I only recognized two: Haydn's The Creation and Wagner's Die Walküre. I matched Haydn with the Riesling and Wagner with the Guwürz for its feminine aggression, but switched to the weightier Cabernet Merlot after hearing all six pieces.

When choosing a wine for each piece, I tried to align their characteristics: bold with bold, delicate with delicate, complex with complex. Some matches were easier than others. On hearing the second snippet, Rachmaninov's Symphonic Dances, Op. 45, I knew it could only be matched with the Pinot Noir. Beautiful, delicate and haunting, the music seemed to wonderfully echo the contents of the glass, or at least the highest possible expression of the grape. I later learnt the moving snippet was his last ever piece, written while he was dying. 

Whilst listening to each piece, I looked at the six glasses and tried to imagine the notes coming out of them. This seemed to help in the elimination process. I'd changed a few of my answers by the end, finding the Rosé and the Riesling the hardest to place.

The exercise was fiercely subjective, and often people matched their least favourite piece of music with their least favourite wine. The musicians' knowledge of the composers and the pieces also tended to affect their decisions. 

Some of our matches were almost unanimous – Sauvignon Blanc with the frantic, jazz-like Scherzoid by Mark-Anthony Turnage. The piece is only five years old, and so suited a young wine, its urgent, disjointed, Hitchcock-esque nature pairing well with the racy white grape, while Jennifer Higdon's feminine Percussion Concerto was an obvious match for the floral Gewürz.

Interestingly, I found myself aligning more with the musicians than the wine buffs, my answers being almost identical to one of the double-bassists. Ultimately, music is intellectual and emotional, and while wine can both convey and inspire emotion, its emotional range is far more limited than music. At its heart, wine is meant to be enjoyed, not scrutinized. And while it may cause an emotional response, we shouldn't look to it for catharsis.

Tuesday, 13 April 2010

700 years of Armagnac dinner at the Connaught

Monday night was a swashbuckling affair. I was invited to a dinner at the Connaught celebrating 700 years of Armagnac. Making my merry way through Mayfair, it stuck me that people walk differently there. They don't walk, they swagger. They swagger with the confidence a life of privilege has afforded them.

London is strange for its pockets of wealth that exist in tiny spaces throughout the city almost independently of the rest of it. Take a turn down Jermyn Street or Old Bond Street and your average pedestrian goes from jeans and an i-pod to a Brioni suit and walking cane. These well-coiffed creatures rarely stray onto the more prosaic Oxford Street or Green Park, preferring to furnish the pavements of the rarefied side streets.

I digress. On arrival at the Connaught I was greeted by a pair of sword-wielding Musketeers – Armagnac's heartland Gascony being the birthplace of d'Artagnan, the inspiration behind Alexandre Dumas's character in The Three Musketeers. An Armagnac cocktail was thrust into my hand and I was quickly herded into what looked like a conference room with low ceilings and a jazz band. Exciting canapés like pumpkin gazpacho and chorizo cake kept my bouche amused.

Soon we were ushered into the ballroom and placed at our respective tables. I was sat next to Pierre Samalens, a well-upholstered, bespectacled, third generation producer who told me of the recent embarrassment he caused a hotel receptionist in Singapore when he told her he came from Condom. 'She thought me very strange until I showed her my passport'.

The dinner, whipped up by Michelin-starred Gascony native Helene Darroze, whose father Francis was described by Robert Parker as the 'Pope of Armagnac', was created entirely around Armagnac. We tucked into duck foie gras, seabass in Arabica coffee sauce and cannelé de Bordeaux ice cream. It was an interesting exercise, but drinking Armagnac without respite throughout the meal was intense and I was crying out for a crisp white by the end. It made me realise how much I love wine, and how much less I enjoy dining without it.

Midway through, the Telegraph's wine critic Johnny Ray made an entertaining speech about the benefits of Armagnac, which include sharpening the whit, reviving the memory, steering off headaches and (my favourite) 'restoring the paralyzed member by massage'. Too much Armagnac would surely have the reverse effect? With no wine in sight, and in a bid not to offend Mr Samalens, I took to watering down my Armagnac under the table. No one seemed to notice.

Armagnac is still very much a well kept secret – Cognac loses to evaporation the same amount Armagnac distills every year. While Pierre is busy telling me about the merits of double distillation in giving the brandies extra flavour and finesse, Delia Smith is suddenly called to the stage. Much like the Caballeros dinner at the Dorchester last month, the National Armagnac Bureau likes to honour a select few each year for their services in promoting Armagnac in the UK.

This year four people were made 'Musketeers' and presented with a blue sash. I'm not quite sure why Delia was shortlisted, but her presence on stage added to the theatre of the evening. Before becoming a Musketeer she had to raise her left hand and swear to 'respect the eau de vie, the source of all female enthusiasm'. Curiouser and curiouser.

Sunday, 11 April 2010

Martini masterclass at Dukes

Keen to learn more about cocktails (through drinking as many of them as possible), on Saturday I attended a martini masterclass at Dukes Hotel in Mayfair.

Christened 'the home of the perfect martini' by The New York Times, Dukes Bar has a reputation for making the best martinis in the world – Charles and Di used to stop by and Bond author Ian Fleming was a regular. Legend has it he coined his double agent's famous 'shaken, not stirred' line during a particularly fruitful drinking session at the bar.

With such a reputation, I was excited to sip on one of the world-class martinis myself. Run by Italian bar manager Alessandro Palazzi, an amiable John Malkovich lookalike dressed in a white tux, the two-hour class walks us through the history of the martini, from its original form, to the truffle-infused martinis of today.

With 36 years in the trade under his belt, Palazzi is full of praise for London, dubbing it 'the capital of cocktail innovation', and concedes that France and Italy are still conservative in their approach to cocktails, doing things boringly by the book rather than taking risks.

Dukes are keen to keep the theatrical element of cocktail making alive – Palazzi makes all his martinis at guests' tables on a wooden trolly. The bar itself is surprisingly small, which only adds to its charm.

The masterclass begins with the 'original' martini, made with Angostura bitters, red vermouth, Old Tom gin and Maraschino cherry liqueur. A lot of the ingredients, like gin and vermouth, were originally used for medical purposes. To finish, he dusts the rim with a strip of Almalfi lemon peel, then drops it into the glass to garnish. The glass gets passed round and we all take a sip. It's delicious but ludicrously strong. We're basically drinking pure alcohol, albeit wonderfully mixed. Luckily a sip is all that's required at this stage.

The class is made up of six martini fans, and we each get the chance to make a different take on the drink. One of Palazzi's golden rules is that martini must be served cold – the colder the better, but ice should be avoided. With each new martini he magics a bottle of gin or vodka fresh from the freezer. Martinis should also be, contrary to Bond, stirred, not shaken. Another tip is to stick to gin, as the botanicals give the martini more flavour.

The 'classic' martini couldn't be simpler – a few drops of dry vermouth to coat the rim of your glass, a generous measure of gin (preferably Beefeater or Plymouth), and a strip of Amalfi lemon peel. Palazzi folds the lemon peel over the glass and squeezes out drops of lemon oil, giving it a zesty lift. The glass gets passed round. It seems even stronger than the last. Much more of this and I'm going to pass out.

Soon it's my turn and I'm summoned to the trolly. I'm tasked with making the Vesper martini, named after Bond's lover Vesper Lynd in Casino Royale. In an unashamed homage to the secret agent, all the martinis on Dukes's list are named after Bond characters. To make the Vesper, I coat the glass with Angostura bitters and pour in one part Potocki vodka and one part Crown Jewel gin, topping it off with Lillet dry vermouth and the customary twist of Amalfi lemon. It's a lethal combination. The glass gets passed round and eventually finds its way back to me. I take a few tiny sips. Palazzi clocks this sidestepping and warns me that I'm not allowed to leave until my glass is empty.

It's a charming afternoon, and I feel wonderfully civilized sitting in Dukes Bar slowly sipping a martini made by a barman at the top of his game. 'Simplicity and balance are key', Palazzi tells us. 'It doesn't matter what you throw in a martini, it's how you throw it in.' Before we go I have one last question: 'why the olive?' 'Ah', Palazzi says with a grin. 'The olive brings out the saltiness, but it's meant to be served on the side. Franklin D. Roosevelt always had three'.