Wednesday, 15 October 2008

A noisy working breakfast

You might think people who taste wine for a living would become blasé and pampered – and in a sense we do. Pouring half a bottle down the sink is not a thing many mere mortals would ever contemplate: it happens all the time when you are assessing far more wines than you can possibly drink.

A bunch of us had a working breakfast today, though, that reminded me how very un-blasé, how clear-eyed and mustard-keen, professional wine-sleuths can (and must) be. Time: 9.00am. Place: the Wolseley Brasserie (but this was exceptional; more typical would be a room at Theale with car park view or at best the Buffet Gare of a sleepy French station).

Topic: wines to pep us all up without overwhelming the credit card at the start of next year, when we celebrate Tony Laithwaite’s first 40 years of selling wine. Fresh after 40 years? That’s the point. The wine business is a sort of worldwide student body with individuals making their own discoveries, getting excited about them and passing on the buzz, all the time.

So: watch out for passionate advocacy. Anne wants you to share the new Southern Italian delights she has just found, Abi has cracked the Sonoma Coast, Thomas can’t contain his glee over this cache of treasure from high in the Andes and Helen’s secret smile tells me her new Rioja from Carlos Bujanda is going to be another bestseller.

The drill is that our buyers take soundings among contacts here. They look at lists, trail though samples and taste everything on offer. Then they high-tail it to their area of responsibility, anywhere from Chile to Champagne. They spend a furious few days eliminating all but a dozen or so strong contenders for the list, then whiz home to sell them to their peers. The argument has to be convincing, and the wine conclusive. It all makes for a noisy breakfast.

Friday, 10 October 2008

Dinner at Le Manoir aux Quat’ Saisons

The wonderful thing (or one of them) about wine and food is that there is always room for experiment. It is by definition a moveable feast. Little changes of mere seasoning can produce dramatic differences of appreciation. A different vintage of the same wine can add satisfaction or diminish it. But put one of the Philosophers of Phood, or Laureates of Liquor, on the job and you can have a life-changing experience.

Once a year or so we organize a fine wine dinner at Le Manoir aux Quat’ Saisons, Raymond Blanc’s resort hotel just south of Oxford. There is always a waiting list: Blanc and his chefs perform as utter professionals, impeccably, ingenuously, unpredictably – and our cellar-master is no slouch. We take the wines from the deepest, coolest corners of Château Theale and try some impeccable, ingenious, unpredictable match-making.

Here is the menu of our September dinner. Gary Jones was the chef, and the sommelier Arnaud Goubet.

Dagueneau Pouilly Fume Blanc 2005

Cornish crab, mango puree; grapefruit jelly & Foie Gras; ginger bread, Yuzu


Domaine G. Thomas Meursault Premier Cru Blagny 2006

Risotto of wild mushrooms, truffle cream


Domaine de la Vougeraie Nuits St Georges Premier Cru Les Damodes 2001

Skate with bacon and red wine sauce


Monteillet Fortis Cote Rotie 2001

Roasted Anjou squab pigeon; coco beans and foie gras sauce, vintage Madeira


Château Margaux 1998

Cheese course (unpasteurised hard cheeses)


Château La Tour Blanche, Sauternes 2004

Lemon Croustade


Routine, given fair weather, is to start with champagne in the private garden of the private room at Le Manoir. In this case a character champagne that was new to me: Renaudin Blanc de Blancs 2002, very evidently oak-fermented, oddly savoury, even salty. The manzanilla of champagne, I thought – and rather enjoyed it.

Didier Dagueneau was the prophet of Pouilly. It is very sad to report that he died three weeks after this dinner, piloting his light plane in the Dordogne. He looked the prophet, profusely hairy and bearded, and held almost religious views about his extraordinary Sauvignon Blancs. His aim was Pouilly Fumé as rich as possible in flavour and texture but as light as possible in power and weight. Every good producer of Pouilly and Sancerre respects his example, above all in low yields – even if few truly follow it.

The object this evening was to demonstrate the versatility of Sauvignon Blanc, partnering it with the lightest of fluffy crab meat, then the richness of foie gras. The first was a lovely marriage, helped along by the flavours of mango and grapefruit, two tastes you could easily associate with the wine as well. I was less sure about the second: fat foie gras makes anything less than a boldly sweet wine retreat into its inner dryness. Besides, one wine over two courses is usually more interesting in theory than in practice. A second one of Didier’s creations would have given us a clearer idea of his genius,

It would never have occurred to me to partner a young white burgundy with a rich dark mushroom risotto. Raymond Blanc and Gary Jones knew better. This was comfort food after the nibbled luxury of the first courses; warm mouthfuls of damp truffly forest-floor flavour. The brilliance of Blagny came in utter contrast: clean fresh draughts with a lemon bite and enough body to accompany fat food, Blagny, high in the Meursault slopes below the crowning woodland, is one of my favourite burgundy addresses.

More rich dark food with the skate in a sauce of bacon and red wine; a lighter texture and a different sort of savoury tang. The idea of a tannic Nuits St Georges to clear the palate and ‘elevate’ (as a true burgundian would say) the salty fish and bacon was inspired. Les Damodes is one of the best vineyards of Nuits, 2001 is a vintage now opening up its perfumes, Domaine de laVougeraie is a consistently excellent performer. All the elements were there: savoury richness, palate-clearing bite, salt, sweet and a touch of sharpness. The result? Even keener appetite for the course to follow.

In an ideal menu one course sets up, as it were, a question for the next to answer – and the wines do the same. The skate was tangy, the Nuits crisp with a bite. So here comes fat yielding pigeon and soft deep-fruity Côte Rôtie. Very fat, the pigeon, and sauced with foie gras and Madeira to make it sumptuous. The Monteillet family’s Côte Rôtie was new to me; for some reason I rarely buy this fashionable appellation, the Rhône at its most claret like. I corrected that when I tasted this 2001: my order went in the next morning.

All this, of course, was a mere roll of drums. The Château Margaux was still on the sideboard. I could see Arnaud, the sommelier, giving the gleaming ruby of its decanter an amorous stroke. It is asking a lot, even of a First Growth of a good vintage, to keep it as the main event after such a comprehensive warm up. Hard unpasteurised cheeses were to be its simple accompaniment.

Is it the anticipation that gives great wines their impact, like the soprano’s first aria? It always takes me a few sips and a silent pause, my nose deep in the glass, to focus and find the measure of the highest quality. Description involving currants and tobacco and tar and strawberries are rubbish when you meet the sheer rightness of great claret reaching maturity – or in this case not yet reaching it (10 years is no time at all for Château Margaux in a firmly-structured tannic vintage like 1998). It flowed across the tongue like that Chinese silk they used to call Shantung, sheen and grain combined. It filled the nose, the mouth and the throat for minutes between sips. It did all the wonderful things wine promises; far more than you could anticipate in advance.

Dessert, however perfect, is never, at least to me, more than refreshment after the heights of savoury pleasure. Of course Le Manoir’s Croustade is as good as they come. Of course the 2004 La Tour Blanche is a fine Sauternes brimming with youth. If I was nursing the last glass of Margaux it was just that I can’t bear such good things to come to an end.