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Restaurants: Vinous Misdemeanours

I’ve just returned from a four-day dining trip in London; I had great fun, drinking and eating my way round this capital city, not least because thanks to the intelligence of some of London’s sommeliers I was able to almost exclusively drink from the Loire. I did go slightly off-piste with a glass of Champagne here and there, and seriously off-piste with a Hungarian Kekfrankos (what was I thinking?!) but otherwise it was Saumur, Sancerre, Montlouis, Pét Nat and more, all the way.

Although it was fun I also met some old bêtes noires, and I encountered some new ones too. I will be writing about each restaurant individually over the next few weeks, but I can’t help put a few words down about the vinous misdemeanours I witnessed. Think of it as my therapy.

Wrong Vintages
I know, this is an old one, but it still happens. The list says 2011, but when the bottle comes it’s a 2010. In this case it didn’t really matter, the only issue being I was drinking from a domaine I am keen to get to know better, and whereas I had tasted the 2010 before I was really interested in tasting the 2011. Both vintages were fine for the region in question though, so I just accepted the wine with a nod, and it was just as delicious second time around. But I woudn’t have been so keen if it were a 2013 Bordeaux instead of a 2012 (very different levels of quality) or a 2011 Muscadet instead of a 2012 (the latter vintage was magnificent, the former stuffed with grey rot). If you really can’t manage the vintages, which are important, perhaps you should cut back your 120-page list a little?

The Heavy Pour
This is another old one, but I encountered it in two different forms. The premise is simple; the more your glass is topped up, the more likely you are to get onto a profit-inducing second bottle. The problem is it brings me out in hives. On the first occasion, one restaurant I dined at saw my table visited more than twenty times during dinner (bringing a new meaning to overbearing service) in most cases to keep dribbling the wine into my glass. On one occasion a waiter would walk away having topped up my glass only for another to appear moments later to do the same, without me even taking a sip between visits.

The second heavy pourer was working with a bottle of mineral water, rather than wine, at a two-star establishment. Having filled my glass at the start of the meal, I was only at the stage of nibbling the hors d’oeuvres (before even the amuse bouche proper arrived) when the second heavy pour almost drained the bottle, leaving less than a half inch of water at the bottom. The waitress clearly considered this close enough to be empty, and was quick to suggest she should bring another bottle. I declined, at which point my nearly-finished bottle was whisked away. It was the start of a very strange evening, and on reflection this moment was perhaps not that unusual when considered in context!

Nicolas Joly

Big Name Wine Lists
If you have a sommelier, they should (I would have thought) be expected to put together a wine list with interesting names and choices, some familiar, some less so. Unsung regions should get a look in, including lesser regions of Italy, Spain, Eastern Europe and so on. And the Loire of course. This is usually the case (and is exactly why I managed to drink my way up and down the Loire at every dinner) but at one restuarant I was surprised to see the Loire section consist of almost nothing but Didier Dagueneau (good, but expensive of course, especially with restaurant mark-up), Domaine des Baumard and Nicolas Joly (pictured above). None of which (for reasons of price, or otherwise) interested me. But honestly, anybody who reads the Wine Spectator could have put together that list, comprised purely of ‘break-through’ domaines who have made it into the mainstream wine consciousness. Really, a sommelier put that together?! It’s a bit like a Bordeaux list of only Latour, Le Pin and Cheval Blanc. Very pricy, and more than a bit obvious. Thank heavens for four lonesome and more interesting bottles (on a list that went over more than 80 pages) tagged on at the end, which was where I found something more to my taste.

The Thieving Sommelier
The last misdemeanour I witnessed was very questionable. Sitting in a London wine bar I had the perfect position to watch the sommelier at work, opening and decanting some nice-looking bottles for the bar’s clientele, including (during my short stop there) a seven-year old Cornas, and a ten-year old Nuits-St-Georges. For each bottle, the sommelier would take a tiny pour to sniff and taste, to check the wine. Fair enough – that’s her job. Then she would take a much more handsome pour – a small glassful, perhaps 100-125 ml – and put that to one side, before decanting the rest of the wine which she or one of her colleagues would pour at table. Remarkably, the glass put aside then went to a nearby table of her friends/colleagues, who she presided over; I guessed they were trainee sommeliers, from the way she stood over them as they blind-tasted the wine. What’s really important though, is not exactly why they were taking the wine, but the fact that both wines (and, I suspect, others later in the day) were paid for by an unknowing third party. When you consider that the combined price of the two bottles I saw was just shy of £140, and that this probably continued on after I left the restaurant, that’s certainly very dodgy practice.

Checking in on a maturing Vouvray

We all know Vouvray is immortal. Well, at least I hope we do. I was certainly reminded of this indisputable fact when checking in on the 1996 Cuvée Moelleuse from Domaine Champalou recently. This has always been a very elegant style of moelleux Vouvray, pure and floral, very much in the Champalou style. I recall about a decade ago opening a bottle with a sweet-salty stilton from the Cropwell Bishop creamery; it was one of the most heavenly food and wine matches I have ever encountered. It wasn’t long before the cheese wrapper was empty and the bottle was dry. More than ten years on, I can recall the sensation of the combination with absolute clarity, it was so striking.

Champalou Vouvray Cuvée Moelleuse 1996

Right now the Domaine Champalou Cuvée Moelleuse 1996 shows a polished straw-gold hue in the glass, quite a rich colour for this cuvée, which tends to have a somewhat paler hue than other sweet Vouvrays, which to my mind reflects the more delicate, floral nature of the wine (and the Champalou style). The nose here, however, is not floral but is rich in honeyed quince, sweet yellow plum too, but this is presented in a taut rather than fat or exuberant fashion, and it is nicely balanced by contrasting notes of smoke and mineral on one side, but hints of even richer praline on the other. The palate is beautifully defined, cool and bright, taut and with plenty of crisp, lively fruit behind the grip, acid freshness and richer nuances. There is perhaps a touch of sorbet-like purity and intensity here which really appeals, especially when mixed with the more smoky nuances. It is fabulously long, and yet always taut and precise. Divine to drink now (with or without stilton) but this has decades ahead of it. 18.5/20

Underground at Champany Inn

Last week I took a trip up to Champany Inn, near Linlithgow, a restaurant renowned for its steak above all else. It’s quite a few years since I last visited; in fact, looking back I see it was in 2006, a far-too-long eight years. Well I’m glad I put that right.

The reason for my visit was to attend a dinner showcasing the wines of Henri Bourgeois, the leading Loire Valley domaine and négociant based in Chavignol, not far from Sancerre (although I would imagine the locals would probably rather say “Sancerre, not far from Chavignol”). This was an interesting dinner as, although the numbers of wines poured was not huge, it was (if I recall correctly) the first time I have tasted the Henri Bourgeois wines next to the Clos Henri wines, which originate from the Bourgeois vineyards in New Zealand.

Champany Inn

Before the dinner I was treated to a quick tour of all things Champany. Since my last visit a very impressive shop has sprung up (a lot can happen in eight years!), selling wines off the list, strong on South Africa (as is the wine list) but featuring many other regions too. I even spotted a bottle of Louis Métaireau Muscadet. I made a mental note to return when I have more time, for a longer and more leisurely nose around.

It was the cellars that impressed most though. As cellars go this one (a little of which is pictured above) is deceptive. It goes on for much longer than you think (what I thought was a mirror in the distance was only a glass panel, and there were more bins beyond), and the total capacity is an impressive 36,000 bottles. Just inside the door some recent arrivals were ready to be stacked away; Mike, the sommelier, has very wisely been stocking up with 2004 Bordeaux, a vintage which offers good value, as well as a little from the 2000 vintage, provided the price was right, of course.

Champany Inn

There were plenty of interesting bottles to see. Old Italians, South Africans, plenty of Burgundy and more than a bottle or two from Bordeaux, unsurprisingly. The 1998 Yquem, above, is just one of many such bottles, and hints at the quality of the wines on the Champany Inn list.

I will write up the dinner and wines in the next few weeks, after I have overhauled my Henri Bourgeois profile after my visit there late least year.

Disclosure: I joined the Henri Bourgeois dinner, and stayed overnight in one of their rooms, as a guest of Champany Inn.

A nice Southern Red: Minna Vineyard

It’s always fun to look at what’s going on in other regions beyond Bordeaux and the Loire, the two areas I focus on most within Winedoctor, whether it be through wines pulled from the cellar, or received samples such as this one.

The Villa Minna Vineyard has been family owned for eight decades. Abandoned after the death of the proprietor in 1979, his grandson breathed new life into it in the 1990s. The usual Southern French varieties including Syrah and Mourvèdre were planted, as well as Cabernet Sauvignon, Marselan (a Cabernet-Grencahe cross) and Caladoc (a Grenache-Malbec cross), and some whites. All five red varieties are blended in the Villa Minna range of wines, but just the three more noble varieties in the Minna Vineyard wines.

Minna Vineyard Red 2009

The 2009 Minna Vineyard Red (pictured above) comes from organically managed vineyards, picked by hand, with a yield in this vintage of just 12.3 hl/ha. The fermentation is in steel after a few days cold maceration. The wine then goes into barrels, with bâtonnage, for 24 months prior to bottling after a light filtration, but no fining. On the nose it has a wealth of sweet, dark, spiced fruits, the scents reminiscent of macerated berries, plum skins and pepper, laced with nuances of coffee and juniper berries too. As expected it has a very seductive texture in the mouth, full and concentrated, and sweet berry fruit, feeling substantial and macerated, and yet it doesn’t feel overdone. It is quite softly defined though, with rather low-key acidity, and some ripe tannins for backbone, which are plush, velvety, and only really show through in the finish. A warmer vintage, I suspect. Long and grippy, there is certainly some potential for the cellar here. 15.5/20 (May 2014)

The Grand Cru Bordeaux Experience

In October this year I’m looking forward to leading a trip to some of Bordeaux’s most remarkable wine estates with Adam Stebbing of SmoothRed, a long-established company offering tailor-made wine tours, holidays, events and experiences. The Bordeaux Grand Cru Experience promises great wine, superb château visits and fine dining.

The tour is now mostly booked up but there are still some places left. It would be great to fill those last few places with a couple of long-term Winedoctor readers!

Here’s a taster of what the trip will involve:

October 1st 2014 – St Emilion: Flight from London Gatwick to Bordeaux, private chauffeur-driven coach to St Emilion, Château Canon-la-Gaffelière (for lunch) and then Château Angélus. Dinner and hotel in Bordeaux City.

SmoothRed - The Grand Cru Experience

October 2nd 2014 – Graves and Sauternes: Château Haut-Brion first, and as if one first growth weren’t enough, after a tasting and lunch it’s onto Château d’Yquem.

October 3rd 2014 – The Médoc: Tour up the famous ‘Route des Châteaux’. Visit Château Pontet-Canet, now turning out wines to challenge the very best in the commune. Then it will be lunch at Château Pichon-Baron (pictured above) – where lunch, I have recently learnt from first-hand experience, is not to be missed! In the afternoon, we head south to Margaux and Château Rauzan-Segla.

SmoothRed - The Grand Cru Experience

October 4th 2014 – Bordeaux and Graves: There is no let up in terms of quality on the final day. The morning allows us all time to take in Bordeaux city, followed by lunch and tasting at Château Haut-Bailly (pictured above), the origin of one of the very best wines of the entire appellation. Fly back to London early evening.

Prices: £1679.00 per person for 3 star hotel option (based on double room occupancy), £1994.00 per person for 5 star upgrade option (also based on double room occupancy). For four days with all those visits (including Yquem and Haut-Brion!) that seems like money well spent.

There are (or were – more than half have sold) fourteen places, so this will be a very intimate tour. If you would like to come along check out the SmoothRed itinerary here: Grand Cru Bordeaux Experience or phone Adam on +44 (0) 207 1988 369, or email him on sales@smoothred.co.uk.