bordeaux revisited …

In 1994, in the days before children and saggy tummies, I was lucky enough to visit Bordeaux et environs and returned to the UK with a rucksack full of grand cru classe 1990s (including a Chateau Margaux) which I thoroughly enjoyed sharing with some good friends at the turn of the millennium.

Two weeks ago, a return visit to the area resulted in a modest bounty of 4.5 bottles of Sauternes, over 1200 photographs (combined) and 3 additional kilos in bodily weight!

Laziness … or perhaps a dwindling interest in Bordeaux that provided the fiery baptism into a lifelong interest in wines all those years ago. Or maybe it’s just down to pure economics: the unfavourable exchange rate and the silly prices that the top chateaux believe they can command today.

What is abundantly clear is that we still do not skimp on fine dining. I know this because as the self-appointed budget analyst, I was able to track in real-time (thanks to my trusty iPad) our shared expenses, which also show a worrying increase in the category of accommodation. I guess the extra tummies now require bigger, more comfortable beds 馃槈

David (our francophile host) asked us at the end of the trip for our Top 5 highlights of the trip. So here they are, abridged using true 21st century efficiency and this time supported by better (digital) photographs.

1. Chateau d’Yquem (Sauternes)

2. Michel Forgeron (Cognac)

3. Chateau Latour

4. Printemps Dome

5. La Salamandre

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a very cheesy affair …

When the opportunity for an English cheese & wine tasting came up at Harvey-Nichols, my palate did a somersault at the thought of having to endure a number of less than satisfactory English wines … but I’m glad J & I put aside any pre-conceptions to attend, because if we hadn’t, we might still be living in ignorance of the range and quality of cheeses that hail from these western isles.

The venue was the Second Floor restaurant in Bristol, with Head Chef Louise McCrimmon kicking off proceedings by introducing Todd and Ben from the acclaimed Trethowan Dairy team, and Ivan from the London branch who had the unenviable task of marrying the wines to the proposed cheeses.

The programme was as follows:

1. Gorwydd Caerphilly (Wales) – matched with Verdejo 2008 from the Naia vineyard in Rueda, Spain.

This is Todd’s own cheese, hand-made using animal rennet and unpasteurised milk – apparently, the three tenets of artisanal cheese making. While the cheese was delicately delicious, I felt the Verdejo made a fair attempt at balancing the saltiness of the cheese with a healthy crisp acidity, while at the same time developing a grassy-ness very similar to a Sauvignon Blanc to complement the mushroom flavours from the rind.

2. St Gall (Irish) – matched with a Rasteau 2003 from Domaine Soumade in Southern Rhone.

St Gall is a mountain-style cheese, similar to a Comt茅, Gruy猫re etc. Now this was a brave match, and one that surprisingly worked proabably because the 2003 vintage (being an extremely hot year) delivered secondary flavours, such as nuttiness, that would be difficult to obtain from a predominantly Grenache wine.

3. Tunworth (English) – matched with Gewurtztramminer 2008, Seresin Marlborough N.Z.

Judy Cheney’s camembert style cheese has wonderful vegetal aromas that you will find around the farmyards in Basingstoke, where it is made. While the cheese was excellent (I challange anyone to find a better English camembert), the wine match was disappointing – the Gewurtz did not impart any floral smells and left a distinct bitter aftertaste in the mouth. Perhaps, a red Burgunday might have made a better pairing.

4. Ardrahan (Irish) – matched with an Austrian Berenauslese 2006 from Alois Kracher.

Remember the three rules of artisan cheese? This one is an exception (it uses vegetable rennet and pasteurised milk) but one which is particularly interesting as it develops from caramel to nuts, and finally that unique hit of burnt steak fat at the finish. The Berenauslese compliments this to perfection with the fresh orange pekoe flavours eventually giving way to caramelised onions, enabling the whole ensemble to deliver what felt like a small meal. I guess this is what all cheese & wine tastings should aspire too: the sum of the already good parts should be greater than the whole. Sublime!

5. Stichelton (English) – matched with Churchills 20yo Tawny Port.

The name of Stichelton came about to circumvent one of the few Protected Designation of Origin or PDO regulations (equivalent to the French AOC) in England. It is a Stilton-like cheese but made from unpasteurised milk, thus falling foul of the rule. Personally, I find Stichelton a bit of a girlie cheese, with a long and soft butteriness that fondles rather than attacks the palate, and simply doesn’t taste as mean as the blue mould suggests … which is why the Tawny provided such a great match to this cheese. Unlike LBV or vintage ports, Tawnys (especially served slightly chilled) are rounder and more elegant but still packs a hefty punch of alcoholic fruity freshness with every sip. Nevertheless, a great pairing.

half-term happiness …

Prompted by several news articles of a 20% slump in champagne sales and promises of lower prices in the run up to Christmas, J and I felt obliged to take advantage of this very French misfortune (not in a shardenfreuder way, ok well maybe a little) by making a trip to the Champagne region … via Disneyland. Methinks the days of having to bribe the kids with visits to theme parks so that the groan-ups can take in liquid culture are coming to an end. Not that J1 & J2 did not enjoy themselves hurtling around the dark on the Space Mountain ride, but both boys now seem to be actively interested in the tastings at the various producers we visited. In fact, we may even have a placomusophile in the making in J2 – and no, that’s not someone who has a sexual interest in bottom-sucking tropical fish but someone who collects the round metal plates, notably on the end of champagne corks!

Anyway, the trip to Champagne would not have been possible without the patience and collective planning of the group, which was made up of the Ong clan, David and our Belgian friends, Anne & Stephaan. No detail was overlooked in the preparation for our long week-end in the area, right down to the precise timing of our rendez-vous at J茅r么me Viard’s tonnellerie in Cauroy-les-Hermonville. Cooperage is a dying art, and so this visit was so much more special because we were taken around by a man whose passion for making artisan (read: very labour-intensive) oak barrels for his discerning clients was clearly demonstrated in speech and skill. And the free champagne tasting afterwards wasn’t too bad either 馃槈

camille saves

Although our travels took us from Boulard (in Cauroy) to Launois (in Mesnil-sur-Oger), the discovery of the trip was unanimously voted as Camille Sav猫s (pictured above). Every once in a while, you get lucky and stumble upon R茅coltant-Manipulants (Grower Producers) whose products sit at the top-end of the price/quality ratio – but the delicious champagnes (and his still red wine) are no result of accident, but a divine marriage between a talented winemaker (Herv茅) and the Grand Cru Pinot Noir terroir that surrounds Bouzy.

Oh, and just in case any of you out there fancy planning a similar trip, I’m enclosing David’s detailed itinerary below for reference:

FRIDAY 30 OCTOBER

– ONG/DG: 12h00: Meet Ongs at Marne la Vall茅e RER at 12h00
– ONG/DG: Follow A4 & Marne (quick lunch, e.g. at Relais du Tardenois at km 96 of A4)
– ONG/DG: 13h30/14h00: Marx-Coutelas (03 26 58 63 64)
– ONG/DG: 14h30: Leave Marx-Coutelas to go to A每.
– ONG/DG: 15h00: Collect keys from La Mongeardi猫re.
– ONG/DG: 16h00: Meet Anne & Stephaan at J茅r么me Viard’s Tonnellerie.
– ALL: 17h00: Raymond Boulard (03 26 61 50 54)
– ALL: 19h30: Dinner at Le Jardin Brasserie (Ch. des Cray猫res). 03 26 24 90 90. Brasserie opens at 19h15.
– Return to La Mongeardi猫re

SATURDAY 31 OCTOBER

– 08h00: Breakfast at chambre d’h么tes. Wander around A每 after breakfast (maybe buy some food for a picnic at the mini-supermarket in A每), or else we could choose to have a later breakfast if you prefer a lie-in.
– 10h00: Tasting at Henri Giraud, A每 (booked). Allow one hour for tasting.
– 11h00: Drive to Saves (Bouzy). N.B. There are roadworks in the middle of Bouzy, we might want to arrive via Ambonnay.
– 11h30: Tasting at Camille Sav猫s (03 26 57 00 33).
– 12h30-13h30: Lunch (as a restaurant might take up too much time, we could have a picnic in the vines if it’s nice weather, or get some things to eat at Leclerc Champfleury if it’s not). Most producers are closed from 12h00 – 14h00, so let’s use this time for driving & eating.
– 14h00: ??? [this was the Vilmart slot… suggestions on how we fill it welcome].
– 15h00: “Free-format” depending on our mood – we can call ahead to Gonet-Sulcova, Launois, Veuve Fourny depending on what we feel like.
– 18h00: Either return to chambre d’h么te to relax, or go to “C. Comme” in Epernay for an aperitif.
– 19h30/20h00: Dinner at Le Lys du Roy. 03 26 97 66 11.
– Return to La Mongeardi猫re

SUNDAY 1 NOVEMBER

– 08h30: Breakfast at chambre d’h么tes.
– 09h30: Check out of chambre d’h么tes.
– 10h00: Short walk around water gardens in Chouilly.
– 11h00: Visit Hautvillers, including the church with the tomb of Dom P茅rignon.
– 12h00: Go somewhere for lunch (maybe at a caf茅/bistrot/brasserie in Epernay or Reims… not many restaurants are open on Sundays outside of the larger towns).
– 13h30/14h00: Possibly go to the Faux de Verzy, or walk around Epernay/Reims.
– 14h45/15h00: Drop David at Reims
– DG: 16h15-17h00: TGV to Paris
– ONG: 17h50: Chunnel to England

a sign of the wines …

When the last blog entry dates back to some 7 months ago, one has to come up with an appropriately cunning plan to deliver a backlog of informative (and hopefully interesting) content with the greatest economy of words. I suppose the quickest and least painful way would be to point readers at a couple of picasa web albums, surrendering to the old adage of a picture painting a plethora of words etc etc … but that would be far too convenient, and besides, this is a serious blog, where serious subject matters are discussed 馃槈

So, I have decided instead to use wine (including a number of decent alcoholic beverages) as reference points, providing the contextual setting for great encounters between friends and family – a sort of nostalgic buoy if you like, anchoring fragmented memories of good times shared with people in places which I would have undoubtedly forgotten had it not been for some specific sensual trigger which a particular tipple aroused.

Let’s begin with the our most recent w/e excursion to Paris where our host David shared what is strictly an ‘illegal’ wine, at least by French AOC rules: Le R锚ve de Pennautier is the only sweet Chardonnay I have ever come across, made more rare by the fact that it is only produced by the Lorgeril family in years when the weather is favourable to do so. For me, the 2004 tasted similar to a late-harvest Rielsing or Sylvaner, or perhaps it was purposely put in a 50cl long-necked Alsace style bottle to deceive your casual wine enthusiast … nevertheless, an experience worthy of the mystery that surrounds it!

And speaking of Sylvaners, there was that exquisite bottle J and I lingered over recently at Harvey Nics restaurant in Bristol on my birthday dinner: Bruno Sorg is perhaps better known for his Grand Cru Rieslings but the 2006 Vieilles Vignes tasted decadently mineral-like, and quite unexpected considering the usual leanness you get from the humble Sylvaner grape.

Or another time when J and I were chilling in the bar of the T-Hotel last summer after long, lazy days lying on the sandy beaches on the Southern coast of Sardinia … on that occasion, a Buio Buio from a progressive wine maker called Mesa, teased and totally confused my taste buds into thinking big Bordeaux, when in truth it was made with 100% Carignano, a local grape variety but had spent a good few months in French oak. Impressed with the wine, I bought a bottle at Cagliari airport on the way home with every intention to dazzle our tame connoisseur David at our next meeting, but alas it did not travel well and we both agreed it might just have easily been made by a couple of miners from the Valleys and called ‘Boy-o Boy-o’ 馃槈

However, there can be no questioning the consistency of the good vintage champagne: David’s generosity of serving bubbly (and on this occasion, a Drappier Brut 1990) after our usual drive through the night to arrive at his Parisian pad at the crack of dawn, is becoming a customary ritual and one that I would like to see continued. Ah, if only you can age with such elegance without being confined to a bottle with 90 PSI of pressure upon you 馃槈

Staying with white wines, I’ve recently acquired a curious affinity to Chenin Blanc. Actually, I would even venture to predict the rise in popularity of this variety to challenge and finally extinguish the ‘has beens’ of the old world e.g. the Vouvrays and Saumurs with their wishy-washy apple and cinnamon combo. In particular the varietals coming from Stellenbosch not only provide great value for money, there can be no ambiguity about the intense fruit experience of pineapple, papaya and the citrus crispness of kumquat – all in one mouthful of joy that takes me back to my childhood days of rummaging around orchards in Malaysia. I attribute this latest discovery to the bottle of Dornier’s Cocoa Hills Chenin Blanc, shared in great company with our Belgian friends Anne & Stephaan on our visit to the Ghent Festival in late July. Served as part of the ‘menu deal’ in a great little resto called L’Homard Bizzare, I had my reservations, not least because we were drinking a South African wine … in a French restaurant … in Belgium … and this was at the end of a rather alcoholic week-end of sampling an exhaustive list of Belgian beers in Dulle Griet, exotic jenevers in Pol Reysenaer’s Dreupelkot bar by the river and meeting Bob Mineerkeer himself (and his moustache!) at the Glengarry Whisky Club where he attempted to convince us of the heavenly pairing of a 12 year old Clynelish to baked lobster!

And so, many adventures later and with our livers appropriately abused, I bring this post to a close. For me, drink does not just have that meta-physical convenience of uniting like-minded people in happy surroundings, it also triggers emotional connections at a spiritual level in a way that cannot and must not be explained by science. Therefore I bid y’all (to bastardise a famous Vulcan saying), “Drink long til you’re a cropper” … or to put it in more civilised French, La vie est trop courte pour boire du mauvais vin 馃槈

ooh la loire …

rillette

If you like rillette, you will love Hardouin. Whether it is worth a special trip to Vouvray to purchase it sur place is debatable, but as we were already in the Loire area visiting chateaux and wineries, it seemed the most natural thing to do.

What is unquestionable however is the beauty of Chenonceau – I doubt any of the photographs taken on my Canon EOS will do the place justice so you will have to click to the link to see the aerial shots, or better still, go in person! The Loire is driveable from Paris, but for a day trip I strongly suggest that you venture no farther west than Amboise to get the greatest bang per kilometer driven. We, however, decided to go as far as Chinon to track down the producer of Clos de l’Echo 1997 (Couly-Dutheil) which David was kind enough to share with us the night before, only to discover they are closed during the winter months!

chambord

Chambord looked nice from the outside – somewhat eerie for the time of day when we visited, with a low mist almost touching that highly recognisable, decorated roofline of Francois I’s royal pad.

And when we were not in the Loire, we loitered around La D茅fense, admiring the variety of office towers that line the cours leading down to a small but curious vineyard, overlooking the Arc de Triomphe in the distance.

Wandering around the 3e and 4e, we stopped for the best cup of hot chocolate I’ve ever tasted at Jacques Genin. His atelier on rue de Turenne looks more like a jewellery boutique than a place to buy chocolates – see below. Ummm, methinks this will now be a regular haunt whenever we visit Paris. Go easy on the Tonka bean ones as these contain coumarin which is lethal in large doses – why is it that the nice things in life are never good for your health 馃槈 Dinner afterwards at Les Enfants Rouges (Rue de Beauce) was made more pleasant when washed down with a lovely bottle of Cornas 1993 (Domain Courbis).

genin

Of course, no visit to Paris has ever escaped the generosity of our host David. This time, we were treated to Jaboulet Aine’s La Chapelle 1995 (Hermitage) which left our palates tinging with tobacco and leather, nor will we ever forget the youthful crispness of Pfaffenheim’s Sylvaner (a varietal from Alsace, but not from a noble grape family) despite having spent 24 years in the bottle! That’s what I love about David’s tastings – your taste buds are always challenged, from the sublime to the ridiculous.

a very bubbly affair …

champagne08.JPG

Lily Bollinger once said about champagne:

“I drink it when I’m happy and when I’m sad. Sometimes I drink it when I’m alone. When I have company I consider it obligatory. I trifle with it if I’m not hungry and I drink it when I am. Otherwise I never touch it, unless I’m thirsty.”

Such is the ambivalence created by this pale tipple that packs nearly 50 million bubbles in every bottle … and so humble too when you consider that its external appearance says so little about the labour and passion that has gone into its production.

So, we were in the Champagne region again – a holiday triggered partly by an invitation to accompany our good friend’s family on their first visit to the area, but mainly because our wine ‘cellar’ was bereft of white wines. Those of you who know me well will know that I only drink French wines – red Bordeaux to be precise … and the only white wines I tolerate are ones with bubbles … naturally 馃槈

Anyway, we were installed in a modern and comfortable Chambres D’Hotes in Reuil with a sporty itinerary devised by our good friend David that will have taken us from Ch芒tillon (to visit the commanding papal satue of Urbane II) to the south-east extreme of the Cote des Blanc to gorge ourselves on foie-gras and other duck by-products, punctuated by degustations at various producers such as Marx Coutelas (Venteuil), Guy Charlemagne & Launois (Mesnil s/ Oger) and Vilmart (Rilly-la-Montagne) to name a few. But the visit of the trip (and the one that scores the highest points for hospitality) must surely go to Philipponnat, and in particuar to Nicoletta who gave us treats that I doubt we will ever encouter again, treats such as:

  • sampling the reserve wine directly from an oak barrel (upto 19% of this wine is used to blend with current wines to give you that reliable consistency that Philipponnat champagnes are known for)
  • tasting the vintage ros茅 from the cuve (steel vat) after the 1st fermentation (there are only 2000 bottles of this made so we made a note to find a bottle sometime around 2013 when it will be availabl in the market, errr assuming we can buy one!)
  • witnessing and drinking a vintage Grand Blanc from 1988 that Nicolletta disgorged using the traditional method (i.e. using the bubble in the bottle to aggregate and expel the sediments requiring expert hand-eye coordination and a big, strong thumb – kids, don’t try this at home!), having located it in a corner during our cellar visit. The wine smelled and tasted magnificent, especially considering that it was in its pre-dosage form.
  • … but our real thanks go to David who organinsed this vist through Charles Philipponnat himself … which just goes to prove, it’s not what you kow but who you know that gets you nice things in life.

    A couple of discoveries worth mentioning include the red ‘illegal champagne’ that our B&B host produced one evening (actually, it wasn’t a particularly great experience but nevertheless it needed to be done) and the rare ros茅 from Edouard Barnaut (Bouzy), one of the few still wines carrying the Coteaux Champenois AOC that stand out in the middle of what is afterall bubbles country.

    So we are back home now, and our ‘cellar’ is looking a little less pathetic … but all the excess of the past few days have caught up with me in the form of abdominal cramps, so I’m on the wagon again … until such time when I feel lonely, hungry or thirsty 馃槈

    tapastastic …

    Copy of TAPAS.jpg

    It is 9.30 a.m. in the morning. Under a blue and cloudless sky, a low Catalan sun easily melts away any remnant frost on the awnings of the stalls at La Bouqueria market on Las Ramblas. Inside, we wrestled with the crowd for a seat at a tapas bar, and once armed with a couple of cold cervezas (see pic), we begin to devise a cunning plan to punctuate our short week-end in Barcelona with as many eateries and wine bars as our stomachs and bladders can withstand. The list would be modest, but distinguished … for example, for dinner, we should try to eat at Santa Maria (Carrer del Comerq) where a number of chefs had trained under Ferran Adria聽 of el Bulli fame, or les 7 Portes (Pg. Isabel II), one of the city’s oldest and most reputable restaurants or visit Can Paixano (Carrer de la Reina Cristina), a rowdy bar serving cheap (but sometimes awful!) cava.

    And as always, we were prepared to be led by our noses and so chance also brought us to La Vinya del Senyor (Placa de Santa Maria) which stocked some 300 fine wines by the glass, Cuines (located in the new Santa-Caterina market with the amazing roof) – a foodie paradise with themed areas and a great tapas bar at the entrance, and Vascelum (also on Placa de Santa Maria) – I don’t think I will ever forget the taste and texture of my perfectly grilled cuttlefish.

    But the gastronomic highlight must go to Santa Maria. We had been told this place gets busy and as booking wasn’t viable, we arrived early and loitered aimlessly until we were invited in shortly before the opening time of 20:30, and 15 minutes later, every table in the restaurant was occupied! The wine list seemed very personal as if chef had made the selection from his own cellar, but as we had ordered the Menu Degustation, there seemed little point in attempting to match wine to food so I selected an Altun, a surprisingly elegant Rioja made 100% from Tempranillo. And so our dining adventure began …

    To say that our taste buds were raped that evening is an understatement, but I cannot remember another meal quite like this where the diner is taken on a journey from classic French cuisine to the far east, then whisked suddenly to Celtic delicacies, back to Mediterranean seafood before finishing with three desserts, one of which contained space dust (yes, space dust – I kid you not), which had the roof of our mouths crackling and popping with joy! Then there is the value for money aspect. For just under 32 EURO (plus taxes), we were treated to the following:

    – a refreshing home made lemonade with mint (to cleanse our palates before the meal)
    – delicious olives seasoned in cloves
    – tasty bowl of fresh cassava chips
    – an unusual pomegranate salad with toasted almonds
    – fried frogs legs, coated in sesame seeds
    – local giant mussels with a cheesy tomato topping
    – chicken sushi with a devilishly hot chilli sauce (and that’s before the wasabi was added!)
    – rib of rabbit, served with a pumpkin dip
    – pan seared fresh foie gras, served with a caramel pastry
    – delicate black pudding on an orange baked biscuit
    – savoury croquette with white chocolate drops
    – piping hot local salted cod with mash

    Ummmmmmmm, I so want to go back there …