Monday, December 10, 2007

Wine Chap for Urban Junkies

Winechap is now contributing a monthly column for the London-based cultural daily e-magazine Urban Junkies:

Each month, the following topics are covered in brief:
1. ShelfTalk: A retail recommendation BUT NO SPECIFIC MERCHANTS LISTED (thus cannot be accused of being too partisan)
2. BoozeBluff: A bit of fun and mildly educational
3. WineMate: Food and Wine Pairing – simple seasonal flavours for trying at home
4. DrinkOut: Wine Bar/Restaurant recommendation – emphasis on the wine rather than food
5. GrapeVine: Latest gossip from the wine world

Follow the links below for November's tips and WineChap's favourite London wine bars:

December's tips will be out later in the week...

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Notes from Venice & Friuli

Venice - with Enrica Rocca

After an early morning guided tour of the Rialto market with Enrica enthusing about every aspect of its fresh Venetian produce and Italian cuisine and a brief stop at one of the city's small bars for a spritz - traditional liquid 11s - of Campari, Prosecco and selzer, we returned to the Rocca family's beautiful palazzo in the Zattere laden with sufficient ingredients to eat solidly for 6 hours (as in fact we did). Starkly contrasting to the stately 1800s furnishings of the main palazzo, Enrica's own apartment - really just one huge kitchen and entertaining space - is ultra modern (she refused to have anything in it more than two years old) and as uniquely vibrant as its owner - stools covered in springbok-skins dyed in vivid primary colours, bold modern art, leopard skin rugs on grey slate floors, bright orange heaters and lots of polished metal.
On to the food - under Enrica's guidance everyone mucked in to produce a procession of seafood - razor clams, swordfish, scallops on the half shell, linguini alla vongole, slow-cooked octopus with saffron potatoes, and whole bream, complemented by fresh mushroom dishes, an artichoke risotto, and various pastas, followed by roasted shoulder and leg of baby lamb, and then local cheeses, with moscato grapes. The dishes all betrayed Enrica's signature culinary hallmarks: truly the best seasonal ingredients, simply prepared into spontaneous delicious dishes and then devoured by a team of happy, laughing, variously talented and increasingly wine-sodden kitchen assistants (the latter quality ensured by WineChap pairing off courses with a selection of vino di Veneto and neighbouring regions chosen from Enrica's extensive cellar).

Highlights of Friuli Wine Tour 12-14th October

Tasting at Le Vigne di Zamo, Rosazzo
From three of the Estate's pigs slaughtered in November, a selection of salami and cured charcuterie and cotechino - a criminally appealing greasy sticky offal sausage served with polenta and then frico - a cheesy, potato pancake. Schiopettino 2005 - high acid, soft tannin, bright plum and cherry fruit (the barbera of the region) was a good match to pierce the heavy fatty flavours.

Tavernetta - Restaurant of Castello di Spessa, Capriva del Friuli
Whilst tending to agree that golf is a good walk ruined it was such a nice day I thought a turn on the estate's driving range would be a good way to work up a thirst for an 11am grappa tasting. Strong spirits were needed after the Castle's charmingly naff promo video (the highlight being a hilariously crude reference to its most famous guest - Casanova, in a spliced scene of John Malkovitch's wolfish Comte de Valmont groping Uma Thurman' Cecile Volange from Dangerous Liaisons. Supremely tacky and surreally amusing). Anyway, dinner:
Mushrooms featured highly over the weekend so we started with a porcini pate and then more porcini grilled and served with slices of grana padano and a smattering of rucola. Had this with Venica&Venica's Ronco delle Cime 06 (tre-bicchiere winning Tocai Friulano) which picked out the flavours well. Goose is a regional speciality and although coming from the 'goose fat - worth every potential last halfbeat' school of gastronomy was impressed by the savoury leanness of the goose ragu and Saracen pappardelle.
Tagliata di manzo with rosti and fried herbs was capably done, solid and distinct comforting flavours, the herbs juxtaposing a textural piquancy. We tried this with 2 vintages of the Castello's flagship Conte di Spessa - a Merlot-based Bordeaux blend. The '02 initially convinced with coffee, damp earth and hints of mint on the nose and a hedonistic clump of soy-treacly unfocussed dark fruits on the palate. The '92, yielding eucalyptus and sweet cedar aromas, was more diffuse and whilst tiring a little remained graceful and poised throughout the evening where the '02 re-tasted later in the evening, showed the slightly hollow character of the vintage, its herbaceous border overwhelming the fruit (the comparison was akin to a faded master vs an amateur watercolourist). We finished with a duo of white chocolate - mousse and ice cream cake, paired with the opulent yet zingy Vola Vola dessert wine from Zamo, redolent of Seville oranges and marzipan.

Enoteca de Feo, Cividale
This was a chic, modern wine bar with an outstanding selection of regional wines - organised by varietal, and 25 wines of the day by the generously free-poured glass at between 2-4 euros. A limited but judicious rather than flashy selection of non-Italian producers like Egly-Ouriet (Champagne), Lucien Boillot and Robert Chevillon (Burgundy), Chasse Spleen (Bordeaux) further suggested a sophisticated and individual sourcing policy.
A Slovenian blend of malvasia/ribolla/tocai was rather funky and yeasty with old oak and O2 but opened up over rigatoni with scampi and artichoke and Pumpkin and buffalo ricotta ravioli on puy lentils with crispy pancetta.

'La Subida', just above Cormons
A restaurant worth flying out to Italy just for the evening to visit and with prices, including airfare to Trieste, not much more expensive than the best London has to offer.
Bjana Brut - methode classique Chardonnay. Surprisingly accomplished. Ripe yet structured, fruity with pears and golden delicious, and big-boned at 13.5% but, like Nigella, hiding its curves well.
Fresh tangy ricotta on salty gelatinous soft polenta with rucola and then excellent 'Friuli Wonton' - filled with pear, walnut and cheese in a creamy elderflower sauce, the complex array of intertwining flavours complementing the equally sophisticated Tocai 50Anni 2003, Zamo perfectly.
Rencel 01 J Jinta - Kras/Carso blend. Our second foray in to Slovenian wine conjured up Tito's hillside partisans - earthy and a little wild, with a nose of ivy and forest beries, the saltpetre and leather of a wellworn bandolier. Rather raw on the palate - being generous lets say it needed time...
Served with two pastas - ravioli of wild herbs (very good) and a second, possibly not helped by our server's translation as 'goose bits' with courgettes and tomato in a broth in toasted pasta, to my mind less successful than the goose ragu from the previous evening.
1995 Ronco dei Rosetti, Le Vigne di Zamo - high-toned with a silky opulence and sweet, soft musky perfume, liquorice, hints of anise and wild cherries and damsons drunk with:
Guinea fowl breast and mash in pumpkin gravy with walnuts (more more), pomegranate seeds (less if any, molar-splitting b*stards) and fennel tops was very pretty.
Veal carved off the bone at the table from a whole shank was meltingly sublime (glazed with mustard seeds and balsamic vinegar?)
After a pause to sample some locally sourced (obviously), cured, cherrywood smoked (36 hours) San Daniele carved off the haunch by genial proprietor, Josko Sirk (I'm sure that was the name of a Star Wars character?), which had my californian companions aquiver at the concentrated salt consumption, we moved on to the most impressive part of the meal, an assortment of desserts including a dish of three different flavoured creme caramels - cardoman, lavendar and grappa, and an unctuous chocolate mousse layered with aubergine chips. As stuffed as we were, these were desserts to inspire groans and sighs of Epicurean delight!
No pudding wine was needed here, it would merely have distracted from the melange of flavours already present.

Monday, September 24, 2007

Brunello Dinner at Sartoria

Mastrojanni Brunello Dinner @ Sartoria, Savile Row, 19th September

There are a lot of Italian restaurants in Mayfair and many of them rate from 'good' to among the best in London (ergo the UK and in fact anywhere not in Italy), so how to choose between them?

It is often the little extras that count in smart eateries; pretty amuses bouches, prettier serving staff, dishes served on polished oak boards, in shot glasses, newspaper cones or espresso cups etc. However sometimes it is the big extras that count more; like getting five excellent courses, and six very good wines (and plenty of them) for a paltry £65. Thus it was that, after several complimenatary glasses of Prosecco, refreshingly delicate and welcome after a long day, unlike Wine Chap's rambling introduction to the evening, forty guests sat down at Sartoria's private room to enjoy head-chef Alan Marchetti's Tuscan-inspired menu with paired wines from the Mastrojanni Estate in Montalcino:

Coppa con Carciofini marinati al limone: 'Chokes are traditonally difficult to match with wines which are made to taste strangely sweeter as a result of the pairing whilst leaving an oddly metallic aftertaste. High acid whites are suggested as partners (Sauvignon, Chenin etc) however the acidity of the lemon marinade could have been jarring so the softer Chardonnay component of the Ginestre 2006 (Chardonnay/Sauvignon blend) from Castellare helped the wine play a diplomatic role in resolving both concerns.

Lardo with red pecorino cheese and acacia honey: Lardo and lipbalm are my two essentials at wine fairs, where a day or two tasting cask samples of new vintages will cause blistering and inflammation of tongue and lips unless you have sufficient fat and grease to protect these vital organs. There was no lipbalm in the construction of the dish but it was a winetaster's dream combo, with the nutty pecorino cutting through the fluffy melting saltiness of the lardo, both forcing saliva to armour the palate against the youthful tannins of Mastrojanni's Rosso di Montalcino 2005. The ripe sweetness of the vintage was slightly muted by the acacia honey which, whilst I love with Pecorino, might have chosen to forego in this instance.

Wild mushroom risotto with juniper pecorino cheese was nicely understated, the funghi seasonally fresh and the juniper-flavoured cheese from the coastal Maremma region, salty but not too pungent and picking up the sinewy, gamey, spicy cherry tones of the Brunello 2001 which was served in magnums. Slightly austere currently (especially from big-format, slower-ageing bottles) this showed promise to mature in to a classic Brunello.

Chestnut-stuffed, ham-wrapped Pheasant breast with white polenta, a traditional Tuscan game dish, offered tender and flavoursome meat, the piquancy of which was nicely smoothed out by the creamy, strangely herbal polenta. The Brunello Riserva 1998 although well bedded-in, the savoury-sweet character of roasted meat and rosemary, with fine-grained tannins wrapped round the compote fruit core, showed it had plenty of life left...

Apple and chestnut strudel with sultanas and pine nuts: The noble strudel, manna of the ancient Etruscans (possibly) was fruity and nutty rather than sweet and cloying which meant it was the perfect foil for the excellent passito Botrys (Malvasia/Moscato/a little Sauvignon) Vino Dolce 1999 which heather-honeyed and coppery palate sung out at the meal's conclusion.

As well as Alan, thanks and credit must go to Patrick (manager) and Carlo (head sommelier) for their hard work and the smooth-running of the evening, allowing Wine Chap to meander between tables, swirl a wine glass, brow-furrowed, and proffer unsolicited opinions about the contents to guests previously enjoying animated conversation. Well - as I said, its sometimes the little extras that make the difference....

Sartoria, 20 Savile Row W1 020 7534 7000

NB - all wines from A Moveable Feast ltd

Next post: Cocktails in Amsterdam and Truffles in Alba...

Monday, September 10, 2007

Flodigarry Country House/Three Chimneys, Skye

This is the first post on this Blog so by way of brief introduction:

Welcome to WineChap's musings on wine and gastronomy, providing a repository of tips and suggestions on all things vinous as well as a platform for reviews and forum for discussion.
Well - that's the plan anyway...

On a recent getaway to Skye with an old school friend, WineChap ate and drank at two of the island's most highly-regarded establishments: Flodigarry Country House Hotel and The Three Chimneys.

First up - a simple supper in Flodigarry's bistro (the next door dining room was suspiciously denuded of punters):
We both took the seafood chowder to start; more of a creamy broth than the potato-thickened almost-stew I'd been imagining, and a touch under-seasoned but generously portioned with a plentiful variety of shell and other fish, all plucked out of the water nearby one supposes.
Wine: A perfectly acceptable Sonoma County Chardonnay (Simi, 2003) with typically rich, tropical fruits, toasty almond essence and oak tones; the respectable acidity and couple of year's bottle ageing almost enough to convince me I can like Californian Chardonnay.
Next came the obligatory tourist in Scotland dining experience: I can't understand why so many people (even self-proclaimed foodies) wrinkle their noses in disgust at haggis. Its so un-offally, so unmeaty, so nutty, spicy and herby, more like a vegetarian sausage that just happens to have meat in it. Here it was very good, moist but textured and richly flavoursome.
Wine: The classic partner to haggis as everyone knows is Uruguayan Tannat and we enjoyed the inexpensive (£15) Cata Mayor '06 from Castillo Viejo. Dark-fruited, with a hint of licquorice and broad, herbaceous tannins in support, this was more than drinkable. NB - Tannat is becoming for Uruguay what Malbec is already to Argentina; both grapes are prominent in South-West France (Madiran and Cahors respectively), but tend to produce wines which are more fruit-driven and less tannic in South America where they enjoy signature varietal status.
Finished the meal with a large Oban - an unctuous, oily malt, sweet and peaty with a dense mouthfeel and richness, described on the hotel's Whisky list as 'smooth but slightly vicious' - appropriate given my tendency to be obsequiously condescending in provincial restaurants.

The Three Chimneys
One of Scotland's top destinations for high-flying gastronomes (literally - a patch of grass out front is known as 'the heli-pad' for the list of celebs who are choppered in to the remote location on a regular basis)
Aperitivo: Champagne Tarlant, Zéro. Equal 1/3rds Chardonnay and the Pinots and no dosage gave a richly dry, very minerally wine, austere and with a green apple tartness that slightly dominated the finish.
After an appetizer of a crab tortellino on spiced apple (flavours pleasantly reminiscent of a steamed gyoza) and a selection of home-baked rolls, Alex called dibs for the Colbost crab with potato and caper salad and dark crabmeat creme fraiche so I opted for the smoked salmon with pickled cucumber, beetroot relish and quails eggs. Such traditional dishes require excellent execution to impress and both did; the salmon a reassuringly translucent inner-onion-skin colour and the eggs soft-boiled, the crab combo a perfectly nuanced blend of complimentary flavours.
Wine: Vernaccia 'Vigna a Solatio' 2006, Ricciardo Falchini. Candied limes on the nose with hints of marzipan, ginger and mint. Palate is sweeter, with some lychee fruit and a slight nuttiness suggestive of sugared almonds. A year or so more would see the flavours flesh out a little and take on more richness.
Mains courses followed: Saddle of wild rabbit, with hare and wood pigeon, served with lentils, tattie scone and spring greens, and a blaeberry and bitter chocolate sauce was slightly underwhelming - the pan-fried rabbit, the least exciting of the trio of game, was a touch dry, but the juicy, richly-metallic flavour of the pigeon impressed. Alex's lamb loin, kidney, heart, sweetbreads and braised flank with hairst bree (harvest broth) was a consummately-crafted flesh-fest and I must confess to a degree of food envy.
Wine: Aglianico 'Donnaluna' 2004, Viticoltori de Conciliis. (From Campania and a very good vintage in Italy) the Donnaluna had complex loamy, mossy aromas, some varnish and currants, 'like a damp mahogany dresser' - suggested Alex, with rather mature fruit on the palate and tannins which were a touch raw.
I wanted an excuse to drink the '96 Zeltinger Sonnenuhr Auslese, from Selbach-Oster which at £6.50 a glass was a bargain so we shared the cheese plate served with fresh fruit slices (so much better than the jammy confections that often accompany cheese and overpower the more delicate sweetness of the wine) and followed it with the Chimneys' justly famous hot marmalade pudding and Drambuie custard. The old Auslese, delicate and fragranced more like waxed jacket than petrol, worked well with the fairly mild local cheeses, but was of course obliterated by the pudding, arguing effectively for choosing a sweet wine or dessert but not both together.
Overall the meal was very good, the service efficient and friendly but not obtrusive (it was nice to eat in a top establishment which recognises that leaving you to replenish your own wine after initial pouring will not be mistaken for neglect), the location picturesque and the decor tasteful rather than twee. My only dig was that despite being fully-booked the atmosphere was rather muted, as though our fellow diners were awed into solemnity by the gravitas of eating in such a hallowed restaurant. I usually prefer to have to make at least a small effort to be overheard - however if the very merry Glaswegian couple braving the midges outside for their post-dinner cigarettes had been next to us, I'm sure this would have been a moot point.

Flodigarry Country House Hotel
01470 552203

The Three Chimneys
01470 511258

Coming up in future posts: notes from a Lagrange vertical, Cocktail-making in Amsterdam, Selfridges' WonderBar, Brunello Dinner at Sartoria, Truffle Hunting and Barolo in Piemonte...