Sunday, 26 December 2010

Inniskillin Ice Wine 2006

c.$10 / 50 ml

As the Canadians were due the pleasure of the company later on it was evident that Ice Wine for breakfast was the order of the day.

I had received for Christmas a number of ingenious methods of storing wine, but disappointingly little actual wine. The sum total of it comprised a whopping 50cl of a 2006 Canadian Ice Wine from Inniskillin complete with special presentation box-let.

As the better among us will know, Ice Wine is pressed from late-harvested frozen grapes in cool climates, giving a super-sweet, superbly concentrated must.

A cursory inspection of said revealed this to be an oak-aged Vidal, a grape I don't remember having drunk before which meant that I was approaching this little 9am snifter with considerably less information than normal, but bravely I battled on...

The Canadians seem to have lucked out with the grape, as it can be made to taste and smell almost exactly like Riesling, I even got a whiff of rubber on the nose.

The lovely lip-smacking sweetness and lush honeyed fruit almost didn't stand up to the long intensity of the acid finish, though this cut through perfectly the excellent bowl of Special K, with which I had expertly paired it. Heathrow Terminal 3 was gonna be a doddle.

A nicely salty dirty Martini in Toronto airport provided fuel for some shopping and the no-brainer purchase of a magazine about Canadian wine, which had awarded the venerable Inniskillin team runner-up in their 'Winery of the Year' awards. Bravo.

Tuesday, 21 December 2010

Apostoles 30 Year Old Palo Cortado

Majestic, £15.99

"So come fill up your glasses of brandy and wine..." trad. Irish.

This seemed as good a way as any to start the evening, before embarking on my annual attempt on 15 pints at The Pogues' Christmas gig.

The idea of adding brandy to wine is clearly the work of a great mind, but does also have a few advantages aside from the obvious. Firstly fortification is used to preserve wine, especially on voyages, from Portugal to England say. And the Andalusians have refined the technique as a method of killing the flor yeast, which grows on top of dry Sherry during maturation and gives it its distinctive flavour, but cannot survive above 16% alcohol. By killing it at different points, or not allowing it to form at all, different styles of Sherry can be produced.

The wine I chose was the 30 year old Apostoles Palo Cortado. A style fawned over by critics who, almost universally describe it as "rare". Of course, it's not any more, because everybody loves it. But that's neither here nor there, once upon a time it apparently was, and that was down to a quirk in the wine-making process...

The very finest wines are selected after fermentation to become the drier styles of Sherry (Manzanillas, Finos and Amontillados), which age under flor, unlike the richer Oloroso styles. Palo Cortado, is one of the finer wines but one on which the flor mysteriously dies. From then it undergoes an Oloroso style ageing process, with full contact to air and its oxidative effect.

Unfortunately it turned out that mine had something else added as well as the brandy. A pretty questionable bit of vinification had led to the wine being bastardised by the addition of some Pedro Ximinez, one of Sherry's sweet grapes.

There's a little tang on the nose and some nuttiness. The palate shows lemons and lots of raisins and dried fruit, but the balance is all off.

Palomino Fino is a terrible grape, and produces pissy, weak wine with very little structure or acidity. Even the addition of a minute amount of PX here upsets it horribly, and the resulting wine has nothing to counteract the little bit of added sweetness.

It went well with some equally nutty-sweet Parma ham, but overwhelmed a couple of indistinct French cheeses. A hunk of Stilton smeared with some of my '09 Windfall Chutney (showing nicely in the jar despite its relative youth) was more its thing.

Still, probably worked out better than my idea of pouring half a tin of Red Bull into a pint of Guiness a few hours later.

Sunday, 19 December 2010

Brasserie Toulouse Lautrec

140 Newington Butts, London. £35 pp including wine.

It seems the game wasn't rigged, or at least, not rigged very well.

This unfortunate fact resulted in the Russian losing the best part of £1000. Which in turn led to a decision that the best medicine would be a day-long bender involving a little sherry, a lot of ale, a trip to a casino to lose some more money playing games that definitely are rigged, several abortive efforts to find dinner, and finally a superb meal in Kennington piano-bar-cum-restaurant Brasserie Toulouse Lautrec.

The place is a recently opened sister restaurant to an old favourite The Lobster Pot, which it is next door to and run by the two sons of extravagantly moustachioed Frenchman Herve Regent, the owner and chef there.

The restaurant was amazingly busy for a Sunday night, though son #1 made an heroic effort as front of house, and, seemingly, the only waiter.

After settling down we set about examining the nicely priced, £20 for two courses, set menu. I was enthused to see a glut of French brasserie classics give little more than a passing nod to vegetarianism, though I did have to spend quite a while trying to explain to the Russian what an endive is. I appear not to have excelled in this matter as he promptly decided on the 'Endive Gratin' to start. Being a salad vegetable the endive obviously doesn't take well to gratin-type situations. This particular example was a predictably sloppy affair, and barely enlivened by the addition of some ham/bacon.

My own starter of half a dozen snails was noticeably superior. I side-stepped the £4.50 supplement for the full dozen, though I'm fairly certain they brought me more than six anyway. They were authentically chewy and tasteless affairs floating in some excellent garlic butter, and went well with the (entire loaf of) cracking bread we had been brought.

The Russian stepped up manfully to the £8 supplement for the Cote de Bouef main, which was good, but served with a side of those increasingly common hunks of fried potato that masquerade as a sort of posh 'chip.'

I am unable to ignore the presence of braised lamb shank on a menu, so went for that. It was a lovely, big, soft piece of meat, served simply with some crunchy, run-of-the-mill veg (broccoli, carrot &c.). This was so precisely what I wanted that even the menu's absurd lie that my meat had been cooked for 24 hours failed to bother me.

I navigated a peculiarly assembled wine list to emerge with a good Chilean Cabernet Sauvignon, which worked well with the two mains, though with the suspicion that the £26.60 price tag may be dipping its toe a little over the 300% mark-up threshold.

I'll go out on a limb and say that the food here is possibly even better than The Lobster Pot, though it's a close run thing, and it's certainly better value.

We retired to a largely empty upstairs for a small digestif; a Leffe for me and a carafe of Malbec for the Russian. I have faint recollection of a funny-looking man singing, who I assume was meant to be there, but it's testament to the knowing eccentricity of the place that this beardy prescence seemed to cap a charming evening rather well.

Friday, 17 December 2010

Jamon Iberico


There comes a moment in everyones life when you realise that there just isn't quite enough pig involved.

Most people will perhaps add a chop or two next time they are in the supermarket. The more adventurous might opt for some Italian charcuterie with an unpronounceable name and an endorsement from Jamie Oliver. But both of these are clearly easy ways out, and bound to disappoint.

The Russian, however, is a man whose problem-solving abilities are legendary. No situation is too much for his particular breed of inspired whimsy and near limitless financial backing. And this is how on a recent visit I found myself face-to-face with an entire Iberico ham leg complete with authentic stand-thing (or Jamonero) and hopelessly blunt knife. Not much change from £400 apparently.

The recent proliferation of tapas restaurants mean that many will be au fait with the intricacies of jamon iberico. It is a cured Spanish ham, courtesy of the black Iberian pig. The pig itself seems usually to be a greyish colour, the 'black' of the name referring instead to the colour of the hooves.

The Spaniard's love of Denomicions has lead him to create a complicated scale of quality based primarily on quite how many acorns said pig has been eating. The zenith of this being jamon iberico de bellota, cured for three years and coming from pigs which are not fed grain but rather allowed to range freely and consume as many acorns as they can snuffle out. Needless to say, this is what the Russian had.

The first difficulty one comes upon when confronted with a whole ham leg is just how to go about hacking it up. Entire books have been devoted to the subject, but time was of the essence so we eschewed the experts and set about it ourselves...

Carving Iberico is ham markedly harder than you might imagine.

Initial efforts resulted in pieces that were probably closer to 'hunks' than the traditionalist might desire. But with time and the addition of a steel we improved and, by the end of the evening, produced some professionally thin slices.

Served at a correctly warm temperature the meat's fat hovered on the brink of liquidity and brought a lush silken texture to the splendid nutty salt-savouriness.

The care, the pride, and the pretentiousness pays off- a serious food lives up to a serious price-tag. Casticismo is yours for £400.

Sunday, 12 December 2010

Dr. Loosen Riesling Beerenauslese 2006

Majestic £9.99

Just when you thought the Bordelais couldn't push the breathtaking cynicism of 2009 any further Mouton Rothschild go and commission a Chinese artist to design the label of the flagship '08 wine.

Throw in the fortunate coincidence that 8 is, apparently, a lucky number for the entire Chinese nation and the fact that China is about the only market that buys Premier Cru Bordeaux to actually drink, and you can pretty much double the value of your wine in a single month. The Liv-Ex Fine Wine Exchange had the '08 Mouton Rothschild trading at £7,898 per case at the end of November, up from £4,254 at the beginning of the month.

Fucking masterstroke.

I needed something to bring things back down to earth, to shun the hype, the marketing, and the zeitgeisty nature of the current market. How could I resist 187cl of botrytised German wine for ten quid?

Quite what Majestic think they are doing trying to sell something as deeply unfashionable as a quarter bottle of super-sweet, 6.5% Riesling for a tenner is anyone's guess. But I commend it, and it tickled my sense of the absurd, so I bought a bottle to go with one of the regular '09 Dr. Ls.

The Dr L is a excellent wine: a single metaphorical teaspoon of residual sugar above bone-dry and full of well integrated lush fruit, backed by that slick, limey acidity so associated with Rieslings. But I was hoping the little Beerenauslese would be even better.

I have long ago given up bothering trying to crack the peculiar code system that the Germans insist on using on their bottles, so instead consulted the website to confirm that I was in for a classically sweet Christmassy treat.

"Chill the hell out of that mofo," was the opinion of the Russian who had bought some ok '07 Pomerol and a nicely gutsy Chateauneuf-du-Pape. However I chose to consult higher authorities who advised drinking at a cool cellar temperature.

On the nose TDN levels are just above detection level, giving a pleasing hit of petrol. Intense orange sweetness is perfectly matched by a long citrus acid finish, which completely cuts any potential oiliness. I'm not sure I would serve this with dessert as I think most would be just a bit too much for the wine's simple elegance.

The wee bottle brilliantly encourages solo drinking; enjoy on its own, on your own, with just the sticky-sweet sense of smug satisfaction for company.

Sunday, 5 December 2010

Yann Chave Crozes Hermitage 2008

Majestic £13.99

I arrived back from lunch having accrued a number of unexplained items over the previous day or so.

Apart from an excellent new handmade umbrella, and the tiringly predictable sense of icky guilt and memory blackouts, were some bottles of wine, one apparently half drunk.

I knew where I had bought them (a lovely little Majestic in Notting Hill), but had absolutely no idea how much I might have paid. Assuming of course I hadn't just nicked them for the craic.

I had an inkling that the Amarone might have been expensive as it so often is, but a couple of slick looking bottles of Crozes-Hermitage were giving nothing away.

This coquetteishness was no match for the power of the internet and Majestic's excellent webstie however. I was pleased to see they had only cost £14 a piece and, as the bumf from Majestic whetted my appetite, I could feel the wine moving rapidly up my regularly updated internal list of 'Interesting ways to get drunk in the next 24 hours.'

The nose opens with all that people love about the Syrahs from this part of the world. Lots of smoke, the faintest hint of dark fruit, some herbaceousness and a big smack of pepper.

This focus continues on the palate with cassis and dark fruit, well integrated structured tannins and intense white pepper on a long finish.

It's a cracking wine, with real intent, very poised and comfortingly typical of the Northern Rhone, it makes me sad and confused to think of what the Austalians do to the grape.

I was understandably pleased to see this wine continuing a long hot-streak of winning decision making that I am experiencing. Lump on during Majestic's 20% off Rhone.

Saturday, 4 December 2010

Notting Hill Brasserie

92 Kensington Park Road, London. £150 for two including wine

As I suspected he might do, TOD met my latest arrival in West London with some violent and suspicious behaviour.

The area's cartographers, some deaf people, and a young lady who happened to be standing where he wanted to be, all came under attack. But particular vehemence was reserved for a woman sitting next to us in a pub who was wearing a preposterous hat.

The lobotomy of TOD's social conscience has led to a game in which he enjoys loudly speculating to himself about the dress sense, moral integrity and relative unintelligence of those in his immediate vicinity. And this regrettably-hatted woman had the great misfortune last Saturday of entering it.

She and her companion left half their drinks.

Having known him for far too long than is good for me, I understand that this kind of behaviour is in fact his way of expressing quite how happy he is with his lot. However, at this point, I was rather regretting stoking this particular fire by bringing him a lovely postcard of an umbrella shop as a gift.

Several pints of bitter later, we pointed ourselves in the direction of the Notting Hill Brasserie, TOD having begun the first of the day's many efforts to leave his postcard in a pub.

Good Espresso Martinis at the bar were enhanced by conversation with a charming and knowledgeable barman concerning his trade, before we made our way to a grand and almost entirely empty dining room.

I was prepared for the intimidating feel of the place having earlier purchased a smart handmade umbrella which lent a considerable gravitas to my operation, but it was clear that my umbrella-less companion was a little non-u.

I went for the excellent value £15.50 set lunch, whilst TOD opted a la carte because he wanted a rich and satisfying lobster and scallop starter.

My own starter comprised five melty medallions of pretty well completely raw tuna perched on a salad-y thing, which added a satisfying crunchiness, but little in the way of flavour. Delicate and unpretentious.

After the starters were cleared the excellent barman returned to give TOD back his postcard, which I was now beginning to suspect he probably wasn't responsible enough to look after properly.

For mains TOD enjoyed a high-quality fillet steak, but this was effortlessly trumped by my own braised beef cheek, which oozed a rich umami savouriness.

Earlier TOD had cemented his burgeoning reputation as a selector of poor wine, by ordering a glass of pretty dilute and indistinct Argentinean Chardonnay as an aperitif. Luckily my own choice of a bottle of Dolcetto D'Alba was sound, the wine full of bright racy cherries, and just enough body and structure to stand up to the beef .

A very decent, if diminutive, cheese plate preceded coffees and the bill. It was a good and precisely cooked meal served with a welcome side portion of surreal created by the design of the place, and a staff to customer ratio that can't have been too shy of 10:1.

We made our way back to the Earl of Lonsdale via an unsuccessful attempt to buy a sword from a man with a pony-tail ("Probably not the sword for you mate." after I told him that I just wanted a sword to walk into a pub with).

At some point later TOD lost his postcard.