On Sunday night I was lucky enough to drink two wines that are important bottles in the story of Pinot Noir in California. I was with Raj Parr, Sashi Moorman, Jasmine Hirsch and Jamie Kutch at Zuni, and these remarkable wines were brought out. It was an immense privilege to be able to drink them.
Sanford & Benedict Pinot Noir 1979 Santa Ynez Valley, California
This is from the famous Sanford & Benedict vineyard in what’s now known as the Santa Rita Hills, which Richard Sanford and Michael Benedict planted in 1971. 13.2% alcohol. Warm, sweet, textured and spicy, this is a generous wine showing sweet plums and black cherry fruit, with a lovely warm spiciness and a soft, broad mouthfeel. It has aged beautifully into this mellow maturity. 94/100
Williams Selyem Pinot Noir Rochioli Vineyard 1985 Russian River Valley, Sonoma, California
A celebrated wine in the history of Californian Pinot, this was picked as the best wine at the state fair in 1987, and helped establish the reputations of Burt Williams and Ed Selyem. There was some disagreement in our small group about this wine: I really liked it, but others weren’t so keen. It shows vivid, bright cherry fruit with warm notes of herbs and spice, as well as hints of malt. It’s floral and fine, at the same time. 94/100
So, I got a text from Joshua Thomas: ‘Are you interested in brunch?’ Of course! So I headed across town to meet him at Nopalito for a Mexican brunch. The walk from where I’m staying on Geary took me through some sketchy areas, as I cut down Taylor to Market and then hit Fell. There were a lot of rather scary looking people hanging around, but as I proceeded along Fell things became much better. Nopalito is on the intersection between Oak and Fell on Broderick, and it’s a lovely place to brunch.
You just don’t get decent Mexican food in the UK, so this was a real treat. We had a few dishes, and they were all fabulous, including the very indulgent carnitas, which is delicious, fatty, meltingly soft pork that you wrap in tortillas.
We had a couple of beers each, too: the Moonlight ‘Reality Czeck’ Czech Style Pilsner from Santa Rosa, and the Magnolia Brewery Proving Ground IPA, which is made just around the corner in upper Haight. We later walked past the brewery.
Refreshed and refuelled, it was time for a brisk stroll around the neighbourhood. Josh took me to upper Haight, on the boundary of the Golden Gate Park, and then we walked down from here to Lower Height. It’s a famous part of San Francisco, with strong associations with the hippy era. In fact, it’s still pretty hippy. Everyone seems to be smoking weed, and you can buy tie-dyed clothes.
Lower Haight is home to one of the world’s great beer bars, Toronado. It’s quite small, decidedly old fashioned, and rough round the edges. But it has some incredible beers. We stayed here a long time, and were joined by Ross Cobb, of Cobb Wines and also winemaker at Hirsch Vineyards, as well as a couple of hipster friends of Josh.
We stated off with Pliny The Elder from Russian River, on tap. This is an incredible beer: pale, complex, hoppy, fresh and perfectly balanced. Then the Hop 15 double IPA, which was pretty strong but just amazingly focused and well balanced. Then the Bochor Jacobins Rouge, a really complex sour beer, animally, bretty and quite wine like. Then La Merle Saison, a yeasty, smooth Belgian-style beer. Then Allagash White, a complex fresh lemony wheat beer.
After this, it was back to Josh’s place, where he did sabrage on a magnum of Billecart Salmon. It was pretty cool. Here’s the film:
We followed this with some Madeira: first a Barros e Sousa 1980 Terrantez, and then a 1908 D’Oliveras Boal. Both were incredible. I even took notes:
Barros e Sousa Terrantez 1980 Madeira
Fresh, spicy and tangy with citrus fruit, nuts, spice, raisins and herbs. So complex. 95/100
D’Oliveras Boal 1908 Madeira
So complex with herbs, spice, tar, some treacle. Sweet, concentrated and intense with amazing complexity and depth. 97/100
After all this, it was time to head off for dinner. I hadn’t expected to be out quite so long. But it had been an epic time.
So I am in San Francisco, a lovely place to spend a few days. I’m here for the In Pursuit of Balance (IPOB) conference on Monday here in the city. [You'll be able to watch the seminars live on their website.]
Last night, after I arrived, I headed off for dinner at RN74 with IPOB organizer Jasmine Hirsch, Joshua and Meg Thomas, and Donald and Beth Plumley. It was a really lovely evening, with good company, and RN74 is a great place to eat. It has all the important bits right: the space, the menu and (of course) the wine list.
The highlights: excellent bone marrow, superb truffle risotto, and perfectly cooked steak frites. And the wines! We drank quite well. RN74 has an epic wine list.
Pierre Peters Les Chetillons Blanc de Blancs Le Mesnil Grand Cru 2006 was a good place to start the evening. It’s very pure and fine, showing youthful, direct flavours at the moment.
I just loved the Roulot Meursault Tesson Clos de Mon Plaisir 2011. This is a precise, linear, minerally white Burgundy with amazing purity and a lovely flinty, matchstick edge. Roulot take their wines from barrel after a year and transfer them to stainless steel tanks, but with the lees, a process that helps in the development of this pure, linear, reductive style.
Donald Plumley brought his Soliste Saint Andelain Sauvignon Blanc 2011 Lake County, California. It’s a lovely precise barrel fermented Sauvignon showing great depth and precision, with the oak perfectly integrated. Fresh and linear, this will age really well, I reckon.
Time for some red Burgundy, in the shape of Ghislaine Barthod’s Chambolle Musigny 1er Cru Aux Beaux Bruns 2008. Barthod’s style is one of freshness and precision, and this is a lovely, expressive wine with bright fruit, and just enough generosity to cover the structure.
Samsara Turner Vineyard Syrah 2010 Santa Rita Hills, California was one of the wines of the night for me. It was served blind, and immediately we were all calling ‘Syrah’ because of the beautifully perfumed,aromatic, floral olive and black cherry nose. It’s a very fresh cool climate style, with lovely precision. This is 100% whole cluster, and the stems really work in this context.
Jamet Cote Rotie 2008 is a fabulous wine. We had the choice of 2008 and 2009, we chose well I reckon. It’s dark, precise, fresh and meaty with some tapenade character as well as lovely black cherry fruit. Some people thought there was a bit of brett there, but I wasn’t getting it.
We finished with Champagne Bereche et Fils NV, a beautifully fresh, almost structured fizz, showing lovely precision.
A good way to start a trip.
Methode Cap Classique, aka MCC, is the South African designation for quality sparkling wines. I was really taken by this example, from Villiera. It’s made without any added sulfur dioxide, and aged for a decent length of time in the bottle before disgorgement. I love the rich flavours and the way they are nicely countered by citrus freshness.
Villiera Brut Natural Chardonnay 2011 Stellenbosch, South Africa
This is a lovely methode cape classique with no added SO2 and 34 months bottle maturation. A full yellow colour, it has a fine nose of toast, almonds and lemons. The palate is really fine with nice taut citrus fruit and also notes of brioche and nuts. Rich but fine, and really harmonious. 91/100 (£10.99 Marks & Spencer)
This is fabulous, and it’s cheap. It’s a £5.49 wine that has more than a hint of seriousness, as well as a lot of fun.
Marks & Spencer Vin de Pays de l’Ardèche Gamay 2013 France
12% alcohol. Made by Cave Saint Desirat, this Gamay has lovely aromas of cherries, herbs and flowers. The palate is juicy and fruity with lively red cherry fruit underpinned by some mineral/stony notes and some peppery hints. There’s a subtle greenness that works really well, too. Deliciously vibrant, this is a wine I love to drink, at a remarkably low price. 88/100 (£5.49 Marks & Spencer)
So, last night, I had a Great Gastronomic Experience.
It was at the newly opened restaurant of the Chiltern Firehouse, the new project by star hotelier André Balazs. Nuno Mendes, previously of Viajante, is the chef, and this combination of Balazs and Mendes has made the Firehouse the hottest restaurant in town. Located in a beautiful Victorian gothic red brick building on Chiltern Street, Marylebone, it opened on February 20th, and such has been the buzz that it’s incredibly difficult to get in. Which is why rocking up without a reservation (albeit unwittingly) is a mindblowingly stupid thing to do. But it’s what I did.
This is what happened. Some of my Portuguese buddies invited me out to dinner. They are big Nuno fans (who isn’t?), so they’d initially tried Viajante and its sister restaurant the Corner Room. With Nuno’s departure, both are now closed. So they decide it would be cool to follow Nuno to the Firehouse.
They knew they couldn’t get in through the conventional booking route, so they made an informal arrangement with Nuno himself, who they know. I turn up before them, and present myself to FOH, and end up running through all the surnames of my party. No booking. The FOH, who looks a bit like a science fiction character, is incredibly professional and empathic – she looks me in the eye apologetically and suggests I call my chums. They arrive five minutes later, and soon realise that informal arrangements don’t work in a place so hideously of-the-minute and sought after, and so we have a drink in the bar. The staff are amazingly professional through all this, and after two hours we manage to score a table. By this stage it’s 10 pm, but we don’t mind.
What followed was two hours of incredible gastronomic adventure. Nuno’s food manages to be surprising, inventive, delicious and not at all gimmicky. This is the real deal. You’ll have to forgive the terrible iPhone snaps, but it’s hard to describe the food in words alone.
We shared all the dishes, and ordered just about everything. Some highlights (and this was really a succession of highlights) included the following:
- Little ‘doughnuts’ filled with crab meat.
- A DIY steak tartare, where the chopped steak comes with all the other ingredients (capers, shallots, radishes, egg yolk et al) which you then mix yourself. This was fabulous.
- Monkfish that had been cooked over charcoal and pine needles. Brilliant texture.
- Firehouse Caesar salad made with crispy chicken skin and parmesan.
- An incredible combination involving salmon roe and greens
- Grilled octopus with wild mushrooms and aubergine. Just lovely.
The sommelier was really good, and the not-overlong wine list has plenty of interest for geeks. We ordered two Rieslings (Maximum Grunhuas Abs Kabb 2011 and Pegasus Bay Bel Canto 2011) and a Nerello Mascalese (Graci, from Etna). These were all priced in the 40s, and were delicious. There’s a strong Californian section in the list (fitting in with the notional American theme of the Firehouse), but these were quite a bit more expensive.
I had to leave as midnight approached, so I missed the last few dishes. Still, this was an utterly remarkable meal, and worth waiting for.
I love this wine. It’s a Primitivo, but not as you know it. Cristiano Guttarolo has just 5 hectares of vines, at 400 m altitude, and this remarkable wine is made from a small 0.6 hectare plot of Primitivo that is fermented in 500 litre clay amphorae from Umbria. After fermentation these amphorae are sealed by means of a clay lid that is sealed on with beeswax for around a year. The final assemblage takes place in stainless steel. The result is striking.
Guttarolo Primitivo ‘Amphora’ 2011 Puglia, Italy
13% alcohol. Lifted nose of sour cherries and dried herbs with a lovely floral quality and a hint of sweet volatility. The palate is tangy and has lovely bitter cherries and herbs with some sweetness and a bit of bite on the finish. A wine with tension and detail: not for everyone, it treads the fine line between naturalness and fruitiness just beautifully. A truly great wine. 94/100
UK agent is Tutto wines. If you are in London it’s available in Roberson for £29.95, and Noble Fine Liquor have it for £29 on their website.
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I do like the First Drop wines with their creative branding. This Barossa Shiraz, called ‘Mother’s Milk’, is really good. It’s properly Barossa, with ripe fruit it’s key signature, but it’s combined with freshness and definition. The end result is delicious and drinkable, but with a hint of seriousness, even though it is made for early drinking.
First Drop Mother’s Milk Shiraz 2012 Barossa, Australia
14.5% alcohol. Very pure and fresh with raspberry and blackberry fruit, as well as some subtle creamy notes and a hint of mint. Really fabulous purity here, and for a ripe wine it shows lovely freshness. 92/100
Today I have been sorting through some old pictures. They’re really old, some as far back as 1970. I’ve changed a lot since then.
The wine world has changed a lot since then, too. But still, compared with our lifespan, wine has a sense of permanence. It is rooted in the place, and the place is here to stay. We are not.
If I were to plant a vineyard now, it would take me the rest of my life to begin to understand that place – and then it would be for my successors to begin to make the best wines from that site.
This is one of the things that fascinates me about new regions, such as Marlborough and Central Otago. The growers in these regions are still very much learning about the sites that they are custodians of. You get a real sense that they are on a journey, and it is great to watch.
Saint-Amour is the most northerly and the second smallest of the Beaujolais crus, and 115 growers farm its 308 hectares. The soils here are a bit different: the region’s granite soils give way to the clay and limestone of the Maconnais, so presumably there’s a bit of a mix in some of the vineyards (Saint-Veran neighbours Saint-Amour). Here are five examples I tried.
Domaine Le Carjot Saint-Amour 2012 Beaujolais, France
13% alcohol. Very attractive bright cherry and raspberry fruit. Fresh and sappy with subtle green and mineral notes under the bright fruit. This has a lovely savoury, mineral personality. Quite a serious Beaujolais. 92/100
Domaine du Mas des Tines Saint-Amour 2011 Beaujolais, France
13% alcohol. Nice fresh raspberry and cherry fruit. There’s some density and substance here, but it remains elegant with finesse and purity. Nice cherries, spice and minerals with subtle herb characters. A bit of tannic bite, too. 90/100
Domaine Matray Saint-Amour 2011 Beaujolais, France
12.5% alcohol. Tart black cherries and raspberries here with an attractive rounded texture in the mouth. Juicy and forward with nice bright fruit. 88/100
Jean-François Trichard Domaine des Pierres Saint-Amour 2011 Beaujolais, France
13% alcohol. Slightly rustic, reductive nose with bright, sweet berry fruits. The palate is fresh and savoury with supple raspberry and cherry fruit and good acidity. Wild, a bit edgy, and mineral. 89/100
Laurent Perrachon Domaine des Mouilles Saint-Amour 2012 Beaujolais, France
13% alcohol. Aromatic and fruity with a lively cherry fruit nose. Fresh, juicy, vivid on the palate with direct sappy raspberry fruit. Supple, drinkable, lively and fun. 88/100
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