Dinner at 1884 Francis Mallmann, Mendoza

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On my last night in Mendoza I dined alone. It’s something I rarely do on my travels: often I’ll use a free evening as a chance to skip a meal and try to avoid becoming fat, but my hosts had kindly booked me a table at 1884 Restaurante Francis Mallmann, one of Mendoza’s most highly regarded restaurants. It was also was within 50 yards of where I was staying. Altogether, these factors made the prospect of dining alone considerably more appealing.

There are two downsides to being a solo diner. First, it brings out your own personal insecurities. Am I an antisocial, no-mates loser? Second, it makes the restaurant staff and fellow diners feel uncomfortable. How could someone be happy dining on their own? Is there anything we can do to help this poor, lonely soul?

The only way to counter this is to exude happiness, confidence and a degree of engagement, either with the wine list, the menu, an electronic device such as a phone or kindle, or scribble in a notebook. The latter has the disadvantage that it makes you look like a crazy person. Laptops are bad form, so avoid them.

The other thing to remember is to eat slowly. With no conversation to break the meal, the tendency is to wolf down one’s food. So a deliberate slowing of eating pace is called for.

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Mallmann’s is a fine restaurant. The setting is beautiful: there’s a nicely furnished main room, but also a significant outdoor area, undercover, looking out onto an attractively lit garden. The garden, fringed by tall foiliage, has some casual seating, and also some more tables around the perimeter. The use of high-backed chairs gives each table a degree of privacy, but for the solo diner this makes people watching problematic.

The main dining area is separated from the outside area by some tall, round-topped windows with small panes of glass: these are a really nice feature.

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What about the food? The menus is largely grill based, which is quite cool, because it’s taking traditional Argentine food and elevating it to fine dining. (In other words: it’s not faux French.) I started with grilled squid salad with Andean potatoes and quail eggs. This was very well prepared, and the flavours worked nicely together.

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I then went large, ordering the rib eye steak with chimchile and Patagonian potatoes. You expect large chunks of meat in Argentina, and this was certainly a large chunk of meat. Huge, salt encrusted, with a lot of flavour. It was pretty good, but it defeated me. The Patagonian potatoes? A huge array of thinly sliced potato covering the surface of the large plate. They tasted like bad crisps, and this didn’t really work. A shame.

I’d brought a bottle of wine along (note below), but – of course – I spent ages examining the wine list. It was long and exclusively Argentine, with the exception of some Champagne. Lots of the top names, and the prices seemed pretty reasonable by UK standards, but would probably seem a bit rich to a local.

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Service was very professional: attentive and unfussy, with the wine and water being poured with appropriate frequency. I had a long chat with the sommelier who seemed really clued up. A long wine list like Mallmann’s needs a good sommelier to sell it properly. Even though it was solo dining, I had a lovely evening and the combination of wine, food and atmosphere was quite special.

Catena Angelica Zapata Alta Cabernet Franc 2009 Mendoza, Argentina
This is a beautifully vivid Cabernet Franc with slightly salty, intense blackberry and black cherry fruit. It’s sweetly fruited but with freshness and an appealing salty minerality, combining freshness and intensity very well. A delicious wine. 93/100

Some pictures from Mendoza, Argentina

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I have been in Mendoza for two and a half days now, and it has been a remarkable time. I have been with Catena’s Instituteof Wine, a research department bringing together academic resources with those of the winery, to look at some very interesting questions in wine research, in a scientifically credible way.

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For now, some pictures from excursions into the vineyards, beginning with the picture above, which is taken from Catena’s winery, looking down the Pyramide vineyard in Agrelo. The rest are from the high altitude (1450 m) Adrianna vineyard in the Uco Valley, which is one of the best studied of all vineyards in the world.

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This is Lot 1, the first part of Adrianna planted here in 1992. There weren’t any other vineyards around here when this was planted.

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Some of the Catena Wine Institute team

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Mate – a strong form of local tea.

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The clonal Malbec selection made by Catena. This was from plant material taken from Lot 18 of their Anglelica vineyard,planted some 80 years ago. The Malbec clones came from France in 1853 pre-phylloxera. When phylloxera hit France, it was a viticultural bottleneck and lots of interesting clones were lost there. Catena have studied 134 of these clones, and compared them with some of the remainingFrench ones.

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Stones with some limestone on the surface.

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Hail netting: many of the blocks are protected against hail, which is quite common here.

In Argentina

adrianna vineyard

I’m in Mendoza, Argentina. I just arrived, so the picture above is from my last visit, showing Catena’s high-altitude Adrianna vineyard.

Today started around 5 pm yesterday when I left for the airport. I flew overnight to Sao Paolo with TAM, then this morning flew to rainy Buenos Aires, and from there to sunny Mendoza.

I’m here on an interesting project with the Catena Institute of Wine, who over the last decade and a bit have been investing in research, on topics such as Malbec, high-altitude viticulture, the effect of UV light on vines and terroir influences. I’m here to interview the scientists who have been working on these projects, have a look at the vineyards that have been studied, ask lots of questions, and hopefully produce something readable and engrossing but which also does justice to the science.

So far I have had just a couple of introductory meetings (I didn’t get to Mendoza until late afternoon), but the packed schedule over the next three days should be really interesting. I’m so glad Catena are keen to get all the research they have been doing out there to the wider world, rather than keeping it all in house. I shall report back.

Southern Rhône, I have neglected you - Brusset Les Hauts de Montmirail 2012

brusset les hauts de montmirail

Southern Rhône, I have neglected you.

We used to be good friends.

When I first got into wine you used to give me a lot of pleasure. Vieux Telegraphe and Beaucastel, in particular, were happy wines for me.

But then you started getting all spoofy on me. You chased points, you got rich, you started driving expensive cars, and we drifted apart. It’s a shame, because your Grenache-based wines can be fabulous, when they’re made in an elegant, complex, detailed style.

I liked this wine, which I drank over three nights, which helped allay my suspicions that it might be a bit too glossy for its own good. I remember Brusset from the old days.

Domaine Brusset Les Hauts de Monmirail Gigondas 2012 Southern Rhône, France
14% alcohol. Sweet, enticing, lush blackberry and raspberry fruit is the key theme for this striking wine. Sweet and pure with lovely supple, ripe, focused fruit. Fresh juicy berry fruits nd a bit of grip on the finish, and nice pepper, herb and liqourice complexity, too. Will need some time to show its best, although it is already delicious. 93/100 (£29.50 Great Western Wine)

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New vintages from Duncan Savage, one of South Africa's stars

Duncan Savage

I’ve previously written about the first releases from Duncan Savage on this blog, giving them fairly hefty scores. Fortunately most serious commentators are in full agreement about these wines. The new vintages have hit the UK shores, and here are my notes. The score for the white might go up in time, because this is a wine that should repay ageing.

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Savage White 2013 South Africa
56% Sauvignon Blanc, 44% Semillon. Very fresh, tangy and citrussy with some herby notes. Pure and taut with subtle oak. Lovely focus. Still very primary. 93/100

Savage Red 2012 South Africa
62% Syrah, 14% Grenache, 12% Mourvedre, 12% Cinsault. Fragrant, fresh and supple with peppery red fruits on the nose – a haunting perfume. The palate has a lovely silky, pure, fresh red cherry character and lovely definition, as well as a taut peppery bite on the finish. Elegant and thrilling. 95/100

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So what does a 89 year old table wine taste like?

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I have just written up a Marques de Murrieta Rioja tasting, where we got to drink, among other lovely older wines, a bottle of Castillo Ygay 1925. It was remarkable.

Tasting old wines like this can be a bit random. By the time a wine is more than 20 years old, there’s no such thing as ‘that wine’ – each bottle takes on a personality of its own. You can’t talk about the 1961 Palmer, for example, as being a great wine. It’s not a single wine: each bottle will be different because of issues such as storage conditions (key), cork quality (key), and even bottling procedures (variation creeps in at this early stage; if just takes a while to show in most cases). A bad data point proves nothing, because of these factors. But a good data point is significant: you only need to try one fantastic example of an old wine to know that there’s a chance that you’ll find other great bottles of that wine. For some wines, though, all bottles will show signs of decay, and it’s such a shame that they haven’t been drunk when they’d have offered a lot more pleasure. There comes a time where you have to acknowledge that a certain wine is no longer drinkable, even from well stored bottles with good corks.

Often, you have to make excuses for very old wines. You can see some greatness behind some weird funkiness, or some oxidative characters – or the wine may even have got to the stage where it tastes of old wine and nothing more. A great old wine should still be recognizable as an expression of place, to my mind, but this isn’t always the case. I suppose you can have a wine in mellow maturity without too many old off-notes that can’t be placed precisely but which still offers a lot of drinking pleasure.

Back to this Rioja. It was memorable, and for all the right reasons. Fortunately, no excuses needed to be made. It had survived, and survived well, and this is really rare in a wine of this age. Generally speaking, fortified wines often live longer than table wines, and Madeira lives longest of all, but here we have an 89 year old table wine that is astonishing.

Marqués de Murrieta Castillo Ygay Gran Reserva Especial 1925 Rioja, Spain
49% Tempranillo, 19% Garnacha, 17% Mazuelo, 15% Graciano. This was aged for 8 months in 18500 litre tank, 5 years in fairly new American oak barrels, and then 33 years in old, large American oak barrels, bottled in 1964. It’s slightly cloudy and a deep brown/red colour. Savoury earthy nose. Fresh, lemony edge to the palate with warm, savoury, slightly balsamic characters and  bit of fruit, still. Lovely balance despite the age with complex, concentrated flavours. Still very much alive and quite delicious. It’s nice not to have to make excuses for such an old wine. 97/100

See also: Do you like old wine?

Lunch at the Glasshouse, Kew

Back to one of my favourite places yesterday, for a lovely lunch. The Glasshouse, Kew, is worth a detour. The wine list is really creative and diverse, the service is impeccable (and there are always lots of bodies on the floor), and the food is seriously good. The Glasshouse has a Michelin star, but if it were closer into Central London, you could imagine it having two (I always suspect there’s a slight bias against neighbourhood restaurants). It’s that good. There’s a lightness of touch to the cooking and also a lovely creativity. The dishes are always detailed, but not gimmicky, and they just look so good, too.

It was a lovely warm afternoon and Kew was at its gorgeous best. It would be a nice place to live – it always feels so calm and villagey. I popped into The Good Wine Shop first for a nose around, and was really impressed by the selection of wines. Lots of great stuff, and a good beer list too. With a top wine shop, and a top restaurant, the residents of Kew are well supplied.

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Starter 1: Ceps with pearl barley risotto, roasted hazelnuts, black garlic, parmesan and autumn truffle (very rich, and quite delicious, maybe more autumnal than the weather was yesterday)

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Starter 2: Thinly sliced octopus with mussels, squid ink aioli, grilled red peppers and pickled shallots (perfect balance here, perhaps my favourite dish)

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Main 1: Loin of cornish cod with squid, brandade, cauliflower purée, meat juices and gremolata.

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Main 2: Brill with black rice, brown shrimps and sea urchin butter sauce.

To drink? We investigated the by-the-glass menu, and did quite well, sticking to whites on account of the weather and the food we’d chosen.

  • Weinbach Capuchins Pinot Blanc 2011 – nice and appley with lovely fruit
  • Louro do Bolo, Godello, Rafael Palacios 2013 Valdeorras, Spain  – fresh, lovely pear and melon notes
  • Riesling Kanta Balhannah Vineyard, Egon Müller 2009 Adelaide Hills, Australia – this was very good – more textured and elegant than many dry Aussie Rieslings
  • Mullineux Kloof Street Chenin blanc/Clairette Blanche 2012 Swartland, South Africa – this was really impressive, with a rounded texture and fine pear and white peach fruit, balancing richness and freshness with great success

 

Altano Organic Douro Red 2012, a brilliant bargain

altano organic douro

This is a brilliant bargain! It’s a grown-up, proper Douro red for less than a tenner. The Symingtons are the largest organic farmer in the Douro with 126 hectares of organic vines (clearly, there is some way to go in a region with around 36 000 hectares – the chief problem is weed control on terraces, which is really hard to do mechanically, and sometimes impossible). Their advantage is that in the Vilarica Valley in the Douro Superior, their vines aren’t terraced – it’s quite a bit flatter here. So working organically is feasible. This wine comes from 30 year old vines and it is stupidly cheap for the quality.

Altano Quinta do Ataide Organic 2012 Douro, Portugal
13.5% alcohol. Sweet, ripe blackberry and black cherry aromatics. Quite lush but with good definition, and notes of liqourice and violet. The palate is supple and ripe with a hint of chocolatey oak, as well as sweet black fruits and a bit of damson. Grippy, stony finish. Very Douro, with some hints of meat and olive. 91/100 (£9.99 Waitrose, but on offer until 28/10/14 at £7.99)

Lunch at Mission E2 with some nice Californian wines

mission e2

On Thursday I had lunch at one of London’s most exciting new wine destinations: Mission E2, the second venue from Sager & Wilde. It’s a beautiful space in a nicely converted railway arch near Bethnal Green tube station. Lots of dark wood, good natural light and a palm tree! The food was really good. I had a grouse terrine that was superb, followed by lamb shoulder, chickpeas and raita. We also had a new dish, not on the menu, with razor clam and pearl barley – this was also excellent.

photo (26) photo (27)

As for wine? The list is superb, brave, eclectic, and the margins used are among the most generous for punters in the UK on-trade. Michael buys from 45 different suppliers, and is able to snap up parcels as small as a 12 bottle case. He’s got some rare stuff, too – how often do you see Arnot Roberts Chardonnay on a list in London? (Answer: never.) Lots of wines are on by the glass; an enormous number are available by the bottle. There’s a strong emphasis on wines from California, which is the theme here, but there’s other stuff too.

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Château Beaux Hauts En Tirage RD 1992 Russian River Valley, Sonoma, California
17 years on the lees! Toasty, rich and dense with pear and peach fruit, as well as notes of pear and spice. Rich, but with lovely density and focus. Nuts, honey and spice with a hint of fruit sweetness. Brilliant stuff. 93/100

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Skylark Pinot Blanc 2012 Mendocino, California
Very fresh and lively with crisp citrus fruit and a bit of pithiness. Lively and pure. 89/100

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Copain Trousseau 2013 Russian River Valley, Sonoma, California
Lovely lighter red with fine cherries, spice and herbs. Some plummy notes, too, plus a hint of sappiness. So expressive – a lovely wine. 93/100

Arnot Roberts Watson Ranch Chardonnay 2012 Napa Valley, California
Fresh, fine an focused with citrus and spice nuts with some spice and subtle nut notes. Fresh and focused with lovely delicacy and crispness. Needs time to show its best. 94/100

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Mount Eden Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon 1999 Santa Cruz Mountains, California
Lovely chalky blackcurrant fruit with some spice and earth notes. Nice grip and some sweetness. This is beautifully evolved: it’s quite ripe, but has definition. 93/100

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Ojai Syrah Bien Nacido Vineyard 2005 Santa Maria Valley, California
This is from when Adam made his wines in a slightly bigger style, but it’s still lovely. Dense, powerful and structured with meat, olives, blackberry and black cherry notes, and nice grippy structure. Hints of chalk and mint. Ripe (14.5% alcohol) but delicious. 93/100

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Amazed by the 2014 Brancott Sauvignon Blanc

brancott sauvignon blanc 2014

I am quite amazed by how good the 2014 Brancott Sauvignon Blanc is. You’ll probably be amazed by how amazed I was, so from the outset, I’ll answer some questions that some of you may be thinking.

This was a bottle bought off the shelf last week in Tesco (it was just £6.99, so I thought it would be good to have a first look at the new vintage, after having reviewed the Cloudy Bay Sauvignon Blanc 2014 so favourably recently).

  • I drank it over three nights, so this is a carefully considered verdict.
  • I’m not a complete idiot, and I have tasted quite a lot of Sauvignon in my lifetime – it’s one of my specialities.
  • I don’t have any commercial ties to Brancott (or parent company Pernod Ricard). I don’t do gigs for them, I don’t get paid to present their wines at masterclasses, I don’t have them sponsor my roadshows events via pay to play, and so on. [Although I did travel to New Zealand with Pernod Ricard back in October 2011.] It’s a mighty convenient narrative to be plugging the small companies with no marketing budgets, but when the big guys do well, that’s good for everyone, and should be recognized.
  • So now, the wine. It’s just beautifully balanced with the loveliest aromatics, and at £6 is one of the wine world’s great bargains. This is New Zealand Sauvignon come of age: no heaviness, no clumsiness, no jarring sweetness to offset out of control acidity. You should probably try some, if you like New Zealand Sauvignon at all. And I do.

But if it’s this lovely aromatic profile that you like (as I do), then this is a wine to buy now and consume young. There’s a group of aromatic molecules called polyfunctional thiols, that are responsible for part of the Sauvignon aroma, and research has shown that on average, Marlborough Sauvignon has very high levels. Two of these molecules are closely related, 3MH and 3MHA. It’s the 3MHA in particular that gives the lovely passionfruit and grapefruit aromatic lift, but over time this hydrolyses into 3MH. The rate of this chemical change is determined by temperature, so it’s important that the wine is stored and shipped at as low a temperature as possible if this character is to be retained.

Brancott have a detailed understanding of the role of these polyfunctional thiols in Sauvignon through research they have taken part in. And they seem to be putting this knowledge to good use, making lovely wines like these at good prices and in large quantities.

Brancott Estate Sauvignon Blanc 2014 Marlborough, New Zealand
13% alcohol. Really crisp, pure and bright with lovely grapefruit and passionfruit characters. There’s a real crispness and freshness here with lovely focus and brightness. It just shows enticing aromatics and brilliant balance, and is benchmark Marlborough Sauvignon. 92/100