Amazing meal at the Chiltern Firehouse

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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.

Crab doughnuts

Crab doughnuts

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.

Firehouse Cesar

Firehouse Cesar

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.
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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.
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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.
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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.

Guttarolo Primitivo, a remarkable amphora wine from Puglia

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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.

Find this wine with wine-searcher.com

Mother's Milk Shiraz

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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

Some old pictures, and thoughts on permanence

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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.
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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.

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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.

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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.
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Five from Saint-Amour, Beaujolais

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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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Two lovely Sancerres from Jolivet

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Sauvignon Blanc isn’t a boring grape. It is capable of greatness. Here are two lovely Loire Sauvignons from Pascal Jolivet. Jolivet has 70 acres in Sancerre and Pouilly Fume, and also buy in grapes (about half their production needs).

Pascal Jolivet Sancerre Les Caillottes 2012 Loire, France
13.5% alcohol. From an 8.65 acre parcel with 40 year old vines on limestone, hand harvested and fermented with wild yeasts. Lovely grapefruit, tangerine and melon nose. Fresh, aromatic and quite fine. The palate is ripe but retains freshness with a fruity personality and fine tangerine and herb notes. Precise mineral framing to the fruit. 92/100

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Pascal Jolivet Sancerre Sauvage 2012 Loire, France
13% alcohol. Organic grapes, wild ferment, 12 months on lees, no filtration. Richly textured with some chalky, pithy minerality and nice freshness. Sweet oear and peach notes, but also citrus and minerals too. Combines concentration and finesse to create a broad, complex wine showing nice purity and precision. 93/100

UK agent: MMD

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In Madrid, day 2

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I’m on my way home now after an enjoyable couple of days in Madrid. Last night we went out for some fun. We started off in the Mercado de San Miguel, which is an enjoyable place to browse, full of places to get something to drink, or a bite to eat. It was pretty busy, but not impossibly so.
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Then, after some food, it was time for more gin and tonic. This time I started off with a Hendricks, and this was followed by a Tanqueray Rangpur. They’d run out of fever tree tonic though, so it had to be Schweppes.

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Today was the second day of the ML Wines competition that I mentioned in yesterday’s blog. It was interesting to see which 39 wines (in three flights of 13 – coinoculated, sequential inoculation, and wooded wines) we’d selected yesterday. There were some really nice wines and I am looking forward to seeing the results.

Mark Hoddy, Direct Wines

Mark Hoddy, Direct Wines

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This was followed with a big lunch in the Casino de Madrid. It’s such a lovely setting, with it’s overly ornate decoration and great natural light.
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A Tempranillo from Oregon: Abacela South East Block

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One of the judges this week at the ML Wine competition is Earl Jones, who owns the Abacela winery in southern Oregon. He’s an interesting chap: he came to wine after a career as a research professor in immunology. His main focus is Tempranillo, and Earl was the first to bottle a varietal Tempranillo in the USA. It was nice to be able to try this wine.

Abacela Tempranillo South East Block 2009 Oregon
Very rich and ripe with dense black fruits and sweet oak. There’s a big oak imprint, with notes of vanilla, coconut and spice, as well as sweet yet fresh berry and plum fruit. Tasted blind this could be straight from Spain, with its combination of ripe fruit and oak. It’s not my favourite style, but it is very well done and will probably age into mellow maturity in a decade or so. 90/100

In Madrid for the ML Wines competition

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So I find myself in Madrid. It’s a little chillier than London, which caught me out a bit. But it is a nice place to spend a few days. I am here to act as one of the judges for the ML Wines competition. It’s the third time I’ve judged this: we assess red wines from the previous vintage (2013 in this case) from Portugal and Spain, which have had an inoculated malolactic fermentation.

David Molina tastes

David Molina tastes

Malolactic fermentation takes place in pretty much all red wines (young Vinho Verde Tinto is the only style I think that avoids it), and it is done by bacteria. It has an important sensory impact on the wines: if you ever taste ML trials, this becomes clear.

Luis Lopes of Revista Vinhos

Luis Lopes of Revista Vinhos

Manuel Lobo,, Quinta do Crasto winemaker

Manuel Lobo,, Quinta do Crasto winemaker

For young red wines, it is now possible to co-inoculate for malolactic and alcoholic fermentation so they happen at the same time. As long as the yeasts are performing well and have good nutrition, and the pH isn’t too high, then the bacteria prefer the organic acids as a substrate and everyone is happy. The results for young red wines are really impressive.

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I arrived last night, and went out with a few of the other judges and organizers. We stopped first at a tapas joint near the Playa Major, in the heart of the city, called Meson Rincon de la Cava. It’s very quaint and old-fashioned inside, and the menu has photographs, which is alarming. But the food was very good: lovely jamon iberico, perfectly prepared pimientos de Padrón, some baby squid and some manchego cheese.

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For wine, the list was short (again, it was pictures) and very traditional, but they managed to find a bottle of the brilliant Petalos from Palacios in Bierzo, with its ripe, sleek, pure floral fruit. And the Murrieta Reserva 2007 was pretty good in a ripe, modernist/traditionalist fusion sort of way.

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Then it was off for some gin and tonic. We found a well stocked bar with No 3 gin and fever tree tonic, and the G&T was prepared the Spanish way with big bowl-like glasses and lots of ice.

Casino de Madrid

Casino de Madrid

Antonio Palacios tastes

Antonio Palacios tastes

Today was the first day’s judging. 12 of us tasted 120 wines, scoring them on a number of counts. Tomorrow we’ll taste the top 35, together with the winemakers who are participating in the exercise. It’s being held at the lovely Casino de Madrid, a very stylish, old-fashioned members’ club in the centre of town.

Marlborough: boom, bust, and boom again

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Boom and bust. Then boom again. That has been the recent story of Marlborough. The commercial success of Marlborough Sauvignon led to a massive increase in plantings throughout the late 1990s and noughties. The rate of growth was phenomenal. Then the boom turned to bust in 2008, with a large vintage of questionable quality, coupled with a slump in demand. It was an utter disaster.

This is a region where a significant slice of the action involves growers selling grapes to large producers. It is also a region where the demand is for the most recent vintage (everyone wants the most recent Sauvignon production). Thus overproduction plus softening demand hits hard. The result was a lot of bulk-shippped Kiwi Sauvignon hitting supermarket shelves under soft brands and private labels at rock bottom prices. For a while it was looking quite bleak.

But things changed. A steady place of rebuilding, some good New Zealand-style common sense and pragmatism, and we see the demand begin to come back, grape and bulk wine prices climbing, and a renewed sense of optimism. New markets have certainly helped. Now you can see new vineyards going into the ground, largely in the Waihopai (one of the valleys at the end of the Wairau) and the Awatere, where there’s still space (and there isn’t an awful lot of promising vineyard land left unplanted in the region).

There is, however, a potential cloud on the horizon. After the successful, large but rather compressed 2013 vintage, 2014 is currently on the vine a few weeks away from harvest. It’s a little early (by two weeks or so), and it’s potentially massive. There are Sauvignon vineyards with grapes on them, that if left, would yield 30-35 tons per hectare. This needs to be put into perspective: the average Sauvignon yield is usually 12 tons/hectare. It’s not unusual to have to drop crop (if the yield is too heavy the grapes won’t ripen properly), or to reduce yield by shoot thinning much earlier in the season. But the temptation is there for growers to take a bit more than normal, especially if the season is early and they think they might be able to get it ripe. Another problem is that there’s a shortage of contract workers at the moment to do this crop thinning. Some growers and companies have been using machine harvesters to crop thin, which sounds pretty drastic but actually works well: you just set the machine up right to take some of the grapes, apparently.

The restraint in yields requires a collective sense of responsibility. If there’s excess production, the growers will suffer badly next year through a softening of prices and demand. On an individual basis, though, if all your neighbours exercise restraint and you don’t, then you win (in a very selfish sense). 2014 looks like being a big, early, good quality vintage. Just how big, and whether demand can keep up with it, is the big question.

This is the big-picture story of the region. The picture behind the scenes is committed winegrowers working out their terroirs, and beginning to work with them. Here, we don’t need to be biased against some of the larger producers, because they can do this too. On my recent trip, I visited a range of producers, representing different ends of the spectrum. Te Whare Ra and Staete Landt represent the smaller family owned properties in the region. Seresin and Dog Point are medium sized but absolutely focused on quality, choosing not to play at the bottom end at all. Then we have Yealands and Villa Maria, larger companies, but with ranges that achieve good quality at the more commercial end and also some more serious wines which attempt to express site at the higher end.

Marlborough is New Zealand’s most important region, and it’s important that this 2014 harvest, which will soon begin, is a good one.