Tuesday evening and it’s time for dinner at Sushisamba. My first visit to this much talked about restaurant, perched on the top of London’s second tallest building, Heron Tower in Bishopsgate, in the City.
I’ve come from the International Wine Challenge, where I’ve been tasting lots of wine all day, followed by a quick beer with fellow judges. I’m not really dressed for the occasion, but the two door guys let me in, and direct me to the outside lift, which rockets me up to the 38th floor in about half a second. It’s almost worth coming for the lift alone: theme park quality ride without any queue.
We gather on the roof terrace, which is the highest open terrace in Europe, apparently. It’s also being experienced on one of the most perfect April evenings you can imagine – beautiful blue skies and balmy temperatures, and we realize that we are very lucky indeed.
We are there to have dinner, of course, but the reason for this dinner is that Bruno Paillard is present. His Champagnes have been chosen by Sushisamba as their house pour, and unlike many such arrangements, no money has changed hands in this case. Bruno has also supplied Sushisamba with some nice large format back vintages, and we are going to try them.
Sushisamba is technically a chain restaurant, but of the most exclusive kind. It was started in 1999 in New York by serial restaurateur Shimon Bokovza, and has since spread to five locations. London was the first outside the USA, and complements Sushisambas in Miami (2), Las Vegas and New York.
I’ve been chatting for a while to Bruno, but then I realize that Shimon (pictured above with Bruno) is also here. ‘Would you like to speak to Shimon?’ Of course! I’m introduced to him and he is charming and clearly very smart, and we have a nice conversation. He says he’s chosen Champagne Bruno Paillard to be his house pour because he wanted something drier. He finds many Champagnes to be too sweet. Bruno explains later that his house will soon become the only one that’s exclusively labelled extra brut, meaning that none of the Champagnes have a dosage higher than 6 g/litre. They’ve already been below this level for six years, and the next step will be to change the labelling.
‘I feel humbled that Shimon has made this decision,’ says Bruno. ‘The idea is that these are Champagnes to accompany great food, and they are associated with Michelin-starred restaurants, but you don’t need to have a Michelin-starred restaurant to serve Bruno Paillard Champagnes.’ He adds quickly, though, that he’s still very keen on being listed by Michelin-starred restaurants.
Then it is time for dinner. We move up a floor, to the smaller dining room on the 39th floor. The views are breath-taking from wherever you are sitting in Sushisamba, because three of the walls are composed of floor to ceiling glass. The décor is just perfectly in tune with the overall feel of the place, and it fits in with the location. When you are on the top of a modern skyscraper in the City, with the attendant views, you need to go modern and vibrant. Wood panelling and soft furnishings won’t work.
The food? Now this is not a gastronomic destination. It’s more of an experience. But if this were a gastronomic destination, without the experience element, I think the food might be taken more seriously, because it’s really good. It is innovative in a good way, describing itself as a unique blend of Japanese, Brazilian and Peruvian cuisine. This sounds gimmicky, but there was a coherent stylistic thread that ran through the dishes we had. I notice from the full menu, which is very small-platey (making it possible for hungry people to rack up a substantial bill, and don’t forget the 12.5% service charge when you look at the prices), that there are lots of safe meaty havens for the culinary unadventurous. But what we had was pretty innovative and delicious, and the style of the food fitted very well with the feel of the restaurant. They’ve pretty much got it right.
What Shimon gets is that there’s much more to eating out than just the food on the plate. It really is about the whole experience, and Sushisamba is – if you are not too snobby and foodie about it – a really great experience.
So, the wines. Champagne from start to finish, and it works with this sort of menu.
Champagne Bruno Paillard Brut Première Cuvée NV France
Tight and fresh with nice citrus fruit and a hint of pithiness. Very pure and quite a dry style with nice focus and finesse. 90/100
Champagne Bruno Paillard Blanc de Blancs Réserve Privée Grand Cru NV France
Stylish, pure and a bit toasty with nice freshness and purity. There’s a hint of toastiness here with lovely pear and ripe apple fruit. A dry, fruit-driven style. 91/100
Champagne Bruno Paillard Rosé Première Cuvée NV France
Fresh with a hint of cherry fruit s well as strawberry and citrus.Lovely precision on the palate, which is fruity with red cherry notes. Taut and precise. 91/100
Champagne Bruno Paillard Le Mesnil 1995 France
Disgorged April 2008. Rich and a bit creamy with subtle toasty notes. Stylish citrus and pear fruit with some richness and a bit of pithiness. Still quite youthful with hints of wax and nuts. Linear. 92/100
Champagne Bruno Paillard NPU Nec Plus Ultra 1999 France
Barrel fermented with 4 g/litre dosage, disgorged January 2012. Lively, fresh and focused. Quite pure and linear with precision. Still tightwound and pure with some crystalline fruits. Has potential for development. 92/100
Champagne Bruno Paillard Le Mesnil 1990 France
Disgorged April 2007. Distinctive with hints of iodine and herbs alongside the citrus fruit. Pure, fresh and linear with a distinctive herby, toasty, resinous edge, a hint of cabbage and keen lemony acidity. Fresh. 91/100
Champagne Bruno Paillard Brut Assemblage 1996 France
Disgorged April 2008. Linear and toasty with pure citrus fruit. Fine and expessive with a refined toasty character.Tight, pithy and refined. 93/100
Had a lovely evening at The Remedy, one of London’s most interesting wine destinations. And, on Monday, a decent selection of wines at half price! Four memorable wines consumed.
Pósta Borház Kadarka 2012 Szekzárd, Hungary14% alcohol. Kadarka is such an interesting red variety. It’s a bit like Pinot Noir, a bit like Saint Laurent. And in warm-ish climates it can still make very fresh red wines. This is vivid, fresh and peppery with lovely black cherry and plum fruit, and some nice grainy structure. It has elegance but it also has edges. 92/100
Barraco Catarratto 2013 Sicily, Italy
12% alcohol. This is an amazing white wine, grown close to the sea, and with an almost salty tang to it. It’s complex, mineral and salty with lovely citrus and grapefruit characters. Lively and multidimensional, and also extremely drinkable. It keeps changing in the glass. 93/100
Shelter Winery Spätburgunder 2012 Baden, Germany
This is a lovely Pinot Noir. It’s fresh and floral with bright red cherry and plum fruit, with a sappy edge. Juicy, bright, sweetly fruited and showing admirable purity. Such a joy. 92/100
Escoda Sanahuja El Bassots 2012 Conca de Barbera, Spain
14% alcohol. This skin contact white is one for the brave. It has a bit of a volatile nose, with lively flavours of apples, pear and spice. It’s tangy and lively with structure and a bit of bitterness, as well as some spicy phenolic notes. A massive, intense flavour experience. It’s not for everyone, but I really enjoyed it. 91/100
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So yesterday was the first day of the International Wine Challenge. For the next two weeks I will be doing what most closely resembles a normal job: getting up early and commuting into town (well, Vauxhall, which is quite convenient for me, 30 minutes door to door), working 9-5 and then commuting home.
It’s an enjoyable two weeks. As one of the 20 or so panel chairs I’m there for the duration. Our job is to get the best out of the talented tasting teams (usually five, including one associate), to make sure that each wine gets judged fairly and accurately. We have different people tasting each day with us: this is great because it’s a highly social activity and you get to know lots of great people. Also, because of the feedback system, bad panel chairs and bad tasters get weeded out fairly quickly. It’s great to feel part of something bigger, when for most of your working life you are on your own as a freelancer.
This week we’ll be tasting all the wines and deciding whether they are worthy of a medal or not. Next week, we taste all the medal-worthy wines and decide which medal they should get. There’s a team of co-chairs who moderate the activity of the panels, providing consistency, and double checking the results. It’s a fairly robust system, and certainly much more thorough than most one-pass competitions.
That’s all for now. I’ve got to head off to the station, just like a regular commuter. I think two weeks of commuting will be just about enough for me.
The attention of the sporting world is focused on Augusta, Georgia at the moment. It’s the Masters, one of the four leading golf tournaments collectively known as the majors. Now golf is a little bit of a sad sport, I know, but I have an affection for it, and I love watching the Masters. I used to try to play it, and maybe one day I’ll play it again, but it’s a sport that delivers frustration and satisfaction in unequal measure, with rather more of the former and too little of the latter. The problem? It’s the psychology of the game. You initiate every action. It’s for this reason that golfers often have what they call a swing thought – a simple one-liner that they have running through their minds as they address the ball.
In this modern, busy, crowded, hyper-connected world, it’s as if we need the equivalent of a swing thought to keep us focused in our endeavours. One thought that I reckon is pretty useful is this: do one thing well.
It is so tempting to do a little of everything, whether we are writing about wine, selling it, or making it. But what makes a difference is finding our main thing, keeping this our main thing, and doing it well. We need to avoid being distracted by other, no doubt worthwhile things, staying focused on the really important stuff.
This is one area where the top Bordeaux properties really get it. Their biggest production is just one wine: their Grand Vin. They will also make a bit of second wine, and maybe a third wine, but the focus is clearly on the Chateau wine. They have all avoided the temptation to make small quantities of high-end reserve wine, because this would dilute their marketing message. They haven’t fallen for the trap of range proliferation.
For New World wineries, the norm is to make a broad range of wines from different varieties, with a number of tiers in the range in a pyramid structure, with small quantities of reserve wines at the top. There’s often a commercial imperative for making a range of wines, because if you are selling at cellar door your customers want the variety, especially if you have a restaurant. And your importers might not want to carry more than one winery from your country, so they will ask you to cover all the bases.
There are relatively few New World wineries who have decided to focus just on what they do best. In the long-term, I think narrowing ranges down could be the better strategy. The market place is very crowded, and there’s something to be said for focusing your energy on a variety you have a special talent for, building a reputation for that wine. I remember speaking to Tim Kirk at Clonakilla, famous for its Shiraz Viognier that’s one of Australia’s top wines. Tim also loves Pinot Noir, and has a couple of rows of it. But while he can make a good Pinot Noir, he resists the temptation to focus on this as well, because he can make an excellent Shiraz Viognier from his patch of land.
Do one thing well. As a writer, I try to apply this thought in my work. I’m not yet at the stage where I can just do one thing – to pay the bills, I find myself doing lots of different things. But the direction I’m seeking to go in is to narrow down my focus onto areas where I can be excellent, and where I can make a difference. It’s hard: the natural temptation is to keep on adding new things to my portfolio of activities. But in this crowded world we now live in, I suspect I will be more successful and happier if I strip out the non-essential and reduce my efforts to just a few things that I am really good at.
Hannes Storm was, for a decade, winemaker at Hamilton Russell, until he left in 2014 to do his own thing. Well, this is the first chance I’ve had to try one of his own wines, and it’s a very assured Pinot from Hemel-en-Aarde. He’s making two Pinot Noirs, and this one is from a 2 hectare vineyard on a steep northeast facing slope in the Hemel-en-Aarde Valley, planted on low-vigour, stony, clay-rich shale soils.
It’s a complicated but wonderfully promising wine. It doesn’t deliver sweet, perfumed fruit from the off: this is a wine that is tightwound and somewhat burdened by its latent potential if you open it now. But I think there’s something special here, and I’d cellar it for five years before opening, and then track its progress after that.
Storm Pinot Noir ‘Vrede’ 2012 Hemel-en-Aarde Valley, South Africa
Vivid, fresh and vibrant with a slight lift to the berry and black fruits nose, with some roast coffee notes. It’s a bit closed and reductive. The palate is vivid and juicy with savoury bite, as well as raspberry, cherry, damson and bitter plum fruit. There’s structure here: it’s a dense with with freshness and a distinctive savoury spiciness. Give this time. 93/100
UK agent is Indigo Wine
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This is quite special. It’s a Sauvignon Blanc from Sudsteiermark (south Styria) in Austria, made by Andreas Tscheppe. He’s one of a group of five producers working biodynamically in this pretty region, and I was introduced to his wines by Doug Wregg of Les Caves de Pyrene. Doug had just visited the region, and was full of enthusiasm for Tscheppe. ‘I’ve not seen a vineyard so full of life,’ he told me. It’s 500 m up, and full of wild herbs, grass and bare stones.
Tscheppe Sauvignon Blanc Grüne Libelle 2012 Sudsteiermark, Austria
13.5% alcohol. This translates as ‘green dragonfly’, and it’s fermented in used 500 litre barrels with indigenous yeasts. It spends 2 years in barrel and then the same time in bottle before release. Amazingly textured, pure and mineral with dense nuts, apples and a bit of spice. There’s a lovely spicy mineral core to this wine as well as a hint of nice reduction. Such a lovely, rounded yet precise wine. Amazing stuff. 94/100 (UK agent Les Caves de Pyrene)
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Two nice wines, from two of my favourite white varieties. The first is an own-label from Berry Bros & Rudd. It’s a sort of better class of own label: Nikolaihof is one of Austria’s top producers. The second is from Mullineux, the current darlings of the South African wine scene, and it’s a lovely old vine Chenin. There’s something a bit mysterious about both Grüner and Chenin: they’re hard to define as grape varieties, because they are capable of such different styles. They are both serious varieties, though, and well worth exploring.
Berry’s Grüner Veltliner Federspiel 2013 Wachau, Austria
12% alcohol. Made for Berry’s by Nikolaihof, this comes from 45 year old unirrigated vines in the Im Weingebirge vineyard. It has a subtle creamy edge to the taut pear and citrus fruit. There are notes of ripe apple. Initially it just seems to be all about primary fruit with the hint of creaminess, but there are some mineral, dry detailed characters here too. Really intriguing and even has a hint of pepper. 90/100 (£16.95 BBR)
Kloof Street Old Vine Chenin Blanc 2013 Swartland, South Africa
13% alcohol. From shale and granite soils, wild yeast ferment. Lively, fresh nose with some light citrus notes and also some broader, richer pear and grape characters with a hint of honey. Lovely apple and pear palate is quite broad and linear with a grapefruit edge hemming in the flavours. Very stylish. 90/100 (Was in stock at Berry Bros & Rudd but doesn’t seem to be at the moment, £12.89 Sawinesonline.co.uk, 2014 vintage available from Vincisive.co.uk)
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Back when I started this blog, in September 2001 (blogging ancient history), I used to put quite a lot of personal stuff on it. And because I wanted to preserve the privacy of our kids, a lot of the personal stuff was to do with our dog (latterly dogs). You can see some of the posts from following the RTL tag (Rosie the labradoodle). In fact, the video I shot of her first litter of puppies at day 38 is by far my most successful YouTube clip, with 173 000 views so far! Baby animals are truly the key to internet success.
Recently, I’ve been posting pretty much uninterrupted wine stuff. I guess I have got busier. And a tiny bit more professional. This is a shame: it’s not that my life is particularly interesting or special – it’s just that we are all people and if I read your writing it helps me to know a bit more about you. Context helps. That’s one of the reasons I quite like social media, even when it’s just the sharing of the mundane. It’s through this that we get to know each other a bit.
If you read someone’s work, there’s an element of trust involved, and if you get to know someone a bit – even in a digital way – then there are some grounds for that trust. [Not very postmodern, I admit.]
So, a non-wine related post. It’s spring – the best time of the year. Were it not for the winter, then the first warm days of spring would not taste so sweet. It’s a time of year when we look forward in hope for what the summer has to bring. The first evening sitting outside. The first lazy day spent in the park. The 9 pm twilight. The soul-soothing song of the birds. Of course, I am writing from a British perspective, where we spend around 5 months of the year in some form of winter weather. We have proper seasons, and our blue-sky summer days are rare enough that they are all cherished. It rarely gets too hot to go for a run, either.
The last couple of days have been just perfect, and walking the hounds – Rosie and her daughter Puppy – has been a real joy. Dog ownership is like having kids, but with a touch less responsibility and considerably less expense, with the added bonus that dogs love you unconditionally, bear no grudges, and are always happy to hang out with you. It is a big commitment, though, and for the last 8 years, when I have not been travelling, I’ve walked them at least once a day. It’s great thinking time, although it does seem a bit wasteful. What could I have done with all those hours? But this is the wrong way to think. Life is about balance, and dogs help to bring that balance. It’s just so healthy to care for something other than yourself, and relationships with dogs tend to be uncomplicated and rewarding in ways that you can’t quantify.
So, what do you reckon? Is it best to just stick to wine here? Or should I allow the odd bit of non-wine content, in order to add colour and context?
Found this in my brother-in-law’s fridge when I popped round to see some of my family who were pug-sitting (he wasn’t there), so cracked it open with lunch. I thought it might be a bit past it, but it was definitely still full of life. Maybe it’s the 30% Picpoul de Pinet that Louis Barruol blends in with 30% Roussanne, 20% Viognier and 20% Marsanne that gives the freshness and longevity? Winedirect have the 2012 at £14.50 a bottle, and Allaboutwine have the 2013 for £12.49 each per 6. This 2009 is lovely, but I might like it a bit more a year or two younger.
Saint Cosme Cotes du Rhône Blanc 2009 Rhône, France
Golden colour. Sweet nutty and a bit spicy with ripe pear fruit, a bit of citrus freshness and lovely texture. Broad yet with some freshness still, this is a deliciously rich Rhône white of real appeal. 91/100
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Located in the Auvergne, Saint-Pourçain actually has more in common with the Maconnais than the Loire, with Chardonnay, Gamay and Pinot Noir the main varieties. (You can read more about this small but interesting appellation on Richard Kelley’s site.) This is an inexpensive but delicious wine that’s a 60/40 blend of Gamay and Pinot. Worth checking out if you like perfumed, sapid, lighter reds.
Les Terres d’Ocre ‘Instant T’ 2013 Saint Pourçain, Loire, France12.5% alcohol. This is a blend of Pinot Noir and Gamay from 25 year old vines. It shows fresh vivid cherry fruit on the nose with a green, sappy character. Brooding and pure. The palate is bright, fresh and berryish with good acidity and nicely integrated green notes. Juicy and delicious. 90/100 (£9.95 The Wine Society)