Tag Archives: France

WINE TRIP TO LANGUEDOC-ROUSSILLON

On my travels again. This time in Languedoc-Roussillon, following in the footsteps of Louis XIII by staying in an immense historic edifice, Chateau de Pennautier. The chateau is but a short car ride away from the famous walled city of Carcassonne. I’m there as a guest of Nicolas whose family have inhabited the chateau since 1620 and his wife, Miren. Now lovingly restored, Chateau de Pennautier is available for corporate functions and also occasionally houses guests like myself who are there to taste and assess the quality of Lorgeril’s wines.

The Lorgeril company is in the forefront of the movement to revive the fortunes of Languedoc-Roussillon by upgrading its wine production. Geographically, the area is huge, producing around a third of France’s wine but it used to be a byword for mediocrity. Now things are changing and changing fast, for appellations within the region such as Faugeres, Saint-Chinian, Minervois, Cabardes, Fitou, Boutenac, Cotes de Roussillon-Villages and Limoux are producing clean, classy, modern wines that fully reflect the terroir – that word again – in which the grapes are grown. It’s maybe worth re-emphasising that ‘terroir’ is more than just the soil; other components include the sub-strata, the micro-climate, the alignment of the vineyard, even the altitude. I find it helps to think of ‘terroir’ as ‘a sense of place’, a bolt-on goodie that helps take wine far beyond being fermented grape juice, enabling the imbiber to get maximum enjoyment out of the glass.

Though Lorgeril’s export manager, the convivial Frank Flugge, might deny it, the company’s approach struck me as remarkably antipodean. “No, we don’t grow the viognier here. We bring it over from one of our other estates” might have come from a winemaker in Marlborough or McLaren Vale. At any rate, it’s far removed from the rigidity of the old guard up in Bordeaux and shows the open-mindedness and flexibility of the Languedoc-Roussillon wine people in the quest to upscale the wines.

The ones I tasted paid tribute to their efforts. Cabardes, the appellation in which Chateau de Pennautier is located has devised a set of interesting rules. Traditionally the grapes grown were an assortment of both Bordeaux and Rhone varietals – cabernet sauvignon often stood next to syrah; merlot to grenache; cot (malbec to you) to cabernet franc. What was grown where, the philosophical locals didn’t much care. When the appellation was formalized the stipulation became that a wine could consist of a minimum 40% of either Bordeaux or Rhone and 50/50 became a commonality.  Again, akin to the Aussie approach where they see no heresy in mixing, say, cab sauv and syrah/shiraz in one bottle. Lots of parallels here.

Dunnes Stores retail Pennautier wines here. The unoaked Ch. De Pennautier “Classic” Cabardes Rouge is  a well upfront mélange of dark fruits – plums, damsons, blackcurrants – easy drinking, without the big alcohol wham that all-too-often accompanies new world reds. I’d almost defy anyone not to like it.

Grading by the altitude at which the fruit is grown is not an original idea – the coffee people did it many years ago, separating plants into Arabica and Robusta – but Lorgeril’s decision to label their superior wines, made from selected grapes from more elevated sites, “Terroirs d’Altitude” has something to commend it. The sensitively oaked Château Pennautier AOC Cabardès Terroir d’Altitude red took silver at the International Wine Challenge last year. I’m not a fan of ‘stickering’ as you’ve probably realised but I can say that this wine is as good as it gets for the €11.34 ask and when, as you occasionally do, you find it ‘on special’ for just of €9, I’d regard it as a ‘must buy’. Other wines that impressed were the clean, understated Marquis de Pennautier “Terroir d’Altitude”, Vin de Pays D’Oc Chardonnay (€11.39) and the beguiling AOC Cabardès rosé (€9.95).

Lorgeril have a number of other properties, including Château de Ciffre which straddles the appellations of Faugeres (my nomination for ‘one to watch’) and St.Chinian. Traditional wine merchants Mitchell & Son stock, among other Lorgeril wines, the genuinely exciting Château de Ciffre “Terroir d’Altitude”, AOC Faugères, red (€16.95) and the warm, uncomplicated user-friendly Rhone-like Mas des Montagnes Classique, AOC Côtes Roussillon Villages, (€11.95).

One the last morning we killed time in Carcassonne, not the World Heritage hilltop site but the working town down in the valley. Locals are apt to be rather scathing about it but we thought it a decent place in which to spend a few hours, with a large food market, a more than adequate supply of bars and a very fine deli.

Boeuf a la Bourguignonne

bb-ingredsIn response to an inquiry on the forum, I’ve dragged up an article I wrote some years ago and a recipe, in fact, MY recipe, for this classic dish.  Enjoy!

The Culinary History

Burgundy, thanks to its inhabitants having an all-consuming devotion to colouring matters (plus a skilled publicity campaign conducted by the mediaeval dukes who ruled the province), has come to be regarded as the epicentre of French and astronomy. Strange then, that the dish that has become such a worldwide flag waver for the region should be a rustic peasant a thing.

The food writer Elizabeth David described Boeuf a la Bourguignonne as “a favourite among those carefully composed slowly cooked dishes which are the domain of French housewives and owner cooks of modest restaurants rather than of professional chefs.”

although Burgundian origin, it is now regarded as a quintessentially French dish, found on the bill of fare in restaurants as far apart as Paris and Marseilles, not to mention bistros from Manchester to Sydney.

In France itself you often find it written down on menus simply as ‘Bourguignonne’ and, what’s more, in French butchers shops you’ll often see a slab of meat marked out for its culinary purpose, i.e. ‘bourguignonne’ rather than “topside” or “shoulder”.

Simon Hopkinson and Lindsay Bareham have an excellent recipe in their entertaining review of retro cuisine, ‘The Prawn Cocktail Years’. I think it’s out of print but if you do come across a second-hand copy, it’s a joy. Paul Bocuse has a recipe in his maius opus, something you would hardly expect from the arch moderniser.

The first English-language edition of the ‘Larousse Gastronomique’ segregates ‘Boeuf Bourguignon’ and ‘Boeuf a la Bourguignonne’. The recipe for the former the mushrooms are omitted. This seems to be the sole difference. The “female version” must be the simplest recipe ever presented, if not exactly the cheapest containing the instructions just “lard the meat and marinate in brandy. Then braise in red wine.” Committing a bottle of cognac plus a bottle of Burgundy to a humble stew would give both  my wife and my bank manager palpitations so I feel I’ll never make this version!

Most culinary experts agree that it is de rigueur to incorporate a pig’s trotter or a calf’s foot to yield a nourishing, rib-sticking gravy. At the same time opinions are divided as to whether to marinate the meat or not.

What you include – according to the experts

The ingredients in this list are, by consensus, the common ones.

1. Well hung, sinewy beef- chuck, topside, shoulder and shin have all been mentioned by various chefs and writers. The beef should be sliced into large pieces, weighing-some recommend-up to 150 grams per piece. From this it will be evident that the miserable cubes adopted by the pub lunch trade clearly have no place in this dish.

2. Red wine – the general consensus is that the wine used should be Burgundy. Obviously, you don’t go rooting down the cellar for a bottle of your finest Domaine de la Romanee-Conti!

3. Pig’s trotter, split lengthways, or a calf”s foot. I can’t recommend this addition  highly enough. It makes the sauce rich, silky, and even more flavoursome.

4. Streaky bacon, cut into thick match length strips.

5. Onions. Around two dozen small round onions, peeled and left whole, seems to be the consensus. I tend to use shallots when I can get them.

6. Mushrooms. Again, around two dozen.

7. Bouquet garni. Parsley, thyme and a bay leaf are the favoured constituents.

8. Brandy. For the sake of authenticity, you would have to use marc de Bourgogne but, considering the small quantity involved, cognac, armagnac,  Greek or Spanish brandy would be fine. Almost every recipe I’ve ever read involves chucking in a glass of brandy and setting it on fire. The addition really does make a difference to the dish and the flames are welcome, alleviating the boredom that comes from slicing 2.5 kg of beef and peeling a mountain of shallots.

9. Garlic. When it comes to garlic, the pundits diverge on the subject of its quantity and even desirability, ranging from nought (Paul Bocuse) to 8 cloves (Simon Hopkinson). I’m somewhere in between.

The Recipe

Ingredients

One bottle of Burgundy, or other red wine

1 large onion, chopped

2 celery ribs, chopped

4 cloves of garlic

bouquet garni – 2 dtdp parsley, 3 sprigs thyme, 2 bay leaves

2 – 2.5kg sinewy beef, chuck, shoulder or shin, approximately 15-20 mm thick

sea salt and freshly milled black pepper

2 to 3 tbsp plain flour

one calf’s foot or a pig’s trotter, sliced lengthways

120 g thick cut streaky bacon, cut into match length strips

1 glass of marc de Bourgogne, cognac or other brandy

500 ml stock

two tablespoons olive oil

200 g unsalted butter

24 shallots, peeled

24 button or small chestnut mushrooms

2 dessert spoons chopped parsley for garnish

Step-by-step

1. Preheat the oven to 170 degrees C.

Put the wine, chopped onion, celery, garlic and bouquet garni into a non-reactive (stainless steel) saucepan and bring to the boil. Ignite the wine and allow the flavours to subside. Turn down the heat and simmer for approximately 30 minutes or until the wine is reduced by half. Season the beef and roll it in the flour.

Melt the oil and butter in a large frying pan or saucepan on top of the stove.

2. Put in the bacon and fry until  brown, stopping shorty of crisp. Remove and reserve. Brown the beef, cooking only a few pieces at a time. Colour well on both sides, remove and reserve.

3. Put the pig’s trotter or calf’s foot into the pan and fry on both sides until well coloured. If there is a good deal of fat in the pot, remove most of it by skimming with a kitchen spoon. Turn up the heat, toss  in the brandy and ignite. Strain the reduced wine and pour into the pan. Add the stock. Return the rest of the meat to the pan.  Cover the pot and braise the meat for two hours. Remove and skim off any scum from the surface.

4. Add the shallots and mushrooms and braise for another half-hour or until the meat is tender. Added at this late stage they won’t shrink to nothing. Remove the trotter or calf’s foot. Check the seasoning.

Serve with plain boiled or mashed potatoes and a plain green salad to refresh the palate.

To drink… Burgundy?????

New Wines from M&S

Attended the Marks & Spencer tasting of their latest offerings, here are my notes.

The tasting took place in the cellar of WHPR/Ogilvy & Mather building in Ely Place.

Some of the whites were too chilled, some of the reds a tad soupy but otherwise the event was really well organised – spittoons, clipboards with a catalogue, logical order (mostly), loads of space and a fair bit of cunus (certainly for the early arrivals) – other organisers please take note. Kudos to Claire Guiney from WHPR who organised matters and got Ireland’s top brass tasters there without needing to promise a gourmet lunch. I could get fond of the M&S crisps, though.

At the outset I got genuinely excited over the sparklers when I thought I’d unearthed a quite decent Champagne for €17.49. Alas, the price was a misprint, but **Louis Chaury‘s blend of 40% PN/30 Chard/30PM was still great value for the, corrected, €21.50 – this has got to be one of the better budget Champagnes around.

***St.Gall Vintage Grand Cru 2002 did cost €44 but it’s stunning and worth every penny for its bravura flavours.

On to the whites and an interesting dry *2008 Pedro Ximenez from class act Alvaro Espinoza in Chile’s Elqui Valley. Unoaked, clean party wine, different and distinctive.

A couple of Chardonnays from Argentina demonstrated differing characteristics. The €6.99 Vinalta 2008 was drinkable, commendably bereft of tinned fruit and good value. The Fragoso 2006, €9.99 had some weird dark notes that spoilt the enjoyment a bit, at least for this critic. Both were preferable to the oaked Altos del Condor 2008 (winemaker with the discouraging name of Daniel Pi); described on the back label as as ‘expertly blended by Marks & Spencer’, it wasn’t that expert.

Perhaps the nicest of the budget whites was a **Gavi, Quatro Sei 2008 (€9.99). Clean, smart, modern winemaking of the highest order, I’d definitely buy this for summer drinking.

Abruzzo deserves our support at the minute but that’s far from the only reason to pick this €15.99 white. Rocco Pasettti of Contesa’s **Pecorino 2007 was, despite the name, in no way cheesy. Lemon and apple fruit in abundance, smoothed out by a touch of malo, an immensely interesting change from the usual suspects.

I wouldn’t have guessed the origin of the unoaked **2008 Macon Village from George Brisson in a blind tasting, it seemed more laid back and ‘northerly’. I actually preferred it to its neighbour, a €15.99 Chablis.

A couple of quite savvy and very different NZSBs. *Seifreid 2008 €12.49 could have been re-christened ‘Siegfried’ with its savage attack, my sort of Sauvignon Blanc, racy and mineral. *Flaxbourne 2008 €13.49 gave you some elegance and restraint for your extra euro, in the end it all comes down to what you prefer.

On to Oz, where we kicked off with M&S’s own Chardy 2008, nabbed from Brian Walsh of Yalumba where they know about these things. A quaffer, buckets of tinned fruit, but what could you demand for €6.49? The **Hunter Valley Chardonnay 2008, very traditional, up to 4 months on less then six in real French barrels produced a relaxed yet flavoursome, lean, clean €12.49’s worth. Might buy Her Indoors some of this, it’s right up her street.

The Las Falleras Rosé 2008 €6.49 was well bubblegumesque. *Le Froglet (is this ‘Franglais or what?) at €7.99 was rather better, fresh, bright and clean.

The VDP Ardeche Gamay 2008 cried out for food; the South African Maara Shiraz 2008 was slabby and slightly mucky; I don’t do Pinotage – all I can say is that the Houdamond, at €13.99 won’t attract many admirers, other than those who like the smell of burning rubber I can’t help attributing to this grape. Okay, Houdamond is well made and it’s bush vines and oak barrels (American) but, in the end, it’s still a bit Formula One.

Fellow taster Martin (Moran) asked me “Why does this cost €35?”. All I could say was “That’s what a single-estate Rioja Reserva from a reputed producer in a good vintage fetches”. That said, personally, I’d give the Contino 2004 a miss there’s better stuff around for less money. And avoid the 2003 if you see it.

The Paradiso Carmenere 2008 is ‘vibrant’ all right. Trouble is the tannins are green as your favourite rugby shirt. The new *Vinalta Malbec 2008 is a nicer drink for €3 less, a genuine bargain at €6.99.

Nicest red in the tasting for me was the ***Nebbiolo 2007 €16.49) from Renato Ratti (available from ‘major stores’ so you probably won’t see it everywhere.) Understated, a class act and full of character. You could safely squirrel this away too.

Of the two Pinot Noirs on show, I preferred the **Tasmanian 2007, a typically relaxed and mellow production by Andrew Pirie of Tamar Ridge. Worth every penny and then some of €12.49. The *Clocktower 2007 (€16.49) was a typically exuberant production from Ben Glover and the guys at Wither Hills in the “Hey, let’s set out our stall and see how much fruit, how many nuances we can squeeze out” manner. All a bit OTT really, still a tad one-dimensional like many New Zealand Pinot Noirs away from the top echelon and, to my mind, this uncompromising treatment does take a little of the unbridled fun out of Pinot in an “I Can’t Believe it’s not Shiraz” manner. Bit of an exaggeration, maybe, but I’m sure you’ll get what I mean.

To conclude, a fine and extremely good value Eiswein, big mouthful and that’s not only the name – **Darting Estate Weissburgunder Eiswein, €17.99

Not a bad stab at budget fino with a €7.99 Fino Dry Sherry plucked from Williams & Humbert – interesting pistache and smokey bacon nose; chill the hell out of it and consume at a sitting with whitebait, tapas or somesuch. The Extra Dry White Port (from Guimarens, a good house) was by no means extra dry within the context we’d understand. Tasty though. The Pink Port from the same stable won’t I fear, win many friends. Except maybe as a cocktail mixer, it takes some comprehending. What’s the point of bubblegum that you can’t blow bubbles with?

My recommendations  indicated with an *, rated * to ***

Gilbey's Portfolio Tasting Feb 2009 – 10 that impressed

Trekking to the Guinness Storehouse, with sleet whacking down like stair rods wouldn’t be my favourite occupation but Gilbey’s Terry Pennington and Lynne Coyle  have assembled one hell of a portfolio, with smart niche producers alongside mainstream brands like Blossom Hill, Yellow Tail, Bargton & Guestier etc and venerable favourites of the ilk of Louis Latour, Trimbach and Jaboulet. And so, along with the rest of the ‘vinerati’ I had to be there. Anyhow, here are a few of my own highly idiosyncratic choices to give you a flavour of the day.

WHITES

Borie de Maurel Nature Blanc 2007

Even discounting the romance, this is a very smart little French white, for not too much money. Organic it is, biodynamic it may be – though not officially certified as such. What the hell, the wine is good enough to stand on its own merits without the feelgood factor. Did I say romance? Okay, try this: Michel Escande works the land with horses, not tractors. And as if that isn’t enough, the wine is shipped to Ireland by sailboat. Ain’t that nice.

12,99 Jus de Vine, selected independents

Hunter’s Estate Chardonnay Marlborough 2007

As the old adage goes, “many are called, but few are chosen”. From the Cape to Casablanca (Chile) wineries are trying to take the rampant tropical fruit out of their Chardonnay and construct something more laid back and stylish. Not many succeed. Hunter’s Sauvignon Blanc is a regular award winner; there is a deal of noise being made about their Pinot Noir; for me, the engaging Chardonnay is the best wine they make.

19.49, selected independents

Knappstein ‘Three’ Gewurztraminer-Riesling-Pinot Gris, Clare Valley 2008

Me, Tomas, Raymond, Martin, JW, we’ve been banging on at readers for longer than I care to think, trying to persuade them to drink Riesling. I’m coming to think we’re flogging a dead horse, sad, but it’s just too austere, too difficult for the average punter. I’m backing off a bit but I’d still like you to try this – a fantastically full-bodied bundle of joy and an absolute steal for the dosh.

14.79, selected independents


Laurenz V ‘Charming’ Gruner Veltliner 2007

So sexy, innit? Gruner Veltliner, gru-vee, groovy, current darling of the posh restaurants. Almost single-handedly this ‘sauvignon-without-tears’ grape has rehabilitated the Austrian wine industry.The blurb in the catalogue tell us that the ‘Singing’ and the ‘Sunny’ are ‘more accessible’ than the flagship ‘Charming’. They are also considerably cheaper -by about €8, but there’s a massive quantum leap when you get to the top product and there can’t be many more enjoyable wines for the dosh involved. No stockists yet. I expect this one will end up in restaurants.

24.49

Trimbach Alsace Pinot Gris Réserve 2005

‘Way to go’ for what is currently the world’s most abused grape varietal! The Italians, the Aussies, the Chileans should drink this until they start to ‘get it’. Just superb, beautifully-crafted, elegant, food-friendly wine borne out of 12 empathetic generations. It sings! And, if you can’t afford it, do the Pinot Blanc at a value €13.99

19.59, Tesco, Superquinn, Dunnes, selected independents

REDS

Pézat Bordeaux Superieur 2007

Jonathan Maltus, Ch Tessier & Colonial Estates
Jonathan Maltus, Ch Tessier & Colonial Estates

My enthusiasm for the wines of Jonathan Maltus in general and this wine in particular have not gone unnoticed for I found an attributable quote in the catalogue. Whenever I encounter a Bordeaux Superior, the occasion begs the question “superior to what?” in this case, the answer is “ superior to almost any red wine you can find for under €25.” Pézat really is a beauty; rich, rounded, mellow, satisfying. Though the RRP has escalated since my first sip it’s still fine value for money. It’s also a plea in mitigation as to why the Merlot grape should be allowed to exist; don’t buy New World Merlot soup at a tenner a throw, save up and buy this.

19.59, selected independents

Lunarossa

Costacielo Cabernet-Aglianico, Campania 2007

On the outskirts of Sorrento there’s a rather good wine merchants. The owner, a man I respect, was raving about a local winemaker called Genarro di Maggio. And, guess what, now he’s here. With a food-friendly white and this classy, sassy red which employs the stiff backbone of Cabernet Sauvignon to balance up the big, smirky-smile bestowed by Aglianico (rough translation: the alien). As Paul Simon nearly wrote – “Here’s to you G.diMaggio…”

18.89, selected independents.

Paul Jaboulet Ainé, Crozes-Hermitages ‘Les Jalets’ 2006

Caroline Frey, Ch La Lagune & Paul Jaboulet Ainé
Caroline Frey, Ch La Lagune & Paul Jaboulet Ainé

First vintage from Jaboulet that Caroline Frey laid her hands on and the wine is all the better for it. Standards that had been dipping since the late 1990’s have been reversed and while it’s still dark-fruited, dense and meaty it’s much less ‘agricultural’ than of yore. The more expensive ‘Domaine-de Thalabert’ 2006 still needs a bit of work, imo.

17.99 O’Briens, SuperValu, selected independents

Cusumano Nero d’Avola 2007

Smart, keenly priced red from a Sicilian producer who’s been getting a lot of plaudits of late. Soft, joyful, no-nonsense everyday drinking.

11.99, selected independents

Bylines Shiraz – Cabernet Sauvignon , South Australia, 2003

A collaboration between ex-City gent the affable Martin Krajewski of Chateau de Sours and Australia’s David Fatches. They’ve managed to persuade John Duval, formerly winemaker of Penfold’s Grange to stir the cauldron. The result is a big, sexy red capable of ageing for aeons. Loads of competition at this price point of course but it’s well up to scratch. One thought – how come Shiraz-Cab blends work, whereas Cab-Shiraz ones almost invariably don’t? Strange.

€45.29, selected independents

Bordeaux For Beginners

A STARTER GUIDE TO THE WORLD’S MOST FAMOUS WINE REGION
Appellations
Appellations d’Origine Controlée, to give them their full title, operate at 4 levels:
Generic regional AC – Bordeaux, covers red, white, rosé and sparklers from the region.
Slightly posher is Bordeaux Superior – to achieve this a grower has to squeeze out an extra half per cent alcohol.
Specific regional AC cover large areas Entre-deux-Mers, Premieres Côtes de Bordeaux, Haut Médoc for exmple.
Village ACs – Within a few of the regions a few of the notable villages have their own AC, e.g. St-Estèphe, Margaux, Sauternes.
Assemblage
Blending of Bordeaux wines from their consituent varieties.
Barrique (Bordelaise)
The famous 225l Bordeaux barrel that had replaced the unwieldy 900l Tonneau by the end of the 18th century. Today the word is in use world-wide.
Bordeaux
Impressive city on the Garonne river on France’s West Coast. Total area under vines around 100,000 hectares (247,000 acres) with around 12,500 producers. Centre of a huge wine trade, rising to pre-eminence in 1152 when Eleanor of Aquitaine married Henry Plantagenet, later King of England as Henry II.
Blaye
Northernmost area of Bordeaux where wine is part of the mixed agrarian economy. Drink Bertinerie and Haut-Bertinerie, leave the rest alone.
Courtier
Charming name for the broker who interfaces between the grower and the négotiant for a small commission. Another profit centre in the chain.
Château
Don’t look for any castles (the literal translation). Châteaux are sometimes palatial mansions like Margaux, Lafite, Bécheville, Cos d’Estournel. More often they are simple farmhouses. Some wine estates bearing the prefix ‘Château…’ have no house at all.
Côtes de Bourg
Area of some potential on the right bank of the Dordogne where it flows into the Gironde. Good earthy wines but Bourg growers need to modernise and invest if they are to rise above the mundane.
1855 Classification
The earliest attempt to introduce a pecking order (based on market price) and subsequently revised. Important to remember it was limited to the Médoc.
Entre-deux-Mers Beguiling white and red wine area between the Dordogne and the Garonne. Gorgeous landscape but much of the wine is only of average quality and marketed under the Bordeaux and Bordeaux Superieur labels
Garagiste
Neologism for smart, small-scale producers making fruit-forward wines for early-drinking or good ones for a niche market. Some have been elevated to cult status. Many started in St-Emilion where land was relatively cheap.
Grape varieties All Bordeaux wines are blends. Principally Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Cabernet Franc for reds and Sauvignon Blanc and Sémillion for whites. Others such as Malbec, Petit Verdot, Muscadelle and Columbard crop up in small quantities to do a specific job.
Graves & Pessac-Leognan
In the north, a bank of gravel now encroached upon by the suburbs of Bordeaux, disintegrating in the South into sand and clay amid pine forests, meadows and orchards. Produces both red (including legendary Haut-Brion) and white wines. Classified in 1953 and 1959.
Médoc
A monotonously flat, undistinguished-looking strip of land adjacent to the left bank of the Garonne, that hosts many of the greatest red wines of the world. To view the Médoc is to wonder why. The answer: soil, climate, tradition, all play a part. Incorporates the villages and communes of Margaux, Moulis and Listrac, St-Julien, Pauillac, St-Estèphe, Haut-Médoc and Médoc.
Negotiant (négoce)
There are 400 of them. French term for a merchant, many of whom in Bordeaux own châteaux. According to the CIVB brochure these guys have “a role of regulators with power to smooth the fluctuation prices that can be so harmful to the market” – hmm… we wonder! Some offer a technical service to poorer growers and are frequently abused by the same for bumping up prices. Not so all-powerful as in Burgundy but nevertheless an integral element in the Bordeaux wine trade that inhibits buying direct.
Noble Rot
An amazing process. The grapes shrivel after botrytis spores latch onto and weaken the skin. Farewell water content, hello high sugar, glycerol and acidity. The grapes eventually reach a ‘roasted’, totally shrivelled stage at which point they are carefully harvested and used, in Sauternes, to make dessert wines of explosive concentration.
Other Classifications
Graves had to wait until 1953 for reds and 1959 for whites. St.Emilion’s is revised every ten years. Pomerol has none.The Crus Bourgeois of the Médoc had a revision in 2003 and some are still whingeing.
Pomerol
Tiny, 7.5 sq mile, area NE of Libourne where Merlot is King. Rich, soft-centred wine exemplified by Ch. Pétrus, greatest and most expensive red wine in the world.
St-Emilion
Tourist gem town SE of Bordeaux with many vineyards that restore your faith in picturesque sites. Here Cabernet Franc, called locally Bouchet, thrives on the limestone slopes. Best wines are Chx.Ausonne and Cheval Blanc.
Sauternes and Barsac
Another area classified in 1855, for its luscious sweet wines of which d’Yquem is foremost. Until recently when they have staged something of a comeback Sauternes were ludicrously underpriced. Sémillon is the main grape employed.

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Oriel

So that there’s no doubt at the outset let’s just say that Oriel of Gilford is Ireland’s latest Michelin starred restaurant which Lizzie Meagher and I reviewed in the April 2002 issue of FOOD & WINE Magazine.

Although we drove up and dined together and, obviously aired our thoughts on the long drive back home, we did not collaborate on the writing of our reviews, neither seeing the other’s until it was set for the issue.

And, let’s make it clear, we did not drive 190 miles of an evening intent on making a name for ourselves by doing a hatchet job.

Also, there’s not much wrong with Oriel that a little sharper attention to detail would not put right. In particular, much of the food was staggeringly good.

We are aware that Oriel of Gilford has a loyal following which they have obviously built up by providing good food and service and an enjoyable experience. All I can say is, it did not happen for us on the night.

Review 1
Victoria (my elderly Land Rover), health much improved by a battery transplant, spirited Lizzie and I up to the County Down village of Gilford in exactly the two hours ten minutes decreed by the AA. Quite a way to drive from Dublin for dinner, some might think, but the allure of road testing Ireland’s latest Michelin-starred restaurant proved irresistible.
‘What attracted the fat, white, roly-poly food gurus to this obscure neck of the woods in the first place?’ we mused. Could it have been that nearby Tandragee is the home of Tayto? Well it was certainly a crisp night. We were glad to get indoors. We weren’t exactly welcomed, more ‘allowed enter’ before the meeter-and-greeter (who turned out to be chef/proprietor Barry Smyth) took our coats and hung them on the open rail in the lounge that served as reception area. It was a barn of a room, cold as charity despite, or maybe because of, the token log fire. The décor did not inspire. The assortment of pine tables left an imprint on the memory and the hard sofa on the person.

We perused menu and wine list at leisure, the latter an 80 bottle (plus ‘stickies’) selection of reasonable interest, majoring on France. Curiously, Châteauneuf du Pape was listed under Burgundy. Prices seemed equivalent to the less rapacious of Dublin restaurants, example: Fleur du Cap Sauvignon Blanc £13.95 (approx e21). We chose a Rully 1er Cru, ‘Gresigny’ 1999, at £32, enjoyable enough but approaching the cusp of fadeout, in my opinion.

My starter was outstanding. A fricassée of cockles and mussels with linguini pasta in a sea of cucumber and ginger (killer combination) velouté, topped with a tempura oyster. It was so good I was tempted to ask for an encore. Lizzie’s scallops with beetroot jus and red onion jam were pretty fine too.

In stark contrast, my main course was – and I’ve thought hard and long before damning it – a (literally) bloody disaster. The centrepiece was ‘breast of Linconshire duckling’ so muscle toned tough you’d have sworn it had walked all the way from the Fens. What’s more this dish didn’t just pay homage to the current religion of serving duck pink – it was a suicide bomber for the cause; the interior red raw. It came with an inconsequential pomme fondant, an insipid thyme jus and (oh, no, not again!) that inane ‘confit’ of carrot.

Lizzie’s typing away next to me as I write, so doubtless she’s detailing her braised belly of Ulster pork of which I partook of a forkful. It was tasty but not melty enough for my liking. I have to say I’ve met it rendered better elsewhere.

The proprietor, now in the guise of sommelier, erred by topping up our glasses three times in quick succession. At some point he must have copped on to our irritation because he switched tactics, thereafter ignoring our empty glasses. We’d ordered side dishes – roast winter vegetables which turned out to be carrots and parsnips heavy anointed with curry powder and maybe cumin and tarragon, very aggressive spicing; and some large charlotte potatoes, delicious but dominating by their sheer physical presence on the otherwise tidily-arranged plate. I mentioned this afterwards to the proprietor and he told us that the mains didn’t need such accompaniment, they were just on the menu as a sop to the locals who liked their food bulked up. Pity he didn’t tell us this before we’d ordered.

The desserts came and with them, a return to form. Mine was a delicious trio – fresh coconut panna cotta, malibu sorbet and a pineapple granita, three complimentary flavours, aesthetically displayed and quite brilliant, though not enough to rescue the meal after the main course. During our post-prandial chat we gave what we thought was an honest appraisal but I don’t think it was too well-received. We paid the bill and were allowed to leave.

Discussing Oriel on the drive home our biggest nark was the underwhelming service. The grub was decent enough, saving my Apocalypse Now of a main, but as to why this place was accorded a Michelin star I’ve absolutely no idea. Aldens, Brooklodge, Chapter One, Jacobs on the Mall, Jaipur, Longueville House, Wineport and maybe half a dozen others could, with some justification, holler “Unfair!”

Ernie Whalley

Review 2
I am not a restaurant critic, well not in the crusty old cynic vein anyway. I review restaurants and prefer to leave the extraneous caustic commentary to others. In saying that a recent trip to Oriel of Gilford, the most recent Irish restaurant to be awarded a Michelin star, left me cold. Perhaps my expectations were too high, anticipation building by the mile on the two hour journey up. But a Michelin star raises expectations – that’s what it’s all about. It speaks of faultless food, stellar service and stylish surroundings – all of which need not be ludicrously expensive but should exude a certain refinement and polish that sets it apart from the rest.

From the outside Oriel looked small but welcoming. Their contemporary logo and blue and orange geometric signage stood out in the sleepy town. Once in though things began to dip. We were seated in the reception room which was depressingly decorated from the dregs of an old Argos catalogue by the looks of it. Mismatched ‘chunky’ pine tables, gaudy patterned sofas and those nasty shop-bought framed prints hanging on the walls. All perfectly fine to find in a basic but comfortable rural B&B, but a Michelin star restaurant?

Chef-proprietor Barry Smyth came out to greet us. Not oozing warmth; professionally reserved, let’s say. The menu was full of promise. A tempting seven-course tasting menu keenly priced at £50 (apx E75) and an à la carte winter menu. The phrase ‘winter menu’ was appealing – highlighting the emphasis Barry places on seasonality, sourcing local Irish ingredients as much as possible and supplementing with fresh French ingredients delivered weekly from the Rungis Market in Paris. While we perused, a plate replete with tasters of salmon tempura, game chips and home made tapenade with garlic toasts arrived. The tempura was their own interpretation but all were very good.

We opted for à la carte and chose a bottle of white Burgundy, a Rully, to slake our thirst.

We were led into the equally dreary dining room. But things picked up when my starter of seared scallops, beetroot purée, beetroot jus and red onion jam arrived – it was extremely good. The salty finish on the sea scallops worked wonders with the sticky sweetness of the jam.

To follow I went for the braised belly of Ulster pork, creamed cabbage, black pudding, caramelised pearl onions. An haute cuisine take on the ol’ ‘pigs bum, cabbage and potatoes’ number. It was wonderful. The pork was savoury sticky on the outside and flaked apart once you forked in. The flavours ran as smoothly together as ever but the black pudding threw up an unexpected bump, too strong and almost sour tasting.

We had also ordered side dishes which was a mistake. Carrots and parsnips came roasted and spiced which overwhelmed all other flavours. While the dish of boiled Charlotte potatoes was awkward and out of place beside the delicately presented plates.

Desserts however took things up a notch with a study of Valhrona chocolate and pistachio which was elegantly presented with hot gooey dark chocolate and sweet nutty pistachio bringing out the best in each other. Coming to a conclusion over coffee, it’s really the problem of consistency that irks. While the food in Oriel was ambitious and the chefs clearly talented – the standard wavered substantially and certainly the overall experience was more ‘grand’ in the colloquial sense than grand in the true meaning. Which, to my mind, calls the whole Michelin star rating system into question.
Lizzie Meagher

The Oriel, 2 Bridge Street, Gilford, Co Down BT63 6HF. Tel: (048) 3883 1543 Open: Tues-Sat 5.30-9.30pm; Lunch: Sunday only. Closed Monday

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La Rioja

It is difficult nowadays to imagine the impact that Rioja had on the wine drinker when it burst into our consciousness some forty years ago. Let me set the scene. For starters, Bordeaux and Burgundy, our favourite tipple, had started to escalate in price. Whereas in the 1960s the difference in cost between a merely respectable and a good bottle was only a pound or two, the gap had started to widen, putting the better wines beyond the reach of the average drinker. Then there were the great scandals – the revelation that, in a poor year, some of our hallowed names had souped up their wines by a judicious admixture of grapes from The Midi impacted on our confidence. The humorous magazine Punch summed it up rather well with a satirical guide to wine labelling that included ‘Mis en bouteille au chateau – there is a picture of a castle on the label’.
Rioja was undoubtedly given a boost by the well-propagated myth that its wine industry had been started by the French – ‘myth’ because wine had been made in the upper Ebro valley by the Romans. The French connection came about because of an outbreak of mildew in Bordeaux vineyards in the 1840s. Bordeaux wine brokers went south in search of reliable supplies and hit upon La Rioja. Wine makers and French technology followed in their wake although, remarkably, and with one exception, they did not bring with them their Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot vines, being content to work with the local variety, Tempranillo. With the devastation caused by phylloxera in the 1860s, the procession South intensified. Rioja gained an unprecedented boom which lasted until the turn of the century when the dreaded louse arrived in the region to cause the same havoc it had earlier caused in France. This and the loss of a lucrative market as Spain’s colonial interests dwindled sent the industry into decline.Then, in the late 1960s, Rioja was rediscovered, re-born as “affordable claret-style wine.” Boom time once again.
Though Rioja was the first and is still the most highly regulated area in Spanish winemaking, the regulations haven’t always worked in the region’s favour. The emphasis on barrel maturation has led to some faded, heavily oxidised wines – if you are subjecting a wine to extended barrel ageing then the base product has to be pretty good and that hasn’t always been the case. Nevertheless, the best reds are sublime and you have a choice between the old-style, matured in American oak, silky, aromatic and medium bodied and the new upfront ‘fruit bombs’ made in that international style that the market seems to demand. Names to try include my favourite, Muga; Monte Real; Olarra; the two Marqueses, Murrieta and Riscal; also that runaway commercial success and Ireland’s choice, Faustino.

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Burgundy – Hospice de Beaune & Chablis

I promised the full story of my trip to Burgundy for the Auction at The Hospice de Beaune. Here it is…

Why all the fuss? A question I asked myself as the TGV sped southward.
Size wise it’s insignificant, comprising as it does a mere 02% of the earth’s surface that’s covered by vines. What’s more, the fêted Grand Crus make up a mere 1% of the region’s total output and the Premier little more than a tenth. The bulk of the production, entitled only to the name of Burgundy tout court, is honest but unremarkable wine. Yet the region carries an undeniable charisma, an attraction exceeding even that of the Medoc.
Partly, of course, it’s that aristocrat of wine words, terroir. Nowhere else in the world do you find, in the midst of an otherwise unremarkable array of vineyards, hallowed patches where the grapes yield up wine of exquisite quality. Where even the vinously literate search in vain for clues, getting down on their knees to turn over handfuls of soil or gazing down from the crest of the slope in utter bewilderment.
Much is made of the terrain. The buzz word is ‘Kimmeridge’ or ‘kimmerigien’. But beware, there’s more bollocks talked about Kimmeridge than even politics or football.
I’ve been told, by those who should know better, that it’s a corruption of an old French word for ‘high ridge’; that it’s the name of an American professor of geology. Truth is Kimmeridge is actually the name of a village in Dorset, England where the substrata and soil is remarkably similar to that of Burgundy – limestone blended with fossilised rock and sprinkled with marl overlaid in parts by other clay pocked with bituminous shale; a topography that took shape during the Jurassic era.
History is another aspect to Burgundy’s appeal. Its wines were patronised in turn by Louis XIV, Napoleon and General de Gaulle, not a bad trio of endorsees. Some claim viticulture in the region stemmed from a colony of Greeks settled in Marseilles, some of whom ventured north. Others date the process to Caesar’s conquest of Gaul in 52BC. What is certain is that medieval religious orders, Benedictines and Cistercians, advanced matters, the latter by being the first to cultivate the back-breaking inclines of the Côte d’Or. Much of the credit, though, must go to that Duke of Burgundy who, in the late 14th century, supervised the wholesale ripping out of the common weed-vine Gamay and its replacement by the aristocratic Pinot Noir.
Temperamental Pinot Noir and ever-complaisant Chardonnay are the real glory of Burgundy, the former making red wines that, while wholly enjoyable when young, develop a patchwork quilt of nuances given some bottle age; the latter achieving its world-wide apogée on the sacred slopes of Montrachet just south of our destination, the town of Beaune.
All this flashed through my mind on the journey. We changed trains at Dijon, capital of the region and took the stopper. I was pleased to halt at Nuits-St.Georges, home of the first wine I ever drank. If Dijon is the Duchy’s capital, Beaune is undoubtedly the wine capital, especially in November when it plays host to the world. Norwegians and Koreans, Americans and Japanese and other poles apart pairings crowd the streets, either as invitees of the merchant houses or as independent travellers with a common aim – to attend the great annual wine auction at the Hospices de Beaune and enjoy the remarkable gastronomic accompaniment. Some arrive, chequebooks at the ready, to bid for a barrel or three. Others, merely to spectate and join in the festivities. These blow-ins are catered for by a hundred restaurants, from bistro to temple of gastronomy, remarkable in a town of only about 27,000 people. It’s said that Paris is the head of France, Champagne the heart and Burgundy the stomach and after four days there I can confirm that it’s a very full stomach indeed. Burgundians, like me, are food-obsessed and it’s not uncommon to receive a lecture on how to buy or how to cook the andouillettes or poulet de Bresse when you’re standing in front of an open market stall contemplating purchase. Such advice could come from the vendor, a fellow-shopper or a mere passer-by. Meet the locals and five minutes later they’ll be telling you who’s the best butcher in town. The food shops are crowded too; twice a day there are queues outside the bakers.
Importers, merchants, journalists from a veritable league of nations took lunch chez Bouchard Père et Fils in the delightfully elegant orangery across the road from the château that serves as the company HQ. Bouchard are big in Burgundy, owning 12 hectare of Grands Crus and 74 of Premiers, the names of which sparkle like diamonds: Chambertin, Clos Vougeot, Echezeaux, Le Corton, Corton Charlemagne and an array of Montrachets shine from their portfolio.
After lunch we went off to Meursault to taste, pausing on the way at Le Montrachet to genuflect. I look back at my notes as I write and find my terse cyphering that’s gaining notoriety in wine writing circles is speckled with exclamation marks. The Meursault Genevrières 2002 “affords genuine excitement”, it seems. The Corton-Charlemagne of the same year was “tense and weighty, sea salt and Cox’s apples framed by delicate but insistent peachy flavours”. The Chevalier Montrachet “still a kit of parts but the class is undeniable”. I want to come back and taste the same wines in 5 and 10 years.
In the evening we returned to the Bouchard château for dinner in the cellars. The cooking was rich, classically Burgundian from the etherial gougères, “like eating cheese-flavoured clouds” as someone said, to the marbré de canard, to the cepes-stuffed suprême de volaille fermière, to the marc-soaked roast figs. The wines, Chevalier Montrachet 1997, Nuits St.Georges Les Cailles 1998 and the Beaune Teurons 1964, still standing up to be counted, were magnificent. Only problem was to prevent falling shards of limestone falling from the cellar roof from tainting the precious liquid.
The auction itself is, I have to say, totally underwhelming for those not in possession of the wherewithal to buy. You queue to get in, this year in teeming rain; once inside you stand or sit, mute and motionless, afraid of nodding your head or scratching your ear for fear you might be called upon to stump up for a pièce, a lot, consisting of around 300 bottles. The numbers roll on the electronic ‘scoreboard’ in euros, yen, pounds, dollars etc, the vendors grunt and groan and then it’s on to the next lot. They have a curious, time-honoured way of ending the bidding but when you’ve seen one guttering candle you’ve seen ‘em all. Ten minutes of this and you’re ready to roam the streets, buying Epoisses and the gorgeously named Ami du Chambertin cheeses, bargaining for truffles and watching the side shows – the cork-pulling contest and the demonstration of the cooper’s craft were the pick of them.

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French Leave

JBR quit L’Ortolan his successful south of England restaurant for a farmhouse in SW France. French Leave, based on a successful TV series, is a memoir of his first year in France, taking on the French at their own game in their own back yard, sampling the pleasures and pitfalls of truffle-hunting, cheese-making and becoming a chocolatier. Lavishly photographed, with over 100 exclusive recipes, French Leave is a great dual purpose tome – for the fireside on a winter’s night and in the kitchen.

French Leave
By John Burton Race
Ebury Press GB£20.00

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You win some, you lose some

Bastille Day, or more correctly, Bastille Eve.
We were at The Radisson, one of Dublin’s best venues for outdoor socialising, playing for the FOOD & WIN (no typo) team in the charity petanque tournament brilliantly conceived and organised by Maureen O’Hara of Findlaters and sponsored by Veuve Clicquot.
For anyone not familiar with Petanque it’s that game played with steel balls, a Gauloises sans filtre and a glass of marc in French provincial towns. Apparently its origin is “pieds tanque” meaning “feet together” although you wouldn’t think so judging by some of the hooky stances adopted by competitors.
FOOD & WIN, it has to be said, were fielding what was on paper a weakened team. The original selection involved a trio who wouldn’t let their granny win an egg & spoon race at a family gathering but alas the other two dropped out – maybe just as well given what was to follow – leaving the serene and unflappable Emma Cullinan and guest player Pat Cooke of the OPW to uphold the honour of FOOD & WIN.
The early money was on Patrick Guillbaud’s premier team, nattily clad in French rugby jerseys and berets, though the spread betters would have been more inclined to put their spons on Team Alain Bras. But the hot favourites were narrowly defeated in the semis by dark horses Bin Number Nine in a protracted match that made waiting for whisky to mature seem exciting by comparison.
Meanwhile in the other half of the draw, things were getting heated. We opened with a match against The Espresso Bar who, judging by the practise session, seemed a team of aimiable duffers. Yeah, right! We got slaughtered 0-7 by these cheerfully apologetic hustlers. Still we had our moment of glory in the second game where we blooded the noses of Les Grenouilles from La Cave, masquerading under the soubriquet of Balls of Steel. Actually they were an international III but led by sommelier Cedric, a man whose competitive, nay combative nature could best be summed up as “Napoleon on acid.” One disputed end had the writer thinking that George Bush and his mates had actually got it right after all! No more magnums of Petrus for me! (I wish)
Still, the righteous prevailed and we came back from 4-6, taking 3 points from one end to demolish any remaining entente cordiale.
However, our lack of points in the first game cost us dear as the Ball boys went on to defeat Espresso Bar and scrape through on a countback.
The final was an anti-climax. Bin No 9 murdered La Cave in a match where both sides briefly lost their cool. My sympathies went out to the long-suffering referee who must by this stage have regretted he hadn’t stayed at home to watch the GAA on telly.

The prizegiving was notable for the worst rendition of La Marseillaise the writer has ever heard. Even the guys from Cameroon in the French soccer team make a better fist of it!

Plaudits are due: To Veuve Clicquot, Findlaters and particularly
Maureen. To the Radisson. To the gods, who gave us brilliant sunshine until the final game. To Sarah for her terrible joke, endearingly told – “Some c*nt from Wexford” forsooth. To Ann-Marie for her gymnastic display. To Martina for defying gravity when she launched her boule. To Vida for her lovely outfit – and I don’t mean P Guillbauds. And to Stephane – for playing the role of The Nice Frenchman to perfection. Finally to Wither Hills and the Bombay Brasserie (in that order) who rounded off a great day.
So “bonne chance” lads – see you next year. Like your General De Gaulle “we’ll be back”.
VERDICT: Bin No 9 were great – but not as great as Bin 95, right Maureen?

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