Friday, 30 April 2010

The ultimate cheese and wine party

I feel lucky, as through my work, I have had some pretty amazing experiences of cheese. While working in book publishing I had the fortune of editing a comprehensive guide to cheese by Juliet Harbutt which really exposed me to this fascinating, complex and utterly delicious subject. Wine has always played a dominant role in my life (another fascinating, complex and delicious subject), so I became completely hooked. I’ve also had the pleasure of working with another cheese aficionado, Fiona Beckett, with whom I share an unbridled passion for matching food and wine. Furthermore, for many years I lived within walking distance of Patricia Michelson’s original branch of La Fromagerie in Highbury. Finally, to top this all off, I am an unapologetic Francophile and visit France on a regular basis. You are probably getting the picture.

Several years ago, all these threads came together when I was approached to organise the launch of the English edition of the Hachette Wine Guide. This annual guide lists the best wines in France, region by region. The highest rating is the ‘coup de coeur’ which is given to the very finest examples: a couple of hundred of the 9,000 wines included in the guide. To my delight, I discovered that I would be supplied with the ‘coup de coeur’ wines to serve at the launch event.

As all these wines gradually arrived at my tiny flat, I wondered how best to order them to make sense of such a disparate selection. Arranging them according to style seemed the best idea, and it struck me that I had the perfect opportunity to turn this event into the ultimate cheese and wine party. What a wonderful way of showcasing some of the best French produce and, with La Fromagerie agreeing to supply the cheese, the book launch became ‘The Finest Taste of France’. Once I had my complete list of 132 wines, carefully divided up, I was able to brief Patricia to provide seasonal French cheeses to accompany this amazing array of wine. She and a colleague were also able to attend, as were some of the wine producers, which made the evening even more informative and memorable.

‘The Finest Taste of France’ began with lighter, unoaked whites such as Muscadet, Sancerre and Chablis served with some refreshing, tangy goats’ cheese, delicious with the clean minerality of these wines.

These were followed by a larger selection of heavier, oaked whites such as classic white Burgundy (Chablis 1ers and Grands Crus from Drouhin and Fèvre, Meursault from Michel Bouzereau and a Chevalier-Montrachet), white Bordeaux (including gems from Châteaux Smith Haut Lafitte and Haut Brion) and some interesting white Châteauneuf-du-Pape (Château La Nerthe). Stronger, stickier cheeses worked superbly with these wines; rich and creamy Brie made a great partner to carefully oaked whites. Aged Beaufort from the Alps was also a luxurious choice for these wines.

Red wines included a stellar line up of classed growth clarets (Châteaux Léoville-Barton, Langoa Barton, Lynch Bages, Rauzan-Ségla, Ducru-Beaucaillou), Hermitage and Châteauneuf-du-Pape. This is where harder, more mature cheeses came into their own, working well with the complex flavours and tannic structure of the wines. Aged Mimolette was a particularly special choice for these fine reds.

The tasting concluded with an impressive range of sweet wines: Jurançon, Coteaux du Layon, Sainte-Croix-du-Mont, Muscats and an array of Sauternes and Barsac. Guests were treated to Châteaux Doisy Daëne, Bastor-Lamontagne, de Fargues to name a few. Buttery, rich blue cheeses were the dominant choice on this table. Roquefort is always a delicious foil to sweet wine – the saltiness contrasting with the sweetness of the wine, whereas the more subtle Fourme d’Ambert also worked deliciously, but in a less strident way. Many people seemed unable to leave this delectable table.

What wonderful memories. Essentially, wine is fermented grape juice and cheese is preserved milk (also through fermentation), but the evening demonstrated the extraordinary scope of these glorious gifts from nature and the unforgettable pleasure they can give. Yes, I feel very lucky indeed.

Monday, 26 April 2010

Bar Pepito: a taste of Andalucía in the heart of King's Cross

Firstly, I must declare my unreserved love of Spanish food and wine. The Spanish really know how to enjoy themselves and do so with an infectious energy. I think this has a powerful effect on how they view food and wine. Why have a slow and static meal of two or three courses when you can have a whole series of contrasting little dishes, keeping your tastebuds and mind alert and receptive, moving from bar to bar? Here in the UK we have cottoned on to this and how it is so much more fun, relaxing and perfect for busy modern life.

Maybe with this in mind, Bar Pepito in King's Cross has opened. It's an offshoot of the already popular Spanish restaurant, Camino, but even more hardcore. I use the word 'hardcore' as Bar Pepito is all about sherry. Sadly, we Brits still tend to view sherry as something to politely sip with older female relatives at Christmas from bottles that have gathered dust since the previous year, not as an invigorating pick-me-up after a hard day at work.

Step into Bar Pepito and this all changes – it's as though you've suddenly been transported to Seville or Granada. With a glass of tangy, salty Fino or Manzanilla (from £3.50 for 100ml) and nibbling some sublime hand-sliced pata negra ham (£15.50) or large juicy 'Gordal' olives (£2.25), sherry suddenly seems quite different. There are 15 sherries available by the glass and a tempting range of stylishly served tapas. There's even a little dish of chocolate coated figs (£4.75) – perfect for treacly Pedro Ximenez (one of the few wines that can truly stand up to chocolate). The sherry and food menus work in nicely complimentary ways, with plenty of suggested partnerships.

A feature of Bar Pepito is that it offers themed flights of three 50ml measures (£7.25–12.50). It also has eight sherries available from an Enomatic dispensing machine, starting at less than £1.00. On a recent visit, these were a little too warm (particularly an issue for the drier styles), but that's a minor criticism of such a fun, unique and quality-driven place (although another criticism is the limited opening hours). Bar Pepito is a tiny gem of a place, thankfully with a large outdoor courtyard and you will almost certainly have to stand.

Open: Wednesday to Saturday 5pm until midnight.
Varnishers Yard, The Regent Quarter, King's Cross, London N1 9NL

Monday, 5 April 2010

Vino-Lok: an unexpected thrill for a wine nerd

This is where I have to declare myself as quite a serious wine nerd. I have been working in the wine business for nearly two decades, but my fascination with the subject predates that considerably.

Early on something in me clicked regarding wine. By the time I was 12 I was collecting wine corks and I remember clearly how this started. My family had been having lunch with some close friends and I noticed how the wine cork had a picture of the château on it, as well as the name of the producer and the date. It was also long and rather handsome looking. It turned out that our friends had had a case of the wine and still had most of the corks. As I was interested, they gave them all to me. As a set, they looked really impressive – and these were just closures for wine, let alone the bottle or label. Pretty smart, I thought. I now have hundreds of corks and, as the years go on, I've become increasingly discriminating. Corks I keep now tend to be cherished souvenirs of spectacular bottles (although others still slip through the net for sentimental reasons).

Consequently, I've also taken an interest in developments in wine closures and the rise in popularity of alternatives to cork due to the prevalence of TCA (corked wines). Screwcaps fall way behind corks on the romance stakes, but are well suited to a large proportion of wine and generally work reliably (unlike cork). I can understand, though, that if you are producer of top-end wines and are looking for something with more of a sense of occasion, you might consider other options.

Recently we had some friends round for dinner and, while I was opening one of the wines, I had a thrilling experience (for a wine nerd). An interesting bottle I'd bought in Vienna a couple of years ago turned out to be sealed with a Vino-Lok. I had never come across one before and was I excited! We were with non-winey friends, and they just had to bear with me. I can't yet bring myself to dispose of the bottle and I certainly won't be getting rid of the gorgeous glass stopper. It is a thing of such elegance and beauty (please excuse all the pictures). It's easy to handle and feels luxuriously heavy. A number of notable producers are using them (I've seen references online to Domaine Weinbach and Calera), as well as Schloss Vollrads who has been leading this vanguard for a while. They are easier to come across in Germany and Austria. Mine came from Umathum in Burgenland, bought from one of the wonderful Wein & Co wine shops/bars in Vienna.

The Vino-Lok (or Vino-Seal) is manufactured by Alcoa Deutschland and is used with the Dupont Elvax sealing ring. Apparently the cost is about the same as that for a high quality cork.