About Tom Lewis

Tom Lewis is a wine writer and educator from Cambridge with a particular interest in Austria and France. His comments have been published on JancisRobinson.com, Local Wine Events, as well as in the local press in his hometown of Cambridge, UK. When it comes to buying wine, Tom’s philosophy is to buy as close as possible to where it comes from. He writes a regular blog, the Cambridge Wine Blogger which launched in 2009 and is a presenter for the Cambridge Food and Wine Society. To read more of Tom’s work, please check out cambridgewineblogger.blogspot.com

Fitzbillies, Punting and a Perfect Day Out In Cambridge

Cambridge is not a big city – in fact it’s more of a market town with a big university. 

Actually, it’s probably more correct to say that it’s a market town attached to a university, since the “gowns” own most of the “town” and have much of the best of the city as their college grounds either side of the Cam. This central section of river with college courtyards, dons’ gardens, open spaces and grazing cattle is collectively known as the backs and is perhaps the best part of a city that you can easily walk round in under a day.

In volume terms, there are not all that many sights in Cambridge and not a huge variety – it’s just that those we do have are absolutely world class.

It’s easy to get complacent about living in Cambridge and treat the various colleges (31 if you’re counting) as just so many museum pieces along with the odd church, chapel and a castle that is little more than a mound of earth but gives spectacular views over the city skyline.

So occasionally, when the sun shines, as it has finally done recently, it’s nice to remind oneself that we are living in a unique and very beautiful place. 

And so it was that at the weekend we packed a picnic and took the short walk into town to Scudamore’s to take a punt up and down the river along the backs – which is pretty much the only way to see them properly as all the colleges criss-cross the river and it is impossible actually to walk along this stretch of the river. 

I was first taken punting over two decades ago when visiting a friend studying for a Masters here – I had a go and made a complete hash of it and it was only years later that I learnt the golden rule of punting – use the pole to steer the boat. 

The second thing to know is that the front of the punt turns in the opposite direction to the pole and once you know this, it is a relatively easy and relaxing way to get about – albeit not a quick one as speeds of around 1 mile per hour are pretty normal, if not quite good.

It’s certainly a lot more idyllic than the challenge of racing yachts which I did for the first time recently.

Our trip up and down the backs done in just under an hour, we found a spot by the river to watch other people exerting themselves on the longer run to Grantchester and had a picnic lunch. At this point, I wish I could drop in a review of a perfect picnic wine, but the reality is that with two small children to entertain, there was no scope for a bottle of something pink and fizzy followed by a snooze. However, anyone looking for a picnic wine review can find a couple, here and here.

Instead, we took the couple of minutes’ walk to the city’s largest play park at Lammas Land where swings were pushed, roundabouts whirled and general encouragement given.

Instead of the usual ice-creams afterwards, we decided to head to the newly re-opened Fitzbillies to check it out.

I first became aware of Fitzbillies and their famous Chelsea buns many years ago when travelling on business to eastern Europe and I mentioned my home town to an expat there.

“Cambridge,” she said. “Have you tried Fitzbillies’ Chelsea buns ?”. At this point I confessed that although I knew of the shop, I had not tried their buns and vowed to go there as soon as I got back to the UK. 

Heavy, sticky and syrupy, Fitzbillies’ Chelsea buns were legendary and rather delicious in a very rich and satisfying sort of way.

Sadly, somehow or other, the company went out of business a year or so ago, but was bought and recently re-opened by Old Persean Alison Wright.

I know some of this because my daughter is in the same class at school as Alison’s and when we walked in, she said “Look Daddy, there’s her Mum”.

We made our introductions and I explained about my blog and the various other local publications I write for and suggested that perhaps we might do a story on the renaissance of a legend.

Alison agreed and explained that the focus now is much more on the lunchtime food with the cake shop as an add-odd rather than it being primarily a cake shop.

And as our daughters were in the same classes, she very kindly suggested that the children should take a cake each of their own choosing with something for at adults as well.

Number one child picked a cupcake with pink icing and an iced flower on top whilst number two child decided he would like a cream meringue and I selected some mini Florentines.

At home, we sat out in the back garden with coffees and juices and divided up the cakes between ourselves.

All proved to be wonderful – fresh and beautifully cooked from good-quality ingredients.

The cup cake was light and delicious, with the icing not too sweet, the meringue was crisp with rich, thick whipped cream whilst the Florentines were an indulgently chewy, sticky and chocolatey.

One of the things I like about central Cambridge, other than the wonderful architecture, is that we do not have rows and rows of soulless high-street chain shops.

Yes, all the usual suspects are here but the city has preserved its mediaeval street layout and small buildings so that shop sizes are generally small with a decreasing but still large number of independents.

So it is good to have Fitzbillies back as a Cambridge institution – and it’s good to be able to report that the cakes are at least as good as they ever were.

I’d also like to think that it says something about the quality of the schools in the area that it was an Old Persean who not only saw the opportunity and had the vision and tenacity to resurrect, Phoenix-like, a local independent, but also made sure that it was done properly with high standards.

I have previously noted that we are very lucky in Cambridge to have three excellent independent wine merchants. 

The same is true of Fitzbillies and the city would have been all the poorer without it, had it not been brought back to life.

Links

Fitzbillies – no new website yet.
52 Trumpington Street, Cambridge, CB2 1RG, UK
Telephone: +44 (0)1223 352500
Opening Days: Mon – Sat (12:00 – 14:30 18:00 – 21:30), Sun (12:00 – 15:00 18:00 – 21:30)

 Scudamore’s Punts – http://www.scudamores.com/

 Main image credit – http://www.varsity.co.uk/news/3698
Chelsea Bun image – http://magpiefiles.blogspot.com/2008/02/fitzbillies-chelsea-buns.html

 Copyright Tom Lewis 2011

Wines That Improve With Some Air

I have written a couple of times already about the effect of air on wine (here and here).

In the simplest terms, a wine will generally open up and improve with a bit of air, but too much exposure to air will eventually spoil it.

Getting the right amount of exposure of the wine to air is more a case of trial and error than of there being any hard and fast rules.

I often take a couple of days to finish a bottle of wine – if we don’t finish it all off one evening or if it’s something I’m reviewing and I want to see how it develops.

From my unscientific observations, it seems that full-bodied wines with lower alcohol contents, and for reds plenty of tannins, seem to be able to take more air than riper, more fruit-driven wines with an extra few degrees of alcohol.

This is about as much guidance as I can give on the subject and I should also add I’ve found plenty of exceptions to this rule-of-thumb, too – such as 14% wines from the Rhone or the Wachau which don’t reach a peak until they’ve had a couple of days’ airing in an opened and resealed bottle.

However, a friend emailed me the other day with a related question; he explained that he and his wife were until recently in the habit of sharing a mid-week bottle of wine, but as she is now pregnant, he finds a full bottle a bit too much if he has work the next day.

However, saving it until the following evening doesn’t seem to work either as by then the wine has faded.

Did I have any suggestions ?

Options I considered and rejected were:

– only buy half bottles (too limiting)
– change to beer (just not a long-term option)
– cocktails (ditto, and too fiddly anyway)

Instead, I suggested he buy wines that will improve with a bit of air and then they will actually be better on the second day.

It turns out that he buys a lot of his wines from the Sunday Times Wine Club (supplied by Laithwaites) and Naked Wines.

Of the two, I am more impressed by Naked (read what I think of Laithwaites here), but in both cases the wines generally tend to impress straight out of the bottle rather than improving significantly with extended airing.

However, I thought back to the wines that I have found most improved with a decent amount of air and that are priced at a similar level to Naked and Laithwaites and came up with a list of four priced around £8-£10 from Cambridge Wine Merchants, as their wines often seem to improve significantly with some air.

I then emailed Hal Wilson at CWM to ask if he could recommend two more wines to make up a half case and the result is my suggested mixed half-case of wines that you do not need to drink all in one go as they will actually improve with some air and be better on the second day.

To get the most out of them on the first day, I suggest using a decanter and plenty of vigorous swirling in a large glass.

Reds
Collines De Laure – an autumnal, inky, northern Rhone Syrah (reviewed here)
Rousseau de Sipian – a wonderfully textured Bordeaux (reviewed here)
Dom Sarabande 2009 Faugeres

Whites
Domanie de la Rablais – a classic minerally Loire (reviewed here)
Alpha Zeta Garganega – a mouthfilling and crisp Italian (reviewed here)
Chablis 2009 Jean Marc Brocard

Cambridge Wine Merchants are based not just in Cambridge, but also Royston, Amphill and Edinburgh; they also deliver nationally.

Links
Cambridge Wine Merchants – http://www.cambridgewine.com/

Image credit: http://sedimentality.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/02/Decanter.gif

Copyright Tom Lewis 2011

d’Arry’s Cookhouse and Wine Shop

I have written previously about the gentrification of the Cambridge dining scene that took place during the mid-noughties.

 

Looking back, the one that started it all was perhaps the transformation of the rather scruffy King St Run town pub into the smart, sophisticated and quirky yet unpretentious urban gastropub d’Arry’s, serving the kind of simple but well-made pub foods that match well with the riper and more fruit-driven flavours of New World wines such as Australia’s d’Arenberg which provides not only most of the wine list but also the name itself.

 

We first visited d’Arry’s within a few weeks of it opening and soon became regulars, enjoying the relaxed sophistication of its funky interior, friendly service and well-made but unpretentious food.

 

The prices were also very reasonable and it was the kind of place where one could take young children during the day and not feel out of place.

 

However, over time, d’Arry’s dropped off our radars as other, newer, smarter places opened and we just never quite felt the need to go back to that quiet, somewhat backyard-ish corner of central Cambridge where it is located.

 

Moreover, d’Arry’s has also had something of a run of bad luck with not one but two kitchen fires to cope with and it’s fair to say it has lost something of its original buzz.

 

A few weeks ago, new manager James Storey invited me to meet him for a cup of coffee to chat about ideas for recreating some of the buzz about the place. We kicked around a few ideas to be explored later, but as a first step, he suggested that I come in for a meal as his guest and also meet new Head Chef, Patrick.

 

If you have ever heard a piece of music that you once knew well but haven’t listened to for years and found that with the passage of time it seems to sound somehow different despite its familiarity, you will understand how I felt returning to d’Arry’s after an absence of several years.

 

Yes the edgy, funky decor was still all there – the bare-brick walls, up-turned, cut-off wine bottles for candle holders, the rustic logs and ornate picture frames – but it somehow seemed different.

 

Of course, it’s not d’Arry’s that has changed but Cambridge with several new openings that also do this modern, juxtaposed, mixed-up style of interior design and what was once edgy now feels as though it’s starting to become part of the mainstream.

 

Arriving for a Sunday lunch, we were welcomed by James and opted to sit indoors by the window overlooking the street – the layout of d’Arry’s is somewhat unusual as you enter to see a courtyard straight ahead and either turn left into a private dining area or right into the main restaurant and bar section.

 

Eschewing starters, we went straight into ordering main courses; the children chose fish and chips and a Sunday roast, Mrs CWB opted for a trio of fish and I followed James’ recommendation for duck breast on sweet potatoes with garlic, ginger and a raspberry jus.

 

Wines to match the adults’ meals were brought and whilst the match for the seafood with asparagus was a fairly predictable “Broken Fishplate” Sauvignon Blanc, I was initially a little surprised at the choice of a Stump Jump Riesling for me.

 

However, it proved to be inspired, as the acidity of the wine cut through the strong garlic and ginger flavours whilst it had enough body to stand up to the meatiness of the duck.

 

I have historically been rather unimpressed with Australian Riesling, finding it generally too lean and limey for my taste but this one was a great food-friendly easy-drinker with a soft fullness, good zesty, citrussy acidity, a touch of sweetness and a balanced minerally finish.

 

On the palate it felt weighty and fleshy and had the toasty aroma of fully ripe, thick-skinned grapes. The Sauvignon had a similarly rounded and easy-drinking yet sensible feel with lots of varietal herbaceous aromatics on the nose, crisp mouthfilling acidity on the palate and a minerally finish.

 

Criticisms, if there can be any, are that the wines were served perhaps just a degree or so too warm and that the glasses were a little chunky and undersized for proper appreciation.

 

Part-way through our meal new Head Chef Patrick popped out for a chat and explained that he had previously run a multi-awarded hotel kitchen in Great Yarmouth on the North Sea coast, catering mainly for high-flying oil, gas and renewable energy people transiting through.

 

Arriving at d’Arry’s to find there had been no head chef for several months, Patrick spent the first part of his time just rebuilding the basics but is now looking to put his own stamp on the menu which has some central themes and standards (d’Arry’s is part of a small independent chain which gives a certain degree of buying power for raw ingredients), but does allow for personalisation as well.

 

Originally from South Africa, his influences are Pacific Rim fusion, as evidenced in my duck with garlic and ginger, plus use of fruit from his homeland.

 

I don’t know too much about South African food, but I can’t help feeling that Asian fusion has become a little passé and the buzz these days is more around either rustic Italian or sherry bar tapas.

 

I also think they may be missing a trick of the zeitgeist in not offering a local and / or seasonal menu – not least because Cambridge is in the middle of farming country with several good farm shops within easy reach.

 

That said, the menu does feature more classic dishes such as scallops, smoked salmon and devilled kidneys and in any case our food lived up to my expectations of what d’Arry’s should be – well-made food from good quality ingredients, unfussily prepared and served with just the right amount of panache.

 

However, puddings were the real highpoint of the meal and we opted for a mango and ginger cheesecake whilst the kids chose vanilla ice cream and chocolate fondant.

 

These were some of the best puddings I’ve had in Cambridge – the cheesecake was light yet rich and perfectly balanced, whilst the accompanying dessert wine, The Noble Prankster, was deliciously syrupy with marmalade, peach, apricot, a touch of botrytis and some hints of Christmas spice and mixed peel with a balanced sweet-sour finish.

 

Purely in the interests of research, I also sampled the kids’ puddings and they were extremely good, too – the ice-cream was rich, creamy and flecked with vanilla, whilst the chocolate fondant was perfectly cooked on the outside and deliciously, stickily gooey on the inside.

 

Over coffees, I talked to James more about the pub and its clientele; he explained that it has a strong core of very loyal regular customers who appreciate the value that it offers.

 

This strikes me as a good base to build from if the place can introduce some new and interesting changes at a rate that doesn’t alienate existing customers, but a path that could lead to a downward spiral of increasing focus on value and downward margins if unchecked.

 

Current offers from d’Arry’s include a Friends of d’Arry’s scheme and a Punt & Lunch flyer. These represent good value for the consumer, but to me are merely pricing strategies rather than the kind of exciting, buzzy innovations that will get people talking about d’Arry’s as a must-visit place again.

 

It would be great to see d’Arry’s back on the radar of smart eating places in central Cambridge and, with the possibilities offered by its wine list and private-dining space, I don’t think it will take too much to get there.

 

A two-course a la carte meal with a bottle of wine and coffee at d’Arry’s Cambridge costs around £70 for two people, whilst the Friends of d’Arry’s offers two courses and a glass of wine for £10.

 

Links

 

d’Arry’s Cambridge – http://www.darrys.co.uk/

 

d’Arenberg wines – http://www.darenberg.com.au/

Copyright Tom Lewis 2011

Wine of the Month – September

September is officially the beginning of autumn and whilst an Indian Summer this year is not completely out of the question, the start of the month has been more cold and wet than mists and mellow fruitfulness.

 All three merchants have gone for a similar theme this month, with big, warm-climate reds to remind us that up until a week or so ago, we were perhaps on holiday in much sunnier climes.

 Les Collines De Laure, Syrah, Collines Rhodaniennes, 2009, Jean-Luc Colombo – £9.99 Cambridge Wine Merchants

 

The first wine is something of a benchmark – a Syrah from the northern Rhone.

 Although the northern Rhone is Syrah’s spiritual home, these days you are more likely to encounter it as Shiraz from somewhere in the New World such as Australia, California or even New Zealand.

This Collines de Laure, a de-classified Cornas from the northern Rhone, is the most restrained on the nose of the three here and needs a bit of air to open up.

It is made by the somewhat controversial moderniser, Jean-Luc Columbo who favours modern techniques and less tannic grip than some.

Even after airing, it smells dark, inky and intense with smokey prunes, tobacco and pencil shavings.

On the palate, the texture is soft and smooth, almost slippery, but also dense with dark bramble fruit, dark cherry, blueberry and more pencil shavings.

The finish is a balanced mix of firm, muscular tannic grip and acidity.

At 13%, it feels like a big wine, but in an intense, concentrated way with no blowsiness.

It’s a very classy – and classical – wine, both the most technically adept wine here and still relatively young, and perhaps does not impress quite so much straight out of the bottle, but rather quietly comes into its own after a couple of hours in the decanter.

Macia Balte, Ananda, Mallorca-Binissalem 2010 – £10.50 Noel Young Wines

By contrast, the Macia Batle has a whole lot more going on – as you might expect from something made from five different grape varieties under the Mallorcan sun.

Two of the varieties, Callet and Mantonegro, are native to Mallorca whilst Syrah, Cab and Merlot make up the rest.

The nose is tarry with forest floor, toasty vanilla, peppery spice, a touch of burnt rubber and dark fruit aromas of blackcurrant and black cherries.

 On the palate, there is more dark berry fruit, liquorice, eucalyptus and peppery, clove spice and it feels sweet and seductive with very gentle, rounded tannins and a soft finish.

 It comes from Mallorca’s top D.O., Binissalem, which is both elevated and benefits from some cooling breezes which provide a degree of sophistication and keeps it from being overly baked.

 Alpha Box & Dice, Grenache, 2008 Tarot, McLaren Vale, Special Late Harvest – £10.99 Bacchanalia

 

No such restraining influence applies to the last wine; if the first two were “marry” and “snog” respectively, this one is “Hey baby, take a walk on the wild side”.

Described as “a bit bonkers” by Bacchanalia’s Paul Bowes, it is a single varietal Grenache from Australia’s Langhorn Creek – with a whopping 15% alcohol.

Originally from northern Spain / south-west France, Grenache is a grape that likes the heat, but is mostly blended with other less-than-noble varieties into a blend.

To me, it is a great big, bubbly, blowsy Essex-girl of a grape that wants to show you a good time.

On the nose there are cooked, jammy fruits whilst the palate feels baked with mulberry and lots of ripe fruit sweetness.

And yet it stops just short of being overly jammy – there is also some dark peppery spice and tannic grip on the finish.

Overall, despite all its exuberant excesses, this is a wine in balance – the vineyard is cooled by ocean breezes in the afternoon and the grapes are harvested in the morning when temperatures are cooler.

However my wine of the month is the Macia Batle Ananda for having so much going on plus a deliciously soft, sweetness on the palate.

What’s more, how often do you get to buy a Mallorcan wine ? And if you do only ever buy one, it should be this.

 All three wines benefit from at least a bit of air, whilst the Syrah has significant cellaring potential.

All should match well with dark meat – simple roast beef for the Syrah, and perhaps something more gamey such as boar or venison for the two others (the Grenache, in particular, will stand up to some sort of fruit sauce with the meat, too).

Links

Bacchanalia – http://www.winegod.co.uk/

Cambridge Wine Merchants – http://www.cambridgewine.com/

Noel Young Wines – http://www.nywines.co.uk/

Copyright Tom Lewis, 2011

Food & Wine Matching at The Punter, Cambridge

A while ago, I reviewed Cambridge’s first private member’s club, 12a, for my blog (here).

It turns out that the brother of 12a’s front-of-house manager Mark Pope is a chef at local gastropub The Punter, so when I got an invitation from Ben Pope to a food and wine matching evening, I was keen to pop along.

Formerly The Town and Gown, it was previously a somewhat uninspiring place located on the corner of Cambridge’s inner ring road.

However, re-named and made over, it is now a smart, sophisticated and chi-chi place that five years after opening still looks way ahead of its time with its combination of traditional rough-surface oak beams and bare bricks juxtaposed with Victoriana-feel high-back chairs and ornate picture frames.

Arriving unfashionably on time, I was more or less the first there and got to chatting with the presenter for the evening, Jacko from Jascots Wine Merchants about business models, internet retailing, Laithwaites and a run-in he had with another internet-only retailer and one of their producers.

We started with a Prosecco on arrival which Jacko (in the left-hand picture box above) explained is proving much more popular in these harder economic times than Champagne.

There was the opportunity to add a choice of pureed fruits to make a Bellini with berries and cream hors d’oevres and, at the end of a meal, I would have been tempted to try it out, but as an traditionalist, I stuck with it plain as an aperitif. Elegant, light and fresh, it had a slight aroma of pears and some lifted sweetness on the mid-palate.

To me, any Prosecco is never quite as good as good Champagne, but then I can’t imagine ever considering putting fruit puree into a good Champagne as it would be too much of a waste.

As we sat down to eat, Jacko and Punter-owner and Head Chef Paul explained a bit about the evening which had been organised in aid of the East Anglia’s Children’s Hospices.

The format would be first a collection of picnic foods with suggested matching wines followed by a couple of cooked dishes. Paul had devised the menu as a one-off for the evening and sent it to Jacko for wine matches – this is perhaps the hardest way to match a wine, from a simple written description of a non-standard dish where there are so many variables.

Much easier would be to have several possible alternatives and a batch of the food to taste a range of possible options and decide on the most appropriate match. However, clearly that had not been an option and I was intrigued to see how well the matches, done remotely, would work.

Seating had been partially pre-planned, dinner-party-style, and I found myself on a table with Jacko himself plus the editor of one of our local Cambridge magazines, a high-end contract publisher and a young couple, one of whom was an aspiring writer whilst the other was researching a cure for cancer.

With so many creative types around the table, the conversation was lively and wide-ranging as we discussed the merit of back labels with tasting notes on wines (a good thing, in my opinion), natural cork vs screwcap (no strong opinions other than I like the sense of occasion from popping a cork) and writing on the internet vs novels (pick your themes and keep repeating, the internet requires volume and frequency).

The table was laid out picnic-style with rabbit rillettes, parma ham, rabbit liver pate and some very delicious bread whilst Jacko handed out two very different wines to match; a Lugana Trebbiano from Lake Garda and a Maranges from Domaine Bachey-Legros in Burgundy.

The Trebbiano had a minerally nose with aromas of stone fruit, grapefruit and liminess on the palate with some lifted sweetness, good tropical-fruit acidity and a minerally finish. Very good.

However, the red burgundy was a revelation; with a hedonistically textbook Pinot nose of vanilla, mushroom and decaying forest floor, it had lots of juicy sour-cherry fruit acidity and a beautifully soft texture with a toasty, savoury finish.

It was served slightly chilled, a frequent recommendation for lighter reds but something I have never quite had the confidence to do myself – however, in this case it worked very well. I remarked to Jacko how impressed I was with this wine and he explained that 2009 had been a particularly good vintage for this estate.

Next up came a trio of crisp whites – a Chablis Premier Cru from Romaine Bouchard had a smokey, toasty nose, linear stone fruit acidity on the palate, a rounded mouthfilling structure and a long toasty finish. It matched superbly with a dish of potted crab and pickled samphire.

Next was a rather disappointing Riesling from West Cape Howe in Western Australia which felt very tart. Australia seems to be having a bit of a mid-life crisis at the moment with its whites and reminds me a little of an overweight and out-of-date rock start trying to squeeze into a ridiculously skin-tight outfit for a come-back.

The reason we loved Australian whites in the first place was because of their big, ripe, fruit-driven appeal that had all the up-front appeal of Ziggy Stardust-era David Bowie. But rather like 70s glam rock, more recent Aussie whites have become bloated parodies of this with the result that there is something of a punk backlash going on, with producers opting for a much more stripped-down, raw and bracing cool-climate feel.

Jacko declared himself seriously unimpressed with this wine, even when resampled and hour or so later.

Much, much later in the evening I resampled one last time and it did finally seem to have rounded out and become something much more pleasant and interesting, but by that stage I was perhaps the only person in the room prepared to give it one final chance.

The last of the trio of whites was a much more instantly appealing Sancerre from Domaine Laporte to match with smoked mackerel. Another classic-style wine, it had a good, typically herbaceous and aromatic nose and rounded, linear, mouthfilling acidity with some toasty smokiness and a very dry, mineral finish which needs food to match.

We then moved on to the cooked part of the meal with a joint of muntjac (a local, very small deer species introduced several hundred years ago and now something of a minor pest) with potatoes, runner and broad beans and mint. With its gamey flavours, the deer was a textbook match for the Pinot we had tried earlier in the evening, but perhaps did not need quite so much barbecue seasoning which threatened to overwhelm the subtle flavours of both the meat and the wine.

As the evening wore on, it became more like a lively, and slightly rowdy, dinner party and ever less like a serious wine-tasting. Jacko proved himself to be opinionated, forthright, outspoken and wickedly funny, worth the price of admission alone and leaning over to me at one point to whisper a schoolboy comment completely unrepeatable yet utterly hilarious.

He also grabbed my tasting notes and took exception to some of my drafted comments as I had written “sour” to refer to the lovely, food-friendly sour-cherry acidity on the red Burgundy which he intepreted literally and took as a criticism.

The final dish was a chorizo and lamb kebab which was matched with a Cal Pla Crianza from Celler Joan Sangentis. The wine itself was full of ripe up-front bramble fruit, vanilla and toasty finish was declared a favourite by many around the table. After the classy and sophisticated Old World style wines from earlier in the evening, I found it rather up-front and primary, but it was a superb match for the lamb which, for some reason, always matches well with this style of Big Red, brambly, fruit-driven wine.

As desserts had already been served at the start of the meal, there was nothing left to do but remember not to scratch my nose or make any other gestures conceivably resembling a bid during the charity auction, enjoy the banter and chat and quietly re-sample the wines to make final notes.

I also popped into the kitchen to say my hellos and thank yous to chef Ben Pope, though I suspect he remembers more of the conversation than I do.

And finally, after chatting with owner Paul about the evening and his plans to hold the event every quarter with a seasonal theme, it really was time to admit defeat and head home.

There were a few leftovers and I took a quarter bottle of the most impressive wine, the red Burgundy, with me, but by the following day, the truffley, mushroomy nose had faded even if the lovely acidity, texture and long toasty finish were still showing well.

Recommended wine

All the wines here were good – even the Australian Riesling with enough air, eventually.

However, to find a good Pinot Noir around £15 is no mean feat – to find a delicious and classy one from Burgundy is quite something, so my recommended wine is the Maranges Vieilles Vignes Pinot Noir 2009, Domaine Bachey-Legros, £16.35 from Jascots

 

Links

The Punter – http://www.thepuntercambridge.com/

Jascots – http://www.jascots.co.uk/

 

Copyright Tom Lewis 2011

Ask Tom – wine styles

Dear Tom,

What do people mean when they refer to the New World and the Old World in wine ? Are these the main styles now ? I thought it was Bordeaux or Burgundy ?

There are almost as many styles are there are wines, but some broad-brush categorisations are possible.

The Old World is cool-to-moderate-climate Europe and styles here are traditionally more restrained and food-friendly.

There is traditionally more emphasis on the texture and structure of the wines, than on ripe, up-front fruit flavours here.

By contrast, the New World (everywhere apart from Europe) is warm-climate and styles there tend to be more fruit driven, resulting in crowd-pleasing quaffers with lots of ripe fruit aromas and higher alcohol levels.

Of course, there are cool-climate regions of Chile, New Zealand and even Australian which produce steely whites or concentrated reds, just as baking inland Spain, Southern Italy and the south of France can produce fruity quaffers.

So these days, New World vs Old World is more a stylistic term about the fruit and alcohol levels of a wine, than a reference to its place of origin

When considering the place of origin of a wine, we need to think about terroir – that untranslatable French word which refers to the unique combination of spoil, sun, aspect and climate conditions which result in specific qualities in the resulting wine.

For example, clay soils in Bordeaux do not drain so freely as gravel thereby retaining moisture and suiting earlier ripening grape varieties such as Merlot.

In Austria, the eastern end of the Wachau valley enjoys warm southerly breezes whilst the western end is cooled by northerly winds resulting in a cooler climate and steelier white wines there.

Chile, Argentina, Greece and Styria all have high-altitude vineyard areas leading to extended growing seasons with lighter, paler, but more intensely flavoured and crisp whites, whilst reds from altitude will feel more restrained and concentrated.

Copyright Tom Lewis 2011

Ask Tom – fruit-driven wines and other considerations

Dear Tom

What are fruit-driven wines – is it a good thing ? What else should I look for in a wine ?

Many, perhaps most, wines these days are fruit driven – that is to say, they have lots of fruit aromas on the nose and palate.

However, there is more to life than mere primary fruit aromas.

With time and exposure to air, the overt primary fruit fades revealing (in a good wine) more interesting and complex, but less immediately-obvious, secondary aromas.

Some wines, of course, are not made to be aged and have only up-front fruit to show.

Then, there re are wines that are not at all fruit driven; the most notable of these is sherry which has neither primary nor secondary aromas and merely tertiary or evolved aromas from fermentation and aging. As a result, sherry will seem quite “neutral”, but have a bracing tang and crisp acidity.

As well as fruit flavours, a well-made wine will have good acidity (fresh and juicy, linear or complex rounded and mouthfilling but not harsh) and texture (good, smooth tannins in red wines, they can either be soft or prominent).

A well-made wine will also have a good finish and length (how long the aromas last after swallowing).

Some wines will be aged in oak which can act as the “seasoning”; Chardonnay is the top white wine for oak aging and new oak will give toasty, buttery, nutty, oatmealy aromas.

Aging a red wine in new oak will give more vanilla aromas and more mouth-drying tannins.

Oak barrels are also re-used for several years and aging in old oak will not give any additional flavours but will result in a more-rounded feeling wine.

White wines can take flavours from other areas including the soil and the skins; more minerally soils (such as granite) can result in a more minerally flavour on the palate and, especially, finish for certain grape varieties. Austrian Grüner Veltliner is particularly responsive to soil type.

In addition, botrytis, a grape-skin fungus which helps produces the world’s greatest dessert wines, has its own pungent aromas and even if botrytis does not develop, long slow ripening results in thicker skins which can noticeable as a phenolic ripeness in the finished wine.

With so much going on – fruit, oak, acidity, tannins, some sweetness – a good wine will need to show a balance between all these elements – very sweet wines, for example, also need high levels of acidity to keep them fresh and not cloying whilst very tannic wines will be overly coarse and chewy if they do not have the rounded acidity and fruit to match.

In our celebrity-driven culture, elegance is not much in fashion these days; however, once a wine has achieved balance, the next step is finesse, elegance, subtlety and restraint – think of a graceful Fred Astaire rather than an in-yer-face Lady Gaga.

A wine that impresses straight out of the bottle may lose its appeal after a few glasses. By contrast, some wines reveal their charms more slowly and seduce us over time in the same way that we still listen to the symphonies of Mozart but not the ubiquitous catchy pop-hit of last summer.

Cigar Dinner‏ at Cambridge’s Hotel du Vin

When I first moved to Cambridge over a decade ago, it felt very much like a city outside the influence of London – located (as it was then) over an hour’s train ride away.

 As a tourist hub, we would – and still do – get large numbers of visitors to the city but, with few really good restaurants or hotels of character, the centre did not really cater for locals and one tended to head outside the city to one of the villages for a decent meal.

 Frankly, the local hotels and restaurants just didn’t have to try all that hard – what with a constant, steady stream of one-off visitors from far-off places.

 However, in the mid-noughties, Cambridge experienced a flutter of new, up-market openings which brought a hitherto unseen level of sophistication to my home town.

One of these was the conversion of a row of four city-centre townhouses opposite the Fitzwilliam Museum into an Hotel du Vin, a branch of the upmarket restaurant, bar and hotel that is owned by Malmaison.

I was recently invited by the hotel’s General Manager Jacqui Griffiths to attend a cigar dinner that she was hosting. Although I am a non-smoker, cigars to me have a certain Romance to them – rather like wine – whilst the smell brings back childhood memories. Besides, the last time I went to the Hotel du Vin (see here) I was sufficiently impressed to make sure of not passing up an opportunity to go back.

Over a fresh and moreish whisky sour with canapes, Jacqui explained that the chain is primarily focused on being a restaurant and bar with rooms (albeit somewhat luxurious), rather than an hotel that does food and drink.

All hotel branches are housed in buildings that have been formerly used for something else, as it gives them a sense of character and history, and all have a humidor and a cigar shack – the latter being a sheltered space outside which conforms to anti-smoking legislation but allows somewhere civilised for cigar smokers to congregate.

The first cigar of the evening was a Hoyo De Monterrey, matched with a single malt whiskey from Ledaig on Islay. The whisky was light but peaty with a touch of sweetness and a long, balanced finish. The cigar was, apparently, one of the mildest Cubans with a creamy sweetness and deemed a good match by those partaking.

Moving inside for a starter, introductions were made and I learnt I was something of an interloper in a group of transplant surgeons from Addenbrooke’s hospital up the road, plus an RAF pilot friend, who had all decided to get together for a private party.

As Jacqui later explained to me, the hotel is increasingly providing bespoke private parties of this type and it does seem a very civilised way to get together with a group of like-minded friends.

Introducing myself in my capacity as a wine-writer (rather than my day-job as a number-crunching company director), I was firstly made very welcome but also pleasantly surprised to be told that I had the coolest job in the room – it’s not often a fighter pilot tells you that.

The second surprise was one of the surgeons, puffing expansively on his cigar, announcing he was doing a liver transplant the following morning; I suggested that presumably it would be as routine as changing the spark plugs on a car – open it up, swap the relevant bits over and close back down – to which he replied a liver transplant is far easier than changing the spark plugs on a modern car.

We were also joined by an expert tobacconist who had come along to tell us about the cigars, but not before we had all – somewhat bizarrely but required for legal reasons – signed a disclaimer to say that we acknowledged that his talk in no way constituted encouragement to smoke.

Perhaps not surprisingly, there was a somewhat smokey theme to the food and our starter was smoked eel, truffle potato salad and quail’s egg.

Just north of Cambridge, the cathedral city of Ely was once known as the Isle of Eels (hence its present name) as it was surrounded by marshes full of eels. However, the marshes were increasingly drained in centuries gone by and our eel proved not to have come from the area there, but was still local and from somewhere less than an hour’s drive away.

In any case, it was delicious and matched perfectly with the dry Tokaji from Chateau Dereszla served with it; Hungarian Bar Manager Stefan explained that he had specifically chosen a crisp wine to freshen up our palates.

Tokaji is perhaps more normally associated with sweet wines, but this blend of Furmint and Hárslevelű grapes was beautifully crisp and aromatic with a lovely acidic structure.

Pale in the glass, it was rounded and mouthfilling with tropical citrus and thick-skinned, phenolic ripeness and not only matched with the starter but also cut beautifully through the spicy and intense olive oil served with bread.

It reminded me somewhat of the Austrian style of ripe-yet-dry whites but when I asked Stefan about this, he very politely and gently indicated that his personal preference was for “fruitier, warmer-climate” Hungarian wines.

I guess some old habits and rivalries die hard, however much of polite veneer you put on it, and I couldn’t help noticing Stefan’s pointed reference to Hungary’s greater number of wine-producing regions and wider variety of styles than Austria’s.

At this point, one of the surgeons, with a noticeably Teutonic accent, announced he was actually from Frankfurt in Germany and there was no need to spare his feelings as he felt the same way about Austria, too – more age-old rivalries again. 

The next cigar course was a Vegas Robina Unicos with an aged Jamaican Plantation rum from 2000; dark gold in the glass, the rum had a rich, strong nose with more than a touch of nail polish. However, this was less pronounced on the palate which showed prunes, cinnamon and spice and felt smooth and well-integrated.

Our main course of hot smoked duck breast was accompanied by caramelised mango and a spicy jerk jus matched with a Chilean Pinot Noir from Apaltagua in Curico Valley.

The wine was introduced by the hotel’s new sommelier who explained he is given a very free hand in selecting the wines and spirits and will be putting together a new list over the coming months; enquiring about altitude, I was told the grapes are grown at “800 – 1,200” – “feet ?” I asked; “No, metres” came the reply.

This seemed implausibly high to me at the time, but a bit of quick research on Twitter subsequently suggested this may be entirely possible.

In any case, the wine was very pale and light with an intensely fruity and complex nose of vanilla, spice, mushroom and forest floor. On the palate it showed red berry fruit, gentle acidity and a lovely smooth finish; it was indeed a lovely wine but perhaps a just a little too light for the food and served just a degree or so too warm.

At this point, the next cigar was due and we popped outside for a Bolivar, Coronas Extra and a 20-year-old Baron de Sigognac from Bas Armagnac; Jacqui enquired if I wasn’t tempted to try one of the cigars and in truth I was, but this being a school night, I felt it perhaps was not the best time to try for the first time something whose after-effects I could only guess at.

So I limited myself to sniffing the box of raw cigars and enjoying the Armagnac with its cooked-fruit and coffee nose and the mellowness of 20 years’ aging.

Our final course, a “Burnt Forest” gateau of rich chocolate and sponge, was again delicious and all that remained was to chew the fat with my dinner companions over topics as varied as social media for medical professionals, organ donation rates and vintage sports cars, before heading home.

 A hosted cigar evening at Cambridge Hotel du Vin costs £75 per person for four cigars, drinks and a three-course meal with canapes.

 

Links

Hotel du Vin Cambridge – http://www.hotelduvin.com/hotels/cambridge/cambridge.aspx

Malmaison – http://www.malmaison.com/

With thanks to @vinoremus (http://www.vinoremus.blogspot.com/) and @MickeyCbg (http://blog.michaelgray.org.uk/) for the information about the altitude of Chilean vineyards.

Copyright Tom Lewis 2011

Ask Tom – Serving Wine

Dear Tom

Can you give me tips on how to serve wine properly ?

There are a few of things you need think about when serving wine to get the most out of it:

Temperature

Put simply, white wines should generally be chilled and red wines should be at room temperature.

Too cold and a wine, be it red or white, will lose perfume, fruitiness and acidity. Too warm and it will seem flabby.

To get wines to the right temperature for serving at home, I suggest keeping a clutch of reds in the kitchen for immediate drinking whilst whites can be put in the fridge or slipped inside a “wine-sleeve” depending on how much time you have.

Glasses

Wine is smelt much more than it is tasted, so the right type glasses can significantly enhance the experience.

They key is to get some bulbous, tulip-shaped glasses and fill them to around 1/3rd full.

Small ISO glasses work well for tasting small samples, but I like to use larger ones for drinking.

Getting the fill-level is actually really important because you can’t smell a wine properly when the glass is full to the brim – this is a real schoolboy error yet a frequent sight in pubs, bars and restaurants.

And Paris goblets are just downright wrong.

Air and Aeration

I frequently find that wines can improve over the course of 24, 48 or even more hours.

This particularly applies to young wines that are meant to be aged for a few years or more.

Wine’s relationship with air is a complex one and there seems to be little research and no consensus on how much air is right, but of all the factors here, air is the only one that is irreversible.

You can change glasses, warm up and cool down a wine, but you can never reverse the effects of air.

To expose a wine to more air immediately after opening, your options are either to put it in a broad bottomed decanter and swirl around or pour it into a bulbous glass and swirl around – or both.

There are no hard and fast rules to any of these areas, but getting some decent tasting glasses, filling them only 1/3rd full, aerating the wine and having it at roughly the right tempertaure should all enhance your drinking experience.

Copyright Tom Lewis 2011

Ask Tom – Wine 101

I often hear from people who are interested in wine, but find some of the terminology confusing and the sheer number of different grape varieties, regions and styles bewildering.

In the coming weeks, I will be exploring some of these areas in more depth and answering questions, but for now, here is a very quick – and none-too-serious – run through some of the basics:

Wine Styles

Red wine – dark in colour, made from crushing whole bunches of grapes – skin, pips and stalks included. Doesn’t match well with salty foods.

White wine - pale in colour, made from the juice of pressed grapes, greater variety of styles than red wine.

Dessert wine – wine with deliciously high levels of natural sugar

Fortified wine – wine with added spirit, a higher alcohol content and sometimes (but not always) sweetness, such as sherry, port or Madeira

Sparkling wine – wine with bubbles in, can be achieved by various methods

Ros̩Рa pink wine that swings in and out of fashion as wildly as flared-trousers and Latino music

New World – 1) anywhere that is not in Europe 2) ripe, fruity, easy-drinking style of wine

Old World – opposite of new world

Grape Varieties

Cabernet Sauvignon – tough and tannic, like stewed tea, in its youth, it usually needs food, especially roast red meat. Oh and it’s possibly the greatest red wine grape in the world. Don’t try calling it “Cab” unless you are a professional wine writer or a sommelier.

Chardonnay 1) character in TV series “Footballer’s Wives” 2) neutral grape variety with an affinity to oak aging, but can also be produced unoaked

Gewürztraminer – if you like the flavour of lychees and rose petals, its spiritual home is northern Italy

Pinot Gris / Grigio – actually, the same grape; Pinot Gris is rich, aromatic and fat when produced in Alsace; Pinot Grigio is crisp and minerally when from Italy

Pinot Noir – thin-skinned, hedonistic, elusive people tend to like this grape variety; was the star of 2004 film, Sideways

Riesling – ancient and vastly-underrated late-ripening Germanic grape that makes crisp, aromatic, complex wines – Austrian versions in particular are full-bodied, food-friendly and completely dry. Can be petrolly, but not in the way that cheap lager tastes like aviation fuel.

Sauvignon Blanc – bit of a one-trick pony, this was the first really popular grape in the backlash against oaky Chardonnay, rapidly followed by Pinot Grigio; comes in ripe, tropical versions (new world, think Marlborough) or lean and steely (e.g. Loire) – in either case, it should taste of freshly cut grass, gooseberries, nettles but, if underripe, cat’s pee

Syrah / Shiraz, the same grape – produces a few rarified bottles in the northern Rhone and a lot of less elevated stuff in Australia

Countries

Australia – ripe, fruity bruce juice from down under; often branded, frequently discounted, can be enjoyable but generally about as subtle as Hugo Weaving in a dress; occasionally as serious as Mel Gibson in Hamlet (e.g. Penfold’s Grange, Hunter Valley)

Austria – reinvented itself in the mid-80s following a typically Balkan scandal involving tax and anti-freeze as a producer of top-notch dry whites, superb dessert wines and some decent reds

Italy – produces wine like they drive cars; idiosyncratic and chaotic, but like an Alfa Romeo, capable of greatness

France – frankly, the starting point for learning about wine; you cannot consider yourself in any way a wine enthusiast if you don’t have at least a nodding acquaintance with French wines. France is to wine what the electric guitar is to rock music or the internal combustion engine to motor sport.

Key France Sub-regions:

Alsace – Franco-German region with identity crisis but producing great rich, dry wines. And lots of timbered cottages with neat hanging baskets.

Bordeaux – produces more wine than Australia; most famous for its reds and dessert wines

Burgundy – the spiritual home of Pinot Noir; also produces Chardonnay

Champagne – expensive, over-hyped sparkling wine, but anything else doesn’t quite make the same statement, though, does it ?

Languedoc – the new kid on the French wine block, this southern region makes exciting and often good-value wines

Loire – northerly wine region producing crisp Sauvignon, light Muscadet and the occasional red

Rh̫ne Рsoutherly region divided into Northern Rhone (rarified and expensive Syrah) and Southern Rhone (ripe, fruity stuff)

Germany – hideously unfashionable wine-producing country yet capable of greatness; it’s time to forgive and forget Blue Nun

New Zealand – cooler climate, smaller vineyard sizes and high technical standards mean it’s rarely cheap, but quality can be very good

Portugal – produces port, which everyone has heard of, plus a load of table wines from obscure indigenous grapes

Spain – forget Rioja, inland Spain is the place for good, value wines; also produces the ultra-unfashionable but wonderful fortified wine, sherry, as beloved of your Auntie; comes in a range of styles from bone-dry fino and tangy manzanilla to rich, nutty, raisiny dry oloroso and deliciously sweet stuff

USA – basically, California; wines can be a bit textbook – well-made but without a huge amount of individuality – but that has not stopped them beating the Frenchies in competitions

Food and wine – wine and food

Wine matching – the complex and sophisticated art of having a glass of wine with your food and seeing if both taste better as a result

Food-friendly wine – a wine with the body, tannin and acidity to be enhanced and not overpowered by food

Wine-friendly food – food that tastes better with wine; generally, does not include take-aways, kebabs and pot noodles, but this does rather depend on the wines you drink

Copyright Tom Lewis 2011

Fringe Wines And A Bit Of Geo-Political History‏

I recently got to know through Twitter a US blogger whose site, Fringe Wine, is dedicated to “unusual grape varietals and/or grown in unfamiliar regions all over the world”.

I love this idea and went through my own Fringe Wine phase a while ago in search of something local when my business travels regularly took me to central and Eastern Europe. However, there’s only so many ropey Czech wines you can try before you inevitably ask for a beer instead and move back to the classics.

However, my Romantic streak remains and in the spirit of friendly competition, I thought I would try out a few vaguely Fringe Wines at the London International Wine Fair. Here are my top Fringe Wines – they all brought back a few memories of travel to these countries as well:

Slovenia

First was a Å ipon (“shipon”), the Slovenian name for Hungary’s Furmint from Dveri Pax.

Tiny, rural Slovenia will never be a volume player, but I am increasingly impressed by the wines from this former Yugoslav nation now a member of the EU which look set to become of more than mere niche interest or curiosity value.

Romania

I have to say, I never really liked visiting Romania on business, but I did always enjoy the wines there – well-made and fruit-driven but still balanced and European in style, they seem to have a bright up-front openness which belies the dark, murky, inscrutable superstition that for me characterises Romania.

All the grapes here from Prince Stirbey were pretty obscure with a Negru de Dragasani, Novac and, for me the best, a Fetească neagră.

Hungary

Hungary is hardly a Fringe Wine country these days due not least to the fame of its Tokaji wines; historic Budapest is, for me, the least beautiful of the three great central European capitals (the others being stately Vienna and picture-perfect Prague).

My friend Ryan Opaz, however, disagrees with me and prefers it to Vienna – perhaps as an American, he appreciates more its lively buzz and determination to move forward, compared to Vienna which got there years ago and no longer has anything to prove

The most obscure (in terms of quantity produced) wine here was the Eszencia; made from the free-run juice of botrytised furmint grapes it is produced in tiny quantities.

With around 5 times the residual sugar of even a top-level 5-puttonyos Tokaji, it was extremely syrupy, yet surprisingly fresh.

Ukraine

Historically – and to this day – fought over by competing Empires, but officially independent since 1991, Ukraine is still the “borderland” that its name suggests between its vast overbearing northerly neighbour and the European Union which ends tantalisingly at its various borders with Poland, Slovakia, Hungary and Romania.

Perhaps the most obscure here was a red semi-sweet sparkler, Krimart from Artemovsk winery, which included Saperavi along with Cab and Merlot in the blend; however, for quality, the most enjoyable was their dry white fizz Extra Brut.

Links

Dveri Pax – http://www.dveri-pax.com/

Prince Stirbey – www.stirbey.com

Crown Estates Tokaji – www.tokajwinetrade.com

Artemovsk Winery – www.krimart.com

Recommended reading:-
Borderland: A Journey Through The History of Ukraine by Anna Reid (Paperback – 6 Mar 2003)
Balkan Ghosts by R. Kaplan (Paperback – Mar 1994)

Image reproduced from longgame.org/2009/11/geopolitics-and-realpolitik-a-layman%E2%80%99s-view/

Steve’s Grenache – and The Grape Escape‏

Many men of a certain age approaching their mid-life crisis often start thinking of ridiculously powerful sports cars and pretty young girls.

But for Steve Hovington – briefly a synth pop star in the 80s with B-Movie and now manager of the Cherry Hinton Road branch of Cambridge Wine Merchants – things were a little different.

Instead of a trip to a Porsche dealership, he went to the south of France to the Languedoc and arranged to have use of four rows of vines for a season from Chateau Viranel and to make one single barrel of his own wine, with the assistance of the estate’s winemaker Nicolas Bergasse.

The overall plan was to sell the wine at a later date after writing a book about the experience, but it turned out that it took rather longer to write the book than to make the wine and so now Steve is only just releasing his 2007 “Steve’s Grenache” to co-incide with the launch of his book, The Grape Escape.

I stopped by the launch party last week to catch up with Steve, meet Nicolas and try a couple of the wines.

First I tried Nicolas’ Chateau Viranel Viognier – with lots of varietal peach and apricot on the nose and palate and good rounded acidity it was very well made and enjoyable. It has the fruit and instant appeal of a warm-climate wine, but is also sensible and food-friendly enough to maintain interest beyond first impressions.

Nicolas explained to me that his family has been involved in farming in this part of the world for over 500 years and that they started making wine more as something to have with family meals rather than as a purely commercial venture.

I rather suspect that it was this “art for art’s sake” approach that appealed to the creative musician in Steve, but in any case he made several trips over to the vineyard during his year’s tenure to prune and tend the vines himself, arrange picking and work on the blend with Nicolas.

And so we moved onto “Steve’s Grenache”, a blend of local Syrah, Grenache and Mouvedre varieties.

With lots of ripe plummy fruit, good balanced acidity, a soft texture and long finish, it is a very impressive wine – especially for a first attempt.

Like the Viognier, it has plenty of warm up-front appeal, but is also restrained, sensible and noticeably “European” in style.

The one barrel Steve has made equates to around 300 bottles, so supplies of the wine are fairly limited. It is available either from Cambridge Wine Merchants on Cherry Hinton Road or via the B-Movie website, in both cases for £12.

Steve’s book, The Grape Escape, is available from Heffers in Cambridge, the B-Movie website and on amazon.

Links

Cambridge Wine Merchants – http://www.cambridgewine.com/

Steve Hovington on Facebook – http://www.facebook.com/steve.hovington1

Chateau Viranel – http://www.chateau-viranel.com/

B-Movie (official site) – www.bmovie.co.uk

The Grape Escape on amazon – http://www.amazon.co.uk/Grape-Escape-Steve-Hovington/dp/1848765975

Copyright Tom Lewis 2011

A Prosecco for the Garden

I used about half of this bottle from Cambridge Wine Merchants for a recipe that I was test-driving a few weekends ago for MasterChef finalist Alex Rushmer who, amongst other things, is about to open a new restaurant somewhere in Cambridge – recently revealed as The Hole in The Wall in Little Wilbraham.

It seemed a shame to waste the rest, and as the weather was so good that day, we sat in the garden and finished it off.

On pouring, it froths and foams enthusiastically; the nose is spritzy, lightly fruity with Conference pears and a slight seaside tang.

The palate shows more pear fruit, ripe, rounded acidity and some complex, citrus sweetness; the finish is dry, balanced and lingering.

Overall, it is refreshing, elegant and balanced; it does not gain particularly in complexity with air – rather, it remains straightforward and up-front, and impresses by being well-made and more-ish rather than through, say, the diverse flavours and aromas one finds in a good Champagne.

It also costs a lot less than a good Champagne, too.

The weather has been a little mixed in Cambridge since that day, but when the sun returns, this is just right for sitting in the garden.

La Delfina Special Cuvee Prosecco £8.49 from Cambridge Wine Merchants.

Links

Cambridge Wine Merchants – http://www.cambridgewine.com/

Alex Rushmer – http://alexrushmer.com/

Copyright Tom Lewis 2011

A Cup of Coffee in Vienna

For me, Vienna is synonymous with many things – the seat of the Habsburgs, the Holy Roman Empire, historic palaces and grand cathedrals, the waltzes of Strauss and clandestine assignations between cold-war spies and their spymasters.

So, it’s hard to pick one thing that sums up the city – and that diversity and wealth of heritage is one of the reasons I love it so much.

One of the things I also loved when I lived there was sitting in coffee house, making a small cup of coffee last several hours, if I was in the mood, without ever feeling like I was being encouraged to move on.

In 1683, Vienna lay on the edge of civilised Christendom (some locals believe it still does); the Ottoman armies had lain siege to the Austrian capital and were only defeated when the combined forces of King Jan Sobieski of Poland and Duke Charles of Lorraine came to help.

Amongst the silk tents and banners left behind by the retreating Turks (who would take another 200 years to leave Europe) were sacks of mysterious brown beans.

Eschewing the other, more obvious plunder, one of the Austrian spies, a Polish-Ukrainian named Franz George Kolschitzky, took the beans and opened Austria’s first coffee shop – mixing the thick, dark Turkish brew known as “Kahve” with milk and thus inventing the melange (ask for a cappuccino in Vienna and it will come with whipped cream on top).

The culture of the coffee house later received a boost from an unlikely source – namely, Emperor Franz Josef’s eating habits; a bluff military man, he was a picky eater. However, as custom dictated that not only the sovereign be served first but also that everyone else stop as soon as he put down his knife and fork, this left many an attendee going hungry at what should have been a grand banquet and relying on a visit to the coffee house afterwards for sustenance.

Vienna’s coffee houses have a rich tradition, then, of supporting courtiers, poets, musicians and even the odd exiled revolutionary, but when I lived in Vienna, my favourite coffee house was always the shabby but unhurried faded glamour of Cafe Hawelka – its Slavic name both indicative and typical of the mass immigration from the vassal states which Vienna experienced.

Situated just off the main pedestrianised street, the Graben, Hawelka epitomises gemütlichkeit – Austrian gentrified, down-at-heel cosiness; all the furniture has a reassuring romantic faded-glamour and a well-worn shabbiness to it and the welcome is as warm as any in Vienna.

One of the things we noticed living in Vienna was how low rents were compared to London. This is due to low land values, in turn as a result of a closed socialist economy.

It is these low overheads which allow a cafe in the centre of the city to welcome visitors for a coffee costing just a few Euros and not encourage them to leave the minute they have finished.

What I also like about Hawelka is how genuine it feels – in some cities it would have been turned into a quasi-tourist attraction, with a queue to get in, high prices and t-shirts plus other assorted souvenirs available for purchase as you exit through the gift shop.

That said, the Austrians are not too shabby when it comes to marketing themselves and there is a range of Hawelka merchandise available from coffee (obviously) to posters and playing cards.

In other cafes, you would feel the need or at least the obligation to move on as soon as you have finished, but here an atmosphere of relaxed, calm lounging pervades, in which it feels rude to move on too quickly.

This love of la dolce vita in a Germanic country confirmed my suspicions that the Austrians must be the missing link between the Germans and the Italians.

Yes, they like to lounge and they have a propensity for petty politics and scandal, but they can also make the trams run on time and keep the street clean.

It’s one of the reasons Austria is such a special place for me and why, for me, coffee is one of the things that symbolises Vienna above all.

As the Hawelka website puts it: while the Glory Years may have passed, it is the outside world that has changed and not the Café Hawelka. It still provides a refuge for many artists, writers and musicians.

Images reproduced from cambridgewineblogger.blogspot.com

Wine of the Month: July

July – a month that brings end-of-term things like long summer holidays (for students, teachers, MPs and the like), various weekend festivals and festivities and hopefully, more good weather.

Not the most serious of months, then.

So what is needed is three cracking, summery, fun wines with plenty of individuality and just enough seriousness about them to make you realise why you are better off going to an independent than the local supermarket.

For summer fun, we are generally looking at warm-climate, New-World-style wines, with lots of fruit-driven, easy-drinking enjoyment; and that’s exactly what we have here.

Planeta La Segreta Blanco 2010 Sicily £8.79 – Bacchanalia

A blend of four white-wine grapes (two French and two Italian), this Sicilian wine starts off crisp, fresh and appley straight out of the bottle.

However, one of the key features of the main variety in here (Garganega, masquerading under its Sicilian pseudonym of Grecanico) is how it opens up and becomes more rounded with a bit of air.

Pop this in the decanter for a few minutes before drinking and it develops into a more weighty, rounded wine with hints of smoke, a waxy, spiced richness, the juciness of ripe pears, a creamy texture and a smooth, slightly minerally finish.

With Chardonnay, Viognier and Fiano also in the blend, there is a harmonious mix of citrussy fruit, ripe tropical acidity and some peachy apricot aromas.
Medium-bodied with good acidity, this would work well with oily fish such as salmon or a creamy cheese.

Domaine Des Trinités Rosé 2009 Faugères £8.99 – Cambridge Wine Merchants

For many years a rosé avoider, I have recently been converted into enjoying this most frivolous-seeming of wines and this is one of the best I’ve had recently.

A rosé is made from red-wine grapes using the white-wine method of pressing, rather than crushing, the grapes; when done well, this results in a wine with lots of juicy acidity, enough body to match with food and some of the more interesting characteristics of the grapes themselves.

This one is a mix of southern French varieties that can sometimes struggle to make a good wine on their own and are regularly blended together – Grenache, Cinsaut and Mourvèdre.

Salmon-pink in the glass, there is a smokiness, some redcurrant fruit and a hint of grapefruit on the nose. The palate shows some spice, more flintiness and has the ripe juiciness of summer berries with a hint of garrigue herbs and even a touch of beery hoppiness on the finish.

It’s very well made, balanced and quaffable – especially when reclining in a deck chair on a hot sunny afternoon. You won’t find a huge complexity of aromas and fruit flavours here; rather, this is a food rosé and the main event is the deliciously rounded and juicy, mouthwatering acidity that cuts through picnic food perfectly.

Zesty and aromatic, just drinking it makes me think of the lively flavours of Provençal cuisine; classy and more-ish, to me this is a perfect picnic wine.

Magpie Estate ‘The Mixed Thing’, 2010 Barossa Valley £12.50 – Noel Young Wines

July is also spring lamb season and if you are planning some roast lamb (preferably with rosemary and garlic and roasted carrots and celery), then this collection of select parcels of left-overs from Noel Young’s own Magpie Estate in Australia is just the thing.

Noel makes wines from his own and bought-in grapes from Australia’s prestigious Barrossa Valley and the story behind the wine and the name is a reference to buying up small amounts of top grapes which are grown in too-small quantities to be made into individual wines.

Fermented separately and then blended together the result is quite literally a mixed thing of 25% Cinsault, 25% Cabernet Franc, 25% Sangiovese, 12.5% Tannat and 12.5% Dolcetto.

Deep and rich in colour, on the nose there are plums, prunes, bramble fruit and dark berries – the palate shows more dark fruit but adds a streak of liquorice with some tarriness, pencil shavings, forest floor. There is some mid-palate sweet prune fruit, soft ripe tannins and a lingering finish.

Despite its rather mixed origins, it feels very harmonious and with the prune sweetness and pencil shavings, you could almost mistake it for a classic Aussie Shiraz. It has a complex, hedonistic, seductive warm-softness to it but is not too overblown as some Aussie wines can be these days.

If you enjoyed last month’s winner (from Bacchanalia, reviewed here), then this is definitely worth a try.

Overall, however, as July is such a joyous, party-going, picnicking month, my recommended wine is the Domaine Des Trinités rosé from Cambridge Wine Merchants.

Links

Bacchanalia – http://www.winegod.co.uk/

Cambridge Wine Merchants – http://www.cambridgewine.com/

Noel Young Wines – http://www.nywines.co.uk/

Copyright, Tom Lewis 2011

Images reproduced from wellho.net and cambridgewineblogger.blogspot.com

Kipferl – London’s (Only) Austrian Delicatessen

TV presenter Jeremy Clarkson once said “When you go out for a meal you never say – I know, let’s go for a German !”

Like much of Clarkson’s northern, schoolboy humour, there is a good degree of truth in what he says. Germanic food (as found in Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Czech Republic and Belgium) is typically heavy, stodgy and designed to be washed down with beer.

But as is also the case with Clarkson, it’s too much of an oversimplification to stand up to any degree of proper scrutiny.

Whilst you may think of Spanish hams and Italian cheeses as classic wine-bar food, Austria’s alpine regions have just as much to offer.

Kipferl claims to be London’s only Austrian delicatessen, and I’ve certainly not seen any others. Owner Christian Malnig moved to London from the rolling hills of the Thermenregion an hour or so’s drive south of Vienna in the mid-90s.

Predictably, perhaps, a girl was involved – perhaps equally inevitably, she wasn’t the girl that he ended up settling down with.

Stepping into Kipferl, located between the Barbican and Smithfield Market, is like being transported to a little corner of Austria; there is a “Netzplan” of the Vienna U-Bahn on the wall, the shelves are stocked with Austrian wines, lebkuechen spiced biscuits, tyrolean salamis, Almdudler and Stiegl beer whilst the deli counter has a range of Austrian cakes and biscuits as well as cheese from Vorarlberg.

Perhaps the only non-Austrian aspect of the place is that it lacks the down-at-heel, shabbily aristocratic gemütlichkeit of a true Viennese kaffeehaus, such as Hawelka.

I asked Christian to make up a range of wine-friendly food to serve at a German tasting I was organising for the Cambridge Food and Wine Society and agreed to meet him at the end of hours the day before.

Catching up, he told me that coffee shop was now the most successful part of the business, but that his regular wine tastings are now over-subscribed. As a result of both of these, he is moving the shop to a larger premises in Angel in the new year.
The food included was a mixture of breads and, with the box beside me on the train on the way back up to Cambridge, the rich aroma of dark rye bread kept wafting up.

Christian provided some classic wine-bar fare - with a Germanic twist – which went superbly with the wines; there were three sliced meats, a classic cured salami, a ham sausage and some pork with carraway seeds, an air-dried tyrolean salami and an aged hard cheese, with a rind, reminiscent of an appenzeller.

Accompaniments included Staud’s pickled gherkins, sweet and hot peppers and sweet peppers stuffed with cream cheese.

As well as the richly aromatic rye bread, there wer plain white, mixed-seed and sunflower seed loaves. For dipping, Christian had provided something quite unusual, if not unique – Styrian pumpkin-seed oil.

Suspiciously dark green in colour, it looks like some kind of Hallowe’en potion and tastes equally enchanting – rich, nutty, toasty and herbaceous.

And to go with the dessert wines we would be having, there were homemade biscuits and Austrian chocolate which, with my newfound chocolate knowledge from a recent tasting, I recognised as superior with the beans coming from South America.

As I have written previously, Austria has been quietly reinventing itself, going from a sleepy and much slimmed-down former empire, to a vibrant and lively country that just happens to have ruled most of Europe for many centuries.

Nowadays, any restaurant with a wine list that aspires to be serious needs to have at least one Austrian wine on the list.

However, given that more than a decade after opening, Kipferl remains London’s only Austrian deli, it seems that the take-up of Austrian meats, cheese, breads is proceeding more slowly than that of its wines.

For the moment, then, those of us in the know will continue to head for a small shop opposite Smithfield market and wonder why more people don’t do the same.

A mixed assortment of buffet food for 25 people costs around £100 from Kipferl.

Kipferl
70 Long Lane
London
EC1A 9EJ

Image reproduced from cambridgewineblogger.blogspot.com

Hotel Schloß Dürnstein – Wachau, Austria

Tom Lewis – City Connect’s wine critic – talks about the beautiful Wachau valley in Austria and one of his favourite hotels in the region – Hotel Schloß Dürnstein. This luxury Relais & Chateaux hotel is a 17th century castle with picturesque views across the River Danube.

I used to live in in Austria and later regularly travelled to Vienna on business.

The city’s beautiful and historic first district is like a huge, UNESCO-protected, pedestrianised, open-air museum with gilded marble churches, imperial palaces and the vast Stefansdom cathedral – as well as a selection of excellent restaurants and wine bars.

However, there’s more to Austria than Vienna and on a couple of occasions, I borrowed a company car and made the short drive up the autobahn to Dürnstein in the Wachau Valley (also UNESCO-protected) to stay at the Hotel Schloß Dürnstein.

The Wachau Valley is a meandering stretch of the Danube between Melk and Krems with steep terraces on either side where some of Austria’s greatest Rieslings and Grüner Veltliners are grown by the likes of Prager, Knoll and the co-operative, Domäne Wachau. It is also an area of great natural beauty as well as home to many pretty little villages.

Dürnstein is perhaps the prettiest of these with a short cobbled main street (an underpass takes most traffic well away from the village centre) along which are to be found quaint buildings between which is to be found an occasional glimpse either down to the river on one side or up to the vineyards on the other.

High up above the vineyards lies a ruined castle where Richard the Lionheart was held prisoner from 1192 to 1194 and from where there is a breathtaking view of the village, with a church spire said to be the prettiest in Austria.

Such, then, is the setting for the Hotel Schloß Dürnstein (schloss means “castle”, but here it is more in the style of a chateau – a grand and extensive country house) overlooking a sheer drop down to the river on one side.

The hotel is now a mix of old-fashioned, central European charm, gemütlichkeit (cosiness) and luxury with all  the modern trappings such as a swimming pool and sauna.

The building was originally constructed as a magnificent renaissance structure in 1630 and the castle belonged for centuries to the Counts of Starhemberg, one of the oldest houses of Austria. Acquired from them in 1937 by Raimund Thiery, it was later converted into a hotel with the old features maintained and preserved and became one of the first non-French members of the Relais & Chateaux association of luxury hotels.

Now almost 400 years old, it retains a grand and individualistic old-world charm which I immediately found very different to the usual anonymous business chain hotels I tended to use in central Vienna; the rooms are furnished with antiques and have a view either of the fortress, the river or the village of Dürnstein.

Perhaps the most pleasant aspect to a stay, in the summer at least, is to have dinner on the terrace where on one memorable visit I had a delicious roast lamb with rosemary, as part of a four-course meal, and a Riesling from the hotel’s own vineyard (made by Toni Boden of the nearby Prager winery) whilst watching the sun set down the valley.

I followed this with a quick stroll around the village and decided that business travel has its perks every now and then.

A two-night package at the Hotel Schloß Dürnstein costs from €556 for a standard double room.

Hotel Schloß Dürnstein GmbH
3601 Dürnstein
Austria
WACHAU
Tel:+43 2711 212
hotel@schloss.at

Images courtesy of cambridgewineblogger.blogspot.com

Six Summer Picnic Wines from Naked Wines

Cambridge is a great place to be in the summer – we get some of the driest weather in Europe’s northern half and we have lots of green spaces.

I can think of no other city where you are likely to see cows grazing in the centre – and that it is against the backdrop of King’s College and the river just makes it even more special.

After a couple of years of wash-outs, we are also shaping up for that much-promised and equally derided barbecue summer of a while ago.

There are plenty of spots to choose from, but my own favourites in Cambridge include sitting at the top of Cambridge castle with a view of the city’s skyline, lounging by the river bank at Trinity College watching tourists struggling to steer their punts (answer: use the pole) or, further afield, in Grantchester Meadows.

The energetically inclined could take in all three of these, via a walk through the city’s historical centre which retains its quirky medieval layout and either a punt or a stroll to Grantchester.

Naked Wines, one of the most exciting wine retailers in the internet-only space, recently sent me a case of their six best picnic wines for review; the company’s “house-style” is well-made, fruit-driven wines that impress straight out of the bottle – just what you need for a picnic – and you could do a lot worse than packing one of these, pre-chilled, into your hamper. Most are sealed under screwcap, which is another handy feature.

Best for lazy lounging – Benjamin Darnault Picpoul de Pinet, £9.99

Picpoul is a somewhat unusual grape from southern France’s Languedoc region; it makes refreshing, crisp wines with a hint of seashell and sandiness – in a good way. This one is sandy coloured in the glass with aromas of ripe, thick-skinned grapes and a refreshing cox’s apple and pears acidity, with hints of varietal sand and seashells; a good, light quaffer with just 12.5% alcohol, despite its warm-climate origins.

Best with light foods – Arabella Viognier 2011, £7.99

I like Arabella’s wines a lot – this one is lemony, with lots of ripe tropical fruit, some typical varietal peachiness, elderflower, rounded acidity and a touch of mid-palate sweetness. There is some ripe toastiness and a good, balanced finish. An easy quaffer with the acidity and body to stand up to picnic foods like quiche, chicken drumsticks and salad leaves with cherry tomatoes.

The most perfumed – Classic South Pinot Gris 2010, £10.49

Golden in the glass, this is very very floral and perfumey on the nose, almost Gewurz-like with aromas of lychees and beeswax; there is good, tropical acidity with passionfruit and guava and some honeyed weight.

The best rosé – Castillo de Tafalla Rosado 2010, £6.99

As something of a recent convert to food-rosé, I thoroughly enjoyed this ripe and juicy more-ish Spanish rosé.  With raspberry aromas, rounded acidity and a pleasing hint of spice it has a good, savoury finish. Instantly appealing and more-ish, it also feels very well-made and is excellent value.

The most celebratory – Sacchetto Rosé Brut NV, £10.49

If you are looking to make a statement, nothing says it better than fizz and for the wow factor, a bottle of pink fizz takes some beating. The added body of a rosé also makes this a little more food-friendly. With aromas of redcurrants and raspberries on the nose and an easy-drinking feel, it’s a sure-fire crowd-pleaser.

The best with hearty food – Benjamin Darnault Minervois 2010, £9.49

If your picnic food is a little more hearty – pork pies and sliced ham, rather than mixed leaves and salad – then the Darnault Minervois is what you need. It has ripe bramble fruit and plums on the nose, some soft vanilla-y tannins, gentle hints of cloves and spice with good, balanced acidity and tannic grip on the finish.

Recommended wine

The fizz makes the biggest statement here, but for all-round appeal – and value too – I recommend Castillo de Tafalla Rosado.

All wines are available from Naked Wines, with up to 33% cash back for Naked Angels.

Copyright Tom Lewis 2011

Images reproduced from nakedwines.com

Wine of the Month: June‏

The three inaugural offerings from Cambridge’s “Big Three” independent wine merchants for this first Wine of the Month column have set the bar pretty high.

The brief for them was simply to select their best wine for the current month, June, within a sensible price range – from an everyday £6, to a special-occasion-but-still-affordable £12.

And they have come up with three wines of very different styles.

Domaine de La Rablais Sauvignon Blanc Touraine 2010, £8.99 from Cambridge Wine Merchants

The first is a Touraine from Cambridge Wine Merchants – this cool-climate stretch of the Loire in northern France produces steely, aromatic, flinty wines from Sauvignon Blanc which can be as good as, and much better value than, next-door Sancerre.

This 2010 is still quite young and benefited greatly from an hour or so’s aeration in the decanter. Pale in the glass, but bright with a hint of gold, it is initially intense and steely, but opens up into a haughty, classic beauty with greengage, cut grass and nettles on the nose and a hint of flint-smokiness.

On the palate, there are more herbaceous aromas, white peach and elderflower, zesty hints and a touch of verbena with focused yet rounded, mouthfilling acidity balanced out by good minerality on the finish.

With its restrained elegance and sophisticated, classy finesse, it is understated coolness personified.

The ideal food match would be the classic Loire goat’s cheese, but it will also work either as an aperitif or with shellfish.

Raimat ‘Abadia’ Blanc de Blancs, Costers Del Segre, 2010, £7.75 from Noel Young Wines

Next up was another white; from Noel Young, this was a Chardonnay Albarino blend from Costers del Segre in Spain.

Sealed under screwcap, this is a much more contemporary, crowd-pleasing style. Straight out of the bottle, it is fruit-driven with aromas of stone fruit, peach and floral citrus blossom. On the palate it feels full and fleshy with some mid-palate complex sweetness of tropical fruit. Supple, mediumweight and rounded, it has a long, persistent finish.

What elevates this above the level of a mere quaffer, however, is a hint of thick-skinned intensity and phenolic ripeness from late harvested grapes, picked at night to retain freshness.

This is easily the most versatile of the three wines here – an easy quaffer with a hint of seriousness, its ripeness, body and acidity mean it would match with a wide range of foods such as white meat, mushrooms or pretty much anything in a creamy or buttery sauce, or a plate of farmhouse cheeses.

Ready for drinking now, it is not a wine that needs to be aged.

Villa Giada “Suri” Barbera d’Asti, £9.69 from Bacchanalia

The final wine, an Italian Barbera d’Asti from Bacchanalia has all the exuberance of an over-excited pup.

Red wines from Piedmont in Italy are traditionally chewy, beetle-browed and rather challenging, but there is none of that here.

It has a rich, diverse, multi-faceted nose with aromas of bramble fruit, plums, cherries and vanilla as well as liquorice and eucalyptus; it feels exotic, hedonistic and welcoming.

Initially, it seems almost too fruit-driven and frivolous on the nose, but underneath, it’s still a grown-up wine and delivers rounded, ripe fruit acidity and a superbly soft and smooth texture with just a hint of grip on the finish.

Moreover, once the overt, slightly baked fruit aromas start to die down (admittedly after being put back in the bottle overnight), more complex and sophisticated secondary aromas of sour cherries, forest floor, toasty oak and prunes start to become more prominent and the acidity and mouthfeel improve further, so this clearly has significant aging potential should you wish to wait.

Food matches should be kept local such as pasta with Bolognese or pomodoro with lots of fresh basil. For meat, slow roast lamb with garlic and rosemary, wild boar or meatloaf wrapped in prosciutto would also work well.

Wine of the Month – Villa Giada “Suri” Barbera d’Asti – Bacchanalia

You could, with the right number of guests, serve all three wines with different courses of a meal – the Touraine with a starter, the Barbera with the main and the Spanish white with cheeses – and be impressed by them all.

However, my overall wine of the month for June is the Barbera for its sheer exuberance and end-of-term fun factor.

Links

Cambridge Wine Merchants – http://www.cambridgewine.com/

Noel Young Wines – http://www.nywines.co.uk/

Bacchanalia – http://www.winegod.co.uk/

Copyright Tom Lewis 2011

The Three Horseshoes – Madingley‏

City Connect’s wine critic Tom Lewis – the Cambridge Wine Blogger – reviews one of his favourite gastropubs in Cambridgeshire – the Three Horseshoes in Madingley.

There comes a time when you have a young family when going for a meal means just finding somewhere that will keeps the kids occupied and not be too sniffy about a bit of noise; if the food is memorable, it’s a plus. Occasionally, however, you tell the kids it’s a special occasion and that they must behave nicely as they are going to a Smart Restaurant.

In the last decade of living in Cambridge, there is one place that we have kept coming back to – the Three Horseshoes based in Madingley, a small village just outside Cambridge with some thatched cottages, a rather grand-looking hall and the pub itself in the centre.

It has been a typical gastropub since before the term was coined – a thatched cottage on the outside, it has a modern, stripped-wood interior at the front which forms the bar area and a smarter restaurant area at the back which extends into the conservatory looking out onto a garden with fields beyond.

The Three Horseshoes was originally part of a small group of local gastropubs run by an MW, but was bought out by chef-patron Richard Stokes a few years ago. The change of ownership does not seem to have changed much in the way things are done, which is a Good Thing.

Wines are served by the glass, but a bottle is better value, so I ordered an Alpha Zeta Garganega from Veneto and announced I would not be driving home.

I’ve had Garganega only occasionally before and on this occasion, tasted blind, I would have confidently (but wrongly) sworn it was an Alsace Pinot Blanc – crisp and appley on opening with ripe pineapple acidity and a smooth texture, it developed into something richer and more mouthfillingly heavy with a honeysuckle waxiness, spicy, perfumey notes and a hint of smokiness during the meal – it proved to be a great match for the subsequent food with a great balance of acidity and body.

After bread with oil and vinegar for dipping, starters were sheep’s milk ricotta dumplings with deep fried sage leaves for some of us, whilst I opted for a selection of salamis with bruschetta.

The Three Horseshoes has always taken a rustic Italian inspiration for its menus, refined it a little but not too much and for its bar menu, at least, served up hearty portions.

For the main, we all picked for the same choice – a piece of pan-fried salmon with smashed cannellini beans, spinach and a salsa. There are some things that should not be messed with and to my mind salmon is one of those; it was served as it should be, well-cooked and well-flavoured, pink and flakey with a generous quarter of lemon to squeeze, but for me the highlight was actually the spinach which had a wonderful depth of earthy flavour.

We were more diverse in our choice of puddings – the kids opted to share a burnt caramel ice-cream with biscotti, some of us had panna cotta which was light and gooey but deliciously creamy, whilst I chose the apple crumble with creme fraiche ice-cream.

If you like your puddings rich and satisfying, then the Three Horseshoes could be your kind of place – my crumble was a generous bowl of lightly stewed and still firm apple chunks with a rich crunchy, toasty topping.

There is no children’s menu, no portions of chips, but helpfully, when they saw we had two kids they offered to divide one portion into two and serve them separately which is about the most child-friendly gesture I have seen in a long time and typical of the attentive and professional, but friendly and unpretentious service.

In our household, a measure of whether we like somewhere is if we’ve been three times or more; well, I’ve lost count of the number of times we’ve been to the Three Horseshoes over the years and I’m pleased to say that on this latest visit, the quality of the food and the welcome was as good as it’s always been.

The Alpha Zeta Garganega is available in Cambridge, at least, from Noel Young Wines and Cambridge Wine Merchants; both do mail order.

The Three Horseshoes
High Street
Madingley
Cambridge
CB23 8AB
Tel: 01954 210221

Images reproduced from 1pumplane.files.wordpress.com

The Plough – Coton‏

City Connect’s wine critic Tom Lewis – the Cambridge Wine Blogger – shares his experience of a pub lunch at The Plough in Coton. This was the first time Tom had visited this gastropub and, reading what he has to say about the experience, it certainly sounds like it won’t be his last!

It was half-term and my turn to look after the kids. With only a little encouragement from me, my daughter decided she would like to do a bike ride and have a pub lunch somewhere. As I have mentioned previously on my blog, the quality of eating establishments in central Cambridge is not generally that great as many have only the tourist trade to consider. Moreover, whilst central Cambridge is an undeniably lovely place with its historic colleges, pedestrianised medieval street layout, the river Cam and the backs, the surrounding countryside is rather less impressive. So it was something of a challenge to think of a scenic route of 10-15 miles, suitable for a young cyclist, going via a decent country pub.

In the end, we started at Castle Mound, the highest point in the city with views of various chapels and rooftops, then wound our way between the colleges and along the backs to Grantchester Meadows and on to Grantchester itself before taking a minor road up to Coton about three miles west of Cambridge where we stopped at The Plough.

The Plough had been on my radar for a while as a gastropub worth visiting, but somehow we had never got round to it – any trips west of Cambridge have generally been to the excellent Three Horseshoes in nearby Madingley (to be reviewed next week).

Set more or less in the centre of Coton, The Plough has that typical gastropub look of a cosy olde worlde exterior contrasting with a smart, modern interior. As that day it happened to be not only not raining, but also rather hot in fact, we decided to sit under an umbrella outside at the back.

I went for the three-course set lunch, whilst my daughter ordered from the children’s menu. The food was proper gastropub-style, that is to say traditional pub food, well-made and presented, with perhaps the odd twist here and there, but not overly fancy restaurant food that happens to be served in a pub setting.

My starter of duck and black pudding terrine was served with slices of baguette and some dressed salad leaves and the waiting staff obligingly brought my daughter’s fish and chips at the same time so that she did not have to sit and wait for her food.

My main, when it arrived, was a deliciously buttery piece of cod, lightly cooked to perfection and served on roasted peppers with a manchego crust and tapenade – a paste of black olives. At home, I would not be brave enough to try and mix the heavy salty flavours of tapenade with cheese and cod for fear of overwhelming the subtlety of the fish, but this worked really well, especially with the sweetness of the peppers.

My daughter’s fish and chips were equally well made, with light crispy batter, succulent fresh fish and proper fat chips perfectly cooked – I can say this with authority having tried more than a few myself, much to her annoyance.

To finish, we had both chosen the same thing – chocolate brownie with ice-cream. Sadly, I was informed, their supplies only ran to a child’s portion, so I re-ordered a cheesecake with Amaretto, chocolate chips and raspberry topping. It was due to be served with clotted cream ice-cream (the main reason I had ordered it, to be honest) but actually came with a small saucer of double cream. I overcame my mild disappointment at this by pouring the cream over the cheesecake and also trying some of my daughter’s ice-cream and brownie sundae which was lovely – the brownie soft and moist, the rich home-made ice-cream flecked with dots of vanilla.

My cheesecake was also delicious – I am not sure I could discern any Amaretto in it and the chocolate chips did not seem to add much to it, but these were minor points.

There is a large garden at the back of the pub with additional seating, some trees and play equipment for children, so my daughter went off to try these out whilst I finished off my beer – a lovely pint of Adnams bitter – before a gentle ride back into Cambridge, again via Grantchester.

Having finally visited The Plough, I now don’t know why we haven’t been there before; we will certainly be back soon.

Image courtesy of www.cambridgewineblogger.blogspot.com

Hotel Du Vin & Bistro – Cambridge

City Connect’s wine critic Tom Lewis – the Cambridge Wine Blogger – shares his experience of a lunchtime visit to Hotel Du Vin & Bistro in Cambridge.

Central Cambridge is a beautiful place and a regular feature on the tourist circuit, but rather as a result of this, the quality of restaurants in the centre of town is not generally that great.

However, in recent years, the city has smartened its act up a little and with ever more London commuters living in and around the city, demand for decent restaurants has increased.

A few years ago, hoardings went up in front of a row of late-Victorian townhouses on Trumpington Street just opposite the Fitzwilliam Museum. What emerged shortly afterwards was Cambridge’s newest sophisticated bistro and luxury hotel, the Hotel Du Vin.

Hotel Du Vin is an upmarket chain of over a dozen hotels owned by the Massey Partnership which oddly claims to be a PR firm, albeit specialising in luxury travel and luxury goods. The Hotel Du Vin website talks of “quintessential British style. Elegant and unpretentious. Combine this with great spirit, wit, an unquestionable devotion to wine, and you have captured the essence of Hotel du Vin”.

I had popped in there a few months ago for a quick, informal business meeting with a contact after work and was very impressed by the quirky and sensitive use of space and the cosy, yet modern and unpretentious feel.

For this visit to the bistro, I was attracted by the homegrown and local menu on offer and wondered what seasonal east Anglian produce might be on offer in late autumn.

One of my principles of eating out is to try something different from what we might normally have at home and more or less as a result of this, our choices for all three courses were made for us. Eschewing the sausages (a staple of CWB dinners), we went for pork pie followed by pollock.

The pork pie was dense and meaty, with a satisfying pastry crust; it was served with garnished leaves and a delicious plum chutney with just the right amount of spice and a great balance between sweet and sharp.

The pollock came with chorizo and a gently spiced tomato sauce with again, a noticeable-but-restrained flavour of cumin, and sat on a small bed of wilted dark green leaves.

As it was lunchtime and we had two small and demanding children to get back home to, we limited ourselves to a couple of glasses of Manzanilla sherry; salty, dry and pungently yeasty, it was also superbly well-balanced with great length and depth of flavour.

When the dessert menu came round, we had already decided and ordered the sticky toffee pudding and chantilly cream without hesitation. Like the rest of the meal, it was simple yet full of delicious flavour and excellently made – the pudding light, just the right amount of rich toffee sauce not to be too cloying and the sweet chantilly cream balancing it all out perfectly.

And thinking back, that balance was the theme of the meal – nothing too flashy or obviously crowd-pleasing, but really well-cooked and well-balanced food kept simple yet sophisticated.

In a city like Cambridge with so much passing trade, it takes a certain degree of confidence, if not bravery, to serve food which impresses not with immediate flashiness but with quiet, understated confidence. As a Cambridge resident – and not a tourist - it’s a decision I appreciate.

A lunchtime meal for two from the Homegrown and Local menu with drinks, service and charitable donation cost £60. Click here to see a sample menu.

Hotel du Vin & Bistro Cambridge
15-19 Trumpington Street
Cambridge
CB2 1QA
Tel: 01223 227 330

Image reproduced from travelinsider.qantas.com.au

Matthew Jukes 100 Best Australian Wines Roadshow

The Matthew Jukes 100 Best Australian Wines Roadshow rolled into Cambridge on 31 March as Noel Young Wines held a tasting at John de Bruyne’s Anstey Hall. Tom Lewis, the Cambridge Wine Blogger, was there and shares his recommendations from the roadshow with City Connect.

Described by award-winning Daily Mail writer Jukes as “a legend in the wine industry”, Noel had selected 40 of Matthew’s 100 wines to present that evening and anyone wishing to get a sense of what Australia has to offer could do much worse than turn up at one of these roadshows.

Arriving half-way through the event, I speed-tasted my way through the wines and then had a chat with Matthew to find out more about how he chose his top 100.

Tasting 30,000 to 40,000 wines a year – that’s an average of 100 wines every single day – Matthew keeps a note of all those which he scores 18.5 or over and then whittles them down to 100 by focusing on what is available for the UK market.

He does not moderate his list in any way; that is, he does not put in wines he feels “ought” to be included or add in a few worthy, but underachieving, wines to round out the list of grape varieties.

Rather, he just lists his top 100, noting that each year there ends up being a small number of fizzes and stickies, with an approximate 50:50 split for the remaining reds and whites that simply represent his personal preferences and assessment.

There is not room here to record all the wines I tried and in any case you can find the full 100 list here, but after all the tasting what struck me was that it was the varieties for which Oz is known best that generally stood out – Chardonnay, Cab and Shiraz.

I asked Matthew about his thoughts on where Australian wine is, and should be, going.

Explaining that what he admires most about Australians is their open frankness and ability not only to take criticism on the chin but also to act on it, he told me he had been invited to talk at a marketing conference on Aussie wines not for any in-depth subject knowledge, but for his own plain-speaking no-nonsense approach.

His view is that Australia needs to continue turning away from the volume-driven supermarket turf war area and focus on its terroir and wines in the mid-range where it has huge potential – three-for-a-tenner wines, he explained, are now the preserve of South Africa, not Oz.

In short, then, Australia needs to grow up and become more serious, more European even – and whilst certain retailers’ shelves may currently be awash with cheap, overly fruity and sweet Aussie plonk, this could be a final hurrah before exchange rates and rises in duty make this cease to be an attractive area for business.

He also believes that Oz’s future lies in its most well-known, international varieties – he is not a fan of Spanish or Italian varieties being grown in Oz and says they usually end up being not as good as, but more expensive than, the styles they try to emulate.

However, he does believe Australian Pinot Noir is getting better all the time and is one to watch.

The full list of the wines on show that evening is here, but what follows is my condensed summary of the ones I liked.

Fizz

NV Jacob’s Creek, Blanc de Blancs, Australia – this was light, crisp and fresh with a good finish. Price not available as, bizarrely, Jacob’s Creek refuses to tell Noel Young the trade price.

Semillon and Sauvignon Blanc

These wines were lean and crisp in a cool-climate sort of way; not typically Australian at all.

2010 Shaw and Smith Sauvignon Blanc, Adelaide Hills, SA (£12.99) had a smokey, flinty nose, crisp acidity, a full palate and good length on the finish.

2005 Tyrrell’s Belford Single Vineyard Semillon, Hunter Valley NSW had a complex but restrained nose with hints of diesel and a ripe, linear and balanced acidity.

Riesling

There were a number of quite good ones here, but the 2009 Pikes Riesling, Clare Valley, SA (£15.99) showed perhaps the best overall complexity and balance between fullness, acidity and minerality.

Chardonnay

There were two very good Chardonnays on show – but neither cheap. Both were quite pale in the glass with great complexity and structure, toasty oak and impressive finishes; 2008 Yabby Lake Vineyard, Chardonnay, Mornington Peninsula, Vic (£24.99) and 2008 Xanadu Reserve Chardonnay, Margaret River, WA (£38.95).

Pinot Noir

The two Pinots on show were pale, almost rose-like, mushroomy and pleasant enough, but I’m not sure I quite share Matthew’s enthusiasm for them at this stage.

Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot

Unlike the cool-climate feel of the whites, the style here is still mainly New World – soft, smooth and full of blackcurrant fruit, with the odd more seriously-textured wine thrown in at the upper end of the price range.

The 2008 Wirra Wirra Church Block, McLaren Vale, SA (£16.99) was good, but the 2009 Mitolo Jester Cabernet Sauvignon, McLaren Vale, SA (£12.99) made partially in the amarone style was ripe, mouth-filling and smooth with minty eucalyptus.

Also very impressive for its texture and tannic structure was a 2007 Petaluma Coonawarra, SA (£30.75).

The “weird and wonderful reds”, all lighter and more fruit-driven, were an enjoyable diversion into more affordable, everyday-drinking wines before the hedonistic delight that was the final run of Shirazes.

Shiraz, Grenache, Mourvèdre

2009 Glaetzer, Wallace Shiraz / Grenache, Barossa Valley, SA (£17.50) had sweet prune fruit and minty eucalyptus.

2007 Plantaganet Shiraz, Great Southern, WA (£24.99) had ripe prunes and plums, a soft-but-full texture and a toasty finish.

2007 Mitolo Savitar Shiraz, McLaren Vale, SA (£29.99) had a complex mix of mouthwatering fruit, dense texture, minty blackcurrant, a toastiness and good grippy finish.

Image reproduced from cambridgewineblogger.blogspot.com