In years gone by I have enjoyed foie gras, both of goose and of duck, in France and in England. On one occasion it was accompanied by an intensely sweet golden wine, a fine Sauternes, as a starter with caramelized apples and toasted brioche; on another served simply on melba toast with fig, with an aged Pinot Gris, a dry white, from Alsace. On yet another occasion I had it on steak with a Saint-Emilion, a dry red, from Bordeaux. We even used to sell it in our shop. I recall extolling its virtues, including how well it went with a variety of different wines. But then a thing happened. It wasn’t that I suddenly found out about the force-feeding (the “gavage” as the French call it), I guess I always knew about that; I simply saw a picture one day and went off the idea of it. Same with veal, hearing a cow cry (just last year) after losing its young. I come from a farming background, and certainly don`t judge others on their choices, simply, there came two moments in my life when I ceased to partake. They were no longer for me. Ever since, I have enjoyed finding alternatives: a variety of paté and terrine, accompanied with fruit-bread, or gingerbread, and the mulberries from our garden; alternatively, with confit apricots, or mango. I like big, fat white dry wines, to match, but not overly dry. Good white burgundy like the Saumaize-Michelin Pouilly Fuissé “Vigne Blanche”. Alternatively, Pinot Noir reds work well, Catherine Marshall`s “on Sandstone” from Elgin in South Africa, or, indeed, burgundy`s Theulot-Juillot Mercurey “Vieilles Vignes”, the 2015 vintage sensational right now. The combinations are infinite, and I don`t miss the old ways at all. In beef, it is the best possible cuts, of sirloin, fillet or rib eye, every bit as good as veal, even better, with darker, meatier reds, of Sangiovese or Syrah, for example our ever popular Chianti Riserva Fagiano, or the highly regarded Yann Chave Crozes Hermitage “Le Rouvre”. So, so good.
THE PURITANICALS among us despise hedonism, as though seeking pleasure and self-gratification were a sin. They lump it in with “materialism” and “greed”. I don`t see it that way. I think a little bit of hedonism from time to time is enriching of life, both the physical and the spiritual. For some people it might be a day in the spa, or a drive in the red Ferrari. For me, it`s in the opening of a special bottle of wine. The anticipation of it can be every bit as exciting as the event itself. It might be to mark a special occasion, such as the 1999 Dom Perignon I opened at last year`s staff party, to remember the year I bought The Wine Centre. It could be to remember someone. Just yesterday I opened a 2005 Rauzan-Segla, picked out by Theresa in the shop, to remember her late husband by. Earlier this year I opened another Margaux to remember my father. Another time it might be to celebrate a birthday, an anniversary, a friendship. The wine itself can be the occasion, of course, the leg of lamb chosen to accompany it. The cork is drawn, the contents poured gently into the decanter, allowing the wine to breath, while removing any sediment it may have thrown. The wine is distributed to the waiting guests. It is regarded, smelled, tasted. Not with undue ceremony, but reverently, thoughtfully. Those present are aware of the significance of this bottle, and the moment. And yes, we indulge, we coo, we titter, undeniably a little self-absorbed, rapturous in the excitement of tasting such a rare, beautiful thing. Even better, the shared experience of it, with family, friends, loved ones, in the knowledge we have just marked this moment in time forever, like a priceless one in a generation photo. I don`t think it is too farfetched to call such a passing of time as uplifting, even spiritual. Do you? Better a hedonist than a puritan. Better we seek life`s pleasures and to share them, than to be abstemious, mean-spirited and pious. Cheers everyone!
Eating seasonally, especially from produce grown locally, can be hugely rewarding. And no better time to do so than late August, early September, when our gardens burst forth with colour, of big fat red juicy tomatoes, and blue-mauve Victoria plums. We bake apple and blackberry pies. We feast on the humongous courgettes we have grown in pots – ours in 2020 record breaking! Others take the same pride and joy from growing squashes and pumpkins, which might well by now be very tasty. I suggest throwing one in a fire pit until charcoal-black, alternatively fill one with cream and cheese for baking. But it`s also mushroom season, which is just getting going about now, when foragers start hunting for ceps and other delicacies. These, wonderful fried in butter, make for a perfect match with Suffolk`s own Giffords Hall Pinot Noir 2018, a translucent light red wine with red fruits and forest floor overtones. The flesh of the mushroom, itself quite meaty with an earthy taste, has the effect of brightening and intensifying the fruit in the wine, which is delicious. Wines come into their own with September`s seafood harvest as well: Giffords Hall Bacchus 2019 dry white wine with Colchester oysters, why not? The pale white wine has a distinctive elderflower note, green crunchy fruits and a mineral, flinty streak, which, with oysters, and with our local mackerel for that matter, makes for a tasty combination. So, in case you had not picked up on my gist here, I am advocating an appreciation, generally, of the seasons, and in the here and now, I am giving a big hoorah for September. But I am also pointing out that wine, too, is for the seasons. Root vegetables are on the way and before long we will all be enjoying hearty casseroles and full-bodied reds to accompany the chillier temperatures; let`s embrace this last slice of summer, before, finally, we put our barbecues away and accept that Autumn and then Winter are on us. Cheers everyone.
From the portal in our garden (aka the porch) we teleported from La Grande Motte in France, to Florence in Italy. Because you can do that in your imagination. This is the land of Sangiovese – the grape responsible for the Tuscan wines of Chianti and Montalcino. We were heading for the beautiful Ristorante Paoli where we had spent a glorious Covid-free summer`s afternoon just the year before. So much of the scene was still fresh in our memories: Michelangelo`s David, the Piazza del Duomo. The restaurant building dates to 1824 with vaulted ceiling and fading Art Deco frescoes, augmented by traditional, super-friendly service. Just love those purring Italians fussing around my wife – so Italian. And I`ll never forget the duck carpaccio with truffle, nor the wine which accompanied it: Olena Chianti Classico 2012. Both were magnificent together. Now, in our garden porch, I am pouring the 2015 vintage of the very same wine (a deeply romantic gesture clearly lost on my wife), and the food was Spaghetti all’ Arrabbiata, our favourite pasta dish. Once again, the wine hit the spot. Satisfying sour cherry and blackberry, with underlying chocolate and dark shades of mineral, and herbs, and a bright acidity, married to juicy, ripe tannins. Andrea Bocelli was singing his heart out at this point, and the wine was having a mellowing effect. Lunch, and life, could not have been better. Yet nonetheless it was not complete. We could not be in Italy, even virtual Italy, and not taste one of their delicious sweet wines. This was a moment we had anticipated with glee. My wife had baked an almond tart, and I had chilled a half-bottle Pieropan `Le Colombare` Recioto di Soave Classico. The golden wine was unctuous and lingering, set against the crunchy tart it was a dreamy finish to our wonderful Tuscan holiday. As we left Ristorante Paoli to teleport home, we looked skyward, at Fillipo Brunelleschi`s famous cathedral, The Duomo: to think it took 142 years to build! Sweet memories.
Last night the serviettes were French tricolour, red, white, and blue. We started the evening with Pastis and water, a single act which transformed us immediately to the south of France, to a seaside resort known as La Grande Motte, on the outskirts of Montpellier. Three years before we had paddled in the sea on a glorious morning there. The sea shimmered in the early sunlight and there was a gentle breeze. As we sipped our drinks now, in the garden porch, we recalled the feeling of exhilaration that morning. We had breakfasted at the beach café after what must have been a three-mile beach walk, and on an impulse, we had ordered a pastis. France`s national drink has a very particular taste, of anise and liquorice, which is both refreshing and invigorating. It now had the effect of stimulating our appetites, and right on time my wife produced the amuse-bouche, a tasty bite-sized morsel comprised of fresh fig, prosciutto, blue cheese, and walnut. It was wonderful. The main dish of the evening, my wife tells me, was inspired by King Henri 1V of France. Apparently he won favour with France`s peasantry by promising “a chicken in every pot”, from which was born the quintessentially French dish known as Coq-au-Vin. The meat, typically seared in fat and simmered in red wine, is succulent and juicy, flavoured with onions, garlic, button mushrooms, lardons, bay leaf, parsley, and thyme. It is benchmark fodder for red burgundy. My wine of choice for the occasion was Joseph Faiveley Bourgogne Rouge 2016, a classic red-fruited Pinot Noir with mouth-watering acidity and just enough richness. Mid-palate the wine`s bright cherry fruit was followed by a floral lift, which the food accentuated magnificently. In the French mode of operandi, the main would have been followed by the cheeses, finishing with desert and coffee. But on this occasion, we had a single Morbier cheese, a very tasty semi-soft cow`s milk cheese from Franche-Comté in eastern France. It was an exquisite end to the meal, as we mopped up the last of the burgundy. Oh joy!
Have you been entirely put off foreign travel? I have been. The idea of getting on a plane in these Covid times really has little appeal. Going on holiday to social distance in long queues is not my idea of fun, either. Add to that the risk of having to self-isolate when I get back, when I have a business to run. No, it`s not for me, personally. I`d rather sit in my porch in the garden. But hey, don`t think I would not be having fun. My wife`s signature dish is Paella, so first day of the holiday we would pop over to virtual Spain, to a small place called Mojacar in Almeria. As it happens, we`ve been there many times before, and on one occasion I gifted my wife with The Indalo Man, a lucky charm from the region. This was ceremoniously placed on the table, along with yellow and red serviettes, representing Spain`s colours, and we were accompanied by flamenco guitarist, Paco de Lucia. With sliced eel and a glass of chilled Manzanilla, from along the coast up in Sanlucar de Barrameda, we toasted the first night of the holiday. When the Paella emerged, I served “The Charge” from Spain`s Rioja region, which followed through to the Manchego cheese, from La Mancha. A bottle of Mas Macia Cava in the fridge, all the way from Barcelona, did not quite make the party, on this occasion. Not surprisingly we were tired, after the long journey! So, I said: “Where shall we go tomorrow, Mrs B?” “How about France?” came the answer. Oh joy!
Yesterday I was reminded of two things. First was just how good the Louis Latour Macon-Lugny “Les Genievres” 2018 really is. Proper white burgundy for £16.99 per bottle. The wine has an attractive bright yellow-gold hue. It is largely characterised by its subtle, inviting aromas, of lemon curd, Devonshire cream, honey, and nectarines. On the palate the wine is silky, coating the mouth. The flavours are intense, mirroring the aromas. Then, there`s the scrumptious aftertaste, of almonds, which lingers on. This is a wine which punches above its weight, subtly rich, while simultaneously refreshing. It was produced in the south of Burgundy`s Mâconnais region, around the village of Lugny, in mostly limestone and clay soils. The grape? Well, Chardonnay of course – a fine, elegant, and pure expression of the Chardonnay grape, from thirty-year vines, produced in a minimalist way with no oak whatsoever. Instead of using wooden barrels, Louis Latour chooses to undergo alcoholic fermentation in temperature controlled stainless steel tanks, which is followed by secondary, malolactic fermentation, whereupon malic (apple) acid is converted to lactic (milk) acid. The wine derives much of its creamy texture through the process, while retaining its freshness. While being a cool climate wine, it has a sunny complexion, and I love it! And while I was reminded of just how good this wine really is, I was reminded also of another thing: of the last time I smelled and tasted oak in Chardonnay, when I really did not like it. I was judging a wine competition, during the early days of Covid, and too many oaked white burgundies smelled and tasted dull to me. It wasn`t the flavour components of oak in wine which bothered me, the vanilla, or the coconut. I can sometimes quite like these, though more so when they are integrated with the components of the wine. No, it was the lack of balance and freshness I did not like, the sense they had been dulled and made stale by use of oak. Perhaps Louis Latour are on to something. I wonder if oak in Chardonnay has had its day.
I can`t believe how much Rosé we are selling. Mostly of a pale salmon pink colour and a dry, fruity taste, with moderately low alcohol. It`s the perfect weather for it, warm and humid, thankfully a light breeze. Most of us could do without the blessed humidity which leaves you sticky and feeling sluggish, but on the plus side, it`s fabulous for drinking these fresh, dry, aromatic pale pink wines. The wine refreshes the palate, and the effect of the alcohol is vaguely stimulating and lifting. Moreover, they make wonderful aperitif wines, with something salty, and they match summer salads and seafoods superbly. Our Pasquiers Grenache-Cinsault Rosé Pays d`Oc (£7.99) is a fine example, from France`s Languedoc region. At just 12% ABV it is light, slightly tangy and extremely drinkable. Another French Rosé, of a similar composition, is Estandon Diamarine Coteaux Varois en Provence Rosé (£11.99), from “the land of lavender and sunshine”. It has an elegance, a balance, which simply oozes sophistication; at just 12.5% ABV., it also has a light touch. If you like to drink Pasquiers, folks, you will love to drink Diamarine. And then there`s Chateau d`Esclans Whispering Angel Rosé (£19.99), a wine by enigmatic winemaker, Sacha Lichine, who once said of his own wine: “In the Esclans Valley angels whisper, if you drink this wine, you might hear them.” Well I keep trying. But even if it has not invoked angels for me yet, I do recommend it. Produced in the Côtes de Provence region itself, the holy grail for rosé wine, it is super refreshing with notes of minerals, herbs, raspberries, and stone fruits. At 13.5% ABV it packs quite a punch, but it is nonetheless beautifully balanced. My last pale Rosé recommendation, and my wine of the week, is England`s refreshingly crisp Giffords Hall Rosé (£14.99), produced near Long Melford in Suffolk on an ancient glacial riverbed. Produced from Madeleine Angevine and Pinot Noir grapes, the aroma combines wild strawberries, white peaches, and roses. Weighing in at an all low 11% ABV., it is truly a quaffing gem.
Covid has been many things to many different people. I know of some businesses for whom this has been devastating. Others, The Wine Centre included, have done extremely well. What divides failure from success can simply be the nature of the business. Wine shops selling directly to consumers have generally done well; however, wine wholesale selling to restaurants have faltered. Internet companies have generally done better than shops, shops better than hospitality. One thing in common with all businesses during Covid, however, is we are reacting according to our own circumstance, as best we possibly can. We change, because, we are obliged to change. This appears, of itself, to have had an invigorating and stimulating effect. Covid forced a great many employees to work from home, and many companies found this to be not only more productive, but cost saving. Big bosses are re-evaluating their business models, considering vacating their expensive city offices; while their employees are considering extensions to their houses for bigger home offices, embracing the idea of a stay-at-home life, cutting down on commuting. Others, living in tiny city flats with stamp-size gardens, are looking to move out to the country, renting or buying twice the house they had in city life. Our own boy James, now 32, is doing just that, opting for a life change with his girlfriend. Still others are looking to change jobs, either forced, due to redundancy, or because they too have been caught up in these shifting sands. Many having been furloughed for months are now feeling energized, often with an appetite for change. The status quo is unravelling. And yes, we, also, have been affected. We have decided it`s time to flirt with retirement. With immediate effect The Wine Centre is up for sale (Christie & Co). They say it takes an average three years to sell a business, so it`s business as usual for the foreseeable future; but we have started the process, and that`s the point. Covid, the catalyst for change.
Did you know in the UK the fixed average cost of a bottle of wine excluding the wine itself is £4.75-£5.00 per bottle? This cost includes all associated costs, tax on wine, shipping and distribution, and the cost of the glass and the labelling. So, a bottle of wine you pick up for £5.00 gives you just 25p worth of wine, at most. At this level, the producer is losing money, clearly desperate to shift stock. It`s not sustainable. The cheapest bottle on our shelves nowadays is £6.99, a little above break even for many of the volume producers, though barely. And quite frankly, we struggle not to dip into mediocrity. We are obliged to travel to poor Moldova to buy our Pinot Grigio, which, to be fair, is pleasantly crisp and refreshing; and there are parts of Spain where the inexpensive Pardina grape grows plentifully, which blends nicely with a little Chardonnay to produce an easy-going rounded white wine with an attractive tropical fruit character. It can be done, but there`s limited scope and variety. At retail £7.99 per bottle it`s easier, a wider range of flavours. It`s inevitably still high-volume produce, but the category is what I call “commerce friendly”, and quaffable to boot. Our best-selling Pasquiers Rosé at this price point is brilliant, a great summer party wine. But it`s by a rigorous deselecting process I have been able to find so many decent wines at this price, because all too many are still poor, I`m afraid, either short on flavour, or worse, confected, like bubble-gum. At £8.99 and £9.99 per bottle we enter territory which can be altogether more joyful, though still in need of sieving through, truthfully. I`m delighted with my ranges, currently, not least because the wines are sustainable. It`s where, as a shop, we start to really excel. As for the over £10 per bottle category: well, the world`s your oyster. This is where life, and wine, becomes fascinating; and it`s where wine is enjoyed for more than just a drink. Cheers everyone!