Monday, 18 July 2011

If it swims, serve a fino...

Wine and food matching, Jerez style. If it swims, serve Fino. If it flies, serve Amontillado. If it runs, serve Oloroso. 
What better place to taste sherry, in London at least, than Bar Pepito, the dinky sherry and tapas bar off-shoot of Camino? It's a small but perfectly formed homage to the bustling and cramped bars of Andalusia and provided an authentic place to taste Gonzalez Byass sherries and to test out that Andalusian food and wine matching advice.

We started with a taste of something that most wine drinkers don't get the chance to taste – mosto, or the base wine made from Palomino grapes that forms the departure point of fino, before it is fortified.

Dear reader, you're not missing anything. It did, though, afford me a Proustian flashback to Spain in the 1970s and a family holiday on the Costa Brava. Remember those super-sized oil and vinegar glass vessels (pictured left and called a porron) filled with something loosely called wine, which hapless tourists were expected to drink from? Same stuff.

The fascination comes when you go on to taste Tio Pepe, the final product of this wine, once it has been fortified and aged in soleras under a protective layer of yeast (flor) for three years. The flabbiness and weight have gone and in their place are the crisp freshness and dryness which make fino the finest aperitif. There is also that unique mix of aromas and flavours which are hard to define (apple, almonds, rubber?) but easy to recognize.

Tio Pepe is a benchmark for fino, but our next taste was of his sexier, more flamboyant brother: Tio Pepe En Rama. En rama literally means twig and has the sense of raw, which in this case means that the wine is unfined and unfiltered. Essentially it's fino with the volume turned up, or nothing added, nothing taken away, Shredded Wheat style.

The colour is deeper and the flavours are more pronounced and it feels weightier, making this a great food wine. The only downside is that limited quantities are available each year, following a small bottling run in the spring. This year's stock is no longer commercially available, having been already snapped up, mostly by people in the wine trade.

Moving up a level of maturity, we tasted Viña AB Amontillado. Amontillados start their life in the same way as fino, maturing in barrel under a layer of flor. At Gonzalez Byass they then leave casks destined for Amontillado to their own devices. Over time evaporation means that the level of alcohol becomes too high for the yeast to flourish – eventually it dies off completely. Once the flor has gone, with it goes protection from oxygen and the wine undergoes oxidative ageing, giving it a darker colour and very different flavours.

Ten years old, still bone dry, and retaining some of the appley character of fino, but with flavours of caramel, golden syrup and nuts and a hugely long finish. Wonderfully balanced and a great companion to some jamon iberico (jabugo if you can stretch to it). It's still only 16% alcohol, which seems to contribute to the lovely poise and balance.

Del Duque 30 year old Amontillado is essentially the AB left to age in solera for a further 20 years. The wonderful aromas evoke Christmas: nuts, grilled almonds, dried fruits, beeswax and something floral. Length, poise and power.

The first thing anyone learns about sherry is that it is aged in solera, where small amounts of younger wines are continually added to the older barrels, resulting in a blending process which means that sherries are always based on an average age of the wines involved.

Now I discover that they set aside a number of butts each year which never get involved in the solera system, producing something I thought didn't exist: vintage sherry.

We were treated to a taste of Añada 1982: gorgeously fragrant, with nutty and mouthwatering complexity.

Apostoles 30 year old Palo Cortado and Matusalem 30 year old Oloroso Dulce are two old friends from my days at Oddbins. One of these would always be available for tasting in the run up to Christmas – and we had to taste along with the customers, rude not to.

Palo Cortado is a sherry style with myths surrounding it – that it started its life as a fino, but somehow veered off the usual path during ageing and transformed itself instead into an Oloroso.

The truth is, of course, more prosaic. Sherry producers know what they are doing and if they want to make a Palo Cortado, they will. Essentially it is the lightest style of Oloroso which often smells like Amontillado but tastes more like Oloroso.

The Apostoles has wonderful smoky, Tia Maria notes on the nose. The palate is sweet (sweet wine from PX grapes is added after ten years in cask) and it is apparently a great match for pheasant.

Sometimes sherry is so good, it's almost obscene. Just sniffing the Matusalem made me sigh inadvertently. Need I say more? Oh OK, sweet-sour combinations of bitter chocolate, savoury meatiness and a finish longer than January.

At the extreme end of sherry are the Pxs – intensely sweet, dark, sticky sherries made from the Pedro Ximenez grape. If you want to try one, don't muck about and head straight for Noë 30 year old Pedro Ximenez. It's like a crazy cocktail of soy sauce, treacle and the best, most expensive balsamic vinegar. It has a mind-boggling 400 grams of sugar per litre, so don't tell your dentist.

Recommended retail prices
Tio Pepe Fino - £9.99
Tio Pepe En Rama - £11.99 (not available until next year)
Viña AB Amontillado - £11.99
Gonzalez Byass Añada 1982 - £70 (not commercially available)
Apostoles - £16.49 (37.5 cl)
Matusalem - £16.49 (37.5 cl)
Noë - £16.49 (37.5 cl)

Thursday, 7 July 2011

Chocolates for summer?

Seasonal and local – if food can't manage at least one of these, they're just not cool. Chocolate is never going to manage the local bit, but what about seasonal? Still eating the same chocolates now that you were tucking into at Christmas? Well, yes, frankly, I am.

Over at La Maison du Chocolat though, they have released a summer collection of chocolates, Chiberta, with flavours hailing from the Basque country of southwestern France, designed to be eaten in the warmer months. 

The ingredients include things that we are used to finding in chocolates: honey, almond paste and praline. Plus there is the now obligatory chilli, or piment d'espelette – though here it has a definite flavour of the whole chilli pepper itself, rather than just the heat of chilli oil.

High quality chocolate, not overly sweet and intense flavours make for a classy product.

But don't even think of holding on to them until the winter...

More information:

Wednesday, 6 July 2011

Venice comes to Cobham

Carluccio's wine dinner, part of their Veneto food and wine festival

Being handed a glass of prosecco on arrival never puts you in a bad mood, so the evening started pretty well, with some Ruggeri Santo Stefano Prosecco.

The antipasti selection was a real step up from the standard menu at Carluccio's, with the usual suspects of olives and salami joined by a crispy and well-flavoured salt cod fishcake and a red rice salad – a nod to the sea-trading past of Venice.

With the antipasti we were offered a glass of Bertani Soave Sereole. I loved the dry minerality that dominated when drunk on its own. With the food, however, more sweet fruit emerged, enhanced by a juicy acidity.

The main course of spezzatino di manzo, a slow-cooked beef stew with some Venetian spicing, was the kind of homely-looking dish that you could happily dish up at home. But I would also love to see it on the menu here other than for this special dinner.

In the picture it may look like this was served with a side order of scrambled egg, but no, it is that con trick perpetuated on the UK restaurant-going public: wet polenta. Quite how restaurants continue to get away with serving up this tasteless pap – and charging money for it – is one of life's enduring mysteries.

The wine served with this course was a perfectly pleasant Sospiro Valpolicella Ripasso. Plenty of bright cherry-tinged fruit, softly structured but with noticeable acidity. Sarah, who kept me company on the evening, is not generally a red wine drinker, but decided she could drink this – despite what she termed the “dog end” finish (presumably in a good way). I would rather have had this wine with my antipasti and moved onto something more mellow and savoury with the long-cooked spezzatino.

Sadly, the pudding was not a highlight. Crema fritta sounds odd and indeed it is: a kind of lemon-flavoured Findus crispy pancake. We also suspected that more polenta was involved. The wine served with it, however, was a real treat.

Anselmi's I Capitelli is made by the passito method, where grapes are left to shrivel and concentrate before being pressed to make into wine. This gives extra depth, but still with deliciously light, tinned cling peach flavours. More than adequate as a pudding instead of the crema fritta.

Overall the food was tasty and well-prepared and the wines a good reflection of the region. If this is a sign of where Carluccio's is heading, great. I'd love to see some of these things on their menus all the time – just hold the crispy pancake.

Carluccio's festival of Veneto wine runs until 26th July. Wine dinners cost £35 per person and there are a series of tastings at £10 per person. More details at: