“The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.”
We were reminded of the truth of Hartley’s aphorism yesterday when six of us took a cab into the deep south of Warwickshire to eat in the 1970s. Our destination was a restaurant called The Butcher’s Arms, a quite beautiful building in a small hamlet, which has an iconic reputation amongst a certain class in that part of the county.
It was an illuminating experience, in which we appeared to be playing minor roles in a comedy of town and country manners, a latter-day re-write of She Stoops To Conquer.
This is not intended to be a restaurant review, although for the record I note that the wine was excellent and not unreasonably priced, and that the food was not excellent and not reasonably priced.
What was interesting was the atmosphere, the culture, of the establishment. If we had on the journey engaged in flippant thoughts that we may perhaps épate le bourgeois, it was clear from the moment we entered the bar that we were as much on display as the expensive, sports and vintage cars in the car park.
The restaurant is unashamedly, even proudly, a throwback to the ‘70s. When it opened, it was the height of fashion, a destination for Coventry captains of industry, the lawyers and accountants, the masons and landowners, the councillors and aldermen of the county. Today, it is a refuge for a class whose time has come and gone. The conversation is of trips to Spain or Antigua. The service, if one is admitted to the inner circle, is fawning. The menu is reassuringly familiar.
The only things that are even slightly risqué are the Pirelli calendars which adorn the walls of the lavatories.
Yet it was yesterday and is regularly full, even over-full.
I suspect this is because there is no alternative. No other establishment caters for this clientele. And so, regularly and frequently, the rich but not famous gather together to celebrate themselves and their lives and their way of life. Importantly, they can do it away from the hoi polloi, from those who – like the six of us – do not share their values.
It would be unfair to say that we were unwelcome, but we were not welcomed. We watched the fawning service on the other tables, but did not experience it. Wine was not offered to us to try, but merely deposited on the table. The waiting staff, so ubiquitous for others, failed to make eye contact or acknowledge that, as later arrivals were presented with their main courses, we had yet to order our starters.
It was a salutary experience for all of us. Accustomed to a milieu which is multi-racial, multi-cultural and all-embracing, this exclusiveness was alien to us. We did feel as if we had stepped into a foreign country. We did feel that they do things differently. We did feel excluded.
This was not a class issue. It was not even about some Weberian complication regarding status.
What we had done was stumble into a cult.
We were watching a form of ritual, a kind of Masonic practice which only adepts are able to appreciate.
Today's listening: Rick Gekoski on Radio 4. I intend to review his new book Lost, Stolen or Shredded when I have given it due consideration. Watch this space.
Gareth Brynmor John
How was your week-end? We had a great time, thank you. We went to London.
My nephew Gareth was singing at the Wigmore Hall and his grandmother was coming down to see and hear him and meet up with other family members at a Mothering Sunday lunch before the gig.
Jill and I used the opportunity to do a number of things which we had left undone: in other words, wine tastings, restaurant meals, and gallery visits.
We started at the home of Karl Marx in Dean Street. This is now, and has been since the year of the General Strike, a restaurant called Quo Vadis. It is, in a familiar phrase, something of a Soho institution, and has had its gastronomic ups and downs over the years, but has reinvented itself in the last 12 months by giving a free hand to Chef Jeremy Lee, who was poached from the Blueprint.
The food is a sensational combination of technical accomplishment and no nonsense. I indulged recklessly with a starter of rabbit livers and a main of ox liver – both sublime. But the highlight was Jill’s hare pie: not a ramekin with a puff pastry top, but a pudding bowl with real pastry, and inside, a huge quantity of the most delicious jugged hare. Jill allowed me only a single tasting mouthful, but it was enough to make me regret my organic choice, although not the choice of restaurant. Quo Vadis is first-class, even down to the half bottles on the wine list (such circumspection necessary because we had sampled apéros at Vinoteca on Beak Street on the way and I had a wine tasting at Berry Brothers in St James scheduled for later in the afternoon).
In short, a great start.
And the weekend continued in the same vein. The Manet exhibition at the Royal Academy, a tasting of 2011 Rhones at BBR, the early Picasso exhibition at the Courtauld, and an extraordinary show of paintings of Cornish fishermen at No 2 Temple Place, a late Victorian arts and crafts house on Embankment, which belonged to the Astors in the ‘20s, and now restored is worth a visit even if there is no exhibition on display. The Picasso was under-whelming, serving to illustrate how derivative was the 20 year old; but the Courtauld also has in its permanent exhibition many of those iconic paintings which one knows so well but, in my case, had never actually seen before. Degas, Van Gogh, Cezanne, Manet, Monet, Renoir … each room, each wall, is a surprise, a delight, an education.
But the highlight of the weekend, surely, was the Wigmore Hall on Sunday afternoon. My sister’s boy Gareth Brynmor John was the choral scholar at St John’s Cambridge and is currently at the Royal Academy of Music, where he is completing the Opera course whilst forging a serious reputation in the musical world and winning countless competitions.
On Sunday, he performed a great deal of Britten, and a little of Britten usually goes a long way.
But yesterday, Britten’s settings of Songs and Proverbs of William Blake did not go far enough. The power of Gareth’s voice, combined with the ability to convey the subtlest of nuances of meaning and emphasis, bestowing gravitas even where there was none originally, made us want for more.
And I will long remember the beauty, in the setting of the Tyger, of that final couplet:
What immortal hand or eye
Dare frame they fearful symmetry?
Today's listening: It should be Britten, I guess, but thanks to links from Rick Hough in Boston and Michael Gray in the south of France, it's ABB - the Allman Brothers Band.
In St Quentin la Poterie, celebration of the 14th of July begins on the 13th. The repas republicain takes place in the market square, under the brutalist structure built in honour of Joseph Monier, the St Quentin born and bred inventor of reinforced concrete. It is a wondrous evening, during which half the village – about 800 people – are wined and dined and entertained on the eve of Bastille Day.
The food is extraordinarily good: caillete cevenole, 7 hour lamb, cheese, dessert. The wine is a very tolerable Duché d’Uzès, a vin des copains which seems to improve as the evening progresses and supplies of which appear infinite. The band is as enthusiastic as the dancers. And the feux d’artifice, which heralds midnight and Bastille Day itself, are spectacular.
In the company of the usual copains, Jill and I had a great evening, but we were happy to climb the hill to rue de la Révolution at a reasonable hour because Bastille Day itself is very special this year. The circus – in the form of the Tour de France – is in town.
The arrival of the Tour de France is the big news in St Quentin. By 8am on the day, all signs of last night’s festivities have been removed from the Place du Marché and the shelves in Carrefour are emptying as we stock up with bread, snacks, wine and saucissons for the barbecue. The route, even at this hour, is crowded with spectators who have arrived early with their deck chairs and picnics to be part of this national event on this national day.
Jill and I have a grandstand view, courtesy of Doug and Lynne whose shop, Village Velo, lies directly on the route. (Many thanks for your hospitality and generosity.) The riders are scheduled to pass at around 13.00, but before then comes the Caravane, an endless succession of cars, trucks and curiously adorned vehicles of all kinds bearing the names of the sponsors of the Tour. We settle in with our wine and beers to cheer the more amusing efforts and to collect the freebies which are thrown at us at an alarming speed.
Then, the road goes quiet. Doug’s computer shows that the leaders are only minutes away. Some Brits unveil Union flags. I open a terrific bottle of Domaine Mirabel, a luscious red from Pic Saint Loup.
The beakaway group is upon us. Half a dozen riders, none of whom will figure in the final stage placings, race past in a couple of seconds. Another pause. The peloton appears on the bend, and speeds towards us. We see Bradley Wiggins and Chris Froome and cheer them on, but their focus is total. The concentration, the power, the speed is remarkable. And before one can find the camera app on the iPhone, they are gone. For St Quentin la Poterie, the Tour de France is over – probably for many years.
But for the St Quentinoises, it’s only just begun. More meat goes on the barbecue, more bottles are opened, more conversations with total strangers are initiated. It is a jour férié, after all, and tomorrow is Sunday, a day of rest. We’ll maybe wander into Uzès for lunch and – who knows? - I might write a blog about the events of the last couple of days.
Thought for the day: Joy Harper, who would have been with us for these events but who is currently in hospital in Nimes. I tried to give blood on Friday morning as a gesture of support but was refused because I was in England during the mad cow crisis. Instead, we have toasted often and are thinking of her always. Get well soon, Joy.
Tom with Chef Bocuse.
Tom Barrett is an exceptional young man, and I would say this even were he not a friend. But he is and has been since he started part-time work at Wilde’s as a young KP and pot-washer ten years or so ago, earning a little pocket money on the side. That was then. Yesterday, we ate with him at the award-winning, Michelin-starred Le Jardin des Sens in Montpellier, where he is now the Demi Chef du Partie sur la Viande. It was a wonderful personal and gastronomic experience, enhanced by Tom’s presence at the table rather than in the kitchen.
Le Jardin des Sens is a modernist glass cube set in beautiful Mediterranean gardens. It is not cheap: on the carte, even a single starter can cost up to €77, but the Menu Déjeuner is a more modest €49, and it includes a glass of wine chosen for you by the sommelier. Well, it’s a start, I thought.
We met Tom, his mother and step-father and two new chums Roz and Aidan in the gardens. A glass of champagne, a couple of pig’s trotter fritters and an anchoïade of tuna and tomato later, we were ready to ease ourselves into the spectacular glass dining room. It is a beautiful space, comfortably accommodating 80 covers (it was full on a Tuesday lunchtime). Our large round table was immaculately presented, as were the waiting staff and the sommelier, who introduced us to a delicious Minervois red, an English source for which I have already found. Que Sera Serra from Villa Serra is one of the new breed from this region: light, slightly spicy, but with real structure. It went extremely well with my starter of soup and my main course of slow cooked cod.
Soup and cod. The food doesn’t sound too exciting, does it? OK, here’s what these dishes really were.
The starter: La barigoule de petits artichauts et légumes de saison servie froide, sorbet tomate, croustillant de gambas, huile d’olive et basilic. The distilled essence of the south of France, every mouthful an intense and different experience.
The main: Le filet de petit cabillaud cuit longuement au four en croûte de tomate, côtes et verts de blettes à la niçoise et en rissoles, mousserons dans leur jus de cuisson en émulsion. Exquisite – and witty, too, because what at first sight was the skin of the fish was in fact a fine layer of tomato. I’m a meat-eater, but this piece of fish was a taste sensation which will stay with me for years.
The desserts, and les gourmandises. I seldom do desserts, but yesterday I stuffed myself on some of the most wonderful patisserie you can imagine. I met Jean-Christian, the chef patissier who created them, moments later because Tom had arranged for us to visit the kitchens and meet his colleagues after the meal.
It was a pleasure in so many respects. But principally, it was a pleasure to see the respect and affection of the French brigade for le rosbif. He has earned this respect by working hard to meet the exacting standards of a French Michelin-starred restaurant. He works long hours. He speaks French fluently. He is still recognisably the schoolboy who started at Wilde’s, but he is a young man who understands that great food is the result of hard work and meticulous attention to detail.
It made us proud to know him.
Today’s listening: The Airplane from The Matrix in ’68 as I walk into Uzès for the food market: "Fly Jefferson Airplane, gets you there on time ...".
In common with thousands of other tourists, we used to pass the village of Mornas every year as we raced down the Autoroute de Soleil on our way to Grasse, Cogolin or St Tropez. The imposing ruins of the medieval fortress towered above the autoroute to our left, and each year we would promise ourselves that, one day, we would search out the village and explore it. Of course, we never did. With three or four young children in the back, the priority was to find our rented villa, exchange jeans for shorts, and open a bottle of chilled rosé.
Then, in May five years or so ago, Jill and I were attempting a (spurious) short cut from Bollène to St Quentin, and – serendipitously – drove into this delightful village, which is built at the foot on the huge cliff on which the fortress was built. It being midday, we stopped, parked and found our way to Le Manoir, a Logis de France, where we enjoyed a quite superb lunch on the terrace. I can still remember the first mouthful of my truffle omelette.
Since then, lunch in Mornas has been the traditional curtain-raiser to our summer in the south of France (although this year, there is an argument to be made for that glass of Savigny Les Beaunes 2008 in Beaune itself!) The prix fixe menu this year was as good as ever, the demi of local rosé as refreshing as ever, and the service as friendly as ever. It is the perfect introduction to the south, and leaves us with merely a half hour drive through Pont St Esprit before we arrive in St Quentin la Poterie itself and set about airing, dusting and cleaning our small village house which has survived another winter intact.
This morning is the fifth day of our stay. The sun is in the courtyard. It is 21 degrees at the moment, and it promises to be 26 this afternoon. Which will do very nicely, merci.
We have done a great deal in less than a week. The house is once again a home. We have finished some unfinished work. We have caught up with old friends. We have visited our first market in St Quentin and our second the larger one in Uzès. We have discovered that Momo’s has been taken over by the guys from Le P’tit Café, one of our favourite restaurants in Uzès, so my first salade gourmande of the summer was eaten within a 100 metre walk of home. This is good news, although the eclectic buzz of Momo’s cannot be replaced and is much missed.
Yesterday, we attended our first concert of the year. The fixed point of the second Sunday of the month is, in the winter, the performance of The Swaps at The Somerville. Last night, by way of contrast, it was the choirs of Languedoc-Roussillon and the Uzège performing Fauré’s Requiem, together with songs by Saint-Saëns, Hindemith, Milhaud and Tchaikovski, in the Temple d’Uzès, the Protestant church. These amateur choirs acquitted themselves very well, but the moment the professional soloists stood and sang, one knew that these were exceptional voices. Soprano Raphaële Andrie and baritone Alain Iltis made my day, and even being swept by the Nationals at Fenway could not depress my spirits. (Although an apprehension that the Front National may have won the Gard in yesterday’s elections does.)
So: plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose. We are already immersed in la vie française. But this evening, whether we like it or not, we will be forced to be English again. It is England v France, and we plan to watch the game with a pichet or two in the Café de France.
Let's hope the entente can stay cordiale.
Today’s listening: The Ravel String Quartet. Just came on the iPod by chance. So beautiful.
The Chorale Encantarello d'Uzes takes the applause.
25 years ago last week, we told the estate agent who was showing us round an apartment on the Kenilworth Road that we would take it.
"When can we have the keys?" we asked.
"Saturday" he said.
So that Saturday, we moved in. With some books, some pictures, some vinyl and some wine. That evening, we strolled into town in search of something to eat.
Every restaurant was full. Of couples. Eating Lamb Casanova and pink blancmange. Drinking Cava. In our ignorance, we had tried to insert ourselves into the very heart of a British Valentine's Day.
But the 14th of February remains our anniversary. (Or one of them: we subsequently got married on the 5th day of May, so we celebrate that day as well, together with Bob Dylan and Isis herself!)
But, importantly, this last 14th of February was our 25th, our silver anniversary.
We marked the day with lunch at The Nut Tree, in north Oxfordshire, a Michelin-starred pub which had been recommended to us by Lara and Adam. They were doing a special 7 course meal in honour of St Valentine and there was nothing involving dairy or cheese on the e-mailed menu, so I gave them my credit card details for the non-refundable £35 per person deposit, and we schlepped down the M40 and across Otmoor, through assorted Ministry of Defence encampments, and arrived in Murcott just before 1pm.
The car park was packed, but we managed to squeeze the car into a space adjacent to the pigsty. Two encouraging signs in one: a full car park and a full pigsty. Except that the full car park was the result of a wedding party.
No problem. As we also, accidentally, celebrate our anniversary on the 14th, we cannot criticise another couple for choosing to do so. And as the happy couple and their friends were relegated (restricted? confined?) to a modern extension, it mattered not, so long as we managed to schedule our order in such a way that our courses slotted neatly in the spaces between theirs. Which we did.
The Nut Tree is a proper pub, and neither the needs of the chef-patron and his wife nor the demands of Michelin star status have changed it at all. The tables are a little cramped; there are very few of them and I guess that the extension is usually required, because the dining room also includes the village bar. The wood-burning stove looks great but throws out very little heat. The whole look and feel is village pub circa 1930. It would cost a fortune to create such a room from scratch.
The food is good. Crab ravioli needed a tad more seasoning, but the foie gras with rhubarb was spot on. The sea bream was tender and tasty, but we didn't need quite so much of the coconut and lemon grass sauce. (In my case, I would happily have settled for none at all.) The venison was the highlight for me: absolutely sublime, perfectly cooked with a smoky Bourgogne sauce and puréed celeriac. Puddings were good, the clever conceit of boiled egg and soldiers was fun (although chef friends to whom I described it told me it was stolen from someone) and the cardoman ice cream which accompanied the chocolate fondant is my new favourite thing.
The wine? Well, it's a good list with several by the glass, which was our priority. We were guided through it by a ridiculously erudite 20 year old sommelier, who was handsome, forthright, and almost as good as he thought he was.
It was an excellent day out. Business is causing us some sleepless nights at the moment, so it was great to get away from Leamington for a few hours, to eat well, and spend some time together with barely a mention of business.
But of course, business will always ‘uprear its head, black and huge’.
And it subsequently did …
Today’s listening: The fourth Dylan Theme Time Radio Hour, featuring baseball. As spring training starts officially, with Bobby Valentine setting the pace, listening to Bob sing “Take me out to the ballgame” just makes me smile.
Oh, and here are the pigs from The Nut Tree.
Where's my iPad? Illustration by Lara Voce (www.laravoce.com)
I'm writing this on a packed flight from Nimes to Luton, or London Luton as Ryanair calls it, after a surprisingly productive week in St Quentin. The plan was to do some work without distractions, and, on balance, it worked. But not completely so, because I encountered many distractions and - you will not be surprised to learn - several of them proved singularly difficult to resist.
The first distraction is St Quentin itself, which is unchanged from when we left it last October. Or is it? Actually, it only appears unchanged, because much has gone under the surface while we've been away. Fred has taken over behind the comptoir at the Bar du Marché, and Magalie is cooking up a storm in the kitchen; to the extent that they are serving more covers on a January Monday lunchtime than was previously achieved on an August market day. I hope they've got their sums right, because their food is very generously portioned and of excellent quality.
Meanwhile, down at Le Marina, Momo is rumoured to be passing on the baton to Xavier, the chef, and the mot on the rue is that a total refurbishment is taking place behind the closed doors of the restaurant, with Xavier planning an 'up-market' menu to compete with, or perhaps complement, the carte at the Bar du Marché.
In fact, it appears that St Quentin has renewed aspirations on a number of levels: the Bio boulangerie is being converted into no less than five new shops, we now have our own bouquinerie, and the commune has just acquired the ugly old wine warehouse outside which Ch'ti, the mobile friterie, plies its trade. The details of the new development will be announced soon. Watch this space.
Things are also on the move in Uzès. Paola and Olivier have re-branded Au Fils de l'Eau into Le Bistrot du Duché, with a more Bistrot-style menu which I didn't get a chance to try, and the Parisienne couple have now taken over from Thierry at Du Chai d’Uzès in the Passage des Marchands. I spent my last hour in Uzès in their company, discussing and drinking their new wines (which include La Gramiere!)and being reassured that oysters are still available at le weekend.
All these things and the gossip about them were distracting, but not so much so that my work fell too far behind schedule. No, the big distraction is friends.
It would be invidious to name names, so I will mention in this despatch only the following: Archie, Linda, Dianne, Parn, Joan and Joy. That's just the Brits and the Estonians. If, at some time in the future, an editor calls me for missing the deadline, you will be to blame.
Lunch was excellent - all of them. Coffee-into-pastis-into-wine breaks were brilliant. Aperos were great. The conversation, the wit, the humour, the erudition, the goss - they were all the most wonderful distractions. Thanks, guys.
For all the beauty of Uzès and the charm of St Quentin, this is actually why Jill and I love this part of the world so much.
It's all about friends. A bientot.
A reminder for this first 2012 lettre d’Uzès. As you know, the original Lettres d'Uzès were sent by Jean Racine during 1661 and 1662 to his friends in Paris. Racine had been sent to Uzès by his family to stay with his uncle, the Vicar-General. The hope and expectation was that, away from Paris, he would put poetry aside and embrace the priesthood. He never did, succumbing inevitably to the life of a town where “one bookseller starves as a score of traiteurs flourish”. These 21st century letters bear no resemblance to those of Racine, but are nonetheless dedicated to him - with respect, admiration and a thousand apologies.
Today's listening: Without the distraction of television, I've listened to some great stuff over the last week - from the Dead to Debussy. But right now, on my Ryanair flight, through my headphones, I'm listening to some outtakes from Dylan's Real Live album, with Mick Taylor on guitar. As ever with Bob, one wonders why some of these tracks never made the final cut (and why some that did, did!).
Illustration: Lara Voce
I remember an article in Punch, probably forty years ago now, in which the late Alan Coren imagined a London which had been taken over by estate agents. Anything south of the river was re-classified as ‘Surrey’; anything north, ‘Hampstead’.
We’re going to get something like this if the new EU proposal to liberalise vineyard planting rights goes through: west will be a huge Bordeaux appellation, east a smaller but no less dominant Burgundy, with a patch of Champagne and a strip of Rhone. In theory, by the end of 2016, Bordeaux could increase from 120,000 ha to 220,000; Burgundy could double from 28,000 ha to 59,000. The Iberian peninsula will basically become Rioja on the east and Douro on the west, because the vineyard areas of Rioja in Spain and Douro in Portugal could increase in size by factors of six and five respectively.
The objective, apparently, is “to boost the wine sector’s competitiveness by reducing production costs”, which is free-market bollocks-speak for making cheaper wine to sell in the supermarkets.
Let’s for the moment put aside the experience of Australia and New Zealand, where unrestricted planting has produced massive over-supply, falling prices and bankruptcies, and concentrate on Europe.
Even without this new proposal, we still produce 175m hl of wine each year and consume only 130m hl. In other words, supply is once again exceeding demand by a comfortable margin.
It’s a wine lake. And the last time there was a wine lake of this magnitude, the EU introduced a planting ban, as a result of which we achieved some kind of balance between supply and demand.
We managed to create a market in which the good producers could flourish, an environment in which good wine could stand out rather than be drowned in a tsunami of mediocrity. That policy will be reversed if the current proposals are implemented.
Not Dark Yet does not react in Daily Mail knee-jerk fashion to every idea that comes out of Brussels. I actually approve of many. But this is insane.
It's insane because there is already too much wine being produced. It's insane because too much of it is the lowest common denominator stuff which this proposal will encourage. It's insane because the whole concept of terroir will be undermined. It's insane because historic names and great sites will be tarnished.
We are still, just about, members of the European Union. Thirteen countries have already registered their opposition to these “catastrophic” plans. If Britain joined them, there would be a majority against.
Wouldn’t it be great to be part of the majority in Europe? And in such a good cause?
Today's listening: The Coull Quartet, our local band, playing Haydn. Exquisite.
By now (11am on Friday morning), a significant proportion of the 50 million or so cases of Beaujolais nouveau which left the villages of Beaujolais at midnight will have arrived in the UK, and a fair amount will have reached Warwickshire. None of it will cross the threshold of Wilde’s.
This is not wine snobbery. This is a considered judgement.
Despite my occasionally vehement advocacy of the superiority of certain wines over others, I have only once been accused of being a wine snob. It was a party, some time ago. We were in the kitchen. A glass of red was thrust into my hand and it was clear that the wine was corked before I had taken a sip. As I put down the glass with an exclamation of disgust, a voice said: “Oh God, a wine snob.”
I was mortified, because I’m not: I would happily have drunk the offending wine had it not been corked. I was also surprised, because my accuser was an artist named Mary Riley, who was known for her trenchant views on art and artists. I tried to engage her in a discussion about one’s right – indeed, duty – to distinguish the good from the bad in all fields of human endeavour: art, literature, music, food, wine etc etc. But no. Some painters are better than others, some writers are better than others, some composers are better than others, but wine is wine. It is either red or white. (Kingsley Amis claimed that “Red or white?” was the most depressing question he was ever asked at a dinner party.)
The writer Rick Gekoski tellingly used a wine analogy when discussing the process of judging the Booker prize:
“You like Mateus Rosé better than Chateau Pétrus? No problem. You think it is a better wine? You're wrong. You're clearly without the experience, palate, or discrimination to make such a judgment.“
Rick went on to quote the Eliot phrase “the common pursuit of true judgement”, which was famously appropriated by Leavis, and is close to my heart. The importance of the common pursuit, and the collaborative process which it involves, is what I took from my education and what I believe is relevant and applicable today. Yes, even to wine.
One of the pleasures of our ownership of Wilde’s has been working with merchants, customers, staff and friends to select wines which satisfy taste and judgement (as well, of course, as commercial considerations). An even greater pleasure has been the creation of a wine list which attempts to explain those choices and to involve the reader/customer in the choice itself.
That process has been an education for which I am grateful to mentors such as Tim Hollis-Carroll. There are wines on the list which are not to my taste. But there is not a single wine which I do not judge to be one of the best of its kind, in its price range.
Which is why we will not be offering Beaujolais nouveau today. True, it is not to my taste. But more importantly, it is neither a good wine nor good value for money.
And if I have learned one thing in a lifetime of drinking wine, it is this: if it is not the former, it cannot be the latter - whatever the price. Can we not agree on that?
Today’s listening: gearing up for the Dylan gig in Hammersmith this weekend with the Rolling Thunder Review from Boston in November 1975.
What is this stuff I’m drinking?
Actually, I know exactly what it is: it’s a left bank cru bourgeois claret, from a good year. It’s what used to be called an English luncheon claret: low alcohol, linear tannins, a hint of pencil sharpenings, black – slightly sour – fruit. In other words, exactly the kind of red I have loved since I started drinking wine seriously forty or more years ago.
But it doesn’t taste right. And it’s my fault.
I’ve been in the south of France for too long, and the French do not drink outside their region. So my palate has adjusted to the higher alcohol, bigger fruit and broader tannins of the Rhône and the Languedoc.
It matters because Tim Hollis-Carroll from Enotria is presenting Christophe and I with a selection of Bordeaux and Burgundy reds for the new Wilde’s wine list, and I’m finding all these clarets thin and unappealing. I’m concerned that, to compensate for my new tastes, I will go for a bigger, Parker-ized claret rather than the traditional style which is required to fill this particular gap in our current list. I let Tim and Christophe make the decision.
The Pinot Noir tasting is less of an issue; not least because in a strong field there is one wine which really stands out. It’s a Bourgogne Haut Cotes de Nuits, grown in the hills above Chambolle Musigny and made by the small domaine of Laurent Roumier. Despite an excellent Beaune 1ère Cru and a surprisingly good wild card Californian (Avant Garde from the Taittinger-owned Domaine Carneros), the Roumier is ripe and elegant, with an extraordinarily long finish. It’s clearly the right choice for Wilde’s patrons. I can't wait to linger over a bottle when I have re-educated my palate.
That process, of course, has already started. Later, with venison, we drink Prélude à Grand Puy Ducasse 2003, the chateau’s second wine. It’s an affordable and typical Pauillac which opens up beautifully in the glass and reminds me of what I have been missing.
You see, it’s not easy compiling a wine list. It’s not enough to choose your favourite wines and then sit back enjoying the fruits (and tannins) of your labours. Different tastes, different varieties, different countries, different vintages, different price points must be accommodated; a palate which is exclusively focused on a single style cannot get the balance right.
I’m looking forward to restoring my taste buds to their previous, eclectic, state.
Today’s listening: Grateful Dead. The re-mastered 1972 European tour. Was it really this good?