Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Fernando Alonso…eat your heart out!

The Mile Highlight club had assembled in Row 18; Sexy Esme, Dizzy Rachael and the rest of the Barcelona Hen Night(mare) 2006. Blonde streaks bobbed up and down as they squealed, contorted, kicked and generally got high on celebrity gossip mags. With a bit of luck thought TJ, a visit to Jean Leon’s winery just outside Barcelona was not on their schedule. The hens clucked as the lady across the aisle slept mouth agape, catching the sky. Had I looked like that a few moments earlier?...Surely not.

The sun quite literally beat down like a big stick on the beautiful Jean Leon vineyards and winery in Penedes. I was able to honestly tell my host, Anna, that it was 35 degrees in London that day. Raised eyebrows and polite smiles…she clearly thought me quite loopy…poor boy, all that cold and rain has gone to his head. The wines were delightful. And the new Zemis 2003? “Juice of the Gods”, chimed in Mario hopefully.

Lunch at Mas Rabell, Torres’ private dining restaurant was spectacular (Miguel Torres was a pal of Jean Leon. Not surprisingly, he liked the wines so much he bought the company). I suggest you try to get in there, though you can’t book or pay. Your best shot is to propose some business to Torres or Jean Leon, get invited, eat quickly and then scarper before the game’s up. Piece of pastel.

Then to business in the sprawling offices of Torres town but that’s all a bit dull compared to the car trip after that back to Barcelona. With Iain at the wheel and TJ on map duty (with Goonie Map: Part 2 – what is it with winemakers and indecipherable treasure maps?) we sped through traffic and made great time, getting to within 10 metres of the destination. “Is this it? No it can’t be”…wrong move partner. Wow, you only get one shot at it in Barcelona and you don’t want to miss it. In an attempt to loop round we took off gamely down what looked like a road…until it became a path, then a pedestrian area…then a square. A beautiful square, lovely buildings, a fountain; no roads mind but that didn’t worry David Coulthard behind the wheel as we weaved through groups of tourists. Then a path again and more people. Commotion on our right as people crowded round the car pointing. Our chief of security fortunately locked all the doors in a flash (well our doors anyway – sorry Iain!) as we survived our first hijacking attempt. We drove round in a few more circles before eventually threading our way back to our start/destination 30 minutes later. Fernando Alonso…eat your heart out!

Thursday, July 13, 2006

Gastronaut Lift-off

Just for a moment you could imagine you were in Southern Spain, Sevilla perhaps. No wait – far too lush and green for that. We must be in Northern Spain, perhaps in Pamplona. The only thing missing was a bull running amok in the picturesque garden…and that’s probably just as well. TJ has been out and about getting the scoop on one of the top pubs in the country. The Griffin Inn in Fletching near Brighton could be most of your dreams come true. Owned and run by the wonderfully hospitable trio of Nigel, Bridget and James, this is truly a pub with heart and soul in every plate and glass.

We had convened with the aim of bringing together some of the great gastro pub and restaurant minds in the area for a bit of a session. Our hosts provided a feast for both the eye and the belly (more on that later) and Jean Leon, Casa de l’Ermita, Hidalgo and Quinta do Vallado came to the party with some lip-smackingly good wines. The setting for the aperitifs and cured Spanish meats on the lawn overlooking the Ouse Valley was magical. Our sherry sashayed and our rose rollicked along.

To the tables and wonderful tapas. Gazpacho, garlic prawns, calamari with lentils, chorizo and broad beans, cod with chickpeas – all divine and presided over by bewitching Spanish eyes. With these treats, the Jean Leon trio of Pago Chardonnay, and Terrasola Muscat and Sauvignon Blanc confirmed the sheer class emanating from this benchmark Penedes producer. With the main course still to come, belts were loosened and glasses drained as a trio of red wines arrived. The Pago Merlot from Jean Leon reminded us that it is one of the top Merlots in Europe while the Tinto and Tinto Reserva from Vallado showed the balance of power and grace for which red table wine from the Douro is fast becoming known. With these we got stuck into a wonderful pork dish whose crackling could be heard several pubs away.

When pressed to describe the wines, all manner of characters and images were invoked with mention of everyone from Bond villains to BA Baracus, but by this point brains had become addled by too much fine food. And as if they hadn’t done enough already, our kind hosts then turned over four of their new and delightfully appointed guest rooms to weary Bibendumites. If you get the chance…go there. We can’t promise you’ll get all of the above each night but you will get the warmest welcome this side of Dodge. And the wine’s not too bad either…

Thursday, July 06, 2006

South of England take in the South of France

Bibendum's South of England team recently returned from a trip to the Languedoc.
The whole trip started in a fairly surreal way, as we actually got to Stansted for 5am! We flew to Carcassonne and picked up the hire cars. First stop, Mas la Chevaliere to meet the absolutely superb girls and boys from Laroche…

We started with a tasting of the Laroche South of France wines. All of which again showed us great varietal identity, quality of fruit and value for money. Specifically the 05 Pinot Noir, Neil. It is worth pointing out the impressive progression of the Mas la Chevaliere wines. When I tasted these wines 2 years ago they were definitely a work in progress and would’ve been a particularly hard sell. However they are now showing delicate, complex character that more than justifies their price. Don’t get me wrong, these are food wines and a definite ‘hand sell’. But they can offer Bibendum customers great value and really over deliver in quality.

After a cooling look round the shiny new winery (pictured above) and an astonishingly hot visit to the Roqua Blanca vineyards we managed to squeeze in some sunbathing and/or a quick game of Petanque. By the way, you’ll do well to watch Willsher and Macca on a boule court… they both throw in random comments like, “do I go now?” and, “please can I throw the little ball next?” It’s a complete façade; they’re secretly brilliant and ruthless.

Before we cracked on with an awesome seafood platter and a very relaxed BBQ we sat round and tasted through the L’Avenir (South Africa) and Laroche Chile wines. Again some great wines on show, a few of the highlights are as follows: L’Avenir Chenin Blanc – Offering a completely different style to the De Trafford version, this wine has very subtle oak influence, with a lively acidity and rich tropical fruit. Not cheap I’ll grant you, but genuinely good kit. Punto Nino Carmenere – Rich and complex with ‘in your face’ dark fruit. As a great food wine that really walks the walk this is spot on for your Gastro list. Punto Alto Pinot Noir – Always going to be popular this one, we all pretty much loved it before we got there. Chilean Pinot is growing in reputation and credibility and this shows why. Proper wine at the right price.

The next day following an extensive barbecue / further tasting session, the team assembled at 8, got into cars and made its way to the Southern Rhone to see the guys at TerraVentoux. We powered across the garrigues with a CD of ‘Now Classics’ cranked right up: Tiffany, Wham, Frankie Goes to Hollywood… Charlotte and I ‘arm danced’ pretty much the whole way. Awesome.

TerraVentoux tasting was both succinct and air conditioned, ideal in the steamy circumstances. Popular on the day were definitely the French Folies – A spicy Syrah Grenache blend with really jammy cooked fruits and balancing tannins. Also a sneak preview of their new La Cave wine, another serious Grenache blend. Diarmid won tasting note of the day with “It’s kind of wet but dry at the same time”. A man with a great future behind him.

After a quick lunch in the winery (with one of the best selection of cheeses I’ve ever seen) we took a trip around some of the vineyards with the excellent Jean-Marc Lafage, their consultant oenologist and one of the most respected wine growers in Southern France. It was genuinely interesting to visit these sites with someone explaining their viticultural methods as they were doing it. You’d think a conversation about potassium management would be boring, not with Jean-Marc… although I’m not going to try recreate the lesson here, my version definitely would be boring.

Laroche and TerraVentoux both shout about the diverse range of soils and climates in this part of France and this is very clearly represented in their wines. We tasted a range of different styles from fresh, lifted aperitif’s to spicy, rich reds; all of which are great quality and great value. A very pragmatic approach to winemaking.

In all a very good (and very hot) trip.