Stuart George

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Highs and Lows: Beronia Gran Reserva 2001-1973

In Tastings on October 1, 2010 at 2:47 pm

I love old Rioja. So it was with great pleasure that I accepted the invitation to a vertical tasting of Beronia Gran Reserva, held in the West End on 29 September.

I went with some trepidation, though. I had not tasted Beronia before but these wines surely would not match some of the golden oldies that I’ve had in recent years – 1962 and 1959 CVNE Viña Real Gran Reserva, for example, and Marqués de Riscal 1945 and 1900. (Smug? Moi?)

Based at Ollauri, just south of Haro in Rioja Alta, Beronia was established in 1973 and bought by the Sherry firm González Byass in 1982.

The viticultural and winemaking blurb is pretty standard (i.e. boring) but Beronia does do something novel with its barrels.  For the top wines – like the Gran Reserva – “mixed wood” is used, with the barrels’ covers made of French oak and the staves of American oak. This equates to about 1/3 French and 2/3 American in terms of surface area. A fellow taster remarked that it would probably be easier and less expensive (these hybrid barrels cost 25% more than “monovarietal” barrels) to age the wine in separate French and American barrels and then blend it together.

The wines were consistent in style, with a distinctive saline note in several vintages, but that is not to suggest that they were particularly good. Perhaps I’m being hard on Beronia but I do think that old Rioja is, or certainly can be, one of the greatest wines in the world.

Then again, the 1995, 1994 and 1987 were all corked. I cannot recall ever attending a tasting with such a high rate of corked bottles. Even more depressingly, the corked 1994 and 1987 seemed to pass most people by. Maybe they had different bottles to my table, where only the gentleman opposite me had also noticed the cork taint.

The youngest wine and the current release, the 2001 was turning to garnet. A bit of oak “dust” at the end of the nose at first. The saline taste was really quite odd at first – I’ve never noticed it so much in a wine before. Other tasters might call it minerality. The ’01had a typical Rioja structure – some tannin, plenty of acidity and a bit of oak flavour. It was nothing special but this could easily go to 2020 and beyond.

At first the 1985 seemed ill at ease – I though it might be another TCA victim. It got better with aeration but that brought a Band-Aid Brett note to the surface! This was a hot year, apparently, which has manifested itself in a slightly raisiny nose, though the acidity is good. Beronia’s winemaker Matías Calleja called this wine “brusco” (brusque). It’s good for another five years at least.

Depending on your view, the 1982 was either spicy or Brett-tainted! Like the ’85, it still had plenty of acidity but it was drying out on the finish. Drink up before 2015.

The 1981 Gran Reserva was similar styled to the 1982 but had less of the waspish acidity. The nose was brighter and less veiled by Brett (or whatever it was with the ’82). It finished with a punch of grippy old fruit rather than the whimper of the previous wine. I think this will keep going a bit longer than the 1982.

The slightly deeper colour of the 1978 was a promising sign. Depressingly, the sweet fruit at the front of the palate was followed by something a bit murky in the middle. But it got its act together on the rich and smooth finish. This authoritative Rioja will outlive some of its younger relations, I think.

Finally, the 1973 was the first Gran Reserva release from Beronia. The salinity was almost overwhelmed by the blistering acidity that lingered on the finish. A good wine but the 1978 just beat it.

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Seña and sensibility

In Tastings on September 22, 2010 at 8:42 am

On Wednesday 15 September I went to the Autumn Portfolio Tasting of New Generation Wines, an affable bunch with some nice wines on their books – Schiopetto, for example.

The tasting was held in The Red Room of Les Ambassadeurs Club , just off the Hyde Park Corner end of Park Lane. “Les A” is supposedly the “most exclusive” gambling haunt in London, with a long history of catering to high rollers. The Red Room looked to me like one of those places that the vulgar rich enjoy – lots of mirrors (of course), hushed lighting, big sofas, gaudy decor and overpriced drinks. My former ladyfriend Alla – a stunning and thoroughly amoral creature from Moscow – would love it.

Aged Chilean wines are almost as rare as rich Russians with good taste. But New Generation had assembled a five-vintage vertical of Seña, the “icon” wine initiated by Viña Errázuriz and Robert Mondavi in the 1990s.

Seña 2000 was tasted from magnum. It was cedary and fleshy, though still rather taut on the finish. Good wine.

The 2001 was sweeter and richer – clearly a much warmer year – with more tannin to lose. But another good wine.

There was a change of pace with the 2002. It was much tougher, with tannins as rasping as a cough. But even those felt tender compared to the 2006 and 2007, which were very much in Chilean wine’s modernist style, all creamy oak flavours and scorching tannins to appeal to the US palate.

Will the recent vintages age as well as the 2000? I dunno. But I do know that Seña is an expensive wine – £39.80 ex-vat from New Generation.

Pope discord

In Uncategorized on September 18, 2010 at 11:07 am

Very discreetly – it is not part of his “official” itinerary – the Pope will today visit St Peter’s Residence in the deeply unglamorous Meadow Road SW8, all of five minutes walk from my flat.

I am not a church goer or Catholic so I can take or leave his visit. I do like Alexander Pope, though!

Nonetheless, it is historic. I can remember my parents – both C of E and suspicious of Catholicism – being quite excited by Pope John Paul II’s visit to the UK in 1982. I saw his Easter Mass in Rome in 2002 when I was backpacking around Europe.

This week I read a highly amusing story about the how the Popemobile was developed after the attempted assassination of Pope John Paul in 1981. The Vatican commissioned a local firm to modify a Toyota, with the design to include Kevlar bodywork and bullet-proof glass but also, at the front, mountings for a couple of machine guns.

These were eventually dropped because, a  company spokesman admitted many years later, “it was decided it wouldn’t look good for the Pope to fight back.”

Tom’s Kitchen at Somerset House

In Restaurants/wine and food on September 3, 2010 at 10:16 am

Last night (2 September) I was invited to attend the press launch of Tom Aiken’s new restaurant at Somerset House.

Replacing the Admiralty Restaurant, Tom’s Kitchen is essentially a West End reproduction of the Chelsea restaurant of the same name, which I visited a couple of years ago. It was alright.

While waiting to be seated I had a look at the wine list, which appeared to have been bowdlerised for the press evening – the list on the website has a “Fine Red Wines” section that was not on last night’s list. Perhaps Somerset House did not want drunken hacks ordering bottles of Les Forts de Latour 1996 at £170 a pop.

The 40 or so wines on the list are arranged according to style: Champagne; crisp, dry whites; fruity, aromatic whites; full-bodied whites; rosé; light-medium bodied reds; fruity reds; spicy, robust reds; full-bodied reds; sweet and Port. Some half bottles were also listed and 17 wines are available by the glass.  I was told by two young ladies sat next to me that the cocktails were excellent.

The Champagnes are mostly from Lanson, which was fine for me, though one glass of the Black Label NV (£55 a bottle) was enough – Lanson is a very acidic style of fizz, not necessarily easy to drink.

Only the most expensive wines on the “press” wine list cited a vintage. The Seresin Marlborough Sauvignon turned out to be 2008 and very good it was too – I spent some time there in 2004 but the winemaking team has changed since then. The Sesti Brunello 2004 at £75 represents a 100% markup on the retail price but it’s a good wine.

Of course Tom Aiken is known for his food and not his wine lists. Feeling a bit peckish, I ordered a starter of steak tartare, one of those basic dishes that is a good test of a chef and a restaurant. It was ghastly. Although there is no fixed recipe for steak tartare, I like it to be lightly spiced and with a raw egg on top. Aikens’s version looked as though the egg had been stirred in with the meat to create a mush that looked, felt and, for that matter, tasted like mushy peas from an East End chip shop. I would not want to pay £12.50 for this. (They charge £18 for it as a main course – do they serve 50% more?).

The main course was much better. The Daylesford 7 Hour Confit Lamb with balsamic onions and mash is apparently one of Aikens’s signature dishes. It hit the spot – high quality gastro-pub food, which is really what Tom’s Kitchen is all about. The gut-busting side order of truffle chips with Parmesan was very decadent.

I drank a glass of SixFootSix Shiraz 2005 from Geelong, Australia, with the lamb. Not bad – a bit beefy and bovril on the finish but that’s ok with lamb. I also tasted my companions’ Fernand Girard Sancerre rosé 2009, which was very good, showing real Pinot Noir character and freshness.

For dessert I had a very sweet Eton Mess that used blackberries rather than the usual strawberries – it’s that time of year, I suppose.

So it was a mixed evening chez Aikens, then. One final observation: the toilets are “bisexual”, so to speak, shared by boys and girls. I don’t mind that but I suspect that some people would. A restaurant is only as good as its little girl’s room.

Stockwell Flats

In Art and artists on June 6, 2010 at 7:17 pm

At the London International Fine Art Fair on Saturday 6 June, I had a wander to see what was going on and enjoy the opportunity to see artworks that normally are hidden away behind the intimidating doors of Mayfair and St James’s dealers.

I was particularly struck by David Hepher’s Stockwell Flats, which I had not seen before. I have been a Stockwell resident for over five years so anything connected to the area is always of interest to me.

Stockwell Flats (oil on canvas 108 x 76 inches / 274.5 x 193 cm, 1974)

Born in 1935, Hepher continues to be based in South London. Stockwell Flats was the first in a series of paintings of unglamorous high-rise council blocks and was first shown at the “New Work” exhibition, an Arts Council group exhibition held at the Hayward Gallery in November-December 1975.

Doubtless the seven-storey high-rise depicted by Hepher still exists but I don’t recognise it and I can’t see it from my roof terrace, from which I have panoramic views across the local streets towards central London and the City.

But I can see the ghastly Kelvedon House, a vast 20-storey ex-local authority block that I have to visit occasionally because my illiterate postman sometimes delivers something to me that was destined for one of the unlucky souls in Kelvedon.

Su and Sardinia: Su Sazzagoni in Hackney

In Restaurants/wine and food on April 1, 2010 at 2:13 pm

Thanks to the good offices of Martin Kyran at Foal Brand Grooming, I was able to visit recently Su Sazzagoni restaurant in Lauriston Road, Hackney, with my friend Jane Egginton.

Opened in January 2009, Su Sazzagoni is a Sardinian trattoria in trendy Victoria Park Village. As well as the restaurant there is also a delicatessen and bar for people who want to enjoy a quick coffee or bite to eat. Pizzas are available to takeaway at very reasonable cost. All very civilised for the East End!

Don Domè Prosecco was served as an aperitif. It was simple, clean and short – a typical Prosecco. I would not pay £32 for a bottle of this.

For an appetiser we were given pane carasau, a typical Sardinian flatbread, which was very tasty. A fruity and earthy Cantina Santadi Grotta Rossa made from Carignan grapes was served with the mixed antipasti of carpaccio di manzo in truffle oil; salsiccia (sausage); salami; and scamorza – a cow’s milk cheese – with peppers.

The primo piatto was calamari ripieni, fresh squid filled with a seafood pesto of parsley and bread-crumbs. Jane and I agreed that it needed to be a bit more tender.

The secondo piatto was very good. Maccarronisi de busa al ragù di cinghiale, or Sardinian-style macaroni with wild boar ragù, was rustic and filling and good with the Grotta Rossa. Cantina Santadi is a large co-operative with a good reputation but £25 seemed quite pricey for this wine.

By now I was struggling. I had been in Italy a few days beforehand and was still recuperating from tasting 400 Barberas. But the dishes kept coming.

For a terzo piatto, we ate – or tried to eat – fregola ai frutti di mare (seafood fregola), essentially a seafood risotto but made from a particular Sardinian pasta that is more like couscous. The seafoods included calamari, prawns, langoustines and mussels, with a pinch of chilli for some spice – and plenty of salt.

Cantina Sociale di Dorgali’s Norìolo red wine was also tasted. Made from 80% Cannonau (aka Grenache) and 20% Cabernet Sauvignon, it was sweeter and more generous than the Grotta Rossa.

A piatto quarto was served! Culurgionis all’Ogliastrina is like ravioli: Sardinian dumplings filled with potatoes, cheese and mint and topped with a tomato sauce.

And they still weren’t finished with us… The sixth and final dish was malloreddus alla campidanese, shell-shaped Sardinian pasta with sausages. The Is Argiolas Vermentino from Cantine Argiolas was poured with the malloreddus, though I would have preferred a red wine here and to have drunk white with the antipasti and calamari ripieni. The wine was dry, crisp and had some pear aromas. Again, it seemed a bit expensive at £30.

Not content that we had tried enough of the menu, a tagliata di tonno all’isolana, or charcoal-grilled tuna steak in a crust of poppy seeds, landed on our table. It was a bit too grilled for our liking.

Finally, I was allowed to retire from the main courses and have some desert to perk me up for the journey back home. The ice creams are bought-in rather than made on the premises but the chocolate gelato we had was nice enough, especially with a glass or two of mirto di Sardegna, a liqueur made from myrtle. Not as bad as it sounds!

As guests of Martin, we were given rather too much to try and it is difficult to put a price on what a typical dinner here would cost. But I would guess that a shared starter and two or three shared mains would be about £50. Two bottles of wine would be about £50-60, so dinner for two comes in at about £100. That does seem quite a lot but a comparable meal in the West End would perhaps be twice that much and the service would be more surly.

I have been to Sardinia only once and was struck by how different it was from the mainland – much slower and gentler. In his travelogue Sea and Sardinia, D.H. Lawrence wrote that Sardinia was “strange and rather wonderful, not a bit like Italy.”

With Tuscan-style restaurants ubiquitous in London and elsewhere, it’s good to see something a bit different from Italy. Bravi!

Château Pichon-Longueville Comtesse de Lalande 2005–1991

In Tastings on February 9, 2010 at 1:15 pm

Belatedly, here are my notes from a tasting of Pichon-Lalande 2005–1991 held at Christie’s St James’s offices in London on December 1, 2009. The wines were presented by Pichon-Lalande’s Technical Director, Thomas Dô Chi Nam.

Château Pichon-Lalande 2005

Harvesting went from September 20 to October 7, yielding 47hl/ha. The final blend was 64% Cabernet Sauvignon, 29% Merlot, 6% Cabernet Franc, and 1% Petit Verdot.

The color is a striking pyrope purple, though it is not opaque like some 2005s. The nose shows a lot of oak at first but gradually reveals red fruits and earthy flavors. Medium-plus body of substantial richness, with wonderful velvet-like tannins. Good length, glowing sweet fruit, and vanilla oak on the finish. Despite the stellar, sometimes notorious, reputation of this Bordeaux vintage, Pichon-Lalande 2005 is not a blockbuster, capturing the elegance and balance of its terroir rather than the sometimes over-generous nature of the year. This wine is already beguiling but is it lust or love…? It could be drunk now or aged 2015–30+ for cerebral rather than sensual enjoyment.

Château Pichon-Lalande 2004

The harvest started on September 27 and concluded on October 14. The Merlot was picked in warm weather and came in with relatively high potential alcohol of 13° to 13.5°. The final blend comprised 53% Cabernet Sauvignon, 36% Merlot, 7% Petit Verdot, and 4% Cabernet Franc.

Color as before though perhaps a little brighter at the rim. This wine leaves a very different impression to the 2005, being much less opulent and generous. It smells of blackcurrant rather than red fruits and is nowhere near as concentrated. The balancing act of tannins and acidity is striking though they are rather spiky at the moment. Lacking the opulence and length of 2005, it is however perhaps more typical and “classic” in its styling. Age 2012–25+.

Château Pichon-Lalande 2003

Picking started on September 10 for the Merlot and on September 18 for the Cabernet Sauvignon. Harvesting finished on September 26 and the finished wine was made from 65% Cabernet Sauvignon, 31% Merlot, and 4% Petit Verdot. At 33hl/ha the yield was much lower than average.

Same depth of color as before though showing more garnet at the rim. Not as jammy or overblown as one might expect, showing mint and pepper, but with aeration it becomes simpler and more jammy. The tannins recall those of 2004 but there is less acidity to counter them, so the wine has a rather ornery finish. Like so many 2003s, this is not one to endure. Now to 2015.

Château Pichon-Lalande 2002

Picking started on September 30 for the Merlot and October 4 for the Cabernet Sauvignon and was completed by October 10. The final cuvée was 51% Cabernet Sauvignon, 34% Merlot, 9% Cabernet Franc, and 6% Petit Verdot.

Surprisingly this has a similar color to the 2003! The appealing nose is already quite cedary, though at first there seemed to be a non-trivial prickle of acetate that tickled my admittedly cold-ridden nose… Coming after the ultra-rich 2003 and 2005 this feels thin by comparison. It has a much lighter framework than those two leviathans, with the tannins already well amalgamated. The flavors on the palate are really quite prematurely aged—it lacks some freshness and verve. On its own terms, a more than decent claret but not a great Pichon-Lalande. Dô Chi Nam reckoned that it was “good value for money. It’s not a fashionable vintage but it has a strong energy inside.” Drink now or age to 2020 for extra smoothness, though it might lose more freshness along the way.

Château Pichon-Lalande 2001

This vintage has an exceptionally high Petit Verdot content of 14%. The 2000, which was not available to taste here, has 10% Petit Verdot. “We have very old PV blocks,” explained Dô Chi Nam. Petit Verdot gives “freshness and complexity” to the wine. There are only three clones of Petit Verdot commercially available in France but Pichon-Lalande has propagated its own by massal selection—that is, it takes cuttings from its own plants and grows them.

The remainder of the blend is 50% Cabernet Sauvignon and 36% Merlot. The absence of Cabernet Franc resulted in a different cuvée to the norm, with a different structure and flavors. Harvesting endured from September 27 to October 14.

Similar depth of color to 2002 but more garnet. Cedarwood and licorice aromas make this appear very lean compared to the riper vintages. Nonetheless, there is a nicely structured palate, with tannins and acidity in harmony. The palate is surely more appealing than the nose. An elegant, refined claret to drink now to 2020+.

Château Pichon-Lalande 1998

Harvested September 24 to October 7 and blended to 55% Cabernet Sauvignon, 30% Merlot, and 15% Cabernet Franc. As in 2003 there was no Petit Verdot.

Similar depth of color to the 2001 but just a bit lighter at the core. Tobacco, earthy, almost meaty in comparison to the previous wines but fresh with it. Peppery and complex. Earthy on the palate too, finishing elegantly and long. A good wine, just about mature. Who would ever have thought it in this vintage? It must be all that Merlot! Drink now to 2020.

Château Pichon-Lalande 1996

In this great Cabernet vintage Pichon-Lalande used 75% Cabernet Sauvignon, 15% Merlot, 5% Cabernet Franc, and 5% Petit Verdot. Harvesting began on September 24.

Its color is similar to that of the 2001. Compared to the 1998 it is closed and unyielding on the nose. There is intense Cabernet fruit and structure on the palate—this is nowhere near ready. Intense rather than opulent, it is still elegant and earthy, with velvety and smooth tannins. The ’96 might be less approachable than some of the other wines, its palate resembling a squeezed fist, but it is intense and long. A very good wine though, on the basis of the other wines here, not typical of Pichon! But Dô Chi Nam felt that the wine was “very Pauillac and very Pichon.” For me this was the best wine of the tasting. Age 2015–30+.

Château Pichon-Lalande 1991

There were devastating spring frosts this year on April 21–22 that destroyed new shoots; 80% of the potential crop was lost to the frost and only 30% of the final crop made it into the grand vin, which was harvested October 1–9. The blend was 45% Cabernet Sauvignon, 35% Merlot, 12% Cabernet Franc, and 8% Petit Verdot.

Medium depth brick red, turning to tawny at the rim. It smells like a “cool” vintage, the aromas suggesting capsicum or tomato leaf, but also some tobacco. Complex and mature but not opulent. It’s not bad at all considering what horrors some 1991s are! Again characteristically elegant. Still reasonably fresh, if rather lean and unripe compared to other wines here, and retaining a backbone of acidity with the characteristic Pichon elegance. It has good length but the younger wines are more enduring—it becomes less convincing with aeration, especially up against the 1996. Drink now to 2015.

Château Léoville-Poyferré 2007–1996

In Tastings on January 20, 2010 at 5:32 pm

At today’s Richards Walford annual portfolio tasting there were a few mini-verticals to investigate. The most impressive of these was a six-vintage vertical of Château Léoville-Poyferré 2007–1996.

It is difficult to concentrate and write extensively at such a busy tasting so my notes are by necessity pithy.

2007

Earthy fruit, some oak still there. Pleasant but underwhelming. Drink 2015–20+?

2006

Quite hard oak tannins. Rather charmless. 2015–20+?

2005

Quite closed on the nose. Sumptuous palate, far smoother and richer than 2007 or 2006. 2015–25?

2004

Earthy nose, some cigar – starting to mature. Quite a nice texture, fairly smooth but lacks the power of 2005.

2001

A bit closed, some cigar again. Not quite ready, with some tannin to lose, though these are good. Finishes a bit shorter than some of the other wines. 2012–18?

1996

Cigar nose. Palate just about ready, smooth and supple. Now to 2015?

The lunch at Baltic Restaurant was as delicious and the waitresses as pretty as ever, of course!