The plan was simple, I was going to go to Bethnal Green for the 1pm drop in Yoga session. Then have something simple and healthy to eat, drink some tea and read my book. Just as I was walking out the door, my phone rang. 'Hi Donald, it's Valeria, I'm just phoning to check whether you're going to the lunch today?' - 'where, when, how?' - 'Rhodes W1 with Wayne Stehbens of Katnook estate'..... Well gift horses and mouths were coming to mind, so I knocked the whole yoga idea on the head and set off for Marble arch.
Rhodes W1 is just round the corner in the lobby of the Cumberland hotel, in fact it's somewhat difficult to establish exactly where the lobby ends and the restaurant begins.
I was a guest of Bibendum who were sorting Wayne Stehbens of Katnook estate out a little farewell lunch before he departed to Canada or where ever Barossa wine makers go to when they're not needed at home. And on arrival James sorted me out with a glass of the 2008 Sauvignon Blanc. Admittedly as breakfasts go it might not have been the most suitable but it was none the less very convincing. Quite herbal but with a degree of restraint to the nose and then a slightly sticky character to the fruit that finished with a delightful menthol/eucalypt tang. As Sauvignons go it was far from being the most obvious varietally, and all the nicer for it. This was followed by a glass of the 2001 (sadly I didn't take a photo as it was a beautiful colour), from a largish, quite ripe crop, this apparently started out showing very ripe stone fruit notes, 9 years later, it was a little bit toasty, with notes of wax, cream, polish, on the palette the wine was still very much still together a core of good acidity running taught through it. Wayne commented that all the colour and maturation was due to the phenolics created through oxidisation of the tannins left from the skin contact. Suffice to say I was very impressed.
The wines were pairing an asparagus soup with smoked salmon mousse and a smoked salmon croque monsieur. The soup was very pleasant, once I realised that the scummy orangey layer on the surface was meant to be there...
This was followed by an 'Italian salad of roast red and yellow peppers, courgettes, fennel salami, coppa, rocket and marinated Bocconcini cheese' - which pretty much did what it said on the tin, all the ingredients were present and correct, though it left you with the impression that the chef had just popped into the italian deli round the corner and knocked up a spot of lunch.
Merlot 2006 (from Magnum) was a mid depth blood red fading a touch at the rim that showed aromatic brambles, red berries and a touch of spice and ceder from the oak. This was surprisingly elegant and almost a touch understated. Wayne went on to explain how he was aiming for a style that fell somewhere between the earthy mushroominess of St-Emillion and the more gravelly restrained St-Estephe Merlots (like Ch du Pez).
The Coonawarra terroir is quite distinct, it is one of the coldest regions in Australia, being 80km from the Southern Ocean, and at only 60 m elevation means that there is a lot of wind to cool the vines. This leads to large diurnal variation. Crucially for the region, from the period between veraison and picking the average temperature rests about a degree above the Bordelais average, this with usually dry summers means that the vines can be quite safely left to ripen.
The famous Coonawarra terra rossa, is a ferrous clay lime soil that lies above a 4 foot limestone subsoil, this is believed to have been the remnant of a shallow tropical sea, the terra rossa is a Podzolic soil which is believed to have been blown into the region.
John Riddoch who first initiated agriculture and viticulture in the region was also very influential politically, and as such was able to ensure that a lot of government money was spent on drainage in the region. As such what had previously had large areas of standing water was now possible for vine growing, however the consequence of the previous water table means that depending on the relative elevation, the area undulates slightly, the soil either developed anaerobically (underwater), or aerobically (on mounds out of the water). This has certain implications on the behaviour of the vines in each soil area.
Finishing up on the regions soils Wayne explained how there is quite considerable diversity across the region, with much heavier dark clay black Rendzina soil to the west, moving through some transitional brown Rendzina to the terra rossa to lighter sandy soils in the east where you see more aromatic and slightly lighter wines, though the vines are also more in need of irrigation.
The main course was lamb belly in a marjoram broth with spring vegetables, again this was very pleasant if slightly underwhelming. Lamb belly being one of those cuts that I approve of more in theory than in practice. The meat was very tender and the fat was well cooked and melted into the broth, making the dish reminiscent of an extremely refined pot au feu.
Served with it were the Katnook Cabernets. At this point Wayne challenged us to think of what other regions in the world successfully make 100% Cabernet Sauvignons, bearing in mind that almost everyone else blends to a degree.
A flight of 06 and 99 Cabernets provided a instructive comparison into how well it ages, with the 06 showing touches of mint with the earthy dark fruit, where as the 99 was still very youthful with more licorice coated dark cherry notes on the finish (testament to the hot year).
By now the by the numbers dessert of white choc mousse, milk chocolate ice cream and pistachio was thoroughly over shadowed by the two vintages of Odessey, 05 was brooding, showing dark berries a dusty mintyness and a chewy earthiness. However what really stood out for me was how the tannins were knitted together with the fruit, there was a real interplay between the two making them very hard to separate. This was again demonstrated in the 97, a much cooler year that was showing mushrooms and a mature vegetal (tobacco leaf?) characters, a complex nose brought up hints of white pepper and smoky bacon, while the palette showed silken maturing tannins and a creamy edge to the still present fruit.
After the lunch as we walked off to refresh ourselves with a beer it was pointed out to me that Rhodes W1 has a michelin star. I'll leave it at that.
Other things that were discussed.
Yeasts - natural versus cultivated strains; Wayne pointed out that natural is a bit of a misnomer all you need to have a very successful strain of 'wild' yeast is to buy some, have a ferment and then not clean up properly.. He uses Bayanas rather that Cerevisiae as he finds them better at finishing off the slightly higher alcohol ferments.
Regarding debudding; The Coonawarra is a very frost prone region and regularly they need to use the over head drippers to work in a preventative way. However more important with regards to yield reduction is the near frost incidences, these are where the temperature falls to about -1.6 degrees. At this point there is some intracellular damage to the budding tips, this is very useful at controlling the crop.
Tomato juice; This has a very high malic acid concentration and as such is very useful as a starter culture for malolactic ferments. Which explains why fermented tomato juice is incredibly volatile.