Tuesday, 21 December 2010


So we’re coming to the end of a year that started with travel, then stayed resolutely London bound before ending with my longest period away.
I’ve been lucky enough to visit wineries in four countries and to have extended stays in two of them. Obviously with so many wonderful and special memories, not to mention incredible wines it’s quite hard to pick out favorites, but with no small application of a critical razor I’ve just about managed to do it.
One of the Grand Father vines in the Hill of Grace Vineyard
Red wine of the year:
This is a pretty easy call, it was Henschke, Hill of Grace, 1996. Tasted (and later drunk) at Pru and Steven Henschke’s winery in the Eden Valley. Sometimes when you taste wines that are legendary there is a sense of expectation, and with that comes a nagging doubt as to your impartiality in the face of the wine. Well there was no time for that with the 96 Hill of Grace, it was a wine that soared and dazzled, with such breath taking complexity of aromatics. My first notes on tasting it were; wow, privileged, deep succulent herbal red fruits, pot pourri, violets, clove oil, unicum, pepper, such depth and complexity. But this isn’t really doing the wine justice, every time I went back to it, it had changed, it was a glass that I really didn’t want to end. The 86 that was served along side would be a close contender for the years crown, but it was the 96 that leapt straight into my list of all time wines.
White of the year:
I’m not going to go with the greatest white I tasted this year, as to do that would require choosing between four or five stunning experiences, so instead I’m going to go for my biggest surprise of the year. The wine that knocked my right on my arse for simply being so impressive and for being such an unexpected treat.
Movia is a winery in the Collio hills, straddling the Italy/Slovenia border the fact that their post box is in Slovenia makes them Slovenian. Ales Kristancic their winemaker was present at the London International Wine and Spirit Fair. Amongst his mightily impressive collection of wines he was presenting his Puro 2002 Sparkling wine. This is undisgorged and as so needs opening in a bucket of water at the table.
Now this isn’t the time nor the place or a lengthy dissertation on the effect of yeast lees in the bottle with regards to contribution of autolytic flavours, but also as a protection from oxidation. Suffice to say that with recently disgorged Champagnes the closer to the disgorgement you can drink them the better and more unique (as distinct from non lees bottle aged Champagnes) the experience will be.
Ales’ Puro is a blend of Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Rebulla (known in Italian as Ribolla Giallo), the base wine is made and aged in old oak for 4 years, then instead of adding sugar and yeast to the base wine a la the Champenoise, he adds fresh grape juice, which has enough sugar and natural yeasts to start the secondary fermentation.
For all the funkiness of the production it would have all been for naught if the wine hadn’t been great. All sorts of toasty, apricot, salt caramel savoriness, butterscotch, spiced apples, all tied together with a great minerally core.
Dish of the year:
I’ve chosen my dish of the year, from what was undoubtedly from a technical perspective the outstanding meal of the year. The tasting menu lunch at the Ledbury. A succession of dishes that were each as outstanding as the next, but the one I’ve plumped for was the Celeriac backed in ash with wood sorrel and a wild boar kromenski.
Very often when I visit restaurants the focus is on the protein, whatever the beef is, or on what the lamb has been fed. However it’s  more often that not something that has been done with the vegetables that turns my head, be it beetroot caramelized in sherry vinegar with thyme comprehensively blowing the great Tasmanian steak out of the water at the Black Cow in Launceston, or at the Ledbury, the Celeriac being brought to the table in it’s ash sarcophagus, ceremonially carved in front of us then being returned to the kitchen for plating. The dusky, earthy, smoky notes transforming the celeriac from a great, but slightly work horse vegetable, into the star, from girl next door to smoldering kohl eyed temptress. Quite sensational.
Meal of the Year:
Again there are a lot of very strong contenders here from my travels, particularly the salt pepper squid and fish n chips we enjoyed at the etherial Star of Greece in the McLaren Vale. However it was the first of the trips meals that really stood out, and that was despite quite a few potential marks against.
Lunch with William (Bill) Downie in his barn on their farm in Gipsland Victoria. We started with his zero Sulphur Pinot and plates of Charcuterie and Crudites from his farm and the pigs next door. This was hands down some of the finest Charcuterie I’ve ever eaten, the Lardo was divine, salty, intriguingly herbal with just a hint of spicing to it. The Prosciutto lingered longer on the palette than any Pata Negra I’ve ever tasted. The vegetables were gorgeously sweet and crunchy, it was as if Bill was laying down a gauntlet; Forget everything you might have though about Australia and her wines.
Then an off dry Petit Manseng which he made in 09 as it was a bit hot for him to be happy with his Pinot Noir, a salad of raw seafood, impeccably fresh and moreish.
Then the main course, BBQ lamb, plates heaving with the most sumptuous Morels and Artichoke hearts. Bottles of Bill’s Pinots started arriving on the tables, they’re stunning, pure, elegant, and yet each hugely different from the others.
Oh and all the while there was an open fire blowing smoke at us in a doomed attempt to mitigate the late spring chill. Yep this was cool climate Australia, and we carried the smell of the smoke as a reminder for several days to come....

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