Bereft of the pleasures of intensive shopping on Black Friday I was forced to settle for a long lunch at the Draper’s Arms in Islington with seventeen wines (one was corked) among seven of us. We were all slightly wobbly when we left at around 5pm, but we’d had a fantastic time. Why did I ever think I’d have done better fighting for a new TV at Argos…not!
Before parading the very interesting wine selection, almost eclectic enough to resurrect the ghost of Oddities, I must talk about the pub. This has been one of the most talked about of that much-maligned genre of restaurant, the gastro pub (how I loathe that term) since it opened around eight years ago. One of its original owners is Nick Gibson, at that time with Ben Maschler, whose mother has been telling Londoners where to eat for as long as I can remember. I think it also got quite a lot of publicity for being in Islington, or rather Barnsbury, which is Islington’s most affluent part, and where eating out has become something of a profession, almost, for many local residents.
When you go to eat somewhere for the first time, and you’ve heard so much about it, your expectations are high, but there’s always that tiny fear of disappointment. In this case that was tempered by total trust in the man who booked it, and indeed disappointment was far from my mind. The meal surpassed expectations.
We began with three Lindisfarne rock oysters each and didn’t look back. The table shared several starters – bitter leaves with ricotta and clementine; lamb scrumpets with Roscoff onion puree (a must order dish); ox heart tartare with dripping toast; and smoked mackerel with potted prawns and an apple and celeriac remoulade. My main course was a whole grouse on a puree of beetroot with wild mushrooms, and a share of some forerib of beef, enormous plates of which others had ordered. We all took cheese, and shared in some delicious gingerbread pudding. All ingredients were very fresh and prep was well executed with a feel for flavour combinations.
We had arranged to make this a BYO lunch, for which we were charged corkage by negotiation, although how much that was down to the booker knowing Nick, I’m not sure. Without corkage you can probably eat to relative excess here for £50(ish) plus wine, and the pub’s own wine list is pretty decent (they had Andrew and Emma Nielsen’s Beaujolais-Villages Nouveau on by the glass, which plenty of people were ordering). Service was spot on, and decanters and larger glasses were supplied. The glasses might not satisfy the most picky out there, but they were adequate. I didn’t hear anyone complain. In fact the whole lunch was so good everyone was asking when we can do it again.
We began with one of Robbie’s classics, Chablis 1er Cru “Butteaux” 2012, Raveneau. This is always a real pleasure to drink, combining pristine minerality with almost buttery Chardonnay fruit at this stage. It will age but it was lovely and everyone kept coming back to it. Chablis doesn’t really get to exhibit longer length than this at Premier Cru level. We had a 2011 at The Sportsman in Seasalter last year, and a 2005 at Milford-on-Sea’s Verveine the year before (among other occasions), so it has become my own personal Raveneau soft spot.
We had quite a few Jura wines on the table and the first was Céline and Steve Gormally’s Côtes du Jura Chardonnay “Les Combes” 2012. The Gormallys farm down in Passenans, between Poligny and Lons-le-Saunier. Les Combes is a barrel fermented, topped-up (ouillé) Chardonnay which was initially reductive, but over time it blossomed. This couple, whose production is less than 10,000 bottles per year, have become rising stars of the natural wine scene, perhaps not so well known as others, so if you see their wines (perhaps in Paris at Les Papilles), snap them up.
Another white Jura, and a bit of a unicorn wine (and producer) came up next. Thanks for bringing it, Tony. My first taste of Kenjiro Kagami’s Chardonnay Mizuiro 2013 Les Saugettes, Domaine des Miroirs, and it was my own personal white wine of the day. Ever so slightly cloudy juice smelt of fresh citrus with a salty edge. The palate reinforces this, with incredible but focused salinity, and a real mineral core. Zero sulphur wine off marl and limestone near Grusse in the southern part of the Jura region, this is pretty unique.
Kenjiro and Mayumi are almost impossible to visit and their wines are almost as difficult to find, but for Jura insiders, this couple run one of the real cult domaines. Kenjiro worked first in Alsace with Bruno Schueller for several years, and then with Jean-François Ganevat, who helped him find a small vineyard. There is some kind of magic to the tiny quantity of wines they produce from just three hectares down there. Arigato to you too, Kenjiro-san.
Old wine is always hit and miss, and with that old chestnut, the 1970s German wine made from obscure grape varieties, even more so. When the next wine tasted pretty decent, despite a colour that, whatever gloss you put on it, was brown, we only expected it to last a while before fading. In fact it didn’t fade. Krughof Bornheimer Schönberg Beerenauslese 1978 is one of those blends I remember well, Siegerrebe and Optima, from Bornheim in the heart of the Rheinhessen.
Siegerrebe is known for high must weights…in fact I read that the variety holds the record for the highest must weight recorded in Germany, in the 1971 harvest in the Pfalz (326 Oechsle, twice the lowest permitted sweetness for Trockenbeerenauslese). Optima is similar, and interestingly often likened to Ortega (Ben, who brought this along, is making English Ortega in qveri not too far from me…I cannot wait!). This is why you often find these grapes blended to Beerenauslese and Trockenbeerenauslese prädikat levels in Rheinhessen during this period. The resulting wines are sweet and without real complexity, and yet with age they take on a richness which is altogether rather appealing.
Rosé des Riceys is an AOC which few people have come across, even real wine geeks. I did so by chance in the 1980s when friends honeymooned near Chablis and I visited them on the way south. I stocked up with bottles from Morel Père et Fils and even went back a couple of times in succeeding years. Once I even found some from the same producer in Wholefoods on Kensington High Street in London.
I always had a soft spot for this quite unique Pinot Noir made around three hamlets which, as Les Riceys, are much better known now as the southernmost village in the Côte des Bar, and thereby in the whole Champagne appellation. In fact, it is the largest producing village when it comes to Champagne in the whole appellation, but only 350 hectares are delineated for the rosé. My interest was always in how, as it aged, this rosé (more a pale red) showed notes of tea leaf and mild woodsmoke beside the strawberry fruit. Haunting, rather like Cédric Bouchard’s rosé Champagne, Le Creux d’Enfer. Then along came Olivier Horiot, and he has taken Rosé des Riceys to another level.
Rosé des Riceys “en Valingrain” 2006, Olivier Horiot is one of two site specific Riceys wines (the other is called “en Barmont”) Horiot makes alongside his better known Champagnes (remember that Olivier originally set out to make still wines, not sparklers, and he makes a very good red wine, as well as a Champagne from the almost extinct Arbanne grape). The key to Rosé des Riceys is age. Even in the hands of the master, in youth it can be one-dimensional, a simple pink Pinot.
Age (and biodynamic farming) bring forth a wine which is altogether much more sophisticated, and it must be said, subtle too. As I suggested above, the fruit is haunting, and the texture of cold tea tannins adds something nearly unique from this southern patch of Champagne terroir, which is nevertheless relatively far north for still Pinot (yes, I know we have Coteaux Champenois, but that’s another discussion).
Alongside a strawberry bouquet, with tinned strawberry acidity, there is rosehip too. You know me, I don’t usually go in for florid tasting notes, but you do want to know what this tastes like. The wine is long, tailing off gently like an extended fade on a recording of a haunting melody. In fact a perfect accompaniment might be Yann Tiersen’s island recording, Eusa, with its sounds of the sea and birdsong. But be warned, Horiot’s own description for this wine is “very discreet”. A wine best consumed in an environment conducive to contemplation. Fewer than 2,500 bottles/magnums. Serve cool, not cold, and not young!
Polish Hill Riesling 2013, Jeffrey Grosset is almost without question Clare Valley’s, if not Australia’s finest Riesling. What of the 2013? It’s very intense. The lime citrus fruit is just like real fresh lime, or Rose’s Lime Cordial, and the tight mineral texture enhances its acidity. In my view this is in desperate need of a decade more in bottle, but then I wrote back in August about a lovely 2004 we took to a dinner and a ten-to-fifteen year old Polish Hill is my own benchmark for drinking this particular cuvée. It is quite hard to thoroughly enjoy in this youthful state, but one can admire it enough to know it is a vintage to buy, born out by the marks given by critics.
It may not have gone unnoticed that my trip to Alsace last month has reinvigorated my love for the region, especially through the excitement of its natural wine producers. Domaine Gérard Schueller Pinot Noir “LNO12” 2008 is a superb example of what I’m talking about. Gérard’s son, Bruno, makes the wines now, from a vignoble just southwest of Colmar, in the village of Husseren-les-Châteaux, close to Eguisheim. They have been biodynamic, and have experimented with low sulphur, since the early 2000s.
This wine is best described as “wild”. If you like exploring the outer edges of wine, head here. It’s cloudy, but the nose punches ripe summer fruits like raspberry and strawberry, maybe a bit of cherry too. Whatever, the fruit is exuberant. It’s “glouglou” but at the same time, it has that subtle sophistication you get with the Riceys above. Vaughn said it reminded him of Binner, which triggered the same response for me, because after a much laughed at appreciation of Alsace Pinot Noir for years (Ostertag, Muré etc), the revelatory “natural wine” Pinot for me was Christian Binner’s. I’ll be tracking this down, and more of Bruno Schueller’s bottles.
It would have been sad not to drink a bojo-noovo at such a fun lunch, and we got one. And not one of the ubiquitous producers we’ve been seeing in London either. Beaujolais-Villages Nouveau 2017 “Cuvée Fanchon”, Guy Breton epitomised all that has improved with Nouveau. First, it’s a “villages”, which speaks for itself in quality. Second, whilst you get that bright cherry fruit with a touch of cream on the nose (no bubblegum and no cherry cough sweets), you also get a touch of structure and even light tannins. In other words, a bit of grip. I’ve had far fewer this year than last, but this is one of the best, and there’s certainly no need whatsoever to drink this up by Christmas.
We followed this with another Beaujolais from the other end of the spectrum, Jean Foillard Fleurie 2010. As everyone drools over photos of his Morgons on Instagram, the Foillard Fleurie all too often gets overlooked. But when I was extolling the virtues of the 2010 last year, they told me at the domaine that “this is exactly what we are drinking at home right now”.
My last couple of bottles of this had been truly majestic, so when this appeared pretty closed I was very disappointed. Into a decanter it went and still very little to make it stand out. The advantage of a long lunch (and what makes a tasting note from a single snatched sip almost offensive) is that with time this truly blossomed, to at least where I’d hoped it would arrive when I opened it. A genuine lesson in the need for patience sometimes when it comes to wine.
I drink quite a bit of Ganevat and I love his wines, but let’s face it, if we see another Instagrammed bottle we might all scream. But whilst I’ve drunk lots of the crazy blends, the wonderful whites, and the Pinot Noirs over the past few years, a Ganevat Poulsard has been a rare sighting.
J-F Ganevat Poulsard Cuvée de L’Enfant Terrible 2014 is made from vines on local white and grey marls down in Jura’s Sud Revermont near Rotalier, planted in 1959. It starts out closed (like the Fleurie), but is fresh and concentrated. The fruit is more cherry-like than some Poulsard, but with cherry tart acidity and, like the “Miroirs” above, great salinity (maybe a mark of terroir?). It clearly needs quite a bit more age, but it will be magnificent. Very impressive.
Kelley Fox Wines is a producer which seems to have had plenty of press coverage this year. The wine which I seem to read about most, the one getting the best accolades, is Kelley Fox Maresh Vineyard Pinot Noir 2013, Dundee Hills, Oregon. Whilst the past decade has seen New Zealand Pinot Noir trying to establish itself as the number two to Burgundy, Oregon’s wine regions have been quietly building a reputation for wines of subtlety and sophistication, often with biodynamics and natural wine methods to the fore.
Kelley has been a winemaker for nearly two decades, but she is also a meticulous viticulturist. I’ve read that the vines in the Maresh vineyard (one of three single sites she makes) are touched only by her during the growing season, from canopy management to spraying her biodynamic preps. The vines are old (40+ years), and the wine has a real majesty about it, not a swagger but a more demure way of holding itself. Certainly elegant. You get 13% abv, but also a wine of great silky fruit without any obtrusive weight. You are also left with a sense of vibrant freshness. It’s just as impressive as they are telling you in those glowing articles, really. It was my red of the day.
Sammarco 2005, Castello dei Rampolla is a Panzano Cabernet Sauvignon Super Tuscan blended with Sangiovese and Merlot in smaller quantity, made in concrete before ageing in a variety of large wood, then in bottle for a year or two before release. This 2005 was delicious, dark in colour with smooth, rich and sophisticated, fruit overlain with leafy aromas. Tannins are by this stage still present but well integrated and fine. Much more classical in profile than the wines we’d been drinking, which actually made for a nice bit of variety. Its quality made it not out of place in such an eclectic lineup.
The Rampola was probably a perfect introduction for another majestic red which appeared a little more weighty that its relatively demure 13% alcohol might have suggested. Ridge Monte Bello 2004 is no bruiser, of course, but age has mellowed and matured it into a wine which still has structure and real depth, but alongside that you get true complexity (though for Monte Bello it is probably still entering early manhood rather than middle age).
The grape mix here is 76% Cabernet Sauvignon with 13% Merlot, 8% Petit Verdot and 3% Cabernet Franc. The grapes all come from dry-farmed blocks in the Santa Cruz Mountains, where limestone forces the roots to seek out moisture deep in the fissures of the rock. Cabernet’s blackcurrant fruit is to the fore, but there’s also spice and cedar, with tannins sitting smoothly beneath, not assertive but reassuringly adding structure. It is quite like Bordeaux for a moment, and then it’s something very distinct. And delicious, especially with the magnificent forerib of beef they served up, which thankfully was too much to eat for those who had ordered it.
Ooh, a signed copy!
The next bottle had been open a while, but it hadn’t passed me so I’d not tried it. Dario Princic Ribolla Gialla 2013 might in some ways not have been the best thing to drink after the Ridge. Its tannic and textured skin contact side was amplified at the expense of its more gentle side. It was quite tight, with acidity to the fore and only a little of the orange peel scents which add subtlety. In any case, I think that this is another wine which would benefit greatly from a bit more bottle age, but that said, it was still very good. One of Friuli’s finest, and on its own a star. But better with the cheese than the beef.
We were then treated to a very rare wine indeed, one which you may heave read about on my Blog before. But whereas I only had one bottle, a man I know somehow managed to get two from the winery (it clearly says one per customer on the web site, but having the chance to drink it again, you’ll get no complaints from me, Brad). There were only 35 cases (420 bottles) made of Brash Higgins Bloom 2008. This is sous voile Chardonnay aged eight years under flor from South Australia’s McLaren Vale. It was inspired by Jura’s Vin Jaune, but being made from Chardonnay in a very different climate, is a very different wine. And yet it does nod towards Vin Jaune, just with a few more horsepower.
It’s an exciting wine and so so complex. You get nuts, orange citrus and an iodine salinity which gives it the whiff of an island malt, a fanciful suggestion but I know Brad Hickey, the winemaker, gets that too. It’s bottled in a squat 700ml format which also nods to Jura’s clavelin, and like Vin Jaune, the oxidative, or biological, ageing means it will last a good few days in the fridge, as a biologically aged Sherry would. It comes in at just under 15% abv.
Naturally this is sold out, but I know Brad a little and he tells me that the next vintage will be out in May 2018. He also told me the other day that Vagabond Wines in London will be taking some of the other Brash Higgins wines in the New Year if you are interested in trying any (some are more conventional, others less so but all those I’ve tried have been very good). For me, Bloom is off the scale.
Last but not least we finally had a sweet wine to go with the gingerbread pudding, which it accompanied perfectly. Sweet Jurançon is one of France’s least appreciated dessert wines, but I’ve long believed it to be one of her best. Of course, I admit I’m swayed by the beautiful scenery of this vignoble, just beside Pau, as vine clad, gentle, slopes stretch towards the outlying foothills of the Pyrenees.
Clos Lapeyre “Magendia de Lapeyre” Jurançon 2002 is made from the small-berried Petit Manseng variety. The grapes see no botrytis, but are left to shrivel (raisin in French) on the vine. As they do so the water in the juice evaporates, thus concentrating sugars. Picking is in several tries through November for this “selection”. After ageing in wood, and then in stainless steel vats, it will benefit from long bottle age (as here), where flavours are concentrated.
A good Jurançon will have ripe stone fruit (apricot or occasionally peach) with the slight texture of the stone inside it. Sometimes these scents will be overlain with a hint of fresh cream, sweet lemon curd or, in others, marmalade. The Magendia has a touch of pineapple too. The palate is rich and exotic, but there’s also acidity to make it refreshing and stop any cloying. As I said, it went well with the gingerbread pudding, and with the cheese (Roquefort and Foie Gras are the most often cited pairings). If it lacks the weight and sweetness of Sauternes (and of course it lacks the botrytis element) it has that extra dimension of lift on the finish.
It was the diversity of the wines which made this lunch, but what was perhaps a surprise was how, despite this diversity, pretty much all the wines found their match on the table. I must say that the company, a small group of extremely adventurous wine lovers with only one or two working in wine, made the lunch such a success. I don’t think anyone brought any prejudices to the table, or if they did they kept quiet. That’s why it all went so well. To those of you I’d not met before, it truly was a pleasure.