Every year a group of us hit The Sportsman in Seasalter (Kent) for a boozy lunch where we have a special dispensation to “BYO” (naturally for a fee). As we know the tasting menu reasonably well, we are able to choose an interesting and focused selection of bottles to take, but we do try for diversity. This year we were perhaps fortunate to get our visit in a little earlier than usual, on the last Friday in February, bearing in mind the potential for the cancellation of “sporting events”.
One small aside…it is perhaps fitting that I can write about this ultimate celebratory lunch for my 400th article on Wideworldofwine. It has, thus far, been a lot of fun, not to mention quite life transforming.
The meal was at least as good as any in previous years, and whilst there are restaurants with more “stars” than The Sportsman, for me there is no more profoundly enjoyable tasting menu available anywhere I know. It really does take me a very long time to reach The Sportsman, involving two train journeys and taxis, and for me it ends up being a rather expensive day out. But it is totally worth it, and to the many people who tell me they really must visit, yes, they really should.
This is a wine blog, and this article is intended primarily to describe the wines we took. That said, the food is wonderful and the least I can do is to post some pictures to encourage you to make the trip.
We began, as always, with a couple of Champagnes. I took along Cédric Bouchard Roses de Jeanne from the Côte de Val Vilaine (near Celles-sur-Ource in the Aube). This is technically a non-vintage cuvée made from vines around twenty-five to thirty years old at the time, although this version is from a 2014 base (the current edition is 2017). Pure Pinot Noir, this bottle was disgorged in April 2016, so most of its ageing was post-disgorgement. Although there is some body, and nice red fruits, there is also precision and stunning elegance. This was really showing well with nascent complexity (at a guess it will age another five-to-ten years). Although not cheap, for the quality it is remarkable value.
Ses Amuses: left – savoury; right – sea buckthorn w/crystallised seaweed macaron
Champagne Ruppert Leroy Rosé Brut Nature was a big contrast. For a start, it is one of the “reddest” pink Champagnes around. As well as being given zero dosage, this wine from Essoyes (Aube) sees no added sulphur, but is a wonderful addition to the cellar of any real Champagne amateur. Gerard Ruppert and his daughter, Benedicte Leroy, partner in this biodynamic enterprise, farming almost as far south in the wider Champagne region as it is possible to go. They are often described as making “Burgundy with bubbles” and this 2015 rosé de saignée (disgorged 07/2018) illustrates this proposition pretty well. If their vineyards were just a few more kilometers to the south then they would be making Sparkling Burgundy. But as with all good still Burgundy, this wine hits you with aromatic brilliance so that for some the palate is merely secondary to its appreciation. Strawberry essence, so pure, but as food friendly as any Champagne on the market.
Rock and Whitstables with Chorizo
Friulano “Filip” 2017, Coli Orientali, Miani It is hard to know why Enzo Pontoni is not as famous outside of a bunch of real wine fanatics as he ought to be in the UK. Some call him Italy’s best white wine maker, and that bold claim is certainly not ridiculous. He farms around thirteen hectares on the Slovenian border in Friuli, about two-thirds being rented vines. His fastidious farming is famous, as is his “one bunch per vine” philosophy. Although there is power and alcohol here, this wine is concentrated in the extreme, as fine as almost any Chablis you might throw at a bed of oysters. Such clarity in the glass, this is a wine to ponder over, especially as it slowly unfolds, because it is surely very much in its youth.
Chardonnay “La Reine” 1998, Labet (Jura) Sometimes with so much going on at these lunches it is easy to forget to photograph a wine, but I was particularly cross to neglect to photograph this one. “La Reine” is from the era of Julian’s father, Alain, so the queen in question must surely be his wife, Josie. Only the second Vin Jaune-style wine I ever drank was from Alain and Josie, so I felt pretty nostalgic tasting this flor-aged (two years) Chardonnay which comes off a single plot of just 16 ares on argiles rouges down on the Combe, near Rotalier. Despite its age it took a while to open out, and having assumed a degree of reduction we had presciently decanted it. It was one of those wines which unfurled over a couple of hours, giving more each time we returned to it. Glorious.
Pot roast red cabbage, apple, raw crème fraiche; Mushroom & celeriac tart
Viña Tondonia Reserva Blanco 1991, Lopez de Heredia This was my second contribution, a traditional classic white Rioja, blended from approximately 85% Viura with 15% Malvasia from the eponymous vineyard. Fermentation takes place in large oak vats after which the wine is first aged in American oak barrels before a further ten years in bottle prior to release. It has a traditional side to it, and many who had never tried it might at first think it old fashioned. Yet when you actually think about it, you get citrus fresh acids, stone fruit, mineral texture and a nutty, savoury, quality which is a long way from fusty. Unique, a remarkable wine. Maybe not a style to drink every night, but a standout experience for a wine close to thirty years old, yet still tasting fresh and youthful.
Slip sole done “the other way” (smoked salt butter with dried red pepper)
Halibut with smoked cod’s roe sauce
Chablis 1er Cru Forêt 2006, Raveneau This was quite a hot vintage in Chablis, and this cuvée is from the youngest vines at the domaine, but they held out pretty well. There is more weight than expected, with pretty ripe fruit (yellow plum and galia melon came to mind). But at the same time you get the elegance of a wine from a top notch producer here…no flab at all, and plenty of depth. There is some nice Chablis salinity which helps focus the palate. Initially I wondered if this would be young, but I felt over the lunch that it is good to go, and perhaps better now than after much further age. Just my opinion.
Meursault “Clos du Haut Tesson” 2014, Domaine Roulot I used to be able to afford a little Roulot Bourgogne Blanc, and I always argued that it was of at least “village” quality most vintages, perhaps the reason why it has ended up costing village prices. A similar analogy applies here, because this village lieu-dit is clearly of Premier Cru class. A typically Roulot mineral citrus attack leads to rounder (but still precisely focused) yellow fruit Chardonnay with just the smallest hint of oak on a long finish. Masterful Meursault from probably my favourite producer in the village, though I can no longer stretch to actually buying a six pack these days.
Les Ponts Rouge, Yann Durieux This is a Vin de Table from 100% Pinot Noir fruit grown mostly in the Hautes Côtes, around Messanges, in Burgundy. This wine is often sold with a vintage, and a code at the bottom of the back label shows this bottle is from 2016. Yann became well known during his stint working at another domaine famous for natural wine on the Côte d’Or, Prieuré-Roch, whose prices Yann is swiftly catching up with. But to be fair the reason there is a buzz around this producer is that he does work fastidiously and with very low yields. This is a lighter style of Pinot, though it still registers 13.5% alcohol. It has a nice fruity bouquet, though it was slightly spritzy on this occasion. This is a nice wine, opaque, alive, but my main quibble is that you are paying an awful lot of money for something which is effectively enjoyable glou-glou juice. You can get damned nice Beaujolais for half the money…
Crispy bacon to dip
Fleurie Chapelle des Bois 2011, Domaine Jules Desjourneys This hard to find bottle comes from an almost equally secret producer at La Chapelle de Guinchay. Fabien Duperray is a former Burgundy merchant who now makes some of the absolute finest (biodynamic) wines in Beaujolais, yet I reckon if you ask the majority of wine lovers, even those mildly interested in having a nice selection from the region in their cellar, they won’t have tried the wines (by the way, who is or was Jules Desjourneys?). I hadn’t ever drunk one until a few weeks ago, but I’d heard the legend.
Chappelle des Bois is, so far as I can tell, one of two Fleuries in Fabien’s wide-ish range. The other is Les Moriers and they both come from separate sites, Les Moriers at around 4 hectares, and Chapelle at 1.9ha, off granitic sand. Ageing is for 24 months, half in oak of which 20% is new. They are built to age, dark and tannic in youth I’m told. Even now the colour is impenetrable, but alcohol is a very restrained 12.8%. I’d say it this “Chapelle” is in its drinking window, perhaps at the beginning. I can see it improving further over five or six years, and it has a bit of structure now which does really require food. But this is a very fine Fleurie, and I was very pleased to become acquainted with it. Very impressive.
Barolo 2009, Bartolo Mascarello This is the entry level blend, but of course we are talking Mascarello here. Marie-Théresa said that this was a record early harvest for the four vineyards which combine for this blend: La Morra’s Roche di Torriglione, and Cannubi, San Lorenzo and Rué from Barolo itself. Although an early vintage it is perfectly in balance at 14.5% abv, with classic sweet Nebbiolo fruit. However, like the Barolo which follows, we were able to enjoy a relatively brief flowering in the glass before it shut down somewhat, suggesting that even at this level the wine could do with a little more bottle age.
So, okay, I was too swift…Roast saddle and filet of lamb with celeriac
Barolo “Paiagallo” 2011, Giovanni Canonica This is an equally classic wine from another exceptional producer, from the village of Barolo. I have been impressed with the 2011s I’ve had thus far, most being more or less open for business. This certainly started out as a stunning wine, a blend of powerful structure and such sweet fruit. There was the addition of all the right noises…liquorice, mocha, mint leaf and such exotic aromatics that they are so hard to describe without a flight of fancy. But even here we had a little bit of a shut down after a while, as everything shyly hid behind that structure after giving us a brief display…like the aurora hiding behind the clouds after a couple of hours of pure delight in Tromso last month. If you have some, you are lucky. This will become incredibly fine. It’s already startlingly good. Personally I’d say world class.
Château Suduiraut 1971, Sauternes It’s rare to drink an old Sauternes like this, although there are a few knocking around. 1971 was a pretty decent year in Sauternes, though not even I go back that far back for that comment to be the result of personal experience. The wines were generally affected by a degree of botrytis before an early October harvest. As with many wines of the vintage, this Suduiraut is drinking nicely, and I see no reason to keep it longer. There is a little noble rot, and it isn’t all that sweet (nor perhaps all that elegant). Where it scores is in a nice rich palate of orange marmalade with top notes of toffee and caramel. It’s mellowness at this stage in its life is its trump card. A very enjoyable wine, sedate, and when you get offered a bottle like this minor quibbles are irrelevant.
Bramley apple soufflé with salted caramel ice cream
That was almost it for the day, but the baker’s dozen beckoned, as if twelve bottles were not enough among six people. It was to be another bottle from the Southern Jura, Chardonnay “Fleur” 2015, Domaine Labet. This is firmly from the Julien era. It was aged in barrel for 27 months, but topped-up (ouillé), not aged oxidatively like “La Reine” above. The beautifully pure Chardonnay fruit of all the Labet wines comes through here, and in the case of this cuvée it is not too young.
There’s a story about this wine, with a potential mystery. When Alain Labet started bottling wines in the mid-1970s he was one of the first in the region to do so by parcel, all individually named. In addition, he bottled a Chardonnay blended from a number of plots at higher altitude under the “Fleurs de Marne Label”. Now I think “Fleurs”, which is the label for Julien’s young vine Chardonnay, actually comes from “Les Varrons” now, where the vines which go into that particular more ageable cuvée are the remaining old vines in the vineyard. Whatever the truth, “young vines” chez-Labet, actually means less than fifty years old, which would definitely count as “VV” at some addresses! Julien makes ten or eleven Chardonnays and I think this is the only blended one, one that is not a single site expression. But it is Labet, and as I keep shouting, Labet is absolutely at the top table with Ganevat, Overnoy-Houillon et al.
Cheese board to finish, of course
You can just spot the elusive Labet here, to the right of Tondonia (13 exquisite bottles)
— fin —