Friday, 15 March 2013

Lunch with a difference in Borough Market...

From the first days of January, mid-winter 2013 has been long and cheerless, made harder by the loss of old wine friends - Frank Prial, John  Radford, and mostly recently the beloved Henri Krug, a mentor to me in the early1990s. So I am doubly grateful for an interlude, an epicurean experience that was quite unexpected. Out of the blue, a week ago I was asked to Sunday lunch by Francis and Bronwen Percival at their flat over the Neal Street Dairy, where Bronwen is the authoritative cheese buyer. I've admired Francis as a food writer for some time, his column in Fine Wine giving me something to think about and always penned with wit, erudition and passion. One knew the couple were fine cooks, but boy was I blown away by the lunch and its theme - cheese, cuisine and wines (especially) from Europe vis-a-vis California. Its conception reflected the couple's merged background and studies: Francis, after Cambridge working at the cutting edge of the British culinary revival; Bronwen, the daughter of a Californian musicologist, going to college at Wellesley near Boston, where she studied biochemistry, so she would later have a head start when thinking about starting yeasts for cheese-making.

The lunch which went on until dusk was actually no grande bouffe but an exhilarating mix of the cerebral and the sensuous. As we gathered for aperitifs, two beautiful Neal's Yard cheeses were offered, with the best match there is, aged vintage champagne. The Innes Log was a subtle blue-vein, incisive and crisp, but the Duckett's Caerphilly was magnificent, making me proud that I have some Celtic blood (Cornish, on my mother's side)

with Pascal Doquet (right) in Le Mesnil

 With these, two cracking growers' champagnes in 2002. Pascal Doquet's Mesnil was just plain delicious, with a purity of ripe peach and apple fruitiness typical of the lower slopes of the village. Eric Rodez's Ambonnay was something else, an exceptional expression of (mainly) great Pinot Noir, which when it hits the spot in a perfect terroir and vintage has no peer for flavour and complexity. Ravioli of boudin noir and Kirkham's Lancashire in a sleek wine-blessed sauce was the best pasta I've tasted for months, the flavour contrasts of wines from the Santa Cruz mountains and those of the Jura so marked and fascinating. The hedonism and patisserie -like aromas of Ridge's Montebello Chardonnay 2004 added to its rich vein of sunny Santa Cruz fruit made a riveting comparison with Benedict & Stephane Tissier Arbois Chardonnay 'Les Graviers' 2010, the tenacity of the rugged stony Jurassien terroir making its presence felt in every corner of the wine.

The centrepiece of lunch was the seven-hour slow roasted shoulder of lamb, easing from the bone with a gentle touch of a spoon and so succulent, served with gratin dauphinois. The two wines were very different. The Montus Madiran, 'La Tyre' 2000 from south west France was an imposing rich  mouthful, a little international in style for my taste and Cathy Corison's lovely Napa Cabernet Sauvignon1998, so open, friendly and elegant that it quite won my heart. I think this is enough for  the natural length of a post. More, another day, about the dessert wine from Kracher, with pudding.  A big thank you, Bronwen & Francis.

Tuesday, 5 March 2013

Pascal Agrapart comes to London

A week ago, Pascal Agrapart, probably the most incisive winemaker in Avize, was in town to show his repertoire of mainly grand cru chardonnay cuvees back to 2002. The venue was the bruit dans le couloir, the much acclaimed Quality Chop House in the Farrington road fringes of the City, handy for Sadler's Wells. Nine champagnes were shown, the perfect number for serious appraisal by  Grands Fromages like say the Rouzauds & Billecarts or for toiling foot soldiers in the trenches, e.g your correspondent. Pascal has always been quite Burgundian in his respect for his privileged soils esp in Avize and Cramant but very Champenois in his winemaking: precise and supremely adaptive in his  use of oak or tank, depending of the weight and character of individual wines and differently styled vintages. The 'malo' is always conducted at Agrapart, but it is a measure of Pascal's flair that perhaps the greatest wine on the day was a 2005, a  difficult, largely too warm vintage prone to oxidation. Not 'Mineral' 05, which kept its driving mineral focus quite intact. Bravo.

Here is the race card of six front runners, using stars and the WOFW score scale out of 20 points.If the numbers and the words don't match, follow the words!

Les '7 Crus' NV Brut (90/10 Chard/PN , the first time Pascal has used a little Premier Cru PN Avenas (up from Mareuil sur Ay) in his blend. Initial elevage 25% in oak. 30 months aging under crown cap. Dosage 7g/l.)  Very healthy and vibrant pale yellow, the vigour of seemingly 08 Chardonnay  tempered by the gras Pinot ripeness in 09. Smart.   *** 16 now

'Terroirs' Grand Cru Blanc de Blancs Extra Brut ( 2007 + 2008. grands crus of Avize, Cramant, Oger & Oiry. Initial elevage  25% in oak. 42 months aging under crown cap. Dosage 5g/l). Bright yellow, maturing hint of gold, dynamic quite punchy bubbles. Lively and energetic mouthfeel, still wound and tight, un peu serree but very promising. Drink at Christmas 2013. ***(*) 16.5

'Mineral' Grand Cru Blanc de Blancs 2005 Extra Brut (50:50 Avize & Cramant. Initial elevage 50% in oak. 6 yrs bottle aging under crown cap. Dosage 4g/l) Something of a miracle in testing conditions. Perfectly judged ripeness & acidity, pervaded with wonderful mineral flavours, the brisk impact of the chalk. Nothing overdone or out of balance. long and fine. Brilliant winemaking. Grand Vin ***** 18.5

L'Aviseoise Grand Cru Blanc de Blance 2005 Extra Brut (100% grand cru Avize. Initial elevage 100% in oak. 6 years bottle aging under clamped cork). Hedonism in the glass from first sip to last swallow. Richness, gras, heralded by the golden senses the beneficial, enhancing complexity of oxygenating oak. I do like the wine very much, but for the moment 'Mineral' seems finer- or rather it is to my taste. Re-taste in a years time **** 17.5

'Venus' Grand Cru Blanc de Blancs 2005 (100 % Avize. Initial elevage  100 % in oak; 6yrs bottle age under clamped cork). Golden dramatic hue - but the decision to make it without dosage in this hot harvest seems spot-on. It has all the elegance and depth of Avize yet is crystalline, incisive, very Pascal. But at the end of the day it's still the Mineral 05 that sings to me. And it's thirty pounds cheaper. One mustn't quibble though.**** 18

'Mineral, Grand Cru Blanc de Blancs 2002 Extra Brut (50:50 Avize & Cramant, Initial elevage  50% in oak. 6 years bottle age under crown cap. Dosage 4 g/l) Very rich style just this side of a little corpulence, not yet sure where it's going but still remarkable now. **** 17

ends mfe 5.iii.2013