A week of food and wine in Split, Croatia

A week ago we returned from a week in Split, Croatia, and I share here some of our food and wine experiences. This break was not particularly wine-focussed, and we did not visit any local producers, but we did drink wines made from local varieties with meals. I’ll kick off with three of our favourite restaurants, the first two being suggested by the owner of our rooms as places he likes to eat.

Villa Spiza is just outside the Palace (the area in the centre of town where Diocletian’s Palace stood). They buy in fresh food every day, and as it starts to run out it they cross dishes off the menu, and close the restaurant when it has all gone. No reservations, so you have to just turn up and be prepared to queue for a table. When we were there we waited around 30 mins, but the queue soon grew to an hour. Both from the perspective of getting a good choice of dishes, and minimising queuing, it is perhaps best to go for lunch or an early evening meal. You will also have to accept that seating can be cramped. So what is so great about it? The food was simultaneously the best and the cheapest we found in Split, and although the staff were busy, they were also attentive and friendly. This is where we got the Dingač mentioned below, which we had with steak. It was served at room temperature (mid-to-high 20s Centigrade) but when I asked for a bucket of ice and water the bucket appeared unquestioningly, and within the minute of my asking. We only visited once because we did not feel like queuing on other occasions, wanting a more relaxing evening.

Konoba Fetivi is bit further out, but still only 10 or 15 mins walk from the Palace. Nothing fancy, but good quality food and reasonably priced, and we had two evening meals there. Best known for the fish and sea food, but they serve meat too. This is where we got the house white mentioned below. When we were there a couple of weeks ago, we needed to book to get in for dinner.

Gallerija is actually in the Palace area, and a bit hidden away down a side alley from an already very narrow street, in a small courtyard. Good food at a decent price, with good service and a very pleasant location. We were staying so close to this place that we could use our rooms’ WiFi, so perhaps we were a bit biased, but we had dinner there twice, and a few breakfasts too. Not as busy at the other two places above, but probably still worth booking for dinner to be on the safe side. The image above is the view from the restaurant courtyard, towards the building where we stayed on the second floor.

The above three restaurants I would recommend with confidence, but now for some other places you might be tempted by if you use the Internet to check out wine places in Split. Zinfandel had great service and food, but it was expensive, e.g. the steak was about twice the price it was in most places. And the hasselback potato on their menu to accompany the steak was not at all like a hasselback. Despite the price and the un-hasselback potato, I must admit we came away feeling we had a good experience, so if you are feeling flush maybe you should give it a try. In contrast, the lunch we had at Uje Oil was very disappointing considering the praise it seems to get online. There were many minor annoyances with the place and the service, which together gave a bad impression, and the food we ordered was average at best. Maybe we caught them on a bad day, but I can only report what we experienced, and we were not tempted to return. Booking was needed for both these two places also. In fact, on two occasions we tried booking Uje Oil around midday for dinner, and failed both times.

Now, a couple of wines that made an impression in very different ways.

Anticević Dingač Traditional 2015,  with a mere 16% ABV. HKR 410 at Villa Spiza. Intense purple ruby. Intense aromas. Mainly savoury, but with hints of sweet dark fruit. Spicy. Medium high acidity. Off dry. Medium high tannin. Savoury and slightly bitter on finish. Good now, but could well improve with some more age. Excellent with the steak we were eating *****

Gospoja Dry White Wine, 12% ABV. This was the house white at Konoba Fetivi, and we were told the variety was Žlahtina. The wine was taken from a 10 li catering bag-in-box, and served in carafe at HRK 90 for 75cl. It was what the waiter recommended, and most people in the restaurant were drinking it. Pale straw. Stone fruit and citrus – lemon and lime? Medium high acid. Dry. Tad astringent maybe. Tingly finish. Drink now. A lot better than other cheaper wines we drank in Split, and better than some that were more expensive. Surprisingly good, and worked well with fish *****

Finally, a wine merchant. Looking online the best one in Split seemed to be Vinoteka Terra. It’s in a sort of courtyard just off the road prilaz braće Kaliterna, down some stairs, and in a cellar that it shares with a restaurant. The sign for the shop is a very small plate on the door, and easy to miss – the restaurant signs being a lot more prominent. The picture you might find on the Web, of an alcove with wine shelves, is the whole shop interior, and is not nearly as big as some online reviews make out. Nevertheless, it is still the best selection of Croatian wine I have seen in one place, taking up about half of the shop’s shelf space. Top marks for the help I was given by the lady in the shop in my quest to find 6 bottles to bring back in checked-in luggage. No idea how competitive the prices are for Split.

A trip to South and West Georgia

My first visit to Georgia was mainly in Kakheti – the Eastern part of Georgia, where most of its wine is made. It made a big impression on me, and since then I have spent a lot of time reading, thinking and writing about Georgia. I had to return, and this time headed South and West from Tbilisi, spending one night near Vardzia and three in Kutaisi. The remaining three nights, immediately after and before our flights, were in Tbilisi. This time there was just the two of us in a car with a guide, on a private tour organised by Living Roots, which was a very much more intimate experience compared to the Arblaster and Clarke trip last time, and considerably cheaper. The number of wines we got to try was a considerably less, and we generally drank the wine, as God intended, rather than tasting it. But that was no bad thing. In addition to natural qvevri wines bottled for sale, we drank undocumented homemade restaurant house wines probably made the same way, and a couple of examples of cheap factory wines (as the Georgians sneeringly call them).

Just to be clear from a disclosure point of view for anything I might write about this trip –  we paid for everything we received. It was a holiday; not a press trip.

Some of the many highlights…

Part of the Vardzia cave-city to the right, overlooking its valley

In the South we visited the cave-city of Vardzia. Established in the 12th century as a place to hide from invading armies, it grew to a man-made cave complex on 13 levels suitable for permanent inhabitation. A series of earthquakes later exposed the cave-city in section, which is what we see now. Further North, and much close to Kutaisi, we visited the Gelati Monastery. It was founded in 1106, and became one of the most important cultural and intellectual centres in Georgia.

Gelati Monastery

Travelling North-West from Kutaisi, in the Samegrelo region of Georgia, we saw the beautiful Martvili Canyon, and rafted in a more gently flowing part of the river, also visiting the large limestone Prometheus Cave on our return journey.

The wine producers we visited were: Archil Guniava Wine Cellar, Nikoladzeebis Marani, Oda and Vino Martville, Nika Vacheishvili’s Marani, and Gotsa Family Wines. I’ll try to write more about them in later posts, but right now I would just like to say what wonderful lunches we had in those places. Our visit to Archil was late in the afternoon, and even there we were offered delicious khachapuri, tomato, cucumber and nuts.

Lunch at Nika Vacheishvili’s place in the Ateni Valley

Apart from lunches at winemakers, there were a few other foodie highlights. On our first evening we had great food and wine at g.Vino in Tbilisi. Here, there was a good selection of natural qvevri wine, and the staff were very friendly, helpful and knowledgeable. For lunch the next day we were in Poka Nunnery, in a cosy dining room with a wood stove. The whole meal was good, but I particularly remember the river trout, boned, and stuffed with onion, and the selection of hand-made nunnery cheeses to finish. Another meal that stood out was a dinner in the Kutaisi restaurant Sapere. The delicate spicing of the food was wonderful, and I also remember we drank a particularly good bottle of wine.

Barbare Jorjadze (left) at the Tbilisi restaurant Barbarestan. Clearly someone not to be messed with

The final meal of the trip was back in Tbilisi at the restaurant Barbarestan, which was significantly more up-market than any other place we visited in Georgia. All the recipes were taken from a 19th century cookbook written by Barbare Jorjadze, so every dish is traditionally Georgian, but not necessarily commonly eaten in modern Georgia. The decor and crockery is also perhaps how you might imagine things to have been back in 19th century Georgia. The food was good, and interesting, but I think the extra Lari we spend to eat in a place like this mainly went towards providing a very polished level of service. It was fun to try, but personally I prefer a more laid-back atmosphere.

Places to eat and drink in Dubrovnik

Dubrovnik is not only a great place to explore in its own right, but is a good base to discover the wines of South Dalmatia and, to a lesser extent, the rest of Croatia. While it was historically well-connected by sea, Dubrovnik’s land links with the rest of Croatia are rather tenuous as it lies almost right at the southern end of a very thin Croatian coastal strip, and nearby islands and peninsulas are more important for winegrowing than what you might call the mainland.


I cannot pretend to have explored the restaurants and bars of Dubrovnik to the extent that I can point to the very best places to eat and drink, but I can add my weight to some positive reviews you will find on TripAdvisor and elsewhere: three places in the old town, and one in another town, Cavtat, readily accessible as a day trip from Dubrovnik.

Firstly there is the wine bar D’Vino, which is just off the main drag in Dubrovnik. They serve platters of cheese and ham, and a good range of wines, including tasting flights. The staff are friendly and knowledgeable, and I would recommend sitting inside the building to make it easier to benefit from their knowledge and enthusiasm, as some bits of the outside seating area are a bit remote from the main action. They also run wine tours out to the Pelješac Peninsula. I had already made other arrangements for visiting Pelješac, but I think I would be more confident going with them than any of the other standard wine tours I saw advertised.

We visited D’Vino twice, and the only other place we went back to was the restaurant Kopun. The name means capon, a castrated cockerel, which is their signature dish. They do however have a range of other options, and quite a decent wine list. I didn’t get into any detailed discussion about their wines, but their suggestions were confident and competent. Probably the best food-wine match of the trip was their Dubrovnik Capon with a Malvasija dubrovačka. The restaurant is one of two in the square in front of the Jesuit church, which you can actually see in the top-right corner of the image above at the top of a flight of stairs, though the restaurants are hidden.

The other restaurant in Dubrovnik that made a good impression was Lady Pi-Pi, named after their unusual statue of a woman having a pee. It is located high up in the old town, close to the wall on the North side. We walked there up many, many steps from the town centre but, after sharing a bottle of 16% Dingač, thought it safer to return by the easier route round the outside of the wall. This is a barbecue restaurant that has outside seating only, and there is no booking. So you have to be prepared to queue if necessary, and possibly get rained on. In heavy rain, the restaurant will close, possibly even while you are seated. One of the biggest attractions of the place is apparently the view over Dubovnik – if you are lucky enough to get a table with a view, that is. As we visited in October, and were prepared to share a table, we did not have long to wait. I really enjoyed eating there, but to be honest I am not sure why. The food was good, but there is a limit to how good grilled meat and chips can be. The best bit was probably the Cevapi – a local meat ball speciality. And the aforementioned Dingač hit the spot nicely too. This place is a nice break from the Dubrovnik tourist norm, and well worth considering if it sounds like your sort of thing, but personally I would not queue long for the experience.

Not in Dubrovnik at all but easy to reach by bus and boat, Bugenvila in Cavtat was probably my favourite restaurant of the whole trip, certainly as far as the food was concerned – good quality ingredients, and very well prepared. I learned afterwards that the chef had worked with Heston Blumenthal. We had lunchtime set menus with matching wine flights. I must admit that I was a little disappointed that 5 of our 6 wines (3 with each of the menus) were of international grapes. I also thought it a strange that I was served a Sauvignon Blanc with a mushroom and truffle oil soup, but I approached it with an open mind and it did seem to work in a yin-yang sort of way. I still wonder though if that was the intended match, or was it an error, or just some left-over wine?

More about the wines of South Dalmatia, including those briefly mentioned here, in my next post.

Beck Ink at Squid Ink – an Austrian red at a new restaurant

beck-inkSquid Ink is a Manchester restaurant that opened only a few months ago, and they suggested Beck Ink to match the current menu, even though the wine did not feature on the printed list. The uncanny relevance of the wine’s label image to our venue was not lost on the restaurant, but I fear it is a little too expensive to ever be their house wine. Its retail price from Buon Vino is £12.50, while the restaurant served it for £25.00, which in my naïve view is a very modest restaurant mark-up. A lot more modest than the Romanian Pinot Noir on the list, which I was also considering.

Turning the bottle to see the back label, we could see that the wine was 2014, certified organic, from Burgenland in Austria, 12.5% ABV, and bottled by Judith Beck. The Buon Vino website adds: biodynamic, wild yeasts, 80% Zweigelt 20% St Laurent, and that Judith Beck is also the producer.

It was medium pale purple-ruby in colour. Intensely fruity on the nose, dark berries. Medium high acidity, giving the wine a structure that would otherwise be lacking, as it was not at all astringent. Intense, vibrant, fresh and fruity. Light bodied, and refreshing. Excellent length. Drink now. My previous experience with Austrian reds has been generally disappointing, but it seems further exploration is called for. This is a style of wine that I really like, and I was tempted to give it a higher score, but finally decided on  ****

Oh, and it did go well with the food, so top marks to the restaurant for the recco. The menu was in the style that reads more like lists of ingredients than prepared dishes, but the three courses that the wine needed to match were basically: subtly spiced lamb meatballs on a bed of kale; chickpeas in pepper, tomato and harissa sauce with poached egg; and confit duck leg with pear and salad.

Overall the dining experience was very good. There is just one four course menu, and a short wine list with not a Cab Sauv, Chardonnay or Pinot Grigio in sight. The kitchen is in the restaurant area, with food prepared single-handedly by the owner. Each dish was carefully designed and executed, with a lot more thought and subtlety than my descriptions above give credit for. The wine glasses were very good. They use Riedel glasses, and the Beck Ink was served in what I would guess was the Restaurant range Pinot Noir. It does make a big improvement to the experience of drinking wine compared to what you get with the dire quality of glass you get in the vast majority of British restaurants, even ones with fine-dining pretentions.

I have only one general criticism: there were no starchy carbs in the entire menu. So don’t arrive too hungry. But it is not just a question of filling the belly. To my mind carbs are necessary to provide balance. Pitta bread with the chickpeas would have added contrasting texture if nothing else. And a few chips with the duck would not have gone amiss. If you are trying to be virtuous you don’t have to eat them. Nevertheless, a very good standard overall, and good value at £25 for the 4 courses.

Wineing and La Bodeguilla-ing in Palma

Recently we spent a week in Palma de Mallorca. It’s a beautiful city that is easily accessible by air from the UK, and certainly worthy of a long weekend at the very least. There are plenty of interesting places to eat and drink, and I would like to draw your attention to a couple of centrally located venues that should be of particular interest to wine lovers. They were both good enough for us to visit twice on our trip.

Wineing

Wineing (sic) is a great place for wine-lovers to geek out. Even normal people who want to grab something to eat with a couple of glasses of wine will not be disappointed, but if you want to taste local wines, it is the place to go. Here is a panoramic image of the enomatic machines available there – click to enlarge.

wineing

From left to right, there are two machines loaded with non-Majorcan Spanish reds, followed by one with white and rosé wines from anywhere in the world, one with non-Spanish reds, and then, fading into the distant darkness in the image, are the two machines I concentrated most on: the Majorcan reds. The emphasis on red wine reflects production on the island, but seemed inappropriate in a wine-bar-cum-restaurant setting. Nevertheless, it suited me.

winening_labelOn both visits we were served by a Swedish waitress with excellent English who was friendly and helpful, and very much set the tone of the place. One of the nice features of Wineing was the flexibility. The place was not very busy, so we could sit where we wanted, and it is possible to just drink, or eat as little or as much as you want. The menu included tapas, but you could also put together a full meal with dessert – a lot more wine-friendly than a cheese or ham platter. For our first visit we were not very hungry, but shared bread, one tapas dish, one steak and a portion of chips. The second time we ordered a few different tapas dishes.

The wine choices were even more flexible. Depending on where you chose to sit, there may have been a glass at your table, but regardless there was a stash of decent quality glasses on a table between two enomatic machines for you to help yourself to. From the machines you could take pours of size “tasting”, “half glass” or “full glass”, or buy bottles, at the prices indicated on the enomatic labels. To give you some idea of the range, the Majorcan wines I tried were: Ánima Negra, Án and ÁN/2; Miguel Oliver, Aía; 4 Kilos, 12 Volts and Gallinas y Focas; Oliver Moragues, OM; Son Bordils, Syrah; Xaloc, El Colmo; Castell Miguel, Shiraz Stairway to Heaven.

La Bodeguilla

La Bodeguilla was also excellent, but in a very different way. The food at Wineing is good, but at La Bodeguilla it is outstanding, and there was also an excellent wine list. It is never going to be a Michelin starred restaurant for reasons mentioned below, but in my opinion it whupped Simply Fosh (a 1 star restaurant in Palma) on sheer quality of food.

But be aware that, although it does serve both tapas and restaurant-style courses, at heart it is an up-market tapas bar, with small tables and less-than-comfortable seating. There are two areas: in the more tapas part you are provided with stools, while in the restaurant part the chairs are ridiculously low. The table heights were in proportion to the chairs, but if you are tallish like me you finish up almost sitting cross-legged. If I were a cynic (actually I am in this case), I would suggest that the seating was designed to encourage people not to linger so they can cram more covers in. At the very least, a Michelin star does ensure more comfortable seating!

Another slight negative for us was the more formal, though not always well-organised, service. To be fair, this may have partly been due to the language barrier, but nevertheless it made a marked contrast to the service at Wineing.

la_bodeguillaThe wine list in tangible form is illustrated above. You do get a paper version too, unprompted if you are seated in the restaurant area, but apparently only on request in the tapas area. There is also a good selection of wines by the glass. Nowhere near as comprehensive as the enomatic-powered Wineing, but very nicely selected. For example, the Sherries offered were, to quote the by-the-glass card verbatim: Tio Pepe Rama, Manzanilla la Goya Rama, Palo Cortado AB Leonor, Amontillado Tresillo, and Uno Palma.

Every tapas dish on the two occasions we ate there was exquisite: crab terrine, tuna tartare, aubergine and smoked cod, and a mini steak and foie gras burger with skinny chips. The main course we both ordered was suckling lamb shoulder, which turned out to be a whole shoulder and front leg. This was no doubt correctly cooked and presented, but I do tend to prefer the meat of more fully grown animals. So why did I order it? Well, there was not a lot of choice for the main courses, and three of the dishes were suckling something-or-other. On return I shall stick to the tapas.

This place is not cheap, and it does apparently get full very easily, but I recommend it highly for the quality of the tapas and wine.

Supper clubs and the wine geek

Whether you are a wine geek or not, if you love good food, and the company of others who love good food, I would suggest you seek out a local supper club.  If you are not sure where to start looking, try following a few local foodies on Twitter.

In addition to good food, you will have the not inconsiderable bonus of being able to eat out with your own wine.  BYO may sound like a mere money-saving advantage, but it is much more than that for a week geek.  It means you have full control over the wine selection, and you can make sure it is served correctly which is a detail many restaurants manage to cock up.

I am sure there are almost as many variations on supper clubs as there are clubs, and I do not propose to give an overview of them all here.  I am just writing from my limited recent experience of two in Manchester.  Although I have only been to supper clubs on 4 occasions in total so far, most of our fellow diners were on their first so I am starting to feel as if I have a wealth of experience to share.

Speaking of fellow diners, meeting new people around a shared table is one of the great pleasures of this form of dining.  I suppose the corollary is that if you are after a romantic dinner or an opportunity to catch up with a long-lost friend, you should probably be booking a table for two at a restaurant.

Below are the two supper clubs we attended recently in Manchester…

Wendy’s House Supper Club

Wendy Swetnam started her Manchester supper club only this year, but she already seems to be more serious than most supper club hosts in terms of growing it as a business.  I would describe Wendy’s House Supper Club as being professional in the very best sense of the word. But do not expect cold professionalism; expect a warm welcome, an informal atmosphere in a cosy house with an intimate table that seats eight, and an unassuming chef. The professionalism comes through in an attention to detail that would be overlooked in many restaurants.

I feel rather inadequate when it comes to describing food, but it is good – very good.  Certainly well towards the top-end of what Manchester has to offer in terms of restaurant food.  But in a way that is to miss the point.  Wendy offers an overall dining experience that is very different to that provided by restaurants, and in many ways better.

Oh, did I mention that only vegetarian food is on offer.  But if, like me, you are omnivorous, don’t let that put you off – good food is good food.  I have attended two of her supper clubs so far, and do not intend to stop now.

For supper club bookings, pricing, and information about Wendy’s other ventures see wendyshousesupperclub.co.uk, or follow her on Twitter @wendyswetnam.  You will find descriptions and images of her supper club food in both places.  For the views of other people I met at Wendy’s see blog posts by RoseBudAnnie and GreedyGuzzler.

Manchester Foodies

If Wendy is professional in the best sense of the word, the Manchester Foodies are amateur, also in the best sense.  Anna and Jamie host supper clubs for the joy of preparing excellent food and meeting others who enjoy eating it.  You can try to find out about plans for future supper clubs on their blog Manchester Foodies or Twitter @mcrfoodies, but do not expect them to be as frequent or regular as Wendy’s, and they will most likely not all be held in their home.

We went to a Manchester Foodies supper club based on Ottolenghi’s book Jerusalem.  The feel was more like popping round to friends for dinner than the more carefully orchestrated evenings at Wendy’s.  And the food was placed in the centre of the table on large plates and boards – again more informal than Wendy’s carefully arranged individual plates, but also truer to the style of Ottolenghi’s Middle Eastern food.  One of the big pluses of the less formal approach was that not only did we get to interact with other supper club guests, but there was plenty of opportunity to chat to our hosts too and get to know them a bit better.

What I remember most about the food was the subtle yet fresh and interesting use of spice in the dishes, and the textures.  All mouth-watering stuff, and a mere £25 for a Middle-Eastern feast.  I’d love to return for another Manchester Foodies supper club given an opportunity, but when (and indeed where) will it be?

Here’s what FoodGeek had to say about the evening.  To prove I was there, you can see me in the second image of the post, just behind the bottle of Musar 99 😉

And the next one for us?

It is looking very much like it will be hosted by seasons eatings @seasoneatmcr.  The food looks great and, it is highly recommended by GreedyGuzzler, which is good enough for me.  Maybe I’ll see you at the Fig and Sparrow one in December.

Back on the booze

As you may be aware, I have been off alcohol for a while on medical advice. I must admit I did make a few exceptions for particularly attractive tasting opportunities, but last weekend was the first one where my wine drinking was back to normal.  As it happened I managed to find three very enjoyable, though relatively modest wines, to break my fast with.  These are the experiences that really make wine worthwhile for me.

The Talbot was drunk at home with a shoulder of lamb, but the other bottles mentioned below were opened at our local BYO restaurant, Aladdin.  The restaurant was on fine form.  It has expanded to occupy all of the ex-Indian restaurant next door – it moved into the first floor a year or so ago, and has now taken over the ground floor too.  They do not sell alcohol, and so forgo the generous markups usually applied by restaurants, and I don’t think they have increased their prices in the seven years or so I have been going, but clearly they are successful.  Presumably it is because they offer a product that people like, and it always seems to attract a broad range of customers.  But anyway – the wine:

botb

Ryzlink Rýnsk, Víno S Prívlastkem, Pozdní Sber, Polosuché, Tomáš Krist, Oblast Morave, Podoblast Slovácká Obec Milotice Vinícní Trať Šidleny, 2009, 11.5%, members’ price at The Daily Drinker is £11.70. Firstly, I think some translation and explanation is in order.  I shall do my best – corrections welcome.  This is a Riesling produced by Tomáš Krist, in the Oblast Morave region of the Czech Republic.  Confusingly it is not easy to spot the country of origin on the label, but you do see the word Slovácká, which you might think is Slovakia – actually it is a subregion of Oblast Morave.  This wine is a pale watery green.  On the nose I get intense fresh lime and lemon.  It has medium high acidity, and perhaps the merest hint of some residual sugar.  On the palate the aromatics are as on the nose.  The wine is refreshing, but the acidity is not at all searing. In fact it seems to have a creamy note, so I wonder it has perhaps gone through a malolactic fermentation, which I believe would be unusual for a Riesling. Decent length and rather a nice balance.  Probably best to drink now, but I would be interested to see how it ages over the next few years.  Pleasant but simple. ***

Terra d’Alter, Vinho Regional Alentejano, Touriga Nacional, Portugal, 2010, 14.0%, members’ price at The Daily Drinker is £9.00. FWIW, this is an IWC Gold Medal winner. Medium pale purple ruby colour, with an intense, fresh, blackberry and raspberry nose.  Medium high acidity. Intense, but light. Fresh feeling to the wine.  Aromatics as nose. Medium low tannin. Excellent length. Good juicy fruit. Nice bitter finish. Drink now.   I am not sure about the extent to which sulphur was used with this wine, but freshness of the fruit reminds me of some of the best natural wines I have tasted.  Other Touriga Nacional wines I have tasted have been a lot heavier than this one.  ****

Cordier, Chateau Talbot, Saint-Julien, France, 1974.  I bought this recently for a very modest £8.00 from someone who picked it up at auction.  On wine-searcher at the time, I saw it being offered for £60 and £140 by different merchants.  Pale tawny colour.  On the nose and palate, it is has mature red fruit, and attractive gentle warm spicy notes.  Medium acid and medium astgringency, with excellent length.  Despite 1974 being a poor vintage, this was not at all dried out or oxidised.  It might well have been better many years ago, but is still a nice wine that gave me a lot of pleasure, and at £8 it was a bargain.  Not sure I would want to pay anything like £60, but those who appreciate mature wines more than me might see that as a reasonable price. ****

Nice food – pity about the wine service

Only under sufferance would I ever go to a restaurant that offers poor food, but with very few exceptions I have to resign myself to being disappointed with the way wine is served.

If you run a restaurant, please consider carefully what I say below.  I appreciate how much effort goes into providing good food and a pleasant environment, but so often find it sad that the same effort does not seem to be accorded to the wine.  Below I discuss two areas where restaurants are often lacking.

Temperature

There are pretty well established conventional temperatures for serving different types of wine.  Look at the temperature chart at the back of Hugh Johnson’s Pocket Wine Book for example.  I do not think it is tremendously important to get the temperature precisely correct according to what any one authority recommends, but it helps if you know roughly what you should be aiming for.

In particular, note that the highest temperature that any red wine should be served is a couple of degrees under 20°C – it is not the temperature of modern rooms, and even less is it the temperature of your kitchen in summer.  The difference between 18 and (say) 25°C has a huge effect on wine.  Try it!  Too warm and wine is soupy, and has a slight alcohol burn; at the correct temperature it is refreshing and the aromas are better defined.  This is not a difference that only wine buffs will notice.  There is also a corresponding problem with white wines being served too cold.  In my opinion that is not normally so bad, as cold wines will often warm quite quickly in the glass and bottle, but it is also something to be aware of.  If in doubt, check your temperature chart.

A dark cupboard, ground level, or even a cellar, might be the most appropriate place for reds prior to serving.  Eye-level in the restaurant kitchen is almost certainly bad!  Or perhaps have a large stock of wine cooler sleeves in a freezer, and give reds a couple of minutes in a sleeve before serving in the summer.  For whites, it is probably just a question of serving from a correctly adjusted fridge.

If you can afford it, and have enough space, a wine fridge with multiple temperature zones might be a good idea – for reds as well as whites.   I don’t think such wine fridges are really necessary, but they certainly make things easy, and if you get a model that displays wines attractively it could help increase sales.

Glasses

Most people who have an opinion on the matter would agree wine should be served from a tulip-shaped glass that tapers in slightly towards the top.   That enables the aromas to develop, but not escape too quickly, thus allowing them to be appreciated by the drinker. The glass should be clear to show off the colour of the wine, and ideally it should be thin, particularly at the rim.  I cannot rationally justify the requirement for the glass to be thin, but subjectively it seems to make a big difference.

A good benchmark for the size and shape of a general purpose wine glass would be the Riedel Vinum Chianti.  But I am not at all suggesting you need to use Riedel Vinum glasses – there are many cheaper alternatives that will be fine for all but the most fussy of wine geeks.  Port and Sherry should probably be served from a smaller glass – I would suggest the ISO tasting glass as a benchmark for size and shape.

As with serving temperature, I do not believe it is only wine buffs that will appreciate good wine glasses.  They make a real improvement to the wine drinking experience.  Besides, a decent wine glass looks so much more attractive than a small stubby one.

Oh, and maybe one more thing…

Or maybe not.  I am tempted to go on to discuss wine lists, matching with food, quality of information, and the apparently thorny issue of BYO.  But I won’t – I’ll stop now.  Almost whatever wine you give me will be so much better, and I shall be so much happier, if you serve it at the right temperature and put it in a decent glass.

I am not touting for business as a wine consultant, but if you are a restaurateur and have any questions do please ask.  I’ll be more than happy to help, particularly if it will lead to me having a better restaurant experience.

Wines from Lebanon and thereabouts

At last – another event that reminds me of what wine is all about, and why I like writing about it.  A group of wine nuts from Manchester and thereabouts once again descended on the Aladdin BYO restaurant in Withington,  to eat well, and share wines from Lebanon and thereabouts.  The original brief was to bring bottles from the Eastern Mediterranean or the North Coast of Africa.  We finished up with no bottles from Africa, and stretched the concept of Eastern Mediterranean from Greece to Georgia (mercifully not as far as the one in the USA), but it didn’t seem to matter.  Somehow it felt as though we kept within the spirit of the theme.

As usual, Aladdin delivered, and we paid only £20 per person all in, including tip and corkage.  Well actually they did not charge for corkage as we had our own glasses and opened our own wine.  I learned on leaving that they were going to expand to take over the Indian restaurant next door completely – they already have the first floor and will move in on the ground floor too.  Excellent news.  They do a great job, and deserve every success.

Scanning through my star ratings below, I must admit that some do seem very generous. But they are a measure of my enjoyment on the night, and I never pretend to be objective. To recreate the enjoyment, I suggest that you and a group of friends grab a bunch of similarly interesting wines and take them to your local Middle-Eastern restaurant. Perhaps with the exception of the Jars of Cana, if you buy one of the lesser known wines and try it in “the cold light of day” you might not be so impressed.

Domaine des Tourelles, Pierre Louis Brun depuis 1868, Bekaa Valley, Lebanon – Chardonnay, Viognier and Muscat d’Alexandria – 2011, 13.0%
Peachy. Medium low acid.  Dry. Slightly astringent. Good to drink now ****

Chateau Khoury, Rève Blanc, Dhour Zahleé, Bekaa Valley, Lebanon – Chardonnay, Gewurztraminer and Riesling – 2008, 13.0%
Intensely floral and petrol. Medium acid. Off dry. Good to drink now, but no hurry ****

Massaya, Silver Selection, Bekaa Valley, Lebanon – Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay – 2004, 13.5%
Flat and Oxidised. Faulty bottle or too old. But a bottle of this vintage was great last year, so if you see one don’t automatically write it off. I have one more, so let’s hope! Still drinkable **

Chateau Musar, White, Bekaa Valley, Lebanon – Obaideh and Merwah – 2001, 12.5%
Intense. Slightly oxidised. Slightly astringent. Big, and full of flavour. Beautiful. A tasting note of few words because I was struggling to describe it, rather than because it had little to offer. A great wine, and probably the wine of the night. Good to drink now, but no hurry *****

Pirosmani, Medium dry red, Telavi Marani (producer), Kakheti (region), Georgia – Saperavi – 2005, 12.5%
Vaguely raisiny. Medium acid. Medium dry. Medium low tannin. This really was not my cup of tea, but then I rarely like wines that are medium dry or medium sweet. Drink now **

Jawary, Bekaa Valley, Lebanon – Cinsault, Cabernet Sauvignon and Carignan – 2005, 13.0%
This is the wine behind the label featured in the image for this post. What a fantastic label – nicely expressing the exotic and, I suspect, the flamboyance of the cultural remains of French rule. At Aladdin I found it to be a good all-round wine. Medium acid. Off dry. Medium tannin. Finishing dry due to the tannin. The following evening, it seemed to have transformed into a Pinotage for better and worse – burnt rubber and meat, with a touch of (in the nicest possible way) vomit. ****

Jars of Cana, Clos de Cana, Vallée Lamartine, Lebanon – Petit Cabernet, Pinot Noir, Mouvèdre – 2002, 13.0%
Intense red fruit. Fresh and aromatic. Medium acid. Medium low acid. Another sadly brief note, but a very good and interesting wine with a score that fairly reflects the quality. It was not noted at the time, but I am sure there was some spice in the mix too. Manchester locals can pick up a bottle at the Cheshire Smokehouse. Apparently Petit Cabernet is an synomym for Cabernet Sauvignon.  Good to drink now *****

Chateau Musar, Bekaa Valley, Lebanon – Cabernet Sauvignon, Carignan and Cinsault – 2000, 13.5%
Intense soft red fruit. Spicy and volatile. Medium acid. As nose. Medium tannin. Excellent length. Could drink now, but was surprisingly primary compared to the 1999s I have opened and enjoyed over the last couple of years, so I would definitely keep at least another few years *****

Naturally sweet wine, Karelas (producer), Mavrodaphne (grape) of Patras (region), Greece, NV, 15.0%, 37.5cl
Intense. Raisiny. Medium acid. Sweet. As nose. Low tannin. Bitter. Excellent length. Drink now. You can get this, and other Mavrodaphne of Patras wines, for around a tenner a bottle. I am certainly going to be trying more *****

Chateau Musar, Hochar, Bekaa Valley, Lebanon – Cinsault, Carignan, Cabernet Sauvignon and Grenache – 2005, 13.5%
Just when we thought it was all over, we discovered a forgotten wine. For the avoidance of doubt, this is the Hochar “baby Musar” – not the first wine of the Chateau. Intense. VA. Red fruit. Medium acid. A tad thin maybe. Good to drink now, but no hurry ****

Porto, the Douro, and some Vinho Verde

I returned a few weeks ago from the most most amazing holiday in Portugal.  The focus of our trip was Roy Hersh’s 2012 Port Explorers Tour, but we also spent a few extra days in Porto.  We stayed in Porto and Régua, visiting Port houses in Vila Nova de Gaia, and quintas in the Douro.  Additionally, we went on a refreshing excursion to Vinho Verde.

I recommend both Porto and the Douro very strongly as a wine destination. Even before the Port Explorers Tour started we enjoyed Porto very much, and found everyone friendly and helpful.  It was also nice that none of it has yet become a sanitised tourist destination, though bits of Vila Nova de Gaia are heading in that direction.  And if you want to have great tastings set up for you and meet the people behind the wines, I doubt you could do better than to join one of Roy’s tours.

I intend to blog with more thoughts from this trip – nothing too structured, and probably not many tasting notes – just the things that made the biggest impact on me.  For now here is a quick pictorial summary.

Here are some barcos rebelos with part of Vila Nova de Gaia in the background.  This was the style of boat that used to bring the wine down the Douro to Vila Nova de Gaia for storage before shipping.  Now they are used to advertise Port houses, and the wine arrives by road in small tankers.

This was how we spent a lot of our time.  Here we are at our very first tasting with Roy – at Porto Poças.  Someone has to do it – that wine will not taste itself.

And this was our first meal with the group, at Adega e Presuntaria Transmontana II in Vila Nova de Gaia.  A selection of nibbles, which we soon were to learn was a common way to start a meal, and a mackerel dish in the foreground.

The Douro valley.  Back in Porto, everyone seemed to speak of it with misty eyes.   Now we understand why.  Wow!  The most impressive thing was the sheer scale of the landscape – horizontally as well as vertically.

And finally an example of some of the wine-making kit we saw.  These are the robotic lagares at Sandeman’s Quinta do Seixo – the modern version of the place where all the grape treading goes on.  See the robotic feet at the far end.

Below is a complete list of the significant wine and food related events on our trip.  Those marked with a star, were set up as part of the Port Explorers Tour.  I am not going to get round to writing about all of these, so if you want an opinion get in touch – use the comment box or drop me an email.

Port Lodges
Taylor’s (touristy tour and tasting)
Sandeman’s (touristy tour and tasting)
Dalva (tasting, in shop only)
Porto Poças (tour and tasting) *
Burmester (tour and tasting) *
Offley (tour and tasting) *
J H Andresen (tour and tasting) *
Graham’s (tour and tasting)

Quintas in the Douro
Pintas, Wine and Soul (tour and tasting) *
Passadouro (dinner) *
Seixo (tour, tasting and lunch) *
Crasto (tour, tasting and dinner) *
Tedo (tour, tasting and lunch) *
Vista Alegre (tour and tasting) *
Cavadinha (tour and tasting) *
Quinta do Portal (tour, tasting and lunch) *

Vinho Verde
Casal do Paço (tour, tasting and lunch) *

Restaurants
Dom Luis – Vila Nova de Gaia (lunch)
Fishe Fixe – Porto (two lunches)
Majestic Café – Porto (dinner)
Adega e Presuntaria Transmontana II – Vila Nova de Gaia (dinner) *
Ar de Rio – Vila Nova de Gaia (lunch) *
Bufete Fase – Porto (Francesinha bar for dinner) *
Pedro Lemos – Porto (dinner) *
Rui Paula, DOC – Folgosa (lunch) *
LBV 79 – Pinhõa (dinner) *
Rui Paula, DOP – Porto (dinner) *