A criminally good idea
There are some invitations Laissez Fare does not turn down. After briefly meeting Chris Mitchell, one of the head honchos at Cube Communications (a boutique PR firm focusing on the wine trade) at the recent Blaggers’ Banquet, I somehow found myself getting an invite to one such event. A no-show was not an option.
The innovative and maybe somewhat ambitious plan was to pair the wines of one of Australia’s hottest wine producers with the light and refined French cuisine of Alexis Gauthier, who is head chef at the 1 Michelin star Roussillon, which is set on a quiet residential street in London’s Pimlico. The premise? Could Australian wines – which for so long have unfortunately been thought of as ‘sun in a bottle’ by many consumers, despite fairly radical revolutions in recent times at many of Australia’s wineries – blend in with the elegance and subtleness of Mr. Gauthier’s cuisine. Would they overpower and clash, or would they meld just as easily as French wine would? Even if they didn’t, I was much looking forward to a second visit to Roussillon, which was one of the first restaurants I reviewed on this blog, and which Mrs. LF and I enjoyed very much.
Shortly after arriving, we were appropriately plied with drink. All of McGuigan’s entry-level wines (which have a gray label in the UK) were on offer. As I tasted through them, I was introduced to Neil McGuigan, who is an MD at the company and oversees viticulture and winemaking at the eponymous firm. He is a very down to earth and affable fellow, and his love for humor becomes apparent quite quickly. One of the little anecdotes he told me, of which there were many, was the fact that his great-great grandfather had been deported from the UK to Australia for being a criminal. You see, he had stolen some wine from a nobleman, and Neil explained that his family had been trying to pay the world back for his ancestor’s transgressions ever since. Tuh-dum (drum roll please). It was hard to believe this laid-back dude was the at the helm of such a big winemaker, which is now one of the top-10 brands of Australian wine in the UK.
I was even more surprised when Chris asked Neil to give a little introductory speech, which while still peppered with his own brand of comedy, was also very eloquent, informative and to the point.
But we had rambled enough and it was time for the main event.
By the way, most of the wines from the classic range were quite pleasant and quaffable, and I remember particularly liking the Sauvignon Blanc, the Chardonnay (which had ripe apple and not too much oak), and the Pinot Grigio (which I found to be less fruity than Italian versions I’m familiar with, and which oddly seemed to have the aroma of petrol I normally associate with Riesling).
Some ‘pretty good piss’
So into Roussillon’s downstairs private dining room we went…
Alexis came in to go through the menu in detail and explain how, in theory, the wine should complement the food and vice versa. I was quite excited to taste what was on offer, especially after having recently seen chef Gauthier on Masterchef: The Professionals, where Marianne Lumb and viewers of the programme discovered his disdain for timers – indeed, he decides when things are cooked to the desired specification purely by touch and feel. I just hoped my lamb wouldn’t be totally raw!
I was also eager to taste the higher-end wines form McGuigan. Earlier on, as I tried to explain my struggle to better explain verbally how wines tasted to me, Neil had said that when he really enjoys a wine, he just says it’s “some pretty good piss.” Although it was a light-hearted joke, I did take what I gathered to be his point: that you should just enjoy really good wine, and not worry too much about trying to make sure you can describe it in exact detail. I just hoped that his top-end wines wouldn’t taste like, erm…
While waiting for the first course to arrive, I hunkered down on one of the lovely little baguettes on offer, which was accompanied by some high quality French beurre.
I enjoyed the lobster bisque, which was rich while remaining fairly light, and I did note that the purple basil was present but much milder than its green cousin, and that it worked well with the seafood flavors. I loved the two little tortellini in the center, too. I found that the Riesling’s acidity cut through the creaminess of the bisque rather well but, for me, the pairing didn’t set the world on fire. I didn’t feel that the wine either added to or detracted from the dish. Maybe being fairly new to Riesling myself, I just don’t ‘get it’ yet, but the wine wasn’t one I would probably go back to.
The next combination worked much better for my palate. The sea bass itself had been delicately cooked, and had a lovely soft firmness. I am a sucker for razor clams and felt that they worked well here. Looking at the description of the dish, I don’t now recall the pepper and spice that is alluded to, but I did like the dish overall, even though it didn’t really pack a punch. Peter Hall, the winemaker, was on hand to describe his Semillon himself. He explained that Hunter Valley Semillon is “one of the most distinct wines from Australia,” and that it is a lighter, finer style with usually about 9.5% – 10.5% ABV. Apparently, they have ‘Semillon & Seafood’ days locally, as the taste of the sea goes so well with this grape variety. I generally agreed with him in this case. The wine exhibited strong citrus and lime and had a wonderful structure. It didn’t dominate and seemed perfectly happy to swish along with the fish in my mouth. Peter mentioned that it was still “a little ways off yet”, and that its full toastiness and golden color were not quite showing through yet. I would certainly be happy to sample some more of that wine in a few years’ time.
The third course was highly enjoyable. The milk fed lamb was stupidly soft and had a mild and fine flavor which was subtly accented by the thyme. I was a little worried that a Cabernet Sauvignon might overpower a dish of such finesse, but I was wrong. The wine itself was very young (being a 2008), and my notes indicate that there was blackcurrant on the palate, that the wine was thick but not tannic (quite soft), that it was fairly jammy and fruit forward, and that there was a touch of spice present. The flavor of the wine actually went pretty well with the dish, especially the rich lamb jus. Neil pointed out that McGuigan was making a big push to give varietal definition to its range, especially at premium price points. He added that this wine was, after all, “only a baby” and that it had a “terrific future,” with the “oak being subservient to the fruit.” I agreed and think this will make a fantastic wine at its peak.
I don’t think I quite ‘got’ the last savory course. To me it seemed to be a nice, crispy puff pastry that was meant to have cheese inside, but that about 90% of that cheese had been sucked out prior to serving, leaving only the aroma and a few remnants of that blue from Auvergne. Possibly like so many other things, its subtly had passed me by. In any case, the Shiraz was a winner. It had a deep purple hue; it was voluptuous, rich, supple, and not overly tannic or oaky. This was not an aggressive Syrah from the Northern Rhone, it was a classically velvety red that had gentle spice and is bound to age well. I personally didn’t understand the pairing here, although chef Gautier said that the sweetness of the Madeira reduction should have gone well with the Shiraz flavors (black fruits)…
But I soon forgot my little quandary when this little slice of heaven arrived, paired with some rather divine golden nectar from down under. ‘Tis the season to be jolly, and ‘tis also the season for that elusive yellow fruit called quince. This parfait was indeed parfait. It was gently cooled, firm, soft and full of that unique quince flavor, which had the softest touch of sultana essence infused throughout. The sorbet was creamy, dreamy and retained that tartness of yogurt which beautifully balanced the sweetness of the parfait. But the real discovery was how well the sesame tuile combined with the sweet wine – bloody brilliant. I really loved this dessert wine, which is made in the Sauterne style, and was much finer than other may Australian sweeties I’ve tasted. Peter said that it was not common for botrytis to develop in the Hunter Valley, and that they only made in a “hit and miss” fashion. Most recently, they have produced it in 2005, 2008 and 2009. If I remember correctly, I don’t think you can yet buy this in the UK, so there’s probably not too much point in rambling on about how much I liked it anymore :)
At the end of the rather extended luncheon, chef Gauthier re-emerged to share a celebratory glass with Neil, which was a fitting end to a great 3-hour partnership between the Aussies and the French.
I came away from the meal with a greater appreciation of McGuigan’s wines, which I had hencetoforth only tasted in their entry-level form. Neil explained over lunch that they were striving to innovate, modernize and drive their higher-end wines to become really special, and that this would have positive ramifications for their wines at every price point. I certainly did get the feeling that these guys care very much about making excellent wines and also liked the fact that they seem to have a great time doing it.
Their success has not gone unnoticed either, as Neil himself was recently awarded White Winemaker of the Year at the International Wine Challenge and McGuigan Wines was a few weeks ago crowned Winemaker of the Year and Australian Producer of the Year at the International Wine & Spirits Competition.
What else can I say but “Good-on-yah mayte” in my best Australian accent?
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If you’re interested in eating at Roussillon, they have a number of good value deals, including a 3-course price-fixe lunch menu which includes ½ a bottle of wine for £35/person. All contact details and menus can be found on their website.
McGuigan Wines are broadly available at Majestic, Tesco and many other supermarkets and wine merchants nationwide.