Recent Winings – The B Festival at Bibendum

b festival

Bibendum's "B Festival"

Bibendum Wine is just one of those cool companies. The kind of place that you wished you work for, but you don’t – at least in my case.

Luckily, I’ve had the pleasure of being invited to their offices a few times now over the past few months in order to sample their wines. Besides learning more about my favorite beverage, it has been a great way of meeting other food and wine people in the flesh, cementing relationships formed virtually through our increasingly ever ‘connected’ worlds.

Most recently, I attended their cleverly titled and well organized annual event called the ‘B Festival’. Rhyming with the well-known ‘V Festival’ music event, the wine tasting adopted a very musical theme as well. Spread over two days, and taking up most of the non-desk space in their offices, there was a ‘Main Stage’ of wines which included some of Bibendum’s most popular labels, including Bodega Catena Zapata, Petaluma and Castello Banfi (which I recently had the pleasure of visiting in person, and of which more soon in an upcoming post on Italy). In addition, there were two other ‘stages’ each day. When I was there, there was a ‘Rock Stage’, which was all about the world’s most exciting terroirs, and the ‘Alternative Stage’, which offered wines a little off the beaten track that could make good and fresh alternatives to classic wine styles/regions such as Sancerre, white Burgundy or Chateauneuf-du-Pape.

I managed to taste most of the wines in the two specialist rooms, which were small and cozy, and was delighted by how far the music theme had been taken. For instance, in the ‘Rock Stage’ they had a Nirvana Unplugged music video playing on a flat screen TV…you get the picture (literally below).

The Rock Room, Complete with Cobain

The Rock Room, Complete with Cobain

Being somewhat of a novice, this was by far the most wines I had tasted in one go. I was literally like a kid in a candy shop as a number of wines that I’ve been reading about as of late (and dying to taste) were there for the drinking. I don’t know if it was my rookie taste buds, which may have been unaccustomed to so many different wines, but I think that after about the 20th wine I tasted, it became much more difficult to differentiate between wines that were even mildly similar. In any case, you can read a bit about some of the wines that stood out for me, and I have to say there were only one or two wines I didn’t like at all, which is quite a feat given the number I tasted.

Rock Stage

Top draw for me amongst the 12 wines on offer in this room were as follows, in ascending order of price:

  • 2007 Savennieres Clos de la Coulaine, Chateau Pierre-Bise (Loire, France), 100% Chenin Blanc
    • Notes: A beautiful nose of stone fruits, apricot and nectarine. This is classic Chenin. Refreshing, fruity and dry, with a good dose of minerals and a dense richness. £13.26/bottle.
  • 2005 Aglianico del Vulture, Gudarra Bisceglia (Basilicata, Italy), 100% Aglianico
    • Notes: Very nice rich and ripe red fruit and extremely well balanced. Good smooth texture in the mouth with some spiciness and pleasant, unobtrusive oak. £14.50/bottle.
  • 2006 Calera Mills Vineyard Pinot Noir (Mount Harlan, California), 100% Pinot Noir
    • Notes: Absolutely stunning. Smooth, rich, luscious, slightly tannic. Pure pinot fruit (red fruit, black cherry, orange peel) and some subtle spice. Good length and just the right amount of sweetness. Quite a long and soft finish. Could drink quite a few glasses of this! Unfortunately not that cheap at £29.65/bottle.
Rock Star: 2006 Calera Mills Vineyard Pinot Noir (£29.65/bottle)

Rock Star: 2006 Calera Mills Vineyard Pinot Noir (£29.65/bottle)

Alternative Stage

The ‘Alternative Stage’, Stacked with Stars

The ‘Alternative Stage’, Stacked with Stars

There were a lot of wines I really liked in this room, but again three or four stood out:

  • 2007 Sangiovese di Romagna, Superiore Terragens (Emilia-Romagna, Italy), 100% Sangiovese – Alternative to Chianti Classico
    • Notes: Exceedingly good value. Slightly sharp at first but then lovely roundness with strong red fruit (cherry) and jam. Some vanilla in there too, and a very full wine all in all. £6.00/bottle.
  • 2006 A to Z Pinot Noir (Oregon, USA), 100% Pinot Noir – Alternative to Red Burgundy
    • Notes: Wow, very nice, coats the mouth, round and smooth. A good dry finish which fades away slowly. Another glass please? My favorite so far. £15.26/bottle.
  • 2007 Glenguin Estate, Protos Chardonnay (Hunter Valley, Australia), 100% Chardonnay – Alternative to White Burgundy
    • Notes: Nice…extremely fruity with a bit of oak. Very fresh and very light in color. This wine is nutty, creamy and has a lot of depth. The best chardonnay from Australia I’ve tasted recently (along with Katnook Estate’s 2005 Chardonnay). This really is a lovely alternative to white Burgundy, but maybe not that much cheaper than some at £15.50/bottle.
  • 2005 Bodegas Catena Zapata, Nicolas Catena Zapata (Mendoza, Argentina), 78% Cabernet Sauvignon, 22% Malbec – Alternative to Icon Napa Cabernet Sauvignon
    • Notes: Beautiful nose with lots of raspberry. A deep red, ruby color. Sweet, rich red fruit flavor (again, raspberry and some cherry) plus dark chocolate squares, with lots and lots of length. This is a bold and classy wine which is probably pretty age-worthy. A winner, but not cheap at £44.98/bottle!
A Tremendous Trio

A Tremendous Trio

Main Stage

There were a lot of wines I enjoyed from this wide assortment of 100 bottles. However, I’ve selected a few below which really floated my boat:

The Main Acts Take the Stage

The Main Acts Take the Stage

  • 2006 Chablis Grand Cru Blanchots, Domaine Laroche (Burgundy, France), 100% Chardonnay
    • Notes: Excellent, very strong and crisp chardonnay with well integrated soft oak in the background. Notes of mucky leaves and truffles as well. I love this wine. It is important to note that with Laroche the wines from the business’s own land say ‘Domaine Laroche’ (like this one), but that the labels on the wines from grapes brought from other growers simply say ‘Laroche’. £33.50/bottle.
  • 2006 Puligny-Montrachet  1er Cru La Garenne, Domaine Jean-Marc Boillot (Burgundy, France), 100% Chardonnay
    • Notes: Absolutely beautiful, so fruity, so oaky, they run into each other. But this sweetness and ripeness is kept in check with a streak of zesty minerality. Not sure of the price as it was substituted for another similar wine from the same domaine which was retailing at £29.18/bottle.
  • 2003 Meursault, Domaine Matrot (Burgundy, France), 100% Chardonnay
    • Notes: One of my favorites for sure. Fruity, fat, oaky, crispy. Extremely good value at £18.63/bottle for this quality of wine.
  • 2006 Cote Rotie, Domaine Jamet (Rhone, France), 100% Syrah
    • Notes: Wonderful classic Cote Rotie, with deep blackberry married with the hallmark burnt/roasty taste. Could probably age well, but that said, it is very drinkable now. £46.75/bottle.
  • 2004 Brunello di Montalcino, Castello Banfi (Tuscany, Italy), 100% Sangiovese
    • Notes: Very deep red color. Red and black fruits on the nose (blackberry, cherry, raspberry). Full body, with a hint of spice, something mushroomy and a lot of chew and length. I actually tried this wine at Castello Banfi’s Taverna restaurant a few weeks ago and liked it even better. 2004 was a particularly good year for this wine in my view. £24.92/bottle.
  • 2004 Brunello di Montalcino, Poggio Alle Mura, Catello Banfi (Tuscany, Italy), 100% Sangiovese
    • Notes: This was even better and more complex than the ‘normal’ Brunello from Banfi. A bit dryer in the mouth, extremely tannic. Lots of rich red fruit and note of cigar or tobacco and some spice. This is a food wine, but still interesting on its own. A bit more dear at £34.50/bottle.
  • 2006 Catena Zapata, Malbec Argentino (Mendoza, Argentina), 100% Malbec
    • Notes: Out of all of the Catenas on hand, this was my favorite. Other nice ones were the 2007 Catena Malbec (much cheaper at £10.84/bottle and good value) and the 2004 Catena Alta Cabernet Sauvignon (£23.68/bottle). This wine was very complex and concentrated and had a nice balance and lingering freshness to it. You will have to fork out £36.50/bottle for the privilege though.

Great Values

I was lucky enough to get a peep into the ‘Media Tent’ to taste some of the more affordable wines that will be more readily available to the public in supermarkets and national wine store chains. At this point, my palate was a bit the worse for wear, but there were a couple of really good values which stood out for me:

  • 2008 Bouchard Chablis (available at Sainsbury’s) at £9.99/bottle
    • Notes: A very pleasant and quaffable Chablis but not a knock-out. Fresh, citrusy, flinty. Very good value for the price point.
  • 2006 Petaluma Chardonnay (available at Waitrose, Sainsbury’s and Majestic) at £14.99
    • Notes: Wow, this was a pleasant surprise. Nice strong fruit with some apples and peach, and then a good oaky finish. Very round and luscious wine and I think it’s not bad value for the price.
  • 2008 Gewurztraminer Martin Zahn (available at First Quench) at £9.99
    • Notes: Extremely floral nose, sweet and with good acidity. Lots of interesting fruits in the mouth (pear, tropicals) and a very long dry apricot finish. A very good value indeed.
2008 Gewurztraminer Martin Zahn at £9.99

2008 Gewurztraminer Martin Zahn at £9.99

Last up was a very nice Vinsanto, which I thought represented really good value for the money. Very tangy and lots of sweet (candied?) almonds. You can see a picture of it below.

Sticky Ending: 2003 Vinsanto del Chianti Rufina, Fattoria Di Basciano, good value at £11.99 per 375ml bottle

A Sticky Ending: 2003 Vinsanto del Chianti Rufina, Fattoria Di Basciano, good value at £11.99 per 375ml bottle

Well, not much else to say except a big thank you to Bibendum and happy drinking to you all out there.

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Dukes Bar – The Martini that Inspired Ian Fleming

An oasis of classy, clubby and unpretentious charm & home to one of the best martinis in the world

An oasis of classy, clubby and unpretentious charm & home to one of the best martinis in the world

A few years ago, I got taken to the bar at Dukes Hotel for drinks after work with an old colleague. Dukes is one of the many wonderful hidden gems in London, off of St James’s Street down a little road and through a tiny courtyard. Why are so many of the great places in the UK so hidden, I often wonder. Anyway, Dukes is a discreet and understated 5-star hotel that exudes a traditional aura. The bar has historically attracted a lot of wealthy American executives travelling on business in London and also a Mayfair banking / hedge fund set. These days the crowd is slightly more mixed and the bar is busy, pretty much without fail, on weekdays after work.

So what’s the big deal?

Well, Dukes arguably serve the best martini in London and possibly one of the best in the world. In fact, legend has it that Ian Fleming himself got the inspiration for the ‘shaken, not stirred’ line used in the Bond films, from his time spent drinking at Dukes. Before going to Dukes, I really couldn’t stomach martinis. I am ashamedly quite a lightweight when it comes to hard alcoholic drinks (wine is definitely more my thing) and typically go for the sweeter side of the cocktail scale. However, once I had a classic dry vodka martini at Dukes, that all changed. Since my ‘virgin’ cocktail at Dukes, I have returned a number of times. In fact, recently, I have been organizing a monthly night at Dukes after work with a group of friends. We had one of our rendezvous earlier this week, and I thought it high time for a post about this wonderful oasis of class.

When you step into Dukes bar, you will most likely be greeted by Alessandro Palazzi, a consummate and immediately charming Italian host who is without a doubt one of the leading barmen in London. He has worked all over the world in some of the most exclusive places. In 2001, he worked at Dukes bar under the former lead barman Gilberto Preti, and then went onto roles at The Ritz , The Mandarin Oriental and The Great Eastern Hotel (now Andaz) in London, before taking the helm at Dukes again in 2007. You can always be assured of receiving a warm, professional and personal service from Alessandro and the three other Italian waiters that work with him. The bar was completely redesigned in the summer of 2007, and features dark navy blue velvet chairs and silk curtains. The small tables are dark mahogany, as is the bar, the curtains are silk and the fireplace is marble. Overall, it is a classic, refined and clubby atmosphere without ever being in danger of being pretentious or stuffy.

If you are there for the first time, I definitely recommend one of their classic martinis (gin or vodka – choose your poison). All of the martinis are made fresh in front of you. A small wooden trolley is wheeled out and parked besides your table while your waiter prepares it for you. And, if you want, they will explain the difference between the Dukes version of whatever drink they’re making and other pretenders to the throne. My personal favorite is the Dukes Vodka Martini. This consists of Potocki Vodka (Polish), which has been frozen at a very low temperature for a minimum of 24 hours. First, 3 drops of extra dry vermouth are put into the cold martini glass. Then the Potocki is added. Next, the waiter slices the peel of a fresh lemon off (the lemons are organic and Sicilian), squeezes a few splashes of the lemon oil in the glass, rubs the peel around the edge of the glass and drops the peel into the concoction. Sounds simple, right? Well, the best things in life often are. The key here is that the vodka is ice cold, so no ice cubes are used. Also, it is not shaken or stirred (take that, 007). The result is a perfectly balanced and highly potent drink that you can sip for an hour or so over good conversation with friends. The vodka martini is fresh, cold and transitions between the slightly vanilla flavor of the vodka to a zesty lemon finish which lingers on in your mouth. Another of my favorite drinks is ‘Ian Fleming’s Classic Vesper’, which consists of Crown Jewel gin, Potocki vodka, Angostura bitters and Lillet. Also good is the ‘Strangeways’, which is made up of Hendrik’s gin, fresh cucumber, elderflower and lemon. I would like to reiterate the strength of these drinks – one or two is certainly more than enough on an empty stomach. At least for lightweights like me.

Oh, and speaking of stomachs, be forewarned that there is not that much food on offer at the bar in the evening, but they do ply you 3 small silver bowls of nibbles that are constantly refreshed throughout your drinking. One contains small, crisp disc-shaped crackers; another houses a variety of salted nuts; and the third is home to some very nice, fresh green olives which I understand to be imported from Puglia.

The Imperiale 1811: one of the many rare & exotic liquers on hand at Dukes

The Imperiale 1811: one of the many rare & exotic liquers on hand at Dukes

Another nice feature of Dukes is the fact that they have quite a collection of rare cognacs. On our last visit, our waiter brought out a selection of them for us to gaze at and sniff. Most impressive are the Bignon 1800 and the Imperiale 1811. Yes, they are really that old, and the bouquets are really unbelievable, especially on the Imperiale. We told Alessandro earlier this year that if our companies have decent years, we will come in early 2010 and have a glass of each of these (I seem to remember the Imperiale is nearly £400 a shot!). But we’ll have to wait and see about that.

So, if you ever fancy a great martini in a refined and gracious setting, with excellent service, head over to Dukes. You probably won’t be able to find it straight away, but I guess that’s part of the fun.

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