We spent a long and enjoyable Saturday at Vinopolis, first enjoying a wine tasting with noted wine expert Oz Clarke, then a self-guided tour of Vinopolis, then popping out for some satisfying tapas at Tapas Brindisa in nearby Borough Market, and finally a front-row seat at a Chef vs. Critics quiz show which included some of the UK’s best known food personalities
The Wine Wizard, Oz
For better or for worse, twitter seems to be my best friend as of late in terms providing access to some great food and wine experiences, and often for free!
As readers of the blog will already be aware, it was through an early leak of the booking line number from fellow tweeter @richardvines that I was able to secure a table at Pierre Koffmann’s pop-up restaurant on top of Selfridges.
More recently, I also scored two free tickets to a wine tasting with well-known wine personality Oz Clarke held at Vinopolis through a competition organized by none other than @vinopolislondon. I was very excited to meet Oz after seeing the first two series of his program with James May, where they first visited France and then California in order to educate the lager-loving petrol head about the merits of fermented grape juice. Oz’s down-to-earth attitude and no-nonsense (and, for that matter, no-pretence) approach to wine is refreshing and, in my view, well suited to today’s average wine consumer, who can easily be put off and alienated by wine experts preaching from upon high.
So Mrs. LF and I headed down to Borough Market for our 3pm date with Oz and five of his top wines for 2010. The event took place within the cavernous vaults at Vinopolis, which are used for their own events and I presume would also make an excellent venue for corporate events and other private shindigs as well. The vaults originally stretched from Vinopolis’ location (just a few steps Northwest of Borough Market) Eastward down the river all the way to the end of Tooley Street and were the center of the British wine trade in Victorian times up through the beginning of the second world war.
As you can see below, it is quite a cool space, and so it was that…
...the stage was set...
...then was filled.
The audience was ready...
...and Oz’s eye was on the prize.
I wasn’t exactly sure of the format of the session, but it ended up being a lot of Oz doing what he does best: storytelling. In fact, he is a master storyteller, which makes sense given his earlier career in theatre with such troops as the Royal Shakespeare Company, the Royal National Theatre and The Old Vic, amongst others.
While we did taste each of the five wines he had selected – usually with him nonchalantly asking the audience “Shall we have a swig of this one?” or something similar – and while he did offer some brief and insightful thoughts on how he thought the wine tasted, what I remember most are the accompanying stories he used to bring the countries and wineries that these wines came from to life. It was brilliant entertainment that was educational at the same time, and everyone seemed to be having a good time, Oz included. Although I did wonder if it would be a bit boring for him doing two further sessions of a similar nature that same afternoon, complete with book signings at each. But, alas, I guess these are the trappings of success, eh?
Oz’s storytelling reaches its peak as he recounts the gales he experienced while at a vineyard in Northern Chile
You can find my brief notes about the wines we sampled below, some of which were pretty outstanding for their respective price brackets.
- Roederer Estate Quartet, Brut Sparkling Wine NV (Anderson Valley, California)
- Notes: Very fruity (notably pear) with beautiful miniscule bubbles, a tad of toastiness and serious depth. Interesting to note that, according to Oz, there are about 7 million bubbles in each glass of champagne (to be fair, though, he didn’t know which poor sod had been sad enough to do that research). Fair value at £19.99 in my view, as it is comparable to decent entry-level champagnes, if not a fair bit nicer than some of them.
- 2008 Villa Maria Cellar Selection, Sauvignon Blanc (Marlborough, New Zealand)
- Notes: I have tried the 2007 ‘normal’ version and thought it was a great, classic Kiwi Sauvignon. This wine had a light and bright appearance, a nose of apple, lime and fresh grass, and on the palate it was dominated by greens as well (green apples, grass, nettles, even green pepper). The bottle has a screwcap, which Oz rather likes as he believes it is better for fresh, young white wines and obviously far more consistent than cork. A fine Sauvignon for £10.19.
- 2005 Kooyong Estate, Chardonnay (Mornington Peninsula, Australia)
- Notes: For me, this was the clear winner out of the five. It was a marvellous chardonnay, with a golden, rich straw color in the glass, a slightly citrusy and floral nose (plus some butter), and a little streak of refreshing acidity along with some fruitiness to balance what I thought was mostly a creamy, buttery, smoky and nutty depth. It had excellent length. Not inexpensive at £18.95, but it was one of the better chardonnays I’ve tasted recently, and certainly compares strongly with white Burgundies in the same price range. I wasn’t all that shocked to see that it was Oz’s #1 wine for 2010 in his new book when I opened it up after getting home.
- 2006 Vina Falernia, Syrah Reserva (Elqui Valley, Chile)
- Notes: A lovely deep, dark red in the glass, with a lot of smoke on the nose. On the palate it was again smoky, with notes of cigar tobacco and also some blackberry fruit. It was a very intense wine, and I agree with Oz in that it does have a very Northern Rhône feel about it. Cracking value at £10.95 in my opinion.
- 2006 Yalumba ‘The Scribbler’, Cabernet Sauvignon/Syrah (Barossa Valley, Australia)
- Notes: To be honest, I forgot to write anything down about this wine as I was a bit caught up on one of Oz’s stories. Oz says it “has a fascinating initial flavor of blackcurrant and mint, scented with a few drops of eucalyptus oil and a scrape of lemon zest. There’s some decent rasping tannin too and the whole experience is hugged by plump, chocolaty Shiraz.” Literally couldn’t have said it better myself! £14.99 a pop.
Oz and Laissez’s Big Wine Photo
After the session, we purchased a copy of his pocket-sized 2010 wine guide and I had a brief conversation with the big man himself while he signed our book. I have used his 2009 guide quite a bit this year, and found his recommended wines to be very good for the price in general, with the exception of one or two which didn’t suit my taste. So I am much looking forward to taking advantage of his 2010 guide, which seems to be composed of much different wines than last year’s collection of 250 recommendations, although some of the same producers do feature heavily in both (i.e. Tim Adams, Primo Estate and Villa Maria).
Wine guide authors & publishers: how can you can make your readers’ lives easier?
One thing I would suggest, both for Oz, and for other authors (and publishers) of such annual guides, is to make their recommendations more usable for readers. For example, while they do list which suppliers carry each wine at the end of the description, there is no way for you to easily find which bottles out of the hundreds in the book are available at, say, Waitrose or Tesco when you walk in.
At the beginning of the year, I actually created my own spreadsheet, which is broken down by supermarket/wine shop (the ones I tend to visit the most), and what wines are available at each place that I have found interesting from all of the different wine magazines, guides and books I have read as of late. It is a fairly simple thing to do, but it is extremely time consuming and labor intensive for the consumer (and only geeks like me will take the time to do so).
So, my suggestion to publishers and authors is simple: include an index in the back of your book that is organized by store. It should just be a simple list with the largest national supermarkets and wine merchant chains in bold and all of the wines in your book that are sold at each store underneath (organized by white, rosé, red, sweet), along with the page number that the detailed review can be found on. There is no need to include all of the smaller/independent wine shops in this index if there are tons of them mentioned in your book/guide, but it would be great if the next time we walk into a supermarket or major wine merchant, we can be armed with a list of wines we might be interested in buying without having to commit the information to memory or create Excel workbooks :).
…In any case, the tasting session and chat with Oz were great, and Mrs. LF and I both enjoyed our time very much. But it turned out that our day at Vinopolis wasn’t over just yet. The kind people there had given us complimentary tickets for a tour around Vinopolis itself (which I had done before and enjoyed doing again), and also some more free tickets to attend the ‘Starter for Ten’ quiz show, which was one of the London Restaurant Festival events, that happened to be held at Vinopolis in another of their many private function rooms. With the prospect of seeing such chefs as Richard Corrigan and Rowley Leigh fight it out with critics including Giles Coren and Matthew Norman, we would have been stupid to pass the opportunity up.
So, after winding our way through the Vinopolis tour, we headed to Borough Market to get a spot of early dinner before the quiz began.
Briskly to Brindisa
Unfortunately, the market had pretty much wound down by the time we headed out, but fortunately Tapas Brindisa was open, and somehow they had a table for two. Perfect! I had always wanted to eat here given how popular it seems to be amongst foodies, but this was the first time I’d actually tried, so I was excited.
After perusing the menu for a while, we decided on a few dishes and they came out very quickly, with the exception of my sardines, which I checked on twice, and after assuring me they had been ordered (twice) finally appeared about 10 minutes after all of the other dishes had been polished off (?!).
Spanish Potato Omelette (£4.50); Grilled Lamb Cutlets with Allioli & Fresh Mint Sauce (£8.75); Onion & Rocket Salad with Pear, Quince & Kokos Vinaigrette (£3.20)
First to arrive were the omelette, lamb chops and salad.
The potato omelette was surprisingly good for being such a plain dish. I thought it was seasoned well and it had a very good texture of half egg, half soft potato. Mrs. LF agreed, and enjoyed it mucha. 7/10.
The lamb chops were also well seasoned and nice and moist, though they had spent maybe a minute too long on the heat for my liking and were just barely pink in the middle. While there was a fairly spicy allioli to accompany them, I didn’t particularly like it and ate them solo for the most part. They were fine, but didn’t have that extra flavor hit to make them stand out and be memorable. 6/10.
The salad was the disappointment of the bunch. It was really a salad of red onions, with not much rocket and the pears being almost nonexistent. But the thing we both noticed (and still remember) was that it had a very strange taste permeating throughout. At first, we thought it must have come from the quince, but then again quince is a fruit, and that didn’t make any sense. I thought it tasted like corn nuts, but slightly sour ones. Maybe it was the ‘Kokos’, but I don’t know what it/they are. In any case, neither of us liked this distinct flavor. 3/10.
Pan Fried Padrón Peppers (£5.00)
Despite at first glance all looking alike, there were a couple different types of peppers on the plate, some of which had a wicked little kick (Mrs. LF’s nose began to run), and some of which were very mild. They all had a rich, sweet taste and a nice sour acidity to boot. We only ordered them because the huge and rambunctious table next to us had a plate of them and they looked too good to pass up. Plus Mrs. LF fancied eating them with her omelette, which did turn out to be a good combination. We really enjoyed these green little guys. 7/10.
Pan Fried Sardines with Red Onion Salad & Chilli (£6.50)
The sardines finally arrived and they were alright too (they certainly were very nicely presented). The fish was soft and meaty and had a nice flavor to it, and I enjoyed the hints of chilli. The skin was pretty soggy though, and seemed to be intentionally so (don’t know if it’s supposed to be for fried sardines?), which didn’t make it all that pleasurable to eat. All in all, another solid but uninspiring dish. 6/10.
I have to say that I did rather like the place overall. I enjoyed the buzzy atmosphere, the quick turnover of tables, and it seemed like everyone there was genuinely having a good time. It is certainly a good place to come with friends and spend a leisurely weekend afternoon. They also have some decent Spanish and Portuguese wines available, both by the glass and bottle. We didn’t order that much, but what we did have was generally cooked well, although from the dishes we chose, I didn’t really see what all the fuss was about. When in the area again, I would definitely go back to try sample more of the food.
Chefs vs. Critics & One Confused Host
After the tapas, we headed back to Vinopolis to watch the quiz show that pitted four famous critics against four well-known chefs. In true University Challenge style, the event was hosted by none other than Bamber Gascoigne, the original host of University Challenge before Paxman began residing over proceedings in 1994.
Another empty stage at another of Vinopolis’ private rooms
Rowley Leigh (Le Café Anglais) and Thomasina Meirs (Masterchef Winner and of Wahaca fame) arriving to take their places
The questions had been designed by Fay Maschler, one of the two key organizers of the London Restaurant Festival, and were actually quite difficult, with a number of them baffling the chefs, the critics and audience alike. There were some obscure music-related questions (one where the contestants had to name the composer of songs that ostensibly had something to do with food) and also a few image-based questions (one where they had to name what restaurant was being pictured).
Confound this newfangled technology, thinks Bamber
The most amusing part of the whole evening was the fact that the very posh and measured Gascoigne could not for the life of him figure out how to change the contestants’ scores correctly. He kept giving points to the wrong side and detracting them from the right one. The audience kept heckling him, but he just didn’t seem to understand how the heck to work the controls. The tech guy from the back of the room had to interject a number of times, coming up to the stage and changing the scores for him. Gascoigne did seem to keep correct scores by writing them down on a piece of paper (old school indeed :)), and one of the organizers in the back of the room was paying attention to every detail and seemed to have the same score as Bamber. I’m not so sure they had it right, but it made for a lot of laughter and fun for the audience.
Giles Coren was licking his lips at something...however there was no food to be seen & can't we have a smile Toby?
The chefs got off to a bad start, but it was neck-to-neck at the finish – at least they had a good time (can't remember what Thomasina was laughing about)
Rowley Leigh seemed be by far the most knowledgeable of the chefs, while Richard Corrigan (of Corrigan's Mayfair and Bentley's) only seemed to know the answers to questions he wasn’t allowed to answer, continuously ringing his buzzer during the other side’s bonus questions, which was also quite comical
In the end, the hour-long quiz was extended by about another half-hour or so and was quite enjoyable for all, especially the audience. We were glad to have been able to see these two often hostile factions let down their hair and have a good time in the spirit of friendly competition.
After a very long day out, mostly spent within various parts of Vinopolis, and with probably a bit too much wine involved (we had complementary cocktails before the quiz show too :)), we headed back towards London Bridge station to get some z’s.