A Bit More Wining – Saturday at Vinopolis with Oz Clarke + Some Chefs, Critics & Tapas

oz clarke five wines for tasting

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...

...the stage was set...

...then was filled.

...then was filled.

The audience was ready...

The audience was ready...

...and Oz’s eye was on the prize.

...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

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

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?

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)

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)

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)

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.

Tapas Brindisa on Urbanspoon

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

Another empty stage at another of Vinopolis’ private rooms

Richard Corrigan (Corrigan’s Mayfair & Bentley’s) and Thomasina Meirs (Masterchef Winner and of Wahaca fame) arriving to take their places

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

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

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

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 (Le Café Anglais) seemed be by far the most knowledgeable of the chefs, while Richard Corrigan 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

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.

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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.