Dinner with Jancis Robinson and Nicolas Lander (London)

Also, empirical proof that cabernet sauvignon under screwcap can age well – but will the Bordelaise embrace change

The highlight of a trip to London a few months back was an invitation to dinner from Jancis Robinson MW and Nicolas Lander, moreover the meridian for a wine and food writer; to be breaking bread with the world’s doyen of wine and the most influential food writer and restaurant critic of our time, all very humbling.

As you would expect, our palates were put to the test by Jancis, preparing a most interesting experiment evaluating blind, a cabernet sauvignon that had been bottled under both screwcap and cork closure, but more on this later.

It was pre-agreed the evening be a casual and relaxed one as they had a house guest from Italy, and another Singaporean foodie friend coming, also accommodating our 7 year-old daughter, Hayley, so an early start.

This did not constrain Nick, an equally celebrated chef as much as a food critic, in preparing a deliciously wholesome menu with our daughter in mind although as all gourmands know the simplest dishes are the most exacting to cook. Needless to say, ours was done to perfection.

A revelation for our daughter, and much to our delight, she discovered the Lancashire specialty, potted shrimps, proving to be a big hit and compliment to the chef, moreover striking a sentimental chord with Nick’s Lancastrian upbringing.

Hayley had never seen such tiny shrimps before, as she cautiously took her first mouthful then proceeded to woof down the rest at such speed, Nick asked if she wanted seconds. And she did, polishing off another serve at equal speed, the chef now in deep conversation with her on the merits of the dish and somewhat surprised at her appreciation for food.

A main course of chicken roasted to perfection also hit the spot, more than what our hosts perhaps realised. We always look forward to chicken when outside of Singapore, as bizarre as it might sound, in the chicken capital of the world with famous dishes like Hainanese Chicken and Chicken Satay, you cannot actually buy organic or free-range chicken there.

It is extraordinary and certainly something that many expatriates there find mindboggling, having come to expect free-range and organic chicken as an imperative, it’s a complicated issue and something I have wrote extensively on, visit

http://www.thewanderingpalate.com/produce/a-happy-chook-is-a-tasty-chook/

I am sure that Nick thought we were being over complimentary on the chicken, but he did not realise how much we were craving for a flavoursome, free range bird, and there is nothing better than a hearty roast complete with potatoes and fresh garden peas.

Further veneration for the chef came when Hayley asked, “How do you get the potatoes so crispy Uncle Nick?” These were chopped in tiny, seemingly perfect squares that totally fascinated Hayley in shape, texture and taste. Nick took Hayley over to the kitchen proceeded to guide her through the whole process and showing her the cookbook from which the recipe came, by this stage a strong rapport between two gourmands established.

Naturally Jancis was going to tease our palates with the wine selection, and duly succeeded with the opening wine, an English sparkling setting the pace, tasted blind of course, looking every bit like Champagne and what I thought it was.

The real test, as it were, came with a bracket of two reds, again served blind, although in two different sized/shaped glasses. Jancis instructed us not to labour too much on trying to pick what the wines were, but to decide which wine one actually preferred over the other.

This in itself made it all the more teasing and certainly had me scrutinizing the wines intensely, drawing on all my experience and highly attuned olfactory senses to solve the mystery, even if I was not following instructions from the great master.

To me the wines were quite different yet of the same genre, and I was in Bordeaux. However, things got all the more intriguing when Jancis decided to reveal that the wines were in fact the same. I think she was trying to alleviate the pressure a bit, sensing a degree of torture on our faces; however it in fact elevated the challenge.

Jancis reemphasizing the brief, that we were to simply comment on which wine we preferred, I decided to take the plunge and go first, declaring my preference for wine A. To me it unquestionably showed more complexity of aroma and had quite defined red berry fruit and more noticeably much smoother and quite silky textured with the tannins fully integrated and the wine having an overall more harmonious structure at the same time comparatively more youthful.

Wine B on the other hand, seemed a little dull and lacking in fruit, and a good deal more tannic with a certain coarseness and bony texture, rather clumsy in structure, although not altogether a bad wine and certainly had distinctive qualities of what I thought was an medium-aged claret.

Going around the table, there was a clear consensus and preference for wine A, including Jancis herself. When she revealed that both wines were in fact 2000 Vidal Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon from the Hawkes Bay region in New Zealand and that one was bottled under cork and the other under screwcap, it all started to make sense but the plot thickened; which wine was actually under cork, and which under screwcap.

Conventional wisdom deduced the fresher wine would be the screwcap, which meant wine A, which indeed it was and again there was consensus on this.

I recall the conversation continuing along the lines of why were Bordeaux châteaux owners so reluctant to introduce screwcap, to which Jancis commented that even the likes of the first growth, Chateau Margaux, were experimenting with screwcap with favourable results.

However, it is unlikely that the Bordelaise will change in a hurry; even with evidence mounting that screwcap can successfully age reds destined for longevity, more specifically high-tannin reds like cabernet sauvignon, as effectively as they have whites and in the new world, pinot noir.

There are certainly plenty of high profile new world wineries bottling ‘serious reds’ under screwcap such Grosset Gaia, Moss Wood Cabernet and even the realms of Penfolds Grange and Henschke Hill of Grace. Most of the New Zealand cabernet and syrah producers including the Bordeaux-like blends from Gimblett Gravels are using screwcap with obvious success. See article by Jancis Robinson

http://www.jancisrobinson.com/articles/a200902201.html. Also, see her article covering our screwcap tasting Serious reds under screwcap? 21 Jun 2011.

http://www.jancisrobinson.com/articles/a20110616.html

The resistance is apparently centred on the concern that the wines will retain over-youthfulness correlative to wines ageing under cork, deemed a more natural evolution. And yet, the consumers has to put up with all the flaws of cork and lottery of if the wine is sound, or not.

In actuality, we know the Bordelaise are hiding behind tradition and afraid of the perceived backlash from the consumer, not helped by obstinate French and European sommeliers that have completely got the wrong end of the stick on this. If only they would be more pragmatic and it’s not just about the ageing issues of red wine or any wine for that matter; think of all the random oxidisation and prematurely ageing white burgundy is experiencing, which would all be solved if the French embraced wine evolution – screwcaps.

Perhaps Caroline Frey at Châteaux La Lagune might be the first Bordelaise vigneron to champion screwcaps. She is certainly one of the most progressive new generation winemakers in the Medoc, and I do keep teasing her on this. http://www.thewanderingpalate.com/buying-wine/bordeaux-or-bust/

Jancis served up a 2000 Châteaux Sociando Mallet blind straight after the Vidal Reserve Cabernet 2000 to keep running with the theme, which was an excellent wine and demonstrative of a good (ripe) vintage and this properties merits, although I did think our New Zealand effort looked commendable alongside.

To quote Jancis from her article, and my correspondence on the evening, “How amazing was the comparison between the Vidal Reserve Cabernet 2000 screwcap and cork – extraordinary really! Would be fascinating to see trials from Bordeaux châteaux. Surely if similar results, which you would assume quite likely, would have to be sufficient motivation to at least offer a choice of closure. The Vidal also looked pretty good alongside the Sociando Mallet I thought… certainly did not disgrace itself and showed the right sort of complexity and elegance, although the claret had a little more interest in the bouquet and depth.”

Doing a search on Vidal Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon 2000, a thought this review from Bob Campbell MW rather underdone, and whilst he was on the right track in terms of stating the wine “needs time”, I think he underestimated the wines quality, “This is light, soft, simple wine, sweet fruit. Bit light-weight – lacked complexity. Supple. Elegant. Needs time. 90/100”

It was a rather fascinating story and how this all come about, that is about eight years ago, Vidal having sent a dozen bottles of the 2000 Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon, half under screwcap, half under cork, to Jancis, “out of the blue”, with a request that she experiment with the effect of the two different closures. Rather cheeky really and yet an astute manoeuvre.

Jancis told us her first reaction was to bury them in the cellar as there would be no point comparing the wines when they were young, and duly forgot about them.

Having tortured Jancis with a selection of five rieslings over lunch at our place in Singapore on her last visit, my recalcitrant New Zealand ipseity must have triggered her memory of the Vidal wines when she was thinking of what wine to serve for our dinner, and that it would be opportune to try these wines with a kiwi palate. And what a privilege and most stimulating exercise it was.

Taking the liberty to have the final word on subject of screwcaps, I am less diplomatic or learned than Jancis who says she “is a bit of a stopper agnostic, put off by the tendentious forces at work in most pronouncements on them.” However, I am firmly in the screwcap camp, largely based on pragmatism and reality. Pragmatism because unless we start treating all wine like chicken and transport it, store it and treat it like the perishable product that it is, wine under cork is flawed. http://www.thewanderingpalate.com/buying-wine/wine-is-a-perishable-product/

Reality; as I approach the half century, I don’t really think much about wines that are going to last 30 years or more in bottle.

I’d also like to give Vidal a good plug, having wrote a piece recently on their syrah I am now considering looking at their cabernet blends, and that’s saying something coming from me.

I am really impressed with this estate and how it runs autonomously as a relatively small vineyard in the George Fistonich Empire with winemaker Hugh Crichton showing impressive passion and dedication in the continued evolution of one of New Zealand’s oldest vineyards.  Visit their website www.vidal.co.nz and http://www.thewanderingpalate.com/must-have-wines/new-zealand-red-wine-of-the-year-vidal-estate-syrah-2007-hawkes-bay/

And in conclusion, having taken all of three months to write this up, when Jancis banged out words of far more wisdom and clarity the next day, adds credence to the fact she is the most awesome wine writer on this planet, and I am just a hack.

The evening and experience shall linger on the palate and brain like a great bottle of pinot noir.

If you happen to come from outside the planet earth and not aware of the prose of Jancis Robinson and Nicolas Lander, subscribe to the Financial Times Weekend Edition, the best paper in the Universe, and visit www.jancisrobinson.com and www.nicklander.com



By Curtis Marsh | Wanderings | Related to: , ,

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