Rheingau

Meeting Weil’s new ultra-premium from the slopes of the Gräfenberg

The Rheingau is close to my heart. Frankfurt is where I was allowed to manage my very first wine list as a sommelier, and from there I was able to visit the prestige vineyards and producers based around the famous villages along the Rhine River.

Once you cross the Schiersteiner Brücke from the south and turn left, a route packed with history and tradition opens up in front of you.

From Eltville in the east to Rüdesheim in the west, this is one of the most famous 20km stretches in the German wine world: the home to such A-list vineyards as Schlossberg, Nussbrunnen, Gräfenberg, Berg Schlossberg and Höllenberg.

The ‘elbow bend’ in the Rhine – site of some of Germany’s most prestigious vineyards

The reason for this is simple. Most of the time, the Rhein flows from south to north. But here it briefly turns through 90 degrees to run east to west.  This means that the Rheingau’s vineyards have a full southern exposure and are protected by the hills of the Taunus mountain range to the north.

The Rhine River has a warming effect during the night but also maintains a constant temperature during the ripening phase.

Don’t forget, we are at 50 degrees north here. This is still a cool wine region and grapes sometimes struggle to ripen fully.

All About Riesling

The Rheingau is Riesling. Fact. There is some Pinot Blanc and Pinot Gris, and good Spätburgunder (Pinot Noir) on the west-facing, slate soils of Assmanshausen when the river makes a turn back to the north.

But 80% of the Rheingau is planted to the White Queen.

Though some of the country’s best Beerenauslese and Trockenbeerenausles come from here, the wines generally tend towards the dry style.  

Soils change constantly, from slate in Assmannshausen, to quartzite in Rüdesheim, and löss/clay soil in the centre of the region and on the top of the hills. The slopes are steep and can quickly climb to almost 350m above the river.

The Gräfenberg

Located above the village of Kiedrich the Gräfenberg is owned almost exclusively by Weingut Robert Weil, which has 9.7ha of its 10.5ha. Only two other producers take grapes from here.

The hallowed slopes of the Grafenberg – owned almost exclusively by Robert Weil

It is famous for wine of higher, sweeter qualities such as Beerenauslese, Trockenberenauslese and Eiswein. But what people don’t know is that it also produces some of the best dry Rieslings, from fresh crisp Gutswein, through the delicious Kiedricher up to Grand Cru (Großes Gewächs – usually known as GG) quality.

For GG, low yield, 40hl/ha is a standard, the use of large Stück (1200l) or Doppelstück (2400l), mostly old casks, is a given.

As the vines became older, the Riesling in some smaller parcels of the Grafenberg vineyard stood out, for giving wines with more complexity, flavour intensity and the character.

Home of Monte Vacano

One such ‘special’ parcel was the Gräfenberg-Lay in the north-west, very close to the Turmberg. The soil here is predominantly slate, called Phylliteschiefer, which is spread throughout the Gräfenberg but has a higher content in this parcel. The vines on this 0.5ha parcel are now 40-60 years old.

And this is the home of a special new launch from the Robert Weil winery: Monte Vacano.

Named after the founder’s wife (she was a descendant of the Vacano family in Lombardy) 100 years ago, it used to be made just for the family. After the 1922 vintage it was incorporated into the regular GG Gräfenberg.

But Wilhelm Weil decided to revisit his family’s traditions and bottle the 2018.

Wild-fermented, and matured for 24 months on its lees in large traditional Stück, the Monte Vacano comes 100% from the Lay parcel of the Gräfenberg. Production is tiny – there are only 1200 bottles (plus a few magnums and one double-magnum) – and prices are around the €130 mark.

On the 6th of March at the VDP Rheingau Reserve Auction, one 12l bottle 2018 was under the hammer for an incredible €18,000. The Magnum got auctioned off at 520€.

Wine Available in the UK from Bibendum. Price on request, tiny quantities available.

This new arrival is not cheap. But it is a genuinely exciting arrival on Germany’s fine wine scene – innovative and experimental. And I really hope that this will inspire other Rheingau producers to follow Wilhelm Weil and his team – to respect the region’s traditions while still trying to do something different.

For the love of Semillon

I know what you’re thinking: Semillon is a classic blending varietal without much personality. Even Boekenhoutskloof’s Marc Kent, who is clearly a fan, calls it ‘innocuous’.

But that is exactly why I love it. When treated with a bit of TLC Semillon can be rich, have a lovely linear acidity and take oak incredibly well. It is also partial to a bit of botrytis, leading to some of the world’s most sought-after sweet wines.

I heart Tyrells

Now, I love a lot of varieties, from Chardonnay to Roussanne and everything in between, provided the wines are made with a bit of love.

But from the moment I first tasted Tyrells Vat 1 Semillon early in my career, the grape has always been a favourite.

It one of the first wines that I tried from the new world that wasn’t Chardonnay (yes, this is a long time ago) and I remember it being rounded, smooth and flavourful, without being dominated by oak.

Brokenwood and De Bortoli Noble One became regular purchases of mine, while Keith Tullochs’s Field of Mars Semillon is still a personal favourite: smooth, waxy, rich and packed full of flavour.

Blender par excellence

I love the myriad ways Semillon can be used to provide a rich, slightly waxy/lanolin texture to Sauvignon Blanc blends.

In fact, maybe it’s because it is such a fabulous blender in Bordeaux blanc that it is often misunderstood and underestimated. Yes, it’s a vigorous varietal, but so is Cabernet Sauvignon, and when treated correctly it can be exceptional and age incredibly well.

In Bordeaux it encompasses both ends of the spectrum, used in easy drinking wines such as those from the Entre-Deux-Mers but also dominating the age-worthy and complex wines of Graves and Pessac-Léognan.

See Château Haut-Brion blanc or La Mission Haut-Brion blanc if you’re splashing out. Otherwise, Château Chantegrive’s Cuvée Caroline is a fabulous, more affordable alternative.

And of course, if you’re looking for super long-lived expressions of Semillon, the luscious botrytised versions from Barsac and Sauternes are undeniably five-star.

No marks for appearance, but botrytis is the wonder-mould behind the sweet Semillons of Bordeaux

From France to the world

Semillon is first recorded in Bordeaux in 1736, where it was known as Sémillon de St-Émilion. It travelled to Australia in the 19th century where it took up home in the Hunter Valley region and became used as a blender everywhere else both Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay alike.

In South Africa it used to be one of the most planted varieties, under the name Semillon Gris – a mutation of a grape known as Groen Durif (literally ‘green grape’) that was thought to make up 80% of the Cape’s vineyards in the 1800s.

It is still the fifth most planted white grape in South Africa today, though its profile remains strangely low.

Adi Badenhorst has cultivated grapes from the oldest Semillon vineyard on record ‘La Colline’ in Franschhoek, dating back to 1902. Marc Kent also makes use of this vineyard for both his dry Semillon and his Noble Semillon, the unirrigated bush vines coping well with Franschhoek’s arid conditions.

If you haven’t tasted it, please make it your mission to do so. It nods more to Barsac than Sauternes but in all the best ways.

Marc Kent refers to Semillon as ‘sensitive, yet nice to work with’.

Maybe we should all be a little bit more like Semillon.

Boekenhoutskloof’s Marc Kent: a fan of Semillon

Wine Recommendations

all wines tasted February 2021

Brokenwood Semillon 2018, Hunter Valley, Australia

A really lovely racy acidity and gorgeous waxy feel to this lighter, yet flavoursome style. White fruits and grapefruit notes surround a grassy centre, with just the merest hint of acacia honey. A fab everyday style that is just a bit too easy to drink!

Having checked trade price, this reviewer feels it is best drunk at home for the bargain price of £9.99 from Waitrose.

Brokenwood wines available from Bancroft Wines.

Boekenhoutskloof Semillon 2018, Franschhoek, South Africa

A beautiful waxy lanolin feel and linear acidity is backed up with white fruits a plenty, firm structure, waxy orange peel and notes of thyme and rosemary. All these sit atop a soft oak base and wonderfully long length. A hint of Muscat d’Alexandre (approximately 2%) here adds just the right amount of perfume to the nose without detracting from the Semillon itself. Arguably a tad too young, this will benefit from 3-5 years age.

New Generation, £20.42 Ex VAT

Château de Chantegrive, Cuvée Caroline 2018, Graves, Bordeaux

A 50/50 blend with Sauvignon Blanc the Semillon beautifully shines through here with the Sauvignon providing a smattering of aromatic and supporting acidity. Honeysuckle, lemon peel and tangerine are just some of the glorious flavours here. All beautifully wrapped in vanilla tinged oak and an extremely long length to boot. Gorgeous and very drinkable now but will happily age.

Berry Brothers & Rudd, £18 Ex Vat

Chenin Blanc – The king of white grapes

This might be a controversial question, but is Chenin Blanc the King of white grapes? I would say yes, without any doubt.

Just look at its versatility. This is a variety that can make wines ranging from dry to sweet to sparkling even sweet sparkling. It makes wines that are excellent whether they are fermented/aged in oak, stainless steel or amphora.

With Chenin, anything is possible.

It’s because of this that I’d argue that it could even be greater than Riesling…

Those in the know – sommeliers, real wine-lovers – all round the world mostly know this. Yet it remains curiously underrated by the general public. It’s our job to open their eyes to what it can offer!

Vines and bell-tower in the Loire. Photo courtesy of Tech Image

Where do we find Chenin Blanc?

The home of Chenin Blanc is France’s Loire Valley. Though there are several other places around the world – and in France, too – where Chenin Blanc is common. It’s used as a blending component in Limoux for Crémant de Limoux, for instance.

In South Africa, where it’s called ‘Steen’ it’s grown all over the country – largely because it used to be heavily used in brandy production. Nowadays, it is mainly used as a blending component, though there are producers doing single vineyard wines too. We will come back to that later.

France and South Africa are the main producer countries, but its grown in smaller quantities in most parts of the wine world, from the US to Australia and Chile to Argentina.

How does it grow and what does it taste like?

Chenin Blanc has a high productivity in the vineyards, depending on where it is grown. It tends to bud early, which can make it vulnerable to spring frost.

It is prone to powdery mildew and botrytis although the latter is often welcomed in certain areas. Obviously, botrytis is essential for sweet wine, but even dry wine producers find that a little can add some extra texture. Bunch sizes are medium to large, yet the berries are quite small. 

Flavour profile can vary significantly depending on where it’s being grown and how it’s being made

Generally speaking it is a straw coloured wine with a high acidity, medium structure and alcohol ranging between 12-13,5%. Notes of bruised golden apples, quince, fruit blossoms, ripe peach and lemon zest are key markers for Chenin Blanc.

Older or sweeter versions, or wines that have spent some time in oak can move more into exotic notes of tangerine, dried orange peel and spices such as ginger and saffron.

Key regions and producers

The Loire

Anjou in the Loire Valley has an almost mythical reputation for Chenin Blanc with producers such as Nicolas Joly, Richard Leroy, Mark Angeli & Stéphane Bernaudeau.

As with many parts of the Loire Valley, the styles range from dry to sweet. Sweet wines are made on the south side of the Loire river, where the proximity of the Layon river, creates an ideal condition for noble rot during the autumn season.

The best AOP’s for sweet wine are Quarts de Chaume and Bonnezeaux. Though for me one rather undiscovered sweet wine area is Coteaux de l’Aubance, which gets its name from the Aubance river.

The dry wines of Savennières are made on the north side of the river on south facing slopes. Here we will find La Roche aux Moines and the famed Coulée de Serrant by Nicolas Joly.

Chenin ageing in Vouvray. Photo courtesy of Tech Image

Vouvray is the most comprehensive expression of Chenin Blanc in the Loire Valley. Styles here range from dry to sweet to sparkling. The famous Vouvray Sec is a classic, a versatile wine to pair a variety of dishes. Domaine Huet is a bucket list wine from this area.

Vineyards Le Haut Lieu, Clos du Bourg and Le Mont are the most concentrated wines of the area. Clos de la Meslerie is one to see when you are visiting the area.

Across the river on the southern part we find Montlouis-sur-Loire an area which is hard to differentiate from Vouvray. One producer to look out for here is François Chidaine, who also owns vineyards in Vouvray.

South Africa

There’s been a real growth of quality Chenin in South Africa. Driven mostly by the Swartland region, it’s focusing on single vineyards, different soils and single varietal wines or field blends. The variety is at the heart of a raft of small producers who are rebuilding the image of South African wine.

Eben Sadie tending some old-vine Chenin Blanc in the Swartland

The likes of Eben Sadie, Adi Badenhorst, Chris Alheit, Chris and Andrea Mullineux  and many others are making single vineyard wines with a main focus on Chenin Blanc. Some wine are field blends consisting over five different varieties depending on the cuvee.

Swartland tends to focus on minerality and tension where Stellenbosch often goes for a more concentrated and riper style of Chenin Blanc.

Food pairing for Chenin Blanc

Obviously, with such a wide range of wine styles, Chenin Blanc can go with a huge variety of foods. But here are my top three pairings.

Please note: for reasons of availability, some bottles shown are a different vintage from the one mentioned

Clos de la Meslerie, Vouvray, 2014

£15, Dynamic Vines

Crunchy veal sweetbreads with pigeon and foie gras on a salad

Eben Sadie, Voetpad, 2016

£28, Dreyfus Ashby

Skate wing meuniere and a classic dugléré sauce

Ferme de la Sansonnière, La Lune, 2011

£35, Yapp Brothers

Cod gently roasted, with fresh shrimp and beurre blanc sauce

My Top five wine books

Looking for some great wine reads? James Payne of Douneside House takes us through the tomes that he’s found most useful and inspiring down the years.

1001 Wines you must try before you die (revised edition) edited by Neil Beckett, Octopus

So, how many have you tried/served?

What I most enjoy about this collection of Icon wines of the 20th century is the introduction to each wine by a specific journalist, likely to be a specialist of the given region or country of production. The selection is truly a wish list, right down to the best vintage. Having served over 500 of the entries during my career, I would attest to their greatness and rightful place in this book.

The New Spain by John Radford, Mitchell Beazley

Radford, undisputed king of Spain

A brilliant presentation of the watershed era when modern Spanish wines were gaining global recognition as new classics. The acknowledgment of traditional wine styles is also wonderfully and authoritatively described. John was our inspirational lecturer for Spain at WSET diploma level in the mid 1990s.

Vintage Wine (second edition) by Michael Broadbent, Pavilion Books

From one of the world’s great palates

As a young sommelier it was such an education to read and learn from the detailed tasting notes with such succinct descriptive vocabulary on specific vintages of the greatest wines of the World. Very useful to assist in buying these wines because of the unique assessment of their potential quality and current state of evolution. It was a privilege to have witnessed Mr Broadbent with a gavel in his hand presiding over wine auctions at Christie’s South Kensington.

Port and The Douro by Richard Mayson (revised edition), Infinite Ideas Classic Wine Library

Great place, great book

A specialist book tracing a path through the timeline of development of this UNESCO heritage region of outstanding geographic beauty and importance to the modern Portuguese wine industry. Authoritative and accessible prose from an author who spends a great deal of time on the ground in the vineyards and cellars with some of the most highly regarded producers to gain the deepest insights into what drives quality. Richard was our WSET diploma tutor for Portugal.

Wine Folly, A Visual Guide to the World of Wine by Madeline Puckette & John Hammack, Penguin

Brilliant intro to the world of wine

What a revelation this uniquely well designed introduction to wine represents! I have given it to colleagues to help them ‘get into’ wine. 

Member offers

Visit the Library page for discounts on newly published wine books.

A somm’s guide to bordeaux’s ‘place’

If you’ve ever wanted to know how Bordeaux’s wine trading marketplace – La Place – works, then the best way is obviously to have it explained to you by a top German-born sommelier. Jan Konetzki shuffles us onto the history bus for a tour of a wine world institution.

Explain La Place to me in two sentences

La Place de Bordeaux is a Medieval distribution network used to distribute the wines of Bordeaux globally. Wines are sold from the châteaux to Bordeaux negociants (via a courtier) before being sold on to individual wine merchants around the world and then on to the consumer.

Chateaux I understand – but tell me more about negociants and courtiers

The negociant system has been around in Bordeaux since the early 1600’s and is one of the major reasons Bordeaux became the world’s most important and collectible wine region. And mostly we’ve got the Dutch to thank for it.

As well as draining the swamps (Haut-Medoc, was a swamp in case you did not know), they were some of the first negociants – merchants who may have grown some wine of their own, but mostly bought it, labelled it, shipped it and promoted it inside France and abroad. They were also responsible for producing custom blends ordered by clients.

The modern-day negociant system can be compared to a pre-arranged group of wholesalers who get rewarded by being able to buy (and sell on) a percentage of a château’s harvest every year. Interestingly, the negociants all pay the same price on the same day at close to the same time. They are supposed to sell the wines for the same price, with the same mark-up, though in practice the laws of the market exert a strong influence and this doesn’t always happen.

So if château owners grow the grapes and make the wine, and negotiants sell it, what do courtiers do?

This is a historic trading system that originated in the Middle Ages, and it was set up to prevent France’s elite from having to do anything so uncouth as having to work for a living. These aristocratic owners of wine châteaux did not want to deal directly with the merchant classes. They thought it was common to engage in such commercial activity themselves.

And that’s where the courtiers came in.  They acted as go-betweens for the châteaux and the negotiants. Think of them as Personal Assistants or Messengers – though a very well paid one.

Courtiers typically charge 2% on any deal that they broker and it is one of the most difficult jobs to get into in Bordeaux. You need to pass a series of exams and blind tasting tests, coupled with a minimum of five years of training before you can become a licensed courtier. Kind of like learning to train to be a black cab driver. 

Fun fact: courtiers are by law allowed to own châteaux and vineyards, but are forbidden by law to own, or act as a negociant.

I get that it made sense hundreds of years ago. But why is it still the established route to market today?

This is a good question.  After all, the world of communications and selling has changed out of sight, while the aristocratic owners are now often replaced by banks, insurance companies or wealthy individuals. Yet the system is still going strong. 

Most questionable, for Place-sceptics, is the continued existence of the courtier, since business and communication are now immediate and there is no more royal-class.

Yet fans of the system say they still have a role. The courtier, after all, is a useful buffer between buyer and seller (a bit like an estate agent) and can keep the sometimes heated conversation cool. It’s a big advantage if you are trying to make a deal.

Negociants, meanwhile, have literally created the demand for Bordeaux, its châteaux and appellations since as early as the 1620’s, and they still have great connections and power in the world of wine.

It’s the reason why even wineries from outside Bordeaux (like Super-Tuscans, and estates from Napa Valley and Argentina) are now signing up to the system, in order to find distribution.

The Place might be an old system, but there still seems to be plenty of life left in it.

Jan Konetzki is Director of wine at Ten Trinity Square – Four Seasons and Private Club; Ambassador (UK and Germany) for Château Latour and Artemis Domaines Ambassador UK/Germany; Social Media manager and UK strategic advisor, Niepoort.

Why First Impressions Are Key to great Service

The first five minutes with any new guest are crucial. Get them right and the chances are that the rest of their meal will go perfectly too; get them wrong and it could be a struggle.

Of course, every guest is different, but there are certain key principles that we can all follow to ensure that those early encounters set up a positive environment.

First, get the non-verbals right

At the very beginning look carefully at their manners and their movements; try to understand who you are going to be dealing with. Then make eye contact and give a smile to establish a connection before stage two: show time.

It’s Show Time!

Let’s start with a positive, personalised introduction: Customers like to interact with humans, not robots. Introduce yourself clearly and make sure they understand your name and your role in the restaurant. Reassure them that you’ll take care of their table. 

Let’s continue “small”

Questions like: “how was your day so far”, “have you been here before”, “how was your weekend/vacation/summer etc” are always an effective way to open a conversation, or, if it’s honest and you feel comfortable enough, you could compliment them. Maybe about a necklace, a dress, a pair of glasses they are wearing. By praising them, you’re making them feel good about themselves, proving that you’re paying attention, and moving the focus away from you. They are at the centre of your attention, remember, so show interest.

Now for the tough part: listening and caring

Listening is the easiest way to make people appreciate you. So genuinely listen to what they are telling you about and resist the temptation to break in with personal opinions. That way you will likely win them over. Care about their needs and desires and do your best to satisfy them. 

Recommendations: your time to shine

Now that you have absorbed their insights and have a clear idea about their taste and preferences, I’d suggest targeting three different products at different price points and make sure you are able to clearly explain the differences between them. Don’t be too cocky suggesting only the product you think they will like. There is a very fine line between aggressive selling and smart selling.  

 And finally, here’s a general list of rules that I like to keep in mind for each table:

  1. Project confidence
  2. Be a chameleon, and adapt. We need to shape ourselves based on someone else’s needs and behaviours to make them feel comfortable, as if they were at home.  
  3. Do not forget to SMILE.
  4. Mind your manners. “Thank you”, “you’re welcome”, “goodbye” and “hello” never grow old. 

Be Daring With Your Pairing

We all know about the classic, easy ‘safe’ wine-matches. Well, this article is meant to share and suggest my approach to daring pairings, based on my personal experience.

Although daring is often associated with rebels and anti-conformist behaviour, in this case I didn’t go down the ‘daring’ route because I was trying to shake things up. I had to take risks and think outside the box because the classic and safe options weren’t working.

Earlier this year, I was working at a restaurant, Cornerstone, that served umami-driven dishes that had high counterbalancing acids, sweetness and spices that defeated traditional matches. 

I went on the look out for residual sugar to tackle different types of salinity; lower alcohol and acids to offset spice; savoury and nutty flavours to sweeten umami. Then I cherry-picked those beverages that would fit within my allocated budget. It was important to me not to go crazy on the prices, but otherwise I kept an open mind.

And ask yourself this: have you ever thought of serving an old oloroso with mackerel?

The results were surprising, but educational. I learned a lot from the process, and I’d love to share my thoughts for three of the matches with you because there are some fascinating lessons for all of us.

‘Sea-cuterie’

A very British take on fish – but not without its challenges.

TREACLE-CURED SEA TROUT WITH SALMON PASTRAMI AND SMOKED COD ROE PATÉ

This was the first dish in a Nathan Outlaw tasting menu, and I paired it with a Cerdon du Bugey. It’s the aperitif wine they drink in Lyon – a low-alcohol (8%) off-dry sparkling red. A blend of Gamay and Poulsard, it’s Méthode Ancestrale, so not too fizzy.

They eat a lot of charcuterie and salty stuff in Lyon, and the reason I chose this is because I thought the sea-cuterie is a very British take on fish. The salt and oiliness are pushed right to the max – really savoury – so I felt the food needed a touch of sweetness, and red fruits rather than something lemony.

I discarded champagne and prosecco as options right from the start. But British people can struggle with off-dry wines, so I did try a cava to see if it would work. But it just didn’t have the sugar you need to balance the salt of the fish. The way the fish dishes were prepared, they were veering towards umami, and that just clashed with the high acid in the wine.

With the Cerdon du Bugey, the bubbles, rather than acidity, acted as a palate cleanser, and the sugar went against the umami. The sweetness was camouflaged under the bubbles. When I presented it to customers, I made sure to tell them ‘Please make sure you have a mouthful of the fish first, followed by the wine’. That way you don’t notice the sugar.

Renardat-Fache Cerdon du Bugey 2018, £13.75 ex VAT, Raeburn Fine Wines

Best bit of all, this wine was only £13. If I’d wanted something from Champagne to do the same job it would have been three times the price.

Grey mullet tartare cured in honey, salt and soy, with ponzu dressing, sesame seeds and egg yolk

Savoury flavours in the wine were the key to this particular match

There was a lot to deal with here. There was citrus from the ponzu, sweetness from the honey, which is going to bring down any flavours you have unless the wine is slightly oxidised or savoury, then you had the egg yolk, which covers everything, and lots of salt.

It was a bold dish, and initially I tried sake, vermouth and fino sherry. But they didn’t work. Sherry  was too dry and the alcohol levels in the others were too high – I didn’t want to move from a light sparkling (the Cerdon) to higher fortified levels of alcohol, then back to wine. It would have been a bit clumsy.

So in the end I stayed with wine, but in contrast to the first pairing, here I went richer in body. I was looking for a wine with a bit of sunny ripeness in it, but savoury rather than fruit driven. Because there was a sharp acidity in the dish thanks to the ponzu dressing, I had to drop acidity, too.  All the dishes we had at Cornerstone were really balanced when it came to acidity, so I didn’t want to spoil the balance of the sauce.

Here I was trying to complement the food – like putting prosciutto with melon. Eventually I settled on this weird off-dry 2016 Catalan Chenin Blanc with prolonged skin contact from Raeburn wines.

I was relying on the fact that some styles of Chenin have that kind of bruised apple note – slightly oxidative. And orange wines take on a more savoury note, which was ideal. Add in a little extra sugar, and it all goes really well with umami flavours like we had here.

I picked the most dominant components in the food and tried to match them head to head with similar components in the wine so they cancelled each other out and what was left was something really nice.

This wine would go with anything that’s saline and rich: salted cod, mackerel pate, kippers – any fish that’s been cured or has heavy sauces to it. Even fried eggs with a garnish.

Bodegas Escoda-Sanahuja Els Bassots 2015, £16.00 ex VAT, Raeburn Fine Wines

Mackerel pate with cream and treacle soda bread

Be prepared to be amazed…

The dish is quite rich, and usually, I’d pair this with the Catalan Chenin Blanc, but I’d run out one day, and this guy came in who clearly knew his food and wine – I could tell he was a chef – and asked me for a wine pairing with the dish. I thought maybe a slightly higher alcohol could help with the richness of the dish, so I was looking fortified. Fino wasn’t a good match – again, it was too dry.

I was nibbling on a piece of the soda bread, and it was really nutty and caramelised. And for some reason I looked up on the shelves and there was the Matusalem – a 30 year-old sweet oloroso. I thought ‘why not? I’m going to give it a go.’ I tried a bit with the bread and the paté in secret behind the bar and I was amazed. I let everyone else try it and they were all like ‘fuck, this is great’.

I had to tell the chef not to be scared and to trust my choice, and the moment he put it in his mouth he was like ‘hell yeah – best match of the flight.’ Yet it only came about because I was in the shit and had to improvise.

Flavour wise, those nutty, caramelised flavours worked really well with the bread, and it’s not as dry as a straight oloroso because there’s that touch of PX, which helped the wine to stand against the richness, oiliness and smokiness of the fish – but without smothering it. You could still taste the fish.

As well as fish, Matusalem could work with a rich Moorish lamb with lots of spices. The higher the smoke, the better it would work.  Trust me, you’d drink a tonne of it.

Matusalem 30-year-old sweet oloroso, £18.03/37.5cl at Gonzalez Byass UK

And the customers?

The final question of these Daring Pairings is how you ‘sell’ these left-field matches to your customers.

First of all, you have to watch them carefully. As soon as you see a bit of frowning when the wine arrives, you have to go over and explain carefully to them what they’re about to taste and why you’ve chosen it. Maybe explain to them the order they should eat or drink things in, if that’s relevant – but without being too technical.

Bear in mind that the wine flight is designed as a complement to the food, so basically they should have the food first, then follow it with the wine, not vice versa.

And having taken people away from their comfort zone, I made sure that with the final match of the four I took them back to something more familiar – an aged St Péray. It’s really important that the last dry wine is good. That’s where you put your big budgets. That seals the end of the tasting.

Main image: David Loftus

What’s the weirdest food and wine pairing that you’ve put on your menu? Why did it work and how did you come up with it?

Let us know at by joining The Sommelier Collective discussion group on Food Pairings for the Daring or leave a comment below.

Cross-selling: Sometimes Stories Can Trump Tradition.

By Sean Arthur, Food and Beverage Manager, Holland and Holland Shooting Grounds

Throughout my own career I have approached my guests with my 72 page wine list, been guided to the host of the table for the wine selection and been asked loud and proud “We need a good red for the mains, do you have any Bordeaux?” as if that is the most logical choice for any occasion.

Of course, why not?

But I have always been an advocate of expanding the guest’s repertoire of go-to styles. There are occasionally those more worldly guests that are aware quality wines exist outside of the obvious suspects, but I always felt they were too few and far between, especially when working in a classic fine dining atmosphere.

So how do we change this habit and broaden the horizons without compromising on selling “THAT” big bottle of high-earning 1er Grand Cru in favour of a mid-range Zin?

Now, I don’t mean we should over-stock ourselves or force sales upon people. But there’s definitely a case for showing a passion for other styles and broadening the mix of sales in the room each service.
For myself and my sommelier team this brought about a lot of discussion in the room, amongst the team and even across tables between guests. And with the diversity in sales my Junior Somms became much more confident.

Each time we were presented with the request for a robust French red – for this purpose lets suppose its right bank Bordeaux – I would bring up the selection and point out favourites, but before leaving the table for them to peruse and discuss I would flick forward to the Californians and give some comparatives.

For example, if the host’s eyes widened at the sight of a vertical of Léoville Barton from 1988 forwards then I would mention the new and exciting styles I added from Orin Swift. The prices would be comparable (maybe a bit cheaper) and I’d particularly point out the “Abstract” Cabernet Sauvignon, “Mercury head” Cabernet Sauvignon or “Papillon” listed as Bordeaux Blend.

Some customers might wonder about the lack of back-vintage variety, but I’d just tell them that that’s not Orin Swift’s ethos. They are about putting out well-made and explosive wines to be enjoyed when released. You can age them if you want, but… you know, drink it.
Rather than focusing on comparing grapes and terroir, it’s the story that gets me each time and is something I love presenting in the dining room.

Yes, of course the Old World have stories, but often I found the newer wineries’ stories to be more diverse and more relatable.
Orin Swift began when David Swift Finney bunked off Uni for a year to go drinking in Italy (I’m paraphrasing slightly). He fell in love with wine, and when he came back he trained at the Robert Mondavi Winery before eventually setting up his own venture.

As a story, that’s more fun than ‘handed down from aristocrat to aristocrat through the generations’.

Your guests come for the food and ambience, but they will forever remember that something new, or that wild story that led to their occasion being truly amazing. For me, it’s the exploration and the story that creates the stand-out experience. Wines like this can help to do that.

A few facts on Orin Swift to get you started

David Swift Finny inspired in Italy, trained at Robert Mondavi Wineries and founded his winery in 1998.

His Palermo is a good place to start.
Grape: Cabernet Sauvignon
ABV: 15.5%
Aging: 12 months, 39% new oak
Notes: Deep dark crimson colour, powerful aroma of currants, vanilla and cedar wood. Explodes onto the palate with powerful blackcurrant and dark cherry fruits, luscious and smooth.
Stockist: Enotria & Coe, £28-£35