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29 May 2003

Les Baux de Provence

Les Baux de Provence

An obscure wine sub-region centred on this historic village in the Alpilles hills between Avignon and Arles, the appellation encompasses only 12 growers spread over a mere 320-340 hectares. The Baux valley boasts beautiful wild countryside (and coach-loads of tourists), several rich individual reds and full dry rosés. Here Syrah and Cabernet Sauvignon harmoniously collide alongside Grenache and Mourvèdre...
At the end of May 2003, I was invited to be a taster on one of three juries at an annual competition, the Prix Noël Michelin. Here I joined French wine journalists, sommeliers and winemakers and was confronted by a rather strange scoring system, linguistically poetic and at the same time mathematically complex (how French). I was on the red panel, and the results said interesting things about national palates. I didn’t score the winner, Domaine de la Vallongue, particularly well using a silly system that allocates over half the marks to appearance and nose. However, my favourite (unfortunately the identity of this and the other 10 wines tasted blind were never revealed to me) did also feature strongly in most of the panel’s top 3. So I’ve reverted to the usual method and scoring system for my tasting notes - click on the Cité des Baux shot - which shed a degree of new light on the wines.
Over lunch following the competition, we also tried several different wines including older vintages. The best reds do age well and may justify the high prices les Baux commands, but others need to work harder to convince at this price level. Nevertheless, overall they have something very interesting here. The white wines are currently classified as Appellation Contrôlée Coteaux d’Aix-en-Provence, and the growers talked about moves to lobby for AC Baux status for them. When I'd first heard about this, I thought it a cynical attempt to flesh out the prices of the generally average AC whites; or at the very least a dilution of their terroir (it seems best expressed by the reds). However, the producers want to base it, if it happens, on the Marsanne and Roussanne varieties - not permitted for AC wines at the moment - and Sémillon. Tasting some of the complex, barrel-fermented Vins de Pays made from these grapes confirms their potential, and a worthy improvement on Grenache Blanc, Rolle and Clairette blends.
The majority of estates in les Baux are farmed organically, and one, Château Romanin by biodynamic principles (see my article on Château Falfas for details on this). Others tasted and worth visiting are Mas de la Dame, Olivier d’Auge, Domaine de Lauzières, Jean-André Charial, Mas Sainte-Berthe, Château d’Estoublon, Château Dalmeran, Domaine Hauvette, Mas de Gourgonnier, Domaine de Terres Blanches and Domaine de la Vallongue.

Tasting notes etc. coming soon...

04 April 2003

"Macho Mourvèdre..." Bandol day-trip April 2003

"Le rond-point des Mourvèdres. Magnificent, a roundabout dedicated to Mourvèdre: must be a good omen. This scene-setting postage-stamp vineyard, which is difficult to ignore if you take motorway exit 11 'La Cadière-Le Castellet' to the north of Bandol, lets you know immediately who’s boss around here. For majestic mythical Mourvèdre shapes not only the heart of the appellation on paper but also winegrowers' hearts and minds..." Featuring Château de PibarnonDomaines Bunan Château la Rouvière and Domaine Tempier: CLICK HERE to read it followed by hundreds of Bandol wines reviewed.

01 February 2003

Chine Rouge, Manchester

Wine magazine (UK) February 2003 issue:
Chine Rouge, 54 Faulkner Street, Manchester M1 4FH.
0161 236 8998, www.chinerouge.co.uk
Restaurant 4.5/5 Wine list 3/5

(That website doesn't work anymore and, although I found the restaurant listed elsewhere, the link to it also didn't work. So I don't know if it's still open: anyone who knows more, please email me...)

This grand swish establishment is a newcomer to Chinatown and offers refinement, cosiness and high camp courtesy of Manchester institution Francis Carroll (of Lounge Ten fame). The interior is glorious: black painted and red padded walls neatly matching red benches, low black armchairs and red stained wooden floorboards. A giant Buddha sits observing amidst candles, Chinese umbrellas above on the roof, marble-affect pillars ornamented with kitsch oriental designs and a large painting of two Geishas or lady-boys drinking.

The menu aims for an ambitious French/Far Eastern crossover and certainly delivered in terms of freshness, variety and quality. Just two criticisms really: it’s a bit pricey, e.g. £3 for a bottle of mineral water, and a bit chilly (room temperature rather than atmosphere). However the food was delicious and beautifully cooked. For starters the idiosyncratic dish of Calamari & Frogs’ Legs in salt & chilli pepper (£6) was proclaimed “the best frogs’ legs ever” by a companion. Jumbo Prawns (£6) materialised as three large langoustine-like beasts, which were meaty, fresh and so hot I couldn’t peel them straight away. The moist yet textured Cuttlefish Cakes (£5) with Vietnamese dip were also flavoured with crabmeat and coriander; three small ones just didn’t suffice!

The sauce for the Pan-fried Halibut (£11) was a little non-descript but it didn’t matter, as the fish was superb oozing just from the sea flavour (although not so warm). The Pan Woked Chicken Chow Mein (£6.50) came in tender flavour-infused strips with lots of veg and noodles. Thai Stir-fried King Prawns (£11) sat comfortably in a tasty hot and sweet sauce. On the side we had very crispy thin noodles (£3.50) and two lovely vegetable dishes: garlicky smoky Pak Choi (£3.50) and ginger-laden Beansprouts (£3). Oriental restaurants often disappoint on the dessert front, so the wide choice here was welcomed. The abundant Fresh Fruit Platter (£6) was ideal to finish: piles of melon, raspberries, strawberries, pineapple, kiwi, cumquat plus mango sorbet. The pastry around the Banana Spring Rolls (£6) was a tad dry but the nice runny sweet centre compensated.

Chine Rouge didn’t score so well with the drinks. On our visit they had no Chablis or Sancerre and several wines were different to those on the list; also no Tiger or Chinese beer. “We’re between lists; we’ve changed suppliers,” was the apologetic but logical explanation. The house white (South African Sauvignon Blanc) and red (French Syrah) cost £3 per 175ml glass or £12 a bottle. 2002 Vistasur Sauvignon was dear at £16 (actually the price of the listed New Zealand SB) but charmed with its crowd-pleasing Chilean style, showing aromatic citrus fruit and soft acidity. The Delegat’s 2000 Hawkes Bay Reserve Chardonnay (£23) offered more weight and richness with toasty creamy barrel-fermentation notes. Confusion and omissions aside, the overall selection is OK and features several (rather expensive) Champagnes as well. The service was friendly and professional throughout.

Bordeaux: Pomerol "invasion of MW students"

Part 1 - Vieux Château Certan
Part 2 - Châteaux Le Pin and Gazin
Click here to read it...

01 January 2003

Kro2, Manchester

Wine magazine (UK) January 2003 issue: Kro2, Oxford Road, Manchester M1 (next to BBC).
Tel. 0161 236 1048.

Range: very good wine list, plenty of whiskies and decent continental beers. Atmosphere: spacious, very lively but stylish. Clientele: students with money, 20/30-somethings on the town. Bar snacks: good selection and well-priced, restaurant area too. Drinks list: 4/5.

This independently owned mini-group is churning out sequels faster than Hollywood. Kro Bar opened to acclaim a couple of years ago further down Oxford Road in the heart of the University, and a third is being constructed occupying part of the Manchester Museum nearby (Kro3 perhaps?). But who cares when they look this smart and offer good quality drinking and eating.

Clever puns aside, the name is actually derived from the Danish word for pub, and a glance at the menu confirms a Scandinavian twist: owner Mark Ruby has family origins in Denmark. Kro2 is a huge stunning space, housed in the right hand ground floor portion of the National Computing Centre. The ceilings tower above you, emphasised by simple but elegant hanging lights, tall chunky concrete columns and metal struts boxed around silver air conditioning ducts along the glazed frontage. Painted mostly white offset by dark brown wooden chairs and wall banquettes, the marble floor and occasional high tables also add a touch of class. There’s plenty of room for hundreds in here, plus heated canopied seating outside too (well, it is Manchester).

The wine list features a wide, even bold selection and isn’t expensive. The only criticism is the lack of wines by the glass: just the house red, white, Cava and Champagne in fact. Otherwise prices run from £12 a bottle – Bellefontaine Viognier from southern France and False Bay Pinotage/Shiraz from the Cape – to £35 for Vallet’s Gevrey-Chambertin 1er Cru Cazetier, actually not a bad price for this silky charmer. There are ten whites under £15, including two from Alsace, and eclectic bottles such as Ninth Island Pinot Gris from Tasmania (£19). They offer even more reds: Pasetti’s Montepulciano d’Abruzzo (£13) was quite rich and very Italian, smothered in dried morello cherry fruit. Pity about some dodgy spellings – can any establishment get Taittinger right?

The after dinner drinks’ list has 12 malts from £2.50 to £7 for 21 Year Old Glenmorangie, taking in several island and Islay drams. The Scandinavian influence shows with a limited range of vodkas – only Finlandia and Absolut on view (the ones with the biggest marketing budget probably?) – and absence of a cocktail list (“we don’t really do cocktails”) could be a let down for some.

The food we ordered was decent enough, well priced and substantial: 3 types of marinated herring with a shot of Akvavit (£4.25); reasonable, generous salad Niçoise (£3.25); Danish Frikadeller (£4.95), tasty but salty pork and veal meatballs; and Spinach Cakes (£5.95), totalling one large one.


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