Heady Beer and LAITHWAITES Wine Reviews
Posted: 6th November 2017
I returned from Flanders yesterday, from a two-night pit-stop in Ypres. The more serious matter concerning my trip I shall reserve for a more fitting place, but those thirty-six hours gave me the chance to renew my acquaintance with Belgian beer, which is surely the most varied and original brewed anywhere in the world. I learned about Belgian beer first and foremost from the late Michael Jackson, the whiskery, paunchy beer and whisky expert, and most certainly not that other fellow with the chimpanzee. Michael was always such a fount of knowledge who inevitably led you to good things. He was also a warm and gentle presence, I miss him terribly.
Coming back on the Eurostar yesterday afternoon I overheard a group of four Englishmen talking about their evening out – I presume in Brussels. It was punctuated by tales of woe, of drunken antics, sleeping in clothes; of ‘frites,’ ketchup and vomit. I realised that my own experiences were mild by comparison, but at the root of the problem lies – I warrant – the prodigious strength of Belgian beer. And the strength seems to be creeping up. I rooted around to see if I could find evidence of this, but all I learned was that Belgian beer is strong because being a neighbour to France, beer is drunk at dinner and in moderation and not sloshed back in the manner preferred by greedy British swillers – so much for the men on the train. It was also strong because Belgians do not heed the German ‘Reinheitsgebot’ and they may add what they like to beer and that means sugar and sugar added to the wort will translate into higher alcohol levels. The best Belgian beers are bottled as well, allowing for a second fermentation and even more prodigious alcoholic strength.
Belgian beer is definitely bullish just now. Michael died ten years ago. In my last – 2002 – edition of his Belgian Beer Book (this is out of date now – and the CAMRA guide would be more useful these days), there were around 120 breweries producing 500 beers. In the bar I was in late on Saturday night, there were as many as 300 beers available. From what I glean, in 2015, there were 1600 beers emanating from 146 breweries. That means a twenty percent increase in the number of breweries, but more than five times as many beers. Firms have been busy creating new brands, for better or for worse and I am sure that a lot of gimmicky things have been produced as a result, but possibly a few masterpieces too?
When our morning work was finished, I sat down with the others to a hearty plate of black pudding and a Westmalle Tripel appeared at my elbow. It was simply delicious but was nudging 10% – so it was stronger than some German wines, I had my eye on a local hoppy Hommel bier, but even that packed a punch of 7.5%. Trying to go easy on the alcohol as we had a long night ahead, I chose a nicely sour Rodenbach at a very reasonable 5.2. I began to grow sleepy for all that, and the next few rounds I opted for white beers in the hope that they would not knock me out. My final drink of the evening was actually a draft lager from Bruges. It was very good but I was pretty shell-shocked after the artillery barrage struck up by those earlier bottled beers.
The rest of the month has not been so promising, but I attended a charming dinner at the Garrick Club to celebrate the ballet-critic Nicholas Dromgoole’s ninetieth birthday on the 27th. Not only was there excellent music and scintillating company, but the food and wine was better than I had any right to expect. True, I have eaten at the club many times, and never been disappointed, but then again your expectations are not always that high in ‘gentlemen’s’ clubs and they are still dogged by a bad reputation that dates back to the time when they dished up something more reminiscent of school food.
These days the food at the Garrick is more classical, as befits the architecture – paupiettes of sole Véronique, for example, would be hard to find in a modern London restaurant, and I was amazed to see cheddar soufflés come out for fifty diners and they weren’t at all bad either.
My meal at the Garrick contrasted starkly with dinner the following evening when a friend and I went to Fischers in Marylebone High Street. When this place opened I felt compelled to defend it after I read the most preposterous restaurant review I had ever seen in my life in the pages of the London Standard. I believed, and still believe, that a Viennese-style restaurant is a good idea; indeed I had always suggested converting a pub and creating a sort of ‘coffee-house’ cum-Beisl (the equivalent of a trattoria or bistrot) downstairs and having a modern Austrian restaurant the floor above. Fischers tries to incorporate both on the same floor, which doesn’t really work. Also it throws in everything vaguely Teutonic it can find and a few other things besides: so there are Austrian dishes, like Tafelspitz or Schnitzels (chicken Schnitzel was new to me), but also German ones such as Himmel und Erde. There are also sausages, which are not restaurant food, but I don’t care so much about that and at least they are relatively cheap. The wine list contains a lot of (pricey but well-chosen) Austrian wines, as well as German ones, etc. The result is anything but authentic, a bit like a women’s magazine pull-out supplement to eating out in Central Europe.
We had a glass of the Bründlmayer Sekt but looking at the prices, had a bottle of 2015 Brouilly from the Château des Tours rather than any Austrian or German red. The butter had a funny taste, and we had to ask the waiter what it was. He said there was a bit of paprika in it, but not enough to cause offence! Why didn’t they put out some Liptauer? I ate some herrings, done three ways, which was decent enough and then some Tafelspitz which was misconceived, coming out more like braised beef with apples on top. Tafelspitz is boiled, and a mixture of apple purée and horseradish is served alongside with fried potatoes and a white sauce with chives. My friend had some odd looking thing that turned out to be a spatchcock chicken favoured with tarragon. We both had a Dobostorte, which was fine, but the chef had cut off the top layer and laid it to one side in an affected way, which spoiled the effect. Such things are never done in Vienna, or indeed Budapest, where the Torte comes from and these affected little twists and fetishes got in the way of enjoying the food. The overall impression I had was that the owners were frightened of going the whole hog and presenting anything remotely like proper Austrian food.
LAITHWAITES Wine Reviews
And now to wine: I went to the Laithwaites tasting in their arch in Southwark and found some excellent things that were “also good value for money at a time” when wine prices are soaring because of our puny pound’s inability to keep up with the Euro.
Laithwaites are pushing English sparklers at the moment, including one made in Windsor Great Park, but I am still sceptical. A lot of them – including the ‘royal’ sparkler from Windsor, have a strange frothiness to them which makes them look as if they have been using beer yeasts. It is anything but the elegant ‘bead’ of top champagne. Of all the fizz on offer at the tasting, the best for me was the Laithwaite Blanc de Blancs from Champagne (£29).
Vinho verde has been changing its spots for years now, so that it hardly resembles the light, frothy, thirst-quenching wine of old, but I found some more authentic character in the 2015 Alvarinho from Deu la Deu (£14.99). Admittedly this is not exactly vinho verde, but a rather more serious wine from Monção. It has a slight prickle from CO2, and lovely peachy taste and something of that yeasty sourness I associate with good vinho verde.
The Portuguese produced some of the stars that day: I thought the 2016 Quinta das Mouras (£8.99) from the Alentejo was volatile at first, but that wore off and was a really lovely, Syrah-dominated wine. I liked the earthy 2015 Quinta do Espirito Santo from Lisbon (£9.99) and the strapping 2013 Gáudio Classic (£14.99) also from the Alentejo. The name would signify enjoyment; for that it would repay decanting. I know the quality of the Quinta da Gaivosa in the Douro of old. The 2013 is no exception, although it comes at a hefty price (£28). Also from the Douro is a 40-Year old tawny port from Andresen (£60) which is wonderfully raisiny and has a super acidity.
A big surprise was a really impressive wine from Bulgaria: the 2012 Coline d’Enira from Bacchus’s homeland of Thrace (£12.99). It is made by the same Marc Dworkin who produces wine in Bordeaux and is a rich and silky Bordeaux-Syrah blend. There was also a nice little Moldovan sweetie, the 2013 Château Vartley Dulce (£14.99 for 50 cls).
Two riojas next (or maybe four) from one of my favourite domaines: Martinez Bujanda: a magnum of the 2009 Finca del Marquesado Gran Reserva will cost you £45 – but it is a proper rioja rather than these confused wines that seem to dominate these days. And there is a trio of Valpiedra Reserva (2001, 2004 and 2010) for £80 of which the 2001 is clearly the winner, but the others look set to catch up. Also from Spain was a wonderfully floral 2016 Ponte da Boga from Mencia (£16.99).
From Germany there was a super 2016 Rüdesheimer Kirchenpfad Riesling Kabinett from the Rheingau (£14.99) and then some treats from Italy: a 2016 Campodora Albana Secco tasting of fresh ginger (£10.99), a lovely 2016 Nero d’Avola from Tenuta Fenice in Sicily (£9.99),a rather more grandiose 2013 Vecciano supertuscan (£19.99).
More than anything, however, I was impressed by the 2015 Borgo di Marte Apassimento from Puglia (£10.99) which had a huge persistence and struck me as great value for money.
From France I was most struck by the 2015 Minervois Château Villerambert Les Truffiers which was all the better for being half Syrah. At 14%, it was also marginally stronger than a Belgian beer.