True Confessions From The Wine Trail

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True Confessions From The Wine Trail

Domaine Montrieux 

We started out for Domaine Montrieux just after 9 on a still, warm August morning, the Loire a blanket of green, blue and burnt gold calm. The previous day’s traveling, which had taken us the 600 plus miles from Carmarthenshire to Brendan’s place near Vendome had passed without incident. The handful of kilometers from there to Naveil were more eventful - for the first time in 30 years of driving in continental Europe, perhaps a little hazy from the night before, I took the clockwise route at a roundabout. Panic broke out, but only in our car - the other drivers confronted by this motoring madness were as placid as the weather, either slowing to a stop or gently shifting out of the way. Not a French horn blown in anger. On my part there was no such composure. I drove blindly on, with the scathing abuse from the passenger seat piercing my skull as I made a full circumnavigation before finally leaving the intersection. Back on the right side of the road, but feeling smaller than a mouse and imagining tales of British lunacy being later related in incredulous French by those I had threatened, we drove on in silence. In the back, Warren, our photographer friend had been quiet throughout, ever the observer. After a short while he leant forward, his face squeezed like a cheeky owl between the front seats, “that was interesting” he said. 

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We had met Ariane earlier in the year. Her effortless English a legacy of years spent working in the UK wine trade; she had given us lunch with her husband Martin a ceramicist and their two sons, the oldest of whom was home from art school in Paris. The wines we tasted seemed sublime amongst the charming miscellany of her house and the warm embrace of the family, but we knew to be wary of holiday romance; coolly stashing some bottles in the boot for calmer consideration at a distance. When we got them home we found we were still in love and so these few months later, we were back to cement the relationship. It was good to see Ariane. In February, with the rain descending, the vines dormant and time short, we had passed on making the trek to the vineyard but now, in August, there was anticipation in the air as we strode up the steep path behind her house, passing Martin’s brick workshop and a patch of dense woodland before emerging into the open fields of vines that drape the top of the hill. 

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It’s usually not that hard to work out which areas of vine belong to someone from the natural tendency. They will be the messy ones, the ones that look like a line up of a ramshackle home guard volunteers alongside the stiff to attention, not a leaf out of place military order of the great majority of parcels. They will be the ones with the scrubby floor of a wild orchard, rather than the neat manicure of a golf course. The Montrieux vines run to character and are composed mostly of the pineau d’aunis variety endemic to the area - a grape that has largely escaped the attention of the consumer whilst being beloved of certain winemakers - together with gamay, chenin and a small amount of cabernet franc. The 18 or so acres are in parcels spread across 6 communes of the Vendomois. Right here in the area closest to where production takes place there’s still a few weeks until the beginning of the vendange and the fruit is hanging heavy amongst the leaves but it’s not abundant, the bunches are sporadic with barren patches in between, as if there has been some theft. But they’ve not been taken, they were never there. When we came in February the winemakers we met were working with the dismally small harvest of 2016 when the vines flowered in March and the frosts came in April - a perversion of climatic order that destroyed anything up to 60% of the yield before the grapes even began to form. The people we met in the Loire then were pretty sanguine, they’re already in the habit of letting nature decide and when she acts like this nobody is in a position to defy her. Anyway, “it’s only one year” they said, “2015 was good” they said, “just so long as it doesn’t happen two years in a row” they said.... 

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If anything 2017 was worse. The same sequence of weather occurred resulting in the same poverty of fruit. What there is, is good though and like last year Ariane will be making wine, delicious wine, just less of it. So we head back down the slope to the cellar to taste again the wine from vats and barrels and bottles. Warren snapping away between slurps, Joel swirling his glass anxiously as he quizzes Ariane on what of the little remaining stock we might be able to bring to the UK and me, the driver, assiduously spitting wine into a pot thinking about the roundabouts between here and our next destination. 

Arianne’s wines can be found and indeed purchased here

 

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Our daily bread

Our daily bread

We make a lot of bread.

Every day the kitchen turns out about a hundred items and of course, all the bread we serve is made by us. It couldn’t be any other way - bread underpins much of what we serve, especially sandwiches. It might seem obvious, but good bread is essential to a good sandwich, after all it’s 2/3 of the equation and different sandwiches need different bread to make them a success. Take the Cubano for instance, it’s a sandwich we’ve been doing for 4 or 5 years now but it was a few months in the preparing too. Trying out various combinations of the pork belly, gammon ham, Hafod cheddar, pickle and spicy mayo combination that make up its component parts. Alongside that was the important question of the bun for which we settled on the light, chewy ciabatta that we now make. 

Some of the bread has been with us a long time and the recipes don’t go stale. The focaccia and the granary for instance are basically the same recipes that Maryann’s late mother Jenny taught her at our first restaurant the Four Seasons in Nantgaredig. Nothing stands still though and it’s only recently that we acquired a stone shelved baking oven essential to making the sourdough that’s now a part of our everyday bread making ritual. We’re not precious about our recipes, so here’s how you can make the focaccia for yourself at home:

Focaccia

You’ll need...

  • 1 tbsp caster sugar
  • 1 heaped tbsp dried yeast
  • 1/2 pint cold milk
  • 1/2 pint boiling water
  • 2lb strong white bread flour
  • 1 tbsp salt
  • 2 tbsp olive oil
  • 1 egg
  • Rosemary
  • Sea salt

Combine the milk, boiling water, sugar and then sprinkle in the yeast. Leave this until it bubbles. Add the flour, 1 tablespoon of the oil, the egg and the salt, then mix well. Leave in a warm place to prove until doubled in size (about an hour). Knock down and knead well into a ball and then roll out into a rectangle about an inch thick. Place this on a well oiled baking tray. Leave in a warm place again until risen double, with the surface slightly bubbly. Now sprinkle the rosemary and sea salt on top of the bread evenly and poke into the dough with your fingers so it resembles a buttoned mattress. Leave to rest for five minutes and then bake at 200C for 25 minutes. Remove and drizzle with olive oil whilst still warm on a rack.

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A PIEDMONT FAMILY AFFAIR - CASCINA TAVIJN VINO ROSSO & MAURO VERGANO AMERICANO

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Nadia Verrua’s family have been making wines in the hills of Monferrato in the province of Asti for over a century. She works with Barbera. Grignolino & Ruché, the latter two being indigenous varietals not well known outside of that region, but with characteristics that deserve attention. She vinifies these grapes in separate cuvees like her excellent Bandita, but every year also makes a blend, which changes every vintage, this year being simply Barbera and Ruché. This is the wine they used to keep for themselves, for friends, family and being the house wine at Nadia's husbands restaurant. Thankfully Tutto Wines persuaded them to bottle it and now we buy as much as we can.

Vino Rosso is a bright, young juicy wine brimming with fruit and energy, it's one of our favourite table wines, a great all-rounder with food and has become very popular in Llanarthne. This is the last we'll get of this vintage, so enjoy it while you can...

Nadia's grignolino is also used in another drink we sell, the incredible vini aromatizzati of Mauro Vergano, who is also her uncle in law. 

 

Mauro has spent most of his life as a chemist, developing flavours and aromas and these skills are evident in his vermouth, chinati & other creations. He's been making these drinks for a while but when he retired he went pro (still in very small quantities.) One major difference to bigger producers of vermouth is the base wines he uses, which are from natural producers like Nadia for the Americano and Stefano Bellotti's cortese for his white vermouth. The subtleties and depth of his drinks are unmatched and it takes real skill to balance this amount of ingredients in one drink.

In his Americano, his version of a traditional bitter aperitif, (you may have seen Cocchi Americano in cocktail bars) uses Nadia's Grignolino as a base which is blended with raw alcohol, sugar, wormwood, bitter orange, chinotto and a bunch of dried wild herbs amongst other things. It's delicious on it's own, just with ice, or mixed into cocktails. But we serve it like Mauro did for us at the Real Wine Fair last year, over ice with a splash of soda and some orange rind. Simple and delicious. 

If you want to read more about Mauro, check out this great visit and interview on the Louis/Dressner site. 

Here's a highlight from it:

L/D: You source your grapes from winemakers many would consider as "natural wine" producers. What's your take on the ongoing debate on natural wine?

Mauro: In my opinion, natural wine is actually a wine that is as "simple" as possible.
"Simple" because it doesn't contain any of the elements that, firstly in the vineyard and then in the cellar, would make it heavier and more complicated.

"Simple" because its fragrance and taste are different from the ones that technologically and
scientifically cutting-edge growing and wine-making tend to standardize.

"Simple" because it changes from area to area, from vine-type to vine-type, from year to year and from producer to producer.

"Simple" because it respects the environment and is healthier for those who drink it.

"Simple" because drinking natural wines is a more moving experience: they are full of flavors and
fragrances, more easily digested and never "heavy".

"Simple" because natural wine expresses itself more freely, more finely. It is more alive, it has a
stronger bond to the area it comes from and of which it is the expression.

And in conclusion,

"Not simple" because in order to choose a natural wine, you have to go beyond a mere tasting; you have to get into how the individual producer actually works. I must say that it has been easy for me to work side-by-side with them because I have been fortunate to meet, get to know and appreciate the wine-makers first and the wines second. Once you have taken that step there is no turning back.

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Two wines for the weekend - Clos du Tue-Boeuf & Les Terres Promises

Two amazing wines from a couple of our favourite french producers. 

JEAN-MARIE & THIERRY PUZELAT - CLOS DU TUE-BOUEF

Since the Middle Ages, there have been records about the lieu-dit “le Tue-Boeuf” and its excellent wines which were enjoyed by the local nobility and the kings of France. The family name Puzelat is mentioned in 15th century documents. Jean-Marie & Thierry Puzelat now run the family estate converting to organic agriculture in the mid-90's. They make an incredible amount of cuvees, from different grapes and parts of their estate, this is in no small part thanks to their father, who since the 60's has been planting his own selection of vines on the estate, a variety of Loire grapes, some of them close to becoming extinct. Due to changes in the AOC laws in the early 90's some of these grapes - such as Menu Pineau, were outlawed from being part of cheverny blends. Since then, the Puzelat brothers have struggled with the authorities every year to get the AOC status, most of their wines being labelled Vin de France or Vin du Table. Like the wine we're pouring this weekend, a blend of 90% Sauvignon & 10% Menu Pineau, the authorities don't like the use of the historic Loire grape Menu Pineau, so no region or grapes are allowed on the label.

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Thankfully enough people trust the Puzelat name that all their wines are bought anyway. This trust is reinforced when you hear stories of their commitment - all the immediate land surrounding the Clos du Tue-Bouef vineyard was purchased by the Puzelats (luckily land is relatively cheap round here.) But not to be exploited, just to be left as is, preserving biodiversity in their vineyard and helping with pests as they tend to love intense mono agriculture.  The Puzelat brothers are natural wine royalty and the white we're pouring this weekend is an example of how approachable and drinkable their wines can be, with great texture, it's what great Loire Sauvignon used to taste like before industrial production took hold. 

Click here to check out this great short video of Thierry in his vineyard

 

The other wine we want to talk about today is available only in large format. We have two magnums of it, which we'll be pouring by the glass this Friday & Saturday night. 

Formerly working in the world of politics, Jean-Christophe Comor gave it up for a life in the vines in Provence, starting Domaine Les Terres Promises in 2003. He discovered wine through drinking natural wines made with no additives and when he himself started producing and farming, that was the only route he would take, hand-harvesting grapes, sorting them in the vineyard and using minimal sulphur. The weather in Provence makes it easier for him to farm organically than those in the Loire and he learnt his new trade with help from the likes of Catherine & Pierre Breton & Marcel Richaud. He works with many different varietals, including being one of the few places that still produce Carignan Blanc. But the wine we have this weekend is one that's only bottled in magnum, a blend of old vine Carignan, produced carbonically (most famously a technique used in traditional beaujolais) with young vine Mourvedre. It's a wine full of energy and is perhaps best described in a paragraph not my own, but written by Aaron Aynscough at the fantastic Not drinking poison in Paris:

Made from an assemblage of carbonic-macerated old-vine Carignan and (non-carbonic) young-vine Mourvedre, it's the rare Provençal red that seems like it would be feasible to drink during a Provençal summer: it's buoyant, with keen black fruit, broad but nimble, like the dancer whose job it is to catch the other, lighter dancers in mid-flight. Or like a lighter, almost humorous cover of the grave song that is Mourvedre. 

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It's delicious and there are very few bottles made. We have number 176 & 177 and it's available by the glass tonight & tomorrow. 



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Two wines for the weekend

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Two wines for the weekend

We thought it might be worth highlighting some of the wines we have in the shop, as there are some real characters behind their creation. Here are a couple of winemakers whose wares we'll be pouring this weekend. 

Domaine Gerard Schueller

Domaine Gérard Schueller is based in Husseren-les-Châteux, a small hamlet in the Alsace which hangs on to the hillslope below a series of old castle ruins. The domaine is managed by Bruno Schueller, a man who is anything but mainstream. He farms with a lot of biodynamic ideas, but isn't signed up to certification as his primary goal is to make the wine he wants, without anything getting in the way. No, or a minimum of sulphur is added during the vinification, although he creates high class wines with loads of personality, the relations with INAO (the French AOC authority) are not always fantastic and sometimes his wines do not pass their sensory tests. The primary fermentation is allowed to reduce the residual sugar to a minimum, and Schueller opens up for malolactic fermentation (the second stage of the fermentation process, which is often curbed during the vinification of white wines, but can give them great texture and depth if it's allowed to take place). The result is personal, golden, aromatic wines with a wide range of aromas and flavours, and wines with a dry, almost hard finish with profound minerality. 

Schueller makes singular wines with real character and sense of place, with minimal intervention; he's not signed up to any doctrine, and he just does what he wants to do. His entry level Pinot Blanc - available by the glass at Wright's this week- is fantastic value and one of our current favourite whites. It's dry but with a honeyed quality, is medium-bodied and has a vibrant acidity and minerality that makes it fantastic with food.

Domaine Georges Descombes

The red this week is from Beaujolais, a region for which we have something of a penchant. For us, the natural reds from Beaujolais are some of our favourite wines, with a depth of interest comparable to good Burgundy, but at a cheaper price. Bonus. 

Located in Vermont, a tiny hamlet in Villié-Morgon, Georges Descombes is the unofficial fifth member of the iconic "Gang of Four" producers (Marcel Lapierre, Jean Foillard, Jean-Paul Thévenet and Guy Breton). In his teens, Georges worked with his father (also a vigneron) as well as for a local bottling company; hopping around from cellar to cellar gave him a chance to try a large amount of different estates, and the first time he tasted a Lapierre wine, young Georges was blown away by their purity and elegance. Then and there, he decided he would try to make wines like Marcel's.

 

He works organically, with minimal or no sulphur. Up to 150g of sulfur can be legally added in bottle, but Georges typically uses less than a gram at bottling, if any at all. He tends to let his wines stay in bottle for at least a year before releasing them, helping them to stabilise for travel. He also vinifies without any rushing: his cold macerating can last up to 30 days, whereas some commercially-made Beaujolais, using a process called thermo-vinification, might have it done in 48 hours. The difference in taste is striking, and the Beaujolais wines in the supermarkets are the kind of wines that are made this way. He also doesn't spray his vineyards with any chemicals, and the difference in how they look and how the soil is affected is remarkable. There is no doubt that this minimal interference comes through in the vibrancy and energy of the wines he creates. 

Georges' 2013 Brouilly - which we're serving by the glass this week- is delicious, earthy, berry juice and a great example of what Beaujolais should be about. 

For more info about these winemakers check out the excellent Wineterroirs.

 

 

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In conversation with Castro: Part Three - Christmas

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In conversation with Castro: Part Three - Christmas

A festive and long overdue catch up with Castro.

This will be your first Christmas here - do you have any special plans?

Oh I’ll probably start the day with a few biscuits then check out the weather, make sure everything is cool on the territorial front, maybe harass a few rodents and then look for the warmest place to take a nap. Later on I’ll eat some meat and then, if the conditions are clement, night-time pursuits will ensue. 

Forgive me, but that sounds like your usual routine, isn’t that a little...er... disappointing for Christmas Day? 

On the contrary - if you look at it my way, every day is Christmas Day.

But do you get into the Christmas spirit?

Well, as you know, I like to swim with the tide - if things are swinging I can swing too, I’m not immune to the flood of communal joy you guys work so hard to conjure up at this time of year.

You sound a little cynical about it?

The opposite, I’m a terminal romantic, drowning in a sea of love, all day, every day. That much should be obvious. It follows that I don’t have dates in my diary marked “happiness”, but then, I don’t have a diary either.

Nevertheless, you star on the label of Wright’s “Red Rye Saison” Christmas beer in a Santa hat looking inebriated...

Well it may shock you to learn that’s not actually me, it’s a cartoon. What we have here is something that comes from a long tradition with a checkered past. Speciel* stereotyping can be as pernicious and lazy as any other type of labeling. On the other hand for every Tom, Sylvester, Scratchy or Stimpy there’s a Top Cat, Felix or a Cat in the Hat. I like to think I’m part of the latter tradition. Anyway I’m told it’s a pretty special beverage made by a Professor of History at Aberystwyth University - we’re not talking about your run of the mill beer here.

But you don’t drink it...

No - but then, Bob Dylan did an advert for Victoria’s Secret, do I have to paint you a picture?

I’d rather you didn’t. Do you have a favourite Christmas song?

So many - We Wish You A Reggae Christmas by Yellowman, It’s Cliched to be Cynical at Christmas by Half Man Half Biscuit, of course the aforementioned Dylan’s It Must Be Santa, Merry Christmas (I Don’t Want to Fight Tonight) by The Ramones... and that one that goes:

Decorate the house with lights at night

Snow's on the ground, snow white so bright

In the fireplace is the yule log

Beneath the mistletoe as we drink egg nog

Perry Como?

Run D.M.C.

One last thing, I’m struggling for a New Year’s resolution - any suggestions?

Everyday, try and be a better cat.

Right, but I’m not a cat.

Maybe not, but the journey is the destination. Merry Christmas dude.

Merry Christmas Castro.

*a characteristic of, or pertaining to, a species

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In conversation with Castro: part two.

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In conversation with Castro: part two.

Castro on Chilli Catsup, celebrity endorsement and the temporary nature of being

You’re the face of Wright’s new Chilli Catsup - what persuaded you to let that happen?

Well naturally there were certain inducements involvement, why pretend otherwise. It’s hardly news - does anybody think Brad Pitt did the Chanel ad because he was enchanted by the smell? What does Marco Pierre White like best - Bernard Matthews turkeys, Knorr stock cubes or money? Work it out for yourself.

I’m as vulnerable to the lure of a handful of fish based snacks as the next cat.

 

But you must actually like it, right?

Do you really think it’s aimed at the feline market? How many cats do you know that eat a spicy relish? In the 70’s there was a guy called Clement Freud who advertised dog food, nobody asked him if he ate it. 

Anyway, eight out of ten cats say their humans prefer it.

 

How do you know that?

I asked ten cats.

 

On that note, now you’ve relocated, how are you getting on with the other cats in the area?

Things are settling down now, territorially speaking. I’ve been tough, but fair. There’s no need for any drama, we all have to look after our interests.

 

That sound’s a little like something Vladimir Putin might say.

That’s the Russian dude with the bad comb over? Was he bullied at school? I think so.

 

You’re a cat that lives in a cafe and delicatessen - how would you describe your relationship with food?

I don’t have a relationship with anything. That’s where you humans go wrong. 

 

Can you elaborate on that?

It’s chaos out there, I accept chaos. Somedays the sun is out, others it’s not. If the sun is shining I find my place in it. When it goes in - maybe there’s a place by the fire. Who knows?  I can fall in and out of love a dozen times a day. Sometimes I give, sometimes I take. It’s like Gurdjieff said, you have to work out your morality on a daily basis.

 

Talking of the sun, spring is here, I guess you love the summer.

Just yesterday, I took a walk down to the river. The water runs pretty much east to west, so if you get the timing and positioning just right, you can watch the evening sun sink into the River Towy. It’s pretty special.

 

I’d like to photograph that....

Like I said, that’s the problem with humans...

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Bread making with Vic North

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Bread making with Vic North

After spending the past twenty five years baking bread in restaurants and lately our cafe and deli, producing goodness knows how many loaves over the years, I had never thought about going on a baking course. Last weekend, however, I had the opportunity to attend one of Vic Norths bread baking workshops.

My main aim was to understand and gain some experience of sourdough baking but I learnt a whole lot more.

After arriving at Manor Deifi near Llechryd on a rainy Sunday morning to a warm welcome and meeting the rest of the group - which included a sixteen year old schoolgirl and a keen gentleman baker who had been given the course by his wife - we stood around our mixing bowls and prepared wholemeal loaves, breadsticks, nutty soda bread (something I had forgotten was so delicious), garlic and Parmesan bread and finally the eagerly awaited sourdough. This lay gently in our banetton baskets to take home to bake the following day along with a pot of sourdough starter. 

Vicky also runs a French baking course with baguettes and croissants being taught. Alongside this there is Italian baking - think ciabatta and traditional Italian country breads - a macaroon masterclass, and children's classes for 9 year olds and above.

She has also recently had an outside wood fired oven built so is running a class hosted by Tom Bean on how to build and keep the fire going as well as cooking various dishes using the extremely hot oven. This is something that would appeal to a lot of barbecue fans!

The 5 hour course flew by with a break for a late lunch whilst the ovens were doing their job.

It was a fun and enlightening way to spend a Sunday that anyone interested in food and baking would enjoy. It's a perfect present for that difficult friend or relative you never know what to buy, and the macaroon class in June looks rather interesting...

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In conversation with: Castro

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In conversation with: Castro

How's Castro?

Wright’s has been in its new home for a few weeks now and the question everyone seems to be asking is “how’s Castro?” So we sat down in the winter sunshine with the Towy Valley’s most talked about feline to ask just that question.

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So, Castro, how did the move go, you lived in Nantgaredig for 16 years, don’t you feel like a fish out of water now you’re on the other side of the River Towy?

First of all I never feel like a fish, ever, for a cat that would be weird right? I’ll miss Nantgaredig and maybe Nantgaredig will miss me too. I like to think so...


Why did you leave?
Well, things were getting complicated around there, too many negative waves and a lot of seriously bad kharma gathering on the horizon.  I’m too old for those kind of shenanigans and anyway, what was it Sun Tzu said “If you wait by the river long enough, the bodies of your enemies will float by”. I’ll buy that.


And I guess you have to go where your owners take you?
You might want to rephrase that.


Well like any cat you’re kind of...dependent
You haven’t thought this through have you dude? It’s like Christopher Hitchens once said, “a man feeds and waters a dog and the dog thinks the man is God. A man feeds and waters a cat and the cat thinks he’s God”. Ipso facto dogs are stupid and the cats are calling the shots. 

God I miss Hitch.


What’s good about the new neighbourhood?
It’s a little early to tell, I’m in no rush. Muddy water is best cleared by leaving it alone. There’s a little black she with white socks hanging around, that’s pretty interesting for a start. One thing’s for sure - the vermin around here have had it their own way for too long. Their lives are about to change.


You are the face of Wright’s. You’re on the sign and of course every bottle of catsup. How do you deal with the attention?
Well first of all fame is a lie, obviously. Also it’s just another word for notoriety - so you have to know what you’re dealing with. Just because people see me on a sauce bottle they think they know me in some way but of course they don’t. So there’s like this “Castro” they have in their heads and then there’s the real me. As long as I remember that I can handle it, it’s not my problem if other people can’t. 


You live in a food store and cafe - that must be kind of idyllic for a cat.
It has its moments but you shouldn’t get the wrong impression. I know where the lines are drawn...


Yes but there was the incident with the pork belly....
Do I have to go over that again? It was along time ago, I thought the guy had finished eating. Anyway I don’t do that stuff anymore......

I think we’re about finished here don’t you?


Yes, just finally, tell us about the name “Castro.” How did that come about?
Well it didn’t “come about” - I was given it. I know some cats get hung-up about that whole naming thing and they never respond to it, but I guess I got lucky. The more I found out about this Fidel dude the more I liked him and just like me he’s still hanging in there after all these years. And oh man you have got to respect those whiskers.

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