Whittle’s Restaurant, Audley Binswood Retirement Village, Leamington Spa

Audley Binswood

Since I started this blog, or more specifically since other people started reading it occasionally, I’ve been lucky enough to have been invited to some pretty exciting places and to have met some amazing people. I’ve been to Germany and to Spain, I’ve met winemakers from all corners of the winemaking world, I’ve eaten great food and drunk incredible drinks. But this was a first. This was an invitation to an old people’s home in Leamington Spa.

It was quite possibly the most ridiculous idea I’d ever heard. A visit to Leamington Spa, after all, has all the disadvantages of a trip to Germany or Spain, in that it’s miles away from where I live and involves several hours spent with strangers in a long-distance transportation device, without having any of the advantages of a trip to Germany or Spain. There would be no vineyards, no winemakers, and absolutely no way it could be defined as a holiday. Travelling the 100 miles that separate London, a city full of brilliant restaurants, from Leamington Spa, a small town full of pensioners, for a bite to eat is the kind of thing that would only be attempted by a complete loon. There is simply no way the journey could be justified.

And that being the case, how could I refuse? The idea is so preposterous, I reasoned, that there would be absolutely no sensible reason to even suggest it unless the person suggesting it knew something that I didn’t. Unless, in short, it was going to be worth it.

It takes about half an hour less to get from London to Leamington on a train than it does to fly from Heathrow to Munich. You can’t even snooze on the way, for fear that you’ll miss your stop and end up even further from home than you’d originally planned, and without even an old people’s home to have dinner in. Enough time to carefully ponder the only thing I previously knew about Leamington Spa, namely a poem by John Betjeman about an old person dying, with its references to the “chintzy, chintzy cheeriness” that I was pretty much expecting to find one I got there.

She died in the upstairs bedroom
By the light of the ev’ning star
That shone through the plate glass window
From over Leamington Spa

That’s how the poem starts. You can find the rest of it here. As it happens it was dark when I arrived in Leamington, and I can tell you that the ev’ning star doesn’t show you much thereabouts. I was picked up at the station and driven to a large and fairly grand old building. This is Audley Binswood,  inside which was a lounge, a bar, a small gym and a restaurant. It all looks pretty much exactly like this, only not quite so dark:

This is no normal retirement home. Audley have 10 locations around the country, half of them also boasting restaurants intended to be good enough to attract non-residents. The main building at Binswood, a former school approaching its 200th anniversary, looks impressive from outside and from within, having been furnished with care and with a very decent budget, to look like a recently renovated top-end country house hotel. There’s plenty of cheeriness, but refreshingly little chintz. There was a mobility scooter in a stairwell, but beyond that not much sign of its primary purpose. The restaurant’s overwhelmingly positive Tripadvisor reviews mean that it currently basks in the status of Leamington’s 59th best restaurant, though without having eaten at all or indeed any of the 58 above it I’m unable to comment on whether that ranking is as absurdly harsh as it seems.

Their wine list comes from Berry Bros, like this building a magnificent old institution that has been impressively updated, and they had a local representative there to present a few wines to us. To say this chap knew a ludicrous amount of information about his wines would be to massively underplay quite how much information he knew about his wines. The local towns, the vineyards’ geology, the producers’ names, their partners’ names, the birthdays of their grandchildren. The 10 wines were all decent or better – “I don’t want to stand here with you going, ‘I don’t like this very much,'” he said. “That’s not very good. It makes my life a misery” – and the overall impression from seeing the place and meeting the people who work in it was of a strong and admirable focus on quality. I’m sure there must be more to see outside the main building, but disappointingly the ev’ning star and a lack of time combined against me.

(As an aside, a few of the wines we tried – a Champagne, a Bordeaux and a Tokaji – carried a Berry’s label. I do think it’s a bit strange for a restaurant to serve an own-label wine when the label isn’t theirs. Berry’s might have be a superior brand, and their Ordinary Claret, for example, is a very decent bechmark claret, but there are many other very decent clarets about that don’t invite such simple comparison with retail prices. I find the sight of an own brand on a restaurant wine menu a bit jarring, but I might be being irrational about this. “We put our name to wines that represent good value and excellent quality and represent their region,” the Berry’s person (I really should have made a note of his name, apologies) insisted, and I know that this is true, but for me there’s still little difference between a restaurant serving a Berry’s wine and a Tesco one.)

Food at Whittles

Anyway, Whittle’s have plenty of interesting wine with a variety of labels, and of the ones we tried I particularly enjoyed the Roberto Sarotto Gavi di Gavi (£12.50 retail) and Crittenden Estate pinot noir, which is no longer on Berry’s list but is fairly widely available elsewhere, including Asda. As for the food, we had a buffet dinner which perhaps didn’t reveal a great deal about their standard menu but did suggest a more than capable hand in the kitchen. I’d certainly feel pretty safe about recommending it if you’re in the area, or considering retirement.

Vital weblinks: Audley Binswood; Whittles Restaurant

2014 in review: a see saw

Eelus - See What I Saw

So, I think I’ve got some explaining to do. I have repeatedly found myself, of late, with a chunk of time set aside for this blog, fingers hovering above my keyboard in clueless, limp inactivity, like a puppet on a coathanger. There’s no hiding it, when the number of posts published makes it absolutely clear: wine and I had a difficult 2014.

There are a couple of obvious causes. The main one is the building work that gutted the heart of my home during those key summer months and presented new and enormously demanding ways to spend my spare time. The cyle of research, decide, purchase, repeated again and again. To someone who is prone to letting research spin hopelessly out of control, there simply wasn’t time to do all I felt I needed to do and to live, so living took the hit. On the plus side, I learned a lot about lighting and flooring and kitchen door handles.

It wasn’t just the lack of free time, it was also the lack of wine. For those months – the start of May to the end of September – I basically had nowhere to put it, so I pretty much didn’t buy any, or drink any. And it was the lack of money, all of which, way more than we planned, was poured into our home, the result being that budgets in all other areas have been slashed not just for a few weeks or months, but for the foreseeable future. I’ve never been accustomed to drinking particularly expensive wine, but it’s a pool I enjoyed dipping my toe into. I’d keep an eye out for bargains, and occasionally I’d snap up a bottle, or a case, of something a bit special. No longer.

And then the builders departed, and I found myself with several lovely new walls and nothing to put on any of them. I’d only ever bought one painting, hadn’t ever given art much thought. So I started researching (as I do) and found a fascinating new world, and a passion that has several key advantages over booze. It is a world, like wine (and many others, I expect), filled with fascinating, creative people with stories to tell, only unlike wine what these people produce can be enjoyed not just once, fleetingly, but for ever, or until your tastes change. A picture doesn’t require the right stemware; it does not look better on a fruit day; it can be appreciated equally whether you’re eating steak au poivre or coq au vin or a tangerine or nothing at all; it does not turn to vinegar if you keep it in the living room for a couple of summers; and you can enjoy it greedily for as long as you like and still be left with something at the end of it. (The picture above, incidentally, is from a screenprint by Eelus, one of a couple by him that I got this year)

But even if I stopped seeking out good wine or giving it great attention, every now and then I would drink something that struck me, reminded me of the potential pleasure my new ignorance was depriving me of. So here are my two favourite wines of last year:

Bonte Bruna Barbera d'Alba 2010

I loved this. Loved it. Love. Monte Bruna Barbera d’Alba 2010. A piffling €10 or so if you happen upon a bottle in Italy, a slightly less piffling £18.20 if you need to go to Hedonism Wines in Mayfair for one. Barbera is a focus area for the next 12 months or so:  the Wine Society’s Poderi Colla 2012 is also more than decent, for £8.95.

Laurent Miquel ViognierFrom UK supermarkets, I thought the De Martino Carignan I got from Marks & Spencer for £9 in one of their 25% off events (it’s £11.99 normally) was excellent. Waitrose, meanwhile, have let the range in their shops slide a bit in the last couple of years but are hiding some nice stuff online and the Laurent Miquel viognier 2012 (£14.99, or £11.24 if bought in their 25% off events) is exceptionally good for its price.

As for 2015, well, time will tell. I am feeling moderately enthused. At the very least, there’s a few blogposts from the second half of last year that I failed to complete then due to overwhelming guilt at my lack of enthusiasm, but will be completed shortly. Probably. And one thing that’s absolutely certain: I won’t be involved in any building work for a while.

A couple of pre-Christmas book reviews

Discerning Drinkers and The Pocket Guide to Wine

So, another year nearly over, and thoughts might be turning to potential Christmas presents. Here are a couple of books that might be worth considering…

First, then, The Pocket Guide to Wine by Nikki Welch. There have been (approximately) a million primers written about wine for the curious but inexperienced, and here’s another to put on the pile. It belongs somewhere near the top. There might not be an obvious need for it, but it’s a nicely designed, very approachable and welcoming book written in a lively and generous style, and packed full of just the right information, without boringly sinking into the fetid swamp of steaming fact that can swallow up the less careful wine writer.

The book rotates around the Wine Tubemap®, which splits the world of wine into seven lines whose stops – grape varieties or regions – offer vaguely similar experiences, with some stops being visited by more than one line. Each line gets its own chapter, with a brief introduction explaining what links the stops, and when might be a good time to board this particular line, and each stop a couple of pages. I think it’s a really well written and judged book, refreshingly free of pretention, condescention, fluff and waffle. It’s small, which means there are ommissions, and if you’re the kind of person who’ll be right narked that the Hungarian hárslevelű grape doesn’t get a stop it might not be for you, but then it isn’t supposed to be. This is aimed squarely at the Christmas-stocking-filler-for-the-wine-curious market, but unlike many books published at this time of year to cater for the festive gift trade, it goes about it in a totally non-cynical way. Excellent stuff.

So to Thinking Drinkers, by Ben McFarland and Tom Sandham. A book that tries to cover the entire history of booze, with added jokes, in 200-odd hardback pages. This has the potential to go horribly wrong, but I think is pretty well-judged, nicely written and illustrated. Some will find it a little juvenile, with its descriptions of “grape-based giggle juice” that’s “sweeter than a puppy in a dress”, but I know from bitter experience how hard it is to condense oceans of research into a few drips of zingy prose, and the writers have done a very fine job here.

A page from Thinking Drinkers

And they’ve done some proper work, too, not just describiing what booze tastes like and how it’s made, but also producing entertaining detours into history both ancient and modern, literature, cinema and sport. It’s very bitty with lots of pictures everywhere, which combined with the light-hearted tone makes it feel like a massively extended lads-mag feature. This makes it best when read in short bursts rather than extended sessions. In drinks terms, it’s more a tequila slammer than a vino da meditazione (ironically, as they’re not very keen on tequila slammers).

I did wonder why they devoted more pages to gin than to the entire world of unfortified wine, and what port and sherry did wrong to get just four pages when vodka and tequila get 22 apiece (brandy is afforded an only slightly less paltry six). Poor port, as they note, is traditionally passed to the left – but not normally quite so swiftly as this: there’s considerably more space devoted to the drinking habits of American presidents (they seem keen on that, with Thomas Jefferson, Andrew Jackson, George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Richard Nixon and Franklin D Roosevelt all getting a look-in) than the powerful Portuguese hangover-magnet.

But I haven’t ready many (well, any) books about booze that gets across so much information while simultaneously having a lot of fun. “The chaps that built the pyramids were paid with 10 pints of ale every day – which is why they forgot to put any windows in,” they write. You can spell Whisky, they note, “with an ‘e’ like the Americans and the Irish, or drop an ‘e’ like the Japanese, Canadians and social drug-users of northwest England”. It’s a bit flippant, but it’s fun.

 

 

London’s Christmas Wine Fairs – win tickets!

Bettane + Desseauve Wine Experience

It’s coming on Christmas, they’re chopping down trees. Mainly to make boxes for posh wine, probably. There’s always an outbreak of wine fairs in London come October-and-November-time, people obviously thinking that wine-obsessives aren’t already good enough at spending money on the stuff without additional encouragement, and that furthermore we don’t really have enough to spend our money on at the moment. Here, then, are details of the top four – and if you manage to reach the end you’ll be rewarded with details of how to win free tickets to the Bettane + Desseauve Wine Experience for absolutely no money!

Last year I went to the Wine Gang fair, and it must have done something right as I’ve booked myself in for a return visit this November. There was enough good and/or interesting wine to make the event interesting for the oenophile, enough wine of any description to make a ticket a very cheap way to get thoroughly trollied if that was your priority, and a handful of very good tutored tastings for a bit of extra cash (though there’s always one particularly sexy one that sells out before the rest – this year it involves Penfold’s Grange. So you’re too late for that, sorry). It’s at Vinopolis on 15 November, and tickets are £20.

The Three Wine Men are Tim Atkin, Oz Clarke and Olly Smith, three of the nation’s more recognisable winefolk thanks to their occasional television appearances on Saturday Kitchen and the like, and their latest wine fair will be at Church House, Westminster, on December 6&7. Expect similar top-end-of-mainstream exhibitors as the Wine Gang. Tickets are £25 plus a £2 booking fee, but only get you in for half a day. Still, four hours is probably enough wine tasting for most of us. There are a few masterclasses, which cost another fiver.

Bettane + Desseauve Wine Experience is an altogether loftier affair, taking place at the Saatchi Gallery in Kensington – let’s just say that Lidl won’t have a table there – and organised by, or at the very least with the blessing of, noted French critics Michel Bettane and Thierry Desseauve. The picture at the top of this post was taken at last year’s event, but I’m hoping that this year rooms will be less crowded and the people inside them more visibly happy. I haven’t been before, but will be popping by on Friday for a couple of hours to add to the scrum. The list of exhibitors looks encouraging, and it’s a fine venue. Tickets cost £30 plus a £1.40 fee, with masterclasses ranged from £20 to £130 (pricey, but you get to try five vintages of Chateau Latour), and it’s on this weekend – October 24&25.

The Decanter Fine Wine Encounter is the premier cru of London wine fairs, taking place at the Landmark Hotel on Marylebone Road where – fact! – the German team stayed before winning the Euro 96 final. It’s now the venue of choice for German football teams visiting London, and also regular hosts of the Decanter shebang. You can decide which you find more exciting. This is on November 15&16, but the Saturday has already sold out (fortunately the Wine Gang fair is on the same day, so there’s no need to go thirsty). Tickets for the Sunday cost £60, with additional masterclasses for between £15 and £85.

And that’s all. If you’d like to go to the Bettane + Desseauve thing without paying for it – you can even take a friend, also gratis – all you have to do is tweet me @thecellarfella or email me at sburnton@gmail.com asking nicely, and on Wednesday at noon or soon after I’ll put all requests in a randomiser and pick the first 10 – ten! – who’ll all have their dreams come true.

Marques de Casa Concha: ‘I want to make wines I enjoy. I don’t want to make wines for a market’

Marcelo Papa of Marques de Casa Concha

There’s something particularly winning about a winemaker who tells you that he doesn’t like his own wine very much. Ultimately it might not be considered a particularly wise tactic – winemakers, or at least those of them that I come across, are employed with two tasks in mind: to produce wine and then to sell it. Telling people their wine’s not very good suggests a basic failure in task one, and more or less guarantees failure in task two.

And if Marcelo Papa doesn’t like his wine, it’s a serious problem. He is, after all, chief winemaker at Casillero del Diablo, who stick their label on 4 million cases – near enough 50 million bottles of wine – every year, which works out at around 250 million glasses of the stuff or, to put it another way, approximately enough to invite the entire populations of the United Kingdom, Ireland, France, Spain, Portugal and Italy round for a drink. And in his spare time he also controls Marques de Casa Concha, described by Concha y Toro, who own both brands and pay Papa’s wages, as “the most famous and traditional wine range in the Super Premium segment not just at the Company, but also in Chile”.

And it’s Marques de Casa Concha that has been the problem, because “super premium” is wine code for “red wine made using very ripe grapes and lots of new oak”, and increasingly winemakers – including, now, Papa – are backing away from that kind of thing.

“The style we’ve been doing in the last 10 years,” Papa says of his cabernet sauvignon, “was lots of flavours, lots of oak, lots of everything. Everybody was doing it. Ten years ago even Chablis people, will all the experience they have, started to make it oaky. Brunello, everybody went in the same direction. And you can push cabernet a long way, and we did it and I think it was a mistake. I just think we followed a little bit the fashion. Four years ago I realised I never drink Marques at home. I realised it’s because it’s too heavy. I drink wine every day, and I want a lighter, fresher wine. More, I’m 47 and I want to make the wines that I enjoy. I don’t want to make wines for a market.”

And so that is what he is doing. “With Marques in 2010 we did a quite interesting way, we picked one block of cabernet sauvignon very early, maybe one month, and tried to make a wine as we made it in the 70s: no oak, 12% alcohol. And it was a big success. Then every year we’ve picked earlier. We’ve reduced alcohol by 1% naturally and still we get cassis and good fruit.”

Not only is he now picking earlier, he’s also moving away from small barrels. Traditionally, his wine (and very many others) aged in heavily toasted (charred on the inside for extra flavour) 225l barrels; now he is moving towards what the Italians call botte, massive 5,000l casks, and older ones too, so the resulting wines are much less oaky. He has also experimented with the origin of his wood – French oak, German, Slovenian – and the location of the coopers, and has finally settled upon botte made in Piedmont using mainly French oak. He showed me two wines made from the same grapes, from the same vineyard, picked on the same day in the same way, one aged in barrel and the other in cask, and the error of his old ways, and of many others’, was immediately apparent.

“In Chile, we’re a young country and normally you follow rules,” he said. “For cabernet you have to use Bordeaux barrels, you have to pick mature. But now in my approach to wine I really want to show the origin, the place. If you pick ripe, sweet, fruit and put it in high-toast barrels, you get more sweetness but you lose the origin, you lose the place. After 20 years making wine, now I’m following my feeling. It takes time, but we are moving.”

But what of all his happy customers, the ones who have bought his heavy, oaky, critically-acclaimed wines for a decade or more and are perfectly happy to drink them as they are? “Well, they will move to other wines,” says Papa. “And we will capture a new audience, and be much happier.”

Holiday on ice: JP Chenet ice edition

JP Chenet Ice Edition This has been a tumultuous summer, featuring as it has a World Cup of football, a great deal of cricket and also my first ever new kitchen, whose arrival has been accompanied chez CF by quite a bit of wall-destruction, giant-steel-girder-insertion and assorted major disruption.

The last five months – five months! – have whizzed miserably by under a constant deluge of decision-making and reheated microwavable dinners. Lights, plug sockets, paint colours, back doors, front doors, flooring, roofing, all of them and so much more had to be researched and ranked, pondered and picked. By the time I emerged from this cloud of clutter I realised that summer was nearly over, just as I found myself desperate to stretch out on a sun-kissed lawn, book in one hand, glass of something cold in the other. Sod it, I can relax next year. At least now I can cook.

My indulgence – and every new kitchen surely needs one – has been an ice-making fridge. I’m a man who likes cold drinks to be really cold and hot drinks to be drunk exclusively by other people, and my days of lukewarm water are now over. By pure coincidence the very week I put in the order for my ice-producing fridge I received a bottle of sparkling wine intended to be drunk on ice. Perfect, I thought, I’ll try that in a few weeks when the fridge is installed.

Four months later, it got opened.

To say I had low expectations of this particular wine would be to massively overstate how good I expected it to be. The bottle looks hideous, enrobed as it is in a white plastic shrink-wrapped sheath, and the whole thing had not so much a faint whiff as an overwhelming pong of gimmickry about it. And it therefore gives me no great pleasure to report that it’s basically terrific. True, it does not taste enormously winey. It is redolent of wine, clearly wine-ish bit not all the way there. If told that it had been created in a laboratory using entirely artificial ingredients by researchers working on a drink less reliant on nature, less subject to vintage variations and containing considerably less grape juice than actual wine you perhaps wouldn’t be enormously surprised, though you’d certainly have to concede that those scientists had done an absolutely terrific job. But for all that, if you can throw your preconceptions aside this is a thrillingly successful wine-related adult-oriented sparkling party-beverage.

It doesn’t taste of very much, and smells of even less, which probably adds to its appeal. It is reassuringly like wine, but with none of the complexities that might get in the way during large-scale relaxed social gatherings of the type intended for its consumption. Its lack of flavour leaves your brain to fill in the gaps, by finding within it anything it wants to find. Those who would like to be drinking Champagne will find a vaguely Champagney substance in their glass and be relatively content, while those who would like to be drinking a white wine spritzer, or lemonade, or water will find a vaguely spritzey/lemonady/watery substance in their glass and be relatively content. It is a light, bright, mildly alcoholic (11%) fizzy wine-style potation and I don’t see any reason why, so long as you disguise the bottle, it wouldn’t go down fabulously well at any gathering except the most wine-geeky.

It’s not my favourite sparkling wine, or even my favourite sub-£10 sparkling wine, but I do think it’s extremely good at doing what it’s supposed to, and I’d be happy to serve it to my friends and expect them still to be my friends afterwards. What’s more, I wonder, if you took a representative group of, say, 100 Britons and gave them all a glass of this and a glass of, say, Pol Roger Cuvée Winston Churchill, which glasses would be emptied first. There’s nothing here to dislike – it’s a simple, thirstquenching drink, a bit like water only fizzier and less suitable for young children, and all the better for it. 

Finally we come to its ice-friendliness. In the press release accompanying its launch JP Chenet boasted that it was “uniquely crafted to be served over ice without dilution”, but to the best of my limited scientific knowledge the only thing genuinely capable of being served over ice without dilution is water. Perhaps “uniquely crafted to be served over ice without dilution” is just a rather more impressive-sounding way of saying “doesn’t taste of much”. This entire launch could simply be an exercise in master spinnery, forced upon the company by a large batch of relatively tasteless off-dry fizz that they didn’t really have a way of selling. Whatever, consider my cap doffed. There was a time when turning water into wine would have been enough to get a religion named after you; now you might get a pat on the back and a decent year-end bonus. Whoever’s responsible, I’m a disciple.

Te Pā sauvignon blanc 2013 – unlikely to change your mind

 

te Pa sauvignon blanc

“Can we change your mind about New Zealand wine?” asked the press release. Um, not really. I mean, not with a sauvignon blanc. If you really want to change someone’s mind about a winemaking region, doing so with a textbook example of the single most typical wine of that region would seem an unusual and almost certainly futile way to go about it.

Te Pa (sorry, te Pā*) is a newish Marlborough winery, which released its first wine in 2011 and has 150 hectares of sauvignon blanc under the management of a Welshman named Garath Exton. Their sauvignon is good, crisp and extremely characterful, with an extravagant aroma (it doesn’t just whiff mildly of New Zealand sauvignon, it absolutely reeks of it. It extravagantly hums; if you pushed a blindfolded person into a smallish room with a glass of te Pā in it, they’d know there was a Kiwi in town). Bewilderingly pungent, if you want to teach someone exactly what Kiwi sauvignon blanc smells and tastes like, a glass of this could scarcely be bettered.

I note that The Wine Society, which sells it for £9.95 (as do the Real Wine Company), suggests it should be drunk with vegeree (I later discover that their website makes different suggestions every time you look at the wine, which is confusing of them). I’ve never heard of vegeree, but assume it’s a vegetarian version of kedgeree, the popular mildly curried smoked haddock-starring rice-based breakfast dish. It would probably go fine with kedgeree too, and much else besides. If you like your average Kiwi sauvignon blanc, you’re going to think this is excellent (it is considerably better than average, and not much more expensive). If you don’t, well, it’s not going to change your mind.

According to their website, “currently, te Pā produce only Sauvignan Blanc”, but the Wine Society also stock a pinot gris for £9.50 (cheaper here than in New Zealand, where it works out just under £11) and Kiwis can also find a pinot noir, a pinot-based rose and a premium, lees-aged sauvignon blanc, so we might see more of this company and their rather smart, embossed and curved labels over here in future. This, though, is a promising debut.

* I’ve read pretty much the whole of their website and I still don’t know what te Pā means, though I can tell you that tepa, without the space or the funny line, is a crystalline organophosphorus compound often used as an insect sterilant, which might make a bottle of this wine absolutely hilarious in certain insect-sterilising circles.

I can also tell you that tepa is a traditional food of the Alaskan Yup’ik people, and consists of fish heads that have been mixed with their eviscerated innards and left to ferment. Tepa, for obvious reasons, is also known as stinkheads. (Recipe in full, courtesy of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game: “The traditional way to prepare tepa is to bury the heads in the ground along with most of the fish guts in a wooden barrel covered with [hessian]. This is allowed to ferment for about a week, depending on weather conditions.”) Yum! I fear that this might limit this particular wine’s potential in the Alaskan market, although there’s a chance that it might coincidentally be a fairly good match for its (allegedly) edible namesake. Neither do I have any idea how to pronounce an a when there’s straight line hovering over it – it’s obviously a Māori thing.