Monday, October 31, 2011

A natural wine dinner at Bell's Diner

I've mentioned before that my other half (Trevor Vibert, right) is the eminence grise behind this blog - the one who got me - nay, dragged me kicking and screaming - into natural wine in the first place. It was his passion and persistence that converted me so it was good to see him pull off the same trick on an audience of natural wine newbies at a talk he gave at a dinner at Bell's Diner in Bristol last week.

I'll leave him to write about some of the ground he covered in his talk. He's already posted on this blog and I still have high hopes of getting him to write a couple of others so I'll confine myself to writing about the wine and food we ate, with a few extra notes (in italics) on the wines from Trevor.

Chris Wicks (above, left), Bell's chef is actually no slouch when it comes to wine himself - quite unusual in a chef. They tend either to have no interest in wine or abstain altogether having indulged over-heavily in their youth. Chris, by contrast, is an avid reader of Decanter, fascinated by natural wine and has an excellent palate so the food he produced to match with the wines Trevor and he had selected was perfectly pitched.

We kicked off with a glass of Cerdon Bugey 'Methode Ancestrale' (above) from Raphael Bartucci in the Savoie, a very pretty pet nat which tasted of strawberries - but not in a sickly way. It went particularly well with a shot of creamily delicious sweetcorn and hay soup, one of a number of 'amuses' that were handed round.

Bartucci’s Bugey Cerdon is only 8% - a blend of 80% gamay, 15% poulsard and 5% chardonnay. Fermentation is spontaneous with natural yeasts and no chaptalisation. When it is two thirds complete the wine is bottled and stoppered with about 70g of residual sugar. The bottles are then stacked upright for about 3 months. Fermentation stops spontaneously when there is between 30 and 40g of residual sugar. No sulfites are added at any stage.

The wine is a delight with an explosion of red fruits on the palate. The kind of wine that makes you want to smile! The essential sweetness is balanced by a superb natural acidity. (TV)

Then a clever conceit - a red wine that tasted like a white - Nacaret Les Cailloux Le Paradis 2010 from Claude Courtois in the Loire which went perfectly with a starter of salt-baked beetroot, black olive, goats cheese and pinenut. I liked the bitter elements of the dish which stopped the beets stripping out the beet and cherry flavours from the wine

When Courtois bought his vineyards in the Loire they had been farmed chemically and were in dreadful condition. It took him him ten years to turn things round. He doesn't do biodynamics although he follows a number of biodynamic practices - no chemicals and and a diverse ecosystem which includes woods, fruit trees, wheat, animals etc.

Nacarat is supposed to be just Gamay, but depending on the vintage may include Pinot Noir or Cabernet Franc and even forbidden old grapes like Cesar and Gascon. 

Next came a stunning dish of seared scallops and seaweed, cucumber, fennel and spring onion, the perfect foil for a lush, waxy Rhone white, the Eric Texier Domaine de Pergault Roussanne 2009 from Brézème

Eric Texier worked for many years in the nuclear industry, all the while trying to find the best place to make wine. In the end he rediscovered an almost totally forgotten area in the northern Rhone near Hermitage called Brézème which apparently harvests three weeks later than Hermitage in late September or early October.

All the fruit is grown without any use of chemicals, only natural yeasts are used and the wine is neither fined nor filtered.

Then probably the best pairing of all and our favourite wine - a rabbit ballotine with carrot, walnut, ginger and plum purée with the fantastic 2010 Wildman Pinot Noir (above) from Domaine Lucci in the Adelaide Hills which knocks spots of many burgundies at twice the price. (Who said Australia couldn't do Pinot Noir?)

Domaine Lucci is part of Lucy Margaux Vineyards which is run by Anton von Klopper his wife Sally and daughter Lucy in the Adelaide Hills. Anton studied oenology at the university of Adelaide before working in Germany, New Zealand and Oregon.

He has become one of the leading lights of the Australian natural wine movement and part of a group called Natural Selection Theory, a wine movement that he describes as 'like free flow jazz'. You can read more about his philosophy here.

The Wildman Pinot Noir is a wine of extraordinary complexity and refinement. Straight as an arrow with none of that confected overwhelming sweetness of much modern Pinot it nonetheless renders every aspect of the velvety richness which ha s made pinot one of the world's great grapes. Sweet without sweetness, bone dry without aridity it is hard to imagine or remember a better expression of Pinot Noir.

Trevor then bravely switched back to white (a slightly funky South African Chenin called Testalonga el Bandito Cortez 2009 for the cheese - a Berkswell and a Little Ryding - with some very good flatbread. (A great success, this match)

Craig Hawkins - still in his 20's - is impossibly young to be as good as he is (you can see a picture of him on Tim James’s blog here) However he’s spent time with some very good mentors - Stéphane Ogier in Cote Rotie, and Cornelissen, Cos and Franchetti in Sicily. Cortez comes from old chenin bush vines on poor granitic soil. The grapes are not de-stemmed, foot-pressed in a basked, fermented with wild yeasts with no temperature control. fining, filtration or sulphur. The wine is placed in old barrels and left on the lees for 24 months. The resulting wine is totally unlike the generic South African chenin style, pushing the boundaries of the possibilities of white wine in SA.

And we finished with a chocolate millefeuille, praline, salted caramel and pain au chocolat with a Jour de Fête rancio from Jean Francois Nicq (great idea to have an unsweet wine with chocolate).

Everyone knows about Nicq and the uniquely glorious feat of setting up a co-op at Esterzargues where all the production is totally natural. Proof of his achievement - it still continues after his departure and continues to go from strength to strength. Less well known is what he has done since at Les Foulards Rouges in the Roussillon where he has managed to produce biodynamic wines with a lightness of touch and grace that are unusual in the arid and sunblasted land where he now operates.

He calls all his wines "vins de soif" and manages to produce a range of cuvées that are distinguished by great length, purity and elegance. Jour de Fête is a superb rancio with something of the quality of a fine old dry amontillado. It has length and sweetness without being at all cloying, its superb acidity making it the perfect partner to desserts for those who like richness without the excessive sweetness that often accompanies it. It would also be superb with cheddar or an old Comté  

I have to say I couldn't have come up with better pairings myself - and I'm supposed to be the expert!

It was also great to see how excited the other people at the dinner were about the wines they'd tasted and how it had made them look at natural wine in an entirely new way. None of the wines was off-puttingly weird - all were, frankly, amazing.

I suspect Trevor could get a taste for this natural wine dinners lark.


  1. One remark you will like, and one that will displease you, I’m afraid. “Tant pis”! (translates as “tough shit”).

    I may surprise you, Fiona, but the very principle of “méthode ancestrale” appeals to me.
    In Limoux, my next-door-neighbour, great things are made that way. Trouble is: how do you proceed if you want DRY wines? Let’s face it, residual sugar (I’m a severe diabetic, on top of that) does not always match food well, does it ?

    “He doesn’t do biodynamics” ????
    One is pregnant or one is not pregnant ! Following common-sensical rules doesn’t imply adhesion to a sect and many a “biodynamic” wine-maker only takes what makes sense in this approach and rejects the “fundamentalistic” gimmicks. I will gladly admit there is A LOT of the first category. Shaking cow-shit the right direction will hardly contribute to a wine’s quality, but respecting environment and taking the whole ecologic niche into account surely goes the right direction.

    You expected worse from me, didn’t you ?

  2. I did, Luc. You're becoming positively mellow . . .

    OH's wording not mine on the question of biodynamics. Should have said he isn't registered biodynamic but follows many practices common to biodynamic producers - as you point out correctly many wine producers do. There! We agree!

    I also admit it's a problem that pet nats tend to be sweet(ish) particularly for diabetics but this wine had a lovely freshness and balance.

    BTW someone else asked me for the suppliers of these wines so will try and dig them out and add them. At least a couple - including the Domaine Lucci and the rancio come from Les Caves de Pyrène but in minute quantitites