Yes, I know there’s been a bit of a hiatus here, and I’m sorry. If you’re on Twitter and follow me, you’ll know why. For those of you who don’t – very briefly, my dad was on the wrong end of a drunk driver recently, and I’ve taken a bit of time out while he recovers.
Thankfully, he’s getting better now, and so I’ve been getting out and about again.
Given the nature of what happened to my father, it is perhaps somewhat ironic that the first thing I was invited to since his horrible crash was a wine tasting. I guess life’s like that. Still, it wasn’t all about the booze – the additional lure was a meal at the Michelin-starred Roussillon restaurant in Pimlico, designed to match the wines concerned.
And what wines. All from McGuigan Wines, one of Australia’s foremost wine makers, and winners of so many trophies for their wines that their trophy cabinet must be built of particularly stern stuff. The tasting was to be hosted, too, by Mr McGuigan himself, Neil – White Winemaker of the Year at the International Wine Challenge (held in September) for 2009.
Invitations like this don’t come beating their way to my door every day, so it took me precisely, ooh, 0.02 seconds to accept. The wines were obviously a big attraction, but so, too, was the actual meal. Even though Roussillon has been on my radar for some long while, and is not a million miles from where I live, I’d never visited. My interest had been further piqued a few weeks ago by watching the chef, Alexis Gauthier, put the Masterchef Professionals finalists through their paces. Suffice to say, then, that my expectations of the entire event were high.
Initial impressions were good. While it’s located in a rather unappealing and busy (with traffic) part of Pimlico, the restaurant itself is an oasis of comfort and charm. I was greeted by an elegant and efficient member of staff who swiftly whisked me off to the downstairs haven in which our tasting lunch was to take place.
Coat off, a few initial introductions, and we (a group of 12 of us in all) were immediately into the wines – an informal tasting before lunch of some of McGuigan’s readily available ‘Classic’ wines, ranging from this year’s Pinot Grigio to last year’s breathy Merlot. None of them cost more than £7.49. I’m no wine expert, but these were all pleasantly quaffable – though I admit to going easy at this stage, wary of (a) an empty stomach, and (b) a heavy session ahead... Yes, I am a wimp, and I can live with that.
And then – after a brief amusing and engaging introduction by Neil on the history of Australian viticulture, and on the McGuigan Wines – to lunch. On the menu:
(Apologies for the grainy photos, BTW, but we had no natural light at all.)
Oh, yum. (‘Yum’ being a highly technical gastronomic term for ‘golly, that’s a hugely attractive menu which happens to include some of my favourite foods. The wines sound promising, too. I shall look forward to this with every inch of my intestines’).
First up, the lobster bisque, paired with Earth’s Portrait Riesling 2004 (don’t ask me why that name). I won’t try to describe the wines, as others will do a far better job of doing so than me, but I will say that the slightly leathery fruit and juiciness of the Riesling was – to my palate – a wonderful match with the rich and intense sea-sweetness of the lobster. It was a contrasting pairing of the highest order.
Next, the sea bass, with the McGuigan Bin 9000 Semillon 2003 to drink.
My jury’s still out on this one. Sea bass has been one of my favourite fish to eat over the last twenty years, but this particular rendition didn’t do it for me. It was perfectly cooked, and there was nothing to find fault with, but it didn’t soar, either. The same goes for the wine – a citrusy, rather riper-than-usual style Semillon, which complemented, rather than contrasted with the dish. Don’t get me wrong, both the food and wine for this course were more than pleasant and acceptable, but they just didn’t inspire me.
Our meat course was prefaced by the pouring of the wine to match – the McGuigan Shortlist Cabernet Sauvignon 2008. Oh, for smell-o-blogs. This was fantastic on the nose – pepper, cedarwood, damsons, prunes, and bags and bags of juicy blackcurrants. Pure joy in a glass. I could honestly have spent the rest of the lunch simply inhaling this fruity beauty. Neil explained that, although perfectly drinkable now (well, that’s a relief, then), it will probably be at its best in another 2 to 3 years’ time, when it may well develop coffee and coconut flavours.
Oh, and the food:
The menu says it all. Thyme and more thyme. With lamb. But not just any lamb. Milk-fed, delicate baby lamb, lifted by a meaty jus. It was very good indeed.
And now for the cheese course, with a McGuigan Handmade Shiraz 2008. After the Cab Sauv, the Shiraz just didn’t tickle my nose in quite the same way. But make no mistake, there are BIG, voluptuous berry fruits in this wine, and without the cheek-sucking tannins that can take the edge off the pleasure of similar wines. Again, Neil suggested that perhaps it still needs more time to develop fully. I should certainly like to try it again in a year or two’s time.
And the feuillette?
Pastry and cheese is not normally for me. If you’re going to give me cheese, just give me the cheese. I don’t need or want the pastry, thanks. But the feuillette was a little charmer – delicate, tangy and moreish at the same. The Bleu d’Auvergne was hardly in evidence but that was, I suspect, the whole point. It’s an incredibly powerful cheese, and this pastry number demonstrated how to use a little to great effect. Also surprising, to me, was how well it went with the Shiraz.
Finally, the dessert, a quince parfait, with a ‘sticky’, the Personal Reserve Botrytis Semillon 2005. It was as though Alexis and Neil had seen me coming. Anyone who reads my inanities on Twitter will know that I am a quinceomaniac. If I could eat only one fruit for the rest of my life, it would be quince. Roasted, poached, made into membrillo, ice cream – I’ll have it any way it comes. But mostly poached, because to me, that’s when it’s at its most beautiful, both in looks and taste. I also have a weak spot for dessert wines. I don’t know enough about them, but I’ve yet to find one that I don’t like, whatever their style.
So, here we go:
Right. I’ll be honest – I can’t be objective or usefully descriptive about it. It was joyous. Lots of quince, with boozy sultanas, all wrapped up in a creamy (and surprisingly light) parfait, topped with a tangy yoghurt and honey sorbet which was just the right accompaniment. And the wine? Lots of honey, wax, flowers, and esters. Gorgeous to drink on its own, but even more so when matched with the quince parfait. The room, at this point, was quiet as anything, the silence punctuated only by barely perceptible sighs of pleasure. I’m so glad no one had a voice recorder running.
There can’t be many better ways to spend a grey, wintry Tuesday in London than this. And it wasn’t even all about the fine food and the splendid wines. I should make special mention of the McGuigan team who, led by the lovely Neil, were as warm and entertaining as their wines. They were interesting, informative, engaging, and most of all – fun. Yes, fun. Wine tasting can be spoilt by over-bearing pomposity and obscurity, but not on this occasion. The emphasis was firmly on enjoyment and informality, and for that I, for one, was extremely grateful. Alexis, too, was in fine form, and took time out to introduce the menu and to explain his choices.
It was only fair, then, that at the end of lunch, our heroes should indulge in a minor celebration:
Well deserved, guys.
I understand from McGuigan's PR team that the top-end wines we had with lunch should be available from Tesco online in the New Year. Until then, I will try to wait patiently, and in the meantime sigh wistfully to myself every so often.
(Thanks to McGuigan Wines, to Alexis Gauthier and his staff, and to Chris and Scott at Cube Communications for inviting me and creating such a memorable experience. Special thanks go to Peter Hall of McGuigan who clasped his enormous warming hands over mine for a few moments to help get them back to blood temperature again following their exposure to the nasty British winter temperatures.)