A trip to the Loire Valley

I have been shamefully neglectful of The Kitchen Winery of late. Being in the middle of trying to buy our first flat is my principal excuse at the moment – good Lord it’s stressful. I always looked at people complaining about the horrors of house-buying with complete impatience and mild disgust – oh poor you, going through the dreadful experience of BUYING YOUR OWN HOME must be simply dreadful for you – but I have to admit the joy and romance of the whole business wore off in about 30secs leaving me feeling a little naive and really quite cross with everything house-related 99% of the time.

But the guilt has been eating away at me and everyone I see asks me “what’s happened to your blog?” (actually ‘everyone’ is obviously a massive exaggeration but you know, the odd one or two people). So a trip to the Loire Valley last week left me officially run out of excuses and so here I am, back again, and I will endeavour to pick up more of less where I left off, although perhaps with a little less frequency.

La Fesles
Chateaux La Fesles

The Loire Valley, I discovered, is really very beautiful. It refers to the area surrounding the river Loire which starts in the Massif Central and ends in Nantes where it meets the Atlantic Ocean. It includes different climates and terroirs along the way and it is along La Loire that you find appellations such as Muscadet, Vouvray, Chinon, Pouilly-Fume and Sancerre. Though famous for its Sauvignon Blancs, this grape shockingly only accounts for 10% of the overall plantings of the region. Though Pouilly-Fume and Sancerre may be the most well known styles they are in no way the most plentiful which of course contributes to their higher price points. For a wine in a similar style to Sancerre or Pouilly-Fume but a bit more affordable opt for a Sauvignon Blanc from the Touraine region which will show many similar characteristics.

We tried so many wines while we were there but the main grape variety I’d like to focus on is Chenin Blanc. There are some stunning dry Chenin Blancs from the likes of Vouvray and Anjou but Chenin can be used to make some really beautiful sweet wines as well. One of the highlights of the trip for me was visiting Chateau La Fesles where they make several styles of wine but most notably they produce Bonnezeaux. This may not be something you’ve come across before, and indeed there’s not a huge amount around, but Bonnezeaux is a fantastic sweet wine appellation within the Loire Valley. There are only around 30 Bonnezeaux producers in the Loire and Chateau La Fesles have 30ha out of approximately 100ha altogether so are by far the biggest producer, but still pretty small by general standards.

Weed management in the vineyard
Weed management in the vineyard

The grape variety is, as I’ve said, Chenin Blanc – the grapes are left on the vine until they are really really ripe and beginning to dry; they are therefore picked late in the year when the sugars in the grapes are very concentrated. A small proportion of the grapes will inevitably have been affected by the same noble rot as is found in the Sauternes region, botrytis cinerea, but interestingly, whereas this is encouraged as much as possible in Sauternes, it is not really desired in Bonnezeaux. Rather than attempting to copy Sauternes they are trying to stay in keeping with the classic style of the Loire and to produce a wine that is fresher, more aromatic and much lighter.

We were lucky enough to try a range of vintages of Chateau La Fesles Bonnezeaux – 2007, 2010, 2000 and 1993 in that order – and you could really see the differences between them. The 2007 was very classic Bonnezeaux with flavours of marmalade and honey; the 2010 was an outstanding vintage and was fuller with much more intensity of flavour; 2000 had had a much higher proportion of botrytis affected grapes and you could see why they didn’t desire it in the vineyard – for me the wine lacked freshness and tasted a little clumsy; finally 1993 which was fascinating – still intensely sweet but with savoury flavour characteristics and a salty/nutty flavour reminiscent of sherry.

The Wines

There were countless other wines we tried in the 3 days we were there and if you ever get the chance to go I couldn’t recommend it enough. And if you do get a chance to try Bonnezeaux one day, or see one on a wine list in a restaurant, then go for it as they really are wonderful wines.

This is us in front of La Loire whilst visiting Bouvet-Ladubay in Saumur
This is us in front of La Loire whilst visiting Bouvet-Ladubay in Saumur

Lunching at The Shed


It is quite a spectacle going out to lunch with my family. There are so many of us (I have 2 brothers, 2 sisters and between us we now have 3 plus ones in tow) and inevitably end up slightly taking over every restaurant we ever go to leaving me feeling faintly sorry through the haze of alcohol for the other folk there who were probably looking forward to a nice quiet luncheon and who through no fault of their own and some horrible twist of fate ended up next to us.

On this occasion (my sister’s birthday) we took our noisiness (and discerning palates) to The Shed in Notting Hill. For me, as a concept, The Shed rather symbolises ‘living the dream’. The two guys who run it hale from Sussex not far from where I grew up and they source the majority of their produce either from their younger brother’s farm or other local farmers. The menu changes daily depending on what’s available and it makes you feel like jumping up and down on one of their kettle drum tables singing ‘The Circle of Life’. And it’s all very farmyard themed – the top of their bar is made out of what looks like the bonnet of a John Deer tractor and there’s tractor wallpaper in the loo. The other chap in the restaurant celebrating his birthday (who had obviously had the forethought to tell them in advance) had his birthday cake ‘rung’ in to the room with a cow bell!

All this would be incidental if the food wasn’t good. But it was SO GOOD! The kind of good that means we all sort of couldn’t cope with how good it was. We were at first slightly confused by the menu but had it gently explained to us by our extremely patient waiter – it’s all about small plates here, like tapas but English. This is bad news if you’re not good at sharing but really good news if you’re looking at a menu (like we all were) thinking there is no heavenly way in the world you would ever be able to pick two dishes out of all this deliciousness. As it was we ordered 13 out of the possible 16 dishes (they are split into two categories of ‘Slow Cooking’ and ‘Fast Cooking’) and many of these we doubled up on.

Veal Medallions, Bone Marrow Pesto
Veal Medallions, Bone Marrow Pesto

Highlights were the Lamb Chips – slow cooked lamb pulled apart and put back together into a ‘chip’ shape, rolled in bread crumbs and crisped up in the deep fat frier. The Scotched Mozzarella and Veal made us all literally all bend forward in unison and go ‘Ooooooh’ before having to up our order to 3 portions. The Veal Medallions with Bone Marrow Pesto almost made my father fall off his chair with excitement and for me the Hake with Fennel Ground Pork, White Beans and Wild Garlic was one of the best dishes I have had in a long long time and had me reaching for my notebook to try and remember to recreate it (in my dreams) at home. Even the desserts (yes we had room, just) were phenomenal – all twists on old favourites – Rhubarb Jelly with Crumble Ice Cream, Hot Cross Bun and Butter Pudding and Magnum Vienetta Parfait. I am still not genuinely sure what a parfait actually is (it always makes me think of Donkey from Shrek – you know the scene) but all I know is I would eat that for dessert every time I went out for the rest of my life and die a happy (yet rather portly) woman.

Hake, Fennel Ground Pork, White Beans, Wild Garlic
Hake, Fennel Ground Pork, White Beans, Wild Garlic

I never actually saw a wine list but the house red and white (a Merlot and a Languedoc blend respectively) kept us happy throughout the meal. I believe they serve ‘Nutty Nutbourne’ as their house fizz which is certainly worth a try if you have any interest in English Sparkling Wines and if you don’t, shame on you, you should and it’s time to get on board.

Please bear this place in mind the next time you go out. It really was one of the most fun lunches we had all had in a long long time. It is informal, relaxed but attentive service. The food is brilliant and exciting and delicious but without being fussy or poncy. I can’t wait to go back and I only hope that living the dream is as good for them on the inside looking out as it seemed to me from the outside looking in.

Pigeon, Butter Leaf Salad, Bacon, Hazelnut, Port... with a little bit missing
Pigeon, Butter Leaf Salad, Bacon, Hazelnut, Port… with a little bit missing

Website – www.theshed-restaurant.com

Nutbourne Vineyards – www.nutbournevineyards.com

Yealands Estate and the Awatere Valley

For the longest time I have struggled with Sauvignon Blanc. It used to be my go-to grape for everything (a bit more interesting than Pinot Grigio but that was about where my wine knowledge ended) which I think was partly the problem – overkill! Suddenly the sometimes aggressive herbaceousness and high acidity became all too much for me and I had to resign myself to the inevitable conclusion that I had ‘gone off’ Sauvignon.

TamraUntil a few weeks ago I was invited to a fantastic wine tasting with Yealands Estate hosted by their chief winemaker Tamra Washington. I can categorically say that the evening has reignited my love for Sauvignon Blanc. The home of Yealands Estate is the Awatere Valley in Marlborough New Zealand. They are a relatively new producer having only produced their first vintage in 2008 and are now at the forefront of sustainable winemaking in New Zealand. I have to just linger on this point for a second to tell you about their sheep! They have these tiny little sheep, aptly named Babydoll sheep, that they introduced to the vineyard for weed and grass management which are too small to reach the grapes; this completely appeals to the farmer’s daughter in me.

Awatere Valley

I have never properly considered the concept of terroir in the New World before. Terroir is something I would associate much more strongly with the Old World and especially the older vineyard sites in Burgundy. The fact that a Premier Cru and Grand Cru site can be mere metres apart yet the wines still display the nuances in soil type and aspect completely blows my mind. Tamra talked about the importance of microclimates in the Awatere Valley – these microclimates are created my the undulating terroir throughout. Their Seaview Vineyard boasts the most significant planting of vines in the Awatere Valley; the vineyards are closer to the sea than anywhere else in Marlborough which results in it being cooler, dryer and windier. This results in a longer growing season for the grapes which produces wines with distinctive mineral characteristics.

The focus on the importance of microclimates at Yealands Estate has led them to harvest and mature different ‘blocks’ of Sauvignon Blanc completely separately. There are around 160 blocks in total; the coastal Sauvignons (from Seaview) produce a purer mineral and herbal character whereas the Sauvignons from further inland are less herbal with a more tropical character. This has inspired the concept of single block wines and Yealands now produce 4 different Sauvignon Blancs that are bottled as Single Block.

The main lesson we have learned today – Marlborough does not produce one single style of Sauvignon Blanc!

The Wines

Yealands PNWe tried a lot of wine. All different, all interesting for different reasons. It seems mean, and frankly far too difficult, to pick and choose between them so I’m just going to tell you about them all! Most of these are from 2012 vintage – this was a very cool, dry vintage where the grapes were harvested extremely late. This was the best and longest ripening season to date for Yealands Estate:

  • Yealands Estate Single Block S1 Sauvignon Blanc 2012 – Tropical nose with more citrus and grapefruit on the palate. There was more body than you’d expect with a mineral salty character coming from the 3 months this wine had spent on lees.
  • Yealands Estate Single Block M2 Sauvignon Blanc 2012 – Much more closed than the last wine with an almost (!) sweaty nose, more of a gooseberry flavour of minerality. This is from the Wairau area which has heavier soils, flat land and no wind exposure. You would usually expect a more tropical fruit character to this wine as Wairau is warmer but since 2012 was particularly cool it displayed more citrus than tropical fruit.
  • Yealands Estate Single Block L5 Sauvignon Blanc 2012 – This is a classic Seaview wine displaying lots of power on the palate with a distinct flavour of Romano peppers and thyme. The fruit is cool and clean with a brilliant finish.
  • Yealands Estate Sauvignon Blanc 2012 – The best blocks go into this wine – it is a blend of 3 different blocks. Extremely well balanced with a fresh fruit character on the nose with great length and minerality.
  • Yealands Estate Reserve Sauvignon Blanc 2011 – For me this had a really gentle, creamy, nutty flavour whilst still being very much a Sauvignon Blanc. It has seen a bit of oak but it’s very very subtle – 33% of the blend has gone from the press to old oak barrels where it has been left to ferment naturally. It is then blended back with the unoaked tank wine.
  • Yealands Estate Riesling 2012 – This wine was super dry with searing acidity. The lemon and lime characteristics were rounded off by a softer finish – this could do with a bit of time to open up.
  • Yealands Estate Gruner Veltliner 2012 – There are only 30ha of GV planted in New Zealand and I confess I’ve never tried one before. The palate was soft and spicy with a touch of floralness and a hint of white pepper. There are two picks for this wine (one early and one late) which results in a wine with a full body while retaining a distinctive mineral streak.
  • Yealands Estate Viognier 2012 – A classic Viognier nose and a tropical (almost banana?) palate. 40% of the blend has spent time in old oak. Excellent length.
  • Yealands Estate Single Block R6 Pinot Gris 2012 – This was brilliant – an apricoty nose and flavours of stone fruits, white peach, pear, spice but still with a savouriness. This wine has also spent time on lees meaning a mineral character is apparent under the fruit.
  • Yealands Estate Pinot Noir 2011 – A nose of green pepper, white pepper and extremely underripe cherry. The palate is spicy cherry fruit with good length – quite a restrained style.
  • Yealands Estate Reserve Central Otago Pinot Noir 2012 – A much riper nose than the previous wine; more plums, velvety, lush, spiced cherry and a distinctive smokiness with great length. I loved this wine.

The Sauvignons were stunning; the Pinot Gris and Otago Pinot Noir also really stood out for me. It was a tremendous evening and thrilling to have the focus on what was for me an unknown aspect of New Zealand wine. We were given an outstanding dinner by the Union Club of roast salmon and salsa verde starter, an enormous braised lamb shank followed by cheese and drank the wine out of beautiful and extremely decadent Baccarat glasses.

Watch out for these wines and if you come across them – BUY THEM!

LambshankYealands Estate – www.yealandsestate.co.nz

Union Club – www.unionclub.co.uk

Chateau Baccarat – www.baccarat.com

Other excellent posts

Yealands Estate Tasting and Dinner with Tamra Washington – Cambridge Wine Blogger

Yealands Estate, producing vibrant fruity wines with big character – Kandabites

Relight My Sauvignon Fire – SipSwooshSpit

Spain. But without Rioja

We had the second instalment of our Wine Club last week – what a rowdy bunch! I think having the very good excuse of drinking lots of wine for ‘educational purposes’ provoked a little too much excitement in some folk! Chosen topic of the night was Spanish wines; we decided to leave out Rioja because, let’s face it, everyone drinks Rioja and Spain has so much else to offer. It is a country that has a very traditional history of wine making but which is gradually starting to accept  more modern styles and techniques. Although known for its reds, it produces some outstanding whites and sparkling wines which are now appearing more and more on the international market. The whites went down a storm actually with the Ribera del Duero winning out as the clear favourite among the reds…

Codorniu Brut NV 

Cava is big business in Spain. Over the last couple of decades it has suffered from a bad reputation due to the poor quality product that was often produced. These days there are some really really good Cavas around and they always offer good value for money. Unlike Prosecco they are made using the same method as Champagne and so are often much more similar stylistically. You will often be able to pick out the slightly biscuity notes and even honeyed aromas that you may associate with a much more expensive bottle of Champagne. The key difference, aside from where it comes from, is the grape varieties – Macabeo, Parellada and Xarel-Lo. The Codorniu Brut is excellent value, very easy going in style with subtle hints of citrus and apples.

Cuatro Rayas Verdejo, Rueda

Verdejo is sometimes described as Spain’s answer to Sauvignon Blanc; honestly I quite often prefer it. Although dry and with fresh acidity it is much softer than Sauvignon Blanc and with a fuller body. These are great wines to drink by themselves due to this approachable nature and display flavours of stone fruits, pears and minerals.

Albarino Martin Codax, Rias Baixas

A few years ago it was almost impossible to get hold of Albarino. It’s a fantastic grape and widely grown in Galicia but local demand is high and few producers made enough for it to be worth exporting. Martin Codax makes fantastic wine and if you’re ever in that part of the world they are very hospitable towards visitors at the winery. I spent a few days here in 2008 helping with the vintage (grape picking in the sunshine) and it was just brilliant. In terms of style, Albarino is not a million miles away from Viognier; crisp and fresh on the palate but with a real aromatic character of stone fruits and ripe apples. This is a perfect match with the local dishes which mainly revolve around seafood and shellfish.

Escondite Perfecto Mencia Bierzo

Bierzo is being recognised more and more as a quality wine region producing wines from the little know Mencia grape. Honestly I was a little disappointed with this wine. When made well wines from Bierzo can display fantastic depth of flavour and character but sadly this is exactly what this wine lacked. It was perfectly pleasant with lots of upfront fruit and plummy flavours, but that was about it. The alcohol stood out too much and for the £9.99 it cost me I thought it was overpriced.

Emilio Moro Ribera del Duero

Ribera del Duero is a region that is seriously giving Rioja a run for its money. It has the same rules as Rioja regarding the different styles (Crianza, Reserva, Gran Reserva) and uses the same grape variety – Tempranillo. The high altitude of this region, combined with the warm days and cool nights, mean that the wines produced have fantastic fruit concentration without giving away any of the aromatic complexities that make them the success story they are. As I said – this was the star of the night; dark fruit and dark chocolate are complemented by a smooth texture and upfront yet silky tannins. This will be delicious with barbecued or flame grilled red meat.

Acustic Cellars Ritme Priorat Tinto

This was the interesting one of the night for me. I had to hunt around a bit to find a Priorat but it was definitely worth the effort. Priorat as a region produces some truly outstanding wines and its reputation has continued to grow over the last decade or so. The principal grape varieties tend to be Carinena and Garnacha but some international varieties are also often used. Although it was a little young it nonetheless displayed fantastic complexity; the initial cherry fruit opened up and gave way to a slightly more dried fruit / raisiny character. Its length and complexity were worthy of its £18.99 price point – a lot of money I know but this is the kind of wine you buy as a treat. A great option for an Easter Sunday lunch for example – perfect with spring lamb!



Italy can be tricky

I have always struggled with Italian wine. I don’t mean I have struggled to drink it (almost always a pleasure) but as a topic to learn about in the wine sense – it’s mammoth, and it’s tricky. This probably has something to do with the fact that Italy, as a country, wasn’t actually fully unified as we know it today until sometime around 1870 (I apologise for my vagueness – dates were never my strong point). Pretty much the entire of Italy produces wine, and I mean everyone; from the big big producers right down to the local postman with a few rows of vines in his back garden. And up until relatively recently they were all doing it completely differently with different grape varieties and different vinification techniques. It took a long time to modernise the Italian wine industry in terms of production because of this fragmentation. It produces some truly incredible wine (and of course food) in a range of different styles; the one helpful trick is that local food and local wine tend to go together so if you’re ever lucky enough to find yourself in Italy you don’t need to worry too much about your food and wine pairings – this should happen pretty organically.

This week I bought an Italian white and 2 Italian reds to have at home. Two out of the three were fairly successful purchases. The disappointing third was probably my fault as I reverted to the good old tactic of buying a wine based on the label. In my defence this does sometimes work but it’s a lazy way to buy wine and it serves me right.

Malvira’ Roero Arneis – £10.99

Arneis is the grape variety and Roero is the region which can be found to the south of Piedmont in the north west corner of Italy. Arneis means ‘rascal’ in Piedmontese, so called because it is such a difficult grape to grow. The Malvira’ is a great example of the fantastic wines that can be produced from this grape and region. A beautifully delicate nose of stone fruits and pears with the merest hint of rose petals and a firm streak of minerality. The palate is savoury, more so than the nose suggests, with flavours of green apples and minerals with relatively high acidity and a lovely buttery texture. For such an elegant wine it is actually quite full bodied and would go with all manner of fish dishes, grilled chicken or antipasti.

Tesco Finest Barbera d’Asti Superiore 2009 – £7.29

We can stay in Piedmont while we talk about this wine, Asti being the village it’s from and Barbera being the grape. Perhaps less recognisable as a grape than Sangiovese or Montepulciano it is nonetheless one of the most planted grape varieties in Italy. Ruby red in colour this wine has a nose of cherries and a hint of drink fruit and sweet spice. These flavours follow through on the palate but with more of a white pepper spice and earthiness. It’s nice and pleasant but lacks a bit of depth. What did confuse me is that it’s described on the bottle as being ‘rich and full’. It’s not. This is on the thin side of medium bodied. Nonetheless it’s enjoyable and its tannins give the wine a decent structure. I might try a glass of this with my lamb tomorrow.

Piccini Super Tuscan 2008 Toscana – £8.99

The term ‘Super Tuscan’ can be applied to any wine from Tuscany that does not adhere to the tight legal restrictions of the region in terms of grape varieties and winemaking techniques. The first Super Tuscan was Sassicaia which is now hailed as one of the great wines of the world. There have been many since then which have been extremely high in terms of quality, normally full bodied, modern styles of red wine which often use Cabernet Sauvignon as the dominant grape. Let me be clear – this is not one of those wines. Sadly the Piccini was a real disappointment; a mediocre nose was followed by a palate that lacked any real depth of flavour or body. I also feel a little ripped off as this cost almost a full £2 more than the Barbera d’Asti.

What have we learnt today – don’t judge a wine by its label! As if I didn’t already know that… Luckily the other two wines (especially the Roero Arneis) have made up for it.