Notes from the vineyard: labelling

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In this month’s post following goings-on at Nyetimber, winemaker Brad Greatrix comments on how sometimes what’s on, rather than in, the bottle matters

In the vineyard, we’ve recently passed through a stage of the growing season called “bunch closure”. We are very thankful for the incredible spell of warm weather that we’ve had in the south of England this summer. Despite a slow start to the year, bunch closure is occurring more or less in line with the long-term average at Nyetimber. As the name suggests, this stage is where the nascent berries swell to the point that adjacent berries touch one another (the bunch becomes “closed”). At this time of year, there aren’t otherwise many visible changes to the vines. Grapes will remain small and green until véraison (when the grapes change colour, early September for us) and the canopies are already full to the top wire, so bunch closure is one of the few milestones that we can use to gauge progress. However, beyond marking time, it doesn’t have great significance as an indicator of the growing season.

In the winery, August is our final month to look after some routine jobs before harvest preparations start to take place. In fact, some early preparations are already underway, but for the most part our time is occupied with activities like labelling. Labelling is a rarely discussed and often underappreciated part of the winemaking process. By the time labels are applied, there isn’t anything more that can be done on the wine quality front – bottles are now sealed and our contribution to the bottle ageing in our cellar is complete. Nevertheless, it’s a part of the process that gets our fullest attention because it’s the visible aspects of the bottle, not the wine inside, that often forms the first impression. Irrespective of the beautiful packaging design, or the wine inside, if the bottle arrives on the dining table with the label askew or poorly aligned, then we are starting on the back foot.

With sparkling wine, labelling is particularly challenging. This is because once the foil is applied over the cork and pleated, the bottle then has a definite “front” and “back”. With still wine, the cylindrical capsule rarely has markings to orient the direction of label, meaning the main body labels can go on in any place. But with sparkling wine we need to ensure that the neck label (“cordon”) aligns with the pleats of the foil, and of course the front and back labels need to align with the neck label and foil too. Other parameters to control are the spacing between front and back labels, and height that they are applied (imagine a retail display with bottles lined up horizontally – there should be consistency across all bottles).

I realise that none of these points are sexy, and it’s certainly not what compels young students to enrol in oenology. But, as a winemaker, the packaging step is one to overlook at your own risk. I’m not talking about the aesthetic aspects of label design, where individual taste most definitely plays a role, but rather how well the labels are applied to the bottle. This is an example where judging a book by its cover has some merit – in this case the “cover” gives us an indication of the attention to detail that is applied, and therefore the care with which that wine was handled. How well labels are applied isn’t a question of resource. Whether labels are basic or sophisticated, labels can be carefully and thoughtfully applied, even with rudimentary means and methods.

Although it’s never my primary criteria, the care with which the packaging is applied is certainly something I watch for in wine shops, so you can understand why we give labelling just as much attention. Next month, we’ll be back in the vineyard, as the grapes undergo véraison, and we start preparing in earnest for the harvest.

Read our full series following life at Nyetimber here or find out more about the wines on bbr.com.

Category: English Wine

On the table: Xu

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Photograph: Carol Sachs

Continuing our efforts to explore London’s best eateries, this month we sent Alexis Self to Xu – a new restaurant from the team behind Bao who are single-handedly putting Taiwanese food on the city’s culinary map

On his seminal 1965 live album, Woody Allen tells a joke about being kicked out of NYU for cheating on his metaphysics exam – by “looking within the soul of the boy sitting next to me” – causing his distraught mother to lock herself in the bathroom and take “an overdose of mah-jong tiles”. When I was young, I listened to this album so much I almost grew glasses but, scared to accept I wasn’t quite as precocious as I thought, never asked what mah-jong tiles were. It was 15 years before I found out that mah-jong is an old Chinese game not unlike dominoes – and that the joke wasn’t one of Woody’s best. But today mah-jong seems to be quite en vogue, as does Taiwanese food.

The latter is almost exclusively thanks to Wai Ting Chung, her brother Shing Tat and his wife Erchen, who started Taiwanese street food mecca Bao; growing it from pop-up to established Soho player in a couple of years – its queue is now a Lexington Street landmark. With its bright white buns and minimalist interior, Bao has struck a chord with those who like their meals photogenic as well as tasty. Xu – pronounced “jus” not “sue” – can be seen as the trio’s more mature second album, still focusing on the rich variety of Taiwanese cuisine, but in a more formal setting. Named after Erchen’s grandfather, its green-lacquered walls, piles of exotic tealeaves and ceiling fans turning languidly overhead are a love-letter to 1930s Taipei. It’s also got a couple of ornately decorated mah-jong rooms downstairs that are available for private hire – and you can hear the click-clack of Woody’s mother’s favourite tiles while you attempt to overdose on the delicious food.

Xu has a cinematic aura and the effect of the space is heightened after half an hour spent on the Bakerloo Line. There’s nothing cinematic, however, about a queue, and it’s a relief to find out that Xu takes bookings. For those still wishing to indulge in a spot of queuedenfreude – an unusually satisfying pastime – from our window table we can see the growing line outside next-door Palomar while we sip our cocktails: a Lo Tsui Ke (white miso gin sour) and Tamshui (Champagne royale with butter and pear). The royale is as creamy and decadent as it sounds, while the sour is just the zesty perk I need to enliven the senses. The food menu, designed to look like a 1930s newspaper, is split between xiao tsi (bar snacks), mian shi (more substantial wheat-based starters) and mains – today’s breaking story: my mouth is watering. Our waitress, expert and attentive throughout, advises we try four or five of the smaller dishes and two mains.

Photograph: Carol Sachs

First up is the tomato and smoked eel, garnished with dry-braised, dehydrated daikon (basically a big radish): it is a riot of colours. The generous splashes of chilli oil are luminous red and give the eel an almost fluorescent hue, but the dish is light – the smokiness of the eel softening the sweetness of the tomato and spice of the chilli. As I begin to feel the first lick of heat, I reach for the wine menu. It being balmy out, and spicy in, I opt for Josef Ehmoser’s Von der Terrassen Grüner Veltliner – reliably food-friendly, crisp and dry with a citrus spike. After inhaling the smoked eel, we move on to the beef tendon – a kind of Taiwanese carpaccio, the meat sliced so thin it melts on the tongue, like bovine communion, and drizzled in coriander and garlic. Next come taro dumplings, stuffed with Taiwanese sausage and oozing verdant taro purée – delicious, squidgy treats and a welcome cooling relief. Our final starter, the “gold coin” – a small pancake spread with foie gras and Shaoxing wine jelly – has me wishing I was a slot machine being filled with hundreds of these glimmering things.

The mains are universally nutritious and delicious. A chilli egg drop crab comes in-shell, with a smattering of salmon roe and lashings of an almost bouillabaisse-esque spicy sauce – all rust-colour and deep fishy flavours. As soon as I saw char siu pork on the menu, I had to order it. Barbecue pork/crispy pork on rice is my weapon of choice whenever I eat at Wong Kei – the much-maligned “rudest restaurant in London” that glowers over Chinatown a few streets away from where we’re sitting. I have a real sadomasochistic soft spot for Wong Kei, having been verbally abused by its staff since I was in short trousers. But Xu’s iberico char siu pork, served on steamed leeks, makes theirs taste like back bacon. The pork is tender, almost falling apart, while the leeks provide the tartness and bite the meat lacks. But what about the rice? At Xu there are four options ranging from a life-giving bowl of the classic stuff to an oyster congee version, which comes with a jersey rock. We went for the lard onion – salty, oniony heaven.

For dessert, a sticky-toffeeish mai la orange cake with warm butterscotch and condensed milk is just the spongey treat required to ease the transition from 1930s Taipei back to 2017 Piccadilly. The team behind Bao certainly aren’t a one-hit wonder: Xu proves their potential to step beyond swift snacking to finer dining, taking Taiwanese food to the next level. Now I just have to learn how to play mah-jong…

Xu, 30 Rupert St, Soho, London W1D 6DL

Category: Food & Wine

Eat, drink and sleep: Jerez

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Escaping to Andalusia for an investigative excursion, Alice Cave embraces local life in Jerez – where siestas, long lunches and plenty of Sherry make for an excellent trip

Recently trading London’s grey skies for some dependable Spanish sun and sea air, it took me just a day to slide into the more relaxed pace of Andalusian life. Kindly invited by a colleague and friend, I jumped at the chance to revisit this corner of south-western Spain because I adore one of its most prized treasures: Sherry.

Produced within the small Sherry Triangle, formed by the towns of Jerez de la Frontera, Sanlúcar de Barrameda and El Puerto de Santa María, Sherry is a diverse fortified wine that is all too often associated with old bottles collecting dust at the back of Granny’s drinks tray. Many make the mistake of thinking it is all sweet, but the truth is many of the finest Sherries are dry, intense and wonderfully complex.

Flying into Jerez airport on a Wednesday morning, I was met by my host and two friends, before moving on to Jerez de la Frontera. Our first appointment was with Fernando de Castilla, not a producer we stock but whose Sherries are renowned for being world-class and this was soon confirmed as we moved from barrel to barrel, sampling Fino, Palo Cortado, PX and many more. It wasn’t just the Sherries that shone, their Brandy de Jerez and Vermouth were outstanding too (so much so that I bought a bottle of each).

Our second visit that afternoon was with a much smaller, husband and wife run operation, Urium, whose sherries were among the very best we sampled. Rocio let us try her father’s sublime and much beloved Oloroso which had an average age of over 50 years – a very special moment indeed.

We devoted the entire following day to our third and final visit, Lustau, which has a long-standing relationship with Berry Bros. & Rudd on the back of their excellent range, including my favourite Palo Cortado VSOR. We were shown around some of their vineyards by Federico before he took us to Sanlúcar to visit Pepe, one of their almacenistas, and treated us to a very spoiling long lunch where I had my first taste of ajo blanco at La Cruz Blanca.

Ajo blanco is an ancient dish known as gazpacho’s older brother, dating back to at least the 16th century. Based on blended garlic, almonds, bread, water, salt and olive oil, it is often served with fresh fruit such as grapes or melon, and I fell in love with the dish immediately. The texture was exquisite and something everyone should try. Lunch was washed down with Lustau’s excellent Los Arcos Amontillado.

Another culinary highlight was family run Casa Balbino. Seventy-five years old and set in Sanlúcar’s vibrant main square, it has a reputation for attracting the rich and famous, although it is actually rather relaxed and unfussy. Here I tried mojama (sundried tuna) for the first time and tortillitas de camarones (shrimp fritters) – these were sensational and lived up to everything I’d heard about them. Balbino do the best fritters, and they were perfectly matched with a thrillingly saline Manzanilla, served ice cold.

Tasting so many exquisite but rather alcoholic Sherries in the Spanish heat meant that finding a suitable afternoon beverage that wouldn’t require an immediate siesta was a top priority, and I found it in the form of a “rebujito”. A large glass filled with ice cubes, a healthy measure of Fino, topped up with lemonade and finished with a sprig of mint: it is delicious and highly recommended.

The Sherry Triangle is well worth a visit, clearly for its fantastic fortified wines, but also its culture, long lunches and relaxed way of life.

For a taste of Jerez a little closer to home, browse our range of Sherry on bbr.com.

Category: Port and Sherry

Liquid history

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Could Brexit mean the return of the pint-sized Champagne bottle? Hubert de Billy – great-great-grandson of Pol Roger – contemplates the past and future of one of the most unusual bottles in our cellars

Since our foundation in 1849 by M. Pol Roger, my great-great-grandfather, we have remained family-owned and independent, both commercially and in outlook. The UK has always been the most important export market for Champagne Pol Roger and our relationship with Berry Bros. & Rudd has long been integral to this. Indeed, Pol Roger Champagne was distributed in the UK (predominantly London) before we started selling in France.

It was with the 1874 vintage, widely recognised as one of the great vintages of the period, that the Pol Roger name was established in the UK and became the drink of the wine merchants, the Clubs and the City. The first order for the Royal Cellars was confirmed in 1876 and we were awarded our first Royal Warrant to Queen Victoria in 1877. The 1874 vintage was also historically significant because it was the first to be bottled in pints (together with halves and bottles). All subsequent Pol Roger vintages, until 1973, continued to be bottled in halves, pints, bottles and magnums.

The pint-sized bottle was favoured by our most celebrated exponent, Sir Winston Churchill. The recently launched 2008 vintage marks 100 years since the first documentary evidence of Churchill buying Pol Roger, in 1908. Churchill’s enthusiasm for the imperial pint was founded in practicality, he deemed the format “enough for two at lunch and one at dinner”. It also lent itself beautifully to consumption from a silver pint tankard, Churchill’s drinking vessel of choice.

When Churchill died in 1965 my aunt, Odette Pol Roger (whom Churchill had, famously, met at a lunch at the British Embassy in Paris late in 1944 after the Liberation and formed a lifelong friendship), declared that Pol Roger was “in mourning” for their greatest friend and supporter. Hence, we put a black band on the edge of the label of the non-vintage White Foil (as Pol Roger Brut Réserve was formerly known) which remained until 2002.

Fortunately for Churchill, he never had to learn of the cessation of pint-sized bottles; the final vintage to be bottled in pints was the 1973, for shipment to the UK. When the UK joined the European Economic Community in 1973, with its membership confirmed in 1975, the pint bottle was no longer authorised under EU law.

While Brexit poses a number of challenges to the wine trade, one possible upside to emerge might be the return of the pint-sized bottle. It remains to be seen how the law will change in the UK, however we have started to discuss the possibility of sourcing pint bottles from our glass supplier. By virtue of the fact that we age our non-vintage Champagne for four years, and vintage for up to 10, this will be a long-term project, but one we feel confident that Churchill would approve of.

While not currently available in pints, you can find out more about (and buy) Pol Roger’s superb Champagnes on bbr.com.

Category: Champagne and Sparkling Wine