Who makes the rules?

Maria Hergueta_New Wine Rule s_Jon Bonne_bottles_crop

Illustration: María Hergueta

For most people, it’s the sight of Paul McCartney, Bradley Cooper or Beyoncé that leaves them weak at the knees; I worship at a less traditional altar of celebrity. The most talented winemakers, Jancis Robinson MW, Hugh Johnson (oh, Hugh!), these are the people who leave my jaw on the floor, suddenly lacking in vocabulary, unfamiliar with normal sentence structure – yet inexplicably filled with a desperate need to make some form of embarrassing contact.

It was this that prompted me – entirely unasked for – to introduce myself to Jon Bonné. I cringe every time I think about me, fangirling all over him. Seized by Champagne bravado, long-time admiration and his presence mere metres from myself, I ineffectively and inarticulately declared my love for him, his impeccable taste and his way with words. There are some writers whose palates seem to align with yours, guiding you perfectly to new discoveries, speaking thoughts that lurk garbled in a corner of your mind. For me, Jon Bonné is The One for me. He figuratively led my trip to California, inspired many of my visits in Australia – nudging me in the direction of producers I loved. His writings on Punch are my mainstay – the bread and butter of what is a fairly high-carb vinous literature diet.

His first book “The New California” should be an essential on every wine-lover’s shelf – capturing the excitement of new-gen Cali and sharing the whos and hows behind the movement. But his latest book came as a surprise – or at least it did to me. The New Wine Rules declares itself to be “a genuinely helpful guide to everything you need to know” – most surprisingly, it actually is. It doesn’t claim to teach you the difference between Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay – instead it offers “a framework for embracing this weird, wonderful wine world that we get to live in”.

The book is, Bonné suggests, an answer to the fear that has pervaded the world of wine for generations: “fear of displaying bad taste or revealing what they don’t know. Screw that. Wine is too great a thing to be limited by fear.” It’s a call to arms for us to try harder to democratise wine, swipe away its elitist ways and make it fun – and it succeeds. It’s a book filled with the joy of drinking wine and, at its most basic level, shows you how not to be a wine wanker.

But there are elements in the book that don’t necessarily stick to its mission: while I agree 2,000% with the idea “Champagne is for pretty much any day of the year” (let it rain magnums of Krug!) – that simply isn’t a reality for most people, who can’t justify spending that amount of money on wine for any day. And the “cool matrix” of wine – for all its uses – doesn’t reassure the average consumer that there are no “wrong” choices. While wine – like anything – will always be subject to the whims of fashion, bottles shouldn’t be “uncool”, there shouldn’t be a drink that puts you in the loser camp.

Despite these small flaws, I loved the book. I read the US version when it was released late last year, and read it again when it came out in the UK last month – and loved it both times.

Read my full review on the Berry Bros. & Rudd blog here.
The New Wine Rules (Quadrille, £10) is out now.


The year gone-by

While another year flies by, and I bid to make more of this site, a quick run-through of jottings past is due. Here is a short-list of the topics that I typed on in the not-so-recent months…

Keep an eye out for more soon.

Under the knife: Aquavit


“Oh. My. God,” my friend says, seizing the two weighty slivers of cutlery in front of her, ogling them like Beyoncé had just sat down opposite her. “This is Georg Jensen cutlery. My Georg Jensen cutlery.” I, meanwhile, stare somewhat blankly at this reference to utensil fame, deeply impressed by her knowledge. She’s a woman of impeccable taste and I can only believe that this means something, to those who know about these things, the knife-and-fork elite.

The cutlery is just one element that adds to the oozingly luxurious feel of Aquavit, the newest Nordic addition to London’s restaurant scene. It’s hardly surprising, given its location just off Lower Regent Street, that this is a restaurant positioning itself at the very top end of the market, with prices to match. Classic Nordic cuisine with a modern edge is served in surprisingly generous portions, but some dishes are more successful than others. Mackerel tartare, sorrel and lumpfish roe was inspired; the shrimp Skagen was a posh (and overpriced) prawn cocktail on toast.

Read a full review, with the highlights of my meal, on here.

Under the knife: The Clove Club


There’s a meal haunting me. I lie awake at night and lightly salivate as I dream of the numerous courses. I wake up anxious at the absence of duck, morel and ginger consommé, reaching for another sip of soup that isn’t there. It’s been three months, and I’m not sure how much longer I can handle these gustatory ghosts. It doesn’t help matters that 2017 has begun in a utilitarian, austerity-stricken manner – but, boy, were the excesses of 2016 worth it.

The meal in question was three months ago, my first trip to The Clove Club, a restaurant that feels so established on London’s scene that it’s almost passé to gush over its fabled dishes. Almost. But then you taste one mouthful of any of the nine courses that forms their extended tasting menu, and it’s clear that the world can indeed handle another five-star statement (alongside yet another Instagram of their irresistible basket of buttermilk chicken in pine salt).

Slipping through the pearly gates (alright, blue doors) of Shoreditch Town Hall, a magnificent structure perched on Old Street, you’re greeted by a window filled with home-cured haunches, hanging alluringly, just out of reach.

While things start to haze around the eighth or ninth course (chiming with the end of the second bottle and the arrival of the first in a series of glasses); it’s rare to recall a meal so distinctly. But that’s the power of the restaurant’s genuinely life-changing creations.

I’ve written about the food in some detail on – but, while you go for the food, the wine list is the best I’ve ever seen*. It’s interesting, varied, combining classics and unusual numbers with some under-the-radar bottles, without offering too much choice. It’s not cheap, but it’s not outrageous (and when you’re spending £110 per head on the food, that £70 bottle or £15 glass seems a minor addition).

We had a bottle of Sam Harrop’s taut Cedalion Chardonnay which gradually unwound over the first five courses, revealing a little more of its flesh, fruit and ageing potential. With the partridge we graduated to a bottle of 2001 Henschke Cyril Cabernet – a rich, gluttonous wine whose liquorous, Kirsch fruit was dark and dense, drowning all but the beef rump with Jerusalem artichoke, ceps and coffee. Of the two, the Cedalion was more to my taste; but you can’t deny that the Henschke was a great wine, just a bit brash and bulldozer-y. It would have been excellent with venison stew, thinking of it.

Today The Sunday Times declared The Clove Club to be Britain’s best restaurant; prompting my bid to vanquish my hunger-mares. Perhaps the only way to rid myself of such visions is to return, seeing if it really is as good as I remember.

*Andrew Edmunds is another contender, but of a different sort, and one I’m hoping to revisit soon.

Under the knife: Portland


Thanks to a series of misappointed associates, I had – regrettably – been forced to cancel the first three bookings I made for Portland in early 2015. Before it got a Michelin star. Before everyone knew about it. And before the prices went up.

But, better late than never. So, 14 months down the road, I went, I ate, I drank and now I’m going to bore you all about it, because it is as good as everyone says it is.

The menu is neatly divided into snacks, first courses, mains and sides (with – obviously – pudding later). A series of snacks arrived looking beautifully neat, moreish – two morsels that divided neatly between two. White truffle and Gruyère macarons (£3) melted in the mouth, a surprisingly sweet shell balanced by just the right amount of cheese and the slightest hint of truffle. Squid toast, brown crab green asparagus (£3) disappeared in a mouthful and a half. Native lobster, red miso and daikon rolls (£4) were gloriously fresh tasting.

Poitou asparagus, girolles, preserved lemon and almonds (£12) was earthy and fresh, while my rump cap tartare, new season beetroots, smoked yoghurt (£12) looked unerringly good – a platter of blood-red protein that felt so deliciously iron-filled; a bowl of sweet, strengthening goodness. A side of sweet potato was underwhelming, cooked to melt-in-the-mouth softness but under-seasoned and unexciting.

The grand finale was Portland chocolate bar, peanut butter croustillant (£9) – the soothing salty ice cream cutting through the dark, dense chocolate, and a touch of caramel to round things out.

With such vinous lineage (owner Will Lander is Jancis Robinson MW’s son), I was excited about the list. I nailed a copita of Fino swiftly on arrival, but drinking alone (and cycling) I indulged in just one glass from their “special” list – 2007 Morgeot, Premier Cru, Chassagne-Montrachet, J.N. Gagnard (£19 – whoops). It was rich, heady, contemplative and all that I needed – but, alas, a little tight. With time I’m certain that it would have been utterly bewitching, but I couldn’t offer it any more.

And therein lies the issue with not getting a bottle. With a bottle, you have the first glass to ease into, to look one another up and down; you have the second glass to muse over, potentially to fall in love with; and the third in which to simply languish, to bathe indulgently in (or, if it’s a total disappointment – to reserve for cooking and move on to pastures greener). That’s why you need a drinking companion. All boozers should come in twos.

Even without a partner to halve a bottle (which perhaps was wise considering the price tags), Portland is worth the fuss. The service was impeccable, the atmosphere easy, the food just the right balance between creative and comforting. I may have been a year and a half behind the crowd, but cor, is it still good.

Portland, 113 Great Portland Street W1W 6QQ

Under the knife: Frenchie


Having commissioned one of the Berry Bros. & Rudd team to write a review of this new Covent Garden spot, and subsequently read, edited and published with outrageous envy what an utterly wonderful time they had, I was determined to make a visit myself.

Anticipation was high. Not only had I been salivating at my keyboard for weeks over Guy Davies’s review, but there seemed to be an incessant stream of Instagram posts praising the establishment, each taunting me with glimpses of the ever-changing menu. Under two months after it opened, I struggled to book a table for two a fortnight ahead of the planned date. Clearly, this Parisian export was doing something right.

Unassumingly positioned somewhere between a heaving All Bar One and Fred Perry on Henrietta Street, it’s surprising to happen upon such a little sophistiqué spot that provides a civilised oasis from the crowds of Covent Garden’s uncouth. That said, it might be a touch hard to “happen” upon at all, as I managed to walk past it twice with the aid of Google Maps. Bearing in mind the indulgence that was to come, the exercise was probably wise.

The simple décor looked a little sparse in photos, perhaps a hint too Scandi, but it feels warmer than it looks – particularly downstairs where you can nuzzle the kitchen, eying up the dishes being whisked to other tables. The staff were supremely friendly, appropriately attentive without being imposing, offering just the right amount of advice and information.

Then – of course – there’s the food. We started with bacon scones, maple syrup & seasoned Cornish clotted cream (£4). Phwoar – the sweet-savoury balance was bang on, and I could have wolfed at least another two. Next came the smoked Arctic char tartare, chive & kalamata bergamot (£12), a recommendation from our waiter, which arrived rather gaudily – a purple flower posing raunchily on a voluptuous pile of green gloup that lay on the fish itself. Despite its slightly gareish appearance, this was unbelievably good: fresh, moreish with a wonderful citric tang. Lamb ragu pappardelle, confit lemon, kalamata olive & espelette (£14) was difficult to share, richly comforting. Perhaps we’d had enough by this point, but we plumped for Mesquer’s farm pigeon, beetroot, kumquat & sumac (£23) which slipped down rather easily. We sipped on a rather intriguing carafe of Vespaiolo – surprisingly Sémillon-like, lemon-layered with a waxy feel that was terribly refreshing; then moved onto a Barbera which was a little ripe, but perfectly acceptable. We finished with banoffee, nutmeg (£9), seriously spooning it up and savouring its spiced sweetness.

It may not have been cheap, but, quite frankly, Frenchie was fantastic: the best meal I’ve had in London for a long time. Go, book – before there is a six-month waiting list, a Michelin star and a price hike.

Frenchie, 16 Henrietta St, London WC2E 8QH