words | Andrew Licudi AIWS
It’s almost Christmas and rain and sleet hit our faces. For a city awash with free energy, Reykjavik is badly lit, but even in the dark, it’s obvious we are lost. A man, in perfect English and immaculate suit, stops and asks if he can be of assistance. He sends us back the way we came. The restaurant has no signs and we peer into its dark, glazed facade relieved to see the habitual movement of waiters and diners each playing their assigned roles in the theatre of public eating. Entering the narrow lobby, a sea of warmth envelops us and a large, bald, bearded waiter stares impassively as in the dim light we drop our jackets and scarves wrestling the small, narrow coat rail. He makes no move to help. I note we are surrounded by dozens of jars full of specimens – reminiscent of a natural history museum where everything can be tasted, chewed or swallowed. He points to a small table and we are soon examining a shared menu no larger than an envelope. In the dim light it’s difficult to read but with the help of a single, diminutive candle, we choose our dishes which come with paired wines, a practice I have always found singularly unsatisfactory. To our left, an American couple are already a few courses ahead of us. They talk in low voices. On our other side, a young, attractive woman of indeterminate race, perhaps Japanese or Inuit dines alone. A camera on her table rhythmically purrs recording her chewing and tasting. Inexplicably, a large pair of sunglasses lie beside the camera.
Our waiter, unsmiling and severe, soon reappears with champagne and asks if we would like an aperitif. I start to explain that five glasses of paired wines will be more than enough but his scowling face soon has me meekly agreeing. He briefly shows us the label but too quickly for me to be sure what it is. It may have been Charlie Mignon, a name more suited to a butcher than a wine producer and almost certainly a small grower rather than a Grand Marqué. The wine turns out to be very, very good indeed with impeccable acidity, tasting of ripe apples and the complexity of a well-balanced, mature wine. For all its glamour, Champagne has a nasty habit of disappointing – perhaps we have been taken in by the Champenois ability to fabricate an image representing decadence, luxury and even sex when most Champagnes are bulk wines, made in large quantities where master blenders, using hundreds of reserve wines from different years, turn out identical, acidic, lean and mean wines year in, year out. Sales, no doubt perpetuated by marketing, packaging and image aided and abetted by willing customers. The tide is turning, however, and the Grand Marqués are being challenged by hundreds of small growers turning out seriously good wines, usually from single years, at a fraction of the price demanded by the big boys for their more expensive vintage Champagnes. Socialist Frances laws dictated that Grand Marqués would be allowed to own no more than 20% of Champagne’s vineyards – ensuring that small growers could make a living from selling grapes to the large houses. After decades, many small growers, no longer satisfied to see their grapes made into overpriced vintage and rose Champagnes, are now making and marketing their own wine. Who says Socialism brings nothing good! Vive la Revolution!
Our surly waiter soon starts to bring small pre-dinner dishes made from an array of unusual ingredients some foraged by the kitchen crew – reindeer, yeast, moss, mushrooms, powdered carrots. This is followed by more substantial dishes like dung smoked trout, tomato with buttermilk and barley, wild goose with berries. The dishes are stunning. It’s clear whoever is in the kitchen is more magician than chef. The wines turn out to be a mixed bag. An Austrian white wine made from Muller Thurgau is insipid, limp and simple with uncharacteristic low acidity. Austria now produces seriously good wines from Riesling and Gruner Vetliner – white wines that countries like Spain can only dream about. We are also disappointingly served a non-descript rose from the Languedoc. The next wine, however, turns out to be a delicious Valpolicella Clásico from the Veneto region of Italy. That infamous region better known for turning out millions of gallons of cheap red wine destined to be quaffed in countless trattorias around the world. Now efforts are being made to increase quality and lesser grapes like the Molinara has been outlawed. Only the superior but lower yielding Corvina Veronese and Corvinone are permitted together with small proportions of Rondinella and Croatina. The Pieropan turned out to be complex, multi-layered with that pronounced elegance so reminiscent of good Italian wines. I wonder if other producers, seeing the likes of Pieropan’s success, are tempted to go down the quality route or is bulk production still profitable?
With dessert, we are offered another infamous Italian wine. A red Lambrusco with a severe case of Brettonomyces, a bacterial contamination usually associated with dirty barrels. Not that in this restaurant it would be considered a fault. I admit that many, including me, enjoy some degree of Brett as it gives older reds a meaty, oxo cube like quality to the wine though regrettably, in the Lambrusco, it was simply too much. The dessert, however, was out of this world.
Last month, I wrote about older Riojas which I had acquired with a friend, from an obscure auction house, for roughly the same price as current vintages! We have tasted one of our purchases, a 1947 Cune Rioja, albeit unplanned. On route to our house, the street cobbles made the cork fall into the wine leaving the capsule intact and me wondering why the bottle was leaking. We had no choice but to drink the wine immediately. We lost some wine but enough was left to taste this vintage Rioja accompanied by a hastily prepared simple dish of pasta. Considering the age of the wine, it had a deep, vibrant colour, complex in the mouth, with good acidity and pronounced mushroomy flavour with a touch of Port. I have read that Cheval Blanc 1947, considered by many to be the best wine ever, also has Port like qualities – perhaps a function of age common to most older wines. Traditional Riojas, if properly cellared, can be eminently drinkable even after decades. Of course, one does not need to wait so long and we are lucky that traditional Riojas are widely available here. Even if you have no wish to cellar wines, you will not regret putting some of these wines aside and enjoying mature Rioja four or five years down the line.
If you hadn’t noticed, Christmas is upon us. The one time in the year when I can open a bottle of Port with a relatively guilt free conscience. Not that I don’t drink Port regularly throughout the year due to my wine group’s obsession with this most traditional of drinks. With them, I will just taste but opening a bottle at Christmas will entail more drinking than tasting. I have always found that Port with all its variants, Vintage, Late Vintage, Crusted, Tawny and others, offers a huge amount of taste for your money and quality is universally high. After all, what better way to fall asleep in front of the telly than holding a glass of Port knowing that when you wake up, there will still be plenty left in the bottle.
Wines to be tried at least once in your life
Graham’s Late Bottled Vintage 2011
Stagnettos – around £11.00
Late Bottled Vintage, LBV, is a cynical term invented by Port producers to confuse the less savvy. In other words, make the consumer believe it’s a Vintage Port they are buying at a bargain price. No matter, LBV is still a delicious, complex Port affording huge amount of pleasure. It’s filtered so no need to decant like Vintage Port which is full of sediment.
Additionally, there is little to gain from keeping LBV Port which is bottled ready to drink. The reason for this is that, unlike the more expensive Vintage Port, which is bottled after only two years (the consumers are expected to cellar the wine at their expense), the LBV is matured in a cask for five years or so. When bottled, it is therefore more mature than the Vintage Port. Of course, the tortoise will eventually overtake the hare but at £11, who’s complaining…