A wine group may well be the best way of enjoying fine wines without breaking the bank.
Had it not been for my wine group I would not only be considerably poorer in terms of wine tasting experiences, but I doubt whether I would have put the effort and money into assembling a modest collection of classical wines, which, as they mature, should provide drinking pleasure for years to come – assuming I do not succumb to accident or disease!
If you are wondering what on earth a wine group is, let me explain. At its simplest it’s a means of tasting hundreds of fine wines a year which, as a lone wine enthusiast, would be practically impossible. In my case, my group is composed of ten members, each a committed vinophile, and amazingly (with only the odd change here and there) has been going strong for over thirty years. I was lucky to join the group ten or so years ago after a considerable ‘apprenticeship’ during which time the group presumably decided I had the necessary enthusiasm and wines to host a yearly dinner. Thereafter I was simply included in their yearly schedule with August as my date to host what is referred to as a ‘wine group dinner’.
The group itself is diverse and improbably includes three mathematicians, leading me to consider whether wine is simply another means we enthusiasts use to make a modicum of sense of a complex and weird universe. I have always felt that wine enthusiasts have much in common with trainspotters – or ‘anoraks’ as they are known in Britain – whose encyclopaedic knowledge, singular focus and endless talking about their hobby makes them bores to be around. It’s little wonder that we generally tend to keep our passion secret when mixing with muggles.
Since August is fast approaching I am already considering possible dishes for my annual dinner. I know I will be serving around eighteen wines (all wines served blind so quality can be assessed without label influence!). The total cost of the wines will be considerable, however I know I will be attending another nine similar dinners so taking this into account the cost over a year will be less than the average sea angler in Gibraltar spends on tackle, bait, mooring fees and boat maintenance! Yet spending so much on wine may be considered as decadent by some whilst angling may be perceived as not the least bit spendthrift.
Looking at last year’s notes we started the dinner with an amuse-bouche of Joselito Salami and Julian Martin Chorizo and a shot of Gazpacho made with tiny sweet tomatoes, garlic, olive oil and vinegar. (Don’t be tempted to add anything else as it will detract from the sweetness of the tomatoes. Use only the best olive oil. Ironically after years of trial and error, the best vinegar is the usual white plastic-bottled wine vinegar found in most Spanish supermarkets.) After blitzing, strain and serve in tiny shot glasses as this tomatoe’s essence is too intense to serve in large quantities. This amuse-bouche was served with Seppelsfield Aged Flor Apera. This is simply an Australian oloroso type sherry which of course cannot be called sherry. Utterly superb and would give the top wines of Jerez a real run for their money. Everyone assumed it was sherry.
This was followed by a flight of three champagnes including Bollinger Grand Annee 2005 and Cristal 2007. This was served with pan fried mini scallops in their shell. These were frozen and I have found that freezing fish takes nothing away from it. Whilst the group were trying to figure out what the champagne was or if it was even champagne we simply removed the scallops from their shells and quickly pan fried in butter and olive oil. Don’t fry too many at once or they will stew. Then simply place back in their shells with a few drops of lemon and some of the cooking juices.
The next dish was halibut with lime and basmati rice. Halibut is up there with turbot and Dover sole. Don’t buy halibut in Spain. It turns to jelly when cooked and is inedible. Try Marks and Spencer’s frozen haddock. Simply fry some cooked basmati rice with lemongrass, ginger, shallots, red peppers and soy sauce. Place the fish on a very hot oven for nine minutes with a dab of butter. Place the fish on top of a small amount of the rice and squeeze some lime juice over it. This dish was served with three vintages of Australian Grosset Polish Hills Clare Valley Riesling, 2009, 2010 and 2015. (It is difficult to find this cult wine in Australia as they fly out of the winery doors within days as they say. I managed to source these wonderful wines from merchants in the UK who clearly had been unable to sell them, and at their original price!
Next was pasta Amatriciana. Simply pasta with tomato sauce and Guancale: pepper cured pig’s cheeks, which I bought in Rome, but bacon or pancetta may have to do as Gauncale is only now becoming available in the UK and none in Gib as far as I know. Sprinkle with aged parmesan or better still 3-year-old pecorino. This simple dish was served with three Chiantis: Berardenga Rancia 1998, 2000 and 2004.
Last year I cycled in Tuscany and believe me there are a lot of hills there. It’s a tough way to get from one bottle of Sangiovese to another. Italian food can be sublime but one particular dish I thought was exceptional. Beef Pepposo. I had the poor chef out to our table who couldn’t speak a word of English nor I Italian but who kindly and enthusiastically took me step by step on how to prepare this incredible dish. The dish is simplicity itself. Beef (from the leg as indicated by the chef) cut into cubes, garlic, tomatoes, bottle of good Chianti, bay leaves and thyme. The secret here is the large amount of pepper used. After frying the beef and garlic with its skin on, cook all the ingredients for several hours. I added four very large tablespoons of ground pepper. I know it sounds overwhelming but it’s not. The dish will taste better a day or two after its made. The town of Impruneta has an annual festival dedicated to this dish alone. It is said it was invented by the furnace workers who made the tiles for the Duomo in Florence. They would place the ingredients in the morning and it would be ready by lunch time. Of course, since these were pre-Colombian days there would have been no tomatoes. A stunning and exceptional dish. This was served with lemon peel infused cannellini beans. Wines were Noel Verset Cornas 1999, 2000 and 2004.
With cheese I served two red Burgundies and with a Calvados Apple Tart Von Kesselstatt Piesporter Auslese 2006. Piesporter is one of the top vineyards in the Mosel. This is not to be confused by Michelsberg Piesporter which a mass is produced inexpensive wine.
As you can imagine, preparing and serving the dinner is hard work. My wife’s help is invaluable, without which it would prove impossible to serve all these courses and wines.
I hope this article will encourage you to consider a wine group as a way of tasting many fine wines without an excessive annual cost. Dishes need not be complex nor elaborate. The wines however need to be the best you can afford. If you do go ahead make sure all your guests bring their own glasses it will save a lot of washing up!