Fish & chips at Kerbisher & Malt: But what to drink?

Published on The Prodigal Guide on 2nd May 2012:

Fish and chips, so simple, British and… Actually surprisingly complex when it comes to drink pairings. Think about it, what do you have to drink when you go to your local chippy? Larger? Stout? Coke? Tea?

Actually I don’t know the answer to that question but the offer of a gastro-oeno experiment from Tom Harrow of Winechap enticed me. The posher than average chip shop Kerbisher & Malt was the location and the crowd was wine types, tea types and me, falling somewhere in between, arguably not particularly excelling at either except in quantities consumed.

Kerbisher & Malt, named after an old fishing boat and of course malt vinegar, opened in May 2011 by owners Saul Reuben and Nick Crossley. From the off, they promised “no to preservatives, no to food from a packet, no to dirty oil, no to neon lights and no to soggy chips”. And now they’re getting serious about their drinks menu, too.

Working through the Kerbisher menu, we had a selection that went from Chardonnay up to Champagne, and Oolong down to breakfast tea supplied by the Rare Tea Company (just for the purpose of the experiment). It was really a Marmite collection of matches that served well to divide the opinion of the table.

Starting with whitebait and calamari for light bites and the Cuvée des Croix Blanches Muscadet 2010 for refreshment, the discussion was already bubbling. For me, the muscadet worked with the whitebait but the light spice of the calamari fought its corner against the wine and won.

The De Telmont Grande Reserve Champagne that came next worked in harmony with the chips and copious amounts of ketchup but, it seems, possibly little else. Perhaps that was always a drink meant for supping on its own or with grander comestibles.

Next up was the La Gitana Manzanilla which, though refreshing alone, for me, was a terrible match for everything. While I blamed a particularly bad sherry cocktail for that conclusion, the rest of the table welcomed its acidity.

Haddock arrived at the table along with pours of Pilsner and Riverlands Sauvignon Blanc 2001, both proved to be poorly matched to the fish but worked well with the sides – the Pilsner overpowered while the sauvignon blanc was overpowered. Clearly this was a match with more than a few struggles.

More chips arrived and the riesling came in the form of Dr Loosen 2010 which I particularly enjoyed. It was a serious contender for matching with everything, especially the ketchup. But on second evaluation, not so good with vinegar soaked chips.

Wheat beer was the last alcoholic drink and was a relatively neutral finish – it didn’t add anything or take anything away and if you liked beer well then it must be a no-brainer.

Then came the soft drinks. The bitterness of the Fentiman’s Traditional Lemonade was much improved by the vinegar soaked chips which brought out more of its floral qualities, while its pink counter part faired a little better on its own. The Coca Cola did little to impress either way. But the winner must surely have been the Oolong which, on the first brewing at least, did well to work harmoniously with everything. On the second brewing, though, the tea became too bitter for the chips and needed a douse of milk.

At the end of the evening the table was divided on the favourites. It came down to wheat beer or manzanilla, which the beer narrowly won. The Oolong followed closely behind and came up crème in the soft drinks.

What surprised me, and perhaps everyone else, was the fact that ketchup smothered food seemed to work with everything. Is ketchup the wunderkind that will facilitate all wine matches? Guy Goodward, editor of Decanter, poses that we need to further test the drink matching capabilities of fish and chips with fine vintages. I’m inclined to agree. But then I am always hungry for a good feed, especially if well watered too.

Franciacorta: A different perspective on our favourite bubbles

Published on BespokeRSVP on 14th February 2012:

When you think about sparkling wines and Italy, Prosecco will no doubt be the first thing which comes to mind. But for fine Italian bubbles, you should really look to Franciacorta.

Franciacorta, a wine region in Lombardy just south of Lake Iseo, is a place whose still wines have been noted in history by the likes of Virgil and Pliny the Elder for its exceptional quality. But in recent times, it is their sparkling wines which have brought the region back in vogue.

Wines of the region were only denominated as Franciacorta in 1957, when winemaker Guido Berlucchi released a still white wine called Pinot di Franciacorta. Then in 1961, with the help of Franco Ziliani, Berlucchi produced a sample 3,000 bottles of sparkling wines. The wines, produced via metodo classico (the same method as champagne), gained instant popularity and flew out of the Berlucchi cellars. The following year, production was increased to some 20,000 and has been steadily increasing since.

Standards of Franciacorta have always been maintained though. And in 1995, Franciacorta was awarded the DOCG (Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita) status as an indication of its superior quality.

These days, a handful of Franciacorta producers lay claim to an output of around 13 million bottles – only a tiny fraction compared to Champagne. But just like Champagne, it is the only Italian wine which doesn’t need to declare its appellation on the label.

The pedigree all looks very good on paper but what does it taste like?

Charcuterie and Franciacorta wine glass at Dego, London

In conversations and tastings with the sommeliers at the very Italian Amaranto and Degò, the feedback has always been very positive. The little known sparkling wine, hidden like an Italian secret, has quality that’s comparable to that of Champagne but at a snip of the price. And elsewhere, including in the likes of award winning journal The World of Fine Wine, the consensus is in agreement – Franciacorta is a more than worthy contender on the platform of sparkling wines.

I invited Tom Harrow of WineChap to Vini Italiani, a South Kensington wine shop specialising in Italian wines, for a tasting of Franciacorta. One of the owners, Matteo Berlucchi, is in fact a member of the Franciacorta making family Fratelli Berlucchi so bubbles were certainly in their veins.

Harrow, already familiar with Franciacorta, was immediately happy to declare 2012 as the year for it. I was inclined to agree.

Franciacorta at Vini Italiani

We tasted the Brut 25 NV Fratelli Berlucchi, Brut NV Il Mosnel, Prima Cuvee Brut NV Monte Rossa, Brut Rose Millesimato 2007 Fratelli Berlucchi, Pas Dose Riserva “QDE” 2004 Il Mosnel and Dosage Zero 2006 Ca’ del Bosco. Each had its distinct characteristic, minerality and a rich butteriness that the average Prosecco simply cannot comprehend. And fruit too, was surprisingly prominent.

Harrow, I think, was rather captured by their structure. The Dosage Zero 2006 Ca’ del Bosco, he says, would happily rest for a few more years before maturity. Generally finding pink to be a deterrent, I actually quite fancied the Brut Rose Millesimato 2007 Fratelli Berlucchi for drinking right now (Valentine’s Day in particular). All in all, a rather tasty afternoon’s work.

Of course that is not to say that this relatively young wine is comparable to the finest Champagnes, which by its very nature is in a superior category. But as Harrow rightly said, to compare Franciacorta with anything else simply doesn’t do it justice – it is unlike anything else on the market. And for something which has only been in production for a relatively short time, Franciacorta is already very good and has great potential to grow. Besides, a different interpretation of our favourite drink is never a bad thing

Malbec Nights with WineChap

Published on BespokeRSVP on 6th November 2011:

Tom Harrow’s reputation as WineChap precedes him. Lovers of fine wine will already have his number on speed dial, of course, but those following trends couldn’t have missed him being named one of the 1,000 most influential people in London by the Evening Standard last year. His trademark linen suit, a shade somewhere between terracotta and muddy red, jaunts between elite crowds. His ChapMobile frequently spotted at mysterious locations in Marylebone. His considered musings found at tables of the best dinners.

At the 11th hour, well, more like the 14th actually, I received an invitation to dine with Mr Chap. The invitation came from Mr Chap’s dashing friend, and arrived via flashing red beacon to my BBM. Injected with mystery and flirtation, it contained the promise of an evening sampling some special Argentinian offerings with two charming gents – how could a girl resist?

A fine mist descended from above and puddles formed underfoot as I dashed across London, to Casa Malevo in Marylebone, for 7pm whereupon I discovered I was unfashionably early. Mr Chap greeted me with Christian Rothhardt, the man behind the Argentinian wine specialist Ruta 40, who was introducing a selection from Bodega Tempus Alba that evening.

Swiftly, I was offered a shot of ruby – the Rosado de Malbec 2008. Few are the Malbec not transformed into a bold red but this floral number held its fruit rather well, injecting a hint of vibrancy to the evening.

As I considered my rosé, I surveyed the setting. The lower floor of Casa Malevo plays host to the sizeable private room, styled as an old Estancias dining room, as well as their selection of, largely Malbec, wines. Malbec is much celebrated as the Argentinian varietal after all. The intimate space seats 12 who, as Mr Chap talks of international wine markets, began to filter in. A glass of the rosé magically appeared in the hand of each as everyone familiarised themselves with the evening and each other.

A three course dinner followed where two wines were paired with each of the first two courses. The first, a very lively Malbec 2008, overwhelmed the palate with its rich plummy fruits, which seemed a bit unfair on the gently vanilla Tempranillo 2007 that followed. But then again, perhaps the Tempranillo couldn’t have afforded the intensity desired to open the starter.

For the largely Marylebone-based set, the evening seemed to be as much a social occasion as a forum to explore new varietals. Christian explained the selection we tasted from the producer’s point of view, including the age of the vines from which the grapes were harvested, while Mr Chap discussed terroirs and the style of wine with eloquence.

The first wine which accompanied the main required and warranted such explanation, and it was afforded with grace. The Vero Malbec 2007 was the first vintage to come out of Tempus Alba’s 10 year in-house cloning programme, with a very limited production of 5,000 bottles. The idea was to produce a wine which was made from a very pure Malbec vine so that, as more producers adopt the varietal, any expressions of the final wine would be a true reflection of the terroir rather than differentiating varietals. It’s an interesting concept and the wine was similarly so, although it would have enjoyed being set down for a while longer before being cherished.

The wine which followed, and the final of the evening, was the Pleno 2006. A blend of Malbec and Cabernet Sauvignon, it offered a good bouquet of cherry and was much more accessible than the Vero Malbec 2007.

In the interlude between coffee and desserts, guests had the opportunity to pick up wine tips if that was their intention and curiosity. The alternative seemed to be talk of golf and property – I know which I’d rather spend my money on.

There’s a good splash of wine loitering around at the end of the night for those who want to stay on for conversation or, with the help of Casa Malevo’s very potent double espresso, you can do as I did and entice the dashing gent to join me for a sharpish cocktail or two.