Wednesday, 7 December 2016

Beaujolais Nouveau: The Ox Meets The Grape Escape Cheltenham

Le Beaujolais nouveau est arrivé!

Beaujolais Nouveau Day is something I look forward to every year (as if I don't celebrate wine enough on a weekly basis). It always falls on the third Thursday of November, where traditionally Beaujolais winemakers would race to Paris carrying the first bottles of the new vintage, releasing it at 12:01am just weeks after the grapes have been harvested and crushed. The sprightly cherry red Gamay, that's often served chilled, is still celebrated in this way with nouveau parties going on until the wee hours of the morning - hooray for wine!

This year, albeit a few days late, we marked the 2016 vintage with a very special evening of fine food and wine with two of the best independents in town; The Ox restaurant and The Grape Escape wine bar.

Ant and Zoe from The Grape had picked a selection of the best Beaujolais' - one nouveau, one white, one rose, and three other reds - whilst Head Chef Piotr pieced together a five course menu to accompany the wines. Not the usual way you'd do food pairings but hey, this is wine day!

As the thirsty folk of Cheltenham arrived at The Ox on Cambray Place, arrival drinks sure were flowing; Domaine de Grandmont Beaujolais Villages Nouveau 2016. Apparently earlier in the year, things weren't looking so rosy for the growers in Beaujolais. A damp, grey May was followed by an unseasonably colder June, and finished with a devastating hailstorm that laid waste to numerous vineyards in Fleurie, Chiroubles and Morgon. However, the late flowering and a warm and sunny July and August, turned everything around and resulted in excellent ripeness.

This years wine is fresh, clean and precise, with adolescent flavours of bubblegum and blueberries lurking behind the initial black fruitiness. A good year after all, and it's bonkers to think that the grapes for this wine were only picked on September 20th!

We sat on long communal tables - in true celebration style - and out came our first course of the night; Game & pistachio terrine, chutney and pickles paired with the beautiful Jean-Paul Thévenet Morgon 'Tradition Le Clachet' 2015.

Made from 75 year old vines that are cultivated organically, this wine has been fermented au naturel with naturally occurring yeasts and without the addition of sulphur. It's aged in used oak barrels (which are from the more famous Domaine de la Romanée-Conti) for 6 - 8 months, giving it a wonderful flavour. It has crunchy ripe red berry fruit, cherries, herbs and spice. Definitely my favourite wine of the night, and the terrine - made with venison, chicken livers, partridge and pigeon - was a cracking match too. The red fruits lifted the gaminess, whilst the charred sourdough and the earthy beetroot and tomato chutney played with the spice.

Next we ventured to a more unusual Beaujolais - a white! Only 1% of the wines made in the region are white, and this one was a winner; Chateau Thivin Beaujolais Villages Blanc 'Cuvée Marguerite' 2015 matched to The Ox smoked salmon, cucumber and wasabi yoghurt.

This Beaujo Blanc is 100% Chardonnay, grown on clay-chalk soil, and hand harvested with minimal intervention. It's casked directly after pressing, and left to ferment entirely before the wine is aged on the lees for nine months. This has given it a full, complex mouthfeel, reminiscent of a 1er Cru Chablis - ooh err! Lovely elderflower and white peach notes complimented the subtly smoked salmon, with the citrus edge heightening the tang of the yoghurt and the saltiness of the rock samphire. The wasabi was quite a punch at times, but being a mustard-fiend I didn't care.

The best pairing of the night had to be the roasted partridge, pearl barley, parsley root puree, crispy curly kale together with Paul-Henri Thillardon Chenas 'Les Boccards' 2013.

Made by a talented young winemaker, using parcels of vines in Chenas and Chiroubles, this is everything you'd expect from a decent Beaujolais. Strawberries, redcurrants and violet on the nose, with a burst of juicy red berries as you take your first sip. Its soft tannins and long length made it the ideal wine to have with our tender partridge, which came two ways. The breasts of the bird had been wrapped in parma ham to make a ballotine, whilst the confit leg meat was rolled together with herbs, coated in panko breadcrumbs and fried. The barley, puree and crisp kale added to the all the interesting textures, and it felt truly Autumnal.

The cheese course with house pickles, biscuits and chutney came with Chateau du Pavé Brouilly 2014. Made by English winemaker Chris Piper from a 3 hectare vineyard situated at the foot of Cote de Brouilly, this is another minimal intervention wine. The vines are cultivated using eco-friendly methods and the yields are kept low, creating delicious concentration. There's depth and structure with black cherries and raspberries, finishing with a touch of spice... Great for the brie and the cheddar, not so much for the stilton; gimme something sweet with that!

Last but not least, we had Lemon meringue, creme fraiche ice cream, candied lemon and yuzu cracker.  Domaine de Grandmont Rosé 2015. It's a pretty rare occurrence to come across a pink Beaujolais, but here we have one! We're told that the Gamay grapes are harvested in the dew of the morning to capture them at their ultimate freshness - how romantic - and this has locked in the zesty citrus and strawberry flavours. There's a natural sweetness about it with an off-dry finish; terribly easy to drink, but unfortunately not such a good match for dessert.

The tartness of the lemon and lime curds were exactly what we all craved after quite a rich dinner, but unfortunately it just clashed with the wine. Individually; delightful (I love the twist on a classic lemon meringue pie). Together; not so much. You can't win them all.

This exclusive event, with five courses paired to five wines (plus the nouveau), was a miniscule price of £45. Ridiculous value, right?! The Ox know what they're doing in the kitchen - the food was spot on from start to finish - and as ever The Grape Escape picked out some wonderful wines. Let's hope we don't have to wait until next November for another Cheltenham indie collaboration *HINT*... Now, go forth and drink brilliant Beaujolais!

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