The first wine dinner I ever went to was at Bombay’s Indigo restaurant. Chef Rahul Akerkar’s food was sublime, but what I mostly took away from that experience was: “snob fest”. There is only one word that describes the ponciness that surrounds most wine events in India – contrived (and poncy, I suppose). My lovely friend Rajeev Samant and Sula are doing a lot to change that but…
Now in London, I’ve experienced less ceremony around wine. It’s easy and accessible and one is allowed lecture-free dislike of something they have tasted. One of the first fun wine events was when my friends Matt & Erica invited me to their annual blind tasting party. As the only Indian guest I offered to bring an Indian wine. And so began my search for Sula in London. I looked far and wide and many unhelpful wine stores later experienced the relief (and subsequent joy) of meeting Matt and Marc at Planet of the Grapes.
Our relationship began five years ago and they have remained my most generous educators in all things wine… reminding me to always, always have fun above everything else. And to not always choose a wine by its price.
I recently visited their Bow Lane bar for an Etienne Guigal tasting, and Stef the Chef had food to match. For all the vintages of wine I have ever drunk, I cannot speak to you in “wine notes”. I cannot speak of barrels, oak, nose, nor ear. And so, what I have here is the scene each sip evoked:
On Arrival : Cotes du Rhone Blanc, 2011 (canapés)
Utter dread. I was the only person who had come to this shindig on my own. This usually isn’t a problem, except on this occasion it turned out that every one of the 20+ diners knew each other. There is only so much bag-adjusting, floor-staring, pretend-phone-talking one can do. Consequently I hated the bready canapés and the wine.
First Course: St. Joseph, Blanc, 2009 (filo wrapped Pollock, courgette, piquillo peppers)
I was seated with a smaller group of strangers to deal with. Fortunately they turned out to be fun and funny. With the first sip of this wine I felt myself relax into this meal. It tasted of honey, and summer afternoons on a hammock. The starter was a burst of flavours at first bite. Wow – those juicy peppers!
Second Course: Crozes-Hermitage Rouge, 2007 (potted Welsh-black oxtail)
The oxtail is among the most flavoursome cuts of beef (and inexpensive too). Stef’s potted oxtail was nearly half a day in the making and caused major oohing and aahing at my table. I wasn’t a fan and the wine reminded me of eating mud as a child (not the fun memories but the after effects of having been found out). Both the food and the wine left me wishing for a second starter. I did love the tarragon and fennel salad it came with, but the next course could not come soon enough.
Third Course: Côte-Rôtie Brune et Blonde, 2005 (char-grilled onglet steak, potato gratin, braised Swiss chard)
NOW we’re talking! Stef originally wanted this course to be some kind of game. Unfortunately it was too early in the year for that and so he prepared a classic onglet steak as, in his words, “a savage feast”. This cut of beef sits quite close to the liver and kidneys, and so has a musky offal tang to it. Drinking the wine was like flirting at the Candlelight Club. Or in Paris. This entire course was rich, flavourful, and very sexy.
Cheese Course: Chateau D’Ampuis, Côte-Rôtie, 2001
I was in heaven. No… better. I was kissing my favourite boyfriend in front of a fireplace in Le Portetta in Courchevel. I couldn’t tell you what cheese was served, and frankly, I didn’t care. The absolute joy that came in this glass was all consuming.
Back on Earth, the gentleman from Guigal guided the entire evening with anecdotes and tasting notes. While I didn’t quite enjoy that part of the evening I realised soon enough that I didn’t have to. Even though the Planet of the Grapes has an extremely serious selection of wines, it also has a wonderful sense of humour about itself. Enough to put even the reluctant novice at ease.
As the evening wound itself down I found myself not wanting to leave this crowd. Funny how that happened. I guess all it took was for me to allow myself to have some fun. To choose not to feel intimidated. To trust that my good friends at Planet of the Grapes would have never asked me to something they didn’t think I would enjoy.
I didn’t really want the biscotti from the tasting menu, and so I charmed two other Planetarians, Beans and Fabio, into bringing me dessert instead. I ended the evening with Stef’s handmade peach sorbet and white chocolate ice cream. I ended the evening feeling like a five-year old girl doing jumping jacks in her pyjamas.