Tuesday, 30 September 2014

REVIEW: Big Basin Vineyards, Saratoga, CA

We've done it again, we've skipped off to California and had an absolute whale of a time. This time we mixed it up a bit and skipped across to Hawai'i as well, but more on that later. You've got to love a good competition win, there's nothing like it for providing a holiday of a lifetime. Anyway, you may remember that previous trips to California have spawned a whole series of wine blogs. Like this, this or even this. There are more. I'll leave you to browse.

You'll be happy to know this trip was no different. Much wine was consumed and some of it made it into my little wine notebook. Look out for a few boozy posts coming in the next few weeks. The first of those posts is based around a lovely little tasting room for Big Basin Vineyards in Saratoga, CA.

Saratoga is a cute little historic village in Santa Clara County just north of Santa Cruz and west of San Jose. We'd never visited before and I was glad I'd popped by to visit this vineyard. The highway 17 drive from Santa Cruz is bendy and mountainous which is a lot of fun and there are some beautiful views of the Santa Cruz mountains, nestled in which are some of the vineyards Big Basin use for their grapes. The village itself has some quaint buildings, beautiful views and, for some reason, an absolute abundance of hairdressing salons. There are a decent numbers of local area tasting rooms as well, so a great place to stop if you're enjoying a splash of enotourism.

I really wanted to try Big Basin's wines because I have not had the opportunity to try so many wines which are so unashamedly from the area of California that I love - the Santa Cruz Mountains, and around the beautiful bay of Monterey County. On the whole they did not disappoint.

The first thing you notice about Big Basin Vineyards, in their chic, yet still comfortable and homely tasting room is the phenomenal artwork on the walls. This is all the product of Matt Jones, a live painter who has created some work of beautiful depth and complexity that is featured on the walls of the tasting rooms and, more importantly, on the labels of the bottles.

A very exclusive bottle. More on that later.
We were warmly greeted by our host, Assistant Tasting Room Manager, Chris Spangler. If we didn't still have the memory of Xavi, of Cal Feru relatively fresh in our minds, he might be described as the nicest guy in wine. He definitely can be counted as amongst the most passionate and knowledgeable guys in wine. Like all his colleagues, he's not just tasting room staff (not that there's any just about a role like that), he's also inextricably involved in the winemaking process, from collecting the grapes right through to giving the benefit of his wisdom to the Wine Club members right at the other end. Big Basin is by no means a quiet tasting room, it was buzzing with groups of visitors right through our visit, both walk-ins and members, and I am pleased to say that I could see that every single one of them was getting as friendly and personalised a service as we were pleased to receive.

Chris started us off with a generous pour of the Wirz Vineyard Riesling 2012, whilst we watched a short video introducing the winery. In fact, why don't I go right ahead and embed that video from YouTube so you can enjoy it for yourself? It'll give you a lovely sense of how beautiful this area of the world is.

As well as having the best scenery ever, this video explains admirably how the folks at Big Basin aim to create sustainable, organic wines which reflect the landscape that created them - a true experiment in terroir. They harvest in small sections when the grapes are perfectly ripe, sometimes following down the lines of vines, day by day, to ensure a premium product. This means that yields are lower, but of course instead you can read 'exclusive' here instead. 

Wirz Vineyard Riesling 2012
Cienega Valley 

A crisp apple nose with a very light, slightly creamy floral, this wine is big and dry, tasting of that delicious crisp apple. With a dry, almost abrupt finish, this is a very complete flavour. Super refreshing and aged in light oak, there is perhaps a very light hint of mandarin in here. This crisp flavour reflects the grapes, which grow in one of the highest vineyards in Monterey County.

Only 43 cases were produced, and at the time we visited I believe there were only 5... Ooops, no 4 bottles left. Better get in quick if you want one of these, it should age excellently.

Coastview Vineyard Pinot Noir 2011

Grown at an unusual elevation, which is risky for the thin skinned pinot noir, this wine is surprisingly sunny and astringent on the nose, with just a hint of cut wood. It is flavoured with a floral and rich cherry with good, medium body. The elevation shines through this wine, it smells of the mountains and mellows out to a short finish with interesting aromatices. It has a lighter, more clouder colour for a Pinot. Not my personal favourite of the bunch, but certainly an interesting flavour that I have not tasted before and worth a go for that hint of mountain alone.

Alfaro Family Vineyard Pinot Noir 2012

From a rare south facing vineyard which overlooks the Pacific (near Watsonville apparently - we've been there, to the County Fair!) this Pinot is slightly deeper in colour than the last. It is brighter, with more fruit than the last, but less aromatic too - no mountains here, but more tannins and oak. It disappears in the mouth leaving just a light bitterness. Much more berry than cherry, perhaps even strawberry, this is a pretty easy going wine.

Homestead 2012

Your host's recommendation for a 'Tuesday night wine', this blend has a vibrant colour and was a surprising pick for me. Sweet and homely, it has deep tannins and decent body. There is a slight tannic smell that is cut with a hint of cherry, complemented by an interesting mineral quality on the nose and a taste which is bold black fruits. It has a longer finish with a clear alcohol flavour, again a product of the conditions in which the grapes grow and ripen on the 112 year old vines at the Wirz Vineyard.

Paderewski Vineyard GSM 2012

Named for the pianist, composer and first Prime Minister of Poland who owned the land originally because of his love of Paso Robles, this vineyard uses the local heat to stretch the vines causing more sugars, a higher alcohol and a much deeper flavour. This made it my favourite of the bunch,  with its zinging red colour, real alcohol sting on the nose and that authentic smell of the California sunshine which I have never been able to define any further, but is something that I look forward to whenever I get over to the US because those sunny wines just don't seem to make it to the UK.

This wine is round and soft and changes character in the mouth. With great body, it has flavours of plum and is a deep savoury flavour but still full of sunshine. And on the finish, you taste a hot pepper spice of firewater. Delicious.

Coastview Vineyards Syrah 2010

This wine has a deep, dark colour with a nose that is light touch, but full of hefty fruit. I found it surprisingly light on the palette, with violets, lavendar and the natural dash of sourness from fresh picked blackberries which  lingers on the finish. There is some of the tannins you would expect from a Syrah but it is actually relatively light. This was definitely more to my taste than the Pinots, but that said I was ordering Pinot Noirs again after my visit to Big Basin Vineyards, having fallen out of love with them somewhat previously.

Estate Reserve Syrah 2009
Frenchie's Ranch

Named for Frenchman, Justin Lacau who tended the vines on the land after prohibition that Big Basin Vineyards calls home today, this was a very special treat for us to try. Deep and intoxicating on the nose, this is a big, savoury, oaky wine.

It changes all the way through the experience - as you lift it to your mouth, your senses detect a complex new aromatic, full of granite and oak and the taste is punchy and without fruit or sweetness. Despite this huge sensory experience, it fades to a whisper at the end. And then, as you set your glass back down on the bar, there is deep sense of freshly cracked pepper which lingers on, reminding you of the great time you had with this great wine.

Many thanks to Big Basin Vineyards for being so welcoming and letting us share their beautiful wines. I absolutely love the Californian winemakers' passion and enthusiasm. While the French want you to earn their wine, the Californian's delight in sharing what they have achieved. And what a privilege it is.

Monday, 15 September 2014

REVIEW: Ca'puccino, Heathrow Terminal 2

The newly reopened terminal at Heathrow, terminal 2, is clean, fresh and quietly efficient. This is great news for travellers and even better, they have some fine new restaurants for you to kick back in. Thanks to a slightly longer journey through airside security than we were expecting (it's just big, it wasn't a hassle) we didn't get to spend as much time at the new Ca'puccino as I would have liked, but we saw enough for me to really, really like it.
 As you walk up you see the clean lines and understated, but contemporary décor that sets out this company as an Italian start up. We were particularly enamoured by the giant touchscreen menu card that greets you as you wait for a table. This is a clever little idea that allows not only one customer to browse while they wait for a table in this busy, but well run little café but also gives passers by a taste of what is on offer. We saw it encourage more than one group to enter for a morning snack.

The friendly staff really made our visit. Courteous, without being cold, they all greeted us with a genuine smile and you really got the impression that they were all dedicated to making each customers visit as pleasurable as possible. Conscious of both customers tastes and the need for often speedy service in the airport environment, the staff were efficient but also knowledgeable enough about the menu that they would readily offer menu recommendations, their own thoughts on the food and which dishes would suit your tastes and level of hunger.

The menu is compact, but varied, meaning that Ca'puccino can cater to all tastes, at any time of the day. Happily the breakfast menu was particularly tempting, perfect for our 8.30am arrival. The Prosciutto di Parma DOP con uova e pesto Genovese looked particularly tempting, however, as we had a 10 hour flight looming ahead of us, there was really only one choice to go for - the full English breakfast option. There are also a wide range of continental breakfast offerings to choose from if you fancy something lighter - delicious crespelle dolci, yoghurt and fruit selections and amazing looking croissants with a variety of flavours and fillings.

Our food order arrived within about 10 minutes and looked absolutely divine. Well presented, freshly cooked and made with quality ingredients, this was a dream start to our trip. The Focaccia Tostada that accompanied the meal was fresh, crispy, but also soft and pillowy within and well seasoned. The Italian pork sausage was by far the highlight of the dish but the bacon was also thick cut and well cooked. The croquettes had a great texture and our eggs to order were both great - I felt that the scrambled was the better choice, as they were just the right end of soft and deliciously creamy. This was an excellent portion and really helped to start our engines for the day.

The real highlight, as you would perhaps expect, was the coffee. Ca'puccino offers a range of authentic taste experiences from around the different regions of Italy and the speciality coffees are particularly excellent. I would recommend trying the Moka, if you have the time to wait for it to brew to order, this is an intense coffee experience. The cappuccinos are also excellent - both rich and creamy with an absolutely heavenly caffeinated bitterness to them that is usually a rare find in an airport concession!

In fact, the only downside of Ca'puccino for us was the lack of time to sit, enjoy the Italian style and fashion books, or to try the delicious looking pastries that made up a veritable rainbow in the display counters. This place truly has authentic Italian style and taste at the very heart of what it offers and it took me back to lazy mornings wandering through the square in Matera, looking in the windows of small, family run bakeries and cafes, when we visited a couple of years ago to make some giant art.

They are also kid friendly, and have a children's seating and activity area, which is particularly helpful for those travelling with the full brood. Airports are hard enough so being able to offer a quiet, playful area away from the crowds should really draw a huge amount of people. In fact the whole restaurant feels like a little oasis of calm, even though there are no walls and so it isn't really that separate from the hustle and bustle of the rest of the terminal. I would happily recommend a stop here. You'll get great food, at a decent price for an airport, and be made welcome by happy staff in pleasant surroundings. And that sort of experience is priceless just before a flight.

Saturday, 13 September 2014

REVIEW: Revolution, Leicester

Apologies for the radio silence... Is anyone still there? I've been on holiday and sometimes being away means having a break from it all - including blogging. I've been a little neglectful in my blogging duties, but now I'm back on it.
Anyway, we headed out a couple of weeks ago to the relaunch night of Revolution in Leicester. We used to visit the old Revolution quite regularly, until they stopped doing food and only opened in the evening, then it was not really on our rotation anymore. I was pleased to see them refurbishing and coming back with an improved menu as we had tried their sister bar in Loughborough and were impressed with the fresh, airy feel.
The new look in Leicester has a similar vibe. They've opened the place up a lot more, so there is several degrees more natural light in there - taking away the slight underground ambience of the old bar, which I love. Care has been taken of the detail of the décor, meaning that they have a really nice variety of well crafted accessories hanging round - lampshades made from old light bulbs, a good range of mismatched, but well thought out furniture and a giant vodka sign in aged girder style lettering above the bar. It gives a hip, boho feel to the place which is really comfortable and welcoming. For a vodka bar, it's very much in the style which is becoming increasingly popular in Leicester - not too far into hipster, but just cool enough to be relaxing.

The relaunch night was really fun. They had laid on a whole programme of activity across the day to introduce the full range of their offer. When we arrived in the early evening, there was a free barbeque on the terrace and an acoustic guitarist to serenade you as you ate. They had a homemade blueberry ketchup which was awesome - that's a definite reason to visit again. The staff were really welcoming and friendly and there was a real buzz about the place, you could see that they were really excited for the new feel of the place and to part of a new venue in Leicester. They gave out tasters of mojitos as you arrive, all served with a smile and some light banter.
Later on the lights went down and a band started to play - a Cuban funk band called Latino Sound. They were really excellent and it was great that the staff handed around little toy maracas so we could all get down to the beat. I was dancing at my table and was a bit disappointed that nobody else got up to dance as it was pretty infectious stuff. If you get the chance, do look them up.

While the band were playing, the chilled out staff brought round samplers to all the tables - sweet shop cocktails with little Maoam sweet decorations, which were really delicious and pretty lethal - you cannot taste the alcohol so watch your step with these little babies! There were also menu samplers - some really delicious, crispy falafel lollipops being the stand out for me.
The new menu is looking pretty cool too. The samples of food we tried that evening was of a really good quality, it tasted fresh made and not too over-complicated. I am looking forward to getting in to the full menu, the old Revolution's flatbread pizzas were the highlight of the menu and pizzas are back on this one as well as a range of big meals and small plates. Definitely a 'something for everyone' menu with no shortage of choice on there.
And so to the drinks. As you would expect, they have an excellent range of vodkas - 16 on the menu, with Ciroc and Grey Goose being two that I would particularly recommend. They also offer a range of house flavoured vodkas - there are fruit, sugar & spice and indulgence categories for you to try, which leads to a bewildering variety of shooters available to pick from. Quite a range! On top of that, you can get an excellent variety of nicely made cocktails, a relatively good selection of beer (although we would query the categorization of the 'craft' beers and 'world' beers - it looked more like Belgian/European beers and a few more interesting world lagers generally speaking) and a really thoroughly decent set of wines including a reasonably priced, but tasty house red.
We got in to the cocktails as the band finished, the lights went down further and the flexible venue turned in to its 'nightclub' mode. The Moscow Mule in its copper mug was a definite hit with my friends, and the Tennessee Mudshake was absolutely delicious, but in retrospect perhaps a mistake for me to end quite a calorific evening! It was super thick and topped with a tonne of cream and oreo cookies. Delicious, but perhaps one to have in place of dessert!

A great start to a well refurbed old Leicester favourite. A surefire hit with students, Revolution also offers a lot more - we'll be stopping by again for laid back after work drinks or a cosy dinner stop. I hope the great service is maintained - thanks to all for looking after us so well.
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