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International travels: Winemakers dinner at Tanners with St Clair wines

June 6, 2013

I’m currently in the UK having been awarded a fellowship grant to do some collaborative research at the National Oceanography Centre, Southampton. I’ll be in the UK for three months, so I have plenty of time to find some foodie gems!

Tanners was probably my first fine dining experience. My family hosted a beautiful celebration there for my 21st birthday and the Tanner brothers are now frequent features on food programmes in the UK. My mum decided to randomly book us in to attend their first Winemaker dinner last week and I was more than happy to make the journey from Southampton to Plymouth for the occasion.

The winemaker in question was Matt Thompson of Saint Clair Family Estate in Marlborough, New Zealand. Living in South Africa, I’ve had relatively minimal exposure to New Zealand wines, with the exception of a few Pinot Noirs and Bens insistence that even he could enjoy a Chardonnay from NZ. Coincidentally though I had tried the Pioneers Block Pinot Noir from St Clair a few weeks ago, in Oxford. At the time I’d found it really lovely, though a little underwhelming, possibly as we’d just given all our attention to a bottle of the Chard Farm Pinot Noir without any food distraction. Anyway, I’ve mostly been in to white wine lately (blame the stunning South African summers), particularly Sauvignon Blanc, which our local Constantia wine region is famous for. As a Sauv. Blanc fan I’ve obviously heard about the success of this varietal in Marlborough, so I was excited to try St Clairs and compare with my South African experiences.

Each course (of 7) was paired with a different wine from St Clair. We started off with a glass of the 2011 Omaka Reserve Chardonnay in the courtyard. I should mention that Tanners is located in the gorgeous, grade 1 listed, Prysten House (built around 1490) on Plymouths Barbican – a suitably glamourous setting.

The gorgeous courtyard at Tanners restaurant

The gorgeous courtyard at Tanners restaurant

Paired with the Chardonnay was a selection of canapés including a squid ragout, fishcake with parsley mayonnaise and a cauliflower and cucumber shot. These little nibbles paired fantastically with the Chardonnay, which is definitely another of my favourite varietals. Flavours were a mix of the classical citrus, oakey and butterscotch flavours, though I found this wine less buttery than I would typically go for in a chard, nonetheless – delicious…I had two glasses, which I would later come to regret somewhat as our glasses were generously filled all evening!

Enjoying a glass of Chardonnay

Enjoying a glass of Chardonnay

Courtyard canapés

Courtyard canapés

With James Tanner in the kitchen and Matt giving us a fantastic introduction to each wine, it was shaping up to be a wonderful evening. The second course was to be paired with the first of two Sauvignon Blancs, the 2011 Pioneer Block 18 ‘Snap Block’. With great excitement I took my first overly enthusiastic sniff of this wine and was met with a massive smack of passion fruit. I’ve never had a wine that smelt anything like this one. I’m usually averse to tropical fruit flavours in Sauvignons, preferring the crisp, green flavour often found in the cool climate Constantia Sauvignons that are my usual go to summer wine. So naturally I was a little apprehensive that, despite the amazing scent, I wouldn’t like this wine. I was totally wrong, though the passion fruit flavours continued in to the taste, there was none of the cloying sweetness I would usually associated with these tropical type Sauvignons. The wine had a wonderful acidity, with plenty of those green notes I love. This complimented our second dish of seared scallop, asparagus and lemon really well. Mum found the flavours a little contradictory – the sourness of the lemon vs the sweeter fruit flavours of the wine, but I really liked it, thinking the flavours of the dish were balanced by those of the wine. Matt was more than happy to take questions, so I felt I had to ask why, despite similar climate, the flavour and perfume of this wine were so different to those of Constantia. Matt explained that there is a lot of variation in geology throughout the farm and this may be responsible for these differences and indeed, the differences with our third wine…

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The Wairau Reserve is made with grapes from a combination of vineyards, in contrast to the single vineyard ‘Snap Block’. This wine represents the best of each years Sauvignon Blanc harvest. It was more subtle than the previous wine, with the salty and chalky soils imparting less fruit and more fresh green flavours. I think this wine and the food paired with it were possibly my favourite course of the evening. I’ve never eaten bone marrow before, but crumbled over the top of a whipped goats cheese and complemented by sweet peas, made for a spectacularly simple yet incredible dish.

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By now mum and I were well on the way to the far side of sobriety, and you can tell from my little notes made in the great little tasting book we were given with the meal. Next up, was a Pinot Gris Rose (2012), which I have to say is not my favourite varietal/style. However when paired with a line caught bass, with tomatoes, wild fennel pollen and creme fraiche, the pear/strawberry and creamy flavours of the wine really came out. Not a wine I would have on it’s own, but very pleasant with the food. The fish was cooked perfectly, I don’t normally eat fish skin, but this was so crispy and, with the pollen, really, really delicious.

Best fish ever?

Best fish ever?

Our fifth course was paired with the 2011 Block 14 ‘Doctors Creek’ Pinot Noir, which I had tried in Oxford a few weeks previous. To be honest, this tasted like a totally different wine this time! Much richer and powerful flavours than I remembered. Asking the Maitre d’, they had allowed this wine to breathe for several hours – which may have been our mistake before and something I will definitely bear in mind in future. The wine stood up really well to the rich rump of lamb and sweetbreads served with broad beans, turnips and pearl barley. This was a really classic dish, with lovely ingredients – particularly the delicious sweetbreads, though I did not like the dark sauce/puree it was served with, which was a little bitter.

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A big plate of cheese arrived next, with such variety that mum and I in our slightly(!) tipsy state continually forgot which ones were which! The cheeses were mostly from around Devon and Cornwall and the soft Sharpham Elmhirst, Sharpham brie and nutty Haytor proved favourites with us. A second Pinot Noir accompanied the cheese – the Omaka Reserve 2009. Matt suggested this wine was a little young and could do with a few more years, I would agree, although delicious, it didn’t thrill me as much as the previous Pinot Noir.

Dessert was a very pretty little dish with Yuzu curd and sorbet, compressed mango and coconut meringue – paired with the Awatere Valley Reserve Noble Riesling 2009. The meringues were fantastic – the addition of the coconut was lovely and they were perfectly cooked – chewy in the middle. However neither mum or I liked the Yuzu which was quite sour/bitter – though this was tempered by both the sweet mango/meringue and the sweet wine. I struggle with dessert wines, I actually prefer to have them with savoury foods (at christmas we made chicken liver pate and pork belly and mincemeat chutney pies to go with our Vin de Constance), so perhaps I’m not best to judge this wine. I liked the flavours of honey and orange peel, but I think I would need to taste it again and give it some proper attention to get the best out of it.

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A coffee, some cute petit fours and a pic with James Tanner ended our evening. On the whole I think this sort of event is great – it’s always good to be able to chat to people about wine, especially if you are fairly new to it all (like me) and can ask (perhaps dumb) questions. I’d highly recommend booking in if Tanners does another event like this.

A slightly blurry picture of some slightly blurry ladies...and our chefs for the evening!

A slightly blurry picture of some slightly blurry ladies…and our chefs for the evening!

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