Jude and I go to a tasting of wines from the newly rejuvenated Chateau La Coste and are utterly disappointed with the food in Restaurant Helene Darroze. By Kate
Off to the Connaught to taste wines from the new regime at Chateau La Coste. La Coste is a legendary Provencal Chateau which hadn’t actually produced anything even slightly interesting for years. It was purchased in 2002 by Paddy McKillen, owner of several of London’s top hotels, the Connaught among them.
He asked Matthieu Cosse to join him in 2006 – a profoundly wise move. Matthieu seamlessly mutated from stomping on people for a living (not officially – officially, he played rugby, but to me it amounts to roughly the same thing), to making some of the most refined and elegant wines in South West France. He farms completely biodynamically and has an incredibly light touch in the winery. He now does the same in Provence, dividing his time between his Domaine in Cahors and Chateau La Coste.
Jude and I were present at the unveiling of the first offerings from the new regime, in the splendid surrounds of Restaurant Helene Darroze. The group consisted mainly of sommeliers.
So, to introductions first. Fabulous Fred is the agent for La Croste now and explains that this is a much bigger estate than he is accustomed to - about 200 hectares surrounded by woods. 123 hectares are vineyards – much larger than most biodynamic estates but Fred believes that the wines reflect the quality of the terroir. I am delighted that we are tasting offerings from such a big estate being farmed so carefully. The more who prove it can be done, the more will follow.
Mind you, the fact that a multi–squillionaire owns the estate, who presumably doesn’t really need to turn a profit for quite a while, has a lot to do with the success here.
The land at La Croste consists of very gentle slopes made of two types of soil – clay, planted to white varieties, and limestone for the reds. Sauvignon Blanc, Vermentino, Chardonnay, Clairette, Ugni Blanc (white) and Grenache, Syrah, Cabernet, Cinsault and Merlot are all planted.
We start with the basic white and immediately I am reminded why tasting with sommeliers will one day result in my poking someone in the eye with a pen.
One of them starts to slurp. Across the table, someone sees the slurp and promptly raises the slurper a much more resounding gargle. This causes an instant reaction from a pack at the top end who, dander up and quivering, begin gurgling and sucking with such gusto that they are surely in danger of swallowing their own tongues.
Why do people do this? I have never, ever made that noise while tasting wine. It is completely unnecessary and adds nothing to the flavour since it is perfectly possible to aerate what is in the mouth by breathing OVER and not THROUGH it.
It is the most obnoxious, disgusting soundtrack and it is done purely for effect to ensure that no-one in the room can be left in any doubt as to how very hard the slurper is tasting the wine.
Jude and I exchange a knowing glance.
2007 Vin de Pays de Bouches de Rhone5
0% Sauvignon Blanc, 50% Chardonnay
Fred asks Matthieu for his comments on this while it is being poured. Matthieu says :-
“ I try to keep the freshness in”. and then folds his arms across his chest, daring anyone to probe further.
I like that. A beautifully succinct wine maker.
Fred elaborates. Clay soils mean that the ripening season is a bit longer as clay is always cooler. 50% of the wine is barrel aged but none of the barrels are new. This applies to whites as well as reds across the range. Matthieu has banned new oak – another reason to love him.
Very slightly leesy nose. Fresh, but not a lot of fruit. Good, fresh acidity, soft, ripe pear flavours with underlying honey and a touch of fresh nut – not at all oxidised. Lovely, very fresh red apple finish. Fine, elegant with a touch of honeyed richness which speaks of Provence. Not hugely complicated but it is all there, including a smudge of smoky minerality. Lovely.
2008 Chateau La Coste Coteaux d’Aix en Provence ‘Les Pentes Douces’
50% Vermentino, 40% Sauvignon Blanc, 10% Clairette
Sauvignon Blanc and Clairette are both fermented in barrel, Vementino in tank. This was only bottled a month ago, so it still feels a bit edgy.
Like the wine above, the freshness and verve is evident. More complex with heightened aromatics, the underlying honey is more restrained here and a leaner, even more smoky minerality on the finish.
This is almost certainly to do with the recent bottling though; the length should flesh out and acquire texture in time.
It does not show the characteristic viscous weight of the Vermentino as much as I would expect it to but again, that is the recent bottling.
Matthieu stands, solid and unblinking. Many of the Soms look ridiculously effete under his hulking presence. Two near the front are making Jude’s eyes widen. One, a young, very preppy type has given very rambling notes on both wines. Essentially, he has said something and then spent the next five minutes saying it again. Mainly it concerns acidity. A German Som is similarly verbose. He listens to everyone’s comments and then repeats them back, with a lot of extra words thrown in for good measure.
Another on the opposite side of the table, clearly itching to have his voice heard, breaks out and says, with great importance, that he is ‘missing acidity’ in this wine compared to the basic. This is utter rubbish.
Jude and I exchange more glances.
I don’t know how Fred does it. He remains cool and collected, unmoved by this idiocy. He used to be a Sommelier, but he was never like this. He could taste, for one thing.
2007 Vin de Pays des Bouches de Rhone Domaine La Coste
50% Cabernet Sauvignon, 50% Merlot
This is from a mainly limestone vineyard, which contributes great elegance. Made in the same vein as the first white wine. Simple, stylish, quite immediate, something to drink young, drink now.
Ripe red and black fruit on the nose. Good, fresh acidity with but tannin not quite settled yet. Ripe, but subtly so, fruit with underlying liquorice and hints of black coffee.
Jude says – “not bad but a bit too generic”. He is completely right
I would like it more if it were a few £’s cheaper and we could retail at around £10. It would make sense then. As it is, a retail price of around £14 is just a bit much.
One of the Som’s finds this a bit fizzy. On the tongue. He clearly has a very strange tongue. Fred politely interprets this comment as ‘A bit of freshness’.
Le Jeune Preppy, launches into a dissection of the Provence style. Confidence in himself oozing from every pore. He flashes a smile at the end of the speech, delighted with his effort.
I have an almost irresistable urge to get up, walk round the table and spit some wine in his eye.
2007 Coteaux d’Aix en Provence ‘Les Pentes Douces’, Chateau La Coste
50% Grenache, 50% Syrah.
Grenache coming through loud and clear on the nose – intense raspberry, cinnamon, clove – delicious.
Very fresh, beautifully balanced but structured tannins. Superb depth of fruit – red and black on the palate with underlying dark chocolate. Excellent length, with a more sublte, savoury spice coming out towards the back.
Fred remarks that the Syrah is not coming through at all and he is completely right. It barely registers.
The reason given is that the soil the Syrah is planted on here is very different to that in the Rhone. Matthieu feels that the terroir here gives it a much less powerful expression. No bad thing though – this wine is delicious.
2008 Coteaux d’Aix en Provence ‘Bellugue’ Chateau La Coste
55% Grenache, 20% Syrah, 20% Cabernet, 5% Cinsault
This is of course what Provence is best known for although there are sadly many more bottles of pink horror floating around than anything delicious. This wine is described as, “Not just a Rose to drink on the terrace and enjoy in the garden.” It is aged in stainless steel with minimal extraction from the skins. Quite unusual to taste after the red but Fred wants to emphasise that this is a proper wine.
Served a tiny bit too cold, we warm it in our hands. Very lovely – full of orange peel, spice and geranium. Very charming and Fred is right, there is much more to this than in most Provencal Rose, but it is just too expensive. We feel that at about 12.50 - £14 the price would be right, but not at £17 on the shelf.
Tasting over, we repair to the bar which is so totally fabulous that Jude and I resolve immediately to have our next date night here. Since we are not at all wealthy at the moment, it means that we will have to eat Pret A Manger sandwiches for dinner afterwards, but we happen to really like Pret A Manger.
We have a busy day ahead but decide to stay for at least the starters as this is, after all, lunch at Helene Darraoze – surely the most feted chef in London for the last year or so.
The courses we are able to stay for are the following :-
Grilled Scottish Scallop ‘a la plancha’, glazed Belgian Endives, girolles and lardoons, chestnut cappuccino.
This tasted almost exclusively of salt.
Roasted Pave of line-caught sea-bass, fennel confit, fondate, lightly bitter jus with confit lemon, Taggiasche olives and basil.
This tasted of really nothing much at all.
So, another great big wardrobe full of the Emperor’s pants. Thank God we discovered this before coming back to spend a precious celebration budget.
We left before the main course.
Great tasting though – we’ll be listing the basic white and the top red before Christmas.