Last month I spent a most enjoyable Saturday afternoon at St John’s restaurant in Smithfield. Through my good friends at Root + Bone Magazine, who in turn are good friends of St John (Fergus Henderson of St John writes a regular column in Root + Bone), I was invited to St John’s annual Vignerons’ Lunch.
The Vignerons Lunch is a wonderful occasion when they close the restaurant for the afternoon and invite all of the winemakers on St John’s winelist for a most convivial afternoon of eating and drinking. They also invite restaurant and wine trade friends…. and hangers on like me.
The set-up is pretty simple. First there is a walkaround tasting in the bar – I say tasting, there are spittoons but few were in use, it was a Saturday after all – this gives the winemakers a chance to present their wines and answer questions. The rest of us start drinking in earnest. After an hour or so, when lunch is ready, everyone repairs to the dining room (with the wines) for a long and relaxed lunch, sitting at long, communal tables and eating from big, bulging plates.
Here are the guests enjoying the wines before lunch;
What really struck me was that most of the winemakers knew each other very well, giving it the feel of a reunion of old friends. As it turns out most of them only know each other because of St John, as if they have created an extended wine family.
Here are Philippe and Sophie showing off their wares, both have been coming to the Vignerons Lunch for years;
The existence of this wine family is down to St John’s approach to sourcing wines. From the outset, the principles of the restaurant have been to eat what is in season and eat what is local. St John’s owners, Trevor Gulliver and Fergus Henderson, decided to extend this to the wine list and so only offer wines from France, it being the most local major wine producing country to the restaurant.
Not wishing to be constrained by the wines London’s wine merchants decided to list, Trevor and Fergus decided to get out into rural France themselves, knock on doors and taste wines with winemakers in their cellars. This allowed them to access the wines they want to drink with their food.
All of the wines on St John’s list are sourced directly from the producers, so as well as being a restaurant (well restaurants actually, there are three St John restaurants and a bakery across London) they are a wine importer and retailer. As customers enjoyed these wines in the restaurant, that they hadn’t had anywhere else they asked if they could buy a bottle to take home. This led St John (St John Wines) to create a retail arm where the wines they import for the restaurant can be bought online and delivered straight to your home.
Trevor Gulliver wields a knife and tries to speak French;
Taking this direct approach to sourcing wine to the next level, Trevor and Fergus decided to fulfil a long-held ambition and buy their own winery in Minervois, South-West France. They produce several cuvees from the Boulevard Napoleon winery, all of which are available on the wine list or to buy from St John’s online wine store.
Through the afternoon there was lots of swapping of seats and mingling so I was able to speak to most of the winemakers and I reckon I tasted most of the wines too.
Here are my highlights from the lunch...
Boulevard Napolean, Grenache Gris, VdP de L’Herault, 2011 – I have to start with one of Trevor and Fergus’s wines, but regardless of provenance this really is a worthy wine to kick off proceedings. This has an oak-tinged, sherry-like nose which is followed by great energy on the palate, offering a delicious combination of nuttiness and melon flavours. This is really complex, nervy and long. Fantastic wine.
G Metz, Gewurztraminer, Vieilles Vignes, 2015 – This had one day on the skins giving it a bit of colour and texture. It is made from 20% botrytis fruit, giving it a bit of sweetness, I’d call it a demi-sec but its more fruity than sweet. Tropical fruits on the nose and a nice full-ish texture coats the mouth with sweetness. Long finish of dried fruit and nuts. Glug glug.
Olivier Pithon, Cuvee Lais, Cotes Catalanes, 2014 – A new name for me but Philippe Cauvin of Chateau Colombiere, who I sat opposite at dinner, referred to him as “a really famous winemaker in France”. I can see why, this wine is superb. A blend of Maccabeu, Grenache Gris and Grenache Blanc. This had flavours of aniseed, limes and straw. Definitely shades of Burgundy in evidence here. Absolutely delicious.
Sebastien David, L’Hurberlu, Loire Valley, 2014 – Both Sebastien’s wines were knockout (the other was called “Kezako”, which spends fifty days in barrel followed by 18 months in concrete eggs) but I enjoyed this one the most as it was so fresh, juicy and immediate. The name l’Hurberlu refers to a nickname in France for the kid in the class who was a bit of a daydreamer at school, Sebastien tells me. He thinks this is apt because he “often looks to the sky for biodynamics, to help him make his wines in the most natural way”. This is a natural wine with no added sulphur. 100% whole bunches are given 25 days carbonic maceration. The result is an assault of tart redcurrant fruit and spice backed by delicious smooth tannins and a surprisingly long finish. Excellent stuff. Sebastien has been selling his wines to St John for more than 12 years and I can see why.
Domaine de L’Aigle a Deux Tetes, Poulsard “Les Clous”, Jura, 2014 – This is so rich in aromas of fresh dark fruits. Every sip tastes different as a plethora of different fruits and spices dance around your mouth. Only about 2000 bottles are made, and I am delighted I was able to try one with the winemaker. He told me it can be very reductive and he advises decanting but I thought it tasted great from the bottle.
Chateau Colombier, Reserve La Colombiere, Fronton, 2012 – 80% Negrette and 20% Syrah. No oak in this one, the wine is fermented in cement tanks. This is light and spicy, it really reminds me of a Collines Rhodaniennes from the Northern Rhone. Really soft and supple with great acidity. This went really well with the rabbit and prunes.
Domaine Les Luquettes, Bandol, 2014 – saving the best for last, this brilliant Bandol is a blend of 80% Mourvedre and 20% Grenache. Really alluring, spicy nose leads to a palate of herbs, berry fuit and frangipane sweetness. It has so much energy in the mouth it almost feels like there is a fizz on the tongue and then it is so smooth on the finish. This was a real revelation for me as I would automatically cellar Bandol for about ten years before touching it but this was drinking so well, I think I’ll go and open some more young Bandol.
The final highlight of the afternoon, which may well have been what tipped me over the edge and made the journey home a bit blurry was the most amazing Armagnac from Chateau De Lacquy.
I have not drunk much brandy in my time but this was so smooth and moreish, unlike anything I had tried before. Highly recommended, but one small glass is definitely enough, rather than the two large ones I had.
But then again when Fergus Henderson is pouring it is difficult to say no….
If you fancy trying the wines, get along to St John for dinner or buy them online here