An inspired sommelier loves two things at least as much as wine: people and stories

I’ve nothing against celebrated wines: enormous care and attention goes into their creation. Still, a little imagination is a heavenly thing.

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The road to hell may be paved with good intentions or, more likely, a slew of spoiled ballot papers, but I’ve always maintained that the path to heaven is overlaid with good wine lists, floating enticingly towards that Great Restaurant in the Sky in which, if I manage not to insult too many people in this life, I hope to spend eternity.

My candidates for celestial beverage menus are not, generally, those Bible-thick tomes, bursting with famous names, that have nearly as many champagnes and Bordeaux as they have zeros at the end of their average bottle price. I’ve nothing against celebrated wines: a restaurant that’s trying to carve out a place at the top of the culinary totem pole must offer them, and enormous care and attention goes into their creation. Still, a little imagination is a heavenly thing, and an inspired sommelier loves two things at least as much as wine: people and stories. Without the former, it’s all just fermented grape juice. And a good story, like fine crystal, cups and holds the liquid, readying the mind for the treat the mouth is preparing to deliver.

At Enoteca, the two-Michelin-starred restaurant in Hotel Arts Barcelona, I admired a page-long list of Priorats, the powerful red wines from a hill south-west of the city so steep that many vines are tended by donkey. It wasn’t the only page of Priorats: Florian David, the young head sommelier, says that some diners wish to drink only Catalan wines, and Priorat is the region’s grand cru (it is the sole Spanish wine region to hold the top-rung DOC status, other than Rioja).

There are many great Priorats and at Enoteca you can range from a €65 Terroir al Limit Torroja 2012, made by a Bavarian called Dominik Huber, to Daphne Glorian’s renowned Clos Erasmus 2004, which will set you back €1,400. You may, if your group is thirsty or numerous, choose to compare the two, contrasting the Torroja’s Garnatxa-Cariñena blend with the Erasmus’s Garnatxa, Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah, the last two being international grapes that some consider less appropriate to Priorat’s peculiar slate soils. Combinations of wines, like wine matched with food, enliven as well as educate the palate: this is sensation-seeking of the strictly legal sort – boundary-testing that tastes a hell of a lot better than anything we try as teenagers.

Boldly, we ventured into the wilder reaches of the wine list. David paired tuna escabeche with Thierry Germain’s sharply aromatic L’Insolite Saumur, contrasting it with another, softer Loire Chenin, a Vouvray by Philippe Foreau, whose wines are so good partly, David says, “because he’s crazy about food”.

We lauded the underrated wonders of white wine (“Sometimes I only have one red on a whole tasting menu!”) and mourned the reluctance of some diners to move beyond the safe parameters of familiar wines, which is like choosing to live in prison because it’s dangerous outside: technically true, but a tragically dull existence. I learned about the trio of French winemakers creating great Garnatxa-based Priorat as the Trio Infernal; about Alain Senderens, the chef who returned his three Michelin stars in 2005 in favour of a more relaxed, informal style of dining, then won them back on his own terms; and about where to drink and eat in Russia, Mrs David’s native land and a country I love, despite the paucity of vineyards.

Conveyed by a series of stunning wines, we ranged the world from France and Italy to New Zealand and Babylon (well, the Pyrenees, but the legendary Loire winemaker Didier Dagueneau’s southern vineyard is called Les Jardins de Babylone). Eventually, sated with stories and flavours, I concluded that heaven was in fact right here at this table, meaning that in theory, I could insult whomever I please. But I felt far too content to bother.

Nina Caplan is the 2018 and 2014 Fortnum & Mason Drink Writer of the Year and the 2014 Louis Roederer International Wine Columnist of the Year for her columns on drink in the New Statesman, and the author of The Wandering Vine: Wine, The Romans and Me, published by Bloomsbury. She tweets as @NinaCaplan.

 

This article appears in the 27 May 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Saying the Unsayable

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