21 Sep 2012

Riedel Wine-tasting at Lords: The Glass Changes Everything.......

Who knew? The shape of a wine-glass can dramatically affect the taste of wine. I knew that the glass could add to the appreciation of wine, but had no idea it actually changed the smell and taste. This all changed last night when I attended a wine-tasting event at Lord's Cricket Ground, hosted by Georg Riedel, of the wonderful (and pricey) Riedel glasses fame.
I've only ever been to small wine-tasting events before, all pretty informal, standing around trying bits and pieces. This, however, was a completely different experience. The Nursery was set up with a small stage on which Mr Riedel stood, surrounded by rows of tables, facing inwards.

We were assigned seats and were greeted with three (enormous and differently-shaped) empty glasses, three plastic cups containing red wine, a bottle of water, a plastic spitoon (unused all night!), a couple of boxes with "please do not eat" written on them and an empty wine-glass box.

The first activity of the evening was to try the bottled mineral water, first straight from the bottle, and then from each of the glasses, to see and feel the experience of the water hitting the different parts of the tongue. Quite extraordinary - I'd never have thought that the shape of a glass could have an impact on the enjoyment of a glass of water! Glass 1 was a Pinot Noir glass, and the water hit the front of the tongue. Glass 2 was a Syrah glass, and the water flowed around the mouth pretty well. Glass 3, the biggest, was a Cabernet glass, and the water hit the back of the tongue.
After the water exercise it was on to the wine. We split the first plastic-cupful of wine (served at between 16 and 18 degrees celsius, not "room temperature") between the three glasses to experience the difference in smell and taste of the wines in each glass. First we swilled the Pinot Noir around in the Pinot Noir glass and had a good sniff. "Automatically swilling the wine is not the sign of an alcoholic," Georg reassured us. He had a rather surreal, dry sense of humour. The wine smelled wonderful, with a mix of aromas. Then it was swilled in the Syrah glass - not a bad aroma, but something was definitely missing. Finally we swilled it around the Cabernet glass and the smell was "all the awful green bits."

Obviously we then tasted the wine out of each glass and the taste matched the aromas - delicious out of Glass 1, okay in Glass 2 and rather unpleasant and acidic in Glass 3.
At this point we were allowed to eat the contents of one of the boxes too - some smooth Lindt white chocolate. The Pinot Noir brought out the vanilla flavour in the chocolate and the wine. Pairing the chocolate with the wine in the Cabernet glass did nothing for either, as expected.
This process was repeated for each wine, trying first the smell and then the taste in each of the glasses, understanding that the shape and size of the glass releases the different aromas and flavours of each wine. The Cabernet was the only wine that tasted half-decent in the Cabernet glass. Glass 2, Riedel told us, was an acceptable glass for most wines, but Glass 3 should only be used with the Merlots, Cabernet Francs and Cabernet Sauvignons of this world. We paired the Cabernet with the contents of the other box - a cocoa-rich slab of dark Lindt chocolate - a very fine match.

Riedel entertained the audience, all of us following his instructions of when to sniff, when to eat, when to drink ("don't drink yet!" he shouted a couple of times as he saw the glasses touching a couple of people's lips a fraction too early). Some might have been put off by his Austrian manner, but I found it added to the enjoyment of the evening immensely.
In addition to trying the wines and his explanations of the glasses, he also told us about decanting. Young wines (up to 10 years old, approximately) should be decanted and aerated. He produced a massive decanter with a long neck and poured a bottle of "young" wine into it. He then held the base of the decanter at the bottom of the neck and began shaking it. The action, and the shadows it created behind on the red wall, were a little phallic, as my friends on either side noticed, tittering at the sight. He then moved his microphone into the opening at the top of the decanter's neck so that we could all hear the wine crackling away. He suggested also shaking wine in a restaurant (not to mention complaining about the wine-glass shape and size) by putting your (clean) finger in the top of the bottle and giving it a good shake.
Obviously the sommelier might look a little aghast, but I'm sure if you said "Georg Riedel recommended it to improve my enjoyment of the wine" then the sommelier couldn't really complain. Besides, as he pointed out, you're paying for the wine (and therefore his wages).

At the end of the talk the man himself offered the decanted wine to a few willing participants, and came over to our table to do the honours, so I was able to get a closer look at this amusing man, and capture the looks of awe at drinking wine specially shaken by this man on the faces of some of the guests.
The glasses we'd been using were now ours to take home in carry-cases - a rather grown-up going-home present (which certainly made the cost of the event more palatable). Our Riedel collection has now increased from 2 (we did have 4, but they are extremely easy to break, without the right care) to 8. And now we have a good selection out of which to enjoy different kinds of wine. We recently had a Pinot Noir recommended by our local vintner, but it tasted rather ordinary. Now I know why - we were drinking out of Bordeaux glasses, not Pinot Noir ones. Tonight we're trying the Pinot again - only this time out of the right glass.

11 Sep 2012

Weekend in Antwerp - Bierpassie, Summer Festival, Capoeira & More

A couple of months ago - the weekend before we got the puppy - we went to Belgium for the weekend.
Our annual Belgian summer weekend trip is becoming something of a tradition: Bruges in 2010, Ghent last year, and now Antwerp. The trip started, as always, with a glass of champagne in the long bar at the magnificent St. Pancras station, with the Olympic rings hanging proudly at the southern end.
Within three hours we arrived at the equally stunning station at Antwerp, a tiered station like none other I've seen before with an enormous decorative archway.
Our hotel was nearby, overlooking the Stadt Park, one of the few green parts of the city. We headed out for a disappointing burger in the Berlin bar not far away, passing an open-air after-work music concert and the interesting-looking Kulminator bar. We returned to the Kulminator bar after dinner and met an English couple who were seasoned Belgian beer-drinkers, who had neither beards nor beer-guts. We tried the Golden Carolus, Scotch Brown and a few others. The bar has the most incredible selection of obscure beers, listed in a menu rivalling the wine list in a Michelin-starred restaurant (only for beer). And as with wine, there was a huge selection of aged beers too, something I'd never seen before. We stuck with the current beers available on tap. Not wanting to write off the following day we headed back to the hotel relatively early and woke up afresh.

The next day started with a meander through the pretty Stadt Park (not exactly an enormous park given that it's one of the city's biggest parks - you get a bit spoilt in London, I think) and headed south-west towards the 't Zuid area (South), which had been recommended to me by an old friend who grew up in the city. It seemed a little less seedy than the area around the railway station and had some beautiful architecture.
We found a popular café on a small intersection and sat down to a delicious breakfast in the sun.
We noticed lots of "youths" walking past in the same direction, all looking as if they'd made an effort to look different; all looking the same. After we'd eaten we headed in the direction of the crowds to see what was going on. We wandered along a main road to get a good view of an interesting building (a pointy Sydney Opera House, perhaps), which is the Antwerp Bar building (Balie Antwerpen).
We passed cars pounding with techno music and packed with teenagers, some keen to have their photo taken, stuck in endless traffic.

We followed the crowd to the entrance of the Summer Festival - an open-air festival consisting of a bunch of DJs that I'd never heard of. I seemed to be the only person around with a camera, so snapped away avidly, some people posing gladly for me again. It was quite mesmerising watching the hoards coming, girls in short shorts, guys in "funny" t-shirts, all different, but all the same, with a backdrop of stacks of shipping containers.

Finally we tore ourselves away and headed north, towards the city centre, a few stark spires marking our way, stopping for a coffee along the way. We soon stumbled into a procession of kids and adults dressed up, dancing along the narrow streets (not sure what the occasion was, perhaps a samba thing!).

Soon we found ourselves in the middle of the old town, with beautiful cobbled squares surrounded by the typical Flemish buildings with crenellated roofs. The sun was still shining. The tower of the city's masterpiece church, the Onze Lieve Vrouwekathedraal (Cathedral of our Lady), towered over the surrounding buildings.

We wandered through a few more narrow streets until we came out at the Groenplaats, the site of Bierpassie, or the Beer Passion festival. It is an annual beer festival, where you buy a glass and tokens and then wander from tent to tent trying the huge array of Belgian beers (although not as huge a selection as the Kulminator). The atmosphere was great, with the usual beery types.
We got chatting to an English guy who came to the festival every year, and had been doing so for a couple of decades. He gave us some recommendations and we continued on to try a couple more. Given that it was only 3pm we didn't want to write off the rest of the day, so we stopped at 3 beers (although small, they can be extremely strong!). We headed towards the river to the west, stopping off for a waffle (and another beer).
 We then wandered north towards the dockland area. Big storm clouds were beginning to gather; wouldn't fancy having been at the Summer Festival under those clouds. We went past a castle with a strange, but rather amusing, sculpture, which everyone seemed to stop at to photograph. Having visited the much larger castle in Ghent the previous year we decided to give it a miss.
The dancing processions were just finishing off for the day, ending up by the river.
We continued north and came down to a flat area at the river's edge where people sat enjoying the weekend, with a group doing capeoira at one end. We approached them and I took some snaps, and then the master (do you call them that?!) invited us to join the circle. We stood there for about fifteen minutes, listening to the chanting that accompanied the mesmerising dance. It's like a mock-fight, with some standard moves, with the two individuals avoiding contact. Absolutely fascinating.
We moved on, heading north and found the new Museum Aan de Stroom, an interesting red-brick building with glass tubes as windows. Instead of actually going inside (not feeling very cultural after the beer) we sat in a cool little café opposite and tried the jenever. Not a bad little tipple, but wise to just have the one.

Hunger now took over and as we headed back towards the beer tent we popped into a popular Italian restaurant, the first choice place found on the Antwerp App not appearing to exist any more. As we ate the skies finally opened. Our pizza and pasta were washed down with more Belgian beer; I had a Grimbergen.

The rain didn't stop, and we'd left our umbrellas at the hotel, so we ran down the street, sheltering under doorways, until we found a suitable-looking bar. One more beer for the road. A man by the window had had so much that he kept falling asleep. People were prodding him to wake him up, and when he finally did the barmaid threatened to throw him out if he fell asleep again.

He nodded off again within a couple of minutes. He was actually with someone, and eventually he woke up and the two of them left. We followed soon after and returned to Bierpassie, buying another couple of tokens. We ran into the English couple from the previous night, Nick and Shirley, in the Delerium Tremens tent, the first Belgian beer I'd ever tasted, 21 years earlier in Chalk Farm's Belgo. Murray bought an elephant hat, as had another man, bringing lots of stares and laughs.

We tried a couple more beers, wandering around to make sure there was nothing we'd missed that we had to try. The last beer I bought we ended up throwing away (I think it was called Omer - just too strong for me).

And so it was back to Kulminator, where Nick & Shirley were already happily ensconsed. A few more beers there (including an expensive €12 Trappist Westvletern, at a mere 10.2%!), before being kicked out and heading home; it was only 12.30am, but the owners clearly didn't want to stay up into the early hours.
We woke up a bit late, but still had plenty of time to fit in a bit of culture before our train home at 6pm. We wandered into the centre, looking for somewhere to get pancakes for breakfast. The place we'd found on the internet no longer existed (story of our visit), but eventually we found a nice little café K50, where we had enormous tasty sandwiches. Afterwards we headed to the big cathedral, but didn't want to pay the €6 entry fee! We did, however, pay to see the wonderful Rubenshuis, a marvellous museum and the former house of Peter Paul Rubens. The architecture is stunning, with a baroque portico and peacful gardens, and a house crammed full of art and trinkets. No photos allowed, sadly, and not much to see from outside.

Our last stop was Zurenborg, an area in the south-east of the city, famed for its art nouveau architecture. It was saved from demolition in the 1960s following protests, not only from residents but people throughout Belgium and further afield. It was well worth their battle. There are a few streets where the buildings don't seem real - huge fortresses and palaces with gothic spires and towers, curved windows, with the odd new-build thrown in.
I could have wandered along Cogels-Oyslei for hours! On our way back we stopped for our final beer and some delicious tarte tatin and chocolate tart at a restaurant called Camping, on Dageraadsplaats.

As we headed back to the hotel to pick up our bags it coincided with Synagog coming-out time, and the streets were full of orthadox Jews, women dressed in black and white with matching wigs pushing old-fashioned prams, flanked by 5 or 6 small, ringletted children. Sadly this was about the closest we came to exploring the diamond district!
And then it was time to come home, via a nice easy train ride to Brussels and then on the Eurostar to bring us home, checking the European Cup football scores between tunnels.