The summer season’s divine wine tasting at Le Manoir aux Quat’ Saisons sets out to match divine wines supplied by independent retailers, to match Raymond’s summer menus. Who better to pass judgement than Raymond Blanc himself, along with Carolyn Holmes, Christie’s Senior Wine Specialist and Auctioneer, and Le Manoir Sommelier Arnaud Goubet.
Leaving London on a warm sunny afternoon, my partner and I negotiated the heavy traffic of the M25. As we headed off into the Oxfordshire countryside we were escorted by red kites, rare birds of prey, swooping overhead. Turning down the leafy lane for the village of Great Milton we were eager with anticipation. We were heading for Le Manoir aux Quat’ Saisons, Raymond Blanc’s famous double Michelin-starred hotel and restaurant which has been an inspiration for the past 25 years of our lives in food and the wine trade.
We drove through the impressive gates into the crunchy gravelled car park and jumped out eagerly grabbing our overnight bags. Down the path through the gardens, flanked by lavender and scented shrubs, leading towards the beautiful sandy, Oxford stone, house we were warmly acknowledged by various members of staff on their way out presumably finishing their shift for the day. By the time we reached reception we felt as if we were being welcomed home!
As we settled into our room, named ‘Orchid’, we were touched by the lovely little details; olive scented perfumed sticks, a carafe of Madeira, a bowl of ripe fruits, and an amazing amount of reading materials. My partner had his nose in a fishing magazine, while I curled up on the sofa with a glass of toasty house champagne and dipped into Raymond Blanc’s book A Taste of My Life. I was curious to learn a little more about the great man himself as I had the honour of being invited to taste wines to go with menus and recipes of Raymond Blanc.
But first we had an evening to enjoy the peaceful, calm elegance of Le Manoir. We strolled round the kitchen gardens reading the chalked labels at the end of the rows of lush vegetables. I was struck by the number of varieties of each; peas, beans and carrots then especially, in the herb garden, an array of mint; lime mint, apple mint, black spearmint, orange spiced mint. It was a hint of what to expect in the restaurant later as we explored the subtle flavours presented to us during dinner.
The main event
Nestled in the corner of the bar we sipped more champagne and a glass of Manzanilla to accompany the enticing appetisers, which were presented and precisely explained. For dinner we chose ‘Le Manoir Classics’ menu and asked the friendly sommelier to recommend something unusual from the extensive wine list, that would work with the numerous flavours. Of course we could have chosen from the array of wines by the glass, but settled on LAD 18 from Olivier Pithon, a 2006 white Grenache from the Cote de Catalanes in the South of France. It seemed apt somehow, as it was an area we knew and we had struggled picking gnarled, old-vine Grenache Gris in the vineyards of Domaine Faverot in the Luberon, owned by our good friends.
The divine wine arrived, unusually for white wine, in a decanter and I was shocked at the deep colour, suspicious that it may have been oxidised. But no, on tasting it was full and creamy with intriguing herbal tones, lively and fresh. It combined well with the creamy delicate crab and enlivened the mango in our first dish, balancing the sweet, seafood flavours.
Throughout the whole of dinner we were struck by the delicacy and subtle twists of flavours. A perfectly poached, almost translucent, gulls egg, still in its pretty half shell, with white asparagus and garlic pesto seemed an unusual combination for divine wine, but it worked well, accentuating its spice and lifting the acidity.
With the perfect sole, with a crispy skin, and this time, green asparagus and spring greens balanced with salty samphire, the divine wine tasted more fruity and aromatic, emphasising the fresh ‘greenness’ of the vegetables. Indeed it is interesting to note the diversity of vegetables and herbs that are integrated into the dishes, not huge amounts, just a touch of leaf here, a perfectly miniature carrot and turnip, each allowed its own, delicious, depth of true flavour. The nutritionist side of me was delighted to see balanced, healthy, fresh vegetables in each dish, unusual in normal gastronomic environs!
The chicken with mashed potato and foie gras sauce with morels looked like a garden in miniature. The silky foie gras sauce, not heavy at all, was balanced by the depth of rich, fruity, spiciness of the wine, with the exotic richness of the morels adding length to the succulent chicken.
We finished with a multi-layered strawberry delight that transported me back to strawberry picking on a hot summer day, as a child. It’s amazing what flavours can do! With the discreet yet enthusiastic attention of the lovely staff we had enjoyed one of the best food and wine experiences of our lives.
Nothing is straightforward…
It was a perfect sunny morning. I was awoken from a luxurious sleep by the sound of song birds and the fragrance of perfume and herbs wafting from the beautiful gardens. Now I was to meet up with Monsieur Raymond Blanc to taste a range of wines to go with the summer menu. Easy I thought.
Raymond Blanc is a man who lives life at one hundred miles an hour, exuding the intense passion for his philosophy of life, food, taste and above all his constant striving for excellence. Nothing is straightforward as we get sidetracked into all elements of food and divine wine from the soil to the table.
Two Provençal classic dishes
We started with wines to complement the the Tarte aux Tomates, perhaps a light rosé or a champagne? Tomatoes are quite challenging for wine, but Raymond explained that for perfect balance of flavour the variety is crucial together with perfect ripeness. A waiter was despatched to the kitchens to bring a box of large gnarled red and yellow tomatoes, the likes of which you only see in French markets. Raymond quickly slices them urging all in the room to smell and taste and savour. Like wine grapes, as they ripen acidity drops and sweetness increases, but when you heat tomatoes, he explains, all the acids and sugars are bigger, stronger, so you need wines with less acidity and a touch of sweetness to achieve a balance.
We decided on a Tavel Rosé 2007, Château d’Aqueria, Jean Olivier, from the wine list of Le Manoir. Its concentrated, rich strawberry fruit with balanced tannins and black pepper spice would complement the dish well. The dish would also work well with the champagnes; Arlaux Premier Cru Brut Grande Cuvée with it’s bready, yeasty ripeness and spicy, warm citrus finish, or the rich, toasty Péhu-Simonet Brut de Brut, with its 70% Pinot Noir grapes and no malolactic fermentation to preserve it’s lemony acidity, produced from Grand Cru vineyards. Champagne is very versatile with a variety of foods; “bring back champagne” says Raymond!
So continuing with the theme for the pan-fried bream and ratatouie we thought the rich, spicy, biscuity and grapefruit flavours of the Pierrel Champagne ‘Les Traditions’ from Epernay, with its balance of 50% Chardonnay, 40% Pinot Meunier and a splash of 10% Pinot Noir would complement the earthiness of bream and the vegetables. An interesting choice would also be a still white, Clos Poggiale 2007 from Corsica from 100% Vermentino, with lemon-oil scents wrapped with herbal tones of rosemary and sage and a black pepper finish.
And so it went on, with Raymond describing how he has urged his chefs to reconnect gastronomy with the soil, the seasons, and the purity of the produce. In order for food and wine to work together, the chefs and sommeliers at Le Manoir have to work as a team. Not only is taste and texture key, but also the origin of food and wine is paramount. To that extent Le Manoir has a wide range of organic and biodynamic wines grown without pesticides or chemicals, reflecting each ‘terroir’, that unique blend of soil, climate and true origin.
The ‘Home’ menu (see p.50) Tomato and mozzarella salad with its sweet creaminess of fresh cheese and again, those tomatoes need a wine of intensity yet delicacy all at the same time. The Routas Wild Boar Rosé, Murray Family, 2007 from Coteaux Varois in the heart of Provence had attractive, delicate strawberry on the nose and palate but sufficient flavour and body, at 13.5% alcohol, from the red grapes of Syrah, Cinsault and Grenache to balance the dish.
Then we came to a match for the lamb dish. As Arnaud Goubet, the sommelier, poured the Château Léoville-Barton 1990 (a second growth Bordeaux from Saint Julien) we swirled our glasses and for a moment Raymond was silent. As the aromas of leather, cedar and cigar box rose from the glass I thought perhaps he didn’t approve. ‘Now that is a real wine’ he announced and excitedly encouraged all the sommeliers, and anyone else who passed by, to taste and discover its soft, elegant tannins and delicate berry fruit, which at nearly 19 years old, had had time to become, mellow, integrated and subtle.
Older wines often work well with food rather than those with hard tannins and upfront oak. Indeed Raymond commented that they had removed all ‘over-oaked’ wines from the list of Le Manoir as the tannins and resins of new oak “just kills subtle food flavours” (see notes on vintages).
We had found a perfect match for the lamb. Raymond was so impressed he took what was left away with him to savour with his supper later.
But if you like your wines more youthful, and less pricey, a good choice might be the full, bodied, ‘Garrigue’ and berry fruits of Camplazens 2006, a hefty yet unoaked Syrah from the Languedoc, produced using sustainable viticulture.
A summer fruit soup conjures up idyllic images of picnics in the countryside. We had several contenders to match this; Arlaux Premier Cru Brut Rosé with its beguiling, truffle nose and full, rounded body, multilayered with peachy, grapefruit length was a winner. Raymond summoned all the available sommeliers to taste and pronounce on its excellence.
Le Manoir menu
Initially I was intrigued by summer vegetable risotto and ‘essence’. What was this mysterious ‘essence’? Having read parts of Raymond’s book I discovered it was the ‘best bit of the tomato’ inspired by the juice left at the bottom of the dish of his mother’s tomato salad, a Raymond Blanc signature ingredient, which would infuse each grain of rice with a burst of red tomato. Again, but perhaps unusually, we turned to Champagne, as before the Arlaux Premier Cru Brut Grande Cuvée for its spicy, toasty flavours or the Pierrel ‘Les Traditions’ Brut Noir & Blanc with biscuity spice and a touch of ripe grapefruit, which would
With Tarte aux Tomates on the menu, Raymond conjures up the real thing, so matching the wine takes on a real dimension also go well with the confit salmon with cucumber ribbons. A lovely still wine choice, for both dishes, would be the attractive white Côtes du Rhône combination of white Grenache, Bourboulenc and Viognier found in Les Rabassieres 2007, Maison Bouachon (Skalli), with creamy appley notes, slightly earthy, with lingering white pepper, apple, pear and guava on the aftertaste.
For poached peaches a vintage demi-sec champagne seemed appropriate, Marquis de la Fayette 2002, a half and half blend of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir with a scented, herbal nose and soft, rounded sweetness. Another match could be the golden yellow Harmonie 2005, a grapey Muscat à Petits Grains from Domaine Peyronnet in Frontignan, expressing the sun of the South of France, with sweet, nutty, slightly oily textures, yet with clean acidity, and with an elegant finish.
And what about cheese? For cheese says Raymond, ‘you drink the wine you love’, but we were all in agreement that a full flavoured white or a delicious Sauternes is the best combination.
An exciting discovery
So there we have it, I had been drawn into the world of Raymond Blanc where seasons define what goes onto the menus, combined with minute attention to detail to bring harmony and balance and expression of flavour.
As chef and patron Raymond is responsible for the whole environment and experience of his beloved guests and as such he and his staff will take you on an exciting discovery where elegance, craft, science and agriculture come together.
Château Léoville-Barton 1990 was sold in the Christie’s London ‘Finest and Rarest Wines’ sale on 11th June 2009.