Mission: To respond thoughtfully and responsibly to my experiences of drinking and dining at restaurants with regard to the quality, service, preparation, presentation and overall experience received thereat. The standpoint is one who respects the crafts of the chef and sommelier and who seeks to understand their choices in the kitchen and cellar and grow in knowledge. In this, I will seek to be fair, reasoned, direct and constructive and aim to keep my ego in check on our mutual journeys through the worlds of food and wine.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Fantastic Chateau Pontet-Canet Wine Dinner at Prime!

Chateau Pontet-Canet Wine Dinner

Prime Restaurant, Le Meridien, Kuala Lumpur May 14th 2013

Whilst overseas and on a tour with the IWFS of Bordeaux Vineyards to sample the 2012 en primeur, we received a text from the Doc saying "Bordeaux Wine Dinner at Prime, 3 seats booked." Only on getting back to Kuala Lumpur did we discover to our delight that the Bordeaux wine in question would be some of Chateau Pontet-Canet's finest. It was one of our standout Chateau visits during the tour, and with the top quality beef at the Prime it promised to be a match made in gastronomic heaven. Seemed like the food and wine gods were smiling - how not to go?  

Pontet-Canet has been a rising star over recent years, with wines that are "full bodied, well-structured, long lived and famous for their finesse and elegance" and which have garnered praise and points from the wine world luminaries. Located in the Pauillac region, it is one of the poster boys (or girls) for biodynamism in the Bordeaux wine region and the world. Biodynamism in wine is a style of organic farming where the grapes are grown according to sustainable and holistic principles as laid down by one Rudolf Steiner in his 1924 lecture series "Agriculture Course". Steiner espoused the idea that soil fertility could be increased without the use of chemically produced fertilizers and pesticides. He advocated a more ecologically based form of agriculture that facilitated and supported self sustainability where farming took place in harmony with the earth and its natural energies and motions, both seen and unseen.  

In practical terms, this means minimum to zero use of chemicals at all stages of grape growing and the utilisation of natural fertilisers and processes. Equally with technology - less is more. As an example, the guide during our recent visit to the Pontet-Canet winery made much of the effects of using horses to plough rather than tractors. The reasoning goes that tractors compound the earth which makes it harder for worms to aerate the soil - using horses means the worms are more able to do what they do best and this allows for better drainage. Equally, vine roots can dig deeper in their search for nutrients when the soil is more amenable to being rooted rather than getting blocked by compacted soil. 

Biodynamism has caught the imagination of many growers around the world. It is a commitment to respecting the soil and the various factors that impact it - enhancing the positive growing environment whilst seeking to minimise and marginalise those elements that impact good growth by natural means. It is monitored and supervised by a body called The Demeter Association which oversees the standards by which wines can be officially certified as biodynamic. Pontet-Canet achieved full certification in 2010. 

Biodynamism tends to get dismissed for being a bit hooey and new age hippie cerebral. Well and maybe, but the proof will be in the wines and certainly on our recent Bordeaux visit to sample the en primeurs Pontet-Canet stood out as stellar and the one that we would clearly buy. There was a fresh crispness and vibrancy to the 2012 that positively leapt out of the glass. Equally,  the biodynamic wines from the Domaine Leflaive consistently stun. So speak as you find, bidynamism seems to work. And naturally, the better the wine then the greater the demand and consequent chance of turning a reasonable profit on the entire exercise. Presumably, less technology means an increase in labour costs which will impact final production costs and profit margin. As ever, being allowed to compete on a level playing field with the behomoths will be central to long term success. But tastewise, it clearly makes a difference. This bandwagon has a lot more road to roll, and the momentum is gathering…

On the night there were about sixty wine and foodies who had gathered for the wine dinner, and expectations of an excellent evening ahead were running high. Organised by Kuala Lumpur wine stalwarts Milawa, the place was pretty full by the time we arrived, and indeed proceedings got underway just as we took our seats. Barely time to say hello to the many friends from the KL foodie circuit who had come out for the occasion.

Chateau Pontet-Canet's Melanie Tesseron was introduced and gave a brief introduction to both herself and the winery. 

Described on LinkedIn as General Director and Co-Owner at Chateau Pontet-Canet and Tesseron Cognac, and with a previous life as a Motion Graphic Designer, Mme Tesseron has risen rapidly for someone with just eight years in the industry. Joining with her uncle and erstwhile sole manager Mr Alfred Tesseron to jointly manage the Chateau's operations in 2005, Mme Tesseron was recently placed in the top 50 Most Powerful Women in Wine by The Drinks Business in December 2012. Chateau Pontet-Canet is a family business, and seems to be resisting a Bordeaux trend whereby Chateaux are getting bought over by the big boys and benefitting from massive investments in their wineries. Whilst this is positive in most respects, one wonders about the extent to which these Chateaux retain independence to resist boardroom "suggestions" to hasten or improve returns. It must be difficult to resist an owner seeking to dip into the business and suggesting practices which may be commercially sound though potentially negative in the impact on the final product. Well, maybe not. From what I have read, the Chateaux Madames tend historically to be a feisty breed. 

In this, Mme Tesseron proved an erudite and knowledgeable host with a hint of a dry British wit and whose passion and pride for the biodynamic achievements of Pontet-Canet were clear to all. No feistiness - but without a doubt eminently capable. The branding tag line semed to be the quite snappy "new world wines in old world bottles."  A brief overview of the 2003 vintage was given before Mme Tesseron sensibly opted to sit down to let the food and wine speak for themselves. 

The first course came out, albeit a bit slowly - sixty plus people to feed to fine dining standard is no mean feat and when your table is the furthest from the kitchen you will suffer a bit. Lenglui complained of slightly cold food. Mine was fine, so we swapped. We had already been drinking the 2003 as aperitif and though there seemed to be a slight reluctance for glasses to get sufficiently topped off we did get a fair second round to match with the food. The 2003 had been billed as a "great vintage" with a heatwave creating "water stress" on the vines and producing full bodied grapes as a result. It was also the first year that Pontet-Canet stopped using weed killer. There was cassis, spice and green pepper on the nose with chewy tannins and a pleasant though slighly alcholic finish. This was tamed into fighting submission by the rich and sweetly zippy sauce of the hugely tasty Wagyu. I have previously suspected Chef Antoine of adding shakes of curry powder in the sauce, giving rise to a spicy mouthful of Mulligatawny curry-like broth. And on this occasion it worked a treat, erasing the alcohol on the tongue and letting the fruit and structure of the wine shine through. It also gave a spicily sweet finish to the meat. On the night, the 2003 was to prove the best drinking. The Foie Gras coddled egg with Bordelaise sauce looked influenced by the Half Boiled Egg and Soy Sauce combo that is both breakfast and supper on the street for many Malaysians. Except for the Foie Gras, of course - rarely on the menu at the local hawker stall. The Prime scallop was its usual firm textured self. They are claimed to be fresh though I still retain a sneaking suspicion of them spending some time in a fridge somewhere.

The 2004 was now on the table. Mme Tesseron confessed to it not being a classic year, though the grapes retained elegance due to a cool and lengthy Indian summer across the Bordeaux region. Thought to have more finesse as a result, and showing Morello cherry, cassis and almond with pronounced tannins, it became the good value wine filler sandwiched between the bread and butter classic vintages of 2003 and 2005. Drinking wise, the tannins felt a bit pronounced with the fruit a bit further back in the mix. There's a lot longer in the bottle needed for this one, though a slight question for me as to whether the fruit will stand for a great length of time. 

The salad combo was cute, but at first it didn't seem to be going anywhere. The cheese neutered the tannins enough for better balance, though its addition to the salad felt odd. There was something that seemed to be missing that was needed to bring it all together. In fact, it wasn't missing, it was just hidden at the bottom of the ensemble. The eggplant nestling there proved to be the foundation for the otherwise confusing mix of tastes and brought it all together in both textural and taste terms. Its firmish squishy sweet blandness set everything off, taking the sour edge off the cheese and letting the other ingredients get a look in on the tongue.

And then out came the 2000. Oh, the 2000. Alleged Vintage of the century to date. You are a big wine - full of body, with a rich nose of dark fruit and coffee notes from the easing tannins. For some reason, your finish felt a bit dried out as compared to the 2003 and 2004. Maybe this was the fertiliser at work in the soil at the end of the century. Maybe you just need more time in the bottle. Whatever, you went gangbusters with the Beef Tenderloin. There were two pieces of meat, one of which was perfectly grilled to medium perfection with the melted marble blending superbly with the slight char on the meat and the understated seasoning;  and the other which felt massively oversalted and killed the tastebuds. Strange. Not sure if it was the result of this chunk of seasoned beef, but the potato and spinach also felt well salted. Most odd. We had to drink the water since the wine pourings through the night seemed to have gone from somewhat parsimonious (read "stingy") to the point of almost stalling. Certainly far less than we tend to be used to at other wine dinners in Kuala Lumpur.

Rant alert - our IWFS normally budgets about one bottle per guest for the functions. My count of bottles on the night was forty-eight which would explain why the wine felt a bit thin in quantity. I do understand the math involved and the need to keep the final price affordable and attractive to fit within Milawa's philosophy to bring great wines to more people. And indeed, given the wines and the food it was tremendous value. It's just that things would have been a shade more perfect with an extra glass of something and it just didn't quite feel like a good enough drink to go with the food. My usual trick of waiting until the dear lady with the wine bottle was coming near and taking a swift swig to entice a top up failed miserably on this occasion. And it seems I was not alone in feeling dry - a number of friends seemed to say the same thing at the end of the night. Maybe we've been spoiled and gotten used to expecting a full skin. Maybe. No matter, in some ways it was quite refreshing to drive home comparatively sober. Always a silver lining, eh?

Rant over - the final wine was the 2009 and this was lovely. We'd had a bottle of this cracked for us at our visit to Pontet-Canet and we fell for it then. Benefitting from stable temperatures through the summer, the grapes produced a wine that Mme Tesseron described as "very complete" - elegant structure, layered and perfumed, with classic blackcurrant nose and well integrated tannins. Mr Parker apparently gave it 100 and for once I agree with him. This wine is the total business. Everyone should be so lucky and get a glass at some time in their life. Milawa, I thank you. Just maybe a little more next time, can?

The 2009 went surprisingly well with dessert. The light chantilly cream, crisp soft pears and crunchy nibs combined well with the deep chocolate which brought out hints of cocoa in the wine. And notwithstanding that the sponge felt a bit stodgy, it made for a firm solid finish to the meal. 

Again, we stole some of the magnificent Prime cookies to take home. Again we got stiffed with the Car parking charges. But for once I didn't mind. We had been in the presence of biodynamic and vinous greatness, and I will happily wave the flag for ecologically sensible agriculture and those brave intrepid growers who face the barrage of contempt from those who happily continue to stress their soils to produce the large volumes they need to create the mass production glug that stocks the supermarket shelves. Yes, I am a closet tree hugger, yes I berate all actions that impact our planet to the long term detriment of the ecological system that sustains and supports all life. Anyone who doesn't recognise the effects of pollution and deforestation and is not prepared to take steps to marginalise these effects will ultimately be responsible for this host earth being consumed by our human species. And mostly all for a percentage. We do have an earth to save and the more corporately responsible practices that get initiated then the better chance that our future generations will have a habitable planet to inherit. Yes. I sure do like to rant… 

In sum, another fabulous evening of food, wine with old and new friends at Kuala Lumpur's finest steak restaurant. Fantastic wines, well matched with the food, though maybe a shade thin on the pourings. It was brilliant to meet with the owner and manager of a Bordeaux winery we had visited and where we'd enjoyed a wonderful tasting, and one hopes that the gods allow revisits by both Mme Tesseron and ourselves to our respective home towns. Ms Melanie had made time to say hello to everyone who had come to the dinner, and made a point of sending email to express thanks for my attendance with an open invitation to visit Pontet-Canet. Nice, personal touch. She is clearly aware that, as Pontet-Canet ambassador, how she is perceived to conduct herself is critical in how people view the brand. And biodynamic gets intensely personal - there is a connection between the owner and the land and the people who farm it, and the result. Mme Tesseron is as much a part of her wine as the wine is part of her. She made it, she helped pick and sort the grapes, she cared for its production and development. From the vine to the bottle, this is an expression of who she and Pontet-Canet are. And we got to meet her and drink her wines with her. Wow. I intend to buy Pontet-Canet 2012 and wait for it to come through to the drinking greatness that I believe it will mature into. And then remember the time we spent at the Chateau where it was first tasted and the people who made it and shared it. Doesn't get more personal than that.

Braised Wagyu Beef Intercostal, Rosemary Pumpkin Polenta Bread
Seared Sea Scallop, Celery Truffle Espuma
Foie Gras Coddled Egg, Bordelaise Sauce
Chateau Pontet-Canet 2003

Grilled Vegetables Salad
Stilton Cheese and Walnut Cumble, Aragula, Dried Fig
Pontet Canet Red Wine JKelly and Aged Balasamic Dressing
Chateau Pontet-Canet 2004

Sous Vide Black Angus Beef Tenderloin, Beef Jus
Torched "Beurre Maitre d'Hotel"
Smoked Duck Roesti Potato, Wilted Spinach
Provencal Herbs, Olive and Sundried Tomato Brushed Roasted Black Cod
Lentils du Puy, Maine Lobster and Sweet Crab Mustard Dressing
Chateau Pontet-Canet 2000

Chocolate and Hazelnut Cake
Guanaja Chantilly Cream, Poached baby Pears
Chateau Pontet-Canet 2009

Illy Coffee or Dilma Tea
Prime Cookies

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