Mike Denman doesn't really have to supply a bio with his unedited entry in our seminal wine competition...
I work as a chef in London and have always had an interest in wine, although there was one evening around five years ago which transformed my interest into something more akin to a passion for wine.
At the restaurant we occasionally donate my services to charity auctions, the sort where those with some spare cash (and the need to pay less tax) bid for one-off experiences with the proceeds going to a nominated charity. On this occasion Great Ormond Street Hospital was the recipient of the £10,000 or so which was bid in return for a gourmet meal cooked by yours truly, to be provided at the home of the winning bidder.
Arrangements were made through e-mail with the host’s PA. There was talk of some ‘special’ wines and the host seemed keen to have certain foods to match. I arrived at his home on the appointed Saturday evening with my boxes of ingredients – foie gras, Beef Wellington, turbot and various other canapes, desserts and petit fours – ‘The Full Works’ one might say. The large house in London’s Highgate was home to a presumably very wealthy Russian businessman, the secrecy contract which I was forced to sign by a burly security guard forbids me from giving too many details. Inside, many of the fittings were gold, including the rims of the plates on which the food was to be served – not my (gold-plated) cup of tea, but who am I to argue – just don’t drop one on the marble floor. Although apparently lacking in any form of good taste, the host and his wife were friendly, greeted me warmly and introduced me to their household help who would get me anything I needed.
The preparations for the evening went as planned and as the ten or so guests arrived champagne was handed out, the host’s wife offered me a glass, “just a drop”, I said.
I happened to catch the bottle as it was poured, it was Vintage Krug and I immediately regretted not saying yes to a full glass. I didn’t see which vintage was served sadly, but I remember very clearly the toasty, creaminess of the wine, and how balanced it was, with such clearly defined flavours of the fruits and a perfect level of acidity. I have since formed the opinion that chefs taste wine (as they taste food) to assess the balance. Can I taste enough lemon in this lemon tart? Is it sharp enough? Is it sweet enough? Is it a pleasant texture? What else can I taste? I have used these same skills as my wine tasting has developed, but on this evening five years ago, before all that, I just remember the perfect balance of the Krug Champagne.
You would be forgiven for assuming that this was the seminal wine experience which sparked my increased interest in all things vinous, but happily for me you would be mistaken. As I was preparing to serve the main course, a rather grand and well cooked Beef Wellington (if I say so myself), the host appeared from the dining room looking agitated. “I’m still waiting for my friend to arrive, his mobile is off, I don’t know where he is”, he said, looking out of the window to the driveway. “He’s supposed to be bringing the other bottles of Petrus, I wanted to serve two different vintages with the main course”.
I didn’t know a huge amount about wine at the time, but of course I had heard of Petrus and had a reasonable idea that it was pretty decent wine. The host returned to the dining room and I served the main courses. As I was clearing up and getting ready to serve a pre-dessert course, the host’s wife came out of the dining room carrying a glass of red wine. I smiled politely as she placed it on the kitchen counter. “My husband thought you might like to try this, Chateau Petrus 1985 vintage”.
I thanked her and her husband for their generosity and picked up the glass, swirled the wine and took a deep sniff. It would be over dramatic to say that time stood still, but I have a distinct memory of everything else in the room becoming almost a blur. In a very rare moment of extreme mindfulness, I was completely focused on the amazing contents of that glass. Plummy, herbal, cherries, maybe olives, I spent ten minutes just smelling it. And then the taste, it seemed more intense and smooth than any other wine I had tasted and complemented the trimmings from the end of the Beef Wellington perfectly (chef’s perk). I didn’t have the words to describe it adequately then, and I’m not sure that I’d have them now, but for the following weeks and months I couldn’t help but compare the wine I was drinking to that glass of Petrus 1985. That’s when I decided to learn as much as possible about the world of wine. Holiday destinations became wine-centric, spare cash is regularly ‘invested’ in good bottles, WSET qualifications followed and continue to this day.
As far as the experience itself goes, I have been lucky enough to have had many amazing wine related adventures since that evening in Highgate. Many of which, now I come to think of it, I remember with much more fondness and emotion than the opulent but rather cold setting in which I tasted the Petrus. Watching the sun set over the vines from the swimming pool of a holiday home in Puisseguin St.Emilion, drinking the distinctly unremarkable and tannic wine from that very vineyard, still gives me a much stronger emotional reaction than the £500 worth of wine which was generously given to me by the Russian businessman. I feel that there’s a wine lesson in there somewhere. What’s more, his friend never did turn up with the two bottles of the nineteen seventy-something vintage that he was supposed to bring, maybe another time.