It takes only one drink to get me drunk. The trouble is, I can't remember if it's the thirteenth or the fourteenth. ~George Burns
The term ‘over the top’ which as we all know refers to examples of extremism or excessiveness is thought to have originated in the WW1 British Trenches when officers would order their men over the top of the trenches but how many of us have genuinely experienced an over the top moment?
What is over the top though? Rolls Royce fit an umbrella inside the door frame of their cars, even the ones destined for the Middle East but is that a luxurious touch or excess? Wayne Rooney is paid £300k per week but often puts in a third division performance, Bugatti built the Veyron, a car with twin engines and a maximum speed in excess of 200mph when the only place you can really open it up is a racetrack and Royal Dragon place genuine 23 carat Gold leaf in their Vodka even though it adds zero to the flavour. Examples of excess or justified under any conditions? Julius Caesar was stabbed 23 times with long wide bodied blades when experts have often predicted one would have done the job. Excess or safe planning? Some wines from Burgundy can be worth £2k per bottle while their neighbours literally over the adjoining fence can be as little as £10 so is that over the top or coincidental geography?
I’ve enjoyed wrestling with conundrums like those above for years and usually come down on the side of good planning and luxurious touches as I don’t really believe I’ve ever seen anything that couldn’t be justified in some way, even Rooneys wages; that is until Friday night in London. Dianne and I were staying in a lovely hotel in Kensington, London which boasted a Michelin starred chef and we decided to try his food out. I considered the Scampi and changed my mind but thankfully the neighbouring table ordered it and I say thankfully because I don’t think I will ever erase the Silence of the Seafood image from my mind. The actual Scampi themselves were wrapped in some sort of pink fluff that made them look like candy floss but the plate decoration was the star of the show. The Chef had taken a langoustine and publically humiliated it. Not only was it not destined to be consumed, it was mounted high above the plate with four extra long cocktail sticks shoved up its Jacksy. An ignominious end to a graceful creature. I ordered the Lamb chops which would have been a shining example of the ridiculous had it not been for mr Langoustine simply because of their size. They should really have been termed Embryo chops because they were genuinely so tiny but then we saw another table being served up some sort of plastic globe with a bright pink syrup inside and a cocktail stick in the top. I asked the waiter who started to explain what sauce it was when he veered off to say that the Chef likes people to interact with the food. Silly me, I thought our part of the interaction was to eat it! Dianne ordered a tiramisu for a sweet and I joked that it would really make my evening if it arrived on a cocktail stick which made her laugh but guess what,, it did! Try to imagine it and if you cant, pop into the shop and I’ll explain in more detail but if there was ever an example of Over the Top it was our chef that evening.
So, when faced with a prime example of edible excess, what is the best wine to counter it with? Thankfully on Friday, I had ordered wine in my safe zone because the menu looked like a tad pretentious and when in doubt about flavours, Ive always found solace in a Gran Reserva Rioja. Slightly closed on the nose, Riojas rarely clash with food aromas and their vanilla dominated palate is an easy match with a huge range of foods from meats to fish and pasta. Rioja is still mainly produced from Tempranillo or Grenache grapes. I prefer a majority of the former grape because it takes to oak like a duck to water. The fruit tends to be soft and dumbed down but absorbs and releases the vanilla flavours of the wood with ease. Soft, creamy fudge flavours with ripe juicy tannins, the Gran Reservas are the easiest food match ever. They can take the sting out of curry while adding velvety fruit to a good steak and body to a pasta dish. Gran Reserva Riojas are aged for a minimum of 5 years of which two must be in cask but many of the ones Ive fallen in love with over the years have seen more than a decade of ageing. Some of the big international Rioja houses such as Faustino occasionally release very old stocks and its currently possible to purchase off the shelf 1964’s and 1970 vintages which says a lot about the structure of the wine and even more about the particular producer. In the past, it was not uncommon for some bodegas to age their red wines for 15–20 years or even more before their release. One notable example of this is the Marqués de Murrieta which released its 1942 vintage gran reserva in 1983 after 41 years of aging and it was absolutely delightful and yet other products including spirits such as Bourbon and Malts can get what is often termed Oak Burn from excessive time in a cask and it leaves them tasting dry, bland and sometimes smoky.
The other thing I like about Rioja is that they often bottle their wines in the full range of sizes, especially the gigantic bottles which are perfect for parties where you want to impress the neighbours. I opened a Matuzalem of Rioja to celebrate 20 years in business last week and it poured nearly 60 glasses to happy punters before running itself dry.
Anyway, I apologise for digressing today but the poor langoustine was there for the taking to be honest and the look on its face with those four lances poking up its bum will be with me forever.
Don Jacobo Gran Reserva Rioja
Stunningly presented with a gold label, this dark crimson red wine is a soft explosion of stewed fruits and fudge with vanilla custard and a few cigars thrown in for good measure.
Faustino 1 Gran Reserva Rioja
Similar to the Don Jacobo but without the hints of cedar wood and cigar smoke. Faustino 1 does have more visible tannins as well which makes it absolutely perfect with barbeque steaks and burgers (posh burgers mind you)
Widely available £19 to £23