Episode 22 – 26th August 2020
This week I have decided to share a piece I wrote back in April when I learned that a great friend of mine and a wonderful wine trade character tragically and very suddenly passed away. It has taken a good few months for me to decide to publish these words so I do hope that you enjoy reading them. I was rather painful writing this, but as the memories came back I found myself smiling, too. I have two wines which relate to HJG this week, and they are both over a tenner, so I hope that you forgive me for flouting my own rules this week.
HJG – a palate like no other
HJG. These initials have appeared in my diary, who knows, a thousand, two thousand, three thousand times in the last thirty years. Over this period, HJG and I have never had what one would call a meeting or, for that matter, a work call. We have only ever enjoyed tastings, which have inevitably turned into lunches, or hilarious phone conversations which started off as wine-based and ended up as a series of hilarious soundbites about our funny old industry peppered with side-splitting observations. HJG was one of a kind and she had a palate like no other.
I first met Hilary (I never found out what the J was) Gibbs in 1990 when I started writing the wine list for Bibendum Restaurant & Oyster Bar, on the Fulham Road, in London. She supplied a handful of labels to the 1000-strong wine list and by the time this legendary restaurant was at its peak, and we were winning awards for our wine cellar, she perhaps supplied over 10% of the collection. It was clear that Domaine Direct was one of only a handful of must-have wine suppliers if you wanted to build a truly great wine list and Hilary was the heart, soul and taste buds of Domaine Direct.
I stopped consulting for restaurants in 2018 and since 1999 I have been a hybrid wine trade member, buying, commentating, judging and writing and I find that the percentage of wines that I buy, talk about or write up at the end of any year is around 2% of the 30,000 – 40,000 wines which pass my lips. It is not uncommon for me to taste 150+ wines at a trade event and come away with nothing.
Domaine Direct was the only wine business that presented me with wines which I unanimously adored. This was a 100% hit rate wine specialist company and this is completely unheard of in our industry. Of course, I told HJG that she was a 98%-er because it sounded more realistic, but Hilary sourced the most perfect and concise list of wines that I have ever encountered and everyone who knew her felt the same way.
HJG’s relationships with her growers in Burgundy pre-dated hosts of Burgundy specialists in the UK and this showed her undoubted talent and conviction. But landing wineries such as Leeuwin Estate (Margaret River, Western Australia) and Spottswoode (California) showed the undisputable class that she possessed in finding the very best estates on earth for her finely-tuned portfolio. When I joined Bibendum Restaurant I thought I knew a lot about Burgundy, after all, the late, great, Bill Baker was my predecessor in compiling this wine list. But, as it turned out, the wines were pale and stale by comparison the vibrancy, dynamism, accuracy and joy that Hilary’s Domaines had in spades. I was very much aware that at each of our tastings I was being taught by one of the most quietly spoken, modest and awesomely talented palates in the wine world, and I listened to and remembered every single word.
We became friends and I would like to think that I showed Hilary a few wines from outside of her portfolio which impressed her, too. Perhaps this combined openness and fascination with wine and also restaurants gave rise to us collaborating on The Crescent, 99 Fulham Road. HJG, Paul Medhurst, my great pal, and I opened London’s first modern wine bar back in the mid-90s and it was an instant hit with the wine trade and food critics as well as Madonna, Kylie and the fashionistas, who poured in to sip Domaine Direct’s greatest hits, among others, at highly competitive prices.
The interior of The Crescent was designed by Ed Barber and Jay Osgerby, who were fresh out of the Royal College of Art. This was their first-ever professional appointment and you only have to google this epic duo to see just how admired they are in the design world today (they are the creative directors for my Jukes Cordialities’ packaging, too). It is amazing to think that HJG encouraged these chaps in their chosen field of expertise – her reach extended well beyond the wine trade. The Crescent’s wine list was described by Andrew Jefford, in the Evening Standard, at the finest in London and the only place in the country where you could drink DRC with a BLT! I know that Hilary enjoyed dipping her toe into the restaurant world and when Kensington & Chelsea council made it punitively hard to cope with rent and rates increases, it was sad to close the Crescent’s doors and see Stella McCartney broaden her shop frontage and swallow up our wine bar.
HJG powered on with ever finer selections of wines and ‘Hilary’s reserve list’, which was top secret, was utterly mind-blowing. This was a high-security corner of DD cellar that I raided to serve older vintages of top-flight Roumier, Rousseau, Denis Mortet, Lamy, Droin, Jean-Marc Boillot, Sauzet, Comtes Lafon, Tollot Beaut, Géantet Pansiot, Germain and the like to visiting vinous dignitaries. In many cases, my winemaking pals from overseas tasted their first great Burgundies via Hilary’s cellar. Her reach and influence, whether she knew it or not, was prodigious. Hilary’s Beaujolais list alone was exquisite and I fell in love with this region three decades ago simply because of Janin, Thivin, Lapierre, Coudert and the other heroes which she discovered.
It is also worth mentioning that Hilary’s colleagues at Domaine Direct were the nicest bunch in the wine trade to work with, too. I am pals with a good number of ex-staff members who, like me, learned from and had great fun with the very best of mentors. Her legacy is deep and long-lasting. It is such a tragedy that she was taken from us too soon, but I am sure that we all have epic memories of crazy lunches and dinners with her and also, like a few of my other dear friends who have disappeared to the great vineyard in the sky, we have the wines that they found for us to remember them by. In HJG’s respect, this is an enormous cellar-full of great Domaines, so I and everyone else who loved her will be thinking of her very often indeed.
My chosen pair this week comes from Rebecca Perry’s new outfit Emile Wines. Rebecca was Hilary’s 2IC and she has assembled a beautiful list of old favourites from Hilary’s portfolio for her new business. Rebecca has a stunning palate and is a dynamic force in our industry so please lend her your support and keep these amazing estates flooding through our cellars!
2018 Bourgogne Côtes d’Auxerre, Guilhem et Jean-Hugues Goisot, France (£18.50, minimum order 12 bottles which can be mixed, www.emilewines.co.uk).
Based in Saint-Bris-Le-Vineux, just a few kilometres south-west of Chablis, Goisot has been making thrilling Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay for as long as I can remember. Certified biodynamic, this delightful estate makes wines with the freshness and verve of Sancerre and the minerality and bite of great Chablis. The only differences between these wines, from this little-known region, and those from the starrier climes of Sancerre and Chablis is that they are precocious, drinking perfectly in their youth and they also have silky, creamy textures which make them seem much grander than their price points suggest. My chosen Chardonnay is a true beauty showing the poise and class of a fine Chablis but with a more forgiving exterior and a kindly yet brightly refreshing finish. It is a gem of a wine.
2018 La CinsO, Domaine Anne Gros & Jean-Paul Tollot, Côtes du Brian, Minervois, France (£22.00, minimum order 12 bottles which can be mixed, www.emilewines.co.uk).
If you are a Burgundy fiend then the names Gros and also Tollot will ring alarm bells. Anne Gros and Tollot-Beaut are two of the most respected wineries in the region so it is, perhaps, rather baffling that these names are making wine down in the Minervois region of the Languedoc. I have long been a fan of these quirky, robust wines and yet I have not seen La CinsO before and Rebecca insisted that I tasted it and, boy, was she right! Coming from a single hectare block of 50-year-old Cinsault, which is planted on sandstone and marl, this terrific red wine has all of the swagger and savagery of a truly muscular Minervois red but this wild exuberance has been polished by two people who venerate the majestic Pinot Noir variety, so you can imagine the velvety texture and otherworldly gloss of this sensational creation. It is a magnificently upholstered Minervois wild man and it is stunning and drinking right now. It also comes from ‘Brian’s Hillside’ so forget the fact that it tastes incredible for a moment and if you know anyone called Brian, then this is a must, too!