The first course from The Ambeli was the House-made milk curd, shaved fennel and prosciutto di Parma. A complete and complementary range of tastes in one dish. The penetrating flavours and saltiness of the ham as well as the almonds were balanced by the milk curd. The dish had a delicate herb note from the fennel. This was served with Tio Pepe Fino Sherry. For me, this was one of the best showings of Tio Pepe. With refined pungency and great intensity and cut from the flor and acidity, this possessed a beautiful and delicate sweetness, perfectly balanced by the chalky dryness. This is a fino of great refinement at present. I can’t remember Tio Pepe ever being better. Sergi stated that there has seen a resurgence in sherry drinking lately, and there is an air of confidence in the region of production in the south-west of Spain. The wine and food combination was superb, the Tio Pepe interacting particularly with the almonds, but also the ham, moderating the saltiness and the sherry pungent dryness ameliorated. Classic stuff.
Next was Dukkah crumbed veal sweetbreads with caramelised carrot salad, black pudding and date jam. A rich and flavoursome dish, the spices of the dukkah a little absorbed by the sweetbreads, and the strong visceral black pudding sweetened by the jam. This was served with the Vinas del Vero ‘La Miranda de Secastilla’ Garnarcha Blanca 2010 from the Somontano region near the Pyrenees in the north-east. A terrific surprise for the attendees, for Grenache Blanc from the Rhone can be stolid and flat. This, from 60 y.o. vines, tank fermented and given 4 months aging in French oak has aromatic lift with florals and spices, and is seriously textured, but has cut from the refreshing acidity. Very much a wine showing cooler, high altitude provenance, and quite a revelation. The wine was excellent with the dish, the weight and texture meeting that of the sweetbread and black pudding. The dukkah was particularly flavoursome and the exotic spicing nearly prevailed over the wine’s more restrained expression, but the nuances of the wine kept on coming through.
The third food course was Paprika braised lamb belly with puy lentil salad, sun dried haloumi and roast almond psicha. This was a very rich and textural dish, the lamb the feature, with the other components providing cut and thrust nuances, but in support rather than coming to the fore. This was paired with a Finca Constantia ‘Parcela 23′ Tempranillo 2009 from the Toledo region of La Mancha in central Spain. Too often wines from this arid region are upfront and easy, or baked and rustic. This is well-ripened with dark fruits, game and liquorice notes, but a hint of Bordeaux-like elegance lurking behind the scenes. Lush and sweet, there are also herb elements with fine tannin textures. The dark chocolate characters are the warm-climate giveaway, and while accessible now, it has the style to see it age well, say another 4-5+ years easily. This was a match of textures and richness in both wine and food. The fibre of the lamb meat equalled by the grip of the tannins. The fat of the meat was given a layer of fruit sweetness from the wine. The lentils were echoed by the herb notes of the wine and similarly the roasted nuts finding like notes in the ripeness of fruit and oak toast. This was a fine match in the eating and drinking.
The next pairing was equally as good with a pair of wines served. It is always fascinating to see how different components in different wines can work with a dish. The food course was Milk braised pork belly with candied eggplant, olive and pinenut crumble, grilled artichoke, butterbean and smoked pork hock salad. Again a dish with the meat as a feature, but this time with even more layers of nuance and interest. The two wines for matching were the Beronia Rioja Crianza 2008 and Beronia Rioja Reserva 2007. These Tempranillo-based wines from the central-north of Spain are said to work extremely well with pork. The first wine was tighter, leaner, crisper, very much in the modern, elegant mould. It had fruit clarity with freshness and modest tannin extraction, but seemed a little skinny and lacking. As a wine, this could become more mellow with some bottle age, but with the pork belly, a wonderful foil, cutting through the fat of the meat. The richness and softly dense textures from the eggplant, artichoke (no problem here with its notoriety for wine matching) and butterbean added to, and filled the comparatively bony structure of the Crianza wine. The Reserva wine was more satisfying. Still a ‘modern’ style rather than traditional’ in that fruit sweetness is still prevalent, this was an altogether more significant wine with a rich completeness, from greater fruit weight and matching extract, but also from increased complexity from extended oak maturation. A plump and lush wine, with noticeable oak and savoury and piquant nuances. Here the sweetness and richness of the wine paralleled the pork belly and other food elements. The pinenut and smoked ham connected with the oaking of the wine, helping to tie it all together. The Reserva was an overall winner, but certainly the Crianza was a success with the dish too.
The fifth course was cheese with sherry. Not just any cheese or any sherry! Aged and crystalline, the Prima Dona Maturo with macadamia nut psicha and fresh figs was compact with the combined flavour of parmesan and gouda, the nuts sharing the texture, but made slippery by their oily constituency, and counterpoised by the sweetness of the figs. The match with the Gonzalez Byass Anada 1982 Palo Cortado Sherry was superb, and my pick of the day. The wine, bright orange-tawny in colour, possessed great intensity of dried fruits, tobacco and rancio. The powerful drive and cut is its feature and analogies to fine cognac and malt whisky can be understood. This solera was initiated in 1982, and the wine released in 2011. Only 600 bottles are available, and it is a sensation. This cut through the density of the cheese and nuts, and the wood flavours setting off the nuttiness and sweetness of both. The dried fruit flavours connected with the figs, the wine then becoming sweeter and fresher. The interactions in flavour and texture were multi-faceted and occurred on many levels.
The distributors Negociants N.Z. have in Gonzalez Byass a most valuable brand in their portfolio and are to be congratulated for having the commitment to support it. www.negociantsnz.com
The Ambeli has carved a niche in the fine dining category over the years, due in no small way to the enthusiasm, drive and high standards of owner Shae Moleta and his team. This menu and the matches with the very varied wines of Gonzalez Byass demonstrate the skill and attention to intricate detail that chef Josh Evans has. We are blessed that this talent resides in Wellington. www.ambeli.co.nz