Tuesdays are rarely thought of as the most lark and jape-filled days, yet this Tuesday I had a royal time quite unlike any other Tuesday in recent memory. Not only was there excellent food and wine but greater enjoyment value was provided by seeing two friends who are firmly established at a far more grown-up end of the wine trade than I could ever hope to inhabit.
Before I get on to Santa Maria, London’s best pizza establishment where I have had the most consistently stunning and ultimately gratifying examples of my life, and give a brief overview of the wines we had an irksomely limited time to taste and appreciate I think it reasonable to introduce the dramatis personae of the afternoon’s capers in more detail.
Mac Forbes is Australia’s most charming fellow. “Not much competition!” the wags amongst my esteemed readership may quip, but Mac is someone really special. ‘Special’ in a good way, I mean. Coming from a country famed for its sociable inhabitants who loathe Europeans in general and the English in particular Mac is unusual in relishing his frequent trips to the Northern hemisphere and positively unique in not endlessly whining about the weather here.
The reasons for his trips are relevant to this site: he comes to work with, learn from and, I would wager, teach an impressive amount to a select few luminaries of the European wine-making scene – all deeply in favour at Elitistreview. These experiences surely assisted in developing an aesthetic ideal and set of skills that enable him to produce the most interesting and stylish wines from Australia that I would have no hesitation ranking as obviously the country’s best. They are entities of finesse, harmony and winning attractiveness. Consequently, when I first met the man himself I was not surprised to find him supremely tuned to the correct wavelengths. Tuesday’s chat over a few glasses (after an admittedly heavy tasting engagement that morning) showed us to be in absolute agreement on innumerable topics as varied as most Australian wine-makers missing the entire point of drinks, associates of the natural wine movement tending to spout duplicitous crap (especially in their choice of name) and red trousers being top clothing for all, be they fathers or insane wine-writers.
I feel charged with age-related angst admitting that I have known Lance Foyster for nigh-on twenty years. We first met at Oxford where he was the local Master of Wine who could be relied upon to give emergency tastings when other merchants couldn’t be arsed to turn up. Moreover, his efforts in training the blind-tasting team were much valued, even though he thought we were odiously convinced of our own peerless skills. I think he wanted to take us down a peg or two when he gave my team the most fiendishly difficult blind tasting session I have ever experienced. The chance he’d demand I identify another bottle of that impossibly perplexing Soave resulted in palpable terror when we met for years afterward.
However, his shop was unusually packed with fascinating wines for this neophyte taster, so I risked the Soave peril and rolled up every so often to buy palate-improving kit and, when allowed, pick his brains. His intense passion for wine was evident and one I shared, but I soon realised he had more laudable traits rarely found in those who sell. Most of us who have worked with wine know that, with depressing frequency, we are going to have to tell appalling lies about despicable filth in order to dump the dross on a no-hoper and earn our not-terribly honest wage. Lance has never done this. I imagine it has made his career more challenging, but unless it interests him Lance will not buy, sell or even spout salesman’s platitudes about a wine. Years of application have informed his tastes, which I usually am in absolute agreement with, and that which does not stimulate them is irrelevant. Disinterest in and disconnection from the dull is, alas, uncommon in the wine trade and by sticking to his principles Lance (and his partner Isabelle Clark) have built up a business with the most captivating and consistently high-quality list I have seen in this country. Their portfolio tasting was obscenely enjoyable and these days, given the protective shields of loud shirts and lurid trousers, I’m not always petrified when he asks if I want to try something blind.
Makes a change all this nice stuff about people rather than torrents of colourful abuse, eh? I rather enjoy it. The pizza and wine bits below are also positive.
I’ve now been to the Ealing pizza establishment Santa Maria quite often and I was happy to finally get Editor Daniel there – I value his sophisticated appreciation of food. Whilst they’ve been consistently superb, Tuesday lunch went beyond being top bunny fast food into that mesmeric realm where the boundaries of pleasure are expanded and conceptions of extreme enjoyment are redefined. It was cracking.
When looking at the menu Daniel commented that as he read about each pizza he wanted one. I warned him they were quite large and always left me stuffed, so we limited ourselves to three pizzas between the two of us.
Previous experience suggests it would be hard to do otherwise, but as we launched into our lunchtime trio we felt we had ordered rather well. It was certainly a great move to upgrade the mozzarella on two of them to the DOC Buffalo option, especially as the price difference was minuscule. Moving from one pizza to another continually increased our gratification and it became clear that, whilst they were all quite different, any relative quality distinctions were impossible. I’ll attempt to encapsulate the character of each one.
The Pizza Carmela came with cooked, chopped ham and grated Parmesan as additions to the usual toppings. At first glance the ham didn’t look so interesting, it wouldn’t have looked out of place on the most drearily banal of takeaway pizzas. Yet it had an intensity that did it for me in lewd style. Rich, complex and gorgeous piggy flavours filled my mouth and just kept on lingering; ham from the top shelf kept hidden by an opaque wrapper to minimise it arousing sensual passions. I love Parmesan and the quality of cheese used for this was transparently obvious. This looked like a pretty standard pizza, it was lubriciously enjoyable.
Next to hit the table was a Calzone San Salvatore, a folded pizza with more of that cooked ham and also Neapolitan salami along with a mixture of mozzarella, ricotta and Parmesan cheeses inside it. It looked very thin as far as my previous experiences of calzones went, not a stuffed pouch. However, the ratio of filling to crust was just right and the fillings themselves were in absolute harmony, complementing each other in satisfying style. I have waxed lyrical in the past about the marvels of La Porchetta’s calzone, it seems a pale, weak construction having consumed half of this wonder.
Number three, the Giuseppe, undoubtedly left me gob-smacked. Its toppings were Neapolitan sausage, Buffalo mozzarella, chilli flakes and something I never thought I would order, wild broccoli known as friarielli. If you are a charitable type and willing to endure a degree of revulsion you probably view green things with distrust. An active aversion to the horror broccoli is a measured and sensible view. The friarielli served to us was completely removed from such vileness – it is the only broccoli I’ve eaten that I have actually eaten. This disconcertingly pleasant flavour was a delicious match with brilliantly meaty sausage and enlivened by the chilli. What a pizza! Far better than its description and immeasurably beyond anything my imagination suggested.
The restaurant is rightly proud of their carefully chosen ingedients, ostentatiously displayed on their website homepage, and also their wood-fired pizza oven. These, along with skill in preparation and a manifest desire to excel, make Santa Maria a champion destination for enlightened diners who know that fast food can deliver extremes of gustatory pleasure.
Finally, the wines. Much to my chagrin I’ve be obliged to move my UK stash of wine to a temporary location that I have suddenly been unable to access. I am intensely pained that almost nothing accessible is drinkable. The horror. The best I had for Mac and Lance to try were two Domaine Arlaud 2007s that should have been rather good: a Morey-Saint-Denis Premier Cru Millandes and Chambolle-Musigny Premier Cru Chatelots. When I popped the Chambolle and sniffed I was appalled; somehow it had been exposed to heat and been totally ruined. I could only apologise and pop the Morey with my fingers crossed. It was a delicious wine that really pulsed with the wonderful fruit and complex earthiness of Morey. Charged with sophistication it was very close to reaching its peak of drinkability. During the 45 minutes available before appointments called us to different ends of London it opened up, gained complexity and became really rather lovely. I swiped what remained of the bottle and it peaked at 4am on Wednesday morning and maintained that quality until I necked the final glasses at 2am Thursday morning. It was suffused with the excellence of the village and was a lambent 2007; Cyprien Arlaud always delivers in style.
I was very happy to try Mac’s range of 2010s and quite impressed by the jump in complexity they showed compared to his 2008s; they’ll get even better as the vineyards mature. I consider myself a seasoned expert on the Yarra Arneis having tried it with uncommon regularity, which is to say a total of four times. Mac’s 2010 was a taut, minimalist wine of precise fruit and direct acidity. The general fruit character? Difficult… Let’s say something between approximately ripe Riesling and less fortunate Muscat. Sounds nasty, and perhaps it nearly is, but Australian wines are never this refreshing or suitable for oysters and general fish-themed food. It definitely had value.
The other white we tried was the 2010 Woori Yallock Chardonnay. It was the most restrained, elegant and stunningly complex Australian Chardonnay I’ve tasted. Needless to say, duty required me to craftily swipe an extra slug of whilst people were distracted. Not many from there are 12%. This is because the grapes were not overblown with sugar (and devoid of acid) when harvested but had an average level of ripeness about spot on to craft a light, enjoyable drink. However, within the the plot of vines there was great variation around this average in the maturity of fruit, giving the final wine its pleasing, intricate array of flavours. As a result, you could drink this thrilling little number all day and never get bored.
When I first poured each of Mac’s Pinots and noted the colours I almost wondered what an Australian wine-maker would make of them. Of course, the one present was pleased as chips with them as he knows depth of flavour and depth of colour have little correlation. Insisting your wines be inky purple is a weird perversion.
The Yarra Valley Pinot Noir, made from a blend of grapes grown in two locations, may have been a small-scale wine of moderate alcohol content but its attractive fruit was amazingly pretty and deliciously enjoyable on both the nose and palate. Coupled with this, its bright acidity and lively tannins made it an energetic and refreshing drink of quite light body. It certainly would never leave you feeling tired and generally shagged out after a few glasses, a trait which results in wines as horrific as the loathsome Mollydooker.
His Gruyere Pinot was the very first of Mac’s wines I tried. Back then I loved its compact style and elegant fruit. Whilst retaining these desirable attributes, the 2010 had slightly riper fruit aromas, a touch more fat to its body and more complexity when sniffing and tasting. A corking drink that delivered wizard enjoyment.
When trying the complete range of Mac’s single-vineyard Pinots it is the Yarra Glen which most excites me: his 2010 is the best yet. It is the youngest vineyard he farms so its complex profile is perhaps a touch surprsing. Its taut, focussed fruit displays plenty of intricate detail with a direct and pure stoniness enhancing its sophistication. Great acidity and a lithe structure keep it highly drinkable and the intensity of flavour really shows it to be a shining star of coruscating quality. It is Australia’s best Pinot, oh yes.
Quite a Tuesday, I am sure you’ll agree. These are three first-class recommendations. Firstly, Mac Forbes stellar 2010s are all worthy of fun token expenditure and will generate a new enthusiasm for the best from Australia. Secondly, Clark Foyster Wines whose rejection of the mundane and commitment to quality led them to Mac and an array of other topping producers. Finally, don’t clean Lance out of wine as you’ll need a few notes to visit Ealing and writhe with pleasure when eating Santa Maria’s sublime pizzas. Producer, purveyor and pizzeria are all at the very top of their classes.
Oh yes, whilst Ealing is largely quite nice and civilised, a couple of shops near Lance’s pad seemed a tad out of place. One called ‘CP Loft’ featured a spanking horse in its window, I felt the other, ‘Strip Training’, was more my kind of place.
-  Red trousers are almost required uniform for the London wine trade. In all honesty, I find such efforts to be a tad inadequate. This is because I have a pair of livid pink cords with ducks embroidered on. These are trousers at the bleeding edge of stunning leg-attire and clearly signal my unswerving dedication to wine. I admit they provoke largely incoherent threats of violence from horrible, horrible Woolwich’s hard of thinking majority, but such fellows rarely come around to dinner. Those who do correctly recognise them as trousers of the gods! ↩