Janet and I have been meaning to go to L’Ortolan, the Michelin-starred restaurant near Reading, for longer than I can remember, a couple of decades perhaps. It sprang to fame as John Burton-Race’s place (long before celebrity beckoned) but today it is in the talented hands of Alan Murchison. Janet tried to book online for my birthday but it was a Friday lunch and full. So she rang up and was offered the chef’s table … and without really understanding what that meant said ‘yes’. She has good instincts!
Alan Murchison presides over and directs one of the best kitchens in England with a calm and polite manner. The kitchen is a model of quiet concentration and productivity. Orders are passed once by the head chef with a ‘please’, timings given in a tone which clearly implies that the team are his colleagues. He assembles, tweaks, checks and occasionally corrects. While he is doing that, he talks to the guests on the chef’s table who are a couple of feet from the action. The food tastes as good as it looks, the portion control and pacing are perfect.
L’Ortolan also has an enterprising wine list with more than a smattering of off-piste bottles of which we certainly had one. Josko Gravner is famous for the production of ‘orange’ wine, oxidative in style, vinified in amphora and matured in large traditional barrels. Culturally, it is quite difficult to imagine many greater gaps in Europe than between a Michelin-starred restaurant in affluent Berkshire and the biodynamic viticulture which Gravner practices on the Italian/Slovenian border but contemporary life is full of such contrasts. This was the top, four-way blend (Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Pinot Grigio, Riesling Italico, ie central Europe’s Welschriesling), called Breg 2002. In colour, the wine was orange heading towards amber. The liquid was so clear that I could take photos of the kitchen at work through it. Thus, despite being the last word in low intervention wine, it was crystal clear.
What strikes you principally about the wine is the volume in the mouth. Yes, there is fresh and cooked peachy fruit but the wine has a solidity and substance which makes it stand out. It is a wine which reminds you that wine is food as much as a drink, one of the principles of Italy’s natural wine movement.
Breg is an excellent all-the-way-through-a-meal wine. There is real refreshment here to match delicate dishes like the seared tuna but also enough weight to stand up to the foie gras ‘sandwich’, where the cherry cuts through the fattiness of the main ingredient. It also went perfectly with the pork which followed – though I had a glass of the restaurant’s selection of a surprisingly good Loire Pinot Noir with this. You would need to move to something quite different to match the remarkable intensity of the chocolate disc. What was remarkable was the wine’s relative freshness. Unlike modern wines made in stainless steel, it has been made in a way which does not rigorously exclude oxygen. This both contributes the slight ‘marmalade’ tone to the nose and palate but then the wine has remained very stable in the bottle for its ten-year repose. It had not developed ageing notes but merely rounded out and perhaps filled out. A triumph.
Whether you go to L’Ortolan for the food, the wine or the whole experience, it is a triumph.
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