I have sometimes been heard to say that the difference between New World and Old World wines can be likened to the difference between Las vegas and Milan. The former is all brash, up-in-your-face, full-on instant likeability. The latter is a more subtle pleasure – austere on the surface but complex, infused with history, and beautiful once you get to know it. That pretty much sums up the difference between big, buttery, oaky New World Chardonnays and the more austere and complex wines from the Chablis region in France. I always giggle quietly when people wrinkle their noses in distaste and tell me how they despise Chardonnay but then quite happily order a bottle of Chablis – for that is what Chablis wines are made of: 100% Chardonnay grapes! And it was these elegant French wines that I recently went to Sushi Samba to taste.
Sushi Samba is situated on the 38th floor od the Heron Tower in Bishopsgate, right in the heart of the City of London with breathtaking views in all directions. Once we had gawped at the unobstructed view across to Canary Wharf and beyond, as well as the unusual perspective of The Gherkin’s pinnacle at eye level, we settled down at our long table off the bar in the private dining room. Our guide through the world of Chablis and food matching was the knowledgeable Fiona Beckett and she started off with some background to the Chablis apellation. The term Chablis is AOC-protected, meaning that only wines made in the the designated 15x20km Chablis region from Chardonnay grapes may be called Chablis. The wines of Chablis are divided into four classifications, each reflecting differences in type of soil and orientation of the slopes on which the grapes are grown – and ultimately quality. The highest classification is made up of the 7 Grand Cru vineyards, all located on a single hillside near the town of Chablis and accounting for only 3% of annual Chablis production. Next come the 40 Premier Cru vineyards; followed by the generic AOC Chablis – the largest classification in the region but also the one that shows the most variability between producers and vintages. The lowest classification is Petit Chablis, which may include grapes grown at the outer edges of the region. Grand Cru Chablis can generally age for well over 15 years while many Premier Crus will age well for at least 10 years.
Fiona also pointed out that the classic pairing with any Chablis usually involves seafood, particularly classic French dishes; and that as a general rule, Grand Cru Chablis works better with warm food while Premier Cru works better with cold dishes. Of course, Sushi Samba is not in the business of serving classic French dishes – its menu is an intriguing fusion of Japanese and South American influences, and the purpose of our afternoon was to see if Chablis could also work well with these exotic flavours. Although sushi is thought of as raw fish, there are some very strident flavours in most sushi – soy, ginger and wasabi to mention but a few – and a wine would need a certain fullness to cope with these strong flavours. To kick off proceedings we started with two sushi roll platters: the Samba London rolls (£16.00) and the Sao Paolo rolls (£15.00), containing such varied flavours as crab, tuna, salmon, white fish, prawn, scallop, wagyu beef, avocado, wasabi mayo, aji panca pepper, soy sauce reduction, masago (fish roe), red onion, truffle, hatcho miso soy and chive oil. We also tried four wines with the sushi in an attempt to find the best match. First up was a 2012 Domaine William Fevre Petit Chablis (12% alc), a fresh wine with flavours of apricot and gooseberry. The wine had good acidity but a slightly short finish, and for me it lacked the required fullness to match the food – the sushi served to emphasise its acidity. The second wine was a 2012 Vallons Maison Lamblin et Fils Chablis Premier Cru (13% alc) with a tart Granny Smith apple nose, a lovely fruity mouth-filling palate, some lip-smacking acidity and a long, clean finish. I thought this was an excellent sipping wine, but with the food it seemed to lack acidity to stand up to the flavours and ended up tasting a little flabby. The third wine was a 2012 Vaillons J Moreau & Fils Premier Cru Chablis (13% alc). This wine had a very shy nose and far higher acidity than the previous wine, and some austere grapefruit and gooseberry flavours with a medium long finish. With the sushi, the wine came into its own more as some rounded apply flavours emerged. A nice match. But may favourite match was the final wine: a 2012 Vaillons Maison Verget Chablis Premier Cru (13% alc). This wine also had a slightly shy nose with subtle vanilla-caramelly flavours. The palate was less acidic tan the previous wine but still a fairly lean palate. The revelation was how it brought out the best in the food – in particular, the wine gloriously intensified the flavour of the fish roe. Truly a stunning food wine!
The next plates of food that arrived were the green bean tempura with black truffle aioli (£7.00); and the crispy yellowtail taquitos with avocado and roasted corn miso (£12.00). The beans were attractively served and quite extraordinary – feather-light and crispy, and a perfect foil for the indulgent, fluffy truffle aioli. I could easily have polished of a few boxes of these… The taquitos were similarly amazing, with the smoky roasted corn pairing beautifully with the sweet-fleshed yellowtail and the crunch of the tacos. Paired with these two dishes we had two wines, the first of which was a 2011 Les Clos Domaine Christian Moreau Pere et Fils Chablis Grand Cru (13% alc). This wine had hints of smoky minerality on the nose and appealing flavours of ripe, sweet grapefruit, but seemed not quite structured enough to match the food, with a medium finish. The second wine, a 2011 Vaulorent Domaine Nathalie & Gilles Fevre Premier Cru (13% alc) was quite fabulous – buttery, ripe and rich but with good structure and lovely sweet lime flavours. It had a spectacularly long finish and was a splendid match for the truffle aioli and (surprisingly!) the coriander leaf notes in the taquitos. Another outstanding food wine that I’d happily invest in.
This was followed by a dish of black cod miso anticuchos (£18.50) – an utterly impressive combination of succulent, moist chunks of fish with an umami-rich charred flavour. The wines chosen to match this dish brought the first disappointment – a bad bottle. The 2003 Vaucoupin La Meuliere Chabls Premier Cru (13% alc) looked promising with a deep gold colour but as soon as you tasted it, you knew it was oxidised – more like drinking a sherry than a Chablis, and no good at all with or without the food. We fared far better with the 2003 La Foret Domaine Pinson Chablis Premier Cru (13% alc) – a deep gold wine with a shy nose and the faintest hint of bottle age. Despite it’s age, it remains a huge wine retaining some mouth-watering acidity and very long caramelly finish. It was also fantastic with the food, which tempered the wine’s acidity while the wine brought out the smoky flavours in the food. A fantastic match.
Our final dish of the afternoon was the mushroom tobanyaki with poached egg and garlic chips (£16.00). This was an indulgent dish without ever being too heavy, and as always, I am a sucker for anything with a poached egg in it! There were three matching wines this time, starting with a 2008 Bougros Domaine du Colombier Chablis Grand Cru (13% alc). The first bottle was oxidised again, but a second bottle fared better with a nose of sun-warmed apricots and a fresh acidity on the palate. Sadly though, I did not think it did the food any favours, or vice versa. Next up was a 2008 Blanchot Domaine Guy Robin et Fils Chablis Grand Cru (13% alc), another delicious wine with marmalade notes and almost cinnamon spice notes on palate while retaining a nice balancing note of acidity. But it was the final wine that I thought best matched the food – a 2008 Les Preuses Clotilde Davenne, Les Temps Perdu Chablis Grand Cru (13% alc). This wine had a delicious floral nose with hints of butterscotch, and notes of stewed apples on the palate, but finely balanced with acidity. This was my favourite sipping wine of the afternoon, but it was also an outstanding match for this dish, enhancing the truffliness of the mushrooms. A winner all round! It had been an educational afternoon – few, if any, would consider Chablis to be a natural match for this type of fusion cuisine, but many of the wines coped admirably with some standouts. It was definitely an eye-opening tasting and a reminder that there is almost always benefit in looking beyond the tried and tested food and wine matches.
And so, with the tasting out of the way, all that remained was to finish what was in our glasses while admiring the views from Sushi Samba’s floor-to-ceiling windows as the sun finally broke through the rainclouds and gave us a spectacular sunset. If you do visit Sushi Samba, make sure to take a trip to the loos with the best views in London, and remember to stop off in the beautiful bar for a quick pre- or post-prandial drink.
DISCLOSURE: I attended this event as a guest of Sopexa PR but was not required to write a positive review. I retained full editorial control and all opinions are my own.
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