On Thursday 12 June, Brazil open the proceedings in the 1st round of the World Cup in São Paulo playing…. Croatia. Whilst they may only be the rank outsider to win that first match, let alone the Cup itself (and hopefully I sound as though I know what I’m talking about?!), Croatia more than make up for talent when it comes to making wine.
From sparkling to dessert, they shine out like a tiny but increasingly intensely glowing beacon on some of the most interesting wine lists from top restaurants and shops across the UK. And their tenacious grip on the British public through Pacta Connect has only just begun.
There’s been a quiet rumbling about these wines in the restaurant trade for a couple of years now, and head chef Mary-Ellen McTague of The Aumbry Restaurant Prestwich, ex-Sharrow Bay, Fat Duck and Ramsons and twice a BBC Great British Menu competitor, was one of the very first to catch the Croatian bug. With her keen eye for the unusual, its potential and quality above all, from her very first tasting of their Croatian portfolio, and an opening gambit of “We’re looking for a wine to pair with hare,” there’s been a stunning relationship between The Aumbry and Pacta Connect.
There is a synergy too; both are small but perfectly formed businesses, but they are larger than life in personality and presence. Mary-Ellen’s dishes perform on the plate, and Pacta’s wines perform in the glass. Each has a love of music, the slightly whacky, the wildly kitsch, off-the-wall, non-corporate mavericks, always up for a challenge.
In October 2011 too, without knowing it, both parties were in the room for the Manchester Food & Drink Festival awards ceremony at The Lowry Hotel. This was months before they met in person. Presented by BBC Radio Manchester hosts Becky Want and Matt White, the city’s culinary heroes were “rewarded for their contribution to the gastronomic landscape” and amongst the winners was The Aumbry of Prestwich (Chef of the Year). A photo of Mary-Ellen and Lawrence receiving their award, and taken after several glasses of wine, proves that point. Interestingly enough Pacta had sponsored the dessert course for the Lowry’s dinner with their off-dry white muscat (paired by Chef Ryan Murphy with poached pears and mascarpone ice cream) that now appears on the Aumbry’s wine list.
Pacta’s challenge is always to come up with a wine for any dish that is ‘thrown at them’. Each have lists and menus that stretch the imagination, that take people a little out of their comfort zone if you let them, and can be perfectly and comfortably mainstream too for those who want to play it safe, but always with a smidgeon of daring do wherever possible.
Every perfect dish that looks as well as tastes simply beautiful, makes you feel as though you are being wrapped in a lovely white goose down duvet by the kitchen team, cosseted and mothered, whilst staff glide between us, catching us on a wave of excitement and expectation.
Cumbrian lamb with liver and kidneys, and a rich jus? Try a glass of teran barrique, earthy, full-bodied, with bloodied aromas and scents of cinnamon and wild mulberries.
Grapefruit Posset with a celery granita & grapefruit sherbert? Sure. Perhaps that same delicate white Momjan muškat with its elderflower and white nettle nose, subtly off-dry, gently aromatic and complementing from underneath, letting the dessert take centre stage.
Natural wines made to perfection and exacting standards, and that don’t smell of the farmyard, work well here too with locally sourced produce that Mary-Ellen bases much of her menu around. An Istrian malvazija, crisp and dry but zingy and zesty too, citrusy and fruity, refreshing. Can 1 wine be all of that? Yes it can. And can it pair with wild asparagus? Yes it can. And for added confirmation of that fact, Fiona Beckett has it as her Match of the Week from her gastronomic trip to Istria with Pacta Connect in March 2012! Piquentum’s elegant and classic refošk from Buzet, northern Istria on the Slovene/Croatian border; made in the heart of white truffle country with a cooler climate nose reminiscent of a walk through woodland in Autumn, the damp moss and vegetation crushing underfoot. How about trying it with rabbit perhaps? There’s that synergy again.
The Aumbry and Pacta Connect have now paired up for their first wine dinner together, that will match a flight of small production Croatian and Slovenian wines with a five course dinner created by Mary-Ellen, on Thursday 22 May.
Pacta partners Trevor and Judith will be there with no powerpoint presentation or slideshow, just themselves and stories to relate about their winemakers, with an anecdote or two, whilst they let the wines speak for themselves.
Perfect match. Expect the unexpected.
Oh, and that includes 2 desserts too!
Tickets for the Dinner from The Aumbry, Thursday 22 May 2014. Tickets are very limited.
© Pacta Connect (UK) Ltd, May 2014