Roger Jones is one of a kind. Not only he is such generous, fantastic company, but he is a rare breed. A Michelin-starred chef who is as passionate about wine as he is the food he creates. He not only lists great wines from all over the world, he travels, visits and hosts wine dinners from Cape Town to New Zealand. This week lucky members of the trade will be invited by Roger and his wife, Sue, to take part in a series of events at their restaurant, The Harrow at Little Bedwyn. But before he hits the stoves and corkscrew he shares his wine and food secrets.
Roger Jones tells it is how it is when it comes to food and wine matching, chefs that don’t like wine, and why for him food is only as good as the wine you are drinking with it.
This week you and your wife, Sue, are hosting a whole series of wine events and dinners at your restaurant including the Mamba awards and Tri-Nations dinner on Friday. Why do you do these events, some of which are free to the trade? How did these events first come about?
It all started with The Mamba Riedel Decanter Awards set up over 12 years ago, I had amassed a huge collection of Australian wines and the general market was not aware of the quality available from Australia away from the big Chardonnays and boxing match Shiraz. We had over 300 wines from Oz ( including 48 Rieslings) on our list and I wanted to educate both the trade and public on the quality available.
The public or at least our customers soon got the idea and we now only invite the trade. We have some 200 applications to attend the event every year, but only can accommodate 80 guests. It is free to attend.
From The Mamba Awards representing Australia we became aware of another country struggling to make a break into the premium wine market – South Africa – and since our first visit there four years ago have now amassed over 100 South African wines on our list some exclusive, and even make our own label wines there.
Over a late night drink we came up with the idea of The Tri Nations Wine Challenges to highlight the quality of South African Wines against Australia and New Zealand. With the support of The Vineyard Hotel in Cape Town we came up with the format of a six course dinner matched by two blind wines, from two countries. Every January we host this in Cape Town, and then at The Harrow at Little Bedwyn in July, but in the last year the Challenges have elevated up a notch. In February I was flown out to New Zealand to host the event at Craggy Range and California have now joined as a “Guest Wine Nation” with California challenging South Africa hosted firstly by The Vineyard Hotel in Stockcross, Berkshire in October, before going to Cape Town in January and next year to California.
Four years ago we also realised how special “Sparkling Wine” was becoming, and started “Sparkling Sunday”, the first year we set it up as a blind competition and had entries from across the globe, from Cristal and DP to the cream of England to MCC from South Africa to Cava and Tasmania – we have since hosted this in Cape Town too.
Following a trip to Alsace last year I became aware of the huge diversity, quality and value of this region and this Sunday am hosting a Grand Alsace tasting and lunch. We sold 80 tickets in 24 hours, which highlights the publics’s conception and thirst for this area.
What do you personally get out of hosting these events?
It is the opportunity to work on a much bigger scale than I normally cater for at my Michelin star restaurant. These events in general cater for between 80 and 150 guests. For the events hosted by us at The Harrow we put a marquee so we can cater for 80 guests, still way off the numbers I used to cater for as a 21 year old as head chef for State Banquets back in the early 1980’s where we catered for 900 guests at The Guildhall.
We also get involved in various charities including The Benevolent. Last year we raised £40,000 over a lunch for 40 guests in aid of The NSPCC Wales, and last week raised over £12,000 over a Sunday lunch in association with Ancre Hill Wine Estates.
Tell us about the Mamba awards taking place this week.
The format is quite straight forward, we highlight two Australian grape varieties, the wines are shown open (not blind) with the retail price clearly marked, so you are influenced by the name and price, the Awards are now only open to the Trade and there is a long waiting list to attend every year.
We request samples from all Australia’s wine producers. There is no charge to enter nor is there a charge to attend which also includes a six course Michelin star dinner matched with fine wines after the judging. The event is funded by Sue and myself, but supported by Riedel who provide all the glassware and prizes, Decanter Magazine who provide one of the awards and media and Wine Australia who endorse the event.
All wines have to be current releases, and in general we limit the number to 100 wines in total. Steven Spurrier is our head judge, although in general voting is set by the guests who nominate their top three wines in every category. Besides the winners in the two grape varieties, last year Giaconda won the Chardonnay category, which reflects that price does not influence the winner.
There is also the ‘The Yvonne May Memorial Decanter” for best value wine, in reflection of this lovely lady who was such an inspiration not only to Wine Australia but to life and The Decanter Trophy for best Importer|Supplier of the night.
You also use these events to travel, cook and host events around the world. Why do you do that and when did they start…
Well first there are the long haul business class flights and the chance to stay in luxury hotels, but it is also the amazing opportunities to work with great people all round the world. The chance to work with youngsters who may not have the opportunity to challenge themselves, to highlight great wines to winemakers from areas they may not often get the opportunity to taste, because I always believe in pushing the goal posts and try and find perfection knowing it can never be reached.
You are one of few chefs who take their wine so seriously…why are you so in to your wine?
I was very lucky in my youth to work in some serious places where wine was very important – rare back in the early 1980’s. But working in places like Downing Street, Lancaster House, Kensington Palace, The Guildhall and numerous Livery Halls including The Vintners gave me the opportunity rarely given to teenagers even today. When we set up The Harrow at Little Bedwyn 19 years ago we were aware that there were many great food restaurants and some good wine restaurants but in those days the combination was rare.
We were the first UK restaurant to serve quality wines by the glass, Vintage Krug, Penfolds Grange, Clos St Hune you name it we had it. This was supported by Riedel Glassware and Le Verre Du Vin. We were also the first UK restaurant to offer wines by the glass to match to every dish on the menu. We now offer three wines per each dish including a Coravin selection. Out of interest we also banned smoking five years before the law came in.
It is also important to understand that wine must take precedent over the food. Food is simple, one just trusts in great suppliers and ingredients and don’t fuck around with the ingredients. Chefs only spoil food, whilst making wine is an art that takes years of dedication. Tell that to a normal chef! But, hey ho, I’ve had a Michelin Star for 12 years.
When did your professional interest in wine begin and why?
As above but possible when I was evicted from public school for consumption of alcohol.
What are your favourite regions/wine styles for cooking with?
Food and wine evolves, and as food is now much lighter and there is less use of cream etc we are seeing wines changing also to less alcohol, cleaner, leaner more focussed wines. Many winemakers I talk to are not aware of the equality that both food and wine are evolving to but clearly both are going this way. Simple but effective, less is more.
Any advice as a chef as to how pair food with wine? What are the basics you are looking for?
Throw those food and wine matching books on the BBQ. They’re total crap, just like inane cookery books. I lasted less than a term at catering college, I was dumbfounded when we had to plunge tomatoes into boiling water and then into chilled water to take the skins off – what for? You complete idiots – what is better than eating a fresh tomato straight off the vine?
The old matching of peppered Steak with a Shiraz (with its beautiful refined peppery spices) is so wrong as it increases the peppery taste in both wine and food. You need to look for balance.
Curry – oh yes don’t get me started on this. Riesling, Gewurtztraminer- total bollocks! The perfect obvious match is Chardonnay, with its vanilla soothing creamy nuances. What do they drink with food in India – Lassi a yogurt drink. Anything aromatic will be ruined.
What are your favourite regions/wine styles for drinking?
South Africa with Chenin especially Bush Vine and Old Vine, white blends whether from Rhone, Australia or South Africa. Refined Chardonnay from New Zealand, European whites from Spain to Czech. Reds light Pinots from Germany, Walker Bay, Martinborough. Quality Bordeaux style wines from Hawkes Bay and Margaret River and sparkling Wine from Wales, England, Tassie and South Africa.
Why don’t you think more chefs are in to their wines?
Arrogance, failure to educate in colleges, and tradition. But I must bow down to a few great ones; Martin Lam, Rowley Leigh and Christine Parkinson ( ex chef now in charge of wine buying at Hakkasan)
Your tips on the countries/regions/ styles to keep your eye on…
Eastern Europe, South Africa and Spain.
Your desert island favourite dish?
My mother’s Welsh Cakes.
What is the best wine match with that?
Ancre Hill Blanc de Blanc 2010 although I am told the 2013 is even better
Your favourite place for a sunset drink?
Have been blessed by having so many amazing sunset drinks – from Thailand to Table Mountain. The best memory is that it is normally just Sue and myself reflecting on what an incredible lucky life and family we have.