Hands up, who gets intimidated by wine lists? I’ll admit to sometimes flicking through those dense pages with panicked mystification before inevitably picking the same old New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc or Chianti – playing it safe for fear of ordering something unpalatable, or worse, invoking a sommelier’s sneer.
“They’re wildly intimidating and antiquated things, wine lists. You tend to stick to what you know,” says Rupert Owen, general manager of Premier Crew and the curator of Icoa’s new wine collection. We are seated at the sleek marble counter in this revamped section of the restaurant in Seven Mile Shops for its inaugural tasting evening. Around us are shelves lined with bottles ranging from $15.99 up to a $165 Croix Batard Montrachet Grand Cru, while half a dozen fellow wine enthusiasts are grazing on cheese and charcuterie.
Billed as a “vertical interactive wine list,” Icoa’s idea is to make this stuffy subject more accessible; not only through these soon-to-be regular tasting events and day-to-day sampling opportunities (typically 10 wines are available to sample for anyone browsing or dining), but also the pricing.
While 80 percent of wine imported to Cayman comes via agents, adding on layers of extra fees, Owen sources and ships directly from producers. This means any of Icoa’s wines can be served with your food for retail price, plus a flat $15 corkage fee. By contrast, you’ll usually see a three-fold mark-up on restaurant wine lists. Don’t expect the big-name brands, though: “Quality before name” is their ethos, favoring lesser-known labels and small bottlings, and nearly all are biodynamic or organic.
After a glass of 2009 Serge Mathieu “Blanc des Noirs” Champagne to kick off the event, Owen invites us to select bottles we’re curious to try from the shelves, and proceeds to bust many a wine preconception in his engaging, down-to-earth manner. Many of us raise our eyebrows, or even shudder, when he suggests a Zinfandel and some Chardonnays. Yet the latter is the “most misunderstood wine variety in the world,” Owen insists, going on to cite wine critic Jancis Robinson’s famous quip: “It’s the tart of grape varieties because it can do anything!” Case in point: the piercing gun-flinty minerality of Domaine Grossot Chablis is contrasted with an Eric Forest Pouilly Fuisse, which is strikingly richer and bolder, hailing from southern Burgundy, yet still balanced with a touch of acidity – a far cry from those stereotypical over-oaked Chardonnays.
Then there’s the Williams Selyem Zinfandel, a “wacky grape variety” associated with sickly sweet pink stuff thanks to careless producers and terrible marketing campaigns. Now, thanks to this Bacigalupi bottling, I discover that Zinfandel can marry the grit of Cabernet with the breadth of fruit of Malbec; this explosion of dark berry fruits, cherry and even a hint of lavender is a revelation.
Another brilliant find is the 2014 Sonoma Coast bottling of Williams Selyem Pinot Noir – the nightmare grape to grow, apparently, since the thin skin makes it so susceptible to disease. No bar code on the bottle indicates that the Selyem is “dead posh” – only those on a special mailing list can order it. In fact, Icoa is the only place to sell Williams Selyem Pinot Noir in the Caribbean, having secured 20 of the 80 cases in existence.
Owen’s parting advice went down a treat, too: “Your palate is like a muscle, it needs to be exercised and the more you do it, the more varieties of wine you try, the stronger it gets.” Cheers to that.
The next wine tasting at Icoa will be on Jan. 25, priced at $50 per person. For more information, call 945-1915 or visit cayman.icoa.ky.