Best of 2016: Luis Gutierrez

As I do 16-month cycles to cover all of my regions, I don’t necessarily do all of them in one natural year. So in 2016, I didn’t publish anything on Chile and some of the regions in Spain. Argentina will be published at the end of December and I’ve only had the chance to taste the new releases from Jean-Francois Ganevat in the Jura. So within those limitations, let’s get on with the show!

Best Wines from Spain
My top three wines from Spain in 2016 were a no-brainer, as I had encountered three perfect wines while traveling the different regions of the country throughout the year. I promise it was a coincidence and I didn’t have these particular top three of the year in mind when I scored them the perfect 100 points!

2013 was one of those one-off vintages in Priorat, when natural conditions and mindset coincided to create a general shift in the style of the wines towards more precision, freshness and transparency with the terroir. If last year I had encountered the perfect 2013 l’Ermita from Álvaro Palacios, this time it was the turn for Daphne Glorian’s magnificent 2013 Clos Erasmus. After they skipped 2011, because it was too warm and ripe, the change started in 2012 and was consolidated in 2013. Following the same path of freshness and balance, 2013 is certainly the most elegant vintage to date. True to place and vintage, Clos Erasmus is better than ever.

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It’s not everyday that you see a white released thirty years after the harvest. What’s more, if the wine represents the rebirth of a style and an iconic label, it makes it even more special—if that’s possible at all. I had been anxiously waiting for the otherworldly 1986 Castillo Ygay Blanco Gran Reserva Especial from Marqués de Murrieta since I first learnt of its existence and tasted it still in concrete vats back in 2013. The only disappointment has been with the inflated retail price, which makes it hard to drink.

Last but not least is the NV 1905 Amontillado Solera Fundacional Lot B 2016 from Pérez Barquero in Montilla Moriles, a wine that shows what a very old Amontillado can be. It comes not from the better-known vineyards of Jerez, but from inland vineyards in the province of Córdoba, where the appellation provided the name for the style, as ‘amontillado’ could be freely translated to ‘in the style of Montilla.’ It took this model family winery almost ten years to sell the 1,000 bottles they had filled with wines from their oldest, foundational soleras, and in 2016 they made a new release of those exceptional wines that carry the year the winery was started, 1905, as part of their brand name.

It’s a bit of a bummer for the others when a year yields three 100-point wines, because many others, who under other circumstances would shine and make it into the top three, might be forgotten and get overshadowed by the perfect scores. So I decided to add three runners-up to my top-three list this year.

When the most common terroir in Spain is limestone, it was a curious coincidence that the soils for two of my three runners-up of the year is granite, something I only realized afterwards and this was again not intentional. The third, from Rioja, comes from classical limestone and clay soils.

Valdeorras is slowly being recognized by its exceptional whites produced with the Godello grape and part of it is because of the wines by Rafael Palacios. As good as the regular As Sortes is, the single vineyard O’Soro, only produced so far in 2009, 2011 and 2014, takes everything one step beyond. And in 2014 it shines like never before, to the point of making me say that the Rafael Palacios 2014 O’Soro Valdeorras could very well be the best modern white produced in Spain. The vineyard was planted over 40 years ago on a southwest-facing terrace at 720 meters altitude in the Bibei Valley, in the Santa Cruz village belonging to the O Bolo parish in Valdeorras. The soils are granite based, with fine sand, quartz and schist elements, and produce very elegant wines with a rare combination of high acidity and perfect ripening.

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The granite soils of O'Soro in Valdeorras have produced one of the best modern whites from Spain in 2014 (left). | The Rumbo al Norte vineyard produces Comando G’s finest Garnacha from Gredos (middle). | Las Beatas is one of those vineyards that makes your heart beat faster. Rioja like it was 100 years ago (right).

Comando G is producing some of the most exciting Garnacha in Spain. Their 2013 Rumbo al Norte comes from 0.3 hectares of 70-year-old vines in the village of Navarrevisca, located in the province of Ávila in the Gredos mountain range; the vineyard is situated at some 1,200 meters' altitude. The wine is light but powerful, austere and mineral, as well as soil-driven—like liquid granite. They had snow in 2013, so they lost half of the fruit, and the year yielded no more than 800 exceptional bottles of world-class Gredos Garnacha.

Only in its third vintage, the 2013 Las Beatas by Telmo Rodríguez is an exceptional Rioja from one of those vineyards that when you see them, you immediately know they HAVE to produce great wine. The challenging 2013 vintage was the real test, to see how it behaved and it really excelled, producing a fresher and more nuanced wine than in the previous two years.

Las Beatas is a terraced vineyard planted with mixed varieties. It was one of the first vineyards Telmo Rodríguez and his business partner Pablo Eguzkiza bought when they first earned some money, somewhere between Briñas and Labastida. They later bought all of the surrounding plots, in some cases just the abandoned terraces, and they restored the old walls and had to replant some vines. They mixed the original old vines with the new ones, where they also have seven to eight varieties. The wine was produced in an old cellar that they bought in the village of Ollauri, in order to force themselves to work like they must have worked in the old times. Too good to be true? No, the 2013 Las Beatas is truly groundbreaking Rioja. But they are doing nothing new; in fact, they really believe the future is the past.

Best Wines from Jura
Unfortunately, I didn’t find time in 2016 to visit the region and I only tasted Ganevat’s range from the Jura. So Jura’s top three (as well as the bottom three!) have to be from Ganevat. But his range is so wide and varied that it is not difficult to pick some different wines from within it.

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The 2004 Vignes de Mon Père already made it to my top three of 2015, but the 2005 Vignes de Mon Père is even better. Furthermore, I believe it’s the finest vintage released since the initial 1998. 2005 was a superb vintage in Jura and the high acidity Savagnin from the Marnes Bleues vineyard was kept 130 months in topped-up, 600-liter oak barrels (yes, you read it correctly, it’s 130 months, almost 11 years!).

A wine related to the Vignes de Mon Père is the 2013 Les Chalasses Marnes Bleues, because it comes from the very same vineyard. This is also pure Savagnin from topped-up barrels, so aged ouillé in the Jura jargon, meaning the wine is not aged sous-voile or under a veil of yeasts, as the traditional vin jaunes from the zone are. This is fresh and Burgundian with extra zip and electric acidity. Is it the blue marl soil?

Finally, a completely different wine is this Chardonnay aged under a veil of yeast for some seven years and sold as 2008 La Cuvée du Pépé (grandad’s cuvée!). It is a rarity, as the wines usually aged sous-voile tend to be Savagnin, the only variety allowed for Vin Jaune. So this cannot be named vin jaune, because it’s produced with Chardonnay, but it shows that other grapes can also produce great results. This is very powerful, more powerful than most vin jaunes, I’d say. 2008 is the first vintage produced. I’m looking forward to seeing how this wine ages, so I tucked a handful of bottles of it in a forlorn corner of my cellar. And I’ll try to forget they are there…

Best Wines from Argentina
I won’t reveal any of the scores from the wines I mention here from Argentina, as the article that contains them will be published at the end of December and I don’t want to spoil the end of the year surprise for our readers who are interested in the wines from that exceptional country in South America.

In no particular order, I will tell you about three reds that now that I think about it, come from the same place—even if the grapes they use are not the same. Gualtallary is the hot place in the Valle de Uco in Mendoza, because of the high altitude, where the vineyards reach 1,500 meters high, providing an intensity of light that develops extra aromas and flavors. In addition, the cooler climate helps preserve acidity and produces fresh wines, and the much sought-after limestone soils provide what the French know well and call la sapidité du calcaire—the tastiness of the limestone.

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The wild landscape of Gualtallary certainly matches the beauty of its wines (left). | A good profile of the Adrianna vineyard in Gualtallary with the calcium carbonate-covered alluvial stones very close to the surface (middle). | Aleanna’s Alejandro Vigil shows how limestone retains water by the fact that he found a small toad when digging a pit to look at the soils and roots of the vines (right).

In the way that they separated their Chardonnay from the Adrianna Vineyard in Gualtallary into two cuvées (that they call White Bones and White Stones, according to the soils), the folks at Catena Zapata have now split the Malbec from that same vineyard into three different bottlings—depending on the composition of the soil. My favorite of those three is the 2013 Adrianna Vineyard River Stones, from the stonier parts of the vineyard close to the riverbed. It would be the red equivalent to the White Stones white, with a north-facing and warmer exposure, which in cooler years like 2013 works nicely. This has the combination of power and elegance, flowers and fruit, minerality and spice, all very precise, focused and harmonious. This wine is all about finesse.

The wine that put Cabernet Franc in the spotlight excels again in the slightly warmer vintage, the 2012 Gran Enemigo Gualtallary Single Vineyard. The Aleanna team almost made me fall off my chair when I first smelled this. It is the expression of elegance and austerity coupled with strong minerality. It is mostly Cabernet Franc from a very chalky vineyard in Gualtallary at 1,430 meters' altitude, and it fermented together with a small percentage of Malbec. In 2012 they fine-tuned the élevage and fermentation, which was in rolling 500-liter barrels that were new in 2006, so they are quite neutral by now. The wine was kept for one more year in barrel and then transferred to 1,000-liter, egg-shaped cement vats for one further year. But what I believe made the difference, as always, was the vineyard. In 2012, they made very strict selection of the soils in the vineyard and only kept the very center of it for the wine, where the high density (12,000 plants per hectare) generated a lot of competition, because the plants from the borders have more space on the sides. Which means in 2012, they could only fill 1,800 bottles. It reminded me of my favorite Bordeaux, Lafleur, because of the elegance, the refinement of the tannins and length. It also has citric, effervescent acidity that makes you salivate.

Last but not least, a wine that could be a somehow hypothetical blend of the previous two—as it’s a co-fermentation of Malbec with some 20% Cabernet Franc, also sourced from vines in Gualtallary in the Tupungato district of Valle de Uco in Mendoza—is the 2014 La Craie. This wine comes from the tiny project called Per Se, which is the personal project of viticulture engineer Edgardo del Popolo who works for Susana Balbo and winemaker David Bonomi, but whose day job is at Norton. Almost unknown, this gem represents the chalky character of a limestone-rich vineyard in Gualtallary at 1,300 meters' altitude planted some ten years ago. This is sourced from the cooler parts of the vineyard where you find boulders covered in chalk. Amazingly enough, they kept the level of the outstanding 2013 in this warmer 2014, but the bad news is that only 552 bottles were produced in 2014.

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Best Value Wines of the Year
It’s not easy to select only three best value wines of the year, since Spain, Chile, Argentina and the Jura produce a great number of wines that cost much less than they are worth. Looking at the points per buck, the best value of the year has to be the 2014 Cortezada from Fedellos do Couto, a Mencía red from Ribeira Sacra in Galicia. Somehow they complained that in 2014, the entry-level red was ‘too good’ and in fact, I scored it higher than their (slightly) more expensive Lomba dos Ares. The wine was so good and such incredible value that I ordered two cases of it by email from the distributor in Spain as I was tasting it. Enough said!

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The vineyards of Ribeira Sacra are not apt for the faint of heart (left)! | Amazing and true; the Machuqueras vineyard in the south of La Palma island planted on pure lapilli and pumice from the last volcanic eruption in Spain in 1971 (middle). | Matías Michelini presented his 2016 Montesco Agua de Roca at Can Roca at the presentation of Josep Roca’s book, where he’s the only featured winemaker from South America (right).

The Canary Islands are slowly producing better and better wines, mostly from Tenerife, but I couldn’t help falling in love with the wild and moon-like vineyards of the tiny island of La Palma. From there, the 2014 Matías i Torres Listán Blanco Las Machuqueras was sourced from vines planted on soils covered by 1.2 to 2.5 meters of volcanic ash lapilli and pumice from the 1971 eruption of the Teneguía volcano, the last volcanic eruption in Spain. This Listán Blanco is nothing other than Palomino from Jerez planted at some 450 meters' altitude. Victoria Torres is on her own now, since her father passed away last year. All of the vines are organically farmed and the wine has no added yeasts or anything, and is bottled by hand. She is a determined woman with very clear ideas about what she wants to do. What she's doing now is superb already, but I think the best is yet to come.

Passionate Wines is the name of Matías Michelini’s personal project in Mendoza, Argentina. I was truly impressed by the quality of his 2016 Montesco Agua de Roca, a pure Sauvignon Blanc from a single plot in the higher part of San Pablo, located in the Gualtallary district of Mendoza at 1,500 meters altitude on stony, chalky soils. The wine is only 10.5% alcohol, sharp and mineral, austere and electric. It's like a razor blade cutting through your palate with clean minerality, cleansing your mouth and leaving a super fresh sensation. This could be perceived as a little extreme and perhaps not a wine for everybody, but I simply loved it! Matías Michelini believes this is a wine that should last 15 years. I’m looking forward to checking in on it.

Best Wines Drinking Experiences from Around the World
I cannot help but include the 1919 and 1932 Castillo de Ygay Blanco here, as they are some of the most stunning wines I’ve ever had. The fact that they went down in the same session as other vintages, including the also perfect 1986, is nothing more than an embarrassment of riches. And a good start to the collection of most incredible wines I enjoyed in 2016…

A pristine 1945 Gran Puy-Lacoste ranks as the most perfect Bordeaux I’ve ever had. The fact that it was an ex-Château bottle generously uncorked by sommelier Josep ‘Pitu’ Roca, towards the end of what I’m also going to describe as the most terrific dinner of the year (they could easily feature year on, year off, but I try to alternate with others!), makes it even a little more special.

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If I included the 1986 Gentaz-Dervieux Côte-Rôtie Côte Brune, I’d have achieved my top three of the year without having finished January, so I will resist and try to find something exceptional that I drank a little later in the year. But January—with some friends over for the end of 2015/beginning of 2016, a quick visit to Barolo and Burgundy, and a truly gastronomical road trip to the Côte-Rôtie fair with stops at Can Roca and La Beaugravière restaurants—certainly provided more than enough opportunities for drinking world-class, unicorn-blood-rare bottles to fill a book. Let’s see if I can have a similar January in 2017, too!

Talking about Côte-Rôtie and Gentaz, an ultra-rare bottle of 2007 Côte Rôtie La Vialiere from René Rostaing, enjoyed with some friends, came to mind as one of the best wines form Rostaing I’ve ever had. This is a very rare cuvée from the vines he inherited from his father-in-law, André Dervieux-Thaize. This is a plot planted with very old vines that provides for tiny yields and a little bit of wine that gets blended, but in 2007 his American importer convinced Rostaing to bottle a handful of bottles to commemorate the birth of his daughter. Amazingly, he was kind enough, or crazy enough—it depends on how you look at it—to bring a bottle to share with a group of friends.

I cannot avoid mentioning a perfect 1947 CVNE Rioja Imperial, if only to tease Robert Parker into my crazy idea of organizing a blind 1947 tasting of Rioja and Bordeaux sometime in 2017—70 years after the vintage—to check out how the wines are, publish what we think of them (whatever it might be) and to celebrate the birth year of I-cannot-remember-who.

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Tondonia in black and white!

To add some fuel to the fire, I’ll mention that I also had the rare opportunity to have a 1947 Viña Tondonia Gran Reserva Blanco and a 1947 Viña Tondonia Gran Reserva Tinto—so the white and red together, something that can happen almost exclusively at Rekondo, one of the restaurants with the best cellar in the world and a must if you ever visit San Sebastián.

Our Matter of Taste event in New York in February provided the excuse to drink many great bottles, some shared among reviewers, others with our subscribers, too. Such was the case of the 1964 Romanée-St-Vivant from Marey-Monge, no less than a magnum, or an unexpected 1972 Charmes-Chambertin Maufré-Truchot, from the embryo of what was to become the Domaine Truchot-Martin—an obscure (and already disappeared) name of the Burgundy geekland.

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I also had the chance to meet another bottle of one of my favorite champagnes ever, the 1996 Bollinger Vieilles Vignes Françaises, a very rare and limited cuvée from ungrafted Pinot Noir vines. I hadn’t encountered this old friend for a while and I can say it was as good as always, and it’s aging at a glacial pace. This is an expensive and hard to find bottle nowadays, but if you have the opportunity, try the 2002 Krug, the current release from a legendary vintage, or the 2008 Les Chetillons Cuvée Spéciale from Pierre Peters—two of the champagnes that have impressed me a lot lately.

Chave is one of the icons from northern Rhône and a 1998 Ermitage Cuvée Cathelin proved why. However, a blind tasting brought together the regular 1983 Hermitage and the 2005 Hermitage by them, and while the former was all elegance and nuance, the latter was rather monolithic and unyielding to the point of making it virtually undrinkable.

The same day I tasted three 100-point whites from Marqués de Murrieta (see later in vertical of the year and before in top three of the year), I also had one of the greatest Ports I’ve ever had—a pristine and simply perfect bottle of the 1927 Niepoort Vintage Port.

That was one of the craziest days in terms of wines, as we ended up drinking a good handful of world-class bottles that night, including a 1974 Mayacamas Cabernet Sauvignon from one of the finest vintages ever in California.

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Not all great wines have to be super old or from stellar vintages or producers, as proved by the 2004 Chambolle-Musigny Les Amoureuses from Roumier, from a rather controversial year that is developing much better than many anticipated. This bottle proves that Les Amoureuses has undisputable Grand Cru potential.

A 1962 Château Chalon from négociant Henri Bouvret from Poligny is one of the best mature vin jaunes I’ve had, this one courtesy of a good friend visiting the Jura region for the first time. The Bouvret family is still bottling some wines and they also sell some of the best Comté cheese, so make sure you visit their shop by the church in Poligny if you’re in the Jura.

One more Matter of Taste event, this time in Hong Kong, brought some more unbelievable bottles. Take for instance a stunning 1928 Château d’Yquem after having had the whole 1999 line up from Romanée-Conti, among other things. And they were still telling me that they hadn’t been that impressed by the Yquem, because they thought the 1929 they had drunk sometime before was much better! I had no arguments and swallowed every last drop of the 1928 and even brought the empty bottle back to Spain with me.

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Before and after in Hong-Kong!

I don’t really want to overwhelm you with too many great wines, because then I hear there are people who think we don’t really drink these wines, that we make it all up. So I think that was enough. But at the end of the day, which was the best? Well, the best was having the privilege to drink them all (and many others)... with great friends!

Best Dinner of the Year
Many names are going to be left out again and I’ll give you some of them in case you want to look them up and maybe visit some of them. So, in no particular order and from very different locations: Elkano, La Buena Vida, A’Barra, El Corral de la Morería, Cuenllas, Laredo, Alabaster, DiverXO, La Beaugravière, Don Nacho, Taberna Pedraza, García de la Navarra, Racines, Pearl & Ash, Rekondo, Etxebarri, d’Berto, A Curva, Casa Aurora, Bagos, La Cigaleña, Brutal, Tickets, Louis 1856, 67 Pall Mall, La Tasquería, Taberna der Guerrita, A Poniente, El Campero, Angelita Madrid…

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Rhône truffle head chef Guy Jullien (photo 1). | Or should it be the perfect snail and rabbit rice from Elías in Xinorlet? Let me hesitate, please (photo 2). | How decadent can you get? Baby eels alla carbonara with white truffles (photo 4)!

Our visit to chef Guy Jullien, from La Beaugravière, not only has some of the best truffles in the south of France, but his cellar in Mondragon has to be one of the best in the world when it comes to Rhône wines. I think I should single him out as runner-up…

But a quick visit to Celler de Can Roca on my way to the Marché Aux Vins de Ampuis, the yearly Côte-Rôtie wine fair, provided for what I remember as best dinner of the year. Publishing the list of dishes and wines would be almost criminal. I don’t know if this was my best meal there, because they don’t seem to stop improving, but the combination of food, wine and people made it really special. We had some new dishes (baby eels alla carbonara with white truffles!) as well as some classical ones, always with a new twist.

If you manage to get a table there, your best option is to let them select both the food and wines for you, as the experience is always a lot better than ordering wines—even if the wine list is full of temptations. I committed the sin of ordering some wines when I was younger and I regret every occasion I wasted of having Pitu Roca surprise me with unusual wines that often complement the dishes, bringing additional nuances and pleasure. For some reason, he decided to keep the glasses on the table until the end of the meal, and even if the tables are not small, not one more glass would have fit on the table by the time in the wee hours of the morning we finished our bacchanalia. I’m looking forward to the next one already…

Best Vertical/Retrospective Tasting of the Year
It has to be the Castillo de Ygay Blanco vertical that I did on the occasion (I was going to write the excuse…) of the release of the outstanding 1986 vintage. I convinced Marqués de Murrieta’s CEO Vicente Dalmau Cebrián to uncork as many vintages as possible of a rare wine that was only produced once or twice per decade. There are years that are not represented in the winery’s cellars, as they do not own a 1925 or 1946, vintages that I’ve been lucky enough to drink before, especially the 1946, which I happened to find in small supply. But he was generous enough to go back to 1919 with one of the greatest white wines I’ve had in my life, followed by a no less perfect 1932. It was a fascinating tasting, not a lot of wines, but really outstanding ones. Of course, I wrote a whole article about them in issue 226: A Darker Shade of White.

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I can spot two 100-point wines in this photo.

As I said last year, I need to remember that I HAVE to do at least one vertical per year to keep up with these best of the year articles! What should I do in 2017?

Best 'Get-a-Life Outside of Wine' Things of the Year
Rock has always been one of my passions. Having the chance to play with pros is an unbeatable experience for an amateur musician. Playing a couple of songs with rock band Red House at the Fiesta de la Floración, a bi-annual event organized by the Comando G guys at the Sierra de Gredos, was a true privilege. After that, our friend Pilar hasn’t stopped talking about our forthcoming world tour, recording sessions and multi-million-dollar deal with a major record company… Could it be true?

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Yours truly butchering some ZZ Top songs.

For ‘real’ concerts, I really enjoyed California’s Y&T, a band from the 1980s that regularly plays in Madrid and the concerts are as good as always. Lead singer and guitarist Dave Meniketti still sings as he did thirty years ago. Amazing!

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Dave Meniketti from Y&T in Madrid. That’s more like it (left)! | Marcel Juge in his cellar underneath his house in the center of Cornas (middle). | Raymond Trollat and his wife in their humble house in St-Jean-de-Muzols above Tournon (right).

I don’t consider this a wine event, but a life event. Meeting Marcel Juge and Raymond Trollat—two northern Rhône old-timers—was definitely one of the highlights of the year. I had discussed the possibility of traveling to Châteauneuf-du-Pape with Jeb Dunnock the next time he had to visit the region to meet legend Henri Bonneau, but unfortunately, he left us before Jeb’s visit was due.

I met Madame Leroy briefly at an event towards the end of the year, but I’m still hoping for a full-blown visit to Saint Romain in early 2017. Fingers crossed! A few bottles from that trip could also make it into the year’s top wines and I should highlight a 1978 Trollat Saint-Joseph that we drank to celebrate the birth year of a (very young) friend.

If you’re into quiet places, I recommend the island of Sark, in the Channel Islands; it is not too far from Guernsey, where my wife was born. If Guernsey is small and quiet, Sark is tiny and ultra-quiet. In fact, there are no other motor vehicles than tractors and the only means of transport are pushbikes and horse carts. Furthermore, there’s no tarmac, only dirt roads, and there are hardly any streetlights, so the place is one of the best in the world to watch the stars. The local lobster, cream and other produce don’t suck either, so it makes it a great destination for a relaxing holiday.

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Interested in sightseeing, walking, cycling, starwatching… and eating? Sark is your place!

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