This wine reminds me of . . . . Kevin McCloud!

I have a love/ hate relationship with Kevin McCloud. When he does that beaky-nosed scrunched-up eye thing at the camera I can’t help shouting obscenities at the television. And yet Grand Designs is my favourite program on television. That’s partly down to being snarky about other people’s taste but the way Kevin goads and needles his victims is a huge part of it.

Recently though he seems to have got under my skin to an alarming degree. I was writing up a wine which I was very keen on. It was Cotes de Saint Mont Rouge 2010 from the Wine Society. I was trying to describe how well it went with food and I tried to remember what I was eating with it. I concentrated and I remembered that I was sitting in our old wing back chair – my pompous chair as my wife has dubbed it. The food remained elusive. I tried again and . . . . I remembered that I drank it whilst watching Grand Designs. No no no no! Concentrate, the food, dammit! I engaged the brain and. . . . . it was the episode where the arty old couple from Surrey have a Hufhus imported from Germany. . . . Argghhhh! think brain! . . . I tried one more time but it was no use. That face just kept swirling into my consciousness.

I gave up and wrote this instead. Apparently what differentiates great wine writers from us also-rans is not their palates but their superiors memories. Their minds are efficient databases crammed with tastes, smells and evocations that they can cross-reference in an instant. Mine on the other hand, is filled with Kevin bloody McCloud.

‘Beaky-nosed, moi?’

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My books of the year

This article originally appeared in the Independent:

One of the things people used to say about Les Dawson was that in order to play the piano like a clown, he had to be a masterful pianist. Simon Woods, the author of The World’s Shortest Wine Book (Simon Woods, £5), reminds me a little of Les Dawson. To write about wine so playfully, you have to know your stuff. This really is just about the best introduction to wine available. What I liked most about it is that Woods has little time for the things that interest most wine writers: there’s nothing about “sustainability”; his view on food and wine matching is that it’s, and I quote, “bollocks”; and although he has nothing against “natural wine”, he notes that they do all have a tendency to taste the same.

The next book on my list blows the Les Dawson theory out of the water. CJ and PK, the authors of Sediment (John Blake, £12.99), aren’t experts, but that doesn’t matter because they’re not really interested in wine per se. Instead they use it as a starting-off point to look at the absurdities of the world, share their love of boozy literature or just talk about themselves. It’s a very funny book to dip in and out of and would make the perfect Christmas present for the wine bore in your life.

It’s an interesting time for wine books, though you often have to look outside the lists of mainstream publishers. Simon Woods is a successful wine writer but decided to self-publish, as did Wink Lorch with her Jura Wine (Wine Travel Media, £25). Despite sounding like a character from early Martin Amis, Wink Lorch has done more to promote the peculiar wines of the Jura than anyone in the English-speaking world. The result is a labour of love examining all aspects of the Jura, including its unique gastronomy. It’s a thoroughly professional-looking book, too, though I found the layout busy and a bit dated-looking.

Another book that took an unconventional publishing route is Richard Bray’s Salt and Old Vines (Unbound, £9.99). This looks at those who actually pick grapes and make wine. It takes much of the glamour and mystique out of wine but still manages to make the subject seem romantic. Bray’s vignerons are a Band of Brothers, a happy and often-drunken few, risking limb and occasionally life doing something they love.

It’s good to see some traditional publishers still supporting the wine market. Barolo and Barbaresco: The King and Queen of Italian Wine by Kerin O’Keefe (University of California Press, £25) had me reaching for words such as “definitive” and even “magisterial”. Don’t let those rather pompous words put you off – it’s a good read, too.

And finally, Gin, Glorious Gin by Olivia Williams (Headline, £14.99) manages to be at once packed with information and as joyous as a properly made gin and tonic. She’s particularly good on gin’s prominent role in British literature, though I’m not sure how she missed out on the most gin-soaked novel ever: Hangover Square by Patrick Hamilton.

Sediment and Jura Wine have both just been shortlisted for the Andre Simon drink Book of the Year. The results aren’t yet up on their site

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Rum and reggae and ting

Music and booze go together. Just think of Keith Richards in the 1970s with his Jack Daniel’s. There’s the love affair between hip-hop and luxury French booze: Busta Rhymes wrote a song called ‘Pass the Courvoisier’. And think of Puff Daddy and his Cristal champagne, though he later changed his name to P Diddy and started drinking Moscato d’ Asti — not so cool.

What about reggae and rum? As Jamaica’s two most famous exports, you expect them to have an affinity. But they’ve had an uneasy relationship. Rums from former British territories trade on images of piracy and the Royal Navy, as if still marketing to a Victorian audience.

It might have something to do with Jamaica’s third biggest export, ganja. Many reggae artists are Rastafarians for whom alcohol is against their religion. There are hundreds of songs written about the joys of the herb but the very few rum songs, like ‘Rum Drinker’ by Mike Brooks, invariably highlight its negative side. One could achieve communion with God by smoking ganja whereas rum was the devil. This diabolical association has a long history. An archaic name for rum was ‘killdevil’. Think of the song of the pirates inTreasure Island: ‘Fifteen men on the dead man’s chest…/ Yo-ho-ho, and a bottle of rum/ Drink and the devil had done for the rest.’ Rum is used in voodoo ceremonies in Haiti. Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry, who produced some of Bob Marley’s greatest early work, used to sprinkle white rum around his studio as a way of purifying it of ‘duppies’ — evil spirits or vampires. ‘The duppies like the white rum,’ he said in a recent interview.

That white rum would almost certainly have been J. Wray & Nephew.

To read more on the Spectator website, click here



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You never need to pack a wanker – or how I learned to stopped worrying and love sommeliers

Last year there was an incident in a French restaurant involving a notable wine-maker (I’m not allowed to mention his name for legal reasons), who sent back a bottle of wine saying that it was corked. The sommelier disagreed and refused to produce another bottle. Instead he offered the wine to other customers who pronounced it fine. The wine-maker’s table refused to pay and the police were called. But by the time the police arrived all the evidence had gone, drunk by the customers. I imagine that the French have specially trained wine detectives to deal with just such incidents.

I’ve had many terrible experiences with wine in restaurants, though thankfully none that required police involvement. The worst was at a Spanish place in Fitzrovia. I ordered a bottle of their cheapest Rioja. When it arrived I took a sip and it was hot. Not warm but mulled-wine hot. I asked the waitress to bring me an ice bucket — she refused, pointing out to me that it was red wine. I asked to speak to the sommelier. He came over oozing condescension. I repeated my demand for an ice bucket. His response was, ‘But sir, this is a red wine.’ ‘I know and it’s very warm so I want to make it colder.’ ‘But sir, this is red wine, Rioja.’ This circular argument went on for about five minutes until I said, ‘Listen! I don’t care that you think I am mad, just bring me an ice bucket!’ Eventually the ice came and I had to put up with pitying looks from the staff for the rest of the evening. I never went back.

No transaction has such potential for unpleasantness as ordering wine in a restaurant. To read the rest of this article in Spectator Life click here

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Extract from Empire of Booze – Sicily

I’ve put an extract from my forthcoming book, Empire of Boozeup on the Dabbler website. I’m probably about halfway through the book and hoping it will appear as planned in very early 2016 or even extremely late 2015. 

From the top of the tower I could see right across the vineyards of Marsala, across to the Mediterranean and the nearby island of Mozia. The tower I was standing on was built, according to its present owner, Giacomo Ansaldi, by the Spanish in the 15th century. It was used to keep a look out for ‘Saracenas’ – pirates from North Africa. Marsala is only about 100 miles from the coast North Africa. The tower had been built into a fortified courtyard known as a Baglio. The word has the same derivation as the English word Bailey as in a Mott and Bailey castle. It now generally means a winery.  Only in Sicily would the word for winery mean fortress. I was so captivated by the view across the sea that I didn’t notice in the foreground a peculiar looking ruined building until Giacomo pointed it out that.  With its elegant Georgian lines, it looked for all for all the world like a chunk of Regency Bath had been dropped in the baking heat of Western Sicily. This is the ruins of the Baglio Woodhouse.  Once it was pointed out to me, I started to notice ruined Baglios dotted all over Trapani province.

The marsala story traditionally starts in 1773 with the arrival of a merchant from Liverpool called John Woodhouse. He tried the local wine and noticed a similarity with madeira and being a canny Scouser saw an opportunity. There was huge demand for madeira style wines not least from America and growers and producers were struggling to keep up. To ensure the safe journey back to England Woodhouse fortified it with brandy.

Sicilians, however, would say that the marsala story starts long before the arrival of John Woodhouse because the marsalans had been making a unique style of wine since antiquity.  It was known as vino perpetuo or everlasting wine.. It was made by topping up barrels of wine with the newest vintage so the wine was continuously blended like a version of the solera system. A little space was left in the top of the barrel so the wine would gently oxidise and the wine would develop flavours of almonds. The resulting wine would contain minute quantities of very old wine. It certainly would not have been fortified until the British came along. Giacomo Ansaldi keeps a nursery of old unfortified marsala in his cellar at the Baglio Donna Franca. He let me try some from a barrel started in 1957 by an old farmer who wanted a wine to pass on to his grandchildren but they’re now pursuing professional careers in the North and don’t have the space or interest to look after an enormous Botti of old wine. The smell filled the room, initially a little musty and then almonds and spiced oranges. It didn’t taste like marsala, it was more like a very old table wine. There was none of the caramel or alcoholic burn that I’d come to expect from marsala. It was fascinating to try a wine that Woodhouse would have recognised on his first trip to Sicily.

The great ingredient that the British brought to Marsala was not brandy but capitalism. As Giacomo Ansaldi put it to me ‘the British were experts in the market, the Sicilians were sleeping.’ He is echoing Lampedusa’sThe Leopard here, perhaps consciously:

Sleep, my dear Chevalley, eternal sleep, that is what Sicilians want. And they will always resent anyone who tries to awaken them, even to bring them the most wonderful of gifts.

To read on click here 

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Oddbins, they’re back and this time it’s personal

Oddbins seem to have had more comebacks than Kevin Rowland but like the man himself, this time Odbbins really do seem to be back. There will be no dressing up in women’s clothes at the Reading Festival for them (look up Kevin Rowland My Beauty if you don’t know what I’m talking about). This is great news for me as my nearest decent wine shop is Oddbins in Blackheath. Here’s an extract from my latest column from the Lady with a couple of recommendations. You can read more here

In the 1980s Oddbins launched Australian wine in the British market with great success. In the 1990s they did it again with Chile and in the 2000s it was Greece’s turn to receive the Oddbins treatment. It was a bridge too far. The superb Greek selection sat on the shelves gathering dust. This setback seemed to affect buyers’ confidence and the subsequent range became very conservative. Happily, the old pioneering spirit is back. Oddbins now has the most exciting range on the high street, offering consistent good value on individual bottles. And if you’re like me, you’ll be pleased that there is once again a good Greek selection.

Mullineux Family Kloof Street 2013, £13

Mainly Syrah with a dollop of other Rhône varieties, this comes from one of South Africa’s most lauded new producers. This is their entry-level red and in its delightful freshness it epitomises everything that’s good about the new wave of South African wines.

Moulin des Chênes Lirac 2012, £12.50

Wine from Lirac can be rather four-square and meaty. Not this one. It’s all grace and fragrance to go with the plums and spices. This might be down to the unusually high percentage of Cinsault in the mix.

Now take it away Kevin:

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Look no further, here are the perfect Christmas wines

I wrote in an earlier post on no longer being a wine outsider. Well just to seal my establishment credentials here is a post that is dedicated to plugging a temporary offer from a retailing leviathan.

It’s that time of the year when I start writing my Christmas wine round-up for the Lady. I try to put in wines that I would actually serve alongside the stuff that I hope someone will serve to me (hello Dad!) Being married to an American means that I get a trial run of Christmas day in November for Thanksgiving which is just like Christmas only without the presents and we get to choose who to invite. For an adult, it’s better than Christmas.

So I’ve been looking for some good but not too expensive wines to serve with turkey. The ideal things would be red and white Burgundy but I don’t have the money. I’ve been looking through the lists of all my favourite merchants but then I noticed that Tescos have Mount William Semillon 2005 on offer for £8.99 a bottle. I’ve been banging on about this wine since I started this blog and amazingly, Tesco are still on the same vintage. 2005 must have been a vast vintage. Luckily it’s a wine that just gets better with age. They also had a delicious Dao from Quinta dos Carvalhais, a 2010, for the same price. Regular readers will know how much I like Dao.

I was feeling pretty pleased with myself when I went to check out; Tesco then slapped on a 25% discount which means that both wines come down to about £6.67. And delivery was free and they offer hour long time slots. That’s it. No jokes. Just go out and buy these wines.

I think these wines are only available online and by the case. The 25% off offer runs until 25 November when you buy two cases (a case is six bottles) or more. Except, of course, in Scotland because there’s always a danger with Scots that they’ll see all that wine and be unable to stop themselves drinking the lot and singing sectarian songs. 

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