The irresistible rise of Picpoul

If you’re anything like me, you probably can’t wait to read what the big names of the British wine world, yer McQuittys, yer Becketts, yer Moores, are drinking this summer. To a woman this year, they have picked a Picpoul de Pinet. Picpoul is now firmly established on the middle-class wine lovers shopping list. Most restaurants, gastropubs and bars stock a Picpoul.  I don’t think it’s ready to take New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc’s crown yet but it’s definitely a contender.

The best thing about Picpoul from a wine bore’s perspective is that it is unbranded. You don’t have all that garish advertising and vulgar discounting that you get with Ned or Oyster Bay. Instead you can pretend that you have discovered it yourself whilst staying with your auntie near Pomerols. And yet Picpoul, in its own quiet French way, has been a masterpiece of marketing. It was originally the answer to a problem of what to do with all the grapes grown for Noilly Prat vermouth when sales of vermouth declined.

Those tall embossed bottles, ribbed for her pleasure, mean that it stands out on the shelves. They’re the opposite of the squat Burgundy-style chardonnay bottle, it’s a bottle that promises  refreshment rather than oaky fatness. Similar sort of wines such as Muscadet and Vinho Verde also come in tall bottles but the Picpoul bottle is unique (it seems they’ve taken a leaf out of Chateauneuf’s book here by having a custom bottle). And then there’s the name. It literally means ‘sting lips’ in French (or maybe Occitan), a reference to the grape’s high acidity. It’s an easy word for Anglos to say. Not too easy, mind, we don’t want the Pinot Grigio brigade picking up on it but once you’ve learnt how to say it, you won’t forget. In fact it fufils a similar role on the wine list as Chablis or Sancerre, in that drinkers can flaunt their French pronounciation with a word that isn’t hard to pronounce.

But unlike these famous names to the North, Picpoul’s reputation has yet to be tarnished by lacklustre wines. Quality is high, it may never soar to the heights of a Grand Cru Chablis but I’ve never had one that tasted of vingerary water either. These are good simple wines. The only problem is that most of them are too expensive in Britain. My favorite Picpoul from Domaine La Grangette costs €5 from the cellar door but £11.29 over here.  If you want a budget PIcpoul, Aldi’s has one for £5.99 which isn’t half bad. Luckily for me my auntie brought me a case of the Grangette back from France this summer. 

34 wines in Altrincham have La Grangette for £8.95 a bottle which when you factor in British duty and VAT (£2 plus 20%) is really good value. It’s significantly better than supermarket Picpouls. Thanks to James Heron for pointing this out. 

Oh and in case you’re interested you can read an update on my book here.

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Mouton Rothschild – an affordable luxury

unnamedIn 2012 I won a bottle of Mouton Rothschild 1996 in a writing competition on Jancis Robinson’s site. When we moved house last year I didn’t trust the movers with it so I wrapped it up in layers of bubble wrap and carried it myself. Since then it has been sitting under the stairs looking for an excuse to be opened. Last month I learnt that my book will now be published so I invited my parents over for a celebration. It seemed as good a time as any especially as the cupboard under the stairs is too warm for long term wine storage. That was when the worrying started: I worried that it might be a bit young; Jancis Robinson recommended not opening it until 2015; I worried that I might drop it; I worried about what sort of food I should have with it – my wine books said lamb or beef but my wife is off the lamb and my mother doesn’t eat beef. I worried so much that I almost gave up on the whole thing. Eventually I pulled myself together, went to the butchers and bought a loin of pork.

While it was roasting, I gingerly opened the bottle, poured myself a tiny glass and had a sniff. It smelt extremely powerful and worryingly, very oaky. Had I opened it too early or perhaps I just wasn’t going to be to my taste? I decanted it, kept the sediment to make gravy and put the decanted wine in the fridge to cool slightly. Meanwhile I washed the delicate Riedel glasses that I never use as the last time I did I broke one.

How could a wine that I had approached with such reverence fail to be a disappointment? click here to read more at Tim Atkin’s site. 

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I love old record players

My three great loves after wine are vintage cars, old bicycles and obsolete hifi. Bicycles aside, they’re silly things to be interested in when you don’t have any money. Nevertheless I wrote this thing recently for the Financial Times on collecting turntables. It was probably the hardest thing I’ve ever written due to the paper’s insistence on facts, quotes and evidence – basically proper journalism rather than a series of stolen jokes.

In July 2012, an online auction was held by Peaker Pattinson of the contents of Bush House, home of the BBC World Service for 71 years. Among the microphones, photos of famous broadcasters and a Steinway grand piano was a giant German turntable, the EMT 950. Weighing in at nearly 80kg, it sold to a private collector for £3,800 (rather a bargain considering that, in the same year, John Shaw of Shaw Sounds, the British decks expert, sold one for £6,382). Such BBC spring cleans are a boon for audiophiles left cold by the digital era. Turntables, says Toby Rogers, a City lawyer from London, are “an escape from digital slavery. When you settle down with your vinyl, you actually listen to the music.”

Read more here.



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Buying wine at auction

This is a longer version of something I wrote for the Telegraph. It’s actually a bit dry but I want to have all my wine writing in one place hence why I’m posting it. Please ignore if you’re looking for jokes.

Wine auctions have been in the news lately though not for the right reasons. The case of Rudy Kurniawan, an Indonesian wine dealer, rocked the wine establishment. He made millions from selling counterfeit blue chip wines such Le Pin and Domaine de Romanee Conti. He’s just been sentenced to ten years in prison and a documentary abut him was released early this year, Sour Grapes. This shouldn’t put you off buying wine at auction just to be aware that it has the same pitfalls as buying art, antiques and vintage cars with the added one that wine is a perishable product.

Jamie Hutchinson from the Sampler with shops in Islington and South Kensington says ‘only worry about forgeries if you’re buying Domaine de la Romanee Conti, Lafite or somesuch’ More pertinent is how the wine has been stored. Extremes of temperature and bright light will damage wine. ‘A good way to check that it has been properly stored is by looking at the level in the bottle. For example a 30 year old wine such as an 82 Bordeaux, don’t buy if the wine level is below top of the shoulder.’ The auction house should be able to provide this information for you.  He added ‘wines for investment need  to be in sealed cases and stored under bond. You shouldn’t really see the wine you’re buying.’

Jamie added ‘there’s an awful lot of Bordeaux out there and most of it is overpriced.’ Bordeaux has declined dramatically in value, a case of Lafite 2009 cost £15,000 (before tax and duty) in May 2011 is now worth about £6,000, and Jamie thinks ‘it still has further to fall.’’ Burgundy however is made in such small quantities that it is less likely to lose its value. The tiny quantities mean that it doesn’t attract fund money the way Bordeaux did. His tip at auctions is to buy ‘village wines from second tier producers such as JF Mugnier, Denis Bachelet or Jean Grivot.’ These are wines from a named village such as Chambolle-Musigny but not a named vineyard within that village. If you are intent on Bordeaux, ‘buy from an underpriced vintage such as 2004, it’s the same price as 2002 and 2007 but much better and great to drink now.’

Burgundy isn’t the only area that is attracting collectors put off by the volatility of Bordeaux. Italian wines such as Barolo, Barbesco, Brunello and Supertuscans (Sassicaia, Tignaello) are starting to appear at UK auctions. We’re behind the Americans on this. They have been buying Barolo especially since the early 90s. Sergio Eposito of Italian Wine Merchants in New York is quoted as saying: ‘buying into Barolo today may be the best investment opportunity in the wine market.’

Unlike a Ferrari, you cannot restore a Mouton-Rothschild 1945 once it has been damaged.  ‘Whisky in comparison is a safe logical investment. In a sealed bottle it’s virtually indestructible’ Stephen McGinty from McTears auctioneers told me. Ian Buxton author of 100 Whiskies to Try Before You Die told me recently: ‘whisky auctions are very fashionable at the moment, springing up all over the place.’ The market in collectable whiskies divides into two types, those created by the distilleries specifically for collectors, and rare finds. In the former camp is the Macallan 1976 at around $76,000 a bottle. These are whiskies are destined never to be drunk. More interesting to Ian are ‘closed distilleries from places such as old Campbeltown. Something like Dalintober would be a special find. They stopped distilling in the 20s. A rare old malt good provenance could go for five or six figures.’ Again the key word is provenance, ‘Forgeries are a huge problem – Macallan bought a collection from Italy – paid a lot of money, and it turned out to be fake.’

Returning to Jamie Hutchinson from the Sampler: ‘don’t go into an auction without doing lots of research. Taste, learn about wine, read wine writers.’ The days of making quick money from flipping Bordeaux are over but if you do it right you can have both a sound investment and something good to drink.


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Summer wines make me feel fine

Here’s a longer version of my latest Lady column and a little Isley Brothers just in case you’re not feeling summery enough with all this heat:

Writing about winter wines is easy in Britain because you know it’s going to be cold so you need lots of alcohol and richness to keep warm. Summer wines are harder because of our unpredictable climate.  That is why it’s vital to include some autumnal offerings for when the weather refuses to play cricket. And then there’s the barbeque factor. You need robust reds to stand up to all that grilled meat and burnt sausages. That is why many summer wines are actually winter wines in disguise. Anyway I don’t suppose it really matters as long as they’re good. My top tip would be to serve all the reds a little colder than you normally would do in the winter. On a hot day even the most muscular of reds will benefit from thirty minutes in the fridge whereas very light reds are nice properly chilled. And finally if the sun really shines, don’t be afraid to put a little ice in your glass, even if the contents are red.

Percheron Old vines Cinsault 2013 (Wine Society)

A very pale red, this has to be the most adaptable wine of the year. Serve it cool and it’s great with lighter meats, serve it cold and it’s a particularly good rose. One word of warning, it’s 15% so don’t give too many glasses to Granny.

Capcanes  rosé 2013 (Theatre of Wine £8.90)

A manly Catalan rosé! This is another very adaptable wine, it’s rich and spicy enough to stand up to flavoursome meats but also extremely refreshing.

Picpoul-de-Pinet Cuvée Ludovic Gaujal 2013 (Yapp Bros £10.25)

Picpoul might be the ultimate summer wine. This is a superior example with a super fresh nose, like smelling the sea. It’s richer than your average Picpoul with lovely tangy, herbal quality.

Crozes-Hermitage ‘Les Meysonniers ‘ M. Chapoutier 2011 (Tanners £16.99)

This is the posh BBQ wine. It tastes meaty and peppery with supple tannins that cry out for a good bit of rump steak. Les Meysonniers has to be one of the consistently great bargains in wine.

Harvey Nichols Port 10 year old Tawny (£27.50)

I’m on a one man mission to get people drinking port year round. In Oporto they drink tawnies like this chilled, it really accentuates all that lovely ripe fruit. The is just the thing with hard cheese or on its own with a slice of seed cake for a mid-morning pick-me-up.

Henners Vintage 2010 (Wine Pantry £27)

It has a lively lemony nose with hint of vanilla. In the mouth there are green apples, beautiful tiny bubbles and a whisper of custard on the finish. If I was getting married again and I had the money, then I’d go for this wine.

Pic St. Loup Morrisons Signature 2011 (£8.99)

This is the everyday BBQ wine to go with supermarket sausages and burgers. It’s good and drinkable and with its notes of rosemary and leather tastes distinctly Languedocian as well.

Coteaux du Languedoc ‘Les Muriers’ Mas Bruguiere 2012 (Yapp Bros £13.95)

One of the best value whites I’ve tried this year. It would be double the amount if it came from the Northern Rhone. It’s intense, nutty and tangy with a gorgeously silky texture. It will probably age too but I can’t wait that long.

Château Moncontour Vouvray Demi-Sec 2013 (M&S £9.99)

Have a sniff of this and you’ll think of apple pie with cinnamon. Your friends won’t notice because it’s so well-balanced but this wine actually sweet or at least slightly sweet. There’s so much acidity, however, that tt finishes dry and bracingly fresh. I think it’ll be good with goats cheese and grapes. It’s also low in alcohol, 11%, so granny can have a few glasses.

Aldi Prosecco NV (£7.29)

A friend of mine who is getting married asked me to recommend a Prosecco. He was a bit put out I when I suggested this one. ‘I’m not that cheap!’ he said. But this is genuinely good: very clean, fruity and fun with none of those off flavours you sometimes get in cheap Prosecco.

Marks & Spencer Beaujolais 2013 (Marks & Spencer £7.99)

This is the red to put ice in. It smells of oranges and cherries and tastes youthful and crunchy with just a hint of stalkiness; really good simple Beaujolais.

The Wine Society Fino NV (£6.25)

Not only a bargain but also one of the best finos on the market. It’s very dry and lemony with a certain salty tang which lingers deliciously in the mouth. It’s just a shame about that dreary label. I always have a bottle of this in the fridge.

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Whole Lotta Rosé

We live in a time of rosé. The number of rosés in the shops is multiplying at an alarming rate. There are Greek rosés, English rosés, Malbec rosés, Sangiovese rosés, I’ve even spotted a New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc rosé made by adding a little Syrah to a white wine. Most of these are ghastly so it’s comforting to know twas ever thus. Writing just after the war in the New Yorker*, A.J. Liebling observes: “In the late thirties, the rosés began to proliferate in wine regions where they had never been known before, as growers discovered how marketable they were, and to this day they continue to pop up like measles on the wine map.”

Then as now the reason these wines were not any good was not down to anything intrinsically wrong with the style and everything to do with how cynically most were produced: “The wines converted to rosé in the great wine provinces are therefore, I suspect, the worst ones – a suspicion confirmed by almost every experience I have had of them.” Note that Liebling suspects that the rosés are not so much made directly from grapes but concocted from inferior wines. Reminds me of that Sauvignon Blanc rosé.

For Liebling there was only one that would do, Tavel, a beefy Southern rosé made from Cinsault and Grenache. When he lived in Paris in the 1920s, it was his stalwart companion: “the taste is warm but dry, like an enthusiasm held under restraint, and there is a tantalizing suspicion of bitterness when the wine hits the top of the palate.” Part of what makes Tavel so good is that it’s almost a red wine, it’s a deep pink with some tannic bite.

Here are a few nice roses that I recommended in my Lady column this week. I hope Liebling would approve:

Sainsbury’s Taste the Difference Negrette Rose 2013 (£7.99)

Very simple wine packed with lots of strawberry fruit.

Sevilen Kalecik Karası R Rose (M&S £9.49)

This is from Turkey and comes in a silly bottle. It has a very herby nose and is quite full-bodied with some nice crunchy refreshing fruit.

Pizarros de Otero Bierzo Rose (Majestic £9.99)

So dark it’s almost a red wine, it smells like it’s going to be rich but it’s actually extremely dry and piquant with a whisper of tannin.

Domaine Houchart Saint-Victoire Rose (Wine Society £8.50)

My rose of the year so far. It has a lovely smell – honey, herbs strawberries – and it’s tangy with plenty of fruit but not overblown.

*Article is Just Enough Money taken from Between Meals: An Appetite for Paris.

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You know you’ve made it when you’re cited on Wikipedia

The most popular article I ever wrote was something examining what sort of sherry Niles and Frasier drank on the sitcom Frasier. As you can see it attracted a fair amount of comment. Well now that article has been cited as a source on Wikipedia:

‘Frasier and Niles Crane frequently consumed sherry, perhaps Bristal’s (sic) Cream, on the TV sitcom Frasier.’

Scroll down and you’ll see World of Booze cited. Now I know that Wikipedia does have a bit of a reputation for unreliability but it’s still surprising that someone used a blog as a sole source and even then got the name of the drink wrong. That’s the last time I use Wikipedia when arguing in the comments section on the Guardian about Palestine.


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