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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Calling all drink books. Please RT

I’m after books about booze for a round-up in a national newspaper. Ideally published this year. I’m especially interested in ones that aren’t An Idiot’s Guide to Beer or 50 Wines to Impress your Father-in-Law. Please retweet this and if you have anything interesting email me at henry g jeffreys at gmail dot com

Don’t reply on twitter because I’m not on twitter as I’m meant to be busy writing my own book.

Thank you!

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Sediment: Two Gentlemen and their mid-life terroirs

I started this blog partly because I thought I’d spotted a gap in the market. I couldn’t find anyone who was writing about wine but also bringing in literature, history and a good dose of silliness. Most wine writers seemed to have their noses firmly in the glass. They wrote about terroir and malolactic fermentation, new oak and concrete eggs. This is not to dismiss proper wine writing, some do it superbly, and I do like reading in-depth stuff about flights of dry German Rieslings etc. I, however, was going to use wine as an excuse to write about myself. I started in October 2010 and despite a couple of quite boring posts, I quickly got into my stride and started to feel very pleased with myself. Imagine my horror when I found out that someone had beaten me to it. Sediment Blog started in July 2010. Not only were they doing what I wanted to be doing: writing about everyday wines, making jokes, complaining about impecunious circumstances but they were doing it really well.

Then they started being nominated for awards and proper journalists such as Nicholas Lezard, who is a sort of friend or maybe a friend of a friend, began to praise them. Who were these two people CJ and PK? After a bit of digging I was some relief to find out that they were actual writers. It would have been galling if such effortlessly funny prose was being created by people whose first writing experience was a blog. Every post was beautifully structured. It’s less like a blog and more like series of short essays using wine as starting point to explore ideas. After a while my blog changed as I got sucked into the wine world. I was no longer an outsider but someone who was sent samples; I got a job writing a weekly wine column for the Lady. I became a wine bore. But CJ and PK carried on loving wine but treating the wine world with the bemusement it deserved.

Earlier this year we took the almighty step and the three of us met for lunch. They suggested El Vino, where else? I expected PK, a lover of old claret, to be patrician and tall, whereas CJ a connoisseur of Aldi rioja, would be a non-nonsense working class type, maybe even Northern. Of course it was the other round. PK is a bit of geezer, the self-made man, one can imagine him in Charlotte Street in the 80s having three hour lunches and then making lager adverts, whereas CJ has a touch of the John Le Mesurier about him. We had pies which were excellent and an awful old red that had clearly been forgotten about in the cupboards of El Vino. They both seemed to like it. Over lunch they told me about the book they were writing.

Well it’s coming out this month and it’s very funny. You don’t  have to be interested in wine to enjoy it. I thought the sharpest essay was called ‘From Plonk to Plonkers’. It’s ostensibly a review of a book about wine by Jay McInerney but it really examines how lovers of fine wine sometimes have to put up with some disagreeable company. Most wine writers are nice as are most wine makers I’ve met (though normally in a very opinionated sort of way.) The problem is that if you want to drink very expensive wine somebody is going to have to pay for it and that often means spending time with rich people. Now I’m sure when they’re with their wives, ex-wives, children and dogs, rich people can be perfectly pleasant, but when they’re in groups waving their willies around and guzzling expensive wine, they are usually insufferable. It’s a very astute essay. McInerney’s articles on his adventures in the wine world should inspire envy but after reading Sediment, you see that’s there’s a melancholy about them:

“The actual price of drinking these wines is not the amount for which they are auctioned, but the time you might have to spend with people who wear window-pane sports jackets, crocodile shoes, and sunglasses formerly owned by Elvis.”

Not all the articles are as good as this one, sometimes they stray into pedantry or facetiousness but the strike rate is high. There’s nobody else doing what they’re doing in wine writing. Everyone else, including me, is just too close to the subject. Sediment are the little boys pointing out that the emperor isn’t wearing any clothes.

The Sediment boys are doing some readings accompanied by wine. More information here

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31 Dover

I wrote recently about a wine that seemed completely underpriced. Below is an excerpt from my latest Lady column with some more wines from the same people. From my admittedly limited tasting of their range, I’d say they offer much better quality and value than Laithwaite’s. They’re almost up there with the mighty Wine Society.

We’re on one of my periodic economy drives as we’re saving so that my daughter can go to the nursery school of her dreams. It means drinking cheaper wine. I’m coping manfully but my wife is not happy. So it was a relief to be sent some samples from new(ish) mail order merchant, 31 Dover. It was partly the name that sounds like a Mayfair art gallery, and partly the quality of the wines, but I assumed that they were all out of our price range. Yet when I looked up the prices online I was amazed. Almost everything we tried was a good third less than I thought it would be. It looks as if we are going to be able to drink well and afford an education for our daughter:

Château Grand Tayac, Margaux 2007, £13.99
You simply don’t find mature Margaux for under £20 a bottle. I’m baffled it’s so cheap. It’s classic light vintage claret with green peppers, herbs, leather and tobacco.

Sara & Sara Friulano 2010, £9.49
A very unusual wine: it smells of honeysuckle and it has the most amazing texture. It’s oily but with a great tang to it and a long nutty finish. It won’t be for everyone but I think it’s rather special.

Damien & Romain Bouchard Chablis Broc de Biques 2012, £14.49
Now for one that I think everyone will like. It’s classic Chablis but in a riper style than you might be used to, with some very discrete oak.

Read the full column here.

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Mama weer all crazee now

This is something I wrote for the Spectator on wackiness.

At Glastonbury in 2000 I noticed two young men both wearing enormous Y-fronts and carrying an even bigger pair with the word ‘pants’ written on it. They both looked miserable as you would if you’d come up with the idea while drunk and then found yourself stuck like that for the duration of the festival. Some of the more thuggish elements jeered and threw beer cans.

Seven years later, at another festival I attended, they wouldn’t have attracted a second glance, because dressing up had become ubiquitous. This year, seven years on from that, far from being weird, wearing Y-fronts superhero-style over your trousers is all the rage — not just at festivals but out and about in normal life. It’s the latest charity fund-raising craze, and come Christmas you’ll be a party pooper if your pants aren’t on display.

Of course, the odd eccentric has always done wacky things for charity: bathed in baked beans or run a marathon in a gorilla suit. The difference with Movember, the ice bucket challenge or the new fashion for Superman Pants is that the wackiness is communal, almost compulsory. It’s become the default setting for the British at play.

Read on here

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