I was watching a program about Irish rock music on BBC 4 the other night. The problem with these compilation shows is that in order to get to the Pogues you have to sit through the Boomtown Rats. Sure enough up popped Bob Geldof retelling the story of how he stuck it to the Man by tearing up a photo of John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John on Top of the Pops. And this got me thinking about natural wine.

I’d been looking for a good explanation for the anger that the natural wine debate creates because surely it can’t be about sulphur levels? Watching Bob, I noticed the striking similarities between natural wine and punk rock. Punk was a reaction against bloated prog rock or packaged pop like Olivia and John. It promised to return to the true spirit rock n’roll. Natural wines are a reaction to over-manipulated wines made to impress rather than to drink. They hark back to some sort of prelapsarian past where wine was pure. Long guitar solos = lots of new oak.

The more I thought about it the more it made sense. Robert Parker is Fleetwood Mac. Marcel Lapierre has the role of the Ramones. The Ramones gave the impetus to youth in Britain to form stripped down rock and roll bands. Lapierre inspired wine makers to make simpler, fresher wines. The rest of the Gang of Four in Beaujolais can be represented by American proto-punk rock bands: the New York Dolls, the Stooges and MC5 who proved so influential. Can it be a coincidence that there was later a New Wave band from Leeds called Gang of Four?

There’s now even a fanzine for wine, Noble Rot though they should have called it Sniffin’ Wine. The old prog-rock loving music press finds its twin with the dinosaurs at Decanter. I wonder who the hip young gunslingers, the Julie Burchill and Tony Parsons of wine are? Surely Isabelle Legeron and Jamie Goode. It explains why some people approach natural wines with such venom. It’s just how the old timers at the NME and Melody Maker saw punk. They saw the bands with their two chords and non-flared trousers and thought this is everything we hate about music. Just so with natural wines: the classicists are put off by the volatile acidity, the tannic whites and the tolerance of Brett. But as with punk it’s the attitude as much as the end product that annoys the old-timers.

Back to Bob on Top of the Pops. He may have seemed rebellious at the time but now he just appears ridiculous. Who listens to the Boomtown Rats today? Posterity has been much kinder to the Grease soundtrack. Very little punk music now stands up now.  Andrew Nixon from culture website the Dabbler nails this point rather well: ‘Is it me or is that conventional narrative about the importance of punk, so often told by middle-aged music journalists and critics, starting to look a bit frayed? . . . . . If punk really did ‘change everything’ it was only temporarily.’ Nixon goes on to say that disco and indeed Fleetwood Mac have proved far more influential.

Punk was popular amongst a very small clique of influential people (many of whom would go on to have highly-paid media jobs.)I hope I’m not labouring my comparison too much by pointing out that it’s a similar story with natural wines. Simon Woods, one of the few influential wine writers not based in or around London, in his recent newsletter recounts a meeting with a sommelier who was incredulous ‘that there were several people in other parts of the country who were very regular, enthusiastic and well-heeled wine drinkers but had never heard of natural wine.’ This is exactly my experience from attending my father’s wine club based just thirty miles outside London. Many of the members are extremely knowledgeable wine enthusiasts and yet in all my visits I’ve never heard the N word. I don’t think I’ve even heard anyone say biodynamics. Most of the members are just interested in good wine. The others just go to get drunk and gossip. Woods goes on to say:

‘A typical wine selection in a small English town will not be all that different from what you’d have found 15 years ago, mainly because the customers themselves are not all that different from those you’d have found 15 years ago.’

Many of the prime movers in the natural wine movement such as Doug Wregg from Cave de Pyrene deny that there is a movement at all. They just say it is a reaction against over-manipulated wines. It’s the approach that matters. And in punk the attitude is as important as the music. In my opinion, punk’s influence is best heard in bands that took the spirit but not the music such as Dexy’s Midnight Runners and the Pogues. But natural wine is surely also, like punk, clever marketing no matter how much the organisers of the various natural wine fairs try to deny it. They’ve managed to create a lot of interest in wines that might otherwise have struggled to be noticed. Time will tell which producers turn out to be the Boomtown Rats and which the Pogues.

The RAW wine fair will take place on 17/18 May at the Old Truman Brewery London E1 

This article originally appeared on Tim Atkin’s website

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Two wines kept too long

A very quick post today as a sort of addendum to my article on cellaring ordinary wines. I  bought a few bottles of Qupe syrah 11 from Majestic last year. This is their basic syrah from the Central Coast of California. It wasn’t cheap – £18 I think – and it wasn’t very good. I found it jammy with a not terribly nice whiff of oak about it. I think I gave a few bottles away or left them on tables at parties. Yesterday I found one in the cupboard that I call my cellar. It has been there for about a year.

My wife and I drank a bottle of it fairly quickly with homemade pizzas. After a year in the cellar it had lost the oaky smell and had lost the jam too. Instead it was spicy and fresh. It had a real purity about it. I’ve always thought that a dull wine won’t get any better if you keep it but in this case the extra year worked wonders. I wish I had more.

Soon it was all gone so I dug out something else to have for the nail-biting last minutes of the England France match. It was a cinsault from the Languedoc (Domaine Combe Blanche L’ Incompris 2011.) When I first tried it, it reminded be of a simple New World pinot noir. It was one of my favourite wines of 2013. Now two years later, it had gone all muddy and sweet with an unpleasant leathery smell. It tastes how I imagine Burgundy used to taste when it was cooked up in a warehouse in Ipswich from Beaujolais and Algerian plonk.

Horrid, though maybe if I’d kept it another year it would emerge as something beautiful. Probably not but then I never thought that Qupe syrah would get any better.

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My favourite pub: The Hare in Bethnal Green

Before moving to Lewisham (or Blackheath as I sometimes say when in polite company) a couple of years ago, I spent twelve years living in the East End of London. The thing I miss most about my old neighbourhood is not the secondhand clothes shops or the trendy restaurants but an old boozer on Cambridge Heath Road called The Hare.

It’s not the most immediately charming of places. The carpet is worn and some of the seats have repaired with gaffer tape. Some of the clientele look a little insalubrious. On a Saturday afternoon there will be football shirts and shaven-headed men shouting at the telly, things I normally hate.

London pubs tend staffed by itinerant Poles and Australians who are here to make money and, for all their friendliness, are not committed to the place at which they work. They seem to change every week. Not so at the Hare. The landlord’s, Julian, presence permeates this place. The beer is excellent because Julian is interested in real ale. He used to work at Young’s brewery when they were in Wandsworth. He is a jazz fan so they have jazz on a Sunday. The Cockney girls who work there know what you drink and will serve it with a saucy smile. Once when my brother ordered me a pint, the barmaid, Tanya, sharply corrected him: ‘he doesn’t drink that one, he drinks Landlord!’

Whereas most pubs in London especially in the fashionable East End attract tribes, the Hare is a real focus for the community. You get old people, young people, black people, white people, middle-aged mods, trendy girls with silly haircuts, the beautiful people and the local builders. I follow the Hare on Facebook and intermingled with rants about Arsenal’s decline, Julian reflects on how quickly East London is changing. Rather than bemoan gentrification, he seems delighted to have such a genuinely diverse clientele.

Best of all the Hare makes no pretence towards gastronomy, food means crisps or they sometimes let you eat a kebab from next door with your pint. There aren’t many places like this left but the Hare is thriving. Oh and did I mention that it’s cheap.

The Hare, 505 Cambridge Heath Road, Bethnal Green, London. E2 9BU

If anyone knows any pubs like it preferably in South East London, please let me know. 

This originally appeared on the Dabbler.

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How I stopped being a snob and learned to love Australian wine

Extremely proud to have made the front cover of the Australian‘s Life section (click on image for full article.)


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Oxford & Cambridge Blind Tasting Challenge

One of the great jokes of the wine trade is:

– ‘Have you ever confused Burgundy with Bordeaux?’

– ‘Not since this morning!’

Last week I realised it isn’t a joke. I’d been invited to take part in the Varsity Blind Wine Tasting Match. It’s sponsored by Pol Roger champagne and they thought it would be fun to have a team of journalists from the Spectator compete against the students from Oxford and Cambridge. Our crack squad was made up of in-house drinks supremo, Jonathan Ray, top sommelier and writer, Douglas Blyde, Nick Spong, the Spectator’s ad man who apparently likes a drink, and me.

As soon as I arrived at the Oxford and Cambridge Club in Pall Mall I realised I was out of my depth. The two university teams were standing in the lobby looking fit and focused. One of them even had bow tie like an old school wine merchant. They’d been training for this day all year. It was like the Boat Race for nose and brain only much more serious. I half expected an appearance from Trenton Oldfield as a protest against elitism.

The tasting consisted of six reds and six whites. Marks are awarded for correctly identifying the grape variety, country and region, and just like maths exams at school, you are also marked on your workings so even if you get everything wrong you can still score. Judging the contest were Jasper Morris MW and Hugh Johnson.

We sat down. The atmosphere was tense. I sniffed the first wine, immediately I knew it was a riesling from Australia. I had a little taste to confirm. This is going to be easy. Then the man to my left started having some sort of fit. I was just about to administer the Heimlich maneuver when I realised he was just sucking air through the wine. Extremely loudly. The man opposite then started choking, then others started up gurgling, gurning and coughing like Bob Fleming from the Fast Show. I read later that the Cambridge team are famous for being noisy tasters – there are even rumours that it’s gamesmanship. unnamed

Journalists at the far end looking old and confused. Credit: Freya Miller

I finished the whites reasonably confident that I’d done well. We had a quick break and it was on to the reds at which point I went completely to pieces and guessed most of them. The students, in contrast, wrote detailed notes and then only at the last minute filled in the region, variety etc. They were working methodically, we were going on hunches, or at least I was. They were concentrating so hard that at one point I was told to be quiet as my (very low-level) conversation about vintage car dealers in Wandsworth was putting some off. Then one of the students knocked over a glass of red (more gamesmanship perhaps?) and I was saved from further embarrassment.

There was a short prize-giving where it was announced that Oxford had won. The tasting champion was Oxford’s captain, Swii Yii Lim, who in the first round got five out of six absolutely spot on. Afterwards we had lunch and we got to swallow rather than spit some excellent wines provided by Pol Roger. Once the terrors of the challenge were over, both teams turned out to be rather jolly. It was interesting meeting these younsters. They are the Hugh Johnsons and Jasper Morrises of the future. I’ve spent most of my adulthood – about eighteen years – learning about wine but compared to them, I was a bumbling amateur.

So how did the journalists do? I learned that I’d confused a Cotes-du-Rhone with a Chianti though in my defence everyone scored badly on the reds. I’d done much better with the whites guessing grape variety correctly in half the wines though the riesling I’d been so confident about was actually German. It was announced that Johnny Ray came top from our lot. Probably to save face, we weren’t told our actual scores though I’d already prepared my excuse in the event of a woeful showing: I was put off by the noisy Cambridge team.

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Hugh Johnson’s shoe. Credit: Douglas Blyde

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In the 1960s making proper coffee singled you out as a dangerous maverick

The paperback of the Breakfast Bible comes out this month and I’ve written something for the Guardian about coffee. The two events aren’t related, it’s just a happy coincidence. The new edition of the book looks beautiful. It’s perhaps even lovelier than the hardback so even if you’ve already bought it, you might want to buy another copy for on the move breakfast inspiration.

The Coffee House: the Beating Heart of the City

One of the most famous scenes in British cinema is the beginning of The Ipcress File where the spy Harry Palmer (played by Michael Caine) grinds beans and then makes coffee in a cafetiere. This seems a humdrum activity to us, but in the 1960s making proper coffee singled you out as a dangerous maverick. No wonder that Ian Fleming, too, was very particular about the apparatus James Bond used to make coffee: (a Chemex), and the variety (Blue Mountain, from Jamaica). For my parents’ generation and even when I was growing up in the 1980s, “coffee” meant instant coffee. Britain was a tea-drinking nation. From the look of intense concentration on his face, Caine gives himself away as a tea drinker in the film. He looks like he’s diffusing a bomb rather than making a cup of coffee.

It’s a far cry from when England was the coffee capital of Europe. London’s first coffee house was opened in 1652 by a Greek man called Pasqua Rosée. Between 1680 and 1730, London consumed more coffee than anywhere else on earth, second only to Constantinople in its number of coffee houses. They were the commercial heart of London, functioning as offices and meeting places. The Tatler, the Spectator and Lloyds insurance all started life in coffee houses. Wine merchants Berry Bros & Rudd originally sold coffee; they still have the original weighing scales in their St James’s shop.

Because of the coffee house’s role in Britain’s intellectual life, I have this mental image of them as sober places where men in powdered wigs delighted in fine Java and discussed the latest Adam Smith. They weren’t.

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Why is ice still a luxury in Britain?

There are two things that American visitors to Britain complain about. The first is having separate hot and cold taps on hand basins rather than a mixer tap. So pressing is this problem that the Wall Street Journal ran an article about it and Boris Johnson felt obliged to issue a statement saying that British plumbing “is an incentive to get it over and done with and not waste water”.

The second is the lack of ice in the hospitality trade. When one orders tap water in a restaurant it is, more often than not, warm. Most pubs still use a bucket full of partially melted ice for making gin and tonics. Americans are baffled by this. They have had a regular supply of ice since the 19th century. They would harvest ice in the winter and store it in specially designed ice boxes to keep it frozen.

The Chinese, of course, were there first.

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