The gin boom is officially over

This is something I wrote for Harpers Wine and Spirits earlier this year on where the gin market is going and how gin brands can still make a splash in a crowded market.

The last two years have been tough for everyone and Britain’s gin distillers are no exception. The various lockdowns and general uncertainty hit the industry hard and while retailers and direct sales helped alleviate the shortfall, “the on-trade could never be replaced by home consumption,” according to Nick Cook from the Gin Guild. The figures speak for themselves. According to the WSTA, British sales were worth £2.7 billion in 2019 but only £1.9 billion in 2020, though they have recovered somewhat to £2.1 billion in 2021. Meanwhile according to the CGA, the top ten British gin brands in 2021 were down by 22.8% by value compared with the previous year. 

It’s not just the big boys who were affected. Many smaller distilleries have thrown in the towel. I was particularly sad to hear that Duck and Crutch, made in a shed in Kensington, was no longer distilling. Olivier Ward from Spirits Beacon said: “a lot of brands are a whim away from stopping as they are either in survival mode or only sold in a hyper local area”.

“It looks like the gin boom is over,” said Lisa Halstead, buyer at Master of Malt. “We saw standard gin start to decline around three years ago and premium and flavoured were driving significant growth. Since then, we have seen both premium and flavoured plateau and now are pretty steady in terms of market share”. Dawn Davies, buyer at the Whisky Exchange agreed, “it is now on a plateau and will start to drop as the market has been flooded with substandard products and people are on to the next trend.”

Everyone loves a G&T

Some like Simon Difford from Difford’s Guide think flavoured gins are partly to blame, “[they] have helped confuse understanding of what a gin is.” But Ian Buxton, author of ‘101 Gins to Buy Before You Die’ disagrees and thinks the flavoured products are bought by people who are “very different from gin’s traditional consumer,” and John Vine, buyer at Waitrose, confirms this. 

The market may have plateaued but nobody thinks that we’re going back to anything like a pre-boom market. Ian Buxton said: “Gin has captured the imagination of a new group of increasingly enthusiastic consumers even if the initial frenzy has died down somewhat.” he said. Nick Cook thought it was more a case of “market assimilation and shaking down” rather than collapse.

This is born out by master distiller and consultant Jamie Baxter: “Distilleries are getting either smaller or bigger and the middle sized ones seem to be the ones that are struggling.” John Vine explained the vast leap required from being a local player to a national brand. He cites names such as Cotswolds Gin who have successfully made this jump but it takes a lot of investment. Beyond friends and local pubs, many smaller brands haven’t thought through their route to market.

Olivier Ward thinks that smaller brands made by contract distillers are looking especially vulnerable. “Some are excellent, made by excellent makers, for genuine reasons but that’s part of the problem. How committed are you?” he said. Kathy Caton, co-founder of Brighton Gin, agrees: “Authenticity, quality, and consistency are key attributes for us in this incredibly crowded domestic market.”

Brands need to consolidate their product line rather than making five or six different products, Ward told me, and that the price of craft gin is coming down from the usual £35 a few years ago. New products need to be well thought out like the recently-launched Savoury Gin from the Portobello Road distillery, not only a fine spirit but with gorgeous packaging. Founder Jake Burger commented: “Our Savoury Gin in the white bottle with the hand painted effect was a big departure from our usual style and has been very well received and has great shelf presence both behind the bar and in retail.”

At the more mainstream end of the market, both Vine and Davies are particularly taken with Hendrick’s Neptunia, “honestly my favourite gin they have done”, Davies said. It was a Waitrose exclusive for a while and Vine was impressed by how well it was done.

The other new product Vine mentioned was Buckingham Palace Gin. Spirits judge David T. Smith said it was “one of the best gin I’ve tried recently. It’s made with botanicals from Buckingham Palace garden – a bit gimmicky but, from point of view of taste, quite incredible.” 900 bottles sold out in an hour through the Royal Collection Trust website and since then retailers have been clamouring to get hold of stock. It shows the right product, branding and timing – it’s the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee this year – can work.

Most new brands, however, don’t have this kind of marketing hook. Nick Cook thinks “it will be a brave move for anyone seeking to join the bandwagon at this late stage.” Lisa Halstead confirmed that “there are fewer brands coming to market.  In the height of the boom – around four or five years ago – I was receiving requests from up to five new gin suppliers per day.” 

For brands looking to enter the crowded UK market for the first time, it’s vital to get everything right first time. “5-10 years ago you would have had a honeymoon period. Now you are competing against 3,000 gins from day one,” Ward said.  Lisa Halstead explained what she is looking for: “I really like a unique bottle or a really unique background story.  Of course, the liquid has to match up.”

Faozzi Issa from Domaine des Tourelles

One recent launch that ticks all these boxes is Ginbey made by a winery in Lebanon, Domaine des Tourelles. The product and packaging are excellent but most importantly it has a compelling story and gifted communicator in distiller Faouzi Issa. As an arak distiller he had long wanted to make a gin, his arak Brun is a bestseller in Lebanon, but was pushed into it when the collapse of the Lebanese pound made imported gin too expensive. “We have also found that being the first premium gin from Lebanon has helped as it makes it stand out in this crowded marketplace.” He works with Speciality Brands to get Ginbey into bars and restaurants and it is listed by Master of Malt and the Whisky Exchange. A silver medal at the IWSC certainly helped too. 

As well as wineries moving into gin, gin brands are increasingly diversifying with producers such as Greensand in Kent and Foxhole Spirits launching rums. Jamie Baxter has noticed this too “Many gin distilleries are looking to do secondary products now in addition to the gin, so vodka, rum, whisky as well as other flavoured spirits.” This might be a canny move according to Lisa Halstead: “The data we have seen shows gin consumers moving to spiced and flavoured rum, premium and flavoured vodka and interestingly cream liqueurs.  We are also seeing some mid-size gin suppliers such as Boe Gin and Mason’s of Yorkshire move into the flavoured vodka category.”

The UK market might be crowded but David T. Smith mentioned that there’s still room for growth in countries such as France, Australia, America and China. James Baxter told me: “I’m getting far more enquiries from overseas than I used to and have done gin projects in France, Kenya, India, Ireland, Brazil.” Charly Thieme from Brighton Gin said they “have just received our first order from Taiwan (that’s our sixth market abroad) and have two more markets in the pipeline for this year.”

Back at home, all the growth is at the high end according to to Stuart Ekins who runs Cask Liquid Marketing working closely with the on-trade, “in super premium (£29-39) and luxury (£40)” He continued: “Our sales have been strong through the Covid years with a particular benefit for home grown products with sustainability credentials, such as Hepple gin and Ramsbury gin.”

Eddie Brook from Byron Bay which produces an array of Australian gins tells a similar story: “I think our strong point of difference, ethics and values as a business really shine through with Brookie’s Byron Gin so consumers in the UK who are looking for premium and sustainable spirits connect with our story.” Spirits judge Sarah Miller agreed that at this end of the market, environmental credentials were extremely important: “I really want lots of information and transparency about how and where a product is made, what the ethos is, and – ideally – its sustainability credentials.”

Behind the headlines of declining gin sales, there is definitely good news out there for producers, retailers and the on-trade with the right product, the right marketing and more than a little luck. The gin boom might be over but we’re not going back to the days of just Gordons or Beefeater.

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Booze interview: Ed Dallimore

I ran into Ed Dallimore at a Wine Garden of England event at Squerryes Hall earlier this year on a classic overcast English summer’s day. Very different to the weather we’re having at the moment. He was selling his incredibly thorough and beautifully put together book, The Vineyards of Britain. Well how could I resist? I have been devouring it avidly ever since. Ed really does seem to have been everywhere, met everyone and tried everything. It made me realise that I have so far only scratched the surface of all the exciting things that are going on in English and Welsh wine. At the moment if you want to know what’s going on, then you need to buy a copy (go to 59Vines.com). Oh and the photographs are superb, especially the ones of Peter Hall from Breaky Bottom. I’d highly recommend following Ed on social: @59Vines.

To tell you more about it, here he is:

How did you get into wine?

Wine has always been at our family dinner table or present in some way. Dad worked in British brewing and Mum’s always loved drinking wine! Not necessarily the most flash kit but always as a means of celebration, or family meal times, or with friends. We still use a cork screw that belonged to my great great grandfather circa 1850s. Oh the stories that thing could tell!

Professionally speaking, I left uni in 2008 and didn’t know what to do. I saw a ‘graduate scheme’ for Majestic and thought I would do that for a year, learn a bit about wine, something that will always be relevant and interesting, then use that time to work out what I wanted to do ‘when I grow up..’ About six months in I tasted a 2006 McLaren Vale Shiraz Viognier by Kangarilla Road – and I knew pretty much there and then I would be in wine forever. It was the variety, quality, value and approach of the wonderful people behind many of the great wines of Australia that I was seeing and meeting – that attracted me most of all. Specifically an 03 Hunter Sem by Mount Pleasant. I felt such a disconnect from the desire to immerse myself in these wines – so moved to Sydney in 2012 and funnily enough got a job working for Mount Pleasant.

What was it that got you into English wine? Was there a particular bottle?

Prior to returning from Australia I had tasted two English wines total. On return – and prior to embarking on the journey to visit around150 English and Welsh producers writing The Vineyards of Britain – but with the idea forming in my mind, I bought some wine from Tommy and the crew at Emerging Vines. Including a bottle of Will Davenport‘s 2018 Diamond Fields Pinot Noir. I was blown away by the depth and structure especially, something that, largely due to climate, I didn’t imagine I would encounter too much of in our domestic red market! A great example to ever remain open minded… Very early on in the project I visited Harrow & Hope. Totally blown away by one of the most precise range of wines I’ve ever seen – and of course the quality – I could see there and then it was going to be a very tasty project! More importantly the professionalism – and potential for the future of English and Welsh wine was – was so evident. 

Peter Hall from Breaky Bottom

What was the first English vineyard you visited?

Little Oak, Chipping Campden, from vines planted in 1880 and 42 degrees in the Hunter Valley one week, to three acres of Seyval and Siegerebbe in about 2 degrees and snow in the Cotswolds the next!

What gave you the idea for the book?

First and foremost a desire to broaden my own knowledge of the domestic industry. I knew I couldn’t just waltz back into the English industry and into a great job working with local producers – which is something I always want to champion for multiple reasons. I needed to learn as much as possible, and meet as many people as possible, and the best way to do that is at source. I struggled to find an exhaustive resource to point me in the right direction, and thought this would make for a useful tool for people who either wanted to learn a bit more about who’s doing what, where, or maybe wanted to visit a few cellar doors themselves, or just be pointed in the direction of a few interesting wines. Secondly, having always been a photographer who loves to write – I wrote a book in Australia which was self published with a few friends – it was an absolutely obvious opportunity to combine a few passions – what could be better!   

How long did it take to research?

The research started whilst still in Australia – but was agreed with the publisher in December 2020. The next three months was pretty much all planning – the initial plan was for it to include 250 producers. But I also wanted to share their stories in an exhaustive way and for it to be accessible, so no more than £19.99. So… the publisher quickly pointed out that 250 producers therefore was out of the question. I started with a list of every producer in the UK and honed this to a desired list of about 135 – knowing that I would undoubtedly be pointed in the direction of some great producers along the way. I think the final tally was 153 who I approached – and 147 are in the book. Which says a lot for the people and their willingness to contribute to the wider industry. Between April to November I covered 18,000 miles visiting every producer – some more than once for additional imagery. I wrote it on the way, often with a glass of wine from that day’s venues.

Jacob Leadley and Zoe Driver from Black Chalk

Which of the newer producers are you most excited about?

Stonor Valley Vineyard are producers to watch out for, once the vines come online. One of the best sites I’ve seen. I’m really looking forward to seeing the wines of Ham Street as the site again looks exceptional and I like what I’ve seen about their approach. Black Chalk have fast forwarded themselves to the very pointy end of the quality spectrum and I’ll always be keen to see their new releases. Martin’s Lane too seem to have formed themselves a formidable rep within the industry… Chris Wilson at Gutter & Stars is making some great wines with fruit from Essex and Oxfordshire, another release email list well worth being on!  

What do you think the future holds for English wine?

Overwhelming excitement and potential. We’re currently (on average) producing about 65% traditional method sparkling annually – this will remain the leading category – but see it continuing to dissipate slightly, in favour of more stills in the riper vintages and more sparkling outside of this bracket. Charmat is causing a bit of a stir with some huge plantations going in. Anything that can act as a gateway into the English and Welsh industry is good as far as I’m concerned and Charmat can provide this given style, as long as it’s priced appropriately. Export will continue to grow (currently at about 15%) – and it will have to with around 4 million vines in the ground these last few years… But with 33million wine drinkers in the UK importing the best part of 30 million bottle of champagne currently, there is so much scope to welcome more people into the domestic bracket and crucially, because the quality is good, this is hopefully where they’ll stay!

What problems does the industry face?

I still see climate as the biggest challenge. Not merely a lack of ripening warmth in some seasons but also increasingly dramatic weather patterns, milder winters and devastating, potentially crop threatening, late spring frosts. This of course contributes to cost, which is a major challenge in winning over the everyday drinker. Compounding this can be price point on some wines from very young vines… Not to say these young producers can’t make good wines… but such a hugely important aspect is people’s first experience with English or Welsh wine… which is most likely to be very positive… but if it’s considered to be well over priced then they are less likely to keep exploring. To that point we owe much to our big producers who put lots of resource into marketing themselves and therefore the wider industry… 

How did you go about getting the book published?

In many ways setting out to write a thorough book on wine makes about as much financial sense – personally speaking – as planting a vineyard… But I didn’t get into either wine or writing about it to make money… which is lucky! I approached the publisher with what I thought was a good opportunity for them – they agreed – but as is standard in publishing, I funded the entirety of the research phase (and I’m not someone who has come out of the city with loads of cash… far from it). I crowdfunded via 100 pre sale copies, selling lots of these along with framed prints etc., all delivered on publication. This, plus savings, funded the whole of last year.

What are your favorite books on wine?

In Vino Veritas

A Life in Wine Stephen Spurrier

Bursting Bubbles Robert Walters – offered me a job once, probably should have taken it! 

The Wine Hunter Campbell Mattinson

I love all of my editions of The World Atlas of Wine – I used to love getting back from long days shifting cases of wine at Majestic and just wanting to read more about wine

Noble Rot’s Wine from another galaxy… plus all the mags 

Do you have another book planned?

Absolutely! I can’t wait to share more stories and those of the producers I’ve discovered since writing the first book. There is so much going on, always so much more to say, and so many more great wines to be shared. I would like to do an update of this book in a few years. In the short term I’m currently working on a couple of projects which may come to fruition slightly sooner – and I hope to do a book rich in imagery of all the wonderful wine dogs of England I’ve met along the way.

Thank you Ed!

Ed Dallimore
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A tribute to Stuart Moss, co-founder of Nyetimber

One of the great pioneers of English wine, Stuart Moss, died last week at his home in Santa Barbara, California. With his wife Sandy, he planted grapes at Nyetimber in Sussex and created a sparkling wine that would become legendary. I assumed that there would be an obituary in the Times and Telegraph, articles in the wine press and generally an acknowledgement of the passing of someone who had a profound influence on this country’s wines. Yet apart from a few tributes on social media from Stephen Skelton and others, there has been very little. As far as I am aware Nyetimber itself, owned since 2006 by Dutch billionaire Eric Heerema, has not issued a statement (though to be fair the wine maker Brad Greatrix did respond on Twitter). Indeed, go to the Our Story section of the company’s website and there’s no mention of the Mosses at all.

Stuart and Sandy Moss at the House of Lords with just some of their many trophies

So I thought I’d put together a little tribute page. I didn’t know Stuart Moss but I was very fortunate to speak to him and Sandy a couple of weeks ago for an article I was writing on the 30th anniversary of that first vintage at Nyetimber, and the magnificence of the 1992 Blanc de Blancs sparkling wine. You can read the full article here but I liked what Stuart said about their audacious and ultimately successful endeavour: “The gods smiled, we had the right sites, the right varieties and everything went well for us.”

I’ve emailed a few English wine notables who knew Stuart Moss and will be updating this page as they come in. If you want to contribute, please let me know and I’ll add to the page. 

“It was a zeitgeist moment. Although, some of us were also making sparkling wines, they weren’t generally with Pinot and Chardonnay. It needed somebody prepared to put up with the much lower (then) yields.  In other words a labour of love, started almost on a hobby basis. In the early days they never seemed to sell any, but their foresight eventually paid off in a way, of which they could only have dreamed. Well done Stuart and Sandy, true pioneers.” Bob Lindo, Camel Valley

“Very saddened to hear the passing of Stuart Moss, he will be proudly remembered along with his wife Sandy for being so instrumental in the renaissance of the English Sparkling Wine Industry. They were the first to see the potential for Sussex to be the ideal terroir for producing international quality bottle fermented sparkling wine. I fondly remember how open and collaborative they were with my father and I when we began our journey into English sparkling wine shortly after them. I warmly remember sitting in their newly renovated manor house over a glass of wine discussing winemaking. They should be so proud of being the catalyst for this exciting new era of English sparkling wine that has come on leaps and bounds. At Ridgeview we will be raising a glass to his inspiring memory and passing our warmest regards to Sandy and the family in the USA.” Simon Roberts, Ridgeview 

“The Mosses , wittingly or not, created the will to excel and the belief that we could do so, that has led England to the top of the sparkling wine tree. Without their cussed determination, we might be a generation behind in achieving the unbelievably delicious sparklers we now produce.  And, as Stuart shot back, when the Man from the Ministry  said ‘You should plant apples’ —  ‘we didn’t move 4,000 miles to grow apples!'” Oz Clarke, wine writer and TV presenter 

“I clearly remember the first time I tasted Nyetimber and realised that the Mosses had managed something extraordinary. History has proved that they heralded a completely new era for wine in this country.” Jancis Robinson, wine writer

“Without Stuart and Sandy there would be no Nyetimber and – I would argue – there would be much less of an English wine industry.” Johnny Ray, wine writer

“Everyone told him and Sandy that you couldn’t make great wine in England. They went ahead anyway. He said to me they did it because you can’t tell someone from Chicago what they can’t do.” Guy Smith, Smith & Evans sparkling wine

“Stuart and Sandie Moss were two of the original pioneers of the English wine industry. Their legacy is an exciting and vibrant industry.” Frazer Thompson, former CEO of Chapel Down

“Stuart Moss deserves his rightful place in English wine folklore. England is now recognised as one of the most exciting wine regions on the planet and this simply wouldn’t be the case without his pioneering approach to sparkling wine.” Charlie Holland, winemaker and CEO at Gusbourne

“I remember when Stuart and Sandy first came to Nyetimber with the intention to make sparkling wine and the frisson of excitement that caused in our very small industry at that time. No one had seriously considered English sparkling wine at that time, this was new.  I went to visit their winery soon after they won the English Sparkling Wine Trophy at the 1997 IWSC, with their very first wine! Stuart was there carefully labelling those bottles.  Every label position was carefully measured (with a ruler), to ensure perfect placement. Such immense attention to detail really mattered to him and he told me he believed this is what was needed to make the best wines in the world. They both worked very hard, but were also very good fun. Stuart always had a ready smile and engaging personality, he was a pleasure to know.” Sam Lintner, MD and winemaker at Bolney

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Every town needs a brewery

This is something I wrote for issue three of an excellent new drinks magazine called Tonic. I’d highly recommend subscribing and they are offering a 20% discount for new subscribers with the code HWOB20. Go to Tonic’s website.

There are three smells I associate with Faversham, the East Kent town where I live. One is the mouth-watering smell of the fish and chip shops. There are two near our house and the air is always thick with the smell of fried potatoes and malt vinegar. Then there’s the creek, the waterway that links Faversham with the sea. At high tide you can smell oyster shells and seaweed, whereas on hot days when it goes out there are less pleasant estuarial smells. Finally, there’s the Shepherd Neame brewery that sits in the heart of town which makes the whole place smell like freshly-baked digestive biscuits. 

During the first stage of 2020’s Covid crisis, the first smell disappeared. No more chips and vinegar. But the creek kept going in and out, and I thought to myself, as long as the brewery continued brewing, then everything would be ok. While the world got increasingly creepy, with masked people on streets, warnings on television, and police going through groceries, that smell kept me sane. 

According to Jonathan Neame, Shepherd Neame CEO, it was a close-run thing keeping the brewery going when the first lockdown restrictions bit in March. “If we had not, it may not have opened again,” he said. The current family business has been there since 1698 though records have been found showing brewing on the site much earlier. 

The architecture of Faversham is dominated by brewing. There’s the sprawling Shepherd Neame site (above), a mixture of Victorian and modern, that sits by the creek. In the old days, malt and hops for the brewery would arrive by boat until the coming of the railway in 1858. Then there are the grand townhouses which were built by Faverham’s beer barons.

The Shepherds and Neames weren’t the only brewing families. Their great rivals, the Rigdens, built a stunning Italianate redbrick brewery opposite Shepherd Neame in the late 19th century. It was sold to Fremlins of Maidstone in 1948 whose elephant symbol you still see at the Elephant pub, before moving into the hands of Whitbread which finally closed it in 1990.

Thankfully, it wasn’t demolished and the massive building now houses a supermarket and various flats and offices. Still, how magnificent would it have been when both were going strong? Imagine the smells. I’m grateful that Shepherd Neame is still there. It was a large part of why we moved here from London. Well, it was for me, my wife was more interested in the quality of the schools.

Having a old brewery at the heart of a town gives a grandeur, purpose, and identity to the place. Southwold would just be another chi chi Suffolk seaside town without the Adnams brewery. Most dramatic of all is Harveys of Lewes (below) whose gothic revival brewery towers over the Sussex market town. Like railway stations, the Victorians built breweries in the style of cathedrals or castles. When the brewing stops, these beautiful old buildings can be repurposed, like Rigden’s in Faversham, but they have lost their magic, and become like a railway station where trains don’t stop anymore or a deconsecrated church. 

At one time every town of any size would have had at least one brewery. My father still speaks fondly about the old Benskins brewery in his hometown of Watford which was founded in 1722, and, after being acquired by Ind Coope, was finally shut down in 1972. 

It’s a story that’s repeated all over the country. The British beer industry went through a wave of consolidations which increased after the Second World War. Old breweries were closed and their much-loved beers either disappeared or were brewed elsewhere. Today, Watford is a slightly soulless commuter town; one of those places where it feels like the action is always going on elsewhere. How much better would it be with a brewery sitting at the heart of it? 

The closure that still brings a tear to my eye is that of Young’s in Wandsworth. Right up until it closed in 2006, dray horses would deliver the beer to local pubs in south west. But hard-headed economics won out and Young’s merged with Charles Wells, and moved brewing out to Bedford. Was it my imagination or did a pint of Young’s Special, my favourite London beer, not taste as good anymore? Since then the family has sold its stake in Charles Wells so no longer have any connection to brewing. Seeing that Young’s sign outside a pub used to bring a feeling of being connected to a rich beer heritage. Now it’s really no different to All Bar One.

Still, you can hardly blame the Young family, sitting on a real estate goldmine as they were. It proved more profitable for many old firms to go into property or concentrate on hospitality then continue with the difficult business of making beer. Whitbread, once one of the country’s greatest brewers, with its famous Chiswell Street site in the City of London, divested itself of its breweries in 2001. The company’s best known asset is now Costa Coffee.

Rigdens old brewery in Faversham, now flats and a Tesco

At one point, the constant consolidations in the British beer industry were severely limiting consumer choice. Beers as famous as Bass were passed around companies, unloved, until, now in the hands of AB-InBev, producers of Budweriser, it has all but disappeared. Today, however, with the craft boom, there’s plenty of great beer to enjoy. I won’t turn down a pint of Gadd’s no 4 or Wimbledon American Pale Ale but these operations tend to be based in industrial estates on the outskirts of town. Nothing wrong with that but nobody is going to build a beautiful red brick Victorian-style brewery in a town centre anymore. 

As Jonathan Neame put it: “there’s no rationale for having a brewery in the centre of town.” To be an independent regional brewer like Shepherd Neame, you need a fair dollop of romance alongside a hard-nosed business brain. 

It’s hardly the most sexy of companies, with its slightly dowdy range of Kentish ales like Masterbrew and Spitfire though the strong dark beers like Double Stout or 1798 ale are superb.The brewery also brews contract beers like Sam Adamuel Boston lager and Oranjeboom. 

But isn’t really about beer, it’s about the community. As Jonathan Neame put it: “There’s no rhyme and reason why Shepherd Neame exists. We’re not the biggest, we’re not even the best. There’s just lots of pride.” The firm is a big employer in the region directly or indirectly by using local produce like Kentish hops. Neame compares people’s relationship with the brewery as like that to a town’s football club.

With its pub chain out of action during the pandemic, Shepherd Neame had to find new outlets for its beer like Russia and Australia. A friend even spotted a bottle of its IPA in a supermarket in Guadalajara, Mexico. Still, the company was losing £150,000 a day and had to refinance. Jonathan Neame described the British government’s erratic approach to Covid as “top drawer bollocks.”

But it seems that the company has pulled through and Neame has big plans to rejuvenate its image; “we’ve been doing this for 400 years by continually reinventing ourselves,” he said. Here’s to another 400 years of filling the town with the heady smell of brewing. Which reminds me, I could really do with a pint. And maybe we’ll get some chips on the way home. 

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Sadly, Johnny Homer from Shepherd Neame who showed be around the brewery and was so much help with this article died in July 2021. I want to thank him for all his help and offer my condolences to his wife and daughter.

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Getting to know my father through wine

With Father’s Day coming up, I thought I’d post this thing I wrote a while back. Originally it was meant to run in Noble Rot magazine but was rejected for not being irreverent enough. For years afterwards I used to flick though the magazine seething at all the reverent articles about Burgundy etc. I’ve got over it, especially as the Spectator‘s Life supplement took it up and paid me in money rather than cool tokens. But sadly the Spec Life is now defunct and its website has been memory-holed taking with a load of stuff I wrote hence why I’m putting it up on my blog now.

It may be a cliché but many men really can only communicate through sport. It provides a ritualised way to argue, to become passionate and to bond without having to talk about awkward things such as feelings. This is never truer than of father and son relationships. My father and I never had this common ground. He was a brilliant sportsman as a schoolboy and as an adult a keen golfer and rugby player. I on the other hand combined a scrawny physique with physical cowardice and an extraordinary lack of coordination. My brothers weren’t much better but at least they were interested in watching sport and would accompany him to Lords and Twickenham.

I envied their ease around him. To give him credit he did try to find things that we were both interested in. There was motor racing: he couldn’t stand the noise so had to buy headphones at which point he fell asleep. And then there was the theatre. For years we went to highly-lauded productions such as Diana Rigg in Medea or Michael Gambon in Beckett’s End Game. On arrival my father would take his seat, mutter something about how he loved Euripides and then, just after the curtain came up, fall asleep. I would sit out of my mind with boredom wishing I was at home with a book. After a particularly bad run of plays, I finally admitted to him that I didn’t really enjoy the theatre. He was disappointed but I think relieved.

My father on the left with my brother George centre and me on the right

It looked as if we were destined to go through life treating each other with complete bafflement until in 1999 I got a job at Oddbins. I’d been spending an increasing amount of time in the Headingley branch following my graduation so it seemed a good idea to get a job there. It was a glorious time. I caught the end of Oddbins’s crazy years before they were swallowed up by Castel. We supplied most of the bars and restaurants in Leeds. A night out would be a bit like that bit in Goodfellas when the Ray Liotta and Lorraine Bracco characters go to the Copacabana Club. We went straight to the front of the queue and often drank on the house all night. I embarked on a crash course in wine appreciation at the hands of Yorkshire’s rowdiest wine merchants enlivened it has to be said with quite a bit of cocaine. I’m not sure Michael Broadbent would have approved. There’s nothing quite like drinking a 1976 von Buhl Forster Jesuitgarten Spatlese and watching the sun rise over Harrogate. My sudden interest in wine sparked a similar awakening in my father. He took a more sedate route for his wine education, however, by joining his local wine club in Amersham.

Wine was always something considered important in our family though no one seemed to know why. My father didn’t know that much about it, his father even less, he just liked the stuff and knew that it was something an Englishman should be interested in. My father’s family have a slightly second hand grasp of Englishness which I think comes from being Jewish. We began to attend tastings together. One of the first was a 1985 Bordeaux horizontal, the wine provided by one of the members of his club. I remember being transfixed by the Pichon-Longueville Baron but more than this I remember seeing my father for the first time as a human being rather than a distant bearded figure like an old-Testament prophet. I had left the wine trade by this point but read and tasted voraciously. I joined The Wine Society and we began to attend their tastings together on a regular basis. No matter which region we were tasting, my father would always mutter ‘mmm nice and smooth’ or ‘I don’t like a wine that’s too smooth.’ I never knew which it was.

Despite his refusal to analyse what we were drinking, he has unerringly good taste. If he rates a wine, it’s normally very good. But of course, we weren’t just there for the wine. Having this thing that we did together enabled us to talk like we never could do before. We did sometimes invite my brothers or my wife but the dynamic didn’t work so now we keep it exclusively for us. Apart from getting to know my father this joint interest in wine has a happy symbiosis in that I would read about and try lots of wine and my father, being a successful businessman, would buy it. He now has stocks of Bordeaux, Rhone, Burgundy and some German stuff in storage. I’ve tried to do my bit by buying him cases of wine for his birthday. We’re currently working our way through a case of Bandol Pradeaux 05 [I believe there are still a few bottles left] that I bought him for his 65th.

By 2009 I was in the odd position of having an all-consuming passion that I could only share on occasional nights out with my father. Most of my friends were of the three bottles for £10 school of wine buying. What I needed was an outlet for all this accumulated knowledge. First, I tried writing a book one the history of wine which never saw the light of day. More successfully, I began a blog which led to paid writing work. One day I was summoned for tea with Rachel Johnson and she asked me to become wine columnist of The Lady. I accepted of course and immediately called my father to tell him the good news. I’ve never heard him sound so proud; it may have even made up for a lifetime of sporting ineptitude.

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News from World of Booze

Here’s a little update about what I’ve been up to recently:

Fortnum & Mason awards

I’ve been shortlisted for best drink writer at the Fortnum & Mason awards for something I wrote for this blog on my Uncle Peter and a thing in the Fence newsletter on wine merchants. The competition is fierce with Will Hawkes, for my money probably the best drinks writer working in Britain today (read this thing on beer, curries and Bradford he wrote recently), and Felipe Schrieberg, one of the brightest talents in whisky. Win or lose, it means a lot to me to me shortlisted. I write a lot, much of it quite straightforward things for Master of Malt, so it’s nice to be recognised when I try to do something a bit more creative. UPDATE: I WON, I BLOODY WON.

Vines in a Cold Climate

I’m writing a new book! It’s about English wine! Don’t all rush at once. Seriously though, this is proving to be a fascinating topic. The idea is that the book is about the people behind the transformation of English wine in the last 30 years, from the butt of jokes, to world class. I’m spending about three days a week travelling around the country meeting producers and trying wines. I’ve unearthed some great stories and been impressed by the quality of the wine. The sparklers have long been excellent but every year the still wines, including some reds, are getting better and better. The publisher, Atlantic books, i aiming to publish some time next year, so I better hurry up and write the bloody thing.

I am, however, aiming to blog a bit more, even if it’s just wines that I have tried on my travels.

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Lunch at Langoa Barton

This is something I wrote for the Spectator on the recent death at 91 of Irishman in Bordeaux, Anthony Barton.

In 2014 I received a mystery phone call. It came from a French number but the voice sounded like a patrician Englishman from another age. It was a voice that you can imagine following into battle: “Hello, it’s Anthony Barton here”. You might not know the name but to a wine lover, it was like taking a call from God. Barton, who died this week at 91, was the man behind Châteaux Léoville Barton and Langoa Barton, and his family were Bordeaux aristocracy.

I was writing a book about the history of the British and wine, and had sent a message to the information at Langoa Barton email expecting at best to hear back from a PR representative, as had happened at Lynch-Bages. Instead, Anthony phoned me out of the blue. He told me that he was intrigued by my book and indeed had read something I’d written in the Spectator on fluffing a blind wine tasting that had greatly amused him. 

He suggested that my wife and I come and have lunch at the château one day. I was nearly speechless that he had personally contacted me but later learned that this was entirely in character. He was generous with his time and disliked the increasingly corporate world of modern Bordeaux. So one day in 2015 we found ourselves turning up in a taxi at the gates of Château Langoa Barton.

The property had been in the family since 1824 when it was bought by Hugh Barton. His grandfather was Tom “French Tom” Barton who came to France from Enniskillen in 1722 and founded a wine dynasty. In partnership with a Frenchman, Daniel Guestier, the family became one of the most powerful forces in Bordeaux. They sold the merchant business Barton & Guestier in the 1960s but held on to the Langoa Barton and sister property Léoville Barton.

Despite being in France for hundreds of years, like many Anglo-Irish families, the Bartons retained their roots, sending their children to school in England and holding British, and later Irish passports. Along with the firms like Nathaniel Johnston & Fils, and other northern European merchants, they created an English-speaking community who played tennis and cricket, and set up clubs like proper English gentlemen. They ran the city’s wine trade until the arrival of the multinationals in the 1960s.

Anthony Barton came across as every foreigner’s idea of the perfect Englishman but he was in fact Irish, born in Country Kildare, and educated in England. He came to work for his uncle Ronald at the age of 21. Apparently it wasn’t the easiest relationship, he told me that he was badly under-paid and found it very difficult to keep up the kind of lifestyle he wanted. Anthony moved in a fast set, close friends with Antony Armstrong-Jones, and is rumoured to have had a fling with Princess Margaret.

Ever the diplomat, I decided not to ask him about the alleged affair when we sat down to lunch with Anthony and his Danish wife Eva. They made a striking couple, she poised and chic, and Anthony at 85 still ridiculously handsome with leonine hair and a glint in his eye. He was dressed in a blazer and cravat and was very pleased that I was wearing a tie, saying that it was sad that nobody wears ties anymore. They both seemed particularly taken with my glamorous Californian wife and were keen to hear how we met. 

Chateau Langoa Barton

Before lunch, we sat at a low table piled high with books so we could barely see each other and drank vintage Pol Roger. Most Bordeaux châteaux are used for corporate entertaining, but Langoa-Barton was a family home complete with toothbrushes sitting in a cartoon tumbler in the bathroom.

Then it was time to eat. I can’t remember much about the food, only that it was gloriously old-fashioned, no al dente vegetables here. It was served by a recalcitrant staff member in slippers, clearly he’d been with the family a long time as he and Anthony bickered amiably about the serving of the wine.

There was no wine talk, until, perhaps something of a faux pas, I asked him about what we were drinking and he challenged me to guess the vintages which I got hopelessly wrong. The two reds were both from Leoville Barton: a wild rather hedonistic 1982, a hot vintage and the last made by his uncle; and then the classical perfumed 1986, pure Medoc magic. 

According to Anthony’s daughter, Lilian Barton-Sartorius, who showed us around the property before lunch, wine making was pretty primitive in Ronald Barton’s day.  When Anthony took over following his uncle’s death in 1986, he revamped the cellars and vineyard practices, and turned the underperforming estates into some of the finest in the Medoc. Decanter magazine named him ‘Man of the Year’ in 2007. In some vintages Leoville Barton, a second growth, outperforms its first growth neighbours, but he was immune to the sort of over ambitious pricing that made Bordeaux a byword for greed in the 2000s. 

Despite, or perhaps because, he came from such an illustrious line, Anthony maintained an amused distance from the world of wine. The strange Bordeaux system where wines pass through various middlemen before arriving in shops meant that he had little to do with his eventual customers. Which was how he liked it. He made the wines he wanted to make, charged what he thought he should, and they sold, that’s all that mattered. Château Langoa Barton was not open to the public. 

The wines were so good that I wanted to take notes but thought this might have been another faux pas. So we just enjoyed them quietly while Anthony and Eva regaled us with stories. I remember one in particular about how during the second world war, a group of German soldiers arrived to requisition the château. They were confronted by the fearless cook who told them that it was the property of a neutral, Irishman Ronald Barton. The cook herself was Irish and waved her passport at the Germans and amazingly they went away.  Ronald Barton, in fact, had a British passport and was fighting with the Free French at the time.

It felt like one of those lunches that could have gone on all afternoon, but we had a plane to catch back to England and Anthony needed a lie down. He was already ill when we met. In fact, he informed us he had nearly cancelled lunch but had rallied that morning. There was something that affected his balance but not even the most expensive American doctors had been able to explain what it was or treat the symptoms. 

I was hoping it would be the start of a beautiful friendship but after he emailed me to say that my book had arrived I never heard from him again. I later learned that his health declined quite rapidly since our meeting in 2015 but that recently he had been happy to see his granddaughter get married. 

Anthony and Eva had two children, Lilian and Thomas. Sadly Thomas died in a car accident but happily Lilian, her husband and their children now run the business so the family legacy seems safe for the foreseeable future. And yet Anthony Barton’s death does seem like the end of an era. He was the last of a particular breed of Anglo-Irishmen who once ran the Bordeaux wine trade. I feel fortunate to have met him and had a glimpse into a world that has now almost completely vanished. 

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The Anglophone families of wine

With the sad news of Anthony Barton’s death this week, I’m posting something I wrote a few years ago for the Wine Society on the old Anglophone families who used to dominate the wine trade in Bordeaux, Oporto, Jerez, Madeira and Marsala.

Last year my wife and I were fortunate enough to have lunch with Anthony Barton (below) and his wife Eva at Chateau Langoa-Barton. As we ate the wonderfully old-fashioned French food served to us by a silent retainer and drank the impeccable wine (1982 and 1986 Leoville-Barton just to make readers extra jealous) I imagined that this is what the wine business used to be like. It was a glimpse into a time before publicity campaigns and multinationals when the Bordeaux trade was run by a small clique of English-speaking families. 

It wasn’t just in Bordeaux, at one time there were British merchant colonies all over Europe, in Jerez, Malaga, Madeira and Porto, wherever good wine could be easily shipped to Britain the the Empire. These merchants created a distinct communities, neither British nor entirely of the place where they lived. In Marsala in Sicily, British merchants intermarried with local aristocrats to form a colourful hybrid community. They lived a life of lavish balls in marble palazzos as in the novel The Leopard by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa (memorably made into a film starring Burt Lancaster, Claudia Cardinale and Alain Delon). In the case of the merchants of Bordeaux, the majority weren’t actually British, they were Irish, Danish and German, and yet they created an English-speaking community who played cricket, and set up English-style gentleman’s clubs.

The old British families sold up in Marsala in the 1920s and in Jerez in the 1980s. In Bordeaux the Bartons are among the last of their their kind. They’re continuing a business founded by Tom ‘French Tom’ Barton who arrived in 1722 from Enniskillen. Despite this long history in France, the family have always kept a foot on the other side of the Channel. And with good reason: during the Second World War, the Germans tried to confiscate Langoa-Barton but the cook stopped them by insisting that it was owned by an Irishman, Ronald Barton, a neutral. The cook herself was Irish and waved her passport at the Germans and amazingly they went away.  In fact Ronald Barton had a British passport and was a liaison office with the Free French at the time.

His nephew, Anthony Barton, who now runs the business is an Irishman though most mistake him for a pukka Englishman. Nephews like him play an important role in keeping family businesses going. Benjamin Ingham built his mighty Marsala wine business on the back of his nephews. There’s a story, possibly apocryphal, that when one of these nephews, William Whitaker, died in 1818, Ingham wrote to the boy’s mother saying ‘your son is dead, send me another.’ The letter, if it ever did, no longer exists. Anthony too didn’t have the easiest relationship with his uncle when he joined the family firm in 1948. He told me that for most of the time he was paid next to nothing until he demanded a raise because he wanted to get married. The estates, Langoa and Leoville, had become rather dilapidated so when Anthony eventually took over in 1984 he made a great deal of improvements to the cellars and vineyards.

Change is often slow in the wine business.  Often work instigated by one generation will only be reaped by the next. Vines need time to become productive and wine needs to mature. Madeira wine can mature for centuries. The Blandy family have been on the island since 1811. The story goes that John Blandy was sent to the island with General Beresford’s army to help defend it against Napoleon though new evidence suggests that he was actually there, like so many modern British tourists who travel to the island, for a rest cure. He evidently liked the place, decided to stay and moved into the wine business. The Blandy family now own the Madeira Wine Company who are responsible for a quarter of the island’s production. Just as with the Bartons, their business has been reinvigorated in recent years. The current chairman Chris Blandy told me “in 2011, the year of our bicentenary, the family took the decision to invest back into the wine company and it is the first time, since the 80s, we have a Blandy family member leading the company.”

It was the Symingtons of Oporto who the Blandy’s bought out to regain control of their family business. Oporto more than anywhere else in the wine world has preserved the old British atmosphere. The Factory House, the British club, is still only open to shippers from British houses.  But things have changed. Whereas in the past the British, with a few honourable exceptions, led a quasi-colonial existence speaking atrocious Portuguese, now they are now far more integrated. Paul Symington, chairman of the company that owns those great names, Cockburn’s, Graham’s, Warre’s and Dow’s, is keen to stress that his home is in Portugal. Indeed he didn’t visit England until he was 13 because the family didn’t have the money to travel. Chris Blandy too thinks of himself as Madeiran rather than British.

There’s something reassuring in an age of global corporations and venture capital that families such as the Blandys, Bartons and Symingtons not only exist but are thriving. One gets the impression that stewardship and preservation are as important to them as the bottom line. It hasn’t been an easy ride. Running a family business requires tremendous diplomacy. There are always those tempting offers to sell out to multinationals. The Blandys and Symingtons are blessed with strength in depth. Paul Symington runs the business with his cousins Rupert and Johnny. His brother Dominic and cousin Charles are also involved. The Barton legacy is more fragile resting as it does with Antony and Eva’s daughter, Lilian Barton-Sartorius. Fortunately she struck me as a formidable personality, utterly committed to continuing her father’s work. When you open a bottle from Langoa-Barton or Blandy’s, or indeed the Society’s Exhibition Vintage Port, you are tasting a little bit of history. Long may their producers remain family concerns.

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How to drink less at Christmas

Now that our betters have decreed that we will be allowed to see relatives this Christmas, I thought it a good idea to publish my guide to surviving the festive season without excessive drunkenness.

I used to approach the Christmas party season like Homer Simpson approaches a buffet. I’d start in early December and drink heartily right through to New Year’s Day. I wouldn’t have a dry January either. That would suggest I had a problem. 

The revelry would reach a peak on Christmas Eve. I’d meet up with old school friends, we’d stay in the pub until closing and then go to someone’s house until 3am. I’d awake on Christmas Day hungover and, after breakfast, start on the champagne. By the time lunch was served I’d be fractious and in need of some sleep. This led to some vintage rows. There was that time I accused my aunt’s boyfriend of being a bad vegetarian. In my defence he was eating a piece of salmon at the time. ‘Well it’s not a vegetable, is it?’ I demanded. When will I ever learn that you don’t win an argument simply by being right? And the less said about the great contemporary art debate of 2011 the better.  

It was all getting a bit fraught so a few years ago I made a conscious decision to drink less over the Christmas period. I was receiving less party invitations anyway. I can’t think why. At the few parties I do attend I now drink bottled beer. This has the twofold advantage in that you know how much you’ve drunk and you don’t have to drink the terrible wine most people serve. 

Christian Seely from Quinta do Noval with enormous bottle of port

Port, the not so silent killer

That only leaves the Christmas Day hurdle (I’ve long since grown out of New Year’s Eve.) And it is quite a hurdle. My father gets all kinds of fine stuff out of storage from the Wine Society: a red burgundy, a white burgundy, champagne, claret, and port (the not so silent killer). Being a wine writer means that I can accept another glass and pretend it’s professional curiosity rather than just an inability to know when to stop drinking. A lot of booze professionals share this tendency. 

It’s not that I don’t appreciate the joys of festive drinking.  A little light drunkenness makes the old jokes funny and gives the day a pleasantly sentimental haze. It’s just that alcohol can exacerbate family tensions. With new people it can be even worse. Occasionally someone, a friend or distant relative will join us on Christmas Day, and say something like ‘well I think HS2 is a good idea.’ That never goes down well. I’ve noticed that it’s often over the port that things begin to go awry. Most years I really do try to pace myself but then a debate will start about Brexit or Boris Johnson and, I’ll reach for the  decanter to try to drown out the noise. I’ve learnt that it’s important to hold your tongue even at the most ridiculous opinions. Smile and nod, and drink. And then fester and then rage. No no no no! 

There is a better way. I have some hard-won wisdom on how to survive the holiday season without resorting to drunkenness, violence or prescription drugs. Much Christmas grumpiness is brought on by tiredness so if you feel like you’re going to fall asleep, do it. Even at the lunch table. People will just think you’re eccentric. It’ll become part of family folklore like that time my mother dropped the bread sauce on the floor. That was fifteen years ago but we’re still talking about. If being at the table is getting too much find an excuse to leave. I need to check on the fire is a good one or I have to call my brother in Australia. Or you can help out in the kitchen. Make yourself useful. 

Take a break from the wine occasionally. I like to drink sparkling water with ice, lime and a drop of angostura bitters.  This does make me look like an alcoholic, I had an Uncle who used to drink this when he was on the wagon, but it’s so delicious that I don’t care. Tea is another life-saver at Christmas. Nobody ever did anything bad after a cup of tea. 

Go for a bloody walk

After lunch, rather than sit around around finishing off the port, go for a bloody walk. A good blustery walk ideally with a dog can save even the most jaded Christmas. Dogs are a calming influence. Why do you think doctors prescribe them to people with post traumatic stress disorder? If you don’t have a dog, buy one, though remember, they are not just for Christmas. Children can be useful too. They’re not as soothing as dogs but they can be quite diverting. Board games  are another good distraction, NOT Risk though. I’ve seen families torn apart by Risk. Scrabble or Trivial Pursuit are safer. 

And if all else fails, perhaps another drink really is the answer. Raise a glass and repeat the wise words of Homer Simpson: ‘to alcohol! the cause of and solution to all of life’s problems.’ 

A version of this appeared in the Oldie.

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Become a wine connoisseur on the cheap

This is something I wrote for The Fence’s newsletter. A friend described this new magazine like this: “The Fence seems a new and rare original voice in the magazine world, it’s good nature and high spirits rather reminiscent of Spy magazine in the 80s.” High praise indeed, it’s well worth signing up to the newsletter and subscribing to the magazine itself. 

I know what you’re thinking, what with all these queues for petrol and bare supermarket shelves, it’s about time I started a wine cellar. There’s no shortage of information out there on the subject but the best advice I’ve had comes from a now-defunct blog called Sediment: “1) Buy wine 2) DON’T DRINK IT!!” Incidentally, their review of a Nero D’Avola from Sainsbury’s in the style of Bruce Chatwin is one of the best things you’ll read this week.

Once you’ve decided to start a cellar, it’s a question of where to buy your wine. I’m assuming that like me you are trying to raise a family on a writer’s salary with only the occasional meagre bequest from deceased relatives keeping your nose above water. I cannot, therefore, recommend one of those trendy wine merchants that started to appear in British cities around 2009, exploiting the gap left by the decline of Oddbins, Bottoms Up et al.

The new wave wine merchants

I remember my first experience with one such place. I was living in Bethnal Green when Bottle Apostle opened across Victoria Park from my flat. It was lavishly-appointed shop with enomatic machines so you could buy small tasting samples of expensive wines – most of which I had never heard of. Opening in East London around the time of the financial crash and offering very little below £10, I gave it six months at best. Much to my amazement, not only did it survive and thrive, but other new wine merchants opened within walking distance including one run by French hipsters on Hackney Road which sold austere natural wines from the Loire with not much available below £30. 

These places are fun with their esoteric lists, but the wines can be maddeningly unpredictable especially if you’re on a budget. Clearly there are plenty of people in London who don’t mind taking a risk on a £20-30 bottle of wine that might not be to their taste. I’m just not one of them. 

The Frenchsters were unusual in that they actually imported their own wine. Most independent wine merchants will buy from a wholesaler like Liberty Wines or Fields Morris & Verdin. There might be lots of talk about “visiting my growers”, but this often means a jolly at the importer’s expense, or just attending a tasting in London.

The usual mark-up will be between 30-40% on top of wholesale prices. It sounds like a lot but once the rent has been paid, staff costs accounted for and the various council hoops jumped through, there’s very little profit left. A few years ago, when the writing work wasn’t pouring in, I worked part time at one such a shop in South East London. The owner was so terrified of giving away margin, that she actually winced when I asked for a staff discount. You do, however, come across retailers who are frankly taking the piss. There’s a shop near my house selling Chateau Ksara Reserve de Couvent for more than £20 a bottle. I’m happy to pay a little more to support a local business but not when it’s charging nearly double the price at The Wine Society. 

Tom Ashworth and Jason Yapp. Note French peasant-esque jacket

Red trousers

My kind of wine merchant is not the sort of person who wears skinny jeans and a T-shirt featuring the names of cult Beaujolais producers. I’m afraid that I’m more drawn to tweed, red trousers and, best of all, those kind of blue cotton jackets that French peasants stopped wearing years ago and are now only sported by English wine merchants or retired lawyers in Kent with a passion for fixing sash windows. 

In the blue cotton camp is Yapp Bros in the West Country, specialising in the Rhone and the Loire. While in the tweed corner you’ll find Tanners in the Midlands, particularly strong on Portugal and Bordeaux. Then there’s the Wine Society, a members’ club which only costs £40 to join with prices so good that if I was an independent wine merchant I’d just give up.

Most experts will tell you that only the very best wines improve with age. This is nonsense. Even quite ordinary wines can mature. I’ve tasted old bottles of Jacob’s Creek Riesling from the corner shop that had gone positively opulent sitting gathering dust on the shelves. Every now and then, I do a sweep of the wines that my father has forgotten about in the garage, and we’ll find that some cheapish red from Rioja or the Languedoc has matured with the grace of decent Burgundy.

Ignore the experts

You can ignore the soi-disant experts who tell you that you need either a proper underground cellar or a ‘wine fridge’ that mimics cellar conditions in order to keep wine.

I finished the last bottle of a case of 2009 Bordeaux (Sarget to Gruaud Larose, in case you’re interested) this year. It tasted superb despite having spent most of its life stored under the stairs in a council flat in Lewisham. Unless you’re planning to keep your wine longer, your ‘cellar’ just needs to be dark, and not get too hot or cold. In a cupboard by an outside wall should be fine for a few years.  Wine can be surprisingly resilient, but whatever you do, don’t use the racks that come in fitted kitchens, usually right next to the oven. Bottles left there will be suitable only for mulling. 

What sort of wines should you buy? Well, you don’t need a lot of money to play the connoisseur, delving into your ‘cellar’ and boring your guests with how this Côtes du Rhône, “as good as some Châteauneuf-du-Papes, don’t you know, has blossomed in the last year or two.” As long as you’re buying from a good merchant then sturdy reds like Bordeaux, Chianti or Barossa shiraz, NV Champagne, riesling of all sorts, better chardonnays from Chile, Argentina and Australia, will all improve with a couple of years in your makeshift cellar. Even rosé tastes better the following year. Buy Provence rosé when it’s on sale in the autumn, keep it somewhere dark and by June you’ll be sipping the nectar of the gods.

But the ultimate bargain keeper has to be LBV (late bottled vintage) Port. I had a bottle of 2003 Taylor’s LBV not long ago that would have put many proper vintage ports to shame. You can pick it up for £12 a bottle. Buy a case, put it away, and you’ll be richly rewarded in five years time. 

Think of it this way, foreign travel might be nearly impossible and your fuel bills are about to go through the roof but you can still do as our ancestors did and get a bit of southern warmth through the magic of fortified wine. In fact, can you afford not to start a cellar now?

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