Getting trolleyed in London – the return of old school dining

Image result for bateman cartoon simpsons beef

Order a dish or a drink at some of London’s most fashionable restaurants and rather than a waiter put it down in front of you, don’t be surprised if you see your order making a stately progress from the kitchen on wheels. Yes the trolley is back, and how! At Marcus Wareing at the Berkeley Hotel in Knightsbridge they have a bon bon trolley, at the Oxo Tower they have a martini trolley complete with a James Bond paperback to read whilst your drink is prepared, and at the Berners Tavern they even have a pork pie trolley, £17 for a giant pie cut at the table with a choice of condiments.

With trolleys comes the return of the sort of cooking that you thought died out in the 1980s. Coin Laundry on Exmouth Market offers chicken kievs and Ottolenghi in Spitalfields has avocado vol-au-vents on the menu.  Forget sous vide, foams, and liquid nitrogen, we want our chefs in whites, red check trousers and the puffiest of puffy hats not in lab coats and goggles.

45 Jermyn Street opened in 2015 in Fortnum and Mason but walk into the dining room and you might think it’s 1975. Your dover sole will be cooked on the bone and then expertly filleted at the table; there’s a trolley on which the waiter will whip up scrambled eggs to go with your caviar; best of all they offer a dish that combines two retro standards, a black forest gateau baked alaska – flambeed in front of you, naturally. This is cooking with shoulder pads.

Going even further back in time is Otto’s in Gray’s Inn Road. It only opened in 2012 but looks like it’s been around since before the war. . . . the First World War. They have starched white tablecloths, antique Persian carpets and a (nearly) all French wine list. Otto’s offers the sort of food one can imagine Edwardian aristocrats tucking into. The house speciality involves a whole duck, the breast cooked pink and thin-sliced at the table, the legs served crisp, then the carcass is crushed in an antique silver press and the juices transferred to a sauce prepared by the waiter in front of you. They do something similar with a poulet de Bresse or, if you’re feeling really fancy, with lobster. It’s a sumptuous treat for all the senses. As Lee Stretton from 45 Jermyn Street put it:  “the classic dishes lend themselves to theatre.”

He went on to say: “there is a movement to appreciate the art of service within the room. It is a reaction to all the stripped back restaurants which have good but simple and utilitarian service.” It makes a welcome change from the minimalist aesthetic that was so big in the 2000s where restaurants such as St. John’s In Farringdon had informal, casually-dressed waiters and no tablecloths.

The decor of 45 Jermyn Street with its bright red leather seating, immaculate white linen and table lamps compliments the theatricality of the service perfectly.  It was designed by Martin Brudnizki Design Studio who also created the interiors for some of London’s most chic restaurants including the Ivy, Scott’s and the Caprice. It’s all about glamour. Diana Henry author of Simple: Effortless Food, Big Flavours, told me: “I loved the look of the life that went with this food: hessian walls, bottles of Burgundy, women with chignons and men in lounge suits, red candles on the dining table, this is the life to which I aspired.” Richard Corrigan’s new restaurant in Mayfair even has a piano player to go with the comfy chairs and heavy curtains.

All this plushness absorbs sound making restaurants like 45 Jermyn Street the perfect place for a long seductive lunch or perhaps somewhere to take your hard-of-hearing aunt. Compare this with St John’s, a cavernous former smokehouse, where I  would  leave with my ears ringing and voice hoarse from shouting over the hubbub.

One can chart the beginning of the retro revival to the opening of the Wolseley way back in 2003. Offering classic standards like omelette Arnold Bennett and Wiener Schnitzel in glittering surroundings, it quickly felt as if it had always been there. Then Brasserie Zedel opened in 2012 with its “chariots de fromage” and subterranean art deco dining room, like eating on an ocean liner.

The retro food trend isn’t just confined to London. No less an authority than Anthony Bourdain has tipped old-fashioned French cuisine of the sort championed by Elizabeth David and Julia Child as the next big thing, think Coq au Vin and Boeuf Bourguignon. There’s something wonderfully nostalgic about these dishes. Rather than the shock of molecular gastronomy, it is about comforting flavours cooked to perfection. Diana Henry told me: “I grew up with ‘retro’ food, which is why I don’t quite see it as ‘retro’. I was making steak Diane aged 11 and I thought it was impossibly delicious. I still also think prawn cocktail is fabulous.”

Simon Hopkinson agrees: “the prawn cocktail is wonderful.” He’s the author of a book about retro food called appropriately enough, The Prawn Cocktail Years. He went on to say “these dishes have never really gone away. They are what are what cooking is all about.” He told me that the chicken kiev and beef stroganoff were originally restaurant dishes. They are hard dishes to get right in the home so it’s great to see them back on the menu and done properly. Some restaurants, however, never lost faith with the classics. Oslo Court in St John’s Wood has been offering duck a l’orange, veal holstein and napery you could use to soundproof a recording studio since 1982. It’s food that people love to eat and will be eating for years to come. When the sous vide machine is gathering dust in the basement, the trusty trolley will still be doing the rounds.

This is an early version of something I wrote for a luxury good magazine.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Posted in Restaurants | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Arak and a hard place

Last November I was fortunate enough to have dinner in one of Beirut’s best restaurants, Em Sherif, with a group of Lebanese winemakers. There was no menu, they just bring you seemingly endless small dishes such as Kibbeh nayyeh, finely chopped raw lamb with onions, or baby aubergines stuffed with walnuts. Each one was more delicious than the last though I made the schoolboy error of filling up on the insanely good hummus and flatbread at the beginning. Mezze really isn’t designed for greedy Englishmen. Along with the food we had some excellent local wines but one of the winemakers admitted to me that the best thing with mezze isn’t wine, it’s Arak. This aniseed spirit drunk diluted with water and ice, cleans the palate and sharpens the appetite so you’re ready for a bite of something different. I looked around the restaurant and most of the fantastically glamorous clientele (everyone in Beirut is very chic) were all drinking Arak.

Arak is part of a family of aniseed-flavoured spirits that exist all over the Mediterranean and Middle East. The word comes from the Arabic for sweat: a description of the alcohol dripping off the still. There’s Raki in Turkey, Rakia in Bulgaria and Ouzo in Greece. Further afield there’s Sambuca in Italy, Anis in Spain and Pastis in France. In fact about the only country in Europe that doesn’t do something similar is Britain.

Though Arak is similar to its Greek and Turkish cousins, it’s a generally a far superior product. Michael Karam author of a Arak and Mezze: the taste of Lebanon told me “the Lebanese are very quality driven. There is no industrial Lebanese Arak.” It’s only ever made from a spirit distilled from locally-grown grapes rather than the neutral alcohol more common in Europe. I visited Domaine des Tourelles in the Bekaa valley who make Arak Brun which according to Michael Karam is “considered by the Lebanese to be the gold standard”. It was November and they were still bringing in grapes for Arak production mainly Obaideh and Merwah but also some Cinsault. The grapes are gently pressed and the juice run off for fermentation in enormous concrete tanks. No sulphur can be added or it would be accentuated during distillation and they use wild yeasts for fermentation.

Jpeg

Faouzi Issa from Tourelles with his arak-craving face

The winery is a living museum. They use a 19th century copper alembic that was made in Aleppo in Syria for distillation. The aniseed comes from Syria too, a village called Hina.. There are sacks of it piled high everywhere like sandbags, insurance in case the war cuts off supply. Damascus is only 40 miles away. The wine is distilled twice to create an eau-de-vie and then once more with aniseed. “We make arak 330 days a year,  making it in small batches like this is very costly” according to Faouzi Issa from the family who own Tourelles.  

They then age Arak Brun for one year and the Special Reserve for five in clay jars similar to classical amphora but with flat bottoms.  Recently they wanted to expand production but nobody knew how to make the jars. Luckily they found a 70 year old man in a remote village who was probably the last person with the requisite knowledge. They have now started a workshop making jars where younger men can learn the necessary skills. It’s a slow labour intensive process so they can only make 30 to 40 jars per year.

Jpeg

Arak ageing at Tourelles

At Clos St Thomas just up the road from Tourelles, they make Arak Touma. Here I tried the pre-aniseed eau-de-vie which tastes a little like an unaged Armagnac crossed with rum. The flavour of this high quality spirit doesn’t need disguising with sugar which explains why good Arak is so refreshing.  Said Touma, the patriarch of the family, showed me how to add water from a height into the arak so that it goes cloudy, “louching” is the technical term. You generally drink it in a ratio of two parts water to one Arak with ice. I was gently reprimanded by Michael Karam for adding too much water – “your Arak looks a little weak” he told me.

The ageing and care at every stage of production makes Lebanese Arak so much smoother than Ouzo or Raki. In fact for a drink so strong, usually around 50%, it’s dangerously drinkable. Once you’ve acquired a taste for it you’ll be like Faouzi Issa who said that when he is away from Lebanon: “I crave Arak” .  Michael Karam told me “as one drinks sake with sushi, I dream of the day when people will eat Lebanese food and drink arak.” With the growth of Middle Eastern food across America and Europe, Michael’s dream might just come true.

 

A version of this article appeared in Food & Wine magazine.

 

 

 

Posted in Spirits | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Whole Lotta Rosé

There’s a genre of music from the late 70s/ early 80s dubbed yacht rock: smooth, heavily-produced music made by virtuoso musicians with too much money.  Think bands such as Steely Dan, Hall & Oates and the Doobie Brothers. And to drink on your yacht with such music? There can be only one candidate: Provencal rosé, the more expensive the better.

You can’t miss these wines in your local store. They come in a bewildering array of bottles from the amphora-shaped, to bowling pins, squared-off shoulders, and even entirely square bottles. Then there’s the distinctive colour, Provencal rosés have to be as pale as possible. It’s all a far cry from when I worked in a wine shop in the late 90s when rosé was zinfandel blush, bright red Spanish rosado or sickly sweet Rosé d’Anjou. Nobody would have dreamed of spending more than £6 on a bottle.

In contrast yacht rosés (I’m trying to coin a new genre) can sell for up £100 for the Chateau d’Esclans Garrus. It sounds outrageous but this is a drop in the ocean for their target market. Sacha Lichine from the Bordeaux family that own Esclans was quoted recently as saying: “I knew we had arrived when I got a call from a top yacht-builder wanting the dimensions of our three-litre double-magnums. . . . . He wanted to make sure he built a fridge on a yacht that was big enough.”

Esclans are best known for their more prosaic Whispering Angel brand (around £20 a bottle). Other names to look out for include Minuty, Domaine Ott, Chateau Gassier, MiP (made in Provence) and Miraval. The owners of Miraval, Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie, are to rosé what Jay Z is to champagne. Indeed yacht rosé shares some similarities with champagne; they both sell on image as much as content. The crucial difference is if you spent £80 on a bottle of champagne, Pol Roger vintage for example, you’re going to get a lot of flavour compared with a £30 bottle. Expensive champagne tastes expensive, rosé’s pleasures are more ethereal. British wine writer Andrew Jefford who lives in the south of France tried to explain it to me:

“The art of crafting great rosé is the art of understatement.  It’s all a question of nuances, subtleties, suggestions, hints and whispers.  The more forceful a rosé is, the less good it is. A blockbuster red can be great; a blockbuster rosé would be a comprehensive failure.  The reason being that sippability, drinkability is even more important for rosé than for most wines.”

These delicate wines are made by lightly pressing red grapes, mainly cinsault and grenache, so that just a little colour seeps into the wine. Sometimes this is done so subtly that the wine is almost indistinguishable from a white wine. The rosé paradox is that the most expensive are often the least intense. With a little reflection and enough money in your pocket you might notice flavours of strawberries, peaches, herbs and sometimes a faint nuttiness.

The production process requires technology, inert gas to keep the grapes free from oxygen, and ideally they should be harvested at night for maximum freshness, but these are not expensive wines to make. And unlike champagne which needs to be matured, rosé can be sold the summer after vintage. Rosé is catnip to accountants.

The 2016s are just about to arrive in shops but the better quality rosés are usually at their best in the autumn, just as the sun is beginning to disappear. Those ethereal flavours take a little time to come out. The very best rosés from the fishing port of Bandol can age for ten years or more. Bandol apart though, rosé is essentially background music. You’d never have a conversation about a rosé like you might a Santa Barbara Syrah or a good Burgundy. But whether you own a yacht or even a pair of white trousers, when you’ve just been paid, the sun’s out and I Can’t Go For That (No Can Do) comes on the stereo, nothing tastes better.

Here are five that are worth drinking:

William Chase 2016 rosé – £14.90 Tanners

Made by an English producer in Provence. It looks and tastes the part from the stylish bottle to the subtle but persistent fruit and, best of all, it’s not that expensive.

Chateau d’Esclans Les Clans 2015 – £30 From Vineyards Direct 

My favourite of Esclans wines. It’s floral with delicate red fruit and a creamy texture from some very discrete oak ageing. If you even notice that price, you can’t afford it.

Le Secret de Chateau Leoube 2015 – £25 Wine Direct 

Made by one of the cult names in rosé, this is textbook stuff: gentle orange and peachy fruit with a distant scent of wild herbs as if you’re smelling Provence from your boat.

Domaine Tempier Bandol rosé 2015 – £25 Lea & Sandeman have the 16 vintage 

A rosé worth talking about. The 2015 was one of the finest I’ve drunk with spectacular depth of flavour, gorgeous fruit and balance, and a long finish.

Rouviere Bandol rosé 2015 –  £19.99 Yapp Bros have the 16 vintage

Some of the magic of the Tempier but at an everyday price. Quite full-bodied with rosemary notes and a little almond-like nuttiness on the finish. It offers power with finesse.

A version of this article appeared in Food & Wine magazine.

Posted in Wine articles | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Literary Festivals this summer and the Fortnum & Mason Awards

I’m going to be talking about my book, Empire of Booze, at a few festivals this summer:

Saturday 27th May 6pm – talk at the Greenwich Book Festival in conjunction with Meantime Brewery (which means free beer!) Tickets from £5

Saturday 6th June 6pm (time TBC) – talk at Stoke Newington Literary Festival with beer legend Pete Brown. This is a bit of last minute thing so it’s not up on their site yet. Will update when I know more.

27-30th July – Port Eliot Festival in Cornwall. I’ll be giving a talk at some point during the festival. Not sure when yet. Should be fun.

Finally on Thursday night I won Best Debut Drink Book at the Fortnum & Mason Awards. Here’s a picture of me with Claudia Winkleman and Ewan Venters (I’m the one in the middle with an peculiarly long head.)

Image may contain: 2 people, people standing

 

 

Posted in Wine articles | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

After the sherry boom

Do you remember when sherry was the in thing? First some seriously good tapas bars opened like Barrafina and Fino in London, and Oloroso (the names are a bit of a giveaway) in Edinburgh. Then there were new things happening in the category with rare bottlings from Equipo Navazos, unfiltered en rama finos and the launch of the Great Sherry Tasting in London in 2011. Suddenly you couldn’t move for sherry in the lifestyle pages.

Ten years since Barrafina opened is a time as any to look at how sherry is doing after the PR boom. In 2005 22 million bottles sold were sold in Britain. By 2015 it was 10 million sold. Britain, probably for the first time since 1790, is no longer the world’s biggest market for sherry. It appears that the much-hyped sherry revival was only taking place in a few bars in big cities. For a proper recovery it needs to get out of the tapas ghetto.

One person who is trying to do just that is Helen Highley who started a specialist importing business, Sherry Boutique, 18 months ago. She pointed out that at customer tastings she puts on “sherry has still got an image problem. People tell us that they used to drink this with granny at Christmas and it is quite hard to get them to try it again.” Marcin Schilling, London Business Development Manager for Gonzalez Byass, begged me not to mention the G word in this article but it does point to a truth, sherry’s traditional drinkers are dying out and not being replaced fast enough.

Image result for barrafina

Don’t mention the g word

It’s not just the geriatric image that puts people off. Robert Boutflower, Private Sales Director for Tanners in Shrewsbury, told me that for young drinkers sherry has “the wrong flavour. It’s not fresh and fruity. It’s about as far from pinot grigio as you can get.” Sherry needs explaining to potential customers. Kiki Evans from Grape Night In, a pop up wine company based in Tooting, told me “we’re on a mission to encourage more people to enjoy the nectar of sherry.”

It tends to be the sweeter styles that newcomers like best. “What they drank with granny they still enjoy” Helen Highley said. But Marcin Schilling tells me that it is not so clear cut: “half will go for sweeter styles, half will go for drier styles.” Everyone I spoke to agrees that the easiest style to sell is  super sweet Pedro Ximinez though this is largely a Christmas purchase.

The more challenging styles go best with food. “They (En Rama sherries) are wines rather than sherries, freshness, purity and steeliness lend them to certain foods” Alistair Viner from Hedonism wines in Mayfair told me. Doug Wregg from importer Cave de Pyrene is also a restaurateur with wine bars in London: “once you taste an amontillado with some hard cheese, the wines begin to make sense” he said. High end restaurants seem to get sherry: at Le Gavroche they serve their cheese souffle with Palo Cortado Apostoles.

The trick is to get sherry listed alongside the table wines not alongside aperitifs, digestifs or spirits. Doug Wregg said: “it is important that customers understand that these are wines.” He went on to state the importance of “training, training, training until staff feel comfortable talking about the properties of different sherries. ” The key is “to have a very good sommelier” according to Robert Boutflower.  And serve the sherry in decent size glasses, cool or cold for fino.

Gonzalez Byass in particular are very active in spreading the word. They run the Tio Pepe challenge to encourage barmen to make sherry-based cocktails. “Demand for sherry in cocktails seems to keep increasing” Keivan Nemati, bar manager at the Zetter Townhouse in Clerkenwell told me. He makes a special Cobbler using Hidalgo sherry.

All of the activity is now taking place at the premium end of the market. According to IWSR (International Wines and Spirits Record) premium sherry sales have doubled between 2011 and 2015. “We sell a lot of top end sherry” Alistair Viner from Hedonism told me. Tanners have also done well with specialist sherry but Robert Boutflower told me that it’s based on a small number of loyal customers: “before I send out an offer. I can almost tell you the names of people who are going to buy it.”

“They are the most undervalued drinks on the market. Look at price for age of liquid you are getting a bargain” Alistair Viner said. Barbadillo have been more ambitious by releasing their Versos sherry last year at £8,000 a bottle. “We are still to sell one” Alistair Viner told me “the price is higher than it should be. Versos is trying to appeal to scotch and cognac market.” Boutflower is sceptical of this targeting of spirits aficionados: “whisky has a progression from beginners to collectors. With sherry there are not enough people coming in at the bottom.”

He went on to say: “our customers are two lots of people – people who have bought it for a very long time and a very small number of bright young things.” Helen Highley from Boutique Sherry also worries that sherry is polarised between the old customers and the tiny hipster market: “we don’t want it to be too cool for school. We want it to be mainstream.”

Marcin Schilling is confident that sherry can make new converts: “younger drinkers like to try new things.“ “We are now so much more interested in diversity in wine than we were ten years ago” Helen Highley agreed. Today’s consumers, however, are not loyal like the proverbial sherry-swilling grandma. Adventurous wine drinkers might buy Greek wines, natural wines from the Loire, or Vin Jaune instead of sherry.

It looks likely that sherry sales by volume still have much further to fall. But Robert Boutflower is convinced that sherry isn’t going to die out: “it will always be around because Spanish swear by it and back it up with sales. It will become a specialist drink like sake.” Getting and keeping new customers is an extraordinary amount of work compared with say selling malbec or prosecco but there is something about sherry that captures certain people’s imagination and turns them into evangelists. It may never be mainstream again but if producers can keep building the premium market then perhaps in a few years we can talk about sherry without mentioning the G word.

This article originally appeared in Harper’s Wines and Spirits

 

Posted in Wine articles | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Jonathan Meades – the Plagiarist in the Kitchen

Image result

The tributes to AA Gill who died earlier this year tended to focus on his humour, his famous rudeness, and his ability to write movingly about those on the margins of life. But for me what made him compulsively readable was the sheer certainty of his views. The thrill of his spat with Mary Beard wasn’t saying that he said she was ugly but the audacity of a hack like Gill with no formal education taking to task a Cambridge classics professor on the subject of the Roman Empire with such elan.

Gill’s schtick never really worked on television. He just came across as a bit of an arse. His counterpart as restaurant critic at the Times from 1986 to 2001, Jonathan Meades, however, is an auteur of the medium. In his idiosyncratic programmes, Meades made use of his seemingly bottomless well of opinions not just on food and architecture, his specialities, but also Mussolini, the fate of the Algerian pied-noirs and why Essex is unfairly maligned. Sometimes I struggled to keep up but they make such a refreshing change from the “join me on my journey” school of BBC documentaries.

Now Meades has written a cookbook, The Plagiarist in the Kitchen, the title a knowing rip off of Julian Barnes’ The Pedant in the Kitchen. Its premise is that all cookbooks are attempts to pass off borrowed or stolen recipes as your own work (I know having contributed to one.) “In the kitchen there is nothing new and nor can there be anything new. It’s all theft” as Meades puts it. Part of the joy of the book is the glee with which Meades tramples on foodie (a word I imagine he loathes) shibboleths:

“The olive oil trade is just as rackety and bent as the wine trade. Which is a boon to those who dislike the peppery throat-assault of the echt product. In olive oil, as in life, the impure is more satisfying than the pure.”

Or

“‘Homemade begs one question. Whose home? Have you ever actually seen people’s homes? Why should biscuits made at home be better than those baked in a factory, a factory that specialises in biscuits? I’m thinking of Nairn’s Oatcakes, Rakusen’s Matzo Crackers and Carr’s Water Biscuits. We don’t seek treatment from amataur surgeons.”

The short bibliography is telling because alongside the likes of Simon Hopkinson, Elizabeth David and Fergus Henderson, there’s Inside Mr Enderby by Anthony Burgess and the not to be missed Testicles: Balls in Cooking and Culture by Blandine Vie. As well as recipes there are strange unhelpful illustrations, anecdotes about Jane Grigson and some top pop trivia:

“Hardly surprisingly, Jacques Brel’s favourite dish was mussels and chips. However, he once claimed that the single best meal of his life was a ham sandwich he ate on the train from Paris to Brussels; he had just secured a recording contract.”

But asides aside, The Plagiarist in the Kitchen is actually a very thorough cookbook taking in classic French food as well as Italian, Spanish, North African, Scandinavian, German and British recipes. There’s perhaps more on eels and tripe than you might want but on the whole it’s surprisingly user friendly. His risotto milanese recipe is particularly good “the risotto will take about 30 minutes (many recipes state 20 minutes; they are wrong. . .” and “do not add grated cheese. It fights the flavour the saffron. . .” For all his humour, Meades is deadly serious about food. The books shows a deep understanding of cookery.

In an age of instant internet criticism this sort of rigour is bracing. You get the impression that he has thought everything through from first principles. He doesn’t take the easy option of contrarianism nor does he see things through a political filter ie. environmentalism, soft-left activism or post-colonial theory. With most writers you can guess their views on everything after reading a couple of articles, with Meades it’s not so easy.

Both Meades and Gill are/ were autodidacts. Meades’ writing displays his love of learning and the even greater love of showing off that learning. With food, he clearly know his onions but what about everything else? Does he really have a deeply-held original point of view on Charles de Gaulle or does he sit up all night honing opinions on the matters of the day? I suspect that as with Gill there’s a fair dose of prejudice in there but importantly, they’re his prejudices. The trick that both Meades and Gill mastered is never to explain. In prose and on television, Meades simply states his opinions and moves on. The Plagiarist in the Kitchen is full of gnomic statements such as:

“So far as I can recall I have not eaten guacamole.

or

“I can’t think of any circumstances in which I’d use oregano.”

Crucially he’s not on twitter to battle the outraged keyboard warriors. AA Gill too prided himself on not doing “the internet” as he put it.  In an age when even the President of America argues on twitter, this aloofness makes Meades one of the last of a breed.

The Plagiarist in the Kitchen by Jonathan Meades is published this month by Unbound

This article originally appeared in Spectator Life 

 

Posted in Film and TV, Recipes | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Chinese wines – full of eastern promise?

Image result for ao yun

Below is something I wrote for Waldorf Astoria magazine about Chinese wines. After talking to a lot of people and trying quite a few wines, I have come to the conclusion that China really isn’t the ideal place to make wines. It would be much easier and cheaper just to import the stuff from Spain or Australia. In the main wine region Ningxia the winters are so cold that they have to bury the vines to stop them dying. This is a very expensive operation and many die anyway. And yet China is beginning to make some good wines. Amazing what lots and lots of money can do.

On a recent visit to the restaurant at Chateau Lynch-Bages in Bordeaux, I noticed that the majority of the visitors were Chinese. These weren’t nouveau riche showing off, the cliche of wealthy Chinese businessmen mixing their Chateau Petrus with Coca-Cola is at least ten years out of date, they were clearly educated enthusiasts.

There are now as many people studying WSET courses (Wine and Spirits Education Trust) in China and Hong Kong as there are in Britain. Fongyee Walker MW (Master of Wine) who runs a wine consulting business in China describes how “consumers are incredibly engaged and very very eager to try all sorts of wine and to discuss it.” At this November’s Decanter Shanghai Fine Wine Encounter held just across the river from the Waldorf Astoria on the Bund, Christelle Guibert from Decanter told me that “the clientele were very young, much younger than you would get in Britain.”

In 2014 Vinexpo reported that China was now the world’s largest consumer of red wine. This was a mistake caused by the Chinese characters for red wine also being used generically for wine. Still the Chinese drink a lot of wine and the amount is increasing every year. Much of it will home produced but it’s hard to know exactly how much as though International Organisation of Vine and Wine places China as the country with the second biggest vineyard area in the world much of these vines are table grapes. What is safe to say is that with its expanding middle class, China has just the base needed to sustain a quality wine industry.

The capital of China’s wine production is Ningxia, a semi-arid region 1200 km inland from Beijing where the local government has done much to encourage viticulture. I tried some impressive wines recently from Changyu-Moser: a collaboration between Changyu, one of the country’s largest producers, and Lenz Moser from Austria. According to Moser “Ningxia has ideal conditions for winemaking.” The major challenge is the freezing winters where vines have to be buried in the soil to protect them – an expensive laborious operation.

Just back from a trip to Ningxia, Christelle Guibert recommended wines from Kanaan winery. Other critics have tipped Silver Heights with their young winemaker Emma Bau. The majority of these wines are Cabernet blends made in the image of Bordeaux though Chandon produce a champagne-style sparkling wine and Grace Vineyards make a highly regarded Aglianico, a grape from Southern Italy.

Tourism is a big thing: most wineries having dramatic buildings in either French Chateau, traditional Chinese or modern style. China’s other main wine region, Shandong, is handier for Western tourists being only 500 km from Beijing. Here Chateau Lafite have an estate though the wines aren’t yet for sale and the local government is building a $900 wine city to attract visitors  The climate is less extreme than Ningxia but the damp weather can cause fungal problems.  

These wines have been making waves outside China. Back in 2011 the Jia Bei Lan 09  from Ningxia won a  trophy at the Decanter Awards. Berry Bros & Rudd, the British wine merchant, are backing Chinese wine with a selection from Changyu-Moser. Buyer Mark Pardoe MW said: ‘China is already the eighth largest producer of wine in the world so it was only a matter of time before it entered the international market.” As well as reds, they will also be stocking some ice wines, intensely sweet wines made from frozen grapes from Liaoning near the border with North Korea.

These are all expensive products but not compared with a new wine from Moet Hennessy made in Yunnan province which will retail for £225 a bottle for the inaugural 2013 vintage. It’s called Ao Yun (see image above) meaning flying above the clouds. The winemaker Maxence Dulou, formerly of Cheval Blanc, told me:  “we were searching for the terroir to make world class wine in China. We needed a microclimate that was sheltered from the monsoon by mountains but not too cold.”

The place they found was ridiculously remote: over 2,000 metres up in mountains on the border with Tibet and Laos, five hours drive from the nearest town. Cabernet Sauvignon vines were planted in the 2000 by the far-sighted local government looking to diversify farming. Ao Yun is made from over 300 plots of land at various altitudes. It’s a stunning wine with the most gorgeously pure fruit and once you realise how much effort goes into it, the price tag does not seem unreasonable. Even so, Dulou told me that they don’t make any money on it.

It’s very much a wine to be appreciated by wealthy connoisseurs rather than displayed and as such epitomises how Chinese attitudes to wine have changed. It’s still early days for quality wine production in China but the success of this first vintage of Ao You demonstrate that China has the potential to create truly world class wine. Look at China now and in the words of Lenz Moser “think of Chile 25 years ago or Napa 30 years ago.”

 

Posted in Wine articles | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment