We’re going down the pub!

As English pubs open today, 4 July, I thought it as good a time as any to try to put into words why I love certain pubs and fear for their future.

Perhaps my proudest moment as a father was when one long boring Sunday my daughter who couldn’t have been more than four at the time, said, in her south London accent, “Dad, shall we go to the pub?” I once overheard her playing ‘going to the pub’ with one of her friends. She was teaching her friends the game, explaining how to order crisps, apple juice, and beer for daddy. I was half expecting to be reported to the social services.

It’s not that I drink that much, a couple of pints at most, but those moments sitting with my daughter by the fire talking about which My Little Pony is my favourite, I’ll cherish for the rest of my life. I think one of the best things to happen in Britain in the last 20 years is that children are now allowed in pubs (though only if they are well-behaved). As a child I remember the long hours, probably only about half an hour, sitting in the car eating crisps whilst my father went to the pub.

The first pub I took my daughter too was the Hare in Bethnal Green. The noise soothed her as a newborn and the locals would coo at her while my wife had a well-earned half of Aspall’s and me a pint of Landlord. Incidentally, the Hare is the only pub where I’ve ever had ‘a usual.’ Once my brother tried to order something apart from Landlord and Kylie, the barmaid, corrected him. Another proud moment. 

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If I have a spare hour, I like nothing more than to have a pint on my own and watch the world go by. I have that first sip and my worries fall away, time seems to stop, and the world seems more vivid but with a sort of fuzziness around the edges. I feel a general benevolence towards mankind. Suddenly those thuggish-looking men in Arsenal tops seem like salt of the earth types. 

We moved to Lewisham in 2013. It wasn’t why we moved but south east London is peculiarly rich in the kind of pubs I love, unspoiled, defiantly un-gastro, a little rough round the edges and with excellent beer. Places like the Dacre Arms in Lewisham, the Blythe Hill Tavern in Forest Hill and our family’s favourite, the Dog and Bell in Deptford. The latter in a back street by a sprawling 1930s council estate near the Thames; it’s not the kind of place you stumble across. The landlord is Irish and the clientele is a mixture of old locals, newer locals like us and beer enthusiasts, it’s got a great range of real ales at mid 00s prices, £3.40. In fact the whole place feels like the last 20 years never happened. My daughter loves it especially when the landlord’s grandchildren are around.

The Dog and Bell is the place we miss the most now that we’re in Faversham in Kent. I admit a large part of the appeal was the numerous pubs, and the sprawling Shepherd Neame brewery at the heart of the town. Inevitably, it dominates the scene, owning most of the pubs including our favourite, the Anchor down by the creek, and I have to say that I do get a bit sick of the ubiquitous Masterbrew. Happily, there’s some good freehouses, the Elephant with an ever-changing selection of beers, the Shipwright’s Arms on the marshes which does Goachers, two micropubs, Furlongs (which I’ve been calling Furloughs recently) and the Corner Tap. 

The town was missing its heart during lockdown though the smell of brewery brewing helped keep my spirits up. And it was good to see Furlongs and the Elephant doing takeaway beer. Today, the town is bustling once more as the pubs have opened up though sadly, I won’t be going. My wife having lung problems and being pregnant is considered high risk. In fact, part of the reason my daughter and I used to spent so much time in the pub together is a couple of years ago my wife’s lung problems were particularly severe. 

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It looks like a pub, but it isn’t

Faversham is unusually rich in pubs but it used to be a lot richer, almost every road has a corner pub that’s now a house. I haven’t counted them, but there must be at least 20 former pubs in town. The famous Ship  is now a beauty parlour. Oh the times! My worry is that the kind of pub I love, a place that relies on locals drinking rather than food, is doomed if things don’t go back to normal soon. Many were, I’m sure not terribly profitable before lockdown but partly run because the landlord or landlady loved the job, the chatter, the locals. If people have to keep apart, taking will be down dramatically. How many of my favourites will be houses in five years time?

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What next for English wine?

It’s English Wine Week so as good a time as any to post this thing that I wrote for the Observer earlier this year for an advertorial spot sponsored by Tesco. Don’t let that put you off, as they pretty much let me write what I wanted though they did remove all the jokes from the finished article. That’s subs for you!

Ten years ago if you’d invited me to Bridge Place, a 16th century manor house near Canterbury, for dinner with a group of Kent wine producers, I don’t think I’d have been terribly keen. That’s mainly because the venue was then an over 30s only nightclub, notorious for what our cab driver Kevin called ‘grab-a-granny’ nights. But also because I wouldn’t have thought the wines would be that good. How things have changed: when I visited this spring, Bridge Place was about to open as a Pig Hotel and to celebrate, the Pig team had laid on a dinner for the Wine Gardens of England, a group of local producers. We drank some excellent old vintages of the sparklers, some very good still whites and even some ripe juicy reds (the 2018 Gusbourne Pinor Noir, below, is staggeringly good as is the 2017 Chardonnay).

It all felt so normal, winemakers showing off their best wines; it’s hard to recall how recent this success is. Richard Balfour-Lynn owner of Hush Heath Estate filled me in on how things used to be: “If you said you made English wine people would laugh at you. When you went abroad people would look at you like you were slightly odd.” He made his money in among other things a couple of hotel chains you may have heard of, Hotel du Vin and Malmaison. As he tells it, he became a vine grower in Kent by accident. When most of us buy something on a whim, it might be a hat or a particularly snazzy pair of shoes, but Richard bought a 400 acre farm not far from Tunbridge Wells called Hush Heath.

Always a wine fan, his wife suggested that he might want to plant vines there rather than France or Italy. This was back in 2002, and the first wine, a pink sparkler, came out in 2007, inspired by his favourite champagne, Billecart-Salmon rosé with a price to match. He’s nothing if not ambitious. It was an immediate success winning a gold medal and trophy at the International Wine Challenge. Since then the estate has won many other awards and production has expanded dramatically. It now produces a range of wines all from estate-grown fruit, all the way from £80 a bottle to two wines for the Tesco Finest range, a sub £20 sparkler and a still white blend. “The difference is stylistic, not in quality,” Richard told me.

I asked him why English wine had gone from joke to success story in such a short time. He was candid: “global warming, we could not do what we are doing 25 years ago.” But the climate is still very marginal, 2017 was a disaster. When I visited Hush Heath, they were bringing in the harvest in the pouring rain (I pinched a few Pinot Noir grapes and they were sweet, with ripe skins and an electric charge of acidity that makes them perfect for sparkling wine). What has also changed is there’s a more professional attitude in the industry. “People have invested in higher quality equipment,” Richard told me, “and we’re getting to know the area, finding out which clones and rootstock work where. We’re all starting out, there’s no real history here.”

Money helps too, you need deep pockets to make sparkling wine, particularly in England. Vines need time to bear fruit and the wine needs at least 18 months to mature in bottle. You won’t see a return on your money for at least seven years. Richard said that to establish a premium spirits brand is the work of 20-30 years. “I wish I’d started when I was ten,” he joked. Building a brand is important, those who don’t, will not survive, Richard thinks. Some producers might resort to selling their grapes rather than making their own wine, just like in Champagne. And yet, there’s no shortage of people splashing money around. In some ways it’s like California in the 1970s, only without the nice weather.

Another way the English industry is very like California is the emphasis on tourism. In fact, they do it a lot better than many established wine regions. I’m looking at you Bordeaux. Hush Heath has a magnificent tasting room with a restaurant and views across the Kent Downs. The Home Counties have a distinct advantage over most other up-and-coming wine regions in that they have a massive wealthy city on their doorstep: Hush Heath is 45 minutes from London Bridge station. Kent has become a food and drink lovers destination. No wonder the Pig group chose to open its first hotel outside the West Country near Canterbury. 

Wine might be a young industry but Kent has long been famous for its high quality produce like apples and hops. Richard noted that areas where vines thrive, where there’s good drainage, sunlight and shelter from frost, were famed for fruit growing in the 19th century. There’s continuity in other ways: “We have the same viticultural team, the Turner family, since 2002. They’re third generation on the estate, the grandfather was head gardener. They are invested in the land.”

As I learned from my dinner at the Pig, the English wine business is very supportive. There are some wine regions where you couldn’t get all the local producers around the table but in Kent, they bask in each other’s success and Richard often has budding growers over to see how it is done. 

Currently most producers are concentrating on the British market which, considering we drink something like 30 million bottles of champagne a year but only produce 3-4 million bottles of sparkling wine, is still relatively untapped. We also drink 100 million bottles of prosecco and Richard thinks that we shouldn’t be afraid to make similar wines which are much cheaper to produce. “English wine should be innovative,” he told me. 

The home market is so strong that export is not a priority for most producers. Hush Heath currently exports about 10% of its production to America, Hong Kong, mainland China and, surprisingly, Spain, but this is likely to increase as the reputation of the England’s wines grows. The moment I realised that English wines had arrived was not when one came top in a blind tasting against champagne, or even in 2017 when Taittinger champagne planted vines in Kent (naturally it was pouring with rain that day) but when I gave a wine from one of Richard’s neighbours, Biddenden, to a French friend. She swore it was from the Loire. Exporting English wine to France, wouldn’t that be something?

If you want some English sparkling wine recommendations, here’s a round-up of my favourites I put together for BBC Good Food.

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Booze interview: Peter Stafford-Bow

Today on the blog I’m delighted to have mysterious author Peter Stafford-Bow, author of a series of comic novels set within the wine business featuring Felix Hart. The latest, Firing Blancs, has just come out.

Firing Blancs, what a good title, is the third in a series featuring roguish supermarket wine buyer Felix Hart. If it all sounds rather like an in-joke for members of the wine trade, don’t worry because you don’t need to know anything about the booze business to enjoy it. In this book Felix Hart, his job on the line at the supermarket chain where he works, is sent to South Africa to get the company out of PR disaster after an Afrikaaner vineyard owner is accused of mistreating his workers. There are some great characters, not least the former Rhodes scholar turned land seizure militant whose army of disenfranchised black workers sing songs that he picked up on the terraces at Oxford United including ‘Come and have a go if you think you’re hard enough’ and ‘Swindon Town is falling Down.’ It’s a fast-paced romp from one amusing set piece to another but, as companies today fall over themselves to demonstrate their ethical credentials, also a timely satire on the cynicism of woke capitalism. I read it over the course of a weekend with my feet in the paddling pool and a bottle of rosé at my side, chuckling to myself every few pages. Tom Sharpe is the obvious comparison but there are shades of Kingsley Amis and even J.G. Farrell at his most farcical. In short it’s a good old fashioned comedy of the kind that publishers don’t offer any more. You’ll also learn a lot about South African wine.

Try it with wine

Right, that’s enough preamble. Welcome Mr Stafford-Bow!

Why do you write under a pseudonym?

Anyone who has read Corkscrew will realise that it doesn’t depict the retail business, and management in general, in a particularly flattering light. Add to that the cheerfully amoral behaviour of Felix Hart, the protagonist, you can see why current and former employers might take a dim view of the type of person to dream up such shenanigans.

Where did the character of Felix Hart come from?

I had a vision of modern-day supermarket buyers as 18th century privateers, in all their cynical, mercenary glory. In terms of literary inspiration, Harry Flashman, from George MacDonald Fraser’s Flashman Papers, is an influence, plus there are bits of James Bond, Bertie Wooster and Withnail in there too.

Where did the idea for Firing Blancs come from?

My years in South Africa, that beautiful, flawed but ultimately optimistic country, were the inspiration for the setting. Key scenes, particularly at Gatesave’s head office, were based on my own experience working for big supermarkets, while the main plot is shaped by the arguments around 21st century identity politics and its deathly reflection, corporate woke-washing.

What next for Felix Hart?

Felix will travel to East Asia for his most mind-scrambling adventure yet. The story’s all still in my head, I’m afraid, but I’ll begin writing later in the summer.

Is the supermarket business anywhere near as cynical as you make out when it comes to fair trade etc.?

Large supermarkets are driven solely by the profit motive. They react to what their customers want but they don’t have their own inherent moral imperative. I don’t think the cynicism of corporations lies in their pursuit of shareholder value – we all deserve to earn a living – it lies in their pretence that they care about ethical issues in the same way that a consumer might, summed up in the sick-bag phrase “we do it because it’s the right thing to do…” I mean, all those pictures of smiling workers and farmers that you see on in-store advertising… who do you think you’re kidding, Mr Supermarket?!

Have you always written?

No, I started around six years ago with the first edition of Corkscrew. I’ve always known I could just about string a sentence together, but that was my first attempt at serious long-form writing.

Did you have an epiphany bottle of wine?

Yes, I studied wine tasting at school, on the sixth form general studies curriculum. I remember sampling a Barsac and thinking it was the most incredible liquid ever to have passed my lips. I decided right then that working in an off-licence was the career I wanted to pursue. When I think back, I can’t quite believe our school allowed us to drink wine during lessons, but there you go, it was the olden days I suppose.

Why did you go into the wine trade?

I’ve partly answered that in the question above, but my career was given a helping hand by being expelled from university for being bone idle.

Do you still work in the wine trade?

No, I’ve been expelled from the wine trade too.

What’s your house wine de jour?

I’m chugging through a case of Le Boit Sans Soif from Jean-Francois Chene at the moment. It’s a Loire Grolleau with only 8% abv, so it’s perfectly chilled on warm weekday evenings.

What’s your dream wine / best bottle you’ve ever had?

It’s as much about the occasion as the wine, I don’t think you can separate the two. A bottle of 2004 Dom Pérignon paired with fish and chips on Dungeness beach, in the shadow of the nuclear power station, stands out as a special moment.

Firing Blancs is available from Waterstones, Amazon and lots of other good bookshops as well as some bad ones. 

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5 things I’ve learnt from 10 years in drink

I’ve been writing this blog on and off for ten years, so I’ve now got a decade’s worth of experience as a drinks writer to share with you, dear reader. I’ve witnessed the rise of natural wine, I’ve seen the choice of gin in a pub go from two to 22 and I’ve watched the price of Scotch whisky go bananas. And yet I’ve got nothing interesting to say about any of them. Instead, here are my bits of wisdom:

Big brands can be good:

When I worked in the wine trade back before the internet or mobile telephony, we used to turn our noses up at people who asked for Moet. Well, I tried Moet recently and it’s delicious. Everything you want from an NV champagne. For a G&T, nothing beats Beefeater and Schweppes, the Johnnie Walker range is excellent, and ignore Stanley Tucci, ordinary Martini Rosso is great in a Negroni

You can cook with a wine you wouldn’t drink:

Oxidised wine, flat champagne, and tired port are all fine to cook with. Especially if you’re going to cook it for a long time. I’ve made boeuf bourguignon with dozens of wines and the biggest difference is always the quality of the meat. And that aggressively sharp white wine that someone brought round, it’ll probably be great for making gravy. 

Lemon ruins a Martini:

I had this epiphany recently, a spray of lemon oil totally obliterates the taste of the gin. Distillers spend time getting the balance right. Don’t spoil it with a massive wack of lemony oil. Have an olive instead.

Cheap reds are better than cheap whites:

I am sure someone can explain to me why this might be, probably something to do with flavour in the grape skin, but you know it’s true.

Just order the Beaujolais:

Unless you’re dining with fellow wine bores (or maybe especially if you’re dining with fellow wine bores when getting a drink can take hours as everyone wants to look at the list), don’t spend ages looking through the wine list for the perfect bottle to go with everyone’s food. Order a bottle of decent Beaujolais, it goes with pretty much everything and then you can get on with enjoying people’s company. The white wine equivalent is Macon. 

 

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Budget bargains from the Wine Society part two

It’s back by popular demand, my round-up of the best budget wines from the Wine Society. This time I’m looking at whites and sherry. 

Apologies for the delay since the reds post, the Society warehouse closed down for a bit because of that thing that’s in the news.  The marketing department, however, didn’t seem to be affected. So many emails when all we wanted was one saying that they are once again taking orders. Well, now they are (though only in cases of the same wine, or pre-mixed cases) so it’s a good time to round-up some of my favourite whites. I notice that I’ve chosen a lot more Wine Soc own labels this time. I’ve been thinking about why this should be: perhaps I drink a lot less white wine than red which means I don’t know the range so well so I order more conservatively. Or perhaps because it’s much harder to make an interesting cheap white than a cheap red so under £11 one needs every watt of the Wine Society’s formidable buying power. Anyway, the own label range is excellent so it’s not such a problem. So without further ado, here they are. Please let me know any that I have missed in the comments:

Fino Perdido Sanchez Romate £8.50

Fino sherry is for me the Pringles of wine, once I’ve popped a bottle, I find it very hard to stop. It was a toss up between this and the excellent own label fino (£6.95!) but I’ve gone for this as it offers so much. It’s a very mature style of fino (look at its colour above) so the nuttiness and creamy texture have been turned up but without losing the sheer drinkability that a fino should have. The price is an absolute joke. I’d buy it at £15. 

The Society’s White Burgundy 2018 £9.95

I find the answer to almost all wine/ food problems can be solved by either Beaujolais or a nice drop of white Burgundy (or similar). Creamy, leesy and lemony, this Macon is a stalwart wine and seems particularly good in the latest vintage. If I’m going a bit uprmaket in Burgundy, I find the Domaine Cordier range unbeatable for the money. 

Muscadet Sèvre-et-Maine sur Lie, Château L’Oiselinière de la Ramée, Chéreau-Carré 2016 £8.50

My parents used to drink a lot of Muscadet in the ‘80s but it was nothing like this. Another deliciously creamy wine from lees contact with a salty saline tang and green apple. Ridiculous value too for a mature wine from one of the region’s top producers. The name’s a bit of mouthful, though isn’t it? 

Picpoul de Pinet, Felines-Jourdan 2018 £8.95

And this is what my parents drink these days instead of Muscadet. And damn good it is too. Has that lip-smacking quality that I love in Picpoul (the name of the grape apparently means something like ‘sting lips’) but there’s also some weight and honey there too. My late aunt used to have a house in the Pinet region so I always think of her when I drink Picpoul.

The Society’s Saar Riesling 2017 £10.95

I once went on a wine trip to the Mosel and despite three days of pretty much solid tasting, drinking and feasting, I never once had a hangover. That’s the magic of these wines, low alcohol and masses of flavour. This is made by Von Kesselstatt, one of the region’s great estates, it majors on limes and apple blossom with just a touch of sweetness. Great aperitif wine. 

The Society’s Vinho Verde 2018 £6.95

Portugal green wine, named as it’s drunk young rather than the colour, is another lowish alcohol charmer. I don’t know how the Wine Society do it for the money, it’s ripe and lemony with a slightly chalky edge and just a little spritz of carbon dioxide. Great summer garden sipping.

Painted Wolf Peloton Blanc 2016 £9.95

Much of the excitement around South African wine comes from Rhoney reds grown in Swartland but for my money the country’s best wines are the chenin blanc-based white blends. Alongside the chenin this contains viognier, roussanne, grenache blanc, clairette and just a soupcon of kitchen sink. It has a honeyed, nutty sort of texture alongside its peach and apple fruit. 

 

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Old wines with the old folks

A few years ago a friend introduced me to a mutual friend thinking we’d get on because of our shared love of wine. We met for dinner to which this mutual brought some superlative Burgundy but sadly I couldn’t stand him (to be fair, I’m not sure he liked me that much either.) A part of me though, thought perhaps I should try to get on with him because of his amazing cellar. I didn’t and I’m glad I didn’t, wine is only ever as good as the company you drink it in. I wrote a while back on the circle surrounding wine forger Rudy Kurniawan:

“Jay McInerney was affiliated with a bunch of high-rolling wine enthusiasts who styled themselves “The Angry Men”. Think of Patrick Bateman’s friends in American Psycho only with Grand Cru Burgundy. One of their number, wine auctioneer John Kapon, had the charming habit of referring to wines as “call girls” or “t&a” (tits and ass.)”

Not even the promise of Romanée-Conti could make me want to spend some time with that lot. I’ve never met people that awful in wine but I have been to dinner where the quality of the wine could not make up for the awkward stilted conversation. The converse is true,  I don’t think anything has tasted finer than those bottles of rosé drunk in Victoria  Park with my wife in 2010. Of course, the jackpot is when fine wine and good company collide which is what happened last month.

My parents had come to visit for my birthday. We didn’t know it but it would be the last time we saw them before the lockdown started. That weekend, 7/8 March, had the air of unreality as we knew something was coming (but what?), and yet my father and I went to pubs as if nothing had changed. He had brought with him some wine from his cellar as a birthday present plus two rogue bottles he’d recently acquired. They’d come from a deceased member of the Chiltern wine club who’d left his collection to the members. Everyone got two bottles picked at random and these were the ones my father got:

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Looking at the two bottles, I thought the Rauzan-Gassies would be at the very least drinkable, good chateau, great vintage, but the Burgundy, excellent vintage but a negociant house I’d never heard of (not that I know terribly much about Burgundy), would probably be knackered. Reassuringly both bottles had a very high ullage. We opened the Burgundy without much ceremony, no decanting, to go with roast chicken, and it was. . .  spectacularly good. No mustiness, no off notes, just lots of tobacco followed by dark cherry fruit. It tasted about 10 years old, not 24. And the Margaux? Well, it was probably past its best but not by a lot, fruit a little stewed, some mushroom, cigars and cedar, didn’t fall apart in the glass, in fact it got better with every sip. Reminds me a bit of myself.

Charmingly the Chambolle-Musigny had a note written on the label saying, I think, “We had this wine in Beaune with Becky’s husband 15 June ’99 at 10.30am!!” We raised a glass to my father’s deceased friend, and then there were lots of ‘mmmmms’ and ‘ooohs’ from the table. Enjoying wine with someone you love, who also appreciates wine is one of life’s great pleasures. But it’s even better when the enjoyment is so unexpected, both these wines could well have been disappointing, the fact that they far exceeded our expectations made the evening all the more special. Next time I see my parents, I’ll bring something treasured to drink. I hope that day is not too far off.

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Wine merchants – the fourth emergency service

Here’s a little post highlighting a couple of local Kent wine merchants who are pivoting, sorry, adapting, to the new circumstances plus a cracking offer for German wine lovers.

Something cheered me up on Wednesday immensely. I ran into Fabio who runs our local wine bar here in Faversham. We talked for about 10 minutes, it was the first proper face-to-face conversation I’ve had with anyone in about three weeks. He seemed cheerful enough and told me that he’s keeping busy and the wolf from the door delivering wine to regular customers. I’ve also been in touch with another local wine merchant, Johnny Wren (below in standard issue 40-something wine trade shirt) who runs Songbird wines in Canterbury. His main business was supplying bars and restaurants and he’s had to (almost used the word ‘pivot’ there) change to a “non-contact home wine delivery service.” What started off as a desperate attempt to pay suppliers has taken off and he’s very busy.

Johnny Wren: steady ladies!

Another wine merchant who I’m partial to got in touch recently, Wine Barn in Winchester, which is celebrating 20 years in business. It specialises in German wines all expertly chosen by Iris Ellmann aka ‘The Queen of Grapes.’ I’ve been to a few of its tastings and always been extremely impressed with the quality. As with Songbird, the business is trying to adapt to home delivery. To promote this they’ve come up with some special cases with home delivery included and what’s more £10 from the sale of each ‘Celebrate & Donate’ case will go to Age UK – it contains some seriously fancy wines including a premier cru Riesling from Basserman-Jordan and some tasty Spätburgunder from Meyer-Näkel. Just what I need in this strange times.

So some good news stories from the  wine world. I’m still terribly worried about the pubs but as long as the smell of brewing still wafts from Shepherd Neame, then I’ll remain calm.

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Felix Nash, ciderman at your service

There has been a clamouring for a follow-up to my last post on bargain reds at the Wine Society. Well, perhaps not a clamouring, but at least two people have asked for some whites. Sadly, the Society has stopped trading while it works out how to deal with this virus thing that everyone is talking about. But there are some merchants still in business including my employer Master of Malt, for all your spirits needs, and Felix Nash from the Fine Cider Company

Nash is a bit of a hero of mine for championing uncompromisingly good, mainly English, cider. He’s also written a brilliant book to try to change people’s preconceptions about his favourite drink. “Cider is perhaps the most industrialised of all alcohols. People see it as  sweet sparkling thing or something rustic,” he told me. For most people cider falls into two categories:

Cheap cider:

To be legally called cider you only need to have 35% apple content, the rest can be sugar, water and flavourings. And that 35% can be concentrate made from apples grown anywhere. You’ll be very lucky if your cider contains any English fruit.

Farmhouse cider:

At the other extreme are farmhouse ciders made in the West Country from bittersweet native apples. Much prized by aficionados, some are made with little regard to hygiene or fruit quality. In fact it’s standard practise to let the fruit rot a little before pressing. They can be raspingly tannic and heady with bacterial infections: all very authentic but hard for the uninitiated to appreciate. 

Nash’s cider producers are very different. Taking their inspiration from wine, they are working with perfect fruit and to a much higher standard of cleanliness than previous artisan makers, but they are also reviving traditional techniques and working with the classic English varieties. “People tell me they I don’t like cider but I do like that,” he told me. 

He started the Fine Cider Company six years ago as a hobby but it quickly became a full time job. He now supplies some seriously fancy restaurants such as L’Enclume, St. John and the Clove Club.

Here are five ciders of his that I particularly like, in descending order of dryness:

Little Pomona Orchard & Cidery Art of Darkness 2016

Made in the heart of Herefordshire cider country. This is aged in old whisky casks. Deep, dry and complex with quite noticeable tannins, this is world away from what most people will think of as cider. Treat it like a wine and serve it with some farmhouse cheddar and it will amaze you.

Oliver’s Dabinett 2017

Tom Oliver is the godfather of modern English cider. Working in Herefordshire, he keeps some cider in inert containers to preserve fresh fruit flavours whereas others are aged in wooden barrels where they develop complex aromas. Tom then blends them together. Felix Nash describes the result as a “controlled funk”, yes Tom is the James Brown of cider making. Bone dry and another one that should be served with food.

Gregg’s Pit Dabinett & Yarlington Mill 2018

Classic English off-dry sparkling wine made from two of the West Country’s best cider varieties. Deliciously fruity with complex flavours that comes from bottle fermentation (like with champagne though the technique was pioneered by English cider makers in the 17th century).

Find & Foster Huxham 2018

Another bottled-fermented one, this time by husband and wife team who work with threatened orchards and rare apple varieties in Devon. This uses a technique called keeving to preserve sugar giving this an off-dry tarte tatin sort of flavour. Absolutely gorgeous and only 5% ABV.

Brännland Iscider Barrique 2017

An ice cider (made from frozen apples which concentrates the sugar) from Sweden aged in oak casks, this is incredible stuff. Very fruity and very very sweet but with the most amazing tang of acidity so it never gets cloying and rich butterscotch notes from ageing. Try this with Roquefort.

Nash will ship anywhere in the country, as few as three bottles. With small bottles from as little as £3, and big bottles from £7, including delivery! He told me: “If you’re in East or North London, we are giving you £10 off all orders, getting rid of the shipping charge. We can’t cover all postcodes East and North, but there’s a list on our website.”

So, what are you waiting for? It’s time you realised that you are the cider drinker.

 

 

 

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Budget bargains from the Wine Society part one

I’ve been a member of the Wine Society for so long that I faxed my very first order which seems bananas to even contemplate now. Though I like to think that there’s a colonel in deepest Worcestershire who stills faxes his order in every month. When I first joined, I imagined that after a few years shopping at the bottom end of the list, in a few years I’d be buying en primeur Bordeaux and vintage champagne. Well it never happened, I’m still buying the same old wines even though some have nearly doubled in price. So in these dark times etc. etc. I thought it would be useful to share my unrivalled knowledge of the bottom end of the the list. These are all wines that I have enjoyed multiple vintages of and never disappoint. None will cost you more than £11 a bottle. Today I’ll do the reds and later in the week some whites. Let me know if there’s anything I’ve overlooked. With wines like these, you never need to leave the house. Useful, as soon you might not be able to. I am praying that the Wine Society vans will keep running. 

Chateau Courac Cotes-du-Rhone 2015

A toss up between this and the widely available Guigal Cotes-du-Rhone as my favourite budget wine from this region. It’s all ripe strawberries and mellow spices. As you can see from the vintage, it ages beautifully too. Where else can you get a sub £9 mature Rhone of this quality?

Billi Billi Grampians Shiraz 2017

Head buyer at the Wine Society, Pierre Mansour, once described this as a sort of Australian Rioja. And I can see what he means, it majors on American oak without ever overwhelming the raspberry and bramble fruit. It’s a good one to give to people who think they don’t like Australian wine. Its big brother, Exhibition Victorian Shiraz, is a total steal, btw. 

Weinert Carrascal 2015

My friend refers to this as the funky Mendoza and in some vintages, blimey is it funky. A blend of malbec, cabernet and merlot aged in large old oak barrels until it’s mellow and good. A world away from most Argentine wines, it’s more like old school Rioja or Chateau Musar. The cabernet (see photo above) is always excellent, a bit more refined than the Carrascal but still unashamedly old fashioned. At the moment the Wine Society has the 2008 vintage.  

The Society’s Rioja Crianza 2016

Rioja seems to be something of a theme here. I’ve compared two wines to Rioja and now here’s the real thing. This is for those who like  the old fashioned style like Tondonia, but are on a budget. Made by Bodegas Palacio, it’s all about the American oak but they haven’t stinted on the fruit either. Also check out the Urbina range (crianza and gran reserva) if you like mature Rioja, the wines are absurdly undervalued. 

Pinot Noir Puy de Dome 2018

Cheap pinots seem to fall into two categories, the insipid and the jammy. Somehow this wine from the Auvergne (which I always have to google, it’s nearly in the middle of France just to west of Lyon) manages to be neither. It’s a bit rustic and stalky with masses of dark cherry fruit. Not elegant but always delicious. 

Salvaje de Moncayo Garnacha 2017

Garnacha (grenache in French) at its best, like here, comes across like a sort of boozy pinot noir. It’s light in colour, fragrant, delightfully drinkable, and good chilled. I always have a few bottles in the house as its so versatile. Just watch out as it’s much stronger than it tastes. For garnacha lovers, I’ve rounded up a few wines here.

Saumur les Plantagenets 2017

Cabernet franc from the Loire is one of my all time favourite wines. It’s that slatey refreshing edge that makes it so addictive. Forget about wine and food matching, just get a load of this in, chill if slightly and it will go with pretty much anything. If you get a taste for cab franc, this Saumur-Champigny is worth trading up to. 

Ribeiro Santo 2018

 Dão makes some of Portugal’s most distinctive reds (you can read something I wrote on the region here). This is a great example, combining ripe plummy fruit, quite grippy tannins (this is not a Netflix and chill* sort of wines) and a floral herbaceous quality. It’s a serious wine at a silly price. 

*I mean as a wine to drink without too much thought in front of the telly. A kind reader has informed me that this phrase has come to be a euphemism for casual sex.

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Oporto: city of wine and stodgy food

Like a lot of wine writers, I have a particularly soft spot for Oporto and the Douro valley, possibly the most beautiful wine region in the world. Here’s something I wrote for Boisdale Life magazine on just this subject:

After three days in Porto, the true reason for the ancient alliance between the English and the Portuguese dawned on me. Yes there’s wine and having a common enemy in the Spanish, but it’s really about a shared love of stodgy food. The city’s most famous dish is called a Francesinha, a sandwich stuffed full of steak, sausage and ham, covered in melted cheese and baked in a spicy beer sauce. With a fried egg on top. And it’s served with chips. Of course it is! It tastes like it was invented after rather too much herbal refreshment. 

Forget any thoughts about a Mediterranean diet, the other classic local dishes are tripe stew and salt cod served dozens of ways (my favourite are the deep-fried croquettes stuffed with cheese from Casa Portuguesa do Pastel de Bacalhau.) The English originally brought the cod, caught on the Grand Banks, and exchanged it for wine. The Portuguese noted how enthusiastically the English drank the stuff: there is still a popular insult, bebabo Inglez, English drunk.

Oporto! (credit Misti Traya)

And that’s how it was for centuries, Porto was a working town based around wine, and the vast majority of the visitors were British. But now the world and his wife have woken up to the city’s charms. This is my third visit and, according to Richard Bowden from the Yeatman Hotel,“the city is rocking at the moment.” Why has it taken so long? It’s a stunning-looking place, built up the steep side of the valley leading down to the Douro river with bridges (one of them designed by Gustave Eiffel) linking Porto with Vila Nova de Gaia on the opposite bank. This is where the British built their warehouses so that they would be outside the jurisdiction of the city. All the old names are still there emblazoned above the old warehouses:Taylors, Fonseca, Croft, Dow etc. But they’ve been joined by bars and restaurants along the shore. The grungy city that I first visited in 2014 is fast disappearing. 

It was the Yeatman Hotel which put Porto on the international tourist map when it opened in 2010. It was the brainchild of Adrian Bridge, CEO of the Fladgate partnership, which owns Taylor’s, Fonseca, and Croft. The hotel has a two Michelin-starred restaurant but what our seven year old daughter loved most were the breakfasts: tables laden with cake, custard tarts, and bacon and eggs. Something for everyone. Afterwards she had fun running up and down the long Shining-style corridors. From the terrace you get the most splendid view of the sun setting over Porto, and from the infinity pool everyone tries to get the instagram shot of the city taking in river, bridge, and collagen-enhanced pout.

At the moment the famous view is rather spoiled by the cranes working on Bridge’s latest project: 350 million museum of wine which is set to transform Vila Nova. It has already affected some of the old warehouses which are like working museums. The old Croft lodge which dates back to the 17th century is being turned into part of the new museum and all the wine is being moved out. I’d recommend visiting Taylor’s which has a brilliant visitor centre.

Port has been through some tough times. Many of the old names were bought by multinationals and quality deteriorated, but the wines are now better than ever. Sales by volume may be down (hence the switch to tourism) but the premium market is booming. In Porto they drink tawny port, wood-aged, mellow and pale in colour, drunk lightly chilled, as well as white port and tonic instead of a G&T. The table wines are now also excellent.

Christian Seely with enormous bottle of port

To get across the river you can take a boat, or cross at one of the bridges.The city has a modern tram and metro system but we spent two days walking fueled by ice cream (our daughter) and Port (my wife and I). The Fladgate empire continues on the other side of the river at the Infante Sagres hotel. It’s a Porto institution (Christian Seely from Quinta do Noval told me louchly, “I had one of my honeymoons there”) now returned to its former glory. The attached Vogue cafe has a glamorous bar and does recognisably Portuguese food like salt cod, but lighter than the traditional style. Well, it is called the Vogue cafe.

After two nights in Porto, we went up country to find the source of the wine. It would have taken early British merchants weeks to get there braving bandits, rapids and extremes of temperature. We took the train: a charming little number straight out of the 1960s. It trundled along slowly whilst we watched the scenery change from the lush vegetation of Porto to the dramatic sunbaked Douro valley. 

It takes about an hour and half to Pinhão. I was expecting the station to be a sleepy one-donkey kind of place, but it was crammed with buses and umbrella-wielding Chinese tour parties. Luckily, our driver Manuel was waiting for us in an old Mercedes to whisk us up to Quinta da Gricha, owned by the Churchill Graham family. Very soon we were alone with only ancient pickup trucks ferrying grape pickers for company. 

Quinta da Gricha (credit Misti Traya)

The weather was baking so on arrival we cooled off in the pool and then ate oranges and grapes straight off the trees. Our daughter befriended the vineyard dogs and went exploring. At night I got an idea of just how remote the quinta (estate in Portuguese) is. From the terrace there were almost no other lights on the hillside. Peace at last! That night we ate with the other guests, the inevitable salt cod (which I love, I am not complaining) and not even the doctor couple from the West Midlands complaining about Brexit could spoil the moment. With a glass of 20 Year Old Churchill tawny in my hand, I fell into a Port-fuelled reverie.

If you’re keen to try some Port, here’s something I wrote for BBC Good Food on my favourites. 

 

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