Rustic Exotics

Just what you need whilst fighting Boers, Australian port.:

Where do you think the oldest Mourvedre vines in the world are? Bandol in Provence? The Rhone Valley? Catalonia? You’re not even close. They’re in Australia. The country that brought you the dubious pleasures of Yellow Tail is also home to some of the oldest commercial vines in the world.

Generally, the words ‘old vines’ (or ‘vieilles vignes’) on a bottle of wine have no legal significance. The phrase is used as a marketing ploy, trotted out ad nauseum and usually without regard for the actual age of the vines. But the reality is that old vines—real ones—make better wines. For as much as the phrase is overused, it does mean something in South Australia’s Barossa Valley. The region has an Old Vines Charter to catalogue its venerable vineyards—there’s a scale starting with ‘Old Vine,’ which mean anything over 35 years, and ending with Ancestor Vine, meaning 125 years old or more.

South Australia owes this extraordinary vine heritage to its isolated location and some enlightened governance. Whereas most of the world suffered the ravages of phylloxera, the vine eating louse, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, South Australia protected its lucrative wine industry through strict quarantine laws. It remains phylloxera free to this day.

The vineyards of the Barossa Valley were planted in the 1840s to produce so-called ‘ports’ for the British Empire market. The biggest producer, Yalumba, was known as the Oporto of Australia. Those vines are still in family hands. Robert Hill-Smith, the vineyard’s managing director, told me that Mediterranean grapes such as Shiraz, Grenache and Mourvedre (known locally as Mataro) were planted for ‘high sugar accumulation’ to make the very sweet fortified wines loved by the British and Australians.

The taste for these fortified wines died out in the 1960s and 70s, as the Australian market turned towards table wines—especially Chardonnay. Sadly, many growers unable to sell their crops would pull up the old vines and replace them with white grapes. Some vineyards survived, but only just: At Dean Hewitson’s Old Garden vineyard, which was planted in 1853 with Mourvedre, the family would irrigate the crop heavily to produce diluted grapes, which then went into sparkling rose. Some growers literally couldn’t give their grapes away.

Men such as Robert O’ Callaghan, founder of Rockford, and the recently deceased Peter Lehmann, saw the shift as an opportunity. Just as Randall Grahm was doing in California, they bought up old vine Mediterranean grapes at rock bottom prices to produce distinctively Australian fine wines that Hill-

Smith now refers to as ‘rustic exotics.’ As late as 1989, the government was still paying growers to uproot old vines. But around the same time, Australian drinkers were, according to Hill-Smith, beginning to once again appreciate the “viticultural jewels in our backyard.” The backbone of what is now Australia’s premier wine, Penfold’s Grange, is made up of old vine Barossa shiraz.

In contrast to South Australia, Victoria’s vineyards were devastated by phylloxera. Australia’s states in the 19th century functioned as self-governing colonies with separate laws, railway gauges and even units for measuring beer. The wine industry in Victoria was nearly wiped out. But at Tahbilk, an hour’s drive from Melbourne, one old vineyard survived, protected from the louse by sandy soil. Phylloxera cannot survive in sand. Here they produce tiny quantities of a very pure, intense wine called ‘1860 Vines Shiraz,’ made from vines planted when Queen Victoria was in her prime.

Thanks to the current demand for old vine grapes, none of these wines are cheap—but then, compared to the disappointing 2011 Grange vintage, which Penfold’s is now selling for £500 a bottle—neither are they very expensive.

Click here for some recommendations.

Wonderful image above courtesy of Yalumba. 

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House blends – booze purists avert your eyes now

I get sent a lot of miniature samples of whisky. This is much better than being sent a whole bottle because I hate to see waste so I end up drinking more. But what to do with all those miniatures once I’ve tasted them and logged them on my tasting database (I really do have a tasting database.) Well I could do as one whisky blogger does which is to sell off some of his collection in sample form (though his were paid for no freebies.) It’s probably not a bad idea when it comes to some of ridiculously-priced whisky that Diageo sometimes release but instead, Scotch purists look away now, I put them in my house blend. It started as the remnants of a bottle of Black Grouse, with some Cutty Sark and Tullamore Dew mixed in but it now contains minute quantities of some extremely swanky whiskies. It’s like a home-grown version of Johnnie Walker Blue Label. Some weeks it tastes extremely good, others a bit weird, but it’s always interesting and makes a distinctive base for cocktails and the like.

I thought I was the only  heretic but I had lunch with a well-known whisky writer recently, lets call him Ian, and he confided that he has three glass demijohns in his cellar, one for whisky samples, one for very peaty whiskey samples so as not to upset the house blend and one for gin. I have a house gin too but the most successful is my house brandy. It’s based on a Brandy de Jerez but recently I’ve added tiny amounts of cognac to it. That improved it no end making it lighter, fruitier and accentuating that oloroso sherry finish.

My mania for blending may be getting out of hand, last week I mixed some of my mother’s marmalade with some of my wife’s. It wasn’t a great success.

 

 

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Empire of Booze cover is here!

A quick post today to share my delight at my book cover. I’ve worked in publishing a long time and know what a nightmare it can be to get cover right. The problem is that too many people have an opinion. For an insight into this tortured process, read this rather wonderful article by KJ Charles.

Unbound instead have simply hired someone very talented, Sroop Sunar, who has done jackets for Salman Rushdie and the recent Rudyard Kipling reissues, and let her get on with it. It’s nothing how I imagined the book to look and all the better for that. She’s captured the essence of the book in that the Booze is more important than the Empire. So here it is:

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The only thing that will change is the subtitle to something like, How Britain Created the World’s Finest Drinks. Publication date is now 3rd November. It’s even up on Amazon.

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My new favourite drink, the brandy sour.

I’m not a huge fans of cocktails. It’s not that I don’t enjoy the taste rather I find they slip down a bit too quickly. That’s part of the point, of course, a good cocktail should temper the fire and any rough edges in the spirit to make it dangerously easy to drink. Suddenly it’s gone and I want another. Before I know it it’s all gone a bit Harry Sellars from Father Ted:

Which is why I prefer to drink beer or wine or neat spirits. One is forced to drink slowly. This Christmas though my wife bought me a rather swanky silver-plated cocktail shaker so it would be silly not to put it into use. Also from my time writing a drink column for the Guardian, I have  an excess of spirits including a bottle of Cardinal Mendoza Brandy de Jerez. It’s a rather sweet brandy which I can only sip in minute quantities but it’s worth it for the most amazing oloroso sherry finish of nuts and molasses. It lacks the fruit and acidity of a good cognac but its failings can be remedied in the cocktailing (dread word!) process.

A sour is simply any spirit, lime or lemon juice and sugar syrup to balance the sour. Too much sugar and you ruin it. As this brandy is already very sweet it doesn’t need much.It worked dangerously well. The lemon juice brought the slightly cloying brandy to life and revealed fruit that I never noticed before, oranges etc and it made the finish seem even more nutty and delicious than before. Best of all, it refreshed, not bad for almost neat spirits. I drank two and then went on the rampage through Lewisham.

Ingredients: makes two small ones

Place two martini glasses in the freezer before you start.

4 shots of brandy de Jerez or any good smooth brandy. Probably not a good idea to use your best cognac

3 tablespoons of lemon juice

1 tablespoon of sugar syrup (2 parts dark sugar to 1 part water)

Add lots of ice to the shaker, add ingredients, shake vigorously and then strain into the cold martini glasses. Garnish with slice of lemon.

Drink quickly and then make another.

Postscript:

I discovered after making this drink that it’s the national drink of Cyprus made with local brandy. I’ve never trued Cypriot brandy but think it would be nice with Metaxa. I tried a version with orange bitters but it didn’t really need it. Angostura bitters might be nice, off to try now. 

 

 

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What happened to all the quiet restaurants (and pubs)?

This article originally appeared in the Oldie magazine:

The other day I went for lunch with an old friend at a fashionable Peruvian place in Soho. The food was nice, the noise was appalling. It was more like being in a nightclub than a restaurant. Afterwards my ears were ringing and my voice was hoarse from shouting. Admittedly my hearing isn’t the best. Deafness runs in our family. In her later years my grandmother would answer all questions with the word whisky. My friend though has perfect hearing and she had the same complaint. We swore afterwards to go somewhere quieter next time , but where?

Restaurants used to have tablecloths, cushions and curtains which all absorbed sound. Things began to change with the opening of Kensington Place by Rowley Leigh in 1987. This restaurant not far from Notting Hill Tube quickly became fashionable; Princess Diana was a regular. I went once and left feeling like I’d spent an hour in a cement mixer. It was a vast room full of steel, tiles and glass, reflecting the noise of a hundred Absolutely Fabulous types relentlessly pitching at each other. Nobody was doing anything as old-fashioned as listening nor indeed was it possible to.

Where Kensington Place led others followed. From then on restaurants had to feel buzzy, a synonym for noisy. Terence Conran’s 1990s empire, Quaglino’s, the Blueprint cafe, Le Pont de La Tour, shared this feel. This minimalist look began to take over the humble boozer around the time that Tony Blair was on the rise. Blair won the 1997 election with a manifesto entitled New Britain: My Vision of a Young Country. There was no place in the New Britain for class distinctions; out went the public bar, the snug and the saloon. Partitions were torn down. We were all now in one big room so let’s remove the curtains and let in the light of the new dawn.

From then on it was bare boards all the way. A couple of years ago I went back to a much loved pub in Cornwall that I’d last visited in 1995 and found that it had been gutted and replaced with bleached wood. The smoking ban of 2007 was the final nail in the coffin of the pub carpet. Once there was no smoke, landlords realised that their carpets stank and tore them up.  This cleansing took place in the home too. Laminate flooring  came in so that now you can hear every noise from the neighbours above. IKEA’s 1996 ‘chuck out your chintz’ advert campaign caught the spirit of the times.

The popularity of the minimalist trend might be because such places are cheaper to fit out and they save on laundry bills. The trend in restaurants is for tiny spaces where diners are expected to share plates. They promise value but once you’ve had some tapas, a few drinks, some nuts and olives, end up being almost as expensive as Le Gavroche. They all look very similar inside: bare brick, cramped tables, mismatched wooden furniture and tiles for maximum noise reflection. They’re restaurants for the under 30s. It also helps to be a little drunk to put up with the  din.

Many pubs are now more like bars with music played at deafening volume for the amusement of the staff who do not respond well to requests to turn it down. No one else seems to mind. They’re full of excitable young people shouting at each other. Quite a few of them will be on cocaine. Blair’s premiership coincided with rocketing cocaine use in Britain. In 1996 less than 2% of people admitted to using it in the past year. By 2006 it was over 8%.  In the late 90s early 00s I began to notice drug use in the most unlikely places such at the pub in the village where I grew up in Buckinghamshire. People on cocaine aren’t listening. They are just thinking of the next thing to say.

Not that all these new style places are full of coked-up media types. Some are rather good. It’s great that you can eat proper Barcelona style Tapas in London rather than microwaved gloop in brown earthenware dishes. In the new pubs the food is better, there’s more choice in beer, and they welcome children. But the noise! Our local in Blackheath South London on a Sunday is brutally loud. Imagine a nursery school run by drunken teachers.

What we need is a Campaign for Soft Furnishing. It would be like CAMRA (Campaign for Real Ale) for those who savour a bit of quiet with their beer or a meal with an old friend. Rather than the Cask Mark, the symbol would be a wingback armchair. Inspectors will pay special attention to things such as curtains, carpets, large dogs, and tweed. Anything that absorbs sound. In short, if my father and I can have a conversation without shouting ‘what?’ at each other then it passes and they can put up a plaque.

It will be a while before the campaign takes off. Fortunately, I’ve found the ideal pub not far from my house. It’s an old 30’s boozer complete with a carpet, banquettes, nick-nacks and partitions. There’s four real ales, no music and the TV is only switched on for big matches. No, I’m not going to tell you where it is.

The campaign that ruined a thousand homes. 

 

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For God’s sake, don’t give up booze in January

This time of the year the papers are full of columnists telling you to give up drink for January or spurious articles suggesting that there is no safe amount of alcohol. My advice is to ignore all this nonsense. If you’re that worried about your drinking take September off or, just drink less, but it’s mad to stop drinking at the only time of year when you actually need it. January in Britain is miserable, it’s always freezing and there is no Christmas holiday to look forward to. Happily our ancestors discovered a way of bottling the sunshine of the Mediterranean and the Southern Hemisphere, and keeping it for when it is needed most. It’s called wine.

At this time of year, fortified wines really come into their own. An open bottle of tawny port will last weeks in the fridge so you can have a little glass in the evening when the lack of sun gets too much. Or, if you can find it, Rivesaltes from the South of France can be gorgeous. I was lucky enough to try this one before Christmas.

It’s mainly made from Grenache Blanc with a little muscat and tastes a bit like a cross between an amontillado sherry and a tawny port. It’s only 16% too so it’s pretty much like not drinking at all. Half a glass is all you need to block out the cold and the puritans.

Stone, Vine and Sun have the 2001 for £15.95. Also Taylor’s 10 Year Old Tawny port for around £20 and Gonzalez-Byass AB Amontillado £12 are both widely available. 

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Would you spend £119 on a bottle of ‘Pommerol’?

One of my favourite articles from last year came from LA  Weekly entitled Hatchet Hall’s Wine List Is A Cruel And Maddening Joke. The author, Besha Rodell, has great fun with a list that is designed to baffle and exclude rather than help. Rather than name producer, region, vintage and grape variety as is normal the restaurant have come up with cryptic descriptions such as “Ham wine” or “Vieilles Vignes  (old vines) 13”. My father-in-law sent me the article. When I was in Los Angeles he took us out to one of the most interesting new restaurants in town, Le Comptoir.  (thanks Da!)

The food is very interesting. It’s based around vegetables grown in chef Gary Menes’ garden which are pickled, seared, or pureed in ways that accentuate the flavours. I was particularly taken with a pumpkin soup with raw mushrooms and toasted breadcrumbs. You don’t really need any animals with vegan cooking this good but you can add extras such as cheese, truffles, beef and scallops. Read Besha Rodell on it here. There’s also wine served alongside. Much is made of the provenance of the produce but oddly not of the wine. The list isn’t as cryptic as Hatchet Hall but it’s still a little opaque with offerings such as Muscadet, White Burgundy and Nebbiollo (sic), Piedmont. There’s no mention of producer’s names. I had to ask to see the bottles so that I can fulfill my wine bore quotient for the evening. I probably don’t need to say that the wines were from well-thought of producers. I was particularly taken with the Chardonnay from Whitcraft Winery in Santa Barbara.

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Le Comptor, meaning the Counter, has room for only ten so it’s not a problem to ask about the wines, there are only five, and indeed it was a good way to strike up a rapport with Menes’s team (though not with Menes who works in silence.)

Things are a little different at a wine bar, Le Bouchon, that has just opened up the road from me in Blackheath. We popped in before Xmas so that my wife could have a glass of mulled wine. The list is long but almost every single wine is listed generically. Even more unhelpfully it says at the top ‘many of our wines are produced by biodynamic methods.’ Yes but which ones?

wine listI asked the owner about this and he said they did once have a longer list with tasting notes but people complained that it was too long. Also the new list saved the trouble of rewriting it when vintages change. So why not have a paper list rather than something laminated? Or a chalkboard? And surely putting the vintage and producer isn’t going to take up that much room. He shrugged and said that people can ask him if they want more information. As a wine bore, I wanted to know almost every producer and vintage. The whole thing seems designed to create more work for him and more likely people just won’t venture further down the list. Who is going to spend £119 on a bottle of Pomerol (or indeed Pommerol as an eagle-eyed reader pointed out – see comments) without knowing the producer or vintage ? It’s a shame because I have a feeling that most of the producers are good. Certainly the glass of St. Chinian I had (Cave de Roquebrun 2013, he somewhat reluctantly showed me the bottle) was very enjoyable.

What was maddening for the wine lover was that both the charcuterie and cheese lists had information about provenance and even short tasting notes. It’s funny that so many restaurants seem to want to withhold information about wine but then give extensive notes on who their butcher is and what their chickens had for lunch.

I’ve written an article for the Spectator that should be out next month examining this thorny issue in greater detail.

 

 

 

 

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