This is a very quick post to say that I have started a Substack and from now on most of my booze-inspired meanderings will be found here: henryjeffreys.substack.com World of Booze is dead, long live Drinking Culture! Please sign up as it will make me feel important and you’ll get lots of good things to read. I’ve also started a monthly drinks column for The Critic magazine which is worth subscribing to. And finally my forthcoming book Vines in a Cold Climate: the people behind the English wine revolution is in the final stages of edits and will be available in August. You can order a copy here. That’s it! See you in the future.
We were fortunate, those of us who grew up in the 1980s. Almost every year there would be a new book by Roald Dahl which would be passed around at school and discussed with great seriousness. There were playground arguments about his name: “it’s not Ronald, it’s Roald! Don’t you know anything?”
We lived in Dahl’s world. My brother and I more literally than most children as we were brought up a couple of miles from where he lived in Great Missenden. We would drive past his home, Gypsy House, and my parents would always say: “that’s where Roald Dahl lives.” I think I used to doubt them, could Dahl really live somewhere as prosaic as an ordinary house in rural Buckinghamshire? I liked to think he lived in a Willy Wonka-esque factory turning out madcap books with the help of oompa loompas. I met him once at a charity event; he was sitting at a table looking very old signing books.
No book of Dahl’s caused as much sensation amongst my class as Boy, Dahl’s memoir of his school days which was published in 1984. In this book, more than any others, it felt like he was talking to us directly. We were still reeling from Boy when the sequel, Going Solo, appeared in 1986. I took it out from the school library and read it cover-to-cover in one sitting. Going Solo picks up where Boy left off with Dahl now an adult sailing to East Africa to work for Shell.
The first thing that struck me after reading it after all these years is how very Dahl-esque his life was. On the long journey to Africa, the elderly couple who run around the boat naked or the man who pretends to have dandruff so nobody will suspect that he wears a wig seem to have stepped from the pages of Dahl’s children’s fiction. One can picture them drawn by Quentin Blake. The animals too: elephants are described with “their skin hung loose over their bodies like suits they had inherited from larger ancestors, with the trousers ridiculously baggy.” Vultures are “feathered undertakers.”
Later in the book, there’s an incident with a rogue lion: “Come quick! Come quick! A huge lion is eating the wife of the cook!” The mixture of the comic and the tragic, reminded me of the beginning of James and the Giant Peach where James parents are killed by a rhinoceros which has escaped from London Zoo.
If these incidents feel like they’ve sprung from Dahl’s imagination it’s probably because they had. Going Solo is largely based on long letters that Dahl wrote to his adored mother, Sophie Magdalene in England. Dahl’s biographer, Donald Sturrock, wrote: “Most of these delightful characters were almost certainly invented as an entertaining alternative to his real companions on the journey who were dismissed in a letter home to his mother as ‘pretty dull’”.
So Going Solo is not a memoir in any conventional sense of the word. Just as in Boy, it is Dahl telling stories loosely based on his life for the benefit of children. The Dahl of Going Solo is a curious Peter Pan-like figure undergoing adult adventures without growing up properly. Apart from a hint of romance when he is in hospital in Alexandria there is no sex in the book which is just how we liked it. Dahl’s great gift was that he related to children better than adults. I spoke to a friend of my parents who knew Dahl and they told me that though he could be difficult with adults, he always had time for their daughter, a friend of Dahl’s granddaughter, Sophie, and used to make up elaborate nicknames for her.
We loved Dahl because he shared our impatience and confusion with the world of adults. In Going Solo, the adults are the British. Despite being born and raised in Wales and England, Dahl was an outsider. He spoke Norwegian at home and only got his first British passport when he went abroad with Shell. Here is Dahl the anthropologist: “in the 1930s, the British Empire was still very much the British Empire, and the men and women who kept it going were a race of people that most of you have never encountered and now you never will. I consider myself very lucky to have caught a glimpse of this rare species while it still roamed the forests and foothills of the earth.”
In Africa his closest relationship is with his manservant Mdisho. In ways that nowadays would be considered a bit racist, Misho’s boyishness (he was 19) is contrasted with the stuffy British. When war breaks out, Mdisho, full of martial enthusiasm, beheads a “German sisal-owner. . . a very wealthy and extremely unpleasant batchelor” with Dahl’s sword. Again, this incident almost certainly never happened. Mdisho exists not as a racist caricature of Africans but as the child in the book baffled by adult ways. And as always in Dahl’s work, death and violence are always dealt with unsentimentally.
Later, Dahl’s confusion with the British breaks into contempt for his senior officers and the general amateurishness of the war effort. “This, I told myself, is a waste of manpower and machinery” he writes at one point on the token British fighter presence in Greece. Despite being 6 ft 6, he trained as a fighter pilot. We are on slightly firmer ground with the RAF stuff. There are no doubt embellishments here and there but much of what he wrote about can be corroborated. Dahl was a superb pilot; he passed third out of 40 in his intake, and in his very brief career had a number of confirmed kills. His descriptions of air battles in his Hurricane are mesmerising: “I was quite literally overwhelmed by the feeling that I had been into the very bowels of the fiery furnace and had managed to claw my way out”.
This love of flying recurs throughout Dahl’s work. It’s there in James and Giant Peach or Charlie and Chocolate Factory. Indeed, Dahl’s first foray into writing was an account of his crash in the Libyan desert early in his RAF career. It’s a story he told many times. In some versions he is shot down, but in Going Solo, he is given the wrong coordinates of the base in North Africa and with night closing in and running out of fuel, he is forced to make a crash landing in the desert.
What is certain is that he suffered severe head and back injuries, and was very nearly killed. In Going Solo he has: “sixteen major operations on numerous parts of my body” and spends four months convalescing in hospital in Alexandria. He did fly again but spent the rest of his life with severe back pain. Not only did this crash give him the material for his first published works but he would later claim that that the “monumental bash on the head” changed him mentally and made him a writer.
Dahl’s career as children’s author was a slow burn. He began writing short stories for adults that were extremely popular in America and it was only in 1961 that he wrote James and the Giant Peach. In his lifetime, they were hated by librarians but Dahl knew his audience. He wrote, “a grown-up talking about a children’s book is like a man talking about a woman’s hat”. Sorry Mr Dahl!
Going Solo appeared towards the end of an extraordinarily fertile patch in Dahl’s career when, with the support of his second wife Felicity Crosland and a collaborative editor at Farrar, Straus and Giroux, Stephen Roxburgh, he wrote classics like the BFG, Mathilda and Boy, all with vivid illustrations by Quentin Blake.
Always in poor health, he would not have long left to live and died in 1990. Since then his personal reputation has taken a bit of a battering. He clearly had a temper and could be extremely unpleasant. More sinister is his attitude to the Jews, where a dislike of Israel sometimes spilled over into outright anti-Semitism. The passage in Going Solo where the Dahl meets Jewish refugees in Palestine, one who “looked like the Prophet Isaiah and spoke like a parody of Hitler”, takes on an edge when you know Dahl’s views on Israel.
And yet, for me that doesn’t dent the magic of the books. Rereading Going Solo, I was struck by his powers as a storyteller: humour, economy, a vivid eye for detail, and that uncanny ability to talk to his reader directly. One of my happiest moments as a father was hearing my daughter’s fits of giggles the first time I read her the BFG. Today children still live in Dahl’s world, my daughter always wants to dress up as Sophie for World Book Day.
My parents still live near Great Missenden. One day a couple of years ago, my daughter was feeding the ducks behind the Red Lion, not far from Gypsy House (which is now a museum), when she befriended two girls who were doing the same. Their mother looked strangely familiar. It was Sophie Dahl, the inspiration for the BFG, those little girls were Roald Dahl’s great grandchildren. The girls and the ducks took on a Quentin Blake-esque quality, and Roald Dahl’s presence suddenly felt palpable.
As I’ve been drinking so much English wine in researching my book Vines in a Cold Climate, I thought I’d round-up some of the most interesting, unusual and delicious ones I tasted this year.
It’s traditional at this time of the year for wine writers to do a round-up of the best bottles they had in the year. These are often parades of rare and expensive wines usually, if Instagram is a reliable guide to other wine writers’ lives, consumed over long lavish lunches. My end of year round-up is going to be a bit different because a) I don’t get invited to these lunches b) it’s a bit boring for readers to be told about a load of wines that they almost certainly will never be able to try.
Instead I’m choosing some of the most interesting wines I tried this year while researching my book. Yes, I’m writing a book. Have I mentioned that yet? It’s a look at English wine called Vines in a Cold Climate and it’s about 99% done and due out August 2023. Now I did try some excellent sparkling wines from the people who you would expect like Nyetimber, Ridgeview and Gusbourne. They are all consistently good producers. But the ones I’ve chosen were the surprises, wines that are a little different to the English norm or are wines that you really wouldn’t expect to try in England, like really good reds. English wines are never going to be cheap but I’ve tried to pick a few fairly affordable ones.
So without further ado, here are 12 wines that show how exciting and varied English winemaking is at the moment. I hope that most of them are still available.
In some ways this is quite an ordinary wine. If you had this by the carafe in a wine bar in France, you might not even comment on it. But the fact that someone can make this in England from a bad vintage like 2021 and knock it out for £14 a bottle shows the huge potential in red wines in Essex. The blend includes pinot noir, zweigelt and even the dread rondo, and results in a ripe, fresh, zingy sort of red. Drunk cool out of a Duralex tumbler I found it irresistible. I can’t wait to try this in the warmer 2022 vintage. Lucy Winward from New Hall above.
The visit to Danbury Estate in Essex was one of the highlights of the trip. This ambitious estate has transformed expectations about what can be done with red wine in England. This is beautifully ripe with bright red fruit, you would never guess it’s from if you tried it blind. Yes it’s expensive but I think it’s worth the money if you compare it to Burgundy. It’s really very very good.
I think England’s signature style should be a kind of red that’s really a rose, or vice versa. Rather like a traditional clairet from Bordeaux. During my research for the book I had quite a few extremely delicious very very pale reds. This was one of my favourites, made from a blend of pinot noir and pinot meunier with a little chardonnay in there (see back label above.)
See above for the style. This is a beautiful wine, incredibly pale but not short of flavour and not a trace of green or underripness. The visit to Chris Wilson’s tiny winery under a windmill in Cambridge was another highlight of the book. This comes from Essex fruit, I think. His chardonnays are also excellent.
Winemaker Fergus Elias clearly had a lot of fun with this rose aged in French and American oak. The style is Provence meets white Burgundy with some red Burgundy in there too. It’s very expensive, £40 I think, but it is very very good with ripe raspberry fruit and none of the grassiness you sometimes get in an English rose. It’s very pale but there’s lots of red wine character here.
English chardonnay is coming on in leaps and bounds from producers like Danbury Ridge in Essex, and Gusbourne, Chapel Down, and Simpson in Kent. Lyme Bay is based in Devon but buys the fruit from this from Essex. This is packed with ripe Granny Smith apples, it’s ripe and mouthwatering. The Martin’s Lane single vineyard bottling is even better but it seems to be gone.
In all the excitement about French varieties in England like pinot noir and chardonnay, it’s great that there are some producers who see the potential in England’s old viticultural heritage i.e. unsexy German varieties like muller thurgau and reichensteiner. This is miles away from the off dry wines of old, it’s bone dry, peachy, refreshing and extremely good value for England. Winemaker Sergio Verillo (above) is based in Battersea and buys grapes from Essex and Kent mainly.
I have to say I’m not the biggest bacchus fan, those big green flavours aren’t really my cup of tea but this oak-aged example, don’t worry it doesn’t taste oaky, from Flint in Norfolk has made me see the potential in the variety. Rather than going for a Marlborough sauvignon all stops pulled up out style, this is more reminiscent of Sancerre. It’s subtle, one of those wines that reveals itself after time open. The ordinary bacchus is good too.
Pinot gris has masses of potential in England, producing a wine with some of the refreshment of a nice pinot grigio from northern Italy but with the depth of flavour of Alsace. This is full of green apple and spice. Artelium is a new producer but the still wines are made by an English wine veteran, and one of the funniest people I spoke to for the book, Owen Elias, who was formerly at Chapel Down and Balfour.
English sparkling wine is generally of a high standard but they can be a bit, how can I put this… boring. This is one for those who want something a bit different. It’s made by Tommy Grimshaw (above) using wild yeasts from the least popular of the three champagne varieties, pinot meunier. The result is something that tastes one moment of bruised brown apples, and the next like a sparkling palo cortado sherry, if you can imagine such a thing.
Another fun English sparkling wine. Whereas most roses are made by adding red wine to white wine, this is made from skin contact from red grapes, .60% Pinot Noir and 40% Pinot Meunier. It tastes of vivid raspberries on the palate with some woody oaky flavours and a little tannin. This is not a polished champagne-wannabe but it’s not wacky either. Really gorgeous and so good to have someone doing something a bit different in English wine even if the name sounds like a make of squash racquet.
Another one that shows what can be done with the unfashionable varieties. This is 100% seyval blanc, a variety that Owen Elias says tastes of cabbages and potatoes. But in the hands of the master, Peter Hall, you get citrus fruit, saline notes, leafy herbs, green apple, and then freshly-baked croissant on the finish with a cream texture. It’s a distinctly English style.Still an absolute baby, this taste like it’s going to last for years.
A plug for the excellent wines imported by Patrick Matthews plus some budget high street choices for Christmas.
When I had a weekly column in The Lady magazine, Christmas was always a bit of a mixed blessing. It was good because I got to write more rather than being restricted to 300 words but it was always difficult trying to come up with a way of making it fresh – I remember doing a Victorian Christmas, a New World Christmas and even a Richard Nixon Christmas. So festive! I only had the job for five years, I have no idea how long-term wine columnists manage it.
And it was all lies! I wasn’t having any of the wines I recommended for Christmas day as I went to my parents. But I could hardly say, first have a father who bought some £20 Burgundy seven years ago.
After a few years hosting, once again we’re going to my parents but I’ve been thinking that if we were hosting quite a few people, what would I actually buy? I don’t know what line of work you’re in but freelance rates for writing haven’t changed since I started journalism in 2005. In fact, in many areas they have decreased. The Daily Telegraph used to pay me 50p a word for paperback reviews. That was a nice little earner. I’m lucky that I have a part time job as an editor but it’s still pretty terrifying watching the prices go up and up. One wine merchant reckoned that wines were now about 20-30% more expensive than in 2016.
But there are still great wines to be had for those of use who are struggling. If you like Burgundy, I’d highly recommend you talk to my old friend Patrick Matthews. He’s a former wine writer turned falafel magnate with Hoxton Beach, which runs a series of cafes and market stands around London. To provide his venues with wines, he imports some cases direct from France including some excellent value wines from around Irancy.
This part of Northern Burgundy isn’t far from Chablis and produces some lovely whites. I particularly liked the Bourgogne Tonnerre 2020 from Celine Cote, like a richer weightier Chablis. But this area also makes some great reds these days if you like a lighter style wine. From the same producer the Bourgogne Epineuil 2019 is beautifully ripe – think a nice Savigny-les-Beane. Both cost £15.50 a bottle. Astonishing value. Even better value though is the Bourgogne Passetoutgrains 2019 from Benoit Cantin, a blend of gamay and pinot noir, for only £10.75. It’s the sort of thing I imagine a Lyon bistro would have as it’s house wine. Again absolutely delicious, in a light way but ripe and juicy. Apparently this is the last vintage that will be available as the grower is pulling out the gamay to replace it with more profitable pinot noir. Tant pis! And finally, Patrick offers a really tasty sparkling Bourgogne Tonnerre from Florent Masson for under £17. Website is here but you might be better off emailing email@example.com
When he started importing these wines back in 2020, he sent me a few bottles to try as samples. Since then I have bought three cases. They’re really that good.
From the big boys, a few wines stood out this year:
Weinert Carrascal 2020 (£12.50) – A blend of malbec, merlot and cabernet from Argentina this is somewhere in flavour between an old school Rioja and a mature Medoc. The price is frankly ludicrous for a wine of this quality. I tried the 2018 recently, this wine is always good though they do seem to be releasing it younger than in the past. Harrumph harrumph!
Côtes du Jura Chardonnay 2020 (£6.49) – I’ve been buying a lot of wine from Aldi this year. The ‘Specially Selected’ range has some excellent wines, particularly from vinho verde. However this chardonnay would be my Christmas day choice if I was catering for quite a few people.
Tesco 10 year Old Tawny (£12.50)- Made by the Symington family, I tried this for a product review in BBC Good Food magazine and couldn’t quite believe the price. Strawberries, walnuts and a sharp tang, this has everything I want in a tawny.
Tesco Premier Cru Champagne (£23 – though often on offer) – Another one that has been thoroughly tested in our household. Rich, appley and nutty, this is superb. I did a blind tasting of supermarket Champagnes with Kate Hawkings from Delicious magazine and this was our favourite. I have no idea how Tesco does this for the money and frankly, I don’t want to know.
So, there you go, there’s your budget (ish) Christmas sorted. I’d order now to avoid postal/ courier chaos. What a time to be alive.
Vines in a Cold Climate: the people Behind the English wine revolution will be published summer 2023 by Atlantic books.
This is something I wrote for Harpers Wine and Spirits earlier this year on where the gin market is going and how gin brands can still make a splash in a crowded market.
The last two years have been tough for everyone and Britain’s gin distillers are no exception. The various lockdowns and general uncertainty hit the industry hard and while retailers and direct sales helped alleviate the shortfall, “the on-trade could never be replaced by home consumption,” according to Nick Cook from the Gin Guild. The figures speak for themselves. According to the WSTA, British sales were worth £2.7 billion in 2019 but only £1.9 billion in 2020, though they have recovered somewhat to £2.1 billion in 2021. Meanwhile according to the CGA, the top ten British gin brands in 2021 were down by 22.8% by value compared with the previous year.
It’s not just the big boys who were affected. Many smaller distilleries have thrown in the towel. I was particularly sad to hear that Duck and Crutch, made in a shed in Kensington, was no longer distilling. Olivier Ward from Spirits Beacon said: “a lot of brands are a whim away from stopping as they are either in survival mode or only sold in a hyper local area”.
“It looks like the gin boom is over,” said Lisa Halstead, buyer at Master of Malt. “We saw standard gin start to decline around three years ago and premium and flavoured were driving significant growth. Since then, we have seen both premium and flavoured plateau and now are pretty steady in terms of market share”. Dawn Davies, buyer at the Whisky Exchange agreed, “it is now on a plateau and will start to drop as the market has been flooded with substandard products and people are on to the next trend.”
Some like Simon Difford from Difford’s Guide think flavoured gins are partly to blame, “[they] have helped confuse understanding of what a gin is.” But Ian Buxton, author of ‘101 Gins to Buy Before You Die’ disagrees and thinks the flavoured products are bought by people who are “very different from gin’s traditional consumer,” and John Vine, buyer at Waitrose, confirms this.
The market may have plateaued but nobody thinks that we’re going back to anything like a pre-boom market. Ian Buxton said: “Gin has captured the imagination of a new group of increasingly enthusiastic consumers even if the initial frenzy has died down somewhat.” he said. Nick Cook thought it was more a case of “market assimilation and shaking down” rather than collapse.
This is born out by master distiller and consultant Jamie Baxter: “Distilleries are getting either smaller or bigger and the middle sized ones seem to be the ones that are struggling.” John Vine explained the vast leap required from being a local player to a national brand. He cites names such as Cotswolds Gin who have successfully made this jump but it takes a lot of investment. Beyond friends and local pubs, many smaller brands haven’t thought through their route to market.
Olivier Ward thinks that smaller brands made by contract distillers are looking especially vulnerable. “Some are excellent, made by excellent makers, for genuine reasons but that’s part of the problem. How committed are you?” he said. Kathy Caton, co-founder of Brighton Gin, agrees: “Authenticity, quality, and consistency are key attributes for us in this incredibly crowded domestic market.”
Brands need to consolidate their product line rather than making five or six different products, Ward told me, and that the price of craft gin is coming down from the usual £35 a few years ago. New products need to be well thought out like the recently-launched Savoury Gin from the Portobello Road distillery, not only a fine spirit but with gorgeous packaging. Founder Jake Burger commented: “Our Savoury Gin in the white bottle with the hand painted effect was a big departure from our usual style and has been very well received and has great shelf presence both behind the bar and in retail.”
At the more mainstream end of the market, both Vine and Davies are particularly taken with Hendrick’s Neptunia, “honestly my favourite gin they have done”, Davies said. It was a Waitrose exclusive for a while and Vine was impressed by how well it was done.
The other new product Vine mentioned was Buckingham Palace Gin. Spirits judge David T. Smith said it was “one of the best gin I’ve tried recently. It’s made with botanicals from Buckingham Palace garden – a bit gimmicky but, from point of view of taste, quite incredible.” 900 bottles sold out in an hour through the Royal Collection Trust website and since then retailers have been clamouring to get hold of stock. It shows the right product, branding and timing – it’s the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee this year – can work.
Most new brands, however, don’t have this kind of marketing hook. Nick Cook thinks “it will be a brave move for anyone seeking to join the bandwagon at this late stage.” Lisa Halstead confirmed that “there are fewer brands coming to market. In the height of the boom – around four or five years ago – I was receiving requests from up to five new gin suppliers per day.”
For brands looking to enter the crowded UK market for the first time, it’s vital to get everything right first time. “5-10 years ago you would have had a honeymoon period. Now you are competing against 3,000 gins from day one,” Ward said. Lisa Halstead explained what she is looking for: “I really like a unique bottle or a really unique background story. Of course, the liquid has to match up.”
One recent launch that ticks all these boxes is Ginbey made by a winery in Lebanon, Domaine des Tourelles. The product and packaging are excellent but most importantly it has a compelling story and gifted communicator in distiller Faouzi Issa. As an arak distiller he had long wanted to make a gin, his arak Brun is a bestseller in Lebanon, but was pushed into it when the collapse of the Lebanese pound made imported gin too expensive. “We have also found that being the first premium gin from Lebanon has helped as it makes it stand out in this crowded marketplace.” He works with Speciality Brands to get Ginbey into bars and restaurants and it is listed by Master of Malt and the Whisky Exchange. A silver medal at the IWSC certainly helped too.
As well as wineries moving into gin, gin brands are increasingly diversifying with producers such as Greensand in Kent and Foxhole Spirits launching rums. Jamie Baxter has noticed this too “Many gin distilleries are looking to do secondary products now in addition to the gin, so vodka, rum, whisky as well as other flavoured spirits.” This might be a canny move according to Lisa Halstead: “The data we have seen shows gin consumers moving to spiced and flavoured rum, premium and flavoured vodka and interestingly cream liqueurs. We are also seeing some mid-size gin suppliers such as Boe Gin and Mason’s of Yorkshire move into the flavoured vodka category.”
The UK market might be crowded but David T. Smith mentioned that there’s still room for growth in countries such as France, Australia, America and China. James Baxter told me: “I’m getting far more enquiries from overseas than I used to and have done gin projects in France, Kenya, India, Ireland, Brazil.” Charly Thieme from Brighton Gin said they “have just received our first order from Taiwan (that’s our sixth market abroad) and have two more markets in the pipeline for this year.”
Back at home, all the growth is at the high end according to to Stuart Ekins who runs Cask Liquid Marketing working closely with the on-trade, “in super premium (£29-39) and luxury (£40)” He continued: “Our sales have been strong through the Covid years with a particular benefit for home grown products with sustainability credentials, such as Hepple gin and Ramsbury gin.”
Eddie Brook from Byron Bay which produces an array of Australian gins tells a similar story: “I think our strong point of difference, ethics and values as a business really shine through with Brookie’s Byron Gin so consumers in the UK who are looking for premium and sustainable spirits connect with our story.” Spirits judge Sarah Miller agreed that at this end of the market, environmental credentials were extremely important: “I really want lots of information and transparency about how and where a product is made, what the ethos is, and – ideally – its sustainability credentials.”
Behind the headlines of declining gin sales, there is definitely good news out there for producers, retailers and the on-trade with the right product, the right marketing and more than a little luck. The gin boom might be over but we’re not going back to the days of just Gordons or Beefeater.
I ran into Ed Dallimore at a Wine Garden of England event at Squerryes Hall earlier this year on a classic overcast English summer’s day. Very different to the weather we’re having at the moment. He was selling his incredibly thorough and beautifully put together book, The Vineyards of Britain. Well how could I resist? I have been devouring it avidly ever since. Ed really does seem to have been everywhere, met everyone and tried everything. It made me realise that I have so far only scratched the surface of all the exciting things that are going on in English and Welsh wine. At the moment if you want to know what’s going on, then you need to buy a copy (go to 59Vines.com). Oh and the photographs are superb, especially the ones of Peter Hall from Breaky Bottom. I’d highly recommend following Ed on social: @59Vines.
To tell you more about it, here he is:
How did you get into wine?
Wine has always been at our family dinner table or present in some way. Dad worked in British brewing and Mum’s always loved drinking wine! Not necessarily the most flash kit but always as a means of celebration, or family meal times, or with friends. We still use a cork screw that belonged to my great great grandfather circa 1850s. Oh the stories that thing could tell!
Professionally speaking, I left uni in 2008 and didn’t know what to do. I saw a ‘graduate scheme’ for Majestic and thought I would do that for a year, learn a bit about wine, something that will always be relevant and interesting, then use that time to work out what I wanted to do ‘when I grow up..’ About six months in I tasted a 2006 McLaren Vale Shiraz Viognier by Kangarilla Road – and I knew pretty much there and then I would be in wine forever. It was the variety, quality, value and approach of the wonderful people behind many of the great wines of Australia that I was seeing and meeting – that attracted me most of all. Specifically an 03 Hunter Sem by Mount Pleasant. I felt such a disconnect from the desire to immerse myself in these wines – so moved to Sydney in 2012 and funnily enough got a job working for Mount Pleasant.
What was it that got you into English wine? Was there a particular bottle?
Prior to returning from Australia I had tasted two English wines total. On return – and prior to embarking on the journey to visit around150 English and Welsh producers writing The Vineyards of Britain – but with the idea forming in my mind, I bought some wine from Tommy and the crew at Emerging Vines. Including a bottle of Will Davenport‘s 2018 Diamond Fields Pinot Noir. I was blown away by the depth and structure especially, something that, largely due to climate, I didn’t imagine I would encounter too much of in our domestic red market! A great example to ever remain open minded… Very early on in the project I visited Harrow & Hope. Totally blown away by one of the most precise range of wines I’ve ever seen – and of course the quality – I could see there and then it was going to be a very tasty project! More importantly the professionalism – and potential for the future of English and Welsh wine was – was so evident.
What was the first English vineyard you visited?
Little Oak, Chipping Campden, from vines planted in 1880 and 42 degrees in the Hunter Valley one week, to three acres of Seyval and Siegerebbe in about 2 degrees and snow in the Cotswolds the next!
What gave you the idea for the book?
First and foremost a desire to broaden my own knowledge of the domestic industry. I knew I couldn’t just waltz back into the English industry and into a great job working with local producers – which is something I always want to champion for multiple reasons. I needed to learn as much as possible, and meet as many people as possible, and the best way to do that is at source. I struggled to find an exhaustive resource to point me in the right direction, and thought this would make for a useful tool for people who either wanted to learn a bit more about who’s doing what, where, or maybe wanted to visit a few cellar doors themselves, or just be pointed in the direction of a few interesting wines. Secondly, having always been a photographer who loves to write – I wrote a book in Australia which was self published with a few friends – it was an absolutely obvious opportunity to combine a few passions – what could be better!
How long did it take to research?
The research started whilst still in Australia – but was agreed with the publisher in December 2020. The next three months was pretty much all planning – the initial plan was for it to include 250 producers. But I also wanted to share their stories in an exhaustive way and for it to be accessible, so no more than £19.99. So… the publisher quickly pointed out that 250 producers therefore was out of the question. I started with a list of every producer in the UK and honed this to a desired list of about 135 – knowing that I would undoubtedly be pointed in the direction of some great producers along the way. I think the final tally was 153 who I approached – and 147 are in the book. Which says a lot for the people and their willingness to contribute to the wider industry. Between April to November I covered 18,000 miles visiting every producer – some more than once for additional imagery. I wrote it on the way, often with a glass of wine from that day’s venues.
Which of the newer producers are you most excited about?
Stonor Valley Vineyard are producers to watch out for, once the vines come online. One of the best sites I’ve seen. I’m really looking forward to seeing the wines of Ham Street as the site again looks exceptional and I like what I’ve seen about their approach. Black Chalk have fast forwarded themselves to the very pointy end of the quality spectrum and I’ll always be keen to see their new releases. Martin’s Lane too seem to have formed themselves a formidable rep within the industry… Chris Wilson at Gutter & Stars is making some great wines with fruit from Essex and Oxfordshire, another release email list well worth being on!
What do you think the future holds for English wine?
Overwhelming excitement and potential. We’re currently (on average) producing about 65% traditional method sparkling annually – this will remain the leading category – but see it continuing to dissipate slightly, in favour of more stills in the riper vintages and more sparkling outside of this bracket. Charmat is causing a bit of a stir with some huge plantations going in. Anything that can act as a gateway into the English and Welsh industry is good as far as I’m concerned and Charmat can provide this given style, as long as it’s priced appropriately. Export will continue to grow (currently at about 15%) – and it will have to with around 4 million vines in the ground these last few years… But with 33million wine drinkers in the UK importing the best part of 30 million bottle of champagne currently, there is so much scope to welcome more people into the domestic bracket and crucially, because the quality is good, this is hopefully where they’ll stay!
What problems does the industry face?
I still see climate as the biggest challenge. Not merely a lack of ripening warmth in some seasons but also increasingly dramatic weather patterns, milder winters and devastating, potentially crop threatening, late spring frosts. This of course contributes to cost, which is a major challenge in winning over the everyday drinker. Compounding this can be price point on some wines from very young vines… Not to say these young producers can’t make good wines… but such a hugely important aspect is people’s first experience with English or Welsh wine… which is most likely to be very positive… but if it’s considered to be well over priced then they are less likely to keep exploring. To that point we owe much to our big producers who put lots of resource into marketing themselves and therefore the wider industry…
How did you go about getting the book published?
In many ways setting out to write a thorough book on wine makes about as much financial sense – personally speaking – as planting a vineyard… But I didn’t get into either wine or writing about it to make money… which is lucky! I approached the publisher with what I thought was a good opportunity for them – they agreed – but as is standard in publishing, I funded the entirety of the research phase (and I’m not someone who has come out of the city with loads of cash… far from it). I crowdfunded via 100 pre sale copies, selling lots of these along with framed prints etc., all delivered on publication. This, plus savings, funded the whole of last year.
Absolutely! I can’t wait to share more stories and those of the producers I’ve discovered since writing the first book. There is so much going on, always so much more to say, and so many more great wines to be shared. I would like to do an update of this book in a few years. In the short term I’m currently working on a couple of projects which may come to fruition slightly sooner – and I hope to do a book rich in imagery of all the wonderful wine dogs of England I’ve met along the way.
One of the great pioneers of English wine, Stuart Moss, died last week at his home in Santa Barbara, California. With his wife Sandy, he planted grapes at Nyetimber in Sussex and created a sparkling wine that would become legendary. I assumed that there would be an obituary in the Times and Telegraph, articles in the wine press and generally an acknowledgement of the passing of someone who had a profound influence on this country’s wines. Yet apart from a few tributes on social media from Stephen Skelton and others, there has been very little. As far as I am aware Nyetimber itself, owned since 2006 by Dutch billionaire Eric Heerema, has not issued a statement (though to be fair the wine maker Brad Greatrix did respond on Twitter). Indeed, go to the Our Story section of the company’s website and there’s no mention of the Mosses at all.
So I thought I’d put together a little tribute page. I didn’t know Stuart Moss but I was very fortunate to speak to him and Sandy a couple of weeks ago for an article I was writing on the 30th anniversary of that first vintage at Nyetimber, and the magnificence of the 1992 Blanc de Blancs sparkling wine. You can read the full article here but I liked what Stuart said about their audacious and ultimately successful endeavour: “The gods smiled, we had the right sites, the right varieties and everything went well for us.”
I’ve emailed a few English wine notables who knew Stuart Moss and will be updating this page as they come in. If you want to contribute, please let me know and I’ll add to the page.
“It was a zeitgeist moment. Although, some of us were also making sparkling wines, they weren’t generally with Pinot and Chardonnay. It needed somebody prepared to put up with the much lower (then) yields. In other words a labour of love, started almost on a hobby basis. In the early days they never seemed to sell any, but their foresight eventually paid off in a way, of which they could only have dreamed. Well done Stuart and Sandy, true pioneers.” Bob Lindo, Camel Valley
“Very saddened to hear the passing of Stuart Moss, he will be proudly remembered along with his wife Sandy for being so instrumental in the renaissance of the English Sparkling Wine Industry. They were the first to see the potential for Sussex to be the ideal terroir for producing international quality bottle fermented sparkling wine. I fondly remember how open and collaborative they were with my father and I when we began our journey into English sparkling wine shortly after them. I warmly remember sitting in their newly renovated manor house over a glass of wine discussing winemaking. They should be so proud of being the catalyst for this exciting new era of English sparkling wine that has come on leaps and bounds. At Ridgeview we will be raising a glass to his inspiring memory and passing our warmest regards to Sandy and the family in the USA.” Simon Roberts, Ridgeview
“The Mosses , wittingly or not, created the will to excel and the belief that we could do so, that has led England to the top of the sparkling wine tree. Without their cussed determination, we might be a generation behind in achieving the unbelievably delicious sparklers we now produce. And, as Stuart shot back, when the Man from the Ministry said ‘You should plant apples’ — ‘we didn’t move 4,000 miles to grow apples!'” Oz Clarke, wine writer and TV presenter
“I clearly remember the first time I tasted Nyetimber and realised that the Mosses had managed something extraordinary. History has proved that they heralded a completely new era for wine in this country.” Jancis Robinson, wine writer
“Without Stuart and Sandy there would be no Nyetimber and – I would argue – there would be much less of an English wine industry.” Johnny Ray, wine writer
“Everyone told him and Sandy that you couldn’t make great wine in England. They went ahead anyway. He said to me they did it because you can’t tell someone from Chicago what they can’t do.” Guy Smith, Smith & Evans sparkling wine
“Stuart and Sandie Moss were two of the original pioneers of the English wine industry. Their legacy is an exciting and vibrant industry.” Frazer Thompson, former CEO of Chapel Down
“Stuart Moss deserves his rightful place in English wine folklore. England is now recognised as one of the most exciting wine regions on the planet and this simply wouldn’t be the case without his pioneering approach to sparkling wine.” Charlie Holland, winemaker and CEO at Gusbourne
“I remember when Stuart and Sandy first came to Nyetimber with the intention to make sparkling wine and the frisson of excitement that caused in our very small industry at that time. No one had seriously considered English sparkling wine at that time, this was new. I went to visit their winery soon after they won the English Sparkling Wine Trophy at the 1997 IWSC, with their very first wine! Stuart was there carefully labelling those bottles. Every label position was carefully measured (with a ruler), to ensure perfect placement. Such immense attention to detail really mattered to him and he told me he believed this is what was needed to make the best wines in the world. They both worked very hard, but were also very good fun. Stuart always had a ready smile and engaging personality, he was a pleasure to know.” Sam Lintner, MD and winemaker at Bolney
This is something I wrote for issue three of an excellent new drinks magazine called Tonic. I’d highly recommend subscribing and they are offering a 20% discount for new subscribers with the code HWOB20. Go to Tonic’s website.
There are three smells I associate with Faversham, the East Kent town where I live. One is the mouth-watering smell of the fish and chip shops. There are two near our house and the air is always thick with the smell of fried potatoes and malt vinegar. Then there’s the creek, the waterway that links Faversham with the sea. At high tide you can smell oyster shells and seaweed, whereas on hot days when it goes out there are less pleasant estuarial smells. Finally, there’s the Shepherd Neame brewery that sits in the heart of town which makes the whole place smell like freshly-baked digestive biscuits.
During the first stage of 2020’s Covid crisis, the first smell disappeared. No more chips and vinegar. But the creek kept going in and out, and I thought to myself, as long as the brewery continued brewing, then everything would be ok. While the world got increasingly creepy, with masked people on streets, warnings on television, and police going through groceries, that smell kept me sane.
According to Jonathan Neame, Shepherd Neame CEO, it was a close-run thing keeping the brewery going when the first lockdown restrictions bit in March. “If we had not, it may not have opened again,” he said. The current family business has been there since 1698 though records have been found showing brewing on the site much earlier.
The architecture of Faversham is dominated by brewing. There’s the sprawling Shepherd Neame site (above), a mixture of Victorian and modern, that sits by the creek. In the old days, malt and hops for the brewery would arrive by boat until the coming of the railway in 1858. Then there are the grand townhouses which were built by Faverham’s beer barons.
The Shepherds and Neames weren’t the only brewing families. Their great rivals, the Rigdens, built a stunning Italianate redbrick brewery opposite Shepherd Neame in the late 19th century. It was sold to Fremlins of Maidstone in 1948 whose elephant symbol you still see at the Elephant pub, before moving into the hands of Whitbread which finally closed it in 1990.
Thankfully, it wasn’t demolished and the massive building now houses a supermarket and various flats and offices. Still, how magnificent would it have been when both were going strong? Imagine the smells. I’m grateful that Shepherd Neame is still there. It was a large part of why we moved here from London. Well, it was for me, my wife was more interested in the quality of the schools.
Having a old brewery at the heart of a town gives a grandeur, purpose, and identity to the place. Southwold would just be another chi chi Suffolk seaside town without the Adnams brewery. Most dramatic of all is Harveys of Lewes (below) whose gothic revival brewery towers over the Sussex market town. Like railway stations, the Victorians built breweries in the style of cathedrals or castles. When the brewing stops, these beautiful old buildings can be repurposed, like Rigden’s in Faversham, but they have lost their magic, and become like a railway station where trains don’t stop anymore or a deconsecrated church.
At one time every town of any size would have had at least one brewery. My father still speaks fondly about the old Benskins brewery in his hometown of Watford which was founded in 1722, and, after being acquired by Ind Coope, was finally shut down in 1972.
It’s a story that’s repeated all over the country. The British beer industry went through a wave of consolidations which increased after the Second World War. Old breweries were closed and their much-loved beers either disappeared or were brewed elsewhere. Today, Watford is a slightly soulless commuter town; one of those places where it feels like the action is always going on elsewhere. How much better would it be with a brewery sitting at the heart of it?
The closure that still brings a tear to my eye is that of Young’s in Wandsworth. Right up until it closed in 2006, dray horses would deliver the beer to local pubs in south west. But hard-headed economics won out and Young’s merged with Charles Wells, and moved brewing out to Bedford. Was it my imagination or did a pint of Young’s Special, my favourite London beer, not taste as good anymore? Since then the family has sold its stake in Charles Wells so no longer have any connection to brewing. Seeing that Young’s sign outside a pub used to bring a feeling of being connected to a rich beer heritage. Now it’s really no different to All Bar One.
Still, you can hardly blame the Young family, sitting on a real estate goldmine as they were. It proved more profitable for many old firms to go into property or concentrate on hospitality then continue with the difficult business of making beer. Whitbread, once one of the country’s greatest brewers, with its famous Chiswell Street site in the City of London, divested itself of its breweries in 2001. The company’s best known asset is now Costa Coffee.
At one point, the constant consolidations in the British beer industry were severely limiting consumer choice. Beers as famous as Bass were passed around companies, unloved, until, now in the hands of AB-InBev, producers of Budweriser, it has all but disappeared. Today, however, with the craft boom, there’s plenty of great beer to enjoy. I won’t turn down a pint of Gadd’s no 4 or Wimbledon American Pale Ale but these operations tend to be based in industrial estates on the outskirts of town. Nothing wrong with that but nobody is going to build a beautiful red brick Victorian-style brewery in a town centre anymore.
As Jonathan Neame put it: “there’s no rationale for having a brewery in the centre of town.” To be an independent regional brewer like Shepherd Neame, you need a fair dollop of romance alongside a hard-nosed business brain.
It’s hardly the most sexy of companies, with its slightly dowdy range of Kentish ales like Masterbrew and Spitfire though the strong dark beers like Double Stout or 1798 ale are superb.The brewery also brews contract beers like Sam Adamuel Boston lager and Oranjeboom.
But isn’t really about beer, it’s about the community. As Jonathan Neame put it: “There’s no rhyme and reason why Shepherd Neame exists. We’re not the biggest, we’re not even the best. There’s just lots of pride.” The firm is a big employer in the region directly or indirectly by using local produce like Kentish hops. Neame compares people’s relationship with the brewery as like that to a town’s football club.
With its pub chain out of action during the pandemic, Shepherd Neame had to find new outlets for its beer like Russia and Australia. A friend even spotted a bottle of its IPA in a supermarket in Guadalajara, Mexico. Still, the company was losing £150,000 a day and had to refinance. Jonathan Neame described the British government’s erratic approach to Covid as “top drawer bollocks.”
But it seems that the company has pulled through and Neame has big plans to rejuvenate its image; “we’ve been doing this for 400 years by continually reinventing ourselves,” he said. Here’s to another 400 years of filling the town with the heady smell of brewing. Which reminds me, I could really do with a pint. And maybe we’ll get some chips on the way home.
Sadly, Johnny Homer from Shepherd Neame who showed be around the brewery and was so much help with this article died in July 2021. I want to thank him for all his help and offer my condolences to his wife and daughter.
With Father’s Day coming up, I thought I’d post this thing I wrote a while back. Originally it was meant to run in Noble Rot magazine but was rejected for not being irreverent enough. For years afterwards I used to flick though the magazine seething at all the reverent articles about Burgundy etc. I’ve got over it, especially as the Spectator‘s Life supplement took it up and paid me in money rather than cool tokens. But sadly the Spec Life is now defunct and its website has been memory-holed taking with a load of stuff I wrote hence why I’m putting it up on my blog now.
It may be a cliché but many men really can only communicate through sport. It provides a ritualised way to argue, to become passionate and to bond without having to talk about awkward things such as feelings. This is never truer than of father and son relationships. My father and I never had this common ground. He was a brilliant sportsman as a schoolboy and as an adult a keen golfer and rugby player. I on the other hand combined a scrawny physique with physical cowardice and an extraordinary lack of coordination. My brothers weren’t much better but at least they were interested in watching sport and would accompany him to Lords and Twickenham.
I envied their ease around him. To give him credit he did try to find things that we were both interested in. There was motor racing: he couldn’t stand the noise so had to buy headphones at which point he fell asleep. And then there was the theatre. For years we went to highly-lauded productions such as Diana Rigg in Medea or Michael Gambon in Beckett’s End Game. On arrival my father would take his seat, mutter something about how he loved Euripides and then, just after the curtain came up, fall asleep. I would sit out of my mind with boredom wishing I was at home with a book. After a particularly bad run of plays, I finally admitted to him that I didn’t really enjoy the theatre. He was disappointed but I think relieved.
It looked as if we were destined to go through life treating each other with complete bafflement until in 1999 I got a job at Oddbins. I’d been spending an increasing amount of time in the Headingley branch following my graduation so it seemed a good idea to get a job there. It was a glorious time. I caught the end of Oddbins’s crazy years before they were swallowed up by Castel. We supplied most of the bars and restaurants in Leeds. A night out would be a bit like that bit in Goodfellas when the Ray Liotta and Lorraine Bracco characters go to the Copacabana Club. We went straight to the front of the queue and often drank on the house all night. I embarked on a crash course in wine appreciation at the hands of Yorkshire’s rowdiest wine merchants enlivened it has to be said with quite a bit of cocaine. I’m not sure Michael Broadbent would have approved. There’s nothing quite like drinking a 1976 von Buhl Forster Jesuitgarten Spatlese and watching the sun rise over Harrogate. My sudden interest in wine sparked a similar awakening in my father. He took a more sedate route for his wine education, however, by joining his local wine club in Amersham.
Wine was always something considered important in our family though no one seemed to know why. My father didn’t know that much about it, his father even less, he just liked the stuff and knew that it was something an Englishman should be interested in. My father’s family have a slightly second hand grasp of Englishness which I think comes from being Jewish. We began to attend tastings together. One of the first was a 1985 Bordeaux horizontal, the wine provided by one of the members of his club. I remember being transfixed by the Pichon-Longueville Baron but more than this I remember seeing my father for the first time as a human being rather than a distant bearded figure like an old-Testament prophet. I had left the wine trade by this point but read and tasted voraciously. I joined The Wine Society and we began to attend their tastings together on a regular basis. No matter which region we were tasting, my father would always mutter ‘mmm nice and smooth’ or ‘I don’t like a wine that’s too smooth.’ I never knew which it was.
Despite his refusal to analyse what we were drinking, he has unerringly good taste. If he rates a wine, it’s normally very good. But of course, we weren’t just there for the wine. Having this thing that we did together enabled us to talk like we never could do before. We did sometimes invite my brothers or my wife but the dynamic didn’t work so now we keep it exclusively for us. Apart from getting to know my father this joint interest in wine has a happy symbiosis in that I would read about and try lots of wine and my father, being a successful businessman, would buy it. He now has stocks of Bordeaux, Rhone, Burgundy and some German stuff in storage. I’ve tried to do my bit by buying him cases of wine for his birthday. We’re currently working our way through a case of Bandol Pradeaux 05 [I believe there are still a few bottles left] that I bought him for his 65th.
By 2009 I was in the odd position of having an all-consuming passion that I could only share on occasional nights out with my father. Most of my friends were of the three bottles for £10 school of wine buying. What I needed was an outlet for all this accumulated knowledge. First, I tried writing a book one the history of wine which never saw the light of day. More successfully, I began a blog which led to paid writing work. One day I was summoned for tea with Rachel Johnson and she asked me to become wine columnist of The Lady. I accepted of course and immediately called my father to tell him the good news. I’ve never heard him sound so proud; it may have even made up for a lifetime of sporting ineptitude.
Here’s a little update about what I’ve been up to recently:
Fortnum & Mason awards
I’ve been shortlisted for best drink writer at the Fortnum & Mason awards for something I wrote for this blog on my Uncle Peter and a thing in the Fence newsletter on wine merchants. The competition is fierce with Will Hawkes, for my money probably the best drinks writer working in Britain today (read this thing on beer, curries and Bradford he wrote recently), and Felipe Schrieberg, one of the brightest talents in whisky. Win or lose, it means a lot to me to me shortlisted. I write a lot, much of it quite straightforward things for Master of Malt, so it’s nice to be recognised when I try to do something a bit more creative. UPDATE: I WON, I BLOODY WON.
Vines in a Cold Climate
I’m writing a new book! It’s about English wine! Don’t all rush at once. Seriously though, this is proving to be a fascinating topic. The idea is that the book is about the people behind the transformation of English wine in the last 30 years, from the butt of jokes, to world class. I’m spending about three days a week travelling around the country meeting producers and trying wines. I’ve unearthed some great stories and been impressed by the quality of the wine. The sparklers have long been excellent but every year the still wines, including some reds, are getting better and better. The publisher, Atlantic books, i aiming to publish some time next year, so I better hurry up and write the bloody thing.
I am, however, aiming to blog a bit more, even if it’s just wines that I have tried on my travels.