Top Garnacha (comin’ atcha)

As part of the new World of Booze, here’s a wine that I really like. No silly stories. No anecdotes about boarding school. Just consumer advice. Like Jane McQuitty. And very short sentences. Like Ernest Hemingway. Here goes:

Vega Sindoa Old Vines Garnacha 2013

This is from Navarra in Spain but it reminded me of something from Santa Barbara in Southern California. It’s got the brightest red strawberry fruit combined with some quite firm tannins and a not inconsiderable amount of alcohol. It’s so fresh and fragrant that you barely notice all that booze. There’s no jam and no soup. My Californian wife who rarely has more than a glass had three.

The wine it reminded me of was  Qupe Grenache that costs about £30 a bottle. The Vega Sindoa is £7.99 or £9.99 if you only buy one. And for the first time ever, you can buy one because Majestic have dropped their six bottle rule.

I should have taken a photo of the bottle like a proper wine blogger but I chucked it out whilst high on wine. Oh well. Small steps. Here’s a picture of Ernest Hemingway instead. At his. Typewriter.

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I invented a cocktail – now it just needs a name

Until recently I thought that cocktails were created in the dim and distant past by bartenders called Harry or were the preserve of Heston Blummenthal-types with degrees in Mixology from Dalston Polytechnic. Now I realise that making cocktails is just like cooking. You can go off-piste. You’re probably never going to invent anything as remarkable as a negroni but you might come up with something delicious that you’ve never tried before. The trick is balance between sweet and sour and beware flavours that might clash. I’ve found Richard Godwin’s book, The Spirits, an incredibly helpful guide. He not only gives you fish but gives you a fishing rod so you can catch your own fish. Delicious boozy fish.

Here’s one I ‘invented’ as part of a Christmas lunch that the Guardian are putting on next month.

It is a cross between that old winter stalwart, the whisky mac (a mixture of whisky and ginger wine), and something a bit more tropical, the dark and stormy, (rum, ginger ale and lime). I’ve used Irish whiskey (note extra e) because it’s normally a little sweeter than Scotch. Bourbon might work too. I tried it initially with my own patent-blended whisky (Black Grouse topped up with some malt miniatures and a bit of Cutty Sark) but the smokiness didn’t work. The bitters at the end make it taste a bit exotic. It’s a delightfully warming drink for the winter and would I think double as a particularly delicious cold cure. You can make it weaker if you like or remove the fizzy water entirely to make it really sweet.


(makes one drink)

35ml (one shot) King’s Ginger liqueur

35ml Tullamore Dew Irish Whiskey

35ml Jamaica Ginger Beer – if you’re using Fentimen’s omit the water and use double the amount. 

35ml fizzy water

17.5ml (half a shot) fresh lemon juice

Dash of angostura bitters

Lemon slice to garnish

Fill a tumbler with lots of ice, add the ginger liqueur, whiskey, ginger beer, lemon juice and water, stir thoroughly. Add a dash of Angostura bitters and garnish with a slice of lemon.

All it needs now is a name. I was going to call it the Prince Harry because of the high ginger quotient but it seems that name is already taken.

Any ideas please let me know.

@Hurtlepuss suggested the Joan Holloway after the redhead from Mad Men. Perfect.

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In September I finally left my employers Oneworld Publications. One month later they won the Booker Prize with Marlon James’ A Brief History of Seven Killings. D’oh! Still at least I had my columns to keep me amused. Sadly the very last Empire of Drink column ran last Friday. I knew it was only temporary. The Cook supplement like to change columnists regularly. I could take comfort in being wine writer for the Lady magazine. It didn’t earn much money but I did get to pretend to be a character from PG Wodehouse. Sadly yesterday the editor informed me that they no longer needed a weekly column from me. I’ll still be their wine writer, but will only be doing one off features, Christmas specials, that sort of thing.

So now I have no job and no columns. Crisis! Or is it an opportunity? No it’s definitely a crisis. Still it gives me time to finish the edits for my book, work on a proposal for a new book and lead a life of genteel penury in Lewisham. I will also be blogging a bit more. Posts will be more about wine recommendations than the usual naval gazing. I might even start taking pictures of bottles or even of food in restaurants. The next step is Instagram, vines and whatnot. The aim is to be an internet celebrity by this time next year.

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Is there a link between beer and beards?

They’ve got some distinctive facial hair at the Meantime Brewery in Greenwich. There’s brewer Rod Jones who sports a slightly Teutonic twirly tache and beard combo (I learnt later that he is half German which explains things). Then there’s tour guide Alexis Morgan and his sergeant major moustache with linked sideboards which wouldn’t have looked out of place on the set of Zulu. I was on an intensive one day course to learn about brewing. Beyond drinking a lot of beer and reading about its history, I know very  little about the technical side. Whenever I’ve written about beer in this column, I’ve had comments, emails and letters in green ink pointing out mistakes that I’ve made. Some are rude and some are patient but most have been educational. When I first started writing about wine, I am sure I made dozens of elementary mistakes but I never had quite the same response.

It got me thinking about whether there was a difference between beer and wine enthusiasts. I have a theory about this: whereas in wine knowledge is handed down from above, there are Masters of Wine with gold spittoons round their necks and wine writers style themselves wine educators, beer aficionados in contrast tend to be autodidacts. Or it might be that beer drinkers’ argumentative style has been honed over hours in the pub. I’m looking forward to some robust responses to my theories.

In some ways beer is more complicated that wine. All that stuff you have to do to the barley to convert starch into sugar. It’s a wonder anyone ever made beer for the first time. In contrast wine practically makes itself (though not very well NB natural wine fundamentalists). The big porter breweries of 18th century London were at the cutting edge of technology. One of the first steam engines in Britain was installed in Whitbread’s Chiswell Street brewery near the Barbican in 1787 by James Watt. This brewery was one of the wonders of the industrial age with an unsupported roof bigger than that of Westminster Hall. Instruments such as the hydrometer to measure the potential alcohol in a liquid took the guesswork out of fermentation. Breweries even had early forms of refrigeration meaning that they could make beer in the summer months. To put this into perspective, refrigeration in winemaking didn’t become standard practise until long after the Second World War.  

In its history, production methods and variety, there’s a lot of scope for making mistakes, at least that’s my excuse. After a day at the brewery, I felt that I could just be able to hold my own amongst a group of beer enthusiasts. I might, however, grow a beard just for extra credibility.

This article originally appeared in the Guardian

Image courtesy of Meantime Brewing. Click for more information about The Knowledge. 

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Wine of the Week: Definition rioja from Majestic

Do you remember the lure of warehouse outlets? Getting lost somewhere near Hemel Hempstead looking for a place that did Pringle seconds was an intrinsic part of growing up in the 80s and 90s. Majestic successfully applied this concept to wine. Those scruffy shops, wooden pallets and piles of boxes promised, though didn’t always deliver, bargains. Nowadays though we don’t need to go to Hemel because we have the internet. Majestic’s business model is looking a little outdated, squeezed on value by internet retailers and supermarkets who are getting better at selling small parcels of wine and on service by the revitalised independent sector.

Majestic have taken on Rowan Gormley founder of Naked Wines in an attempt to revitalise the company. They’re trialling selling single bottles, previously you had to buy six, and in some stores they’re ditching the warehouse look completely. The refitted Mayfair shop looks like a modern independent such as Bottle Apostle with its Enomatic machines and bottles displayed horizontally as if they’re rare books. Apparently this is meant to be less intimidating to customers though I’d say making your shops fancier would make them more intimidating. They’re still keeping the special offers which means that most wines are overpriced unless they’re on offer.

What I used to love about Majestic were peculiar one off parcels they used to have such as Swedish claret and mature Germans rieslings  At one point, about fifteen years ago, they had a large selection of good German rieslings for around £5 a bottle. These began to dwindle and recent mature Germans have been a bit disappointing. They do sometimes have some old riojas in. It’s worth getting on their mailing list to hear about new offers. One not so old rioja caught my eye recently. It’s from their new own label range called Definition. This is the first time Majestic have done own labels. They’re wines from classic regions and on the whole they’re pretty good if not exactly cheap. One really stood out:

Definition Rioja Reserva 2009 (£12.99 – £10 when on offer which is a total bargain)

This is quite superb rioja for the price. The contrast between the tobacco and leather and the bright red fruit reminded me of far more expensive producers such as La Rioja Alta. 

It’s worth getting lost in Hemel for.

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Wine and golf

Apart from a couple of games of pitch and putt in my early teens, I have never swung a golf club in anger. Until a couple of weeks ago that is. I had been invited for an afternoon of wine and golf at Vinothec Compass in North Greenwich. This is a wine bar with a driving range attached. There’s a shop for golfists – 3,000 square foot of pure golf according to the pro, Colin.

There was much talk about shafts and custom fitting and then I was allowed out on the driving range. He gave me a few pointers, don’t lift the club so high, stick your bum out, show a bit more angle, and then I hit some balls. Some of them I hit really far. When you hit a golf ball really cleanly, there’s a feeling that can only be described as pure golf. It’s a moment of harmony. I can see why golf is so popular, that and the silly trousers.

Vinothec Compass is in a rather unlovely former industrial part of North Greenwich. Thwacking the balls towards Canary Wharf, I could have been in Shanghai or Tokyo. Still at night I bet it looks lovely.

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Pure golf

Anyway, I wasn’t there for the golf I was there for the wine. It’s run by Arnaud Compas (sic) a Frenchman and former employee of Robert Parker gone native in South London and Keith Lyon formerly of Waitrose. There’s some high status stuff at high status prices but there’s also interesting mature claret, riojas and wine from the Jura. The prices are generally very low for London restaurants. We tried an old but still virile Dutruch-Grand Poujeaux for £54 a bottle and an unusual Jura Vin De France that came across like a French Palo Cortado for around £30. The Vina Cubillo from Lopez de Herredia 2004 at around £50 also looked good value.

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They have a Catalan chef called Jordi. Everyone in Catalonia is called Jordi. The food was extremely good, the suckling pig was some of the best I’ve ever tasted. I should add that I was there as a guest of Douglas Blyde, a friend who is doing some consultancy work for them, but I’d say that the food is worth the journey alone. It’s not just to mop up all the wine. With the wine and my new love of golf, I can see myself becoming a regular. Bordeaux lovers should book the next boat to North Greenwich.

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Arnaud Compas in the foreground with Douglas Blyde and Keith Lyon lurking.

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The nice Jura 

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You Lidl beauty: Côtes du Rhône Villages Chusclan

Like many I was swept up in the excitement of the discount retailers :  no brands! huge packs of bratwurst! cardboard boxes everywhere! I kept on trying to get my wife to go to Lidl instead of Tesco’s or the pricey Ocado order. She was sceptical but I think I was wearing her down until she made a pasta sauce with a jar of Lidl red peppers. We tried to work out why the sauce had turned out so revolting and then we realised that the peppers were loaded with added sugar. It was then that she pointed out that many things I insisted on buying from Lidl weren’t actually that great. In fact apart from the bratwurst, almost everything was better from Tesco though admittedly more expensive.

I do wonder how much of the success of these retailers is based on novelty as well as price and when people realise that they still have to get some things from the old guard of supermarkets, then they’ll stop going. To lure in discount agnostics like us, Lidl have come up with the Wine Cellar. This is a one off parcel of French wine sold at knockdown prices. Each store is given an allocation and when it’s gone, that’s it. It’s really worth visiting if there’s a Lidl near you. The standard is generally very high.

My pick of the selection is:

Côtes du Rhône Villages Chusclan Serabel 2014 – £5.99 

One of the nicest cheap CDRs I’ve had in a long time. Good and savoury with some proper herbal and leathery flavours. This would be £8.99 at Majestic or Oddbins.

Also nice:

Santenay Les Jablieres 2014 (£8.99) – fresh fruity red Burgundy.

Crozes-Hermitage Les Petits Vallons 2014 (£8.99) – smoky, serious syrah

The offer started on 3 September. I bought a case at the weekend but then didn’t linger to buy any food which rather defeats the purpose of the offer. Oh well.



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