Two wines kept too long

A very quick post today as a sort of addendum to my article on cellaring ordinary wines. I  bought a few bottles of Qupe syrah 11 from Majestic last year. This is their basic syrah from the Central Coast of California. It wasn’t cheap – £18 I think – and it wasn’t very good. I found it jammy with a not terribly nice whiff of oak about it. I think I gave a few bottles away or left them on tables at parties. Yesterday I found one in the cupboard that I call my cellar. It has been there for about a year.

My wife and I drank a bottle of it fairly quickly with homemade pizzas. After a year in the cellar it had lost the oaky smell and had lost the jam too. Instead it was spicy and fresh. It had a real purity about it. I’ve always thought that a dull wine won’t get any better if you keep it but in this case the extra year worked wonders. I wish I had more.

Soon it was all gone so I dug out something else to have for the nail-biting last minutes of the England France match. It was a cinsault from the Languedoc (Domaine Combe Blanche L’ Incompris 2011.) When I first tried it, it reminded be of a simple New World pinot noir. It was one of my favourite wines of 2013. Now two years later, it had gone all muddy and sweet with an unpleasant leathery smell. It tastes how I imagine Burgundy used to taste when it was cooked up in a warehouse in Ipswich from Beaujolais and Algerian plonk.

Horrid, though maybe if I’d kept it another year it would emerge as something beautiful. Probably not but then I never thought that Qupe syrah would get any better.

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My favourite pub: The Hare in Bethnal Green

Before moving to Lewisham (or Blackheath as I sometimes say when in polite company) a couple of years ago, I spent twelve years living in the East End of London. The thing I miss most about my old neighbourhood is not the secondhand clothes shops or the trendy restaurants but an old boozer on Cambridge Heath Road called The Hare.

It’s not the most immediately charming of places. The carpet is worn and some of the seats have repaired with gaffer tape. Some of the clientele look a little insalubrious. On a Saturday afternoon there will be football shirts and shaven-headed men shouting at the telly, things I normally hate.

London pubs tend staffed by itinerant Poles and Australians who are here to make money and, for all their friendliness, are not committed to the place at which they work. They seem to change every week. Not so at the Hare. The landlord’s, Julian, presence permeates this place. The beer is excellent because Julian is interested in real ale. He used to work at Young’s brewery when they were in Wandsworth. He is a jazz fan so they have jazz on a Sunday. The Cockney girls who work there know what you drink and will serve it with a saucy smile. Once when my brother ordered me a pint, the barmaid, Tanya, sharply corrected him: ‘he doesn’t drink that one, he drinks Landlord!’

Whereas most pubs in London especially in the fashionable East End attract tribes, the Hare is a real focus for the community. You get old people, young people, black people, white people, middle-aged mods, trendy girls with silly haircuts, the beautiful people and the local builders. I follow the Hare on Facebook and intermingled with rants about Arsenal’s decline, Julian reflects on how quickly East London is changing. Rather than bemoan gentrification, he seems delighted to have such a genuinely diverse clientele.

Best of all the Hare makes no pretence towards gastronomy, food means crisps or they sometimes let you eat a kebab from next door with your pint. There aren’t many places like this left but the Hare is thriving. Oh and did I mention that it’s cheap.

The Hare, 505 Cambridge Heath Road, Bethnal Green, London. E2 9BU

If anyone knows any pubs like it preferably in South East London, please let me know. 

This originally appeared on the Dabbler.

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How I stopped being a snob and learned to love Australian wine

Extremely proud to have made the front cover of the Australian‘s Life section (click on image for full article.)

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Oxford & Cambridge Blind Tasting Challenge

One of the great jokes of the wine trade is:

– ‘Have you ever confused Burgundy with Bordeaux?’

– ‘Not since this morning!’

Last week I realised it isn’t a joke. I’d been invited to take part in the Varsity Blind Wine Tasting Match. It’s sponsored by Pol Roger champagne and they thought it would be fun to have a team of journalists from the Spectator compete against the students from Oxford and Cambridge. Our crack squad was made up of in-house drinks supremo, Jonathan Ray, top sommelier and writer, Douglas Blyde, Nick Spong, the Spectator’s ad man who apparently likes a drink, and me.

As soon as I arrived at the Oxford and Cambridge Club in Pall Mall I realised I was out of my depth. The two university teams were standing in the lobby looking fit and focused. One of them even had bow tie like an old school wine merchant. They’d been training for this day all year. It was like the Boat Race for nose and brain only much more serious. I half expected an appearance from Trenton Oldfield as a protest against elitism.

The tasting consisted of six reds and six whites. Marks are awarded for correctly identifying the grape variety, country and region, and just like maths exams at school, you are also marked on your workings so even if you get everything wrong you can still score. Judging the contest were Jasper Morris MW and Hugh Johnson.

We sat down. The atmosphere was tense. I sniffed the first wine, immediately I knew it was a riesling from Australia. I had a little taste to confirm. This is going to be easy. Then the man to my left started having some sort of fit. I was just about to administer the Heimlich maneuver when I realised he was just sucking air through the wine. Extremely loudly. The man opposite then started choking, then others started up gurgling, gurning and coughing like Bob Fleming from the Fast Show. I read later that the Cambridge team are famous for being noisy tasters – there are even rumours that it’s gamesmanship. unnamed

Journalists at the far end looking old and confused. Credit: Freya Miller

I finished the whites reasonably confident that I’d done well. We had a quick break and it was on to the reds at which point I went completely to pieces and guessed most of them. The students, in contrast, wrote detailed notes and then only at the last minute filled in the region, variety etc. They were working methodically, we were going on hunches, or at least I was. They were concentrating so hard that at one point I was told to be quiet as my (very low-level) conversation about vintage car dealers in Wandsworth was putting some off. Then one of the students knocked over a glass of red (more gamesmanship perhaps?) and I was saved from further embarrassment.

There was a short prize-giving where it was announced that Oxford had won. The tasting champion was Oxford’s captain, Swii Yii Lim, who in the first round got five out of six absolutely spot on. Afterwards we had lunch and we got to swallow rather than spit some excellent wines provided by Pol Roger. Once the terrors of the challenge were over, both teams turned out to be rather jolly. It was interesting meeting these younsters. They are the Hugh Johnsons and Jasper Morrises of the future. I’ve spent most of my adulthood – about eighteen years – learning about wine but compared to them, I was a bumbling amateur.

So how did the journalists do? I learned that I’d confused a Cotes-du-Rhone with a Chianti though in my defence everyone scored badly on the reds. I’d done much better with the whites guessing grape variety correctly in half the wines though the riesling I’d been so confident about was actually German. It was announced that Johnny Ray came top from our lot. Probably to save face, we weren’t told our actual scores though I’d already prepared my excuse in the event of a woeful showing: I was put off by the noisy Cambridge team.

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Hugh Johnson’s shoe. Credit: Douglas Blyde

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In the 1960s making proper coffee singled you out as a dangerous maverick

The paperback of the Breakfast Bible comes out this month and I’ve written something for the Guardian about coffee. The two events aren’t related, it’s just a happy coincidence. The new edition of the book looks beautiful. It’s perhaps even lovelier than the hardback so even if you’ve already bought it, you might want to buy another copy for on the move breakfast inspiration.

The Coffee House: the Beating Heart of the City

One of the most famous scenes in British cinema is the beginning of The Ipcress File where the spy Harry Palmer (played by Michael Caine) grinds beans and then makes coffee in a cafetiere. This seems a humdrum activity to us, but in the 1960s making proper coffee singled you out as a dangerous maverick. No wonder that Ian Fleming, too, was very particular about the apparatus James Bond used to make coffee: (a Chemex), and the variety (Blue Mountain, from Jamaica). For my parents’ generation and even when I was growing up in the 1980s, “coffee” meant instant coffee. Britain was a tea-drinking nation. From the look of intense concentration on his face, Caine gives himself away as a tea drinker in the film. He looks like he’s diffusing a bomb rather than making a cup of coffee.

It’s a far cry from when England was the coffee capital of Europe. London’s first coffee house was opened in 1652 by a Greek man called Pasqua Rosée. Between 1680 and 1730, London consumed more coffee than anywhere else on earth, second only to Constantinople in its number of coffee houses. They were the commercial heart of London, functioning as offices and meeting places. The Tatler, the Spectator and Lloyds insurance all started life in coffee houses. Wine merchants Berry Bros & Rudd originally sold coffee; they still have the original weighing scales in their St James’s shop.

Because of the coffee house’s role in Britain’s intellectual life, I have this mental image of them as sober places where men in powdered wigs delighted in fine Java and discussed the latest Adam Smith. They weren’t.

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Why is ice still a luxury in Britain?

There are two things that American visitors to Britain complain about. The first is having separate hot and cold taps on hand basins rather than a mixer tap. So pressing is this problem that the Wall Street Journal ran an article about it and Boris Johnson felt obliged to issue a statement saying that British plumbing “is an incentive to get it over and done with and not waste water”.

The second is the lack of ice in the hospitality trade. When one orders tap water in a restaurant it is, more often than not, warm. Most pubs still use a bucket full of partially melted ice for making gin and tonics. Americans are baffled by this. They have had a regular supply of ice since the 19th century. They would harvest ice in the winter and store it in specially designed ice boxes to keep it frozen.

The Chinese, of course, were there first.

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Passive aggressive BYO policy

Whilst in the impressive wine section of M&S Lewisham on Sunday, I marvelled that such riches were available on Lewisham High Street when all around were pound shops and stalls were you can unlock your or indeed someone else’s mobile phone. I assume someone must be buying the Greek whites and Lebanese reds or they wouldn’t stock them. I returned home and read Nicholas Lander in the FT/ Jancisrobinson.com. One of the restaurants he mentioned was a place that has opened not far from Lewisham called Peckham Bazaar. I hope he doesn’t mind me quoting a bit of it:

“John Gionleka is the Albanian-born chef at Peckham Bazaar. His repertoire extends, however, across the cooking of his native country to Turkey, Greece and Iran and he is ably supported by his sommelier, Florian Siepert , who has carefully put together an unusual wine list from Greece, Croatia, Bulgaria, Slovenia, Hungary and Turkey.”

Sounds good doesn’t it? About my two favourite things are grilled Ottoman things and East European/ Levantine wines so immediately I went to their website to find out more.

On it was the following statement:

“Free BYO Saturday lunch only. Please no supermarket wine. Please.”

No supermarket wine. Seems on odd sort of instruction. I love the second ‘please’ as if even the idea that someone might argue with them is too painful to contemplate. You can see the owners closing their eyes and shaking their heads wearily as they utter these words. It’s not going to be an easy one to police. When someone comes in with a bottle of Wolf Blass Chardonnay are they going to be given a grilling (pun intended) about whether they bought it from a cornershop or the local Tesco’s Metro?

It’s hard to know why they have this instruction. Is it on aesthetic grounds? Would a bottle of commercial Malbec upset their carefully constructed flavours? I rather think though it’s on ethical grounds perhaps with a side order of snobbery thrown in. The owners think that supermarkets are a bad thing.

I don’t want to get into an argument about the ethics of supermarkets. On the whole I think they’re a good thing for the customer. Moreover, people like them. I’d say that nearly 100% of Peckham Bazaar’s potential clientele are supermarket shoppers. If they want to serve all the local community rather than just the dedicated foodies then they are going to have to put up with people who don’t share their views on supermarkets.

And this is the odd thing about it: they’re trying to impose their personal morality on their customers. It’s like a vegetarian restaurant not letting people in who wear leather shoes. Either have a BYO day or don’t, but don’t have one and then tell people where they can or can’t buy their wines.

The sad thing is that you can sort of see what they’re getting at. Support your local shopkeeper. If you are lucky enough to have good local shops, then for God’s sake use them as much as possible. If there is a good local wine shop why not ask them to offer a small discount to your customers on BYO day? It’s really not that complicated. You can spread a little bit of happiness through the community without having to resort to passive-aggressive diktats.

I’m still planning to go because the food sounds too good to miss. If i’m feeling brave I might even try to smuggle a bottle of M&S Xinomavro past the door police. As they open it, I’ll feel like I’m striking a blow for the ordinary folk of South East London.

 

 

 

 

 

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