A visit to Zorah wines in Armenia

I wrote this for the Spectator a few years ago but it doesn’t seem to be available online anymore. Perhaps something to do with Turkish computer hackers waging cyberwar on Armenia. Or perhaps a cock-up at the Spectator. One of the things that struck me when I visited back in 2016 was that the feeling among the people I spoke to that at any moment the country’s enemies would attack. They sounded paranoid to someone with my pampered English upbringing but as last year’s war with Azerbaijan backed by Turkey showed, the danger is very real. Anyway, hope you enjoy the article, and do try some of Armenia’s excellent wines.

Every 100 metres or so on the main road to Iran that runs through the Vayots Dzor province of Armenia there is a stall selling tomatoes, watermelons and Coca-Cola. I was with an Italian-Armenian businessman Zorik Gharibian and his wife Yeraz, and they suggested we stop at one. On closer inspection those bottles didn’t contain Coke, it was red wine cunningly packaged to smuggle into the Islamic Republic of Iran. We went into the nearby house and there was the winemaker, Haykaz Karapetyan, cigarette in mouth making that year’s wine in plastic bins. “No chemicals” he said. This was proper natural wine.  It smelt good, like a young Beaujolais with the same floral quality.  We then went into his cellar to try some older vintages. The 2015 had a distinct tang of vinegar. The 2012 tasted of old socks.

Diaspora Armenians

The Gharibians make wine too and from the same grape, Areni Noir, but it is rather different. Their nearby winery is called Zorah and their red, Karasi, costs about £25 in London shops. They are both diaspora Armenians, Zorik brought up in Italy, and Yeraz in London and New York. They wanted to buy a vineyard in Tuscany but following a visit to the mother country in 1998 decided to make wine in Armenia. “It was like I’d come home” as Zorik described it. Around 2000 they came across the region around the town of Areni (after which the variety is named) which turned out to be a viticultural paradise. It’s phylloxera free (though other parts of Armenia are not); there’s plenty of sunshine but the grapes preserve their acidity, “freshness comes naturally because of altitude” Zorik told me.  

Armenia is littered with the most amazing churches (photo from Liberty wines)

The landscape with its precipitous cliffs, caves and ancient monasteries would be the perfect setting for a new Indiana Jones film. The arid mountains are peppered with bright spots of cultivation including Zorah’s main vineyard thanks to a recently constructed irrigation pipe built with money from the World Bank. After they bought the land, experts in Armenia and back in Italy advised them to plant Cabernet Sauvignon.“When we said we wanted to do something with local varieties people were laughing at us.” Italian oenologist Alberto Antonini, though, saw the potential in Areni Noir. After years of experimentation with different Areni clones, they planted the vineyard in 2006. 

The first vintage was 2010. Straight away they knew that they had made  something exceptional but it hasn’t been easy. In the early years they made wine in a garage. It took an age to built their new winery because in Zorik’s words “the locals still have a Soviet mentality.” Apparently in their province there is only one cement mixer. In order to make wines to their exacting standards, they import almost everything, the presses, the fermentation tanks, the barrels, even the bottles, labels and the boxes, from Italy. The Gharibians had no idea how much they have spent on the project, “in winemaking you don’t do the maths” as Zorik put it. 

6,000 years of wine making

As well as local varieties, they wanted to use traditional Armenian winemaking techniques including ageing in amphora, Karasi in Armenian. Initially they aged some of the wine in barriques which imparts flavours from the wood but now they just use amphora and Italian botti (giant wooden barrels that don’t add any flavour). You can taste the results, the recent vintages have a whole new vivacity.  Zorah make a special cuvee, called Yeraz (after his wife, the word means dream in Armenian), from an unirrigated abandoned vineyard 1600 metres above sea level and around a hundred years old. It’s a good 45 minute drive up the mountain in a 4×4. Actually vineyard isn’t quite the right world as the Areni vines are basically growing wild amongst boulders and walnut trees. “So exciting when we discovered the vineyard. Zorik and Alberto were like kids in a sweet shop” Yeraz said. The yet to be released 2014 is undoubtedly one of the finest wines I have tried this year.

Zorik Gharibian in the winery with his amphorae

From the Zorah winery you can see a gaping cave in the cliffside. Here archaeologist Boris Gasparyan has found evidence of winemaking from about 4,000 BC. He showed me around the partially excavated site, it is not open to the public, and pointed out the jars that looked uncannily like Zorik’s amphora. He then pointed to other jars which contained traces of bones and blood probably from human sacrifice. Or a party that got out of hand.  Evidence of Armenia’s ancient wine culture is everywhere. There are grape motifs on monasteries, churches and even  on Soviet era buildings. I saw wild vines, vitis sylvestris, growing by a river and dotted around the country, by the side of the road, in restaurants and family houses, are amphora like the ones at Zorah winery.  

Regaining Armenia’s vinous roots

Nobody uses them for making wine anymore. Nobody even knows how to make them so the Gharibians dig them out of people’s basements. Armenia has lost touch with its vinous roots. Following the World War One and the massacres by the Turks, Armenians scattered around the world or were reduced to this mountainous country which was then invaded by the Bolsheviks. Armenia “caught between the hammer and the anvil” as the saying goes. It gives you some idea of how the Armenians suffered under the Ottomans that they aren’t particular bitter about Russian rule. But it was disastrous for wine. “Soviets broke link completely” Zorik told me. Central planning designated Georgia for wine and Armenia for brandy. Zorah have an amphora made in 1957 but shortly afterwards people stopped making them and then their own wine. 

There was more misery to come (something of a theme in Armenian history) the 1988 earthquake, and, following the collapse of the Soviet Union, war with Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh. It still feels like a precarious country. People half expect Turks, Mongols or Persians to come charging through at any moment. Nevertheless, Yerevan does have much of the trapping of a modern city with free wi fi, craft beer and wine bars. At one, Wine Republic, I tried a selection of good simple wines from small producers including Van Ardi and Sarduri. Quality wine of this sort has only been made in Armenia since the late 00s. “You couldn’t drink this stuff five years ago” Zorik said pointing to a bottle. Wine bars, though, are only for the well off.  Bottled wine is too expensive for most people.

The Gharibians aren’t the only diaspora Armenians involved with the wine business. Vahe Keushguerian, originally from Lebanon with spells making wine in Italy, runs a wine consulting company based in Yerevan called Semina Consulting. They have recently set up a nursery to supply Armenian winemakers with native varieties. But his biggest project, Karas, is based largely on international grapes and despite the name does not use amphora. It was set up by Eduardo Eurnekian, an Argentine-Armenian who made his fortune in airports including Yerevan’s. Superstar French oenologist Michel Rolland is also involved. The 2013 Reserve, made from Petit Verdot, Montepulciano and Tannat, I tried was not one of his finer efforts being rather overripe and over-oaked.  

My heart’s in the Highlands

Zorik is fiercely opposed to non-native varieties. On my last night in Armenia I had dinner with the Gharibians, Boris the archaeologist and Marina Dallakyan and Iskuhi Manukyan from Yerevan University who are cataloguing indigenous grapes. They were appalled that someone is planning on planting Chardonnay to make wine for the Russian market.  Their hope is that the international success of Zorah will inspire others to capitalise on Armenia’s viticultural riches. It’s a rich country in other ways with ancient monasteries that anywhere else would be thronged with visitors, great food, and fiercely proud friendly people. 


After dinner Boris stood up and glass in hand, made a toast, that ended, much to my surprise, with a Robbie Burns recitation: “my heart’s in the Highlands wherever I go.” It reminded me of a line from a short story by William Saroyan about how Armenians carry their country within them and “when two of them meet anywhere in the world, see if they will not create a New Armenia.” Zorik and Yeraz have done just this with Zorah. It could be the start of viticultural revival or, as Zorik said cheerfully, “it could all disappear tomorrow.” It is Armenia after all.

Waitrose have the latest vintage of Zorah Karasi in stock.

Posted in Wine articles | Tagged , | Leave a comment

You say Pinot Noir, I say Spätburgunder

This is something I wrote for a now defunct website a couple of years ago. Thought it held up quite well so I’m republishing it.

Germany makes wine from the most revered red grape in the world but you won’t see the words Pinot and Noir on the label. Whilst every other country uses variations on the French, trust the Germans to have their own word: Spätburgunder, meaning late (ripening) Burgundian (they also have Weissburgunder and Grauburgunder which are Pinots Blanc and Gris respectively.)

This idiosyncratic labelling is perhaps why few people realise that Germany is the world’s third biggest grower of Pinot Noir; one region, Baden in the south west of the country, grows more Pinot than New Zealand.  But these wines are also obscure because the Germans like drinking them so much that they are rarely exported.

Pinot Noir, sorry Spätburgunder, has been planted for so long in Germany that it is thought of as a local variety. It originated in Burgundy but probably came to Germany some time in the Middle Ages with Cistercian monks.  From Baden in the south to Ayr in the north, Pinot Noir is grown all over the country. Even in the the Mosel valley, Germany’s coldest region, very much Riesling central, they grow Pinot Noir. 

Anne Krebiehl , a German Master of Wine, told me that Pinot Noir was once widely planted in the Mosel but was outlawed in 1937 though nobody is quite sure why:  “most people jump to the very easy explanation “The Nazis outlawed it.” But it is incredibly difficult to find the substantiating paperwork” Kriebel said. Riesling was very valuable at the time so perhaps it was just a way of maximising returns from the land but it wasn’t banned anywhere else in Germany. Pinot Noir was only officially readmitted in 1987. 

The vine growers in the Mosel (above) are now making up for lost time. Martin Lehnert at Lehnert-Veit has planted some of his best vineyards with Pinot Noir instead of Riesling. In the Mosel’s cool climate only the steepest southern facing slopes that get the most sunlight will do for this often tricky grape. You might think therefore that the wines would be skinny, like an English red wine, but they are vibrant and ripe with an almost New Zealand intensity of fruit – perhaps not such a surprise as Martin Lehnert has worked in New Zealand.

In warmer regions such as Baden, Pfalz and Ayr, the wines are richer, sometimes positively overflowing with ripe fruit. Reds from Germany used to be a bit of a joke but now a German Pinot Noir is generally a much safer better than anything of equivalent price from Burgundy. “So far climate change has been good for us” Martin Lehner told me. But improvements in German reds are not just down to global warming. Producers are (re) discovering the best sites for red grapes, learning how much oak to use and planting better quality clones (there are different types of Pinot Noir.) Martin Molitor uses cuttings taken from from Chambolle-Musigny in Burgundy and I heard a rumour that one producer even pinched some cuttings from Domaine de la Romanee Conti, the world’s most expensive estate. 

Not everyone is so keen though. One of Germany’s biggest producers, Ernie Loosen, told me “Pinot Noir in the Mosel is like Shiraz in Burgundy”. He grows just a tiny bit which he makes into a sparkling rosé. Shiraz might be a bit outlandish but producers are seriously thinking about how the climate might change. Jan Matthias Klein at Staffelter Hof is hedging his bets with Portuguese varieties, Maria Gomes and Ariento.  “Maybe we’ll have to plant Cabernet in future” Peter Lehnert joked with me.

That’s a long way off though, I tried a Merlot, a variety that ripens before Cabernet, from the Mosel which tasted more like you’d expect a German red to taste i.e. a bit green. But I had another that wasn’t made from Pinot Noir that really impressed me. Made by Louis Klein, it was a Pinot Meunier, the least feted of the Pinot family. Naturally the Germans don’t call it anything as simple as Pinot Meunier, no way Josef, it’s Schwarzriesling – black Riesling. Those crazy Germans!

Posted in Wine articles | 1 Comment

Bomber – Len Deighton

With the news that Penguin is reissuing the Len Deighton back catalogue with snazzy new covers from April this year, I thought it was as good a time as any to post this article I wrote for Slightly Foxed on one of my favourite Deighton novels, Bomber.

Whilst reading Len Deighton’s Bomber, I was reminded of Solzhenitsyn’s line to do evil a human being must first of all believe that what he’s doing is good.” Bomber is a novel about the area bombing of Germany. Targeting German cities and civilians is a part of Britain’s war that is still extremely controversial. It doesn’t fit into the heroic narrative of the Battle of Britain, D Day or the Blitz. Almost alone amongst British forces in World War Two, bomber crews were not issued with a campaign medal when the war ended. The debate as to whether area bombing was a necessary evil or simply just evil inspires historians and writers to this day.

Deighton is perhaps uniquely placed to answer this question. After completing Bomber, he probably knew more about the entirety of the bombing campaign from both Allied and Axis perspectives than any man. It is based on years of research. The acknowledgements give you some idea of how much work Deighton put into the book. He flew as a passenger in a Heinkel so he could understand the experience of German fighter crew. He spoke not just with veterans and historians but also, in order to get the details right, to “Don Elms and Mike Wooller (who) helped me to find Anglo-American and German popular songs.” 

Bomber takes place over over 24 hours in June 1943 in three main locations: a British bomber airfield in East Anglia, a German radar station in Holland and a small German town called Altgarten near the Dutch border. The cast is vast but there are a few principles around whom the narrative is anchored. On the British side there’s Samuel Lambert who pilots a Lancaster bomber known as “the Creaking Door”. Despite captaining the plane, he isn’t an officer. In fact Lambert is disliked by some of the senior officers because he’s not what would be described now as a “team player.” Literally in this case, it is his refusal to play for his squadron cricket team despite his skill as a bowler that so annoys the Group Captain, a man fond of sporting metaphors. He says at one point: “cricket’s a little like flying in combat. . . . long leisurely times in the pavilion followed by brief moment when a chap faces some fast bowling.” There’s something of the Angry Young Man about Lambert in his disdain for this public school insouciance. 

As with other Deighton novels such as The Ipcress File (memorably made into a film with Michael Caine), class permeate the interactions of the British. The RAF is presented as snobbish and hidebound by rules: “the English believe that only gentlemen can be leaders” a character says at one point. But the class system isn’t Lambert’s only problem, early in the novel, he speaks out against bombing civilian targets and is quickly slapped down. Far more to the taste of the senior officers is Captain Sweet, an unpleasant scheming figure who lacks both Lambert’s experience and leadership qualities but was “regarded as office material from the day he joined up. He had a clear, high voice, energy, enthusiasm and an unquestioning readiness to flatter and defer to the voice of authority.” 

The German scenes revolve around Auguste Bach, a widower and commander of the radar station in Holland, whose young family are over the border in Altgarten. He is falling in love with the children’s nanny, Anna-Luisa, who is barely out of her teens. Initially she is portrayed as a dreamer and a naif but she’s not quite all she seems. The other principal Germans include the mayor of Altgarten, the Burgomaster, who is more preoccupied with organising his birthday party than the war and Lowenherz, a ace fighter pilot whose job it is to intercept RAF bombers. He’s from an old military family and torn between doing his patriotic duty and speaking out against the full horrors of the Nazi regime. 

The German sections are often the richest because we see more of the family life of the characters. There are no caricatures of heel-clicking Germans. Even the characters who commit the worst deeds are humanised and even made appealing such as the amoral Viennese doctor Hans Furth. Deighton  has done this before in his novel Winter: a Berlin Family 1899-1945 where the only Nazi in the Winter family is also the most charismatic character. 

The main plot is simple. A huge force of British aeroplanes, some 400, fly over to Germany to destroy the industrial city of Krefeld. It is the job of the Germans such as Lowenherz and Bache to stop them. Such bare bones don’t do justice to the swirl of subplots beneath the surface. Characters scheme, plot, fall in love, have personal triumphs and failures, and all the time we never forget that every single one of them is a human being. Bomber’s enormous cast includes airmen, soldiers, firemen, nurses, doctors, wives and civilians of all descriptions.  Deighton’s skill is in sketching them so deftly that the reader is never confused. For example Reinecke, Bach’s senior NCO, is both a “senior NCO of the old school” and a keen bird watcher. The first half of the novel is involved in establishing the characters.

It’s not only the characters who have back stories. The sleepy German market town of Altgarten is given such a rich history that you will be surprised to learn that it is not a real place. Deighton is particularly good at writing about inanimate objects. Each Lancaster bomber, such as the aptly-named “Creaking Door”, has its own personality. Julian Symons, a crime writer and contemporary, once remarked that Deighton was the only person he knew who actually liked machines. In Bomber the men are merely tiny cogs in a fighting machine. “It’s as though the plane goes to bomb Germany of its own predatory volition, as though it takes us along just for the ride” as a character notes.

Men and machines come together in a cinematic climax. The cuts between Germany, Holland and Britain that had taken place over chapters now take place over paragraphs or even lines. Deighton describes aerial combat as “three groups of men using every device that science could invent began to grope around the blackness like gunmen in a sewer.” If intercepting aircraft is a haphazard affair then precision aerial bombing is a chimera. Quickly the British plan unravels. A German fighter shoots down a light British aircraft, a Mosquito. The crew jettison their marker bombs over Altgarten rather than on the industrial city of Krefeld: “by now attention has centred on Altgarten and the plan had began to go terribly wrong.” The British were convinced they’d got the right target because Altgarten’s greenhouses looked to radar like “enormous factories”. 

The dry weather and wind whip the partly wooden town into a fireball. The portrait of a town being destroyed building by building is a tour de force. Area bombing as practised by the Allies is presented in horrific detail: “even after the last of the bombers had departed the effectiveness of the fire-fighting and salvage teams would be hampered by the delayed-action bombs. They would continue to explode for two more days.” Even those that survive are terribly damaged: “for some survivors it was the beginning of a mental breakdown from which they would never recover.” 

Rather as in Game of Thrones, characters with which we have become invested in are discarded with shocking suddenness and often appalling violence. The death of Kokke, a German pilot, killed by a bird through the windscreen, is described like this: “it was impossible to distinguish where the bird’s remains ended and Kokke’s face began.” A major character survives the raid and then dies in a motorcycle accident after he has landed.  Deighton follows his characters’ thoughts right to the bitter end; there is an epilogue where the surviving characters lives are sketched in a way that is both bathetic, humorous and peculiarly moving: “Peterson lives in Montreal and is vice-president of a small company that makes camping equipment.”

It is at times a very funny novel: “you don’t believe in this war” Cohen says. “Believe in it? . . . you make it sound like a rumour.” Lambert replies. It’s endlessly quotable: Hans Furth is described as “nibbling the German language like sachertorte. . “ For Gerda Pippert crashing the Burgomaster dinner is “the most exciting prospect she could remember since her holiday in Heidelberg in 1938”.  Voss, a German tailor, thinks: “some people said things against them, but the Nazis had done wonders for the uniform business, whatever other faults they might have.” 

We are used to World War One art being bleak but the popular view of the British role in World War Two is largely a creation of stirring films such as The Dam Busters or sentimental songs. In Bomber there are no patriotic cliches, nobody is ennobled by war. Sweet is still an unpleasant fool (spoiler alert here) as he crashes into the ground at 300mph. When an unnamed airman dies we are told that “they never mentioned his name again”. Ruth Taylor, Lambert’s wife sums up the antiheroic ethos of the novel: “Disgrace is only for men. Save talk of that for your schools and your clubs and your old comrades’ dinners. Save talk of disgrace until you lose your cricket match or for your next hesitant hero.”

Apart from the epilogue, the novel ends with the return of the surviving British bombers to East Anglia. The crew congratulate themselves on a job well done but a lowly WAAF corporal looks at the photos taken from the aircraft and realises that they have missed their target. It’s then that you realise that the men are going to have to go back on the next clear night and finish the job. This ending reminded me of Solzhenitsyn again, this time One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. All that struggle and to survive one day in the Gulag; Bomber shows only one day in one small corner of the war. Tomorrow there will be more bombing raids over Germany, occupied Europe and Japan. The horrors of a botched raid on a town such as Altgarten won’t even get a mention in histories of World War Two. Deighton leaves the reader to make up their own mind about the morality of area bombing. He is simply saying, this is how it was, and it’s impossible to argue with. 

 

Posted in Books | Tagged , | 3 Comments

Booze interview: Anne Burchett

Today I’m delighted to have wine professional and writer Anne Burchett on the blog. She’s the author of a tale of skulduggery in the wine business, Tasting Notes.

There seems to be something in the air when it comes to wine and literature. I spoke with Peter Stafford-Bow last year about his series of wine farces, in 2019 top wine writer Jamie Goode released a novel, Richard Hemming MW has a novel in the pipeline, and rumour has it that Tim Atkin is working on a play loosely based the life of Andrew Adonis. Now into this semi-crowded arena marches Anne Burchett with Tasting Notes. She sent me over a massive biog but suffice to say that she’s done pretty much everything in the wine trade with stints in particular at Castel and Sopexa.

Her novel, which has just been published, features a heroine not unlike Burchett herself, born in France but has spent so long in Britain that she’s gone native. Chris, a lady, works for a French wine giant called Villa which has recently acquired a once vibrant but now ailing chain of British called The Wine Shop. Chris Losh, Mr Fake Booze himself, described it like this: “Sex and drugs and rocks and Rolle. It’s like Jilly meets Jancis with one-liners and a half-case of Chablis.” It’s that rare thing, a novel about office life with its tyrants, indignities, heroes and traitors. So even if you know nothing about wine or the wine trade, then you’ll find much to enjoy. There’s one character in particular, Arnaud, who reminded me of a publisher I once worked with who didn’t understand the difference between fiction and non-fiction. Having said that, if you used to work for an ailing chain of British wine merchants (hint, hint), much of the book, especially the carnage at the wine fair in Edinburgh, will be especially funny. She’s also particularly good at the mutual incomprehension between the British and the French, with Chris in the middle, neither one thing nor the other.

Here’s Anne to tell us more about the book and her career:

Anne Burchett author of Tasting Notes

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Was there a one bottle that first got you into wine?

Sadly no. Like most French children of my generation, I was exposed to wine early on but none of it was memorable: I drank champagne at family occasions from birth, and Sauternes, which I liked because it was sweet. My grandfather made his own wine, in Corrèze, which was almost undrinkable. I used to spend some of my holidays with him and my grandmother and they would add red table wine to my drinking water and to my soup to ‘faire chabrol’, a custom from the South of France whereas you drink the broth mixed with red wine straight from the bowl after you’ve eaten the chunks of vegetable with a spoon.

Why did you go into the wine trade?

My first job was with Procter & Gamble, selling nappies. I wasn’t overly fond of my clients but I liked the job. After about a year, I went on a Club Med holiday on my own and the heartthrob of the week – there’s always one on package holidays – told me in front of a large audience that, as I talked about my job all the time, I should consider something less boring than nappies [ouch! Ed.]. It stung and I resigned on my first day back. Wine seemed a suitable alternative to nappies. Also I liked the idea of my job making a difference, of doing my bit to preserve vineyards, landscapes and a way of life. I’m still friend with the heartthrob and never miss an opportunity to remind him he changed my life for the better.

Have you always wanted to write?

Yes. I’ve always been a voracious reader, although less so nowadays, and writing my own book, even though it felt like an impossible dream for many years, was always at the back of my mind.

Which novelists or other writers inspire you?

Far too many to give them all credit but I love three things in a novel: a good story, learning something new and those deceptively simple observations about places, characters and situations that stay in your mind for a long time after you’ve finished the book. Jane Austen was a master of the latter, as were Agatha Christie and Daphne du Maurier: I can’t look at rhododendrons without thinking of Manderley. I love Fred Vargas’ detective stories because of the added historical titbits and because they’re so intelligently written. When I first moved over here and my English wasn’t great, I devoured a mountain of easy-reading historical fiction, starting with Forever Amber and taking in long forgotten books such as Lady of Hay or Sarum, to ‘learn about British history’. When it comes to storytelling, Alexandre Dumas – the Count of Monte Cristo is one of the best tales ever – and Tolkien – which I was lucky to read for the first time when I was old enough to appreciate it – are masters. And then there are geniuses such as Toni Morrison, super talented wordsmiths such as Stephen Faulks, Douglas Kennedy, David Mitchell and books that made strong impressions: Alone in Berlin by Hans Fallada, The Truth about the Harry Quebert Affair by Joel Dicker, Under the Skin by Michael Faber, Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. There are so many, as many and as diverse as wines.

Where did the idea for Tasting Notes come from?

Crisis at work are standard and there are processes to solve them. I’ve unfortunately found myself several times in situations where colleagues resorted instead to blame shifting and gaslighting, which wasn’t even a word then. Desperately trying to make sense of something nonsensical, to the point when you end up questioning your own sanity, is not an experience I would wish on my worst enemy but one I felt was worth sharing.

What has the reaction been from the trade?

99% supportive, and some people have been absolutely amazing.

What did you learn from doing a creative writing degree? Would you recommend it to budding novelists?

The MA was expensive and time consuming, but it was a glorious year when I did tons of reading and learned a craft. Remember that English isn’t my mother tongue. It was also brilliant to be surrounded by like-minded people from different walks of life. It made writing real, a bit like antenatal classes made motherhood real.

Would you rather be writer or a wine merchant?

A writer, but I still need to earn a living.

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

Possibly a Petrus 1995 at a party at Vinexpo. My one regret is that the best wines I’ve ever had were too often either at tastings, or business dinners or lunches when I couldn’t savour them properly.

And your everyday favourite wine at the moment?

It’s a bit like books, there are many. From the top of my head, current sub £10 – on special offer – favourites include Muga rose, Vidal Fleury Côtes du Rhône, Minervois Château Maris, Vasse Felix Chardonnay. I buy a lot of wine from Waitrose when they have 25% off, and Yapp too and The Wine Society through my ex-husband. I am a big fan of the Loire and the Languedoc, and in the summer I have Gruner Veltliner and Albariño on tap.

Find out more at Anne Burchett’s website

Tasting Notes Anne Burchett

Posted in Books | Tagged , | Leave a comment

Could the sherry revival finally be happening?

With news that for the first time since the 1970s sherry sales are on the rise, I take a look at what might behind the (modest) boom.

The first article I ever wrote for this blog was on sherry back in 2010. At the time there was a lot of stuff in the press about how sherry was now cool for the first time since about 1920. I think it was the confluence of Gonzalez Byass doing a big PR push for Tio Pepe and the arrival of some proper Spanish restaurants in London like Fino and Barrafina rather than the brown earthenware dish plus microwave that typified most tapas places in England. Unfortunately, the great sherry revival never really went beyond the features pages of the Observer; sales continued to decline and wine writers continued to lament that nobody was drinking sherry. Even in these trendy new Spanish restaurants most people were drinking Albariño or Rioja.

Now, however, things really do seem to be changing with the Co-op, Majestic and Nielsen all reporting that sales are up in an article on the BBC website. This is put down to the ‘tapas effect’, people wanting to recreate the tapas experience in their own homes. From talking to restauranteurs like Jose Pizarro, apparently younger customers are more receptive to sherry so there’s definitely something in this but I think it’s a bit more complicated than that.

It was always the received opinion among enthusiasts that if you treated sherry like a table wine, serve it chilled in big glasses and make sure it’s in the wine section of menu, then people who loved Albarino or Godello would migrate to sherry. Jason Millar from Theatre of Wine wrote a very good article recently for Off Licence News Drinks Retailing News on how this was the wrong approach because sherry does not taste anything like a  modern. He writes: “In my experience, the greatest barrier with sherry is that despite the efforts of many to make us treat it like a table wine, it does not behave like a table wine.” He goes on to say how sherry is really more like whisky.

I think this gets to the root of the sherry revival. Sherry might taste peculiar for palates brought up on New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc but if you’re a whisky, vermouth or cocktail drinker, then sherry doesn’t taste strange at all. I’ve noticed this as I now write mainly about spirits and whisky fans tend to be very receptive to sherry partly because whisky is often aged in old sherry casks so learning about whisky involves learning about sherry, but also because the two drinks share certain similarities. Darker sherries like amontillados and olorosos often have flavours of nuts, dried fruit, orange peel, brown sugar and toffee, just like a good whisky. The spirits comparison is useful for thinking about the time to drink sherry too. Yes, it is a great food wine, but it’s also an excellent aperitif, after dinner sipper and indeed cocktail ingredient.

The other drink that did well during lockdown was port. Adrian Bridge from Taylor’s told me that the British market grew with sales of white port particularly strong. What’s interesting is that as the market for wine declines, fortified wines are bucking the trend precisely because they are perceived to be more like spirits than wines, and spirits are cool. It’s taken a ten years but sherry might finally be coming back into fashion.

Link here to something I wrote for BBC Good Food magazine on my top ten sherries. 

Posted in Wine articles | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments

Slightly Foxed article: two favourite drink books

This is an article that appears in the latest edition of Slightly Foxed magazine on two of my favourite drink books: The Hour by Bernard deVoto and Everyday Drinking by Kingsley Amis. It’s always a great privilege to contribute to SF, a quarterly magazine where writers are allowed to write a length about books they love. I’d highly recommend you subscribe. The team also reissues classic books, does an entertaining podcast and puts on very jolly reader days.

Sayre’s Law states: “In any dispute the intensity of feeling is inversely proportional to the value of the issues at stake.”  I’ve noticed this in the booze world. Some people take the question of whether a Martini should be shaken or stirred, or whether to put fruit in an Old Fashioned very seriously. This can make much speciality drink writing a little, how can I put it, niche.

There are two ways out of this bind: one is to take a bluff no-nonsense approach, and admit that it doesn’t really matter in the end. The other is to take it so seriously that it verges on but doesn’t quite drop into ridiculousness. You can see the contrasting approaches in my two favourite writers on the subject, Kingsley Amis and Bernard DeVoto (below).

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I am sure for most readers, Amis needs no introduction but I’d never heard of DeVoto before my wife gave me a small hardback called The Hour: A Cocktail Manifesto. I learned later that DeVoto was an historian and journalist of some repute in America. He won both the Pulitzer and the National Book Award, he edited the letters of Mark Twain and for 20 years had a column in Harper’s Magazine. I am sure these were all worthy works but I cannot imagine that any of them has given the world as much pleasure as this slim volume first published in 1948.

The Hour was out of print for a long time but, thanks to its cult status amongst booze enthusiasts, has since been reissued. The book is in four parts: the first looks at a history of American drinking, the second the correct way to make drinks, the third the wrong way and final part is an ode to the joys of the cocktail hour. Born in 1897, DeVoto would have known the old tavern culture of New York and caught the end of the golden age of the cocktail. He would have seen them destroyed by Prohibition, visited speakeasies and known the deep sadness of being unable to find good liquor. But when I say the first section is history, it’s more of a riff on history. Reading De Voto ,one has to indulge in a kind of cognitive dissonance. He both means it, and doesn’t mean it. The trick is realising that whilst he is winking at you, he is also deadly serious. 

Take his view on whiskey, for example: for DeVoto it is the true American spirit. It brings the country together. Whether you’re a Northerner or a Southerner, Republican or Democrat, everything is better after a drink: “and I’ll have mine with soda but not drowned. The barb is blunted, the knife sheathed. . . in a few minutes we will see each other as we truly are, sound men, stout hearts, lovers of the true and upholders of the good.” I’ll have what he’s drinking. This is the DeVoto style, soaring, heroic but with a gleam in his eye.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Better even than whiskey (rye or bourbon not Scotch!) is “that other supreme American gift to world culture, the Martini.” His preferred ratio is 3.7 parts gin to 1 part vermouth with lemon oil expressed over the drink but don’t drop the twist in, no olives and certainly no onions, and don’t make them in advance either: “you can no more keep a Martini in the refrigerator than you can keep a kiss there.” This is what you read DeVoto for, the pedantry and a magical prose style that always stays the right side of purple. It’s like making a Dry Martini, too much gin and the magic is spoiled. A Martini should be strong enough that: “we believe, if we watch carefully, at any moment we may see the unicorn. But it would not be a Martini if we should see him.” The Hour is full of wonderful images like this.

Just as important as the proper way to make a cocktail, are the drinks that are verboten: “Remember that the three abominations are: (1) rum, (2) any other sweet drink, and (3) any mixed drink except one made of gin and dry vermouth in the ratio I have given.” DeVoto even gives name to his foes, Chuck and Mabel. They are the kind of suburban drinkers who have a bar with a sign on it saying “Danger: Men Drinking”, stirrers shaped like naked ladies, and make lurid sweet cocktails from recipes found in cookbooks and household magazines.

So yes, he’s a bit of an urban snob, disdaining the provincials, or perhaps posing as one. He writes at one point: “The Martini is a city dweller, metropolitan, all cultural subtleties belong to the city”. But it there’s also big-heartedness and even a sexiness here. Nobody has written as poetically about the transformative powers of alcohol than DeVoto: “how fastidiously cold a second Martini is to the palate but how warm to the heart.” But, you should never rule out a third: “Certainly I’ll have another one… one more, and then with a spirit made whole again in a cleansed world, to dinner.” Doesn’t an evening with De Voto sound fun?

If De Voto is the bard of the cocktail hour, then Kingsley Amis is the poet of the following day. You’d expect the man who wrote the famous hangover scene from Lucky Jim to write well about alcohol, and he doesn’t disappoint. Everyday Drinking is made up of three collections of articles: On Drink, Every Day Drinking (sic) and How’s Your Glass. You can safely ignore the last part which is made up of a series of quizzes but the first two, however, are worth your time. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In many ways, Amis (above) is the anti-De Voto. Indeed, he wrote the kind of magazine drinks columns that De Voto despised. Amis even invented a cocktail called the Lucky Jim (like a vodka Martini but, oddly, with added cucumber juice). They are different in other ways, De Voto has an American generosity about him but with Amis there’s a pinched lower middle class stinginess. DeVoto writes: “if you can’t serve good liquor to a lot of people, serve good liquor to few people”, but Amis states: “go for quantity rather than quality”. Amis’s Christmas Punch where he tells readers to “cut all the corners you can” sounds particularly revolting. 

But you’re not reading Amis for his advice, you’re reading him because he’s extremely funny. Every page has lines like: “Canadians are a great crowd, but are perhaps the only people who could have produced a boring whisky.” Or: “on the principle of not barking yourself if you keep a dog, test out the wine waiter whenever you eat in  a restaurant”. And one day I will try his boozing man’s diet: “The first, indeed the only, requirement of a diet is that it should lose you some weight without reducing your alcohol intake by the smallest degree.”

Inevitably from the author of Lucky Jim, the chapter on the hangover is a highlight: “a hangover is the result of a shock to the system, chiefly from alcohol, sure, but also from fatigue – lack of sleep, burning up energy in ridiculous and shameful activities like dancing – and thirdly from other poisons contained in tobacco”. Amis divides the hangovers into two parts: the physical and the metaphysical: “guilt and shame are prominent constituents of the M.H.” It requires spiritual solace, Amis suggests reading PG Wodehouse (but not Evelyn Waugh) and listening to Mozart. 

If such a disparate collection of writing could be said to have a unifying theme, it’s a battle against what Amis calls the “tyranny of wine”. When he wrote these columns in the 1970s and 80s, Britain was at last becoming a wine drinking country. Born in 1977, I remember the change myself: the older generation drank their whisky and gingers, and brandy and sodas, whereas my parents drank wine. So when Amis had to write about wine, which he was often paid (very handsomely, I imagine) to do, he can never resist saying how ridiculous it all is. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Amis is particularly scathing about wine connoisseurs: “you can call a wine red, and dry, and strong, and pleasant. After that, watch out. . .” Perhaps the best thing in the book, is a chapter on Boozemanship: “the art of coming of ahead when any question of drinking expertise or experience arises” inspired by Stephen Potter’s Gamesmanship. Amis’s tactic for dealing with a wine bore at the table is worth quoting in full:

“Wait for someone to drop a grain of knowledge, and work the old jujitsu trick of turning his strength to your advantage…. As soon as he mentions tannin. . . shush everyone and say: ‘Listen, chaps, here’s a chance for us all to learn something. Carry on Percy’ – the equivalent of dropping him on his head. 

When he’s finished which should be pretty soon, ask a lot of questions, the more elementary the better, like: “does that make it good or bad?. . . The object is to make knowing about wine seem like an accomplishment on the level of knowing about the flora and fauna of Costa Rica. . . “ 

In Amis’s world alcohol, especially wine, shouldn’t be taken too seriously and anyone who does is probably a bit suspect. It’s not that Amis doesn’t issue dictums, as a drinks writer you have to or what’s the point, you just know that he’d rather have a bloody drink than obsess about it being made the right way. His tastes are not subtle, one of his favourite drinks is Carlsberg Special Brew mixed half and half with standard Carlsberg. Ignore the tramp connotations, served very cold, it’s delicious. 

Above all, Amis hates the faff around wine. “Drink any wine you like with any dish”, he advises. He does have a point. I remember going to dinner with a group of whisky writers and they couldn’t believe the rigamarole with the wine: the special glasses, the decanter, the sommelier, and then after all the poncing about, the wine turned out to be corked. When was the last time that happened with a bottle of Johnnie Walker? 

Despite being written more recently, Amis’s book is more dated than DeVoto’s, perhaps because it contains contemporary references such as Cyprus sherry and a cocktail called “Reginald Bosanquet Golden Elixir.” There is, however, much in Amis’s writings that De Voto would approve of. They both abhorred fruit juice in cocktails and they were both great Martini men though Amis drank his at a whopping 15 parts gin to vermouth, and did heretically make them in advance. 

But if you’re looking for advice, get David Embury’s The Fine Art of Mixing Drinks, or Harry Craddock’s The Savoy Cocktail Book. With Amis and De Voto, you read them to enjoy two superb writers letting their hair down a bit. If The Hour is a perfectly-formed little gem, Everyday Drinking is full of treasure waiting to be discovered. Both are books that I refer to again and again for amusement and inspiration. Just don’t take everything in them too seriously.

To read more about the latest issue of Slightly Foxed click here

Posted in Books | Tagged , , | 2 Comments

Restaurant review: Posillipo, Faversham

This was my entry for this year’s AA Gill award. You can read the deserved winner Jemma Paek here and also something I wrote for The Critic on how Gill himself would not have a hope in hell of winning his own award. I don’t think mine is up to the standard of the winner or my wife’s entry which I posted last week. Let me know what you think.

The line “every man has two countries, his own and France” is usually credited to Thomas Jefferson. Whoever it was, it applies less and less these days as France’s cultural power wanes. But every man does have two cuisines, his or her own and Italy’s. Italian food is globally ubiquitous, there can be few towns that don’t have a pizzeria. 

Not everyone is happy about this. In 2004 the Italian ambassador in London, Luigi Amaduzzi, urged the British not to be taken in by so-called ‘Italian’ food that had no connection at all with the mother country. A hopeless wish, rather like the Académie Française trying to remove Anglicisms such as ‘Le Weekend’ from the French language. Italian food is out there now. It can’t be policed. There’s a restaurant in south east London that claims to be Sardinian. Yet, it is run by a Peruvian family. The story goes that the original family who owned it disappeared one day, something to do with organised crime, and the kitchen porter from Peru took over. The food is excellent but is it still Italian?

My mother is probably Italian enough for Signor Ambassador, her maiden name is Castiglione. But she was raised in Aberdeen by her mother (who was from Austria and cooked a mean schnitzel) and schooled by Irish nuns. Instead my Italian food awakening came from the mother of a school friend, James Levison. I used to cycle over to their old farmhouse near Great Missenden ostensibly to play with James but really to taste his mother’s cookery: homemade tagliatelle with a thick tomato ragu (I’ve spent 20 years trying tried to make that ragu at home and never come close), roast chicken covered with oregano and served at the table with poultry shears (very exotic for 1988) and frittata made with giant goose eggs. I won’t say that I was only friends with James because of his mother’s cooking, but it was a large contributory factor.

One day my mother served up her spaghetti Bolognese, a family favourite. But this time when she asked me how it was, I replied: “Not as good as Mrs Levison’s”. It became a sort of family joke but I don’t think I have ever hurt my mother more.

Since those days, I’ve eaten pizza in Naples, slow-cooked veal shin in Rome, horse meat steaks outside a butcher’s shop in Catania, and perhaps best of all, the arancini served at railway stations in Sicily. I’ve eaten at Bocca di Lupo and Locanda Locatelli in London, and when we got married my wife and I ate at the Bartolotta, a now defunct high end seafood restaurant in Las Vegas where everything including the waiters were flown in fresh from Italy that morning. And yet when I think of Italian food, I still think of Mrs Levison.

Photo credit: Misti Traya

Which brings me on to Posillipo in Faversham. We moved from Blackheath, well, Lewisham really, to Faversham in Kent earlier this year. It’s a funny old town: beautiful, quite prosperous, smelling sweetly of the Shepherd Neame brewery, bustling on markets days, near to such culinary hotspots as Whitstable and Margate, and full of people who used to write for the Guardian. By rights it should be heaving with bistros and yet the main shopping streets bear the scars of a couple of failed ventures. One which specialised in steak, and, err, rum, lasted less than a year. 

Posillipo, in contrast, is packed every time we visit. If you live locally then you will recognise people you know, which can be a mixed blessing. ‘Oh look’ my wife said on our last visit, ‘is that the man who gave us a massive quote for some fitted cupboards and I never got back to?’ It’s probably not the best place to conduct an affair with your neighbour’s wife. 

It’s part of a mini Kentish Italian food empire, there are sister restaurants in Broadstairs and  Canterbury, run by a family from Naples. The Faversham branch is housed in a former warehouse down by the creek which gives it an urban feel, like a trendy restaurant in Leeds or Manchester. The menu is regional but not pedantically so. The wine list for example, ranges all over Italy. It’s not a place for the trainspotter or the natural wine bore but there’s an excellent Langhe nebbiolo at £30 a bottle and the house Chianti is pretty good. For the high rollers, there’s cult wines like Sassicaia and Tignanello and a great selection of Barolos which I’ll probably never order. They do some tasty Italian craft beers too.

The Creek looks much prettier when the tide is in

There are always interesting specials making use of local produce like a rabbit with tagliatelle (I told my bunny-loving daughter that it was chicken) or pheasant ragu. The best dishes, chewy pizzas with a nice char on them or perfect calamari fritto, taste properly Neapolitan. But it’s also Anglo-friendly, meat and fish dishes come with vegetables and potatoes. The portions are enormous, the bruschetta starter is a meal in itself. As you’d expect from an Italian restaurant, they love children, our eight year old daughter gets treated like a celebrity when we arrive. 

Not everything is brilliant, an order of tuna carpaccio turned up frozen once. And despite, or perhaps because of the huge number of staff, both English and Italian, service can be a bit erratic. But it’s such a nice place to be that it never becomes a problem. 

Posillipo’s popularity with the locals suggests that Faversham could do with more places like this. Considering it’s almost the only game in town, the food is much, much better than it needs to be. Sorry, that sounds like faint praise. It’s not meant to be. We are lucky to have this place on our doorstep. The food is very good. . . but is it as good as Mrs Levison’s? That’s the problem with Italian food, it can never quite live up to the memory of mamma’s, even if it is someone else’s mamma.

Posted in Restaurants | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Restaurant review: El Floridita in Los Angeles

On Sunday the results of the AA Gill award for food writing were announced in The Sunday Times. Today, I’m delighted to publish Misti Traya’s entry which unbelievably wasn’t even shortlisted. She was an actress in LA for many years before moving to England and becoming a writer, winning YBF food writer of the year and runner up for the Spectator’s Shiva Naipaul prize. She’s also my wife. 

It was a cigar smuggler who recommended El Floridita to my Da. He had flown to Havana in the spring of ‘94 to research a script. Americans in Cuba, especially writers, must adhere to an unspoken rule: Drink at least one daiquiri in Hemingway’s favourite bodeguita, the original Floridita. That is where my father met the cigar smuggler and gave him a few contacts in L.A. He’s the mayor of a small town in Northern California now. Da? His script didn’t get made, but he got a few Cohibas and a top restaurant recommendation to boot.

A recommendation is imperative for El Floridita; otherwise you’d never go there on purpose. I drove past it hundreds of times whilst sitting in the backseat of my mother’s Volvo with the girls of the Mulholland carpool, but I never noticed it. I was thirteen and busy sipping an ice blended vanilla, and being quizzed by my fellow carpoolers on French irregular verbs, and if we had time for it, counting the number of hookers we saw on the way to school. 

Imagine my shock the evening mum and I piled into Da’s car and came down out of the hills, then rather than driving through the insalubrious section of Hollywood like we usually did en route to somewhere else, we stopped. Not far from where Hugh Grant would get picked up by LAPD a year later for getting a blowie, my father pulled into a shabby strip mall at the corner of Fountain and Vine and parked. I had never seen him leave his Range Rover at a restaurant without a valet before. He undid his seatbelt and flashed a Cheshire Cat grin. I had to wonder, did we go to dinner “by mistake?” 

Misti Traya and Marisa Mandabach at El Floridita

As we entered, Armando, the owner greeted us. He sat us at a table near the oxblood red bar. Like a young magpie, I was enchanted by everything that glittered. The disco ball, the twinkling fairy lights, the white paper lanterns that illuminated the room like miniature moons casting shadows on the parquet dance floor. I wouldn’t step foot on that floor for years though as salsa nights were only for those 21 and older. All the same, I was content just going for the food. 

And what food! The best bocaditos are the tostones which are fried banana pancakes you dip into a sauce of watercress, citrus, and cilantro (That’s coriander to you, Red Coats.) If feeling celebratory, go for the Churrasco. It’s a grilled butterflied fillet mignon that comes with Cuban chimichurri. Unlike the Argentine variety that calls for parsley, this one is punchier as it’s made with. . .  you guessed it, cilantro.

Traditionalists and magical realists favour the ropa vieja which is Cuba’s national dish and its legend is like something out of a fairy story. Once upon a time, a pauper had no food to feed his family so he shredded his clothes and cooked them. As the pot simmered, he prayed. Hours later, a miracle occurred as the contents transformed into a delicious beef stew. Some think this speaks to the power of prayer. I think it speaks more to slow cooking. 

My favourite has long been the masitas de puerco. Cubans liken these to carnitas. Imagine tender pork chunks sautéed to crispy perfection that are meltingly soft inside. The main flavours are rich and earthy with garlic, oregano and cumin but they are cut and lifted by a sharp tang that’s fresh with oranges and lemons. The whole dish is then slathered with sweet onions. It’s the most moreish dish on the menu and for me, the quintessence of Cuban soul food.    

Misti Traya – LA woman

That’s the thing about Los Angeles. Its soul speaks Spanish even if you don’t. Call any customer service line and the first thing you’ll hear is “Para español, pulse uno.” Lots of children from English speaking families learn Spanish first because it’s the mother tongue of those who take care of them. My fifteen-year-old sister still can’t say the word hammock. Hamaca instinctively comes out of her mouth and in a pure, beautiful, Colombian accent just like her beloved nanny had. L.A. is a city with a Latin heartbeat and El Floridita is its powerful left ventricle pumping life into those who live there, not just with fantastic food, but also with music.

I had to wait until I graduated from college to be old enough for salsa nights at El Floridita.   They took place three times a week. Doors opened at 7. At 8, there were complimentary salsa lessons with Oscar. At 9:30, the band would start to play. For 24 years, Mondays at El Floridita belonged to Johnny Polanco. These were the best nights. He was a Latin musician from the Bronx who provided the best entertainment around. Prince loved him and would occasionally fly in to hear him play. Sadly, Johnny died in 2015, but I still have staccato flashbacks of dining and dancing with my friends to his music which was the soundtrack to it all. 

When getting ready, my girlfriends and I always went for a cocaine disco Barbie aesthetic, cf. Michelle Pfeiffer in Scarface. Guys opted for crisp white guayaberas and a moistured tan. If they had the huevos, a fedora, but there was always a sixty-year-old abuelo who wore it better.  

If you go, never order mojitos by the glass. Be an adult and get a pitcher. Don’t roll your eyes at me. El Floridita’s are the original. Before mojitos became the Basic Bitch beverage of choice, bartenders here were slapping mint like it’d been naughty and sticking it into ice cold cocktails of rum, lime, sugar cane, and soda water for decades. Done correctly, a mojito is a perfectly balanced thirst quencher. Done badly, it tastes like a cheeky ice lolly for village cricket mums.

The musical sets that get the most people on the dance floor feature an upbeat piano in the foreground that beckons you like a child to play. Then the grinding rhythm of a güira joins in. This instrument is played by being stroked up and down with a firm stick. If lust had a sound, this is it. Then the melody climaxes with a flute or a horn flying high above the instruments like a flirty little bird, rather like the citrus notes in the mojo sauce. 

As someone with Evangelical missionary family in the States, I’ll tell you that snake-handlers down South terrify me. I also don’t believe in Pentecostals being filled with the Holy Spirit being compelled to speak in tongues. I do, however, believe in the power of a good brass band and will prosthelytise about it until I die. 

Like much of the world, El Floridita is closed and there are no salsa nights. Though I hear they’re doing curbside pick-up and making deliveries. After weeks of Coronavirus quarantine, I can’t help but feel nostalgic for those lost Johnny Polanco nights. What I’d give for a Cubano sandwich and an iced café con leche or to be in a room full of sweaty strangers dancing within such close proximity, they can smell the gardenias in my hair. 

Read more Misti Traya on her blog.

Posted in Restaurants | Tagged , | 3 Comments

The Cocktail Dictionary is here!

Apologies for lack of top quality content recently. We have just welcomed a new member of the Jeffreys family into the fold, a process that wasn’t particularly easy. You can read an essay I wrote on the subject here. And I’ve got a book out! It’s called The Cocktail Dictionary: An A–Z of cocktail recipes, from Daiquiri and Negroni to Martini and Spritz  . The team at Mitchell Beazley (same publisher as Hugh and Jancis, dontcha know) has done a splendid job with witty illustrations by George Wyesol. Here’s a little extract:

Picture the scene: the frozen glass, the thick cold gin lightly seasoned with vermouth poured by a waiter in a pressed white jacket, solicitous but not obsequious; in the background a pianist knocks out a quietly swinging version of “Stars Fell on Alabama.” That moment of anticipation, and then the magic first sip. This was nothing like my early experience of cocktails. At university we had a ‘cocktail society’ known as ‘coc soc’. Events would take place once a month at the worst nightclub in town and consist of black bins filled with cheap wine, vodka and fruit juice and sold for 25p a cup. Revellers would be dragged out unconscious. 

I don’t think my experiences were unusual. Cocktails had an image problem when I was growing up. They were sugary lurid concoctions laden with sparklers and umbrellas drunk my girls on holiday while real men drank beer. Daiquiris and Margaritas came out of machines full of churning ice, vivid with artificial colour. The situation wasn’t so different in specialist cocktail bars with bartenders more interested in pretending to be Tom Cruise in Cocktail rather than learning the basics of how to mix a good drink. Always be wary of a bar where the staff are having more fun than the customers.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

There wasn’t one revelatory moment when I realised what I had been missing out on. It was a gradual process: a Negroni prepared by my uncle here; a Martini drunk at the American Bar at the Savoy with a more sophisticated friend there. By increments, I came round to the contemplative splendour of a perfectly-made drink, and the sheer escapism and magic of a good bar. It helps that the standard of mixed drinks has improved drastically in the last ten years. If you live in a city you’re probably not more than a mile or two away from a decent Old Fashioned. And thankfully the great British Gin & Tonic (weak, tepid with one lone ice cube floating in it) is becoming a thing of the past.

But while I was enjoying cocktails out, I still didn’t have much luck making them at home. It took me a long time to realise that cocktail making is as much a science as an art. You can’t throw it together and think you’re being creative. It bears more of a resemblance to baking than ordinary cooking relying on precise measurements, ratios and temperatures. The great bartenders who invented and codified the classic cocktail repertoire like Jerry Thomas in the 19th century, Harry MacElhone in the 1920s or Dick Bradsell (his classic Bramble illustrated above) in the 1980s, were empiricists. Their recipes were based on hours of experimentation. It’s not rocket science but it does require practise, lots and lots of practise.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Cocktails are much more than just delicious drinks, they can be a history lesson in a glass. Listen carefully and your drink might tell you a story about Prohibition, the first world war, the Royal Navy or the Rolling Stones. A Daiquiri can transport you to 1950s Havana, a Negroni to Milan, and a Vesper can make you feel like James Bond, if only for 10 minutes.

You will, however, only get the magic if you make them properly. This book is a good place to start but once you get the cocktail bug, your shelves will quickly fill up with books (I’ve provided a further reading list at the back), many of them offering contradictory advice. Reading can only take you so far, you will have to find out for what

works for you, which means, I’m afraid, making lots and lots of cocktails. It might get expensive but think how popular you will become. 

Once you have mastered the basics, that’s when you can start playing around. I’m particularly proud of my Christmas Negroni which substitutes vermouth for tawny Port. Well, I like to think it’s mine. One of the things I learned from writing this book is that someone else probably got there first. So, here’s to a perfectly-made drinks, and let’s not worry too much about who invented what. 

Chin chin!

Posted in Books, Spirits | Tagged , , , | 5 Comments

Beyond Badoit: a look a Japanese wine

This is something I wrote for Kanpai! last year on Japanese wine. It’s Suntory’s magazine but it’s not boringly on-brand. Worth a read if you see a copy. 

I was on my way to the annual Koshu wine event last year when I ran into a friend who works as a sommelier. “Ah, Koshu”, he said “tastes like Badoit”. That comment almost ruined the tasting for me because, when I first tried the wines, they did taste like mineral water.

It sounds like one of those hoary old cliches about Japan, but you really do have to approach Koshu wine a bit differently. The flavour is about as far from Sauvignon Blanc as you can get. Koshu’s qualities are ethereal: Helena Nicklin from Amazon TV Programme The Three Drinkers told me describes it as “the geisha of wine grapes: elegant, pale, complex and understated.” Ben Franks from Novel Wines (a shop in Bath that specialises in unusual wines) said: “Koshu needs the right context, people say it’s too neutral, but the third time they try it they realise there’s more to this than I thought.” 

What is this grape that tastes of so little? Koshu is native to Japan. Its origins are a bit mysterious but it is now generally accepted that it is a hybrid of European (vitis vinifera) and Chinese (vitis silvestrii) varieties. It might not wow when you first try it but Koshu in all its understated glory means that Japan has something that most emerging wine countries would kill for, a completely unique style of wine. 

Koshu

Koshu grapes, don’t they look weird?

Koshu is well suited to Japan’s, ahem, challenging climate. Yamanashi, where about 60% of Japanese wine comes from, is about 1.5 hours on the bullet train west of Tokyo. It has long summers but also high rainfall and humidity. Koshu with its large berries and loose bunches is particularly resistant to rot. Even then, the damp requires ingenious solutions:  “We have to put paper hats over the grapes to keep the rain off them for instance”, said Yuji Aruga owner of Katsunuma Jyozo Winery, the largest independent producer in the country. To further shield the grapes, growers plant at altitude in sheltered places.  Some vineyards are fitted with fans that blow when the humidity goes above a certain level. Nagano, the next biggest province for grapes has similar problems, whereas the island of Hokkaido has a drier climate but ferocious winters so the vines need to be protected from the cold.

So California, it ain’t; ripening grapes in Japan is hard work. In fact, with its high acidity wines and wet climate, Japanese wine has more than a little in common with English wine. And if the English can make world-class wines, why not the Japanese?

Wine has been made in Japan since the 19th century but the 1970s and 80s were when modern Japanese viticulture really started.  Large drinks companies, like Suntory, Kirin and Sapporo, established vineyards. Along with Koshu, they planted French varieties like Chardonnay and Merlot as well as hardy (if peculiar-tasting) American grapes like Niagara and Concorde. Quality wine did not immediately follow. It didn’t help that much so-called Japanese wine was actually imported either as concentrated grape juice or ready made wine, and relabelled as Japanese (some ‘Japanese’ whisky is still made today by blending the real thing with imports from Scotland or Canada). 2018 was an important year for Japanese wine as this practise became illegal.

Since those pioneering years, Japan has become more of a wine drinking country. Though wine is always going to come a long way behind sake, beer and whisky, Japanese wine drinkers tend to be educated and knowledgeable. There are now wine bars in Tokyo dedicated to native wines. 

Jamie Goode, an English wine writer who has visited Nagano a few times told me the industry is “very much in a dynamic phase. In Nagano, there are lots of micro producers practising gardening style viticulture with beautifully-tended vines.” The man who literally wrote the book on Japanese wines, Anthony Rose, thinks that quality has improved dramatically in the last five years. Producers are learning to best places to grow particular varieties and much better-trained than before. Rose told me that at Katsunuma Jozo winery, one of Yuji Aruga’s sons Hirotake, studied at Beaune in Burgundy; “there’s a new confidence about about this generation, they’re prepared to take risks.” Hirotake is even experimenting with Georgian qvevri to make skin contact Koshu. I must say I didn’t particularly like the resulting wine but you certainly couldn’t accuse it of tasting like Badoit. 

Kanpai! Magazine

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Producers are learning just how adaptable Koshu can be: you can age it on its lees to create something like Muscadet, it can be barrel-fermented as in Burgundy, and it’s very well-suited to making champagne-style sparkling wines. As with whisky and beer, Japanese wine producers are taking European techniques and making them their own.

It’s not all Koshu, however, Rose told me that Japan now makes excellent Chardonnays and good Albariño. And despite the difficult climate, some interesting reds are being made too. Aruga senior said, “we see potential for Syrah and Petit Verdot in particular.” The best reds I’ve tried were made from Cabernet Franc, but I’ve also had some nice Bordeaux blends and even a Zweigelt, an Austrian variety. 

But it’s Pinot Noir that has perhaps the greatest potential. So much so that in 2017, Etienne de Montille from the noted Burgundy wine family announced plans for a winery on Hokkaido. Finally, there’s a local curiosity, Muscat Bailey A, a hybrid variety. Once it was used to make semi-sweet red wines but producers now turn it into light juicy Beaujolais-style reds. I tried one from Suntory recently aged in mizunara oak (like some whiskies). I can’t say I loved it but it was certainly like nothing else I have ever tasted.

The best Japanese reds have a distinctive perfume and elegance about them. These are gastronomic wines, the kind of things that get sommeliers all hot and bothered. But the they are made in tiny quantities and largely consumed domestically. So if you see Japanese wine in Europe, then it’s most likely to be white, made from Koshu and from Yamanashi (Nagano wines currently aren’t exported in any quantity). 

Kelvin McCabe, formerly of Zuma in London who now works with British celebrity chef Adam Handling, is a fan: “Grace Winery does two style of Koshu which I really enjoy, a more mineral linear style and a slightly voluptuous style”, he said.  According to McCabe, Koshu “works really well with micro herb salads, ceviche and light fish dishes”. In my experience, it can also be a perfect fit for sushi, and even fish and chips. Not so surprising when you think of the Japanese skill with the deep fat fryer.  

They might be niche but there is a market for these wines. I was amazed to learn from Ben Franks that when he first opened Novel Wines, his bestselling white was a Koshu from Grace Vineyards. Helena Nicklin said, “consumers are looking for more subtle, elegant, low alcohol wines from off the beaten track. I personally feel Koshu is on a par with Swiss Chasselas style-wise” (another wine that is often dismissed as neutral). I think the appeal is that now it’s very easy to get wines crammed with fruit, alcohol and flavour in your local supermarket. Japanese wine is the opposite of that: it’s subtle and requires a little effort to understand. Combine this with interest in Japanese food, drink and culture, and you might have the ultimate hipster wine.

Posted in Wine articles | Tagged , , | 3 Comments