Garage find: Ayala Extra Dry Chateau d’Ay 1975

My parents have a lot of random bottles in their garage: dusty cassis brought back from France in the ’80s, unwanted California rose brought as a gift, and very old German wines bought from Majestic in the 00s.

These bottles are so much part of the furniture that it seems almost perverse to open them to see if they might actually be drinkable. One such was a bottle of champagne that’s been around ever since I began taking an interest in what’s in the wine rack – at least 20 years.

It’s a bottle Ayala Extra Dry Chateau d’Ay 1975. It’s extra dry meaning that it’s a bit sweet. According to my father it used to belong to his grandfather Michael Levy. It then passed on to my grandfather Gordon Jeffreys and from there to my father some time in the 00s.

I’ve always thought of it as a sort of comedy bottle. A wine so past it that there wasn’t any point trying it but this weekend I persuaded my father to allow me to open it so into the fridge it went. The foil and cage were in good condition and when I opened it the cork came out in one piece, dry and shrivelled no doubt, but with an audible hiss of air.

The colour was deep gold but not brown and despite some sediment was bright. I poured a small glass and was amazed to discover that that noise had not misled me – there was still some fizz here.

Smelling it there was no doubt that this was an old wine with nutty sherried orange peel notes and butterscotch. But importantly there were no musty, mushroom or vinegar flavours coming off it.

I have to say it tasted delightful, refreshing with citrus peel, tangy acidity and quite a bit of fizz with some sweetness. There’s a lingering rich butterscotch taste. It tastes a bit like an old sauternes that had lost a lot of its sweetness and somehow gained some fizz.

Not just a relic but genuinely pleasurable. A bit heretical but I mixed my last glass half and half with some Pol Roger NV and it was wonderful. Like an old bottle Bollinger, or how I imagine an old vintage bolly would taste. So pleased we opened this and didn’t just let it moulder.

For next time we visit, I’ve got my eye on a half bottle of 1937 Army & Navy claret and a 1985 Beaujolais-Villages Jadot. I shall report back.

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News from World of Booze

Here’s a little update about what I’ve been up to recently:

Fortnum & Mason awards

I’ve been shortlisted for best drink writer at the Fortnum & Mason awards for something I wrote for this blog on my Uncle Peter and a thing in the Fence newsletter on wine merchants. The competition is fierce with Will Hawkes, for my money probably the best drinks writer working in Britain today (read this thing on beer, curries and Bradford he wrote recently), and Felipe Schrieberg, one of the brightest talents in whisky. Win or lose, it means a lot to me to me shortlisted. I write a lot, much of it quite straightforward things for Master of Malt, so it’s nice to be recognised when I try to do something a bit more creative.

Vines in a Cold Climate

I’m writing a new book! It’s about English wine! Don’t all rush at once. Seriously though, this is proving to be a fascinating topic. The idea is that the book is about the people behind the transformation of English wine in the last 30 years, from the butt of jokes, to world class. I’m spending about three days a week travelling around the country meeting producers and trying wines. I’ve unearthed some great stories and been impressed by the quality of the wine. The sparklers have long been excellent but every year the still wines, including some reds, are getting better and better. The publisher, Atlantic books, i aiming to publish some time next year, so I better hurry up and write the bloody thing.

I am, however, aiming to blog a bit more, even if it’s just wines that I have tried on my travels.

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Lunch at Langoa Barton

This is something I wrote for the Spectator on the recent death at 91 of Irishman in Bordeaux, Anthony Barton.

In 2014 I received a mystery phone call. It came from a French number but the voice sounded like a patrician Englishman from another age. It was a voice that you can imagine following into battle: “Hello, it’s Anthony Barton here”. You might not know the name but to a wine lover, it was like taking a call from God. Barton, who died this week at 91, was the man behind Châteaux Léoville Barton and Langoa Barton, and his family were Bordeaux aristocracy.

I was writing a book about the history of the British and wine, and had sent a message to the information at Langoa Barton email expecting at best to hear back from a PR representative, as had happened at Lynch-Bages. Instead, Anthony phoned me out of the blue. He told me that he was intrigued by my book and indeed had read something I’d written in the Spectator on fluffing a blind wine tasting that had greatly amused him. 

He suggested that my wife and I come and have lunch at the château one day. I was nearly speechless that he had personally contacted me but later learned that this was entirely in character. He was generous with his time and disliked the increasingly corporate world of modern Bordeaux. So one day in 2015 we found ourselves turning up in a taxi at the gates of Château Langoa Barton.

The property had been in the family since 1824 when it was bought by Hugh Barton. His grandfather was Tom “French Tom” Barton who came to France from Enniskillen in 1722 and founded a wine dynasty. In partnership with a Frenchman, Daniel Guestier, the family became one of the most powerful forces in Bordeaux. They sold the merchant business Barton & Guestier in the 1960s but held on to the Langoa Barton and sister property Léoville Barton.

Despite being in France for hundreds of years, like many Anglo-Irish families, the Bartons retained their roots, sending their children to school in England and holding British, and later Irish passports. Along with the firms like Nathaniel Johnston & Fils, and other northern European merchants, they created an English-speaking community who played tennis and cricket, and set up clubs like proper English gentlemen. They ran the city’s wine trade until the arrival of the multinationals in the 1960s.

Anthony Barton came across as every foreigner’s idea of the perfect Englishman but he was in fact Irish, born in Country Kildare, and educated in England. He came to work for his uncle Ronald at the age of 21. Apparently it wasn’t the easiest relationship, he told me that he was badly under-paid and found it very difficult to keep up the kind of lifestyle he wanted. Anthony moved in a fast set, close friends with Antony Armstrong-Jones, and is rumoured to have had a fling with Princess Margaret.

Ever the diplomat, I decided not to ask him about the alleged affair when we sat down to lunch with Anthony and his Danish wife Eva. They made a striking couple, she poised and chic, and Anthony at 85 still ridiculously handsome with leonine hair and a glint in his eye. He was dressed in a blazer and cravat and was very pleased that I was wearing a tie, saying that it was sad that nobody wears ties anymore. They both seemed particularly taken with my glamorous Californian wife and were keen to hear how we met. 

Chateau Langoa Barton

Before lunch, we sat at a low table piled high with books so we could barely see each other and drank vintage Pol Roger. Most Bordeaux châteaux are used for corporate entertaining, but Langoa-Barton was a family home complete with toothbrushes sitting in a cartoon tumbler in the bathroom.

Then it was time to eat. I can’t remember much about the food, only that it was gloriously old-fashioned, no al dente vegetables here. It was served by a recalcitrant staff member in slippers, clearly he’d been with the family a long time as he and Anthony bickered amiably about the serving of the wine.

There was no wine talk, until, perhaps something of a faux pas, I asked him about what we were drinking and he challenged me to guess the vintages which I got hopelessly wrong. The two reds were both from Leoville Barton: a wild rather hedonistic 1982, a hot vintage and the last made by his uncle; and then the classical perfumed 1986, pure Medoc magic. 

According to Anthony’s daughter, Lilian Barton-Sartorius, who showed us around the property before lunch, wine making was pretty primitive in Ronald Barton’s day.  When Anthony took over following his uncle’s death in 1986, he revamped the cellars and vineyard practices, and turned the underperforming estates into some of the finest in the Medoc. Decanter magazine named him ‘Man of the Year’ in 2007. In some vintages Leoville Barton, a second growth, outperforms its first growth neighbours, but he was immune to the sort of over ambitious pricing that made Bordeaux a byword for greed in the 2000s. 

Despite, or perhaps because, he came from such an illustrious line, Anthony maintained an amused distance from the world of wine. The strange Bordeaux system where wines pass through various middlemen before arriving in shops meant that he had little to do with his eventual customers. Which was how he liked it. He made the wines he wanted to make, charged what he thought he should, and they sold, that’s all that mattered. Château Langoa Barton was not open to the public. 

The wines were so good that I wanted to take notes but thought this might have been another faux pas. So we just enjoyed them quietly while Anthony and Eva regaled us with stories. I remember one in particular about how during the second world war, a group of German soldiers arrived to requisition the château. They were confronted by the fearless cook who told them that it was the property of a neutral, Irishman Ronald Barton. The cook herself was Irish and waved her passport at the Germans and amazingly they went away.  Ronald Barton, in fact, had a British passport and was fighting with the Free French at the time.

It felt like one of those lunches that could have gone on all afternoon, but we had a plane to catch back to England and Anthony needed a lie down. He was already ill when we met. In fact, he informed us he had nearly cancelled lunch but had rallied that morning. There was something that affected his balance but not even the most expensive American doctors had been able to explain what it was or treat the symptoms. 

I was hoping it would be the start of a beautiful friendship but after he emailed me to say that my book had arrived I never heard from him again. I later learned that his health declined quite rapidly since our meeting in 2015 but that recently he had been happy to see his granddaughter get married. 

Anthony and Eva had two children, Lilian and Thomas. Sadly Thomas died in a car accident but happily Lilian, her husband and their children now run the business so the family legacy seems safe for the foreseeable future. And yet Anthony Barton’s death does seem like the end of an era. He was the last of a particular breed of Anglo-Irishmen who once ran the Bordeaux wine trade. I feel fortunate to have met him and had a glimpse into a world that has now almost completely vanished. 

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The Anglophone families of wine

With the sad news of Anthony Barton’s death this week, I’m posting something I wrote a few years ago for the Wine Society on the old Anglophone families who used to dominate the wine trade in Bordeaux, Oporto, Jerez, Madeira and Marsala.

Last year my wife and I were fortunate enough to have lunch with Anthony Barton (below) and his wife Eva at Chateau Langoa-Barton. As we ate the wonderfully old-fashioned French food served to us by a silent retainer and drank the impeccable wine (1982 and 1986 Leoville-Barton just to make readers extra jealous) I imagined that this is what the wine business used to be like. It was a glimpse into a time before publicity campaigns and multinationals when the Bordeaux trade was run by a small clique of English-speaking families. 

It wasn’t just in Bordeaux, at one time there were British merchant colonies all over Europe, in Jerez, Malaga, Madeira and Porto, wherever good wine could be easily shipped to Britain the the Empire. These merchants created a distinct communities, neither British nor entirely of the place where they lived. In Marsala in Sicily, British merchants intermarried with local aristocrats to form a colourful hybrid community. They lived a life of lavish balls in marble palazzos as in the novel The Leopard by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa (memorably made into a film starring Burt Lancaster, Claudia Cardinale and Alain Delon). In the case of the merchants of Bordeaux, the majority weren’t actually British, they were Irish, Danish and German, and yet they created an English-speaking community who played cricket, and set up English-style gentleman’s clubs.

The old British families sold up in Marsala in the 1920s and in Jerez in the 1980s. In Bordeaux the Bartons are among the last of their their kind. They’re continuing a business founded by Tom ‘French Tom’ Barton who arrived in 1722 from Enniskillen. Despite this long history in France, the family have always kept a foot on the other side of the Channel. And with good reason: during the Second World War, the Germans tried to confiscate Langoa-Barton but the cook stopped them by insisting that it was owned by an Irishman, Ronald Barton, a neutral. The cook herself was Irish and waved her passport at the Germans and amazingly they went away.  In fact Ronald Barton had a British passport and was a liaison office with the Free French at the time.

His nephew, Anthony Barton, who now runs the business is an Irishman though most mistake him for a pukka Englishman. Nephews like him play an important role in keeping family businesses going. Benjamin Ingham built his mighty Marsala wine business on the back of his nephews. There’s a story, possibly apocryphal, that when one of these nephews, William Whitaker, died in 1818, Ingham wrote to the boy’s mother saying ‘your son is dead, send me another.’ The letter, if it ever did, no longer exists. Anthony too didn’t have the easiest relationship with his uncle when he joined the family firm in 1948. He told me that for most of the time he was paid next to nothing until he demanded a raise because he wanted to get married. The estates, Langoa and Leoville, had become rather dilapidated so when Anthony eventually took over in 1984 he made a great deal of improvements to the cellars and vineyards.

Change is often slow in the wine business.  Often work instigated by one generation will only be reaped by the next. Vines need time to become productive and wine needs to mature. Madeira wine can mature for centuries. The Blandy family have been on the island since 1811. The story goes that John Blandy was sent to the island with General Beresford’s army to help defend it against Napoleon though new evidence suggests that he was actually there, like so many modern British tourists who travel to the island, for a rest cure. He evidently liked the place, decided to stay and moved into the wine business. The Blandy family now own the Madeira Wine Company who are responsible for a quarter of the island’s production. Just as with the Bartons, their business has been reinvigorated in recent years. The current chairman Chris Blandy told me “in 2011, the year of our bicentenary, the family took the decision to invest back into the wine company and it is the first time, since the 80s, we have a Blandy family member leading the company.”

It was the Symingtons of Oporto who the Blandy’s bought out to regain control of their family business. Oporto more than anywhere else in the wine world has preserved the old British atmosphere. The Factory House, the British club, is still only open to shippers from British houses.  But things have changed. Whereas in the past the British, with a few honourable exceptions, led a quasi-colonial existence speaking atrocious Portuguese, now they are now far more integrated. Paul Symington, chairman of the company that owns those great names, Cockburn’s, Graham’s, Warre’s and Dow’s, is keen to stress that his home is in Portugal. Indeed he didn’t visit England until he was 13 because the family didn’t have the money to travel. Chris Blandy too thinks of himself as Madeiran rather than British.

There’s something reassuring in an age of global corporations and venture capital that families such as the Blandys, Bartons and Symingtons not only exist but are thriving. One gets the impression that stewardship and preservation are as important to them as the bottom line. It hasn’t been an easy ride. Running a family business requires tremendous diplomacy. There are always those tempting offers to sell out to multinationals. The Blandys and Symingtons are blessed with strength in depth. Paul Symington runs the business with his cousins Rupert and Johnny. His brother Dominic and cousin Charles are also involved. The Barton legacy is more fragile resting as it does with Antony and Eva’s daughter, Lilian Barton-Sartorius. Fortunately she struck me as a formidable personality, utterly committed to continuing her father’s work. When you open a bottle from Langoa-Barton or Blandy’s, or indeed the Society’s Exhibition Vintage Port, you are tasting a little bit of history. Long may their producers remain family concerns.

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How to drink less at Christmas

Now that our betters have decreed that we will be allowed to see relatives this Christmas, I thought it a good idea to publish my guide to surviving the festive season without excessive drunkenness.

I used to approach the Christmas party season like Homer Simpson approaches a buffet. I’d start in early December and drink heartily right through to New Year’s Day. I wouldn’t have a dry January either. That would suggest I had a problem. 

The revelry would reach a peak on Christmas Eve. I’d meet up with old school friends, we’d stay in the pub until closing and then go to someone’s house until 3am. I’d awake on Christmas Day hungover and, after breakfast, start on the champagne. By the time lunch was served I’d be fractious and in need of some sleep. This led to some vintage rows. There was that time I accused my aunt’s boyfriend of being a bad vegetarian. In my defence he was eating a piece of salmon at the time. ‘Well it’s not a vegetable, is it?’ I demanded. When will I ever learn that you don’t win an argument simply by being right? And the less said about the great contemporary art debate of 2011 the better.  

It was all getting a bit fraught so a few years ago I made a conscious decision to drink less over the Christmas period. I was receiving less party invitations anyway. I can’t think why. At the few parties I do attend I now drink bottled beer. This has the twofold advantage in that you know how much you’ve drunk and you don’t have to drink the terrible wine most people serve. 

Christian Seely from Quinta do Noval with enormous bottle of port

Port, the not so silent killer

That only leaves the Christmas Day hurdle (I’ve long since grown out of New Year’s Eve.) And it is quite a hurdle. My father gets all kinds of fine stuff out of storage from the Wine Society: a red burgundy, a white burgundy, champagne, claret, and port (the not so silent killer). Being a wine writer means that I can accept another glass and pretend it’s professional curiosity rather than just an inability to know when to stop drinking. A lot of booze professionals share this tendency. 

It’s not that I don’t appreciate the joys of festive drinking.  A little light drunkenness makes the old jokes funny and gives the day a pleasantly sentimental haze. It’s just that alcohol can exacerbate family tensions. With new people it can be even worse. Occasionally someone, a friend or distant relative will join us on Christmas Day, and say something like ‘well I think HS2 is a good idea.’ That never goes down well. I’ve noticed that it’s often over the port that things begin to go awry. Most years I really do try to pace myself but then a debate will start about Brexit or Boris Johnson and, I’ll reach for the  decanter to try to drown out the noise. I’ve learnt that it’s important to hold your tongue even at the most ridiculous opinions. Smile and nod, and drink. And then fester and then rage. No no no no! 

There is a better way. I have some hard-won wisdom on how to survive the holiday season without resorting to drunkenness, violence or prescription drugs. Much Christmas grumpiness is brought on by tiredness so if you feel like you’re going to fall asleep, do it. Even at the lunch table. People will just think you’re eccentric. It’ll become part of family folklore like that time my mother dropped the bread sauce on the floor. That was fifteen years ago but we’re still talking about. If being at the table is getting too much find an excuse to leave. I need to check on the fire is a good one or I have to call my brother in Australia. Or you can help out in the kitchen. Make yourself useful. 

Take a break from the wine occasionally. I like to drink sparkling water with ice, lime and a drop of angostura bitters.  This does make me look like an alcoholic, I had an Uncle who used to drink this when he was on the wagon, but it’s so delicious that I don’t care. Tea is another life-saver at Christmas. Nobody ever did anything bad after a cup of tea. 

Go for a bloody walk

After lunch, rather than sit around around finishing off the port, go for a bloody walk. A good blustery walk ideally with a dog can save even the most jaded Christmas. Dogs are a calming influence. Why do you think doctors prescribe them to people with post traumatic stress disorder? If you don’t have a dog, buy one, though remember, they are not just for Christmas. Children can be useful too. They’re not as soothing as dogs but they can be quite diverting. Board games  are another good distraction, NOT Risk though. I’ve seen families torn apart by Risk. Scrabble or Trivial Pursuit are safer. 

And if all else fails, perhaps another drink really is the answer. Raise a glass and repeat the wise words of Homer Simpson: ‘to alcohol! the cause of and solution to all of life’s problems.’ 

A version of this appeared in the Oldie.

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Become a wine connoisseur on the cheap

This is something I wrote for The Fence’s newsletter. A friend described this new magazine like this: “The Fence seems a new and rare original voice in the magazine world, it’s good nature and high spirits rather reminiscent of Spy magazine in the 80s.” High praise indeed, it’s well worth signing up to the newsletter and subscribing to the magazine itself. 

I know what you’re thinking, what with all these queues for petrol and bare supermarket shelves, it’s about time I started a wine cellar. There’s no shortage of information out there on the subject but the best advice I’ve had comes from a now-defunct blog called Sediment: “1) Buy wine 2) DON’T DRINK IT!!” Incidentally, their review of a Nero D’Avola from Sainsbury’s in the style of Bruce Chatwin is one of the best things you’ll read this week.

Once you’ve decided to start a cellar, it’s a question of where to buy your wine. I’m assuming that like me you are trying to raise a family on a writer’s salary with only the occasional meagre bequest from deceased relatives keeping your nose above water. I cannot, therefore, recommend one of those trendy wine merchants that started to appear in British cities around 2009, exploiting the gap left by the decline of Oddbins, Bottoms Up et al.

The new wave wine merchants

I remember my first experience with one such place. I was living in Bethnal Green when Bottle Apostle opened across Victoria Park from my flat. It was lavishly-appointed shop with enomatic machines so you could buy small tasting samples of expensive wines – most of which I had never heard of. Opening in East London around the time of the financial crash and offering very little below £10, I gave it six months at best. Much to my amazement, not only did it survive and thrive, but other new wine merchants opened within walking distance including one run by French hipsters on Hackney Road which sold austere natural wines from the Loire with not much available below £30. 

These places are fun with their esoteric lists, but the wines can be maddeningly unpredictable especially if you’re on a budget. Clearly there are plenty of people in London who don’t mind taking a risk on a £20-30 bottle of wine that might not be to their taste. I’m just not one of them. 

The Frenchsters were unusual in that they actually imported their own wine. Most independent wine merchants will buy from a wholesaler like Liberty Wines or Fields Morris & Verdin. There might be lots of talk about “visiting my growers”, but this often means a jolly at the importer’s expense, or just attending a tasting in London.

The usual mark-up will be between 30-40% on top of wholesale prices. It sounds like a lot but once the rent has been paid, staff costs accounted for and the various council hoops jumped through, there’s very little profit left. A few years ago, when the writing work wasn’t pouring in, I worked part time at one such a shop in South East London. The owner was so terrified of giving away margin, that she actually winced when I asked for a staff discount. You do, however, come across retailers who are frankly taking the piss. There’s a shop near my house selling Chateau Ksara Reserve de Couvent for more than £20 a bottle. I’m happy to pay a little more to support a local business but not when it’s charging nearly double the price at The Wine Society. 

Tom Ashworth and Jason Yapp. Note French peasant-esque jacket

Red trousers

My kind of wine merchant is not the sort of person who wears skinny jeans and a T-shirt featuring the names of cult Beaujolais producers. I’m afraid that I’m more drawn to tweed, red trousers and, best of all, those kind of blue cotton jackets that French peasants stopped wearing years ago and are now only sported by English wine merchants or retired lawyers in Kent with a passion for fixing sash windows. 

In the blue cotton camp is Yapp Bros in the West Country, specialising in the Rhone and the Loire. While in the tweed corner you’ll find Tanners in the Midlands, particularly strong on Portugal and Bordeaux. Then there’s the Wine Society, a members’ club which only costs £40 to join with prices so good that if I was an independent wine merchant I’d just give up.

Most experts will tell you that only the very best wines improve with age. This is nonsense. Even quite ordinary wines can mature. I’ve tasted old bottles of Jacob’s Creek Riesling from the corner shop that had gone positively opulent sitting gathering dust on the shelves. Every now and then, I do a sweep of the wines that my father has forgotten about in the garage, and we’ll find that some cheapish red from Rioja or the Languedoc has matured with the grace of decent Burgundy.

Ignore the experts

You can ignore the soi-disant experts who tell you that you need either a proper underground cellar or a ‘wine fridge’ that mimics cellar conditions in order to keep wine.

I finished the last bottle of a case of 2009 Bordeaux (Sarget to Gruaud Larose, in case you’re interested) this year. It tasted superb despite having spent most of its life stored under the stairs in a council flat in Lewisham. Unless you’re planning to keep your wine longer, your ‘cellar’ just needs to be dark, and not get too hot or cold. In a cupboard by an outside wall should be fine for a few years.  Wine can be surprisingly resilient, but whatever you do, don’t use the racks that come in fitted kitchens, usually right next to the oven. Bottles left there will be suitable only for mulling. 

What sort of wines should you buy? Well, you don’t need a lot of money to play the connoisseur, delving into your ‘cellar’ and boring your guests with how this Côtes du Rhône, “as good as some Châteauneuf-du-Papes, don’t you know, has blossomed in the last year or two.” As long as you’re buying from a good merchant then sturdy reds like Bordeaux, Chianti or Barossa shiraz, NV Champagne, riesling of all sorts, better chardonnays from Chile, Argentina and Australia, will all improve with a couple of years in your makeshift cellar. Even rosé tastes better the following year. Buy Provence rosé when it’s on sale in the autumn, keep it somewhere dark and by June you’ll be sipping the nectar of the gods.

But the ultimate bargain keeper has to be LBV (late bottled vintage) Port. I had a bottle of 2003 Taylor’s LBV not long ago that would have put many proper vintage ports to shame. You can pick it up for £12 a bottle. Buy a case, put it away, and you’ll be richly rewarded in five years time. 

Think of it this way, foreign travel might be nearly impossible and your fuel bills are about to go through the roof but you can still do as our ancestors did and get a bit of southern warmth through the magic of fortified wine. In fact, can you afford not to start a cellar now?

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Say no to rondo and other thoughts on English wine

When visiting large trade tastings, it’s always good to go with a plan. Otherwise you’ll find yourself floundering about, tasting old favourites, and leave feeling tired and emotional. It was particularly tricky at the WineGB tasting at the Lindley Hall in September because it seemed to be the first tasting where everyone was back. There was an air of jollity mixed with relief and some trepidation. It was hard to concentrate on the wines.

Nevertheless, I came with a plan: no traditional method sparkling wines, and no bacchus. Considering they made up about 90% of the wines there, this narrowed down the field considerably. Mainly I tasted still wines made from French varieties like chardonnay and pinot blanc, though there were some reds, a very tasty pet nat and a sparkling merlot! I’ve included some of my favourites below but first a few thoughts about where English still wines are going:

Say no to Rondo!

This is a red grape that has proved bafflingly popular with English growers probably because it’s easy to get a nice ripe colour which customers like. The wines though, don’t taste great, with a strange vimto kind of flavour. It’s particularly bad when people blend it with pinot noir to boost the colour, completely destroying the delicate flavour of English Pinot. No more Rondo please!

Reds are still work in progress  

Nevertheless, things are improving rapidly. I was particularly taken with pinot noir precoce from London Cru, pinot noir from Hush Heath/ Balfour and Simpson, and a delicious gamay from Biddenden. Plus the usual excellent pinot noir from Gusbourne. Some producers, however, seemed a bit too keen on whole bunch fermentation, a brave move in England.

Why are the rosés so dull? 

With all the pinot noir being grown which isn’t quite ripe enough for reds, you’d think England would be rosé heaven but it seems like everyone is trying to make versions of Provence rather than light sappy wines that straddle rosé and red wine. Again Gusbourne stands out here.

The French white grapes are coming on 

I tasted excellent chardonnays at all price levels from £15 to £30, and different styles, lean Chablis-like and richer more Macon style. But I also had some very tasty pinot gris, pinot blanc and chasselas (I know, it’s swiss.) Three producers told me that they do the only sauvignon blanc in England, though none of them was that great.

Bluebell Estate in Sussex

Here were some of my favourites:

Lyme Bay Chardonnay 2020 

Made in Dorset though the fruit is from all over the country. Very different to previous vintages, no oak, lots of fresh crunchy Granny smith apple. Mouth-watering, clean and ripe. Don’t think it’s available yet. The 2017 is excellent (£18 from Majestic) in an oaky style.

London Cru Pinot Noir Precoce Pimlico Road 2020 

Impressive level of alcohol, 13.5% with no added sugar. Very pale colour with plenty of raspberry fruit, leather and some floral spicy notes from whole bunch (though not too much.) Great fun – especially chilled. £20 from English Wine Collection

Bluebell Vineyard Chasselas Ashdown Estate 2020

Lemony fruit on the palate, lovely creamy feel, really textured (I underlined this word in my notes), with long mineral finish. This is very good indeed. One of the best English still whites I have had. £15 a bottle which is good value, and not just for an English wine. Found the 2018 here for £14.99.

Artelium Twenty Twenty Pinot Gris 2020 

This producer, a new one to me, really impressed. I believe this is made by Defined Wines near Canterbury. This has a big spicy nose, apples and ginger. Lots of flavour, maybe a touch of cider but nothing to frighten the horses. Alsace sort of style but bone dry. This is good. £18.99 from Grape Britannia so not bad value for England. The chardonnay is good too.

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Booze interview with Victoria Moore

Today, I am delighted to have one of my favourite drinks writers on the blog: Victoria Moore, the Daily Telegraph’s wine columnist and author of a new book on wine and food called Fried Eggs and Rioja

There are wine books that I refer to again and again, like Wine Grapes, and there are books that I read and reread for enjoyment like Patrick Matthews’ Wild Bunch. But Victoria Moore’s Wine Dine Dictionary is one that not only have I used for reference perhaps more than any book, but it’s one that I dip often for sheer pleasure. The book is in two alphabetical sections: the first part is food, just go to the dish/ vegetable/ animal in question and Moore will suggest wines to go with it, the second is based on wine, with recommendations for dishes to go with different grape varieties and styles.

It’s a clever idea which in the hands of a lesser writer would be simply a work of reference but Moore has a rare gift for bringing flavours to life. I don’t think anybody writes about food and wine as well. When she describes a wine, you can almost taste it. The book also includes recipes from various food and wine luminaries. There’s no received opinions here, everything is based on Moore’s unerring and exacting palate. 

The book was published in 2017 and deservedly won a Fortnum & Mason award. Now there’s a new version called Fried Eggs and Rioja. She describes it as: “created from the first half of Wine Dine Dictionary plus some extra bits.” If you’ve already got the WDD, then buy a copy of the new book for the the wine and food lover in your life. 

I’m delighted to have her on the blog, answering my inane questions. 

Credit: Clara Molden

When did you first realise wine was something special? Was there an epiphany bottle or did it sort of creep up on you?

Definitely it crept up on me. What a good way of putting it. As a family, growing up, we always ate proper home-cooked food made with good ingredients. But there was no ancestral cellar, just dad’s elderberry wine bubbling away on the boiler in the kitchen. I think we were all very noticing of the sense of smell and when I began to drink wine (away from home and on the tightest budget so always cheap stuff) I thought of it in those terms. I learnt about wine on the job. I remember Simon Thorpe opening a bottle of white Domaine de Chevalier for me when I tasted with him at Waitrose once and that was a revelation – so much perfume and mushrooms and lemon curd.

What did you do before you became a wine writer?

For a few years I balanced writing about drink with my other jobs in newspapers, (in chronological order) in a books department, across the news and features section of London Metro, on a diary column and as a feature writer.

What unexpected publications have you written for?

There are two. I used to write match reports for Leeds United’s fanzine, when it was edited by James Brown [of Loaded magazine fame, not the hardest working man in showbiz]. The other one I’m not going to mention in case somehow there’s an online archive.

Which wine writers were you inspired by when you first set out?

My head was more in the worlds of journalism and publishing (my first job after uni was for a publisher), so I used to read wine specialists for information and other writers for technique/inspiration. Writers I admired then and still go back to include Jon Ronson who has a brilliant style, deceptively simple, and Truman Capote. My old boss Peter McKay, for whom I worked for three years on the Ephraim Hardcastle diary in the Daily Mail, taught me a lot. Every day he spent two hours just editing – cutting and honing – the 485-word column and chuckling at his own mischief. “Baby, always write to amuse yourself then at least one person is happy.” There are loads of wine writers whose style I envy today. They include Adam Lechmere – he’s so good at telling a story; Bianca Bosker (her book Cork Dork is fantastic); Alice Lascelles who writes with great concision and gives good opinion. I also enjoy the dry humour of Henry Jeffreys – am I allowed to say that here? [Yes, yes you are.]

How did you become a wine writer?

By accident. In the late nineties I was working on the books page of a national newspaper, doing a bit of review-writing and serial-buying but mostly opening Jiffy bags. There were a lot of Jiffy bags! I was also constantly writing to journalists on other publications, asking if they’d let me write for them. One day, one of those people wrote back and said, “Yes.” It was Cristina Odone who had just become deputy editor of the New Statesman. This was the era of Bridget Jones and Cristina suggested I write an out and about sort of a column about drinking, being very honest about what I didn’t know (ie everything).

How did you find/ do you find the wine world when you first started out? Welcoming? Intimidating? A bit of both?

I feel like an interloper wherever I go. I started out with a foot in two worlds, tabloid journalism, which was notoriously tough but there was always a sense of camaraderie, and wine, which I found more daunting but in a different way. The correspondence I’ve had from writing about wine has generally been more aggressive than anything I had as a feature writer. When I started writing the wine column at the Guardian one of the first letters to the magazine editor accused her of giving me the job because I had “big tits.” Another reader emailed me directly to call me a “stupid cow” because I had recommended a wine that wasn’t from a supermarket.

Do you have a favourite food & wine combination?

Nebbiolo and white truffles. It’s just insanely good. Also I really love the perfume of syrah with peppery steak.[and surely fried eggs and rioja.]

Favourite restaurant or restaurants?

If I could go out tonight I’d dream of a table at The River Café or Trattoria della Posta in Monforte d’Alba in Piedmont. In reality, I eat out very, very seldom. The babysitting is out of budget, let alone the restaurant bill.

Do you have a favourite wine or wine region?

Depending on my mood and the weather and the food, I get cravings for wines from all over the place. I recently wrote about chardonnay and can’t stop thinking about how good the Kumeu River Village chardonnay (New Zealand) and Boschkloof chardonnay (South Africa) both were (we drank them with crab, pea shoot, sugar snaps and pea pasta in case you’re wondering, a Diana Henry recipe). If I make cottage pie for dinner I start hankering after a Chilean red. I’m as much a sucker for grower Champagne as the next wine writer. I could go on…I do have a thing for nebbiolo and sangiovese though: when I smell a good one I feel like I’ve come home.

Where’s the best country/ region to go hunting for bargains?

It depends what you mean by a bargain I suppose. If we’re talking about the best wine at the lowest price then Spain is a good hunting ground for reds; tempranillo, bobal, and all that lovely old vine garnacha. Regional France is still good – particularly the Languedoc. If lighter reds are your thing then Tesco has a brilliant Beaujolais for £5. And what about Bordeaux! There’s a myth that you need to spend a lot of money to get something drinkable from Bordeaux but if you look around you can find really decent reds for under a tenner that taste like proper wines.

What has been the most memorable wine trip you’ve been on and why?

Too many good ones to pick. I can tell you what the most memorable wine trip I didn’t go on was – the one when Joe Wadsack went to Croatia and on the way back from dinner decided to jump into the freezing pool in his hotel before dripping his way through a pristine marble lobby and along many corridors to his room. There to find out, when the key didn’t work, that he wasn’t actually in his hotel. And didn’t know where his hotel was [you can read the whole story on Wadsack’s blog].

What’s your house wine at the moment?

Tarquin’s The Sea Dog Navy Strength Gin. I rarely buy the same bottle of wine twice. Gin is a different matter.

What are your favourite books on wine?

I’ve got a whole bookshelf of wine books I wouldn’t be without. All the obvious ones. The World Atlas of Wine is the first I’d buy for anyone interested in wine (if they didn’t have it already). I think Oz Clarke is under-rated as a writer. I like his book on English wine and also Red and White which has just been republished as Oz Clarke on Wine: Your Global Wine Companion.

How much influence do you think wine writers actually have over what people drink?

Nothing like as much as a wine buyer. But we’re one of many influences that can steer a certain cohort of drinkers towards certain wines.

Fried Eggs and Rioja: What to Drink with Absolutely Everything by Victoria Moore in published by Granta. Click here to buy.

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Inside the louchest nightclub in Britain

This is something I wrote for the Telegraph a few years back about going clubbing, for the first time in years, with a club fixer called Richard Walker-Smith.

The nightclub dream is that scene in Saturday Night Fever where Tony Manero (John Travolta) and his crew jump a long queue and walk straight into 2001 Odyssey greeted by everyone on their way in. That has happened to me only once. It was at a nightclub in Leeds called Speed Queen. This was a funky house night with a ‘mixed’ clientele which is code for gays, girls and men who don’t look too straight. Because it was so popular with glamorous Yorkshire girls who wanted to dance unmolested, the queue was always full of hopeful groups of lads in Ben Sherman shirts.  One night I arrived with some regulars. They were dressed up to the nines. I wore a sleeveless neoprene T shirt. We walked past all the hopefuls and straight into the club. I felt like one of the beautiful people. It never happened again. 

Mostly my experiences involved waiting in queues in the rain with a large chance that I wouldn’t get in. The last time I went clubbing was in 2006 at the End just off Oxford Street (a club owned by Mr C from the Shamen which closed in 2009). I found the whole thing so exhausting that I never went again. I remember thinking at the time that there must be an easier way. A young man called Richard Walker-Smith thinks he has found the answer. He’s the founder of Zoolafix a website that hooks you up with fixers around the world who for around £100 promise to give you the night of your life. He offered to show me what he could do.  

I warned Richard that I hadn’t had been to a nightclub in years. I’m now 37, married with a daughter and a very manly paunch. He stheaid that he’d break me in very gently. We’d go to a place called the Box. My wife googled the Box –  apparently it’s the louchest club in Britain. ‘Well you shouldn’t believe everything you read in the Daily Mail’, I replied, ‘they probably just found some single mothers there’. Then I looked it up: it’s notorious for heavy cocaine use, obscene floor shows and orgies.  It’s also famously difficult to get into.

Richard isn’t the only one promising to take the hard work out of clubbing. There’s now an app called with Fixr where you can buy club tickets online, they give you a QR code and then you walk straight into the club without queuing. The people behind Fixr including tabloid favourite Henry Conway all come from West London backgrounds and thought that the clubs they frequented – the sort of places that Prince Harry is seen falling out of – would jump at their app. They didn’t. The reason is the rather sinister sounding concept of ‘Face Control’. Exclusive clubs need a beautiful clientele. If they let just any Tom, DIck and Harry with an iphone, then they wouldn’t be exclusive any more. So Fixr are concentrating on the more commercial end of nightlife.

What should I wear for my night out? I couldn’t squeeze into the old neoprene T shirt so instead wore my Daks tweed jacket. My reasoning was that they’d think I’m one of Prince Harry’s mates and let me straight in. Before I left my wife wrapped me in a scarf, looked me sternly in the eye and said ‘no smoking, you’ll only make your cold worse!’ I met Richard at what looked like a boarded up pub in Dalston called the King’s Head. It’s now a private members club and has been decorated in what can only be described as William Morris meets Mobutu style. There’s lots of patterned wallpaper, antique furniture and taxidermy. I’m not talking a few stuffed owls but tigers, lions and in one room a bloody great polar bear. 

From the King’s Head we went to the Chiltern Firehouse in central London. The bar staff wore white dinner jackets and the waitresses wore extremely flattering red jumpsuits. As with the King’s Head the people on the door knew Richard. I asked him how he had become so well-known so young. He had two bits of advice: go out as much as you can so that your face becomes familiar and wear a big hat. The big hat means you are distinctive so people get to know you quicker. He said the worst thing you can do in a club queue it to try to be unobtrusive. Clubs want colourful people. I made a mental note – buy big hat. 

From the Chiltern Firehouse it was but a short hop to the infamous Box. There were two queues. At the front of one was a Welsh girl pleading with the doormen: ‘please! my friend used to work here and she said that I could come down tonight and you’d let me in. She said to ask for Louis.’ They looked at her with that blank look that they’re taught at bouncing school. There was no way she was getting in. Richard ignored both queues, walked right up to the bouncers, and started talking to them. There was a pause where I thought, I shouldn’t have worn the tweed, and then they lifted the rope and I entered the Box!

Inside there were saucy girls in 1930 outfits who all kissed Richard and said ‘hello darling’. I was slightly suspicious about how easy it was to get it. ‘Surely you must have slipped the bouncers some money?’ I asked him later. Richard told me that he’d ‘never done it and never would. Anyhow, I doubt it would get you very far at the places I like going to. I’ve seen doormen at the The Box not even blink at the offer of hundreds of pounds cash.’ I’ve heard from another source that some staff at the Box aren’t so immune to backhanders. 

We went to the bar where a beer cost £9.50. No wonder cocaine is allegedly so popular here – it’s just much cheaper than getting drunk. I told Richard to find me some drugs immediately. I’m joking of course, but surely it must come up? For many clubbing is about drugs and the possibility of sex. What if your customers wanted you to procure things or people? Richard replied: ‘Guests after that kind of service can expect to be left disappointed. I’m very focussed on building a reputable business.’ Richard has big ambitions for Zoolafix; he wants it to become the Air B&B of nightlife. 

This place used to be Raymond’s Revue Bar, an old school Soho strip club owned by pornography magnate Paul Raymond. The old Soho of stripclubs and sex shops may be dying but money and sex are still intertwined. The club was divided into three groups: down the side were the high rollers in booths that cost thousands necking champagne and all looking very refreshed. On the raised dance floor were the freaks and beautiful people, and then there was everyone else. As someone who remembers the self-conscious egalitarianism of clubbing in the 90s it was strange to see the divisions so starkly defined and ruthlessly exploited. 

Of course this egalitarianism was nonsense at the clubs I went to in Leeds. Your face still had to fit, but now if it doesn’t you can buy your way in by booking a table which costs a lot of money. The Fixer boys are in talks with Prince Harry clubs so that you will soon be able to buy tables for £1000s through their app. Money trumps Face Control if you have enough of it. Of course by hiring Richard you are also bribing your way in. It’s not quite how I saw nightlife in the 90s but I didn’t feel that bad about it. If I was taking a night out with a group of friends – I would hire Richard. I’ve never had a night where everything happened so effortlessly. By about one in the morning I was a little drunk and for a moment almost felt like one of the beautiful people. It wasn’t quite Tony Manero in Saturday Night Fever but it was good enough for me.

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Cin City – judging the world’s best cinsault

Last week a group of highly-respected wine experts and me, blind tasted nearly 40 cinsaults from around the world at The Drapers Arms in Islington. And here are the full results.

Cin City aka the Cinsault Olympics aka the judgement of Islington came about from Matt Walls’ love of this long-neglected variety. The tasting panel consisted of five fellow cinsault-lovers, two masters of wine, Alistair Cooper and Sarah Abbott, Alice Lascelles from the Financial Times, Walls and me.

I’ve written an article for Club Oenologique about the tasting so this is just a place to put the full results and indulge in some backstabbing of fellow judges. Only joking! But seriously, there will be some backstabbing.

But first a big thank you to Madeleine Waters and Matt Walls for organising, and to the Drapers Arms for giving us a room and glasses for free. The food and wine list at this place is first rate.

We tasted 37 wines, 22 from South Africa, 8 from Chile, 4 from France, 2 from California and 1 from Lebanon so it’s no surprise that South Africa came out on top. But the sheer quality of the top three South African wines was astonishing. These are gorgeous wines that justify their high price tags. It was also great to see a favourite of mine Domaine des Tourelles from Lebanon placing so highly. Maybe it will convince more Lebanese producers to bottle some cinsault.

“No, I don’t think there’s any reduction,” Alistair Cooper (right) with Matt Walls

France, sadly, did not show well, though I personally loved the Domaine Tiptiri from the Rhone and liked Boulevard Napoléon L`Abeuradou (despite the rather high alcohol). I wasn’t as keen as the other judges on the Chilean wines, some of which I found unpleasantly reductive. They were also very young, as were many of the wines so may well unfurl with more time in bottle and/or decanting. Both Californian wines were superb

Anyway, here’s the top 20 and below that are my own personal favourites:

1AA Badenhorst, Ringmuur Cinsault, Swartland 2019 SA
2Leeu Passant, Old Vines Basson Cinsault, Wellington 2017 SA
3Blankbottle ‘Pseudonym’ 2020 SA
4Domaine des Tourelles Vieilles Vignes Cinsault LEB 2018
Joint 5Birichino, Bechthold Cinsault Old Vines CAL 2019
Joint 5Duncan Savage ‘Follow the Line’ SA 2018
Joint 5Leonardo Erazo Itata Las Curvas Itata CHIL 2019
8Bosman Family Vineyards Twyfeling Cinsaut Bush Vines SA 2019
9Blankbottle ‘Retirement at 65’ Cinsault SA 2020
10Leeu Passant, Old Vines Lötter Cinsault, Franschhoek SA 2018
Joint 11Leonardo Erazo Amigo Piedra CHIL 2019
Joint 11Lukas van Loggerenberg ‘Geronimo’ CHIL 2019
13Scholium ‘1MN’ Bechtold Ranch CAL 2019
Joint 14Kaapzicht, Skuinsberg Bushvine Cinsault, Stellenbosch SA 2020
Joint 14Mount Rozier The Red Snapper Cinsault SA 2020
Joint 14AA Badenhorst, Ramnasgras Cinsault, Swartland SA 2019
Joint 14Miguel Torres La Causa Cinsault, Itata SA 2015
18AA Badenhorst, Ramnasgras Cinsault, Swartland SA 2017
Joint 19Domaine Jean-David Tipitiri Cinsault FRA 2019
Joint 19A los Vinateros Bravos Pipeno Tinto, Itata Hills CHIL 2020
If it’s got a bird on the label, then I’m all over it
1AA Badenhorst, Ringmuur Cinsault, Swartland SA 2019
2Leeu Passant, Old Vines Basson Cinsault, Wellington 2017 SA
joint 3Birichino, Bechthold Cinsault Old Vines CAL 2019
joint 3Domaine Jean-David Tipitiri Cinsault FRA 2019
joint 3 Domaine des Tourelles LEB 2018
joint 3Kaapzicht, Skuinsberg Bushvine Cinsault, Stellenbosch SA 2020
joint 3Bosman Family Vineyards Twyfeling Cinsaut Bush Vines SA 2019
4Scholium ‘1MN’ Bechtold Ranch CAL 2017
5Mount Rozier The Red Snapper Cinsault SA 2020
Joint 6Blankbottle ‘Retirement at 65’ Cinsault SA 2020
Joint 6AA Badenhorst, Ramnasgras Cinsault, Swartland SA 2017
Joint 6B Vintners, Lone Wolf Cinsault, Stellenbosch SA 2018
Joint 7Boulevard Napoleon, `L`Aberadou` Pur Cinsault de Schistes IGP Pays d’Herault 2018 FRA
Joint 7Blankbottle ‘Pseudonym’ SA 2020
Joint 7AA Badenhorst, Ramnasgras Cinsault, Swartland SA 2018
Joint 7Natte Valley Cinsault SA 2019

Looking forward to Cin City 2 which will be even bigger.

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