Wine articles

The Pleasure of Wine

A wine merchant opened up near my flat in East London about three years ago just as the recession was taking off and people were losing their jobs. They didn’t offer much below £10 a bottle and their expensive stuff came not only from Bordeaux and Burgundy but from Portugal and even South Africa. I gave them a year before they gave up trying to sell £80 a bottle Portuguese wine in Hackney, put up a sign saying ‘much cheapness here!’ and filled the front of the shop with bargain bins. I was wrong, of course, business is booming so much so that they have opened another shop. I asked the owner about this and he said the worse the economy got the better they seemed to do. Rather than going out, his customers were eating take-away fish & chips with a grower’s champagne from the likes of Pierre Gimonnet. That’s a very good evening in for £50. Even in recession-hit Hackney there are plenty of people who can afford that.

Wine, even quite expensive wine, even with our ridiculously high level of taxation, is affordable entertainment; just compare it to restaurants or the theatre or skiing. It’s more reliable too. When visiting a restaurant the food might be vile and the service slow; at the theatre you might be bored rigid, actually be honest with yourself, you will be bored rigid; when skiing you could be killed; but even if the wine is indifferent you can still get drunk. Most wine writers neglect to mention that wine contains alcohol except perhaps to tick it off for having too much. One gets the impression that alcohol gets in the way of the enjoyment of the wine. This is, of course, nonsense. The reason you are drinking wine is because of the alcohol. But wine is so much more than just a drug. If you just wanted to be drunk you would join the Skol Super crowd down at Cambridge Heath station, wine also stimulates the heart and the head.

Certain wines work best on a sensual level. You don’t have to know very much about wine to appreciate the heady perfume of a good Chambolle-Musigny. It’s as close as one can get to listening to music with your nose and the enjoyment feels as instinctive as hearing a beautiful melody. But there is another level of enjoyment beyond the alcoholic and the sensual (and let’s not forget that the two are linked as the alcohol takes hold your senses are heightened), that is the intellectual. This is the area of wine appreciation that attracts the most disapproval. Knowledge of wine is seen as snobbish. I am sure that some people do learn about wine to impress or belittle but they are thankfully rare. Instead learning provides a frame of reference. Now when trying that sublime Chambolle, your brain will be comparing it to other vintages, other vineyards, other producers. You will know how rare it is to have a red Burgundy that really sings like this so you’ll have the pleasure of trying something sacred. Your mind will be linked into the history of the region, it will be a holiday and a history lesson from the comfort of your armchair. All of this mental comparing can be done explicitly if you’re with a fellow wine bore or just done mentally as you drink. It depends on the company. I don’t really approve of blind tastings as this brings in an element of competition that spoils the conversation. It’s like the hostess who insists on a game of charades when you really want to talk and listen.

A good wine should enhance the conversation, make you feel more eloquent than you really are and bring you closer to your interlocutor. This brings me to the ultimate leisure wines. Wines that the Italians call vino da meditazione – these are wines best shared with an old friend you haven’t seen for years or a formerly close but now estranged relative whom you hope to repair things with. From Italy itself you have Amarone and it’s sweet counterpart Recioto- made from dried grapes in Valpolicella, from France the fortified wines of the Rousillon, Maury and Banyuls, from Portugal, Port especially the tawny kind, and Madeira, from Spain an old oloroso sherry and, perhaps my favourite, from Sicily a dry Marsala from a producer such as De Bartoli or Florio. These are wines so rich and complex that you only drink them in small amounts. There are many others, almost every wine producing country produces something in this style, wines that engage the senses, aid thought and conversation, and bring people closer together. These wines are particularly apposite for reticent Englishmen as the wines themselves fill gaps in conversation, no need for idle chatter. An old marsala evoking the sights, smells, music and landscape of Sicily, is diversion enough, requiring only occasional murmur of pleasure from your companion.

All this can take place without any conscious thought. Whilst sipping wine with your old friend, your wife, your lover, talking, laughing, slowly giving in to intoxication, you wouldn’t, or if you are you shouldn’t, be making these distinctions between the intellectual and the sensual, the pleasure of wine and the pleasure of good company. For a moment or a whole evening if you’re lucky, there is harmony between your body, mind and soul. Nothing else comes close, certainly not eating out, theatre or skiing, and you don’t have to leave home or get a baby-sitter.

This article previously appeared on The Dabbler

Wine articles

Have I lumbered my blog with a stupid name?

I’m thinking of changing the name of my blog. No less an authority than Jancis Robinson (for it is she) thought that it sounded ‘rather unappetising.’ Evines, a online merchant, said that it ‘sounds dangerously like a smash up of binge drinking youths.’ I was hurt. I said to my wife ‘but you like the name don’t you?” Turns out she hates it, she thinks it sounds louche.’ ‘But I am louche’ I replied. ‘Isn’t that why you married me?’ ‘No, I married you for your dancing’ she retorted.

There is actually a very good reason why my blog is named as it is. A couple of years ago I wrote a book  proposal called ‘Empire of Booze.’ Ever the publicist, I started the blog to increase my online presence and gave it a name that would bring readers back to the book. It’s called putting the cart before the horse. The book never happened. No one wanted to take a gamble on me (incidentally if any enterprising publisher is reading this intrigued, you can contact my agent, Raymond Duck.)

So my blog is lumbered with a name no one likes based on a stillborn book. It’s time for a change. Here’s my shortlist for a new name:

1) The Impecunious Amateur (this is the subtitle for the blog and Jancis Robinson thought it much more appealing.)

2) The Wine Bore (I like this name though every wine blog has the word wine in the title: the wine explorer, the wine sleuth, the wine shepherd, world of wine, wines of the world etc. etc.)

3) errr that’s it.

I’m therefore inviting readers to come up with a name for my blog. The winner* receives a bottle of Kurucver 2007 – a lovely Hungarian red (by the way, I still have a couple of cases left if anyone wants to buy. I give you good price.) Entries below or you can email or contact me on twitter @henrygjeffreys

*I can only send the wine to mainland Britain.

Wine articles Wine of the week

Wine of the Week: Barbera d’ Asti Superiore ‘Le Amandole’ Gonella 2009

My wine of the week you probably cannot get hold of easily. I bought it in the Cave de Pyrene sale last week. I ordered some wines pretty much at random, nothing too expensive, nothing too old, and this was the pick of the bunch. Barbera from Piedmont, home of Barberesco and Barolo, may just be my favourite affordable wine. In the right hands it bursts with fruit and freshness, and always with a bitter edge that makes it interesting. This one is a bit of a bruiser. It smells of cooked plums, leather with a trace of vanilla, in the mouth there’s quite a bit of tannin, lots of acidity and then some lovely dark cherry fruit. There’s also some coffee and chocolate but don’t worry, it’s not that sort of wine! It’s also 15% but you wouldn’t notice when sipping it. I drank about half a bottle last night with my wife’s secret recipe meatballs (veal is the secret). It only cost me £7.20 so go and fill your boots. Except of course you can’t because they’re all sold out.

The reason I’m recommending a wine you can’t buy is because wines like this do appear occasionally. All you have to do is befriend wine merchants. I still get a shiver of excitement thinking of the haul of mature Alsace Rieslings from Paul Blanck and Morgons from JM Burgaud I bought for next to nothing in a Jeroboams sale a few years back. I had more cash then so bought cases of the stuff. Wine in this country is expensive because of  VAT, duty and bad exchange rates (I keep a copy of the 2008 Wine Society catalogue just so I can have a weep over the prices.) Your local wine merchant isn’t trying to rip you off. Keep in with him, buy when you can, get on the mailing list and every so often you will be rewarded with a bargain. Tanners have a sale on until 1st October. Go mad, fill your boots!


Anger doesn’t sell gin.

Who would you prefer to talk to at a wedding, an angry thug or a wine bore? I was thinking of this choice whilst watching the new Gordon’s gin advert. In it a stereotypical wine bore complete with big nose, blazer and cravat comes up with a description of his wine whilst his friends fruitly agree. They’re all having a great time until a dishevelled portly man* glares at them, takes a swig from his G&T and then loudly dismisses their chat as ‘pretentious rubbish.’

Perhaps the advert is meant to be in the style of those witty lager ads from the 80s – ‘I bet he drinks Carling Black Label‘ etc. – but here there’s an atmosphere of real menace. He’s not joking, he really wants to start a fight at a wedding. Why does the fat man hate wine drinkers so much? Did his wife run off with Tim Atkin MW? Why is the thin woman attracted to angry gin-swilling men? It makes one want to sidle over to the Chablis drinkers and have what they’re having.

It’s not the first time that Gordon’s have got their advertising wrong. A few years ago they took on Gordon Ramsey as their face just as he was becoming the most exposed man in Britain. So ubiquitous was Ramsey with billboards on every road that visitors from despotic regimes must have assumed that he was Britain’s answer to Colonel Gaddafi. I doubt anyone noticed the gin.

This new Gordon’s ad fails not only because it’s angry, and who wants their drink associated with violence, but also because it’s dated. The wine bore is right out of an 80s lager advert. People nowadays aren’t so embarrassed about talking about wine and wine enthusiasts aren’t likely to be toffs. In fact, Gordon’s rivals, Beefeater, Tanqueray etc, are reaching out to the connoisseurs’ market with special ’boutique’ gins that come with tasting notes flowery enough to make angry men even angrier. Most branded gins are sold partly on their perceived quality, it’s fine for Gordon’s to trade solely on image but then they have to do it with wit and style. Who wants to be associated with the nutter in the corner?

The tag line for this campaign is ‘Gordon’s, Let’s Get Started.’ They make it sound like a threat.

* I wrote this article before I realised that the man with a chip on his shoulder is someone moderately famous, Phil Glenister from TV’s ‘Life on Mars’. Perhaps that explains why the advert is stuck in a timewarp.