Books Wine articles

The Bluffer’s Guide to Wine

‘Tea and toasted buttered currant buns, can’t compensate for lack of sun’                              The Kinks, Autumn Almanac

Perhaps tea and buns can’t help us through the winter but what Ray Davies really should have tried was fortified wine. I read a lovely article a few years back exploring this phenomenon in the Financial Times by Harry Eyres:

“The varied styles of sherry seem to me one of the most humane ways ever discovered of shepherding human beings through the changing seasons, and especially through the hard change to winter.”

Eyres does what few wine writers even attempt and melds history, wine and personal reflection into his article. Since then I’ve always looked out for his writings. He was wine columnist for the Spectator in the 1980s and has written a series of books on the subject. I was delighted when his publishers sent me an electronic copy of his latest, The Bluffer’s Guide to Wine. Normally I’d avoid a book with this sort of title but as it’s by Eyres, I thought it’s sure to be a quality product. It’s not entirely by Eyres though. This edition is written in conjunction with Jonathan Goodall whose work I am not familiar with it.

A book like this must succeed on two levels: 1) it must be funny 2) it must be accurate – if you’re going to bluff about wine you need a very firm based on which to bluff from. I wrote in an earlier post about the Les Dawson rule, in order to make playing the piano badly funny, you have to be a very good pianist.

So is it funny? Well I didn’t disturb my wife with snorts of hilarity but there are some funny bits:

‘An unfeasibly long and narrow strip of land. . . . Chile might seem a silly shape for a wine-producing country, certainly when compared with the no-nonsense square shapes of leading producers France and Spain’

Both nicely surreal and informative, this is a good wine joke. The tone of the book is light and witty and rarely descends into facetiousness. I abhor facetiousness! Unless I’m doing it, of course.The book opens with some general information about wine and wine tasting, moves logically onto grape varieties then takes a gallop around the world of wine and ends with a short section on wining and dining. The book is really just an amusingly written introduction to wine but scattered in it are tips to impress and to justify the bluffers guide title. Some of these are actually rather useful and on the nose such as recommending chilling some reds because it makes you look like you know what you’re doing (it does though it can also cause a furore in certain Spanish restaurants on Charlotte Street.)

Is it accurate? Again up to a point. The grape variety chapter initially seems a bit scant but there’s a very useful section where the authors not only tell us which wines are made from which varieties but also what they are often blended with.  The authors manage to distill quite complicated concepts accurately and their simplifications, on the whole, work. As a pedant, however, I was delighted to notice a few mistakes. This is probably the biggest one:

“the grand crus or top villages of the Cotes de Nuits include Gevrey-Chambertin. . . .” Grand Cru is not the same thing as top village. Gevrey-Chambertin is a village not a Grand Cru

Mistakes such as this one mean the reader has to be careful when bluffing from these pages. As Morrissey once sang: “there’s always someone somewhere, with a big nose who knows and trips you up and laughs when you fall.” I think I approached this book with the wrong expectations given it was co-written by someone of Eyre’s talents. On it’s own terms, it’s enjoyable and would make a good gift or something to read on a cold winter’s night with a roaring fire and a nice old amontillado.

Wine articles

Pursuing balance in California

What do we know about wine from California? If you had to ask me to name three things, I would have said: they’re big, they’re expensive and they’re not over here. I was in LA recently combining a visit to the in-laws with some research on behalf of World of Booze and found out that my preconceptions were two thirds wrong.

At the annual California tasting in London last year I was dismayed by how most of the wines I tried lived up to the big & dumb stereotype. I’d hoped for more (or less rather). When I spoke to a friend who knew a bit about Californian wine, he’d even written a book on it, he said that that’s the style, I’d just have to get used to it. Whilst I was in LA, I was keen to find out if there was an alternative. Knowing next to nothing about California wine, I asked for recommendations in two wine merchants, stating that I wanted something made from Rhone varieties for about $20.

From an old school shop, Duck Blind in Santa Monica, I bought a Punchdown Syrah 2010 and from the trendy Domaine LA in Santa Monica, I bought Lucques Rouge 09. The first reminded me of something very chic from the Northern Rhone but with a distinct Californian brightness about it. The second one reminded me of Beaujolais, really good Beaujolais at its most moreish, like something from George Descombes. This was the last thing that I  expected to find in California.

I had unwittingly stumbled on a movement in California wines: low alcohol, low extract and lowish price. They call it In Pursuit of Balance. Actually the low price thing isn’t an intrinsic part of pursuing balance but I like to think that they are pursuing moderation in all areas. Later my wife and I took a trip with our friend Ari up to Santa Barbara to visit Qupé whose Grenache impressed me recently. Not everything was good but all their Syrahs were delicious and for the most part affordable.

59710_10151503840311204_1336356778_nPerhaps the best thing we had on our trip, however, was cheaper still, about $17 retail though we drank it at the Hungry Cat  (great food, not so good service) in Santa Barbara. It was the Patelin de Tablas Blanc 2011 from Tablas Creek, a blend of Viognier, Roussanne, Marsanne and Grenache Blanc. This producer is owned by the Perrin family of Château de Beaucastel fame and are famed for their pricey Chateauneuf-de-Pape-style estate wines. This is a new venture using grapes from other people’s vineyards as well as their own estate much as their parent company does in the Southern Rhone (see Cotes-du-Rhone challenge.)

So Californian wines are not necessarily big nor even particularly expensive but sadly most of these wines are not available in Britain. Oddbins have the more expensive wines from Tablas Creek at £38 a bottle. You can also buy some Qupé wines but by the time they’ve made it over here they go from $25 to £25.

These producers don’t care if we can’t buy their wines. They can sell everything without a problem to an eager home audience. Unlike the Australians or New Zealanders they’re not interested in the prestige of having their wines internationally available. We should care though because we’re missing out on some of the most downright delicious wines in the world.

Some tips if you’re in California:

Punchdown Syrah, Spicerack Vineyards, Sonoma Coast 2010 – This smelt of cloves, liquorice with a touch of coffee. It’s medium-bodied with some tannin and vibrant vein of acidity. The finish was long with a touch of vanilla. $26

Lucques Rouge, North Coast 2009 – A blend of Grenache, Syrah and some other things. It’s bright red and smells a little pooey. It’s light-bodied with bright fruit and a slight bitter taste. It’s not hugely complex but it is tremendously appealing. $20

Patelin de Tablas Blanc 2011 – Initially very dry and a little peachy and floral. After warming up a bit becomes fatter and honeyed with some length and complexity. Delicious. Approx $17 retail.

Qupé, Bien Nacido Syrah 2008 – Meaty nose, light body and then really fragrant with ripe fruit and some spiciness. Intense and long but also refreshing. Superb value at $25 from the winery.

In amendment to this article I am delighted to say that Divine Fine Wines in Birmingham (that’s Birmingham, England) sell Californian wines at reasonable prices including the Bien Nacido Syrah at £18.95 


Books Recipes

The Breakfast Bible

9781408804810In 2005 a meeting was held somewhere in Kentish Town or perhaps Peckham that would reverberate down the ages. The meeting was chaired by a shadowy figure known only as Malcolm Eggs. His aim was to fight mediocre breakfasts within the capital. He brought together a crack team of writers, gardeners, students and out-of-work musicians. Everyone dropped their legal names and adopted nommes de guerre such as Ed Benedict, H. P. Seuss and Dr Sigmund Fried. Thus the London Review of Breakfasts was born. Amazingly it was a great success, inspired a legion of imitators and quickly became a target of the powerful breakfast lobby.

Now there is a book and rather than limit themselves to London, Malcolm Eggs and the LRB team have taken on the massive task of defining and describing breakfast itself. So along with a history of coffee, recipes for sausages and how to boil the perfect egg, there are essays on breakfasts in literature, breakfast and class, and Freud’s breakfast dream. It’s a book to cook from and to savour in bed. As a contributor to the book and the website, I can with all disinterest say that it’s timeless masterpiece. Please buy many copies.

The Breakfast Bible by Seb Emina & Malcolm Eggs is published by Bloomsbury 11th Februrary £16.99. You can read an extract here.