Wine articles

The changing face of the wine snob

I have an article in editorial limbo with the Spectator Life magazine – should be out in September – called ‘Death of the Wine Snob.’ You can probably guess my argument but you’ll have to wait until September to appreciate its full vision. I wrote most of it from LA earlier this year. There I visited a wine merchant with my wife and father-in-law, Jonathan. I asked the woman behind the counter to recommend a few not too expensive Rhoney Californian wines. In an off-hand way she turned three bottles upright and then rattled off technical details about them. One of them was from a producer, Wind Gap, who I’ve had before. I mentioned that I liked it but preferred a blend they did called Orra, did they have that one? Then something odd happened, the woman got a bit flustered, and then a bit cross and said something along the lines of I’ve never heard of it. I seem to have upset her by mentioning a wine that she didn’t know.

I wanted to talk about wine, she wanted to get competitive. She then mentioned a red from Arianna Occhipinti, I said I liked that red but preferred her whites. ‘Whites? She only makes one white.’ 15 love! Things really deteriorated when Jonathan told her that I write a wine column in England, her response was to tell me about a wine podcast that she made. Had I heard of it? Sadly I hadn’t. She looked furious.

It was a very odd experience exacerbated by being heavily jet-lagged (so jet-lagged that I thought I might have imagined the whole thing). It took me a while to realise why it seemed so familiar. Of course! Record shops in my teens and early 20s. This woman would have gone down a storm at Rough Trade in Notting Hill. I suppose it is inevitable that as wine becomes cool, it is going to attract record shop types. Whereas once they would have obsessed over white label imports from Chicago, now it’s the Cote du Py from Marcel Lapierre. Either way the result is the same, these people want to use their knowledge to make you feel small. Makes me long for a good old-fashioned wine snob. At least I knew where I was with him.

Wine articles

Top ten annoying food and drink words

Here are ten words that I particularly dislike in food and drink writing. I was going to explain why after each but seeing them there on the page, their awfulness is obvious. Suffice to say, I have put them in because they’re meaningless, over-used or just plain horrid (I’m thinking of you foodie.)

1)      Foodie

2)      Sustainable

3)      Oodles

4)      Quaffing

5)      Iconic

6)      Foraged

7)      Superfood

8)      Artisan

9)      Curated

10)   Heritage

Does anyone have anything to add?


I’ve just remembered how much I hate the phrase ‘popped & poured’ repeated ad nauseum on American wine sites such as Cellar Tracker.

Oh and ‘mixologist’, that should be somewhere high up on this list.

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Yapping on

Craig Brown wrote recently in the Mail on Sunday how the the biggest influence on contemporary British writers was in fact Ronnie Corbett:

“A surprising number of recent books seem to have fallen under the influence of Corbett’s capacity for the rambling digression.”

Robin Yapp was clearly a writer ahead of his time. His 1987 book, Drilling for Wine, an account of juggling a career as a West Country dentist with starting a pioneering wine business, is full of off-piste anecdotes and not entirely relevant reminisces. It’s a charming and often very funny read though I think some of the stories would have worked better told in person by Mr Yapp with a decent Lirac or indeed by Ronnie Corbett from his big leather chair. 

Yapp Senior has since retired but happily his son Jason has not only inherited the business but also his father’s peculiar literary idiom. Here’s a brief snippet from their latest catalogue:

“Following a brief stint as the photographer’s monkey’s minder in Selfridges. . . ”

From reading Yapp Pere et fils one gets the impression that being a wine merchant mainly involves drinking, telling long anecdotes and accidentally stumbling across  good wines. What shines out of the book, the list and, from my brief acquaintance with Jason, the Yapps themselves, is their gift for bonhomie and fun. You get the impression that their producers really are their friends. It’s a wonderful way of doing business even though, I suspect, behind the bonhomie they are also astute businessmen. They specialise in the Rhone, Loire and Provence but have wines from all over France and even a few from Australia!

They’re based in Wiltshire but being terribly modern and forward-thinking, they’re opening a ‘pop-up’ shop in a restaurant on Exmouth Market called Medcalf from Monday 1st July to Saturday 6th July. I have very fond memories of this place mainly due to  the original head chef, Tim Wilson, who I used to knock about with years ago. Once having been seriously ill, I visited Medcalf with some friends. Tim asked how I was and when I said that the doctors had given me the all clear, he sent over some champagne. The first and only time this has happened*. Tim has moved on to the Groucho Club but he’s back on Thursday 4th July cooking a special dinner with the family Yapp.

During the Yapp residency, I can see myself spending a lot of time there. Here are a few wines to look out for:

Saint Pourcain: La Ficelle 2012 – (£9.50) – a blend of Pinot Noir and Gamay with layers of crunchy forest fruit, smoke and then something earthy. Very rural and refreshing.

Chateau Simone – (£35) – I’ve fallen in love with the wines of this venerable Provençal estate. The red, a blend of nearly every grape in the world, tastes like a sort of heady Levantine claret. Imagine Suleiman the Magnificent enjoying a moment of intimacy in Château Léoville Las Cases, and you’re nearly there. The white, a blend of nearly everything else, is beguiling, complex and blossomed beautifully with some crab at Medcalf. The rose isn’t quite as exciting.

*Note Corbettian digression.

Beer Restaurants

Good pub guides

543284_10151067514306204_1249535014_nDue to the capricious workings of the UK Border Agency, we went on holiday to Norfolk last year rather than France as originally planned. One of the highlights of the trip was the pub next door to our cottage. The Vernon Arms in Southrepps is a proper pub; there’s plenty of space for those who just want to drink. It’s not fancy, it’s not gastro, they don’t tell you the lineage of the cow that goes into your pie and the chicken probably isn’t free range. The crab is awesome, of course, as it’s straight out of the sea. It had three well-kept real ales and a nice mixture of locals and holiday makers. In short, it’s the kind of pub that tourists probably think England is full of but is increasingly rare. A few days into our holiday we drove up the coast from Cromer towards King’s Lynn looking for somewhere to eat. Somewhere just past Beeston Regis the pubs change, they become a bit, how shall I put this, Farrow & Ball. The old sign has been taken down to be replaced with something in black and white. The only colour visible is a tasteful green. The insides have been stripped back to bare boards. The menu is expensive and needlessly complicated.

Now I’m not averse to gastropubs or gentificaton being rather gentrified myself especially if the choice is between that and frozen microwaved meals. It’s hard to make a living from a pub and it’s nice that some of them are thriving by moving up-market. Proper pubs are, however, increasingly hard-to-find which I why I was so pleased to be sent a copy of Sawday’s Pub Guide . One of the joys of books such as these is looking at areas of the country one knows and seeing which pubs have been included. On opening the book I immediately noticed a problem. Most of the pubs in this book aren’t really pubs. They’re hotels, or restaurants, or at a push, inns. In fact a typical entry will read ‘having trained with Marco Pierre White at the Gavroche, Tim and Jeremy bought this neglected pub in the Herefordshire and have since wowed locals with their Italian-influenced cooking and all-Piedmontese wine list.’ As Tim and Jeremy have invested a lot of money in their pub and they’ve worked in London restaurants, they’re going to do some PR.

Take the Wheatsheaf in Northleach for example. The town is described as ‘a well-kept Cotswold secret’. Well maybe a secret as long as you don’t read any newspapers because this is where Kate Moss held one of her weddings. In fact the Wheatsheaf might be the best-publicised pub in the country. They even leave a book of press cuttings in each room. And of course it’s really a restaurant rather than a pub. The space for drinkers is tiny. There’s even a super-bright German sommelier called Angela who recommended an excellent Alsace Riesling for us. Again I’m not trying to knock this place. I’ve stayed here and had a lovely time but it’s not really a pub and if you google places to stay in the Cotswolds, this will come near the top of your list.

The restaurant theme continues in London. Choices include the Thomas Cubitt and Grazing Goat – sister pubs that share comically small portions, high prices and indifferently-kept beer, and the Anchor and Hope in Southwark – great food but why would you need a guide to find this place? What aren’t in the book are the old school unspoiled boozers that really are unknown or the new-wave ale houses that have completely changed how real ale is perceived in the capital. It wasn’t so long ago that it was hard to get a decent pint of bitter in London.

I can’t see who would buy this book. Pub lovers will look elsewhere and most of the places in this book aren’t exactly unknown. Sawday’s only seem interested in a sort of lifestyle, Farrow & Ball, Bodens Britain which though undeniably appealing, you don’t really need a guide to find. One of the ironies of gentrification is despite the shops and pubs remaining independent, towns start to look the same. I call the process Southwoldification after the pretty Suffolk town. Pubs that have been Southwoldefied are often lovely to visit – I just don’t want a whole book devoted to them.

Wine articles Wine of the week

Barriques Oubliees

Now that Sherry has become cool what is the modern anachronist supposed to drink? My tip is to search out the fortified wines of Southern France. There’s no Vin Doux Naturel equivalent of the powerful Sherry lobby so I think it’s going to be a long time before the moustache-brigade catch up with these wines.

The one I want to write about, Domaine des Schistes Rancio Sec, isn’t even available in Britain. It does seem slightly silly to write about something that can’t be bought here but as I liked it so much it would be even sillier not to write about it in some detail. I bought it whilst on holiday in Ceret in the foothills of the Pyrenees. The region is famous for its fortified wines, the best known being the sweet reds of Maury and Banyuls. This is Catalan country and across the border in Spain the traditional wines are also fortified reds. Apparently this has something to do with the ground being too hard to tunnel into so there was no way of keeping wines cool, consequently they had to withstand the summer heat. Now on both sides of the border the old vines that went into the traditional styles are now making superb table wines.  But it’s worth seeking out the classic style which is known by the Spanish name, Rancio. Sounds appealing, doesn’t it? In order to become Rancio, you have to do the opposite of everything you’re taught about modern wine. You don’t keep it cool, you don’t protect it from oxygen and you age it for a long time.

Actually I have no idea whether this particular Rancio is traditional or not. The classic style has something in common with a tawny port. My Rancio is dry. In the shop where I bought it the man tried to warn me off saying that it was ‘tres, tres sec.’ Too strange for the Englishman. I was immediately intrigued. Even more intrigued when I couldn’t find very much about it online. All I had to go on was what the man in the shop told me (and my understanding of French is terrible) and what was on the side of the bottle:

“Tradition Catalan, barriques oubliees, contact l’air, san ouillage, grenaches macabeu”

Barriques oubliees! How could you not love a wine that was matured in ‘Barrique oubliees’?

It wasn’t particularly expensive, 15 euros for 50cl. So how does it taste? Well more to the point how doesn’t it taste? There’s so much here and it changes from minute to minute and from day to day. Some sips it seems sweet and some raspingly sour like an old Amontillado. It’s a blend of Macabeu and Grenache Blanc/ Gris. It’s an orange/ brown colour. It smells of caramel and floral too. There’s all kinds of wonderful flavours, chestnuts, dried apricots, vanilla. What I loved most about it was its freshness and acidity – it’s actually extremely refreshing.


It’s been open a week now and just gets better and better. It went particularly well with Comte and Stilton. The closet comparisons would be a dry Madeira or perhaps a really good Marsala though my wife said it reminded her a little of a Moscatel de Setubal. It’s interesting that these comparison wines owe their fame to the British Empire and their flavour to long sea voyages whereas the French equivalents just stayed at home, soaked up the sun and developed their unique taste. The fortified wines loved by the British became global whereas the French equivalents stayed rooted in their region drunk only by the French and the occasional Dutchman.

I’m so pleased that someone is out there making wines like this. It’s a wine that requires patience and time. It’s expensive to make. I doubt it makes the Domaine much money but it’s the best thing I’ve had all year and I want some more. Will someone please start importing it?