Wine articles

The Lost World of the Cider Lords

It has become a commonplace fact, beloved of pub quizzes, that an Englishman, Christopher Merret, invented Champagne. There is even an element of truth to it: Merret gave a paper to the Royal Society in 1672 outlining how to make wine fizzy. But he wasn’t the first to induce bubbles in a bottle. In the West Country, scientifically inclined gentlemen had been doing it for years — only they used cider, not wine.

In the 17th century there was a wine crisis in England. Home-grown vines had been killed by prolonged cold weather — something now known as the Little Ice Age — and imports were severely curtailed because of wars with France, the Netherlands and Spain. The problem became acute when Cromwell passed the Navigation Act of 1651. This was designed to stop Dutch shipping to England — and the Dutch controlled the trade in all German and a great deal of French wine. There was also a very high excise duty. And so affordable wine became scarce in England. What was needed was an alternative.

This article appeared in the Spectator. Click here to read the rest. 

Wine articles

Starting a Tradition

Here’s some musing on port and fatherhood from The Wine Society’s newsletter:

The most exciting thing to happen in 2011, at least for me, was the birth of our daughter, Helena. The second most exciting thing was the vintage in the Douro valley which has been declared by all port shippers. There’s talk of it being the best since 1977, my birth year. With the collision of these two momentous events, I would be mad not to buy a case of port for my daughter to open when she’s 21. My wife, who doesn’t like port, thinks I’m doing this more for me than for my daughter. She does have a point, I am hoping that I’ll be allowed a glass at Christmas. I’d like Helena to grow up to like port as much as I do but more than that, I want to start a tradition.

To read the rest click here

Wine articles Wine of the week

Falling in love with the wines of Sicily

The island of Sicily has a special place in my heart as I met my wife there. We were both on a classic car rally and, feeling a little out of place, were drawn to each other. One of the other rallyists was a wealthy middle-aged Roman who was always trying to impress the ladies by ordering expensive wine. The stuff he liked had more in common with Tuscany or California than Sicily.  I left the island enamoured with the food, the scenery and with the woman who would become my wife, but not with the wine.  It turns out that I just wasn’t looking in the right places. Sicily makes some wines that taste like nothing else on earth. The place to head is the East of the Island near Mount Etna and further South around Vittoria. The best Sicilian wines are perfumed and subtle. They’re nothing like the Port-like monsters from over the water in Southern Italy. Here are some to fall in love with:

Cos Frappato 2011 (£15)

These people used to age their wines in new oak barrels to make something that my Roman friend would have appreciated. They now use a mixture of old wood, concrete and clay amphoras to create startling pure wines like this red.

Frappato IGT Sicilia 2012 (Marks & Spencer £7.99)

This red really loves to be chilled, it brings out flavours of pomegranate and blueberry.

Costa Al Sole Sicilia IGT 2010 (£8.75)

Made from Sicily’s most famous grape, Nero d’Avola, this combines ripe cherry fruit with earthy tannins and a touch of bitterness at the end; lots to get your teeth into here.

Zibibbo IGT Sicilia 2012 (Marks & Spencer £7.99)

This white evokes a sultry Sicilian evening with smells of nectarines, orange blossom and something bitter like orange peel.

This originally appeared in The Lady

Wine articles

There’s something about Digby


I’ve just written two articles, one on vintage port and one on cider. I found it impossible to write either without mentioning Sir Kenelm Digby. The amazing Digby, who I’ve written about before, was the inventor of a special super strength glass bottle around 1633. Before Digby (or BD as I call it) bottles were much too fragile for storage purposes. One could store wine in barrels  but once opened, they would have to be drunk quickly before they oxidised.  BD the great wines were ones that thrived on oxidation such madeira, sherry and marsala. AD (oh hang on that’s probably blasphemous) wines could be kept free from oxygen and it was found that the best improved with age. Digby’s invention led to the creation of vintage port, champagne, Bordeaux as a wine for keeping, in fact the whole market in fine wine as an international commodity would not have been possible without Digby.

Sir Kenelm was a key figure in the early years of the Royal Society and its forerunner, Gresham College. What I love about him is that he straddles the line between the people we see today as the serious scientists, Wren, Hooke, Boyle etc., and dabblers such as Pepys. He was considered one of great minds of his time. He counted Newton, Galileo and Descartes as amongst his admirers and yet there is something clownish and lovable about him. He wrote a roguiesh memoir of his youth where he claimed to have been seduced by Marie de Medici. His recipe book: The Closet of the Eminently Learned Sir Kenelme Digbie Knight Opened is still a good read today.

After years as a half-forgotten eccentric, a footnote in history, it feels that now his time has come. An English sparkling wine has just been launched called Digby Fine English, an acknowledgment of his crucial role in invention of the champagne process. A few weeks ago I was sent a book proposal for a biography of him; the first devoted to the great man since the 19th century. Finally there is a novel, Viper Wine, out next year by Hermione Eyre about Digby’s wife, Lady Venetia Stanley, who Digby was accused of murdering in 1633 (he was cleared of all charges and by all accounts was devastated by her death.)

It has been suggested to me that there ought to be a Sir Kenelm Digby Society dedicated to keeping his memory and his spirit of amiable enquiry alive. The society could meet once a year to eat recipes inspired by his book, drink wines that he made possible and maybe campaign to put him on a bank note. Don’t you think he’d look lovely on a tenner?