Wine articles

Death of the Wine Snob

This is something I wrote earlier in the year for Spectator Life magazine but it has taken so long to appear that one of the shops I mention has since closed. Tant pis, as they say in East London.

Red-faced, plummy-voiced, with a big nose, the wine snob is a familiar social stereotype. He might laugh at you at a dinner party for mispronouncing Montrachet or be the face sneering at you from behind the counter of a stuffy wine merchant when you ask for a bottle of cava. Oddly enough, in all my years of buying wine and working in the wine trade, I very rarely came across this figure. People like this may have once been ubiquitous but nowadays the legend of the wine snob is kept alive by the wine trade as a way of proclaiming their egalitarian principles: haven’t we come far, they say, we’re not like those terrible blazer-wearing toffs.

Click here to read the rest. 

After writing this article, I had an experience in a trendy wine shop which suggested the wine snob is actually alive and well. He’s just changed a bit.

Wine articles

Reading and boozing

I’ve been sent a lot of books about booze this year so I thought it would be fun to drink as much as I could and then read them. Here are my thoughts:

The Champagne Guide 2014/2015 – Tyson Stelzer

There are many things to like about this book: the author sounds like a character from Money by Martin Amis; it looks beautiful with its understated art deco cover; but most of all Stelzer clearly knows a terrifying amount about champagne. I imagine he thinks of little else. My only quibble with this book is that you will think twice before buying another bottle because it reveals a shocking lack of consistency in this very expensive wine. Not only do bottles from the same producer with the same label vary wildly in age and quality but a large minority will actually be flawed.  If Stelzer is to be believed, and I have no reason to doubt him, then there could be disaster on the horizon for champagne. Once it loses the sheen of quality, then champagne could go the way of sherry with collapsing sales and prices. His solution seems to be to drink Bollinger, which is fine by me. Oh sorry one more quibble, at one point he refers to ‘the Queen of England.’ As an Australian he really should know better.

500 Wines for 100 Occasions – David Williams

I think the author struggled to think up 100 occasions so along with the classics, 50th birthdays, weddings and Valentine’s Day, there are others that are a little over-specific such as wine to go with a difficult neighbour, wine to drink on a cruise and what to drink when your colleagues come over. They reminded me of that Fry & Laurie sketch with the condolence cards: ‘I’m right sorry to learn yer, that’s you’ve succumbed to another nasty hernia.’ Still Williams is a good writer and his recommendations are hard to disagree with.

Complete Wine Selector – Katherine Cole

Every year, someone produces a book like this that attempts to sum up wine for beginners. This one succeeds better than most. It’s clearly laid out, simply written and does a good job of demystifying the subject. It’s not really for me as I’m more into the mystifying but if you like simplicity, then you’ll like this. What gave it a little more personality than its rivals were the short interviews and quotes from well-known restaurateurs, cooks and sommeliers (though to my shame, I’d not heard of any of them.)

The World Atlas of Wine – Jancis Robinson & Hugh Johnson

Wonderfully thorough updated guide to the wine world. It’s also a beautiful-looking thing. If you’re interested in wine, you should have a copy of this. I’ve reviewed this and the one below for the Guardian so will put a link in when it’s up.

World’s Best Cider – Pete Brown & Bill Bradshaw

In contrast this one is a bit of mess from the photo-shopped cover to the typographical chaos that reigns inside. The words though, are all top quality. Brown, author of some great beer books, writes in the sort of robust Anglo Saxon that would have made Orwell happy. It’s not only a guide to ciders from around the world, and it really is a global product, but a history of and implicit manifesto for this much-abused drink.

Boutique Beer – Ben MacFarland

Again this is not a pretty book (it’s from the same publisher.) As someone who doesn’t know a lot about beer beyond drinking the stuff, I found the layout confusing with beers labelled by seemingly arbitrary categories. The author writes distinctively, I think you’ll either find him funny or wish he’d just stick to the point. His discursive style reminded me of a 1990s music journalist. You can read him here getting worked up over the Imperial pint glass. Still the author has been voted best beer writer in the world many times so clearly knows his stuff and it did make me want to be a more adventurous in my beer drinking.

Pocket Beer Book 2014 – Stephen Beaumont and Tim Webb

Does almost everything that Boutique Beer does but with a more logical layout and more relaxing prose. Also fits in your pocket if you’ve got very big pockets.

And then it all got too much. . . .


Wine articles

Lady column – Perfect Ten

Rather ominously, the Lady have stopped putting my columns online so I’ll be posting them on my blog instead. Here’s my 2nd November offering:

As soon as I’m handed a wine list in restaurant, especially a good one, my mind goes blank. The thing I struggle most to remember is vintages. I can just about do Bordeaux but after that I’m lost.  Was 08 a good vintage in Tuscany or was it the Rhone? This stuff matters. Wine varies enormously from year to year.  Very infrequently a vintage comes along that makes life simple because it’s good all over the world. 2010 was good to outstanding pretty much everywhere but particularly in red wine regions that I drink most of: Burgundy, Rioja, the Rhone, the Languedoc and Bordeaux. The best thing about 2010s is not only do they have bags of ripe fruit but they are also very fresh. When you have a year like this, the cheaper wines, the ordinary clarets, the plain Bourgognes and the Cote-du-Rhones, are the ones to go for. So my advice when consulting a wine list is if it has 2010 on, then buy. I can just about remember that.

Yering Station Pinot Noir 2010 Slurp £14.99

Australia also had a good 2010. This is elegant and savoury, without excessive alcohol but with an Australian generosity of fruit. I liked it so much that I bought a case to go with our Thanksgiving turkey.

Cotes-du-Rhone Guigal 2010 £9.99 Majestic when you buy two bottles

This old stalwart is particularly fine in 2010. It’s great now but will be even better in a year or two when those tannins fade.

Grand Bateau 2010 £9.95 Roberson

Sometimes  you can get good claret for under £10 a bottle. This smells of ripe plums and leather and on the palate it’s smooth with enough bite to keep it interesting.
Hunawihr Riesling Grand Cru Rosacker 2010 Slurp £15.95

Riesling from Alsace might just be my favourite white  wine. This one is intense and sherberty, extremely dry with a long mineral finish.

Wine articles Wine of the week

Marks and Spencer’s celebrity hell

Marks & Spencer's Britain's Leading Ladies campaign








We should have guessed that Marks & Spencer was in trouble again from their recent advertising campaign. One can imagine desperate executives at head office shouting: ‘dammit John! We’ve got Mirren, Westwood and Twiggy, yet we’re still losing sales. Get me Lulu on the phone! What you can’t get Lulu? What about Petula Clark? Is she still alive? Edwina Currie? Do people like her? Ok fine we’ll have Emin then but can you get her to stop scowling?’

‘Actually scratch all that, Steve, we’ve got Bonham fucking Carter on board. Don’t ask how much it cost but put it this way, nobody’s getting bonuses this year.’

The reasons for the decline of this British institution have been well-documented. If you wanted basic quality clothes then Marks & Spencer was the only place to shop. Things have moved on and Marks haven’t or maybe they have but they moved the wrong way. And the less said about their nauseating branding as ‘Your M&S’ the better. All this noise, however, obscures how well they do food and drink. The wine department in particular has changed out of all recognition in recent years. It’s now for my money the best place to shop on the high street, better than Oddbins, better than Majestic and better than Waitrose. The range is adventurous with an orange wine from Georgia, some good Croatian and Sicilian stuff and as well as some solid classics from Rioja, Burgundy etc.

My mother used to tut at the extravagance of mothers who did all their shopping at M&S but as a thrifty shopper myself, I don’t think they’re that expensive. And the great thing about Marks is that even though it is technically a supermarket it is acceptable to buy their own branded chocolates, wine, flowers etc. as gifts in a way it wouldn’t be with Tesco’s or Sainsbury’s. (I was trying to explain this to my wife who is American the other day as she still hasn’t quite grasped how supermarkets fit into the class system.) For most people who don’t live near an independent merchant or a delicatessen, having a Marks nearby must be a Godsend particularly at Christmas.  If the clothing side went I don’t think I’d notice but a high street without their food and wine would be a very sad place indeed.

M&S are having a sale with 25% off wine when you buy six or more until 17th November. Here are two Germans that I’ll be stocking up on: 

Palataia Pinot Noir 2012  – £8.99 (£6.74 after discount)

A ripe but not at all jammy German pinot noir for under a tenner, I’m not sure how they do it.  There’s even a herby quality like you get in a Burgundy.
If you were feeling mischievous, you could decant and pretend it was Santenay.

Darting Estate Riesling 2012 – £9.49 (£7.50 after discount) 

This has a little 3% scheurebe in it as well. It’s super zingy, floral and so much fun. It reminded me a little of the young wine, Heurige, you get served in bars in Vienna. Also bone dry so don’t be afraid to serve to German wine-phobic people.

Film and TV Wine articles

Marketing by Dan Brown

Wine marketing has to be the least imaginative in the world. It takes one of two forms: there’s the plea to authenticity. So even wines from young countries such as Australia feel that they have to have a story about how in 1834 Hector McDougall arrived from Paisley and planted some grapes etc etc etc. Or there’s the lifestyle one which you see on the rare moments when wine makes it on telly: it’s all Pinot Grigio, chatty but sophisticated women, big sofas and a little Simply Red to get the party started. Compared with other alcoholic drinks, beer sold through humour, gin sold through culture (Hendricks) and whisky sold through national identity, wine is lagging behind.

That was why I was delighted to receive information from a new wine that is being launched over here called Apothic as it seems that Dan Brown was involved with their marketing campaign. Here’s an exert from their press release:

“Named after a mysterious place, Apotheca, where vintners stored their most coveted concoctions in 13th century Europe. . . ”

The fiction angle is continued on the bottle which looks like the cover of an upmarket horror writer, John Connolly perhaps. And, most audaciously, this angle is continued in the bottle because the contents actually have nothing to do with medieval vintners. The wine isn’t even from Europe, it’s Californian.

And the wine itself? Well I don’t think it’s really aimed at me. It’s a smooth, sweet red without any of the tannin or bitterness that red wine lovers learn to love. Basically it’s a red wine for people who wouldn’t normally drink red wine. Top wine writer Jamie Goode sums up its qualities rather well here.

Let’s hope that Apothic encourages wine marketing people to come up with something a bit more interesting in future. If Apothic can be inspired by Dan Brown, why don’t Tio Pepe do something with PG Wodehouse or KWV with Wilbur Smith?

Apothic Winemaker’s Blend 2011 soon to be ubiquitous for around £9 a bottle.