Wine articles

An unusually bad wine

Wine writers very rarely write about horrible wines. Their columns are full of exciting recommendations for readers to buy. There are two reasons for this. Firstly wine writers feel it is important to support wine as an industry. They think it is important that more people start drinking wine and then perhaps they will develop an interest and maybe even start reading wine columns. In this way they function like a provincial newspaper anxious not to be too negative about, say, the restaurant scene in Bolton in case readers decide they don’t want to eat out anymore let alone read a column about it. The second reason is that most wines these days are fine. Even the worst wine at Tesco’s will be merely dull. It’s easy to write about bad but it’s very hard to make a dull wine interesting.

Therefore, I was surprised this weekend when I tried a wine that made me gag. It was the Chocoholic Pinotage 2013. Now of course the name does make it sound nasty and it is made from Pinotage – the grape whose signature flavours are acetone and burnt coffee – but recently I’d had a bit of a Pinotage epiphany so was eager to try it. According to the bumf I was sent it is made from partially dried grapes like an Amarone. I’m a sucker for anything made from dried or partially dried grapes so I actually opened the bottle with something bordering on excitement. I took a sniff, it smelt of instant coffee and chocolate (note there is no actual chocolate in this wine), not a nice smell but a thing of delicate beauty compared with the taste. It’s quite hard to describe the flavour because I had such a visceral reaction to it, there was more coffee and chocolate and then POW!, it was as if someone had grabbed my throat and was trying to throttle me. I took another sip, and BANG!, a wall of acidity and raw tannin made me grimace involuntarily. I stopped sipping at this point. When that had gone, there’s a cloying finish like cheap coffee ice cream. Yes this wine is actually sweet.

DarlingI would say avoid at all costs but it’s so unusually bad, that’s it’s worth trying. It’s probably not, however, worth spending the £11 it costs just to experience its awfulness. It’s available at Harvey Nichols who normally stock such good wines. Perhaps they just saw the label and thought it looked nice. It is a pretty label. The producers say that it goes well with chocolate. You’d be better off with a budget port or just eating the chocolate on its own. 

Wine articles

Christmas drinks at the Lady

This is my Lady Christmas wine article that appeared in December’s bumper magazine. You can read their version of it here. If you enjoy it, please write to the Lady’s editor saying that I deserve a pay rise and more space. 

The twin themes of this year’s Christmas column are simplicity and duplicity. In the past I have recommended some expensive wine that I am sure nobody buys and then some cheaper stuff to open when people you don’t like come over. I don’t think that is how most of us do Christmas. So instead I’ve chosen wines for all occasions and all guests. So that’s the simplicity side taken care of. The duplicity part comes because all the wines I have chosen look and taste a lot more expensive that they actually are. Your guests will take a sip and think that you must be terribly successful. The important thing is not to let on how little you’ve spent. If someone comments on how much they must have cost, just wave airily and say ‘you’re worth it, darling.’ With the wines from the big chains, it’s worth checking online before shopping as they often have big temporary discounts before Christmas.

Palataia Pinot Noir 2012 (£8.99 Marks & Spencer)

German pinot noir is not only surprisingly good, it’s also fashionable and expensive. I’m not quite sure how Marks & Spencers do this for the price. There’s some proper pinot fragrance, ripe fruit and most importantly no jam whatsoever. There’s even a nice herbal quality. If you think your guests might be put off by German wine then decant it and pretend it’s Savigny-les-Beaune.

De Martino Chardonnay Legado 2011 (£8.50 the Wine Society)

Many people think they don’t like Chardonnay but in fact they’re just sick of drinking the oversweet, overoaked stuff associated with Bridget Jones*. They should try this cool climate Chilean one which is racy, citric and refreshing.

Marks & Spencer Cava Brut 2010 (£13.99)

Cava is a wine that rarely fails to make me yawn. Not this one! Made by Segura Viudas, it’s the best budget fizz I’ve had all year. There’s a whiff of pastry and then lots of fine bubbles. Best of all, it still has a gentleness that means you can drink it all night.

Waitrose Champagne Blanc de Blancs Brut NV (£24.99)

Ignore all those supermarket champagne deals. If you’re not concerned with brands, this is the one to go for. It smells of apples with lemons and nuts on the palate, and a creamy texture.

Quinta do Noval Late Bottled Vintage Unfiltered 2007  (The Drink Shop have the 07 for £16.94 or Tescos have the 05 for £15.79)

A great one to impress any wine bores. They’ll see the name Quinta do Noval, the legendary port estate, and think you’re really spoiling them. This smells brambly with some smoke and spice. It’s sweet but the fruit tastes fresh and crunchy. There’s real concentration here; you could age it but it’s so good now with a nice piece of stilton.

Pedro’s Almacenista Selection Fino (Majestic £8.99)

Here one for the sherry aficionado. It has all the refreshing power of a good fino such as Tio Pepe but with a richness and meatiness that reminded me a little of roast pork. I would drink it before the meal with olives and almonds to sharpen my carnivorous appetites.

I’m now cheating and I’m going to recommend two wines to have if you really have had a successful year or maybe your family have just been extra sweet to you:

Domaine Grand Chardonnay Côtes du Jura 2012 (Berry Bros £13.99)

This part of the world, the Jura, is famed for Vin Jaune which tastes a bit like a farmhouse sherry. They also make more conventional wines that taste like white Burgundy. This one is quite buttery but with a good jolt of acidity and a distinct floral note.

Tassinaia, Castello del Terriccio 2007 (Lea & Sandeman £23.95)

A blend of Cabernet, Merlot and a little Sangiovese, there’s a whiff of pencil shavings, a hint of coffee and some lovely ripe fruit. It’s drinking nicely now but I’d decant to let the tannins soften; a wine so grown-up that it can end long-running family feuds.

*It is now mandatory when writing about chardonnay to mention Bridget Jones just as when writing about sherry you have to mention either maiden aunts or vicars and for cider tramps and teenagers drinking in parks. You can see the Bridget Jones/ chardonnay axis at work in two articles, one in the Telegraph and one in the Guardian

Beer Books Wine articles

Booze book round-up for the Guardian

This is the uncut version of an article that appeared in the Guardian on Saturday:

Oddbins stocked a wine in the late 90s called Kiwi Cuvee. It was a Sauvignon Blanc from the South France designed to taste as if it came from New Zealand. This summed up the direction wine was going at the time. For supermarkets flying wine-makers made products around the world to a formula and at the top end highly-paid consultants created lush ‘iconic’ wines for collectors. There were still plenty of interesting wines out there but the received opinion, not least from the European Union, was that unfashionable vines such a Carignan should be ripped out to be replaced with Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon or Merlot. This homogenising trend is over. Variety is now everything. Whereas before the concept of terroir – a sense of place – was mocked by Anglos as a marketing device invented by the French to sell wine without any fruit character, nowadays it’s a term used even by Australians. It’s telling that it is no longer italicised (though my spellcheck still tries to change it to terrier).

It couldn’t be a better time, therefore, for Jancis Robinson & Hugh Johnson to publish the latest edition of their World Atlas of Wine Atlas. It’s a very different book to the last edition in 2007 and now includes small scale maps of some of the most exciting emerging regions such as Croatia, around  Mount Etna in Sicily and Mornington Peninsula near Melbourne which is rivalling Burgundy for its elegant Pinot Noirs. The book is a celebration of terroir and a logical companion to Robinson’s Wine Grapes (2012) – an expensive and exhaustive encyclopaedia of every grape variety in the world. More than just being thorough, there’s an infectious sense of glee about this new Atlas. One gets the impression that Johnson and, in particular, Robinson with her humorous pedantry, really enjoyed writing it. The other new edition of a classic that is well worth buying is Alex Liddell’s Madeira, the Mid-Atlantic Wine. Madeira is a wine whose long and colourful history you can actually taste – 19th century wines from this island are still good to drink. Berry Bros & Rudd stock an 1875 D’Oliveira Malvazia for £689 a bottle.

It’s not only wine in which variety is being rediscovered. Fifteen years ago it wasn’t easy to find a of decent pint of bitter in London but recently a new wave of pubs have opened dedicated to craft products. Cider, for a long time a joke drunk by teenagers in bus shelters and the Wurzels, is now attracting serious attention. Best known for his beer writing, Pete Brown, has produced World’s Best Cider with Bill Bradshaw. Although it looks like a coffee table book with lots of, often stunning, photos it’s also written with wit, knowledge and passion. You might even go as far as describe Brown and Bradsaw as the Johnson and Robinson of cider. I had no idea that cider was so widespread outside the three cider superpowers of England, France and Spain. The Germans make cider and express surprise that anyone else does, the Irish drink the most cider per head and in Quebec they make a super sweet ice cider. It’s not all good news though, it’s shocking how few actual apples go into some commercial brands. Nevertheless, one gets the impression that cider is currently the most exciting drink in Britain and it will improve as growers match the best apple varieties to the right land just as the French did in Bordeaux and Burgundy generations ago.

It’s a great time to be drinking but it’s not necessarily a great time to be reading about drink. I saw far too many books along the lines of ‘200 Wines to Impress your Father-in-law’ or a ‘Beginner’s Guide to Craft Beer’. Most were illustrated and designed to be easily marketed to English language readers worldwide. They’re all starting to look alike when the products they celebrate are increasingly diverse. Drink books are now either for gifts or reference. What is lacking is the sort of book that you want to read in bed; an Elizabeth David or Jeffrey Steingarten of wine, perhaps, to make you smile, think and, rather than trying to educate, assumes a certain knowledge and interest on behalf of the reader.  There are lots of people writing about drink in an interesting way on the internet. There are even some Americans trying to combine comedy with wine albeit not very successfully. None of these writers however, are producing engaging books for the general reader.

The two books that I enjoyed most this year didn’t come from traditional publishers. Don’t be put off by the rather exclusive title of the first, “Reds, Whites & Varsity Blues: 60 Years of the Oxford & Cambridge Blind Wine-Tasting Competition” shows how  wine writers can entertain when they’re given a bit of space to breath. It features noted wine types letting their hair down or at least giving their toupees a good airing. I particularly enjoyed Oz Clarke on sticking it to the toffs as a grammar school boy at Oxford and Will Lyons on claret and the Auld Alliance. The second is an ebook only thing called the Sediment Guide to Wining and Dining. It brings a mixture of seriousness and silliness to the strange ritual of the dinner party. In the right hands wine and laughter can go together. Maybe next year a publisher will have the nerve to commission a full-length book in a similar spirit.

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Wine articles

Port rage!

I’ve just received my latest energy bill and it appears that I’ve been living this last year in a draughty manor house rather than a three–bedroom ex-council flat. This winter, I’m going to have to choose between a warm flat and decent-quality booze. Of course it’s going to be the booze; I’ll just have to wear a woolly hat and fingerless gloves whilst drinking.

At times like this, I thank God for the ingenuity of the British. Other cold countries have drinks to combat the winter — the Russians have vodka, the Swedes have schnapps and the Mongolians have fermented yak’s milk. These are drinks to achieve oblivion rather than to savour. We, however, have a whole smorgasbord of drinks to help us through the winter.

The best wines for cold weather come from hot countries, funnily enough. Wines such as Barossa Shiraz from Australia temper the longing in the British soul for sunshine. But the ultimate winter wines are the fortifieds. These wines were created by the British in the 18th and 19th century by taking strong southern European wines and making them stronger still. This was done to survive long sea voyages but they accidently created the perfect winter drinks because the added alcohol not only made them stronger, it also stopped fermentation, so the resulting wine was often sweet.

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