Wine articles

Is it meant to taste like that?

‘Is it meant to taste like that?’

I was a bit drunk at a wine tasting the other day, actually I could start everything I write with those words, I spend my life a bit drunk at wine tastings. Anyway I was at a wine tasting and I tried a red from Australia that just tasted peculiar, not unpleasant, just a bit wild, not like a polished New World wine at all. This tasted like it was made by a stubborn old farmer who made wines that he liked and didn’t give a toss what anyone thought. Just the sort of thing one might find in the South of France but not in modern, thrusting, commercial Australia.

The producer is Ben Baker and his winery called Wimmera Hills. Apparently the name is a bit of a misnomer because this part of Victoria is as flat as a pancake (please write in if i’ve got this terribly wrong.) For reasons I can’t quite fathom he sent 120 bottles as samples to Fingal Rock wine merchants in South Wales. They’re not for sale but if you write to the owner Tom Innes you might be able to barter some corn or services to get hold of a few bottles. Here are the wines:

Red Cat Sparkling Shiraz 09 – it’s not often that the most conventional wine in line-up is a sparkling red. This is a lovely example of the type, mellow, just a hint of tannin, and a nice sparkle to it.

Nude Shiraz rosé 10 – now this one is pretty odd. It’s an aged rose, not only is it aged but it’s oxidised – deliberately I think. This gives it a tang on the nose of oranges and a little vinegar. Then in the mouth it’s nutty and a little tannic. The nearest comparison would be the wildly idiosyncratic roses from Lopez de Heredia in Rioja or Chateau Musar. It’s pretty bloody odd but it’s not the wackiest wine from this producer.

Dedication Shiraz 08 – now this is the one that made me say ‘is it mean to taste like that?’ It tastes like an old Maury or Banyuls from the South of France but dry. It’s nutty, a little baked with distinct porty quality. The alcohol level is getting on for port as well. I bet this would be good with some pungent hard cheese.

These wines won’t be for everyone but I’m glad there’s someone in Australia sticking two fingers up to conventional wisdom and making wines like this because that’s how he likes them.

Don’t forget to buy my book.

Books Wine articles

The heyday of wine publishing

I have a bit of thing about old wine books. I can’t resist picking them up no matter how rubbish they might look. My latest acquisition from  Oxfam is called Supernosh by Anthony Worrall-Thompson and Malcolm Gluck. It features the authors on the front cover resplendent in brash 80s clothing (though it was published in 1993 – the 80s carried on well into the 90s in some parts of the wine trade) both looking a bit tipsy with looks on their faces as if to say: “I can’t believe we’re being paid to write this shit”. Inside there’s some spiel about how the book was cooked up by their agents over a boozy lunch. Unbelievably it’s published by the house of TS Eliot, Faber & Faber. Looking back now, the 80s and 90s were a golden age to be a wine writer. Newspapers were expanding their wine coverage, there were regular wine slots on television including lavish BBC series and wine publishing was booming. It was the age of Oz Clarke’s New Classic wines – proper well-researched wine writing, written for a mainstream audience, and the Hugh Johnson and Jancis Robinson seemed to have a book out every year (plus ca change one might say). Faber’s wine list headed up by Julian Jeffs had off-beat personal books such as Patrick Matthews’ the Wild Bunch and Mitchell Beazley were in their pomp. Wine writing was the new food writing.

It all seems a long time ago. Faber sold off their wine list to Mitchell Beazley in 2002.  I spoke with a mole at Mitchell Beazley who wished to remain anonymous. He (or perhaps she) told me that when he started at Mitchell Beazley in the late 90s, he pretty much only worked on wine books.  Now it was mainly food books. According to him, Mitchell Beazley published too many wine books including some that were too specialist – trying to sell a book devoted to Canadian wine in 2005 seems particularly optimistic. Having a full time specialist editor was expensive for the rare successes such as their New series including Andrew Jefford’s the New France (still one of my favourites). In some ways the decline in wine books just reflects the decline in publishing in general, the decline of bookshops, of newspapers, but this isn’t the whole answer because food books currently buck this trend. The Mitchell Beazley wine list is now principally Hugh Johnson and Jancis Robinson with a few specialist books including, of course, Jamie Goode’s Wine Science. Their last attempt at building a new mainstream wine writer was Matt Skinner who they thought was going to be the Jamie Oliver of wine. He wasn’t.

Nowadays the idea of a Gluck/ Worrall-Thompson type affair being cooked up over a long lunch belongs to another age. In fact the idea of having anything cooked up over a boozy lunch is unlikely as most publishing lunches these days are dry. When I was trying to shop my history of modern Britain told through wine around, my agent was adamant that we mustn’t let anyone think it was a wine book. He positioned it as a sort of Giles Milton-esque narrative history thing with added alcohol. Even so, despite a lot of positive noises, no publisher picked it up.

I’m now doing my book, Empire of Booze, through Unbound, a crowd-sourcing publisher. The future of wine books is now outside the mainstream publishing. You can self-publish like Neal Martin did with Pomerol or Benjamim Lewin with Wine Myths and Reality, you can crowd source like I’m trying to do with my book and Wink Lorch did with her book on the Jura, or you can do it with the help of Berry Bros like Jasper Morris did with his recent Burgundy book. Publishers are finding it increasingly hard to connect with readers, but wine writers know their readers and can find them. At least I hope they can.

The one problem with this new world is that the big mainstream books, the sort that need lavish funding, will not be written (unless they’re by Jancis Robinson and/ or Hugh Johnson). There is no new Jancis, Oz or Hugh. I’m dying to read books such as New New Classic Wines – perhaps looking at Eastern Europe, the Levant and South America, or the New New France, but these are the kind of projects that only a big publisher can bankroll.

Wine articles

In praise of of the long lunch

If any man deserved the epithet, a legend in his own lunchtime, it was Keith Waterhouse. You probably remember him for his plays Billy Liar, made into a film with Julie Christie and Tom Courtenay, and Jeffrey Bernard is Unwell but his lunching exploits are equally worth celebrating. His work day consisted of rising at 6am, reading all the papers, writing his Daily Mail column followed by lunch that went on until the evening. He wrote a non-fiction work, The Theory and the Practice of Lunch

“Whether they know it or not, for as long as they linger in the restaurant they are having an affair. The affair is lunch.”

His 1988 novel Our Song about a middle-aged man and his infatuation with a younger woman, revolves around lunch. The nascent affair takes place in the sort of wine bars and trattorias that London used to be full of. The kind of place where one orders a third bottle and a quick lunch lurches into an early supper and things are said that cannot be taken back. It’s hard to imagine their affair taking place in Terroirs over a glass of orange wine from Georgia. I thought it would be interesting to take a trip down the Charing Cross Road to see how the old school wine bars are faring against the new competition. For clarity I have given them marks out of ten for food, wine and how much Keith Waterhouse would have liked them.

Le Beaujolais, 25 Litchfield Street, London, WC2H 9NJ

‘Ahhhh Beaujolais, that sounds like the place for me. I’ll engage the owner in a conversation about Jules Chauvet and the Gang of Five’. Don’t! It’s not that kind of place. Most of the list is negociant wine, strong on Beaujolais (obviously) but also the Loire. There are some generics and, for as long as I’ve been going, the wine of the week has always been Picpoul-de-Pinet. So why do I like this place so much? Well the food is quite nice, well-kept cheeses and basic Boeuf Bourgignon, but mainly because it’s a really jolly place that has more in common with a pub than a restaurant. If you stay here for more than one drink, you will end up talking to the staff or the table next to you.

Food 6 wine 6 Keith Waterhouse 8.

Gordon’s, 47 Villiers St, London WC2N 6NE

Simultaneously wonderful and dreadful, it’s a terrible tourist trap and always rammed and yet the novelty of drinking in a cobweb-infested dungeon never palls for me. The by-the-bottle wine list is uninspiring; more interesting are the rustic sherries and madeiras from the cask. The food is pub lunch, ploughmans and the like and perfectly decent. Oh and be warned, the darkness makes it a haven for thieves.

Food 4 Wine 3 Keith Waterhouse 1 (he’d never go somewhere this touristy)

The Cork and Bottle, 44-46 Cranbourn St, London WC2H 7AN

Now here’s a wine list put together by an enthusiast. They’re particularly strong on Australia which chimes with the 80s feel of the place; one half expects Oz Clarke and Jilly Goolden to pop up from behind the counter wielding outrageous similes. It’s not cheap but if you’re with a few friends then you can do some serious exploring. And the food? I’ve eaten here many times and it’s never been less than awful. Particularly revolting is their famous raised cheese and ham pie.

Food 2 Wine 8 Keith Waterhouse 6

El Vino, 47 Fleet Street London EC4Y 1BJ

Like Keith himself, an old Fleet Street legend. It’s not as lively as it once was as all the journalists have been replaced by lawyers from the nearby Inns of Court but it retains a certain louche feel. The pies are excellent though the chefs deep-frying skills had gone awry on my last visit. The wine list majors on old Bordeaux vintages for the lawyers and for journalists there’s a good Savigny-les-Beaune from Philippe Girard by the half bottle and a delicious Australian Verdelho by the glass.

Food 5 (7 if you just order a pie) Wine 7 Keith Waterhouse 10

Vats, 51 Lambs Conduit Street, London WC1N 3NB

Were it not for the decent Rioja section, notably Contino Reserva, then this would win the award for dullest wine list in London. The food isn’t great either. The thing that saves it is the room, which manages to simultaneously airy and cosy, and the clientele, there always seems to be a middle-aged man trying to break up with his secretary at the next table.

Food 3 wine 2 Keith Waterhouse 9 (I imagine Our Song was actually set here)

I hope I haven’t seemed too harsh. I love these places especially Beaujolais and glad that they still exist but the quality of the food and wine comes second to the company. I imagine that this is just how Keith Waterhouse would have wanted it.

I am writing a history of Britain told through alcohol called Empire of Booze. You can order an advance copy here

This originally appeared on Tim Atkin’s excellent website which is invaluable tool for wine bluffers like me. 


Wine articles

Crowd sauce!

Well it might finally be happening. I might be writing a book, well actually I am writing a book, it just now might be published. I originally called this blog World of Booze so that it would complement by nascent book, Empire of Booze. It’s being published by Unbound which means that it will only happen if enough people pledge money so please pledge and pledge big. Details here. It’s only £20 or £10 for an ebook or you can spend more on having me as you personal booze slave for a night.

The book is a loose history of Britain told through drink. The drink interests me more than the history so perhaps I’d better describe it as a book about booze told through British history. It’s about how more by accident than by design, the British in uniting into one country, becoming rich, colonising other countries, fighting wars, raising taxes and generally being extremely energetic, created the drinks that we enjoy today.

Some well-known writers have said nice things about me in return for a bottle of Bristol Cream:

“Henry Jeffreys is everything you want a wine writer to be: funny, knowing, unpretentious but also un-blokeish, funny, clever, refreshing, original, funny and inquisitive. And did I say funny?” – Craig Brown

“Even if you don’t like wine, and you don’t like reading, you will enjoy reading Henry Jeffreys on wine and other ‘tipples’ (sorry – banned word). He writes so well on wine that I made him the first ever ‘Wine Columnist’ of The Lady magazine. If you don’t enjoy his tour d’horizon of the British Isles through alcohol I will give you your money back.” – Rachel Johnson

“I am a great admirer of Henry Jeffreys and have been eagerly awaiting his booze and empire book for many years!” – Elif Batuman

Please spread the word. Do it for Britain, for literature and the love of strong drink!


A Question of Loyalties by Allan Massie

I hope readers don’t mind me posting another non-wine related thing.

It’s much harder to write a good review than a bad one. I think some enterprising publication should launch a counterpart to the Hatchet Job award, perhaps the Comfy Chair and a Good Single Malt award. Here’s something I wrote for Foxed Quarterly on one of my favourite novels. It was bloody hard work to write, I hope it isn’t to read. Foxed Quarterly is a magazine well worth subscribing to. Perhaps they could sponsor the award: 

In 2011 a French popular novelist called Alexandre Jardine was vilified in both Le Figaro and Le Monde for writing that his grandfather was complicit in the crimes of the Vichy regime. Over seventy years after the country’s defeat by Germany, the subject of occupation and collaboration is still a touchy one in France. The war is viewed through the prism of good and evil, collaboration and resistance, de Gaulle and Pétain. This was the narrative needed for France to recover its place at the top table of world nations after the Second World War. Of course the majority of Frenchmen did not fit into this neat analysis, their motivations are unknowable. Some initially collaborated and only later resisted, and almost everyone was compromised in some way.

Where we might see a collaborator, the author Allan Massie seeks to understand a human being making difficult choices. A Question of Loyalties (1989) is the story of just such a man. Lucien de Balafre – a conservative intellectual, a failed diplomat and the editor of a magazine called Le Echo de l’Avenir (‘The Echo of the Future’) – is a creation of Massie’s, though he feels so real that I had to look him up to check. He is in some ways an unlikeable figure: priggish, humourless and given to abstract thought. In fact initially he seems a bit of a cold fish. His son Etienne ponders at one point: ‘Was he a bore? I wondered. I could see that, in some respects and for some people, he might have been.’

The story is told through the eyes of Etienne. As with many of Massie’s novels, the structure is artful. The book opens and closes with Etienne, washed-up and melancholic in Geneva in 1986, reluctantly hunting for the truth about his father. In the second section Etienne recalls a trip he took to France in 1951 as a teenager where he hears conflicting accounts of his father’s life and death. The third section is based on letters, documents and essays by Lucien among others, each annotated by Etienne. It’s an odd way of approaching the narrative and it initially distances the reader from the story, but Massie knows what he’s doing: our confusion over Lucien mirrors Etienne’s own.

In the third section, Lucien comes into focus. We learn how he met his English wife Polly while hunting in England, and of the friendship that will guide his life, with a young German aristocrat called Rupprecht (Rupert) von Hulenberg. Rupert and Lucien are soul mates, both prone to abstraction, pomposity and romantic notions of nationhood. Polly has a brief affair with Rupert and is furious when it brings the two men even closer together.

When war breaks out, Lucien joins the army and witnesses his country’s capitulation. With France defeated, most of us would see the choice as between carrying on fighting with de Gaulle, as Lucien’s brother Armand does, or coming to a reluctant accommodation with the new regime. Lucien, however, sees it as an opportunity to serve his beloved France under a man he has long admired, Pétain. There is no question of cowardice. Lucien has fought in both this war and the last. If anything he is too brave. He has the opportunity to escape France but he refuses to do so. Instead he becomes minister of education in the Vichy government.

The idea that he can serve Vichy without morally compromising himself is tested early on during an interview with a Jewish schoolmaster, Simon Halevy, who has been removed from his post (he later becomes an important figure in the resistance). Lucien helps him flee the country but Halevy, rather than showing gratitude, is contemptuous of the choice that Lucien has made: ‘I thought you an intelligent man, and a man of honour, but when I find you sitting here, in this office, as a functionary of a regime built on a foundation of lies . . .’

A Question of Loyalties is a novel of ideas. Rupert, Polly and Lucien represent three aspects of Europe: France’s love of abstract thought, Germany’s romanticism and England’s no-nonsense empiricism. Echoing de Gaulle, Lucien repeatedly says that he has ‘a certain idea of France’. But this is also a novel about the dangers of living your life through ideas. Rupert and Lucien talk theoretically while Europe teeters on the brink. They are deluded by their ideas. Rupert writes in a letter to Lucien on the eve of war: ‘When there is a war I shall fight, but I shall fight on two fronts, against Hitler and for Germany.’ Massie contrasts both men with Polly who, though professing boredom with politics, sees more clearly than they do what is coming and who knows there will be no room for romantics.

The reader knows that this story is not going to end well. But Lucien remains in France working with Vichy. Why does he stay? He trusts Pétain, and his love for Rupert makes him imagine that accepting defeat by Germany is better than the prospect of fighting on, with Britain as an unreliable ally. And then there’s his fear of Bolshevism, something he sees as a worse threat than Hitler. As Lucien’s mother says: ‘He trusted Pétain, and if that was naïve, so were 95 per cent of the French people.’ Lucien is a man trapped by his ‘idea of France’. In the end he is too rigid, too lacking in imagination, too brave perhaps, to flee or change sides and join the resistance (as so many others did). But he has also fatally confused France’s safety with a German victory.

Massie contrasts Lucien, on the wrong side because of his beliefs, with figures from the resistance who are the opposite – thieves, opportunists and bullies. For example, Simon, a mechanic from Lucien’s village in Provence: ‘he used to sell petrol to German officers . . . like a lot who were in the Maquis, he played both sides’. That’s not to say that Massie is a moral relativist. We know with hindsight which side was morally better but Massie shows that at the time, it was not necessarily clear. ‘In a civil war, and it was that in France, there is always right on both sides.’

Etienne writes towards the end of the book: ‘Biography pretends to tell the truth about people’s lives, but it can only deal with what is revealed, and this is not the most truthful element.’ One can imagine a biography of someone like de Balafre with all its ‘one supposes’ and ‘perhaps’. It might be an interesting read but he would remain unknowable. Only a novel can explain the motivations of someone on the losing side. A Question of Loyalties is a work of fiction but it feels more truthful than most histories. It gets to the essence of wartime France and one reads it thinking, ‘Now I understand’.

Massie is a master at taking a well-trodden area of history and making the reader think about it anew. He is best known for his Roman novels, Augustus, Tiberius, Caesar, Antony and, most daringly, Caligula, in which where he humanizes one of history’s great monsters. I like the Roman novels but A Question of Loyalties is in a different league and deserves to be better known. It seems extraordinary that a novel of such power and ambition didn’t trouble the Booker judges that year. There was, however, a minor literary scandal when Nicholas Mosley resigned from the Booker committee because Massie’s next novel, The Sins of the Father, about the Holocaust, wasn’t on the shortlist.

A Question of Loyalties might also be called the Sins of the Father. Etienne’s life has been shaped and, he thinks, ruined by his father’s actions and reputation. But Lucien emerges from the novel as an intensely human and sympathetic figure, though a flawed one: a cold fish no longer. His tragedy is that he put his loyalty to an idea of France and Europe above that to his friends and family, and above his own safety.

A Question of Loyalties should rightfully be considered one of the finest post-war novels in English. It may be a novel of ideas but it’s also extremely moving. If you want to understand France, you have to read it. You can’t say that about many novels. Interestingly, Massie has recently returned to the Vichy period with a wartime crime novel called Death in Bordeaux (2010), which is the first in a trilogy. I’m going to buy a copy now.

After finishing this, I quickly read the first two Bordeaux crime novels. They’re wonderful and the third has just been published.