Books Wine articles

Were the Wars of the Roses caused by a shortage of claret?

This week we have an interview with Toby Clements author of Kingmaker: Winter Pilgrims. This is the first in a series of historical novels set during the Wars of the Roses. It’s very bloody and bloody good. Also the interview is both informative and amusing so please do read it:

What did people drink during the Wars of the Roses?

The richer drank wine – from Gascony mainly, but also ‘Rhennish’ from the Rhine valley. I have no idea what it might have been like. Possibly not very nice, but the English imported tuns of it and got very bad tempered when they lost Gascony and its vineyards – just before the Wars kicked off – and had to deal with French merchants. This loss was a real blow, and led to dissatisfaction with King Henry VI, and hence to the wars. It is stretching it to suggest lack of wine was the cause, but I suppose it must have been a contributing factor, and the use of wine to calm situations is well recorded. In 1464 King Edward IV had a huge barrel of it opened in Northampton market place to soothe the townsmen who wanted to lynch his ally the Duke of Somerset (whose men had burned and looted the city in 1460).

The less well off drank ale – usually either home brewed (if they were reasonably well to do) or brewed locally (often by women – brewsters or alewives). Beer was only slowly becoming popular at the time, and that mainly in Kent where hops still grow. It is a bit of a factoid that no one drank water. In towns they did less so, because it was harder to come by, obviously, but they were well aware it had to be clean, clear, tasteless and odourless, so it obviously existed as something worth seeking out.

What’s your favourite drink to reward yourself after a long day’s writing?

It used to be Palo Cortado, that really nutty sherry, and I’d read aloud the day’s words, but my wife asked me to stop that, so now I just have a couple of small ish glasses of any old white then try to drink as much of a bottle of red over dinner as I can and still leave her two glasses at the very least. It isn’t very healthy.

How long have you been interested in wine?

For about fifteen years I suppose. Since I learned not to pronounce the T in merlot.

Was there a particular epiphany moment with wine?

I had some Chateau Palmer 1983 the evening I passed my driving test and I thought: whoa! There is a sad story about that though: My father in law gave us a couple of cases when we moved in together in 1996 and we knew it was good, so we kept it under the bed in our freezing flat in Columbia Road. We meant to save it for best but usually ran out of the ordinary stuff after dinners etc and so opened the bottles cold and drank them straight down. Then, when I was coming home from miserably poorly paid work, I saw a much younger bottle selling for £50. We instantly stopped drinking our stash, and so it went off, and the one I opened after passing my driving test was the last that was any good. There is a moral there.

What are you drinking a lot of at the moment and why?

I am really enjoying a Portuguese red –  Valle Pradinhos Porta Velha, Trás-Os-Montes 2011. It is insanely savoury.

Do you have any wine prejudices?

Not really. I don’t bother with sweet wines because I can only drink so much wine and I don’t like really jammy stuff, or stuff that is nasty, or tastes of bananas or burned rubber. So I suppose I do.

As a young wine enthusiast, I sometimes found I was treated with a fair amount of suspicion by some wine merchants. Have you ever had a similar experience?

I am still a bit anxious when I go to the local Borough Wines and am greeted with calm disgust by the bearded hipster behind the desk, but I try to remember I worked in Oddbins back in the day, and then at the great Grape Shop in Battersea and latterly Calais and Bolougne, and it was shit.

And the opposite? Where do love to buy wine?

I like tastings, I think, and of course I love the Wine Society. If anywhere is very traditional, my skin crawls.

Which writers have been a big influence on you?

I am too ashamed to admit it, or to be seen as comparing myself to her, but I really love Hilary Mantel. And Dorothy Dunnet. And Alan Furst. And William Boyd. They are examples of the sorts of authors I love and so I aim to end up writing like them.

Which writers do you think write well about drink?

I don’t know. I remember reading Under the Volcano and feeling I was at that really bad stage of drunkenness, so Malcolm Lowry must be one. I wonder if it is not a bit like writing about sex though? I mean we’ve all been drunk and had drink we like, but it is personal, isn’t it? Or is it? I don’t know.

What’s your favourite beer?

I am really enjoying all these craft beers. I refuse to remember their names because they’re all so silly and boutiquey and I’m too old for that, but Meantime IPA sticks in my mind and I think Hackney Brewery do an American Pale Ale that never seems to touch the sides when I order a pint. I did ask why it was American Pale Ale rather than Indian but the answer is lost in the mists of whatever.

And whisky?

I like smoky stuff, rather than floral. Laphroaig and so on. I had a very good one the other day; Glen Macadam. Then I had it again and didn’t like it so much. I like some blends but others taste of not much more than hot feathers.

What are you writing at the moment?

More of the same! For some reason I envisaged my story as a trilogy. I think because there were three big battles in the Wars of the Roses and I wanted each book to end on one of them, so book 2 will end after Tewkesbury. It is not going very well, I should say.

Thanks Toby! The book deserves to sell by the barrel load. 


Books Wine articles

Book review: Salt and Old Vines by Richard W H Bray

Sometimes before even opening a book you are kindly disposed towards it. It was like that with Salt and Old Vines. Firstly because it’s published by my publisher, Unbound, and secondly because it’s set in perhaps my favourite part of the world, Catalonia, specifically in the French part around Banyuls. Most vineyards are pretty dull to look at but not so on the hills above the towns of Banyuls and Collioure. They’re cut into the hillside on terraces, I haven’t visited the Douro valley yet but it would have to do something pretty spectacular to be more beautiful that this place.

The author is assistant winemaker at two domaines, Mas Cristine and Coume del Mas. The book is an insider’s look at what really goes on at harvest time. That makes it sound a bit like Kitchen Confidential for wine. It’s not like that as what really goes on isn’t sex and drugs but a lot of very hard and occasionally dangerous manual labour (and quite a bit of drinking). Chances are that any wine made by hand is bound to have a bit of someone’s thumb in it. Of course I knew that harvesting grapes and making wine was hard work but I didn’t realise quite how much e.g. the constant action of the grape juice literally tans skin so that it becomes like leather. And you should see what it does to your nails!

Though the book is mainly of interest to wine bores like myself, it’s certainly not a dry read. The author is, how should I put this, clearly a bloody-minded sort of man, and this makes for a lively and often amusing read. He has strong views on ‘natural wines’, people from Bordeaux and the book is spiced with some quality swearing. I liked the joke that wet vintage where the grapes don’t ripen properly is an AC/DC vintage because you make ‘a whole lotta rose.’

The book has completely put me off any remaining thoughts I might have had about the glamour of making wine. My plans to give up my day job and becoming a gentleman farmer in Paso Robles have been shelved indefinitely. What it will do is strengthen your love of good wine and this ruggedly beautiful past of France. It’ll also make you laugh and make you glad that someone is prepared to get his hands dirty for your pleasure (so to speak.)

You can pre-order a copy of my book Empire of Booze here. I’m working on it now and so far everything I’ve written has been brilliant. 

Wine articles

Lemon Icebox Pie

Nothing to do with booze but really enjoyed this thing by Misti Traya aka Skwirl Castiglione aka Mrs Henry Jeffreys. She was on the longlist for the Fortnum & Mason food & drink awards this year but they only announce the shortlist so you’ll just have to take my word for it.

Chagrinnamon Toast

It’s no secret some of my family can be described as country.  Some have owned trailers;  others homes in Appalachia with dirt floors.  Many own guns.  Many love 4 wheelers and most have driven at least 60 miles for the nearest good mall.  All have grown up on or near a farm.  And in case you didn’t know, yes, my mama had me when she was just 15 years old.  So while the way of life I just described wasn’t exactly mine when I was growing up in Los Angeles, I still saw and lived it at least once a year.  Generally in the summertime when the lightning bug lit fields of Iowa provided my cousins and I with a playground until well after dark.  My point is a person cannot escape her past.  No matter how hard she tries, the highfalutin schools she attends, or the manners she acquires, some things are inescapable.  Like a hankering for icebox pies.  Even in…

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Wine articles

Fortnum and Mason awards – now it’s really serious

I hope readers don’t mind me blowing my own trumpet a little. I’ve just been shortlisted for best drink writer at the Fortnum and Mason awards. It’s particularly gratifying when you see the other people on the shortlist, there’s Nina Caplan from the New Statesman, a writer I’ve always enjoyed, and… errr… that’s it actually. It’s a very exclusive list. I’m on for a couple of articles I wrote for the Spectator and for Spectator Life.

This is what the gossip columnist, Steerpike, at the Spectator had to say about it:

“As the two leading British political weeklies, the Spectator and the New Statesman, have for many years enjoyed a relationship of jocular antagonism. This amiable sort of rivalry can been maintained as their differences are over relatively trivial matters such as how the country should be run and the world ordered. But now they have come head to head over something deadly serious, drink. The shortlist for the  Fortnum and Mason drinks writer of the year has been announced and it’s a two way race between Nina Caplan of the Staggers and Henry Jeffreys of this parish. Expect thundering editorials, snide remarks and spiked drinks from both sides in the run-up to the announcement of the winner on the 13th May.”

You can pre-order a copy of my book Empire of Booze here



Wine articles

Spectator article on wine and my father

Many men really can only communicate through sport. It provides a ritualised way to argue, to become passionate and to bond without having to talk about awkward things such as feelings. This is never truer than of father-and-son relationships. But my father and I never had this common ground. He was a brilliant sportsman as a schoolboy and as an adult a keen golfer and rugby player. I, on the other hand, combined a scrawny physique with physical cowardice and an extraordinary lack of co-ordination.

My brothers weren’t much better but at least they were interested in watching sport and would accompany him to Lord’s and Twickenham. I envied their ease around him. To give him credit, he did try to find things that we were both interested in. There was motor racing: he couldn’t stand the noise so had to buy headphones, at which point he fell asleep.

And then there was the theatre. Read on here