Wine articles

A Victorian Christmas – claret and whisky in the same glass

Here’s my annual Lady Christmas bumper wine extravaganza. It should be up on their site soon. I’ve annotated it slightly for the blog: 

Most of our festive traditions such as Christmas trees, sending cards and mince pies back to the long reign of Queen Victoria. So this year I thought it would be fun to have Victorian-themed Christmas: we’ll buy the biggest turkey in the shop, ice skate on the Thames and send our three year old daughter up chimneys to pay for it all.

Queen Victoria’s drink of choice was a mixture of claret and whisky.  Luckily for our guests, her subjects had much better taste. All the world’s great drinks were available in London and they had more or less assumed their present form by the end of Victoria’s reign. Champagne had gone from being a sweet syrupy drink to the bone dry aperitif we know today, gin became smooth and aromatic and claret entered its golden age. (I’m subtly trying to plug my book here.) 

Thanks to William Gladstone’s Single Bottle Act of 1861, for the first time ordinary people could buy wine by the bottle. Previously they would have to have bought at least a case and visited a specialist merchant. Grocers’ shops and the new department stores that were founded at this time were now selling wine and it led to boom in consumption fuelled by the first mass marketing (and here).

So here’s what we’ll be drinking. There are a couple of expensive table wines to serve if you’re expecting a big Christmas bonus and a couple if you aren’t. I’ll be in the latter boat.

Churchill Unfiltered LBV 2005 (Oddbins £16)

It wouldn’t be a Victorian Xmas without port (God this is such a cliched phrase. We have just been watching Nigella  Lawson and apparently Christmas isn’t Christmas without chestnuts. With Jamie Oliver it’s clementines. He puts the zest in everything). This is one to give those who say they don’t like port because it’s not cloyingly sweet. In fact it tastes almost savoury with the most amazing floral aroma. So good you’d think it was twice the price.

Harvey Nichols Sauternes 2010 (half bottle £15)

This is made by one of the best estates in Sauternes, Chateau Coutet. It’s in a light fresh style with an intense aroma of marmalade, dried apricots and honey.

Quinta do Carvalhais 2010 (Tesco £8.99)

It wasn’t just port, a huge percentage of the wine drunk in Britain during the 19th century would have come from Portugal (probably pushing the Victorian theme a bit here). It’s leathery and spicy with lots of red fruit; just the thing to have with turkey (I’ve drunk about fifteen bottles of this recently and in some of them there’s quite prominent oak. It’s worth decanting and after a while the vanilla taste disappears. Other bottles don’t taste oaky at all. I assume this wine is made in such vast quantities that the bottles vary.)

Cliffhanger Riesling 2013 (Tesco £9.50)

You’ve got to have something German in honour of dear old Albert (and here). This is perfumed and floral. There’s a hint of sweetness but with such mouth-watering acidity that it’s dry enough to serve with savoury food.

Sainsbury’s Blanc de Blancs Champagne NV (£20)

This is fresh and lively with a distinct chalky taste like a good Chablis and a long nutty finish. Good price too and look out for bulk discount offers in the run-up to Christmas (top consumer advice!).

Gonzalez-Byass Dos Palmas Fino NV (Lea & Sandeman £17.95)

Think of this one as Tio Pepe turned up to 11. There’s lots of marmite on the nose and in the mouth it’s fresh and piquant with a distinct taste of almonds. I’d like to drink this at 11am on Christmas morning whilst opening presents.

Sarget de Gruaud Larose 05 (Tanners £35.40)

If you want to treat yourself then this is the wine to do it with. It’s perfectly poised between youthful fruitiness and mature tobacco notes; a real treat for claret lovers.

Exhibition St Aubin 12 (Wine Society £14)

What better wine to serve alongside the claret than a white Burgundy? Initially it’s very fresh, clean and lemony with mouth-watering acidity. But there’s richness here too, a lovely savoury nuttiness starts to build and lingers a while. A subtle wine that gets more interesting with each sip.

Completely off her head on whisky and claret.

Film and TV Wine of the week

This wine reminds me of . . . . Kevin McCloud!

I have a love/ hate relationship with Kevin McCloud. When he does that beaky-nosed scrunched-up eye thing at the camera I can’t help shouting obscenities at the television. And yet Grand Designs is my favourite program on television. That’s partly down to being snarky about other people’s taste but the way Kevin goads and needles his victims is a huge part of it.

Recently though he seems to have got under my skin to an alarming degree. I was writing up a wine which I was very keen on. It was Cotes de Saint Mont Rouge 2010 from the Wine Society. I was trying to describe how well it went with food and I tried to remember what I was eating with it. I concentrated and I remembered that I was sitting in our old wing back chair – my pompous chair as my wife has dubbed it. The food remained elusive. I tried again and . . . . I remembered that I drank it whilst watching Grand Designs. No no no no! Concentrate, the food, dammit! I engaged the brain and. . . . . it was the episode where the arty old couple from Surrey have a Hufhus imported from Germany. . . . Argghhhh! think brain! . . . I tried one more time but it was no use. That face just kept swirling into my consciousness.

I gave up and wrote this instead. Apparently what differentiates great wine writers from us also-rans is not their palates but their superiors memories. Their minds are efficient databases crammed with tastes, smells and evocations that they can cross-reference in an instant. Mine on the other hand, is filled with Kevin bloody McCloud.

‘Beaky-nosed, moi?’

Books Wine articles

My books of the year

This article originally appeared in the Independent:

One of the things people used to say about Les Dawson was that in order to play the piano like a clown, he had to be a masterful pianist. Simon Woods, the author of The World’s Shortest Wine Book (Simon Woods, £5), reminds me a little of Les Dawson. To write about wine so playfully, you have to know your stuff. This really is just about the best introduction to wine available. What I liked most about it is that Woods has little time for the things that interest most wine writers: there’s nothing about “sustainability”; his view on food and wine matching is that it’s, and I quote, “bollocks”; and although he has nothing against “natural wine”, he notes that they do all have a tendency to taste the same.

The next book on my list blows the Les Dawson theory out of the water. CJ and PK, the authors of Sediment (John Blake, £12.99), aren’t experts, but that doesn’t matter because they’re not really interested in wine per se. Instead they use it as a starting-off point to look at the absurdities of the world, share their love of boozy literature or just talk about themselves. It’s a very funny book to dip in and out of and would make the perfect Christmas present for the wine bore in your life.

It’s an interesting time for wine books, though you often have to look outside the lists of mainstream publishers. Simon Woods is a successful wine writer but decided to self-publish, as did Wink Lorch with her Jura Wine (Wine Travel Media, £25). Despite sounding like a character from early Martin Amis, Wink Lorch has done more to promote the peculiar wines of the Jura than anyone in the English-speaking world. The result is a labour of love examining all aspects of the Jura, including its unique gastronomy. It’s a thoroughly professional-looking book, too, though I found the layout busy and a bit dated-looking.

Another book that took an unconventional publishing route is Richard Bray’s Salt and Old Vines (Unbound, £9.99). This looks at those who actually pick grapes and make wine. It takes much of the glamour and mystique out of wine but still manages to make the subject seem romantic. Bray’s vignerons are a Band of Brothers, a happy and often-drunken few, risking limb and occasionally life doing something they love.

It’s good to see some traditional publishers still supporting the wine market. Barolo and Barbaresco: The King and Queen of Italian Wine by Kerin O’Keefe (University of California Press, £25) had me reaching for words such as “definitive” and even “magisterial”. Don’t let those rather pompous words put you off – it’s a good read, too.

And finally, Gin, Glorious Gin by Olivia Williams (Headline, £14.99) manages to be at once packed with information and as joyous as a properly made gin and tonic. She’s particularly good on gin’s prominent role in British literature, though I’m not sure how she missed out on the most gin-soaked novel ever: Hangover Square by Patrick Hamilton.

Sediment and Jura Wine have both just been shortlisted for the Andre Simon drink Book of the Year. The results aren’t yet up on their site


Rum and reggae and ting

Music and booze go together. Just think of Keith Richards in the 1970s with his Jack Daniel’s. There’s the love affair between hip-hop and luxury French booze: Busta Rhymes wrote a song called ‘Pass the Courvoisier’. And think of Puff Daddy and his Cristal champagne, though he later changed his name to P Diddy and started drinking Moscato d’ Asti — not so cool.

What about reggae and rum? As Jamaica’s two most famous exports, you expect them to have an affinity. But they’ve had an uneasy relationship. Rums from former British territories trade on images of piracy and the Royal Navy, as if still marketing to a Victorian audience.

It might have something to do with Jamaica’s third biggest export, ganja. Many reggae artists are Rastafarians for whom alcohol is against their religion. There are hundreds of songs written about the joys of the herb but the very few rum songs, like ‘Rum Drinker’ by Mike Brooks, invariably highlight its negative side. One could achieve communion with God by smoking ganja whereas rum was the devil. This diabolical association has a long history. An archaic name for rum was ‘killdevil’. Think of the song of the pirates inTreasure Island: ‘Fifteen men on the dead man’s chest…/ Yo-ho-ho, and a bottle of rum/ Drink and the devil had done for the rest.’ Rum is used in voodoo ceremonies in Haiti. Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry, who produced some of Bob Marley’s greatest early work, used to sprinkle white rum around his studio as a way of purifying it of ‘duppies’ — evil spirits or vampires. ‘The duppies like the white rum,’ he said in a recent interview.

That white rum would almost certainly have been J. Wray & Nephew.

To read more on the Spectator website, click here