Wine articles

Oxford & Cambridge Blind Tasting Challenge

One of the great jokes of the wine trade is:

– ‘Have you ever confused Burgundy with Bordeaux?’

– ‘Not since this morning!’

Last week I realised it isn’t a joke. I’d been invited to take part in the Varsity Blind Wine Tasting Match. It’s sponsored by Pol Roger champagne and they thought it would be fun to have a team of journalists from the Spectator compete against the students from Oxford and Cambridge. Our crack squad was made up of in-house drinks supremo, Jonathan Ray, top sommelier and writer, Douglas Blyde, Nick Spong, the Spectator’s ad man who apparently likes a drink, and me.

As soon as I arrived at the Oxford and Cambridge Club in Pall Mall I realised I was out of my depth. The two university teams were standing in the lobby looking fit and focused. One of them even had bow tie like an old school wine merchant. They’d been training for this day all year. It was like the Boat Race for nose and brain only much more serious. I half expected an appearance from Trenton Oldfield as a protest against elitism.

The tasting consisted of six reds and six whites. Marks are awarded for correctly identifying the grape variety, country and region, and just like maths exams at school, you are also marked on your workings so even if you get everything wrong you can still score. Judging the contest were Jasper Morris MW and Hugh Johnson.

We sat down. The atmosphere was tense. I sniffed the first wine, immediately I knew it was a riesling from Australia. I had a little taste to confirm. This is going to be easy. Then the man to my left started having some sort of fit. I was just about to administer the Heimlich maneuver when I realised he was just sucking air through the wine. Extremely loudly. The man opposite then started choking, then others started up gurgling, gurning and coughing like Bob Fleming from the Fast Show. I read later that the Cambridge team are famous for being noisy tasters – there are even rumours that it’s gamesmanship. unnamed

Journalists at the far end looking old and confused. Credit: Freya Miller

I finished the whites reasonably confident that I’d done well. We had a quick break and it was on to the reds at which point I went completely to pieces and guessed most of them. The students, in contrast, wrote detailed notes and then only at the last minute filled in the region, variety etc. They were working methodically, we were going on hunches, or at least I was. They were concentrating so hard that at one point I was told to be quiet as my (very low-level) conversation about vintage car dealers in Wandsworth was putting some off. Then one of the students knocked over a glass of red (more gamesmanship perhaps?) and I was saved from further embarrassment.

There was a short prize-giving where it was announced that Oxford had won. The tasting champion was Oxford’s captain, Swii Yii Lim, who in the first round got five out of six absolutely spot on. Afterwards we had lunch and we got to swallow rather than spit some excellent wines provided by Pol Roger. Once the terrors of the challenge were over, both teams turned out to be rather jolly. It was interesting meeting these younsters. They are the Hugh Johnsons and Jasper Morrises of the future. I’ve spent most of my adulthood – about eighteen years – learning about wine but compared to them, I was a bumbling amateur.

So how did the journalists do? I learned that I’d confused a Cotes-du-Rhone with a Chianti though in my defence everyone scored badly on the reds. I’d done much better with the whites guessing grape variety correctly in half the wines though the riesling I’d been so confident about was actually German. It was announced that Johnny Ray came top from our lot. Probably to save face, we weren’t told our actual scores though I’d already prepared my excuse in the event of a woeful showing: I was put off by the noisy Cambridge team.

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Hugh Johnson’s shoe. Credit: Douglas Blyde


In the 1960s making proper coffee singled you out as a dangerous maverick

The paperback of the Breakfast Bible comes out this month and I’ve written something for the Guardian about coffee. The two events aren’t related, it’s just a happy coincidence. The new edition of the book looks beautiful. It’s perhaps even lovelier than the hardback so even if you’ve already bought it, you might want to buy another copy for on the move breakfast inspiration.

The Coffee House: the Beating Heart of the City

One of the most famous scenes in British cinema is the beginning of The Ipcress File where the spy Harry Palmer (played by Michael Caine) grinds beans and then makes coffee in a cafetiere. This seems a humdrum activity to us, but in the 1960s making proper coffee singled you out as a dangerous maverick. No wonder that Ian Fleming, too, was very particular about the apparatus James Bond used to make coffee: (a Chemex), and the variety (Blue Mountain, from Jamaica). For my parents’ generation and even when I was growing up in the 1980s, “coffee” meant instant coffee. Britain was a tea-drinking nation. From the look of intense concentration on his face, Caine gives himself away as a tea drinker in the film. He looks like he’s diffusing a bomb rather than making a cup of coffee.

It’s a far cry from when England was the coffee capital of Europe. London’s first coffee house was opened in 1652 by a Greek man called Pasqua Rosée. Between 1680 and 1730, London consumed more coffee than anywhere else on earth, second only to Constantinople in its number of coffee houses. They were the commercial heart of London, functioning as offices and meeting places. The Tatler, the Spectator and Lloyds insurance all started life in coffee houses. Wine merchants Berry Bros & Rudd originally sold coffee; they still have the original weighing scales in their St James’s shop.

Because of the coffee house’s role in Britain’s intellectual life, I have this mental image of them as sober places where men in powdered wigs delighted in fine Java and discussed the latest Adam Smith. They weren’t.

Wine articles

Why is ice still a luxury in Britain?

There are two things that American visitors to Britain complain about. The first is having separate hot and cold taps on hand basins rather than a mixer tap. So pressing is this problem that the Wall Street Journal ran an article about it and Boris Johnson felt obliged to issue a statement saying that British plumbing “is an incentive to get it over and done with and not waste water”.

The second is the lack of ice in the hospitality trade. When one orders tap water in a restaurant it is, more often than not, warm. Most pubs still use a bucket full of partially melted ice for making gin and tonics. Americans are baffled by this. They have had a regular supply of ice since the 19th century. They would harvest ice in the winter and store it in specially designed ice boxes to keep it frozen.

The Chinese, of course, were there first.


Passive aggressive BYO policy

Whilst in the impressive wine section of M&S Lewisham on Sunday, I marvelled that such riches were available on Lewisham High Street when all around were pound shops and stalls were you can unlock your or indeed someone else’s mobile phone. I assume someone must be buying the Greek whites and Lebanese reds or they wouldn’t stock them. I returned home and read Nicholas Lander in the FT/ One of the restaurants he mentioned was a place that has opened not far from Lewisham called Peckham Bazaar. I hope he doesn’t mind me quoting a bit of it:

“John Gionleka is the Albanian-born chef at Peckham Bazaar. His repertoire extends, however, across the cooking of his native country to Turkey, Greece and Iran and he is ably supported by his sommelier, Florian Siepert , who has carefully put together an unusual wine list from Greece, Croatia, Bulgaria, Slovenia, Hungary and Turkey.”

Sounds good doesn’t it? About my two favourite things are grilled Ottoman things and East European/ Levantine wines so immediately I went to their website to find out more.

On it was the following statement:

“Free BYO Saturday lunch only. Please no supermarket wine. Please.”

No supermarket wine. Seems on odd sort of instruction. I love the second ‘please’ as if even the idea that someone might argue with them is too painful to contemplate. You can see the owners closing their eyes and shaking their heads wearily as they utter these words. It’s not going to be an easy one to police. When someone comes in with a bottle of Wolf Blass Chardonnay are they going to be given a grilling (pun intended) about whether they bought it from a cornershop or the local Tesco’s Metro?

It’s hard to know why they have this instruction. Is it on aesthetic grounds? Would a bottle of commercial Malbec upset their carefully constructed flavours? I rather think though it’s on ethical grounds perhaps with a side order of snobbery thrown in. The owners think that supermarkets are a bad thing.

I don’t want to get into an argument about the ethics of supermarkets. On the whole I think they’re a good thing for the customer. Moreover, people like them. I’d say that nearly 100% of Peckham Bazaar’s potential clientele are supermarket shoppers. If they want to serve all the local community rather than just the dedicated foodies then they are going to have to put up with people who don’t share their views on supermarkets.

And this is the odd thing about it: they’re trying to impose their personal morality on their customers. It’s like a vegetarian restaurant not letting people in who wear leather shoes. Either have a BYO day or don’t, but don’t have one and then tell people where they can or can’t buy their wines.

The sad thing is that you can sort of see what they’re getting at. Support your local shopkeeper. If you are lucky enough to have good local shops, then for God’s sake use them as much as possible. If there is a good local wine shop why not ask them to offer a small discount to your customers on BYO day? It’s really not that complicated. You can spread a little bit of happiness through the community without having to resort to passive-aggressive diktats.

I’m still planning to go because the food sounds too good to miss. If i’m feeling brave I might even try to smuggle a bottle of M&S Xinomavro past the door police. As they open it, I’ll feel like I’m striking a blow for the ordinary folk of South East London.







After all that arak I felt no urge to copulate in the streets

If you look at the back of most British drinks cupboards, there will be a dusty, untouched bottle of ouzo or raki brought back from holiday. When I was a student, if we were considering broaching the ouzo, we knew it was time to call it a night. Ouzo is associated with sunburnt flesh, Demis Roussos and carnage on the streets of Malia. It has a reputation for causing a particularly intense kind of drunkenness, but this is only because it’s usually taken when the imbibers are already extremely drunk. They wake up the next day bruised and ashamed with a taste of aniseed in their mouths, and naturally they blame the ouzo.

Ouzo is part of a family of drinks common to most countries with a strong Muslim influence – let’s not forget that Greece was part of the Ottoman Empire for around 400 years. In Lebanon they have arak, in Turkey raki, and they even make something similar in Saudi Arabia. This is not so surprising as the Arabs were probably the first people to distil alcohol; alcohol is an Arabic word. “Arak” means “sweat” in Arabic, and describes the distillation process rather than what happens when you drink too much.

When the East India Company first began conquering bits of India, they had terrible problems with their men going on arak binges. In 1756, after too much arak, one of General Clive’s men tried to take the enemy fort of Baj-baj near Calcutta on his own. An eyewitness account reported: “He took it into his head to scale a breach that had been made by the cannon … then after having given three loud huzzas, he cried out, ‘the place is mine’.” Sounds like Saturday night in Malia.

Spirits Wine articles

How I made the worst negroni ever

There are a lot of ’boutique’ drinks around. There are boutique vermouths and boutique ouzos, boutique bitters and boutique vodkas. The category, however, with the most ’boutique’ labels is gin. Ever since I started writing about drink for the Guardian – about a month – I’ve been deluged with information about gins: Cotswold Gin, gin made from Icelandic spring water, small batch pot-distilled gin and even Yorkshire gin (tagline Like Gin Used to Be.) This Saturday I decided to broach the gin surfeit that had been building up in our kitchen.

So very professionally I sat down at the dining table with a proper whisky tasting glass, a bowl to spit in, a pencil, some paper and a glass of cold filtered water. I won’t reprint all my tasting notes as that would be boring but here is a brief precis of what I thought of them all:

Cotswold Gin – very pretty, floral, the juniper is there but it doesn’t hit you over the head with it, not very Cotswold though not even a hint of  red trousers.

Bombay Sapphire – doesn’t really taste of gin. This is a gin for  people who prefer vodka.

Martin Millers Gin  – clean, elegant a nice taste of gin but nothing to frighten the horses.

William Chase Elegant Gin – proper gin, really tastes of gin, one for those who really like gin. Lots of alcohol too, 48%.

Yorkshire Gin – lots going on here, liquorice, juniper, orange and pepper. Complex and unusual with a long finish.

Now obviously this is a stupid way of trying gins as nobody drinks gin neat so I started experimenting with cocktails and tonics and various things. I’d also given up spitting by this point. The tonic water – Fancy Fever Tree stuff – managed to completely overwhelm the Cotswold Gin and took the poor Bombay Sapphire to the cleaners. The William Chase worked best as, I think I may have mentioned before, it really tastes like gin.

The other boutique spirit I tried during my gruelling tasting session was called Stellacello Amaro London. Imagine it as a kind of artisan Campari and you’re almost there. Now I really really liked this. It smells a bit like Angostura bitter marmalade but the taste is of mellow oranges and grapefruit. It’s a taste that lingers pleasantly for quite some time. My wife has been making marmalade all week so it felt like my entire world was made from oranges. It’s great neat with ice. But then I remembered I had some boutique red vermouth made by Belsazar so I thought, boutique bloody negroni! As everyone knows the negroni is the easiest of all the cocktails to make.

I put a shot of Yorkshire gin, a shot of Belsazar red vermouth and a shot of Amaro London in a glass with lots of ice and some grapefruit rind. Rather than the deep red of a traditional negroni it went brown. Oh well I suppose before industrialisation and chemical dyes that’s how negronis used to look. I took a sip. It was horrible. Truly foul. Some sort of interaction between the bitterness of the Amaro and the liquorice in the gin had created a monster. I’m not sure what the red vermouth was doing* but it wasn’t providing the necessary fruit and sweetness to counteract all that bitterness and the overwhelming stench of liquorice. Oh and did I mention it was brown. After some of the ice melted it became vaguely palatable. Still it was the worst negroni I’ve ever had. I finished it with a grimace as I put our daughter to bed.

It was odd because individually all the parts were better than their more commercial equivalents but together they were vile. I’m not sure what the moral of the story is. Perhaps it’s that being a barmen isn’t as easy as it looks. Experiment with a classic at your peril.

* Expert drinker Richard Godwin, formerly of the Evening Standard, thinks the herbal quality in the Belsazar vermouth might have been to blame. 

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I cunningly combined tasting drinks with drawing scary monsters with my daughter. Funnily enough this monster looks a little like the negroni tasted ie. frightening.