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Whole Lotta Rosé

There’s a genre of music from the late 70s/ early 80s dubbed yacht rock: smooth, heavily-produced music made by virtuoso musicians with too much money.  Think bands such as Steely Dan, Hall & Oates and the Doobie Brothers. And to drink on your yacht with such music? There can be only one candidate: Provencal rosé, the more expensive the better.

You can’t miss these wines in your local store. They come in a bewildering array of bottles from the amphora-shaped, to bowling pins, squared-off shoulders, and even entirely square bottles. Then there’s the distinctive colour, Provencal rosés have to be as pale as possible. It’s all a far cry from when I worked in a wine shop in the late 90s when rosé was zinfandel blush, bright red Spanish rosado or sickly sweet Rosé d’Anjou. Nobody would have dreamed of spending more than £6 on a bottle.

In contrast yacht rosés (I’m trying to coin a new genre) can sell for up £100 for the Chateau d’Esclans Garrus. It sounds outrageous but this is a drop in the ocean for their target market. Sacha Lichine from the Bordeaux family that own Esclans was quoted recently as saying: “I knew we had arrived when I got a call from a top yacht-builder wanting the dimensions of our three-litre double-magnums. . . . . He wanted to make sure he built a fridge on a yacht that was big enough.”

Esclans are best known for their more prosaic Whispering Angel brand (around £20 a bottle). Other names to look out for include Minuty, Domaine Ott, Chateau Gassier, MiP (made in Provence) and Miraval. The owners of Miraval, Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie, are to rosé what Jay Z is to champagne. Indeed yacht rosé shares some similarities with champagne; they both sell on image as much as content. The crucial difference is if you spent £80 on a bottle of champagne, Pol Roger vintage for example, you’re going to get a lot of flavour compared with a £30 bottle. Expensive champagne tastes expensive, rosé’s pleasures are more ethereal. British wine writer Andrew Jefford who lives in the south of France tried to explain it to me:

“The art of crafting great rosé is the art of understatement.  It’s all a question of nuances, subtleties, suggestions, hints and whispers.  The more forceful a rosé is, the less good it is. A blockbuster red can be great; a blockbuster rosé would be a comprehensive failure.  The reason being that sippability, drinkability is even more important for rosé than for most wines.”

These delicate wines are made by lightly pressing red grapes, mainly cinsault and grenache, so that just a little colour seeps into the wine. Sometimes this is done so subtly that the wine is almost indistinguishable from a white wine. The rosé paradox is that the most expensive are often the least intense. With a little reflection and enough money in your pocket you might notice flavours of strawberries, peaches, herbs and sometimes a faint nuttiness.

The production process requires technology, inert gas to keep the grapes free from oxygen, and ideally they should be harvested at night for maximum freshness, but these are not expensive wines to make. And unlike champagne which needs to be matured, rosé can be sold the summer after vintage. Rosé is catnip to accountants.

The 2016s are just about to arrive in shops but the better quality rosés are usually at their best in the autumn, just as the sun is beginning to disappear. Those ethereal flavours take a little time to come out. The very best rosés from the fishing port of Bandol can age for ten years or more. Bandol apart though, rosé is essentially background music. You’d never have a conversation about a rosé like you might a Santa Barbara Syrah or a good Burgundy. But whether you own a yacht or even a pair of white trousers, when you’ve just been paid, the sun’s out and I Can’t Go For That (No Can Do) comes on the stereo, nothing tastes better.

Here are five that are worth drinking:

William Chase 2016 rosé – £14.90 Tanners

Made by an English producer in Provence. It looks and tastes the part from the stylish bottle to the subtle but persistent fruit and, best of all, it’s not that expensive.

Chateau d’Esclans Les Clans 2015 – £30 From Vineyards Direct 

My favourite of Esclans wines. It’s floral with delicate red fruit and a creamy texture from some very discrete oak ageing. If you even notice that price, you can’t afford it.

Le Secret de Chateau Leoube 2015 – £25 Wine Direct 

Made by one of the cult names in rosé, this is textbook stuff: gentle orange and peachy fruit with a distant scent of wild herbs as if you’re smelling Provence from your boat.

Domaine Tempier Bandol rosé 2015 – £25 Lea & Sandeman have the 16 vintage 

A rosé worth talking about. The 2015 was one of the finest I’ve drunk with spectacular depth of flavour, gorgeous fruit and balance, and a long finish.

Rouviere Bandol rosé 2015 –  £19.99 Yapp Bros have the 16 vintage

Some of the magic of the Tempier but at an everyday price. Quite full-bodied with rosemary notes and a little almond-like nuttiness on the finish. It offers power with finesse.

A version of this article appeared in Food & Wine magazine.

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Wine articles

Literary Festivals this summer and the Fortnum & Mason Awards

I’m going to be talking about my book, Empire of Booze, at a few festivals this summer:

Saturday 27th May 6pm – talk at the Greenwich Book Festival in conjunction with Meantime Brewery (which means free beer!) Tickets from £5

Saturday 6th June 6pm (time TBC) – talk at Stoke Newington Literary Festival with beer legend Pete Brown. This is a bit of last minute thing so it’s not up on their site yet. Will update when I know more.

27-30th July – Port Eliot Festival in Cornwall. I’ll be giving a talk at some point during the festival. Not sure when yet. Should be fun.

Finally on Thursday night I won Best Debut Drink Book at the Fortnum & Mason Awards. Here’s a picture of me with Claudia Winkleman and Ewan Venters (I’m the one in the middle with an peculiarly long head.)

Image may contain: 2 people, people standing

 

 

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Wine articles

After the sherry boom

Do you remember when sherry was the in thing? First some seriously good tapas bars opened like Barrafina and Fino in London, and Oloroso (the names are a bit of a giveaway) in Edinburgh. Then there were new things happening in the category with rare bottlings from Equipo Navazos, unfiltered en rama finos and the launch of the Great Sherry Tasting in London in 2011. Suddenly you couldn’t move for sherry in the lifestyle pages.

Ten years since Barrafina opened is a time as any to look at how sherry is doing after the PR boom. In 2005 22 million bottles sold were sold in Britain. By 2015 it was 10 million sold. Britain, probably for the first time since 1790, is no longer the world’s biggest market for sherry. It appears that the much-hyped sherry revival was only taking place in a few bars in big cities. For a proper recovery it needs to get out of the tapas ghetto.

One person who is trying to do just that is Helen Highley who started a specialist importing business, Sherry Boutique, 18 months ago. She pointed out that at customer tastings she puts on “sherry has still got an image problem. People tell us that they used to drink this with granny at Christmas and it is quite hard to get them to try it again.” Marcin Schilling, London Business Development Manager for Gonzalez Byass, begged me not to mention the G word in this article but it does point to a truth, sherry’s traditional drinkers are dying out and not being replaced fast enough.

Image result for barrafina

Don’t mention the g word

It’s not just the geriatric image that puts people off. Robert Boutflower, Private Sales Director for Tanners in Shrewsbury, told me that for young drinkers sherry has “the wrong flavour. It’s not fresh and fruity. It’s about as far from pinot grigio as you can get.” Sherry needs explaining to potential customers. Kiki Evans from Grape Night In, a pop up wine company based in Tooting, told me “we’re on a mission to encourage more people to enjoy the nectar of sherry.”

It tends to be the sweeter styles that newcomers like best. “What they drank with granny they still enjoy” Helen Highley said. But Marcin Schilling tells me that it is not so clear cut: “half will go for sweeter styles, half will go for drier styles.” Everyone I spoke to agrees that the easiest style to sell is  super sweet Pedro Ximinez though this is largely a Christmas purchase.

The more challenging styles go best with food. “They (En Rama sherries) are wines rather than sherries, freshness, purity and steeliness lend them to certain foods” Alistair Viner from Hedonism wines in Mayfair told me. Doug Wregg from importer Cave de Pyrene is also a restaurateur with wine bars in London: “once you taste an amontillado with some hard cheese, the wines begin to make sense” he said. High end restaurants seem to get sherry: at Le Gavroche they serve their cheese souffle with Palo Cortado Apostoles.

The trick is to get sherry listed alongside the table wines not alongside aperitifs, digestifs or spirits. Doug Wregg said: “it is important that customers understand that these are wines.” He went on to state the importance of “training, training, training until staff feel comfortable talking about the properties of different sherries. ” The key is “to have a very good sommelier” according to Robert Boutflower.  And serve the sherry in decent size glasses, cool or cold for fino.

Gonzalez Byass in particular are very active in spreading the word. They run the Tio Pepe challenge to encourage barmen to make sherry-based cocktails. “Demand for sherry in cocktails seems to keep increasing” Keivan Nemati, bar manager at the Zetter Townhouse in Clerkenwell told me. He makes a special Cobbler using Hidalgo sherry.

All of the activity is now taking place at the premium end of the market. According to IWSR (International Wines and Spirits Record) premium sherry sales have doubled between 2011 and 2015. “We sell a lot of top end sherry” Alistair Viner from Hedonism told me. Tanners have also done well with specialist sherry but Robert Boutflower told me that it’s based on a small number of loyal customers: “before I send out an offer. I can almost tell you the names of people who are going to buy it.”

“They are the most undervalued drinks on the market. Look at price for age of liquid you are getting a bargain” Alistair Viner said. Barbadillo have been more ambitious by releasing their Versos sherry last year at £8,000 a bottle. “We are still to sell one” Alistair Viner told me “the price is higher than it should be. Versos is trying to appeal to scotch and cognac market.” Boutflower is sceptical of this targeting of spirits aficionados: “whisky has a progression from beginners to collectors. With sherry there are not enough people coming in at the bottom.”

He went on to say: “our customers are two lots of people – people who have bought it for a very long time and a very small number of bright young things.” Helen Highley from Boutique Sherry also worries that sherry is polarised between the old customers and the tiny hipster market: “we don’t want it to be too cool for school. We want it to be mainstream.”

Marcin Schilling is confident that sherry can make new converts: “younger drinkers like to try new things.“ “We are now so much more interested in diversity in wine than we were ten years ago” Helen Highley agreed. Today’s consumers, however, are not loyal like the proverbial sherry-swilling grandma. Adventurous wine drinkers might buy Greek wines, natural wines from the Loire, or Vin Jaune instead of sherry.

It looks likely that sherry sales by volume still have much further to fall. But Robert Boutflower is convinced that sherry isn’t going to die out: “it will always be around because Spanish swear by it and back it up with sales. It will become a specialist drink like sake.” Getting and keeping new customers is an extraordinary amount of work compared with say selling malbec or prosecco but there is something about sherry that captures certain people’s imagination and turns them into evangelists. It may never be mainstream again but if producers can keep building the premium market then perhaps in a few years we can talk about sherry without mentioning the G word.

This article originally appeared in Harper’s Wines and Spirits