Chinese wines – full of eastern promise?

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Below is something I wrote for Waldorf Astoria magazine about Chinese wines. After talking to a lot of people and trying quite a few wines, I have come to the conclusion that China really isn’t the ideal place to make wines. It would be much easier and cheaper just to import the stuff from Spain or Australia. In the main wine region Ningxia the winters are so cold that they have to bury the vines to stop them dying. This is a very expensive operation and many die anyway. And yet China is beginning to make some good wines. Amazing what lots and lots of money can do.

On a recent visit to the restaurant at Chateau Lynch-Bages in Bordeaux, I noticed that the majority of the visitors were Chinese. These weren’t nouveau riche showing off, the cliche of wealthy Chinese businessmen mixing their Chateau Petrus with Coca-Cola is at least ten years out of date, they were clearly educated enthusiasts.

There are now as many people studying WSET courses (Wine and Spirits Education Trust) in China and Hong Kong as there are in Britain. Fongyee Walker MW (Master of Wine) who runs a wine consulting business in China describes how “consumers are incredibly engaged and very very eager to try all sorts of wine and to discuss it.” At this November’s Decanter Shanghai Fine Wine Encounter held just across the river from the Waldorf Astoria on the Bund, Christelle Guibert from Decanter told me that “the clientele were very young, much younger than you would get in Britain.”

In 2014 Vinexpo reported that China was now the world’s largest consumer of red wine. This was a mistake caused by the Chinese characters for red wine also being used generically for wine. Still the Chinese drink a lot of wine and the amount is increasing every year. Much of it will home produced but it’s hard to know exactly how much as though International Organisation of Vine and Wine places China as the country with the second biggest vineyard area in the world much of these vines are table grapes. What is safe to say is that with its expanding middle class, China has just the base needed to sustain a quality wine industry.

The capital of China’s wine production is Ningxia, a semi-arid region 1200 km inland from Beijing where the local government has done much to encourage viticulture. I tried some impressive wines recently from Changyu-Moser: a collaboration between Changyu, one of the country’s largest producers, and Lenz Moser from Austria. According to Moser “Ningxia has ideal conditions for winemaking.” The major challenge is the freezing winters where vines have to be buried in the soil to protect them – an expensive laborious operation.

Just back from a trip to Ningxia, Christelle Guibert recommended wines from Kanaan winery. Other critics have tipped Silver Heights with their young winemaker Emma Bau. The majority of these wines are Cabernet blends made in the image of Bordeaux though Chandon produce a champagne-style sparkling wine and Grace Vineyards make a highly regarded Aglianico, a grape from Southern Italy.

Tourism is a big thing: most wineries having dramatic buildings in either French Chateau, traditional Chinese or modern style. China’s other main wine region, Shandong, is handier for Western tourists being only 500 km from Beijing. Here Chateau Lafite have an estate though the wines aren’t yet for sale and the local government is building a $900 wine city to attract visitors  The climate is less extreme than Ningxia but the damp weather can cause fungal problems.  

These wines have been making waves outside China. Back in 2011 the Jia Bei Lan 09  from Ningxia won a  trophy at the Decanter Awards. Berry Bros & Rudd, the British wine merchant, are backing Chinese wine with a selection from Changyu-Moser. Buyer Mark Pardoe MW said: ‘China is already the eighth largest producer of wine in the world so it was only a matter of time before it entered the international market.” As well as reds, they will also be stocking some ice wines, intensely sweet wines made from frozen grapes from Liaoning near the border with North Korea.

These are all expensive products but not compared with a new wine from Moet Hennessy made in Yunnan province which will retail for £225 a bottle for the inaugural 2013 vintage. It’s called Ao Yun (see image above) meaning flying above the clouds. The winemaker Maxence Dulou, formerly of Cheval Blanc, told me:  “we were searching for the terroir to make world class wine in China. We needed a microclimate that was sheltered from the monsoon by mountains but not too cold.”

The place they found was ridiculously remote: over 2,000 metres up in mountains on the border with Tibet and Laos, five hours drive from the nearest town. Cabernet Sauvignon vines were planted in the 2000 by the far-sighted local government looking to diversify farming. Ao Yun is made from over 300 plots of land at various altitudes. It’s a stunning wine with the most gorgeously pure fruit and once you realise how much effort goes into it, the price tag does not seem unreasonable. Even so, Dulou told me that they don’t make any money on it.

It’s very much a wine to be appreciated by wealthy connoisseurs rather than displayed and as such epitomises how Chinese attitudes to wine have changed. It’s still early days for quality wine production in China but the success of this first vintage of Ao You demonstrate that China has the potential to create truly world class wine. Look at China now and in the words of Lenz Moser “think of Chile 25 years ago or Napa 30 years ago.”


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SS-GB – The Hoarse Whisperer

This is a slightly longer version of something that appeared in the TLS a couple of weeks ago:

Typical, you wait years for a World War Two counterfactual drama and then two come along at once. In 2015 Amazon launched the Man in the High Castle an adaptation Philip K. Dick’s novel. It is now on its second series. Then last month the BBC broadcast the first parts of a mini series based on Len Deighton’s SS-GB. It’s tempting to see this as a reflection of today’s troubled times. Certainly a rabble-rouser in the White House, a possible (likely?!) Front National president in France and the return of anti-Semitism on the Continent certainly gives these programmes an added frisson.

In all the inevitable contemporary comparisons, however, we shouldn’t forget that counterfactual stories are a perennial favourite. They turn the conventional British and American triumphal history narrative on its head and ask difficult questions: would we have saved our Jews like the Danes did or collaborated enthusiastically like the Petain government in France? And on a more base level: swastikas sell. In recent years there was Robert Harris’s Fatherland made into an HBO film in 1994 with Rutger Hauer and Philip Roth’s 2004 novel, The Plot Against America. More obscure is the 1978 BBC drama An Englishman’s Castle set in a fascist German-dominated Britain. Or on a similar theme, It Happened Here, a film shot in the 60s over the course of eight years by two teenagers with amateur actors and a miniscule budget.

It’s a far cry from the glossy  productions of SS-GB and The Man in the High Castle. The opening of SS-GB features a Spitfire (from a later year as history buffs  have gleefully pointed out) landing by a bombed-out Buckingham Palace all rendered in slightly queasy CGI. Technology has progressed to the point where one can easily drape London or New York in swastikas which might be why both adaptations have only appeared now; these would both have been very expensive series to shoot 20 years ago.

SS-GB is set in 1941, the Germans won the Battle of Britain and successfully invaded. Churchill has been shot and the King is being kept in the Tower of London. Sam Riley plays Archer of the Yard (as the tabloids call him) a fresh-faced detective superintendent. Though nominally independent he reports to an SS Gruppenfuhrer Kellerman. In the opening episode, a body with mysterious burns on it is discovered in a dingy flat in Shepherd Market.

Len Deighton based his novel on real plans drawn up by the Nazis for how they would have ruled Britain. The scriptwriters Robert Wade and Neil Purvis (the team behind the last five Bond films) have stuck closely to the novel which isn’t necessarily a good thing. There’s a typically labyrinthine Deighton plot involving rivalry between different factions of the German armed forces, nuclear secrets and schemes by the British resistance to involve the neutral Americans in the war. The opening episodes will be hard work for anyone who hasn’t read the book. Intelligibility isn’t helped by Sam Riley speaking in a hoarse whisper much of the time.

SS-GB is firmly rooted in the wartime London that Deighton grew up in. Here the BBC adaptation struggles to convince. None of the characters feel like Londoners and they’re not helped by a clumsy script with lines such as: “get your hand off me you bloody Gestapo bastard” or the inevitable “you just don’t get it, do you?” Both Riley and Kate Bosworth, who plays an American journalist, Barbara Barga, who Archer falls in love with, are curiously inexpressive so much so that Bosworth in her pink suit reminded me of Lady Penelope from Thunderbirds. If the Allies are wooden, the Germans have the opposite problem. SS Standartenfuhrer Huth arrives in the first episode looking like Herr Flick from Allo’ Allo’ flicking his gloves and camping about in a tight leather overcoat.

Despite being rather broad at times, SS-GB does show some of the complexity of relationships between occupier and occupied. Archer’s boss Kellerman wears tweed suits like a parody of an English gentleman. Meanwhile Archer’s son asks his father with awe whether he works for the Gestapo. Archer is caught between trying to do his duty as a policeman whilst avoiding being drawn into open collaboration or resistance. The Resistance can be as cynical and ruthless as the Nazis but what SS-GB lacks and, this is a fault of the novel, is any sense of Nazism finding a fertile soil in Britain. The premises of It Happened Here, An Englishman’s Castle or Alan Moore’s graphic novel V for Vendetta, are far more unsettling because the real enemies are British.

I can’t help thinking that SS-GB would have worked better stripped back into a taut feature film a la Ipcress File or Deighton’s novel used as a starting point for a longer series like Amazon’s the Man in the High Castle. As it is SS-GB doesn’t really get to grips with the full horror of occupation and collaboration. Instead we’re just left with an unusually confusing police procedural.





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A little knowledge can be a dangerous thing

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Wine lists can be difficult for the uninitiated to understand. One restaurant in Los Angeles, Hatchet Hall*, has taken this a step further: not only is their list incomprehensible to the general public, it’s incomprehensible to anyone who doesn’t work there. Rather than name producer, region, vintage and grape variety as is normal they’ve come up with cryptic descriptions such as “Ham wine” or “Vieilles Vignes  (old vines) 13”. It’s more like a crossword puzzle than a menu. The whole thing smacks of an in-joke but it actually serves a very serious purpose. It means that the even the most wine literate diner needs someone to decode it for him. It’s the latest salvo in the ongoing battle to keep wine unintelligible.

In the past wine knowledge was linked to class.  This is why it lends itself so well to British comedy which is often about social status. Think of Basil Fawlty saying to an upper class guest at the hotel: “It’s always a pleasure to meet someone who appreciates the boudoir of the grape. I’m afraid most people we get here don’t know a bordeaux from a claret.” This link between class and wine knowledge began to unravel with the rise of American super critic Robert Parker in the 1980s. He not only pronounced in an authoritative fashion on wine but he scored them out of 100. Many decried this a philistinism, asking whether you would score a Velasquez or a lover, but wine buyers loved it because it simplified or seemed to simply wine. Armed with a bit of Parker, the average wine drinker could now begin to navigate his way around a wine list. Sommeliers and merchants were still useful but customers could always appeal to a higher power like the European Court of Human Rights. Yes, you like it but what does Parker think?

In the 90s and 00s the public became better informed and wine democratised. Supermarkets began selling classed growth Bordeaux off the back of Parker scores.  With one super critic in place and good wine seemingly available everywhere, the professionals were losing their grip. Something had to be done. The answer was Natural Wine. This was ostensibly a reaction against the sort of wine that Parker liked, powerful, oaky wines made in a Bordeaux meets California style. But just as important, the producers were obscure and you couldn’t buy the wines in Oddbins. A new generation of writers, sommeliers and merchants staked their claim as keepers of arcane knowledge. Visiting a wine shop or bar now became like visiting an independent record shop. Asking for a wine Parker liked would be like requesting a Dire Straits record in Rough Trade.

Nowadays there’s a whole network of bars, shops and restaurants in London, New York and especially Paris selling Natural Wines. A further advantage of these wines from the perspective of the initiated is that some of them taste awful but they are meant to taste like that so when customers try to send them back, they can be put in their place with a “you just don’t get this wine, man.” It saves on wastage as nobody knows if a wine was faulty or not. With Parker retired, sommeliers have become the new trendsetters. When Wine Australia launched a campaign to convince the public about the merits of premium Australian wine they didn’t do it through retailers, they put on tastings for sommeliers.

But this power is under threat from technology. In 2003 a website called Cellartracker was founded by an ex-Microsoft man called Eric LeVine. Here members of the public log the wines they have tried and rate them out of hundred. We are all Parker now. There are now nearly 4 million notes and around 290,000 registered users. It really came into its own with the development of apps such Vivino  where you can scan wine labels and automatically link to reviews. The savvy wine lover can now bypass the professionals entirely. Hence the Hatchet Hall website. It was designed to be smartphone proof.

Sommeliers need not hang up their spittoons just yet because they have an ace up their sleeve: matching food and wine. It isn’t a coincidence that as public wine knowledge grows, this has become increasingly elaborate with tastings menus with a wine for each course. Wine writers devote columns to the quest for the perfect wine to go with chicken tikka marsala. There is an element of pseudo science about the whole thing. Putting wine and food together is such a personal matter, one man’s match might be another person’s clash. For the customer, it adds another element of uncertainty which is of course just what the experts want.

I’m not saying that wine is straightforward. It is an immense subject and changing the whole time, you can now buy wines from Croatia, Georgia and Greece at Marks and Spencers. And most wine professionals do do their best to illuminate but the truth is we don’t want people to find things too straightforward.  This ongoing battle between the public and professional knowledge reminds me of a passage from Sellar and Yeatman’s 1066 and All That: ‘Gladstone spent his declining years trying to guess the answer to the Irish question; unfortunately, whenever he was getting warm, the Irish secretly changed the question.’

*Hatchet Hall now have a more conventional wine list. Boring!

This article originally appeared on Tim Atkin’s website. 


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The Joy of Wetherspoon’s

Of all the stories I’ve heard about the fallout from Brexit, families divided, work jeopardised, friendships ended, the saddest was someone on Facebook who announced that he would never visit  a Wetherspoons because its proprietor, Tim Martin, was involved with the Leave campaign. This seemed to me the very definition of cutting your nose off to spite your face, imagine turning down cheap beer because of the European Union. But it also disrupts one of the fundamentals of a liberal society, that you do business even with those whom you strongly disagree. Voltaire marveled at this concept on his visit to the London Stock Exchange: “Here Jew, Mohammedan and Christian deal with each other as though they were all of the same faith, and only apply the word infidel to people who go bankrupt.”

But it’s not just over Brexit, it’s long been fashionable to sneer at Wetherspoons. Perhaps it’s because they sell such cheap beer. In London a pint in Wetherspoons will cost you less than ⅔ of what you’ll pay in the place with gastro pretensions up the hill. They can offer these prices because they have massive buying power. There are now 1,000 Wetherspoons around the country. It’s a far cry from when Tim Martin bought his first pub in 1979 and named the company after one of his old teachers who couldn’t control the class, which was how Martin felt about trying to run a pub.

It has to be said, those cheap prices do mean that you get some, ahem, colourful characters in a Spoons. The one in Liverpool Street station is particularly intimidating, full of big loud men with shaven heads having a few before getting the train back to Billericay. The pubs are often in converted cinemas, banks and churches and can be rather cavernous. You’re not going to get the quiet burble of conversation, the crackle of an open fire and a shepherd’s pie prepared by the landlord’s wife.

So by the standards of that mythical pub we all have in our minds, Wetherspoons falls short. But then so do 99% of pubs. Most are owned by  chains. One of the biggest, Mitchell and Butler, also own Nicholson’s, Harvester and All Bar One. Many pubs that look independent aren’t: our local in Blackheath, the Hare & Billet, is owned by the Metropolitan Pub Company. Being part of a chain doesn’t stop your average Wetherspoons being something of a beer drinker’s paradise. Whereas until recently many pubs considered doing real ale something of chore, Wetherspoons have always prided themselves on their selection. And because they don’t play music or show sport you can enjoy your pint in peace. The food, particularly the curries and the meats pies, isn’t bad either. In a strange town a Spoons can be a refuge.

As with all chains, there are good Spoons and bad. The best have a sense of community lacking in their more upmarket neighbours where the old regulars have been priced out.  I experienced the full magic recently at the Brockley Barge in south east London when we popped in one night after a meal. The beer, of course, was good and remarkably cheap but even better was the atmosphere. There were postmen enjoying a post-work drink, students, old men eking out their pensions and chubby girls on a night out drinking pinot grigio by the bucketload. People were smiling and talking to each other. Maybe I’d had too much discount real ale but that night I felt like Voltaire at the London Stock Exchange. However you voted in the Referendum can we at least agree that being able to buy a pint of Timothy Taylor’s Landlord for £2.50 is a wonderful thing?

This article originally appeared in the Spectator


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Wine in Lebanon – hope and foreboding

If you ever need a new nose for your 1983 Mercedes 230E, Chtaura in the Bekaa Valley is the place to go. It’s full of workshops keeping Lebanon’s extraordinary range of 1970s and ‘80s European and American cars on the road. Yet, while this area looks like the last place you’d expect to find a world-class winery, at the edge of town, set back from the road, is a fine collection of 19th-century buildings that make up Domaine des Tourelles.

At one point, this winery would have been somewhat isolated, but gradually the suburbs of Chtaura have engulfed it. The surrounding air is heavy with pollution and the roadside strewn with rubbish. Noticing my attention on these unsightly piles, Michael Karam, our Anglo-Lebanese guide — and probably the world expert on Lebanese wine — mutters that “Lebanese people always talk about their country being the most beautiful in the world, but they’ve ruined it.”

The ugliness of much of urban Lebanon, however, points to something else: people want to live here. Everywhere, there’s money to be made, whether from high rise hotels or spare car parts. Meanwhile, this country of 5 million citizens – that’s about the size of Connecticut – is also struggling to deal with some 1.5 million refugees (estimates vary) who’ve fled to their land to escape the war in Syria.

From Domaine des Tourelles, we take the road south towards Kefraya. . . .

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Some very clever marketing going on at Majestic


I’ve been on Majestic’s mailing list since I’ve been legally allowed to by wine, or so it seems. And as far as I can remember, the months offer has always been The Ned Sauvignon Blanc for £7.99 and Berberana Reserva for £5.99 when you buy a certain number of bottles. If you find old Majestic price lists from the 1930s, there will probably be Ned and Berberana on offer in pre-decimal currency.

It’s not as if I don’t shop at Majestic but lately I’d found myself getting in a bit of rut, Guigal Cotes-du-Rhone and that Spanish Grenache with the tree on the label whose name escapes me. This month, however, Majestic did something a bit crazy, amongst the booklet advertising Ned SB and Berberana was a little leaflet called with the word “Wigig” at the top. This stands for When It’s Gone, It’s Gone. It’s a slightly gimmicky way of saying small parcels or even odd bins. It’s the sort of thing that Majestic used to do really well with their Swedish claret and mature German rieslings (though didn’t the mature German rieslings go a bit off the rails towards the end?)

So my curiosity pricked, I went to my local shop in Greenwich. Rather cleverly they not only had the advertised wines in stock but on tasting. A young man with the improbable name of Basil talked me enthusiastically through the wines. Here are two I tried:

Rojalet Montsant 2015 £7.99 when you buy a mixed 6

Carignan and Grenache from Catalonia, ripe and full but with plenty of freshness and an earthy quality. Massive amounts of flavour or the money. I’d love to see how this ages.

Capatosta Morellino di Scansano 2011 £11.99 for mixed 6

Like a good Chianti (it’s made mainly from the same grape, sangiovese) that went on holiday somewhere further south, the fruit is sweeter (but not jammy), it seems more alcoholic too but it’s still got a nice firmness to it.

Reader, I bought some wine. It was a marketing clean sweep: quality bumf, distribution and some top salesmanship at the final hurdle. Well done Majestic! Now I’d hurry before they run out.






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Nelson, Marsala and the Mary Whitehouse Experience

I wrote something for History Today magazine on perhaps my favourite place in the world, Sicily, and Marsala, its rather forgotten fortified wine. There an extract below which you can click on it to read the entire thing. This probably dates me terribly but I can’t think of History Today without thinking of that sketch from the Mary Whitehouse Experience:

Anyway! Here’s the article. . . .

Dotted around the vineyards of Trapani province in western Sicily are ruins that look so Georgian they would not look out of place in Bath. These are the remains of baglios, or wineries, from the marsala industry. They are a reminder of an almost forgotten moment in history when the British occupied Sicily.

Sicily has had more than its fair share of invaders: Greeks, Romans, Arabs, Byzantines, Normans, Spaniards, Venetians and Neapolitans. The British were there briefly, in the late 18th and 19th centuries, but there was talk of the island becoming a British colony, like Malta or Cyprus. ‘It would be the jewel in the Empire crown after Ireland,’ one commentator remarked, which seems ironic considering how British rule in Ireland is remembered. Beyond a few ruins, there is very little to see from Sicily’s British moment, but you can taste it in marsala wine.


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