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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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.)

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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.

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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

 

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Jonathan Meades – the Plagiarist in the Kitchen

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The tributes to AA Gill who died earlier this year tended to focus on his humour, his famous rudeness, and his ability to write movingly about those on the margins of life. But for me what made him compulsively readable was the sheer certainty of his views. The thrill of his spat with Mary Beard wasn’t saying that he said she was ugly but the audacity of a hack like Gill with no formal education taking to task a Cambridge classics professor on the subject of the Roman Empire with such elan.

Gill’s schtick never really worked on television. He just came across as a bit of an arse. His counterpart as restaurant critic at the Times from 1986 to 2001, Jonathan Meades, however, is an auteur of the medium. In his idiosyncratic programmes, Meades made use of his seemingly bottomless well of opinions not just on food and architecture, his specialities, but also Mussolini, the fate of the Algerian pied-noirs and why Essex is unfairly maligned. Sometimes I struggled to keep up but they make such a refreshing change from the “join me on my journey” school of BBC documentaries.

Now Meades has written a cookbook, The Plagiarist in the Kitchen, the title a knowing rip off of Julian Barnes’ The Pedant in the Kitchen. Its premise is that all cookbooks are attempts to pass off borrowed or stolen recipes as your own work (I know having contributed to one.) “In the kitchen there is nothing new and nor can there be anything new. It’s all theft” as Meades puts it. Part of the joy of the book is the glee with which Meades tramples on foodie (a word I imagine he loathes) shibboleths:

“The olive oil trade is just as rackety and bent as the wine trade. Which is a boon to those who dislike the peppery throat-assault of the echt product. In olive oil, as in life, the impure is more satisfying than the pure.”

Or

“‘Homemade begs one question. Whose home? Have you ever actually seen people’s homes? Why should biscuits made at home be better than those baked in a factory, a factory that specialises in biscuits? I’m thinking of Nairn’s Oatcakes, Rakusen’s Matzo Crackers and Carr’s Water Biscuits. We don’t seek treatment from amataur surgeons.”

The short bibliography is telling because alongside the likes of Simon Hopkinson, Elizabeth David and Fergus Henderson, there’s Inside Mr Enderby by Anthony Burgess and the not to be missed Testicles: Balls in Cooking and Culture by Blandine Vie. As well as recipes there are strange unhelpful illustrations, anecdotes about Jane Grigson and some top pop trivia:

“Hardly surprisingly, Jacques Brel’s favourite dish was mussels and chips. However, he once claimed that the single best meal of his life was a ham sandwich he ate on the train from Paris to Brussels; he had just secured a recording contract.”

But asides aside, The Plagiarist in the Kitchen is actually a very thorough cookbook taking in classic French food as well as Italian, Spanish, North African, Scandinavian, German and British recipes. There’s perhaps more on eels and tripe than you might want but on the whole it’s surprisingly user friendly. His risotto milanese recipe is particularly good “the risotto will take about 30 minutes (many recipes state 20 minutes; they are wrong. . .” and “do not add grated cheese. It fights the flavour the saffron. . .” For all his humour, Meades is deadly serious about food. The books shows a deep understanding of cookery.

In an age of instant internet criticism this sort of rigour is bracing. You get the impression that he has thought everything through from first principles. He doesn’t take the easy option of contrarianism nor does he see things through a political filter ie. environmentalism, soft-left activism or post-colonial theory. With most writers you can guess their views on everything after reading a couple of articles, with Meades it’s not so easy.

Both Meades and Gill are/ were autodidacts. Meades’ writing displays his love of learning and the even greater love of showing off that learning. With food, he clearly know his onions but what about everything else? Does he really have a deeply-held original point of view on Charles de Gaulle or does he sit up all night honing opinions on the matters of the day? I suspect that as with Gill there’s a fair dose of prejudice in there but importantly, they’re his prejudices. The trick that both Meades and Gill mastered is never to explain. In prose and on television, Meades simply states his opinions and moves on. The Plagiarist in the Kitchen is full of gnomic statements such as:

“So far as I can recall I have not eaten guacamole.

or

“I can’t think of any circumstances in which I’d use oregano.”

Crucially he’s not on twitter to battle the outraged keyboard warriors. AA Gill too prided himself on not doing “the internet” as he put it.  In an age when even the President of America argues on twitter, this aloofness makes Meades one of the last of a breed.

The Plagiarist in the Kitchen by Jonathan Meades is published this month by Unbound

This article originally appeared in Spectator Life 

 

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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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