Mouton Rothschild – an affordable luxury

unnamedIn 2012 I won a bottle of Mouton Rothschild 1996 in a writing competition on Jancis Robinson’s site. When we moved house last year I didn’t trust the movers with it so I wrapped it up in layers of bubble wrap and carried it myself. Since then it has been sitting under the stairs looking for an excuse to be opened. Last month I learnt that my book will now be published so I invited my parents over for a celebration. It seemed as good a time as any especially as the cupboard under the stairs is too warm for long term wine storage. That was when the worrying started: I worried that it might be a bit young; Jancis Robinson recommended not opening it until 2015; I worried that I might drop it; I worried about what sort of food I should have with it – my wine books said lamb or beef but my wife is off the lamb and my mother doesn’t eat beef. I worried so much that I almost gave up on the whole thing. Eventually I pulled myself together, went to the butchers and bought a loin of pork.

While it was roasting, I gingerly opened the bottle, poured myself a tiny glass and had a sniff. It smelt extremely powerful and worryingly, very oaky. Had I opened it too early or perhaps I just wasn’t going to be to my taste? I decanted it, kept the sediment to make gravy and put the decanted wine in the fridge to cool slightly. Meanwhile I washed the delicate Riedel glasses that I never use as the last time I did I broke one.

How could a wine that I had approached with such reverence fail to be a disappointment? click here to read more at Tim Atkin’s site. 

News from World of Booze

A rather disjointed post this week. The book is now fully funded so I will stop boring on about it. Thank you to everyone who bought a book. You can still pre-order a copy and have your name in the final edition. This does mean that rather than blog about wine, I’m meant to just concentrate on the book so this may be my last post for a while. I’m now imagining a lone bugler playing The Last Post – so poignant!

I’m also off twitter until the book is finished. It’s peculiar because I keep thinking these silly thoughts and then I think, that’s funny, I’ll put it on twitter, but then I can’t, so I just let it pass. Then it occurs to me that it wasn’t that funny anyway so I’m glad I did something else.

Crowd-sourcing seems to be very much the thing du jour. Digby Fine English, the sparkling wine named after the hero of my book, Sir Kenelm Digby are currently raising money using this method. Unlike some similar ventures you aren’t just doing this for goodwill, you do get a stake in the company. Imagine if they turn out to be the new Facebook or Amstrad, you’ll be rich, RICH! The offer ends at midnight tomorrow (5th June)

Finally I wrote something silly for Tim Atkin’s website – Fortnum & Mason online drinks writer of the year no less – about wine and cats. It’s awfully clever.


Has supermarket wine got duller or have I got pickier?

Last week I thought I may have lost my sense of smell. This would have been disastrous for my highly-paid career as a wine blogger. I’d been at a few tastings and rather than the wine speak flowing from my nose to my brain and onto the page, I just wrote things like ‘quite fruity’ or ‘a bit dull.’ I kept trying wine that just didn’t seem to taste of anything, I looked around at the cream of the British wine writing establishment and they were all scribbling notes frantically whilst lightly bopping to a bit of Simply Red on their ipods. After one particularly unenlightening tasting, I sat down to have lunch. An oldish man asked me what I thought of the wine and I pulled a face, he leaned in and said ‘they don’t taste of anything, do they?’ So it wasn’t just me. Perhaps Tim Atkin et al, were just writing, dull, duller, dullest over and over again on their tasting booklets.  Has supermarket wine got duller or have I got pickier? I think they’ve got duller. This isn’t the place to muse on why this might – perhaps something to do with Michael Gove. Instead I’m going to recommend one that really stood out.

It’s rather snappily called, Sainsbury’s Winemakers’ Selection Gran Reserva Cariñena 2008 . Just rolls off the tongue doesn’t it? Luckily it’s nicely packaged with a sort of golden age of Rioja art nouveau label. The contents are old-fashioned rioja style too but unlike similar wines you can buy, there’s plenty of fruit to go with all that creamy oak. I would even go as far to describe it as juicy. It’s blend of Tempranillo and Garnacha from a region called Cariñena. Helpfully Cariñena is also a synonym for the grape variety Carignan which originated here. This wine contains no Carignan. You’d never call it dull and it’s only £6 a bottle. What’s even more exciting is that until 30th May there’s 25% off wine at Sainsbury’s when you buy six bottles or more. so that works out at £4.50 a bottle.

This offer excludes Scotland as the Scottish government don’t trust their subjects not to take advantage of this offer, down six bottles and then rampage up and down Sauchiehall Street naked painted in woad.


I love Australia!

A couple of years ago before I was an enormously well-respected wine writer with my own column in a prestigious magazine, I replied to something written by Tim Atkin on which wine region or country I could do without. I suggested Australia. It seemed an obvious choice. When the world of wine had so much to offer why would you buy Australian? The burly Australians that my colleagues (or fellow drunks as they were officially known) at Oddbins raved about, Dead Arm Shiraz etc., seemed monstrous parodies of wine.

Now I’m excited by Australia. So what’s changed? Well for starters, I’m less of a pretentious little twat. In the late 90s when I got into wine, I had an indie music approach to drinking. Anyone who read Melody Maker in the 80s and 90s will remember how important it was to hate bands on principle. You were defined more by the bands you hated than the ones you liked. I disliked bands such as the Levellers, Pop Will Eat Itself and countless bands whose names I have forgotten not only because they were crap but because they were popular (then there were the bands who you might secretly like but were completely beyond-the-pale such as Dire Straits.) Just so with wine: in preferring Moselle riesling and sherry to Australian wine, I was sending out a powerful statement about my vinous credentials. Or so I thought, in fact I probably just seemed ignorant. The truth is I did like some Australian wines, Wynns Coonawarra Cabernet, Pewsey Vale Riesling amongst others, just as I had a soft spot for Dire Straits’ first album.

Australian wines have changed too. They are, and this is a huge generalisation, lighter, more perfumed, less oaky, lower in alcohol and drier than they were ten years ago. I now get excited when I see that a wine is from Margaret River or Mornington Peninsula in the way that I used to about Ribera del Duero. Sadly these new Australian wines are not cheap but then when you’re competing with the best from Burgundy you wouldn’t expect them to be. Here are two that have rocked by socks recently:

Moss Wood Chardonnay 2010 (Jeroboams £19.95) – From Margaret River in Western Australia, this Chardonnay combines the steeliness of a Grand Cru Chablis with the creaminess of a Puligny-Monrachet. I found this hugely impressive

Pirie Estate Pinot Noir 2007 (Soho Wine Supply £17.50) – From Tasmania, this one smells of tinned strawberries, if such a thing exists, and in the mouth it’s rich and meaty with not a trace of jam. Will probably get better with time but so good now, why wait?

These are both from cooler regions than the Australian classics of yesteryear. But even the Barossa, the heartland of the Aussie bruisers, is changing. Today I tried the 08 vintage of The Dead Arm Shiraz from d’Arenberg and instead of the porty, syrupy monster I remember, there was something dry, dense and intensely savoury that wouldn’t be out of place in Cornas. There was even something floral. Could it have changed that much or am I just a lot more open-minded? Whichever it is, it’s a good one to drink with early Dire Straits though not with the bloody Levellers.

Do wine writers need qualifications?

I was reading the comment section on a wine blog late one Friday night (how my life has changed in the last four years!) Someone had written in to voice his displeasure that people could start blogs and pronounce on wine without any formal training. My first reaction was that this seems fair enough, we don’t want ignorant people passing judgment on something that they know little about. Perhaps Leeds, my alma mater, could offer a course in wine writing where one could learn how to spit accurately from a distance, the correct use of the word austere and the difference between Verdelho & Verdejo. Knowing Leeds the course would also examine how a rich seam of African wine writing was suppressed by a conspiracy of dead white males. From reading British wine blogs however, I’m not sure this is necessary. The ones I have come across are curious, calm and none of them claim knowledge that they don’t have (there are some American ones that try to ape the authority of Robert Parker JR without the experience and some Australian ones that seem to have been written by excitable cricket commentators who have just had their first drink.) Sometimes I long, when trawling the internet, for a Clarkson of the wine world making absurd pronouncements based on enthusiasm and a cheerful ignorance of technical matters – if anyone knows of one please let me know.

What I like about wine is that you can explore a whole world from the comfort of your living room without any special equipment or training or even, unless you want to scale the heights, that much money. Combine this with the internet and there’s a forum for enthusiasts to opine away. Unlike say rock climbing or medicine, a little inaccuracy isn’t going to cause any serious ramifications.  And what Mr Appalled of Sonoma misses is how some of the best writing on wine comes not from Masters of Wine or vignerons but from the curious amateur. One thinks of Evelyn Waugh, Jay McInerney and Roger Scruton – all writers who manage the rare feat of putting the magic of wine into words. And who would dismiss Samuel Pepys’s pronouncement on the ‘good and most particular taste’ of ‘ho bryan’ because he didn’t have his WSET higher certificate? You can’t have the Waughs without the Clarksons and I say this as someone who is glad to have both.

I’m not saying that qualifications are worthless. If I want to know something or some disinterested advice before spending a lot of money, I turn to writers such as Tim Atkin and Jancis Robinson. Their qualifications and experience give them authority. But for me, this is secondary to the fact that they both write elegantly and, most importantly, I tend to like the wines that they like. In the end it comes down to how you write and what you like.

Why do wine writers write only about wine?

There’s an article by Craig Brown (the humourist not the former Scotland football manager) about being present at the one and only meeting between Anthony Burgess and Benny Hill. Apparently it was not a great success. Though the two great artists admired each other’s work they could not find any common ground: Burgess wanted to talk about comedy and Hill wanted to talk about literature. Specialists often want to talk about almost anything else apart from their area of expertise. This is common in all walks of life except it would seem wine writing. Wine writers only talk about wine. Compare two writers for the Times for example: on the restaurant page Giles Coren pontificates about whatever he feels like with the actual food coming far down his list of priorities whereas Jane McQuitty sticks to recommending wine with not a mention of her hell-raising days at Studio 54*.

I’m not sure how I feel about this. There is a wonderful purity about reading someone who really knows their subject and writes about it to the exclusion of everything else. I like that Tim Atkin et al don’t blether on about their private lives (unless of course they were interestingly scandalous) or use their columns as a platform to opine Archbishop of Canterbury-like on the failures of the Coalition. And God forbid that wine should ever have the Observer Food Monthly treatment with its celebrity lifestyle nonsense. But it does seem odd how wine seems to exist in a bubble cut off from politics, culture and the minutia of everyday life. Occasionally it ventures out to look at global warming, tax rises or a black workers co-op in South Africa but mostly its nose is firmly planted in a glass.

This is fine if you are Jancis Robinson and have a large wine-literate audience to talk to. One of the joys of her website is feeling that you are part of a knowledgeable club. But other mainstream writers have the difficulty of not knowing quite how interested their readers are in what is a complicated subject. Inevitably many fall between two stools: one being too winey for the general reader; the other being not winey enough for the wine bore. Perhaps newspapers wouldn’t be cutting their wine pages if there was someone who wrote not to impart knowledge and recommend but merely to entertain. After all who reads AA Gill to decide where to eat?

* This is a joke. To my best knowledge Jane McQuitty never raised hell at Studio 54.