As winter takes its hold and the mince pies are starting to make you yearn for a light green salad with balsamic dressing, it can’t be avoided, I’m afraid: Christmas is here. You will need to provide drinks (probably wine or sherry) for your guests and family (I suggest a discrete store of something stronger for yourself in those quiet moments) and sparkling wine will be required, nay demanded.
Now, you don’t want to spend buckets of dosh on a few bottles of Champagne, when you can spend a few pounds on buckets of sparkling enjoyment from other wine regions. So, feeling public-spirited, we’ve investigated the UK’s first wine show dedicated to non-Champagne sparkling wines. The conclusion we reached may surprise you .. OK, it might not.
English sparkling wines have a perception problem: Yes, they’re good, yes, they’re elegant and stylish, yes, they’re local but, when you come down to it they’re just not Champagne, are they?
True, they don’t yet have the history that comes with Champagne; but the times and the weather they are a’changing: with European temperatures rising, what were optimum conditions for Champagne are now found in Southern England. And it’s starting to show: Kent’s own Gusbourne Estate sparkling wines won medals galore this year against top Champagnes, gaining themselves much interest from buyers, journalists and consultants around the world, most of whom had, previously, simply not heard of Gusbourne.
So, to find out what they’re all about and how English wines are mounting a serious quality challenge to Champagne, we ventured down to Kent to meet the owner and the grower.
When you go on holiday to the south coast, you might travel to Devon. Perhaps to the rather twee and delightful fishing village of Beer. You’ll find a pleasant pebble beach, welcoming tea-houses and cafes, some very high-end art galleries and cosy pubs. You might wander into one of those pubs seeking a pint of local beer … you are in Beer after all. However, you might be in for a surprise because not only is there no beer from Beer, you won’t find any from the nearest brewery of Branscombe Vale. This struck us as odd, so we sent my producer, Johnny Mindlin, to investigate.
As I’ve said before on these pages, what you wear to a tasting is important because you’re likely to spill some wine on it. However, occasionally, the appropriate dress is a raincoat and wellies. Not because it’s going to be “that sort of party” but because it will be outdoors in this washout of a summer!
The UK Champagne market is, as we’ve said again and again, complex and crowded. Importers and makers need to fight prety hard to be noticed. One of the problems is the sheer number of brands and labels available. However what we, the consumers, often don’t realise is which Champagne is owned by which other Champagne house.
As the years roll by, I’m start to realise how short they’re becoming. Why, it seems only a couple of weeks ago that I was at the Champagne Bureau‘s annual tasting in the Banqueting House in Whitehall, London. As it happens, they DID hold the tasting the week before last, so that’s OK, then. Each year, there is an effort by the communications office to send out a new message about Champagne. This year, it’s that we’ve been drinking more expensive Champagne and this event was a chance to taste some of it in one of the most beautiful rooms in London.
The pub world is a fickle place – premises are closing all around us and, depending on whom you ask, the indutry is either in trouble or in crisis. In my own locality of Barnet in Hertfordshire (look me up, buy me a drink!) there are pubs boarded up, former pubs that are now private residences, independent financial advisors and one local is even due to become a funeral parlour … it’s a grave situation!
The Black Horse on Wood Street, one of the iconic Barnet pubs that was closed for a very long time appears to be bucking the trend (geddit?). It has been bought by Oak Taverns and is now re-opened and, let joy be unconfined, is starting up its own Barnet Brewery.
They have not yet actually started brewing and the tanks and casks fight for space with the kitchen supplies so I went up there to nose around and find out what is being planned. There I found Simon Collinson, the MD of Oak Taverns who told me all about it.
The clothes you wear to a tasting are important – you want something that you don’t mind staining with red wine; hence there is a prevalence of scruffiness and flamboyance in the wine-writing fraternity. So imagine the consternation caused by being required to wear a suit and tie to a tasting! I only own one suit … and it’s cream – definitely not safe in the presence of large quantities of red wine.
However, the invitation was from Sarah Abbott of Swirl Wine Events to a tasting featuring almost all the wine-making members of the Lurton family and held in the RAC Club on London’s Pall Mall. I mean … who could resist?
Food and wine go together like … well … food and wine! There is a huge amount of snobishness over which wines to serve with which food – red with red meats, white with fish etc. That’s all well and good but with the myriad of wines available to us, where do you start to chose the BEST one for this particular dish? The What Food What Wine team held a competition to try and find the answers (and there are many) to that question. They invited me to Mosiman’s Private Dining Club to see the awards being presented to the winners of this competition. They served Piper-Heidsiek Rare Milesime 2002 so who was I to refuse?
Regular visitors to this podcast series will be delighted to know that The Kernel Brewery in Bermondsey was one of only 3 finalists in the 2012 BBC Food And Farming Awards – I spoke with them last year (see the podcast on Mircrobrewing earlier in this series) and we congratulate them on their success!
You may know the wines of Wolf Blass from the supermarket, where his Yellow Label wines sell pretty well. But Wolf began by making premium wines, characterised as Black Label, Grey Label and, more recently, Platinum Label. These high-end wines are much more about the individual character of the vineyards and are priced to match.
As a new-comer to the range beyond the ubiquitous Yellow Label, I was delighted to be invited to the 2011 UK launch of the rest of the range, held in the breath-taking penthouse of the Radisson Edwardian Hotel in Mayfair.
There I was given a chance to talk to Wolf Blass’ chief wine-maker, Chris Hatcher:
Each group of drinks has an atmosphere, a “feel”: Beer is convivial, sociable and extended: one of life’s great lies is “Oh, I’ll just have the one!” … wine is considered, perhaps introspective, civilised … cider is refreshing and, like beer, for drinking in more public situations but it has a sense of danger … whiskey is for the serious drinkers, it can bring out the best and the worst in you … Gin, on the other hand, described by Dylan Moran as Mascara thinner, is a more refined drink for sipping … and vodka is the source, the distillation of reason … or un-reason.
All the major drink groups have their serious side; however, the one category of drinks that is uncompromisingly indulgent and fun, a little decadent and imbued with more science and art than most is the cocktail.
There is no doubt that ordering a cocktail is a statement about your approach to the occasion and the company and hints at your expectations of the rest of the evening. Cocktails can be sickly sweet, face-crunchingly astringent, long or short, sweet or sour but always worthy of attention, if only in a vain attempt to try and maintain a steady head.
One of London’s finest cocktail bars, The Lonsdale teamed up with London Cocktail Week so we went to meet them.
The Great British Beer Festival 2011 just ended at Earl’s Court in London. As a judge in the CAMRA beer festival, I have, on occasion, got to go along and taste beers entered into the competition to win a medal and, hopefully, the title Best Beer. In the midst of this arduous work, I have taken the opportunity to talk to some of the visitors to the festival. Read More →
Every area of work has its networks of colleagues, contacts and friends, and, in an ideal world, it’s difficult to tell them apart. The same is true of the fraternity and sorority of wine-writers. We meet and compete in the convivial atmosphere of tastings and presentations and develop a sense of closeness, of belonging … that sometimes even lasts after the alcohol wears off! Read More →
While the grand wine houses boast of their age and ancient heritage and the newer wine-makers talk of creating a lasting presence in winemaking, there is a group of Londoners who are doing it the way it has always been done. The Urban Wine Company have been gathering the grapes of private growers around London to create a wine that has been dubbed Chateau Tooting, although this year’s output goes by several names. Read More →
Some things are traditional and unchanging; or at least that’s the impression we have. It always rains at Wimbledon, the hats are huge at Ascot and Champagne will always be, well, Champagne. So, one might ask, what’s the point of the Champagne Bureau’s annual tasting in The Banqueting House, London if we’re going to get more of the same? Obviously, there’s the chance to taste unaffordable vintages and spend time in beautiful surroundings. But the times they are a-changing. There are trends and fads, styles and fashions so I went along in the spirit of research to find out what’s new in the ancient and tradition-bound world of Champagne: Read More →
Beer is possibly the oldest form of manufactured beverage; certainly, the earliest documented. Over the last century or so, it has gone from home- and pub-brewed ales, through the industrial-made horrors in the 60s/70s, and now it’s back among the small operators with an explosion of small and microbreweries around the country. These are sometimes little more than a single vat in a hygenically and fully licensed shed but they almost all produce beery nectar. The Kernel brewery has 6 fermenters and produces beautiful beers so I paid it a visit, there also to meet both a home-brewer and an establised player in this game. Read More →
A new vintage of wine like CastelGiocondo Brunello di Montalcino is usually launched with a tasting and, occasionally, a party of some sort. These may be in highly prestigious city venues, in quirky Hoxton restaurants or at trade shows. While the tastings at the trade shows can justify themselves in a purely business sense, the other lunches and gatherings are, on the face of it, simply the chance for a good party. Read More →
Shochu is the newest thing at the bar. It’s not a wine, it’s not really a spirit as we understand it. It is Japanese but it is not Sake, so what it is and is it worth the effort of finding out? The Saki Bar and Food Emporium held a tasting of Shochu to help us answer these questions: Read More →
The annual Claret tasting at the Institute of Masters of Wine is a vital date in the diary of any serious wine professional. I went along to talk to some of the participants and get the measure of the 2006 Bordeaux vintage.
You will probably have heard of organic wine production but have you come across biodynamics? It’s the new kid in town, utilising homeopathy, astronomical charts and other practices that might seem odd at first sight. However, more and more growers are adopting biodynamic wine production methods in the belief that it is the best right way to produce the best wine. This is most obvious in Chablis and so I went to a seminar on the subject at the Royal Opera House in London to find out more. Read More →
If you really want to stand out in the world of wine, one thing you can do is get yourself qualified as a Master of Wine. This title is administered by the Institute of Masters of Wine. It’s a difficult course to complete and MWs are generally respected and held in high esteem within the trade. But how hard can it really be? My colleague, Johnny Mindlin, went along to an open day to find out
Gin has been around since the mid 17th century. It has a chequered history and a huge influence on the social history of England and particularly on London. While I’ve been a fan of the stuff for many years, I realised I didn’t actually know all that much about it so, when an invitation arrived to join the likes of Virginia Berridge from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine and Philip Wilson of Eau de Vie at the launch of a gin club at the Graphic Bar I jumped at the chance: Read More →
Sake. Most people will have come across Sake as a body-temperature alcoholic drink served in Japanese restaurants, usually with Sushi. Most people know it’s made from rice and that it comes from Japan … and that’s usually where the knowledge ends. But Sake is carving out a clear niche among the wine cognoscenti as an alternative to grape wines. This rise in popularity is, no doubt, fuelled by the increasing number of sushi and other Japanese restaurants in the UK and by the growing realisation that Sake has huge variety and subtlety. This pleases connoisseurs and importers alike. One of the indicators of Sake’s rising import is its place within the International Wine Challenge, held this year at The Barbican in London. As someone who knew precious little about Sake, I was pleased to attend a seminar given by Kenichi Ohashi, as part of the Discovery Tasting sponsored by the Sake Samurai Association. The main thrust of the seminar was to compare the two styles of Sake: junmai and non-junmai. Read More →
A stroll through the wine section of your local supermarket or wine retailer will show shelves with almost equal space given to new and old world wines, to Italian and French, Chilean and South African. This is unrecognisable from 20 years ago, when the French dominated fine wine drinking in the UK and top of the wine regions was Burgundy, with legendary names like Latour and Chablis. So, for wine-buyers, why bother with Burgundy these days? The wine is generally more expensive than the rest and there is always a niggling worry that the region has been left behind by wine producers who change their styles to entertain and delight the palette. A perfect opportunity arose to answer that question in the annual trade tasting for the Burgundy region, held at Lords Cricket Ground. What do the makers have to offer a buying public spoiled by head-spinning choice? Read More →
The 5th Champagne Louis Roederer International Wine Writers’ Awards ceremony took place in September 2009 in a glamorous event at the very top of The Gherkin in St Mary Axe in the City of London. A lucky few of the wine trade’s great and gathered to celebrate the finest writing on wine and to witness the awarding of “Roederers” (with complementary magnum of Cristal) to some of the best writers in the business.
Since I had the honour of attending the Roederer Wine Writers Awards ceremony and as a tireless investigator of all things vineous and literary, I went to have a chat with some of the nominees and the organisers and learned some things that should give real pause for thought. This podcast is a preview of the event.
The wines of the south west of France or, in French, Les vins du Sud-Ouest, have, since the horrors of phylloxera, been fighting to get recognition on the international wine market. Cooperatives and wine makers have taken the region’s local grapes, such as Gros Manseng, Fer Sarvadou, Tannat, Pinenc and Loin de l’oeil and, using the diverse terroires, have created a range of wines that can now hold their own among the more traditional grape varieties. The region includes appellations like Cahors, Madiran, Saint-Mont, Fronton, Gaillac and Irouleguy. A seminar was held at the London International Wine Fair in May 2009, hosted by Anthony Rose, wine writer for The Independent Newspaper, to publicise these wines. I went along to Excel for the LIWF to find out what they have to offer and perhaps get some recommendations for summer drinks or wines for laying down. Read More →
Every week, we hear conflicting stories about the health benefits of wine – it gives you cancer, it helps you live longer, it’s good for you, it’s bad for you … but one thing that appears to be true is that people in areas of the world that grow certain red wines tend to live longer. To try and get to the bottom of this, I went to a seminar co-hosted by Roger Corder, professor of experimental theraputics at the William Harvey Research Institute; he has published a book called The Wine Diet, which looks at wine in relation to our health. He told me which types of wines we should drink if we want to get gain the most health benefits while ejoying really good glass of red.
Supermarkets like to publicise their wine lists twice a year; once in the spring, for the summer market and again in the autumn to highlight their Christmas drinkies. Sainsbury’s held their Spring tasting in the back room of the Delfina in Bermondsey and I set out to get a sense of what is likely to be good for the summer parties and picknicks from the Sainsbury’s range.
The Champagne Bureau’s annual tasting 2009 took place in March in the Banqueting House in Whitehall in London. It was a chance for the Champagne industry to get together and show the year’s new wines. I took my grumbling liver to Westminster to find out the state of the industry at this time.