The excitement surrounding English sparkling wine is palpable. In the last five years alone more than eight million vines have been planted, an astonishing increase of 70% giving us a total of nearly 4,000 hectares of vineyards. The English wine industry may still be very small, just 7.1 million bottles were sold in 2020, but it is growing – fast. Despite all the challenges and disruption caused by the pandemic, recently published figures from WineGB, the trade organisation that represents British winemakers, show that exports have climbed 51% in the last year with British wine now being shipped to 30 markets across the world. And we’re not just drinking it, we’re visiting the vineyards too. WineGB say that domestic wine tourism was up 57% last year as wine lovers hit the English wine route to explore the numerous cellar doors and tasting rooms we now have on our shores.
It’s all come a long way since the days of the mid-seventies when the likes of Bernard Theobald were producing red wine on the banks of the Thames and comparing the climate of Reading to Bordeaux. These days the British wine industry employs nearly 5,000 people with around 800 vineyards and 178 wineries.
As I said in The Sunday Times recently English wine is now entering its third chapter. The first chapter was loosely speaking post war to the late 1980s when a small group of hobby farmers, joined by a handful of commercial enterprises, began planting vineyards. Often these were with German grape varieties such as Müller Thurgau, Schönburger and Ehrenfelser, inspired by our then thirst for easy drinking white wine like Liebfraumilch and a belief that England enjoyed a similar cool climate to the slopes of Germany.
The second phase began in the mid 1990s with the emergence of high quality, internationally recognised sparkling wine made with the same grape varieties as Champagne: Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Pinot Meunier and by the same method – with a secondary fermentation in the bottle. The third phase is now – where not only has England established itself as a serious producer of high quality sparkling wine but there is also a growing enthusiasm for still wines as well.
England now has more vineyards than there are grape growers in the Napa valley and here at the Club we certainly haven’t missed the great English wine boom of the 21st century. We have our very own trio of vineyards: Windsor Great Park; the high and stony Wyfold vineyard located down a country lane in Oxfordshire, expertly cultivated by Barbara Laithwaite and on the slopes above the town of Marlow, Henry and Kaye Laithwaite’s Harrow & Hope continues its ascent recently winning a slew of medals at the WineGB awards in London. Henry’s Blanc de Noir is a stunning wine with a vibrant concentration of acidity and crisp, white fruit.
Next month Wyfold’s new 2016 Brut will be released and having tasted it I can confirm it’s a thrilling, complex wine with layers of flavour. Pop the cork and it falls into the glass with a classic golden hue, take a sniff and immediately there is a hint of creamy, toasty notes. But make no mistake this is an English wine to its core and when you sip it, a burst of citrus and summer fruits dance across your tongue before finishing with a burst of thrilling acidity. It’s exciting to witness the genesis of a new wine region, right here in our backyard – and enjoy a few glasses of British bubbly too.
It feels as if we are a month behind. After a chilly April and an unseasonably wet and stormy May, suddenly June has arrived and with it Summer. I was beginning to think it may never come as some days in May were almost as cold as January! June is a glorious time of year when everything in the garden is out and the countryside is a sea of green. The other night we enjoyed our first balmy evening when at dusk the smell of warm grass hangs heavy in the muggy air.
Midsummer is also rosé time; although there is a recent fashion to drink this pale, tangy pink wine all year round now and not just from Provence. As I wrote in The Sunday Times recently, the quality of rosé has been climbing steadily in recent years and you will find interesting examples from California, Italy and further afield. But sometimes you taste a wine from Provence which just hits the spot (such as the club’s 2020 Seraphin Rosé (Organic), Provence, France)and you remember why it is you look to the Mediterranean for your inspiration. Namely, that area of vines fanning out north of Toulon towards Saint Tropez and Cannes. The wild hills of the Côtes de Provence where the vines are enveloped with the smell of lavender, thyme and pine. Of course at this time of year, it is blisteringly hot, in different times when we were there for June, by midday we would find ourselves somewhere in the shade, preferably with a view of the sea and a glass of something that has been made from at least two grape varieties: Grenache and Cinsault – the two building blocks to creating a dry, savoury and crisp rosé.
Although we like to drink rosé on its own, I’m always impressed at how well it goes with food. In Provence they enjoy it with Bourride, a simple, light stew made with white fish. Serve it with warm vegetables, a torn baguette and smudge of aioli, the butter of Provence made with parsley, mayonnaise and crushed garlic. Yum. But you can also enjoy it with delicate Asian curries, all sorts of salads and one of my favourites, grilled fish or anchovies on toast. With travel restrictions in place this year, it is a summer for travelling vicariously through our imagination. Pour yourself a glass and think of the golden age of the Côte d’Azur when the best of Hollywood would decant to the coast for a glamorous rosé filled Summer.
There is a recipe for roast lamb that Elizabeth David describes in ‘French Country Cooking.’ It’s gloriously simple involving sitting the lamb on a bed of unpeeled garlic and covering it with fresh sprigs of rosemary. You serve it with white haricot beans cooked in a little white wine. As Elizabeth David writes it’s best cooked ‘à point’ and is a standard dish of many Paris bistros. As we step into Spring and the first green shoots of the herb garden appear, thoughts naturally turn to Easter, possibly the first lunch outside and what we might be preparing in the kitchen to celebrate the Easter Weekend. For the oenophiles among us what wine to open is at the forefront of our minds.
Roast Lamb doesn’t have to be heavy, in the Larousse Gastronomique they recommend serving with quarters of lemon and bunches of watercress. The little twist of lemon will certainly have an effect on the taste of the wine you serve, it will appear a little smoother. If the weather is fine and you have decided to eat alfresco you could opt for a Beaujolais perhaps, something like the juicy red fruit of Dominique Piron would work very well. Or if you wanted something with a little more fruit, perhaps a Pinot Noir from New Zealand, I would suggest the Rapaura Springs from Marlborough.
But I tend to think something red from Bordeaux is the most agreeable partner. Pomerol, Saint Emilion, Fronsac a little further afield from the Castillon perhaps? Anything really, but I like the dry, blackcurrant and cedar infused aromatics of something from the Left Bank which I think pairs perfectly with new season lamb. If you do really want to push the boat out the 2015 Duluc de Branaire Ducru would be very fine indeed. Or you could try something a little different and head to the vineyards of Southern Bulgaria where the sumptuous 2016 Coline d’Enira is produced. This is a bold, rich, powerful red wine that needs a strongly flavoured dish to pair with it. Try it with smoky barbequed meats.
There is always a chunk or two of chocolate laying around at this time of year. It’s a little indulgent to pair it with wine but why not? Ideally you need something fortified and sweet. A tawny would be my choice, try it chilled a little while in the fridge door and then pour a small glass with a square of chocolate – heavenly!
The Christmas gastronomic marathon is upon us and although understandably this year will be very different we still need a glass or two for the big day. I recently caught up with one of Britain’s best loved chefs Michel Roux Jr at his renowned restaurant in Mayfair, Le Gavroche and over a glass of the club’s Didier Chopin Brut Champagne we discussed and shared our top food and wine tips for Christmas. For subscribers of The Sunday Times you can view the discussion here.
If you can’t view it, don’t worry! I have shared the answers to some of the most frequent wine questions I get asked at this time of year.
What wine goes with Christmas pudding?
Can I let you into a little secret? Although I love the theatre of serving Christmas pudding, turning off the lights, drenching it in a generous glass of warm brandy before striking a match and engulfing the pudding in a flickering swirl of blue flame, I’m not entirely sure I like Christmas pudding that much. But Christmas day is the one day of the year where you can justifiably serve a sweet wine. There are a few options. A chilled glass of tawny port can pair well and then you can keep it in your glass for the cheese afterwards. Bordeaux’s luscious sweet wine Sauternes is a classic if, like me, you’ll opt for a glass of pudding wine instead of pudding. But it’s hard to look beyond the tangy, honeyed character of Royal Tokaji which has the sweetness and acidity to revitalise jaded palates. Remember the wine should always be sweeter than the pudding.
What wine goes with roast turkey and all of the trimmings?
A classic Christmas lunch with all of the trimmings can be an absolute melee of competing flavours. As I discussed with Michel Roux jr recently for our Times event ‘Festive Feasting’ I think you have three options. You can either go classic; which is old school red Bordeaux like the club’s 2018 Barons de Rothschild Lafite Réserve Spéciale from Bordeaux in France. Or opt for the bold, ripe flavours of the Southern hemisphere such as an upfront Shiraz like the club’s 2018 Don’t Tell Gary Shiraz by McPherson Wines in Victoria, Australia. A third option, which I tend to favour, is a super smart Beaujolias, something like a Fleurie with all its silky, texture and red fruit. The Fleurie goes well with the white meat of the turkey and doesn’t overwhelm palates which are enduring quite a day of feasting.
Should I decant my wine?
At Christmas, I love the attractive, shimmering aesthetic of a cut glass decanter standing proud on the dining room table. Most wines benefit from a little air and certainly full bodied reds including red Bordeaux, wines from the Rhône, Rioja in Spain or heavy grape varieties like Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah will improve in the decanter. Why? The act of pouring a bottle of wine into another container will aerate the wine releasing its myriad of fruit aromas and will gently soften the texture. For a young wine, give it a vigorous decant lifting the bottle high as you pour, for an old wine, go easy, gently pouring it into the neck of the decanter.
What temperature should I serve my wine?
It may surprise some of you to learn that I recommend chilling both red and white wine, not to the same temperature obviously! It’s worth remembering that a normal domestic fridge will chill down a bottle of wine to around 5C in a few hours. For me that is too cold for wine at Christmas. Most light white wines such as Sauvignon Blanc and Riesling should be served at between 5 and 9C, same for Champagne and sparkling wine. If they instinctively feel too cold and need warming up, don’t worry. Just cup your hand around the bowl of the glass and it will soon raise the temperature a few degrees. With red wine is where it gets interesting. These days most of us living in centrally heated houses and apartments and it is easy to forget that the traditional advice of serving your wine at room temperature probably meant somewhere around 12C. I would say young fruity reds such as Beaujolais, Pinot Noir and Valpolicella are best served around 11C to 15C while heavier red wines such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and red Bordeaux, Burgundy and Shiraz around 14C to 18C. Put the back of your hand on the bottle, it should feel cool to touch. That’s the right temperature. Christmas is busy in the fridge so I tend to pop mine outside for around 20 minutes before serving.
What wine is the best for mulled wine?
Don’t waste your best bottles on mulled wine, but don’t think you can get away with pouring any old cheap plonk in the pan either. If you are using a lot of nutmeg, which I like to do, I feel the wines which work the best are fruity, smooth red wines. I’m thinking something like a Zinfandel from California or a juicy Grenache, Shiraz and Mourvèdre blend from the Southern Rhône in France.
Is English wine better than Champagne?
What we can say with confidence is that we are now entering the third phase of the great English wine boom of the 21st century. The first stage was a recognition that winemakers in England could actually make wine on these shores that is drinkable and not just a novelty. The second phase was a realisation that a handful of England’s sparkling wines, including Harrow & Hope, are competing at the very highest level. The third phase is that we are now producing still table wines made from grape varieties such as Bacchus and Pinot Noir that are beginning to get noticed internationally. It’s a hugely exciting time for the industry.
Does all wine improve with age?
Ina word no. Around 90% of wine sold in Britain is made to be opened and enjoyed as soon as the screwcap has been twisted or the cork pulled. Only a very small percentage, let us for sake of clarity, define that as anything more than £15 a bottle what we might refer to as ‘fine wine,’ benefits from ageing in the bottle. It’s unwise to generalise but fine whites such as Burgundy and Riesling can age in the bottle up to 5 to 10 years or more. Good red Bordeaux, Rioja, Burgundy and Barolo, depending on the growing season, can age for between 5 and 30 years, sometimes more.
Do I have to serve my best bottle at Christmas?
I’m slightly torn on this issue. Christmas can be a stressful time, there is a lot to do, relatives to entertain, excited children scampering around and that is before you have sat down for the feast itself. Is it the perfect time to bring out that that expensive bottle you bought recently or the wine you have carefully nurtured in the cellar for many years? Some might say no, probably not. Far better to leave it there and serve it at an appropriate occasion when it can command your full attention. Relax and enjoy the day. Only, when is that occasion? I do agree with Michel Roux Jr who says if you can’t serve your special bottle on Christmas day then when can you? It is an occasion after all and I do feel this is particularly apposite this year when we all need cheering up! So perhaps, yes serve your best bottle.
What is the best wine to go with Roast Chicken?
Depends on the time of year. Roast chicken is such a comforting, easy going, crowd pleasing Sunday lunch that when it comes to the wine it’s a very amiable companion. This Sunday I paired it with an aged Barolo from Piedmont, the earthy flavour of the wine worked as a contrast to the soft texture of the meat. In the Summer I would opt for an oaky Chardonnay, it is a really hot day something like a taut Chenin Blanc from South Africa. We like to serve with mash and salad in the warmer months. For a Summer red Chianti works well. In the winter when we naturally crave a red wine I would look to a supple Merlot, a ripe red Bordeaux. For something lighter Pinot Noir, a red lighter style Burgundy such as Chambolle-Musigny but even Côtes-du-Rhône works well. It really is a bit of a free for all.
What is the best wine to go with cheese?
At Christmas, I’m a huge fan of serving tawny port with cheese. Slightly chill the tawny to around 10C and it will pair well with a variety of cheeses. There are of course some classic combinations. A sweet wine such as Sauternes or Tokaji is heavenly with blue cheese and can go well with all sorts of softer cheese and of course you have the double benefit of being able to serve them with Christmas pudding. Speaking in broad brush generalisations red wine tends to go better with harder cheese but white wine is often much more suitable as an accompaniment to cheese. A glass of chilled Sancerre with a handful of creamy goat’s cheese or event a zesty, tangy Sauvignon Blanc. My one tip is to narrow your options, don’t go for too many cheeses. One or two and road test them before the big day, you’ll have great fun too!
Pull up a chair, pour yourself a glass of wine and settle in as we discuss my autumn wine selections for The Sunday Times Wine Club. Join us for a lively hour as we discuss all the latest news from the European harvest, talk to one of New Zealand’s top winemakers, Warren Gibson at Trinity Hill, look at some seasonal food and wine pairing ideas as well as answering all your wine related questions. Click on the link below to catch up on my latest live event from October.
Timing is everything on the water. No sooner had we sat down for our main course than we were told that we were approaching the confluence, the area in the heart of Lyon where the Rhône and Saone rivers meet. From the top of a river boat the flood lit, bohemian quarter provides a dramatic backdrop. On a Friday night with the town’s youth spilling out, lining the banks of the Quai Saint Antoine and bistros, full to the brim, their windows steamed up by the throng inside, it felt like sailing through an opera set. We had arrived about an hour ahead of schedule, hence our presence in the dining room and not on the upper deck. The great wine enthusiast Oz Clarke had just embarked our voyage at Vienne and was already, glass in hand, soaking up the view as we snaked our way through the nightscape of Lyon. There was nothing for it. The cheese would have to wait, timetables are there to be broken so our happy table upped sticks and joined the assembled throng as we glided under low bridges and floodlit embankments through Lyon on that balmy, early, autumnal evening.
The hills of the Rhône Valley, dotted with pine trees and olive groves, have always produced some of France’s most drinkable red wines. Here the luscious, sweet-fruited reds, often a blend of Grenache, Syrah and Mourvèdre, can produce wines that in the north of the valley have a vivid colour, wonderful, rounded-texture with a distinctive smell of white pepper. In the south of the valley the wines are more generous, easy to like, drinkable and often reasonable in price. In autumn, the valley comes into its own as the temperature drops, throwing up spectacular sunsets, atmospheric, misty mornings and the odd sun drenched afternoon. The Sunday Times River Cruise, with club members, subscribers and Riviera passengers was a perfect way to explore its charms. We began our journey in Avignon, stepping off the TGV we were met with an ochre sky, the early evening air heavy with the smell of pine, lavender and wild herbs. “Provence!” We exclaimed as we left the confines of the north behind us.
Over the course of seven nights we explored its charms, following in the footsteps of Romans as we stopped off in Arles, admiring its amphitheatre and terracotta coloured rooftops, before we reached the granite outcrop of the hill of Hermitage, sailing past the vineyards of Condrieu and Ampuis home to the prized vineyards of Côte-Rôtie. We finished in the cellars of Burgundy where two grape varieties dominate, Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, although it is the region’s third variety Aligoté, which produces a light, crisp white wine that is seeing an upswing in quality.
As our ship, The William Shakespeare, heaved its way along the river through precarious locks, past the ruined castle of Châteauneuf-du-Pape and dramatic gorges we made many friends, from Hollywood producers to amateur hot air balloonists as we all gathered for two wine tastings ‘on the water’ enjoying club wines from along the river and across the world. Wine brought us together. Sitting down with a glass of something special, sharing memories and stories amidst laughter and conviviality is what The Sunday Times Wine Club is all about.
Understandably we don’t yet know when we will be able to come together again but rest assured at the club we have been busy planning a series of events so we can come together virtually and enjoy some interesting wines to discuss and enjoy. At the end of this month I will be sipping three spectacular wines inspired by the season we find ourselves in. Join me on the evening of the 28th October as we travel vicariously along the wine route. Tasting a Syrah, inspired by those ancient examples in the northern Rhône, from Hawke’s Bay in New Zealand, to a delightful, supple Rioja from Spain. Finishing with a glorious white wine which punches well above its weight from the southern hills of the Languedoc. I do hope you can join me. So pull up a chair, pour yourself a glass and drink along as we travel vicariously together along the wine route.
Sir Harold Evans, the pioneering former editor of The Sunday Times, is remembered as one of the most important figures in post war Fleet Street history. Among his many considerable journalistic achievements on both sides of the Atlantic, there is another legacy that he leaves behind in our world, that is perhaps not as widely known. In the early seventies, with Tony and Barbara Laithwaite, he was instrumental in creating and setting up The Sunday Times Wine Club.
It was the Summer of 1972, Starman by David Bowie was making its way up the charts, England were busy retaining the Ashes and Billy Jean King had just won her fourth Wimbledon title. In the political world Edward Heath was in 10 Downing Street, across the pond Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein had just published the first revelations of the Watergate scandal for The Washington Post while in Denmark Queen Margaret II succeeded to the throne, the first female Monarch of that country since 1412. The less said about the vintage in Bordeaux, the better.
Newspapers were going through a golden age. Unrivalled in today’s terms, with no social media or the internet, they were at the heart of the national conversation. The Sunday Times world famous Insight team had already published investigations into the Profumo affair and revealed that Kim Philby was the third man in the Cambridge Spy Ring before Harry Evans became editor in 1967. Harry, as he then was, quickly made his mark, leading the newspaper’s investigation into the thalidomide scandal which led to greater compensation for the payouts to victims.
Under Nicholas Tomalin the Insight team had also published a series of articles on malpractice in the wine business. Believe it or not in those days you were allowed to bottle wine in the U.K. directly from the barrel. By all accounts some unscrupulous wine merchants were importing ‘wine’ from north Africa and labelling it whatever they wanted. Pomerol in Bordeaux and Pommard in Burgundy – sometimes from the same tank! Possibly.
The article prompted a letter from another Durham graduate, Tony Laithwaite who started his career washing bottles in Bordeaux. He wrote to his fellow Durham Univeristy alumni at The Sunday Times, Harry Evans, and said that his young company, under the railway arch in Windsor, had no truck with fake wine as he imported wine direct from the growers in France; as he described: from ‘château bottled clarets, from châteaux that do actually exist – no fantasy at all.”
Harry published the letter in full and with a circulation of nearly 4 million, sales from Arch 36 received a welcome fillip. A few reader offers ensued and a year later the club was born with Allan Hall, writer of the ‘Atticus’ column as the resident writer. Hall wasn’t a wine writer but had flair and had recently inspired the Beaujolais Run with his prize of a bottle of Champagne for the first arrival of nouveau to be delivered to his desk at The Sunday Times. It was won by an enterprising wine lover who had procured the use of a private plane.
But they needed a President. Who better than the great wine writer, soon to be the most successful wine writer in the world – Hugh Johnson, (described by Tony as a dapper laddie in a bow-tie!) When I corresponded with Sir Harry Evans from New York in 2018 he said Hugh was ‘key to the whole enterprise.’
“Harry had made me travel editor in 1967,” recalls Hugh over a coffee in Kensington. “Earlier I had been their wine correspondent so when his Insight team had a story about dubious wine being bottled in Suffolk he asked me to look over it. He then thought it was a good idea to get me involved in the Club, I didn’t needmuch persuading and was made President.”
With Tony hunting through the vineyards of France sniffing out ‘authentic characteristic wines of marked character’those early days must have been great fun as Hugh and Tony both traversed the globe, often with members in tow, to find new wines. Cruise ships were chartered; sailing trips around the Mediterranean were organised onboard the Star Clipper, a four-masted barquentine and the Marques. Private planes were occasionally hired and a festival in London was launched which still takes place every year in the Spring. Hugh recalls, in one of his many distinguished books, a one day trip to Bergerac where they landed on an airfield which doubled as a football pitch. They even got a mention in Private Eye when the Pseuds Corner column included two of their tasting notes. (Not sure if those were written by Hugh!)
On another occasion three hundred club members gathered at Quaglino’s in Mayfair to celebrate the club’s fifth birthday. Harold was the guest of honour and Hugh recalls in his memoir ‘On Wine’ that his speech was ‘so poignant and so funny that when he left to go back to work at half-past ten, the whole company rose, clapping and cheering, to see him off.’
That night the editor closed down The Times and The Sunday Times for a year.
Tony remembers it as an historic evening. “Harry’s final words were: ‘Thank you and now I must leave you to go back to The Sunday Times … and shut it down.’ The only part of the Sunday Times that carried on working that year was The Club with adverts in The Observer and The Telegraph!”
It was the same year the club tie was launched, with a vintage guide printed on the inside, as Hugh recalls, ‘the only tie to go out of date within a year.’ It was never to be repeated!
Today the club is one of the largest in the world.
“We owe a huge part of our success to Harry,” says Tony speaking from the vineyard at Harrow & Hope in Buckinghamshire. “Bordeaux Direct was a tiny company, a few thousand cases a year. We would still be a little company if it was not for The Sunday Times Wine Club and Harry made it all happen.”
When I became vice-president of The Sunday Times wine club in 2018 keen to learn more about the early years of the club I wrote to Harry in New York. Our initial meeting in London was postponed and we were due to meet this Summer in Manhattan. I had planned to take him to the Knickerbocker Club for lunch to tell him that the club was in rude health and thriving and of course to hear stories of the old days.
I was reminded of something Tony once said to me when I was writing a weekly wine column for The Wall Street Journal. Tony said “that all he really wanted to do was to bring back to Britain a little of the passion for wine he experienced as a young man in the southwest of France.”
Well I think together with Barbara and Hugh he has done that and we’re all very lucky to have enjoyed the foresight of one of Fleet Street’s giants.
It’s been nearly 30 years since our club President, Hugh Johnson ventured over the then collapsed Iron Wall in a bid to rediscover one of Europe’s forgotten wine regions. Hungary’s Tokaj vineyards, which sit around 150 miles north east of Budapest boast a historical legacy few other regions can equal. The sweet, honeyed, tangy wines produced from these vineyards, which are always cloaked in a veil of their signature flickering acidity, were one of the great wines of the Hapsburg Empire. Proclaimed by King Louis XIV of France as the wine of kings – the king of wines, they conquered Europe with a swagger few wines could match. It is not surprising they were one of the first regions to classify their vineyards. As Hugh Johnson observes in ‘From Noah to Now The Story of Wine’ (republished 2020 by Academie du Vin library) they found favour with both Peter the Great of Russia and Frederick 1 of Prussia, while the Tsars of Russia delighted in their amber colour and explosion of sweetness.
“What did not go to Vienna, Moscow, St Petersburg, Warsaw, Berlin or Prague was snapped up by the grandees of Britain, the Netherlands and France,” writes Hugh. “The world had no wine to compare with it for sweetness.”
But history isn’t always an upward trajectory and if the Russian Revolution stripped its winemakers of their most important export market, Communism conspired to flip these ancient fine wine cellars into mass production. These days European royalty are as likely to serve Champagne (or in the case of our Monarch English sparkling wine, perhaps from Windsor) as they are to drink sweet wine. Even in today’s world where we crave sugar just as much as our 18th century cousins, let’s be honest with ourselves, we only really ever pull out a bottle of something sweet a handful of times a year: Christmas, anniversaries, maybe the odd dinner with friends. But never on a consistent basis.
Like many sweet wine producing regions, from the Douro Valley in Portugal to the mist filled vineyards of Bordeaux’s Sauternes, the 21st century has brought change in the form of dry, table wines. I was lucky enough to visit the vineyards of the Royal Tokaji Company in the company of Hugh several years ago, and as much as I was impressed with the range and style of sweet wines we tasted it was the dry wines which also caught my eye. Made from the region’s signature grape variety, Furmint, as I wrote in my September Wine of the Month for the Club these wines have found favour with the wine cognoscenti and are gaining increased recognition. At its best Dry Furmint is a wonderful food friendly, dry wine with high acidity and an attractive savoury character. One could liken it to a Riesling or a Pinot Gris and the range of aromas include fresh green apple, lemon, ginger and sometimes a herbaceous, fennel character. These are wines to chill down and pair with food, grilled fish perhaps, a meaty stir fry with noodles, roast chicken, pork is a natural fit but it has enough weight and texture to stand up to spice.
In January Hugh and I attended a tasting in London of several different vintages of Royal Tokaji. Sweet and dry. The best dry examples had a touch of spice about them with notes of chamomile, and a refreshing, biting acidity. As I walked home along the Thames the thought occurred to me that perhaps the region is due another renaissance, this time for its dry wines. Time will tell.
There is so much to love about Bordeaux it’s almost impossible to know where to begin. An early evening stroll along the Quai des Chartrons in the City perhaps, before finding an outside table at somewhere like Café Gourmand and watching the world go by. A visit to one of the many wine producing villages along the Médoc, that magical, vine covered peninsula which begins on the outskirts of Bordeaux and finishes where the Gironde estuary tips into the Atlantic ocean. Or a quick stop at Saint Emilion’s cosy L’Envers du Décor wine bar for a midday glass of chilled, tangy, leafy white wine, grown on the gravel soils of the nearby Graves.
The wine route is full of many glorious destinations but my first love has always been Bordeaux. In another world, many of us involved professionally with wine would be there now, scurrying around its cellars tasting barrel samples of the new vintage during the hectic en primeur week. The 2019s can wait. As the world stops for this extremely difficult time, and we look out for friends, family and neighbours, many of whom are now isolated, we can take solace in a few moments of reflection on the beauty of this most glorious stop along the wine route.
The scenic route
The heartland of Bordeaux is the Médoc. The Left Bank of the Gironde were the deepest gravel banks are found and communes such as Margaux, St-Julien, Pauillac and St-Estèphe established themselves some two hundred years ago as some of the greatest places in the world to grow Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot. Blended together these produce age worthy red wines that have been sought after by collectors for many decades.
If you are driving from the City, there are two ways to reach the vineyards of the Médoc. One involves navigating through the rather uninspiring suburbs of Bordeaux before hitting the auto-route and driving at speed up to your first tasting in the cellars of St Julien or wherever it maybe. This is obviously the quickest route and recommended if time is short. But I like to get up an hour early, turn off the sat nav in my hire car and take the ‘scenic’ route along the more sedate D2 road. Rather like driving out of Melbourne, past the MCG cricket ground, down towards the Mornington Peninsula or leaving San Francisco and crossing the Golden Gate Bridge heading to the Silverado trail in Napa, one cannot fail to feel a pang of excitement as to what lays ahead. The pulse is quickened.
The first wine producing village of note is the commune of Margaux, where the road curves and passes straight in front of Château Palmer. Look right and fluttering above its turrets you’ll notice a Union Jack, a nod to its former proprietor – the Englishman – Colonel Charles Palmer. You are now within yards of perhaps the most famous Château in the world, the grand neo-classical Margaux, its columns standing proud at the end of a plane-tree-lined drive, surrounded by its vineyards which sit on a bed of sandy, limestone gravel. Here the wines are marked by their medium bodied texture and seductive aromatics. There is something unmistakable about the perfume of wines from the commune of Margaux, which at their best can take on notes of violets and rose petals.
My favourite way to end the day
Time is running away with us. Soon the road will snake out of Margaux and after a straight drive through some agricultural land Saint Julien will be upon us. This is what the old British wine trade referred to as the ‘thirsty corner’ as the road takes a sharp turn past Château Beychevelle and Château Ducru Beaucaillou. Beyond lays Château Leoville Barton, flanking either side of the road. From here on in the Château come thick and fast – a roll call of some of the most magical and romantic names in wine. In Pauillac you pass Latour and Lafite before finishing high up in Saint Estephe where the vineyards stretch northwards towards the unsettled Bay of Biscay.
After a busy day of tasting, one of my favourite things to do is to continue towards the ocean to the bay of d’Arcachon where on the sea front you’ll find simple cabins serving oysters with nothing more than buttered bread and a slice of lemon. La Cabane De L’Aiguillon is my choice. Half a dozen oysters with a carafe of chilled, tangy white wine. Heavenly.
There were several Brown Derby restaurants in Los Angeles in the 1930s. Perhaps the most famous was the second in the chain, opened on Valentine’s Day in 1929 at 1628 North Vine Street.
Taking its inspiration from Spanish colonial architecture it quickly became a favourite with the Hollywood ‘set.’ Being close to the studios it was soon patronised by a roll call of movie stars and celebrities among them Clarke Gable, Groucho Marx, Lucille Ball, Joan Crawford and Humphrey Bogart. The golden generation of Hollywood. But it wasn’t until 1937 when its place in culinary history was eventually cemented.
There are many stories as to how the Cobb salad was born but my favourite is one recounted in the pages of The Wall Street Journal. The story goes that one night Bob Cobb, one of the owners of the restaurant, was working late, very late. Midnight was approaching and having not eaten he delved into the restaurant fridge and prepared himself a salad comprised of mainly left overs. Cold roast chicken, hard-boiled eggs, avocadoes, a few slices of bacon, tomatoes and of course mixed leaves and lettuce. He saved the strongest flavour until last – crumbling some Roquefort cheese over the top. That night the Brown Derby restaurant found itself a new signature dish – the Cobb salad.
Cobb salads are best made at home. It’s a perfect lunch for those of us who are perhaps spending more time in the house than we would normally. Just grab the leftovers from the fridge and throw them all together. It doesn’t have to be lettuce it could be spinach or watercress. If you really want to go posh you can always add some sort of seafood. Why not lobster? If you’re feeling particularly flush and ‘Hollywood’.
You’ll need a glass of something to go with it. Something with plenty of uplifting acidity, vitality and Spring like fruit would be my choice. I know it’s not original but actually a chilled glass of Sauvignon Blanc would be an ideal foil. The grassy, gooseberry and citrus character, coupled with the lively tension in the wine, works well, particularly if you have dressed the salad with a squeeze of lemon.
I would avoid anything too complex, oaky and creamy. Think in terms of lighter style wines, what the club’s president Hugh Johnson may refer to as ‘fridge door wines.’ I’d be considering anything with zesty acidity. Riesling from Germany, Chablis, Vinho Verde from northern Portugal and the racy Picpoul de Pinet made down in the Languedoc just east of Narbonne. It’s translated as the ‘lip stinger’ and the quality of this wine has never been better.
All of these styles are fairly moderate in alcohol which means you can enjoy a glass and have a productive afternoon, whatever that may entail. In the Golden Age of Hollywood it could involve shooting a few scenes with Clarke Gable, well we can all dream!