We’re back! Spring has arrived and as the vines begin their journey towards the new vintage, it’s time for us to pull some corks, twist some screwcaps and start pouring a selection of the club’s most delicious wines for a raft of lively and interesting guests.
Yes, you guessed it – series two of Wine Times is here! Not only that, we have a new venue, new co-host and of course some fascinating new wines to sip and enjoy!
As we say goodbye and a huge thank you to Miquita for expertly guiding us through our wine journey so far, we say a big hello and welcome to the brilliant comedian and broadcaster Suzi Ruffell, who has taken up the mantle of ‘apprentice in wine’ to guide us through our second series.
Joining Suzi and myself in our new home in London Bridge will be a raft of exciting and interesting guests including broadcaster and restaurant critic Grace Dent, celebrity chef and Masterchef judge Marcus Wareing and the king of political commentary Matt Chorley. And that’s not all, we’ll be joined by a raft of others who will be popping in to enjoy some still, sparkling, white and rosé with us.
Oh, and did I mention we are up for an award? Very exciting! Series 1 caught the attention of the judges at the British Media Awards and Wine Times is up for ‘Podcast of the Year,’ we’ll be crossing our fingers that we’re successful when it is announced in May.
So please do join us for some good company, good wines and lively conversation as we go live on April 26th. And remember, you can listen to us through your usual podcast provider.
We met in the sumptuous surroundings of Edinburgh’s spectacular Prestonfield hotel for our episode with the best-selling crime writer Ian Rankin.
Although his lead character, Inspector Rebus, is better known for enjoying a pint of real ale in his beloved Oxford Bar (or a dram of whisky for that matter) his creator has a passion for wine.
With Ian having ‘trod the grapes’ in arguably the most famous post-war vintage in Bordeaux, 1982, nor far from Château La Clarière in Castillon, we did of course enjoy a glass of red Bordeaux.
As Ian pointed out, Edinburgh has a rich history of drinking claret. We know from the memoirs of Scottish judge and literary figure Lord Cockburn, expertly summarised in Billy Kay’s vinous history “Knee Deep in Claret” that in the 18th century a cargo of claret would arrive in the port of Leith to the north of the City. A hogshead would then be carried through the town in a cart with a horn. Anyone who wanted to have a little taste could stop the cart and fill up their jug for sixpence.
But our vinous journey began across the border, in Oxfordshire with a Club favourite – Wyfold rosé, which we agreed would be absolutely ideal with a simple plate of smoked salmon and buttered bread on Christmas morning.
Throughout it’s nearly 50-year history the Club has always been good at sniffing out interesting new wines from undiscovered wine regions. In that vein, we journeyed to Moldova for the perfumed and summery Viorica from Château Vartely. As Tony once said, many club members would be forgiven for not knowing where Moldova is, let alone that it made wine. And good wine too!
We ended with a brief discussion on blind wine tasting and wine clubs. Ian once joined me for the 20th anniversary of the Edinburgh v St Andrews match. I did think he might be a crack blind wine taster as on the Edinburgh street on which Ian used to live, there was a wine circle, where they would meet and sample various wines. However they didn’t learn much – after years, Ian admitted they were no further forward in trying to discern what the wines were. Somebody would host it and at the end they would say: ‘more research needed.’ Which was a bit cheeky as I gave them a tasting a few years ago!
‘Wine is analogue, not digital. It’s you putting the record on the record player, dropping the needle, sitting back and slowly enjoying the wine.’
We’re at Universal Music Studios in London and the Grammy award-winning jazz singer Gregory Porter is sharing his love of wine with us on Wine Times.
Out of all the guests we’ve enjoyed sharing a glass with, Gregory Porter has the most thoughtful approach.
Perhaps it’s because in Germany his tour manager was for many years a sommelier, or that the presidents of the record companies he is signed to have shared with him some of the world’s greatest wines, toasting his many successes. Or maybe because as a hugely successful artist he has enjoyed meals and wines across Europe in Spain, Portugal, Italy and France.
‘I always want my family to have the experience as well,’ he says and so when he returns from his travels he buys wine and prepares a meal at home. Quite what he serves depends on where he has been and what he has tasted as ‘wine is about exploration,’ he says ‘because you never know what you are going to get.’
We started in Champagne with a glass of Bollinger where we discussed the importance of the social aspect of food and wine. I was reminded of the Scottish writer Alexander McCall Smith who writes that ‘wine is something which involves fellowship, shared interest and conviviality.’
From Champagne we dropped down to the Rhône Valley and perhaps to the most famous of all its wines – Châteauneuf-du-Pape, where we discussed its flavour not in terms of fruit but in reference to the savoury notes you can sometimes pick up on in wine such as vegetal, oaky and ‘farmyardy.’ Like smelly cheese, although to some the aroma can seem unattractive, within the right context it is heavenly. What might be the perfect food pairing with Châteauneuf-du-Pape? Andouillette perhaps?
And with that thought we emptied our glass with a brief discussion on whether listening to great music can make the wine taste better. In the case of Gregory Porter – certainly.
We started where else but in Italy for Giovanna Fletcher.
The actress and author of ‘Walking on Sunshine’ enjoyed childhood summers with red wine always on the table, a legacy from her Italian father.
Our journey began in the north west on the hauntingly beautiful slopes of Piedmont, where, sandwiched between Genova and Milan lies the small city of Alessandria. Just south of here the Cortese grapes produce the crisp white wine, Gavi, which we imagined pairing with a fresh Bruschetta or a table laden with delights from Southern Italy.
As conversation meandered from Strictly Come Dancing (Giovanna’s husband Tom from the band McFly is competing) to tearing up the wine rules and trusting your own judgement, we headed west to Spain to perhaps their most famous region – Rioja. But I couldn’t resist pouring, not the most well-known wine from that region, but a glass of the insider’s choice – white Rioja from Los Hermanos which seduced Giovanna with its oaky, creamy character.
Completing our travels we headed back over the Pyreenes for our final wine, the 2018 Carignan Vieilles Vignes from a region within the northern foothills of the Pyreenes.
Here in the Agly valley to the West of Perpignan the landscape is wild and empty with many vineyards planted at high altitude. It is this combination of poor granite soil, dry heat and altitude which imparts in the wine a pleasing purity of fruit. From the top of Château de Quéribus, which is more than 600 metres above sea level, you get a spectacular view of the region, if of course you are brave enough to drive!
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.