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!
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.
Last week, Sunday Times Wine Club Vice President Will Lyons, took to our Facebook page in another exciting live Q&A as part of the Wine Live with Will Lyons series. In the live, he answered questions from our viewers. This week, it was all about food and wine matches.
In case you couldn’t join us on the night, here’s what you missed…
You can purchase the wines Will enjoyed during the live to try yourself below:
Will Lyons, The Sunday Times Wine Club Vice-President, was joined by Monika Schmid from Weingut Reichsrat von Buhl family winery live on our Facebook page from Germany in the latest episode of Wine Live with Will Lyons.
They caught up on how things have been in the vineyards and winery in recent weeks, life in confinement and also sipped some of the delicious wine produced by Weingut Reichsrat von Buhl. If you couldn’t join Will and Monika on Tuesday, pour yourself a glass of something nice and catch up on the 25-minute live stream below.
Look out on The Sunday Times Wine Club Facebook and Instagram pages for upcoming virtual events, Q&A’s and live interviews with Will Lyons and winemakers across the globe.
This week, Will Lyons was virtually joined by Haut-Brion trained winemaker Jean-Marc Sauboua, live from the vineyards in Bordeaux. Having a chat and general catch up on how things have been going with the growing season so far, plus tasting some delicious wines too.
In case you couldn’t join us on Tuesday night, here’s what they spoke about.
We do hope that you can join us in Wine Live with Will Lyons next Tuesday evening on Facebook.
This week on Wine Live with Will Lyons, he was virtually joined by Jane Hunter, known around the world as the First Lady of New Zealand Wine and her nephew the winemaker James Macdonald from Hunter’s Wines in Marlborough, New Zealand.
Here’s what they spoke about in case you missed it …