Germany: World Cup winners again, wine-selling also-rans forever

Von Winning riesling

And so Germany won the World Cup, once again reaffirming their status as leviathans of football. If there’s an international tournament about, you can be fairly sure that the Germans will be there in the closing stages, battling it out for medals and glory. Four times now they have won the greatest tournament of them all, not to mention the four finals and five semi-finals. For the German football team, life is one long lap of honour, one immense open-top bus parade.

Which is a bit of a shame for semi-professional football-and-wine analogists, because for all the garlands won by their footballers, if you were to fill a stadium with enthusiastic amateur wine-drinkers from across the world and bring out a succession of wines grouped by nationality – and to be fair I can imagine no reason why anyone would do this, but I’m speaking hypothetically here – Germany’s would get booed off.

Some national football teams fit their homeland’s winegrowing profiles quite well. Chile, for example, were extremely popular at the World Cup, with a squad short on expensive stars that overdelivered. Italy assumed rivals would crumble in the face of their inevitable superiority but despite the presence of some extremely classy players they received a rude awakening. England believed they had produced some effervescent, sparkly players good enough to rival the best in Europe, but hadn’t.

In their inarguable excellence the German team unified opinion in a way that their wines never do. I celebrated their success with a bottle of Von Winning 2012, a just a little bit off-dry riesling from the Pfalz, which I found delicious in a limey, green-appley, superlatively summery way; Mrs CF took a single sip and then actually threatened me with physical violence if I ever stain her glass with German wines again (she then proceeded to drink the rest of her glass and a couple more, grumbling all the while).

The biggest club in German football is Bayern Munich, who hoover up domestic silverware with such perpetual hunger and remorseless drive that even their national side would be shamed by their relative lack of ambition and achievement. Nearly everyone likes Bayern Munich, and even those who don’t can’t help but acknowledge their excellence. But the nerdy football folk of this world, the people for whom the obvious is never quite enough, prefer the relatively minor but enormously cooler St Pauli, or perhaps Union Berlin. German wine is not Bayern Munich. German wine is St Pauli.

As Jancis Robinson recently wrote, it’s difficult to find anyone who works in wine who does not love riesling. Ask 100 wine professionals to name their favourite white grape and 90 of them will without thinking give you the same answer. Ask the same question on the UK high street and you’d probably get more people saying picpoul.

With my football-loving hat on, I’ve got to say Germany are so successful it’s annoying. And with my wine-loving hat on (I don’t actually have a wine-loving hat) Germany is so unsuccessful it’s frustrating. I can only imagine how infuriating it must be to those trying to flog their wines to the unappreciative British public. But if they do need to cheer themselves up, there’ll probably be an open-top bus driving past sometime soon.

Win wine! Wine and tennis, from Bjorn Borgogne to John Mâconroe

Not long ago the worlds of sport and wine explored totally different orbits. Footballers drank a fair amount, to be sure, but in Britain at least their beverage of choice came in pint glasses. Cyclists and long-distance runners once used brandy to keep them going, but then moved away from alcohol altogether and discovered cleverer stuff that came in syringes and intravenous drips. Now, though, you can’t keep them apart. Manchester United force Wayne Rooney to exhibit his ludicrous ham-acting skills in Casillero del Diablo adverts; the ongoing football World Cup has a partnership with Taittinger; and the Ryder Cup will be toasted with a special bottling of Mouton Cadet, “available from the month of June in some of the best golf courses and fine wine shops around the world”. And then there’s Wimbledon, the demure, advertising-averse London-based tennis jamboree, which is in the fourth year of a partnership with Jacob’s Creek.

Jacob's Creek at WimbledonSo here’s a competition for you – try to think of a wine-related tennis player, and if it makes me chuckle I’ll send you a bottle of Jacob’s Creek in a special commemorative collectable cut-out-and-keep Wimbledon jacket, exceedingly similar to the one pictured left. Or, more accurately, Jacob’s Creek will send it to you. Entries welcome either by email, by adding a comment to this post, or to @TheCellarFella on Twitter. And here are a few of my own:


Bjorn Borgogne

John Mâconroe

Lindsay Vintageport

Chi-anti Murray River

Riojer Federer

Chateauneuf du Pat Rafter

Johan Jacobs Kriek*

* You should know who Johan Kriek is – he won two Australian Open titles in the 1980s, and got to the semi-finals in France and the US. Though to be fair he was only good for a couple of years. And I had to check on Wikipedia to make sure I hadn’t just made him up.

So go on, thinking caps on. You can’t do any worse than me…


Château Angélus gold label: a terrible disappointment (in a good way)

Chateau Angelus gold label

A while ago I received an invitation from Château Angélus, the famous estate from Bordeaux’s Saint-Emillion. The invitation specified that, should I accept, I would witness with my own extremely lucky eyes “the launch of … a remarkable bottle for a remarkable vintage”, the vintage in question being not the much-hyped 2009 or the possibly-even-more-hyped 2010, but the 2012, a year that inspired relatively few superlatives. The mind boggled, it spent a while boggling, and then it conjured the image of the Penfold’s Ampoule, the £120,000-a-pop hand-blown lesson in unintentional ludicrousness that had sullied the name of a once-proud Australian winery (while bringing quite a lot of bonus publicity, it had to be said). This new bottle would surely be a) idiotically expensive, and b) idiotic, and c) full of properly delicious liquid. I accepted immediately.

The day before the event, news leaked online that the bottle would feature a label made of genuine gold. The mind boggled, spent a while boggling, and then conjured the images of some other alcohol-related gold labels, very much a mixed bag but certainly less exalted company than that which Château Angélus is used to keeping:

Gold Label

Wolf Blass Gold Label

Johnnie Walker Gold Label

It seemed obvious to me, inevitable even, that the bottle was going to be expensive, tasteless and gaudy, and would give me a lot of entertaining blog-fuel. I could scarcely conceal a grin throughout the previous day. I was going to be given lunch, wine and the opportunity for unlimited savage mickey-taking, all of it compressed into a couple of wondrous hours on a Friday afternoon.

Things took a turn for the worse when I found myself sitting next to Stephanie de Bouard-Rivoal, the frustratingly charming young deputy managing director of Château Angélus, and seventh generation of the Bouard de Laforest family to work at the estate since they took it over in 1909. The new bottle, still hidden underneath a golden cloth at that stage, had been her brainchild, intended to mark the château’s promotion to Premier Grand Cru Classé A status, the completion of building work on the château itself, and the birth of her sister’s baby, signifying the coming of an eighth generation. The poor infant has no idea that its destiny is already mapped out, a destiny that will involve a lot of travel, smart clothes, nice hotels and delicious wine.

Chateau Angelus 2012, the gold labelAnd then the cloth was removed with a fanfare – literally, while an actual fanfare was played, a genuine moment of ludicrousness that prompted guffaws from the assembled winos. For the first time we saw the bottle, and – curses – it was not hideous. Indeed, it was really quite elegant, as understated as a bottle can be when it’s encrusted with 21.7-carat gold, the metallic lustre contrasting with the dark bottle in a really quite appealingly dramatic way, the craftsmanship truly impressive. I took a sample bottle, sadly empty, and scratched at it with my thumbnail, hoping to see the gold flake away and give me something to complain about, but there was no shifting the stuff.

We also drunk some of the wine – not the 2012, which hasn’t been bottled yet, but the 2011, 2007 and 2006. The most interesting comparison was between the 2007, which was overwhelmingly fragrant and delicious, and the 2006, which was tighter and broodier. In time, the 2006 will unfurl and relax and become every bit as (figuratively) intoxicating as it’s younger sibling, perhaps more so. Everyone around me agreed that because it didn’t currently taste anywhere near as good as the 2007, the 2006 was certainly the better wine. Wine appreciation can be a counterintuitive business sometimes.

There is only so much gold buried in our planet, and to stick some on a bottle that sooner or later will find itself at a recycling plant or buried in a landfill site, its precious cargo lost forever, is a bit sad. But having said that, it’s not very much gold in the scheme of things, it looks good, and what’s inside will almost certainly taste excellent. For all the event’s rich promise, I found nothing to laugh about here. Except, perhaps, the price, but if you’ve got a spare £1200 or so to spend on six bottles of wine, you go right ahead. They’ll look great.

Decanter, Noble Rot and the quest for wise words on wine

Noble Rot and Decanter magazinesI like words. Good ones, or even standard ones chosen particularly craftily and then put in the right order, bring me pleasure. But I’m not crazily demanding: I’m perfectly happy to put up with a very ordinary choice of words, so long as they convey a meaning precisely and succinctly. But equally the wrong choice of words – I’m talking of the “serious as cancer when I say rhythm is a dancer” ilk here – can make me really quite annoyed.

In the latest issue of Decanter, the nation’s premier wine magazine, someone has used the phrase “gustatory perception”. There is something about the phrase “gustatory perception” that, perhaps fittingly, sticks in my throat. In my opinion the phrase “gustatory perception” is acceptable only when used either in a scientific journal or with enormous quantities of irony, and probably best used ironically in a scientific journal. In this case, however, the phrase “gustatory perception” has been used without irony in a consumer magazine by a writer who, as a direct result of producing the phrase “gustatory perception”, was rewarded with real money.

“Colour turns out to be as contrary and debatable as anything else in wine,” he writes, “making a big impact on expectations, winemaking and, perhaps most significantly, the gustatory perception of the drinker.”

He might have ended that sentence with the simple phrase “what the drinker tastes”, but he chose not to. But I don’t blame the writer, I blame the people at Decanter, for creating a magazine in which the non-ironic use of the phrase “gustatory perception” is acceptable. A magazine that doesn’t care whether words are used in the kind of combinations that bring pleasure.

It was the final straw. I’ve put up with the endless panel tastings of wines I’ll never even consider buying, the profiles of wineries everyone already knows about, and the hideous awards issue – an annual doorstop-sized exercise in reader-alienating industry back-slapping – but this was too much. I stuffed the magazine back in my bag unfinished and spent the rest of my bus journey gazing sniffily out of the window. The following day I got a letter from the magazine’s publishers telling me that my subscription was up for renewal.

The only reason I’ve put up with Decanter for so long is that there really isn’t anything else. In the world of wine publishing there’s no equivalent of the old NME-or-Melody-Maker newsagent-based reading wars. In the world of wine publishing there’s not even a reading skirmish. There’s barely a reading evil glare. There’s one wine magazine that you sometimes see in shops that sell magazines, and that’s your lot.

There are a couple of others that you sometimes see in high-falutin’ bottle shops: the World of Fine Wine, whose very name conjures up images of the kind of people who like to let the phrase “gustatory perception” swirl around their mouths like it was the finest Montrachet. The main problem with WoFW is that it costs £89 a year (print only) which, given that it’s a quarterly, amounts to £22.25 an issue, which is bad value however good the writing is.

Then there’s Noble Rot. At £32 a year (in the UK) it’s £8 an issue, which is quite a lot if you compare it to standard consumer magazines, but makes it very much the Jacob’s Creek to WoFW’s Chateauneuf. The good thing about Noble Rot is that it concentrates not on telling readers how wine should taste and whether it’s better or worse than other wines that taste almost exactly the same, but on stories, many of them very well told, and people, many of them largely unknown. The bad thing about Noble Rot is a lack of storytellers: the guys behind the magazine are called Dan Keeling and Mark Andrew, and of the 29 articles in the latest issue they wrote or co-wrote 15 of them, as well as taking most of the photographs. Their omnipresence gives a home-made, rough-and-ready fanzine feel to a magazine that otherwise looks and feels pretty professional, but they have ability to match their enthusiasm.

I’m new to Noble Rot, and have yet to become infuriated by any repeated faults it may have. It’s certainly not perfect, and there are some articles in this issue that seem useful primarily as space-fillers. But it is by some margin the best periodically-published collection of largely wine-focused words at a vaguely acceptable price in the land, a small boast but a notable one. Decanter have had their time; this subscriber is going elsewhere.


The Guardians MRV from The Wine Society

“If I could only drink the wine of one country, it would have to be Italy,” said Ewan, the Wine Society’s archduke of media, as I complimented the Sagrantino di Montefalco they showed at their press tasting. Hmmm, well, I don’t know about that – I’d rather not just drink the wine of one country, but if I absolutely had to (which, just to be clear, I don’t, and never will) it would probably be lFrance, boringly. If I could only buy my wine from one retailer, on the other hand, I’d know instantly which one I would choose.

The Wine Society send me more paper than I really need in my life, they get really excited about en primeur campaigns they probably shouldn’t wholeheartedly recommend, and they have no retail outlet in the East Finchley area. That is all I can really think of to criticise, at the moment. On the plus side, their range is vast, their prices are good and their staff – even if you’re only likely to deal with them over the phone – are friendly and helpful.

It being physically impossible to try their entire range in any reasonable amount of time, their press tastings feature a selection of new additions and particular favourites. Clearly they’ve been hunting with some success in Europe’s less renowned winegrowing areas, with more wines on show from Bulgaria than from the Rhone, and appearances for Spain’s Txakolina – very good, fresh, zippy and due in stock in July – and Sicily’s Zibibbo – in fact muscat by another name, and thus good if you’re a fan of intoxicating white grape juice which tastes exactly like the non-intoxicating white grape juice that comes in cartons and is given to kids. They also continue to push the Blind Spot range, made just for them by much-hyped Australian winemaker Mac Forbes (the Clare Valley Riesling was good, the Rutherglen muscat excellent, but the Gunagai shiraz a bit disappointing).

My five favourites of the tasting, though, since you’re asking (and I’m excluding anything that costs £20 or more, even though in doing so I’m discounting that Sagrantino, because we’re assuming that’s good):

  • The Guardians MRV 2011 MRV stands for Marsanne, Roussanne and Viognier, a lovely, dry, clean white Rhone blend from Bulgaria. £14.95
  • Radford Dale Chardonnay 2012 The highlight of the chardonnay corner (there really was a chardonnay corner), and certainly not the most expensive. Taut, mineral and super-delicious. £18, from May.
  • Undurraga TH Garnacha Carignan Monastrell 2011 Both the wines in this label were fantastic (the other being the 2012 Las Gaviotas San Antonio pinot noir, which will also turn up in the summer, and could probably do with a bit more time before opening). This was herby and savoury and full of personality and depth. A good personality, as well. One I could hang out with. £13.95 or thereabouts, from July.
  • The Society’s Corbieres 2012 Here’s your good-value midweek drinker. One of their best and most bargainous own-label efforts.  £7.50 (but 25p cheaper for the next few days).
  • Chateau Tour Saint Bonnet 2009 Still a little bit tannic but certainly tiptoeing gently into its drinking window, a fine, upstanding Claret at a very fine price. £11.95 

For the sake of fairness, having told you my favourites I should also tell you my least favourite wine of the tasting, an unlovely, tarnished, rusty award which hangs heavily around the neck of the 2012 Koyle Costa Rapel Coast pinot noir, which is due to come online in April, and tasted dusty and confected and not a whole lot of fun. It costs £11.50. Buy it if you like, but don’t come crying to me if you do.

Polpo: dinner on the dark side

Peter Norman in BBC2's The Restaurant Man

I’ve left restaurants hungry before. I’ve left restaurants happy, angry, full, thirsty, drunk and sleepy. But I can’t remember a restaurant, despite delivering acceptable food and acceptable service, making me feel insulted. Polpo did, and its owner has repeatedly compounded it by being unforgivably sanctimonious in print and on screen, preaching about how seriously he takes the customer’s sense of well-being while all the while treating them with disdain.

By the end I sat in his flagship restaurant, packed with punters, slack-jawed with astonishment at the conjuring trick this man has pulled off. If the greatest trick the Devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn’t exist, the greatest trick a restaurateur ever pulled was convincing the world that this place is deserving of any more than immediate receivership. It’s no wonder that Russell Norman has been mentoring aspiring restaurant-owners on his own television series – the man has a magic touch. He’s a genius, of sorts. An evil, swivel-chaired, cat-stroking genius. Being taught how to run a restaurant by Russell Norman is like taking lessons in how to use a light sabre from Emperor Palpatine himself. He might convert you to the dark side, but damn you’ll have some skills.

Polpo is a Soho-based bàcaro – “a Venetian word to describe a humble restaurant serving simple food and good, young local wines” – that launched to great acclaim in 2010 and has been packed ever since.

“It’s a sort of Italian tapas bar that looks as if it’s been cleverly transported from Greenwich Village,” AA Gil wrote in the Sunday Times. “I love eating in New York, and I particularly like this ambience: relaxed and friendly, but also funny and welcoming. The lighting flatters, and the menu is your table mat. The place was humming with happy diners, and if you are young and want a cheap, good, fun date restaurant, there really isn’t a better one in London.”

“It’s a jolly nice place,” reckoned Giles Coren in the Times.  “Max and I stood around for maybe 40 minutes by the bar, drinking a bit more than one would normally want to on an empty stomach and only a couple of times being shoulder-slammed by a bustling waitress and spilling our drinks on our shoes. Then suddenly we were at a lovely table, deep in the warm hustle of the place. From the warmth and comfort of the table, you first of all forget your long wait, and then begin to look back on it fondly as having been the very best of times, much as a married man looks back fondly on single days which were, in truth, full of nothing but the fear that they would never end.”

Observer Food Monthly made it their restaurant of the year in 2013. “A great menu of gutsy food at a price which, by London standards, didn’t make your eyes water, delivered by staff who seemed more interested in you than the angle of the cutlery on the table. It became the place for a greaseless fritto misto, for duck ragus, for robust, bitter salads, impeccable flatbreads, and earthy wines poured into tumblers like they were shots of Jim Beam. It’s the kind of effortless cool that takes serious work.”

It’s a no-reservations restaurant. I’m not going to criticise it for that, however deserving – you know the deal when you turn up. But unlike most other no-reservation restaurants, in between turning up to put your name on the list and getting a table you’re not allowed out of the building. So you’re forced into a small subterranean cocktail bar/holding pen which, depending on the precise time of your arrival, will either be horribly packed or about to be horribly packed. Eventually you’re snagged on a metaphorical shepherd’s hook and led upstairs to your table. This is all done to make life convenient for the restaurateur at the customer’s expense, but it’s a deal I’d make so long as it stopped when I was seated. It doesn’t.

With the help of our waitress we ordered half a dozen things that made some kind of sense, but then they arrive in any order the kitchen desires. So while some meatballs might have got on fine with a very mildly glorified cauliflower cheese, they didn’t have much to say to the fritto misto they arrived with, while the cauliflower was served up, ludicrously, alongside a salmon tartare. Wine is served in humble beakers, which I don’t object to in principle so long as it is humble wine, but instead they sell wine whose qualities will be lost in this environment – the list goes up to £67 a bottle. Our table was by the gangway, so our empty plates were whisked away immediately by cheerful staff. The table beside ours had to stack theirs up when they were finished.

The one pleasant surprise was that we weren’t then told to wash up, and that we had to pay for that as well. This is a restaurant that does nothing exceptionally except take your money and usher you out the door, to make way for whichever poor souls are at that moment desperately entombed in the holding pen. Making people queue for this for five years and counting is an achievement worthy of every award Norman has ever been given, but I for one won’t be darkening these doors again.

If you want small plates in central London, every restaurant in the Salt Yard group does more interesting food, lets you book a table, does a better job with wine and is infinitely preferable in every possible way. There’s Terroirs and its siblings. There is, in other words, choice, and plenty of it. Enough to leave Polpo very well alone.

ps Sorry about the not posting for a month and a half business. I’ve been in a funk.

Travelling to New Zealand (kind of)

Vines in the distance on Waihere

Exactly 10 years ago to the week I left home to spend a month in New Zealand, and a few days in Australia. Looking back, it was a unique and happy time: I was young(er), I was single, I had been working for a few years and could afford to turn dream holidays into reality (so long as the reality wasn’t too luxurious). Perhaps I spent a little too much time on buses and in youth hostels, but still the trip exceeded all expectations, and since the moment my heavily Lord of the Rings-themed plane took off from Queenstown airport I have yearned to return. But times change: within six months I was no longer single, a couple of years after that I was married, another year and I was a parent. A decade ago a dream holiday involved a month spent sheltering from the worst extremes of the northern hemisphere winter on the other side of the world, sea-kayaking with dolphins, spotting whales and setting off carefree on multi-day walks; n0w it’s a night away in Hampshire.

And so it was that the closest I was ever going to get to repeating my great journey a decade on was to snatch a couple of hours at the annual Wines of New Zealand tasting in central London, in between dropping the kids off at school and picking them up again.

Over the same decade life has changed just as much in the New Zealand wine industry as it has chez Cellar Fella. Between 2004 and 2013 exports to Australia rose in quantity by nearly nine times (8.8 to be precise); to the USA by six times; and to the UK by three and a half times. In 2004 they sold NZ$302.6m worth of wine around the world; in 2013 it was NZ$1.211bn, almost precisely four times as much. In the same time the number of wineries rose from 463 to 698, the area under vine from 18,112 hectares to 35,733 and total production from 119.2 million litres to 248.4 million (all the numbers come from here). My only fear about returning to New Zealand is that the beautiful wilderness that entranced me in 2004 will all have been ripped up and turned into vineyard.

There are wines that clearly evoke a place, and others that don’t so much. Sometimes the secrets lie inside the liquid itself, which might contain clues about where it was made, and how; on other occasions it’s all in the drinker’s head. Perhaps they drank this wine once on a particularly memorable occasion, or perhaps they visited the area it was made, or even the winery itself. To many, for example, a glass of Man O’War chardonnay is nothing but another fairly impressive white wine. To anyone who’s been to Waiheke, the gorgeous island where they’re based, it will evoke memories of the short ferry ride from Auckland (that’s it, below) and an indecent number of spectacular viewpoints (there’s one up top, featuring what I do believe is a distant vineyard). I’ve often found Kiwi wines particularly evocative of a certain spirit that has, in truth, nothing much to do with the wines, and everything to do with my memories of their homeland.

The ferry to Waiheke

My trip to the tasting, like my visit to New Zealand all those years ago, was a great deal briefer than I really needed to have a proper look around. So I chose my targets: no sauvignon blanc passed my lips, and almost no pinot noir, as I instead targeted chardonnay, syrah and a few Bordeaux blends. Man O’War were represented, with their top wines – which carry names like Valhalla, Ironclad and Dreadnought, all of which sound best when said in the aggressive, plummy tones of Blackadder Goes Forth’s Lord Melchett – reliably excellent for a shade over £20 (more like a shade under £30, in some cases). Craggy Range remain consistently superb as well, with the Gimblett Gravels Syrah a reliable bet also for £20, and their top-of-the-range syrah, Le Sol an absolute stunner for about twice that.

I particularly enjoyed the four Pyramid Valley wines, which is a shame as they’re quite pricey. They had two chardonnays and a couple of pinots, and with both grapes one of the pair stood out: the Lion’s Tooth chardonnay 2011 outshone the Field of Fire and the slightly cloudy and idiosyncratic Angel Flower pinot noir 2009 outperformed the Earth Smoke from 2010.

Pyramid Valley Lion's Tooth Chardonnay 2011

The problem with New Zealand is that, other than the oceans of characterless sauvignon blanc, it’s very hard to get a standout wine in the £8-£14 range where I do the vast majority of my wine shopping. They do have a couple of reliable brands who operate at that level, particularly Villa Maria and Esk Valley (owned by Villa Maria), but anything with individuality and personality comes at a cost. It’s not just the amount of wine coming out of New Zealand that’s been rising inexorably, but the price of it as well: that Craggy Range Le Sol cost £21 seven years ago, £29 in January 2010, £37 in January 2011 and £45 in January 2013 (and that’s if you’re lucky – at Roberson right now a single bottle will set you back £63.95). A few years ago I bought a case of their top Bordeaux blend, Sophia; now it’s out of my range. If the aim is to target two extremes of the wine-buying scale – those seeking a reasonably cheap party quaffer at one end, and those willing to spend £25 or considerably more in search of something sensational at the other – it leaves those of us who inhabit the space in between a little left out.

In short, I might have to find another way of evoking my memories. Still, I’ve always got my photos.

Sunrise over Doubtful Sound