The Cellar Fella awards 2013

Red wine of the year: Mullineux Schist Syrah

Mullineux Schist

This is just amazing. The great thing about South Africa – and clearly there are many great things about South Africa so I’ve pretty much saddled myself with a sentence that won’t really stand up to any kind of scrutiny, and it’s the second sentence of the post so it’s not a good start, but I’ll press on – is that many of the wonderful wines that are currently redefining its international standing are made using the fruit of old vines that were being ignored until a couple of years ago. They have, in other words, found that when it comes to wine at least their future and their past are the same, which is pleasing, and that the ugly and unpopular turn out to have the best character, which is too. Mullineux make three levels of wine, a basic range under the Kloof Street label that I haven’t tried but seems universally well received, a Mullineux syrah and a white blend which are both excellent, and available at around £15-£20 a bottle. This year they added a couple of top Syrahs, Schist and Granit, named after the soil from which the grapes grow, and incredibly splendid they were too. Sadly they had a price tag to match, but if I was the kind of guy who spends £60 on a bottle of wine, I’d spend it on this.

Red wine I could actually afford to buy (and did) of the year: Jamet Côtes du Rhone 2011
The only way to get your mitts on this, at least without leaving British shores, is by snaffling a case en primeur from Bibendum, at which point it is both freely available and splendidly affordable, although you do need to buy 12 bottles at once which hurts the wallet a little. Jamet is one of the great names of Côte-Rotie, which itself is one of the great names of the northern Rhone. One of the pleasures of the Rhone, though, is how common it is for top winemakers to produce, in addition to the expensive stuff, something that gives less fat-walleted winelovers a taste of their style. I’ve tried quite a few of these wines now, and enjoyed several, but this is the best of them all, a blast of fresh Syrah fruit without the excessive oak that brings down some of its rivals. The case cost me £110, plus some tax a while later, or in the region of £13 a bottle by the time I got it home. Which, for a wine of quality and individuality and scarcity, with the added bonus of a great name on the label, is a wonderful bargain. His grown-up Cote-Rotie, incidentally, normally costs £60 a bottle or more, but the 2008 is currently available for £25 (use code DRINKS21) at, um,, a discovery which cost me £50.

White wine of the year: Clos Joliette, Jurançon Sec 1971
If you’ve not heard of this wine, it’s because you’ve never seen it and never will. It is, I’m told, a legend of French wine, but so little makes it out of the country, and for that matter so little makes it anywhere – they only release wines when they are considered ready, and haven’t released any wine at all for nearly 20 years. In the circumstances it would be a little mean for me to go on too much about how great this is, in a wonderfully distinctive way, but great is what it is. I was told, when I drank it, all sorts of things about the vineyard, but I was too busy having a nice lunch to take notes and Google has let me down in the most disappointing way, but in brief, if you see this, and you can try it without breaking the law to do so, do it.

White wine I could actually afford to buy (and did) of the year: The Liberator This Bird has Flown 2009

The Liberator's This Bird has Flown

There are some great white wines coming out of South Africa, one of which, Alheit’s Cartology 2011, came within a whisker of being my favourite white of the year, but I must doff my cap to the Liberator, who make one-off parcels of wine in South Africa, stick it in appealing bottles and sell it at decent prices. I’ve tried a few of their wines now, and have wavered between impressed and extremely impressed, and this Swartland white blend was definitely one of the latter, particularly since it comes with an accompanying cartoon on their website. It cost £11.95 from the Wine Society, and while now sold out they do have a couple of other Liberator wines in stock – I’d encourage you to check them out.

The Next Picpoul de Pinet award for obscure wine and/or region ready for the big time: Limoux. A great source of bargain fizz and with an apparently rapidly-expanding offering of excellent still whites, based on chardonnay, to boot. Majestic has one currently on “special” at £12.99, if you’re interested, and I’ve heard good things about one that Aldi are selling for £6.99. And it’s just an hour and a half’s drive from Pinet, if winemakers from the two regions should ever want to get together and chat about making the world happy with the gift of good cheap white wine.

Not-wine-related thing of the year: London’s libraries. Not only can you get books for free, read them and then take them back again, which while clearly brilliant is the kind of thing libraries have been doing for a while now, they also give you ebooks and audiobooks and free magazine subscriptions and access to newspaper archives. They basically do everything short of coming round to read the books to you personally while they buff your shoes. (Helpful hint: if you live in London, or visit it occasionally, it’s worth getting yourself a Westminster library card as their freebies are the best.) It is, though, still absolutely impossible to get excited about libraries without feeling definitively unhip.

Music of the year: A very fine year for music, I think. My favourite album was Matthew E White’s Big Inner, released way back in January, which includes my all-time favourite 10-minute-long song about how great Jesus is, which isn’t a subject I ever thought I’d be keen on. Best concerts included the lovely Laura Mvula playing her first ever headline show at Notting Hill’s Tabernacle, the phenomenally exciting SOHN and Nick Mulvey, who’s so good I saw him twice and am taking Mrs CF on a third outing in the new year, and whose version of Donna Summer’s I Feel Love is an act of virtuoso finger-pickin’ genius.

Your Good Health! – a bonkers book about wine and medicine

Your Good Health! by Dr E Maury

“The theory proposed in these pages might seem, to any rational mind, to have emanated from an imagination heightened by an abuse of Bacchic libations,” writes Dr E Maury, in his epic work of bonkers medicine Your Good Health!. And he’s not wrong.

Fully 21 years after its publication in English – Dr Maury is, as his prescriptions make pretty clear, French – I received an email from a marketing person at the publishers, Souvenir Press, asking if I’d like to read it. This is unusual enough in itself. Marketing people tend to lose interest in something within six months of its coming into existence, and here was someone still plugging away half a working lifetime later. As it happened, I did want to read it. This, after all, is a book that promises to reveal “the medical benefits of wine drinking”, and that is something that my conscience could really do with knowing all about.

Happily, one of the book’s first conclusions is that a person who weighs 11 stone, eats a balanced diet and exercises moderately can safely consume a litre of light wine – around 10% alcohol – every day. “But normally, in view of the sedentary life most of us lead nowadays, wisdom dictates that we should limit ourselves to three quarters of a litre of wine at 11% strength,” he writes. “For women, the optimum amount should not exceed half a litre.” I’m a fair bit heavier than 11 stone, and go to the gym several times a week, so even though real wine normally weighs in at between 12% and 14%, in my case a full bottle per day should be absolutely fine. A doctor says so. I have read the relevant passage to my wife.

In Mauryworld, drinking wine with food is not just acceptable, but basically mandatory. “A meal washed down with tap water is an unfortunate error in taste and a grave dietary error” which can not only cause indigestion but also has a “negative influence at a psychological level which may encourage a tendency to pessimism and introspection”. Add to that the fact – and I use the word “fact” in the loosest possible sense – that modern urban living, which “forces most people to eat out at least once a day … most often in a hurry, amid jostling crowds … swallowing at record speed foods pre-cooked in the bowels of vast industrial kitchens … affects the balance of the autonomic nervous system and leads to a condition of stress”. A sandwich and a couple of glasses of water once sounded like a perfectly normal and probably reasonably healthy lunch. Now I know it’s a recipe for a life of stress, pessimism, nervousness and introspection, I’ll be sure to sit down each day to a proper luncheon with a couple of glasses of wine and a sneer in the direction of the unenlightened stressballs scurrying nervously past on their way to Pret a Manger.

So now we know wine is healthy in a general sense, we need a few specifics. So let’s take the wines of the Medoc, which seem to be the most medically efficacious of all. They’re great for curing diarrhoea, thanks to their generous tannins which “tone up the smooth intestinal muscles and help to restore the rhythm of contractions” (sweet Vouvray is the drink of choice for the constipated – “a quarter of a bottle per meal is an effective and reasonable dose”). The Medoc’s wines also have a healthy dose of phosphates and iron, which promote the elasticity of your stomach muscles (though not as much as Champagne, No2 on the Maurylist of all-time most healthy wines – “the expulsion of gases through the mouth bear witness to this”). Other good reasons to stock your cellar with Bordeaux: it “supplies patients with vitamins”, “plays some part in purging the blood of cholesterol” and “slows down the production of histamine”, plus it’s also handy when you’re suffering from a virus, because of the ferrous oxide and organic phosphorous, and the “oenotannins which give it antibiotic properties”. So when you’ve got a virus, or if someone you know has one, or if you’re worried about catching one, half a bottle per day of a decent Bordeaux – or a Beaujolais, apparently – is mandatory.

If I had a criticism, it would be that Maury has a tendency to use as evidence convenient quotes from people who wrote in the 17th century or earlier – the opinions of Pliny the Elder, say, or St Paul, whose medical knowledge probably doesn’t stand up to the most rigorous of modern examinations. And the language can be a little bewildering, suggesting it was written a lot more than 21 years ago. Take this, for example: “In countries where oenology has an honoured place, people would not dream of eating a meal, however modest, without the accompaniment of one or more glasses of the potion that is sacred to Bacchus.” You what?

And if I’m being really picky, I’d probably pick up on the fact that Maury is “a homeopathic doctor” which – and I don’t want to traduce any honourable homeopathic physicians here, and there may be some – is a phrase that my brain immediately translates as “the kind of doctor who makes stuff up”. Britain’s chief medical officer, and the 2010 House of Commons Science and Technology Committee, are united in considering homeopathy to be “scientifically implausible”. Well stuff them, I’m going to force myself to plause it. This is my kind of science. Now where’s the corkscrew? I’ve hardly had a glass all day, and it’s nearly lunchtime. Lives are at stake here.

You can buy the book second hand via Amazon here.

1973 and all that: the birth of Marks and Spencer’s wine aisle

Marks & Spencer's wine selection

It’s fair to say that Marks & Spencer weren’t always very enthusiastic about wine. When a change to retail licensing laws in 1962 first allowed supermarkets to sell alcohol, they remained unmoved. First Sainsbury’s, and then Tesco, Waitrose and the Co-Op all launched light-headedly into this intoxicating new market, but for a full decade M&S sat on the sidelines, pushing through sober ranges of children’s knitwear, men’s slacks and women’s undergarments and watching the tills unmerrily ring.

But soon there was no denying the success of the whole supermarket-wine venture. In 1967 only 5% of off-trade wine, beer and spirit sales took place in supermarkets. By 1972 that figure stood at 25%, the Co-Op had become the nation’s biggest off licence, and Marks and Spencer began a feasibility study into the possibility of leaping aboard the bandwagon. They concluded their study, read it, and digested it – and still they weren’t very enthusiastic about wine. A spokesman revealed that September that plans were “really very much up in the air”. They gave the impression that they considered themselves above the low-cost alcohol-discounting already being practised by their lowbrow rivals. “The wine and spirit trade believes that Marks & Spencer prices would be fairly high,” reported the Times that year, “so that the firm would be aloof from much of the cut-and-thrust seen in off-licence prices in the past decade.”

Britons tend to look back in anguish at the kind of atrocities being perpetrated on our wine aisles in the 1970s – around 3.5m bottles of off-dry German horror Blue Nun were sold every year, for starters – but though our collective tastebuds were still very much being honed, we were at least showing admirable enthusiasm. Pamela Vandyke Price, the Times’ wine correspondent, cooed over “the existence of a market that is prepared to sample and accept wine drinking as part of the life of the seventies, as they tried and now enjoy the avocado pear and aubergine, the fondue party and the barbecue”.

Early in 1973, after a strong rumour that their rivals Woolworths were about to enter the drinks trade, M&S finally felt forced to act. The managing director of Stowells of Chelsea, a wine merchant founded in 1878, bullishly predicted that though an M&S move into wine “must add something to competition”, “I should think we would carry a much bigger range than they would be able to.” He probably possessed a handsome collection of crystal decanters, but crystal balls were in short supply. M&S now stock somewhere north of 1,000 different wines, while Stowells add very little indeed to competition, existing only as a supplier of discountable but far from delectable drinks to the likes of Bargain Booze.

One day in June 1973, at Bristol magistrates court, Marks and Spencer applied for, and received, a license to sell alcohol. That October 12 stores stocked the company’s first, diminutive range of wines: eight in all, plus four sherries. It must have done OK, because by early 1975 the experiment had been rolled out to more than 30 major stores, and it’s been onwards and upwards ever since. They may have found wine an acquired taste, and as such their entrance into the market merits only a footnote in history, but its anniversary is still worth celebrating. After all, M&S now have possibly the most diverse wine offering on the high street, with outlandish recent additions including Greek wines made from tikves and malagouzia, a 100% okuzgozu from Turkey and an amphora-aged orange wine made in Georgia from the rkatsiteli grape.


M&S are celebrating their anniversary in minor way, with a microsite, a timeline – so brief that the 16 years between 1992 and 2008 don’t merit a single entry – and mixed case. It’s quite a well-chosen selection of six bottles, sticking mainly with styles that have remained popular throughout their time in the wine trade – your Rioja, Chablis, Claret and Aussie shiraz – and rounding things off with a couple of currently-trendy whites, a Kiwi sauvignon and an Italian pinot grigio, from producers with whom they claim a 20-year association. The highlight of the press release announcing the case is the description of Christian Moueix as “a great fan of traditional Bordeaux reds”, which given that he’s in charge of Châteaux Pétrus and Trotanoy is truly a Methuselah of an understatement.

The case is currently showing out of stock – I was supposed to post this last week, so if my slowness has ruined your mixed-case dreams I can only apologise – but I tried a couple of the wines included and particularly liked the Chablis, which is textbook clean, fresh chardonnay, zippy, refreshing and decently priced at £10.99 a bottle. The Hunter Valley Shiraz (£9.99), made by Tyrell’s, has been widely praised elsewhere, and though I wasn’t blown away I did find it utterly gluggable and, at 13%, less likely than many Aussie shirazes to cause serious regrets in the morning. It’s yet more evidence to suggest that customers should be significantly less wary about entering an M&S wine aisle than M&S were about creating it in the first place.

Wine, work and Waitrose


For my day job, I write about football for The Guardian. It’s a newspaper. People think my job is fun, they think it’s a laugh, and it’s true that at times it is. But there are occasions, really quite a lot of them, when it really does feel like work. The other night, for example. I reported on a match played between Tottenham and Hull, which went to extra time and penalties, ending at about 10.20pm. After the match I got the chance to ask the two managers whatever I wanted, and interviewed a Tottenham player for an article that was published in Sunday’s Observer. It may sound fun, but there was certainly a certain amount of stress involved in transforming an empty screen into 800 words of vaguely sensible match report over the course of a match that twisted and turned and reared and kicked, and sending it to my office in chunks so it would be ready to go online five minutes after the final whistle, and in the paper 10 minutes later. By the time I left the ground it was a few minutes before midnight. The following morning I started work at seven, and my jobs that day included reviewing the morning papers, appearing on Britain’s (And Finland’s, and New Zealand’s) most popular sporting podcast, and chatting on the phone with the great Australian cricketer Shane Warne. At no point was I having a bad time, but it certainly felt like work.

For my hobby, I taste, and sometimes drink, wine. People think my hobby is fun, they think it’s a laugh, and it’s true that at times it is. But there are occasions, thankfully not that many, when it really is work. A couple of weeks back I went to the Waitrose autumn wine tasting. As a humble, unpaid wine blogger I play by my own rules, coming and going as I please, but some people, your newspaper wine writers, for example, actually have to try every wine there, in case one or more of them happens to be nice enough to include in some future column. For these people, the ones who are actually working, this is absolutely, certainly work.

I respect these people like I respect a triathlete or a marathon runner. After all, it is a marathon, of sorts. The Waitrose tasting featured 89 red wines, 76 white wines, 17 sparkling wines, the same number of fortified wines, 14 sweet wines and a handful of roses, plus nine beers, four ciders and 31 assorted spirits and liqueurs. Even ignoring the other stuff, that’s 217 wines. Most of the wine columnists spent two days there. Splash, sniff, sip, slurp, spit, scribble, a couple of minutes per wine, again and again and again. Not everyone has the natural skill to do it, even fewer have the dedication to hone their skills, and fewer still have the stamina to taste a wine, to judge it, to describe it, and to move to the next one, a hundred times a day or more, and then to wake up tomorrow and do it again.

I tasted all the whites that appealed, a couple of dozen reds, almost all the sweets and a handful of spirits, and then left. I was supposed to go to another wine tasting afterwards, but never made it. I’d already done enough work for that day. As it happens, Waitrose are currently in the midst of their biannual wine megasale, in which they knock 25% off the lot of ‘em so long as you buy either six bottles (instore) or a dozen (online). So, given that I did all this tasting, here’s my top 10 tips, all with full, pre-discount prices. One other tip: if the wine you want is unavailable online, try Ocado, Waitrose’s grocery-delivery partners. One final tip: do it soon – the sale ends tonight!

Domaine du Bourg, Les Graviers 2012 (£13.99)
An excellent Loire cabernet franc, still with a little rusticity. It was illuminating to try this alongside their other Loire cab franc, Les Nivières Saumur 2011, which offered a fraction of the pleasure for just £5.50 less (or £4.12 less if you’re shopping in the sale). Funnily, my bottles when they arrived didn’t look like the one at the tasting (which you can see at the top of this post).

Escaravaills' La Ponce 2011

Domaine des Escaravailles La Ponce 2011 (£15.99 at full price)
I’ve written about this recently. It’s an excellent southern Rhone grenache and brilliant value at £11.99, if you can find it (which to be fair I haven’t – it’s unavailable online and not listed by Ocado).

Craggy Range Te Muna Road pinot noir 2011, Martinborough (£22.99)
This is expensive, but excellent, and I think good value at £17.24. Really well judged, from probably New Zealand’s best area for sub-£20 pinot.

Wynns Coonawarra Estate cabernet sauvignon 2008 (£15.99)
This smoky, blackcurrant bonanza is another £11.99 bargain. A proper wine from a top, albeit quite big, Aussie producer.

Kunstler Hochheimer Holle riesling kabinett trocken 2012 (£16.99)
Yeah, I’m not really giving you many bargains here. I know. Still, this was an excellent, dry, pithy and wildly acidic riesling that made my mouth really quite happy.

La Munacesca 2011 Verdicchio di Matelica (£10.99)
This is just £8.25 in the sale, and a stonking bargain. A very Italian, herbal white wine that would go with all sorts of food but tastes just great on its own. It comes in quite a chunky bottle and sits there looking classy, and does not cease to be classy once you start drinking it.

Librandi Asylia Melissa greco bianco 2012 (£8.99)
Hand-harvested, slightly appley, crisp and fresh. Just £6.75 in the sale and exceedingly good value, I think.

Fonseca Reserve Ruby port (£13.49)
There’s a lot of warming, ripe plummy fruit here. I just can’t see why anyone would not enjoy having this in their mouth for a while, it’s superbly and Christmasely festive and excellent value at a shade over a tenner.

Graham’s 20-year-old tawny port (£36.49)
On the one hand, this is certainly very expensive. On the other, it means that you save a full £9 by buying it in the deal. And it repays your investment with waves of complexity. One to contemplate. Try not to think about the price, but if you really can’t get over the price, buy the 10-year-old version instead (£21.39, or £16.04 in the sale, and I must admit that’s what I did).

Antinori Santa Cristina 2008 vin santo (£11.99 for 37.5cl)
The difference in sugar content among sweet wines is really surprising. This, for example, contains 38.9 grams of sugar per litre, making it the least sweet of Waitrose’s sweets, while the 2005 Anthemis Muscat of Samos (£9.99) has 200 grams per litre and, while pleasantly toffeeish, really needed something to cut through the sweetness, perhaps some blue cheese (though if you think about it that mouthful would basically just be salty fat and alcoholic sugar, and thus nutritionally possibly the worst thing you could ever put in your mouth). The vin santo smells delicious, tastes of caramelised orange peel and toasted nuts and compared with the other sticky options is actually positively good for you.

Waitrose Sauternes 2007 (£16.29 for 37.5cl)
Drop for drop, this costs about as much as the tawny port, which for me wins this particular arm-wrestle, but it’s an excellent Sauternes for a very decent price, made by Chateau Suduiraut from 30-year-old vines.

Quibble of the tasting


Pujalet 2012 IGP Pays de Gers (£5.49)
On the front label, in big letters, are the words “crisp and fresh”. Inside the bottle are seven grams of residual sugar per litre, making it one of the sweeter dry wines on tasting. For me, “crisp and fresh” means “dry”, and though they certainly look better on a bottle than “flabby and full”, this doesn’t really do what it says on the tin. On the subject of wines that pretend to be something they’re not, I could also quibble about the La Umbra Chardonnay 2012, which is quite clearly pretending to be Italian. In fact it’s from Romania.

Challenge of the tasting

Putting Baileys new Chocolate de Luxe into your mouth and then spitting it out. Not because it’s too delicious to not swallow, although it is surprisingly good, but because it has a weird, heavy, thick texture, a bit too gloopy to effectively expectorate. I swallowed. My notes: “Smells of chocolate milk. Tastes of chocolate milk. Extremely dangerous.”

Flop of the tasting20131105-120752.jpg

I didn’t like: Smirnoff gold flavoured cinnamon liqueur, which has gold leaf suspended in it. It looks mental, it smells disgusting, and I couldn’t bring myself to put it in my mouth. And Chase Rhubarb Liqueur, which even though it’s apparently made using actual, real, locally-sourced (natch) rhubarb didn’t particularly smell or taste of the stuff, but of medicine and random chemical sweetness. If you want a flavoured spirit, go for Stolichnaya Salted Karamel Vodka (£20.31), which smells precisely of what it’s supposed to smell of, and is quite a feat of chemistry. Would make an excellent cocktail ingredient, I’d have thought (some of the more adventurous hacks were mixing it with Baileys Chocolate Luxe for a chocolate-caramel bonanza).

The World Atlas of Wine: a Chateauneuf du Paper


First of all, a moan about the mysterious world of publishing. When I bought this brilliant, enormous, beautiful tome there were two interesting numbers on it (there are lots more inside). On the back, printed onto the sleeve that the book sleeps in between thumbings, was the figure £75 – the amount it is supposed to cost. On the front, printed on a sticker placed there by the retailer, was the figure £15 – the amount the book actually cost. That’s a titchy 20% of the advertised retail price. Something here isn’t making a lot of sense.

It’s not like this is some dusty old remaindered tome that I intercepted on its way to the incinerator: it’s the seventh edition of a much-loved and widely-venerated publication and was released on 7 October, a couple of weeks ago. It’s just that nothing about books is as fictional as the make-believe prices their publishers print on them, while simultaneously agreeing to charge a pathetic fraction of that amount to any business willing to place a massive order. This leads to comedy price-cutting by online giants, a sense of helplessness among small, independent booksellers and a feeling of confusion and suspicion among shoppers.

There are two editions of this book in the UK, with official retail prices of £40 and £75, the main difference so far as I can tell being that the latter is housed in a presentation sheath and that the words “special” and “edition” can be applied to it (though I see no sign of them on the book itself). Waterstones is selling the £40 version for £30.10, Hive for £26.32WH Smith for £24.80, and Amazon for £19.66. The Book People are selling the £75 version for £15 (it was briefly knocked down to a tenner earlier in the week) but it’s on Hive for £45.26at Foyles for £54.75 and from Amazon there’s no discount at all. It’s absurd for a new publication to be available at such wildly varying prices, and it’s unfair on retailers and consumers. If they’re going to do this, they should also release a World Atlas of Buying the World Atlas of Wine, to help the potential purchaser through the confusion. My message to the publishing industry is clear: Stop it, the lot of you. Right now.


Fortunately, the book is probably worth any of those prices, and certainly more than the amount I paid for it. It was never going to be, and certainly isn’t, full of hilarious jokes and clever wordplay, but the text is all extremely readable, admirably so given how much work it’s got to do. There’s a mind-bending amount of information here, all assembled with incredible attention to detail and then decorated with innumerable photographs and maps and labels (I’m not sure I need all those wine labels, really) before being spread across a table-vexing 377 pages plus index. It has been written, edited and proofread with unusual care, and my cap is doffed to all concerned. It takes itself so seriously that each page is split into a grid, so that the index doesn’t just point you towards the right map for your entry of choice, but to the specific square inch of utmost relevance.

Beyond the bizarre pricing it’s very hard to quibble with anything about this book. Indeed my list of complaints, and I’ve searched fairly hard because I quite like complaining, has just two entries. First, it’s inevitable that some people will find their favourite wine region under-represented, particularly given that France gets almost a third of the book on its own, but I was surprised to find that the next largest chapter is devoted to North America, which with 37 pages get five more than Italy (even though the Italians make more than twice as much wine) and more than twice as much space as Spain (the world’s third-biggest wine producer). However many pages you’ve got, there are never enough. Second, in the colour-coded map of Châteauneuf-du-Pape’s soil types the area known as Orange is predominantly pink, but the area next to Orange is mainly orange. Where’s the logic in that?

There’s more, or rather less, to wine than the accumulation of knowledge, than soil types and geography and average rainfall and prevailing winds. But this ancillary information can also add a joy of its own, and no wine will ever be less appreciated if the drinker reads the appropriate page or two of this book before it’s opened. I have never owned or paid much attention to the six previous editions, and now I find myself awed with appreciation for the effort, knowledge and beauty that I have just acquired. This pristine palace of pages – a Châteauneuf du Paper, if you like – is the most essential of all wine books. Buy it. Just be careful where.

Escaravailles’ Ponce and en primeur bargains


En Primeur. Two words guaranteed to send the eyebrows of any not-particularly-into-wine person leaping northwards. They either don’t know what it is, but know that it’s foreign, and therefore unforgiveably - and this word is going to crop up a few times today, in various forms – poncey, or they kind of know what it is, and believe it’s a ludicrous mechanism for allowing bankers to acquire Chateau Lafite by the pallet, and therefore unforgiveably poncey. There’s probably a decent chunk of actually-quite-into-wine people who think the second definition isn’t far off the mark. But there’s another en primeur market, far removed from that in first-growth claret, which allows price-conscious punters to snaffle great wine at great prices.

The wine above is one that worked out for me. It’s a Rasteau, an area in the Southern Rhone producing red wine using lots of grenache and bits and pieces of other grapes, from the 2005 vintage, and cost me £68 for a dozen back in the day. When it arrived in the country I paid a further £30.72 in duty and tax. The mathematicians among you will confirm that it worked out at £98.72 for the case, or a smidgeon under £8.23 a bottle, which included delivery. And it’s now delicious – fruity, herby, deep and, although the alcohol does tip the scales at 15% abv, entirely harmonious. It matched absolutely perfectly with braised beef and a dark, wintry Sunday night spent entirely indoors (I do find that grenache-based wines so often work heroically well on chilly Sunday evenings, all the more so if the wind is assaulting the walls and windows while you sip it).

What’s certain is that this is nobody’s eight-quid wine, its value certainly closer to the £16 that recent vintages cost where you can find them (the 2011 will soon be available from Waitrose online and from five actual physical branches (there are 291 branches of Waitrose, so there’s a 1.7% chance of you finding it in your local) at £15.99). If you’d bought that vintage en primeur – and the Wine Society offers it every year – it would have worked out at around £11 a bottle, effectively a 30% discount for advance purchase (though at some point, when Waitrose do their 20% off all wine sale, this will presumably be up for grabs for £12.80, whereupon it would be one of their better deals).

Escaravailles – named after the scarab beetle that decorates their labels – are in my experience pretty trustworthy producer, and you sometimes see their top Rasteau, Heritage 1924, the basic Rasteau or the excellent white Côtes du Rhône La Galopine, all of them worth your attention if you come across them. But I should make clear that bargains aren’t guaranteed when you dabble en primeur: you may one day find your wine in someone’s bin-end sale for less than you paid or, worse, you may find that you actually don’t like the wine very much when it comes to drinking it – after all, it’s six years since I bought this wine, and tastes change. The latter problem can also occur if you buy much more expensive wines, compared with which these bottom-end en primeur offerings represent an enjoyable and really pretty low-risk punt, and presents you at the end with a wine that a) didn’t cost very much, and b) you paid for so long ago that it now basically feels free.

And yes, one of the reasons I chose to gamble on this wine rather than any other was the very vaguely amusing name. As the Oxford English Dictionary explains:

Pronunciation: /pɒns/
British informal, noun
1 derogatory, an effeminate man.
a man who lives off a prostitute’s earnings.

Phrasal Verbs
ponce about/around
behave in an affected or ineffectual way:
I ponced around in front of the mirror
ponce something up
make overly elaborate and unnecessary changes to something in an attempt to improve it:
they would not let the food alone, they had to ponce it up in some way or other

Sadly ponce means something significantly less amusing if you’re French: that humdrum igneous rock, pumice. But while we’re on the subject of pathetic childish wine-comedy, the other day I went to a trade tasting (Waitrose, of which more another time) that featured an Alsatian pinot gris made by someone called Patrick le B’stard, which was enough to get me chuckling (sometimes it doesn’t take much). In case you want to try the B’stard wine, it’s the Cave de Beblenheim Pinot Gris reserve 2012, available from Waitrose for £9.99, and it’s pretty good: round, full and quite savoury given that the equivalent of 8.5 grams, or just over two teaspoons, of sugar lurk in each bottle. It tasted like it would taste significantly better with some food, perhaps something rich and fishy, or something Thai or even Indian, than it did on its own.

Meanwhile, many of the 2012 Rhone en primeur offers will go out in the next month or so, while The Wine Society and Berry Bros will follow in the new year. They say it’s a good vintage, particularly in the south … perhaps it’s time for another case of the Ponce?

The A to Z of London’s wine fairs

The BBC Good Food Show

It’s coming on Christmas. Honestly, it is. Check your diaries. And thus the nation’s retailers are hunkering down and preparing for our annual frenzy of overindulgence and willful spendthrifterosity. From book shops to bars they’re oiling their tills, hiring themselves some fine seasonal staff and bracing for action. Let’s face facts here: your wallet/purse is about to take a serious battering. The only question is where you are going to choose to batter it, which is why, at this time of year more than any other, people who want to sell you stuff start figuratively jumping up and down and shouting “Me! Me! Look at me!”.

Wine retailers are no different. They know you’re going to buy yourself some seasonal wine, and they want it to be with them. One of the ways they go about doing this – and I must admit I find the idea a pretty poor one, but clearly it’s got something going for it – is by putting on massive wine fairs and making customers not only buy tickets but haul themselves across London and beyond in order to jostle strangers for tasters. Frankly it doesn’t sound much like fun to me, but some of them must be good and I’m slowly working my way through them in search of a surefire winner. For research purposes, you understand. I suffer, so you don’t have to. Anyway, here’s a list of the wine fairs that are a-coming to this fair city. Drop me a line if I’ve left one out.

The Wine Gang
The Wine Gang is a five-headed monster of wine journalism, comprised of the Independent’s Anthony Rose, David Williams of the Observer, Tom Cannavan of, Joanna Simon, who wrote in the Sunday Times for many a year, and Jane Parkinson of Stylist, and I’ll be at their fair this year. A combination of decent prices, good exhibitors and intriguing bonus masterclasses did it for me. The benefit of me buying a ticket was that I managed to get into the Pichon Baron masterclass for a low price before it sold out. The downside was that a couple of weeks later they offered me a ticket for nothing. It’s too late for me to benefit from their generosity but not so for you: use the code BLOG40 and not only will entry be reduced from £20 to £12, but you’ll get 10% off masterclass tickets too. Which is nice.
Date: 9 November
Venue: Vinopolis, near Borough Market
Tickets: £20 (before discount)
Other venues: Bath (2 November) and Edinburgh (30 November)

Three Wine Men
The festively-titled Three Wine Men are Olly Smith, Oz Clarke and Tim Atkin, all of whom may be familiar off the telly. “The Three Wine Men want to get everyone in the country tasting, experiencing and enjoying new wines and discovering different foods,” they say. “Their events bring together wine and food retailers and producers to show you just how much fun your taste buds can have in a day.” There you go. Majestic, Berry Bros, The Wine Society and, um, Lidl are among their exhibitors, the oft-televised trio will be in attendance and there are bonus masterclasses from as little as a fiver.
Date: 7 & 8 December
Venue: Church House, Westminster
Tickets: £25 (before discount)
Other venue: Manchester (23 & 24 November)

Wine Cellar at the BBC Good Food Show
Food may be the focus of this Olympia-based behemoth, but there’s room for a bit of wine too. So much so that they claim this is “the ultimate destination for wine lovers”. Crikey. “Whether you’re a connoisseur or a novice, The Wine Cellar is the perfect place to stock up for the festive season and explore wines from across the globe,” they promise. There will also be tasting events and tours, for which you’ll need to book separately, as well as samples and sales from “24 boutique, artisan vineyards and importers” as well as an “English Wine Pavilion”. I went to this a couple of years back – that’s the picture above – and after giving up on ever reaching the front of the massive scrum that surrounded anyone offering free wine (except, bizarrely, the one with open bottles of d’Arenberg’s £28-a-b0ttle Aussie barnstormer the Dead Arm Shiraz) I departed, not entirely impressed. I did see Rick Stein, though.
Date: 15-17 November
Venue: Olympia
Tickets: £25.75 (Friday) or £26.75 (Saturday) or £96.75 (VIP) or £199 (VIP Luxe – which allows you to meet Michel Roux Jr and eat his food and drink his wine)

Decanter Fine Wine Encounter
This is the opposite of the BBC Good Food Show. It’s more intimate, the exhibitors are mainly top-end producers from various winemaking outposts – from Catena Zapata in Argentina to Muga in Spain, Chateau Montrose in Bordeaux and Penfolds in Australia – there’s relatively little scrumming and it’s full of people wearing ties who spit rather than swallow. I’ve been to this, too, and found it extremely worthwhile, though for the price of a single entry here you could take the wife, the neighbours and the postman to some of the other events. Anyway, thanks to a happy diary double you’re theoretically able to go to Olympia in the morning and here in the afternoon, which will allow you to experience the full range of human-wine interaction in a single day. You could get away with calling it anthropology, although some would probably use the term debauchery instead
Date: 16-17 November
Venue: Landmark Hotel
Tickets: £55 per day, or £90 for both, plus masterclasses (£95) or more informal bonus tastings (£10)

Virgin Wines National London Wine Tasting
I can’t tell you a great deal about this event, which I’m told will be “in line with their philosophy, ‘Life’s too Short for Boring Wine’”. But I have managed to copy-and-paste this from their press release: “Visitors can choose from around 250 wines to sample from the Virgin Wines range” which will be grouped according to style. There will also be cheese. “During the tasting Virgin Wines’ team of Wine Advisors and Buyers will be on hand to offer hints, tips and recommendations,” they add, “while talented winemakers from wineries in France, Italy, England, New Zealand, Chile, Spain and South Africa will also be on hand and keen to show off their range of wines.” If that sounds good I’ve got bad news for you: it’s sold out. Yes, it could be said that I’ve told you about this one a little bit too late, but let it not be said that I don’t learn from my mistakes: next year’s is on 17 & 18 October.
Date: 11 October (6pm-9pm) & 12 October (12pm-5pm)
Venue: Waldorf Hilton, Aldwich
Tickets: £25 (but you get £25 off any wine ordered while you’re there)
Other venues: Cambridge (17 October), Sheffield (24 October), Milton Keynes (14 November), Nottingham (21 November), Norwich (28 November)

Tesco Wine Fairs
Whoops, this was last weekend. Sorry London. They’re in Bristol this weekend and then Edinburgh on the 26 & 27 October. Both events are sold out on the Saturday but have tickets available at £12 each on the Sunday.