Jamsheed Beechworth Roussanne 2014

Jamsheed Beechworth Roussanne 2014

I must admit, I went a little off wine for a while. Not off wine, really – I mean, I still drank the stuff, as well as alternative beverages, but I stopped reading about it, stopped writing about it, and went a while without being particularly struck by it. Without, to use a phrase from the French vinophile bible the Guide Hachette des Vins, un coup de coeur, a moment when a simple intoxicating beverage picks you up by the inside of your mouth and swirls you dizzyingly and deliciously around the room.

Then, over the last few months, it started happening again. A 2011 Polish Hill riesling from Jeffrey Grosset, a Bourgogne pinot noir from Mark Haisma and a 2006 Cotes du Rhone from Domaine de la Janasse all got me a bit excited. A while back my phone self-destructed, taking with it a recording of an interview I’d conducted that morning and was supposed to turn into a newspaper article, and I spent several unhappy hours searching in vain for a solution, or for another human who might be able to offer me a solution. By the evening I was frustrated and unhappy in a very fundamental way and then, in the time it took me to unscrew a cap and pour a glass, my troubles were blown away. Temporarily, sadly.

It was a Jamsheed roussanne from Beechworth, approximately halfway between Melbourne to the west and south and Canberra to the north and east, in that part of Australia where place names are – to the English atlas-reader, at least – at their most sublimely ridiculous. Nug Nug, Yuckandandah, Boomahnoomoonah, Tangambalanga and Walla Walla – which is just about halfway to Wagga Wagga – are all thereabouts.

I hadn’t just stumbled upon it. For the first time in a long while, I read about a wine, decided it would be a very good idea to put some in my mouth, took action and then put some in my mouth, all within the space of a few giddy days. Jancis Robinson, who I find a reliable critic and a very correct writer, if rarely an inspiring one, gets the hat tip here, plus newish online “wine boutique” Hook & Ford for selling it to me at a fine price – thanks also to a handy discount code found on their Facebook page – and getting it to me swiftly. I actually received it, tried it and promptly wrote this about six weeks ago, but it took until this morning, with the sun in the sky and a slight breeze drifting through the back door, for me to add a picture to the words.

It’s one of those wines that pleases all the senses. A vibrant straw yellow colour with faint brush of green, as soon as I poured it my day brightened. It smells amazing, bright and complex, a bit reductive, extremely comehitherish. And then, upon actually imbibing, it zings. Full-bodied, as most Rhone whites are, it spreads creamily over the tongue before starting to swoop and soar, like a flock of particularly tunesome and fragrant nightingales. It is genuinely exceptional, the kind of drink that would make turn any sceptic into an enthusiast, and a lapsed enthusiast into a ranting proselytiser. For a little under £18 I also consider it to have been a bargain.

It has all happened at a very opportune moment, for the current political and indeed economic situation in the UK demonstrates that intoxication has never been more important. It is a burden I intend to carry manfully and, with this in my glass, perhaps also, if I can force the rest of the world to the back of my crowded and clouded mind, pleasurably.

And so, here I am. Hello again. It’s been too long.

Profit from patience


The best kind of great wine is cheep, great wine. I know there are some people blessed with such astonishig pocket-depth that they have no need to consider the cost of their alcoholic beverages, but sadly I am not among their number. Chez Cellarfella, value is always valued. Sometimes though you have to create it yourself.

An example: in early 2009 I bought a mixed case of 2007 Southern Rhone from the Wine Society for £84, as part of their en primeur offer (I do like truffling about in the nether regions of Rhone en primeur offers for little bargains, as I’ve previously admitted). In 2010 I had to pay the government some taxy stuff, and then I paid to keep it in storage for nearly six years. By the time I got it home last week I’d paid about £14 a bottle (though this pill has been heavily sugared by the kind of payment in stages that comes with this kind of thing, in that I paid £7 a bottle in 2009, £3 more in 2010 and 66p each year thereafter, so any significant investment in these wines happened so long ago it essentially now seems free).

At about the same time I also snaffled a case of Coudoulet de Beaucastel, again from 2007, a year that lots of people got very excited about. Beaucastel make one of the most celebrated Chateauneufs, which I’ve been fortunate to try on several occasions but can’t make a habit of actually buying – it was selling at £250 for six en primeur in this vintage, or at least £52.50 a bottle by the time you get it home. The Coudoulet is stylistically a vaguely similar wine, but a few rungs down the qualitative ladder and without a famous appellation name, being as it is a humble Cotes du Rhone. A 12-bottle case of the 2007 was selling for £120 (plus duty and vat at a later date) back in the day, but was further bargainised by my using a voucher to get it from Laithwaites at a handy discount.

Now I’m not really a fan of Laithwaites, a mail-order merchant whose modus operandi is to sell largely unfamiliar wines at confusingly discounted prices on the far-fetched pretext of scarcity, but this struck me then and strikes me still as a good deal if you can get it (and you can, even now: as I type the code LINK40 will get new customers £40 off anything on their site, bringing a case of 2014 Coudoulet down to £75 before vat and duty).

Now in purely pecuniary terms it’s very hard to define any of these as bargains. These are, after all, unfussy wines that are designed to come at unfussy prices. Latest vintages can be found pretty easily for somewhere in the region of £9-£15 a bottle (the Coudoulet’s about £20). I paid for them, in other words, roughly what the market believes they are worth. But just you try to get sub-£20 2007 southern Rhone wines now (actually don’t bother: you can’t).

My real profit here has come from nothing more expensive than patience. None of these wines are intended to be stored for decades. Indeed, many would say it wasn’t worth the investment I made in keeping them so long. But what I’ve ended up with, for a few pounds per bottle more than some random industrial supermarket concoction and most of that paid six years ago, is proper wine in perfect condition and at the perfect age, softened and rounded by sitting around in its bottle for a good while but showing no sign of decrepitude. Little pockets of pleasure.

Frankly the search for good wines at good prices is enough of a hassle even without feeling that you’ve got to do it five years before you’re thirsty, but I think it’s occasionally worth it.

Value valley

Wine harvest in Sancerre

Pretty much every winemaking region of any renown has a thing. They all make other things, some of them make lots of other things, but there will be one style of wine above all for which they are famous. Normally it’s a red – think Bordeaux, Tuscany, Rioja, Piedmont, Barossa, Rhones north and south, the Douro, Mendoza. Occasionally it’s a white, as in Champagne, Marlborough or the Mosel valley (or the entirety of Germany, really). Yeah, if you want to quibble you could point to Burgundy and say it has two roughly equal things, but then you don’t want to quibble, so we’ll just move along.

So, what’s the Loire’s thing? I recently went to a small tasting of Loire wines, and anyone leaving it would have had absolutely no idea: there were a few sparklers – one mainly chardonnay and two mainly chenin blanc – four whites – a muscadet, a sauvignon blanc and a couple of chenins – a solitary rose, four reds – made either from gamay or cabernet franc – and finally a sweet chenin. And it’s hard to argue that they included anything they should have left out, either – in fact, they should probably have added a malbec, or cot as it’s known thereabouts, while pinot noir, made with great success in Sancerre, might also be feeling a little miffed at its exclusion. The Loire’s thing is everything.

At 629 miles from top to toe, the Loire is significantly longer than the 557-mile Douro, the 505-mile Rhone, the 339-mile Mosel, or pretty much any other winemaking valley you might care to compare it to, so a little added variety is perhaps understandable. But there is one connection between its varied regions, or at least very nearly all of them: if you start at the sea and head east, drinking all the way, you’re unlikely to find an overpriced wine until you hit Sancerre and Pouilly-Fume, getting on for 400 miles later (though you may have found walking became a struggle some time earlier, either for reasons of fitness or inebriation).

You’ll start off with muscadet, which even under the UK’s enthusiastic approach to wine taxation rarely costs more than £10 retail (a blessing for the drinker and a curse for the producer, many of whom have gone out of business over the last decade; the relatively recent introduction of some top-end sub-zones is part of a campaign to make winegrowing there a little more commercially viable) and that pretty much sets the tone. Rustic reds, soft roses and an awful lot of cheap sauvignon blanc will follow on your journey, and your wallet won’t feel the hit until you get tempted by the chenin blancs of Vouvray, whose top wines can be had for something in the region of £25 and are still bargains.

It’s a complex picture, and most wine drinkers aren’t fans of complexity (not even in their wines, in many cases). But that’s the only picture that Loire people feel able to paint: “The Loire Valley is France’s most diverse wine region, producing exemplary wines in every style,” is the first thing they’ve got to say about themselves on their own promotional website. And it’s true, of course, but perhaps they need to change tack a little, to find something that unifies them, a single umbrella beneath which all can shelter, and which they can then start to sell to the world. It won’t be anything as straightforward as a grape, a style or a colour, but they could pick the one word that most consumers hold most dear: value. With a thing like that, they couldn’t possibly lose.

D&D restaurants in London are currently in the middle of a Loire wine festival, which has another week to run, so if you’re feeling so enthused get down to one of their gaffs and test the water. More information here.

See also: Loire Valley sauvignon blanc – long Touraine over us

Martin Tesch’s riesling rainbow


Tesch riesling

Mrs CF took one sip and declared it delicious. Then she spied the thin, fluted bottle, and gave me a reproachful look. I had smuggled some riesling into her mouth, which is generally frowned upon and immediately followed by an order to open another bottle. This time, though, was different.

Which was just as well, as I’d just bought six bottles of it – or rather one each of this one, and five of its slightly posher cousins. Turns out the kind of riesling that gets the nod is also the kind this winery specialises in – the (apparently) totally dry.

Tesch bottle their wines with the finest-looking screwcaps known to man. Each gets a different colour, matching their label. The result is enormously pleasing, and what’s inside the bottle more than measures up. I was reminded of an interview I read at the weekend with Duran Duran keyboardist Nick Rhodes, in which he admitted that “I always judge a bottle of wine by its label because it shows that it’s made by people who care about the tiniest details”. It’s not an infallible rule, but it works in this case: Martin Tesch farms by organic principles, harvests by hand, uses no oak, lets the grapes speak for themselves.

Tesch rieslings

I visited Tesch four years ago, on a brief visit to the Reinhessen (though he’s based just next door, in the Nahe), and brought home a couple of bottles of his white pinot noir, The Big Blue (always a bit of a gimmick, it seems to me, but his is the best I’ve tried). I have never drunk his wines since, but neither have I forgotten them. They aren’t easy to find in this country (though not impossible: Coe Vintners import them), but every now and then I would look at his website, and wonder would happen if some guy in London ordered the sampler case that’s advertised there. A few weeks ago, it struck me that there was only one way to find out (well, two – I could always have just asked).

Martin Tesch

It cost €83, or almost exactly £60, including postage, and arrived at my door safe, happy and colourful. The least colourful, and the first we opened, is also the most famous. Tesch’s Unplugged riesling wears sombre black, the wine with which he piggybacked upon MTV’s similarly-titled acoustic concerts to associate his wines with his other passion, music, and the one that made his name. “Unplugged,” he explains, “is a wine designed to counter technological excesses and over-sweetening of Riesling, and has become an instant classic.” The word unplugged applies equally to his winemaking – pared-back, low-intervention, made by hands rather than machines.

He has since created a wine, Weisses Rauschen (White Noise), not in my six-pack, with his favourite hoary old German noisy rock band, Die Toten Hosen. White Noise sounds like the opposite of Unplugged, but the winemaking principles are the same. My other five wines, which he calls his “crown jewels”, are all single-vineyard rieslings.

Tesch describes himself as a rebel, suggesting that his parents didn’t approve of his lifestyle before he returned home to take over the family winery. I know little of this lifestyle except that it brought him a Phd in microbiology, which doesn’t sound like the height of rebellion. He is now totally focused, interested in dry riesling and not a lot else (though he’s got a couple of hectares of pinot noir and pinot blanc). He wears black turtlenecks and speaks with the bluntness of a zealot. And he makes perfect, pure riesling, zingy and zippy and thrillingly austere (though accoring to Coe Vintners the 2013 Unplugged – I had the 2014 – had 2.7g/l of sugar, enough for wines with less acidity to taste medium-sweet). And they’re ludicrously underpriced, with Coe suggesting the single-vineyard wines should cost around £13 in this country if you can find them, and the Unplugged around £10. But the thing about those rainbow screwcaps is that they only truly look their best when you’ve got a lot of them. Which, all things considered, isn’t such a bad thing.

The land of Ned

The Ned

Sometimes the world of wine might seem a bit static. Think of it like the solar system, with any number of interesting bits flying around at any given time, but all of it in a vague kind of orbit, tethered to a handful of eminently familiar names and regions, which are not to be shifted. Bordeaux, Burgundy, Champagne, Rhone, Rioja, Tuscany, Piedmont, perhaps the Mosel, Napa and Barossa valleys at the extremely distant reaches, constitute the planets, surrounded by moons and comets and satellites and assorted debris that people only ever consider fleetingly.

But then, every now and then something pops up that illustrates quite how rapidly the scene can shift. And Brent Marris is a scene-shifter, a shooting star, man who in less than 10 years turned a neglected patch of earth into a global phenomenon.

Marris built up the Wither Hills winery with his father, John, before selling it to Antipodean booze giants Lion, the people behind Lindauer, Petaluma, Knappstein and the local distribution of all sorts of famous international beers, for about £23m. That wasn’t the end, though, but the beginning. Marris trousered his share of the cash, and then he went shopping.

It wasn’t until 2004 that he planted the first vines on his new 268-hectare property by the Waihopai River in New Zealand’s south island (there are two Waihopai rivers in New Zealand, inexplicably, and this, despite being pretty southern, is the more northerly). By 2012 he was filling 400,000 cases a year with 4.8m bottles. Picture, if you will, the Aquatics Centre at the 2012 London Olympics: that’s enough to fill its Olympic swimming pool with wine, with enough left over to give each of the 17,500 spectators 85 bottles to take home. That year Majestic, one measly chain of shops on one small island on the other side of the world, sold a million bottles of The Ned sauvignon blanc on their own, while the stuff was also flooding out the doors of one of the nation’s bigger supermarket chains, Waitrose.

And still it was growing, and continues to grow. By now there are 600 hectares of vines – about the size of 840 football pitches, if you’ll allow me yet another sporting-vinous size analogy – with another 400 waiting to be planted. A troublesome 2015 vintage (in quantitative terms – there’s 30% less of it than there was of the 2014) will hold back expansion but even so Australia, the US, the UK, Canada, Germany, China and Scandinavia will be inundated with tastefully black-labelled bottles. Marris boasts that, across his whole range of wines – which includes the various Neds, the Kings Series and the Craft Series, as well as a couple of smaller bottlings, such as the Three Terraces sauvignon blanc he makes for the Wine Society – “every 24 hours, 15,000 bottles are consumed somewhere in the world”. If you do the maths, that means that on average someone somewhere uncorks (or unscrews, more commonly) a bottle of his wine every 5.7 seconds.

Brent Marris, Marisco head honcho

Brent Marris: to be fair, I’d be smiling too

You can’t drink numbers, but even so they’re pretty intoxicating. And I still haven’t mentioned the most remarkable thing of all: the 2015 Ned sauvignon blanc, the biggest of all his big successes, is really good.

It hasn’t been bottled yet, but when I met Brent he assured me that the samples he had brought to the UK to show people in the trade were fairly representative. “I’d have loved more, because I can sell it, but I haven’t been as excited about a vintage for a long time,” he said. And it’s easy to see why: in 2015 the Ned produced an excellent pinot grigio (the biggest-selling pinot grigio in New Zealand, where it outsells the sauvignon blanc “in some months”, though it’s labelled pinot gris there – as it would be here if only Majestic let him), a fine pinot rose (equal parts pinot gris and pinot noir), and an exemplary sauvignon blanc: acidic, taut, electric and icy.

Marris credits his new winery, build five years ago, with his subsequent successes. “It’s like a boutique winery, but on a commercial scale,” he says. “From a winemaking perspective, we’re doing everything we can to be gentle. Is The Ned commercial? You bet it is, but it’s also sourced from a single vineyard, and hand sold.”

Of the rest of his range, outside his white 2015s – for which you’ll have to wait until the autumn – I particularly enjoyed two Kings Series wines: the King’s Favour sauvignon blanc 2013, which he said is “targeted towards top independents – a special occasion wine” but for all that is currently reduced from £14.99 to £9.99 at Majestic, and the King’s Legacy chardonnay 2012, faintly reductive (a love-it-or-loathe-it burnt-match character that I really like in dry whites), creamy and leesy without obtrusive oak (it’s aged in large, 500 litre oak barrels). In most of the world it’s called the King’s Bastard, but Britain and Canada are too prim for that kind of language, hence the more sedate title. This too is currently a penny under a tenner at Majestic, and they’re both very good value at that price.

I'm not just saying it - I actually bought some.

I’m not just saying it – I actually bought some.

My eldest child is nearly eight years old, and sometimes I look at her and marvel at how this little thing I created (helped to create) has grown. I can only wonder what Marris must feel as he surveys his empire. For the crime of making me feel like a hopeless underachiever I consider him a total, erm, legacy. In all other respects, I doff my cap. The Ned isn’t always great, but it’s probably the best of the mass-market Kiwi savvies, and that anything made in such quantities can even occasionally tiptoe in that direction is something of a miracle. So if you see anything with this year on the label, buy it and try it while you’ve got the chance. After all, there isn’t much of it about*.

*Relatively speaking.

Osteria Francescana: Modena and the world’s third best restaurant


And so out, for dinner, to Italy. It’s a long way to go for dinner, but then this was the world’s third best restaurant, according to a dubious ranking mechanism, and the best London can do is a disappointing No5, and then also the No10. We hardly had a choice.

Equally importantly, it was an excuse for a cheeky weekend away. Myself and a couple of friends, one of them just turned 40, left families at home, packed a pack of cards and enjoyed some warmth, an extraordinary number of enormous churches and a total absence of places to be for a couple of hugely enjoyable and restful days.


As it happens Modena is fabulously easy to get to and phenomenally straightforward to spend time in. There’s not a hill, barely even a gentle incline, for many miles around, and the fantastically strollable old town centre is small enough for getting lost to be no more than a notional possibility, and just in case there’s a great big tower in the middle of it, which you can navigate around as if attached by notional ribbons to a giant maypole.

Modena from the tower

Modena, capital of balsamic vinegar, is just 60km from Parma, capital of cured ham, with the area around both cities full of Parmesan producers. This is the global capital of aged comestibles, a place where people like their food to be simple but superb, and don’t mind if it takes a while to make it. Even ignoring Osteria Francescana we ate phenomenally well, whether gorging on tigelle (a small local flatbread which is sliced and stuffed with ham, cheese, or ham and cheese) and gnocchi fritti (a deep-fried local bread which is eaten with ham, cheese or ham and cheese – they appear to like ham and cheese), or filling our fridge with goodies from Mercato Albinelli, the old food market full of supersized fruit, impeccably fresh vegetables and the inevitable array of ham and cheese.


On the way to Osteria Francescana, I fought an internal battle to get over the fact that I was about to spend £250 on dinner. This is a ludicrous amount to spend on filling one’s belly with food and wine, even before you factor in the travel costs. Still, I reckoned, there was a fair chance that I’d be drunk enough not to care by the time the bill arrived. And this is one of the world’s great restaurants, catering each day to an audience of no more than two dozen. In some ways – headscratchingly expensive ways – this represents good value, and compares well with, say, the opera – about which this city, birthplace of Luciano Pavarotti, knows a fair bit – or Formula One – about which this city, birthplace of Ferrari, knows really quite a lot.

I would say this about the restaurant: the chef, Massimo Bottura, is a genial figure, who popped out a couple of times to greet his diners. Though clearly he’s a quality-obsessed, dementedly focused figure at heart, he carries an air of almost casual cheerfulness. Everything about his restaurant other than he himself is, however, extremely formal. My water glass has never been more attentively topped up. Literally, every sip was followed by a waiter scurrying over, bottle in hand. This, I suppose, is the nature of a three-starred, globally-acclaimed establishment, but I’d like to see his personality reflected better front of house.


That’s really the only complaint I could come up with. They have two set menus, one nebulously described as “experimental”, while the other “explores Emilian ingredients from a contemporary point of view”. We shrugged and told them to bring us whatever they wanted, from whichever menu they wanted to choose it from. The resulting food ranged from the stunning and superlative to the beautiful but ordinary, spending most of its time at the top end of that spectrum. Best dishes were ravioli of eel in a duck sauce with a couple of dots of rhubarb gel, a crab-based starter full of distinct micro-elements, all of them great, the plate decorated with a two-dimensional crab made from incredibly crabby crab-powder – basically crab sherbet, a product that is crying out for commercial distribution – a parmesan-heavy starter called “five ages of parmigiano reggiano” in which the cheese appears variously as souffle, foam, biscuit, sauce and, well, presumably another way as well, and a nut-encrusted lollipop of foie gras with a balsamic centre. There were a couple of less successful efforts, particularly a dessert that I’d already forgotten by the time I left the table, and a slightly weird pre-dessert of half a baby lettuce resting in raspberry sauce and scattered with petals, while the table was split on the plate, pictured above, that combined salty cured ham with crumbly sweet biscuit. Bread was excellent and constantly replenished until the last savoury dish was cleared away, and the grissini, infused with herbal olive oil, not just the best I’ve tasted but the best I can imagine.


We had the matching wines, and as I took no notes – my companions, who both ate at the world’s second-best restaurant last year, assured me you get presented with a list at these places, before you go home (not here you don’t) – they’re largely lost to the mists of time. They were all from France and Italy but for a single, lazer-sharp dry riesling from the Mösel valley, though one course was accompanied not by wine at all, but by a cocktail based on an Italian soft drink and dotted with fronds of obscure herbs. They were good, and matched the food well, but the meal lacked a red-meat-focused main course and thus there was no killer Tuscan/Piedmontese blockbuster highlight.

It was, in essence, excellent. Whether this is the third best restaurant in the world or the fifth or the 30th is impossible to tell, but it’s without doubt exceedingly good.

They’re fighting different battles, but for me the real joy of eating in Italy is in the ludicrously cheap trattorie, with their atmosphere of joyful, generous and totally monolingual hospitality. The following day, about two minutes walk away from OF, I feasted on tigelle and cheap lambrusco and paid a pittance for the privilege. Part of the pleasure of our weekend lay in the contrast between the honed and the hearty, the simple and the sophisticated, but looking back I’m far from sure that the £250 supper was my favourite. It seems bizarre to judge a kitchen on tablecloths and water-up-toppage and the ability to use tweezers; if the purpose of food is to bring pleasure and sustenance, Modena has other establishments to rival and even rout their most famous. Massimo Bottura crafts food that delights the eye and stimulates the brain, but perhaps the heart resides elsewhere. One way or the other, however, Modena has all organs covered.

Whittle’s Restaurant, Audley Binswood Retirement Village, Leamington Spa

Audley Binswood

Since I started this blog, or more specifically since other people started reading it occasionally, I’ve been lucky enough to have been invited to some pretty exciting places and to have met some amazing people. I’ve been to Germany and to Spain, I’ve met winemakers from all corners of the winemaking world, I’ve eaten great food and drunk incredible drinks. But this was a first. This was an invitation to an old people’s home in Leamington Spa.

It was quite possibly the most ridiculous idea I’d ever heard. A visit to Leamington Spa, after all, has all the disadvantages of a trip to Germany or Spain, in that it’s miles away from where I live and involves several hours spent with strangers in a long-distance transportation device, without having any of the advantages of a trip to Germany or Spain. There would be no vineyards, no winemakers, and absolutely no way it could be defined as a holiday. Travelling the 100 miles that separate London, a city full of brilliant restaurants, from Leamington Spa, a small town full of pensioners, for a bite to eat is the kind of thing that would only be attempted by a complete loon. There is simply no way the journey could be justified.

And that being the case, how could I refuse? The idea is so preposterous, I reasoned, that there would be absolutely no sensible reason to even suggest it unless the person suggesting it knew something that I didn’t. Unless, in short, it was going to be worth it.

It takes about half an hour less to get from London to Leamington on a train than it does to fly from Heathrow to Munich. You can’t even snooze on the way, for fear that you’ll miss your stop and end up even further from home than you’d originally planned, and without even an old people’s home to have dinner in. Enough time to carefully ponder the only thing I previously knew about Leamington Spa, namely a poem by John Betjeman about an old person dying, with its references to the “chintzy, chintzy cheeriness” that I was pretty much expecting to find one I got there.

She died in the upstairs bedroom
By the light of the ev’ning star
That shone through the plate glass window
From over Leamington Spa

That’s how the poem starts. You can find the rest of it here. As it happens it was dark when I arrived in Leamington, and I can tell you that the ev’ning star doesn’t show you much thereabouts. I was picked up at the station and driven to a large and fairly grand old building. This is Audley Binswood,  inside which was a lounge, a bar, a small gym and a restaurant. It all looks pretty much exactly like this, only not quite so dark:

This is no normal retirement home. Audley have 10 locations around the country, half of them also boasting restaurants intended to be good enough to attract non-residents. The main building at Binswood, a former school approaching its 200th anniversary, looks impressive from outside and from within, having been furnished with care and with a very decent budget, to look like a recently renovated top-end country house hotel. There’s plenty of cheeriness, but refreshingly little chintz. There was a mobility scooter in a stairwell, but beyond that not much sign of its primary purpose. The restaurant’s overwhelmingly positive Tripadvisor reviews mean that it currently basks in the status of Leamington’s 59th best restaurant, though without having eaten at all or indeed any of the 58 above it I’m unable to comment on whether that ranking is as absurdly harsh as it seems.

Their wine list comes from Berry Bros, like this building a magnificent old institution that has been impressively updated, and they had a local representative there to present a few wines to us. To say this chap knew a ludicrous amount of information about his wines would be to massively underplay quite how much information he knew about his wines. The local towns, the vineyards’ geology, the producers’ names, their partners’ names, the birthdays of their grandchildren. The 10 wines were all decent or better – “I don’t want to stand here with you going, ‘I don’t like this very much,'” he said. “That’s not very good. It makes my life a misery” – and the overall impression from seeing the place and meeting the people who work in it was of a strong and admirable focus on quality. I’m sure there must be more to see outside the main building, but disappointingly the ev’ning star and a lack of time combined against me.

(As an aside, a few of the wines we tried – a Champagne, a Bordeaux and a Tokaji – carried a Berry’s label. I do think it’s a bit strange for a restaurant to serve an own-label wine when the label isn’t theirs. Berry’s might have be a superior brand, and their Ordinary Claret, for example, is a very decent bechmark claret, but there are many other very decent clarets about that don’t invite such simple comparison with retail prices. I find the sight of an own brand on a restaurant wine menu a bit jarring, but I might be being irrational about this. “We put our name to wines that represent good value and excellent quality and represent their region,” the Berry’s person (I really should have made a note of his name, apologies) insisted, and I know that this is true, but for me there’s still little difference between a restaurant serving a Berry’s wine and a Tesco one.)

Food at Whittles

Anyway, Whittle’s have plenty of interesting wine with a variety of labels, and of the ones we tried I particularly enjoyed the Roberto Sarotto Gavi di Gavi (£12.50 retail) and Crittenden Estate pinot noir, which is no longer on Berry’s list but is fairly widely available elsewhere, including Asda. As for the food, we had a buffet dinner which perhaps didn’t reveal a great deal about their standard menu but did suggest a more than capable hand in the kitchen. I’d certainly feel pretty safe about recommending it if you’re in the area, or considering retirement.

Vital weblinks: Audley Binswood; Whittles Restaurant